The Seattle Mariners added a second baseman today. But not that second baseman. Instead, Seattle acquired Adam Frazier from the Padres for minor leaguers Ray Kerr and Corey Rosier. While Frazier is not the marquee name some Mariners fans were hoping for, the 29-year-old is a good start to the offseason for President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto. Financially, adding Frazier has little impact on the Mariners’ payroll. Per MLB Trade Rumors, he projects to earn $7.2 million in his final season before free agency. Even with his estimated salary added, Seattle’s 2022 player budget is hovering around $48 million when we include guaranteed contracts and current arbitration-eligible players. Beyond the dollars and cents, Frazier should prove to be a big on-field asset for his new team. For the moment, Frazier projects to play second base, a position of need for the Mariners since the departure of Robinson Canó after the 2018 season. The left-handed hitter’s presence not only addresses a glaring infield hole, it lengthens a lineup that ranked near the bottom of MLB. A Valuable Bat With a 25.2% hard hit rate that ranked 131st among 132 qualified hitters this year, Frazier’s bat doesn’t possess much pop. However, the Mississippi State product was one of the better hitting second baseman and even tied Houston’s Jose Altuve for most hits. Frazier’s Rankings Among MLB Second Baseman167 Hits (T-1st) 33 2B (5th) 5 HR (16th) 10.9 SO% (2nd) 7.4 BB% (8th) .310 AVG (1st) .373 OBP (2nd) .414 SLG (11th) .344 wOBA (8th) 116 wRC+ (6th) Despite a lack of power, the control-the-zone approach of Frazier is a quality the Mariners value in hitters. To that point, his 12.4% swing and miss rate was fifth lowest in the majors last season. For context, J.P. Crawford led Seattle with the 20th best rate (15.5%). Frazier also hits the ball to all fields, which means he doesn’t deal with defensive shifts on a regular basis. In 2021, he faced a shift during just 18.1% of his plate appearances and produced a respectable .324 wOBA. Platoon-wise, the handedness of pitchers hasn’t affected Frazier’s productivity. The six-year veteran boasts a career 120 wRC+ against right-handers and 114 wRC+ when facing southpaws. It’s worth noting Frazier’s numbers declined after the Pirates dealt him to the Padres in July. That said, he did slash .318/.381/.420 in the final month of the season when the Friars were fighting to stay alive in the postseason race. Another fact we shouldn’t overlook – Frazier had a career-year in 2021. Therefore, it’s possible he doesn’t achieve the same level of success with the Mariners next year. Still, the Georgian represents a potentially significant improvement over what Seattle received from its second baseman this year. Even if he doesn’t duplicate his 2021 production next season. To illustrate this point, I compared Frazier’s career averages to the numbers collectively delivered by Mariners second basemen in 2021. Also included, Seattle’s MLB rank in each category. As you can see, Frazier represents the opportunity for a major upgrade over what the Mariners received from the second base position this year. Obviously, the player has to perform up to his career averages and remain healthy. But it’s reasonable to expect that Frazier can deliver in 2022. In a broad sense, Frazier’s offensive profile is similar to Crawford’s. Neither player relies on power to produce offense. Instead, they focus on putting bat-to-ball and using excellent plate discipline. Just for fun, I compared their combined numbers for the past two seasons. It’s likely Frazier hits near the top of the Mariners’ order. Perhaps he leads off or follows Crawford in the number-two spot. Regardless of where he appears in the lineup for manager Scott Servais, Seattle’s newest player should provide more RBI opportunities for Ty France, Mitch Haniger, and everyone else hitting behind them in 2022. Better Defense Too Not only should the Mariners receive an offensive boost from Frazier, he’s capable of playing providing strong second base defense. Since the start of the 2019 season, his 18 defensive runs saved (DRS) rank third best among MLB second baseman with 1000-plus innings. Furthermore, the sixth round of the Pirates in the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft is capable of moving around the diamond. Frazier’s Career Starts (And DRS) By Position2B – 402 (16 DRS) LF – 79 (9) RF – 20 (-2) CF – 5  (0) 3B – 3 (0) SS – 1 (-1) End Game With the Padres wanting to create budget flexibility, the Mariners were able to simultaneously oblige San Diego and add a player in his prime capable of enhancing their lineup and defense. Even better, Dipoto did so without parting with significant prospect capital. Now, we wait to see what the Virginia Commonwealth alum does for an encore. As of Thanksgiving weekend, Frazier projects to be Seattle’s Opening Day second baseman with Abraham Toro the most likely option to man third base for Servais. But so much could change in a good way for the Mariners between now and Opening Day. Thanks to Frazier’s positional versatility and relatively low salary, Dipoto can continue to aggressively pursue premium, high-dollar free agents at multiple positions. That means studs like Marcus Semien or Trevor Story remain in play for the Mariners. And that’s the most exciting part of today’s deal for me. My Oh My….Go!

A quick review of Park Factors readily available at sites like ESPN and Statcast reinforces a truth long known to Seattle Mariners fans. T-Mobile Park is a pitcher-friendly venue. Just for fun, I decided to search for rotation trade candidates capable of benefitting from the Mariners’ home field advantage. And what advantage am I referring to, specifically?  Baseballs don’t fly as far in Seattle. The T-Mobile Effect It’s true. Over the past five seasons, fly balls hit in the ballpark at the corner of Edgar & Dave have averaged the shortest distance travelled of any MLB venue. Shortest Average Fly Ball Distance (in feet)T-Mobile Park (Mariners) – 314 loanDepot park (Marlins) – 314 Oracle Park (Giants) – 314 Citi Field (Mets) – 315 Dodger Stadium (Dodgers) – 316 Oakland Coliseum (Athletics) – 316 Citizens Bank Park (Phillies) – 316 The “T-Mobile Effect” isn’t a new concept. Others have written about. But it’s an important dynamic that shouldn’t be overlooked, even during an era where putting the ball in the air is a popular strategy with hitters. To see what I mean, let’s compare the Mariners’ home and away stats on fly balls in 2021. In Seattle, the hometown nine’s staff produced significantly better results than the MLB averages included on the preceding table. Yet, the same group was essentially league-average when toeing the mound away from T-Mobile Park. Considering the Mariners’ staff collectively performed so well on fly balls at home, it’s reasonable to believe starters with above average fly ball rates may benefit from calling T-Mobile Park home. For proof of this theory, look no further than an unexpectedly good Seattle acquisition from last offseason – Chris Flexen. Straight Outta Korea By now, Mariners fans are familiar with Flexen’s back story. A 14th round pick of the Mets in 2012 given few major-league opportunities before New York released him in 2019. A year later, the 27-year-old reinvented himself with the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization before becoming Seattle’s best starter in 2021. While Flexen finally enjoyed MLB success as a Mariner, opposing hitters were noticeably more productive against the righty when he wasn’t pitching at T-Mobile Park. Particularly in the power department. As you can see, Flexen had good overall numbers and was decent on the road. But he was special at home. Perhaps not so coincidentally, fly balls didn’t travel as far and were converted into outs more often at T-Mobile Park compared to everywhere else the Californian competed this year.  Discovering and signing Flexen to a multi-year deal proved to be a coup for Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff. Perhaps Dipoto and crew could find a similar starter on the trade market capable of using the team’s park factors to his benefit. Let’s consider four potential candidates. Help Wanted The first name on our list is someone Mariners fans have seen on a regular basis since 2019. I’ve suggested in the past that he’s an underrated performer. That’s not the case anymore. Chris Bassitt, RH – Athletics The 32-year-old was superb regardless of location this year with a 3.15 ERA that was 19th best among starters. Still, he’d be a perfect fit for T-Mobile Park. Bassitt’s 91% fly ball out rate at the Oakland Coliseum was the best recorded at home by any starter this season. Moreover, his 9.2% HR/FB rate was sixth lowest within the same group. And who was ranked just ahead of him at fifth? Chris Flexen. Fun fact: At 299 feet, 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes was the only starter with a lower average fly ball distance than Chris Bassitt (300). Most baseball observers believe the low-revenue A’s will shed payroll this offseason. Especially after the team allowed three-time Manager of the Year Bob Melvin to sign with the Padres. If Oakland actually goes into sell-mode, trading Bassitt will likely be a priority considering he’ll be a free agent after next season. Tyler Mahle, RH – Reds Mahle was excellent in 2021, although the 27-year-old could potentially deliver even better numbers if his home games weren’t in Cincinnati. At Great American Ballpark, Mahle’s 56.6% out rate on fly balls was the worst in the majors. Yet, his 76.9% out rate on the road was 17th best. It’s conceivable that the Newport Beach, California native could be a star at T-Mobile Park. With the Reds also reportedly looking to trim their budget, Mahle has been the subject of trade speculation. Cincinnati’s seventh round pick in the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft is entering his second year of arbitration-eligibility and will be a free agent after the 2023 season. Zac Gallen, RH – Diamondbacks Several of Gallen’s home/road splits look relatively stable, although the ball did travel further and produce more damage when he was pitching in the desert. The New Jersey native’s 21.1% home run/fly ball rate at Chase Field was the sixth highest home park rate in the majors. Conversely, his substantially better 11.1% rate away from Phoenix was top-30. That’s essentially the same as top free agent starter Kevin Gausman (11.2%) and 2021 AL MVP Shohei Ohtani (11.3%). Gallen is the youngest candidate on our list and also has the most club control remaining. For these reasons, the Diamondbacks may not be interested in moving the North Carolina alum. Especially after the club recently hired long-time Astros pitching coach Brent Strom to fill the same position with Arizona. Nick Pivetta, RH – Red Sox Pivetta intrigues me the most. Not only did the 28-year-old have extreme home/away splits, he’s originally from Victoria, Canada. So, there’s a Pacific Northwest connection, which would make his acquisition even more fun. Sentimentality aside, there’s no denying that Fenway Park isn’t a welcoming place for fly ball pitchers. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, hitters have an MLB-leading .545 wOBA on fly balls at the historic yard. Coors Field was second highest at .531. Knowing all that, it should surprise no one that Pivetta’s home numbers were suboptimal. Pivetta is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason and potentially a free agent after the 2024 season. Whether the Red Sox would entertain moving a starting pitcher with so much club control remaining is unclear. Especially after the team just lost free agent starter Eduardo Rodríguez to Detroit. Assuming the Sawx were amenable to trading Pivetta, he’d be a prime candidate to reinforce Seattle’s rotation. A Few Other Good Men Although our focus was on trade candidates, there are several free agents capable of using the T-Mobile Effect to their advantage – Gausman, Max Scherzer, Rich Hill, and Kwang Hyun Kim. Anthony DeSclafani was originally on my list until he re-signed with the Giants. Oh, and let’s not forget former Mariner Tyler Anderson. Anderson was a stabilizing force for the Mariners’ rotation after coming on board in late-July. The southpaw enjoyed an impressive 80% fly ball out rate at T-Mobile Park compared to a below-average 68.4% rate at every other ballpark he pitched in this year. Perhaps the Mariners and Anderson eventually conclude that the 31-year-old remaining in Seattle makes sense. Finally It’s important to remember that surrendering fly balls at T-Mobile Park doesn’t necessarily guarantee positive outcomes. For example, visitors had a 1.000 SLG against Yusei Kikuchi this year. That’s better than his 1.271 SLG on the road, but both numbers were awful.  That said, I do believe the potential does exist for the Mariners to find a few pearls capable of flourishing in Seattle due to their fly ball success. Just ask Chris Flexen.  My Oh My…Go!

