Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto believes his two-year undertaking to field a contender remains on track at the midway point. How is the outfield portion of the makeover going?
Before discussing current players, let’s reflect on the performance of recent Seattle outfields. This momentary glance into the rear-view mirror will cause some of you to cringe, but it makes for a good starting point.
The following illustrates the MLB rank of each Seattle position group since 2010 using the Baseball Reference version of wins above replacement (bWAR). Also available – most valuable outfielder from each season.
M’s OF Rankings Using bWAR
|2010||Ichiro Suzuki (3.7 bWAR)|
|2011||Casper Wells (0.8)|
|2012||Michael Saunders (2.5)|
|2013||Michael Saunders (1.2)|
|2014||Michael Saunders (2.4)|
|2015||Franklin Gutierrez (2.4)|
|2016||Nori Aoki (1.5)|
|2017||Mitch Haniger (3.1)|
|2018||Mitch Haniger (6.1)|
|2019||Mitch Haniger (1.4)|
|** Top Mariners with 60% OF playing time|
During Dipoto’s first season (2016), across-the-board improvements were evident. By this year though, Seattle regressed to the norm on display during the tenure of predecessor Jack Zduriencik – below-average outfields.
Okay, let’s shift the conversation to the 2019 unit. First up, the three main actors in order of innings played.
Seattle acquired Smith and prospect Jake Fraley from the Rays in exchange for Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor leaguer Michael Plassmeyer. Team officials expected he’d repeat his 2018 breakout campaign and serve as a top-of-the-lineup catalyst. It didn’t happen.
After missing most of Spring Training, Smith hit a paltry .165/.255/.247 through his first 23 games. Adding to his woes, uncharacteristically poor outfield defense – bad routes, missing cutoff men, and even dropped balls.
To reboot Smith, the Mariners optioned their new center fielder back to Class-AAA Tacoma. With the Rainiers, he slashed .333/.375/.467 with three doubles and seven stolen bases in ten games.
Upon returning to the Emerald City, Smith played better. However, his overall season numbers were well below his 2018 levels, career norms, and league-averages.
Even if you break down Smith’s season into “before and after” his demotion, the numbers weren’t impressive.
Mallex Before & After AAA
Also troubling, advanced metrics didn’t favor Smith’s glove work. His -12 defensive runs saved (DRS) and -9.5 ultimate zone rating (UZR) each ranked number-58 among 60 outfielders with 800-plus innings. Prior to this year, the Santa Fe Community College product rated as a slightly above average defender.
Smith did continue to be a disruptive base runner leading the majors in stolen bases. Moreover, his 58-percent extra-base taken rate was top-10 among hitters with 300-plus plate appearances.
Still, it’s reasonable to consider how many more bags Smith could’ve swiped by reaching base more often. Twenty-one players stole 20-plus bases this season, but only Adalberto Mondesi (.291) and Billy Hamilton (.289) had a lower OBP than Smith.
Further affecting Smith’s effectiveness, unforced mental errors. In August, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish reported manager Scott Servais temporarily benched the Florida native after repeated miscues on the bases and in the field.
Santana arrived last December via a trade sending Ben Gamel and minor leaguer Noah Zavolas to Milwaukee. The 27-year-old was a strong presence in the middle of the Mariners’ lineup early in the season. Unfortunately, an elbow injury slowed him after the All-Star break.
Domingo’s Rough Season Splits
Despite Santana’s second-half decline, his overall production was solid. The right-handed hitter was particularly adept going to the opposite field with authority.
Santana led the team with 15 opposite field extra base hits placing him ahead of Smith (14), Tim Beckham (11), and Daniel Vogelbach (10). Moreover, the Dominican Republic native’s nine home runs to right field were more than double than his two closest teammates – Vogelbach and Tom Murphy (4 each).
League-wide, Santana looked good too. His expected weighted on base average (xwOBA) on balls hit to the opposite field was fifth best in MLB Remember, quantity and quality of contact determines xwOBA.
Top Opposite Field xwOBA in MLB
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||Braves|
|League-average xwOBA = .304|
Santana certainly delivered an offensive upgrade to the Mariners last season. However, his fielding was problematic.
Both modern and old school defensive statistics suggest Santana’s left field glove work was poor this season. He didn’t pass the eyeball test either.
Tough Year For Santana, Defensively Speaking
|** Rank among 60 players with +800 OF innings|
Although Santana didn’t play in the field during the final two months of the season, he led major-league outfielders in errors. Yes, the stat is misleading. Humans subjectively award them and they potentially benefit defenders with limited range. That said, leading all outfielders in errors is never a good thing.
To be fair, half of Santana’s 12 errors came before game-40. In one particularly difficult stretch, there was a fielding miscue in three consecutive April games in Kansas City. Then again, he ranked last in UZR with only Ian Desmond (-19) placing lower in the DRS category.
A frequently repeated narrative regarding Santana’s defense is he’s better in right field – his primary position with the Brewers. True, but the picture isn’t as rosy as some suggest.
To demonstrate my point, I combined Santana’s career outfield numbers by position. To provide context, his MLB rankings among other outfielders with over 2,500 total outfield innings since 2017 are included.
Domingo’s Defensive Totals Since 2015
|** Among 47 players w/+2,500 OF inn since 2017|
As you peruse Santana’s defensive metrics, please note he ranked last in innings played, yet still managed to place near the bottom of every category. His history implies a well below-average glove.
A breakout 2018 solidified Haniger’s standing as the Mariners’ best player. For this reason, the All-Star’s name frequently popped up in trade speculation last offseason. In the end, the club retained him assuming a repeat of last year’s success. Once again, disappointment dashed expectations.
Haniger started slowly, but matters worsened after suffering a season-ending injury in early June. Let’s look at his offensive production at the he went down.
Since Haniger had exactly 400 fewer plate appearances in 2019 than last year (683), I turned to non-counting stats to compare campaigns. Included are MLB averages for this year.
Mitch’s Stats Took A “Hit” This Year
Haniger’s strikeout rate jumped dramatically ranking fifth highest in MLB at the time of his injury. Certainly, this drove his falling OBP and SLG. Yet, the right-handed hitter slugged home runs more often, while his walk-rate remained stable.
Haniger didn’t have a great year, but he delivered better production that the average player did. Moreover, it’s plausible the Cal Poly alum would’ve enjoyed a second-half surge if he hadn’t suffered the injury.
To that point, Haniger has experienced two months of offensive doldrums in each season of his brief Seattle career. Specifically, a wRC+ well below 100 – the permanent average.
Haniger’s Monthly wRC+ Since 2017
Now, there’s no guarantee Haniger would’ve turned around 2019 by remaining available. But the former first round pick’s first two seasons in the Emerald City were superb despite momentary lulls in each campaign.
It may surprise some fans to learn Dylan Moore (252.1) and Tim Lopes (251.1) were next on our list for most outfield innings. Two utility men playing the outfield so much speaks to the status of the unit by season’s end. But it’s also a credit to the versatility of Moore and Lopes.
Seattle’s Primary Back-Up Outfielders
Lopes ranked number-37 in our most recent prospect rankings. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill suggests the 25-year-old’s offensive upside makes him a better utility option than Moore.
Barring unforeseen circumstances Lopes and Moore won’t figure prominently in the outfield picture next year. Still, Dipoto and his staff deserve credit for building layers of depth into the roster by developing two infielders into serviceable outfielders.
Veteran Keon Broxton played with the Orioles and Mets prior to joining the Mariners in late-July. Broxton possesses elite defensive skills, but his career slash after 1,026 plate appearances is just .209/.297/.388. Moreover, the Lakeland, Florida product has the highest strikeout rate (38.6-percent) of any hitter with 1,000-plus plate appearances since 2015.
Now, let’s discuss several “unknown unknowns” certain to generate enthusiasm among Mariners fans. First up, a booming September success.
