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With all eyes on the Mariners Friday in anticipation of the club announcing one of the biggest trades (the biggest?) of the Jerry Dipoto era, the Mariners announced a deal jettisoning an all-star closer. No, not that one.
The hole at the catcher’s position has been an object of concern since Mike Zunino was dealt to Tampa Bay earlier this month, and rather than dipping into the free agent market to sign a one year stopgap, Jerry opted to go get the catcher we’ll likely see manning the position for years to come.
Omar Narváez, who turns 27 in February, posted perhaps the quietest 2.1 fWAR season you’ll ever see, reaching that threshold in just 97 games last season for the White Sox. In fact, he’s been quietly contributing in Chicago since 2017, racking up 3.6 fWAR in 187 games since 2017, positioning himself as the 14th-most valuable catcher in baseball over that span, above the likes of Wilson Ramos, Jonathan Lucroy, and Martín Maldonado. The left-handed swinging backstop slashed .275/.366/.429 en route to a 122 wRC+ last season, and while is ability to hit for average brings something new to the catcher position for the Mariners, his ability to draw walks and limit strikeouts makes him the anti-Zunino at the dish. Through 221 career games, he’s posted a walk rate of 12.3% and strikeout rate of just 16.9%—nearly half the mark of even Mike Zunino’s least strikeout-prone season. In a piece over at Beyond the Box Score just prior to the 2017 season, Ryan Romano praised Narváez for his advanced plate discipline, putting him in a select group of rookies that had both an O-Swing rate and Z-Swing rate 10% better than average. Of his 12 career home runs—nine of which he posted in 2018—11 of them have come from the left side of the plate, but don’t let that convince you he’ll need to be platooned. While he’s had more success with right-handers, posting a 111 wRC+ against them throughout his career, he’s no slouch against lefties, as he’s got a career wRC+ of 97 when facing southpaws.
The one significant knock against Narváez been on defense, where he’s essentially the anti-Zunino there as well, at least by DRS anyways, as he’s posted -13 defensive runs saved since 2017. That’s good for third-worst among all catchers who’ve caught at least 100 innings since 2017 while Zunino’s 16 DRS over that same timeframe is good for ninth-best. Narváez also gets dinged by public metrics for his framing, ranking among the worst in MLB by Baseball Prospectus’ framing metrics. Some industry metrics reportedly have him closer to merely below-average to average, but it’s evident Narváez is bat-first, glove second.
As you can see above, neither the footwork or the throw accuracy is going to blow you away, but he’s flashed strong skills that given his offensive profile and the state of the Mariners team of 2019/2020, taking a flier on a bat-first catcher and hoping Dan Wilson can get him to more consistently tap into those abilities doesn’t seem like the worst plan of attack. And it’s not like he’s completely lost back there by any means, as he’s shown some potential as a defender, flashing the tools of a formidable threat to would-be base stealers.
Signed out of Venezuela by Tampa Bay at the age of 16, Narváez spent five seasons in the Rays’ system, topping out at Short Season-A ball in 2013 before the White Sox selected him in the minor league phase of the 2013 Rule 5 Draft. Slowly climbing the ladder in Chicago’s system, he made his big league debut in 2016 when then-starting catcher Alex Avila hit the disabled list with a strained hamstring. He went on to post 0.2 fWAR over 34 games through the remainder of that season and entered 2017 in a timeshare behind the plate with Kevan Smith. Following the acquisition of Welington Castillo last offseason, Narváez was slated for backup duties in 2018 until a Castillo PED suspension thrust him back into a starting role as he went on to lead the team in appearances at the catcher position with 97 games.
With four years of team control remaining (through 2022), Narváez will earn the league minimum this season before entering his first year of arbitration in 2020. In regards to age, career path, and controllability, he’s essentially the catcher version of Mitch Haniger. With the team apparently targeting the 2020-2021 window to compete, big ups to the front office no getting the catcher of the (relatively close) future on board now to start developing rapport with what figures to be the young stable of arms that’ll carry Seattle to their next playoff berth.
Also, he can clearly enjoy himself on a non-contending team.
Welcome to Seattle, Omar! May you go on to accumulate more value than the last fun Venezuelan Omar to come through Seattle. Dealing Colomé, who had two years remaining under team control, saves a bit of cash, and also raises questions about what the back end of the bullpen will look like in 2019. The team won’t be trying to compete, but someone will have to pitch, so there could be a number of fresh faces finishing games.