With Jarrod Dyson testing free agency, the Seattle Mariners need center field help. As with the club’s first baseman search, how general manager Jerry Dipoto fills the void isn’t clear. Keeping in mind Dipoto could address Dyson’s departure several different ways, I identified a diverse group of replacement candidates I found intriguing. Internal Options In 2016, the Mariners found themselves in a bind when starting center fielder Leonys Martin was lost to injury for several weeks. Very quickly, it became apparent the club didn’t have a suitable substitute. A lot has changed since then. Last season, Seattle had six choices for center field — Martin, Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, and Boog Powell. Two of those will receive serious consideration for significant playing time at the position next year. Guillermo Heredia In his first full season in the majors, the right-hand hitter slashed .310/.360/.434 against left-handers. However, his struggles with righties (.218/.294/.288) suggests he’s most effective when paired best with a lefty bat. Defensive metrics don’t favor Heredia, but advanced statistics more accurately reflect performance when large sample sizes are available. The 26-year-old started just 53 games in center field last season. More importantly, the eyeball test says he’s a skilled defender. Heredia ended the season on the DL after dealing with a separated shoulder throughout the season. Perhaps, his injury explains his batting average, slugging percentage, and OBP dropping approximately 60 points after the all-star break. Mitch Haniger Haniger profiles best in right field, but the Mariners could replace Dyson with the 26-year-old. Dipoto suggested as much telling Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, “We’re very comfortable with Mitch Haniger playing center field.” In early November, Dipoto’s comment makes sense. Seattle would be better off with Haniger starting the year in center field rather than settling for a lesser player. If the third-year GM chooses that route, he could acquire an everyday right fielder or a platoon mate for Heredia. On the other hand, the Chicago Cubs took a similar stand prior to the 2016 season with right fielder Jason Heyward. The club entered Spring Training saying Heyward was their man in center field before abruptly re-upping Dexter Fowler in late February. Perhaps, Seattle is borrowing from the Cubs’ playbook. Stick with the company line regarding Haniger and wait for the market to mature before adding a new player. Let’s assume that’s the case and look at potential options outside the organization. Free Agents The Mariners are constrained when competing with other clubs in the trade market because they don’t have a rich farm system to leverage in deals. For that reason, adding a center fielder via free agency may make sense. Jarrod Dyson Although 33-years-old, Dyson’s foot speed remains an important part of his game. Last season, he ranked twelfth best on the base paths using FanGraph’s Base Running (BsR) metric. Despite playing in just 111 games, “Zoombiya” led the Mariners with 28 stolen bases. Throughout his career, the left-handed hitting Dyson has been league-average (.325 OBP) against righties, but sub-par against southpaws (.291). If the Mariners were to reunite with the eight-year veteran, they could continue platooning him with Heredia. Dyson is an elite-level defender. His 10 DRS were fifth best among all center fielders, as was his strong and accurate throwing arm. Essentially, his speed on the bases and defensive prowess offset his offensive shortcomings. While a reunion could make sense for both parties, there’s a reason for the Mariners to approach with caution. Dyson has played 120-plus games just once in any season. Some of that is attributable to his struggles against lefties and playing behind Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon in Kansas City. Nevertheless, Dyson is on the wrong side of 30 and struggled with lower body injuries last season. Were his health issues just a blip on the screen or the first indicator of age-related regression? Lorenzo Cain As the best free agent center fielder, Cain’s deal could exceed the 5-year/$82.5 million Fowler netted last offseason. Cain would certainly improve the 2018 Mariners both at the plate and in the field. The right-handed hitter has slashed .299/356/.445 since 2015, averaging 13 home runs and 22 stolen bases along the way. Moreover, his five DRS was tenth best among center fielders last season. The presence of a full-time center fielder, like Cain, would keep Haniger in right field and permit manager Scott Servais to use Heredia as his fourth outfielder rather than in a full-fledged platoon. Having said that, signing the 31-year-old would be a classic case of paying for the back of a player’s baseball card and receiving diminishing returns as their contract progresses. Cain played in a career-high 155 games last year, but has exceeded 140 games only once before in 2015. Furthermore, his 2017 DRS significantly tailed off from a career-high (18) just two years ago. It’s possible he’s already experiencing regression. On the other hand, the Mariners are trying to win now. Getting two or three good years from Cain may be worth the risk for a club with the stated goal of winning the World Series. Leonys Martin The former Mariner was outrighted by the Cubs today and can now opt for free agency. I’m asssuming Martin makes that choice. He was under team control through the 2019 season and projected to make $4.9 million in arbitration. Full disclosure; Martin wasn’t on my initial list. A conversation with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle at a Pacific Northwest SABR meeting changed my mind. After floating the idea of the Mariners pursuing a defensive-minded center fielder, as they did with Martin two years ago, Drayer countered in a rhetorical sense. Why not have a Seattle reunion with the 29-year-old? Last season was a tough one for Martin in Seattle. He went from Opening Day starter to designation for assignment after just 15 games. The left-handed hitter returned to the Emerald City in July, but subsequently traded to the Cubs a month later. Perhaps, pairing the left-hand hitting Martin with Heredia would give the Mariners the perfect blend of defense and reasonable offensive production. Carlos Gomez The 32-year-old had a good season (.802 OPS) with the Texas Rangers. However, Gomez has a history of injuries and inconsistency at the plate. Could the 11-year veteran help the Mariners next year? Perhaps, but his uneven performance and advancing age pose a considerable risk. Jon Jay The former Cub, Cardinal, and Padre has a career .355 OBP, although he has just 33 home runs and 51 stolen bases in eight seasons. Moreover, he turns 33-years-old before Opening Day and is a fringe-average defender. Other notable free agents include former Mariner Austin Jackson, Cameron Maybin, and Rajai Davis. Major League Trade Targets It’s unwise to underestimate the deal making acumen of Jerry Dipoto. That said; expecting to see oft-rumored names like Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, or Charlie Blackmon in a Mariners uniform next year is a reach. Here are several names to consider, although most are arguably out of Seattle’s price range. Michael Taylor — Washington Nationals When Adam Eaton suffered a season-ending injury, Taylor got a chance to contribute and he didn’t waste it. The fourth-year player slashed .271/.320/.486 with 17 stolen bases and 19 home runs in 432 plate appearances. The 26-year-old is under team control through the 2020 season and arbitration-eligible. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Taylor stands to earn approximately $2.3 million, if his case reaches a hearing. Despite his 2017 success, Taylor’s major and minor league platoon splits suggest the right-handed hitter may struggle against righties in the future. One thing is certain though; the former sixth round pick can play defense. He possesses owns a strong throwing arm and delivered nine DRS last season. With Eaton expected to return next season and top-ranked prospect Victor Robles waiting in the wings, Taylor may be expendable for the right price. But, potential suitors won’t find him on the discount rack. A.J. Pollock — Arizona Diamondbacks In his final year of arbitration eligibility, Pollack projects to make $8.5 million next year. Perhaps, the Diamondbacks will want to get something in return for the 29-year-old before he’s eligible for free agency. Pollack is a strong defender (seven DRS) and delivered at the plate too. He slashed .266/.330/.471 with 14 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 466 plate appearances this year. The Notre Dame alum’s availability may factor into a potential buyer’s interest. Pollack played in 157 games in 2015, but he’s exceeded 130 games just one other time since debuting in 2011. In 2014, Pollack missed 79 games due to a fractured hand inflicted by an errant pitch. In fairness, that’s a bad luck injury. Last year, he suffered a fractured right elbow — a repeat injury from 2010. Most recently, the veteran missed 44 games with a groin strain in 2017. Joc Pederson — Los Angeles Dodgers Known for his power bat, Pederson’s 14.3-percent career walk rate and .345 OBP are indicators of plate patience; a trait coveted by the Mariners. Although capable of playing center field, the 25-year-old projects as a corner outfielder long-term. He’ll likely earn $2 million in arbitration and remains under team control through the 2020 season. The Dodgers have a deep outfield, but they’re not going to give away a controllable, young player either. That’s why Pederson won’t be a throwaway. Juan Lagares — New York Mets If Dipoto were to add a potent bat at first base, he might be inclined to add a defense-first center fielder with a league-average bat. The 49-year-old executive has done it before past and Lagares is that kind of player. Lagares is a proven elite glove with 15 DRS last season and his throwing arm rated best among center fielders. Offensively, the right-handed hitter’s career slash against southpaws is .267/.314/.400. However, that’s not significantly better than his overall line (.257/.297/.366). Effectively, Lagares is a costlier, more established version of Heredia. The 28-year-old will earn $6.5 million next year and $9 million in 2019. There’s also a $9.5 million team option for 2020. Billy Hamilton — Cincinnati Reds Best known for his blazing speed, the 27-year-old had the second fastest Sprint Speed in the majors behind the Minnesota Twins’ Byron Buxton. That foot speed has enabled Hamilton to average 58 stolen bases and 12 DRS during four full big league seasons. He also possesses a very strong throwing arm. In some ways, the former second round pick is a younger version of fellow Mississippian Dyson. Although a switch-hitter, Hamilton is much stronger against righties (career .259/.322/.351) than southpaws (.219/.241/.296). In addition, his 19.4 percent career strikeout rate is typical of hitters with double-digit home run power, not someone with 17 dingers in 2,180 plate appearances. Originally drafted as a shortstop, Hamilton is a free agent after the 2019 season and could net $5 million in arbitration. Perhaps, the rebuilding Reds would prefer to pass on that cost to a willing trade partner. JeDi Specials As with the potential first base candidate piece, I’ve added lesser-known players to the mix. Here are two names to speculate about around the hot stove. Zack Granite — Minnesota Twins Minnesota’s outfield is deep with notable names Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Robbie Grossman, Max Kepler potentially ahead of the 25-year-old. Perhaps, general manager Thad Levine prefers to deal from a strength to upgrade another part of his roster. A left-handed bat, Granite has hit well at all levels and has 120 stolen bases during five minor league seasons. He’s also capable of playing center field. Still, it’s possible Levine opts to move the arbitration-eligible Grossman instead. Especially with Granite being under club control for at least five more years. Brett Phillips — Milwaukee Brewers Incumbents Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, and Domingo Santana could block the former sixth round pick. Complicating matters, top prospect Lewis Brinson may unseat Broxton from center field next season. An above average defender, the left-handed hitting Phillips has hit every level and averaged 15 home runs during his last four seasons in the minors. Wresting away the 23-year-old from the Brew Crew may prove challenging though. Phillips has minor league options remaining and is under team control for at least five years. General manager David Stearns will feel no sense of urgency to deal the young outfielder, unless he receives the right offer. Stranger Things If the Mariners can’t find an acceptable replacement for Dyson and don’t want to expose Haniger to the grind of being an everyday center fielder, I have an offbeat idea. Add someone capable of playing all outfield positions and create a four-man center field rotation using the new player, Haniger, Heredia, and Gamel. Heck, throw in Shohei Otani as a supplemental corner outfielder. Admittedly, there’s risk with such a plan. If one player goes down with an injury or slumps badly, the plan falls apart. Knowing the Mariners’ recent bad fortune, they’d probably end up with an injured outfielder and another one struggling at the plate. In a way, that’s what happened last April. Martin struggled tremendously and Haniger went down with an oblique strain. Fortunately, for Servais, he had Heredia, Dyson, Gamel, and even Powell at the ready. With Dyson, Martin, and Powell no longer with the club, the Mariners no longer enjoy such depth. My hair-brained scheme couldn’t work without Dipoto adding considerable depth to the 40-man roster. Then again, there’s an element of fun considering it in early November. Finally Assuming Seattle isn’t willing to commit significant years and dollars to Cain, finding a cheaper platoon partner for Heredia makes sense. Re-upping Dyson may work in the short-term. After all, management already knows what they’d have in the veteran outfielder. That said; retaining an aging player heavily reliant on speed for more than one or two years would be risky. A reunion with Martin has merit too, especially if he reverts his 2016 form of top-notch defense and reasonable offensive production. After that season, I actually speculated about a potential contract extension for the popular veteran. Assuming the Mariners and Martin agreed to a deal, he could attempt to win back his starting gig or timeshare with Heredia. Wouldn’t that be a great redemption story? More than likely, Dipoto finds a better solution to his center field quandary. He’s pretty good at surprising us. In fact, that’s the best part of hot stove season in the Pacific Northwest.
