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?

MarteThe Seattle Mariners find themselves in familiar territory once again. They have not one, but multiple potentially-viable shortstops. This time, both will make the 25-man roster out of spring training.

In recent years it was Brad Miller, Chris Taylor and Nick Franklin vying for the regular role at the position. This season, Ketel Marte entered camp the overwhelming favorite to get the everyday job at shortstop. He’s still going to get that nod to start 2016, but Luis Sardinas also is going to make the club, and it’s not just to serve as the backup around the infield, fill in at first base and in the outfield and pinch hit and pinch run late in games. Sardinas is going to play shortstop.

Marte may be the future at the position, though he’s an easier profile at second base due to some issues with throwing accuracy from the six-hole. Marte carries the slightly higher upside, too; the two players are fairly similar in many ways, but Marte is a better baserunner with more raw speed and a more dynamic set of physical tools. Sardinas, however, is the better glove at shortstop at present, which may be all he needs to ultimately wrestle the job away.

This doesn’t mean Marte will be headed to Triple-A Tacoma or even traded — the latter is always a possibility, but if he performs, not only is Marte not going to be sent down to the minors, he’s probably going to hang onto his gig at short. But at some point fairly soon, as Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins discussed over the winter, Robinson Cano, 33, won’t be the everyday second baseman, opening up some time for both of the aforementioned middle infielders.

Sardinas, as I stated on Twitter earlier this week, may end up the defining acquisition of GM Jerry Dipoto‘s first season in Seattle. He was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Ramon Flores, who was one of the two prospects acquired from the New York Yankees in the Dustin Ackley trade. For the record, here is what I wrote about Sardinas after the Mariners acquired him in November:

Sardinas is a solid shortstop glove with a decent small sample at the plate under his belt from his time in Texas. He posted a .261/.303/.313 line in 125 plate appearances in 2014 before struggling in a smaller sample for the Brewers a year ago. But there’s more pop in the bat than his career .269 slugging percentage suggests; anything sub .350 is completely unplayable in Major League Baseball without elite on-base production. His minor league slugging numbers dont suggest much, either, but he’s stronger now than at any point pre-2015 and his swing from both sides of the plate is cleaner than ever before, including his time in the minors when he hit .290/.310/.374 in 60 games in 201 that led to his cup-of-coffee call-up.

Perhaps the most important number in this conversation is 22. That’s how old Marte is. But it’s also how old Sardinas is and the Venezuelan has an advantage in terms of refinement versus his Dominican teammate. Ignore the statistics each has posted this spring and pay attention to three things that do not show up in a box score or any stat line: Quality plate appearances, steady defense and instinctual play. They’re both showing it consistently this month, tying with Robinson Cano and Chris Iannetta for the team lead in quality PAs in Cactus League play.

Of the two switch hitters, Sardinas is a little better from the right side than is Marte, but Marte is as good right now as Sardinas from the left, and possesses more power upside from that side of the batter’s box. Neither player is likely to walk much, but Marte has the more natural work-the-count game plan, while Sardinas is more likely to make consistent contact early in their careers — shorter swing, more aggressive early in counts and a better fastball finder.

It’s an intriguing scenario now, but that’s only half the story. The other half is about how the club got to this point. When Sardinas was acquired he performed and appeared to be a reserve-only type player on any team, including a second-division, 90-plus loss type like the Brewers were a year ago. But something’s clicked with him this spring.

“He profiled more like this for me back in about ’12 or ’13,” said one American League scout, who liked Sardinas in Class-A Hickory, his first go of full-season ball. “At that time he was 150 pounds carrying a 25-pound bag of rocks, so you did have to project (physically) some. But the hands were always terrific, the footwork was natural and easy and he never really struggled enough (as a switch hitter) to think he’d have to give it up.”

Another scout who recommended Sardinas to his club last winter before the Rangers sent him to Milwaukee in exchange for Yovani Gallardo opined at the time that the Brewers were simply getting “an insurance policy for (Jean) Segura and a player whose development has slowed considerably since first breaking into the big leagues.”

The same scout now says “this is what Milwaukee hoped they were getting. It really is a different hitter; it’s aggressive with the hands, attacking pitches, staying within himself.”

Sardinas’ swing, particularly from the left side, is all about the line drive, all about not giving up the chance to put the barrel on the baseball, which is why you’re watching a lot of liners off his bat in Arizona.

When the regular season begins, we’ll see how that plays versus everyday, big-league arms over the long haul. Sardinas will have to remain poised and disciplined versus better pitching, something he’s yet to do for more than 125 plate appearances. If he does that, expect a boost in slugging percentage over that 2014 stint, too. The bat speed and swing plane from both sides of the plate suggest gap power.

Marte, too, needs experience, more reps versus legitimate major leaguers. He’ll need to adjust as well, because the league certainly will.

Both players are litmus tests for those wondering if the new field staff is better than their predecessors at handling struggling young players who lack MLB track records.

Either way, even with the trades of Miller and Franklin, the Mariners again have options at shortstop. This time they’re options with more trustworthy skill sets, especially in the case of Sardinas, who is at least an average defender at shortstop without having to make up for too many mistakes over the course of a season.

An interesting twist to Sardinas’ role is the fact that he’s now played center field — and didn’t look stupid doing it — and the club reportedly plans to get him some time at first base. It sounds a little odd; a shortstop playing first base. But Sardinas is 6-foot-1 and has played a plenty of second base, suggesting he won’t be fooled with ground balls off the bat on that side of the diamond — this is a real thing, by the way. Try playing on the left side of the field for your whole life, then all of a sudden moving over to the other side.

