Can M’s Get Younger And Still Contend?

After fielding the oldest group of position players in major league baseball last season, it’s understandable that the Seattle Mariners are looking to get younger. The issue confronting the team is whether they can simultaneously infuse younger talent and remain a postseason contender.

Don’t get me wrong, having thirty-somethings isn’t necessarily bad. The Mariners had nine players born during or before 1985 and remained in the wildcard race until the last weekend of the season. Moreover, two postseason teams — the New York Mets and Texas Rangers — had 11. Having said that, Seattle was far more dependent on their older players.

In 2016, the Mariners had eight players with 250 or more plate appearances who were over the age of 30 — the most in the majors. Other than the Mets and Toronto Blue Jays, every postseason team relied on four or fewer such players.

If you’re familiar with the Mariners, you already know the older players — Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee, Chris IannettaNori Aoki, Franklin GutierrezSeth Smith, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz. From a youth movement perspective, the good news is that with the exception of Cano and Cruz, the remaining players are either impending free agents or the club holds an option with a relatively inexpensive buyout.

Still, simply moving past older players as their respective contracts expire and replacing them with younger faces solves the age issue, but there’s an inherent risk with such a strategy. What if replacing the proven veterans with younger faces hurts the club’s ability to contend?

With that in mind, let’s look at all eight older and consider the likelihood of their departure and the potential impact on the Mariners’ age and competitiveness. I’ll start with the club’s two primary first baseman from last season.

Adam Lind / Dae-Ho Lee
With the 33-year-old Lind set to become a free agent, Dan Vogelbach — acquired from the Chicago Cubs — is expected get an opportunity to win the starting first baseman job during Spring Training. When discussing Vogelbach trade in July, general manager Jerry Dipoto told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times “He rakes everywhere he’s ever been. He’s an elite strike-zone controller with well above-average power.”

Despite Dipoto’s public confidence in the Vogelbach’s unproven ability to hit big league pitching, most observers expect he’ll acquire a right-handed hitter who’s capable of stepping in at first base and play other positions in the field. Earlier this month, I noted Steve Pearce of the Baltimore Orioles is that type of player. The 33-year-old is a soon-to-be free agent with experience at first base, second base, and both corner outfield spots.

Another option would be to re-sign Lee, who turns 35 next June. Although he became a fan-favorite during his rookie season, returning the one-dimensional slugger to the Emerald City would counter another Dipoto goal — become less platoon-centric.

Assuming Vogelbach wins the job, the Mariners will get significantly younger at first base, even if they look to a thirty-something versatile veteran — such as Pearce — to serve as insurance behind the rookie in case he scuffles.

Chris Iannetta
It’s possible Seattle will consider retaining the 33-year-old. But, his second-half swoon will certainly factor into any decisions regarding the 11-year veteran’s retention.

Since Mike Zunino is already entrenched as the club’s primary receiver, it’s highly likely that the 25-year-old will be the Mariners’ Opening Day catcher. Therefore, getting any younger behind the plate will depend on his backup.

If the team is willing to accept his history of below-average offensive production, Jesus Sucre could potentially serve as Zunino’s understudy. One hitch to that plan could be his salary though. Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports that the 28-year-old is arbitration eligible. Dutton notes that, if both sides can’t agree to contract terms prior to December 2, Seattle would probably permit Sucre to become a free agent.

As with first base, the Mariners may prefer to add a proven 30-something to back up the young Zunino. If that were the case, the club wouldn’t be any younger behind the plate next season.

Nori Aoki / Franklin GutierrezSeth Smith
The Mariners hold a $7 million dollar option on Smith and his two teammates can become free agents, so moving past the trio would be relatively easy from a contractual standpoint. But, are there better alternatives available?

Before answering, it’s worth noting that the Aoki/Gutierrez/Smith combo provided excellent offensive value when used in a platoon role. To refresh your memory, here’s a look at their 2016 production against opposite-handed pitching.

Name G PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Nori Aoki (vs RHP) 104 359 4 .300 .364 .428 .793
Seth Smith (vs RHP) 133 405 16 .256 .351 .431 .782
Franklin Gutierrez (vs LHP) 85 217 12 .280 ..373 .511 .884
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/26/2016.

 

Dipoto has mentioned Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel as outfield possibilities for 2017. Both youngsters would undoubtedly provide superior defense compared to their older counterparts, but they’re unproven hitters and currently viewed as fourth outfielders.

Perhaps, minor leaguer Boog Powell will eventually work himself into the conversation. Greg Johns of MLB.com reports the 23-year-old is hitting well in the Dominican League. But, Powell is ineligible for the first five games of 2017 thanks to an 80-game performance enhancing drug suspension passed down in June. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he’ll start in Class-AAA Tacoma and will have to earn back the trust of the organization before being relied upon at the big league level.

With so few internal options available, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports suggested the Mariners might acquire “a complementary piece” during the offseason.

