Mitch Garver’s Unusual Platform Season

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The upcoming free agent class has long looked like it would be much heavier on pitching than hitting, and that situation only became more extreme as players at or near the top of the class like Rafael Devers, Manny Machado, and Ian Happ signed extensions prior to the 2023 campaign. Headed into the season, it looked as if the only surefire impact position players available would be two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and glove-first third baseman Matt Chapman, particularly when slugging outfielder Teoscar Hernandez struggled badly to open the year. One name that didn't receive much attention prior to his platform season was Mitch Garver, the Rangers catcher who had appeared in just 37.8% of his teams' games since the start of the 2020 season due to injuries.

Texas defied preseason expectations to lead the AL West throughout the entire first half, lost eight consecutive games in late August to fall into a three-way tie with the Mariners and Astros in the win column, then ultimately missed the AL West crown after posting a 90-72 record identical to that of Houston's division champs. Despite all of that uncertainty, Garver has been a stabilizing presence when in the club's lineup. The 32-year-old slashed an impressive .270/.370/.500 across 344 trips to the plate with the Rangers this season while posting his lowest strikeout rate (23.8%) since 2019 and a career-best mark for walk rate (12.8%).

To put those numbers into perspective, Garver's 138 wRC+ this year is tied with Brandon Belt and Ryan Jeffers for the 15th-best mark in the majors among players with at least 300 plate appearances this season. This puts Garver ahead of the likes of Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout, and Luis Arraez, and just a few points players like Kyle Tucker and Bryce Harper. Making Garver's offensive capabilities more enticing is his ability to play catcher. Among all catchers with at least 150 plate appearances in 2023, Garver ranks second in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage, third in walk rate, and he is tied with Jeffers for second in wRC+ (behind only Tom Murphy's 47-game season with the Mariners).

Given the weak offensive free agent class, Garver's prowess with the bat, and his ability to play behind the plate, one might assume that the veteran is on his way to a top-of-the-market payday this offseason. However, Garver's situation isn't that simple. Beyond the fact that he'll play the 2024 campaign at age-33, there's also the concern of his lengthy injury history. Garver missed six weeks with a sprained knee earlier this season, and in recent years has also missed time due to forearm, groin, back, intercostal, and ankle issues. Between those injuries and his role as a catcher requiring more days off than most everyday players, Garver has played just 209 games the past three seasons despite being a clear everyday talent when healthy.

Upon his return from the injured list in June, the Rangers helped Garver stay on the field by utilizing him primarily as a designated hitter. Though he hit well in the role, he was limited to just 25 games behind the plate over the season's final four months, which will surely raise questions for potential suitors regarding Garver's ability to catch regularly going forward.

As a DH, Garver would still have value, though it would be significantly reduced. Belt and J.D. Martinez are two examples of defensively-limited sluggers in their mid-thirties who posted similar numbers to Garver in 2023, and both ended up signing one-year deals this past offseason. That's not to say Garver will necessarily be limited to similarly short-term offers, though it's hard to imagine a player of his age and injury history approaching the much more significant contract (five years, $87.5MM) commanded by Willson Contreras last year, despite Contreras being a fellow catcher with relatively comparable offensive numbers in recent years.

That seems particularly true given that Garver seems to best fit a team with another reliable catching option, so Garver could have a clear path to DH playing time and face less pressure to regularly suit up behind the plate. Of course, the Rangers have such an arrangement, with Jonah Heim as the club's everyday catcher and plenty of DH starts available for Garver. The Cubs and Padres are among other teams who could theoretically provide Garver with occasional time behind the plate next year alongside regular backstops Yan Gomes and Luis Campusano while allowing him to DH the majority of the time, which would seem to be the best approach in order to maximize both Garver's talents and time on the field.

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