The Seattle Mariners are taking on a new look this offseason. It started way back in August when they relieved general manager Jack Zduriencik of his duties. They spent almost exactly a month searching before finally hiring former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto. Not three full months have passed, and we can already see a significant change in philosophy with regards to major league roster construction.
Jack Z liked hitters. He really liked home runs. He didn’t have the same affinity for defense. In recent years of his tenure with Seattle he signed or traded for the likes of Nelson Cruz, Logan Morrison, Corey Hart, Mark Trumbo, and Rickie Weeks. While I can understand the logic behind some of these players, not a single one of them was a good defender. Most of them had to try their best just to be below average defensively.
When you’re rostering almost all of these guys in a single season, the defensive liabilities outweigh any gains made by the offense. Just this past season the Mariners defense provided insane negative value. They were the second worst team in baseball with a -60 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). The only team worse were the Phillies and they were actively trying to be bad. The Mariners had a $123 million payroll and were attempting to make the playoffs.
So it should come as a huge relief to Seattle fans that new GM Jerry Dipoto has some different ideas about defense. So far he’s made some small but meaningful changes to the major league roster. Some of these moves are going to have more impact than others but they all have a similar theme: They’re adding defensive value.
First Dipoto sent SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, and RHP Danny Farqhuar to Tampa for a couple of pitchers and outfield prospect Boog Powell. He has some upside but probably best fits as a 4th outfielder. The bat is his major issue. But he’s capable of handling centerfield and gets good marks. FanGraphs assigns his defense a 50+ grade which is slightly above average.
Dipoto further improved the outfield defense with his acquisition of Leonys Martin from the Rangers. Perhaps no other trade represents the difference in philosophies than this one. Martin has always been a below average offensive player. He owns a career 79 wRC+, which means he’s been 21% worse than league average. His defense on the other hand has been nothing short of excellent.
Though he has occasionally spent some time in the corners, Martin is primarily a center fielder – and a good one at that. In each of the past three seasons he has been worth +14-15 DRS there. You have to go back to 2009 and 2011 when Franklin Gutierrez was with the Mariners to find anyone close to that good defensively. Among qualified center fielders in 2015, that +15 DRS would have ranked third best in baseball.
Next, Dipoto bolstered the infield with his addition of shortstop Luis Sardinas from the Brewers. Again, here we have an offensively deficient player who adds a lot on defense. As a prospect Sardinas earned 60 grades on his fielding ability, arm strength, and speed. As young as he is, there’s still time for him to develop a league average bat, but his defense at a demanding position is without question.
Then earlier this week, Dipoto offloaded Mark Trumbo for back-up catcher Steve Clevenger. The return wasn’t the important thing. Getting rid of Trumbo was the sole purpose of the deal. He’s about average at first base but he’s a liability in the outfield.
The most recent move was to bring in free agent outfielder Nori Aoki. In a pinch if you need him to, Aoki can play in CF/RF but his best fit is as a left fielder where he’s actually a pretty solid defender. But Aoki is different from a Jack Z guy in another way – he has almost no home run power. Instead, he offers a strong OBP. He’s career slugging is below .400, but his career OBP is a pretty constant .350. He’s the perfect leadoff hitter, something the Mariners didn’t really have before.
So far it appears that Jerry Dipoto is taking a very different plan of action than the one Jack Z employed. Personally I like Dipoto’s better. Defense matters. It’s just not as easy to identify than the value provided by a home run. That being said, I’m interested to see if this is going to be Dipoto’s operating procedure going forward or if this is all just correcting the mistakes of the past.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs