With Michael Saunders gone, what may come next.

Yesterday (Dec. 3rd) at noon the Mariners had a lot to cheer.  They had a ceremony to celebrate the $100 million contract extension for Kyle Seager. That was 48 hours after getting their coveted right-handed slugger, Nelson Cruz, presumably to fill the barren designated hitter role. Yesterday at noon the Mariners had few needs.  Some pitching depth and legitimate fourth outfielder was all that was needed.

But yesterday they dealt away Michael Saunders, their best outfielder, for a pitcher who may or may not break into their starting five. Presumably this is to pave the way for a highly desired right-handed outfielder with thump to balance out the M’s lineup.

I’ve already expressed my views on Saunders.  Defensive metrics show him to be an above average defender.  Last year’s offensive statistics were the best of his career.  Saunders offered a mix of power and speed and, assuming good health, he was an ideal player for Safeco Field.  Kick in the fact that his arbitration value is projected at about $3.5 million and he’s an affordable option.  The only question is his health.

At this point the M’s are now forced to find two outfielders.  They’ve been linked to every big name in the baseball. the ones that continue to occur are Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Melky Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes.  Even some little ones, like Jonny Gomes. These guys all have two things in common.  The first is they are all right-handed.  The second is they are all poor defenders.

  • Matt Kemp was a UZR/150 -40.3 in lf, -33.8 in CF, and -25,8 in right field. That’s the trifecta of terrible defense.
  • Justin Upton was better with a UZR/150 of -1.1 in left field.  However, Upton’s numbers in right field in 2012-13 were less good at -2.9 and -5.2 respectively.
  • Melky Cabrera was also below average.  His UZR/150 was a -4.8 in LF for the Jays in 2014 after a -14.8 the previous year.
  • Yoenis Cespedes finished the year with a UZR of an excellent 11.4, but mostly on the strength of his powerful, accurate arm.  His range factor was below average at -2.1. His range historically has been poor.
  • Jonny Gomes primarily played LF for the Red Sox in 2014, and performed historically with a -13.8 rating.

Bad defense isn’t just, “Aw, gee I dropped the ball.” It’s limited range, balls not caught and innings extended. We saw how different last year’s pitching staff was from 2013 with a defense that was about average.

Perhaps it’s worth it to trade a little defense for power .  Tony Blengino, a former statistician in the Mariners front office thinks right-handed power is overrated in Safeco Field. Writing in response to the signing of Nelson Cruz, Blengino asserts Safeco Field remains the most offense suppressing ballpark in the major leagues despite moving the fences for the 2013 season.  It is particularly acute for right-handers.

It’s that outlier, way over there; the only park to have single, double, triple and homer park factors all below 100 last season. Only Safeco and Turner Field had double and homer park factors below 90; Turner’s singles park factor of 108, the highest in the game, was a mitigating factor in Atlanta’s park effects. Unlike every other park in baseball, there is simply no area of vulnerability at Safeco . . .

Each of the previously mentioned candidates has some additional concerns attached to them.

  • 2014 was Kemp’s first healthy year since 2011. Though his 25 home run and .287/.346/.506 slash line are intriguing, his 145 strikeouts (especially combined with Cruz’s 140) are not. Kemp is owed more than $100 million remaining on the five years left on his contract.  He has not hit in the American League.  It will likely take a trade of Taijuan Walker to get him.
  • Justin Upton hit .29 home runs with a .270/.342/.491 slash line. Upton struck out 171 times. I can feel the wind in Puyallup. Like Kemp, Upton has not played in the AL, and he has less time to figure it out with only one year left on his $14.5 million deal. Like Kemp, it would likely take Walker to pry him loose from Atlanta.
  • Melky Cabrera is a switch hitter with a minor split discrepancy favoring his right side.  Hie hit 16 home runs with a .301/.351/.458 slash.  Cabrera is a free agent and received a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays.  If Cabrera signs with the Mariners the team will lose its second round draft pick, having already used its first round pick to sign Cruz. Steve Adams at MLBTradeRumors projected Cabrera to sign for five years $66.2 million.
  • Yoenis Cespedes hit 22 home runs in 2014 and demonstrated his considerable power by winning the All-Star Home Run Derby for the second straight year.  His slash line is .260/.301/.450.  On base percentage is a problem, and his BB% of 5.4 contrasts with his K% of 19.8. Cespedes is a free agent at the end of 2015.  The Red Sox have asked for pitching and Hisashi Iwakuma has been included in trade rumors, though Zdurencik has disavowed those. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News quoted an unnamed Boston insider suggestingCespedes is hard to get along with:

    “He marches to his own drum and the coaches all hate him’”

  • Jonny Gomes played an undistinguished season for Boston and Oakland. His slash for 2014 was .234/.327/.330, well below his career numbers.  It’s difficult to see how his numbers offer an upgrade over Saunders.

If the Mariners are all in for contention in 2015 they will add one and likely two outfielders.   The M’s won 87 games last year because their average outfield defense supported their excellent pitching staff. It seems Zdurencik may be chucking that model in favor of offense that may not be as effective in Seattle’s extreme ballpark. It’s a gamble that may work, but it may not. Regardless, it will likely come at a cost that will make winning a playoff spot more difficult than if they had kept Michael Saunders.

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