Ketel Marte didn’t make the Arizona Diamondbacks opening day roster.
Marte’s assignment to Triple-A was little noticed during this bottlenecked intersection of the sports calendar, when college basketball concludes and the baseball season begins and NBA and NHL teams gird for the playoffs a few days before the year’s first major golf tournament.
But Marte’s recent demotion caught my eye because it was only 12 months ago that Mariners manager Scott Servais wrote out an opening day lineup card with Marte at shortstop. He’d shown some potential during a 51-game audition in 2015, hitting .283 with an adequate glove, and it wasn’t as if the organization was stocked with phenoms projected as infield-defense mainstays.
The expectations put on Marte were not unreasonable — make contact at the plate, show some zip on the base paths, turn routine outs into routine outs at shortstop — but he regressed in all phases.
The 2016 Mariners stayed in wild-card contention until the last weekend of the season, finishing 86-76. With a reliable shortstop contributing more at the plate, it’s conceivable the team wins 90 games and earns a playoff berth.
Last November, in a Thanksgiving Eve trade with Arizona, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired a middle infielder as a replacement for Marte. I am presuming Jean Segura will be up to the task.
Segura batted .319 last season. (Marte batted .258.) Among Segura’s 68 extra-base hits were 20 homers. (Marte had 23 extra-base hits, with one homer.) Segura stole 33 bases. (Marte stole 11.)
Stats don’t tell everything, but they tell enough. Instead of a below-average shortstop with flaws that require further seasoning in the minor leagues, the Mariners now boast an All-Star-caliber shortstop who, with second baseman Robinson Cano, gives them their best keystone duo since Omar Vizquel teamed up with Harold Reynolds.
Replacing Marte with Segura isn’t the only upgrade in the lineup Servais will post Monday in Houston. A year ago, when the Mariners opened against Texas, Nori Aoki started in left field.
Aoki brought a reputation to Seattle as something of a circus act on defense, and he fulfilled it. In place of Aoki is Jarrod Dyson, whose outfield acrobatics tend to prevent rallies rather than sustain them.
A year ago, with Mike Zunino undergoing swing-reconstruction surgery in Tacoma, veteran Chris Ianetta started behind the plate. Zunino is back, and while doubts linger on whether he’ll ever hit as high as .250, there’s no question his catching skills are superior to those of Ianetta, who hit .210.
A year ago, Nelson Cruz got an opening day start in right field. It was a courtesy gesture, a first-time manager showing respect to an accomplished veteran, and besides, Cruz posed less of a defensive dilemma than Franklin Gutierrez, who was assigned the DH spot in the opener.
On Monday, rookie Mitch Haniger will start in right, where his range and arm appear an ideal fit for an outfield anchored by the spectacular Leonys Martin in center.
Haniger’s defense is an improvement over Cruz. At DH, Cruz’s bat is an improvement over Gutierrez. Connecting some dots?
Segura’s acquisition wasn’t cheap — it cost starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, he of the electric and very healthy right arm — and with Drew Smyly looking at an extended stay on the disabled list, it’s tempting to the reconsider the wisdom of Dipoto’s blockbuster trade.
Or you can propose a glass-half-full toast, and look at it this way: Smyly is out two months and misses 10 starts. Of those 10 starts, the Mariners win, say, six.
With Ariel Miranda filling in for Smyly, the M’s might not win six, but they’ll win four or five. A one-game difference, for the opportunity to energize an already competent lineup with Segura’s bat and speed, strikes me as minimal.
A year ago, the Mariners broke spring camp with Steve Cishek appointed as their closer. He was OK, not dominant but not a train wreck rekindling memories of Bobby Ayala.
When the Mariners open Monday, their closer will be Edwin Diaz, a young power pitcher with attitude. Bullpens are built on a kind of reverse domino effect: Everything hinges on the last guy, giving the manager the freedom to mix and match after the sixth inning.
The bullpen is better. The outfield defense is better. The lineup is better.