The Mariners Upcoming Second Base Problem
Last year, Dustin Ackley had a fantastic Major League debut, not just at the plate but also in the field, proving that the “he can’t play second base” criticisms were about two years out of date. He still showed some inexperience at times, but he clearly possessed the physical skills to handle second base, and he was improving at a rapid rate. Given that he profiled as an above average left-handed hitter, his ability to also handle second base made him a valuable asset, and the best non-Felix building block on the roster.
Obviously, things haven’t gone so well this year. He hasn’t fixed his contact issues and his power has taken a step backwards, leading to a particularly unproductive offensive season. The low power/high strikeout combination is a proven loser, and he simply has to fix the strikeout issue in order to become the hitter that everyone expected. That he hasn’t shown any improvement in this area all year is somewhat concerning. However, Ackley’s still a guy with a terrific track record, and his high contact rates suggest that his strikeout problems won’t be permanent. With Ackley, patience is the best approach. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, he’s a really good second baseman.
However, second base has suddenly become a pretty interesting position for the Mariners organizationally. In some order, the Mariners best middle infield prospects are currently:
Nick Franklin, Tacoma:
He’s still considered a shortstop prospect, but he’s actually played more games at second base this year (23) for the Rainiers than he has at shortstop (21). His range at short has always been considered fringy, and there has long been talk that second base might be his eventual home in the Major Leagues. The Mariners have used him at both spots, and while he’s still the best shortstop prospect in the system, there’s a pretty decent chance that he won’t have the range to hold down shortstop in the big leagues.
Brad Miller, Jackson:
The team’s second round pick last year, Miller was a shortstop at Clemson and has played the position exclusively since joining the Mariners. However, his pre-draft profile suggested that he might need to shift over to second base due to some defensive inconsistencies, and he’s made 34 errors in 129 games at the position this year. It’s not unusual for minor leaguers to make a lot of errors — the fields are often not in good condition, for one thing — but it’s something you see more out of 18-year-olds in A-ball than college-trained 23-year-olds in Double-A. Miller’s not a world class range guy, and the issues simply catching the balls hit to him might force a move off of short. If he can make some big improvements, he could stick at short, but second base seems like a potential landing spot for him as well.
Stefen Romero, Jackson:
One reason Miller hasn’t played a single game at second base this year — he’s been playing next to Romero for most of the season. They both started the year in High Desert and both got promoted to Jackson mid-season (but at different times), and Romero has hit his way into legitimate prospect status, leaving the position next to Miller essentially filled for most of the year. Romero was the team’s 12th round pick in 2010 and wasn’t supposed to be much of a prospect, but he just won’t stop hitting. Since getting moved out of the hitter friendly Cal League, he’s actually gotten better, mostly by hitting for even more power. 24 of his 55 hits in Jackson have gone for extra bases, and among players with at least 150 plate appearances, he’s been the second best hitter in the entire Southern League this year. Romero turns 24 in a couple of months and is a bit of a defensive question mark who might profile best in the outfield, but he hasn’t been a total disaster at second base this year. He’s kind of the new Vinnie Catricala, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he showed up to Spring Training next year and hit his way onto the team. Where he’d play isn’t really obvious, but second base would at least an option in the short term if the position were available.
Essentially, the organization has three interesting prospects who might profile as second baseman in the Majors, each of whom hit really well in Double-A this year. Franklin hasn’t hit as well in Tacoma, and Catricala’s breakthrough performance in a half season in Jackson last year should be a reminder that a couple hundred good at-bats in the Southern League aren’t enough to start rearranging your Major League roster just yet, but the team is deeper at second base than they are at any other position.
They’re also thinner in the outfield than they are at any other position. In fact, you could make a case that the Mariners should prioritize acquiring two legitimate Major League outfielders this winter, with Saunders/Wells sharing one job and the other two spots going to imports who could upgrade the offense. But, getting two good big league outfielders in one off-season isn’t the easiest thing to do, and given their depth at second base, I’d imagine that shifting Dustin Ackley back to the outfield will probably come up in conversation within the front office.
