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Orioles free agent target: Christian Vázquez

Backup catcher, anyone?

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MLB: World Series-Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This free agent catcher class is one Keith Law is calling “fairly weak.” But you know what? The Orioles are going to dip into that shallow pool, anyway.

They need a backup for Adley Rutschman, and right now, the in-house options are: … [checks notes] … Anthony Bemboom and Mark Kolozsvary. Both are currently on the Norfolk roster, having been outrighted by the Orioles earlier this offseason, and neither is too terribly exciting. We saw 22 games’ worth of Bemboom last year; he brought competence in game-calling but nothing with the bat. Kolozsvary, a former 2017 draft pick for Cincinnati, has a grand total of 21 career plate appearances at age 27.

It would appear unwise to pin all the Orioles’ hopes on these two.

Turning to the free agent market, then, there are, broadly speaking, two courses of action: one, go big, or two, go not-so-big.

Option one would have the Orioles shopping for Willson Contreras, a three-time All-Star who put up 20.8 WAR for the Cubs in parts of seven seasons. Contreras is easily the best catcher out there right now. That hypothetical deal, already explored by CC’s Paul Folkemer, would mean shelling out something like $20 million a year on a hybrid C/DH type who could catch one or two games a week while producing at the plate.

Option two entails better value but a significant dropoff in catcher attractiveness, with names like Omar Narvaez (31, 0.2 bWAR), Gary Sánchez (only 30, 0.9 bWAR but trending downward offensively) floating around, or a reunion with Robinson Chirinos (38, lots of great teammateship last year but just a 0.1 bWAR).

In this tier, a more attractive option might be Christian Vázquez.

You’re probably familiar with Vázquez, and probably not in a good way: between 2014 and 2022, O’s fans got used to seeing the red-headed Puerto Rico native around 20 times a season while he caught for the Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox drafted Vázquez in 2008 out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. As a prospect, he was seen as a glove-first catcher who probably wouldn’t hit enough to be a starter. But over eight years in Boston, he did actually hit OK, posting a .262 average and a .700 OPS. Last season between Boston and Houston, he slashed .274/.315/.399 while posting a 99 wrC+, thirteenth among all catchers, plus a 2.1 rWAR/1.6 fWAR.

OK, so the slugging isn’t “wow,” but according to Keith Law, the 32-year-old has enough contact skills and doubles power to project as “an everyday guy on a second-division club.” Not glowing praise, but is that enough offense for a backup catcher? Yes. It sure is! This is a team that gave Robinson Chirinos 195 ABs last season, after all.

Defensively, Vázquez is solid but not superb. He has good receiving skills, a strong arm, and as a pitch framer, he’s exactly average. His 27% caught stealing was slightly above-average, and his 11 Defensive Runs Saved in 2022 tied with JT Realmuto for fourth-most in MLB among catchers. According to Fangraphs, his ability to work with a pitching staff was one of the reasons Houston traded for him midseason—not to mention his extensive postseason experience. Vázquez now has 31 postseason games, plus two World Series rings, to his name. You figure, for a team like the Orioles, none of whose players were alive the last time they won a championship, that couldn’t hurt.

This is all fine, but whether this is an attractive package or not will depend, of course, on what it would cost. Fangraphs estimates Vázquez will net a deal of two years, $16-$18 million ($8-9 million AAV). Keith Law thinks Vázquez will sign somewhere for three years due to “the paucity of catching on the market.” Vázquez’s price isn’t prohibitive, but I do have trouble seeing them commit to a three-year deal for an Adley backup.

Would it be more exciting if the team sprung for Willson Contreras? Definitely. And if the price is right, I’d celebrate them making that deal.

But if the Orioles decide there are other places to allot their cash, Christian Vázquez is a good, solid choice.