Mitch Haniger Mariners

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

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

Marco Gonzales Mariners

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

Yusei Kukuchi Mariners

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

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

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

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

Bob Melvin Oakland Athletics

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

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

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

Marco Gonzales Mariners

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

Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners

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

Yusei Kukuchi Mariners

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

Mitch Haniger Mariners

The possibility of the Seattle Mariners trading Mitch Haniger this summer is fueling a spirited debate within the team’s fan base. Some fans would prefer seeing the team sign the All-Star, a free agent after next season, to a contract extension. Others believe dealing him now is a better strategy for the organization. But does trading Haniger actually make sense for the Mariners? I have doubts. Fans advocating a Haniger trade may be surprised to discover he’s not as valuable as some of them perceive. That’s not a swipe at the veteran outfielder, who’s clearly the best player on the Mariners and a potential All-Star this year. But those two factors speak more to his value to Seattle than on the open market. Please give me a chance to explain. Personnel Matters Without doubt, Haniger’s most marketable attributes are the fact he’s under club control through next year and a very good player. The FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) confirms he’s the most valuable Mariner. His 1.5 fWAR is seventh best among right fielders, fortieth among position players, and sixty-fifth among all players when we include pitchers. Great news. But factors, other than current stats, are certain to shape the 30-year-old’s market value. Let’s start with injury history. To be fair, most of Haniger’s health issues are the product of bad luck. He’s currently dealing with a knee contusion after fouling a ball off his knee. Two years ago, a foul ball ruptured a testicle. And let’s not forget being hit in the face by a Jacob deGrom fastball in 2017. Still, Haniger did miss all of 2020 due to multiple core and back surgeries. Furthermore, he’s played 100-plus games in a season just once since debuting in 2016. The Cal Poly product appeared in 157 contests during his 2018 All-Star campaign. Will health-related issues compel buyers to pass on Haniger? Probably not, assuming Haniger recovers quickly and continues performing at his current level of excellence. However, a thirty-something without a record of sustained availability isn’t as marketable as a player with similar production numbers and a reputation for being durable. Help Wanted? On that note, demand will play a huge role in determining Haniger’s potential value. With that in mind, it’s important to recognize that pitching has been the most sought-after commodity in recent years. The following illustrates a positional breakdown of players dealt in May through August since 2016. The majority (61.6-percent) were pitchers. Please note transactions exchanging players for cash considerations weren’t included. Some fans will see 91 outfielders were dealt and instantly conclude a market for Haniger’s services is inevitable. Yes, potential suitors needing corner outfield help will show interest in the 2012 first round pick. But the issue at hand is whether the price buyers deem acceptable would satisfy fan expectations or justify moving Haniger from the Mariners’ standpoint. Probably not on both counts. Outfielder Market Value To see what I mean, let’s consider what sellers received for the most valuable outfielders (based on fWAR) dealt in-season since 2016. Next to each player’s name you’ll see date traded, position(s), and fWAR at the time of the deal. Unless otherwise noted, sellers received minor-leaguers and buyers added pending free agents. Remember, Haniger currently sits at 1.5 fWAR. Justin Upton, LF (August 31, 2017) – 4.3 fWAR To land Upton, who had an opt-out clause after the season, the Angels shipped Grayson Long and Elvin Rodriguez to the Tigers. MLB Pipeline doesn’t rate Rodriguez as a top-30 prospect in Detroit’s farm system. The 27-year-old Long has since retired. Curtis Granderson, OF (August 19, 2017) – 2.3 fWAR The Dodgers acquired Granderson from the Mets for reliever Jacob Rhame, who appeared in 44 games with a 6.23 ERA in three seasons with New York. The right-hander is a free agent after the Padres released him in April. Leonys Martín, CF (July 31, 2018) – 2.2 fWAR To get Martín and minor-leaguer Kyle Dowdy, Cleveland sent Willi Castro to the Tigers. Dowdy was lost in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, while Castro finished fourth in 2020 AL Rookie of the Year voting. Jay Bruce, RF/1B (August 9, 2017) – 2.0 fWAR Cleveland acquired Bruce from the Mets for reliever Ryder Ryan, who was later dealt to Texas for veteran Todd Frazier. Tommy Pham, CF (July 31, 2018) – 1.6 fWAR This was a unique deal. Both clubs involved were fringy contenders with identical 54-53 records on the day of the trade. Moreover, Pham had three seasons of club control remaining. St. Louis shipped the then-30-year-old and international slot money to Tampa Bay for relievers Genesis Cabrera and Roel Ramirez and outfielder Justin Williams. Cabrera is a solid bullpen contributor for the Cardinals, while Ramirez is currently with Class-AAA Memphis. The 25-year-old Williams was getting an extended look with the Redbirds before going to the 10-day IL with a stiff neck. J.D. Martinez, RF (July 18, 2017) – 1.6 fWAR The Diamondbacks shipped Jose King, Sergio Alcántara, and Dawel Lugo to the Tigers for Martinez. King is pitching at High-A level and not currently included on the organization’s top-30 prospect list. Detroit parted ways with Lugo and Alcántara last winter. Andrew McCutchen, RF (August 31, 2018) – 1.4 fWAR To land McCutchen from the Giants, the Yankees dealt Juan De Paula and Abiatal Avelino. De Paula was traded a year later; Avelino was released last September. Starling Marté, CF (August 31, 2020) – 1.3 fWAR Acquiring Marté from Arizona cost the Marlins major-leaguer Caleb Smith, plus Humberto Mejia, and Julio Frias. It’s worth noting Marté had approximately the same amount of club control remaining as Haniger does now. Smith has been both a starter and reliever this year. Frias and Mejia rank ninth and twenty-eighth respectively in the D-Backs’ system. Nick Castellanos. RF (July 31, 2019) – 0.8 fWAR The Cubs added Castellano by sending Paul Richan and Alex Lange to Detroit. The 24-year-old Richan is pitching at AA and not a top-30 prospect. Lange ranks 26th best and has split time between the majors and Class-AAA Toledo. He has a 6.89 ERA in 17 MLB appearances. Brandon Guyer, OF (August 1, 2016) – 0.8 fWAR Cleveland acquired Guyer from the Rays by parting with Nathan Lukes and Jhonleider Salinas. The 26-year-old Lukes is with Class-AAA Durham and not a top-30 prospect in Tampa Bay’s system. The team subsequently waived Salinas. Non-Outfielder Deals My takeaway is the return for outfielders has been relatively modest lately. Even the player with the most club control – Pham – didn’t yield noteworthy value. Let’s turn our attention to non-outfielders. Manny Machado, SS (July 18, 2018) – 3.9 fWAR For Machado, Baltimore received Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Dean Kremer, Zach Pop and Breyvic Valera from the Dodgers. Kramer has 13 MLB starts and is currently assigned to Class-AAA Norfolk with Bannon and Díaz, who rank twentieth and eighth respectively in the team’s pipeline. Pop and Valera are no longer with the organization. Zack Greinke, SP (July 31, 2019) – 3.8 fWAR Greinke and his hefty contract went from Arizona to Houston for Seth Beer, J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin and Josh Rojas. Beer, Bukauskas, and Martin are top-20 in the team’s farm system. Rojas is the D-Backs’ regular right fielder. Justin Verlander, SP (August 31, 2017) – 3.1 fWAR The Astros sent Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers to the Tigers for Verlander and minor-leaguer Juan Ramirez, who has since been released by Houston. Perez is out for the season with shoulder problems, while Cameron is currently playing with the big-league club. With veteran backstop Wilson Ramos on the IL, Rogers is sharing catcher duties with fellow rookie Eric Haase. Marcus Stroman, SP (July 28, 2019) – 3.0 fWAR The retooling Blue Jays traded Stroman, who had one year of club control remaining, to the Mets for Anthony Kay. The left-handed Kay has appeared in 21 MLB games posting a 5.81 ERA and currently playing for Class-AAA Buffalo. Jonathan Lucroy, C (August 1, 2016) – 3.0 fWAR Lucroy’s blend of above-average offense and defense, plus a year of club control remaining, made him a prized trade target. To get the All-Star along with Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress, Texas parted with Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell. Within two years of the trade, Milwaukee dealt all three players. Rich Hill, SP (August 1, 2016) – 2.6 fWAR To acquire Hill and veteran outfielder Josh Reddick, the Dodgers sent Grant Holmes, Jharel Cotton and Frankie Montas to Oakland. Montas has appeared in parts of five seasons for the A’s. Meanwhile, Cotton and Holmes have encountered arm-related issues. Holmes is assigned to Oakland’s Class-AAA affiliate; Cotton is no longer with the organization. Carlos Beltrán, DH (August 1, 2016) – 2.5 fWAR Beltrán joined the Rangers when the team sent Nick Green, Erik Swanson, and Dillon Tate to the Yankees. Two years later, New York traded Tate in a package to get reliever Zack Britton from Baltimore. The team subsequently included Swanson in a swap with Seattle bringing James Paxton to the Bronx. Green is with Class-AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. José Quintana, SP (July 13, 2017) – 2.0 fWAR In a rare Windy City trade, the Cubs received Quintana, who had three years of club control remaining. The White Sox received Eloy Jimenéz, Dylan Cease, Bryant Flete, and Matt Rose. Jimenéz, currently on the 60-day IL, finished fourth in 2019 AL Rookie of the Year voting and won a Silver Slugger last season. The right-handed Cease has an impressive 3.38 ERA in 13 starts in 2021. Flete and Rose are no longer with the organization. Edwin Encarnación, 1B/DH (June 15, 2019) – 1.6 fWAR The Mariners dealt Encarnación to the Yankees for Juan Then, a player they previously traded to New York. In November 2017, Seattle sent the 21-year-old and J.P. Sears to the Bronx for reliever Nick Rumbelow. Prospect Insider rates Then as the Mariners’ eleventh best prospect. Mike Clevinger, SP (August 31, 2020) – 0.0 fWAR Clevinger is listed despite a 0.0 fWAR since his 2020 season included a COVID-19 scare and a subsequent shunning by teammates for violating quarantine. Cleveland dealt the right-hander with teammate Greg Allen and minor-leaguer Matt Waldron to San Diego for major-leaguers Austin Hedges, Josh Naylor, and Cal Quantrill, plus Owen Miller,  Gabriel Arias, and Joey Cantillo. Hedges is part of the Tribe’s catching rotation, Naylor is the regular right fielder, and Quantrill is a middle-reliever. Arias (6), Miller (16), and Cantillo (22) are top-30 prospects in the organization. A Third Option Among fans wanting to keep Haniger, there’s a caveat for some. The Mariners have to extend his contract. Otherwise they’d accept trading the Californian sooner than later. But there’s another way to handle the situation, even if both sides can’t agree to terms of an a deal. Do nothing and let Haniger walk after the 2022 season. Some will view this suggestion a inane. It’s not. Allowing players to reach free agency is a common practice among contenders, including the best organizations in MLB. The following were pending free agents in 2019-20, who weren’t dealt by their teams. If Mariners leadership is sincere about making a postseason push next year, shouldn’t it keep Haniger rather than trade him? That’s what winning organizations typically do. Zero Hour Approaching With two exceptions, there’s a huge difference between the Mariners and the sellers we’ve discussed – contention windows. The Yankees and Cardinals moved veterans expecting to contend the following year. The remaining clubs were in rebuild-mode or heading in that direction. Since the Mariners suggest contention next year can become reality, the team is in the same category as the Yankees and Cardinals with one glaring difference. Seattle’s big-league roster is nowhere close to being postseason ready next season. Therefore, moving Haniger must help the 2022 Mariners. Otherwise, retaining the veteran is the only reasonable course of action. One scenario making a Haniger trade a practical choice would be a multi-player deal similar to the one involving catcher Austin Nola in 2020. The Padres sent Ty France, Andres Munoz, Luis Torrens and Taylor Trammell for Nola and relievers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla. San Diego’s aggression permitted GM Jerry Dipoto to net several potential contributors for future seasons, plus immediate help from France. Perhaps an overeager suitor makes a similar over-the-top bid for Haniger this summer. But if that kind of offer doesn’t materialize, Dipoto should keep his star right fielder because he makes his team better. And at this point of the Mariners’ rebuild, fielding a legitimately competitive roster in 2022 is the only acceptable option. My Oh My….Go!

