Johjima anchors deep catching corps

Johjima anchors catching corps

The start of Spring Training is just around the corner. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13 and have their first workout on Feb. 14. The first full-squad workout at the Peoria Sports Complex will be Feb. 18. Leading up to camp, MLB.com will take a closer look at the 2009 team, position-by-position. First up: Catching.

The final month of last season did more for Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima than just help him regain some of the confidence lost during the most difficult campaign of his professional career.

His .333 batting average, two home runs and 13 RBIs -- along with throwing out eight of the 18 runners attempting to steal against him -- in September restored his status as the main man behind home plate.

"I am going in with the idea that Johjima gets first crack at the starting job," first-year manager Don Wakamatsu said. "We're not locked into any one guy, but I have seen him be real good."

Haven't we all.

Johjima's first two seasons with the Mariners were solid. He batted a combined .289, smacked 32 home runs, drove in 137 runs, and improved on defense. His overhand throws became stronger, as did his rapport with the pitching staff.

There even was talk of him being on the verge of landing a spot on the American League All-Star team.

Now the talk is about the 32-year-old being a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.

A controversial three-year, $24 million contract extension Johjima signed last April kicks in this season, and he seems determined to prove the organization made a wise investment.

He already has taken the first step in that direction.

Only a few days after being named to Team Japan's provisional roster for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, Johjima worked it out so he could spend three days at the Peoria Sports Complex before pitchers and catchers report. He is under no obligation to join the Mariners in Spring Training until after the Japan team is finished with the event.

Johjima plans to travel from his offseason home, in Sasebo, Japan, to Arizona and meet Wakamatsu and the coaching staff for the first time on Feb. 10. After three days of talks and workouts, Johjima will return to Japan and join the remainder of the players who will compete for the 28 roster spots on Japan's defending-champion Classic team.

Hot Stove

"He really made the commitment himself to come over," Wakamatsu said. "He didn't have to do that, but he is about as motivated as anyone I have talked to."

Considering the depth and competition at the catching position, it probably behooves Johjima to go the extra mile (or more) to show that he's serious about reclaiming his first-string status. As is, he could miss up to three weeks of Spring Training because of the Classic, which runs from March 5-23, and that gives his younger rivals more innings of work during the early and middle stages of the Cactus League schedule.

During Johjima's absence, the catching duties will be handled by the other receivers invited to camp -- Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson, Jamie Burke, Adam Moore and Luis Oliveros. Clement and Johnson are the only ones currently on the 40-man roster.

"I'm real happy with our depth at catcher," Wakamatsu said. "We'll find out what the quality is when we get our hands on them in Spring Training."

Clement, a left-handed batter, figures to be on the 25-man Opening Day roster, either as a catcher or the designated hitter. The Mariners' first-round Draft choice (third overall) in 2005 has one of the best swings in the organization, and the club is hoping for a breakout season from the 25-year-old, who had surgery on his left knee last September to repair a torn meniscus.

"The knee feels great," Clement said. "I have been working with a physical therapist and am making steady progress. I haven't had any setbacks and now it's a matter of getting back into catching shape."

Clement, who batted .335 with 14 home runs and 43 RBIs in 48 games with Triple-A Tacoma last season -- but only .227 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 66 games with the Mariners -- said he prefers catching regularly because it helps his offense.

He went 8-for-72 (.111) with no home runs and two RBIs last season as the DH, compared to 34-for-129 (.264) with five home runs and 21 RBIs when he started games at catcher.

Johnson, 25, is regarded as a better defensive player than Clement, but remains a work in progress on offense. He had a superb season at Tacoma last season, batting .305 with nine home runs and 49 RBIs, but wobbled at the big league level, going 4-for-31 in 14 games with the Mariners.

Burke returns for a third season with Seattle, but his status is uncertain.

The Mariners kept the 37-year-old journeyman off the salary arbitration-eligible list by not offering him a contract for '09, but then signed him to a Minor League contract that included an invitation to camp. He provided backup help the past two seasons and worked well with the pitching staff. So well, in fact, that left-hander Erik Bedard requested that Burke become his personal catcher.

The request was granted.

Moore, the organization's best overall catching prospect, will get a good, long look this spring, but he more than likely will start the regular season in the Minor Leagues.

"I have heard good things about Adam Moore," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "He has come and come pretty quick. Is it possible he could be here sometime this year? There's a shot. But looking at next year or so? Yes. We think this guy has a chance to be a good, everyday Major League catcher."

Moore was an outstanding everyday Minor League catcher in 2008 with Double-A West Tennessee. He batted .319, hit 14 home runs, drove in 71 runs, was selected as the team's Most Valuable Player and named to the Southern League All-Star team.

He was supposed to end the season in the Arizona Fall League, but fractured his left thumb in the final playoff game of the Minor League season.

The Mariners carried three catchers most of last season, but Wakamatsu said it's still too early to determine how many receivers will be on the Opening Day roster.

"There are a lot of issues we have to sort out in Spring Training," he said. "And in talking to Jack and the coaching staff, we want to create an environment that allows everyone to show us what they've got."

Next: Corner infielders.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.