Sticky

This year was going to be different for Seattle Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi. At least that’s what we thought heading into the regular season. Revamped mechanics, increased fastball velocity, and a new pitch fueled expectations he’d rebound from a frustrating rookie season. Instead, Kikuchi remained an enigma.

Why Kikuchi continued to be a mystery after two MLB campaigns is perplexing. Before arriving in the Emerald City, the talented 29-year-old performed well during eight seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). That said, past successes are irrelevant at this point. How he performs in 2021 will determine his long-term future with Seattle. You see, an expensive decision awaits Kikuchi and the Mariners after next season.

Money Matters

Kikuchi, who receives $16.5 million next year, has a unique set of contract clauses. Per Baseball Prospectus, the Mariners must determine within three days after the 2021 World Series whether to exercise their option on Kikuchi. Normally, options cover one year. However, his includes four years through the 2025 season. It’s a take it or leave it deal for the team – nothing or all four years valued at $66 million.

But there’s more.

If Seattle declines its option, Kikuchi has until five days after the Fall Classic to exercise a player option for 2022 paying him $14.5 million dollars. If both parties decline their respective options, he becomes a free agent.

With so much resting on how Kikuchi performs next year, let’s dig into his 2020 stats and attempt to determine why such a talented arm under-performed expectations for a second consecutive season.

Strides Were Made, But…

It’s not as if Kikuchi’s numbers were horrible. Other than ERA and walk rate, his stat line actually showed considerable improvement.

Encouraging numbers aside, anyone watching Kikuchi’s nine starts know they were an assortment of underwhelming outings with a few strong performances mixed in. After a difficult season debut, he rebounded with a 6-inning, 9-strikeout outing. Then came his next two starts – a combined 10.1 innings, nine earned runs, eight strikeouts, and five walks.

Hence, the term “enigma.”

At this point, fan frustration with Kikuchi is understandable. Some may see a 5-plus ERA for a second consecutive season and wonder how such an inconsistent performer became the second highest paid Mariner behind Kyle Seager and the most expensive free agent signing during the 5-year tenure of GM Jerry Dipoto.

Difficulties With RISP

Kikuchi’s splits indicate a significant reduction in positive outcomes with men on base (MOB). More specifically, runners in scoring position (RISP). It’s worth noting avoiding damage with RISP is problematic for any pitcher. The MLB-average ERA for this situation was 12.22. Still, Kikuchi’s 22.41 ERA was the highest among 87 pitchers facing at least 45 hitters with RISP.

Obviously, Kikuchi’s dreadful numbers with RISP are worth exploring, particularly when you consider those 47 plate appearances represented 22.6-percent of the total batters he faced in 2020. However, assessing him solely with conventional stats, like ERA, would be unwise.

His High ERA Is Deceptive

ERA isn’t an ideal measurement of a pitcher’s performance or talent since defense and ultimately the official scorekeeper can affect it in a good or bad way. Let’s review a pair of instances when questionable glove work and scorekeeping negatively affected Kikuchi’s ERA.

The first play in the following video is a ball put in play by Houston’s Alex Bregman, which drove in José Altuve from first base. Bregman received credit for a double and an RBI, although left fielder Tim Lopes probably should’ve caught the ball for the third out of the inning.

After the Bregman double, we see another questionable two-bagger leading to an earned run. This time, Arizona’s Eduardo Escobar hits a fly ball with an 82.3-MPH exit velocity to Mariners right fielder Phillip Ervin, who misplays it allowing Josh Rojas to advance from second to third base with Escobar taking second base. Next, notorious Mariners killer Kole Calhoun drives in Rojas with a sacrifice fly increasing Kikuchi’s ERA.

The play sequence in Arizona was particularly disappointing. Kikuchi induced poor contact, which is normally a good thing. But the results were unfavorable.

Expected Stats Looked Better

Considering the misleading nature of ERA, let’s use an expected stat to assess Kikuchi. These advanced metrics tell us what should’ve happened to batted balls based on exit velocity and launch angle. More importantly, they remove the influence of defense (good or bad) and the scorekeeper from the equation.

For example, the expected batting average (xAVG) of Bregman’s batted ball was .200 – Escobar’s was even lower (.020). Yet, the box score says both players hit a double that improved their AVG, OBP, SLG, and wOBA.

Okay, let’s compare Kikuchi’s wOBA to his expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). Doing so may help us better understand his difficulties with RISP.

As expected, Kikuchi’s wOBA with RISP was dreadful. But take a look at his xwOBA, which remained stable regardless of base runner situation.

The large positive delta between Kikuchi’s wOBA and xwOBA signals he didn’t fare as well as anticipated. In fact, his wOBA-xwOBA difference with RISP was one of the largest in the majors in 2020. Only Adrian Houser (.114) of the Brewers and Rick Porcello (.096) of the Mets were ahead of Kikuchi.

Note: Unless otherwise stated, comps refer to the 96 pitchers throwing 750-plus pitches as a starter in 2020.

Bad Luck?

Before discussing Kikuchi further, let’s quickly cover Statcast’s six categories of contact quality. Three favor hitters: Barrels, Solid Contact, and Flares/Burners. Pitchers prefer the others, which are types of poor contact: Weak, Under, and Topped.

Barrels are the most lethal batted balls. They generally have an exit velocity of at least 98-MPH and a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. The vast majority of home runs are barrels.

Solid contact just misses the launch angle/exit velocity range of barrels, but produces excellent results also. Just over 12-percent of homers hit in 2020 were off solid contact.

The last favorable category for hitters – flares and burners – occurs when the hitter misses the launch angle or exit velocity necessary for barrels or solid contact. Nevertheless, hitters reach base at a high rate on flares/burners.

Statcast defines “weak” contact as balls with an exit velocity under 60-MPH. “Topped” balls typically lead to unproductive grounders. Balls hit “under” create fly balls with predominantly poor results, although 132 home runs fell into this category this year.

Now, let’s apply this knowledge to Kikuchi.

A review of opponents’ success with RISP when facing Kikuchi reveals his numbers resemble MLB norms with the exception of two types of poor contact – Under and Topped. The following compares his combined stats for these two categories to MLB averages.

Despite inducing significantly more poor contact than the MLB norm, Kikuchi’s wOBA was dramatically higher. Only Oakland’s Sean Manaea (.168) had a higher wOBA-xwOBA delta.

Kikuchi’s high .323 wOBA on poor contact feels like bad luck that would’ve normalized over a full season. For evidence, consider 2019. The highest wOBA with RISP among pitchers throwing 2,000-plus pitches last year was Jorge López (.227). And Kikuchi? He had a .165 wOBA.

I’m not suggesting Kikuchi’s uneven 2020 is simply a byproduct of misfortune. However, it’s reasonable to expect he would’ve enjoyed much more success on poor contact over the span of a normal 162-game season. Having said that, there is another factor worthy of scrutiny when he’s facing RISP – free passes.

He Didn’t Always Attack The Zone

Kikuchi’s 17-percent walk rate with RISP was fifth highest in the majors behind Cincinnati’s Sonny Gray (20.8), Pittsburgh’s J.T. Brubaker (20.5) and Chad Kuhl (17.1), and San Francisco’s Johnny Cueto (17.7). Since this is much higher than Kikuchi’s 10.3-percent walk rate for the season, I examined his willingness to throw strikes depending on baserunner situations.

The following provides the percentage of pitches Kikuchi threw within Statcast’s Game Day (GD) strike zone during the situations we’ve been discussing. It’s important to remember pitches within the GD strike zone are occasionally balls. Why? Umpiring, catcher framing, and ahem…umpiring.

This year, 29 starters threw at least 50-percent of their total pitches within the GD zone – Kikuchi was one of them. So were fellow Mariners Marco Gonzales (53.7) and Justus Sheffield (50) and former teammate Taijuan Walker. Other notable names in this group: Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Julio Urías, Kyle Hendricks, Tyler Glasnow, Lance Lynn, Dinelson Lamet, Luis Castillo, and Lucas Giolito. All are good pitchers.

With a runner on first base only, Kikuchi seemed particularly aggressive. Only Urías (69.2-percent) threw strikes more often than Kikuchi did (63.3). With RISP, over half (17) of our group remained at at-or-above 50-percent. Conversely, Kikuchi’s 43-percent strike rate was the lowest.

Not every pitcher must throw a high percentage of their pitches in the zone to succeed. AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber threw just 40.5-percent of his pitches within the GD zone, which ranked last in our original group of 96. Still, Kikuchi threw over half of his pitches in the strike zone in all situations except with RISP. Unless avoiding the strike zone was by design, this seems relevant.

Strike One Was Elusive

A potential area Kikuchi may need to address next season is throwing strike one. The first pitch to 49.5-percent of the 194 batters he faced this year was a ball. Among 133 starters facing at least 150 hitters, only rookies Cristian Javier (53.3) of Houston and Kris Bubic (52.0) of the Royals offered a 0-0 ball at a higher rate than Kikuchi. For context, Gonzales was best on the Mariners with 35-percent.

But there’s more.

It turns out Kikuchi threw a ball during 45.3-percent of all no-strike counts (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0), which was highest in the majors. Not a preferred result considering pitchers are generally more successful when ahead in the count.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact. Eight of the 20 walks Kikuchi issued this year happened with RISP – half of them on a 3-0 count with RISP. For the season, he surrendered six total walks on a 3-0 count. Yes, it’s a small sample size. However, losing a hitter on a 3-0 count six times in nine games seems excessive. It turns out it was. Last year, he allowed five walks on a 3-0 count in 32 starts.

Fastball Command Was Sketchy

Every pitcher throws “waste” pitches, offerings well outside the strike zone. Some pitchers produce multiple swings and misses on wasted pitches – not Kikuchi. He induced just one swing and miss from 69 wasted pitches.

The vast majority (68.1-percent) of Kikuchi’s wasted pitches fell into Statcast’s “fastball” category – the four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cut fastball, and sinker. That’s the highest rate among 123 starters throwing 50-plus waste pitches. This sketchy fastball command was apparent during the no-strike counts we just discussed.

It turns out 24.6-percent of Kikuchi’s wasted pitches were four-seamers thrown during no-strike counts. That’s the second highest rate recorded by any starter other than 22-year-old Cardinals rookie Johan Oviedo (33.3-percent). This seems suboptimal.

Austin Nola Seemed To Help

We know a catcher’s framing skills influence ball and strike calls. Moreover, their blocking ability factors into a pitcher’s willingness to throw pitches likely to break into the dirt, especially with a runner on third base. With this in mind, I wanted to see whether Kikuchi performed differently based on the receiver behind the plate.

It appears Kikuchi performed best with Austin Nola. The former LSU Tiger caught three of the lefty’s first five starts in 2020 before the Mariners traded him to the Padres in late August. Kikuchi’s walk and strikeout rates were noticeably better with Nola behind the plate compared to Seattle’s other three backstops this year – Luis Torrens, Joseph Odom, and Joe Hudson.

Still, Kikuchi’s xwOBA was good when Torrens was his battery-mate. With Odom, he was just below league-average, which isn’t bad. Hudson caught him just once, so let’s just set that outing aside.

Is it possible Kikuchi was more comfortable with Nola as his catcher? Sure, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact 2020 was a small nine-start sample. He was fine with Torrens with the exception of the change in walk and strikeout rates. Perhaps a full Spring Training of the duo working together elevates their success as a battery.

Finally

If Dipoto is serious about the Mariners contending next season, the team will need a consistently effective Yusei Kikuchi. After all, the team probably won’t acquire premium starting pitching this offseason. Moreover, expecting one of the organization’s talented young arms to step into such a crucial role, as a rookie, would be a bridge too far.

Assuming Kikuchi’s 2021 results more closely resemble his 2020 expected stats, he can elevate Seattle’s rotation. Imagine an effective and productive top-3 consisting of Gonzales, Sheffield, and Kikuchi. They would be a formidable match for AL West rivals.

Kikuchi has the talent to make such a scenario reality. Better success on poor contact is inevitable. However, he’ll need to throw more first-pitch strikes, improve his fastball command, and remain aggressive in the strike zone with RISP. All he has to do is execute – easier said than done.

If Kikuchi improves on these elements, the Mariners’ decision on his contract becomes far more complex. Dipoto would probably say he’d prefer that kind of tough call. Then again, another season of inconsistency from the enigmatic southpaw makes the team’s choice a no-brainer.

My Oh My……

Whether it’s conventional stats or advanced metrics, numbers matter in baseball. For this reason, I cherry-picked a few Seattle Mariners stats to discuss.

The numbers you’ll see won’t paint a complete picture, but they may help shape expectations for the Hot Stove season and the 2021 Mariners. At the very least, these stats should foster a conversation about baseball, which is always fun.


60

Regular season games played by all but two teams. Considering there’s an ongoing pandemic, that’s an impressive feat. I was highly skeptical about MLB pulling it off. But they did and I happily admit being wrong.

Something to consider when discussing 2020. The season was a small sample size and we should remember this moving forward. After all, a player’s or team’s stats from any 60-game span within a normal 162-game schedule may not be representative of the final product.


.428

The combined winning percentage of the Astros, Angels, and Rangers. Perhaps the underwhelming performances of Seattle’s division rivals compelled Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto to say he believes his team could compete for the postseason in 2021.


27-33

The Mariners’ record this year. The team struggled early going 8-19 through August 20 and appeared destined to contend for the number-one overall pick in the 2021 draft. Yet, manager Scott Servais and his squad rebounded with a 19-14 record afterwards.

It’s worth noting Seattle’s 2020 record closely resembles where the team stood through its first 60 games last year (25-35). That group enjoyed a torrid 13-2 start before plummeting to the AL West cellar.


10

The number of AL teams the Mariners didn’t face in 2020. Why does this matter? We don’t know how Seattle would’ve fared against some of the best teams in the league – the Rays, Yankees, Twins, Indians, and White Sox.

Sure, the Mariners would’ve played these clubs just 6-7 times each. But competing in a larger field would’ve provided us with a better sense for where the rebuilding team stands. This is especially pertinent considering Seattle played in arguably the weakest division in MLB.


22

Mariner rookies used in 2020. That’s more than any team with the Marlins (21), Cardinals (19), and Astros (19) trailing close behind. Unlike Seattle, those clubs reached the postseason.

Several of the names listed above, including Kyle Lewis, Justus Sheffield, and Justin Dunn, debuted before the 2020 season, but retained their rookie status heading into this year. The steady stream of rookies with more on the way in 2021 signals the youth movement is in overdrive.


26.6

While we’re talking youth, the average age of Mariner pitchers per Baseball Reference was 26.6-years-old tying the team with Detroit for youngest in the majors. The Nationals were oldest at 30.8 years. Seattle’s most youthful pitchers were in their age-23 seasons – rookies Ljay Newsome and Joey Gerber. The staff’s graybeard was 36-year-old Yoshihisa Hirano.

Mariner hitters also averaged 26.6 years, which was third lowest behind Toronto (25.9) and Baltimore (26.3). The youngest position players were in their age-24 season – Luis Torrens, Shed Long, Evan White, and likely AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis. At 32, Dee Strange-Gordon and Kyle Seager were the team’s senior citizens.


9

The Mariners’ ranking for total Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2020. An impressive jump for a club that was number-29 a year ago.

DRS captures a player’s overall defensive performance by accounting for various aspects of their game – errors, range, outfielder arm and home run stealing ability, middle-infielder double plays, plus catcher stolen base prevention, pitch framing, and blocking.

Seattle’s best defenders were first baseman Evan White and shortstop J.P. Crawford – both tallied seven DRS this season. White led all qualified MLB first basemen, while Crawford finished in a tie with Houston’s Carlos Correa for second place behind Dansby Swanson (9) of Atlanta.

Overall, things are looking up from a defensive standpoint. That said; 2021 will be a transition year for the club as it introduces new players and determines the best position for several versatile holdovers. Expect early growing pains, which is okay for a club looking to the future.


.308

The expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) of Seattle’s starting rotation, which was thirteenth best in MLB. We know xwOBA relies on quality of contact (launch angle and exit velocity) and strikeouts and walks. Good pitchers have a positive influence over these elements.

In the Mariners’ case, three starters who faced 150-plus batters had an xwOBA better than the league-average for starters (.314) – Yusei Kikuchi (.279), Marco Gonzales (.291), and Justus Sheffield (.303). Furthermore, Nick Margevicius (.301) fell short of our 150-hitter criteria by one plate appearance.

Obviously, there’s room for improvement. Kikuchi managed to lead in xwOBA, yet his 5.17 ERA was worst on the starting staff. This is particularly troubling considering the relatively solid defense behind him. Moreover, Dunn posted a more respectable 4.34 ERA, but his .356 xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent among MLB starters.

Despite these issues, the Mariners have established a foundation to build upon this offseason and in the future.


2.5

Since baseball integrated in 1947, only 10 pitchers qualifying for the ERA title have recorded a lower walk rate than Gonzales’ 2.5-percent this year. The lowest was Carlos Silva at 1.2-percent with the 2005 Twins.

It’s worth noting Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs had the same walk rate as Marco. Neither pitcher throws hard, yet both manage to succeed in an era when throwing over 95-MPH is commonplace.


208.2

Innings pitched by Seattle’s left-handed starting pitchers – tops in the majors with Oakland (123.2) a distant second. The main southpaw starters were Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheffield, and Margevicius with Nestor Cortes Jr. making a 0.1 inning special guest appearance.


6

The number of pitchers in the Mariners’ 2020 rotation and most likely next year’s too. Although a 6-man rotation mitigates workload, it comes at a competitive cost. Over a full 162-game schedule, the best pitchers on a 6-man staff will start 5-6 fewer games than a 5-man crew.

Can the Mariners contend with less of Gonzales and Sheffield in 2021?


.332

The rotation was a good news story, but the bullpen was not. Seattle relievers collectively had a .332 xwOBA. Only three teams were worse – the Phillies (.347), Marlins (.349), and Rockies (.355).

Although the bullpen ranked poorly, several relievers managers to stand out. Rookie Anthony Misiewicz made his mark with a .278 xwOBA and should figure prominently with the Mariners next year.

Rule 5 draft pick Yohan Ramírez recorded a .305 xwOBA despite inconsistent command and control. Opponents hit .130 against Ramírez – fourth lowest in the majors. However, his MLB-worst 21.3-percent walk rate produced a .351 OBP that ranked 264 of 323 big-league pitchers.

The bullpen did improve with a .316 xwOBA in September. Waiver-claim Casey Sadler (.247) performed well as did freshman Joey Gerber (.318) and Kendall Graveman (.310).

Graveman began the season in the rotation until a benign bone tumor in his neck prompted a bullpen role. How he fits into Seattle’s future plans is unclear. There’s a $3.5 million club option for 2021, but that may be too pricey considering the 29-year-old’s recent injury history and unproven record as a reliever.

Regardless of the outcome of Graveman’s situation, the bullpen needs an influx of dynamic arms. Especially if Dipoto is serious about contending for a postseason berth.


