In terms of positional flexibility and athleticism, this year’s iteration of the Seattle Mariners is much different than in previous years. Those are clearly traits that general manager Jerry Dipoto values and were apparent in the talent he accumulated throughout the winter. Among the offseason acquisitions was a new first baseman who perhaps, through no real fault of his own, stands out from the rest.
Adam Lind‘s lack of positional flexibility — his outfield career ended in 2010 and shouldn’t be revisited — and large platoon split shouldn’t be held against why he was acquired: to mass right-handed pitching. But, this does require that the Mariners find someone to handle the majority of playing time at first base against left-handed pitching.
So far this spring we’ve heard a lot about former top prospect Jesus Montero and Korean import Dae-Ho Lee being the leading candidates to be Lind’s platoon partner. Gaby Sanchez had been in the mix before being an early cut. The potential concern with both players is that neither offers the club more than their bat and an ability to play a modest first base. For a roster based on flexibility, adding an inflexible part doesn’t make much sense. Depending on your point of view, though, a flexible roster is the exact kind of roster that allows for a one-dimensional piece to exist.
While the two sluggers mentioned remain are the clubhouse leaders for the part-time spot, there’s another player in the conversation that could become involved before it’s all said and done: Stefen Romero.
The 27-year-old began the 2014 as the Mariners regular right-fielder up until the trade deadline. He didn’t have much success at the plate posting a .192/.234/.299 slash line with a well-below average 52 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances. He resurfaced when rosters expanded in September of that year, but would spend the entire 2015 season at Triple-A before again being re-called in September for a handful of plate appearances.
In between those three major league stints, Romero performed well with Tacoma. His .358/.387/.669 slash line with 12 home runs over 163 plate appearances offered a reminder as to why he was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2012. The right-hander’s .292/.333/.494 slash line in 516 plate appearances for Tacoma in 2015 was also solid and accompanied by 17 home runs and 10 steals.
For the most part, Romero doesn’t really have much more to prove in the minors. Over five seasons he’s amassed 2105 plate appearances and owns an .869 OPS. It could be argued that he could use some work on his defense, but the reality is that he only profiles as a fringe-defender in right field and at age-27, what we see is probably what we are going to get.
With a revamped outfield that includes newcomers Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin alongside Franklin Gutierrez and Seth Smith, not to mention the presence of Boog Powell and Daniel Robertson on the depth chart, Romero is in tough to grab a reserve outfield spot. But as a right-handed bat with major league experience, he does potentially fit a need for Seattle.
The question that comes next is the matter of playing first base. Romero has spent the majority of the past three seasons in the outfield after starting in the organization as a second baseman. He’s seen some time at first so far this spring so there’s potential for more work there. While playing first base well isn’t as simple as some make it out to be, Romero is a very good athlete and the previous infield experience works in his favor.
All told, we have a player with a minor league track record who needs consistent playing time at the major league level to improve, hits right-handed, and presumably can handle first base while playing the outfield. Now we can mention that Romero has been red-hot down in Peoria with nine hits and a walk in 18 plate appearances. He also has a pair of doubles and a home run alongside seven runs batted in to his credit.
The reason I mention those spring numbers last is because, as Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins wrote in February, statistics accumulated during the month of March are relatively meaningless. The Arizona climate benefits hitters and the pitching isn’t necessarily major league quality or the major league arms are still going through their own preparations and not pitching how they would in the regular season.
A second factor working against Romero is the fact that he still can be optioned to Triple-A and does not require waivers. This ultimately could be what it comes down to. With Lee there has been some talk that it’s the majors or bust, as in, he’ll head back to Japan if he doesn’t break camp with the big league club. With Montero, waivers are required and there’s some percentage chance he is claimed, though it’s likely small.
In terms of asset management, optioning Romero and giving Lee a chance at sticking in the majors probably makes the most sense. Remembering that the season has more to do with a team’s 40-man roster than their 25 gives further justification. Also worth noting, as PI’s Jason A. Churchill mentioned on last week’s Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, Romero serves as some level of protection for Gutierrez. Not to say that there’s any current worry regarding the right-hander, but his history has to be a factor until he puts together a couple consecutive healthy seasons.
Barring a turn of events over the next couple weeks, I would expect Romero to begin the year. Speculation on my part, but maybe he ends up being dealt for relief help if a team is willing to buy into him being one step away from a decent regular or had an injury in their outfield.
There’s still some to be determined on the pitching staff side of things, and the bench isn’t completely finalized, but the right-handed first base option appears to be the biggest roster spot yet to be determined. The fact that we’re not debating if there’s a capable shortstop or No. 3 starter this spring is a nice surprise compared to year’s past.