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A quick look at Seattle's ~regular corner outfielders

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Aoki and Smith and Cruz and Guti, oh my!

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Our miniseries of post-season positional summaries continues with... Seattle Mariners outfielders! Specifically, I'll be talking about the four gentlemen who spent the most time at the corner spots in the outfield: Norichika Aoki, Seth Smith, Nelson Cruz, and Franklin Gutierrez. (Jake will be discussing the remaining M's outfielders tomorrow.) Let's get to it.

Norichika Aoki: A tale of two halves

Aoki's first few months in an M's uniform were ugly. He couldn't hit, his fielding was ADVENTUROUS (in a bad way), and he was thrown out stealing in seven of his first nine stolen base attempts. Every facet of his game was a disaster. In mid June, after appearing in 62 games, Aoki's fWAR sat at miserable -0.3. Yuck! Shortly thereafter, Servais made the decision to send his leadoff hitter ~40 miles south to Cheney Stadium in an attempt to help Aoki "get right". Thankfully, the restorative powers of Tacoma (???) worked their magic and Aoki was able to turn his season around in a big way. Below is a table showing some offensive numbers for Aoki before and after his June 22nd demotion to Triple A.

Split PA K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ GB/FB GB% FB% Pull% Oppo% Hard%
Before demotion 284 10.9% 0.275 0.245 0.323 0.313 80 4.14 67.1% 16.2% 27.8% 31.8% 16.6%
After demotion 183 7.7% 0.358 0.339 0.390 0.500 146 1.70 51.7% 30.5% 36.1% 27.7% 24.5%

Wowie zowie what a difference. During the first 2.5 months of the season, Aoki pounded the ball into the ground again and again and again. A GB/FB ratio that starts with the numeral "4" is pretty absurd. It should be noted that a 67% GB rate with a .275 BABIP does suggest some bad luck, but Aoki wasn't hitting the ball hard very often so he is far from blameless. Fortunately, after his sojourn in Tacoma, he started to generate significantly more lift and more pop when he hit the ball. He also managed to substantially reduce his K-rate back near his career average (8%). All of these positive factors combined to make Aoki an extremely dangerous hitter in the second half of 2016. CRAZY STAT ALERT: 217 players had at least 180 PA after the All Star Break in 2016Norichika Aoki had the 14th best wRC+ in all of baseball over that period. In terms of overall value in 2016, Aoki's 1.54 fWAR/600 was sandwiched between Jose Bautista and Jason Heyward on one side and Michael Saunders and Jose Abreu on the other. That's pretty bananas given just how much he struggled early on.

Looking forward to next season, Aoki's $6M option for 2017 (based on 480 PA in '16) failed to vest; however, Jerry Dipoto has expressed interest in bringing Aoki back. This could be a good idea? Even with his less than stellar defense/baserunning, if Aoki can limit his strikeouts and avoid falling into an early-season funk, he still has the potential to be a very useful ballplayer.

Seth Smith: A tale of two halves (with the opposite storyline)

Seth Smith had one of the very best spring trainings in recent M's history. He hit .541 (!) down in Phoenix and smacked line drives to all fields throughout the month of March. This ability to see the ball well carried over into the regular season. At the end of April, Seth was still riding high with an OPS of .966. Everything was awesome. Unfortunately, this success, like all good things in life, was fleeting; Smith's offensive production lagged mightily as the season wore on. Below is a table showing some offensive numbers for Seth during the first and last 81 games of the season.

Split PA K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ LD% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Swing% Contact%
First 81 G 242 17.8% 0.310 0.280 0.372 0.444 127 19.3% 40.1% 19.2% 11.4% 39.8% 81.1%
Last 81 G 196 23.5% 0.244 0.211 0.306 0.380 89 24.6% 46.8% 15.1% 19.8% 39.4% 76.6%

In the second half of 2016, Seth made a lot more soft contact and started swinging and missing much more often. Individually, each of these things is a bummertogether, they're pretty much a disaster. Frustratingly/weirdly, Seth's line drive rate actually increased appreciably during the second half of the season; he hit liners about a quarter of the time, which is well above the league-average line-drive rate. Unfortunately, as reflected by his .244 BABIP, few of those managed to fall in for base hits. The second half of Seth's season was doomed by bad BABIP luck, weak contact, and a somewhat worrying contact rate. In addition to these late-season offensive woes, Seth's defense also appeared to appreciably decline compared to last year. 2016 may have been the worst year of everyone's favorite baseball dad's career. Womp.

