Down the stretch in September, when the games were close and the innings were late, Scott Servais would frequently employ a pair of outfielders off the bench. He called them his “hands team.” With Leonys Martin fixed in center field, Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel would enter the game to his left and right, forming a defensive trio unmatched since Franklin Gutierrez was known as “Death to Flying Things.”
The Mariners have employed some memorable center fielders during their franchise history. They spent an entire season celebrating one of them this year. But recently, the players patrolling center field have been memorable more for their struggles rather than their excellence. Leonys Martin may not have entirely flipped that narrative in 2016, but though he fell short on the field, he more than made up for by quickly becoming the heartbeat of the team.
At the plate, Martin had an up-and-down season. He started the year with a bang, launching nine home runs in the first two months, quickly breaking his previous career high. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury in late May derailed his early season success. He may have been rushed back because of a lack of any capable depth or maybe the power he displayed was just a flash in the pan. Whatever the reason, his ISO after returning from his injury dropped from .221 to .097 the rest of the way. Perhaps more concerning was the spike in strikeout rate and the corresponding drop in contact rate. In the end, his overall season line looked pretty similar to his previous career norms established in Texas.
Defensively, Martin was the best center fielder the Mariners have seen since young Franklin Gutierrez. He showed good range, good speed, and we all know about his cannon arm. The advanced defensive metrics were undecided about his defensive value; UZR and FRAA both saw him as an above average center fielder but DRS was a little more pessimistic.
Listening to some of the Mariners talk about the clubhouse atmosphere this season, it became clear that Martin was a huge reason for their excellent chemistry. They would talk about his infectious energy, his constant encouragement, and penchant for big plays in big moments. His two walk-off home runs were incredible moments in a season full of memories.
When the Mariners signed Guillermo Heredia in February, he hadn’t regularly played ball since 2014. That long layoff dampened expectations but the scouting reports were intriguing. In Cuba, he was an excellent defender with some questions about his bat. If he could get up to speed in the minors, he would create some depth for Martin and possibly earn a spot on the roster as a fourth outfielder. That’s exactly what happened. He quickly moved through two minor league levels, and by July, looked like he was ready for an audition.
Heredia made 18 starts for the Mariners over the last two months of the season and entered the game as a defensive replacement in another 32 games. In the field, he was exactly as advertised: good range, good speed, and a strong arm. At the plate, he showed off his developed approach and a good eye by walking in 11.2% of his plate appearances while striking out in just 14.0% of them. He doesn’t possess much power but he’s able to hit to all fields and has enough speed to leg out a few infield hits.
Ben Gamel was a minor league standout in the Yankees organization but his path to the majors was blocked by entrenched veterans and more tantalizing prospects. Jerry Dipoto recognized that surplus and traded for Gamel right before the wavier trade deadline. He fits the outfield mold Dipoto has been trying to fill all year: he’s athletic, strong defensively, and possesses a good eye at the plate. In 47 at-bats with the Mariners, he accumulated just eight hits but walked in more than 10% of his plate appearances. He made six starts in September and entered the game off the bench in another 21.
Leonys Martin is eligible for salary arbitration for the second time this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors projects his salary to fall somewhere around $6.3 million next year. Depending on how the situation with Aoki, Smith, and Guti shakes out, Heredia and Gamel should see a significant amount of time on the active roster as fourth or fifth outfielders. Both are under team control for five more years and both still have minor league options available. They should compete for a spot on the roster in spring training and will provide competent depth at all three outfield positions.