Mariners hot stove recap

After suffering through another losing season and extending their playoff drought to 14 year, Seattle Mariners management decided to hire Jerry Dipoto to be their general manager. Since taking over in late September, the 47-year-old has significantly altered the club’s approach towards scouting, player development, and coaching.

While Dipoto’s initial actions are encouraging, the root cause to the Mariners’ underwhelming record is the fact that they didn’t have enough good players to compete last season. That’s the main reason behind Dipoto’s hiring and why he was the major’s most active general manager during his first five months on the job.

With Spring Training just around the corner, now’s a good time to recap the Mariners’ hot stove progress to date. For the purposes of my review, I’ve decided to the examine the weaknesses identified by Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill in October. The areas mentioned by Jason are closely aligned to Dipoto’s public comments about the team’s shortcomings and the moves that he’s made. If you missed Jason’s piece, you can read it here.

Starting Pitching
The off-season started with a projected 2016 rotation of staff ace Felix Hernandez and a lot of uncertainty. That’s why Jason identified adding a number-two starter as a priority for the club. There were plenty of candidates behind King Felix – Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery. Yet, none were viewed as locks to make the rotation – or even be reliable. It didn’t take long for the club to start dealing.

Dipoto’s first major trade shipped Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, and Danny Farquhar to the Tampa Bay Rays for the hard-throwing Nate Karns, lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser – since traded to Baltimore – and outfield prospect Boog Powell.

Karns’ first full season in the big leagues came last year at the advanced age of 28. Despite the late arrival, he’s the kind of “swing and miss” pitcher that Dipoto wanted. One area of concern could be durability. As Jason noted in his analysis of the deal, it remains to be seen if Karns can handle a 190-200 inning workload.

The next big change was the acquisition of southpaw Wade Miley, along with reliever Jonathan Aro, from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Elias and dynamic reliever Carson Smith. At the time of the deal, I assessed it as a step backwards. Basically, the trade weakened the already bad bullpen and didn’t add the number-two starter that Jason had identified as a need.

That doesn’t mean that the trade is a bust. Prospect Insider’s analysis pointed out that several “high-ranking scouts that like Miley more than his numbers.” This deal works best for Seattle if the 29-year-old is a legitimate number-three from the onset of the season. It’s important to note that our analysis assumed Miley was the replacement for free agent Hisashi Iwakuma, who had agreed to contract terms with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Little did we know that “Kuma” would actually return to the Emerald City.

When reports surfaced saying that Iwakuma failed his Los Angeles physical, Dipoto pounced on the opportunity to retain the fan favorite. The club Mariners signed Kuma to a three-year deal – with vesting options – which protects the team in the event that he breaks down from a physical standpoint.

Here’s a potential Opening Day rotation compared to the 2015 version. I’ve included the 2015 fWAR for both groups of players and the 2016 Steamer fWAR projection for current Mariners.

   Potential Rotation 2015 Rotation
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
SP Felix Hernandez  2.8  4.7 Felix Hernandez  2.8
SP Wade Miley  2.6  2.1 Hisashi Iwakuma  1.8
SP Hisashi Iwakuma   1.8  2.9 James Paxton   0.5
SP Nate Karns  1.5  1.0 J.A. Happ  1.2
SP Taijuan Walker  1.9  2.4 Taijuan Walker  1.9
Totals  10.6 13.1 8.2

Mission accomplished? No. Going into Spring Training, the rotation looks to be Felix, Miley, Kuma, and Walker with Karns, Paxton, and Montgomery battling for the last rotation spot. The losers will likely go to Class-AAA Tacoma or be traded. That’s a good start, but there’s no clear number-two caliber pitcher behind King Felix.

Bringing back Iwakuma excites fans and it’s true that he can be a number-two – when healthy. But, he’s coming off two consecutive injury-shortened seasons, has only started 30 or more games once in four years with Seattle, and is entering his age-35 season.

Perhaps, Walker will rise to that position. But, he’ll need to be more consistent in 2016 to take the next step in his career become a future ace. Yes, the rotation is better with Karns, Miley, and the returning Iwakuma in the mix. But, it’s debatable whether it’s good enough to contend.

Outfield Defense
The Mariners’ outfield registered -45 defensive runs saved (DRS) – easily the worst in the majors last season. So, Dipoto aggressively made moves to upgrade the team’s outfield defense.

To fix center field, the Mariners dealt popular reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan to the Texas Rangers for Leonys Martin and reliever Anthony Bass – who subsequently signed to play next season in Japan. From Seattle’s perspective, Martin was the cornerstone of the deal. Despite having nearly half the playing time of his contemporaries, the 27-year-old was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. His 15 DRS ranked third behind Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier (42) and Lorenzo Cain (18) during last season.

The signing of Nori Aoki to play a corner outfield spot also improved the defense. Aoki is a solid defender, although he’s known for taking poor routes on balls from time-to-time. Despite his occasional follies in the field, he’s a significantly better defender than any regular corner outfielder that Seattle has used in recent years.

