The Seattle Mariners are working through a 2012 season that is proving to be a tough one for players, one of the biggest question marks for next season and beyond surrounds their oldest player and the role that he once so prominently filled. Whether you were a fan of his unconventional approach or not, it is hard to argue with the body of work put up by Ichiro Suzuki. He was one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball for his first 10 years in the major leagues, outpacing everyone in baseball in hits over the decade despite getting a year late start while putting up 10 straight 200-plus hit seasons and getting on base more than any other leadoff hitter in the game. With Ichiro now in Yankee pinstripes and Dustin Ackley struggling to recapture the magic he had at the plate as a rookie, the Mariners are seemingly still looking for a solution in the leadoff spot.
Several players on the Mariners 25-man roster are working hard to solidify their positions with the club going forward, but none of those players is really a good fit in the leadoff role. The Mariners four best young hitters at the big league level –- players that it appears the organization are planning on hanging their hats on going forward –- are Ackley, Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager. The hope is that those four make up a solid core for Seattle and they have each shown enough ability at times that they could hold down spots in the top half of a legitimate major league batting order for a first division ballclub. But while Ackley has seen extensive time at the top of the lineup here in '12, the best case scenario batting spot for each of these four -– possibly finding Seager hitting 2nd, Ackley 3rd, Montero 4th and Smoak 5th – would still leave the leadoff spot vacant.
The only player on the roster with any record of success in the leadoff role is Chone Figgins, and it appears highly unlikely that he'll be property of the Mariners too much longer, regardless of his contract. So if Ackley is a better fit elsewhere in the lineup and Figgins is a better fit for a completely different franchise, who are the young players that are best suited to take hold of that table setter role in 2013 and beyond for Seattle, how close are they to the big leagues, and is there a defensive position for them? Let's take a closer look.
Looking through the organization here in mid-August, SeattleClubhouse has identified 10 young position players (aside from Ackley) either already on the 25-man roster or within realistic shouting distance of a spot in the big leagues when looking forward and considering roster construction, free agency and so forth, that could be a fit in the leadoff role. Those 10 players are, in alphabetical order, Denny Almonte, Nick Franklin, John Jaso, Leon Landry, Jack Marder, Francisco Martinez, Brad Miller, Trayvon Robinson, Stefen Romero and Michael Saunders.
The list of 10 players includes just three current big leaguers (Jaso, Robinson and Saunders) and includes six players (Almonte, Landry, Marder, Martinez, Miller and Romero) that haven't even reached Triple-A yet. Almonte, Landry, Marder, Martinez and Robinson have each had a lot of exposure to the leadoff role in 2012. But do any of these players make a realistic fit for Seattle in 2013? Let's take a closer look.
Almonte is a center fielder who has made among the biggest leaps in the Mariners organization this year because of his dramatic improvement in his plate discipline. A switch-hitter who has played all three outfield positions in his minor league career and that former Farm Director Pedro Grifol called, "a true center fielder" in his talks with SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall, Almonte has shown the makings of a five-tool talent during his play in the minor leagues. But while his walks have increased to nearly double his previous career high already this year, the strikeouts remain a problem for Almonte. Add to that the fact that his extra base power has declined quite a bit this season now that he is outside of High Desert, and that he is still in Double-A and the likelihood of Almonte making enough progress to not only crack the big league roster, but to do so as the club's leadoff hitter while unseating one of the returning outfielders for a starting spot aren't great.
Franklin made the jump from Double-A Jackson to Triple-A Tacoma back on June 21st and has been primarily hitting in the second spot in the order for the Rainiers since that time, which was also the spot he hit in most often while with the Generals. But Franklin is a patient, switch-hitting youngster that has drawn 40 walks in 101 games and he plays a position -- shortstop -- that could be open for the Mariners next year if the club decides not to retain slick fielding but light hitting incumbent Brendan Ryan. Franklin has already been stymied by Triple-A pitching, hitting just .236./.305/.401 at the minors' highest level after hitting a robust .322/.394/.502 in Double-A to start the year. But Nick -- drafted out of the same Florida high school that Jason Varitek and Jemile Weeks attended -- has been making steady progress in his game, his approach and his swing as he's advanced through Seattle's system since being drafted in the first round in 2009. He won't steal a ton of bases because he has just a tick above average speed, but is a smart baserunner and he comes with the bonus of having some extra base pop in his bat, too.
Jaso came to the Mariners in what is looking like one of the better trades that Jack Zduriencik has ever made. The M's shipped out right-handed reliever and PR nightmare Josh Lueke to Tampa Bay in exchange for Jaso, who came with the reputation as a catcher with on-base skills and little else, offensively or defensively. But a big change in his batting stance has taken Jaso from being a one-trick pony on offense (walks) for the Rays to being arguably the most potent bat on the Mariners roster in 2012. He still isn't a great defensive catcher and probably shouldn't be hitting cleanup much for a contending team, but while he can leadoff -- as he's done so in two games for the Mariners this season -- the extra base power he has been showing (22 extra base hits) and his ability for coming through in the clutch (which is a skill) make it seem like a waste of his talent to be batting him at the top of the order.
