Lookout Landing’s 2018 Mariners Offseason Plan, Part II: Position Players
Lookout Landing’s 2018 Mariners Offseason Plan, Part II: Position Players
To platoon or not to platoon
In keeping with a semi-grand tradition here at LL, we are pleased to present you with our 2018 Mariners Off-Season Plan. In case you missed yesterday’s post, start off by reading Part One of this series, which focuses on starting pitching. We also lay the groundwork for the series there by establishing the assumptions we’re working under regarding how many wins the Mariners need to add to contend for the playoffs, payroll, how the Mariners will treat their top-level prospect capital, and this front office’s general approach towards contending rather than rebuilding.
From starting pitching—which we identify as the team’s chief area of need in making up missing wins—we move on to the positional upgrades the team needs to make in order to fill vacancies in the starting lineup at first base and in the outfield.
Step Two: Break the first base curse for good (or at least for 2018)
Having just wrapped up the fourth straight season that Mariners first basemen have combined for a negative fWAR (-0.7), first base will need to be addressed yet again this offseason to avoid finishing dead last in baseball at the position for a second straight year. The good news for the Mariners is that the free agent market at this position is flush this year. The Mariners are almost certainly out on Eric Hosmer, who will likely command a nine-figure deal and draw strong interest from top payroll clubs with big holes in their lineup such as the Red Sox. However, there are still multiple options that should provide an upgrade at a reasonable cost. The Mariners might need to adjust their definition of “reasonable cost,” though, to land a first base solution that can add at least two wins.
How to get there:
Run it back with the Cuban platoon
Rationale: We covered the available pool of first baseman base in September, and concluded that a reunion with Yonder Alonso probably makes the most sense for 2018. Alonso managed to post 0.5 fWAR after being acquired by the M’s in August, and while that’s a far cry from the 1.9 mark he posted with Oakland, that partial season still accounted for the most production from a Mariners first baseman since Logan Morrison in 2014. The market is flush with mid-tier first baseman such as Alonso, which should allow for him to be retained at a cost that wouldn’t prohibit any other potential big signings. The Mariners have been linked to Lucas Duda in the past, but he offers an almost identical skillset to post-flyball-revolution Alonso, right down to the platoon splits. Wherever Alonso is listed, Duda is also acceptable, especially if he’ll come cheaper.
Pros and cons of this approach: Yonder has run a pretty severe platoon split against LHP (84 wRC+ against 113 for RHP), so pairing him with someone who can mash lefties maximizes his value. That could still be Danny Valencia, who mirrors him (136 wRC+ vs LHP, 85 vs RHP) and Valencia brings additional value off the bench by being able to slot into the outfield occasionally and give Kyle Seager a few days off at third. Still, it’s hard to get excited about this pairing being run out for the second year in a row. A first base platoon also takes up an extra position on the bench/in the bullpen, which could prove costly, particularly in the first year of Dr. Martin’s tenure, when it sounds as though there will be more mandatory off days for some players. Getting out from under a 1B platoon also frees up more space for a “wolfpack” pitching staff.
Reunite with the LogDog and eschew the platoon
Proposed route: Sign Logan Morrison to a 2 year/$25 mm deal.
Rationale: Logan Morrison enjoyed a career-best 2017 that saw him put up 3.3 fWAR for the Rays. While it’s not feasible to expect him to repeat that offensive explosion (38 home runs! 130 wRC+!!), LoMo has one of the least severe platoon splits among all the first base FA candidates, able to squeak out a wRC+ of 95 against LHP. Unfortunately, Morrison’s strong 2017 might catapult him out of the Mariners’ willingness to sign, as the 30-year-old will be looking for a three or even four-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to the Red Sox for three years at $36MM, which seems high but not entirely unlikely.