The Seattle Mariners need help at first base. That’s not a surprise. Incumbents Yonder Alonso and Danny Valencia are free agents and prospect Daniel Vogelbach remains an enigma. How the club tackles the situation isn’t clear at the moment. Since joining the Mariners in September 2015, general manager Jerry Dipoto has favored trades over free agency to address major weaknesses. However, the pitching staff and outfield are also top priorities. Seattle may rely more heavily on free agency than in the past. Keeping that in mind, I compiled a list of potential first base candidates that’s a mishmash of internal options, free agents, and trade targets. Dipoto has a knack for finding under-the-radar types, Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel are examples. I’ve included a few of those too. Internal Options In this section is a player on the Mariners 40-man roster and two free agents the club has exclusive negotiating rights with until November 7. Daniel Vogelbach The left-handed hitter entered Spring Training with an opportunity to platoon with Valencia, but defensive shortcomings landed him in Tacoma. Casting further doubt over Vogelbach’s readiness was management’s decision to forego giving the 24-year-old a chance to help the Mariners in August. Instead, Dipoto chose to trade prospect Boog Powell for rental player Alonso. Vogelbach has hit at every level, but his glove work suggests a better fit at designated hitter. For this reason, it’s unlikely Seattle entrusts first base to him next season. Yonder Alonso Acquired to bolster offensive production at first base, the 30-year-old lived up to expectations with a .265/.353/.439 slash in 150 plate appearances. That said, manager Scott Servais shielded Alonso from lefty pitching — his kryptonite. The veteran had just eight plate appearances against southpaws as a Mariner. Alonso had a career-high 28 home runs in 2017. Whether his power continues or regresses to the norm is unclear. Entering last season, he had just 25 bombs in 1,597 previous plate appearances dating back to 2013. Assuming both sides could agree on terms, retaining Alonso gives Seattle a known quantity with a .340 career OBP. Adding a right-handed complement would make sense. Perhaps, a utility player capable of covering first base and providing league-average offense. Danny Valencia Valencia’s overall offensive production (.256/.314/.411) was close to his career averages. However, the 33-year-old is best suited for a platoon role facing southpaws. I suspect he doesn’t return to Seattle next year. Free Agents With the exception of several bullpen arms, Dipoto’s free agent signings have been primarily one-year deals. Examples include Norichika Aoki, Chris Iannetta, Dae-ho Lee, and Franklin Gutierrez. While I expect Dipoto to be more aggressive than in years past, I don’t believe he’ll pursue a high-end free agent first baseman, such as Eric Hosmer. Yes, Hosmer would look great a Mariner uniform and is the best free agent first baseman. But, Scott Boras represents the 28-year-old. The super-agent will be seeking a long-term deal that establishes the market at the position. Seattle has too many needs to overspend at first base. Still, there are free agent options, who won’t require the commitment in dollars or years Hosmer will likely receive. Carlos Santana While Santana won’t command as much as Hosmer, he won’t be cheap either. The switch-hitter has averaged 24 home runs annually during seven full seasons and his 14.6-percent walk rate since 2015 is sixth best in the majors. The 31-year-old has also proven durable with 600-plus plate appearances in every season since 2011. Lucas Duda The owner of a .659 OPS against southpaws, the left-handed hitting Duda would fit best in a platoon with a right-handed bat. The former seventh round pick of the New York Mets has pop with 30 home runs last season, but he also reaches base — .340 OBP in 3,000-plus plate appearances. The 31-year-old did miss significant playing time in 2016 with a stress fracture in his back. This may factor into the length of deal teams are willing to offer. Logan Morrison The former Mariner has logged 140-plus games in a season just twice in eight years. Moreover, Morrison owns a league-average slash line after 3,354 plate appearances. Considering Dipoto traded the 30-year-old in his first major deal as general manager, the likelihood of a Seattle reunion with LoMo seems remote. Other notable free agents include Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, Mike Napoli, and Mark Reynolds. It’s worth noting Lind and Washington Nationals share a mutual $5 million option. We’ll know within days whether both parties choose to stay together or part ways. Major League Trade Targets It’s unwise to underestimate the innovative deal making skills of Dipoto, even if he has a limited number of trade chips in his satchel. Here are several names to ponder around the hot stove. Jose Abreu — Chicago White Sox Chicago may listen to offers for the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year, but the asking price would be steep. The rebuilding White Sox have commanded top prospects when moving key pieces such as Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana in the last 12 months. The club would certainly employ the same approach with any potential Abreu deal. In four big league seasons, the right-handed hitter has slashed .301/.359/.524 and averaged 33 home runs. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Abreu projects to make $17.9 million in arbitration next year. Perhaps, general manager Rick Hahn moves his star first baseman to reduce cost and add to Chicago’s burgeoning farm system. Having said that, teams acquiring Abreu would not only give up a large number of prospects. They’ll be paying him approximately $40 million before he becomes a free agent after the 2019 season. Justin Bour — Miami Marlins As with the White Sox and Abreu, the Marlins would be in the driver’s seat during negotiations. The left-handed hitter owns a .843 OPS and has averaged 21 home runs during three full seasons in Miami. Bour’s 2018 salary is more appealing than Abreu’s — a projected $3.5 million in arbitration. Perhaps, Miami’s new ownership group prefers swapping Bour as they reshape their organization. However, there’s no reason for the Marlins to move hastily. The 29-year-old is relatively inexpensive and under team control for three more years. Matt Adams — Atlanta Braves Acquired last season as an injury replacement for Freddie Freeman, the left-handed hitter owns a career .286/.333/.495 slash against righties. But, he’s ineffective against southpaws and requires a platoon partner too. With his final year of arbitration approaching, Adams projects to earn $4.6 million. That’s a lot of money, if the up-and-coming Braves don’t plan to use the 29-year-old in a starting role. Tommy Joseph — Philadelphia Phillies If the Phillies believe September phenom Rhys Hoskins is the real deal, they may consider moving the right-hand hitting Joseph, who’s under team control through the 2021 season. A word of caution. In 880 major league plate appearances, the 26-year-old has slashed .247/.297/.460. That’s eerily similar to his seven seasons of minor league production (.255/.306/.427). Ryon Healy — Oakland Athletics Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports Oakland is telling teams Healy is available for trades. The 25-year-old split time between both corner infield spots and designated hitter last season. Defense isn’t a strength, but he exhibited good power with 25 home runs. Oakland has two younger players — Matt Olson and Matt Chapman — capable of covering first and third base. Moreover, Healy’s departure would facilitate defensively challenged outfielder Khris Davis becoming a full-time designated hitter. Healy wouldn’t come cheaply through; he’s under team control through the 2022 season. Slusser believes Oakland may ask for relief arms in return. Interested suitors will certainly have to offer both upside and similar years of control to acquire the former Oregon Duck. JeDi Specials As noted earlier, Dipoto has a knack for creative deal making. Not all have worked out in his favor. However, Seattle did acquire the relatively obscure Haniger and Gamel last year and both were regulars in 2017. Here are several potential pearls to ponder. There are others, but this quartet interested me most. Garrett Cooper — New York Yankees A mid-season acquisition, Cooper served as a stopgap until Greg Bird returned from the disabled list. With Bird poised to be New York’s first baseman for the foreseeable future, the 26-year-old may be available. Cooper played in this year’s Triple-A all-star game just prior to heading to New York. To get the right-handed hitter, the Yankees traded away a minor league reliever. It’s reasonable to expect the price hasn’t climbed since July. Prior to heading to the Big Apple, Cooper had impressive numbers with Class-AAA Colorado Springs slashing .366/.428/.652 with 29 doubles and 17 home runs in 320 plate appearances. Yes, Cooper played his home games at altitude and was in the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League. But, he’s hit at all levels and may fit with a team looking for an inexpensive, low-risk option at first base. Jordan Patterson — Colorado Rockies During his last two seasons with Class-AAA Albuquerque, Patterson has slashed .288/.361/.512 and split his time between first base and right field. The 25-year-old could replace departing free agent Carlos Gonzalez in right field. That’s assuming the club doesn’t look outside the organization. Colorado is a team on the rise. Therefore, it’s possible they pursue an established free agent for right field. Cough, cough, J.D. Martinez. Another approach could be playing Patterson at first base. Although, the Rockies have other choices with veteran Ian Desmond or highly ranked prospect — Ryan McMahon. Clearly, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich has multiple ways to use Patterson. Maybe, one includes trading him. Christian Walker — Arizona Diamondbacks Unfortunately, the 26-year-old has the dubious distinction of being in the organization with arguably the best first baseman in the game — Paul Goldschmidt. The right-handed hitting Walker has little left to prove in the minors after his selection as the 2017 Pacific Coast League MVP. Perhaps, the Mariners and Diamondbacks could find common ground on a mutually beneficial deal like the one that brought Haniger to Seattle last November. Luke Voit — St. Louis Cardinals Voit sits behind major leaguers Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez on the depth chart. Compounding matters, the 26-year-old is out of minor league options. The right-handed bat has hit well in the minors. But, he’s not a Cardinals top-30 prospect, according to by MLB.com Prospect Watch. The former twenty-second round pick might benefit from a change of location. Finally Attempting to re-sign Alonso may be the Mariners’ best course of action. The club gave him for a two-month test drive and should know by now whether he fits in the clubhouse and their future plans. If Seattle can’t retain Alonso for whatever reason, pursuing Santana makes sense. He’ll be expensive, but he’s a durable and proven hitter capable of significantly bolstering Servais’ lineup. Having said that, Dipoto may avoid expending resources on any free agent first baseman not named Yonder Alonso. If that’s the case, we could see another low-profile trade acquisition. In that scenario, Cooper makes most sense — at least to me. He’d be a cheap and low-risk pickup with the tools to contribute. In the end, Dipoto probably goes in a completely different direction than what I’ve suggested. After all, he’s earned the privilege of working in the GM suite by making wise choices.
Whenever queried about his team’s payroll, Seattle Mariners CEO John Stanton conveys a similar message. His team committed a historical amount of money to salaries last season and there’s room for growth. Another recurring theme; general manager Jerry Dipoto has the necessary financial resources to improve the roster. Stanton is right about his payroll. According to Baseball Prospectus, Seattle started the 2017 season with a team-record $154.3 million in player salaries. Whether the club is spending enough to field a contender is debatable. Let’s assume the Mariners grow their payroll by the average of their 2016 and 2017 increases (12-percent). That puts the team in the neighborhood of $174 million next season; an impressive figure until you review current commitments. As it stands, Stanton’s team has approximately $110 million obligated to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Mike Leake, Jean Segura, and Marc Rzepczynski. That’s not including the expected $3 million in buyouts for Hisashi Iwakuma and Yovani Gallardo. Players eligible for salary arbitration could further weigh down the payroll. MLB Trade Rumors estimates six players — David Phelps, Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Nick Vincent, Mike Zunino, and Shae Simmons — could net as much as $23 million. In essence, the Mariners could fork over $133 million to 12 players next year. That’s approximately 71-percent of that projected $174 million with glaring holes in center field, at first base, and within the pitching staff. Granted, a club’s projected payroll in late October can look significantly different by Opening Day. Negotiating extensions with arbitration-eligible players or non-tendering them can improve financial flexibility. Dealing arbitration-eligible players or ones with guaranteed contracts is another method to free up money. Also working in Dipoto’s favor, the growing number of young, controllable, cheap players surrounding his expensive core. Most notably; Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, Edwin Diaz, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, James Pazos, Dan Altavilla, Emilio Pagan, and Guillermo Heredia. Still, realizing small-scale savings and relying on their current cadre of young players won’t get the Mariners to the postseason — not in 2018 at least. To field a serious contender, Dipoto has to build a roster capable of winning 90-plus games, not 85-ish. That’ll require adding established performers, which means spending money. Some may suggest trades to improve the team. After all, Dipoto shrewdly added Leake, Segura, Haniger, Gamel, Miranda, Gonzales, and Pazos by wheeling and dealing. True, but the Mariners’ already low-ranked minor league system has few appealing trade chips left. Swapping them for a marquee starting pitcher or position player is unlikely. Remember, the Mariners couldn’t have matched the prospect package the Houston Astros sent to Detroit in August for Justin Verlander without completely selling the farm. Finding a pearl in the trade market isn’t going to get easier this offseason. Even if Dipoto pulls off innovative deals for proven players, the payroll would likely increase significantly. There’s no getting around it. The Mariners need to spend at a higher level to compete in the AL West next year. Am I suggesting going on an wild spending spree? Absolutely not. Obligating lots of money doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the win-loss column or postseason. Last year, the Cleveland Indians ranked number-22 in salaries, yet reached the World Series. In 2015, both Fall Classic contestants — the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets — had mid-range payrolls. Conversely, the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants had payrolls north of $180 million and both endured losing 2017 campaigns. Having said that, modifying the Mariners’ current free agent philosophy would improve the chances of ending their 16-year postseason drought. What exactly is that philosophy you ask? Avoid the risk of expensive free agent deals. When recently asked about pursuing big-ticket free agents by Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, Stanton demurred, “I’d rather have a Mitch Haniger than another payroll bust like Richie Sexson.” At first, Stanton’s comment makes sense. By the time a player reaches free agency, they’re usually approaching their post-peak years. Quite often, buyers pay for the back of a free agent’s baseball card rather than future value. In the case of Sexson, most fans agree with the Mariners CEO; his signing was a bust. But, as the venerable Mr. Stone points out, Seattle did get two good years out of the first baseman, who inked a four-year/$50 million deal with the club in late-2004. It appears the perception of the Sexson deal sours more as the years of baseball futility continue to pile up in the Emerald City. But, his production as a Mariner was similar to another Seattle first baseman, who’s viewed as a superior hitter — Tino Martinez. Tino & Richie: The Mariner Years Player Age G PA 2B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ WAR Tino Martinez 22-27 543 2139 106 88 .265 .334 .466 .801 112 7.7 Richie Sexson 30-33 509 2102 105 105 .244 .334 .474 .808 114 5.5 Source: Baseball Reference Both players’ stat lines are very alike, although I’m not suggesting Sexson was Martinez’s equal. Tino was at an earlier stage of his career and more affordable than the $50 million man. That said, no Mariner first baseman has provided more value or production since Sexson’s release in 2008. That’s over a decade folks. Stanton’s comment about Sexson, and other statements made to Stone, suggest a preference to acquire low-cost, controllable everyday players. That’s a great approach, assuming the Mariners had enough disposable trade assets to land similar players or prospects readily available to perform at that level. They don’t on either count. In reality, Seattle is in a unique and trying position. They’re attempting to win now, while resetting the farm system. The organization’s strategy to achieve their goals? Supplement a core of 30-somethings with younger, inexpensive players and wait for help from the minor leagues. Unfortunately, the youngsters remain unproven, some veterans are regressing, and help from the farm won’t arrive until 2019 at the earliest. While the Mariners wait for prospects Kyle Lewis, Nick Neidert, Evan White, Sam Carlson, and others to develop, Father Time is chasing down Hernandez, Cano, Seager, and Cruz. Spending more money now would give this aging group a chance to win before it’s too late. Again, I’m not proposing wreckless spending. However, premium free agents would help bridge the gap and make the Mariners more relevant until the kids arrive. How good would a Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta look at the top of a rotation that had no pitcher start 30 games last year? Carlos Santana playing first base or Lorenzo Cain patrolling center field would certainly make Seattle better in 2018. So would adding relievers like Wade Davis, Greg Holland, or Addison Reed. Do I think the Mariners will make such aggressive moves? Probably not. That’s okay by me. I’m not an advocate of paying for a player’s previous achievements. Then again, I’m not the person saying I expect the club to win and make the playoffs in 2018. That’s Mr. Stanton. Perhaps, the Mariners opt to continue improving their roster around the edges, hope for healthy and productive seasons from veterans, and depend on the youngsters flourishing. Essentially, stick with last year’s plan. How did that work out in 2017?
There were plenty of good news stories for the 2017 Seattle Mariners. In the end though, misfortune prevailed. The team’s most notable dilemma; an injury-ravaged rotation slogging through a disappointing year with 17 different starters. Trouble initially surfaced when Drew Smyly went down with a season-ending elbow injury in Spring Training. At least the southpaw had a strong start for Team USA during the World Baseball Classic in March. The Mariners’ woes continued once the season got underway. Felix Hernandez and James Paxton each landed on the DL twice and Hisashi Iwakuma didn’t appear in a game after May 3. Not surprisingly, Seattle’s replacement arms couldn’t adequately fill-in; no team could withstand losing 80% of their Opening Day rotation. In the end, the starters collectively ranked 25th in major league baseball. Even worse, the Mariners missed the postseason for a sixteenth consecutive year. Everything’s Fine Despite his rotation’s struggles this year, general manager Jerry Dipoto is signaling a willingness to stand pat with his current stable of starters. Dipoto recently told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN, “We have depth, we have quality pitchers on this staff. We have a lot of quality, we just have to figure out how to put it all together in a different way.” If Seattle does opt to build a rotation from within, they’ll have multiple candidates to choose from: Hernandez, Paxton, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore, and Andrew Albers. Not So Fast Still, the prevailing belief among fans and many media members is that Seattle needs outside help to reconstitute their rotation. That’s if the club intends on contending in 2018. James Osborn (aka Boy Howdy) of 710 ESPN Seattle echoed a similar sentiment in an August tweet. The Ms have a #2 (Paxton), #3 (Leake), a #4 (Felix, when pitching) and 6 #5’s in their rotation next year. Arrieta only proven #1 available. — Boy Howdy (@BoyHowdyESPN) August 31, 2017 Osborn suggests Seattle doesn’t have an ace to anchor their rotation. He also identifies Jake Arrieta as the lone prospective free agent with ace credentials. Some may contend another pending free agent — Yu Darvish — could headline a staff. Perhaps, Masahiro Tanaka or Johnny Cueto could too, assuming they opt out of their current deals. Regardless of who’s out there, Howdy’s comment rings true. The Mariners don’t have a staff ace on their roster. Moreover, their GM doesn’t sound interested in pursuing one. Perhaps, Dipoto’s public comments are just GM speak. On the hand, what if the team took a more unconventional route to bolster its rotation? Course Correction What am I talking about? Building a more robust bullpen to offset a limited starting staff. Dipoto’s remarks to Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune hint at such a strategy. “We are adjusting toward what the world looks like now for starting pitchers, which is a 15-to-18-out starter (rather) than the complete-game starter,” opined Dipoto. Considering what awaits in the starting pitcher free agent market, taking a new approach has some merit — at least to me. Sure, Seattle could pursue one of the free agents I’ve mentioned. But, each is likely to command at least $20 million annually for at least five years. That’s a lot of money for pitchers likely to show signs of regression within a year or two. This isn’t a reaction to what we’ve been seeing this postseason. “Bullpening” is fascinating in October, but having a Justin Verlander pitching deep into games remains optimal. Having said that, top-tier pitchers like Verlander are hard to come by. Even if one were available via trade, the Mariners would struggle to outbid the competition. Rather than inking long-term/high-dollar deals with starters on the wrong side of 30, why not pursue relievers? It hasn’t been Dipoto’s style to spend heavily on his bullpen. But, he suggests it’s time to evolve. Perhaps, that includes obligating more money to his relief corps. Keep in mind, the cost of most reliever deals pale in comparison to those signed by starters. More importantly, the duration tends to be much shorter. Mistakes won’t hang over an organization like a black cloud for 3-5 years. The Incumbents Essentially, the Mariners would pursue free agent relievers with a proven record of reliability; a trait in short demand last year. To see what I mean, let’s review the club’s most accomplished relievers. Some were dependable, others not so much. Nick Vincent — The righty logged a career-high 69 appearances and was the club’s best bullpen arm. Still, what’s more likely? A 31-year-old reliever repeating his best season or regressing? Edwin Diaz — The bullpen’s most electric arm battled bouts of inconsistency and briefly lost his closer job. If Diaz hones his delivery so it’s more repeatable, the 23-year-old can be an elite-level closer. Marc Rzepczynski — The southpaw held lefties to a .171 batting average in the first half, but saw that balloon to .343 post all-star break. Rzepczynski also surrendered too many walks to right-handers, as he did in 2016. David Phelps — If he were a free agent, Phelps is exactly the kind of reliever I’d expect Seattle to pursue — a high-leverage arm capable of missing bats and going multiple innings. Despite suffering an elbow injury in September, the 31-year-old projects to be ready by February. Emilio Pagan — The rookie’s swing and miss stuff and versatility are intriguing. It’s conceivable he becomes a multi-inning option much like Chris Devenski of the Houston Astros. James Pazos — The 26-year-old was particularly effective against left-handed hitters, although his power arm stymied righties in the first half too. After the break, Pazos scuffled against all hitters thanks to command issues. Dan Altavilla — When on, the 24-year-old is capable of missing bats. Unfortunately, he goes through spells when he can’t find the strike zone. Tony Zych, Shae Simmons, and Ryan Garton may prove effective through time, but none has enjoyed sustained success in the majors. Help Wanted Let’s assume the Mariners do jump into the free agent reliever market. Here are the candidates who, intrigue me most. Addison Reed — The 29-year-old possesses pinpoint control (1.5 BB/9) and has served as a closer and setup man for postseason teams. Reed could serve as insurance for Diaz or settle into a complementary role. Pat Neshek — Despite playing home games in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Ball Park and Coors Field in 2017, the side-arming righty avoided the long ball (0.43 HR/9). The 37-year-old setup man isn’t likely to command more than a two-year deal. Anthony Swarzak — The versatile right-hander made 24 multiple-inning appearances, including 10 of two-or-more frames. He misses bats (10.7 K/9) and can serve in middle relief or setup roles. Mike Minor — Assuming the Kansas City Royals don’t exercise his $10 million option, he’ll be on the market. The southpaw proved effective against both lefty and righty bats (.204 batting average). Like Swarzak, the 29-year-old can go multiple frames. Bryan Shaw — Cleveland’s setup man appeared in a league-leading 79 games and can go multiple innings or occasionally close a game. The 29-year-old’s 55.9 % ground ball rate was 20th best among MLB relievers. Other notable relievers hitting the market include Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Tommy Hunter, Brandon Kintzler, David Hernandez, Seung-hwan Oh, Matt Albers, Yusmeiro Petit, Joe Smith, Brandon Morrow, and Juan Nicasio. Reality Check Speculating about potential free agent relievers makes for great hot stove conversation, but it’s unlikely the Mariners go on a buying spree. The team also needs upgrades at first base and in center field and has a finite amount of resources. Having said that, blending relatively inexperienced, cheap arms with established, pricier veterans could yield dividends for Dipoto’s club in 2018. Optimally — at least to me — adding a pitcher with closer experience and two versatile multi-inning arms would establish a more dependable bullpen and take pressure off the rotation. I expect Dipoto acquires the kind of arms I’ve been describing. Whether he delves into free agency or makes trades will likely depend on the market. Bear in mind, every team would benefit from augmenting their bullpen. The competition will be steep, which will drive up the asking price. Finally, it doesn’t matter whether Mariners improve their staff via new relievers or starters. But, more is needed for the club to seriously contend. Otherwise, there will be a 17th consecutive year of no playoff baseball in the Emerald City. That’s the kind of misfortune weary Mariners fans are hoping to avoid in 2018.