91

The Mariners’ On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) this year.

OPS+ normalizes On-base Plus Slugging percentage by accounting for factors such as league, ballpark, and era. League-average is always 100. Therefore, a player or team with a 120 OPS+ is 20-percent above average.

In Seattle’s case, a 91 OPS+ tells us the offense was nine-percent below average. It also ranked twentieth in the majors.

Historically, the Mariners have posted a lower OPS+ just nine times in 44 seasons. If you prefer conventional numbers, the team’s .226 batting average was its lowest ever. Furthermore, their OBP and SLG were among the 10 lowest in franchise history.

The current Mariners had just three players with 150-plus plate appearances with the team and an OPS+ over 100 – Dylan Moore (139), Lewis (126), and Seager (122). Only seven teams had fewer than three.

Note: Ty France had a combined 133 OPS+ with the Mariners and Padres. The player France was traded for – Austin Nola – had a 152 OPS with Seattle.


60 (Again)

Only four clubs hit fewer home runs than the Mariners’ 60 dingers this year. It’s worth noting the top eight clubs in home runs reached the postseason.

To be clear, it’s possible to play October baseball without hitting a ton of home runs. Cleveland and St. Louis ranked behind the Mariners, yet those clubs reached the playoffs. Still, teams hitting the most home runs in postseason games this year have emerged victorious nearly every time.


50

Stolen bases by the Mariners this year. Only the Padres (55) and Marlins (51) swiped more bags. Seattle’s stolen base tally actually exceeded the team’s totals during 112 games in 1994 and a full 162-game slate in 2013. Moore led the team with 12 swiped bags tying him for fourth most in the majors.


18.6

Yeah, this one is irrelevant, although it seemed fun. The average home run trot time for Sam Haggerty was 18.6 seconds.

Yes, Haggerty had just one dinger. But only Andrew Stevenson (17.3 seconds) of the Nationals and Brandon Nimmo (17.8 seconds) of the Mets were faster than the former New Mexico Lobo. At 28 seconds, Baltimore’s Pedro Severino had the slowest trot in MLB.


3

Current Mariners with guaranteed contracts for the 2021 season – Seager ($18.5 million), Kikuchi ($17 million), and Gonzales ($5.25 million). Two others have club options, but Seattle may choose to move on. Graveman and Strange-Gordon.

Why does this matter? The Mariners will have the financial flexibility to add talent, if management decides to do so this offseason. Publicly, Dipoto seems inclined to continue evaluating his cadre of youngsters and hold off on adding premium talent for now.


95

The MLB Pipeline ranking of George Kirby – the final prospect in the Mariners organization to appear on the outlet’s Top-100 list. Joining Kirby are Seattle prospects Jarred Kelenic (9), Julio Rodriguez (15), Emerson Hancock (30), Logan Gilbert (35), and Taylor Trammell (51).

Having so many top prospects is certainly a good thing for the Mariners. But becoming a sustainable winner will inevitably require help from outside the organization. Perhaps Dipoto inevitably trades some of these notable names to add reinforcements.


19

That brings us to our final entry. Yeah, you know what this signifies. It’s the number of years the Mariners have gone without a postseason appearance. This one needs to go away, right?

Yes, of course it does.…

Throughout this topsy-turvy season, there were encouraging signs for the rebuilding Seattle Mariners. Sure, the Mariners didn’t snap their 19-year postseason drought, a disappointing reality considering half the league earned a playoff spot. But playing October baseball was never the goal for 2020.

Instead, Mariners management opted to sacrifice “the now” to build a sustainable contender – something Pacific Northwest baseball fans haven’t witnessed this century.

So what were those encouraging signs? Some were obvious, others more subtle.

Productive First Rounders

For two-plus decades, the Mariners were underachievers when it came to drafting and developing prospects. Prior to the arrival of GM Jerry Dipoto, the team was particularly inept in the first round. The most prominent first rounders selected by Seattle this century were Adam Jones and Taijuan Walker – that’s it. Now though, the organization appears to have a cohesive scouting and development strategy.

For proof, look no further than the first player drafted during the Dipoto era – Kyle Lewis. Not only did the Mariners shrewdly select Lewis with the eleventh overall pick in 2016, the team helped him recover from a devastating knee injury suffered the same year. Now, the Mercer alum is the front-runner for this 2020 AL Rookie of the Year.

Yes, Lewis deserves all the credit for having the tireless work ethic and steadfast perseverance needed to overcome a potentially career-altering setback. But his ascent to the head of the 2020 rookie class with Seattle may not have been possible under previous regimes.

Lewis isn’t the only first rounder making his presence known. Evan White appears to be the long-term answer at first base – a position long devoid of value for the Mariners. Yes, White must improve his hitting. But after leading all first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), we know his Gold Glove caliber defense is for real.

The next impact first rounder on the horizon is Logan Gilbert. If it weren’t for the pandemic, Gilbert probably joins the Mariners in 2020. Perhaps the club delays the 23-year-old’s MLB debut at the onset of next season. But barring unforeseen circumstance, he’ll be be part of the rotation by the All-Star break.

Marco Was Marco

Once again, Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales was the anchor of the Mariners’ fledgling rotation. The left-hander’s numbers weren’t sexy. But the former Gonzaga Bulldog continued to improve, as he did in 2019.

Marco’s 2019 and 2020 Production

More importantly, Gonzales emerged as a team leader – particularly within the pitching staff. During in-game interviews on team broadcasts, young starters Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome routinely cited Marco’s methodical preparation and aggressive approach on the mound as characteristics to emulate.

Being an example for the kids is an intangible that won’t show up on the back of Gonzales’ baseball card. But this quality is invaluable to a club striving to build around front-line starting pitching.

Justus Was Served

Of all the young Mariners on this year’s roster, Sheffield’s growth was most impressive – at least it was to me. Sure, Lewis is the presumptive Rookie of the Year. But Sheffield demonstrated significant progress after a turbulent 2019.

Justus Sheffield’s 2020 Numbers

Even when Sheffield didn’t have his best stuff, he continued battling and usually delivered strong outings for manager Scott Servais. The “quality start” stat can be misleading due to its reliance on earned runs, but the Tennessee native making quality starts in six of 10 outings suggests he’s secured a spot in Seattle’s rotation of the future.

Defense As A Core Competency

One of the more memorable highlights from the Mariners’ 2020 season was Lewis making a catch reminiscent to one once made by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. That said; there are signs Seattle’s defense has improved far beyond one highlight reel catch.

The following table illustrates where Seattle’s combined DRS at each position ranked in MLB in each of the last two seasons. Highlighted in red are positions with significant improvement in 2020.

Mariners DRS Rankings 2019 v 2020

Whether it was an influx of new personnel or a greater emphasis on fundamentals, Mariner defenders played more cleanly in 2020 and the numbers agree.

We already noted White rates among the best defensive first baseman in baseball, as a rookie. Meanwhile J.P. Crawford finished the season ranked fourth at shortstop – a position deep with top-shelf defenders.

In center field, Lewis was mid-pack at another elite defensive position. It’s worth noting the 25-year-old spent more time playing corner outfield spots than center field with Class-AA Arkansas last year. In fact, his 56 starts/478.2 innings in center field with the Mariners in 2020 represents his highest season total of his professional career.

While there was an everyday center fielder, multiple players held down the corners. Dylan Moore and Braden Bishop delivered plus-defense. Other contributors included Dee Strange-Gordon, Jake Fraley, Shed Long, Tim Lopes, Jose Marmolejos, Phil Ervin, and Mallex Smith. Some were better than others, none were atrocious. That’s an important distinction from recent outfield rotations – athletic contributors with better defensive value.

Despite the good news, there remains room for improvement.

Although the third base defense of Kyle Seager often receives positive attention on the air and from fans, the metrics didn’t favor the former North Carolina Tar Heel’s work. His -6 DRS placed him near the bottom among third basemen. Still, Seager did rank sixth among his peers in 2019. Perhaps he rebounds next season.

Catcher ranked poorly, but that’s understandable. After Tom Murphy went down with a foot fracture in summer camp, the team spent the season cobbling together a backstop rotation with Austin Nola, Joe Odom, Joe Hudson, and Luis Torrens.

As of today, Murphy and Torrens project to be the Opening Day catching tandem with top prospect Cal Raleigh waiting in the wings. Murphy was a strong defender last season, while evaluators speak positively about the work of both Torrens and Raleigh behind the plate.

The M’s Are Good Bargain Shoppers

Dipoto and his crew have a knack for discovering players with value after other clubs discard them. Prior to the 2019 season, the Mariners signed Moore, a minor-league free agent, to a major-league contract. The 28-year-old struggled last season in a part-time role. However, he flourished this year when given the opportunity to play on an everyday basis at multiple positions.

Moore started games at every infield and outfield position in 2020 and led the team in stolen bases, OBP, SLG and OPS+. Perhaps the team chooses to find a permanent spot on the field for the University of Central Florida product, such as third or second base. Another option is to morph him into a Ben Zobrist type, a super-utility man with offensive upside.

Nola was another diamond in the rough discovered by the Mariners. Unlike Moore, the former LSU Tiger was an instant hit last season with 10 home runs and a .269/.342/.454 slash-line in 79 games. He too was flexible playing both corner infield spots, second base, and catcher during his rookie campaign.

This year, Nola was the Mariners’ primary catcher after Murphy went down. At least until Dipoto dealt the 30-year-old to the Padres in August for top-100 prospect Taylor Trammell, Ty France, Andrés Muñoz, and Torrens. Quite an impressive haul for a player with 108 games of MLB experience with Seattle.

Fans tend to focus on marquee acquisitions. However, Nola and Moore are examples of low-profile additions capable of helping a team trying to build a championship roster. Perhaps, this year’s less heralded pickups – Jose Marmolejos, Phillip Ervin, and Sam Haggerty – eventually deliver similar value for the Mariners either on the diamond or in the trade market.

A Willingness To Move On

Ever since taking over as GM of the Mariners in September 2015, Dipoto has repeatedly stated he’s willing to admit mistakes and turn the page when necessary. This year, he proved true to his word

Dipoto traded minor-leaguer Jordan Pries and Mike Montgomery to the Cubs to get Daniel Vogelbach and Paul Blackburn from the Cubs in a 2016 deadline deal. The Mariners hoped Vogelbach’s hit tool would make him a central figure in their lineup for years to come. But that never happened with the exception of a brief period last season. As a result, the team designated him for assignment before trading him to the Blue Jays in August.

After a breakout season with the Rays, Seattle picked up Mallex Smith along with Jake Fraley in exchange for Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor-leaguer Michael Plassmeyer from Tampa Bay. As with Vogelbach, Smith didn’t live up to expectations. The Mariners outrighted him to Class-AAA Tacoma in September.

Dipoto’s willingness to acknowledge mistakes is crucial for a club intent on integrating many youngsters into its 2021 roster. Some of these players may not work out, but we now know JeDi has the capacity to act appropriately.

That’s encouraging.

Management Stayed The Course

Dipoto and his organization stuck with the game plan with their leading prospects – Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic. Even when a whiff of the postseason was present in mid-September.

Sure, the Mariners could’ve called up both Gilbert and Kelenic in an attempt to end their postseason drought. Perhaps one or both players would’ve helped, but the team chose to be patient leaving the duo and the rest of the kids in Tacoma.

Management also avoided the temptation of switching to a five-man rotation down the home stretch. Doing so would’ve permitted the club’s best pitchers to make 1-2 extra starts and instantly increase the odds of overtaking the hapless Astros for second place in the AL West. Instead, the Mariners remained disciplined putting player development and health ahead of being the eighth best team in the AL.

Wait Til Next Year

We saw a lot of good things from young and new players, such as Sheffield, Moore, and White. But others teased us in short bursts with their talent and promise. Next year, we’ll seem more of them and that’s going to be fun.

Rule 5 pickup Yohan Ramirez struggled with his command and control at times, but his stuff is so tantalizingly good. Imagine Ramirez’s dynamic arsenal and the 100-mph velocity of new acquisition Andrés Muñoz becoming a lethal combo at the back-end of Seattle’s bullpen. Perhaps as soon as late next year.

We recently learned Long was dealing with an injured leg since March. Serious enough to undergo surgery after the season. This likely explains why the 25-year-old under-performed at the plate. It’ll be fun to see how a healthy Shed rebounds next year. I’m rooting for him.

There were several other 25-or-younger arms presenting flashes of promise – Nick Margevicius, Ljay Newsome, Anthony Misiewicz, and Joey Gerber. Their progress next season will be must-see also.

Although he didn’t play this year, we should take a moment to acknowledge Mitch Haniger. After being out since June 2019 due to injuries, Haniger projects to be healthy by next season. If that’s the case, he’ll be the regular right fielder.

Haniger will be entering his age-30 season in 2021 and a year from free agency. If he performs at his former All-Star level, Dipoto could deal him prior to next season’s trade deadline. By then, Trammell may be ready to take over.

Speaking of debuting prospects, Kelenic and Gilbert almost certainly join the Mariners. That’s assuming both players remain healthy and don’t set off red flags from a developmental standpoint. There’s also a chance we’ll see Raleigh and starters George Kirby and Emerson Hancock too.

Yes, a lot can change between now and next September. But how exciting is the notion of seeing all these youngsters next year?

Very exciting.

Time To Compete?

The truncated season and no minor-league baseball undoubtedly had a negative effective on the Mariners’ deep pool of prospects. That’s why it wouldn’t have been a surprise if management downplayed expectations for next year. But that’s not what happened. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports Dipoto believes his club could contend in 2021.

“I think we’re in a really nice position for ’21. “And our goal would be to go out there and contend for a playoff spot. And I don’t think that’s an unrealistic goal.” – Jerry Dipoto

Sounds like a lofty goal for a club finishing 2020 with a .450 winning percentage and a flawed roster. Then again, the encouraging signs we’ve discussed suggest there’s a chance the Mariners can be far better ball next year. Perhaps a few key veteran additions and a bunch of kids stepping up is all the team needs to do something special.

Yes, a lot has to go right for a club likely to enter next season with one of the youngest rosters in the big-leagues. Then again, there are so many encouraging signs suggesting it’s a doable do – especially in an AL West division hurtling towards a recession.

Wouldn’t it be apropos for the Mariners to end the longest postseason drought in professional sports on the 20-year anniversary of the team’s most successful season?

Seems like poetic justice to me.

My Oh My……

The 2020 Major League Baseball season didn’t go as any club planned, but from the perspective of the Seattle Mariners, all things considered, it went quite well.

Young players received valuable time and showed why they were worthy of it, the club continued to its collections of young, controllable talent, and the Mariners even won more games, 27, than just about anyone thought was a good bet when the season started in July.

With every season, long or short, comes superlatives. Here the best season-long performances in a handful of categories, courtesy Luke Arkins and Jason A. Churchill.

MVP

Churchill: Marco Gonzales, LHP
Gonzales wasn’t just a steady performer, he was consistently good in 2020 and raised the bar for the young arms pitching behind him in the rotation.

Gonzales went at least five innings in all but one start — the first one in which he went 4.1 at Houston — and pitched into the seventh six times in 11 starts.

Furthermore, Gonzales led baseball with a 2.5% walk rate and finished in the top 20 in BAA (.222) and FIP (3.32), and No. 26 in xFIP (4.13).

Arkins: Marco Gonzales, LHP

It’d be tough to say anyone else on the Mariners was more valuable than Gonzales was this season. A fun fact about Marco’s extremely low walk rate. It was the seventh lowest BB-rate recorded by a pitcher qualified for the ERA title since baseball integrated in 1947.


Rookie of the Year

Churchill: Kyle Lewis, CF
The easiest choice, since Lewis now is the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award in the American League.

But Lewis put together a very strong 60-game run, including average defense in center.

At the plate, his ability to use the whole field helped him maximize batted ball success and hide some of his zone deficiencies (top of the zone), but there’s a ton on which to build for 2021.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of Lewis’ season is the K-BB rate evening out by the 25-year-old cutting the whiffs some and increasing his bases on balls.

Very early in 2021 we’re likely to see an outfield alignment of Lewis in center, Jarred Kelenic in left and Mitch Haniger in right, with a Phillip Ervin-Jose Marmolejos timeshare filling the gap until Kelenic arrives.

Arkins: It’ll be a massive upset if Lewis isn’t AL Rookie of the Year. For this reason, he’s the obvious choice for this category. The logical alternative would be Justus Sheffield, who probably nets a few votes in ROY balloting.

Although Lewis didn’t project as the regular center fielder in March, he was the team’s starter and rated as an average-to-plus defender. Impressive considering the Mercer alum’s 56 starts in center field this year were a career-high as a professional. Barring unforeseen circumstances, K-Lew continues patrolling center field for the Mariners in 2021.


Reliever of the Year

Churchill: Anthony Misiewicz, LHR
Misiewicz led the team in appearances (21) and was second in relief innings (20.0). He was consistent all year, posting a 3.04 FIP, and 3.67 xFIP.

Opponents hit just .100 against his fastball (1-for-10), but his cutter and curveball underperformed considering the advanced data on both pitches.

The data, including high spin rates, suggest there’s more to come for Misiewicz in a continued middle-relief role in 2021.

Arkins: Casey Sadler, RHP

My first choice would’ve been Misiewicz, but I don’t want to parrot Jason in every category. Sadler performed well after the Mariners claimed him off waivers in early September. During the last month of the season, the 30-year-old tossed 10 innings leading Seattle relievers with 12 strikeouts and a .247 xwOBA.

Yes, Sadler’s month in Seattle was a micro-sample. But he’s a five-year veteran coming off a good 2019 campaign with the Rays and Dodgers. Perhaps the Oklahoman can help stabilize a 2021 bullpen likely to be chock full of young relievers – like Misiewicz.


Defensive Player of the Year

Churchill: J.P. Crawford, SS

I imagine many would vote quite a bit for Lewis and Evan White, but shortstop is a critical position defensively and Crawford is among the tops in the game.

He posted +6 DRS, No. 4 among MLB shortstops and No. 2 in the American League. He also ranked No. 9 in Outs Above Average and led all MLB shortstops in Out of Zone plays made (62, tied with Javier Baez). In fact, no player at any position made more Out of Zone plays than Crawford.

Arkins: Evan White, 1B

Crawford was superb at a position rife with elite-level gloves and is deserving of recognition for his defensive prowess. Nevertheless, I’m going with White, who’s one of the best first baseman I’ve ever seen.

Whether White wins the Gold Glove as a rookie is unclear, but he was the top defensive first baseman based on Defensive Runs Saved. Only last year’s AL Gold Glover at first base, Matt Olson, leads the former Kentucky Wildcat when we review Statcast’s Outs Above Average.


Best Newcomer

Churchill: Nick Margevicius, LHP

Margevicius made 10 appearances, seven starts, and was more than serviceable, posting a league average FIP and xFIP.

The southpaw went at least five innings in five starts, went six in three of them and showed a better fastball — 89-91 mph — than in years past when he sat 86-88.

