On November 20th, 2015, the Mariners made a minor trade. After a flurry of bigger acquisitions, the M's flipped outfielder Ramon Flores for shortstop Luis Sardinas. Little was made of the move at the time. Most analysts took it as nothing more than a swap of two utility players, meant to improve each team's roster flexibility.
Sardinas heads into spring training with a chance to win the utility infielder job. His competition, Chris Taylor and Shawn O'Malley, likely have the upper hand, but a few things about Sardinas stand out.
To start with, he's the youngest of the bunch. He's still just 22, and only a couple years removed from being one of the top shortstop prospects in the game. His youth affords him ample time to improve on his flaws and become a more well-rounded player, especially on the offensive side.
We must also remember that Sardinas was acquired by the new front office. Jerry Dipoto's team went out of their way to get him, which suggests that they value his skillset. Mariners Assistant General Manager Jeff Kingston spoke very highly of Sardinas' athleticism and defensive presence earlier this offseason:
Luis is obviously the youngest of the [three utility infield candidates] and probably has the most natural overall ability. His strong performance this winter gives us encouragement that he’s ready to take the next step and translate his skills into success at the ML level. Luis has more overall range at the SS position and is probably more physically gifted defensively at SS than the other two
Kingston brings up an interesting point here. Dipoto and company have made it clear that they want better defenders behind their pitchers. That Sardinas is currently viewed as the best defensive alternative to Ketel Marte would seem to give him a leg-up on the competition.
Though Sardinas may be the best defender of the three, that's not the only skill he brings to the table. Dipoto & co. also believe Sardinas can follow the M's new offensive mantra: "We feel like Luis certainly has the capability of controlling the zone fairly well which was evident in his recent winter league performance," Kingston said. In 58 plate appearances this offseason, Sardinas drew six walks, and struck out only nine times against good competition.
In the minors, Sardinas struck out in 13% of his PA's while walking at a 6% clip. "As he matures and continues to learn and grow as a player, we fully expect him to continue to improve at [controlling the zone]," Kingston said. "He will need to learn to improve his patience at the plate." Taking walks is only part of the equation, however.
In two big league seasons, Sardinas has demonstrated that he can make plenty of contact. Over 230 plate appearances, he's connected with 83% of pitches he swung at, which is better than the big league average. He only produced a .038 ISO, however, which highlights the biggest deficiency in his game: making hard contact.
So far in the big leagues, Sardinas has posted a .241/.274/.216 line and -0.9 fWAR. Those numbers are hardly impressive, but they are partially the product of a player capable of making weak contact on pitches better left avoided. (It doesn't help that he was rushed and only played sporadically). A big part of his development will be selecting good pitches to hit and squaring up balls that he can handle. His ceiling at the plate is higher than he's shown, and his ultimate role on this team will go as far as his bat.
Two of the coaches that helped develop Sardinas in the Rangers organization were Scott Servais and Tim Bogar. Dipoto wouldn't have acquired Sardinas if Servais and Bogar had given poor reviews on the youngster, and both have praised Sardinas' work ethic and character when working with him in the past.
Whether the front office's belief in Sardinas translates into regular playing time this year remains to be seen. It looks like he'll get a fair shot to crack the roster out of spring training though, and with the front office's added emphasis on speed, defense, athleticism, and depth, this likely won't be the last you'll hear of Sardinas.