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Solving the Robinson Canó Conundrum

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Robi comes back in just over three weeks, and he’s going to play. The question is where?

Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers - Game Two Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Three weeks from tomorrow, Robinson Canó will once again suit up for the Mariners. The past few weeks have made it abundantly clear that the team needs him back as soon as possible. Although they put up eight runs yesterday (mostly thanks to one Ryon Healy), the M’s came into Sunday’s game with the third-worst July wRC+ in the majors at just 76, only beating out the Giants and Tigers. Bringing Robi back will be a huge boon.

The question, though, is where will he play? On Friday, Ryan Divish reported that the team has a rough outline for Canó:

However, this is just one of several directions the Mariners can go. Barring anything truly unorthodox, I see four options for the club:

Option A: Canó at 1B full-time, Dee Gordon at 2B full-time, Healy to the bench or AAA

This is the choice that most closely resembles the plan that Divish reported. Despite Ryon’s monster two-dinger game yesterday, he’s struggled badly all July, and has been a frustratingly streaky hitter throughout the season. He has all three of his minor-league options remaining, and if he gets sent down on or after August 11th, the club can call him up once rosters expand without burning one of them. Keeping Healy on the active roster as a bench bat could also make sense, with his lightning-tower power making him an interesting pinch-hitting option.

Dee has flashed his usual excellent glove at the keystone in Canó’s absence, and while his hitting’s been better the past few weeks, he’s been surprisingly inefficient at swiping bags, going just 6-for-11 in that department since returning from a toe injury at the end of May. It may make sense to rest him a little more down the stretch for maximum effectiveness.

There’s also the issue that we have little to no idea what to expect of Robi’s defense at first, though it was reported that he was taking ground balls there in the Dominican Republic. He certainly has the hands for the position, but as the Moneyball portrayal of Ron Washington said, first base is “incredibly hard.” His hitting value would also take a hit due to the positional adjustment of playing first rather than second. In all, while this is a defensible route to take, it isn’t my favorite.

Option B: Canó at 2B full-time, Healy at 1B full-time, Dee to bench/utility

After his glove appeared to take a step back in 2017, Canó showed he was right back to being an elite second baseman in the first six weeks of the season. I’m sure all of us have dearly missed watching his impossibly smooth, cool defense, and as mentioned above, it would probably benefit all parties if Dee had a few more days off.

Despite defensive metrics being down on him, Healy has impressed me at first base all year. While his lateral range isn’t spectacular, I’ve lost count of how many excellent picks and stretches he’s made. There’s a solid argument to be made that defense at first doesn’t move the needle too much, but I have always felt that we take a good glove there for granted, and again, we have no idea how well Canó would handle the transition.

Unfortunately, the big problem with this plan is that Dee Gordon just isn’t an ideal utility guy. Even though he’s a great second baseman, he came up as a shortstop, and was moved off the position in 2014 after three partial years of well-below-average defense. Aside from three games last season, he hasn’t played there since. With Jean Segura only missing a handful of games (knocks furiously on wood) all year, I’d feel comfortable with Andrew Romine’s glove there if need be, even if Dee is the far superior hitter.

Option C: Canó at 1B and Dee at 2B against RHP, Canó at 2B and Healy at 1B against LHP

This is my preferred course of action, which would give both Dee and Ryon the breathers they need while getting Robi’s potent bat into the lineup every day. A three-player platoon is also fun, and who doesn’t like fun?

Gordon and Healy have both surprisingly run reverse platoon splits this year, with each putting up a 75 wRC+ against opposite-handed pitchers entering Sunday. Their track records tell a different story, though. Healy mashed lefties in his first two seasons, posting a 139 and 133 wRC+ in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Dee’s production against righties for his career has been a little less powerful at 94, but that would still be a welcome boost. Both players have about a 30-point difference in their BABIP, as well, which could partially explain the anomaly.

In any case, I don’t think these reverse splits mean much more than a smallish sample size random blip, especially in Healy’s case (just 92 plate appearances against lefties all season). This path would keep everyone fresh while maximizing their production, and with the Oakland A’s refusing to go away, the Mariners will need all of it they can get.

Option D: Canó at 2B full-time, Daniel Vogelbach at 1B full-time, Healy to AAA, Dee to utility

This course is almost certainly not going to happen, but it’s still a possibility and discussion worth having. Vogelbach has ridden the AAA-MLB shuttle all season, and has nothing left to prove in Tacoma with a monstrous 170 wRC+ there. In his limited time in the bigs, he has never gotten a chance to get into a rhythm, having only started three games in a row once in his career. There’s definitely an argument for either trading him or just letting him play.

His underlying plate discipline stats through 78 PAs are very solid, and he’s handled right-handed pitching effectively, but Vogey has been brutal against lefties at the Major League level. In eighteen plate appearances - absolutely a tiny sample - he’s put up a -5 wRC+ against them this year. Yes, negative five. There’s also the eternal question about his defense at first, and the fact that he started at DH in 24 of his 63 games with the Rainiers isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

As much as I enjoyed the Hit-it-Here Vogelblast in April, I’m not sure how much more time he has left in the organization. He likely doesn’t have much trade value on his own, but could be a very attractive throw-in in a larger deal. Or, you know, they could keep rostering him to make sure Healy stays on his toes. That would also be neat.

The light at the end of the tunnel is near. On August 14th, the Mariners are getting a much-needed shot in the arm. I have missed Canó so much over the past two months. The production, the smoothness, the 80-grade smile, all of it. Things might look a little different in the last month-and-a-half of the regular season, and the plan of what to do with Robi, Gordon, and Healy looks even murkier in 2019 and beyond. But that’s okay. What matters is that the M’s are getting a late-season acquisition with more impact than most other teams can acquire, and even if he can’t join them in the playoffs, you can bet that Canó will be making more memories down the stretch.