The Mariners have been exploring several trade possibilities involving catcher Omar Narvaez, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports (via Twitter). The Seattle club has “shown a desire” to trade the 27-year-old (28 in February) and could complete a deal “soon,” per Passan.
At this point, there’s little doubt that Narvaez is a quality offensive player. The Venezuelan-born backstop has been an OBP machine since debuting in the Majors back in 2016, and his power has increased both in 2018 and in 2019. He’s a career .276/.361/.411 hitter in 1216 plate appearances at the MLB level, including a stout .278/.353/.480 batting line with a career-high 22 home runs in 482 plate appearances this past season. He’s walked in 11.3 percent of his MLB plate appearances against a 17.8 percent strikeout rate — both of which are better than the league average in today’s game of three true outcomes.
It’s easy to attribute the power spike to the juiced ball in 2019, but Narvaez’s new career-high in home runs is also reflective of the fact that he shattered his previous career-high in plate appearances by a measure of 160. In fact, his .182 isolated power mark (slugging minus batting average) was only 28 points higher than 2018’s .154.
What’s also clear about Narvaez, however, is that he’s struggled defensively in every season of his big league career. His 21 percent caught-stealing rate at the MLB level is well south of the 28 percent league average in that time, and Baseball Prospectus has ranked him near the bottom of the league for his abilities (or lack thereof) to block pitches. Narvaez did markedly improve in terms of limiting passed balls in 2019 (three in 815 2/3 innings after allowing 12 in 653 1/3 innings in 2018), but that was the one silver lining in his glovework.
Framing, in particular, has been a struggle for Narvaez, who ranks poorly in that regard by virtually any estimation. Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Statcast all peg Narvaez near the bottom of the league in terms of framing value. Narvaez has caught 2386 1/3 innings in his career and registered -41 Defensive Runs Saved. Baseball Prospectus ranked him alongside Josh Phegley, Welington Castillo, Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco and James McCann as one of MLB’s worst defenders at the position in 2019.
Narvaez is under club control for another three seasons and will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects a $2.9MM salary for Narvaez in his first trip through that process, and he’ll be eligible twice more before reaching free agency in the 2022-23 offseason.
Though his glove is hardly appealing, it’s hard to understate just how much better than the league-average catcher Narvaez been at the plate in his big league career. Since he debuted, the league-average offensive output from catchers has checked in at .240/.310/.396. Narvaez’s .276/.361/.411 line is markedly better across the board. And while the average catcher’s production has actually declined across the past two seasons, Narvaez has improved, posting a .277/.358/.448 that trounces the average catcher.
A club that either believes itself to be capable of improving Narvaez’s glove or is simply willing to trade some defense for uncannily solid offense from the catcher position could certainly look into acquiring Narvaez — particularly if it’s an AL club that can occasionally stash him at DH. Among the teams with yet-unaddressed needs behind the plate this winter are the Astros, Angels, Rangers, Rockies, Pirates and Brewers. Several other clubs could stand to add a second catcher, with the A’s in particular having been linked to lefty-hitting catchers. Given the awful level of production from most catchers — particularly backup options — Narvaez could be argued as a logical fit for most clubs throughout the league, although his defensive red flags make it every bit as easy to craft a counterargument against acquiring him.
Moving Narvaez now could be sensible for the Mariners, given the substantial demand for catchers with both Yasmani Grandal and Travis d’Arnaud now off the market. Jason Castro and Robinson Chirinos are the top two catchers remaining in free agency, and while other catchers could surely be on the move via the trade circuit, there’s no clearly available star-caliber option as there was last winter with J.T. Realmuto. The Cubs’ Willson Contreras has seen his name pop up in rumors already, but Chicago needn’t feel pressure to trade him. And, with Seattle possessing a solid in-house option (Tom Murphy) as well as an intriguing prospect on the horizon (Cal Raleigh), it doesn’t appear that Narvaez will be a vital piece of the core once the rebuild ends — perhaps as soon as 2021.