OAKLAND — At first glance, the latest Mariners roster move might seem the most peculiar of a slew of rosters moves the team has made in the last week.
On Friday, general manager Jack Zduriencik announced that the team had signed veteran free-agent catcher Henry Blanco to a one-year contract and designated backup catcher Kelly Shoppach for assignment.
It seemed like an odd move considering the Mariners jettisoned a 33-year-old backup catcher, who has been with them since spring training, for a 41-year-old backup catcher, who was released by the Blue Jays on Tuesday.
But the move was based on the decision to call up talented catching prodigy Mike Zunino and make him the everyday catcher. By doing that, the Mariners were looking for a backup that could offer guidance and serve as mentor to their prized prospect.
Enter Blanco and his many years of experience.
“We had him targeted over the winter and weren’t able to get it done, so when he became available we were immediately interested,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “His character is impeccable. He’s experienced everything in the game. We felt like if there’s someone to work alongside Zunino there’s nobody better at that position.”
Few managers argue about Blanco’s commitment to the game and his reputation for being an outstanding player and clubhouse presence. He’s played for 16 seasons with 10 different teams.
“You hear nothing but good things about him,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s one of the few guys who is actually a leader that doesn’t play everyday. He’s a great clubhouse guy, and pitchers love to throw to him.”
With the future being now for Zunino, the Mariners are trying to do what they can to make sure his development is aided. Blanco fit that role better than Shoppach.
“It’s more about Blanco and him being available and us jumping on that opportunity,” Wedge said. “Just so much more experience, the leadership skills, the mentor skills, just the experience in that role and where he’s at in his life on and off the field. He’s very impressive.”
Blanco understands what his role is supposed to be and embraces it.
It’s what the Mariners wanted him to do when they tried to sign him in the offseason, but he opted to sign with the Blue Jays instead.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “We stopped the conversation for some reason. But obviously it was meant for me to be here. That’s the most important thing is now I’m here. I’m willing to do anything to help this team.”
That includes playing sparingly and being a shoulder for Zunino to lean on.
“You have to understand your role I’m going to play a big role on the bench and that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said.
What will he do for Zunino?
“Make him comfortable — he belongs here. Help him work with his pitching staff. Whatever he needs, I will be here for him,” Blanco said.
Shoppach was hitting.196 with three home runs, nine RBI in 35 games, including 32 starts. His numbers had tailed off significantly after taking over the starting duties from Jesus Montero. He had eight hits in his last 60 at-bats (.133) with two homers, while striking out 28 times.
Wilhelmsen gets a break from closing duties
Wedge said there would be a discussion about Tom Wilhelmsen’s immediate future as the team’s closer, following Wednesday’s ghastly 6-1 loss to the Astros. In that loss, Wilhelmsen blew is fourth save of the season — all within the last month.
The discussion led to a decision — Wilhelmsen will get a break from those duties.
“We are going to pull him back a little bit with every intention of getting him back to the closer’s role,” Wedge said. “We are going to give him a break here and let him pitch a few times in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, see how it plays, maybe give him some multiple inning opportunities.”
The numbers are bad for Wilhelmsen. Starting with his blown save at Cleveland where he dropped the final out of the game while covering first base, he’s posted a 9.28 ERA with 11 hits and 10 walks in 11 appearances and 102/3 innings pitched.
Wedge isn’t going to go with an interim closer.
“We’ll just matchup late,” Wedge said. “We’ll do the best we can with the people down there. We’re not going to put it one guy, nobody’s ready for that yet.”
It will force Wedge to make some changes how he uses the bullpen.
“One of the tough things you have about doing it this way is that you have to have potentially multiple guys ready for you in the ninth inning,” Wedge said. “So you can’t use one or all of them earlier. It’s going to be a little tougher to bridge that gap.”
Wilhelmsen met with pitching coach Carl Willis and was informed of the decision.
“It was a good talk,” Wedge said. “It’s just a bump in the road. His stuff and the intangibles are all right there. We just have to get him back on line and he’ll be back in the closer’s role.”