M’s shortstop situation

 The Seattle Mariners find themselves in familiar territory once again. They have not one, but multiple potentially-viable shortstops. This time, both will make the 25-man roster out of spring training.

In recent years it was Brad Miller, Chris Taylor and Nick Franklin vying for the regular role at the position. This season, Ketel Marte entered camp the overwhelming favorite to get the everyday job at shortstop. He’s still going to get that nod to start 2016, but Luis Sardinas also is going to make the club, and it’s not just to serve as the backup around the infield, fill in at first base and in the outfield and pinch hit and pinch run late in games. Sardinas is going to play shortstop.

Marte may be the future at the position, though he’s an easier profile at second base due to some issues with throwing accuracy from the six-hole. Marte carries the slightly higher upside, too; the two players are fairly similar in many ways, but Marte is a better baserunner with more raw speed and a more dynamic set of physical tools. Sardinas, however, is the better glove at shortstop at present, which may be all he needs to ultimately wrestle the job away.

This doesn’t mean Marte will be headed to Triple-A Tacoma or even traded — the latter is always a possibility, but if he performs, not only is Marte not going to be sent down to the minors, he’s probably going to hang onto his gig at short. But at some point fairly soon, as Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins discussed over the winter, Robinson Cano, 33, won’t be the everyday second baseman, opening up some time for both of the aforementioned middle infielders.

Sardinas, as I stated on Twitter earlier this week, may end up the defining acquisition of GM Jerry Dipoto‘s first season in Seattle. He was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Ramon Flores, who was one of the two prospects acquired from the New York Yankees in the Dustin Ackley trade. For the record, here is what I wrote about Sardinas after the Mariners acquired him in November:

Sardinas is a solid shortstop glove with a decent small sample at the plate under his belt from his time in Texas. He posted a .261/.303/.313 line in 125 plate appearances in 2014 before struggling in a smaller sample for the Brewers a year ago. But there’s more pop in the bat than his career .269 slugging percentage suggests; anything sub .350 is completely unplayable in Major League Baseball without elite on-base production. His minor league slugging numbers dont suggest much, either, but he’s stronger now than at any point pre-2015 and his swing from both sides of the plate is cleaner than ever before, including his time in the minors when he hit .290/.310/.374 in 60 games in 201 that led to his cup-of-coffee call-up.

Perhaps the most important number in this conversation is 22. That’s how old Marte is. But it’s also how old Sardinas is and the Venezuelan has an advantage in terms of refinement versus his Dominican teammate. Ignore the statistics each has posted this spring and pay attention to three things that do not show up in a box score or any stat line: Quality plate appearances, steady defense and instinctual play. They’re both showing it consistently this month, tying with Robinson Cano and Chris Iannetta for the team lead in quality PAs in Cactus League play.

Of the two switch hitters, Sardinas is a little better from the right side than is Marte, but Marte is as good right now as Sardinas from the left, and possesses more power upside from that side of the batter’s box. Neither player is likely to walk much, but Marte has the more natural work-the-count game plan, while Sardinas is more likely to make consistent contact early in their careers — shorter swing, more aggressive early in counts and a better fastball finder.

It’s an intriguing scenario now, but that’s only half the story. The other half is about how the club got to this point. When Sardinas was acquired he performed and appeared to be a reserve-only type player on any team, including a second-division, 90-plus loss type like the Brewers were a year ago. But something’s clicked with him this spring.

“He profiled more like this for me back in about ’12 or ’13,” said one American League scout, who liked Sardinas in Class-A Hickory, his first go of full-season ball. “At that time he was 150 pounds carrying a 25-pound bag of rocks, so you did have to project (physically) some. But the hands were always terrific, the footwork was natural and easy and he never really struggled enough (as a switch hitter) to think he’d have to give it up.”

Another scout who recommended Sardinas to his club last winter before the Rangers sent him to Milwaukee in exchange for Yovani Gallardo opined at the time that the Brewers were simply getting “an insurance policy for (Jean) Segura and a player whose development has slowed considerably since first breaking into the big leagues.”

The same scout now says “this is what Milwaukee hoped they were getting. It really is a different hitter; it’s aggressive with the hands, attacking pitches, staying within himself.”

Sardinas’ swing, particularly from the left side, is all about the line drive, all about not giving up the chance to put the barrel on the baseball, which is why you’re watching a lot of liners off his bat in Arizona.

When the regular season begins, we’ll see how that plays versus everyday, big-league arms over the long haul. Sardinas will have to remain poised and disciplined versus better pitching, something he’s yet to do for more than 125 plate appearances. If he does that, expect a boost in slugging percentage over that 2014 stint, too. The bat speed and swing plane from both sides of the plate suggest gap power.

Marte, too, needs experience, more reps versus legitimate major leaguers. He’ll need to adjust as well, because the league certainly will.

Both players are litmus tests for those wondering if the new field staff is better than their predecessors at handling struggling young players who lack MLB track records.

Either way, even with the trades of Miller and Franklin, the Mariners again have options at shortstop. This time they’re options with more trustworthy skill sets, especially in the case of Sardinas, who is at least an average defender at shortstop without having to make up for too many mistakes over the course of a season.

An interesting twist to Sardinas’ role is the fact that he’s now played center field — and didn’t look stupid doing it — and the club reportedly plans to get him some time at first base. It sounds a little odd; a shortstop playing first base. But Sardinas is 6-foot-1 and has played a plenty of second base, suggesting he won’t be fooled with ground balls off the bat on that side of the diamond — this is a real thing, by the way. Try playing on the left side of the field for your whole life, then all of a sudden moving over to the other side.

If Sardinas truly may be used at first base, even just late in games as a defensive-type replacement, the club has no real reason to carry that right-handed platoon first baseman. As-is, it appears Dae-Ho Lee will indeed make the roster with Jesus Montero being traded or designated or assignment (then traded, claimed or re-assigned) and Stefen Romero being sent to Triple-A to start the year.

Shawn O’Malley or Romero likely would be the beneficiary of the roster spot should Dipoto and Scott Servais surprise and decide to go for the most versatile and flexible roster, versus the 24.5-man type. Lee is a bad glove, can’t run, and can’t even fake it at any other position. The short side of platoons get roughly 200-240 plate appearances per year, and since Lee can’t run or field well, he may be destined for even fewer than that (he’d theoretically be removed a lot late in games in favor of Lind, another pinch hitter or a pinch runner, limiting his overall reps at the plate).

Sardinas, though, has become the key to the entire roster. Not to its success, but how it’s ultimately made up come April 4. And if Marte doesn’t clean up his throws to first, Sardinas may become more of a regular at shortstop, at which time Dipoto and staff may decide to review an option first tried by the previous regime Marte in center field, which still remains an idea I adore, even though Marte could very well fix his throwing issues and/or slide to second base and be just fine.

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Jason A. Churchill

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