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Checking in at backup catcher

With Mike Zunino’s return drawing ever closer, another roster crunch looms.

Houston Astros  v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

While much has been written and discussed about the Ichiro dilemma once Ben Gamel returns from the DL, the Mariners have another roster crunch to solve soon. Mike Zunino started his rehab assignment on Monday in Modesto, and per Divish, will be back with the big club by the start of the road trip. Both Mike Marjama and David Freitas have filled in admirably, but one of them will shortly be Tacoma-bound.

Marjama and Freitas have seen almost exactly equal time so far - after last night’s game, Marjama has 29 plate appearances to Freitas’s 26. They’ve started mostly every other day, with Marjama usually catching Félix and Mike Leake while Freitas handles James Paxton and Marco Gonzales. They are also nearly the same age - Freitas is just four months older.

Freitas has unquestionably shown more at the plate so far, running a solid 114 wRC+. He’s smoked the ball when making contact, with just a teeny-tiny 6.3% Soft% and an average exit velocity of 92.6 MPH (!). Freitas has also bought into the fly ball revolution, hitting the ball at an average launch angle of 20.1 degrees. Although he still has a tendency to pull the ball, he’s made some good contact the other way, with two of his doubles going to right field. The strikeouts have been a bit high, but he’s shown good plate discipline with an 11.5% walk rate. Freitas has also flashed some leather, adeptly blocking nasty breaking pitches from Paxton and Edwin Díaz and gunning down Jon Jay last week to snuff out a potentially scary first inning.

On the other hand, Marjama has struggled out of the gate with wRC+ of just 10. Although his average exit velocity is right around normal, he’s been hindered by a way low average launch angle of just 9.1 degrees, and his sky-high 60% groundball rate reflects that. While he’s done a good job avoiding the strikeout, the two walks he took on Sunday were his first of the season (and his career). The three doubles - one of which was stung down the left-field line at 105 MPH off of José Berríos in Minnesota - have been nice to see, but Marjama needs to elevate his swing a little more to tap into his sneaky power.

Marjama is the more athletic of the two, and can surprise with his speed and baserunning instincts. His background as an infielder offers a little more versatility, and he even played some first base in his time with Licey over the winter. His framing - especially on low pitches - is still pretty raw, but his ability to communicate with his pitching staff has been on display since Opening Day, after which both Félix and Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. raved about him.

Having two competent backup catching options is a situation the Mariners haven’t been in for a long time - gone are the Kelly Shoppachs, John Bucks, Steve Clevengers, and Humberto Quinteros. While one of Marjama and Freitas won’t be joining the big club on the next road trip, they are both solid choices, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see whoever the team doesn’t go with make a couple more appearances down the road. The catching depth has been an unexpected strong point of the roster so far, and with Zunino’s imminent return, it will be bolstered even further.

Go M’s.