Last week, we learned the Seattle Mariners began their offseason by reshuffling their field staff. Among the casualties, first base coach and base running mentor Casey Candaele. Media reports suggest the Mariners’ lackluster performance on the bases factored into the 56-year-old’s dismissal. We may never know the full story behind Candaele’s departure, but one thing is certain. A coaching change alone won’t fix Seattle’s base running issues. Sure, a new voice may bring out the best in some. However, there aren’t enough players on the current roster to “coach up.” In fact, several key contributors set to return next year are trending towards regression. Before discussing these players, let’s brush up on several base running metrics. Please Let Me Explain Sprint Speed is a relatively new MLB Statcast product, which measures the fastest one-second window of a base runner and is expressed in feet-per-second. League-average Sprint Speed was 27 feet-per-second in 2017. For those wondering, the fastest runner in the majors was Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins (32 ft/sec). Seattle fans won’t be surprised Albert Pujols (23 ft/sec) of the Los Angeles Angels was the slowest. Extra base taken percentage (XBT%) from Baseball Reference reflects the proportion of times a runner successfully took an additional base on a hit. For instance, advancing more than one bag on a single or more than two on a double. The Mariners had at 37 XBT% last season; league-average was 39-percent. Also from Baseball Reference, outs on base (OOB) captures failed attempts to advance on a hit, passed ball, wild pitch, or other plays not requiring the runner to leave their base. The Mariners made 59 OOB; fifth worst in the AL. Seattle’s 89 stolen bases (SB) were just above league-average (84). Mariner runners were caught stealing (CS) 35 times resulting in a 72-percent success rate; a point below league-average. FanGraphs uses a comprehensive statistic known as Base Running (BsR) to assess a runner’s value. Success rates for stealing bases, taking the extra base, and avoiding preventable outs all factor into calculations. I realize there’s a redundancy by including XBT%, OOB, SB, and CS with the all-encompassing BsR. However, doing so will help illustrate the individual strengths and weaknesses of players. The Mariners were number-27 in the majors in BsR after finishing 2016 similarly (26th). Here’s how to negatively affect BsR and a club’s win probability. Okay, back to the Mariners. Let’s start by reviewing players unlikely to improve regardless of the coach, their training regimen, or any sorcery applied. It Is What It Is Listed below are hitters with 250-plus plate appearances in 2017 and currently under team control next year. Above average XBT% and Sprint Speed are highlighted. Runners Unlikely To Improve Player Sprint Spd XBT% OOB SB CS BsR Taylor Motter 26.7 32% 2 12 1 0.7 Kyle Seager 26.5 40% 7 2 1 -0.9 Mike Zunino 26.0 15% 2 1 0 -1.7 Robinson Cano 25.9 30% 4 1 0 -3.0 Nelson Cruz 25.9 25% 4 1 1 -4.0 Source: FanGraphs , Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant Although Taylor Motter checked in just below league-average in the speed department, he did contribute positive value thanks to effective base thievery. Still, the likelihood Motter gets the opportunity to impact the Mariners’ offense in any respect next season is fleeting. The versatile 28-year-old slashed just .198/.257/.326 in 258 plate appearances. I suspect general manager Jerry Dipoto upgrades the utility spot with someone with better credentials. The remaining players — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Mike Zunino — are more likely to lose speed than improve on the bases. Perhaps, the quartet can improve their XBT% to some level. That said, I wouldn’t plan on any significant breakthroughs. The 34-year-old Cano has been below league-average for the last three seasons, while Cruz (age-37) has a career 30 XBT% in 13 seasons. Seager posted a slightly above average XBT%, which isn’t surprising. The 29-year-old has a career 42 % XBT. Interestingly, his 0.9 BsR was significantly better than his three-year average (-2.8) coming into 2017. How did the former North Carolina Tar Heel improve? Seager hit into just six double plays in 2017 after hitting into three times as many the year prior. That sounds encouraging until you notice his 51.6-percent fly ball rate was eight points higher than his career average. Considering Seager had an off year at the plate, he’s likely to mechanically address the fly ball issue and subsequently hit into more double plays. That’s not a necessarily a bad thing, assuming he’s getting on base more often and delivering more power in 2018. While Zunino may be able to improve his XBT%, keep in mind he’s a catcher. League-average Sprint Speed (25.9 ft/sec) for backstop ties designated hitter for slowest from any position group. Cause For Hope Now, it’s time to discuss Mariners with a reasonable chance to improve through coaching or their own efforts. It’s not a long list. As with the preceding table, each player had 250-plus plate appearances and is slated to return. Once again, I’ve highlighted above average XBT% and Sprint Speed. The first thing to catch my eye is something we all intrinsically know, but sometimes forget. Speed doesn’t necessarily translate to base running success. All four players listed have above average speed. Yet, only Ben Gamel provided positive value on the bases. Runners With Potential Player Sprint Spd XBT% OOB SB CS BsR Ben Gamel 28.4 51% 10 4 1 3.5 Jean Segura 27.4 48% 9 22 8 -0.5 Guillermo Heredia 27.8 44% 4 1 5 -1.3 Mitch Haniger 27.2 41% 3 5 4 -2.1 Source: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant Seeing Gamel’s name atop the list may surprise some fans. After all, the 25-year-old made several notable gaffes on the bases and owned the fourth worst OOB total in the majors. Despite those mistakes, Gamel’s 3.5 BsR was second best on the Mariners behind pending free agent Jarrod Dyson (5.6). Moreover, the rookie ranked number-40 in baseball. Most of Gamel’s base running miscues are attributable to being overly aggressive. Through time, it’s reasonable to expect a player with just 167 games of big league experience to strike a better balance between aggression and patience. The base running inefficiency of Jean Segura had nothing to do with inexperience. Rather, a strained hamstring and high ankle sprain slowed the 27-year-old. Despite his health challenges, Segura managed to steal 22 bases. Considering the shortstop averaged 4.2 BsR during 2015-16, expecting a rebound next year is reasonable. The dynamic outfield play of Guillermo Heredia confirms his quickness. But, being thrown out during five of six stolen base attempts partially led to the 26-year-old’s below average -1.3 BsR. Unbeknownst to the public, Heredia struggled through the season with a separated shoulder. While an upper body injury may seem independent to base running, try jogging with a painful arm or shoulder. Now imagine running full speed and attempting to slide. Mitch Haniger registered just three OOB this season. Unfortunately, the earlier video captured one of those occasions. The 26-year-old is very capable of being more valuable by simply base stealing proficiency and XBT%. Since I put Haniger in a bad light earlier, I wanted to atone with a video redemption demonstrating his ability to shrewdly take the extra base and help his club win. I expect we’ll see more of this type of result in 2018. Finally Obviously, Seattle needs more players like Gamel, Heredia, Segura, and Haniger to offset their aging slow-footed veterans. But, team management is facing a bigger challenge that may not be fixable by simply replacing coaches or adding new players. One key aspect of coaching — or any form of leadership — is the ability to influence your target audience. Perhaps, that’s why Candaele is no longer with the Mariners. Having said that, accountability is vital to reinforcing the philosophy of any organization. Ultimately, that responsibility rests with manager Scott Servais. I’m not at all suggesting the Mariners should fire Servais. Nevertheless, accepting poor execution is a reflection of leadership — not players. Perhaps, replacing Candaele is a good first step. But, what’s the next move if players continue to underachieve or remain tone deaf to the message? The answer to that question will help determine the success of the 2018 Mariners and the future of their manager.
The emergence of Mike Zunino as a hitter qualifies as a one of several good news stories from an otherwise disappointing season for the Seattle Mariners. After being an offensive liability for the majority of his career, Zunino was one of the most productive hitting catchers in the game this year. Considering his great season, it’s reasonable to ponder whether Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto would entertain the idea of signing Zunino to a contract extension. I know. Some fans don’t view anyone with a .251 batting average as an asset to a lineup. But, we’re talking catchers; the least productive position other than pitcher. By The Numbers To see what I mean, look at how Zunino’s production compares to catchers with 350-plus plate appearances. The number in parenthesis is his ranking against those peers. Zunino Rankings vs MLB Catchers HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ fWAR 25 (3) .251 (14) .331 (11) .509 (2) .840 (4) 126 (3) 3.6 (4) Source: FanGraphs It’s no surprise Zunino places high in the power department; his slugging prowess has always been well regarded. Gary Sanchez (33) and Salvador Perez (27) were the only catchers with more home runs than the Mariners’ catcher. Only Sanchez (.531) had a better slugging percentage. Using sabermetrics, Zunino fares well too — fourth or higher in wRC+ and fWAR. Regardless of the measurement, the native Floridian had a great year at the plate compared to fellow receivers. Just A Catcher? Zunino’s breakout season wasn’t only impressive when contrasted to backstops. He was an offensive force on his own ball club. The following table illustrates his standing among teammates with 350-plus plate appearances. Zunino Rankings vs Mariners HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ fWAR 25 (3) .251 (8) .331 (5) .509 (2) .840 (3) 126 (3) 3.6 (2) Source: FanGraphs Only Nelson Cruz and Mitch Haniger had a higher fWAR and wRC+ than Zunino and only Cruz and Kyle Seager bested him in homers. How many of you realize Zunino had a better OPS than Robinson Cano and Seager? A better wRC+ than Jean Segura? The cold reality is Zunino proved to be one of the best players on the 2017 Mariners. You could even argue he provided the best blend of offensive and defensive value with the exception of Haniger. Risky Business The notion of locking up Zunino certainly will cause apprehension among some fans. As noted earlier, the 26-year-old’s tenure with Seattle was rocky prior to this season — .632 OPS in just over 1,200 plate appearances. That’s a fair point. There would be risk with extending Zunino now. For the Mariners to commit multiple years to Zunino, they’d have to be confident he’d deliver enough value to justify such a deal. Obviously, we don’t know what’s running through the minds of club management. However, Dipoto’s past statements and actions suggest an appreciation for what Zunino means to his organization. A Matter Of Faith When discussing the then-struggling catcher shortly after taking over as general manager, Dipoto told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle, “we still count him as a very large part of what we are doing in the future.” For this reason, Mariners management designed a strategy to salvage the once promising prospect’s failing career. Their singular goal; fix Mike Zunino. Prior to the 2016 season, the organization acquired two veteran catchers — Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger — so their reclamation project could spend as much time as needed with Class-AAA Tacoma. Fast forward two years and it appears Dipoto’s belief in Zunino was well founded. Despite a bumpy start, which included a return to Tacoma in early May, the former Florida Gator finally broke through in 2017. Let’s Make A Deal Assume for a moment the Mariners decided to pursue an extension of Zunino. What might such a deal look like? The recent signing of another catcher may provide an answer to that question. Late last month, the Cincinnati Reds agreed to a four-year/$16 million extension with catcher Tucker Barnhart. The pact includes a $7.5 million team option or $500 thousand buyout for 2022. The Barnhart signing is significant because he and Zunino play the same position, are the same age, and had similar same service time entering this season. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the pair’s 2017 production. Mike Zunino v Tucker Barnhart Player Age HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR Mike Zunino 26 25 .251 .331 .509 126 3.6 Tucker Barnhart 26 7 .270 .347 .403 92 2.0 Source: FanGraphs Obviously, both Zunino and Barnhart are not clones of one another. The Mariners’ receiver has demonstrably more power than Barnhart, who has a better OBP (.335) over the last two seasons than Zunino (.327). Defensively, Barnhart is better regarded for his ability to blocking pitches in the dirt, while Zunino holds the edge in pitch framing. In my estimation, Zunino is the better player. Having said that, determining who is best is irrelevant for this discussion. The bottom line is the Barnhart deal establishes the market for any potential contract negotiations between Seattle and Zunino’s representatives. What Now? It’s easy to advocate a wait-and-see approach with Zunino. After all, 2017 was a career-year for a player with more bad history than good. Perhaps, he regresses next year. Besides that, Mariners have their backstop under team control through the 2020 season. Why not wait another year before committing? It’s understandable why some would urge caution regarding a potential Zunino extension. But, the price is only going to go up, if he repeats his 2017 performance. At some point, the player will prefer to wait for free agency. On the other hand, reaching an agreement on an extension now would help stabilize projected cost for the club. This is the first of Zunino’s three arbitration years. His salary will continue to escalate annually, even if his performance plateaus or declines slightly. Another consideration is the dearth of catchers capable of providing both offensive and defensive value. Even if Zunino slashed the average of his 2016-17 seasons (.238/.327/.497), he’d be valuable to the vast majority of big league clubs. Sure, there are better hitting catchers than the 2017 version of Zunino. Buster Posey, Sanchez, Willson Contreras, and J.T. Realmuto are notable examples. But, there are few others and most are older. Finally There’s a lot to like about the Mariners extending Zunino and a few reasons to be leery of the notion. Having said that, a deal similar to Barnhart’s makes sense — at least to me. A four-year extension would control Zunino’s compensation level and keep him with Seattle through his age-30 season and first year of free agency. In return, Zunino gets the financial security of guaranteed money. That would seem appealing to a player who’s scuffled so much during his young career. In the end, it’ll come down to how much confidence each party has in Zunino. Will the Mariners want to see more before committing big money? Does Zunino and his agent think he’s better off testing free agency at age-29? Waiting to see if both player and club can — or want to — agree on a deal adds a degree of intrigue to the hot stove season. So does pondering what the 2018 edition of Mike Zunino might deliver with his bat. Only 175 days and a wake-up until Opening Day.
Just one year ago, the Seattle Mariners propelled themselves into wild card contention with a torrid 18-9 win-loss record in September. The club fell short of a playoff berth, but their strong finish energized baseball fans throughout the Pacific Northwest. The combination of that late season surge and the aggressive offseason maneuvering of general manager Jerry Dipoto further fueled optimism for 2017. Perhaps, this would be the year the Mariners returned to the postseason for the first time since 2001. Then, reality set in. The Mariners regressed finishing 78-84 and a distant third place behind the division champion Houston Astros. There were good news stories about individual players having breakout years. But, the club finished with a losing record. Worse yet, they missed the postseason for the sixteenth consecutive year. Now, Dipoto and his staff face a difficult challenge. Add the necessary pieces to end that dreaded postseason drought without forfeiting progress made during their first two years running the team. Certainly, entering another offseason without a playoff appearance — or even a winning record — is frustrating for Mariners fans. But, the team’s struggles do provide great story material for Prospect Insider. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll provide analysis on Seattle’s 2017 season, hot stove items, prospects, player development, and much more from around the league. Today, let’s talk about the Mariners’ offense and potential areas to improve before Opening Day. By The Numbers For starters, I thought I’d perform a side-by-side comparison of the Mariners’ offensive output during this season and 2016. Please note; the team’s AL ranking is in parenthesis. Mariners Offense Rankings (AL) Year RS/G HR BA OBP SLG 2016 4.74 (3) 223 (2) .259 (7) .326 (5) .430 (6) 2017 4.63 (7) 200 (10) .259 (6) .325 (6) .424 (9) Source: Baseball-Reference.com Overall, the numbers are very similar. Batting average and on-base percentage (OBP) are virtually the same. Home runs were down, but that’s not surprising. No one expected newcomers Ben Gamel, Danny Valencia, Guillermo Heredia, Jarrod Dyson, and Mitch Haniger to collectively match their predecessors in the power department. Still, the most important statistic declined in both quantity and standing in the league — runs scored/game (RS/G). Some of you may suggest the Mariners’ run production didn’t slip that much. Scoring .11 runs less-per-game isn’t exactly falling off a cliff. True, Seattle’s offense didn’t tank. But, that minor dip in production combined with other clubs improving left the Mariners slightly below league-average after being top-3 in runs scored the previous year. Beyond the slight drop in scoring, there’s another aspect of the offense worth noting — its uneven nature. Seattle’s offense proved to be potent scoring 6-plus runs 62 times this season. Only the Astros (72), New York Yankees (65), and Texas Rangers (62) matched or exceeded that mark. Despite the high number of dynamic performances, the Mariners’ lineup was held in check at a high rate too. The Kansas City Royals (33) and Toronto Blue Jays (32) were the only team to plate one-or-fewer runs more often than Dipoto’s club did (30). Why The Volatility? Two factors driving the Mariners’ inconsistent run production were injuries and ineffectiveness. Several key contributors were lost to the DL, some more than once. In nearly every instance, replacements didn’t have the hit tool to replace a starter — many don’t. In other cases, substitutes were thrust into situations exposing weaknesses. For instance, a right-handed hitter who struggles against righties taking on an everyday role. Positional Review To help illustrate how Mariner hitters performed, I’ve broken down the lineup by position. My metric of choice for this assessment is wRC+. For those not familiar with wRC+, it permits comparisons of hitters from different years, leagues, and parks. League-average is always 100. For example, Nelson Cruz had a 146 wRC+ this season. That means he created 46-percent more runs than the league-average player. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? Please note I highlighted positions that were at least league-average wRC+. By doing so, it becomes readily apparent where the lineup flourished or struggled. 2017 Mariners Run Creation Pos wRC+ C 108 1B 92 2B 101 SS 90 3B 105 RF 103 CF 75 LF 89 DH 140 Source: FanGraphs Now that we’ve identified the rough spots on the roster, let’s turn our attention to each position individually. This should provide insight into where Dipoto is most likely to seek improvements. Catcher The season got off to a bumpy start for Opening Day receiver Mike Zunino. After posting a .486 OPS through early May, he found himself playing for Class-AAA Tacoma. Zunino returned to Seattle just three weeks later with adjusted swing mechanics and outstanding production. The 26-year-old slashed .266/.348/.563 and hit 25 home runs for the remainder of the season; all were career highs. Unless Dipoto opts to flip Zunino in a trade, the club has their catcher going into next season and perhaps beyond. Whether the former Florida Gator produces a similar stat line in 2018 is debatable. Having said that, Zunino can regress some and still provide value. If the five-year major leaguer posts numbers similar to his combined 2016-17 slash (.238/.327/.497), the Mariners have a potential all-star on their hands. Wouldn’t that be something? Carlos Ruiz proved to be a solid backup to Zunino. But, the 38-year-old is a free agent and it’s unclear if he’ll return. If Ruiz departs, management will need to determine whether to invest in another veteran or rely on a less experienced, younger, and cheaper backup catcher. The club’s approach may shed light on management’s confidence in Zunino going forward. First Base When the Mariners determined in Spring Training prospect Daniel Vogelbach wasn’t ready to help the big league club, projected platoon-mate Danny Valencia became the everyday first baseman. Valencia struggled mightily during April, but he bounced back to have a strong first half. From May 2 until the all-star break, the right-handed hitter slashed .303/.361/.457 and slugged eight home runs. During his hot streak, Valencia excelled regardless of pitcher handedness. In the second half though, his success against righties quickly evaporated. With Valencia struggling against like-handed pitching, Dipoto traded prospect Boog Powell for left-hand hitting rental player Yonder Alonso in early August. Alonso provided solid production platooning with Valencia. As a Mariner, the left-handed hitter posted a .277/.372/.445 slash and 126 wRC+ in 137 plate appearances against righties. With both Valencia and Alonso set to test free agency, Dipoto will be looking for a player — or players — to play first base. Perhaps, Seattle gives Vogelbach another shot next year. But, they’ve had opportunities to do so this season and didn’t. The Mariners pursuing Alonso is plausible. His .277/.349/.422 slash and 113 wRC+ in over 2,200 plate appearances against right-handers suggests he’d be a good complementary piece to the heart of the lineup. If the Mariners managed to agree to contract terms with Alonso, they’d likely pursue a right-handed hitter capable of playing first base. A utility player capable of playing multiple positions would be preferable. Second Base After having his best season as a Mariner last year, Robinson Cano produced a slash line reminiscent to his disappointing 2015 production. That’s the year he played through a double sports hernia for at least two months. Perhaps, his sub-par season was again injury-related; hamstring and quad issues dogged Cano for over two months. Maybe, it’s a simply a sign of age-related regression. Assuming good health, I suspect Cano bounces back next year. Sure, there may be a slight decline in production attributable to age. But, he’s too talented and dedicated to his craft to go into a dramatic tailspin. Two years ago, I suggested the Mariners consider moving Cano to first base. I still believe it’d be wise to consider the notion. With the eight-time all-star signed through his age-40 season, it’s unlikely he finishes his career at second base. Moving him now would solve the club’s current first base problem. Shortstop Leg issues also plagued Jean Segura, who landed on the DL twice. Despite his injury woes, the 27-year-old put together a good first season with Seattle — .300/.349/.427 and 111 wRC+. In fact, the Mariners were so pleased with their new acquisition they signed him to a five-year/$70 million extension in June. Considering his age and the fact he averaged 147 games during the four seasons before 2017, Segura’s durability isn’t an issue. However, adding a more capable utility-man to spot their star shortstop — and other infielders — would be beneficial. During Segura’s first absence in April, utility-man Taylor Motter exceeded expectations with a .988 OPS and 5 home runs. Unfortunately, the 28-year-old’s production tailed off afterwards. When Segura was lost for 18 games in June, Motter produced a meager .182/.220/.255 slash and just two extra-base hits in 59 plate appearances. If the Mariners were to adopt my hair-brained idea of moving Cano, sliding Segura to second base could be an option. Such a move would have the ripple effect of causing an opening at shortstop and organization club doesn’t have an internal option ready to fill the position. Third Base After a career-year in 2016, expectations were high for Kyle Seager. Unfortunately, his 106 wRC+ this season was his lowest since becoming a regular in 2012. His slash line was similarly down too. I know a segment of fans is never going to be pleased with Seager. My guess their angst is partially rooted in the fact he’s set to make $19 million next season. They expect all-star production for that much money. Fair enough, but the Mariners would be selling low by trading Seager now. Look at the facts; the seven-year veteran is coming off a down season, he turns age-30 in November, and his salary is about to jump significantly. Besides, there’s no heir apparent waiting in the wings. Moving Seager would create another hole requiring exterior resources to fill. A more likely scenario is Seager holds down the hot corner next season and until his contract expires in 2021. Unless there’s an underlying health issue, it’s reasonable to expect the former third round pick bounces back to his career norms next year. Right Field Of all the 10 rookie hitters used by Seattle this season, Haniger was easily the best. Based on the Baseball Reference version of wins above replacement (bWAR), he was the fourth most valuable rookie position player in the majors despite two stints on the DL. Considering the randomness of his injuries — strained oblique, smashed finger during a bunt, hit in the face with a pitch — there’s no reason to believe Haniger has significant durability issues. With that in mind, he’s on track to be the Opening Day right fielder for the 2018 Mariners. Center Field When Leonys Martin went to the minors in late-April, Dyson became the primary center fielder. While the 33-year-old scuffled early, his final stat line were in line with career norms. The left-handed hitting Dyson primarily faced opposite-handed pitching. When he did face lefties, the results weren’t positive; a 9 wRC+ in 67 plate appearances. The clubs’ other center fielder was Guillermo Heredia. The 26-year-old played over 460 innings in both center and left field this season. The right-handed hitting Heredia performed best when facing southpaws (118 wRC+) rather than righties (61 wRC+). This suggests he may be best suited to serve as a platoon or fourth outfielder. It’s worth noting the Mariners announced last week Heredia was suffering from a partial shoulder dislocation throughout the season. He’ll be undergoing corrective surgery during the offseason. Perhaps, the shoulder caused Heredia’s late season slump — .204/.274/.268 slash and 47wRC+ in his last 45 games. However, his struggles may also be attributable to facing more right-handers when Dyson was lost to the DL in August and September. Without doubt, Dipoto addresses center field in the offseason. Dyson is a pending free agent and Heredia doesn’t appear to be an everyday solution. Moreover, his injury may affect his Opening Day availability. Depending on his contract demands, retaining Dyson may make sense. Still, there’s a risk with resigning the Mississippi native. He’ll be 34 next August and has never played 120-plus games in his career. An alternative approach could be finding a younger, cheaper version of Dyson to pair with Heredia. On the other hand, the team may seek to acquire a full-time player. I’ve read suggestions Haniger could move to center field. That’s a possibility, but that opens a hole in right field with no readily available replacement. Bottom line, the Mariners will need to add another outfielder from outside the organization, if Dyson leaves. Left Field The other rookie outfielder positively affecting the offense was Gamel. The left-handed hitter became a regular in late-April and did not disappoint. Gamel slashed .275/.322/.413 and hit 11 home runs — most in his professional career. Also encouraging was his respectable performance (.275/.299/.400) against left-handed pitching. Having said that, Gamel’s productivity declined during the second half of the season. The 25-year-old’s post all-star game OBP was .262 after being as high as .414 in late-June. Perhaps, the league adjusted to Gamel or the first year player simply regressed to the mean as the season elapsed. Considering his good debut season, age, and the fact he’s under team control for five more seasons, sticking with Gamel in left field makes sense. Especially with more pressing needs in center field and first base. Designated Hitter Clearly, Cruz was the best and most consistent hitter on the roster. Despite playing through knee and calf injuries at different points of the season, the 37-year-old led the team in games played, home runs, OPS, and wRC+. Next season will be the last of Cruz’s four-year/$57 million deal. Unless Dipoto opts to blow up his roster, the Mariners have their designated hitter for 2018. It’s possible Cruz suffers significant age regression. But, it hasn’t happened yet despite dire warnings from many observers — including me. Barring injury, a more likely scenario is Nelson Cruz continues to perform at a high level next year. Finally As the hot stove starts warms for Seattle baseball fans, there are clear areas of need with the offense. Most critically, first base and center field. Based on his first two years in the Emerald City, Dipoto will be busy upgrading those spots and other areas on his roster as soon at the World Series concludes. Prospect Insider is looking forward to the action.
