Most fans understand that payroll is paramount when a major league general manager is building a team. That said; it’s not just total dollars obligated that comes into play. Two clubs can spend approximately the same amount on players, yet be on completely different trajectories. An organization’s payroll structure — how it distributes the money across the roster and contract lengths — matters too. To validate this point, I performed a salary review for each AL West team. As you’ll see, I listed their projected 2018 payroll based on salary data pulled from the Baseball Prospectus compensation page. Please note the numbers you’ll see are projections — financial obligations fluctuate throughout the year. You’ll also find tables illustrating each club’s five highest players. Information included; 2018 salary, percentage of payroll consumed by each salary, the last year of financial obligation, whether the player has a no-trade clause. Let’s start with the team with the highest projected payroll. Los Angeles Angels — $164.3 million Two years ago, $66 million going to three players — Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Jered Weaver weighed down the Angels’ payroll. Each either struggled greatly or didn’t even play. Moreover, a fading Albert Pujols accounted for another $25 million. Since then, the Halos have turned a corner with only Pujols remaining. Because of his team’s newfound financial flexibility, general manager Billy Eppler secured veterans capable of helping Los Angeles contend in 2018. After trading for Justin Upton last August, Eppler signed the 30-year-old to a five-year/$106 million extension during the offseason. He followed that up by acquiring infielders Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler. The duo will earn a combined $23.7 million this year. Not only did the Angels add established players this offseason, the club pulled off a baseball and financial coup by winning the rights to Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. The 23-year-old could be an impact player this year, while earning the major league minimum. After this season, four players earning a combined $32.3 million could walk as free agents. They are Kinsler, Garrett Richards, Jim Johnson, Luis Valbuena. Going into next offseason — or even this summer — Eppler could reinvest that money to make his club more competitive. Winning with their current squad is clearly the priority for the Angels. Especially with perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and Cozart eligible for free agency after 2020. Still, the club must spend more wisely than it has previously to achieve their desired outcome of winning the World Series. Seattle Mariners — $154.7 million It’s easy to see why the Mariners have avoided large financial obligations in recent years. Over 60-percent of Seattle’s payroll is tied up in five players. All are over 30-years-old with most having limited trade value due to age, diminished performance, and/or an exorbitant contract. The Mariners’ two most expensive players — Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano account for 33-percent of the club’s 2018 payroll. King Felix’s on-field value has been trending downwards for three seasons, although his deal does end in 2019. Cano is under contract through the 2023 season when he’ll be 40-years-old. On a positive note, the Nelson Cruz contract signed before the 2015 season is one of the best free agent acquisitions in franchise history. The Mariners’ top-heavy payroll structure has limited general manager Jerry Dipoto from adding significant major league pieces since his arrival in September 2015. To his credit, Dipoto has creatively added talent without breaking the budget by picking up former all-stars Dee Gordon and Jean Segura via trade. Gordon is under team control through his age-33 season at an annual average value (AAV) of $13 million. Last June, the Mariners signed Segura to a five-year extension putting his AAV at $14.3 million for the next six seasons. Last summer, Dipoto shrewdly acquired Mike Leake from the St. Louis Cardinals for a low-level minor leaguer. Sweetening the deal, the Redbirds will be sending the Mariners $17 million to help pay Leake between now and 2020. Still, the Mariners are hamstrung by budgetary considerations. This offseason, the club appeared unwilling or unable to make the financial commitment required to land the top-shelf starting pitcher they desperately need. Compounding matters for Seattle, a relatively barren farm system — especially at the upper levels — that can’t be used to land a premium rotation arm. If the Mariners wanted to flip the switch and sell this July, they would have options. Cruz, Leake, and Seager don’t have trade protection although each would net varying levels of value. Assuming Dipoto resets his roster, other players such as relievers Juan Nicasio, David Phelps, Marc Rzepczynski, and even closer Edwin Diaz could be in high demand. Moving Diaz would be unpopular. But the 23-year-old could potentially bring back a significant haul, assuming he’s performing at a high level. I’m not suggesting Seattle will or should hold a fire sale this July. But a large financial commitment to a small number of thirty-somethings appears to be stalling efforts to add quality veterans. It’s plausible the team is a wild card contender, as they were last summer, and Dipoto chooses to upgrade his roster. Houston Astros — $151.9 million At nearly $152 million, Houston has a payroll comparable to the Angels and Mariners. However, the reigning World Series champions have a lower percentage of money committed to their five highest paid players than any team in the division. In fact, only six Astros are making over $11 million this year. One of them isn’t 2018 AL MVP Jose Altuve, who is a relative bargain at $6 million. Having a payroll that’s not top-heavy gives general manager Jeff Luhnow the fiscal flexibility to systematically add less recognizable, but valuable free agents — Josh Reddick, Joe Smith, Charlie Morton, Yuli Gurriel, and Hector Rondon are examples. As Dipoto did with the Cardinals, Luhnow convinced two trade partners to help pay the salary of players he acquired. The Detroit Tigers are paying the Astros $8 million in each of the next two years, decreasing Houston’s obligation to Justin Verlander to $20 million annually. Similarly, the New York Yankees are contributing $5.5 million towards the salary Brian McCann receives this year. Certainly, a bountiful minor league system helps the Astros to efficiently allocate funds and win. Homegrown talent includes Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel. This group has already earned a Cy Young award, plus league and World Series MVP honors. With McCann, Keuchel, and Morton pending free agents after the season, Houston will have the flexibility to grow their payroll as their young stars become more expensive. More importantly the Astros are in a position to acquire talent during the season, if needed. Just as they did with Verlander last year. Texas Rangers — $125.7 million Even though the permanently inactive Prince Fielder is still on their ledger for $9 million this year, the Rangers’ payroll is substantially lower than in years past. Still, Texas didn’t go on a spending spree this winter. In fact, financial obligations could decrease even more during this season, depending on general manager Jon Daniel’s approach. You see, the Rangers aren’t projected contenders and appear poised to begin a rebuilding phase. If that turns out to be true and the club falls out of serious contention, Daniels could flip veterans for prospects. Three of the team’s best-compensated players have expiring contracts after the 2018 season and could be candidates to move on. Specifically; Cole Hamels, Adrian Beltre, Matt Moore. Moreover pending free agent reliever Jake Diekman could draw interest from buyers. Others who may garner interest are players with limited financial obligations after this coming season. Pitchers Doug Fister and Martin Perez, plus catcher Robinson Chirinos are examples. Naturally, these individuals must deliver on the field to have trade value. Daniels used a similar strategy last summer when he moved pending free agents Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy. The Darvish deal netted prospect Willie Calhoun from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Calhoun projects to be the Rangers’ primary left fielder this year. The Rangers’ farm system was highly productive for many years yielding major league talent and prospects Daniels could use in deals. It may be time for the club to accelerate replenishment this summer. Oakland Athletics — $50.7 million It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the low-revenue Athletics have the smallest payroll, or that none of the club’s highest paid players is a signed to a long-term deal. More than likely, Oakland will do this year what it does whenever they are out of contention — trade pending free agents. As you review the following table, it’s worth noting recently released Brandon Moss and his $4 million salary remains on the Athletics’ books. Additionally, Stephen Piscotty will earn $1.3 million this season. However, his pay increases to $7.3 million next year. That would make him the second highest paid player on the 2018 team. Assuming general manager David Forst follows his organization’s standard playbook, any of their top-five players could be wearing new uniforms by August — even if they’re under team control through next year. Last July, Forst traded Sonny Gray for a haul of prospects despite the fact the club owned his rights for two more seasons. It certainly must frustrate Oakland fans to see their favorite players routinely leaving via trade; during the season no less. But the organization appears to be building a solid base thanks to those deals. Over the last two summers, Forst has acquired major league contributors Blake Treinen, Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Boog Powell. Moreover, half of his top-10 prospects arrived via in-season deals. Specifically; Grant Holmes, Jesus Luzardo, Dustin Fowler, James Kaprielian, and Jorge Mateo. Will the Athletics ever spend the big dollars? Probably not, but their youthful foundation may propel them ahead of their high-spending competition.
Earlier today the Seattle Mariners announced starting left fielder Ben Gamel is expected to miss four to six weeks with an oblique strain. The loss of Gamel places even more stress on an outfield squad already without Mitch Haniger (hand tendinitis) and Guillermo Heredia (recovering from shoulder surgery). So how did the Mariners react to their mounting outfield injuries? According to multiple media reports, the club is signing Ichiro Suzuki. If the Mariners actually ink their former star outfielder to a deal, it will only reinforce what many fans have been thinking all offseason. The team isn’t serious about contending this year. I know that’s harsh, but how can an organization whose CEO insists he’s committed to winning reconcile signing a 44-year-old outfielder with diminished skills? Last season, the Miami Marlins used Ichiro in the outfield sparingly; just 23 starts and 33 games total. In fact, 51-percent of his plate appearances came as a pinch hitter. Most often, he hit for a pitcher — not a position player. Ichiro’s limited usage by Marlins manager Don Mattingly made sense based on the numbers. During 215 plate appearances, the left-handed hitter slashed .255/.318/.332 with just nine of his 50 hits being of the extra base variety. That’s a far cry from the player who routinely led baseball in total hits during his best years with the Mariners. Sadly, Father Time has robbed Ichiro of the blazing speed he used to disrupt games for nearly a decade. Baseball Savant lists his 2017 sprint speed at 26.5 feet/second. To put that into perspective, that’s the same as what Kyle Seager registered last year. Does that mean I’d bet money on Seager sticking with Ichiro in a foot race? No, but it’s clear the 17-year veteran can no longer rely on his quickness to be a difference-maker on the base paths or in the outfield. When it comes to playing time, how often Ichiro would be available for full-time duty is debatable based on how he was utilized last year. While Ichiro’s training regimen and durability are legendary, Mattingly used the 10-time Gold Glove winner to play complete games on consecutive days just three times last year. The only instance when Ichiro played a full game on three straight days didn’t occur until mid-September. In fairness, the 2017 Marlins had arguably the best outfield in baseball. Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna each started at least 149 games. It would’ve been a tough lineup for anyone to get appreciable playing time with that crew readily available. On the other hand, all three players are no longer Marlins and the club didn’t retain Ichiro’s services. Perhaps, the spendthrift organization kept Ichiro around simply because they were on the hook to pay him — even if they released him. It’s tough to project Ichiro’s current defensive value using advanced metrics. Since 2016, he’s played a combined 800.1 innings at all three outfield positions with five defensive runs saved (DRS). Such a small sample size means the data is inconclusive. Could Ichiro be passable in the outfield? Sure. Even at his advanced age, he’s still very athletic and has 20-plus years of professional experience to rely upon. But is “passable” defense what a contender should be seeking from a fourth outfielder with limited offensive upside? That brings up an interesting point — at least for me. How would Ichiro fit into the Mariners’ plans once the Gamel, Haniger, and Heredia are finally available? Ichiro doesn’t play anywhere but the outfield and he’s not a defensive upgrade over any of Seattle’s current outfielders with the exception of full-time designated hitter Nelson Cruz. As far as pinch-hitting duty goes, Ichiro will have fewer opportunities in a league that doesn’t allow pitchers to hit on a daily basis. Perhaps, he’s a better option than utility player candidates Taylor Motter or Andrew Romine. But does that justify a roster spot on a club likely to periodically carry eight relievers? Assuming the Mariners don’t part ways with Ichiro once they have their starting outfield rotation healthy, the potential exists he’ll impede the development of either Gamel or Heredia. One of the two likely ends up playing with Class-AAA Tacoma to make room for the icon. It’s tough to see how that makes Seattle more competitive. For these reasons — regressing skills; negligible value; questionable availability; decreased roster flexibility — adding Ichiro signals to me the Mariners aren’t serious about winning this year. Either that or the club is unwilling or unable to commit the necessary financial resources to add a better player. There aren’t many outfield options remaining in free agency, but there are better ones than Ichiro. Specifically; Jon Jay, Melky Cabrera, and another former Mariner — Seth Smith. None is particularly palatable to me. But I’d lean towards Jay, if forced to choose one. Jay can play all outfield positions, including center field in a pinch. Moreover, the 32-year-old put up a respectable numbers — .296/.374/.375 in 433 plate appearances — with the Chicago Cubs last year. Bringing back Ichiro seemingly comes out of nowhere for an organization allegedly focused on getting younger and becoming more athletic — especially in the outfield. What it does prove is something I’ve suggested in the past. The Mariners are in the midst of a slow-burn rebuild. They’ll continue to field a decent team, but they won’t overextend themselves financially to improve the ball club. Some may suggest the Mariners and Ichiro have a secret handshake agreement that he’ll retire once the outfield is back at full strength. While that might sound cool to the casual fan, such a move would only further reinforce my contention that they’re not committed to winning in 2018. Manager Scott Servais routinely states his team needs to get off to a good start this year. How does signing a 44-year-old faded star help in that regard? Yes, I know. The financial cost of letting Ichiro go during the season would be relatively small. But the notion the Mariners would simply release the iconic player isn’t realistic. He’s a fan favorite with ties to the club’s record-setting 2001 season, which happens to be the last time Seattle made the postseason. For those who doubt Ichiro’s popularity, look at the Twitter poll posted by Mike Salk of 710 ESPN. Although unscientific, the data suggest there’s an appetite for an Ichiro reunion in the Emerald City. You’ll have to cast a vote to see the most current results of Salk’s survey. Ichiro’s popularity notwithstanding, it’s difficult to make a convincing argument he would make Seattle better in any measurable way. Sure, he wouldn’t necessarily make the club significantly worse, but that’s not the point. With less then a month to go before Opening Day, the Mariners should be adding players more capable of making the club better. That’s what a serious contender would do.
