Timing is as crucial an element in baseball as any. As Warran Spahn famously said, “hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Then there’s timing in the form of sequencing and how teams are able to group hits together to score runs. Or there’s the timing of certain players getting together at a certain place and time; see the 2016 Chicago Cubs.

Timing is why Felix Hernandez returning to the Seattle Mariners rotation Friday night couldn’t come at a better time.

The Mariners are coming off a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers and will place a five-game winning streak on the line as they open a series with the division-leading Houston Astros. The offense has been rolling, the defense has been solid and the bullpen is coming together at the right time. A big part of that is the recent returns of Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura to the lineup.

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The starting rotation, held together by duct tape and bubblegum, is finding a way to get it done too with excellent starts from Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore during the Tigers series. James Paxton is also healthy and despite a rocky return appears to be a couple of timing issues away from his early-season form.

Now the starting five gets a boost that few players can offer.

Hernandez, the King, has been off the big league mound since April 25th. It took nearly two months of recovery and rehabilitation to return from a diagnosis of shoulder bursitis, and the 31-year-old is ready. Ready to get back to the mound, ready to get back to being the identity of the Mariners, and ready to lead a team to their first postseason birth since 2001.

While Seattle stands to get their ace back in spirit — and the psychological boost may be as important as anything — what version of King Felix returns remains to be seen.

Prior to hitting the disabled list, Hernandez made five starts and posted a 4.73 ERA and a 4.98 FIP in 26 2/3 innings pitched. A small sample size for sure, and one that may have been influenced by the injury that eventually led him to the DL, but it did reflect the decline the right-hander experienced in 2016.

After a year of discussions surrounding decreased fastball velocity, Hernandez showed an average of 92 miles per hour on the heater; up a tick or two from 2016, but still not where you’d like to see it. The lacking velocity and diminished command played into 2016’s poor numbers as his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction. But in those five starts, Felix boasted 22 strikeouts to only three walks and despite lackluster results, has shown better overall stuff.

One of the culprits behind the ugly ERA and FIP numbers is a gaudy home run rate. If we look at xFIP, which normalizes a pitcher’s home run rate to league average, Hernandez sees a much more respectable 3.54 mark. The reason for the home run spike is hard to identify.

The soft, medium, and hard contact rates look normal. His fly ball and ground ball rates look normal too. Hernandez isn’t getting hit harder or giving up more long fly balls, yet more are leaving the yard. Some of this can simply be attributed to bad luck that over the course of a season will even out. Perhaps it can also be attributed to the major league wide increase in home runs that may have something to do with the baseball itself. And of course, our sample size is still pretty small.

We won’t know how the strikeout, walks, and home runs will normalize for at least a few weeks. But what we can be at least moderately confident in is that Felix, whatever level he is at, will offer a boost to the rotation.

Christian Bergman, Sam Gaviglio, and Chase De Jong have all had their moments while filling in and put together solid outings. But they own FIP’s of 5.97, 5.83, and 5.89 respectively. This isn’t to crack on the replacements, they’ve certainly done the job as best as possible. These just aren’t performances that playoff-caliber teams can afford regularly. Collectively the rotation depth has weathered the storm well enough to keep the Mariners in the race as we near July. Given the volume of injuries that alone is an impressive feat.

Both the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems project Hernandez to post a FIP in the 3.90 range for the rest of the season. While that number isn’t elite, considering the right-hander has missed the last two months, it does seem like a reasonable target to work with. Conceivably his walk rate will get closer to his career mark in the seven percent range and we should see the strikeout rate tick up a few percent points as well..

Does he have a Felix-calibre three months in the tank? The evidence would suggest that won’t be the case, but I don’t have to tell you what he thinks of the suggestion he’s a shadow of his former self.

The King is back, the Mariners are flying high, and the stretch drive is right around the corner. The timing for his return couldn’t be much better that right now.

Happy Felix Day.…

Breakout seasons can be a difficult thing to judge. Sometimes they are the effects of a radical change in approach or mechanics and sometimes they are fluky at best and easy to write off. After a breakout 2016 season, the Seattle Mariners have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from James Paxton even if it’s only three starts into the season.

Things started last year when Paxton was sent to Triple-A to start the year to nail down the mechanical changes that were in process. On June 1st he would debut an electric fastball in the upper 90’s and showed much improved control of the strike zone. The results weren’t great — a 14-6 loss to the San Diego Padres where Paxton yielded eight runs, three earned, over 3 2/3 innings pitched — but we could see that the process was significantly improved. The left-hander did yield two home runs in Petco Park, but he managed to strikeout seven while only walking one.

From that point on Paxton would stick in the major league rotation and and produce a 3.79 ERA and a 2.80 FIP over 121 innings pitched. Also of note was his 8.70 strikeouts and 1.79 walks per nine innings pitched. The results were matching up with the process; he was missing more bats and finding the strike zone more often.

Heading into 2017, the 28-year-old found himself all over ‘breakout player’ lists as the baseball world prepared to see what would follow his breakout season. So far he’s given them plenty to talk about.

The usual April baseball disclaimer applies here. Three starts isn’t rarely indicative of anything significant. But on the surface and from the outside, it looks like Paxton is continuing to build on the foundation he set last year.

In those three starts, the left-hander has put together 21 innings pitched without giving up a single run. A 0.00 ERA is as shiny as it gets but more impressively Paxton is the only pitcher to make three starts this year without giving up a run. The peripheral stats also suggest he’s been dominant as his 1.41 FIP is second only to Noah Syndergaard among pitchers who have three games started. Stretching that sample to two starts and Paxton drops to fourth place in the majors.

So we know that Paxton has been good so far, perhaps one of the best in this short period of time. On Monday he was named the American League player of the week, suggesting the baseball world has taken notice of what he’s done. A week in baseball obviously falls into the small sample size noise category, but when we dig deeper into Paxton’s performance, we can see some factors that likely have influenced the early success and creates the potential for future success as well.

The first thing to look at what Paxton has been throwing. The following chart compares his pitch usage in the majors since 2015.

James Paxton’s Pitch Usage 2015-2017
Season Fastball % Cutter % Knuckle-Curve % Changeup % Two-Seam %
2015 71.9% 2.6% 14.3% 11.1% 0.1%
2016 62.6% 16.8% 13.7% 6.4% 0.6%
2017 64.0% 11.9% 23.1% 1.0% 0.0%

The most noticeable trend is the departure from the changeup and increased reliance on a knuckle-curveball. Paxton had thrown a cutter in the past but began using it more predominantly last season. His average fastball has been a shade under 96 MPH with his cutter coming in at 88 and the curve at 80. Paxton’s managed to mix these pitches effectively and the following results are what he has to show for doing so.

James Paxton’s Pitch Outcomes 2015-2017
Season Line Drive % Ground Ball % Fly Ball % Infield Fly Ball % Soft Contact % Medium Contact % Hard Contact %
2015  17.2% 48.3% 34.4% 8.3% 18.4% 51.9% 29.7%
2016 21.9% 48.1% 30.1% 8.2% 14.1% 52.8% 33.1%
2017 18.8% 39.6% 41.7% 15.0% 18.4% 57.1% 24.5%

The increase in fly balls is interesting, particularly of the infield variety. The overall increase in fly balls could be attributed to Mariner pitches pitching to the strength of the team — outfield defence. But the infield fly balls are often a result of weak contact. So far this year Paxton has reduced the number of balls hit hard by nearly ten percent. On top top that opposing hitters have only made contact 69.7 percent of the time compared to 76.4 percent in 2016. Add an increased swinging strike percentage from 11.7 percent to 4.8 percent and the left-hander’s results stats start to make more sense.

What does this all mean? It’s tough to say. The infield fly balls could definitely be small sample size noise and some point more of the fly balls could find the outfield grass. We also could be seeing some of the effects of an improved outfield defence.

The increase in soft contact and swinging strikes is exactly what we want to see. Those may be some of the best signs that Paxton has in fact taken a step towards stardom. Hitters haven’t been able to adjust to the high heat and spiked curveball to this point. As long as the left-hander continues to command the ball well, he should continue to be a nightmare for opposing hitters.

At 28-years-old Paxton isn’t too old to break out. Consider the small batches of success we’ve seen during his time in the majors and how injuries have undoubtedly slowed his progress. Now that he’s able to command the velocity he’s unlocked, it’s up to the further development of his other offerings to ensure he’s able to consistently perform at this high level.

It wasn’t that long ago Paxton received the No. 2 starter potential label from scouting types. He’s certainly been effective when healthy, too. Maybe the best thing we can say about Paxton right now, since it’s still April, is that the signs are there to suggest that we have been seeing the real thing.…

The ever-active Jerry Dipoto was kind enough to let fans savor the joys of Opening Day before getting back to making moves. The Seattle Mariners general manager didn’t make a trade on Tuesday though. Instead, right-handed reliever Evan Marshall was claimed off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Drew Smyly was moved to the 60-day disabled list to make room on the 40-man roster — we’ll get to that shortly.

