The Mariners have been interested in signing free agent Martin Maldonado since before spring training. Can they get a deal done?
PEORIA, Ariz. — Even though they are a week and a half into spring training, the Mariners still are looking to acquire players as they prepare for the 2019 season.
This isn’t indicative of things they’ve seen in the first handful of workouts. No, these were areas they felt they needed to address going into spring training via free agency. But given the late market for free agents and many veterans still hoping to sign major-league contracts instead of minor-league deals, they haven’t been able to add those players.
The main priority is finding another right-handed hitting catcher to serve as a backup/platoon mate with Omar Narvaez. The left-handed hitting Narvaez would be the primary catcher, but the Mariners would like to add a veteran catcher who swings right-handed and also is a plus defender. Narvaez’s defense is a work in progress.
David Freitas is the only other catcher on the Mariners’ 40-man roster. He is a right-handed hitter and played in 36 games for the Mariners last season, posting a .215/.277/.312 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with six doubles, a homer and five RBI. He’s not a huge offensive presence and a capable, but not above average, defensive catcher. The Mariners would like to add another catcher, which would put Freitas and veteran Jose Lobaton, who is in camp on a minor-league contact and a left-handed hitter, in Class AAA Tacoma.
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Jon Heyman of Fancred and the MLB Network tweeted that the Mariners recently have been in contact with free-agent catcher Martin Maldonado.
Maldonado, 32, is player the Mariners had discussed before spring training. He’s a right-handed hitter and a plus defender, having won the Gold Glove in 2017 with the Angels. The Mariners are familiar with his skills from his time in the American League West. Anaheim traded Maldonado to the Astros midway through last season. He isn’t much of a threat on offense — a career .220 batting average and .639 on-base plus slugging percentage — but would serve as an upgrade on defense.
If the Mariners were to acquire him, he’d also be a potential trade chip at midseason for teams desperate for catching defense, though the return likely would be minimal.
Sources in the organization indicated the Mariners would prefer to bring in a backup catcher candidate on a split minor-league/major-league contract, giving them some flexibility early in the season. But MLB sources said Maldonado was holding out hope for the protection of a full major-league guarantee.
The last few veteran catchers who have signed as backups — Nick Hundley with the A’s, Jesus Sucre with Orioles, Rene Rivera with the Giants — all agreed to minor-league deals. Caleb Joseph was the exception, getting a $1.1 million contract from the Diamondbacks. Of the 25-plus big-league catchers available in free agency, only 10 got full MLB contracts, the rest all signed minor-league or split contracts. Maldonado and Matt Wieters are the two most notable catchers still available.
With spring training games looming, Maldonado could realize that the Mariners offer the best opportunity.
Seattle also will monitor the waiver wire and roster movement from other teams this spring. They were able to pick up catcher Chris Herrmann on a minor-league contract late last spring and eventually called him up to serve as the backup.
The quality of catching depth in the organization is a problem. The Mariners’ top catching prospect — Cal Raleigh — is in big league camp, but he’s got a serious amount of work to do defensively to catch up to his advanced skills at the plate. A switch-hitter with some power, Raleigh was selected by Seattle in the third round of the draft last year out of Florida State. He played in 38 games for Everett, posting a .288/.367/.534 slash line with 10 doubles, a triple, eight homers and 29 RBI. He likely will start the season at High A Modesto.
The Mariners also will search the pitching market, specifically for relievers. With Anthony Swarzak unlikely to be ready for opening day and plenty of young, unproven pitchers in camp, Seattle could pick up one or two relievers who are available as added depth. There will be a slew of relievers that will be placed on waivers or designated for assignment in the coming weeks.