With Spring Training slogging along at a snail’s pace, I thought it’d be fun to discuss five AL West rookies worth keeping an eye on once the regular season gets underway. Before going any further, I want to acknowledge not all of these players will make their respective club’s Opening Day roster. In fact, some won’t see the majors without an injury or trade clearing a roster spot for them. As you’ll see, I didn’t necessarily select the most obvious names. However, these five young players intrigued me enough to write about them. Willie Calhoun – Texas Rangers The 23-year-old was the primary piece received in the deal shipping Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer. Calhoun was a second baseman in the Dodgers system, but Texas plans to use him in left field. The underlying reason for the move is the University of Arizona product’s poor reputation as a defender. What makes Calhoun so appealing to the Rangers is the fact he’s one of the best hitting prospects in baseball. Last year, the left-handed hitter slugged 31 home runs, while slashing .300/.355/.572 with two Class-AAA teams. With Texas not expected to contend, the club could keep Calhoun in the minors a little longer. Doing so would permit him to gain more seasoning as an outfielder. Moreover, such a maneuver would preserve service time and lengthen club control. Whenever Calhoun does arrive in the majors, this hit-first prospect will have to deliver at the plate. Otherwise, it’ll be challenging for him to remain a factor in the Rangers’ plans. A.J. Reed – Houston Astros During several short stints with the Astros since 2016, Reed hasn’t impressed. But the sample sizes are too small to make any substantive conclusion about the former Kentucky Wildcat. Still, the loss of Yuli Gurriel to hand surgery for 5-6 weeks means Houston will be without starting first baseman for several weeks into the season. Perhaps, Reed takes advantage of Gurriel’s unplanned absence and impresses enough to break camp with the club in late March. Reed got off to a slow start with Class-AAA Fresno last season. But he posted a 1.061 OPS in 174 plate appearances during the second half. Overall, the 24-year-old slashed .257/.354/.519 with 31 home runs in the minors last year. Reed faces stiff competition to replace Gurriel. Fellow rookie J.D. Davis and Tyler White are in the mix, plus super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez could be an option for manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Eduardo Paredes – Los Angeles Angels Paredes made his big league debut last season delivering mixed results during several stints with Los Angeles. Still, the 22-year-old and his power arm should be a factor in the club’s bullpen this year. Last year, Paredes proved capable of missing bats with 10 SO/9, while assigned to the Angels’ AA and AAA clubs. That said; the right-hander permitted 4.1 BB/9 during 37 innings with Class-AAA Salt Lake. Assuming Paredes proves to have better control; it’s highly likely he’ll be seeing lots of action with the Halos as a middle reliever in 2018. Franklin Barreto – Oakland Athletics Barring unforeseen circumstances, Barreto begins the season with Class-AAA Nashville. But the shortstop could be starting games for Oakland by August. Second baseman Jed Lowrie a pending free agent, so there’s a distinct possibility the rebuilding Athletics move the veteran before the July 31 trade deadline. If that happens, Barreto could be the team’s new starting second baseman — he has 500-plus innings of experience at the position. With Marcus Semien currently entrenched at shortstop, second base may be Barreto’s ultimate landing spot. Even if Oakland retains Lowrie through the end of the season. Max Povse – Seattle Mariners After beginning the season as a starter with Class-AA Arkansas, the organization experimented with Povse in a relief role — picture a Seattle version of Astros’ versatile reliever Chris Devenski. That’s when the ride got bumpy for the 24-year-old. From that point forward, Povse endured three tough relief outings with the Mariners, a promotion to Class-AAA Tacoma, a hamstring injury, and was finally converted back to a starter. Entering Spring Training this year, Povse is back in Seattle’s rotation mix and ready to go. Barring an unprecedented wave of injuries in Peoria, the 6-foot-8 hurler will begin the season with Tacoma. Based on the club’s recent difficulties with starting pitching, it’s likely Povse gets another taste of big league action later this year.
News that the Seattle Mariners were converting Dee Gordon into a center fielder created a sense of restlessness among fans and local sports talk radio hosts in Seattle this winter. Why the uneasy feelings in the Emerald City? It’s simple. Gordon broke into the majors as a shortstop before becoming an all-star second baseman. He has no outfield experience at any professional level. Now, he’s expected to defend the same territory once patrolled by the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Mike Cameron, and Franklin Gutierrez. Having said that, fretting about Gordon changing positions is pointless — at least for me it is. That’s because his defense matters, but not really. What? Let me try to explain. Yes, if Gordon tanks as a center fielder, the Mariners caused an avoidable, self-inflicted wound. But that’s not likely to happen. The 29-year-old’s talent, athleticism, and positive approach should offset his lack of experience. Besides, how Gordon performs as an outfielder will inevitably take a back seat to what he accomplishes as an offensive weapon. To see what I mean, let’s look back at other established major league infielders, who later transitioned to center field. Memory Lane Relatively few have made the infield-to-center field jump, but those who’ve done so enjoyed some measure of success with one notable exception. The most distinguished name is Robin Yount. Prior to his move, Yount was a two-time all-star, a league MVP, and the winner of two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove as a shortstop. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Yount’s center field and shortstop career slash lines. Robin Yount Split G PA BA OBP SLG as SS 1473 6349 .284 .329 .424 as CF 1145 4967 .287 .358 .435 Source: Baseball Reference Yount moved to left field at the beginning at age-29. By season’s end, he was the Milwaukee Brewers’ regular center fielder and remained there for the final nine years of his career. Along the way, the Hall of Famer picked up another MVP and Silver Slugger. In 1989, the Philadelphia Phillies converted all-star second baseman Juan Samuel into a full-time center fielder. Samuel wasn’t a good defender at second base, so the club tried him in the outfield. That same season, Philly traded the native Dominican to the New York Mets for their center fielder — Lenny Dykstra — and reliever Roger McDowell. This experiment didn’t pan out as well as hoped. Samuel continued to struggle defensively and his offense fell off considerably. Juan Samuel Split G PA BA OBP SLG as 2B 1171 5072 .262 .314 .425 as CF 196 842 .236 .298 .349 Source: Baseball Reference After the 1989 season, the Mets shipped Samuel to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who shifted him back to second base by mid-1990. He would make one more all-star appearance as a second baseman in 1991. Ultimately, he became a utility player during the twilight of his career. Another Hall of Famer — Craig Biggio — became a full-time center fielder for one season at 37-years-old. His path to the outfield was rather unique. Craig Biggio Split G PA BA OBP SLG as C 410 1634 .267 .336 .366 as 2B 1978 9057 .285 .372 .447 as CF 255 1187 .280 .355 .427 Source: Baseball Reference Before enjoying his best years as a second baseman, Biggio won a Silver Slugger and earned an all-star selection as a catcher. Following his center field stint, the Seton Hall product returned to second base to end his illustrious career. More recently, the Texas Rangers signed free agent shortstop Ian Desmond to play center field in 2016. Defensive metrics suggest Desmond was a below average glove, but he did earn an all-star nod. Last season, the 32-year-old played both left field and first base for the Colorado Rockies. In 2018, he projects as the team’s left fielder. Ian Desmond Split G PA BA OBP SLG as SS 901 3755 .264 .313 .424 as LF 95 385 .270 .336 .374 as CF 130 566 .294 .337 .446 Source: Baseball Reference With the exception of Samuel, the reputations of the other players hinged on their offensive prowess rather than their glove work. Again, a player can’t struggle defensively to the level Samuel did, but they don’t have to draw comparisons to Willie Mays either. I expect the same will apply to Gordon. As long as he’s a passable defender, fans and media will evaluate him based on his offensive contributions — not his fielding. That said; there’s good reason to expect the son of former major leaguer Tom “Flash” Gordon to contribute in a big way. Offensive Words Since becoming a regular in 2014, Gordon has consistently reached base and been a disruptive force once there — much like Ichiro Suzuki during his early Seattle days. Over the last four seasons, Gordon has slashed .304/.336/.382 and stolen 212 bases with a 77-percent success rate. His 60 bunt hits during that period are tops in the majors. The next closest player is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds with 42. In 2015, Gordon he led the majors with 205 hits and won the NL batting title. After a PED-related suspension shortened his 2016 campaign, he bounced back nicely. The two-time all-star leveraged his blazing speed and league-best 57.6-percent ground ball rate to lead baseball in singles (170) and infield hits (45) last year. If Gordon produces similar numbers to his career averages, the Mariners will have their best leadoff hitter since Ichiro. The Defense Rests To be clear, I do believe defense matters. After all, a run saved is the same as a run scored. But the metrics suggest the Mariners routinely have received uneven center field value from good defenders for nearly a decade. The reason? Below-average offense production. As proof, I submit the following, which illustrates the top-5 Mariner center fielders since 2009 — based on WAR. I’ve included OBP and DRS to provide additional context. Please note players had to spend at least 70-percent of their playing time in center field. In addition, stats only reflect each person’s stint as a Mariner. Top Mariner CFers Since 2009 Player Yrs DRS OBP WAR Franklin Gutierrez 2009-16 35 .312 12.9 Jarrod Dyson 2017 10 .324 2.6 Austin Jackson 2014-15 2 .297 1.4 Leonys Martin 2016-17 0 .291 0.9 Abraham Almonte 2013-14 -1 .275 0.4 Source: Baseball Reference It’s no surprise Gutierrez tops the list, but who saw Abraham Almonte making the cut? The harsh reality is center field has been a revolving door of inconsistency for Seattle since the decline of Guti. Having said that, the Mariners did receive excellent defense from several replacements. But only Jarrod Dyson proved to be average-or-better at reaching base and he performed best in a platoon role. Gordon has the potential to change that trend, as long as he’s an average defender. Sure, league-average center field play won’t make anyone forget Franklin Gutierrez’s glove work. But consider the following question for a moment. If Gordon is just an okay defender, won’t that be good enough if he delivers a slash line similar to his career norms? It will be for me. Then again, I won’t be surprised if Gordon proves to be much better than an average center fielder.
