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To date, the Mariners have been one of the offseason’s most active clubs. As far as free agency goes, they’ve made the biggest financial commitment to a single player (Cano) as well as the grittiest commitment to the scrappiest player (Bloomquist). They patched a big offensive hole while accounting for the presumed loss of Kendrys Morales. For all the work they have yet to do, the Mariners have checked a lot off their wish list. Yet the team’s most obvious need was a bunch of new outfielders, and until recently the Mariners had yet to add an outfielder who can actually play the outfield.
Recently, the Mariners added an outfielder who can actually play the outfield. That outfielder is Franklin Gutierrez, who agreed to terms yesterday on a one year, $1 million pact with plate appearance-based incentives that can push the total of the deal up to $3 million. It’s a tiny price for a guy who last year posted the same isolated slugging percentage as David Ortiz, and who was recently regarded as the best defensive center fielder on planet earth. The Mariners had a glaring need for outfield depth, and just added a high quality player for essentially nothing. Guti won’t play every day, but for $1 million that’s perfectly alright.
Of course, that’s the whole thing with Guti: he won’t play every day. Not because his bat and glove have declined to the point where he isn’t useful enough to be a starter, but because he is a medical nightmare. Gutierrez might be the most oft-injured player in baseball. His injuries are often freakish in nature, but they’re also serious things, and have kept him off the field the majority of the last several years. Or at least off Safeco Field, as he played more 2013 games on rehab with Tacoma than he did with the big club. When we think of Franklin Gutierrez, we inevitably think of 2009 Franklin Gutierrez. That was a player who was worth six wins over 629 plate appearances. That player isn’t coming back, if only because 2014 Franklin Gutierrez is not going to come to the plate 629 times.
One notes that Gutierrez matched his 629 plate appearances in 2010, but was a well below average hitter with pedestrian fielding numbers, and his WAR was a third of what it had been the previous year. That was Guti playing through a significant ailment that caused him to lose tons of weight, sapping his strength and stamina. From 2011 to 2013, he had a total of 658 plate appearances and 1.2 WAR. His offense rebounded the last two seasons, but the samples were tiny. But his strength did seem to return, which resulted in a steady slugging hike. Meanwhile, his defense has remained in steady decline, as defense tends to do. He’s older now. These things are to be expected.
As far as fits for the 2014 roster are concerned, Gutierrez is perfect. He’s all-upside, given his contract and playing time expectations. The Mariners are paying him to be a non-factor, and Guti himself has stated that he’s more comfortable only playing a few times a week. When he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll play, sometimes. When he plays he can be expected to display the skills we’ve come to expect: moderate power, a low on-base percentage, and good-to-great defense. As an occasional starter on a nothing contract, he’s a good fit for a roster that is in dire need of upside.
There’s a chance 2014 Franklin Gutierrez contributes nothing. He might not play a game. He might be a wreck in the field and lost at the plate, and he could push way into the negative wins. But there’s a chance he rebounds, reaches some plate appearance bonuses, smacks some dingers, and plays good defense. Due to his unique injury history, he’s an especially tricky player to project. Steamer and such don’t know that Gutierrez was sick and misdiagnosed in 2010, or that he’s only back with the M’s because they were especially encouraged by his medicals this offseason. It’s so easy to look past the warning signs and see the imminent return of Franklin Gutierrez, Impact Talent. That’s always the case with him. He’s an easy guy to get excited about, despite everything.
What we know is that the Mariners are going to control the rights to Franklin Gutierrez for at least one more year. What we don’t know is if he’s going to end up playing much, or if he’ll be any good when he does. But the upside is irresistible, and the downside is that he sucks a lot and is cut. This move can not sink the 2014 Mariners. Franklin Gutierrez may not be a starting outfielder, but he’s a low-risk, high-reward depth piece who could produce serious surplus value if things break right for him. Things never seem to break right for him, of course, but hey, things change. The Mariners are hoping that things change.