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December 13, 2012 at 3:58 PM

Who? Who? Who? Who’s left for Mariners now that Josh Hamilton is off the table?

Michael Bourn was an all-star caliber center fielder in Houston for years before moving on to Atlanta last season. Photo Credit: AP

Every year, we get into a “Who? Who? Who?” debate on this blog about whether there were ever really any bats out there that the last-place Mariners could possibly have acquired to help them. Just to run down the list from this winter one more time, in reference to free agents and trade targets already off the board that could have helped make Seattle better: Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan, Kevin Youkilis, Shin-Soo Choo, Torii Hunter, Ryan Ludwick, Shane Victorino, Melky Cabrera.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch, but feel free to default to that list next summer when the “Who? Who? Who?” owls make their annual pilgrimage to the comments section, set up nests and start unleashing their droppings.

In the spirit of keeping the list current and raising the spirits of fans who assume all hope was lost today when Hamilton signed with the Los Angeles Angels, there still exist some offensive avenues for the team to explore that do not include Hamilton.

For me, the most intriguing one doesn’t even involve Nick Swisher. Most people and their laptop technicians now expect Swisher to jump to the Texas Rangers to fill the outfield void left by Hamilton’s big bat. Thing is, Swisher is not Hamilton and probably never will be. Sure, you can make a case that some of their statistics are similar, including their on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) and their WAR (wins above replacement level). But the similarities end there when it comes to the type of presence and impact each can have on a lineup.

With Hamilton, you know the game can change with one swing of his bat — no matter what ballpark he is playing in — because his raw power places him amongst the elite of the game. With Swisher, the high OPS is attributable more to his walk rate and on-base ability, where Hamilton tends to be a free swinger and send the ball a long, long way when he does connect.

And when it comes to the impact on any given lineup, the thought of Hamilton sitting smack dab in the middle of it has the ability to terrify opposing pitchers, even when they are several batters away from facing him. You’re going to think twice and then three times before putting anybody on base ahead of Hamilton — even if “ahead” means three or four spots up in the batting order. With Swisher, not as much. That’s a major difference between the two and why Hamilton is considered more of an “impact” bat and will get the bigger money from teams willing to spend on such intangibles.

It’s why you see guys like GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge saying they’d have chosen Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout for MVP despite Trout having similar numbers and a higher WAR. It’s for the lineup impact. You can’t measure it. But the folks running real baseball teams and throwing pitches in actual MLB games know what it’s all about. And it’s possibily the biggest reason why so many pitchers have taken so many liberties with the Mariners over the last several seasons — the non-existence of anything in the heart of the order that would make pitchers really afraid of putting guys on base.

Swisher isn’t one of those types of bats, even though his better walk rate and defense keeps his WAR up there on a similar level to Hamilton.

Now, that doesn’t mean Swisher would not constitute a major upgrade for Seattle. The Mariners need good bats and Swisher has one. He can also play right field and first base, which are two areas of need for the Mariners.

But the fact remains, he is not Hamilton. His bat will not impact Seattle’s offense the way Hamilton’s would have. It will make the offense better, but not in the game-changing way that Hamilton’s might have. And for me, that factor alone means that the Mariners losing out on Hamilton does not automatically default them towards Swisher as a fallback plan.

It is not “Swisher or Bust” as one commenter suggested to me earlier.

For me, knowing that any chance of a pure power, middle-of-the-order guy has now vanished, I’d be more inclined to take a look at Michael Bourn as the team’s primary option going forward. To be honest, the Bourn option has always intrigued me because of the so very different approach to bettering the team that it provides.

Like it or not, the Mariners do not have a true leadoff hitter at the moment.

They also do not have a center fielder capable of staying on the field for 140 games per season. Michael Saunders has never played that many in center and he is not the same as Franklin Gutierrez when he does. Gutierrez is the better of the two, but can’t stay on the field. With one year left on his contract and then a pricey option for 2014, the Mariners have to start seriously thinking about what they do in center going forward.

A Bourn signing gives you that everyday center fielder the team currently lacks. Yes, currently lacks. Until Gutierrez shows he has the durability to last six months out there, the position remains a huge question mark.

Bourn also gives you a true leadoff hitter and lets you bat Dustin Ackley second or third, which the team figures is his best spot.

And with Bourn as the full-time center fielder, it lets you utilitze Gutierrez in right field, where he is really only needed in platoon-type fashion if he either struggles or gets hurt again. The Mariners aren’t going to play Gutierrez seven days per week in any event, since they’d like to keep him rested enough to at least get out there four or five times every seven games.

With Bourn in center, you could have a Saunders-Gutierrez platoon in right field and a Saunders-Jason Bay platoon in left. It wouldn’t have to even be a strict platoon (and couldn’t be with that much shuffling around), but the option for Saunders to be used in both corners is an intriguing one that makes the Mariners better at all three outfield spots compared to last season. Remember, with the fences coming in, the need to have your best corner outfield defender in left is no longer as prevalent as it once was. I would expect to see more of Saunders in right field this year in any event if no major moves happen from here on in.

The Mariners have also talked about bringing in another OF/1B type and if Bourn was signed, they would likely go lower budget on that other bat. So, I could see somebody like a Cody Ross or even a Raul Ibanez being added in that regard. Ross is a right-handed bat, naturally, so the ability to platoon him with Gutierrez is out. Ibanez is left-handed, so there would be a more natural platoon fit there. Neither guy has played first base, though they have worked out at the position and would really only be insurance for Justin Smoak. You could also have a left-handed hitter like Brennan Boesch — a possible trade target for the Mariners — come in from Detroit to form that left-right platoon with Gutierrez in right field. Not sure how much better he is than what the Mariners already has, but that’s a possible fit in Seattle for him.

But anyway, that’s for the Mariners to figure out later.

Point is, if you get Bourn, you fix your long-term leadoff and center field needs. And you make the corners stronger by putting more experienced major leaguers in both positions, rather than some of the poor trial runs we saw from less experienced guys last season. If Gutierrez really is meant to be a full-time outfielder rather than a part-timer, you can leave Saunders mostly in left and let Bay earn his playing time there.

In any event, the Mariners would be better off than they were when last season ended. And they could use the coming year ahead to step up their search for that always-elusive big bat.

In my mind, though, Swisher isn’t really that missing bat piece. They’d still need to get a real mid-order type of guy at some point down the road even if Swisher signed with Seattle.

So, I wouldn’t scoff at Bourn just yet. As I wrote last week, the skills that he brings to the table — think Ichiro, not Chone Figgins — have proved successful playing home games at Safeco Field in the past. And if the Mariners can make themselves demonstrably better this winter, then the off-season will not have been a waste.

Let’s see what they do. There is still much worth watching as the winter unfolds.

0 Comments | More in Free agents | Topics: franklin gutierrez, josh hamilton, Michael Bourn

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