Mariners need catching partner for Zunino

 It appears that the Seattle Mariners are ready to officially hand over the reigns to former top prospect Mike Zunino as he projects to be the club’s Opening Day catcher in 2014. The M’s first pick in the 2012 draft appeared in 52 games in 2013 while splitting time with veteran backstops Henry Blanco and Humberto Quintero, both of whom are not expected to don blue and teal in 2014. While small sample sizes make it difficult to gauge what a player is really capable of, there’s good reason to be excited for what the futures holds for Zunino.

Both the Steamer and Oliver projections at FanGraphs think highly of Zunino in 2014, and believe he is capable of providing more than 2.0 fWAR. In his 193 plate appearances in 2013, the 22-year old posted a .214/.290/.329 line alongside 5 home runs. Zunino boasted high strikeout and low walk rates in his first big league season,which have been trends throughout his minor league career as well. Both projection systems think those statistics will be similar next season, but feel that his slash line will see improvement over the course of an entire season. It’s extremely unlikely that Zunino sees 600 plate appearences in ’14, although something in the 450 range seems much more likely.

Zunino’s always been able to hit the ball hard and  he projects as a 20-plus home run bat as early as next year should he see first-string action. To sustain any kind of success at the major league level, he’ll have to develop his plate discipline and make more contact with the ball. PI’s Alex Carson noted Zunino’s struggles in a piece written this past June when the catcher was called up to the bigs. Alex felt that Zunino was not ready for the show at the time and the young backstop would’ve benefited from spending more time at Triple-A. Zunino does profile as an above average defender however, so at the very least he should provide value in run prevention while he attempts to figure out big league pitching.

At this point it’s unclear what the immediate plan is for Zunino with respect to playing time, although it isn’t unreasonable to suggest he’ll see 100-120 games. The Mariners have Jesus Sucre behind Zunino on the organizational depth chart but it remains to be seen what his contributions in 2014 are expected to be. The 25-year old  saw but nine games with the Mariners last year while spending time at Triple-A and on the disabled list. Sucre doesn’t carry much buzz about him and profiles more on the side of organizational filler than backup catcher, but without another addition, he looks to be the club’s backup next year.

There’s been very little talk about the M’s catching situation so far this offseason which is mostly due to the club’s desire to add impact bats and their newest import, Robinson Cano. It’s one of the oldest cliches in the baseball books, but the Mariners should be looking to bring in a veteran catcher to pair with Zunino who can not only provide mentorship, but the capability to play 60-plus games if needed. Blanco filled the mentor role well in his short time in the Mariners’ organization, but at this point in his career he’s probably better fitted in a coaching position and the M’s should look at acquiring a veteran catcher for 2014; although how many said the same about Raul Ibanez this time last year?

The Mariners had minimal reported interest in the big-name free agent catchers this winter, and there’s really no reason to bring in a pricey backstop unless the club recently soured on Zunino’s development. Backup or tandem catchers are relatively easy to find and there’s a few that should warrant some Mariners’ consideration, most noticeably Kurt Suzuki and John Buck.

Suzuki is a familiar name to many M’s fans as he spent five plus seasons with the Oakland Athletics before being traded to the Washington Nationals in 2012. The 30-year old saw a bit of a resurgence when he to the A’s organization at the end of 2013 after a poor showing with the Nationals. In the 15 games he played for the A’s he posted a .303/.343/.545 line. It’s not impossible that Suzuki can regain some of his earlier success, in 2011 he was worth 2.0 fWAR and 1.6 bWAR, and that could work out nicely in the M’s favour as he could become a valuable trade asset. Perhaps Suzuki doesn’t fit the typical veteran catcher mould as appears young at 30-years old, but he has player over 800 games across seven major league seasons. The Hawaii native has been a consistently above average defensive catcher throughout his career and has managed to limit the strike outs; Zunino could learn a thing or two from him.

Buck, 33, spent the bulk of his career in Kansas City before cashing in with the Miami Marlins after a big 2010 campaign with the Toronto Blue Jays. Like Suzuki, Buck has historically been an above average defensive catcher but he comes with a little more pop in his bat. Buck’s 12 long balls in 2012 were his lowest total since his injury shortened 2009 season.Like Zunino however, he’s prone to the strike out and has gone down swinging or looking more than 20 percent of the time in each of his big league seasons. He posted a .222/.288/.365 line with the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, and was good for 1.6 fWar.

Neither player is a particularly sexy name, but that shouldn’t be a requirement for a backup catcher anyways. It’d be interesting to see if Suzuki’s September rebound in Oakland translates to 2014 at all or if his best days are now behind him. On a one-year deal worth $3-4 million that might include a club option, there’s value in both of these catchers. Suzuki and Buck don’t appear to be regulars heading into 2014 even though they did combine to play 204 games a year ago. There’s enough in the tank of both players that they should be able to provide more than replacement value in 50 or so games next year.

If the Mariners are comfortable with Sucre and a non-roster invitee battling for the backup job in Spring Training that’d be fairly reasonable, although acquiring a more established option behind the young Zunino should be exhausted to the fullest extent this winter, and perhaps into the spring.

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Jason A. Churchill

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