Saturday, December 4, 2010

What to do about catching. Where have you gone Dan Wilson?

Dan Wilson remains the best catcher in Mariner history

Dan Wilson retired from the Seattle Mariners in 2005.  He caught 1,237 games  over his 13 year career.  Wilson wasn’t blessed with Ivan Rodriguez’s arm or Johnny Bench’s bat.  He wasn’t a big guy-tall at 6’3”, but only 190 lbs., 15 pounds lighter than Rodriquez and 20 pounds lighter than Lance Parrish, but he was a great defensive catcher, blocking the plate and lassoing balls in the dirt with the best in the game. In his 14 seasons with Seattle, he allowed 42 total past balls. To compare, Johnny Bench, a Hall of Fame catcher, caught about 500 more games, and allowed 94.  Perhaps Wilson’s greatest talent was his ability to work with pitchers and stay on the same page with them.  He called a great game. Though Wilson was not a great bat, he hit enough to keep himself in the lineup, and surrounded by great hitters for much of his career-Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey,Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner and a swarm of somewhat less talented power bats, Wilson’s other strengths were much more important.
Wilson, second from left with teammates Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey,Jr in 2010

The foregoing is list of the catchers who have filled in for or tried to replace Wilson since the 2002 season.  Each of them is eminently forgettable.   With the possible exception of Johjima, none showed the consistency, leadership, defensive prowess, or bat needed to win the position and keep it over the long haul. 

Last year the Mariners started the season with Rob Johnson and Adam Moore on their major league rosters.  Both had fine minor league careers.  Johnson hit .300 his last full year in the minors,  and showed a little power and speed.  Unfortunately , a series of injuries rendered Johnson unable to sufficiently block balls in the dirt, and off-season surgery after the 2009 season didn’t helpt.    Though Johnson was praised by pitchers, his .191/.293/.282 and nine passed balls in 60 games resulted in a return to Tacoma

Right behind him was the highly regarded Moore, a big guy with a big bat. .  Moore was hurt off and on and played only 61 games.  His numbers .193/.232/.294 and seven passed balls wasn’t an improvement.  Josh Bard actually turned in the most serviceable numbers, but he was injured mid season and played in only 39 games.  Bard is not on the M’s 40 man roster. 
Adam Moore swinging the bat well in Spring Training 2010.
I am an Adam Moore fan.  I believe he has the tools to be a major league catcher, but at age 26 this is the year when he’ll have to show enough development to make the job his.  This is also the year when the Mariners need to provide Moore with veteran help through trade or free agency. 

The list of available catchers is not formidable.  They are veterans, some of whom have had nice seasons, but not anybody who is going to light your fire.  Those catchers are already gone-Victor Martinez, Ramon Hernandez, John Buck to name a few.  Not only are the best, those who can hit as well as catch gone, but it’s clear the M’s want somebody who is cheap.  That’s great, because virtually all the catchers available are over 30, and are likely back-up material.

Gerald Laird was terrible with the bat last year.  He posted .207/.263/.304 in 299 at bats.  This is well below his career average of .242/.300/.358.  It’s also below his last couple of years with Texas and Detroit. On the other hand, Laird’s defense has been quite good. According to Kurt Mensching on SB Nation, Laird should have been considered for a Gold Glove for his defense, and might have if not for that Mauer guy.  Laird, 31,  made $3.95 million in 2010.  Detroit cut him loose when they signed Victor Martinez. The Mariners could probably get him for a lot less

At 36, Bengie Molina says he’s good for one more year.  That he showed some real leadership with the Giants last year is probably enough to put the Mariners out of the running for his services.  Nevertheless, he would be a great mentor for Moore.  Molina made $4.5 million in 2010 and probably too pricey for the pinched M’s.

Last, but not a terrible option, is to bring back Josh Bard.  He performed creditably behind the plate and his line of .214/276/.347 was better than Johnson or Moore.  Signed to a minor league contract last year, his services would likely be very cheap.  Maybe not a flashy choice, but better than being forced into the duo of Moore and Johnson. 

There are other catchers who might be better.  A.J. Pierzynski has always been a good catcher with a good, left-handed bat.  But his nettlesome disposition would not fit in well with a young team trying to build chemistry.  Miguel Olivo has a good bat, probably most power among those catchers left, but he’s a lousy defensive catcher and is not known for his work with pitchers.  Both are also Type B free agents and would require compensation.  

While we may recall fondly the days of Dan Wilson corralling Jamie Moyer's circle change in the dirt, or climbing the ladder to grab Randy Johnson's heater, those days are gone forever.  Adam Moore must step up to be the man, and the M's need to find him a little bit of help.  

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