Pretend you’re a major league team and someone asked you: How many right fielders and/or designated hitters do you think you can jam onto one roster?
Now pretend you took that not as a hypothetical question or a thought exercise, but instead as a challenge. Congratulations! You’re the Seattle Mariners.
As of Wednesday night there was still some smoke around rumors that the Mariners were involved in trade talks with the Los Angeles Dodgers for Andre Ethier and, more amusingly, the Miami Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton. Seattle is clearly still in the market for some sort of corner outfielder whom they may or may not want to rotate through the designated hitter slot, which considering their signings to date this offseason is more than a bit nutty.
The Mariners went into the offseason with Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez, Eric Thames and Mike Carp as outfield options. Assuming you deploy Wells against lefties and Thames against righties, those two are a fairly effective cheap platoon in left field if you can accept the defense. Gutierrez is an amazing defensive center fielder when he’s healthy, which is pretty much never these days, but Saunders is able to step in and fill his shoes when he gets hurt. Saunders had a good year at the plate last year, but he should probably be in a corner. He’s not an ideal option there -- no guy whose “career year” at the plate involves a .306 OBP is an ideal option for anything -- but as a fourth outfielder-type he’s not a bad piece. Carp can play first and left, and while he had a bad 2012 in limited action, there’s worse things in the world than having a guy with team control like him hanging around. All in all, going into the offseason the Mariners looked like a team that didn’t have any real great options in the outfield, but had a number of bodies to fill up space.
Meanwhile, at designated hitter, the team has “catcher” Jesus Montero with a major claim to the spot, due to John Jaso’s mediocre year at the plate last season, which, combined with his ability to field the position even remotely like a major leaguer, should make him a shoo-in for Opening Day starter behind the dish. Justin Smoak also looks to share time there with whomever manager Eric Wedge wants to give a day off.
So handing Franklin Gutierrez center field for the time being, that’s six guys being cycled through two or three spots in the lineup. That’s not a good thing, per se, but it’s a situation that can work with attentive platooning from a savvy manager.
Then GM Jack Zduriencik went out and spent almost $4 million to add Jason Bay and Raul Ibañez on one-year deals and traded starting pitcher Jason Vargas inside the division for designated hitter Kendrys Morales, and that number jumped from six to nine.
The solution is easy enough, of course -- either demote, trade or flat-out DFA Smoak, Carp and probably Thames, since his defense is so bad that he should be DHing at this point (the Mariners have a number of players like this) while keeping Saunders and Wells handy for when old men Bay and Ibañez break down -- and the money is fairly negligible, though you’d have to think Seattle’s not paying $4 million just to push their young guys in spring training; the M's envision breaking camp with them on the roster. With the exception of Morales, who is at least youngish (though in his last year of team control before free agency) these guys are veterans with their best days behind them, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that Bay returns, however briefly, to looking like the guy he was in Pittsburgh and Boston instead of the concussed mess he became in New York, or that Ibañez’s mastery of the necromantic arts follows him back home to Seattle (this one’s far less likely; Raul’s really going to miss hitting in Yankee Stadium).
But instead of turning his attention to the infield, where neither Dustin Ackley nor Brendan Ryan can hit a baseball and Smoak looks like a collapsing house fire at the plate, Zduriencik… continues to pursue outfielders and designated hitters.
One of the guys the Mariners have been linked to is Miami's Stanton. The Seattle Mariners should not have a prayer of landing Giancarlo Stanton. Since Miami doesn’t take on money and the only player on the Mariners’ 25-man roster worth including in a Stanton deal is set to make $19.5 million next year, Seattle would be trading prospects for the young slugger, and quite frankly even if the Mariners offered all of their top five prospects -- catcher Mike Zunino, pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, and infielder Nick Franklin -- they’d be a couple impact prospects short.
There’s not enough ceiling in those guys to justify a deal. Zunino’s best attribute in scouting reports is consistently "intangibles" related, Franklin’s a switch-hitting shortstop who spent most of 2011 hurt and might benefit from moving to second base and only hitting from the left side, and the pitching prospects are nice but, well, they’re pitching prospects. Those guys tend to break and explode. Hultzen in particular has been one of the more baffling prospect nightmares of the past few years: he was drafted before Dylan Bundy due to his signability, signed for the most money of any pitcher in the first round, then dominated up until June last year when he lost -- and did not regain -- his control. There’s no reason to think a guy like that is going to help get you Giancarlo Stanton. Out of the whole Seattle system, Walker’s the only one I’d even put in the Top 25 league-wide -- down around 20.
Stranger, stupider things have happened though, and while the Mariners won’t be a good team if they get Stanton, they’ll be back on the right track. Smart money is they don’t, though; it’s not like the Marlins are selling the guy. They’re just picking up the phone when someone wants to buy.
The more likely acquisition is Dodgers right-fielder Andre Ethier. The problem with trading for him is two-fold: First, Ethier is basically an elite platoon player: he annihilates right-handed pitching and he can’t hit left-handed pitching. That’s not actually that big a deal for the Mariners; it just makes Ethier an extremely competent Thames replacement that can actually field his position -- they can complement him with Wells and, if everything goes according to plan, get pretty nifty production out of right field. Second, however, is that the Dodgers have no real reason to trade Ethier, and if they do trade him, they have no real reason to require salary relief for him. Remember, they’re the Dodgers. Their butlers’ butlers have butlers. If the Dodgers trade Ethier, they’re going to expect a return in talent commensurate to the guy they’re giving up.
That’s my real problem here: It feels like the Mariners have decided they’re going to act like a team that’s one or two pieces away from respectability, when the only team in the American League weaker than them is the incoming Houston Astros. The difference is that the Astros know this and are building for a window that’s opening a few years from now, while the Mariners have been throwing themselves at anyone who might possibly be willing to play right field, as if that’s what’s going to get a team that front to back has one, maybe two regular major league bats over the top. And beyond Felix Hernandez, their current pitching staff isn’t much to write home about, either -- so if they trade Walker or Paxton for help somewhere else on the diamond, they’re crippling the cavalry that’s coming to help King Felix.
I’d say the Mariners would be better off tanking for a draft pick, but when they get those picks they spend them on guys like Zunino and Hultzen.
In the end, I think the only thing keeping the Mariners from making the same kind of mistake the Royals did in trading for James Shields earlier this offseason is they don’t have a Wil Myers-level prospect. And considering how they’ve played the past few years, that’s as much of an indictment of the current front office as anything else.