clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Mariners first line of defense (in a long time)

New, 14 comments

The defensive leap by the 2017 Mariners will be night and day from years past.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

[Ed. Note: This week, as part of a larger SB Nation season preview series, we will be focusing on “what’s changed?” for the 2017 Mariners. We’ll be examining each major aspect of the team—team culture, pitching, offense, defense, and the minors—throughout the week. Today we look at the defense.]

“Defense wins championships,” my first baseball coach Tracy told me when I was six years old, “always has, always will.” I believed him. He was bigger than me, after all, and had been my coach for two years already. My short checklist of reasons to trust a person were satisfied. For a chest-thumping cliche, it’s had some merit recently in Major League Baseball.

Recent Winners (Ranked by Fangraphs “Def”)

Year World Series Champion World Series Loser AL Regular Season Wins Leader NL Regular Season Wins Leader Seattle Mariners
Year World Series Champion World Series Loser AL Regular Season Wins Leader NL Regular Season Wins Leader Seattle Mariners
2016 1st (Cubs) 5th (Indians) 13th (Rangers) 1st (Cubs) 22nd
2015 1st (Royals) 17th (Mets) 1st (Royals) 11th (Cardinals) 24th
2014 16th (Giants) 1st (Royals) 7th (Angels) 11th (Nationals) 13th

Of the 10 playoff teams last year, just two were below-average defensively - the Mets at 17th, and Baltimore at 19th - and both were the losers of their Wild Card games. Six of the remaining eight were in the top 10. The Cubs were not going wanting in any capacity last year but their defensive dominance set them apart. The Royals built their reputation over the past half-decade on defensive brilliance and an airtight bullpen. As Casey Boguslaw wrote earlier this offseason, both teams sacrificed offensive production for defensive excellence (although in the Cubs’ case, that sacrifice was limited mostly to sticking with Jason Heyward). The Mariners, by most outside evaluations, have done similarly. In the outfield in particular, as Eno Sarris noted with some trepidation, Seattle has three starters capable of playing center field well, as well as a number of secondary options who boast excellent defensive chops. All of Seattle’s outfielders are projected to be below-average offensively, however. Any of them could exceed expectations and projections, but even if they don’t, Jerry Dipoto’s gamble will come down to two questions: does defense really win championships? And if so, has the Mariners’ defense improved enough to do so?

Sometimes it can be difficult to properly compare the Mariners to the rest of the league when it is so easy to hold the present players up against the shades of those who came before. Comparing Jarrod Dyson to Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks Jr. hardly seems fair, yet they will occupy the same position less than three years apart. Nonetheless, while previewing each position, take heart. While sometimes it may feel like we’re grading on a curve compared our recent history, the Mariners are in fact expected to have one of, if not the best defense in baseball in 2017.

Catcher

Mike Zunino is solid. Positive framing numbers and a good arm translate into happy pitchers and lots of snap tags at second. Carlos Ruiz may be a downgrade defensively from Jesús Sucre, but he’s not going to make you rend your garments. Well, maybe he will, but what you do in the comfort of your own home is your business.

First Base

Much has been made of Dan Vogelbach and his attempts to improve his footwork around the bag. I suspect he and his more athletic but less first-base-familiar Danny V counterpart, Danny Valencia, will both be sub-par defensively. Neither has looked comfortable this spring, but, in a theme continuing from Adam and Ben’s work yesterday on their offensive potential, the bar set last year (and for the past half-decade, for that matter) could give a mouse a challenge in limbo. First basemen’s gloves are meant to be seen and their bats are meant to be heard. Last year neither occurred in any sort of pleasant fashion. This year in the field, the Danny V’s won’t be taking your breath away, but they will probably be fairly invisible, and that’s an improvement.

Second Base

Robinson Canó’s slow, inevitable march further right in the infield seemed to be granted a stay last year, as two fewer hernias likely helped him perform more serviceably. Make no mistake, Robi is not getting better, and his range is going to continue to be underwhelming, but he should continue to excel at what he does best: throw fools out in a way no second baseman has any business doing, and turning the slickest double plays this side of the Rockies.

