Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais headed for Arizona early this year. A few weeks ago he said he traveled there to meet his new catcher, soon-to-be 27-year-old Omar Narvaez.
Servais was as staunch a supporter of his former catcher, Mike Zunino, as anyone in the Mariners organization. As a former big-league catcher Servais knew that despite Zunino’s agonizing trips to the batter’s box that the former third-overall pick made up for it with his presence and abilities behind the plate.
Narvaez? His skillset is almost opposite. He controls the strike zone at the plate, but not so much behind it.
“We traded a lot of good players away, Mike being one of them,” Servais said. “He was a guy that I was very close to. When a veteran catcher... goes out the door there’s always a little bit of uncertainty.”
Hence, Servais’ trip to Arizona. He needed to get some of the uncertainty out of the way.
“Just getting to talk to him, understanding his makeup, how he’s wired, his ability to communicate, the work ethic – I feel really good about it,” Servais said about his meeting with Narvaez. “He’s got some things to work on. A lot of players do. That’s why we get paid to coach. But I’m excited about bringing him into the mix, and he’s excited about being here.”
It feels clear that the Mariners’ next catcher is going to be a much different experience than what they experienced with Zunino up and down with the big-league club for the past six years.
The Mariners dealt Zunino, who was selected as the Wilson defensive catcher of the year in 2018, with outfielder Guillermo Heredia and pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer to the Tampa Bay Rays as the first domino of what would be an onslaught of trades this offseason to reshape the roster.
Shortly after that the Mariners acquired Narvaez from the White Sox in a trade that sent right-hander Alex Colome to Chicago.
What attracted them was Narvaez’s on-base percentage and his club control. He won’t be a free agent until 2023.
The Mariners also had Narvaez working with Tony Arnerich, their organizational catching coordinator in Peoria last month just to work on the nuances of pitch framing. They feel they can improve Narvaez’s catching skills while enjoying his offensive production, too.
Zunino had the fourth-lowest on-base percentage (.259) among catchers who played in at least 75 games this past season, while Narvaez had the second-highest OBP (.366) just behind the Pirates’ Francisco Cervelli and ahead of the Giants’ Buster Posey.
Narvaez also had the fifth-highest batting average (.275) just behind the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto (.277). Compare that to Zunino, who surged late to finish with a .201 average.
Narvaez has been an on-base threat at every level he’s played, which is why the control-the-zone Mariners fell in love. He’s everything the Mariners always longed Zunino would be, in that regard.
Except Zunino hit 20 home runs after 25 in what seemed like a breakthrough 2017. Narvaez has 12 homers – for his career. MLB tracks average exit velocities on balls hit and Zunino’s bat has tracked at more than 2 mph above league average the past three years (89.8). Narvaez has an average exit velo more than 3 mph below league average (84.1).
And what Narvaez packs in OBP, he has lacked in his reputation for pitch framing and defense.
“We understand where his strength is and that’s it – he gets on base,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We also understand where his weakness is. Omar has a strong throwing arm, he’s been above the league average in controlling the run game, but he has not excelled in pitch framing. That’s something we feel like we can help him with.”
Dipoto said that so far Narvaez is a willing learner.
“We might not turn him into a superstar receiver,” Dipoto said, “but he has aptitude. He wants to do it and if (last month was) any indication, he’s a quick learner.”
It’s such a different approach than what the Mariners had leveled into Zunino’s development. But the reason Zunino was their go-to backstop despite a batting average that flirted with the Mendoza line was that the Mariners saw what box scores didn’t. They saw his pitch framing, chemistry with their pitching staff, defensive prowess and a few tough breaks away from being a monster at the plate.
“I don’t get why people say we’d walk away from him,” Servais said in September. “It’s never going to happen.”
Turns out, that decision wasn’t completely up to Servais.
So now begins the learning curve of bringing Narvaez up to speed defensively. Servais said he wanted to impart just a couple things for Narvaez to initially work on this offseason before pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training on Monday.
“I think we’ve introduced some things to him that he has not been exposed to before,” Servais said. “We’ll see how he reacts to it.”
There’s also the matter of an entirely new pitching staff for Narvaez to learn, though he said he’s always looked forward to being able to catch for Felix Hernandez. And Narvaez certainly won’t be the only young player on these re-imagined Mariners with things to work on.
“I just want to get my body in better shape,” Narvaez said just after learning he was traded. “And I’m still working on my framing and my skill work behind the plate. For me, every year is new for me, so every day I’m still trying to learn something new and I have a really open mind. I’m going to try to do everything I can.”
He said he didn’t even start playing catcher until he was 14 growing up in Venezuela. He was an infielder, but he followed in the steps of his five uncles.
“My only chance to make pro ball was to catch,” Narvaez said. “So we made the transition and I’ve been playing catcher ever since.”
The Mariners’ only other catcher on the 40-man roster is David Freitas, who began last year with Triple-A Tacoma. But don’t be surprised to see 22-year-old Cal Raleigh rising through the farm system quickly if his development continues the way it is.
Raleigh, a switch hitter, was a last-second signing when the Mariners drafted him in the third round in June out of Florida State. He began his professional career by hitting .288/.367/.534 with eight home runs and 10 doubles in 38 games for short-season Single-A Everett. The Mariners gave him an invite to big-league camp this spring.
But he’s still likely another year or two away. So Narvaez has the chance to be the Mariners’ catcher for at least the short-term, with the opportunity to become the long-term option they’ve craved.
WHO’S IN CAMP? (2 on 40-man roster)
Bats left, throws right, 6 feet, 220 pounds. Age 26
He more than filled in for the White Sox last year when Welington Castillo served an 80-game drug suspension. In 97 games, the 26-year-old slashed .275/.366/.429 with nine HRs and presents a significant offensive upgrade over Mike Zunino. Question is, will he come close to Zunino’s defensive contributions?
R-R, 6-2, 240. Age 29
It was a big 2018 for Freitas in terms of getting his first significant taste of the big leagues, even if he was shuffling between Seattle and Tacoma faster than the Sounder train. Also hit his first and so far only big-league home run. He’s one of the few returning from last year’s 40-man and that’s because of his plus defense.
Joe DeCarlo (R-R, 6-0, 205) – Played shortstop in high school, then third base after Mariners picked him in second round in 2012. Converted to catcher in 2017 and reached Double-A Arkansas last year.
Jose Lobaton (S-R, 6-0, 215) – Nine-year big-league veteran appeared in 22 games with the Mets last year. 34-year-old spent most of last year with Triple-A Las Vegas (.348/.430/.598, 8 HRs).
Dean Nevarez (R-R, 6-0, 220) – Mariners drafted him in the 18th round this past year out of San Diego State. The 22-year-old from Tijuana, Mexico, hit .237/.352/.336 in the Arizona Rookie League.
Austin Nola (R-R, 6-0, 195) – Brother is Phillies ace Aaron Nola. Austin can play catcher as well as anywhere else in the infield. Spent last season with Triple-A New Orleans, hitting .279/.370/.376.
Cal Raleigh (S-R, 6-3, 215) – Almost returned to Florida State for his senior year before signing. In his pro debut he soared up Seattle’s prospect rankings, hitting .288/.367/.534 with eight HRs and 10 doubles for short-season Single-A Everett. Father and uncle are both former big-leaguers.