This article covers Chad Wallach, Santiago Chavez, Ryan Lavarnway, B.J. López and Brian Navarreto. They’re the catching depth for the Marlins in Spring Training behind Jorge Alfaro and Francisco Cervelli. Although their experience at the all-important position should get at least one of them to the big leagues at some point this season, it’s a grueling job.
Backup catchers get judged primarily on their defensive impact. What a helpless feeling if you’re going up against the Houston Astros, for example, using their latest spyware guide to steal your signs and relay them quickly enough for the batter to know exactly what’s coming. For all their long-term potential, the young Marlins pitching staff hit more batters in 2019 than in any other season in franchise history (90) to go along with the second-most wild pitches ever (71). Widespread changes to Miami’s bullpen personnel will hopefully help.
Fish fans are most familiar with Chad Wallach. Even with his father, Tim, leaving his post as Marlins bench coach, the California native has remained and is still on the 40-man roster, making him the leading call-up candidate in case of an injury to Alfaro or Cervelli. An offensive liability during his first two cups of coffees in the majors—.161/.242/.232, 44.4 K% in 63 PA from 2017-18—he had a far more impressive .250/.333/.375 slash line last season (93 wRC+). The batted ball data suggests it was no fluke. That made it all the more frustrating when Wallach suffered a concussion in late May. Three separate times, he progressed to the point of going out on minor league rehab assignments, only to be derailed by ongoing symptoms. The beginning of the Grapefruit League schedule will mark nine full months since his last MLB contest.
Wallach has two more minor league option years. The Marlins are expected to use one for him to get steady reps with Triple-A Wichita until an opening presents itself.
On the other hand, it would be a long shot for Santiago Chavez to reach The Show in 2020. Simply put, he is among the worst minor league hitters of his generation, per FanGraphs (min. 1,000 career plate appearances). Here’s a clip from one of his rare three-hit games:
As emphasized earlier, defense counts more than the bat for these backstops. That’s why Chavez has made it to his ninth professional season despite his deficiencies. In addition to forming strong personal relationships with the arms at Double-A Jacksonville in 2019, he threw out 48% of attempted base-stealers, which is the same as his outstanding career rate in that department.
Once a highly regarded Red Sox prospect, Ryan Lavarnway is now in the journeyman phase of his career. The Yale University product has bounced around from the Dodgers to the Cubs to the Orioles to the Braves to the Blue Jays to the Athletics (*pauses to take a deep breath*) to the Pirates to the Yankees to the Reds to the Indians to the Marlins during a span of five-plus years.
It will be interesting to find out if/when Lavarnway has an opt out in his minor league contract. Assuming everybody makes it through camp healthy, he would be heading down to Wichita to split time with Wallach.
Puerto Rico’s B.J. López has just 15 career games played at the Double-A level. However, battery mates like left-hander Braxton Garrett have the utmost respect for how he calls a game, as detailed in Garrett’s interview with Fish Stripes last month.
Also from the island, Brian Navarreto was drafted and developed by the Twins, so new Marlins bench coach/offensive coordinator James Rowson has some familiarity with him. Navarreto established a new career high with six home runs last season, but generally disappointed with the bat (.175/.225/.319 in 179 PA). He stayed busy over the offseason with winter ball in P.R. and the Dominican Republic, where he combined for a 66% caught-stealing rate in 38 attempts.