The Mariners have not been able to find or develop a productive consistent shortstop since the days Alex Rodriguez. The hope is Jean Segura can finally break that drought in 2017

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There are just certain positions that some teams struggle to fill. The Mariners’ struggles to find a competent starting catcher since the retirement of Dan Wilson has already been covered here. There have been countless stories written in past years about their difficulty in finding a good left fielder, particularly when the Mariners were experiencing their highest levels of success.

But in looking at the Mariners’ shortstops over the years, that spot hasn’t been a source of great production or consistency since the days of Alex Rodriguez. Here’s the list of shortstops with 150 plate appearances or more since 2000 from Baseball Reference.

To quote the philosopher/inventor/analyst “Data” from “The Goonies” — a movie that most current ballplayers have never seen — “That’s atrocious.”

First glance at that list — A-Rod was ridiculously good. Yes, he was a questionable human being on many levels. But he could really play. A 10.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is absurd.

M's position previews

Second impression: the Mariners have been unsuccessfully searching for even an adequate replacement for a long time.

Brendan Ryan posted the next highest WAR with a 4.0 in 2011 . Ryan’s WAR stemmed largely from being an elite defensive shortstop while offsetting a sub-.650 OPS that season. Ryan’s 3.4 WAR in 2012 was the second highest total. It’s impossible to forget how amazing Ryan was in the field and how awful he could be at the plate. But it’s inexcusable that those two seasons were the best since A-Rod. The Mariners never seemed able develop or sign a quality shortstop since the Rangers gave Rodriguez $252 million reasons to leave.

Carlos Guillen, a rookie with some promise at the time, was traded away by then-GM Bill Bavasi because he couldn’t stay healthy. He became a relatively productive player for the Tigers. The Rich Aurilia experiment was a disaster. And then Bavasi looked at a young Yuni Betancourt as his shortstop of the future and did little to develop a second option behind him, including choosing not to draft Troy Tulowitzki in 2005 at the last minute, opting for catcher Jeff Clement — as if that hasn’t been mentioned often in Mariners’ miscalculation lore.

In more recent history, many stories were written about the Mariners finally developing an every-day productive shortstop from the group of draftees from former GM  Jack Zduriencik. There was Nick Franklin, then Brad Miller, even Chris Taylor and last year Ketel Marte. They all had some talent and potential with obvious weaknesses — approach at the plate, strikeouts, defensive shortcomings, defensive inconsistency and overall inconsistency. Think of it this way: At one point, three of those four players were asked to experiment with playing in the outfield.  Now all four are out of the organization and none will be shortstops going forward.

This will be the first time since the 2014 season where the Mariners won’t trot out an inexperienced youngster as their opening day shortstop, hoping that player would somehow blossom into that role during the season.

No, general manager Jerry Dipoto went out and acquired veteran Jean Segura this offseason to fill that spot. Will the Mariners finally get a full season of legitimate production from that position? Segura is coming off the best season of his career and seems to have matured into a competent and consistent performer at the plate.

“Segura was one of the premier offensive players in the Majors last season,” Dipoto said. “His combination of average, power and speed is extremely difficult to find, especially at a position like shortstop and at the top of our lineup. We believe pairing him with Robinson Canó gives us tremendous offensive potential in the middle of our infield.”

Here’s the shortstop position preview going into 2017 spring training.

 

The Past

The Mariners went into the 2016 season with Marte locked into the starting shortstop spot on the roster. There was no competition during spring training. In his first offseason as the GM of the Mariners, Dipoto overhauled the roster with a series of trades and signings. But he kept Marte at shortstop, choosing to see if the young switch-hitter could build off his strong finish to 2015. In 57 games in 2015, Marte hit .283 (62 for 219) with a .351 on-base percentage, 25 runs scored, 13 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 17 RBI and eight stolen bases in 12 attempts.

“He’s earned that right with the finish to his season last year,” Dipoto said that offseason.

Marte showed a more disciplined and controlled approach in that late call-up than he had for most of his career in the minor leagues.

