The Los Angeles Angels have been in the doldrums recently – four straight losing seasons and just one playoff appearance in the Mike Trout era. Enter Joe Maddon, who guided the Cubs to four postseasons in five years and their first World Series win since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Could Maddon lead the Angels to Cubs-like success in 2020?

How much a manager actually influences a baseball team’s win-loss record is a never-ending topic of debate for fans and bloggers. Did the team succeed thanks to their skipper’s field generalship? On the other hand, was it a talented roster? For me, the answer is it’s usually a blend of both.

No manager could’ve made the hapless Detroit Tigers a winner last year. But a skipper could potentially be a positive or negative difference-maker for teams on the fringe of contention. The issue at hand is whether Maddon’s new squad has the talent to contend this year.

Certainly, Angels GM Billy Eppler tried his best to give Maddon more to work with than predecessor Brad Ausmus had in 2019. In the offseason, Eppler signed all-star third baseman Anthony Rendon, thanks to owner Arte Moreno opening his checkbook. The fifth-year GM also managed to add several other recognizable veterans – pitchers Dylan Bundy, Julio Teheran, and Matt Andriese, plus catcher Jason Castro.

So, did Eppler give Maddon the necessary pieces to make the Angels a viable contender in 2020? Let’s walk through the roster the 66-year-old skipper will be working with to determine the answer.

Rotation

Availability was an ongoing problem for the Angels in 2019. No starter remained in the rotation for the entire season with this year’s Opening Day starter, Andrew Heaney, leading the staff with 18 starts and 95.1 innings.

Compounding matters, Angel pitchers made just 22 quality starts – fewest by a team in any season, including campaigns shortened by work stoppage. The league-average for quality starts last season was 51 with the Astros leading MLB with 89. In fact, six pitchers made more quality starts than the Halos.

Pitchers With More Quality Starts Than Angels in 2019

Before Summer Camp began, the projected rotation included Heaney, Shohei Ohtani, Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy, and Griffin Canning. With Ohtani coming off Tommy John surgery, the Angels will employ a six-man rotation with a gaggle of pitchers vying for the final spot. Initially in the mix were Matt Andriese, Félix Peña, Dillon Peters, plus a trio of youngsters – Jaime Barría, Patrick Sandoval, and José Suarez. But things have already changed.

As already noted, injuries played a significant role in the Angels’ rotation woes in 2019. Health issues are once again affecting the staff’s readiness for the upcoming season. 

Teheran reportedly has COVID-19 with mild symptoms, but may return soon. Still, it’s unlikely the 29-year-old is ready for the start of the season. Ironically, availability has been the nine-year veteran’s strength. Since 2013, only four pitchers have made 30-plus starts in every season – Teheran, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, and Mike Leake.

On that note, Suarez is one of several Angels on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons. Whether it’s COVID-related or something else remains unknown. As with Teheran, the delay diminishes the odds of the 22-year-old being ready for Opening Day.

Peters is also on the 10-day IL, but that’s not a surprise as with Teheran and Suarez. The 27-year-old entered camp expecting to miss a few weeks with a lingering oblique strain from Spring Training. Last season, Peters’ ERA and xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent of pitchers facing 250-plus hitters.

A pair of currently healthy pitchers likely to receive scrutiny due to recent arm issues are Heaney and Canning.

Heaney has made 20-plus starts just once in five seasons with Los Angeles when he started 30 contests in 2018. Last year, it was elbow and shoulder issues slowing the southpaw. When available, he was brilliant at times striking out 10-plus hitters in four games. Conversely, the 29-year-old didn’t reach the sixth inning in half of his outings.

After encountering elbow issues last August, Canning received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection into the elbow in March. The 24-year-old resumed throwing a month later and reported to camp proclaiming his readiness for the season. Good news for both pitcher and team, although Ohtani and Heaney had PRP injections before eventually undergoing TJ surgery.

On a more positive note, injuries undermined Bundy’s early career, but he’s averaged 30 starts since 2017. His 4.83 ERA during this period isn’t appealing, yet the 27-year-old’s .320 xwOBA was identical to Jeff Samardzija and Marco Gonzales and slightly better than league-average for starters (.324). This suggests pitching home games in hitter-friendly Camden Yards affected right-hander’s conventional stats.

The short-term loss of Suarez and Peters from early consideration benefits Andriese, who began his career as a starter with the Rays. However, the 30-year-old was an effective full-time reliever with Arizona in 2019. Perhaps Maddon uses the five-year veteran in a variety of roles.

Peña logged 96.1 innings as a starter and reliever before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last August. Considering his .308 xwOBA as a reliever was significantly better than as a starter (.370), Maddon could piggyback the 30-year-old behind the game’s starter early in the season or use him as a swing-man.

Sandoval and Barría, both 23-years-old, scuffled last season. Sandoval was a rookie last year, but Barría made 26 starts with a 3.41 ERA as a freshman in 2018. A return to his rookie form would benefit both Barría and the Halos. 

Bullpen

Last year’s bullpen did a commendable job considering starters rarely delivered quality starts and pitched the fewest total innings in the majors. Considering the potential issues the rotation may be facing this year, expect Maddon to turn to his relief corps early and often.

The main contributors to the bullpen in 2019 were closer Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian, and Noé Ramírez. Robles, Bedrosian, and Ramírez were strong. Buttrey began the season well, but slipped during the second half. All return in 2020.

Heading into camp, the leading relievers are Robles, Buttrey, Bedrosian, Ramírez, Ryan Buchter, Justin Anderson, and Keynan Middleton, who’s returning from TJ surgery. Candidates to fill out the bullpen include Kyle Keller, Luke Bard, Taylor Cole, José Quijada, Parker Markel, Jacob Rhame, and Hector Yan.

The left-handed throwing Quijada is also on the 10-day IL for undisclosed reasons. Perhaps this doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past, but the Venezuelan, along with Buchter and Yan, are the only southpaw relievers on the 40-man roster. Furthermore, Yan hasn’t pitched above Class-A level.

Infield

Many familiar faces return this year with one significant addition. The longest tenured infielder with the team is Albert Pujols, who’ll play either first base or designated hitter depending on Ohtani’s availability. The 40-year-old’s offensive production has been below league-average since 2016. Is it possible Maddon would consider reducing the future Hall of Famer’s playing time? Bench options include Matt Thaiss, who also possesses third base experience, and rookie Jared Walsh.

Fun Fact: Jared Walsh made 12 relief appearances and saved one game for Class-AAA Salt Lake in 2019. The left-handed thrower also pitched in five games for the Angels.

David Fletcher and Tommy La Stella should be the main stakeholders at second base. Last year, Fletcher paced the team in games played (154) and doubles (30) with only Trout having a higher AVG and OBP. Adding to his value, the 25-year-old demonstrated positional versatility with 20-plus starts at second base, shortstop, third base, and left field.

La Stella was enjoying a breakout season in 2019 earning his first All-Star selection. Unfortunately, the 30-year-old suffered a fractured tibia in early-July, which sidelined him until late September. La Stella also has third base experience.

After posting career bests in AVG, OBP, and OPS+ in 2018, injuries limited the offense and availability of Andrelton Simmons last season. The 30-year-old former Gold Glove winner will be looking to rebound during an abbreviated walk year.

Holding down the hot corner is Rendon, who the team inked to a seven-year/$245 million contract. Last season, the NL MVP finalist set career highs in doubles, home runs, AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS+, and WAR.

The Angels reportedly attempted to trade Luis Rengifo to the crosstown rival Dodger in exchange for outfielder Joc Pederson in the offseason. Entering camp, the 23-year-old seemed like logical fit as back-up middle-infielder before disappearing to the 10-day IL recently. During his rookie season in 2019, switch-hitter started 90 games at second base and 11 contests at shortstop.

There’s still a chance the Rengifo is ready for Opening Day. If the team were to look elsewhere for an infield reserve, potential candidates include non-roster invitee Arismendy Alcántara plus minor leaguers Jose Rojas, Jahmai Jones, and Elliot Soto.

Outfield

As with the infield, most of the usual suspects return from 2019 with the notable exception of Kole Calhoun, who signed with Arizona. But there’s an outside chance a highly-touted prospect joins a future Hall of Famer in the outfield this year. 

Lower leg injuries limited left fielder Justin Upton to just 63 games and his worst offensive production since his rookie season in 2007. Upton slashed a lackluster .215/.309/.416 with 12 home runs in 256 plate appearances. The Angels certainly need a bounce back season from the 32-year-old.

Trout, last year’s MVP, returns in center field. The New Jersey native slashed .291/.438/.645 with 45 home runs and led the majors in OPS+ for a third consecutive season. It’s worth noting the 28-year-old has intimated he may not play this year to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure for his wife and unborn child.

In Upton’s absence, Brian Goodwin played a career-high 146 games and delivered personal bests in doubles (29), home runs (17), and OPS+ (109). The 29-year-old will begin the season as the everyday right fielder, although it’s plausible top prospect Jo Adell makes the team and eventually supplants Goodwin.

Still, Adell wasn’t expected to be on the Opening Day roster in March and isn’t on the 40-man roster. The loss of the minor league season may delay the 21-year-old’s MLB debut until next year.

Michael Hermosillo likely serves as the fourth outfielder. The 25-year-old has limited big-league experience since first debuting in 2018, but he can play anywhere in the outfield. It’s reasonable to expect Fletcher to see playing time in the outfield. Former first round pick Taylor Ward may be in the mix for a backup job also.

Designated Hitter

When he’s not pitching, Ohtani will serve as primary designated hitter. Although he couldn’t pitch last season, the 26-year-old delivered 43 extra-base hits, including 18 home runs, in 106 games. He also lead the team with 5 triples and 12 stolen bases. As noted earlier, Pujols likely fills the DH role when Ohtani is on the mound or unavailable due to pitching responsibilities.

Catcher

Free agent addition Jason Castro figures to be the regular catcher with Max Stassi likely spotting Castro. With Minnesota last season, the left-handed hitting Castro platooned with Mitch Garver. One area to watch; Castro’s career .553 OPS against southpaws is much lower than against right-handers (.750). Castro has a reputation as a sound defender and pitch framer.

Stassi is strong defensively, but the right-handed hitter hasn’t enjoyed much success at the plate during a 183-game career spanning seven seasons. The team’s third catcher is Anthony Bemboom. The left-handed hitting Bemboom, who is solid behind the plate, made his MLB debut last year at age-29.

Moving Forward

While the addition of Rendon and Ohtani’s return to the mound provides a boost, starting pitcher health once again looms as a potential showstopper. Perhaps the truncated 60-game season diminishes the importance of a deep rotation. If that’s the case, Maddon may be able to compensate for his staff’s shortcomings by having a quick hook with struggling starters. That’s assuming the bullpen performs as it did in 2019.

Still, the Angels’ chronic difficulties with starting pitcher availability is tough to overlook. For this reason, I believe the AL West is out of reach, even with Maddon at the helm. Maybe the three-time Manager of the Year can elevate to fringe contender status, but it’s tough envisioning the team earning a wild card berth in the highly competitive American League.

This disappoints me since I’d like to see Trout, baseball’s best player, add meaningful October baseball to his already-brimming Hall of Fame résumé.

My Oh My…

(Photo of Joe Maddon – AP)

Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels made upgrading its starting staff a priority last winter. But can Daniels’ revamped rotation propel the Rangers to the postseason?

Daniels was an aggressive shopper in the offseason acquiring former Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber via trade and signing free agent starters Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. Certainly aggressive moves for a club in dire need of rotation help. But most of the Ranger’s regular position players are back this year. Considering the offense’s lackluster performance last season, more of the same from the lineup would be problematic.

Rangers 2019 Offense With MLB Rankings

Last season, offensive mediocrity was a team effort. Just four Rangers with 300-plus plate appearances had an OPS+ over 100 (the league average) – Willie Calhoun, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, and Danny Santana. The only AL clubs with fewer were Cleveland (3), Kansas City (3), and Detroit (1). And how crazy is it that the Texas Rangers, a club known for having a strong offense even when the club has a losing record, would be mid-pack in home runs in the same year MLB sets the all-time record for dingers in a season?

Not All Bad News

It’s not all doom and gloom in Arlington. The Rangers have a new ballpark and Calhoun, Choo, and Santana are still with the team. Calhoun is the most likely of the trio to demonstrate significant improvement in 2020. The 25-year-old has yet to play a full season, although he did manage to hit 21 home runs and .269/.323/.524 in 83 games last year. Amazingly, the Rangers’ projected starting left fielder suffered a broken jaw in Spring Training. Thankfully, he’s healthy and ready to go.

Choo, who will be 38-years-old before Opening Day, hit 24 home runs .265/.371/.455 and swiped 15 bags last year. The left-handed hitter has been remarkably consistent during six seasons with Texas. However, he’s slashed just .225/.323/.334 against southpaws since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. Considering his advancing age, it’s inevitable Father Time catches up with the South Korean. Rangers fans have to be hoping 2020 isn’t the year the team’s designated hitter falls off a cliff, offensively speaking.

For the first time since debuting in 2014, Santana made 500-plus plate appearances and he didn’t waste the opportunity delivering 28 home runs and 23 doubles with 21 stolen bases. Moreover, he demonstrated superb positional versatility playing everywhere in the field with the exception of pitcher and catcher. Still, 2019 was the first year the switch-hitter had an OPS+ above 64 since his rookie campaign. Will the Dominican Republic native repeat his 2019 success or revert to his previous norm?

A pair of newcomers could help elevate the offense. Daniels inked veteran infielder Todd Frazier, who hit 21 home runs and .251/.329/.443 and a 106 OPS+ with the Mets last year. Frazier’s presence in the lineup should help the team plate more runs this season.

Only Detroit’s catchers ranked worse than Texas’ in AVG and OPS. Former Ranger backstop Robinson Chirinos, who returns after a year in Houston, should improve the situation. Although he’s not a top defender, the 35-year-old has averaged 17 home runs and 107 OPS+ since the 2017 season.

A healthy Joey Gallo will be a big help too. After averaging 40 home runs in 2017-18, injuries limited Gallo to 70 games and 297 plate appearances last year. That said; he did achieve career bests in AVG/OBP/SLG and OPS+. Furthermore, only AL MVP Mike Trout (18.3-percent) and Brandon Nimmo (18.1) had a better walk-rate than the 6-foot-5 Nevadan did (17.5).

The Rest Of The Story

Certainly, the additions Frazier and Chirinos and a complete season of Gallo should bolster the Texas lineup. But the team’s infielders could potentially be a drag on run creation. Last season, the unit was one of the least productive in MLB last season with a combined .306 OBP – only the Tigers (.294) and Royals (.291) were worse. Despite this glaring shortcoming, the only upgrade to the infield from outside the organization is Frazier.

Ronald Guzmán started 72 games at first base in 2019 and remains in the mix heading into this year. Guzmán is a solid glove, but has an underwhelming .229/.307/.415 triple-slash in 723 plate appearances since his big-league debut in 2018. Last season, the left-handed hitter struggled greatly against southpaws (.179/.242/.315) compared to right-handers (.246/.330/.451). Perhaps a platoon is an option.

It’s plausible former Yankee Greg Bird becomes a factor at first base. However, Bird, also a lefty hitter, has relatively similar career numbers to Guzmán’s (.211/.301/.424). Therefore, Bird doesn’t necessarily represent an improvement over the 23-year-old Guzmán, who is four years younger.

Frazier could potentially bolster first base production as a platoon partner for Guzmán. While it initially appeared Texas signed the right-handed hitter to stabilize third base, the team could move the 34-year-old across the diamond when the club faces a left-handed starter and have him patrol the hot corner when righties start.

If Frazier were to play first base against southpaws, third base options include Santana, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Nick Solak. We’ve already discussed Santana not having a record of sustained success in the majors. Thanks to their youth, Kiner-Falefa and Solak represent a potential source of new plate production.

Since debuting in the majors in 2018, the 25-year-old Kiner-Falefa has appeared in 176 games with an average-ish .253/.315/.344 slash-line. Still, the right-handed hitter may prove more productive with regular playing time. Even if that’s not the case, his positional versatility provides value. The Hawaiian has started 60-plus career games at catcher and third base, plus 19 contests at second base and two at shortstop.

Also 25-years-old, Solak managed to slash .293/.393/.491 with a 123 OPS+ during a brief audition last year. Granted, the former Louisville Cardinal’s production encompassed just 135 plate appearances. However, if he continues to produce similarly, the club will find a position for the rookie whether it’s third base, second base, or in the outfield.

Certainly, the presence of Frazier and newbies Kiner-Falefa and Solak could fortify the infield’s offensive contributions. But the middle-infield remains an area of concern. Second baseman Rougned Odor and shortstop Elvis Andrus were two of the least productive hitters in MLB last year. Among 135 qualified hitters, Odor ranked 130 in OPS+ with Andrus right behind him at 131. This may be a make or break season for both players.

About That Rotation

Adding recognizable names like Kluber, Gibson, and Lyles to join holdovers Lance Lynn and Mike Minor certainly gives the Rangers a chance to have a dominant starting staff. But it’s unclear what the newcomers will be capable of delivering this season, plus it’s conceivable Lynn and Minor take a step back.

Injuries limited Kluber to just seven starts last year, but he was one of baseball’s premier pitchers during the previous five seasons. During 2014-18, the 34-year-old averaged 32 starts with a 2.85 ERA and won two Cy Young trophies – he also finished top-3 in voting two other times. Which version of Kluber do the Rangers get in 2020?

Intestinal issues affected Gibson’s performance last year, but not his availability. The 32-year-old’s ERA slipped to 4.84, although he did log 160 innings in 29 starts. Just a year earlier, the right-hander set career bests in starts (32), ERA (3.62), and innings pitched (196.2). That’s the pitcher Texas fans have to be hoping to see this year.

Lyles split time between the Pirates and Brewers in 2019 delivering vastly different results with each club. In Pittsburgh, the 29-year-old posted a 5.36 ERA in 17 starts. After a deadline deal sending him to Milwaukee, he was far more impressive – 2.45 ERA in 11 starts. It’s worth noting the South Carolina native has bounced between starting and relieving throughout his nine-year career. His 141 frames last year represented his highest inning total since 2013.

This year’s Opening Day starter, Lance Lynn, and Mike Minor had career seasons in 2019 combining for 416.2 innings (51.6-percent of the rotation’s innings pitched) and a 3.63 ERA with each delivering over 7 bWAR. The only other clubs with two or more 5-plus WAR pitchers were the Nationals (3) and Astros (2). So why my concern with the duo?

Obviously, Lynn and Minor were studs in 2019, but both have a history of arm issues and logged career-high workloads last season. Am I suggesting certain regression? No, but neither Lynn nor Minor have enjoyed sustained excellence over multiple campaigns and both are on the wrong side of 30. For these reasons, feeling a bit apprehensive whether they can repeat last season’s success makes sense – at lease to me it does.

If any of the starting five were to falter, the Rangers may have a problem. The organization’s rotational depth includes an aging veteran and a stable of unproven youngsters. Edinson Vólquez, signed to a minor-league deal, missed 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and pitched just 16 innings last year. Behind the 37-year-old are Kolby Allard, Ariel Jurado, Joe Palumbo, Tyler Phillips and Taylor Hearn. All are 25-or-younger with a combined 33 MLB starts.

And The Bullpen

Last year, the Rangers’ bullpen ranked in the bottom-third of the majors in strikeouts, plus walks and home runs allowed last year. Overall, Texas had 20 relievers throw at least 10 innings – second most in the majors behind the rebuilding Mariners (22). Spoiler alert: this is not a good thing.

Returning at closer is José Leclerc , who started last season in the same role before losing and eventually regaining the job. The list of candidates to join Leclerc is long, although not awe inspiring – Nick Goody, former Mariner Juan Nicasio, Luís Garcia, Rafael Montero, Jesse Chavez, Yohander Méndez, Jimmy Herget, Tim Dillard, Brian Flynn, Jonathan Hernández, Luke Farrell, Derek Law, Cody Allen, Demarcus Evans, Ian Gibaut, and Wei-Chieh Huang. With the exception of Montero, the remaining pitchers didn’t deliver positive results on a consistent basis in 2019.

Health issues have slowed two relievers expected to be in the mix – Joely Rodríguez and Brett Martin. Rodriguez, arguably the best offseason addition to the bullpen, has been dealing with a lat strain since April. The southpaw is throwing again, but not expected to be ready for Opening Day.

Martin, who is diabetic, tested positive for COVID-19 at the onset of camp. The team reports the 25-year-old was exhibiting mild symptoms with no projected return date. Let’s all hope Martin recovers quickly from the virus without further complications.

Looking To September

Despite the good work by Daniels and his staff did to bolster the rotation in the offseason, the Rangers face an uphill battle in the AL West and the AL wild card race. Is it possible Texas contends for the postseason this year? Sure, but a lot has to go right for a club that’s experienced three consecutive losing campaigns.

Offensively, the team needs youngsters like Calhoun, Kiner-Falefa, and Solak to take the next step in their career progression. At the same time, veterans Choo and Frazier must avoid age-related regression, while Odor and Andrus can’t bog down the lineup again with below-average performances. Otherwise, it’s unlikely the Rangers experience meaningful improvement in run production.

For the rotation to have a chance to be special, Lynn and Minor must duplicate their 2019 excellence with Kluber and Gibson resembling their 2018 versions. Furthermore, Leclerc has to be more consistent, while his supporting cast must preserve leads for the closer. Otherwise, the Rangers risk wasting any good effort put forth by the starting staff and the lineup.

Certainly, this year’s truncated 60-game season is like no other before it. Therefore, it’s possible some of the concerns I’ve expressed won’t be as important to the Rangers’ success as I expect they will be. Having said that, I suspect Daniels’ club is more likely to be deadline sellers than late-season contenders in 2020.

My Oh My…

(Photo of Joey Gallo – Getty Images)

 …

With MLB and the MLBPA in armistice for the time being, it appears we’re going to have baseball in 2020. That’s assuming COVID-19 doesn’t once again derail the season, which remains a distinct possibility. For now though, I’m just going to ignore this potential reality and anticipate watching my favorite sport beginning in late July. As a primer, I’m sharing the names of the 10 Seattle Mariners I’m eager to watch this summer.