Marshall, 27 in a couple weeks, was a fourth-round draft pick of the D-Backs in 2011. After three years in the minors working exclusively as a reliever, the right-hander debuted in the majors in 2014. In what’s been his best work to date, he threw 49 and 1/3 innings and posted a 2.74 ERA with a 2.89 FIP. He struck out 30.7 percent of the batters he faced while walking 8.1 percent.

Since that season, things haven’t gone as well. Marshall has bounced between the majors and Triple-A the past two seasons with minimal success. In 28 and 2/3 innings between the two seasons in the majors he owns a 7.53 ERA and a 5.76 FIP. His command became a significant issues as he walked 13 batters while striking out only 16 in that span.

Marshall’s success in 2014 came in large part from a sinking fastball that comfortably sits in the low-to-mid nineties and generates a ton of ground balls. He also utilizes a changeup and a curveball. The fastball was his bread-and-butter though, and has helped him have success against right-handed hitters.

During parts of three years in the big leagues, right-handed hitters have managed to hit a .292/.363/.438 slash line against him. Left-handers on the other hand have enjoyed facing him, posting a .336/.398/.517 slash line.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Marshall is recovering from an August 2015 injury. While pitching against El Paso, Marshall took a line drive in the head that resulted in a fractured skull. Without attempting to delve into the psychology of an injury or an athlete, it’s reasonable to suggest the impacts of an injury as traumatic as this would linger beyond the usual recovery time. The right-hander missed the remainder of the regular season.

Marshall was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma and will begin his season there on Thursday with the rest of the Rainiers. He does have a minor league option remaining, which offers the Mariners some additional flexibility. He has shown an ability to get right-handers out in the majors and Dipoto is certainly hoping to draw out what allowed him to be successful in 2014.

Now onto Smyly. The left-hander’s move to the 60-day DL shouldn’t be too surprising as the timeline for his elbow strain is in the six-to-eight week range. But it all but guarantees Seattle won’t see the 27-year-old until June. Technically, he could come off the DL for a May 30th or 31st start against the Colorado Rockies, but that seems unlikely.

With that news in mind, the Mariners also gave an update on Felix Hernandez who exited Monday’s game early with groin tightness.

Felix insists he will make his next start, but there has to be concern over him potentially aggravating something. That was the context in which he was removed from last night’s contest, a 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros.

The addition of Marshall doesn’t necessarily correlate with Hernandez or Smyly’s injury. But at the saying goes, you can never have enough pitching.…

As was the case in 2016, the 2017 season ushered in a class of rookies that offered anything from momentary excitement to the start of a potentially elite career. Rookies are always fun to talk about, but players entering their sophomore season already have a major league sample size for us to get way too excited over or way too down on.

We covered the American League edition yesterday, so let’s take a look at a handful of National League players who are heading into their second year.

Corey Seager, SS — Los Angeles Dodgers
It must be tough playing in the shadow of your brother. This could apply to either Kyle or Corey as the former suits up for another underrated, all-star caliber year while the latter is fresh off a Rookie of the Year win and a third-place finish in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting. Seager was able to prove he could handle the defensive responsibilities of playing shortstop while only being the best offensive shortstop by wRC+ in baseball last year. His 137 mark placed him 15th in all of baseball.

While projecting another season around or in excess of 7.5 fWAR is difficult, the sky appears to be the limit for the 22-year-old. He should be able to maintain his healthy .308/.365/.512 slash line and may even be able to add to his 26 home runs. Seager will be a key cog in the Dodgers’ quest for the World Series as he looks to further establish himself among baseball’s very best.

Trea Turner, SS/CF — Washington Nationals
Depending on what you’ve read, Turner’s name is ready to be etched into a 2017 MVP trophy. Without much exaggeration, there’s certainly a case to be made. The 23-year-old debuted in 2015 with 44 plate appearances, but didn’t really come onto the scene untill June of last year. In 324 plate appearances, Turner posted a .342/.370/.567 slash line with a 147 wRC+. He added 13 home runs and picked up an impressive 33 steals all while playing an unfamiliar position in the outfield. And doing so well.

The Nationals made room at shortstop, his natural position, by dealing the incumbent Danny Espinosa this offseason. His tools played well enough in the outfield but should allow him to shine in the infield. His batting average last year was inflated some by his BABIP, but he shouldn’t have a problem falling in the .300 range with the potential for 30-to-40 steals. His power surge upon arrival in Washington was unprecedented based on his minor league numbers, so the jury’s out on whether or not it’s real. Even without elite power, he has all the makings of a a perennial All-Star. Not bad for a player that was ‘to be named later.’

Trevor Story, SS — Colorado Rockies
If Gary Sanchez was the second-half story among rookies, Trevor was the first-half story. Hitting ten home runs in April will make anyone front-page news and it welcomed the shortstop into the mainstream baseball audience. He held that place until he suffered a broken thumb in August that cost him the remainder of his season. Story’s season ended with a .272/.341/.567 slash line and a 120 wRC+. His 27 home runs had him tied for second among all shortstops and tops in the National League.

The concern for Story heading into 2017 would have to be whether or not the effects of the hand injury still linger. We have seen many cases where hitter’s struggle to regain their power or it takes longer than anticipated. Like others mentioned in this series, Story struck out a lot last year — 31.3 percent — and will need to continue working on his approach and discipline. All in all, the 24-year-old is a well-rounded player that should continue to shine. The sky is literally the limit for the home run totals he can produce given his home park of Coors Field.

Ryan Schimpf, 2B — San Diego Padres
Schimpf would probably be considered the odd one out among the 2016 class of rookies. Why? Because most rookies aren’t 28-year-old and for the few who are, there isn’t much confidence in the potential of a lengthy major league career. But after Schimpf was called up by the team in June, he put UP a .217/.336/.533 slash line with a 129 wRC+ in 330 plate appearances. His overall offensive numbers are boosted by his 20 home runs and remove some concern about the Mendoza-like batting average. The left-hander also paired a 31.8 percent strikeout rate with a 12.7 percent walk rate.

Age and pedigree are the obvious knocks against Schimpf so only time will tell what type of player he can become. The power is legitimate though and he doesn’t hit many ground balls, which creates an intriguing offensive profile. He isn’t terribly adept on the defensive side of the ball but can hold his own. The key for 2017 will likely be whether or not he can improve his consistently and avoid too many prolonged slumps. He looks like he can at least be an average player at second or third, and for a rebuilding club, that’s a plus.

Jon Gray, SP — Colorado Rockies
The presence of Story and Nolan Arenado in a loaded lineup isn’t the only reason many feel Colorado could be a sleeper team in the National League this year. The pitching could actually be good, too. Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft showed well in nine starts back in 2015. In 2016 he made a name for himself. In 29 starts, 168.0 innings pitched, Gray posted a 4.61 ERA and a 3.60 FIP. The FIP is what has people excited since pitching at Coors Field will do a number on anyone’s ERA and Gray managed to have some success there. The right-hander also posted 9.91 strikeouts and 3.16 walks per nine innings pitched.

The first challenge for the 25-year-old will of course be his home park. But he also had some struggles on the road that pushed the ERA and FIP numbers upwards.His command could be a little better, too, but overall Gray has a solid batch of offerings that he commands well enough to be successful. He will be counted on to be more consistent atop the Rockies’ rotation and will need to take another step forward if the Rockies are to compete into September in a top-heavy National League West division.

Kenta Maeda, SP — Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s often fascinating to see how a foreign player performs in their first year pitching in North America. Maeda was a particularly interesting case given the contract he signed with the Dodgers: eight years, $24 million guaranteed, and a mountain of achievable incentives that could push the deal’s value towards nine figures in all. For a season in which the Dodgers’ rotation was devastated with injuries, Maeda was a bright spot making all 32 of his starts and throwing 175 and 2/3 innings. He posted a solid 3.48 ERA that was backed-up by a 3.58 FIP. He struck out more than a batter per inning and kept the walks around 2.5 per nine.

Perhaps the best news for the Dodgers was that the 28-year-old was able to stay healthy all season. This was a concern among many of his potential suitors last winter. Maeda has shown that he can pitch like a No. 2 or 3 starter and presumably still has a little more in the tank while he’s on the right side of 30. Whiffs and weak ground balls fuelled Maeda’s success in 2016 and should take place again this season. He may not become an ace, especially on a team with Clayton Kershaw, but he’s poised to join the tier of very good pitchers in the game today.…

It’s been an extraordinary time for young players in Major League Baseball the past several years. The old guard of David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, among others, has passed on the torch to a collection of meteoric young talent including the likes of Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant, to name a few.

Last season was aptly titled “The Year of the Rookie” and inspired this author to peek into the outlook for a handful of those players heading into their sophomore season. You can read the American League edition here and the National League edition here.

I’m going to steal from last year’s post to remind you that, per MLB’s rules, a player remains a rookie until they exceed 130 plate appearances as a position player, 50 innings pitched as a pitcher, or 45 days active on a 25-man roster. Time spent on the disabled list or when rosters expand in September do not count towards these days.

