By JERRY BREWER
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. _ Ask Lloyd McClendon about the Mariners’ outfield defense, and he doesn’t do a verbal fox trot around the subject.
“It can’t be any worse than it was last year,” the new Mariners manager said. “We had a horrible defensive outfield.”
How horrible? McClendon wasn’t even here for the disaster, yet he almost sounds offended.
Yeah, it was that bad. There was no disguising it. The Mariners knew it. Their opponents knew it. If an alien had descended upon Safeco Field to watch baseball for the first time, the alien would’ve known it, too.
The Mariners finished 71-91, the sixth-worst record in baseball, for a variety of reasons. As a team, they were less than stellar in many areas. But their outfield defense was the worst of all their futility.
How horrible? The Mariners ranked last in the majors in defensive runs saved (minus-70). That statistic suggests that the Mariners gave up 70 more runs last season because they couldn’t run down fly balls. They were also the league’s worst in terms of their Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR, an advanced defensive statistic that measures a fielder’s success at getting to balls determined to be in his area of the playing field. The Mariners’ outfielders posted a minus-58.5 UZR, according to FanGraphs.com.
When general manager Jack Zduriencik arrived, the Mariners turned quickly into a team predicated on defense and pitching. They went 85-77 with that formula in 2009, a remarkable 24-game turnaround. Then the Mariners started losing again, and the offense sank to historic lows, and the franchise became desperate to build a more exciting team. Next came injuries to former Gold Glove center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who was once the king of UZR, and the aging of Ichiro (a 10-time Gold Glove winner) and later his departure. A strength became a weakness.
In the process to fix their offense, the Mariners have slipped defensively all over the place, but it’s most glaring in the outfield. The 2013 season was a revolving door of madness. Gutierrez only played in 41 games. The Mariners had to use Ibanez in left field more than they anticipated. Morse wasn’t a great outfielder to begin with, and injuries diminished his effectiveness even further. Jason Bay wasn’t a defensive factor.
Dustin Ackley transitioned from second base to the outfield, and it wasn’t smooth. Abraham Almonte came up from the minors and had some rough moments when put in center field. At times, Michael Saunders, who is long and athletic and speedy, could cover up some issues on the corners, but he’s not a natural center fielder.
McClendon is correct. The outfield defense probably can’t be any worse. But will it be any better?
“I think it’ll be better,” McClendon said.
“I will say this: It’ll be better,” McClendon said.
The unanswered question: How? The Mariners still aren’t blessed with great defensive options.
New acquisitions Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are still getting past injuries, and it’s uncertain how much McClendon will use them in the outfield. McClendon expects Almonte, with more experience now, to handle center field better. Ackley is likely the everyday left fielder. Saunders is solid, and McClendon wants to have him play all three outfield positions. It’s possible that the Mariners bench will include speedy 36-year-old Endy Chavez, who played 97 games in Seattle last year. And utility player Willie Bloomquist is an infielder who is accustomed to getting a few starts in the outfield.
That’s not a formidable mix to handle Safeco Field for 81 games.
It’s too bad Robinson Cano doesn’t play in the outfield. If he did, he might’ve been worth $300 million to the Mariners.
For all their decisions to improve the offense, the Mariners might be left with nothing more than this: An average offense and bad defense. On paper, they acquired power, but they still lack sufficient speed, athleticism and versatility, and that will hinder them. They should be a better team overall, but the improvement could be marginal.
McClendon was asked if, considering how hard it has been for the Mariners to find consistent offense, you simply have to sacrifice defense.
“I think it’ll match,” McClendon said of this team.
It sounds like spring-training optimism.
If the Mariners can score more runs and have a middle-of-the-pack outfield defense, then they will have accomplished quite a feat. They’ll have a winning season, too.
Right now, though, it seems impossible. McClendon and his coaching staff need magic to turn the Mariners’ defensive weakness into a non-factor.
Even if the air is filled with pixie dust, these outfielders still must prove they can run and catch it.