The Center Field Mess

Unlike left field, the Mariners don't have an embarrassing franchise history in the middle. Ruppert Jones was all right. Dave Henderson was all right. Soon thereafter the keys were handed over to Ken Griffey Jr., and after he went away, in came Mike Cameron to play better than anybody expected for four years. For the Mariners, center field has more often been a strength than a weakness.

After Cameron left, though, the M's had some trouble filling the position. Randy Winn got the job done, but he was better suited for a corner. Jeremy Reed flamed out. Ichiro seemed better in a corner as well. For five years, the Mariners searched for something somewhat permanent.

Then came 2009. The J.J. Putz trade became the Franklin Gutierrez trade, and in Guti, it appeared that the Mariners had found their regular center fielder for the next several years. A 26-year-old Gutierrez posted a 105 OPS+ while playing impossible defense, easily standing as one of the team's brightest bright spots. And as a bonus, there was promising depth at the position in the minors as well. Michael Saunders had torn up triple-A. Greg Halman had scuffled a bit, but he had all the tools in the world. And Ezequiel Carrera posted a .441 OBP with West Tenn. After the 2009 season, the Mariners' organizational depth chart in center field looked particularly strong. The team signed Gutierrez to a four-year contract, and between him and the kids, no one was worried.

Fast-forward to the present day. What was as recently as a year and a half ago an apparent strength has turned into a visible weakness.

Carrera's gone. He was ushered out the door so a go-nowhere team could play Russell Branyan. Not that it matters much - he's a .281/.355/.347 hitter in triple-A, and his reasonable ceiling is lower than the desk upon which my laptop currently sits.

Saunders is a wreck. He's posted a .587 OPS through more than 600 Major League trips to the plate, and he hasn't done much in Tacoma, either. It's worth considering that he's had some off-field issues that may have affected his concentration, but we've seen the holes in his game, and they haven't improved. He's a 24-year-old who's teetering on the edge of being labeled a bust.

Halman isn't to be trusted. The high-K/low-BB approach was cute when he was younger, but he hasn't shown much progression, with a 178/41 K/BB in Tacoma and a 36/3 K/BB with Seattle. He has definite power, but it's incredibly difficult for a hitter to succeed with his approach in the bigs, and an improved approach isn't an easy thing to develop.

And, of course, there's Guti. Guti, who currently has a .457 OPS. Guti, who has a .620 OPS since the start of last season. Guti, who has a .539 OPS over the past calendar year. Michael Saunders has a .541 OPS over the past calendar year. Guti is the only player below him. News that he has a chronic gastrointestinal disorder explained his statistical decline, but if they have the disorder under control, it sure hasn't allowed him to get back to what he was, as his numbers have only gotten worse and worse and his power has almost completely disappeared.

And it's not like any prospects have emerged. The center field situation these days is ugly. Gutierrez, Saunders and Halman are all perfectly capable fielders, if not varying degrees of excellent fielders, but right now none of them are Major League hitters. Halman might be the closest, and we're talking about Greg Halman. Halman's approach is better than Carlos Peguero's, and it's better than Charlton Jimerson's and Reggie Abercrombie's, but it's not good, or anywhere close. There's a reason ZiPS projected Halman for a .265 OBP. He is the kind of hitter that gets exposed.

It's hard to overstate just how much of a setback this is for the organization. Obviously the biggest part is Gutierrez's collapse. He's the guy in the Majors in whom the team invested all the money, and now there's no telling whether he'll ever be anything again. But it certainly doesn't help that Saunders has taken a step back, and Halman hasn't taken much of a step forward. Center field is a premium, important position, and the Mariners don't have an answer. Now, or for next season, or for the season after that.

We've seen how quickly things can turn. Halman's only 23. Saunders is only 24. You never know when Gutierrez might reach a breakthrough. You never know when some other prospect might get on the map. This is not a hopeless situation that the organization faces.

But it is a desperate one, and thinking about it is a real downer. Out of this group, the Mariners were supposed to get at least one building block. At the moment, they have none, and that makes the playoffs all the more difficult to reach.

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