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

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

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

Mitch Haniger Mariners

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

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

Marco Gonzales Mariners

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

Yusei Kukuchi Mariners

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

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

News that the Seattle Mariners were pursuing Adam Frazier before the All-Star landed with the San Diego Padres provides a glimmer of hope to Mariners fans. Their team appears willing to add difference makers prior to Friday’s MLB trade deadline. Still, a key detail from the Frazier trade reveals a challenge facing Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto this week. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reports the Mariners were willing to absorb all of Frazier’s salary for this season to acquire him from the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, Pittsburgh preferred sending enough money to the Padres to cover most or all of the veteran’s 2021 salary. Mariners also made offer for Adam Frazier and did not ask Pirates to put cash in deal, sources tell @TheAthletic. Pirates sent $1.4M to Padres in part because they value Marcano highly. If he evolves into Frazier type, Pirates get six years of him for 1-plus of Frazier. — Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 25, 2021 Why would the low-revenue Pirates be willing to help with Frazier’s pay? By doing so, Pittsburgh was able to receive better prospect value from the Padres than what Seattle was willing to deal. Essentially, the Mariners were attempting to avoid a higher prospect price by offering to take on the Mississippi State alum’s salary. That brings us to the challenge facing Dipoto with the trade deadline looming. How does Dipoto improve his current roster without jeopardizing his organization’s future? It’s no secret the Mariners have one of the better farm systems in MLB. Therefore, dealing promising young minor leaguers is inevitable. But becoming a free spender with his team’s prospect equity could potentially sink everything Dipoto and his staff have accomplished since beginning to rebuild the organization after the 2018 campaign. Granted, Frazier is having a great season. He would’ve immediately helped the Mariners at a position of need – second base. But how much of its future should a team trade away for a 29-year-old having career year, who’s under club control for just one more season? From Dipoto’s perspective, the Padres’ asking prices exceeded what he was willing to pay. Considering Seattle’s tenuous position in the AL Wild Card standings and the fact the team is fully committed to its rebuild, the sixth-year GM probably made the right choice regarding Frazier. The front office taking a balanced approach during deadline season should please Mariners fans. Still, achieving both goals – making the 2021 postseason and preserving the future – would be the preferred outcome for all involved. Wouldn’t you agree? My Oh My…Go!

Even the most patient Seattle Mariners fan must be questioning the team’s use of reliever Rafael Montero in high-leverage situations. That’s the exact circumstance Montero faced against the A’s last night. The end result – two runs surrendered in the eighth inning of a game that Seattle was trailing by a run and eventually lost 4-1. So, why is Mariners manager Scott Servais turning to Montero late in a key game against a division rival? It’s a legitimate question. After all, Montero’s conventional and advanced stats verify what we’ve been witnessing with our eyeballs – he’s been regressing with each passing month. Even an ardent believer in Montero’s stuff like me was perplexed by Servais’ decision to hand the ball to his enigmatic reliever in last night’s game. Since the rationale for using Montero escaped my pea-brain, I did what I always do when I can’t solve a baseball mystery. I turned to Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill. A quick chat with Jason enlightened me to an obvious issue with Seattle’s bullpen that’s in plain sight for all of us to see. Reliever utilization can be problematic for the Mariners when closer Kendall Graveman isn’t available. By now, most Mariners fans are aware that Graveman has a benign tumor on his cervical spine that led to his conversion from a starter to a reliever last year. A consequence of the tumor is the right-hander isn’t available as often as other arms in Seattle’s bullpen. Graveman has pitched on 0-1 days rest less frequently (33.3-percent) than only one other Seattle reliever appearing in 20-plus games this year – Keynan Middleton. Think about it for a moment. Any time Graveman isn’t available to pitch the ninth inning or any high-leverage situation, Servais must lean on other arms in the bullpen to get the job done. So, why didn’t the sixth-year manager do exactly that last night and steer away from Montero? Reasonable question until we review Servais’ options. He had already used JT Chargois and Drew Steckenrider prior to Montero and Anthony Misiewicz pitched the ninth inning. Assuming Middleton and Erik Swanson weren’t available because they pitched the day prior, the skipper was short on alternatives last night. There was Paul Sewald, who Servais may have been holding in reserve for a save situation. Then again, he could’ve turned to Héctor Santiago. Oh, that’s right, Santiago’s roster spot is open because he’s serving a ridiculous 10-game suspension. Realistically, Servais didn’t have any other options, assuming Graveman was unavailable. To those fans screaming that the Mariners should just get rid of Montero, I hear you. Maybe that happens today or in the near future. But there appear to be few viable replacements waiting in the wings. Perhaps Casey Sadler, who’s about ready to return from the IL, is the answer. But prior to his injury, Sadler pitched on 0-1 days rest in 28.5-percent of his games – less often than Graveman and Middleton. Considering Sadler has been sidelined with shoulder inflammation since April 30, it’s possible the team takes it slowly with the 31-year-old when he does return. Other than Yohan Ramirez, there isn’t a clear-cut replacement on the 40-man roster. And even if the team replaced Montero with Ramirez or Sadler, doing so doesn’t solve the bigger problem facing the Mariners – having high-leverage relievers, who aren’t available on a more frequent basis. No, I’m not blaming Montero’s ineffectiveness on Graveman, Middleton, or even Sadler. He’s the root cause of his problems. But having several relievers unable to throw on 0-1 days rest as often as their peers leads to suboptimal matchups – like last night’s game. If the Mariners had a full complement of relievers capable of going on short rest, keeping a project like Montero on the major-league roster would be more practical than it is now. A large segment of fans would argue that the veteran of seven seasons isn’t worth the trouble. I disagree. Montero’s Statcast profile illustrates the potential that I believe he possesses. I suspect the team’s analytics department and coaching staff may agree with me to some degree. I know. Potential doesn’t win ballgames and that’s a big deal for the Mariners and the fan base right now. But cutting ties with Montero won’t address the team’s bigger issue and could make matters worse without a suitable replacement to fill the void created by his absence. Let’s not forget that Seattle has already parted ways with another workhorse – Will Vest. The combined loss of Vest and Montero, who’ve accounted for 21-percent of the team’s relief innings this year, will only make Servais’ already tough job even more challenging. Realistically, jettisoning Montero would provide instant gratification for fans. But doing so won’t necessarily make the Mariners better at a critical time in their schedule. Only help from outside the organization can do that. My Oh My…Go!

Bob Melvin Oakland Athletics

Few people expected the Seattle Mariners to remain in the postseason conversation well into July. But here we are with the Mariners tantalizingly close to the second Wild Card spot. Yes, a lot can change between now and game-162 – Seattle knows this better than many fan bases. But let’s face it. Watching the rebuilding club flirt with the possibility of earning a playoff berth has been a blast. With the MLB trade deadline about a week away, now seems like a good time to size up the competition standing between the Mariners and returning to the postseason for the first time since 2001. All told, there are six teams that aren’t division leaders with a reasonable chance of keeping Seattle out of the playoffs. Let’s start with the two clubs currently in the Wild Card spots. Tampa Bay Rays Not only do the defending AL champions hold the top Wild Card spot, they’re closing in on the AL East division-leading Red Sox. Tampa Bay also has a recent history of success with the fifth best winning percentage (.589) in MLB since 2018 with two postseason berths to its credit. The Rays experienced a rough June with a 12-14 record, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Mariners in Seattle. As a consequence of the team’s struggles, it went from the best record in the majors on Memorial Day to the first Wild Card spot in July. Still, manager Kevin Cash has guided his squad to a 10-5 record this month. Tampa Bay’s lineup is long with six players boasting an OPS+ over 100, which is the league-average mark. As a result, the team ranks eighth in MLB with 4.89 runs scored/game. Defensively, the Rays have 48 defensive runs saved (DRS) – second most in MLB. Losing top starter Tyler Glasnow to injury last month certainly didn’t help. Since the right-hander went down with a flexor strain and partial UCL tear on June 14, the starting staff’s ERA has ballooned to 5.16, which ranks 25th in MLB. Prior to Glasnow’s injury, the rotation had a 3.49, good enough for eighth best. There is some hope that Glasnow rejoins the team later in the season. Still, hope is not a course of action. Fortunately, for the Rays, the team has Cash at the helm. The seventh-year manager has a history of weaving together his rotation and bullpen in a manner that delivers positive results despite having a staff full of lesser-known names. Another factor favoring Tampa Bay, the front office has a knack for making in-season moves that yield positive outcomes. In 2020, it was a relative unknown – Randy Arozarena. According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, the Rays are aiming higher this year. BREAKING: The Tampa Bay Rays are finalizing a deal to acquire slugger Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins, sources tell ESPN. — Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) July 22, 2021 Oakland A’s Oakland is an interesting club considering it has a .500 record when playing the AL East and AL West. Yet, its flourished with a 21-9 record against the AL Central and NL opponents. As with the Rays, the A’s have a deep lineup with six players having an above-average OPS+. But the team is mid-pack in multiple categories such as OBP, SLG, OPS+, and the most important stat – runs scored. Moreover, the designated hitter position’s .696 OPS ranks 12th in the AL. It’s worth noting Oakland does generate extra base hits and is top-10 in home runs and doubles. The starting rotation doesn’t have a marquee name, but is effective nonetheless. Oakland starters have a 3.64 ERA this season, which is eighth best in the majors. Leading the way are Chris Bassitt, rookie James Kaprielian, Cole Irvin, and Sean Manaea. As usual, the bullpen has been a strength that’s been well-managed by skipper Bob Melvin. Having said that, adding another reliever or two would benefit the team down the stretch giving it a better shot of going deeper into the postseason. Prior to Passan’s report, there had been a lot of speculation that Nelson Cruz would be a perfect fit for Oakland. He would’ve been, although there’s one issue that should never be overlooked with the A’s – finances. Cruz is owed approximately $4 million for the final two months of the season. That doesn’t seem like a lot of money for an MLB team. But it may be with this organization. In the offseason, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported that after the A’s declined to make the $18.9 million qualifying offer to longtime shortstop Marcus Semien, the team suggested a one-year/$12.5 million contract to Semien with $10 million deferred in 10 one-year installments of $1 million. Oakland also signed reliever Trevor Rosenthal to a one-year/$11 million backloaded deal with the reliever receiving $3 million in both 2021 and 2022 and $5 million in 2023. Toronto Blue Jays Only the Astros and Dodgers are plating more runs than Toronto’s prolific offense, which is averaging 5.2 runs scored/game. To that point, Blue Jays hitters collectively rank top-three in home runs, AVG, SLG, and OPS+. On the other hand, the pitching staff has been far less dynamic. That’s not to say the Blue Jays’ staff is bad. But the rotation and bullpen are closer to league-average than leaders of the pack. The starting staff is headlined by veteran Robbie Ray, who’s having an excellent season. Behind Ray are fellow southpaws Hyun Jin Ryu and Steven Matz with their league-average production and an inconsistent Ross Stripling in the fourth spot. After that, it gets a bit squishy. The bullpen is similar – decent results without standout performers. There’s also an unknown regarding the remainder of the Blue Jays’ season that could tip the scales for or against the club during the stretch run – its home field. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Blue Jays have played their home games in Dunedin, Florida and Buffalo, New York this season. But the club finally gets to head back to Toronto in about a week. How will playing in the Rogers Centre affect the Blue Jays’ offense? Perhaps the new home surroundings won’t impact Toronto’s run-scoring machine. But it’s worth noting that the team has boasted a combined .837 OPS in Florida and New York compared to .732 on the road. For those wondering, the pitching staff’s ERA has been relatively similar at home and on the road. Regardless of park factors, adding rotation and bullpen help prior to the deadline would be the best course of action for the Blue Jays. New York Yankees It’s been a rough season for the Bronx Bombers with injuries playing a big role in the club’s struggles this year. Notable names currently on the IL include Aaron Judge, Gio Urshela, Clint Frazier, plus starter Corey Kluber and a plethora of relievers. Coincidentally, the Yankees had the same 12-14 record in June as division-rival Tampa Bay with New York also playing better in July (9-5). Since the All-Star break, the team has consecutive series wins over the Mariners, Houston, Boston, and Philadelphia. Still, the Yankees must play better within their own division to have a chance of returning to the postseason for a fifth consecutive season. The Bombers are 31-19 against AL Central, AL West, and NL teams. But even after taking two of three from the Red Sox, New York is only 19-25 versus the AL East. Assuming the Yankees continue playing well this month, the team may choose to lean forward at the deadline to improve its postseason chances. As with every club, rotation help has to be a top priority. Adding another bat would also benefit the hobbled roster. A name bandied around often is Texas’ Joey Gallo. The slugger would certainly represent an upgrade to the lineup. Not only that, the Gold Glove right fielder has demonstrated in the past he can play any outfield position and first base. Cleveland Indians Cleveland has an uphill battle ahead of it. The team ranks in the bottom-third of MLB in AVG and OBP with its short lineup having just three hitters posting an OPS+ over 100. As always, pitching is the engine that propels Cleveland’s success. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffectiveness have negatively impacted the starting staff with 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale currently on the IL. That said, the bullpen remains a viable weapon for manager Terry Francona. Although Cleveland plays in the weak AL Central division, payroll restrictions probably prevent the club from making up ground in the standings. Last offseason, the front office dealt Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco for financial reasons. This suggests it’s more likely this team moves veteran contracts than acquire them. Los Angeles Angels Although the Mariners have recently enjoyed success against the Angels, we shouldn’t discount this club over the final two months of the season. Especially with Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Justin Upton eventually returning from the IL. That’s tantamount to acquiring a few extra hitters at the deadline without having to make a trade. Still, the Angels’ postseason aspirations will hinge on the starting rotation – not their bats. Everyone is aware that Shohei Ohtani is having an MVP-caliber season. But Ohtani isn’t alone. Rookie Patrick Sandoval has been excellent and veteran Alex Cobb is proving to be a stabilizing presence. On the other hand, Opening Day rotation members Dylan Bundy and Jose Quintana are now in the bullpen due to poor performances and Andrew Heaney has also struggled. Backing up the rotation are several interesting relief arms. Most notably, closer Raisel Iglesias. But the Halos’ bullpen lacks depth and now includes banished starters Bundy and Quintana. Considering the Angels’ position in the standings, it’s plausible the team sells at the deadline. Yes, I could be dead wrong. But the Halos have 12 pending free agents, including Cobb, Heaney, Bundy, Quintana, shortstop José Iglesias, catcher Kurt Suzuki, and relievers Alex Claudio, Tony Watson, and Steve Cishek. This month would be a great opportunity for GM Perry Minasian to begin reloading for 2022 and beyond. Looking Ahead For me, the postseason chances of the six teams we’ve discussed and the Mariners fall in the following order: Rays A’s Yankees Blue Jays Mariners Angels Cleveland Many of the blemishes affecting the clubs we’ve discussed also apply to the Mariners. Seattle’s lineup is short, the roster has been plagued by injuries, and the starting rotation has delivered suboptimal results. Even during the team’s hot stretch since Memorial Day, its offense ranks in the bottom-third of MLB in many categories. Obviously, a lot can change by the last day of the season. Especially with clubs having an opportunity to improve via trade this month. However, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto remains steadfastly committed to the organization’s rebuild process. Therefore, adding big-ticket difference makers by the deadline doesn’t seem likely. Even if Dipoto were willing to throw caution to the wind, ownership likely prevents the sixth-year GM from acquiring the salaries of established players. It’s the same challenge facing the front offices of Oakland and Cleveland, although Seattle is a significantly larger market than those cities. Then again, the Mariners’ current roster could simply prove naysayers like me wrong by playing its way into the postseason. After all, you can’t argue with results – even when underlying metrics suggest there should’ve been a different outcome. My Oh My…Go!

