Inbox: Can the Mariners upgrade at catcher?

Beat reporter Greg Johns answers questions from fans

October 22nd, 2018

Here's a look at your Mariners questions this week, with an eye toward what to expect in 2019.
As Mike Zunino struggled once more at the plate in 2018, are there any better options for catcher at this point for the Mariners?
-- Joe G., Port Angeles, Wash.

To be honest, no. And I'm not saying that as a bad thing. I think Zunino provides far more value than most fans believe. Of course, it would be better if he hiked his batting average back up after slipping to .201 this season. But it's a mistake to rate a catcher strictly on batting average and Zunino brings numerous other strengths that are difficult to find in a backstop, namely his defense, pitch framing and ability to work with pitchers, all of which are among the best in the game.
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Zunino ranked among MLB's best catchers in Defensive Runs Saved and defensive WAR, he was greatly improved in shutting down opponent's running games, and he very well could be a top three Gold Glove finalist in the American League this year.
Zunino's slash line of .201/.259/.410 with 20 homers in 113 games was a disappointment after his .251/.331/.509 breakthrough in 2017. But the average line for AL catchers this year was .227/.291/.366, so he's essentially above average power-wise and a little under in average and on-base, while providing strong defense and leadership at a key position.
And here's an interesting stat worth pondering: The Mariners' record was 62-39 this year in games Zunino started at catcher, compared with 27-34 when he wasn't in the lineup.
Did Ben Gamel do something to alienate Mariners brass? He should be an everyday player. And now as I read stories on our prospects for next season, I rarely see his name. Please explain what is going on?
-- Sam B., Chehalis, Wash.

I like Gamel as well, and he remains part of the future, but his lack of power limited his playing time in a lineup shy on left-handed punch in other spots. Most teams look for some power out of their corner outfielders and Gamel didn't offer much there at all with a .370 slugging percentage and one homer and 19 RBIs in essentially half a season of playing time with 293 plate appearances.

Gamel definitely has value with his ability to get on base and run. His slash line of .272/.358/.370 was similar to 's .272/.329/.435, except that Span delivered the superior slugging percentage thanks to seven homers and 28 extra-base hits compared with Gamel's one homer and 19 extra-base hits in very similar playing time. That and Span's ability to grind out lengthy at-bats gave him the edge when Seattle was struggling to find its offense in the second half.
Do you know when will they be announcing the new name for Safeco Field?
-- Daniel S., Seattle

There will be no announcement on a new naming rights partner until the Public Facilities District that oversees the stadium votes on the 25-year lease extension currently on the table, which is expected to happen in late November or early December.
So it sounds like December at the earliest to finalize that process, at which point the Mariners will be in a race against time to design and make new signs, get the proper permit approval and then install all the signage at the park before the March 28 home opener against the Red Sox.
Safeco does own the naming rights through Dec. 31.
It seems all the teams in the playoffs this year have their hitters keyed up and ready to go on the first pitch to them. None seem to embrace a "control the strike zone" approach to hitting. Is Scott Servais holding back our guys, trying to change the approach they have brought to the big leagues?
-- Jim C., Edmonds, Wash.

While Seattle's pitching staff did an excellent job controlling the zone this year, issuing the fewest walks in the Majors, I'd argue that the offense got away from that concept. Contrary to your premise, the World Series-bound Dodgers are outstanding in that regard as they led the Majors in walk rate this year at 10.2 percent, followed by the Nats and Yankees. The Astros were fifth, the Red Sox ninth. Seattle was 27th at 7.1 percent.
Dee Gordon's 1.5 percent walk rate (nine in 556 plate appearances) was the lowest mark in the Majors of any hitter with more than 110 plate appearances. (5.1 percent), (5.2), Zunino (5.9) and (6) were also well below league average.
The Dodgers also swung at the lowest percentage of pitches of any team (43.5 percent). The Astros were second in that category, the Yankees fourth, the Red Sox 12th. Seattle was 17th.
When was suspended, could the Mariners have voided the remainder of his contract or anything like that?
-- Davey K., Calgary, Alberta

No. That is an issue that arose as well in 2014 when Alex Rodriguez was suspended for a full year while still having five years and $114 million remaining on his contract with the Yankees. Players are suspended without pay, thus Cano's 80-game suspension cost him about $11.8 million of his $24 million contract for 2018. But he still has five years and $120 million left on his deal with Seattle.
The only way a team can withhold further salary following a suspension is if a player is injured as a result of their violation of MLB's drug policy or if they can't play due to legal proceedings or a jail sentence caused by the violation.