Early January: sign up for Mike Ford's 40 in 40. Promptly forget about him.
Late January: look at schedule, remember Mike Ford. Do cursory research, write a few words. He’s a backup to, presumedly, another backup, with 115 plate appearances in AAA; he could be cool, he could flame out. It’s pretty low-risk either way. Promptly forget about him.
Research Mike Ford with renewed fervor. Decidedly do not forget about him.
And here we are. I’ve drafted probably four variations of this piece in my head since signing up to write about Ford, each with an increasing degree of urgency. Now it’s the evening before this article is scheduled to publish and, though Ford himself hasn’t changed in that time, his situation is radically different. It’s one thing to examine a player with a minor league career .272/.380/.433 and 14.5% walk rate as a possible first baseman of the future, and it is, pardon the aggressively ideal cliche, a whole other ballgame to examine a player with a minor league career .272/.380/.433, .813 OPS, and 14.5% walk rate as a possible major league first baseman of oh-no-did-you-mean-now now.
This whole situation is unusual, which seems fitting because Mike Ford the baseball player is pretty weird. Mike Ford the person might be a little odd too, for all we know, but beyond the game he seems to be a pretty private person - save for the generic quotes in a handful of New Jersey newspapers there’s minimal personal presence to be found. Ford the baseball player profiles as though the Prospect Gods drank a little too much Prospect Juice and decided to smash a bunch of existing prospects into one. He was the Ivy League pitcher and player of the year, but only signed with the Yankees as an undrafted free agent. He’s a defensively competent but positionally inflexible first baseman, with minimal power relative to his position and walk and strikeout percentages that make you think the Fangraphs columns are playing tricks on your eyes. He’ll be 26-years-old this season and has yet to reach the majors. He’s like a baseball centaur. But a centaur with bird wings on its back, and snake scales on its legs, and the curled horns of a ram sticking out of its head, and oh yeah also a tiger’s tail.
The prospect comp game is nearly impossible to play. He’s a bit like Justin Smoak in the minors, with the sky high BB% and the general positional inflexibility, but Smoak had a higher K% and more power. He’s similar to Carlos Santana, but Santana caught for a decent chunk of his minor league career, recorded his PAs in the minors nearly a decade earlier, and was just a better player overall. He’s almost the exact opposite of RyOn Healy. You could even comp him to Chase Headley, if you’re feeling particularly cantankerous, but, again, Headley had a much higher K-rate.
Probably his closest comparison is John Olerud, who walked a lot, struck out rarely, and hit a ton, albeit without much power. He and Ford were both pitchers, prior to their respective signings; really good pitchers, in fact. Even this comp is problematic though because Olerud played in Seattle 15+ years ago, and never recorded a game at the minor league level - after the Blue Jays drafted him in 1989 they sent him straight to the bigs. Nowadays, at the major league level, power is an easier tool to come by (fundamentally speaking, of course), and I am loathe to compare a major-leagues-only player with one whose only experience has been in the minors.
One of the greatest things Ford has going for him is his superior pitch recognition. It’s an attribute that scouts have singled out in a number of his reports, and one of the traits that is most easily translatable to upper levels; his sky-high walk rate has been consistent, and his low K% even more so. He’s not hitting homers whenever he makes contact, but he’s selective about his pitches and has an easy swing that utilizes just about all that he’s got. And when he does turn on one, watch out.
Opening Day is six weeks away, and Healy is supposed to be back from his bone spur surgery in 4-6 weeks. In the meantime, Ford and Daniel Vogelbach find themselves locked in an unexpected Spring Training battle for first base. If ever there was a time for the Mariners to run out a new style of first baseman, one with a superior ability to get on base but lacking the traditional positional power, this is it. The team looks to have a strong offensive lineup and, save for Dee Gordon, all their starting position players have a decent power upside. Ford could slot in in front of nearly anyone in that lineup (other than Gordon), and his presence would increase the likelihood of having runners on base for the more powerful hitters. Clay Davenport projected Ford’s next six years in Seattle, and also broke down his overall projections by percentile. If Ford were to perform in the 50th percentile of what Davenport projects, he would be a two win player. That would make him best first baseman the Mariners have seen since Russell Branyan in 2009. The bar could scarcely be lower, but Ford has a reasonable chance to clear it, given the opportunity.
If Mike Ford is successful, and valuable, with his current skillset at the major league level, he could pave the way for a new style of major league first basemen (something that current M’s prospect Evan White might benefit from). If he flames out, well, we’ve been there before.