Marco Gonzales Mariners

Lately, I’ve been mulling over a handful of free agent signings that occurred prior to the MLB lockout. Specifically, ones involving left-handed starting pitchers. For me, these deals are a subtle reminder of how valuable Marco Gonzales is to the Seattle Mariners. Perhaps that sounds like hyperbole to some of you. After all, one of the southpaws joining a new club this offseason is Robbie Ray, who signed with the Mariners. The 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner undoubtedly raises the ceiling of the starting rotation. Having said that, my initial comment isn’t an emotional exaggeration. Yes, the hard-throwing Ray’s average pitch velocity is nearly 8-MPH faster than Gonzales’. Plus, the newest Mariner is a strikeout machine specializing in missing bats. On the other hand, Gonzales strikes out hitters at a rate much lower than the league average. And let’s not overlook last season. Ray had a career-year, which is why he’s the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. Conversely, the first half of Gonzales’ 2021 season was one of the worst in MLB and included a month-long IL stint with a flexor strain. Still, once we expand our view of the pair, similarities begin to emerge. Marco & Robbie Ray undoubtedly had the better 2021. But it’s worth noting that Gonzales pivoted from a forgettable first half to help lead the Mariners to the brink of the postseason and the team’s first 90-win season since 2003. And that’s where we first begin to see statistical parallels between our Seattle southpaws. Gonzales had a 2.70 ERA in the second half of the 2021 season, which was relatively the same as Ray’s (2.53). Furthermore, opposing hitters had a .639 OPS against Marco compared to a .644 OPS when facing Ray. Again, virtually identical. But there’s more to consider. Let’s compare Gonzales and Ray since the beginning of the 2018 season when Gonzales permanently joined Seattle’s rotation. The larger sample size highlights that there are multiple similarities. We also see categories where Seattle’s 2021 Opening Day starter had an edge over his new rotation-mate. It’s not difficult to make a case that Gonzales is every bit the pitcher Ray has been since Opening Day 2018. Perhaps even better. The Gonzaga product averaged more innings/start, while allowing fewer base runners and damaging contact less often. On top of that, an advanced metric suggests Gonzales was more valuable than Ray over the last four seasons. Whether you prefer the Baseball Reference version of wins above replacement (bWAR) or the one produced by FanGraphs (fWAR), Gonzales delivered greater value to the Mariners since 2018 than Ray was to the two clubs he played for during that span – the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays. Perhaps the most significant difference between Gonzales and Ray is the length and terms of their current contracts with the Mariners. Spoiler alert: there are huge disparities. According to Spotrac, Gonzales is under contract through 2024 thanks to a four-year/$30 million extension signed with Seattle. The team also holds a $15 million option for the 2025 campaign. Meanwhile, Ray’s five-year/$115 million deal includes an opt-out the he can exercise after the 2024 season. At that time, he’ll have to choose whether to stay under contract with the Mariners, negotiate a new contract with the team, or re-enter free agency. Like I said, huge disparities. Some of you may suggest that Ray is making substantially more than Gonzales because he hit free agency just after winning a Cy Young Award. Absolutely true. Still, his new deal is also a reflection of the value teams are placing on quality starting pitching in the current marketplace. It’s that market value, which helps underscore Gonzales’ importance to the Mariners. To see what I mean, let’s contrast the Fort Collins, Colorado native to Ray and other noteworthy free agent lefty starters signed this offseason. Comparing Southpaws The following illustrates the stats of Gonzales, Ray, Eduardo Rodríguez, Rich Hill, Andrew Heaney, Alex Wood, and Steven Matz since the beginning of the 2018 season. It’s not a comprehensive comparison and only includes a few metrics I commonly share with you. But you can see Gonzales’ production numbers put him in good standing with the names listed below. Despite being on par with this gaggle of crafty lefties, Gonzales will be making significantly less money this year than all but one of these starters. The lone exception is Rich Hill, who turns 42-years-old in March. 2022 Base SalariesRobbie Ray ($21 million)Eduardo Rodríguez ($14 million)Alex Wood ($12.5 million)Andrew Heaney ($8.5 million)Steven Matz ($8 million)Marco Gonzales ($5.5 million) Source: Spotrac Obviously, there are many factors that impacts a player’s leverage at the negotiating table and ultimately their salary. Most of them are out of their control. Putting that aside, based on his performance since 2018, Gonzales’ contract represents a momentous bargain for the Mariners. We’ve established that Gonzales’ production since 2018 puts him on the same level as noteworthy lefties from the current free agent class. Most of whom are making considerably more money than him in 2022. But there are several other factors I’d like to discuss that further emphasize the importance of the the 19th overall pick of the 2013 draft to a franchise attempting to break its decades-long postseason drought this year. Availability The preceding table reveals a wide range of games started (GS) by Gonzales and our free agent starters. Rodríguez missed the 2020 season due to COVID-19 complications. But he’s been relatively healthy other than several lower leg injuries. That said, Hill, Heaney, Matz, and Wood have each had multiple IL stints due to a series of injuries, including arm-related issues. Meanwhile, Gonzales and Ray have remained relatively unscathed in that regard. Although we intuitively realize that being there for the team is critical, it’s