Last week I tackled the Mariners’ infield now and going forward. This week, I’d like to take a look at the outfield and DH spots. Like the infield, I feel that the Mariners actually have a decent crop of outfielders in their future. Two thirds of the outfield looks strong in 2011, but let’s see what the outlook is for the next Mariners playoff team.
2011: Michael Saunders, Milton Bradley, Spring Training NRIs
The Mariners have not had a good left fielder since Raul Ibanez left, and they have never had a great left fielder. It was time for Ibanez to move on when he did, though. For 2011, Michael Saunders is going to be the presumed starter. Saunders is a good fit for Safeco Field. He is tall, athletic, and fast, which is well-suited to Safeco Field’s cavernous left and left-center field. As a left-handed hitter with his power mostly to center and right field, his bat profiles well to Safeco field if it pans out. That’s the only issue: Will Saunders pan out? We don’t know.
The hope has to be the Saunders wins the job and holds onto it due to performance, not from a lack of other options. It’s hard to imagine Milton Bradley having a future with this team beyond 2011, if he even makes it to opening day. If Saunders doesn’t pan out, the Mariners may need to make a trade or sign a free agent to play left field for the next contending Mariners team. Greg Halman has tons of talent, but needs to cut down on his strikeouts before he should be considered for the job. The other prospects that could legitimately become solid starters at the position, James Jones and Johermyn Chavez, are too far away in the minor league system for anyone to say whether or not they’ll make an impact on the next Mariners playoff team.
Verdict: Core player potentially on 25-man roster. 2011 will decide this.
2011: Franklin Gutierrez
After an outstanding 6.1 WAR season in 2009, Gutierrez took a big step back in 2010, leading to a good-but-not-great 2.3 WAR season. Gutierrez’s home run rate fell from 11.5% in 2009 to just 6.6% in 2010. His career rate of 9% is over a much larger sample size, so we could likely expect Gutierrez’s power to bounce back a little bit. Gutierrez’s projected wOBA falls between .316 and .322 depending on which projection system you look at, and his glove is one of the best, if not the best in the league in center. Even if Gutierrez doesn’t rebound much, a 28-year-old, 2 WAR center fielder signed to a team-friendly contract with upside for more is a core player. He may never perform up to 2009 levels again, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an extremely valuable asset to the club.
Verdict: Core player on 25-man roster
I’m not going to waste time talking about how Ichiro is a good bet to succeed in 2011. The only concern with Ichiro is his age. Ichiro will be 37 in 2011, and while he hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet, we can’t ignore that some day, he is going to decline. With how well he has aged, however, it seems safe to bet on Ichiro being great until he shows us otherwise. The only issue here is whether or not he’ll want to re-sign in Seattle when his contract runs out after the 2012 season. If the Mariners have built a competitive team around him by then, expect to see Ichiro in Mariner blue for his last contract.
Verdict: Core player on 25-man roster
2011: Jack Cust
Jack Cust should represent a huge improvement at the DH position, and honestly, how could he not? Mariners DHs might have performed better in 2010 if they had been pitchers. Cust is not a superstar by any means, but he is a good bet for a wOBA of at least .350, with a high on-base percentage and a decent amount of home runs to go with it. He’s been worth around 2-3 WAR consistently since coming up with Oakland in 2007, and that value was lessened by his terrible performance in the outfield. As a DH exclusively, he can hit no differently than in the past and be of more value to the Mariners. Cust is 32, and has old player skills, so it’s no guarantee the Mariners will want him back after 2011. If he performs well, it wouldn’t be unprecedented to see him brought back. However, Zduriencik is always looking to improve, and I doubt he’ll just settle for a ~.350 wOBA in the future out of a hitting only position.
Verdict: Most likely no core players.
Two of the three outfield positions have core players, and we should know after 2011 if the M’s have a left fielder. If they do, that makes things a lot easier. As it currently stands, the Mariners have five or six players in their current starting lineup that can be referred to as core players for the future, depending on your opinion of Michael Saunders. It is unfortunate that shortstop and catcher are two of the most uncertain positions, as it is hard to find good players at either position. The Mariners may have the answer to each position in Adam Moore and Nick Franklin, though they are far from sure things. But for a team that lost 101 games last year, it is amazing to think that six of the the nine starters could easily be on the next great Mariners team.