Near the end of an outstanding first half, the Seattle Mariners received some bad news pertaining to starting right fielder Michael Saunders.
Saunders left last Thursday’s loss to the Minnesota Twins after hurting his side on a check swing in the eighth inning. Bob Dutton of The Tacoma News Tribune reports that Saunders has a left oblique strain, which typically takes six to eight weeks to heal:
Oblique injuries are tricky to recover from, as players are unable to swing a bat or participate in baseball activities. That means Saunders won’t be playing until around September, not to mention how long it will take him to regain his timing.
The Mariners already needed help at corner outfield, and Saunders’ injury leaves the Mariners with very few options.
Other than Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, Saunders is having the best year offensively of any Mariner. Saunders is third on the team among regular hitters in wRC+, with a steep drop-off to fourth place James Jones, as well as in WAR.
Unfortunately, Saunders is developing a reputation of being injury-prone, particularly when he is playing well. He was on pace for a career-best season in 2014 before suffering a shoulder injury in early June, followed by the oblique strain.
Saunders was replaced on the 25-man roster by Justin Smoak, who may not contribute much at this point. Seattle’s offense already ranks near the bottom of the American League in several categories and will become even shakier without Saunders’ presence at the top of the order.
The Mariners are likely to trade for a corner outfielder by the deadline. Marlon Byrd or Alex Rios could be brought in to replace Saunders in right field.
However, it’s unlikely that Jack Zduriencik will be able to find enough at the trade deadline to address needs at both corner outfield positions, plus at designated hitter. Even if the Mariners acquired two bats, there still will be a significant hole somewhere in the lineup without Saunders.
An injury to such a key player can also quickly lead to rash decisions and overpays, which Zduriencik must be careful to avoid.
Until a move is made, Dustin Ackley and Endy Chavez will both be in the lineup most of the time. Chavez has been below replacement level in 2014, and Ackley owns a .616 OPS.
As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs points out, that leaves Seattle’s offense in bad shape:
With no great options on the 25-man roster, the Mariners may need to turn to the minor leagues.
Stefen Romero appeared in 33 games in right field earlier in the year, struggling mightily before being optioned on June 29. He's a talented young player, but Romero looked a long ways away from contributing at the major league level and needs consistent at-bats in Triple-A to develop.
Julio Morban is the only other true corner outfield on the 40-man roster, but he is only one month removed from rehabbing a broken leg at extended spring training.
Instead, the Mariners may need to turn to an infielder. Ty Kelly is an intriguing option who could provide some production at either corner outfield position.
Kelly has been used as a utility man in Tacoma this year, mostly at second or third. With an organizational infield logjam, Kelly has played more and more in the outfield as the season has gone on (14 games total) and could certainly do so in Seattle.
Besides being versatile, Kelly is a switch-hitter who has put up impressive offensive numbers since coming to the Mariners organization from the Baltimore Orioles at the deadline last year. Kelly has hit .275/403/.475 with 12 home runs in Tacoma this season.
Kelly displays an advanced plate approach as well, with a walk rate of 17.4 percent compared to a strikeout rate that is half a point lower. He talked to Colin O’Keefe of Lookout Landing about his unique, patient approach to hitting:
It all starts with a situation, and that can be your first at-bat of the game. You’ve never seen the guy and you want to see some pitches, and see what kind of off-speed pitches he has. There’s nothing worse than going into an at-bat, swinging at the first pitch and then your next at-bat you go up there and all you see there are two fastballs on the outside corner that you don't swing at—and then throws his strikeout pitch and you have no idea what it looks like. You end up flailing at a slider in the dirt.
He has roughly even splits from both sides of the plate and could be one of the right-handed bats Seattle is searching for. Kelly can also hit the ball to all fields with occasional power, as evidenced by his game last Friday against the Salt Lake Bees.
While Kelly’s greatest value is as an infielder, the Mariners have a need, and it’s time he got a shot in the majors.
Seattle would need to make a 40-man roster move to call up Kelly, which can be tricky around deadline season. The Mariners currently have two 40-man spots open, pending trades, and could designate someone like Lucas Luetge for assignment without losing much.
Kelly is an interesting player, but none of Seattle’s limited options will be able to fully replace Saunders’ production. The Mariners will have to hope Saunders can return at full capacity for the final September stretch.
All stats via FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.