Seattle Mariners: Are the M's Set at Catcher?

Thomas HolmesCorrespondent IIIAugust 23, 2012

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 21:  Jesus Montero #63 of the Seattle Mariners heads off the field after defeating the Cleveland Indians 5-1 at Safeco Field on August 21, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year Miguel Olivo, for better or worse, was generally considered the Mariners' best option at catcher in both the present and not-too-distant future tense.

In short, the team really had no viable options to platoon or replace Olivo—and on a team that was once again rebuilding, it seemed to be the least of the Mariners' problems.  After all, Olivo over the course of the 2011 season turned out to be one of the team's more potent power hitters, and seemed to be well received by the majority of the pitching staff.  

And yet by late November, last year's general manager Jack Zduriencik made a trade that sent reliever Josh Lueke to Tampa Bay in exchange for backup catcher John Jaso.  At the time it seemed to be a small move to help provide depth at catcher while simultaneously ridding the team of the controversial Lueke.

In terms of finding a long-term solution, a little more than a month later Jack Z. traded pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for catching prospect Jesus Montero, in what was arguably the gutsiest move of the entire offseason in Major League Baseball. 

Of course, issues of whether Montero could actually catch fueled speculation as to why the Yankees traded him. But for the Mariners, the fact that he could hit was good enough for them to take a chance in finding out whether he had a future behind the plate. 

Going into the year, it was assumed that Montero would slowly learn how to use the tools of ignorance under the tutelage of Olivo and eventually pass the torch—problem solved.   

Unfortunately Olivo got off to a terrible start, and the urge to push Montero to the forefront grew stronger. He seemed to hit better while starting at catcher rather than designated hitter, even though manager Eric Wedge tried to fight it. 

Truth is those numbers are still holding up, as Montero's splits at the plate show he's better hitting when he's catching.

But is he really a catcher, or just a guy who hits better when he dresses the part?

More importantly, is he someone the team can build around as the focal point?

These are big questions for which we are still waiting for answers.  For now though, Montero looks like someone that will continue to leave us guessing by taking two steps forward with one step back, and generally leaves us wanting to see more. 

Meanwhile, what about John Jaso?

Going into the season, many assumed he would occasionally catch, pinch hit and...???

It didn't matter really, as Larry Stone of the Seattle Times points out in a recent article on Jaso following Felix Hernandez's perfect game. 

Except it did, as Jaso slowly but surely went from being a spare part on a losing ballclub to one of the team's more reliable hitters, except against lefties.

Unfortunately it's not just a problem exclusive to this season, as Stone found out from his former manager Joe Maddon.

He could develop into an everyday player, but Maddon cautioned, "You could try to force that, but then again, you might not like him as much. I think he's going to hit the right-hander better if you don't let him face too many left-handers that might get him off his game."

Which makes you wonder, is Jaso another patented Mariner one year wonder? 

At age 28, it would be hard to see him as a long-term fixture regardless, yet given how he's had a knack all season for being in the right place at the right time (especially during the M's recent surge), I think the majority of fans would love to have him back. 

But how should the Mariners go about managing the catching situation moving forward?

In an ideal world, you almost wish there was a way of combining the strengths of both ball players to create a catcher who can hit with a mix of power and average against both righties and lefties—who can call a great game, and defensively handle just about anything. 

Instead we're seeing them rotate on a daily basis between two spots in the lineup between the designated hitter and catching spots.  For the moment it's working, but will it last?

That I'm not so sure of, but it does explain an interesting move the M's made a few weeks ago...

Enter Mike Zunino.

Early last week, the M's 2012 first-round pick (who started his career a few weeks ago at rookie level Everett in the Northwest League), bypassed Single A and is now playing at Double A Jackson.

It's impressive, but perhaps telling that the organization either sees Zunino as a fast riser (as Larry Stone hinted at in the Seattle Times), or Single A stops Clinton and High Desert are pointless given how often they inflate numbers.

Either way, Zunino seems to be swinging a magic wand as he's currently hitting over .400 since arriving at Jackson. If he continues to progress at this pace, he could be in Seattle by this time next season.

Could this present a problem?

It depends on how much stock you wish to put in Jesus Montero becoming a full-time catcher.  

Best case scenario for the M's sees Montero become the most feared hitter in the middle of the Mariners lineup. Hitting in the DH spot would probably give him the best opportunity to do so, seeing how the wear and tear of catching limits the number of chances he could start.  Essentially he'd become Edgar Martinez with a little more power perhaps, but with a lower average.  

Meanwhile, I have my doubts that Zunino will become the next Buster Posey, but I think he can put up numbers that could surpass those of Dan Wilson, given what we've seen so far.  

As for Jaso, I'd like to see him as the super sub, capable of filling the gaps between Montero and Zunino for the next three to four years.  

Worst case scenario, Montero never finds a position or hits with much authority, Zunino never gets past Tacoma and Jaso ends up a one year wonder.  

The reality is that we'll probably see something that falls in between, with Montero putting up decent numbers at DH but never quite living up to the hype, Zunino behind the plate and becoming a fan favorite given his gritty style of play and Jaso running hot and cold for a few years while coming off the bench.   

So are the Mariners set at catcher?

For the moment we're okay, but in two years' time depending on how things shape up, we might have a pretty interesting debate.  


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