It's no secret that a small, yet non-insignificant hole for the Mariners is getting another backup catcher option. While the franchise is still seemingly high on Jesus Sucre, his career MLB wRC+ of 26 pretty much negates all defensive value he brings to the table, no matter how excellent it is. On days the Mariners roll with Sucre, they are essentially punting the #9 spot in the lineup. That matters. At least Mike Zunino gives you an exhilarating thrill that at any point, a pitcher might make a mistake and Zunino might hit it 500 feet. Sucre might slice one through the right side of the infield.
Last week, the White Sox managed to net themselves Geovany Soto as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training. Soto has been riddled with injuries, including most of 2014, but he possesses a quality bat while hanging on to the very tail end of his prime at 32. I can't pretend to understand player motivations, but I'm fairly certain that money is one of them -- and not giving Soto the MLB minimum to possibly upgrade over Sucre seemed like a missed opportunity. If it was possible. Which it very well might not have been. I digress.
The Mariners have finally added another catcher to compete with Sucre to back up Zunino.
catcher john baker signs minors deal with #mariners. gets spring invite. would seem to have chance to win backup job.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) January 28, 2015
You may remember John Baker from such hits such as "2008 Fantasy Baseball Waiver Wire Star" and "2009 Was Pretty Solid Too." Since then, it's been a pile of misery for Baker, as injuries and poor performance have marred his career. Now 34 years old, Baker has only posted a 53 OPS+ since 2010 over 572 plate appearances.
Baker is left-handed, so there is, in theory, some balance there with Zunino. He's hit right-handed pitching significantly better through his career (106 OPS+), but again, most of that is fueled by his first two seasons. Defensively, Baker has graded out fairly average across his career, though the sample sizes have been so inconsistent that it's hard to make any conclusions -- and the only significant samples come from five or six years ago.
It's a minor league deal, so there isn't really any reason to complain. Even though a resurgence is highly unlikely at 34 given his recent history, he was once a pretty decent major league catcher, and that's more than Jeus Sucre has ever been. At the very least, it's competition for Sucre, which should be welcomed. But if we don't expect anything from Sucre with the bat, we can't expect much more with Baker. It's a worse situation than John Buck, but it didn't cost anything.
And really, that's my question about this whole thing. I don't want to focus on Soto too much, because there's too many factors at play that are unknown. Maybe. I would have easily handed Soto the same million dollars the Mariners gave Buck last year, in a season where they had less of a chance to make the playoffs than they do this year. In a year where this franchise has the best chance to make a run in a very long time, why wouldn't the Mariners aim higher for the backup position? It's highly unlikely they could (or would want) to find anyone to compete with Zunino, but what about those 100-150 PA they are offensively punting with the current batch of alternative options they have? What if Zunino is injured? The Mariners probably had a chance to aim higher than what they've done, and they haven't. That's confusing.
This is a really, really minor complaint about the offseason. Most likely, the backup catcher differential represents half a win of value if there's more than a moderate disparity in performance. It's a complete quibble quabble. John Baker might not make the team, Jesus Sucre might manage to slap enough balls through the infield to piece together a 60 wRC+ while providing excellent defense, and the M's decision to hold pat will look fine. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't mildly confused why the Mariners haven't invested just a little bit more in this position so far.