The Catching Conundrum

Since the greatest catcher in Mariners' club history began to decline in the late 90s, the M's have been searching for his successor. Seven different players have auditioned for the role, including then-21-year-old Rene Rivera and 42-year-old Pat Borders.

If it seems as if this subject rears its ugly head each and every season, you aren't losing your mind - it does.

Dan Wilson is the franchise's all-time leader in games caught, and every major offensive and defensive category for his position. He even leads the organization in public image. Everybody loves Dan the Man.

The M's need someone to come along that can challenge those career numbers – in half the time.

Jeff Clement may prove to be the answer behind the plate, but it's conceivable that the USC product requires two or more years of defensive seasoning before he will be major-league ready.

With Clement's bat unquestioned and his work ethic and physical tools undoubted, the Mariners are certainly planning on the 22-year-old to take over the catching duties at some point within the next three years.

But the club needs to win before 2008, and to do so they need solid production from the catching position – both offensively and defensively.

What are the options?

Yorvit Torrealba was acquired from the San Francisco Giants in July as part of the package returned for outfielder Randy Winn. The 27-year-old has been a career back-up, but is easily an upgrade to what the Mariners were running out there every night this past season.

Torrealba is a solid defender with a keen understanding of his role behind the plate. The Venezuelan has leadership qualities and a take-charge approach to his positive attitude on the field and in the clubhouse. More importantly, he recognizes what is needed from him, night-in and night-out.

He even forged a bond with fellow countrymen and rookie sensation, Felix Hernandez. So it's probably safe to say that Torrealba has a strong general intelligence, as well as an assett between the lines. Becoming close with the franchise's most prized commodity is a smart thing to do.

With the bat, Torrealba hit .241 with the M's in 42 games. Without much power, the right-handed backstop gives himself a chance to be productive with a decent approach and solid pitch recognition. With regular play, Torrealba has chance to put up league average numbers for the catcher's position.

Rene Rivera has seen action in 18 games in the majors. He's also only played in 18 games in Triple-A Tacoma after spending the past two seasons in the California League and with Double-A San antonio in the Texas League.

The 22-year-old is probably another full year from being big-league ready at the plate, and needs work refining his skills defensively, though he possesses the physical tools to be a better-than-average glove man.

With the bat, Rivera's lack of plate coverage and strike zone judgement will likely render him an average offensive catcher. With room to improve, the former 2nd round pick belongs in the minors in 2006, rounding out the edges to his game. Despite his .389 career average in Seattle, he's not ready for prime time.

Miguel Ojeda is more of a third catcher. A solid defender, the 30-year-old's career .661 OPS tells the story of his offensive abilities.

Ojeda is likely to find his way to the minors to back up Rivera, or in another organization in a similar capacity. He isn't the answer in Seattle.

Ryan Christianson had a shot to prove his worth this season, and did nothing to impress the Mariners. Christianson, the M's first round pick in 1999, has solid power to right center field, but has a slow bat, poor plate discpline and worst of all, is mediocre with the gear on, at best.

The Riverside, California native went nearly two months without throwing out a base stealer in 2005, and after catching two in four nights, went another 14 chances without nailing another.

Christianson is a six-year minor league free agent and will not return to the organization in 2006.

With Clement a few years away, and fellow catching prospect, Rob Johnson, also a few years from the brink of the big leagues, Torrealba is the only viable option within the organization.

Finding a free agent catcher on the open market is as difficult as hitting a home run at Safeco Field with a foam finger. The best of the bunch typically get contracts that far outweigh their talent and value, or their impact is less than what one might call "helpful."

San Diego's Ramon Hernandez is the best of this year's crop and he's likely to draw interest from a handful of clubs looking for long-term help. But do the M's have the resources to wrap up a three or four year deal worth $15-20 million in a catcher that is probably not going to be necessary before his contract is over? The financial ramifications eliminate the probability that Hernandez is an option.

Same goes for Angels' catcher Bengie Molina. The market may net Molina as much as $6 million a year after the 31-year-old set career marks in average (.295), home runs (15), on-base percentage (.336) and slugging percentage (.446), and has been the biggest thorn in the side of the New York Yankees in the ALDS.

The rest of the free agent field looks a lot like the catching graveyard the M's have used since 2000. Lots of Ben Davis's and Chris Widger's out there. Does Alberto Castillo excite anybody? How about Todd Pratt, Paul Bako, Mike DiFelice or 39-year-old Sandy Alomar?

Didn't think so.

It's a bit of a frustrating endeavor, isn't it? Finding a catcher is not easy.

The trade market may bare a ripe berry or two, but don't expect to land a frontline defensive catcher with middle-of-the-order offensive skills. Jason Varitek, Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and A.J. Pierzynski are not fits in Seattle, not to mention their current clubs want nothing to do with trading them – excep for Rodriguez, whose contract keeps him off of Seattle's shopping list.

There is an answer out there, though. He's 30 years old, is a slightly better than average catcher, speaks spanish, which is a plus for the club's most impirtant two young arms in Felix Hernandez and Rafael Soriano, and his current club is inclined to trade him, due to his arbitration status.

The answer to the conundrum that has seen the failures of Ben Davis and Miguel Olivo in recent years, is Cincinnati Reds catcher Javier Valentin. Valentin hit .281/.362/.520 with 14 home runs this season, catching in just 76 games.

Now before you jump up and yell at the screen that he put up those solid numbers while hitting in the super friendly confines of the Great American BallPark, a stadium known to be tough on pitchers and easy on the power numbers, hear me out.

Valentin, who may be due as much as a $1.2-1.5 million this offseason, is a switch hitter who hit .308/.364/.557 with half of his home runs away from the bandbox in the Queen City.

Clearly, the ballpark wasn't the reason why Valentin was pretty good with the stick in 2005.

Furthermore, Valentin understands that his role is as a backup catcher. Opening the door for a possible platoon situation with Torrealba.

Defensively, the difference between Valentin and Torrealba is neglible but their offensive strengths and weaknesses are mirror images.

Literally, a mirrored image – the same exact thing, but on the opposite side.

Torrealba's right-handed bat hit .301/.351/.509 with a home run versus left-handed pitching in 2005. His career numbers versus lefties are just as impressive; .291/.364/.510 with six home runs.

Valentin, a switch hitter, is light years better as a left-handed batter, hitting .301/.364/.557 with 12 of his 14 home runs as a southpaw this past season. In 2004, Valentin hit .269/.333/.462 versus righties, providing more evidence that he's a pretty solid hitter from the left side of the plate.

How unbelievable would the upgrade be if the M's go from Olivo's adventures and the chronicles of Pat Borders, Miguel Ojeda and Rene Rivera, to a platoon of Torrealba and Valentin?

Even if both players fell off their '05 splits by 20%, the catching position would still post a .281/.335/.469 line to put up against the pathetic .216/.254/.314 that the M's backstops mustered this past season.

Both players are arbitration eligible. The M's are expected to get a deal done with Torrealba, knowing he could be the main option at catcher in 2006. The Reds have two arbitration eligible catchers in Valentin and Jason LaRue, and one of them probably has to be traded to avoid paying both of them high arbitration salaries.

The catcher's spot in Seattle is Mr. Clement's in a few seasons, as he works in the minors to put together his defense and break through to the big leagues.

Until then, a Yorvit Torrealba-Javier Valentin platoon may be the solution to the recurring catching conundrum in Seattle.

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