Mariners Infield: It’s Okay

This post continues our Depth Chart Discussions. You can find the Depth Chart Discussion posts gathered here.

The Mariners seem to be doing a variation on a theme here. The theme? One could argue that it’s “Recent Vintage Tampa Bay Rays.” Or, one could argue that it’s “Recent Vintage Seattle Mariners.” They have a lot of moving parts and some potential platoons. One might find it interesting, or one might find it a cause for concern. The difference between the 2015 Mariners and a team like the ~2012-2014 Rays is that the former have some very expensive veteran players—signed as free agents—slated for full-time roles. Again, cause for concern, or optimism?

The Mariners’ big move this offseason was signing Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $58MM deal.* Cruz could play some OF, but he’s likely to be the full-time DH for his stay in Seattle. Rickie Weeks was a late addition and could end up seeing a lot of time against left-handed pitchers, though that might mostly come in the form of a left field platoon with Dustin Ackley. Other than Cruz and Weeks, the names below are familiar, if not exactly household ones.

Pos. Starter Platoon/Backup Depth
C Mike Zunino Jesus Sucre John Baker
1B Logan Morrison Rickie Weeks Jesus Montero
2B Robinson Cano Rickie Weeks Willie Bloomquist
3B Kyle Seager Willie Bloomquist Rickie Weeks
SS Brad Miller Willie Bloomquist Chris Taylor
DH Nelson Cruz Rickie Weeks Jesus Montero

Mike Zunino has proven to be a surprisingly apt defensive catcher, and is the Mariners’ undisputed starter at the position heading into 2015. That’s the good new. The bad news? He has zero plate discipline. He swings hard, swings often, and misses more than anyone in the league. The power is there (22 HR in 476 PA last year; .205 ISO) and his RBI and R totals were both top-12 in the majors among catchers, so he’s still a mixed league starter, but those walk and strikeout rates are alarming and suggest a bust is still a distinct possibility. Draft him as your starter when other options are exhausted.

Logan Morrison has one of the best Twitter accounts held by MLB players (Brandon McCarthy’s is tough to beat). It’s a source of amusement for the non-prudish baseball fan. His baseball career, on the other hand, has been a source of frustration. Yet, after all the prospect sheen has worn off, there’s reason to hope for better things from LoMo perhaps. It’s unwise to base anything off of a second half surge, but he did significantly increase his contact and line drive rates to back up his second half improvements: a .284/.341/.448 triple slash with a .348 wOBA and a 127 wRC+. A reverse platoon split which was propped up by a bloated BABIP against lefties leaves cause for concern (or reason to mitigate said hope anyway), but the Mariners’ first base job is his to lose going into the season. In deeper mixed leagues he could be worth a flyer, though he’s going undrafted in many formats.

Robinson Cano has been about as consistent as they come. Since 2007, he’s logged no fewer than 634 plate appearances, and only once in that span has he hit below .300—in 2008, which was his worst full year on record. Between 2009 and 2013, he hit between 25 and 33 homers every year and logged at least 188 R+RBI. Many fantasy experts—and baseball analysts in general—predicted a drop off in HR last year as Cano moved from the friendly confines of new Yankee Stadium to the homer-suppressing Safeco Field, and that indeed came to pass. To boot, Cano’s run and RBI totals were his lowest since 2008. His home run power is unlikely to return at this point (his HR+FB distance has been declining for a few years now), and his RBI count will remain more modest than it was in his his prime. But with the addition of Nelson Cruz, he might manage a few more runs scored at least. Despite all of this, given his elite AVG and a walk rate that has settled into a range that’s solidly above average, he’s still one of the two best second baseman available for fantasy owners (if you don’t count Anthony Rendon as a true second baseman). If not for Jose Altuve’s emergence in 2014, it’d be close to being a one-man tier atop the second base list in fantasy leagues. That might not last much longer (though the Mariners hope it does), but for 2015, Cano’s solid. I’m not sure I’d take him in the first round in standard mixed leagues but I would take him early in the second round.