Without further ado, let’s chat about some AL sophomores.

Gary Sanchez, C — New York Yankees
There are major league debuts, and then there are historic anecdotes. What Sanchez did in two months with the Yankees last season would be the latter. In just 229 plate appearances, the slugger posted a .299/.376/.657 slash line with a 171 wRC+ and 20 home runs. While the 60 home run pace may be unrealistic this coming year, the power displayed within the .358 ISO he posted was very present. The dude simply can hit.

Sanchez is slated to begin the year occupying the No. 2 spot for the Yankees and will be a key cog in their lineup. There’s some concern about how the 24-year-old will hold up over the course of an entire big league season. The simple wear and tear of catching being one part with the other being his strikeout rate of 25 percent in last year’s sample. Especially since we are likely to see last year’s 10.5 percent walk rate drop some as major league pitchers get familiar with the slugger. The slash line may not be as impressive over a full season, but there are plenty of reasons to expect big things from the catcher going forward.

Tyler Naquin, OF — Cleveland Indians
The Indians center fielder presents an interesting case in 2017. He had a great offensive performance posting a .296/.372/.514 slash line with a 135 wRC+ and showed unexpected power with 14 home runs in 365 plate appearances. But he accomplished all that with an unsustainable .411 BABIP and a 30.7 percent strikeout rate. The BABIP will certainly come down some, which is fine. Hitting .300 is a lot more difficult than it used to be, after all. But the spike in strikeouts from his minor league years is concerning.

The left-hander was used primarily in a platoon role last year, but figures to play a full-time role this year. He actually fared well against same-handed pitching in the small sample and can be trusted to hold his own going forward. The former first round pick should build off the Indians’ World Series run as he enters his age-26 season. It’s possible Naquin has double-digit steals in him and given his tools, a season with ten-plus steals and home runs would look very nice. Cutting down on the strikeouts could be a key success factor in the coming year.

Tim Anderson, SS — Chicago White Sox
Chicago saw their first-round pick in the 2013 draft debut this past summer. With a game based on speed and defence and enough of a hit tool to get by, Anderson posted a .283/.306/.432 slash line in 431 plate appearances. His 95 wRC+ was below average for the position, but with solid defence and plus speed, that package can create a lengthy major league career. The 23-year-old only stole ten bases in the majors this past season but managed to swipe 49 in 2015 at Double-A.

The White Sox certainly believe Anderson has room to blossom as they rewarded him with a new six-year contact worth $25 million. This types of deals are relatively low-risk for the club and offer players the ability to focus more on developing their game instead of securing their new contract. On paper that’s the case, anyways. Still, there’s a good chance the security helps the right-hander as he establishes his place on the next good White Sox team. Finding a way to get on-base more often will make up for a potential decline in batting average as the league adjusts to Anderson.

Alex Bregman, 3B — Houston Astros
As hard as it is for any player to go through a 2-for-38 slump, the start of one’s career is as inopportune a time as any. Still, Bregman finished the season strong and over 217 plate appearances in the majors he authored a .264/.313/.478 slash line. His 112 wRC+ last year is a strong starting point for the well-rounded hitter. Most reports out there consider him to show polish beyond his years. With the pressure to perform as a top prospect, the slump could’ve sunk Bregman’s season. But it didn’t. That says a lot more about his maturation process than any cliche could.

The second overall pick in the 2015 draft comes loaded with pedigree and barely had time to unpack a suitcase at three of the four minor league levels he’s visited. He has a home in Minute Maid Park for 2017 and is slated to hit in the No. 2 hole for the Astros. Though the presence of Carlos Correa will keep Bregman out of his natural shortstop position, this five-tool stud has plenty of success awaiting him.

Michael Fulmer, SP — Detroit Tigers
What’s one way to keep a competitive window open? Trading an expiring contract for an impact player, which is exactly what Detroit did when they sent Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline. Fulmer started 26 games for the Tigers in 2016 and posted an 11-6 record with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. In 159 innings pitched he posted 7.47 strikeouts and 2.38 walks per nine innings. The right-hander was named the American League Rookie of the Year, beating out Sanchez’ historic season.

The development of Fulmer’s changeup played a large role in his success, mixing it with a very good fastball and slider. He may have had some BABIP luck last year and his FIP suggests a worse performance than his ERA, but there’s reason to believe he could be even better in 2017. The challenge will be the grinding march towards 200 innings. Once Fulmer added the changeup to his arsenal in a more prominent way, things began to take off last year. And this time around he’ll have a whole season of it.

Edwin Diaz, RP — Seattle Mariners
Less than a year ago the right-hander was starting games at the Double-A level. A few months later he was debuting in the big leagues as a reliever. Now, he finds himself on the shortlist of top closers in the American League, if not all of baseball. It’s been a whirlwind for Diaz but he remained steady and was a key cog in the second half for the M’s. Combining an otherworldly 15.33 strikeout-per-nine with a 2.61 walks-per nine over 51 and 1/3 big league innings, Diaz managed a 1.9 fWAR season. His 2.04 FIP suggests his 2.79 ERA was better than it appeared.

While he was used aggressively last year, and may have shown some wear towards the end of the season, Diaz is positioned well for success. Combining a whiff-generating slider with a 97 mile-per-hour fastball is his recipe for success — and it works great — but Diaz found himself with a .337 BABIP and 14.7 percent home run rate. Improving in those two areas certainly could push the right-hander into the very elite. With a little experience and confidence in his back pocket, that shouldn’t be a problem.…

While the majority of us on the west coast were complaining about losing an hour’s sleep, Jerry Dipoto was using the hour he didn’t lose in Arizona to make his first trade in nearly two weeks. The Philadelphia Phillies are sending outfielder Joey Curletta to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for switch-pitcher Pat Venditte. Curletta will report to Seattle’s minor league camp.

While this has the feel of a move made almost for the sake of making a move — Dipoto hadn’t made a trade in a while — there is a path of logic that can be followed.

Venditte, 31, was designated for assignment back in November and was sent to Triple-A Tacoma after clearing waivers. Although he offers the unique ability to pitch both right and left-handed, in 50 and 2/3 major league innings he owns a 4.97 ERA and a 5.01 FIP. He’s been excellent against left-handers though, including a 10.96 strikeouts per nine innings.

But given the influx of new pitchers on the roster and Venditte no longer holding a spot on the 40-man roster, there didn’t appear to be much of a chance of him appearing in a game for the Mariners this season.

Instead he will join a rebuilding Phillies club that may offer a better chance at a big league job. Currently Venditte is pitching for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

Curletta is an interesting add for the Mariners. Interesting because he was the player the Phillies acquired when they traded now current-Mariner Carlos Ruiz to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Also interesting because Curletta isn’t the traditional athletic-type of player that the organization has been pursuing.

Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft by the Dodgers, the 23-year-old boasts plenty of raw power and a terrific throwing arm. However his poor contact abilities minimize the potential of the power and his strikeout rate fits the profile.

His 6-foot-4 and 245 pound frame is likely what limits his mobility in the outfield and on the bases — he grades out with below average speed — but he isn’t sluggish, per se.  The bat is interesting and Curletta has been able to draw walks at an eight-to-ten percent clip despite the strikeouts living in the 30 percent range during his five years in the minors. The concern here is that the strikeout rate has only increased as he’s moved up through the minors and faced better pitching.

Curletta figures to start the year at Double-A with Seattle’s new affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers. In 107 plate appearances with the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate at the end of last season he posted a .206/.280/.371 slash line with an 88 wRC+, so there’s still plenty of work to do. He added four home runs in that time frame and when he connects with the ball, it can go a long way. The challenge for the Mariners player development staff will be to make that contact occur more often.

At 23 the book has started on the outfielder, but it is far from written. Really, in exchange for a waiver-wire reliever, Seattle is able to pick up a prospect with some projectability. He’s a project for sure, but there’s potential. Not bad for a Sunday morning in March.…

Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going away any time soon. And it shouldn’t. A tournament that showcases baseball’s talent and can grow the game internationally is a tremendous opportunity for the sport. Especially since baseball was dropped after the 2008 Olympic Games. Though it’s scheduled to return for 2020, the summer event is bereft of the game’s top talent for the obvious reasons.

Despite the drawbacks for teams and players preparing for the season, the potential for injuries that could reshape division races, and the lack of Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, this event creates a special opportunity for players to represent their countries.

This year the Seattle Mariners will have 12 representatives competing for seven different countries as shown in the table below.

Mariners at the World Baseball Classic
Player Representation
Felix Hernandez, SP Venezuela
Robinson Cano, 2B Dominican Republic
Nelson Cruz, DH Dominican Republic
 Jean Segura, SS Dominican Republic
Edwin Diaz, RP Puerto Rico
 Yovani Gallardo, SP Mexico 
 Drew Smyly, SP* USA
 Tyler O’Neill, OF Canada
 Emilio Pagan, RP  Puerto Rico
 Pat Venditte, RP  Italy
Sam Gaviglio, SP Italy
Sebastian Valle, C Mexico

Easily the biggest impact of the WBC on the Mariners is the participation of Felix Hernandez. After taking a step back performance-wise in 2015, the ace struggled to the worst performance of his major league career in 2016. He went to work this offseason with a pennant-sized chip on his shoulder, and the goal of being ready to represent Venezuela playing a key role in his preparation for the 2017 season.

