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Trade deadline upgrades for the Mariners: backup catchers

Back up the Beef Boy and free our souls

MLB: JUL 12 Pirates at Marlins Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Especially now that Andrew Benintendi has been traded, the floodgates on trade season are about to burst open this weekend. According to every major source, the Mariners are in active discussions to upgrade. So far, we’ve looked at possible options for the Mariners at second base and starting pitcher as well as a special piece on a possible Soto deal. Today, we turn to backup catcher. With the Mets, Rays, Guardians, Astros, and Cardinals all at least poking around at the position, competition for help could be fierce. As with our other installments, we’ll split this up into two groups: short-term help and those who could contribute in 2023 and beyond.

How it stands:

Thank goodness for the All-Star Break, huh? Starting on June 16, Cal Raleigh appeared in 28 of 29 games heading into the break, including starting at catcher in 24 of those games. Since the break? He’s started at catcher in three of the four games, and pinch-hit and caught an inning in the fourth. In fairness to the Mariners management, Cal’s play has made it impossible to take him out of the lineup. But catching is an absolute grind, and he needs some more days off or they risk turning him into Ground Beef Boy.

With Tom Murphy out for the year with a torn labrum, the Mariners have gone to Luis Torrens when they’ve deigned to use a backup catcher. But as much as the Lookout Landing staff loves Torrens, he’s been as bad as Cal has been good, with a 49 wRC+ and merely acceptable defense. The other internal option is Brian O’Keefe, a career minor leaguer whose .275/.353/.527 line in Tacoma looks good until you remember it’s the Pacific Coast League, and that only translates to a 114 wRC+. Still, while that and his defense would be a clear upgrade over Torrens, LT is out of options, so the Mariners can’t swap the two without exposing Torrens to waivers. Of course, the fact that Torrens would almost certainly be claimed on waivers reflects the fact that maybe another team could use him more and he could make a useful trade piece. But then, maybe other teams would want Torrens because the other available options at catcher are slim pickins.

Willson Contreras and Sean Murphy lead the market, but are first division starters and way too expensive for Seattle, when the team has other, more pressing needs. Most of the other available catchers aren’t upgrades over Luis Torrens. Are you seriously interested in the walking corpse of Kurt Suzuki? So the list here is short.

Short-term help:

Tucker Barnhart, DET

Who put this list together? We’re supposed to be looking for upgrades, and Tucker Barnhart’s 2022 line is very much not that. With a .242 slugging percentage, Barnhart may be a Tiger, but he’s of the paper variety. Looking back at the rest of his career, though, he’s always been good for roughly 30 extra base hits a season, and while his statcast metrics are down, it’s not like they’ve fallen off a cliff. So you’re taking a chance that Barnhart reverts to form. At least he’s a solid bet to be a meaningful defensive upgrade over Torrens. But if this is the plan, then lord help us if Cal gets hurt. What Barnhart does have going for him is that he’d be cheap. With just two months left on his deal and Barnhart having a down year, I can’t even think of an example of the type of prospect it would take to get a deal done because I don’t know the names of the prospects that far down the list. -ZM

Pros: Could be had for a song
Cons: You would prefer the song

An eye to the future:

Eric Haase, DET

It’s a real indictment of the state of available catchers that 29-nearly-30-year-old Eric Haase is in the “eye to the future” section. I suppose if you’re going based off of team control, he certainly fits the bill—arb eligible in 2024, not a free agent until 2027. Haase, with his current 107 wRC+ and .241/.300/.437 line is certainly the superior Detroit catcher, but again, see the first 10 words of this paragraph. Torrens’ horrific season makes it easy to find ways for most any alternative to appear appealing. Haase would be a perfectly adequate replacement who likely wouldn’t cost a substantial amount of prospect capital for Seattle to acquire. -IM

Pros: Low cost, decent bat, would prevent Haase from hitting against Seattle later this year
Cons: Defensively deficient, more of a hitter who catches than a catcher

