Saunders or Seager
With Franklin Gutierrez set to miss all of April and potentially more time depending on his rehab, the working assumption has been that the main benefactor of the open roster spot will be Michael Saunders. He’s probably the best defensive outfielder on the team besides Guti, and as a left-handed bat, he’d form a pretty natural job-share partner with Casper Wells. And, despite his miserable Major League performances to date, he was still a pretty highly rated prospect, and the team maintains some hope that he can translate his minor league numbers to the big leagues and become a useful player.
However, going with Saunders/Wells in CF until Guti gets back is not the only option, and may not even be the team’s best option. Chone Figgins has been getting some time in center field early in camp, and while he hasn’t played out there since 2006, I think there’s a pretty compelling case to be made that he should get a decent amount of his early season playing time in center.
Essentially, the options break down like this:
Vs RHP: Figgins (3B) and Saunders (CF)
Vs LHP: Figgins (3B) and Wells (CF)
Vs RHP: Seager (3B) and Figgins (CF)
vs LHP: Figgins (3B) and Wells (CF)
If Figgins shows that he can play a half-decent center field during March, the team could essentially use his ability to move between CF and 3B to create a platoon of Seager and Wells, giving Seager the roster spot that Saunders is the presumed favorite for. There are several advantages to going that way instead.
For one, Seager is likely to be quite a bit better than Saunders this year, especially at the plate. ZIPS doesn’t love either player, but projects Seager for a .267/.323/.372 line compared to Saunders’ .220/.298/.339 mark. Neither is likely to be an offensive force, but Seager could be a competent hitter against RHPs, and help the team score more runs and win more games early in the season.
There’s also the fact that Seager is the more likely of the two to have a real future in Seattle. Even if Saunders shows some improvement at the plate, he’s probably still not going to be more than a fourth outfielder going forward, and he’ll have to prove more useful than Casper Wells to wrestle that job away going forward. Meanwhile, Seager has a real chance to be the team’s regular third baseman for the next couple of years, and even if the bat doesn’t prove up to the task for a starting job, he’s the best in-house candidate for a utility infielder/super-sub role. There’s an open spot on the roster for Seager going forward, which is not true of Saunders unless he shows remarkable improvement.
Finally, there’s also some potential added value for Figgins if he shows he can play center field. Right now, the Mariners are hoping that he has a nice start to the season so they can try to unload some of that contract this summer, but in reality, there aren’t many teams shopping for a third baseman with absolutely no power. Figgins’ skillset is much more commonly accepted in center field, and if he hits well while holding down CF at a respectable level, the team could expand the pool of clubs that would potentially be interested in his services. As strictly a third baseman, you might only have one or two teams that could be talked into taking some of Figgins’ remaining salary, but if he’s showing some positional versatility and could profile as either a 3B or an OF, you could have five or six clubs looking at him as an option for the second half of the year.
Seager and Wells are probably the two young guys on the team who aren’t currently slotted in as starters that the team should be most interested in looking at, and they’re the two most likely to produce at the plate in the early part of the season. Bouncing Figgins between third and center field could also help his trade value, and give the team a better chance of getting him off the books sooner than later. If Saunders shows some real improvement in his contact abilities during March, I’m not opposed to giving him a chance, but that’d probably be Plan B for me. I’d rather have Seager and Wells get that playing time rather than hoping Saunders has figured out how to hit something on the outer half of the plate over the winter.