John McGrath: No cleanup hitter needed: Seattle can count on Hart

OlympianMarch 7, 2014 

John McGrath

FILE PHOTO

Between the free-agent contracts awarded to Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Fernando Rodney, the Seattle Mariners invested a minimum of $260 million to upgrade their 2014 roster.

Most of that went to Cano, whose deal — he’s guaranteed $240 million through 2023 — is among the most lucrative ever given a baseball player. (It’s tied at No. 3.) But Rodney (two years, $14 million) and Hart (one year, $6 million, with another $7 million possible if he meets performance incentives) won’t be struggling to pay rent on Mediterranean Ave.

After the acquisition of Cano, which required Seattle to substantially outbid the New York Yankees, I figured the Mariners had put to rest any perceptions they were tightfisted. Then again, I figured giving $175 million to Felix Hernandez, making their

ace the highest-paid pitcher in history, should have established them as big-time players around the hot-stove circuit.

But old labels are tough to remove, and despite the Mariners having been busier than any other team this offseason, the organization still is seen as a bargain-basement operation. Luring Cano from New York was only a first step, I keep hearing; now it’s time to pay market value for a power hitter to “protect” the superstar in a lineup overloaded with left-handers.

Among those convinced the Mariners must spend more is Cano, who recently suggested that signing a free agent such as, say, the switch-hitting Kendrys Morales would help balance a batting order vulnerable to left-handed pitching.

Morales, you might recall, was extended a $14.1 million qualifying offer to remain with the Mariners for a second season, through 2014. Industry insiders shrugged off the offer as a low-ball lob — $14.1 million, I guess, is barely above minimum wage for a major leaguer these days — and Morales rejected it for the opportunity to shop around. He’s still shopping.

Morales showed up in Seattle with expectations that he’d hit between .275 and .280 and contribute some pop: 20 homers, maybe 25. He met those expectations precisely, finishing with a .277 batting average and 23 home runs.

But that’s the extent of his talent. He doesn’t play a position, aside from occupying first base now and then. (Asking him to play first on an everyday basis would be tantamount to putting him on the disabled list.) He can’t run, because asking him to move his legs at any speed more accelerated than a jog also would be tantamount to putting him on the disabled list.

I don’t mean to disparage Morales, who last season came across as a good dude with an agreeably casual disposition. Anybody whose pregame warm-up ritual includes smoking a quality cigar is OK in my book.

But if Morales is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question. The Mariners don’t need another designated hitter with minimal versatility. They need athletes, guys who can run from first to third in a blur and chase down liners in the outfield.

A year ago, general manager Jack Zduriencik concluded the Mariners were in need of some power to jump-start their listless offense. Raul Ibañez and Mike Morse were acquired as bashers, the fences at Safeco Field were moved in, and the commitment to the long ball produced 188 home runs, 39 more than were hit the previous season.

But the power surge didn’t translate into an offensive surge. The 2013 Mariners scored only five more runs than the 2012 Mariners. Meanwhile, the 2013 Mariners allowed 754 runs — 103 more than they gave up in 2012.

The back end of the starting rotation struggled, as did the back end of the bullpen, but the real problem was a dearth of athletic fielders. When Jason Bay was standing in one corner of the outfield and Ibañez was standing in the other, any liner hit in the gap was worth two bases, and sometimes a third.

Kendrys Morales solves this conundrum, uh, how?

Instead of overpaying Morales to be another DH on a team with about 10 of them, Zduriencik is allowing manager Lloyd McClendon to use spring training as a test lab for some intriguing experiments.

Abraham Almonte in center field, for instance. Almonte might never develop into anything more than a fourth outfielder, but he’s got the speed to both cover the gaps on defense and create spontaneous combustion on offense. When Almonte and Brad Miller batted at the top of the order for the Rainiers last season, it was sheer excitement.

As for the cleanup hitter who’ll bat behind Cano, Zduriencik already signed him: Corey Hart. He missed 2013 while recuperating from knee surgery — actually, knee surgeries, microfracture procedures on both of them — but during the three seasons prior to his medical leave, he averaged 29 home runs.

Hart turns 32 on March 24. If his knees aren’t an issue (and the Mariners, with a $6 million investment at stake, obviously trust they won’t be) there’s a lot to like about a 6-foot-6 cleanup man athletic enough to have hit 33 triples over a nine-year career. (Ken Griffey Jr., the most majestic baseball player ever born, hit 38 triples during his 22-year career.)

Hart won’t make anybody forget the masterful work of such former Mariners right fielders as Jay Buhner and Ichiro Suzuki, but he can play the position, he can bat fourth and he hits from the right side.

And in the event of a worse-case scenario? If either of Hart’s knees are posing long-term problems midway through the season?

The Mariners can always sign Morales to a contract. It’s likely he’ll be available, and likely he’ll be available for much less than the $14.1 million he turned down four months ago.

Nothing against Kendrys Morales, but the more I anticipate the 2014 Mariners season, the more I’m thinking of the song from Damn Yankees.

Ya gotta have Hart. Miles and miles and miles of Hart.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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