still worth reiterating that Gonzales and Ray have been more available than the vast majority of their peers. Only 15 starters have made more starts than Ray’s 100 since Opening Day 2018 with Gonzales taking the ball one less time. Going The Distance When it comes to remaining in games, Gonzales staying power is unmatched compared to the arms we’ve been discussing. Since 2018, he’s finished the seventh inning 27 times. Seven-Plus Inning Starts (2018-21)Marco Gonzales (27)Andrew Heaney (17)Eduardo Rodríguez (11)Robbie Ray (10)Rich Hill (8)Steven Matz (7)Alex Wood (6) It turns out that Gonzales fares well when compared to all of MLB over the last four seasons, not just the left-handed free agent class. Only 14 starters have completed the seventh frame more often the 29-year-old has. That said, three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw (28) is the only left-hander ahead of him on that list. To be fair, how long starters are allowed to go in this era varies greatly depending on the philosophy of their club. In reality, going deep into games doesn’t happen as often as it did back in the day. Therefore, we shouldn’t judge pitchers too harshly just because they don’t pitch through the seventh inning more frequently. Still, a starting pitcher capable of regularly going late into games helps relieve the pressure facing the bullpen. This matters for teams during an arduous six-month season. Bulldog On The Mound Since 2018, Gonzales essentially has the same number of seven-plus innings starts as Kershaw – a future Hall of Famer. This is no surprise to Mariners fans, who’ve become accustomed to his fiercely competitive nature. Despite not having an overpowering fastball, he consistently ranks well among peers when the pressure is on. You can get a sense of that tenacity by reviewing how hitters have performed against him with runners in scoring position (RISP) and where his numbers ranked against pitchers facing 400-plus hitter with RISP. At the risk of belaboring the point about Gonzales’ influence on the outcome of games he starts for the Mariners, there’s one more number I’d like to share with you. Per Baseball Reference, Gonzales’ 4.2 Win Probability Added (WPA) since 2018 ranked 23rd among starters. For context, Ray’s 2.6 WPA comes in at number-43. For those unfamiliar with the metric, WPA attempts to capture a hitter’s or pitcher’s impact on his team’s win expectancy in games he plays in. If you’d like to know more about this stat, David Appelman, creator of FanGraphs, provided a helpful explanation with additional links discussing WPA here. Finally Since coming over in the deal sending Tyler O’Neill to the Cardinals during the 2017 season, Gonzales has ascended to become the leader of the Mariners’ rotation. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon – at least that’s how I see it. Sure, Ray deservedly grabbed the spotlight when he signed in November and projects to take over the starting staff’s number-one spot. There’s also a wave of dynamic young arms projected to reach Seattle soon with Logan Gilbert already entrenched in the rotation. And let’s not overlook Chris Flexen, who had a breakout 2021 campaign. Still, Gonzales is the lone Seattle starter with a record of sustained superior performance. Gonzales not only rates extremely well when compared to left-handed starters from the current free agent class. He’s consistently been top-30 among his peers dating back to 2018. All of that excellence has come at a bargain price. Yeah, Marco isn’t going anywhere. The more I think about it, Marco Gonzales deserves a pay raise. My Oh My…Go!

About two months ago, we first discussed free agent Michael Conforto as a potential upgrade option for the Seattle Mariners lineup. With the MLB lockout nowhere close to ending, why don’t we dig deeper into Conforto’s potential fit with the Mariners? Let’s begin by reflecting on the left-handed hitter’s 2021 season, which didn’t go as planned. Untimely Setbacks The first hurdle Conforto encountered in 2021 was a COVID-19 diagnosis shortly before the beginning of Spring Training, which may help explain his .211 AVG and .649 OPS in April. After bouncing back in early-May, he suffered a hamstring injury that resulted in the Seattle, Washington native appearing in just 125 games and producing average-ish offensive numbers for the season. The 2021 version of Conforto was a far cry from what New York Mets fans had come to expect from a hitter who led Mets position players in OBP, SLG, OPS+, and WAR during a breakout 2017 campaign. Not only that, his 134 OPS+ during his four best seasons (2017-20) suggests he was one of baseball’s more productive hitters. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. It turns out Conforto compared very well to contemporaries with 1,500-plus plate appearances during 2017-20. The former Oregon State Beaver had blossomed into a superb big-league hitter, who possessed a productive blend of power and on-base ability. Entering 2021, Conforto appeared primed to make a big splash in free agency after the season. There was even speculation that the Mets would attempt to sign their star outfielder to a contract extension. No deal was struck and, alas, the season didn’t go well for player or team thanks to that balky hamstring. All Things Considered It’s worth noting that Conforto’s agent, Scott Boras, expects his client will ink a long-term deal this offseason despite an underwhelming 2021. When we contrast the 10th overall pick of the 2014 MLB draft to several prominent twenty-somethings in his free agent class, it becomes clear why Boras feels this way. Conforto’s stat line compares favorably with his peers’ production numbers since the beginning of 2017. While Conforto shares statistical similarities to Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa, it’s important to recognize that these hitters are primarily infielders. Conversely, Conforto is a corner outfielder, who doesn’t appear to possess the potential for positional versatility of these three players. Still, Conforto’s numbers do suggest he deserves mention when we discuss premium free agent bats. Another positive in Conforto’s favor, an ability to hit the ball to all fields and deliver positive results throughout his career. What intrigues me most about this skill is the opposite field power demonstrated during his four best seasons. Since the beginning of his breakout season through the end of 2020, Conforto’s .669 SLG and .428 wOBA both ranked 13th among 93 hitters with 300-plus balls hit to the opposite field. Among left-handed hitters, his SLG and wOBA ranked seventh and eighth best respectively. Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a sabermetric version of on-base percentage (OBP) that credits hitters for how he reached rather than treating all on-base events as equals, as OBP does. For instance, a double is more valuable to run production than a single, a home run more than a double, etc. MLB league-average wOBA = .319 To take the subject of “oppo-power” a step further, the following illustrates the 10 left-handed hitters with the most opposite field home runs in 2017-20. As you can see, Conforto ranks seventh on list that includes four MVP award winners – Joey Votto, Christian Yelich, Freddie Freeman, and Bryce Harper. Okay, I suspect some of you are saying Conforto’s overall numbers are great. But it’s tough to overlook his disappointing 2021 production. Why should Mariners fans believe the Redmond High product can bolster the team’s lineup in 2022 and beyond? Fair enough. Let’s discuss an advanced metric, which gives me a great amount of confidence about Conforto’s offensive outlook moving forward. Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls.  A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA = .316 According to Statcast, Conforto’s .350 xwOBA ranked within the top 30% of MLB in 2021. Recognizable names with a similar xwOBA to the former Mets outfielder included Bryant (.346), Starling Marte (.347), 2020 AL MVP José Abreu (.348), Yoán Moncada (.350), Bo Bichette and Mariners right fielder Mitch Haniger (.354). The fact Conforto had a superb xwOBA in a disappointing season suggests to me that the seven-year veteran can deliver numbers reminiscent to his 2017-20 output in the future. This is a hill I’m willing to defend without reservation. Health Matters During our November conversation regarding Conforto, I briefly noted that he experienced hamstring tightness in September 2020 and then the subsequent strain last year. At the time, I pondered whether the hamstring could become a chronic problem. With this in mind, let’s briefly review his injury history. Two notable injuries have affected Conforto during his seven seasons in the majors. There’s the hamstring we’ve already mentioned. Plus, a shoulder separation that occurred while swinging at a pitch in August 2017 and subsequently required season-ending surgery. Although the All-Star played 153 games and continued to reach base at a high rate the following season, he wasn’t making as much loud contact. That said, his power fully returned in 2019-20. Conforto’s previous injuries aren’t a concern for me, especially for a player entering his age-29 season. Having said that, the onus will be on team physicians to assess his physical readiness before any contract is signed. Defensive Maneuvers Although he played some center field early in his career, Conforto likely holds down a corner outfield spot with his new club. Naturally, he’ll likely see an occasional designated hitter assignment to rest his body. To be clear, I’m not suggesting Conforto can’t or won’t be an occasional center field option. But it appears more likely he’ll be a regular left or right fielder this year. My rationale is based on career DRS at each position. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) quantifies a player’s defensive value compared to peers. It is calculated in different ways depending on position. However, the main component determining DRS is always how a defender converts batted balls into outs. Zero DRS is league-average. A positive number is above-average, negative is below-average.  As you can see below, the numbers suggest that Conforto’s best defensive position is not center field. That said, we should always remember that advanced metrics are most useful in large samples. His center field experience is spread over a four-season span (2016-19). The most starts he had at the position in any year was 56 during the 2018 campaign. Conforto’s Defensive Numbers At Each OF Position LF (2,045 innings / 10 DRS) CF (1,137.1 innings/ -15 DRS) RF (2,615.1 innings/ 3 DRS) Conversely, Conforto has spent the vast majority of his MLB career patrolling left or right field. However, he last played left field in 2018 and has served as the Mets’ primary right fielder ever since. Based on his career DRS, I suspect Conforto can deliver average or slightly better corner outfield defense into his early thirties. Roster Machinations While we’re on the topic of defensive positioning, the notion of adding a corner outfielder to the Mariners’ major-league roster doesn’t concern me. I realize a segment of the fan base doesn’t agree with me. They believe the organization has enough outfielders. From their perspective, Haniger is entrenched in right field and Jarred Kelenic isn’t going anywhere. Plus, Kyle Lewis is still on the 40-man roster and let’s not forget highly touted prospect Julio Rodriguez. On the surface, the Mariners’ roster does appear to be teeming with outfielders. But is it? Haniger is a fan favorite thanks to helping propel Seattle into wildcard contention and writing a heartfelt letter to Mariners fans in the Players’ Tribune shortly after the season. But the Cal Poly product is a season away from free agency with no indication that team and player will agree on a contract extension. As we saw with Kelenic in 2021, it can take time for young players to become established major leaguers. His superb September is reason for optimism. But now, he must demonstrate he can sustain that success over a season. With that in mind, Rodriguez could potentially endure the same struggles that swept up Kelenic whenever he makes his MLB debut. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether Lewis will be ready for Opening Day. President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto said as much prior to the lockout. Hopefully, the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year is ready and able. But hope is not a strategy. Also, we still really don’t know whether Lewis will be a star or something else for the Mariners. So, yes. I do believe there would be room for Conforto in Seattle’s 2022 outfield rotation. Many Mariners fans think Scott Servais should’ve been Manager of the Year after leading the team to 90 wins in 2021. If he’s that good (I think he is), he’d figure out a way to juggle Conforto, Haniger, Kelenic, and whatever other options are available. Also, when was the last time the Mariners had too many good outfielders? It’s a problem worth creating, if the opportunity to do so presents itself. Finally Perhaps pursuing Conforto won’t make sense to the Mariners. Dipoto may prefer adding an outfielder capable of playing center field on a regular basis, which is a genuine need for the club. Maybe the team reaches an extension agreement with Haniger prior to Opening Day. Doing so might diminish the team’s appetite to make a substantial financial commitment to another corner outfield bat. On the other hand, Conforto’s history of productivity is an appealing option. Considering he’s still entrenched in his prime, it’s reasonable to expect Conforto to deliver production reminiscent to his career averages into his thirties. If that’s the case, he would be a strong positive influence on any lineup – including Seattle’s. Sometime before Opening Day, blogosphere prognosticators will proclaim bounce back candidates for 2022. Conforto is sure to be a popular choice. Perhaps he chooses to rebound as a member of his hometown Mariners and help the franchise earn a postseason berth for the first time in two decades. Wouldn’t’ that be something? My Oh My…Go!

Seattle Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto has repeatedly stated that his team needs to add a middle-of-the order bat this offseason. Could free agent Kris Bryant be the hitter needed to bolster the Mariners’ lineup? Some fans view Bryant as an ideal match for Seattle. The four-time All-Star’s primary position is third base and longtime third baseman Kyle Seager just left to test free agency. Furthermore, Bryant has demonstrated the capacity to play multiple positions, an attribute Mariners management values. Still, I suspect a segment of Mariners fans are dubious to signing Bryant to a long-term deal. An understandable sentiment likely fueled by two principal concerns. Challenges at remaining available in recent years and a noticeable decline in production after initially approaching superstar status. So, does a match between Bryant and the Mariners make sense? Before rendering an opinion, let’s dig into Bryant’s versatility, availability, and productivity. Afterwards, a fun comp that may provide a smidge of perspective on the potential value Bryant could bring to the Mariners. Or, maybe it won’t. You can decide. Multi-Position Weapon? In 2021, Bryant demonstrated a unique blend of positional versatility and offensive productivity. He became one of only three players to appear in 10-plus games at first base, third base, and each outfield position in a season and post an OPS+ of 100 or greater. Cory Snyder did it with the Giants in 1992. So did Andy Van Slyke as a Cardinal in 1984. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. At first blush, Bryant’s ability to play multiple positions and deliver with his bat are big selling points in his favor. But there’s an important factor to keep in mind. He moved around the diamond much more in 2021 than any other season of his career. Bryant was always viewed as a versatile fielder since debuting with the Cubs in 2015. However, as the preceding graphic illustrates, he played more third base than the combined total of other positions each season until this year. Call me a skeptic, if you please. But it appears Chicago attempted to elevate his trade value by moving him around the diamond more often than ever. After acquiring Bryant in late July, the Giants utilized him as a corner outfielder at approximately the same frequency as the Cubs. However, the veteran played third base on a more regular basis in San Francisco than in the Windy City. Regardless of Chicago’s motivation to move Bryant around more in 2021, one thing is certain. A third baseman capable of playing average-or-better defense in a corner outfield spot could be a big plus to a postseason contender. That said, expecting the Las Vegas, Nevada native to spend significant time in center field in the future seems like a reach. At least it does to me. Before 2021, Bryant started just one game in center field. All told, he’s played five complete games at the position in his career. Four this year with the Cubs, the other during his rookie season. Moreover, he hasn’t demonstrated the quickness normally associated with regular center fielders. This year, Bryant had a 27.9 ft/sec sprint speed, which was eighth best among third baseman with 100+ competitive runs. That same sprint speed would’ve been top-10 for left or right fielders. However, it would’ve ranked 20th among center fielders. Can Bryant be a center field solution? Sure, but it would be unreasonable to expect more than an occasional appearance going forward. Especially as the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year enters his third decade. Roll Call When discussing potential free agent infielder targets for the Mariners last month, I noted Bryant had played in 78% of his teams’ games since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. Not a