Immediately after Miguel Montero's departure, it seemed like the path ahead was clear, with the Diamondbacks in the market for a replacement front-line catcher. GM Dave Stewart specifically mentioned the name of Detroit's Alex Avila and Toronto's Dioner Navarro as players who could be targeted by Arizona. The Tigers have leading prospect James McCann as a potential replacement for Avila, while Navarro became surplus to requirements for the Blue Jays, when they signed free-agent Russell Martin. The Cubs' Wellington Castillo, who would now be Montero's backup in Chicago, was another possibility mentioned.
However, the past month failed to see any action on that front and with pitchers and catchers reporting a month from this Monday, time is running out. Earlier this week, Stewart said the market had been sluggish in developing. "We've not made a whole lot of headway in that area yet. Without really giving up something that's going to cost us a player that we don't want to give away, we don't have a whole lot of motion yet." It may be that other teams know the Diamondbacks "need" to acquire a catcher in the wake of losing Montero, and the result is a seller's market. Or Stewart could be trying to muddy the waters with disinformation.
The latter is possible, particularly with Stewart's most recent statements indicating the team has given up on looking for a trade partner, and will look to prospect Peter O'Brien to fill the gap, sooner rather than later. Stewart said, "Talking to our staff, they have given us a clear indication that that they believe Peter is going to be ready sooner rather than later. What it would cost to make a deal, we believe we will stay with what we have. We're going to start with what we have and stay that way until O'Brien is here. He might have an opportunity this season." If other teams believe the D-backs no longer "need" a catcher, the price of acquiring one might drop as a result.
Complicating the matter is another young prospect. Just a couple of days after Miggy's trade, the team picked up catcher Oscar Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft. If the team wishes to retain him, Hernandez must be kept on the 25-man roster for the entire 2015 campaign, but the player is only 21 and hasn't played at all above A-ball. Few players of that age are major-league ready, particularly behind the plate: only a pair of 21-year-old catchers have appeared in the big leagues since 2005 (Salvador Perez of Kansas City and San Francisco's Hector Sanchez, both in 2011). The fewer games for which he is needed, the better his chances of making it through the season.
There appear to be three main options open to the team.
Trade for a replacement
Despite Stewart's denials, some still think this is the most likely outcome. Fox Sports' Jon Morosi believes Arizona are still "in the market" for an everyday catcher, with his sources telling him the team are "working hard" to add one. He reports the team did ask the Blue Jays about Navarro, but "talks have not advanced much beyond that." Our colleagues over at Bluebird Banter wouldn't mind a Navarro trade, and came up with the following suggestion: "I would think a trade can be worked out for someone like Cliff Pennington (if the Jays threw in cash to match salaries) or the recovering David Hernandez."
The former might be possible, as it would allow us to add a catcher without increasing payroll [we're already bumping against the ceiling, if not some way above it]. This would leave us without an immediate backup for both Chris Owings at short and Aaron Hill at second, but Nick Ahmed would seem an obvious replacement, and is likely a cheaper defense-first alternative anyway.
Go with Tufcar Hernwisch
If you think the 2015 season is not one where the Diamondbacks are contending, then there's something to be said for not making an effort to spend assets - be they money or prospects - on shoring up the position of catcher. Go with what we've got, see whether Tuffy Gosewisch can be stretched out to an everyday catcher, and use the Rule 5 pick mentioned above as a backup. This approach would certainly increase the chances of being able to retain Hernandez's service. But there'd undeniably be a large offensive hit if we go with a platoon of a 31-year-old who has a career OPS+ of 41 and a 21-year-old who hasn't seen a pitch above A-ball.
Ride the O'Brien Express
The wild-card in all this is Peter O'Brien, a prospect who is very good at hitting home runs, but has many doubters with regard to the other aspects of his game, The Diamondbacks, as noted earlier, seem positively bullish on his future. O'Brien is already working with coaches at Salt River Fields, and Stewart spoke highly of his ability to learn: "He's not afraid of hard work. He's a smart kid. He picks up instruction very well." Including the AFL, he hit 39 home-runs in 485 at-bats last year: that level of offensive production will certainly buy Peter some leeway as far as any learning curve goes. But, again: 76 games above High-A is much less experience than you'd usually want.
A hybrid of the second and third approaches is possible, and may be most likely, depending on how ready for prime-time O'Brien looks come spring training. In the not unlikely event he is deemed in need of additional polish defensively. he can go back to Reno for valet service. We start the season with Hernwisch, and whenever O'Brien is ready, he can replace whichever is deemed surplus to requirements without too much difficulty. There are service clock benefits to this, potentially giving the team another year of control down the road, or keeping O'Brien out of Super 2 status, which would lead to him hitting arbitration a year early.