Ex-Brewers catching prospect Mario Feliciano ready for ‘fresh start’ with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Sometimes, a change of scenery is necessary.

Mario Feliciano, a former offense-first catching prospect with the Milwaukee Brewers, would agree. Selected No. 75 overall in the 2016 draft, he won the High-A Carolina League MVP in 2019 and reached his peak as the Brewers’ No. 3 prospect in 2020. He still had a long way to go, but his future seemed promising.

Three years later, he has six plate appearances in his MLB career.

“At some point, it was always something,” Feliciano said. “It was my defense, it was my offense, it was my throwing, it was my receiving. It was always something new that I was doing wrong. With a fresh start, I’m going to do my thing and the coaches are going to give me some tips. It’s going to be good for my career.”

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The Detroit Tigers claimed Feliciano off waivers Dec. 21 from the Brewers.

He was designated for assignment in early January, and since he cleared waivers, he received a non-roster invitation to MLB spring training. The 24-year-old, removed from the 40-man roster, could compete for a job in Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers will have eight catchers in camp: Feliciano, Eric Haase, Jake Rogers, Donny Sands, Andrew Knapp, Michael Papierski, Dillon Dingler and Julio Rodriguez.

Feliciano needs to rebuild his status as a big-league-caliber player.

If he does, he should be an option for the Tigers in 2023.

“I’m on a new team with a new opportunity,” Feliciano said. “I feel like this is a new chance to show the Tigers that I can catch, I can hit, and I can play in the big leagues. I can help a team win a World Series.”

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Through three MLB games, Feliciano is 1-for-4 with two walks and one strikeout in his career. He played one game in 2021 and two games in 2022, and he notched his first hit in August against Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Tony Gonsolin.

Playing time wasn’t easy to come by.

The Brewers favored three catchers over Feliciano last season: Omar Narváez, Víctor Caratini and Alex Jackson.

“It was super hard,” Feliciano said. “It’s a good thing I’m mentally strong because, in that situation, some players quit. I talked a lot with Narvi and Caratini. Those two guys told me to stay positive. This is a business. Sometimes, you’re not going to understand the decisions from the front office, but it is what it is.”

In 2022, Feliciano played 77 games for Triple-A Nashville.

He hit .274 with six home runs, 18 walks (5.8% walk rate) and 52 strikeouts (16.7% strikeout rate). His offense features a power-over-hit profile and an all-or-nothing approach, but when he makes contact, he hits the ball hard.

The biggest problem: Feliciano’s chase rates have been abysmal for his entire career, though his in-zone contact rates are sufficient. His poor walk rate doesn’t fit the “dominate the strike zone” plan from Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris. Hitting more home runs, of course, would boost his value.

“I’m trying to make some adjustments to be that guy from 2019, that power again,” Feliciano said. “At that time, I didn’t worry about launch angle. Once launch angle came, that threw me off a little bit. I’m trying to figure out what I can do by putting in the old-school and new-school hitting things together. Now, I understand launch angle is just a word.”

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After the 2016 draft, Feliciano ranked as the Brewers’ No. 24 prospect in 2017, No. 15 prospect in 2018, No. 14 prospect in 2019, No. 3 prospect in 2020 and No. 5 prospect in 2021. He was designated for assignment Dec. 14 when the Brewers officially traded for infielder Owen Miller from the Cleveland Guardians.

Feliciano climbed the ladder but stalled out.

His best season occurred in 2019 for High-A Carolina (116 games) and Double-A Biloxi (three games). He hit .270 with 19 home runs, 29 walks and 143 strikeouts in 119 games. Kenny Graham, the Tigers’ director of player development, served as the Brewers’ minor-league hitting coordinator in the 2017-19 seasons, so he’s familiar with Feliciano’s style at the plate.

The power surge offset the strikeout problem.

“In 2019, my hands were very high,” Feliciano said of his mechanics. “At some point, they told me to bring them down, and that’s when I started losing my power. My hands were way lower. This year, (Triple-A hitting coach Al LeBoeuf) told me to bring my hands up again and the ball would fly more. I feel like that works for me. Once I put my hands up, everything is going to happen.”

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There was another reason for Feliciano’s struggles over the past three seasons. After his MLB debut in May 2021, he missed most of the minor-league season due to a right shoulder impingement. He also underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery following the 2018 season.

Those injuries caused setbacks in his development.

Feliciano is considered an unstable defender. He made strides with pitch framing last season but remains below average in that category. This offseason, Feliciano focused on his defense while playing for Gigantes de Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League. His offense, though, was underwhelming. He hit .165 with six walks and 25 strikeouts in 33 games.

“Everyone is talking about receiving, receiving, receiving,” Feliciano said. “People got to understand it’s not just receiving. You got to catch the ball, you got to throw the ball. There’s a lot of stuff to be a catcher, like receiving, throwing, calling the game, blocking.”

Next up, Feliciano will showcase his skills in Lakeland, Florida.

He thinks he can return to the majors and build on his six plate appearances.

“Staying healthy is the biggest thing,” Feliciano said of his goals for the 2023 season. “Wherever they send me, I’m going to do my work, and if I get to the big leagues, I want to help the team win, make the playoffs and win everything.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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