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Seattle Mariners

Mariners spring training preview: Is Jorge Polanco finally the answer at second base?

The Seattle Mariners hope Jorge Polanco can be the answer at second base.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – In the years after they traded Robinson Cano, whose 10-year, $240 million contract finally expired last year, the Seattle Mariners have tried a variety of options at second base.

They tried the unproven prospect route, hoping Shed Long Jr. (2020), Dylan Moore and Abraham Toro (2021) would capitalize on small sample size successes and take control of the spot.

It didn’t happen.

They tried the veteran route the past two seasons, acquiring Adam Frazier before the 2022 season and Kolten Wong before the 2023 season. Frazier had a down season by his standards, while Wong was a disaster and was eventually designated for assignment.

The Mariners will try the veteran route again at second base for the 2024 season, acquiring one-time All-Star Jorge Polanco.

With minimal payroll flexibility but a desire to add an impact hitter to the middle of their lineup, the Mariners gave up four players and some cash to acquire the switch-hitting Polanco to be their everyday second baseman.

As we get set for spring training, our Mariners position preview series continues with a look at second base.

Who’s back

Prior to the acquisition of Polanco, the Mariners were moderately comfortable running a platoon at second base with Moore and Josh Rojas. The feeling was that if Moore and Rojas played somewhat close to their capabilities in a platoon situation, they would provide production above a replacement-level second baseman.

Moore had offseason surgery to repair a core muscle injury and couldn’t fully participate when spring training started last year. He suffered a setback late in spring training and during his rehab stint, not returning from the injured list until June 7.

The time away, and the start-and-stop nature of his rehab assignment, left Moore out of sync early. He had just two hits in his first 36 plate appearances. Moore finished with a .207/.303/.428 slash line with nine doubles, a triple, seven homers, 19 RBIs, seven stolen bases, 16 walks and 56 strikeouts in 165 plate appearances.

Rojas was acquired in the deal that sent closer Paul Sewald to Arizona. After producing a combined 4.5 wins above replacement in 2021-2022 playing second and third base, Rojas struggled to start 2023 and lost playing time. In 59 games, he had a .228/.292/.296 slash line with 13 doubles, no homers, 26 RBIs, six stolen bases 18 walks and 51 strikeouts.

With a few swing adjustments provided by Mariners hitting coaches, Rojas was a solid contributor in the final months of the season. He played in 46 games, posting a .272/.321/.400 slash line with four doubles, four homers, 14 RBIs, six stolen bases, nine walks and 30 strikeouts.

Who’s gone?

Wong was designated for assignment on the Aug. 1 trade deadline, which was a transaction about a month and a half too late. Perhaps his biggest contribution was being available and allowing the Mariners to trade Jesse Winker, who they were desperate to remove from their roster. But the trade for unwanted players yielded minimal results for either side, with both producing negative fWAR seasons.

The Mariners also sent Jose Caballero to the Rays this offseason in a trade for Luke Raley. With Moore, Rojas, Sam Haggerty and the acquisition of Luis Rojas, the Mariners had a small army of utility infielders on the roster.

New faces

The Mariners gave up a proven reliever, a veteran starting pitcher, two prospects with plenty of potential and cash, which is in limited supply this offseason, to acquire Polanco.

“We have liked and tried to acquire him for years,” general manager Justin Hollander said after the trade “I think I’ve personally made more calls on this trade than I ever have on any trade before, at the behest of both of my own want to add him and our group. So really a big day for us and I feel like it makes us a lot better.”

The Twins were ready to move on from Polanco. With Carlos Correa locked into shortstop, Royce Lewis taking over third base and the emergence of rookie Edourd Julien last season, Polanco was without a full-time role. The Twins needed to shed payroll, carrying a player earning $10.5 million for 2024 and a $12 million club option for 2025.

Polanco, 30, played in just 80 games for Minnesota last season. A nagging left hamstring strain sent him to the injured list on two occasions and allowed Julien to take over full-time duties. In 343 plate appearances, the switch-hitting Polanco produced a .255/.335/.454 slash line with 18 doubles, 14 homers, 48 RBIs, 36 walks, 88 strikeouts and 1.5 fWAR.

While he was an All-Star in 2019, Polanco was even better in 2021 when he played in 152 games, posting a .258/.323/.503 slash line with 35 doubles, two triples, 33 homers, 98 RBIs, 45 walks, 118 strikeouts and 4.2 fWAR. In the two seasons in which he’s had more than 500 plate appearances, he’s produced at least 3.3 fWAR. But injuries have been an issue. He’s had six stints on the injured list over the previous two seasons.

Trending up

Even if he doesn’t reach the 500-plus plate appearance mark, Polanco should provide more production at the plate than what the Mariners have received from past second basemen. Using FanGraphs weighted runs created plus (wRC+) measure, an all-encompassing metric that tries to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measuring it by runs, Polanco has been over the 100-run average in his down seasons, including 118 in 2023 and 119 in 2022. By contrast, Caballero had a 96 wRC+ last season and Frazier produced an 80 wRC+ in 2022. The last second baseman to have more than 350 plate appearances and produce a wRC+ over 100 was Cano with a 112 in 2017.

Trending down

The defense at the position has been a lingering issue. Caballero, who was primarily a shortstop in the minor leagues, was one of the best defensive second baseman the Mariners put on the field in recent years.

Polanco, who was the Twins’ primary shortstop before the acquisition of Correa, hasn’t played a stellar second base over the past few seasons, producing negative metrics in most aspects. But with it being his primary position and the guidance of Perry Hill, it should improve.

Prospect to watch

Two years ago, Cole Young was preparing for the prom and his senior season of prep baseball; this spring he will be at MLB spring training. The Mariners’ first-round pick in 2022 out of North Allegheny High School in Wexford, Pennsylvania, has risen to top-prospect status in the organization following a stellar 2023 season.

After posting a .267/.396/.429 slash line with 20 doubles, seven triples, five homers, 39 RBIs, 17 stolen bases, 54 walks and 52 strikeouts in 78 games at Single-A Modesto last season, he was promoted to Everett and was even better. In 48 games, he had .292/.404/.479 slash line with 14 doubles, two triples, six homers, 23 RBIs, five stolen bases, 34 walks and 38 strikeouts.

His highly mature approach at the plate could make him a fast riser. There are some in the organization who believe Young could make his MLB debut as early as the end of the 2024 season and be ready to take over as the second baseman by the middle of 2025.

By the numbers

23: The number of players to appear in a game at second base since the Cano trade. The list included first-base coach Kristopher Negron, catchers Omar Narvaez and Luis Torrens, and designated hitter/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion.