Tacoma Middle Infield Candidates

The positional preview series continues with a look at Tacoma’s potential shortstop and second baseman for 2016.

This part of the Rainiers roster appears to be entirely dependent upon the results of what is shaping up to be the Mariners biggest spring training job fight.

The Mariners have an opening for a utility infielder on the roster, and it appears to be a wide-open battle with no clear favorite.

Shawn O’Malley, Luis Sardinas, and Chris Taylor will go to spring training and compete to be the Mariners reserve infielder. The reason these are the top candidates is that each has positional flexibility which includes the ability to play shortstop.

All three players have a minor league option for 2016. It figures that the two “losers” in the battle will be optioned to Tacoma, and take up spots in the Rainiers middle infield.

O’Malley had a terrific 2015 season for Tacoma, and then acquitted himself nicely in a September trial with Seattle. The switch-hitter from Kennewick hit .297 with a .346 on-base percentage for Tacoma last year, and then posted a .418 OBP in 57 plate appearances for the Mariners. O’Malley might be a shade behind the other two in shortstop defense, but he has an edge in positional flexibility because he can play infield and outfield.

Sardinas is new to the Mariners organization this year. Known for his smooth infield glove, the 22-year-old switch-hitter hit .282 with a .319 OBP for Colorado Springs in 2015, while also batting .196 in 36 major league games for the Brewers. Sardinas is generally considered the best defensive shortstop of the group.

Taylor is familiar to Rainiers fans, having appeared in 161 games for Tacoma over the past two seasons. Taylor is a career .313 hitter for the Rainiers – which currently ranks as the 14th highest batting average in Tacoma franchise history (minimum 500 plate appearances). Taylor hit well (.287) in his 2014 call-up, but last season was a very different story in Seattle (.170).

We can probably count on two of these three players being on the Rainiers opening day roster. But things happen in baseball – trades, injuries, etc – so let’s see who else is in the picture.

Ed Lucas was discussed last week with the corner infielders, since he’s played mostly third base in recent seasons. But he can also play second base, and even shortstop in a pinch.

Zach Shank opened eyes with his athleticism during an emergency call-up to Tacoma last summer – one which was expected to last just a few days, but was extended to over a month when he showed he belonged. A 28th round pick out of Marist College in 2013, Shank is primarily a second baseman but can play every position on the diamond including shortstop and center field. Shank could be the new Leury Bonilla.

Benji Gonzalez was signed in December as a minor league free agent. A former Pirates and Padres farmhand, Gonzalez reached Triple-A for his first time last season when he appeared in 17 games for El Paso. Gonzalez is 25-years-old, a right-handed hitter, and a shortstop. Last year was his first season playing above the Class-A level, so he could be a fit for either Tacoma or Double-A Jackson.

Tyler Smith was the shortstop at Double-A Jackson last season, where he hit .271 with three homers and a .361 OBP in 121 games. A right-handed hitter, Smith was the Mariners 8th round draft pick in 2013 out of Oregon State. Normally we would expect a natural promotion for him, but he’s probably a player the Mariners want to see in the lineup every day, which might not be possible in Tacoma depending on how the roster shakes out. If not on opening day, we’ll see Smith in Tacoma eventually.

What about Leury Bonilla? Everyone’s favorite multi-positionalist is currently listed as an unsigned minor league free agent. The Mariners have been re-signing him every year, and he’s appeared in a Rainiers uniform five straight seasons. The previous Mariners player development regime always viewed Bonilla as a future minor league manager or coach, once his playing days ended. With the shake-up in the front office, I’m not sure how things are looking for Leury. When I catch wind of any news, I’ll let you know.

Links:

  • Bob Dutton’s Mariners Notebook mentions that a few minor league signings will probably be announced at the Mariners media event on Thursday.
  • Former Rainiers slugger Carlos Peguero inked a minor league deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. He’ll make Autozone Park in Memphis look quite small.
  • Say goodbye to PCL superstar Efren Navarro, who was traded by the Angels to the Baltimore Orioles yesterday. Navarro is Salt Lake’s all-time leader in nearly every offensive category, and was always a threat to contend for the PCL batting title.

Tomorrow the Mariners hold their annual pre-spring training media event. There are always a few good notes regarding the Triple-A club at this event – I’ll have a new post all about it on Friday.

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