John McGrath

John McGrath: Finding a center fielder takes center stage for new Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto

Jeremy Reed, never the solution to the Mariners’ center field woes.
Jeremy Reed, never the solution to the Mariners’ center field woes. AP file, 2008

Jerry Dipoto’s first significant roster move as Seattle Mariners general manager will be acquiring a center fielder.

This is just a hunch. When Dipoto was introduced Tuesday, he spoke in vague tones appropriate for the occasion. But more than once he mentioned his desire to put together a team better equipped for Safeco Field than the 2015 Mariners, who began the weekend with the second-worst home record in the American League.

Customizing a roster capable of taking advantage of Seattle’s spacious outfield begins in center, which used to be the least of the Mariners’ concerns. Between 1989 and 1999, future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. played the position with grace and flair. Then Griffey was replaced by Mike Cameron, a technically superior fielder who earned a pair of Gold Gloves between 2000 and 2003. He should have won four.

A fan can get spoiled watching the likes of Griffey and Cameron turn line-drive doubles into outs. I know I did. After Cameron departed as a free agent, the opening day center fielder in 2004 was Randy Winn, whose arm turned out to be weaker than chicken soup served on a hospital tray.

Winn gave way to Jeremy Reed, a minor league hot shot who copped the attitude of a major league hot shot, necessitating the first and most successful trade of the Jack Zduriencik era: a three-team deal that brought Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners.

In a perfect world Gutierrez — aka “Death to Flying Things” — remains the center fielder for a decade. You know how that turned out.

Last season, manager Lloyd McClendon decided center field was Abraham Almonte’s job to lose out of spring training. Sure enough, he lost it. James Jones and Endy Chavez were used as stopgaps until Austin Jackson was acquired from the Tigers.

Jackson is a terrific all-around athlete — he once was recruited to play basketball at Georgia Tech — who seemed to provide the Mariners with at least a short-term solution in center. That was the plan, anyway. In reality, he became part of a musical-chairs brigade of 2015 center fielders that has included, let’s see: Jones, Dustin Ackley, Ketel Marte, Shawn O’Malley, Stefen Romero, Justin Ruggiano and Brad Miller.

In other words, it has been a mess. Nobody expects the Mariners to obtain the next Ken Griffey Jr. — a franchise gets somebody like that every half-century or so — but it’s not unreasonable to believe there’s a durable version of Gutierrez out there: a center fielder who can cover ground on defense and supply some energy on offense.

“We need to find a mix of the athletic and the tried and true,” Dipoto said Tuesday. “We need to find guys who can keep a lineup moving. Sometimes you can keep a lineup moving with two guys — one in the upper third and one in the bottom third — creating a flow.

“And you might be able to find a center fielder who can cover two-thirds of the outfield. If you do that, you can afford some bop on one corner.”

Speaking of corner bop: Nelson Cruz in right field hasn’t been the train wreck some feared. But he’s 35, and though his total-player commitment is sincere, there’s a spot in any AL lineup card for a 35-year old slugger with marginal defensive skills. That spot is as designated hitter.

So the new general manager might want to identify a right fielder and, while he’s at it, a left fielder, in addition to a first baseman and a catcher. But the essential component in the makeover is the center fielder.

“There’s a lot of ways you can put it together,” Dipoto said. “You’ve got to understand, first and foremost, that the ballpark affords you an ability to build a pitching staff and create a defensive model that other parks just don’t have.”

The bad news for the Mariners is that the center fielders available as 2016 free agents present no tangible upgrade over Miller. They will merely be more expensive, and less amenable to hitting here and there in the batting order.

The good news? Dipoto regards free agents as a last resort — complimentary pieces, as he put it, to “augment” a roster. He’d rather participate in the kind of trade Zduriencik pulled off to acquire Gutierrez.

As a baseball historian, Dipoto likely is familiar with defensive positions Abbott and Costello referred to in their skit “Who’s On First?” The name of Abbott and Costello’s center fielder is “Because.”

Which brings us back to the question: Why does Dipoto’s quest to reconfigure the Mariners into a team suited for their ballpark begin with the center fielder?

A fast and skilled player in center can compensate for athletes with less range in the corners. A fast and skilled player in center field is the baseball equivalent of a point guard on a basketball floor, and a quarterback on a football field.

Acquiring a fast and skilled center fielder will be paramount for Jerry Dipoto.

Because.

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