On the one hand, there’s no question that second base is the spot where Ackley will have the most long term value, as it’s just far more difficult to find a good left-handed hitting second baseman than it is to find a good left-handed hitting outfielder. When the subject of moving Ackley to the outfield to make room for Kyle Seager at second base has been raised, I’ve been adamantly against it. However, part of why I’ve been against that kind of shift is that the organization doesn’t have anyone else to play third base, and Seager is just fine there, so turning two infielders into one infielder and one outfielder wouldn’t have actually helped anything.
Now, though, the Mariners are getting close to facing a situation where they just won’t have room for everyone. Between Seattle and Tacoma, there are four regular middle infield jobs. Neither Franklin nor Miller are ready to take over at shortstop yet, and Brendan Ryan‘s glove is worth keeping around, so he’s probably the team’s starting shortstop for one more year at least. That leaves 2B in Seattle and SS/2B in Tacoma, and Ackley, Franklin, Miller, and Romero all deserve one of those three spots. Someone has to move.
The easy answer is probably to move Romero. He was a third baseman in college who most scouts thought wasn’t athletic enough to stick at the position, much less move to a middle infield spot, and he’s basically a bat-first guy who will never be a big asset with the glove no matter where he plays. Physically, he looks like a left fielder, and the fact that the position is wide open right now should give him a chance to make the team next year, or at least be in line for an early promotion if he goes to Tacoma and keeps killing it. That would allow Miller and Franklin to share SS/2B in Tacoma and Ackley to keep working at hitting big league pitching without another position change.
But, that might just be putting off the decision for another year. If Franklin and/or Miller both hit well in Tacoma next year, but either one proves that they probably can’t hack it at as a Major League shortstop, there’s nothing else to do with them while Ackley’s at second base. Miller might not be more than a good utility infielder anyway, so it’s not the end of the world if he’s the new Mark McLemore, but Franklin’s a kid with some legitimate offensive potential who can also swing the stick from the left side. And, unlike Ackley, he probably doesn’t have the speed to be an above average Major League outfielder.
In an ideal world, Romero moves to left, Franklin sticks at short, Ackley cuts down on the strikeouts and entrenches himself at second base, and Miller turns into a fantastic play everywhere guy. But the ideal is unlikely, and it’s quite possible that Franklin is more of a second baseman than a shortstop, and if you want both on the big league team, then someone’s leaving the infield. And, based on their physical skills, it probably makes more sense to move Ackley than Franklin.
And, again, if you’re talking about potentially moving two second baseman to the outfield, both of whom you think could be valuable pieces on the 2013 roster, you probably need to be aware of that before you go making big moves to acquire multiple outfielders this winter. If the organization trades for Justin Upton and then signs Melky Cabrera in an effort to jumpstart the offense, and then you realize that Romero’s a left fielder and you might need to move Ackley to make room for Nick Franklin, all of the sudden there just isn’t room for everyone.
This isn’t an argument for the Mariners to do nothing to fix their outfield problems this winter, nor is it an appeal to move Ackley because we’re all excited about the shiny new kids hitting well in the minors. Romero could pull a Catricala. Franklin could stick at short. Ackley could remember how to hit and become the player he looked like last year. But, for planning purposes, the Mariners need to at least think about what they’re going to do with all these middle infielders they’ve got knocking on the door to the big leagues. How they plan on approaching this potential logjam affects other positions, and should influence the thought process that goes into making upgrades this off-season.
You don’t skip out on trading for Justin Upton (or whatever other good big league outfielder becomes available in trade – he’s just being used as a representation of a type of acquisition) because you have Stefen Romero or Nick Franklin coming up through the system. Heck, Romero or Franklin might even be a guy that would have to be included to get that kind of deal done, which would obviously render most of this conversation moot. But, it’s not something the front office can afford to just wait to have it “work itself out”, as is usually the case in most of these deals. Unless someone gets traded, the Mariners are going to have four young players for three middle infield jobs, so a decision on someone’s future is going to have be made before the 2013 season opens. They can’t just wait and see how it all plays out. Pretty soon, the organization is going to have to decide who their second baseman of the future actually is.