It’s been a tough five weeks for the Seattle Mariners. Since the beginning of August, the club has a 15-18 win-loss record and continues to descend in the AL wild card standings. Entering today’s action, Seattle is four games behind the team holding the second wild card spot in the American League — the Minnesota Twins. Not only is surprising Minnesota leading the way, five other clubs stand between them and Seattle. Despite the fact the Mariners are facing a path to the postseason that narrows with each passing day, all hope isn’t lost. Fangraphs forecasts the Twins will win 84 games, while the Mariners project to notch 80 victories. All Seattle has to do is go 15-7 and win 84 games to earn the second wild card berth. Piece of cake, right? Well, not really. First, I’m assuming the team securing the second wild card will only need 84 wins or that other clubs won’t have the same record. Furthermore, Seattle isn’t exactly playing well lately. The division-leading Houston Astros swept them earlier this week and they’re 10-12 in their last 22 contests. Still, it’s plausible the Mariners could go on a mini-run and surge in the standings. Stranger things have happened. To demonstrate how the Mariners could get there from here, I got imaginative. I plotted a course leading to the magical 84-game mark by suggesting their needed win-loss record against remaining opponents. Doable, but extremely tough. Los Angeles Angels (Suggested record: 4-2) The Angels start a three-game set at Safeco Field tonight and are one of the clubs the Mariners are chasing. The last time these two clubs squared off in Seattle, the Angels rudely swept a four-game series during the Edgar Martinez celebration weekend. With so much on the line, the Mariners must do better this time. It won’t be easy though. Since both clubs met last month, general manager Billy Eppler added outfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips to his roster. Moreover, former ace Garrett Richards returned to the rotation this week after missing most of the last two seasons due to health issues. The Angels are one of two clubs the Mariners play twice between now and season’s end. It’s imperative Seattle finds a way to win at least four games. Texas Rangers (Suggested record: 5-2) After going 7-12 against the Rangers in 2016, Seattle is enjoying more success (8-4) this season. With seven games remaining with Texas, the Mariners need to continue that trend. Despite their recent success against the Rangers, Seattle will have their work cut out for them. Manager Jeff Banister has his club playing at a .588 clip since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. As usual, the Rangers are prolific producing run producers. Surprisingly, their pitching staff has been better over the last month than all season despite trading Yu Darvish at the deadline. Houston Astros (Suggested record: 2-1) Yes, the Astros just swept the Mariners. But, Seattle did win 2 of 3 during their most recent visit to Minute Maid Park in July. It’s looking more probable that either James Paxton or Felix Hernandez will return to the rotation next week when the Mariners visit both Texas ball clubs. The duo tossed simulated games at Safeco Field today with no issues reported. Assuming Felix and Paxton don’t encounter setbacks, one could start when the Mariners visit Arlington next week with the other pitching when the club moves to Houston afterwards. If King Felix and Big Maple do return, they’ll likely be on pitch counts in the neighborhood of 60 pitches. Regardless of any limitations, getting both pitchers back would be an enormous boost for the rotation. It’d also provide a measure of hope to the club’s tortured fan base. Cleveland Indians (Suggested record: 1-2) If you haven’t noticed, Cleveland is on fire lately. The Tribe is currently on a 15-game winning streak dating back to August 24. Despite the strong surge by the Indians, the Mariners need to make their presence known during their final home series of the regular season. Assuming the Indians maintain their torrid pace, they could clinch the AL Central division title by the time they arrive in the Emerald City. Perhaps, manager Terry Francona opts to rest some of his regulars during their west coast road trip. On the other hand, Cleveland could be competing for the best record in the AL and postseason home field advantage with the Astros. If that’s the case, Francona isn’t likely to let off the pedal. Oakland Athletics (Suggested record: 3-0) The Athletics are 7-13 in their last 20 games and have just one win in September. The Mariners need seize the moment and pull off a sweep when they visit Oakland. Easier said than done though. Despite his club’s poor record, manager Bob Melvin isn’t going to permit his club to quit. We saw that earlier this month when two of Seattle’s victories over the Athletics were one-run affairs. Regardless of Oakland’s grit, the Mariners can’t afford to pass up this golden opportunity to add wins. Finally Can the Mariners reach the postseason? Sure, but it’ll take virtually everything going right for the club. Paxton and Hernandez must return and add value. The offense being more consistent would help. Losing streaks from the competition wouldn’t hurt either. That’s a lot to hope for with 22 game left on the schedule. But, hope is about all that remains for a Mariners team sporting a 69-71 record.
When news broke the Houston Astros were getting Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander late Thursday night, reaction from Seattle baseball fans could be summed up in one word. Frustration. Not only did the pitching-deprived Mariners fail to acquire Verlander, a former Cy Young Award winner and league MVP, he’s going to a division rival. Certainly, adding Verlander would’ve been a huge boost for a Mariners team desperately needing one. In six August starts, the right-hander had a 2.36 ERA and held opponents to a .217 batting average. Despite his recent success, obtaining Verlander wouldn’t make sense for Seattle. I suspect a segment of Mariners faithful will vehemently disagree. Any potential deal for Verlander involving the Mariners would’ve proven problematic for general manager Jerry Dipoto. Why? The cost in terms of prospects would be prohibitive for an organization with a limited supply. Before digging into Mariners’ prospect pool, let’s consider the package Houston surrendered to land Verlander — pitcher Franklin Perez, catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Daz Cameron. MLB Prospect Watch ranks Perez number-46 overall and immediately installed the right-hander as Detroit’s top prospect. Only 19-years-old and already pitching well at Class-AA level, Perez projects as a mid-rotation arm destined to debut in the majors at a young age. Rogers ranks eighth among MLB catching prospects. As is the case with many developing receivers, the 22-year-old’s bat lags behind his glove. Having said that, the former third rounder’s offense is showing signs of improvement with High-A Buies Creek this year. The last name of the third player heading to the Motor City rings familiar with Seattle fans. His father, Mike, was a fan favorite during his four seasons with the Mariners between 2000 and 2003. Daz possesses the defensive tools to play any outfield position, but continues to evolve at the plate. Just 20-years-old, Cameron slashed .271/.349/.466 with Class-A Quad Cities thanks to a retooled swing. It’s worth noting the senior Cameron slashed considerably worse (.238/.292/.297) during his age-20 season at Class-A level. Yet, he went on to play 17 MLB seasons. As I said, Daz is a work in progress. Now that we’ve reviewed the trio Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow exchanged for Verlander, let’s turn our attention to the Mariners. A package including Seattle’s top prospect Kyle Lewis may have piqued the interest of Tigers general manager Al Avila. The 22-year-old is the only Mariner in the MLB Prospect Watch Top-100. Still, it’s worth noting Lewis sustained a major knee injury last season and didn’t resume playing until June. The Mercer University alum returned to playing center field, but he’s been a designated hitter in over half his games. Moreover, Lewis played the field in three consecutive games just once in August. Am I suggesting Lewis is damaged goods? Absolutely not. Seattle is merely being cautious with a valued prospect, as they should. Nevertheless, any club acquiring the native Georgian would be assuming some risk. Mariner fans might suggest throwing in Nick Neidert, recently named California League Pitcher of the Year. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill identified the 20-year-old as Seattle’s sixth best prospect in July, noting his “ceiling remains a mid-rotation arm.” Assuming Avila accepted Lewis and Neidert, the Mariners would’ve needed to add more. Would any of the players in front of Neidert in Churchill’s rankings make sense? Number-two prospect Evan White is ineligible for trades until after the World Series because he was selected in this year’s amateur draft. The same applies to pitcher Sam Carlson (5). Julio Rodriguez (3) possesses tremendous upside. However, he’s just 16-years-old and probably five years away from the big leagues. By now, every frustrated baseball fan in the Pacific Northwest knows Tyler O’Neill (4) is now playing for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class-AAA affiliate. Seattle dealt the 22-year-old for starter Marco Gonzales in July. The Mariners have valuable players in their farm system. But, without overpaying, no combination of their best prospects provides more upside or less risk than Houston’s offer. Yes, Verlander would make Seattle better. But, his presence alone would mean nothing unless Felix Hernandez and James Paxton return from injury by mid-month. That’s assuming the club doesn’t fall out of contention before then. Sure, King Felix and Big Maple — or even Hisashi Iwakuma — may triumphantly return to help their teammates make a late surge. How realistic does that seem to you? Hernandez and Paxton needed multiple starts to get back on step after their last DL stint. Iwakuma hasn’t pitched in the majors since May 3. There won’t be time to shake off the rust this go around. Rather than squander limited resources for a fleeting shot at the postseason, Dipoto targeted less costly players capable of helping now and in the future. Specifically, Gonzales, Mike Leake, and David Phelps. This approach is reasonable for a club on the fringe of contention. For the Astros, dealing so much value makes complete sense. The club owns the best record in the American League and is a postseason lock. Getting Verlander is about reaching and winning the World Series, not sneaking in as a wild card. Perhaps, Seattle will be in a similar position as the Astros in the near future. At that point, unloading a package of high-value prospects will make sense. Unfortunately, for frustrated Mariners fans, now is not the time for such a bold move.
