Previewing the Mariners' 2014 outfield

Otto Greule Jr

We're so sorry, Ackley.

The first time Dustin Ackley touched the grass of a pro ball outfield was on June 6, 2013. The 25-year-old infielder had nurtured an exclusive relationship with second base since his college days, when he manned first base and left field for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Prior to being drafted as a center fielder by the Mariners in 2009, Ackley started every game of his freshman and sophomore seasons, sticking at first base for 125 of 141 total contests.

I don't know why I thought the above paragraph would ease any concerns you might have about watching Ackley flail around left field for an entire season. Sorry.

On to the next batch of season previews -- today, we're looking at the outfield.

Left field

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"McClendon gave some insight into how he sees his outfield alignment, though he stressed that no decisions have been made. He'd like Hart to be in right, and said Dustin Ackley will be looked at as a left-fielder rather than in center, where he played 50 of his 59 outfield games last year. Asked why left and not center for Ackley, McClendon replied, 'Because that's where I want him.'"

-- Larry Stone, Seattle Times

"The decision most likely has to do with Ackley's throwing arm, which isn't his strong suit. He did start 46 games in center last year after transitioning from second base at midseason."

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

"There have been some small tweaks to his [Ackley's] stance. [...] 'Usually from the offseason to the season, it might not be exactly the same, but it still feels the same,' he said. 'I'm going to just keep with that same approach I had, overall, for the second half. I've got to be more consistent with it. I think if I do that, there's going to be a lot of good things to come.' [...] When Ackley hits well, he's decisive with his front foot, getting it down early instead of gliding it into pitches. He hopes that staying open and being a little more upright in the box will help that."

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

The peculiarity of this choice hasn't worn off yet, and I suspect it won't for quite a while. Unless Jack Zduriencik has a couple more tricks up his sleeve, it's safe to assume that McClendon is simply trying to make the best of a tough situation. Without Franklin Gutierrez providing a reliable glove in center field, there are few players who can cover for him before the skipper is forced to dip into a bottomless reserve of utility players and minor league hopefuls.

Ackley has little experience in center field and even less in left, with just a hair above 80 innings there last season. Shannon Drayer speculates that he may lose time to Michael Saunders if he gets off to a rough start. Xavier Avery has also been taking reps in left field this week, though his role will probably be minimal at best.

Center field

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"That leaves Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte in center with many believing that Saunders is better suited for one of the corner spots. Others will get looks and have the opportunities to win positions [...] Without surprises, however, it looks like the battles will be in left and center and more for playing time. That battle could be tougher for Ackley and Saunders, who are a [sic] both left-handed."

-- Shannon Drayer, MyNorthwest.com

"If Almonte looks like he can be an average to average-plus center fielder, he could have an edge in more playing time (assuming he makes the team) because he's a switch-hitter."

-- Shannon Drayer, MyNorthwest.com

Michael Saunders has a stable track record in both left and center field, and may split his time there again this season if Ackley's adjustment period lasts longer than expected. He hasn't seen more than 25 starts in left field since 2010 -- which, coincidentally, happened to be Franklin Gutierrez's last full, healthy season.

Abraham Almonte is also a viable option in center field. The 24-year-old got his first taste of the big leagues in 2013 with a scant 25 games between August and September, 15 of which he started in center. Almonte carries a padded resume, however, with seven seasons of minor league experience patrolling center field for the Yankees and Mariners. Among the youngsters vying for a back-up role, he seems to have caught the manager's eye already. As McClendon put it to the Seattle Times' Larry Stone yesterday, "You can't teach speed."

Right field

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"Morales' situation in Seattle could hinge largely on the health of Corey Hart. If Hart can play the outfield, as he's done in the opening days of camp while coming back from a year off with two knee surgeries, that opens up the DH spot considerably. [...] But if Hart can't play the outfield full-time, he'll need to get at-bats at DH or first base, which would limit Morales' options."

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

"Corey Hart is working mostly with the outfielders right now. Ideally for the Mariners, they'd like to be able to play him in right field more than a few times a week. [...] If the season started today, Hart would bat clean-up behind Robinson Cano."

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

Corey Hart's success in right field depends on his ability to make a full recovery -- and, now, may also determine whether Kendrys Morales is a worthwhile get for the M's. McClendon has big plans for the 31-year-old outfielder, citing 145 starts as his (admittedly optimistic) goal for the season. If Hart can't hack it in the outfield full-time and the Mariners are Morales-less, Logan Morrison might be able to fill in while Hart tries his hand at first base and DH. At this point, it looks like Hart has very little competition for the corner spot, though Abraham Almonte and Stefen Romero could conceivably handle the position if need be.

Outliers

Buzz around camp:

"McClendon said Michael Saunders, Abraham Almonte, and Stefen Romero can play all three outfield positions. Willie Bloomquist and Endy Chavez also have center-field experience. [...] He cited Xavier Avery, acquired from Baltimore in the Morse trade, as a young outfielder he'd like to get a look at this spring. Avery has 32 games of major-league experience."

-- Larry Stone, Seattle Times

Among the carousel of back-up outfielders, Romero and Bloomquist bring right-handed bats to the lineup and may get more looks as the season progresses, depending on match-ups or injuries.

Logan Morrison is expected to split first base duties with Justin Smoak and doesn't figure to see more than a handful of spot starts in the outfield at this point. Should McClendon change his mind, Morrison will likely fill in the corner spots for Hart and Ackley.

What do you think of the left field experiment for Dustin Ackley? Where is Michael Saunders most valuable -- in center field or one of the corner spots?

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