The Mariners will employ another platoon at first base this season. Will it yield better results than the platoon in 2016?
Another year, another season in which the Mariners find themselves pushing/praying for more production from first base. Some form of this sentiment has been mentioned, typed, advocated for or lamented often since the days of John Olerud.
In years past, the hope was to find an everyday first baseman that could provide the stereotypical power production and runs driven in associated with the position. The illustrious names of Russell Branyan, Casey Kotchman, Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison all come to mind. Branyan did have one solid year in 2009. But the performances have been so forgettable it makes fans yearn for the days of Richmond Lockwood Sexson. OK, maybe it hasn’t quite reached that extreme, but it has been a source of lingering frustration. Look at the numbers from the first basemen since 2000, compiled by Baseball Reference.
The new regime under general manager Jerry Dipoto went a slightly different route in 2016, rolling out a platoon of Adam Lind and Dae-Ho Lee for much of last season that yielded average results. Mariners’ first baseman graded out to a -0.5 in Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement measure, which ranked 12th out of 15 American League teams, just ahead of the Astros, Yankees and Athletics.
The Mariners are set to employ another platoon of sorts this season. Will the combination of rookie Daniel Vogelbach and veteran Danny Valencia provide the production needed at the plate, while also being adequate defensively not to lose games?
A year ago, the Mariners went into spring training believing they had a proven producer for the left-handed hitting portion of the platoon in Lind. He was a player they identified early in the offseason and went about pursuing. They were more than willing to trade Mark Trumbo to the Orioles for next to nothing to use his projected arbitration salary to pay Lind for the 2016 season.
Everything about Lind’s career track said he should have had success in that role. He was coming off a solid 2015 season in which he hit .277 with an .820 on-base plus slugging, 32 doubles, 20 homers and 87 RBI. Coming into 2016, he had hit .293 with an .863 OPS in more than 3,000 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers.
The bigger question in spring would be the right-handed hitting portion of the platoon. The Mariners had to decide between Jesus Montero, who was out of minor league options, Stefen Romero, who had never translated Class AAA success to the big league level and Lee, who was somewhat of an unknown quantity, having spent his entire career in Korea while looking, well, more slovenly than slugger-like in build.
Romero showed flashes of potential in the spring, hitting .357 and playing better than expected at first base. But since he had a minor league option, it gave the Mariners the flexibility to start him in Tacoma and get him more time at first base if needed.
Montero was a feel good story during the 2015 spring, having shed more than 40 pounds off his frame. He had noticeably put back on at least 20 of those pounds before last spring. His approach still was lacking and he didn’t hit enough in Cactus League games to really give himself much of a chance to win the job. He was designated for assignment on March 27 and claimed a day later off waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays.
The decision to keep Lee seemed like a process of elimination from less-than-optimal choices. Privately, the Mariners weren’t certain how Lee would fare against big league velocity. His bat looked slow in Cactus League games and his only homer came on an 81 mph fastball. There was some thought Lee might only make it a month or two before the Mariners were forced to make a move to bring up Romero or trade for a right-handed bat.
Seattle broke camp with a platoon of Lind and Lee on the opening day roster. Neither were particularly good defensive first basemen nor good baserunners because of obvious physical limitations. The hope was that they could provide enough production to offset those flaws.
The platoon didn’t yield quite the expected results.
The first baseman, who was supposed to hit, didn’t, at least not right away. And the first basemen, who many people didn’t expect to hit, provided surprising production early on only to fall victim to big league pitchers adjusting to obvious flaws.
If you combine the numbers of Lind and Lee, it seems like decent production.
But that doesn’t really tell the entire story. Lind was awful early in the season and frustratingly streaky throughout. His early struggles led to him abandoning his on-base approach and hacking like Mariners’ first basemen of the past. In a contract season, Lind panicked with the slow start and made things worse.
He was able to slowly work out of the funk and provide some memorable homers, including two walk-off homers and some big multi-extra base hit games. But Lind would never provide consistent, dependable production for the season. Of the 58 runs that Lind drove in on the season, 30 of them came in eight total games. From June 1 – July 31, he hit .194 (25-for-129) with a .683 OPS, six doubles, nine home runs and 20 RBI in 42 games.
