Barring a setback, Kyle Seager returns to the Seattle Mariners from the IL in about a week. Who’s going to be the odd-man out on the club’s roster when Seager arrives is the issue at hand. Or is it odd men?
The individuals most likely affected by Seager’s return are the Mariners’ many first base/designated hitter types – Edwin Encarnación, Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach, and Jay Bruce. Prior to the season, the club was facing a tough decision since their roster couldn’t afford to carry all four players. Then, Seattle received a reprieve.
Seager went down with an injury in March giving management more time to consider their choices. Now though, the three-time All-Starr is rehabbing and appears set to rejoin the team when eligible on May 25.
With the tough decision looming again, let’s begin our discussion with the player at the center of the potential roster churn facing Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Other than Félix Hernández, Seager is the longest-tenured Mariner. Only six players have more games in a Mariners uniform than the former North Carolina Tar Heel – Edgar Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki, Ken Griffey Jr, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, Alvin Davis. Assuming good health, Seager could jump ahead of Wilson and Davis by season’s end.
Hernández and Seager share another distinction, exorbitant contracts making a trade of either player less likely. King Félix’s deal expires at the end of the 2019 season. However, the Mariners still owe Seager $57.5 million (counting this year’s salary) through the 2021 campaign. Oh yeah, there’s a poison pill too.
In December, Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reported trading Seager permits him to activate a $15-20 million player option for 2022. Although not impossible, moving Seager would be challenging thanks to the steep financial commitment to an aging player coming off a down season.
Why is this important now? Trading Seager doesn’t appear to be a viable solution to the current roster quagmire. Besides, moving Seager now would be selling low, which is something Dipoto is unlikely to do.
Okay, let’s move on to the main characters in the pending roster drama beginning with Seager’s stand-in.
When Seager went down, the Mariners had few internal options to cover third base for an extended period. No one in the minors was ready and projected utility-man Dylan Moore had zero MLB experience at any position prior to this year. As a result, the team turned to Healy.
Despite his early defensive issues, Healy has performed admirably at third base. Fun fact: prior to the start of this season, he had more experience at third base than first base – all of it with the Oakland Athletics organization. In Seattle, the 27-year-old has been the team’s main first baseman since the beginning of the 2018 campaign.
At the plate, Healy is rebounding after an unproductive debut season with Seattle. He’s not a control-the-zone type, although his current 7.2% walk rate is nearly three points higher than his career rate. Moreover, his strikeouts are slightly down from last year and his 107 wRC+ suggests he’s providing slightly better than league-average run production.
Financially, the right-handed hitting Healy remains under team control through 2022 and becomes arbitration-eligible after this year.
In an indirect manner, Seager’s injury benefited Healy most. Certainly, the former Oregon Duck didn’t want to see his teammate injured. However, the unexpected opening at the hot corner probably saved Healy from an assignment at Class-AAA Tacoma. Of the main candidates we’re discussing, he’s the only player with minor league options remaining.
When Dipoto acquired Encarnación last December, the prevailing belief expressed by local and national media was the team would trade him before Opening Day. Well, it’s mid-May and the 15-year veteran is still in Seattle and playing regularly.
In fact, Encarnación has already made his most starts at first base (31) since 2016. Impressive, but is it a sustainable workload for a 36-year-old who’s never played more than 80 games at the position in a season?
Perhaps not, but despite the increased on-field time, Encarnación continues producing with his bat. Through his first 44 games, he was slashing .242/.365/.490 with a team-leading 12 home runs.
In the end, money and age will likely factor considerably into management’s decisions regarding Encarnación’s future with the Mariners. He’s making $21.7 million this season with the team holding a $20 million option for next season with a $5 million buyout.
The 26-year-old has become a sensation with fans thanks to his tape-measure home runs, outgoing disposition, and a relatable regular-guy physical appearance. Better yet, Vogelbach is delivering at the plate.
Through the team’s first 48 games, Vogelbach has the highest OBP and slugging percentage on the Mariners and shares the lead for home runs with Encarnación and Bruce.
Technically, Vogelbach isn’t eligible for AL Rookie of the Year award consideration, but he’s a rookie from a statistical standpoint. As such, he could threaten the Mariners franchise rookie record for home runs in a season set by Alvin Davis in 1984.
Questions about Vogelbach’s first base defense have plagued him throughout his professional career slowing his ascent to the majors. That said; the left-handed hitter boasts a .291/.411/.491 triple-slash at AAA. The presence of All-Star designated hitter Nelson Cruz didn’t help the Florida native’s big league outlook either.
Now, Cruz is gone, Vogelbach has no minor league options remaining, and he’s crushing the ball during his first extended audition with the Mariners. Furthermore, Dipoto recently told Danny, Dave, and Moore of 710 ESPN Seattle he was “really confident” in the rookie.
Dipoto’s comments may be merely GM speak trying to build up Vogelbach’s trade value. Then again, the former second round pick does remain under club control through 2024 and isn’t arbitration-eligible for two more years.
Perhaps most importantly, Vogelbach is convincing people he flourish as Seattle’s full-time designated hitter and occasional first baseman.
The other left-handed hitter in the mix is Bruce. The 32-year-old is different from others previously discussed because he provides the Mariners a different type of roster flexibility.
