Coming into the 2012-13 offseason, the Seattle Mariners had one absolute mandate: improve an offense which had finished last in the American League in runs scored in each of the last four seasons. But after striking out on Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, and every other offensive free agent with a pulse (unless they become the unlikely landing spot for Michael Bourn), this is the sum total of the new bats Seattle has been able to add so far this winter: Robert Andino, Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, & Kendrys Morales.
Setting aside Andino for the moment, the trio of Bay / Ibanez / Morales would have been a fantastic group to have in 2009, when all three had career years, each hitting 34 or more homers with a wOBA at .378 or higher. Unfortunately for Seattle, it’s 2013, not 2009, and all three have fallen off markedly over the last few years due to age, injury, or both. While you can make an argument for taking a chance on any of the three, compounding the situation of collecting the entire set is that designated hitter is arguably the best position for each of them. That’s going to be complicated on a Seattle roster which already has two catchers who are around more for their bats than their gloves in Jesus Montero & John Jaso, a first baseman who hits like a middle infielder in Justin Smoak, and out-of-options 1B/DH Mike Carp.
So to say that there’s a logjam in the Pacific Northwest at catcher, first base, designated hitter, and left field might be somewhat of an understatement, and that’s without even considering additional returning outfielders in the mix like Michael Saunders, Eric Thames, & Casper Wells. In some cases, it’s not as complicated as it seems, because Jaso, who was by far the best Seattle hitter in 2012, & Morales, who had a .339 wOBA last year, good enough for middle-of-the-pack when it comes to first basemen, are going to get their at-bats if they’re healthy. The same goes for Montero, even coming off a disappointing season, simply because of the offensive potential he still possesses.
Right there, you may have most of a designated hitter spoken for, and that immediately causes problems for those on the fringes of the roster — Bay, Carp, Ibanez, & Smoak. Morales figures to split his time between first base & designated hitter, and despite the insistence from the Mariners that Montero is still a catcher, it’s difficult to see them not acquiring a defense-oriented catcher – like last year’s Miguel Olivo, except not Miguel Olivo – in order to allow Montero to spend at least part of his time at DH. Considering the lefty Morales’ sizable platoon splits, having the righty Montero penciled in as DH against lefties who would give Morales fits would seem to be ideal, and Jaso at DH with Morales at first against righty pitching is an appealing option as well.
Throw in Ibanez, who turns 41 in June and was never a great outfielder even in his youth, and that gets even more crowded. The Mariners can say that they’re willing to use him in both outfield corners as well as first base, but you’ll excuse me if I’m not taking that too seriously; Ibanez hasn’t started a game at first base since 2005, and it’s not like the team is lacking for options there. While he’ll see some time in the outfield, it’s likely to be limited not only because of the roster logjam, but because of the likelihood that he’ll give back any value he might provide on offense out there. As another lefty with sizable platoon splits – dig that .812/.492 from last year – he’s somewhat redundant on the roster, unless he suddenly hits so well that he forces his way into enough playing time at DH that he shifts Morales to more duty at first base. His OBP hasn’t been above .308 in either of the last two seasons despite playing in two hitter-friendly parks; a rebound seems unlikely here.
Where Morales spends the most of his time largely depends on the performance of Smoak, who is easily the biggest domino here. In two-plus seasons with the Mariners, the prize of the Cliff Lee deal has been a massive disappointment, bottoming out in 2012 with a paltry .288 wOBA. And yet… Smoak only just turned 26, and he finished the season on an absurd hot streak, compiling a .428 wOBA in September. I know, I know – 101 plate appearances after two years of awful is hardly enough of a sample size, but for a team like the Mariners, it’s hard to see him on the September leaderboard alongside names like Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey, & Prince Fielder, and not allow yourself to dream just a little that he’s turned it around. (It doesn’t hurt that there’s at least something of a tangible reason to point to, given that he changed to a lighter bat just before the hot streak began.)
If Smoak can become even an average hitter, then that changes the equation here. As a switch-hitter who is regarded as a good fielder, he’d clearly be in line for a considerable amount of first base playing time, which would push Morales more towards DH and Ibanez to the bench or the outfield. If not, well, he still has an option left so he could conceivably return to Triple-A, though that seems unlikely barring a terrible spring.
No matter how that plays out, Carp looks all but sure to be the odd man out, because as a lefty with heavy platoon splits – and one coming off a poor year, at that – he’s squarely behind Ibanez, Morales, & Jaso on the depth chart in that department. It’s hard to see him getting at-bats ahead of any of those three against righty pitching, and he really shouldn’t be playing against lefties, so without options he may have seen the end of his time in Seattle.
As for Bay, he may find himself in the most intriguing position of all among this group. As a righty, he avoids the lefty logjam that the others are fighting against, and as a local product there’s some small amount of fan goodwill supporting him. That said, he’s arguably the worst player of everyone we’ve discussed – yes, including Carp – and he’s coming off a season so awful that he had to look longingly at the stat lines of Dee Gordon & Brendan Ryan, among others. That’s one way of saying how bad he was last year, and here’s another: his OBP of .237 was quite a bit worse than the .261 of Chone Figgins, and the Mariners ate the last year of Figgins’ deal just to be rid of him.
That’s not to say that the Bay gamble was a poor one, because it’s worth a low-cost risk, just that his road to a roster spot seems to be the most uphill, given that Wells can actually play some defense, Saunders will need time in the corners if Franklin Gutierrez is healthy, and that DH plate appearances will be difficult to come by. The best hope for Bay would be if Montero could claim the starting catching job and leave a hole open for Bay to be the righty half of a DH platoon, but that of course requires that a young player who didn’t hit last year and can’t really catch suddenly finds it all at once.
As you can tell, the many moving parts here lead to dozens of possible permutations for playing time in Seattle, and that’s still likely to change even further as the club may not be done dealing. For now, Morales seems like the best bet, since he’s coming off a decent season, has the easiest path to playing time, and shouldn’t be hurt too much by the soon-to-be-smaller Safeco Field. I’m bullish on Smoak, enough to grab him in the late rounds of deeper leagues, and wouldn’t even think about Ibanez, Carp, or Bay until forced to otherwise.