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May 26, 2009 at 5:41 PM

Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima out 6 to 8 weeks: another “opportunity” for Guillermo Quiroz

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Yes, that’s right. Kenji Johjima has three fractures in his toe and is done for six to eight weeks, meaning newly-recalled Guillermo Quiroz might be here a while. And if Rob Johnson doesn’t hit, Quiroz could get some everyday playing time. That’s one reason Jamie Burke was left in Class AAA. The team isn’t confident he could handle a daily role if Johnson falters.
There is a story behind the career of catcher Quiroz, 27, that should serve as a lesson to all upcoming prospects: nothing is guaranteed. Only five years ago, Quiroz was one of the top prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays system. Think Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Wladimir Balentien, Jeff Clement, even Adam Jones. Quiroz was touted as much as any of those guys at one point in a system with some good young players now all-stars in the big-leagues.
Some guys make it. Some don’t.
Quiroz tore up Class AA pitching in 2003, posting an OPS of .890. He was mentioned in the same breath as another young slugger on his team, Alex Rios, who has since made a name for himself in the majors.
But Quiroz suffered through some injuries and never quite seized the moment in Toronto, appearing in just 29 games. The Blue Jays eventually tired of waiting for him in spring training of 2006 and had to expose him to waivers because he was out of options. Quiroz signed with the Mariners and has bounced around a couple of organizations since re-signing here on April 18.
“I think I’m a lot more mature now,” he told me today. “I understand the game a little bit more.”
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When I last spoke to Quiroz, still with Toronto that final spring of 2006, he had just flown to Florida from his native Venezuela, where he’d opened a gym called Extreme Fitness Center in the city of Maracaibo, which is pretty much a suburb of Caracas. But this wasn’t just a ballplayer throwing money at a business venture. Quiroz was hands-on, in the office every day going over bills and balancing the books.
He told me it was because he was out of options with the Blue Jays and wanted a back-up plan in case life after baseball did not work out. Back then, that end seemed to be looming once spring training ended — Quiroz was put on waivers and eventually claimed by Seattle. What was once a sure-thing career looked like it might never pan out.
Three years later, having bounced to Texas, Baltimore and now back to Seattle again, things are a little more positive.
Quiroz spent all of last season as a backp catcher to Ramon Hernandez in Baltimore, appearing in 56 games.
Nowadays, his family members run the gym. His sister is at the register, and his mother in the back room. A personal trainer handles the clients. He’s bought himself a little breathing room.
But not a ton.
This past winter, the Orioles traded Hernandez in preparation for incoming super phenom catcher Matt Wieters. They went out and got Gregg Zaun to serve as an everyday stopgap and eventual mentor to Wieters. Ironically, it was Zaun’s revival as a catcher in 2004 that eventually helped push Quiroz out of Toronto. This time, it pushed Quiroz out of Baltimore.
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Want even more conincidence? Another catcher who forced Quiroz out of Toronto that spring in 2006 was Jason Phillips, signed as a free-agent that year. Phillips, seen in the photo above, is now Seattle’s bullpen catcher.
So, it’s a small world in baseball at times. Too small for Quiroz too often.
The Orioles wouldn’t even offer Quiroz a spot in AAA or AA.
“They told me they couldn’t because they would have been obligated to pay me 60 percent of what I earned last season,” he said. “It was a money situation. The was the economy is now, that’s how how things go.”
And so, when Seattle offered him a Class AAA spot in mid-April, he jumped. Didn’t even complain when shipped to AA a couple of weeks ago so Adam Moore could be promoted and handle everyday catching duties in-place of an ailing Clement.
“I was glad I went down there,” said Quiroz, who put up a .790 OPS in eight games. “I went down there and I was playing every day. I haven’t had a chance to play every day like that since I was in Toronto. I was glad to get the chance, to show them that I could still catch every day.”
“Ever since then, I’ve been ewaiting for that opportunity,” he said. “I just keep working every day until it shows up. I’ve been lucky to have it the last couple of years. You’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Indeed you do. That should be a lesson to all young players. Millionaires and non-millionaires. You can never take the game, or your status in it, for granted.

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Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu got to know Quiroz when the latter was in the Rangers’ system. Quiroz spent most of 2007 in AAA for the Rangers, as well as nine games with the big club. The team doesn’t feel Moore is ready to make the jump from AAA yet, having played only a handful of games at that level.
Wakamatsu insists the decision not to call up Jamie Burke from Class AAA had nothing to do with exposing him to waivers down the road, or protecting his future with the organization.
In what he termed “a difficult call to make” Wakamatsu had a phone conversation with Burke earlier today and told him the team is looking to go in a younger direction for now. Don’t know what that means for Burke’s future but it clearly is not with the Mariners.
So that, and reservations that Burke could handle an everyday job — as opposed to Quiroz — helped seal the deal.
“I’ve seen him enough to kind of know what to expect of his playing ability,” Wakamatsu said of Quiroz.
Primarily, he remembers Quiroz for “his ability to handle a pitching staff. I think he adds an ability to throw. From what I remember before, he was more of a defensive catcher. I haven’t seen him play this year. I saw a little bit last year in Baltimore and was impressed by what I saw.”
Quiroz says he picked the brain of veteran Hernandez in Baltimore, who talked about the aspects of catching from a defensive perspective. But he also talked to him about hitting, something Quiroz has yet to do successfully in the big leagues.
Wakamatsu is aware of Quiroz’s perceived shortcomings. But the manager also insists he’s ready to play Quiroz every day if needed.
“We wouldn’t have brought him up here if we didn’t think that he could handle that,” Wakamatsu said. “We have to have a trust built into the guy we bring up that if Rob (Johnson) goes down, he can play every day. And I have the confidence in that. The rest is going to be how he plays when he gets the opportunity.”
Why then, has Quiroz never morphed into an everyday catcher after his high prospect status?
“I know injuries had a lot to do with it in Toronto when he was young…I think that kind of sidetracked him a little bit,” Wakamatsu said. “And I think to be considered a front-line guy, you have to swing the bat and I think he had some struggles offensively. But from what I saw, he came out for early batting practice, I think he’s made some adjustments, shortened his swing a little bit.
“And I talked to him a little bit about his time in Baltimore last year, where, as you get older and older I think you get wiser and smarter, as opposed to when he was in Texas and still trying to find his niche. I think he’s a little bit smarter and understood the backup role last year.”



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