Mariners a team with big upside

 The Seattle Mariners aren’t the young club they were a few years ago, but they remain one with the upside of a developing talent in his early twenties. Developing talent is exactly the reason why they remain a team with big upside.

The Mariners have become an older team the last few years. They’ve gone from ‘Youth Movement’ to ‘Aggressive’ and that’s landed them two significant thirty-somethings in Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. Adding Melky Cabrera or Alex Rios to the mix means yet another player over 30 years of age on the 25-man roster.

The likes of Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino and Logan Morrison remain, however, as do James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias. All of the aforementioned players likely have their best baseball in front of them — some more obviously than others. Kyle Seager may not be done improving his game, either, and he’ll be just 27 all of 2015.

For me, it all starts with Miller.

Despite the general belief that he can’t play shortstop, Miller absolutely can, and has done so at acceptable levels. He does need to cut down on the mistakes made on routine plays, but he’s more than adequate at the position thanks to arm strength, good range to his right and improving range up the middle. Perhaps an adjustment in his arm slot can help his throwing accuracy.

Miller, a left-handed batter, possesses big-time ability at the plate. He struggled for much of 2014, but found his groove later, and it wasn’t just a small sample size. From June 1 through the end of the season, Miller posted a .265/.326/.447 triple-slash despite an awful month of July. His line drive rate rocketed to 26 percent the second half of the season and and after 64 strikeouts in 169 plate appearances (24.3 %) in through June, the former second-round pick whiffed just 31 times over his final 148 plate appearances (20.9 percent) as he showed a more aggressive approach — which back to his root skills as a hitter.

Miller’s upside at the plate could ultimately allow for him to move to another position, perhaps left field, yet still be a position value offensively. [This scenario makes sense only if the Mariners find a clear, everyday answer at shortstop. Perhaps that’s Chris Taylor, ultimately, but that equation remains on the blackboard without a definitive result as 2015 nears.]

Zunino broke the team record for home runs by a catcher but had more extra-base hits than singles while striking out 158 times and drawing just 17 walks. Zunino isn’t likely to be the type to walk a lot, but his batting average on balls in play of .248 is likely to bounce back to the .260s — .267 in 52 games and 193 PAs in 2013 — which brings with it a much more palatable batting average and on-base mark, and that doesn’t even include the organic expectation that the 23-year-old will simply be better after 669 trips to the plate — and counting — in the big leagues, particularly considering he received just 419 plate appearances in the minors.

Ackley doesn’t bring as much upside — he’s not going to turn into the originally-projected borderline all-star bat most believed he’d be back in 2009 when he was the consensus No. 2 player in the class — but he slugged over .500 in 205 plate appearance in July and August and his slight mechanical adjustments made over the summer may allow him to produce more of the same in 2015.

 Clearly Paxton can pitch and while he’s not an ace, he possesses frontline stuff and has progressed with his delivery allowing him to throw strikes with more consistency. Ultimately, Paxton may very well be the No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez, and at times he was the second-best starter on the roster in 2014, even though Hisashi Iwakuma was again terrific.

Walker enters 2015 still unproven, but significant progress was seen in terms of fastball command and at times late in the year his curveball flashed average or better. The 22-year-old remains a high-end young talent with a chance to be a No. 2 starter down the road, and there is no reason he can’t be league average or so in 2015 as he pitches in the back end of the club’s rotation.

Elias was solid in his first season in the big leagues and despite some ups and downs along the way, as well as a somewhat advanced age for a rookie, there’s upside left in the 26-year-old. He has the makings of an out-pitch curveball, he’s athletic and the development of his changeup in ’14 was essential for his future.

There probably isn’t a lot more room for development in Seager’s game, but incremental progress in areas such as contact rates, facing left-handed pitching and using the backside of the field all could result in the 27-year-old going from solid everyday player to perennial all-star.

