“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.”Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016

At the halfway point of the 2016 season, the rotation of the Seattle Mariners was in disarray and their bullpen ineffective. It looked as if their season was quickly slipping away, especially after going 10-18 during the month of June.

Then, the calendar turned to July and the Mariners slowly regained their footing and crawled back into the contention with just over 40 games remaining.

The first two parts of our Third Quarter Report Series analyzed trends within the American League West division and the Mariners’ offense, plus their pitching staff.

In this segment, we’re going to discuss the club’s roster. First, let’s discuss the toll injuries have taken on that roster.

Injury Impact
The loss of key players to injury is always a challenge, especially for a team on the fringe of contention — like the Mariners. When those losses occur in rapid succession to a rotation, it can be season-altering.

Seattle endured such setbacks throughout June and into July. During those two months, they were forced to endure without Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement.

Not only did the club have to scramble just to find healthy arms to start games, the bullpen was over-extended after being repeatedly called upon to absorb the workload of starters who routinely didn’t last six innings.

Since then, all but Sampson have since returned to action. But, Miley is now a Baltimore Oriole and Walker is starting games for Class-AAA Tacoma due to inconsistent performance.

Now, the club is facing another round of rotation uncertainty due to injury. Two other starters — Nate Karns and James Paxton — currently resided on the disabled list (DL).

Granted, Karns was relegated to the bullpen prior to his back strain, but general manager (GM) Jerry Dipoto recently signaled the club intended to return the right-hander to a starting role. Whether that would’ve been with the big league club or in Tacoma is unknown.

Yet, having Karns available right now would be an appealing alternative for a club that’s turned to Joe Wieland and Cody Martin to start games in consecutive weeks.

The outlook for Karns is unknown. Although he’s feeling better, Greg Johns of MLB.com noted that the right-hander hasn’t resumed a throwing program.

When Paxton went on the DL, his loss was much more significant to the team. Initially a replacement for Felix, the 27-year-old had become Seattle’s best starter prior to being struck on his pitching elbow by a line over a week ago.

Fortunately, the prognosis for Paxton is much rosier. He’s expected to be back with Seattle after a rehab start with the Rainiers this weekend.

A quick return by the big southpaw is absolutely vital. It’s difficult to envision a realistic scenario where the Mariners remain competitive without Paxton toeing the mound every fifth game.

The rotation isn’t the only component of the roster to be impacted by injury. Here’s a complete rundown of Seattle players on the DL.

Mariners Injuries
Player Position Injury Status
James Paxton SP  Elbow contusion  15-day DL
Nate Karns SP Lower back strain 15-day DL
Steve Cishek RP Left hip labrum tear Began rehab assignment Aug. 15
Tony Zych RP Right rotator cuff tendinitis On rehab assignment
Evan Scribner RP Strained lat muscle On rehab assignment
Ryan Cook RP Strained lat muscle Shut down after one appearance in July
Steve Clevenger C Broken hand  Started rehab July 17
Charlie Furbush RP  Torn left rotator cuff Out for season
 Adrian Sampson  SP Recovering from elbow surgery Out for season

After missing a year due to shoulder issues, fan-favorite Charlie Furbush will miss next season due to season-ending rotator cuff surgery. Getting the southpaw back into the bullpen mix would’ve been a welcome addition.

Help could be on the way for the bullpen though.

Former closer Steve Cishek and fellow relievers Tony Zych and Evan Scribner are currently on rehab assignments. Cishek is the closest to returning and will provide Servais with another late-inning option.

Cishek didn’t endear himself to Seattle fans by blowing a three-run save to the Chicago Cubs in a nationally televised game. But, he’s experienced in high-leverage situations and possesses a better track record than any other available option on the roster.

Zych’s fastball has been clocked in the 95-97 MPH range during three rehab starts. If he stays on track, he may not be far behind Cishek. Getting Zych back at this point of the season would be akin to adding a high-powered arm via trade.

Scribner will take longer to return since he’s been out all year. But, adding the 31-year-old in September would provide needed length during the last lap of the pennant race.

Considering the injuries the Mariners have sustained, their GM deserves credit for keeping his team close to contention. But, he doesn’t deserve all of the credit and he’ll be the first to say so.

Roster Analysis

When Dipoto took over as GM last September, he repeatedly praised the core of players that he inherited from his predecessor — Jack Zduriencik.

Most fans scoff at Zduriencik’s tenure with the organization. But, over half of the players (13) on the current 25-man roster were with the organization when he was let go 12 months ago.

In reality, the best players on the Mariners are holdovers from the Zduriencik era. That’s why I chose to defend Zduriencik in January.

Should the Mariners have moved past Zduriencik? Yes. But, it’s fair to acknowledge that he didn’t leave the cupboards bare, at least on the major league roster.

That’s where Dipoto comes in. By building around the edges of the Zduriencik core, the new Mariners GM has given his team a chance to break their 14-season playoff drought.

That doesn’t mean the Mariners don’t have issue with their roster — they do.

From a roster flexibility standpoint, having a pair of one-position players at the same position — Adam Lind/Dae-Ho Lee — continues to be a challenge, especially when both are struggling at the plate.

Perhaps, recently acquired prospect Dan Vogelbach will be thrown in the mix after rosters expand to 40 players on September 1. But, barring injury, it’s unlikely management will yield significant playing time to an unproven rookie with the team in contention.

First base isn’t the only platoon that’s been ineffective lately. The corner outfield pairing of Franklin Gutierrez and Seth Smith has scuffled in the second half. Compounding the issue, neither player provides enough defensive value to overlook a prolonged slump.

HerediaAs with first base, replacement options are scarce. Some fans are pining for Guillermo Heredia to return from Tacoma after he slashed .280/.379/.400 during his 12 game/29-plate appearance major league debut.

At the very least, Heredia provides a significant defensive upgrade over Smith and Gutierrez. For now though, the club is willing to ride out the recent struggles of their veteran outfielders.

Another position facing challenges is shortstop. The struggles of Ketel Marte have highlighted the organization’s lack of upper level depth at the position.

When the season began, Luis Sardinas was expected to be the club’s backup plan at shortstop. However, it didn’t work out and he was traded to the San Diego on Monday. That’s where  Shawn O’Malley comes into the picture.

O’Malley has started 28 games at shortstop and 27 in the outfield this season. Lately though, the Richland, WA native spent more time at shortstop due to Marte’s recent stint.

At this time, employing a balanced approach with Marte and O’Malley time-sharing at shortstop would be the best course of action. It’s not an optimum strategy, but it’s a reasonable approach to handle the position for now.

I’ve outlined several challenges facing the Mariners, but there are bright spots too.

One major difference between Dipoto and his predecessor is his ability to pivot when dealing with adversity. The best example of that agility is the transformation of Edwin Diaz.

Transitioning a 22-year-old who was starting games in Class-AA ball in April into a high-leverage major league reliever by June would never had happened in the past. Not that quickly, at least.

Dipoto’s acquisition of Wade LeBlanc in late June is an example of several shrewd deals the 48-year-old executive has made within the last two months.

LeBlanc isn’t overpowering. But, he’s been a solid contributor who helped provide rotation stability during the last 40 games. His presence now looms even larger with Paxton and Karns unavailable and Walker ineffective.

Another new starter — Ariel Miranda — came over in the deal that sent Miley to Baltimore. Under different circumstances, the southpaw would likely be pitching in Tacoma if it weren’t for the club’s rotation issues. But, he’s been thrust into action as a stop gap for now.

From the outside, trading Miley at the deadline with no suitable substitute available seemed peculiar, especially after he delivered three strong starts leading up to the deal. But, the club decided he was longer a good fit.

Perhaps, the Mariners were onto something. Since Miley arrived in Baltimore, opponents have slashed .328/.370/.537 during starts against the southpaw in three starts.

Recent additions of Drew Storen and Arquimedes Caminero have been valuable contributors to the bullpen. Whether they can remain effective remains to be seen. However, they’ve stabilized the bullpen, especially during the Cishek’s absence.

The return of Mike Zunino from his minor league sabbatical not only strengthened the lineup, it upgraded the catcher position by pushing  Chris Iannetta to a backup role. Now, the club is deeper at backstop than it’s been in over a decade.

Although Mariners’ roster has a few blemishes, it’s kept the club competitive throughout the season. Dipoto may be using an inherited foundation. But, he’s built upon it quite well.

 

 

 …

“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.”Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016

At the halfway point of the 2016 season, the rotation of the Seattle Mariners was in disarray and their bullpen ineffective. It looked as if the Seattle’s season was quickly slipping away, especially after going 10-18 during the month of June.

Cruz 2Then, the calendar turned to July and the Mariners slowly regained their footing and crawled back into the contention with just over 40 games remaining.

So, how did the Mariners reverse course? Can they continue to build off their recent success and finally snap the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball? What role did manager Scott Servais play in the team’s rebound?

We’ll get to all that in the Third Quarter Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Nelson Cruz, DH
Churchill: Kyle Seager. 3B

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: James Paxton, LHP

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

Surprise
Arkins: Shawn O’Malley, UTL
Churchill: Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP

Standings and Trends
During the mid-season report, we suggested the American League (AL) West division standings would tighten and that’s exactly what’s happened. Here are the AL West standings as of today.

AL West Standings (As of August 17)
Tm W L W-L% GB R RA last10 last20 last30
TEX 71 50 .587 4.7 4.6 7-3 13-7 17-13
SEA 63 55 .534 6.5 4.7 4.3 8-2 13-7 19-11
HOU 61 58 .513 9.0 4.5 4.1 4-6 7-13 13-17
OAK 52 68 .433 18.5 4.0 4.8 4-6 7-13 13-17
LAA 50 69 .420 20.0 4.5 4.8 1-9 6-14 13-17
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

While the Mariners deserve credit for their torrid August, the primary reason they’ve been able to climb back into the AL West race is the mediocre play of the teams in front of them in the standings. During July, Seattle gained two games on the division leading Texas Rangers and lost just half a game to the Houston Astros despite posting a 12-12 win-loss record.

The following table illustrates how AL West teams have fared since the start of the third quarter of the season on July 3.

AL West Standings (Since July 3rd)
Tm W L GB R RA
SEA 20 16 143 152
TEX 19 19 2.0 157 197
HOU 18 19 2.5 160 145
LAA 17 20 3.5 176 174
OAK 17 21 4.0 137 176

For the Rangers, their success down the homestretch will be heavily dependent on run prevention. The club knows how to score runs, but has a -40 run differential since July 3.

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

Since losing starters Derek Holland and Colby Lewis to injury in late June, Texas has been unable to find suitable substitutes. As you’d expect, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels have performed well. But, the rest of the staff entered this week with a combined earned run average (ERA) since the all-star break.

There is hope for the Rangers though.

Holland could be back as early as the end of this week, while Lewis may return to the rotation by the end of this month or early September. Without these two hurlers, or adequate substitutes, the club’s hold on the AL West division lead will be tenuous.

The challenge facing the Rangers’ cross-state divisional rivals is exactly the opposite. The Houston Astros remain relevant thanks to their pitching, while being hamstrung by run production.

I know. Houston’s 160 runs scored since July 3 is second best in the division. But, a closer look at their record reveals they’ve scored two or fewer runs in 18 of those games — nearly half of their third quarter.

Thanks to their strong pitching, the Astros managed to win four of those lose scoring games. However, the offense will have to be more robust for the club to remain in contention.

What’s the offense’s biggest problem? Reaching base.

While Houston has a superb young core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, only one other regular — Luis Valbuena — has an on-base percentage (OBP) above league-average and he’s on the disabled list (DL). It’s tough to generate offense without men on base.

Like the Mariners, Houston was relatively inactive at the August 1 trade deadline. Unless general manager Jeff Luhnow makes external additions prior to August 31, his club’s best hope for an offensive upgrade will come from within — heralded prospect Alex Bregman and Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.

Bregman has scuffled since his major league debut on July 25 and Gurriel’s major league debut is being delays because he needs more seasoning in the minors that expected. If both players can find their mojo in the near-term, the Astros immediately become a far more formidable opponent for the Rangers and Mariners during the last 4o games of the season.

Assuming no club makes a significant addition to their respective roster, the Rangers continue to be the class of the AL West division. But, their banged up rotation leaves them vulnerable to a club capable of seizing the moment.

With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the Mariners and their run production.

Offense
As Prospect Insider Jason A. Churchill noted during the Reign Man Edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, it doesn’t really matter how the Mariners scores runs as long as they continue to do so. The club entered the week averaging 4.66 runs scored-per-game — sixth best in the AL.

While Jason is spot-on with his assessment, several notable Mariners are struggling at plate. Let’s look at some of the hitter who were struggling as this week began.

The first base platoon of Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee hasn’t been as productive in month. Despite the early season surge of Lee during limited appearances and Lind’s late-inning heroics, the duo is batting a combined .207 since July 1.

Lind is slashing .268/.333/.439 with two home runs during the small sample size known as August. Perhaps, he’s on the brink of turning around the worst season of his 11-year career.

Two DL stints have reduced the availability of shortstop Ketel Marte. But, his struggles at the plate appear to have more to do with an expanding strike zone than injury or illness.

The challenge for Mariners management during the last six weeks of the season will be balancing their young shortstop’s professional development with their postseason aspirations, especially with no clear-cut upgrade available on the 40-man roster.

Another scuffling regular is center fielder Leonys Martin. Coming into this week, he had a  .223/.279/.325 triple-slash since returning from the DL on June 6. Martin does provide value even when isn’t hitting though. He’s still the best defender they’ve had in center field since Franklin Gutierrez.

Speaking of Guti, he’s been particularly strong against left-handed pitching. But, the 33-year-old tailed off in July with a .189/.318/.297 slash and one home run during 44 plate appearances in July. Fortunately, it appears that he’s returning to form in August.

