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Out of Right Field: Mariners sign what’s left of Jayson Werth

UPDATED: Thu., March 29, 2018, 2:25 p.m.

On Tuesday, the Seattle Mariners made a curious acquisition, signing veteran outfielder Jayson Werth to a minor league contract. The M’s assigned him to extended spring training in Arizona before being cleared to play, presumably at Triple-A Tacoma to start with.

This is curious on several fronts.

First, let’s look at the logistics. Opening day is Thursday, and the M’s still haven’t made final cuts though it’s close, so the season is upon us. The Mariners signed 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki earlier in the spring – another fading star but with a rich and storied history with the team – to help fill the outfield until Ben Gamel returns from injury, probably sometime around May 1 or so.

Ichiro is far from his Hall of Fame heyday, but he could have been somewhat useful as a fifth outfielder, pinch-hitter and a feel-good story in a reunion tour with the M’s.

Unfortunately, with Gamel’s injury Ichiro might be pressed into more duty early, which isn’t great for anyone.

However, he’s been – surprise – nursing an injury this spring and went hitless in 10 at-bats, with five strikeouts and two walks, in five Cactus League games while dealing with a sore right calf. So we don’t even know if he’ll be able to help at all.

That leaves the M’s with just three other outfielders on the roster, after the team released veteran Kirk Nieuwenhuis on Tuesday with the announcement of Werth’s signing.

So there’s a need.

Does Werth fill it?

Werth, 38, completed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals and wants to continue playing after an injury-plagued 2017, during which he hit .226/.322/.393 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in 70 games.

Combined with bad defense in left, that led to a -0.3 fWAR for the season. That’s (obviously) below replacement level.

He suffered through groin, toe and shoulder injuries last season and hasn’t hit above .244 since 2014. Not that batting average is the be-all to evaluate baseball players, but it’s a start. In his prime, Werth regularly posted on-base percentages north of .390 on the regular, but again, hasn’t OBP’d higher than .335 in the same time frame.

The bearded vet can still be reasonably effective against lefties though, posting a solid .820 OPS against LHP in 2017. So there’s that. He’s a right-handed specialty pinch-hitter that can’t play defense anymore.

And ask yourself this: If Werth was capable of being a regular and competent contributor to a pennant-chasing team, why wouldn’t the Nats have had him back on a one-year deal this year, in Bryce Harper’s final season before free agency.

Werth has been one of the faces of that organization the past seven seasons. His original signing, much derided across baseball, actually turned out well for both the player and the team, and Werth authored one of the most memorable moments in franchise history, the solo homer after a 13-pitch battle against Lance Lynn in Game 4 of the division series against the Cardinals in 2014 that prolonged the series for one more game – ultimately only to set up the Nats organization and fan base for its biggest source of misery.

If a player that meant that much to the Nats didn’t have a place on its last, best chance at a title before Harper walks, why should anyone else think he has enough left in the tank to contribute meaningfully?

Seriously. The Mariners couldn’t find any younger, better options? Maybe with big league experience already in the organization?

But again, let’s go back to the timing of this. The M’s have known Ichiro was struggling health-wise. They had Nieuwenhuis in camp, though a left-handed swinger. And Werth was unsigned all spring, waiting for his phone to ring.

So why now, two days before opening day? And with only three true outfielders on the roster, how long is it going to take to get Werth up to speed to figure out if he’s even an option to help out?

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