Raul Ibanez Used to Catch for the Mariners (in A Ball)

Since Raul Ibanez has followed in Jeff Nelson and other's footsteps and become a three-time Mariner, I wanted to remind people that Raul not only began his career as a Mariner, but was a minor league catcher in 1995, playing for the M's Riverside Pilots in A-ball. He actually started out in the Miami high schools as an outfielder, then got switched to catcher after Seattle drafted him in 1992.

Back in '95, the Tacoma News Tribune explained the reason for the switch: "Left-handed, power-hitting catchers are highly coveted by the front office brass and Ibanez is just that." To say Raul tore up the California League in 1995 is an understatement: he had 108 RBIs in 95 games, with a 1.007 OPS and 52 extra-base hits (including 9 triples). He was named Mariner minor-league player of the year. Some more data from that year: he won four player of the week honors and hit .419 (13-31), scored nine runs, hit two triples, three home runs and drove in 16 runs in a single week in late August; he had 29 RBIs in two weeks in the second half of August.

A good question about 1995 is: why did Ibanez stay in A-ball for an entire season? He turned 23 that June, dominated the league throughout 1995, and in 1996 spent only 19 games with AA Port City before moving up to Tacoma.

Near the end of the '95 season, Jim Skaalen, the Mariners coordinator of minor-league instruction, said: "You're going to find a place for him. He hits lefties, he hits righties. He has no fear at the plate. Better than anybody else in our organization, he goes up with the expectation to hit the ball hard and far every time. And if he doesn't, he's some kind of teed off. . . . If he doesn't double, homer or absolutely smoke something, he's not happy. And that's what it takes to be a successful major-league hitter."

After the M's had taken the trouble of teaching him the catcher position, Ibanez was converted back to outfielder again during the winter after the '95 season, presumably because Dan Wilson was blocking his path to the majors. Of course, Wilson also blocked Jason Varitek in 1997, so the M's included Varitek with Derek Lowe in an infamous August '97 trade to the Red Sox.

There is some controversy over why Lou Piniella didn't play Raul more in the late '90s, when the Mariners could have had an Ibanez-Griffey-Buhner outfield. Instead, his first full season was with the Royals in 2002. After the 1997 season the M's nearly sold him off to the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro's team in Japan, as a Seattle Times article relates.

Of course, it's very hard to see how Ibanez could be playing in 2013 if he had remained a catcher. Even playing a few full seasons on the Kingdome concrete might have been enough to end his career in 2010 or 2011.

Ibanez's minor league stats are available at Baseball-Reference. One highlight: in August 1993, with the Bellingham Mariners, Raul batted three times in one inning: the M's had 20 batters, scored a Northwest League record 17 runs in the inning, and had 10 singles, a double, a home run, a hit batter and four walks. Raul had two of the singles and one of the outs.



I wrote an earlier version of the above for Pro Ball NW back when Ibanez was about to leave Seattle for the second time. Also, a p.s.: I'm not sure how many people know that David Ortiz was an M's minor-leaguer in '95 too, playing for Peoria in the Arizona League, getting named team MVP.

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