The Mariners continued quest to get more athletic and better defensively in the outfield took a major step this offseason with the acquisition of Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger

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Similar to some of the “resolutionaries” in your local gym for the first few weeks of January, the Mariners set a goal of becoming faster and more athletic with their roster the last two offseasons.

For general manager Jerry Dipoto, that plan was partially met with minimal improvement in 2016. But going into this season, the Mariners are poised to have one of their most athletic and best defensive outfields in recent memory.

Then again, looking back at the previous regime of general manager Jack Zduriencik, there didn’t seem to be a major emphasis on outfield defense after the 2010 season.

Think about this: In 2015, the Mariners started a game with Mark Trumbo in left field, Austin Jackson in centerfield and Nelson Cruz in right field five different times. The outfield defense options that season on a roster put together by Zduriencik and forced upon manager Lloyd McClendon were absurd.

M's position previews

Here’s the list of players that started games in the outfield in 2015

 

Left Field

  • Seth Smith 51, Dustin Ackley 36, Franklin Gutierrez 36, Mark Trumbo 12, Rickie Weeks 10, Brad Miller 9, Willie Bloomquist 3, Justin Ruggiano 3, Shawn O’Malley 1, Logan Morrison 1

Center Field

  • Austin Jackson 99, Brad Miller 20, Dustin Ackley 16, Shawn O’Malley 10, Justin Ruggiano 8, James Jones 6, Ketel Marte 2, Stefen Romero 1

Right Field

  • Nelson Cruz 80, Seth Smith 40, Mark Trumbo 30, Stefen Romero 4, Justin Ruggiano 4, Willie Bloomquist 1, Brad Miller 1, Shawn O’Malley 1, Logan Morrison 1

 

Not surprisingly that large collection of below average defenders resulted in a -46 defensive runs saved — the worst in the American League and a -22.7 Ultimate Zone Rating — second worst in the AL.

Of that group, there were four converted infielders — Ackley, Weeks, Miller and Marte — making starts. That conversion process for Weeks, Miller and Marte happened in the midst of the 2015 season. Both O’Malley and Bloomquist, while infielders coming up, were utility players with outfield experience.

Trumbo, a midseason acquisition, has never had a true position since being forced from first base with the Angels. The Mariners knew it and he was a horrible fit for a roster that had about six first base/designated hitter types. But in slowpitch softball style, they pieced some guys into the outfield and tried to make it work.

It didn’t.

Will the multiple changes that Dipoto made this offseason lead to better overall defense and run prevention in an already improved outfield in 2016? On paper, it seems like it should work. And given the spacious outfield of Safeco Field and three other AL West Parks, it seems needed.

Here’s the preview for the Mariners’ outfield going into 2017 spring training.

 

 

The Past

Mariners center fielder Norichika Aoki gets hit with a pitch. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Mariners center fielder Norichika Aoki gets hit with a pitch. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Without mocking the mess he inherited from Zduriencik, Dipoto was frank about the roster he was overtaking going into 2016 when it came to outfield defense.

“We need to be more athletic in the outfield,” he told reporters at the GM meetings in that first offseason. “We need to cover ground a little bit better than we have the last couple of years, particularly last year.”

He preached about the need for building a roster to better fit playing 81 games at Safeco and AL West games in Oakland, Anaheim and even Texas and Houston.

“We talked about being more athletic in the outfield and I believe we are,” Dipoto said. “We talked about better acclimating a ballclub to Safeco Field, and I believe that we’ve done that.”

Dipoto made three moves to set up his outfield for the 2016 season. He re-signed Franklin Gutierrez to a one-year contract. Gutierrez was coming off a monster year in a bench/platoon role, having hit .292 (50-for-171) with 11 doubles, 15 home runs, 35 RBI with a .620 slugging percentage in 59 games.