Before going any further, I acknowledge my list likely differs from yours and that’s okay. Which players we want to see most is a personal choice we make with our hearts and minds. All I’m doing is sharing my thoughts since talking baseball is always fun. Particularly during these trying times when an occasional distraction may be beneficial.

About half the names I’ll be discussing were part of last year’s rookie class, which boasted 27 freshmen last year – most in Mariners franchise history. But a pair of familiar veterans with a long history with the club appear too.


Shed Long Jr. – That Bat

Originally a catching prospect with the Reds, Long started double-digit games at second base and in left field as a rookie with the Mariners in 2019. However, it’s widely believed the 24-year-old supplants Dee Gordon as the team’s everyday second baseman this year.

During his big-league audition, Long slashed .263/.333/.454 with 12 doubles and 5 home runs. He also demonstrated solid command of the strike zone. In 2,000-plus minor-league plate appearances, the left-handed hitter had a 9.8-percent walk-rate and produced a similar number (9.5) with Seattle (League-average was 8.5-percent).

Hitting has never been the question with the Alabama native, only position. If the Mariners opt to keep Gordon at second base, the team will find playing time for Long. After all, the player who almost hit a ball into the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh in the preceding video isn’t riding the pine.

Considering his on-base ability, it’s plausible Long hits leadoff this year. Wouldn’t that be a tremendous achievement for a former catcher drafted in the twelfth round after not receiving any college offers?

I think so. It’s why I’ll be watching and rooting for the Jacksonville High School product.


Yusei Kikuchi – Comeback Season

It was a turbulent rookie season for Kikuchi after a productive eight-year career in Japan. Among starters with 150-plus innings, he had the second-worst ERA (5.48) behind Boston’s Rick Porcello (5.52). Moreover, Kikuchi’s .344 xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent of MLB.

Still, it wasn’t all bad for Kikuchi. He made 11 starts of six-plus innings, including a complete game. Furthermore, the 29-year-old logged the second-highest inning tally (161.2) behind team leader Marco Gonzales (203).

Before the shutdown, Kikuchi was using a streamlined delivery, which should help improve both his command and pitch velocity. Many observers, including me, believe the Japanese import is on the brink of a breakthrough season with the Mariners.


Kyle Lewis – Encore to 2019

It’s easy to root for a player who’s endured so much during his brief career. Just a month after the Mariners selected him in the 2016 MLB draft, Lewis suffered a major knee injury with Seattle’s short-season Class-A affiliate. Then came an arduous rehabilitation plagued by setbacks, which prevented the Mercer alum from participating in a Spring Training until 2019.

Fully healthy for the first time in three years, Lewis began demonstrating why the Mariners selected him with the eleventh overall pick. Despite relatively low power numbers at pitcher-friendly Dickey-Stephens Park, the 24-year-old delivered excellent offensive production with Class-AA Arkansas. Because of his perseverance, hard work, and superb performance, he earned a September call-up to the big-league team.

Although Lewis played in just 18 games last September, his power bat made its presence known. Here’s the right-handed hitter’s first career home run off Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer at T-Mobile Park on September 10.

Lewis would hit a home run in each of his first three major-league games, finishing the season with five doubles and six homers. That said; the Georgian is an unfinished product. His 38.7-percent strikeout was third highest among players with 70-plus September plate appearances behind Eric Hosmer (39.6) and Teoscar Hernández (39.0). It’s worth noting Lewis’ strikeout rate with Arkansas was 29.5-percent.

Then again, it’s important to remember Lewis is still developing after overcoming multiple hurdles to reach his current status – the Mariners’ projected starting right fielder. For this reason, I suspect he’ll continue evolving and improving with Seattle this year and into the future. Sure, there will be struggles along the way. But Lewis has already demonstrated the ability to navigate through choppy seas.


Jake Fraley – Shot At Redemption

The injury bug managed to affect Fraley’s trajectory also. A thumb injury terminated the 25-year-old’s rookie debut after just 12 contests with Seattle and underwhelming production – 6 hits with no walks and 14 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances.

Still, Fraley’s brief stay with the Mariners shouldn’t diminish the shine on a fine minor-league season – his first with Seattle. The former second round pick of the Rays slashed .298/.365/.545 with 22 stolen bases, 27 doubles, and 19 home runs during 427 combined plate appearances with Arkansas and Class-AAA Tacoma.

As with Lewis, Fraley projects to be in the Mariners’ starting outfield along with Mallex Smith, who came over from Tampa Bay with the 24-year-old in a deal shipping Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor-leaguer Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays.

Considering his strong 2019 minor-league performance, athleticism, and ability to play all outfield positions, Fraley will have a great opportunity to prove he deserves to be part of Seattle’s long-term outfield plans. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds for him.


Evan White – New Kid in Town

Mariners management certainly believes in White. In the offseason, the team agreed to a six-year/$24 million extension with the 24-year-old despite the fact he has just four games of AAA experience (in 2018). Oh yeah, barring unforeseen circumstances, he’ll be Seattle’s Opening Day first baseman.

To date, White hasn’t demonstrated the power bat typically associated with the first basemen. However, evaluators believe his work in the field has Gold Glove potential. It’s plausible a lack of power affects the former Kentucky Wildcat’s long-term value at first base. However, as we noted last November, some first basemen have flourished with relatively low power numbers.

Despite the concerns raised about White’s hitting by respected prospect evaluators, including Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Mariners’ 2017 first round pick actually performs during the upcoming season.


Justus Sheffield – Prime Time Ready

The Tennessee native joined the Mariners via the James Paxton trade with the Yankees just as the club entered its “step back” phase in late 2018. At the beginning of Spring Training last year, it appeared Sheffield would be ready for Seattle’s starting rotation by the All-Star break. Unfortunately, the southpaw struggled so much with Tacoma the organization re-assigned him to Double-A.

Sheffield would rediscover himself with Arkansas and subsequently joined Seattle in late August. Although he absorbed a few punches during his brief audition in the Emerald City, the 24-year-old flashed the stuff that made him a top-100 prospect. Now, the Tullahoma High School product begins the season on the big-league pitching staff with a chance to prove he deserves to be a permanent fixture in the rotation.


Taijuan Walker – Welcome Home

Walker returns to the club that selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft and subsequently debuted with as a 21-year-old. He’d pitch four seasons with the Mariners before a 2016 Thanksgiving Eve trade shipped him and Ketel Marte to Arizona for Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and Zac Curtis.

Now 27-years-old and coming off Tommy John surgery, Walker returns home on a one-year deal with the Mariners for a chance to re-establish himself. It’s likely the team places strict innings limitations on the Yucaipa High School alum, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t still be a solid contributor to a major-league rotation.

Although Walker made his first MLB appearance in 2013, his arm has relatively low mileage on it – 528.1 innings and 97 games, including 94 starts. Perhaps the truncated 2020 season doesn’t permit the 6-foot-4 right-hander enough time to demonstrate his true worth. Nevertheless, I’ll watching and rooting for him to prove he’s back.


J.P. Crawford – SS of the Future

During Spring Training last year, Mariners made the decision to assign the newly acquired Crawford to the minors to give him more time to develop. By May, the 25-year-old joined Seattle delivering excellent production through the All-Star break – .277/.347/.466 with 12 doubles in 39 games. Unfortunately, he struggled afterwards hitting just .194/.291/.306 in 51 contests and then suffered a late-season hamstring injury.

Heading into the upcoming season, Crawford is the Mariners’ starting shortstop. While questions linger about the bat, the former first round pick of the Phillies demonstrated his defensive prowess as the 2019 season progressed. During the Black Lives in Baseball presentation hosted by broadcaster Dave Sims, the Californian credited infield coach Perry Hill for saving his career because he felt lost in the field when he joined the Mariners.

For proof of how the work put in by teacher and pupil paid off, check out the video of this play MLB.com ranked eighth best in the majors last year.

Considering the short duration of the 2020 season, whether Crawford is Seattle’s shortstop of the future may be a question that remains unanswered until next year. Having said that, the club is prepared to give the Lakewood High School product every opportunity to seize the job.


Kyle Seager – The Old Salt

Last year, a Spring Training injury led to Seager appearing in less than 154 games for the first time since his rookie season in 2011. Upon returning in May, the former North Carolina Tar Heel initially scuffled before breaking out after the All-Star game with a .260/.339/.524 production line and 17 home runs. Still, it’s worth noting Seager finished with a paltry .675 OPS last September.

Whether Seager can repeat his strong second half is a worthwhile reason to keep my eye on the former All-Star and Gold Glover. Having said that, his veteran presence also matters this year. The departure of Félix Hernández in the offseason makes the 32-year-old the longest-tenured Mariner. With the club expected to have one of the youngest rosters in the majors during 2020-21, Seager’s strong work ethic and leadership make him an ideal role model for the kids.


Logan Gilbert – The Next Big Thing

Okay, I realize it’s quite possible Gilbert doesn’t pitch for the Mariners this season. After all, the 23-year-old hasn’t pitched above AA-level and would’ve began the 2020 campaign in the minors had the shutdown not occurred. Still, GM Jerry Dipoto suggested during the offseason the right-hander could debut in the majors by mid-season.

Perhaps the Mariners accelerate Gilbert’s arrival, if he demonstrates enough growth with the taxi squad to merit a big-league promotion. Among Seattle’s top prospects not named Evan White, Gilbert seems best positioned to make such a jump. On the other hand, it’s plausible the front office determines it can’t justify starting his service time clock during an abbreviated season.

Then again, seeing Gilbert in pitching in the majors this year would be fun. Especially when you consider the two most notable pitcher to attend his alma mater, Stetson – Cy Young winners Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber.

My Oh My…

Photo of Jake Fraley and Shed Long – Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

 …

When Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto joined the team in September 2015, he had two seemingly irreconcilable tasks. Keep an aging, veteran roster competitive; reconstitute the least productive farm system in MLB. The Mariners have since abandoned short-term postseason aspirations choosing to focus on building something Seattle baseball fans haven’t witnessed in nearly two decades – a truly competitive ball club.

Since deciding to “step back” from competing in late 2018, the Mariners organization has attempted to accelerate its turnaround by adding to a growing base of young, controllable talent. Earlier this month, Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter had another opportunity to nudge the club a little closer to relevance via the MLB Amateur Draft. This year’s draft was like no other before it, undertaken during a global pandemic and truncated to just five rounds.

2020 Mariners Draft Class

Seattle’s draft class boasted three pitchers and three positions players, all collegians. With the sixth overall pick, the team selected pitcher Emerson Hancock from Georgia, viewed by some evaluators as the best arm in the draft prior to the college season. Afterwards, Hunter shared the organization’s expectations for the right-hander with the media, including Brandon Gustafson of 710 ESPN Seattle.

“His combination of stuff, strike-throwing and size profiles him as a true top-of-the-rotation starter.” – Mariners Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter

Despite the unique circumstances, Seattle’s early round approach appears reminiscent to prior drafts since Dipoto’s late-2015 arrival.

The Pitching Store

Since 2016, the Mariners have selected at least three pitchers during the first five rounds on four occasions. Recent early-round selections include Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson, and Isaiah Campbell – all hail from the collegiate level.

By contrast, Seattle selected three pitchers in rounds 1-5 of the same draft just once during the stint of Dipoto’s predecessor – Jack Zduriencik. In fact, JeDi and crew have already selected more pitchers (15) in the first five rounds than Jack’s squad did (13) with the benefit of two extra drafts.

Jack v JeDi Rounds 1-5

Clearly, the Mariners’ current front office is making the acquisition of premium, controllable starting pitching a top priority. Considering the rareness of such talent, this strategy makes sense – at least to me it does.

The majority of the top arms in the majors were early round picks. Sure, there are exceptions such as 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (seventh round) and 2018-19 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom (ninth). But consider this; among the 50 drafted pitchers with the highest bWAR since 2017, the vast majority (39) were rounds 1-5 selections with the first round being the best opportunity to land top-notch pitching talent.

Rounds Top-50 Pitchers of 2017-19 Were Selected

The scarcity of elite starting pitchers is an ever-present challenge every team encounters when attempting to build a contending roster. Usually, buyers overpay in the trade or free agent markets to land a top-of-the-rotation arm. Dipoto refers to this marketplace as “the pitching store.” It’s a phrase that resonates with me.

The first time I heard Dipoto use the pitching store analogy was during an episode of Danny, Dave, and Moore in July 2017. The fifth-year GM noted at the 6:50 mark of the interview that top pitchers are most often available via trade in July and December with prices soaring prior to the July 31 trade deadline. That brings us back to the draft.

With the draft, Dipoto and his staff are adding and developing talented arms other than the ones found in the pitching store. Sure, the likelihood of finding a future ace via the draft isn’t as certain as signing a stud free agent like Gerrit Cole or trading for Justin Verlander. Then again, the cost of building a pitching staff with top draft picks is more palatable than paying top dollar or parting with prospects at the pitching store.

Making Up For Lost Time

It’s not just the Mariners’ recent emphasis on pitching setting the organization apart from the previous regime or the current competition. During the JeDi era, Seattle has selected just two high school players in rounds 1-5 – Joe Rizzo and Sam Carlson.

High School Seniors Selected In Rounds 1-5 Since 2016

This winter, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill rated Rizzo outside of its Top-50 prospects in the organization. Meanwhile, Carlson projected to return this spring after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2018. Despite his prolonged absence, the 21-year-old ranked thirteenth in Churchill’s rankings.

Now, some of you may point out several of baseball’s most recognizable stars were high school draftees – Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw. True, but the gestation period for a college player tends to be several years shorter than for high schoolers. Perhaps this reality matters to an organization, like the Mariners, trying to reduce the time it takes to become relevant again.

To make up for lost time and resources squandered by previous leadership, Dipoto didn’t simply rely upon Seattle’s draft picks to elevate his system and organization. The New Jersey native did what he’s best known for doing – wheeling and dealing. Specifically, for former high-round picks of other clubs. So far, the results are promising.

The Mariners’ legion of evaluators and teachers have done a superb job of identifying and developing homegrown amateur talent. However, several of the organization’s most prominent youngsters were high round picks acquired via JeDi player swaps.

Early Picks Added Via Trade During Step Back

In a 2018 deal with the Mets, the Mariners acquired their top prospect – Jarred Kelenic – plus pitcher Justin Dunn, who has a shot of being in the starting rotation this year. Both Kelenic and Dunn were first round selections by New York.

Also coming from the Big Apple – Justus Sheffield. The southpaw was the Mariner’s key pick-up in the trade sending James Paxton to the Yankees. Sheffield was a first round pick out of high school by Cleveland in 2014, but poised to reach the majors when Seattle acquired him.

Acquired with Sheffield, minor league outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams and right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson. Churchill projected Thompson-Williams, the Yankees’ fifth round pick in 2016, would begin 2020 with Class-AA Arkansas before the COVID-19 shutdown. The right-handed Swanson was an eighth rounder by Texas in 2014 and projects to compete for a bullpen spot with the Mariners this year.

Jake Fraley, selected in the second round by the Rays four years ago, came to the Emerald City with Mallex Smith in the deal sending Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to Tampa Bay. This winter, Prospect Insider rated Fraley as a top-20 prospect in the organization. The former LSU Tiger has a realistic shot at beginning this season as an everyday corner outfielder.

Another high-round step-back acquisition in 2018 was J.P. Crawford from the Phillies. Crawford was Philadelphia’s first round selection as a high school senior in 2013. The Mariners intend to give the 25-year-old every opportunity to prove he’s Seattle’s shortstop of the future.

More recently, Dipoto acquired former Rockies third-rounder Tom Murphy from the Giants after San Francisco designated Murphy for assignment in March 2019. The Buffalo alum doesn’t fit into the prospect category, but he did have a breakout campaign with the Mariners. Now, he’s the club’s number-one catcher.

A Familiar Practice

It’s worth noting Dipoto has been scooping up the high-round talent of other clubs long before the Mariners’ rebuild began. Other former first rounders acquired by the Virginia Commonwealth alum include two players initially expected to be key cogs on the Mariners’ 2020 roster – Mitch Haniger (2012) and Marco Gonzales (2013).

Unfortunately, Haniger suffered rehab setbacks this winter, which likely jeopardizes his 2020 season. On the other hand, Gonzales projects to be Seattle’s Opening Day starter for a second consecutive year.

Now, to be clear, not every former high round pick grabbed by Dipoto has proven productive or even as promising as the players we’ve discussed thus far. Third rounders Ryon Healy and Max Povse, plus Dillon Overton (second), and Adrian Sampson (fifth) didn’t pan out for various reasons. Furthermore, the jury remains out on former Padres fifth round pick Mallex Smith, who’s at a crossroads with the Mariners.

The future of Cubs former second-round pick Daniel Vogelbach, acquired in 2016, is also uncertain. Vogelbach emerged as Seattle’s regular designated hitter last year. Nevertheless, Seattle’s lone 2019 All-Star suffered a horrible second-half swoon clouding his outlook with the team.

And who can forget the deal landing Dodgers former first round pick Zach Lee in June 2016? Certainly not Seattle fans. To get the right-handed pitcher no longer with the Mariners organization, Dipoto dispatched shortstop Chris Taylor, an important contributor to Los Angeles reaching the 2017-18 World Series.

Despite the fan angst created by dealing Taylor, Dipoto’s overall success from snagging other organizations’ former high picks appears to be an effective way to accelerate his club’s return to relevance. The combination of JeDi’s dealing with Hunter’s recent early-round selections and recent world events may deliver an opportunity to do something unique in 2020 – a sneak peek at the future.

Trying Times, Unique Opportunities

The abbreviated 60-game season due to the COVID-19 outbreak is like no other in MLB history. To address the challenge of navigating through a short season, clubs will have 30-man taxi squads to manage pitcher workloads and as insurance for unplanned losses due to injury or the virus. This provides the Mariners with a potential opportunity to accelerate the arrival of their top minor leaguers.

Just today, Mariners CEO John Stanton appeared on 710 ESPN Seattle to discuss the upcoming season and his expectations. During his conversation with John Clayton, Stanton stated he anticipates several of his team’s top prospects, including the recently drafted Hancock, will be part of the team’s 30-man taxi squad assigned to an alternate site – probably Cheney Field in Tacoma.

How the Mariners actually utilize their cadre of young prospects in 2020 likely depends on decisions made by Stanton’s baseball people and the virus. Still, even the notion of seeing some of the team’s best and brightest in big-league action this year is an exciting one in an otherwise dreary sports year.

Realistically, it may be quite some time before we actually know the long-term value of Kelenic, Dunn, Sheffield, Crawford, Fraley, Smith, Vogelbach, and even Murphy. Still, the Mariners are getting closer to being relevant again with a much brighter future than Seattle fans have seen in nearly two decades. That’s a good news story we can use during these trying times.

All we need now are real games for the kids to play in.

My Oh My…

Featured Photo By John Froschauer/AP

When the Seattle Mariners acquired Mallex Smith, the team was expecting to get the player coming off a breakout 2018 with the Tampa Bay Rays. But after a disappointing season in Seattle, Smith is now at a crossroads in his Mariners career.

Smith’s Emerald City debut fell well below the high expectations expressed by Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto to media members, including Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, when the team acquired Smith in November 2018.

“His [Smith’s] combination of speed, base running impact, defense, and on-base abilities are unique in today’s game. We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come.” – Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto

Essentially, Dipoto was seeking a dynamic table-setter capable of being a disruptive force on the base paths. That’s what Smith was in Tampa Bay – not so much with the Mariners.

  Mallex Smith’s 2018-19 Stats

Smith’s problems began when an elbow injury sidelined him for most of Spring Training. Matters only worsened once the regular season got underway. Through the end of April, he was scuffling at the plate and struggling to reign in routine fly balls in center field. So much so, management sent the Florida native to Class-AAA Tacoma to regain the mojo missing from his bat and glove.

Upon returning in mid-May, Smith’s numbers at the plate were better than prior to his stay in Tacoma. So was his defense. Unfortunately, offensive production remained below average.

Stat Line Pre/Post Tacoma

There were glimpses of the on-base abilities Dipoto touted. But June and August were the only months Smith’s on-base percentage (OBP) bettered the league average. Compounding matters, August’s encore was a dreadful .232 OBP in September.

The inconsistency demonstrated from one season to the next, and even during the 2019 campaign, heightens uncertainty regarding Smith and his role with the Mariners moving forward. Adding to the intrigue, the organization has a cadre of outfield prospects hurtling towards the majors, who seemingly represent the future for the organization – Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley, Braden Bishop, Jarred Kelenic, and Julio Rodriguez.

Could time be running out for Smith in Seattle? It certainly would seem so if he doesn’t recapture the excellence demonstrated with the Rays in 2018.

With this in mind, we should delve into deteriorating metrics, which may help give explanation to Smith’s sub-optimal 2019 stat line. Before turning our attention to variations between the last two seasons, let’s discuss a constant likely to remain unchanged – average exit velocity.

During 2018-19, Smith’s exit velocity averaged 84-MPH, which placed him in the lower 4-percent of MLB both years. A low average exit velocity adds a layer of difficulty to the already demanding task of being a productive big-league hitter.

Velocity Matters

Intuitively, we know mashing the baseball is every hitter’s goal, while avoiding such contact the aim of pitchers. In the following illustration, we see the effect of exit velocity on AVG and weighted on-base average (wOBA). Weighted OBA is similar to OBP, but gives batters additional credit for extra-base hits over singles and walks.

Our chart illustrates both AVG and wOBA climb as exit velocity increases with wOBA skyrocketing as balls approach 100-MPH. This makes sense – 84.2-percent of all home runs hit in 2019 topped 100-MPH.

Relationship Between Exit Velo & Offense

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So how does any of this apply to Smith, who managed to have a breakout performance season in 2018 with a low exit velo?

Recent history suggests hitters with low exit velocities may struggle with sustaining on-base success over multiple campaigns. This was certainly true for the Mariners’ center fielder last year after a breakout performance with Tampa Bay the season prior.

Twelve players, including Smith and teammate Dee Gordon, put 300-plus balls in play in 2019 with an average exit velocity under 85-MPH. Only half had at least a league-average OBP (.327) – Hanser Alberto (.327), David Fletcher (.350), Eric Sogard (.353), Kevin Newman (.353), and Kolten Wong (.361).

Within the above-average subset, only Wong has been above league-average for OBP in consecutive seasons (2015-19). It’s worth noting 2019 was the first full season for Alberto, Newman, and Fletcher. Furthermore, Sogard hadn’t appeared in 100-plus games in a season prior to last year since 2015.

When we expand our search to the entire STATCAST era, we find similar results. Since 2015, fifteen active players have put over 1,200 balls in play with an average exit velocity under 85-MPH. Less than half maintained an OBP above the league-average (.321) for this six-year period – Gordon, César Hernández, Delino DeShields, Miguel Rojas, Jon Jay, and Ender Inciarte. Only Jay, Inciarte, and Hernández were above league-average OBP in consecutive seasons they had at least 300 plate appearances.

Perhaps Alberto, Newman, and Fletcher join Wong by demonstrating consistent on-base abilities over an extended period. However, as a group, hitters with a lower exit velocity tend to be less productive than their hard-hitting counterparts. The following illustrates the average production for the 30 players with highest and lowest exit velocities last year.

Top-30 vs Bottom-30 In Average Exit Velo

The batters hitting the ball harder struck out more frequently, but drew walks at a higher rate than their softer-hitting peers did. Pitchers being more cautious with hitters possessing explosive bats likely contributed to the higher walk rates.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact average exit velocity isn’t a goal to pursue. Rather, it’s a statistical consequence of pitch velocity, bat speed, power, and swing mechanics. Realistically, hitting a baseball hard is a skill; it inevitably factors into a hitter’s ultimate value. Lower velo hitters can compensate by making consistent contact at a high rate since fewer of their balls will be of the well-struck variety. A willingness to draw walks doesn’t hurt either.

This notion seems particularly vital to speedsters like Smith, who led the majors with 46 stolen base last year. As we all know, players can’t swipe bags until they reach first base. On that thought, let’s pivot to several indicators illustrating where the left-handed hitter regressed in terms of quantity of contact.

Putting Bat To Ball

The following table lists Smith’s strikeout, walk, and swing rates. Also included, the percent of swings creating balls in play (BIP%). When we compare 2019 to his final season in Tampa Bay, it’s obvious why batting average (AVG) and on-base percentage (OBP) plummeted.

Although Smith swung at balls at a slightly lower rate last season, he struck out significantly more often and walked a little less. The Santa Fe Community College product’s 3.7-percent decline in BIP% may not sound like much, but consider this. A repeat of the 38.8 BIP% from 2018 with Seattle puts another 40 balls in play.

Mallex Smith’s BB & SO Rates

Without doubt, improving his strikeout rate leads to more on-base opportunities for Smith. As already noted, accruing additional free passes benefits the disruptive runner with the eighth best average sprint speed (29.4 ft/sec) in 2019.

While Smith put bat to ball less often in 2019, he also dealt with a decline in meaningful contact. Therefore, let’s shift our attention to quality of contact categories developed by Baseball Savant. Doing so will prep us for a conversation regarding the type of batted balls best suited to help the 2019 stolen base king return to being a productive hitter.

Quality Contact

STATCAST separates quality of contact into six categories. Three favor hitters: Barrels, Solid Contact, and Flares/Burners. Pitchers prefer the remaining types of poor contact: Weak, Under, and Topped. The following illustrates the percentage of each during 2019, plus their average exit velocity (EV), AVG, and wOBA.

STATCAST Quality of Contact Categories

As you can see, the best struck balls – barrels, solid contact, flares/burners – create the highest probability of run production. All three have an average exit velocity over 90-MPH; the less desirable outcomes fall under 86-MPH.

According to STATCAST, the range for a “barreled” ball begins at an exit velocity of at least 98-MPH and a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. As exit velocity increases, that range of launch angles expands. To be clear, even hitters with a low average exit velocity barrel balls. They just don’t so very often.

In Smith’s case, he had a 2.2-percent barrel rate in 2019, placing him in the bottom 6-percent of the majors. Overall, he barreled eight balls last year – five produced home runs, another a double. For context, Jorge Soler led the majors with 70 barrels in 2019. Right behind Soler with 66 were Mike Trout, Pete Alonso, and Ronald Acuña Jr.

Here’s one of Smith barreled homers (105.7-MPH exit velocity).

 

It’s worth noting not all barreled balls lead to hits. But the odds heavily favor the batter when he barrels the ball. Frequently making this kind of contact is a characteristic shared by many of baseball’s best hitters.

Two of Smith’s barrels resulted in outs thanks to outstanding plays by defensive stalwarts Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier. Here’s Bradley’s grab made at T-Mobile Park during the first series of the 2019 season.

 

Solid contact just misses the launch angle/exit velocity range of barrels, but produces excellent results also. Barreled balls produced 81.7-percent of all home runs hit last season; slightly over 12-percent of the solid contact variety were four-baggers.

The last optimal category for run production – flares and burners – occurs when the hitter misses the launch angle or exit velocity necessary for barrels or solid contact. Flares generally have lower exit velocities and higher launch angles.

When it comes to flares, think of a Texas Leaguer dropping between an infielder and outfielder for a hit. Although flares create positive outcomes, batters don’t go to the plate attempting to hit them. Here’s a Smith flare off Angels lefty José Suarez.

 

Burners have higher exit velocities and lower launch angles and are normally associated with hard-hit grounders. Yet, only a third of burners were ground balls; the rest were line drives. Here’s an example one such ball off Smith’s bat during the last weekend of the 2019 campaign.

 

STATCAST defines “weak” contact as balls with an exit velocity under 60-MPH. Meanwhile, “topped” balls typically lead to unproductive grounders. Balls hit “under” create fly balls with predominantly poor results, although 394 home runs fell into this category in 2019.

Last season, Smith got under 90 balls, producing 87 outs and three hits. Thanks to his fleet feet and heads up base running, he converted two into a double and triple. The third was a home run with a 90.3-MPH exit velocity and 31.6 launch angle.

That said, this is a more representative outcome for a ball Smith got under.

 

With the explanations behind us, we can now consider how quality of contact related to Smith’s production in 2018-19. To simplify the process, I’ve combined the three categories favoring pitchers into one – “poor.”

Mallex Smith’s Quality of Contact Rates

As you can see, Smith experienced a small uptick in barrels last year; solid contact essentially remained the same. Still, it’s important to remember both rates placed in the bottom 7-percent of MLB in 2018-19.

The significant shifts transpired in the other categories. At the crux of Smith’s issues last season – a 6.4-percent decline in flares and burners with a comparable increase in poor contact. Reversing these trends create a more productive contributor in the Mariners’ lineup. But what exactly does “more flares and burners” mean to the socially distanced fan watching on TV?

More Line Drives!

When we separate the various type of hits into the quality categories STATCAST uses, we see the majority of flares and burners resulted in line drives. Finishing a distant second are ground balls, which favor Smith more than slower runners.

% Of MLB Hits Based On Quality Of Contact

The greatest overall success comes by producing line drives, but all line drives aren’t created equal. As the preceding table illustrates, 15.9-percent of all liners fell into the poorly hit category. Unfortunately, Smith was again on the wrong side of the league-average.

STATCAST branded a quarter of Smith’s 2019 line drives as poor contact. That’s over 10-percent higher than the year prior. His sub-optimal liners produced a .190 AVG in 2019. Conversely, he hit .836 on line drives falling into the flare/burner category.

Source Of Mallex Smith Line Drives (2018 v 2019)

It gets worse. The types of contact Smith made last year was also red flag worthy. His ground ball rate remained stable. However, line drives, fly balls, and pop ups all trended in the wrong direction. Essentially, the four-year major leaguer was hitting hit line drives at a lower rate with fewer considered well struck.

It’s worth noting pop ups are nearly as useful to pitchers as strikeouts. Therefore, increased pop ups rates are never a good thing for hitters – ever.

Mallex Smith’s Batted Ball Percentages

Some fans mistakenly believe speedy ballplayers like Smith intentionally try to hit ground balls. This isn’t true.

Yes, Smith is one of only 13 players with 1,000-plus plate appearances and ground ball rate over 50-percent since 2018. Plus, he’s able to leg out more grounders than slower his counterparts. But the Floridian’s best results were realized when the baseball wasn’t on the ground.

Although Smith doesn’t try to hit ground balls, I suspect he’d prefer avoiding his kryptonite – fly balls. As we’ve seen, he like other major leaguers, is most successful when hitting line drives. However, his difficulties with fly balls runs counter to MLB norms. This is likely attributable to a low average exit velocity.

Mallex Smith’s AVG On Batted Balls

Hitters with the highest average exit velocities – Nelson Cruz, Franmil Reyes, Jorge Soler, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, Pete Alonso – can enjoy success despite higher fly ball rates. Conversely, only six of 175 players putting 300-plus balls in play last year had a lower AVG on fly balls than Smith and his 84.3-MPH average exit velocity.

Looking Forward

Perhaps Smith simply makes the necessary adjustments to convert useless fly balls and pop ups into productive line drives. Sounds easy, but of course it isn’t. Then again, he’s just 27-years-old and previously excelled with a low average exit velocity. There’s no reason to believe he can’t repeat that success whenever the next season begins.

Still, the upcoming season is paramount to Smith’s status with the Mariners. He’ll have to demonstrate he’s the player Dipoto envisioned or risk being squeezed out sooner than later by those young outfielders. On that note, consider JeDi’s comments relayed to Mariners MLB beat writer Greg Johns in November. The fifth-year GM seemingly struck a different tone than a year prior.

“One of the great benefits with Mallex is that he can play all three outfield positions,” said Dipoto. “We needed somebody to play right field, he played right. We need him to play left, he can play left. And that may be the role that he winds up filling here now as we are developing a good deal of depth [in the outfield].” – Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto

Perhaps Dipoto now sees Smith eventually morphing into a fourth outfielder with Seattle or as a trade chip to continue the team’s rebuild. Regardless of the eventual JeDi plan, a reversion to his 2018 form benefits both Smith and the Mariners.

Hopefully, we get to watch Smith redeem himself with his Mariners teammates this summer. It would be the kind of good news story we all could use right now.

My Oh My….

 

 

Featured Photo By Elaine Thompson / AP

During the 1995-96 MLB Amateur Drafts, the Mariners selected an outfielder in the late rounds, who rebuffed the team each time preferring to remain in school. The player eventually signed with the Rockies, played 14 seasons in the majors, and recorded a career .295 AVG with 614 stolen bases. His name was Juan Pierre.

I know what some of you are thinking. The Mariners have an inauspicious draft history; the team missing on Pierre doesn’t surprise you. Yes, the draft hasn’t been an organizational strength for much of its existence. But criticism isn’t warranted in this particular situation.

It’s not as if Seattle wasted an early round pick on Pierre, who likely believed playing college ball would improve his draft stock. Besides, many great players, even Hall of Famers, have rejected clubs to remain in school. Naturally, this reality energizes the daydreams of baseball fans everywhere.

What if those players didn’t reject their favorite team?

It’s a fun question worth exploring. Let’s discuss a great player each team failed to sign after drafting them.


Angels – Buster Posey

Posey was a fiftieth round pick of the Angels, but chose to attend Florida State. The Giants later selected him with the fifth overall pick in 2008. In 11 seasons, the former Seminole has been an MVP and Rookie of the Year, a batting champion, winner of four Silver Sluggers Awards, and a Gold Glover.

Had Posey become an Angel, he’d be teammates with Mike Trout – drafted a year later. Perhaps combining these two great players results in the Halos making more than one postseason appearance during the Trout era.


Astros – Jason Varitek

Before leading the Red Sox to championships, Varitek was a late pick of Houston. Minnesota later selected him in the first round, but he remained at Georgia Tech another year before signing with Seattle. The Mariners subsequently shipped the Michigan native to Beantown where he’d become team captain, an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and a Gold Glove catcher.

When Varitek became a regular, the Astros were competitive and reached the World Series in 2005. Perhaps his presence helps Houston win a title, although the team did have Gold Glove backstop Brad Ausmus.


Athletics – Aaron Judge

Judge chose Fresno State over being Oakland’s thirty-first round pick in 2010. Wise move for the Californian, who’d later be a Yankees first rounder. In the Bronx, he’s been Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Star. Since 2017, the 28-year-old has averaged 35 home runs and .279/.401/.572.

Fans of AL West rivals may not agree, but Judge anchoring an already potent lineup boasting Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, and Khris Davis would be fun to watch.


Blue Jays – Kris Bryant

The same year Oakland drafted Judge, Toronto also selected Bryant late. The Cubs subsequently chose him with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft. The Las Vegas, Nevada native has since earned Rookie of the Year and MVP honors.

An All-Star third baseman, Bryant has double-digit starts in the outfield and first base. His versatility would’ve proven beneficial had he signed with Toronto. When the San Diego alum debuted in 2015, Josh Donaldson was AL MVP while patrolling the hot corner. Currently, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the team’s third baseman.


Braves – Randy Johnson

Atlanta made Johnson a fourth round pick, but he preferred being a USC Trojan. Montreal subsequently signed the 6-foot-10 left-hander who’d pitch 22 years, win five Cy Young Awards, and log 4,875 strikeouts – second only to Nolan Ryan (5,714).

When Johnson rose to prominence, the Braves’ rotation boasted future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. Although the team reached the NLCS eight times in the Nineties, it won just one World Series. Perhaps the Big Unit rewrites that history.


Brewers – Jason Giambi

Apparently, Long Beach State was more appealing than Milwaukee to Giambi. With Oakland, he was 2000 AL MVP and runner-up a year later. The five-time All-Star also led the league in OBP three times and slugged 440 home runs in 20 seasons.

The Brewers were irrelevant during Giambi’s Oakland stint, plus the team had Richie Sexson at first base. Then again, no Giambi on the A’s possibly alters the outcome of the 2000 AL West division race when Oakland edged out Seattle by a half game.


Cardinals – Max Scherzer

The three-time Cy Young Award winner is my choice over Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who was a great player. But Scherzer is more dominant. Since 2013, his 46.7 bWAR is best among pitchers outpacing Clayton Kershaw (40.3), Chris Sale (36.2), and Justin Verlander (35.7). The 35-year-old’s 29-percent strikeout rate is highest all-time among pitchers with 2,000-plus innings pitched.

The Cardinals are perennial contenders reaching three NLCS and a World Series during Scherzer’s best years. Perhaps he propels his hometown team to a twelfth championship.


Cubs – Mark Langston

Langston opted for San Jose State over the Cubs and later became the second round pick of the fledgling Mariners. In 16 seasons, the southpaw was 1984 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up to teammate Alvin Davis, a four-time All-Star, and a Gold Glove defender seven times.

During Langston’s rookie year, the Cubs fell to the Padres in the NLCS. Adding him to a rotation already boasting Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley and 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe potentially helps the North Siders reach the Fall Classic.


Diamondbacks – Ian Kinsler

The Diamondbacks were fond of Kinsler, who they drafted twice before the Rangers signed him. For a decade, the Arizona native was one of the best second basemen in the majors with Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, and Chase Utley. His 55.2 career bWAR ranks nineteenth all-time among second basemen; his 257 home runs eighth best.

If Kinsler had signed with Arizona, he may have become one of the best Diamondbacks ever. The former Missouri Tiger’s bWAR, home run, doubles, and stolen bases with Texas would rank top-3 in the D-Backs’ record book.


Dodgers – Tom Seaver

During his first decade in MLB, Seaver was Rookie of the Year, a three-time Cy Young winner, and led the Mets to a World Series title. When elected to the Hall of Fame, Tom Terrific received the highest vote tally ever recorded.

Had Seaver become a Dodger, he replaces the retiring Sandy Koufax. That said; the team already had Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Don Sutton, plus Claude Osteen and Bill Singer. Not landing the USC product would’ve crushed the Mets – he’s the best player in franchise history.


Giants – Barry Bonds

Although he eventually reached San Francisco, the son of Bobby Bonds chose Arizona State over Dad’s former team in 1982. Pittsburgh later selected him sixth overall. When Barry’s illustrious career ended in 2007, the seven-time MVP held the all-time records for home runs and walks.

If you apply Bonds career stats to the Giants’ record books, he’s the franchise leader in stolen bases and overtakes Willie Mays for top spot in doubles, home runs, and bWAR. The Pirates reached three consecutive NLCS with Bonds. This doesn’t happen without him.


Indians – Tim Lincecum

The Bellevue, Washington native chose his hometown college over the Tribe. Lincecum would go on to win consecutive NL Cy Young Awards with San Francisco in 2008-09. He’d also help the Giants win three World Series trophies in five years.

Lincecum’s presence likely doesn’t change the fact the Indians regressed after losing the 2007 ALCS. On the other hand, the Giants were on the rise. Perhaps the team doesn’t reach the top without the former Washington Husky or at least not as easily.


Mariners – Barry Zito

Seattle took their shot at Zito late in the 1996 draft; the A’s landed him with the ninth overall pick three years later. During his eight-year stint in Oakland, the Nevadan won a Cy Young Award and was one of baseball’s best left-handed pitchers with Randy Johnson and Johan Santana.

Having Zito at peak form would benefit the Mariners, while simultaneously weakening Oakland. His first full season was the same year Seattle fell to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS. Perhaps the southpaw’s presence gets the Mariners over to the hump and to its first World Series.


Marlins – Cliff Lee

The Marlins selected Lee the same year they won the 1997 World Series. The Expos subsequently signed the former Razorback, but then dealt him to Cleveland where he’d win a Cy Young Award. The lefty played 13 seasons and was a four-time All-Star.

Lee’s first full season was 2004; the year after Florida won their second Fall Classic. The club then finished in third place in consecutive years. It’s plausible the Arkansas native’s presence helps, assuming the trade-happy team doesn’t deal him.


Mets – Roger Clemens

Clemens spurned the Mets in 1981 signing with Boston two years later. Only Cy Young (165.7) and Walter Johnson (159.7) have a higher career bWAR than the Texas product (138.7). His 4,672 career strikeouts rank third all-time behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875).

Imagine Clemens teaming with Dwight Gooden in the Mets’ rotation during the mid-Eighties. In such a scenario, the Red Sox likely miss the 1986 World Series and avoid losing to New York in an excruciating manner. Moreover, Sawx fans never get to unfairly vilify Bill Buckner.


Expos / Nationals – Mark McGwire

Selected by Montreal in 1981, McGwire later was the tenth overall pick by Oakland. During the Nineties, the powerful first baseman paced the majors with 405 home runs and a .615 SLG. He’d finish with 583 career home runs.

When McGwire debuted, the Expos had Andrés Galarraga playing first base. Displacing Galarraga would’ve been a tall order. Conversely, McGwire not joining the A’s likely affects the team’s chances of appearing in the 1988-90 World Series. Moreover, the Bash Brothers don’t exist without the USC product partnering with Jose Canseco.


Orioles – Dave Winfield

Baltimore drafted Winfield, as did other professional sports teams – the Atlanta Hawks (NBA), Utah Stars (ABA), and Minnesota Vikings (NFL). In the end, he became a Padre in 1973. When his 22-year Hall of Fame career concluded, the St. Paul, Minnesota native had collected 3,110 hits and 465 home runs.

During the Seventies, the Orioles were one of the better clubs in the AL, but struggled overtaking the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East standings. Having the former Minnesota Gopher on their roster would’ve helped.


Padres – Todd Helton

The All-Star first baseman was a Rookie of the Year, batting champion and three-time Gold Glover during his 17-year career with Colorado. When Helton retired, he led the franchise in bWAR, home runs, doubles, hits, and walks.

During Helton’s rookie campaign, the Padres lost the 1998 World Series. However, Wally Joyner was producing at first base for the Friars. In subsequent years, San Diego fell into mediocrity until returning to relevance with division titles in 2005-06. Having the former Tennessee Vol possibly helps the Padres advance further in the postseason.


Phillies – Darrell Evans

Four teams drafted Evans before he signed with the A’s, but I’m placing with the team selecting him in January 1966. The Californian is one of just nine players with over 400 home runs and 1,600 walks. Seven are Hall of Famers; the other is Barry Bonds.

During Evans’ most productive years (1972-75), the Phillies were ascending in the standings. However, the two-time All Star would’ve had to move across the diamond to first base to accommodate Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.


Pirates – Greg Vaughn

Like Evans, four clubs drafted Vaughn but didn’t ink him. The Pirates failed to do so in 1985. A year later, he was a Brewer. The Miami alum clobbered 355 home runs in 15 seasons. The four-time All-Star also finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 1998-99.

When Vaughn debuted in 1989, there wouldn’t have been room for him with the Pirates. By the following year, their outfield consisted of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke.


Senators / Rangers – Jermaine Dye

There’s no clear-cut choice to discuss with this franchise. Raúl Ibañez and Mickey Rivers were possibilities, but I chose Dye. A forty-third round selection by Texas in 1992, he instead attended Cosumnes River College and signed with Atlanta a year later. The two-time All-Star also played in Kansas City Oakland, and finally Chicago where he was 2005 World Series MVP.

Missing on Dye had no consequence on the Rangers. The club was a cellar dweller when he flourished in the majors.


Rays – Jacoby Ellsbury

Tampa Bay tried snagging the Oregon native, but he chose a local college before the Red Sox made him a first rounder. Ellsbury played 11 seasons and was an All-Star, Gold Glover and Silver Slugger, plus runner-up to 2011 AL MVP Justin Verlander. He also helped Boston win the 2007 and 2010 World Series.

During the Oregon State alum’s first full season, the Rays reached the 2008 World Series. However, the club had a 23-year-old Melvin Upton Jr. patrolling center field at the time and didn’t need Ellsbury.


Red Sox – Mark Teixeira

Teixeira was a ninth round pick of Boston, then the fifth overall pick by Texas in 2001. The switch-hitter spent six seasons with three teams before joining Boston’s heated rival – the Yankees. The five-time Gold Glove first baseman was runner-up to 2009 AL MVP to Joe Mauer and finished his 14-year career with 409 home runs.

During Teixeira’s debut year, the Red Sox lost the 2003 ALCS to the Yankees with Kevin Millar at first base. Perhaps the Georgia Tech product’s bat and strong defense helps Boston vanquish New York and reach the Fall Classic.


Reds – Nick Markakis

Cincinnati selected Markakis late in consecutive years before he became an Oriole. Currently with Atlanta, the Young Harris College alum has averaged 13 home runs, 36 doubles, and hit .288/.358/.424 since debuting in 2006. He’s also won three Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger.

