The Mariners have, in essence, been looking for their catcher of the future for nine years now, ever since Dan Wilson went riding off into the sunset in 2005. Wilson played just 11 games that season, including one final inning catching Jamie Moyer on the last day of the season, after a torn ACL had wiped out most of the season.
But truthfully, the search for Wilson’s replacement had already begun in earnest that year (or even earlier; the Mariners acquired Ben Davis and Miguel Olivo — the first time — to fill that role, but neither one stuck). They got some mileage out of Kenji Johjima, and had high hopes for others along the way, and now once again they feel they really, truly have the guy in Mike Zunino who will hold down that position for years to come. Are they right? Time will tell. Zunino looks like he has the tools to be a solid every-day catcher — as well he should as the No. 3 overall draft pick — but so did Jeff Clement (also a No. 3 overall draft pick), and we know how that turned out.
From 2005 through this season, the Mariners have gone through a motley array of catchers in search of The One to succeed Wilson — 23, to be exact. Here is the roll call:
1 .Miguel Olivo (45 starts in ’05, 127 starts in 2011, 68 starts in 2012). The acquisition of Olivo in the Freddy Garcia trade was one deal for which Bill Bavasi was celebrated, because Olivo was regarded as an up-and-coming young catcher. But he hit just .151 in ’05 before Bavasi shipped him to San Diego (a favorite landing spot for Mariner busts) in exchange for someone named Nathaniel Mateo, and catcher Miguel Ojeda (tuck away that name). Olivo came back in 2011, of course, to have a season that was not nearly as good as many fans thought (a team-leading 19 homers and 62 RBIs, but a horrible .253 on-base percentage). They began to phase him out last year, and now his career appears to have reached an unfortunate end in Miami.
2. Yorvit Torrealba (36 starts in 2005). He’s gone on to have a decent career, playing on two World Series teams (on the losing end with Colorado and Texas), and still going strong as a Rockies’ backup. But Torrealba’s Mariners career barely registers. He was acquired from the Giants in a midseason trade for Randy Winn, and traded in the offseason to the Rockies for Marcos Carvajal, a pitcher who had 42 games in the majors, but none with Seattle. Torrealba flashed into the public spotlight in 2009 for a harrowing incident in which his son was kidnapped in Venezuela (and fortunately released by his abductors).
3, Pat Borders (37 starts in 2005). The Mariners always had a soft spot for Borders, bringing him back for stints in every season between 2001 and ’05. Loved to talk politics, hated to be compared to Crash Davis. He was 42 in 2005 and never played again in the big leagues, though he kicked around in the minor leagues for the Dodgers in 2006. He’d probably suit up now if anyone asked.
4, Wiki Gonzalez (13 starts in 2005) He was acquired from the Padres (naturally) in another one of those deals with San Diego to get rid of a struggling player, this time Jeff Cirillo. Gonzalez played just 14 games with the Mariners and 12 in ’06 with the Nationals before going on to invent Wikipedia.
5, Rene Rivera (12 starts in 2005, 30 starts in 2006). A second-round draft pick in 2001, Rivera broke in with a bang in 2005, putting up a .396/.408/.521 line in 16 games. But that proved to be a mirage, and he’s had a typical journeyman’s career as catching insurance in the minor leagues for a number of organizations. At age 29, he’s having one of his best seasons, hitting .324 in Triple-A with the Padres.
6, Miguel Ojeda (16 starts in 2005). I honestly don’t remember a thing about his Mariners stint. He played the last six years in Mexico but appears to have finally retired at age 38.
7, Kenji Johjima (131 starts in 2006, 128 starts in 2007, 95 starts in 2008, 67 starts in 2009). He had a very strong rookie year (.291/.332/.451 with 18 homers and 76 RBI, numbers that no single Mariners catcher has come close to replicating). But each successive year was worse, and Johjima finally opted out of his contract after the ’09 season. That decision was a huge financial gain for the Mariners, who were suddenly free and clear from the $7.7 million they owed him in 2010 and $8.1 million in 2011 — though it doesn’t appear that windfall was reinvested in replacement talent. Johjima’s three-year extension, signed on April 25, 2008, when he was hitting .194, was a huge controversy at the time, a move that irked many players.
8, Jamie Burke (34 starts in 2007, 25 starts in 2008, 11 starts in 2009). Burke was a younger version of Borders, a likable guy who was happy to be a third catcher and insurance policy. He was a kicker at Oregon State, once pitched in the 15th inning of a tie game for the Mariners (not a blowout, as I said earlier; Burke gave up a run and was charged with the loss against Detroit), and is now managing in the minors with the Burlington Bees in the Angels organization.
