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Seattle Mariners
Sports >  Seattle Mariners

The Mariners need an upgrade in left field. Will they get it in 2022?

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 31, 2021

Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Lewis catches a ball hit by the Oakland Athletics’ Chad Pinder during the third inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., Monday, May 24, 2021.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Lewis catches a ball hit by the Oakland Athletics’ Chad Pinder during the third inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., Monday, May 24, 2021. (Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When the Mariners posted their starting lineup for the regular-season finale of the 2021 season – a game they absolutely needed to win to keep their slim postseason hopes alive – they started utility infielder Dylan Moore in left field.

With the Angels starting left-handed pitcher Reid Detmers, manager Scott Servais stayed true to the left-field platoon the team employed for the final months of the season, putting Moore in the lineup instead of the left-handed hitting Jake Fraley.

It left a vocal group of fans incensed on Twitter, who believed Fraley should’ve been starting instead. They felt he was a better defensive option than Moore, which he wasn’t. Also despite the Angels starting a left-handed pitcher, Fraley was a better option at the plate compared to the inconsistent Moore, which also wasn’t true.

That the Mariners’ best options for such important games were Moore, who slumped his way out of the starting second-base job back into a utility role, the oft-injured Fraley, whose best value came in drawing walks before being sidelined by COVID and the light-hitting Jake Bauers, whose primary position was first base, highlighted just how flawed the lineup and roster were due to injuries and failed performance.

If the 2022 season starts with the Mariners somehow returning to that platoon of Fraley and Moore in left field, it means something has gone very wrong. Either Kyle Lewis’ lengthy recovery from his season-ending knee surgery still isn’t complete, or Seattle failed to add at least a replacement-level outfielder to fill a position in massive need of an upgrade.

Left field has been a consistent source of frustration for the Mariners. A search of Baseball Reference reveals that only two Mariners players have produced a season of 3.0 WAR or higher while playing left field 65% of the time since 2000. Raul Ibanez totaled a 4.5 WAR in 2006 and Randy Winn accumulated 3.5 WAR in 2003. Since Ibanez’s 2006 season, the next-highest total was Franklin Gutierrez’s 2.9 WAR with no other left fielder reaching 2.0 WAR.

To be fair, the plan going into the 2021 season wasn’t to use a Fraley/Moore platoon in left field. After no free-agent outfielder came to the organization with his “hat in hand” and willing to take a below-market contract, the Mariners were forced to look at in-house options for the open spot. They had Lewis, the reigning Rookie of the Year, slotted in center and a finally healthy Mitch Haniger back in his right-field spot.

It meant that Fraley, Jose Marmolejos, Braden Bishop and prospects Taylor Trammell and Jarred Kelenic would compete for the spot. With a week left in spring training, it became evident that Trammell, who was acquired at midseason in 2020 from the Padres in a multiplayer trade, had won the job. A calf injury slowed Kelenic from truly competing for the job, thus dulling the controversy of service-time manipulation surrounding him.

The Mariners’ outfield plans needed a readjustment on March 22 when Lewis suffered a bone bruise to his troublesome right knee while playing in a Cactus League game.

Seattle shifted Trammell to center and kept Fraley and Marmolejos on the opening-day roster while using switch-hitting utility player Sam Haggerty in left field against tough lefties.

It was the start of an unsettling season at the position that saw 10 players start a game in left field, including six whose primary positions were in the infield.

That instability increased when Lewis suffered a torn meniscus on May 31 while running down a flyball, an injury that ended his 2021 season.

The combined production from those players while in the left field spot yielded a .191/.285/.333 slash line with 22 doubles, 17 homers, 59 RBIs, 21 stolen bases, 68 walks and 162 strikeouts in 606 plate appearances. The Mariners’ left-field position generated 0.2 WAR, the third lowest in all of baseball.

As of now, Seattle is in a similar position to last offseason with center field (Kelenic) and right field (Haniger) set and left field still undecided. The 40-man roster features familiar, but flawed, candidates to fill it and another ridiculously talented top prospect looming as the most popular choice for a fan base largely impatient with typical player development.

Fraley showed flashes of production in 2021, including strike-zone discipline, a willingness to work counts and draw walks. But, he’s a nonfactor against left-handed pitching, which limits him to a platoon or bench role.

In two stints at the MLB level, Trammell flashed power but struggled to make consistent contact. In 178 plate appearances, he posted a .160/.256/.359 slash line with seven doubles, eight homers, 18 RBIs, 17 walks and a whopping 75 strikeouts.

While he’s far from a bust, it’s clear he needs more seasoning at Triple-A.

As for that talented prospect, well, the countdown to Julio Rodriguez’s debut will be even more anticipated than it was for Kelenic – and that situation was borderline absurd.

Rodriguez, the consensus No. 2 prospect in baseball, will go to spring training with the belief he can win the opening-day job. Given his limitless talent, nobody on the Mariners’ coaching staff or in the front office will rule out such a possibility.

But the initial hitting struggles of prospects at the MLB level could lend to a cautious approach with Rodriguez’s development. He just turned 21 on Wednesday and has played only 46 games at the Double-A level. A more reasonable projection for promotion would be in mid-July.

An optimistic outcome for the Mariners has two possibilities – Lewis is healthy enough to play in left field three to four times per week or they are able to sign a free-agent outfielder to play there on daily basis. The dream scenario for the Mariners would be getting both.

The status of Lewis’ knee is unknown. He’s declined all media inquiries. The Mariners won’t discuss timetables or report on his progress this offseason. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has said multiple times that they won’t know until Lewis shows up to spring training. When healthy, Lewis has game-changing potential at the plate. A move to left field for a few games a week and DH the other games could reduce wear and tear on the knee.

But the Mariners also can’t rely on the unknown. It’s why they’ve met with Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki and have interest in versatile free agent Kris Bryant, who is an impact hitter who can play third base or left field quite comfortably.

If Seattle acquired an outfielder and also has a healthy Lewis, Servais could use a rotating designated hitter to keep players rested and have the maximum amount of offensive potential in the lineup on most days.

Left field hasn’t been a position of great production for the Mariners over the past two decades, but it doesn’t have to remain that way.

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