Early returns on Hernandez’ progress this spring are positive. He arrived in camp in notably better shape and specifically worked on strengthening his lower half. On Sunday, his second outing of the Cactus League season, he went three innings with five strikeouts and no walks. He gave up a couple runs in a long first inning but finished his day with 36 strikes on fifty pitches. On the broadcast, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre mentioned Hernandez having some issues with his changeup, but his other offerings were sharp and he commanded the ball well.

Given the challenges of 2016, and the commitment the club has made to the right-hander in terms of dollars, one would be fair to question why the Cy Young award winner is participating. A regular spring would likely be the optimal choice.

Joey Votto, after another outstanding campaign, declined to represent Canada at the WBC citing a need to improve on some areas of his game he found lacking. It’s unclear what particular things he feels he needs to work on, perhaps defensively, but we do know after earning $22 million in 2017 he will be payed $25 million annually through 2023.

All players have their reasons for or against participating, and as frustrating as that may be on either side of the coin, but you have to respect a player’s desire to represent their country. Teams have frequently voiced their support for players’ participation and are often involved in defining the parameters for how the player will be used during the event.

That goes particularly for the most recent Mariner addition to a WBC roster, Jean Segura. GM Jerry Dipoto spent 20 minutes on the phone with Moises Alou, the GM of the Dominican Republic squad about how his most significant offseason acquisition would be utilized in the tournament.

Ideally Seattle would want to ensure that Segura’s progress at shortstop be maintained heading towards the start of the season. He and Robinson Cano, one of Segura’s teammates at the WBC, will form a new double play tandem in the Emerald City this year.

It’s unclear how much time the two will share in the diamond. Segura replaced Boston’s Hanley Ramirez on the roster, a former shortstop who’s moved over to first base. It would be ideal for Cano and Segura to have the full month of playing together, especially with the latter switching positions for the coming year. But the idiosyncrasies in the field will take time to connect anyways — a week or two of interruption shouldn’t have a dramatic effect on that.

Aside from the starting middle infielders being away, another key piece of the lineup will be too. Nelson Cruz joins his countrymen on the Dominican team and figures to see time both in the outfield and at designated hitter.

The move to DH will be a more permanent role in Seattle for the slugger this year after two seasons where he saw plenty of outfield time. Given the influx of athletic outfielders added, Cruz will be hard pressed to see much time in the field given the emphasis on defense by the front office.

Electric closer Edwin Diaz will have the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico for the first time. Rarely does Spring Training offer the higher leverage situations that many relievers are accustomed too in the season so getting to pitch some critical innings this early may benefit Diaz at the start. But he is just one year into his bullpen journey, and this is his first camp as a major league reliever, so I can’t imagine he has much process to interrupt.

Seattle will be sending three-fifths of the starting rotation when accounting for Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Though Gallardo’s specific participation is still to be determined, Smyly is only going to make one appearance for the U.S. squad before returning to camp. Still, both will miss out on some time to continue developing rapport with their new catchers. However, given the length of this year’s spring there’s been and will be plenty of time to make up for the absence.

Elsewhere top prospect Tyler O’Neill will get an opportunity to shine with Team Canada after impressing in the first couple weeks of spring games. He’s already showed off his power in an exhibition game, blasting an opposite field home run against the New York Yankees.

With so many players away, opportunity is ripe for several players who’s fate have yet to be determined for the upcoming season. Expect to see a lot of Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman, and Taylor Motter as the process of determining the back-up infielder continues and Segura and Cano are absent. Boog Powell will also get a chance to rebuild his stock as he nears a return from an 80-game PED suspension.

While the WBC provides an opportunity for the best players in the world to represent their country at the highest level, it also provides a stage that same opportunity for players who may never reach stardom in the majors. Looking at rosters for some of the less star-studded teams may yield names of former fringe-major leaguers or Triple-A fodder, but I would have to imagine this is a tremendous experience for them.

Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but so many of the knocks against it are easy to work around. Yes, a player is at risk of getting hurt, but how much more risk than facing a minor league pitching with 35-grade command in a spring game?

The timing of the tournament will always be tough, but once every four years the sport can deal with the side effects of an international opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t exist.…

It’s been a tough few years for the members of the Seattle Mariners top prospect lists, for a multitude of reasons. But as both the quality and quantity of minor depth is built up we find ourselves with several interesting names to chew on; some new and some old.

One of the newer names at the top of the prospect ranks, and No. 1 on Prospect Insider’s 2016 rankings, is outfielder Tyler O’Neill. The 21-year-old spent the bulk of 2016 at Double-A where he crushed opposition pitching to the tune of a .293/.374/.508 slash line with a 152 wRC+. He added 24 home runs while stealing 12 bases, showcasing his power-speed combination. In 575 plate appearances with Jackson, O’Neill posted a 10.8 percent walk rate alongside a 26.1 strikeout rate.

Though the strikeouts are still concerning, the right-hander has improved his rate every year since 2014. As Jason noted in the O’Neill section of the prospect rankings, he still projects favorably in right field both with his arm and range and reports from last year were positive.

O’Neill stands to open the season in Triple-A and with a crowded major league outfield there will be no need to rush his progression. But it does stand to reason that he may be able to hit his way into a pre-September call-up, especially if some of the Mariners more defensive-minded outfielders aren’t cutting it with the bat.

One of the older names is former first-round pick, first baseman D.J. Peterson. At one point he was talked about as a future fixture in the middle of Seattle’s batting order, perhaps at third, but more likely at first base. The 25-year-old has moved permanently to first base already but has yet to crack the majors due to a combination of injuries and struggles that have littered his minor league career. The constant adjustments to his stance and approach probably haven’t helped his confidence much either.

He split 2016 between Double-A and Triple-A posting a solid 133 wRC+ with Jackson but an uninspiring 96 wRC+ with Tacoma. Interestingly the power didn’t disappear much between the two levels with comparable slugging percentages, but his average and on-base percentage took hits. Also concerning was the drop in walks and increase in strikeouts at the higher level.

The coming season should be interesting for Peterson as he looks ready to go with an approach that should offer more consistency. He was added to the 40-man roster back in the fall so it’s obvious Seattle still thinks he can provide value to the club, not that there was reason to give up on him quite yet. With two first baseman on the roster already there’s no room for Peterson. He should warrant a look in September at the very least though.

It’s tough to compare an infielder to an outfielder when attempting to determine who will crack the bigs first, but it stands to reason both players will make their primary cases with the bat. Both also would potentially offer help against left-handed pitching should the club struggle in that regard.

Of course injuries and effectiveness can be a factor in who gets a shot first. As I discussed a couple weeks back, the M’s don’t really have a back-up plan for Dan Vogelbach. Should he or Danny Valencia find themselves out of the lineup for an extended period of time, Peterson is the next name up on the list. But in the outfield, behind a combination of Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, and Guillermo Heredia, the depth chart doesn’t appear to work in O’Neill’s favor.

This conversation can change on a monthly if not weekly basis, but speaking now in March, who do you have cracking the Mariners roster first?

As evidenced in the early part of Jerry Dipoto‘s time at the helm of baseball operations, the Seattle Mariners have shied away from significant free agent signings. Despite what became a buyer’s market for free agent hitters this winter, Dipoto abstained and stuck to the goal of acquiring depth through trade. The emphasis on youth and athleticism was again a focal point of many transactions.

It’s been a strange winter for free agency in Major League Baseball. A lack of premium talent available has often lead to teams paying good players great dollars. That wasn’t really the case this time around, though. The supply of one-dimensional sluggers in need of a contract this time one-month ago would have made former general manager Jack Zduriencik salivate, and truthfully, the costs were not exuberant. Still, Dipoto stayed the course.

Some teams were able to take advantage of the market, such as the Cleveland Indians who stretched out to sign Edwin Encarnacion. More recently, the New York Yankees added the National League’s home run king from last year, Chris Carter, on a modest one-year deal guaranteeing only $3 million.

The first base remodel began last summer for the Mariners when they acquired Dan Vogelbach from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for left-hander Mike Montgomery. Although Vogelbach better resembles a Zduriencik-era Mariner, there were few questions about his ability to hit.

The remodel appeared complete when Seattle made another trade, this time with Oakland, to bring in the veteran Danny Valencia to complete the right-handed side of the platoon.

Firstly, Vogelbach should be a given a fair chance to take the first base job. He crushed Triple-A pitching last year to the tune of a 156 wRC+. He turned 24 in December and has shown plenty of power and on-base ability throughout his tenure in the minors. This isn’t a Jesus Montero situation where concerns about make-up and injuries are a factor and have impacted performance. By all accounts, he’s ready to go.

