One of the more entertaining stories of the 2016 Mariners was Shawn O'Malley. As Dave Sims reminded us ad nauseam, he's a local kid, grew up watching the Mariners, and can fill in almost anywhere on the diamond. Coming off a fun 2015 season where he posted a walk rate of around 20% in September, O'Malley languished in Tacoma for the first six weeks of the year while we were treated to watching Luis Sardinas flail at any pitch thrown remotely his way, and made the most of the opportunity he was given when Ketel Marte went down. Through June and July, O'Malley posted a 94 wRC+ over 109 plate appearances, good for a slash line of .260/.343/.344 and a nice 10.9% walk rate. He proved himself to be a decent, if unspectacular defender at shortstop and could reliably cover the other infield positions, with the added bonus of playing the outfield in a pinch. Oh, and he hit a go-ahead three-run blast on the night Ken Griffey, Jr.'s number was retired. In all, O'Malley did everything one would ask for from a utility man, and he could easily be a solid bench guy on several teams.
Shawn O'Malley should not open the 2017 season with the Mariners.
On November 18th, Jerry Dipoto struck a minor deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, receiving fellow utility man Taylor Motter and corner infielder Richie Shaffer for minor league first baseman Dalton Kelly and minor league pitchers Andrew Kittredge and Dylan Thompson. The move was generally regarded as a solid depth move, although some were a little disappointed to lose Kelly, who posted a very solid .384 OBP as a 21-year-old in Single-A this year. Flash forward a month later, and Shaffer is somewhat surprisingly in DFA limbo, although he still stands a decent chance to sneak through waivers. [UPDATE: Shaffer was claimed by the Phillies. Bummer.] Motter remains, though, and it's looking more and more likely that he was the main guy Dipoto wanted in the deal.
Let's start with a little background on Motter. A 17th round pick in 2011, he steadily climbed through Tampa Bay's minor league system, making a full stop at each level. He hit well, if not spectacularly everywhere he went, culminating in a very impressive 142 wRC+ in 2015 with Triple-A Durham. He cracked the Majors for the first time last year, posting a fairly uninspiring .188/.290/.300 slash line over just 93 plate appearances. He did, however, appear at every position aside from catcher and center field, and started at least once everywhere else except pitcher.
This kind of versatility is a valuable skill to have, one that can't always be quantified by sabermetrics. Unfortunately, versatility can only take you so far if your defense is lackluster at most positions you can play. Shawn O'Malley, for example, was a fine infielder, but his adventures in the outfield were not something I looked forward to over the year. Taylor Motter, on the other hand, profiles more of an outfielder, with the bulk of his time in the minor leagues coming in right field. However, he also has logged significant time at third base and shortstop, and provided that he's better at shortstop than Ketel Marte, he should be able to fill in there every so often.
The main draw of Motter, though, is his upside at the plate is much higher than O'Malley's. Motter holds a minor league line of .272/.349/.428 in 2,271 PAs, with a 10.2% BB% and a strikeout rate of just 15.5%. O'Malley, on the other hand, carries a minor league slash of just .263/.352/.348 over 3,441 plate appearances, with his best season wRC+ of 135 coming in 2014 with Triple-A Salt Lake City. That 135 wRC+, though, was majorly propped up by a BABIP of .395, and Motter's 142 wRC+ season in 2015 featured a more much reasonable mark of .332.
Some may look at Motter's weak 2016 Major League slash line and think that he and O'Malley would essentially be a wash going forward. While the 66 wRC+ he put up in the bigs certainly isn't good, there are a few reasons to think that number should spike upwards. For one, Motter posted a comically low .217 BABIP (for comparison, Shawn O'Malley ran a .309 BABIP to a 73 wRC+ season). While minor league BABIP rarely, if ever, transfers to MLB, throughout Motter's career he's posted marks much better than that, topping out at the aforementioned .332 in 2015. Secondly, Motter also comes with significantly more power, posting an ISO of .112 in the Majors this year compared to Shawn's .090. This is backed up by their minor league numbers, too, as Motter's MiLB ISO stands at .156, while O'Malley's is .085.
Third, Motter's C-the-Z marks last year were strong, as he put up a very sturdy 11.8% BB% in the bigs. Although the strikeouts jumped up to a career-high 20.2%, it's not at all uncommon for players getting their first exposure to Major League pitching to see those numbers jump up a bit. While it would be somewhat wishful thinking to assume that he'll cut his strikeouts all the way back down to his minor league rates, it's not at all out of the realm of possibility to see him slash that number by a couple of percentage points in 2017.
Shawn O'Malley is a fun, likable player who filled in admirably in 2016. Taylor Motter is just simply the better option for 2017. Motter is almost two full years younger at 27, has better upside at the plate, and has shown more sustainable success in the upper minors. The move to acquire him was a sneaky good move to raise the floor, as it allows Mike Freeman, the infield version of Dan Robertson, to assume a fourth string role behind Motter and O'Malley. One can never have enough decent depth, and Taylor Motter has a better chance to fill that role long-term than either of those two.