With the demand higher than expected for major-league-level catchers this offseason and the Mariners sitting with a small surplus at the position, general manager Jerry Dipoto tried to capitalize on the situation to acquire some more young talent for his current rebuild.
After reports of the looming deal broke in the early hours of Thursday morning, the team later announced it had sent catcher Omar Narvaez to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for right-handed pitching prospect Adam Hill and a competitive balance Round B pick, which is currently listed at No. 71 overall, in the 2020 MLB draft. The order of competitive balance picks can change based on when players that recently refused qualifying offers sign with a new team.
“We were fortunate in 2019 to develop really good depth at the catcher spot, with Omar, Tom Murphy and Austin Nola at the big league level, and Cal Raleigh rising quickly in our minor league system,” Dipoto said in a statement. “That depth allowed us to make a move today that we think will pay long-term dividends to us, while not impacting us in the short term.”
The Mariners had received multiple calls from teams inquiring on the availability of Narvaez, Murphy or Nola this offseason. Murphy generated the most interest, but Seattle preferred to keep him, viewing him as the most complete of the three catchers and a solid mentor and bridge to the talented Raleigh, who is probably a year or two away from being ready to take over as the everyday catcher.
Narvaez, 27, is coming off career season at the plate. He posted a .278/.353/.460 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 12 doubles, 22 homers and 55 RBI in 132 games. Based on Fangraphs’ weighted runs created stat (wRC+), Narvaez’s 119 runs created was the seventh highest for all MLB catchers. While Narvaez has always been above average for a catcher in batting average and approach at the plate, his increase in power last season was somewhat unexpected. His previous high for home runs in a season was nine, in 2018.
From a financial standpoint, Narvaez is affordable. He enters his first year of salary arbitration and is projected to make just under $3 million in 2020 with two more years of club control before free agency in 2023.
So why trade him?
Well, Narvaez’s defense is, at best, below average and, at worst, abysmal to the point where forgettable Mariners catchers such as Miguel Olivo, Rob Johnson and Jeff Clement seemed more competent behind the plate. He was considered one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball, posting a minus-20 rating in defensive runs saved and a minus-6.5 on Fangraphs’ defensive rating. The Mariners understood this when they acquired him last season from the White Sox. But they hoped he could show some improvement by emphasizing defense in spring training and on a daily basis. It didn’t happen.
His struggles with simply receiving pitches competently and his inability to frame pitches to steal strikes were a problem. And his lack of pregame preparation in terms of scouting reports and game calling were glaring in comparison to Murphy, who was diligent to the point of obsessive. Privately multiple pitchers on the staff expressed a preference to pitch to Murphy, who seemed to put them ahead of his own personal performance at the plate.
There was also a concern/belief that Narvaez’s unexpected power jump was due to the homer-friendly baseball being used in 2019. Opposing scouts and people within the Mariners organization believed his true power projection was between 10 to 15 homers per season, which is still useful. Narvaez’s body frame and conditioning habits — he got heavier as the season went on — were also an issue leading to concerns of increased injuries and decreased production with age.
With Narvaez gone, it means that Austin Nola will assume the back-up duties at catcher … for now. Nola was signed as a catcher last offseason to a minor league contract, but he played mostly at first base for Class AAA Tacoma and with Seattle after being called up out of necessity. But the Mariners aren’t worried about his ability to handle the position, despite converting there three seasons ago from the middle infield. He is viewed as a much better defensive catcher than Narvaez despite his inexperience.
“We think he’s quite developed behind the plate,” Dipoto said earlier this week. “Austin is already fairly built out in terms of framing and turnaround time on throws. He has a natural knack for game calling. He’s a heady player. We’re very comfortable with him being a strong backup catcher.”
With touted prospect Evan White projected to be the every-day first baseman after signing an MLB contract, Nola’s playing time at first base would decrease significantly. So keeping him as the back-up catcher gives Seattle some roster flexibility. The Mariners are likely to sign a veteran catcher on a minor league contract for depth at Tacoma.
The switch-hitting Raleigh, who is rated as the No. 7 prospect in the organization, blasted 29 homers combined between High-A Modesto and Class AA Arkansas last season. While he is predicted to be Seattle’s catcher of the future, he is expected to return to Arkansas to start 2020 with the hope of advancing to Tacoma by the end of the season. He is projected to be the every-day catcher by 2022.
Hill, 22, went 7-9 with a 3.92 ERA (121 2/3 innings pitched, 53 earned runs) in 26 games (23 starts) with Milwaukee’s Class A affiliate, striking out 109 batters with 55 walks. He was mid-season All-Star with Wisconsin after going 6-4 with a 4.11 ERA (65 2/3 IP, 30 ER) in the first half. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander’s 3.92 ERA and his 121 2/3 innings pitched both ranked 10th in the Midwest League.
A former fourth-round pick by the Mets, Hill was rated as the Brewers’ No. 24 prospect in the organization per MLB Pipeline. The true value of this trade could be the draft pick. A year ago, Seattle acquired a competitive balance pick via trade and used it to take right-hander Isaiah Campbell, who is considered to be one of the organization’s top five pitching prospects, and is rated at No. 11 by MLB Pipeline.