Embracing the platoon to fix the Mariners 1B/DH issues

Since the last day the Mariners fielded a team that included John Olerud the team has struggled to find a consistent, long-term option at first base. They signed Richie Sexson in 2005, and he hit 76 home runs in his first two seasons with the Mariners, and was good for 6.6 WAR in those two seasons.

Since 2006, the Mariners have received only 1.3 WAR from first base combined. That’s the worst in baseball over that period. Their 0.0 WAR at Designated Hitter since then, the worst of all American League teams.

The Mariners have had offensive issues for years, and for years the sabermetric community has been against the Mariners spending huge money at first base and DH. This of course, while the team has held the position together with the bubblegum and horrible welds named Russell Branyan, Casey Kotchman, Justin Smoak, and most recently Jesus Montero, Logan Morrison, and Kendrys Morales. Not spending at the position may seem counterintuitive, but it’s only really counterintuitive if you consider the Mariners as an entire, legitimate sample. Stat nerds haven’t been saying that the team shouldn’t strive to find good production at the position, just that the team – with the “if they were smart” caveat – could have done better than essentially no value at the position without breaking the bank.

I’ll probably never get over how stupid it was for the Mariners to trade John Jaso and three years of team control for one expensive year of Michael Morse. I recognize how annoying that is, and I’m sorry. At one point, I pointed out that John Jaso would have been the Mariners best option at first base or DH. He’s a really good hitter against right-handed pitching, and the Mariners could benefit greatly from both embracing platoons at positions which are traditionally overvalued, and finding bargain bats that are being incorrectly evaluated by much of the league. Considering how close the Mariners came to the playoffs this season, missing the postseason by only one game, it’s hard to not view that in juxtaposition with Jaso’s 1.5 WAR this season. It should be noted, that Jaso did this in a role that included substantial time at DH, which sapped his value to a large extent.

While I can beat that drum for years and years, and I’ve probably already dedicated some 10,000 words to it over various posts, it’s pointless. That damage can’t be undone, and even if it could, and the Mariners could reacquire Jaso, I’d have a hard time believing that they would do it at a value that I’d agree with. The Oakland A’s are a smart team, and they’re likely to win any trade they make with a dumb team.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t options, though recent years may indicate that the Mariners aren’t receptive to advanced analysis, but nonetheless, I have no dog in this playoff fight. Fixing the Mariners first base situation seems a lot more fun that watching a bunch of Royals fans be happy.

Expensive Actual Free Agents

Jozzen Cuesta, 25 years old

The Mariners haven’t been able to dip into the Cuban talent pool yet, and there is no reason to think that they will be willing to outbid the big spenders in the big leagues for Cuesta. Recent Cuban defectors have made more than good on the increasing price tags that they command, but Cuesta is reputed as a first baseman only, and with little knowledge of him, his price tag would certainly be the biggest factor in whether the Mariners would be willing to invest in him, and also whether or not thatw as a wise investment.

Michael Cuddyer, 36 years old

Cuddyer has been a good hitter in limited action in the last two seasons for the Colorado Rockies. He’s a first baseman only at this point in his career, though the Rockies gave him more than 1,800 innings in the outfield in the three years he was with the team. Those were 1800 mostly bad innings, with Cuddyer costing his team more than 15 runs over basically a season-and-a-half worth of action in the outfield. Cuddyer would come in not completely unlike Corey Hart, as an aging right-handed slugger who has injury issues (Hart’s more severe), and who leaves a hitter friendly environment. He probably wouldn’t command a multi-year deal, but may require a decent salary if he’s going to come to Seattle, a destination not known for reviving the careers of prolific hitters.

Victor Martinez, 35 years old

Remember when the early-career narratives of Jesus Montero basically matched the early career-narratives of Vic Martinez? Spending big on V-Mart is the kind of move that should scare Mariners fans. Martinez has been a good hitter his entire career, though he’s only recently started walking at a rate greater than average, all while striking out less than ever, and hitting for a higher isolated power than he ever has. Martinez is going to get paid based on his 2014 numbers to a large degree, and he has an entire body of work that indicates he won’t match those numbers. He was worth only 0.9 WAR in 2013, and hadn’t crossed the 4.0 WAR mark since 2007 prior to 2014.

