The Yankees seem to be still shopping around for a starting pitcher or infielder, without much success. They are constrained by a budget of $10-$15 million; a huge addition is unlikely, and the Yankees have perfectly fine in-house options to start at third, second, and starting pitcher. Instead, the Yankees should consider signing catcher Alex Avila
The Problem: Austin Romine
Austin Romine is a bad major league player. Over the past two seasons, he has hit .228/.271/.330 in 611 PAs, worth -0.6 WARP. Romine is one of the worst backup catchers in baseball.
He doesn’t make up for it on defense either, at +2.6 adjusted FRAA. He’s a solid framer (+4.0 runs), but a slightly below-average receiver (-0.3 runs) and thrower (-1.2 runs). Gary Sanchez provides similar defensive value (+3.0 FRAA in twice as many plate appearances), as a similar framer (+3.6 runs), slightly worse receiver (-2.6 runs) and slightly better thrower (+2.2 runs). Basically, Austin Romine doesn’t make up for some of the worst hitting in the majors with defense.
Romine is due to earn $1.1 million next season. If the Yankee budget is tightly constrained, that’s not nothing. Some of his salary can go towards paying better free agents, or deadline deals. They could also waive him to the minors. I bet he would make it through waivers.
The Solution: Alex Avila
Alex Avila is a bat-first, 30-year-old catcher. Last season, he hit .264/.387/.447, .362 wOBA in 376 plate appearances. Statcast thinks he might be even better, with a .401 xwOBA (although we should note that there is some reason to believe the Statcast data in Detroit was off a bit last season; he put up a .364 xwOBA on the road). For a catcher, he’s a near-elite hitter.
Avila also fits well on the Yankee bench. He’s a left-handed hitter, while the Yankees are increasingly right-handed. He kills right-handed pitching with a .270/.398/.478 batting line. The Yankees could rest Gary Sanchez against right-handed pitchers. He’s also good enough hitter that Avila could make spot starts a DH and first base against right-handers, especially if the Yankees have to deal with an injury to Greg Bird or one of their corner outfielders.
Of course, there’s a reason why one of the best hitting catchers in the majors is looking for a backup catcher job. Alex Avila is a terrible defensive catcher. BP has him at -10 FRAA, entirely due to bad framing (-10.7 FRAA). He’s pretty average at catching and throwing. Framing seems like a skill that can be coached, a least a little bit. Maybe the Yankees can turn him into just a below-average catcher.
Even with the poor framing, Alex Avila is a big upgrade over Austin Romine. BP puts the difference at +1.8 WARP last season. Baseball Reference, which does not measure framing, puts the difference at +3.5 WAR. That’s a big upgrade either way, and the Yankees could stretch it even more by using him creatively off the bench.
I’m skeptical that the Yankees can find a 1.8 to 3.5 win addition with their current budget at infield or starting pitcher, given the strength of their replacement player options. Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres are pretty good, probably 1.5-2.0 win players next year, and potentially much better. Todd Frazier (~ 3 WARP), Josh Harrison (~2-2.5 WAR), or other cheapish options in the infield aren’t huge upgrades over Andujar and Torres. Ditto for a sixth starter on a team with Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, and other great options at Triple-A.
But isn’t catcher defense too important?
The Yankees won 3 World Series with Jorge Posada behind the plate so… I think they can handle a bat-first backup catcher. Avila is bad, but he’s not catastrophically bad. A team as smart as the Chicago Cubs traded for him in advance of their playoff run last year. Catcher defense isn’t magic; we can balance it against his offensive contribution.