J.P. Crawford Mariners

How Seattle Mariners fans view the 2021 season likely depends on the prism they view the team through. An optimist sees an organization on the rise, albeit at a slow ascent. Those jaded by the franchise’s long, well-documented history of mediocrity remain wary of the Mariners’ rebuild. Fortunately, numbers can shed light on reality when emotional investments cloud our vision. The Mariners have played 60 games, the same number as the truncated 2020 season. So, let’s consider how this year’s club is performing using its 2020 version as a barometer. Along the way, we can also discuss Seattle’s youth movement. We should start by comparing the Mariners’ division – the AL West – to its final standings in 2020. Not much has changed. AL West Standings The A’s currently lead the way with the Astros close behind, which is similar to how 2020 ended. For anyone staring at the giant disparity between the 2021 run differentials of each club, bear in mind Houston outscored Oakland 35-9 during the first weekend of the season. Since then, the run differentials of the A’s (34) and Astros (40) are relatively the same. After the big dogs, no other club looks like a contender. Obviously, there’s plenty of baseball left and anything is possible. For now though, the A’s and Astros are the class of the division. The Angels aggressively upgraded the rotation in the winter and did a pre-Opening Day bullpen makeover. Yet, the Halos remain an afterthought despite their offseason moves and a $182.9 million payroll. Texas is in rebuild-mode and will be selecting very high in next year’s draft. Ironically, a 29-31 record last year would’ve potentially earned the Mariners their first postseason berth since 2001. Not so much in 2021. During the first month of the season, manager Scott Servais and his squad Seattle had a respectable 15-12 record. But the team went through a rough patch in May being no-hit twice and outscored 139-96. The varying levels of success between April and May symbolize the uneven nature of Seattle’s 2021 season. Run Production Anyone expecting the lineup would perform better than last year’s group wasn’t paying attention during the offseason. It’s important to note that offense is down across major-league baseball. For this reason, I’ve included OPS+, which makes it easier to make comparisons between current and past players or teams. What we learn from the Mariners’ OPS+ is the team’s run production is 14-percent below average. On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average. For those more comfortable with conventional stats, Seattle ranks near or at the bottom of MLB in AVG/OBP/SLG. Furthermore, the 2021 Mariners have the lowest AVG in franchise history by a large margin – last year’s club holds the record. Servais’ unit also has the lowest OBP – the record (.293) was set by the 2011 team. What’s become painfully evident through the first 60 contests is that the offense is too dependent on a small group of players – Mitch Haniger, Ty France, Kyle Lewis, and Kyle Seager. When these players don’t produce or aren’t available, run production tends to sputter. This reliance on the Mariners’ Big Four helps explain the team’s inconsistency this season. To be clear, others have contributed. J.P. Crawford, Tom Murphy, and Dylan Moore have performed for short bursts. However, no one on the Mariners, other than the Big Four, currently rates as above-average from an offensive standpoint. When we look closer at Seattle’s unproductive lineup, we discover hitters aren’t making enough contact and when they do put bat-to-ball, it’s not productive often enough. To demonstrate this point, I’m using my favorite metric – expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing.  The xwOBA of Seattle hitters drives home the reality that only the Big Four are flourishing at the plate. With so many Mariners not even close to the league-average mark, it’s no wonder the team struggles to score runs. Position Player xwOBA (50 PA min)Mitch Haniger – .356Kyle Lewis – .356Kyle Seager – .346Ty France – .327MLB xwOBA – .319J.P. Crawford – .285Dylan Moore – .294Sam Haggerty – .287José Marmolejos – .284Tom Murphy – .278Luis Torrens – .275Jarred Kelenic – .263Taylor Trammell – .254Evan White – .241 After missing most of 2019 and all of last year, it’s official. Haniger is still the Mariners’ best player. If the All-Star game were held tomorrow, he’d be the team’s lone representative in Denver. His .310 OBP is below league-average for non-pitchers (.316). But the 30-year-old’s power stroke is leading Seattle in home runs, doubles, RBI, AVG, SLG, OPS, and OPS+. Seager’s on-base numbers also lag behind. But the former North Carolina Tar Heel, who’s played in every game this