If there’s one thing the Seattle Mariners love more than anything, it’s designated hitters. If there’s two things the Mariners love more than anything, it’s designated hitters and promoting good clean family fun at Safeco Field. Were you to add a third thing to the list, it’d probably be backup catchers. The Mariners love backup catchers so much that they made Miguel Olivo a starter for years. They signed a backup catcher last week! They used six last season alone! With this in mind, the team’s most recent free agent “expenditure” is hardly a surprise, as recent reports have the Mariners closing in on a contract for John Buck.
First, some basics. John Buck is 33 years old. He’s almost certainly signing a major league pact, in large part due to the fact that he’s long been a quality major league player. He’s been in the majors since 2004, and has 10.4 career WAR to his name. 1.6 of that came last season, which he split between the Mets and Pirates. His best season came in 2010, when he batted .281/.314/.489 with 20 bombs in 437 plate appearances. That year he had a 114 wRC+, marking the only time in his career where he was an above-average hitter. His BABIP was .335, compared to a career mark of .278, which explains the spike in production as no more than fluky batted ball luck. For his career, Buck has hit .234/.301/.401, good for an 85 wRC+, fifteen percent below league average. He’s not much of a hitter, and, like most catchers, takes his time on the basepaths.
Buck may have only been an above-average hitter once in the last decade, but that’s also the number of seasons where his defense has been below-average. Buck is known for a strong glove, and does well holding runners and blocking pitches. He’s a notoriously awful pitch framer, despite being well-regarded at most other apsects of backstopping. His defensive chops have been good enough to earn him occasional starting jobs, or at least almost-starting jobs. Just last year he appeared in 110 games and made it to the plate 431 times. That, plus better offense than any 2013 Mariner catcher was able to provide. An 83 wRC+ is not good, but make no mistake, John Buck is not Humberto Quintero.
Despite having Quintero and Jesus Sucre already in the fold, the Mariners really needed to bring in a player just like Buck, as it now appears they have done. What Buck isn’t here to do is start five days a week. But what’s important is that he could, if need be. Mike Zunino is a top prospect with a major league starting job, a role he was essentially forced to play last year due to the lack of anyone more capable. Buck may not be more capable, but he’s at least equally capable, and if Zunino does end up needing some AAA time, he can get some AAA time while Buck starts. The Mariners needed a borderline starter who could start the season as a backup. That’s exactly what Buck is.
With this signing, the Mariners are probably done making moves at the catcher position. Sucre and Quintero will start the season in Tacoma, giving the team two quality options in case of injury or ineffectiveness at the major league level. Zunino will start, but probably closer to four times a week than six. Buck will be the backup, but in the sense that he will still probably get plenty of starts. In Zunino and Buck, the Mariners have two major league starters in what will probably be something like a 65/35 job share. In Sucre and Quintero, the Mariners have two major league backups stashed away in the minors. The situation is rosy, and better yet, indicates that perhaps the 2013 mess did indeed teach the team’s brass a thing or two about depth.