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

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

5 Comments

  1. I really hope DiPoto doesn’t punt the 11th pick next year. There isn’t a free agent that will receive the qualifying offer worth losing the 11th pick in the draft and the amount of money we will have to pay them, it’s not like the free agents take less money to make up for the fact you lose your pick. The 11th pick is too valuable to rebuild a terrible farm system and is an opportunity DiPoto can’t lose to construct a farm of young talent that he selects. Maybe you could make a case for Heyward, but that is about it and I still wouldn’t do it because our farm system is so weak, if it was stronger the 11th pick wouldn’t mean as much.

  2. Jason,

    I think you’re list of priorities is spot on. Especially the need for depth.

    I’d like to see the M’s pick up a handful of post-hype stalled prospects, and see what the revamped coaching and PD staff can do with them. Guys along the lines of Jon Singleton, Domonic Brown, Pedro Alvarez, Anthony Gose, Leonys Martin, Gregory Polanco, etc. Some of those guys – like Brown and Alvarez – could be picked up for nothing. Others would cost more. But getting guys like that, working with them, and hoping you get lucky is a nice way to add depth.

    If the M’s are going to throw down cash in free agency, I think the pitchers are the guys who make sense. Heyward, Cespedes, Gordon, and Upton are going to be overpaid, and there isn’t much value after those guys. The market for SPs should be a lot better. The estimates I’ve seen for Scott Kazmir seem very low, and he’d be a great #2 for us. Kenta Maeda – if he’s posted – would also work. Neither would cost us a draft pick. Add one of those two, plus someone like Doug Fister or Mat Latos, and you’ve suddenly got great pitching depth.

  3. Still mulling this over. Mostly trying to balance what I’d like to happen versus what can/is reasonable.

    Starting Pitching. I like the idea of signing a “true” #2 and Iwakuma. Just not sure we’ll get a #2. Often people pay true FA #2’s as if they are #1’s. And there are only so many pitchers I am excited about giving long expensive contracts too. If we get a solid #2 at a reasonable price, great. I am just concerned whether that will happen.

    But, overall, I agree, we likely need to sign 2 SPs. One is an absolute necessity.

    Relief pitchers. This is where I may not agree. 5 relief pitchers? I think the bullpen stabilized once it had established roles and Wilhelmson at the closer. I’d like to see a better closer, but I think the bullpen only needs ~2 new faces. Build around Smith, Furbush, Wilhelmson and Nuno as long relief. Maybe keep one of the young SPs that do not make the top 5 (Montgomery, etc) as another long relief. Then there are others that may find a role, both those that we picked up at the trade deadline and others that have been around for awhile. Not that I am all that opposed, as I want the best possible team, but I just view instability and over taxation as the primary issues with the bullpen last year.

    Outfield. Agree. I just worry about what can truly be accomplished. I expect a much more athletic group which means jettisoning much/all of the current less fleet footed group. Overall, I am expecting 1-2 signings to be a priority and then have to live with at least 1 OF that makes me cringe a bit. Hopefully not, but I am preparing for something less than desirable.

    Catcher…agreed. Need to hit reset on Zunino’s offensive development and have a backup plan to implement before someone creates a new standard “Zunino Line”

    Fringe…couldn’t agree more. Of course I’d love a high end bat, and I think underperformance from Cano/Seager early in the year hurt. But ultimately, I think our biggest problem is getting production from the other 5 spots.

    1B. We need more production. Maybe that is whomever is left (Trumbo, Montero, or Morrison). But something needs to be done there.

    So…not envisioning a massive signing, but rather several mid-level moves. I do think we have a good core. With some luck, good signings, etc., I think that 87-89 wins is within reach and that would have got us to the playoffs this year and maybe even the division. So reason for optimism.

  4. Good summary.

    At SP I think you have to save 3 spots for Kuma, Walker, and Paxton. I;m sure they’ll throw in a 2016 version ofChris Young/Aaron Harang to the mix. Elias is a capable 6th starter with options and Nuno is a decent swing guy. That means go out and get a solid #2 who has a chance to have a pulse in October.

    Carson Smith is a good litmus test for the new regime. He’s more talented than anything on the FA market.

    I’d love to see a run at Heyward. He’s as safe as any free agent option at age 26 and he fits the party line – defense and OBP, some lefty pop. M’s have always been they’re best when they lock down that cavernous LF spot. He’ll earn his money.

  5. Agree with pretty much the whole of your outlook. If they resign Kuma and bring in a new 2-3 level arm and a back of the rotation piece, then with Felix there will only be one open spot, not two for Walker, Paxton, Elias and Montgomery to compete for. This is about the proper depth level for the rotation of a contending club and I believe each of the four competitors for the last rotation spot still have options left and can be stashed in Tacoma on standby.

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