Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
1. Ramon Hernandez: This is the best free agency has to offer. He's caught a total of 228 games over the past three seasons, and after a strong first half in 2011 (that was out of line with his career anyway), he wilted in just 38 games after the break, posting a .220/.287/.305 line before he was relegated to part-time duty in favor of heir apparent Devin Mesoraco. He's an above-average throwing catcher and fringy receiver who lives off mistakes and fastballs left over the plate. The state of catching across MLB is bad enough that he's still worth a one-year deal, even at the advanced age of 35.
2. Ryan Doumit: He would easily be the best catching option on the market, except that he's a terrible defender who gets hurt a lot. I think there's a good chance someone signs him with the hope of catching him 50-60 games a year, and maybe the wish that he turns into Mike Napoli 2.0. I don't see him doing that defensively, or getting on base like Napoli does, but I could see him turning in a solid year as a DH who fakes it at a few positions, including left or right field.
3. Kelly Shoppach: He has one particular skill that makes him useful despite the horrendous overall lines the past two years -- he hits left-handed pitching. Shoppach put up a .250/.355/.449 line against southpaws over the past two years, and while he'd be a solid backup for someone, I see no evidence he can start. The fact I put him here instead of the next section just tells you how little catching is available in free agency this winter.
Names to avoid
1. Rod Barajas: I'm cheating here, as the Pittsburgh Pirates just gave Barajas a one-year, $4 million deal … but really, Barajas has eight major league seasons in which he's had at least 200 plate appearance and his best OBP in any of those is .306, which happened six years ago. His composite line since that arbitrary endpoint is .239/.283/.417 (without intentional walks). Barajas can throw a little and has some mistake power, and that's it. He's worth a minor league contract and a spring training invite.
2. Ivan Rodriguez: He's 40 years old and five years removed from his last productive season on offense. He can still throw, but besides that all he brings is name value.
3. Jason Varitek, Jose Molina, Chris Snyder: Someone has to catch for your team -- otherwise you'd have a lot of passed balls -- but I can't see paying a premium for an "experienced" catcher who can't hit or stay on the field.
Possible trade targets
1. Chris Iannetta, Colorado Rockies: The Rockies insist Iannetta is their catcher for 2012, but it's clear they view Wilin Rosario as their long-term answer there, and Jim Tracy has, for no reason I can fathom (like most things Tracy does), always disliked something about Iannetta's game. His .370 OBP in 2011 might be misleading -- he hit eighth most of the time, so many of those walks may have just been "unintentional intentional walks" to get around him and bring the pitcher to the plate -- but he is patient and would be good for 20 homers or more if he ever got 140 starts at the position. If the Rockies don't want him, I'm sure other clubs would love to see if a change of scenery helps, even at $3.55 million for 2012.
2. J.P. Arencibia, Toronto Blue Jays: This could be six months or a year early, but at some point, Toronto will have to decide whether Arencibia or top prospect Travis d'Arnaud is its catcher of the future. The Blue Jays could keep both, making one (Arencibia, more likely) the backup, but in a market with a chronic shortage of catching, it would make far more sense to trade the player who isn't the starter. D'Arnaud doesn't have the major league experience and has had some trouble staying healthy, but is a better hitter and defender than Arencibia, who has the raw power but posted a .277 OBP (removing IBB) at age 25 in 2011. I think Arencibia could settle in as a solid-average everyday catcher because there's more hit tool in there than his .219 average or .255 BABIP would indicate, and he's under control for five more years, giving him substantial trade value once the Jays feel that d'Arnaud is ready.
3. Derek Norris and Jesus Flores, Washington Nationals: Wilson Ramos appears to be the Nationals' everyday catcher in 2012 and beyond, which puts the Nats in a situation similar to the Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds, with Mesoraco making Yasmani Grandal, who can throw and call a game but struggles receiving, expendable. Flores was the team's catcher of the future before a shoulder injury cost him a year and a half; he's now 26 with barely more than a season's worth of big league at-bats spread out over five calendar years, plus 56 games this year in Syracuse in which he didn't hit. Norris, just 22, has power, patience and a career 40 percent caught stealing rate in the minors, but despite a clean swing and solid approach he's hit .235 and .210 the past two years. His secondary skills make him a projected regular, but he might be two years away from hitting for enough average to let him play every day.