While most clubs deploy a clear starter and backup with regard to their catching tandem, the Mariners will have a much more balanced workload behind the plate in 2020, manager Scott Servais told reporters this week (link via Greg Johns of MLB.com). Tom Murphy and Austin Nola will split time in a roughly “55-45” timeshare, per Servais, who acknowledged that Murphy will likely get the nod on Opening Day (and, presumably, receive the slightly larger workload at catcher).
Both Murphy, 28, and Nola, 30, were plucked from relative obscurity by Seattle — the former in a minor trade and the latter on a minor league deal. Both turned in productive efforts in limited time in 2019, as well. Murphy was a clear backup to Omar Narvaez (traded to Milwaukee this winter), catching 67 games while hitting .273/.324/.535 with 18 home runs in 281 plate appearances.
Statcast graded Murphy’s framing efforts nicely behind the plate, and in spite of below-average pop time, Murphy was able to nab 39 percent of the runners who attempted to steal against him. The former top prospect was cut loose by the Rockies organization without ever being afforded an extended look in the Majors, landing with the division-rival Giants on a waiver claim. Four days later, the Giants traded him to Seattle for minor league righty Jesus Ozoria.
As for Nola, the older brother of Phillies righty Aaron Nola, he was simply cut loose by the Marlins organization after making the transition from infielder to catcher while in Triple-A. He functioned more as an infielder with the Mariners in 2019, catching only seven games but appearing in 59 games at first base and another 15 at second base.
However, Nola is focused “strictly” on catching in 2020, per Johns, which is surely due in no small part to the expected emergence of prospect Evan White as the Mariners’ Opening Day first baseman. White signed a six-year contract with three club options before ever appearing in a big league game and is poised to break camp with the club. But even with first base now spoken for, it seems Nola’s strong showing in 2019 will earn him an extended audition elsewhere. Nola ripped through the Pacific Coast League with a .327/.415/.520 slash (134 wRC+) in 55 games last year before being called to the Majors — a promotion to which he responded with a .269/.342/.454 slash (267 plate appearances, 114 wRC+).
Given Nola’s versatility, it’s still possible he’ll see time at other positions, but with Narvaez out of the picture, he’ll have his first extended run as a catcher at the MLB level. Eventually, top catching prospect Cal Raleigh could push his way onto the MLB scene, although at that point, one can imagine Nola as an ideal candidate for the newly created 26th roster spot, given his experience at catcher, first base, second base and third base (as well as a couple of corner-outfield cameos). The 23-year-old Raleigh was Seattle’s third-round pick in 2018 and batted a combined .251/.323/.497 between Class-A Advanced and Double-A last year.