Free agent candidates to back up Cal Raleigh
With Tom Murphy heading to free agency, the Mariners need to find a backup catcher this offseason.
Since the end of the regular season, we’ve discussed various groups of hitters capable of helping transform the Mariners’ lineup. To date, we’ve mulled over trade targets, free agent candidates, and options to upgrade the bench. Let’s put a bow on our extended conversation with a chat about potential choices to fill Seattle’s vacant backup catcher spot.
As has been the case in the previous segments of this series, my search criteria focused on three elements. The strikeout rate, hard-hit rate (HH%), and batting average against breaking balls (AVG vs BB) of potential candidates. The basis for using these metrics - generate more batted balls in 2024.
Mitch Garver, C/DH - Free agent
Selling points: Garver’s career 123 OPS+ signals he’s been an above-average run producer during seven big-league seasons. This year, the University of New Mexico alum’s OPS+ was second best on the Rangers behind World Series MVP Corey Seager (170). Among Texas hitters, only Seager (6.2%) and Adolis García (6.2%) had a higher home run rate than Garver (5.5%).
The right-handed hitting Garver played twice as many games at designated hitter (57) than catcher (28) this season. When he did don the tools of ignorance behind the plate, Statcast rated his defensive value as average-ish.
Garver reached the postseason with the Twins in 2019 and 2020. This year, he helped Texas win the ultimate prize. His .226 AVG and .305 OBP in the playoffs may not impress some fans. But true to form, the New Mexico native hit a home run in the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series, which equates to a 5% home run rate over 60 plate appearances.
Potential concerns: Availability has been a challenge for Garver. This year, he missed over 50 days with a knee injury. In 2022, an arm issue cost him over three months of playing time. In fact, the 32-year-old’s career-high for games played in a season is 102 in 2018.
Victor Caratini, C - Free agent
Selling points: The switch-hitter wasn’t nearly as productive at the plate as Garver. But it’s important to recognize that catchers deliver the least amount of offense of any non-pitcher position in MLB. The league-average slash-line for backstops was a .236 AVG/.303 OBP/.394 SLG.
Statcast ranked Caratini’s framing skills as tenth-best among 63 qualified receivers. Furthermore, he’s made 25 starts at first base during seven big-league seasons. It’s important to note he made one first base start in 2023 with Milwaukee. The rest were between 2017 and 2019 with the Cubs.
Potential concerns: Even though Caratini had a hard-rate well above the league-average mark in 2023, his 5% barrel rate was slightly below-average. This may be attributable to a 52.8% ground ball rate that ranked 30th among 343 hitters with at least 150 batted balls.
Statcast rated the 30-year-old as below-average at blocking and throwing out runners this year.
Yan Gomes, C - Free Agent
Selling points: The right-handed hitting Gomes was average-ish when compared to the entire league. But his .723 OPS was much higher than the league-average (.697) for catchers.
Gomes has played in five postseasons. The native of Sao Paulo, Brazil also appeared in two Fall Classics with Cleveland and Washington earning a ring with the latter in 2019.
Potential concerns: Gomes was available for most of the 2023 campaign except for the eight days he was sidelined with a concussion. That said; the 36-year-old did miss about three weeks in both 2021 and 2022 with an oblique strain. Considering his age and recent injury challenges, expecting him to sub for a starting backstop for an extended period may be a big ask.
Tom Murphy, C - Free agent
Selling points: The Buffalo alum has seemingly cracked the code of T-Mobile Park. Since coming to the Emerald City in 2019, he boasts a .837 OPS at Seattle’s home field (.732 on the road). In fact, Murphy’s home OPS is fifth-best among any Mariner with 400-plus plate appearances at the park at the corner of Edgar & Dave.
Highest Mariner OPS at T-Mobile Park (400 PA min)
Álex Rodríguez - .896
Ken Griffey Jr. - .895
Edgar Martinez - .879
Nelson Cruz - .865
Tom Murphy - .837
Seth Smith - .835
Julio Rodríguez - .830
Bret Boone - .823
Robinson Canó - .815
Raúl Ibañez - .814
Murphy’s .300 AVG against breaking balls this season tied for 19th-best among hitters seeing 150-plus breaking balls.
Granted, the 191 breaking pitches Murphy saw was a relatively small sample - Cal Raleigh saw 619 such offerings. Still, the right-handed hitter’s success against sliders, sweepers, and curveballs is noteworthy considering Seattle’s .206 AVG versus this pitch group ranked 25th.
Potential concerns: While Raleigh’s fielding run value of seven was seventh-best among 71 catchers with 200-plus innings, Murphy (-6) ranked sixty-third.
Although each injury he’s suffered has been unique, Murphy does appear to be snake-bit since joining the Mariners. This year, a thumb sprain ended his season in mid-August. In 2022, a dislocated shoulder cost him the final five months of the season. A fractured bone in his foot led to him missing the entire truncated 2020 campaign.
To me, adding an accomplished catcher behind Raleigh this offseason is crucial to the Mariners being competitive heading into next season.
Garver’s long-term success with his bat makes him a very attractive option for a club looking for a backup catcher who is also skillful enough to serve as its designated hitter. That said; his injury history is a bit unsettling.
Caratini and Gomes are competent backup catchers capable of covering the number-one spot for a few weeks. This is a good thing. However, they may not be ideal candidates to serve as the starting catcher of a contender for a prolonged period when the number-one guy is on the IL.
Yes, Murphy’s strikeout rate is high. But he’s a known quantity to the Mariners organization. If management feels comfortable with bringing him back, retaining the New Yorker makes a lot of sense. At least it does to me. This assumes Murphy is interested in returning to Seattle.
I’ll leave you with this thought. Raleigh logged the second-most innings of any backstop this year; his value to Seattle’s lineup and pitching staff is undeniable. But if the Florida State alum landed on the IL, having someone capable of filling in for a long period could save a season for the Mariners.
My Oh My…
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