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December 20, 2012 at 12:46 PM

Look for Michael Saunders to play much more right field for Mariners this year

Look for Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders to see more action in right field this year as part of upgrades in a revamped home ballpark. Photo Credit AP

There are only so many more things we can say about the Kendrys Morales deal before we find out who’s still here in spring training and see how they play. Yes, the Mariners could now, in theory, trade either Justin Smoak or Jesus Montero if the right deal comes along. Personally, I’d like to see how they fare in the revamped Safeco Field confines first. Also, until we know for sure that Morales can play first base more than a few times per week, he’ll have to have another guy there to replace him and it won’t be Montero or John Jaso, who the Mariners have already ruled out as realistic first base options.

One guy I still believe this deal dramatically lessens the chances of the Mariners getting is Nick Swisher, primarily because a lot of his value to Seattle lay in his ability to play first base as well as right field. Well, you now have Morales and Smoak as switch-hitting first basemen, so adding Swisher there really crowds the field. Also, I’m not sure the Mariners will be willing to spend the money needed to get Swisher. The money is still there, since the Mariners are actually saving a couple of million by flipping the Jason Vargas arbitration cost for that of Morales.

But having the money there, in theory, is not the same as actually spending it.

So, we’ll see what the Mariners actually do. If I’m wrong and they do indeed make a push for Swisher — and actually land him instead of finishing second — then you’d have a longer-term guy than Morales as a first base option. That part makes sense when it comes to protecting the team, as well as providing some leverage in what to do with Morales as you look towards an extension.

But still, Swisher is looking for impact-performer type money and the Mariners don’t view him as an impact bat in the Hamilton mode. I wrote about this last week when we discussed slugging percentages and the impact a one-swing game-changer can have on a lineup. So, for me, with Swisher, the money will be the big factor. The Mariners just got a guy I’m sure they view as more of an impact bat in Morales and they got him plenty cheaper than the Swish will wind up signing for.

Just my take. Feel free to disagree.

As for what will happen in the outfield this year, the one guy who could play a very prominent role in it is Michael Saunders. And I can see him performing that role more from right field this year than most of the people I read are really envisioning at this point.

Now, that would change if Swisher is signed. But since I really don’t see that happening, I do feel Saunders will be seeing quite a bit of time in the other outfield corner. The fact that Saunders is seen more as a left fielder and center fielder has more to do with Safeco Field than anyplace else.┬áSafeco has always made it tough for left field defenders because of the way it’s configured and so, the Mariners naturally try to get their better outfield defenders at that spot.

But with the fences moving in, that will likely change.

The Mariners now expect left field to become an easier place to defend than it had been before. The trick is to figure out how much easier. And nobody will know that until they start to play actual games there. But Mariners officials I’ve spoken with say they agree that the need to play your best defender in left likely won’t be as urgent as before.

Right now, if the season began tomorrow, I could see the Mariners going with a starting outfield of Jason Bay in left, Franklin Gutierrez in center and Saunders in right field with Casper Wells as the backup.

If the Mariners were to sign Michael Bourn, then things would get very interesting.

Because I could then envision a situation much like the Mariners have in their firstbase/DH/catcher slot at the moment, with four players — Morales, Smoak, Montero and Jaso — all getting close to regular playing time and at-bats at only three positions.

As was mentioned on USS Mariner this morning, it is theoretically possible to get those four players something like 500 plate appearances apiece by rotating some of them around.

Now, I don’t actually see that happening in reality — and neither does Dave Cameron — but it is possible in theory.

I think it’s even more possible to have it happen in reality in the outfield if Bourn is signed.

You could then go with a starting outfield of Bay in left, Bourn in center and Gutierrez in right. But the kicker is, Saunders could still get starting time six or seven days per week by rotating him at all three outfield spots.

We know from experience that manager Eric Wedge does not view Gutierrez as a seven-day player and he would likely give him two days off per week. And when he does, you would have Saunders starting games in right field.

There is no chance that Bay plays the field seven days per week with his health history. In that case, you play Saunders in left field two or three or even four days per week.

And even an everyday guy like Bourn will need a day off once every week or two.

Right there, I’ve just given you a scenario where Saunders can play six times per week. That’s full-time status even without a full-time position.

The key to keeping the outfield healthy will be in its flexibility. You want to get the most out of Gutierrez and Bay and get them their ABs? Don’t force all the ABs their way the first few months.

Yes, I am counting on Bay being healthy this season. And if he isn’t, or retires in spring training (we’ve seen that happen before) then you’ve still got Wells as a left-right combo partner with Saunders in left. Just swap in Wells for Bay.

Folks forget that, in the team’s current outfield, Saunders is the closest thing to a power guy the Mariners have.

He led the Mariners in slugging last year among full-time position players and led all outfielders in home runs with 19. His isolated power of .185 was tops on the entire team, including part-time player Jaso.

As an outfield combo, having Saunders and Gutierrez patrolling right field the majority of the time would offensively be a big boost over what the Mariners trotted out there last season and the past several years to be honest.

And for me, the ability to bounce Saunders around all three outfield spots is a valuable commodity for the Mariners at this point: namely because it allows you to look at options like Gutierrez and Bay as four, or five-day-a-week answers with Saunders filling in the blanks.

It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper than paying one guy $15 million per season to man right field on a full-time basis. Corner outfielders who are not high-impact lineup guys — on a.500-slugging level — usually tend to be cheaper than that. It’s a different story for premium center field defenders who can also hit a bit, or get on base and use speed.

Saunders is a lot like Wells that way in his versatility. Only difference is, Saunders has shown he can hit as an MLB regular. Wells hasn’t done that yet. Saunders has also shown he can hit both-handed pitching. Wells hasn’t.

And that’s a world of difference.

With the Mariners unsure of their outfield future at the moment, Saunders becomes their ace-in-the-hole.

Especially if they can spare his left field defense and use it in right a lot more often.

Oh yeah, as an aside, we’ve mentioned before that Bourn has Scott Boras as an agent. Just happens to also be the agent for Morales. When the Mariners have another lunch discussion with Boras about possibly paying to bring his outfield client to Seattle, maybe, when they’re wrapping up dessert, they can raise the subject of extending his first base client before he hits free agency?

Hey, it never hurts to ask.

 

Comments | More in Free agents | Topics: kendrys morales, Michael Bourn, michael saunders

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