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Mariners enter offseason with questions at catcher

SEATTLE -- Some of the most intriguing questions facing the Mariners heading into next season revolve around the catching position:

• Is Jesus Montero ready to increase his role behind the plate or is he destined to remain more of a designated hitter or even play some first base in the future?

• Can John Jaso be an every-day option, or will he remain primarily a left-handed platoon option at DH and catcher after leading the team in hitting in a part-time role this past year?

• Any chance top 2012 Draft pick Mike Zunino cracks the roster out of Spring Training?

• And assuming Miguel Olivo's contract option is not picked up, do the Mariners need to bring in another veteran to be part of the mix?

There aren't obvious answers for any of those questions, which is where the intrigue comes in. The Mariners traded for Montero a year ago with the hope his right-handed bat could be a major addition to their rebuilding offensive plans.

Montero, 22, didn't overwhelm with his rookie production, hitting .260 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs, but for a youngster in his first full go-round in the Majors he showed enough to keep the Mariners' hopes in place.

"There's a lot more there," said manager Eric Wedge. "He was a very young big leaguer. He played like a young big leaguer this year, but he learned so much. He went through a lot mentally, physically, emotionally.

"You talk about the upside for him, I think there's a great deal there. He has a lot of work ahead of him this winter and next spring. But he held his own for a 22-year-old, and really, unfairly for him, somebody we had to throw in the middle of our lineup a lot. Ideally you wouldn't do that, but that's where we were this year."

Part of the dilemma with Montero: The youngster isn't the best option defensively at this point, but he hit much better when he was catching. In fact, all three Seattle catchers hit considerably better when catching than when used in a DH role.

Montero batted .310 with an .841 OPS, with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs in 213 at-bats in 56 games when he caught. In 78 games at DH, he hit .226 with a .574 OPS with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 301 at-bats.

Jaso's difference wasn't quite as glaring, but he hit .297 in 40 games as a catcher with an .892 OPS compared to .247 with an .814 OPS in 47 games at DH.

Olivo had limited time at DH, playing just 12 games there, but he hit just .114 with a .315 OPS in 44 at-bats in that role compared to a .243 average and .677 OPS in 268 at-bats in 70 games behind the plate.

"If three guys are doing it, I would say the stats aren't lying with that many at-bats," Jaso acknowledged. "I don't really have an answer, but it's probably just the action of keeping your heart rate going and your mind focused on the game when you're catching.

"At DH, you have a bad at-bat and then you go sit on the bench and all you're thinking about is swinging at that curveball in the dirt or whatever it was and you carry that into your next at-bat and it's a snowball thing," he said. "But if you're catching, you can break up that thinking and occupy your mind with something else."

Wedge said Montero always will be a DH to some degree and "that's definitely an area he has to improve on" going forward.

"Whether he ends up DHing more than playing in the field, I don't know," Wedge said. "But with his upside hitting, he's going to have to get better [at DH] and that will happen with experience. I felt he made strides at that this year."

Wedge split catching duties all season between Olivo (68 starts and 625 2/3 innings), Montero (55 starts and 487 2/3 innings) and Jaso (39 starts and 343 1/3 innings). Many fans questioned why Olivo got more time behind the plate, while Montero and Jaso were used more at DH.

A peek at the catching statistics might help there. Olivo threw out 30.9 percent of attempted base stealers (21-of-68), while Jaso was at 20.6 percent (7-of-34) and Montero 16.9 percent (11-of-65).

So opposing teams not only ran more on Montero, they succeeded nearly twice as frequently as when Olivo started, with Jaso falling more in the middle. As for passed balls, Olivo had eight, Montero seven and Jaso four. On wild pitches, Olivo totaled 26, Montero 19 and Jaso 16.

The Mariners asked Montero to work on his speed and athleticism this offseason. He took ground balls at first base in pregame work throughout the year, but that's something he's always done to break up his routine.

With Justin Smoak's uncertain future at first base and Zunino appearing as a top catching prospect coming up, it might make sense to see Montero worked into the mix at first. But the Mariners aren't committing to that experiment yet.

"I don't know," Wedge said on the last day of the regular season. "He's a guy I want to continue to work behind home plate, I want him to work on taking more ground balls. Obviously we've got the DH spot and next spring I want to attack both those areas."

General manager Jack Zduriencik also was reluctant to go too far down that road when asked last week if the youngster could be in the first-base picture next spring.

"He could be some part of that," Zduriencik said. "But right now you have to look at him at DH and catcher. That's a hard question to answer right now. A lot depends on what he does this winter. That's not something we're counting on right now."

Nor are the Mariners counting on Zunino to leap immediately to the Major League roster, though he'll be in the big league camp in February after a strong showing at Class-A Everett and Double-A Jackson in his first three months of pro ball.

"For anybody to expect the kid to play half a season and make the club would be extraordinary," Zduriencik said. "You never count it out, but the best thing is to let him come in and see where it falls."

Jaso was a pleasant surprise for the Mariners both as a clutch hitter and capable catcher, but his playing time was limited by his difficulties against left-handed pitchers. The lefty swinging Jaso batted .302 with a .927 OPS in 308 plate appearances against right-handers compared to .119 with a .393 OPS in 53 plate appearances against southpaws.

Jaso caught many of Felix Hernandez's starts, including his perfect game, and Wedge gave him more of a full-time role either at DH or catcher as the season played out. But it remains a reasonable debate as to whether Jaso excelled because Wedge put him in the best position to succeed by limiting his exposure to lefties or if he should play every day, no matter who is on the mound.

As for Olivo's status and the potential of adding another veteran? Unless the Mariners trigger a $3 million club option, Olivo will become a free agent after the World Series ends. Olivo himself doesn't expect to be back, but Zduriencik won't get into any of that until the time comes.

"With our current situation with the three guys on the roster, we'll look at that and other options," he said.

In other words, as with all the Mariners' catching questions, stay tuned.

Seattle Mariners, John Jaso, Jesus Montero, Miguel Olivo