The Mariners went into last season with Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger as their starting outfielders.
Now it’s projected to be Dee Gordon, Ben Gamel and Haniger.
Of all the Mariners projected position groups, this outfield enters spring training with the most questions. These are some of their least experienced, but most athletic players on the club.
Just a couple of issues with this group:
— Will Dee Gordon be a viable center fielder? He’s never played an inning in the outfield in his major league career, although he is a Gold Glove second baseman.
— Are the Mariners expecting too much from Haniger, Gamel and Guillermo Heredia coming off their rookie seasons?
The first is a little easier to answer with pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training on Wednesday in Peoria, Arizona. Position players report on Feb. 20.
Gordon said he’s spent every day since the December trade working in the outfield with Mariners first base coach and outfield instructor Chris Prieto. He’s even solicited advice from Ken Griffey Jr., and he played for the Marlins last season alongside Ichiro Suzuki. So he’s been around arguably the two greatest outfielders in Mariners history.
“It worked for Chris Taylor, Robin Yount and Billy Hamilton,” Mariners manager Jerry Dipoto said.
Yount would win an MVP with the Brewers and Hamilton has become one of baseball’s best defensive center fielders after switching from shortstop. Mariners fans remember Taylor as a shortstop who made his major league debut with Seattle in 2014 who wound up starting in center for the Dodgers this past World Series.
Gordon is certainly fast enough to do it. He would have been the fourth-fastest center fielder in baseball last year, according to data compiled by Daren Willman, the director of baseball research and development for MLB.
“If you are athletic and familiar playing in the middle of the field, I don’t think it’s as ominous of a move as it was for him to switch infield positions,” Dipoto said. “Because now you are asked to switch the angle the ball comes off the bat. In center field, that’s not the case at all. You have time to adjust.”
The first thing Gordon did was buy an outfield glove. He found out he had been traded and he said he immediately went to his nearest Dick’s Sporting Goods in Miami and picked out a new glove. It was red — because “that’s about all they had.”
“Then the glove wasn’t broken in so it didn’t work,” Gordon said. “So the glove is in the back of the car. I got a new glove and hopefully it works out.”
Now, about the players around him.
The Mariners were the only team in major league history since 1913 to have three rookies make at least 95 starts in the outfield in the same season.
Yes, the only one. And only two other teams had three rookies make at least 80 outfield starts — with the last being the 1969 expansion Kansas City Royals, which featured outfielder Lou Piniella.
What makes that most surprising is that it didn’t feel like the Mariners were making baseball history. Gamel (127 starts), Heredia (104) and Haniger (95) played admirably out there.
Mariners outfielders recorded 12 double plays a year ago, the most in the major leagues. And their 34 assists were the fourth-most in the big leagues.
Dyson had a lot to do with that, and the 33-year-old is now a free agent. The Mariners were the eighth-oldest team in baseball but are getting younger in the outfield (Gordon is 29, Haniger 27, Heredia 27 and Gamel is 25).
“We’re not the decrepit, old club that is getting ready to fall apart as the seams that we’re being portrayed as,” Dipoto said during the December winter meetings.
And Haniger, Heredia and Gamel have each played every outfield spot, which is why Nelson Cruz played just five games in right field last season compared to the 48 he played in 2016 and 80 in 2015.
MLB.com ranked Haniger as the No. 9 right fielder in baseball entering this season. That’s likely assuming he’s healthy after spending two stints on the DL with a strained right oblique and then a lacerated lip. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, Haniger had the fourth-best OPS (on-base plus slugging) of any rookie at .843 – trailing Yankees AL rookie of the year Aaron Judge, Dodgers NL rookie of the year Cody Bellinger and the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong.
Gamel, who didn’t make the team out of spring training last year, came up when Haniger injured his side on April 26. He put up a solid season with a slash line of .275/.322/.413 while compiling 550 at-bats.
Heredia’s production was a bit less but he showed plenty with the glove. He slashed .249/.315/.337 while battling a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. He’s expected to be ready for spring training.
But Dipoto said they had a need in the outfield heading into the offseason and he got his man in Gordon and the three years, $38 million owed his way the next three seasons — even if it was pretty unconventional to trade for a player to play a position he’s never before played. He’s projected to be the Mariners’ 11th different opening day center fielder since Griffey started there 11 consecutive opening days (1989-99).
Gordon’s .308 batting average and 60 stolen bases for the Marlins last year already has Mariners manager Scott Servais penciling him atop the batting order, with Jean Segura slated to bat second. But speed isn’t all that goes into playing center field.
There’s also things like taking the correct angle, needing a powerful arm, wearing a different glove and this:
“The biggest thing is learning how to crow hop,” Gordon said. “I know that sounds like it’s elementary. But learning how to crow hop is hard when you finish up on your feet your whole life.”