He’ll need to avoid the barrel a bit better to take another step or two in 2021, but using his slider more might help (.174 BAA, no XBH), and he’s just 24 years old with some physical projection left.

Arkins: Ty France, INF

Where France plays in the field moving forward isn’t clear, but his bat will ensure he gets regular playing opportunities. During combined time with the Padres and Seattle this year, the right-handed hitter slashed .305/.368/.468 with a 133 OPS+ in 43 games.

Evaluators often compare France to another multi-position player named Ty from San Diego – Ty Wigginton. Sounds good considering Wigginton played 12 big-league seasons, could hit, and shared a similar position profile to France’s.

Perhaps France is a bench player or morphs into a regular in the infield or as a designated hitter. Either way, having a player with the former San Diego State Aztec’s positional versatility and hitting ability will benefit a championship-caliber roster.


Breakthrough Player of the Year (non-Rookie)

Churchill: Dylan Moore, UT

Moore went from worst player on the roster to one of the best in a year and his future with the club may include ‘Opening Day 2B’ next spring.

Moore’s line drive rate jumped 9% and he got to his pull side better without selling out to the extreme. He cut his strikeouts from 33% to 27% and maintained a solid walk rate at 8.8%.

But the two things that make Moore so interesting include how hard he hits the ball consistently (77th percentile exit velocity, 89th percentile barrel rate) and his defensive versatility. He’s not a long-term option at shortstop, but he can handle it, and he projects as average or better at second base, third base and now right field, too. It’s the closest thing to Ben Zobrist the Mariners have had since Mark McLemore in 2001, and this version has power.

Arkins: Yusei Kikuchi, LHP

Yes, Kikuchi was inconsistent this year. But the southpaw made big strides over his 2019 rookie campaign.

Kikuchi’s .279 xwOBA led the Mariners rotation and was top-30 among MLB starters. Since xwOBA reflects quality and quantity of contact, it’s clear the Japanese import has the talent to be a valuable contributor to Seattle’s starting staff.

Still, Kikuchi does have work to do. The 29-year-old seemed like a different pitcher with runners on base and the stats back that up. When bases were empty, opponents had a .251 wOBA against him – twelfth best among MLB starters. Conversely, his wOBA with men on base was .355, which ranked in the bottom 20-percent.


Prospect Development of the Year

Churchill: Justus Sheffield, LHP

Lewis is a legitimate choice here, as is Austin Nola, but because Sheffield’s developments in 2020 bring a higher floor and less risk for the future –and he’s still with the club — I’m going with the left-hander.

Sheffield made 10 starts, led all MLB rookie pitchers in fWAR (1.5) and went six or more innings in six outings — including seven innings twice.

The lefty reduced his barrel rate to 3.7% (91st percentile) — the switch from a four-seamer to a two-seam sinker did exactly what the club had hoped, limiting the damage on hard-hit balls.

In addition, Sheffield’s command took a large step forward, and his general ability to throw strikes improved, too, as he went from 10.7% walks to 8.6%.

The command improvement allowed Sheffield to go to his slider more in favorable counts, and the results are remarkable. In 2019, opponents hit .302 with a .491 slugging percentage off his slider. In 2020, Sheffield flipped the script, holding opposing batters to a .192 average and .219 slugging with the slide piece.

The same can be said about his changeup to a large degree.

Sheffield lacks the big ceiling, but has reduced the risk in his performance, suggesting he’s destined for a mid-rotation role for the foreseeable future.

Arkins: Ljay Newsome, RHP

Mariners “Gas Camp” helped Newsome increase his four-seam fastball velocity to a 91.4-MPH average. But bringing the heat isn’t Newsome’s specialty — avoiding free passes is. We already noted Gonzales had a historically good walk rate; Newsome’s was better (1.5%) albeit over a span of just 15.1 innings.

So what does Newsome become? Perhaps he’ll be a back-end starter. Then again, the Mariners’ 2015 twenty-sixth round pick could morph into a long reliever/swingman. Either role potentially makes him a valued contributor on a team that believes it could contend in the AL West next year.


Flash Player of the Year

Churchill: Yohan Ramirez, RHR

I thought about Luis Torrens here, but the sample was too small.

Ramirez has terrific raw stuff, including a fastball up to 98 mph and a plus slider. He’s shown a plus curveball in the past and the makings of a changeup, but in a relief role stuck with a two-pitch attack.

He was dominant at times, but he walked 21.3% of the batters he faced, pitching himself into trouble at a high rate. But after allowing three earned runs August 7 versus Colorado, Ramirez allowed two earned runs on four hits over his final 11 appearances.

As a Rule 5 pick he had to remain on the active roster (or IL) for the entire 2020 season, but the club is now free to option the right-hander as they see fit.

At his best, Ramirez sits 94-98 mph and pitches effectively in high-leverage situations, but there will have to be mechanical fixes if he wants to avoid the minors to start next season.

Arkins: Luis Torrens, C

Evaluators generally believe Torrens’ is a glove-first backstop with a bat good enough to keep him in the majors. Ironically, he proved better with his bat and struggled defensively with Seattle. To be fair, the 24-year-old only joined the team on August 31 and had to learn a new pitching staff on the fly.

For now, Torrens projects as a backup. Then again, something similar was said about two other Mariners backstops — Tom Murphy and Nola. Heading into next year, it’ll be fun seeing where the Venezuelan’s talent takes him and how the team integrates him into the catching mix with Murphy and top prospect Cal Raleigh.…

Deciding postseason berths after just 60 games feels so wrong. It’s akin to deciding medal winners 10 miles into an Olympic Marathon. Then again, we all know why MLB shortened the regular season to about 35-percent of its normal length. There are far more important things than baseball going on in our world.

Since we were limited to a small sample size of baseball, I wanted to find a way to contrast what we saw in 2020 to last year. I decided to use a straightforward approach – compare team’s 2019 records through 60 games to this season’s final standings.

Will this exercise prove anything? Not really, but we may be able to add a smidge of perspective to the weirdest MLB season ever.

To simplify the process, I segregated the 30 clubs into three basic categories: improved; relatively the same; fell on their sword.

Movin’ On Up

Leading the way in our first section are four teams heading to the playoffs after being a rebuild project just a year ago. Perhaps the success of these organizations will be a source of encouragement for Mariners fans anxiously awaiting Seattle’s long overdue return to the MLB postseason.

Much of the success enjoyed by the Blue Jays, Padres, Marlins, and White Sox is attributable to emerging young stars, who were either homegrown or acquired via trade. Despite a return to the postseason, all four clubs will require upgrades in the offseason to continue their ascent. Still, how satisfying must it be for fans of these teams to see positive results?

It’s worth noting Toronto didn’t languish in mediocrity as long as the other cities did. The Blue Jays played in consecutive ALCS in 2015-16, although the team went into a tailspin afterwards. That said; the others waited over a decade prior to returning to the postseason in 2020.

The White Sox last made a playoff appearance in the 2008 ALDS against the subsequent AL Champion Rays. Similarly, the Padres last saw postseason action in the 2006 NLDS in a losing effort to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Then, there’s Miami.

The Marlins last played meaningful October baseball in 2003 when they beat the Yankees in the World Series. Before reaching the Fall Classic, the Fish had to get past the Cubs in an NLCS best remembered for the infamous “Steve Bartman incident” at Wrigley Field. Ironically, the two teams square off against each other in the Windy City this week.

Although the Orioles and Royals were once again bottom-feeders, each team showed signs of improvement over their atrocious 19-41 records in 2019. That’s good, right?

Same Ole Story

Next up, our largest subset. Teams posting similar records in 2019 and 2020. Doing so was a good thing for some clubs – not so much for others.

The Dodgers remain the model of consistency after winning an eighth consecutive NL West division title. Whether you love or hate them, there’s no denying the Yankees epitomize sustained superior performance. The last time the Bronx Bombers posted a losing record was 1992 – George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

The remaining 2019 postseason clubs made the cut again with the exception of the Nationals. As most of you know, Washington scuffled out of the gate last year before going on to win the World Series. At one point, manager Dave Martinez seemed destined to lose his job before his club rebounded.

The Cubs were the lone club with an identical record in both years. Ironically, Chicago didn’t get into the playoffs last year. Yet, the North Siders are the 2020 NL Central division champions. Staying in the division, the Reds were comparable to their 2019 record. That said; Cincinnati looked like a team that would’ve flourished over a full regular season – their pitching was that good.

Two teams entered the season with playoff aspirations but fell on their faces – the Mets and Angels. Last year, the Amazin’s started slowly, but were 46-26 after the All-Star break and remained relevant into September. Conversely, the Halos were mediocre early and only worsened as the season progressed – much like 2020.

Three rebuilding clubs – the Giants, Tigers, and Mariners – took noticeably different approaches in 2020 despite posting similar records to last year. San Francisco’s roster remained laden with veterans this year, which kept them in the hunt for a postseason berth until the final day. Realistically, this team probably wins 75 games and finishes well out of contention in a full 162-game season.

The Tigers took an aggressive approach with their roster opting to debut several of their top prospects during the truncated season without regard to the impact doing so would have on player service time. Conversely, the Mariners were conservative choosing to delay the MLB debuts of their best and brightest youngsters at least until 2021. Time will tell which team had the better strategy – my money is on Seattle.

Fallin’ Down

Our last group is a collection of rebuilding organizations and several that should seriously consider initiating a roster makeover.

The once mighty Astros were mediocre at best this year. The only reason they’re playing in October for a fourth consecutive year is the expanded eight-team postseason field in effect for 2020. Another key factor favoring Houston – playing in the awful AL West division. With a normal 162-game slate, the ‘Stros would’ve been fortunate to finish with a .500 record.

Another team benefiting from the larger playoff field is Milwaukee. Sure, it’s possible the Brewers would’ve rebounded over a full season. On the other hand, they didn’t look like a sustainable contender this year.

While the Pirates and Red Sox committed to rebuilding, the remaining organizations outwardly appeared intent on competing this year – they all fizzled.

It’s plausible we’ll see several of these teams make changes at the general manager and field manager positions – perhaps both. Unlike Martinez with the Nationals last year, these folks will be losing their respective jobs based on their record after 60 games. Seems a bit harsh.

Then again, it’s 2020 – what else would you expect?

My Oh My……

The MLB playoff brackets are finally set. So, I decided to have fun by compiling power rankings for the 16 teams with a shot at winning the World Series. These aren’t predictions – just assessments of how I view these clubs heading into the oddest postseason of all time.

Realistically, it’s conceivable a Cinderella gets hot and goes deep into October or even wins the Fall Classic. This is particularly true for a playoff tourney with teams playing 3-game series in the first round – we’re bound to see a few upsets along the way.

First up, the prohibitive favorite to win it all.


1. Los Angeles Dodgers

The winner of eight straight NL West titles finished the regular season with the best record in MLB thanks to being top-3 in both run production and run prevention. Heading into October, the Dodgers’ talented and deep pitching staff should be a difference-maker during early postseason rounds with no off-days. Perhaps this year is the first time since 1988 the World Series trophy returns to Los Angeles. The roster certainly favors such an outcome.


2. Tampa Bay Rays

The organization with one of the lowest payrolls is primed to be a disruptive force. The Rays aren’t great at any one thing, but the team is top-10 in hitting, pitching, and defense. That’s a good blend heading into postseason, especially with an innovative tactician like Kevin Cash at the helm. To a degree, Cash and his crews are already battle-tested after going 21-9 against teams with winning records this season.


3. Minnesota Twins

Run production fell off after the Twins set the MLB record for most home runs last season, although ageless Nelson Cruz continued destroying baseballs as did Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Miguel Sano. Offsetting the downturn in offense, a solid starting staff led by probable Cy Young finalist Kenta Maeda and a deep bullpen relying on Taylor Rogers, Matt Wisler, Tyler Clippard, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, and Sergio Romo. Minnesota certainly has a strong chance of representing the AL in the World Series.


4. Cleveland Indians

If pitching is truly key to going deep into the postseason, Cleveland is also be a strong contender for the AL pennant. The offense ranked in the bottom-third of MLB, but the team has one of the best and deepest rotations in baseball headlined by AL Cy Young front runner Shane Bieber. Again, starting staffs with length should be vital during compressed playoff series – the Tribe certainly has that box checked.


5. San Diego Padres

Recent injuries to starters Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet are concerning, especially if one or both pitchers aren’t available for the playoffs. Then again, San Diego’s super-charged offense and strong relief pitching could help keep the club competitive. Will that be enough to propel the Friars back to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1998? Tough to envision it without an effective Clevinger and/or Lamet rejoining the team.


6. Oakland Athletics

The A’s are tough to gauge. They were dominant within the dreadful AL West, but a pedestrian 10-10 against the more competitive NL West. Oakland’s offense and starting rotation were average, but the bullpen stood out as one of baseball’s best. An added edge for the team – veteran skipper Bob Melvin making the most of his roster. Assuming Melvin’s squad generates enough run production to the get the ball to the bullpen with a lead, the AL West division champions are championship material.


7. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs pack a powerful one-two punch with Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks atop the rotation. Joining in on the fun with strong Septembers were veteran Jon Lester and Alec Mills, who tossed a no-hitter. Even a bullpen that struggled early has been reliable during the stretch run. Still, the lineup is below average in every significant offensive category, including the most important of all – runs scored.


8. New York Yankees

The offense is potent thanks to the bats of DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, Clint Frazier, Gio Urshela, Aaron Hicks, Gleyber Torres and 36-year-old Brett Gardner. Plus, Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ form a very respectable top-of-the-rotation. Nevertheless, the Yankees’ once-formidable bullpen has been less-than-ordinary lately. A troubling development for an organization that believes there is only one acceptable outcome for any season – a World Series win.


9. Cincinnati Reds

The Reds barely made the tournament, but they’re the type of opponent high seeds probably prefer avoiding. Why?  A dynamic rotation with a top-three of NL Cy Young front-runner Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray. Shoring up the rear – a versatile bullpen with closer Raisel Iglesias, Archie Bradley, Lucas Sims, Amir Garrett, Tejay Antone, and Michael Lorenzen. The issue most likely to slow Cincinnati’s roll in October – an underachieving offense averaging just 4.05 runs/game.


10. Atlanta Braves

The Braves led the majors in runs scored with Freddie Freeman having an MVP-worthy season, but the team’s success moving forward hinges on an injury-decimated rotation. Max Fried is a Cy Young candidate and rookie Ian Anderson has been superb. After that, it gets squishy. Atlanta does have a solid bullpen headed by veteran closer Mark Melancon, although it may not be enough to drive deep into the postseason.


11. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox were top-5 in offense and run prevention with a fun roster featuring both youth and experience. The rotation was solid with Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, and Dylan Cease, while the bullpen led by closer Alex Colome was a strength. The most fascinating Chicago reliever – 2020 first round pick Garrett Crochet, who typically tops 100-MPH on the radar gun. One concern – the Sox finished the season 2-8, which includes a 4-game sweep by Cleveland.


12. Toronto Blue Jays

Deadline pickup Taijuan Walker performed well along with staff ace Hyun Jin Ryu, but the rest of the Blue Jays’ rotation struggled in September. Moreover, the bullpen wasn’t particular good down the stretch. This doesn’t bode well for a club that backed into a postseason berth that wouldn’t normally be available.


13. St. Louis Cardinals

A COVID-19 outbreak wreaked havoc on the Cardinals’ schedule, but the team powered through to reach the postseason. St. Louis defenders were among the best in MLB with the most defensive runs saved (DRS). But the offense ranked in the bottom-third of MLB and the pitching staff doesn’t rate much better. That’s not going to work in a frenetic postseason tourney.


14. Miami Marlins

The surprising Marlins overcame an even more disastrous COVID outbreak than the Redbirds to earn a playoff berth for the first time since they won the 2003 World Series. The Fish don’t appear to be built for a deep postseason run, but their stable of young rotation arms that includes Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez could make them a difficult early round opponent. The future is bright in Miami.


15. Houston Astros

Oh, how far the defending AL champions have fallen. Houston limps into the postseason thanks to a second place finish in the underwhelming AL West. Give manager Dusty Baker credit for keeping the club moving forward, but the end is looming for a once-formidable franchise.


16. Milwaukee Brewers

Pitching has been a strength with Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes at the top of the rotation and Josh Hader, Brent Suter, and rookie Devin Williams the marquee arms in a power bullpen. Unfortunately, Burnes just went down with an oblique strain and likely misses the postseason. Adding to the Brewers’ woes – well below-average run production. This eleventh hour qualifier appears destined for an early exit.


Looking Ahead

In a few weeks, my power rankings will probably look awful with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Then again, who cares?

We were lucky to have an MLB season to watch or debate about. I’m okay with being roasted for my rankings.

Bring on the postseason.

 …

The Seattle Mariners probably won’t reach the postseason for a nineteenth consecutive year. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to continue watching the team in September. No, I’m not kidding.

Sure, the Seahawks will start their season soon and, as usual, they project to be a playoff team. Perhaps even a Super Bowl contender. Still, I suggest Seattle sports fans make time for their baseball too – even if it finishes the month on a losing note.

If you’ve been paying attention since the Mariners began rebuilding in late 2018, you know the team’s present state was never important to management – especially during this wacky year. In reality, constructing a long-term sustainable winner is the priority.

With that in mind, here are my reasons to keep watching Seattle baseball during the stretch run of the regular season.

Check Out The New Guys

Last weekend, the Mariners dealt Austin Nola with Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla to the Padres in exchange for minor-leaguer Taylor Trammell, Ty France, Andrés Muñoz and Luis Torrens. Trammel is joining the team’s alternate training site in Tacoma, while Muñoz continues recovering from Tommy John surgery. But France and Torrens have joined the big-league club and will likely see extensive action.

Ty France

During his brief MLB career, France has made starts at each corner infield spot and second base. He even tossed two innings of relief for San Diego. It’s unclear where in the field the Mariners will use the former San Diego State Aztec. However, manager Scott Servais has stated his newest infielder will receive plenty of opportunities to hit this month.

Short-term, it’s not that important where France plays. Perhaps he’ll evolve into the heir apparent behind Kyle Seager, who has a year remaining on his contract. It’s possible the 26-year-old serves as competition for Shed Long at second base heading into next season.

Then again, some analysts have made comparisons of France to former major leaguers Ty Wigginton and Ben Zobrist. Both Wigginton and Zobrist were multi-position players with good bats. Maybe France’s value to the Mariners inevitably develops in a similar fashion. For now, we’ll have the opportunity to evaluate his right-handed bat and positional versatility with our own eyes.

Luis Torrens

The Padres acquired Torrens from the Reds after Cincinnati poached him from the Yankees during the 2016 Rule 5 draft. To retain the Venezuelan, he had to remain on San Diego’s MLB roster serving as an understudy to starting catcher Austin Hedges for the entire 2017 campaign. Afterwards, the Friars sent him back to the minors to continue his development.

