Mariners running out of options

After aggressively remodeling his club’s roster for the past three months, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto says that the team’s roster is essentially set for the beginning of Spring Training.

Assuming for a moment that the 40-man roster remains intact between now and the start of Spring Training, the club will enter camp with six players who have no options remaining. This could set the stage for several tough roster-related choices by Dipoto and his staff.

If these players don’t make the big league roster out of Peoria, they’d have to clear waivers before being assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma. That’s a risky proposition because most or all of them wouldn’t make through the waiver process before being snatched up by another club. Take a look at the six players to see what I mean.

Mike Montgomery – starting pitcher
The Mariners expect the 26-year-old to compete for a rotation spot. However, he’ll be the dark horse when pitchers and catchers report on February 19. Ahead of him are ace Felix Hernandez, newly acquired starters Wade Miley and Nate Karns, plus holdovers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

After being exchanged for Erasmo Ramirez – who was ironically out of options – the southpaw got off to a good start after making his major league debut on June 2. Montgomery held opponents to a .191 batting average and threw two consecutive complete game shutouts during his first seven starts. Unfortunately for the rookie and the team, opponents hit .368 during his five final starts in August when he surrendered 21 earned runs in 19.1 innings.

Perhaps, his late season decline was caused by his career-high 155.1 innings pitched. However, his walk and strikeout rates with Seattle weren’t much worse than what he posted during eight minor league seasons. It’s possible that we’ve seen the best that the southpaw has to offer and his destiny is in the bullpen.

It’s too early to determine Montgomery’s future with certainty. But, barring injury or trade, he’ll face an uphill battle earning a spot in the Mariners’ rotation. His destiny may be to start the season in the bullpen with Seattle or be used as trade piece by Dipoto.

Jesus Montero – first baseman/designated hitter
Also age-26, the former catcher has endured a tumultuous three seasons after being dealt to the Mariners for pitcher Michael Pineda. After a decent first season with Seattle in 2012, he fell on hard times that were mostly self-induced.

During the 2013-14 seasons, he performed poorly on the field, received a 50-game suspension due to his involvement with the Biogenesis performance enhancement scandal, arrived to Spring Training 40 pounds overweight, and was in an altercation with a roving scout during a rehab assignment game.

Since then, Montero has turned his life around with the help of the Mariners organization. In 2015, he arrived to camp in the best shape of his life and with a new attitude. On the field, he posted an impressive .355/.398/.569 slash and hit 18 home runs during 98 games for Tacoma. However, his new approach may have come too late for the previous front office.

Due to his previous struggles – and the acquisition of right-handed slugger Mark Trumbo – Montero was in low demand during the 2015 season. Even after his July 10 recall from Tacoma, he had just 116 plate appearances with the big league club during the remainder of the season.

The new regime has outwardly endorsed Montero and Dipoto has called him as “an asset” to the organization. When referring to the right-handed slugger, the Mariners GM recently told MLB Radio that they were going to give him an opportunity to “win at bats at first base and DH.”

That comment came shortly before the arrival of the left-handed hitting Adam Lind, who will be the team’s primary first baseman. Lind’s struggles against southpaws leaves the door open for a right-handed counterpart at first base. Could Montero be that player?

Despite Dipoto saying all of the right things Montero, I can’t envision a scenario where he’ll get enough at bats to justify a spot on the Mariners 25-man roster. Let’s face the facts – he isn’t the kind of player the GM has been targeting in his deals. Montero doesn’t play another field position and he’s a power-first offensive player.

More than likely, the Mariners will only have four reserve position players and that’s including a backup catcher. And no – Montero isn’t a catcher anymore.

Ideally, the Mariners’ backup first baseman can play the outfield. If not, he’ll have to be capable of playing passable defense at another position. Remember, the new leadership has placed an emphasis on improving the team’s fielding and versatility. Montero doesn’t fit into that mold.

Seattle will already be carrying two other players who will only play one position – Lind and catcher Chris Iannetta. If Montero were a third, the bench would consist of outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, backup catcher Steve Clevenger and one infielder.

