Mariners Hot Stove Warmup

As the Seattle Mariners enter the offseason, the team’s strong September and overall success this year signal they’re heading in the right direction. But, the Mariners aren’t nearly ready to be considered a full-fledged playoff contender.

Fortunately, for general manager Jerry Dipoto, he enters his second offseason with Seattle in possession of a much stronger 40-man roster than he inherited just 12 months ago. The challenge facing the 48-year-old executive is upgrading the areas of need that can’t be addressed solely through internal sources.

In no particular order, here are the most glaring needs.

Rotation
Right now, the Mariners have a 30-year-old ace — Felix Hernandez — coming off one of the worst seasons of his 12-year career, which included two months on the disabled list (DL). Behind him, an aging veteran and bunch of unproven guys with promise.

Hisashi Iwakuma led Seattle in games started (33) this season. But, he’s never started 28 or more games in consecutive seasons during his 15-year professional career. On top of that, he turns 36 next April. “Kuma” is still a valuable asset to the club, but he’s a number-three starter and shouldn’t be relied upon to be a workhorse once again in 2017.

Of the current starters on the 40-man roster, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton project to fall in behind Iwakuma with Ariel Miranda and Nate Karns competing for the final spot in the rotation. All four pitchers have experienced shining moments, or even periods of excellence. Yet, none of them has been able to put it together for an entire season.

The club could wait to see if Walker and/or Paxton finally realize their once-heralded potential next season. If both hurlers finally put it all together, the rotation would be formidable. Conversely, if the pair remain inconsistent next season, the Mariners risk remaining on the fringe of contention.

Ideally, Dipoto will acquire a proven number-two starter to wedge between Felix and Kuma in the rotation order before pitchers and catchers report to Peoria. Doing so may require moving one or more of the young arms I’ve just mentioned.

Bullpen Depth
Adding more relievers is an offseason priority every year. Fortunately, for the Mariners, they have a far better outlook entering the offseason compared to last year, thanks to the return of several key veterans and the emergence of youngsters such as Edwin Diaz and Dan Altavilla. However, “reliever volatility” is a real thing. Look at how the Opening Day bullpen fared during the season to to see what I mean.

2016  Opening Day Bullpen
Pos
Name Comments
CL Steve Cishek Lost closer job / Two weeks on DL in August
SU Joaquin Benoit Spent month on DL / Traded
RP Tony Zych Most of season on DL / Possible offseason shoulder surgery
RP Joel Peralta Released
RP Nick Vincent Spent July on DL
RP Mike Montgomery Traded
RP Vidal Nuno
Missed no playing time

 

Versatile reliever Vidal Nuno was the lone reliever from the Opening Day 25-man roster who didn’t spend any time on the DL or lose his job. In fact, the Mariners used 25 pitchers in relief last season. So, yes, they will need to add arms during the offseason.

Unlike last season, the bullpen won’t need a complete overhaul. Dipoto has demonstrated a liking for hard-throwing pitchers, but the club doesn’t have a southpaw version at this time. Expect that to change. He’s also likely to add arms to compete for jobs and potentially serve as minor league depth when the inevitable poor performances and injuries occur.

Outfield Defense
Last offseason, the Mariners added Leonys Martin, who was a significant upgrade in center field. However, the corner spots remained a defensive enigma in 2016.

Much of the team’s issues stemmed from the use of one-dimensional players such as Franklin Gutierrez, Nori Aoki, and Seth Smith in the corners. All raked against opposite-handed hitting. But, all three are defensively-limited platoon players and will be age-34 or older entering next season.

Better defensive options trickled in during the season. Most notably, Guillermo Heredia arrived from the minors and Ben Gamel was acquired in a trade on August 31. Both are young, athletic, and capable of playing center field — something that Gutierrez, Aoki, and Smith should no longer do. The lingering issue is whether the duo can provide enough offensive value to displace the veterans.

Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune suggests that the Mariners may retain Gutierrez, Aoki, and Smith. If that were to happen, it’s hard to envision all three on the club’s Opening Day roster in April. Perhaps, they’ll pick up Smith’s $7 million option and deal him to help fill one of the needs we’re discussing today.

The Mariners don’t necessarily need to add all-stars. However, a league-average bat with an above-average glove is exactly what the team needs. Two such players would be optimal. I remain skeptical that either Heredia or Gamel fit the bill.

Shortstop
Mariner shortstops ranked number-28 in the majors for wins above replacement (WAR) and on-base percentage (OBP). The primary stakeholder — Ketel Marte — endured a very difficult season with two separate DL trips. Plus, he seemed to regress offensively and defensively as the season progressed.

In his defense, Marte turned 23 just this week and lost 22 pounds during the season due to his bout with mononucleosis. There is still plenty of time for him to fulfill his potential.

The Mariners could take a similar approach with their struggling shortstop as they did with Mike Zunino last offseason. Commit to starting him in the minor leagues next season and give him a specific set of measurable goals to achieve before being recalled.

To put a similar plan in action for Marte, the club would need to find a shortstop version of Chris Iannetta. Someone capable of starting who doesn’t come with a long-term commitment. It’s been extensively reported that the Mariners attempted to land veteran shortstop Zack Cozart from the Cincinnati Reds prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline. Perhaps, talks with the Reds will reignite in the offseason or the team will look elsewhere.

Regardless of whom manager Scott Servais pencils in as his Opening Day shortstop, the club will need better play from the position next year.

First base
Mariners management has already made it clear that rookie Dan Vogelbach will get a long look during Spring Training. The left-handed hitter would be the natural replacement for Adam Lind — scheduled to become a free agent.

With that said, expect the club to hedge their bets by signing a veteran right-handed bat to complement Vogelbach at first base. Perhaps, they re-sign Dae-Ho Lee or import a new face. Adding a more versatile player, who can play multiple positions, would be a more efficient use of resources than bringing the one-dimensional Lee back to the Emerald City.

Get younger
This is an overarching goal that can be addressed throughout the offseason and into next season, particularly with position players. As you can see on the following table, there a significant number of starters and key reserves were on the wrong side of age-30 this past season.

Key Position Players In 2016
Pos
Name Age
Status
1B Adam Lind 32 Free agent
2B Robinson Cano 33 Under contract
SS Ketel Marte 22 Under contract
3B Kyle Seager 28 Under contract
LF Nori Aoki 34 Free agent
CF Leonys Martin 28 Arb eligible
RF Seth Smith 33 Team option
DH Nelson Cruz 35 Under contract
C Chris Iannetta 33 Team option
1B Dae-ho Lee 34 Free agent
OF Franklin Gutierrez 33 Free agent
C Mike Zunino 25 Under contract

 

Assuming that Zunino and Vogelbach make the 25-man roster and their predecessors leave the organization, the Mariners instantly become significantly younger at two positions. The areas to keep an eye during the offseason will be first base and the corner outfield spots. The average age of Gutierrez, Aoki, Smith, and Lee would be 34.5 next season.

Looking forward
Mariners fans should be encouraged by the first year of the Dipoto regime. Having said that, I suggest they temper their excitement by remembering the optimism that followed the 2014 season and the utter disappointment that ensued in 2015.

Expect Seattle’s front office to be active once again this offseason, although the pace probably won’t be as frenetic as it was during Dipoto’s debut last year. It doesn’t need to be, thanks to his hard work.

 

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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