Monday, February 23, 2004

"Glass Half Full" Preview - CATCHER 

The Glass Half Full Previews will take a position-by-position look at the Seattle Mariners. Each installment will review 2003, discuss the offseason tinkerings of the front office, preview the 2004 season and give a peek at what may come in 2005 and beyond Spring Training Updates are at bottom - last updated: 3/8

Despite the "Glass Half Full" name, your Mariner Optimist does have his feet firmly grounded in reality. To show that these will not all be 100% good news, lets ease into the optimism by starting what was one of our weakest positions in 2003 and could be our weakest going forward, the CATCHER position.

What Did We See in 2003:
The catcher position was not a strong suit of the 2003 Mariners, providing a meager .238/.274/.354 composite line. Lets break it down:
Player        G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 

Dan Wilson 96 316 32 76 15 2 4 43 15 52 0 0 .241 .272 .339 .611
Ben Davis 80 246 25 58 18 0 6 42 18 61 0 0 .236 .284 .382 .666
Pat Borders 12 14 1 2 1 0 0 1 1 5 0 0 .143 .200 .214 .414
Coming into 2003, a changing of the guard was expected as then-26-year-old Ben Davis was supposed to slowly take over for 34-year-old Dan Wilson, and possibly be the full-time starting catcher by year's end. A bulked up Davis (gained 30 pounds in the offseason) looked up to the challenge as he put up a very nice .294/.333/.490 split in 153 ABs before the All-Star Break. But the power Davis showed in April (.568 SLG) had tailed off by June (.435 Slug). Beginning July 22, Melvin rested Davis 4 straight days, and after that he was never the same. In August and Septermber combined, Davis hit one home run, two doubles and seven singles, while collecting just a single walk in 74 ABs, ultimately costing him playing time to Pat Gillick's houseboy, Pat Borders. In the end his .236/.284/.382 season was a step back from his .259/310/.404 split of 2002, not what one wants to see from a 26-year-old catcher.

Dan Wilson came into 2003 off his best season as a hitter in 2002 putting up a solid .295/.326/.396 split. That season (and his community leader status) earned him a hefty 2-year, $7 millon contract. And the offseason began with stories of how Dan had accepted the role of Ben's mentor. A strained oblique cost him the last month of Spring Training and stalled the start to his season. But for the remainder of the season he remained healthy, but his hitting did not. Wilson heated up in July, putting up an 843 OPS for the month, which may have contributed to the downfall of Davis' playing time. But in August and September, Wilson's OPS plummeted to 681 and 413 so that by September, the Mariners were getting ZERO offense from the catcher position.

Wilson is valued for his wide range of defensive skills, including his ability to call a game, his pitch-blocking skills and his accurate throwing arm. Wilson had just one error in 2003, while his pitchers had an ERA of 3.79 and he caught 30% of runners trying to steal. Davis' reputation was the opposite - supposedly he had a poor work ethic and pitchers did not like throwing to him. And though Ben committed 4 errors, he caught 35% of the runners trying to steal off of him and his pitchers threw for a 3.88 ERA. So he looked comparable to Wilson behind the plate.

Bob Melvin originally looked to give each catcher 2-3 pitchers to call on a regular basis. Dan Wilson acted as the personal catcher for Jamie Moyer. Manager Bob Melvin gave Joel Pineiro to Wilson as well, while Gil Meche and Ryan Franklin pitched primarily to Ben Davis.

For the first eight starts of the season, Wilson caught Freddy Garcia as well. But after Freddy's 2+ inning 9 run blowup that got him booed for the first time at Safeco, Wilson split Freddy duties with Davis, and it seemingly switched back after any bad start as Melvin tried everything he could to right Freddy's ship. In September, 40 year old Pat Borders was brought up from Tacoma to try to turn around Freddy Garcia for the stretch run. The grizzled vet seemed to be just the shot of penicillin that Freddy needed. In the four starts he caught Garcia, the M's won three games by a score of 2-1.

