While waiting for the main course of a possible Robinson Canó trade, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto temporarily sated his trade-based appetites by sending relief pitcher Alex Colomé to the White Sox for catcher Omar Narváez.
For the White Sox, this trade, coupled with the rumors of the team’s real interest in some of this year’s top free agents, may imply something about when they see their competitive window opening.
Narváez was essentially the default option for the White Sox after the suprise 80-game suspension of Welington Castillo, stemming from his positive test for high levels of erythropoietin. A former Rule 5 pick from the Tampa Bay Rays, Narváez had been generally considered a defense-first catcher, well off the top prospect lists. But he could get on-base a bit, sort of like another former White Sox prospect, Mark Johnson, enough to make him mildly interesting and he was promoted quickly given that the catchers of interest in the organization were generally behind him chronologically. Narváez proved better than expected, and hit .275/.366/.429 for the White Sox, good for 2.1 WAR in just 322 plate appearances, which created an interesting dilemma for the team.
In the short-term, the White Sox had already invested in Castillo; in the longer-term, Narváez would have considerable pressure from the farm in the form of Zack Collins and Seby Zavala, neither of whom the team has thrown in the towel on as a catcher. Sure, you can keep Narváez around as a defensive caddy or a fallback if neither prospect ends up at catcher in the majors, but is that the best use of a resource? Narváez’s season makes him interesting for a rebuilding team at an earlier stage in the process, like the Mariners, who can afford to give him the at-bats needed to prove 2018’s improvement wasn’t a fluke.
Chicago’s bullpen is very thin at the moment after Nate Jones and Jace Fry, and with them having enough young talent that they could catch lightning in a bottle and compete in 2019 and 2020 (especially in the latter year), a pickup like Colomé for a catcher you might not be able to use as much as is ideal makes for an interesting swap. Colomé’s not an elite reliever, simply a solid one, and I don’t believe that there were any better prospects forthcoming given that the trade that originally brought him to the Mariners only fetched Tommy Romero and Andrew Moore. Even that trade needed Denard Span to make it happen. And if the White Sox don’t compete in either of the next two seasons, it’s an organization that has shown little reluctance to re-gift a relief pitcher.
The Mariners are clearly entering a rebuilding phase, so they have time to take a long look at Narváez. One thing I ride rebuilding teams for is when they don’t utilize roster spots to learn something useful about players, and there are things to learn when it comes to Narváez. In addition to assessing whether his 2018 122 wRC+ represents skill at the plate that’s here to stay, there are concerns about his defense; by Baseball Prospectus’ catcher defense metrics, he was worth -10.8 framing runs in 2018, after a 2017 that was almost as poor. Figuring out what Seattle has while they have time, before the wins matter as much again, is useful. David Freitas isn’t going to be the catcher when the Mariners are good again, and neither will some stopgap veteran signed to fill out the lineup for a year. If Narváez is good, the Mariners get three additional seasons of him after this one; if Jonathan Lucroy or Nick Hundley or Matt Wieters are good, they just get better paid in next year’s one-year contracts. Either way, it’s going to be a few years before finding playing time for Cal Raleigh, drafted in 2018, theoretically becomes a need.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.