Mariners need: outfield defense

 

In recent years, the Seattle Mariners haven’t placed a high value on defense, especially in the outfield. This becomes particularly clear when you look back at their most recent corner outfield pickups, via the trade and free agent market. Since 2013, the team has used players with limited range like Nelson Cruz, Mark Trumbo, Corey Hart, Raul Ibanez, and Michael Morse to play left and right field.

Further proof of the low importance placed on outfield run prevention by the Mariners was their trial and error attempts of putting infielders Rickie Weeks, Brad Miller, and Ketel Marte. These experiments went particularly well, which is understandable. It’s hard to learn the outfield – or any position – on the job during big league games.

The organization’s disregard for outfield defense helped Seattle earn the distinction of having the worst outfield defense in the majors in 2015. Their -45 defensive runs saved (DRS) far exceeded the San Francisco Giants, who were the next worst team at -29 DRS. Conversely, the best DRS in the majors was the Tampa Bay Rays, who had 44 DRS.

Discussing DRS
For those not familiar with DRS, it quantifies a defensive player’s value by expressing how many runs they saved or lost their team compared to the average player at that position. For instance, a +10 DRS by a second baseman means that player is 10 runs better than the average second baseman. Here’s the FanGraphs breakdown of fielding ability categories for individual players, based on DRS. If you want to learn more about DRS, you read about it in this article found at fangraphs.com.

Gold Glove Caliber Great Above-average Average Below-average Poor Awful
15 10 5 0 -5 -10 -15

Forsaking outfield run prevention certainly didn’t help a Mariners organization that was offensively challenged during the first half of the 2015 season and possessed a below-average bullpen throughout the year. To make matters worse, most of the defensively challenged didn’t consistently contribute at the plate either. The Mariners outfielders weren’t just bad defenders, they were the best at being bad defenders. But, that’s about to change.

New sheriff in town
When New GM Jerry Dipoto was introduced on September 29, he stated that “the Mariners need to pitch, they need to catch it, and they need to be athletic.” He intends to build a club that takes advantage of Safeco Field’s reputation of being a pitcher’s park by playing strong defense and getting on base. Yep, defense is no longer going to take a back seat in the Emerald City.

Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill also identified outfield defense as one of the top offseason priorities for the club’s offseason. Take a look at the Mariner outfielders who had at least 200 innings in 2015 and it becomes clear why Dipoto and Jason have mentioned outfield defense so prominently since the end of the season. I still think it’s possible that these two gents share a brain.

Player Position Games Innings DRS
Nelson Cruz RF  80 704 -8
Franklin Gutierrez ** LF  46 309  3
Mark Trumbo LF/RF  47 325 -4
Seth Smith LF/RF 120 798  1
Austin Jackson ** CF 107 899 -2
Dustin Ackley ** LF/CF  86 499 -8
Brad Miller ** LF/CF  41 253 -13
 ** Former Mariners

Change is needed
Going into 2016, I expect that Cruz and Trumbo will see limited outfield playing time. Both graded out as poor last season. Last season wasn’t a statistical outlier for either player, but indicative of their below-average outfield defense. Since 2012, Cruz and Trumbo have respectively registered -21 and -12 DRS, while playing the outfield.

Ironically, Trumbo has actually played more innings at first base during his career and has been an average fielder, while tallying 12 DRS since his big league debut in 2010. Assuming both sluggers are with Seattle on Opening Day, playing Cruz at designated hitter and Trumbo at first would equate to an addition by subtraction scenario.

Austin Jackson, Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller have already been traded away, Franklin Gutierrez is a free agent, and Seth Smith is a likely trade chip. So, it’s possible that the Mariners will have a completely new starting outfield. That’s assuming that Cruz and Trumbo aren’t primary outfielders and are only worst case scenario contingency options.

Wanted: defensive outfielders
So, who will the Mariners target? In his series of initial of offseason pieces, Jason has discussed several outfield options outside of the organization. First, he discussed players from this year’s free agent class. Plus, he’s just published potential trade targets for the club that included options for the outfield.

Perhaps, Dipoto will go after a high-profile free agent like Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, or Yoenis Cespedes, but he’s repeatedly stated since his days as Los Angeles Angels GM that he views free agency as an “accent move” rather than a foundation builder. Maybe he’ll trade for Carlos Gonzalez or Yasiel Puig. But, their teams aren’t going to give away their star outfielders. Trade demands would likely start with Taijuan Walker and then quickly escalate.

Jason’s “Reeling it In” piece before the World Series suggested to set 2016 outfield expectations by thinking “moderate bat, above-average glove.” That makes sense, especially after seeing the first two position players acquired by the new GM.

A hint of what’s to come?
Dipoto first position player pick-up was outfielder Dan Robertson via the waiver wire from his former team. The 30-year-old bounced around the minors until debuting with the Angels in 2014. During limited playing time, he’s posted a .274/.324/.325 slash with no homers during 277 career plate appearances. He’s played all three outfield positions, although he’s provided the most value in left field with six DRS.

The outfielder with the bigger upside was the recently required Boog Powell, who finished the season in Tampa Bay Rays’ system and currently ranks seventh among Mariners prospects. The 22-year-old provides speed, good bat-to-ball skill, with strong defense and is the prototypical player that Dipoto will likely target for his outfield and bench.

With that in mind, I decided to identify several players who have defensive skills and may be able to help with their bat. Some are capable of helping more than others and none of these players are necessarily final solutions at any specific position. But, they could either serve as a place holder or a role player for the Mariners in 2016.

