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The case for Mitch Garver as the Twins' long-term solution at catcher

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With Kurt Suzuki heading out to free agency, and the only other backstops on the 40-man roster being essentially replacement-level backups, catcher is one uncertain spot for the Twins as we creep closer to 2017. One player who is not yet on the 40-man roster, but will undoubtedly be added soon in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, is Mitch Garver, Minnesota's most advanced and promising prospect behind the plate. It's a long way until Spring Training, so it remains to be seen if Garver, John Ryan Murphy and Juan Centeno will be competing for two spots on the Opening Day roster, or if a veteran newcomer will be added to the mix. Former Astros starter Jason Castro is one player whose name has come up, and his signing could benefit Garver, who could ease into a big league role as the right-handed half of a platoon, with the aim of course being him taking over the role of starter in due time.

Garver is certainly no likely bet to start the season with the big club, with no major league experience and only 22 AAA games under his belt, but his new roster status and recent justified ascension on prospect lists combine to suggest that he'll more than likely be up at some point during the 2017 season. Whether that is in an extended trial or as a fill-in while someone else is on the disabled list depends on a number of factors, most notably Garver's performance and who else is on the club's 40-man roster. Here is where the acquisition of Castro could be advantageous for Garver getting his major league service clock turning. Castro is a left-handed hitter with heavy traditional platoon splits; his inclusion could allow Garver to consistently get his feet wet without being pushed into the deep end - and the key word there is consistently. If Garver were to break out and prove himself worthy of a starting spot, with Castro under contract and playing to his abilities, that would be a classic example of "a good problem to have".

In 617 games over six major league seasons, Castro has hit notably better against right-handers, .247/ .328/ .424 (.753) to .190/ .249/ .287 (.536). Neither line is one to write home about, but his numbers against righties are passable enough to pair him with another backstop who can step in against lefties. The right-handed hitting John Ryan Murphy has historically hit lefties better, as you would expect, but .253/ .301/ .390 (.691) from favorable matchups - versus .226/ .268/ .295 (.563) against right-handed pitchers - is still a grim best case scenario. While Garver has yet to step in against big league pitching, his learning curve suggests a higher offensive ceiling.

Garver vs. RHP Garver vs. LHP
2013 [191 PA] .243/ .305/ .370 (.675) [34 PA] .241/ .353/ .345 (.698)
2014 [392 PA] .290/ .393/ .467 (.860) [112 PA] .323/ .420/ .531 (.951)
2015 [370 PA] .228/ .351/ .318 (.669) [150 PA] .282/ .367/ .366 (.733)
2016 [383 PA] .270/ .332/ .422 (.753) [108 PA] .267/ .380/ .422 (.802)

Since his short season in rookie ball, Garver has expectedly had more success against left-handed pitchers, but his numbers against righties have stood up as well. Even in his down year of 2015, which actually wasn't particularly bad at all when viewed through the lens of the league, he made up for a low batting average against right-handed pitchers with a more than acceptable on-base percentage against them. This past season he once again reached base more frequently against lefties, but his BA and SLG were the same versus pitchers from both sides. Whether or not that stands, Garver still hits more than well enough when at a disadvantage that he should not instantly be considered relegated to a platoon role in the future.

If - or, more likely, when - Garver joins the Twins in 2017, it would be advantageous to both the player and the club if he had a consistent opportunity to get into games. If the organization sees Garver as potentially being a long-term piece going forward, they'll want to make the most of his service time, so when he does get the call it should be at a time in which it helps the team or continues his development. In a perfect world the or in that sentence is an and. This sounds very common sense - and it is - but like so many handwritten warning signs, it wouldn't come up if someone hadn't done it before. There are scores of examples of prospects who have been called up just to inexplicably sit on the bench and do little else, but a specific recent case of one top catching prospect immediately comes to mind.

