Is Mitch Garver Still a Catcher?
I do know this: When Joe Mauer made the call to move away from catcher after a concussion ended his 2013 season, he talked about coming face-to-face with a sobering reality:
"When I kept gathering information, to be honest with you, it wasn't really even a decision," said Mauer, who is signed through 2018 with $115 million remaining on his contract. "I kept searching to see if it was going to be OK, if it was going to be safe for me to go back there and catch, and I just wasn't finding that."
He added: "All it could take is one foul tip in pitcher's batting practice, and I'm out for two or three months or even more."
Unstated there is the impact on his personal life and his overall wellness. Even though he shifted away from catcher, Mauer experienced prolonged after-effects from his brain injury, which ultimately led him to retire well ahead of schedule.
Garver was watching from the dugout when Mauer dove for a fly ball in May, flaring up those nasty concussion symptoms. Garver saw from up-close as Mauer then battled yet another round of life-altering impairments, which sidelined him for a month and were so severe initially he had to spend multiple days away from the stadium.
Whatever stories and warnings Mauer heard about the dangers of successive concussions in 2013, Garver has seen first-hand since, torturing a player he deeply respects and admires. The gravity of this situation couldn't possibly be lost on him.
Granted, Mauer had caught a lot more innings behind the plate, and had probably taken quite a few more foul tips off the mask. But this isn't about comparative volume. There's no magic number where the risk becomes untenable.
Garver does have a troubling history.
In his first game this season, he was hit in the side of the head by Manny Machado's bat, leaving Garver staggered and dazed. He wasn't diagnosed with a concussion in that case. "My brain does not hurt, but my skull does, however," Garver said afterward.
He did acknowledge in September, though, that he suffered concussions at least twice in the minors, in 2014 and 2016. And although he stayed in to finish the inning after taking a foul tip off Luke Voigt's bat on September 12th (as did Mauer back in 2013 – he finished the game in fact), Garver hasn't donned the catcher's gear since.
When you're still experiencing symptoms a week after taking a blow to the head... that's a scary thing.
The Twins, for their part, seem to be preparing themselves for a scenario where Garver is unavailable behind the plate. Their reported early interest in Robinson Chirinos, who signed with the Astros on Tuesday for $5.75 million, is noteworthy. Chirinos isn't the kind of guy you bring in as a third catcher or as camp competition; he's an established big-leaguer who's averaged 300 plate appearances with the Rangers over the past five years, with a career OPS (.761) that bests Garver's rookie mark.
If Garver were to move away from catcher, it becomes a question of how he figures into the team's plans. At catcher, his numbers were outstanding: Among MLB backstops with 300+ PA, he ranked 10th in OPS (.749), 10th in wOBA (.325), and seventh in hard-contact percentage (40.5%, per FanGraphs). At first base or DH, those numbers don't shine as much, and of course, the Twins already find that mix crowded with defensively limited righty hitters at the moment.
Then again, you can make an argument Garver's bat is quite valuable to the Twins wherever they can fit him in.
I wrote recently about this club's glaring dearth of OBP strength, which wasn't helped any by the signing of Jonathan Schoop on Thursday, nor the addition of Ronald Torreyes. Garver's .335 OBP this year ranked as the second-highest among players set to return, behind only Jorge Polanco (.345). And if you believe Garver turned a corner as he acclimated to the majors, you might even expect more; from June 1st onward he had a .349 OBP and 9% BB rate.
It bears noting that in his preceding breakout season at Triple-A, Garver posted a .387 OBP and 13.4% BB rate over 372 plate appearances.
With all that said, it's pretty hard to see him hanging around as strictly a 1B/DH. Does he have the offensive ability of a C.J. Cron or Tyler Austin? Doubtful. And those were readily available waiver types.
In order to keep himself essential while not catching, Garver would need to become a versatile roster piece capable of helping in the outfield. In that capacity, his right-handed stick would actually be quite useful amidst a crowd of lefty swingers in the corners. And Garver did make 14 starts in left field at Rochester last year. However, Paul Molitor was never inclined to use him out there, and understandably so. Given his lack of speed or experience, it's hard to imagine Garver being much of an asset in the outfield.
If you find yourself lacking for clarity after reading all this, that's kinda the point. Garver is one of the team's most intriguing young players, but also a total wild-card at this juncture.
The tight-lipped Twins have been mum about his status. But if their interest in Chirinos was legit and serious, perhaps that says all we need to know.
- beckmt, Monkeypaws, SD Buhr and 4 others like this