Getting To Know The 2015 Seattle Mariners: Outfield


This is the seventh in a series of posts previewing the 2015 AL West. Previous posts: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners rotation, Seattle Mariners bullpen. Next up: Seattle Mariners infield.

When’s the last time the Seattle Mariners had an excellent outfield? 2001? Last year’s group featured heavy doses of James Jones and Stefen Romero. Remember how well that worked out? Remember what it was like to have Dustin Ackley and his below-average offense as the best thing going in the outfield?

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The guys roaming the grass are still a weak spot for the Mariners. This is a much-improved group, don’t get me wrong, and it’s not hard to imagine most (if not all) of these guys succeeding in the roles they’ve been assigned. But there’s also a real chance of collapse, and it’s present just about everywhere. This isn’t a safe outfield, but it was never supposed to be.

There are platoons. There are bounceback candidates and guys looking to sustain breakthroughs. There’s even a DH! It’s a whacky, wonderful outfield alignment built out of strange pieces that will probably move around a lot. But most importantly, it’s a better group than the team’s had in years. Progress is progress.

Dustin Ackley

Mar 17, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners outfielder Dustin Ackley against the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After three consecutive years of offensive shortcoming, the Mariners’ new plan for Ackley is to play him less. He’ll be platooned at least in part with Rickie Weeks, who’s also a (soon to be) former second baseman now deployed in left. It’s a disappointing prognosis for the guy taken one pick behind Stephen Strasburg.

What Ackley did in 2014 was show more power than ever before. He also played good defense in left, showing that he’s athletic enough to be good out there even without a good throwing arm. But fourteen dingers couldn’t make up for his inability to take a walk, and his batting average still isn’t nearly enough to support his overall offensive profile.

With some BABIP luck and continued development at the plate, Ackley could turn into more than a platoon outfielder. But the Mariners are right to be playing it safe, given how little they’ve gotten out of Ackley relative to what they were expecting. He could still be a key contributor, but the team is no longer hanging it’s hopes on that.

Rickie Weeks

Mar 18, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Rickie Weeks (25) stands on second base against the Oakland Athletics at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Meet the other left fielder, the one who was available for $2 million towards the end of the offseason. Many – most? – see Weeks as a has-been, a former star who’s just hanging on despite his well of success having dried up. A failed second baseman forced to adapt to a new role out in left. A platoon bat with no defensive value.

Except that last year Weeks had a 127 wRC+. The two years before that were bleak, sure, but before that he had a three year stretch where he hit just about as well as he did in 2014. His defense at second fell off a cliff, which is why he’s not a second baseman anymore. There’s still something in there, or at least it looks like there might be.

Weeks doesn’t need to be awesome to be a contributor. He’s a bat-first platoon player who might be athletic enough still to cut it in left. If so, awesome, sounds like he’ll help the Mariners win some games. If not the M’s can just release him. He was really cheap, you know.

Austin Jackson

Mar 22, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners center fielder Austin Jackson (16) grounds out in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest unknown going into 2015 is center fielder Austin Jackson, who stumbled in the first half before faceplanting after a deadline day deal sent him to Seattle. Before last year’s implosion, Jackson had two very strong seasons in Detroit. He’s 28 years old and headed to free agency at season’s end.

Anyone who’s watched him play since he came into the league knows there’s reason to believe in Jackson’s bat turning it around. But recency bias means we’re only thinking about his floundering 2014, and why shouldn’t we be? The recent past is the most instructive past, after all.

Flip a coin. Heads and Jackson is a three win player with above average offense and defense in center. Tails and he’s bad at everything to the extent that the M’s are shopping for a CF at the deadline. This could really go either way. Let’s hope it goes the good way.

Seth Smith

Mar 17, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners outfielder Seth Smith against the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Smith has quietly been a good hitter for the last seven years, though 2014 was his best season ever. Hitting in San Diego’s cave of a ballpark, Smith slashed .266/.367/.440. That’s startlingly good production, and he did it in the NL version of Safeco Field. He cost the M’s a good reliever, but they already had plenty of those. And now they have Seth Smith.

Lloyd McClendon is going to use Smith as the left handed part of a platoon, and it looks like a role he’s well-suited for. He mashes enough to make up for his shady defense, and if he’s shielded from lefty pitching a little, then great, he’s going to be given the best possible chance to replicate his recent success. The Mariners, using a player in a brainy platoon to give themselves a competitive advantage? What is this crazy new world?!

Smith’s unlikely to repeat his 133 wRC+, if only because nobody’s ever likely to repeat their career year. But he’s a safe bet to provide value, and the M’s are even going to do him the favor of optimizing the way he’s used. Best pickup of the offseason, if you’re asking me. Just don’t tell the next two guys on this list.

Justin Ruggiano

Mar 18, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Justin Ruggiano (12) leads off of first base against the Oakland Athletics at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the M’s outfielders are assigned one of three spots and told they’ll be finding their at-bats there and only there, but not Ruggiano. He’s going to mostly spell Smith in right against lefties, but he’s also expected to pick up time in left and center. That’s because he’s pretty good. Or at least, sometimes he is.

Nothing ever stood out about Ruggiano as a Rays minor leaguer, where he’d routinely mash in that classic AAA kind of way. The Marlins gave him 320 major league plate appearances in 2012 and he hit .313/.374/.535, which is down ballot MVP votes level production. He’ll likely never hit that well again, but it showed that his ability can translate.

He’s been a part-time major leauer the two seasons since his big breakthrough, and he’s generally hit well enough to justify a spot on the roster. His defense isn’t anything too exciting, but his sturdy bat makes up for it. It’s obvious why he’s a platoon candidate, just as it’s obvious why the M’s want to move him around and give him more looks. Why not? He’ll be 33 years old soon, but may yet have untapped upside.

Nelson Cruz

Mar 30, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) at bat against the Los Angeles Angels at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

If all goes as planned, Cruz won’t play a single inning in the outfield. That won’t happen, of course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Nellie sees more time in the corners than any of us are predicting now. He’s really bad at defense, you know. Mike Morse bad. Raul Ibanez bad. Like, never play him in the field ever no matter what bad.

He’s a DH, and last year he hit 40 home runs. He was worth almost four WAR despite being a huge negative on defense. This year he’s unlikely to see as much time in the field, but he’s also unlikely to hit that many homers again. His value may take a hit in Seattle, but he hits the ball so hard that Safeco shouldn’t really affect him much.

Nelson Cruz is not the key to it all, as many would have you believe. He’s a good hitter who’s sometimes a great hitter, and that’s all he’s here to do – hit the ball hard, and often. Cruz is a great fit on this team, and yes, he’s a “true” cleanup hitter. Not that anyone would be complaining about forty more homers, were that to somehow happen again.


Mar 30, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) at bat against the Los Angeles Angels at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Angels have Mike Trout, and so the Angels have the best outfield in the division. But for once, the Mariners have put together a compelling group of outfielders who complement each other well and bring their own strengths/weaknesses to the table. Considering that this is the M’s weakest group overall should tell you all you need to know about how well-situated this team is.

If Seattle wins the AL West, at least one of these outfielders had a strong season. Nobody needs to break out, however, and that’s just such a sigh of relief. Ruggiano, Smith, and Cruz just have to be what they’ve been. Ackley has to avoid a total faceplant. If Weeks keeps hitting, hey, great. If Jackson bounces back, hey, great. The M’s aren’t depending on their outfield to take them to the World Series. Which is smart of them.