The Mariners roster isn’t complete. They’re going to add someone, maybe a couple of someones, before the season starts. There’s no way they’re going into the season with a $70 million payroll, not after Howard Lincoln spent the beginning of the winter talking about how the budget was “going up”. So, in some ways, this is a bit of an exercise in futility, since looking at how the roster fits together now will be different from looking how it fits together when the season starts.
But, I think viewing the roster this way also helps clarify what the team actually needs right now. For whatever reason, people have become accustomed to talking about roles in the context of batting order — so and so is a leadoff hitter, the team needs a guy who can hit third, etc… — even though batting order hardly matters at all, and teams shouldn’t spend much time at all concerning themselves with who is going to hit where when deciding which players to acquire. In reality, a team should figure out who their best nine players are for a given match-up, and then they can figure out what order those nine should hit in after that. So, let’s not pay any regard to batting order for now. Let’s just figure out who should play, and where the guys on the roster fit right now.
Versus a Right-Handed Starter
It’s not very hard to start spotting problems with this group, of course. Casper Wells probably isn’t a guy you want as your everyday right fielder against RHPs, which is why the Mariners keep trying to acquire a better RF. Wells is better suited to the role Bay is in, but now that the organization has guaranteed $3 million to Raul Ibanez, there’s not room for both. In fact, there’s not really room for both Bay and Ibanez even now, as this group comes with some serious in-game strategy problems.
For one, having both Jaso and Montero in the line-up without having a third catcher on the roster means that you can’t pinch hit for Jaso against LHPs in high leverage situations, and Wedge would probably even be reluctant to pinch run for Jesus Montero without another catcher on the roster, as an injury to Jaso after removing Montero would leave the team without a backstop to finish the game. Ibanez was a catcher 15 years ago, but asking the 41-year-old to serve as the emergency catcher seems unlike something a Major League manager would want to do to his respected veteran. Yeah, you could wiggle through a few innings if necessary with Andino or whoever behind the dish, but it would be embarrassing, and MLB managers do not like to be publicly embarrassed. It’s why you don’t see teams building rosters with the backup catcher moonlighting as the DH, at least, not without having another backup catcher on the roster.
The best solution to this problem is to actually carry a third catcher, specifically, a right-handed catcher who could pinch-hit for Jaso against LHPs without wasting two bench players in the process. Kelly Shoppach would be perfect for that role. But, now that the Mariners have committed to carrying a backup DH/veteran presence, it’s hard to figure out how you’d get a third catcher onto this team. You can’t get rid of Andino; he’s the only backup infield on the roster (more on that in a second). You can’t get rid of Bay, because even if you don’t like him as a bounce back candidate, he’s basically a stand-in for the “extra outfielder” that is an absolute necessity on this roster due to Franklin Gutierrez’s health problems. With Guti’s track record, the fourth OF needs to be able to step in as a full time player and provide some value. You can’t punt that position, and Raul Ibanez can’t be that guy. If you had three workhorse starters who would play everyday, maybe you could fake it with Ibanez as your fourth OF, playing once every few weeks when someone needs a breather. With Guti around? No way.
So, with Ibanez having the Life Coach spot on the roster locked down, the only vulnerable guy on the bench is Smoak. But, that presents a small problem in its own right, as Morales isn’t exactly an ironman himself, and is expected to get a decent amount of time at DH, meaning that someone else on the team has to be able to play first base. Some have suggested that this is where Ibanez will get his playing time, spelling Morales at first and replacing Smoak as the part-time first baseman on the roster. However, that doesn’t really work either, and this is why its important to look at rosters like this. To further explain the issue here, here’s the same group and how they would shake out against lefties.
Kicking Smoak off the roster to give the bench a little more flexibility creates a problem against lefties; who plays first base then? With Smoak around, he’s the easy choice, and you can basically schedule Morales’ DH days in order to keep him from having to play the field too regularly. Let’s say you replace Smoak with a guy like Shoppach, though… who plays first against a lefty then?
