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Updated Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 01:46 PM

Mariners need to figure out what they've got with Franklin Gutierrez, then take steps to protect themselves in future

Geoff Baker

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Mark down mid-June in the office pool for when Franklin Gutierrez finally made it back from that spring training injury. Three and a half months after tearing a pectoral muscle in spring training -- with some complications later -- Gutierrez will finally make his major league season debut with the Mariners when he's added to the roster later today.

We will also see Casper Wells, Erasmo Ramirez and Steve Delabar coming to the Mariners, while Alex Liddi and Blake Beavan go to Class AAA and Mike Carp and Stephen Pryor head to the 15-day disabled list.

Gutierrez's absence hurt the Mariners, not only because they lost a Gold Glove caliber centerfielder. They also lost a right-handed bat they were counting on for much of their lineup balance. Up to now, manager Eric Wedge has been getting by with a largely left-handed lineup, especially up top.

Then again, we can't feel all that sorry for the Mariners. It's not like they did all they could to protect themselves in the event Gutierrez did not pan out. Nor have the Mariners been doing all they can lately to optimize their lineup or have additional right-handed bats and glove men out there they can use.

For now, the Mariners have to see what Gutierrez can give them, then plan accordingly for next season. Even if Gutierrez comes back looking like an all-star, it would be a good idea for this team to go out and pick up a proven outfield bat this winter. Not a scrap heap, last-man-standing bargain free agent. But a good bat that requires actual money to be spent.

That's something the Mariners had chances to do last winter, but, for whatever reason, they did not pick anyone up. And that lack of a move came back to haunt them.

I was sifting through the comments on this site last night and saw somebody mention that Josh Willingham -- a free-agent outfielder who signed a three-year deal with the Twins this past winter -- was sporting similar hitting numbers as Michael Saunders. This was cited as some type of proof that the Mariners have somehow been better off sticking to their plan and waiting for their younger core of players to develop because they now have Saunders and didn't have to pay for Willingham.

Or, something like that.

First off, Willingham has an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .969 compared to .824 for Saunders, so no, they are not exactly hitting equals.

Second, while it's true that under different circumstances, the comment I read might actually have a decent amount of merit, it was unfortunately made in the wrong context. Yes, had Saunders been playing left or right field all season, then one could argue the Willingham point a little more forcefully. Because Willingham is a corner outfielder.

But Saunders has been playing center field all season while a slew of other, poorly-performing players have been paraded through the left field black hole a guy like Willingham could have been manning. The Mariners enter tonight nine games under .500. The season, to this point, while better than the last two horrific years (espeically on offense), has been anything but a success.

The only reason Saunders is even on the team right now had little to do with any real "plan" shaped up this winter. He is playing because Gutierrez suffered yet another of the injuries/ailments that have plagued his game since the first half of 2009.

And when the Mariners looked down their list as to who would replace Gutierrez, Saunders was there -- along with Chone Figgins -- because the team had done very little in the way of adding any fallback plans this winter.

Hey, plans go astray all the time because of injury. I get that. And not every team can afford to add a quality center fielder in the off-season. I get that, too.

But let's not try to re-write history here. This team's plan did not involve going with Michael Saunders instead of paying for a guy like Willingham to man the outfield corners.

The plan this team had since the winter meetings was to put Carp in left field. So far, that plan has failed miserably. Carp is a barely adequate defender whose bat has been M.I.A. all season. That shoulder injury set him back, no doubt, and continues to do so. But there were legitimate questions about Carp, his strikeout rates, his batting average on balls in play and everything else that led to suggestions a lot of what he did for two great months in 2011 might not be sustainable.

And he has not sustained it. Was it because of injury in the season opener this year? Maybe.

But the bottom line is, the team did not do enough over the winter to protect itself in the event the Carp project failed to pan out.

So, please, let's not engage in any more fantasy. Willingham, or any other consistent, dependable outfielder would have been a fine winter addition to the Mariners and would have helped them win more games by now.

This team can't keep writing off entire seasons in the name of player development without doing the minimal stuff needed to at least try to stay competitive in the interim. Instead, the Mariners went into 2012 knowing Carp might be a dice roll, knowing that Gutierrez is an injury risk, but did nothing to protect itself. Indeed, if not for the totally unexpected breakout by Saunders -- and if anyone "knew" he was coming, hope you got that Vegas bet down -- the Mariners would likely be challenging the Padres for rights to next year's No. 1 overall draft pick.

As for the stuff the Mariners have done in-season since Gutierrez went down, well, as I said, it's tough to feel too sorry for them. They aren't optimizing their lineup, as witnessed by the continued presence of a sub-.300 OBP guy in the leadoff spot. They aren't doing all they can for outfield defense or right-handed balance in their lineup, as witnessed by Wells being optioned to AAA and Figgins kept on the roster.

Remember last month, when, during all the raging going on citywide about Wells being demoted, we mentioned that -- aside from the folly of keeping Figgins when he wasn't even playing -- the optioning of Wells could actually cost the Mariners losses because of the defensive downgrade? Well, witness last night's sixth inning.

One of these years, the Mariners will stop playing politics and get the future outfield they want in-place so we can really see this rebuilding plan begin in earnest. One of these years, the Mariners will stop cutting payroll and get serious about trying to actually win again the winter before a season opener, even if the effort merely constitutes staying in the race for a second wild-card berth.

This won't be one of those years.

But at least, with Gutierrez back, the Mariners can actually begin the process of figuring out what's going to happen with center field in coming years. And hopefully, when Year 5 of the rebuilding plan begins next April, they will have some safeguards in place that involve more than crossing fingers and praying somebody has a breakout they never saw coming.


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