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Mariners' Tom Murphy, Austin Nola
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Drayer: Mariners’ surprise finds at catcher key in grasping Narváez trade

Expect to see Tom Murphy and Austin Nola share the Mariners' catching duties in 2020. (AP)

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been up front since the week before the 2019 season ended to a Wednesday afternoon conference call with beat reporters about what this offseason would look like. While past winters of his tenure had been marked by an unprecedented flurry of trades and signings, we were assured that the activity would be more subdued.

Mariners trade Omar Narváez to Brewers for prospect and draft pick

The reason? Most of the players Dipoto looked to move forward with in his quest to get the Mariners back into contention and keep them there were either in place or close to arriving in the big leagues. This didn’t come without a twist, however, and that twist left him with a significant trade chip this winter.

The trade chip of course was Omar Narváez, who was sent Thursday to the Brewers for 22-year-old pitching prospect Adam Hill and what should be the 70th pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. The twist was how Dipoto ended up with an extra player to trade. If Dipoto is able to get the Mariners to the stated goal of competing year in and year out for a division title, then how we got to Thursday’s trade probably won’t be a huge piece of the puzzle but should be an interesting chapter in the story of how an eventual successful team was built.

Let’s work backwards on this one.

The writing has been on the wall for some time that Narváez would be traded. The Mariners had a surplus at catcher for the now, and their top catching prospect, Cal Raleigh, is likely just a year away from the majors. While they enjoyed the offense Narváez brought, he was unable to improve greatly on his defensive shortcomings, and the Mariners put a premium on defense at all positions, especially behind the plate. By the time the season ended, it was apparent they had other options in-house – options six months prior they probably did not envision having.

Mariners’ surprise development

A lot can happen in the course of a season – even the further development of older players. Sometimes it is not so much about what you are getting but rather more about what you end up with. For those who have been underwhelmed by the names that have been brought into the organization, or perhaps asked where Dipoto’s surprise under-the-radar-type players (read: Chris Taylor) have been – well, it appears he found two of them in 2019 in Tom Murphy and Austin Nola.

Murphy, who had split time between the majors and minors the previous four years for the Rockies, generated barely a blip on the radar when the Mariners acquired him for minor leaguer Jesus Ozoria in the week between Seattle’s opening series in Japan and its home opener – which also happened to be just days after he was claimed off waivers by the Giants. Brought in to be the right-handed compliment to the lefty-swinging Narváez behind the plate, over time Murphy all but grabbed the reins of the No. 1 spot, working his way into near-equal playing time with Narváez, gaining the confidence of his coaches and teammates alike along the way.

It didn’t hurt that Murphy recognized where he was in his career and put himself in the hands of those coaches. He was open to hitting analytics, open to what Mariners hitting coach Tim Laker wanted to do with him at the plate. The result? A career year, with a .273/.324/.535 slash (.858 OPS) and defense that was markedly better than that of Narváez.

While he was a relative unknown by most at the time of the trade, the Mariners believed they were getting a player with considerable upside in Murphy. He was someone who had been on their radar prior to becoming available.

The story with Nola is different.

Austin Nola: Catcher

As an older minor league free agent, Nola was viewed more as versatile Triple-A depth. While the Murphy signing generated at least a blip on the acquisition radar, the Nola deal went all but unnoticed. The chances that he appeared on the big league roster, even in a step-back year where there was constant roster turnover, seemed slim to none at the time of his signing.

Entering his eighth year in the minor leagues and fifth in Triple-A, Nola was necessary filler. But even as such, he made an interesting request before signing with the Mariners.

He wanted to talk to Jerry Dipoto.

Why? He wanted to express his desire to catch. Nola understood his value as a utility player who was able to play just about anywhere on the diamond, but he wanted the organization to know that he saw himself as a catcher, a position he converted to in the 2017 season after a coach told him he no longer fit the profile of a middle infielder (he was drafted as a shortstop).

His career best line of .327/.415/.520 (.935) at Tacoma coupled with his versatility earned him a big league call-up in June. While his offensive numbers were not as gaudy in the big leagues, he continued to impress with consistent quality at-bats. His work behind the scenes and baseball acumen also drew rave reviews from the Mariners coaches and manager Scott Servais, with the comparison in his pre-game work to Murphy, who by all accounts sat at the top in that category.

What Nola didn’t do often while with the Mariners was catch – at least in games. Despite being limited to just five appearances behind the plate in the MLB, Nola caught bullpens and sat in on pitcher/catcher meetings every day. While the majority of the big league pitchers had limited experience with him, those who threw to him in Tacoma or even spring training had good reviews for his work behind the plate. Tommy Milone went so far as to say he was the best pitch framer who had ever caught him.

Asked late last week how many games he would feel comfortable putting Nola behind the plate, Dipoto answered “a whole lot of games.” That’s apparently enough games to feel comfortable moving Narváez.

Building another wave

The Narváez trade seemed inevitable, and as such there was anticipation for what he could bring the Mariners back in a deal. While the arrival of another unknown in Adam Hill may seem underwhelming, he’s not coming alone as a Competitive Round B pick was included as well.

Part of Dipoto’s plan for the organization was to ensure that “waves of talent” continue to course through the organization over time. Nothing is certain until young players make the big leagues and perform – or are traded for players who do – but it is certain that numbers are needed. With the first wave of Mariners prospect talent on the cusp of getting into show-me territory, Hill and draft-pick-to-be-named-later join another wave farther from shore.

The significance that perhaps should not go unnoticed here is that while some folks are busy pining for bigger names, the Mariners have quietly advanced further along in their plan.

They’ve torn it down.

They’ve moved on from the players they needed to acquire in order to tear it down.

They advanced a class of prospects to being close to MLB debut-ready.

They’ve drafted a new trio of strike-throwing, higher-velocity starters.

And now they are starting to build the next wave, which, if most goes well with the first, should be more of the supplemental nature.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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