If Markakis signed with the Reds, he may have become the team’s regular right fielder when they were fielding competitive rosters in 2010-13. Still, Jay Bruce was in the picture at the time. Perhaps management moves one of the All-Stars to left field.


Rockies – Chris Sale

A late selection by Colorado, Sale would later be a White Sox first round pick. Although the 31-year-old hasn’t won a Cy Young Award, he was a top-five vote getter during  2013-18. Moreover, he was top-three in bWAR, ERA, FIP, WHIP, strikeouts, and complete games.

It’s reasonable to consider how Sale performs at mile-high Coors Field. The Florida Gulf Coast alum’s experience in Denver is a teeny-tiny sample of 3.1 innings in two games – no runs, two singles, one walk, and three strikeouts.


Royals – Will Clark

Six years after Clark passed on the Royals, he was NL MVP runner-up to Giants teammate Kevin Mitchell. “The Thrill” finished his 15-season career with a .303/.384/.497 slash-line, four top-5 MVP finishes, two Silver Sluggers, and a Gold Glove.

Clark’s peak was 1987-92 when Kansas City had winning seasons. It’s plausible the Louisiana native helps the team, but Hall of Famer George Brett was playing first base by then. Perhaps Brett or Clark moves to designated hitter. On the other hand, no Clark potentially keeps the Giants from reaching the NLCS twice and the World Series in 1987-89.


Tigers – Ozzie Smith

Smith later became a Padre after the Tigers made him a seventh round choice. Perhaps the greatest fielding shortstop ever, the Cal Poly product’s 76.9 bWAR ranks fourth all-time among shortstops. The only person ahead of the Hall of Famer playing since World War II – Cal Ripken Jr. (95.9).

Fellow Hall of Famer Alan Trammell was Detroit’s shortstop when “The Wizard” debuted. Also a Gold Glover, Trammell spent his entire career as a Tiger finishing with 70.7 bWAR. Moreover, he was 1987 AL MVP runner-up to George Bell and 1984 World Series MVP.


Twins – George Springer

Minnesota took a late-round stab at Springer, the eleventh overall pick by Houston in 2011. The 30-year-old has since become a two-time Silver Slugger and World Series MVP. His 19.1 bWAR since 2016 ties him with Aaron Judge for second highest among right fielders behind Mookie Betts. Furthermore, Giancarlo Stanton (127) is the only right fielder with more home runs than the former UConn Husky (124).

Signing Springer doesn’t change the Twins’ recent history. But Houston not having his services may have been franchise altering.


White Sox – Jimmy Key

The left-hander preferred Clemson to being a tenth round pick of Chicago and later joined the professional ranks with the Blue Jays. Key never won a Cy Young Award, but was a two-time runner-up. The Alabaman also helped Toronto win its first World Series and is one of the best pitchers in franchise history with Roy Halladay and Dave Stieb.

Losing Key hurts the Blue Jays, not so much with the White Sox. The year prior to his debut, the South Siders fell to the Orioles in the 1984 ALCS. Afterwards, the team delivered mixed results during the first decade of Key’s career.


Yankees – Fred Lynn

Finally, imagine if the Yankees signed Lynn as a third rounder rather than the Red Sox snagging him as a second rounder. With Boston, he was 1975 Rookie of the Year and MVP. Moreover, the nine-time All-Star was 1982 ALCS MVP, a Gold Glove center fielder, and hit 306 career home runs.

If the USC product won 1975 Rookie of the Year and MVP as a Yankee, the Bombers don’t trade for All-Star Mickey Rivers the following offseason. Boston won the AL East over the Orioles by just 4.5 games in 1975. No Lynn possibly keeps the Sawx from reaching the World Series that year.

 

Featured Photo: John Iacono / Sports Illustrated

The selection process for MLB All-Star games is imperfect; we all know this. Fan voting heavily influences the roster; All-Star managers prefer choosing reserves from their own club. Then, there’s the requirement every team must have a representative. In the end, deserving players miss the cut every year.

Generally, players sustaining their success over multiple seasons eventually play in the Mid-Summer Classic. But there are exceptions. Just for fun, I compiled a starting lineup using former players who, according to Baseball Reference, never appeared on an All-Star roster.

Some names may surprise you; others may not. All played since MLB expanded in 1961.


First Base – Wes Parker

Parker won six consecutive Gold Gloves during his nine big-league seasons. The switch-hitter enjoyed his best year in 1970 when he led the majors in doubles and earned a fifth place finish behind winner Johnny Bench in NL MVP voting. Although he didn’t receive the big prize, the former USC Trojan was the Dodgers’ team MVP.

During his best days, Parker’s competition for All-Star selection was Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Ernie Banks, plus Felipe Alou, Dick Allen, and Lee May. Although still performing well, “Mr. Steady” retired from MLB after his age-32 season in 1972.

Others: Dan Driessen; Donn Clendenon; Pete O’Brien


Second Base – Bill Doran

Another switch-hitter, Doran finished fifth in NL 1983 Rookie of the Year behind Darryl Strawberry. Over the next four seasons, he averaged 23 doubles and 26 stolen bases with a 112 OPS+ and 22.4 bWAR. The only second basemen better than the Miami of Ohio product were Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg (23.9 bWAR and 113 OPS+) and Lou Whitaker (22.6 and 117).

Doran was an amazingly consistent hitter. In nine seasons with Houston, he slashed .267/.355/.374. The Ohioan then hit .265/.357/.375 with the hometown Reds for three campaigns. During his best years, All-Star second basemen were Sandberg, Tommy Herr, Steve Sax, and Juan Samuel.

Others: Mark Ellis; Delino DeShields


Shortstop – John Valentin

Valentin broke in as a shortstop, but he transitioned to second base and finally third base. Between 1993 and 1996, his 21.0 bWAR paced MLB shortstops, including Hall of Famers Barry Larkin (20.9) and Cal Ripken Jr. (15.5) with only Larkin (132) topping his 119 OPS+. In 1995, the Mineola, New York native won the AL Silver Slugger Award for shortstop and received MVP consideration.

When Valentin split time between second base and shortstop the following year, his 124 OPS+ ranked third among middle-infielders behind Hall of Famer and fellow Seton Hall alum Craig Biggio (140) and Jeff Blauser (130). The right-handed hitter also led the AL in doubles.

Honorable mention: Yunel Escobar; José Valentín; Orlando Cabrera


Third Base – Eric Chávez

A Silver Slugger and six-time Gold Glover, Chávez never appeared in a Mid-Summer Classic. All-Star third basemen at the time included Troy Glaus, Álex Rodríguez, Shea Hillenbrand, Hank Blalock, and Melvin Mora.

During his best years (2000-2005), Chávez produced 28.3 bWAR; best among third basemen with the exception of National Leaguers Scott Rolen (32.0) and Chipper Jones (29.8). The Californian also clobbered 177 home runs placing him behind Glaus (189) and Jones (178).

Unfortunately, injuries curtailed Chávez’s availability beginning in 2007. Despite the setback, only Sal Bando (52.1) has a higher career bWAR than Chávez (35.0) among Oakland third basemen. Moreover, his 1,320 games in an A’s uniform trail only Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson (1,704), Bando (1,410), and Mark McGwire (1,329) since the franchise’s relocation to the Bay Area in 1968.

Honorable mention: Richie Hebner; Corey Koskie; Pete Ward; Chase Headley


Left Field – Kirk Gibson

Gibson possessed a superb blend of speed and power. The former All-American football player reached or exceeded hit 25 home runs and stolen bases in a season four times. The only players accomplishing this feat more often – Barry Bonds (10), Bobby Bonds (9), Willie Mays (5), and Darryl Strawberry (5).

Between 1984 and 1988, Gibson produced 25.0 bWAR – tenth best in the majors. His 139 OPS+ ranked seventh best tying him with Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Eddie Murray, plus Boston’s Dwight Evans.

After winning the NL MVP in 1988, Gibson played 130-plus games in a season just once more during his final seven years. Still, the former Michigan State Spartan cemented his legacy with Tigers and Dodgers fans by earning 1984 ALCS MVP with Detroit and hitting a walk-off home run as a Dodger in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

Others: Kevin McReynolds; Shannon Stewart; Rusty Greer; Pat Burrell


Center Field – Garry Maddox

A second round pick of the Giants in 1968, Maddox established himself as the best defensive center fielder of his generation after San Francisco shipped him to Philadelphia. With the Phillies, the “Secretary of Defense” would win eight consecutive Gold Gloves.

“Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water, the other one-third by Garry Maddox.” – Mets announcer Ralph Kiner

Although best known for his glove work, Maddox averaged 31 doubles and 27 stolen bases during his first six seasons in the City of Brotherly Love. During this span, Fred Lynn (26.6) was the only center fielder with a higher bWAR than Maddox (24.8), who also placed fifth in 1976 NL MVP voting.

Since 1947, Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn (58.2) is the only Phillies center fielder with a higher bWAR than Maddox (29.0).

Others: Dwayne Murphy; Coco Crisp; Denard Span; Bill North; Juan Pierre


Right Field – Tim Salmon

The 1993 AL Rookie of the Year remained a fixture in right field for the Angels for a decade. In fact, Salmon stayed so long with the team he played for the California, Anaheim, and Los Angeles versions of the Halos.

From his rookie campaign through the 2000 season, Salmon averaged 29 doubles and 28 home runs with a 138 OPS+ and 32.4 bWAR. During this eight-year span, the only right fielders with a higher bWAR were Sammy Sosa (38.2) and Hall of Famer Larry Walker (37.2) – both from the National League.

Salmon’s 40.6 career bWAR as an Angel trails Mike Trout (72.8) and Jim Fregosi (45.9) in franchise history. Similarly, Trout (176) and Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (141) are the lone Angels with a better OPS+ than Salmon’s 128. The Grand Canyon University alum holds the team record for home runs (299), although the mark likely belongs to Trout (285) by the end of his next season.

Others: Sixto Lezcano; Floyd Robinson; Trot Nixon; Jim Northrup


Catcher – Chris Hoiles

Hoiles’ best season was 1993 when his OBP, SLG, OPS+, and bWAR ranked fifth best in the AL. Among MLB catchers, only Mike Piazza had a higher bWAR. However, the Eastern Michigan product bested Piazza in OBP, SLG, and OPS+. Hoiles didn’t deserve to win the AL MVP over Frank Thomas, although he deserved to finish closer to top-5 than to his actual placing – sixteenth.

You won’t find Hoiles’ name near all-time great Orioles Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken Jr. in franchise rankings. But he’s the best offensive catcher in club history with the most home runs, plus the highest bWAR and OPS+ among Baltimore backstops.

Others: Rick Dempsey; Don Slaught; Steve Yeager; Earl Williams


Designated Hitter – Travis Hafner

During Hafner’s four best seasons (2004-07), he averaged 32 home runs and 35 doubles with a 156 OPS+. Only Albert Pujols (169) and David Ortiz (159) delivered a better OPS+. Right behind the North Dakotan was former teammate Álex Rodríguez (153).

Fun Fact: The only North Dakota native with more MLB games played than Hafner (1,183) is Darin Erstad (1,654).

Hafner finished fifth in 2005 AL MVP voting and eighth the following season. In 2006, he shared the MLB lead in OBP with Manny Ramirez and finished second only to Pujols in SLG and OPS+. The lefty hitter also recorded a .308 AVG and walked 100 times.

Sadly, a shoulder injury in 2008 would affect Hafner’s availability and productivity until his retirement after the 2013 season. During this span, he played in 100-plus games just once in 2010.

Others: Kendrys Morales; Ken Phelps; Cliff Johnson


Utility-man – Tony Phillips

Initially a middle-infielder, Phillips would eventually morph into a full-fledged utility-man. During his 18-year career, he started over 600 games at both second base and the outfield in addition to another 200-plus at both shortstop and third base.

Fun fact: Phillips attended high school in Roswell, Georgia and then attended the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico.

Phillips’ best years were his early-to-mid thirties (1990-95) when his 29.7 bWAR ranked eighth in the majors. The only players finishing ahead of him not in the Hall of Fame – Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro. During the same span, only Frank Thomas (661), Bonds (647), and Mickey Tettleton (642) walked more times than the Georgian (632). Accordingly, his .395 OBP was seventh best in MLB.

Fun Fact II: Phillips walked 90-plus times in seven seasons as a thirty-something. Only Bonds (9), Rickey Henderson (8), and Babe Ruth (8) did it more often.

Phillips fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year of eligibility, although his career 50.9 bWAR is higher than 13 Hall of Famers since baseball integrated in 1947. Among them: Ted Simmons, Lou Brock, Harold Baines, and Orlando Cepeda.

Others: César Tovar; Mark McLemore; Mike Blowers


Starter – John Tudor

Between 1982 and 1988, Tudor made 208 starts with a 3.06 ERA and 28.6 bWAR. Only Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, and Roger Clemens had a lower ERA. Gooden and Clemens, plus Dave Stieb were the only pitchers with a higher bWAR.

Tudor’s best campaign was 1985 at age-31. The Schenectady, New York native led the majors with 10 shutouts and a 0.938 WHIP, plus he logged a 1.93 ERA. Since MLB lowered the mound after the 1968 season, only one other pitcher has 10 shutouts in a year – Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in 1975.

Unfortunately, for Tudor, his career year coincided with the emergence of Gooden, who won the 1985 NL Cy Young Award over the Georgia Southern product. Tudor correspondingly finished eighth in MVP voting, although his 8.2 bWAR trailed only Gooden (13.3) and tied teammate Willie McGee.

Since World War II, Tudor’s 2.52 ERA is tops by a Cardinals pitcher with 500-plus innings. His 146 ERA+ similarly leads all Redbird pitchers during this span. It’s worth noting the southpaw tossed 881.2 innings with St. Louis compared to all-time great Bob Gibson, who pitched over 3,800 innings and recorded a 2.91 ERA and 127 ERA+.

Others: Tom Candiotti; Charlie Leibrandt; John Denny


Closer – Billy Koch

Koch’s career was brief, just six years. However, the former Clemson Tiger did save 144 games during his first four major-league seasons with Toronto and Oakland. Only Robb Nen (166) and Hall of Famers Trevor Hoffman (164) and Mariano Rivera (159) were better. Mariano was the lone American Leaguer.

During his final standout season in 2002 as a member of the A’s, Koch led AL pitchers with 82 appearances; his 44 saves trailed only Eddie Guardado (45) in the junior circuit. The Long Islander would also finish eighteenth in AL MVP voting.

Others: Kevin Gregg; Roger McDowell; Michael Jackson; John Axford; LaTroy Hawkins


Active Names

For anyone wondering, here’s a sample of current players yet to appear in an All-Star game. As with the retirees, several of the names may surprise you.

Perhaps the biggest shocker is Andrelton Simmons, baseball’s best defensive shortstop. Despite averaging 32 doubles, hitting .285/.334/.419, and winning Gold Gloves in 2017-18, the Curacao native didn’t appear in the All-Star game either year.

If Marcus Semien repeats his breakout 2019, he’ll likely challenge Simmons for an All-Star bid. Semien’s teammate, first baseman Matt Olson, could potentially join him. Olson has averaged 30 home runs since 2017 and owns two Gold Gloves.

It’s a matter of time before youngsters Juan Soto and Jack Flaherty play in the first of likely many Mid-Summer Classics. Both players had breakout seasons with their respective clubs last year. Soto is just 21-years-old, while Flaherty is 24.

There are other active players deserving of being an All-Star, but you get the drift. It’s not always about worthiness. In the big scheme of things, selections to a mid-season exhibition game have little meaning. Still, it’s something fun to talk about while we remain hunkered down.

After all, talking about baseball is always fun.

Wouldn’t you agree?

My Oh My……

There are nine people in the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame. Four joined the Mariners organization thanks to one man – former GM Woody Woodward. Ironically, Woodward isn’t one of those nine Hall of Famers. Why not?

I can already sense the eyes rolling across the Pacific Northwest. A loud and perhaps large segment of fans believes Woodward doesn’t deserve the same honor bestowed upon some of the most beloved figures in Mariners franchise history.

Still, imagine if Randy Johnson, Álex Rodríguez, and Dan Wilson never became Mariners. That Lou Piniella never became the club’s manager. Where would the franchise be today?

Probably Tampa Bay.

Rulebook Review

The Mariners Board of Directors selects individuals for its Hall of Fame. Recommendations can come from nearly any source – team executives, Mariners players, media members, or fans. Based on eligibility guidelines for selection, Woodward qualifies for consideration:

  1. Full-time employee of the Mariners for at least five seasons;
  2. Made significant contributions to Mariners Baseball and the franchise, either on or off the field.

Woodward clearly meets the first requirement after 11 seasons as GM. The second article will inevitably prompt debate. Does Woody’s body of work rise to the level of Mariners Hall of Famer?

I believe it does.

In The Beginning

Woodward became Mariners GM in July 1988 after briefly doing the same job for the Yankees and Phillies. The former Florida State Seminole stayed in place through the 1999 season making him the longest-tenured GM in franchise history. Amazingly, Woody’s assignment spanned across three different ownership groups headed by George Argyros, Jeff Smulyan, and finally Hiroshi Yamauchi.

Fun fact: Piniella relieved Woodward as Yankees GM in 1987.

Prior to Woodward’s arrival, the Mariners didn’t have a winning season since beginning play in 1977. That changed with an 83-79 record in 1991. Despite the success, the team replaced manager Jim Lefebvre with Bill Plummer, who lasted one year.

Piniella took over in 1993 and remained on the job for 10 years. Woodward provided Lou with a core of stars to anchor a winning club through the mid-to-late Nineties. All told, the Woodward-Piniella partnership produced a 540-525 record and postseason appearances in 1995 and 1997.

If you didn’t know anything else about the Mariners, you may be wondering why anyone would challenge a Woodward candidacy for the club’s Hall of Fame. Well, there are reasons.

Oh, Those Trades

To be clear, I’m going to won’t re-litigate whether other clubs bamboozled the Mariners. Instead, let’s focus on the team’s apparent motivation for making those deals – controlling cost and a win-now mentality.

Money Matters

Being a low-revenue club influenced the Mariners’ stance towards improving its roster and the timing of trades during Woodward’s tenure. The first notable instance involved Mark Langston in 1989. The ace was earning $1.35 million making him the second highest paid Mariner behind Alvin Davis. With Langston in his walk year, the team dealt him to Montreal.

We all know trading Langston led to the team acquiring Johnson. The “Big Unit” spent 10 seasons in the Emerald City, won a Cy Young Award, and finished top-3 three other times. A decade later, the club wouldn’t financially commit to retaining the then-34-year-old. Once again, Woodward recouped value for a pending free agent by trading Randy for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama.

In 1993, Woodward shipped Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel to Cleveland for Félix Fermín and Reggie Jefferson. Vizquel’s climbing salary, which doubled to $2.4 million in 1994, likely persuaded Seattle to trade the defensive whiz. Another possible factor – the pending arrival of A-Rod.

After its franchise-changing postseason run in 1995, the team dealt Tino Martinez to the Yankees. Yet again, the club wasn’t interested in paying what Tino would’ve commanded as a free agent a year later. Woodward divulged this reality when discussing the trade with Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times.

“While all of us here wish we could keep the entire club intact, it is just not possible under the current economic system.” – Woody Woodward

The “current economic system” likely led to shipping Mike Blowers to the Dodgers for Miguel Cairo and Willis Otanez. The former Washington Husky’s 1996 salary more than tripled what he made during the year prior with the Mariners.

Win Now!

During the second half of Woodward’s tenure, the Mariners were postseason contenders several times. When in contention, Woody pursued established players to support the playoff push. The results of his summer dealing varied greatly.

In 1995, the team made two key additions – pitcher Andy Benes and outfielder Vince Coleman. To get these rentals, Seattle shipped former first rounders Marc Newfield and Ron Villone to San Diego for Benes. Reliever Jim Converse went to the Royals for Coleman. Both players contributed to the Mariners reaching the postseason for the first time ever.

Fun fact: A year after Seattle dealt Newfield and Villone, they moved again as a pair in a trade to Milwaukee.

In July 1996, Woodward added starter Jamie Moyer from the Red Sox for outfielder Darren Bragg. A day later, Terry Mulholland arrived from Philadelphia for minor-league infielder Desi Relaford, rated Seattle’s third best prospect by Baseball America.

Bragg and Relaford each had 11-year careers, but losing the pair didn’t set back the Mariners long-term. Mulholland, a rental, made 12 starts posting a league-average 4.67 ERA. Conversely, Moyer remained with Seattle for a decade ultimately entering the franchise’s Hall of Fame.

A month later, the Mariners grabbed rental Mark Whiten from the Braves for Roger Blanco, who never reached majors. Conversely, Whiten delivered excellent production in 40 games with his new team.

Another August deal now looks terrible thanks to 20/20 hindsight. Woodward shipped a 20-year-old outfielder named David Arias to Minnesota for veteran David Hollins – a one-month rental. Most of you know Arias by the name that likely appears on his plaque in Cooperstown someday – David Ortiz.

A year later, Woodward traded two former first round picks for bullpen help in separate deals. Unlike previous summers, the players dealt away enjoyed sustained success elsewhere. One of the trades continues to irk some disillusioned fans.

To acquire Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric, Seattle shipped outfielder José Cruz Jr. to the Blue Jays. Prior to the deal, Cruz flashed the talent that prompted the Mariners to select him with the third overall pick in 1995. The Rice alum would be runner-up for 1997 AL Rookie of the Year. Timlin and Spoljaric provided needed depth for Woodward’s bullpen.

Then, there’s the trade still troubling those who can’t let go. The Mariners traded their 1994 first round pick, Jason Varitek, and fellow minor-leaguer Derek Lowe to the Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb.

Varitek played 15 seasons in Boston and was a team leader during its championship window. Battery-mate Lowe placed third in 2002 AL Cy Young voting and helped the Sawx win the 2004 World Series. Conversely, Slocumb served as Seattle’s closer for the remainder of 1997 providing marginal value during two seasons.

Fun fact: Two teams drafted Varitek in the first round. Minnesota in 1993, Seattle a year later.

Frustrated fans tend to focus on the success of Varitek and Lowe compared to Slocumb’s. That’s understandable. Still, what confounds me was the rationale of trading two prospects, one a first rounder, for a reliever not pitching well for Boston.

Well, there’s a story.

