Arkins: Potential CF Candidates For Mariners

With Jarrod Dyson testing free agency, the Seattle Mariners need center field help. As with the club’s first baseman search, how general manager Jerry Dipoto fills the void isn’t clear.

Keeping in mind Dipoto could address Dyson’s departure several different ways, I identified a diverse group of replacement candidates I found intriguing.

Internal Options

In 2016, the Mariners found themselves in a bind when starting center fielder Leonys Martin was lost to injury for several weeks. Very quickly, it became apparent the club didn’t have a suitable substitute. A lot has changed since then.

Last season, Seattle had six choices for center field — Martin, Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, and Boog Powell. Two of those will receive serious consideration for significant playing time at the position next year.

Guillermo Heredia

In his first full season in the majors, the right-hand hitter slashed .310/.360/.434 against left-handers. However, his struggles with righties (.218/.294/.288) suggests he’s most effective when paired best with a lefty bat.

Defensive metrics don’t favor Heredia, but advanced statistics more accurately reflect performance when large sample sizes are available. The 26-year-old started just 53 games in center field last season. More importantly, the eyeball test says he’s a skilled defender.

Heredia ended the season on the DL after dealing with a separated shoulder throughout the season. Perhaps, his injury explains his batting average, slugging percentage, and OBP dropping approximately 60 points after the all-star break.

Mitch Haniger

Haniger profiles best in right field, but the Mariners could replace Dyson with the 26-year-old. Dipoto suggested as much telling Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, “We’re very comfortable with Mitch Haniger playing center field.”

In early November, Dipoto’s comment makes sense. Seattle would be better off with Haniger starting the year in center field rather than settling for a lesser player. If the third-year GM chooses that route, he could acquire an everyday right fielder or a platoon mate for Heredia.

On the other hand, the Chicago Cubs took a similar stand prior to the 2016 season with right fielder Jason Heyward. The club entered Spring Training saying Heyward was their man in center field before abruptly re-upping Dexter Fowler in late February.

Perhaps, Seattle is borrowing from the Cubs’ playbook. Stick with the company line regarding Haniger and wait for the market to mature before adding a new player. Let’s assume that’s the case and look at potential options outside the organization.

Free Agents

The Mariners are constrained when competing with other clubs in the trade market because they don’t have a rich farm system to leverage in deals. For that reason, adding a center fielder via free agency may make sense.

Jarrod Dyson 

Although 33-years-old, Dyson’s foot speed remains an important part of his game. Last season, he ranked twelfth best on the base paths using FanGraph’s Base Running (BsR) metric. Despite playing in just 111 games, “Zoombiya” led the Mariners with 28 stolen bases.

Throughout his career, the left-handed hitting Dyson has been league-average (.325 OBP) against righties, but sub-par against southpaws (.291). If the Mariners were to reunite with the eight-year veteran, they could continue platooning him with Heredia.

Dyson is an elite-level defender. His 10 DRS were fifth best among all center fielders, as was his strong and accurate throwing arm. Essentially, his speed on the bases and defensive prowess offset his offensive shortcomings.

While a reunion could make sense for both parties, there’s a reason for the Mariners to approach with caution. Dyson has played 120-plus games just once in any season.

Some of that is attributable to his struggles against lefties and playing behind Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon in Kansas City.

Nevertheless, Dyson is on the wrong side of 30 and struggled with lower body injuries last season. Were his health issues just a blip on the screen or the first indicator of age-related regression?

Lorenzo Cain

As the best free agent center fielder, Cain’s deal could exceed the 5-year/$82.5 million Fowler netted last offseason.

Cain would certainly improve the 2018 Mariners both at the plate and in the field. The right-handed hitter has slashed .299/356/.445 since 2015, averaging 13 home runs and 22 stolen bases along the way. Moreover, his five DRS was tenth best among center fielders last season.

The presence of a full-time center fielder, like Cain, would keep Haniger in right field and permit manager Scott Servais to use Heredia as his fourth outfielder rather than in a full-fledged platoon.

Having said that, signing the 31-year-old would be a classic case of paying for the back of a player’s baseball card and receiving diminishing returns as their contract progresses.

Cain played in a career-high 155 games last year, but has exceeded 140 games only once before in 2015. Furthermore, his 2017 DRS significantly tailed off from a career-high (18) just two years ago. It’s possible he’s already experiencing regression.