Pros and cons of this approach: LoMo is the lone lefty FA 1B who has not shown egregious platoon splits. While regressing those still makes him a poor hitter against lefties, he offers a chance to be passable every night. Bringing @CupOfLoMo home could allow the Mariners to utilize their bench more freely, unrestrained by the need to have a companion at 1B, which could be useful if they need to carry an 8-man pen again (wolf howls in the distance). If you want to stretch it further, Morrison came up as a corner outfielder and could provide a bit of versatility himself, but having not played outfield in two years, that’s limited at best. Morrison’s demerits are straightforward but not insignificant. He’s 30 years old-- young for this FA crop, but not overall. Whether by injury or ineffectiveness, Big Lo has never played more than 149 games in a season, and only eclipsed 100 in half of his eight seasons. His lack of productive track record is also a concern, especially since Morrison will be angling towards a longer contract. Signing Morrison for a Trumbo/Morales-esque 3/$30-37 deal could work out fine if the adjustments Morrison made in 2017 stick. Committing what may be ⅓ to ½ of the free agent budget to an oft-injured 1B with only one average or above-average season is a riskier move than we should expect from Dipoto, however, and if Morrison’s market is strong enough to command a three year deal, Seattle should look elsewhere.
Add flexibility to the platoon
Proposed route: Re-sign Yonder Alonso to a two-year, $18MM deal; sign Howie Kendrick to a one-year, $6MM deal
Rationale: After entering 2017 with a career platoon first baseman slated for a full-time gig (Valencia) and eventually deeming it necessary to bring in a platoon-mate, it’s hard to imagine Jerry feeling comfortable repeating that tactic in 2018, especially considering Alonso and Valencia have extremely similar success facing same-handed pitchers throughout their respective careers. Enter the *NEW* right-handed half of the Mariners platoon: Howie Kendrick.
Pros and cons of this approach: Kendrick enjoyed something of a renaissance in 2017, racking up 1.6 fWAR in just over a half-season’s worth of games. Primarily a second baseman most of his career, the longtime Angel spent time at first, second, third, and both corner outfield spots as a Dodger in 2017, and as such, would offer slightly more versatility than Valencia, who occupied this role last season. On the downside, Kendrick missed a full month on two separate occasions in 2017: once due to abdominal strain, and once due to a hamstring strain. Kendrick’s 34-year old body is wearing down a bit, and it stands to reason that he could miss time again in 2018. He certainly could see his BABIP slide from a lofty .378 in 2017, or even his career rate of .340, but with a 112 career wRC+ against LHPs, Kendrick isn’t likely to be an embarrassment at the plate. His lack of power makes him an atypical 1B, even in a platoon, but his ability to play multiple positions gives a potentially short bench more flexibility, and hopefully reduces the amount of time we have to see Taylor Motter at-bats. Kendrick’s ability to play every defensive position also fits with Dr. Martin’s emphasis on allowing players proper rest across the diamond.
Spend, spend, spend
Proposed route: Sign Carlos Santana to a three-year/$48MM deal.
Rationale: With almost every team in the majors looking for pitching help and a dearth of high-level free agents, the market for starting pitching is bound to be inflated this offseason. Meanwhile, as pointed out above, there are a plethora of options at first base, which should depress prices in that market. If the Mariners decide to allocate their budget away from potentially overpaying for a middling pitcher, first base is probably the position most likely to receive those funds. Eric Hosmer is the premiere free agent at the position this offseason, but his notoriously inconsistent play and reportedly nine-figure price tag (those Boras binders don’t pay for themselves) almost assure he won’t be donning the teal. There’s another first baseman who fits better and is bound to be much better investment: Carlos Santana.
Pros and cons of this approach: Santana has been one of the most durable and consistent players in baseball since 2011. Over the last seven years, he’s averaged the following marks each year: 3.0 fWAR, 153 games played, and a 123 wRC+. His on-base percentage has never fallen below .350 during those seven seasons and his ISO has sat around .195 each year. With an excellent eye at the plate and decent power, it’s likely his offensive contributions won’t age as rapidly as a player like Hosmer, who relies on a high contact rate. Santana has also made huge strides defensively, earning a +10 DRS and a 4.7 UZR/150 in 2017. Another benefit to adding Santana to the roster is the flexibility it adds to the bench. Rather than devoting two roster spots to a first base platoon (or one and a half if we assume Kendrick picks up playing time as a utility player), Santana gives the Mariners a single player at first base who can mash both right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching.
If you believe Yonder Alonso’s struggles in the second half are more indicative of his talent level, Santana is a clear upgrade and a solid addition to the lineup. If you believe Alonso will put up a season more in line with his first half, then he’d be a much cheaper option for basically the same production as Santana. The Mariners would be taking a risk if they added Santana to their lineup—hoping that marginal upgrades to the pitching staff work out and that Alonso’s breakout wasn’t real. But none of those risks are directly associated with Santana. His track record of consistent production should provide an extremely reliable, high-floor option at first base for a reasonable price.
