Last year, the Brewers benefited from Yasmani Grandal’s pillow contract of one year and $16 million, getting one of the best hitting and framing catchers in baseball who was worth 6.1 WAR per Baseball Prospectus. Perhaps Brewers’ fans should complain that the team declined to do better than the four-year, $73 million deal that the White Sox handed to Grandal, which is a steal for that caliber of catcher, but they did well in finding a replacement.
Jerry Dipoto could not stay quiet any longer this offseason, trading Omar Narváez to Milwaukee in exchange for prospect Adam Hill and a Competitive Balance draft pick. The pick is the 71st overall pick and comes with the slot value associated to it. Just in case there is any confusion, regular draft picks are not tradeable (unfortunately), but Competitive Balance picks are.
Narváez is the quintessential offensive catcher. Over the past two seasons, he hit .277/.358/.448, and his 120 wRC+ ranks third among catchers over that span with at least 400 PA. Conversely, he is one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball. Among catchers in that same span, his -33 DRS is by far the worst, eight runs worse than the runner-up Jonathan Lucroy. DRS does not factor in framing, but he can’t do that either. FanGraphs has him at -20.4 framing runs since last year, with only Willson Contreras doing worse.
Let’s be blunt: Narváez is terrible at the everything a catcher does that is measurable. We have already covered the framing, but he is also one of the worst pitch blockers in baseball. According to Baseball Prospectus, he cost the Mariners about nine runs solely through his inability to block pitchers! That’s almost one win! He is not any better controlling the run game, either. Last season he threw out only 18 percent of the 54 stolen base attempts. Just as with his blocking runs, Narváez rated as one of the worst catchers in baseball by throwing runs. I imagine that pitchers must hate throwing to him.
Despite Narváez’s horrific defense, having one of the best hitting catchers in baseball is valuable. He was worth ~2 WAR at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus last season (bWAR does not factor in framing, but coincidentally still has him at 2.1 WAR). Furthermore, he is going into his age-28 season and still has three years left on his rookie contract, yet it all it took to acquire him was a comp pick and a pitching prospect that might end up as a reliever. The Mariners should have had tons of leverage, too, considering they did not have to rush and that the Brewers had a gaping hole at catcher.
There are multiple reasons why Narváez did not get more back in the trade. For one, the industry believed that Dipoto was eager to trade him, and he was far from the only viable option available. There are no options to replace Grandal’s level of production, but there are decent options in free agency that can be had for only money, and likely not much money at that. Russell Martin, Jason Castro, Robinson Chirinos, and Martín Maldonado are all available. Chirinos, for one, can hit almost as well as Narváez, and he can do so while being a competent defensive catcher outside of pitch-framing, with the drawback being that he is 35 years old.
Narváez has some red flags attached to him, too. He used to have excellent plate discipline, and it is still quite good, but his walk rate went down two percentage points this year. He was more aggressive with pitches in the zone, which is good, but his swing rate on pitches outside the zone went up by almost 20 percent. He never hit for much power, either, until the 2019 season, where his 22 HR look like a product of the juiced ball. If the ball turns back to normal in 2020 and Narváez keeps pressing at the plate, his offense is going to drop to the point where he might not be any better as an overall catcher than Brewers’ back-up Manny Piña.
This is a disappointing return for the Mariners, but given everything laid out here, I am not sure how much better they could have done. They could have waited through the 2020 trade deadline, but Narváez is risky enough that his stock might drop by then. As for the Brewers, this is a fair amount of risk in this move, but the price was pretty low. That being said, the team should be concerned that their pitchers might hate throwing to him.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.