If Sardinas truly may be used at first base, even just late in games as a defensive-type replacement, the club has no real reason to carry that right-handed platoon first baseman. As-is, it appears Dae-Ho Lee will indeed make the roster with Jesus Montero being traded or designated or assignment (then traded, claimed or re-assigned) and Stefen Romero being sent to Triple-A to start the year.

Shawn O’Malley or Romero likely would be the beneficiary of the roster spot should Dipoto and Scott Servais surprise and decide to go for the most versatile and flexible roster, versus the 24.5-man type. Lee is a bad glove, can’t run, and can’t even fake it at any other position. The short side of platoons get roughly 200-240 plate appearances per year, and since Lee can’t run or field well, he may be destined for even fewer than that (he’d theoretically be removed a lot late in games in favor of Lind, another pinch hitter or a pinch runner, limiting his overall reps at the plate).

Sardinas, though, has become the key to the entire roster. Not to its success, but how it’s ultimately made up come April 4. And if Marte doesn’t clean up his throws to first, Sardinas may become more of a regular at shortstop, at which time Dipoto and staff may decide to review an option first tried by the previous regime Marte in center field, which still remains an idea I adore, even though Marte could very well fix his throwing issues and/or slide to second base and be just fine.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romero
New Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has repeatedly discussed adding “layers of depth” to his organization roster since taking over the club’s baseball operations four months ago. Accordingly, he’s added 17 new players to the club’s 40-man roster and extended Spring Training invites to over a dozen non-roster players.

Despite Dipoto’s hectic pace, he didn’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater. The 47-year-old retained 23 players from the Jack Zduriencik era for good reason; his best players were already with the team when he became general manager. Take a look.

Three Zduriencik holdovers intrigue me more than the rest – Jesus Montero, Chris Taylor, and Stefen Romero. At some point during their respective careers with the organization, each player was poised to contribute at the major league level. Now, they’re facing career uncertainty.

Jesus Montero – first base/designated hitter
Since arriving from the New York Yankees in exchange for starting pitcher Michael Pineda, the 26-year-old has been an enigma. After posting respectable numbers during his rookie season in 2012, he’s suffered many self-induced setbacks.

Following his first year in the Emerald City, Montero regressed on the field, suffered a knee injury, earned a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, arrived to Spring Training out of shape, and was involved in a confrontation with a roving scout during a rehab assignment. The former highly touted prospect’s outlook with the ball club was no longer bright.

With so much uncertainty surrounding his future, Montero transformed himself with the help and support of the Mariners organization. He arrived to 2015 Spring Training with a new attitude and in great physical shape. The new-look Jesus Montero produced an impressive .355/.398/.569 slash and 18 home runs during 98 games with Tacoma, rekindling the notion that he still might be able to contribute as a big leaguer.

Entering Spring Training this year, Montero finds himself vying to be the Mariners’ right-handed complement to starting first baseman Adam Lind. When referring to the former catcher in December, Dipoto told MLB Radio in that the team would to give the slugger a chance to “win at bats at first base and DH.”

Barring injury or trade, Montero doesn’t appear to be a fit with Seattle because he doesn’t play another position on the field. That’s a challenge for a team that’s likely to carry only four bench players. Two of those spots will be taken by Franklin Gutierrez and the backup catcher. That leaves room for an infielder who can play shortstop and someone who can play first base and preferably another position. For those wondering, Montero doesn’t catch anymore.

To compound matters, the former Yankee doesn’t have any remaining minor league options. Therefore, he has to make the Mariners’ Opening Day roster or clear waivers before returning to Tacoma. It’s unlikely that he’d get through waivers without another team claiming him. The only other alternative would be to trade the slugger, as the Mariners did with pitcher Erasmo Ramirez when he was out of options and not going to make the team last March.

Chris Taylor – shortstop/second base
The 25-year-old performed well enough during his 2014 debut with Seattle to force a starting shortstop competition with Brad Miller during Spring Training last year. Unfortunately, the contest ended prematurely when the former fifth-round draft pick suffered a broken bone in his wrist after just nine Cactus League games.

When Taylor was ready to return to game action just a month later, he started with Tacoma. The right-handed hitter produced at a torrid pace until he joined Seattle in early May. The former Virginia Cavalier started 19 games with the club during the initial stages of the “Brad Miller super-utility player” science project, but he struggled at the plate with a paltry .159/.221/.206 slash and returned to the minors after just four weeks with the Mariners.

Despite the Seattle setback, Taylor responded well with a .300/.391/.429 slash during 396 plate appearances as a Rainier. The right-handed batter has hit at every minor league stop and has proven that he possesses average-or-better defensive skills. Despite his superb minor league performance, Taylor is no longer the first choice to succeed the since-traded Miller as the Mariners’ starting shortstop.

In late-July, the Mariners promoted shortstop prospect Ketel Marte to the majors. The youngster thoroughly impressed team observers with his composure at the plate and his better-than-expected defensive play during the last third of the season. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the 22-year-old appears to have the inside track to the starting shortstop job.

With Marte seemingly entrenched at shortstop and Robinson Cano expected to play second base for a few more seasons, the likelihood of Taylor getting an opportunity to start for Seattle is diminishing. Now, Taylor is left vying with Luis Sardinas, Shawn O’Malley, and several non-roster invites for the utility infielder spot on the roster. That’s a sharp decline for a player who was in the hunt for a starting role just 11 months ago.

