MILWAUKEE -- Two weeks after Yasmani Grandal signed with the White Sox, the Brewers found his replacement in Mariners catcher Omar Narváez
The Brewers acquired 27-year-old Narváez from the Mariners for right-hander Adam Hill -- Milwaukee’s No. 24 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline -- and a competitive balance round pick in the 2020 Draft between rounds two and three. The deal for Narváez, a good left-handed hitter with defensive limitations who is entering the first of three arbitration years, was first reported early Thursday by MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal.
“There's been a lot of rumors I would be traded,” Narváez said. “It’s something I was checking every morning to see what they were talking about. I’m really happy to go to this team, which is a winning team. That’s something I was hoping to land on.”
Narváez was Seattle’s most consistent hitter last year, slashing .278/.353/.460 with 22 home runs and a weighted runs created plus of 119 that ranked fourth-best among catchers who made at least 300 plate appearances, just behind Grandal’s 121.
So why was Grandal worth 5.2 wins above replacement (FanGraphs measure) compared to Narváez’s 1.8? Defense. Narváez ranked near the bottom of baseball’s catchers in total defense (-12.3 fielding runs above average was fourth-worst in MLB at the position), including in pitch framing, according to metrics available at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Narváez’s -20 defensive runs saved in 2019 was second-worst among MLB catchers. He has thrown out 21 percent of would-be basestealers in his career, including 18 percent in 2019.
“I think it starts with … someone who has been a really impactful offensive presence behind the plate, which is not easy to find in the catching market these days,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “To be able to add that to our team as a complement to Manny Piña right now, we thought that made a lot of sense.”
Stearns noted that the Brewers do have a solid defender to pair with Narváez in veteran Piña, who presumably will form the other half of a left-right platoon. The Brewers picked up Piña’s $1.85 million club option on Oct. 31. If that indeed is Milwaukee’s catching tandem, it would provide balance; Narváez posted an .836 OPS and hit 20 of his 22 home runs last season against right-handed pitchers, while Piña had a .965 OPS in 81 plate appearances against lefties.
Narváez and Piña are both from Venezuela and met several years ago. They were already talking on Thursday afternoon, said Narváez, who knows of Piña’s reputation as a hard worker known for mentoring young pitchers and catchers about the nuances of the game. The Brewers also have a well-regarded catching coordinator in Charlie Greene, who has helped many an offensive-minded player improve on the defensive side, including former All-Star Jonathan Lucroy.
“All players have area for growth, and all players have places where they can seek improvement,” Stearns said. “In this case, Omar’s area for growth is on the defensive side of the ball. He is aware of that. He understands that. We will work hard with him to help him in that area. I know he is willing to work hard in that area.
“It is, frankly, an area where we have had some success in the past, helping players improve. That certainly doesn’t guarantee success in the future, but we think we have a good shot. And frankly, we also have a very sound defensive catcher already on our roster. We have other sound defensive catchers in our organization. And depending how we shape our roster, the 26th man also gives you an opportunity for another defensive-oriented catcher, should we choose to go that route.”
Said Narváez: “It’s something I’ve been working on every day. Last year, I made some little adjustments and cut down on the passed balls. The framing is something I’m still working on. The more I do, the better I’ll get. I don’t think much about hitting. I think about catching. It’s something I’m proud to do.”
The Mariners, meanwhile, dealt from an area of depth.
“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,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said. “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.”
Dipoto acquired Narváez from the White Sox for reliever Alex Colomé in November 2018, and the backstop delivered a strong season at the plate. But the Mariners are very high on Murphy, who posted a .273/.324/.535 line with 18 homers in just 75 games and graded out much better defensively.
As for other positional possibilities for Narváez, it is “not out of the question,” as Stearns put it, that Narváez will play some first base, another wide open position for the Brewers at the moment. Narváez has scant experience at that spot. The Brewers additionally “have had ongoing discussions with Ryan [Braun] about positional versatility," Stearns said.
“I think that's something I think Ryan is open to,” he said. “Ryan's desire is to win and that's where his focus is, and however that plays best to giving our team its best chance to win, I think he's open to that.”
Narváez is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, so his salary is set to rise significantly from the $581,200 he earned last year. He’s not projected to reach free agency until the 2022-23 offseason.
The precise Draft selection going to Seattle is subject to change based on trades and qualifying offer free-agent signings. At the moment, that selection is No. 70 overall.