By Shannon Drayer
PEORIA, Ariz. – One of the big surprises early in camp was how the competition for spots in the outfield quickly vanished.
Throughout the winter the list of candidates seemingly got longer, but those players were nowhere to be found once outfield drills began on a back field. Franklin Gutierrez decided to take 2014 off. Nelson Cruz was never signed. A true center fielder was never traded for. Logan Morrison was at first base.
It quickly became clear that instead of spending the spring sorting through an outfield muddle we would watch a group of four go about the business of getting ready for the season. While there is always room for surprises and a chance that they could go with five outfielders, barring disaster it would appear that Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte, Corey Hart and Michael Saunders will be roaming the outfield grass at Safeco Field this summer.
It is a bit of a surprise that this is the group the Mariners will go with. I fully expected that we would see more help brought in from the outside. This team's outfield defense was a disaster in 2013 – an acknowledged disaster at that with general manager Jack Zduriencik admitting at the end of the season that he knew the Mariners were sacrificing defense to bring in some big bats. That defense helped contribute to a 103-run jump in runs allowed from 2012 to 2013. That was of concern to Zduriencik yet we didn't see him bring in anyone who was anywhere near an elite outfield defender.
That said, the outfield defense has a good chance to be a lot better than what we saw last year.
Addition by subtraction will play a big part in any improvement. Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay started a combined 128 games in left field in 2013. Michael Morse started 53 games in right. These three players ranked in the bottom quarter of a number of defensive metrics, and that is being generous. You also had the newly converted Ackley in center for 46 games and Saunders out of position for 69 games. As much as we like Saunders as an outfielder, the numbers suggest center is by far his worst position. There has been the thought for some time that he needs to be on a corner to best utilize his talent. We could see more of that this year.
What did this outfield defense cost the Mariners? Too many balls got over their heads or through the gaps. Outs were turned into doubles and the runs allowed began to pile up. Depending on what numbers you look at, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the outfield defense over the course of the season cost this team five or six wins. We shouldn't see that this year.
The Mariners have a chance to go from well below average on the corners to average depending on how much Hart plays in right. An outfield defense of Ackley in left, Almonte in center and Saunders in right has the opportunity to be average and possibly slightly above average, which is a tremendous improvement from a year ago.
Assuming Hart is healthy and can play more than half the games in right – and that is a big assumption at this point – the key will be finding the balance of defense and offense with what you have in Ackley, Almonte and Saunders. If you can get Saunders to a corner spot you have dramatically increased the defensive performance from a year ago at whatever position you put him.
The interesting thing to watch will be what Ackley and Almonte can turn into. Both have the athleticism to be above average in the outfield. Ackley is inexperienced, having converted to the outfield mid-season last year. Beyond the mechanics of the position, it was eye opening listening to him talk about the physical demands of playing in the outfield and how different that was for him making the switch during the season. Having an offseason to prepare for that should at least get him started on solid footing. Limiting him to left, as manager Lloyd McClendon has said he will, should help Ackley as well.
As for Almonte, in his brief time in Seattle we saw a talented but raw outfielder. He has the legs to patrol center. He possesses an arm that some say is the best in the organization. Accuracy with that strong arm was a problem last year and his play around the wall was dicey. At 24, some might write him off and say he's reached his ceiling having played in the outfield his entire career, but recent life changes have given him a renewed focus.
Dustin Ackley has plenty of room to improve as an outfielder after switching positions midway through last season. (AP)
This spring in camp we have seen very focused and very intense drills in the outfield. It is clear that there is teaching going on and more importantly it looks like there has been learning. Although the work and workouts are intense, the outfielders enjoy working with Van Slyke, who brings 13 years of big-league experience to the position. If that is not enough, five Gold Gloves and two Silver Slugger Awards no doubt helped grab the attention of the young players he tutors.
Van Slyke spent the early days of camp getting the outfielders physically ready for the season. He wanted to give them the opportunity to get their legs under them and get their arms ready both in strength and mechanics. He also went to work on their minds.
"It's about giving them a vision that they are not where they are supposed to be," he said. "They are not nearly as good as they are going to be. Each guy will have different growth over hopefully the next couple of years or the next couple of months that who you are right now is not who you are going to be at the end of this season or the next one. You are going to be better only if you are willing to admit you are not as good as you should be."
Van Slyke knows he needs to make up for lost time with some of these outfielders. Ackley is on a crash course, continuing to learn his position at the big-league level. With Ackley and other young players who were brought to the big leagues quickly, things get missed as a lot of learning goes on in the minor leagues. The biggest thing these players miss out on?
"Reps," Van Slyke said. "That is the thing. In today's game a lot of times our expectations of young players are unfair. They didn't get the reps that maybe they got 25 years ago. These guys are as talented as the guys when I played, before I played and after I played. The talent level at the major-league level is not the issue. If there are fundamental baseball issues it is only because they haven't had the opportunity to make those mistakes in the minors. They haven't had the chance to grow in the minor leagues. We are pushing players faster than we ever have. The players are getting younger, but at the same time once you have got to the big leagues you are expected to play like a major leaguer."
According to Van Slyke, the problem comes when that player reaches the major leagues they often believe they are what they are going to be defensively. While so much work goes into developing and improving as a hitter, the same focus is rarely applied to the defense. "You are what you are" is not an acceptable outlook for Van Slyke.
"A lot of times these guys don't have a vision of what it should be. They only have a vision of what it is right now," he said. "I think if you can give guys a vision of playing at a higher level they will want to get there. You have got to give them tools so they can use those tools and then they can apply them to what there craft is.
"Hopefully we (coaches) are the right tools in the right place at the right time for these guys, but they also have the responsibility of using the tools that have been given to them and use them correctly."
The tools are there, tools that may not have always been available to this group at this level. It is a good start and I think we may have already seen improvement. In Monday's game against the Rockies, Almonte made two tremendous plays where he showed great range while getting to balls near the wall and then managed to make two basket catches to turn what would have been doubles into outs.
Ackley has yet to be tested in left but the same plays were challenges for him last year. Can he get a better jump? Will an offseason of conditioning his arm and legs for the outfield make a difference? Will an offseason of working on the outfield throw – a different arm slot from the infield – reveal that perhaps his arm is not as weak as what we saw last year? He has every opportunity to be an above average outfielder and his legs alone make him better than what we saw in left for the majority of last year. How much better can he get?
The Mariners allowed 754 runs last year, 103 runs more than in 2012. Obviously a lot of this falls on the pitching but the defense did its fair share of damage as well. While outfield defense was not addressed in the offseason in the form of bringing in another player, there is still opportunity for marked improvement if these players continue to develop.