Just one after pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training, the Seattle Mariners got bad news on the injury front.
Projected starting first baseman Ryon Healy underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his right hand. The club expects Healy to be ready for game action within four to six weeks.
While losing Healy on day-one of Spring Training is not optimal, it is not a catastrophic either — at least not yet. Assuming the 26-year-old has no post-surgery complications or rehab setbacks, he could be ready for the season opener on March 29 or shortly thereafter.
Still, losing one of their team’s biggest offseason acquisitions is certain to cause a crisis of confidence within the Mariners’ playoff-starved fan base. Especially after starting pitcher Drew Smyly was lost for the season during Cactus League play just one year ago.
It is highly unlikely Healy suffers a similar fate to Smyly’s. But let us assume something does go awry and his return is delayed. What are the Mariners’ options?
Seattle has two first baseman with Triple-A success and little left to prove in the minors, plus an assortment of position players with limited experience at the position.
Seattle acquired the left-handed hitter from the New York Yankees via the Rule 5 draft. As a result, he must remain on the major league roster for the entire 2018 season. Otherwise, the Mariners must offer him back to New York for $25 thousand.
Ford proved to be a productive hitter during stops at Class-AA Trenton and Class-AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year. Overall, the 25-year hit 20 home runs and slashed .270/.404/.471.
It is worth noting Ford had more walks (94) than strikeouts (72) last season. The only major leaguers to accomplish that feat were Joey Votto, Mike Trout, Justin Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo.
While Ford could be the Opening Day option, how he would fit with Seattle after Healy’s return is uncertain. The Princeton University alum has only played first base and designated hitter during five minor league seasons with the exception of 57 innings at third base.
With Seattle likely to carry eight relievers, Ford’s lack of positional versatility could make him the odd man out during a roster squeeze.
A year ago, the 25-year-old arrived at the Peoria Sports Complex with a decent chance of being the left-handed side of a platoon with veteran Danny Valencia. Unfortunately, Vogelbach’s defensive deficiencies prompted the Mariners to assign him to Class-AAA Tacoma prior to the beginning of the season.
With the Rainiers, Vogelbach had a strong offensive showing with 17 home runs, 25 doubles, and a .290/.388/.455 slash line. Having said that, general manager Jerry Dipoto chose to bypass the former second round pick and trade for a rental player — Yonder Alonso — to upgrade the first base position last August.
Recently, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish noted during the Extra Innings podcast Vogelbach appears much looser away from the big league stage. If true, that must change quickly for the native Floridian to stick with the Mariners.
Perhaps, Vogelbach seizes the moment and proves he belongs in the majors with Seattle or another ball club.
The fact both Ford and Vogelbach play just one defensive position means only one could simultaneously make Seattle’s 25-man roster. That said; the club could utilize more versatile roster options to spot either rookie, when needed.
Ben Gamel spent time taking grounders at first base during batting practice last year and has expressed interest in expanding his positional portfolio.
Gamel played just one inning at first base last year and has no minor league experience. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old could backup at the position and potentially take on larger short-term role, assuming Ford and Vogelbach falter.
Offseason acquisition Andrew Romine has nearly 200 innings of experience and 13 starts at first base. His completion for the utility spot — Taylor Motter — started nine games there last year. It is worth noting both players are considered light hitting.
Minor league catcher David Freitas has 410 innings of first base time, but he would have to win the backup job behind Mike Zunino. Even if that were to occur, playing a reserve catcher at first base sounds like an emergency move; not a strategy the Mariners will employ.
Waiver claim Cam Perkins has a small amount of first base experience too. But a more likely scenario leading to Perkins making the team would be the right-handed hitter replacing Guillermo Heredia, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
And no, I do not envision a scenario where Nelson Cruz becomes a major league first baseman for the first time at 37-years-old.
Even if Healy’s went completely sideways, it is doubtful Dipoto pursues notable free agents Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, and Eric Hosmer. The 49-year-old GM opted to trade for Healy rather than commit multiple years and significant dollars to a proven free agent. An abrupt change of course now is unfathomable.
As always, Dipoto could trade for a more established first baseman later in Spring Training. Perhaps, a team will have a surplus at the position or need to move a player with no minor league options remaining.
The most likely scenario is the Mariners continue with their current cadre of first baseman — at least for now. Adding a player on a minor league deal or making a small trade seems logical, but expending significant resources to address a short-term problem is not Dipoto-like.
For those anxious about today’s bad Healy news, I have a suggestion — relax.
Yes, losing an important player on February 15 is frustrating, especially for a fan base spring-loaded for the worst-case scenario. But look on the bright side; at least a key starting pitcher did not come up lame.
That would be worth fretting about.