Taylor doesn’t bring the type of offensive upside Miller does, but he works counts, draws some walks and can reach the gaps, all while playing an average to above-average shortstop.

The Mariners aren’t going to luck out and have each of the above players max out their natural, physical abilities, but there is a reasonable chance one of them does, and there’s a good chance a few of them get to a point where they are average or better core type major leaguers.

The above group is a big reason why the Mariners’ window isn’t just 1-2 years deep. Where some of the veterans fade a little as they age, the younger players can pick up some slack, and that goes for the longer-term prospects, too, such as D.J. Peterson, Ketel Marte, Gabby Guerrero and Alex Jackson.

The M’s are focused on 2015, and to a lesser extent 2016. But there are plenty of reasons to buy into them for ’17 and beyond, too, and if the right talents bust through this next season, we might be watching the club place 95 wins in their rear-view mirror. And in doing so resetting the bar to heights the organization hasn’t seen in more than a decade.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

11 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t be surprised if there has been or will be dialogue about a bigger deal with the Nationals. But here is where that team stands right now: big money is due to starting pitchers, a pair of whom will be free agents in one year. Zimmerman, Fister, Desmond are all free agents. Washington wants to trade those guys, and maybe a Jayson Werth, into more controllable assets. I don’t know if they would be willing to trade a Souza right now, even if Walker is on the table.

    I do agree with your second point on punting the international pools for a guy like Moncada. Only problem is convincing him to sign, and that’s going to take a LOT of money. Typically these Cuban guys prefer to sign somewhere closer to home, preferably in the east. The big problem i see with the international market is that somebody’s going to make a huge guarantee, it’ll go sour, and teams will shy away again. With the success of Puig, Abreu et al there’s obvious desire to go big on the imports. But one of these players is going to turn into a pumpkin, it’s just a matter of time. From what I’ve seen Seattle doesn’t want to take that risk. I can’t say I blame them either, but at some point that risk has to be taken. Whether it’s with a regular free agent, trade, or whatever, that’s where teams tend to seperate themselves from the pack.

  2. Two rando thoughts:

    First, the Ian Desmond thing got me thinking about whether or not the M’s and Nats could line up on a big trade. I agree with Jason and others that Desmond – as a one year rental – would make little sense if he cost us a long-term guy like Walker or Miller. However, the Nats currently have too many OFers on their roster – including two ML-ready guys in Steven Souza and Michael Taylor who are currently blocked by veterans. If the M’s did decide that Walker is on the table, it should be as part of a bigger deal involving players who would be under team control beyond 2015. There are tons of possible options, but Souza and Taylor both make sense on this team. Even if Desmond isn’t involved, a trade for Souza would potentially be a coup, as he’s a RH hitter with power who can actually do other things as well.

    Second, the M’s have punted their first pick in the draft, and it would’t be surprising if they lost their second pick as well if they end up getting Melky. That would essentially negate their ability to sign any major talents after losing so much of our bonus pool. The M’s have done a good job with mid round picks, but we wouldn’t be getting any guys like Jackson or Peterson. On the other hand, our track record with international signings has been abysmal.

    If the M’s are going to punt the 2015 draft, and are getting little out of their international signings, why not do what the Cubs, Rangers, Angels, Rays, and Yankees did, and blow up the budget next year to sign Yoan Moncada? The M’s probably already have agreements in place with guys for the 2015 July 2nd market, so their best plan would be to work out an agreement with him for that date. Moncada would be the favorite to be the #1 overall pick if he was eligible for the draft. He’s an elite talent.

    The cost to the M’s would be money – a considerable amount given that they will have to pay a penalty to MLB for destroying their budget – and losing their ability to sign anyone for more than 300K in the next two int’l signing periods. However, the M’s aren’t getting much from their big bonus int’l signings anyway, so its no big loss. Plus, it is pretty likely that there will be an international draft instituted before that ban expires. So why not?

    I’m sure many would argue that the M’s should be spending that money on ML ready talent. However, its now pretty much impossible to get elite players in their prime years unless you develop them yourself. The reason why the M’s had to pay through the nose for Cano and Cruz is because we haven’t been good at producing those types of talents internally. Moncada is that type of talent. The M’s should start acting like the smart teams in baseball – like the A’s, Dodgers, Cubs, and Red Sox – and invest heavily in amateur talent.

    The crux of Jason’s post was that the M’s are entering a window of contention, and should act like that window is a narrow one. Consistently good teams stay that way to constantly replenishing talent, and producing good players. The Cubs, Dodgers, and Cardinals are prefect examples. Because of the nature of the rules today, the last loophole where teams can get around the rules is the international market. Right now, there is a 19-year-old kid with elite talent that is available to teams who are willing to shit on the international bonus rules. The M’s should do it! You don’t get many opportunities to add a guy with this level of talent. It seems extravagant now, but so did the Cubs signing of Jorge Soler and the Dodgers signing of Yasiel Puig. Moncada is that type of guy. Do it!

  3. Here’s the 2017 Mariners (with age/salary):
    C: Zunino 26/arb 1
    1B: Peterson 25/pre-arb
    2B: Cano 34/24m
    3B: Seager 29/10m
    SS: Miller 27/arb1 — Taylor 26/arb1
    OF: Ackley 29/arb3
    OF: ?
    OF: ?
    DH: Cruz 36/14m

    SP: Felix 31/26m
    SP: Paxton 28/arb1?
    SP: Walker 24/pre-arb
    SP: Elias 28/arb1
    SP: Kuma 36, Hultzen 27, Sanchez 22, Diaz 23

    Bullpen: Farquar, Leone, Maurer, Smith, Medina, Furbush, Wilhelmsen all still under control.

    Prospects: Marte 23, Wilson 25, Guerrero 23, Kivlehan 27, Jackson 21…

    The pitching still looks great, phenomenal even. Zunino, Miller, Seager, Ackley, Peterson, Taylor all in their prime years between 25 and 30. Cano has a skill set that should age well. Some prospects with All*Star upside should be competing for starting roles.

    This has the look of a team hitting full-stride.

    And to those who say Felix is getting older… he’ll be 31 in 2017. John Lester, at age 31, signed a 6 year deal just short of Felix dollars, and the Cubs were applauded for it. Felix is better, always has been. He has stuff and pitchability. He’s arguably the best in the AL. Oh, and he’ll be 31, about the same age as Max Sherzer when he’ll sign his 200,000,000 contract.

    Go Mariners!

  4. Jason,

    I think you’re right about the M’s window just starting to open right now. Felix turns 29 at the beginning of the season, and has been one of the most consistently excellent starters in baseball this decade. Seager is just entering what should be his peak. Cano and Cruz are still in their good years, and should be solid for the next few seasons. Plus we have a good core of solid younger guys who could help, including great bullpen depth, some good young starters in Paxton, Walker, and Elias, and a few interesting bats in the system. There is no reason to make all-in moves. We aren’t the Phillies or Yankees of recent years: the window isn’t closing.

    My main concern is that I’m not confident the M’s understand this, and that they are well equipped to set the club up for a long run of contention. They still seem to get stuck thinking they need very specific types of players, and have shown a tendency to make bad decisions to get them. Michael Saunders and John Jaso are recent examples of guys who didn’t fit their template, and both were moved in terrible trades. The organization doesn’t seem to have a good long-term plan, and the fact that we have had to make ‘statement signings’ for guys like Cano and Cruz to fill huge gaping holes in the lineup reflects that lack of plan.

