The Mariners' growing position-player problem

butt-bump for being good at baseball - Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Saunders has hit the DL, leaving the Mariners with three above average regulars on offense. Something's got to give.

From Shannon Drayer:

Shit.

The good news is that it's not an awful injury, at least in the short term. Usually AC joint inflammation happens to pitchers, not hitters, and the main ramification seems to be weakening of the throwing arm. I'd be fairly surprised if Saunders missed more than the minimum 15 days, and when he comes back he should be more or less back to normal (unless, in a worst-case scenario, his power goes missing again). The bad news is that guys who go on the DL with this particular malaise tend to have chronic arm problems; Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Kemp are the two most recent examples, and they don't set particularly encouraging precedents. We can probably expect Michael Saunders to struggle with his shoulder off and on for the rest of his career.

The worst news, though, is that Saunders' injury leaves the Mariners with only three above-average regular position players. Check out the Mariners.com depth chart. It's, uh, not pretty.

Depth

Cano, of course, is the best position player on the team, and hopefully his home run last night is the first of many to come. Seager has been his same old 3-4 WAR self, despite a recent run of bad luck. Mike Zunino's superb glovework is enough to make up for the fact that he's been completely garbage at hitting ever since I wrote this article.

That's pretty much it.

You can make cases for Brad Miller (who's been quietly turning it around after a putrid May) and James Jones (depending on what you think of his glovework in center field). Dustin Ackley and Cole Gillespie make up a theoretically tolerable left field jobshare, though to be frank I wouldn't expect much better than replacement-level performance from either of them going forward. But unreliable and unknown as those four may be, they're not the real problem. The real problem is... well, have a look at the rightmost side of that depth chart.

The Mariners' starting right fielder is Stefen Romero. He is also the Mariners' starting DH. His backups are, respectively, Endy Chavez and John Buck.

This situation quite simply cannot be allowed to continue. Not if the Mariners want to win baseball games, anyways. Their DHes have already combined for the second-worst wRC+ in the AL, ahead of only Billy Butler, and running an overmatched rookie with bad plate discipline out there isn't going to improve matters. Logan Morrison's return from Tacoma may help to patch the hole, or at least keep Willie Bloomquist from being a starting first baseman, but the Mariners need to do something about their offensive problems. Fast.

There are two options: looking internally and trading for outside help. First, the internal options:

  • Corey Hart is out for at least another two weeks. Knowing his legs, it may be closer to a month, and he wasn't exactly tearing up the world before he went down. His injury has probably cost him several million dollars in incentives, meaning that the Mariners have the cash to go out and trade for a rent-a-DH. They can't worry about what they're going to do when he eventually comes back; they need to move now and let that situation sort itself out later.
  • Justin Smoak is likewise out for at least two weeks. Also, he is Justin Smoak. The front office should've moved on a long time ago; their stubborn refusal to give up hope would be admirable if it weren't so frustrating.
  • D.J. Peterson and Austin Wilson aren't ready. No. Stop it.
  • Ji-Man Choi, the team's most intriguing high-level hitting prospect, was just reinstated from a 50-game drug suspension and demoted to Jackson. The steroid he took, methandienone, is way old-school - the 1960 U.S. Olympic Wrestling team used it, as did Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's had chronic back issues, which might partially explain away the 'roids. There's upside with Choi, whose offensive profile resembles Billy Butler's, but I have to believe that the Mariners won't call him up immediately. First, he'll have to spend a couple weeks in the minors proving that his power didn't come from a pill, and by the time he's done Corey Hart might be back to block him.
  • Ty Kelly is killing it in Tacoma again, having retained his never-ever-swing-at-a-ball approach from last year but also having added a little bit of power into the mix. Despite being blocked at his two primary positions by Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, he seems like a man who deserves a chance to hit. Ultra-patient hitters like Kelly are prone to getting exposed by major league pitchers who can paint the black, but he's still one of the top 10 prospects in the Major Leagues by ZiPS WAR. I'd take another draw at the John Jaso deck - wouldn't you? A point in his favor: he started in right field for Tacoma last night and hit his third home run in a week. A point not in his favor: he's not on the 40-man roster.
  • Jabari Blash and his awesome facial hair are in the same boat as Ty Kelly: destroying the minor leagues, but possessing a questionable offensive skill set and not a 40-man roster slot. Blash's raw power is undeniable, as he's posted .200+ ISOs at almost every stop in the minor leagues, but his strikeout rate leaves a lot to be desired. Still, he'd be the obvious RF call-up, if it weren't for the 40-man thing.
  • Jesus Montero is hitting .270/.345/.455 in Tacoma (.343/.425/.486 over the last ten games). I dislike him as much as the next guy, but he's 24, he's got a career 131 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, and he's doing quite well for himself in AAA. At some point you have to set aside the questions of character and work ethic and pick the player who's best equipped to succeed at the major league level. When it comes to hitting lefties, Montero represents an undeniable upgrade over Romero. The question is: can the Mariners play him against RHP? And if they can't, is a short-side platoon DH worth a roster spot?
  • Nick Franklin's name has been floated, but I can't imagine the Mariners yanking him back up to the majors after having demoted him literally ten days ago. Besides, the strikeout problems make him a less than desirable DH candidate, and he's neither A) a real right fielder nor B) a pedigree-free prospect who can be switched from position to position at will. Also he sucks right-handed.
  • If the Mariners promote Xavier Nady, I will write the most passive-aggressive baseball-related sonnet that you have ever seen and post it to Lookout Landing under the title "Ode to Stefen Romero".

