What Should The Mariners Do at First Base?


Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s too early to say with any degree of certainty that the 2014 Mariners will be bad. It’s tempting to think we know this already, and recent failures do seem to paint this impending failure as inevitable, but this is baseball we’re talking about and in baseball there’s no point in predicting the future. The Red Sox are two wins from the World Series, and just about everyone picked them to finish last this year. That’s because it’s tougher to predict bad teams becoming good than to predict good teams staying good and bad teams staying bad, so we hardly ever do. Baseball is random, so while it makes sense to evaluate the future based off the recent past, it’s also critical to remember that there’s a chance our evaluations – any evaluations – are a few months away from looking completely off-base.

Which brings us to the 2014 Mariners, and in particular the first base position. It’s been a while since the Mariners got good production out of first base. Actually it’s really just been since July, but not since 2009 Russell Branyan have the M’s been able to coax a full season of good out of the most offensively-minded position on the diamond. The 2010 team started off with a black hole named Casey Kotchman before acquiring Justin Smoak in July. For the last three and a half years the position has mostly belonged to Smoak, although he has lost the job several times and produced only 0.3 wins above replacement over 1,667 plate appearances. While it’s true that Smoak posted the highest isolated slugging of his career in 2013, it’s also true that he posted a .174 isolated slugging in 2013. There’s no reason to be confident in the improvement potential of a player who was bad in the recent past and also has never not been bad.

Smoak is estimated to make $2.8 million dollars in his first trip through the arbitration process. While this sum is quite small overall, it’s probably a slight overpay for a guy who has been just about worthless over nearly three full big league seasons. Smoak made about $500,000 last season, which, yeah, that sounds about right given his on-field value. Smoak was a bad player on a bad team. When bad teams want to become good teams, they start by replacing bad players with good players. So that means Smoak should be the first to go, right?

Right, in theory, except that this is still the same Justin Smoak who was the centerpiece of a package for Cliff Lee. If you’re the centerpiece of a package for Cliff Lee then you get to hang around and be ineffective forever and people never stop making excuses for you. Factor in that Smoak looked much improved in the early parts of the season and managed to finish with career-best numbers all around, paltry as they were, and the excuses practically start generating themselves. But Smoak ended the year looking miserable, which in turn made his end-of-season numbers miserable, which is how his season-ending numbers have always looked, because he’s never not been bad. So we’re back to “replace him.”

But. But but but. What are the Mariners needs this offseason? Or rather, here’s a list of things the Mariners have: a third baseman, a shortstop, two starting pitchers and a closer. So the Mariners need, like, twenty things, whereas by “things” I mean “high-quality professional baseball players.” The needs probably start with a starting catcher, as there is just no reason the team should deny Mike Zunino the opportunity to learn how to hit AAA pitching. Next priority is three starting outfielders, assuming Nick Franklin goes to Tacoma and Dustin Ackley rightfully moves back to second. Michael Saunders can even hang around as a good fourth outfielder, which has probably been his long-term role all along. The team could search for a DH, I guess, but assigning one or two guys to that slot is seemingly an antiquated way of approaching that position. Oh yeah, another top starter and some scrap heap relievers are going to be necessary, too. And then we get back to first base.

Upgrading first base is less important than upgrading at outfield or catcher, where there is just actually nobody to play going into next year. Smoak, as bad as he is, is better than total nothingness. The rotation just finished being unbelievably bad beyond the first two spots, and it makes no sense to lean heavily on young guys and no depth going forward. First base is probably next on the priority list, but who’s going to be available? How can the team add a bunch of outfielders, a good starter, and yet another middling backstop and upgrade from Justin Smoak?

The answer probably involves smart platooning, which Jack Z has hinted at recently. Looking at Smoak’s 2013 splits, we see that he was a much, much better player batting left handed. Smoak against righties: .361 OBP, 134 wRC+, .218 ISO. Those are fantastic, star-level numbers, albeit in a small 357-PA sample. Smoak against lefties: .274 OBP, 54 wRC+, .082 ISO. That’s okay for a pitcher, I guess, and the numbers do come in an even smaller 164 PA sample. For his career, for reference, Smoak has a 101 wRC+ against righties and an 82 wRC+ against lefties, so his results have been less skewed towards extremes. But assuming he really did take some kind of step forward in 2013, it’s clear he did so only against right-handed pitching. That, coupled with his salary, should be good enough reason for the M’s to retain him this winter.

The Mariners need a new first baseman, but the solution to their woes doesn’t require jettisoning the one they already have. The team simply needs to limit the way Smoak is used, thus limiting the ways in which he can actively hurt their win totals. Smoak should probably never face another lefty again, and the Mariners should be working hard to identify effective lefty-mashing first basemen who can be had for cheap. Or maybe the Mariners throw Smoak on the tire fire and sign Jose Dariel Abreu to some nutso contract. The fun thing about being bad is that there are so many ways to improve. The n0t-fun thing about being bad is trading value for Michael Morse. The Mariners have options here. Let’s hope they do something reasonably intelligent.

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