Torrens projects to be Seattle’s main catcher in September, although the 24-year-old likely serves as a backup to the currently injured Tom Murphy in 2021. But you never know. At the beginning of last season, how many Mariners fans had heard of Austin Nola?

Last weekend serves as a reminder that GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff aren’t shy when it comes to leaning forward in the trade market when an opportunity presents itself. Perhaps Murphy is the next Seattle catcher moved at the trade deadline.

Watching For Strong Finishes

There may be just a few of them, but several Mariners are having great seasons. Shouldn’t we be tuning in to see how they close out the season?

I think so.

Kyle Lewis

During his September call-up last year, Lewis clobbered six home runs in 18 games thrilling Mariners fans. By doing so, the Mercer product set high expectations for 2020 – he certainly hasn’t disappointed.

Heading into this month, Lewis is competing for AL Rookie of the Year with highly touted White Sox prospect Luis Robert. In the end, who wins this prestigious award likely comes down to who has the best September. If both players perform well this month, the determining factor may be the stats individual voters decide to rely on.

Lewis has a distinct edge in old-school AVG and he’s significantly more successful at reaching base than Robert. Moreover, the Mariners center fielder has a superior OPS+.

Conversely, Robert’s power bat has been more evident with more home runs and a higher SLG. When it comes to WAR, the Baseball Reference (bWAR) and FanGraphs (fWAR) versions are too close to say either player is delivering more value to their team.

It’s possible the standings will influence a segment of voters. Some scribes may justify selecting Robert over Lewis because the White Sox are in the thick of the AL Central race, while Seattle isn’t likely to reach the postseason.

Considering the tight nature of the race, Seattle fans should maintain a vigilant watch on their team and Lewis to see if he can create a distinct statistical lead over Robert by season’s end. After all, wouldn’t it be fun if the top rookie of an otherwise dreary year were a Mariner?

I believe so.

J.P. Crawford

The Mariners shortstop started hot before cooling off considerably. But the 25-year-old’s bat reignited during the recent road trip. The following illustrates those three periods.

When Crawford struggled during games 11-28, his strikeout rate doubled to 22.5-percent compared to the initial 10 contests. As you can see from his xwOBA, his quality of contact also declined significantly. With 23 games remaining in the regular season, we should want to know which version of the Californian will be on display.

It’s important to note the stats we’re using to discuss Crawford and every other player are small sample sizes of bizarro baseball season, which is essentially a small sample itself. Having said that, one takeaway to consider is the former first rounder’s ability to earn free passes.

Even during his worst stretch, Crawford still maintained a 8.8-percent walk rate, which is slightly above league-average. Being able to reach base even during a slump is a key attribute a top-of-the-order hitter must possess.

Kyle Seager

Although Seager is having his best season since 2016, some fans expected or hoped the Mariners would deal former North Carolina Tar Heel at the trade deadline. Much to their chagrin, he’s still here.

On the 2020 Mariners, Seager is the second best player on the team behind Lewis. With a month to go, I want to see if he can finish the season on a high note. Doing so might compel other clubs to express more interest in acquiring the 32-year-old during the offseason.

Personally, I’d prefer Dipoto holding onto the team’s longest-tenured player for the final guaranteed year of his contract.

Rooting For Rebounds

On the flip side, there are three young hitters, who’ve struggled during the abbreviated season. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform with a month to go. Naturally, we should tune in to cheer them on.

Evan White

By now, everyone knows the Mariners signed White to a six-year/$24 million extension in the offseason despite the fact he had just four games of AAA experience. During the first few weeks of the season, it was glaringly apparent the 24-year-old played at Class-AA Arkansas last year.

In his first 20 games and 77 plate appearances, White slashed a paltry .113/.169/.197 with one home run and 47.8-percent strikeout rate. The slick-fielding first baseman often looked over-matched at the plate and appeared increasingly frustrated by his struggles.

Then came the rebound.

During his next 11 contests, White has hit .273/.351/.697 with four home runs. Granted, it’s a small sample and his strikeout rate remains too high (35.1-percent). Still, even during his worst struggles, there was one positive indicator he could turn things around – hard contact.

Despite White’s propensity to swing and miss too often, the former Kentucky Wildcat’s bat makes a lot of noise when it does make contact. His 56.9-percent hard hit rate trails only Fernando Tatis Jr. (64.5), Eloy Jiménez (57.8), Miguel Sanó (57.6), and Corey Seager (57.3).

Again, there’s work to be done. White needs to cut down on the strikeouts to take advantage of his ability to strike the ball hard. Nevertheless, the fact he’s dusted himself off and is still standing is an encouraging development.

Whether the Mariners’ 2017 first round pick can continue to bring the heat with his bat this month is a good reason to remain engaged – at least it is for me.

Jake Fraley

A thumb injury ended Fraley’s 2019 major-league debut with the Mariners prematurely. Making matters worse, the LSU product has yet to find his footing this season. He’s hitting just .174/.269/.304 after failing to make the roster out of Summer Camp, which was a bit of a surprise.

Still, Fraley is just 25-years-old and coming off a strong 2019 minor-league campaign. Assuming he gets playing time, September would be a prime opportunity to demonstrate he deserves to be part of the club’s 2021 outfield rotation. Doing so sooner than later would be preferable considering the team now has Trammell and fellow top-100 outfield prospects Jared Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez advancing through its pipeline.

Shed Long Jr.

Prospect evaluators have always expressed confidence in Long’s hit tool. Only his long-term position in the field was uncertain. Ironically, the Mariners installed the 25-year-old as their regular second baseman prior to Spring Training and his bat has been dormant for most of the season.

Not only has the Alabaman struggled at the plate, he appears to be tentative in the field. Perhaps more reps at second base is all that’s needed. After all, Long was initially drafted as a catcher by the Reds and spent more time at third base and in left field with the Mariners than at second base last year.

One area of concern is Long’s 27.9-percent strikeout rate, which is second highest behind White among Mariners with 100-plus plate appearances. That’s a four-point jump from last season. On a positive note, Shed did hit two home runs in his last five games.

Maybe those dingers are an indicator of things to come for Long in September. But it’s plausible his struggles this season costs him playing time. Especially with the arrival of France and the return of Dylan Moore from the IL. I’ll be watching to see how it pans out for all three players.

Growth In The Rotation

We knew Marco Gonzales would be the anchor of the starting rotation. Essentially, the Gonzaga product is the bulldog of the pitching staff – see what I did there.

After Marco, there were no sure things entering the season. Yet, we’ve witnessed the starting staff exhibit signs of growth in August. Whether it can continue that positive trend into September is important for a franchise attempting to make top-shelf starting pitching a cornerstone of its identity.

The following illustrates the starting staff’s numbers to date, sorted by expected on-base average (xwOBA).

The overall numbers of several individuals may not seem impressive. But the starting staff’s .317 xwOBA is fourth best in the majors behind Cleveland (.303), Cincinnati (.305), and Philadelphia (.315). Impressive considering the inexperience of Seattle’s starting six.

Ljay Newsome

Newsome just joined the rotation, so we can’t reasonably evaluate the rookie’s performance. Still, we can glean from his 2019 minor-league numbers that he doesn’t like handing out free passes. The Maryland native’s 2.4-percent walk rate and 9.94 SO/BB were the best in all of the minors last year.

Although the sample size is minuscule, Newsome is off to a good start with the Mariners. In seven innings, he’s struck out five and walked no one. Obviously, the 23-year-old will eventually give up a base on balls. But wouldn’t it be fun if it didn’t happen in 2020?

Yusei Kikuchi

As most fans know, Kikuchi’s rookie season was a tough slog. A 5.48 ERA that was second worst in the majors just behind Rick Porcello (5.52) and a .344 xwOBA wasn’t much better – bottom 10-percent among MLB starters. This season though, there have been signs the southpaw has turned a corner even though his ERA remains ugly.

Per Statcast, hitters have made “poor” contact on 69.1-percent of batted balls against Kikuchi. That’s eighth highest among starting pitchers. Moreover, opponents have a .191 AVG on those balls.

Another sign Kikuchi is making progress is his .302 xwOBA, which ties him with Gonzales for best in the rotation. Furthermore, the Japanese import has surrendered just one home run in five starts. In 2019, he permitted multiple homers in 12 outings.

Kikuchi taking the next step in his development is critical for financial purposes also. The 29-year-old must decide by the fifth day after the 2021 World Series whether to exercise a $13 million player option for the following season. Simultaneously, the Mariners must determine whether to exercise the first of four one-year $16 million club options that run through the 2025 season.

Depending on how Kikuchi performs between now and the end of next season, he could be a free agent after 2022 or a key contributor with the Mariners when the team projects to be a serious contender in 2023.

Nick Margevicius

Margevicius made the Opening Day roster as a member of the bullpen, but joined the rotation when Kendall Graveman went down with an injury. After tossing 3.1 shutout innings in his first start, the Rider University alum pitched 17.1 innings in his next three starts allowing eight earned runs, 17 hits, and three walks, while striking out 15.

Much like Newsome, it’s too early to tell what Margevicius might do. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to the 24-year-old down the home stretch.

Justus Sheffield

Sheffield struggled in his first two starts – eight runs, eight hits, and six walks allowed against seven strikeouts in 7.2 innings. Since then, the left-hander has been delivering the kind of production the Mariners expected when they shipped James Paxton to the Yankees to acquire him.

In Sheffield’s next three starts encompassing 18 innings, he struck out 16, walked two, and allowed just two earned runs. Plus, he went six innings in each outing. Still, the Tennessean did absorb some punches in his most recent outing against the Angels – six earned runs, four walks, and the first home run allowed this season.

His last start notwithstanding, Sheffield appears more comfortable as a major-league pitcher. If that’s the case, it’ll become increasingly evident during the lefty’s final starts in 2020.

Justin Dunn

The Freeport, New York native entered the season as the least experienced starter on the staff and it showed early. Therefore, there are good and not-so-much results to discuss.

Dunn’s 13.8-percent walk rate this season is third highest among starters with 20-plus innings. Only Robbie Ray (20.1) and Spencer Turnbull (15.1) are worse than the former Boston College Eagle. Moreover, he’s surrendered five home runs in 27 innings.

On the other hand, Dunn’s 67.9-percent “poor” contact rate is fourteenth best in the majors among starters. Not only that, opponents are hitting just .057 on those balls.

The box score also highlights Dunn’s inconsistent season thus far. The right-hander logged just nine innings in three starts. Yet, he also has three quality starts, including a pair of six shutout inning affairs in his last two outings.

Despite the unevenness of his performances, it’s evident Dunn possesses a great deal of upside. The challenge he faces is having to put it all together at the big-league level.

Perhaps it’s unfair that Dunn didn’t get a chance to hone his skills at AAA, but 2020 has been unforgiving in so many ways. That said; the New Yorker is making the best of the situation and not wasting the opportunity to prove he belongs. That’s why I’ll be watching him in September.

What Will Yohan Ramírez Do?

There’s no getting around the fact the bullpen has been bad this season. But I have to admit, I can’t turn away from the TV when Ramírez is pitching. The 25-year-old is an intriguing figure with a dynamic arm, although his command and control have been volatile at times.

As Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted last month, Ramírez had the eighth highest strikeout rate among minor league pitchers with 100-plus innings last year. Unfortunately, the native of the Dominican Republic had the highest walk rate to go with it. Basically, it’s what we’ve seen from him this season too.

With the Mariners, Ramírez’s 35.6-percent strikeout rate is slightly better than his minor-league rate and good enough to place him in the top-30 among big-league relievers this year. Unfortunately, his 23.7-percent walk rate is the worst in the majors.

Then again, opponents have a .114 AVG against Ramírez – tops among Mariners pitchers and ninth best among relievers. If he can harness his electric stuff, the righty could be a key piece in the team’s bullpen when the club is ready to contend.

With the departure of Altavilla and Williams, Ramírez could potentially get more opportunities to pitch in high-leverage situations this month. Sure, the 2019 Rule 5 pick from the Astros could crash and burn a few times. Then again, he can be dazzling, which makes it tough to turn away when he’s on the mound.

Will We See Logan Gilbert?

The masses have been pining for the arrival of Kelenic, but it seems unlikely he’s going to appear in 2020. You know, service time and all that stuff. If I were going to bet on the arrival of a top prospect from Tacoma this season, I’d place money on Gilbert getting the call.

To me, Gilbert is the prospect best positioned to join the Mariners this month. Perhaps the club prefers to have the Stetson alum begin 2021 with Class-AAA, which was the initial plan for this year before the pandemic shutdown. Assuming management is pleased with his development at the alternate training site; why not expose him to major league hitters this month?

The answer is probably the same as it is with Kelenic. Although no team will never admit it, starting the service time clock is a big deal. Particularly for a club like the Mariners that isn’t likely to contend next year. I’m not justifying the practice, just acknowledging the reality of the situation.

Still, seeing Gilbert pitch at T-Mobile Park this month would be fun. The 23-year-old would represent a preview of what we may see from the Mariners in 2022-23 – when Seattle could begin becoming a baseball town again.

Yes, I know. Go Hawks and all that stuff. But baseball remains the best sport.

My Oh My……

When it comes to communicating about their team, Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners may be the most forthcoming GM in MLB. Yet, some struggle to see what’s obvious to me – Dipoto’s actions normally align with his words. Then again, I do fancy myself as a “JeDi whisperer.”

I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek referring to myself in such a manner. But I do believe it’s not hard to understand the direction Dipoto wants to take his team or how he’ll act in the trade market. The key to being a JeDi whisperer is listening closely to what he’s saying without any preconceived notions. Let’s consider several comments made by the fifth-year GM regarding 2020.

Let The Kids Play

After the 2019 season, Dipoto repeatedly stated the Mariners would preserve opportunities for the club’s youngsters to play. The following quote from Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle is representative of what the Virginia Commonwealth alum professed throughout the offseason

We’re growing a young core and I guess by virtue of what that requires, we have to give them the opportunity to play.” – Jerry Dipoto

And that’s exactly what the Mariners have done.

Management labeled Shed Long as the team’s everyday second baseman before the season began despite the presence of veteran incumbent Dee Gordon. Although Long has struggled and Gordon is still with the team, the Mariners haven’t wavered and continue playing the 25-year-old.

Emphasis on letting the kids play explains why the Mariners made short-term acquisitions to the rotation in the offseason. The team didn’t want to block development of its young arms – Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome.

Granted, Margevicius and Newsome weren’t starters at the start of the season. But Dipoto turned to the kids instead of looking for veteran help when Kendall Graveman went down with an injury and after he traded Taijuan Walker.

That’s been the recurring theme during this wacky 2020 campaign. Substitute scuffling youngsters or injured players with young, unproven replacements. The underlying goal – advance the development of the kids and assess them at the big-league level. It’s why players like Braden Bishop, Jose Marmolejos, Sam Haggerty, Joe Hudson, and Joseph Odom received the call to replace an injured Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore, a struggling Mallex Smith and Daniel Vogelbach, and a traded Austin Nola.

Youth Movement Continues

During a recent team broadcast on ROOT Sports, Dipoto stated, “We’re going to get younger as the season goes.” A seemingly bold comment considering the Mariners entered this year with the youngest roster in MLB. Once again, JeDi backed up his words with action.

First, the absence of Walker (27) and Graveman (29) provided opportunities for Margevicius (24) and Newsome (23). Then came the seven-player trade brokered by Dipoto over the weekend.

The Mariners dealt a 30-year-old Nola with relievers Dan Altavilla (27) and Austin Adams (29) to the Padres for a quartet of prospects who are 26-or-younger – outfielder Taylor Trammell, infielder Ty France, pitcher Andrés Muñoz and catcher Luis Torrens. Seattle got even younger, while increasing the talent and depth in an already well-regarded farm system.

Once he clears the Mariners’ COVID-19 intake process, the 24-year-old Torrens likely receives the majority of playing time behind the plate in September. Similarly, France will also join his new club after COVID screening. Where he plays long-term isn’t as clear, but Dipoto does believe the 26-year-old can be regular middle-of-the-order bat.

Down the road, Trammel (22) may form an outfield rotation with Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic, and Julio Rodriguez. The youngest new Mariner – Muñoz – is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery That said; Dipoto noted during today’s game broadcast that he views the 21-year-old right-hander as a potential future closer. 

Keeping Marco

National pundits and fans bandied about the name of Mariners Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales leading up to the trade deadline. However, I never felt dealing Marco was going to happen.

Why the confidence?

As we discussed after the June draft, Dipoto places a high value on premium quality starting pitching. The notion of the New Jersey native dealing away a proven major league arm his club just signed to an extension was preposterous to me.

Could the Mariners trade Gonzales in the future? It’s certainly a possibility, but I don’t see Dipoto’s loosening his grip on the team’s controllable starters until he and his staff better understand what they have down on the farm.

I’ve maintained this opinion since hearing Dipoto reiterate the importance of starting pitching to Danny, Dave, and Moore in July 2017. At the time, the 52-year-old executive referred to the market as the “pitching store,” which is rarely open and always has high asking prices.

Sure, it’s cool having a stable of first round picks moving through the system. But these talented youngsters will remain unknowns until proving otherwise at the big-league level. For this reason, I can’t seeing Dipoto peddling Marco at the pitching store anytime soon. 

And Kyle Seager?

When asked about the status of Kyle Seager during a recent conversation on the Danny & Gallant Show, Dipoto said “we’re going to hold on to him and see where it takes us from here.” Yet, Mariners Twitter continued to formulate potential Seager trade scenarios until today’s deadline.

Now, I’m not saying Dipoto won’t trade Seager between now and the end of next season when his contract expires. But it was clear to this JeDi whisperer the Mariners were keeping the 32-year-old third baseman through the 2020 season.

Perhaps the team considers moving Seager this coming offseason or during the 2021 campaign, assuming there’s a suitor willing to take on the “poison pill” player option in his contract that activates if Seattle trades the former All-Star. After all, France has experience at both corner infield spots and second base. With the team already committed to Evan White at first base and Long currently holding down second base, the San Diego State alum could potentially fill a void left in the aftermath of a Seager trade.

What’s Next?

The Mariners will continue introducing us to more young players this season, although I don’t expect we’ll see Kelenic this year. I know this disappoints some fans, but Dipoto has subtly suggested as much when asked about the highly touted prospect.

Sure, Dipoto’s approach means the club will have a terrible win-loss record this year. But so what? The endgame was always about getting the kids playing time and that’s exactly what has transpired. Again, this shouldn’t be a surprise – Dipoto has consistently reiterated the future mattered more to him than current results in 2019-20. 

Moving forward, I suggest taking in every word Dipoto says during his frequent media availability sessions and on his Wheelhouse podcast. Then, digest them with an open mind. He’s likely to divulge what’s next for the Mariners.

Or you could simply ask me – I’m always happy to talk baseball and the ways of the JeDi with you.

