The Mariners have a new centerfielder—albeit one who’s never played a single inning there in his major league career. On Thursday evening, Seattle general manager and perpetual motion machine Jerry Dipoto finalized a four-player deal to acquire former All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon from the Marlins. But with Robinson Cano already in place at the keystone for Seattle, Gordon will instead head to centerfield in a risky experiment as Dipoto seeks to plug a persistent roster hole.
Gordon, who turns 30 in April, is far removed from the 2015 season when he hit .333/.359/.418 and earned an All-Star nod, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger award and the National League batting title. A positive PED test in late April 2016 landed him an 80-game suspension, after which he hit only .268/.312/.333 in 249 plate appearances, then followed that up with an improved yet still anemic .308/.341/.375 line last year. All told, he’s posted an 88 OPS+ and a total of 3.9 WAR since the start of the 2016 season, with a BABIP-inflated batting average dragged down by his abysmal plate discipline (just 43 walks in 1,041 plate appearances!) and non-existent power.
The Mariners are hopefully under no delusions with regards to Gordon’s offense; his true selling point is his speed. Gordon has led the majors in steals three of the last four years (his suspension-shortened 2016 being the exception), including 60 swipes last season to outpace fellow skinny speedster Billy Hamilton. He’s a true weapon on the base paths, even if his stolen base percentage (79% last year, 77% for his career) leaves something to be desired.
The real value of Gordon’s speed, though, will be in making the transition to the outfield, and that’s where things get tricky. Gordon has never played center in the majors or in the minors; his only experience there as a professional came across nine games four years ago in the Dominican Winter League as a member of the Licey Tigers. The hope for the Mariners will be that Gordon’s legs allow him to cover enough ground to succeed there defensively. There’s recent precedent for that working: Hamilton went from a shortstop in high school and the minors to centerfield with the Reds and has emerged as a Gold Glove-caliber player there thanks in large part to his ability to cover absurd amounts of ground in a flash. But it’s still a difficult position to play, and one that Gordon will have to learn on the fly; Hamilton got an entire season in the minors to test his skills there, while Gordon will have to figure it out over the course of just the winter and spring training.
If nothing else, though, Gordon has the tools to succeed in the outfield; by Statcast’s sprint speed metric, he’d have been the fourth-fastest centerfielder in the game in 2017, behind Hamilton, Byron Buxton and Bradley Zimmer—plus defenders, all. He also can’t do much if any worse than last year’s Mariners regulars, Jarrod Dyson (aka the poor man’s version of Dee Gordon) and Guillermo Heredia (a terrible hitter and average defender who’s better suited as a backup). For as weak as Gordon is offensively, even last year’s meager output far surpasses what Seattle’s collective centerfielders did: a .612 OPS, the lowest mark in the majors by far.
Still, it’s a gamble on Dipoto’s part, especially given Gordon’s price tag: an unappetizing $38.5 million over the next three years, as well as a $14 million team option or $1 million buyout in 2021. There’s also the risk that, as Gordon crests 30, his legs will start to go as he ages. Any diminishment in Gordon’s speed will rob him of any defensive value in center and turn him into mostly useless player. And while the prospect cost of the deal wasn’t high—three minor leaguers, with righthander and former second-round pick Nick Neidert as the most notable name—it further thins out a farm system that already had little to offer.
Indeed, the true key to this deal may not be Gordon; instead, it may be the $1 million in international bonus pool money the Marlins are sending Seattle’s way as well. As you may have heard, the Mariners are one of seven finalists for Japanese ace Shohei Ohtani, if not the favorites for his services. And thanks to the $1 million from Miami, the Mariners can now offer him more money than the other teams still in the running. Granted, we’re only talking about $3.557 million total, or about $20,000 more than second-place Texas and in pursuit of a player for whom money is clearly secondary—if not tertiary, quaternary or quinary—in importance. But it can’t hurt to add some change to the Ohtani piggy bank, as Dipoto did on Wednesday night when he sent a prospect to the Twins for another $1 million in international spending money.
Ohtani aside, though, acquiring Gordon does take care of a position that was nothing but trouble for Seattle last year, even if the solution doesn’t look all that appealing on first glance. Clearly unexcited about the free-agent options available to him (sorry, Carlos Gomez and Jon Jay), Dipoto has zigged where others may have zagged. Whether this deal puts him and the Mariners on a path back toward contention—or any closer to Ohtani—remains to be seen.