But what happens if Vogelbach doesn’t hit right away or can’t make adjustments on the fly to major league pitching? He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie to encounter one or both of those problems.

Valencia has only spent one season as an everyday player back in 2011 and didn’t fair well. Despite a rather pronounced platoon split for his career — a 139 wRC+ against left-handers and an 85 wRC+ against right-handers — he did manage a 104 wRC+ against same-handed pitching last year. In a pinch he could give you some at-bats against right-handers, but counting on consistent production of any sort would be foolish.

Internally the back-up plan at first base appears to start and end with D.J. Peterson. The former first-round pick posted a 96 wRC+ in 192 plate appearances at Triple-A last year and could be an option as soon as mid-season if things go well. There’s always the option of a utility player such as Mike Freeman or Shawn O’Malley filling in if absolutely necessary, but after the platoon, the first base depth is minimal.

Pitchers and catchers reported on Tuesday, and Cactus League games are only days away, but as has been the story this winter, there still are a number of free agents available. Some may even be able to help the Mariners adress this concern.

Looking specifically at left-handed hitters, former Most Valuable Players Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau are still out there. Morneau is representing Canada at the World Baseball Classic and was finally healthy for a prolonged period last year after batting concussion issues. He struggled to a 92  wRC+ and saw his strikeout rate jump — not positive signs for a player nearing the end of their career.

Howard’s fall has been more publicized, and though he still managed to clear 20 home runs last year, appears to have lost all other offensive capabilities. As a pinch-hitter he may still have value on a National League team, but his time as a semi-regular is done.

Neither of those bats are overly appealing. Morneau may be worth a second glance if he hits well at the WBC, but not much more. The player who may actually be able to help Seattle is Pedro Alvarez.

The 30-year-old has primarily played third base during his career but did fill a regular role at first in 2015 and advanced metrics frowned on his work. Throughout his career he has profiled as a below average defender and an average base runner. What he can do, is provide some help against right-handed pitching. He owns a career 118 wRC+ against them over seven years in the majors.

Last season in 376 plate appearances with the Baltimore Orioles, Alvarez posted a .249/.322/.504 slash line with a 117 wRC+. While he does boast a career 9.4 percent walk rate, and beat that last year by half-a-percent, the strikeouts have always been a concern. His 25.8 percent strikeout rate last year was his second-lowest since 2011.

If you combine the walks and home runs, Alvarez starts to resemble a true-outcome hitter. I’d imagine that the on-base percentage fits the type of player Seattle has come to covet, but the strikeouts and poor defensive skills would seemingly go against the grain.

On a minor league deal, bringing in Alvarez to compete, or at least paint a picture of Vogelbach not being handed the job, is essentially a no-brainer. Even giving him the contract Carter received with a small guarantee would make sense.

Obviously the tough part would be having to cut Alvarez and eat the money owed if it came to that. Perhaps management would prefer to earmark the cash for a mid-summer trade or to add another relief arm during the spring.

Like Carter, Alvarez is a flawed player in a market that hasn’t rewarded power-based skill sets. That’s why they were still looking for jobs in February. I’m not suggesting Alvarez is an answer for the Mariners, but rather an option to provide a back-up plan for a position with uncertainty.

Perhaps Dipoto’s plan all along was to give Vogelbach the first couple weeks of spring to lock down the job and, in the event things weren’t heading in a positive direction, dip into the free agent market for a bat that needs a home. We saw last year how Ketel Marte was essentially handed the shortstop job and having a second option in the early-going may have helped the situation.

If Vogelbach is ready to go then there’s no reason for Seattle to hold him back. But in a season that may again leave little margin for error, having an experienced first baseman push Vogelbach to Triple-A for a couple months if he doesn’t seem ready wouldn’t be the worst thing. Especially if the cost is less than a couple million dollars.…

Felix Hernandez would be the first to admit that he didn’t perform as well as he wanted to in 2016. To varying degrees, the Seattle Mariners likely had similar thoughts about two of the other four spots of their rotation, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma aside. So as Felix spends the winter working to regain his crown, the Mariners have worked to shore up their rotation.

Without a lot of help available via free agency, the trade route figured to be the most likely source of rotation upgrades. As seen in his first year at the helm of baseball operations, general manager Jerry Dipoto prefers the trade route for patching holes anyway. However, there was one free agent starter who reportedly caught his eye: Jason Hammel.

The 34-year-old starter was cut by the Chicago Cubs after their World Series victory and remains a free agent as we move into February. It was a curious move as the Cubs didn’t appear to have an heir for the No. 5 spot and haven’t done much to secure one since.

The season-ending elbow injury leaves a damper on what was otherwise a reasonably good season for Hammel and has likely impacted his free agency. In 166 and 2/3 innings the right-hander posted a 3.83 ERA and a 4.48 FIP. His strikeout rate was a notch above his career average and his walk rate was right on par, but he did see an uptick in his home run rate, which could cause some concern.

The bigger concern though, has to be the impact of Hammel’s September collapse, injury-related or not. Over four starts he allowed 21 runs and 20 earned while giving up six home runs. That stretch inflated his ERA from 3.14 at the start of the month to the 3.83 he finished with. Hammel’s FIP didn’t see quite as dramatic a rise, moving from 4.26 to 4.48.

Several outlets had Hammel connected to the Mariners throughout the winter. The fit was obvious as Seattle needed rotation help and the 34-year-old has a recent track record of being a reliable back-end starter. Given the nature of his departure with Chicago, he lost some leverage in an otherwise paper-thin free agent market.

Having a change in agency over the winter didn’t help the right-hander either. It was reported talks broke down with the M’s around this time. Since then, Seattle went out and filled the empty spots in the rotation by acquiring Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo.

Smyly, 27, spent the last two-plus years in the rotation for the Tampa Bay Rays and dealt with some health issues in 2015. Acquired as a key piece in the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, the left-hander is coming off a career high 175 and 1/3 innings pitched. His 4.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP are uninspiring, but his strikeout and walk rates were fine and he should benefit from the move to Safeco and an improved outfield defense.

Gallardo, 31 in February, is coming off a rocky year in Baltimore where a decline in velocity factored into a diminished strikeout rate and an inflated walk rate. He posted a 5.42 ERA and a 5.04 FIP over 118 innings The brief period where he was a top arm for the Milwaukee Brewers is gone, but he’s only one year removed from a seven-year stretch as an average or better starter. He’s a prime bounce-back candidate and should also benefit from the park and outfield defense.

Here’s a look at how the three starters project to perform in 2017 via Steamer.

2017 Steamer Projections
Drew Smyly 29 168.0 3.93 4.11 8.39 2.62 1.30 .232 2.6
 Yovani Gallardo 24  135.0 4.48 4.55 6.41 3.39 1.13 .260 1.0
Jason Hammel 28 158.0  4.35 4.31  7.75 2.67 1.29 .258 1.7

Of the three, Smyly is the obvious exception, so the analysis really comes down to Gallardo and Hammel, who have some similarities. The first stat that stands out is the fWAR column where Hammel projects to be nearly one win better than Gallardo. We can attribute some of that to a better projected strikeout and walk rates over a slightly larger innings total. Hammel is projected to give up more home runs, but both have fly-ball tendencies.

Projection systems tend to favor recent performance and Hammel is the one coming off a better year. However, looking at the previous three years, we can see that their overall production has been similar. Gallardo has the virtue of being younger and holds a more consistent track record prior to last year, though.

Perhaps the most important question is what carries more risk: Gallardo’s diminished velocity or Hammel’s presumed diminished health? Seattle seemed more willing to gamble on the former regaining a step than the latter being healthy for Opening Day.

At this point., anything relating to Hammel’s health is speculation beyond his status at the end of the season and through the playoffs. Not many seem to buy the Cubs acknowledgement of his full health when he was released.

Also to be considered when looking at the two starters is the accompanying financial commitments. We don’t know for sure what Hammel wanted, or hoped for, in free agency. A one-year deal with incentives and maybe an option year would make sense. We do know that the M’s will pay Gallardo $11 million in 2017 and a $2 million buyout in 2018 if they decline a $13 million team option.

The status of Seth Smith and his $7 million contract seemed to play a role in all this. It’s been suggested that the ideal situation for Seattle would have been to deal Smith and the money owed for a minor leaguer and use the freed up cash for Hammel.

If the club saw similar potential in Gallardo and Hammel with the primary goal of dealing Smith’s contract, then it makes a lot of sense to take the route they did. Presuming full health, Hammel should be the better pitcher in 2017. But after viewing his medical records, the potential for a bounce-back season may have made Gallardo look just a little more appealing.

Without more information on Hammel’s health, it’s tough to really determine if the Mariners made the right call. Given the fact he’s still a free agent suggest it’s obvious Seattle isn’t the only team to have shied away.

Regardless, the deals made have helped bolster the starting staff. FanGraphs projects the rotation to land in the middle of the pack while ESPN’s Buster Olney has the M’s rotation cracking his top ten for 2017.