When the Seattle Mariners resume play after the All-Star break, the team will be tantalizingly close to the second Wild Card spot. With this in mind, what questions must the Mariners answer in the second half to have a chance of reaching the postseason this year? Can The Rotation Get Better? I recently suggested that the Mariners can’t compete without better starting pitching. Over the next 10 weeks, we’ll see whether the starting rotation can improve. Moreover, how the staff performs in the second half should signal which starters are likely keepers heading into 2022. The following illustrates the stats of the starting staff’s main contributors since May 13 – the debut date of rookie Logan Gilbert. Our table is sorted by expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), which reflects quantity and quality of contact. A low xwOBA is good for pitchers; the opposite applies to hitters. Also included, MLB averages for starters. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Gilbert and Chris Flexen are no-brainers to return. Both remain under club control next season and are performing extremely well. Based on performance alone, Yusei Kikuchi should join them. However, Seattle’s lone All-Star has a unique contract that could lead to a long-term relationship with the Mariners or his departure following this season. How Kikuchi performs during the second half likely determines his future in Seattle. The remaining rotation arms are unknowns due to health and performance challenges. Justin Dunn had a rocky start to the season. But he seemed to be turning a corner in his development when shoulder inflammation sidelined him. As you can see, the Boston College alum’s xwOBA was trending in the right direction until his shoulder acted up. Dunn is throwing again and could come back to help the team, assuming there are no rehab setbacks. When the New Yorker returns, we’ll get to see whether he can build upon his recent success or suffers a regression that may threaten his long-term viability in the rotation. The team’s two best starters in 2020 were Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield. Unfortunately, opposing hitters have pummeled both left-handers this year. Gonzales’ issues are a complete surprise – perhaps the biggest of the season for me. After all, the former Gonzaga Bulldog has been the Opening Day starter the last two seasons. Sheffield’s difficulties aren’t in the same class as Gonzales’ troubles since his 15 starts this season are a career high. Then again, no one predicted that the Tennessean would free fall in 2021. Making matters worse, he’s currently shelved with a forearm strain with no projected return date. Is J.P. Crawford The Real Deal? Crawford seemingly flipped a switch when he became the team’s full-time leadoff hitter in June. When we spilt his season into two parts, the improvement is readily apparent. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Crawford can sustain his current level of success through the remainder of the season. The California native’s career norms through 2020 more closely resemble his early-season 2021 production than what we’ve seen from him lately. Perhaps everything has finally clicked for Crawford. If that’s the case, the Mariners have found their long-term shortstop. Otherwise, the team may opt to look elsewhere for help in the offseason. That would be a shame since the former first rounder has become a fan-favorite thanks to his hustle, outstanding play, and charisma. Does Jarred Kelenic bounce back from an awful debut? By now, we’re all very familiar with Kelenic’s meteoric rise through the minors, service time controversy, and subsequent crash landing when he reached the majors in mid-May. Currently assigned with Class-AAA Tacoma, the Wisconsin native is tearing up the league and likely rejoins the big-league club very soon. When Kelenic does return, he’ll get another chance to help the Mariners win games in in 2021 and beyond. How does the team balance its catcher situation? The arrival of Cal Raleigh means the Mariners have three catchers – Raleigh, Opening Day starter Tom Murphy, and Luis Torrens. Most observers, including me, view Raleigh as Seattle’s catcher of the future. But how does the team handle three backstops for the rest of 2021? Two months ago, the answer would’ve been easy. Send Torrens to Tacoma. But a lot has changed since then. After a stint in AAA, Torrens has been a revelation. Since June 15 return, he’s hit 7 home runs with a .288/.391/.695 slash-line in 69 plate appearances. Even if we expand our view of the Venezuelan to his entire season, his stats are average-or-better in several categories. The right-handed hitting Murphy has been more productive when facing southpaws. Against like-handed pitching, the Buffalo product has a .564 OPS compared to a .711 OPS versus left-handers. With this in mind, a quasi-platoon arrangement may make some sense. One way the Mariners could manage having three backstops is use Torrens at first base. It’s a position he’s played with Tacoma and the major-league club this season. Naturally, designated hitter is an option for all each player – assuming their bat justifies being used there. Another option could be GM Jerry Dipoto trading a Torrens or Murphy prior to the deadline. Catcher is usually a position of need at this point of the season. If Dipoto instead retains the trio on the major-league roster, I’m looking forward to watch how manager and former catcher Scott Servais juggles his three backstops. Which version of Kendall Graveman will we see? Early in the season, Graveman was Seattle’s shutdown reliever. As a result, his name is oft-mentioned in trade speculation. That said, there’s been a noticeable change in the Mississippi State alum’s numbers since a COVID IL stint lasting several weeks. To be clear, what we’re seeing from Graveman now is still good. It’s just not as dominant as what he was doing prior to his COVID-related absence. How the Alabaman does moving forward may set the tone for the Mariners’ bullpen or possibly influence his potential trade value this month. Is Paul Sewald A Future Closer? Not long ago, Corey Brock of The Athletic floated Sewald’s name as a future closer for the Mariners. Considering how Sewald has performed since arriving on May 13, it’s hard to dispute Mr. Brock’s assertion. Since joining the club, Sewald has been the best reliever on the Mariners. His presence was particularly vital during the absence of Graveman and recent struggles of Rafael Montero. Moving forward, it’s going to be fun watching the San Diego product. Perhaps he does become Seattle’s full-time closer. Does Kyle Seager rebound from a lackluster first half? During the first month of the season, Seager was as an anchor in the Mariners’ lineup. But the 11-year veteran’s production has tailed off considerably with each passing month. Considering the team holds an option on Seager for 2022, how he performs over the rest of this season could affect its decision regarding the 33-year-old’s future in the Emerald City. Do The Mariners Need Help At Second Base? In each of the last two years, the team designated Shed Long Jr. (2020) and Dylan Moore (2021) as its second baseman thanks to impressive performances in the season prior. Unfortunately, both players stumbled afterwards. When we look at their career stats, it’s reasonable to question whether Long or Moore can be the answer at second base for the Mariners. Still, there’s time for Long and Moore to demonstrate they can contribute at second base or in other roles after 2021. Long has primarily played in left field this year, plus he’s made eight starts at second base. Moore is the primary second baseman and has been an excellent defender. He’s also covered third base during Seager’s recent absence from the lineup. Having said that, a utility role may eventually be the best way to maximize the value of both players. Do we see Kyle Lewis in the second half? The 2020 AL Rookie of the Year began the season on the IL and then started slowly when he returned in late-April. But Lewis was regaining his form at the plate when a knee injury and subsequent surgery sidelined him. Dipoto has been cautious in projecting when the Mercer alum might rejoin the team. That said, a return this summer would be a good news story. What Happens At The Trade Deadline? It’s plausible Dipoto buys and sells at the deadline. Perhaps he moves a pending free agent like Graveman, but also adds players capable of helping the Mariners win games in 2021 and in future seasons. What the sixth-year GM sees from Kelenic and Raleigh immediately after the All-Star break may influence his appetite to upgrade the lineup. If Dipoto does lean forward in the trade market, adding rotation help has to be a priority. Bullpen reinforcements and another bat or two would help too. But those moves won’t matter without better production from the starting staff. Does Mitch Haniger remain a Mariner? My guess is Haniger sticks around this season. Let’s face it, trading veteran position players in the summer usually isn’t beneficial. On the other hand, I’m terrible at predicting what trades Dipoto and his staff might engineer. Still, Haniger has been one of the best hitters on the team during its recent surge in the standings. Moving the Cal Poly product, while flirting with a potential postseason berth, would be a risky move and may not sit well with the fan base. Do Dipoto and Servais get their extensions? When I tweeted last week that I thought Dipoto and Servais deserved contract extensions immediately, reactions on both sides of the issue came in strong and hot. Yeah, the #Mariners should extend Jerry Dipoto & Scott Servais right now. — Luke Arkins (@luke_arkins) July 11, 2021 It’s reasonable to speculate whether Dipoto can build a major-league roster capable of going deep into a postseason – he’s yet to do it. Then again, it’s tough to overlook what he’s done to rebuild the organization’s farm system in three years. For this reason alone, the team should ownership stick with its current management. Time will tell whether ownership agrees. Can the Mariners continue their winning ways? It’s difficult to envision the current roster being deep enough to propel the Mariners into the postseason. On the other hand, deadline deals provide an opportunity to improve. Not only that, the team should benefit from having Kelenic and Raleigh in its lineup on a regular basis. And let’s not forget Gilbert, who’s trending towards becoming a Rookie of the Year candidate. Will a combination of trades and an influx of talented youngsters get the Mariners to the playoffs in 2021? Hard to tell. But it should be fun watching Servais’ squad try to make meaningful October a reality this year. My Oh My…Go!

