BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Underrated free-agent hitters who could boost Mariners’ lineup

Nov 20, 2021, 11:17 AM
Mariners Eduardo Escobar...
Eduardo Escobar of the Milwaukee Brewers watches his three-run home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (John Fisher/Getty Images)
(John Fisher/Getty Images)

Last time out, we looked at some underrated pitchers that would greatly help the Mariners in 2021. Now, let’s look at some hitters.

Under-the-radar pitchers who could help raise the M’s floor

The Mariners figure to add some big names this offseason either through trade or in free agency, and guys like Marcus Semien and Kris Bryant obviously come to mind when you talk about hitters the Mariners could go after. But not every move is going to be a splashy one, and there are plenty of hitters on the open market who could really help this team in 2021, especially when it comes to raising this team’s floor.

Why is that so important? Well, the Mariners ranked dead last in 2021 in team batting average despite nearly making the playoffs. They were also 26th in slugging percentage, 28th in on-base percentage and 22nd in runs scored.

Regularly, the Mariners were playing hitters with batting averages in the low .200s or even in the .100s. Even still, the fact that they won 90 games stands to reason that adding some more reliable bats could greatly improve Seattle’s odds of breaking their postseason drought.

So, let’s look at some available players that could help the Mariners in 2022.

Catcher

The free-agent catching market is almost undoubtedly the worst position group this offseason.

The top free-agent backstop, Manny Piña, has already signed with the Atlanta Braves on a two-year deal.

Now, the Mariners could opt to stand pat and roll with Cal Raleigh and Tom Murphy as the team’s two catchers in 2022 just like they were at the end of 2021.

Raleigh slashed just .180/.223/.309 in 47 MLB games in 2021, though, and he struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances.

Murphy, meanwhile, returned to action after missing all of 2020 due to injury, and he failed to repeat his surprising 2019 in which he slashed .273/.324/.535 with 18 home runs in 75 games. In 2021, Murphy slashed .202/.304/.350 with 11 home runs in 97 games.

So, as you can imagine, the catching position didn’t offer much offensive output for Seattle in 2021, and if the team wants to maybe help in that regard in 2022, especially early on if Raleigh maybe needs more Triple-A seasoning, one name on the market could help.

Yan Gomes

Gomes, a one-time All-Star and Silver Slugger, has pretty consistently been one of the better-hitting catchers in the big leagues since his MLB debut in 2012, possessing a career .247/.299/.421 slash line with 117 home runs in 882 games.

In 2021, Gomes slashed .252/.301/.421 with 14 home runs in 103 games with the Washington Nationals and Oakland A’s. He also threw out 31% of base stealers, just a notch under his 33% clip for his career.

Pairing Gomes, who turned 34 in July, with either Raleigh or Murphy would give the Mariners an increased floor at the plate and behind it when it comes to the catching position.

Infield

The Mariners are set at first base and shortstop for 2021 with Ty France and J.P. Crawford holding down those spots, respectively, but third base and second base likely will be addressed before spring training.

Abraham Toro could be a name to watch at either second or third, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if both those spots are filled with outside names this offseason.

3B/2B Eduardo Escobar

How about someone who, in a pinch, could fill either spot?

Eduardo Escobar, 32, had a fantastic year between his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers in 2021, earning his first All-Star nod. Escobar slashed .253/.314/.472 with 28 home runs and 90 RBIs, and in 2019 he hit 35 home runs and drove in 118 runs.

Escobar is primarily a third baseman, but he played over 40 games at second last year. If the Mariners like Toro at second full-time or can snag Semien, you could do a heck of a lot worse than Escobar to replace Kyle Seager.

Escobar was a 2.4 WAR player in 2021 to Seager’s 2.0, and aside from home runs and RBIs, Escobar was better than Seager in every major offensive category.

Escobar not only would give the Mariners potential defensive flexibility, but he’d give the lineup more flexibility. How? Escobar is a switch-hitter, so implementing him at or near the middle of the lineup would make the Mariners a tough team for opposing managers to plan their bullpens.

All in all, Escobar seems like a good fit for the Mariners for a number of reasons.

3B/2B Jonathan Villar

Jonathan Villar, who was with the New York Mets in 2021, started his MLB career playing mostly shortstop and second base, but he played 97 of his 126 games in 2021 at the hot corner. Villar is also just two years removed from playing all 162 games for the Baltimore Orioles, with 111 coming at second.

Villar, 30, had a solid showing for the Mets in 2021, slashing .249/.322/.416 with 18 home runs, and while he’s not stealing 40 or even 60 bases like he was in the mid-2010s, he still swiped 14 bags.

