As expected, the Seattle Mariners were cellar dwellers during year-one of their planned “step back.” What should we expect from the rebuilding club this offseason?
We’ll address this question by discussing various elements of the roster during our Mariners’ Season Review series. Let’s begin with the infield, which experienced significant change during the 2019 campaign.
In The Beginning
Last offseason, GM Jerry Dipoto traded All-Star middle infielders Robinson Canó and Jean Segura to help rejuvenate his club’s system providing potential opportunities to younger players. The team also gave an inexperienced slugging first baseman an extended audition.
An exciting proposition, although the results were far from thrilling. The Mariners lost 94 games – the most since 2010. Contributing to the team’s struggles, poor defense. Seattle’s -51 infield DRS ranked last in MLB.
Top & Bottom-3 Infield DRS
The poor glove work was frustrating to witness, but not necessarily a long-term problem for a team in transition. For this reason, let’s focus solely on potential 2020 contributors on the 40-man roster.
The season started with a rotation of Edwin Encarnación, Jay Bruce, and Daniel Vogelbach – offensive production was good. However, the team eventually dealt Encarnación and Bruce leading to Vogelbach starting 30-percent of the team’s game at first base with rookie Austin Nola trailing him by three points.
Vogelbach delivered solid season numbers in 2019 after being unable to crack the 25-man roster for two seasons. A .208 batting average isn’t appealing, but his .341 OBP was second only to Omar Narváez among teammates with 300-plus plate appearances. Moreover, the 26-year-old led the club with 30 home runs.
Still, an examination of Vogelbach’s monthly production reveals inconsistency and a prolonged second-half tailspin.
Vogey By Month
Vogelbach’s .286 OBP since the All-Star break ranked 130th of 140 qualified hitters. Although his season walk-rate was fourth best in MLB, only three hitters struck out more often than he did in the second half.
To be a valued contributor in the future, Vogelbach must be more consistent – especially in the power department.
Nola is such a good news story. The older brother of Aaron Nola toiled in the minors for eight seasons before getting his shot with Seattle In 2019. Big brother didn’t squander the opportunity.
Austin’s Big Debut
Nola is well-positioned to be on the Opening Day roster. Sure, the bat played well during his rookie campaign. But his positional versatility – particularly the ability to play catcher regularly – is more impressive.
Nola’s Many Positions
The only player to cover catcher and as many positions as Nola in 2019 was another rookie – Willians Astudillo of the Twins.
When Kyle Seager went down with an injury during Spring Training, Healy stepped in until the Seager’s return in May. Unfortunately, spinal stenosis ended Healy’s season the same month.
Before going down, Healy demonstrated better power than last season. His 16 doubles surpassed the 15 two-baggers he accrued during 133 games in 2018.
Prospect Insider ranks White in the top-15 of the Mariners system. Although he’s an elite defender, concerning evaluators is whether the Kentucky product can deliver the power expected from first basemen. The 23-year-old will get a chance to prove his readiness during Cactus League play.
If White begins 2020 in the minors, the Mariners could turn to Vogelbach, Nola, and perhaps Healy in the short-term. Still, the organization could consider another approach.
Even if Vogelbach become more consistent, he’s a better fit at designated hitter. This presents another quandary for the club. Do they want to use full-timer at the position?
Having Nelson Cruz as a full-time designated hitter was reasonable when Dipoto arrived four years ago. Cruz was under contract through 2018 and an elite bat. Now though, Boomstick is gone.
Perhaps management will prefer using multiple designated hitters. If that’s the case, Vogelbach could be with another organization by Opening Day.
Nola can handle first base. However, the 29-year-old may prove more valuable to the club by moving around the diamond and spending more time behind the plate.
How the team approaches Healy’s situation bears watching as December nears. The former Oregon Duck is arbitration-eligible and could be a potential non-tender candidate.
The team could also explore signing a veteran. Such a player potentially provides stability until White is ready before being flipped in a trade. A sample of potential free agents includes Matt Adams, Mitch Moreland, and former Mariner Justin Smoak.
Then again, Johns did note in his piece Dipoto wants to let the kids play next season suggesting he may stick with his current stable of first basemen. Naturally, this could change as the offseason unfolds.
Dee Gordon was Seattle’s Opening Day center fielder in 2018, but returned to his best position this year. That said, health affected his availability for a second consecutive season.
