Major League Baseball
How D-backs' Gabriel Moreno went from unknown to franchise catcher
Major League Baseball

How D-backs' Gabriel Moreno went from unknown to franchise catcher

Updated Oct. 16, 2023 4:51 p.m. ET

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto has been the gold standard at the game's most demanding position for years now. But while Realmuto continues to shine on the October stage, it's his counterpart in the National League Championship Series — the Diamondbacks' Gabriel Moreno — who has been among the biggest breakout performers of this year's postseason.

With three homers across his first five playoff games, Moreno's upcoming positional showdown with Realmuto will be a prime opportunity for the 23-year-old to demonstrate why he has one of the brightest futures of any young catcher in baseball. 

That pursuit continues Monday in Game 1 of the NLCS in Philadelphia. While Moreno's pro journey fascinatingly began in Toronto via Venezuela seven years ago (more on that in a moment), his tenure in Arizona spans less than 10 months. Even so, it's hard to envision these Diamondbacks, who've yet to lose in the 2023 postseason, without their first-year catcher. 

Moreno is technically not a rookie, however, which ties into how he ended up with Arizona in the first place.


Signed out of Venezuela at 16 years old for just a $25,000 bonus by the Blue Jays in 2016, Moreno was not a highly ranked prospect as an amateur. A .570 OPS in his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League the following year did little to change that perception. But once he arrived stateside in 2018, Moreno's stock quickly began to rise. Scouts who saw him on the backfields in Dunedin, Florida were immediately impressed by his contact skills at the plate and advanced ability as a defender. The numbers spoke for themselves: He hit .413 with 16 extra-base hits over 23 games in the Gulf Coast League and ultimately earned a promotion to the Appalachian League for the final month, where he was one of the youngest players in the league. 

In just a year, he had launched out of obscurity and into the conversation as one of the best catching prospects in the lower minors.

Moreno carried that momentum into 2019 with a strong showing in low-A, but the cancelation of the MiLB season in 2020 put his ascent on pause. He'd pick up where he left off with a torrid start (1.082 OPS) to the Double-A season in 2021 before a broken thumb derailed his development further. Still, an excellent stint in the prospect-packed Arizona Fall League upon returning from the injury restored some of the hype as he closed out his age-21 season.

Despite doing everything an organization could ask from him considering the circumstances, Moreno faced a new obstacle entering 2022: The Blue Jays already had not just one catcher they liked, but two in Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk

That made it awfully hard to project where Moreno fit into their plans, even as he rapidly approached big-league readiness. Last summer, his scorching first few months in Triple-A finally forced the Blue Jays' hand. They called him up for the first time in June when Jansen was sidelined with an injury. But with Kirk heating up into All-Star form and Jansen returning in relatively short order, Moreno's .593 OPS over his first 18 games didn't cut it. Back to Triple-A he went, and it's where he remained until late September when he was recalled by Toronto. (Moreno then actually exceeded the rookie service-time limit despite hardly seeing the field).  

This past winter, Toronto decided having three starting-quality catchers was no longer viable. Kirk and Jansen were one of the most productive backstop tandems in baseball. Suddenly, Moreno, though still unproven in the majors with just 25 games under his belt, became one of the more attractive trade chips in the league. He just needed a team that would play him.

The D-backs pounced. 

Phillies vs. Diamondbacks Game 1 NLCS preview

While Toronto boasted catching depth to deal from, Arizona had a bevy of outfielders without enough playing time to go around. With the two organizations actively seeking upgrades — and the positional needs lining up — a deal was neatly completed. Arizona sent 26-year-old outfielder Daulton Varsho, who was coming off a career year, to Toronto in exchange for Moreno and outfielder/designated hitter Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who had one year remaining on his contract (and manifested it into an All-Star campaign). 

Under team control through 2026, Varsho was lauded as a long-term outfield solution who boasted elite defense with an exciting power/speed profile at the plate. For the D-backs, Moreno was a potential franchise cornerstone at a position that can be especially difficult to find impact talent. Still, acquiring any young player via trades comes with the risk of not knowing whether the player you didn't draft or sign as an amateur has what it takes to maximize his skill set at the highest level.

"I'm not sure I can honestly tell you that in retrospect that we had all those boxes checked," Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen told FOX Sports. "You do your due diligence. You ask a lot of questions. You try to figure it out. Not just a young player, but a young player at the hardest position in baseball. There's a lot of unknowns there."  

