Vogelbach's struggles over the last 10 days forced the Mariners to change their mind on his locked in spot on the roster.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Daniel Vogelbach’s status on the Mariners’ 2017 opening day roster seemed to be a forgone conclusion based on everything the organization’s leadership, specifically general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, said this offseason. They viewed him as ready to make the next and large step from Class AAA to the big leagues in a platoon role at first base with veteran Danny Valencia.
On Thursday with 11 days until the season opener against the Astros at Minute Maid Park, the Mariners optioned Vogelbach to Class AAA Tacoma.
“I still feel Vogey will have a big impact on our season, but sending him to Tacoma to start season we feel is the best thing for him and the team,” Dipoto said.
The roster move was somewhat surprising given the optimism with which the Mariners discussed Vogelbach’s viability as a rookie starting for a team that had postseason aspirations. But based on how Vogelbach had performed this spring, particularly in his last 10-12 games, it also should have been expected. Vogelbach was hitting .228 (13-for-57) with a .313 on-base percentage and .333 slugging percentage with two doubles, a homer, five RBI. But he had struck out 19 times this spring — a trend that was uncharacteristic for him.
“It’s been a rough 10-day stretch for him and we just felt at this point with where he is both offensively and defensively, the best thing for him was to go back and start the season at Tacoma,” Dipoto said. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to finish the season in Tacoma. But we felt some of the adjustments and work we’ve asked him to do both defensively and in the batter’s box are a lot to expect. He put in a lot of work, but as we get closer to Opening Day it became apparent we weren’t seeing a product that is finished enough to feel great about starting the season.”
The current Mariners’ front office has shown similar restraint in the past, not wanting to push unprepared players to MLB competition.
“It’s just not wise,” Dipoto said. “This is very similar to what we did last year with Mike Zunino and James Paxton. We will take the appropriate time and care to make sure that when he comes to the big leagues, he’s polished enough in the areas that are important.”
Valencia will now serve as the every day first baseman instead of sharing the role in a platoon. He hasn’t exactly hit well this spring. His numbers are worse than Vogelbach’s. Valencia is batting .196 (9-for-46) with a .288 on-base percentage with three doubles, a homer and five RBI. But he also hit .287 with a .792 on-base plus slugging percentage, 22 doubles, a triple, 17 homers and 51 RBI in 130 games last season with the A’s. Over his last three seasons, he’s posted a .285 batting average with a .785 OPS.
“You can see Danny is a veteran player who came in and started slow and is now trending or cresting in the right direction at the right time,” Dipoto said. “And frankly, Vogey went in the other direction. He started out in a good place and has trended in the opposite direction.”
Valencia had been used as almost a strictly platoon player early in his career. But the last two seasons, his at-bats against right-handed pitchers have increased.
In 2015, he had 229 plate appearances against righties, hitting .285 (61-for-214) with an .881 OPS, 17 doubles, a triple, 13 homers and 39 RBI. In 2016, he had 373 plate appearances against right-handers with a .275 batting average (94-for-342) with a .742 OPS, 15 doubles, a triple, 10 homers and 32 RBI.
Valencia’s splits for his career vs. RHPs
“Danny has a real track record,” Dipoto said. “Over the last three seasons he’s really hit, both righties and lefties. We talked about that as one of his main attractions. The versatility. He’s pounded the lefties and over the last couple years he’s hit the righties as well. He’s transitioned to first quite well. He can really throw for a first baseman and here over the last week’s he’s actually started to pick it up., the barrel contact, he’s starting to swing the bat better.”
Valencia’s career numbers
The Mariners asked Vogelbach to do several things this offseason: trim down his frame, work on his agility and flexibility and improve his overall defense at first base. He did all those things in a relatively short time frame.
“I think the defense has gotten much much better,” Servais said. “I really do. Now is it to the point where we think it is Major League average or whatever? Probably a tick below, it’s not there yet. But I say that from where he was when we got him to the big leagues last September to where he’s at now, he’s made huge improvements. He’s still got more room to grow. And I think he understands that.”
While the defense had improved significantly, the offense — his best asset as a player — had grown into an issue. He struggled with his approach, looking overwhelmed at times. He was late on fastballs that he should’ve handled. The Mariners asked to be a little more aggressive on fastballs and it was something he struggled to do in recent weeks.
“Obviously the pitching has spiked up,” Servais said. “You are seeing guys get deeper in games, they are getting sharper, they are making good pitches. The at-bats, he certainly looked like he tried to get more aggressive and we talked about that — getting on the fastball. You’ve got to hit the fastball to survive in the league.”
Struggling to hit a fastball and incorporating it into his approach isn’t something that should have been an issue. But the strikeouts mounted in the last 10 days. It was clear he couldn’t work on that aspect at the big league level.
“When you are talking about a Major League player, it shouldn’t be that big of an adjustment,” Servais said. “When you are getting fastballs to hit, you should. Most guys can hit the fastball. But again, being a major league player, there’s going to be a lot of things that are thrown at you. Taking what you think works and what you want to try and put into your game without getting overly concisions and getting away from your game, that’s a maturity issue. Most of the guys at the big league level can handle that.”
Admittedly, placing such emphasis on Vogelbach’s defense could have had a negative effect on his offense. ‘
“Obviously we went into this camp asking him to make a lot of adjustments defensively,” Dipoto said. We did see a return. He was exponentially better than when he left in September. I can’t imagine he could have made more improvement in a short period of time than he did. But along the way, the last 10 days with the bat really slowed down. At some point, there has to be that carrying ability: what is going to get you on the field. You’re willing to live with a shortcoming if something else is overpowering it, but we weren’t seeing either one. I felt he’d been focused so much on one thing that the other was falling short.”
Vogelbach had cleaned out his locker and headed for the minor league side of the clubhouse earlier on Thursday and given the day off. He will start playing in minor league games on Friday.
“He’s not happy about the decision,” Servais said. “I get it, I understand players, their goals and where their mindset is. But tied to that is offensively it hasn’t been great the last couple of weeks — it’s fallen off with the strikeouts. That’s not who he really is. But it’s his first time and trying to win a job out of Major League camp, it’s the do-good league. You’ve heard me say that before you do good, it’s performance driven and we just weren’t comfortable with his. It wasn’t his time.”
Will the Mariners go out and search for a left-handed hitting first baseman to compliment Valencia? It doesn’t seem to be on their immediate agenda though Dipoto is constantly tweaking his roster. He’ll certainly look at possible options and players being designated for assignment in this final week. For now, Taylor Motter will serve as a back-up first baseman as part of his utility role. He’s looked solid at first base over the past few games.
“We knew this was a potential outcome,” Dipoto said. “We didn’t want it to be. We preferred the idea of going in with Vogey and Valencia. But there’s a reason we traded for Danny Valencia. We feel the depth of the team will allow us to do this and hopefully get Vogey back on the track he needs to be and this turns out to be more of a short-term thing. But he will determine that.”