Once again, I’m taking a stab at preseason predictions. Yesterday, was MLB projections. Today, I’m turning my attention to the Seattle Mariners.
Unlike most prognosticators, I’ll own my predictions after the season with a follow-up post, as I did last year.
Without further ado, let’s talk Mariners.
The King Rules Opening Day
Last year’s prediction piece started the same way. Unfortunately, ace Felix Hernandez struggled with his command walking five in six innings during the season opener against the Texas Rangers. This outing foreshadowed the struggles the 2010 Cy Young award winner would endure throughout 2016.
This year will be different.
Hernandez worked hard during the offseason to improve his physical conditioning and embraced the concepts of varying pitch location more often and strategically pitching to contact rather than chasing strikeouts.
Felix’s enhanced fitness and revised strategy combined with his burning desire to prove doubters wrong translates to the King reigning in Houston on April 3.
After failing to secure the final rotation spot last spring, James Paxton began the season as a Tacoma Rainier. While in the minors, the southpaw modified his delivery with the help of Rainiers’ pitching coach Lance Painter.
His efforts paid off.
After rejoining Seattle, Paxton demonstrated significant improvements in his walk, strikeout, and home run rates. Essentially, he became the best pitcher in the Mariners’ rotation.
I’m not suggesting Paxton wins the AL Cy Young award this season — I wouldn’t be shocked if he did though. Rather, the former Kentucky Wildcat is primed for a breakout year.
Yes, injuries have limited Paxton to just 50 starts since his September 2013 big league debut. However, the 6-foot-4 hurler didn’t suffer any arm-related injuries last season and pitched a combined 171.2 innings with the Rainiers and Mariners.
Paxton has shed his “injury-prone” label and stands ready to thrive.
Understandably, some Seattle fans view Mike Zunino as a disappointment. That’s not a fair assessment though.
True, Zunino has a meager .195/.262/.370 career slash-line after 1247 plate appearances. But, the former Florida Gator was rushed to the majors just one year after his selection during the 2012 MLB amateur draft.
As with Paxton, general manager Jerry Dipoto opted to reboot Zunino by having him begin 2016 in Tacoma. After three months, he returned to the big league club slashing .207/.318/.470 with 12 home runs during 192 plate appearances.
Some fans scoff at those numbers, but Zunino’s .786 OPS would’ve ranked sixth among major league catchers if sustained for a full season. The issue going forward is whether he can repeat that performance for an entire campaign.
I believe he can.
First, the acquisition of backup Carlos Ruiz will help preserve Zunino. The 38-year-old Ruiz gives manager Scott Servais a viable option to spot his starting catcher and keep him fresh. Servais’ predecessors didn’t have such a luxury and inevitably wore out Zunino.
More importantly, Zunino is becoming more selective at the plate, as evidenced by his 10.9-percent walk rate last season. If he can maintain his improved plate discipline, the right-handed hitter is capable of finishing in the top-five for OPS among backstops.
No, but he’s positioned to shine this season.
All Zunino needs to do is observe the zone control practices advocated by hitting coaches Scott Brosius and Edgar Martinez. Throw in his plus-defense and you have a valuable contributor behind the plate.
Doesn’t sound disappointing to me.
Offense Isn’t Better
Certainly, the acquisition of Jean Segura is a huge offensive upgrade. The 27-year-old led the NL in hits last season and appears primed to repeat that success in 2017.
So, why the subdued prediction?
Despite the new faces, Seattle will struggle to completely replace the offensive contributions of former Mariners Dae-Ho Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, Seth Smith, Nori Aoki, and Adam Lind — especially in the power department.
Lee, Gutierrez, Smith, and Lind accounted for 29-percent of the club’s 223 home runs last year.
Yes, the roster is far more athletic and fleet-footed thanks to newcomers Segura, Dyson, Mitch Haniger, and Taylor Motter and holdovers Leonys Martin, Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, and Boog Powell. But, these players are either unproven or possess incomplete résumés.
The introduction of so many unknowns and potential age-related regression from the 32-and-over crowd — Cano, Cruz, Dyson, Valencia, and Ruiz — casts a shadow doubt over the likelihood of the offense surpassing last year’s superb production.
Rotations Woes Await
Even before the untimely loss of Drew Smyly to a flexor strain, I had misgivings about the rotation. Yes, I expect Felix to have a great debut and Paxton to flourish. But, there are reasons for concern.
Furthermore, Iwakuma is entering his age-36 season after starting 33 games and pitching 199 innings last year. The right-hander has never made 30-plus starts in consecutive years during his 16 professional seasons.
Felix performed relatively well during two World Baseball Classic (WBC) contests and meaningless Cactus League play, but that doesn’t alter the fact he’s thrown more innings by age-30 than any big league pitcher since the Mariners’ debut season of 1977.
I’m not forecasting the demise of the King, but taking a wait and see approach is advisable.
Gallardo hasn’t looked particularly sharp thus far. Yes, it’s only Spring Training. However, his numbers have been trending downward since 2014. Like Felix, he’s entering his age-31 season. If hedging bets on King Felix is advisable, isn’t the same tactic logical with Gallardo?
Fortunately, Dipoto has contingency plans for his rotation.
If all else fails, Dipoto reportedly has a knack for making deals.
Growing Pains For Diaz
Edwin Diaz looked great in the WBC, as he did last season. Still, the Mariners’ closer just turned 23-years-old and is still evolving as a reliever. It’s likely he’ll hit a rough patch this season.
I’m sure my comments ring blasphemous to some fans. Have I already forgotten Diaz’s fastball can top 100-MPH and averaged 97.6-MPH last season?
Of course not.
I’m just uneasy about the fact he’s periodically struggled to command his heater.
The following table illustrates the varying outcomes between his true out-pitch — the slider — and the fastball so many fans go gaga over.
|Edwin Diaz Pitch Comparison
Am I forecasting the demise of Edwin Diaz?
As Diaz gains seasoning, he’ll close the effectiveness gap between the slider and fastball. Plus, he was experimenting with a change-up this spring.
All I’m saying is it’s reasonable to expect a sophomore reliever with just 51 innings of major league experience to encounter some measure of difficulty during his second season.
Mariners Reach Postseason
I’m sure some of you are scratching your heads right now. Other than initially advocating Paxton and Zunino, I’ve been a black cloud about the Mariners. How can I possibly pick them to end their dreaded 15-season postseason drought?
While I view the Mariners as a flawed team, their division rivals have many noticeable blemishes too.
The Houston Astros’ lineup is excellent. They start the season as my pick to win the division. However, doubts remain regarding their rotation. Not as many as the Mariners, but Houston’s staff isn’t good enough to separate the club from the pack without a blockbuster acquisition.
In my MLB predictions piece, I discussed my misgivings about the Rangers in detail. Bottom line is they were fortunate to win as many games as they did in 2016 and didn’t make adequate enough offseason improvements to compensate for their historically good luck.
Good team, but no longer dominant.
The Los Angeles Angels could be better this season — assuming their starting staff remains healthy. Nevertheless, the Halos aren’t a postseason contender. Bringing up the rear are the rebuilding Oakland Athletics. They’re destined to be sellers rather than contenders.
Back to the Mariners.
Yes, I’ve listed quite a few doubts about the team. However, Seattle’s improved rotational, bullpen, bench, and minor league depth will prevent the season from going off the rails as it did last June.
Seattle endured their only losing month (10-18) in June thanks to injuries to Felix, Martin, Ketel Marte, Wade Miley, and Adrian Sampson and inconsistent performances from Aoki, Taijuan Walker, and Nate Karns.
This year, Dipoto has layers of depth ready to address the unknown unknowns every team encounters during an ardous 162-game season.
Even a “soggy arm.”
No other club in the division has more pitching depth or positional versatility than the Mariners. Ultimately, these factors will decided postseason races likely to remain close throughout the season.
Management Is Recognized
Since I’m suggesting the Mariners will make the postseason despite the issues I’ve predicted, it’s only logical to suggest Dipoto or Servais will receive recognition for the success of their ball club.
To a great degree, the Manager of the Year and Executive of the Year awards are perception driven. A team performs better than expected and the manager or GM are rewarded for performing miracles.
In the case of the Mariners, both Dipoto and Servais merit recognition for their collaborative effort to improve the culture of the organization and the major league clubhouse.
Will either man earn awards? That depends on the perception of the national media as a whole.
Reaching the playoffs would give both men a leg up on the competition.
Seattle Celebrates Edgar
Since my predictions may lead to many servings of humble pie coming my way, I’m ending with a sure thing.
It’d be nice to be celebrating the Hall of Fame induction of Edgar Martinez this summer, but retiring his jersey number on August 12 is a first good step on his journey towards Cooperstown.
Fans will celebrate Edgar once again.
That’s one prediction you can bank on.
My Oh My.