The Seattle Mariners may have a center field problem. Starter Mallex Smith is unlikely to be available for the Mariners’ season opener in Tokyo on March 20 and the contingency plan to replace Smith is somewhat vague.

This is not a crisis of epic proportions. But the Mariners could be scrambling to stabilize their center field situation depending on the health of another Seattle outfielder.

When the Mariners shut down Smith with an elbow strain in his throwing arm last month, right fielder Mitch Haniger appeared to be the short-term answer in center field. Haniger started 28 games at the position last year. However, the 28-year-old is dealing with a back strain creating doubt about his availability.

Perhaps I’m overthinking the situation and Haniger returns within a few days. If he does, will management feel comfortable placing additional stress on the All-Star’s back by having him cover the most demanding outfield position?

Workload Distro

Even if the Mariners are okay with Haniger replacing Smith on a short-term basis, the organization could use additional center field depth. An indicator of the club’s shortage at the position is the distribution of Spring Training center field innings found at MLB.com.

Cactus League CF Playing Time
Age Starts
Inn
2018 Lvl
Jake Fraley 23 5
36
A+
Braden Bishop 25 2
30
AA
Kyle Lewis 23 2
11
AA
Ian Miller 27
8
AAA
Dom Thompson-Williams 23 1
5
A+
Mitch Haniger 28 1
4
MLB
Tito Polo 24
3
AA
Provided by MLB.com

The majority of center field time is going to players not considered MLB ready. Naturally, it’s Spring Training and the kids are getting plenty of action. But who other than Smith and Haniger is a viable major-league option when the season opens in two weeks?

Some may suggest players pegged for AAA could fill in for a few weeks. True, but such a move would be uncharacteristic for a front office committed to giving players adequate time to develop in the pipeline. Especially after the previous regime was harshly criticized for rushing players.

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Assume the Mariners prefer to be cautious with their prospects, at least at the start of the season. What other choices are available to the team?

In-House Options

Let’s quickly consider six players in camp with MLB service time and outfield experience. Perhaps one or more of them could be part of the solution.

At this stage of his career, veteran Jay Bruce is a corner outfielder. The 31-year-old has over 12,000 innings in right field. Bruce also has 11 starts in left field, although he hasn’t played there since 2008.

Domingo Santana, considered quick for a 6-foot-5 corner outfielder, has patrolled center field on occasion with 32 professional starts. But it’s worth noting Santana’s STATCAST Sprint Speed (26.9 ft/sec) would’ve ranked in the bottom-five among 63 MLB center fielders last year.

Future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki appears destined to be on the 28-man roster in Tokyo. Whether the 45-year-old has a place with the Mariners after Japan is unclear. Perhaps outfield injuries temporarily extends Ichiro’s time in Seattle, but center field would be a bridge too far for the icon.

The résumé of utility-man Kristopher Negrón boasts over 2,000 innings of professional outfield experience, including 14 center field starts with Class-AAA Reno last year. Negrón played every position with the exception of catcher last year. The 33-year-old even tossed 1.2 innings.

Dustin Ackley hasn’t played in MLB since 2016 spending the last two years with Class-AAA Salt Lake. Since 2017, Ackley has 28 starts and 230.1 innings of left field time. The former Mariners first rounder also played first and second base.

Primarily an infielder, former San Francisco Giant Orlando Calixte has 25 corner outfield starts since the beginning of 2018 during minor league and Dominican Winter League action.

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Among the players just mentioned, none is an ideal fit for an extended period. Negrón has demonstrated he can play center field, but his recent experience is rather limited.

Looking Elsewhere

The Mariners could go outside the organization for help. There are non-roster invitees with recent center field experience on other teams. It’s likely some of these veterans become available by the end of the month.

Here’s a a sample of familiar names, who may interest clubs searching for outfield depth. Included is a former Mariner with no minor league options remaining. Please note the innings count and OPS+ are totals since 2017.

Potential CF Targets
Tm Age CF Inn OPS+ Comments
Gorkys Hernández BOS
31
1009
80
NRI
Boog Powell SDP 26 253.1 96 No Options
Rajai Davis NYM 38 903 66 NRI
Peter Bourjos LAA 31 211 73 NRI
Ryan LaMarre ATL 30 278 86 NRI
Eric Young Jr. BAL 33 287 79 NRI
Carlos Gómez NYM 33 889 73 NRI

Most of the players listed are thirty-somethings and haven’t hit enough recently to stick with MLB teams – you’re not going to find the next Ken Griffey Jr.

Then again, the Mariners have their man with Smith. But adding a layer of veteran depth until the youth movement matures could prove beneficial.

The Kids Are Alright

Perhaps I’m completely off base and the Mariners choose to go with one of their young minor leaguers. If the organization were to take such an approach, three prominent names come to mind.

Ian Miller spent all of last season with Class-AAA Tacoma, but he’s not on the 40-man roster and didn’t receive a Spring Training invite this year. Still, the 27-year-old does have extensive center field experience during his professional career.

There is a center fielder on the 40-man roster, who’s expected to begin the season at Tacoma – Braden Bishop. The former UW Husky is definitely capable defensively, although prospect evaluators believe Bishop needs to hone his bat skills against better pitching at AAA.

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Jake Fraley came to the Mariners with Smith in the Mike Zunino deal and has been a Peoria sensation. As we’ve noted in the past, buying into Spring Training stats is fraught with risk. Besides, Fraley hasn’t even reached AA yet.

Moving Forward

With the Mariners taking a step back this year, it’s unlikely general manager Jerry Dipoto expends significant resources upgrading his 2019 roster. So don’t expect someone like free agent Mariner Adam Jones signing with the team, unless it’s a bargain basement deal.

Instead, I suspect Dipoto takes low-cost/low-risk steps to improve outfield depth. Perhaps he acquires one of the players I mentioned or someone similar. JeDi has a way of making innovative pickups.

That said; I’m hoping Smith and Haniger are ready for the home opener or shortly afterwards. After all, the future success of the Mariners is dependent players like Mallex Smith and Mitch Haniger.

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.

In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field.

You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins