Why the Mariners believe Polanco is the answer at second base

February 24th, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For how much of a revolving door second base has been for the Mariners over the past five seasons, the one constant has been a lack of production.

A quick line on some notable numbers and where they ranked among the 30 clubs -- 4.5 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs (26th); .630 OPS (30th); 79 wRC+, where league average is 100 (26th). Those unflattering superlatives have manifested despite conscious attempts to address them, mostly by filling them with established veterans Kolten Wong and Adam Frazier each of the past two offseasons.

The Mariners believe, however, that their third significant swing on an external player with pedigree will finally be the one they do more damage with -- even if he carries some characteristics of those predecessors.

The separators for , however, are that he switch-hits, slugs and has a decent, albeit small, track record at T-Mobile Park, where both Frazier and Wong struggled mightily. Separately, but like many of the Mariners’ external additions this offseason, Polanco, who hit second in the Mariners' 8-7 loss Saturday to the White Sox in the Cactus League opener, carries some injury history as he eyes his age-30 season.

“A lot of hungry guys, a lot of young guys that want to win,” Polanco said of joining the Mariners. “They work hard. I'm just here fit in with them … I'm trying to win. That was a big part of the trade, when they traded me to Seattle. They’re a team that wants to win, and I’m feeling really pumped about it.”

Polanco arrives with a much higher floor and ceiling than Frazier or Wong and has the potential to be a middle-order fixture for a rebuilt lineup overseen by manager Scott Servais. In the views of many, including Mariners general manager Justin Hollander, he was the offseason’s marquee addition, acquired from Minnesota last month in exchange for four players, headlined by leverage reliever Justin Topa.

Polanco will likely slot in the No. 3 hole, behind Julio Rodríguez and J.P. Crawford, regardless of the handedness of the pitcher.

“This switch-hit is huge for us, the way our team is constructed,” Hollander said. “To have a guy who was platoon-neutral who can hit in the middle of our lineup from either side is a big advantage for Scott as he stacks the lineup up, to be able to go left, right, switch and move the pieces around.”

A one-time All-Star, in 2019, Polanco is coming off a ‘23 in which he hit .255/.335/.454 (.789 OPS) with 14 homers, 18 doubles and 48 RBIs over 80 games. He was worth 1.5 WAR and 118 wRC+ in that sample of essentially half a season, which was impacted by left knee inflammation to begin the year then a left hamstring strain, which was more severe. His last full season without the IL was in 2021, when he played 152 games and crushed 33 homers.

Defensively, Polanco has graded below average at second base, worth -15 outs above average the past two seasons. But the Mariners are hopeful that work with infield coach Perry Hill can work out some kinks.

“I like to be mentally prepared,” Polanco said, “and my routine helps me a lot to be mentally prepared because I know I did all my work -- back in the cage, in the training room and in the weight room. And that makes me feel comfortable going into the game and during the season every time.”

Beyond the health component, the Mariners did their homework on Polanco’s makeup, which drew praise even from within the organization. Rodríguez shares an agent with Polanco and were both training in the Tampa area when the news broke.

“You need guys who are going to add value in so many different ways,” Rodríguez said, “not just on the playing field, but like how to stay disciplined. … He was excited about to be part of the team and he knows that we’re hungry.”

Polanco is earning $10.5 million with a $12 million team option against a $750,000 buyout for next season -- a fairly economical rate if he lives up to the production that they’re expecting. Because they’re hoping that this isn’t another one-year stop for a veteran who thrived elsewhere but couldn’t find his footing in Seattle.