2016 Seattle Mariners Spring Preview: The Outfield
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
In this, the third installment in a series profiling the Mariners’ various position groups, I’ll be focusing on the outfield. In the first two pieces I wrote about the rotation and the infielders. Follow the links to catch up.
This is where the team gets interesting… which in this case is a synonym for worrisome. While the rotation and infield group have the potential to be strengths for the team and don’t hold as many question marks going into the spring, the Mariners’ outfield is full of question marks. The way I see the roster shaking out, the Mariners will start the regular season with five outfielders on the 25-man roster, one of which will be your starting designated hitter roughly half the time. Before we talk about what the outfield looks like, here are the players I see as contenders to make the team.
I have nothing against Stefen Romero, but he represents the dying remains of Jack Zduriencik’s minor league system. He is one of many young infielders who were converted to outfielders over the last few years. A move that saw the decline or never-fulfilled potential in players such as Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, and the team even messed around with putting Ketel Marte in center field last year. Romero has always been a solid AAA bat, but over 200 at-bats in the majors in 2014 and 2015, he put up an abysmal .241 on-base percentage. He has looked like everything Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais are getting away from. I don’t see him making this team.
Boog Powell, along with Nathan Karns and reliever C.J. Riefenhauser, was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays during the offseason as part of a package that saw crowd favorites, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Danny Farquhar leave town. As interesting as his name and the story behind it are, what's really interesting about Boog are his tools. Powell has yet to see any big-league action, but in just over 1000 minor league at-bats, he’s slashed .308/.401./.387 while stealing 53 bases and walking 163 times. He plays good defense at all three outfield positions and he’s 23 years old. If you’re looking for a guy who can get on base, create havoc with speed and play defense, Boog is your dude. That being said, there’s good reason to think he won’t be with the team when they break camp. But I’d bet on him making his Mariners debut sometime this summer. He’s one of the players I’m most looking forward to seeing play in spring training.
Shawn O’Malley was a blast to watch down the stretch last season. He was a September call-up and flashed a good glove while slapping the ball around and walking enough to end the year with a .418 on-base percentage, which I think at this point can be looked at as a strong indicator for players the new front office regime might covet.
O’Malley didn’t show much pop, but showed enough hustle and talent to be on the radar going into spring. Much like Boog, Shawn O’Malley is a long shot to make the team this spring. If the team does end up going with five outfielders, the competition for that fifth outfield spot will be stiff. What could give O’Malley the edge is his ability to play not only all three outfield positions, but to play shortstop as well. If he outperforms Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas, he could win the back-up infielder job and serve as a utility guy.
That gets us through the guys who are least likely to break camp with the Mariners, and leaves us with what has the makings of a very good outfield.
Who Makes the Cut?
Jerry Dipoto spent was remarkably active in his first offseason with the Mariners and the starting outfield will have a very different this April. Two additions that were surely brought in to start are Leonys Martin and Nori Aoki.
Martin was picked up in a trade with Texas. The Mariners arguably got a good deal because Martin didn’t seem to have a place with Texas. The young outfielder is billed as a plus defender, but anyone who’s watched him play enough can tell you that he has gold glove potential with one of the best arms you’ll see in center field. He’s shown, in large enough sample size, that he’s able to get on base at a .320 clip. And when he does get on base, he runs. He’s got 30 to 40 steal capability and is young and under contract control. If Martin lives up to his potential, he could be the Mariners’ starting centerfielder for years to come. Either way, I’m betting he’ll be the starter there when the regular season starts.
I’m still confused about how the Mariners managed to get Aoki on a one-year, $5.5 million, incentive-laden deal. I’ve looked as his stats over and over, and haven’t actually seen him play a ton. But from what I can tell, he hits .285 with a .350 on-base percentage every season, looks decent at the corners and possesses decent speed. Much like Martin, he doesn’t come with much power and perhaps isn’t viewed as all that productive. But that’s sort of the idea behind this front office’s thinking. We have Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Adam Lind, and Seth Smith, all players who can each hit the ball out of the park a few times a month. And if Martin, Aoki and Ketel Marte are always on base when they do, this team could score a lot of runs.
Aoki is a veteran who plays decent defense, gets on base a lot and can play all three outfield positions, though he grades much better at the corners. He’ll be starting in right field for the Mariners come opening day.
Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez will platoon in left field. Seth Smith is one of the better examples in the league of a platoon player. He destroys right-handed pitching, but struggles noticeably against tough lefties. Beyond being a platoon player, he hits for decent power and does all the other stuff well enough to add value. When Smith, Martin and Aoki are all in the in the field, the Mariners will have an entirely left-handed outfield.
Against lefties, the Mariners will probably go with Gutierrez in left field, who was offensively dominant after rejoining the team last season. In the second half he was one of the better hitters in the league. I don’t know that I’m willing to buy into the idea that Guti could perform as well as he did last season, ever again. But I sure would love to see it. Guti has walked a tough road in baseball and fought through numerous injuries, serious stomach issues and eventually worked his way back to being a very productive hitter.
Franklin Gutierrez will be the team’s fourth outfielder and will play primarily against left handed pitching. I like Guti coming off the bench and if he hits anywhere near how he did last season, he’ll be a big asset to the team and a great platoon partner. He’s past the point of being one of the best defensive centerfielders in the league and should see most of his time in left field at this point.
And lastly and most obviously, that brings us to Nelson Cruz. Cruz had his best offensive year in 2015 and while everyone in baseball agrees that last season is unrepeatable, and was likely a career year for the slugger, he’s still considered one of the most feared hitters in the American League and will heavily depended on to produce in the middle of the order.
The Mariners have let it be known that they’re trying to get more athletic in the field, and are planning on using Cruz more often in the DH role than last year, which is a decision that is already being scrutinized. While he’s a mediocre defender, historically Cruz hits much better while playing defense. A lot of players struggle making the transition to designated hitter. Many say it’s a lot harder to go from hitting to the dugout and not take the field. It takes a different mindset, which is part of the argument for why Edgar Martinez should be in the Hall of Fame. But that’s an argument for another time.
Of the five players I believe will be in the Mariners’ outfield to start the season, only Leonys Martin has an OBP under .330. And Aoki and Martin each have the defensive and base-running skills to make for a much improved outfield group in 2016. As spacious and unforgiving as Safeco Field is, these guys will look to use their gloves and their speed to save runs and put our revamped bullpen in a better position to hold onto leads.
Areas of Concern
If you take Nelson Cruz out of the mix, considering him a DH more than an outfielder, (and seemingly everyone but Nelson Cruz shares that point of view) our outfield doesn’t guarantee a lot of power. Martin and Aoki have never been power hitters and never will be, and Guti showed elite power out of nowhere last season, but with his history you can’t honestly depend on him putting up those numbers over a longer stretch. Seth Smith can hit for power against right-handed pitching, but overall I don’t think the Mariners are going to depend on getting power from the outfield. This crew is about defense and getting on base. Their power will have to come mostly from the infield and Nelson Cruz.
Overall, this is a much-improved group from what we’ve seen in recent years. I actually can’t remember a time when I felt good about our left fielder, and I’m still not elated. But this year at least makes some sense. Dipoto said he wanted speed, defense and on-base percentage. And that he looks to have accomplished that. So at least we’re seeing a cohesive conceived team. We’re seeing a plan put in place and stuck to. And if things don’t go as planned, we have Boog. So at least there’s that?
Next week, we’ll be talking about catchers, so check back and find out what Zunino needs to do, and who the hell Steve Clevenger is. My-oh-my, it’s good to be talking about baseball again.
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