With one exception, everyone connected with the Seattle Mariners generally concedes the organization rushed catcher Mike Zunino to the majors in 2013 after he had played less than a year in the minors.
That one exception — no surprise — is Zunino himself, who refuses to use his lack of development time as an excuse for his offensive shortcomings.
“Looking at it now,” he said, “I learned what I need to do, what I need to expect, and I think I can carry that into this year.”
That’s fine and, perhaps, true … but Zunino said that last spring — and then batted .199 with a .254 on-base percentage. On the plus side, he did hit 22 homers and displayed a knack for handling a diverse pitching staff.
Those defensive skills remain paramount, but everyone in the organization, including Zunino, knows he needs to boost his average and on-base percentage because the Mariners expect him to catch 125-plus games again.
That Zunino increases his production — and remains healthy — is one of the key elements in the club’s push to return to the postseason for the first time since 2001, because the supporting cast is thin.
Barring injury, Zunino will be the starter five or six times a week. He’s young (he turns 24 on March 25) and durable (he led the American League in being hit by pitches with 17 in 2014).
Zunino already displays advanced defensive skills, and club officials are convinced if he can just get his on-base percentage up to .300 (still well below the league average of .316), his production will zoom.
While the Mariners are bringing some legitimate prospects to camp, the job as Zunino’s backup projects as a battle between incumbent Jesus Sucre and veteran newcomer John Baker.
Both are catch-and-throw receivers (i.e., they don’t hit much), but that’s fine because the Mariners, like many clubs, emphasize defensive skills in their backup catcher. (That’s why they cut veteran John Buck last July.)
Baker, 34, offers the plus of being a left-handed alternative to Zunino’s right-handed bat. And while Baker batted just .192 last season with the Cubs, he had a .258 average and a .342 OBP over six previous big-league seasons.
Scouts say Sucre is better at controlling the running game and rates slightly higher as a defensive catcher.
One thing to remember: Baker is in camp on a minor league contract, which means he would need to be added to the 40-man roster to make the big-league club.
Also, Baker has sufficient service time to refuse a minor league assignment once added to the big-league roster. Sucre is already on the 40-man roster and has options remaining.
Those factors favor Sucre if the competition turns into a coin flip.
HELP IF NEEDED
The loser at backup will be on-call at Triple-A Tacoma if circumstances require a replacement at the major league level.
If one backup replaces the other, there would be little drop-off. But if Zunino suffers a major injury … well, that’s a different story.
Club officials believe John Hicks, added in November, has the necessary defensive skills to hold his own.