By Brian Hight
As pitchers and catchers assemble in Peoria, Arizona with position players not far behind, it’s time to start thinking about baseball. Barring any last minute free-agent signings, the Seattle Mariners lineup is pretty much set for the 2018 season. Barring injuries, the following players will be in the infield for the Mariners for the majority of innings this season. Let’s take a look at what to expect in 2018.
Catcher – Mike Zunino
Two years removed from a horrendous 2015 season in which he hit .174/.230/.300, Mike Zunino has settled in behind the plate for the Seattle Mariners, posting a solid 3.6 fWAR while hitting .251/.331/.509 with 25 home runs. While Zunino still strikes out a ton – 36.8% last season – he makes up for it with solid defense behind the plate – ranked 13th in fielding runs by Baseball Prospectus – and is recognized by his peers for handling pitchers well.
This season he is projected by Steamer to hit .224/.298/.450 with 25 HR while catching around 110 games and adding roughly 2.5 WAR to the lineup. Zunino will turn 27 before opening day and agreed to a contract in arbitration for this year of $2.975MM. Barring injuries or any unexpected regressions, the M’s should be above average behind the dish.
First Base – Ryon Healy*
The majority of the plate appearances at first base should be by off-season acquisition, Ryon Healy. Healy, who came over from the Oakland Athletics in November, primarily played third but has played first as well. He is a big guy. Listed at 6’5”, 223, Healy hit .271/.302/.451 with 25 HR in 605 PA for the A’s last season. In a very small sample size, Healy seemed to be about league average defensively at 1B with one defensive run saved in 307.1 innings. At his size, he was expectedly below average at 3B, so the switch to 1B may generate more WAR for the Mariners than Healy did for the A’s last season, that being 0.2.
Ideally, it would be nice if Healy walked more – just 3.8% of the time last season for the A’s – which would improve his below average OBP of .302. Perhaps the M’s emphasis on “controlling the zone” could pay dividends this Spring. Steamer projects Healy to hit .259/.297/.430 with 16 HR and 0.1 WAR in 110 games. Depth Charts projections are a bit more bullish on Healy’s playing time at 140 games, but the same slash line of .259/.297/.430, albeit with 21 HR and 0.3 WAR.
However, many scouts have noted that Healy changed his mechanics in 2017 and that the power on display last year is legit, thus discounting many of the projection systems that predict major regression.
Playing on a pre-arbitration eligible contract in 2018 at age 26, Healy could either be a big surprise for the Mariners at 1B or the decided weak link in an otherwise top infield.
Second Base – Robinson Cano
In 2017, the fourth year of his ten year $240MM contract, at age 34, Robinson Cano remained productive at second base. Ranked ninth in the majors for the position in fWAR at 3.2, Cano hit .280/.338/.453 with 23 HR. His hitting and average defense – exactly zero DRS last season – made Cano one of only three Mariners hitters with 3 or more WAR. The other two being Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.
For his age 35 season, Steamer projects Cano to put up a stat line very similar to last season – .282/.339/.470 with 25 HR, a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 116, roughly 16% better than league average, and a 3.1 WAR.
However, despite the above average numbers at his position, Cano is no longer one of the premiere hitters in the game. The 2017 campaign saw Cano post the second lowest wRC+ of his career. (The lowest of 86 came in 2008 with the New York Yankees was fueled by a .151 BA in April and speculation that he may have been injured and/or feeling the pressure of a new contract extension.) He also posted the third lowest WAR of his career, the others being that very same 2008 season and his second season with the Mariners when he battled an abdomen injury much of the season.
It’s interesting and possibly alarming that one of the most recent comps for a hitter of Cano’s profile, according to Baseball Reference, is former Texas Ranger 3B, SS, and 2B Michael Young. Young fell off precipitously at age 35, losing nearly seventy points off his lifetime SLG, dipping below .400, and retiring after his age 36 season. Cano isn’t going to retire with four or five years left on his contract, but then maybe the severity of Young’s drop off isn’t in the cards either, but a drop off is coming. But, for 2017, Cano should continue to be one of the best 2B in the league.
Shortstop – Jean Segura
In his first season with the Mariners, Jean Segura, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Taijuan Walker deal, produced 2.9 fWAR at shortstop. While that contribution fell short of what will more than likely end up being his career best 5.0 fWAR from the season before in the desert, last season’s contribution in the middle infield was a major upgrade in the Emerald City.
Segura hit .300/.349/.427 with 80 runs and 22 SB. The 20 HR from the 2016 campaign in Arizona was probably an outlier, but he still managed 11 dingers in a shortened season of 125 games due to early injuries.
This season, Steamer projects Segura to hit .275/.323/.404, which seems a bit conservative given the previous two seasons of over 1200 plate appearances. Segura clearly changed his approach in 2016 and projections trending more back to the light hitter of pre-2016 seem out of whack. With the launch angle and exit velocity revolution of the past few seasons, it’s reasonable to accept up-ticks in contact and power as more legit than in the past. Even with the conservative projection, the 2.0 WAR at SS will ensure the Mariners have one of the more productive middle infields in baseball.
Third Base – Kyle Seager
It’s funny how four years after signing Kyle Seager to a seven year $100MM deal that seven-year deals seem a thing of the past but $14.3MM per year seems like a bargain. Entering his thirties, Kyle Seager has been eclipsed by his younger brother, Corey Seager, in Los Angeles, but remains a solid fixture at the hot corner.
In 2017, Seager struggled at the plate, hitting a career low .248, with his second lowest OBP of .323, and a .450 slugging percentage that reversed a three year upward trend. Still his 3.5 fWAR ranked third in the AL and 8th in all of baseball at third base.
While a return to 2016 form when Seager generated 5.5 fWAR and a 132 wRC+ would be welcome, Steamer does project a slight bounce back for Seager, predicting a slash line of .262/.338/.469 with 26 HR and a 116 wRC+, up 10 points from 2017. And, like his compatriots to the left of the diamond (or maybe the right in a shift), Seager is an average glove at third with 11 DRS in his 8,545.1 innings over seven seasons. Thus, third base finishes out what should be one of the better infields in baseball.
Infield Grade A-/B+
Definitely the strength of the 2018 Seattle Mariners lies with it’s infield play. While there are no plus defenders, the infield is solidly average with no serious liabilities. The upside over most major league rosters comes at the plate. In Zunino, Cano, Segura, and Seager, the Mariners could legitimately have four 3+ WAR players in the infield. The question mark is Healy at first. The projection models are skeptical, but we do seem to be in an era where approaches at the plate are changing with the advent of Trackcast and the identification of exit velocity and launch angles. Look for Healy to perhaps outplay his computer model projections and insure Seattle has all 2+ WAR players in the infield for 2018.
*Editor’s Note – Ryon Healy is expected to be sidelined four to six weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a bone spur in his right hand – ESPN