Could the Red Sox explore a trade for Padres catcher Austin Nola this offseason?
In Reese McGuire and Connor Wong, the Sox already have two big-league caliber catchers under club control for 2023. But that should not stop them from looking into external additions at the position. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said as much when speaking with reporters (including The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier) at the ongoing GM Meetings in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
“It’s a hard spot to find one guy you can trust, much less more than one,” Bloom said. “In any given winter, there’s only a handful of players on the free agent market who you see as really good fits at that position. So the trade market is another avenue. I would say that we don’t think we’ll be looking at a huge group of possibilities there, but there are some possibilities through both avenues.”
According to Speier, the Sox “have cast a wide net in trade talks about catchers” over the last two years. They had conversations with the Athletics pertaining to Sean Murphy ahead of this year’s trade deadline that did not pan out. They “also have discussed other catchers who are heralded for their defense,” such as Nola.
Like Murphy, Nola is under team control for three more years. He is also nearly five years older than Murphy and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn significantly less than him in 2023. Murphy is slated to receive $3.5 million in his first year of arbitration while Nola is projected for $2.2 million.
Nola, who turns 33 in December, appeared in a career-high 110 games for the Padres this season. The right-handed hitter batted .251/.321/.329 with 15 doubles, four home runs, 40 RBIs, 40 runs scored, two stolen bases, 34 walks, and 60 strikeouts across 397 trips to the plate.
From behind the plate, Nola logged 834 2/3 innings at catcher and threw out eight of 64 base stealers. Among the 15 catchers who caught at least 800 innings, Nola ranked 13th in Defensive Runs Saved (-6), 14th in Catcher Framing (-8.3), and 14th in Defense (-5.2), per FanGraphs. While those metrics are not all that encouraging, the 6-foot, 197-pounder has proven to be a better defender in the past, especially when it comes to pitch framing.
Originally selected by the Marlins in the fifth round of the 2012 draft out of Louisiana State University, Nola initially came up through Miami’s farm system as a shortstop not begin catching at the professional level until he was in the Arizona Fall League in 2016.
The Marlins outrighted and released Nola at the conclusion of the 2018 season. The Baton Rouge native then inked a minor-league deal with the Mariners and finally made his major-league debut in 2019 at the age of 27. The following August, Nola was dealt to the Padres in a trade that involved six other players.
After an array of injuries limited him to just 56 games in his first full season with San Diego, Nola emerged as the Padres’ starting catcher in 2022 thanks in part to the way he handled their pitching staff in a run to the National League Championship Series.
The Padres ultimately came up short against Nola’s younger brother, Aaron, and the rest of the Phillies. Under the direction of president of baseball operations A.J. Preller, the Friars could elect to shake things up at catcher this winter.
In addition to Nola, San Diego has two other major-league caliber catchers on its roster in Jorge Alfaro and Luis Campusano. Alfaro posted a .667 OPS this season and is a non-tender candidate. Campusano, on the other hand, was ranked by Baseball America as the sport’s No. 53 prospect coming into the 2022 season. But the 24-year-old only received 48 at-bats this season, so the Padres may feel like it is time to give him an extended look beginning next spring.
From the Red Sox’ end, it would likely not take much to pry Nola away from the Padres as far as prospect capital is concerned. Nola himself represents an inexpensive addition at catcher who could platoon with the left-handed hitting McGuire if Wong winds up being the odd man out.
When it comes to what the Red Sox are looking from out of their catchers next year, Bloom emphasized the importance of handling a pitching staff.
“Now, that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to get value at the position, but it’s certainly something we value,” he said. “And I think we have a staff that can really take advantage of somebody who’s invested in that aspect of the game, specifically with [catching instructor Jason Varitek].”
Nola represents just one direction Bloom and Co. could lean if they intend on adding another catcher to the mix this winter. While Murphy is the top trade target, the Sox could also pursue the likes of Wilson Contreras, Mike Zunino, Omar Narvaez, Gary Sanchez, or even old friend Christian Vazquez in free agency.
(Picture of Austin Nola: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)