For the second time in as many months, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto brokered a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals to help his club contend now and in the future. This time, the organization snagged a veteran piece for their decimated rotation — Mike Leake. In late July, the Mariners acquired young starting pitcher Marco Gonzales from the Red Birds. Needed Help Leake has proven both durable and capable of eating innings during his eight-year career. Those attributes have been in short supply on a Mariners team that’s used 16 starting pitchers this season. As noted yesterday by Prospect Insider, Seattle starting pitchers collectively ranked last for innings/start this month. The root cause to their woes? A barrage of injuries sidelining 80-percent of the team’s projected Opening Day rotation — Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Drew Smyly. Unfortunately, the current rotation — Gonzales, Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo, Erasmo Ramirez, and Andrew Albers — has been unable deliver enough quality innings during the absence of Seattle’s best starters. The Mariners hope the addition of Leake will help stabilize the rotation until they get help from the disabled list. Both Hernandez and Paxton could be back by mid-September. If all goes well, Seattle’s starting rotation could be Paxton, Hernandez, Leake, Ramirez, and Miranda within three weeks. Gallardo and Albers would remain options, especially if Miranda were to hit club-imposed innings limit. Reasonable Price Another difference between the two deals is the payment Seattle surrendered to get their man. Last month, the team dealt highly touted prospect Tyler O’Neill. Dealing O’Neill proved to be an unpopular move with a fan base who had seen the 22-year-old hit monster home runs in several videos. Adding to their disappointment, Gonzales’ poor performance since joining the big league club earlier this month. To acquire Leake, the cost from a prospect perspective was extremely low — infielder Rayder Ascanio. The switch-hitting middle infielder with good defensive skills signed as an international free agent in 2012. He posted a .217 batting average during stints with High-A Modesto and Low-A Clinton this season. It’s worth noting, Ascanio didn’t appear in Jason A. Churchill’s most recent prospect rankings. Churchill reiterated his evaluation via Twitter today. FTR, I don’t know that Rayder Ascanio sniffs the big leagues at all. He’s 21, hit tool is a long ways away, not a premium glove. — Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) August 30, 2017 In addition to Leake, the Cardinals sent $750 thousand of international bonus pool money and an unannounced amount of cash to the Mariners to offset the 29-year-old’s salary. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports St. Louis will chip in approximately 30-percent of the money owed to the newest Mariner. #STLCards sending #Mariners about $17M in Leake trade over a multi-year period, source tells The Athletic. Leake owed about $55M total. — Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 30, 2017 Reasons For Skepticism By making the deal prior to September 1, Leake would be eligible for the Mariners’ postseason roster, assuming they earned a wild card berth. The issue at hand is whether the Arizona State University alum can help Seattle reach the postseason for the first time since 2001. After enjoying a superb first half, the 29-year-old’s numbers have spiraled downward at an alarming rate. Certainly, seeing Leake’s numbers since the all-star break won’t excite Seattle baseball fans. They’ve seen plenty of poor pitching from the current rotation. That said, I’m not particularly concerned with the former Sun Devil unless there’s an underlying physical issue; there are no indications of that being the case. Reasons For Optimism Leake is a pitch-to-contact type, who’s very reliant on inducing grounders. He ranks fourth among qualified MLB starters with a 54.5-percent ground ball rate this season. Despite his recent struggles, he remains in the top-15 in that category since mid-July. Still, I understand the skepticism. The numbers posted in the preceding table are real and his hard-contact rate is up nearly nine points to 38.6-percent in the second half. On the other hand, it’s possible Leake is merely regressing to the mean. When you look at the right-hander’s current 2017 stat line side-by-side with career average calculated for a 162-game schedule, there are more similarities than differences. Although Leake’s ERA, FIP, and WHIP have all ticked upward, they’re not considerably higher than what he’s been averaging over the past eight seasons. Perhaps, falling backwards was inevitable after performing well above career norms during the first three months of the season. Despite struggling recently, Leake represents a significant upgrade to Seattle’s rotation. If the former first round pick of the Cincinnati Reds can pitch near his career norms, he’ll help the Mariners contend late into September — assuming Hernandez and Paxton return by mid-month. Leake most likely will replace Gonzales in the rotation. His last start was on August 26 against the Tampa Bay Rays. That means he could start as early as this coming Friday, if manager Scott Servais chooses. About The Money There is a significant level of risk with this deal. Even with the cash considerations from the Cardinals, the Mariners are on the hook for approximately $38 million for Leake services over the next three years. In the eyes of some, that’s a big commitment to a struggling starter with an 8.88 ERA this month. Those misgivings are understandable, but I don’t share the same concern. With or without money from St. Louis, the deal makes sense from a financial standpoint. The cost of pitching isn’t going to go down in the future and the Mariners are getting a 29-year-old pitcher with at least three years of control remaining. By surrendering virtually no value in the deal, the trade is reminiscent to inking a veteran free agent to a three-year deal with an option for one extra season. As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times notes, Dipoto said as much. “If Mike Leake is a 30-year-old free agent and we were able to achieve this deal with him. We would feel comfortable signing him to that. It was a real consideration and a strong factor in what led us to doing this deal.” Finally Considering his age, Leake represents a long-term replacement for Iwakuma; both share several similarities. They don’t strike out many hitters, avoid walks, and like to keep the ball on the ground. The biggest difference between the two righties; Leake is five years younger. Perhaps, I’m wrong and today’s deal falls flat. Maybe, Felix and Paxton don’t return in time to help Leake. Even if those things happen and Seattle falls short, there’s a reason for fans to feel hopeful. Dipoto’s bold move underscores the desire of the front office and ownership group to continue competing despite so many setbacks this season. This proves the organization is no longer “the same old Mariners.” That’s a good thing going forward.
September is just days away and the Seattle Mariners are doing something that was unimaginable to many fans in May — contend for the postseason. You see, the Mariners were eight games under the .500-mark on May 27 and had lost 80-percent of their projected Opening Day rotation to injury. Memorial Day was looming with confidence waning in the Pacific Northwest. Somehow, Seattle managed to rebound. Since cratering in late-May, manager Scott Servais and his crew entered today’s action with the fourth best record (45-37) in the American League. Now, his club is within striking distance of a wild card berth with 30 games remaining. Although the Mariners’ unyielding determination is inspiring, I’m suspect about their postseason outlook. It’s not that I’m a curmudgeon, although my wife may disagree. Rather, Seattle’s rotation is fueling my doubt. Please let me explain. A Leash Too Short The stark reality is the Mariners are relying on a collection of starters incapable of producing enough quality innings to sustain a contender. In fact, prior to tonight’s action, Seattle ranked last in the AL for innings pitched/game start in August. The present situation is actually worse than illustrated. Remove two starts made by the sidelined James Paxton and the current rotation of Marco Gonzales, Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo, Erasmo Ramirez, and Andrew Albers is averaging just 4.87 innings. The lack of rotation length makes the likelihood of a September surge increasingly problematic. Weakest Link Considering he hasn’t completed the fifth inning in any of his five starts — including last night’s outing against the Baltimore Orioles — Gonzales’ spot in the rotation is tenuous at best. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill went as far as suggesting the Mariners should remove the former Gonzaga Bulldog before the weekend. Churchill’s choice for a replacement would be Sam Gaviglio; currently assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma. In fairness, this season was Gonzales’ first since undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Under normal circumstances, it’s unlikely the former Gonzaga Bulldog wouldn’t be pulling major league duty until next year. Unfortunately, 2017 has been far from normal for the Seattle Mariners. Rotation Replacements In addition to Gaviglio, other candidates to replace Gonzales include rotation retreads from earlier in the season — Christian Bergman and Andrew Moore — and Max Povse. None of these options is particularly appealing. As a starter with the big league club earlier this season, Bergman wasn’t particularly effective (5.70 ERA in eight starts). On the other hand, the 29-year-old’s 0.844 WHIP during the limited sample size of 10 relief innings is more appetizing. Both Gaviglio and Moore had moments of grandeur with Seattle. However, the duo eventually faced struggles and are now teammates with the Rainiers. Tacoma is closely managing Moore’s workload, which factors into his availability. Currently, he’s limited to just four innings during outings. The former Oregon State University star has logged 146 innings this season; his career-high is 163 from last year. Povse began the season as a starter before the organization converted him into a reliever. Having said that, his last two appearances with Tacoma have come as a starter. It’s possible the Mariners turn to Povse to start games this season. Perhaps, they’re merely stretching him out to use in long relief. While getting better production from Gonzales’ spot is essential. The current crop of starters must do more to help stabilize the rotation. The Others Gallardo is the lone survivor from that projected Opening Day rotation and its biggest disappointment. Initially pulled from a starting role in late-June, Gallardo reentered the rotation after the all-star break only to deliver similarly unsatisfactory results. In the second half, the 31-year-old has a 6.25 ERA in seven starts and opponents boast a .900 OPS against him. Although initially slated to begin the season with the Rainiers, Miranda stepped in when Drew Smyly went down late in Spring Training. All things considered, the southpaw has been an asset, although he’s regressed since June. In nine starts since July 5, Miranda’s ERA has ballooned and he’s surrendering more home runs. Perhaps, the 28-year-old is suffering from fatigue. Miranda currently sits at 146 innings pitched this season; his career-high of 158 came a season ago. It’s worth noting, the sophomore logged just 70 innings with the Orioles system in 2015 and none the year prior while establishing residency after his defection from Cuba. That brings us to Albers. The 31-year-old has pitched admirably as an injury replacement for Paxton by maintaining a 4.20 ERA and averaging five innings through his initial three starts. Whether the Canadian can sustain his marginal success or he’s destined to regress like so many before him remains unknown. Mister Number One On a positive note, Ramirez has performed well since returning to the Emerald City in late-July. In his last three starts prior to tonight’s outing, the two-time Mariner posted a 2.00 ERA and held opposing hitters to a meager .177 batting average. Right now, Erasmo Ramirez is the ace of the Mariners’ rotation. Let that sink in for a minute. The Obvious Solutions Certainly, getting back some combination of Paxton, Felix Hernandez, and Hisashi Iwakuma back from the DL would significantly improve Seattle’s playoff odds. Unfortunately, they remain unknown unknowns. We know Iwakuma is further along in his rehab process than Paxton or Hernandez. The right-hander has recently thrown two bullpen sessions. Whether he’s ready to advance to the next stage of facing live hitters is unclear. If Iwakuma were to return this season, he’ll be significantly limited from a pitch count or innings perspective. The 38-year-old hasn’t appeared in a game since a rehab start on June 19 and time is running out to build up arm strength. That means the best hope for the Mariners rests with the injured duo of Hernandez and Paxton. Even if they were rusty or on a pitch count, either man would be the best starting pitcher on the team the moment they toed the mound. Whether either returns this year is a mystery. As Greg Johns of MLB.com notes, both pitchers are making progress albeit baby steps. Paxton and Felix will play catch again today in Seattle, then advance to throwing off mound on Friday or Saturday. Slow progress. — Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) August 28, 2017 If the Hernandez and Paxton continue to make positive strides and eventually graduate to a rehab assignment, it’s plausible they could return to the Mariners in mid-September. Arms Relief While the Mariners await the return of their injured stars, the club will have to make do with their current cast in the rotation. In the interim, the club will turn to wave of relievers to augment the starting staff once rosters expand on September 1. Seattle optioned Dan Altavilla to Tacoma yesterday, but the hard-thrower is certain to return in the near future. Fellow power-arm Thyago Vieira is another strong option for call-up. Ryan Garton and Zac Curtis are the two remaining relievers on the 40-man roster; each could see September action. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this month, Garton is making multiple-inning appearances for Tacoma and capable of missing bats. Curtis made three appearances with the Mariners earlier this year, but spent the rest of the season with Arkansas. During his last outing with the Travelers, the lefty matched his career-high for innings pitched in a season. This will likely affect his readiness next month. Tony Zych is out with a flexor bundle strain in his right elbow. The 26-year-old underwent offseason on his biceps tendon and, as Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times noted, Zych was experiencing a decrease in fastball velocity and lingering soreness after appearances. Getting Zych back would help deepen a bullpen expected to receive plenty of work in September. Nevertheless, the University of Louisville alum’s recovery timeline remains unknown. If healthy and effective, adding Shae Simmons and Evan Scribner to the bullpen would be beneficial. Acquired in the offseason, Simmons has yet to appear in a regular season Mariners game. Scribner has been lost to the club since suffering a flexor bundle strain in late-April. Both Scribner and Simmons are currently on rehab assignments, but not on the 40-man roster. The club would need to clear space for either pitcher to join the big league club. There are other relief options in the minors. As with Scribner and Simmons, the Mariners would have to find a way to add them to the 40-man roster first. Although currently unlikely, Cody Martin, Ernesto Frieri, Evan Marshall, and Dean Kiekhefer are possibilities. An injured big league reliever could change things in an instant though. Finally The tenacity of the Mariners is impressive. Having said that, I can’t fathom the club snapping the longest active postseason drought in MLB without Hernandez and Paxton. Adding more relief arms in September will help, although there’s no guarantee the newcomers can measurably improve the bullpen or prop up the scuffling rotation. Sure, quantity can compensate for a lack of quality in some situations. However, I’m skeptical whether that approach works in a heated postseason race. It’s worth noting the Mariners’ competition will be stacking their roster with new arms too. Moreover, all of those clubs begin September with a better rotation — even the bad ones. Honestly, I’m not convinced waiting for Felix and Paxton is a viable option. Expecting the totality of Ramirez, Miranda, Gallardo, Albers, Gonzales, and others in Tacoma to keep the rotation afloat is an unreasonable expectation. They haven’t been able to do so in August. What will be different next month? Conceivably, general manager Jerry Dipoto could swing a last minute transaction before September 1, as Churchill noted. Last August, Dipoto acquired Ben Gamel, Pat Venditte, and Arquimedes Caminero. This year, he’s added Yonder Alonso, Garton, Frieri, and Albers to the mix since the non-waiver trade deadline elapsed. Perhaps, the second-year GM can snag a starting pitcher to help his club stay alive. If Dipoto is unable to add another arm or the starting staff can’t hold on until the return of Felix and Paxton, the Mariners are on course for a September swoon. That’d be an unfortunate end to a remarkable season marked by unyielding perseverance. Players and fans deserve better.
