Mariners look to bolster catching depth

December 10th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- As the opening day of MLB’s Winter Meetings began with buzz about the Nationals dishing out big money for World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg on Monday, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto remained mostly in his hotel suite engaged in organizational plans with his own people.

Dipoto has built his reputation as an offseason mover and shaker in the trade market in recent years, but barring a surprise development, he appears set to watch others make the headlines this week at the Grand Hyatt on San Diego’s waterfront.

Dipoto’s shopping list is more modest this winter. His No. 1 priority is providing opportunity now for young up-and-coming prospects he considers the nucleus of the future, though there will be a few more players added to the mix before camp opens in February.

The Mariners made a handful of moves in recent weeks -- signing free-agent pitchers Kendall Graveman and Carl Edwards Jr. and corner infielder Patrick Wisdom, while also acquiring lefty Nestor Cortes from the Yankees.

Dipoto still wants to bolster his pitching staff with a reliever or two and a back-end starter and is engaged in some talks with agents in San Diego.

But he also acknowledged Monday that he’s now talking as well to prospective catching candidates, which might seem ironic, given the club just traded starting backstop Omar Narváez to the Brewers last Thursday.

But Narvaez’s departure creates the lesser need of a catcher who likely will open the season at Triple-A Tacoma. The Mariners signed veteran Jose Lobaton a year ago and will look for a similar candidate this winter either via free agency or trade.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the current catching depth and where the Mariners stand:

The Major League plans

Narváez’s availability came courtesy of Seattle’s unexpected discovery of two surprising backstops last season in Tom Murphy and Austin Nola, along with the intriguing promise of prospect Cal Raleigh.

Murphy, acquired in a minor deal right at the start of the regular season, quickly displayed a tremendous work ethic and willingness to adjust his batting approach after four years of limited playing time in Colorado. He wound up hitting .273/.324/.535 with 18 homers and a 129 OPS+ in 281 plate appearances, accumulating 3.2 fWAR in just 75 games.

Nola also had a breakout season as a 29-year-old rookie who hit .269/.342/.454 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 79 games. Though he primarily played first base, he’s a converted catcher who also captured the Mariners’ attention with what he offers behind the plate and as a clubhouse leader.

“We’re very comfortable with both those guys in the big leagues,” Dipoto said. “We’ve been hammered with trade [requests] on Murph and Nola more so than on any other players we have. The fact they’re here and we’re moving forward with them is indicative of how we think they fit.”

Nola’s emergence as a strong backup candidate opened the door for Dipoto to use his catching depth to bolster the future by dealing Narváez for a young starting candidate in Adam Hill from the Brewers, as well as a Compensation Round B Draft pick – around No. 70 overall next June -- and its accompanying $900,000 or so of Draft pool money, which will allow the Mariners to be more creative in the June process.

What about the prospects?

Raleigh, a third-round Draft pick out of Florida State in 2018, has risen to Seattle’s No. 7 ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline after posting a .251/.323/.497 line with 29 homers and 82 RBIs in 121 games split between Class A Advanced Modesto and Double-A Arkansas.

Raleigh was known as a bat-first catcher when drafted, but has impressed the Mariners with both his defensive work and leadership at that critical position.

Raleigh will open the year at Arkansas, Dipoto said, with the chance of moving up to the Majors as soon as late next season if he continues progressing.

The club is also high on the defensive prowess of Joseph Odom, a 2013 Draft choice who split last year between Arkansas and Tacoma, and whom Dipoto said ranks “among the best handful of pitch framers in all of Minor League Baseball.”

It’s about more than offense

While Narváez was one of the better-hitting catchers in MLB last year, the Mariners believe their young pitchers will be in better hands going forward with Murphy and Nola, as well as Raleigh and Odom behind them.

Dipoto mentioned the development of rookie starters Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn, as well as Yusei Kikuchi and a flock of young relievers, as being a big part of the catchers’ roles.

“Not to push aside the need to score runs, but that is not going to be our first question,” Dipoto said. “Our first question is how do we help these guys get better because we won’t improve as a team until that pitching staff comes along.”