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Mariners 2016 Free Agency: Strong up the Middle

Thursday, October 29, 2015


We’re just on the edge of November and the World Series is getting underway between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets. Yesterday, the Seattle Mariners held a press conference to introduce their new manager, Scott Servais, to local fans and media; he also announced the majority of his staff. Among the more notable news out of the press conference was confirmation that Edgar Martinez will be returning in his role as hitting coach, Tim Bogar will be filling the role of bench coach and Mel Stottlemyre Jr. will be manning the pitching coach job. 

With a manager hired, most of the staff positions filled and only a week or so left of baseball, we’re nearing the point where we will get to see Jerry Dipoto in action. Free agency begins five days after the World Series ends and the Mariners have some easily identifiable needs.  Over the next few weeks, let’s take a look at what the Mariners need to accomplish before spring training, and then take a look at how they can realistically accomplish that in the coming months.

From what I saw on the field last year and what I’ve read since the season ended, I believe the team has five areas that need to be considered for improvement. First and foremost on that list should be a center fielder.

In 2015, the Mariners had nine position players with a positive WAR, (which stands for Wins Above Replacement and is an advanced metric used to measure a player’s value above the league average). Now, it’s important to note that using WAR is just one way to determine a players value and certainly isn’t the only way. But for the purpose of this article, it’s a fairly encompassing stat for showing the potential value a player can add or subtract from your team. And last season the Mariners had nine position players with a plus WAR. 

Nelson Cruz - 5.2
Kyle Seager - 4.3
Robinson Cano - 3.4  
Franklin Gutierrez - 2.4 
Ketel Marte - 2.3
Austin Jackson - 1.4
Mark Trumbo - 0.8
Brad Miller - 0.6
Shawn O’Malley – 0.5 

Of those players, the only batters who with a plus WAR on the team, six spent time in the outfield for Seattle last year. I’ll very quickly illustrate the need for outfield help.

Austin Jackson is no longer on the team and will undoubtedly not be returning here.

Franklin Gutierrez is no longer a full-time player and while he was extremely productive in a limited role, the team is unlikely to try him in an everyday role.

Ketel Marte played a few games in centerfield and performed well there, but the Mariners will likely lean on the youngster to hold the starting shortstop position going into next year.

With the emergence of Marte, Brad Miller has been relegated to more of a utility role, and will see time all over the filed if he’s still with the team when they report in the spring.

Mark Trumbo is likely the team’s best option at first base right now, but he also a does a lot less harm there defensively than he does in the outfield. In 2015, his fielding percentage as a Mariner dropped from .994 at first base to .952 in the outfield. Trumbo should be in the outfield as little as possible.

Shawn O’Malley was impressive in a small sample size, only logging 42 at-bats at the MLB level in 2015. He brought great energy, speed and control of the strike zone while flashing a solid glove and decent range in center field. That being said, if the Mariners haven’t learned not to depend on young players with small samples of success in full-time roles, then they deserve what they get. Shawn O’Malley will have a role on this team come spring, but if it’s as an everyday outfielder, it probably means the team failed to bring in a more reliable option and I’d be worried …

That brings us to Nelson Cruz, who strikes me as the sort of guy who’d rather play in the field than DH every day. Well, too bad Nelson. Put down your glove and swing that bat with your full focus. You hurt the team when you’re not hitting, so just hit.

As you can see, when you look at the productive players on our team, not one can be depended on as an everyday outfielder. The Mariners first priorities should be to resign Franklin Gutierrez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma we’ll talk about later in the offseason, and by then I’m betting he’ll have already resigned. After signing Guti’, you at least have a dependable fourth outfielder who will likely sign a team-friendly contract and can help fill an important role. 

The most pressing need for the team is a starting center fielder. Whether through trade or free agency, the M’s need an everyday guy out there in the big part of the ballpark, and luckily there are some interesting options available. The best options on the free agent market, in order of most desirable, are as follows …

