How many 1st base/DH types does one team need? Well according to Mariners’ general manager Jack Zduriencik, it’s mathematically impossible to have enough . Over the past 12 months, the Seattle Mariners have gone from a team that was chalked full of speedy, defensive-type players to one that has an alarming logjam of 1st base/DH types. Zduriencik swapped for Jesus Montero, a catcher whose size and skills with the glove are more suited for DH work, Kendrys Morales, a 1st baseman/DH, and Michael Morse, a 1st baseman/DH who was poorly concealed in the Nats’ outfield a year ago. And if you do roll the calendar back a little more you find Zduriencik swapping Cliff Lee out for Justin Smoak, a 1st baseman who’s swing is too slow to hit big league pitching with feet too slow to play another position.
Basically, all Jack Z has done in his tenure as the GM of the Seattle Mariners is create a mess. When he was initially hired, Zduriencik preached defense and speed and another way to play the game. The Mariners were going to be a team that suffocated teams to victory with an elite pitching staff and the world’s best defense. Cliff Lee was traded for. Franklin Gutierrez was going to be a star in centerfield, chasing balls down left and right, taking away runs. But those Mariners teams were fundamentally flawed. They couldn’t hit and they couldn’t score runs.
Seattle has ranked dead last in runs scored in the American League for 4 seasons running now. Zduriencik has decided that the time to play excellent defense is over. Now the Mariners are going to move the fences in, they’re going to play big boppers all over the field, regardless of the effects on defense.
What’s most interesting about this entire development is the complete about-face by the Mariners’ front office. This is a franchise that actively sought out and gave 140 games worth of playing time to Brendan Ryan. That’s right, the same Brendan Ryan who hit .194 a year ago without a lick of power. It’s the same franchise who spent big bucks on Chone Figgins because of his ability to be a plus defender at multiple positions on the infield. Now they’re giving the starting catching job to Jesus Montero, a catcher who was so poor on defense he scared even the Yankees away (and they played Jorge Posada behind the plate even after his throwing arm turned into a soggy noodle). It’s a radical change in the way you run a ball club, and if it doesn’t work this regime is probably out of the job.
But even in acquiring as much offense as they possibly could, Seattle has overlooked one little detail: the ability to draw a walk. The Mariners have ranked in the bottom 5 in baseball in walks drawn in 3 of the last 4 seasons, only escaping to 21st in baseball in 2012. 2013 promises more of the same as well.
Jesus Montero looks to be picking up a lion’s share of the catching duties next year, and in addition to the major problems he has on defense, he’s one of the most impatient hitters in baseball. The catcher/DH walked just 29 times a year ago in 135 games and he averaged just 3.5 pitches per plate appearance. All that combines to create a hitter that doesn’t work deep enough into counts, one that gets himself out too often by swinging at pitches outside of the zone.
New acquisitions Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse will surround Montero in the lineup, and neither of those players knows how to draw a walk either. Morales has walked in just 6.6% of his career at bats while Morse sits at 5.9% for his career after walking just 16 times in 430 at bats a year ago. Raul Ibanez is in the mix at DH as well, but he looks like Pee Wee Reese against righties and Pee Wee Herman against southpaws, which means he’s a platoon option at best. The infusion of power that these hitters provide will be a welcome one for such a power starved lineup, but who’s going to be the guy to get on base and score all these runs Seattle needs?
Franklin Gutierrez is slated to start in centerfield and he doesn’t get on base very well. Neither does Michael Saunders, the teams current rightfielder and the owner of a .283 OBP for his career in over 1000 at bats. We already know shortstop Brendan Ryan won’t get the job done, which basically leaves Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley, two 25-year-olds who will probably double as the M’s best position players next year. They both have plenty of promise, Ackley a defensive wizard at 2nd with some power and Seager a potential 30 homer hitter in the making, but they also both have flaws and neither player is the on-base demon Seattle so desperately needs.
So maybe moving the fences in does the trick? The Mariners scored just 257 total runs at home a year ago, good for just 3.17 runs per game, last in baseball by a long shot. The funny thing was, outside of Safeco Field the Mariners actually had a potent attack, one that ranked 9th in baseball in scoring on the road. The hope is that by pulling the fences in a little bit, the Seattle offense will see some of those warning track flies leave the yard, thus increasing their run output. The Mets attempted the same trick a year ago and despite the increase in home runs, they actually average fewer runs scored per game. The reasons for the decrease in scoring are debatable and range anywhere from the drop in Ike Davis’ play to rapping out fewer doubles, but the message is the same, there was no definitive uptick in scoring for the home team. But that doesn’t help the fact that most of these players avoid walks like the plague.
Jack Zduriencik and the rest of the front office have bet it all on these moves, and Seattle still needs a lot to go just to make it to .500. They need healthy seasons from Morse and Morales, two players who have frequent injury issues. They need internal improvement from Montero, Ackley, and even Justin Smoak, if they can find a spot for him to play. And they have to hope with all their might that the defense can survive Morse in the outfield and Montero behind the plate. That’s a lot of wishful thinking for a team that’s guaranteed to struggle to get on base, and all that wishful thinking is going to add up to another lost season in the Pacific Northwest.