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Omar Narváez could give the Mets much-needed help behind the plate this year

Francisco Álvarez is on the way, but Narváez could be a big help as the prospect continues to develop.

Milwaukee Brewers v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Catching was the closest thing the Mets had to a positional black hole in 2022. James McCann provided another below-average campaign in his second year of a four-year, $40 million deal, essentially thrusting career backup Tomás Nido into the starting role. And while Nido played well enough to earn a two-year contract in the offseason, he put out the type of season you would expect from a player whose noteworthy skills are pitch-framing and bunting. It quickly became clear the Mets didn’t have a starting-caliber catcher anywhere in the organization.

But that’s all in the past thanks to super-prospect Francisco Álvarez, right? Well, if this signing is any indication, maybe not.

The Mets want Álvarez as part of their future, but it’s unclear whether that’s behind the plate or as a designated hitter. As Lukas wrote shortly after the signing, rostering Narváez, Nido, and Álvarez only makes 100% sense if the organization isn’t convinced Álvarez is ready to lead a veteran pitching staff to the World Series. I’m inclined to agree since rostering three catchers limits options elsewhere, but the Mets searched for a fail-safe anyway in a limited offseason free agent market.

The list of catchers that gets people excited is small, boiling down to productive players under team control like Will Smith or Adley Rutschman, or studs signed to long-term deals—really just J.T. Realmuto. Neither pathway was an attainable option, so the Mets split the difference by signing free agent Omar Narváez to a one-year, $8 million deal with a player option for 2024. It was a cheap buy for a desperate positional need, and it might turn out to be the bargain of the offseason for the Mets.

Up until 2021, excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Narváez hit exceptionally in limited playing time. He posted a wRC+ of 122 and 120 in 2018 and 2019 for the White Sox and Mariners, respectively, and followed it up with his best season for the Brewers in 2021, posting 2.8 fWAR and earning his first All-Star bid. At 29 years old, Narváez was proving to be a reliable offensive catcher for a contending franchise, precisely what the Mets expected (and failed to receive) out of McCann.

And despite looking the part, Narváez was far from a slick bat, no glove type of backstop. The no-glove part held up in the early part of his career, but between 2019 and 2020 Narváez learned how to frame pitches and became one of the most valuable defensive catchers in MLB. Baseball Prospectus listed him as the fifth most valuable defensive catcher in the league in 2021 as the Brewers won the NL Central, and though his defensive valuable dipped a little in 2022, Savant still listed his framing in the 89th percentile around the league. That’s not quite as elite as Nido’s framing ability, but it’s too good to ignore.

So how did he come so cheaply?

It is worth noting that Narváez put up his worst season in 2022. His defense still played up to the standards he set in 2021, but he hit for a miserable 71 wRC+ thanks to his worsening contact. He never was much of a power hitter, but a measly 17 extra-base hits in nearly 300 plate appearances can be partially explained by a 2.4% barrel percentage, by far the lowest of his career since his rookie season. For someone whose bat propelled him to All-Star status in 2021, he basically put up the same offensive season as Nido in 2022, albeit with fewer sacrifice bunts.

So while Narváez was no one’s idea of a can’t-miss free agent target, there is a data point worth noting: Narváez was hitting just fine up until a stint on the COVID IL in early June. He had recorded a .779 OPS before hitting the IL on June 2nd, up there with some of his best-hitting seasons. After he returned on June 10th, his OPS plummeted nearly 200 points for the remainder of the season, as he proved to be one of the worst-hitting catchers in MLB from July onward.

It’s usually unwise to highlight one data point as the singular cause of a player’s downfall, but the timing of his stint on the COVID IL makes a lot of sense. Of course, it’s impossible to know if COVID impacted his abilities since we don’t know how much the disease affected him in general, or how it affects anyone in the long term. Can his dip in performance be explained by the lingering effects of a disease that we don’t fully understand? And more importantly, have those effects dissipated? Will they linger? It’s tough to know for sure, but if COVID caused Narváez’s struggles in 2022 then his low-risk contract seems like a gamble worth taking.

If Narváez is merely the player he was in 2022 instead of the All-Star he was in 2021, then the Mets signed a one-year deal for a left-handed batting Tomás Nido. That still has value, especially since the Mets won 100+ games with Nido as their featured catcher last season. But if he can stay healthy and put up the numbers he flashed in Milwaukee, Narváez can finally give the Mets some confidence behind the plate while the organization figures out what to do with Álvarez. Narváez probably won’t be a star, but he has the ability to be what the Mets have been missing for the last decade: a reliable catcher.