Stefen Romero – corner outfield/first base
The former Oregon State Beaver earned a spot on Seattle’s 2014 Opening Day roster, but his bat didn’t respond well to inconsistent playing time. He slashed .196/.236/.324 during 159 plate appearances and was eventually demoted in June. Since then, Romero hasn’t received another significant chance with the Mariners, except for being a September call-up for two consecutive years.

[pullquote]We’ve talked about Stefen Romero as an internal candidate for a role on our club. That could include some first base to take the load off Adam and it could also benefit from having a sixth outfielder who’s capable of a number of spots. — Jerry Dipoto[/pullquote]

Although Romero became an afterthought for the former regime, Dipoto is on record suggesting that the 27-year-old will get a look at being the platoon relief for Lind. That’s a big step for a player with just three professional starts at first base. Assuming that he can handle the position, Romero offers a versatile, right-handed alternative who can capably play both corner outfield spots, and fill in at second and third base in an emergency.

What’s next?
If they can’t win a spot on the 25-man roster, Taylor and Romero have a minor league option remaining and can serve as “layers of depth” at Tacoma. For Montero, his course is different and hinges on the club’s philosophy towards bench players.

If the Mariners are willing to carry a one-position backup to cover first base, he has a chance of making the ball club. Otherwise, barring unforeseen circumstances, his days with Seattle are dwindling.

Assuming that Montero doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he still has value as a trade chip. Granted, the return wouldn’t be as nearly as impressive as a young Michael Pineda. Nevertheless, new management can’t undo past transactions; only move on and make the club better.

Finally
Witnessing how the expectations for Montero, Taylor, and Romero spiraled downward after they reached “the show” is a stark reminder that getting to the big leagues and then actually succeeding is a formidable challenge.

Whether these players, and others, would’ve enjoyed more success with a different management team or another organization is irrelevant at this point. For me, the only topic that’s worth discussing is whether Montero, Taylor, and Romero can succeed in the majors after struggling during their earlier auditions. That’s why I’ll be keeping a close eye on this trio’s progress in Peoria.…

 

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.

One of the first things mentioned by new Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto upon his hiring was how the club lacked general depth, particularly in the upper minors. Many clubs welcomed impact and contributing rookies to their rosters this past season. But Seattle’s inability to develop talent at the higher minor league levels during Jack Zduriencik’s tenure nearly left the Mariners out of the aptly named ‘year of the rookie’ in 2015.

Ketel Marte and Carson Smith were major league contributors as rookies though Seattle didn’t have a Kris Bryant or a Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings. Or even a Roberto Osuna for that matter.

We knew that pieces surrounding the core would need to be augmented and practically all executives talk about a need for depth. There’s no secret: the Mariners are a team with holes. We saw how the offense fizzled behind a slumping Robinson Cano in the first half and the pitching staff was exposed throughout the season. When Mike Zunino struggled, there was no Plan B.

Dipoto’s first deal as general manager, a six-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, took a step towards rebuilding the starting pitching depth. Nate Karns is coming off a 26-start rookie campaign but will turn just 28 in a few weeks. As Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill noted, Karns could start the season in the bullpen or in the back end of the rotation. In some ways he gives the M’s more flexibility with Vidal Nuno — both are rotation and bullpen candidates or one could be sent to Triple-A to get stretched out early in 2016. Nuno is likely a better fit in the bullpen, though.

PI’s Luke Arkins recently covered the pitching needs in depth. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are leading rotation candidates with Roenis Elias and Mike Montgomery next on the depth chart. Montgomery is out of options meaning he would be exposed to waivers if sent down but Elias can still be sent down. Beyond them the rotation depth In Tacoma is slim to none with Sam Gaviglio and Jordan Pries atop that list. Top pitching prospect Edwin Diaz is likely another year or more away from being major league ready.

Smith has graduated to the big league squad and despite some struggles this past season, figures to start the year in a start-up role. C.J. Riefenhauser figures to take Danny Farquhar‘s spot in the bullpen, only from the left side, so no additional depth was added there. With Charlie Furbush recovering from a slight tear in his rotator cuff, the southpaw depth could be tested with David Rollins and Rob Rasmussen also in the picture.

Tony Zych made his major league debut in September and in 13 appearances, including one start, he pitched a 2.04 FIP and 11.79 strikeouts per nine over 18 and 1/3 innings. He should have the inside track on one of the middle relief gigs. Mayckol Guaipe, J.C. Ramirez, and Jose Ramirez are other names to keep an eye on. None of the three have the upside of a Smith, for example, but do provide some bullpen depth. Cody Martin is also among the right-handed options after being picked up on a waiver claim.

Over on the infield, Seattle is set at second and third base long-term. The trade of Brad Miller suggests the club is confident in Marte and his ability to be a starter. The 22-year-old had a strong debut producing a 112 wRC+ while offering solid and improving defense.

Chris Taylor now finds himself No. 2 on the shortstop depth chart but struggled offensively in 2015. He’s hit well enough at Triple-A in recent memory, but at least offers a reliable glove in a key defensive position. Shawn O’Malley made a decent impression during his September cameo displaying on-base skills and picking up three stolen bases. Perhaps his best asset is his positional flexibility. Tyler Smith has also taken some steps forward and could become an option in the second half.

