Among Mariners fans – at least those who have been around since before 2001 – one of the most infuriating positions to fill has been the left field position. The team has rotated dozens of players through the position in the past several decades, including three stints of Raul Ibanez – including the late-winter-of-his-career iteration the Mariners presently shove out there too often this season.
Raul Ibanez is so god damned old he’s almost into the second-spring of his career.
Another position of frequent change for the team, though, has been the third base position. Kyle Seager has been consistent and good for most of his Mariners career, and appears to be making gradual improvements both in terms of peripheral indicators and conventional results. He’s got a chance to be among the team’s all-time greats at the position, but that’s a group that has had a rocky history to this point.
Edgar Martinez looked poised to be one of the league’s best offensive third basemen ever in the early 1990s until injuries relegated him to the designated hitter position.
Mike Blowers played third base for the team until they traded him to the Dodgers in 1995 for Miguel Cairo (bleh) and Willis Ontanez. Cairo wouldn’t play for the team until they signed him in 2008, and at that point he’d go down as just another example of Bill Bavasi’s infuriating overvaluation of contact rates with no power or substantial plate discipline.
Blowers’ exit would signal the beginning of the Russ Davis Era. Davis came to Seattle in the trade that sent Tino Martinez to New York, and Davis was supposed to be the answer at third base. Once ranked the No. 26 prospect in baseball, instead, Davis was a passable hitter, but his defense disintegrated into some of the worst third base defense in the league. Davis was something of a Quad-A player before the term was en vogue. Davis would leave the team unceremoniously via free agency after the 1999 season.
Thus began David Bell‘s time in Seattle. Bell had been brought to Seattle to be something of a utility man – playing both second and third base proficiently on defense. Bell would hit 21 home runs in his first full season in Seattle, and then the team spent the rest of the time chasing the power dragon, as Bell’s power and health both deteriorated over the next two years, and after 2001 and parts of four seasons, Bell was traded to San Francisco for Desi Relaford.
In the 2001 offseason the Mariners would trade Brian Fuentes, Jose Paniagua, and Denny Stark for Jeff Cirillo. While Colorado’s haul turned out to be largely inconsequential save for some successful years from Brian Fuentes closing mostly meaningless games, the Rockies definitely won the trade. Cirillo’s defense was generally considered above average, but like many of his predecessors, Cirillo could never approach the offensive production he had become known for in Colorado. After two years that included consecutive wRC+ seasons of 74 and 53, and isolated power of .078 and .066 respectively, the Mariners traded Cirillo to the Padres for a package of nondescript organizational depth.
The beginning of 2004 signaled the beginning of a thankfully-short-lived run of awful facial hair at third base courtesy of Scott Spiezio. Spiezio was hardly the first player whose career should have been en route to involuntary retirement that the Mariners made a very wealthy man, and he certainly wasn’t the last. He’s definitely on the list, though.
Enter Adrian Beltre, and what appeared to be the fortuitous end to Mariners problems at third base, and the power outage that had plagued the team since they had moved into Safeco Field. Beltre’s career in Seattle was widely unappreciated for his inability to reproduce his amazing 2004 season in Los Angeles. Believe what you want to about the – (ahem) – legitimacy of Beltre’s 2004 season, park adjustments show Beltre as a functionally average offensive player with outstanding defense during his tenure with the Mariners, good for 16.3 fWAR over five seasons, good for a small value surplus over a contract that seemed like something of an overpay at the time it was signed.
When Beltre left in free agency after the 2009 season the Mariners signed Chone Figgins – only Figgins actually retired after the 2009 season, he just didn’t tell any big league teams. Figgins lacking effort and a one-season switch to second base, putting Jose Lopez at third, made for an over-analyzed, awful stretch of Figgins and Lopez manning the position.
Then the Mariners brought up a guy that used to play with Dustin Ackley, which is ostensibly the main reason the Mariners even knew about him. Kyle Seager had played second base with Ackley in center field and at first base. With Ackley’s eventual switch to second base, and Seager’s relative lack of likelihood to make the big club as a regular, he started to learn third base in the minors, though he played only 50 games at the position in three years of minor league action.
In 335 games of action in the big leagues to the point of this writing, he’s played only 31 games at either second base or shortstop. And while basically learning on the fly, Seager has been basically average defensively, while getting substantially better on offense. In 2013 he’s reduced his strikeout rate, increased his walk rate, and substantially increased his power.
The biggest knock on Seager – and the reason he lasted until the third round of the 2009 draft – was that his ceiling was relatively low. That remains true. There’s little precedent to believe that Seager will continue to improve his peripherals, and subsequently his results. That in mind, Seager ranks seventh in the big leagues in both wRC+ and WAR this year.
The way that Seager has achieved this though, isn’t through some huge spike in BABIP, HR/FB, or some weird spike in fielding value. He’s improved gradually, sustainably, and done nothing to indicate that this could be a mirage.
Edgar Martinez was primarily a third baseman from 1990-94. In that time he was worth 20.4 WAR. Beltre, as previously mentioned, was worth 16.3 WAR while playing almost exclusively third base. In about two-and-a-half seasons – if he hits rest of season ZiPs projections this season – Seager will have been worth 8.6 WAR.
The Mariners have Seager under control for four more seasons after 2013, and I’ve suggested on multiple occasions that the team should approach Seager about an extension. Seager already ranks high among Mariners third baseman in terms of career WAR, but if he’s going to become the Mariners best third baseman he’ll have to do it by way of longevity in all likelihood, rather than some inexplicable spike in production.