It’s worth noting that Gutierrez has played in 73 games this season — his most since 2011. That’s a credit to his hard work and devotion and the team’s willingness to adjust his playing time depending on his chronic health issues. In the end, both parties have reaped the rewards of their collaboration.

The all-star break didn’t seem to help Gutierrez’s platoon mate, Seth Smith. After slashing .364/.400/.727 and hitting four home runs during the first 10 games of July, the left-handed hitter is batting just .192 with no home runs since the resumption of play on July 15.

Considering Smith’s veteran status and professional approach, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But, it’s worth mentioning that his second-half offensive production has dropped considerably during the last four seasons.

Another corner outfielder, Nori Aoki is a somewhat enigmatic presence. After struggling greatly against southpaws, the club optioned the 34-year-old to Tacoma in late June. Since his July 20 recall, he’s been the primary leadoff man against right-handed pitching and performed relatively well.

Would management prefer to have a better option than Aoki? Probably. But, there are no proven replacements ready to wrest playing time away from the five-year veteran.

Chris Iannetta isn’t having a good season offensively, but that’s not as worrisome when discussing the backstop position. The 33-year-old has performed admirably while serving as a stopgap until Mike Zunino was ready to return to the big league club. Now, Iannetta is an excellent insurance in case of injury or a Zunino regression.

Speaking of Zunino, the 25-year-old is one of several Mariners who’ve helped buoy the club’s offense despite the struggles of the players I’ve just mentioned.

Thanks to his improved methodology at the plate and his superior defensive prowess, Zunino has effectively become the club’s starting catcher since returning from Class-AAA Tacoma on July 20. The time spent in Tacoma has certainly helped the right-handed hitter, who currently owns a .392 OBP.

The most impressive element of Zunino’s offensive game is his walk rate, which was 11.4-percent after Sunday’s game. That’s nearly four points higher than the major league average and six points above his career norm.

Is Zunino’s production a mall sample size? Yes. But, it’s an encouraging development.

General manager Jerry Dipoto chose to build his 2016 offense around three position players — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager — and it’s proving to be a wise decision.

The trio has missed a combined six games this season and have used their bats to propel the club’s offense throughout the season. At the conclusion of play on Sunday, the threesome was slashing a combined .289/.351/.518 with 23 home runs since July 3.

While it must be reassuring for Servais to have his core players available nearly every day, the club’s recent playoff push would likely stall if any of them were to enter a prolonged slump or be out of the lineup for an extended period.

The sky isn’t falling in the Emerald City, but better performances from the Mariners’ veterans would go a long way in helping the club sustain their recent winning ways. Otherwise, it’s going to be a white-knuckle ride for the rest of the season.

 …

The 2016 Major League Baseball non-waiver trading deadline came and went without the Seattle Mariners making a significant upgrade to their major league roster. That’s a surprise to most observers — including me — who expected first-year general manager (GM) Jerry Dipoto to be active during the hours and days leading up to today’s 1 p.m. deadline.

The most notable deal during this year’s “deadline season” happened yesterday when Seattle sent left-handed starter Wade Miley to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for a minor league starting pitcher. That’s not exactly the kind of action fans were expecting.

Why no other moves? Simply stated, the market didn’t permit any.

Dipoto explained to Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish that “the greatest opportunities we had were to sell off, and that’s just not something we were willing to do.” That’s a disappointing development for Seattle faithful. At the same time, it’s encouraging that the front office didn’t forsake their future for a slim chance at making the postseason this season.

Despite the disappointment felt by fans, Dipoto did make several moves that improve his ball club now and potentially in the future. Let’s look at them starting with yesterday’s transaction.

Miley to Baltimore Orioles for Ariel Miranda
In retrospect, the Mariners may never have acquired Miley from the Boston Red Sox, if they had known Hisashi Iwakuma would be returning to Seattle. At the time of the deal, “Kuma” was reportedly set to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not knowing that Iwakuma’s deal with the Dodgers would fall through within a week, Dipoto did what anyone in his position would do — find a replacement. That led to the Mariners GM shipping reliever Carson Smith and starter Roenis Elias to Boston for Miley and minor league reliever Jonathan Aro.

The deal wasn’t optimal for the Mariners, who were exchanging two young pitchers with a combined 10 years of club control for three years of Miley — a slightly above-average performer — and Aro, who may never be anything more minor league depth.

Unfortunately, for the Mariners and Miley, he didn’t even deliver average value. Known for being an innings eater, the southpaw averaged just 5.9 innings-per-start with Seattle after averaging 6.2 since during his four previous seasons. That may not sound like a big difference, but the end result was the 29-year-old not completing the sixth inning in 32-percent of his starts — not exactly what you’d expect from an “innings eater.”

In recent starts, Miley did display some signs of improvement with a .243 opponents on-base percentage (OBP) and 2.79 earned run average (ERA) during his last 19.1 innings. Despite the uptick in productivity, Dipoto opted to deal the southpaw to Baltimore rather than wait to see if the former number-one pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks had actually turned a corner.

In return for Miley, the Mariners received the 27-year-old Miranda, who Dipoto views as “major league ready.” Currently assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma, the southpaw may eventually transition into another power arm out of the bullpen for Seattle. In the short-term though, he’ll likely see action with the big league club by taking Miley’s former spot in the rotation on Thursday.

Whether the Mariners should’ve moved or retained Miley is debatable, but there’s certainly going to be some measure of scrutiny on what Dipoto received from Baltimore, especially when the Tampa Bay Rays received considerably more for a pitcher similar to Miley in age, value, and cost — Matt Moore.

In exchange for Moore, Tampa Bay was able to acquire a young major league infielder — Matt Duffy — from the San Francisco Giants, plus two top-30 prospects from the Giants farm system. Although the Moore deal looks far more appealing on the surface, there may be underlying reasons why the Mariners couldn’t strike a similar deal. The most obvious one being money.

The Orioles were willing to pay all of Miley’s salary — just over $2 million for the remainder of this season, plus $8.75 million next year. As a result of Baltimore’s willingness to accept all of Miley’s salary, the Mariners had to settle for a lesser return.

My takeaway from yesterday’s deal is that Dipoto is willing to acknowledge, through his actions, when he’s made a mistake and that he’s more than willing to adjust course. That’s an encouraging development for an organization that’s historically been too slow or rigid to pivot when confronted with adversity.

Mike Montgomery / Jordan Pries to Chicago Cubs for Dan Vogelbach / Paul Blackburn
This is a deal that helped the Mariners get younger and deeper and may help them as early as this season. The key to the deal, from Seattle’s perspective, was Vogelbach. With three-time all-star Anthony Rizzo standing in his way, the 23-year-old first baseman didn’t have a future with Chicago.

The Cubs’ surplus at first base and need for pitching provided Seattle with an opportunity to pick up the left-handed slugger in exchange for Montgomery and Pries. As with Dipoto views Vogelbach as major league ready. If the Mariners opt to move past their current left-handed hitting first baseman — Adam Lind — in the coming weeks, Vogelbach could find himself first base for Seattle. If he doesn’t get his chance this year, he’s likely to enter Spring Training with an opportunity to win the first base job for 2017.

Blackburn, who’s been assigned to Class-AA Jackson, has the potential to be a back-end starter. The combination of Miranda and Blackburn means that the Mariners added two minor league starters closer to reaching the big leagues than nearly any other prospect in their minor league system.  That’s a factor that can’t be overlooked for an organization that started the season with one of the worst systems in the majors.

Recalling Edwin Diaz from Class-AA Jackson
Arguably, the Mariners’ biggest move was the promotion of the hard-throwing right-hander, who only converted from starter to reliever in mid-May. Since debuting with Seattle on June 6, Diaz has quickly ascended to the eighth inning setup role thanks to his 17.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate — highest among major league pitchers with 25 or more innings pitched.

It’s plausible that Diaz could move into the closer role, although it’s important to note that assigning the 22-year-old to close games doesn’t fix the bigger problem that the Mariners face — a shortage of high-leverage arms. For now, Steve Cishek remains the closer and Seattle’s bullpen continues to be the team’s weakest link.

Joaquin Benoit to the Toronto Blue Jays for Drew Storen
This was essentially a change of location move that will, hopefully, benefit both players and teams. Benoit, shut down twice this year due to shoulder issues, had lost his job as the team’s eighth inning setup man to Diaz.

Similarly, Storen has fallen on hard times since losing his closer job with the Washington Nationals after the club acquired Jonathan Papelbon at last year’s deadline. Once relegated to the setup role, the 28-year-old’s performance dropped off dramatically and he was dealt to the Blue Jays in the offseason. After vying with Roberto Osuna for Toronto’s closer job during Spring Training, Storen he found himself in the setup role and, once again, he failed to deliver.

Since becoming a Mariner, the right-hander has seen action in two relatively low-leverage appearances and delivered mixed results. In his Mariners debut, he pitched a clean sixth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 3-1 ballgame; however, he surrendered four runs the following inning. During last night’s game with the Cubs, he worked another clean sixth inning.

Free agent signing of Tom Wilhelmsen
Another change of location move involved the return of a familiar face. Wilhelmsen, who went to the Texas Rangers in the deal that brought Leonys Martin to Seattle, struggled with the Rangers and eventually became a free agent after refusing assignment to Class-AAA Round Rock. That opened the door for “The Bartender” to return to Seattle.

Since returning to the Emerald City, the big right-hander has rebounded nicely. Although it’s a small sample size, he’s held opposing hitters to a .278 OBP during his first 10 innings with the Mariners. Whether the 32-years-old can continue to sustain his rejuvenated performance remains to be seen. But, so far, the versatile reliever has been an asset for manager Scott Servais.

Player to be named later or cash to the Toronto Blue Jays for Wade LeBlanc
During the Mariners’ nosedive known as the month of June, the club suffered significant injury losses to their rotation. Among those lost were Felix Hernandez, Miley, Taijuan Walker, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement — for most or all of June.

In need of someone who could hold down a rotation spot — at least temporarily — Dipoto turned to LeBlanc, who was pitching for Class-AAA Syracuse in the Blue Jays system. In four starts, the southpaw has held opposing hitters to a .275 OBP. With the departure of Miley and the club still waiting for Walker to return, LeBlanc re-enters the rotation this week against the Red Sox.

Will this be the most memorable deal made by Dipoto during the deadline season? No. But, the Mariners GM deserves credit for finding a competent replacement player for virtually no cost.

Finally
There’s no doubt that the Mariners are a good team capable of finishing with a winning record. But, their big league roster lacks the necessary depth for them to be considered a serious contender. Does that mean they can’t make the postseason? No. But, their shallow bullpen and degraded rotation leave them at a severe disadvantage.

Sure, King Felix and Walker could return to form and Nick Vincent and Charlie Furbush may come back from injury to reinforce the bullpen. But, that’s a lot to hope for during the last two months of a season that’s seen so many things go wrong. Isn’t it?

 …

felix hernandez jerry dipotoWith the All-Star festivities now in the rear-view mirror, the quest for October baseball will ramp up a couple notches as play resumes on Friday. The Seattle Mariners entered the break with a 45-44 record and sit five games back in the Wild Card and eight games back in the division. It’s not an ideal position for a team with postseason aspirations, but at this time one year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the second-half with a 45-46 record before going on an incredible run to end the longest postseason doubt in professional sports.

I know, that’s a lousy comparison. The Mariners offence is nowhere near as prolific as the Jays was in 2015 and the club doesn’t have the trade chips to acquire reinforcements along the lines of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. What the record comparison does speak to, is the fact that this season is far from decided.

The Texas Rangers have been one of the top teams in the American League so far this year but are being hammered by injuries. The Houston Astros have recovered from their slow start as well, making conquering the West a tall task. There’s no reason to believe a wild card slot is out of reach, however.

Here are three things that need to happen in the second half for Seattle to be best positioned for a return to the postseason.

A return of the King
This really could write itself: the Mariners need the best incarnation of Felix Hernandez available. At this point, regaining 2016 Felix would be an upgrade for the rotation. But what the team really needs is its ace back. The 30-year-old has nearly completed his rehab assignment for the calf injury suffered in May and is expected to rejoin the rotation next week.

There were some concerns that Felix wasn’t 100 percent earlier in the season, with particular regards to his decreased velocity. The calf injury is unlikely to change anything there and probably won’t ease much concern over what he’ll be able to produce over the remainder of the season.

The right-hander has made this year he owns a 2.86 ERA and a 4.16 FIP in 63 innings over 10 starts this year. Hernandez’s strikeout and walk rates of 7.57 and 3.71 per nine innings respectfully are both nearly an entire point in the wrong direction from his career marks. The increase in walks speaks to some of the command troubles he has encountered earlier in the year. Not having the sharpest of stuff either has likely hurt the strikeout rate. On the year he owns an 8.5 percent whiff rate, his lowest since 2011 when he posted a 9.1 percent mark.

The good news from Felix’s first half are that the ground balls are still there and the home run rate is within his career norms. The challenge will be responding to the decreased velocity and making adjustments to his appraoch. The changeup and breaking balls are still there and more than a few starters have been successful with diminished velocity.

At the very least, the King comes at a time when reinforcements are sorely needed in the rotation. Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker have both been on the disabled list and Nathan Karns was moved to the bullpen. Reliever Mike Montgomery is expected to make another start following the break.

Expectations for Felix immediately returning to greatness will need to be tempered, but if he can regain more of his former self than he has shown, it will be a significant boost to the club.

Dipoto at the deadline
Rarely does a team enter the beginning of a season complete, and practically never does that team have everything go according to plan over the first three-plus months of the year. Injuries and under-performance have a funny way of messing things up. Even the Chicago Cubs have shown that they are indeed fallible. Tinkering is required throughout the season, but transactions come under extreme scrutiny leading up to the trade deadline.