season, surpassed his home run and double totals from last year. Moreover, his .346 xwOBA suggests he’s capable of higher production moving forward. A wrist injury slowed France for several weeks before he went to the IL. It turns out all he needed was a little rest. Since returning, the San Diego State product is slashing .306/.346/.408 with five doubles in 52 plate appearances. Unfortunately, Lewis’ season may be more remembered for a knee injury rather than the solid work he was doing for the club. The 2020 Rookie of the Year started slowly after missing most of April with a knee contusion. But he looked better lately slashing .268/.359/.411 in the 16 games prior to suffering a torn meniscus. Crawford is currently batting at the top of Servais’ lineup and has been on a hot streak lately with his .320 OBP creeping above the MLB average. This is great news, although it’d be premature to determine whether the California native is the long-term answer at shortstop for the Mariners. After all, he’s yet to play in 100-plus games in any season. Murphy started the season in a real funk, understandable considering he spent 2020 on the IL. The Buffalo alum has been more productive lately, particularly when facing left-handed pitching. Over the last 30 days, he has a .911 OPS when facing southpaws compared to .486 against righties. Perhaps the right-handed hitting backstop is best suited for a platoon. The Mariners utilized a similar arrangement in 2019 when Murphy had a career-year at the plate. The challenges facing prospects breaking into the majors have been readily apparent during the early struggles of outfielders Taylor Trammell and Jarred Kelenic. Trammell was in the Opening Day lineup, but later sent to Class-AAA Tacoma after scuffling badly though April. Kelenic then arrived only to encounter similar difficulties. When we look at the Statcast numbers of Trammell and Kelenic, we can see what they’re excelling at and areas needing improvement. Trammell was excellent at drawing walks before going to Tacoma. Unfortunately, he was striking out at an unsustainable pace with a 41.4-percent whiff rate (misses/swing attempts) being an underlying factor. Still, the 23-year-old Georgian has demonstrated better swing discipline since returning from the minors this week. Obviously, a small sample, but Trammell has stuck out four times in 18 plate appearances, while hitting .294/.333/.588. Kelenic’s struggle to create positive results is approaching historically bad levels. Yet, he’s maintained a manageable strikeout rate along with a slightly above-average walk rate. Moreover, the Wisconsin native’s 22-percent whiff rate is third lowest on the Mariners behind Crawford (17.7) and France (21.0). So, what’s the problem? I’m a dumb blogger and not qualified to say what’s wrong with Kelenic’s mechanics. But he’s clearly not finding the ball with the ‘sweet spot” of his bat often enough. Sweet spot percentage (SwSp%) from Baseball Savant quantifies how often hitters produce batted-ball events with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. This season, balls hit within this range have a .587 AVG and 1.086 SLG. Kelenic is 10-percent the MLB average – that’s a problem. Some may choose to focus on the very poor batting averages of Trammell and Kelenic and assume both are doomed to underperform expectations as Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Mike Zunino once did. Especially after Evan White struggled so badly as a rookie in 2020 earlier this season. But such an assessment so early in the duo’s career is an overreaction. Pitching Despite offseason upgrades made by GM Jerry Dipoto, the pitching staff’s overall production numbers don’t look significantly better than last year’s. In 2020, the starting rotation was Seattle’s strongest unit. That hasn’t been the case in 2021 with injuries and ineffectiveness dragging down the staff. A huge blow to the team was Dipoto’s biggest free agent signing – James Paxton – undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery after just one start. Other injured starters include Marco Gonzales and Justin Dunn. Gonzales just returned to action last Tuesday, while Dunn essentially took Marco’s place on the IL with shoulder inflammation. The Mariners have used 11 starting pitchers, including Paxton and openers Erik Swanson and Robert Dugger. They have a combined a .354 xwOBA – only Baltimore’s rotation (.355) is worse. In fact, no regular Seattle starter has an xwOBA below the league-average mark. Starter xwOBAMLB average (SP’s) .322Yusei Kikuchi – .332Justin Dunn – .331Chris Flexen – .335Justus Sheffield – .370Logan Gilbert – .379Marco Gonzales – .409 Despite these seemingly discouraging numbers, there have been good performances. Yusei