J.P. Crawford Mariners

During a recent cross-country flight, I had a long overdue “aha” moment. I realized that by publicly declaring J.P. Crawford was their starting shortstop moving forward, the Seattle Mariners were essentially limiting opportunities to improve the roster this offseason. And what spurred my pea-brain to see clearly, while jetting along at approximately 30,000 feet? An excellent article by Mike Petriello of discussing top free agent shortstops. Specifically, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Javier Báez, and Marcus Semien. In it, Petriello ranked these players in categories ranging from offense to speed to age. That’s when I finally grasped the obvious. The Mariners shouldn’t be averse to moving any player on the current roster to another position, if doing so improves the team for 2022 and possibly beyond. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that the Mariners move past Crawford – far from it. The 16th overall pick of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft is an excellent player. Not only that, he provides intangible leadership qualities that Seattle needs as it attempts to transition from rebuild-mode to contention. My issue is the team’s insistence that he’s the only choice at shortstop when there is a free agent class flush with premium shortstop talent. Yet, that’s exactly what Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto did when remarking to media members, including Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish. In Dipoto’s words, Crawford was Seattle’s shortstop moving forward. “One of the first conversations I had this offseason was with J.P,” Dipoto said. “I told him, ‘Hey, you are our shortstop. You will see that we are courting other shortstops, but it is with the understanding that the inquiry is made with the intent that that player is willing to move to another position.’” With my brain and eyes now wide-open thanks to Petriello’s evaluation of the “Big Five” shortstops, the Mariners’ approach baffles me. So, I took to Twitter to express my dismay. Probably won’t be a popular opinion on this website, but…I don’t understand the overt willingness of the #Mariners to bestow the long-term starting shortstop job to a player with a career 94 OPS+. — Luke Arkins (@luke_arkins) November 14, 2021 A team as offensively-challenged as Seattle has essentially opted to preemptively quash the notion of landing a top free agent shortstop with a more productive bat than Crawford’s, unless they are willing to change positions. How does such a strategy make sense? Crawford was a key contributor to the Mariners’ underperforming lineup in 2021. But the left-handed hitter ranked closer to mid-pack than the top-of-the-heap in most offensive categories when compared to his peers. These numbers don’t justify passing on the players Petriello discussed solely because they won’t move to another position. J.P. Crawford vs 26 Qualified MLB Shortstops 2B (1st) HR (19th) SB (24th) BB% (13th) K% (8th) AVG (10th) OBP (11th) SLG (22nd) wOBA (19th) xwOBA (19th) wRC+ (14th) BsR (26th) DRS (6th) fWAR (14th) It’s plausible that some of the Big Five shortstops would entertain a position change to sign with the Mariners. I get that. But Seattle is always a tough-to-sell destination to free agents due to its relatively isolated location. Why make the recruiting effort even more challenging with the hardline stance that Crawford isn’t moving off shortstop? What’s that you say? Crawford is a Gold Glove defender at shortstop? Yes, he is. So are Correa and Báez, who both have more established records as elite-level defenders than Crawford. And while the 26-year-old does hold an edge over the other three guys, every Big Five member possesses a considerably more productive bat. Instead of taking a posture that may potentially discourage free agents from considering Seattle, why not project a more accommodating approach at shortstop and across the diamond? Consider this. As mediocre as the Mariners’ offense was in 2021, at least five of eight field positions appear set to be filled by incumbents. All of them weren’t productive hitters. Potential M’s Opening Day Starters1B – Ty France 2B – TBD SS – J.P. Crawford 3B – TBD OF – Mitch Haniger OF – Jarred Kelenic OF – TBD C – Cal Raleigh/Tom Murphy Crawford, Ty France, and Mitch Haniger were the only consistent performers from the names listed above. Rookies Jarred Kelenic and Cal Raleigh have plenty of potential. So do Abraham Toro and Luis Torrens. But these four youngsters have yet to put together a productive MLB season. Adding to the uncertainty, 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis is dealing with a chronic knee issue that’s clouding his readiness for next season. Beyond the Mercer alum’s health issues, we still don’t quite know what he may become with the Mariners. Oh, and lest not forget that Kyle Seager and his 35 home runs left via free agency. Obviously, the TBD next to second base, third base, and one outfield spot symbolizes an opportunity for Dipoto to significantly upgrade the lineup. But what kind of mixed message is Seattle sending to free agents by insisting they remain open to changing positions when it won’t waver on moving the current shortstop to anywhere else on the field? Something else to consider. Dipoto’s comments leaves the impression that Crawford is the team’s long-term answer at shortstop. But will both player and team be able to or want to reach a multi-year pact to keep him around? Under the current CBA, Crawford is eligible for free agency after 2024 – his age-29 season. If he were to sign a deal with the Mariners right now, he could be signing when his market value is at its lowest. From Seattle’s perspective, how much is the team currently willing to pay a plus-defender with an average-ish bat? Perhaps not as much as Crawford may believe he can get as a free agent in three years. After all, belief in himself and his teammates helped propel the Mariners to 90 wins this season. So, why wouldn’t he have faith in his ability to continuously improve and then maximize his value on the open market? Looking forward, it’s certainly possible that leaving Crawford at shortstop turns out to be Seattle’s best move for 2022 and beyond. Especially if ownership actually ponies up the money to acquire premium hitters/defenders like Semien, Story, or Báez to play second base and third base. I’m just leery of the team taking a hardline stance that opposes the thought of moving any player to another position when doing so could potentially make the Mariners better. Finally, it’s important to note the extremely obvious. Mariners management knows infinitely more about building baseball teams and developing players than this dumb blogger. Maybe the mega-brains project Crawford flourishing as a hitter, which is why club officials are fine with keeping him at shortstop. If this outcome became reality, my concerns would be squashed into a big, fat nothing-burger and I’d be more than okay with that. Let’s face it, any fan of baseball has to love the way J.P. Crawford plays the game. It’s why I’d prefer seeing him remain in the Emerald City for many years. Even if he had to move to second base or third base. My Oh My…Go!

Despite just missing the postseason, the Seattle Mariners had a great season. Next year though, the team and its fan base cannot be satisfied with anything that does not result in a playoff berth. Preferably, an AL West division title. To accomplish such a feat, the starting rotation must improve. Even if free agent starters Yusei Kikuchi and Tyler Anderson returned for 2022, the Mariners’ staff would still require attention. With the pair, Seattle starters did not impress. Mariners Rotation Rankings 4.61 ERA (19th) 20.1 SO% (23rd) 7.7 BB% (11th) 4.66 FIP (22nd) .255 AVG (21st) .314 wOBA (15th) .318 xwOBA (18th) Realistically, the Mariners cannot settle by acquiring starters only capable of replacing the value of Kikuchi and Anderson. Instead, the organization must aim higher. With this in mind, I identified eight candidates capable of raising the ceiling of Seattle’s rotation. Before naming names, a few business rules. Notes + Pitchers missing all or most of the 2021 season were not considered. This includes Justin Verlander, James Paxton, and Noah Syndergaard among others. + There will no talk about dollars or contracts. Boring. + Unless otherwise noted, assume rankings are against qualified pitchers. + Assume the free agent’s team can make a “Qualifying Offer” unless noted otherwise. If you want to know more about the QO, you can read about it here. Spoiler alert: players with a QO will cost their new clubs both money and draft picks. + The age on our tables reflects how old players will be on July 1, 2022. Here are my candidates. Max Scherzer, RH Selling Points: Scherzer was everything the Dodgers could have hoped for when they acquired him in July. The 14-year veteran finished the season top-5 in fWAR, ERA, FIP, SO%, BB%, WHIP, and xwOBA. Now, he is in contention to win a fourth Cy Young Award. Something that may pique the interest of Seattle fans beyond his overall awesomeness. Scherzer’s 48.3% fly ball rate was the highest in the majors this season. As we noted when discussing free agent infielders, fly balls at T-Mobile Park do not lead to bad outcomes for pitchers as often as they do at other locations across MLB. T-Mobile Park Fly Ball Stats (and MLB Rankings) 2019-21.261 AVG (21st) .262 OBP (19th) .840 SLG (22nd) .444 wOBA (22nd) .454 xwOBA (22nd) While we are on the topic of batted balls, Scherzer’s 18.2% line drive rate was fourth lowest this year. Considering hitters had a .637 AVG and .907 SLG on line drives, that is another of many reasons the eleventh overall pick in the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft will appeal to serious-minded contenders. Since Scherzer was acquired in-season, the Dodgers cannot pin the Qualifying Offer on him. Concerns: Time waits for no one and it will not wait for Scherzer, who turns 38 next July. Does this mean he falls off a cliff next season? No. But it is worth noting he was unavailable to pitch Game 6 of the NLCS due to a dead arm. The grind of the Nationals’ World Series run also affected the St. Louis, Missouri native in 2019. Thoughts: It is true that Scherzer is on the back nine of a distinguished career. But the Mizzou product is called “Mad Max” for a reason. He is a tenacious competitor with a Hall of Fame pedigree. There is an intangible benefit to having such a presence on a team. Even if he ended up being a little closer to a mere mortal. Eduardo Rodríguez, LH Selling Points: Rodríguez’s ERA and wOBA suggest a below-average performer. However, I believe the Venezuelan can be a top-20 pitcher. Why my optimism? Rodríguez’s .289 xwOBA tied for 17th best among 99 pitchers facing 500-plus batters this season. Who tied with him? A potential Cy Young Award finalist we will discuss shortly – Robbie Ray. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA this year = .319 What immediately struck me on the preceding table is the large disparity between Rodríguez’s below-average wOBA (highlighted in red) and his superb xwOBA. In fact, the 0.41 difference between the two metrics is the largest for any of our 99 pitchers. This major imbalance is relevant because wOBA is the actual outcome of batted balls, while xwOBA is what should have happened based on launch angle and exit velocity. A large positive gap for a pitcher suggests the results should have been better on balls in play than they were. So, what drove Rodríguez’s significant discrepancy between wOBA and xwOBA? Perhaps the issue was the defense behind him. Only 66.7% of ground balls opponents hit against Rodríguez were converted into outs by Boston defenders. That was the lowest conversion rate for any pitcher allowing at least 150 ground balls. In fact, the Red Sox ranked last in the majors at turning grounders into outs. Another appealing aspect about Rodríguez was his knack for avoiding loud contact. The left-hander’s 33.7% hard hit rate was second lowest among starters with 120-plus innings. Entering the season, there was concern over Rodríguez’s durability after he missed 2020 due to COVID-related myocarditis. But 31 starts and 157.1 innings pitched should have dispelled any apprehension. Rodríguez’s age should influence potential suitors. He does not turn 30 until April 2023 making him one of the youngest starting pitchers on the market. This should matter to a club like the Mariners that wants to create a long competitive window. Concerns: Rodríguez does not throw particularly hard with his four-seam fastball averaging 92.6-MPH this season. That in of itself is not necessarily an issue. But his four-seamer velocity has dropped two MPH since his MLB debut in 2015. Is that a problem? Perhaps not, but it is something worth considering when investing in a pitcher long-term. Thoughts: Assuming good health, Rodríguez should be a top target by clubs, including the Mariners. He could potentially anchor a contender’s rotation. Kevin Gausman, RH Selling Points: Gausman was top-10 in multiple categories with personal bests in innings, ERA, FIP, WAR, WHIP, and xwOBA.  Furthermore, the LSU alum was a workhorse for the Giants tossing 192 innings and delivering 20 quality starts, which tied for fourth most in the majors. Since Gausman accepted the Qualifying Offer last season, he is ineligible to receive it this season. Concerns: It is reasonable to wonder whether a pending free agent having a career-year can deliver similar success over the duration of a long contract. After all, Gausman did suffer some regression in the second half of the season. Following the All-Star break, his numbers were close to league-average or worse in some cases. Gausman’s Second Half Stats (And MLB Rankings*) 4.42 ERA (52nd) .276 AVG (72nd) 1.37 WHIP (67th) .332 wOBA (57th) .322 xwOBA (54th) *Among 88 starters facing 250-plus hitters Perhaps Gausman’s second-half swoon is attributable to throwing a career-high number of innings in 2021, which was 30 more than he tossed in 2019 and 2020 combined. Something else to at least consider. Gausman has been a different pitcher since joining the Giants in 2020. This becomes apparent when you compare his 2020-21 production with San Francisco to the previous two seasons he spent with three different clubs. It should be noted that Gausman’s home/away splits this season were very similar. Thoughts: Am I suggesting Gausman is a flash in the pan or cannot succeed outside of San Francisco? Absolutely not. But clubs will have to determine whether they believe he can repeat his 2021 success or is likely to regress to his 2018-19 version. Having said all that, we should remember that Gausman was the fourth overall selection of the 2012 draft. He has always possessed the pedigree to pitch this well. Perhaps his recent success is simply a matter of putting everything together and finally harnessing the talent that was always within him. Robbie Ray, LH Selling Points: Ray also had a career-year and was undoubtedly an ace for the Blue Jays in 2021. The 12th round pick of the Nationals in 2010 led the AL with 193.1 innings and was top-six in the majors in ERA, SO%, WHIP, AVG, and xwOBA. Furthermore, he proved capable of going deep into games and delivering outstanding results with an AL-leading 23 starts quality starts led AL. As with Scherzer, hitters tend to put the ball into the air when facing Ray. His 44.2% fly ball rate was fourth highest this season. Perhaps this would play well in T-Mobile Park. Concerns: On the other hand, Ray is susceptible to the long ball. This year, he allowed the fourth most home runs (33). Since the start of the 2016 season, the southpaw has surrendered 142 dingers – the most in MLB. Part of the issue is the Tennessee native allowed a lot of noisy contact. In 2021, his 42.9% hard hit rate was highest among starters this season. The bigger issue to ponder with Ray is his massive improvement in walks allowed in 2021 compared to recent seasons. Will he be able to sustain this success moving forward? Ray’s Walk Rate Through The Years*2014 (8.1%) 2015 (9.0%) 2016 (9.2%) 2017 (10.7%) 2018 (13.3%) 2019 (11.2%) 2020 (17.9%) 2020 (20.1%) 2020 (14.4%) 2021 (6.7%) *MLB average BB% for starting pitchers in 2021 was 7.7% Thoughts: An important issue for interested buyers will be projecting which version of Robbie Ray they will be signing to a multi-year deal. Will it be the league-leader of 2021? Or, will clubs be signing up for the below-average pitcher from 2018-19 with the 4.53 ERA and 13.1% walk rate? Marcus Stroman, RH Selling Points: Dating back to the start of the 2017 season, Stroman’s 3.48 ERA is tenth best among starters throwing at least 600 innings. The Medford, New York native delivered more of the same this year with a ninth-best 3.02 ERA. With an average-ish 21.7% strikeout rate, Stroman is not a swing and miss pitcher like many of his contemporaries. Instead, his specialty is generating grounders. In 2021, the seven-year veteran had a 50.8% ground ball rate, which was seventh highest in MLB. He also demonstrated pinpoint control with a top-20 walk rate. Stroman is an athletic performer and an excellent defender. The Gold Glover’s 17 defensive runs saved (DRS) since the start of 2016 is third best among pitchers. Other than a 10-day IL stint for shoulder fatigue in 2018 and a torn calf prior to the start of the 2020 season, Stroman has been healthy. Even with those maladies, the first round pick of Toronto in 2012 has averaged 30 starts and 174 innings annually since the start of the 2016 campaign. This does not include 2020 when he took the COVID opt out. Since he accepted the Qualifying Offer in 2020, Stroman is ineligible to receive it again. Concerns: The sizeable -.033 gap between Stroman’s wOBA and xwOBA was the most negative among our group of 99 starters. What drove a disparity that suggests he might not have been as good as his conventional stats? Although Stroman’s ground ball and walk rates were very good, opponents still managed to make loud contact. The Duke alum’s 41.8% hard hit rate was third highest among qualified starters. Something else to consider regarding Stroman’s wOBA-xwOBA imbalance, defense (good or bad) does not factor into xwOBA. The Mets ranked ninth in DRS this year. Thoughts: While Stroman did allow a lot of hard contact in 2021, we should not lose sight of the fact he was top-30 or better in multiple categories. Perhaps that was a byproduct of having a strong defense behind him. Having said that, his history of availability should not be overlooked. It is something his new team’s GM will likely cite at Stroman’s introductory press conference. Ideally, Stroman’s propensity to generate ground balls would work best on a team that emphasizes strong infield defense. I can think of a club in the Pacific Northwest that satisfies that requirement. Anthony DeSclafani, RH Selling Points: Our last entrant also had a career-season in San Francisco with personal bests in innings pitched, ERA, WHIP, FIP, and fWAR. DeSclafani was one of just five pitchers with two complete game shutouts this year, while his 3.17 ERA was 13th best in the majors. Furthermore, the former Florida Gator was top-20 with a .223 opponent AVG and 6.2% walk rate. Concerns: DeSclafani is another pending free agent pitcher having a career-year. As we have already discussed with the others, the issue for prospective suitors will be assessing whether the sixth round pick of Toronto in 2011 can sustain this year’s good fortune. DeSclafani’s wOBA-xwOBA difference does give us reason to take pause. His wOBA was 16th best among our group of 99 starters, but his xwOBA ranked 35th. This is likely a result of having a strong San Francisco defense behind him. Speaking of the City by the Bay, DeSclafani’s home/away splits were relatively the same in 2021 with one exception – home runs. In 14 games at Oracle Park, he allowed 4 home runs compared to 17 in 15 road contests. DeSclafani’s health history also merits discussion. He missed the beginning of the 2020 season due to a rotator cuff problem and made just seven starts for the Reds. This year, shoulder fatigue led to a brief IL stint in August. Furthermore, the New Jersey native missed the 2017 season due to a UCL issue that did not require Tommy John surgery. Something else worth mentioning. DeSclafani did see his ERA jump from 2.68 at the All-Star to 4.03 for the remainder of the season. This may be attributable to his August shoulder fatigue and the truncated 2020 campaign that affected pitchers across the league this year. Thoughts: If healthy, DeSclafani can energize a contender’s rotation. But that may an “if” some teams, including the Mariners may not want to invest in long-term. Finally Of all the position groups the Mariners may address via free agency, starting pitching comes with the most risk. Then again, the right additions would reap the greatest reward – a postseason berth and eventually World Series contention. For me, the risk is worth taking. Adding two starters this offseason with at least one being a top free agent would go a long way towards making the Mariners a serious threat for the AL West title. And perhaps much, much more. My Oh My…Go!

