M’s add depth behind the plate with Baker

 Over the past week we’ve heard from GM Jack Zduriencik that we can expect to see the Seattle Mariners add several players on minor league contracts with invites to spring training. This started noticeably with the additions of outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez on Sunday. On Wednesday morning, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that the M’s have picked-up veteran catcher John Baker.

Baker, who turned 34 eight days ago, spent 2014 with the Chicago Cubs in a back-up role. He appeared in 68 games and posted a .192/.273/.231 slash line with a 39 wRC+ in 208 plate appearances. The left-hander didn’t hit a home run and had just seven extra-base hits, all doubles. He also posted the lowest walk rate of his career at 9.1 percent.

On the defensive side of things Baker wasn’t all that much better. He made a pair of throwing errors and was credited with -1 Defensive Runs Saved. That’s a very small sample size, but it is more or less representative of the veteran’s career to date.

Baker is essentially the definition of a replacement level player. There just isn’t a whole lot of upside there outside of an above average walk rate. His best years came back in 2008 and 2009 with the Miami Marlins when he produced 2.7 fWAR between the two seasons, but he hasn’t posted a season above replacement level since.

As well as the Cubs, he’s spent time with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers since departing the Marlins after the 2011 season.

The addition makes sense for the Mariners. There’s no risk or guarantee with a minor league deal, and on paper, Jesus Sucre is the only real option to back-up Mike Zunino that’s currently in the organization.

John Hicks could become an alternative as he finished the 2014 season at Triple-A, but the fourth-round draft pick in 2011 likely still needs another year in the minors, if not longer. After watching Zunino struggle after being rushed to the majors, it’s unlikely that the club will do the same with Hicks unless it becomes necessary or he plays his way up. He was added to the Mariners 40-man roster back in November.

Seattle has made no secret of what they believe they have in Sucre. Both Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McLendon made note of the 26-year old’s offensive limitations in press conferences last week, but praised his defensive abilities. After all, the reason for his call-up to the big club last summer was due to the poor defensive play of John Buck whom the team felt wasn’t reliable enough to catch twice or more a week.

Sucre didn’t hit particularly well at any point in the minors and hasn’t posted a walk rate above eight percent. In 64 plate appearances last year he had 13 hits and no walks. But, Sucre has shown an ability to shut down an opponent’s run game. For the most part, Mariners pitchers felt he calls a good game as well.

The back-up catcher position has been discussed at multiple points throughout the offseason. The free agent market did offer alternatives such as David Ross, A.J. Pierzynkski, and Nick Hundley, but there was a train of thought that the M’s simply didn’t want to allocate the remaining financial resources to this position. The club was connected to Russell Martin early in the offseason before he signed a five-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Baker doesn’t really provide the Mariners with anything they didn’t already have. Arguably, Sucre is the superior player. The club needed an upgrade at the position, particularly in terms of offense though, and they still haven’t found that yet. Baker does give the team another player to take a look at in the spring and presumably push Sucre. He also offers some insurance in case of an injury or if Sucre implodes defensively.

There’s still time to make another addition, but Jeff Mathis and Gerald Laird are about all that’s left on the free agent market. Dioner Navarro of the Blue Jays is likely available and definitely would be an offensive upgrade. He’s also held his own behind the plate. He’s due $5 million for the 2015 season before becoming a free agent. The switch-hitter will turn 21 in February.

Can the M’s get by with an offensively challenged back-up catcher? Absolutely. Plenty of teams do. But when we talk about potential holes that still exist on this ball club, this slot is still one of them.

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Tyler Carmont

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