What Can the Mariners Expect From Left Field in 2011?

By Editorial Staff

Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders poses for a picture with Mariners Fan Stephanie Powers at Fan Fest 2011.

In 2010, the Mariners gave playing time in left field to Michael Saunders, Matt Tuiasosopo, Ryan Langerhans, Milton Bradley, and Eric Byrnes. Despite having some flashes of success, Saunders, considered by many Mariners fans to be the left fielder of the future, posted a very poor .211/.295/.367 batting line in 100 games. Even with a positive UZR score, he was only able to add .3 WAR to the team. Whether it be because of his poor performance, or because GM Jack Zdruiencik wants to push the youngster, the Mariners’ left field job seems a lot more open today than it did at the end of the 2010 season.

While the signings of Jody Geurt and Gabe Gross, as well as the re-signing of Ryan Langerhans don’t appear to block Saunders, it’s not impossible to think that the organization would have him start the season at Triple-A Tacoma. With the team also trying to find at-bats for Bradley, things are starting to look awfully crowded in left field. After all, you’re not going to see Ichiro or Franklin Gutierrez taking many days of in center or right.

Langerhans likely isn’t a threat to Saunders’ playing time, as he’s been with the organization nearly two years now, and has often times sat behind Saunders. Gross is coming off an abysmal .270 wOBA, though he hit much better against right-handed pitching. If the Mariners are looking to get Bradley at-bats, Gross and Bradley could platoon in left field. Gross has a .738 career OPS against right-handers, and a good glove, while Bradley has always been a much better right-handed hitter, posting an outstanding .870 career OPS against southpaws. As much as that could be favorable to the M’s, however, I doubt they’re looking to give Gross significant playing time.

Jody Gerut is a bit more intriguing. Consistently hampered by injuries, Gerut played in just 32 games last year, and managed to be a negative contributor to the Brewers, giving them -.1 WAR. Gerut was, however, a 3 WAR player in 2008, and as a lefty with some power, Safeco Field could play well to his strengths. Marcel has Gerut pegged for decent-if-unspectacular .312 wOBA, and as a decent defensive outfielder, and that would be a huge upgrade over Saunders’ 2010 performance. While he’s not young, there’s more reason to believe there is some life in Gerut’s bat. While his upside is limited, there’s enough there that the M’s might be compelled to find some playing time for him. If that’s the case, Saunders may have to start the season in Tacoma.

With all this being said, my choice for starting left fielder in 2010 would be Michael Saunders. While he did struggle mightily in 2010, he made some huge strides compared to his abysmal 2009 season. His walk rate jumped six points, from 4.7% to 10.7%. His 2010 walk rate is much more in line with his career minor league numbers. Saunders also cut his strikeout rate from 32.8% to 29.1%, corresponding with a 5% increase in contact rate.

Despite striking out less, walking more, and raising his line drive percentage by two points, Saunders’ BABIP dropped to .260, which is lower than we should expect. Projection systems seem to believe he’ll post a wOBA in the .305-.330 range, with, unsurprisingly, the fans predicting the highest of all projections. That would represent only a small step forward, but improvement is improvement, and when a team is building towards the future, a .305 wOBA out of Saunders would be better for the future of the organization than a .315 or bettwe wOBA from someone like Gerut.

The Mariners have created some depth in the outfield this offseason, though none of that depth really looks to be a significantly better option than Saunders in the short-term, and most definitely not in the long-term. Sending him to Tacoma is possible, though it’s not something I would bet on. I wouldn’t expect more than 1 or 2 WAR from left field in 2011, no matter who is playing there. However, if it’s Saunders putting up that kind of value, Mariners fans should be very excited about his future as a quality MLB starting outfielder.