A lot of things still need to go right, but Seattle certainly made the right call in bolstering their starting pitching. That much we do know.…

After a brief hibernation period, general manager Jerry Dipoto is back at it. Moments after dealing outfielder Seth Smith for starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo, the Seattle Mariners had another deal completed. In comes speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson and to Kansas City goes starter Nate Karns.

As PI’s Luke Arkins wrote earlier, Gallardo offers the potential to improve the rotation but at a cost of an experienced outfield bat. It’s easy enough to look at Dyson as a direct replacement for Smith — and he technically is in 25 and 40-man roster terms — but he brings a different skill set to the table, one that is valued highly by Dipoto and company.

Dyson, a 50th-round pick in the 2006 draft, has spent his entire career in the Royals organization. The 32-year-old made his debut in 2010 but was most recently noted for his role in the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship as a late-inning pinch-runner extraordinaire and defensive replacement.

For his career, which amounts to 1539 plate appearances, the left-hander owns a .260/.325/.353 slash line with an 86 wRC+. He bested that line in 2016 posting a .278/.340/.388 line and a 94 wRC+ — a few ticks below league average for his position. However, speed and defense have always been and remain Dyson’s calling card.

Last season Dyson swiped 30 bags and has averaged just over 31 steals over the past four years. Defensive metrics have been rather fond of the outfielder, crediting him with 19 defensive runs saved last season. The defensive performance helped push Dyson over the 3.0 fWAR mark for the second time in the past three years.

Karns was originally acquired by the Mariners last winter in the multi-player deal that sent Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays. He made 15 starts in 2016 and over 94 and 1/3 innings pitched, including a handful of relief outings, he posted a 5.15 ERA and a 4.05 FIP. His 9.64 strikeouts per nine were mixed with a rather ugly 4.29 walkers per nine innings pitched.

The right-hander missed a good portion of the season dealing with a back injury but the command issues were evident. Having just turned 29-years-old he’s not without upside, and the M’s had little pitching depth to work with after dealing Taijuan Walker, but he figured to be competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation with Gallardo now on board.

It’s best to look at today’s deals as a whole — the Mariners deal Smith and Karns for Gallardo and Dyson. Arguably the pitching staff lost some upside in Karns but likely gained some floor given Gallardo’s track record as an innings-eater. Losing Smith and his career 112 wRC+ does weaken the lineup, but Dyson figures to make up for that offensive gap in two words: run prevention.

The stolen bases are one thing, but combining Dyson with Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger figure to give the Mariners one of the best defensive outfields in baseball, perhaps the best. This follows Dipoto’s original plan of building a team that suits Safeco Field. There won’t be anymore sluggers lumbering around the outfield, except for when Nelson Cruz makes his cameos. Instead, more athleticism and runs saved on the other side of the ball will be present.

Defensive metrics can be tricky to decipher in small samples, but all three outfielders pass the eye test with flying colors. Moving Dyson to left field where he is expected to play regularly will hurt his value some as his speed and range will be limited. However, it will be a substantial improvement of Smith’s declining defensive abilities and perhaps more importantly, gives Seattle another legitimate option in center. Martin probably could’ve used a couple more days off last season.

The old adage of if you can’t score more runs, you’d best prevent them is at play here. Seattle did make a significant addition to the lineup with Jean Segura inserted at shortstop and the top of the lineup, but otherwise a similar offense will return in 2017. And expecting all three of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Cruz to repeat their performances is foolish. They’re all great hitters, but some regression can be expected.

With a similar offense and a terrible class of free agent pitchers, it made sense for the Mariners to emphasize the value an improved defense brings. The thing about having a stronger outfield is that it can make a below-average rotation better. This may well be what Dipoto is counting on given the question marks existing in the rotation.

Given the current standing of the roster, we can estimate the the Mariners will roll out lineups that may resemble these in 2017:

Projected 2017 Lineups
vs. RHP vs. LHP
Jarrod Dyson Jean Segura
Jean Segura Danny Valencia
 Robinson Cano Robinson Cano
Nelson Cruz Nelson Cruz
Kyle Seager Kyle Seager
Mike Zunino Mike Zunino
Dan Vogelbach Mitch Haniger
Leonys Martin Leonys Martin
Ben Gamel Jarrod Dyson

We could quibble with how the lineups will round out or who hits in the No. 2 hole against lefties, but what we see here is a much more balanced lineup than in year’s past. There certainly projects to be enough power, but there’s finally a couple of legitimate leadoff options in Segura and Dyson.

The first base and right field platoons offer some upside and Valencia’s flexibility will be utilized in the corner spots. Depending on how the bench shakes out, there’s the ability to sit Martin or Dyson against a particularly difficult left-hander.

Losing Smith’s consistent bat and Karns’ upside hurts, but it’s hard to find an angle where for the purposes of 2017, the Mariners roster isn’t better today than it was yesterday. Some more pitching depth would be nice, but it appears that Dipoto finally has the outfield together that he wants.…

It’s tough being a top prospect. It’s even tougher being a former top prospect. The first label belongs to and the second is close to belonging to D.J. Peterson. The 2013 draft is still a recent memory, but the former first round draft pick is facing an uphill battle heading into the 2017 season.

The good news is that back in November, Peterson had his contract purchased as he was added to the 40-man roster. The impetus of the move was to protect the 24-year-old from the Rule 5 Draft where a team could acquire him for what amounts to major league pocket change. Chances are he wouldn’t be able to stick on a major league roster for the entire 2017 season, but the club felt that it wasn’t worth the risk.

With the challenges of 2015 behind him, Peterson put together a decent campaign split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016. His Double-A line of .271/.340/.466 was more reminiscent of his first stop at that level back in 2014. The 133 wRC+ and .198 ISO suggest that the power aspect of his game came back. The right-hander’s batting line took a step back in 192 plate appearances with Triple-A Tacoma however, with a .253/.307/.438 triple-slash supporting a 96 wRC+.

It had been projected that Peterson would reach the majors at some point in 2016 but obviously that didn’t come to fruition. His new status on the 40-man roster increases his chances of making an appearance with the Mariners at some point in the coming season. He projects to start 2017 at Triple-A as the primary first baseman for the Rainiers.

At the time the right-hander was added to the roster, Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill had this to say:

Peterson’s best value may ultimately be as a part-time player, perhaps at first base versus left-handed pitching where he got back to his old self, hitting more balls up the middle and the other way.

Almost all of Peterson’s extra-base power has come to his pull side. More balance there could change his profile enough to offer some hope he can play regularly. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but Peterson’s remaining potential and the fact he could be an option for the big club at some point in 2017 in some role is why he was protected.

Undoubtedly the club will need to see the continuation of last year’s improvements before he sniffs big league action — unless necessitated by an unfortunate injury scenario. But, as Churchill noted, the M’s have had him work in the outfield some and clearly still buy into the potential offered in his bat.

The move to first base wasn’t unexpected as many scouts saw the a departure from third as inevitable. It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners have the hot corner locked up long-term with Kyle Seager.

The incumbent first base platoon of Adam Lind and Dae-Ho Lee remain free agents after a season of mixed results. As it stands, a new tandem of Dan’s –Valencia, acquired this winter, and Vogelbach, acquired in the summer for Mike Montgomery — will have the reigns at first base.

Valencia, the right-handed side of the platoon, owns a lifetime 139 wRC+ against left-handed pitching and figures to see regular playing time. The 32-year-old has experience at all four corners and offers the club some desired flexibility — something Peterson currently does not.

Vogelbach, the left-handed side of the platoon, only made 13 plate appearances for the M’s at the end of last season, but has hit right-handed pitching well throughout his minor league career. He has a similar first base/designated hitter make-up to Peterson, though the more-tenured Mariner would be the more athletic of the pair. Also worth noting, the 23-year-old lefty is major league ready on top of being an acquisition of the new regime — both are important factors when looking at the organizational depth chart.

By no means has the club given up on their 2013 first round selection. That’s apparent in their continued work with the slugger. Peterson will turn 25 before the calendar flips to 2017, and that isn’t a point in his favor. But, if he’s able to contribute to the major league team at all next year, that probably can be considered a win. Even if his ceiling is now a part-time player there’s still value there.

Over at ESPN (insider required), Christopher Crawford offered some thoughts on Peterson and how he could be facing a make or break year. The general thought is that unless the former top pick can adjust to how pitchers are going after him, he may peak as a pinch-hitter.

As things stand, it does not look like Peterson will be the middle-of-the-order bat he profiled as a few years back. However, things can change in a hurry and there are plenty of cases where guys figure something out in their mid-to-late twenties.

All is not lost for the former top prospect, but time is running out for him to have an impact in the major leagues.…

Diaz bulpenYou probably don’t want to read another article discussing modern bullpen usage. But you also can’t argue  Andrew Miller‘s success in this year’s playoffs hasn’t changed they way we look at how relievers are deployed.

