Mariners' Top 5 designated hitters: Johns' take

May 18th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only. If you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Mariners' all-time best: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

Here is Greg Johns’ ranking of the top five designated hitters in Mariners history. Next week: right-handed starters.

1) , 1987-2004
Key fact: Elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019

Can there be any question here? Not only is Martinez clearly the best designated hitter to wear a Mariners uniform, he’s one of the best DHs in the annals of Major League Baseball. His humble, low-key nature and loyalty to Seattle -- the only team he played for in his 18-year MLB career -- have made him the most beloved figure in franchise history. His No. 11 was retired alongside Ken Griffey Jr.’s 24 in 2017, there’s a street named Edgar Martinez Drive outside of T-Mobile Park and a restaurant called Edgar’s Cantina down the left-field line.

Martinez’s walk-off hit in the 11th inning of the deciding Game 5 victory over the Yankees in the dramatic 1995 AL Division Series -- dubbed “The Double” -- highlighted a career in which Martinez posted a .312/.418/.515 line with 309 home runs and 1,261 RBIs. His 68.4 bWAR is second to Griffey’s 70.6 in Mariners’ history.

Though he didn’t sign a pro contract until age 20, when the Mariners lured him out of Puerto Rico with a $4,000 signing bonus, and didn’t become a full-time big leaguer until age 27, Martinez became a seven-time American League All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger winner and a two-time AL batting champ. He won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2004 and then-commissioner Bud Selig changed the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award to the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award at the time of his retirement in ’04.

It took 10 years, but Martinez was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility on the ballot in ’19. But even that long grind to Cooperstown seemed fitting for a player who had to overcome his late start, some nagging hamstring injuries and ongoing eye issues to maintain a remarkable career.

"He's all about work," said longtime teammate Jay Buhner. "In order to get something, you have to put in the blood, sweat and tears. That's just his personality. He bleeds Mariners blue and breathes baseball.”

2) , 2015-18
Key fact: Hit an MLB-leading 163 home runs during his four seasons in Seattle

The Mariners signed Cruz to a four-year, $56 million deal in 2015 and the big slugger turned into the best free-agent signee in franchise history, averaging nearly 41 home runs and 104 RBIs each season he was in Seattle.

Cruz led the AL in RBIs with 119 in '16 and was a three-time All-Star during his Mariners tenure. He posted an impressive .284/.362/.546 line and 17.0 bWAR during his four seasons before signing with the Twins as a free agent in '19 at age 38.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder served as a strong presence in the lineup as well as in the dugout.

"There's something about Nelly,” said teammate Kyle Seager. “You see the production and all the numbers he puts up and the great at-bats and everything. But his presence in the clubhouse goes slightly unnoticed. What a professional. The guy works unbelievably hard, he plays hard. You never see a lack of hustle or lack of care from him. He's an absolute role model for everybody to look up to and it was an absolute privilege to play with him."

3) Ken Phelps, 1983-88
Key fact: Posted a .913 OPS in 529 games with Mariners

While Phelps is widely known now as the player the Mariners traded to the Yankees to get Jay Buhner in 1988, the left-hander put up impressive power numbers while being used primarily in platoon situations over six years with Seattle.

The '72 graduate of Seattle’s Ingraham High never hit for high average (.249 over his Mariners years), but his .392 on-base percentage and .913 OPS are second behind only Martinez’s .418 and .933 among Seattle designated hitters, and Phelps' .521 slugging percentage trails only Cruz’s .546 and ranks ahead of Martinez’s .515.

Phelps is also third behind Martinez and Cruz in home runs (105) and RBIs (255), as well as bWAR (9.6). He couldn’t duplicate that production with the Yankees, A’s or Indians in his final three years, but he did come up with a memorable final career home run in '90 with the A’s when he spoiled a perfect game bid by the Mariners’ Brian Holman with a pinch-hit home run with two out in the ninth inning in Oakland.

4) Richie Zisk, 1981-83
Key fact: AL Comeback Player of the Year in ‘81

A two-time AL All-Star with the White Sox and Rangers, Zisk closed out his 13-year MLB career as Seattle’s designated hitter from 1981-83 and put up some pretty strong numbers.

The New Jersey native hit .311 in 94 games in a strike-shortened season his first year in Seattle, and finished his Mariners run with a .286/.347/.463 line with 49 homers and 141 RBIs in 315 games.

5) Jeffrey Leonard, 1989-90
Key fact: Mariners’ All-Star in ’89 at age 33

The “Hac Man” earned the second All-Star berth in his 14-year MLB career in 1989, when he hit .254 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs in 150 games after signing with Seattle as a free agent.

Leonard served as a veteran mentor to Griffey Jr. during the youngster’s first two seasons in the Majors. He had a reputation as a hard-nosed player who ran with “one flap down” with his left arm tucked to his side after home runs. He hit 10 more homers -- along with 75 RBIs and a .251 average in 134 games -- in '90 before retiring from the game.

Honorable mention

Gorman Thomas slugged 32 homers with 87 RBIs in 135 games in 1985 and totaled 43 homers in 227 games over three seasons with Seattle, though he hit just .202. … , a four-time All-Star with the Tigers, closed out his 18-year MLB career in 1979-80 with Seattle, hitting .279 with 29 homers and 106 RBIs in '79 before seeing those numbers drop dramatically in his final season at age 37. … hit .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs in 2013, but he struggled after being brought back in midseason in ’14 after signing late in Spring Training with the Twins.