    Call me a Negative Nancy, but I see what clubs like the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, White Sox, Nationals, and Blue Jays (amongst others) have done this offseason, and I can’t help but think that the people running this team are way below average in terms of long-term vision, creativity, and business sense. Those teams are making bold and creative trades, and we are throwing $50+ million at a 34-year-old guy who does one thing well. The M’s front office isn’t shitty on the level of KC or Colorado, but they aren’t exactly thrilling me with brilliant moves. As the Royals clearly demonstrate, a dumb front office can still have success, but I’d rather root for a team that led by people who are progressive and creative.

    I’d love for the M’s to prove me wrong on this, though.

  5. The idea that Jack Zduriencik will pull a Bavasi and overly sacrifice key prospects or young players for a quick fix flies in the face of what he has said all along: that this rebuild will be painful, but it is designed to create a sustainable winner. The GM has also shown that, contrary to conspiratorial/armchairGM hack like Geoff Baker, the M’s are willing to pay big for their premium players. They have not shown a willingness to overpay for short term fixes with mid-tier free agents. The safe bet is that Zduriencik will stay the course and trade from the team’s surplus ala Nick Franklin for Austin Jackson or Steve Delebar for Eric Thames. There have been bad trades such as Fister for that haul, and unexpected busts like Figgins, and even-up trades to address this pathetic offense such as Pineda for Montero or Vargas for Morales, but the patterns are consistent.

  6. I don’t think the alternatives are writing exactly that (the trade rumors are coming mostly from national rumermeisters, not local bloggers.)
    The counter-article to this one pretty much writes itself.
    Mariners are a team with big downside:
    Miller may not be able to overcome whatever flaws in his game led to that painful first 6 weeks of 2014. Zunino hits 20 balls a season a country mile. What if he simply can’t hit anything else?
    Paxton/Walker/Elias all could fail–we’ve seen plenty of can’t miss pitching prospects fail around here.
    Nelson Cruz: 34-year-old one-dimensional slugger in Seattle? That always ends well.
    The M’s farm system is still strong, but barring Alex Jackson and maybe DJ Peterson, doesn’t feature prospective stars.

  7. rudolf,

    I am being told a lot of this kind of talk is being pushed by some local bloggers and media types, too. I don’t read anyone but Divish and Dutton locally, so I wouldn’t know. But that would explain why everyone seems to want to move Miller to the OF, trade Miller, hates that Kemp went to San Diego instead, wants Upton for Walker, would deal Miller for Desmond in a heartbeat, thinks Saunders’ agent went public for arbitration purposes, all kinds of absolute BS. People can write what they want. They can get all fancy with graphs or tables or creatively write with consistency. It doesn’t hide their complete idiocy and downright inability to understand the game, its players and the scenarios in front of them. All they appear to be doing is spreading preposterous ideas and push their uninformed opinions with their Public Relations and Radio Booth “sources” … not just anyone with a Twitter account has a clue.

    I want the readers to decide. But only the readers that test all the waters know the clueless are so clueless.

  8. Is it April yet? I am so excited for this coming season! I think Miller out produces Desmond at the plate THIS YEAR! Desmond is trending down, and if he does get traded to the AL, the trend will continue. Look at his strikeout to walk ratio, no thanks! Just say no Jack, unless Tulowiski is available, we have our shortstop.

  9. Yes! All this talk about the M’s trading off a half-dozen years of Walker or Paxton or Miller for one year of go-for-it with Justin “I Used to Hate Seattle” Upton or Ian “It’ll take both Tijuan and Crazy Legs to Get Me from the Nats” Desmond. Next thing you know and teams will have the cajones to ask for Willie “All World” Bloomquist. When the Port Orchard Kid goes we can kiss our hopes for a ring goodbye.

  10. Thanks for saying this, JAC. National media and uneducated fans litter the internet with talk of a short window of contention for our M’s and it’s obnoxious. Why would we ‘go for it’, creating a super small window for ourselves by shedding all of our young players for aging vets, when we’ve been suffering and building for years to change the direction of the franchise? I remain hopeful that 2017 and beyond will be the best years to come.

  11. Certainly the most optimistic I’ve been in a few years.

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