Seattle Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto recently stated his team intends to improve run production and would target infield and outfield bats. That said, pursuing an offensive upgrade at catcher would be another way for the Mariners to raise the lineup’s floor this offseason. Consider this. Seattle catchers collectively hit .190 with a .595 OPS this year. Even though the MLB-averages for backstops in both categories are relatively low (.229 AVG/.697 OPS), there is definitely room for improvement in the Emerald City. With this in mind, I identified a pair of free agents who could potentially bolster the offense. Yes, you can go to any website that lists pending free agents and find more than two catchers. But I performed my search presuming the Mariners intend on Cal Raleigh being the starter in 2022 – at least at the beginning of the season. That means no big names or players who still want to be a starter. Perhaps my approach will be proven wrong. But that is the I direction I have chosen. Assuming the Mariners take the approach I just described, or are even interested in adding a new catcher, the team would likely want someone amenable to starting just a few times a week. This player should not be too long in the tooth in case Raleigh was lost for a few weeks. That excludes backstops in their late-thirties. With that, let us turn our attention to the catchers I found. Please note the age you see on the following tables reflect how old players will be on July 1, 2022. Yan Gomes Selling points: Gomes is not going to wow fans with his average-ish conventional stat line. But he has proven capable of providing consistent offense from the catcher position. Just compare his 2021 conventional slash line and OPS+ to his career production numbers. .247 AVG .299 OBP .421 SLG 98 OPS+ A sneaky good aspect of Gomes’ offensive production that I find promising was captured with a metric from Baseball Savant – xwOBA. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should have happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) does not influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. Gomes’ .337 xwOBA was eighth best among 30 catchers with 250-plus plate appearances. Since xwOBA is a reflection of the quality and quantity of contact made by hitters (or allowed by pitchers), the one-time All-Star can definitely help a team’s offense next year. Defensively, the metrics like Gomes’ work behind the plate. The veteran receiver accrued 5 defensive runs saved (DRS), which was top-15 among backstops with 300-plus innings this season. Statcast rated him as an average framer. Potential concerns: Adding a catcher entering his age-34 season is certainly risky. Perhaps age-related regression explains the drop in Gomes’ first-half .760 OPS to .663 for the remainder of the season. Did he wear down or did the drop in offense have something to do with moving to Oakland at the MLB trade deadline? On that note, Gomes is ineligible for the Qualifying Offer because the Nationals traded him in-season. Realistically, he would not have received the QO anyway. Thoughts: Some Mariners fans would not be excited by the signing of a player of Gomes’ ilk. But the Sao Paulo, Brazil native’s presence would present an opportunity to improve run production received from the catching position. Manny Piña Selling points: In some ways, Piña is similar to Gomes – a player with the potential to improve catcher offense. That said, Piña rates better than Gomes defensively. Piña accrued 7 DRS tying him with former Mariner Mike Zunino, despite the fact Zunino caught 400 more innings. The Venezuelan also rated as a better-than-average pitch framer giving him the edge over Gomes in that category. Potential concerns: Piña is the same age as Gomes. So, there is that. Furthermore, the eight-year veteran only played in 75 games with 208 plate appearances with the Brewers in 2021. Piña’s struggled at the plate early in the season. But the right-handed hitter did clobber six home runs with a .834 OPS over the final two months of the season. Granted, it was in a backup role covering only 28 games. Thoughts: In a limited role, Piña could potentially help the Mariners. But it is tough to tell how much he could play in the event of an injury to the starter. His career-high for games played is 107, which happened in 2017. Gomes possesses a more distinguished career record than Piña, which makes me prefer him for the Mariners. On the other hand,  Dipoto could choose to stick with the catching duo of Raleigh and Tom Murphy. Perhaps Luis Torrens is also thrown into the backstop mix. Torrens appeared in 35 games behind the plate, but none after July 9. Regardless of the path that the Mariners take, the team must receive more production from its catchers. Yes, offensive expectations for the position should be tempered. But a low bar does not justify being a bottom-dweller in league rankings. Especially for a team with postseason aspirations heading into next year. My Oh My…Go!

It is no secret that the Seattle Mariners must improve run production to segue from fringy contender to serious postseason threat. We recently identified free agent infielders capable of helping Seattle’s offense. Now, let us turn our attention to identifying outfielders capable of energizing the Mariners’ lineup. Yes, I know. Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, yada, yada, yada. They are all fine players. Some may become perennial All-Stars. But nothing is certain in life. The Mariners should be trying to improve the roster whenever the opportunity presents itself. Besides, baseball has a way of taking care of “excess” talent via injuries and/or poor performances. For example, take the health of Lewis, which is in question heading into the offseason. Right now, the Mariners face the possibility of entering next season without a true center fielder readily available on the 40-man roster or in the prospect pipeline. For this reason, adding someone capable of holding down the position once manned Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Cameron, and Franklin Gutierrez is a likely priority. Before talking players, a little housekeeping. Notes + Sorry, no talk about dollars or contracts. + Unless otherwise noted, assume rankings are against qualified hitters. + Assume the pending free agent’s team can make a “Qualifying Offer” unless you read otherwise. Teams signing a player with a QO are subject to losing draft picks. If you want to know more about the QO, you can read about it here. Bottom line: players with a QO will cost their new clubs both money and draft picks. + The age you see on tables reflect how old players will be on July 1, 2022. There are many interesting free agent outfielders. But I settled on four to review. Unfortunately, just one center fielder made the cut. The players we are about to discuss have blemishes, which may make them unappealing to the Mariners. Still, each is capable of improving a team’s offensive output next year. So, we will talk about them. Michael Conforto, LF/RF Selling points: Despite being limited to 125 games due to injuries, Conforto managed to produce a league-average 101 OPS+. Moreover, the Seattle, Washington native’s .348 xwOBA was second-best on the Mets behind Pete Alonso. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should have happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) does not influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. What I find encouraging about Conforto’s xwOBA is that despite having a down year, he still ranked in the top 30% of the league. Since xwOBA essentially reflects the quality and quantity of contact a hitter is making (or a pitcher is allowing), I feel confident the left-handed hitter rebounds in 2022. Conforto’s also has a strong command of the strike zone. His 12.6% walk rate since 2018 is top-20 among hitters with 1,500-plus plate appearances. Potential concerns: The injury sidelining Conforto this season was a hamstring, which also affected him in 2020. Could this be a chronic problem moving forward or is it something he has put behind him? Conforto did suffer a power outage this year, which is reflected in a career-low .384 SLG. Having said that, the veteran of seven seasons did become more productive once healthy with 13 doubles, 14 home runs and a .445 SLG in his final 72 games. Defensively, Conforto’s -4 defensive runs saved (DRS) in right field this year ranked 13 of 19 among players with 750-plus innings at the position. Perhaps the recurring hamstring issue factored into the Oregon State product’s below-average glove work this year. Then again, Haniger essentially delivered the same defense for the Mariners (-5 DRS). Thoughts: Conforto is coming off a down, injury-plagued season. Therefore, he is persona non grata with some New York fans. But realistically, the tenth overall pick of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft would help a club wanting to improve its outfield run production. Nick Castellanos, LF/RF Selling points: Castellanos was one of the most productive hitters in the majors this year. His 136 OPS+ tied for seventeenth highest with three outstanding bats – Joey Votto, Yordan Álvarez, and Giancarlo Stanton. Moreover, the Floridian was top-20 in hits, doubles, home runs, AVG, and SLG. Many times, it is “buyer beware” when a pending free agent has a career year, as Castellanos did in 2021. However, he does have a 115 OPS+ in nine MLB seasons. Plus, the right-handed hitter boasts a .363 xwOBA since 2015, which tells us he frequently makes quality contact. Potential concerns: With just eight starts in left field, Castellanos has primarily been a right fielder since the Tigers moved him from third base in 2017 due to defensive challenges at the hot corner. That said, advanced metrics do not favor him in the outfield. Remember that list of 19 players with 750-plus innings in right field this year? Detroit’s first round pick in the 2010 draft ranked 16th with -7 DRS. Furthermore, his -20 DRS in right field over the last three seasons ranked 15 of 15 among players with at least 1,500 innings at the position. Thoughts: Without doubt, Castellanos would provide a needed premium power hitter for the middle of Seattle’s lineup. The issue at is whether the Mariners would be willing to accept what appears to be a glaring defensive deficiency in order to get that bat. Tommy Pham, OF Selling points: Nerd alert — Only four players with 500-plus plate appearances had a larger negative gap between their wOBA and xwOBA than Pham’s -0.32 this season. This suggests the potential exists for better production in 2022. At least it does for me. Fueling my optimism is the knowledge Pham’s 47.6% hard hit rate was 24th best in the majors ranking just behind someone Seattle fans know all too well – Oakland’s Matt Olson (48.8%). Plus, his knack for earning free passes. Pham’s 13.9% walk rate was ninth best this year and this was not a fluke. In eight big-league seasons, he has walked at a 12.5% clip. Something else to consider, the Las Vegas, Nevada native’s bat has been much better when away from Petco Park during his two seasons as a Padre. Pham’s Home/Away Splits (2020-21) Home – 342 PA, 5 HR, .185 AVG/.316 OBP/.301 SLG Away – 344 PA, 13 HR, .265 AVG/.355 OBP/.436 SLG Perhaps a change of scenery is all Pham needs to revitalize his stat line. Whether T-Mobile Park, which historically has favored pitchers, is a better alternative is not completely clear. Still, it is worth noting that Statcast projected 20 of his batted balls would have been home runs at Seattle’s home field – five more than he actually hit this year. Potential concerns: Pham has generally hit a high percentage of ground balls in his career. This season, he had 48.8% ground ball rate, which was 26th highest in MLB. But the results were different in a bad way in 2021. Pham’s AVG On Ground Balls2015 (.267) 2016 (.300) 2017 (.289) 2018 (.267) 2019 (.269) 2020 (.275)2021 (.218) Is the decline in ground ball productivity an aberration or an indicator of age-related regression? Pham, who turns 34 next March, has possessed a sprint speed ranking around 80th throughout his career until 2021. This year, he ranked 152nd. After being a center fielder earlier in his career, Pham primarily played left field for the Friars in 2020-21, although he did start eight games in center field his year. Like Conforto and Castellanos, the metrics were unfavorable. Among 26 players with over 500 innings in left field, his -4 DRS tied him for 17th place with Joc Pederson. Thoughts: Due to his age, a multi-year commitment may not be in the cards for Pham. Still, it certainly appears the sixteenth round pick of the Cardinals in 2006 could help a contender’s lineup in 2022. Starling Marte, CF Selling points: Marte delivered above-average production for both the Marlins and A’s in 2021 at a position of need for the Mariners. On the surface, this immediately makes him appealing. Although Marte was not a big bopper with just 12 home runs this year, he did hit 27 doubles. The right-handed hitter was also disruptive on the base paths with 47 stolen bases, including 25 with Oakland after joining the team in late-July. An interesting tidbit regarding Marte, his 24.1% fly ball rate was fourth lowest in the majors. Why does this matter? We recently noted when discussing pending free agent Marcus Semien that fly balls in T-Mobile Park generally do not benefit batters. Since 2019, the offensive production of players visiting the Emerald City ranks in the bottom third of MLB. T-Mobile Park Fly Ball Stats (and MLB Rankings)*.261 AVG (21st) .262 OBP (19th) .840 SLG (22nd) .444 wOBA (22nd) .454 xwOBA (22nd) 17.1 HR/FB% (22nd) 312 feet average distance (T-29) *Visiting players since 2019 Conversely, Marte had the sixth highest ground ball rate (54.8%). Hitting a lot of grounders is not always a good thing. But it worked for the 10-year veteran. In 2021, MLB hitters had a .243 AVG and .221 wOBA on ground balls. Yet, Marte recorded a .332 AVG and .307 wOBA. That was not simply good luck. His ground ball numbers for the last four seasons were above-average – .299 AVG and .276 wOBA. Since he changed teams in-season, Marte is ineligible for the Qualifying Offer. Potential concerns: While Marte is a two-time Gold Glover, it is important to note that he earned his hardware in 2015-16 as a left fielder with Pittsburgh. In center field, the metrics suggest he has been slightly below average in recent seasons. Marte has averaged 121 games annually since 2016, a number affected by an 80-game PED suspension in 2017. This year, he appeared in 120 contests. Relying too heavily on a center fielder with regressing defensive numbers and availability challenges entering his age-33 season could be a recipe for disappointment depending on the length of commitment made to him. Thoughts: Marte would represent an immediate offensive and defensive upgrade in center field over what the Mariners had in 2021. Yes, his -4 DRS this year may not look impressive at first glance. But that number is superior to what Seattle has received in recent years and certainly from Kelenic this season (-16 DRS). On the other hand, the issue confronting any potential suitor is how long can the native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic stave off Father Time? If the Mariners do not sign Marte, look for President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff to pursue a trade for a player capable of playing center field on a regular basis. Otherwise, Seattle risks not securing the outfield upgrade needed for the team to take the next step in 2022. That next step is the postseason, in case you did not already know. My Oh My…Go!

