General manager Jerry Dipoto looked at the 2015 Mariners' outfield as a weakness with poor defense and a lack of athleticism. To change that, he added Leonys Martin and Nori Aoki this past offseason.

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From the time Jerry Dipoto was hired on September 28, he lamented the lack of athleticism on the Mariners’ roster and how it needed to change. Later in the offseason, he got more specific to where those immediate changes needed to be made.

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

The Mariners were not good defensively in the outfield. Former GM Jack Zduriencik sacrificed defense, particularly at the corner outfield positions for offense and the hope of home runs. It’s not the most logical strategy considering the Mariners play 81 games in spacious Safeco Field with its huge outfield gaps and massive territory to cover.

Dipoto retooled the outfield, specifically bringing in Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin to be his every day left and center fielder, respectively.

“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.”

 

The past

Mariners left fielder Mark Trumbo misplays the pop by Texas’ Bobby Wilson in the second inning, allowing the ball to get behind him and letting two runs score on the play.   (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Mariners left fielder Mark Trumbo misplays the pop by Texas’ Bobby Wilson in the second inning, allowing the ball to get behind him and letting two runs score on the play. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Here are the outfielders on the Mariners’ opening day roster in 2015: Austin Jackson, Dustin Ackley, Rickie Weeks, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano and Nelson Cruz.

By the end of the season, Cruz and Smith were the only players left on the team.

The thinking going into the season was that Ackley and Weeks, who had never played in the outfield as a professional, would platoon in left field. Jackson would handle center. Ruggiano, Cruz and Smith would rotate some in right field with Cruz spending most of his time at designated hitter.

But that plan showed its flaws immediately

It became apparent in spring training that Weeks wasn’t very comfortable playing in left field.  By the time the season started, manager Lloyd McClendon also wasn’t completely comfortable playing him there in a regular season game.

Cruz started slowly in games where he was at designated hitter. With his bat coming alive in games when he played right field, McClendon wouldn’t mess with the success and used him in the outfield more than anticipated. Those decisions left Ruggiano out of the mix for playing time with McClendon choosing to give Weeks the at-bats at designated hitter against left-handed pitchers.

When Jackson went on the disabled list with an ankle sprain on May 4, McClendon planned to give Ruggiano the playing time he groused about to teammates. But after a couple of miscues in the outfield and Ruggiano’s complaints of elbow pain and later illness, McClendon went to Ackley in center field more during that span.

By the end of May, the Mariners’ offense was slumping. Obviously, Robinson Cano’s struggles were a huge reason. But to that point, Ackley was hitting .188 with a .555 OPS, Ruggiano was hitting .190, but did have a .301 on-base percentage. Weeks was hitting .183 with a .586 OPS and Jackson was hitting .236 with a .578 OPS.

In the search for a boost to kickstart the offense, Zduriencik made a trade on June 3 to acquire Mark Trumbo from the Diamondbacks. To make room for Trumbo on the roster, it was Ruggiano, not Weeks, that was designated for assignment.

McClendon wanted to keep Weeks’ because of his positive clubhouse presence and really believed the hitting would come around against left-handed pitching. Like in past seasons in Tampa and Miami, Ruggiano had managed to put himself in the manager’s doghouse. When he wasn’t claimed off waivers, he opted to take an outright assignment to guarantee his $2.5 million salary. Ruggiano then told the Mariners that he needed treatment for his ailing elbow and would need to miss at least a month, if not two, to recover. He missed two weeks and reported to Class AAA Tacoma. But there was little chance he would return regardless of the circumstances.

Weeks’ tenure with the Mariners didn’t last much longer. With the 25-man roster a mess and little flexibility, he was designated for assignment on June 13. He wasn’t claimed on waivers and didn’t play again in 2015.

The Mariners were left with Jackson, Trumbo, Cruz and Smith in the outfield with Ackley seeing occasional playing time.

On June 24, the team called up Franklin Gutierrez to serve as bench player and platoon player for left field. Gutierrez had torn up Class AAA pitching and had finally found a maintenance plan for dealing with his ankylosing spondylitis.

With the team out of contention by the trade deadline, Zduriencik sent the slumping Ackley – his former No. 2 overall draft pick in 2009 – to the Yankees. On August 31, Jackson was dealt to the Cubs.

Cruz was forced to DH the final 21 games of the season after straining his quad running the bases.

The final month of the season featured Miller, who converted to outfield in season, utility player Shawn O’Malley, James Jones and even Stefen Romero starting games in the center field.

The positives?

Gutierrez was outstanding in his new part-time role, hitting .292 (50-for-171) with, 11 doubles, 15 home runs, 35 RBI with a .620 slugging percentage in 59 games. His 11.40 AB/HR ratio was the second-best AB/HR ratio in MLB behind Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton (10.33).

Cruz, though the Mariners would’ve liked him to DH more, still had a monster season.  He hit .302 (178-for-590) with  22 doubles, a triple, 44 home runs, 93 RBI, a .369 on-base percentage & .566 slugging percentage in 152 games. He had 27 go-ahead RBI and 14 game-winning RBI while hitting .291 (43-for-148) with an .877 OPS with runners in scoring position.

Smith played near an expected level, hitting .255 (88-for-399) with an .805 OPS, 27 doubles, five triples, 11 homers and 38 RBI against right-handed pitchers.

The bad?

The Mariners’ outfield defense was abysmal. They hemorrhaged runs because of inexperience, lack of athleticism, poor throwing and poor roster construction. And it was predictable looking at the players’ past history. Jackson’s defense was average with a subpar throwing arm. Ackley had improved, but still had awful throwing arm. Miller was a converted outfielder that was trying to learn on the job. Gutierrez was no longer the graceful, defensive force in the outfield. His legs and speed had been sapped by injuries and he was limited to corner outfield spots. Trumbo has never been a good defensive outfielder and that didn’t change in Seattle Cruz was below average but serviceable considering his offensive output.