The retention of Franklin Gutierrez to platoon with fellow holdover Seth Smith solidifies left field. Health may have robbed “Guti” of his ability to be a dynamic center fielder, but he’s still good in a corner spot. Smith is the weakest defender of the outfield crew, although he’s not bad. He’s average or slightly below-average.

Although Karns will reach Seattle first and Powell likely starts the season in Tacoma, the 23-year-old outfielder could have a bigger long-term impact. Powell brings a blend of speed, athleticism, defense and contact-style offense that Dipoto craves and he can play all three outfield positions. He’ll likely see action in Seattle during 2016.

Mission accomplished? Yes. Last season, Smith was considered one of Seattle’s better outfielders. Now, he’s ranks last among teammates not named Nelson Cruz. That’s how much Dipoto has improved outfield since taking over – last year’s best is this year’s ‘worst.”

There’s a residual benefit to adding so many defensively sound outfielders, who also can reach base consistently. Management won’t feel compelled to play Cruz in the field as often. Although many fans support his defensive abilities and believe he’s a better hitter when playing right field, the Mariners are better with Cruz as their designated hitter. Keeping “Boomstick” off the field and healthy will help preserve their star hitter.

Bullpen
This unit went from being superb in 2014 to being a complete disappointment last season. After dealing his club’s two best relievers, there wasn’t much left on Dipoto’s roster. So, he’s been in overdrive to find new relievers ever since. The most notable addition is Steve Cishek, who was signed to be the closer.

Cishek was exceptional during 2013 and 2014, but regressed last year. The 29-year-old showed signs of improvement during the second half when he held hitters to a .206/.313/.299 slash. Despite the improved numbers, the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t value him enough to include him on their postseason roster last October. Prospect Insider assesses the side-arming righty as being better suited to be a set-up man than a closer for a contender.

Another veteran newcomer is Joaquin Benoit, who’ll pitch the eighth inning. Benoit has been a durable setup man after missing the 2009 season with rotator cuff surgery. Since then, he’s logged over 60 innings in five of six years, including 67 last season. Jason explained why he liked the Benoit deal for the Mariners here.

Not every face in the relief corps is new. Charlie Furbush returns after suffering a slight rotator cuff tear last season, plus Tony Zych and Vidal Nuno are holdovers who figure to play prominent roles during 2016.

Mission accomplished? No. Losing Smith and Wilhelmsen put a decimated bullpen in a bigger hole and helped spark fan hostility and media skepticism. Steamer projections won’t inspire fans to a leap of faith either – last season’s original relievers provided approximately the same value that’s projected for the new guys assembled by Dipoto.

  Potential Bullpen 2015 Bullpen
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
CL Steve Cishek   0.0  0.0 Fernando Rodney -0.8
SU Joaquin Benoit   0.4  0.3 Carson Smith  2.1
RP Charlie Furbush   0.1  0.4 Charlie Furbush  0.1
RP Tony Zych   0.6
 0.3
Tom Wilhelmsen  0.8
RP Evan Scribner  -0.1  0.5 Yoervis Medina -0.1
RP Vidal Nuno
  0.3  0.3 Danny Farquhar -0.2
RP Justin De Fratus  -0.1 -0.1  Tyler Olson -0.4
Totals    1.2
 1.7                                              1.5

With so many “unknown unknowns” in the bullpen, it’s tough to be optimistic in late January. Clearly, the club is banking on Furbush bouncing back and the Benoit and Cishek combo being able to anchor the back of the pen. But, it’s going to take on-field success to win over fans and skeptics alike.

There is a silver lining though. If the club is in position to contend in July, Dipoto has demonstrated the propensity to fix a bullpen during a season, as he did with the 98-win Los Angeles Angels in 2014. During that season, he acquired star closer Huston Street, plus setup men Fernando Salas and Jason Grilli.

Catcher
At age 24, Mike Zunino is too young to be deemed a bust. Dipoto has repeatedly praised the catcher’s potential, which leaves the impression that he views the former number-three draft pick as a part of the team’s future. Defensively, he’s outstanding. However, his offense took a horrible turn last season when he posted a .174/.230/.300 slash during 386 plate appearances in 2015. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Zunino is likely to spend the entire 2016 season at Class-AAA Tacoma.

As a result of Zunino’s struggles and the weak bat of Jesus Sucre, the Mariners added former Los Angeles Angel Chris Iannetta – who endured his own offensive struggles last season – and former Baltimore Oriole Steve Clevenger to form a new catching tandem for 2016.

Mission accomplished? Yes. Iannetta, who will do the majority of the catching, is a good pitch-framer with proven on-base ability with the exception of last season. Clevenger is a capable backup and can also play first base in a pinch. Since Iannetta is only 32-years-old, it’s reasonable to expect that he can return to pre-2015 form. Regardless, the Iannetta/Clevenger duo is far superior to last season’s catching crew.

