Assuming the Seattle Mariners plan on contending next year, the team will have to grow a lineup that recently lost two of its best hitters to free agency — Nelson Cruz and Denard Span.

While the Mariners did win 89 games last season, they ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in runs scored. In fact, run production regressed to a level evoking memories of 2015 — the final year of the Jack Zduriencik era.

BOOTH: The Astros & Free Agency
BOOTH: Astros Pitching Pursuit

Good Start, Bad Finish

Through June, the Mariners were top-5 in the AL in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, and wRC+. Then, the offense tanked along with their win-loss record.

During the final three months of the season, Seattle scored the fifth fewest runs (305) in MLB. Only the Padres (301), Tigers (296), Marlins (280), and Giants (255) plated fewer runs. Not the teams a postseason hopeful wants to be associated with.

By season’s end, run production trailed the competition by a large margin and by “competition” we mean clubs playing meaningful October baseball. The following illustrates the AL rankings for postseason teams and Seattle.

TM
R
XBH
HR
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
BOS
1
1
6
1
1
1
1
NYY
2
3
1
8
5
2
2
CLE
3
5
4
2
3
4
3
OAK
4
2
2
6
6
3
4
HOU
5
7
7
4
4
6
5
SEA
11
13
11
5
9
8
11

With the exception of batting average, the Mariners were closer to the worst teams than the best ones. Perhaps batting average doesn’t merit the level of emphasis it receives during broadcasts.

Just a thought.

Even more troubling for Seattle’s postseason aspirations; two of the most potent offenses listed above reside within their division — Houston and Oakland. Oh yeah, both boast rosters teeming with young players.

The Mariners do not.

What Happened?

For many, Robinson Cano serving an 80-game PED suspension was the root cause of Seattle’s offensive woes. After all, his season was off to a great start when he vanished in mid-May.

Losing Cano was devastating for sure, but the offense’s issues ran much deeper than just the prolonged absence of the five-time Silver Slugger winner. Here’s a comparison of the Mariners’ run production prior to, during, and after Cano’s suspension.

G
R/G
AVG
OPB
SLG
wRC+
Pre
39
4.7
.261
.329
.434
112
Susp
81
4.0
.255
.309
.403
98
Post
42
4.2
.247
.310
.395
97

The Mariners’ offense was more prolific prior to Cano’s suspension and cooled considerably during his three-month absence. But run production remained stagnant after the eight-time All-Star’s return on August 14.

A Few Good Men

A more plausible explanation for the sputtering offense was an already short lineup contracting further without Cano. The club had just three hitters with 400-plus plate appearances and an OBP above the league-average mark.

PA
AVG
OBP
SLG
wRC+
Mitch Haniger
683
.285
.366
.493
138
Nelson Cruz
591
.256
.342
.509
134
Jean Segura
632
.304
.341
.415
111
Lge AVG
N/A
.248
.318
.409
100

There were other Mariners with good on-base ability — Cano (.374 OBP), Span (.329), and Ben Gamel (.354). But none of them started more than 80 games for Seattle last season. We’ve already noted Cano’s suspension. Span arrived via trade in late-May and a healthy Gamel started just 16 times after July 31.

While we’re talking about Gamel and Span, we should recognize the redundancy of their skill-set. Both are left-handed hitting corner outfielders capable of playing center field in a pinch. Gamel demonstrated better on-base ability, while Span provided more power. Bottom line: no more than one of these players is a Mariner next year.

Considerable Drag

Having so few full-time contributors with on-base skills doesn’t necessarily doom an offense. The Indians and Brewers only had four players matching our criteria but scored significantly more runs than the Mariners.

How did these two postseason clubs succeed? Minimizing the number of regulars and bench players with poor on-base skills. Seattle’s roster failed in both respects.

The Mariners had an MLB-high four players with 400-plus plate appearances and a sub-.300 OBP. Clubs with three were all bottom feeders — the Orioles, Padres, White Sox, and Tigers.

So who were the full-timers casting a large shadow over the lineup? Dee Gordon, Ryon Healy, Kyle Seager, and Mike Zunino.

PA
AVG
OBP
SLG
wRC+
Ryon Healy
524
.235
.277
.412
90
Kyle Seager
630
.221
.273
.400
84
Mike Zunino
405
.201
.259
.410
84
Dee Gordon
588
.268
.288
.349
77
Lge AVG
N/A
.248
.318
.409
100

Seager’s OBP was nearly 60 points below his career mark heading into 2018; Gordon was 41 points under. This matters considering Seager had 65% of the Mariners’ plate appearances in the fifth lineup spot, while Gordon led-off 60% of the team’s games.

Some may suggest it’s unreasonable to expect the power bats of Healy and Zunino to reach base at a league-average rate. That’s why we set a .300 OBP as our cutoff. Coincidentally, both players have exactly a .300 OBP since the beginning of 2016.

Collectively, Gordon, Healy, Seager, and Zunino accounted for 35.3% of Seattle’s total plate appearances and delivered a combined .276 OBP. The group caused considerable drag on the team’s run production machine.

Not So Deep Bench

Not only did manager Scott Servais have a significant chunk of his regular batting order holding back the offense, he had few reserve players capable of boosting the run production effort when the need arose.

PA
AVG
OBP
SLG
wRC+
Guillermo Heredia
337
.236
.318
.342
89
Andrew Romine
131
.210
.260
.244
43
David Freitas
106
.215
.277
.312
67
Dan Vogelbach
102
.207
.324
.368
99
Cameron Maybin
97
.242
.289
.319
71
Chris Herrmann
87
.237
.322
.421
107
Gordon Beckham
50
.182
.250
.205
32
Lge AVG
N/A
.248
.318
.409
100

Fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia had a league-average OBP, but his defensive prowess was the main reason he appeared in 125 games. The Cuban’s career splits suggest he may be best suited to serve as a right-handed platoon and defensive replacement.

Backup catcher Chris Herrmann produced at the plate during limited action. Unfortunately, the Astros claimed Herrmann off waivers last week.

Young first baseman Dan Vogelbach didn’t hit for average or consistently deliver power, but the 25-year-old did draw walks and reached base at a decent rate. That said; Vogelbach’s time with Seattle was primarily as an injury replacement for Healy in April and as a September call-up.

Herrmann, Vogelbach, and the remaining supporting cast produced 15 home runs and a .221/.294/.317 slash in 1043 plate appearances — 17.1% of the team’s opportunities to reach base.

For those keeping track, four unproductive regulars and an offensively challenged bench accounted for 52.3% of the team’s total plate opportunities. Suddenly, it’s not hard to see why Servais’ lineup struggled to sustain rallies.

Moving Forward

The quickest way for Seattle to address its offense is to address the void in the lineup created by Gordon, Healy, Seager, and Zunino. I’m not suggesting the team moves any of these players, but something must change or Mariners fans shouldn’t expect better results next year.

Dee Gordon

Accepting free passes has never been part of Gordon’s strategy at the plate. But his 1.5% walk rate this year was historically low, even by his standards.

In the last century, only one player with 500-plus plate appearances had a lower walk rate than Gordon’s — Shano Collins (1.4%) with the 1922 Red Sox. Virgil Stallcup of the Reds had the same 1.5% rate as the Mariners second baseman in 1949.

That’s historic, right?

If Gordon had simply repeated his 3.6% walk rate from 2017, he would’ve reached base 12 extra times and had a .309 OBP for the season. Still below average, but 21 points better than reality.

Kyle Seager

Not long ago, Seager told T.J. Cotterill of the Tacoma News Tribune his issues were attributable to health. In 2017, he dealt with an oblique issue suffering several flare-ups this year. A fractured toe in late-June affected his 2018 play too.

Cotterill noted teams employed more defensive shifts against Seager than in the past, although the former North Carolina Tar Heel believes he simply wasn’t barreling the ball often enough.

He may be on to something.

The following table lists Seager’s OBP, percentage of barreled balls, and shifts faced during the last four seasons. Also included, a metric I often use when discussing pitchers — expected weighted on-base (xwOBA).

Using xwOBA is helpful in this situation because it accounts for both quantity and quality of contact and outcomes not requiring defense (strikeouts and walks). Essentially, we should able to better gauge what should have happened to Seager’s batted balls regardless of defensive shifting.

Year
OBP
Brl%
Shift%
xwOBA
2015
.328
7
35.7
.353
2016
.359
9.2
47.1
.380
2017
.323
8.6
54.8
.353
2018
.273
7.6
70.9
.309

Clearly, Seager didn’t barrel the ball with as much authority in 2018 as he has in recent years. This affected his xwOBA, which was two points below the MLB average. It’s important to note the former All-Star posted the worst walk and strikeout percentages of his 8-year career, which also hurt his xwOBA.

Time will tell us whether health was Seager’s problem or he’s prematurely regressing.

Ryon Healy

Realistically, Healy may be no more than what he’s been through three big league seasons. A slugger with 25-plus home run, who doesn’t reach base at a league-average rate and delivers average-ish defense.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the Mariners must determine if Healy’s production is acceptable from the first base position for 2019 and beyond.

Another sub-.300 OBP might make the decision an easy one for Seattle.

Mike Zunino

Zunino remains an enigma, although he probably shouldn’t.

As Prospect Insider alumni Brendan Gawlowski noted in The Athletic last May, it takes a great deal of effort to maintain Zunino’s swing mechanics. For this reason, he’s prone to slumps, susceptible to breaking balls, and a strikeout machine.

For me, Zunino’s walk rate is always the best statistical indicator of how the former Florida Gator is doing.

Year
BB%
SO%
O%
Z%
Sw%
2015
5.4
34.2
31.5
71.0
49.6
2016
10.9
33.9
29.6
69.4
46.5
2017
9.0
36.8
30.1
72.3
49.5
2018
5.9
37.0
33.4
70.6
49.2
Career
6.6
34.2
32.7
71.6
50.1

Zunino’s walk rate was below his career norm and 3% lower than last season, when he was at his best offensively. It’s not a surprise the preceding table also suggests he chased more ball outside the strike zone (O%), while swinging at fewer pitches in the zone (Z%).

Maybe Zunino rebounds next year. Then again, uneven offensive production coupled with defensive excellence is what we’ve seen during six seasons and 2,087 plate appearances and that’s what we should expect in the future.

Now What?

The harsh reality is the 2018 Mariners didn’t have enough good hitters throughout the season to sustain a postseason run. Their lineup was too short.

Optimally, better production from Seager, Healy, Gordon, and Zunino helps extend the batting order and close the offensive gap between Seattle and AL postseason contenders. But more will be needed.

Bounce back years from the troubled foursome would be great. But what’s the likelihood they all rebound?

Then there’s the issue of replacing Cruz and Span. Gamel may offset Span’s departure, but there’s no adequate internal replacement for Cruz.

To that end, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill recently identified a bevy of free agents who could help the Mariners at numerous positions, including right-handed power bats and an everyday center fielder.

If the Mariners don’t choose to grow their lineup via free agency or trade, the club is certain endure another frustrating campaign in 2019.

Isn’t it about time the organization delivers a better product?

Their beleaguered fan base certainly deserves it.

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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. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

7 Comments

  1. Author

    Agreed. It should be an interesting offseason.

  2. Now one of those fatal four, along with Heredia and Plassermeyer has been turned into Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley. Seems like a decent enough way to turn 2 years of Zunino into an averagish CF for the next 4 years.

  3. Author

    Hermmann is a backup catcher who had 87 PAs with the M’s and a career 68 wRC+ in 800-plus PAs. There’s a decent chance he’s not on the Astros’ Opening Day roster.

  4. Ironic that the one guy off the bench that had a 100+ wRC is basically given to the the best team in the division for nothing. wth is JD thinking?

  5. Author

    Thanks, Jack. I like the “fatal four” nickname. Moving Seager might be problematic considering he’s owed $57.5 million through the end of the 2021 season. Along that same line, Gordon is making around $28 million over the next two years. I suspect Zunino will either be the starter or not on the roster. He’s projected to make $4.2 million in arbitration. That’s a lot of cabbage for a backup catcher. Healy would be the easiest to move. He’s pre-arb, relatively young, and may be able to deliver better results than he did this year. On the other hand, someone could make a case those are the reasons to hold on to him.

  6. Great article, thanks. The “Fatal Four”. Gordon, Zunino, Healy and Seager. Healy becomes dh and platoon player. Gordon becomes super utility player. Zunino becomes part time catcher. Seager goes away, put him in a trade, pay most of salary to another club, get bag of balls for him. He’s typical Seattle- a good guy with no production but ” Oh we love him, nice, good with the media, family man blah blah blah.” Time to move on!!!

    Best line is the last line. “Their beleaguered fans deserves it.”

  7. They clearly need a few average or better upgrades to even have a shot. It certainly can be done, but I fear it’ll see more of our prospects go away and still not be enough. Basically move us from a 75 to 80 win projection (or whatever it is) while giving up talent we could have used in a few years. I personally feel they should make a serious move for Tier 1 and 2 FA, and not worry about the luxury tax threshold for next year, especially with the contracts of Felix and Nicasio falling off. If it works out, try again, if not, start dumping assets. It is my money insofar as I’ve dumped a lot of money into that team over the years, and the half-assed attempts at winning are a joke at this point. I like the idea behind Dipoto’s vision of a slow rebuild of the farm while also trying to win, a poor mans version of the recent Yankees rebuild, but it will require money at this point to even have a chance. I’m not of the mind Dipoto needs to go yet, it’s clear he’s being handicapped by the payroll, which leads to losing future talent upgrades just to make marginal moves. Now to stop being a broken record and wait to see what they actually do.

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