Before the Rule 5 draft, the Brewers’ added their #4 prospect, catcher Mario Feliciano, to the 40 man roster. Then in December, the Crew signed another catcher, Luke Maile, to a major-league deal. With those moves, there were now six catchers making major-league money for the Brewers, seemingly foretelling the non-tender of either Manny Piña or Omar Narváez, both of whom were set to make a few million in arbitration.
Well, that didn’t happen, as both of the aforementioned players agreed to cheaper contracts before the non-tender deadline, leaving the Brewers with a massive surplus of catchers. It’s anybody’s guess who will be starting behind the plate on any given day, but this offseason is progressing at an utterly glacial pace, so let’s do some guessing.
Career Batting Stats: .267/.355/.398, 5.1 bWAR
Contract Status: 1 Year/$2.5 million
Omar Narváez was due for a raise in his second year of arbitration, but he signed a one year contract for less money to avoid the threat of a non-tender after his worst offensive season to date. Historically, Narváez is one of the best and most consistent hitting catchers in baseball, with good contact numbers and some decent pop. He had a down year with the bat in 2020, but at a budget price, the Brewers can expect to get more of the same defensively challenged—
2020 Omar Narváez is a strange case. When the Brewers traded for him, the hope was that he could bring his defense close to league average while remaining offensively valuable. Instead, Narvaez morphed into Jeff Mathis 2.0, ascending to the top 5 in framing metrics and the top 10 in FanGraph’s overall defensive metrics. Omar Narváez was, in this weirdest of years, a better defensive catcher than J.T. Realmuto. If his offensive performance was an outlier, and these numbers aren’t, $2.5 million will be an absolute steal. Expect to see Narváez playing a lot early in the season. The Brewers have every reason to give him a chance to show he can keep up his defensive improvements and still hit like he used to.
Career Batting Stats: .255/.318/.408, 5.1 bWAR
Contract Status: 1 year, $1.65 million
If Narváez is a wildcard, Manny Piña is a known quantity. Piña has been catching for the Brewers since 2016, and he generally hovers just below league average offensively, while consistently providing great pitch framing and solid overall defense. 2020 was actually his best offensive year to date, with his OPS+ just missing league-average at 99, but injuries limited him to a tiny sample size. At 33, it remains fairly unlikely that Piña taps into some hitherto-unknown batting skill, but there will always be a place for a defense-minded veteran catcher, especially one with this much experience with the Brewers’ staff. Piña is a solid backup catcher and will be a valuable presence to spell the less consistent members of the catching staff, but as a pending free agent, we’ve probably seen the ceiling of what he can do in Milwaukee.
Piña will certainly get playing time this year. If he stays healthy, he’ll likely slot in as the backup behind whomever manages to post good offensive numbers, unless, of course, that person happens to be Piña himself. If more players work out than expected, Piña is also one of the more likely trade candidates, if any of the contenders are short on catching at the deadline.
Career Batting Stats: .198/.252/.304, 0.5 bWAR
Contract Status: 1 yr/ Unknown dollar amount, likely near major league minimum
Luke Maile is a familiar story for journeymen catchers. He’s always been excellent defensively, placing in the top 20 in framing metrics in his last full season, but he’s never really figured out how to hit major league pitching. In 2018 he had a flash of offensive value, with a career-best .700 OPS, but has sunk well below that mark every other year. The Brewers seem to think he has room for improvement, but he remains a major unknown. His signing was low-risk enough that I wouldn’t expect him to spend much time at the major league level if he can’t put it together, since he does have one remaining option year.
Really, anything could happen with Maile this year. Injuries or underperformance could force him into a regular role, or a wealth of options could force him off the roster entirely. If one of the two locked-in catchers above drops off, Maile will get his chance, but he’ll have to show he can get on base at a more normal clip.
Career Batting Stats: .203/.306/.438, 0.7 bWAR
Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible in 2023
Jacob Nottingham is an interesting one, given that he hasn’t nearly played enough at the majors to fairly evaluate his abilities. In 2020 he was solid defensively and had a few impressive games, but in general, didn’t have a ton of success in 54 plate appearances beyond his 4 home runs. He’s shown solid-but-not-elite plate discipline and seems to have unlocked some extra power, so if he can find some consistency he could hang around as a platoon catcher for a couple of years. If Narváez, Piña, or Maile falls apart as the season progresses, Nottingham stands to pick up any vacated playing time. The Brewers don’t seem to be in any rush with his development, so if he spends much time at the majors it would likely be because the first three catchers can’t hack it for the whole season. A great spring training could vault Nottingham over Maile on this list, but as it is now, Maile got a vote of confidence from the Brewers’ front office with his major league contract, so Nottingham appears to be on the outside looking in.
Career Batting Stats: .255/.315/.391 up to AA in the minor league
Contract Status: Pre-MLB debut
Mario Feliciano was added to the 40 man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. As Milwaukee’s #4 prospect, it makes sense that they’d avoid losing him for nothing, and some estimates say he’s likely to make his major league debut in 2021. Because teams didn’t release any data from the alternate site games in 2020, we don’t know how well these players developed beyond anecdotal evidence, but the consensus among Brewers’ staff was largely positive on Feliciano’s performance. There doesn’t seem to be much of an opening at the major league level now, but each of the other catchers has some variance associated with their track record, so a spot could open up a few months in.
Feliciano’s presence in the majors is less dependent on his performance—he’s only 22, so the Brewers have little reason to rush him out there unless he forces the issue. Still, it’s not unlikely he gets his chance at some point during the year.
Career Batting Stats: .200/.268/.288, -0.5 bWAR
Contract Status: Arbitration Eligible in 2023
Of the catchers on the 40 man roster, David Freitas strikes me as least likely to see significant playing time in the majors in 2021. He only spent significant time in the majors in 2018, where he posted a .215/.277/.312 line in 106 plate appearances, while sitting at almost exactly league average in most defensive metrics. Given that Jacob Nottingham got the call over Freitas in 2020, he’s a depth player that could see some very limited playing time if injuries compromise enough of the catching staff.
Six catchers sounds like a lot, but the reality is, none of these catchers is a sure thing to be an above average player in 2021. Narváez and Piña have the inside track to most of the plate appearances this year, but if Narváez continues his slump, or Piña can’t stay healthy, or both, Maile and Nottingham will both have chances to show they can contribute. If either or both of them underperform, Feliciano is waiting in the wings to show his minor league stats are sustainable against high level pitching, and Freitas provides depth in case the worst happens. Given that the first half of the season will likely be played with the COVID pandemic still ongoing, having more options is more valuable now than ever.