When Jerry Dipoto was hired to be Mariners GM, way back in September 2016, some 30+ transactions ago, he shared the importance of becoming younger and more athletic and putting together a team that won more at Safeco Field with all its room in the outfield. In 2016, toward that end, he acquired center fielder Leonys Martin and left fielder Nori Aoki. Both guys were speedy and could cover more ground than the Raul Ibanez’s, Michael Morse’s and Mark Trumbos of the recent past.
But 2016 didn’t quite reach the zenith of Dipoto’s plan for a run-prevention-first outfield for the Mariners. Martin was hurt and his sore hammie reduced his range for much of the season. Aoki was a little too creative in his routes to balls, occasionally with disastrous results. And in right field, manager Scott Servais had to choose between lefty Seth Smith, right-handed Franklin Gutierrez, and squeeze DH Nelson Cruz into some games. As the season played out, each showed they lost range in the outfield.
Changes would need to be made. And they did. By July 29th, Cuban outfielder Guillermo Heredia made his debut in a Mariners uniform. On August 31, the Mariners traded two minor league pitchers to the Yankees for speedy outfielder Ben Gamel. Heredia appeared in 45 games and Gamel 27 games for the M’s heralding the beginning of a new era.
Added: OF Mitch Haniger in trade with Arizona for SP Taijuan Walker and SS Ketel Marte
OF Jarrod Dyson in trade with Kansas City Royals for SP Nate Karns
Gone: OF Nori Aoki. Option not picked up. Signed by Houston Astros
OF Franklin Gutierrez. Contract not renewed. Currently unsigned
OF Seth Smith traded to Baltimore Orioles for SP Yovani Gallardo
Catching the ball
Anyone seriously looking at the strengths and weaknesses of this team will acknowledge that pitching, especially starting pitching is an area for concern. There is lots of bounce-back potential for Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly. James Paxton may step forward to become staff ace. But it’s all maybes. Last year it was too many hits, too many walks and way too many home runs. One way to support the pitching is with better defense, especially in the outfield. The more balls caught, the fewer baserunners, the less likelihood of runs allowed.
The most likely candidates for the four or five outfielders the M’s will carry are Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson, Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger, and Guillermo Heredia. Not included in this list are Danny Valencia and Nelson Cruz, who will also likely scoop up some turns in the outfield. Of the first five, all are touted to have the speed to play center field.
Because defensive statistics are not reliable for short periods of time, and Gamel, Haniger and Heredia, won’t share those, but here are DRS and UZR 150 stats for Martin and Dyson from 2016
Leonys Martin DRS -2 UZR 150 4.2
Jared Dyson LF DRS +5 UZR 150 29.0
CF +9 19.6
RF +7 26.4
Martin was clearly hampered by his hamstring injury, and turned in an average year in centerfield, but his career numbers are a DRS of +41 and UZR 150 of 8.2. Dyson is clearly superior at all outfield positions. Haniger is likely to hold down the fort in right field. There is every indication he is also a superior outfielder based on his minor league performance. The Mariners outfield has drawn high praise from Dave Cameron at FanGraphs
“Now, though, there’s reason to think the 2017 Mariners might have the best outfield defense in baseball, or at least be in the conversation.”
For those who have expected the M’s to field an outfield of non-descript .250 hitters who can bang a bit too, these will not be those guys. Martin hit 15 home runs in 2016, a career high, while Dyson hit only one. Haniger will likely show some power, but it’s not clear how much. Gamel hit 30 home runs in a tick over 3,000 minor league at-bats. Heredia hit only 4 in his year of minor league baseball.
However, all five bring some speed to their offensive game. Martin is a regular threat to steal 25, Dyson joins SS Jean Segura in the 30+ club, and Gamel regularly stole bases in double figure throughout his minor league career. The question isn’t how many homers or how many steals, it’s how much they’ll get on base to score runs in front of the other, more-potent elements of the Mariners offense.
Again, Martin and Dyson have a clear record.
Martin has a career .305 OBP. His trade to the Mariners was a direct result of reduced playing time with the Rangers due to offensive struggles. Last year his OBP was .306, in line with his career numbers
Dyson has a .325 career OBP, but last year he had a career high .340. The question isn’t can he do it, but can he sustain it, much as we look at Segura’s 2016 performance.
As for the others, we simply don’t know what we have. The sample size from 2016 is simply too small. However, it seems Haniger is the favorite To win the right field job, with Dyson flanking Martin in left. Publications from FanGraphs to ESPNmlb have underscored his value added to Segura’s in the Arizona trade. Dipoto has likewise given the deal some special endorsements.
“By the numbers,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “(Haniger) was able to show that he was the best offensive player (last year) in the minor leagues at any level.”
By any measure, it is not possible to compare this outfield to those of Mariners past. Defensively, the only number that matters is -27. That’s the number of Defensive Runs Saved for the entire Mariners outfield in 2016. If this outfield can move that number into positive territory, and possibly by double digits, it will be a huge change and a benefit to the pitching staff. Defensively, this team will be an improvement.
Offensively, this group’s sexy component is speed. But you can’t steal first base. This group is less likely to score as much the 2016 group. It won’t hit as many home runs. However, I do expect it will change the calculus of how runs are scored. We’ll have to wait and see if this group scores fewer runs, and if so by how many
There is also going to be some juggling and competition to determine who emerges as winners and losers in Spring Training. I would be surprised if the M’s choose to carry five outfielders, which means someone will be starting the season in Tacoma. My guess is the winners are the two lefties Martin and Dyson, and right-handed Haniger gets the job in right. In the battle for the fourth outfield job, it’s the more experienced left-hander Gamel. Left-over right handed at bats will go to Nelson Cruz and Danny Valencia. Heredia, alas, will be back with the Rainiers.