Endy Chavez has worked out wonderfully for the Mariners as emergency outfield insurance. In fact, he’s worked out almost too wonderfully.
It’s been only six games, but it’s tough not to notice Chavez with that spanking .353 OBP sitting atop a lineup that once again is woefully underachieving in that category. For those who keep asking why the Mariners insist on batting Chavez leadoff, there’s your answer.
But here’s the problem.
In another week and a half, Michael Saunders will be eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list and the Mariners will have to find room on the roster for him. The logical step would be to send Chavez back to Class AAA, but that won’t be so simple. Chavez is a 35-year-old veteran long out of minor league options and would have to be outrighted to AAA, which means any team could put a claim in on him.
The way Chavez has produced offensively and played defensively, there’s a good chance that could happen.
And if the Mariners lose Chavez to a waiver claim, they would be flying without a safety net for the rest of the season should Saunders get hurt again. We already saw last season with Mike Carp that a sprained AC joint in the shoulder can be a year-long hassle for a player and there’s no guarantee Saunders won’t be feeling his injury from time to time as the season progresses.
Now, the Mariners could solve that problem by simply keeping Chavez on the team. But that creates a whole new problem.
The biggest one is, the Mariners are already stretching the rest of their roster pretty thin by carrying five outfielders. Keeping Chavez would leave them with six outfielders on the 25-man squad and that’s simply poor roster management.
So, if Chavez stays, who goes?
Raul Ibanez is earning close to $3 million. Is the team going to simply eat that money with roughly 80 percent of the season still to play?
Jason Bay is cheaper at only $1 million guaranteed and also plays the outfield corners — better than at least two of the guys in the pile. More importantly, he’s a right-handed bat and part of the rationale for keeping him was as a late-game pinch-hitter from that side. Chavez is a left-handed bat, so the team would be losing that dimension by taking him over Bay.
As for the other outfielders, the team isn’t about to drop Michael Morse, Franklin Gutierrez, or Saunders.
So, yeah, what to do?
I don’t really have an answer. This is a very unusual predicament to see a major league team in and the big reason is that — for all the talk about this team’s improved farm depth — the Mariners are woefully thin in center fielders from Class AAA on down.
Right now, the Mariners are in a spot of having to either carry six outfielders or expose themselves to serious risk the final five months of the season should Saunders get hurt again. Because if the Mariners do try to outright Chavez to AAA and he gets claimed, they have nobody capable of playing multiple games per week in center field
We’ve already seen that Gutierrez can’t be counted on to play more than three or four games in a row. He’s produced just what the Mariners need when he does play — sort of like John Jaso last year when his role was limited — so I just don’t see the team pushing its luck by trying for more. Especially the way Gutierrez tends to go down to injury the minute his playing time increases. Remember, the whole risk here is having too many center fielders getting hurt. If Gutierrez and Saunders go down at the same time, the results would be devastating for the lineup.
So, Gutierrez going forward has to be viewed as a four-days-per-week guy, which means you need somebody to play center those other three days. Without Chavez around, another Saunders injury would be catastrophic.
Now, before anybody chimes in with an “I told you so!” about Casper Wells, you should know that keeping the latter would not have solved this problem. Wells was also out of options and keeping him on the roster as a third center fielder would have simply been subbing one poor roster management move for another.
You aren’t going to keep Wells as one of your 25 guys in MLB all year long because you need him as third center field insurance. That’s not too smart. This team, frankly, has corner outfielders with minor league options who can hit just as well or better than Wells and are currently stationed in AAA. So, the only real value Wells had left was as a backup center fielder and the Mariners already have two guys at that position in MLB. Teams don’t need three in the majors.
The problem here, if we want to point fingers, has always been Gutierrez. If he was a seven-days-per-week, full-time center fielder, then you can pretty much cross your fingers and take the chance that he and Saunders won’t get hurt at the same time.
But since Gutierrez has proven he can’t stay healthy as a full-time player, you always have to assume he’ll need another guy around to replace him several days per week even when he isn’t hurt. And you always have to assume he’s one at-bat away from going down again. Look, I don’t want to do it, but it is what it is. His history over the last five seasons is out there, dating back to his time with the Indians. He has never been able to play full-time without his numbers or health taking a hit.
So, going forward beyond 2013, the Mariners are going to have to deal with this and find themselves a full-time center fielder or else keep facing this roster management issue over and over.
As for what to do the rest of this year, they may face a very uncomfortable choice about letting a veteran player go in a couple of weeks.
When they made the call to DFA Wells and use Chavez as their AAA insurance, it was in case of an emergency they had hoped would only happen once we were pretty deep into the season. Instead, the worst case scenario unfolded just two weeks in.
Gutierrez proved he could not stay healthy full-time. And Saunders suffered an injury that might keep causing him problems the rest of the way.
Had this happened later on, the Mariners might have a much better gauge of their needs and be able to make a more-informed decision. Now, they will have to:
a) Try to outright Chavez to AAA and risk having him claimed and then having to go the final five months with no backup center fielder if Saunders gets hurt again
b) Jettison Ibanez and his $3 million or so one month into the season
c) DFA Bay and lose your right-handed bat off the bench and better corner outfield matchup versus southpaws
d) Keep everybody and go with a ridiculous six outfielders on your 25-man team
Make no mistake. No MLB team wants to be in this situation. But the Mariners are knee-deep in it now and face an uncomfortable decision in the weeks ahead.
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