Gordon played just 117 games this season thanks to quad and wrist injuries. In 2018, a fractured great toe slowed him throughout the season. When on hand, his offense wasn’t close to what he produced in Miami prior to his Emerald City arrival.
Check out the average of Gordon‘s 2015-17 stats compared to his first two years in Seattle.
Dee’s SEA Production Trails MIA Numbers
Gordon’s 22 stolen bases is his lowest total since 2013. It’s worth noting the nine-year veteran swiped 30 bags in 2016 despite serving an 80-game PED-related suspension. Is the decline in base thievery cause for concern?
Foot speed is crucial to Gordon’s success and next year is his age-32 season. A glance at the three-time stolen base leader’s sprint speed (SS) since 2016 shows slight regression accompanied by an incremental drop in MLB rankings.
Dee Is Still Fast, Just Not As Fast
Just to be clear, Gordon remains a threat on the base paths despite a slight drop in quickness. But he’s no longer the fastest Mariner. Braden Bishop (29.6 ft/sec), Mallex Smith (29.4), Keon Broxton (29.3), and Tim Lopes (28.6) had better sprint speeds than Gordon.
Granted, the margin is razor thin. So is the difference between being safe or out on an infield grounder. This matters for a player with minimal power and heavily reliant on his legs to produce runs.
Most team observers believe Gordon is on the trading block. Assuming Dipoto pulls the trigger on a deal, Shed Long is the front-runner to be the club’s second baseman.
Long, who ranked fourteenth in our prospect assessments, began his career as a catcher in the Reds’ system. The recurring theme during his minor-league journey has been the bat would get the Jacksonville High School alum to the show with a defensive position being a secondary consideration.
This narrative continued once Long joined the Mariners last offseason. He began his 2019 with Class-AAA Tacoma spending an equal amount of games at second and third base, plus time in left field. In the 24-year-old’s first stint with Seattle, he subbed for the injured Gordon. In September, the Alabaman primarily patrolled left field.
There have been suggestions Long could be a super-utility type. But permitting he rookie to master one position next season benefits both player and team. If necessary, he can become Mark McLemore later.
Beyond Long, there are few internal options. September call-up Donnie Walton has a relatively equal split of experience at second base and shortstop. But the former Oklahoma State Cowboy played for Class-AA Arkansas this year and appears destined for Class-AAA Tacoma.
Perhaps the Mariners add a veteran; Tim Beckham filled this role until his 80-game PED suspension. If the team pursues such an infielder, the ability to play shortstop could be an important consideration.
Due to his injury, Seager played under 150 games for first time since his rookie campaign in 2011. After returning, the former North Carolina Tar Heel scuffled for nearly two months until bouncing back with eight doubles, nine home runs, and a .323/.417/.699 slash in August.
During Seager’s surge, some suggested he was finally healthy and that a rigorous offseason effort to reshape his body was paying dividends. Perhaps, but the former All-Star’s final numbers were relatively similar to the average of his 2015-18 stats.
Kyle’s Recent History Much Like 2019
Seager’s production was good. However, we shouldn’t overvalue his productiveness because of a hot month and the fact Seattle’s ineffective lineup made his output appear superstar-like.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Seager is playing the hot corner for the Mariners next year. Some may ask why the rebuilding club would retain the over-30 veteran.
There are reasons to stay the course.
In a recent Baseball Things podcast, Jason A. Churchill suggested number-nine prospect Noelvi Marte as a replacement, but the 17-year-old shortstop has yet to play the position or outside of the Dominican Republic.
Another consideration is financial in nature. There’s a stipulation in Seager’s contract converting a $15 million club option for 2022 into a player option in the event the Mariners deal him. Here’s what remains on the former Gold Glover’s contract.
Moving Kyle Not As Easy As Some Believe
|* Team option|
Ownership has demonstrated a willingness to “eat” money to move veterans. Per Baseball Prospectus, the Mariners paid $8.4 million of Encarnación’s 2019 salary with the Yankees covering the balance. In Bruce’s case, Seattle is paying 87-percent of his $21.3 million of his 2019-20 with the Phillies. Still, dealing Seager would require a higher level of monetary dining.
Beyond having to cover most of Seager’s 2020-21 salaries to move him, ownership would have to pay a significant portion of his 2022 pay just to execute a deal likely to yield virtually no player/prospect value. What would compel Dipoto to make a such deal without an available replacement?
This concludes out infield review. Our next segment will discuss the Mariners’ outfield.
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