It’s that time of the year again when baseball writers feel compelled to take a stab at preseason predictions. Last year, my Seattle Mariners picks were either booming successes or complete duds. How will I fare this year?

As always, I do my best to avoid numerical projections. I simply make forecasts based on historical data, current events, and my gut feel. Perhaps that explains my previous big misses.

Okay, let’s get going.

Corey’s Brother Bounces Back

It’s not as if Kyle Seager was awful last season, although some Mariners fans thought so. Seager did manage to finish sixth among third baseman, based on the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR). That said; his offensive numbers were considerably lower than the career bests he posted in in 2016.

Kyle Seager’s Stats (2016-17)
2016 676 30 .278 .359 .499 .859 133
2017 650 27 .249 .323 .450 .773 107
Career Stat Line
.263 .332 .447 .779 117

Still, there’s no reason to believe Seager can’t return to his pre-2017 form. Expecting a repeat of 2016 may be asking too much. How about a stat line similar to his career numbers?

That’s a reasonable expectation for Kyle Seager in 2018.

All Good Things

I realize this prediction won’t sit well with a number of Mariners fans. I’m sorry for that. But it’s tough for me to envision a scenario where a 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki makes a significant on-field contribution.

Only four players age-44 or older have made 200-plate appearances since 1961. The following table lists them and is sorted by OPS+. For those unaware, league-average OPS+ is always 100 — Ichiro had a 76 OPS+ last year.

44 & Older Players With 200+ PAs (Since 1961)
Player Year Age G PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Julio Franco 2003 44 103 223 .294 .372 .452 113
Julio Franco 2004 45 125 361 .309 .378 .441 111
Julio Franco 2005 46 108 265 .275 .348 .451 107
Pete Rose 1985 44 119 501 .264 .395 .319 99
Tony Perez 1986 44 77 228 .255 .333 .355 87
Carlton Fisk 1992 44 62 214 .229 .313 .309 76
Pete Rose 1986 45 72 272 .219 .316 .270 61

Some fans will find hope in the fact Julio Franco was still above average at age-44. True, but Franco was still consistently making hard contact at an advanced age. Ichiro never did that.

Can Ichiro still have a great game or create an exciting memory this season? Sure, but it’s unlikely he consistently produces results for Seattle. As Mick Jagger once sang, “time waits for no one.”

America Discovers Big Maple

James Paxton may not be Seattle’s Opening Day starter, but he’s the team’s best pitcher. Not only that; “Big Maple” is about to enter the collective consciousness of national sports outlets that tend to overlook happenings in the Pacific Northwest.

Why do I believe Paxton is poised for such greatness? Look at the following table listing the five best starters in 2017, based on expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) found at Baseball Savant.

The Mariners lefty matches up very well with the best in baseball in several categories — not just xwOBA.

Top-5 Starters In 2017 (xwOBA)
Max Scherzer 31 200.2 2.51 2.90 34.4% 7.1% 7.1 .241
Chris Sale 32 214.1 2.90 2.45 36.2% 5.1% 6.0 .248
Corey Kluber 29 203.2 2.25 2.50 34.1% 4.6% 8.2 .248
Clayton Kershaw 27 175.0 2.31 3.07 29.8% 4.4% 4.9 .253
James Paxton 24 136.0 2.98 2.61 28.3% 6.7% 3.8 .259

As always, health is the issue with Paxton. Two trips to the disabled list last season slowed his maturation and contributed to Seattle’s postseason chances evaporating by August.

To his credit, Paxton has embraced the challenge of remaining healthy for an entire season. As T.J. Cotterill of the Tacoma News Tribune reported, the 29-year-old modified his nutrition strategy and offseason preparation in an attempt to remain available throughout 2018.

Assuming Paxton’s undertaking succeeds and he makes 30-plus starts, it’s plausible he becomes the third Mariner to win a Cy Young award. At the very least, the big Canadian can be a top-three vote getter by logging a full season.

Zunino Is For Real

Am I suggesting Mike Zunino will make baseball fans forget Johnny Bench — or even Buster Posey? No, but the Mariners’ backstop is becoming one of the top catchers in the game. That’s why I suggested the club should consider signing Zunino to an extension.

Zunino detractors say he won’t be able to repeat his breakout offensive season in 2017. Fair enough. Let’s assume the 27-year-old produces an average of his slash lines from the past two years. Take a gander at what that would look like.

Zunino Production (2016-17)
2016 .207 .318 .470 .787 113
2017 .251 .331 .509 .840 123
2016-17 Avg .238 .327 .497 .827 120

Before judging Zunino’s numbers, it’s important to realize the MLB average OPS for the catcher position was .726 last year. That’s lower than any other position group with the exception of pitchers. Zunino’s two-year average is just under 100 points higher.

Same Old Felix

Sorry for beating the Father Time drum about another Mariners icon. But there has been no tangible evidence that Felix Hernandez is on the verge of a dramatic improvement after two disappointing seasons.

Honestly, I want Felix to prove me wrong because I always want players to succeed. Unfortunately, history doesn’t favor him.

Eddie Will Be Steady

Last year, I suggested Edwin Diaz would encounter troubles and he did. In 2018, I expect a smoother ride for the Mariners’ closer. Last month, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish noted Diaz was working hard to become more consistent from a mechanical standpoint.

Assuming Diaz prefects his delivery; it’s reasonable to expect he’ll be a steadying force at the back end of Seattle’s bullpen. At the very least, the 23-year-old will repeat the 2017 performance that landed him in the top 15-percent of MLB relievers.

The Offense Delivers

No, the Mariners’ lineup won’t be the best in baseball. But it won’t have to be to produce enough runs to win. Sure, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are just a muscle strain away from a down year. However, the club is better positioned to absorb the age-regression or short-term absence of a core player.

Young players, such as Ryon Healy, Mitch Haniger, and Mike Zunino combined with the one-two punch of Dee Gordon and Jean Segura can now propel the offense.

As long as the core-three of Cano, Cruz, and Seager don’t collectively drive into a ditch, the offense will be fine.

Kuma Returns And That’s a Good Thing

Considering his highly regarded work ethic, there’s no reason to doubt Hisashi Iwakuma will pitch for the Mariners again. Whether he can deliver at his former level of success will remain a mystery until he toes the mound in a competitive environment.

Before going to the disabled list last May, Kuma saw a major decline in fastball velocity from 2016. In retrospect, the shoulder that required arthroscopic surgery last September was the likely culprit.

Granted, Iwakuma was never a hard thrower and doesn’t necessarily need to regain all of his velocity to compete.

Honestly, I don’t care. I’m just pulling for the guy to make it back and I hope to be at Safeco Field when the 36-year-old makes his first game appearance in front of the home crowd.

Buyers Beware

Much to the disappointment of some Mariners fans, I don’t expect general manager Jerry Dipoto to be holding a fire sale this summer. Quite the opposite.

Even if Dipoto’s club is scuffling at the all-star break, it’s unlikely they’ll be far enough out of wild card contention to be a deadline seller. For this reason, the Mariners will be buyers.

Two years of history suggests Dipoto will pursue players capable of helping this year and in the future. Ariel Miranda, Daniel Vogelbach, Ben Gamel, David Phelps, Erasmo Ramirez, and Mike Leake are the most prominent examples of the team’s compete now, build for the future approach.

Whether the Mariners should become sellers at the deadline will be a topic for discussion at Prospect Insider and across the blogosphere and airwaves later this summer. For now, enjoy the ride.

M’s Improve, But Not Really

Last year, I said the Mariners would reach the postseason. I even went as far to predict manager Scott Servais and/or Dipoto would receive accolades for ending baseball’s longest active postseason.

And here we are a year later.

In 2018, I see Servais’ crew doing better than last year. Yet, it’s tough for me to imagine a path leading the Mariners to meaningful October baseball with the team’s current roster.

Yes, I believe the offense will produce. Yes, I believe Diaz and his bullpen mates will be an asset. Yes, I believe Paxton will be a Cy Young contender. But that won’t be enough.

Beyond Paxton, the rotation is enigmatic. The staff’s shortcomings will ultimately lead to the club’s demise in the standings.

Sure, Leake is dependable, but he’s not the stud from last September. Over the last three seasons, the 30-year-old’s FIP and ERA have been near league average — just like Ramirez. Having both pitchers is great, but neither is a savior for the starting staff.

Perhaps Marco Gonzales has a breakout year that calms those pining for Tyler O’Neill but won’t be enough either. If Gonzales doesn’t rise to the next level, the Mariners have few options behind him. In small doses, Miranda, Rob Whalen, and Andrew Moore can contribute. But how much?

In the end, I foresee the Mariners having a better record than last year. Lock me in at 82 wins. With a little luck, they reach 85.

Regardless, this team doesn’t make the postseason — again.

Opening Day Will Be Awesome

Hopefully, for Mariners fans, I’m wrong on all the sour predictions and spot-on with the good ones. With that said, let me end with one last positive pick certain to happen.

Opening Day at Safeco Field is always a great event. It won’t be any different this coming Thursday. Why would it be any other way?

After all, baseball is the best sport.

Just ask Dave.

My Oh My…

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    Thanks Richard!

  2. Avatar

    Great article Luke. Very well thought out as usual. The offense could absorb a minor regression from Seager from his 2017 numbers, but his defense needs to be in the same zip code as his Gold Glove winning year. The outfield cannot absorb any major injury to any player. There is just no long term depth on the 40 man roster, unless the early 2010’s version of Werth reappears.
    The starting pitching is a James Paxton injury away from a complete collapse. Maybe Marco’s spring training is a preview of what he can do, but it is a gamble. Getting Kuma back would be a nice addition if he can provide a low 4 ERA and a WHIP under 1.2.
    Jason and yourself do a great job!

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