D.J. Peterson appeared to be readying for show time one year ago, but it was a difficult year for the top prospect and he’ll likely begin 2016 at Triple-A. It’s a similar story for Patrick Kivlehan who had a slightly down year offensively in his first taste of Triple-A action. Both are nearing major league readiness and provide nice depth at the infield corners for the second half. And of course, there’s the perennial name squeezed between the major league and Triple-A depth charts, Jesus Montero.

Behind the plate the story is the same as it was in 2015. Zunino may still need time in Triple-A to continue restructuring his swing and Jesus Sucre and John Hicks have proven that they aren’t offensively capable for the majors. It’s no secret that catching is a major concern for the Mariners.

James Jones and Stefen Romero are joined by Boog Powell in the outfield depth chart. Powell has a shot at breaking camp as the club’s starting centerfielder given his contact and defensive skills but the other two should start the year in Tacoma at this point. Daniel Robertson was claimed off waivers from Dipoto’s previous employer, the Los Angeles Angels. The 30-year-old spent the majority of 2015 at Triple-A where he posted an underwhelming 83 wRC+ but has solid plate discipline skills.

Ramon Flores, acquired from New York in the Dustin Ackley trade, had his 2015 season ended early with a compound fracture in his ankle and is worth keeping an eye on.

The most glaring position of weakness for the Mariners is at catcher, but that’s nothing new. Around the infield Seattle appears to be in reasonable shape depth-wise. Dealing Miller hurts, but the addition of a veteran infielder would allow Taylor to potentially start the year at Triple-A, making the depth look better.

The outfield is susceptible with Seth Smith being the only real major league caliber outfielder on the depth chart. Powell, Jones and Romero are considerations for the open spots as we speak, but if all three were to make the club, Flores and Robertson would make up the Triple-A depth. That could be scary.

You always need more pitching depth so that much goes without saying. The bullpen was a major issue for Seattle in 2015 and with all the pieces dealt over the past year, is in need of a makeover. It’s hard to evaluate the starting pitching given how many question marks there are. A combination of Walker, Paxton, Karns, Nuno, Elias, and Montgomery figure to take two rotation spots and probably a couple bullpen spots as well.

Not every position needs to have a bonafide starter or back-up caliber player at Triple-A, but the presence of legitimate options will be a welcomed change. Remember, it doesn’t take much for depth to appear. A couple solid minor league signings, a couple prospects taking a step forward, and a couple surprises can quickly change the tone in how we reference the players in Tacoma.

It’d be unfair to expect Dipoto and his staff to fix every problem the M’s currently face in year one, but rebuilding the catching and outfield positions while stockpiling arms would be meaningful progress. The pitching staff already looks stronger than it did at season’s end.

The first steps have already been taken with many more to come.…

Jerry Dipoto didn’t wait very long. The Seattle Mariners announced Thursday evening they have completed a six-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. Incoming are right-hander Nate Karns, lefty C.J. Riefenhauser and outfielder Boog Powell. Heading to Tampa are infielder-outfielder Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and right-hander Danny Farquhar.

The Mariners are getting pitching depth as one half of the deal. Karns, 28 later this month, was solid in 27 appearances for the Rays this past season, 26 as a starter. He posted a 4.06 FIP and showed he can miss bats with a strikeouts-per-nine ratio of 8.9.

Karns has been an intriguing power arm since signing out of Texas Tech in 2009. He’s missed some time with injuries and that appears to have cost him a little velocity — formerly up to 97 mph. In 2015 he sat 90-94 to go with with a 78-81 mph spike curveball that was plus this past season and a fringe-average changeup in the 84-86 mph range. The curveball, being of the knuckl-grip variety, has more of a slider path to it, biting down and in on left-handed batters. As Karns has simplified his mechanics he’s been able to throw the changeup for strikes and with some sink, though the pitch lacks ideal fade.

He managed just fine versus left-handed batters this past season, though this is where his below-average control bit him on occasion as 38 of his 56 walks came versus left-handed bats. Karns throws from a higher-than-typical arm slot, which probably helps his breaking ball but may hamper the changeup, and perhaps with fastball movement. He does pitch wisely and effectively up in the strike zone, but serving up 19 long balls in 147 frames is a hefty price to pay.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Karns has the stuff that may play in a bullpen role and the Mariners could start camp with both roles in mind. If he remains in the rotation hes a No. 4 arm with a chance to be more based on his ability to miss bats, but whether or not he can handle a 190-200 inning workload remains to be seen. His career high is the 157 1/3 frames he tossed in 2014 before notching 147 this past season.

Despite his somewhat-advanced age, Karns has just one year of service under his belt, making him a very cheap arm for the next two years, and one with No. 3 starter upside.

Riefenhauser, 26 in January, was a 20th-round pick of the Rays in 2010. He’s logged less than a year of MLB service — 20 total innings, to be exact, making him a rookie, still, for 2016.

The southpaw doesn’t throw hard — typically sitting 88-90 mph and mixing in an average high-70s cutter-slider, a mid-70s curveball and a changeup that flashes above average. His stuff suggests he’s a back-end starter but he came out of the bullpen for each of his 24 appearances in the big leagues the past two seasons.

He’s not likely to miss many bats and his control and command sits somewhere in the average range, so he’s not the next Mark Buehrle, either. His fly ball tendencies, however, fit better in Seattle than they in just about any other ballpark, so he has that going for him. Riefenhauser, ideally, is minor league depth once the season starts.