He would finish with a .286 on-base percentage – his worst showing since 2007. And his 26 walks were his least amount drawn since that same 2007 season where he played just 89 games.
With his girth and quirky personality and a translator that seemed to not speak English or Korean with any aplomb, Lee became a bit of a cult hero amongst Mariners fans.
His walk-off homer on a 99-mph fastball from Texas lefty Jake Diekman on April 12 to snap the Mariners’ five-game, home losing streak to start the season fueled the lore.
At age 34, Lee understood how to work himself into fastball counts. Preliminary scouting by opposing teams in the spring noted that he struggled to handle quality, mid-90s fastballs. But Lee had an answer to those scouting reports — he cheated fastballs by looking for them and swinging early. It’s an approach that worked early on.
Going into the All-Star break, Lee was hitting .288 (51-for-177) with an .884 OPS, four doubles, 12 homers and 37 RBI in 64 games.
But teams slowly started to adjust to Lee’s approach. They saw him cheating fastballs and countered with breaking stuff in fastball situations. Lee also didn’t hit breaking pitches with much authority, so pitchers continued to use them to get ahead in counts early or coax soft contact.
In the first 20 games out of the break, he hit .109 (6-for-55) with a .446 OPS, two doubles, a homer and 20 strikeouts. The Mariners sent him to Class AAA Tacoma to rework some issues. He came back and was more productive, hitting .298 (17-for-57) with a .748 OPS in the final 19 games of the season.
It was at midseason where the Mariners made the move to acquire Vogelbach from the Cubs along with pitcher Paul Blackburn in exchange for lefty Mike Montgomery. With both Lind and Lee free agents at the end of the season and no real impetus to bring either back for 2017 and no player in the minor league system ready to take over the position, Dipoto traded for Vogelbach to be the first baseman of the future.
Vogelbach had put up impressive numbers in the Cubs minor league system, but was blocked by all-star and future MVP Anthony Rizzo at first base. The Mariners loved Vogelbach’s mature approach at the plate, understanding of the strike zone and power potential. The first impression of a non-athletic frame and defense that accentuated the notion wasn’t enough to scare the Mariners away. In 89 games with Class AAA Iowa, he hit .318 (97-for-305) with 18 doubles, two triples, 16 home runs, 64 RBI, a .425 OBP and a .548 slugging percentage. After the trade, he played in 44 games with Tacoma, hitting .240 with seven doubles, seven homers, 32 RBI, a .404 OBP and .422 slugging percentage. He earned a September call-up and played in a handful of games, going 1-for-12. He spent much of his time at the big league level working with Tim Bogar before games on his defensive fundamentals around first base It’s something that would be a focus going into the offseason and beyond.
The Mariners go into spring training with the first base position set up for a platoon of sorts with the left-handed hitting Vogelbach and the right-handed hitting Valencia. Seattle looked at Mike Napoli on the free agent market, but wasn’t inclined to yield to demands for a multi-year deal. Once Valencia was acquired, Napoli was no longer an option.
The organization also believed that Vogelbach was deserving of a chance. It’s why they acquired him. And they felt like there was nothing left for him to prove in the minor leagues.
“Vogy can hit,” Dipoto said. “He’s done everything you can do at the minor league levels. He’s been great at every level. At some point you have to give guys an opportunity to break through.”
Both Dipoto and Servais have been careful not to label it a straight platoon that way they aren’t locked into set roles, but it seems unlikely that Vogelbach will be facing too many left-handed pitchers given how well Valencia hits them.
Valencia is a known commodity in a lot of ways. He’s proven that he mashes left-handed pitchers in the past, but has also blossomed into a more complete hitter over the past few years.
