Mariners Positional Preview: Catchers
With the assignment of David Freitas to Tacoma on March 18, the three-horse race that was the backup catcher competition in Mariners spring training came to an end.
Leading into spring, there was potential to see a tight race for the Mariners backup job. In the end though, what we got was a barn burner. Horse #3 (Tuffy Gosewisch) was the long shot, but he stumbled right out of the gate and never recovered (2-for-22 this spring with 9 K and 0 BB). Horse #2 (Freitas) kept pace all the way through the final turn. But down the back stretch lost steam and the favorite (Mike Marjama) earned the victory pulling away.
WIN: Mike Marjama
PLACE: David Freitas
SHOW: Tuffy Gosewisch
And with that, I can collect on the trifecta bet I never made and announce the top two levels of the organizational depth chart have been set at the catcher position – well, maybe.
It all starts at the top with the Seattle Mariners who will be heading into the 2018 season with a Mike and Mike combo behind the dish: Mike Zunino and Mike Marjama.
Zunino is the incumbent starter and since day one, barring any sort of injury, he’s been locked into that starting spot. Despite the lack of competition for the job, Mike Z has been putting in work. After going hitless in his first four games, Zunino has given the Mariners 14 hits in 36 at bats with five home runs, 11 RBI, and a slash line of .389/.463/.833 this spring. Sure his 4-for-4, 3 HR day in the Mariners 7-4 win over the Brewers on Wednesday, March 21 ballooned the stat line a bit. But the 7-game hit streak to close out spring, including 14 hits in his last 23 at bats, shows me “Z” is not only locked into the starting spot, but he’s locked in at the plate as well.
Last season Zunino had the best year of his five-year career. Yes, his 36.8% strike out percentage was the highest of his career. However, so too were his 97 hits, 25 doubles, 25 home runs, 64 RBI, .355 BAIP, 126 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR. Not to mention the career high slash line of .251/.331/.509/.840.
2018 is lining up to be huge for Mike. His work with Hitting Coach, Edgar Martinez is showing results. His defense is improving and frankly that’s just a bonus. Last year we saw “Z” put up a career high 0.9 dWAR. The Mariners starting catcher is going to find himself in the 7 or 8 hole each night. Considering the depth of the lineup in front of him, Zunino could wind up being one of the more productive major leaguers catchers this season.
Backing up Zunino will be 28-year-old Mike Marjama who the Mariners acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays last August. Down in Peoria a slash line of .300/.391/.550/.941, 4 2B, 2 HR, 6 RBI, and 7 runs in 40 at bats was good enough to win Marjama the job. Hits in six of his last nine spring games, like Zunino, Mike No. 2 is rolling into the season swinging a hot bat.
As a minor leaguer Marjama has hit at every level. His 21-game stint with Tacoma after the trade last season wasn’t good (78 AB, .167/.244/.346/.590). But looking at his career numbers you can tell this kid will be fine once he settles in with the big club.
Career Minor League Numbers: .275/.319/.413/.732, 37 HR, 240 RBI, 211 R, 95 BB, 302 SO
He’ll look to improve plate discipline in an attempt to even out the BB/SO ratio. His power numbers aren’t great, but they don’t need to be. As a backup catcher, as long as he can maintain respectable offensive numbers, manage the staff every five days, and call a confident game behind the dish, Marjama should be just fine.
In Tacoma, the starting position is pretty well set. Freitas will be the everyday guy. As Ryan Divish reported, Manager Scott Servais was pleased with the spring Freitas put together. The decision to run with Marjama as Mike Zunino’s back up was less about Freitas and more about Marjama.
"“It was a good competition. I like a lot of things that David Freitas brings. I just think Marjama has had a better spring to this point.” –Scott Servais"
Selected off waivers by the Mariners in October of last year, Freitas is coming off of a 2017 where he made his Major League debut with the Atlanta Braves. Catching 42 innings in six big league games, the 29-year-old went 4-for-17 with 2 2B, 2RBI, and 2 SO. Not much of a sample size and not a whole lot to write home about. But if the M’s ever do need to give him a call, knowing he has had a cup of coffee is definitely a positive.
A career .272 hitter in the minor leagues, Freitas has had success at the plate. However, similar to Marjama, the power hasn’t been stellar. David has only hit double-digit home runs in two of his seven seasons in professional baseball. He never finishing with more than 13. As it pertains to plate discipline however, he has been solid – .358 career OBP, 18% SO%, and a 12.3% BB%.
There is no doubt, Freitas could have very easily been awarded an Opening Day roster spot with the Mariners. The resumes of both Marjama and Freitas are both worthy of an MLB backup role. A better 6 weeks of spring for Mike is what led to this decision, but this competition is far from over.
So with Freitas tabbed to manage the staff of the Rainiers, it will be what happens behind him in Tacoma that could be most intriguing. Tuffy Gosewisch (another player signed off waivers from the Braves) is the name on the depth chart, but at 34 years of age there is a strong possibility the Crash Davis of the Mariners organization might find himself on the waiver wire if one of the younger back stops can make an impression.
Having spent four years as the Arizona Diamondbacks backup catcher before coming to Seattle via the Braves prior to the 2017 season, Tuffy spent all of last year with the Triple-A Rainiers before getting a September call up. A .229/.313/.351/.665 slash in Tacoma followed up with a 2-for-28 performance with the Mariners felt like the beginning of the end for the veteran catcher.
In five MLB seasons Tuffy has hit at a .190 clip, has a SO% of 21.7%, and a career -1.2 WAR. Even still, the Mariners gave him an invite to spring training with a shot at making the club. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t pan out.
As the veteran, Tuffy will be a great addition to the Rainiers club house. He’s experienced the MLB and can no doubt be a mentor to a lot of the young kids still looking to get their shot. Beyond that, Tuffy’s role within the organization will likely not involve playing for the Mariners.
So, how long will the Mariners hang onto the aging veteran? Really that will largely depend on the progress of Tyler Baker and the two Joes just under him on the depth chart. Currently 25-year-old Baker and 26-year-old Joe Odom are listed as the No. 3 and No. 4 catchers on the Rainiers depth chart. 24-year-old Joe DeCarlo looks to be the lead man down in Double-A Arkansas going into 2018.
It is possible, with Tuffy on a minor league deal and not tied to the 40-man roster, the Mariners could option Odom down to Double-A Arkansas to split duties with DeCarlo and carry three catchers in Tacoma in case of injury.
There is also the possibility of the Mariners cutting ties with Tuffy. This could afford him an opportunity to join on with a team he’ll get more innings with. Whatever the case, the catcher competition at the minor league level should be an interesting one. We will keep track all season.
Next: Mariners Infield Preview
For a position that has lacked depth in recent years, there’s a lot of healthy competition at all levels of the organization going into 2018. That there is a great thing. But as Opening Day approaches Mariners fans, focus in on No. 3 and get ready to enjoy a big year out of Mike Z!