To mount a serious challenge for the AL West division title next year, the Seattle Mariners must improve its lineup. Getting more production from the team’s infielders would certainly move the Mariners’ offense in the right direction. Perhaps the position most in need of an offensive shot in the arm is second base. Abraham Toro demonstrated good on-base ability, but below-average power after arriving in late-July. Even with Toro, the .653 OPS of Seattle second baseman ranked 27th in MLB. Then there is third base. With Kyle Seager expected to become a free agent this week, the Mariners need a new regular third baseman for the first time in 10 years. That said, it is possible the team moves Toro to the hot corner where he has accumulated 5 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 59 starts and 546.2 innings. So, how might the Mariners address the need for more offense from second and third base? Hard to tell, but Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto has suggested his team would pursue the type of players it had not courted in years. With this in mind, I identified pending free agents capable of helping the Mariners win in 2022 and beyond. There were others who could potentially help. But I focused on six high-profile names since Dipoto implied Seattle would aim higher than usual in the marketplace. Before we start, a few business rules. Notes + Anyone with a club or player option will not be discussed. So, no José Ramírez, Nolan Arenado, etc. + Positional versatility was important, although it was not a prerequisite for inclusion. Same with postseason experience. + Sorry, no talk about dollars or contracts. + Unless otherwise noted, assume rankings are against qualified hitters. + Assume the pending free agent’s team can make a “Qualifying Offer” unless noted otherwise. Teams signing a player with a QO are subject to losing draft picks. If you want to know more about the QO, you can read about it here. Bottom line: players with a QO will cost their new clubs both money and draft picks. + The age you see on tables reflect how old players will be on July 1, 2022. In no particular order, my candidates. Marcus Semien, 2B/SS Selling points: Since the beginning of the 2019 campaign, Semien has the highest fWAR (15.4) and the fifth most home runs (85) and doubles (91) in MLB. This puts the Cal alum in a select group of players with over 80 home runs and doubles – Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, Rafael Devers, and José Abreu. In 2021, Semien hit a career-high 45 home runs with Toronto. A club forced to use three different ballparks as its home field due to COVID-19 international travel restrictions. Something that may pique the interest of Mariners fans, Statcast projects 47 of his batted balls would have been a home run in T-Mobile Park. Originally a weak fielding shortstop with Oakland, Semien developed into a Gold Glove contender at the position in 2018-19. This season, the San Francisco, California native moved to second base with his new club and finished third among second baseman with 11 DRS. Potential concerns: This is nerdy, but worth sharing. The .039 difference between his .368 wOBA and .329 xwOBA was the third highest gap among hitters with 500-plus plate appearances. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should have happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) does not influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. This disparity matters to me because wOBA is what actually happened to batted balls, while xwOBA gives us a sense of what should have happened. A large positive gap suggests a player’s numbers may not be sustainable. Something else to consider; Semien’s 48.1% fly ball rate was eighth highest in MLB. Perhaps this not a big deal. But fly balls historically do not generate the same level of success at T-Mobile Park as they do in other locations. Since 2019, the offensive numbers of visitors to T-Mobile Park rank in the bottom third of MLB. T-Mobile Park Fly Ball Stats (and MLB Rankings)* .261 AVG (21st) .262 OBP (19th) .840 SLG (22nd) .444 wOBA (22nd) .454 xwOBA (22nd) 17.1 HR/FB% (22nd) 312 feet average distance (T-29) *Visiting players since 2019 It certainly appears the potential exists for fly ball hitters to lose some offensive value at T-Mobile Park. Thoughts: Am I suggesting the Mariners should avoid Semien? No. But it is reasonable to temper expectations on what he may be able to do in Seattle. Would the right-hander hitter represent an upgrade? Yes, at second base, third base, and shortstop. How much is unclear to me. Carlos Correa, SS Dipoto recently suggested to Mike Salk of 710 ESPN Seattle that the Mariners’ shortstop moving forward was  J.P. Crawford. But what if Crawford tells the team he is amenable to moving to another position if it led to making the roster better? Since we do not know the answer, we will discuss Houston’s All-Star shortstop. Selling points: Correa’s 5.8 fWAR is only bested by Semien’s among players expected free agents. Moreover, the native of Ponce, Puerto Rico registered 21 DRS, which led MLB at every position – not just shortstop. Oh, and Correa will play three more years before reaching his age-30 season. Postseason experience is a topic we will mention often during our discussion. Correa certainly has his share of it. All told, he has over 70 playoff games and three World Series on his résumé. Potential concerns: This season, Correa played in 148 games. But since the start of the 2017 season, the first overall pick of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft has appeared in just 71% of his team’s games. A recurring problem has been nagging back issues that have sidelined him several times. Thoughts: Correa immediately becomes the best player on many teams the moment he signs the dotted line on a new contract. That certainly applies to the Mariners. For this reason, the two-time All-Star should be on Seattle’s initial shopping list. Kris Bryant, 1B/3B/OF Selling points: After a down 2020, Bryant delivered superb production with the Cubs and then the Giants after the team acquired him prior to the MLB trade deadline in July. Excluding the 2020 season, the second overall pick of the 2013 draft has averaged 33 doubles and 27 home runs since debuting in 2015. Although Bryant could fill a need at third base for the Mariners, a key component of his value is the ability to play all over the diamond. Starts By Position In 20211B – 10 3B – 47 LF – 35 CF – 13 RF – 33 Bryant also has extensive postseason experience with 44 playoff game appearances. Most recently, he went 8-18 with a home run in five games with San Francisco this year. Something else to be mindful of, Bryant was dealt in-season. Therefore, the Giants can not offer the San Diego alum the Qualifying Offer. Potential concerns: Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Bryant has played in 78% of his team’s games due to injuries. Not a terrible number. But it is something to consider since the Las Vegas, Nevada native will play into his mid-to-late thirties with his next club. Thoughts: Bryant is a superb all-around player capable of helping a contender at multiple positions. That flexibility is certainly appealing to the Mariners, a club with multiple holes to fill in the infield and outfield. Trevor Story, SS Selling points: Despite having a down season, Story was top-10 among shortstops in doubles, triples, home runs, SLG, fWAR, wOBA, and xwOBA. Furthermore, his 28.7 ft/sec sprint speed was top-30 among players making 100-plus competitive runs. The Irving, Texas native used his quick feet and savvy to steal 20 bases and be an outstanding base runner, which is reflected by a 6.4 BsR that was ninth best in MLB. Base Running (BsR) is a comprehensive metric used by FanGraphs that accounts for success at stealing bases and other base running plays, such as taking the extra base and avoiding being thrown out on the bases. In 2021, Story’s 9 DRS were fourth highest among shortstops. But this is nothing new for the Rockies’ the 1st round pick in the 2011 draft. Since the start of the 2017 campaign, his 55 DRS ranks fourth best among shortstop peers just behind Correa (58) and seventh among all players. Concerns: Well, Story did have a down year, which may have been caused by an elbow injury. But the main issue with the two-time Silver Slugger winner is the 800-pound gorilla that stalks all Colorado players – home and away splits. These splits do not mean it is impossible for Story to perform well away from the mile-high elevation of Denver. But it is reasonable to expect some decline in production. For example, Nolan Arenado had a nice first season with the Cardinals after being a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate with the Rockies. But he experienced at least a 60-point drop in AVG, OBP, and SLG. Then again, Arenado did hit 34 doubles and 34 home runs, which was similar to his 2019 numbers (31 doubles/41 HR). Thoughts: Story is an excellent player and superb athlete, who would immediately make the Mariners lineup better. But there is a risk that he becomes more slugger than on-base guy after moving away from Coors Field and enters his thirties. It is an issue potential buyers will have to confront. Considering Seattle is about to part ways with a 30-something power bat with low on-base ability, I am unsure of the fit. Perhaps time and Story prove me wrong. That would be fine by me. Javier Báez, 2B/SS/3B Selling points: Báez hit 31 home runs with the Cubs and Mets, which is a reasonable expectation moving forward. In the three seasons prior to a pandemic-shortened 2020, the right-handed hitter averaged 29 homers with Chicago. Báez’s fly ball rate is slightly below league-average. But when he gets the ball airborne, home runs often follow. His 28.2% HR/FB rate was third highest in the majors behind two notable names – Shohei Ohtani (32.9%) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (32.1%). What is intriguing about Báez’s home run tally is that Statcast projected that 35 of his batted balls would have been home runs in T-Mobile Park. That was the highest projection for the Bayamon, Puerto Rico native in any MLB stadium. Báez had a solid .775 OPS against right-handed pitching, which would have ranked second on the Mariners among righty hitters. That said, he was particularly formidable when confronting left-handers with a .926 OPS. Why does this matter? In 2021, Seattle had a .695 OPS versus southpaws, which ranked 26th in the majors. Only the Rangers were worse in the AL. The fleet-footed Báez stole 18 bases thanks to a 28.6 ft/sec sprint speed that was also top-30. That said, his aggressiveness can lead to an occasional gaffe on the bases. Then again, he did manage to have a 58 XBT%, which tied for seventh best in MLB. Extra Bases Taken Percentage (XBT%) from Baseball Reference refers to how frequently a runner advances more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double. Defensively, Báez was a whiz at multiple positions. This year, the 2020 Gold Glove winner at shortstop accrued 3 DRS at two different positions – second base and shortstop. Moreover, he has 7 DRS in 65 career starts at third base. In the postseason, Báez has played in 36 games, including the Cubs’ 2016 World Series title run when he was NLCS MVP. Báez cannot be offered the Qualifying Offer after being traded to the Mets in July. Potential concerns: Among 187 players taking 750-plus swings this year, Báez’s 40.5% whiff rate was second highest in MLB. For context, Mitch Haniger led Seattle regulars at 29.8%. As a result of Báez’s propensity to swing and miss, his 33.6% strikeout rate was third highest in the majors. Furthermore, the two-time All-Star owned a 5.1% walk rate, which was tenth lowest. Not the “control/dominate the zone” profile the Mariners champion. Thoughts: Báez is a dynamic playmaker capable of energizing any team. The issue for any potential suitor, including the Mariners, will be stomaching his high swing and miss style to get the energizing production he can potentially deliver. Chris Taylor, INF/OF Selling points: Taylor’s 2021 numbers tapered off in the second half. But his final numbers resemble what he has produced since debuting with Seattle in 2014. Career Stats .261 AVG .337 OBP .438 SLG 109 OPS .336 wOBA .321 xwOBA Taylor’s 28.8 ft/sec sprint speed was twentieth best in 2021. That is a smidge faster than Báez (28.6). The eight-year veteran also swiped 13 bags and was caught just once. Furthermore, his 6.5 BsR ranked eighth. Of all the players discussed, Taylor is the most versatile from a defensive standpoint. The fifth round pick of the Mariners in the 2012 MLB draft started 10 or more games at five positions. Starts By Position In 2021 2B – 33 SS – 19 3B – 9 LF – 16 CF – 48 RF – 19 Potential concerns: Taylor’s 32.7% whiff rate was sixteenth highest in MLB, while his 28.7% strikeout was eleventh worst. If he were with the Mariners, he would have been wedged between Dylan Moore (29.4%) and Jarred Kelenic (28.1%). Taylor will be 32 next August. Does this matter for a player dependent on his legs to play multiple positions? Perhaps, although his sprint speed has remained constant since he became a regular in 2017. Thoughts: Taylor had a great postseason and was dealt away in a trade Dipoto has acknowledged as one of his worst. For these reasons, the Emerald City return of the former Virginia Cavalier makes too much sense for many Seattle fans. Sentimentality aside, the Mariners have multiple holes to fill across the diamond but wants to maintain the flexibility to introduce young players into the lineup. Thanks to Taylor’s excellent blend of positional versatility and offensive value, he could help his former club on both counts. My Oh My…Go!