Last year, Peter Gammons of the Athletic detailed the machinations of the trade. Apparently, Woodward called Red Sox GM Dan Duquette 15 minutes before the deadline wanting to acquire Slocumb and mistakenly thought Duquette wanted both Varitek and Lowe when Boston would’ve settled for one or the other.

Clearly, Woody had a blind spot when it came to trading young players for short-term veterans. Especially when his team was contending. Perhaps having a manager preferring established players to newbies influenced his tactics.

The Draft

The best player drafted by any MLB team during Woodward’s tenure was A-Rod. He’d go on to be a three-time MVP and join the exclusive 3,000-hit/600-home run club with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Albert Pujols.

Some may suggest drafting A-Rod was a no-brainer. Fair point, but Woodward once told Christian Red of the NY Daily News there were critics of Seattle’s selection. Apparently, some believed the team should’ve picked Darren Dreifort, a pitcher out of Wichita State.

“There were a few people criticizing us for taking A-Rod over Dreifort. They’re hard to find now.” – Woody Woodward

Despite shrewdly selecting A-Rod, Seattle didn’t obtain significant on-field value from its draft classes during the Woodward era. The team signed 278 players from the 1989-99 drafts with 58 reaching the majors. Only half had a career bWAR greater than 0.0. That’s bad, yes?

Yes.

The first round was particularly brutal. Obviously, A-Rod produced results worthy of a Cooperstown plaque. That said; only he and Gil Meche reached free agency with Seattle. Woodward traded six of his first rounders with five others never playing in MLB.

By now, it’s obvious the draft wasn’t Seattle’s strong suit during Woodward’s tenure. In fairness, the organization has rarely enjoyed sustained success at transforming amateur players into big-league talent.

Living In The Now

To mitigate the low availability of MLB-ready talent in its farm system, Woodward used free agency to bridge the gap during the winning years. The club didn’t sign marquee names, although several valuable free agents helped the Mariners during the good times. A sample of such players includes Rich Amaral, Luis Sojo, Joey Cora, Paul Sorrento, José Mesa, and Paul Abbott.

Still, the persistent jettisoning of youth combined with an increasing reliance on veterans to win-now depleted the Mariners’ already shaky system. Consequently, the team’s roster grew older by the final years of Woodward’s tenure. As you can see below, the ratio of plate appearances assigned to players 31-and-older rose substantially during the Nineties until Woody’s last season.

Percentage of PA’s By Age-31 & Over Mariners (1989-99)

This Woodward quote discussing the David Ortiz deal in a Boston Globe piece by the late Nick Cafardo helps shed light on his team’s rationale during its heyday.

“Minnesota did a nice job identifying David as the player they wanted. We needed a third baseman and Hollins came over and did a nice job for us. We had a lot of good hitters at the major league side so it was hard to project David down the road on our club.” – Woody Woodward

Essentially, management believed the team’s core could reach the World Series with the right complementary pieces. On the other hand, the organization had to realize the “good hitters” Woodward referred to were going to become too costly to retain or were quickly approaching age-related regression.

With that, let’s turn our attention to the purse string holders.

Ownership

A GM typically receives considerable grief over player moves. Sometimes, justifiably so. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality he must operate within the financial boundaries established by ownership. In Woodward’s case, his owners weren’t free spenders – especially during the Kingdome days.

This quote of Woodward discussing 1995 with Art Thiel of SportspressNW.com precisely captured ownership’s view on spending to improve the roster in the Nineties.

“When I told them (fellow executives Roger Jongewaard and Lee Pelekoudas) we could add payroll at the deadline, it was like it was Christmas,” Woodward said. “They asked me what happened? Why? I said ownership wanted to be in the race. I gave them the same pitch I always used, but this time it fell on concerned ears.”

Essentially, ownership rarely approved payroll increases to win. This necessitated Woodward’s patchwork approach towards seeking complimentary pieces for his superstar core. Supporting this assertion, a Seattle PI piece also authored by Thiel. When discussing the bullpen in December 1997, the venerable writer opined the budget prevented the team from building a contender.

“A roster churn dictated by cash is hardly unique in baseball to the Mariners. But the Mariners are among the few teams with legitimate postseason parts without the budget for postseason success.” – Art Thiel

During this time, the Mariners revealed the team wouldn’t re-sign Johnson. By August, Randy was pitching for Houston. Two years later, Junior and A-Rod were gone too.

It’s important to emphasize the win-maybe attitude of senior team officials doesn’t exonerate Woodward of his miscues. However, he was in the unenviable spot of trying to contend without the complete support of ownership. Despite all of this, Woodward managed to bequeath his relief with a solid foundation when he retired in 1999.

Gillick’s Riches

New GM Pat Gillick transformed the other 1977 expansion team – the Blue Jays – into a two-time World Series champion. Gillick also oversaw Baltimore during two consecutive ALCS appearances in 1996-97. In Seattle, the Hall of Fame executive started on good ground thanks to his predecessor.

Although Gillick made key additions, such as Ichiro, Mike Cameron, and Boone, Woodward’s fingerprints are all over the roster of the 116-win team of 2001. Altogether, 12 holdovers from the Woodward regime played prominent roles on that squad, including most of the rotation – Paul Abbott, John Halama, Jamie Moyer, Freddy García, and Joel Piñeiro.

In a way, Gillick’s maneuvering extended the competitive widow Woodward had opened.

Conclusion

Some fans refer to Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park) as “The House That Griffey Built.” Maybe, but Woodward constructed the 1995 team that inspired lawmakers to fund that wonderful ballpark at the corner of Edgar & Dave. In essence, that makes Woody its architect.  How can’t he be in the Mariners Hall of Fame?

Perhaps there are in-house reasons known only to the Mariners justifying Woodward’s exclusion. Maybe he’s the kind of person who helps himself to other people’s lunch in the office refrigerator or takes the last cup of coffee without starting a new pot. If that’s the case, we may never know.

Is it possible the concern over negative public feedback would sway the Mariners Board away from selecting Woodward?  After all, his teams couldn’t reach the World Series despite boasting so much Hall of Fame talent. That’s a tough pill to swallow for fans.

True, but Woody Woodward’s body of work vaulted the Mariners into relevance for the first time in the club’s existence. Without his efforts, where would the team be today?

Probably Tampa Bay.

Perhaps now is the time to honor Woodward for the considerable contributions that made the Mariners a fun and exciting postseason team and helped keep the franchise in the Emerald City. Those sound like a Hall of Fame achievements to me.

My Oh My…

(Photo: Elaine Thompson / AP)…

In the big scheme of things, adults playing a child’s game pales in comparison to the very real COVID-19 crisis. Still, whenever we finally turn a corner with the current situation, sports could provide a sense of normalcy, serve as a source of comfort. They did just that for me and others after the events of 9/11.

That’s why the news MLB and the MLB Players Association have hammered out financial details to eventually restart baseball offers cause for optimism. Granted, when a 2020 season actually begins depends on the progression of the COVID-19 outbreak and its aftermath. Plus, subsequent agreements on season length, roster sizes, and postseason format will be required.

Still, overcoming major obstacles now should speed up the process once it’s time to play ball. In the interim, we’re left to speculate on what an abbreviated season might look like. Naturally, such conjecture is fuel for sports talk radio, other media platforms, and the blogosphere.

Even the venerable duo of Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark recently joined the conversation. In the Athletic, they highlighted fun and innovative ways MLB could tinker with the season and playoffs. Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann of ESPN presented the radical idea of playing a 32-game schedule starting in September.

Talking about these and other ideas is a nice distraction, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that an abbreviated season likely presents a different outcome than a full 162-game schedule.

I’m not suggesting MLB shouldn’t play a season unless they can squeeze in x-number of games. Only that the postseason picture could be vastly different with a season significantly shorter than the usual campaign.

To demonstrate this point, I’ve devised a science project using the 2019 season. Let’s see which teams would’ve reached the postseason if we ended 2019 after 32, 75, and 100 games.

Two notes before proceeding:

* The dates selected are when the average number of games played by all 30 teams matches the milestone selected. Some clubs will have played the exact number; others will be over/under the mark. Remember, we’re simply attempting to gain perspective on how an abbreviated season might influence the final standings; not determine postseason berths.

* To ascertain team records on our chosen dates, I used Baseball Reference, which provides users with the capability to review standings on a specific date. It also permits us to quickly determine how clubs fared from that point moving forward. It’s a fun tool I turn to often.

Without further ado, let’s begin.

American League

Regardless of when the season started, the Twins and Astros won their respective divisions. But the Yankees would’ve been relegated to a wild card spot using the 32-game micro-schedule.

At least New York makes the postseason under any scenario. The same isn’t true for other clubs.

The Rays, an actual 2019 wild card, win the AL East in a season lasting just five weeks. The team also nets a wild card spot through 75 games. However, Tampa Bay is on the outside looking in at the 100-game mark.

The Indians meander between playoff team and also-ran depending on when the season concluded. A mediocre 12-17 win-loss record in May certainly didn’t help the squad keep pace with the powerhouse Twins. The Tribe would rebound going 35-17 in June-July, but fell short of the postseason for the first time since 2015.

In a 75-game scenario, Boston fans would be pleased. In reality, the Red Sox went 35-37 in the second half of an otherwise lost season. Still, it’s tough feeling bad for fans in New England. Their Sawx won the World Series the year prior.

The Athletics have been late bloomers in recent seasons; 2019 was no different. Only Baltimore and Kansas City had a worse record in the AL than Oakland through 32 games. By June 20, the A’s were surging and just a half-game behind Boston.

Surprisingly, a tie in the standings existed between Oakland and division-rival Texas at 75 games. The Rangers were five games over .500, but an 8-16 record in July squelched any playoff aspirations. Despite the dreadful month, the club had a winning record as late as August 11.

There’s another also-ran worthy of mention – the Mariners. Seattle had an MLB-best 13-2 record through mid-April. Then came a rapid descent towards the cellar. Still, the Olbermann plan would’ve provided a glimmer of hope.

On May 3, the Mariners were just a game behind division-leading Houston. Seattle had already played 34 games. However, two games earlier, the club based in the Pacific Northwest had the same record as the Astros. Imagine the rebuilding Mariners breaking their 19-year postseason drought thanks to a torrid two-week start in a 32-game season.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact for fans in the Motor City. On May 3, the Tigers were just a game under .500 and 2.5 games behind division-leading Minnesota.

Unfortunately, things went downhill afterwards. Detroit won 33 games for the remainder of the season. That’s 10 less wins than the next terrible team – the Orioles. At least the Tigers locked up the number-one overall draft pick.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the Senior Circuit.

National League

As with the AL, the division out west remains unchanged regardless of when the season ended. The Dodgers would still win their seventh consecutive NL West title.

Every other division experienced some level of churn, especially under the 32-game scenario.

Philadelphia was five games over .500 on May 3 and would’ve been NL East division champions. But the club finished with a mediocre 81-81 and replaced its manager. It’s not as if the Phillies cratered, but expectations were high in the City of Brotherly Love after the team signed Bryce Harper to an enormous 13-year/$330 million deal.

The Cubs were a wild card team early and even rose to division leader at later checkpoints. But Chicago fell out of contention later in the season. As late as the last day of August, the team held the second wild card slot with a 4.5 game lead. Then, a disappointing 11-16 run in September finished the North Siders. They too have a new manager now.

Arizona managed to be relevant through 32 games clinching a wild card spot and being just a game behind the division-leading Dodgers. However, the D-Backs would fall to the .500-mark by June 20 and remain there at our next milestone. The team did enjoy a late-season surge going 31-22 down the stretch. When the dust settled, they finished four games behind the second card team – Milwaukee.

Speaking of the Brewers, they were inconsistent throughout 2019. The Brew Crew’s monthly record was .500-or-worse in June-August. Milwaukee finally caught fire with a spectacular 20-7 mark in September, which was enough to get them into the postseason.

Three games behind Milwaukee in the wild card standings at season’s end were the Mets. At the All-Star break, New York was 10 games under .500 – second worst in the NL at the time. But the team then erupted with the second best record (49-26) in the league behind the Dodgers. Too little, too late for the Amazin’s.

And how about the Rockies?

By the end of the 2019 season, Colorado would tie Baltimore for the fifth worst record in the majors. Yet, on June 20, the club was six games over .500 and in possession of the first wild card spot. Then came the crater-job – a 31-57 record the rest of the way.

Ironically, our first two scenarios would’ve excluded the eventual World Series champions – the Nationals.

During last year’s postseason, announcers frequently noted Washington started the season terribly. It’s true; only two NL teams had a worse record than the Nats did at the end of May. That’s when they took off.

Starting on June 1, the Nationals went 69-36 giving the team the best record in the NL from that point moving forward. Only their eventual Fall Classic opponent – Houston – performed better over the last four months of the season.

What’s Next?

As we’ve seen during our discussion, the length of the season can drastically affect the final standings. Having said that, I’m not against any scenario providing us with major-league baseball this year.

Yes, Olbermann’s innovative and fascinating idea feels more like a tease than something that I’d find satisfying. Then again, the alternative is nothing and I vote against nothing when given options leading to games.

By now, MLB has undoubtedly developed contingencies to address multiple potential scenarios, including cancellation of the 2020 season altogether. Hopefully, zero baseball isn’t the endgame. If we’re fortunate to see action this year, it’ll certainly be gratifying for two reasons.

Most importantly, the resumption of sports would suggest we’ve beaten down COVID-19. Baseball returning this year would also symbolize some semblance of normalcy sooner than later. Right now, we could all use some of that.

Wouldn’t you agree?

My Oh My…

Photo: D. Ross Cameron / USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Mariners two highest ranked prospects – Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez – didn’t attend college. Having said that, the Mariners’ success hinges on a large crop of college players racing towards the majors.

Several of these former collegians made brief appearances in the majors last season and will see action with the Mariners whenever play resumes. Others should arrive by 2021. All are familiar names to Prospect Insider readers.

PI’s Top M’s Prospects From Colleges

The injury woes of right fielder Mitch Haniger and the September power surge of Kyle Lewis opens the door for Lewis, Jake Fraley, and Braden Bishop to make the Opening Day roster. From there, the trio will have an opportunity to establish their value prior to the eagerly anticipated arrival of the Kelenic and Rodriguez.

Justin Dunn had a brief four-game MLB debut in 2019. He too will get his shot to prove he belongs. It’s worth noting Dunn wasn’t drafted by Seattle. The team acquired the right-hander with Kelenic from the Mets in December 2018 for Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz.

Barring unforeseen events, Evan White will be the team’s everyday first baseman. Management clearly believes in the former Wildcat after inking him to a six-year/$24 million contract extension despite the fact he hasn’t played regularly above AA-level. Last November, we discussed White’s pathway to success without home run power.

Logan Gilbert looked sharp during Cactus League action before baseball operations ceased. Depending on when play resumes, the first round pick could debut with the big-league team this year.

Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill recently suggested Gilbert’s minor-league battery-mate, Cal Raleigh, might be a September addition this year. Similarly, Raleigh’s arrival date is contingent on his development and the outcome of the real world events currently unfolding.

The remaining names are starting pitchers. These gents, along with Gilbert and Dunn, could form the foundation of a formidable rotation in the near future. As we’ve noted before, top-shelf starting pitching is baseball’s rarest commodity.

The future seems so bright, doesn’t it?

Yeah, But…

Everything just said sounds great. But longtime Mariners fans are leery about buying into unproven prospects. Rightfully so, the organization has a woeful record of producing homegrown talent during the last two decades.

This begins coming into focus after reviewing the best (based on the Baseball Reference version of WAR) college pitchers drafted by the Mariners. Check out the selection years of the following picks.

M’s Best College Pitchers

Six of the top seven pitchers arrived during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Topping our list is Mark Langston – the most valuable college player ever selected by Seattle. Langston spent six seasons with the Mariners before heading to Montreal in the deal bringing Hall of Famer Randy Johnson to the Emerald City.

Drafted a round earlier than Langston, Mike Moore was a mainstay in the rotation until departing via free agency in 1988. In Moore’s last season with the Mariners, the starting staff featured three of the top five college pitchers ever selected by Seattle – the Oklahoma native, Langston, and Bill Swift.

Sounds like a cool “fun fact” until we realize that was over three decades ago.

The only pitchers breaking into our top-10 in the Nineties were two relievers – Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz.

Thornton spent two unspectacular seasons with the Mariners before the club dealt him to the White Sox for outfielder Joe Borchard. Thornton became Chicago’s closer and an All-Star; Borchard appeared in six games with Seattle before being waived.

Conversely, Putz proved extremely valuable. For several seasons, he was the Mariner’s closer and a 2007 All-Star. A year later, new GM Jack Zduriencik dealt the right-hander in a blockbuster 3-team/12-player trade netting Zduriencik seven players including Jason Vargas, Franklin Gutierrez, and Endy Chávez.

Only two pitchers – Doug Fister and James Paxton – were drafted this century. Paxton remains active, but Fister last appeared in the majors with Texas in 2018. Since Big Maple is 31-years-old and remains productive, it’s reasonable to expect he’ll continue climbing on our list.

Around The Diamond

A review of Mariners position players drafted after college reveals the organization’s ineffectiveness once again.

M’s Best College Position Players

Sure, Kyle Seager headlines our list after passing Tino Martinez last year. But the only other position player in our top-10 from this century is Chris Taylor. Both Seager and Taylor remain active and will continue to show greater value.

Still, just two players in 20 years?

C’mon.

Other top position players are from long ago. Martinez went to the Yankees in a 1995 deal still panned by fans convinced the Yanks always fleece the Mariners in trades.

Two years later, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe headed to Boston for Heathcliff Slocumb in another swap still causing angst for a tortured few in the Pacific Northwest.

The remaining names were excellent ballplayers. Alvin Davis is in the team’s Hall of Fame and simply known as “Mr. Mariner.”

Bret Boone was traded to the Reds in 1993, but rejoined Seattle as a free agent. Boone helped lead the team to 116 wins in 2001 and finished third in MVP voting behind teammate Ichiro Suzuki.

Meanwhile, outfielder Raúl Ibañez had three tours with the Mariners and remains a fan favorite.

Still, the dearth of homegrown talent from college or any source since the departure of GM Pat Gillick after the 2003 season is stunning. Other than Adam Jones, Seager is the only position player to deliver long-term value.

Consider The Source

Since we’re in a pandemic-drive shutdown, I took a brief detour to determine whether certain schools have been better sources than others for the Mariners. What I quickly learned is quantity doesn’t neccesarily lead to quality.

Schools With Most Drafted M’s

As you can see, 23 players from Arizona State University have been Seattle draft selections with the most valuable and notable being Mr. Mariner.

That said; the gap between Davis and the next best Sun Devil is wide. Ed Vande Berg, drafted in 1980, produced 6.5 WAR during his four seasons with Seattle. The only other noteworthy name is local product and fan-favorite Willie Bloomquist.

Boone is the lone USC alum to deliver positive value. The most recent Trojans drafted by the Mariners are number-three overall pick Jeff Clement (2005) and eighteenth-rounder Anthony Vasquez (2009).

After Boone and Davis, it’s slim pickings.

Drew Jackson was Seattle’s 2015 fifth round pick and later dealt to the Dodgers for Chase De Jong. The 26-year-old is back with Los Angeles after making his MLB debut with Baltimore last year. But he’s no longer on the 40-man roster.

Florida International product Rusty McNealy didn’t play for the Mariners, but the club recouped value for the outfielder. In December 1981, Seattle traded McNealy and Tim Hallgren to Oakland for reliever Roy Thomas. Hallgren never reached the majors; Thomas appeared in 112 games recording a 3.92 ERA and 2.8 WAR.

Fun Fact: The Mariners’ number-20 prospect hails from Florida International – Austin Shenton.

Former Washington State Cougar Dave Edler played four seasons with the Mariners in 1980-83. The corner infielder hit .216/.291/.308 with six home runs in 126 games. Edler’s career ended after the 1983 season.

By pure happenstance, Terrmel Sledge and Sean Spencer were players to be name later in the same deal re-acquiring catcher Chris Widger from the Expos in August 2000. The Mariners previously sent Widger to Montreal in exchange for Jeff Fassero and Alex Pacheco.

Mike Schooler would make 243 relief appearances for the Mariners during 1988-92. Schooler notched 98 saves – fourth best in franchise history behind Kazuhiro Sasaki (129), Díaz (109), and Putz (101).

Our other active player – Brad Miller – has bounced around after a November 2015 trade to Tampa Bay. Miller has played in the majors with the Rays, Brewers, Indians, and Phillies. The Florida native signed with St. Louis in the offseason and is on the team’s 40-man roster.

My takeaway from this little exercise is the source is irrelevant compared to the actual player acquired and hopefully developed.

Stanford has a long baseball tradition boasting players such as Hall of Famer Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell, and Brett’s father – Bob Boone. WAZZU produced one-time Mariners John Olerud and Aaron Sele, plus Ron Cey. Washington yielded multiple Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.

No, the Mariners’ issues had nothing to do with the schools of the players they selected. It was a case of organizational dysfunction during previous regimes. That appears to have changed under the new ownership group and the front office led by GM Jerry Dipoto.

Looking Ahead

Since taking over in late 2015, Dipoto and his staff have transformed a bottom-feeder system into one of the best in MLB. All that remains is for the farm to deliver results. Otherwise, fans will remember the constant chatter about the current batch of youngsters as nothing but “same old Mariners” hype.

Will every prospect turn into something special? No, that’s not required to build a winner. But the organization must do better at producing big-league talent.

Personally, I believe the Mariners are taking the right approach. However, sustainable on-field success from the college prospects is crucial, especially the starting pitchers.

We’ll get to decide together whether I’m right when the kids eventually return to the diamond. Hopefully, that day isn’t too far away for so many reasons.

My Oh My…

 

(Photo: Ted S. Warren / AP)

It happens every season across MLB; players far exceed expectations. Last year, the Seattle Mariners had two such pleasant surprises. Before talking about this duo, let’s reflect on previous Mariners thrust into the consciousness of fans thanks to surprising breakout seasons.

Some has a short history with the Mariners. Others are household names, even icons, in Seattle. Our first player appeared during the franchise’s infancy.


Leon Roberts – 1978

Roberts, a tenth round pick by Detroit in 1972, hit 17 home runs with a .709 OPS in 252 games with the Tigers and Astros. Then, Houston dealt him to Seattle for Jimmy Sexton in 1977.

That’s when the good times rolled.

In his first season with the Mariners, Roberts hit 22 homers and .301/.364/.515. The former Michigan Wolverine led all AL right fielders in SLG and OPS. Similarly, his 4.4 bWAR and 146 OPS+ were second only to Baltimore’s Ken Singleton (4.7 and 152) within their position group.

It turns out the 1978 season was the best of Roberts’ 11-year career, In December 1980, the Mariners dealt him to Texas with Larry Cox, Rick Honeycutt, Willie Horton and Mario Mendoza for Brian Allard, Rick Auerbach, Ken Clay, Jerry Don Gleaton, Richie Zisk, and Steve Finch.


Edgar Martinez – 1990

Martinez famously didn’t get a chance to be a regular until his age-27 season when he hit .302/.397/.433 with 11 home runs and 27 doubles. Two years later; Edgar earned the first of two batting titles and stroked a league-leading 46 doubles.

Edgar was a master at reaching base and one of the best right-handed hitters of any time. Rogers Hornsby (.434), Jimmie Foxx (.426), Frank Thomas (.419) are the only righty bats with 6,000-plus plate appearances and a higher OBP than Papi’s .418.

When he hung up his cleats for good, Edgar had compiled five Silver Slugger Awards and seven All-Star selections. His sustained superior performance as a designated hitter inspired MLB to name its award for best DH after him.

Last year, Edgar became the second Mariner inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Oh yeah, the team is planning to erect a statue of his likeness outside T-Mobile Field.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t get a shot until he was 27-years-old.


Jay Buhner – 1991

Although“Bone” joined the Mariners via a 1988 trade immortalized by an episode of Seinfeld, he didn’t immediately thrive with Seattle. He finally did so three years later clobbering 27 home runs with an impressive .834 OPS.

Buhner’s best run during his 14-year Mariners career was 1995-97. His 124 home runs were third most in MLB behind Mark McGwire (149) and Albert Belle (128). In 1995, Bone finished fifth in MVP voting. The following year, he was an All-Star and Gold Glover.

By his 2001 retirement, Buhner had amassed 307 home runs and a .857 OPS as a Mariner. Only Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. (417) and Edgar (309) have more homers. Only Álex Rodríguez (.934), Edgar (.933), and Junior (.927) a higher OPS.

It seems Frank Costanza was onto something after all.


Mike Blowers – 1993

Blowers appeared in just 76 games with the Yankees before a May 1991 trade sent him to the Mariners for Jim Blueberg. “Blow” made limited appearances with Seattle in 1992 before making his presence felt a year later.

In 1993, the former Washington Husky hit 15 home runs with a career-high 121 OPS in 429 plate appearances. Not only did he prove valuable at the plate, his willingness to move around the diamond benefited his team.

Blowers primarily started at third base, but also appeared at first base and the outfield. He even donned the tools of ignorance once. On July 23 of his breakout year, Blow played catcher for an inning with Rich DeLucia pitching. The frame concluded without serious incident.

During three stints with Seattle, the pride of Bethel High School posted a strong .270/.343/.448 slash-line. These days, you’ll find him delivering spot-on analysis during local broadcasts of Mariners games.


Rich Amaral – 1993

The second round pick of the Cubs during the 1983 draft would spend nine years in the minors before making his MLB debut with the Mariners in 1991 as a 29-year-old.

Amaral didn’t make an immediate impact, not appearing in 100-plus games until 1993. That’s when the Visalia, California native finished fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting.

Fun fact: Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto finished eighth in 1993 Rookie of the Year voting.

Amaral would appear in 200-plus games in both the outfield and infield playing every position with the exception of catcher and pitcher. His most notable sub-job may have occurred when Griffey suffered a fractured wrist in 1995. The former UCLA Bruin along with Alex Diaz stepped in to cover Junior’s center field spot.

Offensively, Amaral didn’t have a power bat with just 11 home runs in eight seasons with Seattle. Still, he did manage to hit 82 doubles as a Mariner and steal 20-plus bases in a season twice.


Dan Wilson – 1995

Wilson was the seventh overall draft pick in 1990, but Cincinnati dealt him along with future Mariners fan-favorite Bobby Ayala to acquire Bret Boone and Erik Hanson. He’d appear in 91 games for Seattle in 1994 before a season-ending work stoppage. Then, his career took off.

In 1995, Wilson contributed a solid .278/.336/.416 and a model of durability. Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez (120) and Phillies manager Joe Girardi (119) were the only backstops making more starts than the University of Minnesota alum’s 118.

Wilson’s 12-year Seattle career is the benchmark used to measure every Mariners catcher ever. In 2012, the Mariners inducted him into its Hall of Fame with Randy Johnson. It’s fitting the Illinois native entered with his most notable battery-mate.


Franklin Gutierrez – 2009

Although he saw action in four previous seasons, Gutierrez’s Mariners debut in 2009 was his first with 500-plus plate appearances. The Venezuelan delivered results hitting .283/.339/.425 with 18 home runs and 24 doubles.

Gutierrez’s offense declined the next season. However, stellar defense earned him a Gold Glove and the reputation as the best defensive center fielder in major-league baseball. It’s why the late Dave Niehaus referred to Guti as “Death to Flying Things.”

Unfortunately, injuries decimated Gutierrez’s production and availability for several years. But he did enjoy an encore before ending his career in 2017. As a part-timer, Guti hit 29 home runs with a .859 OPS in 472 combined plate appearances in 2015-16 with the Mariners.

Despite his struggles, Guti will always hold a special spot in the hearts of many Mariners fans – including my wife.


David Aardsma – 2009

The former first rounder pitched for the Giants, both Chicago teams, and Boston before the Mariners acquired him in January 2009. In the Emerald City, he enjoyed his greatest success.

In prior stops, Aardsma recorded modest results posting an 88 ERA+ in 128 relief appearances. With the Mariners, he shined brightest as the club’s closer in 2009-10 by averaging 34 saves and a 143 ERA+.

Regrettably, 2011 Tommy John surgery ended Aardsma’s Mariners career. The club didn’t offer salary arbitration after the season making him a free agent. After recovering, the former Rice Owl pitched for both New York teams and Atlanta, although he never soared to the level he did in Seattle.

Prior to the 2018 season, Aardsma formally retired and joined the Blue Jays front office.


Kyle Seager – 2012

It turns out the other North Carolina Tar Heel selected by the Mariners in the 2009 draft had a better career than club’s initial choice – number-two overall pick Dustin Ackley.

Then-scouting director Tom McNamara famously chose Seager in the third round despite knowing his team’s draft board projected him as a fifth rounder. McNamara’s decision paid off for both Seager and the Mariners.

Prior to his MLB debut along in 2011, Seager spent most of his time at second base. However, the North Carolina native found a home at the hot corner.

In 2012, third base became Seager’s full-time position and he didn’t disappoint with 20 home runs, 35 doubles, and a .259/.316/.423 slash-line. By 2014, he was an All-Star and a Gold Glover.

Now, with the club in rebuild-mode, Seager is the longest-tenured Mariner and the veteran leader the kids need. He’s also top-5 in the team’s record book in games, home runs, doubles, and WAR.


Hisashi Iwakuma – 2013

Iwakuma was an established starting pitcher in Japan prior to signing with Seattle. Still, previous injuries softened demand when the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles made him available to MLB clubs after the 2011 campaign.

For this reason, the Mariners initially used Iwakuma in just five relief appearances through Memorial Day. Kuma eventually joined the rotation making 16 starts with a superb 2.65 ERA. Yet, the best was yet to come.

In 2013, Iwakuma made 33 starts logging 219.2 innings with a near-identical 2.66 ERA. Kuma would be an All-Star and a Cy Young Award finalist and even appeared in MVP voting.

Between 2013-16, Iwakuma averaged 28 starts and 181 innings. He even tossed a no-hitter against the Orioles in 2015. During this span, his ERA and ERA+ were top-15 among pitchers with 700-plus innings – only Bartolo Colon (3.6-percent) had a lower walk rate than Kuma (4.4).

Unfortunately, a shoulder injury ended Kuma’s career in 2017. That said; the 38-year-old’s success justified the risk Seattle assumed when other clubs wouldn’t do the same in 2011.


Edwin Díaz – 2016

Prior to the start of his breakout season, Prospect Insider ranked Díaz as third-best prospect in the Mariners’ system. How he reached the majors was a pleasant surprise.

Although he began his professional career as a starter, Seattle’s new management converted Díaz into a reliever in early 2016. After just 16 relief appearances with Class-AA Jackson, Sugar made his MLB debut on June 6.

As a reliever, Díaz’s was able to throw every pitch at nearly full effort. As a result, the native of Puerto Rico hit 100-MPH on the radar gun three times during his MLB debut with a peak velocity of 102.1-MPH.

That’s good, right?

Díaz would make 49 relief appearances and notch 18 saves on his way to a fifth place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. The Mariners seemed to have their closer for years to come.

In 2018, Díaz finished eighth in Cy Young voting, was an All-Star, and appeared on MVP ballots. Perhaps most impressively, he earned the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award. Alas, all good things must end.

That offseason, the Mariners took a “step back” dealing nearly every player on the major-league roster with high trade value, including Díaz. The team shipped Sugar with Robinson Canó to the Mets for veterans Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, plus prospects Justin Dunn, Jarred Kelenic, and Gerson Bautista.


Mitch Haniger – 2017

A first round pick of the Brewers in 2012, Haniger’s career progressed more slowly than anticipated. By 2015, he was playing with Class-AA Mobile in Arizona’s system, but requested reassignment to High-A Visalia to play regularly. A year later, his situation improved dramatically.

On Thanksgiving Eve 2016, the Diamondbacks sent Haniger along with Jean Segura and Zac Curtis to the Mariners for Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker. The Cal Poly alum had appeared in 34 games with Arizona as a September call-up, but he’d get a shot at a starting role with Seattle n 2017.

Although injuries curtailed his availability, Haniger put together a superb rookie campaign with 16 home runs, 25 doubles, and a .282/.352/.491 slash-line. In 2018, he was an All-Star and the Mariners best all-around player.

Unfortunately, a freak injury ended Haniger’s 2019 season in June. Adding to his woes, setbacks that may delay his debut this year. Despite the health-related troubles, the 29-year-old remains the best player on the Mariners until unseated.


Marco Gonzales – 2018

To acquire the former first rounder from the Cardinals, the Mariners shipped highly touted prospect Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis in July 2017. At the time, it was an unpopular deal with Mariners fans.

Fan angst was understandable. O’Neill was Seattle’s top prospect, while Gonzales was still trying to bounce back from 2016 Tommy John surgery. In retrospect, it all worked out.

Gonzales scuffled during second-half appearances with the Mariners in 2017. However, the value Dipoto saw in the southpaw began to emerge during the following season.

Since then, the former Gonzaga Bulldog has been Seattle’s best pitcher and the team’s 2019 Opening Day starter. Whenever the season begins, he’s a cinch to earn the same honor again.

Yep, it all worked out.


Tom Murphy – 2019

The Mariners acquired Murphy during the first week of last season to serve as backup to starting catcher Omar Narváez. No one could’ve predicted the impact the former Buffalo Bull would have with the club.

Drafted by Colorado in the third round of the 2012 draft, Murphy briefly appeared in parts of four seasons with the Rockies. Nevertheless, his 75 games with the Mariners was a career-high as was his overall production – .273/.324/.535 slash with 18 home runs.

To put Murphy’s performance into perspective, Edwin Encarnacion (138) was the only Mariner with 250-plus plate appearances and a higher OPS+ than Murphy (129). This suggests he was 29-percent more productive than a league-average hitter was.

Murphy’s offensive contributions and top-notch defensive skills made the Mariners comfortable enough to deal Narváez in the offseason and make the New York native starting catcher.

Not bad for a last minute addition.


Austin Nola – 2019

Our final pleasant surprise plays the same position as Murphy and many more. Nola was initially an infielder when the Marlins drafted him in 2012. He only began wearing catcher’s gear during the 2015 Arizona Fall League season.

After making his MLB debut last year, Nola primarily played first base and made starts at second and third base, right field, and catcher. It’s worth noting his positional versatility wasn’t the only contribution the former LSU Tiger made.

In 73 games, Nola hit 10 home runs and .269/.342/.454 with a 115 OPS+. The 30-year-old projects to back up Murphy behind the plate when play resumes.

Nola’s perseverance and flexibility finally paid off.


Finally

So who’ll be the next pleasant surprise for the Mariners?

It’s almost impossible to tell.

Who would’ve predicted a tenth rounder like Roberts would star for the Mariners? Or a late-bloomer eventually earning a plaque in Cooperstown.

Perhaps the next unexpected Mariners star is already in the organization, anxiously waiting for the season to begin to prove he belongs. Hopefully, the wait isn’t too long for him and the rest of us.

At this point, we’re all looking forward to the start of the season and the return to normalcy Opening Day would symbolize.

My Oh My…

Cover Photo: Kim Klemen / USA Today Sports

When Daniel Vogelbach finally got his chance to play regularly last year, he rewarded the Seattle Mariners with a team-leading 30 home runs and an All-Star game appearance. Yet, Vogelbach enters 2020 with something left to prove.

If all you knew about Vogelbach was his 2019 stat line, the notion anyone could have lingering doubts about him might seem preposterous to you. Not only did the left-handed hitter pace the Mariners in homers and runs scored, he ranked second among regulars in OBP and wRC+ behind former teammate Omar Narváez.

Vogey’s 2019 Stat Line

Vogelbach’s success was attributable to a potent power bat combined with an advanced on-base ability fostered by a sharp grasp of the strike zone. Among qualified hitters, only Mike Trout and Alex Bregman (18.3) and Yasmani Grandal (17.2) bettered Vogey’s 16.5-percent walk rate.

With so much going right for Vogelbach, why the concern?

A Summer Swoon

Vogelbach was the Mariners’ most productive hitter for much of last season. Unfortunately, his offensive prowess vaporized by the time the July 31 trade deadline rolled around.

Tale Of Two Seasons

Some may suggest Vogelbach was already regressing prior to August, which I don’t dispute. However, if the Florida native’s season ended on July 31, his year would’ve received a completely different narrative than it did. Furthermore, his struggles became glaringly obvious in August-September.

So, what went wrong?

From my perspective, a multitude of factors conspired against Vogelbach. The significance of each is up for debate.

Problems With The Lefties

The June trade of right-handed hitting first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnación led to Vogelbach facing more left-handing pitching. The overall results were sub-optimal.

Extreme Platoon Splits

Despite a notable disadvantage against lefties, Vogelbach did manage to draw walks at an above-average rate, while strikeouts remained relatively stable. On the other hand, his power numbers withered.

Vogelbach’s difficulty against like-handed pitching is indisputable. However, a closer review of his platoon splits suggests more was going on than simply problems with the lefties. To establish this point, I divided the All-Star’s platoon splits into the two segments noted above.

For this exercise, I’ve turned to a fun capability FanGraphs provides. The site’s splits tool permits us to segregate a player’s stats in a variety of ways and create the following table.

Bipolar Platoon Splits

While Vogelbach struggled solely against southpaws during the best phase of his season, he experienced difficulties confronting both lefties and righties during the latter part of 2019.

More Shifts

By July, Vogelbach was facing more infield shifts as teams attempted to dampen his success. To illustrate the potential impact on the 27-year-old’s productivity, I compared changes in the percentage of shifts employed against him and his wRC+.

Please note shift percentages are based on balls put into play. Additionally, league-average wRC+ is always 100. Therefore, Vogelbach’s 132 wRC+ in March-July suggests he was 32-percent more productive than a league-average player was during that span.

Shifts Increased, wRC+ Declined

Certainly, defensive alignments affected Vogelbach’s offense. But, when we look closer at his performance using expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), we begin to see dwindling quality and quantity of contact were major factors also.

Expected wOBA is a STATCAST product using quality (exit velocity and launch angle) and quantity (strikeouts and walks) of contact to determine what should’ve happened to balls put in play.

Look at xwOBA this way. Pitchers and hitters can affect exit velocity, launch angle, strikeouts, and walks. But they have no control over a ball once it enters the field. By examining Vogelbach through the lens of xwOBA, we can assess his effectiveness minus defense.

Vogelbach’s Monthly xwOBA

As you can see, Vogelbach’s xwOBA remained well above average until his late-season decline. Sure, the shifting hurt actual outcomes on balls in play. But Vogey’s difficulty with making solid contact was more pivotal to his downfall.

To see what I mean, let’s look at several contact-related factors contributing to his xwOBA and his slash-line cratering.

Fewer Barrels

According to STATCAST, barreled balls have the perfect blend of exit velocity and launch angle typically producing a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. We’re talking about home runs and screaming line drives.

Vogelbach’s 10.8-percent barrel rate for the year ranked number-41 among hitters putting 300-plus balls in play. Through July 31, Vogey was top-25 matching Bryce Harper and just ahead of NL MVP Cody Bellinger and Josh Bell (13.1), and Freddie Freeman and former teammate Domingo Santana (13.0).

Vogey’s Barrel Percentage

As you can see, Vogelbach’s barrel rate fell off drastically during the last two months of the season. Among hitters with 50-plus balls in play, he ranked 253 of 329. His barrel rate in August was just two-percent.

Two-percent!

More Grounders

Intuitively, we realize barrels and similarly well-struck balls are vital to Vogelbach sustaining success. His summer swoon coincided with a steady increase in ground balls, which literally played right into the hands of shifting defenders.

The following compares Vogelbach’s ground ball rate and combined line drive/fly ball rates throughout the season. The trends validate everything we’ve discussed thus far.

Vogey’s GB vs LD/FB Rates

By August, the two measurements were virtually equal. That’s a problem for a player relying on his power stroke to produce, especially one who’s slow-footed.

That’s not a slight towards Vogelbach whatsoever. However, only eight players with 100-plus measured runs were slower than his 24.1 ft/sec sprint speed last season. Since he’s not going to routinely leg out grounders, hitting the ball in the air with authority is paramount.

Less Contact

Vogelbach was also making considerably less contact on pitches in the strike zone during the waning days of 2019. The following illustrates the percentage of pitches he saw in the zone, swing and contact rates on those pitches, and swinging-strike percentage on all pitches.

Vogey’s Zone Contact Numbers

The ratio of pitches Vogelbach saw in the zone and the frequency he swung at them remained steady. Yet, he made significantly less contact and whiffed on pitches more often.

Pitchers Adjusted

Is it possible pitchers modifying their tactics against Vogelbach disrupted his productivity later in the year?

Absolutely.

Teams changing their approach towards successful hitters is part of baseball. Defensive shifting is one method of doing so. Another is altering pitch selection and sequencing.

A review of the type pitches Vogelbach was seeing as the season progressed hint at a changing strategy against the slugger.

Pitch Percentages vs Vogey Evolved

Vogelbach’s diet of four-seam fastballs remained relatively stable. But we see there were noticeable changes in other percentages later in the season.

It’s reasonable to believe changing approaches by opposing pitchers had a second order effect of reducing Vogelbach’s success against all pitches later in the season. This potentially explains his dwindling success against pitches he was crushing earlier in the year. Specifically, four-seamers and sliders.

Changes In xwOBA vs Pitches

There’s one more issue worth discussing, although it isn’t quantifiable with metrics. Still, every human deals with it.

Head Games

Vogelbach’s demeanor seemingly changed late in the season, which suggested frustration with his situation. Per Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Mariners manager Scott Servais verified this during the team’s pre Spring Training luncheon.

“Vogey got down on himself. He got very negative, and it doesn’t get any better when it goes that way.” — Scott Servais

It’s plausible Vogelbach’s initial regression was some combination of the factors previously discussed, but then exacerbated when he got down on himself. Most us, including me, can relate to Vogey’s predicament.

Assuming Vogelbach learned from his late-season collapse and grows from it, there’s a reasonable chance we’ll see 2020 stat-line resembling what he produced through the first four months of 2019. That’s what I’m expecting from the former second-round pick.

Perhaps then, Vogey won’t begin another season with a shadow of doubt hanging over him.

My Oh My…

 

Photo: Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Seattle Mariners could have one of the more memorable rookie classes in franchise history. That’s saying a lot for an organization with several impressive freshman classes since its inaugural campaign.

Before reminiscing about bygone rookie classes, a few ground rules.

What’s A Rookie?

The Baseball Reference play index is a great resource for discussions like ours. Therefore, I’m using the limits used by B-R to define rookie status:

  • 130 at bats
  • 50 innings pitched
  • 45 days service time prior to September 1

Something else to consider, players may appear as a “rookie” in several different seasons before reaching the milestones we’re using. For our discussion, those individuals will count just once.

We’re not debating awards or who’s the best Mariners rookie, so relax. This is merely a fun exercise – at least it is for me.

Finally, we’ll be using the B-R version of wins above replacement (WAR).

Okay, let’s talk rookie classes.

First Class – 1977

The Mariners used 19 freshman during their first year of existence. Not only were there newbies aplenty, they were important contributors on a bad team.

Rookies contributed 13.8 WAR, which was 88-percent of the total value delivered by the club during its inaugural campaign.

Seattle’s lone All-Star in 1977 was a rookie – Ruppert Jones. Seattle’s first selection during the 1976 expansion draft was also its starting center fielder on Opening Day.

Other freshman contributors, along with Jones, were reliever Enrique Romo, Carlos López, José Báez, Julio Cruz, Craig Reynolds, and Larry Cox.

A 23-year-old Rick Honeycutt appeared in 10 games. The Tennessee product and future Dodgers pitching coach played four years with the Mariners and represented the club in the 1980 All-Star game.

Infielder Jimmy Sexton appeared in just 14 games. Sexton’s biggest contribution came after the season when the club dealt him to Houston for Leon Roberts, who’d lead Seattle in home runs and AVG/OBP/SLG in 1978.

Meet Mr. Mariner – 1984

The 1984 class also delivered a significant portion (50-percent) of the club’s total value. It also produced the franchise’s first great player. Alvin Davis earned AL Rookie of the Year (ROY) honors and was an All-Star.

Davis hit 27 home runs, which remains the franchise’s record for homers by a rookie. The former Arizona State Sun Devil would hold most of the Mariners’ offensive records for over a decade later.

Davis wasn’t the only rookie star in 1984. Teammate Mark Langston finished second behind Mr. Mariner in ROY voting. The Californian led the AL with 204 strikeouts, also a club record for rookies.

Other notable names appearing as rookies included Harold Reynolds, Mariners broadcaster Dave Valle, Danny Tartabull, Phil Bradley, Ivan Calderon, and Jim Presley.

Tartabull would finish fifth in 1986 ROY balloting. Seattle subsequently traded him with Rick Luecken to the Royals for Scott Bankhead, Mike Kingery and Steve Shields.

Hall of Fame Edition – 1989

No Mariners rookie class can boast more career success than this group.

Future Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Randy Johnson entered the 1989 campaign as rookies. Griffey landed in third place for ROY honors and Martinez hadn’t become “Edgar” yet. Meanwhile, Johnson arrived via a May player swap sending Langston to Montreal.

Perhaps another 1989 Seattle rookie eventually joins Junior, Edgar, and Randy in Cooperstown.

A 22-year-old Omar Vizquel made his big-league debut playing in 143 games. Vizquel’s name appeared on 52.6-percent of writers’ ballots this year. The native of Caracas, Venezuela has seven more shots at getting into the Hall of Fame.

Finally, Erik Hanson led Seattle rookie pitchers in WAR, starting 17 games with a 3.18 ERA.

Year Of The Starter -1999

Three Mariners rookies made 15-plus starts – ROY runner-up Freddy García (33), John Halama (24), and Gil Meche (15). Both García and Halama arrived the summer prior in the deadline deal sending Johnson to the Astros.

Another 1999 rookie, Carlos Guillén, also arrived in Seattle via the Johnson trade. In 2001, Guillén faced the unenviable challenge of replacing the departed Álex Rodríguez.

Ryan Franklin made his MLB debut in 1999. It’s worth noting that Franklin, García, Halama, Joel Piñeiro, and Jamie Moyer would comprise the last five-man rotation in MLB to make every start in 2003.

Starter Mac Suzuki was the first Mariners player born in Japan. Seattle traded him in June 1999 to the Mets for Allen Watson. New York quickly waived the right-hander, who then latched on with the Royals.

Another notable name from 1999 was Raúl Ibañez. The team’s number-1006 overall pick of the 1992 draft would go on to be a three-time Mariner.

The One With Ichiro – 2001

Obviously, the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki was a momentous occasion. Ichiro led the majors in hits, batting average, and stolen bases. He’d win the AL ROY and MVP, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger helping propel Seattle to a record-setting 116 regular seasons wins.

Making Ichiro’s dynamic debut even more memorable was the fact he was the first position player to begin his professional career in Japan and enjoy sustained MLB success. The future Hall of Famer became an international star.

Scott Podsednik appeared in just five games and 14 more contests the following season before Seattle waived him. Ironically, the Texan would be the 2003 NL ROY runner-up with the Brewers.

Piñeiro appeared in 17 games, including 11 starts, posting a 2.17 ERA for the AL West champions. The Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico native played seven seasons with the Mariners, including the previously mentioned 2003 campaign.

Brian Fuentes made 10 relief appearances, which turned out to be his entire Mariners career. The team dealt the lefty and fellow rookie Denny Stark with José Paniagua to the Rockies for Jeff Cirillo. Stark finished ninth in 2002 NL ROY voting with Colorado, Fuentes became a four-time All-Star.

Royal Debut -2005

Okay, it wasn’t a deep class. However, a franchise icon did debut – Félix Hernández.

A 19-year-old King Félix made the first of 418 career starts on August 4. The Venezuelan pitched five innings, allowing one earned run on three hits and two walks with four strikeouts. As it would be throughout most of Hernández’s career, Seattle provided minimal run support losing the game 3-1.

Overall, Félix made 12 starts with a 2.67 ERA suggesting what waited ahead for arguably the best pitcher in Mariners history.

As we noted already, the 2005 class lacked depth. Despite debuting in August, The King led Mariners rookies with a 2.8 WAR, just ahead of Jeremy Reed (2.1).

Although no other freshman provided meaningful value in 2005, there were notable names and longtime major leaguers playing as rookies that year. Specifically: Rene Rivera, Yuniesky Betancourt, Matt Thornton, Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Morse, Greg Dobbs, George Sherrill, and Scott Atchison.

Fleeting Promise – 2011

The debut of Dustin Ackley was a big deal at the time. After all, Ackley was the first draft selection by GM Jack Zduriencik and second overall in the 2009 draft. Initially, the former Tar Heel didn’t disappoint proving to be Seattle’s best hitter and finishing sixth in ROY voting.

We all know now 2011 would be Ackley’s shining moment. Still, during that one summer in the Emerald City, the left-handed hitter’s bat provided something desperately needed by Mariners fans – hope.

Similarly, Michael Pineda provided a glimpse of what Zduriencik was trying to build. Pineda placed one spot ahead of Ackley in ROY voting and was an All-Star. In 28 starts, the 6-foot-7 right-hander from the Dominican Republic posted the same ERA (3.47) as King Félix and led the rotation with a 1.099 WHIP.

Alas, as with Ackley, the good times ended abruptly. Zduriencik dealt Pineda with Vicente Campos in the offseason to the Yankees for Jesús Montero and Héctor Noesí.

One 2011 rookie did become a fixture for Seattle – Kyle Seager. Ackley’s college teammate is still a Mariner and the projected Opening Day third baseman.

Seager’s production has regressed recently, but this shouldn’t overshadow his overall body of work. The 2014 All-Star and Gold Glover has been a durable performer during his nine-year career.

Since Seager became a regular in 2012, only Eric Hosmer (1,237) and Carlos Santana (1,234) have appeared in more games than the North Carolina native’s 1,208. Moreover, he’s top-5 in club history in games, hits, doubles, home runs, and WAR.

Other notable rookies: the late Greg Halman, “The Bartender,” Tom Wilhelmsen, in-season trade acquisitions Casper Wells and Charlie Furbush, Alex Liddi, Steve Delabar, and Blake Beavan.

Promising Pitching – 2014

This group holds the franchise record for lowest combined ERA (3.12) in a season. There were certainly memorable names among the bunch.

After being September call-ups the season prior, heralded prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker made a combined 18 starts in 2014 posting a 2.89 ERA. Injuries and inconsistency hampered both Paxton and Walker. But the duo did experience moments of brilliance, once again giving Mariners fans hope.

In his first start of the season, Paxton threw seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Angels in Anaheim. With the Mariners still in the postseason hunt in early September, the Canadian pitched into the eighth inning for the first time ever holding the A’s to just two runs and four hits.

Similarly, Walker posted a 1.96 ERA during five September appearances. The team’s former first round pick saved the best for his last outing with a complete game in Toronto. Unfortunately, the Mariners lost 1-0.

Southpaw Roenis Elías made 29 starts tying him with Chris Young for second most on the staff behind Félix (34). A year later, the Mariners traded the Cuban along with fellow 2014 freshman Carson Smith to the Red Sox for Jonathan Aro and Wade Miley. Elías returned in 2018 before the team dealt him again last summer.

It’s worth noting Dominic Leone actually led rookie pitchers with 1.4 WAR. Leone appeared in 57 games recording a 2.17 ERA. Only King Félix was better (2.14) in Seattle.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Chris Taylor, who hit .287 with a .347 OBP in 151 plate appearances. Taylor’s 1.5 WAR led all Mariner rookies and was fifth best among position players on the team.

Other notable rookies: Jesús Sucre, Abraham Almonte, James Jones, and Stefen Romero.

Year Of The Rookie – 2019

From a value perspective, the class of 2019 didn’t provide much. That said; there were plenty of playing opportunities for rookies with the Mariners in year-one of their “step back.”

Names such as Yusei Kikuchi Kyle Lewis, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley received the most acclaim. However, a 29-year-old Austin Nola and Shed Long demonstrated they could be fixtures on this year’s Opening Day roster and into the future.

All told, the Mariners used 27 freshmen last year – most in franchise history. Can you name all of them?

Seattle’s Rather Large 2019 Rookie Class

The 2020 class should be a lot of fun to watch. Sheffield, Lewis, Dunn, Fraley, Bishop enter the upcoming season with their rookie status intact. Moreover, minor leaguer Evan White is the likely Opening Day first baseman and we may see top prospects Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic debut later this year.

These players and others in the team’s pipeline beginning to blossom is a fascinating proposition. Then again, there’s never a guarantee prospects morph into dependable contributors in the majors – Seattle fans are well aware of this reality.

Still, the notion of the Mariners’ rookie class of 2020 potentially growing both in size and influence over the organization’s future is exciting.

It’s also a reason to tune-in during a season not projected to deliver much success in the standings.

Wouldn’t you agree?

My Oh My….

(Featured Photo – Adam Jude / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Mariners made an uncharacteristically low number of player acquisitions under GM Jerry Dipoto this offseason. But Dipoto’s inactivity doesn’t mean the organization didn’t accomplish what it set out to do.

Before digging into where the Mariners stand with Spring Training upon us, let’s reflect on Seattle’s 2019 campaign. It certainly was a bumpy ride for the team and its fan base.

Looking Back

The Mariners entered last season in rebuild-mode, yet managed to enjoy a surprisingly good start. By April 11, Seattle was 13-2 and owners of the best record in MLB.

Then, reality set in.

Seattle subsequently went 55-92 finishing with its worst record since 2011. The team’s offensive numbers and their associated MLB rankings were similarly underwhelming.

Mariners 2019 Offense

After June 15, the Mariners were bottom-5 in all categories listed above. Compounding matters, the lineup ranked last in the most important department – run production. Only the Tigers scored fewer runs (345) than the Mariners (375) did.

The progressive decline in productively is partially attributable to losing three important hitters in June. Both Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion left via trade; Mitch Haniger suffered a season-ending injury.

Haniger was having a sub-par season, but did have 15 home runs in 63 games with an above-average 109 OPS+ before his injury.

Daniel Vogelbach was the team’s lone All-Star and led the club with 30 home runs. Unfortunately, the left-handed hitter’s second-half OPS plummeted to .626.

After walking at a historically low rate in 2018, Dee Gordon doubled his walk tally and registered a minor uptick in productivity. Unfortunately, injuries reduced Gordon’s availability for a second consecutive season.

Shortstop J.P. Crawford also enjoyed a strong start before regressing. The 25-year-old’s May-June .310/.380/.500 slash-line plummeted to .178/.275/.297 for the remainder of the season.

Kyle Seager played less than 154 games for the first time since 2012 after suffering an injury in Spring Training. The former North Carolina Tar Heel struggled upon returning in May, although he produced a tremendous August with a 1.116 OPS. That said; Seager finished with a .675 OPS in September.

Defensively, the Mariners were among the worst teams in the majors. Players with the most notorious defensive reputations were outfielders Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana, infielder Tim Beckham, and catcher Omar Narváez.

Smith’s glove work improved as the season progressed. Some fans won’t agree, but the Floridian was a top-10 outfield defender according to the Baseball Savant metric Outs Above Average (OOA).

Santana’s productivity at the plate made defensive lapses more tolerable. But injuries inevitably derailed the latter part of the 27-year-old’s lone season with Seattle.

Among 167 infielders with 100-plus attempts in the field, Beckham’s -9 infield OOA ranked in the bottom-10. Crawford eventually replaced the Georgian before an 80-game PED suspension ended his season.

Similarly, advanced metrics suggested Narváez was one the worst defensive catchers with the Venezuelan rating particularly poorly at pitch framing.

Despite the overall dismal performance by position players, there were bright spots worth highlighting.

Narváez and Tom Murphy combined to form one of the most prolific offensive catcher units in the majors and in Mariners franchise history.

Murphy led all regulars with a 129 OPS+ (league-average is 100). The Buffalo alum also demonstrated meaningful power with 18 home runs in 75 games.

Austin Nola made his MLB debut at age-29, delivering outstanding results: 10 home runs and .269/.342/.454 with a 115 OPS+ in 73 games. The former LSU Tiger primarily played first base, although he made starts at second and third base, right field, and his favored position – catcher.

September call-up Kyle Lewis played just 18 games, yet managed to hit six home runs and five doubles.

It was a difficult year for Seattle’s pitching staff also.

Mariners 2019 Pitching

Only three pitchers made 20-plus starts for the team – Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, and Mike Leake. The team dealt Leake at the trade deadline, while Félix Hernández made 15 starts between IL stints.

Gonzales anchored the staff, pacing starters in every significant category. The former Gonzaga Bulldog set career highs for starts (34) and innings (203) and was one of only 15 pitchers to log 200-plus frames.

Among starters with 150-plus innings, only Boston’s Rick Porcello (5.52) had a worse ERA than Kikuchi did (5.48). The southpaw’s .344 xwOBA also placed him in the bottom 10-percent in MLB.

Most observers expected former top-100 prospect Justus Sheffield would join the rotation by mid-season. However, Sheffield struggled so much at Class-AAA Tacoma the organization re-assigned the 23-year-old to Double-A.

The bullpen was extremely volatile with a league-leading 22 pitchers throwing 10-plus innings in a relief role. Still, several relievers did perform relatively well.

Roenis Elías was a rock prior to a trade to the Nationals. Meanwhile, Anthony Bass was the second-half workhorse, leading Seattle late-inning relievers with 28.1 innings.

Austin Adams posted a .247 xwOBA – eleventh best in MLB among relievers facing 100-plus batters. Unfortunately, late-season knee surgery likely sidelines Adams several months into the 2020 campaign.

Rule 5 selection Brandon Brennan was another pleasant surprise. The only hiccup in the right-hander’s rookie campaign was a shoulder injury costing him six weeks. Still, Brennan posted the bullpen’s best xwOBA after returning in early August.

Other noteworthy relievers were Sam Tuivailala, Matt Magill, and Zac Grotz.

Offseason Action

The exodus of talent this offseason was much lower than last year for two reasons. The club was in a different stage of its rebuild. Besides, there wasn’t much talent left to trade.

Notable Departures

There were few offseason acquisitions, but the club parted ways with several Opening Day starters – Beckham, Santana, and Narváez. Also gone, arguably the best pitcher in franchise history – King Félix.

Among the players listed below, Nestor Cortes Jr. was the only trade acquisition. Everyone else was a free agent signing except for a trio of waiver wire pickups – Sam Haggerty, Phillips Valdéz, and Nick Margevicius.

Notable Acquisitions

The team’s biggest offseason moves were agreeing to contract extensions with Gonzales and Evan White.

Extending Gonzales was a no-brainer, but White’s deal was surprising. Seattle committed six years and $24 million to the first base prospect with just four games above the AA-level.

Looking Forward

Barring unforeseen circumstances, White will be the Opening Day first baseman. Prospect Insider’s most recent rankings place the former first rounder in the organization’s top-10.

White hasn’t demonstrated prototypical first base power. But there’s no questioning the 23-year-old’s Gold Glove potential.

Shed Long projects to be the everyday second baseman. In 42 games last season, Long hit 12 doubles and .263/.333/.454. The Alabama native’s hit tool has never been in question, but his position in the field has.

A former catching prospect, Long started double-digit games at second base and in left field during his rookie season. There was talk last year about the 24-year-old morphing into a super-utility player. For now, such a role isn’t in the plan.

Shortstop belongs to Crawford in 2020. As noted last September, management needs time to assess whether he’s the club’s long-term answer at the position.

Where Gordon plays this season remains unclear. Other than a failed center field experiment in 2018, the 31-year-old has been a middle-infielder during nine big-league seasons.

Whether Seager capitalizes on his hot August and reworked physique is something we’ll learn later. Regardless, the 33-year-old will be the starting third baseman for a ninth consecutive season.

Haniger suffered a rehab setback that required surgery last month. The 29-year-old’s return date remains unknown.

The potential absence of Haniger would be devastating to teams ready to contend. Since the Mariners are rebuilding, there’s an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons – more playing time for developing players.

The most prominent youngsters with a chance to join the outfield with Smith are Lewis, Jake Fraley, and Braden Bishop.

Smith should be the everyday center fielder. Despite posting career lows in every slash category, the 26-year-old led the majors with 46 stolen bases.

Lewis’s 38.7-percent strikeout and 4-percent walk rates in September appear troublesome. Then again, that’s a small sample size. The 24-year-old will have the opportunity to demonstrate improved plate discipline in 2020.

After slashing .298/.365/.545 in the minors, Fraley suffered a season-ending thumb injury after just 12 games with Seattle. Haniger’s injury gives the 24-year-old a shot at being the Opening Day right fielder.

The injury bug snagged Bishop also. The former Washington Husky had just six hits in 60 plate appearances during his disappointing rookie debut.

Recent acquisition Jose Siri likely begins 2020 with Tacoma. However, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill suggests Siri could play with the Mariners this year.

It’s plausible highly touted outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic joins the team. Still just 20-years-old, Kelenic slashed .291/.364/.540 with 23 home runs during three minor-league stops last season.

Last year, Dipoto declared Vogelbach would be on the Opening Day roster and be afforded an opportunity to demonstrate he belonged. Now, the path to a long-term spot with the team appears narrower.

Vogelbach was particularly vulnerable to left-handers. Among MLB lefty hitters with 100-plus plate appearances versus southpaws, only Crawford had a lower batting average (.160) than Vogelbach (.161).

Adding to the drama, the 27-year-old Vogelbach is one of several players with no minor-league options remaining.

No Minor-League Options

Murphy will be the starting catcher with Nola likely serving as his backup. There currently isn’t another backstop on the 40-man roster.

It’s worth noting Murphy hasn’t played more than 116 games in a season as a professional. Last year, he appeared in 76 contests with Seattle.

Murphy’s productivity against like-handed merits watching also. The right-handed hitter’s .653 OPS versus righties was 450 points lower than his OPS when facing southpaws.

Turning our attention to the rotation, Gonzales tops the staff. However, uncertainty surrounds the remaining favorites for spots 2-4.

Kikuchi tossed recorded 11 outings of six-plus innings, including a complete game. However, inconsistency and home runs plagued the Japanese import throughout the season.

The prevailing belief is Kikuchi rebounds in 2020 thanks to his talent and determination to improve. That said; measurable growth and sustained success this year benefits both player and team long-term.

Sheffield gets the opportunity to demonstrate he’s ready for the majors. After all, the Tennessee native has nothing left to prove in the minors.

Kendall Graveman was Oakland’s Opening Day starter in 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2018. Last year, the 29-year-old only pitched six innings in the minors for the Cubs. For this reason, expect the club to establish workload restrictions.

Notable candidates competing for the fifth rotation spot are Justin Dunn, Margevicius, Valdéz, and Nestor Cortes Jr. The team also signed veteran Wei-Yin Chen to a minor-league deal.

Dunn was a September call-up, but he struggled with control during his first two starts. Still, the former Boston College Eagle did perform better during his final two outings walking just one in four innings.

Churchill recently expressed concern regarding Dunn’s viability as a starter. Depending on his development, the Freeport, New York native may eventually morph into a high-leverage reliever. Then again, Jason was careful to reiterate there’s no rush to decide the 24-year-old’s ultimate role.

Margevicius made 12 starts with San Diego last year, positing an unsightly 6.41 ERA and .366 xwOBA. But it’s important to note the southpaw didn’t pitch above High-A prior to making the Friar’s Opening Day rotation.

Cortes has starting experience, although the Yankees and Orioles used him more often in relief. Similarly, Valdéz bounced between starting and relieving with the Rangers. How to the pair fits with the Mariners will unfold during the season.

Chen was a starter prior to 2019, but a UCL injury limited him to just 31 starts in 2017-18. Considering Miami released the Taiwan native despite still owing him $22 million a starting role may be a reach.

Yoshihisa Hirano and Carl Edwards Jr. should comprise the bullpen’s back-end. Hirano served primarily as a late-inning arm during his rookie campaign in 2018. Last year, the 35-year-old slipped to a middle-relief role.

Still, Hirano’s 53 innings would’ve led Mariners relievers last season. Moreover, his .296 xwOBA suggests a bounce back is possible.

Edwards endured an injury-plagued season with the Cubs and Diamondbacks. Obviously, the Mariners believe the 28-year-old, who’s a season removed from a .282 xwOBA, can regain his form with his new team.

Potential candidates to round out the bullpen include Magill, Tuivailala, Brennan, Grotz, Dan Altavilla, Taylor Guilbeau, Yohan Ramirez, Gerson Bautista, Art Warren, Sam Delaplane, Erik Swanson, and perhaps Dunn, Cortes, and Valdéz.

Unfinished Business

Rotation depth remains perilously thin. One often mentioned option to help is former Mariner and current free agent Taijuan Walker.

A reunion with Walker would please fans looking for a good news story. But it’s unclear how much the former first rounder may contribute to any club this year.

Walker made just three starts in 2018 before needing Tommy John surgery. Last year, a shoulder ailment slowed his rehab limiting the 27-year-old to just one inning at any level. As with Graveman, the righty faces strict workload limitations in 2020.

Even if Walker rejoined the Mariners, adding a veteran capable of serving as a starter or multi-inning reliever would help. Free agent Tommy Milone fit that bill for Seattle last season. Perhaps a second act from the former USC Trojan or a similar pitcher happens.

Considering the arduous nature of the position, adding organizational catcher depth would appear to be a priority.

A veteran presence could potentially remove unneeded pressure on the club’s stable of young outfielders. There’s a wide array of notable names available on the free agent market including former Mariners Jarrod Dyson, Leonys Martín, and Cameron Maybin, Kevin Pillar, Juan Lagares, and Yasiel Puig.

These and other free agent outfielders vary greatly in age, skill set, and expectations for playing time. For now, the Mariners appear comfortable with their current situation. Perhaps a change of heart occurs once management reassesses Haniger’s physical readiness in Peoria.

It’s understandable that Gordon will want to play regularly. However, the opportunity may not afford itself in Seattle. The optimal outcome for both player and club may be a trade.

Considering Gordon’s recent below-average production and his $14 million salary, moving him won’t be easy. Then again, Dipoto managed to move a lot of money last year.

There are few pending free agents on the 40-man roster. But Hirano certainly would garner interest with a rebound. The same applies to Edwards, who’s under club control through 2022.

Pending Free Agents

Dipoto could conceivably peddle other players this summer. If Haniger returns and delivers production reminiscent to his 2018 All-Star campaign, he’d pique the interest of contenders.

Depending on the growth of the club’s young outfielders, Dipoto could consider dealing Smith. Then again, Smith himself is still young and under club control through 2022.

