Last season, the Twins used a catcher-by-committee system. Mitch Garver started 73 games at catcher, Jason Castro started 72 and Willians Astudillo 17.
There was no question that at the start of last season the Twins viewed Castro as their best defensive catcher, but they let him leave in the offseason for a one-year, $7 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels because they think Garver is ready to play more games behind the plate than he did in 2019 and become a true No. 1 catcher.
The Twins signed Alex Avila to a one-year deal after the 33-year old hit .207 in 63 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but there’s no question they view him as the backup. The word is that Astudillo will battle for the Twins’ final position-player spot, but as spring training begins the catcher position is surely Garver’s to lose.
Garver’s offensive ability had always been touted by the club as he rose up the minor league ranks. Last year, he proved he can be the best-hitting catcher in baseball as he hit 31 homers even though he played in just 93 games and had only 359 plate appearances. That was easily the most homers of any player in baseball with that few plate appearances.
The next-closest player was Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, who had 27 homers in 369 plate appearances.
Yes, I remember last season when Joe Mauer told me he thought Garver had a real shot to be a star behind the plate for the Twins.
“He’s always been a guy that I have enjoyed watching him hit,” Mauer said.
It was a historic year for Garver in terms of power, but he also believes the experience he got behind the plate can carry over into this season.
“It was a successful year. I ended up hitting pretty well, hit a bunch of home runs and you know I got experienced more behind the plate and working with my pitchers,” Garver said before reporting to spring training. “I think we improved a lot last year from the year previous, and we’re looking to do it again.”
One thing that could make a big impact on this club is that it lost hitting coach James Rowson to the Miami Marlins, where he became bench coach and offensive coordinator.
Garver told me last season that his relationship with Rowson had grown and improved his hitting. But he also said he has some experience with the new hitting coach, who was promoted out of the Twins minor league system.
“We actually lost our hitting coach James Rowson to the Miami Marlins but we have a new guy coming in, his name is Edgar Varela,” Garver said. “I’ve worked with him previously in the minor leagues a little bit, so we’re excited to have him.”
The good news is that Garver will have some consistency in working with the pitchers because pitching coach Wes Johnson is back for a second season.
“Wes has been a really good asset for us and the pitchers really like him and he has come in and done a great job making sure we’re all on the same page,” Garver said. “I think the guys really respond to the way he really teaches the game.”
Avila knows Central
When asked about losing Castro, the 29-year-old Garver sounded ready to be the everyday catcher.
“It should help me and I should play a little bit more and I’m excited to meet up with Alex Avila, and you know hopefully we can lead this staff to some more wins,” Garver said.
And while there’s no question Garver is going to get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate, Twins General Manager Thad Levine told me that they still like having Avila working with Garver as he continues to grow as a defensive catcher.
“[Avila] has a ton of experience catching in the American League Central, primarily with the Detroit Tigers and secondarily with the Chicago White Sox,” Levine said. “Like Jason, he brings a lefthanded bat to complement Mitch Garver, and I think also, from all the research we have done, he has had a real impact on young catchers in the game.
“Not that Mitch is that young, but he is still up-and-coming from a defensive standpoint, and then one of our better prospects on the horizon is a catching prospect [Ryan Jeffers] who may get a chance to spend some time around Alex and Mitch in spring training, at least. We’re very excited to be adding Alex to this team and very appreciative of everything Jason did for this franchise for three years.
Garver got started as a catcher when he was a kid, because his grandfather was a catcher who toured the Southwest playing fast-pitch softball.
“Always been a catcher; my grandpa got me into it. He got me my first mask when I was young, and I have been a catcher ever since,” Garver said. “[I was] born and raised in Albuquerque, played baseball my whole life and I got drafted by the Twins in the ninth round of the 2013 draft and worked my way all the way up from the minor leagues to the major leagues.”
One of the biggest offseason story lines for the Twins was that they lost Rowson and bench coach Derek Shelton, who became the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
And while the front office and coaching staff said all offseason that they were happy to see their coaches get those kinds of opportunities, the fact is that it could have a big impact on the club to start the season.
Both Rowson and Shelton were well-liked in the clubhouse and considered two of the best coaches in the game.
Rowson was given a lot of credit not only for the Twins’ success in setting the record for most home runs in baseball history, but his track record was excellent after working with the Yankees minor league system for years and helping to develop players such as Aaron Judge.
Shelton had a great relationship with manager Rocco Baldelli, going back to the seven seasons he spent as the hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Rays from 2010-16 when Baldelli was playing and coaching with the club.
The fact is that Shelton joined the club under manager Paul Molitor and last season, when Molitor was fired and Baldelli was brought on, there was a chance Shelton would leave. His decision to return was considered a big help for Baldelli in his first season as a major league manager.
The Twins replaced Shelton with Mike Bell, who draws great respect in the game after spending 13 years with the Diamondbacks. Varela, meanwhile, spent the past two seasons as Twins minor league field coordinator.