Third base represents another solid position for the M’s. Kyle Seager has hit 20+ homers in the last three seasons since becoming a regular. He set career highs in HR, RBI, and batting average in 2014 and is in the thick of his prime as a hitter. While his AVG won’t drag down your team, it could be better—and it could be better in 2015: it’s strange that his batted ball average has consistently come in below the league line while he has a great line-drive swing and hits very few pop-ups. Perhaps it’s his mediocre speed that’s holding down his BABIP; he does accumulate infield hits at a clip lower than league average. Still, it’s easy to see an average in the .275 range. With Cano, Cruz, and OBP guy Seth Smith in front of him in the lineup, he could push 100 RBI for the first time, too. He’s currently being drafted as the ninth third baseman, but I’m not sure he’s a lesser player than Evan Longoria at this point. #HotTake

An excellent minor league career has not translated in the first 750 major league plate appearances for Brad Miller. In the minors he posted a great K%-BB%, flashed above average power, and hit for very high averages. While he was never very young for his level, he did progress quickly and never was challenged at any stage before the majors. He’s currently being taken 24th (on average) among shortstops in mocks, behind guys like Andrelton Simmons and Asdrubal Cabrera, and just barely ahead of Everth Cabrera. While his recent output might be on par with those guys, I think Miller’s chances of success—given a full season’s worth of plate appearances—far outweigh theirs. Even moving him up a handful of spots, though, he’s still not a starting shortstop in the standards mixed league. In a deeper league, where you can justify nabbing him at the end of the draft as a MI flyer, know that there’s some upside.

Chris Taylor stole some time from Brad Miller in 2014 and outperformed him by wOBA, but that was on the back of a .389 BABIP and an insane infield hit rate that was nearly three times the league average. He’s a better defender and baserunner than Miller, and the two will compete for the starting job in spring training, with Miller having a slight inside track. Still, if Taylor wins the job, he’ll be relevant in AL-Only leagues and perhaps some other very deep mixed leagues based on batting average and stolen base upside.

Because designated hitters are generally being lumped in with infielders for the purposes of our depth chart discussions, let’s take a quick look at Nelson Cruz. Coming off a year in which he lead the majors in home runs, finished fourth in RBI, and produced a top-30 run total, he still is being taken as just the 44th hitter and 20th outfielder in mock drafts. His age (34) and the fact that he’s moving to a pitcher’s park don’t bode well for a repeat; both Steamer and ZiPS predict 22 homers. However, his HR+FB distance was still very healthy in 2014, and he actually improved upon his 2013 marks in contact and strikeout rate. I’ll take the over on those HR projections, but don’t bank on more than 30. Hitting in the middle of a decent Mariners lineup, Cruz still has something to offer fantasy owners.

Among the backups, Rickie Weeks is the most interesting. His rate stats were very good in 2014, the first time in his career that he was used strictly as part of a platoon. As the short end of that platoon, however, he didn’t offer much for head-to-head or other weekly lineup league players, but daily leaguers with deep benches could have deployed Weeks to great effect. There’s room for him to do the same in 2015 with the Mariners as a platoon partner for Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison, or both. Picking up outfield eligibility will help his value a bit, too. Appeal is limited, but where the fantasy context provides an opportunity, he should be useful.

The Jesuses Sucre and Montero shouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. Ditto Willie Bloomquist.

*Interestingly, Cruz was signed by the Mets in 1998 when Jack Z was Special Assistant to the General Manager with the team. Cruz was acquired by the Brewers in a trade with the Athletics when Jack Z was Director of Scouting with the Brewers. I’m not sure how much influence he had in acquiring Cruz in those instances (perhaps none), but it appears as though Jack Z has a long-standing familiarity with Cruz if nothing else. To boot, Rickie Weeks was a first round draft pick of the Brewers during Jack Z’s tenure in Milwaukee.

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I wouldn’t say Montero is on my sleeper list, but reports are that he is doing everything asked of him (dropping 40lbs, getting work in at 1B). And he can still hit. Perhaps a hibernator list?