“Going and playing in Toronto was probably one of the best things that’s happened to me,” he said. “I was able to work with hitters that I could see myself wanting to hit like. Jose Bautista helped me out a lot. I watched him day in and day out, picked his brain and some things I took from him: his preparation and his mechanics. I tried to implement them into my own swing. Luckily enough, I’ve seen the results. It’s enabled me to step my game up and show I can play against lefties and righties as well.”
Valencia hit .318 (41-for-129) with a .934 OPS, seven doubles, seven homers and 19 RBI vs. lefties last season with the A’s, while hitting .275 (94-for-342) with a .742 OPS, 15 doubles, a triple and 10 homers with 32 RBI vs. right-handed pitchers.
With his ability to play the two corner outfield spots and both corner infield spots, he could see a career-high in plate appearances this season.
“He’s been more of a neutral splits guy the last couple of years,” Dipoto said. “It’s something he’s focused on. Last year, he had 500-plus plate appearances. We envision a similar type of workload.”
What the Mariners will get from Vogelbach is still an unknown despite their persistent optimism and complimentary comments about his readiness. Much is expected from him. Publicly, the Mariners have admitted that Vogelbach’s defense, which has never been average, is their main concern. They asked him to spend this offseason working on his fundamentals and footwork around the bag and on groundballs, while also improving on his agility, flexibility while getting leaner and adding strength. It’s not a small checklist.
The Mariners are convinced that Vogelbach will hit, or at least that’s the organizational line going into spring.
“Vogelbach, he’s a proven hitter at the minor league level, there’s no doubt,” Servais said. “He controls the strike zone. He’s got power. He is a hitter. I think what we’re looking to see from him is can he be a Major League caliber defender at first base? I’m not talking about Gold Glove defender, just major league caliber defender at first base. It’s really important. I think first base defense goes overlooked at times. You really pick up the other infielders whether it’s balls that rein the dirt or just being able to make the plays over there. He’s working his tail off but he knows. He knows that’s the one thing that could hold him back. We’ll see how he does in spring training.”
It seems unlikely that a slow spring from Vogelbach would scuttle the preseason plans. But if he were to struggle early, the logical assumption would be to have Valencia take over as the full-time first baseman. The Mariners would then shift the roster accordingly, possibly adding another utility player instead.
Seattle doesn’t really have another left-handed hitting first baseman to assume a platoon role. Left-handed hitting Kyle Waldrop, who was signed to a minor league deal with an invite to spring this offseason, has played some first base. He appeared briefly with the Reds last season, hitting .227 in 15 games. He spent most of last season with Class AAA Louisville, hitting .252 with 21 doubles, five homers and 27 RBI.
Out of minor league options and unlikely to make the team with Valencia being acquired, Romero asked for his release so he could sign to play in Japan.
In looking at the Mariners’ 40-man roster and minor league system, Vogelbach is the future. He replaced D.J. Peterson, who once held the title, but played his way out of that projection.
Peterson, a first round pick in 2013 , was placed on the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from being taken in the Rule 5 draft. It was a sign that the organization hasn’t completely given up on him.
“At the end of day, we had the space,” Dipoto said. “We don’t think he’s played his best baseball. We wanted to give him a chance to stay in the organization and see what he can do.”
After scuffling for the 2015 season, Peterson did post somewhat of a bounce-back season in 2016.
He hit .264 (120-for-455) with a .782 OPS, 28 doubles, a triple, 19 home runs, 78 RBI in 119 games combined between AA Jackson and AAA Tacoma. He reached base in 90 of those games. The numbers with the Rainiers weren’t overwhelming. He hit .253 with seven doubles, a triple, eight homers and 35 RBI in 46 games. His season was cut short after suffering a broken finger on his left hand on August 23. He is projected to be with the Rainiers at the start of the season. It will be pivotal year in his baseball career.
Beyond Peterson, the Mariners first base situation gets a little thin. There isn’t another upper level player in the organization that fits that role. Patrick Kivlehan was traded, reacquired and then lost on a waivers claim after being designated for assignment. Seattle acquired Richie Shaffer in a trade from the Rays, but later lost him on a waivers claim after also designating him for assignment.
*** Embedded stats from Baseball Reference