The Mariners of the Future: Catcher

The Mariners are in a weird spot right now.  They’re inconsistent and pretty bad more often than not, but then they run off a hot streak every so often.  They have mostly young talent with promise.  The problem is that few of those guys are performing in a way that cements them as a future Mariner.  Even fewer have the type of elite talent where they should be penciled into future line-ups regardless of current production.  When you add in the minor leaguers, the roster is becoming a logjam of guys with unclear talent levels.

I’d expect we’ll start to see some changes, perhaps as soon as the trading deadline.  It’s possible that any of the few veterans on the team might be traded, but what will be more interesting is if Jack Zduriencik packages a few guys to get more proven performers.  This roster has too many unproven, promising players that need to be made into a cohesive, productive roster.

With all that in mind, this is a good time to look at the players that might figure into the Mariners’ plans over the next few years.  I’m going to take this position-by-position and just run through some names, with my opinion of how I’d lay out the roster, if I have one.

Catcher is first up.  A year or two ago, catcher was the most talent-starved position in the system.  That’s been almost completely reversed now.  In about a year, the Mariners have drafted about seven catchers with promise and traded for Jesus Montero and John Jaso.  That’s a pretty good influx.  Still, there’s no definite catcher for the future due to shortcomings for each of them.  Here’s the rundown:

Miguel Olivo is not long for the roster.  I doubt he gets traded, but I would be shocked if he’s resigned after this year.  I’m not as big of an Olivo critic as many, but he has no place on this roster going forward.

Jesus Montero andJohn Jaso are two sides of the same coin, with Montero’s side being significantly shinier.  Both are far better offensively than defensively and hit from opposite sides of the plate.  Montero hasn’t set the world on fire, but he’s done nothing to detract from his future as an elite power hitter.  It’s incredibly important for the team that he become that, whether he’s playing catcher or designated hitter.  I’m of the opinion that his defense is good enough and will improve with experience.  Many analysts disagree with that, and it’s unclear where the Mariners stand.  He’s likely to see at least partial time at catcher no matter what, but whether he becomes the primary backstop remains to be seen.

Though he’s cooled since his hot start, Jaso still provides great at bats and is one of the more productive guys on the team.  Still, I don’t want him catching every day.  I think he’d get exposed offensively and defensively.  Catcher defense is a hard thing to judge, but it would take a lot to convince me that he’s good enough to be a fulltime guy.  He is a perfect backup, however, and should be on the team for a while.  Backup catchers who can fill in at first and DH and contribute at the plate are fairly rare.

Confusing things slightly, in a good way, is recent Baseball America College Player of the Year and #3 overall pick Mike Zunino. Zunino has yet to sign, but that should happen literally any day now.  He’s considered the consumate catcher: durable, a leader, good (though not elite) defensively, good power to go with all-around hitting skills.  Once he signs, he’s likely to start in A ball.  Most estimates have him in Seattle in 2014, but late 2013 or 2015 wouldn’t be at all surprising.  He’s considered as sure a thing as the draft can provide.  My question with Zunino is whether he’s a solid starting catcher, which is plenty valuable, or whether he can develop a middle of the order bat, which makes him an MVP candidate.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Also in the minors, there are a whole bunch of guys.  Adam Moore is still around, if you’re around Tacoma.  He could be a very useful backup catcher, if he could ever stay healthy.  That’s not too likely at this point, and he’s in danger of getting passed up soon.  At Double-A, Jesus Sucre, a cast-off from the Braves organization, has come from nowhere to be interesting.  He’s only 22 and was an all star this year.  Don’t get your hopes up, but he could be in the discussion in a couple of years if he keeps progressing.

The A level has all kinds of guys to watch, although they aren’t likely to factor into roster construction in the next few years.  John Hicks, Danny Hultzen’s catcher at Virginia, is kind of Mike Zunino-very-lite.  His upside is probably solid major league starter.  He’s splitting time in High Desert with Jack Marder, who also plays second base.  He’s an interesting guy having a good year, but whether he can be a catcher (or anything else) remains to be seen.  A level down in Clinton, former first rounder Steve Baron is finally showing signs of life after being nothing but disappointing for years.  He has the reputation of a defensive whiz who can’t hit, so the last month, in which he’s literally hit better than at any other time in his pro career, is encouraging.  It probably means nothing, but keep your fingers crossed.

If you look way off, you’ll see in the distance guys like Ji-Man Choi, who is always either injured or hitting but might not be a catcher, and Tyler Marlette, who could have the most upside and power potential of all of these guys.  Marlette’s in rookie ball and at least about 5 years away from the bigs, which means he probably will get lost along the way.  That’s just the way it goes, but it’s still fun to cheer for him.

Conclusions

That’s a lot of names, all of which hold promise and potential.  Other than maybe second base and starting pitching, catcher gets my vote for deepest, most talented position in the organization.  The one and only goal at the moment is deciding whether Montero can catch 100-120 games a year.  If he can, that’s a huge asset.  Then we’re talking about trading Zunino and bringing in veteran sluggers at DH and so forth.  If he’s not, then we’re hoping Zunino develops as project.

Maybe the absolute ideal roster come 2015 or so has Zunino developing into something closer to Buster Posey at the plate.  The Mariners could then potentially have middle of the order bats at catcher and DH, with good catcher defense and Zunino’s leadership qualities to boot.  Montero’s bat should play anywhere, and he would probably stay healthier at DH.

That’s a ways off, though.  The only priorities right now are deciding whether Montero stays at catcher and developing Zunino as quickly as possible.  For once, there’s nothing to worry about at catcher, although there are still plenty of questions.

-Matthew

1 Comment

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One response to “The Mariners of the Future: Catcher

  1. Matthew

    Also, forgot to mention Marcus Littlewood. Early draft pick (2nd round? Can’t remember) as a high school shortstop, moved to catcher midseason last year. He’s getting his first real catching action this year in Everett. He wasn’t hitting a ton before the move, but he has the tools. He wasn’t expected to stay at short anyway, so this will be interesting to watch. He and Baron I think are the only top 2 round picks that haven’t panned out that well for this administration, but don’t quote me on that as I didn’t doublecheck. That’s amazing if true.

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