Defensive wunderkind Austin Hedges, the Padres' 2011 second rounder, was assigned to AAA for the first time to begin the 2015 season. After a month there, Hedges was called up, right as the Padres' boom or bust season was starting to show itself to be the latter. He stayed with the team for the rest of the season, appearing in just 56 games; he started 41 behind the plate, finishing 30 of them. Hedges was used sporadically, mostly by interim manager Pat Murphy; he went at least four games without an appearance eight times and once sat idle for seven full games in a row. Not only was Hedges overmatched and never got an opportunity to develop an offensive rhythm, the time he spent watching major league ballgames like a Rule 5 pick while caddying for a fellow right-handed hitter could have been used to prepare him for being fully major league-ready for 2016. As it played out, though, Hedges returned to AAA for the entirety of last season, coming up for eight games after the El Paso Chihuahuas completed their successful march to the Pacific Coast League Championship. He put up extraordinary offensive statistics, even when taking into account PCL inflation, and will be given a real opportunity to start in 2017.

That's certainly not tragic; while delayed, Hedges wasn't damaged by the experience and is still projected to be a major league starter, but teams -- especially teams like the Twins and Padres -- need to be mindful of little things like service time and club control. By employing him as a spectator at age 22, San Diego cost themselves a year of his peak and potentially a year of their contention window. Though Garver is not as highly rated of a prospect as Hedges, the Twins can similarly ill afford to stunt his growth, plus he comes with another clock ticking: He will turn 26 a month before pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers for Spring Training. That's around the age the average baseball player's brief physical prime begins and is, to put it mildly, on the high side for prospects. Additionally, starting catchers have shorter peaks in general, so it's imperative for Garver to get consistent reps and to be challenged in order to maximize the overlap of his physical and experiential peaks. This is where being paired with a left-handed-hitting catcher would benefit both him and the team while seguing him into the starting role; he would instantly be placed in situations where he could best succeed, then take on additional responsibilities until the balance of playing time has swung. This is, of course, suffixed with the word "ideally". After all, left-handed starting catchers don't fall out of trees; only three players fitting that description caught at least half of their team's games last season: Brian McCann of the Yankees, Stephen Vogt of the A's, and Castro, with Miguel Montero of the Cubs and old friend A.J. Pierzynski right on the cusp after doing so for several years leading up to last.

Like Castro, Anthony John Pierzynski is currently a free agent, and a reunion with the Twins could make sense for reasons other than the nostalgia high of getting the band back together. While Castro will most likely require a commitment of at least two years, Pierzynski comes with no such requirement; he's going to be 40 years old and just completed his first season with fewer than 100 games played since 2000. It was also his worst offensive season, weighed down by a particularly horrible showing against left-handed pitchers; he hit four singles in 37 trips to the plate versus lefties for a .108/ .108/ .108 line. He certainly wasn't the A.J. of old against righties, but he held his own well enough to earn a last shot as a backup or the part of a platoon who never, ever has to face a left-handed pitcher. In addition to providing a complement to the right-handed hitting of Garver or the safer bet of John Ryan Murphy, Pierzynski would provide the veteran leadership that very young clubs are always looking for: the fabled "another coach on the field". Having a light-hitting veteran in likely his swan song would also lend itself to Murphy or Garver being readily handed the bulk of responsibilities if earned, paving a smooth transition into taking over the role of starter for 2018.

In the minors, managers have kept Garver's bat in the lineup even when he wasn't starting behind the plate by penciling him in elsewhere - mostly at designated hitter but eventually more at first base as well, especially during his past two seasons.

<a class='sbn-auto-link' href=Mitch Garver defense" data-chorus-asset-id="7469771" />

His nearly alternating usage between catcher and other positions looks on the surface like a lack of faith in his abilities behind the plate, but a closer examination reveals that it was instead a confidence in his offensive skills. Each season Garver was paired with another developing catcher, and his managers had to make time for both. However, Garver's bat provided enough value to use him elsewhere on nearly all of his nights "off" - a chore rarely assigned to the receivers he was paired with.

