Okay, so let’s make this clear: no one is competing for playing time at the DH slot exclusively. At least one guy should be, but in reality, DH is the fallback option for a group of dudes who are competing to show that they are healthy and competent enough to see time at positions in the field. For the purposes of this exercise, “DH” is being used to refer to the three lineup spots that will be occupied by DHs this season: designated hitter, first base, and left/right field.
We’ve been here before. Last season the Mariners employed Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez, and Justin Smoak. In order, that’s two full-time DHs, a part-time DH, and a first baseman who probably shouldn’t be getting any more major league chances. Those guys often were all starting at the same time, meaning that the team regularly had a DH in either outfield corner. While that’s unlikely to happen again this year, it is a possibility given that the team seems set to open the season with Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, and Abraham Almonte as the closest things to defensively-minded outfielders. In short, there’s always going to be a DH-type in a corner, and if things go wrong, there could be a DH-type in each corner.
This is why the Mariners are likely to repeat their terrible team defense from a year ago. The 2014 club again has a pair of full-time DHs and a replacement level first baseman, but the situation at least looks a little more tenable. Two of the guys are approaching part-time player status, meaning the pieces should at least fit a little better and not be so entirely overlapping. There’s still likely to be a leadfoot in the outfield daily, but these are the Mariners, and that’s what the Mariners want. So here are the guys who might as well be DHs or minor leaguers, and here’s how they’ll likely fit into the organization’s plans for 2014.
Corey Hart: 2013 stats – (hurt all year) 2012 stats – 622 PA, .270/.334/.507, 30 HR, 124 wRC+, 2.2 WAR
Feast your eyes, Mariners fans: that’s what a robust slash line looks like. Hart walks and hits just enough to keep his OBP respectable, and then crushes the hell out of most-to-all pitched baseballs. In 2012 Hart had a .237 ISO, which is really, really good. In Corey Hart, the Mariners have a legitimate slugger, a star hitter who has always been underrated despite a long and awesome career in Milwaukee. His defense, of course, is terrible, whether he’s at first or in the outfield. Early reports from Mariners camp have him working primarily as an outfielder so far, so there you have it, Hart’s probably your starting right fielder out of the gate. But he missed the 2013 season with blown out knees, making him a natural fit for a lot of DH duty going forward. Hart’s always graded out slightly better in the outfield than at first, but the reality is that first is easier on the knees. Unfortunately, the decision to use Hart in right may be dependent on the fact that even with styrofoam knees, he’s still a better defender than his main competitor.
Logan Morrison: 2013 stats – 333 PA, .242/.333/.375, 6 HR, 96 wRC+, -0.6 WAR
Acquired for a reliever with home run issues, Logan Morrison is Justin Smoak but with the “ability” to play Morseian outfield defense. Not that left is the only place Morrison knows how to stink it up defensively, as he’s a crappy first baseman too. He was limited to 71 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers last season, and for good reason. Against righties he was an above-average hitter with nearly as many walks as strikeouts, suggesting he can be an effective player if platooned correctly. Like Hart, Morrison is likely to DH some and play the field some. There’s not really a possibility for a first base platoon with Smoak, since both “mash” righties and can’t really hit left-handed pitching. The fit here is so weird. Morrison may not play every day, but that doesn’t mean he won’t play at all. If anyone is going to “win” the DH spot, it’s probably Morrison. Despite looking like the least useful of all these players, it’s important and exciting to remember that this guy is only 26 and has been limited by injuries and only has fifteen hundred major league plate appea- yeah, he’s probably no good.
Justin Smoak: 2013 stats – 521 PA, .238/.334/.412, 20 HR, 109 wRC+, 0.4 WAR
Two thousand trips to the plate into his big league career, Justin Smoak is still a replacement level nobody with a full-time starting job. His offense hit a new “high” last year, while the rest of his game bottomed out. Justin Smoak is Logan Morrison: former top prospect, been in the bigs for four years trying to figure it out, not figuring it out at all. He could, in theory, form half of a decent first base platoon, but in all honesty the only positive about his skillset at this point is that he draws walks. Smoak is below replacement level for his career. He’s been a below average defender four out of four seasons. He’s been a below average baserunner four out of four seasons. He’s been a below average hitter three out of four seasons, and last year he was 0.3 runs better than league average. Smoak is a bad player who is inexplicably in line for a lot of playing time this year for a team that is also in the exact same situation with Logan Morrison. How even.
Jesus Montero: 2013 stats – 110 PA, .208/.264/.327, 3 HR, 62 wRC+, -0.4 WAR
Want to know what the depth looks like behind Morrison and Smoak at first base/DH? It looks like a guy who has no tools and no success at the big league level, who showed up overweight to camp after being suspended and hurt and awful last year. Montero, despite all he’s done, is still a highly visible part of the Mariners depth chart. If you need a reminder of how things could go wrong, notice that Montero is separated from a starting job by two other ex-prospects who have been similarly ineffective against big league pitching. Greeeeaaat.
This is how things are most likely going to shake out: Hart starts in right field, Smoak starts at first, LoMo starts at DH. The team will be willing to DH Hart some days in order to keep his bat in the lineup, and on those days Morrison will either sit in favor of an Abe Almonte type or start in the outfield. Smoak somehow looks like the every day first baseman, but on the inevitable days he sits Morrison and Hart will be available to take his starts.
There’s no way around it: this is a mess. Hart looks like a fine bet to be a productive DH in 2014, but he has his knees. Smoak and Morrison are just straight-up bad players, and there’s next to nothing in the way of depth. It’s easy to look at the M’s DH situation as “too many capable players for starting spots,” but in reality the quality is just severely lacking. Add the health uncertainty of the options, and it’s clear why the Mariners are going hard after another bat while refusing to trade Smoak. This team is poised to have three DH-types on the field every day, again. Last season they tried this, and it proved to be crippling. Fingers crossed they get different results from the same actions this time around.