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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 9, 2010 at 12:29 PM

Finding “catcher of the future” has been ongoing headache for Mariners

miguelolivo.jpg

(Mariners closer Eddie Guardado pats Miguel Olivo after recording a save against the Angels on July 10, 2005. Olivo was traded to San Diego less than three weeks later. Associated Press photo).

The memory has dimmed, but the trade that brought Miguel Olivo to Seattle in June of 2004 was one of Bill Bavasi’s most widely praised deals. Not by most Mariners’ fans, who were predictably outraged that Freddy Garcia had been dumped for three guys they had barely heard of (Olivo, Jeremy Reed and Mike Morse), but by the cognoscenti who felt the M’s had landed their catcher of the future.

And they needed one, as Dan Wilson was in the final stages of his fine career. Wilson would play 103 games in 2004, but just 11 in ’05 before hanging up the shin guards for good. Jason Varitek, of course, would have been the perfect bridge from Wilson to the next generation, but the M’s infamously traded him to Boston (with Derek Lowe) in the 1997 Heathcliff Slocumb deal. Ryan Christianson, their top draft pick in 1999, never played a game in the majors. Ben Davis, who had all the tools in the world but never cared much about applying them, was a big flop in Seattle in 2002-03, just as he had been in San Diego after the Padres made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 1995 draft. Davis was actually a throw-in with Garcia in the Olivo deal, and was last seen trying to resurrect his career as a pitcher.

Olivo, it turned out, wasn’t the answer, either. Not only did he hit just .176 in 104 games with the Mariners over two years, but he frustrated his managers with his game-calling. By the trade deadline of 2005 — barely a year after they acquired him — the Mariners essentially gave him away to the Padres for a pitcher, Nathanael Mateo, who never made it out of Class AA, and a catcher, Miguel Ojeda, who has played the past four seasons in the Mexican pro league after an undistinguished journeyman’s career in the states.

On the day of the second Olivo trade, Bavasi said, “We felt it was in everyone’s best interests to give him a new lease on life. It’s real tough to move guys you had high hopes for, and especially tough because Miguel’s such a nice guy. A lot of us had gotten to like him quite a bit and wanted it to work for him here.”

That trade occurred one month after the Mariners, with the third overall pick in one of the most talent-rich drafts in MLB history, bypassed Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, whom everyone had expected them to pick, to instead take Jeff Clement. a left-handed-hitting catcher out of USC>. The prospect of a power-hitting catcher was simply too enticing, but Clement, too, fizzled during his M’s career. He was eventually traded to Pittsburgh in 2009 in the Jack Wilson deal. Converted to first base, Clement was given the starting job last year out of spring training, but didn’t hit and eventually wound up back in the minors. This winter, the Pirates took Clement off their 40-man roster and his future is murky.

Kenji Johjima, signed out of Japan prior to the 2006 season, was the next one annointed the Mariners’ Great Catching Hope. He started off in fine fashion, hitting .291 with 18 homers and 76 RBI his rookie season of 2006 (numbers which make him look like Johnny Bench compared to the recent showing of M’s catchers). Johjima’s Seattle stint lasted through four seasons of ever-diminishing production and playing time. After the 2008 season, amid constant talk that Mariners’ pitchers didn’t like throwing to Johjima, he opted out of the final two years of his contract (leaving $16 million on the table) and went back to Japan.

Over the past two seasons, the Mariners have had a hodge-podge of young and old catchers, none playing more than 80 games in either season, and none distinguishing themselves. And now they are turning to one of their previous catchers of the future, Olivo, to be their catcher of the present. Olivo’s career has blossomed somewhat in the five seasons since he left Seattle (he’ll turn 33 next July). He has shown solid power, hitting 81 homers from 2006-10 while with the Marlins, Royals and, most recently, Rockies. (Technically, Olivo was most recently with the Blue Jays, but that was a technicality. Last month, on Nov. 4, Colorado traded him to Toronto for cash or a player to be named, and the Blue Jays promptly declined his 2011 option, making Olivo a free agent. By paying $500,000 to buy him out, the Blue Jays will thus gain a sandwich pick in the 2011 draft as compensation for losing Olivo, a Type B free agent. The M’s do not lose any draft picks).

Like many people, I don’t really understand, or particularly like, this move. For one thing, there’s Olivo’s career .283 on-base percentage. Yes, he can jack the ball out of the park on occasion, but he’s not a selective hitter, to say the least (27 walks and 117 strikeouts last year, typical numbers for him). And as Dave Cameron points out, Olivo’s power is not conducive to Safeco Field. Throw in the fact that this acquisition would seem to stymie, if not end, the advancement of Adam Moore’s Seattle career, and the fact that the M’s, at $7 million over two years, are allocating a large portion of their scarce resources on Olivo, and it’s a curious signing.

But just another in a long line of moves by the Mariners to find themselves a catcher of stature.

Here’s a list of all the catchers the M’s have employed since the 2005 season, with total games played (hold your applause until the end, please):

Kenji Johjima 462

Rob Johnson 155

Jamie Burke 103

Adam Moore 65

Miguel Olivo 54

Rene Rivera 50

Yorvit Torrealba 41

Josh Bard 39

Pat Borders 39*

Jeff Clement 38

Miguel Ojeda 16

Wiki Gonzalez 14

Eliezer Alfonzo 12

Dan Wilson 11

Guillermo Quiroz 7

(*Borders total was incorrectly listed as 29 earlier)

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