OK, so it's a bit of a motley crew. Hart, Smoak, Choi and Franklin seem like non-factors in the near future, leaving Kelly, Blash and Montero as the main contenders. The 40-man situation is a big point in Montero's favor; the Mariners are already going to have to cut someone when James Paxton comes off of the DL, and I'm sure they'd really rather not force themselves to lose two players instead of one. However, he's embarrassed the franchise so badly over the last couple of years that I can't imagine they're eager to give him another shot. Besides, he'd be a Romero replacement, and the immediately available job is Michael Saunders'. All in all... none of these guys seem like a cure-all. Most of them seem like pretty flawed players.

Fortunately, there's the trade market!

  • Yesterday, Michael wrote a piece about grabbing Ben Zobrist. I'd love to bring Zorilla into the fold, but it seems to me that a 4-WAR player like him might be difficult to pry away from the Rays. A more cost-effective solution might be Matt Joyce, who's in the last year of his contract and posting a below-career-average ISO. Nonetheless, he projects as a league average OF/DH. He's left-handed, which is a shame as far as lineup balance is concerned, but at this point I'll take anything.
  • Carlos Quentin's name comes up every year in Mariners rumors. As always, he'd be a great fit, but his full no-trade clause is probably a sizable barrier to obtaining him. Also, he's incredibly injury-prone and could be liable to join Hart among the ranks of the walking wounded. On the plus side, he's on the same team as appealing pitching target Ian Kennedy, so a package deal might be possible.
  • While we're talking about injury-prone players, Josh Willingham is murdering baseballs in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, the Twins appear to have delusions of contention, seeing as they just signed Kendrys Morales. Either Willingham or Morales could make an appealing trade target for the Mariners, but neither will likely be available for another month or so.
  • I mean, the Dodgers could trade the Mariners Matt Kemp, but unless they also send over a couple of yachts full of hundred-dollar bills...
  • Recently, Dave Cameron went on the radio and advocated for the Mariners picking up Marlon Byrd. Three and a half months ago, Cameron panned Byrd's 2/16 contract with the Phillies as "tenth worst of the offseason". Honestly, I think I agree more with his February article than with his more recent suggestion, as Byrd has recently traded contact for power in a big way. Righties who do that in Safeco often see less than desirable returns. That said, he was a middle-of-the-order hitter for a playoff team just last year, and he ought to come real cheap, so there's some upside there.
  • I know the Astros just picked up Dexter Fowler, but he's only under contract for one more year and the Astros still aren't likely to be very good. The Mariners could make up for a missed opportunity over the offseason by flipping a low-level piece for him now. As a questionable defensive CF whose bat has always tantalized but never quite realized its promise, he'd certainly fill the "Michael Saunders" hole on the team.
  • Crazy idea of the week: Miguel Montero. Yes, he's a catcher, but he's an aging catcher who some think might need to be moved to 1B or DH sooner than later. He's on a multi-year contract at reasonable prices, but his team sucks, so he could be available. He's not the kind of all-power righty who gets killed by Safeco (EDIT: he's not any kind of righty at all, since he's a lefty, whoops), but he's had a wRC+ over 110 in four of the last six years. His down 2013 could make him come relatively cheap. He's also this year's leader in pitch framing value added. Maybe the D-backs won't be willing to move him, or maybe he wouldn't want to give up the tools of ignorance, but he seems like a wonderful fit.

So yeah. The trade market: way more appealing than the internal options! Unfortunately, it's also unlikely to really develop for a while, as teams like the Twins wait to fall all the way out of contention before selling. I'd love to see the Mariners pick up Fowler or Joyce or Montero at the July 31 deadline, but for now it's probable that the solution will have to be internal.

The good news is the Mariners' weak June schedule. Because they haven't got any really tough teams coming up soon, there's a chance they'll be able to skate through a month with only three above-average regular position players. By the time the schedule toughens up again, they'll hopefully have made some key additions on the trade market. Otherwise, they could find themselves rolling into a tough end-of-season stretch with Stefen Romero and Endy Chavez still on the team.

It's a tricky spot for the Mariners' front office. Here's hoping they execute.

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