Since 2016, Villar has played in at least 122 games every year aside from the 60-game 2020 season (he appeared in 52 that year). He’s a career .258/.326/.403 hitter, and those kind of numbers would be big for a Mariners lineup that struggled at times in terms of length and consistency. Villar would help a lot in that regard, and like Escobar, he is a switch-hitter.

UT Josh Harrison

Josh Harrison, a two-time All-Star, has been really solid and steady in his MLB career, slashing .274/.318/.401 while playing across the diamond for four teams since 2011, though mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Between Harrison’s 138 combined games with the Washington Nationals and Oakland A’s in 2021, he slashed .279/.341/.400 with eight home runs, 60 RBIs and just 75 strikeouts. Harrison spent most of his time at second base in 2021, but he also played some corner outfield, third base and even shortstop.

The Mariners love defensive flexibility and a guy who controls the zone, and Harrison checks both boxes and can spend most of his time at a position of need in second base. I thought he’d be a good fit for the Mariners at the 2021 trade deadline to take over at second base, and I still think he’d make sense for Seattle this offseason as a free agent.

2B Donovan Solano

Donovan Solano, who played for the San Francisco Giants the last three years, can really hit. He won the Silver Slugger in 2020 and slashed .280/.344/.404 in 101 games for the Giants in 2021.

He’s not the most sound defender at second (he committed 14 errors at second base between 2020 and 2021, and four at third base in 2020), but it’s all about the bat with him.

The 33-year-old has a career slash line of .277/.325/.372. There’s not a ton of power in his game, but over the last three years in San Francisco, Solano has really hit well. He could help lengthen the Mariners lineup in 2022 if he were signed and were to hit near the bottom before turning things over to J.P. Crawford, Ty France and Mitch Haniger.

2B César Hernández

César Hernández, 31, had a down year in 2021 with a .232/.308/.386 slash line in 149 games, but he did set a career-high with 21 home runs.

Hernández is a better hitter than his 2021 numbers suggest as he owns a .270/.345/.384 career slash line, and he slashed .283/.355/.408 in 2020 and .279/.333/.408 in 2019, so there’s more recent success as well.

Hernández is exclusively a second baseman, but he’s a very good defender, winning a Gold Glove in 2020. His addition would give the Mariners a Gold Glove middle infield tandem.

Hernández would come to the Mariners with a good track record at the plate and in the field and would be a big boost compared to what they’ve had at second base in recent years.

UT Leury García

Leury García, 30, spent time all over the diamond for the Chicago White Sox in 2021, playing 36 games at second, 11 at third, 19 at short and 65 in the outfield. He also slashed .267/.335/.376 in 126 games last season.

García doesn’t offer much in the power department, but he’s a switch-hitter who does a decent job of getting on base and can steal a handful of bases.

I don’t think García would be a guy who would start every game for the Mariners at any one spot, but being able to play three infield spots and across the outfield would undoubtedly be valuable.

Outfield

The Mariners are in an interesting predicament when it comes to their outfield.

Mitch Haniger is back and will be entrenched in right field, but the rest of that trio has a bit of a question mark.

Jarred Kelenic will assuredly be back and make his first opening day roster, but he appears to be destined for a corner outfield spot after a lackluster showing in center field.

So if those two are Seattle’s everyday corner outfielders, who plays center?

The two guys to point to would be Kyle Lewis and Taylor Trammell, but both enter 2022 with serious question marks. Trammell struggled mightily in his first taste of MLB action while Lewis, the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year, suffered another knee injury that ended his 2021 season, which was already off to a delayed start because of a different knee injury. It’s unclear when Lewis will be ready to return to start 2022 or whether he will still be able to man center field.

The Mariners could roll with Kelenic in center for a bit and add a corner outfielder, but it would stand to reason that Seattle would add someone who can play center field at the very least until top prospect Julio Rodríguez is ready to debut.

If that’s the case, who could fit that mold on the free-agent market?

Kevin Pillar

Kevin Pillar, 33 in January, has been a solid hitter since making his debut in 2013, averaging 15 home runs, 62 RBIs and 14 stolen bases per 162 games. He has a career slash line of .260/.297/.409 and can play all three outfield spots, though he typically plays center.

Pillar would be a good stopgap in center for Lewis and/or Rodríguez, and he’d be a more than capable fourth outfielder if that situation arose as well.

Billy Hamilton/Delino DeShields

I put these two in the same category because they offer basically the same thing.

Neither Billy Hamilton nor Delino DeShields offer a ton of offensive upside (though DeShields definitely offers more than Hamilton), but both can fly. DeShields averages 30 steals per 162 games while Hamilton averages 56.

Both really are fourth outfielders who can handle center defensively, but their speed can be a gamechanger on the bases late in games, and the Mariners have shown they like to run when they can.

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