No team wants to collect first basemen, but the Seattle Mariners have managed to do just that over the off-season, although at least a few of them are athletic enough to play other positions in a pinch.
In no particular order, the Mariners have Russell Branyan, Mike Carp, Bryan LaHair, Mike Sweeney, Mike Morse and Chris Shelton, and have talked about – but never tried – pushing catcher Jeff Clement in that direction.
Branyan is a left-handed hitter who once hit 20 home runs in a season, although that season was 2001. Power isn’t the issue. Health and strikeouts, those are issues. Branyan hasn’t played as many as 100 games in a year in the majors since that 2001 season.
Carp (pictured here) is 22, acquired in the J.J. Putz trade, and he, too has power – and an eye at the plate. In Class AA last season, he batted .292 with a .403 on-base percentage. That’s eye-popping in a young hitter.
LaHair is 26, about the stage where major league scouts figure if you haven’t made it you’re probably not going to. Infielders like his play at first, and he’s a gap hitter who spent his off-season dealing with a herniated disc.
Sweeney is a catcher-turned-first baseman who now is a right-handed hitting designated hitter. If he’s playing first, his body is at risk – he had surgery on both knees last season and has a history of back problems. Clement will probably get as much time at first as Sweeney, and Clement won’t play there at all.
Shelton, 28, is a right-handed hitter without much power, and his best chance to make the team is as a platoon player against left-handed pitchers. In 904 big-league at bats, he’s a .274 hitter with 37 home runs and 120 RBI.
Morse, 26, has had a string of injuries that had sidetracked a promising career. Everywhere he’s gone, and every position he’s played in the past few years, he’s hit – a .300 average in 300 big-league at-bats. Morse isn’t a natural first baseman, but was athletic enough to play shortstop. Oh, and he’s out of options. If the Mariners don’t keep him on the roster, they lose him.
So there you have the candidates, and here’s the probabilities:
It’s Branyan’s job as long as he’s healthy, and he’ll get every pportunity to work through slumps during which he rarely makes contact because, as GM Jack Zduriencik says, when he connects, he can hit the ball a long, long way.
The real issue is whether the team, with 12 pitchers and a reserve catcher, even has room on the roster for a fulltime backup to Branyan. If they do, does it make sense to have another left-handed hitter? Probably not.
That leaves Shelton and Morse, and Morse – as long as you keep him out of the outfield – is more versatile. He can play first or third base. He can pinch-hit. (a .455 career average). And he’s a clubhouse favorite.
So pencil in Branyan. Keep Morse. And watch Carp, who most likely has the best future of the group.