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You can’t really talk about the addition of Carlos Ruiz without talking about Mike Zunino, so consider this post a 2 for 1. Zunino has had a tricky professional career so far. He was drafted 3rd overall in 2012, poised to be this team’s Catcher of the Future. The “future” ended up being June 11, 2013, and if you think that sounds quick – about a year and a week after being drafted – yeah, you’re right. That’s pretty fucking quick.
But, he had the pedigree, he had the chops in college, he did pretty well in the minors, and this team was desperate. Really, more than anything, the GM was desperate for ONE of his high first round draft picks to pan out, so he kept throwing lukewarm damp pasta against the wall hoping something would eventually stick.
After a promising start in 2013, he was given the everyday job in 2014. The next two years, he played more or less as this team’s starting catcher, and while he grew into a leader of pitchers and a quality defender behind the plate, it was increasingly clear that he didn’t have a clue when he stood up there with a bat in his hands. If he didn’t luck into the barrel squaring up the ball for a homer, he usually struck out. It got so bad that, once Jerry Dipoto took over, he brought in not one but TWO new catchers to ensure Zunino started 2016 in Tacoma, where he belonged. An untimely injury to Steve Clevenger – who, it appeared, was starting to come around at the plate with increasing playing time – necessitated Zunino’s call-up. Chris Iannetta’s utter incompetence necessitated Zunino’s retaking of the starting catcher role.
But, to his credit, Zunino came back with renewed focus at the plate and a keen eye for the strike zone. The script didn’t flip totally – though his first month back saw him producing astronomic numbers at the plate – but there’s certainly something to build upon for the 2017 season.
So, why trade for Ruiz then?
Well, for starters, from August 23, 2016, through the end of the season, Zunino went 13 for 89 (.146) with 5 extra base hits. And, while it’s great he was able to walk 11 times in that span – indeed, he nearly doubled his walk rate from the previous year, albeit in a smaller sample – you have to worry about Zunino falling back into some old, bad habits at the plate. Enter Ruiz.
At this point in his career, 38 years old and whatnot, Ruiz probably isn’t much more than a backup catcher. I’ll say this, though: he should be a damned good one! If all goes according to plan, and the Mariners are able to go with a 65/35 split, with Zunino getting the regular duty and Ruiz backing him up, I don’t think I could be happier. That’ll mean Zunino is pulling his weight at the plate, no one is injured, and both guys are contributing in a big way.
If, however, Ruiz starts eating into that 65/35 split, and starts taking more of a starter’s role on the team, we’ll probably have some issues. I like what Ruiz has to offer, I really do. He’s leaps and bounds above what a Jesus Sucre can do for you; he’s got some good defense, some pop in his bat, he’ll hit for average and get on base. As a guy who plays roughly 35% of the time, he should be golden. But, I feel like the more he plays, the more diminishing returns we’re going to see out of him, and that scares me. That particularly scares me in the context of this season, because that means we’re also getting diminishing returns out of Zunino, which will translate into the following:
- The 2017 Mariners will have a black hole at the catcher spot once again
- The viability of Mike Zunino as a full time starter going forward plummets
Ultimately, what we need to have happen is for Zunino to be around a .250 hitter with his pop, pitch framing, and everything else. That’s the mark of a REAL Catcher of the Future. If his bat falls apart again this year, then you have to strongly think about trading him away and salvaging as much value as you can, while at the same time working your ass off over the next year to fill the catcher position on a more permanent basis.
2017 is really a Do or Die year for the Mariners and their catcher spot. Carlos Ruiz is here to hopefully mitigate some of that risk – should Zunino bottom out again – but he’s not a long-term solution. On the flipside, for a team looking to make the playoffs, Carlos Ruiz is EXACTLY the type of guy you want on your team. Someone who’s been there. Someone who’s a top-flight leader (on a team full of them, with Felix, Robbie, Cruz, Seager, Martin, and so on). And, most importantly, if he does stick in that backup role, he’s still a guy you’re not afraid to play in August and September, when the games REALLY start to get meaningful.
What has been a big problem for the Mariners the last couple times they’ve been in September playing meaningful baseball? Well, for one, they’ve run Mike Zunino into the fucking ground by throwing him out there practically every single day. Here’s to hoping, at the very least, Ruiz is able to give our stud some days off! Let him be rested and fresh when it gets down to the nitty gritty.
Compared to a lot of the other, higher-profile moves the Mariners made this offseason, I like this Ruiz deal a lot. It’s underrated, but it could prove to make all the difference in the world, for this year and beyond. Let him ease the pressure of Zunino being The Man, while at the same time allowing him to learn at the feet of one of the greats of the last decade at his position.