Justin Ruggiano For Basically Free
The Cubs are trying to contend right now. I think that’s become pretty clear, with the moves that they’ve already made. If you examine the Cubs’ current roster, I think it’s fairly evident they could use some help in the outfield. Okay, so, file that away.
Have you ever heard of Matt Brazis? Had you ever heard of him before today? I don’t know anything about Matt Brazis, and I’m sure he’s a great guy, but the people to whom Brazis is most important have nothing at all to do with major league baseball. Brazis has never been on the organizational radar. I should note that, by the way, Brazis was in the Mariners’ system. He’s not anymore. He’s the guy the Cubs just accepted, in exchange for Justin Ruggiano.
That feels like a data point. The Mariners just filled a need in trade, and they did so for basically nothing, getting a guy who might’ve helped the team he was already on. That tells you something about how the Cubs viewed Ruggiano, and that can’t be ignored, but we can proceed only with what we know and what we know is that Ruggiano appears like a fine short-term fit with the roster the Mariners have built.
He’s right-handed, so, check. He’s a versatile outfielder, so, check. He’s relatively inexpensive, so, check. Ruggiano isn’t Justin Upton, and he’s not even close. This isn’t the sexy acquisition so many people have been hoping for. Ruggiano shouldn’t even be a starter. But, again: the Mariners didn’t need one outfielder. They needed to find two. Ruggiano’s one, and I think Brad Miller turns into the other.
Maybe the Mariners keep scouring the market, and maybe they bring in another guy, but as is I think that’s unlikely. Seems like there’s one more spot open on the bench, but that could go to someone capable of spelling Logan Morrison. Even more helpful would be a guy capable of replacing Logan Morrison against left-handed pitchers. Because it’s still the middle of December we can’t predict exactly how the spring-training roster will shape up, but I think if you look at what the Mariners have, you’ve got a more or less complete team.
A key with Ruggiano is that he has a lifetime 128 wRC+ against southpaws. He has the same number of extra-base hits against lefties as against righties, in a little over half the trips to the plate. So Ruggiano pairs well with Miller and Dustin Ackley, and he’s center-field capable, while short of center-field good. Miller, for the record, has posted a 104 wRC+ against righties, and a 72 wRC+ against lefties. Against righties, he’s had more power, and against lefties, he’s had more strikeouts. It was obvious last year that Miller struggles against even decent left-handed pitching, and though most people expect his bat to improve, the Mariners can have only so much patience in a season where they’re trying to win a championship.
Naturally, there are valid concerns. Ruggiano is coming up on 33 years old. Everyone younger than 33 is coming up on 33 years old, but Ruggiano is closer to the finish line than most. Last season he fought some injuries and he flashed less power, especially to the pull side. It’s possible the Mariners are adding a useful player too late, like they did with Chris Denorfia. Denorfia was an underrated asset with the Padres earlier on, but by 2014 he’d become a shell, and he stopped hitting. If Ruggiano’s just about toast, all this will do is lead to outs, and the Mariners will have to search for help again. But considering the price, I think this is a worthwhile shot. If Ruggiano doesn’t work out, the team isn’t stuck with him. And they won’t be killed by a role player being ineffective for a handful of months.
As for Miller as an outfielder and a utility type, it’s looking increasingly likely. The Mariners did try to trade him once, for Matt Kemp, but that didn’t go anywhere and since then the team’s become more protective of the guy. Obviously, they didn’t bid up Melky Cabrera too far. They didn’t bid up Alex Rios. They haven’t made a strong push for Justin Upton. The Mariners keep talking about how they believe Miller is going to hit, and some of that is just supporting their own player, but also, I think the confidence is real. And the idea of Miller moving around and playing some outfield isn’t a new one. Some say he’s a natural. So why pay steeply for an outfielder if you might not actually need one?
Ideally, Chris Taylor does well at short, and Miller and Ruggiano do well in right. There you go, two positions solved. Miller is also valuable as Taylor insurance, in case his bat doesn’t really come around. Under those circumstances, you demote Taylor, you shift Miller to short, and in the middle of the year you try to pick up a left-handed role player. If Ruggiano doesn’t do anything, you try to pick up a right-handed role player. If Taylor and Ruggiano bust, you find a regular outfielder. If Taylor and Miller bust, uh oh. If all three of them bust, come on, pitching staff! There are a lot of ways this can go. The most likely way is that, at both positions, the Mariners are fine. Maybe not great, but probably not terrible. And they’d have a right-field solution that was inexpensive, and didn’t sacrifice any future assets.
A lot of people want impact additions. A lot of people want an impact right fielder. A lot of people think an impact right fielder would put the Mariners right over the top. Well, maybe, but, at what cost? Impact additions are distracting. In a lot of ways they’re overrated. Justin Upton is something like a 3-win player. Maybe 4, if he’s really clicking. What do you make of Ruggiano and Miller, as a tandem? Is that 2 wins? That doesn’t seem over-optimistic. I’d say it might even be low. What’s the real difference between Upton and a Ruggiano/Miller platoon? Would it be worth giving away what it would take? What if the Mariners traded Miller for a right fielder? Would it be worth giving up the talent and the shortstop insurance? If nothing else, I’m content to let the Mariners evaluate what they have and re-visit if they need to in June or July. Prices will be higher, but by then at least we’ll know if the Mariners actually need anything.
I don’t think they need much more than they have. Not at the moment. The Mariners are almost through the offseason, and they have a good team, and they still have Miller, and Taylor, and Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, and an intact farm system. They’re down one Michael Saunders, and I’ll never like that, but this all could’ve gone worse. The Matt Kemp trade probably would’ve been worse. Now the Mariners have added a useful role player and they seem open to leveraging Brad Miller’s pop and athleticism. As many different ways as this could’ve gone, it’s gone a decent way. Justin Ruggiano doesn’t make the Mariners a World Series contender on his own, but he fits with what was already a legitimate World Series contender, and the future’s remained untouched.