terrible number. But worthy of mention when assessing a 29-year-old position player likely to receive a commitment of five-plus years from his next team. Kris Bryant’s Games Played Since 20152015 (151) 2016 (155) 2017 (151) 2018 (102) 2019 (147) 2020 (34)* 2021 (144) *60-game season Since player availability is a cornerstone component of their value to a team, I decided to review Bryant’s health history. With the help of his Baseball Prospectus page, I cobbled together a list of instances the San Diego alum missed three-or-more games due to injury. The list is relatively short, although it is compressed. As you can see, 2018 was the year health challenges influenced Bryant’s readiness most. The root cause, a shoulder unable to properly heal during the regular season. Despite the balky shoulder, Bryant managed to slash .259/.354/.412 in the 26 games following a second IL stint. The damaged wing did appear to affect one crucial component of his offensive arsenal – home run power. He hit just 13 dingers in 2018. Bryant rebounded nicely in 2019 with strong offensive production, which resulted in his third All-Star team selection. However, the right-handed hitter once again encountered difficulties during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He spent time on the IL with a sprained finger, but also struggled with back, elbow, and oblique issues. In the end, Bryant delivered his worst slash line (.206/.293/.351) of his career. Once again, Bryant bounced back in 2021 delivering the production and versatility we’ve already discussed. But some of you may have a hard time overlooking his recent health-related issues. After all, the second overall pick of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft hasn’t played in 150 games since 2017. Even worse, injuries have affected his offensive prowess in two of the last four seasons. Reasonable concerns considering Bryant enters his age-30 season next year. Still, it’s worth noting a pair of recognizable 2021-22 free agent infielders actually played in fewer games than Bryant did since 2018 and appear to have maintained a high market value. Games Played Since Start of 2018Freddie Freeman (539)Marcus Semien (536)Trevor Story (503)Anthony Rizzo (498)Javier Báez (495)Kyle Seager (480)Kris Bryant (427)Carlos Correa (391)Corey Seager (307) Corey Seager playing in just 56% of scheduled games since 2018 didn’t discourage the Rangers from signing the 27-year-old to a 10-year/$325 million contract last month. Whether Carlos Correa matches or exceeds Seager’s deal is unknown at this time. But Correa appears destined to make a big splash in free agency once the MLB lockout ends. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect Bryant and his agent, Scott Boras, will also be seeking a lucrative long-term contract this winter. Diminishing Returns Health not only affects availability; it also impacts a player’s ability to deliver positive results. In Bryant’s case, it’s not difficult to determine when injuries affected his performance most. Bryant’s career is easily divided into two phases. His first three seasons (2015-17) when he appeared in 94% of Chicago’s games and was arguably a top-10 player in MLB. The subsequent phase when he appeared in 78% of scheduled contests wasn’t as kind to him health-wise, which is clearly reflected in the numbers. At this point, Bryant’s diminished production has probably soured some of you on his with the Mariners. Fair enough. But consider this; his 2018-21 numbers were still very good. When I searched for hitters with a similar bWAR and OPS+ to Bryant’s since the beginning of the 2018 season, several familiar names popped up. bWAR/OPS+ Since 2018Yasmani Grandal (432 games / 10.6 bWAR / 126 OPS+)José Abreu (499 games / 10.5 bWAR / 126 OPS+ / )Kris Bryant (427 games / 10.5 bWAR / 122 OPS+)Anthony Rizzo (498 games / 10.2 bWAR / 123 OPS+)Yuli Gurriel (480 games / 10.4 bWAR / 117 OPS+) To be clear, comparing Bryant to the above players doesn’t erase the reality of his struggles to remain available in recent years. But it’s worth mentioning that since 2018 he’s delivered approximately the same value and offensive production as the 2020 AL MVP (José Abreu) and the 2021 AL batting champion (Yuli Gurriel). Fun Comp Time When considering Bryant’s injury issues since 2018, a current Mariner’s name kept popping into my head – Mitch Haniger. Think about it. Haniger has persevered through a gauntlet of injuries since debuting with Seattle in 2016. Despite the Cal Poly product’s health challenges, a vocal segment of Mariners fans is demanding the team sign him to a contract extension. So, how did Haniger and Bryant match up statistically this year? There were similarities, although there were also differences worthy of mention. Haniger is a year older and played in seven more games than Bryant. But they had a similar strikeout rate, SLG, OPS+, and bWAR. That said, Haniger clobbered significantly more home runs. Meanwhile, Bryant held a distinct edge at reaching base that is readily on display with a superior walk rate, OBP, and wOBA. Okay, I’m not trying to sell Bryant because his stats sort of look like a popular Mariner’s. But when you reflect on his injury challenges and slipping performance over the last four season, I suggest you at least consider the reality that Kris Bryant was essentially as valuable as Mitch Haniger in 2021. Perhaps a little more. What To Do? Adding Bryant would undoubtedly help strengthen the Mariners’ lineup. But there’s a distinct possibility that he never produces at an MVP-level again, as he did earlier in his career. Instead, Seattle may be getting an above-average hitter capable of moving around the diamond, who may not be available to play as often as other high-priced stars. Does that description sound like a good match for the Mariners? On a short deal, sure. But a long-term contract likely leaves Seattle fans feeling disappointed with the value Bryant ultimately delivers to their favorite team. My Oh My…Go!

