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Trade Analysis: Brewers prevent catcher from becoming black hole in lineup, but will need defensive creativity

Omar Narvaez should provide offensive stability, with Manny Pina and a 26th man possibily providing the defense

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MLB: Seattle Mariners at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Yasmani Grandal is one of the best overall catchers in baseball and the Brewers were never going to totally replace his production.

With that in mind, David Stearns did what he could to at least get close, and focused on the half of Grandal’s game that may have needed to be replaced the most: the offensive production.

This is not to say losing Grandal’s defense and pitch framing isn’t important -- the dropoff was going to be noticeable no matter who replaced Grandal, but may be especially noticeable considering the gap between him and Narvaez -- but losing the combination of Grandal and Mike Moustakas meant the Brewers were going to be missing a large chunk of their 2019 non-Christian Yelich production.

Defense and run prevention are great, but at some point, you need to score runs to win games.

The Brewers were a middle of the road offense with Grandal and Moustakas, ranking 9th out of 15 in the National League in runs scored (769), 7th in OPS (.767), 7th in wOBA (.324), and 6th in wRC+ (97). That was just enough to eek into the playoffs in 2019, but if the Brewers were planning on staying competitive in 2020, they were going to have to get to work in at least trying to get back to that level.

Luckily, Narvaez has come close to Grandal in at last some categories, as The Athletic’s Derek VanRiper pointed out shortly after the trade was announced:

If you want to focus on 2019 production rather than career metrics, Grandal did have the significantly higher wOBA of the two (.361 compared to .345), but Narvaez wasn’t far off Grandal’s pace in wRC+ (119 to Grandal’s 121) and Baseball Prospectus’ DRC+ (123 to Grandal’s 124). Narvaez won’t walk as much as Grandal, but his 11.3% career BB% is good, and some fans will appreciate he makes more contact (82.7% for his career, compared to Grandal’s 76%) while striking out less (17.8% career K% to Grandal’s 22%). And that’s with Narvaez being a liability against left-handed pitching.

The Brewers have already confirmed more playing time is ahead for Manny Pina in 2020 after playing a strict reserve role in 2019 behind Grandal. That may not necessarily mean a strict platoon, but if it does, an Omanny Pinarvaez combination could be extremely effective -- Narvaez hit .289/.346/.490 (.836 OPS) with 20 home runs in 387 plate appearances against RHP this past year, while Pina hit .319/.395/.569 (.965 OPS) with 4 home runs in 81 plate appearances against LHP.

Pina’s production against LHP will almost assuredly drop with more playing time -- his career line against southpaws drops to .271/.339/.399 (.738 OPS) in 290 plate appearances -- but even then, the catching position should be far from the black hole in the lineup it was for years before Grandal showed up.

The offensive possibilities are pretty exciting, but the defensive disparity is what allowed the Brewers to acquire Narvaez at a reduced cost.

While pitch-framing metrics are still relatively new and it’s fair to question their accuracy (or at least take some of their evaluations with a grain of salt), the disparity between Grandal and Narvaez when it comes to those numbers is so large that it’s hard for even the biggest defensive metric skeptic to ignore.

As Kyle noted when the trade was first repored, Narvaez put up some eye-popping defensive numbers for the Mariners in 2019, and not in the good way -- he finished the year with -20 Defensive Runs Saved and -10.5 Framing Runs Above Average (or perhaps more accurately, he was 10.5 framing runs below average).

The Brewers have been lauded for their ability to coach up catchers -- they turned Jonathan Lucroy into one of the best pitch-framers in baseball during his time in Milwaukee and converted Jacob Nottingham from Guy Just Sitting Behind Home Plate to Actual Catcher -- and there’s a chance they can coach some improvement out of Narvaez, but even if they do, there’s a long way to go before he even gets to the level of passable.

