While Mariners wait on a catcher of the future, they hope the present will be good enough
Jan. 6, 2022 Updated Thu., Jan. 13, 2022 at 11:31 p.m.
SEATTLE – Forgettable for many reasons, largely out of the desire to not remember their lack of production and unmet potential, the names of the failed, and there were so many names, can still be reeled off by die-hard Seattle Mariners fans.
Listing off the Mariners catchers since Dan Wilson’s retirement in 2005 offers a glimpse into just how difficult it is to find a quality catcher in Major League Baseball. It also underscores how much the Mariners have failed in their attempts.
The position is often defined by polarities – quality defense/abysmal offense or producer on offense/liability on defense. While teams often hope to find some equatorial area in between, the Mariners catchers of the past 15-plus years were defined by those extremes or were simply not good at either.
Per FanGraphs’ wins above replacement measure (WAR), the Mariners have had 12 seasons in which the catching position had less than 2.0 WAR since 2000, including eight seasons of negative WAR.
One of those 12 seasons came in 2021 when the Mariners got a 0.3 WAR from the catching position that used four players: Tom Murphy (86 games), Cal Raleigh (40 games), Luis Torrens (32 games) and Jose Godoy (12 games).
After missing the entire shortened 2020 season due to injury, Murphy looked out of sync at the plate in spring training, and it got worse for the first three months of the season. Torrens, who was acquired at the trade deadline in 2020, was abysmal at the plate and behind it, getting sent down on May 20. He came back strongly after his stint in Tacoma, becoming a consistent hitter, but it all came as a designated hitter. He didn’t catch another game.
Raleigh, who came into 2021 as the organization’s top catching prospect, looked overwhelmed at times, after being called up just before the All-Star break in July.
During the Mariners’ 162 games, the catching position yielded a .190/.266/.329 slash line with 24 doubles, 17 homers, 61 RBIs, 54 walks and 189 strikeouts in 604 plate appearances. The batting average was 28th in MLB, the on-base percentage ranked 29th and the slugging 25th while a 31.3 strikeout percentage was third highest.
And yet Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners president of baseball operations, made it clear in November that they weren’t going to use any of their ample payroll budget to find an upgrade at the position. They would go into 2022 with some combination of Murphy, Torrens and Raleigh or all three on the roster.
That decision was made easier by a free-agent class of catching that offered no real impact. But they could address that position at midseason if the 2021 struggles carry over into 2022. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, who will be a free agent after the 2022 season, will certainly draw interest at the trade deadline and in free agency.
Obviously, the Mariners aren’t giving up on Raleigh. They know he is still a work in progress with potential. A switch-hitter with power, he admittedly lost his approach when he started struggling to hit MLB pitching. He tried to hit his way out of trouble, and it only led to more swings and misses. He posted a .180/.223/.309 slash line with 12 doubles, two homers, 13 RBIs, seven walks and 52 strikeouts in 148 plate appearances.
It’s a familiar scenario to Mariners fans, who watched Mike Zunino, who was an All-Star with the Rays in 2021, log strikeout after strikeout while occasionally hitting a mammoth homer. But Zunino was a premium defensive catcher with an advanced understanding of game calling and preparation. Raleigh has never been considered an elite defensive catching prospect like Zunino. He’s about average to slightly above in terms of arm strength, receiving and blocking. The game-calling and preparation can be built with experience. But as a switch-hitter, the Mariners believe that Raleigh can be more than an all-or-nothing power hitter. He had a .324/.377/.608 slash line in 44 games with Tacoma.
The roster setup and carrying all three catchers will be dependent on the position pieces that Dipoto and the Mariners add after the MLB lockout ends and the subsequent transaction freeze is lifted.
It wouldn’t be impossible to see Raleigh to start another season in Tacoma and let him start the season in a more relaxed setting. But this season will definitely factor into the Mariners’ decisions about the position and help determine role as the everyday catcher of the immediate future.
The Mariners, specifically manager Scott Servais and the pitching staff, love Murphy’s leadership, game preparation and in-game decision-making. The belief is that he will be more effective as a hitter by returning to a platoon role where he would face left-handed pitching almost exclusively. It’s where he had breakout success in 2019.
Murphy posted a .237/.355/.446 line against left-handed pitching with five doubles, eight homers. 22 RBIs, 26 walks, 50 strikeouts in 173 plate appearances. Against right-handed pitchers, he had a .170/.245/.259 slash line with three doubles, three homers, 12 RBIs, 14 walks and 49 strikeouts in 152 plate appearances.
Torrens’ ability to play first base and third base at an adequate level gives Seattle options beyond a designated hitter spot that seems likely to be filled by Kyle Lewis on most days.
Dipoto believed that Torrens’ catching struggles were a byproduct of his hitting woes. If he’s the hitter that posted .266/.326/.477 slash line with 11 doubles, two triples, 13 home runs, 41 RBIs, 24 walks in 79 games to close out 2021, the Mariners might live with his mistakes behind the plate.
On the horizon, at least 4-5 years away, looms Harry Ford, the new Mariners’ catcher of the future. Selected with the 12th pick in the 2021 draft, the 5-10, 210-pound ball of muscle, athleticism and potential drew raves from Mariners staffers and opposing scouts in his first professional season. In 19 games in the Arizona Complex Summer League, Ford, only 18, posted a .291/.400/.582 slash line with seven doubles, three homers, 10 RBI, nine walks and 14 strikeouts. But it was Ford’s energy, his explosiveness on the field and his tireless work ethic that also had people gushing.
Ford’s debut is like a far-off dream for the Mariners, and the catchers ahead of him in the minor leagues have yet to show they can even challenge Raleigh for ascension into his spot.
The catcher of the future? The Mariners just hope they avoid reliving another season resembling the catchers of the past.
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