PEORIA, Ariz. — Don Wakamatsu had read the glowing reports and heard the superlatives about Adam Moore, a 25-year-old who many consider the catching future of the Seattle Mariners.
But when Wakamatsu began his first spring training as the Mariners’ manager last year, he realized how far from major-league ready Moore really was.
“When he came here in the spring, he was real reserved and wasn’t authoritative, didn’t have much presence — all the things I was looking for that would tell me he’s ready,” Wakamatsu said.
Even this year at spring training, after Moore had proven himself at Class AAA Tacoma and again with six September starts with the Mariners in 2009, he made Wakamatsu wonder if his natural ability wouldn’t always be undermined by the lack of take-charge mentality that the Mariners demand of their catchers.
“The very first game that Adam caught here this spring, I told him, ‘It looked like you were in a bubble. All you were worried about was not making a mistake,’” Wakamatsu said. “I didn’t see any of what I call engagement with the pitcher.”
It reminded Wakamatsu of a conversation he had in 2001 with another 25-year-old catcher in the Angels’ organization — Benji Molina.
“Benji was so quiet, and I asked, ‘Hey, when are you going to lead this staff?’” Wakamatsu said. “He said, ‘I don’t have a right to do that. I’ve only got two years in.’ Well, in 2002, we won a World Series. He came out of his shell.”
And, since Wakamatsu’s challenge early this month, so has Moore.
With No. 1 catcher Rob Johnson being brought along slowly after offseason surgery to both hips (Johnson will start his first game today), Moore has gotten most of the playing time. He has impressed everyone with his physical tools — he fielded two bunts in front of the plate in a game last week and made throws that first baseman Casey Kotchman said were the hardest-thrown balls he’s ever caught. And he’s batting .444 this month, although defense is what will dictate the Mariners’ roster decisions.
Most important, Moore is showing the leadership that Wakamatsu demands.
“There are certain situations, runner at first and second with nobody out or one out, where there’s a possible double steal, and 10 times out of 10 the catcher will look over and the manager will put the sign on,” Wakamatsu said. “We’re challenging these guys to put the sign on themselves, and twice the other day he put it on. That’s growth.
“Fast-forward five years from now, you’ve got a major league catcher, a Carlton Fisk-type who’s running everything and not worried about what the manager says. The downfall in our game is that it’s not about how smart I am as a manager, it’s how much I can make this guy be smarter than me because that’s going to help me win.”
Moore, who started his pro career with the Everett AquaSox after the Mariners picked him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft, says he’s ready for the big leagues.
His six starts last September, including his major league debut on Sept. 17 when he caught every pitch of a 14-inning game against the White Sox, convinced him he can play at this level.
“Once I got the opportunity and got the six games in, I knew I could compete at the top level and have all the confidence in the world,” Moore said.
There were times during Moore’s climb through the minor leagues when he thought he was ready for the next level. He might have been, except he always fell behind Johnson and Jeff Clement in the organization’s logjam of young catchers.
“It did hold him back a little bit, but he was on his own course,” said Mariners catching coordinator Roger Hansen, who has worked with Moore since his first day in Everett. “If he was ready to take that extra step, he would have. But you can look at it the other way, too. With all that catching, it might have helped him mature a little bit more because he wasn’t being pushed that other direction like Jeff and Rob were.”
Moore often wondered if he’d ever get a chance.
Besides Johnson and Clement ahead of him in the minor leagues, Kenji Johjima signed a contract extension in 2008 that would keep him with the Mariners through 2011.
“It crossed my mind that I might never get a chance, no doubt about it,” Moore said. “Especially last year when I got sent down to Double-A to start the year. But once it set in and I was back there, I had to focus on what I had to do, and that was to develop myself and get better each and every day.”
Moore climbed all the way to the big leagues by the end of the season.
Clement, battling knee problems, was moved to a first base/DH role at Class AAA Tacoma, clearing the way for Moore. While he starred in Triple-A, things started to open up at the big-league level. Johjima struggled to connect with the pitching staff and as a hitter, and by midseason he’d lost much of his playing time to Johnson.
The Mariners considered calling up Moore in July but Hansen told general manager Jack Zduriencik that he needed more time at Tacoma.
“Adam was disappointed at having to go to Double-A to start the year, but he handled it extremely well,” Hansen said. “He was really good when he left there, and when he got to Triple-A you really started to see that change in how he handled the older guys there.
“I remember Jack called and asked, ‘What do you think about bringing Adam up at this point?’ We said, ‘No, he’s not ready. I wouldn’t take him right now, we might set him backward.’ It was a month, month and a half later when we told Jack, ‘He’s ready now. If you need him, he’s ready to handle that situation.’”
What made Moore ready?
“There was that turning point that you never know when it’s going to come with each guy,” Hansen said. “He took that step across the line from being a boy to being a man in how he was in control. Adam Moore was in control and that’s when we knew he was ready to go.”
Not long after the season, Johjima decided to forgo the final two years on his contract and return to Japan. That left Johnson, with those bad hips, and Moore as the prime catching options. The Mariners signed veteran Josh Bard to a minor league contract and brought him to spring training, but he has gotten little playing time compared with Moore.
The issue now is what role will be best for Moore.
Can he back up Johnson and expect to develop with twice-a-week playing time, or would he be served better with every-day duty back at Tacoma?
Or should there be a 50-50 split between Moore and Johnson? Wakamatsu isn’t afraid to go into the season with two young catchers sharing time, much the way Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis did last year with the Anaheim Angels.
“He needs to play and he needs to learn the league and the hitters. He needs to play at least split time,” Hansen said. “But he’s tough enough and strong enough that if he stays with what he’s doing, he can handle any of those situations.”
There’s no doubt in Moore’s mind that he can play in the big leagues.
“Those six games last year, it was a very short string but I went out there and told myself that I have all the confidence in myself, getting pitchers through nine innings and gaining the trust throughout the clubhouse,” he said. “My first game I was nervous, but I felt comfortable and I felt like I belonged.
“Now, I feel like I’m ready for that step to get in there on opening day.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog