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Escaping the shadow of Russell Branyan

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Can Danny Valencia and Dan Vogelbach break the curse?

The Mariners still haven’t found the sequel to their Woody Harrelson lookalike.
Getty

Envy is an ugly color to wear, especially in the holiday season. I, like some of you, caught myself donning that hideous coat recently as Edwin Encarnación signed a team-friendly three-year, $55 million deal, with a $5 million buyout attached to a team option in 2020. Mark Trumbo and Mike Napoli remain unsigned, but the parrot-toting Dominican was the best player at a position that has hamstrung the Mariners since Russell Branyan’s departure. In fact, in the last ten years, the Mariners have had six seasons where the overall fWAR production by the first base position has been negative, ranging from -0.5 last year to -2.2 in the shipwreck that was 2010. Only Branyan’s mighty 2009 season resulted in positive (above average) offensive production. While Jerry should never be put in a corner, it seems likely that the team is content rolling into the season with Danny Valencia and Dan Vogelbach as the two main first basemen. Will they be ones to finally break out of the post-Russell the Muscle doldrums?

The last time I evaluated the Mariners’ first base situation was in mid-July, and the position was not ripe, per se. Still, it had yet to fully rot as it did by September. Unfortunately, that day I also discovered the horror of Jusey Koak in the hot summer sun. Valencia and Vogelbach share a first name, a last initial, and are not expected to serve in a true platoon, so the first base position in 2017 will likely lack an affront against nature from a scientific standpoint, at least. On the field, they look like they might not be too shabby either.

Valencia’s offensive improvements over the last two years were outlined here when the Mariners first acquired him. For $5.3 million, Valencia could be an excellent value. Over the last two seasons, Valencia has hit like a tipsy blackjack player.

Fangraphs

Steamer only projects Valencia for a wRC+ of 100 in 2017. Considering the experience of 2016 Adam Lind, it’s understandable that Mariners fans might be wary of expecting much from a first baseman on a one-year deal acquired for a minor league reliever. Still, if Valencia can approximate that two-year average, he would settle in nicely against last year’s top first basemen.

Fangraphs

Valencia’s productivity last year, compares enticingly to White Sox slugger José Abreu, with less raw power but better range and versatility. Even if his BABIP regresses closer to his .313 career rate, more likely than not Seattle will be significantly better offensively and defensively at 1st base in 2017.

If the Mariners need Valencia to spend significant time in the outfield or spelling Kyle Seager, or *obligatory reference in a Danny Valencia article to prior clubhouse kerfuffles here*, this could all be moot. Should that come to pass, however, can Vogdor hang?

Offensively, yes. Nothing is ever certain when it comes to minor leaguers, and the 13 plate appearances Vogelbach did not set the world on fire, but Vogey is an MLB-ready hitter. Moreover, with his extraordinary capacity to see pitches and get on base, he is the Control the Zone mantra personified. Vogelbach was hampered by his Triple-A BABIP dropping 100 points following his move from the Cubs to Seattle, but made up for it by walking in an outrageous 21.2% of his plate appearances, four percent higher than the rate he struck out at. Having patiently worked his way up, learning from and alongside Anthony Rizzo, Vogelbach is as sure-looking as a minor league hitter can look entering into a crucial season.

There has been a clear emphasis on Vogelbach needing to improve his athleticism and defensive range, which he seems to have embraced. If your hands are quick enough, however, nobody’s going to worry too much about your feet.

ZiPS projects the duo to combine for around 2 WAR, while Steamer expects a more conservative 1 WAR performance. The former would be a 2.5 win swing from 2016, so even the latter would represent a marked improvement. The Mariners turned Mike Montgomery and Jordan Pries into Dan Vogelbach and Paul Blackburn. Blackburn was then flipped for Valencia this offseason. Depending on where you fall on the Missing MiMo spectrum, turning him into the present and future of the 1st base position may feel satisfactory or frustrating. What the position should be this year, at least, is fine. The Mariners haven’t been fine at first in over half a decade.

Here’s to you, Daniyel Volgenciach.

MorphThing.com

Best of luck, you’ll need it.