Spring training is officially underway across Arizona and Florida, and while most of this news has been bad, it’s only a matter of time before the internet is awash with “best shape of his life” stories and rumors of unlikely additions to major league rosters. We’re not there yet, since this is just week one, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start wondering how certain roster spots are going to shake out. The Seattle Mariners have a large number of spots up for grabs, including some starting gigs, and while there are certainly favorites, there are also underdogs, and I’ll remind you that Brandon Maurer made the rotation to start the year just thirteen months ago.
Few 2014 Mariners are locks to make the roster. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Fernando Rodney, Danny Farquhar, and Charlie Furbush are the only guarantees on the pitching side, and Kuma looks like he might miss a start or two to start the year. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager are the starters at second and third, of course. Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison, Corey Hart, Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley, Willie Bloomquist, and John Buck are all but guaranteed roster spots. Mike Zunino should start, but he is young and has options. Ditto Brad Miller, who will be challenged by Nick Franklin, who could also open in the minors. In short, there’s a lot of spots up for grabs.
This is the first installation in a series that will examine open positions on the roster. We’ll start with Robinson Cano’s youthful double play partner, whoever that may end up being.
Brad Miller: 2013 stats – 335 PA, .263/.318/.418, 8 HR, 103 wRC+, 1.7 WAR
Miller started the year by torching AA, then got called up to AAA and hit even better (168 wRC+ in 122 PA). He was soon the Mariners starting shortstop, a role in which he excelled. He hit three percent better than league average as a MLB regular with plus defense, adding a bit more pop than you’d expect from a young shortstop. Put it all together and you have a shortstop who projects to be fourth-best in all of baseball this season. Miller is a lot like Kyle Seager in that he came through the system with little prospect hype, burst into the big leagues after a short AAA cameo due to raw dominance, and never stopped once making it to the show. Miller was good last year, and projects to be even better going forward. He’s a potential franchise cornerstone and is really just a couple breaks away from becoming a star. This job should be his to lose, in 2014 and beyond.
Nick Franklin: 2013 stats – 412 PA, .225/.303/.382, 12 HR, 90 wRC+, 0.4 WAR
Unlike Miller, Franklin has been a top prospect essentially since draft day, his rise through the system always accompanied by much fanfare. He showed up last year and was awesome until his contact problems caught up with him, leaving him with an underwhelming line and lots of questions going forward. Only a few months after he displaced the team’s former top prospect at second base, Franklin found himself all but permanently replaced by Robinson Cano. Franklin is now being cast as a competitor for Miller’s job, primarily because of the prospect hype that makes him a tough AAA sell to the fans and the fact that nobody traded from him (yet) this winter.
Franklin sucked defensively at second, so there’s almost no question he’d be a disaster at the most difficult infield position. He strikes out 27.4% of the time, which is way closer to Carlos Peguero than it is to Brad Miller. The one area where Franklin is considered notably better than Miller is power, but look again at their numbers. Yeah, Franklin had four more dingers in MLB last season, but he did so in 77 more chances. Their ISO numbers were .157 and .154, virtually indistinguishable. Going back to their minor league numbers further reveals that they’ve always been more similar than not in the power department. Which makes Miller the superior player in every facet of the game, with gigantic advantages in batting eye and defensive value.
So why is this “battle” even a thing? Because Franklin is more valuable to the Mariners as a trade chip than he is as a guy billed for AAA or the bench. The Mariners may not have any real intentions to make Franklin their opening day shortstop, but it does them obvious good to stage a competition between him and an actual coveted young talent like Miller. By acting like they view the two equally, the team hopes to show potential trade partners that they value Franklin and want something valuable in return. Especially given his prospect hype, this is exactly the kind of behavior that will help to preserve Franklin’s worth.
The Mariners are almost certainly hoping to turn Franklin into a controllable young starting pitcher before the season starts. Barring that, they can always send him to AAA as much-needed depth. The beauty here is that no course of action is the wrong course of action. Franklin’s value has long been artificially inflated, and this “battle” for the starting shortstop gig is a last-ditch attempt to cash in on his perceived worth. If the Mariners fail to dupe some team into overpaying for a player with a million strikeouts and no position, they’ll be rewarded with high-upside middle infield depth. The worst-case scenario involves Miller in the minors and Franklin playing poorly in the majors and destroying his value while wasting valuable time that could be going to a better player. We’ll cross that bridge if we get there, but for now I’m comfortable giving the team the benefit of the doubt and assuming that won’t happen.
Brad Miller should be the starting shortstop on this year’s Mariners team, with Nick Franklin opening the season in either another organization or Tacoma. Over the course of spring training these two will “compete” for the most important non-catcher defensive position, though Miller has to be considered the favorite by a mile. Nick Franklin is a shortstop in much the same way that Jesus Montero was a catcher, and the team didn’t let him see any time away from second base last season. This remains a compelling situation to watch simply because of how much these two young players mean to the present and future of the Seattle Mariners. That being said, the job is Miller’s to lose.