“Obviously he’s tracking the right way when he got to the big leagues,” manager Scott Servais said in spring of 2016. “He controlled the zone better than he did in the minor leagues, which is kind of unheard of. It’s a great sign.”

Or it could have been a glaring warning sign of troubling regression ahead.

Marte understood what was being given to him and did all the right things that offseason and spring to come in ready to take over the job on a  full time basis. He simply didn’t play that well once the season began. There was game-to-game inconsistency and frustrating periods of poor play at the plate and in the field. The patient and disciplined approach had disappeared with swings and misses, soft contact and strikeouts. Sure there were four or five-game stretches, where Marte looked like the player the Mariners envisioned. But he could never maintain it.

His timing often looked off at the plate and his hitting was so poor from the right side that Servais started sitting him when left-handers started against Seattle. Trips to the disabled list for a sprained thumb in May 29 and sprained ankle in July 23 only hindered the hunt for consistency.

By midseason, the Mariners tried to remedy the situation by making a move at the trade deadline. Seattle had all the workings of a trade for Cincinnati’s veteran shortstop Zack Cozart in place on July 31. Seattle wanted Cozart for the final few months of the season and control of him in 2017. It seemed like an obvious upgrade. Dipoto thought the deal was done and was even in the process of notifying Servais when the Reds balked at the list of prospects offered. Reports of medical issues with most of the players on the Mariners’ list of players were the supposed reasoning for the Reds’ reticence.

When the deadline passed without a trade, the Mariners still had Marte at shortstop and no permanent replacement. He went on the disabled list on Aug. 9 with mononucleosis, utility infielder Shawn O’Malley took over duties. The two players then split time when Marte returned.

In 119 games, Marte drew 19 walks and posted a .289 on-base percentage. In the 57 games in 2015, he’d drawn 24.

From a defensive standpoint, only Marcus Semien (13) committed more than Marte’s 12 errors at shortstop and only Miller and Elvis Andrus had worse defensive WAR per Fangraphs than Marte’s -4.9

 

The Present

Jean Segura credits Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano for his breakout season with the bat last year. (David Zalubowski/AP)
Jean Segura credits Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano for his breakout season with the bat last year. (David Zalubowski/AP)

There will be no shortstop competition again this spring. There will be no unproven youngster at shortstop in the lineup on April 3 at Minute Maid Park when the 2017 season begins. Dipoto made sure of that this offseason. On the night before Thanksgiving, he completed perhaps his biggest trade of the offseason, acquiring Segura, outfielder Mitch Haniger and lefty Zac Curtis in exchange for pitcher Taijuan Walker and Marte.

Segura, who turns 27 on March 17, was coming off the best season of his career after being traded to the Diamondbacks before the 2016 season. He hit .319 with 203 hits, an .867 on-base plus slugging percentage, 41 doubles, seven triples, 20 home runs, 64 RBI and 33 steals in 153 games.

Why the success?

“He made real changes in his swing first off,” Dipoto said. “How much of this is real I’m not entirely sure. Jean Segura had a very good 2013 season. He was not very good in 2014 and 2015. There were reasons I think that you can attribute to some of that struggle. In 2016 he was dynamic, not just good, he was fantastic and he was fantastic for six months. There was no variance in what he was doing. He made a real change in the way he sets up and where he holds his hands, and as a result the long-term angles of the ball leaving his bat changed and so did the velocity off the bat.”

Much of the struggles in 2014 and 2015 could be attributed to Segura getting hit in the face with a bat by accident by teammate Ryan Braun and then the tragic loss of  his infant son, Janniel, on July 12, 2014 and the aftermath that followed. 

“I think you guys know what I’ve been through my last couple years,” he said. “I lost my son. I got hit in the face by Ryan Braun. There were a lot of problems, a lot of family issues. But last year I was a new player. It was a new me.

The swing changes came at the urging of Robinson Cano. The two worked out in the Dominican Republic before the 2016 season and Cano helped Segura with some adjustments. It’s something that they’ve continued this season on a daily basis. 

