So it dawned on me today that there are only nine days until Christmas.
Besides the obvious concern about my lack of Christmas shopping, that also suggests that this is a great time to do a countdown of the biggest questions the Seattle Mariners face at each of the nine positions on the field.
Today, I decided to tackle one of the biggest questions for the Mariners this offseason; what to do about the issues behind the plate.
This question may be the biggest one leading up to the 2013 season for the Mariners.
John Jaso, acquired in a deal with Tampa Bay in the 2012 offseason, was initially seen as nothing more than a solid bench player for manager Eric Wedge. His role was to offer breathers to incumbent Miguel Olivo. That is, before the Mariners acquired Jesus Montero about a month-and-a-half later.
Even then, Montero wasn't seen as the answer, as many scouts questioned his abilities behind the plate. So it seemed that Jaso was at most going to see a game here and there behind the plate.
That is, until he started tearing the cover off the ball.
Jaso experienced a career year for the Mariners, posting a stat line of .276/.394/.456 with 10 homers, 50 RBI and a 3.3 offensive WAR in just 108 games. Not only that, but Jaso delivered when it mattered most, posting a whopping .378/.485/.622 line with runners in scoring position.
So why did Jaso play in only 108 games if he was so good? After all, it's not like the Mariners had a plethora of offensive weapons.
The problem was his inability to hit left-handed pitching. In fact, Jaso was only allowed 42 AB against left-handers, in which he batted .119 with only one extra base hit.
The big question going forward for Jaso is how he can handle left-handed pitching, and whether or not he can reach an adequate enough level for Jesus Montero to be moved elsewhere so that Eric Wedge can use both bats in the lineup.
It's not just Jaso's bat that is so valuable for the Mariners, either. Many of the pitchers on the staff love Jaso's game-calling behind the plate. Let's not forget that it was Jaso behind the plate for Felix Hernandez' perfect game.
There are a lot of people who are dying to have Jaso in the lineup full time, including the folks over at U.S.S Mariner. But until Jaso can hit left-handed pitching more consistently, manager Eric Wedge may continue to be reluctant to put Jaso behind the plate for 150 games a season.
Montero came with a lot of accolades, rated the top Yankees prospect from 2010 to 2012 by Baseball America. Not only did he produce at the minor league level, Montero received a late season call-up with the Yankees in 2011 and offered a glimpse of the future to come. Montero batted .328 with four homers and 12 RBI in 18 games, and seemed to be a star in the making.
After his trade to Seattle, Montero suffered many ups and downs as he was thrown into the middle of a Mariners lineup that struggled for offense.
As the year came to a close, Montero posted a final stat line of .260/.298/.386 with 15 homers and 62 RBI. Obviously that isn't the worst of stat lines, especially for a rookie, but it was still a far cry from the small sample he put up in New York. Montero struggled with outside off-speed pitches, and throughout the season had times where he looked very lost at the plate.
To make matters worse, John Jaso was crushing the ball whenever Montero wasn't behind the plate. And for some reason manager Eric Wedge still found it necessary to find playing time for Miguel Olivo, who could easily have been one of the worst players in baseball last season as evidenced by his inability to stop balls in the dirt and his horrific offensive statistics.
To be fair, a lot was expected from Montero in his first full season in the big leagues. Thankfully for him, Michael Pineda's injury issues have eased the criticism of a lot of fans who were upset about the trade in the first place.
If Montero can continue his progress as a hitter, then the offensive concerns will be null and void.
However, his progression behind the plate still looms as the biggest question. His value will skyrocket if he can improve enough to be the starter for the majority of the season. If he can't, he will have to start ripping the cover off of the ball in order to justify being a full-time DH.
Apparently management thinks so.
The Mariners have been linked to a lot of players this offseason, but one of the first names to pop up in the winter meetings was Mike Napoli.
Although Seattle failed to sign Napoli, management has made it clear that they are looking for a player who can split time behind the plate and possibly be available to play first base.
Seattle carried three catchers last season in John Jaso, Jesus Montero and Miguel Olivo, but as playing time started to shrink for Olivo it seemed as if Seattle was just wasting a spot on the roster.
It's understandable since all three had their flaws. Jaso couldn't hit left-handed pitching. Montero wasn't deemed ready enough to be a full-time catcher. And, well, Miguel Olivo was just downright awful. But is there still a catcher on the open market that is worthy of a spot on the 25-man roster?
Seattle continues to be linked to players like Kelly Shoppach and Russell Martin, as Dave at U.S.S Mariner notes that they are looking for someone who is solid defensively and can hit against lefties.
Seattle is looking for an easily expendable player, but how many players are really looking for that as a job description, especially in Seattle? It's been clear this offseason that players aren't necessarily flocking to the Pacific Northwest, especially if the job will entail situational starts.
Plain and simple, Seattle has a gap to fill while they wait for a certain someone to be ready...
"Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... Mike Zunino!"
Okay, so Mike Zunino isn't Superman. And I'm sure he isn't much of a flyer. But there was one thing Mike Zunino did prove to everyone this season, and that was that he could hit.
After Seattle selected Zunino with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, lots of Mariners fans were excited to see what the young backstop from Florida could do. After all, it didn't seem like there was much that he couldn't do in college.
At the University of Florida, Zunino helped lead the Gators to three consecutive College World Series appearances from 2010 to 2012. In his final year as a Gator, Zunino was the offensive leader putting together a line of .322/.394/.669 with 19 homers and 67 RBI.
Not only did Zunino do well for Florida, he cleaned up when it came to postseason awards. Zunino was selected as a consensus First Team All-American, won the Dick Howser trophy as the Top Collegiate Baseball Player, was named Baseball America's College Player of the Year, and was the recipient of the 2012 Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top player. Zunino was only the fourth catcher to win the award since 1978, joining Jason Varitek in 1994, Buster Posey in 2008, and Bryce Harper in 2010.
Not a bad group to be included in, right?
After finally signing with Seattle, Zunino went on to terrorize pitching wherever he went.
Zunino lasted only 29 games in Class A Everett, hitting an outrageous .373/.474/.736 with 10 homers and 35 RBI.
Zunino's next stop was a promotion to Double A Jackson, where he would be handed the task of catching one of the best rotations in minor league baseball while trying to adjust to a much more difficult level of pitching.
He continued to exceed all expectations by batting .333 with 3 homers and 8 RBI in just 15 games.
After the season, Zunino finished up 2012 by traveling to the Arizona Fall League where he played alongside Mariner prospect Nick Franklin for the Peoria Javelinas and batted .288 with 2 homers and 15 RBI with an OPS of .800 in 19 games.
The ceiling is sky-high for Zunino, and many Mariners fans are begging management to let him compete for the big league starting catching job this spring training.
I don't expect him to break camp with the Mariners; I fully expect management to give him a little more time in Tacoma to gain more experience behind the plate. But it is clear that Mike Zunino is the future for the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have a lot of questions behind the plate heading into the 2013 season, but there is really only one question for this super prospect.
When can you start?