This will be Jerry Dipoto’s first deadline as general manager of the Mariners. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill has thoughts on the various players the M’s could target, while Luke Arkins digs into Dipoto’s past for clues about how he may act over the next couple weeks. The primary areas of concern are the rotation, bullpen, and outfield. Some help at first base would be nice, but Dae-Ho Lee is doing enough to make that a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have upgrade.

The difficulty is that, even more than usual, prices are already sky-high with supply as low as it has been in years. Not to mention that fact that Dipoto has precious few trade chips to work with.

I’ve often felt that a club can have a successful deadline without making a move. If the price of the product is too high for your taste, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it on the shelf. And really, it isn’t as if the Mariners are a piece away. Drew Pomeranz or Jason Grilli, or even Aaron Hill for that matter, won’t catapult the team to the top of the division.

With minimal help waiting in the wings at Triple-A, making an upgrade or two could be crucial to the club’s Wild Card aspirations. Maybe Nori Aoki figures it out and can contribute something or one of Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook is able to pitch effectively once healthy. But, as we knew heading into the season, there was probably still a missing piece that would need to be found outside of the organization. It’s up to Dipoto to find out.

The bats keep rolling
It may be odd to say, but nonetheless it’s true: the Mariners have been one of the better offensive teams in baseball this year. The club’s 109 wRC+ ranks fourth among all teams, due in part to the 132 home runs hit so far this year. That number is second only to the Cubs. The Mariners enter the second half averaging 4.89 runs per game, just three ticks lower than the Texas Rangers’ 4.92 average.

The combination of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager have combined for 8.9 fWAR so far this year. Cano, the club’s lone All-Star representative in San Diego, is an MVP candidate in a year of resurgence, while Cruz and Seager were plenty deserving of a trip down south. Seager especially.

Part of Dipoto’s offseason plans was to augment the lineup surrounding the core. With the exceptions of Adam Lind and Aoki, plenty of those moves have turned out well. Leonys Martin has solidified the center field position and was crushing the ball before a stint on the disabled list. Bringing back Franklin Gutierrez for pocket change to platoon with Seth Smith has stabilized the No. 2 spot. The pair have also combined for 20 home runs.

Lee has found his way into the hearts of Mariners fans as well as a 127 wRC+ in a part-time role that is starting to increase. Chris Iannetta has come as advertised behind the plate, and while unexciting, has an 11 percent walk rate and is a serious improvement from 2015.

All this to say that Seattle needs to keep the level of offense going through the second half, especially if reinforcements aren’t able to arrive for the pitching staff. Cruz probably has another red-hot stretch in him and Cano has better career second-half numbers than first-half.

Conclusion
The reality is that Seattle is a fringe contender right now, which isn’t that far off from where they were projected to be on Opening Day. Help required for the pitching staff could come from within, particularly on the disabled list, but realistically will need outside help. Though I have nothing against Stefen Romero and Daniel Robertson as depth pieces, the help needed for the outfield simply isn’t here right now either.

And no, playing Cruz more in right field is not the answer. The M’s already grade out as one of the poorest fielding teams, and run prevention is just as important as run scoring.

Bottom line: Felix needs to be Felix, Dipoto needs to work some magic, and the offense can have a couple hiccups, but can’t afford to go cold for an extended period of time. The second-half starts tonight and the Mariners are on the clock. Five games out and two weeks until the trade deadline. A lot could be decided between now and then.…

Lee Lineup“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.”Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016

Forty games into the 2016 season, hopes and expectations were soaring for the Seattle Mariners. Then, unexpectedly, one of the best teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) became one of the worst in the span of just six weeks. The team that could do no wrong suddenly couldn’t catch a break.

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners mid-season award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

Surprise
Arkins: Dae-Ho Lee, 1B
Churchill: Lee

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

Standings and Trends
The American League (AL) West division standings have shifted dramatically since our first-quarter review, when the Texas Rangers and Mariners were the only clubs with winning records and the Houston Astros were cellar dwellers thanks to an abysmal April. Here’s where the division stands at the midway point of the Mariners’ season.
AL West Standings
Tm W L GB Strk R RA vWest Home Road last10 last20 last30
TEX 52 30 L 1 4.9 4.4 26-13 28-12 24-18 6-4 14-6 21-9
HOU 43 38 8.5 L 1 4.6 4.2 16-16 23-16 20-22 8-2 14-6 21-9
SEA 42 39 9.5 W 3 4.9 4.3 15-19 21-20 21-19 6-4 8-12 12-18
OAK 35 46 16.5 L 3 4.2 4.9 14-18 17-25 18-21 6-4 10-10 13-17
LAA 33 48 18.5 W 1 4.4 4.8 15-20 16-26 17-22 2-8 7-13 10-20
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2016.

Back in May, I suggested that the division’s contenders and also-rans would be more apparent by the season’s midway point and that’s certainly turned out to be true. Both Texas and Houston flew by Seattle in the standings in June, while the Mariners have struggled to remain relevant.

The Rangers have continued to win despite losing three starters to the disabled list (DL) within the last 30 days — co-ace Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis. Credit for the club’s resiliency goes to the strong performances of co-ace Cole Hamelsfellow starter Martin Perezand their torrid offense — ranked number-four in runs scored during June.

The Texas bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in the AL during June, which is actually an improvement over its first quarter stature. Sam Dyson has done relatively well since assuming the closer role from incumbent Shawn Tolleson. But, the club only has one “swing and miss” arm in the ‘pen — former shortstop and number-one overall draft pick Matt Bush, who wasn’t even a reliever or in professional baseball a year ago. This is an area ripe for an upgrade prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

At the end of the first quarter, I referred to the Astros as “the most enigmatic team in the AL West.” Since then, only the Rangers have won more games than Houston in the AL.

The Astros flourished despite the ongoing struggles of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who has seen his fielding independent pitching (FIP) and earned run average (ERA) skyrocket this season. Sophomore Lance McCullers has been the rotation’s best performer after getting a late start to the season due to shoulder soreness, while the rest of the staff has kept their team in games.

The key to Houston’s resurgence has been several extremely hot bats. In June, the club ranked second in the AL in on-base percentage (OBP), thanks to hot stretches by Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus. It’s highly unlikely that this group can sustain their recent uptick since all are performing well above their career averages.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics have become the also-rans thanks to a barrage of significant injuries. The only questions remaining for these clubs this season is how soon will they become sellers and who are they willing to move in deals?

Although Texas is certain to cool off, they continue to be the best team in the AL West. Making the club even more formidable is the fact that, as noted in the Rangers deadline deal preview, general manager Jon Daniels possesses the assets and resourcefulness to be a major player in the trade market.

Whether Houston can sustain their current trajectory with a less-than-optimal ace and a streaky supporting cast behind young stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer is debatable. Still, general manager Jeff Luhnow has also proven that he’s willing to wheel and deal at the trading deadline.

Despite the recent struggles of the Mariners and the June bounces of the Rangers and Astros, I expect the division race to tighten as the season progresses. A lot can change within the span of six weeks. Just ask fans in Houston and Seattle. Now, let’s turn our attention to the team from the Emerald City.

Offense
Although the Mariners struggled to win games during the last six weeks, offense hasn’t been the problem. A comparison between Seattle’s MLB run production rankings at the first-quarter mark and the midway point of the season demonstrates that point.

Mariners MLB Run Production Rankings
Year Runs/Gm BB% SO% BA OBP SLG
1st QTR
7 14 11 17 16 10
Midway 6 11 8 12 10 6

Run production has remained essentially the same in league rankings and the team actually scored slightly more runs since the start of the second quarter. So, what’s working for the club? A lot. Let’s start with the heart of the batting order inherited by general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Robinson Cano continues to demonstrate that last year’s sub-par performance was actually due to health issues and not age-related regression. Kyle Seager is on track to hit 20-plus home runs and repeat his career .263/.329/.440 triple-slash. Finally, Nelson Cruz has avoided the decline that many — including me — had predicted for the 36-year-old.

The main stars aren’t the only contributors this season. New supporting cast members Adam Lind, Leonys Martin, Dae-Ho Lee, and Chris Iannetta have improved the offense to varying degrees. They’ve blended nicely with the heart of the order, plus holdovers Seth Smith, Ketel Marte, and Franklin Gutierrez to create a consistently productive lineup.

In the offseason, Dipoto placed a strong emphasis on lengthening the club’s everyday lineup and improving the roster’s on-base ability in order to withstand a slumping player — or players. Overall, his plan has worked. But, that doesn’t mean that everything has gone as well as conceived.

Take a look at how the OBP of each position ranks against the rest of the AL. Although there are mostly bright spots, a few areas of concern do exist.

Mariners OBP Rankings (by Position)
Position OBP League OBP (Position) AL Rank
C .321 .293 2
1B .306 .326 12
2B .358 .331 3
3B .346 .330 4
SS .292 .316 12
LF .321 .324 11
CF .316 .327 8
RF .331 .343 12
DH .380 .325 2
PH .312 .295 8

At shortstop, Marte has been effective at making contact. But, his OBP has tanked due to an extremely low 3.4 walk rate that ranks in the bottom-10 among qualified major league hitters. Since returning from the DL on June 6, the switch-hitter has been even worse (2.1-percent).

Fortunately, for the Mariners and Marte, there’s a good chance he’ll fix his on-base woes. The switch-hitter posted a 9.7-percent rate with Seattle during the second half of last year and 7.5-percent during parts of two seasons with Class-AAA Tacoma. Getting the 22-year-old back on track would provide a significant boost to the offense and provide Servais with another option to leadoff.

Both corner outfield positions under-performed during the first half. As a result, Dipoto shook up the roster by optioning left fielder Nori Aoki to Tacoma on June 24. The 34-year-old had battled inconsistency at the plate all season, particularly against left-handed pitching.

Considering Aoki’s career success against southpaws — .360 OBP — his struggles come as a surprise. This year, the left-handed hitter posted an anemic .244 OBP during 87 plate appearances against lefties. In Aoki’s place, the club is using Gutierrez and Smith in both corners spots, plus Cruz is getting more playing time in right field.

Aoki’s demotion not only affects the outfield. His absence changes the status quo at first base and designated hitter. When Cruz is patrolling right field, one of the members of the first base platoon — either Lind or Lee — is getting the opportunity to be the designated hitter, while the other plays first base.

Getting both Lind and Lee more consistent playing time may improve both players’ offensive numbers. Lind has been performing well below his career slash numbers and is sitting at .236/.266/.421 through the end of June. His struggles have spurred fan outcry for more playing time for Lee. Now, they’re getting their wish.

Lee has certainly created a swirl of excitement with his bat and his contagious smile. But, some observers believe that Servais’ shrewd use of Lee has helped obscure flaws in the the rookie’s game. In another six weeks, we’ll know whether that’s true and if Lind can salvage his season. For now though, management seems content to stick with their first base platoon setup.

Unlike recent seasons, the Mariners aren’t overly reliant on one or two hitters in order to score runs. Now, it’s a collaborative effort that’s been highly productive. That’s certainly a deviation from the norm in Seattle.

Seff“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.”Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016

Forty games into the 2016 season, hopes and expectations were soaring for the Seattle Mariners. Then, unexpectedly, one of the best teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) became one of the worst in the span of just six weeks. The team that could do no wrong suddenly couldn’t catch a break.

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, continuing with the bench, the impact of injuries, and analysis of the overall roster.

Bench
Seattle reserves have been an asset during the first half of the season. Two platoons in particular — Adam Lind/Dae-Ho Lee at first base and Seth Smith/Franklin Gutierrez in the corner outfield spots — have delivered positive results for the offense.

Utilityman Shawn O’Malley is the club’s primary backup at shortstop and center field on the 25-man roster, but not viewed as a long-term replacement at either position. Luis Sardinas — currently assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma — performed adequately as an injury replacement for shortstop Ketel Marte when he was lost to the disabled list (DL) for two weeks.

Sardinas remains the organization’s first option to stand in for middle infielders lost for more than a few days. The 23-year-old has occasionally played the outfield while in Tacoma. Once he’s demonstrated proficiency there, the team could opt to have him replace O’Malley on the big league roster.

Prior to his recent injury, Steve Clevenger was providing timely hits during his  weekly starts as understudy to catcher Chris Iannetta. For the time being, Mike Zunino is the team’s new reserve backstop, although it’s unclear if he’ll start more often than Clevenger did or stay in Seattle through the rest if the season. It’s possible that the team adds Rob Brantly to the 40-man roster and sends the former first round draft pick back to Tacoma.

Before being optioned to Tacoma, Nori Aoki was the regular left fielder and was called upon to stand in for center fielder Leonys Martin when he spent two weeks on the DL. Although the 34-year-old’s glove wasn’t atrocious, he’s not an elite-level defender — like Martin. As a result, he wasn’t able to mitigate the below-average range of Seattle’s corner outfielders. In retrospect, the loss of Martin diminished the Mariners’ defense at all three outfield spots.

Injury Impact
After going relatively unscathed during the first six weeks of the season, the list of injured players has grown considerably since May 21. Here’s a complete tally of Mariners affected by injury this year.

Mariners Injuries
Player Position Injury Status
 Jesus Sucre C Right leg surgery On rehab assignment
Tony Zych RP Right rotator cuff tendinitis 60-day DL
Charlie Furbush RP  Left shoulder tightness  Throwing from a mound
Evan Scribner RP Strained lat muscle 60-day DL
Ryan Cook RP Strained lat muscle 60-day DL
Wade Miley SP Shoulder discomfort Back in action
Felix Hernandez SP  Calf strain Preparing for rehab assignment
Adrian Sampson SP  Right flexor bundle strain 60-day DL
Ketel Marte SS  Sprained thumb  Back in action
Leonys Martin CF  Strained hamstring  Back in action
Taijuan Walker SP Right foot tendinitis  Back in action
Steve Clevenger C Broken hand 15-day DL
Nick Vincent RP Mid-back strain 15-day DL

As covered in the mid-season rotation and bullpen report, the starting staff was decimated by the injury bug last month. With a little luck, all five of the Mariners original 2016 starters will be back shortly after the all-star break when Felix Hernandez returns.

