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February 3, 2014 at 11:08 PM

Previewing Peoria: Is Mike Zunino ready to take control of the starting catching position?

With the Super Bowl and its endless lead-up now sort of over and the Seahawks victorious, I figured it was time to start previewing the different position groups for the Mariners in anticipation of spring training. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 12. I will report on Feb. 10.

Let’s start today with my old college position, my favorite position – catcher.

Last year wasn’t exactly a banner year for Mariners catching, but then again, I can’t remember the last time Seattle had a great year at that position.

These seven catchers started games last season.

 catchers stats

Not exactly awe inspiring numbers. The whole plan with catching was sort of derailed from the very start. Although perhaps the plan itself was doomed to fail with the Mariners deciding that Jesus Montero, who clearly had glaring defensive deficiencies, would be the starting catcher before the team ever reported to spring training. In their search for power, they traded away John Jaso (far from Johnny Bench or Dan Wilson defensively) and turned to Kelly Shoppach as the back-up.

The Mariners trumpeted the idea that Montero had somehow improved enough defensively and was mature enough to handle the rigors of the position, and that he’d been taking running lessons in the offseason (refund needed for those).  Montero would be the starting catcher, Shoppach the back-up and Mike Zunino would eventually be called up by the end of the season. That was the plan.

Of course, that plan had a Custer-like failure. Some could argue it was doomed to fail because of Custer-like thinking. The idea of Montero being an everyday catcher seemed to be a bit of a stretch based on everything we’d seen in his time with Seattle.

Despite the supposed “running instruction” and some offseason workouts, Montero didn’t look fantastic during spring training. He hit a little, struggled behind the plate and was linked to a performance enhancing drug scandal. That inconsistency carried over into the regular season where he lost his full-time starting status about two weeks in. He was sent down to Tacoma on May 23, switched to DH/first base, suffered a torn meniscus and then was suspended for the remainder of the season for being linked to the BioGenesis PED scandal. It was a full year for him.

From there, the Mariners paraded catchers in and out. Jesus Sucre and Brandon Bantz even made appearances. Sucre broke his thumb and Zunino was fast tracked to the big leagues sooner than expected. Shoppach, whose attitude and sense of entitlement rubbed coaches the wrong way, was jettisoned for Henry Blanco, who was supposed to be a better an influence for Zunino. After Zunino broke his wrist, Humberto Quintero was signed. And so on, and so on and so on.

So we arrive at this spring.

Here’s a list of the catchers invited to spring training …

Zunino is slotted to be the starting catcher this season and more to come. Buck was signed on a one-year free agent deal to be his back-up. Quintero and Pina were signed to minor league deals. Sucre, Hicks and Dowd are minor leaguers.

It’s logical to believe Zunino will be the starting catcher going forward. He played in 52 games and showed the defensive potential and leadership skills to be a quality big league catcher. The offensive numbers show that he’s behind. This was expected. He was pushed too fast because of the failures of Montero and the lack of depth at the position in the organization.

Is it fair to expect him to be the every day starter at this young of age?

An upper level scout for another American League team said that there is no way Zunino would have been pushed to the big leagues this fast in their organization. He wasn’t even sure Zunino was ready for Triple A to start the season. He’d played in just 96 minor league games before the call up.

Why is this important?  Because there is no guarantee Zunino is the starting catcher on opening day. The Mariners want him to be and expect him to be. But his lack of experience and the offensive adjustment is still is an issue. Montero wasn’t ready or able to handle the responsibility. The result was somewhat predictable based on prior knowledge.

Is Zunino ready?

The belief is that he can handle it. He’s so advanced when it comes to the leadership aspects of the position. He gets it. He’s smart, works hard at it and understands the value of building relationships with pitchers. Defensively, he’s better than any catcher the Mariners have used a consistent starter in quite a while, though that bar isn’t exactly difficult to leap over.

It will be interesting to see how much has plate discipline has developed. Hitting offspeed pitches will be a key as well as building on his power potential. There’s never been a question of Zunino’s work ethic when it comes to preparation.

It seems unlikely, but if Zunino were to really struggle offensively in the spring or early in the season, the Mariners could send him back to Triple A for more seasoning. It wouldn’t be a catastrophe if that happened. Plenty of players have been sent back after being called up. It doesn’t mean Zunino wouldn’t still be viewed as the catcher of the future.

The Mariners have slightly more cover than last year if that were to happen. Buck is a solid veteran catcher. He’s got a little pop. He’s a decent defensively. And he’s accustomed to being a starter. Quintero would be the logical back-up in that situation. But it is doubtful that Quintero would spend much time in Triple A waiting it out for his chance. He likely has an opt-out in his contract if he isn’t on the big league roster by a certain date. Quintero hasn’t played in more than 30 minor league games since 2008.

Sucre is good defensively. He isn’t much of a hitter. He projects as a back-up going forward. There’s value in that. He’ll likely be at Triple A with Pina, who has played five games in the big leagues and has spent most of nine seasons in the minor leagues.

As for the young catchers, I’m interested to see Hicks this spring. He was impressive last spring training and is the best throwing and most athletic catcher in the organization. He’s very gifted, but injuries derailed him last season. He hit just .236 in 80 games with a .632 OPS. He’ll be back in Double A again, but the Mariners believe he has the potential to be a big league catcher.

I have yet to see Dowd play. The 22-year-old was drafted in the 12th round of the 2011 draft out of Franklin Pierce University. He started the season in Class A High Desert, hitting .281 in 32 games with seven doubles, three homers and 14 RBI and a .720 OPS. Dowd got moved up to Double A Jackson, and played in 36 games there, hitting .196 with a .509 OPS.

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