Hot Stove Action:
The offseason began calmly at catcher as it was assumed that the Mariners would try to finish what they started in 2003, that is have Dan Wilson hand the job off to Ben Davis. In early January, Ben Davis signed a 1-yr, $1.4M contract that seemed to say, yes, the M's were going to give Davis the chance, but weren't sure if he would run with it. Pat Borders was offered arbitration in order to buy time to sign a minor league contract.

The only impact free agent on the market was Pudge Rodriguez, but the Mariners had little interest in the Scott Boras client initially, choosing instead to focus on an ill-fated pursuit of Miguel Tejada. But in mid-January, Kazuhiro Sasaki dropped his bombshell that he was leaving the Mariners and suddenly the M's had $8+ million to spend and offense was still their big need. Pudge already had a 4yr/$40M offer on the table from the Tigers, but seemed to be hoping for something better. The talks around Pudge became fast and furious as the M's tried to make a late entry into the bidding. However, the risk of signing Pudge as an aging catcher to a long term contract was deemed too great, and the M's 1 year offer to Pudge was not what he was looking for, and he signed the deal with the Tigers.

The only new entry in the Mariners catching sweepstakes came as a byproduct of dumping Jeff Cirillo on the Padres. Wiki Gonzalez came over to the Mariners and because he had an option left, found himself immediately jettisoned to AAA Tacoma so that he would not take up a spot on the Mariners 40-man roster.

Interestingly, it was because of the potential Gonzalez flashed in 2001 that the Padres were willing to trade Ben Davis to Seattle. As Davis' backup in 2001, Wiklenman "please call me Wiki" Gonzalez put up a nice .275/.335/.463 line in 160 ABs

Entering 2002, Gonzalez was given the starting job and a three-year deal that will earn him $1.25M this year. But Gonzalez disappointed by reporting to camp out of shape, and his season was marred by multiple injureis including bone chips in his throwing elbow that required surgery at the end of the year. He ended the year with a poor .220/.330/.299 in 164 ABs. Apparently, his habits did not change for 2003, and he quickly fell out of favor in San Diego and was sent to AAA Portland on May 17th after compiling a pathetic .200/.264/.277 in 65 ABs.

Gonzalez plays solid defense and has a rifle arm that took out 37% of would-be basestealers between 2000-2002, but only 22% in 2003. His handling of pitchers (reflected in his pitchers 4.35 ERA) has come into question, and was a major factor in the Padres sending him down.

What's In Store for 2004:
Well, at 35 years old, there is probably nowhere else for Dan Wilson to go but down. His BB/K rate of .29 shows that a batting average in the .240s is likely what to expect from here on out, as his batting eye and hand speed diminishes. Its just a question of whether the other shoe will drop in 2004.

So the productivity at catcher in 2004 probably lies in the hands of one Ben Davis. As a 27-year-old with experience, he is entering his peak years as a hitter. Unfortunately, he is doing so after the worst half-season of his career. Davis obviously has the skillset to be a full-time catcher as seen by his defense, and his .294/.333/.490 first half would provide the kind of offense the Mariners have never seen out of the catcher position.

He may have simply worn down from his offseason body building efforts, or he may have been hiding an injury. I have seen NO news about Ben Davis in 2004, so he is one to watch VERY closely in Spring Training.

Wiki Gonzalez will get a chance to revive his flagging career in Tacoma. If he can get his act together, and work hard to improve his handling of pitchers, then Wiki may once again find himself taking Ben Davis job. However, it is quite possible that attitude and injuries have taken their toll on Gonzalez, and that he may never regain the promise he once showed. Lets hope that this trade will be a wakeup call, and Gonzalez will find his missing work ethic.