Look at the metric of defensive runs above average, defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR)

 

The present

Dipoto’s slash and burn of the Mariners’ 40-man roster wasn’t unexpected. He wanted athleticism and quality defense, hardly descriptors of the 2015 outfield.

The most important move was to find an every day center fielder that could get play defense. Instead of giving up the team’s No. 11 draft pick by signing Dexter Fowler or investing in Denard Span, Dipoto acquired Martin from the Rangers in a five-player deal that included center fielder James Jones going to Texas.

Martin was the Rangers opening day center fielder in 2015. But he struggled at the plate and lost his job to Delino DeShields. Martin was hitting .220 with a .265 OBP when the Rangers optioned him to Class AAA Round Rock on August 3. Martin then suffered a broken hamate bone on August 13. He underwent surgery to remove the bone. He returned for one game on Sept. 28, but was left off the postseason roster. Frustrated, he refused to report to the Arizona Fall League.

Martin is considered a plus defender by all metrics including UZR and DRS. He has outstanding range with a cannon for an arm.

“He went down and had a terrific month-long run in the Dominican Winter League with Del Licey,” Dipoto said. “He’s showing all the reasons why we went out and got him, playing good defense, he can really throw and he swung the bat. He hit lefties, I think he hit .360 through the course, his foray through the Dominican Round-Robin.”

Dipoto also brought back Gutierrez, something he made clear that he wanted to do, on a one-year deal to serve as a platoon partner with Smith.

The last move was to sign Nori Aoki to a free agent contract. Aoki will serve as the every day left fielder and back-up center fielder to Martin.

By metrics, Aoki is about average, particularly in the corner spots. When you watch him on a daily basis, it can look like a bit of an adventure. But in comparison to past Mariners’ outfielders, he seems like Gold Glover. Aoki was brought on for his approach at the plate and ability to get on base. He’s a career .287 hitter with a .353 OBP. He can bat near the top of the lineup.

The plan is for Aoki to be in left, Martin to start in center most days and getting days off against tough left-handed pitchers and Gutierrez and Smith to platoon in right field with Cruz getting an occasional start there.

Manager Scott Servais will give Cruz some playing time in right field, but wouldn’t commit to a number of games.

“Obviously, Nelson’s a big part of our lineup,” Servais said. “The goal is to keep him in the lineup for 155 games. I know we have 162 games. He’s going to need a few days off, I get that, but we want to be able to put him in the lineup now. Last year, he played a little bit more right field than he did the year before in Baltimore. My time with Nelson was in Texas and Nelson had a tough time with injuries in Texas. He had some leg injuries. He’s changed his routine and what he does to stay healthy, but for me, he’s going to get plenty of time in the outfield. Is it going to be a little less, a little bit more? I do know we have other options to play out there too between Aoki and the guys that we’ve got platooning in left field between Guti and Seth Smith.”

Servais didn’t seem surprised by Cruz’s splits last season when plyaing in the field vs. designated hitter.

He believes that part of it is finding the right routine between at-bats as DH. He’s hoping hitting coach Edgar Martinez, the most successful DH of all time, can help Cruz with that adjustment.

 

The future

A shoulder injury has hampered Mariners minor leaguer Alex Jackson, the team’s first-round pick in 2014.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
A shoulder injury has hampered Mariners minor leaguer Alex Jackson, the team’s first-round pick in 2014. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Of the Mariners’ top outfield prospects from Baseball America, only Boog Powell, who is on the 40-man roster, is headed to big league spring training.

Powell was acquired in the six-player trade with the Rays. The Mariners believe he could  to be their center fielder of the future in two or three seasons. Some opposing scouts believe he projects more as a quality fourth outfielder with his ability to play all three outfield spots. Dipoto likes his ability to get on base and his athleticism.

“We like what Boog brings to our future, and the versatility that he provides,” Dipoto said. “The great likelihood is that Boog either makes our team as an extra outfielder or starts the season in Tacoma. It’s a great opportunity for him to get his at-bats regularly. He started last season in AA and for him to have made the progress that he did, finished, played a half a season in AAA, comes in to a new organization that values what he does, and we’re going to give him a chance to do it. Leonys will play centerfield as a starter.”

Stefen Romero is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. He will vie for the back-up first base job. But his versatility to play both corner outfield spots and some infield is a plus for him. He could be one of the first injury call-ups if he doesn’t make the opening day roster. He’s proven he can hit at the Class AAA level, but has never really gotten consistent at-bats at the big league level.

Veterans Dan Robertson and Mike Baxter have MLB experience and will be in camp on spring training invites. They will provide depth at Class AAA level. Dario Pizzano was rewarded with a camp invite after a solid, but abbreviated showing with Class AA Jackson. Pizzano hit .308 with 13 doubles, four triples, four homers and 33 RBI in 58 games. It included a  25-game hitting streak. A hand injury ended his season on June 25.

Alex Jackson, the Mariners’ top prospect, and Tyler O’Neill, the No. 4 prospect, weren’t going to get camp invites. Jackson struggled with injuries and adjusting to his first full season of professional baseball. He’ll likely start the season at either Class A Clinton or Class A Bakersfield. O’Neill put up monster numbers with Bakersfield last season, hitting .260 (106-for-407) with 21 doubles, two triples, 32 home runs and 87 RBI. He’ll likely be in Jackson to start the season.

Braden Bishop, a third-round pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Washington, put up decent numbers with Class A Everett, hitting .320 (70-for-219) with 34 runs scored, eight doubles, a triple, two home runs, 22 RBI  and 13 stolen bases in 56 games. He is expected to start with a full season team in 2016.