Potential Shortstop Options for M’s

The Seattle Mariners entered the offseason with several positions in need of improvement before the start of next season. One of those positions is shortstop, which has been frequently mentioned by writers and fans alike. That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the team since multiple media reports suggested Seattle was attempting to acquiring acquire veteran shortstop Zack Cozart from the Cincinnati Reds as the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline expired.

Assuming those reports were accurate and general manager Jerry Dipoto was actually close to pulling off a deal for Cozart, I thought it’d be fun to look at options if the Mariners are still intent on upgrading at shortstop. Before considering potential targets, I believe it’s important to reflect on Dipoto’s recent comments regarding the shortstop position and the status of his 2016 Opening Day starter — Ketel Marte.

“If we do something at shortstop, it’s going to be more of a veteran guidance type of player.”  — Jerry Dipoto

The preceding quote, reported by Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish, suggests the club prefers to add a veteran presence capable of starting in 20117 so Marte can have more time to reach his potential. Dipoto’s words are consistent with his attempted deadline actions. Seattle attempted to acquire Cozart knowing that he’d be a free agent after next season and could serve as a bridge to Marte in the interim.

Since Dipoto appears committed to Marte as his long-term shortstop, I tailored my search to free agents and potential trade targets who wouldn’t be under team control past 2018. Let’s start with the free agent market, which is decidedly thin.

The best available free agent wasn’t a shortstop in 2016. Ian Desmond was an outfielder the Texas Rangers last season. Certainly, the 31-year-old would be a significant offensive upgrade over Marte and he’d give the Mariners another right-handed bat. Plus, he’s demonstrated the ability to play multiple positions.

Still, the Rangers offered Desmond the qualifying offer, which he turned down. That means that  any club signing him will not only have to overpay for his services, they’ll forfeit their first round pick in next June’s amateur draft. That’s a steep price for a player on the wrong side of 30.

The remaining free agents are far less appealing. Erick Aybar and Alexei Ramirez are both in the latter stages of their respective careers. Neither presents a significant offensive improvement over Marte and both are much worse defenders, according to the metrics. Ivan De Jesus was recently outrighted by the Reds and is a utility player at this stage of his career.

Clearly, the free agent market isn’t the best way for the Mariners to improve at shortstop this offseason. That’s okay since Dipoto prefers to make trades. Here are the candidates who I found to be the most intriguing, starting with the player who was almost a Mariner in August — allegedly.

Zack Cozart
Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports the Mariners continue to have interest in Cozart. According to MLB Trade Rumors, the Reds’ shortstop projects to make $4.7 million during his final year of arbitration. For a team in the rebuilding mode, that’s a lot of capital to commit to a position when younger and cheaper options exist within the organization.

Offensively, Cozart hit a career-high home runs in 121 games last season. But, it’s worth noting that the 31-year-old has a pedestrian career slash of .245/.289/.383 since becoming a regular player in 2012. Having said that, he does have postseason experience, which is in short demand on the Mariners’ current roster. In the field, he’s been a superb — his eight defensive runs saved (DRS) were seventh best in the major leagues last season.

Despite the fact that Dipoto almost traded for him at the deadline, there is inherent risk associated with acquiring Cozart. He suffered torn ligaments in his right knee in June 2015 and missed the remainder of the season after having surgery to repair the damage. Last season, he struggled with tendonitis in his surgically repaired knee throughout the season and missed the last three weeks of the season due to his difficulties.

J.J. Hardy
The two-time all-star posted a .269/.309/.407 triple-slash last season, which is about league-average for shortstops and close to his career norms. Defensively, he ranked one spot behind Cozart in DRS and he’s a three-time Gold Glove winner.

Having said that, Hardy may be an impractical target for Seattle. First, he’s set to make $14 million next season. If he’s traded, an option for 2018 at the same salary automatically becomes guaranteed. Even if the Mariners were fine with obligating that much money to a stopgap, Hardy has over 10 years of service time and over five seasons with Baltimore. Therefore, he can disapprove any trade.

On the field, Hardy’s availability deserves scrutiny. The 34-year-old averaged just 115 games during the past two seasons and has played over 140 games in just three of his six years with the Orioles. In 2016, the 12-year veteran missed over 40 games due to a fractured bone in his foot caused by a foul ball. In recent seasons, he’s suffered a back injury and a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.

Jordy Mercer
The 30-year-old projects to make $4 million in arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors and will be eligible for free agency after the 2018 season. Perhaps, the small-market Pittsburgh Pirates will prefer expending their limited resources elsewhere. Having said that, the Bucs don’t have a clear-cut replacement waiting to take over.

