Prince Fielder has dominated Seattle Mariners offseason talk thus far, which is saying something since their offseason really started back in June. Offensively, it’s hard to imagine a better fit for the Mariners than Fielder, but there are other issues besides his bat, including but not limited to: money, weight, defensive position, and possibility of the Mariners contending in the forseeable future.
Every Mariner writer (and there are many good ones) has weighed in on the issue. Other than those people who think that Fielder is going to fall apart next year, its hard to argue with any objections to signing Prince. It’s going to cost a fortune, he’s not a great fit for the current team defensively, and there’s a decent chance that he could be breaking down by the end of the contract. Most people agree on all of these issues to varying degrees. Some are willing to accept them and still make a deal, others aren’t. Both viewpoints are completely understandable.
I’m pretty firmly on the “Sign Prince” side, but I thought I’d step back to see where the Mariners stand, both for next year and the future. I’m going to work through this positionally, probably out of order. I’m not going to make an effort to talk about how to improve the position, unless I feel like it. I’m just going to lay out what’s there and what is in the system that might help soon.
2B: I’d consider this the most stable position on the field. Dustin Ackley looks like, at the very least, a minor star. He answered the defensive questions, and if his power grows any, or maybe even if it doesn’t, he’s going to be an all-star for a long time. Should he get seriously injured or fall apart, Kyle Seager’s a pretty good back-up plan. More on him in a bit.
C: And we go from good to horrible. Miguel Olivo is under contract for one more year, and he’ll likely be the starting catcher and perform more or less the same as he did in 2011. That’s not good, but it could conceivably be worse, I guess. Olivo may bring some intangible stuff to the team. Or he might not. Believe what you want. It would be nice if he brought more tangible stuff as well.
Adam Moore is currently in the Arizona Fall League after missing the season. He started slowly but is heating up a bit down there (helps that it’s in Arizona!). The best case for next year and the future is that Moore stays healthy and shows some of what he showed in the minors. He’ll likely be the back-up, with a chance to take over more time if he earns it. Looking ahead, there’s not much. The M’s drafted a bunch of catchers last June, which is good because there’s no one else. The most likely to help soon is John Hicks, Danny Hultzen’s catcher at Virginia. His ceiling is probably a league average catcher, which sounds great. I doubt we’d see him before 2014, though. Farther off, Jack Marder has a nice bat but may not stay at catcher, and Tyler Marlette is a high school draftee with a lot of power potential and a long way to go. Barring a Moore breakout, something will need to be done here for 2013, and ideally for 2012.
1B/DH: You probably know about Justin Smoak and Mike Carp. If the season started today, it would be really cold, and these guys would man these two positions. They both have questions but lots of potential. The Mariners need at least one of them to become a consistent middle of the order guy. I think they both will, but don’t hold me to that. As it is, I would say they’re two of the three best hitters on the Mariners, and they play the two positions that Prince Fielder plays. Herein lies the problem. There’s no one in the minors that really needs to be considered in the plans here, unfortunately.
SS: Brendan Ryan doesn’t hit a lot, but he does everything else. I have no problem with him as my starting shortstop. Seager can fill in a bit to give you potentially more offense. This spot won’t likely be a big threat in the batting order, but that’s okay. That’s how baseball was for decades, and then A-Rod and Jeter and Nomar changed the perception, and now we’re back to only a few elite offensive shortstops each year. The Mariners hope they have one of them for the future in Nick Franklin. The switch-hitter (for now) had a mostly wasted year due to a freak head injury, food poisoning and mono, but he projects to average defense but solid to great offense, so keep your fingers crossed. ETA is likely 2013, but Zduriencik really likes him, so it’s not out of the question that a good year gets him to Seattle sometime in 2012. I’m not terribly worried about this position. It’s not a huge threat, but it’s solid with potential for a lot more.
3B: Here’s where things get weird. The first of several positions where there are lots of options but nothing concrete, Zduriencik told Larry Stone that figuring out an answer at third is on his list of priorities for the offseason. I would guess Kyle Seager holds the edge for the starting job here. He doesn’t provide the prototypical home run power for the position but could still be above average offensively with solid defense. Alex Liddi waits in the wings. No idea where that will go. Chone Figgins is still around, although that will likely change before the season starts.
On the farm, meet Vinnie Catricala. Outside of maybe Franklin, he’s the Mariners best offensive prospect. He pretty well demolished High-A and AA this year and could hit the majors as soon as midseason 2012. I wouldn’t call him a sure thing, but he’s extremely interesting. The problem is that no one’s sure he can play third, or any other position for that matter. It sounds like he’ll end up in left field, but who knows. Farther off, we have Francisco Martinez, part of the Doug Fister return. He has tools to spare, but has yet to put them all to use. Overall, I think there are enough bodies here that something might pan out. I’m moderately high on Seager, but I still wouldn’t be totally surprised to see a move here. I wouldn’t be focused on it if I were in charge, however.
RF: Ichiro. Your guess is as good as mine. He’s under contract for one more year, and I’m betting he bounces back decently. After that, I don’t know. I can’t see him ever playing somewhere else in America. I’m betting he’s either resigned or returns to Japan. If he’s not resigned, I’m guessing Casper Wells is next in line, if he shows anything this year. This could be a place for a big future move, but it’s hard to know what the future will bring.
CF: These outfield spots are a mess. Franklin Gutierrez is still nominally the starter, but who knows how that will go. He’s under contract through 2013, so it would be in everyone’s best interest if he got a lot better. I would have cut bait last offseason personally, and I felt that way even before all the illness stuff came out. Wells and Trayvon Robinson are interesting options here, and I’m betting one of them is the future. You could tell me just about anything about this position for 2012 and I’d consider it a realistic possibility. Nothing much in the minors, at least for the next couple of years.
LF: This is pretty much all the same names, but add in Mike Carp if Fielder or someone else is signed. That would be my vote. Grady Sizemore is also an interesting possibility. There are bodies here, but I’m not sure how optimistic I am about them. I pretty much feel that way about most of these positions. Catricala could also figure heavily here in a year or two.
So after all that, what have we learned? 2B and 1B/DH are in good shape, catcher is in trouble, SS looks fine, 3B/LF/CF could be fine if everything breaks right, and RF is a mystery that’s not likely to become clearer for another year.
Some people are making the argument that the Mariners need to wait to spend big money until they have a better idea of what positions really need it, which obviously isn’t clear at the moment. I definitely understand that, but I think that Prince is such a good fit for the team offensively, that they need to get him if they can for any deal palatable. Most of all, this team needs elite players and some certainty, and then they can shape the rest of the roster around that. If they sit around waiting for a Prince Fielder equivalent to show up at the perfect position and perfect time, they might be waiting a while. Evan Longoria’s not going to be available anytime soon. This team needs a jumpstart, and Mr. Fielder gets my vote to provide it.