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Seattle Mariners

Mariners spring training preview: Cal Raleigh more than carries the load as foundational catcher

Catcher Cal Raleigh hit 30 home runs in 2023 for the Seattle Mariners.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

Like an obscure trivia category played by patrons watching a Seattle Mariners game at a sports bar, or perhaps a frustrating exercise to prove the level of a person’s fandom, listing off the players that failed to fill the role and success of stalwart catcher Dan Wilson in the seasons that followed his retirement in 2005 is not easy or enjoyable.

Names like Ben Davis, Miguel Olivo, Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson, Jesus Montero, Chris Iannetta and Adam Moore can be rattled off.

Kenji Johjima had provided a two-year respite of success before regressing. Mike Zunino provided defense, leadership and power over parts of six seasons before being traded during the Mariners’ rebuild.

But the search for a foundational catcher and a team leader ended a few years ago when Caleb John Raleigh, or Cal, took control of the position in the 2022 season.

Raleigh has blossomed into team leader with his mixture of toughness, commitment and production.

Fans love him, teammates respect him and opponents know just how dangerous he is at the plate and how solid he is behind it. And well, he is, the Big Dumper.

In our next preview leading up to spring training, we take a closer look at the Mariners catcher position.

Who’s back

Raleigh is back as the Mariners’ primary catcher after one of the best seasons produced by a Seattle catcher in the past 20 years. In 145 games, he posted a .232/.306/.456 slash line with 23 doubles, 30 homers, 78 runs scored, 75 RBI, 54 walks and 158 strikeouts. Raleigh generated a 4.7 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, which is the highest of any Mariners catcher in club history.

Zunino produced a 4.6 WAR in 2017 while Raleigh’s 4.2 WAR in 2022 was third highest.

Raleigh’s 8.8 WAR over the past two seasons is the third most in MLB, with only Adley Rutschman (10.5) and Sean Murphy (9.2) generating more over that span.

But Raleigh is more than just numbers and offensive production. His value as a game-caller and leader is difficult to measure. Mariners pitchers rave about his daily preparation and his commitment to putting their needs ahead of his own.

Who’s gone?

After five seasons with the Mariners, Tom Murphy left the organization as a free agent. While there was some in-season mentions about signing Murphy to an extension, those talks never materialized. Murphy signed with the Giants in December.

After a breakout 2019 season, when he hit 18 homers in 75 games, Murphy was cursed by injuries that limited his playing time. Last season, he produced a .290/.335/.538 slash line in 47 games with 12 doubles, eight homers, 17 RBI, 10 walks and 44 strikeouts. A thumb injury ended his season in August.

New faces

The Mariners added veteran catcher Seby Zavala as part of the trade that sent Eugenio Suarez to Arizona in the offseason. Seattle also acquired minor-league catcher Blake Hunt from the Rays in exchange for minor-league catcher Tatem Levins.

Zavala fits and understands the role of a traditional backup catcher. He’s strong defensively and has played in 176 MLB games.

Hunt was going to be a minor-league free agent before the Mariners acquired him and put him on the 40-man roster. He will likely be the starter at Triple-A Tacoma.

A second-round (No. 69 overall) pick in the 2017 MLB draft out of famed Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., Hunt split time between the Rays’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, playing in a total of 67 games. He posted a .256/.331/.518 slash line with 20 doubles, 12 homers, 41 RBI, 22 walks and 61 strikeouts.

The Mariners like Hunt’s defensive ability — he’s considered to be an outstanding defensive catcher — and his power potential. The 12 homers in 2023 were a career high.

Trending up

Raleigh’s leadership was unquestioned in terms of his work ethic and willingness to play through pain. He played the last two months of the 2022 season with a torn ligament in his glove-hand thumb. Certain pitches would leave him in agony, but he refused to come out of the lineup, understanding the Mariners’ push toward the postseason.

Last season, he was vocal during the team’s struggles early in the season, calling the effort and results unacceptable and embarrassing.

But when the Mariners were eliminated from the postseason after Game No. 161, he called out the organization and demanded ownership to invest more in the team, adding “big-time players.”

The frank and earnest comments, some of which he later apologized for, made him a hero to Mariners fans who were also frustrated with the lack of player additions.

Raleigh didn’t back down from his words, saying he just wants to win, but he did regret any words that might have bothered his teammates.

Trending down

The production from the backup catching spot is going to be minimal. Murphy was a legitimate offensive presence when he was in the lineup to the point where the Mariners would often play both Raleigh and him in games.

Zavala has a career .210/.275/.347 slash line in 514 plate appearances. He is not an offensive threat.

The Mariners would love to see Hunt grow into the position. He likely isn’t ready to make that step, but the hope is that by the end of the season he could contribute.

Prospect to watch

Harry Ford is a muscular ball of charisma, athleticism and plate discipline who could be the Mariners’ catcher of the future, particularly if Raleigh decides to leave in free agency in the years ahead.

The Mariners’ first-round pick in the 2021 draft, Ford has grown in popularity with his showing in the World Baseball Classic. In 118 games for High-A Everett, he posted a .257/.410/.430 slash line with 24 doubles, four triples, 15 homers, 67 RBI, 103 walks and 109 strikeouts.

He has all the physical tools. It’s just growing into baseball’s most difficult positions with repetitions and experience.

He will likely start the season with Double-A Arkansas, moving him that much closer to the big leagues.

By the numbers

30: Raleigh’s 30 homers were the most by a catcher in MLB last season and most by a catcher in Mariners history.