Here are five examples of “moderate bat, above-average glove” outfielders who would be defensive upgrades over most 2015 Mariners and – in most cases – were better offensive players.

Player Position Team Age Bats Free Agt After Innings DRS BA OBP SLG OPS
Aaron Hicks LF/CF/RF MIN 26 B 2019 761 2 .256 .323 .398 .721
Scott Van Slyke LF/RF LAD 29 R 2019 303 11 .239 .317 .383 .700
Kirk Nieuwenhuis LF/CF/RF NYM 28 L 2019 278 6 .195 .270 .375 .645
Matt den Dekker LF/RF WSN 28 L 2019 216 2 .253 .315 .485 .800
Shane Robinson LF/CF/RF Free agt 31 R Now 458 5 .250 .299 .322 .621

None of these players are flashy, but they could help the Mariners and wouldn’t be costly. These are not the only choices on the market, just examples of who Dipoto could be looking at to increase depth and athleticism, plus improve outfield.

Aaron Hicks
Hicks was one of the outfielders that Jason recently mentioned as a possible trade target for Seattle. In that piece, he mentioned that Byron Buxton will eventually become Minnesota’s starting center fielder and Hicks could be dealt depending on other moves made by the club. Since Jason’s piece was released, the Twins won the right to exclusively negotiate with Korean star Byung-ho Park, which could have major implications for Minnesota’s roster.

Signing Park could lead to the team trading third baseman Trevor Plouffe, so they can turn the position over to Miguel Sano, who has been asked by the team to spend time in left field during winter ball. Minnesota already has another youngster – Eddie Rosario – who played in left field. The club has the “problem” of having a roster teeming with young talent. Considering his age, remaining club-control, and the shortage of inexpensive center fielders, Hicks is certain to have trade value.

The potential signing of Park combined with having first baseman Joe Mauer and Sano diminishes the trade of value of Trumbo or Seth Smith if the Mariners opted to use either as part of deal to get Hicks since the Twins wouldn’t necessarily have a clear vacancy at first base or designated hitter.

Like Jason, Hicks is my favorite choice for the Mariners. He’s a player who could hold center field until Powell is ready or hold down the position if the youngster regressed. When Powell is ready, either he or Hicks could move to a corner outfield spot. How nice would it be to have an outfield comprised of three players capable of playing center field?

Scott Van Slyke
The son of former Mariners first base coach and five-time Gold Glove winner Andy Van Slyke certainly has the pedigree to be a good defensive outfielder. The younger Van Slyke’s career .253/.337/.442 suggests he can also be an asset at the plate. One factor that could influence the Dodgers’ willingness to deal the 29-year-old is Puig’s future in Los Angeles.

Although Van Slyke’s better against southpaws, the right-handed hitter’s .242/.306/.402 slash against righties isn’t atrocious and suggests that he’d be a good platoon option who could occasionally play against right-handed pitching.

Additional aspects to Van Slyke’s game is the fact that he has some pop – 11 home runs in 246 plate appearances during 2014 – and he’s played first base. This kind of versatility would fit in nicely on any team.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis
The 27-year-old hasn’t lived up to the expectations that come with being a third-round draft pick. Since debuting with the Mets in 2012, he’s bounced back and forth between Class-AAA Las Vegas and the big league club with mixed results. In May, his contract was purchased by the Angels. But, the right-handed hitter returned to New York via the waiver wire in June and was part of their postseason roster.

Based on his career .149/.260/.184 slash against southpaws, the left-handed hitter is best suited to face right-handed pitching. Nieuwenhuis represents another potential platoon player. One drawback is the fact that he’s out of options. Thereby, he’d have to clear waivers before he could be sent to the minor leagues.

Matt den Dekker
The 28-year-old is another former New York Mets draftee. The 2010 fifth-rounder was was traded to Washington just prior to the season when the Mets were desperate for left-handed relievers. den Dekker split his time between Class-AAA Syracuse and the big league club in 2015. The third-year player’s career .243/.322/.366 slash qualifies him as one of those “moderate bat, above-average glove” outfielders.

The left-handed hitter has been primarily used against righties and has been league-average during his small sample sized career. Unlike his former Mets teammate Nieuwenhuis, den Dekker isn’t out of options.

Shane Robinson
Hicks’ former teammate is the only free agent on my list. The versatile outfielder demonstrated that he could play all three outfield positions and even pitched a scoreless inning in 2015. Robinson’s numbers were relatively close to his modest .237/.302/.313 career slash. The right-handed hitter’s career platoon splits actually favor him against righties, although they’re still below league-average.

Primarily a corner outfielder last season,  Robinson has the ability to fill in as a center fielder. He isn’t a candidate to be the starting outfielder for the Mariners, but he could help serve as organizational depth.

Going forward
None of the players I’ve mentioned are going to make Mariner fans forget Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Cameron as defenders. But, they represent relatively low-cost upgrades who can provide organizational depth at a relatively low cost.

The Mariners can ill-afford to have another below-average outfield in pitcher-friendly Safeco. Doing so would be counterintuitive for a franchise with a stated goal of taking advantage of their spacious outfield dimensions. That’s why acquiring players similar to the ones I’ve discussed makes sense for the team in 2016.

Discussing who Dipoto acquires and/or he should acquire is the best part of Hot Stove season. Perhaps, he’ll bring back fan-favorite Franklin Gutierrez as a role player. If the Mariners GM can snare a bigger name at a reasonable price, I’m sure he’d make the deal in a heartbeat. But, my expectation is that we’ll see more players like Robertson and Powell joining the Mariners between now and Spring Training. That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a refreshing change from the past.

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