It’s no secret that the Mariners need some power. The big question is where they’re going to get it. The Mariners were last in the league in ISO at .104, and didn’t fare well in the more traditional metrics either, finishing last in home runs and slugging percentage.
The Mariners go into the offseason with two gaping holes to fill in their lineup. First of all, they will likely need a leftfielder to compliment Gutierrez in center and Ichiro in right. Michael Saunders led the team in starts in LF, with 77, but Saunders simply didn’t produce the kind of offensive numbers the Mariners will look for in a corner outfielder. Saunders has been on the M’s prospect radar for quite a while, but at 23 (he turns 24 next week), he needs to start turning his massive potential into tangible results if he wants to lock down a position in Seattle’s starting lineup. 0.3 WAR in 100 games this season simply doesn’t cut it. While Seattle has been said to be a potential player in the Carl Crawford sweepstakes, they’ll have a hard time bidding against high-budget teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels without expanding payroll past their means. My guess would be that they eventually are priced out of the market and are forced to look elsewhere for help.
The other main area of concern is behind the plate, where the Mariners tried out five candidates last season and still don’t have a grasp of who their starting backstop should be. Rob Johnson (61 games) and Adam Moore (59) got the lion’s share of the at-bats, but Johnson failed to break the Mendoza line, hitting .191 with a .261 wOBA, and Moore fared even worse, batting .195 and managing only a .224 wOBA that was the third worst in baseball among players with more than 200 at bats. Moore still has a bit of prospect potential, especially in the power department, but at this point the Mariners’ future behind the plate looks pretty grim.
For this reason, I’m going to say that the Mariners need to pick up a catcher with some power who can plug the hole at the position for the foreseeable future. They’re looking for a guy who can step in and produce from Opening Day, and as a team looking to reload after a disappointing year, they’ll be looking to keep their draft picks as much as possible.
As I’ll write about later in this series, I think Victor Martinez goes elsewhere. He’ll be expensive and would cost the Mariners a pick, assuming the Sox offer arbitration and he turns it down. The other Type A’s at catcher are Ramon Hernandez and AJ Pierzynski, but I don’t expect either to generate too much interest from a team like the Mariners. For me, the best fit for the M’s would be former Blue Jay John Buck. Buck hit 20 longballs in 118 games last season, so he could provide a much-needed boost in the power department. Buck’s .208 ISO from last season would be a more than 100-point improvement on the .101 Seattle got from behind the plate last season, and his .345 wOBA would outpace the Mariners’ catchers’ .250 by nearly that much. Buck is only 30, so while many executives might have issues with signing an older catcher to a long-term deal because catchers tend to break down earlier than players at other positions, this wouldn’t be a huge concern. Additionally, he’s a type B free agent because he didn’t get as many starts as many other catchers (his thumb was injured after it was hit by a foul tip. Not the type of thing that seems likely to become a recurring problem), so he wouldn’t cost the Mariners a pick.
Last year was a large jump in production for Buck, and I don’t think you can expect the same numbers from him next year. However, I think he’ll get pretty close, and while his defense behind the plate, strike zone discipline, and OBP abilities are suspect, the power is there. As long as the Mariners don’t pay for his 2010 production, and instead make a reasonable estimate of his abilities going forward, they should be getting a guy who will fit into the lineup and provide the pop they sorely need.
Buck was an All-Star in 2010, and it seems like he’ll probably end up signing for somewhere in the $4 mil per year for two or three years range. That’s very affordable for a catcher who can mash and has experience handling young pitching staffs, as Buck did in Toronto. Buck would be a great value buy for the Mariners and fill one of their biggest needs for the next few years, without costing a pick. For these reasons, Buck is the Mariners’ Perfect Pickup.