The Hot Stove season should be exciting for Seattle Mariners fans. The club is primed to be active in the marketplace following its thrilling 90-win campaign. The future of baseball looks bright in the Emerald City. That said, I have a warning for wannabe general managers concocting potential trade scenarios for the Mariners. Don’t be too eager to part with starting pitching prospects. I know. The Mariners have a pitching-rich farm system – one of the best in MLB. But teams can never have enough starting pitching. For those who think I’m being overly cautious, I present you the 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Facing possible elimination on its home field in Game 5 of the NLCS, the Dodgers went with an opener – reliever Joe Kelly. Not an ideal situation for any club. Especially one with such a rich postseason pedigree. That’s not meant to be a slight directed at Kelly, who is a superb pitcher. But you would think that the organization viewed by many as the best in baseball could muster an actual starting pitcher for the most important game of its season. But there was Kelly, giving it his best until suffering an injury after registering just two outs into the first inning. The Dodgers don’t just have deep pockets. The team’s minor league system consistently churns out players capable of contributing at the big-league level. Yet, despite all these resources, manager Dave Roberts needed to rely on a relief pitcher to start a must-win postseason game. So, what went wrong? It turns out a lot. On Opening Day, the Dodgers were in great shape. The starting rotation boasted Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer, Cy Young contender Walker Buehler, and young studs Julio Urías and Dustin May. And that doesn’t even include former Cy Young winner David Price and swingman Tony Gonsolin in the bullpen. An impressive bunch. In the end though, it wasn’t enough. Not even close. All told, the Dodgers needed 19 starters, including openers, to get through 162 games. Dodgers Starters In 2021Clayton Kershaw – Two IL stints with elbow injuryTrevor Bauer – Placed on restricted list in early JulyWalker Buehler – Made 33 startsJulio Urías – Made 32 startsDustin May – Tommy John surgery after five startsTony Gonsolin – Two IL stints with shoulder inflammationMax Scherzer – Acquired in JulyDavid Price – SwingmanMitch White – Rookie/Spot starterCorey Knebel – RelieverJustin Bruihl – RelieverGarrett Cleavinger – Reliever/On IL with strained obliqueVictor Gonzalez  – RelieverBrusdar Graterol – RelieverJosiah Gray – Prospect sent to Nationals in Scherzer dealJimmy Nelson – Reliever/On IL with elbow discomfortDarien Núñez  – RelieverJake Reed – RelieverEdwin Uceta – Reliever As you might expect, the Dodgers tried their best to shore up the starting staff once the unplanned losses began to pile up. In July, the team acquired three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (along with infielder Trea Turner) and Royals starter Danny Duffy. It also signed free agent Cole Hamels in early August. Scherzer was Scherzer, but the other guys didn’t pan out. At the time of the deal, Duffy was on Kansas City’s IL with a left flexor strain. But the desperate Dodgers were willing to take a chance on the southpaw returning to help during the stretch drive. Unfortunately, he never appeared in a game with his new club. Similarly, Hamels never suited up as a Dodger due to shoulder discomfort. As you can see below, the Dodgers weren’t the only club to struggle with filling rotation spots. In fact, the league-average for starters used this year was 14. And that brings us to the Mariners, a club needing 15 starters to get through the season. Considering the number of arms Seattle used in 2021, it’s no surprise that President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto identified starting pitching as an area needing help this offseason. Mariners Starters In 2021Marco Gonzales – One month on IL with flexor strainYusei Kikuchi – Pulled from rotation due to ineffectivenessJames Paxton – IL/Tommy John surgeryChris Flexen – Made 31 startsJustus Sheffield – IL with forearm strain/moved to bullpenJustin Dunn – IL/shoulder strainLogan Gilbert – Called up in May from AAANick Margevicius – IL for thoracic outlet syndrome surgeryLjay Newsome – Spot starter/IL with elbow discomfortTyler Anderson – July acquisitionHéctor Santiago – Long reliever/Suspended for PED useDarren McCaughan – Spot starter from AAARobert Dugger – Spot starter/DFAKeynan Middleton – Reliever/DFAErik Swanson – Reliever Bringing back fan-favorite James Paxton was risky due to his injury history. But who expected “Big Maple” would be lost for the season just 21 pitches into his Seattle reunion? That Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales would miss a month? That Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield would both regress and spend part of the season on the IL? Or that the Mariners would burn through its in-house depth by June? The answer is no one could project such misfortune for the Mariners, Dodgers, or any ballclub. That’s why rotational depth matters. Hence the adage that controllable starting pitching is baseball’s rarest commodity. Am I saying the Mariners should never trade starting pitching prospects? Of course not. But dealing away promising arms, particularly those close to being MLB-ready, is a risky proposition. Something to consider as you form your opinion on this point, Dipoto routinely stated during the season that AA pitchers were just a phone call away from the majors. Considering the number of starters used by the Mariners in 2021, it’s highly likely that some of the best arms in the team’s system will earn call-ups from Class-AA Arkansas next season. Notable AA Starters For SEA In 2021George KirbyEmerson HancockMatt BrashBrandon WilliamsonLevi Stoudt In 2021, the Mariners had a 2-8 record in games using an opener. Imagine the possibilities if manager Scott Servais had better options to start those 10 games. Maybe Servais’ squad manages to steal a few more wins by relying on one or more of the hot prospects listed above. Maybe a young gun, or guns, from Arkansas mitigates the damage when Yusei Kikuchi drove into a second-half ditch. Maybe the Mariners’ postseason drought would’ve ended earlier this month. Having said all that, the Mariners trading starting pitching prospects is inevitable. Doing so absolutely makes sense to land a franchise-changing player. On the other hand, dealing high-caliber talent for instant gratification could haunt the organization and its postseason-starved fan base for a long time. So, next time you hear or read someone advocating trades involving the names of pitching prospects like Brandon Williamson, Levi Stoudt, or Emerson Hancock for a notable name, remember how a lack of rotational depth almost torpedoed the Mariners’ season in 2021. If that’s not sobering enough for you, just think about Joe Kelly starting Game 5 of the 2021 NLCS for the Dodgers. My Oh My…Go!

When the Seattle Mariners traded reliever Kendall Graveman to the Houston Astros on July 27, the players’ reaction was unmistakable. Apoplectic would best describe the mood in the clubhouse. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reported Graveman’s departure stirred uncharacteristically emotional responses from players. Some were too broken up to discuss the trade of the popular clubhouse leader, although several did speak out. Those who did lashed out at management. “It never changes. They don’t care about winning. How do you trade him and say you care about winning? And you trade him to Houston? It never changes.” – Anonymous Mariner after Graveman deal A vocal segment of fans took to Twitter to echo the players’ view that the organization was not truly committed to winning. For them, it was the “same ole Mariners” all over again. A predictable response considering Seattle last appeared in the postseason in 2001. Critics of the deal also believed the return for Graveman was underwhelming and served as proof that management was not sincere about its stated desire to compete. Seattle received Abraham Toro and Joe Smith for Graveman and maligned reliever Rafael Montero, who had been designated for assignment. For the embittered fan, that was not enough for the club’s top relief arm.   Toro was an unproven 24-year-old unable to break into Houston’s extremely talented infield. Perhaps he could help the Mariners in the future with the emphasis placed on the word “perhaps.” The 37-year-old Smith was enduring the worst season of his 14-year career as a member of Houston’s bullpen. This was not the kind of deal Seattle fans wanted the club to make in July. Far from it.  Much to the dismay of already exasperated fans, the Mariners traded a third reliever before the MLB trade deadline expired on July 30. This time, it was the versatile JT Chargois heading to Tampa Bay with prospect and Puget Sound native Austin Shenton for Rays closer Diego Castillo. All told, Graveman, Montero, and Chargois were former Mariners with Smith and Castillo joining Seattle. To some, this upheaval downgraded the bullpen making the team significantly less competitive. And who did the legion of the frustrated blame for these perplexing deadline deals? Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto. A natural reaction considering Dipoto was the architect of the rebuild that triggered the massive roster turnover that had been ongoing since late-2018. But was the outrage directed at the 53-year-old executive over the Graveman and Chargois trades justified? I do not believe so. Upon Further Review Yes, the Graveman trade was a shocker, particularly its timing. Just a day prior to the deal, Seattle rebounded from a seven-run deficit to beat Houston in dramatic fashion at T-Mobile Park – a game Graveman pitched in. Less than 24 hours later, he was suiting up in the visiting clubhouse – for the hated division-rival Astros of all teams! Still, the passage of time provides us with the opportunity for renewed perspective. The following illustrates the combined production that Seattle received from its two new relievers since the trade deadline and the corresponding numbers for the three former Mariners after leaving the Emerald City. Also on display, the MLB averages for relief pitchers from July 30 until the end of the regular season. The former and new relief arms outperformed league averages in all but two categories with combination of Smith and Castillo generally being better than their predecessors. Not by a large margin, although it is obvious that that the new guys did not drag down the bullpen or the team. In fact, the numbers suggest relief pitching remained a strength for the Mariners during the final third of the season when it counted most. The revamped bullpen played a pivotal role in writing the success story that was the Mariners’ 2021 season. The team registered an AL West division-best 35-24 record following the deadline and remained in the wild race until game-162. Yes, Seattle fell short in the end. But not before winning 90 games. A win tally no one outside of the clubhouse believed was possible. And The Other Guy? The big get for the Mariners in the Graveman deal was Toro, who did not thrill fans with his second base defense and lack of power. Still, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Canadian had appeared in just 90 MLB games before joining Seattle. He is a work in progress. As far as his defense goes, it is important to note that Toro had just 20 games of professional experience at second base prior to becoming a Mariner. Perhaps he slides over to the more familiar third base next season. It is true that Toro’s bat did not have much pop. But the switch-hitter did demonstrate great bat-to-ball skills and tremendous plate discipline. He also delivered better production than what Seattle had received from the second base position prior to his arrival. Whether Toro will be a long-term starter in the Mariners’ infield is a conversation for another time. But his presence provided a much-needed boost to Seattle’s lineup during the final months of the season. Even if he did not hit for power. Last Words As outsiders, we have no clue how the Graveman trade affected player morale. But the numbers are clear. His departure was not the catastrophe players and fans believed it would be. To be fair, criticism of the Mariners for shipping Graveman out of town was not isolated to the Pacific Northwest. At least one prominent talking head was also sour on the deal in July. Deadline winner heading into the big day today: Dodgers (obvious reasons and they are working on more big things). Deadline loser: Mariners (who traded their beloved and dominant closer, killing the team’s mojo at a time the players had something special going) — Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 30, 2021 Realistically, the trade that fans and Jon Heyman hated in July was not so bad after all. Especially when we consider the totality of Seattle’s bullpen moves at the deadline and the team’s overall success. In the end, clubhouse chemistry survived the Kendall Graveman deal. So did the Mariners’ season. My Oh My…Go!

Fans of the Seattle Mariners became very familiar with the band of unheralded relievers that propelled the team into postseason contention this year. Perhaps a few east coast pundits even took notice of Seattle’s bullpen along the way. Names like Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, Diego Castillo, Casey Sadler, and Anthony Misiewicz anchored a Mariners bullpen comprised mostly of youngsters and journeymen that was better than good. They were among baseball’s best.  Sure, the Rafael Montero and Keynan Middleton experiments did not pan out, nor did Rule 5 draftee Will Vest. Trading key relievers Kendall Graveman and JT Chargois in July certainly did nothing to improve clubhouse or fan base morale. But in the end, the bullpen provided manager Scott Servais with a distinct tactical advantage over opposing clubs throughout the season. Whether you prefer conventional statistics or new-age metrics, Seattle’s bullpen was significantly better than the 2020 version that was arguably one of the worst in MLB. In fact, it was top-10 in multiple statistical categories. As you might expect, several surprising relievers blossomed for the Mariners. Players who were revelations to the team, its fan base, and the baseball establishment. None was bigger than Sewald. Sewald went from a Mets castoff in 2020 to a high-leverage arm in Seattle a year later. Only two pitchers with 60-plus innings this season bested his 39.4% strikeout rate – Jacob deGrom (45.1%) and Liam Hendriks (42.3%). Impressive for a reliever with a 23.5% strikeout rate in four previous seasons. Another good news story was Sadler, a waiver claim arriving in the Emerald City from the Cubs in September 2020. Sadler did not allow a run in his final 29 appearances, which was the longest streak of its kind this season. The basis for such success was the 31-year-old’s knack for avoiding quality contact, which was reflected in a .242 xwOBA that was ninth best in the majors among relievers facing at least 100 hitters in 2021. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should have happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) does not influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA = .314 The third prominent member of Seattle’s posse of misfit relievers was Steckenrider. The 30-year-old spent three seasons with Miami, but did not appear in a game with the team in 2020. This year, he led Mariners relievers with 67.2 innings and was Servais’ most called upon arm in the ninth inning (24 games). Sewald was second with 18 appearances. Other relievers contributing to the Mariners’ late postseason push included Joe Smith, Yohan Ramirez, Matt Andriese, Erik Swanson, Sean Doolittle, Justus Sheffield, and rookies Wyatt Mills and Andrés Muñoz. Together, they helped form one of the best bullpens in franchise history. Really. Better Than Most Okay. I am not trying to persuade anyone into believing the 2021 Mariners’ bullpen was the “best ever” in team history. Comparing contemporary bullpens to those from bygone eras can be challenging. Reliever utilization has drastically changed since the Mariners first debuted in 1977. Particularly with an increased emphasis being placed on specialized relievers since the team’s inaugural season and the recent trend of “bullpening” across MLB. Still, this year’s group does compare well to previous editions. The 2021 bullpen did not have stars such as Edwin Díaz, Fernando Rodney, Kazuhiro Sasaki, J.J. Putz, or Bobby Ayala at the ready to close out games. Yet, the 7.0 fWAR accrued by its potpourri of relief arms set a franchise record. This seems good and special. I was kidding about Bobby Ayala. That was a test to see if you were paying attention. So, how did the Mariners reap so much value from a bullpen short on recognizable names or established performers? Success Under Duress Simple. Servais maximized his bullpen’s effectiveness by masterfully juggling relievers to setup the best matchups, regardless of inning. This helps explain why Seattle was the only team with three relievers recording 10 or more saves in 2021 – Graveman, Sewald, and Steckenrider. Eighteen clubs had one or none. Since the Mariners’ skipper did not use traditional thinking when deploying relievers, we should not rely on conventional statistics to discuss the impact of his bullpen management. A better option would be a metric that attempts to quantify a player’s influence on their team’s success. Win Probability Added (WPA) credits or debits pitchers and hitters based on how the outcome of a plate appearance affects the chances of their team winning. For example, a late-inning home run in a close game earns a hitter more credit and the pitcher a larger debit than a homer in the first inning or in a blowout. Using WPA is particularly helpful when discussing relief pitching. The best relievers are most often entrusted with safeguarding their team’s interests in the most crucial moments of a game. It is why elite relief arms can have a higher WPA than most starters. Conversely, less reliable or inexperienced relievers will have a low or negative WPA. The Mariners boasted three pitchers with a top-20 WPA among relievers – Graveman, Steckenrider, and Sewald. Two of them landed in the top-10. Essentially, Servais skillfully placed relievers in the best position to succeed and they delivered positive results much more often than not. As a result, Seattle’s relief arms combined for a 7.71 WPA, which was fourth highest in the majors. The three clubs ahead of the Mariners owned the best win-loss records in baseball – the Giants, Dodgers, and Rays.  Sounds like Manager of the Year material to me. Can They Do It Again? The main relievers with the Mariners at season’s end remain under club control for 2022 with the exception of Smith. That sounds like good news. But can the same cast of characters repeat its success next year? Ah, the question on everyone’s mind. Reliever volatility is a term often bandied about for good reason. Predicting how a reliever, or a bullpen, will perform from one year to the next can be problematic. In the Mariners’ case, a few issues are worth of mention as the offseason begins. Most notably, the team’s breakout performer. As wonderful as Sewald was this season, there were noteworthy blemishes on the stat sheet. The right-hander was adept at missing bats. But when opponents did make contact, it was the damaging type more often than preferred. Among 306 relief pitchers allowing at least 100 batted balls this season, Sewald’s 12.6% barrel rate was eleventh highest. Barrels are batted balls with the ideal blend of launch angle and exit velocity. In 2021, MLB hitters had a .772 AVG and 2.591 SLG on barreled balls. Also, 84% of all home runs were barrels. In the same vein, Sewald allowed six home runs in September after surrendering four dingers in his four previous months. Perhaps fatigue spurred late-season longball struggles. The San Diego alum pitched just six innings with New York last year. In 2021, he logged over 11 times that much with Seattle and Class-AAA Tacoma, including an AL-leading 32.1 frames following the MLB trade deadline. Misiewicz also struggled with well-struck balls. Opponents had a 44.9% hard hit rate against him, which led Mariners relievers allowing 100-plus batted balls. The Michigan State product also saw his opponent AVG skyrocket from .219 in July to .351 in September with his in-zone swing and miss rate cratering from 19.6% to just 5% during the same span. Is the sky falling with Sewald and Misiewicz? No. Seattle’s relievers were pushed hard late in the season. It is possible all that is needed is down time to recover from a heavy workload. Still, Sewald and Misiewicz were vital to the team’s success. Significant regression in 2022 could potentially have a negative impact on the bullpen. Help Is On The Way Despite any potential concerns with Sewald, Misiewicz or any other holdover from the 2021 bullpen, it is important to note new names will be added to the high-leverage mix next season. The power arms of Ken Giles and Muñoz, both coming off Tommy John surgery, project to be ready for Spring Training. Assuming good health, both should help depressurize the backend of the 2022 bullpen. Even if the bullpen unexpectedly falters, President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff have demonstrated the agility to pivot when the situation dictates. So, there is no need for concern in October. Besides, the Mariners will once again have Scott Servais getting the most out of his bullpen in 2022. That is a good thing. My Oh My…Go!

