Franklin Gutierrez is arguably the best defensive center fielder in the game; if he shows the tiniest glimmer of hope with the bat during Spring Training and makes it to Opening Day healthy, he'll be the Seattle Mariners starting center fielder. Michael Saunders put in the work and miraculously turned himself in a valuable player last season after spending his first 100 MLB games looking like the farm system's latest bust; he deserves one of the corner outfield spots on Opening Day.
That leaves one spot, at least until some malady grounds Gutierrez. Once upon a time fans dreamed that Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher would fill the role. Now, barring a major maneuver, GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge appear to be taking the spaghetti-wall route. It feels like any of Jason Bay, Eric Thames, Raul Ibanez, Mike Carp, Carlos Peguero or Casper Wells could nab the majority of the at bats with a strong Cactus League showing.
One of those players may be more deserving than the others, however, and if you read the title of this article you can probably guess where I'm going with this.
Coming over in the Doug Fister trade, Wells appeared to be on his way to grabbing ahold of the left field gig shortly after his arrival in Seattle in 2011. After a solid .257/.323/.451 through 125 sporadic plate appearances with the Tigers, Wells caught fire upon receiving regular playing time with the Mariners: .326/.415/.652 through 13 games, including four consecutive games with a home run ... at Safeco. Then this:
97 MPH off the schnoz.
That game was followed by an off day, allowing Wells to catch his breath and jump back in the lineup without missing a game. But something wasn't right and it was soon reported that Wells was suffering from some serious equilibrium issues. It seemed to show up in his stat line: .125/.222/.250 through his final 63 plate appearances before being shut down for the season part way through September.
And yet he performed well enough that he might have expected to get more playing time in 2012.
Then Mike Carp happened, along with Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager, and Chone Figgins was still around, and Wells got lost in the shuffle early and failed to capitalize when playing time opened up later in the season. He had a strong stretch from mid-June to mid-July but was pitiful on either side of it, exhibiting the dreadful combination of more swings-and-misses with less power to show for it. He hit .228/.302/.396 on the year.
It's hard to get an idea of what exactly Wells has to offer given that, to date, he's been a player of extreme peaks and valleys. But mash it all together and you have an interesting player.
Wells' 162-game average, conveniently plucked from Baseball-Reference: .246/.317/.435 with 18 homers and 21 doubles over 474 plate appearances. Push that out to 500+ plate appearances and suddenly Wells looks a lot like a certain free agent that was coveted by many Mariner fans before he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for three years and $26 million.
I always laugh when I hear Mariners connected to Cody Ross.They already have Cody Ross.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?p…— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) December 21, 2012
It's not just the near-identical batting lines. Right-handed tweener center fielder with a no-thrills offensive skillset-- that profile fails to excite. That profile is no one's Plan A, but that profile provides value. That profile can win NLCS MVP and serve as the starting right fielder for the World Series champs. Wells could be Ross ... if he isn't already.
Assuming Justin Upton isn't Seattle-bound, should the Mariners strain to eek out what's left of Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez, or let a guy like Wells see if he can find some consistency with 500+ plate appearances?
Considering that Wells' career to date suggests a 3+ WAR player over the course of a full season (thanks in part to the plus-defense not provided by Carp, Thames, et al), it probably shouldn't be a tough choice. The Mariners only had one position player top 3 WAR last season (Kyle Seager). Consider also that Wells figures to benefit from Safeco Field's new dimensions as much as any Mariner. His home run charts from 2011 and 2012 via Hit Tracker Online:
A lot of Wells' power is to the left-center field gap, a former swampland flooded by the tears of Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron. The 12 feet shaved off the gap and lower fence closer to the left field line should help Wells maximize his power.
Casper Wells isn't the sexy pick. All the playing time in the world won't lead him to a .290 batting average or 30 dingers. But given the current alternatives, the Mariners committing 2013 to attempting to develop a good-not-great player seems preferable to another carousel of left fielders that fails to produce value or accomplish long-term goals. Teams can win with stars and scrubs, or they can win with balance. On his current career path, Wells fits into the stars and scrubs plan. Unfortunately, the Mariners can't deploy the stars and scrubs plan because they don't generally employ stars. Going for balance and maxing out players like Wells might be the way to go.