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40-Man Review: Infielders

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Two superstars lead this strong position group for the Mariners.

Rich Gagnon

Earlier this week, I started a series of posts that will examine the Mariners' 40-man roster, both a recap of 2014 and a look forward to 2015. I'll do my best to try and figure out who might be dropped from the roster before the season starts and who might be added to the roster. I won't speculate on any specific free agents or trade targets -- there will be plenty of time for that later -- I'll only comment about where the Mariners could stand to upgrade for 2015. I'm also using the recently released Steamer projections via FanGraphs to estimate 2015 production. These projections are pretty conservative and the playing time estimates are based on FanGraphs' depth charts.

Previous Posts: Primer | Catchers (2 40-man roster spots)

Today, I'll take a look at the Mariners' infield:

Infielders

Age

Org. Level

2014 Salary

2015 Salary

Willie Bloomquist

37

MLB

$2,800,000.00

$3,000,000.00

Robinson Cano

32

MLB

$24,000,000.00

$24,000,000.00

Nick Franklin

23

MLB

$500,000.00

Traded to Rays

Brad Miller

25

MLB

$510,100.00

ML Minimum + service

Jesus Montero

25

MLB

$500,000.00

ML Minimum + service

Kendrys Morales

31

MLB

$7,409,836.00

Free Agent

Logan Morrison

27

MLB

$1,750,000.00

Arbitration - Year 2

Kyle Seager

27

MLB

$540,100.00

Arbitration - Year 1

Justin Smoak

28

MLB

$2,637,500.00

$3,650,000 ($.15M buyout)

Chris Taylor

24

MLB

$500,000.00

ML Minimum + service

Ji-Man Choi

23

AAA

Minor League Contract

Minor League Contract

2014 Recap

Name

PA

K%

BB%

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

WAR

Robinson Cano

665

10.2%

9.2%

0.314

0.382

0.454

0.361

5.3

Kyle Seager

654

18.0%

8.0%

0.268

0.334

0.454

0.346

5.5

Brad Miller

411

23.1%

8.3%

0.221

0.288

0.365

0.290

1.4

Logan Morrison

336

16.2%

6.6%

0.262

0.315

0.420

0.324

1.0

Justin Smoak

276

23.9%

8.7%

0.202

0.275

0.339

0.277

-0.3

Kendrys Morales

239

17.2%

8.8%

0.207

0.285

0.347

0.282

-0.9

Chris Taylor

151

25.8%

7.3%

0.287

0.347

0.346

0.313

1.4

Willie Bloomquist

139

23.0%

2.9%

0.278

0.297

0.346

0.282

0.1

Nick Franklin

52

40.4%

5.8%

0.128

0.192

0.170

0.171

0.0

Jesus Montero

17

17.6%

0.0%

0.235

0.235

0.412

0.283

0.0

Ji-Man Choi (AAA)

281

14.9%

12.8%

0.283

0.381

0.392

0.354

The strength of the Mariners' position players clearly lies in the infield where two stars man two of the four positions. The biggest position battle on the team also lies in the infield -- who will be the opening day shortstop in 2015? Let's dive in.

Robinson Cano had a pretty interesting year in his first campaign with the Mariners. He was able to maintain his walk rate while dropping his strikeout rate leading to a batting average and an on-base percentage that are almost mirror images of his last two years. However, along the way, his power numbers took a nose dive. After averaging an ISO over .220 and 28 home runs over the last five years, those stats dropped to .139 and 14 this year. One of the main culprits was a significant jump in his groundball rate. Perhaps more damning was his precipitous drop in batted ball distance. Observe these two images from Baseball Heat Maps:

Cano's batted ball distance 2009-2013:

Cano dist 09-13

Cano's batted ball distance 2009-2014:

Cano dist 09-14

Robbie will turn 32 in just a few days. I don't believe this year was the start of a steep dive off the cliff but stranger things have happened.

Kyle Seager ended the year as the most valuable position player on the Mariners. He maintained the improvement in his plate approach he made last year and tacked on some impressive power numbers on top of that. Seager was also able to dramatically improve his fielding numbers and ended the year as the second best third baseman in the American League according to both DRS and UZR. By all accounts, Seager had an amazing year and he's entering the prime of his career.

Heading into the season, most of us were fairly confident that shortstop would be a strength for this team. Brad Miller was coming off a solid start to his career in 2013 and all signs were pointing to an excellent season from him. Despite Lloyd McClendon giving him every chance to succeed, Miller lost the starting job to Chris Taylor midway through the year before working his way into a timeshare by the end of it. Both Taylor and Miller ended up with the same WAR total, although Taylor was able to accumulate his in a third of the time.

Each of shortstop brings something different to the table. Where Taylor is an elite defensive shortstop with a light bat, Miller is a serviceable defender whose bat has a bit more pop to it. Traditionally, Miller's skillset has been valued higher by major league teams but the Jack Zduriencik hasn't been hesitant to start a defense first shortstop in the past (Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan).

