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2016 Seattle Mariners Spring Preview: The Catchers

Thursday, February 25, 2016

 

Today, I ate garlic fries and drank a beer. I sat with my Seattle Mariners-themed snacks and watched the MLB Network and reveled in the dawn of another baseball season. Sure, the news coming out of all of the different training camps is banal, and nothing of real substance is going on. Yet still, here we are, watching the first glimmers of the coming baseball season. 

The Mariners are in Arizona getting ready for spring games to get underway with every one of their pitchers and catchers reporting on time and many a little early. Only Jesus Sucre, who is out for the season, didn’t report. New manager Scott Servais has a daunting task in front of him, as he’ll be trying to get across his philosophy to a group of pitchers who have never played with any of these starting catchers. And at the same time trying to get his game plan across to a group of catchers who are also all learning an all-new pitching staff at the same time. This is the first big challenge of having a half-turned over roster, and probably not the last.  A newly constructed team is likely to have growing pains, so we’d best be ready for this season to hold many surprises. 

The philosophical flag being waved looks simple enough. Control the zone. Both offensively and from a pitching standpoint, it will be the focus of players this March. Much like the line of scrimmage in football, Scott Servais believes that if you control the strike zone, you control the game. So, as we talk about catchers it’s worth noting that there are specific criteria the coaching staff and front office will be looking for. 

The Seattle Mariners have five catchers on their 40-man roster. We’re only going to talk about the three catchers who we expect to see in the majors this year. Of course, baseball seasons are long and don’t always go as planned. A lot can change over six months of baseball. But here are three catchers I’ll be watching and their storylines.

Mike Zunino

On June 4, 2012, Mike Zunino was drafted third overall by the Mariners. A polished college hitter, many thought he could be a big-league contributor as quickly as any player drafted that year. He made his MLB debut on the June 12, 2013. He logged 175 at-bats in 2013, and 438 more in 2014. That is a lot of inning for a catcher with that little minor-league experience. In 2014 he hit 22 home runs but hit for a .199 batting average and a .254 on-base percentage. In 2015, Zunino hit for a .174 BA and a .230 OBP. Toward the end of the year, he was sent down to AAA to work on his hitting and his confidence. 

It’s a true testament to Mike Zunino’s ability as a defensive catcher and game-caller that he’s been allowed to flail at the plate as long as he has. But his raw power and defense, combined with a complete lack of major-league caliber catchers on the team meant Zunino was rushed to the majors and stayed up long after he should have been sent back down to gain experience. 

This offseason, new general manager Jerry Dipoto brought in two veteran catchers. Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger were brought in via free agency and trade, respectively, and added depth immediately to a very shallow position throughout the organization. And more importantly they’ve provided the organization with the opportunity to put Zunino back in the incubator until he ready to hatch. It sounds like that is exactly the plan. 

One thing I haven’t heard mentioned yet in the conversation about Zunino starting the year in Tacoma is how good it will be for the Tacoma Rainiers to have Zunino gaining confidence while framing pitches for our AAA pitching staff. Jerry Dipoto, along with new Director of Player Development, Andy McKay, have been talking publicly about the idea of winning organizationally. From Class A in Everett, all the way to Safeco Field, they want the same philosophies and same winning culture at every level. I think having a talented catcher in Tacoma, who is still only 25 mind you, could really help our developing pitchers. 

If Mike Zunino can turn around his woes at the plate, he has the ability to be an All-star catcher. And if all goes well this year, he’ll have plenty of time to figure it out. 

Chris Iannetta

Chris Iannetta is a good defensive catcher. More than anything, though, he is a veteran catcher with a history of getting on base. Last year Iannetta had a bad year. He hit .183, and had an OBP bellow .300 for the first time in his 10-year career. Even with last years drop off he carries with him a career .351 OBP and should be an offensive upgrade over what Zunino provided even if he doesn’t fully rebound back to his career-average production. Chris Iannetta can control the strike zone. And that makes him valuable.

One thing, however, we shouldn’t ever expect Iannetta to do is hit right-handed pitching. He’s never done it well, and there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly start. That brings us to the platoon plan. 

Steve Clevenger

Clevenger was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in a trade for Mark Trumbo. He has one thing going for him. He is left-handed. Not to be flippant, but he doesn’t walk a lot. He doesn’t get on base a lot. He hits right-handed pitching a little, and his defensive skills are nothing to be excited for. Really he’s a day off for Iannetta when needed and privately the Mariners might be looking around at other options. From a salary stand point, the Mariners really traded Mark Trumbo for Adam Lind, and Steve Clevenger was just a by-product of the process. I can’t say I’ve seen Clevenger play a lot, so maybe he puts together tough at-bats and hustles. Maybe he’s a spark plug, and he’ll have a huge impact on the team this year. Here’s hoping there’s more than meets the eye. 

Though the team has added depth at the catching position, I can’t help but still feel a little nervous that I’m hinging my hopes on a comeback year from Chris Iannetta. If he struggles, I don’t see any options in the organization other than Zunino to take over. And the best thing for Mike Zunino and the team is probably to let him develop. 

We’ll know more soon enough as spring games get underway in the next couple of weeks. Check back next week for my last piece in this series on the Mariners’ roster, by position group. And in the meantime, read the first three installments, Starting Pitchers, Outfielders and Infielders. Next time, we talk about what I believe is the biggest linchpin in the Seattle Mariners 2016 season. The bullpen. 

 

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