My Oh My…

 …

It’s surreal writing about MLB deadline deals less than a month into the regular season. Yet, surreal may best describe the year that is 2020. Having said that, the August 31 trade deadline is quickly approaching. So let’s discuss Seattle Mariners who may be on the move.

Seattle fans are accustomed to GM Jerry Dipoto being active near the deadline. Notable Mariners recently acquired via summer deals include Marco Gonzales and Daniel Vogelbach. Still, this year is different and it’s not just the fact MLB is playing games during a pandemic.  

More than any time in recent club history, the Mariners are emphasizing player development over winning games – they are letting the kids play. To make room for the youngsters, the front office has already moved nearly all of its established veterans. Those remaining aren’t likely to command a substantial price on the trade market.

Now, that doesn’t mean Dipoto won’t be swapping players. The 52-year-old executive has a reputation as an innovative dealmaker. On the other hand, the likelihood of a headline-grabbing trade happening seems remote, at best.

Still, what fun would it be if we didn’t chat about players, who fans may see as trade assets? After all, talking about baseball is always fun. So, let’s have some fun and discuss commonly mentioned names on the Mariners’ roster.


Dee Gordon

With the Mariners committed to Shed Long and J.P. Crawford as their regular middle-infield, Gordon’s playing opportunities have diminished. The 32-year-old has appeared in approximately two-thirds of the team’s games with left field being his primary position. He’s also appeared at shortstop and second base to spot Crawford and Long.

Gordon is in the final guaranteed year of his contract, although there’s a $14 million club option for 2021 with a $1 million buyout. Considering Seminole Community College product’s age and limited playing time this year, it’s unlikely the Mariners exercise the option. Still, the left-handed hitter could potentially appeal to other clubs even if he’s no longer a fit on Seattle’s roster.

Although Gordon is off to a slow start at the plate, his troubles may simply be due to reduced playing time. Even if his bat weren’t to heat up with another team, he can still contribute with his fleet feet and positional versatility. The former batting champion’s 28 ft/sec sprint speed doesn’t technically quality as elite-level, but he’s still above average on the bases. Plus, he’s a professional in every respect.

Whether the Mariners actually desire to move Gordon or buyers pursue him isn’t clear. However, the 10-year veteran and former Gold Glove winner is a clubhouse leader capable of improving a contender’s roster.


Taijuan Walker

The returning fan-favorite is pitching well for the club that picked him in the first round pick of the 2010 draft. Walker has made quality starts in two of his first four outings and his .314 xwOBA is significantly better than the current league-average for starters (.333). Impressive for a pitcher who missed nearly all of 2018-19 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Considering his early success, I suspect many Mariners fans prefer the club retaining Walker to help usher in the expected influx of young arms from the minors. Having the 28-year-old along with Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi to mentor the kids seems reasonable. It does, assuming the player agrees.

Perhaps Walker prefers testing free agency and the Mariners know this or the team simply wants to move forward without the right-hander in their rotation. If either is true, he could be on the move later this month.


Mallex Smith

Smith got off to a rough start in 2019 and he’s struggling once again this season. In 39 plate appearances spanning 11 games, the 27-year-old is slashing a paltry .135/.179/.189 with 2 doubles, 2 stolen bases, and 11 strikeouts.

With highly touted outfield prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez on the horizon and Kyle Lewis having a breakout season, Smith doesn’t appear to have a place with the Mariners’ long-term plans. Especially when you consider he enters his second year of arbitration eligibility in 2021. 

Perhaps trying to find a new home by the end of August benefits both team and player. Still, Smith’s poor start and difficulties last year may reduce interest in the Santa Fe Community College alum from potential suitors.


Utility Guys

Tim Lopes and Dylan Moore have made their presence known in a positive way during the first-third of the season. Perhaps the Mariners consider moving one or both to a contender looking for depth and versatility since rosters will remain at 28 players for the regular and postseason. 

As you can see below, Lopes and Moore have played all across the diamond since 2018.

Games At Each Position Since 2018 (MiLB & MLB)

Between the two, Moore has demonstrated more positional versatility. He’s also having the better offensive season. The University of Central Florida product is slashing .313/.377/.646 with a team-leading four home runs.

The 26-year-old Lopes hit the ground running at the start of the season, but he’s cooled lately (.255/.309/.392). Still, the Californian slashed a solid .270/.359/.360 in 128 plate appearances during his rookie campaign last year.

Some buyers may prefer Lopes and Moore to Gordon due to their youth and significantly lower financial cost. Moreover, both would remain under club control at least through the 2024 season. Still, neither possesses the experience nor the pedigree of Gordon.

It’s important to emphasize Lopes and Moore won’t recoup significant value on the market. However, it’s unlikely both stick with the team moving into next year. Dealing one or both now may make sense.


Any Reliever

It’s reasonable to expect any able-bodied reliever, who’s performing well is a trade candidate.  The key phrases to consider are “able-bodied” and “performing well.” After all, the bullpen is bottom-4 in the majors in xwOBA (.378), HR/9 (1.95), WHIP (1.53), ERA (6.78), FIP (6.16), and fWAR (-1.1).

Matt Magill, Taylor Williams, and Anthony Misiewicz have experienced some success. However, Magill and Williams are outperforming career norms and Misiewicz is a rookie. The demand pulse for such players is likely to be relatively low.

Among more established relievers, there is no good news.

During his time in Cleveland, Bryan Shaw would’ve been a great pickup. Unfortunately, the innings-eater struggled in 2018-19 with the Rockies. So much so Colorado cut him loose even though they’re on the hook for most of his pro-rated $9 million salary this year and a $2 million buyout for 2021.

In theory, Seattle’s best relievers and potentially most valuable trade chips are on the IL. Offseason acquisition Yoshihisa Hirano has yet to debut with the club after contracting COVID-19. He’s reported to the alternate training site in Tacoma to face live hitters before joinng the Mariners.

Hirano has late-inning experience and will be a free agent after the season. If healthy and pitching well, the right-hander would be a logical target for contenders, Perhaps the 36-year-old returns prior to the deadline and demonstrates he can help clubs making a postseason push. 

Carl Edwards Jr. suffered a forearm strain late last week, but the injury isn’t considered too serious and he should return this season. Prior to going down, the right-hander was the Mariners’ best reliever. Also a pending free agent, he would’ve been an appealing option for clubs wanting to add a late-inning power arm.

Austin Adams was arguably the team’s best reliever last year. Unfortunately, the 29-year-old suffered an ACL injury in late-September and has yet to appear this season. Assuming he’s fully recovered and throwing well, it’s plausible clubs may pursue the University of South Florida alum. As with Hirano and Edwards, his return date and effectiveness afterwards will determine his trade value.


The Other Guys

Frustrated fans often want their team to move on from perceived under-performers. Sometimes it happens, but expecting the Mariners to make a trade and receive much in return will only lead to disappointment.

One such player is Daniel Vogelbach. The team’s lone 2019 All-Star is slashing just .119/.275/.286 this year. Vogelbach continues to walk at a high rate (17.6-percent), but the Mariners reportedly prefer he’d take a more aggressive approach at the plate. If the 27-year-old isn’t productive with his bat, there is no upside – he’s a slow runner and a below-average defender. Complicating matters, Vogey has no minor-league options remaining.  

Conversely, Dan Altavilla has never been able to cobble together a strong season despite elite-level fastball velocity. Altavilla is once again struggling to maintain a foothold in Seattle’s bullpen. Considering he too doesn’t have any options remaining and is arbitration-eligible next year, his future with the team is cloudy.

That brings us down to our last player.


Kyle Seager

The longest-tenured Mariner is often the most maligned by Seattle fans on social media. Why the heat? The primary beef seems to be Seager’s salary, which has averaged $19.3 million annually since 2018. In the minds of the disgruntled, the 32-year-old hasn’t lived up to the hefty paycheck. Ironically, it’s a stipulation in the former All-Star’s seven-year/$100 million contract that makes trading him problematic.

Seager is set to earn $18 million in 2021, the final guaranteed year of his contract. However, a “poison pill” clause noted by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic makes dealing the former Gold Glover difficult. If traded, a $15 million club option for 2022 morphs into a player option. For this reason, dealing the former North Carolina Tar Heel doesn’t make financial sense.

Some may suggest the Mariners should simply “eat” a large part of Seager’s pay to facilitate a deal. It’s a practice the club used when trading veterans Mike Leake, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jay Bruce last season. But there’s a difference. Seattle saved money despite paying a significant portion of each player’s salary. The same applies to the deal shipping Robinson Canó to the Mets. Doing the same with a potential Seager trade seems unlikely.

To see what I mean, look at the following table. It illustrates three basic options the Mariners could pursue with Seager – retain him for 2021, retain for 2021 and exercise the $15 million club option for 2022, trade him. For each, you’ll see the projected total salary the 10-season veteran would receive.

Three Potential Seager Scenarios

Let’s assume the Mariners keep Seager to play out the final year of his contract. The total financial cost maxes out at approximately $21.5 million – his 2021 salary and a buyout for 2022 estimated to be nothing up to $3 million. Under what circumstances could the team possibly trade Seager, have the poison pill clause activate, and save money? 

Furthermore, the Twitter-verse rationale cited most often for dealing Seager is to acquire prospects. To recoup such value, the Mariners need to take on a lot of salary and pay more than the $21.5 million just mentioned.  

Let’s assume for a moment the Mariners are willing to absorb a high percentage of the money owed to Seager to make a deal. What exactly is a thirty-something third baseman going to command on the market? Probably not a lot.

Yes, Seager is having a great season. But teams are increasingly reluctant to part with prospects. Especially for aging veteran position players.

In the end, I suspect the Mariners retain Seager and that’s just fine with me. Teammates young and old often identify him as a clubhouse leader, which matters to a team with a roster chock full of youngsters. Moreover, the organization doesn’t have anyone ready to take over at third base, so he’s not blocking the development of any prospect.

Finally, there’s a reasonable chance Seager enters the Mariners Hall of Famer. He’s accruing career numbers that place him in the same company as several of the most beloved players in franchise history. Plus he’s the best third baseman in the franchise’s 44-year history. Why screw up the end of his Seattle career to make a deal that won’t have a lasting impact on the team’s trajectory?

Perhaps I’m wrong and Dipoto finds a way to check the financial and prospect blocks I’ve cited and executes a deal for Seager. He and his staff are certainly much smarter and more resourceful than me. On the other hand, I’m okay with seeing Seager patrol the hot corner for the Mariners on Opening Day next year.

I’d also be cool with Kyle Seager still being in a Mariners uniform in 2022.

My Oh My…

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A difficult 2019 rookie season morphed Yusei Kikuchi into the most enigmatic player on the Seattle Mariners. Still, Kikuchi may be turning a corner this year. We’ll get to the improvements he’s been demonstrating in a moment. First, let’s quickly revisit his pitching record from last season.

As Mariners fans know all too well, Kikuchi was frustratingly inconsistent and mostly ineffective last year and the stats prove it – he ranked near the bottom in most categories. The following table helps put those struggles into perspective. Illustrated are the left-hander’s numbers, the MLB average for each statistic, plus his ranking among 108 pitchers facing 500-plus hitters in 2019. Statistically speaking, the baby was ugly.

Yusei Kikuchi’s 2019 Numbers

Despite underwhelming season numbers, Kikuchi occasionally managed to shine – 12 quality starts, including a complete-game shutout. Moreover, his 162.1 innings pitched ranked second on the Mariners behind Marco Gonzales (203). In retrospect, those sporadic flashes of brilliance had to be what GM Jerry Dipoto was expecting on a regular basis. Otherwise, why sign the Japanese hurler to a four-year/$56 million deal, which could potentially become a seven-year/$109 million commitment?

Improving Numbers

So, what suggests Kikuchi may be turning a corner this year? Let’s start with his conventional line. As we’ll see below, the 29-year-old is demonstrating significant improvement in many categories with the exception of ERA and walks.

Conventional Stats Looking Good

Despite the higher rate of walks allowed, Kikuchi is allowing fewer base runners. Moreover, he’s yet to surrender a home run. In 2019, susceptibility to the long ball was a significant issue for the eight-year veteran of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.

Kikuchi is also striking out more hitters than last year. It’s worth noting his 25.8-percent strikeout rate at this early stage of the season is nearly identical to the combined strikeout rate posted during his final three seasons in Japan (25.5).

Advanced metrics paint an even rosier picture of Kikuchi’s 2020 and help relieve the sting of his high ERA. First, he’s avoiding well-struck balls more often. His hard hit rate is down by 5.1-percent and he hasn’t given up a “barreled” ball in 2020. The Statcast range for barrels begins with an exit velocity of at least 98-MPH and a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. Last season, barreled balls produced a .816 and 1.446 wOBA in MLB.

Advanced Metrics Favor Yusei Even More

The decline in hard hit balls is a welcome sign. So is Kikuchi avoiding airborne damage thus far. His 57.5-percent ground ball rate is thirteenth highest in the majors among starting pitchers. What’s prompting the hefty jump in grounders this season? Apparently, a pitch Kikuchi didn’t use last year.

Kikuchi 2.0

Per Statcast, Kikuchi is throwing a cutter, which wasn’t in his 2019 repertoire. Essentially, it’s supplanted the curveball, which hasn’t appeared this year. Here’s a breakdown of his pitch usage rate, plus wOBA and ground ball rate for each pitch.

Kikuchi’s Pitch Utilization (2019 v 2020)

Not only has Kikuchi relied on a cutter more heavily than any other pitch, it’s producing a superb .218 wOBA. It’s also generating a 35-percent ground ball rate. That’s nearly two-thirds of all grounders produced by the sophomore in 2020.

A new pitch wasn’t the only upgrade Kikuchi made. It’s been widely reported he partnered with Driveline Baseball in the offseason to improve his mechanics and ultimately the overall effectiveness of his arsenal. Evidence of change was initially on display during Spring Training – a streamlined delivery with increased fastball velocity. What we’re also seeing now is a more aggressive Kikuchi, who’s making opposing hitters swing and miss more often.

Kikuchi’s 30.5-percent swing and miss rate (Whiff%) is top-30 in the majors this year. Conversely, his 20-percent rate was in the bottom-30 in 2019. For anyone wondering, Whiff% is the percentage of swings resulting in strikes. The following illustrates the Whiff% for each of Kikuchi’s pitches in 2019 and this year.

Yusei’s Climbing Whiff Rates

Assuming the new and improved Kikuchi is here to stay, it’s plausible he could become the most valuable pitcher on the staff this season. Some may consider suggesting he surpasses Gonzales as the Mariners’ top starter as blasphemy or just utter nonsense from a knucklehead like me. But why not?

If hitters continue driving the ball into the dirt against Kikuchi and the southpaw can dominate with swing and miss stuff, why couldn’t he become Seattle’s top gun? It’s a realistic possibility – at least to me it is.

Reality Check

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. It’s early and Kikuchi’s small body of work amounts to a teeny sample size – three starts and 15.1 innings to be exact. Yes, it would be premature to claim a star is born. A healthy amount of skepticism is understandable, especially after his disappointing rookie debut last year.

Still, what if Kikuchi has figured something out?

If so, he could be a fixture in the Mariners’ rotation when the team turns its corner. It certainly would be helpful to have a dominant Kikuchi and a reliable Gonzales leading the organization’s stable of young guns – Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Brandon Williamson, and Isaiah Campbell.

Perhaps the Marco/Yusei tandem happens. All that’s needed is for Kikuchi to sustain his recent excellence.

I believe he can do it.

My Oh My……

The Houston Astros have a potent lineup, plus the reigning Cy Young winner and Rookie of the Year. Yet, a turbulent offseason leaves the team vulnerable to challengers within its division. Can the Astros hold it together in 2020 and repeat as AL West champions?

To gauge the likelihood of the defending AL champions winning a fourth consecutive division title, let’s peruse key components of the roster new Astros GM James Click is providing new skipper Dusty Baker. There are many familiar faces, but the club’s success may ultimately hinge on the performance of young newcomers.

Rotation

The staff took a big hit when Gerrit Cole signed a monster free agent deal with the Yankees in the offseason. But the rotation still features Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke as its headliners with Lance McCullers Jr. locked into the third spot.

While Verlander and Greinke had great seasons in 2019, Verlander is 37-years-old and Greinke turns 37 in October. Am I suggesting the duo falls off an age-regression cliff this season? No, but Verlander did go down in March with a lat strain and subsequently underwent groin surgery. The 15-year veteran is now healthy, but his injuries represent a subtle reminder that Father Time doesn’t schedule his arrival.

Age isn’t an issue for the 26-year-old McCullers, but the right-hander missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Moreover, he’s averaged just 20 starts/season during four seasons in the majors due to injury problems. Perhaps this isn’t a big deal since the club will be asking the son of former major leaguer Lance McCullers to make 10-12 starts during a truncated 60-game regular season.

Entering Summer Camp, the prime candidates for the final two rotation slots were José Urquidy, Josh James, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdéz, and Bryan Abreu. However, health-related issues are complicating the situation.

Urquidy was a front-runner to make the rotation before camp, but he’s on the injured list for an undisclosed reason. During his rookie debut last season, the 25-year-old posted a 3.95 ERA in nine games, including seven starts. However, Urquidy’s .292 xwOBA (.319 was league-average) suggests he performed better than his conventional stats indicate. The right-hander’s crowning achievement was five shutout innings in Game 4 of the 2019 World Series.

Pruitt is currently dealing with an elbow issue, which takes him out of contention for the Opening Day roster. The 30-year-old pitched with the Rays organization last season bouncing between the majors and Class-AAA Durham. In both locations, the right-hander primarily served as a reliever. In fact, he’s made just 24 starts in the majors and minors since 2017.

James was as a reliever in 2019, but likely to make the rotation this year. Since debuting in the majors in 2018, the 27-year-old has demonstrated the capacity to miss bats (13.8 SO/9 in 84.1 MLB innings). Unfortunately, finding the strike zone (4.5 BB/9) has been a recurring problem for the right-hander.

Valdéz didn’t pitch particularly well in 2019 with opposing hitters having a .790 OPS against the 26-year-old (league-average was .743). As with James, free passes were an issue for Valdéz (5.7 BB/9). Nevertheless, he’s emerged as a favorite for the final spot. If the left-hander doesn’t make the starting staff, he may land in the bullpen.

Still just 23-years-old, Abreu appeared in seven games for the Astros last year striking out 13 and walking three in 8.2 innings. The Dominican Republic native is a dark horse to begin the season in the rotation and may join the bullpen if he doesn’t make the cut.

I didn’t list Brad Peacock as a candidate since the Floridian is dealing with shoulder issues first encountered last season. Peacock began 2019 as a starter, but the shoulder sidelined him during the second half. Still, the 32-year-old did return to make five postseason relief appearances. If he returns in 2020, the right-hander most likely pitches in relief.

Perhaps Houston’s top pitching prospect, Forrest Whitley, is a factor this year. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed the 22-year-old’s 2019 season, although he did pitch well in six Arizona Fall League starts. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether management would start the right-hander’s service time clock during a shortened season.

