This week, we have been reviewing the offseason upgrades made by the Seattle Mariners’ division rival. Now, it is time to focus our attention on moves made by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto.
After coming frustratingly close to a 2016 wild card berth, the Mariners took a step backwards losing eight more games than the season prior. The primary cause of the club’s decline; a rotation decimated by injuries.
Only three Mariners — Ariel Miranda, James Paxton, and Yovani Gallardo — logged 100-plus innings tying the club with the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins for fewest in the American League. All told, manager Scott Servais used a major league-leading 17 starters.
The bullpen was mid-pack statistically, but faltered at times from bouts of inconsistency and a heavy workload created by the rotation’s struggles. Inevitably, Servais used 34 different pitchers in a relief role. No major league team had ever used as many relievers.
Offensively, Seattle averaged 4.63 runs-per-game, just below league-average. Mariner base runners collectively had their most stolen bases since 2014, but ranked in the bottom-five when viewed through a sabermetric prism.
After years of ranking in the bottom third of baseball, Mariner outfielders were fifth best, based on DRS. That said; there were no defensive standouts at any other position.
Dipoto acquired Dee Gordon from the Miami Marlins. The 29-year-old debuted as a shortstop with the Los Angeles Dodgers before transitioning to second base. Seattle intends to use him as their regular center fielder, a position he has never played.
Last year, Gordon slashed .308/.341/.375 and stole a major league-leading 60 bases. To put his base-stealing total into perspective, Seattle’s three top base thieves — Jarrod Dyson, Jean Segura, and Taylor Motter — swiped 62 bags combined.
A key element to Gordon’s offense is putting bat to ball. His 86.8-percent contact rate was tenth highest in baseball last year. Conversely, the left-handed hitter’s 3.6-percent walk rate was fourth lowest among 144 hitters qualified for the batting title.
The other major addition was first baseman Ryon Healy from the Oakland Athletics. In his first full season in the majors, Healy slashed .271/.302/.451 with 25 home runs. Still, his 3.8-percent walk rate placed him at the bottom of the league with Gordon.
Once again, Dipoto loaded up on relievers. Most notably, free agent Juan Nicasio. After becoming a full-time reliever in 2017, the right-hander had a breakout season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.
Nicasio appeared in a league-leading 76 games with impressive 9.0 SO/9 and 2.5 BB/9 rates, holding opponents to a .216/.277/.333 slash line. Last year, he was normally asked to get three or fewer outs. With Seattle, it is plausible the 31-year-old serves in a multi-inning relief rotation with David Phelps.
Seattle acquired 26-year-old right-hander Nick Rumbelow from the New York Yankees. Rumbelow injured his elbow after just one inning in 2016 and did not return to game action until last June.
Claimed off waivers, reliever Sam Moll may transition into a starter. If that experiment does not pan out, the 26-year-old could potentially become a multi-inning relief option.
Another waiver pickup, Mike Morin, is also capable of going multiple frames. The righty owns a career 3.38 FIP in 183 major league appearances, but struggled last year (4.41).
Morin has no minor league options remaining, so he must make the 25-man roster or clear waivers to remain with the organization. With that in mind, the 26-year-old may be low hanging fruit, if Dipoto needs to clear a 40-man roster spot.
Another low-key addition was Shawn Armstrong, acquired from the Cleveland Indians. The 27-year-old projects as a middle reliever and, like Morin, has no minor options remaining.
The third waiver claim was Chasen Bradford. The 28-year-old’s 55.9-percent ground ball was thirtieth best among 235 relievers with 30-plus innings last year. Also making Bradford attractive to the Mariners — three minor league options.
Starter Hisashi Iwakuma agreed to remain with Seattle on a minor league contract while recovering from shoulder surgery.
“Kuma” made just six starts last season and saw his fastball velocity and strikeout rate dramatically plummet. The 36-year-old will not be a factor for the big league club until May, at the earliest.
First baseman Mike Ford came via the Rule 5 draft. Accordingly, the Princeton University product must remain on the major league roster for the entire upcoming season or the Mariners must offer him back to the Yankees for $25 thousand.
Ford was a productive minor league hitter last year with 20 home runs and a .270/.404/.471 slash. Interestingly, he had more walks (94) than strikeouts (72). Only five major leaguers accomplished that last year — Joey Votto, Mike Trout, Justin Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo.
It is unclear how Ford will fit into Seattle’s plans. Other than 57 minor league innings at third base, the 25-year-old has exclusively played first base. With Healy set to be the regular first baseman and the club likely to carry eight relievers, Ford’s lack of positional versatility is problematic.
To improve the bench, Dipoto selected Andrew Romine off waivers from the Detroit Tigers. The versatile 32-year-old has started at every field position with the exception of catcher and pitcher. Then again, he did catch one-third of an inning last year and has 2.2 innings of relief experience.
Although he is a Swiss Army knife in the field, Romine is not an offensive threat with a .238/.294/.307 slash after 1192 career plate appearances. Defensive metrics suggest he is better in the outfield, but sample sizes are small and spread over multiple seasons.
Romine’s main competition is last year’s utility man — Motter. The 28-year-old proved valuable covering shortstop during Segura’s two trips to the disabled list.
Motter does not have a strong bat either, but is four years younger than Romine and appears to be better defensively.
Robinson Cano was relatively productive last year, although his offensive output mirrored 2015 when a he struggled with multiple physical issues. Reportedly, the eight-time all-star had an undisclosed injury late last season.
Assuming Cano is healthy, he could return to his superb 2016 form (.298/.350/.533 and 39 home runs). On the other hand, he is 35-years-old. His stat line could stagnate of falter rather than rebound.
Kyle Seager is also coming off a down year (.249/.323/.450), although he did hit 27 home runs. Whether he can repeat his 2016 productivity (.278/.359/.499 and 30 home runs) is unclear.
A more reasonable expectation for Seager may be his average stat line from his first four full seasons (.263/.329/.438 and 23 home runs).
Nelson Cruz appeared ageless in 2017 with offensive production mirroring his three-year average as a Mariner. That said; he will be 38-years-old in July.
Father Time eventually catches up with everyone — including the “Boomstick.” The Mariners have to hope 2018 is not the year Cruz falls of the proverbial cliff.
The rotation has three established names — Paxton, Mike Leake, and Felix Hernandez with a gaggle following behind. Specifically; Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez, and Marco Gonzales, along with minor leaguers Andrew Moore, Max Povse, Robert Whalen, and Chase De Jong.
Clearly, Paxton is Seattle’s best pitcher. “Big Maple” flashed ace stuff last year, but made two trips to the disabled list with strains to a pectoral muscle and a flexor bundle. If healthy, the 29-year-old will headline the staff.
Leake’s presence should have a stabilizing effect on the staff. The veteran of eight seasons has proven capable of going deep into games. Nevertheless, his effectiveness decreases considerably when facing a lineup for the third time.
The most enigmatic player on the roster is Hernandez. “King Felix” has been on the disabled list three times over the last two seasons. In 2017, shoulder tendonitis derailed the 31-year-old twice. Considering Felix’s age and career workload, history does not favor the King’s chances of rebounding.
Phelps is coming off a September elbow procedure, but expected to be ready for the season. Any setbacks would significantly affect the back-end of the bullpen.
Zych boasts a 9.9 SO/9 in 70 career appearances, but his control (4.2 BB/9) is worrisome. Moreover, injuries have short-circuited the 27-year-old’s last two seasons. Even worse, his fastball velocity lost 3-4 MPH and his SO/9 dropped to 7.7 last year.
The left-handed Rzepczynski held lefty hitters to a paltry .483 OPS during the first half, but that number jumped to .829 after the all-star game. Free passes were a big problem for “Scrabble,” especially against right-handers — he walked 25.9-percent of righties faced.
Vincent had a career-year and was Seattle’s best reliever, but he appeared worn down by September. The issue going forward is whether the 32-year-old repeats last year’s overall success or suffers a hangover from a demanding 2017 workload.
Diaz’s may eventually become an elite-level closer, but he occasionally struggles with his command. The 23-year-old had the twelfth best strikeout percentage among 84 relievers with 60-plus innings, although his walk rate was twelfth worst within the same group.
Dipoto will tell you no other AL West team’s rotation outpaces his, with the exception of the World Series champion Houston Astros. This is true, but being the best of a mediocre group is not a distinction worth touting.
Club officials acknowledge the rotation’s success hinges on Hernandez bouncing back after two ineffective, injury-shortened seasons. This is not reassuring considering Felix turns 32 in April and his declining productivity since the end of 2014.
Two arm-related injuries last season have to generate a measure of concern about Paxton, who has never made 24-plus starts in five big league seasons.
While Leake was ace-like after his August acquisition, his career numbers suggest he is closer to league-average than elite.
The remaining rotation candidates project to have varying levels of upside. However, they have yet to demonstrate they are anything more than number-5 starters. Perhaps, that changes in 2018.
Certainly, adding more multi-inning relievers will help the Mariners survive early departures by starters and increase the odds of getting the ball to Diaz with a lead. But this team will only go as far their rotation takes them.
Right now, that destination is on the fringe of wild card contention battling the Los Angeles Angels for a distant second place in their division.
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