While general manager Jerry Dipoto made plenty of changes everywhere across the diamond, patrolling the outfield and on the mound, he did not alter the player looking back at them.
For better or worse, Mike Zunino returns as the starting catcher. And there really aren’t any serious fallbacks.
This is, simply, a make or break year for Zunino as a starting backstop in the major leagues.
Here then is Part V of our 2017 Season Preview: Catchers
There’s no doubting the power, or the defense for that matter. That’s what makes Mike Zunino so tantalizing and frustrating at the same time.
The former first-round draft pick – third overall out of Florida in 2012 – is now 26, with parts of four major league seasons under his belt. He already owns 50 home runs in 350 big-league games and the defense is near elite. Big (6-foot-2, 220 pounds), strong, good arm – if you were building a backstop, he would be the template.
Ah, but here’s the rub. This isn’t a video game in which you can just create a monster player with all “99” ratings out of 100.
To this point in his career, Zunino has has so much trouble making simple contact that it threatens his status as an everyday option behind the plate. All the power and defense in the world can’t save him if he can’t put bat to ball.
Rather famously, and to show they were dead serious, the Mariners sent Zunino down to Triple-A Tacoma at the start of last year with no discernible Plan B to get his swing ironed out and cultivate some semblance of discipline. It helped, to a point.
Zunino won the Pacific Coast League Player of the Month in April before cooling in May. He increased his walk rate and cut down on his swinging K rate. The power held steady. He was making consistent contact. In 79 games for Tacoma he hit .286/.376/.521 with 17 homers. This, at long last, was MIKE ZUNINO.
Zunino was promoted to Seattle on July 2, hit two home runs that day, and tore the cover off the ball (.268/.40/.780 with six homers in the first 14 games) for the first two weeks, finally looking like the player everyone thinks he can be.
Unfortunately from that point on it was mostly back to the “old” Zunino, as he hit .187/.289/.366 from Aug. 6 on. He drew his share of walks down the stretch, which is encouraging, but Zunino enters 2017 with the same specter of missing contact looming over his head.
There’s a 30-homer catcher in there with Gold Glove-caliber defense. Really. It’s all a just matter of contact.
The Mariners acquired veteran Carlos Ruiz from the Dodgers over the offseason in exchange for Vidal Nuno. Ruiz didn’t break into the bigs full time until he was 28, so maybe he serves as a cautionary tale for giving up on Zunino, if the Mariners did need another reason to stick it out.
Now 37, the player they call “Chooch” is well into the “venerable backup” stage of his solid career. He has always put up decent qualitative numbers as his career .266/.352/.393 slash would account.
He played in 48 games with Philadelphia before getting traded to Los Angeles down the stretch for another 14 games and a wildly exciting pinch-hit homer in the playoffs. He still mashes lefties, but the Mariners can’t expect or afford for him to play many – if any – more games than that this season.
The emergency call-up
Seattle brought Tuffy Gosewisch into camp as the guy with major league experience they knew would be willing to be stashed at Triple-A until someone got hurt, and then sit on the bench six days out of seven if pressed back onto the big league roster.
Gosewisch is just good enough to keep a job as that guy in the system. He’s never hit (career .199/.237/.286), isn’t a particularly good defensive catcher, and only has a so-so arm. But the M’s are thin at the position in the high minors, so Gosewisch will serve a dual purpose until there’s a better option.
If injuries or attrition force Gosewisch into real playing time, though? Uh oh.
Tyler Marlette resides somewhere on the Mariners’ top 30 prospect list in the 20s, depending on whose opinion you’d like to listen to. He’s an offense-first catcher with decent pop and has split the past two seasons between High-A and Double-A.
He owns big-league bat speed and has a solid approach with pretty good on-base skills. He’s below average on defense but does have a solid arm and a scouts like his quick release.
At 24, the defense has to come a long way for him to reach the big-league level. As noted above (twice), catchers often take a little longer to develop and make an impact. So there’s time.
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