Year GC GP Team G
2013 Mitch Garver 23 56 68
Stuart Turner 28 34
2014 Mitch Garver 63 120 140
Michael Quesada 53 60
2015 Mitch Garver 77 127 139
Michael Quesada 40 68
Alex Swim 30 85
2016 Mitch Garver (AA) 46 95 114/140
Stuart Turner 59 73
Mitch Garver (AAA) 14 22 28/144
John Ryan Murphy 13 14

Thanks to the Twins' current roster configuration, Garver won't likely get much work at first base and certainly won't be afforded as many opportunities as the designated hitter as he got in the minor leagues. Between Miguel Sano, Joe Mauer, Byung Ho Park, and any number of outfielders and infielders who need a day to rest their legs, those two positions are already spoken for in all but emergencies, but a lot can change in baseball in a short amount of time.

Setting aside for a moment the goal of him eventually becoming the starting catcher, there are two players that currently stand in the way of Garver making the Opening Day roster, even without considering an outsider being given a role outright or brought in to compete. Juan Centeno broke through at age 26 as a passable backup last season, with 55 games after coming up for ten or fewer games each of the three previous seasons with the Mets and Brewers. Centeno is a left-handed hitter, but his splits defy logic. His numbers versus right- and left-handed pitchers seem to alternate at random from year to year. He has had more traditional splits against major league pitchers, but only time can tell if that's an actual trend. Either way, the statistics he accrues against all types of pitching are largely toothless, and he seems to have found his ceiling as backup who won't embarrass himself too much, provided he's given limited exposure both beside the plate and behind it.

The other catcher presently standing between Garver and the 25-man roster is Murphy, whose very brief reign holding the unofficial title of Twins' catcher of the future looked more and more like wishful thinking with every passing day of the 2016 season. While Garver has yet to be tested at the highest level, his minor league offensive statistics are favorable to Murphy's.

Garver MiLB 420 1740 1499 98 34 .267/ .359/ .406 (.764) .139 44.1
Murphy MiLB 534 2195 1971 124 45 .260/ .321/ .395 (.717) .135 43.8

In fairness, Murphy has experience in four major league seasons and is in fact a few months younger than Garver. Any edge Garver has is one of momentum, as their careers are trending in opposite directions. Garver has been promoted at least one level each season, and followed up his worst season -- which actually wasn't bad when you step back and let all the numbers make sense of each other -- with a very strong showing in 2016, while Murphy cratered in 86 games with AAA Rochester and 23 with the Twins. His dismal performance was perplexing, as he had a successful 2015 as the Yankees' primary backup before Minnesota acquired him for Aaron Hicks.

Although Garver's name has yet to appear in a major league box score, the ninth-rounder out of New Mexico has beat the odds in more way than one by making it this far. He was the third of four catchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 draft, behind second-round pick Stuart Turner and sixth-rounder Brian Navarreto, and ahead of twenty-second round choice Alex Swim. Turner and Garver split time that year with Elizabethton, the Twins' more advanced rookie-level affiliate, while Swim and the young Navaretto were sent to their entry-level Gulf Coast League team.

For 2014, the Twins moved Garver up one level to Single-A Cedar Rapids while Turner skipped directly to High-A Fort Myers for the season. Turner improved behind the plate and regressed beside it while Garver had a breakout offensive season, hitting .298/ .399/ .481 with 29 doubles and 16 home runs in 504 plate appearances. Each moved up a level for the 2015 season, with Turner going to AA Chattanooga and Garver taking his spot at Fort Myers. Both put up disappointing offensive numbers, but Garver redeemed himself with a strong finish to the season and a good showing in the Arizona Fall League.

As they had done in their first professional season, Garver and Turner shared starting catching duties once again in 2016. Garver was assigned to AA Chattanooga for the first time, while Turner was returning for his second season. Back on equal footing, the two split starts nearly evenly, but the club kept Garver's bat in the lineup even when Turner was behind the plate any given day. Along with his 46 starts at catcher for Chattanooga, Garver started 14 games at first base and 33 more as designated hitter. Not only did Garver rebound offensively while Turner continued to stagnate, but he also threw out a ridiculous 52% of runners attempting to steal on him (23 out of 44). After 95 games in AA, Garver packed up his .257/ .334/ .419 line and headed to Rochester on August 9; he then raked to the tune of .329/ .381/ .434 in 84 plate appearances over 22 AAA games.