The return of relievers Charlie Furbush, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook — all out since Spring Training — would be a welcomed development. Furbush appears closest to returning to Seattle since he’s finally throwing off a mound again. Still, he’s already suffered several setbacks along the way. Considering the nature of each player’s injury and their slow recovery times, expectations for the trio have to remain low until they finally toe a mound in a real game.

Roster Analysis
The offensive output by the Lind/Lee platoon overshadows the versatility lost by having a pair of one-position players sharing the same position. Optimally, a more versatile player who could handle a bat and fill-in at several spots — first base, middle infield, or outfield — would be better for the team. But, there hasn’t been any indication that the Mariners plan to break up their dynamic first base duo.

Aoki was dispatched to Tacoma after struggling against left-handed pitching during the first half of the season. If he can’t improve against southpaws, it’s unlikely that the left-handed hitter returns to Seattle as a full-time player.

Losing Martin to the DL exposed the organization’s razor-thin depth at center field. Currently, only four players in the organization have any major league experience at the position — Martin, Aoki, O’Malley, and Stefen Romero. Only Martin is good at fielding the position though.

Prior to the season, Boog Powell appeared to be to be on track to cover for an injured Martin. Yet, the Mariners turned to Aoki when their center fielder went down; a clear indicator that Powell wasn’t ready. Now, it doesn’t matter. The 23-year-old is out for the remainder of this year and the start of the 2017 season due to an 80-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.

Tacoma’s new center fielder — Guillermo Heredia — may eventually be an option depending on the circumstances. The Cuban signed with Seattle as a free agent in February and his defensive prowess is major league ready. Whether he’ll be able to consistently hit big league pitching is uncertain.

If Martin were to go down for an extended period, general manager Jerry Dipoto would likely go outside of the organization to find a player with big league experience to patrol center field.

For corner outfield spots, Romero remains a viable option in Tacoma. The 27-year-old did play some first base during the early stages of the season, but played there just once in June.

If the Mariners continue to remain relevant in the postseason conversation, Dipoto will likely focus on adding bullpen help, a versatile outfielder who can hit, and another starting pitcher. But, as I mentioned in the team’s deadline deal preview, Seattle has limited trade chips at their disposal.

Conversely, the first-year general manager could become a seller prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, if his team can’t stay in the hunt. That’s highly probable if the rotation doesn’t regain its early season effectiveness after King Felix returns from the DL. Within a few weeks we’ll know which direction Dipoto decided to go.…

The long ball heroics of Dae-Ho Lee and the early season struggles of Adam Lind have left some Seattle Mariners fans clamoring for change. These frustrated faithful want manager Scott Servais to give Lee more playing time at first base and exile Lind to the bench. Some would prefer that the team would go a step further and jettison Lind from Seattle altogether.

Is the Mariners first base situation so lopsided that a change needs to be made at the position? If that’s the case, the club’s platoon would have to be classified a failure. Is that really the case though?

Lee’s proponents contend that their man has been far more successful at the plate and that he’d continue to be productive, if given the opportunity to play every day. They point to the 34-year-old’s offensive success during two seasons in Japan — 50 home runs and .292/.365/.487 triple-slash — as proof that he can be productive as a full-time player.

Lind/Lee  Stats (2016 Season)
Name Age G PA H HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Adam Lind 32 47 165 38 7 9 35 .245 .285 .406 .691
Dae-ho Lee 34 41 109 31 10 5 21 .301 .339 .592 .932
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/11/2016.

Lind backers counter that the left-handed hitter has a .273/.330/.463 triple-slash during his 11-year major league career and that he’s likely to bounce back to his career norms. As far as they’re concerned, Lee’s success is a small sample size, while their man is a proven major league hitter.

Each player’s supporters make a compelling case. Should Servais change his approach or stay the course? Look at the production of his two first baseman during the last month of play before you decide.

Lind/Lee Stats (Last 28 games)
Name G GS PA H HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Dae-ho Lee 19 11 56 18 5 15 2 11 .333 .357 .611 .968
Adam Lind 18 17 65 16 5 15 6 9 .271 .338 .542 .881
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/11/2016.

Both players have been producing at the plate since May 11 and have combined for a .303/.346/.590 slash, which ranks near the top of the American League for first base offensive production. These numbers strengthen the case for Servais to remain faithful to his current setup.

There may come a time when making a change at first base will make sense. If Lind can’t sustain his recent upsurge in production, the team may opt to go in another direction. Especially, if they remain in contention. For now though, the first base platoon is working and the Mariners would be best served to stick with mixing and matching Lee and Lind — a job that Servais has done masterfully.…

daeho leeThe Seattle Mariners spent much of the off season revitalizing a roster that lacked flexibility and in some cases, general athleticism. Given this, the arrival of Dae-Ho Lee was particularly intriguing. In part because the M’s went abroad to acquire a bat. Also, because while he was a premier hitter overseas, Lee didn’t fit the mould of this ‘new’ Mariners squad.

I have to admit that I was one of many who, in Spring Training, felt that adding a bat-only — not bat-first, bat-only — player to what had become a flexible roster could be counter productive. But at the same time, the roster flexibility created could have created the exact situation for a player like this to work. Earlier, it was thought that Jesus Montero would finally have a chance to see regular time in the majors, but that would not be the case.

We are now almost two months into Lee’s major league career and the Seattle Mariners can say that they have seen a return on their investment.

At the basic level, Lee’s .254/.293/.507 slash line entering Monday’s game isn’t particularly inspiring and the slugging percentage is fueled by six home runs. Looking at the bigger picture, his 118 wRC+ is an above average mark and places him in the company of Adrian Gonzalez and a rejuvenated Hanley Ramirez. However, the major caveat here is that Lee’s 75 plate appearances make up a third of the pair of All-Star’s season totals.

While a two-month sample can be indicative of what’s to come for a season, less than 100 plate appearances is hardly an adequate sample to draw conclusions from.

As mentioned, the long ball has been the key driver to Lee’s value early on. His 22.7 percent strikeout rate is around what was expected, though his 4.0 percent walk rate could come up a few points and reflect a better on-base percentage. The 33-year-old has managed to hit the ball to all fields but owns a nearly 11-percent whiff rate. His swinging through pitches regularly is likely a byproduct of his unfamiliarity with the league.

It’s common for a slugger to strikeout a lot and that tends to correlate to a high number of pitches swung at. Currently Lee is swinging at nearly half of the pitches he sees. I’d like to see that number decline by a few percentage points over the next month with Lee being a little more selective in finding pitches he can drive into the outfield and beyond.

Of the 18 hits Lee has picked up this year 12 have been singles. Home runs aside, he does not own an extra base hit on the year. There have been a handful of instances where Lee has hit a “long” single, as they are often described on broadcasts, which for most other players would actually be a double. I don’t want to knock the slugger for not owning a double on the year — and a triple would likely require a showing on a misplay reel — but it isn’t exactly a great anecdote.

There is not a single qualified hitter who has hit fewer than two doubles and only Dustin Ackley and James McCaan are without a double given a minimum of 70 plate appearances. Not to harp on this one fact, but when a player has a difficult time going first-to-third, being able to start at second can be a big deal. Not to mention the fact that doubles overall are more valuable than singles, but I didn’t need to tell you that.

One aspect of Lee’s game that I have been surprised at is how he’s taken to first base. Ignoring the old adage that anyone can play the position, the right-hander has proved to be reliable and up to this point is error-free. He hasn’t done anything spectacular, but being able to play tough hops and stretch for throws is a large portion of the gig.

When I saw Lee in Spring Training my general take away was that he  looked strong at the plate, but slow just about everywhere else. This wasn’t meant to serve as an indictment of Lee, but more so a confirmation of what the scouting reports and general opinions were saying. The power was likely going to be there, but much of the rest was going to be a question mark.

It’s interesting to note that Lee, the right-handed portion of a platoon, has actually posted a reverse platoon split so far this year. He has struck out more against right-handers, but owns a 132 wRC+ against them compared to a 110 wRC+ against lefties. Entering Monday’s game he had hit three homers against each side.

It’d be easy to say the M’s should get Lee some more at-bats against right-handers, but with Adam Lind starting to pick up the pace, that is difficult to do. Unless of course, Nelson Cruz starts the game in right field which opens up the designated hitter spot, but this should be done with caution and only periodically. With Leonys Martin on the disabled list there may be some opportunity to do this short-term.

The moral of Lee’s story entering June is that, if you’re going to throw a fastball over the plate, he’s going to crush it. As the league starts to write the book on the right-hander, it’ll be his job to make adjustments. This is where we’ll be able to get a better idea as to whether or not Lee can be a regular, perhaps everyday, player. There isn’t the significant platoon split that Lind features and he’s done well enough at first to escape the term ‘defensive liability’.

For a couple million bucks, it looks like the Mariners will at least have a positive gain on their investment. The next four months will tell us exactly how big of a gain that will be. Right now, things are trending in the right direction.…

adam lindFor all that has gone right in the early part of 2016 for the Seattle Mariners, it’s almost easy to overlook one aspect that has been less than savory: Adam Lind‘s performance at the plate. While his platoon partner, Dae-Ho Lee, has been hitting home runs and quickly becoming a fan favorite, Lind has scuffled his way to what’s easily been the worst start of his 11-year career.

Normally when a player struggles early on in the season we’ll hear the usual responses as to why it could be: it’s early, it’s a new team, it’s a new league, he’s faced an unusually tough stretch of pitching, bad luck, BABIP, and so on. Some of those are, in fact, applicable to Lind’s situation. He’s on a new team in a new league and is playing out of a ballpark that is notoriously tougher on hitters than pitchers.

The other new aspect of Lind’s situation may well be one of the biggest factors in Lind’s struggles: his role. The 32-year-old hasn’t strictly been a part-time or platoon player before. He was heavily protected from left-handers in 2014, but missed parts of the season with injuries making it an unusual season for him to begin with.

Since becoming a full-time major leaguer with the Toronto Blue Jays back in mid-2008, Lind has been exactly that, a full-time player. He was acquired by the Mariners to be the left side of a first base platoon. This only made sense given Lind’s career splits — he’s been one of the better hitters against right-handed pitching in recent years, but he’s been atrocious against left-handers.

So far in 2016, things haven’t gone as predicted for the former Silver Slugger award winner. In 93 plate appearances primarily against right-handed pitching, he’s posted a .213/.237/.270 slash line with a 38 wRC+. He’s hit one home run and a total of three extra-base hits. His .281 BABIP is about 20 points lower than his career average so it’s not as simple as he’s hitting the ball to the wrong places.

The lack of offensive production is reflected in his 3.2 percent walk and 26.9 percent strikeout rates, both are well off his career marks. Aside from the alarming declines in plate discipline skills, there are a few other red flags to note. Lind’s swing rate at pitches outside of the zone sits at a 39.4 percent rate compared to a 31.4 percent rate for his career. He’s also making less contact on what he’s swinging at, with a 72.0 percent contact rate so far this year compared to a career 80.6 percent mark.

These numbers are reflected in a spiked whiff rate of 14.3 percent, his highest since 2010 and 2011’s 10.7 percent marks. All told, it makes sense why Lind is struggling; he’s chasing more pitches and not making enough contact — a recipe for an increased strikeout rate. Interestingly enough his hard-hit rate reflects his career norms, however he’s seen his rate of medium contact decrease and soft contact increase.

At 32, Lind could be experiencing some age-related decline. Between 2013 and 2015 he’s seen his soft contact rate increase and hard contact rate decrease each year, but only by a couple percentage points overall. The sharp increase in soft contact so far in 2016 comes at the expense of medium contact and is the real area of concern, but makes sense given the current batted-ball profile.

While I’m willing to accept that Lind’s best days are behind him, I don’t buy that he’s a .200 hitter going forward. On the surface his struggles appear to have more to do with the adjustments in becoming a platoon player and he simply hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm yet.

This isn’t any kind of revelation in so far as it’s difficult for players who don’t play regularly to have consistent success. The same goes for players making a transition, such as when we talked last year about Nelson Cruz making the change to more or less full-time designated hitter duties from playing everyday in the field. These adjustments take time, and I have little doubt that Lind is still trying to figure out how to make the platoon role work for himself.

A bright spot during the season for the left-hander was a stretch of games between April 19 and 23 where he posted a 186 wRC+. In 19 plate appearances over four starts and a two at-bat pinch-hit outing, he picked-up eight hits including one double and one walk. If we extend the sample to April 25 to give Lind a full week of full-time action, we end up with a 94 wRC+. Still below league average, but an improvement on his season mark.

There’s another stretch at the beginning of May where Lind started five consecutive games only to go 2-for-17 with one walk and five strikeouts, so it’s not as if regular playing time immediately results in production. However, until Lind is able to receive a few streaks of consistent playing time — yes, that may include facing a couple left-handers — I don’t think he’ll be able to settle in and produce as he’s capable of.

This is why I propose that the Mariners give Lind another stretch or two of regular starter-quantity playing time over the next month. Perhaps the club’s trip to the hitter-friendly Camden Yards in Baltimore next week would be a good start.

Naturally this is much easier said than done. Giving a struggling player more at-bats is counter intuitive. Especially when Lee is doing his thing against left-handers pitchers. Also, despite the fact Lind is a good hitter with a track record, he isn’t Robinson Cano and should only be extended so much benefit of the doubt. Depending on how Cruz and the DH are used on a given day, it’s possible to have both first basemen in the lineup on a given day.

