The first thing that grabs you when you look at the Seattle Mariners’ projected outfield alignment is the defensive prowess. Arguably, any of the three starters could play center field so right off the bat that means fewer balls falling in or making it to the gaps. That’s a huge thing.
Last season, according to most defensive metrics, the Mariners had one of the five worst defensive outfields in the league. This year they might be one of the top five. But, will they hit enough to justify the defense? That’s where the fun stuff starts.
Here then is Part IV of our 2017 Season Preview: The Outfield
The Big Guy
No longer a full-time outfielder, but we’ll profile him with the group nonetheless. Over the past near decade, Nelson Cruz has established himself as one of the premier power sources in the game. He averaged 27 home runs over the first five full seasons of his career, covering his age 28-32 years.
One wouldn’t necessarily think that a player would get better in his mid-30s (well, not anymore anyway), but as MLB grows increasingly homer-friendly the past several seasons, Cruz’ totals have risen with the tide: he led the league with 40 with Baltimore in ’14, then put up 44 and 43 in his two seasons at Safeco Field.
He’s done this while maintaining good average and on-base numbers and has been in the league MVP running each of the last three seasons, garnering seventh, sixth and 15th place finishes. Not bad for a guy that didn’t become an MLB regular player until the age of 28.
Time catches up to all of us as some point, and if you want to look at signs here Cruz’ contract rate slipped just enough last season to realize he’ll be 37 before the end of the season. But everything else says he’s still got another run at 40 homers in him. The M’s will need every single one of ’em.
The New Guys
Mitch Haniger drew very little attention in the Thanksgiving trade that brought him, Jean Segura and reliever Zac Curtis to the Mariners in exchange for starting pitcher Taijuan Walker and shortstop Ketel Marte. Those unfamiliar with his skillset overlooked the late bloomer as a throw-in.
Haniger has turned heads in spring training though earning the “best player in camp” moniker, and GM Jerry Dipoto is looking pretty smart for insisting on including the defensive wizard in the deal.
Haniger finally had his big league breakthrough last season with Arizona, and while the overall final numbers might not jump out at you (.229/.309/.404 in 123 plate appearances), remember Haniger still qualifies as a rookie and the Mariners think he will provide a modicum of pop with good on-base skills while providing plus defense in right field.
Whenever the “fastest player in the big leagues” discussion comes up, the Mariners new left fielder’s name always enters the conversation. For the past five seasons, Jarrod Dyson was a secret weapon for the stealthily good Kansas City Royals. Dyson has averaged over 31 stolen bases per season while never receiving more than 330 plate appearances or playing in more than 120 games.
The Royals were able to pick-and-choose the situations to take advantage of Dyson’s strengths while protecting him from tougher pitchers and unfavorable matchups. He won’t get that protection in Seattle, and it’ll be up to the speedster, at age 32, to prove once and for all he’s an everyday player in the league and not a situational hitter and pinch-runner extraordinaire.
Back for more
It says something about Leonys Martin that the Mariners will leave him in center field rather than accommodate the faster Dyson or flashier Haniger. If you’re a gambling person and could get good odds on it, though, you’d probably be better off to take the under he stays there all season.
That might sound particularly harsh on Martin; it’s not. It’s more about the other two fellows (Dyson and Haniger) that provide a higher upside at the plate. It’s also about a couple of guys that will start their season in the minors and push for playing time later in the season in Tyler O’Neill and Boog Powell.
What Martin does bring is solid defense, steady effort and an effective stolen base rate, things not to be underestimated when discussing the Mariners options at center the past half-decade or so. He exhibited some not-previously-seen pop early last season (who didn’t across the league?) but cooled off rapidly. A final line of .247/.306/.378 wasn’t really anything to write home about.
Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel should break camp as the backup outfielders, giving the Mariners five center-field-quality defenders in the grass.
Heredia, 26, a Cuban defector with a short U.S. track record, came up last season for Seattle and posted a .250/.349/.315 slash line. The on-base skills are the important part, because he isn’t going to be a home run hitter – at all. He fits the young, athletic and defensive-minded approach Dipoto used to assimilate his outfield corps though so he fits right in.
Gamel is an interesting case study. He isn’t a speedster, but has enough quickness and instincts to be a quality option in the middle and an above defender at the corners. He’s exhibited good instincts for the stolen base and base running in general in the minors but again, hasn’t put up prolific numbers. He has decent command of the strike zone though with “doubles power,” so while he fits the mold of fourth outfielder, every team in the league has one.
On the near horizon
The aforementioned O’Neill will start in Triple-A and don’t be surprised if the quick riser isn’t pushing for a spot sooner rather than later. In the jump from Single-A to Double-A last season, he doubled his walk rate and increased his contract rate while maintaining his plus-plus power tool.
He strikes out – a ton – but that’s not necessarily the red flag it used to be for prospects. His power translates to the bigs and profiles enough defense to stick at a corner outfield slot. His body builder physique begs to be shown off during batting practice.
Mariners’ fans have long been waiting for a prospect to really fulfill his promise. He could very well be the first of several good ones in the system to make an impact.
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