Mitch Haniger Mariners

Will the Seattle Mariners contend in 2021? Probably not. But after the season, GM Jerry Dipoto will know what remains for Seattle to be a 2022 contender. Essentially, the Mariners are entering a season of discovery.

The premise of waiting another year for postseason baseball in Seattle won’t go over well with a long-suffering fan base. But that’s the reality the Mariners face by Dipoto’s design. For proof, consider how the team performed last season and what’s been done to improve the roster since.

Lean Lineup

The Mariners’ run production ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in most categories. To that point, only two qualified hitters had an OPS+ above league-average – Kyle Lewis (126) and Kyle Seager (122). Lewis started the season on fire before slumping badly. Seager’s production also dipped in September, although his decline wasn’t as noticeable.

Mariners 2020 Offense
Source: Baseball Reference

Others had a strong OPS+, but with less playing time. Austin Nola (152 OPS+) was one of the Mariners’ best hitters before being traded to the Padres. Ty France (129), who joined Seattle in the same deal, performed well. So did Dylan Moore (139).

On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. Therefore, a hitter with a 150 OPS+ was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.

Still, too many regulars delivered subpar production: J.P. Crawford (92 OPS+), Tim Lopes (80), Evan White (57), and Shed Long (50). Newcomer Luis Torrens (97) was just below average after joining the Mariners in September.

A Promising Rotation

The pitching staff’s overall numbers were awful thanks to an ineffective bullpen hamstrung by injuries. Conversely, the rotation demonstrated some promise.

Mariners 2020 Pitching
Sources: Baseball Reference; Baseball Savant

Starters combined for a .308 xwOBA tying for ninth lowest in MLB with Houston. Four Mariners had an xwOBA better than the league-average: Yusei Kikuchi (.279), Marco Gonzales (.291), and Justus Sheffield (.303), and Nick Margevicius (.301).

Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312

Still, everything wasn’t hunky-dory with the rotation. Although Kikuchi’s xwOBA was excellent, he experienced command and consistency troubles. A 4.34 ERA from Justin Dunn doesn’t sound bad. But a .369 xwOBA with a 15.7-percent walk rate is bad.

No Relief For The Weary

Two of the Mariners’ biggest 2020 bullpen additions – Carl Edwards Jr. and Yoshihisa Hirano – made just 18 combined appearances due to health. Worsening matters, too few relievers delivered value.

Still, there were several notable performers. Anthony Misiewicz (.278 xwOBA) impressed as a rookie. So did fellow freshmen Yohan Ramírez (.305), on occasion. But his 21.3-percent walk rate was worst in the majors. With the exception of one outing, rookie swingman Ljay Newsome (.279) was good. So was journeyman Casey Sadler (.247).

So, What Got Fixed?

Not enough to contend. Dipoto chose to focus on two areas – retooling the bullpen and adding rotation depth. That’s it. No hitters from outside the organization were added to the 40-man roster.

Two key bullpen arms came from AL West rivals. Rafael Montero via a trade with Texas and free agent Keynan Middleton from the Angels. Both pitchers underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018.

Reliever Will Vest arrived via the Rule 5 draft. Finding Rule 5 picks to help in the bullpen is part of Dipoto’s playbook. In 2018, the Mariners drafted Brandon Brennan. A year later, Ramírez. Vest now gets an opportunity to follow suit.

To bolster the rotation, Dipoto signed Chris Flexen, who spent 2020 with the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). In 116.2 innings, Flexen struck out 131 hitters against 30 walks. If the 26-year-old continues his KBO success in MLB, the Mariners have a solid starter under club control through 2026.

Dipoto’s splashiest move was signing former Mariner and fan-favorite James Paxton. The southpaw spent two years with the Yankees after being dealt to the Bronx for Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams.

So where does Dipoto’s offseason maneuvers leave the Mariners heading into 2021? Let’s discuss.

Hope Is The Course Of Action

With no external help coming, the Mariners are essentially counting on a young, unproven lineup taking the next step in its maturation. In a nutshell, hope is the plan for improving the offense this year. Look across the diamond to see what I mean.

White is an elite defender at first base, but he must improve a .176/.252/.346 slash and a 41.6-percent strikeout rate. On a positive note, the 24-year-old’s hard-hit rate and a strong 30-game stretch last year suggests he could still rebound to be a foundational player in Seattle.

After a breakout 2020, Moore is Seattle’s starting second baseman. That’s assuming the small sample of 38 games and 159 plate appearances qualifies as a season. Ironically, a year ago, the team hoisted the same status onto another player with about the same amount of experience as Moore’s. It didn’t go well.

Long was anointed the 2020 Opening Day second baseman after a solid, but brief, 42-game/168 plate appearance audition in 2019. Unfortunately, his year went sideways due to a leg injury requiring season-ending surgery. Now, the 25-year-old seems to be an afterthought. That’s unfortunate and troubling.

Crawford’s glove is outstanding, but his offensive profile remains unclear. The 26-year-old was adept at drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts leading to a .336 OBP. However, the team needs more extra base power from their shortstop.

Seager begins his tenth season as the Mariners’ third baseman. The 33-year-old is the anchor of the infield and the organization itself.

Lewis returns in center field after winning 2020 Rookie of the Year.

Much like Lewis did during post-shutdown summer camp, prospect Taylor Trammell pleasantly surprised the Mariners in Spring Training. So much so, the 23-year-old will be Seattle’s Opening Day left fielder.

Mitch Haniger is back in right field after several injuries sidelined him since June 2019. It’s plausible Haniger is Seattle’s best player in 2021.

Starting catcher Tom Murphy also missed last season. In 2019, Murphy hit 18 home runs and .273/.324/.535 in 75 games. Still, the fact the right-handed hitter feasted on southpaw pitching, but not so much the other way (.653 OPS vs RHP; 1.103 vs LHP) bears watching.

Torrens will share catching duties with Murphy. Last year, he hit .257/.325/.371, although the 24-year-old did have an impressive hard-hit rate. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the organization’s top catching prospect, Cal Raleigh, debuts this year.

Ty France projects to be the primary designated hitter, although he’ll see time in the field too. Regardless of where France plays, his bat will be a staple in Seattle’s lineup. In 112 games spread over two seasons with the Padres and the Mariners, the San Diego State product has 17 doubles, 11 home runs, a .265/.326/.431 slash, and a 105 OPS+.

The Starting 6.5 And The Other Guy

Gonzales headlines a six-man rotation with Paxton, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Flexen, and Dunn behind him. Margevicius, who competed with Dunn for the final rotation spot, will be a reliever. That said, expect the 24-year-old to make starts. Perhaps he piggybacks with another starter during games this year.

Injuries ruined Paxton’s 2020, which only advanced his injury-prone reputation. Still, the 32-year-old averaged 28 starts and 156 innings in 2018-19. Moreover, his .296 wOBA was twentieth best among starters during that span. In a six-man rotation, Big Maple making 24-28 starts with similar production would be perfect.

We don’t know whether Flexen’s KBO performance carries over to MLB. But his 2.3 BB/9 in Korea is reminiscent to a 2.9 BB/9 in 122 minor-league appearances. Additionally, the right-hander’s 116.2 innings logged last season suggests he could handle a greater workload than other starters. Remember, Gonzales led Seattle with just 69.2 frames last year.

Realistically, Dunn wouldn’t make a standard five-man rotation. Now, the 25-year-old must demonstrate he deserves to keep his gig by the time management deems top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert (the other guy) MLB-ready.

More Relief, But How Much More?

The bullpen definitely looks different and it should be improved. But how much better? The answer will figure heavily into the Mariner’s season record.

Montero will close games. Getting the ball to Montero will be Kendall Graveman, Misiewicz, Middleton, Sadler, Vest, and Margevicius. Either Domingo Tapia or Drew Steckenrider will take the final bullpen spot. Sounds great, but this is an unproven group.

Montero’s 95.8-MPH average fastball velocity last year was nearly 3-MPH higher than when he debuted in 2014. Yet, he remains an unknown quantity at closer. The same is true about Graveman, who has little relief experience (14.2 innings).

Something else to monitor – Middleton’s walk rate. In his 19.2 innings since returning from TJ surgery, he’s walked 13 while striking out 17. Not a good ratio for high-leverage relievers.

And the rest of the crew? They’re inexperienced and/or have yet to succeed in the majors.

And That’s Where The Adventure Begins

As noted at the outset, Dipoto will learn this season what he’ll need to do to make the Mariners a contender next year. But fans should expect a bumpy ride during the 2021 campaign, while the team learns lessons, both good and bad, about itself.

Remember, few position players have significant major-league experience. Hence, the potential for turbulence as the season unfolds. Consider this: Seager has more career MLB plate appearances than the combined total of the eight hitters starting with the former North Carolina Tar Heel on Opening Day:

Career MLB PA’s
1B – Evan White (202 PA)
2B – Dylan Moore (441)
SS – J.P. Crawford (853)
3B – Kyle Seager (5,534)
LF – Taylor Trammell (0)
CF – Kyle Lewis (317)
RF – Mitch Haniger (1,499)
DH – Ty France (356)
C – Tom Murphy (491)

We’ve seen flashes from Lewis, Moore, France, and Murphy. But will these players sustain their success over a long season? And let’s not forget Trammell will struggle too. So will eventual call-ups Raleigh and Jarred Kelenic. That’s a lot of uncertainty.

There are reasons to be optimistic about the rotation too. But a wait-and-see approach is advisable. Gonzales has a reputation of consistently delivering quality outings. Who else on the starting staff can make this claim?

Paxton can do it, when healthy. Sheffield may develop into that pitcher with more time. So may Kikuchi and Flexen, but they’ve yet to deliver consistent quality outings in MLB. In fact, only three starters have more than 20 career starts in the majors. Three!

Career MLB Starts
James Paxton (136)
Marco Gonzales (88)
Yusei Kikuchi (41)
Nick Margevicius (19)
Justus Sheffield (17)
Justin Dunn (14)
Chris Flexen (11)

With so much depending on 10-plus players demonstrating their potential this year, two basic outcomes await the Mariners. One is a surprisingly good year creating a postseason buzz in the Pacific Northwest. In that case, Dipoto likely acquires players in-season capable of elevating his club in 2021 and beyond.

On the flip side, the Mariners end up closer to last place than a Wild Card berth. Then, they’re deadline sellers. That said, Dipoto doesn’t have many pending free agents to peddle. Any reliever performing well might be available. We’ve discussed Seager’s poison pill extension for 2022 ad nauseam, so we’ll move on.

Alas, the most valued potential free agent would be a healthy Paxton performing up to his immense talent. Would Dipoto trade the big left-hander for a second time? If you don’t know the answer, ask Taijuan Walker.

Regardless of where the Mariners finish this year, we’ll get to enjoy a preview of what awaits in 2022. That’s when young studs like Lewis, Sheffield, Trammell, Kelenic, Gilbert, Raleigh, and perhaps Julio Rodriguez will comprise over 25-percent of the team.

And that’ll be the best part of the adventure this year – watching the Mariners’ young roster morphing into something special.

My Oh My…

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Image courtesy of John Cordes/Icon Sportswire
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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as 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. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins