News of catcher Tom Murphy hitting the IL with a fracture in his foot was seemingly soft-pedaled by most of the Seattle media and Jerry Dipoto himself, who categorized Murphy’s metacarpal fracture as “small.” But anyone who has ever dealt with a fractured fifth metacarpal—shoutout to all our ballet dancers out there—knows that even a small bone can cause big problems. In about an hour of highly scientific Web MD research, I saw a lot of timelines for a fractured metacarpal, ranging from “uh-oh” to “oh no,” and while the injury isn’t expected to keep Murphy out for “an extended period”, per Greg Johns, mentally bracing for the worst is in a Mariner fan’s DNA. So let’s examine some scenarios:
UPDATE, 4:30 PM: The team has announced, not half an hour after this article was published, that LHP Taylor Guilbeau has been optioned to Tacoma (although will remain on the taxi squad), and Joe Odom selected to the active roster. So basically the two are just swapping places for now. It’s been a wild month for Odom, who wasn’t even selected to be part of the initial player pool and instead was working out in his backyard less than a week ago. Now he’s on the precipice of making his major league debut, after years of grinding through the minors behind the plate. Way to go, Joe. So: Option Two is the winner here.
Option One: Do nothing
Ah the old tried-and-true-to-the-blue. In the wake of Murphy’s injury, Austin Nola was handed the starting catcher gig, and so far—by the eye test, at least—has looked pretty good back there. Nola might not have the strongest arm but he’s a good receiver who knows the staff, and more importantly, doesn’t represent much of an offensive fall-off from Tom Strongman Murphy, assuming of course that his bat still carries remnants of the magic fairy dust it was coated with last year. Of course, going from Nola as a backup to Joe Hudson is a steeper fall-off, and we already saw Nola taxed in the Houston series when he was inserted as an offensive replacement on his day off in the Mariners’ lone victory. Hudson seemingly got the nod over fellow Rule 5 claimee Brian O’Keefe, who got a lot of looks in camp, due to the former’s MLB experience. Arkansas catcher Joe Odom, an excellent defensive catcher and favorite of the pitching staff, was a last-minute addition to the taxi squad despite not being in camp this summer, but most likely won’t see any major league time.
This option makes sense if Murphy’s injury a) isn’t that serious; and b) responds well to treatment. Since we don’t have clarification on either of those two fronts, this is the black-boxiest of all the scenarios. It might be fine! It might also not be fine.
Option Two: iPod Shuffle the backups
This is a likely scenario if Murphy is out long enough and Nola is worn down enough that his production suffers, and Hudson can’t catch up with MLB pitching. Odom is likely a poorer hitter than Hudson but is an Iron Man who would provide excellent defense and an ability to control the running game, and it’s possible the Mariners would punt on his spot in the lineup in order to get excellent defense for their young pitching staff wire-to-wire. O’Keefe is a bit of a wild card; from limited looks I think he’s a better receiver than Hudson, and probably a better hitter than Odom, but how much better to not go for premium defense?
Option Three: Put on your Cal Raleigh caps
The least likely of all the proposed scenarios, as in a near-impossibility being listed here just for argument’s sake. The Mariners’ prized pitching prospect showed some flashes of his immense raw power in camp, just missing several long home runs, but the bat isn’t even Triple-A ready, let alone MLB-ready. After lighting up the Cal League, Raleigh ran into a buzzsaw at Arkansas, although one opposing player I spoke with (who is also a catcher) lauded praise on Raleigh, saying he thinks he can stick at the position, moving well and receiving very well, and chalking up his struggles at the plate to trying to do too much but sees the potential in the bat. Raleigh will hang with good buddies Logan Gilbert and Joey Gerber on the taxi squad and return next year to lay waste to the Texas League.
Option Four: Add some seasoning
With the recent round of DFAs there are a few veteran backstops out there who could probably perform mostly adequately in a back-up role and maybe even take on a little extra for Nola, who only caught 38.2 innings last year. However, catchers are also at a premium right now, with lots of arms in alternate training sites that need to be stretched out, plus the requirement that at least one member of the taxi squad needs to be a catcher. That has led to teams signing former Mariner legends like Chris Iannetta, Chris Herrmann, and Rob Brantly (who was recently released by the Giants to make room for Chadwick Tromp, so he’s out there at least). Speaking of former Mariner legends, Jesus Sucre is still out there somewhere, and while I’m pulling for a reunion with him for purely sentimental reasons, there’s definitely a feeling here like senior year when everyone has already dated everyone else and it’s just time to graduate and find a new pool already.
Other than that, outside of trading for someone (there’s speculation the Red Sox might make Jonathan Lucroy available to a team, for example), which, no thanks, the big (only) name that remains is Russell Martin. Martin is 37, an absolute Methuselah in the world of baseball, but remains a very good framer who takes his walks and basically does everything you’d want a backup catcher to do. After a storied career, however, will Martin rouse himself from semi-retirement to enter the petri dish of baseball in 2020? And would he do so in order to be a backup catcher? And even if he did, would he do so for the Seattle Mariners? Feels like doubtful and doubtful-ler.
The Mariners will likely stand pat and await Murphy’s return. Hopefully Jerry wasn’t using Dipoto-speak when he described Murphy’s injury as small. Murphy was a bright spot on a pretty rough 2019 team and for whatever reason seems to be involved in some of the team’s goofiest moments (catchers? is the reason just catchers?), whether it’s cartwheeling in the dugout or his hauntingly weird Jumbotron avatars (looking at you, Tom Maul and also remember bucket hat/dead eyes Murphy?). Get well soon, Murph.