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FanGraphs: Seattle's left field problem

10/2/2010

What do Jeffrey Leonard, Greg Briley, Kevin Mitchell, Mike Felder, Eric Anthony, Vince Coleman, Rich Amaral, Jose Cruz Jr., Glenallen Hill, Brian Hunter, Rickey Henderson, Al Martin, Mark McLemore, Randy Winn and Raul Ibanez have in common? From 1990 through 2004, each player in turn was the regular starter in left field for the Seattle Mariners. Not a single player repeated during that entire span. When Raul Ibanez occupied the primary starting role from 2004 through 2008, it marked the first time that the same person played left field regularly in consecutive years since Phil Bradley did in 1986 and 1987.

With Ibanez in Philadelphia, however, the Mariners left field carousel is back. Last year, the position was manned by Endy Chavez, Ryan Langerhans, Wladimir Balentien, Michael Saunders and Bill Hall. Saunders and Langerhans are in Triple-A Tacoma, while the other three are with other organizations.

For now, the de facto starter is Milton Bradley, but there are problems with that arrangement even without discussing Bradley's off-field baggage. He has had surgery on both knees in the past, and in 2009 he he missed games with minor pains in his left quad, groin, right calf, right hip, both hamstrings, left knee and right quad. Safeco Field holds a vast expanse of real estate to cover in left field, and Milton Bradley attempting to cover that much ground is bad for the team’s defense and bad for Bradley’s future health.

It would be a tougher decision if the Mariners were playing Bradley in left field in order to make room for a Vladimir Guerrero-type bat at DH, but they’re not. Most projection systems have the Mariners’ current DH platoon of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney at replacement level, meaning that they are not any better than what you’d expect to get from a player claimed on waivers. (Last year, Griffey was worth 0.3 wins above replacement, and Sweeney was 0.4.) There is no one blocking Bradley from moving to designated hitter. Not to mention the fact that Bradley had the best year of his career in 2008, when he posted a 4.6 WAR as a full-time DH for the Rangers.

With Bradley at DH, left field is opened up for a platoon of Eric Byrnes and either Ryan Langerhans or Michael Saunders; either pairing would provide solid defense coupled with enough hitting to allow Bradley to move to DH with no overall loss in left field. The Mariners are costing themselves about two projected wins with their current arrangement and, needing to make up ground in the AL West, cannot settle for another sub-par left fielder, even if that is the norm for the organization.

Matthew Carruth is a writer for FanGraphs.