Seattle Mariners

Mariners open to adding veteran utility infielder for depth behind Marte

The Mariners are concerned about their depth at shortstop behind Ketel Marte, who was a rookie in 2015.
The Mariners are concerned about their depth at shortstop behind Ketel Marte, who was a rookie in 2015. AP

By signing Cuban defector Guillermo Heredia, the Mariners addressed their need for a viable defensive center fielder should anything happen to Leonys Martin.

Their next target figures to be a veteran utility infielder.

The Mariners took a brief look at free-agent Jimmy Rollins before he signed with the Chicago White Sox, and they are likely to continue monitoring the trade and free-agent markets along with the waiver wire as the spring unfolds.

The reason?

Neither projected shortstop Ketel Marte nor the club’s two primarily utility candidates, Luis Sardinas and Chris Taylor, have more than 230 career at-bats in the big leagues.

“They’re all young guys,” one club official said. “I think we have to at least look at what’s available.”

Shawn O’Malley, 28, is a 10-year professional who is often lumped with Sardinas and Taylor as a utility candidate, but general manager Jerry Dipoto said the extra infielder “has to be able to play shortstop.”

That’s not generally viewed as an O’Malley strength.

“Versatility will be nice,” Dipoto said. “What they can give us from the offensive side (is a consideration), but the most critical element is … we need a shortstop to be able to step in (for Marte) because we’re not going to play him 162 games.”

Marte, 22, is a switch-hitter who exceeded expectations last year after a July 31 promotion from Triple-A Tacoma — not only in batting .283 with a .351 on-base percentage in 57 games but also in settling in smoothly at shortstop.

“Be the same,” he said this week when asked to outline his goals for the upcoming season. “Just keep working and see what happens. I’m just going to try to control the zone a little bit more.”

The Mariners, as they prepare to start full-squad drills, are bracing for a possible sophomore slide by trying to ease expectations on Marte, who is easily the least experienced player in their projected lineup.

“Anytime young players come to the big leagues and they have success right away … OK, is the league going to figure them out?” manager Scott Servais said. “What’s going to happen differently in the second go-round?

“The biggest thing for Ketel to come in here is to handle everything defensively. We all know offense can go up and down. It’s a long year there, and he’s a young player. But, obviously, he’s tracking the right way when he got to the big leagues.”

The Mariners believe that Taylor, 25, never regained equilibrium last season after suffering a broken right wrist in spring training. Activated in mid-April, he tanked by batting .159 with only two extra-base hits in a 20-game May trial.

But Taylor batted .313 over the last two seasons in 161 games at Tacoma and remains a steady defensive presence at shortstop as well as second base. To win the utility job, though, he must prove he can play third base.

While third baseman Kyle Seager is an ironman who averaged 159 games over the last four years, the Mariners don’t want to enter the season with a roster where he is expected to play every inning.

But Taylor’s only professional experience at third base, other than one inning last year in a July 12 blowout loss to the Angels, consists of one game in 2012 at Short-A Everett.

That seems to position Sardinas, 22, as the leading in-house candidate for the utility job. He certainly has the shortstop chops — Dipoto likens him to Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar — and has experience at second base and third base.

But Sardinas batted only .196 last season in 36 games at Milwaukee. It’s a small sample size, and the Mariners might willingly live with a light-hitting infielder in a utility role.

That would be harder to do if they need an alternative to Marte due to injury or regression. So the search for a veteran is likely to continue. Signing Heredia, 25, reaffirmed Dipoto’s desire to stock the organization with viable alternatives.

“Depth, to me is setting up a Plan A and having guys in back of Plan A,” he said. “So in the inevitable case of something in Plan A does not work out, Plan B can step up and provide a productive solution rather than just a crash and burn.”

None of this suggests the Mariners don’t expect Marte to succeed. They do.

“He controlled the zone (last season) better than he actually did in the minor leagues,” Servias said, “which is kind of unheard of. That’s a great sign. But the thing we’re going to focus on with Ketel is defensively (that) he’s comfortable.

“Make the routine play. Be consistent and continue to grow in his relationship with Robby (Cano). That will be very important. We’re not going to change a whole lot in his game. He’s young. He’s getting stronger. He’s more mature.

“He’s understanding the game better. You just have to let him evolve.”

But have an alternative.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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