Prospect Kevin Newman appears to be Pittsburgh’s shortstop of the future. MLB.com ranks him as the major leagues’ number-41 overall prospect. With that said, he doesn’t project to be ready until 2018.

The Pirates could turn to third baseman Jung Ho Kang — who played 426 innings there in 2015 — and give David Freese more playing time at the hot corner. Having said that, Kang suffered a severe knee injury during a second base collision while playing shortstop in 2015 and hasn’t played there since.

Mercer has a .257/.313/.377 career slash during his five big league seasons. Like Hardy, that’s about league-average. However, he’s not a strong defender like the Orioles shortstop. Last season, Mercer had -9 DRS, which ranked number-28 among shortstops with more than 500 innings played.

Jose Iglesias
Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila is reportedly in the payroll reduction mode this offseason. Perhaps, the 26-year-old will be a casualty of the club’s cost-cutting agenda. So far, Avila has traded outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels and trade rumors have been swirling around stars Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and J.D. Martinez.

Iglesias is looking at an estimated $3.2 million salary in arbitration and remains under team control through the 2018 season. The Tigers could attempt to flip the five-year veteran and turn to a younger, cheaper alternative — 21-year-old prospect Dixon Machado.

Last season, Iglesias played in a career-high 137 games and slashed .255/.306/.336, which is about 20 points below his career norms in each category. His previous high for games played was 120 games the year prior after missing the entire 2014 due to stress fractures in his shins.

Iglesias has a reputation as a strong defender, although the metrics identify him as an average fielder. Bottom line, he’d be a significant a defensive upgrade over Marte.

Adeiny Hechavarria
The Miami Marlins shortstop is a stellar defender who ranked ahead of Cozart and Hardy in DRS last season. Nevertheless, he’s coming off the worst offensive showing since debuting in 2012 — .236/.283/.311 slash. Considering that he projects to make $3.7 million in salary arbitration, the Fish may desire to deal their light-hitting shortstop who’s free agent eligible after the 2018 season.

Certainly, any club acquiring the 27-year-old would be placing a higher value on defense. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering Hechavarria still provided 1.2 wins over replacement (WAR) last season despite have a career-worst showing at the plate. Remember, the shortstop position had an average slash of .263/.318/.407 last season. Only catchers were less productive at the plate.

Jean Segura
Dipoto is certainly familiar with the 26-year-old. While serving as general manager of the Los Angeles Angels, he traded Segura during a 2012 deadline deal that netted his club Zack Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers. Now, he’s the starting second baseman of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Greinke is his teammate.

Segura had a career year at the plate last season and may be better extension candidate than trade chip. That likely depends on the approach of the brand new management team running the Diamondbacks’ front office. With Segura expected to net approximately $7.3 million in arbitration and under team control through the 2018, the club could either retain him or recoup talent and slash payroll by dealing him.

With slick fielding shortstop Nick Ahmed under team control through 2020 and utility player Chris Owings eligible for arbitration at a lower price ($2.1 million) new management could look to take advantage of Segura’s breakout season by replacing him at second base with Owings.

Finally
While many of the trade targets I’ve mentioned seem appealing from a distance, most would cost the Mariners key players and prospects who could either be used on their own roster or serve as trade chips to fill higher priority needs. Specifically, their rotation, outfield, and the back end of their bullpen.

That brings us back to the incumbent Mariners shortstop, who may actually be the club’s best option in 2017.

While there’s no denying Marte struggled last season, there are obvious reasons why Dipoto and his management team continue to believe in their young shortstop. The switch-hitter demonstrated he’s capable of reaching base while in the minors and during his debut during the second half of the 2015 season.

Yes, Marte had a tough season. But, it’s important to note the 23-year-old was hampered by illness and injury and owns a .267/.309/.349 career slash in 713 major league plate appearances, which is similar to many of the players I’ve previously mentioned.

Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is Marte’s speed and athleticism, especially on a club that was one of the worst at base running last season. He was second on the team in stolen bases (11) and his 52-percent extra base taken percentage (XBT%) was the best among all regulars on the club and 12 points higher than the league-average.

As Dutton noted in another Tacoma News Tribune article, a Mariners official recently told him “we don’t need a shortstop.” I tend to agree.

Would adding a veteran capable of starting in the short-term make sense for a club intent on contending next year?

Sure, but not at the expense of satisfying more pressing needs.

Perhaps, Dipoto will find an innovative way to balance his other roster needs and add that “veteran guidance type of player.On the other hand, he could simply wait to see how Marte does in 2017. If the youngster scuffles again, he could then turn to the trade to the market as he did last season.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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