Contenders always strive to bolster their starting rotation prior to the MLB trade deadline. The most treasured arm is the starter capable of leading a team deep into the postseason. That said, the upstart Seattle Mariners aren’t quite ready to pursue such a pitcher. Still, at some point, the Mariners will need to upgrade the rotation to become a full-fledged postseason contender. Waiting until the offseason is a reasonable approach. Then again, why not start now? That’s assuming an opportunity presents itself. Just for fun, I identified 16 rotation trade targets that could make sense for the Mariners. At least I think they could. Since we don’t know whether ownership is amenable to adding payroll, my list includes both prominent names and fringe candidates. Each is enjoying varying levels of success and remains under club control for different lengths of time. Therefore, the cost of acquisition depends on the individual’s circumstances. Please note we won’t be discussing pending free agents. Instead, the focus will be on pitchers capable of helping the Mariners now and in future seasons. Similar to the strategy GM Jerry Dipoto employed when adding Marco Gonzales and Mike Leake in the summer of 2017. Having said that, it’s very possible Dipoto sees things differently than me when it comes to acquiring rentals. After all, he and his staff are much more intelligent and savvier than this dumb blogger. But considering the team’s commitment to the future, Seattle isn’t likely to overpay for a player destined to walk after the season. That much seems certain. With each player’s profile, you’ll see the same set of stats with MLB averages. Please note the column labeled “Thru” refers to the last season under club control prior to free agency, including option years. Let’s start with the most obvious choice for many fans. German Márquez, RHP – Rockies Márquez has been Colorado’s ace and could potentially fill the same role for contenders or clubs looking to the near-future. The Venezuelan is an innings eater, who leads the majors with three complete games. Not only that, he almost threw a no-hitter at Coors Field last month. Fun fact: 10 teams don’t have a pitcher with a complete game this year, including the Mariners Making Márquez even more appealing, a team-friendly contract. This year, he’s earning $7.8 million with a raise to $11.3 million next season and then $15.3 million in 2023. After that, there’s a $16 million club option for the 2024 campaign. Sonny Gray, RHP – Reds With the Reds still in the NL Central and Wild Card races, it’s quite possible the team won’t move players this month. Still, Gray is earning $10.2 million annually in 2021-22 with a 2023 club option costing $12 million. Perhaps Cincinnati entertains moving the Vanderbilt product, if reducing payroll became a priority. Gray would be an excellent fit for the Mariners. Other than two rocky years with the Yankees, he’s been excellent with Oakland and now Cincinnati. The right-hander would also serve as a veteran presence with something left in the tank – qualities Dipoto has coveted for his staff. Note: Gray is on the IL with a rib cage strain, although he’s not expected to be out for an extended period. As long as this holds true, the injury shouldn’t deter a forward-looking team from acquiring the 2011 first round pick of the A’s. Tyler Mahle, RHP- Reds Again, the Reds may be wary of dealing a starter with a potential berth still conceivably within reach. Especially Mahle, who is seemingly entering his peak and earning a relatively affordable $2.2 million salary. If Cincinnati were to trade the Californian, the buyer acquiring him could be asked to offload more prospect capital than expected in a Gray deal. Aaron Nola, RHP – Phillies Will the Phillies sell at the deadline? They’re hovering near the .500-mark with several teams in front of them in the NL East and Wild Card races. Assuming Philadelphia went into sell-mode, it has two pitchers that I find interesting. The first is Nola. Nola’s ERA is over 4.00 for the first time since 2016, although advanced metrics assure us that he’s still an above-average starter. The former LSU Tiger remains adept at missing bats and has completed six-plus innings in half of his 18 starts, including a complete game in April. The 2018 All-Star and Cy Young Award finalist is due $15.5 million next season with a $16 million club option for 2023. Jordan Montgomery, LHP – Yankees Yes, including a New York Yankee is definitely an outside-the-box move. Even if New York chose to sell, dealing a starting pitcher under club control through 2023 may not be on the team’s agenda. That said, Montgomery is an interesting player. After missing most of 2018-2019 due to Tommy John surgery, Montgomery’s 2021 numbers suggest the former South Carolina Gamecock is finally fully recovered. Still, there is some risk with acquiring a 28-year-old pitcher, who’s made 20-plus starts just once. On the bright side, his $2.1 million salary should fit into any budget. José Berríos, RHP – Twins Berríos is having a solid campaign despite playing for a team that’s cratered. Perhaps Minnesota begins to re-energize its farm system by dealing the two-time All-Star this summer. A word of caution. His 3.36 ERA looks much better than an .316 xwOBA that suggests he’s been a little better than league-average. Still, Berríos has been a durable performer during his six-year MLB career. This season, he’s pitched through the sixth inning in 10 of his 18 starts. Furthermore, the native of Puerto Rico is relatively inexpensive – $6 million in 2021 with one year of arbitration eligibility remaining. Luis Castillo, RHP – Reds Oh look, another Red. As with Mahle, Castillo is in the first year of arbitration eligibility and receiving a relatively low salary – $4.2 million. Based on xwOBA, the native of the Dominican Republic has been slightly above average this season. That said, consider how much better the Mariners’ rotation would look right now with Castillo in it. Zach Eflin, RHP – Phillies The 25-point difference between Elfin’s wOBA