Ibanez’s only value comes against right-handed pitching; playing him against a lefty is an affront to the people paying to see the team play that day. If the plan is really to use Ibanez as the 1B against lefties when Morales needs a DH day, then they should just refund season ticket holders their money and issue a public apology for not being able to do better than this. That can’t be the plan. So, what’s left? Jason Bay, who has never played a professional inning of first base in his life.
You could teach him in spring training, of course, because it’s first base and it’s not that hard, but now you’re asking your fourth outfielder — on a team where the fourth outfielder is probably going to play a decent amount — to also be your first baseman against lefties. He can’t do both at the same time, and the simple fact of the matter is that with this roster construction, there is absolutely no way around the fact that you’d have multiple situations throughout the year where minor injuries forced Wedge into choosing between a host of terrible options. In reality, the best option here might be starting Robert Andino at second base and shifting Ackley over to first base, but that’s just admitting that the team built a roster where the platoon first baseman against left-handers is the backup shortstop. That’s sad.
So, Smoak — or a right-handed bench bat who can also play first base — is still something of a necessity on this roster. This is why the team pursued a guy like Mike Napoli, since he could have served as both the third catcher and the 1B vs LHPs at the same time. Unfortunately, acquiring Ibanez means that they’re now choosing between a third catcher and a right-handed first baseman, unless they can find another right-handed catcher who you also would be okay with putting in the line-up at first base against lefties.
Shoppach might actually be that kind of guy, considering he’s hit lefties pretty well in his career, but he’s also never played an inning at first base in his professional career. Given the team’s reluctance to using Jaso or Montero at first base last year, it doesn’t seem like Wedge is just willing to punt first base defense while an unathletic catcher learns how to play the position for the first time. But, this reinforces my suggestion that Montero should get significant reps at first base, and should probably be looked at more as a 1B/DH going forward than a C/DH.
If Montero became even moderately serviceable at first base, this all becomes fairly easy, as right-handed catcher guy goes behind the plate, Montero plays first against lefties, and the entire roster dilemma is solved. The team has given lip service to Montero getting some reps at first base, but given Ibanez’s acquisition, it’s not really a little perk if he can learn the position – it’s now a huge roster issue. This roster works against lefties — well, kind of — if Montero can play first base. If he can’t, it’s kind of a disaster.
Speaking of minor disasters, let’s talk about the infield for a second. We touched on Andino being the only backup infielder on the roster, which might seem okay at first glance given that he’s got experience at all three infield positions and could theoretically cover them all by himself. But, again, there’s in-game strategy issues that suggest that’s a pretty bad idea.
When Ibanez was acquired, the spin was that his primary role would be as a pinch-hitter. A late game left-handed bat off the bench. It was kind of funny to hear that, given that Wedge was resistant to using a left-handed bat off the bench last year for fear of the opposing manager making a pitching change, but hey, let’s just go with the flow for now. Ibanez’s role has been generally cast as “pinch hitter”. Which starting position player do you most often want to pinch hit for? Yes, that’s right, Brendan Ryan. He’s a bad hitter. He makes up for it with his glove, but the glove doesn’t matter when he’s due up with the bases loaded in the 7th inning of a tie game and you really, really want a base hit.
So, what happens when you pinch hit for Ryan in that 7th inning situation? Andino replaces him at shortstop for the remainder of the game. No problem, that’s why you have a backup shortstop. Only, now, what happens if Seager, Andino, or Ackley get hit by a pitch and have to leave the game? Or pull a hamstring running down the line? We’re not just talking about some long shot situation that will never occur. Ibanez was specifically acquired to be a bat off the bench, and in a large majority of those games, the guy you want him pinch hitting for is Brendan Ryan. That means that you’re asking Eric Wedge to finish a large number of games without a safety net. Pretty much every extra inning game, you can bet Ryan will have been pinch hit for long before it concludes. By the end of the year, you’re probably looking at 50+ innings where the team will have played without a backup infielder.