Any reliever delivering solid results is a potential trade chip. This applies to any seller at the deadline.

Dipoto has suggested it’s possible he begins adding major-league talent via trade this summer. While this sounds great to fans in February, it’s important they consider what this strategy means. To add established players, the team will likely have to offload some prospects.

I’m not suggesting Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and Julio Rodriguez will be dealt as Adam Jones was over a decade ago. However, names fans have fallen in love with despite never seeing them play may be on the move. It’s all part of a rebuild process expected to make the club viable in 2021.

Finally

The Mariners won’t appear on anyone’s list for winning the offseason. However, Seattle can still make significant progress in 2020 without improving in the win-loss column.

All that’s needed is measurable development from the Mariners’ crop of young players. This would be an important victory for an organization expecting to become relevant in the standings within 18 months.

My Oh My…

(Featured Photo – Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

From a player transaction perspective, the Houston Astros have been relatively idle this offseason. But that doesn’t mean the franchise hasn’t been making headlines – far from it.

Before discussing Houston’s tumultuous offseason and the club’s current outlook, let’s consider the season that was 2019.

Looking Back

Across the board, the Astros were arguably the best team in baseball. Houston led the majors with 107 wins, reaching the World Series before falling to the Washington Nationals in seven games.

Houston’s rotation boasted 2019 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and runner-up Gerrit Cole. Former Cy Young awardee Zack Greinke buoyed the starting staff for the postseason run after joining the team in July.

2019 Astros Pitching

The bullpen’s .292 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) tied Tampa Bay for second best in MLB, only the Dodgers (.285) were better.

It truly was a team effort by Houston’s bullpen. Seven relievers posted an xwOBA better than the .318 league-average – Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Josh James, Will Harris, Collin McHugh, Héctor Rondón, and Chris Devenski.

Houston’s bats did a superb job with a supercharged lineup that included an MVP runner-up (Alex Bregman) and the AL Rookie of the Year (Yordan Álvarez).

2019 Astros Offense

The Astros led the majors with five players with 500-plus plate appearances and an OPS+ above 120 (league-average is 100) – Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuvé, Michael Brantley, and George Springer. Álvarez also had a 173 OPS+ in 375 plate appearances.

Houston were exceptional in the field also. According to the Baseball Savant product Outs Above Average (OOA), the infield and outfield units each ranked top-3 in MLB.

Offseason Action

Obviously, the most newsworthy departures were GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch due to their involvement in a sustained, organization-wide electronic sign-stealing operation. Each earned one-year suspensions from MLB; owner Jim Crane fired both of them.

Notable Departures

The roster also took a big hit with five key contributors, including Cole, leaving via free agency. Luhnow subsequently non-tendered Aaron Sanchez and traded outfield defensive whiz Jake Marisnick to the Mets for a pair of prospects.

As for player acquisitions, Luhnow didn’t do much before his January termination. The most important newcomers are first-time GM James Click and a skipper with 22 seasons of MLB managerial experience – Dusty Baker.

Notable Acquisitions

As far as adding major leaguers, the Astros’ offseason amounted to retaining two free agents – catcher Martín Maldonado and reliever Joe Smith – and inking backup receiver Dustin Garneau.

Looking Forward

At first base, Gurriel had his best since season since joining the team as a rookie in 2016. The Cuban made 104 starts in 2019 and figures to be the main stakeholder again. But first base depth is rather thin behind the 35-year-old.

Utility-man Aledmys Díaz is an option, although no one else on the 40-man roster started a game at first base in the majors last year. Down on the farm, Taylor Jones made 64 starts at first base for Class-AAA Round Rock last year. Jones also spent time at third base and in the outfield.

Prospect Abraham Toro has been mentioned as a potential first baseman. Last season, Toro appeared in 25 games with Houston; most were at third base. Perhaps the 23-year-old receives more opportunities during the upcoming campaign.

Altuvé remains a foundational piece, but a recent decline in productivity and availability merits attention. The Venezuelan, who’s entering his age-30 season, averaged just 130 games in 2018-19. Moreover, his combined 8.9 bWAR for those two years barely exceeds his value during his 2017 MVP campaign (8.1).

Shortstop Carlos Correa appeared in just 75 games last season marking his third consecutive injury-marred campaign. Since 2017, Correa is averaging just 98 games annually. Having said that, the 25-year-old Puerto Rico native remains a potent weapon when available.

Bregman remains at the hot corner and enters the upcoming season as an MVP candidate. The 25-year-old has progressively improved in each of his first four seasons and is still getting better.

Considering the infield’s injury issues, Díaz is an important player on the roster. The 29-year-old slashed a strong .271/.356/.467 last year, starting 15-plus games at both corner infield spots and second base. Díaz also started contests at shortstop and in left field.

Springer, Brantley, Josh Reddick, Kyle Tucker, Myles Straw, and potentially Álvarez are in the outfield rotation. Springer and Brantley are locks in center field and left field respectively. Reddick has been the mainstay in right field, but likely faces competition from Tucker.

Reddick appears on track to be ready for Spring Training after undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery in the offseason. That said; the Georgia native has a 93 OPS+ since the beginning of 2018, ranking him in the bottom 15-percent of hitters with over 1,000 plate appearances during this period. A strong showing by Tucker may lead to him supplanting Reddick.

Straw is an interesting piece capable of playing anywhere in the outfield. The 25-year-old even appeared in 26 games at shortstop with Houston last season. In his brief 56-game audition, he was a disruptive base runner with good on-base ability.

Álvarez will likely be team’s everyday designated hitter rather than a regular outfielder. While the 22-year-old’s prolific regular season earned him top rookie honors, he struggled greatly in the postseason. Which Álvarez will the Astros get in 2020?

Despite entering his age-33 season, there’s no evidence of a pending Brantley regression. The Washington native delivered almost identical production in 2018 and 2019, earning All-Star selections in both seasons.

The Astros outfield was one of the better defensive units last year. But it’s important to highlight Marisnick, who’s no longer with the team, and Springer were the main contributors to the team’s OOA tally. The remaining players were average-ish with the exception of Brantley, who was well below average at -6 OOA.

From an offensive standpoint, catcher is the weakest position on the roster. But that’s acceptable as long as the rest of the lineup is producing. Maldonado remains an above-average defender, although advanced metrics suggest he’s no longer elite.

Garneau is also a strong defensive presence behind the dish. Garrett Stubbs is the third backstop on the 40-man roster. Garneau has no minor-league options remaining, while Stubbs enters this coming season with two options remaining.

No Minor-League Options

Clearly, losing Cole is a big hurdle to overcome. However, Greinke’s acquisition helps the team to somewhat mitigate the loss of its co-ace. Despite his advancing age, the Florida native continues delivering excellent results and innings.

Last season, Greinke’s .282 xwOBA was fifteenth best among starters facing 500-plus batters. Since 2017, only Verlander (643.0) and Jacob deGrom (622.1) have thrown more innings than the 36-year-old has.

Lance McCullers Jr. expects to be ready for Opening Day after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. Still, availability has been a recurring concern during the 26-year-old’s career.

McCullers hasn’t made over 22 starts or tossed more than 129 innings in any of his four big-league seasons. Therefore, it’s reasonable the team will cautiously monitor his workload. Luhnow previously commented the team would limit the right-hander to 100-120 innings.

Behind Verlander, Greinke, and McCullers, the Astros have a large pool of candidates for the final two spots in the rotation. Most notably: Brad Peacock, José Urquidy, Forrest Whitley, James, and Pruitt.

Peacock started 2019 in the rotation. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury sidelined him in the second half, although he did return for the postseason. Considering the injury and the fact he’s performed well as a swing-man, would remaining in that role be best for both player and team?

After pitching five shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series, Urquidy would appear well positioned to earn a rotation spot. Workload is always a concern for a rookie, but he did throw a combined 154 innings in the minors and majors in 2019.

Luhnow previously suggested Whitley had a chance to make the team out of Spring Training. The 22-year-old was one of the top pitching prospects in MLB last year until injuries and ineffectiveness derailed him. That said; he did rebound with a 3.60 ERA during six Arizona Fall League starts.

Although James was a reliever in 2019, the team intends on trying him in the rotation in Spring Training. The hard-throwing right-hander’s main challenge is throwing strikes. He averaged 5.1 BB/9 in relief last season and 3.9 BB/9 as a minor-league starter in 2018.

Pruitt’s name has been floated as a potential fifth starter arriving from Tampa Bay. However, the former Houston Cougar primarily served in a relief role in recent seasons with the Rays.

Other notable young rotation options are Rogelio Armenteros, Framber Valdéz, Bryan Abreu, and Cristian Javier. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it’s unlikely any of them begin the season as a starter with the Astros.

On the subject of Houston’s young guns, we should remember the last productive starter from the Astros’ system is McCullers. In 2019, the club received zero WAR from homegrown starters.

Roberto Osuna will continue anchoring the back of the bullpen as closer. Losing Will Harris to the Nationals is significant, although the Ryan Pressly and Smith remain with the club.

A July knee injury diminished Pressly’s second half and postseason effectiveness. Assuming good health, the All-Star figures to be a high-leverage stopper in Baker’s bullpen.

Smith’s season didn’t start until mid-July due to an offseason Achilles tendon rupture. However, the side-arming 35-year-old held opposing hitters to a .249 xwOBA in the second half – best on the Astros and top-15 in MLB after the All-Star break.

Chris Devenski was a 2017 All-Star, although he’s regressed with each passing season. That’s not to say Devenski can’t to contribute. But he doesn’t project as the high-leverage reliever he was several years ago.

Other candidates to fill out the bullpen include Joe Biagini, Francis Martes, Kent Emanuel, Blake Taylor, and Cionel Pérez.

Martes personifies an unknown unknown. He returns from the double-whammy of Tommy John surgery and an 80-game PED suspension.

It’s plausible young starters not making the rotation are enlisted into the bullpen. This has been common practice with Houston in recent years. There’s no evidence the new regime will alter this approach.

Unfinished Business

The Astros have a bunch of young, promising arms. Having said that, will a team with World Series aspirations be comfortable beginning the season with the uncertainty youth and inexperience present?

Perhaps adding a veteran arm capable of starting or relieving is in the cards. Peacock could potentially fill this role, although he’s coming off an injury-plagued season. It’s worth noting McHugh remains a free agent.

Currently, Valdez and Pérez are the only left-handed pitchers on the 40-man roster. It’s possible the new front office adds southpaws prior to Opening Day.

Since Gurriel is entering his age-36 season, adding a player with first base experience would be beneficial – even if it were minor-league depth.

Considering the talent of the roster, it’s unlikely the Astros collapse this upcoming season. But the club will be under tremendous scrutiny thanks to their illicit behavior. If the team did tank, would Click begin preparations for 2021 by selling players in July?

Perhaps. If that scenario unfolded, several pending free agent could potentially garner interest from contenders.

Pending Free Agents

Although Gurriel has been productive, it’s plausible the team considers moving him. The same applies to Brantley and Springer. All three are proven postseason performers.

Correa has one season of arbitration eligibility remaining before free agency. Would the club consider moving him this summer? Bregman could slide over to shortstop and Toro could takeover at third base, giving management a chance to assess their prospect.

Okay, back to reality.

A more likely scenario is the Astros remain competitive and Click adds players capable of helping the team in 2019 and beyond.

Finally

The exodus of on-field talent combined with the dismissal of Luhnow and Hinch presents a daunting challenge for the new leadership to overcome. Selecting Baker to be the manager for 2020 is a win-now move, but Click’s hire takes the long-term health of the organization into account.

In the short-term, Baker’s presence should serve as a credible, calming influence for a team that will be playing in a pressurized atmosphere all year. Also important, he has a history of guiding teams to winning records.

Certainly, a winning season is what Crane and Houston fans are hoping to see in 2020.

 

(Featured Photo – Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle)

The Texas Rangers finished with a losing record for a third consecutive year. But an aggressive offseason by GM Jon Daniels signals Texas intends on returning to the postseason in 2020.

Before looking ahead, let’s consider the Rangers’ 2019 performance. Doing so may shed light on the team’s offseason strategy and help identify areas the club may still need to address.

Looking Back

At the All-Star break, Texas looked competitive with a 48-42 record. As late as August 14, they were a .500 club. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out afterwards with an 18-24 finish.

Offensively, the Rangers were slightly below average. An interesting development for an organization normally associated with prolific run production and mashing home runs.

Rangers 2019 Offense

Four Rangers with 300-plus plate appearances had an OPS+ above league-average (100) – Willie Calhoun, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, and Danny Santana. Only Cleveland (3), Kansas City (3), and Detroit (1) had fewer in the AL.

The first season without future Hall of Famer Adrián Beltré was challenging. Asdrúbal Cabrera and Logan Forsythe made the majority of starts at third base, but it didn’t matter who played. Texas ranked bottom-five at the position in OPS, SLG, home runs, and bWAR.

The outfield endured struggles too, but there were bright spots mixed in.

Early in the season, Joey Gallo appeared to be an MVP candidate, earning his first All-Star selection. Unfortunately, most of June was lost to an oblique strain and his season ended with late-July surgery for a broken wrist bone.

When available, Gallo delivered career highs in AVG/OBP/SLG and OPS+. Among players with 250-plus plate appearances, only Mike Trout and Brandon Nimmo had a better walk-rate than the Nevada native’s 17.5-percent rate.

Left fielder Willie Calhoun had two stints in the minors last season, but stuck with the big-league team after a mid-June recall. Overall, he hit 21 home runs and .269/.323/.524.

Despite his advancing age, Choo continued being a solid offensive contributor. The left-handed hitter’s 2019 closely mirrored what he’s averaged during six seasons with Texas – .265/.371/.455 with 24 home runs and a 109 OPS+. Still, the South Korean does struggle against southpaws (.229/.317/.361).

The team received little offensive value from its catchers. Only Detroit’s backstops ranked worse than Texas in AVG and OPS.

Despite the downturn in run production, Texas did lead the majors in stolen bases with 131. Pacing the club were Elvis Andrus (31), the since-traded Delino DeShields (27), and Santana (21). Even a 37-year-old Choo managed to swipe 15 bags.

The rotation was divided into two distinct parts – the duo of Lance Lynn and Mike Minor and everyone else.

Rangers 2019 Pitching Numbers

Overall, Lynn and Minor combined for 416.2 innings (51.6-percent of innings tossed by the starting staff) and a 3.63 ERA. The remaining 17 starters and openers accounted for 390.2 innings and a 7.29 ERA.

The bullpen was a revolving door with few relievers delivering appreciable value. All told, Texas had 20 pitchers throw 10-plus innings in a relief role. Only the Mariners had more (22).

The Rangers bullpen ranked twenty-eighth in expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). Just two Texas relievers facing at least 100 hitters posted an xwOBA better than league-average (.318) – Chris Martin and Jose Leclerc. The team traded Martin in July.

Offseason Action

The area receiving the most attention was the rotation. Daniels acquired two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber from Cleveland in exchange for DeShields and reliever Emmanuel Clase.

Notable Departures

The Rangers tapped into the free agent market for veteran starters Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. The team also signed 36-year-old Edinson Vólquez to a minor-league pact. Vólquez spent time with the organization in 2019.

To address third base, Texas signed free agent Todd Frazier. The 33-year-old made 112 starts at the position for the Mets last year, hitting 21 home runs and .251/.329/.443.

Notable Acquisitions

Former Ranger Robinson Chirinos returns to Arlington after a year with the Astros. Chirinos isn’t a premium defender, but represents a significant offensive upgrade. Since 2017, the 35-year-old has averaged 17 home runs and 107 OPS+.

Daniels signed free agent reliever Joely Rodríguez, who spent 2019 with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan. In 60.1 innings last season, Rodríguez led the Dragons in appearances and boasted an impressive 11.5 SO/9 and 0.928 WHIP.

Other new relief arms include Jimmy Herget, Nick Goody, Juan Nicasio, Luís Garcia, Tim Dillard, and Brian Flynn.

Looking Forward

The Rangers super-charged their rotation, but most of last year’s regulars are back. Depending on your outlook, that’s either a good or a bad thing.

Ronald Guzmán is a strong first base defender, yet his left-handed bat is questionable. In two seasons, he’s struggled greatly when facing southpaws (.179/.242/.315) compared to righties (.246/.330/.451). Guzmán looks like a platoon candidate.

From an offensive standpoint, the Rangers’ middle-infield was one of the worst in MLB. Among 135 qualified hitters, Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus respectively ranked 130 and 131 in OPS+.

Through six big-league seasons and over 3,200 plate appearances, Odor has averaged 26 home runs annually and is still only 26-years-old.

Sounds good, right?

Yes, until you notice Odor’s subpar career .240/.293/.440 slash and 89 OPS+, which resembles his 2019 production. Defensively, the Venezuelan rates slightly below average. Oh, and he’s owed at least $25 million through 2022.

Still sound good?

The 31-year-old Andrus is showing signs of decline. As noted earlier, he stole 31 bases in 2019. But his OBP has been approximately 10 points below league-average for two consecutive seasons.

Never say never, but Andrus may be untradeable. It appears there’s poison pill in his contract similar to the one in the Mariners’ pact with Kyle Seager.

Andrus’ current deal guarantees $43 million through 2022. However, per Baseball Prospectus, the Rangers’ option for 2023 becomes a player option, if the team trades their shortstop.

The 2023 option can also vest with a combined 1,100 plate appearances in 2021-22. Finally, the two-time All-Star is a 10/5 player, which gives him full no-trade protection.

Frazier appears to be the everyday third baseman. The Rutgers product does have first base experience with 84 career starts, but only 10 have occurred since 2016.

If the Rangers were to move Frazier across the diamond, the best internal options for third base are Santana, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Nick Solak.

Santana seems destined for center field and Solak has 13 games of professional experience at the position. Kiner-Falefa has been predominantly a middle-infielder, although he does possess nearly 1,000 innings of third base experience.

The Rangers recently acquired first baseman/outfielder Sam Travis from the Red Sox and signed former Yankees first baseman Greg Bird to a minor-league deal. Both are likely depth pieces. It’s worth noting Travis has no minor-league options remaining.

On that note, minor-league options can influence roster decisions. When all else is equal, the player without options may have the edge over than someone with available options.

Players With No Minor-League Options

The outfield is taking shape with Gallo in right field and Calhoun in the other corner. Santana is the apparent front-runner for the center field gig.

Gallo played all outfield positions and first base last year and possesses third base experience. For now though, the club intends on him being the primary right fielder.

Advanced metrics suggest Calhoun was a below-average defender last season. To be fair, the Yavapai College product was primarily a second baseman until 2017. If the defense becomes league-average, he can be a valuable contributor.

Choo will be the everyday designated hitter, although he did start 80 games in the outfield last year. Still, defensive numbers and advancing age suggest avoiding time in the field.

Chirinos and holdover Jeff Mathis are the likely catching duo.

Mathis has a reputation as a defensive stalwart. But his bat is far less impressive and advanced metrics didn’t like the Florida native’s defense last season. He’ll also be entering his age-37 season.

Jose Trevino is the other receiver on the 40-man roster. Trevino is a strong defender, but his bat hasn’t delivered in the minors. Chirinos’ arrival likely pushes the 27-year-old back to the minors, although this could change by Opening Day.

Blake Swihart has never put it together in the majors. However, he’s proven capable of moving around the diamond. Perhaps the 27-year-old former catcher settles into a utility role capable of catching. Then again, Kiner-Falefa shares a similar skill set.

Although the rotation should be markedly better this year, uncertainty remains.

Both Minor and Lynn are 32-years-old and logged personal-highs in innings. Will they repeat their stellar 2019 campaigns?

Kluber was limited to just seven starts due to injury last year. Still, he was one of baseball’s pitchers in the five seasons prior when he averaged 32 starts and a 2.85 ERA. If the 34-year-old approaches his former productivity, the Rangers have struck gold. Otherwise, they have a problem.

Gibson also took a step back last year, but he was dealing with intestinal issues for most of the season. Despite the health challenges, the righty made 29 starts logging 160 innings with a less-than-impressive 4.84 ERA. In 2018, he started 32 games with a career-best 3.62 ERA in 196.2 frames.

Lyles split time between the Pirates and Brewers last season delivering vastly different results at each stop. In Pittsburgh, the 29-year-old struggled terribly with a 5.36 ERA in 17 starts. With the Brew Crew, he posted a 2.45 ERA in 11 starts. Which version of Lyles will the Rangers see?

The team does have a stable of young arms available to serve as depth – Kolby Allard, Brock Burke, Ariel Jurado, Joe Palumbo, and Taylor Hearn. All are under-25 with some getting brief exposure with the club last season. None delivered decent results, but their youth guarantees future opportunities.

As noted earlier, Vólquez will be in camp. That said; he missed 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and pitched just 24 innings last year.

José Leclerc began last season as the closer and subsequently lost the job before regaining it later. He currently projects as closer, again. The most prominent candidates to join him are Rodríguez, Goody, Nicaso, García, Rafael Montero, Jesse Chavez, Brett Martin, and Yohander Méndez.

Unfinished Business

As much as I like what the Rangers have done this offseason, there are unresolved issues worth noting. Some may receive attention in the coming weeks; others may linger into the regular season and will likely define the team’s debut campaign in its new ballpark.

Bounce back or at least stabilized production from Odor and Andrus is crucial considering their importance to the lineup and money owed to them.

If internal options don’t provide a first base answer, Daniels may go outside the organization for help.

The Rangers were reportedly interested in acquiring Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, if Colorado dealt the perennial All-Star and Gold Glove defender. Arenado’s presence would potentially allow Frazier to move to first base. The idea seems dead for now.

At least one additional veteran arm in the bullpen would help. This applies to most clubs at this point in the offseason.

If the team did unexpectedly implode, Daniels has proven agile enough to either address his team’s shortcomings or pivot into a seller-mode.

Pending Free Agents

In recent years, the Rangers have traded aces Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels at the deadline. Trading Minor or Choo is definitely within Daniels’ wheelhouse.

On the other hand, a relatively solid start likely makes Texas buyers this summer. At this point in the offseason, this is the more likely outcome.

Perhaps Daniels re-explores a potential Arenado this July. That would be fun for Rangers fans, but no one else in the AL West.

 

(Photo of Corey Kluber by David J. Phillip/AP)