OAKLAND — At first glance, the latest roster move by the Seattle Mariners might seem the most peculiar of their slew of transactions the past week.
General manager Jack Zduriencik announced Friday the team signed veteran free-agent catcher Henry Blanco to a one-year contract and designated backup catcher Kelly Shoppach for assignment.
It seemed an odd move considering the Mariners jettisoned a 33-year-old backup catcher, who has been with them since spring training, for a 41-year-old backup catcher who was released Tuesday by the Blue Jays.
But the move was based on the decision to call up prodigy Mike Zunino and make him the everyday catcher. By doing that, the Mariners were looking for a backup who could offer guidance and serve as mentor to their prized prospect.
Enter Blanco and his many years of experience.
“We had him targeted over the winter and weren’t able to get it done, so when he became available, we were immediately interested,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “His character is impeccable. He has experienced everything in the game. We felt like if there’s someone to work alongside Zunino, there’s nobody better at that position.”
Blanco has a reputation for being an outstanding clubhouse presence. This will be his 11th team in 16 seasons.
“You hear nothing but good things about him,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s one of the few guys (who) is actually a leader that doesn’t play every day. He’s a great clubhouse guy, and pitchers love to throw to him.”
With the future being now for Zunino, the Mariners are trying to do what they can to aid his development. Blanco fit that role better than Shoppach.
“It’s more about Blanco and him being available and us jumping on that opportunity,” Wedge said. “Just so much more experience; the leadership skills, the mentor skills, just the experience in that role and where he’s at in his life on and off the field. He’s very impressive.’’
Blanco understands his role and embraces it.
It’s what the Mariners wanted him to do when they tried to sign him in the offseason, but he opted to sign with the Blue Jays.
“I don’t know what happened,” Blanco said. “We stopped the conversation for some reason. But obviously it was meant for me to be here. The most important thing now is I’m here. I’m willing to do anything to help this team.”
That includes playing sparingly and being a shoulder for Zunino to lean on.
“You have to understand your role. I’m going to play a big role on the bench and that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said.
What will he do for Zunino?
“Make him comfortable – he belongs here. Help him work with his pitching staff. Whatever he needs, I will be here for him,” Blanco said.
Shoppach was hitting .196 with three home runs and nine RBI in 35 games, including 32 starts. His numbers tailed off significantly after taking over the starting duties from Jesus Montero. He had eight hits in his past 60 at-bats (.133) with two homers, while striking out 28 times.
Wedge said there would be a discussion about Tom Wilhelmsen’s immediate future as the team’s closer after Wednesday’s ghastly 6-1 loss to the Astros – in which Wilhelmsen blew his fourth save of the season, all within the past month.
The discussion led to a decision that Wilhelmsen will get a break from those duties.
“We are going to pull him back a little bit with every intention of getting him back to the closer’s role,” Wedge said. “We are going to give him a break here and let him pitch a few times in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, see how it plays, maybe give him some multiple inning opportunities.”
The numbers are bad for Wilhelmsen. Starting with his blown save at Cleveland where he dropped the final out of the game while covering first base, he has posted a 9.28 ERA with 11 hits and 10 walks in 11 appearances and 102/3 innings pitched.
Wedge isn’t going to go with an interim closer.
“We’ll just match up late,” Wedge said. “We’ll do the best we can with the people down there. We’re not going to put it on one guy. Nobody’s ready for that yet.”
Wilhelmsen met with pitching coach Carl Willis and was informed of the decision.
“It was a good talk,” Wedge said. “It’s just a bump in the road. His stuff and the intangibles are all right there. We just have to get him back ... in the closer’s role.”firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish