If you listen to baseball pundits, the Seattle Mariners are legitimate postseason contenders — if their starting staff is better than last year’s version.
Considering their finish last year, that’s an understandable assessment.
Manager Scott Servais‘ squad remained in contention until the final weekend despite their rotation suffering numerous setbacks throughout the year. How did his club do it?
Scoring the third most runs in the American League.
Now, the Mariners enter Spring Training with a reinforced rotation and added layers of depth, thanks to the perpetual deal-making of general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Mix in a potent offense, upgraded defense, and deeper bullpen and you have makings of a wildcard contender. Perhaps, a division champion.
On the first day of March, it all looks great — at least on paper.
While defense is easily gauged during Cactus League play, pitchers have to prove themselves during the regular season. The same normally applies to hitters, but the Mariners’ offense is a proven commodity.
No, it is not.
Some of you are stewing right now, wondering how I could think this way. Have I forgotten the Mariners have their three best hitters returning? Have I lost my senses?
No on both counts.
It’s true. Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager still anchor Seattle’s lineup. Last year, they powered their team to its first 700-plus run season since 2007 and highest offensive ranking since the fabled 2001 campaign.
How could anyone forget that, especially a baseball nerd like me?
Still, there’s enough intrigue surrounding the rest of the lineup to consider the possibility of offensive regression — even if it leave some readers questioning my intellect.
I’m not saying the Mariners’ run-scoring machine will completely stall. But, Dipoto did replace many key parts from last year’s model — some haven’t been fully tested. The possibility exists the motor won’t perform as smoothly.
To see what I’m talking about, look at the new accessories included with the 2017 Dipoto — a model designed to win now. Each component will undergo significant usage.
|1B||Dan Vogelbach/Danny Valencia
|LF||Jarrod Dyson / Guillermo Heredia
|RF||Mitch Haniger/Ben Gamel
I know. Games in Peoria have just gotten underway and I’m already spewing a dour outlook for the Mariners — I frequently receive that type of feedback in the comments section and via Twitter.
Believe it or not, I understand.
Fans are hopeful, especially after the moves Dipoto made this offseason. But, so much change fuels uncertainty — at least in my mind it does.
Perhaps, Dipoto’s modifications will super-charge the lineup. On the other hand, those updates could lead to sluggish run production.
We just won’t know until the offense is tested during the harsh conditions of regular season play.
Now that I’ve infuriated many with a dire viewpoint and automotive metaphors, please permit me to explain the rationale driving (oops) my apprehension.
If you don’t agree, you can still crush me in the Twitter-verse and/or the comments section afterwards.
To assess where the Mariners stand now, reflect on last season’s offense — by position.
Some of you don’t believe in reviewing offensive production by position. I know this because a Twitter follower went as far to say, “Positional production is dumb.”
That comment came shortly after I suggested the combined offense of Seattle’s new corner outfielders needed to offset the loss of Nori Aoki, Franklin Gutierrez, and Seth Smith — plus the reduced outfield time Cruz is likely to see.
For what it’s worth, I don’t care about positional offense either. As long as a player produces, position doesn’t matter.
Having said that, the Mariners replaced significant offensive contributors who played in the outfield and at first base. They also added potentially significant offensive upgrades at shortstop and catcher.
In this case, looking at the offense — by position — provides a macro view of where Seattle needs to improve, maintain status quo, or at least avoid significant regression.
The following table lists team totals for home runs and slash statistics for each position — included is the production for every player who manned that position.
For example, the .253 batting average for first base includes the 355 plate appearances from Adam Lind while playing first base, plus Dae-Ho Lee (274), Dan Vogelbach (9), Stefen Romero (3), and Luis Sardinas (3).
Note: Highlighted in yellow are above league-average slash numbers.
|Mariners 2016 Offense (by position)
The only the three positions above league-average in all categories — second base, third base, and designated hitter — were respectively occupied by Cano, Seager, and Cruz. They were truly the heart of the order last season.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the only other position to remain unchanged from last Opening Day is center field — patrolled by Leonys Martin.
Assume for now Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Martin deliver relatively similar numbers to last season. That may be a mistake in the case of Cano and Cruz, but we’ll get back to them later. For now, we’ll presume all four produce as they did in 2016.
If that’s the case, the five remaining positions must be collectively as productive as last year. Run creation can come in any combination — position doesn’t matter. But, the sum must meet or exceed the 2016 total.
Let’s go back to those corner outfielders mentioned earlier.
The primary contributors were Aoki, Smith, and Gutierrez. When their names popped up on social media last season, the reactions varied wildly — admiration, tepid approval, resignation, or utter frustration.
It’s understandable. At times, each player’s performance was unsteady.
Whether it was Aoki’s circuitous routes to fly balls or puzzling moves on the base paths, Smith’s second-half swoon, or Guti’s summer slump; their play could be unnerving.
Yet, the trio produced at the plate when confronted by opposite-handed pitching.
| The Outfield Platoon Triumvirate
Whether you loved or tolerated them, the combined efforts of the Aoki/Gutierrez/Smith “triumvirate” — plus a dash of Boomstick — permitted the Mariners to be above average offensively in left field and league average-ish in right.
Now, the triumvirate is gone and there will be less Cruz in the field. Someone has to pick up some — if not all — of the run-creation slack in the outfield.
Dyson is set to play left field. The issue facing fleet-footed outfielder and the Mariners is whether he’s an everyday player.
While the left-hand hitting Dyson is a significant improvement both defensively and on the base paths, his career experience against southpaws amounts to just 277 plate appearances and a .231/.305/.285 slash line.
Am I saying Dyson can’t do the job?
Absolutely not. However, his performance bears watching when the regular season begins.
Management believes Haniger is their right fielder. Dipoto routinely compares the former first round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers to a player he had while serving as general manager of the Los Angeles Angels — Kole Calhoun.
That’s a lofty comparison, but it’s completely based on projections — not major league experience.
Haniger played in just 34 games for the Diamondbacks last year. Having said that, his 25 home runs during two minor league stops last season suggests he possess above-average power.
The right-handed hitting Heredia signed as an international free agent just 12 months ago. In two brief stints with the team, he performed admirably in the field and slashed .302/.434/.372 during the 54 plate appearances in September.
As with Haniger and Heredia, the left-handed hitting Gamel enters 2017 with his rookie status intact.
Although most scouting reports project the 26-year-old as a fourth outfielder, he did win the 2016 International League Most Valuable Player award while playing for Class-AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Another position with new faces after delivering some semblance of offensive productivity last season is first base.
Certainly, the the former platoon of Lind and Lee didn’t produce as evenly as the Mariners hoped. Despite a September surge, all of Lind’s slash numbers were well below career norms.
Lee got off to a good start and quickly became a cult figure with local fans. But, he scuffled after the all-star break, which led to a week of playing for Class-AAA Tacoma.
Still, the Lind/Lee experiment wasn’t a complete failure. Their combined home run total at first base ranked fifth in the American League.
Here’s a snapshot of their overall production at the position.
|Lind/Lee at 1B
To replace Lind/Lee, Seattle acquired the left-handed hitting Dan Vogelbach, who will platoon with his right-handing hitting counterpart — Danny Valencia. That’s assuming the 24-year-old rookie proves himself ready during Cactus League play.
Valencia is a versatile layer of insurance at first base and potentially in the infield and outfield. But, his career .246/.288/.394 slash against righties does raise questions.
It’s worth noting Valencia played more against like-handed pitching during the last two seasons than earlier stages of his career and he’s delivered results.
During 602 plate appearances against right-handers since 2015, the 32-year-old has a .796 OPS with 26 home runs.
Perhaps, the seven-year veteran has turned a corner.
So far, I’ve discussed three productive positions that will rely heavily on relatively untested players this year.
Barring injury, one spot with a new name is certain to provide significant offensive upside — shortstop.
Last year’s Opening Day shortstop Ketel Marte dealt with injury and ineffectiveness throughout his first full major league season.
The switch-hitter missed considerable time to a sprained thumb and mononucleosis, plus his .287 OBP ranked number-25 among shortstops with 450-plus plate appearances.
Shortstop was a black hole for most of 2016. So much so, the Mariners reportedly attempted to acquire Zack Cozart from the Cincinnati Reds to upgrade their lineup for a postseason push.
In the end, the deal didn’t happen before the August 1 trade deadline expired and the club rode out the year with Marte.
During the offseason, the club finally made their trade, but not for Cozart or with the Reds.
In Segura, the Mariners found a major upgrade. The 26-year-old enjoyed a breakout season during his lone year in Arizona, hitting a personal best 20 home runs and leading the National League with 203 hits.
A second baseman last season, Segura will return to his natural position of shortstop with the Mariners.
Even if Segura reverts to his career slash of .280/.319/396, the right-handed hitter would represent the best offensive shortstop in Seattle since Alex Rodriguez. Now that’s something that should frustrate Seattle fans.
The remaining position to receive an offensive boost is one that enjoyed more success at the plate than fans may want to admit — catcher.
Despite the constant social media bickering over Zunino’s development as a hitter and offense the others provided, the position actually ranked higher in the American League than the casual fan may realize.
|M’s Catcher Rankings (AL)|
Am I suggesting Mariners fans should be satisfied by their catchers’ offensive showing last season? That’s up to them.
With that said, the preceding rankings are a sobering reminder most clubs are in the same boat as Seattle. American League catchers collectively had a lower OPS than every other position, excluding pitchers.
That’s right; the former kings of poor offense — shortstops — have lost their title to catchers.
So what does this have to do with the 2017 Mariners? A lot.
Dipoto acquired Carlos Ruiz to back up Zunino. The 38-year-old provides a veteran presence capable of spotting Zunino.
The 11-year veteran was one of the few reserve options available who could improve offensive productivity of Seattle’s backstop position.
Last year, “Chooch” managed to register a .365 OBP during combined duty with the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers. Optimally, he’ll serve as an understudy.
Still, Ruiz is capable of seamlessly stepping into the starting role if Zunino suffers an injury or dramatically falters.
Still, Ruiz is capable of seamlessly stepping into the starting role if Zunino suffers an injury or dramatically falters. The Mariners haven’t enjoyed that luxury during the Zunino-era.
Okay, that brings me back to the holdovers — Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Martin.
I’m not going to devote time to Seager and Martin. Both are in their prime and — barring significant injury — likely to deliver career average production, as they did in 2016.
As for the other two, it’s fair to at least point out last season’s two most productive hitters will be their club’s oldest regular starters in the 2017. Cano is entering his age-34 season and Cruz will be 37-years-old in July.
Here’s their individual and combined production from last year. As you can see, their contribution to the total offense was substantial.
|% Total Offense
If either Cano or Cruz — or both — were to suffer any age-related regression this season, it could have a devastating effect on the Mariners’ offense and their postseason aspirations.
Am I saying either player will fall off a cliff statistically? Heck no. But, the possibility exists and clouds the picture until the real games get underway.
Although I’ve generally pointed to the potential pitfalls of Dipoto’s revised offense, I have no idea if it’ll be historically good, decent, or something less.
That’s my point — none us of know. We have to wait for the regular season.
Certainly, the club’s speedier additions — Segura, Dyson, Haniger, Gamel, and Heredia — will help create runs their heavy-footed predecessors couldn’t — assuming they reach first base.
There’s my dark outlook again.
Regardless of the newcomers’ offensive makeup, most are certain to improve the Mariners’ defense — especially in the outfield — and that brings us to a belief maintained by Dipoto.
A run saved has as much value as a run scored.
With so many changes to the Mariners’ lineup, defense, and base running ability, I’m reserving judgement on their offense until the regular season is well underway.
If it runs on all cylinders (oops again), Seattle will have a reasonable chance to either match or exceed last season’s run production.
Otherwise, it could be a long summer at Safeco Field.