As the M’s chances of a respectable finish to the 2015 season begin slip, sliding away, it’s time to look at what they might think about for next season. When my team is out of it, why not offer some prescriptions and see if my medicine as the same the new GM will offer.
Let’s start with the outfield, but it offers the most complex challenges. The Mariners currently have an outfield that looks something like this: Seth Smith against right handed pitching in LF or RF, Franklin Gutierrez in LF playing fairly regularly, Mark Trumbo is getting at bats in a corner outfield position, Nelson Cruz in RF, but not at the present time due his quad injury. Brad Miller and Shawn O’Malley are sharing time in center field. That’s a lot of guys sharing three spots, but to be expected this time of year because of the increased roster size and the team wants to get a look at who might help them in the future. Here is my view:
End the Cruz era in right field
One of the wise things Jack Zdurencik did in 2015 finale was identify and sign the best right handed hitter available in Nelson Cruz. And Cruz has paid off. While not perfect, the man is still a strikeout machine, he has some of the best offensive numbers in the league, and exceeded my wildest expectations, and just as importantly, the complaints of critics of his signing. But he was signed to be the DH. Yet within a week of the regular season’s start he was the Mariners starting right fielder. For all of his offensive accomplishments, Nelson Cruz is not a good right fielder, and this is historical not just in 2015. In his time with the Brewers and Rangers from 2005-2010, his defensive numbers, as they appear on FanGraphs were above average. From 2011-2015 they are below average, with the exception of 2014 when he played in somewhat smaller Camden Yards. His UZR/150 for 2015 are a career worst -11.8. That’s nearly an additional 12 runs per season allowed above an average right fielder. There is a tradeoff to consider. According to his season splits, Cruz definitely was a better hitter as a right fielder. He played 80 games in the outfield and his slash is .337/.402/.670, while in his 65 games as a DH he was .272/.348/.468. However, Nelson Cruz is also 35 years old. His performance as an outfielder is likely to continue its decline. Another consideration in this, is he has been remarkably injury free with the exception of his quad condition late in the season. That has not always been his history. I’m not saying this is an easy choice to make, but I believe if Cruz can find more comfort as a DH it will help the team.
Adopt a run prevention model for the outfield.
Of all the guys I mentioned who are coming back to the outfield, the only sure bet is Seth Smith. He has a contract through next year with a team option. There are no other players, whose primary position is outfield. This allows the new GM to be as creative as he can afford to be. It makes sense to bring back Franklin Gutierrez to share time with Smith and fill in at the other corner. But that still leaves the team without a center fielder and they’ll need at least one more outfielder. In my world I would look for the best defensive outfielders I can find. The bulk of the Mariners thump is on the infield-Seager, Cano, Marte (in his own way,) Trumbo/Morrison, Cruz at DH. The Mariners don’t have to have big, slow slugging outfielders. In fact they should be looking in the opposite direction. The outfielder needs a total makeover, composed of athletic talented defenders who can also get on base for the sluggers who follow them, and support the pitching staff with their gloves. This is more likely to be a winning combination for playing half a season at Safeco Field. Here are some free agent players available who may fit the bill:
Denard Span (32)– .301/.362/.431 wRC+ 120. Span was injured most of this year and had a poor year defensively with a -10.3 UZR/150. At 32, his age may be working against him.
Dexter Fowler (30)– .249/.345/.418 wRC+ 110. Fowler has never been a great fielder, but was average with the Cubs this year. Low batting average, strikes out a ton, but also has some speed, some power, and takes his walks.
Colby Rasmus (29)-.232/.302/.430 wRC+ 99. Rasmus has the virtue of being able to play all three outfield positions pretty well, though his best is center field. He’s had trouble sticking with one team due to an inconsistent bat. But with his combination of defense, thump and affordability he could be intriguing
Jason Heyward (26)– .288/.353/.423 wRC+ 116. Heyward is likely to be the most spendy player in the off season–certainly at least among position players. But there is also little question he is the best offensive and defensive outfielder available. Win now Mariners?
Alex Gordon (32)-.280/.380/.435 wRC+ 117. Alex Gordon is as fine a left fielder defensively and offensively as there is in the game. It is hard to imagine he won’t exercise his option for 2016 with the Royals. But if he’s looking further afield, there aren’t many better players for a revamped Mariners outfield.
Austin Jackson (29) .265/.307/.378 wRC+ 92 Ah, an old friend. Despite utterances to the contrary, Jackson had a better year offensively and defensively than 2014. Of the names above, he is the weakest offensive player, but someone whose skills were never suited to his role as a lead-off hitter. He had an above average year defensively and he knows Safeco and Seattle.
The Brad Miller Experiment
We finished the season with lots of opportunities to see Brad Miller roaming center field. The result? Small sample size so it’s way too early to tell. But the early defensive numbers are terrible–too awful to repeat here, they will frighten small children. But you can look. See those big negative numbers; those are bad. I don’t know if Miller can be transformed into a regular outfielder. I don’t like the idea, but there are certainly plenty of cases in which moving a player from the outfield has worked. You can start with Dustin Ackley who became a pretty decent left fielder. Alex Gordon is another player who failed as a third baseman, but became a really good left fielder. You’ll notice they were corner outfielders. Miller could become one of those–probably an at least average one. I don’t like the idea of Miller in center field. I don’t believe you give a guy who has never played the position the responsibility of positioning other players, requiring the best reads off the bat and the best instincts, determining the best routes to the ball–that’s just a lot. Miller may become a good outfielder; he may even become a good centerfielder–Robin Yount did it. But Robin Yount is a Hall of Famer, and, dream as we might, Brad Miller is not. No, you don’t give a new 16 year old driver the keys to a Lamorghini. Miller could fill a corner outfield spot as he continues to work on his game. My own personal view is that Miller may be most valuable as a trading chip, one of the few the Mariners have, but maybe he could mature into a nice corner outfielder.
I know, you always take the best player available. But look, the Mariners are in a very tough spot. This team has not developed a major league level outfielder in the entire time Jack Zdurencik was here. There are some marginal guys like James Jones, there are some guys who became outfielders like Stefen Romero and Patrick Kivlehan in Tacoma, even first rounder Alex Jackson from 2014, but they are athletes and bat first guys, not players who were drafted as outfielders. I have repeatedly stated my objections to taking a hitter, sticking a glove on their hand, waving a magic wand and stating “You are now an outfielder,” and hoping for the best. Corey Hart, Michael Morse, Logan Morrison, Mark Trumbo. These are all players who came to the Mariners in the hopes they could play a position requiring considerably more athletic ability than they had. Not their fault, the numbers were all right there for the Z-man to see. Perhaps if he thought they were important he’d still have a job. No, this team must give attention to the outfield position in the draft. Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Jones, the two best outfielders ever developed by the Mariners, were both No. 1 picks.