John Buck And The Future, Today!
Today, the Mariners did something that’s virtually impossible to complain about. And by that, I don’t mean the Mariners did nothing at all, because they actually went out and got a guy. John Buck is that guy, and he’s reportedly been given a year and a million. You might’ve figured, when the Mariners picked up Humberto Quintero, that was the veteran who’d slot in as Mike Zunino’s backup, but instead that’ll be Buck, at least out of the gate. John Buck seems to be better than Humberto Quintero. John Buck seems to be better than Jesus Sucre, even though I think Sucre is kind of neat. Quintero and Sucre, now, are insurance, behind the top tandem, which is entirely unobjectionable.
On its own, this move is hardly worth any words. Buck has good power and enough negatives to make him a guy the Mariners could add for a year and a million. In no way is he going to be a surprise, and he’s close to the end of his big-league career. Buck would’ve been drawn to the Mariners in part because they were offering a big-league contract, and in part because Zunino could struggle which would leave Buck with plenty of potential playing time. The Mariners would’ve found Buck appealing because he can start if that’s what they end up needing. The evidence we have suggests that Buck is a below-average pitch-framer, and last year he was among the worst. The year before that, he was fine. Buck’s framing isn’t going to win or lose this division.
I think what’s more interesting here than Buck himself is how Buck could represent a potential Mike Zunino career path. Coincidentally, Zunino is projected by Steamer for an 85 wRC+, which matches Buck’s career total on the nose. Zunino’s still very young, and he’s still considered a top prospect, but when it comes to plotting where he goes from here, the Buck route’s a realistic one. I can’t tell if that’s pessimistic or not.
I’ve long considered Zunino’s upside to be something like Jason Varitek. That’s upside, not ceiling, because Zunino’s ceiling would be a superstar and national icon. The downside would be something more like J.P. Arencibia. Buck is kind of in the middle of those two, and he was basically a regular for an entire decade. He did some things well, and he did some things less well, and he made an All-Star Game once.
In the early going, Zunino has demonstrated that he’ll probably strike out a lot. Not because he’s hopelessly over-aggressive, like Miguel Olivo, but because there are just holes in his swing. In the majors and in Triple-A, he made contact about seven times for every ten swings. To go with the strikeouts, he’ll draw some walks, but Zunino probably won’t ever be confused for A.J. Ellis. It’s the power that should help him keep playing. Zunino doesn’t have Giancarlo Stanton’s raw strength, but there are dingers in his bat, some of them quite long, and you notice Buck has a career .167 ISO. That seems like something Zunino could achieve.
Behind the plate, Buck’s been better at blocking balls than throwing them, but his arm’s been just fine. I think the advantage Zunino might have on Buck is that he seems like a better receiver, but that still has to be proven, and then the significance of that also has to be proven. They say Zunino is pitcher-friendly, and that he has captain-like tendencies, yet Buck’s also been thought of before as a leader and we don’t know how much this stuff matters. The catching position is kind of selective for leadership types. Not in every case, but it’s among the assumed responsibilities.
Zunino turns just 23 in March, and a year ago Baseball America ranked him baseball’s 17th-best prospect. Buck was once ranked baseball’s 43rd-best prospect, and the next year he slotted in at 67th. Zunino’s definitely thought of more highly, but Buck was a significant prospect in his own right, and over the several years there have been changes in prospect evaluation. We don’t know how prospect Buck would be thought of today. Over about 4,000 big-league plate appearances, he’s hit .234/.301/.400.
One’s instinct is to think that’s too low, for Zunino. The way Zunino’s been hyped, we’re all looking for something more than a .700 OPS. But then, every catcher who hasn’t been great could’ve been great, and there are similarities between Zunino and Buck’s player profiles. Zunino might be better defensively, and that could be the great separator, but at the end of the day similar careers would be reasonable. Maybe — maybe — Buck isn’t a 50th-percentile projection, but I doubt he’s lower than 40th. Buck’s been all right, and it’s ever so hard to be more than that.
Tuesday afternoon, the Mariners signed an aging John Buck. They might well be pairing him with a younger John Buck. You, like me, would prefer that Zunino turn out to be more than that. But, we’d prefer lots of things.