Tres Barrera, WAS

Do not look at Barrera’s numbers for this year. No! I forbid it. Instead I would like you to harken back to 2021, the last time Tres got more plate appearances than his name (I kid. He has 19 this year), when he was an above league-average backstop with a wRC+ of 106. Barrera’s plate discipline numbers suggest he could return to that form, but he won’t have a great chance to do that while behind Keibert Ruiz, the headliner of the blockbuster Scherzer/Trea Turner trade last season and presumptive building block of the next great Nationals team. If the Mariners are serious about giving young Cal Raleigh a legitimate break, they could do worse than Barrera, and there’s not much lower you can buy than on a guy with a -33 wRC+. A change of coast could also be good for Barrera, who had a rough 2020 in the Washington system, to say the least, and Washington’s worst-in-baseball farm system could receive a moderate upgrade from some lower-tier Seattle prospects who would immediately slot in as mid-tier prospects for the Nationals, who seem physically incapable of developing homegrown pitching. It’s not as much fun as theorizing a Soto trade, I’ll give you that, but we’re talking backup catchers here, the unsexiest of the unsexy [ducks from Connor]. -KP

Pros: Youth enough to improve and a bit more upside
Cons: Lacks much track record whatsoever at the big league level

Jacob Stallings, MIA

Did you like what Kate wrote about Barrera, but feel it was a little too on the nose for the Mariners to make a “buy” trade at the deadline for someone with a negative wRC+ amidst their best shot at breaking the playoff drought in years? Allow me to point you to Miami Marlins backstop Jacob Stallings, who may be a near-complete unknown for most fans pending their attention to the Pittsburgh Pirates of the past half decade. Never an offensive juggernaut, Stallings has a career 80 wRC+ that he’s barely running over half of this year, with a .195/.257/.240 line this year prior to Thursday’s games that may remind folks of the wrong part of the 00s behind the dish. What’s more perplexing has been the 32-year-old’s sudden cratering in framing metrics. It’s arguable that learning a new, fireballing retinue in Miami has proven too challenging for Stallings to ace after half a decade of continuity in Pittsburgh. In his first year of arbitration, Seattle could retain Stallings for fairly low cost next year if he rebounds or non-tender him just as easily. Cost shouldn’t be significant, and the promise of a defensively stalwart baseline behind Cal Raleigh with a bit more track of success than Torrens has its appeals. -JT

Pros: Years of control and defensive upside
Cons: In midst of miserable season, currently been one of worst players in baseball

Carson Kelly, ARI

If Carson Kelly’s name rings a bell in your head, congratulations! You were really paying attention during the 2019 off-season. Kelly, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals originally as a third baseman, was part of the Diamondbacks’ return for Paul Goldschmidt. He’s been inconsistent at the major league level since then, with a solid 2019, rough 2020 and good 2021. This year he’s on pace for a somewhat disappointing 0.7 fWAR, but would represent a decent upgrade over Torrens and still has intriguing upside. A former second round draft pick and highly-ranked in the Cardinals and Diamondbacks’ systems, Kelly also fits in nicely with Seattle’s penchant for acquiring and rehabilitating—to various degrees of success—erstwhile top prospects. He’s a PNW local, raised in Beaverton, Oregon, and based on quotes about his approach and preparation could be a particularly good fit for the Mariners’ clubhouse. Kelly’s a bit of an odd man out in Arizona currently, with beautiful weirdo Daulton Varsho taking most of his reps at catcher and alarmingly handsome Alek Thomas having an unexpectedly strong rookie season. Both Varsho and Thomas are core components of the Diamondbacks’ future, which makes it particularly unlikely for them to lose out on playing time in favor of 28-year-old Kelly. Cost for Kelly is likely highest among this conservative group of hypothetical backup backstops, but I could certainly see a decent fit in Seattle offering up Torrens and an interesting arm. -IM

Pros: Strong RHH platoon partner for Raleigh w/ ties to the region and seeming culture fit
Cons: Subpar offensive numbers in 2022 despite far friendlier hitting confines than Seattle

What will probably happen

Look, we can all recognize that Raleigh needs a break behind the plate as we get into the dog days of summer. The Mariners are riding him hard and they’re not willing to give Torrens a bigger role as backup because he’s been so bad this year. Unless they’re willing to go out and get a Contreras or Murphy (which they shouldn’t!), the remaining backup catching options on the market are extremely lackluster. They’d be competing with a number of other contending teams looking to supplement their catching corps for a marginal upgrade at a non-essential position.

And even if Seattle went out and found a better backup catching option, it’s hard to see them changing the way they’re using Raleigh anyway. They’re obviously committed to him as the catcher of the future, and want him leading the pitching staff down the stretch. They’ve got their guy in Cal, he’s finally made the adjustments necessary to succeed in the majors, and they’re riding him as a result. Swapping in a new backup catcher isn’t going to change things all that much. Spend that prospect capital upgrading somewhere else on the roster. -JM