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Seattle Mariners

Mariners spring training preview: Will Mitch Garver solve the DH problem?

The Seattle Mariners hope Mitch Garver can fill the team’s DH role this season.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

When Nelson Cruz played his last game as a member of the Mariners in 2018, the organization decided to shift away from having a full-time designated hitter. It’s a philosophy they were adamant to embrace for reasons based on need or availability or some combination of both.

Instead of finding another slugger that could be a daily presence in the lineup, a hitter that they likely couldn’t afford or convince to sign, the front office decided to turn the DH into a revolving role where position players could get “rest” days and still be in the lineup and manager Scott Servais could take advantage of matchups versus that day’s opposing starting pitcher. It’s a strategy that the Yankees teams of the late 1990s used to great success.

In 2018, Cruz played in 136 games as the Mariners’ designated hitter, amassing 572 plate appearances with a .255/.343/.511 slash line with 18 doubles, 36 homers, 95 RBI, 54 walks and 116 strikeouts. He generated 2.4 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement.

Since then, no Mariner has reached 500 plate appearances as the DH in a season. In 2019, the first year of the “step-back” rebuild, Daniel Vogelbach assumed the role on a near full-time basis late in the season after Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce were traded.

Vogelbach appeared as the DH in 81 games, posting a .194/.340/.414 slash line with 12 doubles, 16 homers, 40 RBI, 61 walks, 89 strikeouts and 0.6 fWAR in 335 plate appearances.

Since Vogelbach’s 2019 season, only two players have amassed more than 200 plate appearances as the Mariners’ DH – Luis Torrens (230) in 2021 and Mike Ford (217) in 2023.

In 2017, fueled by Cruz’s monster season when he had a .293/.378/.557 slash line with 38 homers, 114 RBI and 3.9 fWAR in 146 games at DH, the Mariners’ designated hitters posted an overall 3.8 fWAR, which was highest in baseball.

Since Cruz’s departure:

• 2019: .191/.317/.380, 25 homers, 64 RBI, -0.1 fWAR (9th of 15 teams)

• 2020: (60-game season): .229/.303/.395, eight homers, 27 RBI, -0.1 fWAR (10th of 15 teams)

• 2021: .233/.303/.396, 20 homers, 78 RBI, -0.1 fWAR (11th of 15 teams)

• 2022: .179/.275/.338, 23 homers, 68 RBI, -1.8 fWAR (26th of 30 teams).

• 2023: .211/.290/.398, 28 homers, 75 RBI, -0.9 fWAR (25th of 30 teams)

But for the first time since Cruz left, the Mariners will employ a near full-time DH in their lineup. Our position preview series leading up to spring training continues with a look at designated hitter.

The new face

Shortly after dinner time on Christmas Eve, news began to leak that the Mariners had reached an agreement with free-agent catcher Mitch Garver on a two-year contract.

A few days later, the reports became official with Garver signing a two-year, $24 million contract with a mutual option of $12 million for the 2026 season. The contract was the largest given to a free agent position player during Dipoto’s tenure as the leader of the front office.

While Garver’s primary professional position has been catcher since being selected by the Minnesota Twins in the ninth round of the 2013 MLB draft out of the University of New Mexico, the Mariners signed the 33-year-old for what he did at the plate and not behind it. With Cal Raleigh entrenched as the catcher, Seattle signed Garver to “sit and hit” as the DH and perhaps play first base on occasion.

Why?

Besides having Raleigh and veteran backup Seby Zavala, who was acquired earlier in the offseason, the Mariners felt that the position was beating up Garver and leading to stints on the injured list. Starting with the 2019 season, Garver had made nine separate trips to the injured list for various injuries.

When he is healthy and on the field, he’s proven to be very productive.

In 87 games with the Rangers in 2023, he posted a .270/.370/.500 slash line with 11 doubles, 19 homers, 50 RBI, 44 walks and 82 strikeouts. A mild left-knee sprain suffered in early April kept him on the injured list until June 2.

Rangers manager Bruce Bochy convinced Garver that a full-time DH role down the stretch was his best avenue to help the team.

“He mentioned how important it was for me to stay in the lineup and the way that I could contribute with the team was to be in the DH spot,” Garver said. “It’s not an easy position to do. I’ve learned a lot over the years, basically here and there. But when I got into a consistent routine on how to do it, I became a little bit better at it.”

Garver actually followed some of Cruz’s advice when the two played together on the Twins from 2019-2021.

“Nelson is probably one of the best teachers out there and being able to play alongside him and then on the other side of the field from him as well, I learned a lot from him,” Garver said.

The next most logical player to see time at DH on the Mariners’ projected roster shares a first name with Garver.

Seattle also brought back Mitch Haniger this offseason in a trade with the Giants. Like Garver, Haniger has been hampered by injuries and trips to the injured list in his career. When he’s healthy and on the field, he’s a productive player. The Mariners could use Haniger at DH on occasion as one of those “rest days.” He’s also the logical candidate to fill the role if Garver were to miss any time.

Who’s gone

Ford was signed to a minor-league deal last offseason and started the season with Triple-A Tacoma before being called up on June 1. With no hitter taking control of the DH spot, particularly against right-handed pitchers, the lefty-swinging Ford took advantage of the opportunity. He played in 83 games – 62 as the DH – and posted a .228/.232/.475 slash line with six doubles, 16 homers, 34 RBI, 24 walks and 81 strikeouts in 251 plate appearances.

Here’s the list of players, who are no longer in the organization, to get plate appearances as the DH last season: Teoscar Hernandez (121), AJ Pollock (62), Cooper Hummel (24), Tommy La Stella (18), Eugenio Suarez (12), Tom Murphy (12) and Jarred Kelenic (10).

Who’s back

Of the group of players on the roster who might see time at DH is outfielder Dominic Canzone. A left-handed hitter with power and not known to be a plus defensive outfielder, Canzone could get starts at the position, particularly against tough right-handed starting pitchers.

Prospect to watch

For Lazaro Montes, the largely unfair comparisons to Astros’ All-Star DH Yordan Alvarez started at a young age.

They’re both left-handed hitting power hitters from Cuba. They have imposing frames and their swings look very similar, which is a product of having the same hitting instructor in the Dominican Republic as teenagers.

Rated as the Mariners’ No. 4 prospect in the organization, the 19-year-old now stands 6 foot 5 and more than 250 pounds.

While still very raw, the Mariners love his power potential. In 70 games between the Arizona Complex League and Low-A Modesto, Montes posted a .303/.440/.560 slash line, 19 doubles, two triples, 13 homers, 61 RBI, 54 walks and 76 strikeouts in 302 plate appearances.

By the numbers

30: The Mariners rank last season of the 30 MLB teams with their .211 batting average from the designated-hitter position.