This preseason, manager Don Mattingly said the Miami Marlins are through handing opportunities to players who haven’t earned them. It took the franchise the entire season, but on Thursday, the club made roster moves becoming of that mindset.
Before their series opener against the Pirates at loanDepot park, the Marlins officially sent infielder Isan Diaz to AAA, placed catcher (and new left fielder/first baseman) Jorge Alfaro on the IL and promoted catchers Payton Henry and Nick Fortes from Jacksonville. Henry, who was acquired at the deadline for John Curtiss and Fortes, a 2018 fourth round pick, will now both be protected from the rule 5 draft this winter.
The additions of Henry and Fortes give the Marlins four catchers on their 28 man roster. After the moves, Mattingly told the media at loanDepot park that Miami will go with a catcher rotation for the rest of the season. That format proved to be true during the Marlins’ most recent series against the Pirates as the team started a different backstop in each game.
The first game went to Henry, a Brewers’ 2016 sixth round pick out of Pleasant Grove High School in Utah. He is the second overall player and first position player from that school to make an MLB appearance. He also became the first player ever from the state of Utah to play for the Marlins’ organization.
Henry had an interesting upbringing in athletics. While many players grow up within or at least around the game, he grew up in another world: the world of competitive wrestling. Through his upbringing, raw strength was always a foregone conclusion for Henry and it has parlayed into 60 grade raw power, an attribute rarely found in backstops. Henry has put his muscle on display often in his minor league career, slugging 37 homers and 70 doubles in 369 career minor league games. The power potential showed up again on Thursday night in Miami when Henry drilled a pitch off the center field wall for his first MLB hit. In addition to the power, Henry also sees pitching pretty well and works quality at bats. In his tenure with the Shrimp, the batting average was down but he walked at a 12.5% clip. On the year as a whole between AA and two AAA squads, the figure is still in double digits. He also has held slightly high but manageable K rates under 30%, on average.
On the other side of the ball, Henry had a lot less raw tools and therefore a lot of growing to do when he began his career. The main focal point was his lack of agility and ability to move laterally and block pitches. In his first four seasons pro, Henry allowed 29 passed balls. However, he’s done a ton of work on that area of his game and the stats this year have proven it. In 61 games, he allowed just four passed balls. His arm has come along as well. After only catching 7 of 34 runners in 2016 and 16 of 58 in 2017, Henry has thrown out 113 of his last 286 potential base stealers (39.5%).
“[I] Definitely still have room to grow and room to improve just like anybody, but I’ve been seeing the ball well,” Henry said of his recent production. “Just trying to stay in the middle of the field and keep it simple. I give myself queues like “hit it forward,” things like that. Just keep baseball simple. That’s been my main focus and my main goal.”
The kind of thump Henry can provide is not often found at the catcher position. If his receiver skills and pitch blocking can persist while handing big league stuff, Henry is a viable and powerful backup catcher off the bench with the ability to slot in as a DH or, given the Marlins’ front office’s liking for making players multi-faceted, perhaps a first baseman.
Also recalled was Friday’s starter at catcher, Nick Fortes. Fortes was a Marlins fourth round pick in 2018 out of Mississippi.
Where Henry has been known for his offensive prowess and had to develop his defense, Fortes is the polar opposite. Since his time with the Hammerheads, Fortes’ teammates have raved about his game calling abilities. They were echoed by Edward Cabrera after Cabrera was partnered with Fortes on Saturday night.
“He’s a good catcher. He managed the game very well,” Cabrera said. “I feel very comfortable with him behind the plate.”
Due to injuries limiting his 2019 season to 76 games and the pandemic wiping out the 2020 MiLB season, 2021 has been Fortes’ first full year of on field participation. During it, Fortes has shown some stark improvement on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in the second month of the season. He started the year in AA Pensacola and after a .224 month of May, broke out for a .299/.365/.442 June. Fortes was promoted to AAA Jacksonville in late July and recorded three hits in his debut with the Jumbo Shrimp. In his MLB debut, Fortes recorded a single for his first pro hit and followed it up by belting his first homer.
According to Fortes, he has advantageously transformed his skillset this season.
“It’s been a lot of work, that’s for sure. Looking back to 2018 when I was drafted to now, I’m a completely different player. in my opinion. Different swing, different defensive abilities and mechanics,” Fortes said. “Seeing to where I’ve grown to now from where I’ve been it’s kind of crazy but that’s just a credit to all the coaches I’ve met along the way and anybody who has had an input on my game. It’s been a crazy ride so far but I’m just going to keep working hard.”
It is extremely encouraging to see Fortes handle upper minors pitching with more consistency especially after such an interrupted career in the lower minors. His game calling and receiving skills, the most important trait in a backup catcher, are what set him apart. As he proved on Saturday when he threw out the only runner that challenged him, he also has a strong arm and good vertical pop that should play better as he handles MLB stuff. If the bat can continue to prove prove it is capable of handling major league pitching, he should be able to fill that role very sufficiently.
It took them longer to do so than expected, but the Marlins have finally proven they are willing to at least start following a mantra that was set forth in spring training: stop handing out opportunities, move on from experiments and begin to gauge what they have in fringe MLB ready prospects at the back end of the roster. When it comes to the backup catcher position in particular, both Henry and Fortes are in a great position to make a good first impression and give themselves a leg up in what should be a roster battle this coming spring.