Kikuchi has been demonstrably more aggressive on the mound this year, which seems to be working for him. Ironically, his advanced metrics are noticeably worse than last year’s numbers. Still, the native of Japan has seen his xwOBA begin to decline recently. While Kikuchi’s early-season performance has been promising, the pressing issue facing the southpaw and the Mariners is a right leg injury suffered in last night’s game. Losing the best starter on the staff for an extended period would be devastating for a rotation plagued by injuries. Before heading to the IL, Dunn demonstrated encouraging progress, which is reflected by his steadily declining xwOBA. Hopefully, the former Boston College Golden Eagle’s absence is short-lived. Surprisingly, Gonzales has struggled with command and control. He’s allowed significantly more walks and hard contact than usual. Then again, the Gonzaga product allowed just one run, while striking out six hitters and walking one in his first start back from the IL. By the All-Star break, we’ll know how Gonzales’ season is going. After a solid rookie campaign, Justus Sheffield hasn’t shown signs of improvement. In fact, he’s regressed in several categories. One constant in Sheffield’s outings has been the amount of traffic he’s created. Opponents have hit with a runner on base during 49.6-percent of their plate appearances against the left-hander. That’s an 8-percent increase from 2020. If you’re wondering if 49.6-percent is high, it is. Among pitchers facing at least 200 batters this season, only John Gant of the Cardinals (50-percent) has pitched with men on base more frequently. A result of the excessive traffic is Sheffield not going deep in games. The Tennessean has finished the sixth inning just three times in 10 starts this year after accomplishing the feat in six of 10 outings in 2020. Chris Flexen has given up a lot of hard contact and doesn’t strikeout a lot of hitters. However, he’s adept at avoiding walks and managed to pitch six-plus innings in half of of his ten starts. This matters to a rotation struggling to cover innings this season. Rookie Logan Gilbert is just getting acclimated to the majors. So far, he’s maintained an impressive 4.1-percent walk rate. But his 53.8-percent hard-hit rate must drop considerably for the 24-year-old to be a viable big-league starter. Opponents have been teeing off on his four-seam fastball with a .386 AVG, which is problematic since it’s been his primary pitch (59.7-percent usage). Despite these issues, it’s way too early to assess the Stetson alum’s outlook. The bullpen has been pivotal to the Mariners’ early-season success. Leading the way, Kendall Graveman, the team’s best reliever prior to going on the COVID IL. Offseason additions Keynan Middleton, Rafael Montero, Drew Steckenrider, Robert Dugger, J.T. Chargois, and Will Vest  have also made positive contributions. Bullpen xwOBAErik Swanson – .226Héctor Santiago – .240Kendall Graveman – .255Drew Steckenrider – .254Rafael Montero – .281Casey Sadler – .292J.T. Chargois – .299MLB Average (RP’s) – .314Keynan Middleton – .315Daniel Zamora – .315Robert Dugger – .317Anthony Misiewicz – .322Paul Sewald – .344Will Vest – .371Aaron Fletcher – .361Yohan Ramírez – .381Wyatt Mills – .384 Middleton has been a dependable late-inning weapon for Servais. During Graveman’s absence, the Oregonian has been the best choice to close games and pitch in high-leverage situations. Montero isn’t a fan-favorite thanks to the circuitous routes he takes to close out innings. The Dominican Republic native may not be the first choice to close games, but he does have value. The Next 60 The Mariners have a decent record considering the injuries they’ve endured and the team’s lack of depth. Over the next two months, we should expect the big-league roster to continue morphing with an eye toward the future. We’ve already seen the MLB debuts of Trammell, Gilbert, and Kelenic, and the impact of rookies Jake Fraley and Donovan Walton. Plus, it shouldn’t be long before catching prospect Cal Raleigh arrives. And let’s not forget 25-year-old Shed Long Jr., who’s working himself back into form with Class-AAA Tacoma after a lengthy absence due a shin fracture. All of these players – plus White, Sheffield, and Dunn – have a chance to shape the final outcome of the Mariners’ 2021 season and the club’s future. Understandably, if we reach late-summer and at least some of these youngsters haven’t shown signs of appreciable growth as major-leaguers, the rosy outlook of optimistic fans will be tested. Meanwhile, the “Same Ole Mariners” crowd will have something else to chirp about in the offseason. Such is the life of a rebuilding organization and the fan base supporting it. My Oh My…Go!

