How Will the Vazquez-Jeffers Pairing Work?

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Correa may still be a free agent, but that didn’t stop the Minnesota Twins from making another key free-agent signing. Catcher Christian Vázquez is reportedly coming to Minnesota on a 3-year, $30 million contract.

What happens with Correa and the shortstop position is one of the most important items on Minnesota’s offseason checklist. However, right below shortstop on the checklist was finding a backstop to pair with Ryan Jeffers.

Experts considered Vázquez the No. 2 catcher on the open market behind Wilson Contreras. At age 32, Vázquez is a two-time World Series champion, winning a ring with the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. Vázquez is a solid starter the Twins can rely on in three key areas: offensive production, defensive ability, and durability.

He brings above-average production at the plate for a catcher. Vázquez has a career slash line of .261/.310/.386 with 55 home runs and 84 wRC+. Last season, he slashed .274/.315/.399 with 9 home runs, 99 wRC+, and 1.6 fWAR. Numbers like this won’t put him at the top of a Twins lineup card, but it is still passable as a catcher.

Last season, Jeffers slashed .208/.285/.363 with 7 home runs and 27 RBIs in 2022. Most starting catchers have better numbers at the plate. However, Jeffers dealt with a right thumb fracture that kept him out for most of the second half of 2022. Plus, he is only 25 years old with only three seasons under his belt. Jeffers has promise, but plenty to prove as a full-time big leaguer, and Vázquez can provide him with some added help at catcher.

The Twins have identified defensive ability as an area of need for catchers. Vázquez can help alleviate some of those issues. He is a competent pitch-framer with a 47.8 percent strike rate, ranking 27th among 60 catchers last season. He was the 10th-best catcher at framing strikes at the top of the strike zone, with a 55.4 percent strike rate on pitches in that area in 2022. For comparison, Jeffers had a 20th-best 48.2 percent strike rate last season.

Jeffers may be comparable to Vázquez in terms of pitching framing. However, Jeffers was one of the worst catchers in baseball at throwing out runners last season. It’s an aspect of the game that will be more prevalent again. MLB’s new pitch clock rules will limit the number of pick-off attempts. Therefore, there should be an increase in movement across the basepaths. Vázquez threw out 19 base stealers last season, which was top five in baseball. Over his three-year career, Jeffers has only thrown out 22 base stealers. Vázquez recorded 2 stolen base runs saved (rSB) while Jeffers recorded a -1 rSB.

The Twins will welcome above-average hitting for a catcher and extra help throwing out baserunners. But Vázquez’s durability may make the most impact. He played in 119 games in 2022 and 138 games in 2021. Since entering the league in 2014, Vázquez hasn’t played under 100 games in a non-COVID season since 2018. The hope among the Twins has to be that the already durable player will be able to continue his run of good health if they can split time with Jeffers next season.

His reliability will be a welcomed sight for a Twins team notably decimated by injuries during the 2022 season. Jeffes’ thumb injury around the All-Star Break was one of the injuries that helped sink last year’s campaign. Because Jeffers could not play, the Twins thrust Gary Sánchez into full-time catching duty. The Twins could not overcome the lack of production from the catcher and other positions.

There are some questions on how this pairing will work out long-term. Mainly, what will the pairing itself look like? Vázquez and Jeffers are right-handed bats, so how do the Twins decide who the go-to catcher to begin the season is? Minnesota has always favored a co-op catching situation to maximize the production from the position. Jason Castro and Mitch Garver shared this role in 2019. Garver and Jeffers were a similar pairing in 2020 and 2021. They paired Jeffers and Sánchez last season, with Jeffers being the primary option behind the plate.

Vázquez was reportedly looking for a three-year deal and the promise of starter-level playing time. He got the first in the three-year deal; time will tell if he gets that starting-caliber playing time and how the at-bats are distributed. It could lead to a potential issue if he’s not on board with the co-op catcher idea. However, things worked out pretty well between him and Martín Maldonado in Houston last season.

A 50/50 split early in the season seems unlikely. It seems like with the $10 million AAV, Vázquez will be the starting catcher coming into the season, with Jeffers getting a fair bit of playing time in between. Like with the pairing between Jeffers and Garver, the balance between the two will allow manager Rocco Baldelli the ability to ride the hot hand. Jeffers’ at-bats increase when is hitting well. But when Vázquez plays well, Jeffers stays in a more limited role until he can consistently become a big-league hitter.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took over the Twins front office after the 2016 season. They brought Jason Castro in on a 3-year deal as their first free-agent signing. The Twins needed to make catching a priority again and did so with a veteran option in Vázquez. To get the most out of Vázquez and Jeffers, the Twins must find the right balance between them. They must play off their strengths and weaknesses to stabilize the catching position in 2022.

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