There will be a new look to Safeco Field in 2013, with the walls from the left field corner to right-center coming closer to the plate.
The cozier distances are going to make it tougher on fly ball pitchers, and that’s one reason the Mariners traded veteran left-handed starter Jason Vargas to the Angels Wednesday. Vargas has a great history in Safeco – 21-20, 3.38 – while he’s 21-30, 5.10 everywhere else.
The other reason for the deal was the Mariners’ dire need for a power bat in the middle of the lineup, and Kendrys Morales, when healthy, has been a homer and RBI producer in Southern California.
While changes to Safeco figured to cut into Vargas’ effectiveness, they seem likely only to help Morales, a switch-hitting first baseman/DH. He has the kind of power the Mariners have been seeking for just short of forever, and bringing the fences in can’t hurt.
Morales, who famously broke his foot jumping into a celebratory pile at home plate after an Angels Stadium walk-off grand slam against the Mariners in 2010, has never found even pitching-friendly Safeco much of a problem. He owns a .292 average in 34 games in Seattle, better than his overall career average of .281. He has seven Safeco Field homers, his second-best road total behind the eight he’s hit in Texas.
Perhaps more significantly, his OPS – perhaps the best overall statistical evaluator for a slugger – is .904 in Seattle but just .823 overall.
“At this point, I think I’m 100 percent,” Morales said on a conference call. “I’m ready to play every day. Obviously, that’s not my decision. But at the end of the day, I’m confident knowing that I’m 100 percent ready to play first base every day if that’s what’s needed.
”As (last year) wore on, I was able to build some more strength to have a stronger base – especially in my left foot – and towards the end of the year, I ran much better. And now, I’m at a point where I can work during the off-season and continue the improvement from the latter part of last season.”
So now the Mariners have someone who can sit comfortably in the middle of manager Eric Wedge’s 2013 lineup, but their offensive issues are far from solved. Seattle already had a logjam at the first base and DH positions with Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and Jesus Montero (when he’s not catching).
Another trade could be in the offing, although when pressed on that Wednesday, general manager Jack Zduriencik suggested that the move might push Montero into more of a catching-only role, which would mean less time for the club’s best clutch hitter in 2012, John Jaso.
“A lot of things can happen,” Zduriencik said. “Who can predict what will happen two months from now? I just want to get guys on the field and let them compete. I don’t have the exact (where players will fit in). I’m very comfortable this makes us better.
“Montero is a 22-year-old guy who rolls into camp with a chance to be an everyday catcher.”
Montero was mostly a DH in 2012, but so was Morales, who played just 28 games at first base for the Angels as he continued his long recovery from leg problems.
“We have done a lot of work, our trainers talking to their trainers; our doctors talking to their doctors,” Zduriencik said. “It was good to see him play an entire season last year. Eric (Wedge) and I have talked a lot about this, and with Smoak and Morales and Montero, there are enough at-bats to go around.”
That may be the optimist in Zduriencik speaking. Between Morales, Smoak, Montero and Carp – an outfielder limited to first base by injury in 2012 – they played 180 games at first base and served 175 games as DH last year. There are only 162 games in a season, so it seems like there is a crunch for playing time, barring another deal.
The deal, which began being talked about seriously over the weekend and got serious Tuesday, almost certainly is a recognition that the Mariners won’t be in the running for Nick Swisher, the former Yankee right fielder who doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a Mariner.
In giving up Vargas, the Mariners are letting their No. 2 starter stay in the division and will make the Angels even more formidable. It was less than a week ago that the Angels signed Josh Hamilton, a slugger the Mariners lusted after even more than they did Swisher. That acquisition was sure to mean fewer at-bats for Morales, who talked to Zduriencik Wednesday and thanked the Mariner GM for trading for him.
“I was surprised (Hamilton) wound up in Anaheim, quite frankly,” Zduriencik said. “I think we made a very good and aggressive bid for him. It didn’t work. When that ship is gone, you pursue other options.”
The 29-year-old arbitration-eligible Morales is likely to earn about $4.8 million this year. Vargas, also 29, made $4.85 million last year and will get a hefty raise in arbitration, so the Mariners come out of this deal with a few more dollars to spend. Both players will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season.
They may use them to pursue free agent outfielder Michael Bourne or they may target a starting pitcher now that Vargas’s departure leaves a huge hole in the rotation. Behind Felix Hernandez the Mariners now have Hisashi Iwakuma, who has had one good half-season in the big leagues, and two unproven kids in Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan, an even more unproven second-year pitcher in Hector Noesi and a huge crop of highly prized prospects including Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer.
“It was tough to give up Jason Vargas,” Zduriencik said, noting that the lefty had back-to-back-to-back seasons of at least 190 innings. “He’s been a real asset. But the strength of our organization is pitching. And it is right around the corner.”