So far this year, Lind has actually hit left-handed pitchers well. He has four hits in 13 plate appearances including his only home run of the year, hit off Houston Astros’ reliever Tony Sipp. This isn’t a sample size that should be taken particularly meaningfully, and let’s not pretend that Lind is about to become a left-masher either. However, plenty of in-game managerial decisions are based off individual batter-pitcher match-ups, which typically carry similar sample sizes.

Lind is a good enough hitter that he’s capable of facing lefties a few times here and there. While it isn’t ideal, the left-hander did face a lefty on Opening Day for the simple reason of having him in the first lineup of the season. The coaching staff realizes he’s not a complete black hole against same-handed pitching.

Barring some kind of mechanical change or health-related factor that we are unaware of, the best thing to get Lind going is to let him play with more consistency.…

With 30 games behind them, the Seattle Mariners sit atop the American League (AL) West division standings with an 18-12 win-loss record. That’s right; the club that’s failed to be relevant for most of the last decade is actually off to a quick start.

Every sophisticated baseball fan knows that a good record with less than 20-percent of the season completed means nothing — especially with the Mariners.

For those not familiar with Seattle’s plight, the situation has become so frustrating that having a winning record on Mother’s Day is newsworthy. After all, we’re talking about an organization that hasn’t started this strongly since 2003, when they were 19-11 in 2003. But, it gets worse.

Mariner fans have dealt with perceived ownership indifference, plus a great deal of losing and disappointment since the club’s inaugural season in 1977. Seattle has recorded just 12 winning seasons and hasn’t appeared in the postseason since their record 116-win season of 2001.

Reasons for optimism
With the bar set so low for so long, it’s understandable that many fans are taking a wait-and-see approach with this year’s edition of the Mariners. Yet, there’s something going on at Safeco Field that’s been a rare occurrence for quite some time. The home team is playing good, fundamental baseball and — more importantly — they’re winning games.

There are several reasons for Seattle’s early season emergence. First, their offense is averaging 4.47 runs-per-game, which is second best in the AL entering today. Moreover, their pitching staff is in the top-five of every significant pitching category. This blend of productive offense and superb pitching could lead the club to postseason contention, assuming it lasts.

Whether the Mariners can sustain their early season success will be determined later — much later. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that general manager Jerry Dipoto’s approach to building a competitive major league roster has yielded early positive returns.

Dipoto’s efforts to reconstruct his club’s roster haven’t been limited to just pitching and hitting though. He’s added “layers of depth” and athleticism to his 40-man roster. Plus, his many deals helped improve another weak link that’s been as troublesome as the club’s run scoring in recent years — defense.

See ball, catch ball
So, just how bad was the club’s fielding and how much has it improved at this very early stage of the season? To get a feel, let’s do a year-by year comparison of how the team’s defense ranked — by position — since the 2011 season using defensive runs saved (DRS) as our comparative metric. As you can see for yourself, the Mariners have struggled with reaching, catching, and throwing the ball for several years.

Seattle Mariners Defensive Rankings (Based on DRS)
Year Team C 1B 2B SS 3B RF CF LF OF
2011 15 27 15 4 1 16 21 15 21 21
2012  9 25 12 5 1 21 5 30 17 23
2013 30 30 26 17 15 24 27 30 30 30
2014 19 26 22 18 11 4 13 20 10 13
2015 29 11 26 26 23 15 26 30 25 30
2016 16 25 9 8 14 12 21 5 20 13

DR what?
For those not familiar with DRS, it quantifies a defensive player’s value by expressing how many runs they saved or lost their team compared to the average player at that position. For instance, +10 DRS recorded by a left fielder means that he was 10 runs better than the average left fielder. If you having a craving for more detailed information about DRS, I suggest reading this article found at FanGraphs.

[pullquote]“We see ourselves as a run-prevention club. You can create a lot of advantage playing good defense.” — Jerry Dipoto[/pullquote]

The fact that Seattle fielders have already shown signs of improvement shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the Mariners general manager since his arrival in the Emerald City. When talking to David Laurila of FanGraphs in mid-November, the 47-year-old executive characterized the team’s defense as “our biggest area in need of improvement.”

So, what changes occurred between since last season that’s improved the defensive outlook in Seattle? A combination of familiar faces and new names.

Fixing the outfield
First and foremost, the acquisition of Leonys Martin helped transform Seattle’s outfield defense from the worst in baseball to league-average during the early days of 2016.

When Dipoto acquired the 28-year-old from the Texas Rangers during the offseason, he told Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune “I think we get one of the premier defensive center fielders in baseball.” There’s no doubt that Martin is an elite defender. Defensive metrics prove it and so does the eyeball test.

Why did the Mariners center field defense rank so low last season? After all, the general perception was that Opening Day starter Austin Jackson was a good defender. There were two reasons — Jackson was closer to average, based on DRS, and the club didn’t have an adequate replacement to fill in for him.

There were two points during 2015 when Jackson wasn’t the everyday center fielder for the Mariners — when suffered an ankle sprain last May and after his trade to the Chicago Cubs on August 31. Both times, the Mariners utilized use below-average defenders in his stead.

Look at the players who manned center field last season and their respective DRS. If you were initially surprised to discover that Mariners center fielders ranked so poorly last season, the following breakdown — by player — may help you understand.

2015 Mariners Center Field Defense
Player  Games Innings DRS
Austin Jackson 107  899 -2
Brad Miller 20 146 -10
Dustin Ackley 21 139 -1
Shawn O’Malley 14 90 0.0
Justin Ruggiano 15 88 -6
James Jones 20 82 -5
Ketel Marte 2 14 -1
Stefen Romero 1 4 -1

This is where Martin helps make the entire outfield better. First, he’s a superior defender compared to Jackson. Consequently, he covers a lot of ground — a prerequisite for Dipoto during his search. Being able to cover a lot of real estate in spacious Safeco Field is especially critical because the corner outfield spots are better, but still below average.

While the combination of Nori Aoki, Franklin Gutierrez, Seth Smith, and Nelson Cruz represents a slight improvement in the corner outfield spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dipoto added an outfielder who can both hit and play good defense if the club finds itself in contention.

Better around the horn
A healthy Robinson Cano has already been a difference maker at second base. Yes, Cano will occasionally make have a mental lapse, like forgetting the number of outs. But, to date, his defense is far better than last season when he was suffering with a number of physical ailments.

Starting the season with Ketel Marte as the regular shortstop has proven beneficial to the Mariners. The 22-year-old has also suffered a few mental lapses, which are traceable back to his youth. However, he’s delivered the best shortstop defense since the days of Brendan Ryan. Marte isn’t an elite defender like Ryan. Nevertheless, he’s proven far better than recent shortstops.

[pullquote] “To win, you’ve got to pitch. To have good pitching, you’ve got to defend.” — Mariners manager Scott Servais [/pullquote]

At this early stage of the season, Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee have been better than the cast that patrolled first base last season — Logan Morrison, Jesus Montero, and Mark Trumbo. Lind has superior range to Lee, although the Korean import has proven to have good hands. This area is likely to be average, at best, as the season progresses.

Final thoughts
It’s too early to tell whether the Mariners defensive improvements — or their winning ways — can continue for an entire 162-game season. Yet, it’s encouraging to see the organization place a renewed emphasis on defense and immediately enjoy the benefits — albeit in small sample sizes – of adopting a more practical philosophy.

The Mariners defense has a long way to go before it becomes an elite unit — like the Kansas City Royals. However, if their defenders continue to be run-prevention assets — rather than liabilities — catching pennant fever in Seattle might be possible this season. Wouldn’t that be a welcomed change for Mariners faithful?

Kyle SeagerThrough game two in The Bronx the Seattle Mariners appear to have rebounded somewhat from the five-game skid at Safeco Field. The final game of the homestand ended in a walk-off home run by Dae-Ho Lee, then the club beat the New York Yankees 7-1 Friday before beating a lefty starter 3-2 in Game 2.

The M’s entered play Sunday 5-6 on the year and while it’s weeks and weeks too soon to take any numbers, advanced or traditional, and draw any sort of conclusions, there are some positive trends. We’ll call them suggestive trends if they remain for six or eight weeks, but until then I’m calling some of them potential early-season anomalies.

It’s easy to buy what Nelson Cruz is selling — .279/.367/.558 through 11 games, though his strikeout rate is destined to rise (four whiffs in nearly 50 plate appearances after a 25 percent rate last season, the highest of his career) and with skipper Scott Servais protecting Seth Smith from left-handed pitching even more this year than the Mariners did a year ago, the veteran’s triple-slash isn’t out of line for being the hot-streak type start it appears to be.

The positive early-season numbers that are likely to prove random and/or lucky/unlucky are:

Leony Martin: .257/.333/.486
Martin has struck out 14 times in 39 plate appearances (35.9 %) and has raced out to his solid start thanks to a .368 batting average on balls in play. The two home runs are of course legitimate, as is the 7.7 percent walk rate, even if the paces of each don’t quite hold up.

Martin’s first 11 games are strange, though, because while the average and on-base percentage are fed largely by the BABIP, his strikeout rate is abnormally high, too — more than 13 percent higher than any other season Martin has played more than 25 big-league games. So, on one hand the BABIP will sink to more normal levels, theoretically shrinking the average and OBP in the process, Martin will make more contact than he has early on, too. The center fielder struggles versus lefties and 16 of his plate appearances have versus southpaws. That rate will change, too, as somewhere between 65-75 percent of the innings in the American League will be pitched by right-handed starters and relievers.

The most interesting part of Martin’s season to date for me is the swing itself. The Mariners, and by ‘Mariners’ I mean The Edgar Martinez, clearly have been working with Martin to try and help him create more backspin, which could help him hit more doubles and even a few more home runs. The bat speed is there, the swing hasn’t been over the course of his career. The club may be convinced, as are most scouts, Martin’s plate skills overall probably aren’t going to improve significantly. So, instead of focusing solely on more contact as if he’s a prototypical top-of-the-order bat — which clearly he is not — getting a few more extra-base hits may be the best way to increase his offensive value. This doesn’t mean Martin’s goal is to hit more doubles and homers — it’s to ‘control the zone’ as best as possible, like everyone else on earth, but with a better chance to take advantage of his bat speed.

Martin is 1-for-19 when his at-bat ends on anything but a fastball (four-seam, two-seam/sinker) with eight strikeouts. That will have to improve, but since about 40 percent of those offspeed pitches are from lefties, this, too, should even out some.

Chris Iannetta: .276/.400/.483
Iannetta batted .188 a year ago and while a .225 BABIP tells part of the story there, the veteran turned 33 earlier this month and his career average even after his solid start this season is .232. Iannetta’s career BABIP is .278, which if inserted in a vacuum here would drop his 2016 start to about .219/.333 to go with the two home runs.

How far Iannetta’s numbers fall from where they are now may be determined in large part to how often the club is forced to use him. This puts pressure on Steve Clevenger to hit some when given the chance to Servais doesn’t feel the need to push it with his No. 1 catcher.

It’s super early, of course, but Iannetta has tallied just the two extra-base hits, and really isn’t much of a power bat, anyway — career high in HR outside Coors Field is 11 and 22 doubles is his best since his Colorado days — so don’t shocked if he goes the rest of the season without hitting two long balls in 10 days.

The AVG-OBP differential of 124 is not out of line with some of Iannetta’s recent seasons, however, so there’s reason to believe that will continue to some level. If he ends the year batting .220 or so, the on-base levels should be around league average, which likely will be between .315 and .320 or so. Any power he produces above a .370 slugging is gravy, yet more than plausible.

Kyle Seager: .132/.267/.263
In Seager’s first full season in the majors he batted .290/.300/.435 in April, then .279/.339/.500 in May. The following year he batted .292/.359/.491 in April and .255/.324/.418 in May. In 2014 he went .225/.319/.450 in April and .272/.348/.447 in May. Last year Seager combined April-May for a .271/.327/.474 triple-slash. The first two weeks of this season have gone awry for the All-Star, Gold Glove third baseman, but yet again some of this, too, appears to be somewhat of an anomaly.

Seager’s strikeout rate is up a tad to 20 percent from his career mark of 16.8. His walk rate is up, too, however, which is why his .267 OBP doesn’t look as bad it might if he were running with a batting-average driven triple-slash. Seager’s batting average on balls in play is .143, 135 points lower than a year ago and 143 points below his career mark. This is going to even out some, even if it ends up the lowest BABIP of his career.

Seager started 2014 very slow, too — he was batting .121/.293/.212 on April 13, 11 games into the schedule — and caught fire to end the month the respectable line listed above.

It’s a misnomer than Seager is a slow starter unless you’re just talking about the first few weeks.

Adam Lind: .192/.192/.231
Like Seager, Lind’s early-2016 numbers are absolutely an anomaly that will flip as the season progresses. One can argue Lind actually is a better pure hitter than Seager, posting OBPs of .360, .381, .357 the last three seasons, including his final two years in Toronto. He is 32 now, and while his BABIP (.278) cannot be blamed for his putrid numbers though 26 at-bats, his inconsistent playing time is indeed a legitimate factor. The Mariners have faced six left-handed starters in 11 games and Lind started just one of those games. Furthermore, Lind’s timecard looks like this: Started, OFF, started, 1 PH AB, TEAM DAY OFF, 1 PH AB, started, started 2 AB, OFF, started, TEAM DAY OFF, started, 1 PH AB. Them some spring training type work hours and that will change, too.

While I don’t expect Lind to bat .277 with a .360 OBP and 20 homers like he did a year ago, the guy uses the whole field with a line-drive swing and has proven he can rake right-handed pitching: .291/.380/.503 in 2015, .292/.353/.507 for his career. He’ll hit once he starts seeing his name in the lineup card more regularly, which means more right-handed starters. The Indians series in Cleveland this week likely will see the M’s face three straight righties, though it may be Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, one of the best 1-2-3 punches in all of baseball.

