Sunday, September 19, 2021

Upgrading the Mariners’ utility spot

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The Mariners don’t have a ton of areas that need addressing, but this is becoming an increasingly glaring one.

Editor’s note: I want to preface this article by saying that Andrew Romine seems like a nice enough man, a fun player–it takes a certain degree of an ability to laugh at one’s situation to play all nine positions in one game for a last place team–and is ruggedly handsome.

The remarkable run the Mariners are on has been one of the hottest stories in baseball over the last month, and while it‘s easy to point at run differential and call it unsustainable, it’s worth noting that the team has played this season essentially with a maximum of 24 players on it‘s roster, and as few as 22 useful big leaguers at one point in time. While Ichiro provided Mariners fans with plenty of feels over the first month of the season, he didn’t bring much to the table in terms of actual baseball skills, as his presence on the active roster was good for -0.4 fWAR while Guillermo Heredia punished PCL pitching. Mercifully the Mariners‘ front office resolved that situation amicably, as Ichiro was forced willingly retired transitioned to a front office role in early May.

As the chilly spring nights slowly gave way to less-chilly early summer evenings and the Mariners strengthened their hold on a playoff spot, the shortcomings of LHP Marc Rzepczynski were suddenly magnified. Despite numerous chances to show any sign that he had something left in the tank, the “DFA RZEP” screams reached an all-time high after he surrendered two earned runs in a one run loss to the Rangers back on May 30. Finally, the LOOGY (one of the last of his kind in my opinion) reached the end of his far-too-long leash and was designated for assignment on June 1 and released five days later.

With the Mariners now 20 games over the .500 mark for the first time since 2007, the magnifying glass has shifted onto Andrew Romine, who despite his best efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, failed to spoil the M’s hard fought come-from-behind walk-off victory to complete a sweep of the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday. His 0-4 night with three strikeouts, seven men left on base, and a near game-costing error on defense culminated in a -.339 win probability added (WPA), also known as worse than the guy who literally lost the game by surrendering a walk-off two run homer after recording just one out.

That performance pulled Romine into a tie with Ichiro at -0.4 fWAR on the season, as he’s now the last batter standing whose produced negative value on the season. A look at his peripheral stats indicates that it might get worse before it gets better. While his BABIP of .229 would make you think he’s due to see some balls start to fall in for hits, he’s striking out 32.3% of the time he steps in the box–that’s 13% more often than last year and his worst since he was a rookie. To make matters worse, when he actually does make contact with the ball, he’s striking it with virtually no authority, as his 35.1% soft contact percentage ranks 403rd of 405 hitters who have recorded at least 50 plate appearances this season.

If the Mariners’ front office finally decides to roll with a full 25-man roster and pull the plug on the 32-year-old INF/OF and his 13 wRC+, here are a few guys that make sense as potential replacements. Some of this is predicated on the Mariners’ situation of rostering four capable OFs, making the need for an experienced INF/OF less essential.

Miguel Rojas

The oldest external option on this list, Rojas, 29, logged nearly 800 minor league games before finally sticking at the big league level. After being dealt by the Dodgers to Miami as part of the same trade that sent Dee Gordon to the Marlins, Rojas had mostly been used in a back utility infield role before claiming a starting role as Miami’s opening day shortstop for the 2018 season.

While the .227/.292/.343 slash line hardly looks like much of an upgrade over Andrew Romine, his .237 BABIP suggests he’s had some bad luck suppressing his surface level stats. Further reason for optimism regarding his offense–besides his career-best seven home runs to date after never hitting more than one in a season–is his 30.0% hard contact rate, which is nearly ~7% greater than his previous best mark. The Venezuelan shortstop is also posting a career-low 20.2% soft contact rate, and continues to put the bat on the ball consistently, as represented by his 13.1% strikeout rate.

Rojas appears to be on the verge of a breakthrough season at the dish, but his real value as a potential upgrade comes on defense, where he’s been the 16th-best infielder in all of baseball by defensive runs saved with five. While he’s had minimal experience in the outfield, he’s logged upwards of 140 innings at each infield position since 2016, and has been a valuable defender at each position.

Although Rojas’ age and the fact that he plays for the perennially-rebuilding Marlins makes him a seemingly ideal trade candidate, his contract status might actually make it a bit tougher than you’d think to pry him away from Miami. He’s being paid just over $1M this season, and is controlled through the 2020 season.

Freddy Galvis

It’s hard to imagine that Galvis would be thrilled about the idea of accepting a bench role after starting for the last three seasons, but working as a rotational player for a team in the thick of a playoff push is probably a whole lot more fun than playing ever day for a team nowhere close; just ask Denard Span. Galvis, who the Padres are paying $6.8M this season, has been underwhelming with the bat–he’s running a wRC+ of 76–but brings value to the table with his glove. His six defensive runs saved are sixth-most among all major league shortstops, and he’s also got the ability to slide over to second or third when needed. He’s averaged 1.8 fWAR over the last three seasons, and while he’s not quite on pace to reach that mark this year, even the 0.8 fWAR he is on pace for would be an upgrade over what Romine has produced this year.

With Fernando Tatis Jr. set to arrive in San Diego perhaps as early as next year and Galvis set to walk after this year, the Padres have no reason to cling to him, as long as they’re left with somebody to bridge the gap to the franchise’s shortstop of the future (side-eyes Andrew Romine). An interesting wrinkle in the potential of a deal with San Diego is that the Padres also possess a handful of appealing arms both out of the bullpen and in their rotation that would fit nicely into other positions of need for the M‘s.

Gordon Beckham

Obviously the least exciting option, Beckham is perhaps the most realistic for the simple fact that he’s already in the system and on the 40-man. Perhaps in preparation for his assuming of Romine’s role, he was deployed as the Rainiers first baseman Wednesday night–the second time in 1,181 career games–however it’s worth noting that Tacoma is currently without an active natural first baseman on their roster. He’s also been tabbed with starting shortstop duties in most of his recent outings despite the presence of two other infielders (Zach Vincej and Danny Muno) that have manned the position far more than him throughout their careers. His 45 wRC+ in limited opportunities at the big league level is hardly inspiring, but it’s more than quadruple Romine’s paltry 10 wRC+, and the fact that’s he’s walking at a career-best rate of 15.5% down in Tacoma seems to indicate that he’s really taken the “C the Z” mentality to heart. He’s been comparable–perhaps slightly inferior–to Romine defensively throughout their respective big league careers, but he’s hit enough to bring more overall value to the table throughout his career.

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