It was a long road from Mercer University to T-Mobile Field for Lewis. There was a devastating knee injury just a month after joining the Mariners in 2016. Then came a prolonged rehabilitation and a slow return to normalcy. In fact, he only participated in his first Spring Training this year.
After all that, Lewis enjoyed his best professional season this year. In 122 games with Class-AA Arkansas, he slashed .263/.342/.398 with 11 home runs. But the 24-year-old saved the best for his September call-up.
Lewis hit a home run in each of his first three big-league contests before finishing with five doubles and six homers in 18 games. Still, there’s work remaining for the Georgian.
Despite the impressive power surge, Lewis’ 38.7-percent strikeout rate was third highest among players with over 70 plate appearances in September – only Eric Hosmer (39.6) and Teoscar Hernández (39.0) placed higher. Furthermore, his Arkansas strikeout rate was 29.5-percent.
A thumb injury limited Fraley’s unspectacular rookie debut to just 12 games. The former LSU Tiger had just six hits with no walks and 14 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances with Seattle.
Still, Fraley’s microscopic time in Seattle shouldn’t overshadow his superb minor-league season. The 24-year-old slashed .298/.365/.545 with 22 stolen bases, 27 doubles, and 19 home runs during 427 combined plate appearances with Arkansas and Tacoma.
Bishop debuted in the majors as an extra player during the season opening series in Japan returning to the minors afterwards. Nevertheless, it was clear he’d be Seattle’s first choice when the club needed outfield help.
Unfortunately, a lacerated spleen suffered just prior to his third big-league recall in June derailed Bishop’s season. The former Washington Husky did return to the Mariners in September ending his debut campaign with a 107/.153/.107 slash-line.
Considering the difficulties Bishop endured this season, he deserves a mulligan. After all, he appeared in just 27 games spread over four different stints.
Long is likely pegged to be an infielder next year. But it’s worth noting the 24-year-old logged 123 innings in left field this year. One thing is clear though. Seattle will find a position for the Alabaman’s bat (.263/.333/.454 slash and 111 wRC+).
Realistically, the 2021-22 outfield can’t include everyone discussed and several prospects on the horizon. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect the Seattle’s 40-man roster to change.
Who’ll be on the move?
Hard to predict, but the free agency dates of several players likely factor into the course Dipoto and his staff charts going forward. The following illustrates the team’s most mentioned outfielders and their final season before free agency – if known.
M’s Deep Outfield Pool
Elbow soreness also sidelined Santana in 2016. Would the team consider moving him to first base to prevent a potentially chronic problem? Considering his history of negative defensive value, such a move may make sense – especially with a player possessing his offensive upside.
Or the Mariners could trade Santana. He has two more years of arbitration-eligibility remaining and, at 27-years-old, doesn’t appear to fit into the club’s long-term plans.
Until unseated by someone else, Haniger remains Seattle’s best player. Moving him now would be a sell-low move – an unlikely JeDi strategy. For this reason, Haniger projects as the 2020 starting right fielder for me.
If Smith matches or exceeds his career .330 OBP, he’s a fit with the Mariners. Otherwise, the Floridian’s roster spot becomes increasingly tenuous with time.
Considering Broxton’s propensity to strikeout and the fact he’s entering arbitration eligibility, he may be facing release or a non-tender. His outlook will be clearer by December.
Assuming no rehab setbacks, Fraley will be in the outfield mix when Spring Training begins. Similarly, Bishop should have an opportunity to make the team out of Peoria and stick this time.
Despite Lewis’ thrilling debut, it’s plausible the team starts him with Tacoma to improve refine his impressive skills. Then again, the Mercer alum could force the issue with an impressive Cactus League performance.
Not too far behind, top-100 prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. The notion of Kelenic and Rodriguez eventually playing side-by-side at T-Mobile Park is something Seattle fans could get behind.
Thanks to the influx of talent choreographed by Dipoto, the Mariners’ outfield picture has a positive tinge to it for the first time in over a decade.
There’s more work to be done, but Seattle’s outfield of the future could be both fun and good.
Wouldn’t that be something?
My Oh My…