Tacoma Catching Candidates

The Tacoma catching situation is an interesting one heading into spring training. With veteran Guillermo Quiroz gone and top prospect Mike Zunino on his way (and possibly not staying long when he gets here), Tacoma is in a transitional period behind the dish.

At the major league level, the Mariners appear set with a combination of Jesus Montero and Kelly Shoppach. Last year they carried three catchers (Montero, Miguel Olivo, and John Jaso), but this year it appears that they are going to drop down to the standard two catchers.

Let’s look at the catching candidates for Tacoma:

Ronny Paulino broke into the majors with Pittsburgh in 2005, and has spent most of the last seven years in the big leagues – including a couple of seasons as the Pirates starting receiver. Last year he played in the majors and in Triple-A in the Baltimore organization. The Mariners brought him in on a minor league deal, and it certainly appears right now that he will be the guy providing veteran catching depth in Triple-A.

Jesus Sucre is a 24-year-old Venezuelan the Mariners signed in the middle of the 2011 season, after he was released from Atlanta’s Double-A team. Sucre has been with the Mariners Jackson affiliate for over a year. From what I have heard, he shines defensively and has a strong throwing arm. Last year he hit .271 but with little power or on-base ability. Defense is his calling card – at the very least, I’m told it is fun to watch him whip throws down to the bases.

Brandon Bantz you probably know. The affable backstop was Tacoma’s No. 2 catcher last year, and he hit .229 with two homers in 109 at-bats. Bantz (nicknamed “Bagger” Bantz in a bullpen epiphany from the mouth of Chance Ruffin) has a strong arm and good receiving skills. He’s also one of the hardest workers you’ll see at this level. Where he lands on opening day is a mystery – he could be in Tacoma, or elsewhere in the organization where there is a need.

Flying below he radar we have John Hicks. Hicks was Danny Hultzen’s college catcher at Virginia and the Mariners 4th round draft pick in 2011. Hicks had an excellent season for High Desert last year and will be bumped up to Double-A Jackson to start the year. The Mariners believe Hicks has a major league future.

OK, now let’s talk about Mike Zunino. He’s the biggest piece of this puzzle, and where he lands out of spring training is going to cause a ripple effect.

Zunino was the 3rd overall player chosen in the draft last year, after three years (and three College World Series appearances) at the University of Florida. He won just about every college baseball award a catcher can win.

The Mariners quickly signed Zunino and sent him to Everett, the rookie-level team where they send most of their fresh college draft picks. Zunino absolutely annihilated the Northwest League, blasting ten homers in just 110 at-bats, hitting .373 with a ridiculous .736 slugging percentage. So, the Mariners bumped him up to Double-A Jackson for the final two weeks of the season, and he played in 15 games there, adding three more homers. Combined he hit .360 with 13 homers in 161 at-bats.

Mariners fans are right to be excited about Zunino. That was one heck of a pro debut.

However, I think that we should slow down our expectations. He has played in just 15 games above rookie ball. For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at the development of the best catching prospect to come out of a US college in recent years, Buster Posey:

  • huge college star at Florida State
  • drafted No 5 overall in 2008
  • signed later than Zunino; had just 37 at-bats in rookie ball after draft
  • opened first full season at Advanced Class-A San Jose
  • promoted to Triple-A in July of first full season, after 346 plate appearances in San Jose
  • finished first full season in PCL at Fresno*, earned September call-up.
  • begins second full season at Fresno, got May call to SF, won Rookie of the Year

Posey is the best catcher in the majors. He’s played three seasons and has two World Series championships and an MVP award already. Obviously, we’re not expecting Zunino to be that good (although it sure would be nice!). But it’s worth noting that Posey – the best catcher with Zunino’s background in recent years – did not reach Triple-A until the all-star break of his first professional season, and did not stick in the majors until May of the following year.

If Zunino copies the Posey development plan – a very strong suggestion, to say the least – he wouldn’t reach Tacoma until the all-star break, and wouldn’t impact Seattle until 2014.

Just some food for thought.

There was a lot of news on the first day of training camp yesterday.

  • The Felix Hernandez contract extension is done – links down below.
  • The club officially signed Joe Saunders, and designated Mike Carp for assignment. Carp will probably get claimed on waivers.
  • The team announced the signing of veteran Jon Garland to a minor league deal, which I noted on Monday.
  • Veteran reliever Kameron Loe was brought in on a minor league deal, pending a physical. Loe could be with the Rainiers.

All of that happened on the first day of physicals. Today, the pitchers and catchers actually took the field for the first time.

On the Rainiers front, I spoke with manager Daren Brown last night. He said he passed his physical (yes, coaches take them too) and then went golfing. Tough first day, huh? He hit the field this morning. Brown, pitching coach Dwight Bernard, and hitting coach Howard Johnson will all help out in big league spring training camp until mid-March when they will begin to focus on the Triple-A club.

Links:

  • The Felix Hernandez contact extension is a done deal.
  • Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times writes that the Mariners have to do more than just lock up Felix Hernandez.
  • Larry Stone lists some long-term contracts for starting pitchers that worked, and some that didn’t work.
  • For a more thorough analysis of long-term deals for starting pitchers, here is a nice piece of research by Dan Szymborski (ESPN Insider access required).
  • Nothing brings out optimism like the start of spring training, Ryan Divish writes.
  • Speaking of Divish, here is his notebook from the first day of training camp.
  • Geoff Baker caught up with new Mariners pitcher Joe Saunders.
  • The News Tribune’s position-by-position spring training preview concluded with a look at the Mariners bullpen.
  • New reliever Kameron Loe hasn’t been in Triple-A in a while, but the Mariners reportedly got him on a minor league deal. Here’s a link to his career statistics, including his Triple-A numbers.
  • No link, but Connor Glassey of Baseball America noted on twitter that former Rainiers players Jamal Strong and Michael Garciaparra are both scouts for the St. Louis Cardinals.
  • The Indians signed Michael Bourn, causing Larry Stone to wonder if Cleveland had the off-season that Mariners fans were hoping for.
  • I’ve never seen this study before, generated by MLB pitching guru Rick Peterson: if you face 39 or more opposing batters in a game, you’re probably going to lose. It makes a lot of sense.
  • Here’s a first: an article on the Memphis Redbirds financial issues that I can actually understand.
  • When the Rainiers visit Las Vegas, the team hotel is two blocks away from the Heart Attack Grill. I’ve always been too scared to eat there – probably a good thing, seeing how their unofficial spokesman just died from a heart attack.

We’ll be back with a news round-up on Friday. Our next Tacoma position preview will be February 20, when we look at the corner infielders. That’s going to be a tough one – third base is a real mystery right now, plenty of candidates!

* some Rainiers fans may recall that Posey hit his first Triple-A home run at Cheney Stadium August 4, 2009 (off the Rainiers Justin Thomas).

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2 Responses to Tacoma Catching Candidates

  1. karyn goodenow says:

    Have a GREAT YEAR GUYS !!!!!

  2. Mac says:

    Hicks caught Carraway at Virginia as well.

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