In signing free-agent catcher Chris Iannetta to a one-year deal Monday, the Mariners didn’t make the move in order to acquire a caddy for one-time franchise cornerstone Mike Zunino.
“Chris is being brought in to be our primary catcher,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We’ll see where the chips fall once we get into spring and beyond. He’s an experienced player who I feel makes us better.”
So where does that leave Zunino, a former first-round pick who spent two-plus years as the club’s starting catcher before getting a late August demotion to the minors?
“Mike comes in with an opportunity to win playing time,” Dipoto said. “A primary catcher is different from what I would consider an everyday player. There is no catcher who is going to go out and catch 162 games.
“Whether it be a time-share or a backup catcher, Mike is going to be in position to win some of that playing time. He’s still a young guy, and we need to get him back on track.”
At 32, Iannetta is coming off the worst season of his 10-year career; he batted a career-low .188 in 92 games for the Los Angeles Angels with 10 homers and 34 RBIs.
He viewed the Mariners’ offer as his best chance at redemption.
“It was an opportunity,” Iannetta said, “to get back into a situation where I could play and prove that this past year was just a down year. It’s something that obviously I’m not proud of.
“It’s an opportunity to regain some confidence and go back out there and show what I’m capable of doing.”
Iannetta’s deal calls for a $4.25 million guarantee but includes performance bonuses and club option for 2017. That club option could become a vesting option based on games started.
“Chris has had one down year in the last half-dozen,” Dipoto said. “He’s coming off what was his worst year as a major leaguer, but he otherwise (has shown) a very stable and consistent skill set.”
Iannetta has a career slash of .231/.351/.405 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 852 games.
“Chris had a terrifically poor year in terms of batting average on balls in play (BABIP),” Dipoto said, “which is usually indicative of being a bit unlucky.”
Iannetta posted a .225 BABIP last season after entering the year with a .283 career mark.
“He does have right-hand power,” Dipoto said. “He still has an excellent walk rate. Chris has always drawn deep at-bats and gets on base. Even relative to a rough year for batting average, the other numbers all stacked up.
As a result, I think Chris is a good candidate for a bounce-back season offensively.”
The Mariners cleared space for Iannetta on their 40-man roster by designating catcher John Hicks for assignment. Hicks, 26, made his major-league debut last season by going 2-for-32 in 14 games.
The move provides the club 10 days to reach a resolution on Hicks either through a trade, by releasing him or, if he clears waivers, by sending him to the minors on an outright assignment.
Iannetta pointed to a slow start as the biggest factor in his disappointing season: He was 6-for-66 in his first 22 games but batted .218 thereafter in 70 games with a .324 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging percentage.
“I was searching for a swing and timing in spring training,” he said, “and it carried over into the first five weeks of the season.
“I got too aggressive. I was trying to swing before my front foot hit the ground, and I was pulling off the ball. I think I flew out to right field more times in a month than I had in my entire career.”
Iannetta cited the opportunity to work with the Mariners’ pitching staff as a key factor in his decision. He also welcomed the chance to mentor Zunino.
“I don’t know Mike very well,” he said, “but I can definitely say that if you get better behind the plate, you’re definitely putting in a lot of time and effort in.
“Offensively, I see a lot of things that I felt when I was young in Colorado. I see a lot of similarities there. He’s going to be a really good player. It could be this year when he figures it out and takes off. It could be next year.
“It’s going to happen. He’s too talented of a player, and he works too hard for it not to happen.”
What’s next for Dipoto in his efforts to overhaul the Mariners’ roster?
“Obviously, we’re still focused on the obvious,” he said, “which is the potential of bringing Kuma back. We’ll continue to focus there.”
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is a free agent who rejected the Mariners’ qualifying offer of $15.8 million after going 9-5 with a 3.54 ERA in 20 starts. He is 47-25 and 3.17 over his four years with the Mariners.
“We’d love to have him back,” Dipoto said. “We’ll address what happens to the rotation as we go deeper into this offseason, but I don’t imagine you’ve seen the last addition in terms of starting pitching.”
Lefty James Paxton pitched seven innings Monday in a simulated game at the club’s year-round complex in Peoria, Ariz. That follows 29 1/3 innings in seven starts in the Arizona Fall League. Dipoto said Paxton will throw another seven simulated innings before returning home to begin his offseason program. ... Dipoto said second baseman Robinson Cano reached out, through his agent, to refute a report in the New York Daily News that he was unhappy in Seattle. ... Dipoto cited roster flexibility as a key factor in last Friday’s trade that brought infielder Luis Sardinas from Milwaukee for outfielder Ramon Flores. Sardinas has one option remaining; Flores is out of options.