It’s not as if the Mariners at any point held open tryouts for their “catcher of the future.” They didn’t ignore the old baseball adage that says a good team has to be strong up the middle, starting at catcher. Since Dan Wilson retired after the 2005 season, the club spent considerable money and draft picks in an attempt to find a backstop that could play (at the least) average defense, hit for power and sustain a batting average above the Mendoza Line.
It just hasn’t panned out.
The first misstep came in 2005 when they selected with the third overall draft pick Jeff Clement of USC. Clement was a power-hitting lefty with a smooth, pull swing that seemed ideal for Safeco Field’s accessible right-field bleachers (326 feet down the line). Because of a knee injury and an inability to adjust to big league pitching, Clement was a massive bust, hitting .237/.309/.393 in parts of two seasons before the club included him in a July 2009 trade to Pittsburgh in return for pitcher Ian Snell and shortstop Jack Wilson.
In 2010, the Mariners gave catcher Adam Moore, an impressive, country-strong prospect developed in their minor league system, every chance to win the starting job. In 60 games, Moore batted .195 (40 for 205), had a WAR of -0.5 and was among the American League leaders in passed balls. In July 2012, the Royals claimed Moore off waivers. He looks to be on his way out of professional baseball: Last season for the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, Moore didn’t hit above .200 in 41 games.
From 2006-09, there was Kenji Johjima, a decorated catcher from Japan who hit for average and decent power (.268/.310/.411) but received criticism for a game-calling strategy in which he asked the Mariners staff to deviate from their “out-pitch” as a way to surprise hitters. Accepted practice in Japan, the style was met with skepticism in the U.S. His limited English skills were no help.
By the middle of the 2009 season, when it was Felix Hernandez’s turn in the rotation, Johjima was benched for either Rob Johnson or Jamie Burke. In 2010, Johjima returned to his home country and finish his career with the Hanshin Tigers.
From 2011-12, there was catcher Miguel Olivo. Nobody wants to talk about Olivo.
So, fair or not, it’s with much hesitation that many Mariners fans place hope in Mike Zunino, the 22-year-old expected to start the 2014 season. As a rookie last season, Zunino, who led the University of Florida to three College World Series appearances and won the 2012 Golden Spikes Award, the top honor for a position player in college baseball, batted .214 in 52 games.
Since Zunino and management admitted he was rushed to the majors after veteran catcher Kelly Shoppach was released and Jesus Montero demoted to Triple-A Tacoma, expectations for Zunino in 2014 are high.
- The Mariners’ first full squad practice is Tuesday at the Peoria Sports Complex. Zunino spoke with reporters Sunday about the slight tweaks manager Lloyd McClendon and hitting coach Howard Johnson are applying to his batting stance and swing. McClendon was the Tigers hitting coach the past seven seasons while overseeing a team that most years finished near the top of the American League in runs.
- Mariners.com had a Q&A with new Mariners president Kevin Mather. In the story, Mather talks about his transition from executive vice president of finance to a top leadership position. He also defends the front office from the off-season Seattle Times story that dubbed the organization dysfunctional, among other things.
- Justin Smoak told The News Tribune’s Bob Dutton that he thinks first base is “his job to lose” after the team acquired Corey Hart and Logan Morrison in December. Smoak signed a one-year contract with the Mariners Saturday that included a club option, vesting clause for 2015 and a lot of performance-based incentives. Dutton also had this story Monday about McClendon’s disdain for those who think the Mariners are Robinson Cano and a bunch of nobodies.
- Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times had good Mariners news. Rest easy: Prized pitcher Taijuan Walker, 21, will throw his first bullpen of spring training Monday after reporting to camp last week and complaining of soreness in his throwing shoulder.