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February 16, 2015 at 1:49 PM

Mariners’ 2015 spring training position preview: The battle for the starting shortstop job

LOS ANGELES ANGELS AT SEATTLE MARINERS

Seattle Times file photo/Dean Rutz

The only true battle for a starting position this spring will be at shortstop. A year ago, it was Brad Miller and Nick Franklin entering into spring training with the hope of being the starting shortstop. This season it will be Miller and Chris Taylor vying for the starting spot.

It will be something that will be watched closely and discussed often this spring. I honestly have no idea how it will turn out. I don’t even know if there is a favorite.

The Past

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A year ago at this time, we were writing about the competition for the shortstop job between Miller and Franklin. Going into spring, it seemed Miller had a slight advantage, having played there for 70-plus games in 2013. Franklin was converted to second base in 2013, and there were concerns about his range and arm strength to handle the position on an everyday basis.

Once Cactus League games started, Miller took control of the competition, crushing the baseball and putting up monster numbers in the spring (which obviously mean nothing). But it wasn’t just at the plate. Miller looked pretty solid in the field. He was making the routine plays and the work that he was putting in with infield coach Chris Woodward to improve his footwork seemed to be paying off. He won the job and Franklin was optioned back to Class AAA Tacoma.

It all seemed to work out. Until it didn’t.

Seattle Times file photo/Dean Rutz

Seattle Times file photo/Dean Rutz

Miller’s solid spring didn’t carry over into the regular season. He struggled early. Scouts thought he was getting too pull happy and trying to yank pitches for home runs. Besides his struggles at the plate, he also had costly miscues in the field. Everyone remembers the bad flip to second base in the loss to the Rangers early in the season.

Look at these first two months …

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The Mariners tried Franklin at shortstop some as well with Miller struggling.  But it didn’t work. Taylor was on the verge of being called up instead, but he broke his pinky finger sliding into second base on a stolen-base attempt.

Miller started to play better in June, and Taylor was called up in July when Willie Bloomquist went on the disabled list. Taylor took over the starting job, and  Miller then went to the utility role. But after a few weeks, McClendon started using both players at shortstop in a platoon situation.

Miller rebounded from his awful start and put up solid numbers in the second half. McClendon also did a good job of putting him in optimal situations.

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His month to month splits are pretty dramatic.

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Taylor hit .287 with a .692 OPS, but he also had a .389 BABIP  … meaning there were more than a few infield and bunt singles.

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From a defensive standpoint, neither really had enough of a sample size to use advanced metrics to make a determination. When you watch them, Taylor looks like the more natural of the two and is a little better going to his left. He’s better fundamentally. That’s always been the case. Miller has all the athleticism to handle the position and he had stretches when he played very well.

The Present

So we head into this season with Taylor and Miller going head to head for the spot. I don’t really think there is a favorite. The Mariners are being diplomatic about the situation. From the pre-spring luncheon.

“We have two young men that performed pretty well in spurts,” McClendon said earlier this offseason. “They will be given the opportunity to battle it out in spring training, and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. Hell, they could both be on the team, who knows?”

The breakdown is simple.

“Obviously, Miller is more gifted offensively and Taylor is more gifted defensively,” McClendon said. “It’s more of a natural position for Taylor. I think the sum of the parts equals up to a pretty good combination.”

How do you weigh the importance of defense vs. offense to a team?

“They’re both capable of making the routine plays,” McClendon said. “It just looks a little easier for one than the other, but that doesn’t mean he’s better in that sense. You have to figure what your strengths our and what fits best as far as that shortstop position is concerned. That’s what spring training is for.”

What will happen to the one who doesn’t win the spot?

“I don’t have the answer to that right now because there are so many things attached to it,” GM Jack Zduriencik said. “Does someone end at Triple A? Is Willie ready to break camp on opening day as your utility player? How do those two players look when they come into spring training? We are really going to give Brad and Chris every opportunity to win the job. There is no favorite right now, at least in my mind. I don’t think Lloyd feels any different.”

But that statement was made before the team signed free agent Rickie Weeks. Weeks also will be an infield/outfield spot. That is one fewer bench spot available. Really it comes down to the health of Willie Bloomquist. If he’s healthy and capable of playing shortstop as a backup, the Mariners may send the loser of the position battle to Class AAA Tacoma to get regular playing time. If both shortstops are on the roster, we may a situation similar to the end of last season with a modified platoon.

The Future

Well both Miller and Taylor are going to be around for a while. The organization believes Miller is a major-league-level hitter regardless of position. But with the addition of Seth Smith,  Justin Ruggiano and Weeks, the talk of Miller working in the outfield to gain some experience has quieted. It was a strong possibility before those acquisitions. But there isn’t a need now.

As for beyond those two, the Mariners placed Ketel Marte on the 40-man roster. He had a few impressive moments last spring during Cactus League games. He also played well in a brief stint with Class AAA Tacoma.

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