The good news is that I’m not going to sell you on how great it would be if the Seattle Mariners made a habit of using their best reliever in the highest leverage situations. But what I can tell you is that something first needs to happen before the M’s can even consider the possibility.

Without oversimplifying things, the reason Terry Francona was able to deploy Miller as needed was because of Cody Allen‘s presence in the back of the bullpen. There’s less worry about holding onto Miller for a certain situation when you have Allen in your back pocket.

The Mariners have an elite reliever of their own in Edwin Diaz. With reliever usage being a hot topic, it’s been suggested that Seattle will look to maximizes Diaz’s usage by deploying him in more high leverage situations opposed to only traditional save opportunities. The problem though, is that Seattle doesn’t have an Andrew Miller to support their Cody Allen, so to speak.

Let’s make things clear; there isn’t likely to be any drastic change in how Diaz, the presumed closer, will be used. It’s possible he may pitch an eighth inning instead of a ninth once in a while. Or the occasional ask for four outs instead of three. But it’s simply impractical to use a reliever during the regular season like they are used in the postseason. There’s a good chance that we see a ratio similar how the right-hander was deployed last season.

Of Diaz’s 49 appearances with the Mariners last season, 10 required getting four or more outs. This includes a near heroic 2 and 1/3 inning appearance in what turned out to be Seattle’s penultimate game of 2016. The fact that Diaz started the year in the Double-A Jackson rotation likely worked in his favor as the now former starter was likely still used to longer outings.

The M’s did try to limit the 22-year-old’s use early on with regard to pitching on back-to-back days but that started to change down the stretch. Seattle was within range of a postseason berth and when it came time to turn things over to the bullpen, Diaz remained the best and too frequently the only option for locking down the win.

This brings us to the plans for 2017. It’s much too early to really drill down on the specifics of the Mariner bullpen. We have heard rumblings the team is in the market for a left-handed reliever and cultivating bullpen depth will again be a priority. Right now, it’s safe to say Seattle doesn’t have a two-headed monster at the back of their bullpen. But there are a couple potential options.

Steve Cishek started 2016 as the closer and had plenty of first-half success. He also succeeded in a set-up role in the second-half. The right-hander’s 2.81 ERA and 3.57 FIP don’t scream dominance, but his 10.69 strikeouts per nine rate better resembles a lock-down reliever.

The only problem is that Cishek may not be ready for the start of the season after undergoing hip labrum surgery. The 31-year-old remains an option to return to a late inning role and has the desired experience. The recovery timeline could cause some difficulties though, and it’s tough to know how he’ll perform upon his return.

Another option could be the up-and-coming Dan Altavilla. The hard-throwing righty gave up a single earned run over 12 and 1/3 innings in the season’s final weeks. He added ten strikeouts and a walk in an impressive showcase. Like Diaz, Altavilla made the jump from Double-A to the majors after being converted to a reliever at the beginning of the year. I would assume he’s penciled in for a major league bullpen role, but may need a stint in the minors to fine tune his skills.

With his repertoire, Diaz has the makings of a pure shutdown, high leverage reliever. However, the current bullpen set-up simply may not allow for use outside of the more traditional closer’s role. After all, the primary set-up options we just discussed include a recovering side-armer and an unproven rookie. Not to mention that Diaz is only a year in to his major league and bullpen career.

The Mariners know that they need to re-stock the bullpen. Middle relief arms will be a priority, but by emphasizing late-inning options and increasing flexibility there, Seattle may be able to get even more value out of Diaz.…

When an organization goes through a rebuilding or a re-tooling process, it’s often thought that the pieces need to be brought in. This would be through the draft, acquisitions of younger players, signing free agents, the international markets, and even the odd Rule 5 draft pick. The reclamation of players already within the system is often an afterthought.

Enter Mike Zunino who, nearly a full calendar year in to his renaissance, is reclaiming his title of catcher of the future for the Seattle Mariners. The former No. 3 overall pick is once again resembling the player that the organization hoped he would be when the significant investment was made in the catcher.

I hate to be overly critical of how the previous regime handled Zunino’s development, but it was obvious he was brought up too early and it was obvious that things weren’t working out in the big leagues for him last year. Both of the decisions are widely accepted as not being the best courses of action.

Some time in Arizona and Tacoma later, and the Mariners have been able to make up for some of the time that was lost. We may look back in ten years at the first half of 2016 as the difference-maker in the right-hander’s career.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here Shifting back to present day, in 149 plate appearances this season Zunino owns a .225/.342/.536 triple slash with a 137 wRC+. The 25-year-old’s 11 home runs are just three fewer than rookie sensation Gary Sanchez has produced in his 155 plate appearances this year. Zunino’s 137 wRC+ ranks third among all catchers with a minimum 100 plate appearances and his .312 ISO would rank second behind Sanchez.

Zunino has been hitting like an elite catcher this year, in large part because of the home run rate. Admittedly, his current pace is not likely sustainable over a full season. But in 476 plate appearances between Tacoma and Seattle he has 28 home runs to his credit. He also hit 22 back in 2014, his first full year in the majors, so reaching 25-to-30 range certainly seems attainable.

Let’s compare Zunino’s stats between his 2016 season in the majors and the forgettable 2015 campaign.

Mike Zunino 2015-2016 Statistics
2015  386  .174 .230 .300 .550 47 .126 5.4%  34.2% .239
2016 149  .224 .342 .536 .878 137 .312 11.4% 29.5% .239

The 2016 sample size is still too small to be taken as gold. However, the results are very encouraging. Let’s start with the change in walk rate. This is stemming directly from a better all around approach at the plate by Zunino and improved discipline. He’s been swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone (-2.0 percent) and making more contact on pitches inside the zone (+2.5 percent) compared to last year. Overall he’s swinging at pitches at a slightly lower rate compared to last year and that has lead to him whiffing on fewer pitches.

The strikeout rate is still higher than you would like to see, but improving by nearly five percent is no small feat. If he’s able to maintain a walk rate in that 10-to-11 percent rage, his offensive profile will support an above average strikeout rate. Discipline was a major critique for Zunino last year, and he’s clearly worked on changing the perceptions. If he’s hitting this many home runs, the strikeouts will take care of themselves.

Zunino is not likely to hit for a terribly high average. An interesting point when comparing the two years is that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is identical, yet his 2016 average is 50 points higher. This is partly due to the home runs, again, as they are not balls in play. But this is also indicative of him making better contact that’s dropping in for base hits. His hard-hit rate is up eight percent and he’s hitting the ball the other way a little more as well.

Although his offensive metrics are driven by the home run rate, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Zunino does, after all, profile as a power hitter. Should he cool off over the season’s final weeks and finish with a lower OPS, perhaps in the .830-to-.850 range, it should still be considered a positive season.

All this ink spent on Zunino without mentioning his defence is simply because his abilities behind the dish were never in question. He’s continued to be an above average defender and very capable game caller. He has developed strong rapport with many of the familiar arms and regularly caught James Paxton at the start of the year when he was also in Triple-A.

The timing for the right-hander’s re-call from Tacoma also worked well for the M’s catching situation. With Steve Clevenger on the disabled list with a broken finger, and subsequent elbow issue that has ended his season, and veteran Chris Iannetta starting to show signs of fatigue, he provided welcomed relief to a weary catching corps after the All-Star break.

For fun, Zunino currently sports a 1.2 fWAR. That’s good for fifth among all position players on the club. Combining his fWAR with Iannetta’s 0.9 mark gives Seattle more than two wins above replacement at the catcher position on the year; a significant improvement over last season’s production.

Is Mike Zunino fixed? I wouldn’t say that, yet. We may not know the answer for several years. The primary takeaway here is that there are several legitimate clues suggesting the 25-year-old is back on the career trajectory that the Mariners hoped he’d be.…

storenSaying the bullpen has been revamped over the past week may not be entirely accurate, but the Seattle Mariners continued to shuffle the deck Tuesday night. Mike Montgomery and now Joaquin Benoit are out and former All-Star closer Drew Storen is coming in after being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays along with cash considerations in exchange for Benoit. The cash included is reported to be the difference between the two reliever’s salaries. Both relievers are free agents at the end of the year.

Benoit was an offseason addition to the bullpen and expected to fill the eight inning role vacated by Carson Smith. Despite an improved month of July, the right-hander still posted a 5.18 ERA and a 4.95 FIP over 24 and 1/3 innings of work. His 10.36 strikeouts per nine innings were better than his career mark of 8.94, but it was the accompanying 5.55 walks per nine that caused issues. His 13.8 percent whiff rate was down a couple ticks from the past couple seasons but was still above his career mark of 13.0 percent.

The velocity was still there for the 39-year-old, averaging 94-to-95 miles per hour on his fastball. The problem was that he often didn’t know where it was going. Benoit was only able to produce a clean outing in seven of his 26 appearances. He didn’t have to be perfect, but more was expected from the seasoned veteran.

Edwin Diaz and his gaudy 17.47 strikeout rate have taken over eighth inning and higher leverage duties and have done exceedingly well.