There is the obvious possibility of some regression for Segura. Those gaudy numbers would be hard to replicate for any player. And yet, it would still be better than what the Mariners have been getting from the position.

“Jean Segura made real changes that resulted in a real performance upgrade,” Dipoto said. “I’d like to tell you we can plug and play the numbers he threw out off bat in Chase Field in Phoenix to right here to Safeco in Seattle. That’s probably not realistic. We will see some level of regression because it’s impossible for a player to sustain what he did over and over. The year that he had last year is one of just five seasons in this century where a hitter was able to throw out 200 hits, a .300 batting average, 20 home runs, 40 doubles, 30 stolen bases and 100 runs scored. There’s the fact that it’s only happened five times since the turn of the century probably suggests we shouldn’t press the pencil too hard that that’s going to occur again but we feel like he made real change. He improved his on base ability. He’s a high-energy guy and the best of Jean is he’s a runner. He’s an explosive athlete and we feel like many of things he did last year were very sustainable.”

Segura will return to his natural position at shortstop after starting just 17 games there last season. He’s never been considered an elite level defender with issues to the back-hand side. But he’s solid on groundballs up the middle and the Mariners believe that consistent work with Cano this offseason and a comfort level will help him. They just want the routine plays made — something that hasn’t been done consistently for the last three seasons in Seattle.

“I don’t really expect that he will struggle moving back to shortstop,” Dipoto said. “He’s always been a pretty good shortstop. He played second base last year through necessity. The Diamondbacks had a glut with guys with Nick Ahmed and Christopher Owings, etc., at shortstop. They preferred Nick Ahmed’s defense. Nick Ahmed by the numbers is one of the better defensive shortstops in the league so it’s quite understandable. Jean Segura played shortstop his entire life and we really have no doubt that he’s going to be able to transition to shortstop. It shows up for him, it’ll probably be in range the backs through the middle to the glove side. Jean’s got steady sides, he’s got the arm strength to play the position and he’s got the first step quickness. He’s got the first step quickness to steal 50 bases. There’s a pretty good chance he can get off the ball.”

As for a potential back-up, the Mariners will have one of their few positional battles for the utility spot. O’Malley, Michael Freeman and Taylor Motter will battle for the spot. Though there is a scenario where the Mariners keep both O’Malley and Motter on the roster since both can play outfield.

O’Malley gained the trust of the staff last season after being called up. He also played shortstop at a serviceable level something that the coaching staff was uncertain of at the start of the season. Freeman was a midseason pickup and he came up for short stints and played well. Motter might be the best athlete of the three. He can play any position on the field and could be the best shortstop of the three.

 

The Future

 

Segura was second-year arbitration eligible this season and agreed to a $6.2 million contract. The Mariners have one more year of club control for 2018 before he becomes a free agent. The two years of club control is a reason the Mariners were willing to give up a young promising pitcher like Walker.

Beyond Segura, the Mariners depth chart at shortstop is a little thin. Michael Freeman is on the 40-man roster and is a capable fill-in, but he’s projected more as a utility infielder.

Tyler Smith will also fill a similar role with Freeman at Tacoma and seems to be on a similar career path per scouts.

Drew Jackson is perhaps the most ballyhooed of the Mariners’ young shortstop prospects. After a monster 2015 season where he dominated the NorthWest League with Everett, Jackson had a decent year for Class A Bakersfield.

Jackson hit .258 (135-for-524) with 87 runs scored, 24 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 47 RBI, 50 walks, 10 HBP and 16 stolen bases in 124 games in his first full season in the minor leagues. He posted 39 multi-hit games, including 11 3-hit games and a season-high 4 hits on July 28 vs. Lancaster (4×4, 2 R, HR, RBI, SB).

Jackson was invited to the Arizona Fall League, where he struggled, hitting .149 in 17 games. But he was also working on some significant swing changes.

Jackson has plus speed and a huge arm. There are concerns about his consistency in fielding groundballs and footwork, leading to some opposing scouts to mention a future as a corner outfielder. But the Mariners won’t make any such move quickly without exhausting all of Jackson’s potential at shortstop. He’s simply too good of an athlete.