No area of the Mariners’ roster got a more complete offseason makeover than behind the plate. And no position needed it more.
Due largely to Mike Zunino’s declining production, the Mariners’ catchers compiled a .159/.205/.259 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 2015.
That borders on incomprehensible.
New general manager Jerry Dipoto responded by signing a familiar face, veteran free-agent Chris Iannetta, to be the club’s starting catcher. Dipoto then traded to get Steve Clevenger from Baltimore to serve as a lefty-hitting complement.
It was Dipoto who, as the Angels’ general manager, acquired Iannetta in a November 2011 trade from Colorado. This time, though, Iannetta, who turns 33 in April, is coming off the worst offensive season in his 10-year career.
Even so, his 2015 slash of .188/.293/.335, as poor as it is, represents a major upgrade. If Iannetta performs to his career norms — .231/.351/.405 — the Mariners will be considerably better off.
Clevenger played sparingly the past two years at Baltimore — just 202 plate appearances — and arrives with suspect defensive skills. But he has the reputation of someone who battles at the plate.
Bottom line: If Clevenger repeats his 2015 slash of .287/.314/.426, the Mariners will live with his defensive shortcomings in a backup role.
WHO’S IN CAMP?
28 Steven Baron (Bats right, throws right, 6 feet, 205 pounds, age 25 on opening day): A former first-round pick (2009) who gained a surprise promotion late last season after his long-tepid bat perked up a bit at Triple-A Tacoma. This year, even Tacoma is no sure thing. Option status: Three remaining.
32 Steve Clevenger (L-R, 5-10, 210, 29): Acquired Dec. 2 in a deal that sent 1B/OF Mark Trumbo to Baltimore. He’s out of options, so it will be a surprise if he doesn’t break camp as Chris Iannetta’s backup. Option status: None remaining.
33 Chris Iannetta (R-R, 6-0, 230, 32): A 10-year veteran who signed Nov. 23 as a free agent to be the starting catcher. Spent last four years at Anaheim. Seen as a bounce-back candidate after career-worst year. Option status: Not applicable.
2 Jesus Sucre (R-R, 6-0, 225, 27): Catch-and-throw receiver who appeared ticketed for another tour at Tacoma before suffering a broken leg in winter ball. Now likely to draw major-league pay through June on the 60-day disabled list. Option status: One remaining.
3 Mike Zunino (R-R, 6-2, 220, 25): Former starting catcher projected to spend development year with the Rainiers unless injuries create an opening on big-league roster. Still seen as club’s future catcher. Option status: two remaining.
52 Steve Lerud (L-R, 6-1, 220, 31): Journeyman minor-league player signed Feb. 3 to replace Jesus Sucre on organizational depth chart. Has just 15 major-league at-bats in 12 professional seasons.
72 Marcus Littlewood (S-R, 6-3, 194, 24): A second-round pick in 2010 who has never hit in the minor leagues. Most clubs like to have six catchers in spring training. That Littlewood got the invite might be a wake-up call to Tyler Marlette.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How quickly do the two new catchers, Iannetta and Clevenger, find a comfort zone with an unfamiliar pitching staff?
The Mariners have a lot of veteran arms, so trust in pitch-calling, etc., isn’t automatic.
2. Does Zunino show an improved approach at the plate?
Any assessment will be suspect; Zunino appeared to show notably better strike-zone recognition last year in camp. Nonetheless, he’ll be closely monitored.
3. Steve Clevenger’s defense, scouts say, is substandard to major-league norms.
How bad is it? Those scouting assessments are somewhat suspect because Clevenger saw limited big-league duty over the past two years.
Barring injuries, the Mariners’ catching tandem is already set with Iannetta and Clevenger.
Even if Zunino has a phenomenal spring, he’s almost certain to start the season with the Tacoma Rainiers.
Why? Because Clevenger is out of options. He can’t be sent to the minor leagues without clearing waivers. (It’s possible the Mariners might be able to sneak him through waivers late in camp after other clubs have their rosters largely in place.)
But even if Zunino sparkles and Clevenger struggles, the Mariners see this as a developmental year for Zunino. They want him to play regularly instead of getting 200 at-bats as Iannetta’s backup.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners
Mariners’ spring training preview