Interesting Players with Options

Adam Lind, 31 years old

You may remember Lind as that guy who probably should have always played first base, but that was a good hitter, and then became not a good hitter. Since then he’s become a first baseman exclusively, and in the past two seasons, Lind’s 156 wRC+ against righties matches the likes of Robinson Cano, of whom you may have heard, and puts him among the league’s elite hitters against righties, ranking third, but virtually equal to first against righties. Lind has two team options remaining, totaling $15.5 million. There is no guarantee that the Blue Jays would want to give up Lind for any reason, but provided he didn’t cost a top prospect, his basically league-average WAR production would look good on the Mariners roster. Lind is quite awful against lefties though, and considering his price tag, he may not be a tremendous value despite his offensive production.

Adam LaRoche, 35 years old

Like Lind, LaRoche shouldn’t get much time against lefties. Unlike Lind, there is potential that LaRoche’s team, the Washington Nationals, don’t pick up his $15 million option. Lind is substantially older than Lind, and may be hard to lure to a team that isn’t an imminent championship contender.

Uninteresting player with an option

Billy Butler, 29 years old

The only thing that makes Butler any more interesting than anyone else on this list, or really any list of any people vying or not vying for any position, is that he’s younger than several candidates. Butler’s power has declined in each of the last two seasons, his walk rate was as low as it has ever been since he’s been in the big leagues (and he’s not a guy who is known for walking), and his body looks like he’s wearing a wooden barrel under his uniform. Butler may be 29 years old, but he’s got the kind of body that makes late-Griffey look like a viable option in the outfield. Nonetheless, Butler has been a constant rumor subject for the Mariners for some reason, and if the past indicates anything about the future, the Mariners love right-handed former-sluggers who can’t play defense anywhere.

Trade candidates

Garrett Jones, 34 years old

At one point the Mariners were rumored to be on the verge of sending John Jaso to the Pirates for the remaining scraps of Garrett Jones’ usefulness. Jones is awful against lefties, and has been regressing for some time at the plate in general. He’ll make only $5 million in 2014, but he’s been pretty bad overall since 2009, mostly on the legs of awful defense and disappointing hitting.

Seth Smith, 32 years old

Smith signed a weird extension with the San Diego Padres in the middle of the 2014 season, but that doesn’t necessarily ensure the Padres won’t trade him. He’s cost controlled at this point, which may improve his value, and despite not looking like a great fielder, UZR has him as an average outfielder for his career. Smith has large platoon splits, with a 60 point gap between his numbers against righties and lefties, (123 vs. 63) and has only $13 million guaranteed over the next two years, with a $7 million team option for 2017.

Justin Morneau, 34 years old

Justin Morneau once won an MVP he didn’t deserve. He lasted with the Twins longer than he probably should have after a concussion in 2010, and subsequent seasons of pretty lackluster production. His first year in Colorado was very good at the plate, but he remains an iffy option in the field. Morneau is guaranteed $7.5 million with one year remaining on his contract and a team option for 2016, but the Rockies may not view him as a guy who is completely expendable after he posted 2.5 WAR almost inexplicably last year.

Brandon Belt, 27 years old

Belt has been mostly disappointing after lighting the entire minor leagues ablaze in 2010 and 2011. He’s battled injuries, plays in a home park that is tough on hitters, and may continue to lose time at first as the Giants transition Buster Posey to first base. Posey’s transition has been slow so far, only logging 261 innings at the position this year, but he’ll be cutting into Belt’s time if he gets more innings there.

Another free agent

Pablo Sandoval, 28 years old

Kung Fu Panda is a kind of guy that I tend not to like. He’s managed to somehow become a respectable fielder at third base, but his body will fail him soon, I predict, and he’s not such a proven power hitter that one could expect him to become a dominant DH worthy of a long-term, high-salary contract. Sandoval isn’t an ideal first baseman either, as he’s under six feet tall, but many teams may be willing to bet on him hitting for more power away from San Francisco, especially in a weak free agent market.