and xwOBA suggests he may be the victim of Philadelphia’s defense, which ranks 29th in defensive runs saved. Other appealing aspects of his game include a league-leading 3.3-percent walk rate and the fact he’s averaging six innings/start. The Floridian is grossing $4.5 million this season with one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. Kyle Hendricks, RHP – Cubs In a way, Hendricks is a right-handed version of Gonzales. Neither throws hard or strikeouts a lot of batters. Both are most effective when they limit walks. Hendricks has certainly done this lately. The Dartmouth alum’s 3.3-percent walk rate spanning the last two seasons is the lowest among qualified starters. Still, it’s important to recognize he’s leading the NL home runs allowed and has an unappealing .340 xwOBA. It’s plausible the combination of financial obligations and Hendricks’ 2021 lackluster numbers deter teams from pursuing him. The California native is earning $14 million now through 2023. There’s also a $16 million club option for 2024, his age-34 season. Kyle Gibson, RHP – Rangers The Missouri alum’s name figures to be prominent in trade speculation this month thanks to his outstanding numbers and the fact he’s making $10 million this year and only $7 million in 2022. Still, the issue for me is whether Gibson’s recent success is sustainable moving forward. Gibson’s ERA, wOBA, and xwOBA are all career bests by a large margin. Is it reasonable to expect a 33-year-old to deliver similar production next season when he’s a year older? That’s a critical question teams must confront. Prior to this year, the Indiana native had a 4.57 ERA through his first eight big-league seasons. Furthermore, his .327 xwOBA since 2015 isn’t even close to the .313 MLB-average during this period. The financial risk of acquiring Gibson is relatively low. However, a team acquiring him could overpay in prospects only to be disappointed with his 2022 production. Kenta Maeda, RHP – Twins After finishing second in Cy Young Award voting last season, Maeda’s numbers have significantly regressed. So much so, the native of Japan is on a path to set career worsts in every category listed above. Still, his .315 xwOBA suggest there’s a glimmer of hope he could be better-than-average in the second half of 2021. If the Mariners acquired Maeda, it’s possible he’d be just one more pitcher unable to finish five innings on a regular basis for manager Scott Servais. Then again, a change of scenery might help get the 33-year-old back on track. Even if Maeda didn’t work out for Seattle, his $3.1 million annual salary over the next two seasons isn’t exactly a budget-breaker. JT Brubaker, RHP – Pirates Brubaker is inexpensive and under club control for the next four seasons. A low-revenue club like the Pirates may not want to keep the University of Akron alum on its roster for budget reasons. That said, the sophomore could be a stabilizing presence in Seattle’s 2021 rotation and potentially capable of providing value moving forward. Antonio Senzatela, RHP – Rockies Getting Senzatela away from the un-friendly confines of Coors Field might benefit him and ultimately his new club. Although the Venezuelan doesn’t miss bats at a high rate, he’s miserly with surrendering free passes. His 5.1-percent walk rate is ninth lowest among qualified starters. As with most of the arbitration-eligible players we’ve discussed, Senzatela’s salary is a very affordable $3 million. Merrill Kelly, RHP – Diamondbacks Initially an eighth round pick of the Rays in 2010, Kelly eventually signed with SK Wyverns of the KBO prior to the 2015 season. He eventually made his MLB debut with Arizona in 2018. Considering his advanced age, the Arizona State product may not be a long-term fixture in a future contender’s rotation. Then again, Kelly has completed six innings in 11 of 18 starts this season. And let’s not forget that the Mariners have enjoyed success by signing a player returning from Korea – Chris Flexen. Financially, the Texan is making $4.25 million this season with a $5.25 million club option for next year. After that, there’s the possibility of two years of arbitration-eligibility. Alec Mills, RHP – Cubs Although Mills began the season as a reliever, he shifted to the rotation in mid-June and has a 3.65 ERA in five starts. Since joining the starting staff, he’s striking out hitters at a higher rate (24.3-percent) and giving up less walks (5.8-percent). Perhaps the Tennessean is the kind of arm Dipoto needs to pursues to help the 2021 Mariners. First, Mills has proven capable of shifting between the bullpen and rotation. Furthermore, beginning the season as a reliever may mean the right-hander has more miles remaining on his arm than starters in the rotation since Opening Day. Then again, the North Siders could keep Mills for his versatility and the fact his first year of arbitration eligibility isn’t until 2022. Caleb Smith, LHP – Diamondbacks Smith has also started and relieved this season, although his numbers aren’t as impressive. The Sam Houston State product has been far more effective as a reliever with a 2.70 ERA and impressive .307 xwOBA. Someone as adaptable as Smith could help the Mariners shore up the backend of the rotation or help stabilize the bullpen. The Texas native is making $1.5 million this season with two arbitration years remaining. Based on my terrible record of identifying potential Dipoto trade targets, there’s a pretty good chance that none of the names I’ve mentioned will be wearing a Mariners uniform by August. Still, my view that Seattle can’t reach the 2021 postseason without getting better results from the starting staff remains unchanged. Adding controllable rotation upgrades could potentially help the Mariners overcome the slim odds of the team playing meaningful October baseball this year. At the very least, augmenting the major-league roster would send a clear signal to players and fans that the organization is committed to continuous improvement in 2021 and beyond. At this point, fans deserve that much from ownership. My Oh My…Go!

