I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel pretty good about the Seattle Mariners this spring and quite frankly that frightens me.
After a decade of some pretty dreadful baseball, not only do I think the team might be fairly competitive this season, but it could actually give us something really good to cheer about in a few years' time.
Case in point, the situation at catcher.
I will confess that I've gone back and forth on this one in recent months, but between Jesus Montero, Mike Zunino and now John Hicks, it looks like we should have at least one decent backstop in the not-too-distant future.
Today not too many people see Montero catching long term as it would appear that Mike Zunino is the heir apparent behind the plate, yet is it possible that John Hicks might be the biggest surprise of all?
Ryan Divish over at The News Tribune wrote an interesting piece on Hicks that got me thinking of the possibilities, especially after reading the following excerpt:
There is a no-nonsense attitude to Hicks. He works. He plays. He leads. Then he repeats it the next day.
That pattern has made him successful in his first two seasons in the Seattle organization.
Last year, in his first full season, Hicks played 121 games in Advanced Class A High Desert — catching 98. He hit .312 (158-for-506) with 32 doubles, 15 homers and 79 RBI with a .351 on-base-percentage and a .472 slugging percentage.
“I thought I had a decent year offensively,” he said. “I don’t strike out often. I just try and put the ball in play.”
While the offensive numbers were good, Hicks’ defense was outstanding. Of 106 baserunners who attempted to steal against him, Hicks threw out 57. His 53.8 caught-stealing percentage was the highest among full-season minor league catchers last season.
Granted it's hard to put too much stock in numbers at High Desert given the number of prospects that have cooled off considerably upon getting promoted to Double-A, but what has me intrigued is Hicks' defensive game.
With all due respect to Zunino, if Hicks in another year or two can bring that kind of defense with him to Seattle along with a decent bat, perhaps Zunino takes the route of Craig Biggio?
For those of us old enough to remember, Biggio started out in the majors as a catcher for the Houston Astros before moving to second base and eventually the outfield. All told, it served him well during a long and successful career that may lead him to Cooperstown some day; however, I suppose I might be getting a little ahead of myself here.
From a more rational standpoint, today I feel like the situation at catcher is a more fluid one rather than a two-horse race with Zunino closing in on Montero while Kelly Shoppach fills the gap as a backup.
This year, I'd imagine Montero will be given a fair amount of space to prove himself, but next year?
Next year could get interesting.
If Zunino continues to show the promise that got him all the way to Double-A Jackson in a matter of a few short weeks, it's quite possible that this time next year Montero could be tinkering with a different glove when playing the field or perhaps becoming the team's everyday DH.
As for Hicks, his journey will likely take a little more time. Assuming that Zunino starts the season at Triple-A Tacoma, Hicks should be be given his fair shot at Double-A Jackson; thus establishing a rather systematic pipeline for the M's over the next two years.
By 2015, it's possible that Montero becomes the team's permanent DH, Zunino the starting catcher and Hicks the backup who perhaps picks up a few starts when his former college teammate at UVA Danny Hultzen pitches.
Whether Hicks has a higher ceiling remains to be seen, but being a solid defensive catcher who makes consistent contact and doesn't strike out often is a good starting point.
Today, though, it's wishful thinking, but in many ways it might explain a few things.
For starters, trading away John Jaso for Michael Morse.
Jaso was arguably one of the team's better hitters last year, but reactions were mixed when he went to Oakland in part of a three-team deal for Morse. Regardless of what Morse can do for the Mariners, did Jaso really have a future in Seattle with both Montero and Zunino jockeying for the same position?
Second, if we take that point further, by giving Montero his space this year the M's can see once and for all if he really is capable of being an everyday catcher. Jaso's presence alone would likely have complicated things, especially if Montero struggled either at the plate or behind it. This year there should be no excuses.
Finally, if Montero flops, Zunino should be able to fill that void with Hicks on deck right behind him. If Montero succeeds, then the M's may need to reconsider a few things, which is a "problem" I think the team could learn to live with and adjust.
Once again wishful thinking, but at the very least somewhere in the mix the Mariners should have their catcher of the future either in Seattle or close to it sooner rather than later.
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