Go with an in-house solution
Proposed route: Give Daniel Vogelbach the starting job out of Spring Training and run with it; OR move Robinson Canó to first base.
Rationale: Finding an in-house solution, particularly rolling with Vogelbach full-time, frees up anywhere from $7-15 million that would otherwise be allocated to a free agent 1B. KATOH still loves Vogey, and if his hitting translates from AAA to the bigs in an extended look, Seattle can live with the subpar defense and speed on the bases. Shifting Canó creates a new hole up the middle, but would likely be easier on the 34-year-old’s body. With six more years, it could behoove Seattle to try and extend Canó’s window of health.
Pros and cons of this approach: Neither require spending money in free agency to fill the 1st base position, and if Vogelbach sticks and Seattle uses the money saved to upgrade elsewhere, it’s a perfect fit. Vogey had a shot at the start of 2017 to take the position, but couldn’t show the power/defense needed. Vogelbach is built like a brick outhouse and has prototypical 1B strength, so perhaps, like Yonder Alonso, his issue is less physical and more in a swing adjustment, but with the front office making multiple moves to acquire alternatives, it seems Vogelbach will have to demand playing time with his performance. As for Canó, it’s tempting to move the aging star to a less physically demanding position and have his solid bat deliver a more muted thump on the corner. There have been no indications internally that this is being considered, and Canó’s continued positive defensive work is easy to point to as a counterargument. By UZR/150, Canó was the 6th best defensive 2B in MLB in 2017 out of 16 qualified players and the 7th-best (out of 18) over the last two seasons combined. When Canó doesn’t have two hernias he can still hang just fine at second, and the dearth of internal options to replace middle infielders make him a lock to remain.
LL’s preferred option:
Rationale: Paying for starting pitching in this market involves paying a premium per WAR that most likely won’t offer the same ROI as spending money elsewhere. The Mariners can stretch their free agent money further by investing in the first base pool, which is an actual pool compared to the puddle of pitching. Dave Cameron puts a four-year/$72MM valuation on Santana; that’s probably more than the Mariners would be willing to offer and is creeping into the region of overpay for the 32-year-old, but anything lower than that (even if it’s a higher AAV for a three-year deal) is worth it to finally see some production at first base and save the roster spot from having to be platooned.
What will actually happen:
Rationale: If Hosmer and Santana blow up the first base market, sticking with Alonso and a platoon-mate who brings more flexibility—either Kendrick or someone else—seems like the relatively safe, relatively inexpensive, relatively unexciting way to go.
Step Three: Get a not-fourth-outfielder
The Mariners outfield combined this year to put up 5.4 fWAR, the 18th-most valuable outfield in baseball (or: 12th-least valuable, if you’re a glass half empty sort). A full, healthy season from Mitch Haniger should add value—even in limited action, Haniger was worth 2.5 fWAR—and while Ben Gamel had periods of ineffectiveness, he still graded out as a 1.6-win player. While his .340 BABIP might slip, Gamel still has improving to do in his age-25 campaign that should keep him a passable starting option at least. Guillermo Heredia didn’t account for negative value thanks to his excellent defense, but he has yet to prove a good everyday option, and spending the offseason rehabbing a shoulder injury may limit his ability to improve this winter. Jarrod Dyson missed time with a spate of health problems, and while he brings excellent value on the bases and with his elite defense, he’s not a powerful bat. The Mariners will need to decide whether they value offensive or defensive production more at the center field spot, a question that’s a little easier to weigh when you have the most valuable DH in baseball (love you forever, Nelson). For that reason, they probably won’t be in big bat/lead glove J.D.Martinez (reportedly the object of the Red Sox’s affection); they’re also probably out on all-around top OF FA Lorenzo Cain, as the 31-year-old is reportedly seeking a long-term deal that could touch nine figures.
How to get there:
Bring back The Zoom and hope it’s contagious
Proposed route: Re-sign Jarrod Dyson to a 2-year/$18.5MM deal.
Rationale: Dyson had a frustrating finish to what was otherwise an excellent season for the former 50th-round pick. Dipoto has expressed comfort with Mitch Haniger as a full-time CF, which he was in Arizona’s system, but while the arm plays there well, Haniger doesn’t have the speed or agility of Dyson or Heredia. Re-signing Dyson keeps the Mariners’ outfield defense elite, and he also brings much-needed baserunning ability to a team that was dreadful on the bases last year.