It’s true that both Lind and Iannetta have played other positions during their respective careers. Lind has played the outfield, but hasn’t done so since 2010. Iannetta has manned first and third base, although it’s been for three or fewer games during any given season. Both players are going to play one field position.

Based on the strategy that the Mariners have been using to reboot their roster, they’ll want to have more versatile bench players. That’s why newly acquired Ed Lucas may be better positioned than Montero to make the team out of Peoria.

The right-handed hitter can play all four infield positions, and has totaled nearly 900 innings playing corner outfield spots during his professional career. His hitter’s defensive versatility could potentially make him an asset. Moreover, he’s hammered left-handed pitching with a .330/.360/.469 slash during a very small sample-size of 179 plate appearances.

Lucas may not be the eventual choice to make the team and may end up being minor league depth. But, a player with versatility similar to Lucas’ will have the edge over a less adaptable player – like Montero.

When discussing Montero, Dipoto relayed to Tacoma News Tribune beat writer Bob Dutton that “He is out of options. So he’s going to be exposed to waivers if he doesn’t make our club. One thing I can say is we do believe Jesus can hit. We’re going to find out if that fits for us.”

Barring injury or trade, I believe that Dipoto will determine that Montero isn’t a fit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the club or the player. Perhaps, the Mariners can add a piece to an area of weakness – like bullpen depth – by dealing Montero.

Plus, the former highly-touted prospect may be best served by starting over with a new organization that has a spot for him. Montero has nothing else to prove in the minor leagues and deserves a shot after reinventing himself and turning his life around. Personally, I’m hoping that the guy gets the chance to succeed somewhere in the majors.

Steve Clevenger – catcher
Although the 29-year-old has only appeared in 148 big league games in five seasons, he has the best chance to make the club out of Peoria. Clevenger provides Seattle with much needed catching depth and is a better alternative to last year’s backup – Jesus Sucre.

Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill pointed out here that Clevenger is a player who possesses good on-base abilities and is capable of playing more than one position– both are qualities that Dipoto values. In Clevenger’s case, he’s played first and third base during his professional career. This is another strike against Montero.

Clevenger’s presence also permits the club’s former starting catcher – Mike Zunino – to spend the entire 2016 season at the Class-AAA level, if that’s what it takes to get his offensive development back on track. If the former Mariners’ former number-one draft pick figures it out sooner, Clevenger would likely be the odd man out.

Anthony Bass, Evan Scribner, Justin De Fratus – relief pitchers
All three players – who are new acquisitions – will vie for spots in the bullpen. Bass is the most versatile of the threesome. As Jason pointed out when the right-hander arrived from the Texas Rangers, he’s a “Swiss Army Knife” who can fill multiple roles including long-reliever or spot starter. This versatility gives the 28-year-old a leg up on his competition.

Both Scribner and De Fratus will also compete for spots on the major league roster and are the type of “buy-low” players that Dipoto’s been adding during the offseason. Scribner demonstrated superb control of the strike zone in 2015 while striking out 64 hitters in 60 innings and only walking four. That’s an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio. On the flip side, he was victimized by the long ball – he surrendered 14 home runs.

De Fratus appears to be a victim of overuse last season. While with the Philadelphia Phillies, he logged 80 innings – second most by a reliever in 2015. Also, he had 26 multi-inning appearances last season – twice as many as in 2014. More than likely, De Fratus’ second-half decline was directly attributable to his heavy workload.

Considering the current bullpen uncertainty, all three relievers have a good chance of making the relief squad out of Spring Training, although it’s important to note that Dipoto will continue to add more arms to the mix when an opportunity arises. Just today, he added reliever A.J. Schugel, who was designated for assignment by the Arizona Diamondbacks last week.

There are two more details that need to be mentioned – Jerry Dipoto is always willing to make a that will help improve his roster and it’s only December 16. So, some of the “men without options” could be dealt prior to the beginning of Spring Training.

In the end, all six players will land on a major league roster if they earn it. Whether that spot is with Seattle or another team will be determined by their performance, the competition, fate, or the trade market.

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