Mitch Garver Stuart Turner
Rk [56 G] .243/ .313/ .366 (.679) [34 G] .264/ .340/ .380 (.721)
A [120 G] .298/ .399/ .481 (.880)
A+ [127 G] .245/ .356/ .333 (.688) [93 G] .249/ .322/ .375 (.698)
AA [95 G] .257/ .334/ .419 (.753) [196 G] .233/ .323/ .335 (.659)
AAA [22 G] .329/ .381/ .434 (.815)

Garver had 33 multi-hit games on the season, including six in his brief time in AAA; he collected three hits five times and four hits once. Along with his 33 multi-hit games, Garver got one hit in 44 other games, and reached with a walk in 14 of his 40 hitless games. He had modest eight and seven-game hitting streaks along with a pair each of six and five-gamers. The eight and seven-game streaks sandwiched his hot July, in which he hit .314/ .395/ .581 with 13 of his 30 doubles and five of his 12 home runs in 124 plate appearances over 27 games.

Mitch Garver 2016 Hits Joe Lanek

While he did have a few hot stretches, he was generally consistent and had only one stretch that could be considered a legitimate slump. He went 1-for-28 in his last seven games in AA, but promptly turned it around by reaching base nine times in his first five AAA games. After his first 0-fer in a Red Wings uniform, Garver promptly put together another six-game streak. In those first 12 games he hit .363/ .404/ .455 with four doubles; he came back down to earth the next eight games, going 5-for-26, but he closed the season out on a high note, going 4-for-6 with a double and two walks in Rochester's final series.

10 .257/ .357/ .309 .052 21.4 14.3 1
20 .253/ .431/ .366 .103 25.6 12.2 1
30 .266/ .344/ .394 .128 24.0 11.2 2
40 .267/ .339/ .383 .116 23.6 10.3 2
50 .265/ .337/ .389 .124 22.6 10.9 4
60 .256/ .334/ .392 .136 23.9 10.8 6
70 .275/ .358/ .437 .162 21.7 11.7 8
80 .273/ .349/ .438 .165 21.1 10.8 9
90 .270/ .346/ .442 .172 20.7 10.9 11
100 .263/ .340/ .427 .164 20.7 10.8 11
110 .269/ .338/ .426 .157 21.8 9.9 12
117 .270/ .342/ .422 .152 21.8 10.2 12

While Garver did get his strikeout rate down to 21.8% by season's end, from a high of over a quarter, it was still the highest of his career to date. It was also the first time he struck out more than his league's average. His walk rate of 10.6 was his lowest since his first professional season, but he exceeded the league average in both AA and AAA. This immediately followed his best walk rate, put up in his "down" season of 2015, which suddenly looks a lot better alongside the league line and his low BABiP.

2013-Rk .243/ .313/ .366 .247/ .324/ .360 .276 .311 13.7/ 8.4 21.9/ 8.9
2014-A .298/ .399/ .481 .252/ .322/ .370 .320 .311 12.9/ 12.1 20.9/ 8.3
2015-A+ .245/ .356/ .333 .248/ .313/ .337 .287 .302 15.8/ 13.3 18.9/ 7.6
2016-AA .257/ .334/ .419 .249/ .321/ .363 .305 .304 21.1/ 10.6 20.2/ 8.7
2016-AAA .329/ .381/ .434 .254/ .319/ .378 .436 .305 25.0/ 8.3 20.0/ 8.0

Not only is Garver the first catcher of the Twins' 2013 draft class to reach AAA, he's just the third catcher they've drafted in the past ten years who has made it to AAA. 2007 eighth-rounder Danny Lehmann split each season from 2010 through 2013 nearly evenly between AA and AAA, but never got the call to the majors; he retired after spending 2014 with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters. The lone catcher drafted by Minnesota in the past ten years to reach the majors is 2009 sixth-round pick Chris Herrmann, who spent part of each season from 2012 through 2015 with the Twins before he was traded to Arizona for minor league slugger Daniel Palka.

