“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.” — Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016
Of course nobody saw it coming. Not even for a quarter of the season. And even if it concludes without an end to the 14-year postseason drought, the 2016 Seattle Mariners have been one of the better teams in Major League Baseball through 40 games.
A lot of things are going right for the club. Not everything, but most everything. What’s led the Mariners to first place in the American League West at the quarter point? Which areas are sustainable and which aren’t? How’s first-ever manager Scott Servais handling the job this far? We’ll get to all that in the Quarterly Report Series, continuing with the bench, impact of injuries and analysis of the overall roster.
In 2015, the Mariners started the season with Willie Bloomquist, Jesus Sucre, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks on their bench. By July, Bloomquist, Ruggiano, and Weeks were no longer with the ball club due to lack of production.
Sucre stuck with the ball club for most of the season and actually became the starter once Mike Zunino was sent to Tacoma in late August. But, his plate production was no better than the struggling Zunino.
This year’s Opening Day reserves — Franklin Gutierrez, Steve Clevenger, Luis Sardinas, and Dae-Ho Lee — have been far more useful to rookie manager Scott Servais, even if some have struggled at the plate.
Clearly, expecting Gutierrez to repeat his .292/.354/.620 slash from last season would be unrealistic. However, his slow start has been a bit of surprise. Perhaps, he’s still adapting to a part time player. It may be nothing more than a bad few weeks being amplified by a small sample size.
Based on Guti’s career averages, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll get on track and rake against southpaws. If he’s thrust into a more regular role and faces more right-handers, his overall production projects to be closer to league-average.
Like many backup catchers, Clevenger hasn’t seen much playing time. In his case, that’s about twice weekly. To date, he’s been a solid understudy for starting backstop Iannetta.
Sardinas beat out fellow switch-hitter Shawn O’Malley for a roster spot in Spring Training. Earlier this week though, he was sent to Tacoma and was replaced by O’Malley. Although Sardinas is a more capable shortstop, the early success of Marte reduced the need to have him on the 25-man roster as insurance against a Marte collapse.
Conversely, the 28-year-old O’Malley can play the same positions as Sardinas, plus all three outfield positions. Having a versatile and athletic backup outfielder should provide the team’s starting center fielder — Martin — with an occasional day off and give Servais a solid late-inning defensive replacement for the corner outfield spots.
— Luke Arkins
Perhaps the most important part of the bench is way the production has fit together. Lind struggles early, Lee picks up the slack. Gutierrez and Clevenger struggle early, their timeshare counterparts do not. There’s some luck to that, but the bench as a group are more likely to perform as well or better from here on out than fall apart, even if Lee’s production fades some — which I’m not convinced it’ a foregone conclusion it will significantly.
I love what O’Malley brings to the table — Sardiñas deserved the nod in spring training, but his shortstopness has been rendered nearly useless by Marte’s development — and O’Malley is better prepared to play the outfield right now, particularly late in games for Cruz or Smith.
— Jason A. Churchill
Fortunately, for the Mariners, position players have stayed off the disabled, which helps keep the bench strong. To date, their injury issues have been primarily relievers.
|Joaquin Benoit||Right shoulder inflammation||Returned May 17|
|Tony Zych||Right rotator cuff tendinitis||Played catch on May 14|
|Charlie Furbush||Left shoulder tightness||Threw simulated inning May 14|
|Evan Scribner||Strained lat muscle||Not throwing yet|
|Ryan Cook||Strained lat muscle||Throwing as of May 9|
|Jesus Sucre||Right leg surgery||Out for year|
The Spring Training shutdowns of Furbush, Scribner, and Cook put the Mariners bullpen at a disadvantage going into the season. However, getting their eventual returns will be like adding brand new players. By the time they’re ready to pitch in the big leagues, the ‘pen is certain to need fresh arms.
— Luke Arkins
It’s odd that the impact injuries all have occurred to relief arms to date — knock on wood — and while I’m not 100 percent sure Furbush makes the bullpen better — based solely on the question marks surrounding which version of the lefty the Mariners will actually get — he does make the entire pitching staff better, since it essentially makes it easier for the club to move Montgomery or even Nuno into the rotation if the need arises. So much quality versatility.
Scribner, if 100 percent healthy, could help in the middle innings; if he were magically healthy today, he’s more likely to gets outs regularly than is Peralta, but he has the same issue as the 40-year-old — the home run ball. Scribner is out of options, so once his 30-day maximum rehab stint is over (when it starts still is up in the air as he’s not throwing yet), the club will have a decision to make that won’t be clear. The same can be said for Cook, too, though if he’s anywhere near his old self, he has better stuff, albeit with control questions. Once Zych is ready, right-hander Steve Johnson likely gets DFA’d — and likely clears waivers and heads back to Tacoma.
If Zych can stay away from the base on balls, he may be the club’s best in-house option to set up Cishek.
— Jason A. Churchill
Considering the Mariners’ early success, near-term roster moves will likely be injury-related transactions and attempts to tweak the bullpen or bench, such as the Sardinas/O’Malley swap.
Potential injury replacement call-ups from Tacoma utility-man include Sardinas, infielder Chris Taylor, and outfielders Stefen Romero and Daniel Robertson. It’s important to point out that Taylor’s swing currently isn’t in good shape.
Outfielder Boog Powell might be in the mix if Martin wasn’t available for a considerable amount of time and he’s proven himself ready at Tacoma. Otherwise, based on Dipoto’s philosophy of not rushing players, the 23-year-old isn’t likely to get a call-up before September 1.
If either catcher on the big league roster were required to miss an extended period, the Mariners would have an interesting choice between Zunino and Rob Brantly. Dipoto has stated numerous times that Zunino won’t return to the major until he’s ready. Therefore, the timing of a loss of either major league backstop would be the primary consideration.
It’s worth noting that Brantly is currently not on the 40-man roster. Thereby, a corresponding roster move would be required to bring him to Seattle, unless there happened to be less than 40 names on the roster at the time of the injury.
If the club were truly in the midst of a serious postseason run, adding another closer option would be a big boost. As the Kansas City Royals have proven, a club that builds a reliable bridge from the starter to the end of the game can enjoy a great deal of success.
Adding another outfield bat who can also play solid defense could be in the cards if Gutierrez and/or Aoki continue to struggle as the season progresses.
— Luke Arkins
It’s easy to suggest the roster was wisely put together after 40 games of goodness, but at the very least most agreed the pieces made sense; more defense, speed and contact-driven hitters, plus some clear platoon scenarios that didn’t involve 37-year-old veterans that haven’t been any good for three years.
If the club is in it in July, Dipoto’s tasks will include the strikeout-type reliever for late in games, but also perhaps an everyday outfielder, depending on how Aoki and Gutierrez perform during the second quarter of the season. Aoki’s been OK, but he’s currently in a slump that has his OBP numbers down. The good news is, there’s room to make deals, even if the organization lacks the depth in the farm system to add a star to the mix over the summer. Payroll is not a concern in any manner.
— Jason A. Churchill