As evidenced in the early part of Jerry Dipoto‘s time at the helm of baseball operations, the Seattle Mariners have shied away from significant free agent signings. Despite what became a buyer’s market for free agent hitters this winter, Dipoto abstained and stuck to the goal of acquiring depth through trade. The emphasis on youth and athleticism was again a focal point of many transactions.
It’s been a strange winter for free agency in Major League Baseball. A lack of premium talent available has often lead to teams paying good players great dollars. That wasn’t really the case this time around, though. The supply of one-dimensional sluggers in need of a contract this time one-month ago would have made former general manager Jack Zduriencik salivate, and truthfully, the costs were not exuberant. Still, Dipoto stayed the course.
Some teams were able to take advantage of the market, such as the Cleveland Indians who stretched out to sign Edwin Encarnacion. More recently, the New York Yankees added the National League’s home run king from last year, Chris Carter, on a modest one-year deal guaranteeing only $3 million.
The first base remodel began last summer for the Mariners when they acquired Dan Vogelbach from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for left-hander Mike Montgomery. Although Vogelbach better resembles a Zduriencik-era Mariner, there were few questions about his ability to hit.
The remodel appeared complete when Seattle made another trade, this time with Oakland, to bring in the veteran Danny Valencia to complete the right-handed side of the platoon.
Firstly, Vogelbach should be a given a fair chance to take the first base job. He crushed Triple-A pitching last year to the tune of a 156 wRC+. He turned 24 in December and has shown plenty of power and on-base ability throughout his tenure in the minors. This isn’t a Jesus Montero situation where concerns about make-up and injuries are a factor and have impacted performance. By all accounts, he’s ready to go.
But what happens if Vogelbach doesn’t hit right away or can’t make adjustments on the fly to major league pitching? He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie to encounter one or both of those problems.
Valencia has only spent one season as an everyday player back in 2011 and didn’t fair well. Despite a rather pronounced platoon split for his career — a 139 wRC+ against left-handers and an 85 wRC+ against right-handers — he did manage a 104 wRC+ against same-handed pitching last year. In a pinch he could give you some at-bats against right-handers, but counting on consistent production of any sort would be foolish.
Internally the back-up plan at first base appears to start and end with D.J. Peterson. The former first-round pick posted a 96 wRC+ in 192 plate appearances at Triple-A last year and could be an option as soon as mid-season if things go well. There’s always the option of a utility player such as Mike Freeman or Shawn O’Malley filling in if absolutely necessary, but after the platoon, the first base depth is minimal.
Pitchers and catchers reported on Tuesday, and Cactus League games are only days away, but as has been the story this winter, there still are a number of free agents available. Some may even be able to help the Mariners adress this concern.
Looking specifically at left-handed hitters, former Most Valuable Players Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau are still out there. Morneau is representing Canada at the World Baseball Classic and was finally healthy for a prolonged period last year after batting concussion issues. He struggled to a 92 wRC+ and saw his strikeout rate jump — not positive signs for a player nearing the end of their career.
Howard’s fall has been more publicized, and though he still managed to clear 20 home runs last year, appears to have lost all other offensive capabilities. As a pinch-hitter he may still have value on a National League team, but his time as a semi-regular is done.
Neither of those bats are overly appealing. Morneau may be worth a second glance if he hits well at the WBC, but not much more. The player who may actually be able to help Seattle is Pedro Alvarez.
The 30-year-old has primarily played third base during his career but did fill a regular role at first in 2015 and advanced metrics frowned on his work. Throughout his career he has profiled as a below average defender and an average base runner. What he can do, is provide some help against right-handed pitching. He owns a career 118 wRC+ against them over seven years in the majors.
Last season in 376 plate appearances with the Baltimore Orioles, Alvarez posted a .249/.322/.504 slash line with a 117 wRC+. While he does boast a career 9.4 percent walk rate, and beat that last year by half-a-percent, the strikeouts have always been a concern. His 25.8 percent strikeout rate last year was his second-lowest since 2011.
If you combine the walks and home runs, Alvarez starts to resemble a true-outcome hitter. I’d imagine that the on-base percentage fits the type of player Seattle has come to covet, but the strikeouts and poor defensive skills would seemingly go against the grain.
On a minor league deal, bringing in Alvarez to compete, or at least paint a picture of Vogelbach not being handed the job, is essentially a no-brainer. Even giving him the contract Carter received with a small guarantee would make sense.
Obviously the tough part would be having to cut Alvarez and eat the money owed if it came to that. Perhaps management would prefer to earmark the cash for a mid-summer trade or to add another relief arm during the spring.
Like Carter, Alvarez is a flawed player in a market that hasn’t rewarded power-based skill sets. That’s why they were still looking for jobs in February. I’m not suggesting Alvarez is an answer for the Mariners, but rather an option to provide a back-up plan for a position with uncertainty.
Perhaps Dipoto’s plan all along was to give Vogelbach the first couple weeks of spring to lock down the job and, in the event things weren’t heading in a positive direction, dip into the free agent market for a bat that needs a home. We saw last year how Ketel Marte was essentially handed the shortstop job and having a second option in the early-going may have helped the situation.
If Vogelbach is ready to go then there’s no reason for Seattle to hold him back. But in a season that may again leave little margin for error, having an experienced first baseman push Vogelbach to Triple-A for a couple months if he doesn’t seem ready wouldn’t be the worst thing. Especially if the cost is less than a couple million dollars.