Bullpen: Five HR in 147 BF
While it’s fair to suggest the overall success of the M’s bullpen may not last (3.16 ERA), one reason to believe it could is the unlikelihood of the home run rate (1 per 29.4 batters faced) to stick for the entire season.

Last season the Mariners’ bullpen fell apart and ended up one of the four worst relief units in the American League. That group allowed one home run per 41 batters faced. The worst rate in the circuit last year belonged to the Boston Red Sox’s bullpen: One homer per 28.5, a mark the M’s are hovering around thus far in 2016. Considering Safeco Field and other factors such as pitcher type, they’re more likely to end up closer to last year’s 41.1 than anywhere near the 1/29.4.

To be fair, the M’s starters also have allowed five home runs, a rate which will rise, to be sure. They yielded 126 a year ago and the AL average was 114, so a slight uptick in rate there should be expected, but not as much the bullpen’s numbers should normalize to the positive.

Offense: .251 BABIP
We’re already seeing this normalize a bit for Seattle since arriving in New York, bit the .251 ranks No. 14 in the American League as for as much contact as the Mariners are and should be expected to make all season, this number absolutely will climb as the schedule matures.

The M’s are batting .226/.302/.396 through 11 games. Even if Iannetta and Martin become a little less randomly lucky, Lind, Seager and Cano will more than make up for that. There’s a great chance this year’s roster adds 10-plus points to last season’s .249 team average, and with that likely comes a league-average on-base percentage (.318 in AL in 2015) and perhaps an above-average slugging mark (.412 in AL in 2015, M’s finished at .411).

Future Trends To Watch For
I’m of the belief that if the big if turns his way, Franklin Gutierrez will mash lefties in 2016 like he always has, and even outperform his career marks versus right-handed arms(.242/.292/.365 ) by a long shot, though not to the unbelievable levels he did a year ago — .254/.351/.627, 7 HR… Felix Hernandez isn’t using his fastball a lot right now. He’s averaging about 90 mph on the four-seamer and sinker but per BrooksBaseball.net has thrown 58 percent offspeed stuff through three starts. The fastball usage may have to rise a bit, but the last two seasons Hernandez has thrown the four-seamer or sinker between 43 percent of the time and 44 percent of the time. That can be effective if his other pitches are consistent and he commands the fastball better than he has early in 2016. The trend to watch for here is the slider, as I noted after his Opening Day start. He hasn’t thrown it much yet — 5.7 percent per PITCHf/x versus over eight percent every year of his career — but he’s flashed the best sliders since at least 2012 this season and it’s a real weapon if it becomes more consistent, specifically versus right-handed batters.

Taijuan Walker‘s two-start sample is promising, if nothing else. He started poorly a year ago and has been better so far in 2016, but I’m talking about his pitch usage. Walker used his curveball just 7.8 percent of the time last year — with several starts featuring merely two or three — and threw 66 percent fastballs. He’ll enter his next start having throwing 56.5 percent fastball and nearly 13 percent curveballs. This suggests the pitch is at very least one he feels more comfortable with as well as one the new staff believes he should throw a little more than he did last season. Without it, Walker is throwing 93-96 mph fastballs, often up in the zone and without optimal command, and twp firm offspeed pitches in a cutter-slider at 90 mph and a split-change at 88 mph. His curveball sits 73-76 mph with late, sharp bite. He hasn’t commanded it well in the big leagues, but the raw offering is solid-average and should be thrown to batters regularly to give them a different speed to consider… Wade Miley has pitched very well in two starts, avoiding the base on balls and missing some bats with his sinker, slider and curveball and creating terrific deception and velo differential with his changeup (82 mph average versus 91.6 mph fastball). He’s served up twp three-run homers – one on a bad pitch to Prince Fielder and another on a pitch most batters wouldn’t keep fair, let alone hit out, but Adrian Beltre is a martian. Miley’s dealing right now and has been every bit the best of the starters thus far.…

Marte A little over a week ago, the Seattle Mariners started their 2016 regular season in dramatic fashion by taking two out of three games from the Texas Rangers in an intense series that saw a former Mariner plunking a new one and late-inning scoring surges that spearheaded Seattle to victory on consecutive days.

While in Arlington, the Mariners treated their fans to a fireworks show. Robinson Cano hit four home runs, the team averaged seven runs-per-game, and rookie manager Scott Servais showed some competitive fire by getting into a heated exchange with his Rangers counterpart, Jeff Banister. The Mariners 2016 season was off to a thrilling start.

By the time the Mariners returned to the Emerald City for their home opener against the Oakland Athletics last Friday evening, the energy was soaring at Safeco Field. As with each Opening Day, fans cheered the red carpet introduction of Mariners players and the late Dave Niehaus’ voice echoed over the public address system as he “Welcomed back baseball.” Hearing Dave voice is always leads to an emotional moment in my household.

As icing on the cake, Hall of Famer inductee Ken Griffey Jr. threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Felix Hernandez — who may one day join “Junior” in Cooperstown. Needless to say, the crowd of 47,065  was in a frenzy and ready for baseball. Then, the game started and the mood abruptly took a nose dive.

Unfortunately for the Mariners and their long-suffering fans, the team lost 3-2 to the Athletics that night on a late home run by Chris Coghlan off new closer Steve Cishek. Seattle would go on to lose five consecutive games before eking out an extra inning, walk-off win against the Rangers in front of a sparse crowd of 15,075 yesterday. A lot had changed for the Mariners within the span of a week.

After their initial success in Texas, the Mariners now head out of town with a 3-6 win-loss record and an anemic offense. Ineffective run production is nothing new to Seattle fans. This version is batting just .181 against left-handed pitching.

Seattle Mariners Handedness Splits
Split PA H 2B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
vs RHP 171 36 8 7 15 38 .234 .310 .422 .732
vs LHP 170 27 2 7 15 33 .181 .276 .336 .612
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

So, as the ball club heads to New York to start a road trip, they leave behind a wary fan base; many of whom believe that they’re facing yet another disappointing season with the “same old Mariners.” Is that actually true though?

Honestly, it’s too early to tell how well Seattle will do this season. However, I’m certain that — barring significant injuries — their offense will improve, especially versus southpaws. Why am I so sure?

Before I explain my rationale, let’s look at just how bad Seattle has been against left-handed pitching. A quick review of their standing among American League (AL) teams at the conclusion of yesterday’s games illustrates their ineptitude.

AL Batting Avg. Rankings (vs. LHP)
Rk  Team G PA HR BB SO BA ▾ OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1 BOS 5 24 1 4 3 .368 .458 .579 1.037 .375
2 CHW 4 27 1 1 5 .333 .407 .625 1.032 .389
3 HOU 5 26 1 2 6 .333 .385 .542 .926 .412
4 DET 6 127 5 13 20 .297 .365 .468 .834 .318
5 TEX 7 105 3 4 29 .296 .314 .429 .743 .377
6 KCR 6 43 3 3 10 .282 .326 .564 .890 .296
7 OAK 8 136 3 4 29 .252 .272 .366 .638 .300
8 NYY 6 80 1 11 17 .235 .342 .324 .665 .300
9 LAA 8 138 2 16 18 .218 .321 .311 .632 .242
10 BAL 6 56 2 4 13 .216 .286 .373 .658 .250
11 CLE 6 147 3 7 41 .213 .245 .338 .583 .271
12 TBR 5 47 2 1 8 .205 .255 .364 .619 .206
13 MIN 5 66 0 9 15 .200 .313 .255 .567 .275
14 TOR 6 75 4 4 19 .188 .240 .377 .617 .191
15 SEA 9 170 7 15 33 .181 .276 .336 .612 .182
 Totals 92 1267 38 98 266 .238 .303 .381 .684 .275
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

I’m sure that seeing that their team ranks at the very bottom of the AL in batting average versus left-handed pitching may have just sent some readers over the edge. Their on-base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) isn’t much better. But, hold on demoralized Mariners fan. I see a glimmer of hope going forward.

No, my sense of optimism isn’t a byproduct of Washington’s legalization of marijuana. There’s a few reasons for Mariners fans to have hope. First, their team has had a disproportionate amount of plate appearance against southpaws during the the first two weeks of the season. Take a look.

AL Leaders Plate Appearance Leaders (vs. LHP)
Rank  Team Games Total PAs LHP PAs LHP %
1 SEA 9 341 170 49.9%
2 CLE 6 212 147 69.3%
3 LAA 8 325  138 42.5%
4 OAK 8 363  136 37.5%
5 DET 6 282  127 45.0%
6 TEX 7 376  105 27.9%
7 NYY 6 269  80 27.9%
8 TOR 6 332  75 22.6%
9 MIN 5 296  66 22.3%
10 BAL 6 298  56 18.8%
11 TBR 5 276  47 17.0%
12 KCR 6 291  43 14.8%
13 CHW 4 299  27 9.0%
14 HOU 5 336  26 7.7%
15 BOS 5 314  24 7.6%

Before play began today, the Mariners easily led the AL in plate appearances against southpaws. But, look a little closer. The club has actually faced more lefties than the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, and Tampa Bay Rays combined. This imbalance is bound to even out during the upcoming weeks.

Consider this for a moment. Over the past five seasons, major league hitters have faced southpaws during 28-percent of their plate appearances. Seattle currently sits at nearly 50-percent. That will change for the better, as will the team’s win-loss percentage.

Okay, so the Mariners have faced a disproportionate amount of southpaws and it’s certain to drop to a more league-average level. But, that’s not the reason that they’re struggling so mightily, right? Of course not.

Take a look at the Mariners’ individual player production, versus left-handed pitching, and you’ll quickly see who are prime culprits behind their southpaw woes. At the same time, fans can find reasons for optimism — assuming they’re willing to be patient.

Seattle Mariners vs. Southpaws (2016)
Rank Name G PA H HR BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Seth Smith * 4 6 2 1 0 1 .333 .333 .833
2 Luis Sardinas ** 2 6 2 1 0 2 .333 .333 .833
3 Chris Iannetta 5 19 5 1 3 4 .333 .474 .533
4 Dae-ho Lee 5 11 2 1 0 2 .200 .273 .500
5 Robinson Cano * 5 21 4 2 0 5 .190 .190 .524
6 Nelson Cruz 5 21 3 1 2 2 .167 .286 .389
7 Kyle Seager * 5 21 2 1 3 4 .111 .238 .333
8 Nori Aoki * 5 21 5 0 0 3 .238 .238 .238
9 Franklin Gutierrez 5 15 1 0 3 5 .091 .333 .091
10 Leonys Martin * 5 15 1 0 1 5 .077 .200 .154
11 Ketel Marte ** 4 17 1 0 1 2 .071 .176 .071
12 Adam Lind  * 3 6 0 0 0 5 .000 .000 .000
* Left-handed hitter                                                                  ** Switch-hitter
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

Although left-handed hitters normally struggle against southpaws, Cano and Kyle Seager are capable of doing far better than they’ve fared against lefties during the beginning of this season. The same is true about right-handed hitters Nelson Cruz and Franklin Gutierrez.

Think about it for a moment, the Mariners’ four best best hitters from 2015 are batting a combined .147 against lefties. All of these players are proven commodities who — if healthy — certain to improve tremendously from their slow start as the season progresses.

Facing so many southpaws has influenced the starting lineup. Historically strong hitters, like Seth Smith and Adam Lind, have been kept on the bench more often than desired.

Once the lefty/righty proportions level out, Lind will become a regular fixture in the Mariners lineup and more productive at the plate. To date, he’s started five of his team’s nine games, which is 55-percent of the team’s games. Barring injury, he’s likely to start at least three-quarters of the club’s games in 2016.

Another key contributor to the Mariners current lineup hasn’t been kept out of the lineup by the presence of southpaws, but he’s struggled against them — starting shortstop Ketel Marte.

Ketel Marte’s Handedness Splits (2016)
Split G PA AB H BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
vs RHP as LHB 4 14 13 4 1 5 .308 .357 .308 .665
vs LHP as RHB 6 19 16 1 1 2 .063 .158 .063 .220
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

The switch hitting Marte hasn’t enjoyed much success from the right side of the plate thus far. It’s not uncommon for switch hitters to stumble out of the gate from one side of the plate. After all, they have to hone two separate swings with a limited number of Spring Training plate appearances.

During Cactus League play, Marte had just 15 plate appearances against lefties compared to the 40 times he faced a righty. I can’t predict how much the 22-year-old will improve once he gets his groove versus southpaws. But, I’m certain he’s better than the .063/.158/.063 triple-slash he’s registered during his 19 regular season plate appearances.

Granted, the Mariners offense needs to hit better, regardless of handedness. Facing left-handed pitching 45-percent of the time hasn’t deterred the Detroit Tigers from feasting at the plate.

Still, the Mariners don’t have to be an offensive juggernaut — like the Tigers — to compete in the AL West division. Their veterans just need to perform at career norms. Fortunately for Seattle, there’s 153 games remaining in the regular season. Let that number sink in for a moment.

That’s right, the club has played just six-percent of its games and some long-suffering fans have already jumped off the bandwagon and into the “same old Mariners” camp. I get it. The club has the longest postseason drought in major league baseball. It’s tough to maintain a persistent stare at the club’s substandard performance.

Personally, I don’t believe that the Mariners are that “same old” team. New general manager Jerry Dipoto has built the deepest, most talented roster that seen in Seattle since I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009.

Entering the season,I thought that the Mariners would have a winning record. Nothing that I’ve seen thus far has changed my opinion. If I’m wrong and the Mariners can’t reach the fringe of contention, it’s more likely that injuries or the bullpen will be the root cause; not struggles at the plate.

