If you’re looking for spring training position-competition drama, you’ve come to the right place.
There’s a battle brewing for backup catcher.
Hey, it’s something.
The Mariners seem largely set with their lineups with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training on Wednesday in Peoria, Arizona, save for a few back-end bullpen slots and this backup catcher slot.
But it’s certainly something to keep an eye on. They brought in Mike Marjama from the Rays in August on the same day they acquired first baseman Yonder Alonso from the Athletics. Then the Mariners claimed David Freitas off waivers from the Braves just after the season.
There’s also Tuffy Gosewisch, but he’s not on the 40-man roster.
“With Marjama and Gosewisch and Freitas, it gives us guys who all have options, who are all flexible, who can all catch and throw,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said.
But none are headliners.
That’s why they have Zunino.
“I think he’s one of the premier catchers in the league,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said recently.
It’s his job, which wasn’t the case two seasons ago when the Mariners signed veteran Chris Iannetta to take the pressure off of Zunino and focus on his development. Even last year, the Mariners signed then-38-year-old and former All-Star Carlos Ruiz as a safety net.
Zunino ended up spending more time at Triple-A Tacoma than with the Mariners in 2016. And this was coming off his 7-for-54 slump near the end of 2015 that left him with a .174 batting average.
And last season? It was a bad, bad start – 12-for-72 (.167) with 30 strikeouts, zero home runs and two RBIs before he was sent back to Tacoma.
Oh, but he bounced back. Big time.
Here’s how the month of June went after his return: Zunino hit .304, with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs (the most of any player in the major leagues that month).
Call him Mike Junino. Because the only other players in Mariners history to have at least 10 home runs and 30 RBIs in a month were Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez and Jay Buhner.
From the time he was called back up on May 23 to the end of the season, Zunino hit .270 with all 25 of his home runs, 62 RBIs and 20 doubles – though he still struck out a club-high 160 times.
But his 25 home runs were third-most by a catcher last season behind the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez and the Royals’ Salvador Perez.
“Spending the time with Mike and seeing it all come together for a good chunk of the season was something – probably one of the highlights for our team and the organization,” Servais said. “Mike is always going to be streaky. Mike is still going to strike out some. He’s doing a better job of controlling the strike zone. But when he’s hot, when he gets in those hot streaks – pretty awesome.”
Servais is a former catcher. He knows the imperial role they play, and he said last year was a turning point in Zunino taking charge of the team.
“The catcher has to be the quarterback of the club,” Servais said. “As Mike’s confidence grew last year, we really saw that – him taking control behind the plate with his engagement and his blocking game with our pitching staff and understanding the value of pitching runs and creating them. We’re really excited about him going forward.
“There are still things we want to work on defensively, blocking balls in the dirt more effective. The offense should continue to get better. But if he continues to produce like he did last year, I think we’ll all be very happy.”
And they expect him to, which is why they have a pair of 28-year-olds on the roster behind him.
Marjama seems to be the offensive option, while Freitas has a better defensive track record.
Marjama wasn’t even a catcher until getting to the big leagues. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school – with some wanting him as a shortstop, but he landed at Sacramento City College to play for Andy McKay – whom you might now know now as the Mariners’ director of player development.
But he’s athletic with a good arm and that played well to switching to catcher after he was drafted by the White Sox and later got into the Rays’ system.
He seems like the favorite, but Freitas seems like the safe bet if Marjama doesn’t work out. He’s basically a minor-league veteran – more than 2,500 plate appearances in eight seasons with five different clubs. He made his major-league debut with the Braves last season.
But in more than 500 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett, Freitas allowed just one passed ball.
The 34-year-old Gosewisch appeared in 11 games with the Mariners last season. He was designated for assignment in August, cleared waivers, was outrighted to Tacoma and then signed a minor league deal to return to the club last month.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
WHO’S IN CAMP? (three on 40-man roster)
Bats right, throws right, 6-2, 220
Zunino’s 3.6 wins-above-replacement in 2017 was tied for the third-highest among catchers in baseball, according to FanGraphs – just behind Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and the Giants’ Buster Posey. Pretty remarkable considering Zunino’s 30 strikeouts, zero home runs, two RBIs and .167 in his first 80 at-bats of the season before heading to Triple-A Tacoma. Option status: One remaining
Bats right, throws right, 6-3, 225
Former 15th-round draft pick in 2010 by the Nationals. Was traded to the Athletics for Kurt Suzuki, then landed in the Orioles’ farm system, then the Cubs and Braves and now the Mariners. He’s logged more than 2,500 minor-league plate appearances in eight seasons before making his big-league debut with the Braves last year. But he has a glove – he only allowed one passed ball in more than 500 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett last season. Option status: Three remaining.
Bats right, throws right, 6-2, 205
The former infielder didn’t start working at catcher until he got into the White Sox farm system as a 23rd-round draft pick in 2011. He made his major-league debut when he arrived via trade with the Mariners in August, going 3-for-9 with a home run in the five games he appeared in. Option status: Three remaining
Joe DeCarlo: R-R, 5-10, 210: Was a third-baseman to start spring training last year. But was asked to switch to catcher. The 24-year-old hit .240/.346/.415 at Advanced-A Modesto.
Tuffy Gosewisch: R-R, 5-11, 200: One of the clubhouse favorites. The 34-year-old hit .229/.313/.351 in 85 games with Tacoma. Went 2-for-28 (.071) in 11 games with the Mariners. But in almost 600 chances between the two stops, only had two passed balls defensively.
Joe Odom: R-R, 6-2, 225: Was signed to a minor-league deal this offseason. Spent most of last year with Double-A Mississippi (Braves), hitting .266/.329/.359.