By Cole Shelton
Canadian Baseball Network
The Toronto Blue Jays entered the off-season with an exact set of needs, those being infield depth, two outfielders, depth for the starting rotation, a backup catcher and bullpen help.
The Blue Jays so far have gotten the infield depth they wanted with the acquisitions of Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz and Gift Ngoupe. While, adding two outfielders in Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson, but have not yet gotten any help for the rotation, the bullpen or getting a backup catcher.
Last season, the Blue Jays signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a minor-league contract and he ended up being the backup catcher to begin the season. However, Saltalamacchia struggled and was released, and following his release, the Blue Jays employed a ton of catchers. The Blue Jays went through Mike Ohlman, Luke Maile, Miguel Montero, and Raffy Lopez, with none of them being an above average backup catcher.
The need for a backup catcher is greater every year, especially with Montreal native Russell Martin turning 35 in February. Martin can still play every day, but giving him rest should help his body and his overall play throughout the season and keep him off the disabled list. However, without a viable backup catching option, it may not make sense to give Martin a lot of time off.
Toronto has in-house options of Luke Maile, Danny Jansen or Reese McGuire to be the backup catcher, but if they look to the free agent market, here are some possible names, the Blue Jays may be looking at.
Hank Conger, 29, Switch-Hitter
Hank Conger has been a productive MLB backup catcher throughout his career and would add stability behind Martin. Conger has spent parts of seven seasons in the MLB, after opening last year in the minors before getting released. Conger last played in the big leagues in 2016 with the Tampa Bay Rays, where he played 49 games batting .194 with three home runs. Conger, however, had fared a tad better in his career as he has an MLB career batting average of .221.
Conger would most likely have to accept a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training, and then try to make the Blue Jays, similar to what Saltalamacchia did last season. Adding Conger, would be a low-risk move, and give the Blue Jays a catcher who has been a backup in the MLB for several years, unlike the in-house options.
Ryan Hanigan, 37, Right-Handed Hitter
Ryan Hanigan would provide the Blue Jays with a very good backup catcher, who can hit and be an effective fielder. Obviously, with Hanigan, his best playing days are behind him but he could provide a one-year stopgap behind Martin, before Jansen or McGuire come up to take over as the backup catcher.
Hanigan spent last season with the Colorado Rockies where he hit .267 in 33 games after he spent three seasons in the A.L. East. Hanigan’s age may also scare the Blue Jays off, given he has caught a ton of games in his career and the risk of injury is there. However, with Hanigan’s past of being able to start games, it may make sense to bring him in, in case Martin goes down with an injury, as Hanigan would be a capable starter for the time being. Hanigan is most likely looking at a minor-league contract with an opt-out if he fails to make the Blue Jays roster out of spring training, so there would be no risk in bringing him in.
A.J. Ellis, 36, Right-Handed Hitter
Another veteran who has been one of the better backup catchers over the past couple years. Ellis has spent parts of 10 years in MLB, with eight of those years being with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ellis, like Conger and Hanigan would most likely be looking at a minor-league contract, however, he would seem likely to make the team out of spring training.
Ellis spent last season with the Miami Marlins were played in 51 games —around the number of games, the Blue Jays would want Ellis to play— where he hit .210 with six home runs. Ellis would give Toronto a backup catcher who is capable of playing 35-50 games a year, and hit above .200 with five homers. Obviously not breathtaking numbers, but even with Ellis being 36 he is still a capable backup catcher and one Toronto may look to bring in.
The Blue Jays have more options than those three with the likes of Tony Sanchez, Josmil Pinto, Anthony Recker and Michael McKenry, among others but those three seem like the best fit. With pitchers and catcher reporting very soon, the Blue Jays have to make a move soon on a catcher or the backup may very well be Luke Maile again next season, with Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire as insurance in triple-A. Whatever the Blue Jays decide to do, time is running out on them to improve their roster to become a serious playoff contender.