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SEA Mariners Infield: Depth Chart Discussions

The Seattle Mariners came into the 2012 season with plenty of hype surrounding their young hitters. Dustin Ackley was poised to improve on his .337 wOBA as a rookie in 2011, and Jesus Montero was considered a can’t-miss bat who was going to try and play catcher. Kyle Seager also took over third base on a full-time basis, and Justin Smoak was finally going to realize his potential at the plate.

Many fantasy owners jumped on the bandwagon, but the wagon seemingly broke down early in the season and was unable to recover. As a team, the Mariners compiled a league-worst .291 wOBA and scored the least amount of runs in the American League with 619. In fact, the next-closest American League team in runs was the Cleveland Indians, who outscored the Mariners by 48 runs on the season.

That’s not to say owners were foolish for jumping on the bandwagon. Many promising, young position players struggle to make the transition to the big leagues, and one lousy season does not define a young player’s development. Not to mention, in Ackley’s case, he not only had to deal with opposing teams having ample time and video to adjust to his various strengths and weaknesses, but he also added a painful bone spur in his left ankle to the equation.

The depth chart is murky, though, because the Mariners have several infield prospects rising up the system who enjoyed significant success last season. There are no blatant playing-time battles this spring, but if anyone spins their wheels coming out of the gate once again, the organization could look to explore other young, internal options.

At shortstop, Brendan Ryan has not been relevant in fantasy circles since his 2009 season with the Cardinals. Last year, however, his struggles at the plate reached a new low. He posted a .252 wOBA and failed to clear the Mendoza Line. Going forward, the only fantasy category in which Ryan provides any value is stolen bases. He swiped double-digit bases for the fourth-consecutive season in 2012, but his historical putrid production in other categories essentially negates the potential stolen bases for fantasy owners. Despite those dreadful offensive numbers, Ryan projects to see the majority of playing time at shortstop due to his elite defense, as he still was worth almost two wins last year.

If Ryan slogs into the summer with a .250-ish wOBA, however, the Mariners could look for different options to help jumpstart their woeful offense — even if that means pulling the plug on a plus-plus defender at shortstop.

Brad Miller turned 23 years old over the offseason and is coming off a .320/.406/.476 slash line in Double-A last year. The former second-round draft pick showed a healthy walk rate and moderate pop, and his Oliver projections has him sitting at a .317 wOBA with double-digit home runs. Our own Mike Newman said earlier this offseason that Miller could be a three-win player down the road. The organization could opt to give the young man a shot if Ryan cannot become at least respectable with the bat — and don’t forget 23-year-old Carlos Triunfel is still kicking around in Triple-A.

At second base, Dustin Ackley will almost assuredly begin the season as the everyday option. The Mariners also have prospects Nick Franklin and Stefen Romero, who both crushed the baseball in Double-A and could be knocking at the big-league door this year. Franklin hit .322/.394/.502 and compiled a .408 wOBA with the Jackson Generals — though he admittedly struggled upon getting promoted to Triple-A — while Romero dominated with a .347/.392/.620 slash line and a .449 wOBA. It’s more likely that Franklin first pushes for playing time in Seattle, though either player could legitimately end the season in Seattle if the the organization becomes desperate for better bats.

It seems unlikely that Ackley will be pushed out of a starting role. He’s only one season removed from hitting .303/.421/.487 in Triple-A and some of his substantial downturn in 2012 can be attributed to a vicious 74-point drop in BABIP. If the organization wishes to make room for Franklin or Romero, though, it could come at the expense of Justin Smoak. The 26-year-old first baseman was once ranked 13th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2010 season, but he has underperformed in Seattle and the Mariners can only wait so long before making a switch. His .288 wOBA was the worst among all qualified first basemen and it’s never eclipsed .317 in any of his three full seasons in the majors. If Franklin or Romero press for playing time, the Mariners could transition Ackley to first base and move Smoak to the bench.

Finally, we come to Jesus Montero. He came to Seattle in the Michael Pineda trade and was thought to be one of the best position prospects in baseball. While he did launch 15 home runs last year — certainly valuable for a catcher — he failed to post an OBP over .300 and only carried a .295 wOBA. The fantasy season ended with Montero ranking as the 14th-best fantasy catcher. Overall, it was an underwhelming full-season debut for the 23-year-old catcher.

Things could quickly get complicated behind the dish for the Mariners. Montero isn’t thought of as a good defender, and the Mariners selected Mike Zunino with the third pick of the 2012 Draft. He made a brief stop in Low-A before immediately transitioning to Double-A, where he hit .333/.386/.588 and posted a .430 wOBA. Some believe he will be the first prospect to reach the big leagues in Seattle once the season begins.

What does it mean for Montero if Zunino charges through Triple-A and competes for playing time at catcher? Unless something dramatic happens, Montero isn’t going to miss a significant amount of at-bats, but it’s unclear as to where they may come. Although Kendrys Morales is expected to be the everyday designated hitter — manager Eric Wedge said as much this spring — it seems possible that Montero could steal some at-bats there. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll transition to first base in any official capacity.

At third base, Kyle Seager appears to have a full-time gig lined up without much competition. He was the only Seattle Mariner who hit at least 20 home runs and ultimately had the second-highest wOBA (.321) on the team, behind only the recently-departed John Jaso. That doesn’t mean he’s terribly valuable for fantasy owners, however, as he was only ranked the 14th-best fantasy third baseman in the league. The good news, however, is that he’s a good bet for 600 plate appearances for the second year in a row. Utility fielder Alex Liddi could see some time at third, but it currently doesn’t project to be anything fantasy owners should lose sleep over.

Overall, Seattle’s depth chart is interesting because it features sure-starters at every infield position, yet a handful of promising prospects appear to be waiting in the wings for an opportunity at the big league level should the starters falter. Luckily, for fantasy owners, none of the Mariners’ infield players project to be early-round selections on draft day, so the potential for turnover shouldn’t threaten to tear rosters apart in any significant way.

Early Depth Chart

Catcher:  Jesus Montero / Kelly Shoppach / Mike Zunino
First Base:  Justin Smoak / Kendrys Morales / Michael Morse
Second Base:  Dustin Ackley / Robert Andino / Nick Franklin
Shortstop:  Brendan Ryan / Robert Andino / Carlos Triunfel / Brad Miller
Third Base:  Kyle Seager / Alex Liddi / Robert Andino
Designated Hitter:  Kendrys Morales / Jesus Montero / Michael Morse