While Karns is the immediate key to this deal for Seattle, Powell, 23 in January, has a chance to be the best player acquired. Unlikely to reach star levels, Powell brings speed, defense and a contact-style game plan to the batter’s box. He’s been comp’d to Sam Fuld in the past, but he might be more like Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton in the end. He served a 50-game suspension in 2014 for amphetamines, but rebounded to impress in the Arizona Fall League a year ago and batted .257/.360/.364 in 56 games at Triple-A Durham after a 61-game stretch in Double-A Montgomery where he produced a .328/.408/.416 triple-slash.

His ability to make contact and handle center field to above-average levels make Powell a viable option for the Mariners as early as Day 1. He hasn’t hit for much power but the swing is short to the ball and generates line drives and hard-struck ground balls with consistency.

Powell is not a burner — most grade his speed above average, perhaps a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he’s very good on the bases and can swipe 10-15 bags a year in full-time duty, if not more.

Powell’s best tool is his ability to force pitcher to throw him strikes. He’s very good with two strikes and adept at spoiling two-strike pitches. He’s very much a Rays or Royals kind of player, and now he’s a Mariners kind of player. Powell is the lone player in the trade not already on the 40-man roster, but if the left-handed hitter makes the club in March it could set up a nice 1-2 punch with Marte ahead of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. Both make contact and can run, and both play up the middle.

Miller will provide the Rays depth at shortstop with the immediate ability to handle second base and perhaps left field, too. He may be due for a breakout season at the plate, but where he was going to fit in Seattle was unclear. I would have been fine with Miller being half of a left-field platoon while using him at other positions when he’s not in left in order to keep Ketel Marte, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager sharp and rested.

Farquhar fell off a cliff in 2015, but showed flashes of the cutter-curveball combo that made him very good in 2014. If any club can fix him it’s Tampa (and both Chicago clubs). Morrison was a strong candidate to be non-tendered if he wasn’t traded.

What this deal tell us is if your instincts suggested to you Dipoto would go after arms early and often, you were right. This won’t be the end of it, either. But it also tells us the club has exactly zero big-league outfielders on the 40-man roster aside from Seth Smnith, who may be the most likely player to be moved this winter.

Dipoto certainly prefers Marte over Miller at shortstop — understandably, considering Marte has almost zero experience in the outfield, and rather than dampening Miller’s value by using him in left for the most part, Dipoto dealt Miller as a player that can and will be used up the middle.

The Rays did just fine in this deal and probably landed the best current player in Miller. The Mariners stretched out their pitching depth and acquired one arm that’s sure to make the roster out of spring training and almost certainly as one of the five starters.

And in case anyone is wondering, the answer is no. No, this deal doesn’t make Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery, et al, available in trade. The price won’t change on players because other players are acquired, and you never can have too much starting pitching. None of the above, including Karns, is a proven, reliable veteran. We’ll likely see Dipoto go after that kind of arm this offseason, too.…

 

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.…

It’s still September, so expecting a blockbuster trade or even a major decision right away is asking too much. We could hear about decisions on Lloyd McClendon and some other scouting and player development changes in the next few days to few weeks, but we’re probably a month or more away from any significant player decisions by new Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Some already are speculating a blockbuster deal involving Robinson Cano or Nelson Cruz to start off Dipoto’s tenure in Seattle. Don’t count on it.

Not only are trades difficult to make, but president Kevin Mather stated all along that he doesn’t believe any kind of immediate tear down is necessary and it might be difficult for Dipoto to convince Mather and the ownership that trading Cruz or Cano isn’t just that — even though dealing one of them isn’t necessarily a sign of the club going all fire sale this offseason. I’d shop Cruz, too.

I fully expect the first official player moves to be minor, but once November hits I think three moves are more likely than anything else:

Hisashi Iwakuma
This, clearly, will be mandated to some level by ownership, and it’s a deal everyone expects to get done rather easily. We’re probably talking about a two-year deal, or at least something short-term that is more than merely a one-year deal for the right-hander.

Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith
Trumbo has been solid since his first-month struggles after the Mariners acquired the slugger. He batted .134/.165/.183 in June but .318/.356/.447 in July, .263/.345/.566 in August and through Monday was batting .305/.360/.463 in September.

Dipoto has traded Trumbo once already, but the reason it could happen again include Trumbo’s one-dimensional value, lack of fit for the ballpark and a projected arbitration-generated salary for 2016 that could land in the $8.5-9.5 million range. It’s a number the Mariners certainly can handle, but if Dipoto is looking to reallocate payroll to other areas, there’s an opportunity here.

Smith, who has had a solid season, too, is in the same boat, though his contract is for $7.5 million guaranteed in 2016 with a 2017 option. Don’t be shocked if both are moved, especially if Dipoto sees Miller as an outfield option.

Pitching
If Dipoto has been watching — and we know he has been, the dude is a junkie — he’s seen a lot of legitimate offensive performances over the past three-plus months. Beyond Cruz, Cano, Trumbo and Kyle Seager, Ketel Marte and Brad Miller have been consistent contributors. and even Jesus Montero has flashed a bit. The offense, generally speaking, no longer survives as the club’s most glaring weakness. It’s the run prevention that hasn’t done its job, and that starts with the pitching staff.

There will be trade candidates, free agents and reclamation projects available. Expect Dipoto to jump into this market early, well beyond re-signing Iwakuma. The bullpen needs to be rebuilt, the rotation needs at least one No. 3 starter and perhaps a veteran innings eater, too.

