There hasn’t been much to complain about behind the backstop for the Brewers in recent years. According to Fangraphs, Milwaukee’s primary catcher has ranked in the top 20 among all MLB catchers in WAR in every season since (and including) 2010. That’s about a decade of solid production, and there have been plenty of elite seasons from Jonathan Lucroy and Yasmani Grandal mixed in along the way. There’s no prime Lucroy or Grandal putting on the catcher’s mitt this time around, but Manny Piña, the man behind three of those top-twenty seasons, and Omar Narváez headline a deep group of catchers that should once again provide the Brewers with solid play. Let’s run through the five that might contribute at the major league level to get ready for the season.
We start with Narváez and Piña, who are both very likely headed towards spots on the Opening Day roster. Based on the history of these two, we’re probably headed towards a platoon where we see a lot of both guys throughout the season. As we’ll see, both should contribute in their own way. Narváez (hopefully) brings the offense while Piña brings the defense.
Weight: 220 lbs.
Year with Brewers: 2nd
Narváez was simply not good in 2020, failing to crack a .200 batting average or a .300 on-base percentage. He managed just 2 homers and 10 RBIs in 108 at-bats, and he had more than twice the amount of strikeouts (39) than hits (19). Even his performance behind the plate wasn’t great. He committed 3 errors, which make up 12.5% of his career total despite the fact that he only played 10.6% of his career innings last year. It was a bad season in just about every way possible, and it ended fittingly with a strikeout in his lone plate appearance in the NLDS.
Here’s the good news – it’s hard to have the worst season of your career two years in a row. That’s especially true when you should be, at the age of 29, in your athletic prime. It’s more than likely that we see at least some improvement from Narváez. Let’s look at three quick but important stats –
- Narváez had never finished a season with more strikeouts than hits before last season
- He had never failed to hit for at least a .267 average before last season
- He had never seen his on-base percentage end up below .350 before last season
There’s no reason not to expect a significant improvement just based on the law of averages. I’ll say it again – it’s hard to have the worst season of your career two years in a row. Narváez also hit 22 home runs and drove in 55 runs with the Mariners in 2019, which was pretty clearly his best season in pretty much every aspect of the offensive game other than walk rate (and he still drew 47 walks). We could be looking at much more than a return to average if Narváez is able to reclaim and build on his 2019 form. He played very well in spring training, hitting for a .290 average, smacking three homers in only 31 at-bats, and finishing with an OPS of 1.098. Spring training includes the word “training” for a reason, but there’s never a downside to entering the season with some momentum.
One last thing to note: Narváez has never caught more than 98 games in a season. Without the DH, there isn’t a ton of flexibility for non-catching games. It’s likely that first base openings will be rare with Keston Hiura’s bat. It’s equally likely that Kolten Wong is out there most days, preventing a Hiura slide to second. Regardless, the main point here is that we’re almost guaranteed to see plenty of Manny Piña, regardless of how well Narváez plays this year.
Weight: 222 lbs.
Year with Brewers: 6th
We’re all more than familiar with Piña at this point. He’s a tough defensive catcher who’s capable of providing average offensive production. No one is mistaking him for an All-Star, but the Pineapple Express is going to get you where you need to go more often than not. He’s hit for at least a .228 average in all five seasons with the Brewers, and he’s topped a .300 on-base percentage five times as well. Piña isn’t going to put up shocking offensive numbers in any category, but he does enough to get the job done as a catcher more known for what he does behind the plate.
Speaking of behind the plate, Piña has committed just 16 errors in 2,096 innings with Milwaukee. That’s one every 131 innings. Narváez, by comparison, has committed one just about every 111 innings. Piña averages an assist every 15.8 innings. For Narváez, it’s every 20.5 innings. Piña catches 36% of runners while Narváez only catches 22%. The former consistently posts positive advanced fielding metrics while the latter sits in the negatives. In a fairly meaningless stat, Piña has turned 17 double plays to Narváez’s 9 despite playing about 500 less innings. We could go on for a while, but the point should be clear by now. Narváez is nowhere near the defensive player that Piña is. That alone should guarantee Manny plenty of playing time this year. It’ll be good to see him back in full after injuries held him to fifteen regular season games last year.
