In the past three days the Seattle Mariners have signed two thirtysomethings off the international market, in Cuban infielder Dayner Moreira and Korean slugger Dae-ho Lee. Neither were subject to international bonus pool limits, but both have a shot to see the big leagues in 2016.
Lee, 33, i a big, burly 1970s-style slugger, carrying somewhere between 265-285 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. The former KBO MVO spent the past four seasons in the Pacific League in Japan where his numbers dropped, but were still very good.
In his career on Korea, Lee batted over .330 four times and in his age 28-29 seasons, batted a combined .360/.438/.620 with 71 home runs. In his four seasons in the JPPL, Lee batted a comnbined .293/.366/.481, averaging just under 25 home runs per season in 142 games per year. In 2015, at age 33, Lee batted .282/.368/.524 with 31 home runs, his best power year in Japan. How that translates to Major League Baseball remains to be seen, but even the elite players from Japan saw significant drops in contact rate and power numbers in the states, including Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, the two greatest to play in both leagues.
Lee has a soft body, almost looking like a beer-league softball player, but he does possess plus raw power. He struck out in 15.4 percent of his plate appearances and 16.8 percent of his at-bats in Japan, including 17 percent of his PAs and 19.6 percent of his ABs the last two years. Those last two seasons likely prevail as the two most telling of his present abilities, which is why clubs weren’t lining up to hand Lee big dollars — or even anything guaranteed.
Lee may very well be a platoon value, with the average or better right-hander giving him significant problems, particularly with breaking stuff. He has average or slightly above-average bat speed and a longer-than-average swing, strongly suggesting that .282 average and 17 percent strikeout rate go in the wrong direction in MLB if put in any kind of regular role.
Mitigating those areas could make Lee a valuable platoon bat, but this brings up how he, or any player of his ilk, fits on a big-league roster these days, even in the American League.
If the bat we’re speaking of is a legitimate everyday bat that profiles well enough at designated hitter, we have no real issue, even in Seattle where Nelson Cruz is slated to start 100-120 games at DH in 2016. The problem is Lee cannot do anything else, including play a decent first base. The same can be said for Jesus Montero. In a vacuum, a club can live with the defense if the bat is big enough, but in theory such a player plays only versus left-handed pitching, pinch-hitting late, and truly nothing else. Lee nor Montero, or Gaby Sanchez, offer value on the bases and cannot play other positions. A pure platoon bat likely receives between 200-270 plate appearances per season. Add some pinch-hitting appearances and we’re still talking about 300 plate appearances or fewer, which is less than half of a full-time player. Since those plate appearances represent 100 percent of the value of said player, why carry one of them on your 25-man roster?
As it stands, the Mariners, for the bulk of the season anyway, likely will carry seven relievers, five starters and 13 positions players. Two of those position players are catchers, plus the starting infield (4), the DH (Cruz) and the outfield mix (Franklin Gutierrez, Seth Smith, Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin) which leaves 2 more spots (on top of the fourth outfielder, whoever that is between Gutierrez and Smith, and the backuop catcher, Steve Clevenger) for the bench. One of those backups has to be able to play shortstop, which considering what the Mariners have today on the roster and in terms of non-roster invitees, is limited to Luis Sardinas, Shawn O’Malley and Chris Taylor. If Sardinas or Taylor win that job, that means the other roster spot really has to go to an outfielder, with Boog Powell, Stefen Romero, O’Malley and Mike Baxter the candidates. If O’Malley wins the first spot, maybe his versatility allows the club to carry a bat-only player such as Lee, Montero or Sanchez. If Romero wins the backup first-base job, perhaps his versatility allows the club to carry Taylor or Sardinas and not worry about a fifth outfield option since Romero does have experience there.
Here are the problems with the scenario that allows the Mariners the flexibility to carry Lee, Montero or Sanchez, and the one that puts a more versatile player in the backup first base spot; O’Malley is not very good at shortstop, and Romero has yet to play first base with any regularity, show he can hit big-league pitching — including lefties — or be more than passable in the outfield. Now, if we had the freedom to presume Romero is going to hit left-handed pitching enough — say, to the tune o a .270/.330/.450 clip, I think this becomes a no-brainer. You carry Taylor or Sardinas, the legit shortstop gloves, and Romero, who provides the extra option in the outfield now and again. But that’s quite the leap, to be honest. I like Romero, and believe he has a chance to hit lefties, if not in general, based on his showings in Triple-A Tacoma and in spurts in the majors, but if the club gets to June and Romero isn’t hitting, a move of some kind has to be made. Carrying a bat-first player who isn’t hitting is intolerable if you want to win and the Mariners’ margin for error is likely to be so razor thin there can’t be any more long looks at unproven players.
The same would go for Lee, Montero and Sanchez in the same role.
There’s an argument to be made, such as there is for Romero as an outfielder, that O’Malley’s passable, albeit below average, status as a shortstop aren’t all that important. If Marte were pulled from a game for whatever reason, O’Malley is only covering the remainder of that game. If Marte is hurt, the club can go to the minors and bring in Sardinas or Taylor to play shortstop, meaning O’Malley’s shortstop value doesn’t really need to be of high prowess, and he’s actually a solid outfielder who can run, handle the bat and perhaps hit enough to warrant being the 25th man.
O’Malley’s presence on the roster would, in theory, alter the need for the extra outfielder, which lessens the dead weight that is the bat-only, 1B/DH types. But if Seattle opens the season with Taylor or Sardinas, Romero is the lone legitimate option to play first base and face lefties, unless another player is acquired.
Lee’s contract is not guaranteed and he has to earn a spot on the roster or will have the chance to go to Tacoma and stew until the big club wants or needs to make a change. Likely this would mean an injury to Adam Lind or Nelson Cruz.
Dayner Moreira, 31, whose signing was first reported by Bob Dutton of The News Tribune, offers athleticism and versatility, although that versatility is limited to the infield, based on his time in Cuba. Moreira is considered a solid hitter with 35 power (think Ketel Marte in those terms) but can reach the gaps and take the extra base with 60-65 speed. After defecting from Cuba to Puerto Rico, Moreira didn’t play much and has reported to camp early top try and shake off some of the rust. I have no idea what to expect from Moreira, but he’s certain to start the year in Triple-A Tacoma with a chance at some infield innings if he hits enough to warrant a call-up.
For the record, the spelling of Moreira’s first name is conflict. Some reports have it ‘Dainer’ while others report is as ‘Dayner.’ Once the Mariners declare one or the other, we’ll go with that.