Just one after pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training, the Seattle Mariners got bad news on the injury front. Projected starting first baseman Ryon Healy underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his right hand. The club expects Healy to be ready for game action within four to six weeks. While losing Healy on day-one of Spring Training is not optimal, it is not a catastrophic either — at least not yet. Assuming the 26-year-old has no post-surgery complications or rehab setbacks, he could be ready for the season opener on March 29 or shortly thereafter. Still, losing one of their team’s biggest offseason acquisitions is certain to cause a crisis of confidence within the Mariners’ playoff-starved fan base. Especially after starting pitcher Drew Smyly was lost for the season during Cactus League play just one year ago. It is highly unlikely Healy suffers a similar fate to Smyly’s. But let us assume something does go awry and his return is delayed. What are the Mariners’ options? The Insiders Seattle has two first baseman with Triple-A success and little left to prove in the minors, plus an assortment of position players with limited experience at the position. Mike Ford Seattle acquired the left-handed hitter from the New York Yankees via the Rule 5 draft. As a result, he must remain on the major league roster for the entire 2018 season. Otherwise, the Mariners must offer him back to New York for $25 thousand. Ford proved to be a productive hitter during stops at Class-AA Trenton and Class-AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year. Overall, the 25-year hit 20 home runs and slashed .270/.404/.471. It is worth noting Ford had more walks (94) than strikeouts (72) last season. The only major leaguers to accomplish that feat were Joey Votto, Mike Trout, Justin Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo. While Ford could be the Opening Day option, how he would fit with Seattle after Healy’s return is uncertain. The Princeton University alum has only played first base and designated hitter during five minor league seasons with the exception of 57 innings at third base. With Seattle likely to carry eight relievers, Ford’s lack of positional versatility could make him the odd man out during a roster squeeze. Dan Vogelbach A year ago, the 25-year-old arrived at the Peoria Sports Complex with a decent chance of being the left-handed side of a platoon with veteran Danny Valencia. Unfortunately, Vogelbach’s defensive deficiencies prompted the Mariners to assign him to Class-AAA Tacoma prior to the beginning of the season. With the Rainiers, Vogelbach had a strong offensive showing with 17 home runs, 25 doubles, and a .290/.388/.455 slash line. Having said that, general manager Jerry Dipoto chose to bypass the former second round pick and trade for a rental player — Yonder Alonso — to upgrade the first base position last August. Recently, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish noted during the Extra Innings podcast Vogelbach appears much looser away from the big league stage. If true, that must change quickly for the native Floridian to stick with the Mariners. Perhaps, Vogelbach seizes the moment and proves he belongs in the majors with Seattle or another ball club. The Field The fact both Ford and Vogelbach play just one defensive position means only one could simultaneously make Seattle’s 25-man roster. That said; the club could utilize more versatile roster options to spot either rookie, when needed. Ben Gamel spent time taking grounders at first base during batting practice last year and has expressed interest in expanding his positional portfolio. Gamel played just one inning at first base last year and has no minor league experience. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old could backup at the position and potentially take on larger short-term role, assuming Ford and Vogelbach falter. Offseason acquisition Andrew Romine has nearly 200 innings of experience and 13 starts at first base. His completion for the utility spot — Taylor Motter — started nine games there last year. It is worth noting both players are considered light hitting. Minor league catcher David Freitas has 410 innings of first base time, but he would have to win the backup job behind Mike Zunino. Even if that were to occur, playing a reserve catcher at first base sounds like an emergency move; not a strategy the Mariners will employ. Waiver claim Cam Perkins has a small amount of first base experience too. But a more likely scenario leading to Perkins making the team would be the right-handed hitter replacing Guillermo Heredia, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. And no, I do not envision a scenario where Nelson Cruz becomes a major league first baseman for the first time at 37-years-old. The Outsiders Even if Healy’s went completely sideways, it is doubtful Dipoto pursues notable free agents Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, and Eric Hosmer. The 49-year-old GM opted to trade for Healy rather than commit multiple years and significant dollars to a proven free agent. An abrupt change of course now is unfathomable. Having said that, it is plausible the Mariners add a veteran on a minor league deal as insurance. Valencia, Adam Lind, Mike Napoli, and Mike Reynolds remain on the market. As always, Dipoto could trade for a more established first baseman later in Spring Training. Perhaps, a team will have a surplus at the position or need to move a player with no minor league options remaining. Reality Check The most likely scenario is the Mariners continue with their current cadre of first baseman — at least for now. Adding a player on a minor league deal or making a small trade seems logical, but expending significant resources to address a short-term problem is not Dipoto-like. For those anxious about today’s bad Healy news, I have a suggestion — relax. Yes, losing an important player on February 15 is frustrating, especially for a fan base spring-loaded for the worst-case scenario. But look on the bright side; at least a key starting pitcher did not come up lame. That would be worth fretting about.
This week, we have been reviewing the offseason upgrades made by the Seattle Mariners’ division rival. Now, it is time to focus our attention on moves made by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. After coming frustratingly close to a 2016 wild card berth, the Mariners took a step backwards losing eight more games than the season prior. The primary cause of the club’s decline; a rotation decimated by injuries. Only three Mariners — Ariel Miranda, James Paxton, and Yovani Gallardo — logged 100-plus innings tying the club with the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins for fewest in the American League. All told, manager Scott Servais used a major league-leading 17 starters. The bullpen was mid-pack statistically, but faltered at times from bouts of inconsistency and a heavy workload created by the rotation’s struggles. Inevitably, Servais used 34 different pitchers in a relief role. No major league team had ever used as many relievers. Offensively, Seattle averaged 4.63 runs-per-game, just below league-average. Mariner base runners collectively had their most stolen bases since 2014, but ranked in the bottom-five when viewed through a sabermetric prism. After years of ranking in the bottom third of baseball, Mariner outfielders were fifth best, based on DRS. That said; there were no defensive standouts at any other position. Offseason Action Dipoto acquired Dee Gordon from the Miami Marlins. The 29-year-old debuted as a shortstop with the Los Angeles Dodgers before transitioning to second base. Seattle intends to use him as their regular center fielder, a position he has never played. Last year, Gordon slashed .308/.341/.375 and stole a major league-leading 60 bases. To put his base-stealing total into perspective, Seattle’s three top base thieves — Jarrod Dyson, Jean Segura, and Taylor Motter — swiped 62 bags combined. A key element to Gordon’s offense is putting bat to ball. His 86.8-percent contact rate was tenth highest in baseball last year. Conversely, the left-handed hitter’s 3.6-percent walk rate was fourth lowest among 144 hitters qualified for the batting title. The other major addition was first baseman Ryon Healy from the Oakland Athletics. In his first full season in the majors, Healy slashed .271/.302/.451 with 25 home runs. Still, his 3.8-percent walk rate placed him at the bottom of the league with Gordon. Once again, Dipoto loaded up on relievers. Most notably, free agent Juan Nicasio. After becoming a full-time reliever in 2017, the right-hander had a breakout season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. Nicasio appeared in a league-leading 76 games with impressive 9.0 SO/9 and 2.5 BB/9 rates, holding opponents to a .216/.277/.333 slash line. Last year, he was normally asked to get three or fewer outs. With Seattle, it is plausible the 31-year-old serves in a multi-inning relief rotation with David Phelps. Seattle acquired 26-year-old right-hander Nick Rumbelow from the New York Yankees. Rumbelow injured his elbow after just one inning in 2016 and did not return to game action until last June. Claimed off waivers, reliever Sam Moll may transition into a starter. If that experiment does not pan out, the 26-year-old could potentially become a multi-inning relief option. Another waiver pickup, Mike Morin, is also capable of going multiple frames. The righty owns a career 3.38 FIP in 183 major league appearances, but struggled last year (4.41). Morin has no minor league options remaining, so he must make the 25-man roster or clear waivers to remain with the organization. With that in mind, the 26-year-old may be low hanging fruit, if Dipoto needs to clear a 40-man roster spot. Another low-key addition was Shawn Armstrong, acquired from the Cleveland Indians. The 27-year-old projects as a middle reliever and, like Morin, has no minor options remaining. The third waiver claim was Chasen Bradford. The 28-year-old’s 55.9-percent ground ball was thirtieth best among 235 relievers with 30-plus innings last year. Also making Bradford attractive to the Mariners — three minor league options. Starter Hisashi Iwakuma agreed to remain with Seattle on a minor league contract while recovering from shoulder surgery. “Kuma” made just six starts last season and saw his fastball velocity and strikeout rate dramatically plummet. The 36-year-old will not be a factor for the big league club until May, at the earliest. First baseman Mike Ford came via the Rule 5 draft. Accordingly, the Princeton University product must remain on the major league roster for the entire upcoming season or the Mariners must offer him back to the Yankees for $25 thousand. Ford was a productive minor league hitter last year with 20 home runs and a .270/.404/.471 slash. Interestingly, he had more walks (94) than strikeouts (72). Only five major leaguers accomplished that last year — Joey Votto, Mike Trout, Justin Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo. It is unclear how Ford will fit into Seattle’s plans. Other than 57 minor league innings at third base, the 25-year-old has exclusively played first base. With Healy set to be the regular first baseman and the club likely to carry eight relievers, Ford’s lack of positional versatility is problematic. To improve the bench, Dipoto selected Andrew Romine off waivers from the Detroit Tigers. The versatile 32-year-old has started at every field position with the exception of catcher and pitcher. Then again, he did catch one-third of an inning last year and has 2.2 innings of relief experience. Although he is a Swiss Army knife in the field, Romine is not an offensive threat with a .238/.294/.307 slash after 1192 career plate appearances. Defensive metrics suggest he is better in the outfield, but sample sizes are small and spread over multiple seasons. Romine’s main competition is last year’s utility man — Motter. The 28-year-old proved valuable covering shortstop during Segura’s two trips to the disabled list. Motter does not have a strong bat either, but is four years younger than Romine and appears to be better defensively. Looking Forward Robinson Cano was relatively productive last year, although his offensive output mirrored 2015 when a he struggled with multiple physical issues. Reportedly, the eight-time all-star had an undisclosed injury late last season. Assuming Cano is healthy, he could return to his superb 2016 form (.298/.350/.533 and 39 home runs). On the other hand, he is 35-years-old. His stat line could stagnate of falter rather than rebound. Kyle Seager is also coming off a down year (.249/.323/.450), although he did hit 27 home runs. Whether he can repeat his 2016 productivity (.278/.359/.499 and 30 home runs) is unclear. A more reasonable expectation for Seager may be his average stat line from his first four full seasons (.263/.329/.438 and 23 home runs). Nelson Cruz appeared ageless in 2017 with offensive production mirroring his three-year average as a Mariner. That said; he will be 38-years-old in July. Father Time eventually catches up with everyone — including the “Boomstick.” The Mariners have to hope 2018 is not the year Cruz falls of the proverbial cliff. The rotation has three established names — Paxton, Mike Leake, and Felix Hernandez with a gaggle following behind. Specifically; Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez, and Marco Gonzales, along with minor leaguers Andrew Moore, Max Povse, Robert Whalen, and Chase De Jong. Clearly, Paxton is Seattle’s best pitcher. “Big Maple” flashed ace stuff last year, but made two trips to the disabled list with strains to a pectoral muscle and a flexor bundle. If healthy, the 29-year-old will headline the staff. Leake’s presence should have a stabilizing effect on the staff. The veteran of eight seasons has proven capable of going deep into games. Nevertheless, his effectiveness decreases considerably when facing a lineup for the third time. The most enigmatic player on the roster is Hernandez. “King Felix” has been on the disabled list three times over the last two seasons. In 2017, shoulder tendonitis derailed the 31-year-old twice. Considering Felix’s age and career workload, history does not favor the King’s chances of rebounding. The new relievers along with holdovers Edwin Diaz, Nick Vincent, Tony Zych, Marc Rzepczynski, and James Pazos should make the bullpen a strength. Still, there are reasons to keep a watchful eye. Phelps is coming off a September elbow procedure, but expected to be ready for the season. Any setbacks would significantly affect the back-end of the bullpen. Zych boasts a 9.9 SO/9 in 70 career appearances, but his control (4.2 BB/9) is worrisome. Moreover, injuries have short-circuited the 27-year-old’s last two seasons. Even worse, his fastball velocity lost 3-4 MPH and his SO/9 dropped to 7.7 last year. The left-handed Rzepczynski held lefty hitters to a paltry .483 OPS during the first half, but that number jumped to .829 after the all-star game. Free passes were a big problem for “Scrabble,” especially against right-handers — he walked 25.9-percent of righties faced. Vincent had a career-year and was Seattle’s best reliever, but he appeared worn down by September. The issue going forward is whether the 32-year-old repeats last year’s overall success or suffers a hangover from a demanding 2017 workload. Diaz’s may eventually become an elite-level closer, but he occasionally struggles with his command. The 23-year-old had the twelfth best strikeout percentage among 84 relievers with 60-plus innings, although his walk rate was twelfth worst within the same group. Finally Dipoto will tell you no other AL West team’s rotation outpaces his, with the exception of the World Series champion Houston Astros. This is true, but being the best of a mediocre group is not a distinction worth touting. Club officials acknowledge the rotation’s success hinges on Hernandez bouncing back after two ineffective, injury-shortened seasons. This is not reassuring considering Felix turns 32 in April and his declining productivity since the end of 2014. Two arm-related injuries last season have to generate a measure of concern about Paxton, who has never made 24-plus starts in five big league seasons. While Leake was ace-like after his August acquisition, his career numbers suggest he is closer to league-average than elite. The remaining rotation candidates project to have varying levels of upside. However, they have yet to demonstrate they are anything more than number-5 starters. Perhaps, that changes in 2018. Certainly, adding more multi-inning relievers will help the Mariners survive early departures by starters and increase the odds of getting the ball to Diaz with a lead. But this team will only go as far their rotation takes them. Right now, that destination is on the fringe of wild card contention battling the Los Angeles Angels for a distant second place in their division. Oakland Athletics Offseason Review Texas Rangers Offseason Review Los Angeles Angels Offseason Review Houston Astros Offseason Review