Remaining in the AL Wild Card chase until the final day of the season energized the Seattle Mariners fan base in a way rarely seen in the last two decades. So much so, fans are believing that 2022 will be the year the Mariners finally become a legitimate threat to win the AL West division championship. That is an exciting proposition. But there is an unavoidable truth that could potentially scuttle such lofty expectations. Even at its best, the Mariners’ starting rotation did not approach the excellence delivered by the starting staffs of baseball’s best teams – not even close. Yes, that sounds harsh. But it is true. Efficient And Effective Before addressing my assertion any further, we should first establish when the Mariners’ starting staff was actually at its best. That is not hard to do. The rotation reached peak performance following the arrival of Tyler Anderson on July 30. From that point moving forward, Seattle’s starting pitching was both efficient and effective. Anderson’s presence provided something the rotation sorely lacked before his arrival – stability. Injuries and ineffectiveness forced manager Scott Servais to use 14 starters prior to the 31-year-old joining the team. Afterwards, Servais only needed five starters for the final two months of the season. Although the overall improvement of the rotation isn’t solely attributable to Anderson, his veteran presence and consistency on the mound played a pivotal role in the staff’s renaissance. Particularly with Yusei Kikuchi struggling in the second half of the season. Kikuchi was the team’s lone All-Star game representative – a richly deserved honor. Unfortunately, his season went sideways following his first July start. For the remainder of the year, the 30-year-old labored to deliver competitive outings just when the Mariners needed him most. Servais subsequently sidelined the southpaw for the final week of the season. Rounding out the starting five along with Anderson and Kikuchi were Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen, and rookie Logan Gilbert. All three delivered their best efforts down the home stretch. After struggling during the first half of the season and missing the month of May due to a flexor strain, Gonzales regained his form during the final two months of the season posting a .274 xwOBA, which was top-15 among his peers. When the Mariners needed him most, the Gonzaga alum demonstrated the mettle of a champion. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA = .314 Little did we know in Spring Training that signing Flexen out of the KBO would be a coup for President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff. The 27-year-old was the team’s most consistent arm and the only Seattle pitcher from the Opening Day roster to make every scheduled start. All told, Flexen pitched 179.2 innings – seventh most logged by an AL starter in 2021. An impressive accomplishment considering the Mariners used a six-man rotation until late-June. When Gilbert debuted in May, he was the organization’s top pitching prospect. It was not always smooth sailing for the 24-year-old, although he demonstrated growth as the season progressed. By September, the Stetson product was arguably the best starter on the staff. Logan Gilbert’s September Stats And Team Ranking2.70 ERA (1st) 3.59 FIP (1st) 23.0 SO% (1st) 5.9 BB% (1st) 1.02 WHIP (2nd) .205 AVG (2nd) 0.7 fWAR (1st) During the last two months of the season, Gonzales, Flexen, Anderson, and Gilbert formed a reliable starting four. As a result, the Mariners were able to compete for the postseason until game-162. So, why my concern? Nice, But Not Great The upgraded version of the Mariners’ rotation was a nice story – for a fringe contender. Not so much for a team trying to be great with its focus on winning the World Series The following helps illustrate the statistical gap between Seattle’s rotation at its peak and the starting staffs of the clubs with the three best records in the AL and NL – the Giants, Dodgers, Rays, Astros, Brewers, and White Sox. This is the level of excellence the Mariners should be striving to attain. Other than walk rate, the revamped Mariners rotation trailed our “Big Six” by a significant amount. Realistically, Seattle starters were collectively average-ish when the going was good. Value Added? When the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) is used to gauge Servais’ starters, we receive the same message that the preceding table delivered. The rotation’s difference-makers were good, but not elite. The highest ranked Mariner with 110-plus innings was Flexen (3.0 fWAR) at number-39. Starter fWAR and MLB RankingsChris Flexen – 3.0 fWAR (39)Logan Gilbert – 2.2 fWAR (53)Tyler Anderson – 2.2 fWAR (56)*Yusei Kikuchi – 1.1 fWAR (82)Marco Gonzales – 0.6 fWAR (95) * Includes Anderson’s time with Pittsburgh Once again, we are confronted with the reality that the Mariners will need better production from its 2022 rotation to become serious contenders for the AL West division title. Remember, the World Series is the endgame – not flirtation with a wild card berth. But The Kids… Some fans will suggest help is on the way from Seattle’s stacked farm system. The organization does have a bevy of young arms seemingly ready to make the jump from Double-A to the majors. The most recognizable names being Matt Brash, Emerson Hancock, George Kirby, Levi Stoudt, and Brandon Williamson. Still, that is a lot of youth and uncertainty to bank on heading into a regular season. Particularly for a club wanting to compete at the highest level. To be clear, I am not suggesting these young guns will not contribute in 2022. But expecting great things upon arrival is fraught with risk. Remember, Gilbert endured struggles before finding his groove in September. Looking Ahead How the Mariners choose to construct the 2022 rotation will certainly be central to Hot Stove speculation. Will the front office stick with the 2021 gang and wait for the kids to arrive? Will adding more veteran depth be the plan instead? Could acquiring a top-shelf arm be the priority? Regardless of the strategy management employs, the Mariners should begin next season with a more robust and dependable starting staff than the 2021 Opening Day version. This is a good thing. How good depends on what Dipoto and crew do to improve the starting rotation during the offseason. I suspect it will be a busy winter at the corner of Edgar & Dave. My Oh My…Go!

Mitch Haniger Mariners

Most baseball observers, including me, thought the rebuilding Seattle Mariners would finish 2021 with a losing record. Guess what? We were wrong. I mean really wrong. Seattle remained in wild card contention until game-162 finishing the season with a 90-72 record. By exceeding everyone’s expectations except their own, this fun club created a positive vibe not experienced by its fan base for nearly 20 years. Having said that, there are reasons for concern regarding the sustainability of the Mariners’ surprising success. If it appears I am trying to remove the shine from a fun season, that is not my intent. The Mariners had a tremendous year thanks to a galvanized group of players with unwavering belief in themselves. But what is the point of taking a victory lap when the ultimate prize of a World Series title remains so far out of reach? To remain on the path to championship glory, the Mariners must confront their deficiencies. No area on the team’s roster was more deficient than run production. Brother, Can Ya Spare A Run? Anyone watching the Mariners on a regular basis is familiar with the team’s struggles to plate runs on a consistent basis. The month of May was particularly rough when Seattle was no-hit twice and scored an AL-worst 96 runs in 28 contests. The lineup rebounded with 125 runs in June, although generating offense remained a challenge for the rest of the season. By the numbers, Seattle’s run production ranked near the bottom of MLB in several categories. Perhaps most unsettling for Mariners fans moving forward, this year’s production was eerily similar to 2020 levels. A stat worthy of further scrutiny is on-base percentage (OBP), which ranked 28th in MLB. Only the Marlins and Rangers were less proficient at reaching base than the Mariners. Think about that for a moment. All but one of 15 NL teams that regularly allow pitchers to hit were more proficient at getting men on base than a Seattle lineup routinely using a designated hitter. To that point, the team’s broadcasts often highlighted the Mariners’ success with runners in scoring position (RISP). It is true that Seattle hitters were top-10 in AVG and OPS with RISP. But only 23.6% of the team’s plate appearances occurred with RISP, which was 28th worst in the majors. Essentially, the lineup did not create enough run scoring opportunities to flourish. So, what was the problem? How many of you remember Jacob Nottingham? Too Short For Comfort Nottingham’s stint with the Mariners was brief, but unique. The team claimed him off waivers from the Brewers on April 28 only to have Milwaukee purchase his contract four days later. On May 20, Seattle claimed the 26-year-old off waivers again. This time, he played in 10 games, including eight starts at first base and designated hitter before the Mariners designated him for assignment. Overall, Nottingham had 31 plate appearances with Seattle tallying one home run with a .111 AVG and 30 OPS+. In the big scheme of things, this does not seem like a big deal for a club with 6,000-plus plate appearance this year. But it was. The 2021 Mariners had too many Jacob Nottinghams. Well-below average run producers, who weighed down the lineup. The totality of their ineffectiveness made it difficult for the team to generate multi-run innings or extend rallies. For the purpose of our conversation, a well-below average run producers had an OPS+ below 90. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. Other well-below average Mariner hitters included Dillon Thomas, Eric Campbell, Braden Bishop, Kevin Padlo, and Jack Mayfield. They, along with Nottingham, combined for 102 plate appearances this year – just two less than Evan White. Mariners With A Sub-90 OPS+Jake BauersBraden BishopEric CampbellJose GodoySam HaggertyJarred KelenicShed LongJose MarmolejosJack MayfieldDylan MooreTom MurphyJacob NottinghamKevin PadloCal RaleighDillon ThomasTaylor TrammellDonovan WaltonEvan White All told, the Mariners used 18 non-pitchers possessing an OPS+ under 90, which led the AL. Some of these players were temps like the names previously mentioned. But Taylor Trammell and Jake Bauers had 178 and 202 plate appearances, respectively. Furthermore, Jarred Kelenic, Dylan Moore, and Tom Murphy each topped 300. In the end, these 18 hitters accounted for 37.4% of Seattle’s total plate appearances this season. That is a staggering amount. Aiming High While every roster has offensively-challenged players, the best teams do not provide as many opportunities to these type of hitters as the Mariners did in 2021. To demonstrate this point, I compared Seattle to the three AL division winners – the Astros, Rays, and White Sox. If you are wondering why the comparison of the Mariners to the three AL division winners, the answer is simple. This is the level of success the organization craves. Forget about the volatility of a Wild Card game. Beginning the postseason in the Division Series significantly improves the likelihood of reaching the World Series. So, how exactly did the 18 Mariners with a sub-90 OPS+ influence the team’s run production effort? The easiest way to illustrate the impact these players had is to do a side-by-side comparison with the eight Mariners above our 90 OPS+ threshold – J.P. Crawford, Ty France, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Kyle Lewis, Luis Torrens, Jake Fraley, and Abraham Toro. It turns out that our “Bad 18” placed a significant drag on the offense compared to their productive teammates. Moreover, their combined production fell far below the league standards for conventional stats like AVG, OBP, and SLG. To be a serious contender in 2022 and beyond, the Mariners must find ways to minimize the number of ineffective hitters eating up plate appearances. President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff will likely adjust course in the offseason to upgrade the offense. That said, the answers to questions regarding a long-time Mariner and several key youngsters will affect the front office’s approach towards lengthening the lineup. Questions, Questions It seems unlikely Seager remains with the only club he’s known. If the North Carolina product and the Mariners do part ways as expected, the team will have to fill the power void created by Seager’s departure. During the past five full seasons, not counting 2020, he averaged 31 doubles, 27 home runs, and a .450 SLG. That’s a lot of pop to replace. Not having Lewis for most of 2021 certainly hurt Seattle’s run production effort. The 2020 AL Rookie of the Year was lost for the season on May 31 due to knee surgery. Considering the Mercer alum suffered a major injury to the same knee and needed several years to regain his form, it is reasonable to wonder whether he will be ready for the start of the 2022 campaign. After a tumultuous start to his MLB career in May-June, Kelenic enjoyed a September surge that helped propel the Mariners into contention. Still, the 22-year-old must demonstrate he can sustain his recent success over a full season. The team is probably counting on him to do so, which is understandable considering his prospect pedigree. That said, prolonged bouts of ineffectiveness from the Wisconsin native could significantly hinder run production in 2022. Catching prospect Cal Raleigh also encountered troubles at the plate. Considering the relatively small sample size of his 2021 season, the 24-year-old’s numbers have little bearing on his long-term outlook. However, caution is advisable regarding how much the switch-hitter may contribute with his bat next year. Raising The Floor Realistically, Crawford, Haniger, and France provide the start of a foundation. Kelenic likely continues the growth he demonstrated late this season, which is a good thing. Furthermore, Raleigh figures to be the everyday catcher, while Toro probably gets a long look at whatever infield position the team settles on. After that, Dipoto and company could go in many directions to shore up the roster. Regardless of the strategy employed by the front office, the end result must raise the floor of the offense well above the 2021 version. If the Mariners experience another season with nearly 40% of its plate appearances going to unproductive hitters, the organization will not take the next step on its journey towards winning the Fall Classic. Instead, the longest active postseason drought in North America will reach its 21st year and essentially erase all the goodwill the current club cultivated. That is an outcome nobody wants to see become reality. Not Dipoto and certainly not a Mariners fan base that chose to believe when no one else did in 2021. My Oh My…Go!

