How The Pieces Fit
In the wake of the Vargas-Morales swap, a lot of the talk has focused on where he’s going to fit, and who might be out of a job with Morales added to the 1B/DH party. Buster Olney is openly speculating about the Mariners “moving on” from Justin Smoak, while Mike Curto is busy printing Smoak’s picture on Tacoma Rainier season ticket packages. Meanwhile, Shannon Drayer notes that Jack Zduriencik agreed with her assessment that Morales might be best served only playing first base 3-4 days per week, and she sees him as more of a DH than a first baseman.
Jack’s only official comment is that they think there will be enough time for everyone, which is a nice way of not committing to anything and having to backtrack later. But, despite the fact that he’s good at talking without actually saying anything, in this case, I think he’s right.
Because of the fact that John Jaso and Jesus Montero are both considered “offensive catchers” by the organization, and because they have Mike Zunino on the horizon, the Mariners C/1B/DH positions are inextricably linked together for at least 2013. While not everyone is interchangeable at each spot, you can essentially see those three jobs as one section of the roster, with everyone else covering the other six spots.
Last year, the Mariners gave 1,964 plate appearances to their catchers, first baseman, and designated hitters. Let’s just round up to 2,000 because it’s easier, and because more runs scored means the line-up turns over more times and everyone gets to hit a little more often. So, basically, the team will be distributing something like 2,000 PAs to those three positions.
Obviously, dividing 2,000 by four gives you 500 plate appearances each, which makes this sound like a perfect job share situation for a lefty catcher who can’t hit lefties, a righty catcher who can’t catch and struggled against righties, a switch-hitter with health problems, and a switch-hitter with hitting problems. You probably don’t want to count on any of these guys to play every single day next year, especially when you factor in the wear and tear that catching takes on a body. Giving each one 500 trips to the plate would be fantastic.
Of course, that’s a perfect world, no-one-gets-injured fantasy, and it won’t actually work out that way. And, it’s pretty likely that the group of four will actually be a group of five, as I still expect the Mariners to carry a third catcher next year if they plan on giving Montero some time at DH. I just don’t think Eric Wedge is going to be willing to put a line-up on the field that doesn’t leave a catcher on the bench, and I get the feeling that they want a catch-and-throw veteran to work behind the plate occasionally. That guy probably won’t play as much as Olivo did last year, but we probably need to give him 200 of those plate appearances. So, now we’re down to 1,800 for the four to split, which is a bit less than each player might want.
But, I still don’t really think it’s much of a problem. We know Jaso’s not going to play against lefties, so he’s probably not getting over 400 plate appearances, even though he’s still the best hitter on the team — yes, better than Morales. If we give him 400, that leaves 1,400 for Montero, Smoak, and Morales to split, or 470 apiece. That might sound a little low, but Morales only got 522 last year, so it wouldn’t be a huge change in usage over how Anaheim used him in 2012. And, we have to account for the fact that Morales may very well not end the year in Seattle.
While I don’t think the Mariners are hopeless, there’s a pretty decent chance that they’re going to be out of contention by the All-Star break, as they simply aren’t on the same level as Texas, Anaheim, or Oakland right now. If you were going to put together a list of teams that you’d expect to act as sellers at the deadline, the Mariners would probably be on it. It doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to failure, or that they can’t put together a surprising run, but you should at least go into the year knowing that mid-season selling might be an option. And, with Morales being represented by Scott Boras, you can be pretty sure that the Mariners won’t be signing him to a contract extension that keeps him from free agency.
So, there’s a pretty decent chance that the Mariners could make Morales available in trade in July. Especially if Smoak and Montero are both hitting, and the logjam has become problematic. In that case, the team could theoretically flip Morales for help at another position, or for a prospect that would help for the future, or just as a salary dump if he’s not hitting well and the Mariners simply want to promote Mike Zunino to take his spot on the team. There are a decent amount of scenarios where Morales isn’t even on the team in August and September, and this playing time dilemma is only an issue for the first half of the year.
Those scenarios involve both Smoak and Montero hitting pretty well, though. If either (or both) flop again, then there is no playing time dilemma, because they’ll have worked their way out of the line-up. This is probably more true for Smoak than Montero, but both have options left, and if either of them are struggling in May, a trip down to the minors wouldn’t be unexpected. And, again, that would relieve any kind of logjam that might be perceived with having these four guys sharing three jobs.
In reality, the guy who gets aced out of the picture in 2013 isn’t Smoak, Montero, or Jaso – it’s Zunino. He’s the one who no longer has a job to fight for in spring training, which is totally fine, considering that he was just drafted six months ago. Between the fact that he only has 200 plate appearances in full-season ball and the defensive struggles he had in the Arizona Fall League, there’s absolutely no harm in giving him a full year in Tacoma. Pretty much every college catcher you can think of spent at least a year in the minors, and most spent more like two or three. To me, this move basically seals Zunino’s fate in Tacoma for the first half of the year at minimum, and I’m totally on board with that decision. If he destroys Triple-A pitching for a few months, the Mariners can figure out who they want to toss overboard in order to get him on the roster, but now, they don’t have to count on him doing that. The team can now plan on giving him a September call-up to get his feet wet, then tell him to come to camp in 2014 fighting for a job. And that’s probably best for everyone.
Personally, I don’t see any real problem here. Having four guys for three spots is a good idea when each of those four guys come with some legitimate questions and shouldn’t just be handed everyday jobs. With a lefty, a righty, and two switch-hitters, the pieces fit together pretty nicely. And, of course, with any four players, there’s a pretty good chance that injuries and/or performances solve the problem for you, as someone is likely to either play themselves out of a job or land on the DL and take the decision out of the Mariners hands. By having four guys for three spots, the Mariners simply give themselves a better chance to have three guys for those three spots on any given day, rather than repeating mistakes of the past that led to things like Miguel Cairo, Starting First Baseman.
If Jaso, Smoak, Montero, and Morales were all +5 win players, then the Mariners would have a problem, and someone would be unhappy when they weren’t starting on Opening Day. But none of these guys have earned any kind of ego, and they’ll have no right to complain if they play five days per week instead of seven. Job shares can work, and they can be quite effective. Given the four players the M’s now have to share C/1B/DH, I’d have some optimism that this group can form a fairly effective job share next year.