Pros and cons of this approach: Dyson may be seeking more than two years as he approaches the end of his career, and there are questions about whether or not his body can hold up to the stresses of being an everyday player; it didn’t last year. Dyson’s bat is passable and can be hidden in the Mariners’ powerful offense, and his speed is an enormous asset to a team full of lumberers. Even in limited action, he was worth 2.1 fWAR thanks to his speed and defense. Over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron thinks he performed well enough to be paid as an everyday centerfielder, and projects him at 2/$22MM. Dyson’s speed-and-defense skillset isn’t necessarily one that clubs with outfield openings are aggressively hunting, although the Giants are desperate overall in the outfield and might be willing to pay that.
Shake what John Stanton gave ya and take advantage of big money contracts from other organizations to amass talent without giving up prospect capital
Rationale: Neither of these players and their albatross contracts are appealing on their own; the trick is to get the Red Sox or Yankees to throw in a couple of prospects from their stacked farms in exchange for salary relief. While the Red Sox won’t part with top infield prospect Michael Chavis, they have a few moveable arms and a wealth of intriguing infielders—1/3 of their top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline are infielders. Some names include: Sam Travis, Tzu Wei-Lin, Chad De La Guerra, CJ Chatham, and Bobby Dalbec. Possible names from the Yankees include 1B Tyler Austin or Mike Ford, OF/1B Billy McKinney or OF Jake Cave, INF Thairo Estrada, RHP Domingo Acevedo or RHP Dillon Tate, a former first-rounder who’s run into some trouble with his mechanics. The Yankees should especially be willing to part with an outfielder, as their outfield is full for the foreseeable future and there’s more talent yet to come, like Estevan Florial, who’s currently tearing it up in the AFL.
Meanwhile, either Castillo or Ellsbury will be serviceable, and maybe even more. After a few disappointing seasons of flat swinging, Castillo posted a 138 wRC+ at Triple-A Pawtucket this year, and a change of scenery to a team with a strong Latin presence might help the Cuban slugger unlock the power that made the Red Sox think he was worth over 70 million dollars. Ellsbury, at 34, is the odd man out in a Yankees outfield that features young superstars Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and the not-young-but-still-annoyingly-springy Brett Gardner. He’s lost his center fielder job to Hicks after an injury-plagued year, but Ellsbury should be good for a couple of wins and can hold down the fort until Kyle Lewis is ready.
Pros and cons of this approach: Ellsbury’s center fielder days are probably past him (although maybe the walls at Safeco are more forgiving), but Castillo is a good defender with speed and a strong throwing arm, in addition to being four years younger than Ellsbury. The Yankees, however, have more prospects than they have space for, some of whom they’ll lose in the Rule 5 draft, and there’s a possibility the Mariners could get a nicer haul for being willing to take on the majority of Ellsbury’s contract. There’s long-term upside in this approach as well as an immediate benefit, but it comes at a cost that might limit their financial flexibility in other areas.
Age is just a number
Proposed route: Sign Curtis Granderson to a 1-year/$7.5MM dollar deal
Rationale: Most people look at Granderson and see a past-his-prime outfielder who can no longer patrol center field. While that’s true, that’s not to say that Granderson has no defensive value. Granderson has been used primarily as a right fielder since 2014, and actually ranked 10th among right fielders in DRS last season despite logging at least 500 innings less at the position than eight of the nine guys ahead of him. Additionally, while caught up in the “Granderson to L.A. bust” narrative that surrounded him in the second half, Grandy actually posted his highest walk rate of his career at 13.5%, which lead to an above-average season long offensive output, checking in with a 105 wRC+. If Mitch Haniger can hold down center field, Granderson represents an appealing option for the budget-minded.
Last offseason, the only two players at Granderson’s current age of 36 or older to receive a major league deal were Jose Bautista and Rajai Davis. Bautista received a one year, $18MM offer from Toronto after 1.4 fWAR, while Davis latched on with the Athletics with a one-year, $6MM deal following a 1.9 fWAR season. Bautista received a deal three times as large as Davis--despite contributing less value to his team-- largely due to the fact that he was worth an average of 5.0 fWAR per season over the previous three seasons. Davis, on the other hand, had been good for just 1.7 fWAR per season in the three years preceding his contract. Granderson falls almost exactly in between those two figures, averaging 3.3 fWAR per season from 2015 - 2017. Granderson is also coming off of a 39 game stint in which he failed in the national spotlight as a part of the winningest team in baseball, which culminated in a 1-15 performance in the playoffs followed by being completely left off the Dodgers World Series roster. It’s safe to say that, despite the production he provides over the course of the season, any team pursuing Granderson will be buying low.
