What to do about the outfield problem?

ackleyitis - Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners' outfield options are Abe Almonte, Michael Saunders, and four second basemen. Oh boy.

In many ways, the Mariners' roster imbalance problems are their own damn fault.

Look, this is not to criticize Tom McNamara, or Jack Zduriencik, or Tony Blengino, or whoever was responsible for the Mariners' extreme preference for left-handed middle infielders in the 2009-2012 drafts. It wasn't an bad idea! Safeco Field favors left-handed hitters, and the 2B/SS/3B positions favor right-handed throwers, so it makes a lot of sense to specifically target the relatively few left-handed hitters who can play those positions. Still, this... this is a little ridiculous.

  • In 2009, the Mariners drafted Dustin Ackley (first-round LH outfielder converted to 2B), Nick Franklin (first-round SH SS moved to 2B), and Kyle Seager (third-round LH 2B moved to 3B). James Jones was the only outfielder they took in the first ten rounds.
  • In 2010, the Mariners drafted Marcus Littlewood (second-round SH SS moved to C). Jabari Blash was the only outfielder they took in the first ten rounds.
  • In 2011, the Mariners drafted Brad Miller (second-round LH SS), Steven Proscia (seventh-round RH 3B), Cavan Cohoes (ninth-round RH SS), and Daniel Paolini (tenth round RH 2B). James Zamarripa was the only outfielder they took in the first ten rounds.
  • In 2012, the Mariners drafted Joe DeCarlo (second-round RH SS), Patrick Kivlehan (third-round RH 3B), Chris Taylor (fifth-round RH SS), Timmy Lopes (sixth-round RH SS), and Jamodrick McGruder (ninth-round LH 2B). They did not take a single outfielder in the first ten rounds.
That's crazy even before you consider the rumors that some within the front office were proponents of taking SH SS Francisco Lindor over LHP Danny Hultzen with the team's first pick in 2011. And the rumors that the team tried to trade for Troy Tulowitzki earlier this offseason. And the fact that the team just signed Robinson effin' Cano. Jesus.

Clearly, this front office loves (or at least loved) them some infielders. Which, now that I think about it, sort of explains the whole "all of our outfielders are actually second basemen" thing. First it was Stefen Romero, learning new positions to make himself more valuable through versatility. Then it was Dustin Ackley, getting displaced back to his old position by the arrival of Nick Franklin. And now, ironically, it's Franklin himself who's been bumped off the keystone - by none other than Robinson Cano. After a spring-spanning "position battle" at shortstop, Franklin's started to take reps in the outfield, apparently of his own volition.

It's a nice sentiment, and it's certainly pretty hard to fault the guy for trying to improve himself as a player. I'm just not sure how well this is going to work out for the franchise. I mean, if Nick Franklin wants to turn himself into Kelly Johnson, good for him, but Kelly Johnson's hardly the world's greatest starting outfielder.

One conclusion is inescapable: the Mariners have an outfield problem. Fangraphs projects them in the bottom third of MLB in all three outfield positions, and James Jones' super-arm aside, there isn't really anyone interesting coming up through the minor leagues. As mentioned above, Nick Franklin could convert to RF and platoon with Stefen Romero, but that pair would probably have big defensive problems without packing the offensive punch needed to make up for it. For the moment, at least, the team is stuck with what they have.

And what they have isn't all that special. I like Michael Saunders a lot, but he's not a guy that you want to be your best outfielder. Abe Almonte, for all that he tore up AAA last year, has just as many defensive questions as Saunders -with even more offensive ones. (EDIT: Fellow contributor Anders Jorstad helpfully pointed out on Twitter that Abe Almonte and Michael Saunders also both used to be infielders. This is hilarious.) Dustin Ackley's combination of speed and contact could let him magically metamorphose into Brett Gardner, but it could also leave withering on the vine. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison aren't outfielders. Oh, hey, that's right, the Mariners signed Willie Bloomquist!

The simple fact of the matter is that if the Mariners want a good outfield, the Mariners need to trade for an outfielder. Each member of the in-house set is an interesting fringe starter with upside, but an entire outfield full of those guys is a recipe for disaster. And next year's free agent market is terrible. Don't believe me? Have a look. It's Colby Rasmus, Chris Denorfia, Norichika Aoki, Melky Cabrera, and then a steaming pile of old and bad. Meanwhile, in the distance you can practically hear the steady tick-tock of Robinson Cano's contract...

The problem with a trade, of course, is that you have to give something to get something, and the Mariners don't seem to have enough to give. If Nick Franklin were enough to bring back a good outfielder, he'd be gone. The team probably needs D.J. Peterson to man a corner infield position next year. The rest of the farm system just isn't all that enticing.

But hey - you know where next year's free agent crop is really strong? Starting pitching. You know where the Mariners have a bunch of young and highly touted breakout candidates? Starting pitching. You know where that means the team should deal from?

I'm just saying. If a young pitcher like James Paxton or Erasmo Ramirez has a breakout 2014, don't get too attached. With Danny Hultzen likely to return and a Scherzer/Shields/Lester/Masterson/McCarthy/Santana sextet on the market, selling high on a young SP may be the only way for the Mariners to get the outfielder they so desperately desire.

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