M’s Rid Themselves of League Average MLB Player

marc w · December 5, 2019 at 10:35 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The fact that Omar Narvaez was traded today is perhaps not the biggest surprise of the off-season. With the emergence of Tom Murphy, with Cal Raleigh on his way, and with Austin Nola hitting better than expected, the M’s had signaled that Omar Narvaez was available if a deal could be struck. Today, the M’s consummated a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, sending Narvaez east in exchange for a low-level sort-of-prospect and a competitive balance pick in next year’s draft, likely around pick 71 or so. I find this troubling, but many in M’s land seem pretty chuffed about it, and I thought I’d try to lay out where I’m coming from , because reading the reaction to the deal, I feel I may be sort of crazy. You perhaps have known about my infirmities for a while, but allow me to make my case.

Here goes: the M’s say they’re trying to compete in 2021, and today they shipped out a catcher who hit .278/.353/.460 last year and everyone who likes the deal is raving not about the actual ballplayer they got back, but about the 70-odd pick in next year’s draft. That seems crazy. The huge, unmissable caveat here is that Narvaez’s defense laid waste to so much of that offensive and positional value. That’s absolutely true, and we should account for it, as WAR does. Fangraphs had him as just under 2 WAR in a bit less than full-time duty. At BaseballProspectus, he was slightly over 2, but both absolutely hated his defense – BP just liked the bat a bit more. I want to stress: both sites thought he was abysmal defensively, and that is *included* in his 2-ish WAR numbers, which were similar to his numbers in 2018, his final year with the White Sox (adjusted for playing time). How would you value a roughly averagish, maybe lower, maybe higher depending on your view on how teachable C defense is?

I think reasonable people – and reasonable teams – can differ on that question. But I’ve been absolutely floored to see M’s fans thinking that a 70-ish draft pick is decent compensation for an above-average MLB hitter and average-ish ballplayer all around. What are the odds that the #70 draft pick, or a team’s 15th or 12th or 18th or whatever rated prospects becomes a league-average MLB player? The answer is substantially lower than 1/2, probably less than 1/4, right? But beyond that, the M’s, as opposed to other teams, have clearly set their sites on contention in 2021. So, to be blunt, how on earth does trading away a productive major league player right now, today, in exchange for a draft pick in the 2020 draft help further that goal?

Corey Brock at the Athletic has an answer: it’s addition by subtraction. To be very clear here, I love Corey’s work and remember following him way back from his News Tribune days. I don’t dislike his article, I just dislike the reasoning the M’s are evidently giving for it. There are a couple of related points Brock works through, but I encourage you to read it in full ($). First, the M’s evidently prioritize defense at the catcher spot. Second, the M’s need for defense has never been more pressing with the wave of young pitching prospects coming to Seattle.

On the first claim, let’s remember that we’re a bit under 13 months from the M’s willingly trading Mike Zunino for Mallex Smith, and then trading Alex Colome for Narvaez. The M’s had great defense and some question-marks on offense, and decided to fling the ol’ pendulum all the way over to “fuck it” and picked up a catcher who was an outright bad defender, but seemed to break out at the plate. Now, we’re told that the organization’s focus is on catcher defense? If the org really values stealing strikes, they…they had that, and a bit over a year ago decided they wanted its opposite. I don’t completely hate the reasoning here, but I have to point out that what “the organization values from its catchers” seems kinda variable.

The second claim – that the prospects coming up need help from favorable catchers – seems reasonable as well. I would point out that the presence of Narvaez didn’t stop the M’s from bringing up Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and a cavalcade of RP prospects, waiver-claims, and anyone else the M’s could find. If Narvaez can’t be on the same field as an M’s pitching prospect, this seems to be a new-found conviction. It’s clearly felt, though – as Brock writes in that Athletic piece: “Seattle couldn’t take the chance on keeping Narváez, not because some feel his bat will regress moving forward, but because of a real fear he couldn’t help — but could actually hinder — the development of these young pitchers who have arrived or will arrive soon in the big leagues.”

Everything about this deal lines up with that statement. The M’s made up their mind that they were going to trade Narvaez because his framing cooties could actually hurt the M’s pitching prospects. This is not an encouraging statement about either the pitchers’ resilience or the coaching at either the C or P position, but let’s look past that. The argument is that the M’s will be better for having Tom Murphy as the everyday catcher. For what it’s worth, I agree with that. The problem is that the M’s don’t seem to have thought about what to do as a result. Right now, their DH is Dan Vogelbach, a talented hitter coming off an awful second half. He’s projected to outhit Narvaez next year, but Narvaez’s has two straight years of about a 120 wRC+, and Vogelbach hasn’t reached that plateau yet. Even if you were determined not to let Narvaez catch a minority of 2020 or 2021 games, he could *still* have MLB value that a 2020 draft pick will not. I completely understand shopping Narvaez, but if no one offers a reasonable return, you just hang on to him. The M’s seemed bound and determined to move Narvaez, even if the return was a box of baseballs. This is curious.

