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February 13, 2015 at 10:20 AM

Mariners’ 2015 spring training position preview: Can catcher Mike Zunino take the next step as a hitter?

 

Getty Images

Getty Images

 

There is no question who the starting catcher will be this season, and likely next season and the season after that. When the Mariners selected Mike Zunino with third pick of the 2012 draft, they believed they were getting their catcher of the future — a foundation-level player. From all indications, Zunino has the makings of it. He’s still only 23 and remains more potential than proven, particularly at the plate. Yes, hitting .199 is unacceptable for an everyday player. But in comparison with past seasons of futility and mediocrity, the Mariners’ catching situation is in great shape.

The past 

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The Mariners had four players put on the tools of manhood and step behind the plate last season. Obviously, Zunino saw the most action, perhaps too much at times. Manager Lloyd McClendon admitted to using Zunino more than he wanted to early in the season.  There was a minor stir in the clubhouse when the team decided to DFA John Buck following a game on July 7. The Mariners had lost faith in Buck’s ability to handle the defensive responsibilities of a backup catcher.  Seattle called up Jesus Sucre to be Zunino’s backup the rest of the way. The scouting report on Sucre always had been that he was outstanding on defense, non-existent on offense. In his 21 games, Sucre did nothing to change that report.

From a personal standpoint, after watching Kenji Johjima, Rob Johnson, Jeff Clement, Miguel Olivo and others catch in the previous few years, Zunino provided a much-needed respite from the bad blocking, receiving and framing. He works at defense, he works at calling a game, and pitchers trust him.

“We had a very difficult pitching staff to catch, and having Zunino and his abilities back there helps it a lot,”  McClendon said. “We probably played him a little more than we wanted to early on.”

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Here’s some Zunino notes from the Mariners’ postseason book …

  • The Totals – Appeared in 131 games, making 126 starts (C-125, DH-1), hitting .199 (87×438) with 51 runs, 20 doubles, 2 triples, 22 home runs and 60 RBI.
  • The Record – Set a club record for home runs by a catcher with 22, breaking the old record of 19 set by Miguel Olivo in 2011…22 home runs were 2nd among AL catchers (McCann, NYY, 23) and tied for 3rd-most in the Majors… Zunino recorded more extra-base hits (44) than singles (43) during the season.
  • Backstop Pop – T3rd in the Majors in home runs by a catcher behind Cincinnati’s Devin Mesoraco (25) and New York’s Brian McCann (23).
  • Young Catching Pop – When he hit his 20th home run of the season at 23 years and 186 days, he became the 5th-youngest catcher to put up a 20-double, 20-home run season behind Johnny Bench (21.299 in 1969), Brian McCann (22.223 in 2006), Johnny Bench (22.298 in 1970) & Gary Carter (23.177 in 1977).
  • Ouch – Led the American League with 17 hit by pitches, the 2nd-most in Mariners history (Jose Guillen, 19 in 2007).
  • Left Is Right – Hit .252 (33×131) with 8 doubles and 5 home runs vs. LHP; .176 (54×307) with 12 doubles, 2 triples and 17 home runs vs. RHP.
  • The Receiver – Ranked 2nd in the AL and 4th in the Majors with a 3.18 catchers ERA and his 1121.0 innings caught ranked 2nd in the AL.
  • Iron Mike – Caught in 130 games (125 starts), just the 7th season by a Mariners catcher with 130+ games caught and 125+ starts at catcher…1,121.0 innings caught ranked 5th in single-season club history.
  • Power Spurt – Hit 15 of his 22 home runs in his final 73 games of the season (June 20-end of season).
  • Strikeouts – Led the team and ranked 6th in the American League with 158 strikeouts.
  • New York Knocks – Went 4-for-5 on April 29 in his Yankee Stadium debut setting a career high in hits and becoming the 15th player to get 4+ hits in his first game at Yankee Stadium (new or old).