9, Rob Johnson (0 starts in 2007, seven starts in 2008, 75 starts in 2009, 57 starts in 2010). Johnson never could do much at the plate, hitting an even .200 with the M’s. After stints with the Padres and Mets, he’s now in Triple-A with the Cardinals.
10, Jeff Clement (35 starts in 2008). One of the great busts in Mariners history, which is a shame, because he was an earnest, hard-working guy. In a perfect world, he’s be just about reaching his prime right now with several All-Star appearances under his belt. Clement was the No. 3 overall pick in the legendary ’05 draft, take ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen (whose greatness will be in evidence tonight at Safeco Field), Jay Bruce and Jacoby Ellsbury. But injuries slowed him down, and the Mariners eventually shipped him to the Pirates in the trade that brought back Jack Wilson and Ian Snell. Clement was the Pirates’ Opening Day first baseman in 2010 but bombed out, and now he’s 29 years old and hitting .205 at Triple-A with the Twins. Sad story, cautionary tale.
11, Adam Moore (five starts in 2009, 58 starts in 2010, two starts in 2011). For awhile, Moore looked like he was going to be a sleeper stud, putting up great stats as he rose through the farm system. But once he got to the majors, Moore didn’t hit in 2010 was quickly phased out of their plans. Injuries didn’t help. He’s now 29 years old and hitting .207 at Triple-A with the Royals.
12, Josh Bard (35 starts in 2010, 25 starts in 2011). Perhaps best remembered for having a brother who turned Michael Saunders into a hitter, until he wasn’t.
13, Eliezer Alfonzo (10 starts in 2010). Got three hits, including a homer, and drove in four runs in his first start after getting called up in June. Had two hits in his second game, inspiring this inspired blog post. Hit .167 in his next 12 starts, was DFA’d, and is now playing in Mexico.
14, Guillermo Quiroz (two starts in 2010, two games in 2011). I have a hunch that Quiroz will be going to someone’s camp as a non-roster invitee for the next decade.
15, Chris Gimenez (17 starts in 2011). Eric Wedge had a fondness for him as an ex-Indian, kind of like Kelly Shoppach. But as with Shoppach, that wasn’t enough to keep him around long, despite his ability to play outfield and first base .
16, *footnote: Jose Yepez, 2011. Yepez is like a ghost. He was on the Mariners’ roster for seven games in 2011 to serve as insurance while Olivo and Gimenez nursed injuries. But he never appeared in a game, and so it’s like his stint in The Show never happened. Yepez doesn’t even have an entry in Baseball Reference, at least not the major-league portion. Unfortunately, if you go to his minor-league page, he can’t erase the citation of his one pitching experience with High Desert, the Mariners’ Class A farm team with the notorious hitters ballpark. In 1/3 of an inning, Yepez gave up five runs — on four home runs. His lifetime ERA reads like a blinking neon sign: 135.00. Now Yepez is in Triple-A with the Braves, probably trying to convince his teammates that “I did to play in the major leagues. You can look it up.”
17, Jesus Montero (55 starts in 2012, 25 starts in 2013). Don’t get me started.
18, John Jaso (39 starts in 2012). Never regarded as a great receiver, but did manage to catch Felix Hernandez’s perfect game. He led the Mariners in on-base percentage and had the highest OPS yet still was traded for Michael Morse in the offseason, perhaps as a way to get his scraggly beard off the team. Currently getting on base in Oakland.
19, Kelly Shoppach (32 starts in 2013). Proved himself to be so indispensable during a time of grave catching need — including squatting for 16 innings one night, and complete games the next two nights — that the Mariners designated him for assignment.
20, Jesus Sucre (eight starts in 2013). The 2013 version of Guillermo Quiroz. In a league where competent backup catchers are coveted, he’s going to have a career.
21, Brandon Bantz (one start in 2013). I’m going to be completely honest here: I had barely heard of him until the Mariners called him up. I’m happy he got to play in that one game, because odds are against him ever coming back. But even if he doesn’t, he fulfilled a dream and accomplished something that many of us would have killed for.
22, Henry Blanco (three starts in 2013). Dude’s a mentor, and he’s milking that skill into a job for life, it appears.
23, Mike Zunino (eight starts and counting, 2013). Let’s all meet here in five years to see how this turned out.