Seth has a $7M team option remaining on his contract for 2017. Not so long ago, this was viewed as a very team-friendly salary. However, Seth's recent struggles at the plate and his declining defense have taken some of the shine off of his price tag. Regardless, Seth can/should be pencilled in against RHP; he's still very capable of giving his team PROFESSIONAL at-bats. Alternatively, if Jerry decides to try and deal Smith this offseason, he's a not small trade piece that could potentially be used to help upgrade a position of greater need.

Nelson Cruz: Raging against the dying of the light (quite successfully)

For the second season in a row as a member of the Seattle Mariners, Nelson Cruz brazenly defied baseball's aging curve. Since the start of 2015, only five players in all of MLB (Trout, Votto, Miggy, Harper, and Donaldson) have been better at hitting baseballs than Cruz. Nellie's first two seasons in the PNW have vastly exceeded any and all reasonable expectations that M's fans had when he was signed back in December of 2014. For a bit more perspective, a qualified player in his age-34-or-older season has posted a wRC+ above 145 for just eight times in franchise history. Edgar Martinez did it five times (because he is just the best), the great Tom Paciorek did it once (way back in '81), and Nelson Cruz has now done it twice.

Additionally, Nelson was finally able to successfully overcome the nebulous DH penalty that seemed to plague him over the last two seasons. In 2014 and 2015 (the only other years when Cruz spent an appreciable amount of time at DH), his wRC+ was just 121 when he DH'd but 171 (!) otherwise. This season, that script was flipped; Cruz had a wRC+ of 157 when he was the designated hitter and a wRC+ of 124 otherwise. This apparent comfort with the DH role (thanks, Edgar!) allowed Servais to drastically limit Cruz's time in the field. Nelson only played 400 innings in the outfield in 2016 (down from 700 in 2015) and logged just 25 innings after July 31st. Limiting Cruz's time in the outfield is a good idea because 1) he's somewhat of a defensive liability and 2) he is old and we don't want him to explode his knees.

Projecting Cruz for next season is pretty tricky. On the one hand, he's shown absolutely no signs of slowing down so far, but on the other he will turn 37 years old next July. His performance has such a wide range of potential outcomes. People have also talked at length about dealing Cruz while his value so high; I do wonder about what kind of haul he might net, but this lineup would be a lot less potent and a lot less fun without him in the dugout.

Franklin Gutierrez: Raging against the dying of the light (somewhat less successfully)

In 2016, Franklin Gutierrez played in 98 games for the Seattle Mariners. It was the most appearances he's made in a season since 2010. (For reference, Josh Wilson was the M's ~everyday shortstop in 2010; that really was quite some time ago.) It's probably only a little bit hyperbolic to say that everyone loves Guti. We're all well aware of the struggles he's overcome and how much he's fought to retrace his steps back to having an impact as a productive major league player. His last two seasons (especially 2015) have been nothing short of magical. Despite his body's insistence to perennially let him down, Guti has persevered and somehow found a way to become one of the very best hitters in the world when facing off against left-handed pitchers. In 2016, Guti's wRC+ of 143 vs. southpaws was tied for 5th best in MLB (min 175 PA vs. LHP). He was just as good as Miggy. That's pretty unbelievable.

Unfortunately, the other aspects of Guti's game have been unable to rebound as dramatically. In 2016, Franklin rated as Seattle's worst outfielder (min 150 innings) in terms of both UZR/150 and DRS. Advanced fielding metrics certainly have their flaws, and that is a woefully small sample size, but anyone who watched Guti run around in the field last year is well aware of the fact that he's lost a step (or three). Additionally, once an above-average baserunner and a threat to steal ~15 bases per season, Guti  has just one stolen base attempt since 2013. His legs just aren't quite there anymore.

It breaks my heart to type this, but it's getting increasingly hard to justify taking up a roster spot with a player who can't hit righties, can't be used as a defensive substitute, and can't really be used as a pinch runner. Guti is very good at the one thing he's good at, but I don't know if that's good enough to stick on this roster moving forward. Maybe if the M's didn't have a platoon at 1B, but... I don't want to talk about this anymore. It's making me so sad. Feel free to discuss this further in the comments. Love you, Guti.

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It seems unlikely that the Mariners will once again employ all four of these players in 2017. Doing so last year cost them a ton in terms of both flexibility and defensive ability, and with each of these gentlemen on the wrong side of 33 their dependability is far from guaranteed. I wouldn't be surprised if three of these guys graced the 2017 Mariners with their presence, but we'll have to wait and see what course of action the front office decides to pursue. Do something good, Jerry. And please don't make us too sad.

goms