What we know for sure is that the M’s had one of the most productive catching duos in the league. Their production from the C spot ranked 4th in the majors last year, and again, that includes the massive debits that Narvaez’s catching accrued. The bulk of the positives came from Murphy, it’s true, and he figures to provide more of them going forward (though his profile is frought with risk, just as Zunino’s was, and MUCH more offensive risk than Narvaez’s). We know for sure that Narvaez has 2+ years of service and three more years of club control. What we know for sure is that Narvaez won’t be paid the league minimum anymore. I’d gone into my view of the trade thinking that it hinged on an outsize view of the impact his defense makes. Again, multiple credible views of the impact of his defense are *already* baked into his value. No one is ignoring it, though we can quibble with how it’s actually calculated. My worry now is that all of this is a fig leaf for the fact that Narvaez has 3 years of MLB service time, and Murphy just 2 (and Nola less than 1). We’ve seen for a few years now that bat-first, corner IFs seem absurdly undervalued, with CJ Cron freely available for the second straight year after hitting 30 and 25 HRs in consecutive seasons. Cron’s not really a prospect now, and was paid just $4.9 M for his contributions to the playoff team in Minnesota. Given his patience, I think Narvaez is a decent bet to outhit Cron next year, just as he did in 2019. And no one seems to want either one.

Ultimately, it may be true that the M’s traded Narvaez for the absolute best package on offer. I still find that really sad, not just because Narvaez will be far more useful for a team trying to win in the near-medium term than the return here (a low-level Brewere RHP named Adam Hill, who’s likely a reliever, and had control issues this year plus the vaunted draft pick). Rather, because if this is the best deal on offer, then the distortions in baseball’s economy have been laid bare: if you’d rather get a draft pick than pay a bat-first catcher a few million in his *first* season in arbitration, then that work stoppage people talk about in 2021 is all but a certainty. We’ve been hearing for a while about the problems in the middle-tier of free agency, or perhaps the tier below that. I’ve written a bit about how the league and players have agreed to further suppress pre-arb salaries in the hope that the savings would be spent on non-star free agents. But if teams aren’t willing to spend it on the already-suppressed arbitration-eligible players, and we’ve seen a ton of interesting players non-tendered this year, then the game’s up. That money isn’t going to arb players OR to low-level free agents. The Zach Wheelers of the world (like the Patrick Corbins and Bryce Harpers) are fine – the problem is that arb eligible, contributing players have a value equivalent to that of a random, low-level flyer, or a literally unknown future draft pick. That simply does not map to actual, on-field, in-the-majors baseball value, and the further these player valuations get from on-field value, the higher the risk of a work-stoppage gets.


10 Responses to “M’s Rid Themselves of League Average MLB Player”

  1. greymstreet on December 6th, 2019 1:06 am

    If the valuations are all so off, why haven’t we seen a team exploit that market inefficiency and do well with a roster of dirt cheap 2-3 win players? Or am I misunderstanding your point/missing something obvious

  2. Jake Squid on December 6th, 2019 10:47 am

    Good analysis. As much as I’m rooting for Vogelbach, Narvaez is probably the better DH option if you can’t stand his catching defense.

    Of course, after years of Montero and Adam Moore and Miguel Olivo and Rob Johnson (the worst defense only catcher I have ever seen at defense)and John Jaso catching, the pivot to wanting defense at the position is weird. Especially when they then pivot to not caring about defense before pivoting to requiring it again.

    It makes one wonder if management just doesn’t like Narvaez, the person. Otoh, maybe there’s now a non-linear valuation of WAR among MLB teams that hasn’t become obvious to outsiders, yet.

    In any case, after not commenting here for years and years and years and years, I want to let you know that I’m still visiting and reading.

  3. bookbook on December 6th, 2019 2:19 pm

    This is excellent longform analysis. Well done.

    On the other hand, this is a signature Jerry Dipoto move: he always decides who he wants to move, and then moves them–often too quickly–for the best he can get.

    The problem may be that every other GM knows Dipoto’s MO well, by now. So the best on offer for a quick move has been gradually going down into the area where Seattle is better off if Jerry never makes another trade.

    There is no reason to assume this means there is anything negative about Narvaez as a person or a teammate.

  4. Westside guy on December 6th, 2019 7:21 pm

    One thing Divish mentioned in a recent podcast is that, privately, several pitchers complained about having to throw to Narvaez. This move could be as much about placating the team’s pitchers as it is about anything else.

    But, yeah, that doesn’t answer why they don’t just move him to DH. It might simply be that they’re not ready to give up on Vogey yet. It’s not as if Vogelbach is significantly younger.

  5. bookbook on December 7th, 2019 8:27 am

    I like rooting for Vogey more, but it probably doesn’t matter much. Within two years, the DH spot will be a rotating semi-rest day for one of the outfielders.

