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Vince Grippi: Of all the Mariners’ woes through the years, the biggest has been at catcher

UPDATED: Sun., May 7, 2017, 9:53 p.m.

Mike Zunino’s struggles at the plate resulted in another trip to the minors. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Mike Zunino’s struggles at the plate resulted in another trip to the minors. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Correspondent

Over the course of their 40 years, the Seattle Mariners have struggled to fill certain positions.

Left field is the one that first comes to mind. A dead zone in the Kingdome and Safeco, one that has never really produced a star.

Third base and first base haven’t been all that productive over the years either.

But our focus today is on the most important position on the field.

Catcher.

OK, pitching is 75 percent of the game, or whatever formula Yogi Berra came up with.

But other than the guys standing on the hill in the middle of the infield, the catcher holds position 1A, even if scorekeepers label it as 2.

And that’s about the number of decent catchers the M’s have produced.

No, Bob Stinson isn’t one we have in mind.

There was Dave Valle from 1984 to 1993 and Dan Wilson from the end of the Valle era to 2005.

And, actually, only Valle was homegrown.

Wilson came over from Cincinnati, brought along when Lou Piniella, the former Reds manager, took over as the M’s leader. He knew Wilson would be good, and he was. The best the M’s ever had.

Since then, meh. Sure, Kenji Johjima was decent for a few years. He may have been the most consistent hitting catcher the franchise ever had, with a .268 lifetime average and a .721 OPS (on-base plus slugging).

But he had little in the way of power, wasn’t the greatest behind the plate and struggled to adapt his game to the demands of major league baseball.

Which brings us to today (though we will return to the Johjima era in a minute).

Right now, the M’s are going with a catching combo of Carlos Ruiz, a 12-year veteran on the downside of his career, and Tuffy Gosewisch, whose best year with the Diamondbacks included 125 at-bats and a .225 average.

Why those guys?

Because their next great catching hope hasn’t cut it.

The M’s sent Mike Zunino to Tacoma this week with the express purpose of trying to jump-start his season. Again.

“With where he’s at in his career, we thought, let’s take the foot off the gas here a little bit,” Servais told reporters Friday. “Let’s get him down to Tacoma and get him right. And as soon as we get him right, he will be back. He’s not going to be down there for an extended period of time or whatever, but we do need him right.

“We still believe in him, but where he’s at in his career right now, it’s got to be more consistent. He’s got to put the ball in play.”

The question is, can he?

In parts of five seasons with the Mariners, Zunino has had 1,197 at-bats. His career average is .193. His OPS, .623. He’s shown flashes. Heck, last season, after being demoted to Tacoma for 79 games, he returned and hit better. Yet his season average was .207, his OPS .787.

It was his best year yet.

But he’s regressed this season. And his poor hitting – a .167 batting average and a .486 OPS – is affecting the rest of his game.

Zunino is a decent defensive catcher with a strong arm and good framing skills. But he’s inconsistent blocking the ball – his fundamentals this season seemed to have deteriorated – and has lacked focus at times.

About two weeks ago, James McCann tried to score from second on a base hit to center field. The throw to Zunino arrived in plenty of time. He just missed the tag.

It wasn’t a physical mistake but a mental one. And seemed symptomatic of how his offensive woes were affecting his defensive play.

That can’t happen.

When the M’s took Zunino with the third pick of the 2012 draft, it immediately brought up the specter of Jeff Clement.

You remember Clement, don’t you? He was the third pick of the 2005 draft. A left-handed hitting, can’t-miss prospect from USC. He was to be the M’s catcher of the future.

Except he wasn’t. After two years backing up Johjima (with Rob Johnson), the M’s gave up on Clement.

He wasn’t the defensive catcher Zunino is, and he wasn’t the hitter they felt they needed at the position.

In his two years in Seattle, Clement hit just .237 with a .701 OPS in 219 at-bats.

Crummy.

But it sounds pretty good now, doesn’t it?

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