Marco Gonzales Mariners

The 2021 Seattle Mariners are a fun group to watch. Even better, a strong June has the Mariners boasting a 45-40 record on the Fourth of July. Naturally, the team’s recent success has created a groundswell of interest in the upstarts from the Pacific Northwest. But is their success sustainable? It’s a bit early to have illusions of grandeur about the Mariners’ season. But if the team is going to have any chance of legitimately vying for a playoff berth in 2021, the starting rotation must be better than its current version, which ranks in the bottom-third of the majors in multiple categories. Injuries have undoubtedly affected the rotation in a big way. James Paxton, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome have all experienced season-ending injuries. Making matters worse, Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales, who’s previously undergone Tommy John surgery, was lost for a month after suffering a forearm strain. Gonzales has since returned, although Justin Dunn is currently sidelined with a shoulder strain. That’s a lot of starting pitching to lose in one season. Still, for a postseason contender, it’s immaterial who’s not available. What matters are the players the team will rely on during the dog days of summer. For Seattle, that appears to be Gonzales, Dunn, Yusei Kikuchi, Chris Flexen, Justus Sheffield, and rookie Logan Gilbert. As a whole, this unit hasn’t fared particularly well this season. That’s a problem. A closer look reveals that the Mariners’ rotation can be split into two halves – productive and reliable contributors and the other guys. Through the midway point of the season, manager Scott Servais has routinely received positive outcomes from Kikuchi, Flexen, and Gilbert. Meanwhile, Gonzales, Dunn, and Sheffield have dealt with ineffectiveness and/or injury. In his third year in MLB, Kikuchi has emerged as Seattle’s best pitcher and an All-Star. Not only that, he’s making a strong case for the Mariners to exercise a club option that would keep the 30-year-old in the Emerald City through the 2025 campaign. At the moment, the organization doing so seems like a no-brainer. Unheralded before the season and even now, Flexen is proving to be an amazing find by GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff. After pitching in Korea in 2020, the 27-year-old has unexpectedly helped anchor the Mariners’ rotation along with Kikuchi. Since debuting on May 13, Gilbert has lived up to the billing as Seattle’s top pitching prospect. Sure, he struggled out of the gate. But the 24-year-old has since gained his footing and managed to hold opponents to a .209 AVG and log a 2.90 ERA in six starts since Memorial Day. Dunn struggled with his control since joining the Mariners organization in December 2018. But he appeared to be turning a corner in his development before a balky shoulder affected his performance and eventually his availability. The right-hander is beginning to throw again and expected to return to the club sometime after the All-Star break. Gonzales and Sheffield rank in the bottom 10-percent among starters in ERA, FIP, wOBA, and xwOBA and appear to be getting worse as the season progresses. Unless the pair begins delivering positive contributions on a more regular basis, it’s to tough envision the Mariners competing for a postseason spot in 2021 with its current roster. Consider this. Since Gilbert’s May 13 debut, the Mariners have a 27-21 record. That’s fifth best in the AL behind Houston, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Chicago. Great news, but the rotation’s combined numbers continue to remain in the lower-third of the league despite the team’s winning ways. Again, the Jekyll and Hyde analogy applies. Kikuchi, Flexen, and Gilbert have essentially carried the rotation for the last six weeks. Meanwhile, the other three main starters have struggled and made significantly fewer starts than their counterparts. For further proof of each group’s value to the team’s record, let’s consider how the Mariners have done when they’ve started games. Although we know pitcher wins aren’t an effective measure of starting pitchers, how a team fares with a specific starter on the mound may tell us something about his value to the team. With this in mind, take a look at the win-loss record of the Mariners when our two groups and several substitutes started games since Gilbert’s debut. Seattle’s Record Since May 13Kikuchi/Flexen/Gilbert (18-8) Gonzales/Sheffield/Dunn (8-10) Others (1-3) The Mariners appear to have a much better chance of winning games started by Kikuchi, Flexen, or Gilbert. It’s also worth noting the team is 7-1 in Gilbert’s last eight starts. Realistically, there are two outcomes for the rotation that lead to a potential postseason run this season. At least two of the three struggling arms – Gonzales, Sheffield, and Dunn – dramatically improve after the All-Star break. Or, Dipoto gets help from outside the organization to bolster the starting staff. Otherwise, it’s unlikely the Mariners play meaningful October baseball in 2021. Yes, it’d be cool if Dipoto added a few hitter to bolster the lineup this summer. Who wouldn’t want to see a reunion with fan-favorite Nelson Cruz? Adding “Boomstick”, or any other potent bat, would certainly benefit the Mariners. But doing so won’t matter if the rotation continues to underperform. Perhaps Dipoto acquires rotation help this summer in the form of rentals or players with club control remaining. But doing so won’t be easy. As we’ve discussed before, pitching is the number-one commodity every contender is looking for during deadline deal season. If the sixth-year GM doesn’t add any arms, his team’s 2021 postseason outlook will rest on the arms of his current starting pitchers. Understandably, fans are eager to see the organization’s 20-year postseason drought come to a end. But the Mariners are just now emerging from their rebuild phase. Dipoto isn’t likely to squander significant prospect equity for a fleeting shot at a wild card berth, which is essentially a play-in game. After all, 2021 was always going to be a season of discovery for Seattle. So what have we discovered about the Mariners thus far? They’re an exciting young ball club worthy of our attention this summer. We’re also learning the team needs more starting pitching to take the next step in its transformation – become a sustainable postseason contender. My Oh My…Go!

Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners

Want to get under the skin of a Seattle Mariners fan? Just say two words – Rafael Montero. You see, a recent string of disastrous outings by Montero has turned the team’s fan base against him. Not only that, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish suggests management is running out of patience with the volatile reliever. So much so that he may not last with the Mariners after the All-Star break. What’s Wrong With Rafael Montero? The default answer to this question for many frustrated Mariners fans is “everything.” But that’s not really the case. A review of Montero’s Statcast profile suggests he’s an excellent pitcher capable of providing value to any team – including Seattle. Still, Montero has been disproving the notion he’s valuable on a regular basis. So, why the wide gap between advanced metrics and the actual results he’s delivered? I’m just a dumb blogger and can’t offer solutions to “fix” Montero or any baseball player. But after spending considerable time on Statcast Island at Baseball Savant, I did discover several interesting items worth sharing with you. Perhaps they can help us make sense of his maddening season in Seattle. Perplexing Numbers When we review Montero’s production, we immediately see a large discrepancy between his conventional and advanced statistics. Without doubt, Montero’s old-school numbers are awful. His ERA, strikeout percentage, and opponent’s AVG rank in the bottom 10-percent of all MLB relievers. Then again, advanced metrics suggest he shouldn’t be as bad as the old school stats indicate or what fans are seeing with their eyeballs. Montero’s expected batting average (xBA) and expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) are close to or better than the MLB average. Moreover, his expected earned run average (xERA) is well below his actual ERA. These three metrics reflect quality of contact on batted balls by using exit velocity and launch angle. Therefore, they remove defense from the equation. This is an important feature to remember as we move forward. Poor Contact, Disappointing Results Montero has been relatively successful at avoiding quality contact this season. However, the first-year Mariner hasn’t experienced positive outcomes as often as you might expect. Per Statcast, Montero pitches have generated poor contact at a rate that’s actually better than league-average. That said, I can’t stop looking at a .221 AVG that’s third highest in MLB among relievers and nearly 100 points above normal. Trouble With The Grounder Montero has been an extreme ground ball pitcher this season with a 60.2-percent ground ball rate that’s 15th highest among relievers. Normally, generating grounders is a good thing. Not so much for Seattle’s mercurial relief pitcher. Among relievers with a ground ball rate of 60-percent or greater, Montero’s .324 AVG is second highest behind Jeurys Familia of the Mets (.333). Similarly, the .070 gap between his AVG and xBA is second highest behind Familia again (.151). It’s also worth noting starters Justus Sheffield (32) and Chris Flexen (31) are the only Mariners to permit more ground ball hits than Montero. In fact, 22 of the 40 hits he’s allowed have been grounders. No MLB reliever has surrendered more. A closer look reveals Montero’s trouble with grounders weren’t caused by quality contact. In fact, 10 of the 22 ground ball hits he allowed were categorized as poor contact by Statcast and had an exit velocity under 90-MPH. Only 13 pitchers have more of this type of weak grounder – all are starters. Kansas City’s Brad Keller leads the majors with 16 and he’s faced over twice as many batters as Montero. On those weak ground balls, opponents have a .323 AVG against Montero. Only two of the 13 starters just referred to had an AVG over .250 – Keller (.254) and Oakland’s Sean Manaea (.295). Realistically, Montero has experienced some bad luck on poorly-struck balls this season. But the 30-year-old has also played a role in creating his misfortune. Let’s discuss. Line Drive Woes A result of Montero avoiding quality contact is an excellent 15-percent line drive rate well below the 23.6-percent league-average. But there’s a caveat to this good news that isn’t pretty. Opponents have an .830 xwOBA on the few liners they’ve hit against Montero. This isn’t a good thing for a pitcher also receiving less than favorable outcomes on poorly struck balls. Trouble With Men On Base A review of Montero’s splits with and without men on base (MOB) reveals the native of the Dominican Republic has struggled with runners on base. Obviously, being unable to weather difficult situations, like having men on the base paths, is problematic for any pitcher. Particularly someone acquired to be a late-inning reliever – like Montero. Make ‘Em Miss, Or Maybe Not With the exception of walk rate, Montero had significantly worse numbers with men on base. The stat catching my eye is his strikeout rate, which is attributable to a plummeting whiff rate. Montero’s whiff rate with the bases empty ranks 53rd among 197 relief pitchers who’ve induced at least 100 swings with MOB this season. That’s pretty good. But, once again, we see drastically different results with traffic on the bases. His 17.1-percent whiff rate with men on base ranks 136th. Pitch Selection Just to reiterate the obvious, I’m not a pitching expert of any sort. But Montero’s repertoire merits discussion from a statistical perspective. That said, it’s difficult to ignore how the whiff rate for three of his four pitches is drastically lower when bases are occupied. Montero has managed to induce more swings and misses with his sinker with men on base. However, his four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup delivered undesired results from a contact perspective. Those lack of whiffs with men on base certainly affects Montero’s modern and conventional numbers. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the quality of contact for each of his pitch types using xwOBA. The xwOBA on Montero’s changeup was actually better with men on base. But the performance of other pitches suffered considerably. Remember, xwOBA removes defense from the equation. Therefore, this issue has nothing to do with the fielders behind him. Different Catchers, Different Results? While players in the field don’t affect xwOBA, the catcher calling pitches could theoretically influence outcomes of batted balls. Was that the case when Montero was on the mound? Although José Godoy was included in the preceding table, he won’t be part of this conversation. The Venezuelan only caught Montero for 15 batters. Instead, let’s focus on the Mariners’ two main receivers – Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens. The wOBA of opponents with Murphy and Torrens catching tells us bad outcomes occurred when either was Montero’s battery-mate. Yet, we see a large difference in xwOBA depending on who was receiving. This suggests something else may have been at play depending on who was catching. Based on what we’ve already covered, I focused on differences between the backstops when men were on base. Based on xwOBA, Montero seemingly avoided damaging contact more often with Murphy catching in all situations. Although xwOBA rises above .300 with men on base, it’s below the .315 league-average for this situation. Conversely, when Torrens catches, there is a large delta in xwOBA. What might drive different results depending on the catcher? The simplest answer is we’re dealing with a small sample size. Remember, Murphy has caught Montero for 85 plate appearances and Torrens 59. That’s not a lot. Putting that thought aside for a moment. let’s consider pitch selection when each player is behind the plate. With Murphy serving as backstop, there were noticeable changes in Montero’s reliance on the four-seamer and sinker with men on base. On the other hand, Torrens (or someone in the dugout) seemingly called a completely different game depending on the base runner situation. Do these changes in pitch selection mean anything? The dumb blogger isn’t qualified to answer that question. But the varying degrees of success Montero experienced with each pitch and how he employed them with different catchers is interesting – at least it is to me. To be clear, I’m not suggesting any of Montero’s issues are driven by a particular backstop. To drive home this point, check out the following table illustrating the overall numbers of Seattle relievers when Murphy and Torrens are behind the plate. As you can see, the stats are amazingly similar regardless of who’s donning the tools of ignorance. Why the outcomes are so different for Montero may be a byproduct of limited data or other issues better understood by the team than someone in the blogosphere. The Defense Rests? While we’re discussing Montero’s supporting cast, we should consider the fielders playing behind him since they can affect the actual results. Statcast permits us to gauge the level of support a pitcher receives from his defenders with the outs above average (OOA) the defense accrues when he’s toeing the rubber. Currently, Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals has benefited most from his defense’s efforts with 10 OOA. Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi is second with 9 OOA. Conversely, only 22 pitchers have received fewer OAA from their defense than Montero’s -3 OOA. Of that group, only five are relief pitchers. Since OAA is a counting stat, starters should always dominate the top and bottom of this list. Relievers with the lowest OAA in MLBBrent Suter (-5)Nabil Crismatt (-5)Luis Cessa (-5)Sam Hentges (-4)Rafael Montero (-3)John King (-3)Lucas Luetge (-3)Steve Cishek (-3)Anthony Misiewicz (-2) Is Montero’s -3 OAA the result of how his team positions its fielders? Perhaps, but I’m not interested in placing any blame for his issues on his teammates. Furthermore, we should always remember defensive metrics are most useful in large samples. Therefore, it’s premature to make definitive conclusions by using OOA or defensive runs saved (DRS) for a reliever with less than 40 innings pitched this season. Reality Check Okay, let’s sum up what we’ve learned about Montero’s performances this season: Large disparity between conventional and advanced stats Poor results on poor contact High ground ball rate, bad results Low line drive rate, horrible outcomes Different pitcher with men on base Doesn’t miss bats often Pitch selection varies greatly depending on MOB situation Different catchers, different results Statcast suggests defense is affecting outcomes The following lowlight reel of four batted balls during Montero’s outing against the Blue Jays on June 29 reflects many of these items and what’s gone wrong for him and the Mariners this season. The innings starts with a soft ground ball single between second baseman Dylan Moore and shortstop J.P. Crawford by Lourdes Gurriel Jr.. Then, Reese McGuire hits a 57.2-MPH dribbler back to Montero. The Mariners get the force out at second base but couldn’t turn the double play. At this point, there’s one out instead of two despite Montero creating two weakly hit balls. True, but Montero then surrenders a line drive hit to Marcus Semien and a home run to Bo Bichette. That’s on him. After the game, manager Scott Servais said as much commenting that his reliever strayed from the game plan against Bichette. Finally I still believe Montero’s Statcast profile hints at a potential that could help the Mariners in the second half of the season. Yes, I realize many of you won’t agree with me. That’s okay and understandable. But any bad luck the beleaguered reliever has endured likely improves at some point. Still, whether Montero’s season changes for the better depends on his ability to execute and stick with the team’s game plan in the future – not luck. After all, Montero’s future with the Mariners probably depends on process as much as results moving forward. The team’s data-driven front office has the same information I’ve shared today, plus much more. The metrics suggest Montero has underlying value. But as Divish aptly stated in his article, “Inability to execute and also shrugging off a game plan for a dangerous hitter isn’t something that endears a pitcher to a manager or general manager.” This rings particularly true for a ball club that may unexpectedly flirt with postseason contention this summer. The margin for error will be limited, as will management’s patience with Montero. In the end, the Mariners benefit by the veteran turning around his season. On the other hand, if he doesn’t execute, his career in Seattle will be short-lived. My Oh My…Go!

