We have a question to ponder here, in a moment, about Seattle Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh and his outlook for the 2023 season. First, a related question looking back: What, do you think, was the best thing that happened to the Mariners in 2022?
The one-word response should be obvious: Julio. (Followed by another one-word response: Duh.)
It’s not a stretch to say that Julio Rodriguez’s breakthrough as a 21-year-old rookie is one of the very best things that’s ever happened to the Mariners organization. He’s that good, he’s that charismatic and, yes, he’s all yours, Seattle, for potentially the rest of his career. (How cool is that?)
OK, beyond Julio: What’s the next-best thing that happened to the Mariners in 2022?
Finally reaching the playoffs? Absolutely. That has to be very high on the list.
Trading for a bona fide ace in Luis Castillo (and signing him to a five-year extension)? Yep, that’s up there too.
The emergence of young right-handers Logan Gilbert and George Kirby? Sure, sure. They have to be considered, along with just about anything the Mariners did on the mound last year.
What about Raleigh? What about the unlikely turnaround of a young catcher who was demoted to the minors in April and wound up being one of the Mariners’ most valuable players by September?
From a player-development standpoint — and simply standing on its own as a feel-good story — we’d submit Raleigh’s breakthrough as the next-best thing that happened to the Mariners last season.
And as we continue 2023 Mariners position overviews, we’ll submit this question to consider about Raleigh’s potential:
Could he become the best catcher in baseball?
In his first full year, Raleigh, at age 25, put together one of the most productive seasons ever by a Mariners catcher, leading all MLB catchers with 27 homers (a club record for the position) and posting a FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement of 4.2, which ranked second on the team (behind only Rodriguez’s 5.3) and fourth among all MLB catchers (behind J.T. Realmuto’s 6.5, Adley Rutschman’s 5.3 and Sean Murphy’s 5.1).
Along the way, Raleigh earned a lovable nickname, endeared himself to schoolkids everywhere, and gained the trust of the pitching staff for his diligent work behind the plate, all while playing the final few weeks of the season with a battered thumb that required offseason surgery.
And, oh yeah, he also delivered one of the most iconic moments in Seattle sports history with a two-out, 3-2, pinch-hit walkoff home run on Sept. 30 that ended the 21-year playoff drought.
No one would have reasonably predicted any of that when Raleigh was sent down to Tacoma in late April. At the time, he had a .083/.214/.208 slash line and, perhaps most glaring, he’d committed three errors in his first eight starts at catcher.
He was recalled just 10 days later, only after veteran catcher Tom Murphy was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury.
Raleigh’s turnaround was sudden. On June 3, he went 2 for 3 with a double and a homer in a 4-3 win at Texas. And in his final 94 games from then on, Raleigh hit .230 with 23 home runs, 19 doubles, one triple in 337 plate appearances, with an .833 OPS and a wRC+ of 137 that ranked only behind Rutschman and Realmuto (tied at 143) among all catchers.
The Mariners had a 49-27 regular-season record (.645) in games Raleigh started from June 3 on.
“It’s been one of the craziest, most fun years I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Raleigh said at the end of the season. “To think that I got to this point, all the way from where I was in April-May, it’s crazy to think about. I’m just so thankful for all these guys in the clubhouse, for having a good support group around me. Those are the people who helped me get through it.”
As important as anything, Raleigh blossomed into an elite defensive catcher. He was second among all MLB catchers in FanGraphs’ defensive valuation and finished with a team-best 14 runs saved in 917 innings behind the plate, according to The Fielding Bible. He was charged with just three errors in the final four months, earned high marks for his pitch framing, and was a Gold Glove finalist.
“Wow, what a season, right?” veteran reliever Paul Sewald said in October. “I’m just so proud of him. Last year (in 2021), you were questioning what pitch Cal was putting down and you’re trying to make sure you knew the scouting report (for each batter). This year, if he puts it down, we’re ready to rock and roll. You could see that he really took the pitching staff under his wing and a lot of us owe a lot to him for that.”
As a switch hitter in a lineup that leans heavily on right-handed hitters, Raleigh could wind up being the Mariners’ regular cleanup hitter in 2023, particularly against right-handed starters. Entering his prime at age 26, he has cemented his place as a foundational figure on a team with designs on another playoff run this year — and that, Jerry Dipoto will tell you, was the plan all along.
“What Cal did this year is not surprising for us at all,” the team’s president of baseball operations said at the end of the season. “And I know that sounds easy to say now. But we’ve we felt that way from, really from the jump. This has been who Cal was from the day we drafted him and as he came through the minor leagues — the physical toughness, the mental toughness, the game awareness.
“He’s always had the two-way skills, behind the plate and in the batter’s box. He’s got the big power, and he’ll take a walk. And he’s a guy who tends to come through big in the big moment.”
Beyond Raleigh, Murphy returns after having surgery in late June to repair a nagging left shoulder injury that had bothered him for the past few seasons. Murphy had a team-high 3.2 fWAR in 2019.
The Mariners also added Cooper Hummel in a November trade with Arizona for Kyle Lewis. Hummel is expected to compete in spring training for a bench spot in a utility role/third catcher.
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