With just five weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s conceivable the victors of the AL wild card race won’t emerge until the last day of the season — perhaps later. Entering today, five teams are within two games of the second wild card spot. None is a clear-cut favorite; all possess significant flaws. Considering the volatility of the competition, September will be both exhilarating and frustrating for fans across the league. With that in mind, I decided to brush up on the clubs most likely to earn the second wild card berth. Minnesota Twins The franchise transitioned from buyers to sellers in the week leading up to the MLB non-waiver trading deadline. Yet, they continue to contend in late August. Initially, general manager Thad Levine acquired Jaime Garcia from the Braves on July 24. Within days, he shipped Garcia to the New York Yankees and closer Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals. In spite of the upheaval, manager Paul Molitor continues to field a competitive club thanks to productive hitting and respectable pitching since the all-star break. Since the July 31, Minnesota’s offense is third in the AL in OBP and tops in runs scored. Leading the charge are Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Jason Castro, and former top-prospect Byron Buxton. The club’s best hitter this season — Miguel Sano — is on the DL due to a stress reaction in his shin. While the 24-year-old’s recovery timeline remains uncertain, a September return would energize Minnesota’s postseason push. The starting staff has been relatively effective in August; they rank fifth in ERA and WAR this month. That’s amazing considering 16 different pitchers have started games for the Twins this year. Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios continue to have strong seasons, but Levine’s recent additions — Bartolo Colon and Dillon Gee — are difference makers too. Whether the newcomers’ success is sustainable is debatable. Colon was ineffective with the Atlanta Braves before landing in Minnesota. The 44-year-old has a 4.46 ERA with his new club and opponents are hitting .304 against him. On the other hand, Colon seems to be improving lately; the 20-year veteran is averaging 6.75 innings/start with a 3.67 ERA in August. Since signing with the Twins in late June, Gee has made four appearances out of the bullpen. The right-hander made his first start this week, limiting the Chicago White Sox to one run in six innings. For now, Gee is helping the Twins win games. However, inconsistent performances with three previous clubs in a season many seasons suggest a bumpy ride awaits the 31-year-old in the weeks ahead. Starter Hector Santiago may return next month and could potentially help the rotation. The southpaw is on the DL due to back pain, but recently suffered a setback during a rehab assignment. It is worth noting Santiago wasn’t particularly productive before his injury. In 14 starts, the 29-year-old posted a 5.45 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Despite losing their closer via trade, Minnesota’s bullpen has been relatively stable. Matt Belisle has taken Kintzler’s place, while Trevor Hildenberger and Tyler Duffey have been solid setup options. Hard throwing prospect John Curtiss recently joined the club from Class-AAA Rochester and could provide a shot in the arm. Seattle Mariners The Mariners stay in the race despite a seemingly unending wave of injuries to their rotation, which has prompted the need for 16 starters this year. That ties the Twins for the most in MLB. Much of the credit for the Mariners staying competitive goes to the offense and bullpen. Since the all-star break, designated hitter Nelson Cruz has been unstoppable with 14 home runs and a 1.024 OPS. The 37-year-old is clearly Seattle’s best hitter and likely to receive MVP votes. Joining Cruz with strong post all-star game numbers are Kyle Seager, Guillermo Heredia, Mike Zunino, and recent acquisition Yonder Alonso. There are several Mariner hitters providing less-than-optimal production. Getting them back on track is especially crucial considering the battered state of the starting rotation. Shortstop Jean Segura was an early season batting title challenger, but he’s batting just .244 this month. Double play partner Robinson Cano has been league-average in recent weeks and Alonso’s platoon mate — Danny Valencia — owns a .689 OPS since the all-star break. Youngsters Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger have an OPS below the .300-mark since mid-July. The same applies to veteran Jarrod Dyson; expected to come off the DL next week. General manager Jerry Dipoto has done his best to cobble together a rotation despite the recent losses of Felix Hernandez (shoulder bursitis) and James Paxton (pectoral muscle strain). To help his club, Dipoto acquired former Mariner Erasmo Ramirez and Andrew Albers. Ramirez has performed admirably holding opposing hitters to a .238 batting average during five starts, while Albers has lasted five innings and avoided significant damage during both of his outings. Perhaps, Hernandez and Paxton return before season’s end, but their recovery timelines remain inexact. Moreover, there’s no guarantee either will prove effective upon returning. The degradation of the starting staff has becoming increasingly evident as the season has progressed. Mariners starters rank number-13 in the AL in WAR during the second half of the season and have delivered the second fewest innings of any AL club since the all-star break. Fortunately, Seattle’s bullpen has stepped up during the rotation’s darkest hour. Entering today’s play, Mariner relievers rank second in the AL in WAR since mid-July. The bullpen should be even better once David Phelps returns to form. The right-handler has been shaking off rust since coming off the DL this week. Kansas City Royals After starting with a 7-16 record, there wasn’t much hope for the Royals’ season. Most baseball observers — including me — expected Kansas City to be major sellers by the July 31 trade deadline. Despite external pessimism, general manager Dayton Moore remained patient. His players rewarded his faith by becoming wild card contenders. Since mid-July, the team ranks fourth in the league in runs scored. Much of the credit goes to Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Whit Merrifield, Brandon Moss, and deadline acquisition Melky Cabrera. On the mound, circumstances have been more trying. Danny Duffy is staff ace and Jason Hammel has been solid and delivering innings. After that, it gets sketchy. Jason Vargas was an early season Cy Young contender, but regressed with a 7.15 ERA since June. Veteran Ian Kennedy has been inconsistent all year. Making matters worse, deadline acquisition Trevor Cahill made just three starts for his new club before going to the DL with a shoulder impingement. In the past, Royals manager Ned Yost could count on his bullpen to buoy the starting staff. That’s not the case in 2017. One of Yost’s best relievers — Joakim Soria — recently landed on the DL with an oblique strain, while Neftali Feliz is unavailable with ulnar nerve palsy. Both pitchers’ recovery timelines are uncertain. Even worse, Brandon Maurer hasn’t performed well since arriving at the deadline. On a positive note, it appears the Royals dodged a bullet with closer Kelvin Herrera. The 27-year-old left Tuesday’s game with forearm tightness, but is currently day-to-day. Still, his condition merits watching. Los Angeles Angels The lone deal made by general manager Billy Eppler prior to the deadline shipped a player out of town — reliever David Hernandez went to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Nevertheless, manager Mike Scioscia keeps his club in contention. Over the last month, Scioscia’s team is fifth in the AL in runs scored and tops in stolen bases for the season. Unsurprisingly, Mike Trout is leading the way for the Halos, but he has help for a change. Best known for his elite defense, Andrelton Simmons is having a career-year at the plate and ranks fourth in the AL in WAR just behind Trout. The 27-year-old shortstop will certainly receive MVP consideration for his breakout season. After a difficult first half, Luis Valbuena is now on fire. Other players enjoying second half surges are Ben Revere, Kole Calhoun, and C.J. Cron. Despite being a platoon player, Revere’s eight stolen bases in August lead the league. Los Angeles could receive more offensive help when Yunel Escobar returns from an oblique strain. The 34-year-old hopes to start a rehab assignment next week. While he continues to pass Hall of Fame milestones, Albert Pujols is having the worst season of his distinguished career. The slugger is slashing just .231/.276/.381, although he does have 19 home runs. Other clubs receive more attention for their rotation woes, but the Angels have also endured significant setbacks with their starting staff this season. Matt Shoemaker recently underwent season-ending surgery to release the radial nerve in his right forearm. Alex Meyer is on the DL with shoulder inflammation and J.C. Ramirez joined him this week with an elbow strain. That’s not all of the injuries Angel starters have endured — just the most recent ones. It’s not all bad news for the Angels’ rotation. Parker Bridwell has been a revelation since joining the club in April. During his last 11 starts, the rookie owns a 2.94 ERA and is averaging 6.1 innings/outing. Team management is hopeful Garrett Richards — out since April with right biceps nerve irritation — could rejoin the club next month. It’s likely the 29-year-old would be limited to approximately 60 pitches/start, but that’s a manageable factor once rosters expand in September. As in Seattle, Angel relievers have stepped up during the rotation’s rough times. The bullpen ranks in the top third of the AL since the all-star break and is tops in the league this month. Bud Norris and Keynan Middleton have scuffled recently, but Cam Bedrosian, Blake Parker, Jose Alvarez, and Yusmeiro Petit are picking up the slack. Texas Rangers As the deadline approached, general manager Jon Daniels was a seller. The 40-year-old executive offloaded staff ace Yu Darvish and two players acquired prior to last year’s deadline — Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress. Ironically, Texas remains within striking distance of a wild card berth, although the club faces significant challenges. Two key position players — Joey Gallo and Carlos Gomez are on the disabled list, although Gomez could return this weekend after having a shoulder cyst removed. Gallo’s prognosis isn’t as clear. The slugger is on the DL after suffering a concussion and non-displaced nasal fracture during a collision with reliever Matt Bush. If the 23-year-old passes MLB-administered concussion tests, he could return next week. Running into the 6-foot-5 Gallo resulted in Bush sustaining a sprained MCL in his right knee. His return is uncertain with an official estimate of “possibly September.” Simultaneously losing Bush and Keone Kela — sidelined with right shoulder soreness — is a devastating blow for a bullpen ranked in the bottom third of the league this season. Despite losing key players to trades and injury, Texas is still scratching and crawling thanks to a potent offense and key contributors in the rotation. Adrian Beltre continues to defy age, Shin-Soo Choo is having a bounce back year, and Robinson Chirinos has performed well as Lucroy’s replacement behind the plate. Also contributing are shortstop Elvis Andrus and outfielders Delino DeShields and Nomar Mazara. Losing Darvish significantly degraded the starting staff, but three veterans are keeping the rotation afloat in August — Cole Hamels, Martin Perez, and Andrew Cashner. All are averaging 6-plus innings/start and giving the offense a chance to compete. The challenge for manager Jeff Banister is scraping through the days Hamels, Perez, and Cashner aren’t toeing the mound. Neither Tyson Ross nor A.J. Griffin are consistently providing length or effective during their starts. Finally You’ve probably noticed by now, there’s a recurring theme with every contender — injuries and inconsistent play. As a result, a considerably flawed will earn the second wild card berth. Still, being the fan of a broken-down club playing in the postseason — even if it’s for just one game — is a better alternative to ending the regular season on a sour note. Enjoy the ride AL fans. September is going to be a fun month.