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40 in 40: Cooper Hummel is coming home

The PNW native brings intriguing positional flexibility, and could make an impact off the bench

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In between spicier moves like trading for Teoscar Hernández from their slain Wild Card foe, signing Trevor Gott, and acquiring Kolten Wong from the Brewers, the Mariners made a smaller swap on November 17th, sending former Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis to Arizona. Though Lewis climbed back to the bigs amid another injury-wracked year - bashing a homer off of Justin Verlander in the process - it was clear his agility was nowhere near his scintillating 2020, and a bad slump in the second half led to his optioning to Tacoma, where he finished the season and didn’t see the playoffs - a big bummer for a player who many thought would be a key part of ending the drought. I, for one, will root for K-Lew no matter where he winds up, and the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field could help him regain some of that former magic.

Despite these sad feelings, the return caught my eye. In the one-for-one swap, Seattle got back Cooper Hummel, who broke into the big leagues in 2022 at age 27. Drafted by Milwaukee as an 18th-rounder in 2016, the switch-hitter steadily climbed through their farm, and never posted lower than a 117 wRC+ at any stop other than first 35 pro games in Rookie ball - all while being around in line with the average age of every level. He broke into the minor leagues as a catcher, but took up an outfielder’s glove in 2018, and didn’t spend a single game behind the dish in 2019 with Double-A Biloxi.

After COVID claimed the minor league season in 2020, he opened 2021 in Triple-A Nashville, where he continued to rake over 46 games and putting up a walk rate of nearly 25% (!!!), and was traded to the D’Backs near the deadline alongside minor league utility man Alberto Ciprian for Eduardo Escobar, cracking their Opening Day roster last year. It’s impossible for me to see this career arc and not think about Mitch Haniger just a little bit - Mitch debuted a bit younger and was a first-round pick while Hummel’s minor league numbers were a little gaudier, but both players were drafted by Milwaukee, traded to Arizona, then shipped to Seattle.

Unfortunately, while Haniger’s debut got off to a decent start before exploding with the M’s in 2017, Hummel’s first taste of big league action didn’t go so great. While he got his first big league homer out of the way in his fourth career game, he slashed just .171/.282/.295 in 149 trips to the plate across 49 games through the first half of the season, and paired a 65 wRC+ with a K-rate north of 30% - though the walk rate was well into double-digits if you’re looking for silver linings. Used mostly as a left fielder or DH, he was optioned back to Reno on July 11th, but did come back a month later, and finished the year on the big league roster.

Hummel’s second stint in MLB wasn’t much better at the plate: the sturdy walk rate evaporated over 52 plate appearances, but he did notch more extra-base hits than singles (four doubles and a dinger). The thing that was different this time around, though, was that he was exclusively used behind the plate across his fourteen starts, save for a couple pinch-hitting appearances. He had caught a handful of games with both Nashville and Reno, but this stretch of appearances was the most time he spent catching since he was in High-A. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hummel’s defense didn’t wow. His framing left something to be desired, he let nine wild pitches get by him in just 118.1 innings, and he surrendered seven stolen bases without thwarting anybody. Yikes!

There’s some hope here, however - from his time in the outfield, Statcast ranked him in the 92nd percentile in arm strength, easily the best defensive tool he showed. In a short stint in the AFL, he once again worked solely at catcher, and figures to continue that transition back in the spring and beyond. With proper footwork and improvement on an average pop time, we could see that big arm come into play more often. He also saw a couple plays at the plate, like this relay to hold onto a tie against Milwaukee, and he does everything right here.

Obviously, Hummel has some obstacles to clear before seeing any significant time catching with the M’s. Cal Raleigh ran away with the starting job last year and should be entrenched there for at least the next few seasons, and Tom Murphy is slotted in as the backup after recovering from shoulder surgery. The Mariners’ front office has spoken highly of him lately, though, with Jerry Dipoto hinting that he could see some time at DH. Hummel does have a pair of minor league options remaining, and with him and Taylor Trammell set to duke it out for the last bench spot this spring, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him begin the year in Tacoma to continue improving his work behind the plate.

Despite often being forgotten when recapping the Mariners’ offseason so far, there’s enough Cooper Hummel brings to be worth keeping an eye on. He’s done nothing but hit all through the minors - his maximum exit velocity of just a hair under 111 MPH was also good for the 71st percentile in MLB - and any time a catcher can play a position other than first base, it’s ripe for intrigue. Hummel also grew up in the Pacific Northwest: born and raised in the Portland area, he was drafted out of the University of Portland, and the M’s were his favorite team growing up. He, like all of us, was certainly stoked nearly a decade ago.

Hummel may not make an immediate splash with his hometown team, but he should get his chances to show off his strong plate discipline and budding game power over the course of the long season. And hey, it’s almost always a lot easier to root for the local kid.