JOE FANN

Fann: Cal Raleigh is coming up huge, but Mariners need better backup

Jul 28, 2022, 1:34 PM | Updated: 2:05 pm
Mariners Cal Raleigh...
Cal Raleigh hits an RBI single for the Mariners against the Texas Rangers on Monday. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

If you told me you saw Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh’s turnaround coming, I’d tip my cap to you, but I’m not sure I’d completely believe you.

That’s because there weren’t really any warning signs.

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In Raleigh’s first 25 games this season, he struck out 30 times in 70 at bats (43%) with a meager .129 average while “slugging” .314. The Mariners’ young switch-hitter appeared completely lost against major league pitching. Raleigh looked to be guessing frequently and rarely provided competitive at-bats.

That stretch, of course, came on the heels of his rookie season in 2021 where he had just a .180 average in 47 games, with a 37% strikeout percentage. There were no signs of Raleigh’s tantalizing power-hitting tools transitioning from Triple-A to the big leagues.

And yet, he’s since become quite literally one of the best catchers in all of baseball. Since June 6 (41 games, 35 starts), Raleigh has hit a respectable .246 while slugging .539 with nine doubles, nine home runs, 27 RBIs and 16 walks. He’s also gotten his strikeout percentage down to 30%, which is still higher than desired, but the competitiveness of those punchouts has noticeably improved.

In that span, Raleigh has amassed an fWAR of 1.8, good for third-best among all catchers (Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman and Oakland’s Sean Murphy are each at 2.0), and he’s up to 14 home runs, 11 doubles, 37 RBIs and a .211 average on the season.

Raleigh played a big role in Seattle’s three-game sweep of the Rangers this week. On Monday, he went 2 for 4 with an RBI. On Tuesday, he hit a solo homer in the seventh inning and a tying RBI double in the ninth, then scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly in a 4-3 walk-off victory. And on Wednesday, he came off the bench to draw a walk and score a run late in another comeback win.

Raleigh’s ascension has been vital during the Mariners’ run into the thick of the wild card race. Seattle currently owns the American League’s No. 2 wild card and is three games clear of the Guardians, the first team below the AL’s six playoff spots.

Raleigh’s offensive production has helped mitigate the losses of Mitch Haniger and Kyle Lewis to injuries and others to suspensions that stemmed from the brawl with the Angels.

It’s also imperative to note that the cupboard is completely bare behind Raleigh at catcher. He’s the clear-cut starter after the loss of Tom Murphy to a season-ending injury, and there’s still a void behind him on days off.

The daily struggles of Abraham Toro have overshadowed the poor play of current No. 2 catcher Luis Torrens. Seattle’s backup catcher is hitting just .214 with zero home runs in 127 plate appearances, and he owns an egregious minus-0.6 fWAR in 39 games with a 49 wRC+ (the average MLB player is 100).

Torrens was undoubtedly a revelation in 2021 with 15 home runs and 47 RBI in 108 games, but Seattle can’t bank on a return to that form for the stretch run of this season. His play simply isn’t sustainable at a position that requires weekly starts from backups.

The answer could be in Tacoma. Brian O’Keefe is hitting .275 with 11 homers for the Rainiers this season. At age 29, there’s no organizational fear with O’Keefe that you’re rushing a young prospect. It’s also a risk-free move with Torrens being a below-replacement-level player, both as a hitter and as a defensive catcher.

Option B is exploring the trade market for a backup. How much would it cost to pry Eric Haase (eight homers and a .241 average) away from the Tigers? Or Garrett Stubbs (four home runs and a .277 average) from the Phillies? Maybe it wouldn’t be worth the price tag for a part-time player, but it’s certainly incumbent on Jerry Dipoto to pick up the phone and inquire.

Similarly to the rationale for chasing more depth for the starting rotation, this team is simply too talented and well-positioned in the playoff race to leave glaring holes on the roster.

Cal Raleigh appears to be a star in the making. His midseason turnaround has been rightfully celebrated and he will continue to be as one of the young centerpieces of this flourishing roster. But the Mariners remain woefully thin behind him.

Both things are true. It provides an interesting subplot to follow leading up to the MLB’s Aug. 2 trade deadline.

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