For baseball-starved sports fans weary of winter but still six weeks removed from April, today rates somewhere between a holiday and a holy day: Pitchers and catchers report!
Like everything else about spring training, the idea is more romantic than the reality.
The Mariners begin camp with one established ace pitcher (Felix Hernandez), and a collection of bottom-of-the-rotation starters competing for jobs on those four out of five days that Felix won’t be taking the mound.
As for the catchers?
Well, there’s newly acquired veteran Miguel Olivo. He showed up at Safeco Field for the Mariners’ FanFest a few weeks ago bearing a suspicious resemblance to the Miguel Olivo who struggled to hit his weight during the parts of the 2004 and ’05 seasons he spent in Seattle. (Actually, it wasn’t much of a struggle. Olivo weighs 230 pounds. He hit .176.)
To the surprise of anybody able to recall Olivo’s first stint with the Mariners, he’s survived long enough to enjoy a respectable career as a journeyman. A 32-year-old with a strong throwing arm and an upbeat attitude, he’d be a swell backup on any team.
Except general manager Jack Zduriencik didn’t sign the free agent to a two-year, $5.75 million contract because the team needed a backup.
Olivo figures to get the brunt of the work behind the plate, which should tell you more about the challenges that await the 2011 Mariners than you probably need to know on Feb. 13.
It wasn’t all that long ago when catchers were considered an organizational strength. Jeff Clement, the third overall selection of a 2005 draft class regarded to be most comprehensively successful in the 45-year history of the amateur draft, was a future star – a left-handed hitter with light-tower power – who merely needed to grasp some of the subtle nuances of the position before accepting a full-time role on the big club.
Meanwhile, Rob Johnson and Adam Moore, both young and seemingly on a fast track to the majors themselves, provided the sort of depth that might’ve given the Mariners a coveted trading chip in the event Kenji Johjima became a mainstay.
But when Johjima’s swing suddenly and mysteriously went south, he went back to the Far East, leaving a void the kids couldn’t fill. Johnson coped with injuries, was pronounced healed, and then failed to cope with fielding and hitting. Moore’s numbers last season (.195, with four homers and 15 RBI) were slightly better than Johnson’s (.191, with two homers and 13 RBI), with an emphasis on the slight.
And Clement? He was traded to Pittsburgh in 2009, where the Pirates, having decided to scrap the catcher project, occasionally playing him at first base. (He’s back with the Bucs this spring, albeit without a spot on the 40-man roster.)
With Clement and Johnson gone, and Moore targeted as a backup, the last everyday Mariners catcher originally signed by the organization remains Dave Valle. He was drafted in 1978.
Since Olivo was first brought to Seattle as the heir to Dan Wilson, catching essentially has been a group chore. Six players made at least 10 starts behind the plate in 2005 – a record that withstood a challenge last season, when Johnson and Moore shared duties with Josh Bard and Eliezer Alfonzo.
Bard returns as a non-roster invitee, along with minor leaguers Chris Gimenez and Steve Barron, but the task of transforming the position from a revolving-door quandary into a trusted backstop belongs to Olivo.
Give him this much: He’s undaunted by his previous failures in Seattle.
“I’ve grown up a lot,” Olivo said at FanFest. “I was still young my first time here. Now I’m 32. I’ve grown up mentally and physically. Things don’t bother me so much. I’m ready.”
Olivo has some power. His 31 homers over the last two seasons put him in a tie for fifth among big-league catchers.
His 81 homers since 2006 also rank fifth.
Despite Safeco Field’s famous bias against right-handed pull hitters, it’s not unreasonable to presume Olivo finishes the season with at least 10 homers and 42 RBI – the collective output of the Mariners’ catchers in 2010.
“The best thing I do is make the pitcher feel comfortable,” said Olivo, whose 40 percent putout rate of attempted base stealers was exceeded last season by only the 44 percent of the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina. “When the pitcher has men on base, he knows I got a good chance to throw the baserunner out.
“When I was young, I didn’t think that much. Right now, when I’m catching, I think everything about the pitcher.”
If you’re not quite as sold as Zduriencik is on the premise of Olivo starting at catcher, join the crowd – the line forms on the right, and it’s long enough to circle Safeco Field 100 times. But today should belong to those who rejoice in the simple sound of “pitchers and catchers report.”
Besides, there’s a catcher reporting who insists he’s grown up mentally and physically, impervious to slumps, as ready as he’ll ever be.
He deserves your best wishes, and if you want to add prayers into the mix, go for it.
Just remember to save some for Feb. 18, the next milestone of the spring-training calendar.
When the full squad reports.