Bullpen

Last year, Houston relievers collectively posted a .292 xwOBA – second best in the majors behind the Dodgers. However, the team’s current bullpen won’t be an obvious strength on Opening Day.

Closer Roberto Osuna was a late arrival to camp due to undisclosed reasons and wasn’t in shape. Apparently, pandemic-related restrictions in Mexico reduced his training opportunities. The team maintains their closer will be available for the season opener, although he hasn’t thrown off a mound during camp. Last season, the 25-year-old led the AL with 38 saves and his .259 xwOBA ranked tenth best in the majors among relievers.

Ryan Pressly dealt with a July knee injury last year, which affected his second half and postseason effectiveness. The knee is now healthy, although Pressly is currently nursing a blister on his index finger. That said, the team appears confident the unheralded 31-year-old can once again be a key late-inning weapon.

This is a pivotal season for Chris Devenski, who’s coming off two sub-par campaigns since being a 2017 All-Star. While it’s plausible the 29-year-old could rebound, it’s unclear whether Baker will use Devenski in high-leverage situations.

After the three most prominent names, there’s much more uncertainty. In the past, the club turned to established veterans such as Peacock, Will Harris, Héctor Rondón, and Joe Smith to get the ball to Pressly and Osuna. Not this year.

Rondón and Harris left via free agency in the offseason signing with the Diamondbacks and Nationals respectively and we’ve already covered Peacock’s issue. Making matters worse for the Astros, Smith recently opted out of playing this season. Losing the side-arming right-hander is a big loss considering he held opposing hitters to a .249 xwOBA in the second half of 2019 – best on the team and top-15 in MLB after the All-Star break.

It appears the new front office intends to rely more heavily on young and undistinguished arms to reach its late-innings. As noted earlier, Abreu could be in the mix for the bullpen. Other potential candidates are Joe Biagini, Blake Taylor, Cy Sneed, Brett Conine, Enoli Paredes, Jojanse Torres, Brandon Bielak, and Cristian Javier. It’s worth noting Taylor, Conine, Paredes, Torres, Bielak, and Javier have no big-league experience.

It’s certainly possible some of these youngsters can step up to buoy Houston’s relief staff. After all, Edwin Díaz went from Class-AA Jackson to closing for the Mariners in 2016. Still, heading into the regular season with so few proven relievers is something the previous regime didn’t do when the club expected to be competitive.

Infield

The infield has been an impressive unit, perhaps the best in baseball. However, there are reasons to keep an eye on its performance and durability this year.

Last year, first baseman Yuli Gurriel had his most productive campaign since joining the team as a rookie in 2016. However, the Cuban is 36-years-old and the team’s first base depth is relatively thin.

Meanwhile, second baseman Jose Altuvé is entering his age-30 season averaging just 130 games during the last two years. Another indicator of potential trouble, his combined 8.9 bWAR for 2018-19 barely surpasses the value of his 2017 MVP season (8.1). Having said that, it’s only fair to point out the Venezuelan hit 21 home runs and slashed .325/.372/.622 after the All-Star game last season.

Shortstop Carlos Correa appeared in just 75 games in 2019. Since 2017, the former All-Star is averaging 98 games annually. Fortunately, for the Astros and Correa, he’s still just 25-years-old and fully healthy heading into the upcoming season.

At third base, 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman is the best player on the Astros. Last year, Bregman hit 41 home runs and .296/.423/.592. In the last 10 seasons, only six players have hit 40-plus homers with a OBP over .420 – Bregman, Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, and Bryce Harper.

Considering potential availability challenges in the infield, utility-man Aledmys Díaz plays a pivotal role. Díaz started 15-plus games at both corner infield spots and second base while hitting .271/.356/.467 last year. The 29-year-old also made starts at shortstop and in left field.

Prospect Abraham Toro projects to fill a bench role. Toro appeared in 25 games with Houston last year. The 23-year-old had double-digit starts and second and third base in the minors in 2019, although he was primarily a third baseman. Another young infielder with a chance to make the Opening Day roster, Taylor Jones, made 64 starts at first base for Class-AAA Round Rock last year and has third base and outfield experience.

Outfield

George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Kyle Tucker, Myles Straw should comprise the outfield rotation. Springer and Brantley will start in center field and left field respectively. Right field may have competition with mainstay Reddick potentially having to fend off Tucker.

Since 2018, Reddick has a 93 OPS+, which places him in the bottom 15-percent of hitters with 1,000-plus plate appearances. It’s worth noting the 33-year-old has historically been a strong defender, although STATCAST ranked him 27 out of 40 right fielders with -2 Outs Above Average (OOA)/ On the other hand, only Mookie Betts was the only right fielder with more OOA than the Georgian in 2018.

Straw is a versatile performer capable of playing any outfield position. He even appeared in 25 games at shortstop for the Astros in 2019. Moreover, the 25-year-old possesses superb on-base abilities to go with the elite-level sprint speed.

Designated Hitter

Yordan Álvarez projected to be the everyday designated hitter. However, he hasn’t been in camp and currently on the IL for undisclosed reasons. Therefore, we don’t know when the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year may rejoin the team. Obviously, we’re rooting for Álvarez to completely recover from whatever is ailing him. From a baseball perspective, which is secondary, his absence is a significant loss to Houston’s lineup.

With Álvarez unavailable, Baker could utilize Brantley and Tucker, assuming he prefers a set designated hitter. Brantley had 110 plate appearances at the position last season and performed well. As already noted, Tucker is competing for the right field job with Reddick.

It’s also possible Baker chooses to use the designated hitter spot as an opportunity to give his position players a break during the hectic 60-game schedule.

Catcher

Martín Maldonado is the starter with Dustin Garneau serving as backup. Maldonado won’t provide much offense (.219/.289 /.355 career slash), but he possesses the reputation of being a strong defender. Similarly, the 32-year-old Garneau, who’s played in 123 career games in the majors, is a good glove and light hitter.    

Third on the depth chart is Garrett Stubbs, who possesses a measure of positional versatility. Stubbs appeared in the outfield with Houston and even started three games at second base with Class-AAA Round Rock last year. 

Moving Forward

The Astros’ lineup remains loaded with stars, plus they still have the one-two punch of Verlander and Greinke anchoring the rotation. Still, this year’s roster enters the upcoming season with more uncertainty than recent versions and that should be troubling to Houston fans.

Sure, losing both GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch in January due to their involvement with the Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing scheme was a big blow. But it’s important to remember Luhnow hadn’t done much to improve the club’s roster prior to his ouster.

Luhnow’s most notable additions to his former team were the now-injured Austin Pruitt in a minor trade with the Rays and Blake Taylor in the a deal sending defensive stalwart Jake Marisnick to the Mets. Other than that, the architect of the franchises’ first-ever World Series championship retained free agents Martín Maldonado and Joe Smith, who’s now sitting out the season.

Perhaps the truncated season benefits Houston’s aging veterans and lessens the criticality of using so many unproven commodities on the pitching staff. Still, two issues become readily clear after reviewing the Astros’ projected roster. The loss of Verlander, Greinke, or McCullers to the IL would be a significant. Moreover, the team will struggle to stay atop the AL West without a reliable bullpen to back up the starting staff.

Can the Astros repeat as AL West champions? Absolutely, but the competition for the division crown will be more intense than in recent seasons. Considering the uncertainty with the pitching staff and the fact the Oakland seems poised to wrest the title way, I see 2020 as the year of the A’s in the AL West.

My Oh My….

(Photo of Justin Verlander – Mark J. Terrill / AP)

Despite winning 97 games in 2018-19, the Oakland A’s couldn’t advance past the Wild Card game both years. Will 2020 be different? Could the A’s win the AL West and perhaps make a deep postseason run?

It’s important to recognize that wresting the AL West title from the Houston Astros won’t be easy. After all, the Astros are defending AL champions and have won three consecutive division titles. Still, there are reasons to believe 2020 could be Oakland’s year, assuming its starting rotation thrives this season.

To see what I mean, let’s review the A’s starting staff and its supporting cast. Doing so led me to arrive at the conclusion Oakland can be 2020 AL West champions. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way after our discussion.

Rotation

Last year’s staff lacked marquee names, yet managed to be top-10 in ERA, WHIP, AVG, and WAR. There’s a chance the rotation is even better in 2020.

Entering Summer Camp, the main contributors projected to be Mike Fiers, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, and top-100 prospects A.J. Puk, and Jesús Luzardo. However, a health-related development will affect the club’s plan.

Luzardo tested positive for COVID-19 and won’t be available for Opening Day. It’s unknown when the Peru native may rejoin the team. Moreover, we don’t how much time he’ll require to ramp-up to game-ready status.

Even a short delay for Luzardo must be frustrating for the player and team after shoulder issues early last season delayed his MLB debut until September. When he finally joined the team, the 22-year-old briefly demonstrated why MLB Pipeline ranks him as its twelfth best prospect. In 12 relief innings, the southpaw allowed two runs and struck out 16. Luzardo also tossed three scoreless innings in the Wild Card game.

Luzardo’s diagnosis had a ripple effect on his training partner Fiers, who was a late arrival until testing negative for COVID-19 twice. The delay may cost Fiers the opportunity to be Oakland’s Opening Day starter for a second consecutive year. Last season, the 35-year-old had a 3.90 ERA and led the A’s in starts (33) and innings (184.2)

If Fiers isn’t ready for the season opener, Montas is the front-runner to take the ball. The 27-year-old was having a breakout campaign in 2019 before receiving an 80-game suspension last June for performance-enhancing drug use. Through the 16 starts leading up to his suspension, Montas had a 2.63 ERA – eighth best in the majors at the time. 

Manaea didn’t pitch last season until September due to shoulder surgery a year prior. Despite the long layoff, the 28-year-old was sharp in five starts holding opponents to a .160 AVG and .287 xwOBA, while posting a 1.21 ERA. The former Indiana State Sycamore also started last year’s Wild Came game. 

Puk’s journey to the majors experienced a significant setback when Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2018 minor-league season. The 25-year-old performed well when he finally made his big-league debut last year. In 10 relief appearances, he posted a 3.18 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings. The former Florida Gator’s strong audition resulted in selection to Oakland’s postseason roster, although he didn’t pitch.

Bassitt is a versatile performer, who may have begun the season in the bullpen if Luzardo was available. Still, the Akron alum’s .307 xwOBA last year was top-40 among starters facing 500-plus hitters placing him ahead of notable names Marco Gonzales (.312), Masahiro Tanaka (.314), and Madison Bumgarner (.316). The unheralded Bassitt could emerge as a valuable weapon in Oakland’s arsenal.

Potential depth pieces for the rotation, and perhaps the bullpen, include Daniel Gossett, Daniel Mengden, and Paul Blackburn. Gossett missed all of 2019 due to TJ surgery, but did pitch in the Arizona Fall League. Mengden shuttled between AAA and the big-league team last year, while Blackburn spent most of last season with Class-AAA Las Vegas.

A few other young arms – Daulton Jefferies (24), James Kaprielian (25), and Grant Holmes (23) – could potentially provide another layer of depth. It’s worth noting all three experienced delays in their development due to recent arm issues.

Bullpen

In 2019, Oakland relief pitchers had the fourth best xwOBA (.295) in MLB behind the Dodgers, Astros, and Rays. With most of the main contributors returning, the bullpen should be a strength. That’s assuming the team avoids the dreaded “reliever volatility.” 

The bullpen’s foundation projects to be closer Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, Lou Trivino, J.B. Wendelken, plus lefties Jake Diekman and T.J. McFarland. Reinforcements include Lucas Luetge, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since being with the Mariners in 2015, Jaime Schultz, Burch Smith, and minor-leaguer Jordan Weems.

Infield

Three-quarters of the infield was a strength last year with the same players returning. Gold Glovers Matt Olson and Matt Chapman will cover first and third base respectively. Meanwhile, AL MVP finalist Marcus Semien remains the starting shortstop.

Fun fact: Oakland was the only team with three 30-home run infielders in 2019 – Olson, Chapman, and Semien.

On the other hand, second base was problematic. Collectively, Oakland second basemen ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in WAR and every significant offensive category. This season, 24-year-old Franklin Barreto and former Astros prospect Tony Kemp likely form a platoon. Rule 5 pickup Vimael Machin may be a factor at some point.

The right-handed hitting Barreto has appeared in 80 MLB games since 2017. Regular playing time has alluded him with established players such as Jed Lowrie and Jurickson Profar holding down second base in previous seasons.

Kemp has started 161 big-league 300 contests, but the vast majority have come in the outfield (129) compared to second base (32). That said, the left-handed hitter did make 300-plus starts at second base in the minors.

It’s worth noting Machin has played just 26 games above AA, but the 26-year-old made 20-plus starts at second base, shortstop, and the hot corner last year. Moreover, he possesses first base experience and even played catcher for an inning last year.

Another player likely to see some time at second base is Chad Pinder. However, he’s more valuable to the A’s in a utility role. Pinder played a career-high 124 games last season with double-digit appearances at both corner outfield spots, plus second and third base. In addition, manager Bob Melvin occasionally used the 28-year-old at shortstop, center field, and first base.

Outfield

The main outfielders should be three holdovers – Stephen Piscotty and Mark Canha in the corners with patrolling Ramón Laureano center field.

Injuries slowed Piscotty, who delivered a below average .249/.309/.412 slash-line and 93 OPS+ in 93 games. Oakland will be looking for the now-healthy 29-year-old to deliver production similar to his 2018 output (27 home runs and .267/.331/.491).

Conversely, Canha quietly set career bests in every slash category, plus he hit 26 home runs and paced the A’s with a 145 OPS+. The 30-year-old also played every outfield position and started 11 games at first base.

Laureano enjoyed a strong sophomore campaign with an impressive .288/.340/.521 slash and 24 home runs. Furthermore, his 128 OPS+ was fourth best among center fielder behind only Mike Trout (185), George Springer (150), and former Mariner Ketel Marte (149).

Although Piscotty and Canha project to be the corner outfielders, Robbie Grossman will see playing time also. The seven-year veteran had a down season at the plate. Nevertheless, he was a 2019 AL Gold Glove finalist in left field.

How the A’s decide to round out the outfield contingent likely hinges on how the club plans to utilize the versatile trio of Pinder, Canha, and Kemp. Perhaps management eventually integrates youngsters Dustin Fowler (25) and Skye Bolt (26), who have a combined 75 MLB games of experience.

Designated Hitter

Khris Davis will once again be designated hitter. The 32-year-old led the majors with 48 home runs in 2018, but his 82 OPS+ ranked last among 11 teammates with 300-plus plate appearances last year. Overall, the Cal State Fullerton product hit just 23 home runs with a career-worst .220/.293/.387 slash.

Catcher

Prospect Sean Murphy will be the everyday catcher. Ranked number-33 overall by MLB Prospect Watch, the right-handed hitting Murphy started 13 games as a September call-up last year and made Oakland’s postseason roster. The 25-year-old has nothing left to prove in the minors.

Left-handed hitting 25-year-old Austin Allen may be an appealing platoon option to pair with Murphy. Another prospect – Jonah Heim – is the third backstop on the 40-man roster. Heim is the same age as Allen, a switch-hitter, and was a strong offensive performer at AA and AAA in 2019.

New AL West Champs?

Oakland is coming off consecutive 97-win seasons boasting an offense and defense capable of buoying their cadre of young arms seemingly on the verge of blossoming into something special. It’s the ideal roster blend to overtake the Astros in the AL West and avoid another one-and-done postseason scenario.

Sure, many moving parts in the rotation must align to guarantee success. But I like the A’s chances of pulling it off and being crowned AL West champs in 2020.

My Oh My…

(Photo of Frankie Montas – Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The Los Angeles Angels have been in the doldrums recently – four straight losing seasons and just one playoff appearance in the Mike Trout era. Enter Joe Maddon, who guided the Cubs to four postseasons in five years and their first World Series win since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Could Maddon lead the Angels to Cubs-like success in 2020?

How much a manager actually influences a baseball team’s win-loss record is a never-ending topic of debate for fans and bloggers. Did the team succeed thanks to their skipper’s field generalship? On the other hand, was it a talented roster? For me, the answer is it’s usually a blend of both.

No manager could’ve made the hapless Detroit Tigers a winner last year. But a skipper could potentially be a positive or negative difference-maker for teams on the fringe of contention. The issue at hand is whether Maddon’s new squad has the talent to contend this year.

Certainly, Angels GM Billy Eppler tried his best to give Maddon more to work with than predecessor Brad Ausmus had in 2019. In the offseason, Eppler signed all-star third baseman Anthony Rendon, thanks to owner Arte Moreno opening his checkbook. The fifth-year GM also managed to add several other recognizable veterans – pitchers Dylan Bundy, Julio Teheran, and Matt Andriese, plus catcher Jason Castro.

So, did Eppler give Maddon the necessary pieces to make the Angels a viable contender in 2020? Let’s walk through the roster the 66-year-old skipper will be working with to determine the answer.

Rotation

Availability was an ongoing problem for the Angels in 2019. No starter remained in the rotation for the entire season with this year’s Opening Day starter, Andrew Heaney, leading the staff with 18 starts and 95.1 innings.

Compounding matters, Angel pitchers made just 22 quality starts – fewest by a team in any season, including campaigns shortened by work stoppage. The league-average for quality starts last season was 51 with the Astros leading MLB with 89. In fact, six pitchers made more quality starts than the Halos.

Pitchers With More Quality Starts Than Angels in 2019

Before Summer Camp began, the projected rotation included Heaney, Shohei Ohtani, Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy, and Griffin Canning. With Ohtani coming off Tommy John surgery, the Angels will employ a six-man rotation with a gaggle of pitchers vying for the final spot. Initially in the mix were Matt Andriese, Félix Peña, Dillon Peters, plus a trio of youngsters – Jaime Barría, Patrick Sandoval, and José Suarez. But things have already changed.

As already noted, injuries played a significant role in the Angels’ rotation woes in 2019. Health issues are once again affecting the staff’s readiness for the upcoming season. 

Teheran reportedly has COVID-19 with mild symptoms, but may return soon. Still, it’s unlikely the 29-year-old is ready for the start of the season. Ironically, availability has been the nine-year veteran’s strength. Since 2013, only four pitchers have made 30-plus starts in every season – Teheran, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, and Mike Leake.

On that note, Suarez is one of several Angels on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons. Whether it’s COVID-related or something else remains unknown. As with Teheran, the delay diminishes the odds of the 22-year-old being ready for Opening Day.

Peters is also on the 10-day IL, but that’s not a surprise as with Teheran and Suarez. The 27-year-old entered camp expecting to miss a few weeks with a lingering oblique strain from Spring Training. Last season, Peters’ ERA and xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent of pitchers facing 250-plus hitters.

A pair of currently healthy pitchers likely to receive scrutiny due to recent arm issues are Heaney and Canning.