Dipoto picked up a starting left fielder in free agency, signing veteran outfielder Nori Aoki to a one-year contract with a vesting option for a second. During his time with the Brewers, Royals and Giants, Aoki had been highly consistent, posting a slash line near .285/.350/.380 each of his first four seasons. He would play left field daily and lead off.

Perhaps Dipoto’s best move of last offseason was the acquisition of centerfielder Leonys Martin from the Rangers in a five-player trade. Martin, who had fallen out of favor with Texas and struggled with his approach at the plate, was still the best defensive centerfielder that the Mariners would start since Gutierrez’s last fully healthy seasons in 2009-2010.

With a platoon of Gutierrez/Seth Smith in right field, Martin in center, Aoki in left, the need for Nelson Cruz to play in outfield would be lessened and therefore keep him healthy.

Dipoto’s plan worked with some success. But there were faults.

Aoki was awful at the leadoff spot early in the season and circus in left field. The defensive issues weren’t completely unexpected. He’d always been a bit of an adventure on fly balls. Teams overlooked it because of his effectiveness at the plate. But Aoki started off slow and was striking out an alarming rate, posting a .298 on-base percentage in the first month of the season. He also was a failure in stealing bases, getting thrown out three times for every stolen base.

A hot month of May from Aoki coincided with the one of Mariners’ best stretches baseball in the season. But more struggles in June and unexpected troubles with lefty pitchers forced the Mariners to re-examine their day-to-day lineups. Aoki was eventually optioned to Class AAA Tacoma in late June to work on some issues with his swing.

Aoki returned to the Mariners and was limited to more of a platoon role. He hit well down the stretch and was key in the final month of the season when the Mariners made a late charge for the wild card.

Meanwhile, the right field platoon had periods of production. Smith hit for more power than expected with seven doubles, 11 homers and an .816 OPS before the All-Star break.

He finished the year, hitting .249 (94-for-378) with 62 runs, 15 doubles, 16 home runs and 63 RBI in 137 games. He was also very effective with men on base, hitting .326 (28-for-86) with a double, eight home runs and 50 RBI with runners in scoring position.

Gutierrez started off slowly in April and picked it up in May and June with nine homers and 22 RBI. He wasn’t quite as effective with runners in scoring position as in 2015. But the bigger issue was in the field. He’d regressed into a liability, unable to cover ground. Any ball that wasn’t hit near him and forced him to his left or right or back for a menial distance was a struggle to get to. It was depressing to see the former Gold Glover and one of the most graceful outfielders to wear a Mariners’ uniform relegated to into a burden for pitchers.

Martin was as expected in the outfield, making brilliant catches and covering an exorbitant amount of ground. The Mariners needed it given their corner outfielders, none of which were fleet of foot. Martin’s importance on defense became highlighted when he suffered a pulled hamstring while stealing second base on May 25 against the A’s.

He would miss 14 games and the Mariners went 5-9 in that span. Aoki started 13 games and Shawn O’Malley started one game. The drop-off was significant. Aoki simply couldn’t get to catchable balls. Because of his struggles reading fly balls off the bat and going back on hard hit balls, he was forced to play deeper than the average center fielder. It led to a score of balls dropping in front of him for singles and runs.

It was clear that when Martin returned from the disabled list, even though his hamstring was about 80 percent, he would have start in centerfield in almost every game for the rest of the season.

“Last year when we lost Leonys Martin, we didn’t really have a centerfielder, somebody who could pop in there,” manager Scott Servais said.

It was a bit of a breakout season for Martin at the plate. Known to be a strikeout waiting for a plate appearance, Martin had extended periods of a more controlled approach at the plate. He also showed unexpected power. He hit .247 (128-for-518) with 72 runs, 17 doubles, three triples, 15 home runs, 47 RBI and 24 stolen bases in 143 games. He recorded single-season career-highs in runs with 72 (previous: 68, 2014), home runs with 15 (previous: 8, 2013), walks with 44 (previous: 39, 2014), total bases with 196 (previous: 194, 2014) and strikeouts with 149 (previous: 114, 2014). He was one of just four center fielders in MLB to record at least 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases — the others were Ian Desmond, Mike Trout and Odubel Herrera.

