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You’ll hear a lot a at this camp about the Jason Bay-Casper Wells battle for the final outfield spot. But in reality, we wouldn’t even be having a battle had the Mariners not gone out and gotten Robert Andino to be their backup infielder. The Mariners acquired Andino via trade with the Baltimore Orioles, sending Trayvon Robinson over in return.
Robinson has already been designated for assignment, taken off the 40-man roster and been re-signed to a minor league contract by Baltimore after nobody claimed him.
Meanwhile, Andino remains an integral part of Seattle’s major league plans. You see, he’s the reason the team has chosen to go with only one backup infielder instead of the two they’d usually carry. And that call will enable the team to carry a fifth outfielder after the quartet of Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez. Hence, the battle between Wells and Bay.
Sound good? I mean, we may only be talking about the 24th and 25th spots here when we discuss backup infielders and fifth outfielders. But every job counts on a roster and a team that’s hit as poorly as the Mariners the past four years needs any fix they can get. And Andino should help add to the Mariners’ offense, both by his own numbers and the ability to allow the team to carry an extra outfielder.
The reason the Mariners can carry only Andino has to do largely with the fact that he’s a natural shortstop who, when healthy, can play the position multiple days in a row without hurting the team. He is also a guy who — up until last year — could actually hit a bit in the backup role. To get a guy who can be a regular shortstop, play the corners and actually hit somewhat like a regular when needed is not all that common. You’ve got backups who can play all kinds of positions for a day or two, maybe. Kyle Seager can fill in at shortstop for a few innings, or maybe a start once in a while. But not several games in a row. Not without stats dropping through the floor.
“Over the years, I’ve learned how to play third and second so I got comfortable with it,” Andino said. “But I’ve been playing shortstop my whole life, so it’s been comfortable for me. So, I’m comfortable at short, second and third. I don’t really have to worry about it.”
Mariners minor league infield coach Chris Woodward is here working with the team in spring training. Woodward played for a decade as both a starting and utility infielder at various positions around the infield — including shortstop — and agreed that a guy like Andino can be a valuable addition to any team.
“Usually, when you play shortstop you can play everywhere else,” Woodward said. “But it’s up to you to go out of your way to get some work in at the various positions, maybe go to the outfield and shag. But yeah, having a backup guy who can play shortstop every day and who can actually hit and do some things with the bat, that’s really important.”
And Andino can play more often than the backups the Mariners have used in their infield lately.
As recently as 2011, Andino actually got 511 plate appearances with the Orioles. He hit .263 with a .670 OPS while playing in 94 games at second base, 30 at shortstop, 22 at third and three in left field.
If the Mariners could get anything similar in terms of hitting and versatility from Andino this year, they’d be thrilled. Last season, they carried Munenori Kawasaki for his shortstop and second base abilities and used Chone Figgins as the backup at third base as well as for outfield depth.
The problem is, Kawasaki hit .192 with a horrible .459 OPS — with just one double for his lone extra-base hit. While some fans and media fell in love with his dugout dancing antics — and who wouldn’t, right? — the reality is the team could not afford to put him on the field unless they absolutely had to. That’s why he had only 115 plate appearances all season, was limited to pinch-running duty by the end and was among the first players cut this winter.
As for Figgins, we all know about him. But one reason he stayed on the roster all season was that the Mariners just did not have a capable backup infielder in the event somebody went down with an injury.
Things have changed since.
Now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection knows that Andino hit just .211 with a .588 OPS last year with the Orioles. But he did it over 431 plate appearances — more than double what Kawasaki did — and his numbers (while not good) were still better than the Mariners had from their main shortstop backup last season.
Let’s face it: the reason Andino only cost the Mariners the price of Robinson via trade was his poor numbers. The Mariners are banking on the fact a mid-season shoulder injury had something to do with the tumble taken by his stats.
Andino was hitting .230 with a .617 OPS before the injury. He was .164 with a .516 OPS after returning from the DL.
“It was a long season and I got hurt,” Andino said, with a shrug. “I just tried to pull through that and all the adversity. I’ve just got to pull forward. Last year was last year. This year’s a new year. I remember last year, but that’s in the past.”
The pre-injury, .617 OPS is nothing to crow about. But again, it was over 431 plate appearances. And when it comes to backups, the defensive side will always be a priority — especially for a shortstop. And the number of games Andino got into last year despite his offensive struggles is a sign that his defense is good enough for the Orioles to have kept running him out there time and time again. Lift that OPS a bit and the Mariners will have a backup that they and any other team would gladly live with.
As it is, the fact Andino can play all the positions Figgins did and is a better shortstop already has the Mariners one player ahead on the roster front. If they’re in a pinch late because of injuries or a multiple-substitution need, they can put Michael Morse at third base for an inning or two and slide Seager over to shorstop. But they don’t have to use two roster spots on backup infielders and that’s a bonus, largely because extra outfielders tend to wield bigger bats and will offer the team more late pinch-hitting options.
Then, there’s the shortstop thing. The Mariners would have loved to give Brendan Ryan more rest last season as he struggled to lift his batting average above .200. But they couldn’t do it, mainly because Kawasaki was not an MLB caliber player.
Now, they have Andino to fill in at least a couple of games per week at the position without killing the team if Ryan needs a rest.
Andino didn’t get many chances to play shortstop last year with J.J. Hardy around. Hardy won the Gold Glove at the position, so Andino will have the distinction of having played alongside that trophy winner as well as Fielding Bible Award recipient Ryan in consecutive seasons.
“I learned a lot from J.J., just watching him play and talking to him,” Andino said. “He’s a real stand-up guy.”
Hardy told Andino that: “You can’t be too quick at all times. The first thing you’ve got to do is catch it and throw it. If he’s safe, he’s safe. Your ability is going to dictate that. But just catch it first.”
The Mariners have done a good job of catching the ball the past few seasons. Now, with Andino shoring up the backup spots near the end of the roster, they hope it’s just one more way they might hit the ball a little bit better in 2013.