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Dipoto Aoki

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the Seattle Mariners’ reboot of their roster and – to the chagrin of some Mariners faithful – I concluded that the current roster had not ascended to the level of “fringe contender.”

My doom and gloom rationale was primarily driven by the club’s lack of proven depth in the bullpen and rotation. I just don’t believe that Seattle’s current cadre of pitchers is ready to catapult the Mariners to the next level. The club is making sound moves to address their pitching, but I’m not ready to buy-in. It’s that simple.

The fact that I’m down on the Mariners’ pitching doesn’t mean that I think that new general manager Jerry Dipoto is doing a bad job or that the Mariners are on the wrong track – quite the opposite. He’s done an impressive job of turning over the roster after some national pundits said it would take over a year to transform the club. The 47-year-old executive didn’t see it that way.

In just three months, Dipoto has added 18 new players to the organization’s 40-man roster and he’s not done yet. He’ll undoubtedly continue to amass players who’ll compete to make the Opening Day roster or provide depth at Class-AAA Tacoma. There are reasons to feel optimistic about the club’s direction. The most obvious to me is the projected length of their lineup.

That’s right, I actually like something about the Mariners. From an offensive perspective, their projected Opening Day lineup is far superior to anything that they’ve put on the field in recent years. I’m not the only person who’s arrived at the same conclusion. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill noted during the most recent edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast that Dipoto has done a great job of lengthening his lineup and adding more hitters with on-base ability.

To gauge the Mariners’ improvement, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of Seattle’s 2015 production for each lineup spot and the 2016 Steamer projections for the nine players expected to fill those spots in the order. If you’d like to read more about Steamer, you can find it here at FanGraphs.

Before looking at the stats, I feel compelled to acknowledge that projections are nothing more than estimates based on factors such as each player’s playing history and age. No one can predict injuries or exactly when an aging player will fall off the proverbial cliff.

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It’s also important to note that the likelihood of a projection being correct increases substantially when there’s a larger sample-size available. Robinson Cano’s Steamer projection is more credible because it’s based on the results of an 11-year career, while Ketel Marte has played just 57 major league games.

Projections are imperfect by nature, but can be fun to discuss in mid-December. Take it from personal experience, they can spark very animated Twitter conversations. Okay, let’s look at the numbers.

  2015 Mariners Lineup 2016 Projections
Spot in Order
1st 18 .247 .307 .394 .702
Nori Aoki  6 .270 .332 .360 .691
2nd 22 .255 .312 .424
Ketel Marte  5 .269 .312 .356 .667
3rd 33 .273 .326 .470 .796
Robinson Cano 18 .285 .344 .444 .787
4th 36 .314 .377 .542
Nelson Cruz 32 .255 .321 .476 .797
5th 26 .260 .333 .449
Kyle Seager 22 .265 .332 .443 .774
6th 20 .249 .312 .396
Adam Lind 17 .269 .343 .431 .774
7th 23 .233 .298 .400
Seth Smith 11 .248 .331 .408 .739
8th  9 .196 .265 .296
Chris Iannetta  9 .215 .324 .354 .677
9th 11 .196 .250 .295
Leonys Martin  8 .242 .293 .350 .643

Overall, the lineup is considerably better than the 2015 version, even though Steamer has Nelson Cruz tailing off considerably. It’s reasonable to expect “Boomstick” to decline since he’ll be age-36 next July.

Not long ago, I discussed his eventual decline and my suggestion on how to preserve the slugger. Whether Cruz drops off as much as projected is debatable and certain to initiate one of those “animated” Twitter salvos I referred to earlier.

Regardless of how Cruz performs in 2016, he’ll have a much stronger supporting cast around him. It won’t be just Cano and Kyle Seager like last year. The last four spots in the 2015 lineup became a black hole that killed many rallies and the top of the order wasn’t much better.

In 2016, number six/seven/eight spots project to be above league-average with Adam Lind, Seth Smith, and Chris Iannetta respectively. Leonys Martin’s projected .295 on-base percentage in the nine hole is sub-par, but still far better than last year’s production.

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One aspect of the offense that’s likely to decline is home run power. The heart of the order should provide similar power since the same three players are returning. But, the rest of the order projects to lag behind 2015 totals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the lineup gets on base as often as projected. Power is good, but men on base increases the potency of that power.

Bear in mind that 31 of Cruz’s 44 home runs were solo shots. Last season, he had just 287 plate appearances with at least one runner on base. That’s a measly 43-percent and indicative of the Mariners’ poor on-base performance. Imagine how much better the offense could have been if there were men on base 50-percent of the time?

The Mariners lineup projects to reach base more often and theoretically score at a better rate than last season. Does that mean that the team’s lineup is good enough? That depends.

For me, the best answer for me is that Seattle’s lineup is much improved, but it’s “to be determined” whether the lineup will be good enough to contend. That will depend on father time.

The majority of Seattle’s lineup is on the wrong side of 30, which means that most of their key guys have entered their post-prime seasons. It’s tough to determine with certainty when they’ll start to decline or the rate of their decline. Only Seager and Martin are in their prime years and the lone player under 25-years-old – Marte – has been in the big leagues for a whopping two months. So, he’s still an unknown factor.

Perhaps, I’m sounding like the doom and gloom guy again. But, I really do believe that Mariners fans have reasons for optimism even if it seems like there’s a dark cloud hanging over my keyboard.

If this renovated lineup performs at career norms and stays healthy, it’s good enough to contend. Whether the team can actually contend will depend on their pitching depth. If that’s not addressed, they won’t ascend to the fringe contender level.

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