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May 15, 2013 at 9:51 AM

Why the Mariners are handcuffed in their middle infield

Mariners infield prospect Nick Franklin has been putting up torrid hitting numbers in Class AAA. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners infield prospect Nick Franklin has been putting up torrid hitting numbers in Class AAA. Photo Credit: AP

There has been plenty of justifiable discussion of late pertaining to how the Mariners can continue to carry both Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino on the same roster when Ryan is batting .129 and Andino .169.

It’s certainly a valid question for any team hoping to win more than it loses. And there is a valid answer that I’m sure very few fans and pundits want to hear: the alternative could be far worse.

First of all, bringing up one or both of Carlos Triunfel or Nick Franklin will require dropping either Ryan or Andino.

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Now, if you drop Ryan from the team, you throw away any of the defensive value he brings. Don’t forget, Ryan has more value defensively than any of those other infielders I just mentioned. So, any improvement you get on offense will automatically be docked a bit by the value you are throwing away on defense. In other words, if you add Triunfel or Franklin, you will have to guarantee they can be substantially better at the plate (at least doubly as good as Ryan) for the net gain to mean anything.

The more logical approach would be to drop Andino, who costs less than Ryan in any event and is not as good at shortstop with his glove. Here’s the catch, though: the flexibility Andino brings at being able to play multiple positions and play on a more regular basis (at least in theory, if not in reality so far) is what led the Mariners to carry only one backup infielder this year.

Drop Andino, and the club will most likely have to go with two backup infielders. And where would the extra spot come from? An outfield where the Mariners don’t really have any spots to spare.

Think about it. We still don’t know when Franklin Gutierrez will be healthy again and even when he is, the Mariners will always feel he is one bad step away from disaster. That knowledge means the team cannot afford to try to ram Endy Chavez through waivers and risk losing him. They will most likely have to keep Chavez on the team all year as center field backup insurance.

What that means is, for the foreseeable future, the Mariners could be placed in a position where they have to carry six outfielders for some time. We saw Raul Ibanez hit a home run last night. The Mariners don’t want to give up on him when they still feel his bat could be revived. Jason Bay has been a success story to date and validated the team’s decision to keep him out of spring training. Michael Saunders is emerging into an impact player. You have Michael Morse still batting in the middle of the order. Then, there is Gutierrez and Chavez.

In other words, the Mariners are already worried enough about who to drop once Gutierrez returns. As I just said, they may not drop anybody and could be forced to carry six outfielders.

What they really don’t want to do now is drop one of their current outfielders so they can bring up an extra backup infielder in the event they have to dump Andino.

It gets a little confusing, but I can tell you this is likely a big reason the team hasn’t already made a middle infield move. They really are handcuffed by the current roster setup. Not so much in the outfield, as some suspected they might be. But seriously impacted in the infield.

Sure, I suppose you could try to bring up Franklin or Triunfel and make them the one-man utility infielder the way Andino is.

Two problems with that: No. 1, you don’t know whether either of them will be capable of playing in the majors every day. And No. 2, you don’t know how either would react to not playing daily, or being bounced around the infield sporadically.

The biggest reason you could put Andino in that lone backup role is that he’s been seasoned in the majors already, has put the whole learning curve thing behind him, and knows how to prepare for the role he’s needed in. It clearly hasn’t worked out, but that’s a whole different story.

It has worked out for Bay in his transition to a more sporadic role, but read his comments from yesterday and you can see that he had some adjustments to make. And he’s a guy who has already spent a decade in the majors.

Taking a raw recruit and throwing him into a backup, super-utility infield role probably isn’t what the Mariners want to do right now…or ever, really.

Another option would be to make Triunfel or Franklin the starting shortstop and keep Andino as the backup. Again, though, we have no evidence Triunfel or Franklin can be an everyday major league shortstop without their numbers taking a serious hit. That would be a concern because — remember — they have to significantly out-hit Ryan to make up for the obvious lack of defense.

And if you roll the dice on that gamble and your young guy flops big, you’ve lost Ryan and ruined the confidence of a young prospect in the process.

I’m not saying the Mariners will never call up Franklin or Triunfel. At some point, I’d expect to see one or both up here rather than continue with this sub-Mendoza sideshow we’ve been forced to witness from the team’s two shortstops.

But there’s a reason the Mariners are reluctant to pull the trigger. I just outlined it for you: the alternative could be even worse and have long-term reprecussions.

My guess is that the team will ride this two-headed bat monster into the month of June at least and pray that one of either Ryan or Andino finds some offense.

At some point, the Mariners will be forced to act. But at three games under .500 and 10-6 in their last 16 games, they haven’t reached that point just yet where they’re ready to play some Russian roulette in the middle infield.

Comments | More in roster | Topics: robert andino; brendan ryan; carlos triunfel; nick franklin


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