The most likely scenario at this point seems that Garver will return to Rochester to start the season; it would likely take a particularly outstanding or horrible Spring Training for him to break camp with Minnesota or Chattanooga, respectively, although it seems worth noting that Murphy's performance will likely dictate what kind of a chance Garver gets if they are both still with the organization when pitchers and catchers report. While Garver has the defensive edge on Murphy, an average framer with a glaring problem blocking pitches, the team's hands are tied with Murphy, as he is out of option years. Of course if Murphy continues to perform the way he did last year, he'll be expendable enough to be designated for assignment. Centeno is also now out of options, and if both he and Murphy, or some combination of one of them and an outsider, performed well enough, Garver could spend the season proving himself at AAA. The best case scenario is of course that everyone will thrive and there will be trade pieces galore. In reality, throwing these three and another catcher at a wall and having two of them stick would be quite a success.

If Garver is assigned to AAA once again, he'll likely see more time behind the plate than in years past. Most notably, as it stands now, the Twins have no one else at that level they are developing, who would make catching duties a timeshare, as it has been for him in the past. Additionally, Minnesota's logjam of first basemen and designated hitters with the big club trickles down into their top farm team, so the opportunities to use him at either spot will be fewer. This role would be beneficial for both continuing to hone his skills and proving that he can withstand the duties and handle the responsibilities of being the guy behind the plate.

Regardless of where Garver opens the season, 2017 will be a pivotal year for him. He could play himself into a major league role early on and stick, learning on the job, or he could spend all year in the International League thoroughly proving himself and making a case for 2018. He could hit a wall with extended exposure in AAA, putting in question his ability to compete at the highest level, or he could shuttle between Rochester and Minneapolis when need dictates. The possibilities are virtually endless, and there's no way of even guessing how it will play out until the hot stove cools and it is known who he will share a roster with. Nevertheless, Garver's career trajectory suggests that he will continue to adapt and grow, as no new challenge has broken him yet. Also encouraging is his performance in the Arizona Fall League.

This is Garver's second season participating in the annual offseason prospect league under Major League Baseball's umbrella, and like last autumn he's turning heads. A year ago Garver hit .317/ .404/ .512 with five doubles and a home run in 41 at-bats over a dozen games for the Surprise Saguaros; this year his average is down and his power is up, although the former can be credited to small sample size noise and a microscopic BABiP. He is tied for second in the AFL in home runs, with four, and has played in fewer games than the leader or the other two players who have hit four out. His aforementioned low average is thanks in part to collecting one hit in 12 at-bats over his last four games. Before then he was hitting .259 with one home run every thirteen and a half at-bats, and over a longer season it would correct itself, but as it stands he has a .227/ .301/ .470 line in 66 at-bats. His strikeout rate of 24.2% and walk rate of 9.6% are both worse than his career numbers but, again, should be taken with a whole shaker of salt thanks to the brevity of the season. What's encouraging is his still-developing power being put on display along with his defensive skills and ability to shut down the running game.

Between the Arizona Fall League wrapping up this coming Thursday, and the Twins' pitchers and catchers reporting to camp next February 13, Garver has less than three months to decompress, put 2016 behind him, and prepare for 2017. Garver saw action in 135 games of both regular season and fall baseball, but playing in 139 over the same amount of time in 2015 didn't set him back in 2016. If he shows the improvement from 2016 to 2017 that he showed from 2015 to 2016, he could be the big league backup backstop by season's end, going into 2018 with that role sewed up or possibly being ready for the starting job, depending who the Twins have under contract at that time.

All basic statistics are from Garver's Baseball Reference page with additional information culled from examination of his game logs. Additional calculations (no pun intended) and graphic representations thereof were rendered by the author.