Latest reports are that the Mariners have fallen out of contention for signing Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz, but there is definitely an opening for either of them in the outfield.
For the sake of argument lets presume Corey Hart will spend the majority of his fielding time in right field. The rest of the outfield would be filled with Michael Saunders in center/left and a glaring opening for a guy like Choo or Cruz.
A lot has been written about how Cruz may not be a good fit in Seattle because of his Safeco Field hitting stats and his inevitable decline due to age, but defensively, is there any benefit to bringing in one over the other?
The short answer: maybe.
Again, everything depends on just how much Hart is able to play next year. Defensively, Nelson Cruz has historically played right field, a position that the Mariners would be mildly overloaded in. With knee injuries, Hart and Morrison likely can’t play anywhere else, and Michael Saunders traditionally plays right or center. The biggest issue for the Mariners is going to be finding someone who can slide over to left.
Bringing in Cruz or Choo would be a definite asset, with different solutions for each.
Again, the big question mark is how often Hart can play in left. He hasn’t played in the outfield since 2011, and hasn’t played left since 2006, where he played 26 games and notched a fielding percentage of .974 and UZR of 0.5. It’s a small sample size and it’s hard to use pre-injury stats from six years ago to predict anything.
The biggest problem with signing Cruz is that the Mariners are really left without anyone who is a natural left fielder. Moving someone over from right really the only solution. Nelson Cruz has played right field almost exclusively over the last eight years, so moving him would probably be harder than moving Hart.
On the other hand, brining in Shin-Soo Choo (or any other center fielder, for that matter), would give the Mariners’ outfield a very different look. Most notably, it allows Lloyd McClendon to leave Hart/Morrison in right field, where it is easiest to slide the two new guys.
Odds are that Choo would be the go-to guy in center field if he is signed. While the Mariners have been reported as out of the running for Choo, this general configuration would work for any center fielder that is imported.
The best part about this configuration is that Saunders is actually able to play left field, and has done so on a number of occasions. In 2013 Saunders put in 24 games in left, and another 22 in 2012. Each time he posted a fielding percentage of 1.000 and a UZR of 0.0 and -4.6 respectively.
The obvious downside to this is that Choo had a center field UZR of -16.9 with the Reds in 2013. However, moving him to either corner wouldn’t help that anyways. In 2013 his overall UZR (CF and a few games at LF) was -15.5, only slightly better than 2012 where it was -16.7 (all RF with the Indians). The last two years have been atrocious for Choo defensively, who prior to that had never posted a UZR below -1.9 (2008). So there’s still the possibility he could turn things around in the roomy Safeco outfield.
Strictly between signing a right or center fielder, the Mariners might be better off to find someone who plays center or even left field. That would give them the flexibility to move Michael Saunders to any open position and leave the Corey Hart/Logan Morrison duo alone in right field.
Opening up the possibility of a trade offers even more options. Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, may all be gone in the next weeks. Jack has said that there are more deals in the works, so there’s no reason to think that Choo and Cruz are the extent of available outfielders.