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Imagining Brad Miller as a Center Fielder

The A's grabbed Ben Zobrist over the weekend, but I didn't strike while the iron was hot on that one so I won't write a whole post. Hot Mariners Musings take: the Oakland A's got better (SHOCKING ANALYSIS). In fact, the A's got so much better with that trade that I'm not sure they are any worse than they were last season, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. They traded the farm for Jon Lester and he walked away as a free agent this offseason.

There are also rumors popping up that the Astros are close to acquiring Evan Gattis. Perhaps that will warrant a full post if/when it happens. Houston is coming, sooner or later, and a move like acquiring Gattis would move up the time table. I like Gattis as an M's target, but after Nelson Cruz signed he made less sense.

The Mariners feel like they are falling behind in the AL West arms race at the moment, but it's hard to see a free agent signing or major trade that makes great sense at this point. The M's have a ton of money sunk in King Felix, Robinson Cano, and now Kyle Seager, plus several prospects (read between the lines: very cheap talents) that have recently pushed into the majors. The best outcome for the 2015 Mariners is for some of these prospects to reach their potential and match the value other AL West foes are adding via free agency, and especially as of recently, trades.

Interestingly, or perhaps unfortunately, two of the M's more intriguing young players both play shortstop. Chris Taylor and Brad Miller seem poised for a battle with the loser ticketed for AAA Tacoma. While I, as a Rainiers fan, would welcome either in Tacoma, there is little doubt in my head an inferior position player would stay over either Miller or Taylor unless the Mariners get creative.

Brad Miller (wikimedia commons, uploaded by UCinternational,
originally posted on Flickr by Keith Allison)
So, I have a proposal. Brad Miller should try his hand at center field.

Let me start by saying that Miller gets mixed reviews for his defense at shortstop, but I personally like his defense. Few doubt his range or arm strength, but some think he would make fewer errors at this point in his career if he was a viable MLB shortstop. These same concerns do not dog Chris Taylor - both statistically and in more traditional scouting reports. Taylor is rather clearly the superior defender between the two, so I opt to keep him at shortstop.

The Mariners already have Austin Jackson in center field, but that only makes me more comfortable with a Brad Miller transition. Jackson is only under contract through 2015, and after his lackluster performance to finish last season, there is no reason to expect him to be a long-term solution. While I like Jackson's chances to rebound, and hope he does, the Mariners would be wise to create contingency plans. Right now, there best (and only) option is James Jones, who so far looks like a center fielder but doesn't produce like much more than a fourth outfielder at best.

Miller is a better hitter than Jones, and probably even a better hitter than Austin Jackson. Also, his arm and range at shortstop could very well transfer nicely in the center field as he learns to run clean, precise routes. Route-running is still an underrated skill (at least in my opinion), but I would be willing to bet on Brad Miller's athleticism hiding some of his mistakes as he learns.

Some thought a corner outfield spot would make sense for Brad Miller because of where the Mariners had holes until they acquired Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith. I never liked that idea because it killed Brad Miller's value. So much of what makes him intriguing has to do with the position he plays. Simply put, there are more good hitters at first base than at shortstop, and tools like WAR account for this specific. Fangraphs publishes their positional adjustments, and using those as a rule of thumb illuminates the problem with moving Brad Miller to a corner outfield spot. Miller, even if he could man a corner outfield spot as well as he mans shortstop, would be worth 15 runs less than if he offered the same level of production at shortstop. That's approximately worth 1.5 wins, and Miller clocked in as a 1.4 fWAR player in 2014. Miller would literally go from a borderline everyday player to replacement level. That's a big difference.

However, Miller would lose only 5 runs in positional adjustment from shortstop to center field (a 0.5 WAR drop). In other words, the difference between Miller switching to center field instead of left or right field is a full win. Now, this is because center field is harder to play, so theoretically Miller's defense would suffer more in center field more than a corner. However, I am skeptical his metrics would be all that different. The reality is that Miller hasn't played any outfield, and the main difference between center and the corners is the range they demand. I'm bullish on Crazy Legs's ability to canvas the spacious grass of Safeco.

Moreover, the Mariners have more corner outfield prospects. Patrick Kivlihen isn't that far away and gets more intriguing every year. Maybe Stefen Romero still becomes something. Alex Jackson, though still very young, could progress through the system fast. We could be talking about him and Austin Wilson appearing in Safeco within a few years. Maybe Gareth Morgan follows a little after both of them. All of these players are corner outfielders.

If the Mariners carry Brad Miller as a centerfielder in training, the roster could look something like this:

STARTERS

  • C: Mike Zunino
  • 1B: Logan Morrison
  • 2B: Robinson Cano
  • SS: Chris Taylor
  • 3B: Kyle Seager
  • LF: Dustin Ackley
  • CF: Austin Jackson
  • RF: Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano (but mostly Smith as the lefty in the platoon)
  • DH: Nelson Cruz
BENCH
  • Jesus Sucre (C)
  • Willie Bloomquist (infield)
  • Brad Miller (centerfielder)
  • Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano (depending on who isn't starting)
Ruggiano can play center fielder if needed, so it would be about impossible for Brad Miller to ever be the only center fielder available in a massively critical situation, barring some really poor managing. He would provide some speed and a jolt of offense on the bench, and could DH also, so it's not like the Mariners would be playing with only 24 players. If/when LoMo gets injured, the Mariners could toy with letting Dustin Ackley play first base, deploying Ruggiano and Smith in the corner outfield slots (bumping Miller a bit closer to center field playing time), and calling up James Jones for added depth (because LoMo would be on the DL in this scenario).

The Mariners roster, both in 2015 and beyond, balances out and works better if one of their shortstops can transition to center field. Both Taylor and Ketel Marte (flying under the radar, but not for much longer) profile as prototypical shortstops who glean much of their value from how the field the most demanding position in baseball. Brad Miller, by contrast, is more of an intriguing blend of athleticism and hitting ability that might be able to stick at a premium defensive position. I'd like to see what he can do shagging flies in the Cactus league and go from there. It could work out well for him and the Mariners. It's a way to help the Mariners keep their 25 best players on the MLB roster while also shoring up the long-term outlook of the roster.