Adding two new catchers affords Seattle the opportunity to place both Zunino and Sucre in Tacoma, if they chose to do so. This substantially improves the club’s organizational depth. Plus, it gives Zunino the opportunity to fix his swing and prove whether Dipoto is correct in believing that he’s part of the team’s future.

Fringe Depth
Dipoto has spoken often of adding layers of depth throughout the organization, like he did with the catcher position. Although fringe depth is easily overlooked by both fans and talking heads, it’s imperative to have both major and minor league reserves in order to contend.

To get in front of the issue, Dipoto added 17 new players to 40-man roster with only four – Adam Lind, Aoki, Martin, Iannetta – slated as starting position players. The rest will provide rotation, bullpen, or bench depth for the either Seattle or Tacoma.

Last season, the club didn’t have clear-cut options in the event of injury or lackluster performance, which led to an 86-loss season. Here’s what a notional Opening Day bench could look like and how it compares to last year’s reserves.

   Potential Bench 2015 Bench
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
C Steve Clevenger   0.0  0.4 Jesus Sucre  -0.3
INF Chris Taylor  -0.4  0.3 Willie Bloomquist  -0.6
OF Franklin Gutierrez   2.3  0.6 Justin Ruggiano  -0.1
OF Shawn O’Malley   0.1  0.0 Rickie Weeks -0.7
Totals   2.0  1.3                                             -1.7

Mission accomplished? Mostly. Building organizational depth is never ending process, but it’s clear that this year’s bench will be significantly better than the 2015 version. For example, Ketel Marte is seemingly destined to be the starting shortstop. Consequently, holdover Chris Taylor and import Luis Sardinas will vie for the reserve infielder spot with the loser likely to start the season with Tacoma. Also, Powell presents the Mariners with their best rookie outfield call-up option in years. These kind of options didn’t exist on Seattle’s roster a year ago.

In addition to “splashy” moves, the Mariners have quietly added several non-roster invites who could potentially add to their depth. To date, those players include pitchers Casey Coleman, Brad Mills, Blake Parker, infielder Ed Lucas and outfielder Mike Baxter. Also, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN reports that first baseman Gaby Sanchez has agreed with the Mariners on a minor league deal. Expect more names to be added during the next month.

Final thoughts
Having Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Felix to build around makes it easier for the Mariners to compete in 2016 without jeopardizing its future success or payroll flexibility. The “riskiest” contracts signed this winter are Cishek’s two-year deal and Iwakuma’s incentive-based contract. Neither will cripple the team’s future plans.

While this bodes well for the team in the long-term, it’s hard to really know how well the Mariners will perform in 2016. Take a look at the projected Opening Day starters compared to last year’s group and you’ll see that this year’s lineup should perform better than 2015 version. But, is it good enough?

   Projected Starters 2015 Starters
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
1B Adam Lind  2.2  1.5 Logan Morrison -0.2
2B Robinson Cano  2.1  3.5 Robinson Cano  2.1
SS Ketel Marte  1.7  1.8 Brad Miller  0.9
3B Kyle Seager  3.9  3.7 Kyle Seager  3.9
LF Nori Aoki  1.5  0.9 Dustin Ackley -0.6
CF Leonys Martin  0.5  1.2 Austin Jackson  2.3
RF Seth Smith  2.2  1.2 Seth Smith  2.2
DH Nelson Cruz  4.8  1.6 Nelson Cruz  4.8
C Chris Iannetta  0.5  1.7 Mike Zunino -0.5
Totals 19.4 17.1                                        14.9

Dipoto’s approach of building around core stars, while simultaneously giving the organization a major facelift makes sense. Whether that strategy leads to a winning campaign in 2016 remains to be seen. If the season started today, the Mariners are far better than the 76-win disappointment of 2015. But, their current rotation and bullpen can’t be considered ready to propel the club into contention.

Right now, the Mariners are a “fringe contender” at best. The club is banking on players like Cano, Iwakuma, Paxton, Martin, Aoki, Iannetta, Cishek, Furbush and most of their relievers to rebound after a down season. If the majority of these ball players bounce back, the Mariners will be the sweethearts of baseball’s talking heads – much like the 2015 Houston Astros. If things don’t go as well as planned, they’ll be fighting to stay above the .500 mark.

That assessment shouldn’t dishearten or irritate fans. After all, Opening Day isn’t until April and a lot can change between now and then. As I pointed out a few months ago, every 2015 playoff team wasn’t ready by Opening Day. Fans can also find comfort in knowing that their team’s general manager isn’t afraid to pivot from mistakes or address under-performance.

If the Mariners are in contention by June or July, Dipoto has the wherewithal to add pieces – he’s done it before. If the club is out of the hunt, he can use next off-season to continue reshaping the organization and building the contender that Mariner fans so desperately crave.

 

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