Analysis: M’s sign Iannetta

 The busy offseason continues for Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto with Monday’s signing of catcher Chris Iannetta. Reportedly, the deal is for one year guaranteed at $4.25 million, plus incentives, and includes an option for 2017. It’s unclear what the parameters of the option is.

Ianetta, 33 in April, struggled at the plate this past season, posting a .188/.293/.335 triple-slash in 92 games after a three-season run of .238/.357/.386 in Anaheim.

Considering the absolute dearth of available catching in Major League Baseball right now, this signing is sensible, without significant risk. Risk that might otherwise prevent the club from making additional moves at the position this winter, which is highly likely, or altering their course during the season if Iannetta gets hurt or continues to struggle.

Iannetta is a solid defender who is generally thought to be among the top 10 or so pitch framers in the game. He’s an average blocker despite a somewhat-advanced age and is adept at controlling the running game with above-average arm strength and accuracy.

He was a three-fWAR player in 2014, a two-fWAR player in 2013 and dropped to 0.5 a year ago. Like with Leonys Martin, the Mariners are buying low on Iannetta, in hopes he has a bounce-back season, or at least something in between his ’15 output and the previous few years.

Relative to the market — both free agent and trade — this is a terrific start for Seattle in their trek to make sure Mike Zunino isn’t the guy in 2016, and perhaps not even partially the answer being relied upon, without extending their resources to great lengths.

As for Iannetta offensively, betting on his bat spiking back some is a worthy wager for $4.25 million. Even a repeat of 2015 for Ianetta  — the half-fWAR version — is 2.4 fWAR better than the Mariners catchers provided last season. It’s more than reasonable to expect at least a 20-point spring based on a significant drop in batting average on balls in play — .225 in ’15, down from .329, .284 and .288 the prior three seasons. A little of that can be attributed to Iannetta being nearly 33 years old now, but not all of it, and getting back to the .270 range is far from wishful thinking.

He’s got power, though not Zunino-like pop, but he will work counts and draw walks, as suggested by a career 14.1 percent walk rate, including 12.9 a year ago.

Remaining free-agent catchers include Alex Avila, Jeff Mathis, Dioner Navarro, Brayan Pena and Geovany Soto — none of which are traditional No.1 catchers. Ideally, Seattle adds one of these to share time with Iannetta, or a similar player via trade, and Zunino can continue to develop and not concern himself with everyday work at the big-league level — at least for now.

To make room for Iannetta, the Mariners designated for assignment John Hicks, who spent last season in Triple-A Tacoma before a late-season cup of coffee in Seattle. There’s a chance he clears waivers and can be sent back to Tacoma, but there are clubs who like Hicks enough to believe he can be an emergency Triple-A call-up type, so the former Virginia backstop may be done in Seattle.

The Mariners payroll, which has been updated right here, including arbitration projections, still is in great shape. Now with eight locked-in guaranteed contracts — two of those with incentives attached — are eating up a total of $92.107 million. When the offseason began, five players made up $78.857 million.

 

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Jason A. Churchill

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