Hopefully for their own sake, disillusioned Mariners fans will give their team a fair shake before abandoning ship on a potentially promising season. One of these years, they won’t be the “same old Mariners” and it’d be a shame to miss the start of something special due to previous disappointments.…

felix hernandez jerry dipotoIt’s been more than 18 months since Brad Miller crossed the plate on an 11th-inning Austin Jackson single to secure a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels and keep the playoff hopes of the Seattle Mariners alive until Day 162. On September 27, 2014 Safeco Field and the surrounding streets following the game had an atmosphere that hadn’t been felt in more than a decade. Tomorrow, the Mariners were sending Felix Hernandez to the hill and, with the help of an Oakland Athletics’ loss, could clinch a Wild Card slot with a victory.

Unfortunately, Athletics’ pitcher Sonny Gray mirrored the excellent performance of Seattle’s ace on that day and secured Oakland’s place in the playoffs.

Fast forward to Opening Day 2015 where the Mariners found themselves, surprisingly enough, at the top of nearly every pundit’s list of American League favorites. The team had patched some holes in the offseason and Nelson Cruz was brought in to fill the hole behind Cano that loomed for nearly all of 2014. But, as these things have a tendency to, it didn’t happen. Just ask the Washington Nationals.

Cano went on to have the worst first-half performance of his career, due in large part to a myriad of ailments. King Felix had moments where he appeared mortal. And the bullpen imploded. Literally, it imploded. What was one of the M’s biggest strengths in 2014 became a brutal weakness in 2015.

It would all add up to a 76-86 record and the acquisition of a new, undesirable title: the team with the longest playoff drought in professional sports. Last fall the Toronto Blue Jays tasted the postseason for the first time since Joe Carter touched home plate in 1993. Even the Chicago Cubs took a serious run at breaking their championship-less streak. If the magic of 2001 feels like it was a long time ago, that’s because it was.

The disappointment was felt amongst the fan base and the organization, which prompted the firing of general manager Jack Zduriencik in late August. Manager Lloyd McClendon would also become a casualty of failed expectations, but not before a new mind was brought onboard to right the ship. On September 29th Jerry Dipoto was officially hired as the club’s new general manager. A few weeks later Dipoto’s colleague from their days in Los Angeles, Scott Servais, was hired to manage the team.

With the front office changes complete, work began on retooling a disappointing team. Without much help waiting in the wings in the upper minors, wholesale changes were coming.

The core of the franchise remained intact with Hernandez, Cano, Kyle Seager, and Cruz locked up to multi-year deals and Taijuan Walker still in his pre-arbitration years. But familiar names like Brad Miller, Tom Wilhelmsen, Roenis Elias, and Carson Smith were dealt with names like Wade Miley, Leonys Martin, and Nate Karns set to become familiar in the coming years.

After years of acquiring sluggers who impersonated outfielders, the Mariners built an outfield that should be a considerable upgrade defensively and with more offensive potential. Seth Smith remained with the club and will platoon in right field with Franklin Gutierrez, who was re-signed. Nori Aoki will be the primary left fielder and gives the club a legitimate option in the leadoff spot. Leonys Martin was the big name acquired in a multi-player deal with the Texas Rangers and even if he doesn’t hit much, should give the club above average defense or better in center field.

One of the benefits of these acquisitions is that Cruz is no longer required to play right field consistently. He still will make the odd appearance though and while he’s not a complete liability for a game at a time in the field, his skill set is optimized when kept to designated hitter duties. Regardless of what the small sample outfield numbers may lead you to believe, this is the case.

The infield required less work with Cano and Seager in place. Ketel Marte, who excelled in the second half of last season, holds the reigns for the everyday shortstop gig and will offer the club contact and speed skills and has shown improved defense. Luis Sardinas will back-up the infielders and offers of versatility off the bench.

First base received a makeover with Adam Lind coming over to mash right-handed pitching and Korean import Dae-Ho Lee set to be his other half. There’s plenty of uncertainly with Lee and his ability to hit major league pitching, which his roster spot depends on.

The catching position also received a makeover with Chris Iannetta brought onboard with Steve Clevenger, acquired in the Mark Trumbo deal, providing back-up. Mike Zunino starts the year in Tacoma where he will have ample opportunity to continue working on his offensive game and could resurface later in the season.

The rotation received some help with the additions of Miley and Karns as well as the re-signing of Hisashi Iwakuma. While the rotation lacks a true No. 2 behind Hernandez, Walker is a prime breakout candidate and could find himself in that role by the summer, should everything go right. Lefty James Paxton will start the year at Triple-A after a rough spring in hopes of regaining his command. The benefit of the added rotation depth is that the 27-year-old can be allotted the time to figure things out instead of being relied upon at the major league level.

The bullpen situation looks a little more problematic in the early going. Veterans Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek were brought in to anchor the back-end of the pen but Charlie Furbush, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook will start the year on the disabled list. Tony Zych has the potential to be a shutdown set-up man, but otherwise the bullpen lacks much punch.

With the injuries it’s difficult to fairly examine the bullpen. There will also be some fluctuation among the arms with bullpen candidates waiting in the minors. Given the negative impact the bullpen had on Seattle last season I would imagine a close eye will be kept on the waiver wire and trade front for potential arms to bolster the corps.

At the start of the 2015 season, I penned a piece entitled “From Optimism to Expectations: The 2015 Seattle Mariners.” To expand, the Mariners found themselves moving from an optimistic state to start the 2014 season to an expectant state. Heading into the 2016 season, Seattle finds itself somewhere in between.

With all of the organizational changes and new personnel brought onboard, there is a new optimism surrounding the Mariners. However, considering how the results of the previous campaign and the ascension of the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers over the past season, that optimism hasn’t extended itself into expectations of a playoff run. But, should some things go the M’s way, a meaningful September definitely is not out of the question.

Does that make the Mariners a sleeper? Perhaps. With the attention on the Texas teams in the American League West and what should be very competitive AL Central and AL East divisions, it’s easy for Seattle to slip to the back burner.

With a first-year manager and superstars coming off disappointing performances in Hernandez and Cano there’s no need for additional motivation. The clubhouse culture also appears to be much more favorable this year, and we saw what some of those effects can have on a club while watching the Blue Jays during their incredible second-half run. Acquiring a David Price helps, too.

The Mariners are a veteran club built to win now, not later. The improvements to the organization will likely be seen immediately, but a slow start could kill much of the offseason momentum.

On the plus side, the American League remains wide open. There is an upper echelon of clubs including the Jays, Astros, Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and World Champion Kansas City Royals. But it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and perhaps, the Seattle Mariners are able to grab a Wild Card spot at the least.

There’s a level of optimism and a level of expectations for the Mariners and both sides are justified. After all, on Opening Day, every team has a shot.…

Mariners walk off During his first season with the Seattle Mariners, slugger Nelson Cruz lived up to or exceeded the expectations of pundits and fans alike. Despite the fact that 2015 Mariners turned out to be a huge disappointment as they extended their postseason drought to 14 seasons, “Boomstick” was a bright spot in the team’s otherwise pedestrian offense.

Last year, Cruz’s home run and hit totals — plus his .302/.369/.566 slash — were well above his career averages. Moreover, he delivered the highest wins above replacement (WAR) of his career. Considering his 2015 production, fans are likely hoping that Boomstick will be able to repeat his first-year success with the Mariners. But, is that a reasonable expectation? Probably not.

Cruz is getting older and it’s inevitable that his skills will begin to erode. That doesn’t mean that 2016 is the year that the 11-year veteran suddenly becomes “Slumpstick.” On the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll fall back from his stellar performance of last year. How much he declines is the “unknown unknown” facing both the team and its star slugger.

Entering this season, projection systems aren’t being kind to Cruz, who turns 36-years-old on July 1. Both Steamer and ZiPS, developed by Dan Szymborski of ESPN, project that the Mariners slugger will not be nearly as productive in 2016.

Some may point to Cruz’s his outstanding physical fitness and the fact that he’ll have a rejuvenated Robinson Cano as batting order protection as two reasons why he should be able to duplicate his superb offensive production from last season. This makes for a compelling argument. But, isn’t it possible that Cruz’s 2015 was nothing more than a statistical aberration and will be difficult to repeat regardless of his physical prowess, age, or lineup protection?

Why am I so leery of Cruz in 2016, other than his age? One statistic stands out as an area of concern for me going into 2016 — batting average on balls in play (BABIP). I’m not trying to go to “saber-geek” on you, but hear me out.

First, for those not familiar with BABIP, it measures how many balls put into play go for a hit — not including home runs. FanGraphs adeptly points out that several factors affect BABIP rates for individual players, including defense, luck, and talent level.

Since we know that Cruz is talented and league defense is relatively stable from season to season, that leaves luck as the remaining factor. Look at Cruz’s BABIP over the span of his career and you’ll see a dramatic uptick in 2015 after he hovered around the league-average mark between the 2011-2014 seasons.

BABIP

I understand that some of you may not buy into BABIP, but Mariners general Jerry Dipoto is a believer. He specifically cited the stat when explaining the acquisition of center fielder Leonys Martin. When discussing his newest player with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle, Dipoto noted, “He did not have a very high batting average on balls in play, which is typically an indicator that it will turn around.”

Assuming that Cruz’s BABIP returns closer to his norm, he’s looking at a drop-off from his 2015 numbers. That doesn’t mean that his 2016 performance falls off the face of the earth. However, based on his age, he’d be occupying rarefied air if he were able to repeat last year’s performance at the plate. Look at the 10 best individual seasons for 35-year-old players since 2010 and you’ll see what I mean.

Top-10 Individual Seasons for 35-year-olds (since 2010)
Rk Player oWAR Year Tm G PA H 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Adrian Beltre 5.9 2014 TEX 148 614 178 33 19 .324 .388 .492 .879
2 Victor Martinez 5.8 2014 DET 151 641 188 33 32 .335 .409 .565 .974
3 Lance Berkman 5.3 2011 STL 145 587 147 23 31 .301 .412 .547 .959
4 Jayson Werth 4.7 2014 WSN 147 629 156 37 16 .292 .394 .455 .849
5 David Ortiz 4.0 2011 BOS 146 605 162 40 29 .309 .398 .554 .953
6 Jimmy Rollins 3.7 2014 PHI 138 609 131 22 17 .243 .323 .394 .717
7 Marlon Byrd 3.7 2013 TOT 147 579 155 35 24 .291 .336 .511 .847
8 A.J. Pierzynski 3.7 2012 CHW 135 520 133 18 27 .278 .326 .501 .827
9 Chase Utley 3.5 2014 PHI 155 664 159 36 11 .270 .339 .407 .746
10 Mark Teixeira 3.3 2015 NYY 111 462 100 22 31 .255 .357 .548 .906
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/2/2016.

To rank players, I opted to use offensive WAR (oWAR) as the determining factor. For those wondering, Cruz’s oWAR was 6.0 in 2015. I chose oWAR because it takes the defensive component out of the equation and places the focus squarely on the player’s offensive prowess. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all can admit that most — not all — of the individuals listed above were still stars thanks to their bats, not their defense.

To be clear, I still think that Boomstick will continue to hit tape measure shots and contribute to the Mariners offensive production. I’m only suggesting that it’ll be at a diminished rate when compared to 2015. Despite the gloomy picture that I’ve just painted, there’s a reason for Seattle baseball fans to hold their collective chins up.

Thanks to their new general manager, the Mariners won’t need to be as reliant on Cruz to score runs — or win — during the upcoming season. From what I understand, winning despite an aging slugger is a foreign concept for baseball fans from the Emerald City. That’s about to change.

During the offseason, Dipoto placed a high degree of emphasis on adding players with good on-base ability. Here’s a look at the core players — ranked by on-base percentage (OBP) — who project to get majority of playing time under Dipoto and new manager Scott Servais.

Seattle Mariners Projected Regular Players
Player Age G AB H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
Nelson Cruz 34 152 590 178 22 1 44 3 .302 .369 .566 .936
Adam Lind 31 149 502 139 32 0 20 0 .277 .360 .460 .820
Franklin Gutierrez 32 59 171 50 11 0 15 0 .292 .354 .620 .974
Nori Aoki 33 93 355 102 12 3 5 14 .287 .353 .380 .733
Ketel Marte 21 57 219 62 14 3 2 8 .283 .351 .402 .753
Robinson Cano 32 156 624 179 34 1 21 2 .287 .334 .446 .779
Seth Smith 32 136 395 98 31 5 12 0 .248 .330 .443 .773
Kyle Seager 27 161 623 166 37 0 26 6 .266 .328 .451 .779
Chris Iannetta 32 92 272 51 10 0 10 0 .188 .293 .335 .628
Leonys Martin 27 95 288 63 12 0 5 14 .219 .264 .313 .576
League Avg .254 .317 .405 .722

New players such as Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, and Chris Iannetta all have demonstrated an above-average knack for reaching base during their big league careers. Combining these veterans with holdovers Robinson Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ketel Marte should propel the Mariners to their highest OBP since 2009, when they were a league-worst .314. The bar isn’t very high, so it shouldn’t be difficult for Seattle to vault it, even if Cruz takes a step backwards.

That’s why I’m convinced that the Mariners offense will be more productive than in any season since I first made the Pacific Northwest my home in 2009. They won’t make anyone forget the era when the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar MartinezAlex Rodriguez, and Brett Boone wore a Mariners uniform.

As Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill points out, the club’s offense stands to be a strength this season. When was the last time you could say that about the Mariners?

Ironically, it’s highly unlikely that Cruz would’ve landed in Seattle if Dipoto had been the Mariners general manager prior to last season. He’s not a proponent of big-ticket free agents, and, unlike his predecessor, the 47-year-old executive doesn’t fixate on acquiring sluggers.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, Dipoto has chosen to build a roster with on-base ability that can score more runs and — in theory — win more games, even if Cruz takes a step declines.