The Blue Jays are getting a reliever who in terms of raw stuff is performing well enough. he’s still missing bats and striking hitters out. But they are hoping that a change of scenery will be rejuvenating, similar to the case of Jason Grilli who was acquired earlier in the year.

On the Mariners end, they receive a struggling reliever with a home run issue. In 33 and 1/3 innings pitched Storen HAS posted a 6.21 ERA and a 5.00 FIP due in large part to a career-high 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate — that number is more than double Storen’s career mark. The good news is that his 8.64 strikeout and 2.70 walk rates are basically right on the right-hander’s career marks so it doesn’t appear to be a command issue at first glance.

The biggest issue surrounding Storen’s troubles is not an unusual one: his velocity has declined. After previously hitting 95-to-96 MPH regularly leading up to the 2016 season, the 28-year-old has found his fastball sitting in the 93-to-94 MPH range. I mention his age there because it’s odd for a pitcher who should be in his prime to have such a sharp decline. Usually this would be due to injury, but there hasn’t been any apparent ailments.

The decline in velocity has caused Storen’s hard-hit rate to spike to 39.8 percent. His soft contact rate sits at a measly 12.0 percent. Everything he’s been throwing has been hit hard. And if you’re wondering how much of a difference that relatively small decline in velocity can make, just look to the top of the Mariners rotation and the struggles that Felix Hernandez has had dealing with his reduced velocity.

Is Storen fixable? His age and solid strikeout and walk rates would suggest so. Pitching at Safeco Field instead of the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre should also help some. But until he can get that velocity back up a couple ticks, or learn how to rely on his breaking pitches, he’ll be in tough to have much success.

For anyone wondering how the Mariners could simultaneously buy and sell in the time leading up to the trade deadline, this is an example. They are selling Benoit, a veteran reliever, to a contending team that’s looking to bolster a playoff-caliber pitching staff. They are buying Storen, a former All-Star closer, to aid the relief corps in the middle innings. Technically they are both buying and selling low here, but it paints a picture.

Are the Mariners better today than they were before the trade? It’s hard to say. You like Storen’s upside because he’s been a solid reliever up to this point and has ten years on Benoit. But you also liked Benoit for his track record and experience, though that was seven months ago.

This could be a trade where a change of scenery helps both pitchers. Or both could continue to struggle. Storen was designated for assignment after all and Benoit’s numbers don’t differ much from Joel Peralta‘s when he was cut loose.

Seattle gets another guy with closing experience, which could help if they decide to deal Steve Cishek who’s name has come up in a few rumors. Otherwise Storen is another middle reliever with a home run problem who you hope can be fixed with a couple minor changes.

It’s far from an exciting trade, and the net result may not produce a clear upgrade, but the Mariners are betting on Storen’s upside and youth. That’s usually a bet teams are willing to take.…

felix hernandez jerry dipotoWith the All-Star festivities now in the rear-view mirror, the quest for October baseball will ramp up a couple notches as play resumes on Friday. The Seattle Mariners entered the break with a 45-44 record and sit five games back in the Wild Card and eight games back in the division. It’s not an ideal position for a team with postseason aspirations, but at this time one year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the second-half with a 45-46 record before going on an incredible run to end the longest postseason doubt in professional sports.

I know, that’s a lousy comparison. The Mariners offence is nowhere near as prolific as the Jays was in 2015 and the club doesn’t have the trade chips to acquire reinforcements along the lines of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. What the record comparison does speak to, is the fact that this season is far from decided.

The Texas Rangers have been one of the top teams in the American League so far this year but are being hammered by injuries. The Houston Astros have recovered from their slow start as well, making conquering the West a tall task. There’s no reason to believe a wild card slot is out of reach, however.

Here are three things that need to happen in the second half for Seattle to be best positioned for a return to the postseason.

A return of the King
This really could write itself: the Mariners need the best incarnation of Felix Hernandez available. At this point, regaining 2016 Felix would be an upgrade for the rotation. But what the team really needs is its ace back. The 30-year-old has nearly completed his rehab assignment for the calf injury suffered in May and is expected to rejoin the rotation next week.

There were some concerns that Felix wasn’t 100 percent earlier in the season, with particular regards to his decreased velocity. The calf injury is unlikely to change anything there and probably won’t ease much concern over what he’ll be able to produce over the remainder of the season.

The right-hander has made this year he owns a 2.86 ERA and a 4.16 FIP in 63 innings over 10 starts this year. Hernandez’s strikeout and walk rates of 7.57 and 3.71 per nine innings respectfully are both nearly an entire point in the wrong direction from his career marks. The increase in walks speaks to some of the command troubles he has encountered earlier in the year. Not having the sharpest of stuff either has likely hurt the strikeout rate. On the year he owns an 8.5 percent whiff rate, his lowest since 2011 when he posted a 9.1 percent mark.

The good news from Felix’s first half are that the ground balls are still there and the home run rate is within his career norms. The challenge will be responding to the decreased velocity and making adjustments to his appraoch. The changeup and breaking balls are still there and more than a few starters have been successful with diminished velocity.

At the very least, the King comes at a time when reinforcements are sorely needed in the rotation. Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker have both been on the disabled list and Nathan Karns was moved to the bullpen. Reliever Mike Montgomery is expected to make another start following the break.

Expectations for Felix immediately returning to greatness will need to be tempered, but if he can regain more of his former self than he has shown, it will be a significant boost to the club.

Dipoto at the deadline
Rarely does a team enter the beginning of a season complete, and practically never does that team have everything go according to plan over the first three-plus months of the year. Injuries and under-performance have a funny way of messing things up. Even the Chicago Cubs have shown that they are indeed fallible. Tinkering is required throughout the season, but transactions come under extreme scrutiny leading up to the trade deadline.

This will be Jerry Dipoto’s first deadline as general manager of the Mariners. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill has thoughts on the various players the M’s could target, while Luke Arkins digs into Dipoto’s past for clues about how he may act over the next couple weeks. The primary areas of concern are the rotation, bullpen, and outfield. Some help at first base would be nice, but Dae-Ho Lee is doing enough to make that a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have upgrade.

The difficulty is that, even more than usual, prices are already sky-high with supply as low as it has been in years. Not to mention that fact that Dipoto has precious few trade chips to work with.

I’ve often felt that a club can have a successful deadline without making a move. If the price of the product is too high for your taste, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it on the shelf. And really, it isn’t as if the Mariners are a piece away. Drew Pomeranz or Jason Grilli, or even Aaron Hill for that matter, won’t catapult the team to the top of the division.

With minimal help waiting in the wings at Triple-A, making an upgrade or two could be crucial to the club’s Wild Card aspirations. Maybe Nori Aoki figures it out and can contribute something or one of Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook is able to pitch effectively once healthy. But, as we knew heading into the season, there was probably still a missing piece that would need to be found outside of the organization. It’s up to Dipoto to find out.

The bats keep rolling
It may be odd to say, but nonetheless it’s true: the Mariners have been one of the better offensive teams in baseball this year. The club’s 109 wRC+ ranks fourth among all teams, due in part to the 132 home runs hit so far this year. That number is second only to the Cubs. The Mariners enter the second half averaging 4.89 runs per game, just three ticks lower than the Texas Rangers’ 4.92 average.

The combination of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager have combined for 8.9 fWAR so far this year. Cano, the club’s lone All-Star representative in San Diego, is an MVP candidate in a year of resurgence, while Cruz and Seager were plenty deserving of a trip down south. Seager especially.

Part of Dipoto’s offseason plans was to augment the lineup surrounding the core. With the exceptions of Adam Lind and Aoki, plenty of those moves have turned out well. Leonys Martin has solidified the center field position and was crushing the ball before a stint on the disabled list. Bringing back Franklin Gutierrez for pocket change to platoon with Seth Smith has stabilized the No. 2 spot. The pair have also combined for 20 home runs.

Lee has found his way into the hearts of Mariners fans as well as a 127 wRC+ in a part-time role that is starting to increase. Chris Iannetta has come as advertised behind the plate, and while unexciting, has an 11 percent walk rate and is a serious improvement from 2015.

All this to say that Seattle needs to keep the level of offense going through the second half, especially if reinforcements aren’t able to arrive for the pitching staff. Cruz probably has another red-hot stretch in him and Cano has better career second-half numbers than first-half.

The reality is that Seattle is a fringe contender right now, which isn’t that far off from where they were projected to be on Opening Day. Help required for the pitching staff could come from within, particularly on the disabled list, but realistically will need outside help. Though I have nothing against Stefen Romero and Daniel Robertson as depth pieces, the help needed for the outfield simply isn’t here right now either.

And no, playing Cruz more in right field is not the answer. The M’s already grade out as one of the poorest fielding teams, and run prevention is just as important as run scoring.

Bottom line: Felix needs to be Felix, Dipoto needs to work some magic, and the offense can have a couple hiccups, but can’t afford to go cold for an extended period of time. The second-half starts tonight and the Mariners are on the clock. Five games out and two weeks until the trade deadline. A lot could be decided between now and then.…