Zunino had plenty of moments when he looked like an elite catcher . They usually were when he was blasting a ball over the fence — showing off his immense raw power — or blocking a nasty Felix Hernandez change-up in the dirt with two strikes and runner on third.  Of course, there were plenty of times he would go into offensive funks, during which it seemed like all he would do would strikeout. The 22 homers are overshadowed by a slash line of .199/.254/.404. The 17 walks to 158 strikeouts need to change dramatically.

McClendon believes it will happen.

“The natural progression is he knows the league a little better from an offensive standpoint now,” McClendon said. “He’s got to become a better hitter. We know he has the power. But he has to commit himself to becoming a better hitter, shorten up his stroke in certain situations, and he’s committed to doing that. I’ll remind all of us that it’s just not that easy sometimes. Hitting the baseball is probably the most difficult thing to do in any sport. He’ll get better. He’ll work at it.”

When Zunino is locked in, he’s hitting the ball to all fields. He has ridiculous power to right-center. He’s also going to see plenty of curveballs. Teams believe they can get him out on that pitch based on results.

It’s been mentioned and written before, but Zunino was rushed to the big leagues and had only 505 plate appearances and 115 games in the minor leagues before being called up.

Will he ever be a .275 hitter? Probably not. But the Mariners believe with some growth that he can eventually be a .250 hitter with a better on-base percentage and fewer strikeouts. Zunino certainly isn’t afraid to put  in the time in the cage to get better.

If the Mariners are going to push forward to become a playoff-caliber team and beyond, Zunino’s progression to become more than an all or nothing hitter will be vital. He might be one of the more-important players going into this season.

The present

Seattle Times file photo

Seattle Times file photo

So Zunino is the starting catcher going into next season. That’s a no-brainer. But who will be his backup? The Buck experiment last season was a failure. Sucre is currently on the active 25-man roster and 40-man roster.  The Mariners will bring five other catchers into spring training:

  • John Baker
  • John Hicks
  • Steve Baron
  • Tyler Marlette
  • Mike Dowd

The competition likely will be between Sucre and Baker for the backup spot. Seattle signed Baker to a minor-league deal a few weeks ago, giving themselves some experienced depth at that position. Baker is solid behind the plate. He probably isn’t quite as good as Sucre defensively, but he’s an offensive upgrade. His best season came in 2008. Last season he saw limited time with the Cubs.

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It’s an interesting competition with some mitigating factors. Baker would have to be placed on the 40-man roster. Seattle is going to be playing the roster game at the end of spring training. So if Baker makes the team, he could fill Erasmo Ramirez’s 40-man roster spot.

Baker making the club out of spring training is a strong possibility if he can show some effectiveness at the plate as a hitter. The Mariners love Sucre’s defense, but if they are trying to keep Zunino healthy and rested by sitting him 2-3 times per week, having a catcher that provides no presence in the lineup could be an issue.

The future

Obviously, the Mariners hope/believe that Zunino is their catcher of the future. But beyond that there is some talent. Hicks made strides last season after being called up to Class AAA Tacoma and then later in the Arizona Fall League. He is an outstanding athlete and runs well. Defensively, he is one of the better catch-and-throw guys in the organization along with Sucre. He just needs to put everything together.

Hicks played in just 28 games with Tacoma. Here’s his numbers:

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And his numbers from the AFL …

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Earlier in the offseason, GM Jack Zduriencik said the organization was comfortable with having Hicks at No. 3 on the depth chart and there wasn’t a rush to sign a veteran backup catcher. But the availability of Baker and the need for proven depth changed that outlook. Hicks was slated to be the everyday catcher in Tacoma. It will be interesting to see how they split playing time there now with the loser of the catching competition. It’s highly probable that Baker has an opt-out clause in his minor-league deal if he doesn’t make the big-league club by a certain date.

I’m interested to see Tyler Marlette. He put up solid numbers in High Desert, which isn’t uncommon. But a couple scouts I talked to said he can really hit. Marlette’s defense needs to improve a little. But they like his potential.

Even if Zunino is the M’s catcher for the next 8 to 10 years, Seattle needs to continue to develop quality catchers behind him. Innings, injuries and regression all take their toll. Plus quality catching prospects tend to have value on the trade market as well.

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