This off-season we’ve seen 13 catchers sign major league deals — 14 if we count Victor Martinez among them. For the most part these deals were modest in nature, between $3 and $5 million per season for a short span. The exception is John Buck, who signed a three-year, $18 million contract early in the free agency season. While the initial reaction pegged it as a poor deal, there was a chance that the deal could look a bit better once the rest of the off-season unfolded. A month later, it appears to be the opposite.
After the Marlins signed Buck, three comparable catchers also signed contracts. Rod Barajas went for a year and $3.25 million to the Dodgers, Miguel Olivo signed for two years and $7 million with the Mariners, and Yorvit Torrealba went to the Rangers for two years and $6.25 million. For a look at the quality of each catcher, we need only turn to our WAR graphs.
They all appear to be in the same range, which makes sense. They did, after all, sign somewhat similar deals. But that purple line does appear curious, though. While at the top it’s right in line with its orange, blue, and green counterparts, it dips below later. It suggests that Buck is the least of the four catchers. Yet he signed the largest deal. Might the Marlins have been better off waiting out the market and signing a catcher who could provide similar production for less money and a shorter commitment?
There is definitely a case there, but it’s not as concrete as the WAR graph makes it out to be — though we can take our first cue from it. Buck’s line is a bit shorter than the others, because he’s a bit younger. In fact, he’s two years younger than both Torrealba and Olivo, and he’s five years younger than Barajas. That might account for the commitment aspect. The Marlins felt they could offer him more years, because he could hold up longer than the other catchers on the market.
Then there’s the career year aspect to consider. Buck had the best year, at least offensively, among the four. But it was by a long shot his best season. Might the Marlins have seen something that suggests he can retain some of his power surge? Keith Law suggested this might be the case in his Top 50 free agents feature. It’s tough for us to know whether that’s the case or not. But we do know that many a free agent has fooled teams with a big walk year. There’s a better chance that Buck falls back into his regular 1 WAR range than repeat his nearly 3 WAR season.
The Marlins had better hope they know something that the rest of us do not. Otherwise, they just committed more years and more average annual value to a mediocre catcher than other teams did to comparable players. There was hope at the time that later developments in the free agent market would make Buck’s deal seem a bit more palatable. Unfortunately for the Marlins, it appears that just the opposite has happened.