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Originally published Saturday, March 17, 2012 at 4:40 PM

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Catricala showing the tools to make an impact sometime for the Mariners

Hard-hitting third baseman seems to have a bright future with Seattle

Seattle Times staff columnist

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So he should be ready to take over 3B after the Chone Figgins contract comes off the... MORE
Great insights, Jerry, into Vinnie. Here's hoping he puts it all together & the... MORE
Sooooo, the question is his glove? Whats the problem? Figgins was terrible in the fiel... MORE

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Six years ago, Vinnie Catricala was a lanky third baseman with a nice glove who drew attention mostly from Division II colleges.

Today, he's a hitting savant and one of the most promising sluggers in the Mariners organization.

You could unleash a flurry of adjectives to describe his remarkable development. Or you could listen to him detail his own story with awe.

"If you asked me my senior year of high school where I see myself in six or seven years, honestly, at the time, I wouldn't have said this," Catricala said. "This wasn't my dream. I was just playing baseball, doing the best I could. It's kind of weird, but it feels right. It feels natural. Things happen for a reason, you know."

It's kind of weird, but it wouldn't be overstated to suggest that reason is to help make the Mariners' punchless offense formidable. While Catricala is a longshot to make the 2012 opening-day roster, he has clearly positioned himself as an important part of their future.

The dude is a flat-out hitter. He was named the Mariners' minor-league player of the year in 2011 after hitting .349 with 25 homers and 106 RBI between Class A and AA. In 28 at-bats this spring, he has been impressive for a non-roster invitee, hitting .286 with two home runs.

Catricala's defense remains unpolished, but his bat is indisputable, and he's exactly the kind of player the Mariners need as they try to develop a functional offense after three miserable seasons of woeful production. With Chone Figgins and Kyle Seager also capable of playing third base, and with Alex Liddi in the mix, it's unlikely that Catricala, 23, will start the season in the majors, but he is a valued prospect. The Mariners use him as an example of both the improving health of their farm system and a potential success story about the importance of drafting in later rounds.

It's amazing that Catricala has come so far so quickly.

He left Hawaii after his junior season and was a 10th-round selection in the 2009 draft. At Hawaii, he had transformed from a slick-fielding third baseman to a power hitter.

Credit Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso for seeing Catricala's potential. He noticed the skinny third baseman from Sacramento while recruiting during a tournament in San Bernardino. Trapasso saw an athletic kid whose frame suggested he could gain 30 pounds. He believed enough in Catricala, who was a 50th-round draft choice in 2006, that he pursued him.

One problem, though: This was the summer after Catricala's senior season, and the Rainbows didn't have any scholarships left.

So he asked Catricala to walk on as a freshman and told him he could earn a scholarship the next year.

Catricala, who was considering Division II Chico State and Oral Roberts (a small Division I school), jumped at the opportunity.

"At that time, I just wanted to get out of Sacramento," he said. "So, why not go to Hawaii?"

He quickly went from unheralded recruit to impactful college player. As a freshman, he was an honorable-mention All-American. By his junior year, he was hitting for power and average.

Hawaii's Les Murakami Baseball Stadium is notoriously challenging for hitters because of its heavy air and trade winds that make it near impossible for sluggers to hit home runs to left field. But Catricala, who is now 6 feet 3 and weighs about 220 pounds, hit 13 homers as a junior (fourth most in school history), and when he started launching balls over the left-field fence at Les Murakami, Trapasso knew the kid had developed into something special.

"Some days, no matter how hard you hit it, you're not going to hit it out of there," Trapasso said. "And yet Vinnie was hitting homers out to left field."

So, he should have no problem dealing with pitcher-friendly Safeco Field then.

Catricala smiles at the thought of playing in the majors in the near future.

"Everyone says, 'You're not playing like a 10th-rounder,' " he said. "Only thing is, the draft is unpredictable, and once you're able to start playing, that's when you figure out how good you are. It's just baseball, you know."

Over the past six years, Catricala has said "It's just baseball" many times. It feels natural. His compact swing is taking him places.

He even smiles about his defensive shortcomings. In high school, he was known for his glove. Over the years, he says, he has emphasized hitting so much that he slipped. But he has the athleticism to be a good infielder, and he thinks if he can stay at his natural position, third base, he could improve greatly. While developing him, the Mariners have played him at third, in the outfield and even at first base. But Catricala said he believes he's a true third baseman, and he made a great defensive play Thursday night to flash his skills.

Still, his bat is most intriguing. In three minor-league seasons, he's hitting .322 with a .933 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

"His swing transfers to the pro game well," Trapasso said. "It's not complicated. His swing is simple and quiet. He has quiet hands, not a lot of movement. While he hits for power, he has the ability to hit to all fields. He's always in control. There's never any panic in his swing."

Combine his bat with his work ethic, and there's plenty to like about Catricala. The way he's going, he could be a key part of the Mariners within the next two years.

An afterthought in high school, Catricala is now a major part of the Mariners' youth movement. He still can't explain it, but he believes it.

"I knew I could play baseball," Catricala said. "I didn't realize I could do it at the next level. Every place I've been, my confidence has grown. I always figured I've got nothing to lose, and sometime in college, pro scouts started noticing me, and I said to myself, 'You know what? It's time to start believing.'

"It's weird how it has all shaken out. I haven't changed my approach, and it seems to be working. Now, I know I can do it."

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

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