Shortstop

Eight players have recorded at least one inning at shortstop for the Mariners since the start of the 2014 season. I decided to check in on all of their 2017 plans.

Mariners Shortstops 2014-2016

Old Shortstop Year(s) as a Mariner shortstop Current team 2017 Spring Activity
Old Shortstop Year(s) as a Mariner shortstop Current team 2017 Spring Activity
Brad Miller 2013-2015 Rays Playing 1st and 2nd base
Nick Franklin 2013-2014 Rays Battling for a 2nd base/utility spot
Willie Bloomquist 2002-2008, 2014-2015 N/A Retired (hanging out in Bremerton)
Chris Taylor 2014-2016 Dodgers Battling for a utility spot/learning to play outfield
Ketel Marte 2015-2016 Diamondbacks Battling illness and for a roster spot
Shawn O'Malley 2015-Present Mariners Battling Taylor Motter/his appendix for a utility spot
Luis Sardiñas 2015-2016 Padres Battling for the starting SS position
Mike Freeman 2016-Present Mariners Likely headed to AAA as utility depth

Of this illustrious group, only one, Shawn O’Malley, is even on the current 40-man roster. Jean Segura, much like the Danny V’s at first base, enters into a position where basic competence will be an upgrade, defensively and across the board. Even prior to his mono-induced total evaporation, Ketel Marte was, much like Brad Miller before him, unable to translate his excellent speed and arm strength into competent, consistent play in the field. The 27 year-old Segura has the speed to cover the range and familiarity working double plays with his countryman and idol, Robi. He is, relative to the league, hopefully an average defensive shortstop, and likely a bit below that. When average, or even below-average, replaces catastrophic, however, the improvement is noticeable, and Segura’s steadiness should be just that.

Taylor Motter and Shawn O’Malley both are dependable backups, and while if either plays extensively the Mariners are in trouble, both are capable of dependable defense.

Third Base

Kyle Seager is very good at defense. He made a lot of errors last year. He’s still very good at defense. Do not worry about Kyle Seager. He worries enough for all of us.

Outfield

For most teams, lumping the back line together would be ludicrous. Adam Jones and Mark Trumbo are both outfielders, yet one’s recent attempt to rob a home run will run on highlight reels for all time, while the other is more likely to end up on a blooper reel for a similar effort. The Mariners outfield, however, looks rather similar at every spot. Since Jake Mailhot has diligently looked into the logistics of playing three center fielder caliber athletes in one outfield, I’ll stick to summarizing a few key points: There will be a fair amount of time where Jarrod Dyson, Leonys Martín, and Mitch Haniger play at all three spots, based on health and rest. The drop-off defensively shouldn’t be significant. Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, and even Taylor Motter have the range to pick up the slack when one of the original members of the Marine Layer needs a break.

The improvement in range from Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Nelson Cruz will be immense. This means more caught balls, naturally. It also means more balls cut off in the gap, or before they reach the corner. It means doubles turned into singles. It means RBI base hits turned into runners stranded on third. It means opponents second-guessing their own speed, or running themselves into outs. It’s unclear how often Cruz and Valencia will fill in outfield spots, but even then, having two elite outfielders allows the Mariners to hedge in their alignment and compensate more effectively.

Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners organization has leaned whole hog into designing a team that fits Safeco Field. That means emulating the outfields of Mike Cameron and Ichiro Suzuki, or Ichiro and young Franklin Gutierrez. That means pitchers that attack (and control) the zone and force the defense to be alert and engaged. The Mariners are projected by PECOTA, a projection system from Baseball Prospectus, to be the best defense in baseball by nearly double the second-best team’s level. In 2013 the Mariners had the worst defense in all of baseball. That team started Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Carlos Peguero, Michael Morse, and placed an over-matched Michael Saunders in center field to put together an outfield that was perhaps the worst unit in the MLB in decades. This April they will boast a stable of stallions to traverse the outer greens, with veterans at each infield position, save for 1st base, providing steady play.

To take a page from the Royals’ playbook yet again, “speed doesn’t slump.” Gloves don’t tend to slump either. Mariners fans will have plenty to be excited about in the top halves of innings at Safeco Field this year.