Here I will look at infielders that are not really the utility types that I looked out in my previous post. These are guys that can help the Mariners on the corners or possibly 2nd base.
In the off-season, I aggressively, and with full hindsight, foolishly ranked Kelly Johnson not only as the most underrated 2nd baseman in baseball, but also as the 7th best 2nd baseman in the MLB. Johnson went on to have a monstrously disappointing year, with a 86 wRC + and -.4 WAA. Depending on what defensive metric you look at, he may have also taken a step back in that regard (the two major defensive metrics disagree). At the plate, the discipline seems to still be there as he walked 10.7 % of the time in 2012, the same as his career norms, but his strikeouts jumped to basically an unacceptable rate. Over the last couple of years, he has been swinging more, especially at pitches out of the zone. He is also hitting more ground-balls, and as you would expect, his power numbers have dropped quite a bit. However, he is 30 years old, turning 31 years old before the start of next year. Normal aging curves would have Johnson obviously taking a step back from his prime, but perhaps not this much. It really makes me think that he has lost a lot of bat speed, as he was a good contact guys just 3 years ago, but is now swinging and missing at pitches at a rate similar to Mark Reynolds (unfortunately, that is not an exaggeration). However, he could be useful in a part time role and shouldn’t be that expensive considering the season he is coming off of.
I already wrote about Cesar Izturis in the utility player article, but his brother Maicer Izturis is sort of an intriguing infielder as well. He has played a lot of shortstop in the Majors, but most of his time has come either at 3rd base or 2nd base. He has been an okay hitter in his career, but struggled in 2012 with a 82 OPS +. His K/BB did regress, which is concerning, but he is also on the wrong side of 30, so it isn’t that surprising to see him drop off a bit. He is better against right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers. He is a good defender according to defensive metrics, but not elite like Cesar. He is a much better hitter though, and if he hits closer to his career norms, he can be a valuable middle infielder for the Mariners.
Lyle Overbay is an unlikely choice, but he still hits right-handed pitching reasonably well, something that Smoak struggled to do in 2012. For his career, Smoak has hit both sides about equally, but the split became pronounced in 2012. An Overbay signing would almost certainly lead to a trade of Mike Carp, and the Mariners may not see that as an upgrade (I think it is pretty obvious that Carp is a better player than Overbay at this point). The trading of Carp, which would make some sense, as he isn’t the future at 1st base, would potentially give the Mariners some players back that could help them, and it is not as if Overbay would cost much money (I can’t imagine him not getting a minor league contract). So you could potentially create some value there. The only problem is that Overbay has played below replacement level over the last two seasons. His numbers against right-handed pitching aren’t that spectacular, or even average. It really seems that his power has been sapped at age 35 (will be 36 by spring training).
Another platoon option at first base that might be better is Carlos Pena. Like Overbay, he shouldn’t face left-handed pitching but still hit right-handed pitching fairly well in 2012. In his career, he has hit righties really well, with a 131 wRC +, which is what Paul Konerko had for the White Sox this season. However, his year with the Rays did not turn out to be a very good one. He has always been a supreme power threat, with a monster 277.374 feet per batted batted ball. In 2012, the average batted ball distance dropped to 262.268, which is still solid, but an obvious regression. The ISO regression is even worse. He is 35 and he watched his strikeout rate jump to a crazy 30.3%. He actually isn’t chasing more balls out of the zone, he watched more pitches in the zone in 2012 than he usually does. The first assumption is always bat speed, but he has always swung and missed at about the rate he did in 2012 (which is a lot).
An optimist would just say “he will be cheap”. He still seems to be at least an adequate defender at first, known mainly for his ability to pick balls out of the dirt. Obviously he isn’t a good runner, but you don’t acquire a first baseman for their baserunning abilities.
A more inventive solution may be getting an outfielder who hits right-handed pitching well and moving him to first base. However, as we saw in the article I wrote on potential outfielders, lefty hitting outfielders are hard to find. The Mariners might bring in a couple of AAA slugger types to get a look like Clint Robinson (I believe he is a 6 year minor league free agent) or Dan Johnson (whom I wanted them to bring in last year). If they don’t seem to be fits for the Major League team, they could at least fill the voids left by Mike Wilson and Luis Jimenez in Tacoma (though Joe Dunigan might be able to do some of that) to give that lineup a little thump.
Let me make clear that in these posts I am not advocating that the Mariners sign these guys necessarily, I am just looking at some free agents and their strengths/weaknesses and where they might fit in on a Mariners roster. Alex Liddi is certainly in the mix here and would compete for a roster spot versus any free agent brought in. However, regular readers know that I am not a big fan of Liddi as a MLB player. Defensively, he doesn’t really fit anywhere besides 1st, and his bat doesn’t play there, or at least it hasn’t yet. Vinnie Catricala is perhaps a dark horse, but his value is tied up in his bat, and he didn’t hit in the PCL last year, and he hasn’t hit in the AFL so far (small sample obviously) this year. Stefen Romero could crack the big leagues by the end of the year and play 2nd or 1st if he hits in AAA. You may also need Dustin Ackley insurance unfortunately. I think he will hit better than he did in 2012, and I think his defense is valuable, but you have to cover yourself in all areas and for all situations. If nothing else, it is a long season, and teams with good depth are much more likely to succeed than ones that do not. The New York Yankees are a perfect example. They had major injuries to key players through out the year, but they were able to plug in those holes adequately with guys like Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and trading for guys like Ichiro. They had a great season, other than the ALCS (I think most Mariner fans would take the team being swept in the ALCS because it means that they had a good season). Before someone complains that they are able to do it because they are the Yankees and have a gigantic payroll, remember how cheaply they got Chavez and Ibanez and that they traded two non impact pitchers (relievers basically) for Ichiro to help the team. The Mariners can make these kind of depth moves.