Pitchers and catchers report within weeks. That means it is time to review the offseason moves of the Seattle Mariners and their division rivals. We have already discussed the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Angels. Now, it is time to discuss the World Series champion Houston Astros. Houston’s offense led the American League in runs scored and every other significant offensive category with the exception of home runs where they finished second. Jose Altuve was MVP and earned a batting title. Altuve and teammates George Springer and Marwin Gonzalez were top-10 in the league in OPS. The rotation did not lack for talent, although availability issues were a concern. Only one pitcher — Mike Fiers — made more than 25 starts or logged 150-plus innings. The bullpen was a strength during the regular season, but almost cost Houston a chance of winning it all. So much so, manager A.J. Hinch resorted to using starters Lance McCullers Jr, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton in relief roles throughout the postseason. Offseason Action One could argue the Astros’ biggest move for 2018 occurred last August. That is when general manager Jeff Luhnow acquired former Cy Young winner and league MVP Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers. Verlander’s arrival may eventually be viewed as a transformative moment for the Astros organization. His presence solidified the rotation going into the postseason and gives the club a co-ace to pair with another former Cy Young honoree — Dallas Keuchel. Earlier this month, Luhnow continued to reinforce his starting staff by acquiring Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole proved ineffective, by his standards, with a 4.26 ERA and 4.08 FIP. But he did manage to log 203 innings and make a league-leading 33 starts. If Cole’s 2018 production more closely resembles his career stat line (3.50 ERA and 3.27 FIP), the Astros have a pitcher who lengthens their already quality rotation. Moreover, the 27-year-old provides insurance, if Keuchel departs via free agency after the upcoming season. To deepen his bullpen, Luhnow signed a pair of free agent veterans — Joe Smith and Hector Rondon. The side-arming Smith is an established eighth-inning setup man, who posted a career-best 11.8 K/9 last year. Over the past three seasons, the 33-year-old has averaged 61 appearances and 57 innings. The right-handed throwing Rondon has both closer and setup experience after spending his first five seasons with the Chicago Cubs. But he struggled with his control last year, particularly against left-handed hitters. During his first four years, Rondon’s walk rate against lefty hitters was 6.3-percent. Last season, that number jumped to 14-percent. If the 29-year-old can regain his old form, the Astros will have a formidable late-inning weapon capable of closing games, if incumbent Ken Giles were to falter or be unavailable. To provide more left-handed relief options, the club selected Anthony Gose from the Rangers during the Rule 5 draft and claimed Buddy Boshers off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. Other southpaws on the 40-man roster include nine-year veteran Tony Sipp and rookie Reymin Guduan. Gose is an interesting acquisition. After spending five seasons in the majors as an outfielder, the Detroit Tigers decided to convert him into a pitcher last year. The 27-year-old, who pitched in high school, had his fastball clocked at 100-mph during 11 appearances with High-A Lakeland. If Gose does not remain on the 25-man roster for the entire 2018 season, Luhnow will have to offer him back to the Rangers for a price of $25 thousand. If Texas declines, the Astros can waive the native Californian. Another option would be for both clubs to work out a deal that keeps the newly minted pitcher with Houston. Boshers’ overall numbers are not particularly appealing, but he held left-handed hitters to a .224/.258/.397 slash line last season. Conversely, righties teed off (.300/.367/.538). If used primarily as a lefty specialist, the 29-year-old could potentially provide value. With Evan Gattis likely to spend more time as a designated hitter than a catcher, the club may carry three backstops this year. With that in mind, Tim Federowicz was signed to add depth behind starter Brian McCann and Max Stassi. Looking Forward As good as the rotation looks on paper, last year’s durability concerns still exist. Both Keuchel and McCullers missed time last season due to injuries, as they did in 2016. A prolonged absence by the pair could be devastating to the Astros’ chances of repeating as champions. That said; the presence of Verlander and Cole helps mitigate the risk of Keuchel or McCullers going down. Behind the big three, the club has Morton, Peacock, and Collin McHugh. In addition, prospect Francis Martes and David Paulino provide minor league depth. The bullpen sets up well assuming Giles does not suffer any lingering effects from his postseason struggles. The club’s starting depth will likely push McHugh into a relief role. That assumes Luhnow does not flip the 30-year-old to address another need. If McHugh sticks around, he will join Smith and Rondon, plus holdovers Giles, Peacock, Sipp, Boshers, Gose, Guduan, Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and James Hoyt in a crowded reliever pool. As already noted, Gattis will likely fill the designated hitter gap caused by the retirement of Carlos Beltran. But the departure of Cameron Maybin via free agency creates some uncertainty regarding in left field. In house, the Astros have super-utility man Gonzalez, Jake Marisnick, and perhaps rookie Derek Fisher. Finally The Astros boast a strong core of players, which includes Altuve, Verlander, Keuchel, McCullers, Giles, Gonzalez, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel. For that reason, they are primed for another deep postseason run. Having said that, the biggest challenge facing Houston will be their rotation. If Cole bounces back, Verlander repeats his late season performance, and the duo of Keuchel and McCullers remain available; the club is in great shape. Otherwise, Luhnow may be shopping the market for help this summer. Oakland Athletics Offseason Review Texas Rangers Offseason Review Los Angeles Angels Offseason Review
Pitchers and catchers report within weeks. That means it is time to review the offseason moves of the Seattle Mariners and their division rivals. We have already discussed the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers. Next, the Los Angeles Angels. A club that finished two games under .500, but won six more contests than in 2016. Once again, injuries significantly hampered the Angels rotation. In total, manager Mike Scioscia needed 13 starters to get through the season, including reliever Yusmeiro Petit for a spot start. Only Ricky Nolasco made over 30 starts or threw 150-plus innings. Fortunately, the bullpen was fourth best in the American League, based on WAR. Offensively, the team ranked last in OPS and posted a paltry 93 wRC+ (league-average is always 100), but did lead the majors in stolen bases. On the field, Angel defenders ranked fourth in the league in DRS, although they derived most of their defensive value from two players — shortstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Martin Maldonado. Offseason Action The Angels’ first big move was retaining Justin Upton with a five-year/$106 million extension. General manager Billy Eppler traded for Upton in August not knowing whether his new acquisition would exercise an opt out clause in the contract he signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2016. Fortunately, for the Angels, the 31-year-old chose to remain in Anaheim. Upton posted career highs in home runs (35) and OPS (.901) and delivered above average defense in left field. The three-time Silver Slugger winner joins center fielder Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun to form a formidable outfield. To upgrade second base, the Angels acquired another Tiger via trade — Ian Kinsler. The 35-year-old is coming off a down year at the plate with a .236/.313/.412 slash line. Defensively though, Kinsler continued to excel with the second highest DRS among big league second baseman. Eppler also signed free agent shortstop Zack Cozart. With arguably baseball’s best defensive shortstop already on the roster, Cozart will play third base — a position he has never played professionally. That said; management believes the all-star can make the transition to the hot corner. The most notable offseason add was a pitcher with no major league experience — Shohei Ohtani. While the 23-year-old’s biggest impact projects to come as a starting pitcher, team management is open to using him as their designated hitter. The Angels’ best unit from last year — the bullpen — took a significant hit when Petit and Bud Norris left as free agents. To help offset their departure; Eppler acquired Jim Johnson from the Atlanta Braves. Johnson began last season as Atlanta’s closer, but lost the job. The 34-year-old saw dramatic jumps in his walk and home run rates, although he did prove effective at missing bats with a 9.7 SO/9. To improve depth behind Maldonado, Eppler signed veteran Rene Rivera. The 34-year-old is an average defender with limited offensive punch. But the former second round pick of the Mariners provides a veteran backup capable of spotting Maldonado, when needed. Other catchers on the 40-man roster include Juan Graterol and Carlos Perez. Both saw limited playing time behind Maldonado last season. Perez is out of minor league options. Therefore, he would have to clear waivers to remain with the Angels organization beyond the season opener. Considering Rivera was signed to a guaranteed contract, Perez is in a tenuous position heading into Spring Training. Los Angeles selected reliever Luke Bard from the Minnesota Twins during the Rule 5 draft. The hard throwing right-hander misses bats (13.6 SO/9 in the minors last year) and is an intriguing pick up. One caveat; the 27-year-old must remain on the major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Twins for $25 thousand. Looking Forward Ohtani’s presence as a designated hitter will have a ripple effect on the club’s regular position players. Future Hall of Famer and primary designated hitter Albert Pujols may see playing time at first base when the phenom is in the lineup. When Pujols is manning first base, Luis Valbuena would likely end up on the bench during those occasions. The switch-hitter is also capable of playing third base, but Cozart now stands in his way. Another casualty of Ohtani getting semi-regular at bats would be first baseman C.J. Cron. The right-handed hitter has averaged 15 home runs and a .262/.307/.449 slash line during parts of four big league seasons. Unlike Valbuena, Cron has only played first base throughout his professional career. Assuming the club follows through on its plan to use Ohtani as a designated hitter, Cron could be playing with another organization by Opening Day. Like Perez, the 28-year-old has no minor league options remaining. He too would have to clear waivers to remain in the Angels organization. A more likely outcome would be Eppler swapping Cron for a player that helps fill a more pressing need on his roster. That said; the former first round pick’s limited positional versatility makes him a difficult fit for clubs planning to carry eight relievers. While Ohtani certainly helps the rotation, the right-hander will likely be on an innings limit. Injuries restricted him to just 25.1 innings last year and his career-high of 160.2 frames came in 2015. On that note, Eppler has already floated the concept of a six-man rotation. Such a move would benefit Ohtani and the rest of a staff hampered by the injury bug. Most notably; Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, J.C. Ramirez, and Nick Tropeano. All have suffered elbow injuries in recent years. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the top rotation candidates are Richards, Heaney, Skaggs and Shoemaker, Ohtani, and Bridwell. Other internal options include Tropeano, Ramirez, and Troy Scribner, brother of former Mariner Evan. Prospect Jaime Barria could be a factor later this year. Even if the Angels go with a six-man starting staff, adding another proven arm would be a prudent move. The only starting pitcher on the roster to make more than 25 starts in the past two seasons is Shoemaker, who did it in 2016. Cozart is coming off a career year (.297/.385/.548 triple-slash and 24 home runs). Time will tell whether he regresses to career norms (.254/.305/.411) or sustains his 2017 success. Another issue to monitor with Cozart is availability. The 32-year-old has missed extensive playing time with knee and other leg injuries. He also had Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow as a minor leaguer. Overall, the former second round pick has averaged 99 games played since the 2015 season. At this point, the Angels’ closer spot appears open. Relievers with closing experience include Johnson, Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton, and Blake Parker. A year ago, Bedrosian was the front-runner for the job in Spring Training. But he missed a large portion of the year with a groin injury. Los Angeles could use at least two more proven relievers. However, one philosophy Eppler seems to share with predecessor Jerry Dipoto is a reluctance to make big financial commitments to relief arms. If that is true, look for the Angels to consider low-profile names, preferably with minor league options remaining. Right now, the outfield depth chart behind the starting three includes utility man Jefry Marte, minor leaguers Michael Hermosillo and Rymer Liriano, and veteran Eric Young Jr; signed to a minor league deal. Adding more established players capable of playing all outfield positions would be helpful. Former Angels Cameron Maybin or Ben Revere could make sense. Finally The Angels were one of the most active clubs in their division this offseason. Whether their effort to improve translates into significantly more wins is debatable. With the exception of Ohtani, Eppler’s noteworthy acquisitions are on the wrong side of 30. Compounding matters, those players have a history of inconsistency (Upton), availability concerns (Cozart), or regression (Kinsler and Johnson). Moreover, most of the starting rotation has durability concerns. If all goes well with the new veterans, the Halos will be on the fringe of contention. Reaching the next level will be problematic without adding established arms to the rotation and the bullpen. Then again, Eppler could simply wait until July to make the necessary moves, assuming his club is positioned to contend. Oakland Athletics Offseason Review Texas Rangers Offseason Review