On the other hand, the Mariners are trying to win now. Getting two or three good years from Cain may be worth the risk for a club with the stated goal of winning the World Series.

Leonys Martin

The former Mariner was outrighted by the Cubs today and can now opt for free agency. I’m asssuming Martin makes that choice. He was under team control through the 2019 season and projected to make $4.9 million in arbitration.

Full disclosure; Martin wasn’t on my initial list. A conversation with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle at a Pacific Northwest SABR meeting changed my mind.

After floating the idea of the Mariners pursuing a defensive-minded center fielder, as they did with Martin two years ago, Drayer countered in a rhetorical sense. Why not have a Seattle reunion with the 29-year-old?

Last season was a tough one for Martin in Seattle. He went from Opening Day starter to designation for assignment after just 15 games. The left-handed hitter returned to the Emerald City in July, but subsequently traded to the Cubs a month later.

Perhaps, pairing the left-hand hitting Martin with Heredia would give the Mariners the perfect blend of defense and reasonable offensive production.

Carlos Gomez 

The 32-year-old had a good season (.802 OPS) with the Texas Rangers. However, Gomez has a history of injuries and inconsistency at the plate.

Could the 11-year veteran help the Mariners next year? Perhaps, but his uneven performance and advancing age pose a considerable risk.

Jon Jay 

The former Cub, Cardinal, and Padre has a career .355 OBP, although he has just 33 home runs and 51 stolen bases in eight seasons. Moreover, he turns 33-years-old before Opening Day and is a fringe-average defender.

Other notable free agents include former Mariner Austin Jackson, Cameron Maybin, and Rajai Davis.

Major League Trade Targets

It’s unwise to underestimate the deal making acumen of Jerry Dipoto. That said; expecting to see oft-rumored names like Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, or Charlie Blackmon in a Mariners uniform next year is a reach.

Here are several names to consider, although most are arguably out of Seattle’s price range.

Michael Taylor — Washington Nationals

When Adam Eaton suffered a season-ending injury, Taylor got a chance to contribute and he didn’t waste it. The fourth-year player slashed .271/.320/.486 with 17 stolen bases and 19 home runs in 432 plate appearances.

The 26-year-old is under team control through the 2020 season and arbitration-eligible. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Taylor stands to earn approximately $2.3 million, if his case reaches a hearing.

Despite his 2017 success, Taylor’s major and minor league platoon splits suggest the right-handed hitter may struggle against righties in the future.

One thing is certain though; the former sixth round pick can play defense. He possesses owns a strong throwing arm and delivered nine DRS last season.

With Eaton expected to return next season and top-ranked prospect Victor Robles waiting in the wings, Taylor may be expendable for the right price. But, potential suitors won’t find him on the discount rack.

A.J. Pollock — Arizona Diamondbacks

In his final year of arbitration eligibility, Pollack projects to make $8.5 million next year. Perhaps, the Diamondbacks will want to get something in return for the 29-year-old before he’s eligible for free agency.

Pollack is a strong defender (seven DRS) and delivered at the plate too. He slashed .266/.330/.471 with 14 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 466 plate appearances this year.

The Notre Dame alum’s availability may factor into a potential buyer’s interest. Pollack played in 157 games in 2015, but he’s exceeded 130 games just one other time since debuting in 2011.

In 2014, Pollack missed 79 games due to a fractured hand inflicted by an errant pitch. In fairness, that’s a bad luck injury. Last year, he suffered a fractured right elbow — a repeat injury from 2010. Most recently, the veteran missed 44 games with a groin strain in 2017.

Joc Pederson — Los Angeles Dodgers

Known for his power bat, Pederson’s 14.3-percent career walk rate and .345 OBP are indicators of plate patience; a trait coveted by the Mariners.

Although capable of playing center field, the 25-year-old projects as a corner outfielder long-term. He’ll likely earn $2 million in arbitration and remains under team control through the 2020 season.

The Dodgers have a deep outfield, but they’re not going to give away a controllable, young player either. That’s why Pederson won’t be a throwaway.

Juan Lagares — New York Mets

If Dipoto were to add a potent bat at first base, he might be inclined to add a defense-first center fielder with a league-average bat. The 49-year-old executive has done it before past and Lagares is that kind of player.