Perhaps the best the Mariners’ outfield looked was in September when they were able to use Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel as late game defensive replacements in the corners.

Heredia was a free agent defector out of Cuba, who signed with Seattle in spring training after a two-year hiatus from baseball. He started the season in Class AA Jackson and worked his way up to the big leagues. Not known as much of a hitter in his playing days in Cuba, he handled the bat better than expected while showing the high level defense that scouts expected.

Gamel, who was acquired on Aug. 31 from the Yankees, would end up winning the International League Most Valuable player after hitting .308 (149-for-483) with 26 doubles, 6 home runs, 51 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 116 games with AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He played in 27 games with Seattle mostly as a defensive replacement.

“In September, when we had the extra players, you saw maneuvering late in games when we had leads and putting some of those younger guys in the game just to cover more ground, especially at Safeco,” Servais said.

From a defensive standpoint, here’s how the Mariners fared by advanced metrics.

Defensive WAR from Fangraphs

And runs saved from Baseball Reference

 

 

The Present

The Mariners new leadoff hitter Jarrod Dyson points out his new team (he did this on his own) and the “S” could also stand for speed as he’s expected to be a base-stealing threat.

The annual Mariners FanFest at Safeco Field.
Saturday Jan. 28, 2017
The Mariners new leadoff hitter Jarrod Dyson points out his new team (he did this on his own) and the “S” could also stand for speed as he’s expected to be a base-stealing threat. The annual Mariners FanFest at Safeco Field. Saturday Jan. 28, 2017

The moves the Mariners made before the 2016 gave them an outfield that was moderately athletic, anchored mostly by Martin.

But the moves made this offseason give them an outfield that could be described as ultra-athletic, adding Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger to Martin in the projected outfield.

“Yeah, we’ve talked since Jerry and I got here about getting more athletic,” Servais said. “Last year we thought we had made some strides to do that. Didn’t work out maybe the way we originally planned it would. We were taking another shot at it with Jarrod Dyson and then Haniger. We’ve still got obviously Leonys Martin so we’ve got guys that can do more things.”

Now, Martin won’t have a left fielder that is a 50-50 proposition on balls that are deemed semi-difficult to catch and aging platoon with limited range in right field.

While the acquisition of shortstop Jean Segura headlined the five-player trade made the night before Thanksgiving, the addition of Haniger in the return was vital for the Mariners. He was brought in to be the every day right fielder.

“For us, Haniger became a critical element of the trade,” Dipoto said. “We like the player. We like the upside. We like his physicality.”

He had a breakout season in 2016, earning the organization’s minor league player of the year honors. In 129 games combined between Class AA Mobile and Class AAA Reno, he hit .321 (147-for-458) with a .999 on-base plus slugging percentage, 34 doubles, five triples, 25 home runs, 94 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 129 games.

Dyson was acquired later in the offseason. A fourth outfielder for the Royals, he will start most days in left field and be given the chance to leadoff. On days when a tough left-handed starting pitcher is on the mound, Servais will use a right-handed hitting option. He brings elite speed to the outfield and the basepaths.

“Dyson brings a lot of things to our club, obviously athleticism and he can fly, probably be one of the more aggressive base stealers in the league,” Servais said. “He has been primarily a platoon player. He’s played basically just against right-handed pitching. He will get some opportunity against lefties with us but we’ll probably use against the righties. Going into camp, I want to see if he can handle the lead-off spot. The lead-off spot as you know is driven by on-base percentage. You got to get on base before the middle of the lineup gets up there. He had a really good year last year, the last few years getting on base. That’s the plan.”

Dyson was a fan favorite in Kansas City. He has a fun loving attitude, but also a noticeable intensity and swagger on the field. His aggressive nature isn’t just limited to base running.

