Does Gutierrez fit in 2016?

For all that has gone wrong for the 2015 Seattle Mariners, there have been a few bright spots. One being the return of former All-Star outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to the major leagues. The Mariners had signed Gutierrez prior to the 2014 season, but he elected to sit out the campaign while recovering and dealing with ankylosing spondylitis.

Gutierrez was inked to a minor league contract prior to the start of the season with the idea being, neither party had anything to lose. The 32-year old wasn’t ready to give up playing yet and the M’s could afford to take the gamble on a player who had previous success for the organization.

The right-hander began the year with Triple-A Tacoma as part of his recovery to build up the strength and durability required to play on a semi-regular basis. All Gutierrez did there was hit. In 209 plate appearances with the Rainiers he posted a .317/.402/.500 slash line with a 143 wRC+.

On June 24 Gutierrez made his season debut for the Mariners and first appearance in the big leagues since September 2013.

Since then the outfielder has continued to do what initiated his call-up in the first place: hit. So far over 115 plate appearances he owns a .299/.339/.607 slash line with a 163 wRC+ and a .399 wOBA. He’s collected eight home runs and nine doubles.

By wRC+, Gutierrez has been the club’s second-best hitter. By fWAR, he’s been the club’s sixth-best position player. Small sample size aside, and a .348 BABIP that’s nearly 50 points above his career average, Gutierrez has been a very productive player for Seattle over the past two months.

The question that will likely be decided over the coming months is whether or not Gutierrez should be back in blue and teal for the 2016 season.

At first glance, it makes a lot of sense. The outfielder plays a major league calibre defence with a right-handed bat that can hit throughout the order. While he doesn’t have the wheels to steal 20 bags anymore, he still provides some value on the base paths.

The Mariners outfield picture for 2016 currently includes a combination of Seth Smith, Nelson Cruz, Brad Miller, and Mark Trumbo. Cruz and Trumbo shouldn’t be used consistently in the outfield, but management has made no qualms about sacrificing defence to get a certain bat into the lineup. Don’t expect to see that change. Smith has been used very effectively as a platoon bat and should fill one-half of a corner spot next year. The club’s insistence on turning Miller into an outfielder, and the early success of Ketel Marte, means we can probably pencil him into an outfield spot for a few hundred at-bats or more next season.

Essentially, the depth chart features one part-time outfielder, one newly-transitioning outfielder, and two bat-first sluggers who are best-served not being in the outfield. I’ll acknowledge that Cruz is, in fact, a capable outfielder in small doses. But he isn’t getting any younger and his misadventures in right field take away from the value his bat provides. It’s not unrealistic to suggest he sees 100 games of work in the outfield next season based on how the roster is constructed.

The real need in Seattle’s outfield is in center as Austin Jackson is likely to depart via free agency with no real internal option set to replace him. Gutierrez won’t be able to fill that role for the Mariners. What he can do is fill the right-handed portion of a left field platoon with Smith and provide a legitimate fourth outfielder.

Gutierrez’s excellent numbers have come from a part-time role with protection from right-handed pitchers. This is exactly how he should be used next season as well. We’ve started to see the right-hander being used on consecutive days more frequently as he’s gotten stronger. Perhaps a healthy offseason and renewed confidence in his health are enough to shift the scale closer to full-time player than part-time player in 2016. That may still be too great a risk to take on at this point.

There are some positive signs within his batted ball data. Gutierrez is hitting balls at a harder rate than he has at any point in his career. He’s also hitting the ball the other way in a similar fashion to his 2009 season and his line drive rate is about five percent higher than his career mark.

There isn’t enough evidence to suggest that Gutierrez’s 33.3 percent home run per fly ball rate is anything close to sustainable. For context, Cruz boasts a 29.1 percent mark. A .308 ISO is also unlikely to be expected next year as well.

Even with an expected regression of the bat, Gutierrez still offers value to the Mariners next year. I would expect him to return based on the relationship with the Jack Zduriencik-led brain trust, but with rumors circulating about who will be at the helm moving forward, it’s too early to say anything concrete.

Nevertheless, I would still think that Gutierrez would have some inclination to return regardless of who offers the contract. Two years seems like too much to commit at this point, but a one-year, incentive-based deal with an option would make sense. With glaring needs in the pitching staff, there may be less money available to bolster the lineup making the right-hander an attractive option.

Gutierrez will be 33 next year and isn’t the Gold Glove calibre centerfielder he once was. But his return is an impressive success story and he’s done enough to prove he deserves a shot next year, too.

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Tyler Carmont

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