The outfield defense will get better under Dipoto, and probably immediately, but loading up on arms is unquestionably going to be something the new regime attacks aggressively.

Surprises?
I’m not saying Cruz won’t be traded, but it’s very unlikely, at least early in the offseason. But I could see a few surprise moves taking place, perhaps even trading Miller and/or right-hander Taijuan Walker. Walker may never be more valuable with five years of service remaining and now a solid 29-start campaign (3.83 FIP) under his belt.

I warn fans not be shocked, either, if the Mariners’ pursuit of starting pitching doesn’t reach the elite names including Johnny Cueto, David Price and Zack Greinke. I don’t expect the club to land any of them, necessarily, but I don’t believe the club is simply done with large contracts, either. I’ll discuss specific targets during the World Series.…

RevereThe Seattle Mariners share the worst record in the American League with the Boston Red Sox. They sit 11 games back in the loss column within their division and eight back in the loss column in the race for the No. 2 Wild Card. Those deficits are daunting enough, but piling on the fact they’d have to pass four teams in the west and at least 10 clubs in the Wild Card hunt strongly suggests a specific plan for the trade deadline.. With that deadline approaching, the club should be selling. Right?

Maybe. There absolutely is a manner in which the M’s can buy and it’d be justified. How? There is more than one way to buy at the trade deadline. Here’s how:

First of all, barring a nearly-lossless stretch over the next 10 days, paying for two-month rentals to fill holes makes zero sense for a club in the Mariners. To justify any semblance of buying this summer the Mariners have to acquire players that can help their slim-to-none chances in 2015, and most of all are under club control through next year (perhaps beyond) in an attempt to jump start the roster alterations necessary for next season’s club.

The Mariners can buy and sell, too. They can move J.A. Happ — perhaps for a bullpen piece or a player that can help off the bench for a year and two months or more — and recall Roenis Elias and not miss a beat in the starting rotation. Austin Jackson can be traded to a contender that needs a more viable center field option. Again, perhaps a bullpen piece, part-time player or halfway decent prospect comes back. Filling Jackson’s shoes is more difficult. James Jones is not the answer in the field or at the plate. Neither is Dustin Ackley. Franklin Gutierrez cannot handle center regularly and cannot play everyday. The organization is without a viable option at the position, but in combination the drop-off in value may not be much, and Jackson still should be traded. The qualifying offer is going to be valued at more than $15 million this offseason. I’m not convinced Jackson gets a better deal than that, even if over a two-year deal, so the draft pick probably is not part of the valuation here. Certainly the same goes for Happ.

Trading Hisashi Iwakuma is going to be tough. His health is a concern for clubs, but his performance is the biggest worry. The Mariners cannot tender the qualifying for Iwakuma due to a clause in his entry contract, however, so if the right-hander is not in the club’s plans for 2016 — or the team feels (or knows) Iwakuma will not be back on his own volition (either to look elsewhere for work in MLB or to go back to Japan to finish his career), trading him is the only logical option — since it’s the only way to extract any future value out of him.

Who could the Mariners try to acquire that’s under contract beyond 2015? Lots of players. But first, it’s important to realize that high-impact players probably aren’t part of any summer additions, but not completely out of the question. Most of the big-name players available are rentals, and we’ve already established the trade cost for such rentals makes no sense for Seattle since there’s little chance it matters.

Here are some names to consider with the chances Seattle could land said player if they targeted him. All are unlikely (all trades of specified targets are unlikely for any and every club).

Carlos Gomez, CF: Low-Fair
Ben Revere, CF: Fair-Medium
Michael Brantley, LF: Low
Cameron Maybin, CF: Fair
Melky Cabrera, LF: Low
Yonder Alonso, 1B: Low-Fair
Nick Hundley, C: Low
Josh Reddick, OF: Low
Derek Norris, C: Low
Roberto Perez, C: Low-Fair
Ken Giles, RHR: Low-Fair
Jeremy Jeffress, RHR: Low-Fair
Will Smith, RHR: Low-Fair
Cody Allen, RHR: Fair-Medium
Zach McAllister, RHR: Low-Fair
Jay Bruce, RF: Low
Adam Eaton, CF: Low-Fair

Gomez will be pricey, even though he has just one year left on his deal, hasn’t had his best season and has been banged up a little bit. Bruce won’t come cheap, either, especially since he appears to be over the knee injury and is under club control for two more years after this at $25.5 million combined. Reddick is in the same boat as Gomez contract wise and is a better player than Bruce.

Cabrera could be a buy-low situation, as he’s had a bad year. He’s below-average defensively, though, so is far from ideal since both Trumbo and Nelson Cruz remain on the roster. Maybin has had a very good year and expecting it continue may be asking too much, but if the price is right taking a shot on the skill set may make sense. He hasn’t been as good defensively as hoped over the past couple of years, however, which is certainly something to consider strongly.

Michael Brantley is a solid left fielder that will hit for average and make contact. It’s a set of skills the Mariners are devoid. Brantley will not come cheap, however, especially considering he’s in his prime years and has a contract that runs through his option year of 2018 at reasonable rates — $25 million combined over the three seasons.

Revere isn’t a great option to play everyday, but he’s solid with the glove, makes a ton of contact, runs well and is under club control for two more years. The one concern here is that Seattle might pay for an everyday player, both in trade cost and salary. Revere earns $4.1 million this season and is arbitration eligible after each of the next two seasons. He could net around $15 million combined, which is right around what Jackson received. Revere is benefiting from his Super Two status after the 2013 season, giving him four years of arbitration salaries.

The relievers mentioned above all are under club control well beyond 2015. The cost may very well be prohibitive, as is with the catchers noted above.

Trade assets are not absent in the organization. For the long-term, star-level player, perhaps the Mariners do not have the talent inventory, at least not without upsetting the current 25-man roster significantly (Taijuan Walker, Brad Miller, Mike Montgomery). But for average players, part-timers, answers in the bullpen? Sure they do, despite struggles to many of the club’s top bats in the farm system.

Salary shouldn’t be a concern from the standpoint of where the club’s payroll sits, either. They are not out of money. Stop listening to anyone who suggests so. They may choose not to spend significantly more money during the season (or over the winter, too, I suppose), but suggesting they are simply out of payroll space is stupid since the club never has stated publicly what their cap is, if they even have one. And what we do have a sense of is they prefer a fluid, sliding payroll system where it covers multiple years, rather than having a single-season number to cap off the club’s spending on players.

And out of money? No. Just…. no. The organization ingeniously negotiated an opt-out in their deal with Root Sports/ DirecTV several years back. That resulted in a renegotiation. That renegotiation ultimately produced a reported $2 billion deal over 17 years. If that report is correct — and there are whispers in some circles that it’s worth a lot more than that — the deal puts $117 million per year on average into the revenue stream. This is on top of improved attendance at the ballpark — over 29,000 per home date, up nearly 4,000 per date versus last season (caveat, 2014 was through 162 games in which the club was in the race throughout, that isn’t likely to be the case in 2015) — and increased TV ratings.

Forbes’ Maury Brown wrote about the increase in MLB’s prime-time TV ratings last week. Those ratings — again, prime time only — are up significantly for Seattle. They are one of 10 MLB clubs beating broadcast and cable competition on television in their market. The Mariners’ ratings are up 10 percent over last year’s pre-break numbers.

Yes, they increased payroll and spent $240 million on Robinson Cano, $58 million on Nelson Cruz and have Felix Hernandez signed to a deal worth $175 million total. The three are owed about $361 million after 2015. Cruz through 2018, Hernandez through 2019 and Cano through 2023. Still, however, that’s $361 million committed over several years. The club is pulling in revenues that far exceed that — $117 million per year on average from the RSN deal alone.

The Mariners’ current position does not allow for a wise move that is a rental player. It also does not allow for a future-risking move such as trading Taijuan Walker and his five more years of control for anything short of a star player under control for at bare minimum two years after 2015. There are a lot of buy-and-sell scenarios, and there is indeed a sell-only scenario.

There is exactly zero acceptable scenarios where the 2015 Seattle Mariners — unless the next 10 days produce at least eight victories and they gain marked ground on those in front of them — are aggressive buyers that add rental players, or fail to sell off pending free agents.

Buying makes sense, but it should be a specific type of buy. Selling absolutely should be part of the approach, regardless of whether or not buying is.

One concern many have, and understandable so, is that perhaps a change at GM is necessary and the current GM still holds the position that would have him doing the buying and selling. While it’d be ideal, if the club does end up making a move, to have the new GM make these trades, that’s 100 percent implausible and impossible. The only alternative to having Zduriencik make these trades is to fire him and hope one of his assistants, perhaps Jeff Kingston, is willing to stick around in the interim to make such trades. Standing pat isn’t an option. Let me repeat that: Standing pat is NOT an option. At the very least the pending free agents have to be traded. That is a must. Firing Zduriencik before the deadline probably isn’t the best timing. Selling off a few middling talents isn’t difficult. It’s not something Zduriencik can screw up to the point where it cripples the club. Even mediocre trade results are better than hanging onto the players and having no chance to net future value out of them.

What’s understandable is the fright that races to the brain when imagining a job-saving approach at this year’s deadline by the club’s general manager. Couple things there: One, Zduriencik may very well not have any clue he’s not going to be back for 2016 — partly because he may actually be back. He received a “multi-year” extension last August and if the organization is giving him the behind-the-scenes vote of confidence, his approach likely remains business as usual, rather than freak-out mode. And I’m not sure Zduriencik would freak out and try some kind of over-the-top move, anyway. I was concerned about it a few months ago. I no longer get the sense this is very likely at all.

And president Kevin Mather could put the cuffs on any deal he doesn’t feel right about, too, as can Howard Lincoln. Either way, the Mariners could buy as much as sell later this month. And as long as their eye is toward 2016 more than anything, the process is justifiable.

The results? We’ll have to wait and see.…

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.

 …

Mariners walk off
After a sluggish start to the 2015 season, the Seattle Mariners’ record has started to improve, which is encouraging for the team’s fan base since the team has been a popular pick to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001. Yet, fans continue to voice their concern that the Mariners’ offense continues to struggle with scoring runs.

Entering today, the Mariners were averaging 3.8 runs-per-game (R/G), which ranks twelfth in the American League (AL). Understandably, fans are going to be frustrated when they see stranded runners and too few runs being scored, especially when the team is losing or struggling to hang on to leads. It’s as if nothing has changed from last year’s Mariners squad, which also couldn’t consistently mount a reliable offense to support their superb rotation.

As the offense has scuffled through April and nearly all of May, one “statistic” that’s been used repeatedly by some pundits to quantify the team’s early struggles is batting average with runners-in-scoring-position (RISP) and it drives me crazy.

It’s not that I don’t agree that the Mariners have issues scoring – they do. But, run-scoring success – or futility – can’t simply be pinned on RISP effectiveness, which is a random statistic that doesn’t accurately reflect a team’s or player’s ability to score runs. Frankly, using RISP to assess the offensive production of an individual player or a team is lazy analysis.

Yes, the Mariners are currently mired in the bottom three of the AL in both runs-scored and RISP. But, the correlation between run-scoring and RISP doesn’t measure up when you look around the league – half of the teams that are above the league-average in R/G are below-average in RISP average. The most glaring contradiction is the worst scoring team in the AL – the Chicago White Sox – they have the fifth best RISP batting average (.276) of the young 2015 season.

Looking back at the 2014 Mariners provides another example of the meaninglessness of using RISP success as an assessment tool – Seattle’s RISP (.262) was six points higher than league-average and fifth in the AL. Yes, that’s right, the team that was near the bottom in virtually every offensive category  – including thirteenth in R/G – had the fifth-best batting average with RISP. How can that be?

Small sample of a small sample
One of the biggest issues I have with “RISP analysis” is that small sample sizes of data are used to express offensive effectiveness. Using small amounts of data to characterize the “clutchness” of an individual player reduces the reliability of the RISP statistic being quoted. Yet, I continuously read comments discussing the performance of a team or a player during a short span of games.

Even a player’s RISP batting average for an entire season is small sample size. In 2014, Robinson Cano hit .339 in 149 plate appearances with RISP. That’s pretty good! But, you wouldn’t award a player a batting title for hitting .339 for such a short time period. So, why label a player as “clutch” or “not clutch” with such a small sample size?

Good hitters hit regardless of the situation, while below-average hitters continue to be below-average – a player’s career RISP success will look similar to their overall career batting average. To see what I mean, take a look at the career numbers of veteran Mariners and you’ll see that their career batting average is relatively close to their batting average with RISP. They’re either good or bad, regardless of the base runner situation.

Is something wrong with Robinson Cano in 2015?
The answer to the question is “nothing.” It’s true that Cano has gotten off to a slow start and is batting a lowly .205 with RISP. Is this a reason to decry that the 32-year-old is over-the-hill? Not after a whopping 49 plate appearances with RISP. A review of Cano’s career numbers illuminates the fact that he’s the same player with or without RISP. The Mariners’ second baseman has an overall career batting average of .308, while his career average with RISP is .284. His career on-base percentage (OBP) with RISP (.353) is nearly identical to his overall OBP of .356.

Boomstick
Nelson Cruz has made an impressive debut in Seattle by leading the AL in home runs and earning recognition as AL Player of the Month for April. Yes, he’s hitting extremely well (.346) with RISP. But, his overall average (.341) is virtually equal. As I said earlier, the 2015 sample size is too small to use. Like Cano, the 34-year-old slugger’s career numbers with or without RISP are similar – .287 and .272 respectively.

The enigmatic Mariner
Seattle’s most confounding hitter – Dustin Ackley – hasn’t produced with RISP throughout his five-year career, but he’s below league-average regardless of situation. The 27-year-old has a career average of .225 with RISP and .242 otherwise – neither are good. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value has normally become apparent. This isn’t an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to consider the future role of a player. In the case of Ackley, his course seems to be set based on his 2,100-plus plate appearances.

The rest of the gang
There are six other Mariners with more than 2,000 career plate appearances – Willie Bloomquist, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks. Only Morrison has a significantly different batting average – .250 overall vs. 215 with RISP – while the averages for the others are within 30 points. This demonstrates that players are basically the same player regardless of the RISP situation; that even applies to a player renowned for his poise in pressure situations.

Captain Clutch
Derek Jeter earned the moniker of “Captain Clutch” for making impressive postseason plays – in the field and with his bat – that left an impression that the retired Yankees shortstop was better under pressure. It’s true that the future Hall of Famer provided some of the most memorable plays in the last twenty years. But, Jeter’s career batting average was .310, while he hit .301 with RISP – good, but very similar numbers. In reality, Jeter was consistently great in every situation and that’s why Cooperstown awaits the Yankee great.

Creating opportunities
The Mariners’ 2014 success with RISP didn’t lead to the team doing well in the runs-scored category because they didn’t create enough scoring opportunities – they were fourteenth in plate appearances with or without RISP. The team that ranked last – the Baltimore Orioles – was able to overcome their shortfall of runners by easily leading the majors in home runs, being second in the AL in slugging percentage, and being slightly above league-average in batting average. The Mariners aren’t constructed to consistently power their way to scores and have to create scoring opportunities by getting more runners on base.

The Mariners currently rank thirteenth in plate appearances (409) with RISP – league-average is 445. This reinforces the real problem with the Mariners’ offense – they don’t get on base often enough, let alone hit with RISP. For this team to succeed, they’ll need to create more scoring opportunities by getting on base at a higher rate, which is a topic that Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – broached just last week when he offered suggestions to fix the Mariners.

“Clutch” hitting isn’t the problem for the Mariners– they just need to get on-base at a higher rate in order to increase their scoring opportunities. Seattle will need to make incremental moves similar to the ones that Jason has suggested or the team will continue to have difficulties scoring – regardless of their success with RISP. I’m not advocating to ban “RISP” from the lexicon of the baseball pundits. But, I do believe that it’s a hollow stat that doesn’t tell the “rest of the story” and – at the very least – should be put into context when being offered to fans during an offensive drought.…

"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.

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