It’s easy to overlook that the Mariners, in pursuing a win-now approach, are simultaneously undergoing a rebuilding plan.
“It’s no fun to win if you can’t figure out how to sustain,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “So we’re trying to figure that out as we go.”
No place is that more apparent than in the outfield.
The Mariners have a rookie, Mitch Haniger, slotted for regular duty in right field. They have two more rookies, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, projected to compete for a backup job.
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Gamel and Heredia had been slotted for platoon duty in left field before the Mariners chose to pump the brakes by obtaining Jarrod Dyson from Kansas City in a Jan. 6 trade for pitcher Nathan Karns.
Dyson will be eligible for free agency after the season, which positions him as a bridge to the future. A year from now, club officials should have a better feel in projecting Haniger, Gamel and Heredia for the future.
Dipoto acknowledged the trade allows the Mariners “to bring Gamel and Heredia along at the pace we want.” It also acts as a hedge against a Haniger flop.
“We’re also not immune to the idea that Mitch could struggle,” Dipoto conceded, “as could Ben, as could Guillermo. Three is a lot better chance than one. I’m no genius, but in Vegas, if I have my chance, I’ll bet on the three rather than the one.”
For now, Dyson projects as the left fielder and, for the first time in his career, will get a chance to prove he merits every-day duty.
“I’m all for that, man,” he said. “I’ve been fighting for that for 10 years now.”
Dyson’s ability to handle a full-time role could weigh heavily in determining whether the Mariners keep Gamel or Heredia. If Dyson, a left-handed hitter, fits better as a platoon player, that favors Heredia, who is a right-handed hitter.
If Dyson proves capable of a full-time role, the Mariners might opt for Gamel, a left-handed hitter as a counterpoint to Haniger, who is a right-handed hitter.
Another factor is how rookie Dan Vogelbach, another part of the rebuilding plan, performs at first base. The current plan calls for Vogelbach, a left-handed hitter, to split time with offseason trade acquisition Danny Valencia.
If Vogelbach stumbles, Valencia could get the job on a full-time basis. But if Vogelbach plays to expectations — or exceeds them by showing he can handle everyday duty — then Valencia, a right-handed bat, should see time in the outfield.
There’s a further wrinkle. The Mariners have three players competing for duty as their utility infielder (Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman and Taylor Motter), and all three can play the outfield.
It’s possible the Mariners could ship two of their rookie outfielders to Triple-A Tacoma and start the season with two utility players.
The only sure thing, barring injuries, is Leonys Martin will be the regular center fielder, and that Dyson should, at minimum, see platoon duty in left field as a left-handed bat against right-handed pitchers.
However it shakes out, the Mariners figure to be more athletic. Martin, Dyson, Haniger, Gamel and Heredia all have the speed and range to play center field. The outfield defense should be a strength.
“Last year,” manager Scott Servais, “we were very platoon heavy. This year, we will be much more flexible. We’ll be able to pinch-run some guys late in the games. We couldn’t do that last year.”
What is also means is Nelson Cruz could become a full-time designated hitter. Now 36, he started just 48 games last year in the outfield, down from 80 in 2015.
“He does want to get out there,” Servais said. “I just know how valuable he is to our lineup. To risk losing him with a leg injury or something like that, it’s not really worth it.”
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Mitch Haniger opens camp as the starting right fielder after a breakout minor-league season last year in the Arizona system. Now he needs to prove he deserves it.
2. How does Jarrod Dyson look against left-handed pitchers? In short, is he a platoon player or an everyday guy? This figures to be an eye-test evaluation more than a decision based on a small sample of spring numbers.
3. The early spring narrative, as noted above, suggests Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia are competing for a backup role. Both should play a lot, and spring performance could be a key factor in winning a job.