Yusei Kukuchi Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi has been the best starting pitcher on the Seattle Mariners this season, which presents the Mariners with an unexpected opportunity if the team chose to pursue it. Trade Kikuchi now to capitalize on his recent success. As preposterous as trading Kikuchi may seem to you, consider this. GM Jerry Dipoto is an aggressive and innovative deal-maker and starting pitchers, particularly good ones, are always in high demand at the deadline. Dealing the left-hander could potentially fetch Dipoto’s club an intriguing return. With this in mind, let’s discuss factors certain to make Kikuchi appealing to potential buyers. Recent Performance Kikuchi’s struggles during his first two MLB seasons are well chronicled. In 2019, inconsistent command and fastball velocity were challenges he couldn’t overcome. Last year, the 30-year-old made mechanical changes that increased his velocity and advanced metrics suggested he was performing better. Yet, his actual results fell short of expectations. Then came 2021. Initially, this season looked like more of the same from Kikuchi. In his first four starts, he allowed 15 runs, including five home runs, and had a 5.70 ERA. Even worse, his saber-stats weren’t nearly as favorable as they were in 2020. Fortunately, for Kikuchi and the Mariners, he reversed course in his fifth outing. The native of Japan threw seven shutout innings against the Astros on April 29 and has been on a roll ever since. He’s averaged 6.3 innings in his last nine starts, while holding opponents to a .173 AVG and posting a .253 ERA. Kikuchi’s .289 xwOBA since April 29 aligns with last year (.283), which suggests his recent excellence isn’t a fluke and may be sustainable. 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. League-average xwOBA this season = .319.  Essentially, Kikuchi has been one of the best starters in MLB since late-April. A team craving a top-shelf arm for the upcoming postseason and possibly beyond would absolutely have interest in acquiring the southpaw. Big Decisions In The Fall Any conversation regarding Kikuchi’s future with the Mariners or in a potential trade scenario must include his unconventional contract. After this season, Seattle can exercise a four-year option to retain Kikuchi at an annual salary of $16.5 million. At that point, the team would also owe the Seibu Lions of Japan $7.95 million. If the Mariners pass, Kikuchi can either exercise a $13 million player option for 2022 or become a free agent. While it’s plausible the veteran could choose to spend next season with Seattle, it seems more likely he’d test free agency to capitalize on his recent success. Especially after the team failed to make a long-term commitment to him. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the decision on both the team and player options must be resolved no later than five days after of the 2021 World Series concludes. Money Matters Basically, a team acquiring Kikuchi would have two choices. Let him walk as a free agent, assuming he doesn’t exercise his option for next year. Or, pay him $16.5 million annually through 2025 – his age-34 season. Considering the current starting pitcher market, $16.5 million is a reasonable price for a player of Kikuchi’s ilk. Per Spotrac, Gerrit Cole ($36 million) has the highest average salary among MLB starters. Kikuchi is currently grossing $14.3 million, which ranks twenty-third. Pitchers with a salary similar to Yusei Kikuchi’sJohnny Cueto – $21.7 millionYu Darvish – $21 millionHyun Jin Ryu – $20 millionMarcus Stroman – $18.9 millionKevin Gausman – $18.9 millionDallas Keuchel – $18.5 millionNathan Eovaldi – $17 millionMiles Mikolas – $17 millionLance McCullers – $17 millionMadison Bumgarner – $17 millionCharlie Morton – $15 millionYusei Kikuchi – $14.3 millionAlex Cobb – $14.3 millionKyle Hendricks – $13.9 millionDanny Duffy – $13 millionCarlos Carrasco – $11.8 million Kikuchi’s $16.5 million annual salary during the four-year extension would be fair market value compared to what his peers are currently receiving. Yeah, But… While it’s fun to toss around trade scenarios, there’s an inherent flaw with dealing Kikuchi in the next five weeks just to recoup some semblance of value. He represents something that’s in short demand across MLB – controllable, premium starting pitching. The Mariners need Kikuchi as much as contenders do – maybe more. Remember, fans have been led to believe the Mariners intend on making a good-faith effort during the upcoming offseason to build a more competitive roster in 2022. How would dealing Kikuchi this summer help further that cause? It wouldn’t. In a way, how the Mariners handle Kikuchi’s contract will shed light on how ownership intends on approaching next year from a financial perspective. Realistically, the only motivation the Mariners could possibly have to trade Kikuchi this season would be to avoid the four-year option and the $74 million financial commitment attached to it. Taking such a short-sighted view would be unwise. Even if Kikuchi is only average or slightly better for the rest of this season, the Mariners can ill-afford to part ways with their best pitcher over a reasonable amount money. To do so would suggest that ownership isn’t motivated to fully fund Dipoto’s efforts to build a sustainable contender in Seattle. After missing the postseason for two decades, that approach is unacceptable. My Oh My…Go!