When labor peace returns to major league baseball, the Seattle Mariners will still need to add a middle-of-the-order bat. One oft-mentioned candidate to fill that role is Trevor Story, formerly of the Colorado Rockies. Would signing Story make sense for the Mariners? Just last month, we discussed Story along with several other free agent infielders. At the time, I expressed apprehension over the super-charging effect Coors Field has on the statistics of Rockies hitters and how Story might perform once he played his home games elsewhere. A review of Story’s career home and away splits reveals the basis for my concern. We see that he delivered excellent production in Denver’s mile-high elevation. Conversely, the right-handed hitter was average-ish when on the road with the exception of a well-above average strikeout rate. At this point, some of you have probably seen enough and would prefer that the Mariners steer clear of Story. Understandable sentiment, but an article by a super-smart baseball analyst helped soften my stance on his extreme splits. Before getting into that any further, let’s quickly consider the park the Texan has called home for six seasons. Doing so will pay off later in our discussion. Hitter’s Paradise We all know Coors Field is an ideal venue for hitters. The prevailing belief is Denver’s thin air affects pitch movement and permits batted balls to travel farther. But we shouldn’t take this to mean that the lone byproduct of the ballpark’s 5,200-foot elevation is a high home run rate. Don’t get me wrong. There have been 1,401 home runs hit at Coors Field since the beginning of the Statcast era in 2015. That’s a lot. However, more homers have been clobbered at three other ballparks during the same period – Oriole Park at Camden Yards (1,581), Yankee Stadium (1,514), and Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark (1,468). That said, the Mile High City does lead the majors in another category by an overwhelming margin – non-home run hits. Most Non-HR Hits In Statcast Era Coors Field (Denver) – 8,986 Fenway Park (Boston) – 8,464 Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City) – 8,279 Chase Field (Phoenix) – 8,022 PNC Park (Pittsburgh) – 7,967 Comerica Park (Detroit) – 7,959 Target Field (Minneapolis) – 7,901 Oracle Park (San Francisco) – 7, 882 Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore) – 7,674 Nationals Park (Washington, DC) – 7,622 It turns out that Coors Field’s spacious outfield, designed to offset its mile-high elevation, actually generates many hits that don’t leave the park. This helps explain why Rockies players have won 11 batting titles since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1993. Now that we’ve reviewed the benefits of Coors Field to hitters, let’s get back to discussing Story’s home/away numbers. Bumpy Road As noted earlier, something I read convinced me to take a second look at Story’s so-so numbers away from Coors Field. It was a piece authored by Mike Petriello of MLB.com discussing the Coors Field effect when Nolan Arenado was traded by Colorado to the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this year. A key takeaway for me was road numbers of hitters tend to improve once they become former Rockies. Petriello suggested that adjusting to hitting away from Coors Field is far more challenging for Colorado players than some of us may realize. With this in mind, I reviewed how the road wOBA of notable former Rockies changed once they left the organization. Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a sabermetric version of on-base percentage (OBP) that credits hitters for how he reached rather than treating all on-base events as equals, as OBP does. For instance, a double is more valuable to run production than a single, a home run more than a double, etc. MLB league-average wOBA this year = .319 Arenado, former Mariners Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta, Dexter Fowler, Corey Dickerson, and D.J. LeMahieu became established major leaguers with Colorado before moving on. The following illustrates each player’s road wOBA during their final two seasons with the Rockies and their first two campaigns after leaving the team with one exception – Arenado has just one year with the Cardinals. As you can see, every player enjoyed more road wOBA success after leaving the Rockies. This suggests there should be an improvement in Story’s away numbers, assuming he signs with a new club. For this reason, I feel much better about his home/away splits. That said, there are other issues regarding the 29-year-old we should consider. A Tough Year This is more perception than reality, but many pending free agents seem to have a career-year as they enter the market. That was not the case for Story. Colorado’s first round pick in the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft slashed .251/.329/.471 with a 100 wRC+. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) quantities how a hitter’s total offensive value compares with the league average after adjusting for park effects. League-average is always 100. Therefore, a wRC+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 wRC+ would be 20-percent below average. Story’s overall season numbers were pedestrian, especially for someone considered by many to be an elite player. But it’s important to note that his production rebounded considerably during his final 50 games. Story’s .377 wOBA and 123 wRC+ over the final two months of the season were certainly more palatable than what he produced beforehand. The issue confronting prospective suitors (and their fan bases) is what version of Story will suit up on Opening Day? The strong August-October performer or the scuffling hitter from the four months prior? The answer to these questions depends on Story’s health. What Was The Problem? In September 2018, Denver Post writer Kyle Newman reported Story was suffering from elbow inflammation and soreness, which led to a five-game absence. The All-Star shortstop returned for the final seven games of the season and then helped the Rockies win the NL Wild Card game by going 3-6 against the Cubs in Chicago. Unfortunately, his elbow began barking again this year. Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post noted in May that Story suffered the same issue he encountered in 2018. This time, an IL stint was required. Perhaps this was the root cause of his 2021 struggles. To this point, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic suggested Story’s elbow issue could affect his market value at the trade deadline. In his late-July article, Rosenthal mentioned Story had committed six throwing errors, which was one shy of his career-high. Normally considered a defensive whiz at shortstop, he finished the season with 11 throwing miscues. Rosenthal also included a video of a poor throw on a routine play as potential evidence of an arm problem. Realistically, we shouldn’t put much weight into a video replay of one bad play. On the other hand, a nerd with a much bigger brain than mine does plant a seed of doubt regarding Story’s arm strength. After the season, Petriello was asked on Twitter about Story’s throwing. His reply illustrated the number of throws Story made topping 75-MPH. My takeaway from this graphic is he made virtually no throws over 85-MPH this season. I’m also left with the impression that his arm strength was showing signs of degradation in 2020. extremely quick and dirty b/c I don’t have time for more but every Story throw 74+ over the last few years (w/o attempting to discern intent) and I will hear there’s some “yikes” within this pic.twitter.com/3GkW9aTpzR — Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) October 28, 2021 What might Story’s elbow issue and its potential effect on his throwing mean to teams interested in signing the free agent? The answer likely depends on an organization’s needs and the player’s wishes. Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish believes the Mariners would play Story at play second base to protect his elbow and permit Gold Glover J.P. Crawford to remain at shortstop. That seems like an appropriate course of action, although it’s unclear whether Story is amenable to changing positions to become a Mariner. Home Field Disadvantage? Okay, let’s assume three things happen in 2022. Story is a Mariner, he hits better on the road, and the elbow doesn’t affect his throwing or hitting. If these things become reality, there is another factor we should discuss. Story would be playing half his games at a venue likely to depress his offensive production – T-Mobile Park. To see what I mean, take a look at the home and away splits of the Mariners with the highest wOBA during the Statcast era. All but two delivered better production away from the Emerald City. The negative effect T-Mobile Park has on most hitters makes forecasting Story’s production as a Mariner somewhat problematic. Sure, he’ll probably hit better on the road. But we know his home numbers will be significantly worse away from Denver. Especially in Seattle’s pitcher-friendly venue. Having said all that, the influence ballparks have on offense varies by MLB venue. It’s part of the business. Some help hitters, others favor pitchers. In the end, the cream will rise to the top. That’s why hitters like Nelson Cruz, Robinson Canó, Jean Segura, and Mitch Haniger were All-Stars as Mariners despite the challenge of playing half their games at T-Mobile Park. Where does that leave Story? How Good Is He? To answer this question, I compared Story to 51 shortstops with 1,000-plus plate appearances since his MLB debut in 2016. It’s an imperfect evaluation, but it should provide a measure of insight into where he stands among his peers. I tend to believe that Story will continue to have home run power away from Coors Field. His career 4% home run rate on the road is better than the 2021 MLB average (3.3%). Then again, I do have reservations about his on-base ability moving forward. Story had a good, but not great career .340 OBP despite benefitting from the large Coors Field outfield. This is attributable to high strikeout and unremarkable walk rates that probably remain stable with a change of address. We shouldn’t ignore this factor when assessing his fit with the Mariners. Yeah, But… Assuming good health, I’ve warmed to the notion of Story’s becoming a Mariner. Yes, there are valid concerns to consider. But there is so much to like about him. Story is capable of providing a unique blend of plus-power and speed on the bases not seen in Seattle since the days of Ken Griffey Jr., Álex Rodríguez, and Mike Cameron. Still, fans should consider the possibility that he’ll be a different type of run producer away from Colorado. An aging Story without the benefit of Coors Field may reach base less often but retain his home run power. That isn’t necesarily a bad thing for the Mariners. It’s what Seager and Haniger have become in recent years. The new version of Trevor Story I’ve imagined may not repeat the prolific stats once produced with the Rockies. But he’d be capable of helping transform the Mariners into a legitimate threat in the AL West division. Does that work for you? It does for me. My Oh My…Go!

