After taking a four game series against the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend 3-1, the Mariners earned their sixth straight series win and have now won 15 of their past 20 games.
The team is playing well. It is playing with confidence and executing virtually all of the fundamental plays that it needs to. It is also starting to play with more and more rookies with other prospects knocking on the door.
And therein lies the dilemma for general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge: how to get players like 2B Dustin Ackley and OFs Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero on the field regularly without disrupting the success of the team. These aren’t players that you bring up to sit on the pine. These are players that make up the core of the future and they need the playing time to continue to develop.
If you were to have drafted the ideal future lineup of the Mariners for 2012 based on the team’s assets both at the major league level and minor league level, it would look something like this:
C Miguel Olivo
1B Justin Smoak
2B Dustin Ackley
SS Brendan Ryan
3B Chone Figgins
LF Greg Halman
CF Franklin Gutierrez
RF Ichiro Suzuki
DH Carlos Peguero/Matt Mangini/Johan Limonta et al
If you look at this future lineup, a few things are readily apparent. Number 1, there is no room for the team’s leading hitter, utility infielder Adam Kennedy.
Kennedy, who is hitting .294, is also providing clutch hits, veteran leadership and stellar defense at second. With the team sitting 2.5 games back of Texas for first place, those aren’t qualities that are easily parted with.
Another thing you notice is the losses of Jack Wilson and Jack Cust. Neither is signed for 2012 so it’s likely both will be gone but both players have been counted on for key contributions so far this season. Dispatching them in early June for a pair of rookies is also something not easily done in a winning clubhouse.
Currently, the roster dilemma lies with getting outfielders Halman, Peguero and Mike Wilson on the field. Left field is an open spot for the lineup where one of those three can play every day. But to get a second on the field every day, the Mariners will have to get creative.
The other opening is going to have to come by resting CF Franklin Gutierrez, RF Ichiro Suzuki and DH Jack Carp intermittently. They can probably rest Gutierrez and Cust twice a week and Suzuki once a month to get those rookies the playing time they deserve.
However, an even greater lineup dilemma faces the team currently as it decides how to bring up Ackley, the organization’s top prospect who has been tearing up Triple A pitching since May.
Ackley, 23, is a second baseman and key cog for the team’s future. Thus, moving him around to multiple positions is not something Zduriencik and company want to do.
That means that when Ackley is finally promoted he’s going to play second base five out of every six days, if not more, supplanting the current tandem of Kennedy and Wilson (not to mention the player who will be dispatched from the 25-man roster to make room for him, likely INF Luis Rodriguez).
Where would Kennedy — and Wilson for that matter — play with Ackley taking over second?
Both players are on one year contracts and thus not guaranteed to be around for the 2012 season. Likely one will be traded by the end of July. But it is early June and it becomes hard to create trade value for a player that is sitting on the bench.
It’s possible that Kennedy and Wilson could be moved to third base to platoon with Chone Figgins. But that isn’t a move that is easily done either. Figgins, despite his struggles, is signed long-term, thru 2013 to be exact and is unquestionably the best defender at third. Going with a starting infield of Justin Smoak at first, Ackley at second, Brendan Ryan at short and Kennedy at third weakens the defense.
Wedge could probably get a way with benching Figgins twice a week in favor of Kennedy at third. Another two playing days for Kennedy could come from resting Ackley every now and then, but those four days look to be the max for his playing time. Unless an injury arises, it looks like Wilson is the odd man out and will be riding the pine even more so with the eventual addition of Ackley.
While it’s nice to have this problem of multiple good, young prospects making their case for regular playing time, I doubt Zduriencik is sleeping easy these days.