Pitchers and catchers report within weeks. That means it is time to review the offseason moves of the Seattle Mariners and their division rivals. We have already discussed the Oakland Athletics. Next, the Texas Rangers, who finished in a distant third place tie with the Mariners. The Rangers’ run production was fifth best in the American League despite their hitters being below league-average at reaching base. How did the offense create runs? Power and speed. The team was third in the league in home runs, second in stolen bases. Texas starters finished in the bottom third of the league in ERA and FIP. Moreover, Martin Perez (32), Andrew Cashner (28), and Cole Hamels (24) were the only starters to finish the season with Texas and make 20-plus starts. Compounding matters, the bullpen was one of baseball’s worst. With his club facing tough postseason odds, general manager Jon Daniels opted to build for the future. The 40-year-old executive dealt pending free agents Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy, plus reliever Jeremy Jeffress prior to last July’s non-waiver deadline. Ironically, Texas acquired the latter two players in a deadline deal just one year prior. Offseason Action To compensate for trading Darvish and losing free agent starting pitchers Cashner, A.J. Griffin Nick Martinez, and Tyson Ross, Daniels added veterans Doug Fister and Mike Minor via free agency and Matt Moore in a deal with the San Francisco Giants. Fister started his season in the Los Angeles Angels organization, but the Boston Red Sox selected him off waivers last June. The right-hander proved serviceable making 15 starts for Boston finishing with a 4.88 ERA and 3.98 FIP. Still, Fister has struggled against opposite-handed hitters over the last two years. Since 2016, lefties have slashed .310/.386/.534 against him. Prior to that, the 34-year-old’s career line was a far more palatable .257/.302/.398. Minor was a starter with the Atlanta Braves, but developed shoulder problems and underwent surgery in 2015. The left-hander did not pitch in the majors again until 2017, as a member of the Kansas City Royals. Due to concerns regarding Minor’s shoulder, the Royals converted him into a reliever. In that role, the 30-year-old had a breakout year holding opposing hitters to a .201 batting average during 77.2 innings of work. That said; he chose the Rangers because management expressed a willingness to consider using him as a starter. Simply put; Moore had a rough year with San Francisco. The lefty posted the worst ERA (5.52) among qualified major league starters. Moreover, his home run and walk rates ranked in the bottom-10 of baseball. Despite those struggles, the 28-year-old managed to make 31 starts and log 174.1 innings. To add organizational rotation depth, Texas acquired Ronald Herrera from the New York Yankees. It is worth noting the 22-year-old pitched just 19.1 innings after July 1 due to shoulder inflammation. Herrera, along with prospect Yohander Mendez, are likely options when help is inevitably needed during the season. Despite his bullpen’s struggles, Daniels has not made a splashy move to improve the unit. The only major league contract added thus far has been 31-year-old Chris Martin, who spent the last two years in Japan. Having said that, Daniels did reach minor league agreements with a cadre of relievers with big league experience. Among them; Erik Goeddel, Deolis Guerra, former Rangers closer Shawn Tolleson, Kevin Jepsen, and former Mariner Steve Delabar. Former backup Robinson Chirinos took over the regular catching duties when Lucroy departed with Brett Nicholas serving as his understudy. In the offseason, Texas added Juan Centeno, Curt Casali and Mike Ohlman as depth pieces. Moreover, there is prospect Jose Trevino, who likely begins the season with Class-AAA Round Rock. Looking Forward Last year, Hamels made the fewest starts since his 2006 rookie campaign. More concerning, the southpaw’s fastball velocity was down and his 6.4 K/9 was substantially lower than his career average (8.5). Considering the four-time all-star’s age (34) and mileage (2362.1 career innings), further regression this year is possible. Perez may not miss many bats, but he has proven reliable averaging 32 starts and 192 innings during the last two years. Still, the 26-year-old fractured his non-pitching elbow during a December encounter with a bull — not a typo. As a result, his readiness for Opening Day is unclear. Questions swirl around the remaining rotation arms. How far will Moore bounce back from the worst season of his career? Will Fister overcome his issues with left-handed hitters? Is Minor durable enough to be a starter? Another name to consider for a rotation spot is reliever Matt Bush. The Rangers plan to use the hard-throwing righty as a starter entering Spring Training. Even if the 32-year-old does not join the staff, his preparation could lead to a multi-inning relief role similar to the one Chris Devenski fills with the Houston Astros. It is worth noting, the rotation is loaded with southpaws. Hamels, Perez, Minor, and Moore all throw from the left side. Whether that is an issue for the Rangers will become clearer in the coming months. In the bullpen, more intrigue exists with the closer role remaining unsettled. Jake Diekman, who missed most of last season after undergoing three surgeries for ulcerative colitis, could be a candidate. The lefty has a career 11.0 K/9 rate and is adept at avoiding home runs. However, his control (career 4.8 BB/9) is concerning. Fellow left-hander Alex Claudio may be in the mix too. The 25-year-old finished last year as the Rangers’ closer after Sam Dyson and Bush struggled in the role. One potential issue though — he does not miss bats. The native of Puerto Rico averaged just 6.1 K/9 last year — tenth lowest among relievers with 50-plus innings. Durability issues probably keep Keone Kela out of the conversation. Over the last two seasons, the Everett Community College product has averaged just 37 appearances due to injuries. Shoulder soreness last year and an elbow impingement in 2016. Perhaps, Daniels and manager Jeff Banister turn to another internal option to close games — Minor. During his one season as a reliever, the former Vanderbilt Commodore’s strikeout rate jumped to 10.2 K/9. Furthermore, the lefty was skilled at getting hitters out regardless of handedness. Third baseman Adrian Beltre played his fewest games (94) since his rookie season in 1998. Considering the future Hall of Famer turns 40 in April, the club would benefit from more infield depth. Slugger Joey Gallo can play the hot corner, but he appears entrenched at first base. Texas does have utility man Jurickson Profar, who has experience at all four infield positions and left field. Still, baseball’s former top prospect spent most of 2017 with Round Rock and did not receive a September call-up. With no minor league options remaining, the 24-year-old could be with another organization by Opening Day. Willie Calhoun, acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Darvish deal, will compete for the left field job. The 23-year-old was a second baseman, but below average defense led to a position change. With that in mind, the left-handed hitter must produce at the plate to justify a big league roster spot. Adding a veteran backup catcher would prove beneficial in the event Chirinos was lost for an extended period. Finally Considering their lack of offseason maneuvers, Texas appears on the brink of commencing with a major rebuild. If the Rangers were setting a new course, trading Hamels this season would make sense. Texas does hold a $20 million club option for 2019 with a $6 million buyout. But trading the 12-year veteran with financial considerations could help the club add future value to their roster. Other notable names with expiring contracts include Beltre and Diekman. Furthermore, Perez, Chirinos, Moore, and Fister have club options for 2019 with relatively inexpensive buyouts. Depending on the standings in July and the trade market, some or all of these players may wearing different uniforms by August. Certainly, I could be wrong. The Rangers could still re-sign Darvish or other top free agents. However, Daniels says he does not expect to add a marquee player. If that is the case, it may be a long, hot summer in Arlington. Oakland Athletics Offseason Review
Pitchers and catchers report within weeks. That means it is time to review the offseason moves of the Seattle Mariners and their division rivals. First up are the Oakland Athletics, occupants of the American League West cellar for three consecutive years. Once again, Oakland’s defense rated near the bottom of the majors. Based on defensive runs saved (DRS), corner outfielders Khris Davis and Matt Joyce were among the worst at their respective positions. The same applies to Marcus Semien, ranked number-25 of 26 shortstops with 700-plus innings. Injuries and the mid-season trade of Sonny Gray left the rotation with just three starters with 100-plus innings pitched. The bullpen ranked just below average, which is impressive considering the team also traded top relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle in July. At the all-star break, Oakland hitters ranked in the bottom third of the league. But the club experienced a power surge finishing the season with the league’s fifth best OPS. Moreover, their 109 home runs in the second half tied for most in the majors. Out of contention by the all-star break, the front office followed a familiar pattern by flipping valuable veterans and pending free agents near the July non-waiver trade deadline. Exiting the Bay Area along with Gray, Doolittle, and Madson were infielders Adam Rosales and Yonder Alonso. Offseason Action Looking to improve his bullpen, general manager David Forst signed free agent Yusmeiro Petit to a two-year/$10 million deal. The 32-year-old led the majors with 87.1 relief innings as a Los Angeles Angel last season. He even made a four-inning spot start last July. Forst also acquired Emilio Pagan from Seattle. As a rookie, the right-hander went two-plus innings in 12 of 34 appearances and posted the seventh best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors. Oakland maintains control over the 26-year-old for six years, plus he has two minor league options remaining. To improve the outfield; the club acquired Stephen Piscotty from the St. Louis Cardinals. The 27-year-old’s eight DRS tied for fifth best among right fielders with Joey Rickard of the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle’s Mitch Haniger. Last offseason, Piscotty inked a six-year/$32 million extension with a $15 million club option for 2023 — his age-32 season. Unfortunately, his 2017 power numbers and batting average plummeted. Despite those struggles, Piscotty maintained a top-50 OBP in the National League. The reason? A 13-percent walk rate that ranked fifteenth among hitters with 400-plus plate appearances. Most of Piscotty’s experience is in right field, although he does have 385 innings of left field time. His presence should permit manager Bob Melvin to use Davis as his primary designated hitter. Others in the outfield mix include Joyce, Chad Pinder, former Mariner Boog Powell, Jake Smolinski, Mark Canha, international free agent acquisition Dairon Blanco, and top prospect Dustin Fowler. Blanco’s speed and athleticism are his best attributes, while his hit tool is suspect. The 25-year-old had 900-plus professional plate appearances in Cuba, but did not play last year. He likely starts the season in the minors. Fowler suffered a ruptured patella tendon during his major league debut with the New York Yankees in late-June. Regardless, Forst accepted him as part of a package for Gray. The 23-year-old is viewed as Oakland’s center fielder of the future and anticipates being ready for Opening Day. If setbacks occur, fallback options include Powell, Smolinski, and Canha. Looking Forward Most of Oakland’s starters are unproven or have an injury history. Sean Manaea is clearly their best starter, but has missed time due to left shoulder and bicep strains since debuting in 2016. Right-hander Kendall Graveman has proven effective. Yet, shoulder issues limited the 27-year-old to just 19 starts last year. Moreover, Andrew Triggs is returning from July hip surgery. Sophomore Jharel Cotton made 24 starts and logged 129 innings in his first full season, but the 26-year-old had the fourth worst HR/9 in baseball. Rounding out the rotation pool is a collection of arms with varying levels of potential: Paul Blackburn, Daniel Mengden, Daniel Gossett, Jesse Hahn. Like most teams, Oakland would benefit from another proven arm. Free agent candidates remain available on the market, although management does not appear inclined to act. Currently, bullpen candidates include Petit, Pagan, closer Blake Treinen, Chris Hatcher, Liam Hendriks, Daniel Coulombe, Santiago Casilla, Raul Alcantara, Frankie Montas, and Ryan Dull. As with the starting staff, another established reliever would help. Furthermore, Coulombe is the only lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. In April, projected starting catcher Bruce Maxwell has a trial date for felony charges stemming from an October incident. While the 27-year-old may make a plea deal to avoid a trial, MLB will likely suspend him once legal proceedings conclude. If Maxwell is unavailable, catching duties fall to backup Josh Phegley and Dustin Garneau. As such, adding veteran depth would help the team that ranked number-27 in catcher WAR last season. Betting on Piscotty to rebound makes sense, although his price tag may hasten his departure from Oakland. He is earning a relatively inexpensive $1.3 million in 2018. However, his salary jumps to $7.3 million next year. Only Davis ($10.5 million) earns more than $7 million this year. Finally With Oakland not expected to contend this year, pending free agent Jed Lowrie may be on the move this season. The 33-year-old is still productive at the plate and a capable middle infielder and third baseman. Skills generally in demand at the deadline. If the club opts to move Lowrie, they could turn to top prospect Franklin Barreto. The 22-year-old has come through the farm system as a shortstop, but has 500 innings of experience at second base. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Barreto will start the season with Class-AAA Nashville. Other pending free agents potentially on the trading block include Casilla and Joyce. Three players with just one year of club control remaining after this season — Davis, Petit, Hendriks, and Hatcher — may also draw interest from contenders this summer. That assumes each player has a productive first half. While flipping talent at the deadline may frustrate Athletics fans, it is a logical approach that permits the low-revenue team to continuously reload. This is especially critical while the organization attempts to secure a new ballpark. Eventually, the Athletics will be July buyers. Unfortunately, 2018 does not appear to be that year.
Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is a man on an island. Not literally, but in a figurative sense. You see, the 49-year-old executive appears comfortable entering the upcoming season with his current stable of starting pitchers. Few outside his organization feels the same way. By and large, fans and local media members believe the rotation is the Mariners’ weakest link. If it is not addressed in a big way, the club’s 16-year postseason drought will drag into 2019. Naturally, Dipoto pushes back against such criticism. He routinely points out his team will be getting a full season from two pitchers acquired last summer — Mike Leake and Erasmo Ramirez. That in of itself improves the rotation. On top of that, Dipoto projects a positive attitude when it comes to his medical staff’s approach to keeping starters James Paxton and Felix Hernandez available for a full season. Both made just 40 combined starts in 2017 due to injuries. Perhaps, Dipoto’s confidence in his top starters turns out to be well founded. Maybe, some combination of unheralded holdovers Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Moore have breakout seasons. If all of this happens, the rotation could keep the club in contention throughout the summer — maybe longer. Still, the optimism emitting from the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way is not shared by the Mariners’ fan base. They want the club to acquire top-shelf rotation help right now. Marquee names such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and Alex Cobb are frequently mentioned — all are free agents. This is where the journey to Dipoto Island begins. Dipoto routinely remarks that he prefers constructing teams through a blend of acquisitions via trade and the flow of player assets from the minor league pipeline. From his viewpoint, free agency is a means to “accent” a roster; not build it. When he has signed a free agent during his tenure in Seattle, Dipoto has resisted long-term commitments. He has not signed anyone to a deal longer than two years with the exception of Hisashi Iwakuma, technically a free agent when he re-signed with the Mariners in 2015. While I believe the Mariners need another quality arm for their rotation, I share Dipoto’s aversion to long-term free agent commitments. Most assuredly, many fans — and some in the media — disagree. My view of premium free agents remains the same, particularly with starting pitchers. Their appeal is largely based on the back of their baseball card. Too often though, teams end up overpaying for a player’s inevitable regression. Making matters worse, virtually every starting pitcher in this year’s free agent class is a thirty-something. Recent history suggests starters begin declining near age-30. To see what I mean, take a moment to review the following chart, which encompasses the last decade. Included are all instances when a starter pitched at least 100 innings in a season and had an adjusted earned run average (ERA+) of 100 or greater. Totals are organized by the age of the pitcher during the season he met the criteria. Please note, I limited the chart’s coverage to ages 20 through 40. Randy Johnson, Bartolo Colon, Jamie Moyer, Andy Pettitte, and Tim Wakefield (twice) met the criteria at age-41 or older, but were excluded. No one under 20 qualified. For those not familiar with ERA+, it standardizes ERA by factoring in league and ballparks. League-average ERA+ is always 100. With that in mind, a pitcher with a 120 ERA+ would be 20-percent better than the league average. As a whole, the most productive age period for pitchers was during their twenties. Conversely, the number of average-or-better performances steadily declined for those in their thirties. That does not mean a 30-plus free agent cannot help a team, especially early in a deal. Zack Greinke is proof of that. Prior to his age-32 season, Greinke signed a six-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks worth over $206 million. In two seasons, the 14-year veteran has a 125 ERA+ and 8.3 wins above replacement (WAR). Thus far, Greinke is living up to his billing as a staff ace. But history suggests his value on the field will not match his compensation level by the latter half of his contract. That may be why Arizona is reportedly shopping Greinke and his contract that runs through his age-37 season. It appears the steep price tag ownership okayed in 2015 has become too exorbitant. Perhaps, Arizona finds an interested buyer, but it will not be easy. Am I suggesting the Mariners should ride out the 2018 season with their current cadre of starters? No, the Mariners certainly need another established arm. But fans should not expect a presser introducing a top free agent starter to Seattle any time soon. Unless, of course, the market depresses to unexpected lows. A more realistic scenario would be the price — in terms of years and dollars — dropping for names discussed less often. Under those circumstances, Dipoto adding a free agent arm becomes more plausible. Who am I talking about? Jason Vargas, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Andrew Cashner are notable examples. There are others, but this quartet is representative of what the market has to offer beyond the big names. All have the ability to deliver value to a club in 2018, but each comes with blemishes and varying degrees of risk. After missing significant portions of 2015-16 due to Tommy John surgery, Vargas had a strong first half last year. The former Mariner had a 2.62 ERA at the all-star break, but posted a 6.38 ERA during the last three months of the season. Still, Vargas did post career bests in ERA+ (108) and WAR (3.8). That said; the issue with the southpaw, who turns 35 next month, is whether his post all-star game production is a sign of things to come. Lynn missed the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, although he did log 186.1 innings last year. Overall, the right-hander had a 124 ERA+ and delivered 2.8 WAR of value. The 31-year-old Lynn also surrendered the fewest hits-per-nine innings in six big league seasons, but his home run and strikeouts rates trended in the wrong direction. Furthermore, he notched the seventh worst walk rate and plunked 10 hitters too. The left-handed throwing Garcia has an extensive injury history. He has undergone Tommy John surgery, plus he has been under the knife for thoracic outlet syndrome and a shoulder problem. Having said that, Garcia has averaged 28 starts and 164 innings since 2016. Prior to that, the 31-year-old had not started 20-plus games in five seasons. The nine-year veteran finished last season with a 99 ERA+ and 1.4 WAR. After several sub-par seasons, Cashner posted career highs in ERA+ (138) and WAR (4.6) with the Texas Rangers last season. However, the 31-year-old had the eighth highest walk rate and second lowest strikeout rate among qualified major league starters. On the other hand, Cashner has averaged 161 innings over the last three years. He also had the third lowest home run rate in the majors. An impressive feat considering he played home games in homer-friendly Globe Life Park. Adding one of these pitchers or another with a similar profile could help the Mariners to some degree in 2018 — assuming they buck history and stave off age-related regression. How confident are you of that happening? Will Lynn and Garcia — both predominantly National League pitchers — successfully transition to the junior circuit? More importantly, will they remain healthy? Can Cashner repeat his 2017 success or will he revert to career norms? Has Vargas already seen his best days? An additional factor to consider is the advancing ages of Seattle’s top starters. King Felix (32 in April) appears to be already regressing, while Paxton (29) and Leake (30) are approaching the point when their best years will be behind them. Even “young” Ariel Miranda is 29-years-old. Does adding another thirty-something to the Mariners enigmatic rotation really make sense? Not to me. The again, Dipoto could use his JeDi skills to swing a trade for a proven mid-rotation arm. Considering Seattle’s limited number of trade chips, such a move may prove problematic. That assumes a trade partner exists, who is willing to accept what Dipoto has to offer. Still, difficult as it may be, a player swap would be a more reasonable approach to helping the rotation than overpaying for a free agent starter. At least that is how I see it. Perhaps, I belong on the same island as Dipoto. Maybe I am already there.
By design, starting pitchers are going deep into games less often. Instead, teams are turning to relievers earlier than ever before. This philosophy has considerable merit, especially with more clubs building bullpens capable of repeatedly delivering quality innings. Why start the sixth inning with a back-of-the-rotation arm when a better option is warming up in the bullpen? Mike Petriello of MLB.com agrees. He recently identified six starters who may benefit from short, successful starts, rather than longer, mediocre outings. Petriello’s candidates perform well early, but fall off the proverbial cliff after facing a lineup twice. Specifically, their opponent’s weighted on-base average (wOBA) rose above league-average when they saw a batting order a third time. For those not familiar with wOBA, it is similar to on-base percentage (OBP). However, wOBA gives increasing value to extra-base hits rather than viewing all on-base events equally. If you would like to know more about wOBA, FanGraphs and MLB.com each provide deeper explanations, which are excellent. Petriello did not discuss any members of the Seattle Mariners, so I decided to apply his wOBA approach to Seattle’s current stable of starters. Are there any candidates worth considering for an early hook? Before going any further, a few notes about the following table. Pitchers with limited experience, specifically Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore, will not appear. The sample size is just too small for a serious conversation. With the exception of Erasmo Ramirez, the period covered for each starter includes the 2016-17 seasons. I went back to 2015 for Ramirez because he made just one start for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016. Included below are game starts (GS) and the opponents’ wOBA each time a pitched faced the lineup. At the bottom, the MLB average for each time through the order. Highlighted frames were above league-average. For your reference: league-average wOBA for a reliever during his first time through the order is .309. wOBA By Time Thru The Order Pitcher GS 1st 2nd 3rd James Paxton 44 .247 .287 .329 Mike Leake 66 .299 .303 .370 Felix Hernandez 41 .333 .313 .317 Erasmo Ramirez 47 .300 .302 .308 Ariel Miranda 39 .332 .304 .324 MLB Avg .314 .332 .340 Source: FanGraphs Since Felix Hernandez and Ariel Miranda have struggled out of the gate during the last two seasons, I am not going to discuss the duo. The same applies to James Paxton, who has been strong throughout games. While seeing Paxton flourish is a reassuring sign for Mariner fans, the fact both Hernandez and Miranda have been unreliable early casts a shadow of doubt over the rotation going into next season. Compounding matters, Moore and Gonzales are unknown quantities, but expected to contribute in 2018. That leaves us with two candidates to review — Mike Leake and Ramirez. Both were in-season acquisitions by general manager Jerry Dipoto last year with Ramirez returning to the club that originally signed him as an amateur. Leake is an interesting case. Although viewed as an “innings eater,” his late-inning performance since 2016 suggests otherwise. The Mariners could potentially gain an advantage by replacing the 30-year-old before he craters in games. Some Mariner fans may be surprised to see how well Ramirez fared when facing lineups three times. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons Dipoto orchestrated a Seattle reunion with the 27-year-old. Okay, reviewing a starter’s history certainly helps shed light on when to make a call to the bullpen. But when exactly in games have Leake and Ramirez fallen off? The following table helps answer that question by illustrating each pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) through the fifth inning and subsequent frames. ERA by Innings Pitched Pitcher Overall Thru 5 IP 6th 7th Mike Leake 4.29 4.11 4.12 7.48 Erasmo Ramirez 3.91 3.72 6.57 Source: FanGraphs Please note, I did not include Ramirez’s ERA for the seventh inning because he faced just 28 batters. My cutoff for both he and Leake was at least 50 hitters in an inning. While Ramirez performs well through the order three times, his success evaporates after the fifth inning. This suggests pitch inefficiency leads him to see lineups three times by the fifth frame. Leake has proven he can go longer than Ramirez. But the seventh inning has been the right-hander’s downfall in recent seasons. Does this mean manager Scott Servais should automatically pull these two veterans strictly based on historical data? No, when the skipper is mulling a decision, he will likely rely on a blend of thoughtful data-based analysis and discussions with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre prior to and during game action. Still, the statistical history of both Leake and Ramirez should not be overlooked. Making a change before they run aground would prove beneficial for the Mariners this upcoming season. As with defensive shifts, the data we have discussed is not predictive, but the numbers do suggest probability. Just as teams position defenders based on the likelihood of where a ball will be hit, preemptively replacing a starter could prevent a game changing meltdown. Sure, there will be times when Leake or Ramirez are sailing along and should remain in a game longer than the stats say. That is why there is a manager to make the hard calls and where the eyeball test and talking to the pitcher come into play. On the other hand, the Mariners appear destined to teeter between fringe contender and also-ran in 2018. If that is the case, the club can ill-afford sticking with at-risk starters too long and missing opportunities to gain a competitive edge in games.