It’s one thing to ask a manager to consider having to forfeit the DH every once in a while to move Montero behind the plate if Jaso gets hurt. Having the pitcher’s spot due up is unfortunate, but it’s workable. You pinch-hit, or you bunt, and people aren’t that weirded out by pitchers hitting. But, what is Wedge supposed to do in one of these games where he’s already pinch-hit for Brendan Ryan and then Seager, Ackley, or Andino himself gets injured? Who, exactly, are you sticking in the field as their replacement?
If Smoak is still on the team, the answer is Jason Bay, because Smoak’s a left-handed thrower, and left-handed throwers can’t really play third, second, or shortstop without contorting their body in order to throw the ball towards first base. Bay, a career infielder, would almost certainly have to play third base, with Seager acting as the backup 2B/SS if anything happened to either Ackley or Andino. It’s one thing to try and teach a 34-year-old Jason Bay how to play first base because the roster doesn’t really work; it’s something else entirely to try and teach him how to play third base. Or, if Bay loses out on the 4th OF job, then we’re talking about Casper Wells instead. He’s younger, and he has a good throwing arm, but do you really think Eric Wedge wants to see Casper Wells play third base in 2013?
That’s where the team is headed if Robert Andino is the only infielder on the roster. Remember what we said about managers not liking to be embarrassed? Jason Bay or Casper Wells playing third base is embarrassing. It’s the primary reason Chone Figgins hung around on the roster all summer, even after the team decided they didn’t want him anymore. They just weren’t willing to play with one reserve infielder. Not when Brendan Ryan is one of your starting infielders. Especially not now, when you have a guy on the roster whose sole job is Brendan Ryan’s Pinch Hitter.
So, now, we’re at a spot where the team could really use another catcher, and they could really use another infielder, but the only vulnerable roster spot right now belongs to Justin Smoak, who is also penciled in as the 1B versus LHPs. You can take Smoak away if you teach Montero how to play first base, but then you’re still left with one roster spot for a guy who can cover both catcher and third base. Which is not Kelly Shoppach. In fact, it’s very few players. Last year, just eight players appeared in a big league game at both catcher and third base. Brandon Snyder caught one inning, and Vinny Rottino caught four; neither of them really qualify for what we’re talking about here. The rest of the names? Jordan Pacheco, Wilin Rosario, Josh Donaldson, Steve Clevenger, Yan Gomes, and Chris Gimenez.
Yes, Chris Gimenez. You remember Gimenez, most likely. That’s the kind of Major Leaguer that both catches and plays third base. And that’s the kind of guy that the Mariners need to seriously look at acquiring. You don’t really want him playing too often either, but you’re better off with him behind the plate and Montero at first than you are with Montero behind the plate and Andino filling the first base role, even if he’s not actually playing first base. And you’re better off because then you’d have another backup infielder on the team, so Wedge could pinch hit for Brendan Ryan to his heart’s content. Or pinch run for Jesus Montero. Or pinch-hit for John Jaso against a lefty. Believe it or not, having a Chris Gimenez around would open up a decent amount of in-game moves to Eric Wedge, and would likely save the team from some potential embarrassment in the process.
This is what stocking the team with DHs does to you. In reality, the Mariners don’t just need “a bat”, and they certainly can’t use another player who can’t play the field. They could use a better right fielder, which would also make the bench better by allowing them to replace Bay with Wells, but that isn’t the only need on the position player side of things. By bringing in Raul Ibanez and giving him one of the reserve spots, they took away a decent amount of flexibility, and the only real way to get it back is to have a catcher who can also play some third base, and then teach Montero to play first base while they’re at it.
We’re already 2,600 words into this post, so I’ll skip the parts about how I’m afraid not fixing this problem will encourage Wedge to DH Ibanez at the expense of John Jaso, but suffice it to say, we haven’t covered all of the problems with this current roster yet. Hopefully, we won’t have to. Hopefully, in the next month, the Mariners will actually fill out the team with some better players, and some players who fit together to make a team better than this motley crew they have now.