Heaney has made 20-plus starts just once in five seasons with Los Angeles when he started 30 contests in 2018. Last year, it was elbow and shoulder issues slowing the southpaw. When available, he was brilliant at times striking out 10-plus hitters in four games. Conversely, the 29-year-old didn’t reach the sixth inning in half of his outings.

After encountering elbow issues last August, Canning received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection into the elbow in March. The 24-year-old resumed throwing a month later and reported to camp proclaiming his readiness for the season. Good news for both pitcher and team, although Ohtani and Heaney had PRP injections before eventually undergoing TJ surgery.

On a more positive note, injuries undermined Bundy’s early career, but he’s averaged 30 starts since 2017. His 4.83 ERA during this period isn’t appealing, yet the 27-year-old’s .320 xwOBA was identical to Jeff Samardzija and Marco Gonzales and slightly better than league-average for starters (.324). This suggests pitching home games in hitter-friendly Camden Yards affected right-hander’s conventional stats.

The short-term loss of Suarez and Peters from early consideration benefits Andriese, who began his career as a starter with the Rays. However, the 30-year-old was an effective full-time reliever with Arizona in 2019. Perhaps Maddon uses the five-year veteran in a variety of roles.

Peña logged 96.1 innings as a starter and reliever before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last August. Considering his .308 xwOBA as a reliever was significantly better than as a starter (.370), Maddon could piggyback the 30-year-old behind the game’s starter early in the season or use him as a swing-man.

Sandoval and Barría, both 23-years-old, scuffled last season. Sandoval was a rookie last year, but Barría made 26 starts with a 3.41 ERA as a freshman in 2018. A return to his rookie form would benefit both Barría and the Halos. 

Bullpen

Last year’s bullpen did a commendable job considering starters rarely delivered quality starts and pitched the fewest total innings in the majors. Considering the potential issues the rotation may be facing this year, expect Maddon to turn to his relief corps early and often.

The main contributors to the bullpen in 2019 were closer Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian, and Noé Ramírez. Robles, Bedrosian, and Ramírez were strong. Buttrey began the season well, but slipped during the second half. All return in 2020.

Heading into camp, the leading relievers are Robles, Buttrey, Bedrosian, Ramírez, Ryan Buchter, Justin Anderson, and Keynan Middleton, who’s returning from TJ surgery. Candidates to fill out the bullpen include Kyle Keller, Luke Bard, Taylor Cole, José Quijada, Parker Markel, Jacob Rhame, and Hector Yan.

The left-handed throwing Quijada is also on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons. Perhaps this doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past, but the Venezuelan, along with Buchter and Yan, are the only southpaw relievers on the 40-man roster. Furthermore, Yan hasn’t pitched above Class-A level.

Infield

Many familiar faces return this year with one significant addition. The longest tenured infielder with the team is Albert Pujols, who’ll play either first base or designated hitter depending on Ohtani’s availability. The 40-year-old’s offensive production has been below league-average since 2016. Is it possible Maddon would consider reducing the future Hall of Famer’s playing time? Bench options include Matt Thaiss, who also possesses third base experience, and rookie Jared Walsh.

Fun Fact: Jared Walsh made 12 relief appearances and saved one game for Class-AAA Salt Lake in 2019. The left-handed thrower also pitched in five games for the Angels.

David Fletcher and Tommy La Stella should be the main stakeholders at second base. Last year, Fletcher paced the team in games played (154) and doubles (30) with only Trout having a higher AVG and OBP. Adding to his value, the 25-year-old demonstrated positional versatility with 20-plus starts at second base, shortstop, third base, and left field.

La Stella was enjoying a breakout season in 2019 earning his first All-Star selection. Unfortunately, the 30-year-old suffered a fractured tibia in early-July, which sidelined him until late September. La Stella also has third base experience.

After posting career bests in AVG, OBP, and OPS+ in 2018, injuries limited the offense and availability of Andrelton Simmons last season. The 30-year-old former Gold Glove winner will be looking to rebound during an abbreviated walk year.

Holding down the hot corner is Rendon, who the team inked to a seven-year/$245 million contract. Last season, the NL MVP finalist set career highs in doubles, home runs, AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS+, and WAR.

The Angels reportedly attempted to trade Luis Rengifo to the crosstown rival Dodger in exchange for outfielder Joc Pederson in the offseason. Entering camp, the 23-year-old seemed like logical fit as back-up middle-infielder before disappearing to the 10-day IL recently. During his rookie season in 2019, switch-hitter started 90 games at second base and 11 contests at shortstop.

There’s still a chance the Rengifo is ready for Opening Day. If the team were to look elsewhere for an infield reserve, potential candidates include non-roster invitee Arismendy Alcántara plus minor leaguers Jose Rojas, Jahmai Jones, and Elliot Soto.

Outfield

As with the infield, most of the usual suspects return from 2019 with the notable exception of Kole Calhoun, who signed with Arizona. But there’s an outside chance a highly-touted prospect joins a future Hall of Famer in the outfield this year. 

Lower leg injuries limited left fielder Justin Upton to just 63 games and his worst offensive production since his rookie season in 2007. Upton slashed a lackluster .215/.309/.416 with 12 home runs in 256 plate appearances. The Angels certainly need a bounce back season from the 32-year-old.

Trout, last year’s MVP, returns in center field. The New Jersey native slashed .291/.438/.645 with 45 home runs and led the majors in OPS+ for a third consecutive season. It’s worth noting the 28-year-old has intimated he may not play this year to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure for his wife and unborn child.

In Upton’s absence, Brian Goodwin played a career-high 146 games and delivered personal bests in doubles (29), home runs (17), and OPS+ (109). The 29-year-old will begin the season as the everyday right fielder, although it’s plausible top prospect Jo Adell makes the team and eventually supplants Goodwin.

Still, Adell wasn’t expected to be on the Opening Day roster in March and isn’t on the 40-man roster. The loss of the minor league season may delay the 21-year-old’s MLB debut until next year.

Michael Hermosillo likely serves as the fourth outfielder. The 25-year-old has limited big-league experience since first debuting in 2018, but he can play anywhere in the outfield. It’s reasonable to expect Fletcher to see playing time in the outfield. Former first round pick Taylor Ward may be in the mix for a backup job also.

Designated Hitter

When he’s not pitching, Ohtani will serve as primary designated hitter. Although he couldn’t pitch last season, the 26-year-old delivered 43 extra-base hits, including 18 home runs, in 106 games. He also lead the team with 5 triples and 12 stolen bases. As noted earlier, Pujols likely fills the DH role when Ohtani is on the mound or unavailable due to pitching responsibilities.

Catcher

Free agent addition Jason Castro figures to be the regular catcher with Max Stassi likely spotting Castro. With Minnesota last season, the left-handed hitting Castro platooned with Mitch Garver. One area to watch; Castro’s career .553 OPS against southpaws is much lower than against right-handers (.750). Castro has a reputation as a sound defender and pitch framer.

Stassi is strong defensively, but the right-handed hitter hasn’t enjoyed much success at the plate during a 183-game career spanning seven seasons. The team’s third catcher is Anthony Bemboom. The left-handed hitting Bemboom, who is solid behind the plate, made his MLB debut last year at age-29.

Moving Forward

While the addition of Rendon and Ohtani’s return to the mound provides a boost, starting pitcher health once again looms as a potential showstopper. Perhaps the truncated 60-game season diminishes the importance of a deep rotation. If that’s the case, Maddon may be able to compensate for his staff’s shortcomings by having a quick hook with struggling starters. That’s assuming the bullpen performs as it did in 2019.

Still, the Angels’ chronic difficulties with starting pitcher availability is tough to overlook. For this reason, I believe the AL West is out of reach, even with Maddon at the helm. Maybe the three-time Manager of the Year can elevate to fringe contender status, but it’s tough envisioning the team earning a wild card berth in the highly competitive American League.

This disappoints me since I’d like to see Trout, baseball’s best player, add meaningful October baseball to his already-brimming Hall of Fame résumé.

My Oh My…

(Photo of Joe Maddon – AP)

Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels made upgrading its starting staff a priority last winter. But can Daniels’ revamped rotation propel the Rangers to the postseason?

Daniels was an aggressive shopper in the offseason acquiring former Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber via trade and signing free agent starters Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. Certainly aggressive moves for a club in dire need of rotation help. But most of the Ranger’s regular position players are back this year. Considering the offense’s lackluster performance last season, more of the same from the lineup would be problematic.

Rangers 2019 Offense With MLB Rankings

Last season, offensive mediocrity was a team effort. Just four Rangers with 300-plus plate appearances had an OPS+ over 100 (the league average) – Willie Calhoun, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, and Danny Santana. The only AL clubs with fewer were Cleveland (3), Kansas City (3), and Detroit (1). And how crazy is it that the Texas Rangers, a club known for having a strong offense even when the club has a losing record, would be mid-pack in home runs in the same year MLB sets the all-time record for dingers in a season?

Not All Bad News

It’s not all doom and gloom in Arlington. The Rangers have a new ballpark and Calhoun, Choo, and Santana are still with the team. Calhoun is the most likely of the trio to demonstrate significant improvement in 2020. The 25-year-old has yet to play a full season, although he did manage to hit 21 home runs and .269/.323/.524 in 83 games last year. Amazingly, the Rangers’ projected starting left fielder suffered a broken jaw in Spring Training. Thankfully, he’s healthy and ready to go.

Choo, who will be 38-years-old before Opening Day, hit 24 home runs .265/.371/.455 and swiped 15 bags last year. The left-handed hitter has been remarkably consistent during six seasons with Texas. However, he’s slashed just .225/.323/.334 against southpaws since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. Considering his advancing age, it’s inevitable Father Time catches up with the South Korean. Rangers fans have to be hoping 2020 isn’t the year the team’s designated hitter falls off a cliff, offensively speaking.

For the first time since debuting in 2014, Santana made 500-plus plate appearances and he didn’t waste the opportunity delivering 28 home runs and 23 doubles with 21 stolen bases. Moreover, he demonstrated superb positional versatility playing everywhere in the field with the exception of pitcher and catcher. Still, 2019 was the first year the switch-hitter had an OPS+ above 64 since his rookie campaign. Will the Dominican Republic native repeat his 2019 success or revert to his previous norm?

A pair of newcomers could help elevate the offense. Daniels inked veteran infielder Todd Frazier, who hit 21 home runs and .251/.329/.443 and a 106 OPS+ with the Mets last year. Frazier’s presence in the lineup should help the team plate more runs this season.

Only Detroit’s catchers ranked worse than Texas’ in AVG and OPS. Former Ranger backstop Robinson Chirinos, who returns after a year in Houston, should improve the situation. Although he’s not a top defender, the 35-year-old has averaged 17 home runs and 107 OPS+ since the 2017 season.

A healthy Joey Gallo will be a big help too. After averaging 40 home runs in 2017-18, injuries limited Gallo to 70 games and 297 plate appearances last year. That said; he did achieve career bests in AVG/OBP/SLG and OPS+. Furthermore, only AL MVP Mike Trout (18.3-percent) and Brandon Nimmo (18.1) had a better walk-rate than the 6-foot-5 Nevadan did (17.5).

The Rest Of The Story

Certainly, the additions Frazier and Chirinos and a complete season of Gallo should bolster the Texas lineup. But the team’s infielders could potentially be a drag on run creation. Last season, the unit was one of the least productive in MLB last season with a combined .306 OBP – only the Tigers (.294) and Royals (.291) were worse. Despite this glaring shortcoming, the only upgrade to the infield from outside the organization is Frazier.

Ronald Guzmán started 72 games at first base in 2019 and remains in the mix heading into this year. Guzmán is a solid glove, but has an underwhelming .229/.307/.415 triple-slash in 723 plate appearances since his big-league debut in 2018. Last season, the left-handed hitter struggled greatly against southpaws (.179/.242/.315) compared to right-handers (.246/.330/.451). Perhaps a platoon is an option.

It’s plausible former Yankee Greg Bird becomes a factor at first base. However, Bird, also a lefty hitter, has relatively similar career numbers to Guzmán’s (.211/.301/.424). Therefore, Bird doesn’t necessarily represent an improvement over the 23-year-old Guzmán, who is four years younger.

Frazier could potentially bolster first base production as a platoon partner for Guzmán. While it initially appeared Texas signed the right-handed hitter to stabilize third base, the team could move the 34-year-old across the diamond when the club faces a left-handed starter and have him patrol the hot corner when righties start.

If Frazier were to play first base against southpaws, third base options include Santana, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Nick Solak. We’ve already discussed Santana not having a record of sustained success in the majors. Thanks to their youth, Kiner-Falefa and Solak represent a potential source of new plate production.

Since debuting in the majors in 2018, the 25-year-old Kiner-Falefa has appeared in 176 games with an average-ish .253/.315/.344 slash-line. Still, the right-handed hitter may prove more productive with regular playing time. Even if that’s not the case, his positional versatility provides value. The Hawaiian has started 60-plus career games at catcher and third base, plus 19 contests at second base and two at shortstop.

Also 25-years-old, Solak managed to slash .293/.393/.491 with a 123 OPS+ during a brief audition last year. Granted, the former Louisville Cardinal’s production encompassed just 135 plate appearances. However, if he continues to produce similarly, the club will find a position for the rookie whether it’s third base, second base, or in the outfield.

Certainly, the presence of Frazier and newbies Kiner-Falefa and Solak could fortify the infield’s offensive contributions. But the middle-infield remains an area of concern. Second baseman Rougned Odor and shortstop Elvis Andrus were two of the least productive hitters in MLB last year. Among 135 qualified hitters, Odor ranked 130 in OPS+ with Andrus right behind him at 131. This may be a make or break season for both players.

About That Rotation

Adding recognizable names like Kluber, Gibson, and Lyles to join holdovers Lance Lynn and Mike Minor certainly gives the Rangers a chance to have a dominant starting staff. But it’s unclear what the newcomers will be capable of delivering this season, plus it’s conceivable Lynn and Minor take a step back.

Injuries limited Kluber to just seven starts last year, but he was one of baseball’s premier pitchers during the previous five seasons. During 2014-18, the 34-year-old averaged 32 starts with a 2.85 ERA and won two Cy Young trophies – he also finished top-3 in voting two other times. Which version of Kluber do the Rangers get in 2020?

Intestinal issues affected Gibson’s performance last year, but not his availability. The 32-year-old’s ERA slipped to 4.84, although he did log 160 innings in 29 starts. Just a year earlier, the right-hander set career bests in starts (32), ERA (3.62), and innings pitched (196.2). That’s the pitcher Texas fans have to be hoping to see this year.

Lyles split time between the Pirates and Brewers in 2019 delivering vastly different results with each club. In Pittsburgh, the 29-year-old posted a 5.36 ERA in 17 starts. After a deadline deal sending him to Milwaukee, he was far more impressive – 2.45 ERA in 11 starts. It’s worth noting the South Carolina native has bounced between starting and relieving throughout his nine-year career. His 141 frames last year represented his highest inning total since 2013.

This year’s Opening Day starter, Lance Lynn, and Mike Minor had career seasons in 2019 combining for 416.2 innings (51.6-percent of the rotation’s innings pitched) and a 3.63 ERA with each delivering over 7 bWAR. The only other clubs with two or more 5-plus WAR pitchers were the Nationals (3) and Astros (2). So why my concern with the duo?

Obviously, Lynn and Minor were studs in 2019, but both have a history of arm issues and logged career-high workloads last season. Am I suggesting certain regression? No, but neither Lynn nor Minor have enjoyed sustained excellence over multiple campaigns and both are on the wrong side of 30. For these reasons, feeling a bit apprehensive whether they can repeat last season’s success makes sense – at lease to me it does.

If any of the starting five were to falter, the Rangers may have a problem. The organization’s rotational depth includes an aging veteran and a stable of unproven youngsters. Edinson Vólquez, signed to a minor-league deal, missed 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and pitched just 16 innings last year. Behind the 37-year-old are Kolby Allard, Ariel Jurado, Joe Palumbo, Tyler Phillips and Taylor Hearn. All are 25-or-younger with a combined 33 MLB starts.

And The Bullpen

Last year, the Rangers’ bullpen ranked in the bottom-third of the majors in strikeouts, plus walks and home runs allowed last year. Overall, Texas had 20 relievers throw at least 10 innings – second most in the majors behind the rebuilding Mariners (22). Spoiler alert: this is not a good thing.

Returning at closer is José Leclerc , who started last season in the same role before losing and eventually regaining the job. The list of candidates to join Leclerc is long, although not awe inspiring – Nick Goody, former Mariner Juan Nicasio, Luís Garcia, Rafael Montero, Jesse Chavez, Yohander Méndez, Jimmy Herget, Tim Dillard, Brian Flynn, Jonathan Hernández, Luke Farrell, Derek Law, Cody Allen, Demarcus Evans, Ian Gibaut, and Wei-Chieh Huang. With the exception of Montero, the remaining pitchers didn’t deliver positive results on a consistent basis in 2019.

Health issues have slowed two relievers expected to be in the mix – Joely Rodríguez and Brett Martin. Rodriguez, arguably the best offseason addition to the bullpen, has been dealing with a lat strain since April. The southpaw is throwing again, but not expected to be ready for Opening Day.

Martin, who is diabetic, tested positive for COVID-19 at the onset of camp. The team reports the 25-year-old was exhibiting mild symptoms with no projected return date. Let’s all hope Martin recovers quickly from the virus without further complications.

Looking To September

Despite the good work by Daniels and his staff did to bolster the rotation in the offseason, the Rangers face an uphill battle in the AL West and the AL wild card race. Is it possible Texas contends for the postseason this year? Sure, but a lot has to go right for a club that’s experienced three consecutive losing campaigns.

Offensively, the team needs youngsters like Calhoun, Kiner-Falefa, and Solak to take the next step in their career progression. At the same time, veterans Choo and Frazier must avoid age-related regression, while Odor and Andrus can’t bog down the lineup again with below-average performances. Otherwise, it’s unlikely the Rangers experience meaningful improvement in run production.

For the rotation to have a chance to be special, Lynn and Minor must duplicate their 2019 excellence with Kluber and Gibson resembling their 2018 versions. Furthermore, Leclerc has to be more consistent, while his supporting cast must preserve leads for the closer. Otherwise, the Rangers risk wasting any good effort put forth by the starting staff and the lineup.

Certainly, this year’s truncated 60-game season is like no other before it. Therefore, it’s possible some of the concerns I’ve expressed won’t be as important to the Rangers’ success as I expect they will be. Having said that, I suspect Daniels’ club is more likely to be deadline sellers than late-season contenders in 2020.

My Oh My…

(Photo of Joey Gallo – Getty Images)

 …

With MLB and the MLBPA in armistice for the time being, it appears we’re going to have baseball in 2020. That’s assuming COVID-19 doesn’t once again derail the season, which remains a distinct possibility. For now though, I’m just going to ignore this potential reality and anticipate watching my favorite sport beginning in late July. As a primer, I’m sharing the names of the 10 Seattle Mariners I’m eager to watch this summer.

