Mariners

M’s Should Focus On Pitching, Defense

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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Nelson Cruz's name has been linked to the Seattle Mariners all offseason. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nelson Cruz’s name has been linked to the Seattle Mariners all offseason. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan Jason A. Churchill
Jason joined 1090 The Fan after 4 1/2 years at ESPN Insider, covering...
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Despite the fact that more offense is necessary to compete in the American League, the Seattle Mariners have no business ignoring defense for marginal offensive gains and should be focused on pitching and defense at this point in the offseason. They tried that last year, remember?

The Mariners have made five big-league acquisitions since the end of the 2013 season. Robinson Cano, he of the $240 million pact over 10 years, is the one highlight, followed by Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, John Buck and Willie Bloomquist. Franklin Gutierrez was re-signed and a few minor league contracts were doled out to the likes of left-hander Joe Beimel, right-hander Mark Rogers and outfielder Endy Chavez, among a few others.

The M’s won all of 71 games a year ago, appear set to lose their best hitter from that club, Kendrys Morales, to free agency and have yet to address their starting rotation or the late innings of the bullpen, which was a huge issue for the club a year ago.

We’re boring down on February, the free agent market for hitters has nearly dried up entirely and the Mariners continue to be tied to free agent Nelson Cruz. Why? Maybe because the reporters are just connecting dots; the Mariners need offense and Cruz and Morales are two of the very best options available that could make some kind of difference and for some absurd reason the club seems hellbent on adding a right-handed hitter. [Because, yeah, they have too many legitimate left-handed sticks to get another one of those, instead, even if the lefty is better.] Maybe the club keeps being mentioned in Cruz rumors because the Mariners have legitimate interest. Why? I haven’t the foggiest.

I guess it’s because they feel they need that right-handed bat and apparently believe Cruz can play the outfield well enough to send him into a corner, probably left field more than anything else, 100 or more times per season. You see, they cannot use him full-time at DH because they already have Hart, Morrison and Justin Smoak to split between first base and the designated hitter spot. Hart appears set for some outfield time, too, at least at some point, which isn’t a great idea, either. Not for his long-term health, and not for the good of the below-average Mariners’ pitching staff which projects to be about league-average in terms of inducing ground balls. They ranked No. 9 in ground ball rate a year ago, but Joe Saunders was No. 2 on the staff at 51.2 percent and his 180 innings are gone, likely replaced by a combination of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Erasmo Ramirez, who are more fly ball oriented, particularly the two right-handers who are each severe fly ball arms.

Point is, the Mariners need significantly better outfield defense in 2014, and their current crop doesn’t appear equipped to be anything but equally poor or even worse in tracking down fly balls and stopping line drives from getting through to the gap than their 2013 brethren.

General manager Jack Zduriencik told 1090 The Fan after the season that the club knew they were sacrificing defense for offense with the additions of Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay last offseason, and that it was a risk they felt they had to take in order to add run production. It didn’t work, largely because of two things. One, Morse was hurt a lot and didn’t hit enough when he was healthy, and two, because that trio is so bad defensively that they each had to hit and hit a lot to be a true asset. Ibanez hit a lot of home runs, but was merely an average bat at very best due to a poor second half.

Here we are again, though, discussing a possible outfield that includes the likes of Hart and Morrison. Hart missed all of 2013 with knee problems that required surgery, and he played mostly first base in 2012. In 2011, he was about average in right field according to UZR/150, but that appears to be the anomaly, not the rule that comes with defensive metrics. The three years prior, when Hart was 26-28 years of age — essentially still in his athletic prime — he graded out below average as an outfielder.

Now, Hart is going on 32 (March) and coming off microfracture surgery. He’s certainly not going to be a better defensive outfielder than he’s been in recent years, and the chances he’s even as effective aren’t very good, either. While there’s likely to be a decline in his offensive production, too, it’s his overall role with which I am concerned. As a first baseman and DH used versus left-handed pitching and some select right-handers, he could come close to his 2012 season that produced a 270/.334/.507 triple-slash. But he won’t be good in the outfield.

The same is true for Cruz. He is 33 years of age, in clear decline in all facets and is coming off a 50-game suspension for his connection to Biogenesis. Furthermore, he’s a right-handed fly ball hitter — think Richie Sexson — who has cost his team, the Texas Rangers, with his poor range in the outfield for the past three years. Cruz isn’t quite as bad as Morse, but he’s not far off and is certain to continue his decline as he ages.

Adding Cruz would, in theory, force the Mariners to trade either Morrison or Smoak, or employ not only the worst defensive outfield in baseball, but also the least flexible bench in the history of any sport on any planet in any universe.

Instead of paying for Cruz, even for a year at something considered near-bargain prices, the Mariners should be scouring the league for defense and focusing whatever financial resources they possess on pitching. In somewhat of a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach, if the Mariners can’t score with the top teams in the league, the next best strategy is to try and stop them from scoring as much as possible and hope for the best offensively. Not only does it avoid spending money on incremental offensive improvements at best, it’s literally spending money to get worse.

Whether it’s Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez or a few trade possibilities, the starting rotation needs a true No. 3 starter or better and the bullpen needs a least one or two veteran arms that can help Danny Farquhar and Charlie Furbush late in the game and render the potential further struggles of Tom Wilhelmsen and health timetable of Stephen Pryor factors upon which the club isn’t praying for the best to have any chance, the way they will likely have to with the offense.

It’s true, however. To make the postseason, the M’s need more offense. A lot more. Barring a late run at Matt Kemp — not impossible but highly, highly unlikely — that isn’t happening in 2014, even if Cruz is signed and he and Hart each miraculously revert back to their primes. Ya know, because there has to be a magic bean for that, right? Not even if Kyle Seager takes yet another step forward and Brad Miller proves his half-season in 2013 was legitimate. Not even if Gutierrez stays healthy for 100-plus games, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders both hit for a full season the way they did the second half of last year, and not even if all of the above occur.

Not with that pitching staff, not with that defense. Not in a million years.

- Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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