“The other thing he brings is real personality,” Servais said. “I think you guys will enjoy interviewing him. There will be some quotes and some things that come out of his mouth that you never heard before. He enjoys that part of the game and I enjoy it because he does have personality and he’ll bring some edge to our team. He’s a guy that will be chirping in the dugout, maybe at the umpire, maybe at the other team, maybe at some of his own teammates, and you need to have those guys.”

Both Dyson and Haniger can play centerfield at a high level, which will allow Servais to give Martin a day off from time to time. On paper, those three give Seattle a level of defense in the outfield that has been non-existent in recent years.

“We feel like we should have one of the most athletic and best defensive outfields in the league with the addition of Jarrod Dyson along with Mitch Haniger to play alongside Leonys,” Dipoto said. “With Gamel and Heredia providing depth, we feel like that gives us five centerfielders roaming the outfield which was part of the original plan.”

It’s unlikely that the Mariners can keep both Gamel and Heredia on the opening day roster. They will battle it out for the fourth outfield spot. But something to keep in mind is that Danny Valencia can also play both corner outfield spots at a decent level, which gives the Mariners some options based on the day’s starting pitcher.

“The big thing we thought, what’s the value of being athletic?” Servais said. “It’s just a lot of winning games in different ways, not so reliant on the home run or the big doubles to get you over it. It helps in run prevention, it helps creating more havoc on the bases and being less comfortable to play against and I want us to be uncomfortable to other teams. That’s the goal here.”

 

The Future

Mariners first-round draft pick, Everett AquaSox outfielder Kyle Lewis, warms up before a game against Spokane, Sunday, July 10, 2016, in Everett.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Mariners first-round draft pick, Everett AquaSox outfielder Kyle Lewis, warms up before a game against Spokane, Sunday, July 10, 2016, in Everett. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The Mariners’ top two prospects are both outfielders. But their expected debut dates are slightly different. Kyle Lewis, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2016, has moved ahead of Tyler O’Neill in most prospect ranking lists. But it’s O’Neill, who is on the verge of his big league debut.

O’Neill received an invitation to big league spring as a non-roster player. It’s a big step in his career progression. The plan is for him to start at Class AAA Tacoma this season.

“It’s going to be great to play in Tacoma,” he said. “I’m ready for the next level. I was really hoping for the (invite) this year. I felt like I deserved it. It’s really good to be recognized for my accomplishments. I’m going to go to camp and do my best.”

O’Neill won the Southern League player of the year at age 21, hitting .293 with 26 doubles, four triples, 24 homers and 102 RBI in 130 game for Class AA Jackson.

“He’s a special player,” director of player development Andy McKay said. “The numbers speak for themselves. But there’s so many things about Tyler that are more exciting than the numbers. He bought into what we asked as much as anybody. He handled a lot this past year and stood up. I’m a big fan. There’s a lot of substance behind those numbers.”

If O’Neill plays well in Tacoma, he could push himself to the big leagues by the end of July.

Lewis is still recovering from season-ending knee surgery after suffering a gruesome injury sliding into home for Short-season Everett last July. He underwent surgery on Aug. 11 to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn medial and lateral meniscus. He moved to Peoria, Arizona so he could rehab the knee at the team’s complex.

Lewis came to Mariners’ FanFest and was excited about the progress.

“I feel great,” he said. “The knee is coming along nicely. I’ve been checking all my boxes and making all my progressions. I’m right on track to where I want to be and where I’m scheduled to be. I trust my trainers and I’m taking it slow and not trying to rush anything.”

Lewis has been doing some light exercises and is projected to return around the middle of July.

“He looks great,” McKay said. “His mindset is tremendous. He’s in good spirits and has the smile on his face, like he always does, and is working hard. But it was a massive injury he sustained. I would expect sometime around the All-Star break you’ll see him competing with a full-season club.”