Before going any further, I acknowledge my list likely differs from yours and that’s okay. Which players we want to see most is a personal choice we make with our hearts and minds. All I’m doing is sharing my thoughts since talking baseball is always fun. Particularly during these trying times when an occasional distraction may be beneficial.

About half the names I’ll be discussing were part of last year’s rookie class, which boasted 27 freshmen last year – most in Mariners franchise history. But a pair of familiar veterans with a long history with the club appear too.


Shed Long Jr. – That Bat

Originally a catching prospect with the Reds, Long started double-digit games at second base and in left field as a rookie with the Mariners in 2019. However, it’s widely believed the 24-year-old supplants Dee Gordon as the team’s everyday second baseman this year.

During his big-league audition, Long slashed .263/.333/.454 with 12 doubles and 5 home runs. He also demonstrated solid command of the strike zone. In 2,000-plus minor-league plate appearances, the left-handed hitter had a 9.8-percent walk-rate and produced a similar number (9.5) with Seattle (League-average was 8.5-percent).

Hitting has never been the question with the Alabama native, only position. If the Mariners opt to keep Gordon at second base, the team will find playing time for Long. After all, the player who almost hit a ball into the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh in the preceding video isn’t riding the pine.

Considering his on-base ability, it’s plausible Long hits leadoff this year. Wouldn’t that be a tremendous achievement for a former catcher drafted in the twelfth round after not receiving any college offers?

I think so. It’s why I’ll be watching and rooting for the Jacksonville High School product.


Yusei Kikuchi – Comeback Season

It was a turbulent rookie season for Kikuchi after a productive eight-year career in Japan. Among starters with 150-plus innings, he had the second-worst ERA (5.48) behind Boston’s Rick Porcello (5.52). Moreover, Kikuchi’s .344 xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent of MLB.

Still, it wasn’t all bad for Kikuchi. He made 11 starts of six-plus innings, including a complete game. Furthermore, the 29-year-old logged the second-highest inning tally (161.2) behind team leader Marco Gonzales (203).

Before the shutdown, Kikuchi was using a streamlined delivery, which should help improve both his command and pitch velocity. Many observers, including me, believe the Japanese import is on the brink of a breakthrough season with the Mariners.


Kyle Lewis – Encore to 2019

It’s easy to root for a player who’s endured so much during his brief career. Just a month after the Mariners selected him in the 2016 MLB draft, Lewis suffered a major knee injury with Seattle’s short-season Class-A affiliate. Then came an arduous rehabilitation plagued by setbacks, which prevented the Mercer alum from participating in a Spring Training until 2019.

Fully healthy for the first time in three years, Lewis began demonstrating why the Mariners selected him with the eleventh overall pick. Despite relatively low power numbers at pitcher-friendly Dickey-Stephens Park, the 24-year-old delivered excellent offensive production with Class-AA Arkansas. Because of his perseverance, hard work, and superb performance, he earned a September call-up to the big-league team.

Although Lewis played in just 18 games last September, his power bat made its presence known. Here’s the right-handed hitter’s first career home run off Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer at T-Mobile Park on September 10.

Lewis would hit a home run in each of his first three major-league games, finishing the season with five doubles and six homers. That said; the Georgian is an unfinished product. His 38.7-percent strikeout was third highest among players with 70-plus September plate appearances behind Eric Hosmer (39.6) and Teoscar Hernández (39.0). It’s worth noting Lewis’ strikeout rate with Arkansas was 29.5-percent.

Then again, it’s important to remember Lewis is still developing after overcoming multiple hurdles to reach his current status – the Mariners’ projected starting right fielder. For this reason, I suspect he’ll continue evolving and improving with Seattle this year and into the future. Sure, there will be struggles along the way. But Lewis has already demonstrated the ability to navigate through choppy seas.


Jake Fraley – Shot At Redemption

The injury bug managed to affect Fraley’s trajectory also. A thumb injury terminated the 25-year-old’s rookie debut after just 12 contests with Seattle and underwhelming production – 6 hits with no walks and 14 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances.

Still, Fraley’s brief stay with the Mariners shouldn’t diminish the shine on a fine minor-league season – his first with Seattle. The former second round pick of the Rays slashed .298/.365/.545 with 22 stolen bases, 27 doubles, and 19 home runs during 427 combined plate appearances with Arkansas and Class-AAA Tacoma.

As with Lewis, Fraley projects to be in the Mariners’ starting outfield along with Mallex Smith, who came over from Tampa Bay with the 24-year-old in a deal shipping Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor-leaguer Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays.

Considering his strong 2019 minor-league performance, athleticism, and ability to play all outfield positions, Fraley will have a great opportunity to prove he deserves to be part of Seattle’s long-term outfield plans. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds for him.


Evan White – New Kid in Town

Mariners management certainly believes in White. In the offseason, the team agreed to a six-year/$24 million extension with the 24-year-old despite the fact he has just four games of AAA experience (in 2018). Oh yeah, barring unforeseen circumstances, he’ll be Seattle’s Opening Day first baseman.

To date, White hasn’t demonstrated the power bat typically associated with the first basemen. However, evaluators believe his work in the field has Gold Glove potential. It’s plausible a lack of power affects the former Kentucky Wildcat’s long-term value at first base. However, as we noted last November, some first basemen have flourished with relatively low power numbers.

Despite the concerns raised about White’s hitting by respected prospect evaluators, including Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Mariners’ 2017 first round pick actually performs during the upcoming season.


Justus Sheffield – Prime Time Ready

The Tennessee native joined the Mariners via the James Paxton trade with the Yankees just as the club entered its “step back” phase in late 2018. At the beginning of Spring Training last year, it appeared Sheffield would be ready for Seattle’s starting rotation by the All-Star break. Unfortunately, the southpaw struggled so much with Tacoma the organization re-assigned him to Double-A.

Sheffield would rediscover himself with Arkansas and subsequently joined Seattle in late August. Although he absorbed a few punches during his brief audition in the Emerald City, the 24-year-old flashed the stuff that made him a top-100 prospect. Now, the Tullahoma High School product begins the season on the big-league pitching staff with a chance to prove he deserves to be a permanent fixture in the rotation.


Taijuan Walker – Welcome Home

Walker returns to the club that selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft and subsequently debuted with as a 21-year-old. He’d pitch four seasons with the Mariners before a 2016 Thanksgiving Eve trade shipped him and Ketel Marte to Arizona for Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and Zac Curtis.

Now 27-years-old and coming off Tommy John surgery, Walker returns home on a one-year deal with the Mariners for a chance to re-establish himself. It’s likely the team places strict innings limitations on the Yucaipa High School alum, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t still be a solid contributor to a major-league rotation.

Although Walker made his first MLB appearance in 2013, his arm has relatively low mileage on it – 528.1 innings and 97 games, including 94 starts. Perhaps the truncated 2020 season doesn’t permit the 6-foot-4 right-hander enough time to demonstrate his true worth. Nevertheless, I’ll watching and rooting for him to prove he’s back.


J.P. Crawford – SS of the Future

During Spring Training last year, Mariners made the decision to assign the newly acquired Crawford to the minors to give him more time to develop. By May, the 25-year-old joined Seattle delivering excellent production through the All-Star break – .277/.347/.466 with 12 doubles in 39 games. Unfortunately, he struggled afterwards hitting just .194/.291/.306 in 51 contests and then suffered a late-season hamstring injury.

Heading into the upcoming season, Crawford is the Mariners’ starting shortstop. While questions linger about the bat, the former first round pick of the Phillies demonstrated his defensive prowess as the 2019 season progressed. During the Black Lives in Baseball presentation hosted by broadcaster Dave Sims, the Californian credited infield coach Perry Hill for saving his career because he felt lost in the field when he joined the Mariners.

For proof of how the work put in by teacher and pupil paid off, check out the video of this play MLB.com ranked eighth best in the majors last year.

Considering the short duration of the 2020 season, whether Crawford is Seattle’s shortstop of the future may be a question that remains unanswered until next year. Having said that, the club is prepared to give the Lakewood High School product every opportunity to seize the job.


Kyle Seager – The Old Salt

Last year, a Spring Training injury led to Seager appearing in less than 154 games for the first time since his rookie season in 2011. Upon returning in May, the former North Carolina Tar Heel initially scuffled before breaking out after the All-Star game with a .260/.339/.524 production line and 17 home runs. Still, it’s worth noting Seager finished with a paltry .675 OPS last September.

Whether Seager can repeat his strong second half is a worthwhile reason to keep my eye on the former All-Star and Gold Glover. Having said that, his veteran presence also matters this year. The departure of Félix Hernández in the offseason makes the 32-year-old the longest-tenured Mariner. With the club expected to have one of the youngest rosters in the majors during 2020-21, Seager’s strong work ethic and leadership make him an ideal role model for the kids.


Logan Gilbert – The Next Big Thing

Okay, I realize it’s quite possible Gilbert doesn’t pitch for the Mariners this season. After all, the 23-year-old hasn’t pitched above AA-level and would’ve began the 2020 campaign in the minors had the shutdown not occurred. Still, GM Jerry Dipoto suggested during the offseason the right-hander could debut in the majors by mid-season.

Perhaps the Mariners accelerate Gilbert’s arrival, if he demonstrates enough growth with the taxi squad to merit a big-league promotion. Among Seattle’s top prospects not named Evan White, Gilbert seems best positioned to make such a jump. On the other hand, it’s plausible the front office determines it can’t justify starting his service time clock during an abbreviated season.

Then again, seeing Gilbert in pitching in the majors this year would be fun. Especially when you consider the two most notable pitcher to attend his alma mater, Stetson – Cy Young winners Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber.

My Oh My…

Photo of Jake Fraley and Shed Long – Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

 …

When Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto joined the team in September 2015, he had two seemingly irreconcilable tasks. Keep an aging, veteran roster competitive; reconstitute the least productive farm system in MLB. The Mariners have since abandoned short-term postseason aspirations choosing to focus on building something Seattle baseball fans haven’t witnessed in nearly two decades – a truly competitive ball club.

Since deciding to “step back” from competing in late 2018, the Mariners organization has attempted to accelerate its turnaround by adding to a growing base of young, controllable talent. Earlier this month, Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter had another opportunity to nudge the club a little closer to relevance via the MLB Amateur Draft. This year’s draft was like no other before it, undertaken during a global pandemic and truncated to just five rounds.

2020 Mariners Draft Class

Seattle’s draft class boasted three pitchers and three positions players, all collegians. With the sixth overall pick, the team selected pitcher Emerson Hancock from Georgia, viewed by some evaluators as the best arm in the draft prior to the college season. Afterwards, Hunter shared the organization’s expectations for the right-hander with the media, including Brandon Gustafson of 710 ESPN Seattle.

“His combination of stuff, strike-throwing and size profiles him as a true top-of-the-rotation starter.” – Mariners Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter

Despite the unique circumstances, Seattle’s early round approach appears reminiscent to prior drafts since Dipoto’s late-2015 arrival.

The Pitching Store

Since 2016, the Mariners have selected at least three pitchers during the first five rounds on four occasions. Recent early-round selections include Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson, and Isaiah Campbell – all hail from the collegiate level.

By contrast, Seattle selected three pitchers in rounds 1-5 of the same draft just once during the stint of Dipoto’s predecessor – Jack Zduriencik. In fact, JeDi and crew have already selected more pitchers (15) in the first five rounds than Jack’s squad did (13) with the benefit of two extra drafts.

Jack v JeDi Rounds 1-5

Clearly, the Mariners’ current front office is making the acquisition of premium, controllable starting pitching a top priority. Considering the rareness of such talent, this strategy makes sense – at least to me it does.

The majority of the top arms in the majors were early round picks. Sure, there are exceptions such as 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (seventh round) and 2018-19 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom (ninth). But consider this; among the 50 drafted pitchers with the highest bWAR since 2017, the vast majority (39) were rounds 1-5 selections with the first round being the best opportunity to land top-notch pitching talent.

Rounds Top-50 Pitchers of 2017-19 Were Selected

The scarcity of elite starting pitchers is an ever-present challenge every team encounters when attempting to build a contending roster. Usually, buyers overpay in the trade or free agent markets to land a top-of-the-rotation arm. Dipoto refers to this marketplace as “the pitching store.” It’s a phrase that resonates with me.

The first time I heard Dipoto use the pitching store analogy was during an episode of Danny, Dave, and Moore in July 2017. The fifth-year GM noted at the 6:50 mark of the interview that top pitchers are most often available via trade in July and December with prices soaring prior to the July 31 trade deadline. That brings us back to the draft.

With the draft, Dipoto and his staff are adding and developing talented arms other than the ones found in the pitching store. Sure, the likelihood of finding a future ace via the draft isn’t as certain as signing a stud free agent like Gerrit Cole or trading for Justin Verlander. Then again, the cost of building a pitching staff with top draft picks is more palatable than paying top dollar or parting with prospects at the pitching store.

Making Up For Lost Time

It’s not just the Mariners’ recent emphasis on pitching setting the organization apart from the previous regime or the current competition. During the JeDi era, Seattle has selected just two high school players in rounds 1-5 – Joe Rizzo and Sam Carlson.

High School Seniors Selected In Rounds 1-5 Since 2016

This winter, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill rated Rizzo outside of its Top-50 prospects in the organization. Meanwhile, Carlson projected to return this spring after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2018. Despite his prolonged absence, the 21-year-old ranked thirteenth in Churchill’s rankings.

Now, some of you may point out several of baseball’s most recognizable stars were high school draftees – Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw. True, but the gestation period for a college player tends to be several years shorter than for high schoolers. Perhaps this reality matters to an organization, like the Mariners, trying to reduce the time it takes to become relevant again.

To make up for lost time and resources squandered by previous leadership, Dipoto didn’t simply rely upon Seattle’s draft picks to elevate his system and organization. The New Jersey native did what he’s best known for doing – wheeling and dealing. Specifically, for former high-round picks of other clubs. So far, the results are promising.

The Mariners’ legion of evaluators and teachers have done a superb job of identifying and developing homegrown amateur talent. However, several of the organization’s most prominent youngsters were high round picks acquired via JeDi player swaps.

Early Picks Added Via Trade During Step Back

In a 2018 deal with the Mets, the Mariners acquired their top prospect – Jarred Kelenic – plus pitcher Justin Dunn, who has a shot of being in the starting rotation this year. Both Kelenic and Dunn were first round selections by New York.

Also coming from the Big Apple – Justus Sheffield. The southpaw was the Mariner’s key pick-up in the trade sending James Paxton to the Yankees. Sheffield was a first round pick out of high school by Cleveland in 2014, but poised to reach the majors when Seattle acquired him.

Acquired with Sheffield, minor league outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams and right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson. Churchill projected Thompson-Williams, the Yankees’ fifth round pick in 2016, would begin 2020 with Class-AA Arkansas before the COVID-19 shutdown. The right-handed Swanson was an eighth rounder by Texas in 2014 and projects to compete for a bullpen spot with the Mariners this year.

Jake Fraley, selected in the second round by the Rays four years ago, came to the Emerald City with Mallex Smith in the deal sending Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to Tampa Bay. This winter, Prospect Insider rated Fraley as a top-20 prospect in the organization. The former LSU Tiger has a realistic shot at beginning this season as an everyday corner outfielder.

Another high-round step-back acquisition in 2018 was J.P. Crawford from the Phillies. Crawford was Philadelphia’s first round selection as a high school senior in 2013. The Mariners intend to give the 25-year-old every opportunity to prove he’s Seattle’s shortstop of the future.

More recently, Dipoto acquired former Rockies third-rounder Tom Murphy from the Giants after San Francisco designated Murphy for assignment in March 2019. The Buffalo alum doesn’t fit into the prospect category, but he did have a breakout campaign with the Mariners. Now, he’s the club’s number-one catcher.

A Familiar Practice

It’s worth noting Dipoto has been scooping up the high-round talent of other clubs long before the Mariners’ rebuild began. Other former first rounders acquired by the Virginia Commonwealth alum include two players initially expected to be key cogs on the Mariners’ 2020 roster – Mitch Haniger (2012) and Marco Gonzales (2013).

Unfortunately, Haniger suffered rehab setbacks this winter, which likely jeopardizes his 2020 season. On the other hand, Gonzales projects to be Seattle’s Opening Day starter for a second consecutive year.

Now, to be clear, not every former high round pick grabbed by Dipoto has proven productive or even as promising as the players we’ve discussed thus far. Third rounders Ryon Healy and Max Povse, plus Dillon Overton (second), and Adrian Sampson (fifth) didn’t pan out for various reasons. Furthermore, the jury remains out on former Padres fifth round pick Mallex Smith, who’s at a crossroads with the Mariners.

The future of Cubs former second-round pick Daniel Vogelbach, acquired in 2016, is also uncertain. Vogelbach emerged as Seattle’s regular designated hitter last year. Nevertheless, Seattle’s lone 2019 All-Star suffered a horrible second-half swoon clouding his outlook with the team.

And who can forget the deal landing Dodgers former first round pick Zach Lee in June 2016? Certainly not Seattle fans. To get the right-handed pitcher no longer with the Mariners organization, Dipoto dispatched shortstop Chris Taylor, an important contributor to Los Angeles reaching the 2017-18 World Series.

Despite the fan angst created by dealing Taylor, Dipoto’s overall success from snagging other organizations’ former high picks appears to be an effective way to accelerate his club’s return to relevance. The combination of JeDi’s dealing with Hunter’s recent early-round selections and recent world events may deliver an opportunity to do something unique in 2020 – a sneak peek at the future.

Trying Times, Unique Opportunities

The abbreviated 60-game season due to the COVID-19 outbreak is like no other in MLB history. To address the challenge of navigating through a short season, clubs will have 30-man taxi squads to manage pitcher workloads and as insurance for unplanned losses due to injury or the virus. This provides the Mariners with a potential opportunity to accelerate the arrival of their top minor leaguers.

Just today, Mariners CEO John Stanton appeared on 710 ESPN Seattle to discuss the upcoming season and his expectations. During his conversation with John Clayton, Stanton stated he anticipates several of his team’s top prospects, including the recently drafted Hancock, will be part of the team’s 30-man taxi squad assigned to an alternate site – probably Cheney Field in Tacoma.

How the Mariners actually utilize their cadre of young prospects in 2020 likely depends on decisions made by Stanton’s baseball people and the virus. Still, even the notion of seeing some of the team’s best and brightest in big-league action this year is an exciting one in an otherwise dreary sports year.

Realistically, it may be quite some time before we actually know the long-term value of Kelenic, Dunn, Sheffield, Crawford, Fraley, Smith, Vogelbach, and even Murphy. Still, the Mariners are getting closer to being relevant again with a much brighter future than Seattle fans have seen in nearly two decades. That’s a good news story we can use during these trying times.

All we need now are real games for the kids to play in.

My Oh My…

Featured Photo By John Froschauer/AP