Last Friday, when Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik announced that Dustin Ackley would begin working out at second base, he took great pains to state that this has little to do with incumbent second baseman Jose Lopez.
On the surface, that may be true. Ackley won’t be in the majors as a regular before at least the 2011 season and the team will obviously need a second baseman before then. But it doesn’t take an advanced degree in baseball team building to see the writing on this particular wall.
At this point, I seriously doubt Lopez suits up as a Mariner this coming spring.
There are simply too many options available to the Mariners in the interim while they wait for Ackley to arrive.
First off, the reasons why the M’s want to trade a guy who hit 25 homers and drove in 96 runs from a middle infield spot last season: they don’t value those numbers I just mentioned as much as they do others.
Lopez is a lousy on-base guy. As much as we’ve applauded him in this corner for some things, we’ve continued to state the fact that his on-base percentage simply wasn’t cutting it. Lopez finished with a .303 OBP this past season. That’s just about Mendoza-line for that particular stat. Fans in Seattle have grown used to sub-.300 OBP hitters over the years but it really isn’t any way to build a playoff contender.
For Lopez to overcome the drawback of his .300-type OBP, he’d have to slug close to .500 for his bat to be above average enough to overcome a mediocre glove. While he did that in the latter-half of 2009, overall he slugged just .463. So, that left him with a .766 on-base-plus slugging percentage, which isn’t bad for a slick-fielding second baseman. Unfortunately, even though Lopez’s defense wasn’t as bad as I’ve seen it previously, he’ll never be mistaken for a Fielding Bible award winner.
The Mariners know they can do better in the field. And asking a slick-fielding second baseman to post a .766 OPS at the plate really isn’t that tall an order. If that fielder can post a .766 OPS, the Mariners know they will be significantly upgrading over Lopez — regardless of how many home runs or RBI are part of the equation.
Get a substantial glove upgrade and the new guy could post an OPS in the low 700s and the M’s would still have a shot at coming out ahead in the process. The M’s front office knows that RBI are almost entirely the product of luck and opportunity, not any serious skill. A good hitter who gets guys on in front of him will collect a lot of RBI. Lopez is a decent hitter who had a lot of guys on in front of him. He had some home run power and when that is the case, the RBI will pile up.
But that still leaves all the times Lopez didn’t hit a home run. All of those outs he hit into roughly 70 percent of the time.
The Mariners figure they can do better. And they know they might never have a better chance to get a return on Lopez than right now — specifically because of those home run and RBI numbers I just mentioned. As smart as most GM types are (smarter than many of you think) they can still be blinded by the big power numbers. They make any incoming player an easy sell to the fanbase. They also get GMs drooling about a player’s potential. And hey, at 25 (actually, he turned 26 today, so Happy Birthday, Jose), Lopez still has potential. Any second baseman capable of a 30-homer, 100-RBI season, as Lopez is, has a bat that can’t be ignored. And just as the M’s have done with him the past several seasons. a new team would hope he could lift that slugging to .500, or that OBP to .330, and become a premium bat at his position. Combine that with a manageable contract and you’ve got the makings of a decent trade chit.
No, the M’s are not about to move Lopez to first base. It’s a nice thing for fans to toss around during the Hot Stove season, but it makes no sense.
For one thing, Lopez doesn’t want to move to first base. Yes, the team gets final say and the player has to accept that, but let’s try living in the real world. No team wants players that are unhappy. Especially teams that have the option of moving the potentially unhappy player first.
The Mariners also have Mike Carp waiting in the wings as a potential first base answer. As bad as his glove can look at first base, I doubt Carp would be much of a downgrade over Lopez and Carp has shown the ability to work counts and post a decent OBP. Overall, I figure Carp could post a .766 OPS if given the chance. He could probably do better than that and his glove wouldn’t be much worse — if at all — than Lopez’s at that position. And Carp, a lefty hitter to Lopez’s righty swing, would be happy as a major league first baseman. So, why not just use him there if you aren’t going to bring anyone else in?
Let’s not forget Russell Branyan, who is still out there and could still sign with the Mariners. Given the choice between Branyan and Lopez at first base, the M’s take the lefty power bat every time.
And there’s the trade and free-agent market. I read an item over the weekend that listed the Mariners as one of three suitors for Adrian Gonzalez of the Padres should that team trade him. That’s not a certainty yet, but there’s also Nick Johnson out there on the free-agent market. He’d be a better first base option than Lopez at the moment. How about Prince Fielder in Milwaukee? You know the M’s and Brewers will talk trade at some point this winter and I’m sure Fielder’s name will come up. We’ve already heard rumblings about Lyle Overbay in Toronto perhaps being repatriated to his home state.
The bottom line is, any one of those names would be a better solution at first base than Lopez.
Who plays second base?
Matt Tuiasosopo. Bill Hall. There are two free agents out there, Orlando Hudson and Placido Polanco, who would be upgrades over Lopez.
And please, let’s not get into penny pinching and money talk. Yeah, some of the guys I’ve mentioned cost a whole lot more than Lopez. But the Mariners have money. Most of baseball is raking in a ton of revenue from media deals (traditional and new media) and that will more than offset any downturn in attendance. The Mariners have $50 million or so in contract payouts coming off the books with the free agencies of Adrian Beltre, Erik Bedard, Miguel Batista, Jarrod Washburn and Kenji Johjima. They have money to use on upgrading the offense (and the defense, in the case of second base).
If you want to build a winner, you will eventually have to spend more money on certain positions than you would on some cost-effective contracts. Talk to any scout about the defensive weaknesses remaining on this ballclub and almost any of them will tell you it’s up the middle of the infield. Jack Wilson will take care of that at shortstop and now, the second base spot is in the team’s hands.;
Some might choose to take Zduriencik literally when he says the move of Ackley to second base is just an experiment and has nothing to do with Lopez.
Just like the move of Phillippe Aumont to a closer role was also experimental. Zduriencik doesn’t do experiments like a mad scientist hoping to see what causes an explosion. He goes into these things with his eyes fully open and expecting positive results. And a positive result in Ackley’s case means Lopez at most has one more year as a second baseman with the M’s.
In reality, the team is likely already planning Lopez’s departure. We’ll know more after the winter meetings in a couple of weeks. .