Lagares is a proven elite glove with 15 DRS last season and his throwing arm rated best among center fielders.

Offensively, the right-handed hitter’s career slash against southpaws is .267/.314/.400. However, that’s not significantly better than his overall line (.257/.297/.366).

Effectively, Lagares is a costlier, more established version of Heredia. The 28-year-old will earn $6.5 million next year and $9 million in 2019. There’s also a $9.5 million team option for 2020.

Billy Hamilton — Cincinnati Reds

Best known for his blazing speed, the 27-year-old had the second fastest Sprint Speed in the majors behind the Minnesota Twins’ Byron Buxton.

That foot speed has enabled Hamilton to average 58 stolen bases and 12 DRS during four full big league seasons. He also possesses a very strong throwing arm. In some ways, the former second round pick is a younger version of fellow Mississippian Dyson.

Although a switch-hitter, Hamilton is much stronger against righties (career .259/.322/.351) than southpaws (.219/.241/.296). In addition, his 19.4 percent career strikeout rate is typical of hitters with double-digit home run power, not someone with 17 dingers in 2,180 plate appearances.

Originally drafted as a shortstop, Hamilton is a free agent after the 2019 season and could net $5 million in arbitration. Perhaps, the rebuilding Reds would prefer to pass on that cost to a willing trade partner.

 

JeDi Specials

As with the potential first base candidate piece, I’ve added lesser-known players to the mix. Here are two names to speculate about around the hot stove.

Zack Granite — Minnesota Twins

Minnesota’s outfield is deep with notable names Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Robbie Grossman, Max Kepler potentially ahead of the 25-year-old. Perhaps, general manager Thad Levine prefers to deal from a strength to upgrade another part of his roster.

A left-handed bat, Granite has hit well at all levels and has 120 stolen bases during five minor league seasons. He’s also capable of playing center field.

Still, it’s possible Levine opts to move the arbitration-eligible Grossman instead. Especially with Granite being under club control for at least five more years.

Brett Phillips — Milwaukee Brewers

Incumbents Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, and Domingo Santana could block the former sixth round pick. Complicating matters, top prospect Lewis Brinson may unseat Broxton from center field next season.

An above average defender, the left-handed hitting Phillips has hit every level and averaged 15 home runs during his last four seasons in the minors. Wresting away the 23-year-old from the Brew Crew may prove challenging though.

Phillips has minor league options remaining and is under team control for at least five years. General manager David Stearns will feel no sense of urgency to deal the young outfielder, unless he receives the right offer.

Stranger Things

If the Mariners can’t find an acceptable replacement for Dyson and don’t want to expose Haniger to the grind of being an everyday center fielder, I have an offbeat idea.

Add someone capable of playing all outfield positions and create a four-man center field rotation using the new player, Haniger, Heredia, and Gamel. Heck, throw in Shohei Otani as a supplemental corner outfielder.

Admittedly, there’s risk with such a plan. If one player goes down with an injury or slumps badly, the plan falls apart. Knowing the Mariners’ recent bad fortune, they’d probably end up with an injured outfielder and another one struggling at the plate.

In a way, that’s what happened last April. Martin struggled tremendously and Haniger went down with an oblique strain. Fortunately, for Servais, he had Heredia, Dyson, Gamel, and even Powell at the ready. With Dyson, Martin, and Powell no longer with the club, the Mariners no longer enjoy such depth.

My hair-brained scheme couldn’t work without Dipoto adding considerable depth to the 40-man roster. Then again, there’s an element of fun considering it in early November.

Finally 

Assuming Seattle isn’t willing to commit significant years and dollars to Cain, finding a cheaper platoon partner for Heredia makes sense.

Re-upping Dyson may work in the short-term. After all, management already knows what they’d have in the veteran outfielder. That said; retaining an aging player heavily reliant on speed for more than one or two years would be risky.

A reunion with Martin has merit too, especially if he reverts his 2016 form of top-notch defense and reasonable offensive production. After that season, I actually speculated about a potential contract extension for the popular veteran.

Assuming the Mariners and Martin agreed to a deal, he could attempt to win back his starting gig or timeshare with Heredia.

Wouldn’t that be a great redemption story?

More than likely, Dipoto finds a better solution to his center field quandary. He’s pretty good at surprising us.

In fact, that’s the best part of hot stove season in the Pacific Northwest.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins