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?

Dipoto
There’s just over a week remaining before the Seattle Mariners start their 2016 season and, as usual, fans have concerns about the team’s Opening Day roster. This year, speculation centers around who’ll fill out the club’s bullpen, and hold down the backup first baseman and utility infielder spots.…

 

In recent years, the Seattle Mariners haven’t placed a high value on defense, especially in the outfield. This becomes particularly clear when you look back at their most recent corner outfield pickups, via the trade and free agent market. Since 2013, the team has used players with limited range like Nelson Cruz, Mark Trumbo, Corey Hart, Raul Ibanez, and Michael Morse to play left and right field.

Further proof of the low importance placed on outfield run prevention by the Mariners was their trial and error attempts of putting infielders Rickie Weeks, Brad Miller, and Ketel Marte. These experiments went particularly well, which is understandable. It’s hard to learn the outfield – or any position – on the job during big league games.

The organization’s disregard for outfield defense helped Seattle earn the distinction of having the worst outfield defense in the majors in 2015. Their -45 defensive runs saved (DRS) far exceeded the San Francisco Giants, who were the next worst team at -29 DRS. Conversely, the best DRS in the majors was the Tampa Bay Rays, who had 44 DRS.

Discussing DRS
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, a +10 DRS by a second baseman means that player is 10 runs better than the average second baseman. Here’s the FanGraphs breakdown of fielding ability categories for individual players, based on DRS. If you want to learn more about DRS, you read about it in this article found at fangraphs.com.

Gold Glove Caliber Great Above-average Average Below-average Poor Awful
15 10 5 0 -5 -10 -15

Forsaking outfield run prevention certainly didn’t help a Mariners organization that was offensively challenged during the first half of the 2015 season and possessed a below-average bullpen throughout the year. To make matters worse, most of the defensively challenged didn’t consistently contribute at the plate either. The Mariners outfielders weren’t just bad defenders, they were the best at being bad defenders. But, that’s about to change.

New sheriff in town
When New GM Jerry Dipoto was introduced on September 29, he stated that “the Mariners need to pitch, they need to catch it, and they need to be athletic.” He intends to build a club that takes advantage of Safeco Field’s reputation of being a pitcher’s park by playing strong defense and getting on base. Yep, defense is no longer going to take a back seat in the Emerald City.

Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill also identified outfield defense as one of the top offseason priorities for the club’s offseason. Take a look at the Mariner outfielders who had at least 200 innings in 2015 and it becomes clear why Dipoto and Jason have mentioned outfield defense so prominently since the end of the season. I still think it’s possible that these two gents share a brain.

Player Position Games Innings DRS
Nelson Cruz RF  80 704 -8
Franklin Gutierrez ** LF  46 309  3
Mark Trumbo LF/RF  47 325 -4
Seth Smith LF/RF 120 798  1
Austin Jackson ** CF 107 899 -2
Dustin Ackley ** LF/CF  86 499 -8
Brad Miller ** LF/CF  41 253 -13
 ** Former Mariners

Change is needed
Going into 2016, I expect that Cruz and Trumbo will see limited outfield playing time. Both graded out as poor last season. Last season wasn’t a statistical outlier for either player, but indicative of their below-average outfield defense. Since 2012, Cruz and Trumbo have respectively registered -21 and -12 DRS, while playing the outfield.

Ironically, Trumbo has actually played more innings at first base during his career and has been an average fielder, while tallying 12 DRS since his big league debut in 2010. Assuming both sluggers are with Seattle on Opening Day, playing Cruz at designated hitter and Trumbo at first would equate to an addition by subtraction scenario.

Austin Jackson, Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller have already been traded away, Franklin Gutierrez is a free agent, and Seth Smith is a likely trade chip. So, it’s possible that the Mariners will have a completely new starting outfield. That’s assuming that Cruz and Trumbo aren’t primary outfielders and are only worst case scenario contingency options.

Wanted: defensive outfielders
So, who will the Mariners target? In his series of initial of offseason pieces, Jason has discussed several outfield options outside of the organization. First, he discussed players from this year’s free agent class. Plus, he’s just published potential trade targets for the club that included options for the outfield.

Perhaps, Dipoto will go after a high-profile free agent like Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, or Yoenis Cespedes, but he’s repeatedly stated since his days as Los Angeles Angels GM that he views free agency as an “accent move” rather than a foundation builder. Maybe he’ll trade for Carlos Gonzalez or Yasiel Puig. But, their teams aren’t going to give away their star outfielders. Trade demands would likely start with Taijuan Walker and then quickly escalate.

Jason’s “Reeling it In” piece before the World Series suggested to set 2016 outfield expectations by thinking “moderate bat, above-average glove.” That makes sense, especially after seeing the first two position players acquired by the new GM.

A hint of what’s to come?
Dipoto first position player pick-up was outfielder Dan Robertson via the waiver wire from his former team. The 30-year-old bounced around the minors until debuting with the Angels in 2014. During limited playing time, he’s posted a .274/.324/.325 slash with no homers during 277 career plate appearances. He’s played all three outfield positions, although he’s provided the most value in left field with six DRS.

The outfielder with the bigger upside was the recently required Boog Powell, who finished the season in Tampa Bay Rays’ system and currently ranks seventh among Mariners prospects. The 22-year-old provides speed, good bat-to-ball skill, with strong defense and is the prototypical player that Dipoto will likely target for his outfield and bench.

With that in mind, I decided to identify several players who have defensive skills and may be able to help with their bat. Some are capable of helping more than others and none of these players are necessarily final solutions at any specific position. But, they could either serve as a place holder or a role player for the Mariners in 2016.

Here are five examples of “moderate bat, above-average glove” outfielders who would be defensive upgrades over most 2015 Mariners and – in most cases – were better offensive players.

Player Position Team Age Bats Free Agt After Innings DRS BA OBP SLG OPS
Aaron Hicks LF/CF/RF MIN 26 B 2019 761 2 .256 .323 .398 .721
Scott Van Slyke LF/RF LAD 29 R 2019 303 11 .239 .317 .383 .700
Kirk Nieuwenhuis LF/CF/RF NYM 28 L 2019 278 6 .195 .270 .375 .645
Matt den Dekker LF/RF WSN 28 L 2019 216 2 .253 .315 .485 .800
Shane Robinson LF/CF/RF Free agt 31 R Now 458 5 .250 .299 .322 .621

None of these players are flashy, but they could help the Mariners and wouldn’t be costly. These are not the only choices on the market, just examples of who Dipoto could be looking at to increase depth and athleticism, plus improve outfield.

Aaron Hicks
Hicks was one of the outfielders that Jason recently mentioned as a possible trade target for Seattle. In that piece, he mentioned that Byron Buxton will eventually become Minnesota’s starting center fielder and Hicks could be dealt depending on other moves made by the club. Since Jason’s piece was released, the Twins won the right to exclusively negotiate with Korean star Byung-ho Park, which could have major implications for Minnesota’s roster.

Signing Park could lead to the team trading third baseman Trevor Plouffe, so they can turn the position over to Miguel Sano, who has been asked by the team to spend time in left field during winter ball. Minnesota already has another youngster – Eddie Rosario – who played in left field. The club has the “problem” of having a roster teeming with young talent. Considering his age, remaining club-control, and the shortage of inexpensive center fielders, Hicks is certain to have trade value.

The potential signing of Park combined with having first baseman Joe Mauer and Sano diminishes the trade of value of Trumbo or Seth Smith if the Mariners opted to use either as part of deal to get Hicks since the Twins wouldn’t necessarily have a clear vacancy at first base or designated hitter.

Like Jason, Hicks is my favorite choice for the Mariners. He’s a player who could hold center field until Powell is ready or hold down the position if the youngster regressed. When Powell is ready, either he or Hicks could move to a corner outfield spot. How nice would it be to have an outfield comprised of three players capable of playing center field?

Scott Van Slyke
The son of former Mariners first base coach and five-time Gold Glove winner Andy Van Slyke certainly has the pedigree to be a good defensive outfielder. The younger Van Slyke’s career .253/.337/.442 suggests he can also be an asset at the plate. One factor that could influence the Dodgers’ willingness to deal the 29-year-old is Puig’s future in Los Angeles.

Although Van Slyke’s better against southpaws, the right-handed hitter’s .242/.306/.402 slash against righties isn’t atrocious and suggests that he’d be a good platoon option who could occasionally play against right-handed pitching.

Additional aspects to Van Slyke’s game is the fact that he has some pop – 11 home runs in 246 plate appearances during 2014 – and he’s played first base. This kind of versatility would fit in nicely on any team.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis
The 27-year-old hasn’t lived up to the expectations that come with being a third-round draft pick. Since debuting with the Mets in 2012, he’s bounced back and forth between Class-AAA Las Vegas and the big league club with mixed results. In May, his contract was purchased by the Angels. But, the right-handed hitter returned to New York via the waiver wire in June and was part of their postseason roster.

Based on his career .149/.260/.184 slash against southpaws, the left-handed hitter is best suited to face right-handed pitching. Nieuwenhuis represents another potential platoon player. One drawback is the fact that he’s out of options. Thereby, he’d have to clear waivers before he could be sent to the minor leagues.

Matt den Dekker
The 28-year-old is another former New York Mets draftee. The 2010 fifth-rounder was was traded to Washington just prior to the season when the Mets were desperate for left-handed relievers. den Dekker split his time between Class-AAA Syracuse and the big league club in 2015. The third-year player’s career .243/.322/.366 slash qualifies him as one of those “moderate bat, above-average glove” outfielders.

The left-handed hitter has been primarily used against righties and has been league-average during his small sample sized career. Unlike his former Mets teammate Nieuwenhuis, den Dekker isn’t out of options.

Shane Robinson
Hicks’ former teammate is the only free agent on my list. The versatile outfielder demonstrated that he could play all three outfield positions and even pitched a scoreless inning in 2015. Robinson’s numbers were relatively close to his modest .237/.302/.313 career slash. The right-handed hitter’s career platoon splits actually favor him against righties, although they’re still below league-average.

Primarily a corner outfielder last season,  Robinson has the ability to fill in as a center fielder. He isn’t a candidate to be the starting outfielder for the Mariners, but he could help serve as organizational depth.

Going forward
None of the players I’ve mentioned are going to make Mariner fans forget Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Cameron as defenders. But, they represent relatively low-cost upgrades who can provide organizational depth at a relatively low cost.

The Mariners can ill-afford to have another below-average outfield in pitcher-friendly Safeco. Doing so would be counterintuitive for a franchise with a stated goal of taking advantage of their spacious outfield dimensions. That’s why acquiring players similar to the ones I’ve discussed makes sense for the team in 2016.

Discussing who Dipoto acquires and/or he should acquire is the best part of Hot Stove season. Perhaps, he’ll bring back fan-favorite Franklin Gutierrez as a role player. If the Mariners GM can snare a bigger name at a reasonable price, I’m sure he’d make the deal in a heartbeat. But, my expectation is that we’ll see more players like Robertson and Powell joining the Mariners between now and Spring Training. That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a refreshing change from the past.

 

I’m not a native of Seattle and I only moved to Washington in early 2009. So, the most vivid highs and lows in the history of the Seattle Mariners aren’t embedded into my psyche like they are for so many Pacific Northwesters. The team’s trade of Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez’s departure via free agency, and the infamous late inning melt downs of Bobby Ayala don’t make my blood boil just like the Mariners’ historic 116-win season isn’t the first thing that I recall about the 2001 baseball season. Perhaps, that’s why I was indifferent to the June hiring of former Mariner great Edgar Martinez to be the club’s hitting coach.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that Edgar should already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Moreover, my wife is a life-long Mariners fan and she’s thoroughly briefed me on his importance to the franchise and its fan base. Even if I wasn’t married to a die-hard Mariners and Edgar fan, it’s not hard to figure out what he means to the local community.

Considering that the 52-year-old has a Safeco Field cafe named after him and there’s a street outside the stadium bearing his name, it’s pretty clear that Edgar is a Seattle fixture. Regardless of his stature with fans, his Hall of Fame worthiness, and my bride’s passion for “Gar,” I’ve remained ambivalent to the hiring.

There’s no disputing that Seattle hitters performed much better after the all-star break, which commenced shortly after Edgar’s hiring on June 20. The club had more hits, slugged more home runs, and walked more often despite having fewer at-bats in the second half. Plus, they had significantly better triple-slash numbers. That’s why it’s understandable if a casual observer linked the team’s resurgence with the five-time Silver Slugger award winner’s arrival.

Yes, the numbers show that the Mariners’ offense was far superior after Edgar arrived. But, should the credit go the team’s new hitting coach or was it something else?

Split AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1st Half 2993 312 705 130 14 93 245 713 .236 .296 .382 .678
2nd Half 2551 344 674 132 8 105 233 623 .264 .328 .446 .773
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/7/2015.

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Out with the old
As the Mariners’ bats sputtered during the early months of the 2015 season, former GM Jack Zduriencik tried his best to tweak the 25-man roster prior to the July 31 trading deadline in hopes of jump-starting the team’s ineffective offense. Most notably, he parted ways with three players – Willie Bloomquist, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks – via the designation for assignment (DFA) process. All three were gone by July 6. Shortly thereafter, Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley were traded away to postseason contenders.

Name G AB H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Austin Jackson 107 419 114 18 3 8 .272 .312 .387 .699
Justin Ruggiano 36 70 15 4 0 2 .214 .321 .357 .678
Dustin Ackley 85 186 40 8 1 6 .215 .270 .366 .635
Rickie Weeks 37 84 14 1 0 2 .167 .263 .250 .513
Willie Bloomquist 35 69 11 1 0 0 .159 .194 .174 .368
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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With the exception of Jackson, the group performed woefully at the plate. Even with Jackson’s league-average level of production included, these former Mariners produced a combined .234/.279/.328 triple-slash while accounting for 28-percent of the team’s first-half at-bats. Replacing these five players with better options played a pivotal role in boosting the team’s production at the plate.

In with the new
Four players – Franklin Gutierrez, Ketel Marte, Mark Trumbo, and Jesus Montero – were the key position player additions to the major league squad in 2015. They joined the Mariners at different times, but their arrival helped usher out the five players previously mentioned. The “new guys” accounted for 33-percent of the team’s second half at-bats and their .269/336/481 slash helped rejuvenate an offense that scored the second fewest runs scored in the American League during the first half. Conversely, Seattle ranked number-five in runs scored during the second half.

Name G AB H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Franklin Gutierrez 59 171 50 11 0 15 .292 .354 .620 .974
Ketel Marte 57 219 62 14 3 2 .283 .351 .402 .753
Mark Trumbo 96 334 88 13 0 13 .263 .316 .419 .735
Jesus Montero 38 112 25 6 0 5 .223 .250 .411 .661
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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Of the four new players, Trumbo was the only big league regular when Edgar arrived. During his first month with Seattle, the slugger was terrible with a .151/.184/.205 slash and one home run. Fortunately for the 29-year-old slugger and the Mariners, he bounced back by slugging 12 homers and posting a .295/.351/.479 slash for the remainder of the season.

Couldn’t Trumbo’s resurgence be a by-product of Edgar? Sure, but I’m not ready to say Trumbo’s bounce back was due to his new hitting coach because the right-handed power hitter is known to be a streaky hitter. A comparison of his 2015 totals to his career averages illustrates that he didn’t do much more than perform at his career norms.

Mark Trumbo 2015 vs. career averages

Year Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2015 TOT 142 545 133 23 3 22 36 132 .262 .310 .449 .759
162 Game Avg. 162 648 150 28 2 31 42 161 .250 .300 .458 .758
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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Strong finishers
Another factor in the Mariners’ rebound was the second-half turnaround of two of Trumbo’s teammates – Robinson Cano and Brad Miller. Cano was easily the most disappointing Mariner during the first half. He was under-performing in most offensive categories and wasn’t contributing at the level expected for a player who earns $24 million annually.

By now, it’s well known that the 32-year-old struggled with stomach-related issues earlier in the season. Since opening up about his health struggles in early July and getting his gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) under control, the six-time all-star – like Trumbo –  “flicked the switch” and began delivering outstanding numbers after July 1.

Name G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Robinson Cano 70 305 92 11 1 15 .331 .387 .540 .926
Brad Miller 60 203 49 9 1 3 .274 .338 .385 .724
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/10/2015.

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Miller’s defensive struggles at shortstop made the 25-year-old the one of the more scrutinized Mariners during the 2015 season. But, his fielding miscues were exaggerated as were his alleged issues with the bat. Miller was a good – although inconsistent – offensive contributor. Like Seager and Cruz, he had two bad months. In Miller’s case, it was May and July. Interestingly, he struggled most during the same two months in 2014 before finishing strongly with Howard Johnson as his hitting coach.

Steady performers
There were a couple of Mariners who played at relatively the same level throughout the season – Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Imagine how bad the first-half offense would have been without this duo? Cruz was the team’s big free agent signing last offseason and he performed well above the expectations of many in 2015 and will likely receive votes for American League Most Valuable Player award. He won’t win the award, but he certainly was the Mariners’ best offensive performer.

Name G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Nelson Cruz 65 293 77 9 0 23 .294 .365 .592 .957
Kyle Seager 73 330 79 18 0 14 .264 .327 .465 .792
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/10/2015.

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Seager was – once again – a strong presence in Seattle’s line-up. The 27-year-old performed near his career averages despite June and August struggles. Like Cruz, Seager could be counted on to play virtually every day; he only missed one game in 2015. Thanks to Cruz and Seager, the Mariners had two hitters who stabilized the lineup, while accounting for 22-percent of the team’s at-bats in 2015.

Help needed
Although I was unmoved by Edgar’s hiring and contend that his presence wasn’t the reason for the offense’s strong second half, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that his expertise isn’t needed. There are several Mariners who could learn from the two-time batting champion – if the players are willing to listen and learn.

When Edgar assumed the role as the Mariners’ hitting coach, the player most mentioned as a candidate for reclamation was the team’s catcher – Mike Zunino. The right-handed hitter is a superb defender behind the plate who possesses immense power with the bat. Unfortunately for him and the team, he struggled mightily throughout 2015 and became a boo-bird target.

How bad was it for Zunino in 2015? Former manager Lloyd McClendon opted to have a player with above-average extra base power sacrifice bunt 10 times, which tied him for sixth most in the American League. Yes, Zunino’s former skipper would rather have him bunt despite the fact that he could “run into” a ball and easily hit it over 400 feet.

On the surface, it initially appeared that the 24-year-old was turning a corner under the tutelage of his new hitting mentor after he hit .222 in July. Another sign of how bad it was for Zunino in 2015 –  a .222 batting average for a month created optimism.

Mike Zunino monthly splits

Split G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 22 70 8 1 0 2 3 6 27 .129 .214 .242 .456
May 22 81 18 5 0 5 12 2 29 .237 .275 .500 .775
June 25 86 10 0 0 2 3 8 31 .130 .212 .208 .420
July 25 89 18 5 0 1 8 2 25 .222 .256 .321 .577
August 18 60 7 0 0 1 2 3 20 .130 .175 .185 .361
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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The former Florida Gator’s improvement didn’t last though. In late August, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish described via Twitter just how badly Zunino had regressed. The next day, the power hitting receiver was demoted to Class-AAA Tacoma and he didn’t return when rosters expanded on September 1.

In retrospect, May turned out to be Zunino’s best month when he had a better batting average and far superior slugging percentage. Perhaps, Edgar’s guidance will take hold with the young backstop in 2016.

Another underachieving Seattle regular who could use Edgar’s help is first baseman Logan Morrison. The 28-year-old started off very poorly in April, although he showed signs of returning to form during May and June. Regrettably, the combination of a bruised thumb and Montero’s arrival significantly reduced his second-half playing time at first base.

Morrison did bounce back in September and made sure to give his hitting coach credit when he told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle “Shoot, I have a new swing. He’s been trying to get me to do this for like a month now.” Only time will tell if “LoMo” can sustain the improvement he enjoyed during the last month of the regular season.

Logan Morrison monthly splits

Split G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 21 80 15 1 0 1 .197 .238 .250 .488
May 28 116 27 3 2 5 .273 .379 .495 .874
June 26 107 25 3 1 3 .253 .308 .394 .702
July 21 80 9 0 0 3 .129 .225 .257 .482
August 22 55 10 5 0 1 .204 .278 .367 .645
Sept/Oct 28 73 17 3 0 4 .266 .342 .500 .842
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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Two others who spent time with Seattle this season who could benefit from Edgar’s expertise are infielders Marte and Chris Taylor. Although Marte hit the ground running in Seattle, “Gar” may be able to help the switch-hitter with his hand placement, which is different from each side of the plate.

Like Marte, the right-handed hitting Taylor could also benefit to changes with his hands. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted in August that Taylor’s “hitch in his swing makes him late on good velocity and perhaps later than is ideal on offspeed stuff.”

Coincidentally, hand placement is something that Edgar emphasizes. During a wide-ranging conversation about hitting, the seven-time all-star told David Laurila of FanGraphs.com that “how you position your hands is important.” Marte and Taylor are just two examples of young Mariners who can learn from the Mariners icon.

Finally
Edgar Martinez has been a positive influence on the team’s hitters – Morrison’s comments reinforce that point. But, that doesn’t mean that the greatest designated hitter in the history of the game was the impetus behind the Mariners’ second-half offensive surge.

Even Edgar acknowledged the difficulty with hitters making in-season changes when he told Laurila “breaking a habit is difficult and it takes time. It’s hard to make an adjustment like that – a bigger adjustment – in the middle of the season.” His own words appear to confirm that the Mariners’ second half had more to do with the players than their guru.

At best, all a coach can hope to do is maximize a player’s potential. Edgar isn’t going to turn Zunino into Buster Posey. On the other hand, it’s plausible that Edgar might be able to kick-start the three-year major leaguer’s career before it’s too late. That, in itself, would be an impressive feat.

Having the time to work with Zunino, Marte, Taylor, and other youngsters when there aren’t any games will help because, as Edgar puts it, “it’s not easy to make a change, because they’ve done the same thing for so long.”

Fortunately for Edgar fans and the Mariners, he’s been afforded the opportunity the stay with the club as their hitting coach despite the fact that they have a new manager in Scott Servais. GM Jerry Dipoto has made it clear that improving as a player is a career-long process and not just a minor-league function when he stated that “player development at the major-league level is never ending.”

Who better to help usher in young hitters than a should-be Hall of Famer who has the designated hitter named after him? Having Edgar around the batting cage, in the clubhouse, and in the dugout will certainly help the Mariners’ offense in 2016. However, Dipoto getting better hitters will help the offense much more than any coach could – even if their name is Edgar Martinez.…

With the trade deadline only days away and the Seattle Mariners currently on the outside looking in, much space has been put towards dissecting what exactly the team should do this week. Should the M’s be sellers? Could they be buyers? Sitting 9.5 games back in the division and 6.5 games back of a wild card berth entering Tuesday’s games likely suggest the former more so than the latter.

Whatever the case, getting a head start on filling holes for next season should be more important than attempting an incremental upgrade for the season’s final two months. There’s enough talent on the ball club that a hot stretch in August could put them back in the wild card race, but not enough performance to merit another acquisition to bolster the club in 2015 alone.

The players most often discussed as being pieces to sell — Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, Austin Jackson, Fernando Rodney, and Mark Lowe — are free agents. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill mentions Brad Miller and D.J. Peterson among other names that have been brought up in conversations.

Starting with the rotation, the potential departures of Happ and Iwakuma open two spots. Despite his prolongued stint on the disabled list, Iwakuma has played the crucial role of No. 2 starter as recently as last year and has flashed glimpses of having his stuff back since returning. Happ has been excellent in the back-end of the rotation and owns a 3.77 FIP in 104 and 1/3 innings of work.

Felix Hernandez isn’t going anywhere while Taijuan Walker should have one of next year’s rotation slots essentially locked up at this point. Both Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias have had success in the big leagues this year and are solid options. James Paxton is still on the disabled list with an injured finger and a return doesn’t appear imminent.

A rotation of Felix, Walker, Montgomery, Elias, and Paxton has plenty of upside, but none of the non-Felix pitchers really stand out. Walker could presumably take another step forward as a solid No. 3 starter but Elias and Montgomery project more as back-end guys. With the potential loss of Iwakuma, there will be a hole in the rotation, particularly in the No. 2 spot.

A healthy and effective Paxton can fill that role, though he has thrown barely over 130 innings since Opening Day 2014 — the track record simply isn’t there.

Seattle will need more out of what’s been a league average rotation this year and an additional veteran starter will be required as well as the usual depth.

The bullpen has almost literally gone from first to worst. What was a strong point last year has been a weakness this year. Rodney has turned into a pumpkin — though he may have been tipping his pitches — while Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar have taken their turns heading up and down the I-5. The Bartender has been better of late, though, and his peripherals suggest he’s outperforming his earned run average.

The good news is that Carson Smith has adapted nicely to his role as closer and has been excellent. Vidal Nuno and Charlie Furbush are doing well enough in their roles.

Gone are Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone, dealt for Welington Castillo and Mark Trumbo respectively. The dealings of relievers for bats, including Brandon Maurer in the winter, have eaten away at the depth that existed in 2014.

If Lowe leaves as a free agent, the Mariners will need to find eighth inning help, which never seems to come cheap in free agency. The bullpen likely needs an additional major league arm or two as well. It’s possible Nuno competes for a rotation spot but has otherwise worked out well enough in the bullpen.

The infield picture is a little more clear with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both locked into long-term extensions. Seager is in the midst of another excellent season while Cano is enjoying a red-hot July and finally showing signs of life after a terrible first half. Miller is also having a solid season and has a firm grasp on the starting shortstop job with Chris Taylor still waiting in the wings.

As has been the problem for more than a few years now, first base needs an upgrade. After showing progress with the bat last year, Logan Morrison holds an 87 wRC+ and has been replacement level. Mark Trumbo has been better recently, but his season performance is still below league average. Both players are under team control through 2016 so it’s unlikely Seattle seeks a significant upgrade, though there’s an argument that it’s still needed.

Behind the plate Mike Zunino has still played solid defence and picked things up with the bat this past week, but has struggled to hit his weight throughout the season. A trip to Triple-A has been suggested as a potential antidote the struggles at the plate. He’s still only 24 and could very well be the catcher of the future still, but the team needs a second catcher capable of playing three times per week — that’s the real issue. Doing without is only hurting Zunino in the short and long-term.

The outfield picture will become even less clear with Jackson set to depart. Seth Smith is under contract for another year and is enjoying an excellent season as a platoon bat in the corners. Nelson Cruz has played right field more than anyone is comfortable with and that will probably continue next year. If manager Lloyd McLendon is smart it won’t, but it’ll likely depend in part on his other options.

Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano were brought onboard to solidify a pair of outfield platoons but are no longer on the big league team. There’s an increasing chance that Seattle will move on from Dustin Ackley before next spring. Franklin Gutierrez has had a nice return but is likely best-served as one-half of a platoon. He’s a free agent at the end of the year, but it’s not difficult to envision him being kept in the fold beyond.

Assuming Smith, Cruz, and Trumbo are returning and the others not, Seattle will need an outfielder capable of playing center field and another corner bat. Smith and Cruz can probably handle right field duties and Trumbo isn’t really an outfielder. Talk of turning Miller into a super utility player a la Ben Zobrist has cooled but there is a real possibility shortstop prospect Katel Marte could eventually convert to an outfielder.

Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins was on hand to see Marte’s outfield debut for the Tacoma Rainiers and opined that the youngster is going to need time to make the defensive adjustments. By many accounts his bat is big league ready, but we probably won’t know how viable of an option he is until Spring Training.

By my count, when constructing the 2016 edition of the Seattle Mariners there is at least one need in the rotation, a couple holes to fill in the bullpen, perhaps help at first base and definitely behind the plate, and two-thirds of the outfield will need to be revamped.

Seattle lacks the type of players that command high prospect prices at the trade deadline which makes them a less traditional seller. There’s no reason to think that Jackson and Iwakuma couldn’t net a couple decent prospects — probably nothing that helps the M’s immediately. If neither player is part of the future plans, there’s no reason to let them walk for nothing when they could be traded for something. Even Happ would be an upgrade for a club in need of some short-term pitching help and you can’t forget about Lowe as a potential trade piece — teams are always looking for bullpen help this time of the year.

It won’t be easy for the Mariners to admit defeat on a season that was riddled with expectations, but it’s not as though the window for a playoff berth has closed. The core of the club is in place long-term. But as we can see, there are several holes that need to be filled — some remaining from this past offseason.

If possible, the Mariners should be looking to get a head start on filling those holes. Now is as good a time as any and selling the pieces that are about to become free agents can help solve potential problems in 2016 and down the road.…

"SeattleThe 2014 season for Jesus Montero could be best described in one word: forgettable. Between the rough Spring Training entrance to the ice cream sandwich related exit, it couldn’t have gotten much worse. It couldn’t have, if his 2013 season didn’t involve a PED suspension, injuries, losing a starting job and being sent down to the minors.

But all that appears to be in the past for the former top prospect, we hope.

Montero impressed his superiors by showing up to camp this spring in excellent shape and reportedly losing the 40 pounds he was supposed to the previous year. It was going to take an extraordinary showing during Cactus League games to get the right-hander into the Opening Day roster, though, if that was even being considered by management.

It didn’t help Montero’s case that the Seattle Mariners beefed up the right-handed side of the lineup with free agent acquisitions of Nelson Cruz and Rickie Weeks. The pair were expected to take up the DH at-bats with Weeks seeing regular time in left field. Of course, things didn’t quite go that smoothly as Weeks struggled with the transition to part-time outfielder and was released while Cruz became the mostly-regular right fielder. But with Logan Morrison at first and Willie Bloomquist under contract, Montero still found himself on the outside looking in from the get-go.

And so, with a change in attitude, and pant size, Montero began the 2015 season with the Tacoma Rainiers and immediately began to hit.

The right-hander posted a 126 wRC+ for the month of April. May was a little less productive with an 89 wRC+, but he did double his home run total on the year to six. Montero then exploded for a 153 wRC+ and .950 OPS in June. At the time of his call-up he held a .332/.370/.529 slash line.

Mike Curto, the Rainiers play-by-play announcer, detailed Montero’s season to date and dispelled several of the perceptions that surround the slugger’s improvement. No, the 25-year-old is not directly benefiting from hitter-friendly road parks. Neither is he only pummeling left-handed pitching.

It appears that what we are seeing is Montero finally making adjustments as the season goes on. One particular portion from Curto’s piece stood out:

“If you are a scout and you saw Tacoma for five days, June 21-26, you would have seen Montero go 3-for-24 with 10 strikeouts, swinging and missing at pitches low-and-away from right-handers. If you saw Montero this past week, you would have seen him lay off those pitches and get ahead in the count.”

Sluggers can be streaky players. Look no further than Nelson Cruz or Mark Trumbo, as PI’s Luke Arkins recently examined. More often than not, over the course of a full season these types of streaks will even themselves out and we get a better picture to look at.

With the adjustments, Montero has managed to improved his ability to hit for contact and it resulted in him leading the Pacific Coast League in hits with 115 before his re-call. He’s more or less been able to maintain the power numbers he produced in 2014 only with fewer doubles and more triples — imagine that.

His .370 BABIP suggests he’s had some help in piling up the singles but it’s unfair to discredit the adjustments he’s made in favor of luck. At the same time, we are talking about a guy who has over 1500 plate appearances at Triple-A and he wouldn’t be the first to have solved PCL pitching while not succeeding in the majors.

Alas, Montero is now 25. He is no longer riding the top prospect tag. The Mariners were kind enough to comment that, entering Spring Training, expectations for Montero were non-existent. And truthfully, he has done just about everything possible to sabotage what projected to be a solid major league career. Seattle wouldn’t be the first team to give up on a player that didn’t seem to care enough about his on-field success.

With a strong first half performance, and a struggling Mariner offense, Montero finds himself on the big league squad. It could, and probably will, be short-lived as the club will need to make roster room for starter J.A. Happ who was optioned to High-A in order to make room for the right-handed bat. Dustin Ackley has been heating up and is unlikely to be the odd man out. It also doesn’t sound like the club is unhappy with the performance of Franklin Gutierrez either.

I’m not going to advocate dumping a particular player in order to make room for Montero. The club has done well to move on from Bloomquist and Weeks, and while many have been calling for Ackley’s dismissal, his ability to play center field is needed with the uncertainty surrounding Austin Jackson.

We knew that Montero was talented, it was just a matter of whether or not he was willing to put it to work. It appears that he has and the Mariners — or another team — need to give him that chance at the big league level. Picking up a single and a walk in nine plate appearances is not going to cut it for Montero, but he is going to need more than three games to prove himself in the majors.…

Jones
The best word to describe the Seattle Mariners offense may be “enigmatic.” That’s been especially true in the month of June. During 14 games this month, the team has scored two or fewer runs – including four shutouts – in nine games, while scoring five or more runs in three other games. The end result is a team with a 5-9 win-loss record and an increasingly frustrated fan base.

This level of offensive unevenness isn’t a new challenge for an organization that’s sputtered at the plate for over a half-decade. When you break down the team’s plate appearances by handedness, it becomes readily apparent that the Mariners’ difficulties rest on one side of the plate. Entering today, Seattle’s .230 batting average against right-handed pitching is the worst in the majors – the current league-average is .253. Yes, that’s right, the Mariners are worse than 15 National League teams who permit their pitchers to hit on a regular basis.

The root of the Mariners’ problem against right-handed pitching is their league-worst .200 batting average by their right-handed hitters. The only Mariners right-handers who are above league-average against right-handed pitching are Nelson Cruz (.291) and Austin Jackson (.261). Seeing these stats won’t stir optimism in any fan who’s desperately looking for any glimmer of hope for a season that seems to be slipping away.

Despite the struggles of Robinson Cano and Dustin Ackley – who are hitting a combined .225 with 19-percent of all team at-bats against righties – the Mariners’ left-handed hitters rank 18 of out of 30 teams against right-handed pitching with a .251 batting average – six points above the league-average. Naturally, the left-handers should outperform the right-handers. But, not by such a large margin.

Unlike their right-handed counterparts, the Mariners’ left-handed hitters are not dead last in the league when they face a handedness disadvantage at the plate – they also rank 18 of 30 against southpaws. To some, this could be viewed as an encouraging sign. On the other hand, imagine how bad the offense would be if the lefties were as unproductive as their right-handed teammates?

Regardless of where the production comes from, the Mariners have to perform better against right-handed pitching or they’ll continue to languish at the bottom of the league in all offensive categories. So, where does Seattle go from here to improve? Let’s look at the key regular players who matter most to the team’s run production.

The good guys
Up to this point of the season, the team’s offensive success has been highly dependent on the performance of Cruz. But, he’s been cooling off during the last month – .269/.327/.366 slash and only two home runs in the last 28 days. Fortunately for the team, Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison have combined for eight home runs and a .306 batting average during that time-frame and Seth Smith has also contributed a .270/.372/.473 slash.

Austin Jackson – who struggled after arriving in Seattle last year – has done well since returning from a sprained ankle in last month, registering a triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage of .305/.337/.439 during the last 28 days. Jackson has also performed well against right-handers in with a .261/.305/.338 slash. It’s realistic to expect that the 28-year-old can maintain that pace since his .261 average is actually 18 points below his career-average against right-handers.

Brad Miller’s .231 batting average isn’t great, but he’s performing well compared to his peers. Entering today, his .711 on-base plus slugging percentage ranks number three in the American League among shortstops who have at least 200 plate appearances. His weakness has been against southpaws – he’s only hitting .114 compared to his .259 batting average against right-handers.

The rest of the bunch
There are several players on the 25-man roster who may be able to help to the Mariners offense, if they can return to their career norms. One is vital to the team’s success, while the others aren’t likely to make a season-changing impact against right-handed pitching.

Robinson Cano
The team’s highest paid position player is experiencing the worst start of his 11-year career. By his standards, hitting .249 against right-handed pitching is abysmal – especially after hitting .327 against righties in 2014 and maintaining a .316 average during his career. Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – discussed a change in Cano’s foot placement during his swing that Mariners’ manager Lloyd McClendon recently noticed during last week’s OFP Report.

If Cano’s tweak to his batting stance truly leads in a return to form, the Mariners offense will certainly improve. This team can’t possibly have consistent success against right-handed pitching without their star second basemen being productive. With that said, there are many holes in this team’s offense and they’ll need more than just the six-time all-star to contribute.

Dustin Ackley
To date, Ackley’s 2015 season has been a huge disappointment. For the first time in his five-year career, the 27-year-old has been part of a platoon. As a result, he’s only had 10 plate appearances against southpaws. Unfortunately for Ackley and the Mariners, the left-handed hitter is only hitting .190 against righties compared to last year’s .259 and .241 lifetime averages.

Ackley’s 154 plate appearances against right-handed pitching constitutes 14-percent of the team’s at-bats against righties. The former North Carolina Tar Heel will either need to dramatically improve soon or the team will be forced to go in another direction. Perhaps, the team is already changing course. Since the acquisition of Mark Trumbo, Ackley has started in less than half of the team’s games and has been used in several games as a late defensive replacement.

James Jones
The return of Jones from Class-AAA Tacoma has the potential to be nothing more than a minor upgrade. Yet, Jones – who played 108 games with the Mariners in 2014 – possesses two distinct attributes that should help the team.

The fleet-footed Jones can put a team’s defense on edge and bring a charge of excitement to the team’s fan base whenever he’s on base. Last season, he successfully stole 27 bases and had a league-best 96-percent success rate for players with more than 25 stolen bases. The addition of a player who had 15 stolen bases in the minors certainly helps, but Jones’ speed isn’t the only vital component to the left-handed hitter’s game. The second attribute that Jones possesses is simple and was just stated – he’s a left-handed hitter.

No, the 26-year-old isn’t going to put the team on his back and carry them to the postseason. But, entering today, Jones’ 2014 major league .250 batting average against right-handed pitching is better than the 2015 numbers of Cano and Ackley – who stands to lose more playing time to Jones.

Mark Trumbo
The newly acquired right-handed slugger has struggled since arriving. But, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll be able to repeat his .241 career average against right-handers. That’s eight points below league-average, but would rank third on the Mariners.

Where to turn?
If the Mariners have any chance of being taken seriously as postseason contender, it’s clearly obvious that getting the offense on-track is paramount. Sure, the second wildcard lets teams perpetuate the notion that they’re still in contention well into September. But, the Mariners can’t be a realistic contender if they don’t score at a higher rate for a sustained period of time and hit close or near to league-average – especially against right-handed pitching.

That’s why the acquisition of Trumbo is so puzzling to me. In fairness to the 29-year-old, his .402 slugging percentage is 16 points above the major league average. But, the team needs hitters who have been more successful against right-handed pitching. His skill set – he rakes against southpaws and has power – is nice to have, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a significant improvement.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, their minor league system has little available in terms of players hitters who could help the team get out of their offensive doldrums against right-handers. Several players with varying degrees of success against right-handers like Jesus Montero (.289), Patrick Kivlehan (.240), Stefen Romero (.266) and Franklin Gutierrez (.337) are most frequently mentioned by fans as possible fixes to the team’s woes.

Montero (.226) and Romero (.164) have not performed well against right-handed major league pitching and Kivlehan isn’t doing well at Class-AAA. “Guti” is a fan favorite and his ongoing battle with health issues are inspirational and he may be able to provide some value. However, he can no longer play on an everyday basis. That’s why the team will likely need to turn to the trade market and waiver wire to significantly improve their fortunes against righties.

About three weeks ago, Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – provided several possible fixes to the Mariners. All of the players suggested by Jason – Michael Brantley, Carlos Gomez, Gerado Parra, Josh Reddick, Will Venable, and Ben Revere – would represent an immediate improvement against right-handers. Each player presents a different level of risk and reward, which Jason covered in great detail in his piece.

Final thoughts
There are a few reasons for fans to maintain guarded optimism – or at least hope – for the remainder of the Mariners’ season. Their best hitter – Cano – is the most likely player on the team to improve, Trumbo and Jackson will probably have career-average years, and Miller and Morrison are on-track to have career-best years. Unfortunately for Mariners fans, hope is not a management strategy that wins championships.

While it’s clear that the team can’t succeed in 2015 without a better version of Robinson Cano, the Mariners need more than just their 32-year-old star to reach the postseason. They have to minimize the ineffectual Ackley and Jones may help in that regard, but he’s an unproven commodity. The Mariners can either “hope” that Jones is up to the task or they can opt to add two more players who are more proven against right-handed pitching to complement Jones and the rest of roster. Otherwise, the chances of Seattle making the postseason for the first time in 2001 will fade away.…

McClendon
When I served in the Navy, I had the privilege of working with a superb aircraft maintenance officer and a dynamic leader who was simply known throughout Naval Aviation as “Big John.” On one particular occasion the unit that I was leading had endured a series of discouraging events, but we eventually bounced back and succeeded when it really mattered.

When I talked to John about the difficulties leading up to our eventual success, he simply said that you “can’t argue with results.” John’s philosophy was simple – all that matters is the outcome of your actions, not the preceding build-up or talk. This philosophy applies to all professions and certainly to the Seattle Mariners, who have underachieved this season.

With about 35-percent of the season completed, Seattle – once again – can’t effectively produce runs. The team ranks 29 out of 30 major league teams in runs-per-game – only the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies are worse. Think about that for a moment; the Mariners run-production is worse than the output of 14 National League teams – who permit their pitchers to hit. Throw in the slowest start of perennial all-star Robinson Cano’s career and you’re left with an underachieving offense and a frustrated fan base.

Many – including me – believed that the Mariners had a realistic shot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001 after they reloaded their offense during the offseason. The biggest move was the signing of slugger Nelson Cruz, who hasn’t disappointed – so far. Cruz’s arrival along with the acquisitions of veterans Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks signaled that the team knew that they needed to bolster an offense that had languished near the bottom of the league during the previous five seasons.

The arrival of proven players weren’t the only factor that fueled higher-than-usual expectations. Fans maintained a relatively reasonable expectation that Austin Jackson would bounce back from a disappointing 2014 and that their young players – Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Chris Taylor, Mike Zunino – would incrementally improve from their 2014 performances. Miller and Morrison have been productive, but, there isn’t enough historical data to gauge whether either will continue to perform for the remainder of the season and Taylor and Zunino have scuffled at the plate.

Although their recent offensive drought is not indicative of the talent on the roster, the team has not delivered results and will likely continue to struggle with run-production even after the current drought ends. Jackson is showing signs that he’s returning to his career norms at the plate and it’s reasonable to expect that Kyle Seager, Jackson, Smith, Trumbo, and Weeks will perform at career norms, if utilized properly. However, Cruz is due for a cool down – his career numbers say so – and there’s no other clear-cut candidate for a strong second half other than Cano.

With that reality staring them in the face, the team made several moves designed to help kick-start the offense, although it’s debatable if the changes will actually help their overall production. First, Seattle added slugging outfielder/first baseman Mark Trumbo a week ago. Then, they designated Ruggiano last Friday in order to make room for back-up catcher Jesus Sucre, who had been assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma. General Manager Jack Zduriencik explained the move – which included sending back-up catcher Welington Castillo to Arizona – and the team’s designation of Ruggiano for assignment on The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan.

The team’s decision to designate Ruggiano for assignment was mildly surprising. As I’ve stated previously, waiving a right-handed hitter who could play all three outfield positions instead of Ackley or Weeks hurt the Mariners. Replacing Ackley and/or Weeks with Trumbo in the field is an improvement albeit a small one. The 29-year-old primarily played right field for Arizona and his .303 OBP at the position was below the league-average for that position (.324). Is he a better option than Ackley and Weeks? Absolutely! But, this was a small improvement for the struggling offense.

It’s not just Trumbo’s limitations that are unsettling to a fan base hoping for meaningful October baseball. The loss of the offensively-orientated Castillo as back-up for starting catcher Mike Zunino is counter-intuitive for a team needing more offense and power. When discussing the acquisition of the right-handed hitting catcher in May, Zduriencik himself stated that “he has the ability to hit, and he’s got power.” Now, the team has returned to the weak-hitting Sucre.

Unless the team falls completely out of contention, they will likely make more deals to improve the roster. Based on the available resources within the Mariners’ system and their trading history, it’s highly improbable that any blockbuster deals will be made by the July 31 trading deadline. In reality, this team is – at best – looking at incremental improvements.

Until those acquisitions arrive, most of the answers will have to come from the team’s 40-man roster. I believe that there are several personnel moves and strategies that the team can do today with the resources under their control that would – at least – slightly improve their outlook. My suggestions are “limited” solutions because the replacements being suggested are just that – limited. But, the changes are doable by the team and should be done sooner than later while Zduriencik works the trade market and waiver wire.

Replace Dustin Ackley with James Jones
This move would provide an upgrade – but not a long-term fix – to an abysmal situation. Although the left-handed hitting Jones has significantly less power than Ackley, he’d be an offensive upgrade over the 2015-version of Ackley and he’d provide something that Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon seems to crave – a true base stealing threat. He’s successfully stolen 15 bases and has only been caught three times at Class-AAA Tacoma – the Mariners have 24 stolen bases as a team.

The left-handed Jones has posted a .275/.365/.394 triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage against right-handed pitchers as a Rainier this year. The 26-year-old may not be able to reproduce those numbers in the majors, but his .251/.280/.309 slash against southpaws as a Mariner last season suggest that he wouldn’t be much worse than Ackley’s .259/.310/.442 output against lefties in 2014.

Deploy the Brad Miller/Chris Taylor tandem
No, removing Miller from shortstop is not the answer. Although he’s had his defensive lapses, he’s not a bad defender. His .714 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) ranks third in the American League among shortstops with more than 180 plate appearances. Miller is a far superior hitter against right-handed hitting as evidenced by his .254/.347/.469 slash. Having a right-handed platoon mate would help the team. That’s why I’ve previously suggested the tandem of the left-handed Miller and right-handed Taylor, who delivered a combined value of 2.8 wins-above-replacement (WAR) in 2014– which ranked sixth among all American League shortstops.

Despite Taylor’s difficulties during his brief stay in Seattle, the 24-year-old performed well against left-handed pitching with a .364/.417/.636 slash. Granted it’s small sample size. But, he did post a .276/.354/.345 slash against southpaws during 66 plate appearances in 2014. Returning the right-handed bat of Taylor from Class-AAA Tacoma would be a good addition and he’d provide more athleticism and better defense than the current back-up shortstop – Willie Bloomquist.

Replace Rickie Weeks with Justin Ruggiano
The Mariners should pull Ruggiano off of waivers and part ways with Weeks. Once again, this is a move with limited implications that is neither an indictment of Weeks nor an endorsement of Ruggiano as a long-term solution. The skill set of Trumbo replaces most of the value that Weeks potentially provided to the team and leaves the 32-year-old more expendable than the right-handed Ruggiano who can play all three outfield positions.

Play Trumbo at first base against southpaws
Morrison’s numbers – .200/.254/.218 – against lefties in 2015 make Trumbo a better option against left-handed pitching, plus resting “Lo Mo” – a player with an injury history – from time-to-time makes sense. This strategy isn’t exactly rocket-science, but it’ll help the offense and rest an every day player at the same time.

Stop trying high-risk base stealing attempts
It didn’t take a big brain to come up with this idea either. To date, the Mariners’ 53-percent base stealing success rate is the lowest in the American League and they’re tied with the Detroit Tigers with the most runners (23) caught stealing. The Tigers are able to withstand the runners caught stealing because they enjoy an on-base percentage that’s forty points higher than Seattle and they’ve put 239 more base runners on base than than the Mariners. Losing a significant number of base runners in high-risk situations is something that the offensively-challenged Mariners can ill-afford.

Reality check
The outcome of the moves I’ve suggested won’t guarantee a winning record, but they would make the team more athletic and provide a slight uptick in offensive capability. As Big John plainly stated, results are inarguable and the Mariners’ results are inadequate. It’s clear that the strategy of juggling a line-up of the usual suspects won’t solve this team’s woes at the plate. Each day that passes with the current “status quo” roster diminishes the team’s hopes of realistically jumping back into the Wild Card conversation, let alone the American League West race.

 …

"Seattle

Austin Jackson is set to rejoin the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday in Tampa Bay after completing his rehab assignment. The player who’s roster spot he will be taking, at least temporarily, isn’t who many hoped or thought it should be. Former closer Danny Farquhar was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma on Monday night following the M’s following a 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

The demotion of Farquhar isn’t all that surprising. Simply put, the right-hander has struggled. He owns a 6.46 ERA and a 4.24 FIP in 23 and 2/3 innings of work so far this year. His walk rate — 3.04 per nine innings — is up slightly over his 2014 performance but is still more or less in line with his 3.19 career rate. Farquhar’s strikeout rate, however, is down to 7.61, a full three punch outs less than his 10.69 career rate.

Part of Farquhar’s struggles can be attributed to a decline in his fastball velocity. As pointed out by Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill, he simply doesn’t command the pitch well enough to miss bats at a reduced velocityin the 92-to-93 MPH range compared to the 95 MPH he’s averaged in previous years. Churchill also points out that Farquhar seems to be relying on his cutter more than he should and utilizing his off-speed pitches more could be a solution.

What’s causing Farquhar to not throw as hard could be as simple as a mechanical issue with a remedy including a couple weeks at Triple-A to straighten things out. Obviously there’s always the possibility of some form of injury in play but there’s no need to jump to any doomsday scenarios at this point.

One other possibility could simply be fatigue. The 28-year-old made 66 appearances out of the bullpen last year and is already nearing a third of that total with 20 appearances in this first quarter of the season. Again, a demotion to Triple-A to relieve some pressure and allow for a few off-days could be the right medicine. For what it’s worth, Farquhar has mentioned that

The demotion of the right-hander leaves the following relievers at manager Lloyd McClendon’s disposal: Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Mark Lowe, Carson Smith and Joe Beimel.

Rodney has had his struggles and owns a 5.89 ERA — his FIP is better at 4.78 — but earned save No. 13 on Monday.

Aside from a stint on the disabled list, Wilhelmsen has had an excellent first ten innings of the season with an increased strikeout rate.

Furbush has once again excelled in his lefty specialist role though he is outperforming his peripherals.

Lowe has had some control problems, but has otherwise been solid over the past couple weeks. His velocity is back in the 95-to-97 MPH range.

Smith has been excellent this year striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings in his rookie campaign.

Beimel hasn’t been used a lot since being called up three weeks ago, but has gotten outs and has McClendon’s trust after a solid 2014 campaign.

Seattle can get by with a six-man bullpen in a short-term scenario, as can many teams. However the club is seven games into a stretch of 20 consecutive games with another stretch of 16 consecutive games to follow — not an ideal time to shorten the relief staff. The starting pitching has been better of late, but has proven to be inconsistent outside of Felix Hernandez.

J.A. Happ has been the solid veteran the club expected but lasted only two innings in his most recent start against the Baltimore Orioles.

James Paxton appears to have turned the corner after early struggles and has now gone six or more innings in five consecutive starts while allowing two or fewer earned runs.

Taijuan Walker has shown a few glimpses but has struggled more frequently than he has succeeded. The right-hander has allowed eight runs, all earned, over his last two starts totalling 9 and 1/3 innings pitched. He’s now one month removed from an excellent outing against the Texas Rangers where he threw seven innings yielding one unearned run and striking out five.

Roenis Elias had a solid six-inning performance on Monday generating whiffs with both his curveball and changeup. He’s also performed well in his previous starts and may have moved up a rung on the rotation depth chart if Hisashi Iwakuma were to be activated from the disabled list today.

McClendon admitted that had Elias failed to throw six innings on Monday that sending down Farquhar may not have been a possibility. If that was indeed the case, would we actually be talking about Willie Bloomquist or Dustin Ackley being removed from the big league roster? Tough to say.

I don’t need to rehash what we already know about the pair. Bloomquist’s role on the team is little more than veteran leadership and grit– and apparently hitting Mark Buehrle. Ackley has once again struggled mightily at the dish.

A healthy Chris Taylor gives the Mariners two options at shortstop, even while Brad Miller learns the outfield. Jackson will return to everyday center field duties and Justin Ruggiano is capable of handling a spot start there every so often.

Realistically, it should have been a position player that was sent down considering the tough stretch of schedule the M’s find themselves in. It’s possible this current arrangement isn’t meant to last more than a few games.

Some have suggested that the move with Farquhar simply buys the Mariners some time to make a real decision regarding Bloomquist or Ackley. This may well be the case and often times we see situations like this solve themselves, despite the fact that an easy solution already exists.

Perhaps it’s worth asking: what if this wasn’t entirely McClendon’s call? Maybe cutting Bloomquist and his guaranteed salary is something the higher-ups simply won’t do right now? That absolutely should not be the case, but it wouldn’t be the first time the organization has made a questionable decision.

The rotation has been better of late, as has the bullpen, but a couple short outings from starters before this week is over could become problematic. There’s absolutely no reason to be taxing a bullpen this early in the season.

Point is, Seattle is playing with fire running only six relievers for the time being. And for what? To keep a struggling part-time player around? Doesn’t sound like something a playoff team would be doing.…

Stefen Romero1At this time last season Stefen Romero found himself as a regular in the Seattle Mariners lineup. In a similarly timed late-May weekend series against the Houston Astros in 2014, he started all four games at designated hitter, picking up two singles and three walks in 16 plate appearances. Not a terrible performance, but perhaps indicative of how the season would end up going for him: not enough performance with the bat.

Prior to cracking the M’s Opening Day roster out of Spring Training last year, Romero’s bat was described as major league ready. The 26-year-old posted a .277/.331/.448 slash line in 411 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2013, his only action above Double-A. At the conclusion of that season the right-hander had amassed approximately 1500 minor league plate appearances so it’s fair to suggest that he was very close to being ready for the show, if not already so.

As we all have seen, Triple-A performance doesn’t always translate to MLB performance. Romero produced a dismal .192/.234/.299 slash line with a 51 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances at the major league level in 2014. The right-hander was clearly in over his head but wasn’t sent down to Triple-A until the end of June. This was largely because the Mariners simply didn’t have anyone else, sans Endy Chavez, to employ in right field with Michael Saunders on the disabled list.

Romero would be re-called for another stint but sent back down after Seattle acquired Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the trade deadline.

So far in 2015 the story hasn’t been negative for Romero, who started the season with the Tacoma Rainiers and has stayed there to this point. But it hasn’t exactly stood out, either.

The right-hander played in 36 games and had 163 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2014. Entering play on Saturday, Romero has played in 37 games, collecting 164 plate appearances. There are similarly sized samples that we can compare, and here is a look at the right-hander’s performance over those periods.

Stefen Romero 2015 TripleA

The positive here is that Romero has managed to increase his walk rate slightly. The downside is that his entire slash line has taken a major hit. The isolated power and slugging percentage numbers are down almost entirely because he’s hit a third fewer home runs in 2015 — he’s hit one more double this year compared to last and an equal number of triples.

Sure, the sample size is far too small to make a judgment about Romero’s 2015 season and future, but it would be far more encouraging to see him equal or better the numbers he was posting in Triple-A last season. So far he’s merely been good, and being good at Triple-A isn’t going to earn you a spot on the big league roster, particularly when there are far more options to select from.

This is not to be overly critical of Romero. At 26 he’s considered younger as opposed to young, and after a dismal first big league season the prospect tag has more or less disappeared — he eclipsed the 130 plate appearance plateau in 2014, using up his rookie status as well.

There are countless examples of late bloomers, however, and Romero could well have major league success in his future if he is given the opportunity. The problem is finding him that opportunity.

Between Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, Dustin Ackley, Willie Bloomquist, Rickie Weeks and Nelson Cruz there aren’t many outfield at bats available at the moment. Factor in that Brad Miller is starting his transition to the outfield and Austin Jackson nearing a return and there’s simply no room.

Barring a sequence of injuries, Romero’s quest for a return to the big leagues this year is simple: force the Mariners hand with performance. So far he hasn’t done that yet. There’s also too many guaranteed contracts in the way for Seattle to simply make a change for the sake of change.

Projecting a role for Romero on the 2016 club is probably as simple as assuming there won’t be one, though that may not be the case. Weeks, Jackson and Bloomquist are all free agents after this season and it could be the end of the line for Ackley, too. That leaves Cruz, who at most is a part-time outfielder, the platoon of Smith and Ruggiano and whatever becomes of Miller. There definitely could be room for another outfielder.

An interesting note regarding Romero is that this past week on Tuesday he made his first career start at first base. He’s primarily played the corner outfield spots but does have some experience at third base to his credit. Seattle has Logan Morrison under club control for 2016 before he’ll be eligible for free agency and realistically, Romero will have to find a way to provide more power than his skill set currently holds to make it as an average major league first baseman.

One scenario for Romero is that he finds himself with a different organization for next season, perhaps as an added piece in a significant trade for a premium bat or starting pitcher. At the end of the day, Romero has the tools to potentially become a fringy major leaguer who lives above replacement level. It’s just a matter of whether or not he will be able to do it with the Mariners or somewhere else.

There’s no reason for the Mariners to even think about giving up on Romero in 2015 seeing as he is playing quite well and offers depth with some major league experience. And as the usual, annoying caveat, it’s still only May. Talk to me in July and we’ll reassess Romero’s production and role in the organization. Right now, there isn’t enough reason to be concerned.

Romero hasn’t played well enough to earn a spot in the majors, but he hasn’t been struggling at Triple-A either. So for now and the foreseeable future, he’ll stay in Tacoma.…

Willie-Bloomquist
Despite their recent uptick in success –- five wins in the last seven games -– the Seattle Mariners continue to struggle at consistently generating offensive production. This week exemplifies the Mariners’ offensive unevenness during the 2015 season. After scoring 11 runs on May 12, Seattle scored a total of five runs in the next three games, including last night’s 2-1 walk-off win against the Boston Red Sox.

Just like in 2014, the team is well below league-average in every major offensive category, with the exception of home runs and that can be attributed to one player – Nelson Cruz. Seattle’s struggles are even more profound against right-handed pitching; they have a .236 batting average against right-handed pitching – 19 points lower than their average against southpaws. This is an especially troubling sign since, over the past three seasons, 66-percent of the team’s plate appearances have come against righties.

Despite the team’s sluggish start, I still expect that the Mariners will remain competitive for a postseason berth because of the talent on the roster. There are many fans – frustrated by the team’s inconsistent offense – who don’t agree with me. They want the team to make dramatic changes by changing the roles or even dispatching players such as Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Justin Ruggiano, Rickie Weeks, and Mike Zunino. Seattle’s impatient faithful have also called for the promotion of multiple players from Class-AAA Tacoma or even trades involving established stars like Carlos Gomez or Troy Tulowitzki. One current Mariner who doesn’t get mentioned at the same frequency as his teammates is veteran Willie Bloomquist. This made me wonder, what is his role with this team?

No, the 37-year-old isn’t going to single-handedly ignite the Mariners’ offense. However, the right-handed hitting Bloomquist’s career .264/.307/.327 triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage –against right-handers suggests that he’d be a better option than several of his left and right-handed teammates including Ackley, Ruggiano, and Weeks. The task-at-hand is to find a place for the veteran utility player to contribute more often.

Based on how the roster is currently constructed and how the South Kitsap High graduate has been utilized to date – 13 games and 27 plate appearances – I don’t see how the team could find Bloomquist additional opportunities. Looking at the players vying with Bloomquist for playing time helps illustrate the challenge of getting the veteran utility man on the field more often.

Chris Taylor/Brad Miller
I combined these two players because their joint presence on the roster represents the largest impact to Bloomquist’s opportunities. When the team recalled Taylor on May 3 to become their regular shortstop, it signaled the start of the left-handed Miller’s transformation from starting shortstop to super-utility player – the role that Bloomquist was signed to fill. Since Taylor’s arrival, Miller has started at designated hitter four times, shortstop twice, and in left field once. His .284 batting average against right-handed pitching makes Miller the perfect choice to fill-in at multiple positions against righties.

Prior to the Taylor promotion from Tacoma, Bloomquist held the responsibilities of back-up second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman and saw very limited opportunities at those three positions – 26 innings total in five games. Since Taylor’s arrival, Bloomquist has played just one inning at second base. The lone advantage Bloomquist holds over Taylor and Miller is that he’s played first base; a position never played by the duo. That in itself, may not enough to keep Bloomquist employed – he’s substituted from Logan Morrison in only two of the team’s first 35 games.

Rickie Weeks
Some believe that the former Milwaukee Brewer was signed as a contingency in the event that Bloomquist wasn’t ready to go after having micro-surgery on his knee in 2014. The right-handed Weeks has been part of left-hand/right-hand platoon in left field and designated hitter. Although he owns a .067 batting average against right-handed pitching, Weeks has done extremely well a – .320 batting average – against southpaws.

Manager Lloyd McClendon’s apparent preference to use Weeks over Bloomquist against lefties closes the door on another opportunity for the Puget Sound native to contribute in either left field or designated hitter. Even against right-handed pitching – where Bloomquist maintains a distinct advantage – McClendon has preferred Weeks.

Justin Ruggiano
Much like Bloomquist, the right-handed hitting Ruggiano didn’t get much playing time in April. That changed significantly when center fielder Austin Jackson was placed on the disabled list on May 3. Since then, he’s played eight games in Jackson’s place. Approximately half of his 50 plate appearance have come against right-handed pitching and he hasn’t fared well with a .130 batting average. The 33-year-old is hitting southpaws better at .238, although it’s below his career .265 average. A significant advantage Ruggiano has over Bloomquist is that Ruggiano can play all three outfield positions. When he’s played in the outfield, Bloomquist has primarily been in left field.

Dustin Ackley
Although Ackley was been the team’s regular left fielder, I threw him into the mix since he’s struggled so much against all types of pitching. Bloomquist has a far better offensive track record than the left-handed hitting Ackley. But – like Ruggiano – Ackley has the ability to play center field and has also spent time at first base during his professional and collegiate career. It’s possible that Ackley may see significantly diminished playing time if his offense doesn’t come around soon. But, that void would likely be filled by the ensemble of Miller, Ruggiano, Smith, and Weeks rather than Bloomquist.

Final thoughts
Willie Bloomquist’s playing opportunities have been diminished greatly thanks to the call-up of Taylor, the Miller position change, and the off-season acquisitions of Smith, Weeks, and Ruggiano. The blending of these five players’ skill sets has reduced the usefulness of Bloomquist to the Mariners. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t contribute to a major-league roster, but there’s no longer a clearly defined path to playing time in Seattle. Right now, Bloomquist is an insurance policy that the Mariners can’t afford to maintain.

Late next week, a roster move will have to be made in order to make room for Jackson. This would be an appropriate time to let Bloomquist go, if the Mariners don’t have plans to use him more often. Even if the team to opts go in another direction and remove Ackley from the 25-man roster, or send Miller to the minors to hone his outfield skills, it’s still time to give Bloomquist a chance to contribute elsewhere.

Not including back-up catcher, Seattle has three reserve position player spots on their 25-man roster. Considering their struggles at the plate, they can ill-afford to under-utilize one of those spots. Replacing Bloomquist with Franklin Gutiérrez would benefit the team. He’d likely be used in a limited capacity – a good thing due to his injury history – but he’d provide an upgrade in outfield defense and a capable right-handed bat that could be used in left field or at designated hitter.    

Willie Bloomquist hasn’t done anything wrong; he’s just doesn’t have a clearly defined role on the team anymore. He deserves an opportunity to demonstrate that he can still play. Unfortunately, that opportunity isn’t likely to be in his hometown.

 …

Draft
The 2015 Major League Baseball amateur draft is less than two months away and the Seattle Mariners will have to wait until the second round to make their first selection with the 60th pick. That’s the latest that the team has drafted since they drafted Matt Tuiasosopo in at the 93rd overall spot in the third round in 2004. The Mariners are getting a late start in the draft because they’ve surrendered their first-round pick as a result from signing a free agent – slugger Nelson Cruz – who had a qualifying offer placed on him by his former team after the 2014 season.

Since Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik took the reigns of the team in late 2008, Seattle has produced three major league players from their first-round draft selections – Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, and Mike Zunino. Franklin has since moved on to Tampa Bay as part of the three-team deal that brought outfielder Austin Jackson to Seattle. Zunino quickly established himself as a superb defender after reaching the majors in less than a year, although the former Florida Gator is still developing as a hitter after being selected third overall in 2012. The jury is still out on Ackley, although he’s off to a quick start in 2015. Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show, Jason A. Churchill, recently provided his latest analysis of Ackley’s potential.

While having a first-round draft choice is certainly preferred, there’s no reason for fans to fret if their team doesn’t pick until the second round because plenty of talented players selected in the later rounds every year. Recently, the Mariners have successfully developed several projected 2015 contributors who were drafted later than the 60th pick – James Paxton (132), Chris Taylor (161), Tyler Olson (207), Carson Smith (243), and Dominic Leone (491).

Whether teams use their prospects as the foundation of their big league roster or they flip them to acquire major league-ready players, using the entire draft is vital to a team’s success. To demonstrate the depth of talent available throughout the draft, I’ve constructed a 25-man roster consisting of active players who were drafted 2000 in the sixth round or later.

I decided to use wins above replacement as calculated by FanGraphs.com (fWAR) as the basis of my selection process because fWAR represents the value of a player’s total contribution to their teams’ success. The eligible players with highest 2015 fWAR at each position were my first choice for each section of my roster – starting lineup, bench players, starting rotation, and bullpen. Let’s look at the starting lineup first.Position PlayersThis is a very strong lineup from top-to-bottom. The lone player drafted in 2000, is Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Joey Bats” bounced between four teams before coming to Toronto in 2008 and registering a breakout season when he slugged 54 home runs in 2010. Bautista’s story is of perseverance, although there are many players who took less time to establish themselves as good major league players.

The later rounds of the 2009 draft produced several outstanding 2014 performers. Most notably, Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Yan Gomes, and J.D. Martinez who were all selected after Ackley and Franklin 2009.  The one position that was actually a bit thin was shortstop, which is why I selected Oakland’s Ben Zobrist, who played second base, all outfield positions, plus 31 games at shortstop in 2014. Otherwise, I would have used him as a utility player off of the bench.   BenchThree of the four bench players are actually starters for their respective teams. But, the depth of talent at nearly every position gave me the luxury of picking high-value players, including a 2014 Silver Slugger winner – Gomes. If shortstop was deeper, Since Zobrist was unavailable to be my utility player, I chose Miami’s Ed Lucas. The right-handed hitter doesn’t have the lofty offensive numbers of other players on the roster. But, he played all infield positions – with the exception of catcher – plus the corner outfield positions in 2014.

RotationMy rotation may not be the best in baseball. But, it’s pretty decent considering that the group includes 2014 National League Rookie of the Year winner Jacob deGrom and two pitchers who’ve received Cy Young award votes at least once during their career- James Shields and Mat Latos. The bullpen is quite impressive too. BullpenI did make one slight tweak to the relief corps by making David Robertson the closer over reliever Dellin Betances – who had the highest fWAR value – since Robertson closed games for the New York Yankees in 2014, while Betances was his set-up man. I even have two southpaws in the bullpen – Tony Watson and Zach Duke.

Understandably, post-draft evaluations by fans and the media will focus on the early round selections. But, somewhere in the later rounds, future major league stars will be selected with no fanfare and end-up outperforming some first-round selections just as Carpenter, Goldschmidt, Gomes, and J.D. Martinez did in 2009.

 …

Felix Hernandez King's CourtOpening Day is finally upon us. But this isn’t the same Opening Day that has come in previous years. The Seattle Mariners begin the season as a legitimate World Series contender and American League favorite, according to many pundits. The rebuilding and retooling tags have been shed. The ‘bubble team that needs things to break right’ better defined the 2014 season and hasn’t even been mentioned when discussing 2015.

This time last year, Alex Carson posed the question, “is optimism silly?” when discussing the 2014 Mariners. He noted the addition of Robinson Cano and how there was a sense of change from previous seasons under former manager Eric Wedge. There wasn’t any expectations of success, but reasonable ground for being hopeful about the coming season.

This time around though, it’s all different. The Mariners are expected to have success not only in the regular season but the playoffs, also.

Missing the playoffs by a single game will dramatically alter the outlook of any team, particular one that hasn’t played October baseball in more than a decade. Perhaps it was enough to alter the public’s perception of the Seattle franchise who are now picked by many to make a playoff run.

Going from optimism to expectations often starts when the games aren’t being played: the offseason.

To some extent, the winter played out has many expected: Seattle acquired a right-handed power bat, traded a bullpen arm, picked up a veteran starter, traded Michael Saunders, and added reasonable outfield depth. The acquisitions of Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks all made sense. Sure, the Cruz deal may not look great two years from now nor is Smith the definition of an impact bat, but altogether, we’ve started to see how the pieces appear to fit.

Slotting Cruz between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in the lineup gives Seattle one of the best middle-of-the-orders in baseball. Having Smith and Ruggiano as options in the No. 2 spot allows Dustin Ackley to hit closer to the bottom of the order. Should Austin Jackson struggle with the bat, again, Weeks could be a viable option at the leadoff position.

Happ effectively replaces the departed Chris Young, who signed with the Kansas City Royals, and could be a perfect match for Safeco Field. Dealing Maurer made sense given the number of right-handed relief options at manager Lloyd McLendon’s disposal.

Perhaps the real difference-makers though, will be those already in the organization.

Taijuan Walker has dazzled this spring. And James Paxton is healthy. Between the pair, the Mariners could see No. 2 and No. 3 starter performance — and we’re not talking about their projected ceilings as top prospects. They could be such in 2015. The best part? The two will slot behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma who are still one of the top one-two punches in baseball. This doesn’t even consider that Roenis Elias, who threw over 160 innings last year, begins the season at Triple-A.

Brad Miller starts the year as the everyday shortstop but will have Chris Taylor breathing down his neck in just a few weeks. If he can take the next step with the bat, he could be the top shortstop in the division. Logan Morrison showed some promise with the bat when he was healthy last year and at age-27, he’s entering a make-or-brake season. Dustin Ackley? Basically the same story. Austin Jackson is entering his walk year and will have to prove he’s closer to the player he was in 2012 than 2014, if he wants to get paid.

The best bullpen in the major leagues in 2014, sans Brandon Maurer and Joe Beimel, will be back. Rookies Tyler Olson and Carson Smith will start the season in the pen while Dominic Leone works out some kinks at Triple-A and David Rollins serves an 80-game PED suspension — both offer depth that will be utilized in the coming months.

For all the depth in place, there are a few areas that aren’t without concern.

What happens if Morrison gets hurt again? Jesus Montero is next on the depth chart and despite a much improved physique, he’s a major question mark.

Mike Zunino played 131 games last year and will likely carry a similar workload this year since Jesus Sucre offers next to nothing in the batter’s box. Though the back-up should mark a defensive improvement over what John Buck offered for the first few months of 2014 and conceivably improve offensively.

There’s also the possibility that Jackson under performs once again and Ackley can’t find any consistency with the bat.

But this is where the difference between the 2015 and 2014 Mariners lies: McLendon has options. If Ackley struggles, Weeks can play left field off the bench. Or one of Ruggiano and Smith. If Walker struggles out of the gate or one of the starters hits the disabled list, Elias is waiting in the wings. Leone, who is coming off an excellent campaign, is the first reliever called-up if needed.

We keep talking about the Mariners depth and how if an 87-win team could make just a few marginal upgrades, the result would be a playoff berth. Well, the M’s have made marginal upgrades, and conceivably will see better performance out of a few existing players. Even if the bullpen regresses and Cruz can’t crack 20 home runs, this is still a much-improved club overall. A total of 90 wins or better is completely realistic.

One of the reasons why the M’s have become a popular pick is the lack of clarity in the American League West — not to take away from the quality of the team itself.

The Los Angeles Angels didn’t make any significant upgrades this winter and the loss of Howie Kendrick will certainly be felt. Aside from Mike Trout and Albert Pujols the lineup lacks punch. The bullpen looks stronger with a full season of Huston Street in the closer’s role though the rotation will probably determine how far this club can go. Garrett Richards is on the mend but Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will need rebound seasons.

The Oakland Athletics seemingly turned over the entire roster in an effort to replenish organizational depth and deploy a new strategy of receiving league average or better performance out of each position. The losses of Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija will hurt. Brett Lawrie, if healthy, could finally live up to some of his potential. Ben Zobrist was a nice pick-up, too, and his flexibility is a perfect match for the club’s style. Sonny Gray is a breakout candidate atop the rotation and Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffen are nearing returns.

The Texas Rangers have all but been written off for 2015 after ace Yu Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery. Healthy seasons from Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will help, as will the presence of the seemingly ageless Adrian Beltre. But Yovani Gallardo and Derek Holland head a weak rotation that probably won’t be supported well from the bullpen. There’s a chance that Texas could be interesting if things work out, but there are definitely the makings of another lost season.

The Houston Astros are on the upswing and should top the 70 wins the club finished 2014 with. Evan Gattis and Jed Lowrie are nice upgrades and Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena were under the radar pick-ups. Alongside Jose Altuve and George Springer the lineup could be pretty good, albeit strikeout-heavy. The rotation lacks intrigue behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, though. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshak were surprising bullpen expenditures, but their value will probably be realized once they are traded for other assets.

The AL West certainly doesn’t project as a weak division, especially in comparison to the other American League divisions that have their own sets of question marks. In comparison to the other four teams, the Mariners project as the most complete overall.

Even looking at other American League heavyweights, the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the rising Cleveland Indians, the Mariners still, on paper, have the most complete team.

It’s much easier to sneak under the radar a la the 2014 Kansas City Royals. But there’s something to be said for living up to expectations. This season is ripe with opportunity. How pumped is Felix going to be when he takes the mound for the first time on Monday after narrowly missing the playoffs?

Sure, the Mariners have been pegged as favorites before and the result was a 101-loss season. But that shouldn’t be anywhere near the case this year. The influence of McLendon and the leadership in the clubhouse has conjured up a a club that believes in themselves, and that’s as good a foundation for a team as any.

The roster is set. Spring Training is complete. All that’s left is to play the games.

Go Mariners.…

Mariners Celebrating
The Seattle Mariners are set to open their 2015 season tomorrow and, much to the chagrin of some fans, the team is this year’s “sexy pick” to make a deep postseason run. During the six-years that I’ve lived in the Puget Sound area, I’ve come to realize that being a favorite can create anxiety for some local fans.

That’s understandable considering the fact that Seattle along with Montreal/Washington are the only two Major League Baseball franchises  that have never appeared in a World Series. Yet, there are valid reasons for fans to have optimism entering the 2015 season. Why? The cadre of proven hitters that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and his staff have assembled will be able to compensate for any regression that the pitching staff could potentially experience.

Run scoring
Anyone familiar with the Mariners is well-aware of the organization’s recent offensive struggles. During the last five years, the team has ranked at-or-near the bottom of the American League (AL) in virtually every offensive category. Ironically, the Mariners have actually slightly improved their average runs-per-game (runs/gm) over the past two seasons. An area that didn’t improve was on-base percentage (OBP), which explains why Zduriencik has been constantly attempting to upgrade the team’s offense since the signing of second baseman Robinson Cano prior to the 2014 season. The roster that he’s constructed is capable of ending the team’s 14-year postseason drought. Mariners Production

While the acquisition of 2014 AL home run leader Nelson Cruz is the most notable addition to the team’s arsenal during this offseason, the acquisitions of veterans Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks will further “extend” the team’s lineup. All four of these players exceeded the league-average for OBP (.316) in 2014 and they’ve been above that mark throughout their careers.

Include Austin Jackson, who struggled mightily after being acquired last July, and the team is significantly better than last year’s Opening Day squad. Even if Jackson doesn’t completely return to his career OBP level of .336, the team has added five players who are significantly better than the players they’ve replaced. A side-by-side review of the likely 2015 Opening Day lineup compared to last year’s opener in Anaheim reinforces the fact that the offense will be far better than in 2014.

LineupAs for the holdovers from last season, there’s no reason to expect that Cano or Kyle Seager will experience any appreciable regression in 2015. With that said, the remaining holdovers — Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Mike Zunino – have yet to establish themselves as consistent and reliable contributors to the offense. Thanks to their new teammates, the foursome can positively contribute to run production by merely not regressing from an offensive standpoint.

A second order effect of Zduriencik’s deals is a much stronger bench, particularly in the outfield. McClendon is certain to mix and match Ackley, Ruggiano, Smith, and Weeks in order to optimize their production. Top to bottom, this Mariners team is far better than the one assembled for Opening Day 2014.

Updated Bench 2

Pitching
The 2014 Mariners’ pitching staff compensated for the team’s below-average run production, as evidenced by the team’s positive run differential (runs-scored minus runs-allowed). Manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits masterfully guided the crew to an AL leading 3.17 earned run average (ERA). Their superb bullpen helped offset the unplanned losses of Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, and Brandon Maurer to injuries prior to the start of the season and the poor performance of several replacement starters. Despite the setbacks, the starting staff led the AL in the fewest runs-allowed during 952 innings pitched (IP).
AL Pitching Projetions
Let’s take a look at the projected outcome for the 2015 pitching staff; all projections are based on Steamer projections on FanGraphs.com. I decided to use fielding independent pitching (FIP) to illustrate last year’s performances and this year’s projections because FIP is a metric fashioned after ERA that demonstrates the quality of a pitcher’s performance by eliminating plate appearances involving defensive plays. In essence, the pitcher is not penalized or rewarded by the defense behind him. League-average for FIP in 2014 was 3.74. Despite an expectation that the pitching staff should regress from last year’s stellar performance, they are projected to have approximately the same FIP and be at the top of their league in 2015.

If the team can avoid the injury bug this year, the projected rotation should be much better with the addition of J.A. Happ from Toronto and having Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Walker for the entire season. Another encouraging development is the team has the luxury of having Roenis Elias, available at Class-AAA Tacoma. The southpaw was a 10-game winner during his rookie campaign in 2014 and will be primed to fill-in as an injury replacement or as a spot starter whenever needed. Having a quality starter at the ready in Tacoma will be a welcome change from the 2014 season.

RotationThe bullpen, which has many of the same faces returning, stranded 80.7 percent of base runners in 2014; seven-percent better than second-best Kansas City. Although bullpen performances have a tendency to fluctuate from year-to-year, the addition of the two youngsters – Carson Smith and Tyler Olson – should help stave off any letdown from 2014. Smith was impressive during his short debut last September by not allowing an earned run, while striking out 10 batters in 8.1 innings. Olson earned his way onto the Opening Day roster by having a superb Spring Training. The southpaw didn’t allow an earned run, while striking out 15 batters and walking none in 12.1 innings.

New BullpenProjecting 2015
With FanGraphs projections indicating that the offense will be more productive than it’s been in over a half-decade and that the pitching staff will regress slightly and still remain at-or-near the top of the AL, what should be the realistic expectations for Mariners fans? According to the FanGraphs, the team is projected to score 667 runs, surrender 609 runs, and win 88 games. They’re using Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation formula, which relies on run-differential to project a team’s winning percentage.

Before going any further, it’s important to keep run-differential in proper perspective; it’s possible to have a winning record with a negative run-differential or a losing record with a positive differential. Both the 2009 Mariners and 2014 New York Yankees had winning records while posting a negative run-differential. Conversely, the New York Mets posted a losing record with a positive run-differential in 2014. Nevertheless, James’ Pythagorean Expectation formula has proven to be reasonably accurate in projecting a team’s winning percentage by using run-differential.Pythagorean Outcome 5Take a look at a comparison of the projected wins – based on run differential – and the actual wins that postseason teams and Seattle registered in 2014. The Mariners scored 634 runs and allowed 554, which resulted in a run-differential of 80. Based on the Pythagorean Expectation formula, Seattle should have won 91 games, but actually finished with 88 for a deviation of four wins. Being off by only four wins over the span of 162 games is a relatively close projection, which was the case for most of the teams that made it to the postseason last year. The average deviation for all ten playoff teams and the Mariners was 3.6.  The Oakland Athletics were the only team that was completely; they were projected to win 99 games and ended up winning 88. That large deviation can be attributed to the combination of Oakland’s torrid first-half – when their run-differential had the team on track to win a projected 109 games – and their second-half collapse.

The Pythagorean Expectation formula is not a perfect tool. But, it definitely can give you an decent idea on where a team could finish. With that in mind, take a look at the “Projecting the 2015 Mariners” table to see why Mariners should feel reasonably optimistic about the upcoming season. FanGraphs projects that Seattle will win 88 games and have a run-differential of 58 in in 2015. Assuming that the FanGraphs projection of 609 runs-allowed is the worst-case scenario for Seattle’s run-prevention, how would the team fare if they scored more runs than projected?2015 Projections for Mariners 4If the team were to score the projected league-average of 682 runs, the team projects to win 89 games. Take it a step further and plug in McClendon’s stated belief that his team can score 700 runs in 2015.  Reaching the projected league-average or even McClendon’s goal are realistic expectations considering that reaching those marks would require the team to score only 48-66 more runs than they scored in 2014. For presentation purposes, I added in run scoring marks of 715 and 725, which are far less likely and would require career years from several veterans and breakout seasons from several of players like Ackley, Miller, Morrison, and Zunino.

Reason for optimism
Jack Zduriencik and his staff have primed this team to win now by adding several proven position players, who know how to get on base and score runs, and sustaining a pitching staff that’s good enough to be at-or-near the top of the AL. The Seattle Mariners may never be known as an offensive juggernaut because they play half their games at Safeco Field. But, this team won’t need to be to reach the FanGraphs projection of 667 runs and reaching the 88-win mark.

As far as reaching the 700 run goal set by the Mariners’ skipper, that’s an attainable mark that will hinge on the combined effort of Ackley, Miller, Morrison, Ruggiano, Weeks, and Zunino. With one day to go before the season starts, it’s up to Seattle’s faithful to decide whether to buy-in to upgraded roster now or take a “wait and see” approach with a team that’s been a disappointment for over a decade. I expect that, barring injury or fatigue, this team will reach the postseason for the first time since 2001.…

Kyle Seager, Robinson CanoThe Seattle Mariners went over their payroll budget in 2014 with a final tally of $107 million. At the outset of the offseason, GM Jack Zduriencik made it clear that the club wouldn’t be pulling back from that number. That sentiment was echoed by president Kevin Mather who said that the club would be doing what they could to add five or six wins to an 87-win season.

We don’t know what the M’s total salary expenditure for 2015 will be until season’s end. But, after the signing of Rickie Weeks to a one-year deal, we can estimate that total to be around the $120 million mark — at least a 10 percent increase from 2014’s total. We do know that Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano represented approximately 52 percent of Seattle’s $92 million payroll, according to the Associate Press.

With the increase in payroll for the upcoming season, and additions of several players, Seattle is looking at a much different distribution of payroll. In fact, several positions will see an increase in payroll space.

The chart on the right shows an approximation of how the Mariners will distribute their payroll this year based on a projected Opening Day roster. These are the players that are included at each position:

  • 2015 Mariners Payroll Dist ChartSP: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker/Roenis Elias
  • RP: Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Dom Leone, Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar, Carson Smith, Lucas Luetge
  • C: Mike Zunino
  • 1B: Logan Morrison
  • 2B: Robinson Cano
  • 3B: Kyle Seager
  • SS: Brad Miller
  • LF: Dustin Ackley
  • CF: Austin Jackson
  • RF: Seth Smith
  • DH: Nelson Cruz
  • Bench: Rickie Weeks, Jesus Sucre, Willie Bloomquist, Justin Ruggiano, Chris Taylor

The numbers shown are approximations, although now that Tom Wilhelmsen’s arbitration case is settled, we should have a pretty good idea as to what payroll will look like. For pre-arbitration guys I used a simple estimate of $500 thousand for first year, $600 thousand for second year, and $700 thousand for third year. This was done to give some separation between each service year. Typically most of these salaries will fall in the $500-to-600 thousand range depending on the team.

I also ignored the potential outfield and shortstop platoons as, for these purposes, it’s simpler to have a designated starter for each position. Right now it would make sense for Smith and Ruggiano to platoon in right field. There’s also reason to believe Miller and Taylor will platoon at shortstop though one could seize the everyday job and the other starts at Triple-A. We also don’t know how much Weeks will be able to play in the outfield yet, but it’s conceivable he could end up in a platoon with Dustin Ackley in left field.

One of Walker and Elias will take the No. 5 spot but will earn a very similar salary in 2015. Despite what may or may be going on with Bloomquist and his recovery, the assumption is that he will be on the bench. It is also unlikely the club utilizes an eight-man bullpen to start the year, but as there is an extra player on the bench factored in, I did the same with the bench. Danny Hultzen is owed $1.7 million for 2015, but he will start the year in the minors and go from there, so his salary is not included.

So, without further ado and in pie chart form, the 2015 salary distribution for the Mariners.

2015 SEA Payroll Distribution

As we can see, the bulk of payroll is allotted to the starting rotation and second base which should not be a surprise. Felix and Cano, the team’s highest paid players, are due $24.86 million and $24 million in 2015 respectively. Seager, who signed a $100 million extension this winter, will receive just $4.5 million of it this year.

What is interesting to note though, is that Cano’s contract no longer covers one quarter of the M’s payroll. In fact, after the club’s expenditures this offseason, he represents about 19 percent of total payroll. Approximately the same goes for Felix, meaning just under 40 percent is allotted to this two players — down from about 50 percent on Opening Day 2014.

Without reading to much into this, we have proof that ownership is in fact committed to the club’s payroll. As mentioned off the top: payroll was said to be increasing, and we can clearly see that it has.

Otherwise, the payroll is fairly evenly distributed. The catching and shortstop positions make up the smallest portions of the chart with all three of Zunino, Miller, and Taylor playing as pre-arbitration guys. Again, both shortstops may or may not start the season on the big league roster.

In the following chart, we can see how the Mariners compare to the rest of the American League West in terms of payroll distribution by position.

American League West Salary Distributions Chart

The same caveats used for the Mariners — playing time, pre-arbitration salaries, etc. — apply for the other four teams as well. A few things that I made note of:

  • The division will spend very little on the catcher position. The Los Angeles Angels Chris Iannetta is the highest paid catcher and will earn $5.53 million in 2015.
  • Left field is another position with minimal expenditure across the division except for Josh Hamilton. The slugger is due $25.4 million for the season but is currently rehabbing an injured shoulder and when he will be ready is still up in the air.
  • The Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics project to have the smallest payrolls in the division, but have the highest portion of payroll allotted to the bullpen. The Astros signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to lucrative deals this winter while the A’s acquired Tyler Clippard in a trade with the Washington Nationals.
  • Based on the estimation, less than $1 million more has been spent on the rotation than the bullpen by the Athletics. With the pricey free agent acquisitions, the Astros are projected to spend more on their bullpen than rotation this year.
  • The highest-paid first basemen in the division, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are both near the beginning of monster contracts that already appear to be albatrosses as both have battled significant injuries recently. The pair are expected to be healthy for Opening Day.
  • After the signing of Rickie Weeks, the Mariners have the most payroll allotted to their bench — nearly double what the Astros, with the next highest amount, will spend this year.

With more than one month until Opening Day, there’s still a chance that each of these teams adds to their payroll.

*All salary information, aside from the noted pre-arbitration estimates, is from Baseball-Reference.

Dustin Ackley, John Jaso

After falling one win short of a postseason berth in 2014, the Seattle Mariners have spent their off-season attempting to improve themselves in their two weakest areas; offensive production and the outfield. Adding outfielders Nelson Cruz, Justin Ruggiano, and Seth Smith during the off-season and Austin Jackson at last year’s trading deadline improves their offensive outlook and  dramatically transforms the team’s outfield situation.

By adding these players and turning the page on Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, and Abraham Almonte, the Mariners are certain to have two different starting outfielders and a different designated hitter on April 6th when they open the season against the Los Angeles Angels. The lone holdover from Opening Day 2014 appears to be left fielder Dustin Ackley.

Ever since Ackley posted a .273/.348/.417 triple slash and hit a team-leading seven triples in just 90 games during his 2011 debut season, Mariners faithful have been waiting for the former North Carolina Tar Heel to become a mainstay in Seattle’s lineup. Unfortunately for the Mariners and the number two overall pick in the June 2009 Amateur Draft, he hasn’t approached those heights again.

How much time is enough?
Young players need experience, plus the patience and support of their organization to adjust to playing in the major leagues so they can eventually flourish. For example, Kyle Seager struggled during his 53 game debut in 2011, but has incrementally improved with each passing season and is now one of the best third baseman in either league. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value and future role have normally become clear. This is not an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to have that conversation.

For most of Seattle’s core of young position players, it’s too early to determine their long term value or role due to their relatively low amount of major league service time. It’s a challenging proposition for a team with designs on making their first postseason appearance since 2001; develop youngsters while attempting to contend. Among Seattle’s current crop of young players, Seager and Ackley have reached the 2,000 plate appearance mark with Logan Morrison quickly approaching that milestone.

Position Players

Consistently inconsistent
While Morrison will eventually come under similar scrutiny, Ackley is a far more enigmatic figure in Seattle thanks to being a high draft selection, quickly ascending through Seattle’s minor league system, initially being successful in the majors, and subsequently struggling since 2012. My initial perception of Ackley was that he was a slow starter who performed much better in the second half of seasons; that’s not completely accurate. Although it’s true that his overall career numbers are better in the second half, he’s both struggled and flourished during the first and second half of different seasons. I believe that best way to describe his offensive production is “consistently inconsistent.”

To better illustrate that point, I decided to use his month-by-month on-base plus slugging (OPS) because OPS is a metric that takes into account a player’s ability to make contact, their plate discipline, and their power. Although the league average for OPS fluctuates from year-to-year, the league-average hovers near .730. Fangraphs provides the following table as a reference for assessing a player’s performance based on their OPS.

OPS Ratings

With the exception of his torrid 2011 debut season, Ackley has been limited to bursts of productivity surrounded by longer periods of ineffectiveness. Since the start of the 2012 season, he’s been significantly below the major league average for OPS in all but four months and has only been over league-average for two consecutive months once; July and August of 2014. Since 2012, his OPS has been below-average for each season.

Ackley career OPS

The .286 OPS for June 2013 is not a typo, but it’s important to note that he only played in three games in that month after spending most of the month at AAA-Tacoma in an attempt to regain his swing. The main reason for his quick return was an injury to outfielder Franklin Gutiérrez.

Possible turning point?
So, what changed and led to Ackley putting together his best OPS in consecutive months and best overall half-season since 2011? Perhaps, it was a change to his batting stance. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill touched on mechanical adjustments made by the left-handed hitter in two July 2014 tweets.

My interpretation of those comments are that, thanks to the changes made at the plate, Ackley was able to handle middle-away pitches better by being closer to the plate and by closing his batting stance. The July 24 picture illustrates the changes, which may be the underlying reason for Ackley’s resurgence in July and August.

After July 15th, Ackley was 23rd in the American League (AL) in OPS for the remainder of the season, finishing ahead of teammates Cruz (25) and Seager (41).

September swoon
Despite his mid-season adjustments, Ackley’s performance fell off considerably in September when he posted a .149/.205/.299 triple slash during 18 games. One contributor to his September decline were bone spurs in his left ankle that hampered him and resulted in him missing four games. This isn’t the first time that Ackley has experienced problems with bone spurs; he had surgery to remove bone spurs after the 2012 season. At that time, it was believed that the spurs affected Ackley’s ability to push off at home plate and to run the bases.

During this off-season, he visited an ankle specialist who made recommendations to the team on how to handle the situation going forward. Every indication from the team is that Ackley is physically ready to go and will be played frequently during Spring Training by manager Lloyd McClendon. The question that lingers going into 2015 is whether his September struggles were injury-induced or a regression back to previous consistency.

2015 role with Mariners
The general consensus among fans and national pundits has been that Ackley will be Seattle’s Opening Day left fielder barring injury; that’s not necessarily certain though. During his January 17th Hot Stove Report podcast for 1090 The Fan, Jason discussed General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s comments about the left field position on the Steve Sandmeyer Show. Zduriencik stated that he and manager Lloyd McClendon plan to “put the best club on the field whatever that is.”

“To say that anyone is on scholarship or somebody’s got something locked in, they’ve got to prove it in Spring Training.”
— Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on The Steve Sandmeyer Show

To me, Zduriencik’s comments open the door to the possibly using Smith in left field against tough southpaws or even Ackley losing left field playing time to either Ruggiano or James Jones. I don’t McClendon will proclaim Ackley as his left fielder early in Spring Training as he did last February.

There’s a clear benefit to using the left-handed hitting Smith over Ackley against southpaws. Smith’s 2014 OPS against left-handed pitchers was appreciably better than Ackley’s. Smith’s career OPS versus lefties is lower than Ackley’s, but the 32-year-old veteran has been far more productive and consistent than Ackley during his eight-year career.

Smith-Ackley OPS vs LHP

Conclusion
With the exception of his 2011 debut season, Dustin Ackley has struggled to sustain long periods of average to above-average production and hasn’t matched the lofty expectations placed upon him after being selected one pick after Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft. If the soon-to-be 27-year-old doesn’t continue his 2014 second half performance into 2015, the team should transition in a new direction just as they did with first baseman Justin Smoak. After entering last season with 1942 plate appearances, Smoak was waived by Seattle after playing in 80 games and 276 plate appearances in 2014.

If Ackley’s 2014 mechanical adjustments are a permanent fix, he’s best suited to be part of a left field platoon and play primarily against right-handed pitching. The thought of Ackley being a part-time player will disappoint many Seattle fans. However, being a platoon player gives him the best opportunity to repeat his 2.1 fWAR value and help the team contend for the AL West crown.

 

 

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