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Mariners blog

Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

February 9, 2015 at 2:47 PM

Mariners’ 2015 spring training position preview: Can Logan Morrison be the everyday first baseman?

AP photo

AP photo

This is the first of the position previews for the upcoming spring training. Before we get to that, here’s the story I wrote for Sunday’s paper on the Mariners and understanding expectations. And here’s Larry Stone’s column on the Mariners for Sunday’s paper as well. Also the Times has made all of the writers start professional facebook pages to widen our social media profile. So if you are a person of the facebook, here’s my page. It will have updates and other things.

Let’s get to the preview. We’ll start with first base. Because well it’s FIRST base.

The Past  

Here’s the breakdown of every person that played first base for the Mariners last season.

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Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 8.19.28 PM

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That’s not exactly an inspiring set of numbers from a power position. After 4 1/2 seasons, the Mariners have moved on from Justin Smoak. The last few years there’s been a fleeting hope that Smoak could some how materialize into something resembling the player the Mariners thought they acquired from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade back in 2010. Over the years, there was even a readjustment of those expectations. Basically, the hope was that Smoak could be a .265 hitter that hit around 20-25 homers with a bunch of doubles. That never happened. There were moments where he looked like he might be that guy. But those three-week stretches could never be maintained. The Mariners wisely moved on.

After Smoak went on the disabled list in mid June, Logan Morrison basically took over as the every day first baseman after his 52-game stint on the DL (hamstring strain) that kept him out from April 16 to June 10.

In 99 games, he hit .262 (88-for-336) with 41 runs, 20 doubles, 11 home runs and 38 RBI and a .735 OPS.

Of course, it was how Morrison finished the season that gave the Mariners hope and helped them be in a position to fight for a playoff spot down the stretch.

He hit .321 (54-for-168) with 28 runs scored,  13 doubles, 6 home runs, 21 RBI and an .878 OPS over his final 51 games including .342 (26-for-76) with 15 runs, 8 doubles, 5 home runs, 11 RBI and a 1.042 OPS in September.  Here’s his monthly splits

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Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 8.20.21 PM

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Those numbers in August and September are pretty solid.

Here’s a few more notes on  Morrison from the M’s …

  • Of his 11 home runs last season, 5 gave Seattle the lead and 2 tied the game; each of his last 6 home runs either tied the game or gave his team the lead.
  • He hit .333 (30×90) with 7 doubles, 2 home runs, 10 RBI and an .846 OPS against left-handers; his .333 average was the 3rd-best in the Majors by a left-handed hitter against a left-handed pitcher behind Kansas City’s Nori Aoki (.363/45×124) and Philadelphia’s Ben Revere (.341/61×179).

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The Present 

Seattle heads into this spring with Morrison as the only first baseman on the active 25-man roster. He is the starting first baseman going forward. Manager Lloyd McClendon and general manager Jack Zduriencik made that clear. They didn’t go out and bring in a veteran first baseman type as a possible back-up or injury insurance. It’s Morrison’s job going into spring and – barring injury or catastrophe – it will be his job when they leave spring training.

Morrison certainly earned the right to have some level of ownership of the position with the way he played at the end of last season. And the Mariners want to give him a chance to take control of the position. He provides a power threat from the left side and his defense improved significantly last season. Morrison put in the work at first base daily, working on improving at digging balls out of the dirt around the bag. His footwork in the field also improved. He won’t be confused with John Olerud in terms of fielding prowess, but he beyond adequate there. The Mariners were pleased with the strides he made.

Of course, the biggest question with Morrison will always be health. He’s battled injuries his entire career. He hasn’t played more than 100 games the last three seasons featuring multiple disabled list stints. Are the Mariners assuming too much to think that Morrison can play 125 games as their every day first baseman? Perhaps. But they believe that some of Morrison’s past injury issues came from playing him in the outfield and that by playing him solely at first base and random days at DH will help keep his legs healthy over the course of the season. Morrison is also now two years removed from knee surgery and he talked last season about the preventative things he was doing to build strength in his leg to protect his knees.

Who will play first base if Morrison needs a day off or is at DH? Well, as the roster is currently constructed, the job would fall to either Dustin Ackley or the utility infielder, which will likely be either Willie Bloomquist or Brad Miller. All three are capable of playing there. Ackley played some first base a few seasons and Bloomquist played a handful of games there last year. Miller is also more than capable of playing there if needed. But these are short-term, one-game or late-inning options.