If the Seattle Mariners fall short of the postseason, which is a distinct possibility, there will be spirited debate within the team’s fan base over the success of the Mariners’ 2021 season. A topic likely to generate much less deliberation is the identity of the team’s best hitter. Most fans will agree Ty France has earned that distinction. But what if France could eventually become more for the Mariners? Ty France, future MVP? At this point, some of you are probably thinking that I’ve lost all sense of reality. Undoubtedly a result of too many statistic-themed tweets by me over a long baseball season. Yes, France ascending to an MVP-caliber performer may seem like a far-fetched idea. After all, the San Diego State alum’s production numbers from his brief career are nice. But they don’t necessarily suggest greatness. Being the most productive bat for the offensively-challenged Mariners makes France extremely valuable to his team, not MVP-worthy in 2021. But we’re talking about the future. Could the 27-year-old eventually be an MVP candidate? Obviously, we can’t predict the future. So, I decided to have fun with my question by seeking out players with similar numbers to France’s. Maybe I’d discover a few stars or even an MVP. It turns out the search identified several notable names. I even stumbled over a comparison that might make the heads of some Seattle fans explode. Remember Mariners faithful, this is an exercise in fun. We’re not trying to actually trying to predict France’s trajectory or label him better than any of the names we’re about to discuss. As illustrated in the preceding table, France has played in 245 games since debuting with the Padres in 2019. He has hit 27 home runs and 44 doubles with a .278/.347/.437 slash-line, and a 117 OPS+. With this in mind, I established a search criterion of right-handed hitters from ages 23 to 27 with 200-300 career games played in their first three seasons. Performance-wise, the emphasis was on hitters with an OPS+ between 110 and 130. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. Okay, here is the initial wave of names, sorted by OPS+. Please note, this list isn’t all inclusive – just a fun sample. As you review the table, bear in mind the number of games and plate appearances for each player can vary greatly. Our roster includes two active players – Lourdes Gurriel Jr. of the Blue Jays and Ramón Laureano of the A’s. Both began this season as key contributors to their respective clubs. It’s important to note that Laureano is currently serving an 80-game suspension for PED use. Long-time A’s catcher Terry Steinbach played 14 MLB seasons and was a three-time All Star. He even appeared on an MVP ballot in his last season with Oakland in 1996. Just to be clear, the Minnesotan finished 21 of 21 in voting. Chris Shelton delivered good production during his first three campaigns with the Tigers. After the 2006 season, Detroit dealt the former Utah Ute to the Rangers. He’d spend 2007 in the minors before playing with Texas in 2008. Shelton’s big-league career came to a close the following season with the Mariners at the age of 29. Infielder John Valentin spent 10 of his 11 seasons with the Red Sox. The Mineola, New York native’s best season was 1995 when he earned the only Silver Slugger Award of his career and finished ninth in AL MVP voting with Boston. Joe Charboneau is an interesting story. He debuted with Cleveland in 1980 and was AL Rookie of the Year after hitting 23 home runs and slashing .289/.358/.488 in 131 games. Unfortunately, the right-handed hitting outfielder dealt with a back injury prior to his sophomore campaign and never regained his productive form. Charboneau was out of the majors after just three seasons. The final player in our initial salvo hails from a baseball family – Moises Alou. Although Alou would eventually play 17 seasons, his career started unevenly. He debuted with the Pirates in 1990 and was subsequently traded to the Expos that same season. Then, his 1991 was lost to injury. A year later, Alou finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting to Eric Karros of the Dodgers. His father Felipe Alou would also become manager of Montreal that year. The younger Alou would win earn two Silver Sluggers and be an MVP finalist twice, finishing third in voting in 1994 and 1998. Of the players we’ve discussed thus far, Alou came closest to winning an MVP award. Having said that, two players from my search actually took home the hardware. Let’s discuss. An MVP From Decades Ago Before France was born, a player posted similar numbers to the Mariners’ current first baseman before eventually earning NL MVP with the Giants in 1989. His name is Kevin Mitchell. Note: Twenty-two plate appearances from Mitchell’s age-22 season (1984) are included even though they fell outside of the ages 23 to 27 criteria. This didn’t noticeably alter the preceding numbers. When Mitchell’s career began in earnest with the 1986 World Series champion Mets, he patrolled both corner infield spots, shortstop, and also spent time in the outfield. Despite not having a full-time position, the native of San Diego, California finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Todd Worrell and runner-up Robby Thompson. A Contemporary MVP Okay, I found a player from over three decades ago with similar numbers to France’s. Some of you may prefer someone who’s played since the internet became a thing. Fine, I have a name for you – Josh Donaldson, 2015 AL MVP. Donaldson debuted with the A’s in 2010. However, he’d spend all of 2011 and part of 2012 in the minors before sticking for good. By the end of the 2013 campaign, the Auburn alum was a top-5 finisher in MVP voting. Two years later, his first with the Blue Jays, he was AL MVP. A Hall of Famer? Alright Mariners fans, it’s brain detonation time. Out of curiosity, I compared France to the young career of Edgar Martinez. Since Edgar didn’t play 100 games in a season until his fourth year in the majors, I bent the rules to improve the comp’s fun differential. As a result, the following contrasts France’s first three campaigns to the Hall of Famer’s first four. Don’t stare too hard at the double and home run tallies since France has 71 more plate appearances than Martinez did. But each player’s OPS+ is almost identical, which suggests similar production. Does this mean we should anticipate a Ty France statue adjacent to monuments to Edgar, Ken Griffey Jr., and Ichiro outside T-Mobile Park in about 20 years? No. This conversation has been a fun diversion, not thoughtful analysis. But, Seriously Realistically, France’s career has a bright outlook. It’s true Charboneau and Shelton struggled to repeat their early success. But the remaining players we discussed enjoyed long MLB careers. Barring injury, the 34th round pick of the Padres in the 2015 draft should remain a productive hitter for well over a decade. Who knows? Maybe France eventually elevates his game to an MVP-level in the future. How cool would that be? Even if France doesn’t soar to the same heights as Mitchell and Donaldson (or Edgar), what we’ve seen from him in 2021 suggests he’s now a foundational player for the Mariners. Yes. I suspect the best is yet to come for Ty France. And hopefully, the Mariners too. My Oh My…Go!

Marco Gonzales Mariners

Although the odds don’t favor the Seattle Mariners, the team remains in the AL Wild Card race with about three weeks left in the regular season. Perhaps it’s a bit premature to have this conversation. But I thought it’d be fun to discuss the players on Seattle’s current roster, who’ve previously competed in the playoffs. So, how many Mariners actually have postseason experience? The answer is not many. Just six Mariners know what’s it like to appear in a playoff game. Nearly all are pitchers; only one was on the club’s roster at the beginning of the season. Marco Gonzales Seattle’s Opening Day starter made six postseason relief appearances as a rookie for the Cardinals in 2014. Gonzales initially blanked the Dodgers in three games during the NLDS and did the same in his first two confrontations with the Giants in the NLCS. Unfortunately, San Francisco plated three runs off the Gonzaga product in Game 4. If the Mariners somehow pull off the unexpected this year, Gonzales would be a prime candidate along with Chris Flexen to start the AL Wild Card game or Game 1 of an ALDS series. Tyler Anderson Anderson allowed two runs during an inning of relief for the Rockies in the 2017 NL Wild Card game against Arizona. A year later, he enjoyed a much better showing in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Brewers. The former Oregon Duck surrendered just one run in a six-inning effort, although the Brew Crew ultimately prevailed with a 4-0 victory over Colorado. Based on Anderson’s superb performance since joining the Mariners in late-July, he’s already cemented a postseason rotation spot for Seattle manager Scott Servais. Abraham Toro The lone position player on our list was on the Astros’ postseason roster last year. That said, Toro had just one plate appearance in the ALCS against the Rays. The Canadian drew a walk as a pinch hitter for catcher Martin Maldonado. Since the Mariners acquired Toro from the Astros on July 27, he’s been the team’s everyday second baseman and delivered at the plate. The switch-hitter would be a core contributor in Servais’ postseason lineups. Joe Smith It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that the oldest player on the Mariners’ roster boasts a well-rounded postseason résumé. Since 2013, Smith has appeared in 18 playoff games with the Indians, Angels, and Astros. Overall, the 37-year-old has performed well with a 0.786 WHIP in 14 innings. Although the side-arming Smith wouldn’t be a late-inning option for the Mariners, he projects to be a valuable member of any potential Seattle postseason bullpen. Diego Castillo After pitching for the Rays in the 2019 and 2020 postseasons, including last year’s World Series, Castillo is a proven commodity in high-leverage situations. The native of the Dominican Republic has allowed a total of three runs in 14 playoff appearances. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Castillo would be a top option for Servais in late-inning situations. Sean Doolittle Doolittle has made 20 playoff appearances with Oakland and Washington dating back to 2012. His shining moment came in the 2019 Fall Classic when he registered a save and didn’t allow a run in three relief appearances for the World Series champion Nationals against the Astros. Considering his time with Seattle is a small sample, Doolittle may have to demonstrate he deserves a spot on a postseason roster over the next three weeks. Since joining the team on August 27, opponents are batting .375 against the Virginia alum in five appearances. Eye On October If the Mariners happen to dramatically grab a Wild Card berth this year, it’s likely their opponent will possess far more postseason experience than the upstarts from the Pacific Northwest. That said, teams can succeed in October without a playoff-tested roster. The 2014 Royals reached the World Series despite having just four players who had previously appeared in the postseason – Wade Davis, Omar Infante, Jayson Nix, and James Shields. In the end, what really matters is having a roster with the talent to compete when the lights are brightest in October. Does this description apply to the 2021 Mariners? We won’t know for a few more weeks. In the interim, I suggest enjoying the ride. Getting to watch the hometown team play relevant baseball games in September is a treat worth savoring. It’s certainly better than the alternative. My Oh My…Go!

Yusei Kukuchi Mariners

The rebuilding Seattle Mariners are flirting with playoff contention in late-August, which was totally unexpected. The odds don’t favor the Mariners. But a late-season rebound by All-Star Yusei Kikuchi is essential to the team having any chance of pulling off a September surprise. Since the Midsummer Classic, Kikuchi hasn’t performed like an All-Star with a 6.46 ERA in eight starts and opponents hitting .298 against him. So, what’s gone wrong with his All-Star season? A lot, recently. Meh, All-Star, And Yikes! Kikuchi’s season can be broken into three distinct phases. The first encompasses his initial four starts, which could be described as “meh.” During this span, he was inconsistent and often hit hard. So much so, some Mariners fans were questioning whether the left-hander would ever become a standout starter for the team. What followed next was the fun phase, an 11-game span that began with a strong outing against the Astros on April 29 and continued through July 1. For just over two months, Kikuchi was among the best pitchers in baseball. This stretch is why he earned his first All-Star selection. That brings us to the current phase – Kikuchi’s nine starts after his July 1 outing. This period has fans saying “yikes,” among other things. It’s also the impetus for this piece – my third about the native of Japan since last season. So, what’s changed since Kikuchi’s best phase of the season? Again, the answer is a lot. Diminished Fastball Velocity Mariners manager Scott Servais has stressed during the season that Kikuchi establishing his four-seam fastball early in games was paramount to his success. Servais’ sentiment resonates once we notice how the 30-year-old’s average four-seam velocity peaked during the All-Star phase of his season. Is Kikuchi’s recent drop in fastball velocity cause for concern? On the surface, the answer may appear to be no. After all, we’re a talking about a decline of 1.6 MPH between April-July and now. Then again, when we look at how often Kikuchi’s fastball has cracked the 95 MPH barrier during the different phases of the season, we discover something worth discussing. The following illustrates how frequently Kikuchi four-seam fastballs were 95 MPH or greater in games. Also included, the regularity that his four-seamers reached or exceeded 95 MPH in the first inning. Remember Servais’ emphasis on flashing a quality fastball early. Why Kikuchi is reaching 95 MPH less often is unclear. But the numbers suggest the effectiveness of his four-seamer has diminished along with its velocity since June. Ironically, he’s thrown the pitch more frequently during his recent rough patch than when he was building his All-Star résumé. During Kikuchi’s All-Star surge, the opponent AVG and strikeout rate on his four-seam fastball were third best among 80 pitchers throwing 300-plus four-seamers. Conversely, hitters have a .294 AVG against him ever since, which is 16th highest within his peer group. Trouble With The Cutter? Obviously, Kikuchi throwing more four-seamers since early July means he’s altered the frequency of other pitches. Although there have been more changeups and fewer sliders lately, the most dramatic development has been cut-fastball usage – a 13.8% decline since July 7. As with the drop in fastball velocity, the sudden aversion to the cut fastball is unclear to this dopey blogger. That said, a review of Kikuchi’s stats underscores the important result his cutter often produces – ground balls. This season, the league is hitting .239 and slugging .264 on ground balls. Kikuchi’s success with grounders is even better – .179 AVG and .200 SLG. As you probably expected by now, his ground ball rate has waxed and waned throughout the season. This is where Kikuchi’s cut-fastball re-enters the picture. His cutter has been a ground ball generator since he first debuted the pitch last season. In fact, it had the highest ground ball rate of any cutter thrown at least 100 times in 2020. Highest Cutter Ground Ball Rate (2020):Yusei Kikuchi – 29.1%Josh Tomlin – 28.8%Nathan Eovaldi – 25%Yu Darvish – 19.8%Corbin Burnes – 17.6% This season, Kikuchi’s 27% cut-fastball ground ball rate is second best in the majors behind Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes. Unfortunately, Kikuchi’s cutter has been generating fewer grounders lately. While Kikuchi’s 21.1% ground ball rate off the cutter ranks second-best among peers, the 10% reduction from April-June is counterproductive. Especially when you consider opponents are hitting just .148 on cutter-generated grounders during the Japanese hurler’s recent struggles. Something else to consider regarding the Kikuchi cutter/ground ball dynamic. His teammates have his back when hitters put the ball on the ground. Seattle defenders have produced 10 outs above average (OAA) when Kikuchi is on the mound. That’s ties him for the second highest OOA accrued behind any pitcher with Houston’s Framber Valdez. Only Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals (20 OOA) can boast better support from his defense. Again, I can’t tell Kikuchi (or any human) how to improve their four-seam fastball velocity. Nor do I have the knowledge or standing to suggest he simply throw more cutters. But it’s obvious that the success of these two pitches are vital to the lefty’s repertoire and overall productivity. Falling Spin Rate Since it’s the year of sticky stuff, we have to discuss spin rate. Especially after Kikuchi’s name appeared in a New York Times article last month discussing individuals with the greatest drop in spin rate since the MLB-mandated inspections of pitchers for foreign substances during games. The Times piece focused on fastball spin. However, I compiled a table illustrating Kikuchi’s monthly average spin rate for each weapon in his arsenal. There was a decline of at least 200 RPM for each pitch with the change-up (-414 RPM) decreasing most since April. To be clear, I’m not suggesting Kikuchi’s higher spin rates were the result of applying foreign substances to baseballs. After all, the MLB sticky stuff crackdown began on June 15. He had a 1.37 ERA and held hitters to a .167 AVG in his next three starts after rule enforcement began in earnest. Moreover, his three opponents were postseason contenders – the White Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays. It’s also worth noting Kikuchi did see some variance in average spin rates in 2019. The deltas weren’t nearly as extreme as this year. Additionally, his change-up actually gained spin during his rookie season. Is there any relevant correlation between Kikuchi’s declining spin rates in 2019 and 2021? I’m not sure. But I wanted to provide the data for your consumption. Give Me A Break? The Mariners began the season with a six-man rotation and continued the practice until late-June. Naturally, I’ve wondered whether the change to a five-man rotation had a negative effect on Kikuchi. It’s one of those questions a nerd like me won’t be able to answer. But we can at least see what the numbers tell us. I grappled with how to best display the differences between the five- and six-man rotations and finally settled on comparing the average days of rest between starts. Please note, the early-season numbers for Tyler Anderson reflect his time with the Pirates. The second column illustrates his stint with Seattle. Clearly, Kikuchi and his rotation-mates are all working on less rest. Has the change affected anyone in a positive or negative manner? Hard to tell. Marco Gonzales has rallied in a big way since a forgettable first-half. Chris Flexen has continued to remain his consistent self. Meanwhile, Logan Gilbert and Kikuchi have each experienced a rough July and August. Is there any proof of a correlation between the change in rest days and their recent skids? Nothing definitive. We know Gonzales prefers the five-man rotation. He’s made that abundantly clear in the past. Yes, Gilbert has been struggling more recently. But he’s a rookie. Therefore, his difficulties may be nothing more than growing pains. And what about Kikuchi? The effect of shifting to a five-man rotation on Kikuchi is something the Mariners are far more equipped to address than someone writing a blog. Having said that, he’s never delivered consistently good results as a member of a five-man rotation since joining the team. Seattle used a five-man rotation during Kikuchi’s rough rookie season in 2019. Last year, advanced metrics suggested he was performing better than many believed, but the team used six starters. This season, Kikuchi was at his best during the period the Mariners used a six-man rotation. Catchers Didn’t Matter I quickly explored whether Kikuchi performances varied noticeably with different catchers. Since encountering his recent troubles, two players have served as battery-mates – Tom Murphy and rookie Cal Raleigh. Results-wise, there isn’t a glaring difference between Kikuchi’s stats whether Murphy or Raleigh is catching. Yes, there’s been a higher rate of walks and fewer strikeouts with Murphy behind the plate. Nevertheless, overall production numbers have been bad regardless of backstop. What Next? Perhaps Kikuchi begins leaning more heavily on his cutter again. He did just that with 50.8% cutter utilization and 40% ground ball rates in his August 26 start. Maybe the third-year major-leaguer cracks the code on his reduced fastball velocity. If these things were to happen, the Mariners would have a far better shot at reaching the postseason this year. If Kikuchi doesn’t get back on track, Seattle’s decision regarding the four-year option the club holds on his contract becomes academic. Justifying a long-term commitment would be difficult. Yes, Kikuchi does have value. But his 2021 stats are average-ish, at best. Teams typically don’t commit four-years and $66 million to a 30-something with these kind of numbers and a history of inconsistency. Having said all that, Kikuchi still has an opportunity to rebound, deliver All-Star level results, and help his team vie for the postseason. But time is running out for both the player and the Mariners. If Kikuchi can make a positive and long-lasting impact beginning with his next start, it’s possible the 2021 season can be salvaged for the Mariners, the team’s fans, and ultimately Kikuchi. Otherwise, his days may be numbered in the Emerald City. That would be unfortunate. My Oh My…Go!

