Rafael Marchan hit his first professional home run on Sept. 18, 2020. It was a game-tying three-run blast, not in Rookie-ball or Single-A, or any minor league affiliate for that matter—it was with the Philadelphia Phillies against the Toronto Blue Jays.
His appearance with the club came in an emergency situation. Starting catcher J.T. Realmuto was injured and sidelined from catching duty for 10 days in mid-September, and Andrew Knapp couldn't be expected to shoulder the catching workload alone, so Marchan's contract was selected from the Alternate Training Site to fill in.
Again in 2021, Marchan was called upon several times to fill in for backup catching duty when Realmuto or Knapp missed time with injuries. He performed admirably for his situation, slashing .231/.286/.346 and hitting his second-ever professional home run.
At just 23 years old, Marchan is almost finished as a defensive product. He could get consistent time at the major league level and perform as one of baseball's better backup catchers, though his hit tool and power certainly require more development.
Due to 2020's shortened season and his major league/Triple-A carousel ride in 2021, Marchan never saw consistent playing time at Lehigh Valley. Even though his development has been stunted due to the calamites of a global pandemic, many still considered him the strongest candidate for the backup catching job in 2022 once Andrew Knapp was granted free agency.
The Phillies' other candidate going into the offseason was Logan O'Hoppe.
O'Hoppe's scouting report is nearly antithetical to Marchan. He still requires seasoning on defense, but has shown a mature approach at the plate and an ability to wallop minor league pitching.
In 2021, he breezed through the Phillies farm system, jumping from High-A to Triple-A in a few short months with a .270/.331/.458 slash line and 17 home runs in 438 bats. His production was so encouraging that the Phillies sent him to the Arizona Fall League with fellow top prospect Bryson Stott.
There he impressed even further, slashing .299/.440/.520 with three home runs in 100 plate appearances. Do these numbers mean O'Hoppe is ready to face big league pitching?
A very firm maybe.
He undoubtedly requires more time in the minor leagues to hone his skills defensively, but O'Hoppe could probably serve as an above-average backup in the major leagues right now.
With two prime candidates on minimum contracts, the Phillies backup catcher conundrum seemed solved, in fact O'Hoppe had vaulted as high as no. 5 on MLB's pre-season Phillies prospect rankings.
But barely a week into spring training, both players had been optioned to Phillies' minor league camp, O'Hoppe on March 21 and Marchan on March 22.
Former Houston Astro Garrett Stubbs will be the man to backup J.T. Realmuto on the Opening Day roster, and additionally acquired Donny Sands will presumably take some reps in Triple-A.
It seems strange that the Phillies were so quick to abandon their catching prospects for 2022, especially so when one considers that there are now four catchers on their 40-man roster.
There are, of course, logical reasons for the Phillies to keep Marchan and O'Hoppe in the minors besides furthering their development, the most exciting of which could be that the Phillies are building their value for a trade.
Keeping one of the two at the major league level as Realmuto's backup could lead to a slump or a loss in confidence. Failing to perform there on a consistent basis could present a precipitous drop in trade value.
But keeping Stubbs, Marchan, Realmuto, and Sands all on the 40-man roster for the entire season doesn't make much sense either—especially given how starved the team is for 40-man space.
One or more of these players will likely be dangled as trade bait before the trade deadline. O'Hoppe's value is especially high, as he's proven to have a legitimate hit tool, and doesn't require a team to make space on their 40-man roster for him just yet.
Potential landing spots for Marchan and O'Hoppe aren't just limited to rebuilding teams since both are near major league ready. Though the Oakland Athletics are certainly an attractive partner due to their ongoing fire sale and litany of pieces that would fit the Phillies roster.
Their crown jewel for the Phillies is Ramón Laureano, a defense-first center fielder who could solve a wide list of problems for Philadelphia. Though any trade package involving Laureano would likely include a little more than just, say, Rafael Marchan on the Phillies' end. Lou Trivino, The A's pegged closer, could also make some sense for the Phils.
The Pittsburgh Pirates could be another trade partner, for such a weak team, they have a fairly strong bullpen and lack a proven backup catcher. A deal could be consummated for a player like Chris Stratton before the season begins Friday.
The Phillies still have a variety of bullpen questions to figure out with just days remaining before Opening Day.
Whatever choice the Phillies make, having more prospects than spots to play them is always a good problem to have.
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