If Boomstick proves people like me wrong and fends off Father Time for another season, the Mariners will be even better poised to host postseason baseball at Safeco Field this coming October — assuming the bullpen doesn’t collapse upon itself. Wouldn’t that be something?

 …

jesus-montero-e1459192447251The odyssey of Jesus Montero and the Seattle Mariners came to a close on Monday. The centerpiece of the deal that sent Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees was claimed on waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays after four seasons in the Mariners organization. All Seattle has to show for it’s efforts are the $20,000 waiver fee and a handful of stories that include an ice cream sandwich.

My initial reaction to hearing the news was disappointment after seeing, from a distance, how hard Montero has worked to get his life and career back on track. Considering all that he had been through, to see him show up in camp last spring slimmed down and go on to make the Triple-A All-Star team could be considered inspiring — I’m sure for some it was. He did everything within his power to earn another crack at the big leagues. I wanted to see what he could do with a month’s worth of regular playing time.

But the cruel realities of baseball, and to an extent life, kick in and remind us that often it’s less about what you have done and more about what you are going to do now and in the future. The reality in this case is that Montero doesn’t really offer much to the 2016 Mariners.

Adam Lind does need a platoon partner at first base. But giving the 25th spot on the roster to a guy who would only hit left-handed pitching a couple hundred times a year while providing no value in the field or on the base paths didn’t make much sense. The leading candidate for that role, however, is offseason import Dae-Ho Lee who doesn’t differ significantly from Montero in what he brings to the table. Lee probably has a little bit more power to offer, but likely benefits most by offering a new or different unknown.

The book shouldn’t entirely be closed on Montero at 26-years-old. With nearly 900 plate appearances at the major league level and a measly 92 wRC+ to show for his career, though, the book is several chapters deep.

What exactly Montero’s role will be on the Jays is unclear. On the major league side Toronto has Chris Colabello and former Mariner Justin Smoak sharing first base duties and Edwin Encarnacion set at designated hitter. It’s possible they will try sneaking him through waivers to serve as minor league depth or as insurance should Encarnacion struggle to stay healthy all season.

There has been some concern that Encarnacion wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day after battling an oblique injury for most of the spring. A temporary stopgap solution could work here, but with the slugger back in game action on Monday — albeit minor league action — the club is optimistic he’ll be ready when the games start counting.

With that in mind, there isn’t a fit for him on the Blue Jays’ major league squad, either. But a look at the Jays’ recent history suggests they might know a thing or two about fixing broken power hitters.

Encarnacion is a great example of this after struggling during his time with Cincinnati before a 2012 break-out season. Jose Bautista coming over from the Pittsburgh Pirates and becoming one of the best sluggers in the game is another example. For both of those players, opportunity to fail without losing playing time aided in their eventual successes.

The case is still out for Smoak who only had a slightly above replacement level season. His platoon-mate, Collabello, rode an extremely high BABIP to a breakout offensive season so he’s one to watch going forward.

All that isn’t to say Toronto will somehow capitalize on all the talent we know has existed within Montero — it’s not as though they have something akin to the Pirates’ pitcher-fixing factory. But maybe they did see something mechanically they think could be fixed.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote an excellent piece that reminds us of the perils of projecting young hitters, and any prospect for that matter. This is particularly the case when the prospect’s stock is tied entirely to a single tool. Some guys can make it work and many can not with a wide range of outcomes in between.

Montero’s tenure in Seattle will be most remembered for the poor and the strange: under-performance, injuries, a PED suspension, eating away an offseason, and the incident with the scout. But at this juncture we have a situation that really isn’t that uncommon: a capable Triple-A hitter who just couldn’t make it work in the show. Nevertheless, the slugger certainly gave us plenty to talk about and to hope for.

I don’t think I’m alone in that I would be happy to see Montero succeed elsewhere, or at least get another shot in the big leagues. It’s tough. Prospects are tough. Life’s tough. A couple of poor decisions can sink the ship the salesman guaranteed would float.

At minimum, Montero was supposed to hit for the Mariners. He didn’t. His story thus far isn’t unlike many others but at the same time is unique. However it ends, 28 home runs in the major leagues is still 28 more than most will ever get the chance to hit.…

02242016-spring04 Prior to his decision to sign a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers, I don’t recall any pundits suggesting former Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond as a good fit for the Rangers.

I certainly didn’t expect that he’d end up with a team that already has Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Rougned Odor manning second base. On top of that, the organization has young middle infielders like Jurickson Profar and Hanser Alberto ready to burst onto the scene.

The signing of the 30-year-old was a surprise, but how the Rangers plan to utilize the career shortstop was also unexpected. The team intends to use Desmond as a left fielder and super-utility player. It’s worth noting that he’s appeared in 1607 games as a professional baseball player. Eight were at second base in eight and four in the outfield; the remaining games were at shortstop.

Normally, a shortstop is the most athletic player on the field. Therefore, Desmond should have the skill set to transition. Nevertheless, the learning curve is going to be steep for the Sarasota, Florida native.

Acquiring the former National as a super-sub may have seemingly come out of nowhere, but a team’s desire to have a Swiss Army knife type shouldn’t come as a shock.

Roster flexibility is especially crucial for American League (AL) teams, like the Rangers, who have to sacrifice a reserve spot to fill the designated hitter role. An AL club that uses a seven-man bullpen is left with just four bench players and one of them will be their backup catcher. This leaves managers little wiggle room when attempting to manipulate their bench.

That’s why having a versatile reserve or — better yet — a super-utility player is such an attractive option for ball clubs. If Desmond demonstrates that he can handle the outfield, the Rangers will have a player who can cover multiple spots in the infield and outfield. A factor that makes Desmond even more attractive is his offensive upside — tied with Troy Tulowitzki for most home runs (63) by a shortstop during the last three seasons.

After considering the Rangers move to diversify Desmond’s positional portfolio, I wanted to find players who had demonstrated that they could play multiple spots in the field and deliver some measure of value to their respective team. With that in mind, I compiled a list of players who I thought were the most versatile and productive during 2015. I first placed an emphasis on finding performers who contributed at multiple positions — the more positions, the better. Then, I ranked them by wins above replacement (WAR).

2015 Swiss Army Knives (Ranked by WAR)
Name Tm 1B 2B 3B SS LF/RF CF WAR
Brock Holt BOS 8 58 33 11 35 2 2.6
Yangervis Solarte SDP 28 19 92 0 0 0 2.2
Eduardo Escobar MIN 0 11 5 71 36 0 2.0
Chris Coghlan CHC 5 15 3 0 120 0 1.9
Danny Espinosa WSN 5 82 16 8 5 0 1.9
Marwin Gonzalez HOU 43 15 21 32 15 0 1.8
Josh Harrison PIT 0 37 72 0 27 0 1.8
Danny Valencia 2TM 5 3 55 0 37 0 1.7
Andrew Romine DET 17 13 59 27 2 0 1.6
Enrique Hernandez LAD 0 20 1 16 19 19 1.4
Jose Ramirez CLE 0 33 13 46 2 0 1.4
Brad Miller SEA 0 11 2 89 21 20 0.6
Kelly Johnson 2TM 25 28 12 1 38 0 0.3
Cliff Pennington 2TM 0 33 18 29 8 0 0.2
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/9/2016.

You’ll notice that the most recognizable super-utility player in the majors– Ben Zobrist —  isn’t on my list. Although he’s capable of playing more positions, he “only” manned the corner outfield spots and second base last season. As you can see, the players on my list were more versatile in 2015.

One tactic that AL teams can use to offset the loss of a reserve spot to the designated hitter is to utilize multiple players at the position during the span of the season. However, a few teams — the Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees — used a full-time designated hitter last season. Texas used Prince Fielder in manner last season and intend to do so again, which is another reason why the Desmond acquisition makes sense — if he can make the transition.

The Seattle Mariners are looking at a similar situation with slugger Nelson Cruz. Although Cruz will see more playing time in right field than Fielder will see at his former position — first base — the Mariners are poised to significantly reduce Cruz’s time in the field to a level far below the 80 games that he played last season.

So, what’s the Mariners plan for their bench? At this point, it’s a work in progress.

Franklin Gutierrez is set to be part of a corner outfield platoon and either Steve Clevenger or Rob Brantly will likely fill the back-up catcher spot behind Chris Iannetta. That leaves only two spots up for grabs.

The Mariners will need to have someone capable of playing shortstop and serving as a right-handed option at first base in order to spot Adam Lind from time-to-time. Whether that takes two individuals or one exceptionally versatile player has yet to be determined.

With that in mind, I decided to shed light on the positions that the team’s potential backups have played during their professional careers. The following table illustrates the total number of games that the players have spent at each position at all levels, including minor league baseball, the Arizona Fall League, and foreign leagues.

   Seattle Mariners Versatility Matrix
Player Pos C 1B 2B SS
3B
LF/RF CF
Jesus Montero 1B 432 186 0 0 0 0 0
Dae-Ho Lee 1B 0 364 0 0 0 0 0
Stefen Romero 1B/OF 0 5 162 0 30 302 0
Ed Lucas 1B 0  104 170 300 493 116 3
Efren Navarro 1B  0  1046  0  0  0  115  0
Chris Taylor SS 0 0 81 348 2 0 0
Luis Sardinas SS 0 0 87 477 40 0 0
Shawn O’Malley IF/OF 0 0 226 484 17 50 32
Daniel Robertson OF 0 0 8 0 0 553 403
Boog Powell
OF 0 0 0 0 0 81 218
Steve Clevenger C 575 122 64 0 9 0 0
Rob Brantly C 505 0 0 0 0 0 0

Seattle doesn’t have anyone as recognizable or talented as Desmond — or any of the “2015 Swiss Army knives” — to fill out their bench. The most recent Mariner to demonstrate that kind of potential made it onto the first table — Brad Miller. He’s now a Tampa Bay Ray.

Barring a trade or free agent signing, Seattle will complete their roster by selecting two players from a list of candidates that includes several young players, a few journeyman, and a player who has played solely in Japan and Korea.

Based on position experience only — not talent — players such as Stefen Romero, Luis Sardinas, Shawn O’Malley, and Ed Lucas would appear to have a better chance of earning one of those final two spots than less versatile players.

Previous position experience isn’t the only “versatility factor” that’s being considered. A player’s ability to add a new position to their repertoire could come into play too. If you’ve been watching Spring Training games, you know what I mean.

The Mariners have used Sardinas at his usual positions. Plus, he’s played center field, which is new to him. Finding a center field alternative hasn’t been mentioned much. It’s been overshadowed by the “who’s going to be the right-handed backup first baseman?” chatter.

The team certainly needs to have someone who can occasionally stand in for starter Leonys Martin. Nori Aoki is certainly an option. Nevertheless, having another choice on hand would provide manager Scott Servais with an added layer of depth that he could utilize during critical moments in a game.

Another example of players getting new — or more — experience at a position is Chris Taylor, who’s been spending time at third base. Assuming there aren’t any unforeseen circumstances, starting third baseman Kyle Seager won’t need much rest during the upcoming season. Over the last three years, he’s played more innings than any other fielder has in the majors. Nevertheless, a little less playing time in the field might actually help the 28-year-old at the plate.

Just last week, Steve Sandmeyer and Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted during the “Joe Jarzynka episode” of their podcast, that reducing Seager’s innings — not games played — might help keep his bat fresh during his usual 155-plus starts.

As far for the backup first base spot — the Mariners job most often discussed on the internet — Dave Sims and Mike Blowers of ROOT Sports mentioned during a recent broadcast that Sardinas might get some playing time at first base. All of this bodes well for a 22-year-old trying to win a roster spot, assuming that he proves he can hold his own at his new positions.

Earlier this week, Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont noted that Romero is a dark horse candidate for a roster spot. He’s primarily been an outfielder in recent years, but is now getting a long look at first base. Factors like previous offensive struggles at the major league level and the fact that he has a minor league option remaining may work against him. As Prospect Insider founder pointed out, Romero’s seemingly hot performance in Peoria doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the eyes of scouts or Mariners management.

From a versatility aspect, Romero presents a better fit for the Mariners than Jesus Montero or Dae-Ho Lee. But, the prevailing belief among observers is that Montero and Lee are the front runners for the job. Although I understand the rationale behind such a choice, it’s still tough for me to believe that the Seattle would go in that direction.

Why do I feel that way? I just don’t see how a couple of one-dimensional sluggers are a good match for the Mariners. Maybe, under previous regimes it would’ve made sense to retain big-bat potential with a limited glove. Still, I can’t fathom the current leadership opting for Montero or Lee.

Both Montero and Lee have limited profiles. They’re “bat first” types who are — at best — passable at first base and available to be a designated hitter or pinch hitter. That’s it. Neither player has proven that they can do any of those jobs at the big league level.

It’s true that the other players vying to make the roster are also unproven commodities at the plate. However, they’ve demonstrated the ability to be — at the very least — an average defender at one or more positions. The same can’t said about either Montero or Lee.

To be fair, Jason pointed out in his most recent piece “several scouts have spoken of Lee in positive tones,” while a rival official assessed Montero as “just OK.” That makes Lee sound like more palatable option. But, it’s just Spring Training and both players are still a one-dimensional.

This brings me back to my original point about the backup first base spot, which Jason refers to as “Chicko’s platoon partner.” I have a tough time envisioning the current regime selecting Montero or Lee. Perhaps, I’m way off base. But, picking one of these two guys just doesn’t add up for a team that’s going to have a near full-time designated hitter.  Then again, I never saw the Desmond deal coming.

In three weeks, we’ll better understand the level of import that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto truly places on having “layers of depth” and positional versatility on his big league roster. Regardless of which players earn the final bench spots, watching the team’s selection process unfold over the next few weeks will be both fun and informative — at least for me. I’m weird that way.…