In a move that would have seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago, the Mariners waived first baseman Ryan Garko and added designated hitter extraordinaire Mike Sweeney to the 40-man roster on Tuesday afternoon.
Sweeney is expected to break camp on the team’s 25-man Opening Day roster and, for the second consecutive year, will fill a role for the major league club. In addition to a decent 2009 season (.289 AVG/8 HR/34 RBI), a proven track record (he’s a five time all-star), and the intangibles of a clubhouse leader, Sweeney has had a remarkable spring for a player who was signed as a favor just days before Spring Training began.
To put his spring into perspective, Sweeney leads the ballclub in five major offensive categories: batting average (.517), on-base percentage (.533), slugging percentage (.931), on-base plus slugging percentage (1.464), and total bases (27). He is among the top three hitters in four other categories: doubles (4), triples (1), home runs (2), and RBI (7).
These numbers are particularly impressive when you take into account the fact that Sweeney has only recorded 29 at-bats thus far, which is second-lowest on the team amongst those expected to make the 25-man roster (only Rob Johnson, with 15 at-bats, has fewer; as a point-of-reference, Ichiro leads the team with 62 at-bats).
Garko was signed in the offseason with the hopes that he could provide versatility at first base and possibly in the corner outfield positions. In February, the former Cleveland Indian and San Francisco Giant was projected as the right-handed half of a first base platoon along with left-handed hitting free agent signee Casey Kotchman. An unproductive spring (.220 AVG/1 HR/4 RBI), combined with Sweeney’s emergence, have rendered Garko useless on a team that was seeking extra versatility. Additionally, it has been reported that the organization was less than impressed by Garko’s defensive abilities in the infield.
The Mariners signed Garko for a mere $550,000, so if he were to be released it would by no means be a financial burden on the team. However, there is the possibility that another ballclub could claim Garko off waivers, thereby assuming all of his one-year, $550,000 deal.
The addition of Sweeney and subtraction of Garko is a move that has multiple implications for a team constantly in flux.
Besides Sweeney, Casey Kotchman should benefit greatly from Garko’s departure. In the imminent future, Kotchman will avoid the dreaded platoon and have first base solely to himself. However, if he should struggle out of the gate, the Mariners do have other options at the one bag which would include:
- Asking Sweeney to get his glove and play the field. Though this might seem an unlikely possibility, the team will need the 15-year vet to provide something defensively to validate his remaining on the roster. Sweeney arrived to camp in arguably the best shape of his life, which should help keep him in the lineup.
- Shifting Jose Lopez across the diamond and starting Matt Tuiasosopo at third base. Tuiasosopo will make the Opening Day roster as a utility infielder. He has been groomed primarily as a third baseman in five minor league seasons, while Lopez hasn’t lined up at the hot corner since a three-game stint in 2007. In the past two seasons, however, Lopez has totaled 29 games at first. He also bats right-handed. The Red Sox have similarly shuttled All-Star Kevin Youkilis between the corner infield positions, and with Lopez’s bat a necessity in the lineup (and his glove, potentially, a liability), we could see the same arrangement here in Seattle.
- Promoting Mike Carp or Tommy Everidge from Triple-A Tacoma. Carp impressed the team during a September call-up in 2009. A miserable spring has solidified his spot in the minors, in spite of the fact that he has little left to prove in Triple-A. Everidge was claimed off waivers in the offseason from the Oakland A’s. A burly right-handed hitter, Everidge appeared in 24 games for Oakland a season ago. Theoretically, he could provide the right-handed bat the M’s covet at first base.
Despite his versatility, losing Garko should be seen as no big deal to Mariner fans. While he’s a solid player on paper (sabermetricians ooze over this guy, though they’ll probably claim now that they never did like him that much), the 29-year-old experienced a miraculous decline in production a year ago when he was traded to San Francisco. He closed out the ’09 season with a .235 average, two home runs, and 12 RBI in 40 games with the Giants. Apparently, that performance transferred over to this spring.
Sweeney, on the other hand, is a guy you can’t help but root for. A year ago, he anchored the locker room along with Ken Griffey Jr., and this year he’ll be asked to do more of the same. Regardless of his leadership abilities, it’s his bat that will keep in the lineup. If he fails to produce, his days will be numbered no matter how strong the team unity might be.
For now, at least, we can praise management for making the right moves. Sweeney clearly deserves to be on this roster, while Garko did little to prove his value over the past six weeks. In the end, it all makes sense.