SEATTLE -- Jerry Dipoto has solved one major issue facing the Mariners this offseason, landing his center fielder of the future with Thursday's trade with the Rays for Mallex Smith. But one move leads to another, as Seattle now must replace Mike Zunino behind the plate.
What options are there at catcher? Well, there are more than at center field, it seems, which is surely one reason Dipoto made the quick move to snag Smith. Catcher is a critical position, and while Zunino's low batting average and high strikeout percentage frustrated fans, he did a lot of good things for the Mariners.
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It's worth noting, again, that the Mariners were 62-39 in games started by Zunino last season, compared to 27-34 when backups David Freitas, Chris Herrmann and Mike Marjama donned the gear. There are a lot of intangibles involved with catching, and Zunino was strong both defensively and in his ability to get the most out of his pitchers.
So where do the Mariners go now behind the plate?
Freitas is the only remaining catcher on Seattle's 40-man roster, since Marjama retired during last season and Herrmann was claimed off waivers last week by the Astros.
Freitas hit .215/.277/.312 with one home run and five RBIs in 36 games (32 starts) as a 29-year-old rookie. He was back and forth from Triple-A for four different stints last year and figures primarily as a backup candidate.
The Mariners' farm system isn't loaded with catchers-in-waiting either. The only backstop rated among Seattle's Top 30 prospects by MLB Pipeline is Cal Raleigh (No. 13). But the 21-year-old was just drafted last year in the third round out of Florida State and played at Class A Short-Season Everett last year, so he's several years away from the Majors.
Freitas and Herrmann split time in Tacoma last year with veteran Cameron Rupp, who is now a free agent, and Garrett Kennedy, who was released, so there are no Triple-A catchers remaining.
The primary catchers at Double-A Arkansas were Joe DeCarlo and Joseph Odom, and while both have potential, neither is ready for the Majors. DeCarlo was a second-round Draft pick in 2012 as a third baseman and he's converted to catcher over the past two years. There's some intrigue there as he hit .246/.339/.440 with eight homers in 58 games this year and now is getting some great experience -- and batting .344 in 10 games -- in the Arizona Fall League. Odom is a 26-year-old the Mariners picked up from the Braves in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 Draft last winter. He hit .241/.300/.361 with five home runs in 76 games for Arkansas.
Possible free-agent targets
Dipoto doesn't figure to dive too deep into free agency, given he's trying to gain roster and payroll flexibility and shying away from long-term deals for players in their 30s. But it's possible the Mariners could take Nelson Cruz's 2018 salary and put it toward the catching position.
If so, they conceivably could be in the running for Yasmani Grandal or Wilson Ramos, the top two free-agent catchers who are both young enough to fit into a long-term view. But both will come at a high price and are certain to be pursued by numerous teams.
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Grandal, 30, was given a qualifying offer by the Dodgers, so he'd cost both a Draft pick and a hefty multiyear deal. Ramos, 31, is also relatively young for a free agent and brings a strong offensive game and expectations of a significant multiyear deal.
Martin Maldonado might be a more likely target, as the 32-year-old is an excellent defender who would likely sign for something similar to what Zunino was going to make in arbitration over the next two years. In that scenario, the Mariners would have landed their center fielder and not taken a step back behind the plate.
There are other older veteran options -- including Robinson Chirinos, Kurt Suzuki, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann and Matt Wieters -- though they'd be viewed as short-term fixes and not fit into Dipoto's "longer range" mode. However, catcher is a such a critical position that maybe Seattle opts for an established veteran to bridge the gap.
Potential trade targets
Here, of course, is the most-likely solution given Dipoto's penchant for dealing. The Mariners' GM has made 81 trades involving 170 players over the past three years. The majority of those involved have been Minor Leaguers, but Dipoto isn't shy about shuffling his big league roster either, as evidenced again by the Zunino swap.
Don't spend a lot of time dreaming about J.T. Realmuto, however. While the Marlins are likely to trade the 27-year-old All-Star backstop, they'll expect a huge prospect haul in return. Dipoto could throw James Paxton and others at the Marlins, but Miami isn't looking for a player like Paxton, who like Realmuto is two years from free agency, but rather young prospects, which is what the Mariners are trying to add and not subtract.
Francisco Cervelli of the Pirates is another oft-named trade target, though he'll be 33 next season and is owed $11.5 million in the final year of his contract, which again doesn't fit what Dipoto is targeting.
More likely, Dipoto will try to come up with a deal for a catcher with some big league experience but still three to five years of team control remaining. And that might require seeing how other teams' dominoes play out.
For instance, if the Phillies went big and traded for Realmuto, promising 25-year-old Jorge Alfaro might suddenly be available. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez of the Indians could also be available and have contracts with team options for at least three more seasons.
Or there are potential candidates who have worked primarily in backup roles -- like Kevin Plawecki of the Mets, James McCann of the Tigers or Blake Swihart of the Red Sox -- who are in the 26-28-year-old range and could be brought in to be part of a solution.
Bottom line, there are a lot of options and you can rest assured that Dipoto and his staff are actively pondering them all.