Is an inseason trade a possibility? Probably not. Paul Loduca of the Dodgers and Jason Kendall of the Pirates have been rumored in trade talks all offseason. Kendall's contract is too odious for my (and probably the Mariners') tastes, but Loduca could hold his own here. Unfortunately, if there is a team that needs a big bat more than the Mariners, its the Dodgers, so we don't match up particularly well for a trade there.

Further Down the Road (2005 and beyond):
During the offseason after 2004, Dan Wilson will likely be signed to a much smaller (but probably still large enough to get howls from the blogosphere) to be the backup and continue a career path that leads to a Pat Borders-like role with the Mariners. But unless he staves off Father Time, one of the following looks to be the starter in 2005:

1) Ben Davis - a big year in 2004, and he is a shoo-in for the starter role for 2005. 2005 will be his final arbitration eligible year, and if he excels in 2004, the M's will be thinking about a multiyear contract.

2) Wiki Gonzalez. Hopefully, seeing Ben Davis ahead of him once again will reignite his passion for the game, and he will battle Davis for the starting job in 2005. The M's have a club option for 2005 that they will not exercise, so Wiki will be arbitration eligible and should come cheaply.

3) Homegrown talent. Ryan Christianson was the M's catcher of the future, but has seen his stock plummet in recent years, and will head back to AA San Antonio to revive his prospect status by improviing his 317 OBP. The hottest catching prospect for the M's is Rene Rivera who impressed with Winter ball, and got a Spring Training invite, but will likely repeat High-A Inland Empire to prove that he can handle the stick. Luis Oliveros also got a non-roster invite to Spring Camp, and will also be at Inland Empire. One of these three needs to step up in 2004. There is not much help on the immediate horizon and the earliest we would see either is 2006 and more likely 2007.

4) 2005 Free Agents - Former Mariner Jason Varitek is the only free agent catcher in 2005 to get excited about, and he is likely to be resigned by the Red Sox. Oakland's Damian Miller, Toronto's Greg Myers, Yankee John Flaherty, or Cardinal Eli Marrero are all possibilities for a stopgap measure while waiting for prospects to develop.

Glass Half Full Projection
Davis steps up and assumes the starting catcher role for the stretch drive push en route to 15 homers and a solid .280/.340/.460 season in 350 ABs. Wilson remains Jamie Moyer's personal catcher, but holds on to first half playing time with a mediocre.240/.290/.360 line in 200 ABs.

In the offseason, Davis signs a 2-year, $5M deal and is anointed the starting catcher, while Wilson signs a 1-year, $1M deal to be the backup and continue his role as Jamie Moyer's personal catcher and Community Leader.

Other Links of Note
The one-and-done blog SaberMariners did a nice analysis of Dan Wilson for its inaugural entry.

Larry Larue on Ben Davis' offseason.

Spring Training Updates
2/22:Catcher Ryan Christianson can catch and throw but hasn't been cleared to play spring games yet. He's still recovering from right elbow problems that twice landed him on the disabled list last year.
2/23:Times Meet the Mariners: Wiki Gonzalez has these tidbits from the Wikster: "I was hurt and every time I started to play well again I got hurt again. But that's all in the past... I'm a new person and a new player. I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm happy to be here to help my new team."
3/2:Catcher Dan Wilson hit briefly off a tee but was held out of batting practice for the second consecutive day with a mild pain in his left side. And catcher Wiki Gonzalez caught and hit, but didn't throw because of a tender shoulder.
3/4:The Times has a nice article on what Pat Borders did to turn around Freddy Garcia last year. The Mariners will keep just two catchers — Wilson and Ben Davis — on the Opening Day roster. Borders will start the season at Class AAA Tacoma.
3/4:Catcher Wiki Gonzalez was scratched from the intrasquad game with a sore shoulder and already has been hampered by calf, back and arm troubles this spring. Rene Rivera took his place. Not good news for the Wiki Fan Club.
3/4:Peter White chimes in with a brutal haiku for Dan Wilson
3/8:Ben Davis takes a step back with poor pitch calling on national TV against Anaheim.

Next up: First Base

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