It was not too long ago that it looked as though the Mariners had one of the tougher positions to fill, filled for the future. That position being catcher, with Jesus Montero as the next big power bat, followed by Mike Zunino as the all-around catcher the M’s have missed since Dan Wilson.
However, last year wasn’t the most reassuring of seasons for a couple reasons. Montero struggled, got sent down to Triple-A and was subsequently suspended 50 games for steroids. Then Zunino, who was rushed to the bigs in my opinion, also had trouble finding success at the plate before injuring his hand.
Montero played in just 29 games at the major league level last year and posted a .208/.264/.327 line, with a -0.4 WAR. It quickly became apparent that Montero was even worse than in his rookie season, where he was underwhelming but not terrible. It also grew clear, as if it wasn’t already, that Montero does not have the ability to be a full time catcher.
Does this mean that Montero is done? Well, no. He is still very young (he turns just 24 next month), and there was way too much upside to give up on him. That being said, there is no chance he reaches the lofty projections assigned to him earlier in his career. I think best case scenario, Jesus becomes an average DH, because I am not convinced he can make the switch to 1st base either.
If Montero can get his numbers up around .260/.310/.420, he may have a spot on someone’s bench, or as the right side of a platoon. Actually, after giving it more thought, I think there is a shot that is where he ends up. Montero has a 131 wRC+ career against left handed pitchers, so as long as he doesn’t have to face right handers, he can be productive at the plate.
That said, I expect Montero to have to battle for a spot on the roster next year. And if he does make it, it is likely as a part time player.
As for Zunino, the future looks to be much brighter. While he had his fair share of offensive struggles in his rookie season, scouts and fans alike seem to love Zunino, and think he is the definite catcher of the future.
Mike posted a lowly .214/.290/.329 line in his first 52 games. But as I mentioned earlier, he was rushed through the minors, and was thrown in the fire too early. I mean, he only had a .775 OPS with Tacoma, and that is with an OBP under .300. Unfortunately, Jack Zduriencik and Co. decided to call him up anyway.
By most reports, Zunino is a solid defensive catcher, who does a good job of calling and controlling the game. So unlike with Montero, that is one aspect of his game with which there is not too much cause for concern. If he is able to get his bat to the level many believe it should be at, the Mariners should be set behind the plate for the long haul.
For next year though, I expect a few moderate steps forward, and think a line somewhere in the .250/.320/.405 range is definitely possible.
The catcher position will likely prove very important to this team’s success or failure in the coming years. Two of the M’s recent top prospects have been catchers, and if neither are able to stick around, it won’t bode well for them. But I think there is a good chance Zunino becomes at least an average catcher, which fills a very important position that is not easy to fill.