Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto continued his effort to transform the identity of his roster by completing his third trade in just 11 days. This time, he executed a five-player deal with the Texas Rangers that acquired outfielder Leonys Martin and relief pitcher Anthony Bass in exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and a player to be named later.
For Seattle, Martin was the key piece in the deal. The 27-year-old is one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball, ranking third among his peers in defensive runs saved (DRS) with 15 despite not being the Rangers’ full-time centerfielder in 2015. Only gold glove winner Kevin Kiermaier (42) and Lorenzo Cain (18) ranked ahead of the Mariners newest outfielder.
If the season started today, Martin would be the Mariners’ starting centerfielder. The question going forward will be “how long will the team stick with the left-handed hitter if he repeats his 2015 struggles at the plate?”
After demonstrating league-average ability at reaching base during his first two full seasons in the big leagues, Martin regressed last season with a .219/.264/.313 slash in 95 games. Eventually, the defensive stalwart lost his starting job to rookie Delino Deshields and was optioned to Class-AAA in Round Rock in August.
While at Round Rock, Martin suffered a fractured hamate bone in his right hand on August 13 and had surgery to remove the bone two weeks later. He did return to the Rangers in late September, but only appeared in one game and wasn’t included on the team’s postseason roster.
Clearly, the Mariners are buying low after Martin’s down year. But, defense is his calling card and that’s what Dipoto’s been looking for – a plus-defender to man Safeco Field’s spacious center field. With that said, being the prototypical defender that the Mariners GM has been craving doesn’t necessarily mean that Martin is the long-term solution for Seattle.
Less than two weeks ago, Dipoto was glowingly describing his newest outfield acquisition – prospect Boog Powell – in terms that gave the impression that the 22-year-old could be the team’s centerfielder of the future. Dipoto told Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish that “Powell brings speed, defense and on-base percentage to the table and could be ready to help us as soon as 2016.”
If Powell impresses during Spring Training and Martin doesn’t demonstrate better on-base skills after the season starts, it’s possible that club management could eventually turn to the job over to a rookie and relegate Martin to a back-up role just as Texas did last season.
If Martin performs well at the plate, the Mariners could opt to slide Powell to a corner outfield spot if he proves worthy of making the club out of Peoria or after the season starts. When referring to his outfield prospect, Dipoto commented, “Basically if we need a left fielder, he’ll play left. If we need a center fielder, he will play center.”
A similar situation occurred on Dipoto’s watch after Mike Trout broke in with the Los Angeles Angels. Initially, Peter Bourjos was the team’s starting centerfielder and Trout split his time between all three outfield spots. Trout incrementally played more time in center field as each season passed, but he didn’t become the full-time centerfielder until Bourjos departed via trade prior to the 2014 season.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not projecting Powell to be the next Mike Trout. However, there are similarities to the current situation in Seattle and when Trout arrived in Los Angeles. Bourjos had below-average on-base skills and was better regarded for his defensive prowess, while Trout provided the Angels with an opportunity to get a more balanced blend of defense and offense from the center field position.
How the Mariners proceed will depend greatly on the performance of both Martin and Powell. Like the Bourjos and Trout situation, the club will do whatever gives them the best chance to win. Optimally, both players reach their potential with Seattle and the team will have the “problem” of possessing two defensive whizzes capable of playing center field and contributing to run production.
If the worst-case scenario takes place and neither can help at the plate, Dipoto will move on. He’s made it clear that he’s not afraid to own his mistakes and change course.
Since neither player carries a heavy financial burden, it wouldn’t be difficult for the Mariners to move past either player as early as 2017. They could either venture back into the trade market or opt to turn to free agency. Here’s a list of potential free agents who are on track to be available after next season.
The 2017 free agent class has many recognizable names – including Bourjos –but most come with blemishes. The majority are on the wrong side of age-30 and/or they’re not particularly productive at the plate. Few would fit Dipoto’s expectation for a long-term answer in center field.
Assuming that the Mariners were in contention, they could opt to add a centerfielder prior to the July 31 trading deadline, just like the New York Mets did this past season. They too had a defensive whiz – Juan Lagares – patrolling center field. But, he wasn’t effective against right-handed pitching. So, GM Sandy Alderson added Yoenis Cespedes to boost the team’s sputtering offense. Cespedes isn’t as defensively polished as Lagares – refer to the very first at-bat of the World Series for evidence. But, he did help propel the Mets to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
It’s important to point out that we haven’t reached the Winter Meetings – or even Thanksgiving. So, there’s a good chance that the canvas that Dipoto is painting on will look vastly different by Opening Day. As of today, the Mariners outfield is shaping up to have Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez sharing left field, Martin in center, and Nelson Cruz splitting time with another player yet to be named. But, expect more changes.
Moving Smith could be in the cards if it led to adding a better defensive outfielder capable of replacing the 33-year-old’s bat. Trading the veteran would add payroll flexibility that could help facilitate further moves, while adding more versatility and athleticism to the outfield.
Even if Dipoto retains Smith, he’s already stated that he intends to add another piece to the outfield picture, although he hasn’t shared how he’ll acquire that player. There’s no reason to doubt that he’ll get his man. After all, it’s only November 17 and Dipoto has already added Martin, Powell, Daniel Robertson, and re-signed Gutierrez, These moves have significantly improved the team’s outfield major/minor league depth, athleticism, and defense.
Based on his comments and track record, the Mariners GM won’t remain idle if Martin and Powell prove that they can’t handle being the team’s everyday centerfielder in 2016 and beyond. That has to be viewed as an encouraging development for a Mariners fan base that’s become used to the team being unable or unwilling to move past players who didn’t develop.