The Seattle Mariners are a team in transition. Realistically they have been in transition since 2004, although the Mariners themselves haven't readily acknowledged it until this year. Making the (admittedly large) assumption that everyone involved with the operation of the club now realizes that transition means making changes this coming winter, the decision needs to be made to transition away from Ichiro Suzuki. And that move should start being phased in now.
Yes, Ichiro has been great. Yes, he is the face of the franchise. Yes, he may well be a Hall of Famer. But if he's not already finished as a legitimate MLB player right now, he will be finished very soon. Soon enough that a transitioning club doesn't need him starting every game this season, and doesn't need him around, period, next -- regardless of what his legacy may be.
Although a superstar is usually not the best at recognizing that his skills have declined to the point of no return -- as we all witnessed with one of the greatest players of all time in Ken Griffey, Jr. in year two of his reunion tour in Seattle -- I'm getting more and more confident that the club and Ichiro himself will both see the writing on the wall this coming Winter. He will not be flat benched this season even if that would be best for the club. That isn't the way that MLB teams handle these types of moves for numerous reasons.
When the Mariners finally take that plunge and transition away from Ichiro, they will likely be looking to replace his unique skill-set with a player possessing a more traditional right field profile. Enter Casper Wells.
Wells, acquired from the Detroit Tigers as part of the Doug Fister trade in 2011, ended 2011 with an odd balance-equilibrium disorder that may have stemmed from being hit on the nose with a Brandon Morrow fastball. He rehabbed and rested over the Winter trying to get right and started 2012 as somewhat of an afterthought. As Spring Training blossomed and the Mariners had a plethora of healthy outfielders, Wells was fairly low on the depth chart. And even as injuries befell Franklin Gutierrez in Arizona and Mike Carp in Japan, Wells still wasn't finding himself as a regular in the lineup -- he had just 12 starts and only 53 plate appearances through Seattle's first 46 games. Finally, on May 24th, Wells was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to get some more regular playing time and work on shortening up his swing and being more selective. More importantly than his goals may have been the message: improve or risk being a minor leaguer.
The message seemingly got across crystal clear to Wells. He was with the Rainiers just 16 games and hit only .224, but he drew 15 walks and nine of his 11 hits went for extra bases. Since returning to the big leagues on June 13th when Mike Carp went back on the disabled list, Casper has hit .294/.351/.471, leading the club in average, slugging, home runs (3) and total bases (32) while ranking 2nd in on-base percentage, hits (20), runs scored (12) and RBI (11). He has also been playing very good outfield defense, starting games at all three outfield positions.
His efforts have been earning cheers from fans and they haven't gone unnoticed with those that count, either, as Manager Eric Wedge has not only been playing him nearly every day, but Wells has also been finding himself hitting near the meat of the order more often than not. But can Wells -- a right-handed hitter with a bit of swing-and-miss in his game -- fit the bill as the Mariners next starting right fielder?
As I mentioned above, Casper has been playing great outfield defense, and he possesses the strongest arm of any Seattle outfielder, including Ichiro. He isn't a great basestealer but he has decent speed. And, of course, he has power, having clubbed 19 home runs and 24 doubles in just over 450 career plate appearances in the big leagues with Detroit and Seattle since the start of the 2010 season.
Wells has also shown the ability to hit in Safeco Field, posting the highest OPS by a Mariner right-hander this season at .772, and his career mark in the righty-killing park is .789. He's has shown to be a good hitter with men in scoring position to this point, with a career .902 OPS in those situations. That number is sitting at .985 this year and Wells has shown more than simply the ability to hit in clutch moments, he has also shown an understanding of the context of the at bat, shortening up his swing or going the other way several times in recent games to get the job done.
Sometimes considered a platoon option only in the past, Casper has also delivered the best OPS against right-handed pitching among the M's this season at .772, an OPS+ of 120 for the split. So with all of this data, why has he not already won a job, either in Detroit or here in Seattle?
The first question with Wells is and always will be the strikeouts -- can he make enough contact to let his power play? His 27.4% career SO% is almost 50% above the league average over the past three years. But Wells has also been walking more often since coming to Seattle, and his 8.6% walk percentage this year is above the MLB rate of 8.1%. So far in 2012 there are 8 qualified players with both their strikeout percentage and walk percentage at or above those marks: Adam Dunn, Pedro Alvarez, Mike Napoli, Carlos Pena, Jordan Schafer, Rickie Weeks, Dan Uggla and Drew Stubbs. That list includes a lot of very useful major league hitters. Remember what useful major league hitters are, Mariners fans?
And what could moving in the fences at Safeco Field -- something that I am fairly certain the club is preparing to do over the offseason -- do for Wells, a right-handed hitter that already lost a Grand Slam to the cavernous left-center power alley earlier this season? Perhaps his power plays a bit more, perhaps as a result the average goes up a bit and the strikeouts go down a bit.
Casper Wells isn't perfect, and he isn't going to be a perennial All-Star. But he has a very nice skillset, is a low cost, relatively young option and is already here in Seattle, comfortable with his teammates and familiar with the city and the home field. In many ways he is the closest thing to one of everybody's favorite Mariner icons, Jay Buhner, that the club has had since Bone left.
Knowing what the Free Agent market has to offer for 2013 and knowing what the minor leagues are housing for the M's, Casper Wells makes a ton of sense to get a long audition for what will likely be Ichiro's old spot in 2013. Hopefully Wells and Ichiro can start sharing that spot some as the 2012 second half gets underway and the M's can find out if Casper Wells can be the club's next right fielder.
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