Pros and cons of this approach: If things work out perfectly, the Mariners could wind up with an above-average everyday right fielder that fits right into the offensive attack the Mariners are trying to deploy. The downside here is pretty severe, however. If Haniger struggles in shifting over to center, the Mariners would likely be left to depend on a fresh-off-of surgery Guillermo Heredia for everyday duties, which could lead to a black hole situation in the lineup.
Spend a little to get a little
Proposed route: Sign Carlos Gomez to a 2-year/$20MM deal.
This could be the Mariners’ opportunity to have Carlos Gomez terrorize the rest of the AL West. He’s been worth about 2 wins or more in each of his full seasons, and even approaching his age 32 season, continues to provide value on the basepaths, something the Mariners need. Also, we know he’ll fit in with Canó and Félix in the locker room, seeing as how he’s googled what to talk to rich people about and all.
Pros and cons of this approach: Gomez has the strongest bat of anyone capable of manning center field in the market not named Lorenzo Cain. Since Cain seems out of Seattle’s desired market, GoGo can be a discount option. His 110 wRC+ last year would represent a significant boost over all non-Haniger outfielders on Seattle’s roster, and while he’s likely an average-to-below-average CF defensively at this point, he can still extend Seattle’s versatility, especially with better health. That health is the concern, of course. A master of nagging injuries, Gomez hasn’t played fewer than 90 games since his rookie year, but never has eclipsed 150 either, and hasn’t surpassed 120 since 2014. Seattle’s trio of not-great-but-decent OFs (Gamel, Heredia, Aplin) can allow Gomez more days off and keep him fresh. If Gomez is healthy he’s got potential to shine, but that’s a big if.
LL’s preferred option:
Large shrugging man emoji
Rationale: We had more debate on this than anything. Those of us who feel the most strongly are: take on an albatross contract (Kate), sign Granderson (Ben), or sign Gomez (John). Returning Dyson makes sense and allows for maximum defensive value, too. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but there really are a bunch of fine options and none that seemed like a true slam dunk. If we’re going big with Carlos Santana at first and going medium with Tyler Chatwood or his ilk in the rotation, going smaller with Dyson or Granderson may be a necessity financially.
What will actually happen: Who knows. Maybe Andrew Aplin becomes the full-time center fielder. This is the hardest position to get a read on, because mostly all we know is what the Mariners won’t do: they won’t sign an expensive, bat-first, no-glove outfielder *side-eyes Jay Bruce rumors*. This feels like a spot that might be ripe for a potential trade, but the Mariners have spent so heavily from their farm system, it seems difficult to find a match. There might be pieces to surrender from the bullpen if the Mariners can find a team that’s a good match.
By the Numbers:
First base should just not be this hard, you guys. It’s literally one of the easiest positions. Generally, we favor spending to address the first base problem, and filling in the outfield with inexpensive veterans or lighter-hitting strong defenders. We project first base as needing to produce two wins, and, barring a massive offensive collapse, signing Santana is the easiest route to doing that. If the Mariners miss out on Santana, LoMo would be an acceptable consolation prize; even if he doesn’t produce at his 2017 levels, he would represent an almost two-WAR swing at the position. The bar, it is low.
Anyone who watched the end of Mitch Haniger’s 2017 campaign should come away feeling encouraged he’ll be worth more than the 1.9 fWAR Steamer projects him for, and that, plus the overall offensive thump of the lineup, means the Mariners can absorb a non-marquee option in the outfield. Lacking a true center fielder, a Dyson reunion at the right price probably makes the most sense for the team.
As we mentioned yesterday, feel free to drop your own ideas in the comments, but later in the week we’ll be posting a Fanpost Challenge for you to make your own off-season plans, so you might want to hoard your TOP SEKRIT IDEAS to yourselves. This series/story stream will remained pinned somewhere on the front page for the rest of the offseason. Tomorrow we’ll put away the paint rollers and pick up our sash brushes for Part III: Filling in the Edges.
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