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MLB Draft 2017: Mariners Catching System Depth Overview

We’ve got catchers*. *Contains 5% catcher

Colorado Rockies v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

[The MLB draft this year is June 12-14. Leading up to the draft, we at LL will be doing a series of articles highlighting different needs in the Mariners system, profiling players who might be good matches for the team, and giving a general draft overview to help enhance your understanding/enjoyment of the draft. This will conclude last weeks series where we have done a positional overview of the depth at each level of the system. So far we’ve done the outfielders, the middle infielders, the corner infielders, the pitching. Last and sadly least, we have the catching.]

Hoo boy. Ethan ranked the top-30 prospects in the system before the season and did not have a single catcher included. The rankings have just one - Tyler Marlette - ranked 23rd and still in AA. Mike Zunino has received repeated endorsements as the catcher of the present from the front office. Whether that is based necessity alone or truly believed is unclear, but the necessity is glaring. Carlos Ruiz has struggled and is of an age where struggling often means the end is nigh. Tuffy Gosewisch should not be allowed within 50 feet of Safeco Field. There are interesting, if unremarkable pieces that could contribute to an MLB roster in each of the other position groups highlighted so far. Behind the dish, by performance and pedigree, it would take long odds for this group to provide much needed reinforcements.

Can contribute in 2017:

Steve Baron - 26 years-old - AAA Tacoma

Steve Baron was a 1st-round pick in 2009, back when men were men and Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin were his company and good grief Mike Trout definitely Monstars-ed this entire draft into himself didn’t he. Baron was a free agent this offseason for roughly two weeks after spending eight seasons in the minors with the M’s and appears beholden to Stockholm syndrome, as he returned on a minor league contract to Tacoma. His bat failed to translate for the first few years but he earned a four game cup of coffee in 2015 where he failed to reach base in 11 PAs. Fun fact, going 0-11 with two strikeouts grants you a -100 wRC+, which is closer to 2017 Tuffy Gosewisch’s -58 than Tuffy is to either Carlos Ruiz or Mike Zunino (37 and 39 this year respectively). Anyways, Baron has settled in as a respectable enough hitter in AAA so far this season. His walk rate has been over 10% this year and was 12.6% in AA-Jackson last season. His 102 wRC+ (.260/.339/.420 line) so far is hopefully indicative of an offensive progression and stabilization, and his defense is acceptable. If Mike Zunino craters again after returning to the MLB, I would hope Baron gets a crack over Gosewisch this time. A below-average backup can still fathom the concept of average, and that is something the Mariners have lacked at catcher thus far.

On the horizon (2018/2019):

Tyler Marlette - 24 years-old - AA Arkansas

If you wish to find hope in this system at the catcher position, Tyler Marlette is where your eye should likely rest. Ethan penned him as a bat-first prospect whose glove has improved nicely, and looks likely to make it as a backup catcher. If he’s continuing to produce at the plate we could see him in Seattle as early as the start of 2018. There’s a bit of noise with his bat before the swing but his hands are quick to the ball. It’s tough to tell with Marlette what is real and what is fortunate, as five of the last six seasons have seen the former 5th round pick run a BABIP over .320, and he continues to do so this year in Arkansas. Still, a 9.8% BB rate and a 17.1% K-rate are what you want to see from a catcher. His power surge (14 homers and a .199 ISO) in Bakersfield last year has yet to translate fully, but his .273/.341/.391 line is still solidly above average. Marlette is not a great bet if you want a catcher of the future, but he’s the best bet you’ll find in the organization right now beyond Zu.

Marcus Littlewood - 25 years-old - AA Arkansas

The former shortstop has developed slowly since being converted to catcher during his second year in the pros. Another member of the standout Jackson Generals team from last season, Littlewood put up a 143 wRC+ in 225 PAs and a mouthwatering .307/.404/.417 line after two years of offensive mediocrity. Skepticism is merited, considering a catcher with average speed is unlikely to run a .388 BABIP again at any level, and he did not record a single home run in his second go at AA. This year will be round three for Littlewood, albeit in Arkansas instead of Jackson, and his 115 wRC+ is commendable but again powered by a .375 BABIP. Equally distressing is his 5.4% BB rate, well below his career numbers which tend to hang well above 10%. Littlewood’s relative inexperience at the catcher position is a double-edged sword as well. He’s behind Marlette and other contemporaries in experience and is older for AA, but also could theoretically have a great deal to improve upon. Seeing the 6’3, 200 lb switch-hitter find a way to access more power would go a long way towards brightening his prospect of MLB contribution, but until then he’s a long shot.

On the distant horizon:

Um. About that...

The Mariners have individuals playing the catcher position throughout the lower levels of their system. You are fairly compelled to by the limitations of the game itself. They have names and skillsets, and may one day have their names drift across the screen as you watch a game with your friends or your family. None of them have thus far performed at a level meriting your attention as it relates to the Seattle Mariners or their future performance, unfortunately. The possibility is significant that there is not an MLB catcher in this entire minor league system, even including the players listed above. Marlette likely has an MLB future, and Baron is certainly better than Tuffy, but those are not winning benchmarks. If you are looking for one more person to keep a sleepy, glancing, out of the bottom left corner of your eye on, however, the closest possibility is...

Under-the-radar contributors/Potential breakout candidates/Lottery Tickets:

Joe DeCarlo - 23 years-old - High-A Modesto

Another former shortstop, DeCarlo was picked out of high school with the 64th overall pick in the 2012 draft and played mostly 3rd base up until this year. He earned a Spring Training invite and stood out as a guy wearing sunglasses who appeared to be doing as much as possible to make himself not stand out to fans, coaches, or teammates. This year, after showing exceptional plate discipline and decent power in Clinton in 2015 and Bakersfield last year, DeCarlo has been given a new task: catching. DeCarlo has a strong arm and has reportedly looked surprisingly comfortable behind the plate so far and he should improve significantly. His offense has suffered so far, with a 90 wRC+ in his first 101 PAs after posting lines from 106-128 in each of his five previous full pro seasons. After a 2016 in which he hit .265/.379/.454, his .186/.307/.360 line in Modesto is frustrating, albeit understandable. The strain of learning a new position is understandably draining, and even more so when the position is the most difficult defensive task possible. More hope can be found in DeCarlo’s 10.9% BB rate, which suggests his discipline is still solid, and a .236 BABIP indicates better days are ahead. Modesto is a long way from Safeco, and DeCarlo has a lot to prove before cracking any lists or assuaging the fears of the future, but he’s what we’ve got.

The Dipoto regime has talked up their player development and organizational philosophy for the last year and a half, and players have echoed the dramatic shift towards consistency and cohesion from level to level. That is all well and good, but the next few years, and perhaps the next decade, will be defined by putting more talent on the farm. Otherwise, the holes are going to catch up to the Mariners, and there will be nobody there to catch them.