With pitchers and catchers reporting this week and the full squad beginning spring training next week for the Seattle Mariners, we’re taking a closer look at the team in a three-part series. Up first is the lineup and defensive alignment.
The Mariners’ offseason didn’t go as planned – at least not as the fan base was expecting it. General manager Jerry Dipoto made a serious run at Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani to help bolster Seattle’s rotation and give the M’s some extra punch at the plate, but even after acquiring extra international signing slot money in multiple trades to offer the free agent, Ohtani decided to join the American League West rival Angels.
While losing the Ohtani sweepstakes made the offseason seem like a disappointment, if you take a step back and look over the Mariners lineup, it’s hard to find an issue. The team made a pair of big acquisitions and the offense looks even more potent than at the beginning of last year – when many were projecting Seattle to be a playoff team.
Here’s a look at the Mariners’ 2018 offense by position.
For the first time in his career, Mike Zunino enters the season as the Mariners’ clear starting catcher. Sure, he’s come into other years as the starter, but issues at the plate always resulted in him ending up back in Triple-A as he attempted to regain his swing. But coming off a year in which he posted the second-best OPS and WAR numbers in the American League (behind only All-Star Gary Sanchez), there is plenty of confidence that the the soon-to-be 27-year-old will be able to build on his career-high totals of 25 home runs, 64 RBIs and 39 walks from 2017. Proof of that confidence in Zunino is that Mike Marjama (five career MLB games) and David Freitas (six career MLB games) will battle to be Zunino’s backup.
The first notable move of the offseason for the Mariners was to add Ryon Healy, which marked the third time in less than a year that Dipoto traded for a first baseman from the Oakland Athletics. Seattle saw some success with Danny Valencia and Yonder Alonso at the position in 2017, but the acquisition of Healy is much more about building for the future as he is just 26 and under team control through 2022. While the right-handed-hitting Oregon alum has pop in his bat (25 home runs in 2017), he could stand to walk more (.302 on-base percentage). The good news is the Mariners won’t be relying on him to do too much, and he could be stashed in the bottom-third of the order if necessary. The Mariners also have Mike Ford and Daniel Vogelbach (both 25) in their system at the position, but it will be interesting to see if anybody else appears there. Ben Gamel started working out at first base last season and made one short appearance in a game, and Nelson Cruz created some buzz by sharing a video on Instagram just weeks ago of himself working out at first.
If anything is for sure about the Mariners, it’s that Robinson Cano is their second baseman. The only question here is whether he’ll see increased days off or time at designated hitter – something that seems to be in the works with the addition of Dr. Lorena Martin to the team and the Mariners’ subsequent attention to giving players more rest. The Mariners most likely will move Cano (35) to a corner infield position sometime in the future, which would make sense as his range is on the decline, but that won’t happen this season. Either Taylor Motter or Andrew Romine, who will compete to be the Mariners’ utility player, will be the option off the bench this season when Cano gets time off.
Much like Cano, the only question for the Mariners at third base is how much rest time they will give Kyle Seager. The second-longest tenured Mariner (behind Felix Hernandez), the 30-year-old Seager has played 154 or more games in each of the past six seasons. Perhaps some extra off-days would help him bounce back from his worst offensive season since his MLB debut – he hit a career-low .249 and his .773 on-base plus slugging percentage was his lowest since 2013. The Mariners could use Healy at third on days that Seager gets rest, or they could slide Motter or Romine in at the position.
If Jean Segura had been healthy a little more in 2017, he would have probably been an All-Star in 2017. And that’s not just because of his bat – he showed multiple times that he is more than capable of playing shortstop in his first season moving back to the position after spending most of 2016 at second base. Of note, Segura will get more of an opportunity to be a run producer as he’ll be moved to the No. 2 spot in the order behind new leadoff man Dee Gordon, giving Seattle quite the 1-2 punch ahead of the big bats of Cano, Cruz and Seager.
This is the only position where the Mariners appear to have a platoon set up, with Ben Gamel in line to get the the bulk of the at-bats over Guillermo Heredia due to his ability to hit right-handed pitching. If Seattle decides to give Cano or Seager some time at DH, it could have a ripple effect with Mitch Haniger moving over to left from right field, making way for Cruz to see some outfield action.
This is where Dipoto is making a big gamble for 2018 as Dee Gordon, a one-time Gold Glove winner at second base, comes over from the Miami Marlins and will try to make the switch to center field. He no doubt has the speed to run balls down, but he has a short window to learn the position (something Mariners first base and outfield coach Chris Prieto addressed on the Hot Stove show). At the very least, Gordon’s addition will be a big boost to the lineup, giving Seattle a strong on-base percentage and legit stolen base threat in the leadoff spot. Should the Gordon experiment not work out in center, Heredia has proven to have the defensive chops necessary to play the position, though Haniger might get moved over from right instead. It would take a disaster for that to happen, however, as the Mariners have indicated they are committed to Gordon in center field and are not considering playing him at all in the infield.
One thing that has been pointed to as a sign that the Mariners have a good lineup is that Haniger, who is coming off a rookie season in which he posted a .282/.352/.491 slash line, will likely be hitting as low as eighth. The Mariners just hope that Haniger (27) will be able to stay on the field after missing significant playing time in 2017 due to two lengthy trips to the disabled list.
Here’s what Nelson Cruz has done in his three seasons since joining the Mariners: 44 home runs, .936 OPS; 43 home runs, .915 OPS; 39 home runs, .924 OPS. Oh, and he led the AL in RBIs with 119 last season. There is no problem here, only the best DH in the game.
Projected Mariners opening day lineup
Dee Gordon, CF (L)
Jean Segura, SS
Robinson Cano, 2B (L)
Nelson Cruz, DH
Kyle Seager, 3B (L)
Ryon Healy, 1B
Mike Zunino, C
Mitch Haniger, RF
Ben Gamel, LF (L)