When Houston Astro fans reflect on the 2017 season, most will likely view the late-season acquisition of Justin Verlander as a transformative moment in franchise history. Including the postseason, Verlander posted a 1.67 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 70 innings with Houston winning 10 of the 11 game appearances. Most importantly, the Astros won their first World Series title with the right-hander leading the charge. Verlander’s immediate impact in Houston and the national exposure he received during the postseason prompted some talking heads and fans to declare he is already a Hall of Famer. That sentiment is understandable and probably shared by fans in Detroit, where Verlander spent the entirety of his career before coming to Houston on August 31. However, the notion he has already earned a plaque in Cooperstown is not grounded in reality. Sure, the former Cy Young award winner and league MVP has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since debuting in 2005. But his body of work does not scream Hall of Famer. Not yet, at least. Non-Hall of Famers As proof Verlander’s career production is not quite Hall ready, I submit the records of David Cone, Bret Saberhagen, and Dave Stieb. The trio finished their respective careers with similar stat lines to what the former Old Dominion Monarch currently has. Yet, each lasted just one Hall election cycle after receiving less than five-percent of the vote. One And Done HOF Candidates Player WAR W IP ERA FIP SO9 ERA+ David Cone 61.7 194 2898 3.46 3.57 8.3 121 Bret Saberhagen 59.1 167 2562 3.34 3.27 6.0 126 Dave Stieb 57.0 176 2895 3.44 3.82 5.2 122 Justin Verlander 56.9 188 2545 3.46 3.47 8.5 124 Source: Baseball Reference Some may suggest Verlander’s Cy Young and MVP honors, plus his postseason success will be difference-makers. Those extraordinary accomplishments will certainly register with voters, but comparable feats did not help two of the players listed above. Saberhagen was a two-time Cy Young winner and a World Series MVP. Cone, also a Cy Young recipient, earned five World Series rings with two clubs. Despite these notable deeds, the duo received little-to-any notice from voters. A Man Among Men A segment of Verlander proponents may contend he has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game for over a decade. The three players just mentioned were not. True, the 13-year veteran has been elite for a sustained period; this has historically mattered to voters. Having said that, Verlander does not stand head-and-shoulders above his contemporaries; another trait important to the electorate. Top-10 Active SPs (Based on WAR) Player Age WAR IP GS W ERA FIP ERA+ CC Sabathia 36 60.7 3317 509 237 3.70 3.70 117 Clayton Kershaw 29 57.4 1935 290 144 2.36 2.60 161 Zack Greinke 34 56.9 2455 381 172 3.40 3.37 123 Justin Verlander 34 56.9 2545 385 188 3.46 3.47 124 Cole Hamels 33 52.7 2362 362 147 3.37 3.60 124 Felix Hernandez 31 52.2 2502 375 160 3.20 3.35 125 Bartolo Colon 44 47.5 3315 528 230 4.04 4.09 107 Max Scherzer 33 44.6 1897 296 141 3.30 3.25 127 Jon Lester 33 41.7 2184 348 159 3.51 3.55 122 John Lackey 38 38.0 2840 446 188 3.93 3.94 110 Source: Baseball Reference Verlander’s numbers are superb, but the same can be said about the trio of thirty-somethings surrounding him on the preceding table. None of them is receiving the same Cooperstown fanfare as the native Virginian. Zack Greinke has approximately the same mound time as Verlander and has produced strikingly similar value. Until injuries and ineffectiveness derailed Felix Hernandez during the last two years, his productivity was equal to or better than Verlander’s. Although Cole Hamels does not receive the attention afforded Greinke and Hernandez, he has provided relatively similar value during his 12-year career. I am not suggesting the southpaw is superior or will have a better overall career, but he is somewhat close to Verlander. CC Sabathia is the graybeard of the group. It is not likely his Hall of Fame stock significantly improves between now and when he retires. However, it is plausible the lefty continues to prove valuable for several more years. Still, the brightest star of all belongs to the youngest pitcher listed — Clayton Kershaw. He is already a three-time Cy Young winner and two-time runner-up, plus a league MVP. Most consider the southpaw the best of his generation. The dominance of Kershaw does not necessarily torpedo other Hall candidacies. However, the Verlander camp cannot claim he was preeminent during his era. For this reason, adding length and more results to his fine career will distinguish Verlander from peers he will eventually be competing with for Hall votes. Recent Inductees Since it is clear Verlander needs to do more, reviewing the career totals of recently enshrined starting pitchers might help determine what he must accomplish going forward. The following are full-time starters selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America over the last two decades. Recently Elected HOF Starters Player WAR IP GS W ERA FIP SO/9 ERA+ Greg Maddux 104.6 5008 740 355 3.16 3.26 6.1 132 Randy Johnson 104.3 4135 603 303 3.29 3.19 10.6 135 Bert Blyleven 96.5 4970 685 287 3.31 3.19 6.7 118 Pedro Martinez 86.0 2827 409 219 2.93 2.91 10.0 154 Nolan Ryan 83.9 5386 773 324 3.19 2.97 9.5 112 Tom Glavine 74.0 4413 682 305 3.54 3.95 5.3 118 Don Sutton 68.7 5282 756 324 3.26 3.24 6.1 108 Justin Verlander 56.9 2545 385 188 3.46 3.47 8.5 124 Source: Baseball Reference As you can see, Verlander lags well behind in terms of WAR with the closest players being Tom Glavine and Don Sutton. While the 34-year-old fares better from an ERA+ and SO/9 perspective, his overall record pales when compared to all recent inductees. The fact Verlander trails these great pitchers should not come as a surprise. After all, the group averaged 279 more starts more than his 385 outings. The only person relatively close in terms of career workload was Pedro Martinez. Even the most ardent Verlander supporter would likely admit Pedro was a cut above their man. The Next Wave Clearly, a gap exists between Verlander and those recently enshrined. How does he stack up to the current generation of candidates? The following lists the most prominent starters currently on the ballot and those set to appear soon. Once again, Verlander brings up the rear. Current and Future HOF Candidates Player WAR IP GS W ERA FIP SO/9 ERA+ Roger Clemens 139.4 4916 707 354 3.12 3.09 8.6 143 Mike Mussina 82.7 3562 536 270 3.68 3.57 7.1 123 Curt Schilling 80.7 3261 436 216 3.46 3.23 8.6 127 Roy Halladay 65.6 2749 390 203 3.38 3.39 6.9 131 Andy Pettitte 60.9 3316 521 256 3.85 3.74 6.6 117 Mark Buehrle 59.2 3283 493 214 3.81 4.11 5.1 117 Tim Hudson 57.2 3126 479 222 3.49 3.78 6.0 120 Justin Verlander 56.9 2545 385 188 3.46 3.47 8.5 124 Source: Baseball Reference Statistically speaking, Roger Clemens should already be in the Hall. However, PED accusations from his playing days cast a shadow over his candidacy. Clemens’ vote tally has been climbing, but there is a segment of writers who will never vote for the seven-time Cy Young award winner. Curt Schilling appears to be paying the price for divisive comments made in recent years. That aside, he possesses Hall of Fame credentials and will probably be elected before his eligibility ends. Mike Mussina is not controversial. Furthermore, his 82.7 WAR bests notable Hall of Famers Bob Gibson (81.9), Glavine (74), Sutton (68.7), and Jim Palmer (68.1). Yet, the right-hander’s vote share fell 17 points short of the 75-percent required for induction last year. Both Roy Halladay and Andy Pettitte may garner support in some circles, but it is tough seeing either earning enshrinement before Mussina or Schilling. For this reason, the Hall of Fame fate of Mussina and Schilling may provide clarity to the electorate’s stance on starters from this century. Neither reached the fabled 300-win milestone nor did they win a Cy Young. But both men possess impressive career records buoyed by new-age metrics. While justifying Verlander’s current Hall worthiness is problematic, that does not mean he cannot get there from here. There is a realistic path leading to a Cooperstown induction speech. Hopefully, he will not bloody a sock along the way. The Verlander Solution For the moment, assume Verlander needs to match or exceed the career production of Mussina and Schilling to guarantee enshrinement. Here is where the duo stood after their age-34 season in contrast to the former Tiger. Through Age-34 Season Player WAR IP G GS ERA FIP SO/9 ERA+ Mike Mussina 68.5 2668 386 386 3.53 3.52 7.2 129 Justin Verlander 56.9 2545 385 385 3.46 3.47 8.5 124 Curt Schilling 48.3 2158 390 271 3.37 3.27 8.5 126 Source: Baseball Reference Fans in Detroit and Houston should be encouraged. While Mussina had a commanding lead in terms of WAR, Schilling was behind Verlander’s current pace. It is worth noting Schilling had substantially fewer innings and starts than Verlander through his age-34 season. The retired star was predominantly a reliever at the onset of his career. Still, Schilling’s late-career success illuminates a course Verlander could follow. Respected baseball writer Peter Gammons recently noted the similarities between Schilling and Verlander, referring to them as moment guys. The Hall of Fame writer suggests Schilling would not have enjoyed a strong finish to his career without being traded to contenders. First, to the Arizona Diamondbacks and then the Boston Red Sox. Gammons sees a similar opportunity for Verlander in Houston. No longer playing for a rebuilding club in Detroit, the veteran starter is with an organization likely to have many “moments” during the final two years of his current contract. Assuming he remains healthy and productive through his age-40 season, Verlander would have to accrue at least 24 WAR to reach the heights of Mussina and Schilling. It will not be easy, but other starters have recently achieved the same feat between ages 35-40. Age 35-40 Production Player WAR GS W IP ERA FIP ERA+ Randy Johnson 48.5 192 103 1389 2.65 2.57 175 Curt Schilling 32.5 157 84 1102 3.63 3.16 129 Roger Clemens 27.9 190 97 1238 3.73 3.56 123 Dennis Martinez 27.4 186 82 1307 3.04 3.50 126 Jamie Moyer 25.9 192 96 1271 3.73 4.08 120 Source: Baseball Reference While others have flourished late in their career, there is no guarantee Verlander does. In retrospect, injuries shortened the superb careers of Saberhagen, Cone, and Stieb. The Astros’ ace will have to remain healthy to avoid the same fate as this distinguished trio. Fortunately, Verlander is renowned for his physical conditioning. Moreover, Gammons notes the six-time all-star incorporated analytics into his game prep while a member of the Tigers. Constantly reinventing himself, as Schilling did, will be beneficial as Father Time advances. Finally As of today, Justin Verlander is not a Hall of Famer. Diehard fans in Detroit and Houston may disagree, but the facts back me up. Having said that, I would not bet against the former Old Dominion Monarch earning membership into baseball’s most exclusive club. Heck, there is still time for him to be a first ballot selection. That would be a fitting conclusion to an already superb baseball career. Personally, I am rooting for it to happen.
Recently, Larry Stone of the Seattle Times suggested the Seattle Mariners needed a healthy, revived Felix Hernandez to have a chance at the postseason in 2018. If that turns out to be the case, Mariner fans are likely to feel an all too familiar sense of dread once October rolls around. Why my grim outlook? History does not favor pitchers with a combination of Hernandez’s experience (13 seasons) and mileage (2,502 innings). Especially when that pitcher has been trending downwards as Felix has. That is a reality some Mariner fans may have trouble accepting. The reluctance to dismiss Felix despite his recent misfortune is understandable. After all, long-time fans remember his humble beginnings as a teen phenom, who morphed into a bona fide star and eventually a beloved figure in the Pacific Northwest. At the tender age of 17, “King Felix” was already wowing scouts and creating a buzz in baseball. Among those dazzled; Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill, who raved about the young flamethrower after first seeing him pitch in 2003. Two years later, the kid from Valencia, Venezuela was making his big league debut with the Mariners. Baseball evaluators everywhere believed the 19-year-old could be something special. Boy, was he ever. A Seattle Icon It took a few years for him to perfect his craft. But when he did, Hernandez was a dominant force between 2009-14. Here is his stat line from that period and where it placed him among his contemporaries. For those wondering, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the lone player to fill the top spot when Hernandez did not. In the American League, Felix and former Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander time-shared the “best in the league” label for a decade. Felix’s individual accomplishments are similarly impressive. A Cy Young award and two runner-up finishes; a pair of ERA titles; six all-star selections; a perfect game. It is worth noting Hernandez pitched for offensively inept teams for most of his peak years. Perhaps, he would have won multiple Cy Young trophies with better run support. Regardless of the disadvantages endured, Felix is an eventual Hall of Famer in the eyes of many. That said; I do not believe his on-field success is why Mariner fans are so dedicated to the King. Felix did not rise to iconic status by simply being a great pitcher. Rather, his relationship with Seattle fans is deeply personal. He made it so with one momentous decision. He stayed. Through the years, Seattle has endured the departures of Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson. All were Hall of Fame talents; all left by either their design or the club’s during their prime. Heck, even the city’s NBA team abandoned them. Not Felix. In 2013, Hernandez signed a seven-year/$175 million extension with the Mariners. He bypassed free agency to remain with the only organization he ever knew and the city that adores him. Such loyalty resonates with any fan base, especially one so bitterly familiar with rejection. Time Waits For No One That brings us to the pitcher Stone discusses in his column. The man with a rooting section dubbed the “King’s Court,” who has been anything but supreme lately. Since the start of 2015, injuries and ineffectiveness have incrementally reduced the one-time superstar to league-average. Going into next year, the focus will not be on Felix’s Hall of Fame credentials. Instead, the issue at hand is whether the one-time ace can once again be a difference-maker for a rotation in dire need of one. After James Paxton and Mike Leake, the starting staff is chock full of uncertainty. Making matters worse for Felix and the Mariners, history suggests his downward spiral is more likely to continue than reverse. Since Seattle’s inaugural season in 1977, there have been 65 starters with similar wear and tear (2,200-plus innings) as Felix through 13 seasons. Only nine had a total WAR greater than 10 for the remainder of their career, 19 delivered zero or less WAR. To be clear, the Mariners should not begin planning a retirement ceremony for their iconic pitcher. However, the demise of others over the last four decades hint at the potential for Felix to fade quickly. Historic Comps Astute fans will point out Felix Hernandez is not just any pitcher. True, he was an elite performer for nearly a decade. His 52.2 career WAR places him among the best active starters. Many of the players from the previous chart were far less talented than the King. With that in mind, I identified 14 retired pitchers possessing similar experience (2,200-plus innings) and value (47-57 WAR) to Felix’s through their thirteenth season. The names are not obscure, quite the opposite. Included below are each pitcher’s WAR and innings through 13 seasons. Also displayed are the number of years played afterwards along with their total WAR for season-14 and beyond. As you will see, player value and career length varied greatly. Yes, Randy Johnson fell slightly outside my established search window, but I thought Seattle fans would enjoy comparing the two greatest pitchers in franchise history at a similar point in their careers. It is not hard to see why Johnson has a plaque in Cooperstown. The Big Unit’s productivity during his final nine seasons is better than the career totals of most mortal pitchers. Other starters did not perform as well as Johnson, but several did provide a reasonable measure of value near the end of their respective careers. Most notably; Roy Halladay, David Cone, Mark Buehrle, Bret Saberhagen, Andy Pettitte, and Kevin Brown. While an optimist may view the success of these six former stars as cause for hope, the realist in me sees a glaring difference between them and Seattle’s former ace. Felix had a combined 2.4 WAR during his last two seasons. None of the men previously mentioned bounced back from such a decline after passing the 2,000-inning mark. They either faded away or never struggled to the same degree as Hernandez before hanging up their cleats. Age Matters A segment of Felix fans may contend his relative youth (32 in April) means there is still plenty of innings left in the veteran’s right arm. Most of the pitchers mentioned thus far were older than Hernandez by season-13. Fair enough, but the record book tells a different story. Over the last 40 years, nine pitchers have debuted between ages 19-20 and tossed 2,200-plus innings by season-13. As with the previous comparison, the players delivered mixed production. The preceding names are an impressive lot. Other than Bill Gullickson, every pitcher won at least one Cy Young award; two received Rookie of the Year honors. Moreover, a pair of Hall of Famers are present. Greg Maddux proved to be an accomplished pitcher well into his late thirties. Conversely, fellow Cooperstown inductee Pedro Martinez fell off a cliff after supplying 7 WAR in season-14. The right-hander tallied just 1.9 WAR during his final four campaigns. Despite the overwhelming early success of these noteworthy starters, most were ordinary by the time their fourteenth season arrived. Being relatively young does not necessarily trump a heavy career workload. That is a lesson Felix fans may soon learn. Current Events So far, comparisons have focused