Miguel Olivo doesn’t fit the plan, does he?

Dec 9, 2010, 11:43 PM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:52 pm

By Mike Salk

The Mariners are rebuilding, right? At least that’s what they have led us to believe. The clues are all there. I laid them out earlier in the week and I haven’t spoken to anyone in the organization that disagrees. This is the year when they find out for sure whether the young guys are going to be building blocks or if they need to be replaced next year when the team has more financial flexibility. Then need some veterans to help the young guys grow, which is why it makes sense to sign Jack Cust to a low-cost, one year deal. The plan makes sense…until you factor in their latest move.Miguel Olivo

Why sign Miguel Olivo (right) to a two year contract and pay him starting catcher money?

Like most deals, this one has some upside and some risk. It has the potential to make the Mariners better in both the short and long term. On the other hand, it could also stunt the much needed growth at a vital position.

Let’s try to take an objective look.

The positives:

– The Mariners have two young catchers that have yet to find their game in the majors. Miguel Olivo right now is a better player than anyone in their system. He is a better hitter (even at Safeco) than any reasonable projection for Adam Moore or Rob Johnson in 2011. He has proven power and has succeeded in a few different ballparks – not just in Colorado as some have suggested.

– Despite some of my reservations about this deal, I actually don’t have a HUGE problem with Miguel Olivo as a player. He has a decent bat and is no longer the same kid who once struggled at Safeco. People who know him say he is a tremendous teammate – a legitimate tough guy who will help police the clubhouse. In light of his recent comments, I think it’s safe to say that Jack Zduriencik didn’t think his team was tough enough last year. Olivo will add some of that grit and could help police a clubhouse.

– While rebuilding may be the goal, the team still needs to win games so fans don’t turn completely against them. If Jack Zduriencik can’t put a team on the field that at least captures the interest of a few fans, he may not be around long enough to see if Moore develops into the player some think he could be. Furthermore, neither Moore nor Johnson has been able to stay healthy through an entire season. I don’t think anyone enjoyed watching the parade of nobodies who backstopped the M’s last year.

If it turns out that Moore (or Johnson) beats out Olivo for the starting gig or plays well enough in limited time to warrant more playing time, there is always the chance they could trade Olivo, either by July 31st or next off-season. The contract is not onerous for a catcher, especially considering the dearth of quality players at the position.

The Negatives:

– The Mariners are rebuilding. Whether they say publicly it or not, they understand their position. If the stated goal is to find out whether the younger players can play in the big leagues, then they have to, you know, do that. Adam Moore (and to a lesser extent Rob Johnson, who has never been truly healthy in the big leagues) need an opportunity to play every day.

Mariners catching coordinator Roger Hansen told me that the starting catching job will be a battle in spring training. “I want them both to think it’s their job,” he said. “Adam has to prove himself and if he doesn’t hit, it will be Olivo’s job every day. But we are not giving up on Adam at all. If he takes off, he has to play every day.”

I’m not doubting Hansen’s sincerity, but I find it hard to believe that a catcher making Olivo’s salary won’t get every chance win the job. I spoke with multiple players on Thursday that agreed.

“Yeah,” acknowledged one veteran. “When you get paid, you often play.”

Hansen also told me that Johnson would likely be the odd man out at first – that he expected him to start in Tacoma and be ready to fill in. Johnson has one more year of options left, meaning the team can bring him up and send him down at will.

Moore is really the key to this. He is the catcher with the highest upside. He has only 242 major league plate appearances over the course of the 66 games he has played in. Yes, you read that right. 66 games. He has played roughly 40% of one full season. How can they make a determination on his long term success when he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to try?

While Moore is 26 years old, we know that catchers tend to take time to develop (just ask Olivo, who had his breakout offensive season at 30). And he has never had the chance to hit in a legitimate lineup.

He looked better at the end of last year when he hit nearly .370 with power over the last three weeks. Those numbers looked much closer to what he had accomplished in the minors. I also know that he has been in Arizona for the last month and is one of a small group of players at the team facility there every day working aggressively physically in on their conditioning program and hitting. I think he has some of the skills to be a solid major leaguer – but he has to prove it this year and he needs playing time to do it.

– Olivo really isn’t a great fit at Safeco. Yes, he has some pop, but he is a right-handed pull hitter who I have heard compared to Jose Lopez. That’s not a road I’m excited to travel down. He also is known as a bit of a butcher with the glove. For those who were bothered by the passed balls last year, Olivo has led his league in that category four times in his career. I wonder how that number will change when he has to handle Felix Hernandez every fifth day!

So, what do you think now?

I’m still not sold on this move. While I see where the team is coming from, I think they could have accomplished many of the same goals with a one-year contract for a Greg Zaun or another veteran. I worry that they are blocking their youth with a short term fix. I wouldn’t have signed any veteran catcher for mutliple years unless I was giving up on Moore and I don’t think you can make that determination about him just yet.

Time will tell.

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Miguel Olivo doesn’t fit the plan, does he?