It was a tale of two halves for Miller. He started the year in a massive slump but was able to improve all of his offensive categories in the second half the year. Just look at these splits:

Split

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

LD%

wRC+

1st Half

8.0%

23.3%

.126

.244

16.8%

73

2nd Half

9.0%

22.5%

.196

.333

26.0%

122

While we can't just throw away the first half and assume that Miller will perform like second-half-Miller next year, it does give us some hope that he was able to figure something out towards the end of the year. What's more alarming is the huge spike in strikeout rate for Miller. In the minors, he never ran a strikeout rate as high as he did this year. He was still able to draw his fair share of walks so it seems like he still has a clue when he's at the plate. If he's going to improve next year, he's going to have to work on reducing his strikeout rate.

First base was a rotating door of disappointment for the Mariners until Logan Morrison claimed his place as the starter in June and ran with it. Morrison had a pretty similar year to Brad Miller: a poor start (partially due to injury), a good June, followed by a terrible July, and an excellent August and September to finish the year. Colin had a great post comparing Morrison and Smoak yesterday. TL:DR - Morrison's got power in that bat.

I find the reactions to Miller's year and Morrison's year pretty interesting. Both are coming off up and down years and have a history of success (although Morrison's success is much farther removed) yet we're questioning whether or not Miller is the right answer at shortstop and at the same time most of us believe Morrison is the unquestioned starter at first next year.

That reaction to Morrison's success down the stretch could be attributed to the disappointing incumbent at first, Justin Smoak. The Mariners gave Justin Smoak every opportunity to succeed and he gave us glimpses of promise but he's just not cut out to be a starting major league first baseman. Smoak played himself out of a job by the end of May and the Mariners never looked back.

It's both funny and sad to look at the table above and see that Smoak "accumulated" more WAR than Kendrys Morales in almost the same amount of playing time. To be fair, Morales spent most of his time as the DH, where the positional adjustment is more dramatic but maybe that just shows how bad Morales was this year. The silver lining for the Mariners is if they decide to try and resign Morales, he'll probably come at a significant discount and Steamer projects a modest improvement over this year's numbers (there's nowhere to go but up!).

2015 Outlook

Name

PA

K%

BB%

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

WAR

Robinson Cano

634

12.0%

8.6%

0.300

0.365

0.469

0.360

5.2

Kyle Seager

612

17.5%

8.6%

0.266

0.334

0.436

0.340

4.0

Logan Morrison

574

15.8%

9.3%

0.258

0.331

0.433

0.336

1.9

Justin Smoak

441

21.1%

10.7%

0.236

0.321

0.394

0.318

0.5

Brad Miller

436

18.6%

7.9%

0.255

0.316

0.396

0.315

2.5

Chris Taylor

347

19.6%

7.9%

0.265

0.328

0.362

0.309

1.8

Willie Bloomquist

156

17.4%

4.5%

0.262

0.299

0.342

0.284

0.2

Jesus Montero

68

18.7%

7.0%

0.264

0.318

0.441

0.331

0.2

Ji-Man Choi

15.2%

8.6%

0.254

0.325

0.390

0.318

The Steamer projections for the Mariners infield are a mixed bag. Cano is projected to maintain his lower standard of performance with a little bit of bounce back in the power department. Seager is projected to lose some of the power he found this year. Morrison is projected to be serviceable at first but certainly better than any of our other internal options.

Peter did a great job of examining the projections for our shortstops a few days ago. The only place I might disagree with him is his belief that Miller will be traded this offseason. I think the volatility of performance at the position this year will lead to both Miller and Taylor fighting for a job in Spring Training and the loser of that batter getting the Nick Franklin treatment. Willie Bloomquist's spot on the team makes this more complicated. I don't think the Mariners will carry two backup infielders on their bench so, if one of our shortstops isn't traded away, the other will probably find himself in Triple-A to start the year.

Justin Smoak's contract will most likely be bought out opening up a spot for another first baseman/designated hitter to platoon with Morrison or even start at first. Jesus Montero is another wild card too. You have to expect the organization will have him on a pretty short leash but Steamer has him as the fourth best hitter of this group. If he's able to get everything together in the offseason and put together a solid spring training, he could be a dark horse candidate to make the team as a solution to the hole at designated hitter.

Ji-Man Choi did not have an impressive year in 2014. He was suspended for fifty games and didn't hit well enough in Triple-A after his suspension ended to truly stand out. There are a number of other infielders who could take his place on the 40-man roster. D.J Peterson was excellent in his first full year as a pro. He was able rise quickly through the organization and ended the year in Double-A and led all Mariner minor leaguers in home runs (31) and runs batted in (111). I'd expect the Mariners to place Peterson on the 40-man next year and, depending on the situation at first and DH, get a shot at the majors by September.

The other prospect that has the potential to earn a spot on the 40-man is Patrick Kivlehan. He started the year in High-A and was called up to Double-A in mid-May. He's still pretty raw and hasn't settled into a position yet. He played third base for most of the year but also saw time at first and in the corner outfield spots. He could also be a dark horse to see time with the Mariners in limited action next year. Both he and Peterson are representing the Mariners in the Arizona Fall League right now.

Between all the returning infielders, the loss of Smoak and Choi, and adding a mystery first baseman and Peterson and Kivlehan, I'm projecting nine roster spots reserved for infielders. Including our two catchers, that brings us to a total of eleven claimed spots on the 40-Man Roster. Next week, I'll tackle our outfield and starting pitchers.