As a group last year, the Mariners outfield ranked 20th in wOBA (.312, tied with Oakland). It wasn’t a group without power (most home runs at 84; sixth in ISO at .165), but that power came with a 22.7% strikeout rate (fifth-highest).
Most of those home runs are gone, too. Raul Ibanez hit 29 of them, and he’s with the Angels. Same with Michael Morse (13, Giants) and Jason Bay (11, idfk). That’s 53 home runs that walked out the door, with just Michael Saunders (12) and what’s left of Franklin Gutierrez (10 in just 151 PA) remaining among those with more than four round-trippers last year.
Outfield was a clear focus for the club this offseason, and in fact may still be until the Nelson Cruz situation plays out. However, it doesn’t appear that Cruz is a great fit for this unit. It isn’t that he wouldn’t likely be an upgrade on paper, but that the Mariners have too much invested — time or otherwise — in players who need to produce or risk being passed over. Primarily, Dustin Ackley and to a lesser extent the Saunders’ and Almonte’s of the world.
I consulted a pal of mine who is an Everett native and avid Mariners fan to get the lowdown here, so here’s what we came up with after about an hour-long chat:
The veteran, likely starters (if healthy, etc.)
The MLB.com depth chart for the Mariners has Hart penciled in at designated hitter, and that may be the best bet for his lower hinges coming off missing the entire 2013 season with issues in both knees. Still, general manager Jack Zduriencik insists Hart could give the team flexibility in the outfield, and in most leagues that could give him some late-round intrigue depending on position eligibility constraints. Hart was coming off three straight 25-plus home run seasons before last year, and Safeco played a bit better — though still not necessarily good — for right-handed power last year after the fences were moved in.
Morrison, like Hart, could vulture some playing time away from Justin Smoak at first while also shuttling between the outfield and designated hitter. Arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, Morrison will be looking to shake free from the rust of playing fewer than 100 big league games the past two seasons — for various reasons. Similarly, Morrison is coming off a second straight year with an OPS barely above .700, and a sub-.400 slugging percentage. Morrison isn’t without potential, as his 2010-11 showed (.259/.351/.460 in 812 PA), and it’s likely his antics wouldn’t rub a club so much the wrong way if his performance was better; the trouble is he’s a poor defender — a developing dynamic with the Mariners club — who has been ‘worth’ -0.7 WAR over the past two seasons. There are a lot of bodies in place here, but if he simply performs like he did for the pre-Miami Marlins, he should be a regular in the Emerald City.
The younger, unproven commodities
Saunders really is probably in the upper tier here, but the trouble is — while he can hit at times — that he isn’t particularly adept in center and his bat isn’t an ideal corner bat. The Condor has accrued over 1000 plate appearances over the past couple years, but one could probably argue those were leaner times for this group. He should still play more often than not, but if that’s simply 82 games played he may not be much of a fantasy asset. Keeping in mind that most of his competition is injury-prone or just not really all that good, there’s still a pretty good shot he’ll retain a regular role here. And in doing so, he’ll bring the low-end power and steal numbers that might make a decent fill-in or deep league back-end outfield guy.
Since a solid debut cup of coffee in 2011 (.273/.348/.417), Ackley has been….kind of a disaster while the Mariners have shuffled him throughout five different positions — four if you don’t count DH, though — hoping something, anything will help him deliver on his billed promise as a No. 2 overall draft pick back in 2009. In the interim, Ackley has hit .236/.304/.333 while taking flak from his manager for perhaps a too walk-happy/sabermetric approach at the plate. If that was his approach, it didn’t work as he posted the lowest walk rate of his big league career. Nevertheless, the Mariners closed the door on Ackley in the infield with the signing of Robinson Cano, leaving him to fend for himself among a mass of humanity to claim a starting job in left or center (MLB.com has him starting in left). It’s hard to know exactly what could get Ackley out of this funk. He was groundball heavy in 2013, while his breakout year in 2011 was in a year where he hit a ton of flyballs. Obviously neither are a clear path to a breakout, but one thing is certain: The Mariners are hoping he has some Alex Gordon in him.
The last time Death to Flying Things played over 100 games was 2010, and only twice has he played more than 135. Last year he appeared in 41 contest, popping 10 homers but also carrying a ghastly 43-5 K/BB ratio in just 151 plate appearances. Gutierrez has Ankylosing spondylitis, a condition which is more or less a long-term type of arthritis. As a result, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to play more than a couple days a week. Given his skillset, that may not necessarily be the worst thing as he can fill in as a part-time starter and defensive replacement, as well as provide some pop off the bench. That’d make him a non-entity in fantasy, however.
Almonte is a dark horse in the sense that there are a lot of bodies here and he doesn’t have A. a big contract to justify or B. any sort of pressing issues regarding option years or the like. As a result, he’ll likely be shipped out to Tacoma to be at the ready as soon as the Mariners need a guy who can play a little bit all across the board. Almonte has some speed (202 minor league SB in 8 seasons), and can be at least a part-timer out in center when the time is right. Will that happen in Seattle? Time will tell, as he’ll probably have to leapfrog Saunders and Ackley.
Willie Ballgame just gives the Mariners some far end of the bench depth in case the team needs a late-inning pinch runner or someone to stand in the outfield. He’s actually managed to be somewhere near OK with the bat the past two years in Arizona (.307/.336/.389), but at 36 seems like a decent bet to decline.
The pal out in Washington simply suggested that the M’s could toss Franklin an outfield glove and try run him out there in left field just to get him some playing time. This would be akin to the Dodgers and Dee Gordon in last week’s post. Don’t count on it, but it could happen on a very offhand chance.
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