BRANDON GUSTAFSON

4 names to watch to fill Mariners’ OF, left-handed bat needs

Nov 28, 2022, 3:35 PM
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 15: Andrew Benintendi #18 of the New York Yankees slides into home during the fourth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on August 15, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 10:   Joey Gallo #12 of the Los Angeles Dodgers runs after hitting a three-run home run against the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on August 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 01: Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after Mookie Betts #50 hit was ruled a foul ball against the Colorado Rockies during the sixth inning at Dodger Stadium on October 01, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images) NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 13: Michael Conforto #30 of the New York Mets fields a hit in the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during game one of a double header at Citi Field on April 13, 2021 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Mariners checked off a big part of their offseason wishlist with the addition of outfielder Teoscar Hernández from the Toronto Blue Jays, but the outfield is far from settled.

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Yes, a tandem of Hernández in one corner spot and Julio Rodríguez in center field is awfully fun, but who the third man in the outfield is is not so clear.

The Mariners have some in-house options, sure, but all come with serious question marks.

Jesse Winker’s first year in Seattle was a disaster and he may get traded. Jarred Kelenic and to a lesser extent Taylor Trammell are former top prospects who haven’t done much of anything at the MLB level. And Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty can hold their own, but the M’s seem content with those two being super-utility players more so than everyday big leaguers.

There’s also the potential of breakout prospect Cade Marlowe, a home run and speed star in the minors the last two years, breaking camp and getting some run.

But the Mariners are clearly in win-now mode after back-to-back 90-win seasons and ending their two-decade playoff drought in 2022, so they shouldn’t be heading into 2023 with so much uncertainty in the outfield – and likely won’t.

There are a number of avenues for Seattle to set up its three-man outfield, and adding to that group is especially important as president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has stated that the Mariners want four outfielders who can start so they can rotate those four between the outfield and DH.

So for this exercise, let’s look at finding someone in free agency to fill the void at a corner outfield spot and potentially play every day. And because the Mariners are currently a tad right-handed heavy in their lineup – especially after adding Hernández to the mix – these four options are left-handed hitters. It’s also worth mentioning that lefty hitters could see an increase in offensive production starting in 2023 with the elimination of the defensive shift.

We’ve already covered Brandon Nimmo, regarded as the No. 2 outfield option in free agency behind Aaron Judge, extensively on Seattle Sports in the past month. So here, we’ll focus on players who are found in the tier just below him.

Andrew Benintendi

It may seem like Andrew Benintendi has been around for a while, it’s in part because he was a former top prospect of the Boston Red Sox who was seen as a potential franchise cornerstone.

While Benintendi never became that big-time star many expected, he’s sure been an above-average player and is only 28 despite making his MLB debut in 2016. He was an All-Star for the first time in 2022 and a one-time Gold Glove winner, too.

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For his career, Benintendi owns a .279/.351/.431 slash line (.782 OPS) with 73 home runs and 384 RBIs in 745 games.

While he’s spent most of his time in the big leagues with Boston, he played much the last year-plus for Kansas City before being traded to the Yankees.

In 134 games with the Royals in 2021, Benintendi posted a .766 OPS with 17 home runs and 73 RBIs.

In 126 games between the Royals and Yankees, Benintendi OPSed .772. The power numbers dipped (.399 slugging, just five home runs) but he was still a great on-base guy at .377 OBP.

Benintendi also offers the Mariners something it lacked last year in left field, which is above-average defense.

In 2022, Winker was arguably the worst defender in baseball. Benintendi, meanwhile, was a 1.7 dWAR player in 2021 and 2.4 dWAR in 2022.

And as far as advanced numbers are concerned, it’s clear Benintendi offers a lot of what the Mariners crave with hitters as he was elite (88th percentile, per Statcast) in K rate with a 75th percentile whiff rate and 84th percentile chase rate. In 2022, he did have middle of the road exit velocity numbers and hard-hit rate.

Of the four names in this piece, Benintendi doesn’t offer the most upside, but he definitely has the highest floor and could be a top-of-the-order tablesetter for Rodríguez, Hernández and others while providing positive defense in the outfield.

Joey Gallo

While Benintendi is a high-floor guy, the exact opposite is true of Joey Gallo.

Gallo, 29, has maybe more raw power than anyone in baseball. But he swings and misses a ton, ranking in the 1st percentile in baseball in strikeouts, whiff rate and expected batting average the last two years, per Statcast.

But when Gallo hits the baseball, he smokes it, ranking in the upper-echelon of baseball in exit velocity, hard-hit rate and more. And for a guy who swings and misses as much as Gallo does, he doesn’t expand the zone a whole lot, as evidenced by a 61st percentile chase rate in 2022 and 95th percentile chase rate in 2021.

A two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover, his career has gone a bit downhill since a 2021 trade from the Texas Rangers to the Yankees.

Prior to that deal, he was an All-Star with an .869 OPS in 95 games in the first half of that year. He then hit .160 and OPSed .707 in 58 games with New York.

Things didn’t get better in 2022 as he slashed .160/.280/.357 in 126 games in 126 games between the Yankees and Dodgers, OPSing .637.

When Gallo is right, he’ll be hitting a lot of home runs, driving in runs and drawing a lot of walks while playing plus defense in the outfield. The strikeouts will be sky-high and he’ll hit in the low-.200s or worse. But the walks and homers will allow him to OPS over .800, and he’s ranked near the top of MLB in walk rate the last two seasons.

A good example of that was in 2021 when he slashed .199/.351/.458 with 38 home runs and 77 RBIs while leading the league in both strikeouts and walks in 153 games.

At his best, Gallo is even better. In 70 games before hurting his hand in 2019, he slashed .253/.389/.598 with 22 home runs.

Like Benintendi, Gallo is a very good defensive outfielder, ranking in the 86th percentile in baseball in outfield jump and 90th percentile in arm strength.

The Mariners have shown a willingness to bet on players with a lot of power and high strikeout rates recently, with Hernández coming over this offseason and Eugenio Suárez prior to 2022. Gallo, like Suárez, will strikeout with the “best” of them, but he’s more than willing and able to work a walk, or get his pitch and hit it hard without expanding the strike zone.

Gallo would easily slide in as a plus defensive left or right fielder next to Julio, and if his offensive issues persist could be part of a platoon player against right-handed pitching. There are certainly other options that make sense for the Mariners in the outfield, but it is easy to see why the Mariners would buy low on Gallo. And more so than Benintendi, Gallo could benefit from the elimination of the defensive shift, allowing him to continue trying to hit the ball hard to his pull side.

By the way, Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reported over the weekend that the Mariners were in talks to acquire Gallo at last year’s deadline as part of proposed three-team trades involving the Yankees, Mariners and Phillies, which reportedly would have seen Seattle sending starting pitcher Marco Gonzales to Philadelphia.

Cody Bellinger

The career tailspin of Cody Bellinger has been astounding, to say the least.

Bellinger burst onto the scene in 2017, winning Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers and earning an All-Star nod. He capped off a fantastic three-year start to his career with his second All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove and an NL MVP Award in 2019.

In his first three seasons, Bellinger slashed .278/.369/.559 (.928 OPS) in 450 games with 111 home runs and 288 RBIs. It seemed like one of baseball’s next big things was on his way to a superstar career.

But since 2019, Bellinger has been, well, not very good. Over that time he has a .203/.272/.376 slash line (.648 OPS) with 41 home runs in 296 games as he repeatedly dealt with shoulder injuries. That all resulted in him being non-tendered by the Dodgers, making the 27 year old a free agent.

Bellinger has still been a positive defender in two of the last three years, but again, the offensive numbers have plummeted for the 2019 NL MVP.

After hitting the cover off the baseball in 2019 while walking a lot, not chasing and not swinging and missing, everything started to slip in the shortened 2020 season. Then in 2021, everything crashed downhill as Bellinger ranked near the bottom of baseball in barrel rate, expected batting average, strikeout rate, whiff rate and chase rate. And it was more of the same in 2022, per Statcast.

Bellinger’s market is reportedly fairly vast, with the Toronto Blue Jays standing out as a potential landing spot for the two-time All-Star given their team’s lineup being so right-handed heavy and needing another outfielder.

Does Bellinger wind up with the Mariners? Probably not. But he’d be an intriguing fit in terms of being a left-handed outfielder with some pop who can play all three outfield positions. As far as potential one-year reclamation projects go, it’s hard to find one with as much upside as Bellinger, especially knowing you’ll get good to great defense in left or right field and that the shift is being removed, potentially giving Bellinger a boost offensively.

And if the shoulder was the issue, perhaps that is healthy and strengthened, allowing 2023 Cody Bellinger to come close to what we saw from 2019 Cody Bellinger.

Michael Conforto

Could the Mariners be a landing spot for a hometown kid?

With a need in the outfield – and potentially a left-handed bat – Redmond’s Michael Conforto would certainly check a lot of fun boxes for the Mariners.

A 2011 Redmond High School grad, Conforto shined at Oregon State and was the 10th pick of the 2014 MLB Draft by the New York Mets, where he emerged as a more than capable left-handed bat.

An All-Star in 2017, Confort slashed .257/.363/.492 (.856 OPS) between 2017 and 2019 with 88 homers and 242 RBIs. He had a .926 OPS in the shortened 2020 season but had a poor 2021 season – .232/.344/.384 slash line, .729 OPS and 14 home runs in 125 games – before hitting free agency for the first time.

The Mets slapped Conforto with the qualifying offer, which he declined. But the lockout and a shoulder injury limited Conforto’s market and he wound up getting surgery in April with a look ahead to 2023.

Well, we’re now at the 2022-23 offseason, and Conforto’s hometown Mariners have reportedly checked in on the slugging outfielder, per MLB Network’s Jon Morosi.

So what could Conforto give the Mariners?

Well, when healthy, Conforto can easily hit 20-plus home runs, drive in runs and work his share of walks as a potential middle-of-the-order bat. Yeah, Seattle could use all of that. He’s an up-and-down defensive outfielder with a plus arm and is typically below average when it comes to his outfield jump rankings, but he’d be an upgrade from what the Mariners got last year with Winker and potentially even Haniger.

Adding Conforto to an outfield with Hernández and Rodríguez would be enticing as far as offensive output, and if he can bounce back to his pre-2021 form, he’d certainly lengthen the lineup and give the Mariners plenty of options at the top of the order down through the sixth or seventh spot.

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4 names to watch to fill Mariners’ OF, left-handed bat needs