Once again, for the third time in four years, the Mariners enter spring training with Mike Zunino projected as their starting catcher — even though the results from last year’s reset remain mixed.
Zunino revamped his offensive approach last season at Triple-A Tacoma under hitting coach Scott Brosius. The new look paid dividends. Zunino produced a .286/.376/.521 slash with 17 homers in 79 games for the Rainiers.
That prompted a July promotion. Zunino quickly reclaimed his starting job from veteran Chris Iannetta and appeared to carry his improvements into the big leagues. Zunino had a .280/.396/.707 slash with nine homers in his first 26 games.
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Then Zunino regressed sharply. He returned to chasing pitches, and it was 2015 all over again. He batted just .146 over his final 29 games with 43 strikeouts and 89 at-bats.
"It did tail off in September," manager Scott Servais acknowledged, "and that is a concern offensively. The swing-and-miss, the strikeouts started to come up again."
The Mariners love his defensive skills, particularly his ability to frame pitches. He rated at plus-8 in defensive runs saved in just 52 games, and the Mariners had a 3.43 ERA when he played and a 4.25 ERA when he didn’t.
Club officials also remain intrigued by Zunino’s offensive potential. He hit 12 homers last season in just 164 at-bats, but his inability to make contact can’t be ignored. Zunino has 404 strikeouts in 1,125 career at-bats.
The Mariners responded by making two off-season moves.
First, they promoted Brosius to the big-league staff where, among other duties, he will serve as an assistant to hitting coach Edgar Martinez. Expect Zunino to be at the top of Brosius’ priority lists.
The Mariners then acquired veteran Carlos Ruiz from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a trade for left-handed pitcher Vidal Nuno. Ruiz is an 11-year veteran who figures to be an upgrade over Iannetta as Zunino’s backup.
"Understand we’re not looking for Mike Zunino to play or catch 125 or 130 games," Servais said. "That's not the point. So when he does hit a little funk and we need to give him a few days off, we've got Ruiz to step in there. Ruiz just turned 38 and probably is no longer capable of the workhorse durability that permitted him to average 114 games from 2007-14 at Philadelphia. But he was still plus-6 in runs saved last season in 56 games for the Phillies and Dodgers.
Further, Ruiz’s average and on-base percentage a year ago — .264 and .365 — were roughly in line with his career norms.
"What Ruiz brings for us is a proven backstop who has great makeup," Servais said. "He’s been on a lot of good teams over in Philadelphia, gets traded last year to the Dodgers and does a nice job with them, helps them in their playoff run.
"Just the experience level he brings… He can still play, he can still hit, there’s no doubt. Not a power guy by any means, but he handles the bat, controls the strike zone. It’s a really nice fit with Mike Zunino."
Beyond Zunino and Ruiz, the Mariners picked up veteran Tuffy Gosewisch, who logged big-league time over each of the last four seasons at Arizona.
Adding Gosewisch was a hedge against losing Jesus Sucre in a waiver claim when the Mariners moved him off the 40-man roster by designating him for assignment.
The move was necessary because Sucre was out of options and, barring an injury, was unlikely to break camp with the big-league club. When Sucre cleared waivers, it created a different dilemma: two veterans in Triple-A.
The Mariners resolved that issue Wednesday by trading Sucre to Tampa Bay for a player to be named later or cash considerations. That cleared playing space for Marcus Littlewood and Tyler Marlette, who each made strides a year ago.
WHO’S IN CAMP? (3 on 40-man roster)
7 Tuffy Gosewisch (Bats right, throws right, 5-feet-11, 200 pounds): That available option is important because it means Gosewisch, acquired last month on waivers, fills the needs for a veteran catcher who can be stashed at Triple-A Tacoma. Option status: one remaining.
52 Carlos Ruiz (R-R, 5-10, 215): Now 38, he’s definitely in the backup phase of his career, but Ruiz remains a solid defensive receiver who also possesses strong on-base skills (a .365 OBP last season in 62 games). Option status: not applicable.
3 Mike Zunino (R-R, 6-2, 220): Reclaimed his status as the starter midway through last season. His pitch-framing skills are a plus, and he has big-time power. Contact at the plate remains an issue. Option status: one remaining.
NON-ROSTER INVITES (6)
10 Nevin Ashley (R-R, 6-1, 215): Not sure where Ashley fits after the Mariners succeeded in getting Sucre through waivers. Spent most of last year at Triple-A in the Mets’ system, but the Mariners might not have that space for him.
71 Steven Baron (R-R, 6-0, 205): Remained in the organization in the off-season after being designated off the roster. Spent most of last season at Double-A. Hard to see how he starts this year at a higher level.
72 Marcus Littlewood (S-R, 6-3, 194): Coming off a solid year at Double-A, which would normally mean he starts this season at Tacoma. But there’s a crowd in Triple-A. No guarantee.
73 Tyler Marlette (R-R, 5-11, 195): Rebounded last year after a disappointing 2015. Ended the season at Double-A and seems likely to return there in April.
4 Jesus Sucre (R-R, 6-0, 225): Still with the club after clearing waivers. Club officials weren’t sure that would happen, which is why they acquired Gosewisch, who now appears to rate ahead of Sucre on the depth chart.
54 Sebastian Valle (R-R, 6-1, 205): An off-season acquisition to add organizational depth, Valle is a 10-year pro who spent most of the last two seasons at Double-A.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Club officials will keep a close eye on Mike Zunino, but the real test won’t come until late in camp when pitchers start honing their off-speed pitches. Can Zunino stay disciplined at the plate?
2. Who steps forward among the organization’s prospects to join Tuffy Gosewisch at Triple-A Tacoma? Or do the Mariners plug in veteran Nevin Ashley?
3. Is Marcus Littlewood or Tyler Marlette a legitimate prospect? Spring training alone won’t answer that, but each should get a chance to create an impression before their almost-certain reassignment to minor-league camp.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners