If newcomer Dee Gordon can defend center field the way team executives defended the franchise Thursday, the Mariners are in better shape than skeptics realize. Runs saved times face saved is an odd metric the club might just have invented.
Gordon, a lifetime second baseman acquired by the Mariners to play the outfield, made an impressive Seattle public-speaking debut at the club’s annual pre-spring training media gabfest by invoking the great spirits of the compass rose.
Gordon, 30 in April, was teammates with Mariners legend Ichiro in Miami, where Gordon was a two-time All-Star, 2015 National League batting champion and three-time NL stolen-base king, but struggled to obey a team directive to draw more walks from his leadoff spot.
So for advice he approached Ichiro, whose personal imperative was to avoid bases on balls as if they were horrid media people seeking quotes.
Gordon asked, “Ich, how you walk?”
Came the reply: “Rake first.”
That was the essential Ichiro: Pithy iconoclasm. Not to mention, correct.
Gordon swung away for three seasons with the Marlins and hit a cumulative .309. Apparently that wasn’t good enough, because he was traded Dec. 7 to Seattle for three minor leaguers, including the club’s top pitching prospect, Nick Neidert.
Gordon invoked another Mariners legend Thursday. He said he spent three hours after the trade texting with hitting coach Edgar Martinez.
“Now,” he said, offering a grin in the wattage range of former centerfielders Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Cameron, “it’s like, I’m gonna be so good.”
Besides being voluble and brash, he knows how to play to the home crowd. He attempted to soothe the fresh wound of the denial of Martinez by Hall of Fame voters Wednesday.
Said the Florida native, “I don’t know how he’s not in the Hall of Fame . . . I watched him for a long time from the other side of the country. That’s how great he was: When people know you from the other side of the country.”
Fresh as was Gordon’s banter, it didn’t quite clear the fetid air around the club after an unflattering story in Baseball America. The longtime baseball publication that covers mostly prospects in the minors scored the Mariners’ farm system last in the field of 30 MLB teams, eliciting an acid rainstorm through Northwest baseball Twitter.
Fire first was returned by Andy McKay, director of player development, who said Thursday that while he respected the publication, he didn’t read it, then sniffed, “We have plenty of players who are going to impact the big leagues in a big way.”
After several minutes of further defense, the lounge act gave way to the marquee guy, general manager Jerry Dipoto. He didn’t wait for a question to offer the counter-punch, delivered coolly yet rapidly, without notes, intended to patch the increasing breach in public credibility that began with a 78-win season that was 23 games back of the world champion Houston Astros.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” he said. “Sometimes that doesn’t turn into championships at the big league level; sometimes it does. We’re improving in a lot of areas, regardless of how we’re ranked in Baseball America.
“To that note, it’s really hard to move forward in a ranking system when a couple of things hit at the same time. One, we have traded prospects, which affects our depth. In some cases, they were playing at the top end of our system, and some cases, they’re on the big-league club.”
Still on the farm were four top prospects listed by BA who missed time in 2017 with injuries — Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Sam Carlson and Julio Rodriguez.
“One (Rodriguez) has never played a pro game and the other three were cut short,” he said. “Rankings are what they are. I too respect Baseball America. We are a little more bullish on our group than they are.
“To be frank, our prospect system has been the most productive system in baseball the past two years.”
His reference was largely about prospects traded to acquire young veteran starters for the big club. He cited the two newcomers, Gordon and 1B Ryon Healy, outfielders Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger and Guillermo Heredia, young closer Eddie Diaz and several members of a healthy bullpen. Added during the season last year were rotation members Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzalez. He called the nearly finished product of Mike Zunino “one of the best catchers in MLB.”
“It’s all perspective — how you choose to look at your farm system,” he said. “We still have a considerable number of players we’re happy to have. We’ll still look to get younger and more efficient and cost-effective.
“Hopefully, it goes without saying that you’re not going to make too many advances in prospect rankings when you graduate 475 innings pitched to the big leagues by our rookies last year.”
The innings pitched and 250 games by rookies were the highest in baseball, he said, and the 1,522 plate appearances by rookies was second-most, and most in club history.
“We transitioned a lot of rookies to the big leagues last year and they’re no longer eligible for prospect lists,” he said. “That doesn’t make them less than good young players. Look at all the detail and I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done organizationally.
“Now it’s up to us. I can’t criticize (Baseball America) for choosing to put us in that position. All I do is take the challenge. People, process and programs are going very well here.”
As far defensiveness goes, Dipoto’s deployment of facts and evidence was much more impressive than “nuh-uh.” In truth, the nine-man lineup is fairly impressive, and all but settled. The bullpen has been improved, and all the bench needs is a backup catcher.
What no one is clear on is the starting rotation, although it’s fairly certain help is not coming from the 30th-ranked farm system.
Everyone likely to be of noteworthy help for the 2018 Mariners is here. And they already have their slogan for a pitching-thin team, thanks to Ichiro and Gordon.