Though Moreno's path to playing time was far clearer with Arizona than in Toronto, there was still competition to beat out. Even after a rough year in 2022, incumbent catcher Carson Kelly arrived at spring training expecting to be the starter once again. But once Kelly suffered a fractured forearm in late March, there was no longer any doubt. Moreno was the guy.

"We felt like we were very well-equipped with Gabi as the starter even though it was going to be a big responsibility," D-backs manager Torey Lovullo told FOX Sports. "We felt like it was going to be something he could handle.

"I can't tell you how grateful we were to have him and have him step into that role."

Moreno embraced the unique challenge of being a young catcher at the MLB level, learning how to best support his own pitching staff while simultaneously figuring out how to hit against the best arms in the world. 

"We knew he could really throw. We knew his makeup. We knew he could block," Hazen said. "How the game-calling has come along … it's through good coaching. A lot of the preparation that we do is not just preparing the pitcher. It's preparing the catcher. [Moreno] works hard at what we need him to work hard at, and he has improved tremendously."

While the bat took some time to come along, his elite physical skills on defense translated immediately. Just as he did at an absurdly high level at every stop of the minors, Moreno recorded an outrageously impressive 39% caught-stealing rate, by far the best in the majors this year for any catcher playing regularly. (Realmuto, for contrast, threw out just 22% of base stealers after leading the league with a 44% rate in 2022). 

Just as Arizona has taken advantage of the new rules enabling more stolen bases, Moreno's superpower has protected his club from being victimized by that very trend. The success rate on steals was at an all-time high in 2023 — 80%, to be exact — making Moreno a crucial key to Arizona's run prevention efforts all year.  

"Gabi has done a really good job shutting down the running game," Hazen said. "I think with the new rules, that became a big deal for us being able to shut down the running game." 

Beyond the rocket arm, Moreno has also done a great job of keeping the ball in front of him. He allowed just one passed ball in 854 innings of work — the newly introduced advanced blocking metrics also tabbed Moreno as being elite in the category. While his framing metrics were below average, the rest of the package more than makes up for it. 

All this combined to help Moreno score exceptionally well in one advanced defensive metric in particular: His 3.1 dWAR wasn't just the highest ever for a catcher 23-years-old or younger — it's tied with 2017 Tucker Barnhart and 1982 Bob Boone (both of whom won Gold Gloves in those seasons) for the fifth-highest dWAR by any catcher in a single season. 

Though the spectacular glove work goes a long way toward solidifying an ultra-valuable profile for Moreno no matter what, his offensive ceiling remains unclear. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. He's always demonstrated exceptional contact skills and the ability to hit for a high average — especially for a catcher. But what about the power? Is there another gear to unlock? This postseason has been an exciting hint at what could be in store.

We started to see glimpses of greater offensive potential in the closing months of the regular season. After missing three weeks between late July and early August with a shoulder injury, Moreno slugged .496 over his final 37 regular-season games, a huge uptick from the .360 SLG% he posted in his first 74 games.

"I think he took a step back, watched from afar, caught his breath, and he came back a totally different player at that point in time," Lovullo said. "He was progressing very nicely prior to the injury, but when he came back in mid-August, he really took off."

His power surge has carried over into the postseason in stunning fashion, with homers in three of Arizona's five wins en route to the NLCS. 

These weren't exactly wall-scrapers, either. Moreno's 425-foot blast off the Brewers' Corbin Burnes in Game 1 of the wild-card series was the farthest homer he's hit as a big leaguer. His moonshot to the Dodger Stadium bleachers off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS came off the bat at 110.8 mph, marking a new career high in exit velocity. And if those two weren't dramatic enough, Moreno's third homer might have been the most memorable: a 420-foot blast to left field in Arizona this past Wednesday, one pitch after parking a ball in the right-field seats and circling the bases only for the hit to be ruled foul upon review.

Moreno now arrives in the NLCS with a much bigger spotlight on him than when these playoffs began. After spending the majority of the year batting seventh or eighth for the Diamondbacks, Moreno has batted fifth in all five of their postseason games — something he didn't do once in the regular season. And he's delivered. 

Should Arizona advance past Philadelphia, Moreno could become the youngest catcher to start a World Series game since Buster Posey in 2010. Regardless of this series' result, Moreno's first year with the Snakes has made one thing clear: We'll be watching him play for years to come. 

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for, DAZN and The Ringer. He's a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.


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