Landry is a left-handed hitting outfielder that the club picked up at the trading deadline from the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the Brandon League package. He hit nearly .500 during his first few weeks with the High Desert Mavericks, and while he did so while hitting from the 3rd spot in the order, he's hit leadoff in almost 80% of his career minor league games so far. He is a very aggressive hitter, as evidenced by his career walk rate of under 6%, but he makes good contact and has enough speed that he is leading all of the minor leagues in triples this year with 18. He has plenty of speed for the leadoff spot and has played very well in center field, too. Jumping from High-A to the Majors in one offseason is most likely asking too much of Landry, but perhaps he could be a name to file away for 2014.
Another name from High-A is Marder. Marder is a catcher by trade that has played a lot of second base and left field in his career, too. Since returning on July 6th from an injury that cost him a little over a month earlier in the year, he has played exclusively at second and in left. He, too, is a guy without huge walk totals (21 in 65 games), but much like his baseball idol -- Hall of Famer to be Craig Biggio -- Marder has a knack for getting on via the hit by pitch. When you add in his 13 HBP so far this year Marder is sporting a 65 point spread between his average and OBP. Speaking of average, Marder is currently hitting .360. And that is following up his .324 in 18 games last year. On the heels of a college career at Oregon where he didn't get to .250, the sting in Marder's bat is encouraging. The right-handed hitter has a bit of Willie Bloomquist to his game with his speed, versatility and hustle. Three levels to go until Jack reaches the majors, but with his style of all-out play and his baseball instincts and intelligence, I wouldn't put it past him to see time in Seattle next year.
Martinez has been handling leadoff duties for the Double-A Jackson Generals almost all year, and he has responded to the lineup assignment by already getting to a career-best number in walks (35) and steals (27) despite missing over a month with a hamstring injury. The questions with Martinez now are about how much power is in his bat and, somewhat tied to that, which position he plays. He's improved his defense dramatically this year at third base but has seen eight of his last 12 starts in center field. Martinez is a great athlete, with Generals broadcaster Chris Harris telling me, "he looks like a basketball player out there" earlier in the year. But after hitting a combined 289/.321/.426 in Double-A in 2011 as a 20-year-old, Martinez has struggled to a .239/.318/.316 mark so far in 2012. Can his bat rebound over the winter? Will he find a position? Can he sustain the walk rate? If those answers are yes, Martinez -- already on the Mariners 40-man roster -- may just have a shot next year.
The third of four names on this list that is presently in Jackson, Miller -- a shortstop -- may be the most realistic option out of the bunch to crack the Mariners 25-man roster next year. He plays a premium defensive position, hits left-handed, leads the organization in walks (66) has stolen 23 bases in 30 tries and also has shown enough pop (54 extra base hits including 14 HR) that his bat figures to be able to handle the top, rather than the bottom, of the order at the big league level. Miller has a knack for scoring runs, which is probably what you want your leadoff hitter to do above all else. In all, Miller ranks 4th in the minor leagues in runs scored (101) and 2nd in hits (164) on the year. He does have 35 errors and a .941 fielding percentage at short on the year, too, but I've heard from many that think he can handle the position long term.
The second of three current big leaguers on the list, Trayvon Robinson may have the most natural fit for the role of leadoff man. He's a switch-hitter, draws walks, steals bases (22 this year, a minor league career high of 47 just a few years back), has over 200 plate appearances of MLB experience already under his belt, and has some gap power at the plate and good range in the outfield. Robinson's hang-up is going to be his contact rates as his 26.5% strikeout rate in 49 MLB plate appearances this year is a huge improvement from the 39.4% he had last season, but still very much worse than the league average of 19.0%. Trayvon is likely limited to left field because of his throwing arm, but his range out there and the vast ground that there is to cover in left at Safeco gives him a leg up on the competition for that spot among the current contenders.
Romero has put together the loudest offensive season of any Mariners prospect in 2012, and even though his position (second base) is not open, he may be the most likely of the minor leaguers on this list to break camp in 2013 with Seattle. He played a few games in big league camp in Spring Training this season with the club and impressed with his line drive bat and winning approach, but the extra base power and leadership he has shown so far in '12 together with a heightened success rate at the plate has definitely got him on the big league radar. Not on the 40-man currently, the Mariners may even do some shuffling of their roster after Jackson's playoff run is over this year to reward Romero with a cup of coffee during expanded roster time. But is he a fit at leadoff? He stole 16 bases last year and has 10 this year, but he also doesn't draw a ton of walks and his bat has the looks of potential 20-plus home runs in it. But he's a right-handed bat (something that would be nice to help balance out the lineup) that gets on base and can add to the offense.
Saunders has hit at every spot in the lineup except cleanup in 2012 for Seattle and has showed a lot of improvement from the struggles he showed during his last few big league seasons. But a lot of that improvement was early in the season, and Saunders has hit just .190/.210/.302 since the All-Star break as perhaps he is starting to wear down from playing every day. 36 strikeouts in his last 136 at bats and only 30 walks in well over 400 plate appearances on the season, the long 6-foot-4 Saunders also just doesn't "look like" a leadoff hitter. If Gutierrez is back healthy and holding down center field, is Saunders the club's best option in left field? Defensively he is probably atop that list, but without a rebound to his first half form over the season's final month and a half, Michael will head into 2013 again having to fight for a spot on the Mariners big league roster.
Looking at the list above it is clear that the Mariners do have some in-house options for the leadoff spot. But it is also clear that there isn't a clear-cut, perfect fit piece that makes sense. Maybe the club adds a leadoff hitter through trade or free agency over the winter, or maybe Dustin Ackley continues to man the spot for Eric Wedge. But if the M's do try and fill the role with a young player, it is likely to be one of the 10 players above.
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