There is no question that Denard Span was a pivotal pickup for the Mariners. While he couldn’t propel the team into the playoffs, he did his best to do so while more or less locking down left field. But his future in Seattle is not guaranteed, and Ben Gamel has done everything he can to prove a capable replacement.
One of the more pressing questions for the Mariners early in the offseason will be whether to pick up Denard Span‘s $12 million option. In about a half season, he provided the Mariners with 0.9 fWAR/1.0 rWAR/1.3 WARP, and at that level, he would be somewhat affordable. However, considering his age and surprising success against LHPs, he may not be a good bet to sustain that level of performance while Ben Gamel has done his best to legitimately improve this year.
Consider Span and Gamel side-by-side:
Span may have a slight edge in hindsight, but moving forward, both players appear eminently comparable. In fact, Span’s most lauded characteristic — his ability to work “professional” at-bats — was actually outdone by Gamel not only in his walk rate but in his pitches per plate appearance too.
Of course, part of Gamel’s success was being shielded from LHPs against which he logged just 52 plate appearances, but on the other hand, part of Span’s success was an unusually high .348 BABIP against LHPs. While the Mariners may feel they need to continue to avoid overexposing Gamel, they can’t simply rely on Span to keep up his offensive production either.
The Mariners will need to take some risks to compete in 2019, and starting Ben Gamel should be one of them.
Although Span has a skill set that can continue to gracefully atrophy, he will play next year at 35 years old, and at that age, sharp decline seems more and more inevitable. Poor defense and limitations against LHPs suggest that both he and Gamel are more akin to role players than full-time starters, but to play in Seattle next year, the former would be paid $12 million and the latter near league-minimum.
The “risk” here then is that Gamel also carries the potential to disappoint on either side of the ball. Span continuing to defy his age may be dubious, but he at least has a well-established track record and could be considered more of a known quantity. With other glaring holes on the roster though, the Mariners cannot afford to allocate many resources to left field and that in itself may warrant a preference for the remaining Flow Bro.
Although Gamel’s upside may be just a league average player, the perseverance of his approach through early-season struggles and a mid-season demotion were demonstrative of his offensive development and mental fortitude, and all these factors combined should help him top the Mariners’ left field depth chart come spring training.
While the attractiveness of Ben Gamel as a starting option rests on him being certainly cheap and probably productive, the presence he provides is also one the second half of the Mariners’ lineup consistently lacked with him on the bench.
Among players who logged at least 50 PA for the Mariners, Gamel’s 10.6% BB% ranked 3rd behind only Dan Vogelbach and Chris Herrmann, his .358 OBP ranked 3rd behind only Robinson Cano and Mitch Haniger, and his 4.07 pitches per plate appearance ranked 4th behind only Vogelbach, Herrmann, and Mike Zunino. We can’t ignore the fact that his bottom line is likely to dip as he faces more LHPs, but regardless, simply put, Ben Gamel makes pitchers work and that is an attribute the backend of the Mariners’ lineup desperately needs.
While Gamel has done enough on his own this year to prove he’s worth another long look in left field (at least for this club), there is also the obvious benefit that siding with him would make buying out Span’s option and saving $8 million an easy decision. And $8 million far from chump change. For instance, that money could pay for the first year of a decent free agent starting pitcher’s contract (think Jhoulys Chacin‘s 2-year/$15.5M deal) or more than half of Nelson Cruz’s likely 2019 salary.
Considering his performance in 2018, the benefits of moving on from Denard Span, and other roster question marks, not only does Ben Gamel deserve to start in left field for the Mariners in 2019, but he absolutely should.