Reeling It In: Thoughts on M’s before Series

We’ll discuss the hire of skipper Scott Servais and his staff more later this week, starting on the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast this week, but it’s so easy to get frazzled with all the things on the checklist of the Seattle Mariners and new general manager Jerry Dipoto. Let’s not lose sight of the basic goal — to get noticeable better as soon as possible.

One thing to keep in mind: It’s highly unlikely the Mariners, on paper, will have the look of a 95-win club heading into the season. Not that the paper look matters much, but it drives the expectation levels fans and media deal with every winter and spring leading into the new season.

Any and all offseason pieces generating specific ideas and thoughts will arrive after the World Series, but let’s identify the areas the club must get better. ‘Everywhere’ is absolutely not the answer. The 2015 Seattle Mariners boast plenty of talent in some areas of the game. Those areas won’t need much attention, if any at all.

In no order of importance or expense.

Starting Pitching
As of Game 1 of the World Series, the Mariners’ projected rotation would be Felix Hernandez, four question marks with as many as seven candidates. None of those candidates are sure things, despite carrying varying degrees of upside and reliable performance. Simply put, the M’s have no No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Re-signing Hisashi Iwakuma would fill one of those roles — he’s a No. 3 at best for me, and isn’t as reliable at 34 years of age coming off two injury-shortened seasons, which forces me to treat him like a No. 4 starter. It’s a tall task to add two starters, one of the frontline variety, but the resources are available, and both the trade and free agent markets should allow for opportunities.

When the smoke clears in March it’d be ideal of Dipoto added a legitimate No. 2 or better, plus Iwakuma and another No. 3-4 type with a recent history of logging 180-200 innings. This would allow Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias — four young arms — to fight it out for the final two spots in the rotation. The losers serve as depth or trade bait.

Bullpen
Notice the first two areas mentioned here are pitching and not about offense? Few clubs — as few as three or four — have the financial resources to add multiple offensive players this offseason. The markets are thin with free agency, somewhat oddly but not surprisingly, the free agent route will be the best way to add the middle-of-the-order hitter this offseason. The Mariners don’t need to do that, though. Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Mark Trumbo and Kyle Seager are every bit as good as any four hitters in the lineup of either World Series participant. You think that’s hogwash? Go check it out. Neither the Mets nor the Royals can clear what the M’s offer four deep. The difference is the rest of the lineup. The solid-to-good offensive clubs have depth — you’ll often hear analysts or those in the game use the word “lengthen the lineup,” and that’s what the Mets did by adding Yoenis Cespedes by trade and Michael Conforto via their farm system. The Royals got better last winter replacing Billy Butler with Kendrys Morales and did it again by acquiring Ben Zobrist in July. Neither player is a star, but they are average or better bats that create another solid opportunity for their clubs to avoid outs and drive in runs in the process.

Spending significant assets on big bats aren’t likely to be warranted, including a run at Cespedes, Justin Upton or Jason Heyward. Zobrist makes sense for all 30 teams. Having said all that, the bullpen absolutely needs to be addressed by Dipoto, and not only will it be given proper attention, the Mariners new Executive V.P. has experienced doing just that — rebuilding a bullpen, He did it well while in Anaheim, acquiring the likes of Huston Street, Fernando Salas and Trevor Gott, among others. Typically, it’s not a great idea to give lengthy contracts or bigger dollars to relievers, but if one can identify the right ones, so be it. Don’t be surprised if the Mariners acquire as many as five major-league caliber relievers — three surefire 2016 bullpen spots, plus two Wild Card types that could serve as depth.

There will be a few free agents that make sense, and I’d wager the first trade Dipoto makes involves a reliever coming back. The club doesn’t have a top-half closer on its roster, unless Carson Smith is going to be the guy from Day 1. I’d wager against that being the case.

Outfield Defense
Far less Cruz in the outfield, almost no Trumbo in the outfield. That should be the goal here. The Mariners need a centerfielder and at least one solid corner outfielder. I still believe Seth Smith will be moved this winter, particularly if Trumbo is not going to be. I don’t believe ‘big’ fits here, but solid does, starting with the defensive side of things. Outside of the top few free agents, center field may be manned by one or two really good defenders who aren’t all that good at the plate. Brad Miller‘s role is up in the air, which is why I feel he’s among the more likely trade candidates, as clubs will see the value in a player that can manage at shortstop, second base and ultimately both corner outfield spots and third base. Miller probably never will have more value to the Mariners in trade than he does this offseason, unless he stays in town and has a great year at the plate next season. After 2016, Miller will be eligible for arbitration.

Think ‘moderate bat, above-average glove’ when you set your outfield expectations for the 2016 roster.

Catcher
There are a million reasons to remain a Mike Zunino believer; even his freatest detractors believe he’s a regular catcher at the big league level. When that occurs is the question. Dipoto cannot, and will not, sit around and hope this is the year Zunino finds his contact swing. The club really needs two catcher, in case Zunino’s offseason progress needs more time during the season, and it might actually be the best thing for him, depending on where he is in mid-March. The worst thing the club could do is bring Zunino north and several weeks into the campaign ship him back, hence the idea of adding two backstops. One of those will need to be decent to solid all-around, which makes it difficult, but… we’ll attack that in a week or two. There absolutely are options out there, the Mariners will just need to be willing to spend the assets to acquire the necessary help behind the dish.

Fringe Depth
Dipoto spoke of this in his presser last month. Because the development beneath the big leagues has not gone well at all — some years were disastrous, the best of the last seven were merely average in that department — the club was not prepared to replace injured or under-performing players and get replacement-level production. The club started already with the acquisition of right-hander Cody Martin, a 26-year-old that spent most of the last five seasons in the Atlanta Braves organization. Martin has started for most of his pro career, sitting 89-92 mph with his fastball and offering the kitchen sink including a cutter, slider, curveball and changeup. Paring that arsenal down and using Martin in relief could mean a firmer fastball and a sharper slider. Martin may not make any team out of spring training, but we’ll see quite a bit of these kinds of additions from Dipoto, hoping to find an arm or three that sticks.

The level of roster possibilities in March has to be better. More players with major league experience, more players with some skill that grades out higher than “maybe” or “hopeful,” clearly are part of Dipoto’s plan. Executing that plan won’t be easy, but it may be among the easier things to check off the GM’s list, since generally this kind of addition simply is about identifying the types of talent and going out and adding enough of them.

Rather than focus on the overall value of each and every player acquired this offseason, as the winter progresses keep track with a focus on whether or not certain areas — we’ll call them questions — have been answered. Teams without significant weaknesses will win a lot of games over the course of a season, and that’s probably Seattle’s best bet to contend in 2016.

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Jason A. Churchill

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