Who’s on First?

First Base

Though it feels like we’ve been elbow-deep in the Hot Stove League for months now, things are just warming up as we head for the Winter Meetings Dec. 6-10 in Nashville. It’s hard to know exactly what GM Jerry DiPoto and his staff will get done, or try to get done, during their sojourn in Music City. They’ve looked at the outfield, deepened pitching both in the rotation and the bullpen, and they’ve found at least a temporary solution at catcher.

But first base is another big question mark. The Mariners ended the season with bushels of first basemen, and the list of likely candidates been narrowed a bit. Logan Morrison‘s trade to Tampa Bay leaves fewer contenders for the job, but the question remains whether they are the right guys for DiPoto’s philosophy.

Mark Trumbo has to be considered the leading candidate for the first base job if the Mariners don’t look outside the organization for another answer.  Trumbo came to the M’s with pitcher Vidal Nuno in a trade with the Diamondbacks that sent catcher Welington Castillo and pitcher Dominic Leone to Arizona on June 3rd.

Mark Trumbo
Seattle Mariners’ Mark Trumbo in action in a baseball game Friday, June 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Trumbo has lots of complications, including cost, contract status and performance.

He’s in his last year of arbitration eligibility. Last year Trumbo made $6.9 million, which seems like a lot for your basic 1.1 WAR player.  But last season’s cost of a win was about $8 million. Projected arbitration costs for the big right-hander in 2016 are estimated north of $9 million, and the cost of a win are also likely to increase.  2011-2013 Trumbo had season of 1.8, 2.2, and 2.4 WAR, so strictly by the numbers, his projected salary wouldn’t be out of line, but on a team with a fair number of big contracts, the M’s might have to make some choices in order to fill their other holes.

With his last year of arbitration, Trumbo will be a free agent at the end of the 2016 season.  Unless he has a breakout year, it’s hard to imagine the M’s hang on to him past this season.  Perhaps with Kivlehan in Tacoma, and D.J. Peterson likewise heading north, the Mariners will think of 2016 as the bridge to a younger more controllable player.

But really it all comes down to performance. The Mariners haven’t had a quality above league average performance at first base since Russell Branyan in 2009. Yes, we’ve had glimmers from Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison, but neither put together a solid season of good. But the same could be said of Mark Trumbo. He finished last season with a combined .263/.310/.449 slash and 108 wRC+.  His first month with the Mariners was absolutely terrible, with hitting only .134 with one home run in June.  But he hit much better than his season average for the rest of the year. Trumbo will hit his home runs, but he is also a veritable strikeout machine; his 24.2% K rate is pretty much in line with his career numbers and adds to a long list of high-strikeout Mariner hitters.  Though he is wretchedly terrible in the outfield, Trumbo is somewhat above league average defensively at first base.

All in all, it’s easy for me to see Trumbo gone, either as part of a trade or simply non-tendered to get back some working cash.  But I could just as easily see him as the starting first baseman for the Mariners on Opening Day.

Montero

Jesus Montero

Jesus Montero was the dream that shattered into a million pieces.  Sent to Seattle by the Yankees prior to the 2012 season for pitcher Michael Pineda, it seemed the M’s got the better part of the deal. Pineda spent two years dealing with arm miseries and Montero was touted as one of the best right-handed hitting prospects in baseball. Montero got 553 at bats in 2012, and he wasn’t terrible at the plate, at least not Mike Zunino terrible.

You know the rest–out of shape, torn meniscus, Biogenesis PED suspension, ice cream sandwich tossing, and finally a degree of redemption as Montero reported to spring training in 2015 in the best shape of his life.  He was rewarded with a superb minor league season batting .355/.398/.569 in Tacoma.  Though he also had 116 plate appearances with Seattle, they were less successful: .223/.250/.411.  Though Steamer projects somewhat higher for Montero in 2016.

If the Mariners decide to jettison Trumbo, could Montero be a guy who could take over at first base?  Maybe, but it’s a crap shoot.

Montero hasn’t approached his minor league offensive numbers in the majors. He has minimal time playing the position at the major league level, and defensively last year he penciled out as a below average first baseman.  The sample size is very small.  Perhaps for a year that’s good enough.  Based on his outstanding AAA numbers, and that he’s out of minor league options, perhaps the best thing to do is deal Montero while his successes are fresh in everybody’s mind.  Montero is one of those guys I’d love to see do well, and given his struggles he’s definitely a feel-good story.  But somehow I have a hard time seeing this happen.

Robinson Cano

Cano 3

Fascinating story by Luke Arkins at Prospect Insider Nov. 29th about the inevitability of a move to first base for Robinson Cano.  Citing his defensive decline last year, Arkins suggests the M’s begin to play Cano at first sooner rather than later, allowing the left-handed All-Star some games as the Mariners prepare for Trumbo’s departure after this year. While recognizing that 2015 was an illness and injury-plagued season for Cano, it does also confront that unfortunate reality that he is on the wrong side of 30, and the Mariners should be considering a soft landing for him sooner rather than later, an idea shared by Tacoma News Tribune writer Bob Dutton.

Maybe, but not likely for more than a handful of games this year. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see number 22 over at first base well before the expiration date on his contract.

D.J. Peterson

D.J. Peterson

I’m just going to put it right out now that I’m not big on D.J. Peterson.  First round pick in the 2013 draft, is another one of Jack Zdurencik’s all or nothing guys. He was a terrible third baseman and has been a first baseman chiefly as an afterthought.  He’s likely going to be in Tacoma, and could be called up in an emergency, but he also strikes me as one of those guys who doesn’t fit DiPoto’s model and could be traded.

Somebody Else

There are a fair number of free agent first basemen available, though none that jump right out and say sign me.  DiPoto, if he feels like first base is a priority could make a trade for a first baseman.  Honestly, unless a deal reaches out and grabs him by the neck, I think it’s likely to be Trumbo.  That means he’ll be traded next week.

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