It’s been a tumultuous week for the Seattle Mariners and GM Jerry Dipoto. After Seattle overcame an early 7-0 deficit in thrilling fashion to defeat the division-leading Houston Astros on Monday, Dipoto dealt closer Kendall Graveman to those same Astros the following day. In the deal’s aftermath, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish reported the clubhouse wasn’t happy with the front office. Neither was a fan base energized by the scrappy Mariners having the third best record (32-21) in the AL since May 27. Afterwards, Dipoto acknowledged the impact of dealing Graveman could have on team chemistry. But the sixth-year GM suggested to beat writer Daniel Kramer that subsequent moves during the week would add context to the Graveman trade. “It probably doesn’t [make sense] as a standalone, but it’s part of a context that I believe is going to be an ongoing story over the next couple of days,” – GM Jerry Dipoto With the MLB trade deadline now behind us, let’s consider whether Dipoto actually improved his team. Did his words ring true when the dust settled? The best place to begin our conversation is the area that had the most urgent need – starting pitching. Rotation Trading for at least one starter was necessary for the Mariners to have any chance of reaching the postseason. The lone rotation arm added was veteran Tyler Anderson, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for minor-leaguers Carter Bins and Joaquin Tejada. The 31-year-old is a free agent after the season. Anderson isn’t a marquee name and his average-ish numbers may not wow Mariners fans. But the Nevada native represents an upgrade to a starting staff ranking in the bottom-third of the majors in multiple categories despite good seasons from Yusei Kikuchi, Chris Flexen, and rookie Logan Gilbert. Anderson has been relatively successful at remaining in games this year, which has been a problem for the backend of Seattle’s rotation. He’s completed the fifth inning in all of his 18 starts and has tossed six-plus frames in eight outings. Overall, the former Oregon Duck is averaging 5.7 innings/start with seven quality starts. To date, only Kikuchi (6.1 innings/start, 12 quality starts) and Flexen (5.7 IP/start, 9 QS) have been more dependable than Anderson this season. The left-hander has certainly delivered positive results more consistently than young starters Justin Dunn (4.6 IP/start, zero QS) and Justus Sheffield (4.7 IP/start, 3 QS) did before they succumbed to injury. Although Anderson’s production is bound to help the embattled Mariners rotation, one aspect of his game worth monitoring is his dramatic platoon splits this season. Right-handed hitting opponents have a .805 OPS against the southpaw compared to .484 with lefty bats in the box. The addition of Anderson could potentially permit the Mariners to use a six-man rotation when either Dunn or Sheffield becomes available. Then again, the team could use one or both pitchers out of the bullpen or send them to the minors. Current RotationYusei KikuchiChris FlexenLogan GilbertMarco GonzalesTyler Anderson It’s worth noting the Mariners signed right-hander Asher Wojciechowski to a minor-league contract this week. Wojciechowski will serve as depth and another emergency option for the team. The 32-year-old currently isn’t on Seattle’s 40-man roster. Other potential rotation optionsDarren McCaughan (AAA)Robert Dugger (AAA)Asher Wojciechowski (AAA)Justin Dunn (IL)Justus Sheffield (IL) Having Anderson should also help the Mariners avoid using a spot starter or have a bullpen day. The team has a 2-8 record in games not started by core rotation arms or their replacements. Bullpen Dipoto shook up his bullpen in a big way by trading Graveman and fellow reliever Rafael Montero to Houston. In return, Seattle received infielder Abraham Toro and veteran relief arm Joe Smith. From a performance aspect, Graveman was a formidable late-inning arm. That said, his availability seemed spotty at times. This is likely due to a benign bone tumor on his cervical spine. With Seattle, the 30-year-old pitched with zero or one day of rest 11 times this season, which was 37% of his 30 appearances. Compared to recognizable, that’s a relatively low frequency. Percent of Appearances By Closers on 0-1 Day RestMark Melancon – 55%Josh Hader – 55%Aroldis Chapman – 51%Liam Hendriks – 50%Craig Kimbrel – 49%Edwin Díaz – 49%Kendall Graveman – 37% Personally, I’m in awe of Graveman’s resolve to gut through a spinal tumor that’s probably difficult to manage from a pain/discomfort aspect. Still, there’s a value to being available that can’t be overlooked when discussing a reliever’s importance to a bullpen. The 37-year-old Smith is a pending free agent with a reputation for being a clubhouse leader, which is plus. Moreover, the 14-year-veteran has postseason experience from tours with Cleveland and Houston. That’s a qualification few Seattle pitchers possess. It’ll be interesting to see how manager Scott Servais employs Smith, who opted out of 2020 due to COVID-19. The side-armer was struggling with Houston with opponents batting .376 against him. That said, his .320 xwOBA, which is near league-average, suggests the potential for better results. Furthermore, his 3.8% walk rate is top-10 among relievers with 20-plus innings this season. Still, Smith’s 16% strikeout rate is down over six points compared to 2019 and bottom-20 among relievers. Another troubling indicator – a 26.8% line drive rate that’s eight points higher than his previous campaign. It’s also important to note that the Wright State alum missed most of June due to right elbow discomfort. The second bullpen piece Dipoto added was Tampa Bay Rays closer Diego Castillo in exchange for reliever JT Chargois and minor-leaguer Austin Shenton. In Castillo, the Mariners get a power arm capable of replacing Graveman. Across the board, the 27-year-old is putting up premium numbers. This year, Castillo has demonstrated noticeable improvement in preventing free passes. The right-hander’s 6.9% walk rate is significantly lower than his 12.4% mark from last season. On the availability front, 46% of his 37 appearances have come on zero or one day of rest. Overall, Graveman and Castillo have been similar this year. But there are two notable differences for me. The availability piece I’ve been harping on. Plus, Graveman is a pending free agent. Castillo remains under club control through the 2024 season. This matters to a fringe contender intent on becoming a sustainable winner. Castillo also possess something that hopefully matters to the Mariners at some point – experience on baseball’s brightest stage. The Dominican has logged 14 appearances and 16.1 innings in postseason games since 2019, including last year’s World Series. How Servais uses Castillo remains to be seen. Sometimes, using the best bullpen arm in the eighth inning against the teeth of an opponent’s lineup is the best move. That said, I envision Castillo closing games most often with Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider serving as alternates. Other high-leverage arms include Erik Swanson, Casey Sadler, and Anthony Misiewicz. It’s important to note that reliever Héctor Santiago received an 80-game suspension for PED use this week. The 10-year veteran was putting together a very nice season for Seattle after not pitching in the majors in 2020. His ability to throw multiple innings will be missed. Lineup For the Mariners, getting Toro was the key to the Graveman deal. As late as 2019, the 24-year-old was a top-5 prospect in Houston’s system. But over the last half-decade, young infielders in the Astros organization have been blocked by All-Stars or established players. Toro has primarily been a third baseman, although he has experience at first and second base and has even made 15 minor-league starts as a catcher. During brief auditions with the Astros since 2019, the switch-hitter had a .193/.276/.350 slash-line with a 69 OPS+ in 308 plate appearances. Overall, he’s been more productive from the left side of the plate with a .677 OPS compared to .528 as a right-handed hitter. It’s likely Toro spends most of his time at second base this season. Perhaps the native of Longueuil, Canada , who is under club control through 2025, eventually replaces veteran Kyle Seager. That’s assuming the team doesn’t exercise its 2022 option on Seager. If the former North Carolina Tar Heel stays, Toro could potentially remain at second base. On the surface, adding Toro appears more about his new team’s long-term plans than this season. Still, it’s important to not discount his potential value to the Mainers’ lineup in 2021. Seattle’s second base production ranks near the bottom of the majors in multiple categories. It’s possible he changes that for the better. Stats & MLB Rank of Seattle’s Second Baseman 28.9 SO% (28th) 7.5 BB% (17th) .209 AVG (29th) .275 OBP (29th) .362 SLG (24th) .279 wOBA (28th) .277 xwOBA (29th) 79 wRC+ (28th) I’m not proclaiming Toro as a savior for the Mariners’ offensive challenges at second base. However, he does have a .219/.297/.439 triple-slash with a 105 wRC+ and a 16.4% strikeout rate this season. Not eye-popping numbers, but better than what the team has received from the second base position in 2021. Well? Are the Mariners a better team since Dipoto made his statement on Monday? Yes. But the improvement is relatively small and nowhere near what many fans and some media members were expecting. Overall, the rotation is better with Anderson. Whether his arrival is a difference-maker is debatable. Still, if his presence can help prevent early blowout deficits caused by other starters or bullpen days, that’s value added. Castillo essentially replaces Graveman at the back of the bullpen. But time will tell how other bullpen moves affect the Mariners’ season. Will the advanced metrics prove true with Smith rebounding in the second half or will he be a liability? How does the team replace Chargois and Santiago? In the long run, Toro likely becomes the best addition made before the deadline. Later in the week, Dipoto told Danny and Gallant of 710 ESPN Seattle that Toro is yet another 20-something blocked from playing time in another organization only to be snatched up by the Mariners. So far, this strategy has resulted in the arrival of Mitch Haniger,  J.P. Crawford, Ty France, and Luis Torrens. Maybe the Canadian is Dipoto’s next success story. Essentially, the Mariners made incremental improvements by being buyers and sellers prior to the deadline. This won’t sit well with a segment of fans wanting the team to be aggressive at the deadline. But what was the alternative? Go all in and pay a premium in prospect equity for recognizable rental players? That would be tantamount to front office malpractice. Perhaps it’s been lost in the club’s messaging, but the 2021 season was always about the Mariners assessing and developing young players. Dipoto and his staff were never going to waver from their established plan. Moving forward, the key to making Seattle a legitimate contender will be the organization’s spending posture this offseason. That’s right. It’s time for Mariners ownership to step up. Otherwise, we’ll be talking about the front office making a few interesting acquisitions 12 months from now that aren’t designed to put the club over the top. My Oh My…Go!