That assumes that Narvaez actually can improve, too. It’s not a matter of effort -- by all accounts, Narvaez knows this is a weakness in his game and worked extremely hard with the Mariners’ coaching staff to improve. But he still had a worse showing in Defensive Runs Saved than he had the year prior with the Chicago White Sox (dropping from -13 to -20, although some of that may be just due to increased playing time, catching 162.1 more innings this year) and was roughly the same in framing. The problem may actually be physical traits he can’t necessarily control. In a piece in The Athletic (titled “Why the Mariners had to Trade Omar Narvaez”), Corey Brock cites a “lack of mobility and explosiveness” as a reason why Narvaez may have had trouble smothering balls in the dirt or throwing out runners.

Brock also notes the Mariners’ need to develop their young pitchers and put them in the best position to succeed may have had a role in their desire to move Narvaez for virtual peanuts. Whether it was preventing a ball in the dirt from getting away with a runner on third or stealing a third strike, the Mariners felt they had better options to help out young arms like Justus Sheffield or Justin Dunn.

It’s possible the Brewers may be shifting away from relying on pitchers who depend on getting borderline calls -- they have already traded Chase Anderson and Zach Davies, after all -- but it’s still too early in the offseason to make any definitive observations. Loading up the staff with harder throwers (like Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser) and guys who can control the running game themselves (like Eric Lauer) may help mitigate some of those defensive worries, but if Narvaez does have trouble handling younger pitchers, that’s as much of a concern for the Brewers as it was for the Mariners, considering their future success may depend on guys like Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta bouncing back.

There’s still some room for optimism, though, considering Narvaez says he hasn’t wasted any time and is already picking Pina’s brain about the Brewers’ pitching staff and getting to know everyone’s profiles.

There’s also the fact that it’s entirely possible Narvaez does not play all nine innings defensively. Craig Counsell has not been shy about using both catchers on his roster in the same game (as some other managers are), meaning it’s very possible we see Pina or someone else come into the game as a “catching closer.”

Since the Brewers obviously don’t want both Narvaez and Pina catching every single day, it’s possible they use the newly-expanded 26-man roster to occasionally carry a more defensively-minded catcher -- something Stearns himself alluded to when commenting on the trade and Narvaez’s defensive issues.

It’s important to note that having a perceived defensive liability behind the plate does not prevent a team from making a run at the playoffs, or even the World Series. The Washington Nationals won the World Series giving more than 628 innings to Kurt Suzuki (-14 DRS, -5.3 Framing Runs Above Average) behind the plate. The Astros had 966 innings’ worth of Robinson Chirinos’ poor framing (-5.6 Framing Runs) this year. It’s not ideal, but teams can get by if they’re strong enough in other areas.

That’s partially why Stearns finding a Discount Bin Yasmani Grandal in terms of offense is also so valuable. Projections say Narvaez is due just under $3 million in arbitration this winter. When you consider the Brewers paid Grandal $18 million this year between salary and buyout, that means (in theory) there’s another $15 million left to address other areas of the team, whether that’s another catching with a better framing reputation or more offense elsewhere on the infield (or, with Stearns casually bringing up the idea of “defensive versatility” with Ryan Braun again, a corner outfielder).

To some, Narvaez was the next best thing to Grandal in terms of available catchers this winter, and he’ll cost less than every free agent catcher that has signed already: Travis d’Arnaud (two years, $16 million), Tyler Flowers (one year, $4 million), Alex Avila (one year, $4.25 million), and Stephen Vogt (one year, $3 million, once you include a $500,000 buyout for a 2021 option). Many saw d’Arnaud as the second-best free agent catcher available after Grandal, and he posted a lower wOBA (.314) and wRC+ (98) than Narvaez and wasn’t treated very well by the defensive metrics, either (-3 DRS, +0.6 Framing Runs). It likely would have cost the Brewers three times as much as they’ll pay Narvaez to acquire his services.

All of this came at the very marginal cost of a fringe pitching prospect in Adam Hill, who had a decent season at High-A Wisconsin but was the 24th-best prospect in one of the most lowly-regarded farm systems in baseball, and a competitive balance comp pick that will land somewhere in the low 70s in the draft order.

The player picked there may end up being a solid player, but the bigger immediate impact for the Brewers is losing the $1+ million slot value in next year’s draft pool. Considering Stearns traded that pick last year for a lefty specialist reliever, it’s hard to argue against the fact that he got better value for that pick this year.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus