Padres and Mariners Swap Backstops

The flurry of deals made by the San Diego Padres on Sunday culminated with a massive trade with the Seattle Mariners. The headlining player headed to Southern California is catcher Austin Nola, along with two relievers, Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla. Ben Clemens will address the newest additions to the Padres bullpen and Eric Longenhagen will have the analysis of the prospect/recently-prospect haul the Mariners received from the Padres — Taylor Trammell, Andres Muñoz, and Ty France — a little later this morning. The fourth player headed to the Northwest, Luis Torrens, is likely to take Nola’s place on the Mariners roster as their starting catcher.

With the Padres acquiring Jason Castro from the Angels earlier in the day, the addition of Nola completes an overhaul of the Padres catching corps. As a group, the Padres catchers had put up a collective .146/.228/.291 slash line, good for a 45 wRC+ and -0.3 WAR. They weren’t the worst hitting group of backstops in the majors this year, but it was a clear need for the Padres, who have their eyes on a deep postseason run.

Castro is a fine offensive upgrade in his own right but the easy answer to the Padres problem was to simply add the best hitting catcher in the majors in 2020. That’s exactly what they’ve done in adding Nola. His .380 wOBA ekes out J.T. Realmuto by just a single point, his 145 wRC+ is six points higher than the star Phillies backstop, and they’re tied with 1.2 WAR apiece.

The Mariners signed the late-blooming Nola to a minor league contract prior to the 2019 season. He had spent his career to that point in the Marlins organization, compiling a .246/.334/.325 slash line in seven unremarkable minor league seasons. He had shown good plate discipline skills but the power was completely absent until he joined Seattle. A renewed focus on his swing with his new organization restored his interest in hitting and it has paid dividends. “The hitting coaches [in Seattle] have helped me understand the total approach to hitting. That helped me take more of an interest in it and my swing overall. It’s really been fun,” he told Corey Brock of The Athletic last year.

The biggest difference has been a swing adjustment to help him elevate the ball more often. With the Marlins, he regularly ran groundball rates around 48%. He’s got that down to 36.6% this year, and with it has come a surprising amount of power for a player with his minor league history. His hard hit rate and average exit velocity are both above league average and he uses his keen batting eye to make good swing decisions on pitches he can handle. His swinging strike rate is an excellent 6.8%, which has its foundation in an equally excellent 21.6% chase rate.

It doesn’t seem like a mirage either. His xBA sits in the 93rd percentile in the majors this year and his xwOBA in the 80th. He makes a ton of contact in the “Sweet Spot” of exit velocities and launch angles (40.1%), leading to a high number of line drives and solid contact:

His skills at the plate aren’t the only recent developments he’s made to his profile; he also made the switch to catching in 2017. Prior to that, he was an infielder who mostly played shortstop. Seeing no path forward in the Marlins organization at short, he traded in his infielder’s glove for a catcher’s mitt and took to the position quickly. He’s caught 235 innings in the majors and he’s graded out as a decent to good receiver. Our own catcher framing metric has him adding 0.3 runs in that brief sample. Baseball Savant has him slightly above average at converting strikes and Baseball Prospectus has him as one of the best defensive catchers in the league this year. It’s probably too soon to trust the metrics entirely but his coaches have raved about his abilities behind the plate.

It may be surprising to see the Mariners trade away such a huge player development success but Nola is already 30-years-old. He’ll have five more years of team control after this season but his mid-career breakout was already a strike against him. Still, with his background as an infielder, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Nola carve out a role as a semi-regular catcher who can also fill in all over the diamond if needed. The combination of his positional flexibility, remaining team control, and newfound hitting prowess made him a desirable target for plenty of teams this year, and helps account for the premium San Diego was willing to pay despite Nola’s age and the team’s earlier deal for Castro.

With the Mariners’ window of contention looking like it’ll be open in 2022 rather than 2021, Nola was a luxury they could afford to sell high on. In return, they get Torrens, who has had nearly as interesting a career path as Nola. Plucked from the Yankees as a Rule-5 pick back in 2017, he spent all of that season with the Padres as their third-string catcher. Unsurprisingly for a 21-year-old who hadn’t seen an at-bat above A-ball, he struggled mightily. His 17 wRC+ was the third worst mark among all batters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2017.

After surviving that experience, the Padres sent him back to High-A to continue developing; he managed to return to the majors last year. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen wrote in his most recent post-prospects update:

“Torrens exceeded rookie eligibility back in 2017 when, as a young 21-year-old, he languished away on the Padres bench all summer so the club could meet the Rule 5 retention requirements and keep him in the system long-term. It might pay off. Now 23, Torrens spent 2019 at Double-A Amarillo where he hit .300/.370/.500 with more homers (15) than he had clubbed in his entire career to that point.

Those numbers are a good bit above what I think Torrens would do with an everyday big league job — based on where I’d have the hit tool graded, he’s closer to a .240/.310/.410 sort of hitter — but they’re more caricature than total mirage. His average exit velo last year was 89 mph, above the big league average, but it was undercut a bit by Torrens’ middling plate coverage (when I saw him late in September, he wasn’t totally closing his front side and was vulnerable to pitches away from him) and propensity for groundball contact.”

Like Nola, Torrens has a good eye at the plate and makes hard contact often enough, but he puts the ball on the ground far too much. It’s possible the Mariners believe a swing adjustment will unlock Torrens latent offensive abilities, as it did with Nola. Torrens’ defensive abilities are well regarded, too, and they’ve reportedly improved since his major league debut three years ago.

With Nola out of the picture and Tom Murphy slow to recover from a broken toe, the Mariners have Joseph Odom and Joe Hudson as the only other healthy catchers on their 40-man roster. Torrens will get a long opportunity to show what he’s capable of in Seattle. If his bat is as good as it was in Double-A, the Mariners will have gotten much younger behind the plate. And even if his offensive abilities aren’t as far along as they might have seemed last year, he has time to develop and should make a fine partner with Tom Murphy or top catching prospect Cal Raleigh in the years to come.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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3 years ago

Maybe Dipoto’s best trade. Nola has done nothing but hit and is a fun player, and Adams has late-inning stuff. But to get back not just a 50 FV but three additional interesting pieces seems like a huge coup. France is an upgrade over Shed Long at 2B right now. Munoz sits at 100mph. It’ll be interesting to see if the player development group can repeat whatever magic they worked with Nola on Torrens.

3 years ago
Reply to  3cardmonty

France might be a bit stretched range wise at 2B, his agility is not good and he profiles better at third. Wonder if seattle can find a partner for a kyle seager trade (with obviously seattle covering a significant portion of the salary).

3 years ago
Reply to  3cardmonty

I sincerely doubt this is going to top the Cano/Diaz deal but I think that this is an outstanding deal from the moment it was done (and the Cano/Diaz deal wasn’t so obviously a huge coup immediately). I am really skeptical that Adams is going to keep this up and stick at catcher and hold off father time. It only goes down from here and there is a good chance that it goes way, way down from here.

Trammell might not be the star he looked like a couple of years ago but he still has a real shot at being a 3-win guy and a good leadoff hitter. I agree with you that the other pieces are interesting too.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I don’t see why Nola would move off catcher. Based on all numbers he’s at least competent there, no reason to move him.