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Mariners holding trade chip many teams covet

@gregjohnsmlb
November 30, 2019

SEATTLE -- Among the many ramifications of the guaranteed long-term Major League contract signed by first-base prospect Evan White on Monday with the Mariners, the most immediate might be the availability now of catcher Omar Narváez on the trade market. Why does signing a first baseman to a long-term deal

SEATTLE -- Among the many ramifications of the guaranteed long-term Major League contract signed by first-base prospect Evan White on Monday with the Mariners, the most immediate might be the availability now of catcher Omar Narváez on the trade market.

Why does signing a first baseman to a long-term deal impact Seattle's catching position? And what kind of market is there for Narváez, who was Seattle’s most consistent hitter last year over the course of the season while posting a healthy .278/.353/.460 line with 22 homers?

Here are the answers to those and more questions about Narváez’s future:

Why is Narváez now available?

Call it the domino effect. By making the move to White as not just their first baseman of the future, but their first baseman of now, general manager Jerry Dipoto has freed Austin Nola up to be the backup catcher instead of sharing first-base duties in combo with Daniel Vogelbach.

The versatile Nola has been primarily a catcher since converting from an infielder in 2017, but the 29-year-old played mostly first base last season after his midseason debut since the Mariners had Narváez and Tom Murphy behind the dish.

But Murphy’s emergence as a quality catcher and solid power hitter makes him a viable starting candidate, so if Nola can handle the backup duties and highly touted prospect Cal Raleigh continues developing as a third option in the system, suddenly catcher is a position of depth and Narváez becomes an interesting trade chip in the search for pitching.

Dipoto also signed former Rangers infielder Patrick Wisdom to a one-year deal on Wednesday in what appeared to be a minor move, though it does provide another option at first base should Nola be used more behind the plate.

Why Narváez instead of Murphy?

Narváez is a year younger than Murphy and has a longer track record, but Murphy greatly impressed the Mariners with his offensive adjustment last year -- hitting .273/.324/.535 with 18 homers in just 75 games -- as well as his defensive work and leadership after being acquired at the start of the regular season following his release by both the Rockies and Giants.

While Narváez has worked hard on his pitch framing and footwork, he again was among the lowest-ranked defensive catchers in MLB in his first year after being acquired from the White Sox for reliever Alex Colomé. The 27-year-old figures to continue improving in those areas, and he’s one of the better-hitting catchers in the game, so there is certainly value there.

But Murphy, 28, has four years of team control remaining and is a year away from even reaching salary arbitration, which means he has another year at the MLB minimum salary of about $565,000 while Narváez has three years of control and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn about $2.9 million this year in his first year of arbitration.

What’s the time frame?

While free agency is again moving slowly this winter, the catching market is a different story, with Yasmani Grandal signing with the White Sox and Travis d'Arnaud with the Braves. That’s another reminder that catchers indeed are very valued commodities.

Dipoto doesn’t have to make a deal quickly, as theoretically he could wait until late in Spring Training before having to make final roster cuts. But teams like to solidify their plans long before then, and Dipoto historically is one to move swiftly once he has his own plan in place. So if there are realistic offers made for Narváez, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him traded during the Winter Meetings (in San Diego on Dec. 8-12) or sometime before Christmas at the latest.

Who might be interested?

Outside of pitching, the biggest demand in MLB is for catching. So there definitely figures to be a market for Narváez, given his strong offensive game and reasonable contract. But which teams are most likely to keep checking back with Dipoto?

Any trade list starts with the Rays, given the two teams' happy history of swaps. Tampa Bay just lost d’Arnaud to Atlanta in free agency, and the Rays also have the kind of young pitching that would intrigue Seattle.

This near-perfect match teetered a bit when GM Erik Neander responded to d’Arnaud’s departure by immediately re-signing Mike Zunino to a $4.5 million deal rather than non-tendering him after a rough first season in Florida, but don’t rule out a Rays’ push. Neander is looking to bulk up Tampa Bay’s offense, and a Narváez-Zunino duo would be an interesting left-right combo.

Narváez’s other top suitors might be the Red Sox or Brewers, who are both looking for catching help, with the Rockies, Pirates and Orioles also in the market. The Astros and Angels also need to add backstops, though both sides might be reluctant to help out division rivals.

Who else might be available?

There has been talk that the Cubs could move two-time All-Star Willson Contreras, who is only 27 and would draw a large prospect return for a team looking to retool its farm system. James McCann, coming off his own All-Star season at age 29, is available from the White Sox after they signed Grandal. Those two are quality options, but they won’t come cheap.

The free-agent catcher list has already thinned considerably, with Stephen Vogt agreeing to terms with the D-backs on Tuesday in the wake of the Grandal and d’Arnaud signings. That leaves Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro and Austin Romine among the top remaining backstops, though Narváez is much younger and has more offensive potential than those options.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.