Bruce has been an outfielder most of his career, although defensive metrics suggest he’s a below average defender in right field – his primary outfield position. In fact, the native Texan actually has more career starts (35) in center field than in left field (7). Perhaps this is why his playing time at first base has incrementally increased since the Mets introduced him to the position in 2016.
Like Encarnación, salary and age will creep into any decisions regarding Bruce’s future with the Mariners. The twelfth overall pick of the Reds in 2005 is making $14 million annually through next season. He also dealt with a hip injury that sidelined him for most of 2018.
It should be noted Bruce has a sterling reputation as a clubhouse leader, a good veteran presence. That may matter to club management considering the influx of young players joining the organization because of Dipoto’s frenetic offseason deal-making.
So far, we’ve discussed those most likely to feel the effects from whatever the Mariners choose to do when Seager returns. However, other factors may be part of the club’s decision-making matrix.
When the Mariners decided center fielder Mallex Smith needed to perform a reboot in the minors, the team recalled outfielder Braden Bishop. During his 12-day stint with Seattle, Bishop appeared in eight games, starting four times. Why didn’t the former Washington Husky play more often?
The presence of Bruce, probably.
The primary tactic manager Scott Servais employs to keep Bruce’s bat in the lineup is shifting Mitch Haniger to center field with Bruce taking Haniger’s place in right field. This left Bishop boxed out of the lineup, unless he served as a late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner.
Bishop will eventually get his chance to prove himself as a big-leaguer. However, the continued presence of Bruce as a regular outfielder may delay the 25-year-old’s opportunity in the Emerald City.
Another Position Point
Seager isn’t the only infielder rehabbing and close to returning. Moore is also with the Rainiers recovering from a right wrist contusion. The 26-year-old is eligible to come off the IL on May 20.
The Mariners may decide to leave Moore with Tacoma since he has minor league options remaining. Then again, the University of Central Florida product has proven valuable to the club. Dipoto said as much praising the utility-man’s performance in the aforementioned conversation with Danny, Dave, and Moore.
If Moore didn’t return, Tim Beckham can continue providing infield versatility. Beckham’s Mariners debut came with a booming home run and a massive bat flip in Tokyo. However, his production is trending towards his league-average career norms.
Brought in as placeholder for minor league shortstop J.P. Crawford until the team deemed him major league ready, Beckham’s time as a regular with Seattle may be ending.
Crawford joined the team on May 10 and has played every game at shortstop since. If the 24-year-old has truly arrived, Beckham may become roster casualty very soon.
It’s plausible an injury – like Seager’s – delays the Mariners’ decision regarding their current roster impasse a little longer. Nevertheless, something will eventually have to give.
Dipoto can buy more time by sending Healy to the minors. Yet, dispatching the player who covered the gaping hole at third base for two months and leads the team in doubles may raise eyebrows.
The issue confronting the Mariners is determining whether there’s a place for Healy’s skill-set on their roster moving forward. Are Dipoto and his staff content with committing to a player with plus power and slightly below average on-base ability?
Perhaps Dipoto swings a deal to re-shuffle his roster; he’s allegedly quite adept at making trades.
If the Mariners were chasing the postseason, there’s no way they’d consider trading Encarnación. But they’re not and moving the three-time All-Star would create more first base opportunities for Healy and remove Vogelbach’s main competition for the designated hitter gig.
Dealing Bruce would benefit Vogelbach and Healy, plus Bishop and other young outfielders to a lesser degree. That said; there may not be much of a market for an aging outfielder/first baseman with power, but well below-average at reaching base.
A minor element to consider with Bruce and any possible deal. He has limited no-trade protection allowing him to block deals to five clubs annually. This year’s list includes the Tigers, Marlins, A’s, Rays, and Blue Jays – teams not likely to be interested. Ironically, the Mariners were on his list last season.
We should also consider the salaries of Encarnación and Bruce make moving either veteran problematic – the same with Seager. Never say never though, especially with a JeDi serving as general manager.
Dipoto dealt Robinson Canó and his seemingly unmovable contract last December. But the Canó deal came in the offseason when making complex deals is more commonplace. In addition, we shouldn’t forget the Mariners had to take on Bruce’s contract as part of the deal for Canó.
Perhaps that’s how Dipoto entices a trade partner; swap a big contract for another that makes the current and future roster more manageable.
Some may suggest the Mariners should swing a deal with the Yankees that includes the contract of Jacoby Ellsbury. Although that may sound good to some, several factors complicate such a transaction.
For those not familiar with Ellsbury’s situation, he hasn’t played since 2017 due to hip and foot injuries and has no timetable to return this year. The 35-year-old outfielder is earning $21.4 million annually through next season, and there’s a club option at the same price for 2021 with a $5 million buyout.
Maybe such a deal happens, but taking on Ellsbury’s exorbitant contract seems unlikely. Especially when you consider the former Oregon State Beaver may never play again, while the player the Mariners would be trading is currently healthy.
Sending Healy to Tacoma or trading him sounds far more palatable from budgetary and common sense perspectives. Right?
On the other hand, there’s probably an option or twelve I haven’t considered. Dipoto is an innovative dealmaker and I am not. He’ll find a different expensive contract to acquire or simply pull off a trade no one – especially me – saw coming.
That’s why observing Dipoto navigate through this current roster minefield and arrive at a solution is going to be so much fun.