According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, the Seattle Mariners and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray have agreed to a five-year contract worth $115 million that has a player opt out after the third season. By signing Ray, the Mariners have accomplished one of several key offseason priorities – raise the ceiling of the starting rotation. There’s much to like about Ray, who instantly becomes Seattle’s best starter. With the Toronto Blue Jays this year, the left-hander was top-five among AL starters with 130-plus innings in ERA, WHIP, AVG, and xwOBA. Only free agent Carlos Rodón (34.6%) and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees (33.5%) had higher strikeout rates than the newest Mariner. Another strength of Ray’s in 2021 was a knack for remaining in games, which explains his AL-best 193.1 innings pitched. The Tennessean also led the junior circuit with 23 quality starts with the Blue Jays going 16-7 in those contests and Ray posting a 2.05 ERA. Another factor about Ray that Mariners fans may embrace is the possibility that pitching in T-Mobile Park aids the 30-year-old in a way not normally considered, except by nerds like me. Ray’s 44.2% fly ball rate was fourth highest in the majors this year and we all know that balls hit into the air don’t necessarily travel as far in Seattle as other places. Shortest Average Fly Ball Distance 2019-21 (feet)T-Mobile Park (Mariners) – 314 loanDepot park (Marlins) – 314 Oracle Park (Giants) – 314 Citi Field (Mets) – 315 Dodger Stadium (Dodgers) – 316 Oakland Coliseum (Athletics) – 316 Citizens Bank Park (Phillies) – 316 As we recently discussed, Seattle pitchers appeared to gain an advantage from the T-Mobile effect on fly balls in 2021. Conversely, the staff delivered somewhat pedestrian results on fly balls when playing on the road. Perhaps Ray also benefits from pitching his home games in the ballpark at the corner of Edgar & Dave. Doing so certainly appeared to help Chris Flexen and Tyler Anderson this year. While there’s a tremendous amount of good news surrounding the newest addition to Seattle’s rotation, we should discuss potential concerns with Ray and his future with the Mariners. After all, the team just committed five years and $115 million to the eight-year veteran. First up, Ray’s susceptibility to the long ball. In 2021, Ray surrendered 33 home runs, which was fourth most in the majors. Not only that, he’s allowed 142 homers since the beginning of the 2016 season. No pitcher coughed up more during that period. Hopefully, the T-Mobile effect we just discussed helps reduce the number of dingers Ray allows next year. Even if pitching in Seattle helps with Ray’s home run tally, the issue likely to receive the greatest scrutiny moving forward will be a long history of allowing free passes. This season, the All-Star’s control was superb – better than the league-average. But that hasn’t been the case throughout his big-league career. Ray’s Walk Rate Through The Years*2014 (8.1%) 2015 (9.0%) 2016 (9.2%) 2017 (10.7%) 2018 (13.3%) 2019 (11.2%) 2020 (17.9%) 2020 (20.1%) 2020 (14.4%) 2021 (6.7%) *MLB average BB% for starting pitchers in 2021 was 7.7% Considering the organization’s emphasis on controlling the strike zone, Seattle must feel comfortable Ray has exorcised the walk demons. To that point, Keegan Matheson of MLB.com noted earlier this season the 2021 Cy Young winner made adjustments to his pitch usage and delivery that permitted him to take advantage of his raw talent. In the end, it led to a $115 million contact with the saber-centric Mariners. Signing Ray will cost the Mariners their third-highest pick in the June 2022 MLB Amateur draft. But that’s a small price to pay (along with $115 million) to acquire for a starter capable of raising the floor of the team’s rotation in 2022 and beyond. While adding Ray is great news for the Mariners and its playoff-starved fan base, more is needed to field a postseason rotation in 2022. Remember, the 2021 Mariners rotation wasn’t good enough to seriously contend. 2021 Mariners Rotation Rankings 4.61 ERA (19th) 20.1 SO% (23rd) 7.7 BB% (11th) 4.66 FIP (22nd) .255 AVG (21st) .314 wOBA (15th) .318 xwOBA (18th) Even the stability of mid-season acquisition Anderson, emergence of Logan Gilbert, and second-half rebound of Marco Gonzales wasn’t enough to put a shine on the team’s season numbers. Currently, the Opening Day rotation projects to be Gonzales, Ray, Gilbert, Flexen, and a gaggle of youngsters vying for the final spot in the rotation. At the moment, it’s reasonable to view Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Matt Brash as the top candidates since they’re currently on the 40-man roster. That said, we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of other starters in the pipeline entering the mix either in Peoria or during the regular season. Potential Rotation Help In The M’s Farm SystemGeorge KirbyEmerson HancockBrandon WilliamsonIsaiah CampbellLevi StoudtJuan Then While the notion of using young arms to round out the rotation sounds cool and fun, doing so at the beginning of the season is fraught with risk. This year, we witnessed top prospects Sheffield and Dunn struggle once they were thrust into full-time service. Even Gilbert scuffled upon arriving from the minors before finally stabilizing late in the season. For this reason, adding at least one more established starter to the mix makes too much sense. Whether that starter is the same caliber as Ray or free agent Marcus Stroman, or a reliable veteran like Anderson is unclear. But a team can never have enough starting pitching. We saw that in 2021 with the Mariners and even a premium organization like the Dodgers. Having said all that, it’s only the week after Thanksgiving Day. So, there’s still plenty of time for Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff to identify and acquire more help for the starting rotation. Based on previous comments made by Dipoto regarding the offseason, the team likely adds at least one more MLB-ready arm. Knowing this should generate some semblance of optimism among beleaguered Mariners fans. Even with a potential lockout looming later this week. My Oh My…Go!

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

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

J.P. Crawford Mariners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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