If Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik intended to show he wasn't as bad at his job as a recent Seattle Times feature portrayed, he probably didn't accomplish that objective with his latest moves.
On Wednesday during baseball's winter meetings, Zduriencik inked Corey Hart to a one-year, $6 million and acquired Logan Morrison in a trade with the Marlins. Each addition doesn't look so bad on its own. Hart figures to be a bargain, taking a short-term deal to rebuild his value after missing the 2013 season due to knee injuries. He averaged 29 home runs over his previous three seasons. Morrison could also provide some power if he stays healthy, hitting 23 homers in 2011. He had no role in Miami anymore, so Seattle only had to give up fringe reliever Carter Capps in exchange.
Yet didn't the Mariners basically get the same sort of player here? Granted, Hart has more raw power and will likely prove to be the better acquisition. But neither he nor Morrison are really capable of playing the outfield anymore because of their knee injuries (and the surgeries they required). Both are better suited for first base or designated hitter duty in Seattle. And the Mariners already have a first baseman and DH on their roster.
What makes this even more puzzling is that Zduriencik's moves look curiously similar to those he made a year ago. The Mariners were in need of power and middle-of-the-order run production, and acquired Kendrys Morales from the Angels last December. Seattle already had Justin Smoak at first base and Jesus Montero at DH, but Morales looked like an upgrade. At the very least, this gave Smoak and Montero more time to develop, if necessary.
A week later, the Mariners signed Raul Ibanez to provide some more power. Ideally, he's best suited as a DH, but with the roster Zduriencik assembled, Ibanez was the team's primary left fielder. But at least Ibanez had played 80 games at that position with the Yankees during the previous season. He's been a left fielder for most of his major league career, in fact. Unfortunately, Ibanez isn't a very good defensive outfielder.
In January, Seattle picked up Michael Morse in a three-team deal. As with Morales and Ibanez, Morse figured to add yet more power to the lineup. He also had plenty of experience playing the outfield in his four seasons with the Nationals, appearing in both left and right field. So the Mariners presumably had their right fielder with Morse. But he wasn't going to provide the team with very good defense at that position.
How did those moves end up working out for the Mariners during the past season?
Morales hit 34 doubles and 23 homers with 80 RBI, swinging the power bat that Seattle needed. Ibanez slugged 29 homers, surely exceeding whatever expectations the team had for him. But he also allowed 17 more runs defensively than the average left fielder, according to FanGraph's Ultimate Zone Rating. Morse was the biggest disappointment, limited to 76 games due to quad, finger and wrist injuries. He did hit 13 home runs but batted only .226. And UZR says he cost Seattle 12 runs defensively in right field.
Oh, and the Mariners lost 91 games, finishing fourth in the AL West while scoring 624 runs and allowing 754, both the fourth-worst totals in the league.
What can the Mariners expect from Hart and Morrison next year? Hart will probably hit fewer home runs in Safeco Field than Milwaukee's Miller Park, but if he puts up 25 long balls, Seattle will take that. He should fit in nicely at first base or DH. Morrison is a different story. With the current collection of players Zduriencik has assembled, Morrison will almost certainly have to play left field next season. That won't go very well, judging from his past three seasons.
According to UZR, Morrison allowed seven more runs defensively than the average left fielder in 2013. He was even worse playing twice the amount of innings last season, surrendering 13 more runs than a replacement-level player at that position. If Defensive Runs Saved is your metric of choice, Morrison cost the Marlins 26 runs in 2012. It could get ugly for him in Safeco Field's spacious outfield.
If Morrison makes up for that with his offense, the Mariners could probably live with those defensive defiencies. But it's worth asking just how good a hitter Morrison really is. Over four major league seasons, he's batting .249 with a .764 OPS. Even in that 23-homer season of 2011, Morrison batted .247. However, he has a .337 career on-base percentage. Morrison's .333 OBP last season would've ranked fourth among the Mariners' everyday lineup. If Morrison improves his batting and power numbers, he'll be a nice player to have under club control for the next three years.
But how does the rest of the roster shake out now? USA Today's Bob Nightengale confirmed what was looking rather obvious, tweeting that the Mariners are making Smoak and Montero available for trade. Smoak is coming off a 20-homer season, but it certainly says something that his .238 batting average and .746 OPS were the highest of his career. Montero played only 29 games in the majors this year, getting demoted to the minors, suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee and taking a 50-game PED suspension from the Biogenesis investigation.
With Hart only signed to a one-year deal, maybe both players still have some sort of future in Seattle. Smoak is 26 years old, while Montero is just 24. Ideally, Hart could play right field, allowing Smoak to stay at first base and Montero to get a chance at DH. But Hart's knees were already pushing him to first base before surgery cost him the entire 2013 season. And playing DH won't help his value on the open market next year.
A few MLB clubs might be willing to take a chance on Smoak and Montero still having some upside, but how much could the Mariners reasonably expect in return, other than minor league fodder?
This roster crunch and the dilemma it creates does nothing to dispel the assertions made in Geoff Baker's scathing article on Zduriencik that ran in the Seattle Times earlier this week. In that piece, Baker extensively quoted Tony Blengino, who had been a special assistant in the Mariners' front office for the past five years until being dismissed this summer. Blengino skewered his former boss, explaining that Zduriencik falsely sold himself as a GM versed in traditional scouting methods as well as the advanced metrics becoming increasingly important in player evaluation.
"Jack portrayed himself as a scouting/stats hybrid because that’s what he needed to get the job," Blengino told Baker. "But Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him."
A GM who evaluates position players solely on homers, RBI and batting average sounds like the sort of executive who keeps adding first baseman and designated hitter types (several of whom have bad knees) to his roster without any regard to how well they play defense or how they might fit with the roster already on hand. There's something to be said for picking up players discounted because of injury concerns, especially when the Mariners have had trouble attracting top talent in recent years. But Zduriencik's "flood the zone" approach to roster construction results in significantly unbalanced teams.
Zduriencik may have hoped to blind people to his flaws as a GM by signing the top free agent available in Robinson Cano. It was certainly a dazzling move, one that could yield further benefits down the line if it convinces fans to return to Safeco Field and future free agents and trade candidates to consider the Mariners as a viable destination. Signing Cano seemed like the possible beginning of a new era in Seattle. Unfortunately, Jack Z's subsequent moves appear to be the same ol', same ol' way of doing business.
Of course, that can change if the Mariners make a splashy deal like trading for David Price, as has been rumored. Or maybe Zduriencik will sign a real outfielder like Nelson Cruz or even Shin-Soo Choo. If not, however, there's a good chance of the Mariners seeing the same ol' results in the standings next season and Zduriencik joining Blengino in unemployment.