Everything Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert does this year will receive a great deal of fan and media attention, which is understandable. Both highly-touted rookies represent a potentially bright future for the Seattle Mariners and the team’s exasperated fan base. Still, it’s plausible other, less-familiar names will have a breakout season for the Mariners in 2021. Could Erik Swanson be one of those players? Before this year, Swanson was probably best known to Mariners fans as one of the two players acquired by Seattle with top Yankees pitching prospect Justus Sheffield in the 2018 deal sending James Paxton to New York. The other being minor-leaguer Dom Thompson-Williams. Sheffield remains the more recognizable name in the Emerald City, but Swanson is also making his presence felt this season. The versatile Swanson has served as opener twice for the Mariners, while also pitching in high-leverage situations for manager Scott Servais. Regardless of his role, Swanson is delivering outstanding results in 2021. Swanson’s recent surge in production is making him one of the most dynamic and reliable arms in Servais’ bullpen. The 27-year-old’s strikeout rate and opponent AVG leads the team. Only Seattle’s other breakout reliever – Kendall Graveman – is ahead of the North Dakotan in ERA, WHIP, OBP, SLG, and wOBA. When we look a little closer, it’s easy to see what’s driving the early-season success in Swanson’s conventional numbers. Hitters have been unable to square-up the right-hander’s pitches in 2021, which was a huge problem last year. For those not acquainted with sweet spot percentage (SwSp%), it quantifies how often batted balls have a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Balls within this “sweet spot” range usually lead to highly productive line drives. This year, big-league hitters have a .654 AVG on liners. Fun Fact: Erik Swanson has yet to allow a line drive in 2021. While we’re discussing types of contact, it’s worth noting Swanson’s 16.7-percent pop-up rate is significantly better than last year. Moreover, it’s pacing the Mariners ahead of Keynan Middleton (16.1-percent) and top-15 in the majors among pitchers with 20-plus batted ball events. The current MLB AVG on pop-ups is .019. Not quite as low as a strikeout, but pretty close. I know what some of you are thinking: “it’s early.” Yes, it’s only May and the data is immature – Swanson has faced just 41 hitters. But the product of Iowa Western Community College has been a revelation for the Mariners, which has been particularly important this week with three relievers – including Graveman – on the COVID IL. Is Swanson’s early success sustainable? Time will tell. But a breakout season requires a player delivering tangible, positive improvements in results. The former eighth round pick of the Rangers has checked those blocks thus far. Considering the circumstances, Swanson’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time for the banged-up Mariners’ bullpen. My Oh My….Go!