If something were to happen to Morrison that required him to go on the DL, playing Ackley or Bloomquist isn’t really a great option.

On the current 40-man roster, they Mariners have Ji-Man Choi and Jesus Montero as the other candidates.

Choi missed 50 games last season with a PED suspension. He is a one-time catcher converted to first base so his defense isn’t at a gold glove level. Choi had a .282/.381/.392 slash line in 70 games with Class AAA Tacoma. He has a decent approach at the plate and is wiling to take a walk. But at this point, he’s far from an ideal replacement at the big league level for an extended period.

Jesus Montero fields a ground ball during his first appearance at first base for the Mariners on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Jesus Montero fields a ground ball during his first appearance at first base for the Mariners on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Montero is a wild card at this point. Yes, the Mariners have raved about his commitment to conditioning this offseason. He’s lost 35 pounds and has done everything they’ve asked of him.

But does that conditioning translate into a viable major leaguer? Montero has some ability to hit. Last season, he hit .286 with 24 doubles, 16 homers and 74 RBI with an .839 OPS with Tacoma. When he’s not reverting to a pull-happy, pitch-guessing hitter and instead driving the ball to right-center and right field – where he has plus power – he can be very dangerous. The issues with Montero’s lack of performance didn’t just stem from his conditioning or lack thereof. There were concerns about his approach at the plate and his day-to-day focus on improving and putting in work. Will this change in conditioning and attitude mean improvement in all aspects? The Mariners are being cautiously optimistic. After giving him third and fourth chances, they know there are no guarantees with him.

“He has a lot to prove,” Zduriencik said. “And there aren’t a lot of expectations there right now. But he’s a guy we are going to take a look at.”

There is also the question of whether or not Montero can play first base at a level where he isn’t a liability. If Morrison were to get hurt, how comfortable are the Mariners with Montero playing first base on daily basis. Defense does matter at first base and the ball will find you. Last season, a few opposing scouts commented that Montero was nowhere near ready to play first base at the big league level for an extended period. Questions about his footwork, positioning, playing drag bunts and ability to dig balls were glaring and obvious.

Part of Montero’s offseason program has consisted of daily work at first base. The weight loss and improved flexibility should help his agility around the bag. But that’s something that should be watched closely this spring – can he handle the defensive responsibilities? If Montero doesn’t make the team out of spring – which is very likely – expect him to play first base every day in Tacoma to get him ready for that possibility.

The Future

While Montero is under club control and working diligently to become a viable first baseman and Choi has shown promise, the general consensus is that top prospect D.J. Peterson will be the Mariners’ first baseman of the future. Peterson was drafted as a third baseman, but with Kyle Seager locked up to a seven-year contract extension, a move across the diamond seems likely.

Peterson hit .297 (147-for-495) with 83 runs scored, 31 doubles, 31 home runs, 111 RBI in 123 games combined between High Desert and Jackson. Peterson was one of five minor league players this season to record at least 30 home runs, while driving in at least 100 runs.

He received an invite to big league spring training. Some people have wondered if Peterson might make the team out of spring training. That seems unlikely. He will probably start the season at Class AA Jackson or Class AAA Tacoma. Gwynn mentioned that Peterson would play third base for the most part.

Third base?

Peterson has played plenty of first base dating back to college, his time with Team USA and even games (19 last season)  in the minor leagues. He will continue to put in work at first base to go with third base.

“Who knows where he’ll end up in the long run, but we know he can hit,” Zduriencik said.

Two other invites to spring training – Jordy Lara and Patrick Kivlehan can also play first base. Both players are listed as outfielders on the roster, but both have played plenty of first base. According to Gwynn, first base is Lara’s best position at the moment.

Lara had a breakout season, hitting .337 (177-for-525) with 91 runs scored, 40 doubles, 5 triples, 26 home runs, 104 RBI with a .937 OPS in 135 games combined between High Desert and Jackson. Lara finished tied for third in all of the minor leagues with 71 extra-base hits. He reached base safely via a hit or walk in 114 of 135 games, including 52 games with at least two hits.

He may be a year or two away from competing for a roster spot.

Kivlehan projects to be more of an outfielder, so we’ll get to him in that preview.

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