primarily on retired pitchers. Those believing King Felix can reign again may assert he possesses a decided edge over former players. Advancements in training techniques, medicine, and nutrition give today’s professional athletes a better chance of surviving longer. Undoubtedly, current players are training more effectively, better informed, and recovering faster from injuries than their predecessors. For that reason, I compiled a list of active starters with at least 14 seasons under their belt. The table depicts is their post year-13 information. Admittedly, the list is shorter than I expected. Certainly, Zack Greinke continues to be superb and C.C. Sabathia is enjoying a second wind as his career nears a close. Otherwise, the results are mixed Ageless wonder Bartolo Colon helped the Minnesota Twins reach the postseason last year, but only after a turbulent stay with the Atlanta Braves. Edwin Jackson is a baseball nomad playing for 11 teams in 15 seasons. In 2017, he pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. The remaining two starters — R.A. Dickey and John Lackey — reportedly are mulling retirement. Considering next year is his age-45 season, Colon could retire too. Peer Pressure Okay, reviewing starters with 14-plus seasons did not reveal anything new. What about the King’s contemporaries? Specifically, pitchers debuting around the time he did. Included below is each pitcher’s combined WAR for the last three seasons. Unfortunately, this comparison further illuminates Hernandez’s recent decline. With the exception of James Shields, Felix lags behind pitchers he used to lead and the one he formally shared top billing with for nearly a decade — Verlander. After netting a combined 3.1 WAR for 2014-15, Verlander bounced back in a big way. The 34-year-old was a 2016 Cy Young runner-up. Furthermore, he helped propel the Houston Astros to their first World Series title after joining the club in September. Some believe Felix should emulate Verlander’s blueprint. I disagree. While both pitchers have similar career workloads and service time, the Astros ace can still bring the heat. Conversely, Hernandez’s fastball velocity has been dropping for years and is not coming back. I am not suggesting Felix needs an elite-level fastball to succeed, far from it. However, a 95-MPH fastball eased Verlander’s return to superstar status. The King will have to choose a different path, if one actually exists. Potential Prototype A more practical example of Felix could become is Sabathia. After averaging just 0.3 WAR between 2013-15, the southpaw entered Spring Training two years ago battling for a spot in the New York Yankees’ rotation. Since then, the 37-year-old has been a solid performer for the Bronx Bombers. Just like Felix, Sabathia is no longer the hard-throwing ace he once was. To counter his diminishing fastball velocity, reinvented himself by adding a cutter to his pitching repertoire and featuring the fastball less often. Now, he relies on guile and experience, plus that cutter, rather than overwhelming hitters with gas. Sabathia is no longer a staff ace, but remains relevant. So much so, the Yankees recently re-upped the former Cy Young award winner to a one-year/$10 million deal. Maybe, Felix could serve in a similar capacity with the Mariners. Am I advocating Felix add a cutter like Sabathia or mimic the 17-year veteran’s style? No, every player must follow his own path. But a pitching makeover that meshes with his skill set and psyche is the best way for King to contribute next season and beyond. Looking Forward Felix landed on the disabled list twice last season due to shoulder issues. The year prior, a calf strain shelved him for nearly two months. Slowly, but surely, the burden of 2,500 innings is taking its toll on the star pitcher’s body. That is why expecting the King to return to his former prominence is unwise. General manager Jerry Dipoto acknowledged as much to Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle. Referring to Hernandez, the 49-year-old executive told Drayer, “I don’t know how we are going to get him through 33 starts without managing it a little differently than we have previously,” Dipoto went on to float ideas, such as shortening Felix’s outings and strategically providing additional rest between starts as potential workarounds. The goal; keep the 13-year veteran healthy and available throughout the season. While Dipoto’s public stance regarding the former superstar is appropriate for fan consumption, the notion of banking on Felix being a significant contributor next year is fraught with risk. That is why reports the Mariners do not intend to add another proven starter to the rotation are perplexing — at least they are to me. Perhaps, Dipoto is merely waiting for the market to settle before striking. If the Mariners do not add another quality arm, Stone’s assertion could prove correct. The club’s chances of ending their 16-year postseason drought may could squarely on the balky right shoulder of Hernandez. That is an untenable position for an organization with postseason aspirations. Am I counting out Felix Hernandez? No, betting against any world class athlete is foolhardy, especially one as fiercely proud and competitive as Felix. Moreover, Sabathia’s success proves the King could be relatively productive once again, assuming he remains healthy and adapts a new approach. If Felix were capable of consistently performing like a fourth starter and occasionally delivering number-two results, he would be writing a wonderful final chapter to an already exhilarating saga. One that may even include tales of the postseason. That ending is certainly more uplifting than the one history suggests is awaiting Seattle’s beloved King Felix.
They weren’t the flashiest of moves. But, the Seattle Mariners improved their bullpen today. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reports the Mariners agreed to terms with free agent Juan Nicasio pending a physical. Early today, the club acquired right-hander Shawn Armstrong from the Cleveland Indian for international slot money. After spending most of his career as a starter, Nicasio was a workhorse reliever this year appearing in 76 games — third most in the majors. The 6-foot-4 Dominican is adept at missing bats (9 K/9) and allowed just five home runs in 72.1 innings, while holding opponents to a .216/.277/.333 slash line. Despite being highly productive for Pittsburgh, the Bucs inexplicably placed Nicasio on irrevocable waivers in August. The 31-year-old appeared in 11 games with the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals in September. The 27-year-old Armstrong spent parts of the last three seasons with Cleveland and could provide value as a middle-relief arm next season. It’s worth noting he has no minor league options remaining. Therefore, the North Carolina native can’t go to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers. How Seattle utilizes Nicasio and Armstrong depends on what the roster looks like in February. Before today, the most notable names in the bullpen included Edwin Diaz, David Phelps, Nick Vincent, Marc Rzepczynski, James Pazos, and Dan Altavilla. Although unlikely, Nicasio’s presence could potentially lead to Phelps joining the starting staff. Both are hard-throwing, high-leverage arms, and capable of going multiple innings — there’s some redundancy there. Adding to the intrigue, general manager Jerry Dipoto has previously stated moving Phelps — who began his career as starter — into the rotation was possible. Having said that, Phelps to the rotation would be a dubious move. Doing so wouldn’t appreciably bolster the starting staff. At the same time, the bullpen that’s already lost Emilio Pagan would be worse off. Assuming Phelps remains a reliever, the Mariners’ bullpen is better than yesterday. Nicasio gives manager Scott Servais another versatile option, while Armstrong adds needed depth. That said; these acquisitions aren’t season changing. In this era of powerhouse bullpens, Seattle’s current relief staff could be be a mid-pack group once again. A club with an enigmatic rotation and postseason aspirations needs more. Still, it’s only December 13 and too early to fret about the 2018 roster. Today’s deals were merely part of an ongoing process to make the Mariners better. For that reason, it’d be wise to reserve judgment until Opening Day.
Falling short in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes certainly dealt a blow to the Seattle Mariners’ offseason plans and their fans’ psyche. Still, the club has an opportunity to help its outlook when the Winter Meetings begin tomorrow. It’s not as if Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been sitting around idly waiting for the Ohtani courtship to play out. Since July, the third-year GM has added 15 players from outside the organization to his 40-man roster. Among Dipoto’s newest additions: second baseman Dee Gordon, pitchers Mike Leake, David Phelps, Marco Gonzales, Erasmo Ramirez, Andrew Albers, Nick Rumbelow, Sam Moll, Mike Morin, and Seth Frankoff, first baseman Ryon Healy, catchers Mike Marjama and David Freitas, and utility player Andrew Romine. An impressive turnover of personnel, but the Mariners need more. Rotation As it stands today, the top of Seattle’s rotation consists of James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, and Mike Leake. An interesting trio, but not good enough to propel a club into contention. Paxton was dynamic last season, but the 29-year-old landed on the DL twice. The issue going forward is whether the southpaw, who’s never started 25 games, can be a reliable difference-maker. Similarly, Hernandez has fallen victim to injuries three times during the last two seasons. More unsettling; Felix’s steady decline since 2015. Will the King bounce back or continue to struggle with health challenges and ineffectiveness? The back of Leake’s baseball card suggests he’s league-average; not the top-10 pitcher he was during his September debut with the Mariners. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The 30-year-old has remained relatively healthy, effective, and capable of pitching deep into games throughout his career. Behind these three veterans, a bevy of arms with dubious upside: Gonzales, Moll, Albers, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Andrew Moore, Max Povse, and Rob Whalen. There’s considerable depth there, but most of these pitchers were with Seattle by season’s end and delivered mixed results. If Seattle turns to free agency, the high-end names on the market are Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. Both are over 30 and likely seeking long-term deals. That said; committing a significant amount of money to an older player for multiple years doesn’t feel Dipoto-like. There are other familiar names on the market who’ll cost less in terms of dollars and years. None are game-changers, some could help a club. Most notably; Alex Cobb, C.C. Sabathia, Andrew Cashner, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Yovani Gallardo, Chris Tillman, Jason Vargas, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, and Jeremy Hellickson. Among these candidates, Cashner and Garcia are most intriguing to me. I would’ve included Tyler Chatwood, but he signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Cubs this week. Neither Cashner nor Garcia can headline a rotation and each comes with blemishes. But, they could provide the Mariners with a veteran arm capable of delivering quality innings. Cashner won’t miss bats (4.6 K/9) and he can struggle with his control — eighth highest BB/9 in MLB. Yet, the right-hander has averaged 150-plus innings over the last three seasons. It’s worth noting, Cashner surrendered the second fewest home runs (15) of any pitcher with 160-plus innings. Impressive considering the 31-year-old’s home games were at hitter-friendly Globe Life Park last season. Also age-31, the oft-injured Garcia has avoided the DL during the last two seasons, while averaging 28 starts and 164 innings. Before 2016, the nine-year veteran hadn’t started more than 20 games since 2011. While Garcia’s 9.5 percent walk rate was eleventh highest in the league, he’s proven adept at avoiding fly balls. The lefty’s ground ball rate (54.8-percent) was seventh best among starters with 120-innings pitched. Honestly though, Cashner and Garcia are nice supplementary pieces, but the Mariners need more to contend next year. If the club is unwilling or unable to sign Darvish or Arrieta, the trade market is a better option than sifting through the free agent discount rack. In the past, I’ve mentioned Jeff Samardzija, Patrick Corbin, Jason Hammel, Jake Odorizzi, Gio Gonzalez, and Josh Tomlin as potential trade targets. Certainly, there are many other names Dipoto could target. Two years ago, he acquired Miley in a deal. Last offseason, Drew Smyly and Gallardo. Obviously, finding trade partners willing to deal starters is problematic and the cost is steep. Regardless, the club’s current strategy of acquiring multiple fringy arms won’t solve the Mariners’ problems at the top of their rotation Bullpen The Mariners had talented relievers last season, but consistency was a trait in short supply. For that reason, adding veterans with a record of reliability is paramount. The big name free agents are Wade Davis and Greg Holland, but we’ve already discussed the likelihood of Dipoto inking such a player. However, there are appealing relievers out there. Addison Reed doesn’t give up free passes often (1.5 BB/9), plus he has closer and setup experience. The 28-year-old could serve as a contingency if closer Edwin Diaz falters or simply reinforce the back-end of the bullpen. Side-arming Pat Neshek surrendered just three home runs in 62 innings last season. Remarkable considering his home games were at hitter-friendly Coors Field and Citizens Bank Ball Park. The 37-year-old setup man would lengthen any bullpen. Versatile righty Anthony Swarzak misses bats (10.7 K/9) and could serve in middle relief or setup roles. Last season, the 32-year-old made 24 multiple-inning appearances. Ten times, he went two-plus frames. Bryan Shaw is capable of getting more than three outs when needed. He also appeared in a league-leading 79 games last season. Having one or more of these pitchers wouldn’t necessarily have saved the Mariners last season. But, their reliability and versatility would’ve buoyed the rotation during its lowest points. The same could apply in 2018, depending on the starters the club acquires. Other notable free agent relievers include Tommy Hunter, Brandon Kintzler, David Hernandez, Seung-hwan Oh, Matt Albers, Joe Smith, Brandon Morrow, and Juan Nicasio. Back-Up Catcher The departure of free agent Carlos Ruiz leaves an opening behind starter Mike Zunino. The club could seek out a veteran to backup the 26-year-old or decide to rely on the inexperienced Marjama or Freitas. Having said that, adding a proven backup for baseball’s demanding position would be prudent. Utility Role The addition of Romine may not bode well for Taylor Motter, who served as the Mariners’ Swiss Army knife last season. On the other hand, the last spot on the roster is a tenuous position for any player. The amount of depth and versatility added at other positions will inevitably play into who gets to be Seattle’s twenty-fifth man next year. For instance, Gordon has been a second baseman and shortstop throughout his career. However, the Mariners intend to convert the 29-year-old into a center fielder. If Gordon’s transition goes well, the club will have an outfielder capable of playing the middle infield in a pinch. The presence of players like Gordon and outfielder Ben Gamel, who is learning first base, will ultimately determine the skill set of the utility man the club settles on. Reality Check Acquiring Ohtani would’ve gone a long way towards solving the Mariners’ pitching woes, but they didn’t get their man. As a result, Dipoto will pivot to more costly solutions. That’s assuming the organization is truly serious about contending in 2018. Without adding a headliner to the rotation and at least one impact arm to back of the bullpen, the Mariners risk suffering a fate similar to last season’s. Hover on the fringe of contention before becoming irrelevant by September. That would be worse than a 23-year-old Japanese phenom signing with a division rival.