The Catcher Conundrum

When the Mariners acquired Miguel Olivo in the Freddy Garcia trade, it was expected the young backstop would come in and earn the starting job for 2005 and beyond. Instead, Olivo struggled mightily, both offensively and defensively, leaving the door open for the Mariners to possibly go another route with their long-term plans. Doug Farrar takes a look at the Mariners' catcher position in his first story for InsidethePark.com.

Dan Wilson – The New “Mr. Mariner”
One of the most consistent criticisms of the Lincoln/Armstrong/Gillick regime has been the perception that the Mariner front office cares more for “intangibles” (See: “Veteran Clubhouse Presence” and the “Good-Guy Factor”) than production. Setting aside the misbegotten acquisitions forced by this modus operandi, even the most cynical Mariner observer would have to agree that Dan Wilson is the exception that “proves the rule”.

Dan Wilson is not Ivan Rodriguez, nor is he Javy Lopez. He will not hit .340 and bash 30 homers a season. He will not light up your fantasy team. He never did that when he was in his prime, so it can be assumed that he won’t do it now. Having said that, it’s what Dan Wilson does - the little things that matter but may not provide gaudy stats - that will keep him in Mariner blue for at least another year.

Rightfully regarded as one of the better handlers of pitchers in the major leagues (key for a team rebuilding its rotation), Wilson is respected by everyone he plays with. It’s a testament to his character that he will provide crucial tutoring to the young catchers who will eventually supplant him without a second thought. He is a quiet leader, a pillar in the community, and with Edgar Martinez’ retirement, he is the last link to the Mariners’ 1995 miracle season. With the M’s front office hoping that any level of familiarity will breed patience (not to mention all-important ticket sales), Dan Wilson is an important part of the team’s plans to forge ahead.

2005 Outlook – At some point before the 2005 season begins, Wilson will likely sign a one-year contract with the team (he’s currently a free agent), strap on the gear in spring training, and pick up where he left off in 2004 as the team’s most reliable catcher.

Miguel Olivo – The Understudy
When Miguel Olivo traveled to Seattle as part of the Freddy Garcia deal, it was assumed that he’d soon replace Wilson as the M’s regular catcher. He shot to the top of the depth chart in Chicago in a short time, and it was natural to believe that Olivo would continue the same ascent here.

What transpired after Olivo hit the Emerald City took everyone by surprise. Olivo’s 2004 lines for Chicago and Seattle:

TM
G
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
SO
SB
CS
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
CWS
46
141
21
38
7
2
7
26
10
29
5
4
.270
.316
.496
.812
SEA
50
160
25
32
8
2
6
14
10
55
2
2
.200
.260
.388
.648

Ouch. Worse was what happened when Ben Davis, the backup catcher Olivo replaced in Seattle, went to the Windy City:

TM
G
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
SO
SB
CS
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
CWS
54
160
21
37
9
0
6
16
9
40
1
1
.231
.276
.400
.676
SEA
14
33
1
3
0
0
0
2
3
9
0
0
.091
.162
.091
.253

So Olivo has some things to improve upon, to be certain. Is the sudden decline in his stats (and the immediate upswing in Davis’) due to poor coaching and management on the Mariners’ part? We’ll see when the new braintrust comes aboard.

Defensively, Olivo suffered from an immediate decline in Seattle, as well. In his 46 Chicago games in 2004, Olivo had 4 passed balls. In his 49 games in Seattle, he had 9. To put that in perspective, Dan Wilson has allowed 9 passed balls total in his last four seasons.

2005 Outlook – The Mariners are on the hook with Olivo. Although Jeremy Reed may single-handedly validate the wisdom of the Garcia trade, the team is also depending on Olivo to do a fairly big job as they renew their lineup. He’ll be given every chance to succeed, but he’ll have to improve his defensive focus and plate discipline to do so. Working with pitchers? Miguel Olivo has a tough act to follow.

Ryan Christianson – The Great Unknown
The Mariners’ first round pick in 1999, Christianson has taken a laborious, injury-filled journey through the minors in the last half decade. Spending 2004 at AA San Antonio (.280/.371/700 in 34 games) and AAA Tacoma (.258/.430/.755 in 44 games), Christianson spent more time at DH as he was recovering from an elbow injury (not good for a catcher!). He possesses good right-handed power at the plate, but which glove he should be wearing in 2005 is a subject for debate.

2005 Outlook – Big question mark here. Is it time for the former can’t-miss prospect to consider a position change away from the rigors of catching?

Rene Rivera – The Future Is Now?
Up for a very small cup of coffee in mid-September, Rivera is the Mariners’ catcher of the future in many minds. Rivera was a second-round pick in the 2001 June draft, and hit .235 with six homers and 53 RBI's in 107 games at Inland Empire in the California League in 2004. Rivera played in four games at Triple-A Tacoma, hitting .400 with a homer and an RBI. He bears watching, but his promotion to the bigs may have been more about the team’s “What the heck…let the kids play” thought process as the season wasted away more than anything else.

2005 Outlook – A season or two of more time in the minors wouldn’t be out of the question for the 21-year-old, and from there, who knows? More likely is the continuation of the maturing process for this prospect.

Free Agents – Building a Mystery
Will the Mariners acquire a catcher through the free-agent pool? The magic eight-ball says, “No!”, at least when it comes to marquee backstops. The big-time FA catcher will be Jason Varitek (the Red Sox will move heaven and earth to re-sign him), and the Mariners have a harrowing amount of production to upgrade
at several positions. Put simply, the money needs to be spent elsewhere. You never know, though - the M’s might re-sign Pat Borders just because they apparently think they can’t operate without him.

Conclusion: Most likely, the M's will use Dan Wilson as a point of stability in 2005 – the starting job will be Olivo's to lose but the veteran may very well be there to pick up the pieces should Olivo fail in his attempts to replace the long time Mariner. The veteran Mariner pitchers will again appreciate Wilson’s steady hand, and any new arrivals will be pleasantly surprised with his ability to call a game. Olivo has a lot to learn, but also the talent to come through and eventually hold his own around the league. Rivera has the edge as catcher of the future down in the minors over Christianson and 21-year-old Luis Oliveros who spent the past season at Double-A San Antonio.

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