With those two down, we get to Jacob Nottingham, whose time with the Brewers might be coming to an end with no minor league options and few major league spots up for grabs.
Weight: 220 lbs.
Year with Brewers: 6th (4th in majors)
The simple reality of big league rosters is that three is quite the crowd for catchers. That’s going to be a problem this year for Nottingham, who has been the de-facto “call up in case of injury to catcher” guy for the Brewers the past few years. With his options out, that’s a role he can’t fill, and it’s almost impossible to see him finding a spot or taking one from Piña or Narváez unless the latter continues where he left off last season. The good thing for Nottingham – at least for now – is that he’s injured. There’s some silver lining he can find in that because it allows him to be on the IR and extend the decision deadline for Craig Counsell and David Stearns. If Narváez really does struggle out of the gates, it’s possible we see Nottingham take his place when he recovers from his thumb injury.
This all begs the question – why is Nottingham not a candidate to take one of those two spots on his own merits? The answer, unfortunately, is that he just hasn’t been good enough to earn it. In 85 plate appearances across three seasons, Nottingham is barely hitting above .200. He has 30 strikeouts to 15 hits. He showed some pop last year with 4 homers in 54 plate appearances, but he also hit .188. There hasn’t been anything special to see behind the plate either.
This is one of those situations where consistent playing time would likely be beneficial, but that’s something that competing teams often can’t afford. You just can’t wait for someone to find their groove when you have veterans ready to produce. Letting a 25 year old walk with no clearly established long-term answer at the position is not ideal, but it’s hard to see this going any other way. If Nottingham finds his spot in the league – which I hope he does – it likely will be somewhere else.
With Nottingham covered, we get to the two guys most likely to come up to the majors at some point if we find ourselves down a catcher. I won’t discuss them too much here since Narváez and Manny will likely play the vast majority of the innings this season. It’s still worth at least knowing who these two are.
Weight: 225 lbs.
Year with Brewers: First
Maile has played for both the Rays and Jays during his six-year MLB career. He was on the Pirates last year but did not play due to a fractured finger. He’ll start the year in AAA, and he’s likely only going to be used at the MLB level if injuries occur after he hit for a .111 average with 7 strikeouts and 2 hits in 22 spring training plate appearances.
Maile is a career .198 hitter with very limited power (10 total home runs). He’s never appeared in more than 68 games in a single season. His .556 OPS is ugly to say the least. There are signs of a decent arm (33% caught stealing rate), and the overall defensive numbers are fine. Despite that, there’s simply no reason to believe Maile is or will be anything other than an emergency veteran option. If Nottingham is indeed on the way out, we may very well end up needing him.
Weight: 200 lbs.
Year with Brewers: Technically just his fifth because of the lack of minor league play last season. This would be first time on major league roster if he is up in the big leagues at any point
Feliciano’s age (22) should jump out. He’ll be starting the year in AAA as well, and he’s the team’s fifth-ranked prospect according to MLB.com. That makes him the leader in the clubhouse to be the future everyday catcher even if it doesn’t happen this year.
In 2019, the last season of minor league baseball, he hit for a .270 average, drove in 81 runs, and smacked 19 homers. He did strike out a lot (143 times in 496 plate appearances), but you’ll take that negative with the other positives. The fielding numbers are fairly questionable, but Feliciano projects as someone who can do more than enough offensively to make up for those shortcomings. With Narváez only guaranteed this season in Milwaukee, we could be seeing Feliciano take the major league step next season. He certainly showed some promising signs in spring training, with six hits – including two doubles and two triples – in just fifteen plate appearances.
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