Adding a younger, established full-time player in one of the corners, could permit the club to retain one or two of their thirty-something outfielders and use Heredia and Gamel in supplemental roles, such as platoon players or defensive replacements.

Such a strategy would help Seattle get younger and minimize risk. Still, acquiring full-time players isn’t easy and usually comes with a high price tag attached in the form of multiple prospects or a costly contract.

Robinson Cano
The Mariners’ second baseman has a contract for next year — seven years and $168 million with a full no-trade clause. Moving such a pact would be problematic. Besides, he’s their best player and isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps, he’ll be moved to another position in the future.

Nelson Cruz
That brings us to the second thirty-something under contract for next season. Like Cano, Cruz was exceptional last season and is one of the best power hitters in baseball. However, his contract — two years and $28.5 million — does make him a more attractive trade commodity.

I’m not suggesting that the Mariners should trade the “Boomstick.” But, if the club is looking to get younger, shouldn’t dealing their oldest player be considered?

There’s an inherent risk associated with holding on to a player entering their age-36 season. None of us — including professional athletes — know when our physical abilities will take a significant downturn.

Fortunately, the professionals possess elite physical abilities and an equally special level of determination, which elevates them above the average person and can help them stave off Father Time. In the end though, baseball stars succumb to the same aging process as we do.

Since there’s no way to accurately project how and when an aging player will regress, I decided to list the top age-35 seasons between 2010 and 2015 and then compare each player’s age-36 season to see if there were any trends or hints at what to expect from the Mariners’ slugger next season.

As a reference, I included Cruz’s 2016 numbers so you could see just how good he was last season. I’ve also highlighted areas where players demonstrated a significant decline from one year to the next.

Player Age-35 Age-36
Year WAR BA OBP SLG WAR BA OBP SLG
Adrian Beltre 2014 7.0 .324 .388 .492 5.8 .287 .334 .453
Victor Martinez 2014 5.4 .335 .409 .565 -1.6 .245 .301 .366
Marlon Byrd 2013 5.0 .291 .336 .511 2.7 .264 .312 .445
Nelson Cruz 2016 4.7 .287 .360 .555 ? ? ? ?
Jayson Werth 2014 4.1 .292 .394 .455 -1.6 .221 .302 .384
Scott Rolen 2010 4.1 .285 .358 .497 1.6 .242 .279 .397
Juan Uribe 2014 4.0 .311 .337 .440 1.7 .253 .320 .417
Jimmy Rollins 2014 4.0 .243 .323 .394 -0.1 .224 .285 .358
Carlos Lee 2011 4.0 .275 .342 .446 -0.3 .264 .332 .365
Carlos Beltran 2012 3.9 .269 .346 .495 2.3 .296 .339 .491
David Ortiz 2011 3.9 .309 .398 .554 3.2 .318 .415 .611
Alex Rodriguez 2011 3.9 .276 .362 .461 2.2 .272 .353 .430
Mark Teixeira 2015 3.8 .255 .357 .548 -0.6 .204 .292 .362
Torii Hunter 2011 3.8 .262 .336 .429 5.7 .313 .365 .451
Chase Utley 2014 3.7 .270 .339 .407 0.4 .212 .286 .343
Lance Berkman 2011 3.5 .301 .412 .547 0.5 .259 .381 .444
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/25/2016.

 

As you might expect, results varied. The majority of players delivered significantly less value at age-36. But, there were a few notable outliers.

Former Mariner, Adrian Beltre, continues to be an elite-level player at the ripe old age of 37. Everyone is aware the extraordinary performance of 40-year-old David Ortiz during his swan song and Torii Hunter somehow defied nature and played better during his age-36 season.

So, which pile will Nelson Cruz land in?

That’s the quandary facing the Mariners and any team with an older star player. Do they stick with him and risk a potentially significant regression or do they press on with their star slugger and try to win now?

Beyond the fan unrest that a Cruz deal would create, there’s the impact to the club’s offense to consider. Last season, the Mariners ranked third in the American League in runs scored thanks to the Boomstick. Shipping out such a prolific hitter would be a risky proposition.

Unless Dipoto gets an offer he just can’t refuse, I suspect Cruz will be the Mariners’ designated hitter in 2017. Winning without the slugger next season doesn’t seem possible with the current roster configuration.

Finally
After going through a season that saw 58.7-percent of all Mariner plate appearances go to players over 30, it makes complete sense that Dipoto wants to inject his roster with more youth. Nevertheless, one can’t ignore the fact that leaning so heavily on older players led Seattle to an 86-win season.

Over the coming months, I expect that the second-year general manager will incrementally add younger players, while hedging his bets for the 2017 season.

The roster may not be as young as he’d like by Opening Day, but it’s highly likely that Dipoto will make measurable progress. How he goes about his business will add excitement and intrigue to the Hot Stove season.

I’m looking forward to watching the process unfold.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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