Denard Span
Colby Rasmus
Dexter Fowler
Gerardo Parra

Firstly, Gerardo Parra is an interesting player. He was having a career year in Milwaukee before being moved to Baltimore midseason. In Baltimore, Parra struggled to keep pace with the expectations placed on him and likely saw his value drop quite a bit. Even so, he’s a career 1.7 WAR player and did manage to hit .291 last season. So while his value has maybe dropped a little bit, his defense is still above average and a team may find a bargain in a short-term deal for Parra. As a left-handed hitter with not-so-great splits, he may not be the perfect fit. The M’s are a little left-heavy as is.
Dexter Fowler is coming off a postseason run with the Chicago Cubs that only increased his value. Theo Epstein, the Cubs GM, noted after the ALCS that they’d certainly be interested in bringing Fowler back to Chicago, but it’s thought that’s he’d reject a qualifying offer and see what’s out there in free agency. I think there’s affair chance the Cubs find a way to bring him back, but with his combination of plus speed, decent glove, ability to hit from both sides of the plate and career .363 OBP, he’ll definitely draw interest from a number of teams, including the Mariners. 
Colby Rasmus is a decent glove and unlike most of the players on my list, can hit for some power. He was bright spot in the Houston outfield during the playoffs, but the Astros are unlikely to offer Rasmus a qualifying offer which would be nearly $16 million to bring him back. He’s a career 2.3 WAR player and will be looking for a multi-year contract in the offseason. Rasmus is left-handed, but actually hits left-handed pitching a little better than he does right-handers, which makes him a decent fit. There will competition on the market for Rasmus, but if you can handle his lower batting average, the power he can bring in the bottom half of the batting order could be a potent addition. 
My top pick for the Mariners is Denard Span. This is your center fielder, Seattle. Denard Span has above average speed, (around 25 steals a year), covers a lot ground in center field, (boasted a .993 fielding percentage last year) and gets on base a ton. He has a career OBP of .352. All of that adds to a yearly average WAR of right around 3.0. Span is coming off of a major surgery to repair a torn labrum, and probably won’t be valued by teams based on his history as much as his cloudy future. He’ll turn 32 in February and some worry he’s seen his best days. His a little comparison I pulled off of Fangraphs.com that I think illustrates why he’s worth the risk. 

From 2012 through 2014, Denard Span was essentially a little better than Jacob Ellsbury. There will be teams vying to take a chance on Denard Span, but after a season shortened by a pretty serious injury, the Mariners should be able to get him for at a really reasonable price while still outbidding other teams. 
If you’ve noticed names like Justin Upton or Jason Heyward missing from this list, know that it’s an intentional omission. Not only will both of those players command big contracts over several years, neither of them should really be looked at as true center field options. The Mariners have several players locked into large, long term contracts, and I would be surprised to see them get involved in a bidding war for another position player the likes of Upton or Heyward. 
Finding a good value deal for 3 years or less, on a player who can get on base at a high clip and play good defense up the middle should be this team’s priority in the outfield. If they can find the right deal, it might even be worth trying to add another outfielder to the mix. There are a few other names out there on the market at the next tier … players who the M’s could take a flyer on and add depth to area where they’re pretty weak now. But any team that hopes to win in Safeco Field needs to be strong up the middle. And the M’s are a center fielder away from making that claim. 
I wouldn’t worry too much about it though, as Jerry Dipoto will be looking to put a winner on the field as soon as possible, and center field is too obvious of a hole for him to not look to fill it. There’s still some mystery as to exactly how much cash he’ll have to work with, but it’s clear that he’s a fan of using statistics to value players. I’d be shocked if he didn’t call center field priority number one. 

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time

Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films. 

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#12 Rollerball

Some of the non-athletic scenes in this dystopian classic show their age, but Rollerball is a strangely prescient film that anticipated both the corporatization of sport and fans’ limitless taste for violence. Bonus points for the ominous intro music.

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#11 A League of Their Own

A comedy that looks back to the antithesis of corporate sport – a women’s baseball league during World War II with many memorable lines to choose from (e.g.,”There’s no crying in baseball.”)

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#10 Remember The Titans

Yes, filmmakers took liberties with some of the facts dealing with the integration of a high school football team in Virginia. But there’s a reason football teams often screen this film on the eve of big games. It’s a damn inspirational tale.

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#9 The Natural

This film has grown on me over time. Originally, it seemed slow and schmaltzy. Now, it seems well-paced and charming. Then and now, the re-created scenes of pre-World War II ballparks arrive like perfectly preserved postcards from the past.  

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#8 The Longest Yard

Not the remake with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. But the hilarious original with Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert as a wonderfully villainous warden who pits the guards against the inmates in a grudge football game that includes former Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke and other ex-football players like Sonny Sixkiller and Joe Kapp, both stalwart Pac-8 quarterbacks long, long ago.  

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#7 Slap Shot

The Hanson brothers. Enough said.

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#6 Rocky

Often imitated, but never replicated. The definitive underdog boxing story featuring Sylvester Stallone before he became a self-caricature in multiple sequels. Impossible to hear the theme song without being motivated to get off the couch.

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#5 Seabiscuit

A fantastic book as well as a great movie. Like “The Natural,” Seabiscuit captures its Depression-era setting for modern-day viewers taken back to an era when horse racing actually meant something in America. 

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#4 Requiem for a Heavywei

A too often-forgotten film these days but a wonderful boxing drama that shows the sport’s underside with memorable  performances by Mickey Rooney, Jackie Gleason and Anthony Quinn.

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#3 Hoosiers

Want to know something about small-town America in the 1950s and about Indiana basketball? This hoops movie does all of that with a healthy dose of redemption throughout. 

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#2 Bull Durham

There’s a pretty good case to be made this movie played a huge part in the rebirth and re-marketing of minor league baseball. As written by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, there are many great scenes to choose from but this one is a favorite. 

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#1 Raging Bull

A rags-to-riches-to-rags story of boxer Jake LaMotta meets the actor born to play him, Robert De Niro. Not a false moment in this black-and-white powerhouse.


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