  6. Steve Nelson on December 7th, 2019 7:01 pm

    I think it’s safe to say that the Mariners were in contact with multiple teams about Narvaez, and so had multiple offers to select from. We don’t know that those other offers might have been, but I think we can presume that they valued this offer more highly than others. So either they really valued receiving that comp pick, more highly than in marc’s analysis, or the other offers were underwhelming, or both.

    Would they have received more if they waited out the market? Perhaps – but that’s hard to say. If the Mariners continue to play the market, perhaps other teams implement other plans, and soon the pool of interested teams shrinks, and there is less competition. Or some other team that suddenly finds themselves on the outside of other deals gets desperate and antes up? Again, no way to know.

    I do think that one element that might not be getting valued is the >$800,000 slot money associated with that comp pick. The Mariners now have $800,000 more to play with in the 2020 draft than they did one week ago. They can draft under slot here, and use that money to buy someone out of a college commitment, which can add value to other high round picks. They could, for example, draft a player in round one or two who might have dropped due to signability issues. You can still use the comp pick to grab a player whom you are interested in – you just take that player in this slot, with a deal worked out to sign him for the lower round money.

    Meanwhile, the Mariners are in the #6 draft position. There’s a good chance that some of the teams above them will play the same signability game, drafting players in round 1 below slot so they can have added money available in lower rounds. This sets the Ms up to be able to take a player who should be in the top 3 or 4, but slides, by giving the player higher slot money using the slot money from this pick.

  7. Goob on December 8th, 2019 10:06 am


    The bafflingly collective love for the trade from the Mariners fandom world makes no sense, especially when you bake in the ping-ponging of “catcher logic” by the Mariners FO.

    This is a great example of how some of Dipoto’s trades feel rushed and forced too. I can get on board with the idea that we wanted to trade Navarez, circular logic aside, but why trip over yourselves to move him when THIS is the return?

    And the potential answer to bring it all home is the work stoppage. Grate points there as well.

  8. Stevemotivateir on December 9th, 2019 7:35 am

    Westy already pointed out a point I wanted to make (pitchers complaining), but there a few more things I would add regarding the numbered claims.

    First, Seattle didn’t acquire Narvaez believing he was a lost cause defensively. They knew they were going to need at least two years to get back into contention, Zunino had no interest in an extension, so it made perfect sense to acquire someone cheap whom they felt they could fix. Didn’t hurt them to try in a rebuilding year.

    Second, if they had been successful in fixing his defense, the questions regarding the handling of prospects wouldn’t have become a question. But they had a season-long case study in Kikuchi to provide them with larger sample of reservations if anyone feels there wasn’t enough time to evaluate his handling of Sheffield and Dunn. I feel those reservations are warranted. This was a concern of mine since May.

    The best argument was for DHing. But how much of his 2019 was due to juiced balls? I know he changed his swing to get a better launch angle, but he had 11 HR’s in over 600 PA’s with Chicago. He had 22 last season and 14 of those came in the first half. There is a strong case for regression and there were at least some gripes about his weight gain and lack of conditioning (note his wRC+ dropped to 104 in the second half). The has been said of Vogelbach, but he profiles similarly offensively from a skills/tools standpoint(with more power) and costs considerably less. Even Vogelbach might not be around long, though. There is going to be a little trouble finding PA’s for Lewis, Fraley, and Bishop, which gets further complicated if they’re unable to move Gordon this off season to open up 2B for Long.

    Nola is probably deserving of a more regular role as well. He had a bad August, but finished the season with a 114 wRC+ in both the first and second halves.

    I can understand the feeling that Hill and a pick was underwhelming, but I look at Isaiah Campbell, Seattle’s number 11 ranked prospect in MLB’s Pipeline, and can easily see how Seattle could end up with someone better. The 2020 draft is deeper and Seattle will have the number 70 or 71 pick. They could always use that player as a trade chip at some point as well.

    Say whatever you want about the return. I think it’s totally fair to be disappointed. But I’m grateful that I’ll never have to watch Narvaez behind the plate in a Mariners’ uniform again. I remember screaming obscenities at my TV more than a few times before finally completely dismissing him as a MLB catcher, and as Marc already noted with the Cron example, this bat-only players just don’t seem to be valued. More importantly (perhaps), it probably wouldn’t be difficult to find another player just like him if the need should arise down the road.

  9. Stevemotivateir on December 10th, 2019 4:30 am

    Looks like you called it perfectly, Steve. Dipoto talked about the value of the slot money yesterday.

    The pick itself should still be a good one in a deep class, but it will be really interesting to see how the dollars are used.

  10. Steve Nelson on December 10th, 2019 5:13 pm

    A lot of teams near the top of round use the underslot strategy in the first round. Thus there is an excellent chance that a top-three pick will be available to the Ms when they are #6. But those top-3 players still want their “true” slot money – perhaps even more – to buy them out of playing college ball. The Ms now have the financial flexibility to pay someone significantly overslot.

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