Feb 13, 2014; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners catchers do drills during team workouts at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
This post is part of a series looking at positions that are up for grabs during Mariners spring training. Previous entries: shortstop
Before Mike Zunino was the future of Seattle Mariners catchers, Jesus Montero was the future of Mariners catchers. The choice to draft Zunino with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft was heralded at the time – as it is now – but it’s easy to forget that a small but vocal subset of fans were concerned that the pick was certain to create an ugly situation in coming years, as the Mariners would be forced to choose between their new franchise catcher and his even-newer replacement. This isn’t meant as a jab against Montero or those who believe(d) in him, but rather as a somewhat out-of-place reminder of why baseball teams don’t draft simply out of need. If the Mariners had passed on Zunino because they had Montero, they’d currently be in line to use John Buck as a full time starter. Which brings us here.
Catcher is an interesting position for the Mariners. There’s Zunino, of course, but he’s a tricky guy to pin down. As noted above, he was drafted in 2012 – 2012! – and found himself the starter for the big league team a year later. His promotion was somewhat notorious, given that it came in the midst of a prolonged struggle to hit AAA pitching. Zunino was striking out almost 30% of the time before getting the call, and it was clear to most people that he had yet to earn his promotion.
Zunino hit poorly in the majors and missed a lot of time with a broken hand. It’s an open question of whether or not he should be in the major leagues, and despite the way the Mariners have flaunted his upside, there’s reason to believe the organization would be better served opening the year with Zunino solving his strikeout problems in Tacoma. The Mariners clearly thought about this over the offseason, as they have four backstops in camp who could probably cut it as major leaguers.
Mike Zunino: 2013 stats – 193 PA, .214/.290/.329, 5 HR, 73 wRC+, 0.0 WAR
High hopes have been pinned on the back of Zunino ever since the day he was drafted, and maybe that was part of the problem last year. For what it’s worth, Zunino did all he could given his lack of experience, but there’s legitimate worry that his prospect pedigree and draft position helped propel him to the big leagues before he was clearly ready. We can question Jack Z’s decision making process all we want, but we can’t question the fact that Zunino was a below-average hitter in Tacoma last year (.297 OBP, 98 wRC+) and was just dismal in Seattle. Based on what we know about the way the Seattle Mariners function as an organization, Zunino is expected to be the starter this year. Based on what he’s done so far in his professional career, this just seems like a silly idea.
John Buck: 2013 stats – 431 PA, .222/.288/.365, 15 HR, 83 wRC+, 1.6 WAR
Should John Buck be the starting catcher for the Mariners right out of the gate? An argument could certainly be made that he deserves the lion’s share of the playing time in a world where Zunino is given proper AAA seasoning. Buck offers strong defense and shady offense highlighted by laughable on-base inability and modest pop, much like a lot of catchers. His strong season in limited action last year is often cited as an aberration, but hear this: while it’s true that his 1.6 WAR tied for second-highest in his ten-year career, it’s also true that his three strongest seasons have come in the last four years. His weaker 2012 can be pretty clearly attributed to a BABIP over 40 points lower than his career mark. Buck’s been good for about 110 games a year most of his career, though he’s expected to play a bit less this season with Zunino taking charge. While the catcher position shakes out more like a playing time depth chart than a “battle,” Buck is clearly a guy who could see himself in a lot of games depending on what happens with his competition.
Humberto Quintero: 2013 stats – 140 PA, .237/.275/.366, 4 HR, 74 wRC+, 0.9 WAR
Notice the trend with all these playing time candidates: low on base percentage, strong defense, and durability. Quintero was a good backup last year and could do so again this season, if given the opportunity. Again, this all comes down to Zunino and what the team plans to do with him. I could give Jesus Sucre a paragraph, but he’s essentially a younger Quintero clone who will remain stashed in the minors as emergency depth, just as he was last year. There was a stretch last year where Quintero was the nominal starter, which is just all kinds of horrifying. What’s important with him is that he’s a useful player who could serve as the number two catcher behind Buck or Zunino, were there ever to be a time where the active roster was without one of them.
This is not a typical “battle,” per se, but rather a philosophical decision. Does the team stick to the bold plan of throwing an underqualified top prospect back into the major league meat grinder, or do they cave to reason and make Buck the starter for the first month or so? With a shaky spring, Zunino could show the Mariners brass the light and “earn” himself a ticket to AAA to start the season. Who knows, what with the way Lloyd McClendon preaches competition and all, maybe Jesus Sucre could even crop back up in the conversation for a spot on the big league roster. With a new manager it’s hard to see how this will all play out.
Right now the safe bet is that Zunino and Buck will split the job 60/40. One could just as easily suggest that Buck and Quintero should be splitting the job 70/30, at least until Zunino has truly proven ready for the show. Maybe Zunino starts off in the majors and is demoted by a red-faced Jack Zduriencik who just doesn’t understand why his top prospect isn’t slapping dingers left and right at the big league level despite his struggles the year before. Maybe the team just wants competence behind the dish, which would be acceptable given that 2014 is suddenly, somehow, a go-for-it year. Zunino, after all, has all the upside in this group. He’s the most talented catcher in the organization, and will probably be behind the dish on opening day. But unless he shows the hell up from day one onward, there’ll be no shortage of questions as to whether or not the M’s have mishandled a valuable asset.