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On Sorting Out The Outfield

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Since news of Ackley's signing broke, a lot of people have raised the question of where he's going to play. An outfielder by choice, he's currently blocked in the organization by Saunders, Gutierrez, Ichiro, and Langerhans, leading some to wonder how the front office is going to shift things around to make room. After all, it doesn't do us any good to have a Major League-ready outfielder if we already have a bunch of them locked into their positions, right?

Don't worry about it.

Here's a table showing the four outfielders who got the most playing time for each team in 2007. Bolded are the ones who remain in the top four for playing time for the same team in 2009.

ARI Byrnes Young Quentin Hairston
ATL Diaz Jones Francouer Harris
BAL Payton Patterson Markakis Gibbons
BOS Ramirez Crisp Drew Pena
CHC Soriano Jones Floyd Murton
CHW Podsednik Owens Dye Erstad
CIN Dunn Hamilton Griffey Hopper
CLE Michaels Sizemore Nixon Gutierrez
COL Halladay Taveras Hawpe Spilborghs
DET Monroe Granderson Ordonez Thames
FLA Willingham Amezaga Hermida Borchard
HOU Lee Pence Scott Burke
KCR Brown DeJesus Teahen Gathright
LAA Anderson Matthews Guerrero Willits
LAD Gonzalez Pierre Ethier Kemp
MIL Jenkins Hall Hart Mench
MIN Kubel Hunter Cuddyer Tyner
NYM Alou Beltran Green Milledge
NYY Matsui Cabrera Abreu Damon
OAK Stewart Swisher Buck Cust
PHI Burrell Rowand Victorino Werth
PIT Bay Duffy Nady McLouth
SDP Sledge Cameron Giles Cruz
SEA Ibanez Ichiro Guillen Bloomquist
SFG Bonds! Roberts Winn Lewis
STL Duncan Edmonds Encarnacion Taguchi
TBD Crawford Upton Young Gomes
TEX Catalanotto Lofton Cruz Byrd
TOR Lind Wells Rios Johnson
WSN Church Logan Kearns Langerhans

44 of 120 players are bolded, or 36.7%. And of those, a few guys (like Francouer and Duncan) are now playing elsewhere.

Obviously this table doesn't account for service time or contract status. Our outfield is locked up for a while, whereas a bunch of guys listed above like Adam Dunn and Barry Bonds either became free agents or were unfortunately forced into involuntary retirement. So that skews things. But the general point remains the same: things can change, and they can change in a hurry.

Look at some of those names. Do you think the Reds thought they'd trade Josh Hamilton? Do you think the Rays thought they would trade Delmon Young? Do you think the Braves thought Jeff Francoeur would fall of a cliff? Do you think the Diamondbacks thought Chris Young would come apart? And so on and so forth. Some guys get dealt. Some guys get worse. Some guys (Guerrero, Matsui) change positions. Even when you think you're all set for a long time, things can get turned around almost overnight. Dave likes to mention how a few years ago the Rays' organization was crawling with a surplus of ML-caliber outfield talent, and they were able to figure things out.

Anything can happen between now and when we expect Ackley to be ready for the Major Leagues. Saunders could bust. Gutierrez could get traded for help somewhere else. Ichiro could hit his decline and go back to Japan. Any of them could get hurt. Perhaps most importantly, Ackley could fail to develop as projected. He could take longer than we think, or he could flame out completely. Just because he's a good bet doesn't make him a guarantee. And there's always the chance that he ends up at second base.

Here's one way to think of the overall bust potential: if you give each of the four players a 90% chance of being able to produce in 2011, you've still dealing with one-in-three odds that at least one of them comes up short. So you've got that, and you've got the possibility of a trade, and the possibility of anything else that I may be forgetting.

By signing Dustin Ackley, the Mariners have put themselves in position to have more quality outfielders than they can play. But though that seems like it could force the front office's hand to make a move, it really doesn't, because they understand that they'll deal with this issue if they get there. There's no telling what could happen in the time leading up to Ackley's expected arrival. Between injuries, trades, and changes in performance, the future is but a vague silhouette. If something happens with one of the players, room will be made. And if they all remain with the organization and play at a high level, well, having too much talent in one area may be quite literally the best problem a GM could imagine.