Mike Morse Code: Deciphering the Mariners' Outfield/DH Situation

Mike Ehrmann

The Mariners' ship is listing to port with all of the players on the left side of the defensive spectrum the team has added this offseason.

Unless the Mariners had hit on every single significant free agent target they had hoped to this off-season, chances were slim that they were going to enter 2013 looking competitive. They didn't, of course; the M's instead backed off on Mike Napoli, failed to lure Josh Hamilton to the Pacific Northwest, and couldn't convince any of the Plan Bs to enter into an agreement with them either. Instead, general manager Jack Zduriencik had to go much further down the alphabet and bring in reclamation projects as well as players with just one year left in their contracts in the hopes of piecing together something viable for the upcoming season.

While not quitting is commendable, it's hard to gauge just what it is the Mariners are hoping to accomplish with their off-season. It's very likely the roster will be running in place in a division and league that will be no easier than before, except, in order to do so, Seattle might missed an opportunity to answer questions about their future.

After Jason Bay was released from his long-term deal with the Mets, the Mariners brought him in for one year at $1 million. Bay has hit all of .234/.318/.369 since leaving the Red Sox after the 2009 season and has also dealt with concussions and their fallout as well as a broken rib, an intercostal strain, and various minor leg issues. The right-handed Bay is essentially useless against his fellow righties at this point, and while he's been better against southpaws, he hasn't exactly been mashing them either, hitting just .246/.355/.401 against them as a Met - but perhaps we should cut him some slack due to his being knocked around so much.

To be fair, for the price and commitment, you make this deal with Bay if you have the room on your roster. The thing is, the Mariners' subsequent moves -- and some of the players they already had on board -- suggest they did not have the space for experiments. Seattle also signed Raul Ibanez, who hit .240/.308/.453 with the Yankees last year, with nearly all of that coming in lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium. Of his 19 homers, 14 came at home, where he slugged nearly 200 points higher than away. Throw in that he's a defensive zero and that he left his ability to hit southpaws back in 2010 with his 38-year-old body, and he's a less-than awe-inspiring get. Let's again try to be fair, though, and imagine Bay and Ibanez together: the Mariners have tried defense-first for a few years now, but could use offense. Combining Bay, who can at least theoretically hit lefties, with Ibanez, who can hit righties, makes sense as a low-cost platoon in left. Hell, the Yankees just did something similar with Ibanez and Andruw Jones for much of 2012 and they won the division, so criticizing the Mariners too harshly for this seems unnecessary ...

... Except, the Mariners already had a left fielder. Michael Saunders was 25 years old in 2012, and hit .247/.306/.432 in 139 games. Now, that's not world-beating by any means, but when you consider how difficult it is to hit in Safeco, things look better than the raw data suggests. Saunders owned a 110 OPS+ last year, and also spent a considerable amount of the season in center field, which would lead you to believe he's a far superior defender to the pair of designated hitters with gloves brought in by the Mariners.

There was a simple solution to this mess, in a way, by bumping Saunders to right, and sending Casper Wells to the bench as the fourth outfielder. The thing is, Wells has been a solid hitter in his career, with a 110 OPS+ in 656 plate appearances and 224 games. Even if you consider that he doesn't hit right-handers well, they already had the Jason Bay they were looking for in Wells and could have paired him with Ibanez if they were that intent on acquiring the 41-year-old. Instead, Wells is likely to be the victim of this corner outfield hoarding, on his way to being another year older with the same questions about his long-term viability no closer to being resolved.

Designated hitter isn't an option for any of this bunch -- nor should it be -- as the Mariners also brought in Kendrys Morales by dealing Jason Vargas to the Angels. Morales can actually hit, and has already dealt with a career in a park that tries to hide this fact. There's little to complain about in regards to Morales other than that he will be around for only a single season before reaching free agency. Even then, we can't fault Zduriencik here, as Vargas was also in the last year of his deal and is likely a less-valuable piece than Morales even without the benefit of context.

Then came the latest move: the trade for Michael Morse. Morse is yet another designated hitter who won't be able to play there, and the Mariners, for now, appear intent on playing him left field, or the place where the Ibanez/Bay platoon were expected to spend their time. Now, this isn't meant to argue that Morse shouldn't have been acquired become of the preexisting condition that was Ibanez and Bay, but that a roster suffering from crunch has crunched further. In order to acquire Morse, the Mariners dealt John Jaso, who hit .276/.394/.456 in 361 plate appearances last year splitting time between DH and catcher. Was Jaso going to replicate that in 2013? It's unlikely, given his career numbers, while good, are well off that pace. However, it does point to the idea that the Mariners, in some ways, might appear more upgraded than they are.

So, what now? Seattle has Morse in left, Franklin Gutierrez in center, and Saunders in right. Bay and Ibanez are both on the bench and relegated to left field while off it, while Wells could miss out on playing time unless Gutierrez or Saunders end up missing time. The Mariners aren't going to have six outfielders on the Opening Day roster, so either someone is going to end up released (or demoted, in Wells' case), or someone elsewhere is going to end up traded or marginalized.

It won't be Jesus Montero, given his age, potential, and the fact the Mariners are intent on making him catch. Other than the catching part, that's a good thing, as Montero is one of the few young players on the roster who might own an impact bat someday. It could, however, be Justin Smoak, who has yet to perform during his two-plus seasons with the Mariners. Smoak isn't arbitration-eligible until 2014, and will be 26 in 2013. While he hasn't put together a productive campaign yet, topping out at a 106 OPS+ in 2011 that doesn't measure up to first base standards, there have been flashes of something better. Given Seattle's going-nowhere-in-a-hurry situation, finding out what Smoak could be should be a priority. If the Mariners don't start to shuffle around some of the outfielders they've acquired, though, it makes you wonder if that's still a priority for this club.

Morse (or, less likely, Morales) could slide to first base for 2013, leaving left field to Bay and Ibanez and Wells on the bench waiting to fill-in where needed. Rather than see what Smoak can do in a season where the Mariners are unlikely to be in it, they could trade him before his environment ruins him further. Home and road splits aren't perfect, but he's been better outside of Safeco than in it, and chances are good that he'll never become whatever it is he's capable of within its walls, anyway.

The problem is that unless the Mariners get something worthwhile back, it's a pointless exercise. Both Morse and Morales will be gone in a year unless they re-sign, and the outfield won't be nearly as cluttered in 2014 unless they go through this whole reclamation song-and-dance again. That makes it even more clear that the Mariners should be using 2013 to figure out what it is they have now that they can bring with them in the future. If you're going to run in place while waiting for the kids, you might as well do it with bounce-back pieces closer to their peaks than retirements.

The Mariners won 75 games in 2012. Morse and Morales should help them win more than that, but they aren't pushing the team much further than where they already were. You can't fault the Mariners for bringing them in, especially given just how boring Mariners baseball has been the past few years, but you can find fault with their inability to address other areas of concern and for the DH types they've accumulated over the winter months. The saving grace could come in July if the Mariners are able to convert the worthwhile short-term pieces into long-term assets, but at this early stage that's no given. Nor is it particularly thrilling, if you've been waiting for the Mariners to be relevant once more. As this off-season suggests, you'll have to wait some more for that.

Marc Normandin is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the managers of Over the Monster. Follow him at @Marc_Normandin and the Designated Columnists at @SBNMLBDCers.

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