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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Wade MileyIt was just a few weeks ago that the Seattle Mariners had Wade Miley penciled in as the club’s No. 2 starter, largely in rotation place given the uncertainty beyond Felix Hernandez. Fast-forward those few weeks and a Hisashi Iwakuma re-signing, and that situation isn’t all that different. The club still doesn’t have a true No. 2 starter, but that shouldn’t take away from the value that Miley does provide going forward.

First, the order in which the rotation falls is largely irrelevant. Back in 2014, James Paxton was the club’s No. 2 starter. Teams order their rotation based on skill — you want your best starters to have the most opportunities — but handedness, match-ups, and other factors are taken into consideration. Miley and Iwakuma are the second and third starters on the depth chart right and depending

Secondly, unless he replicates his 2012 season with Arizona, Miley isn’t going to fill the role of a No. 2 starter. With very good command of a balanced repertoire instead of an out-pitch or two, he better resembles a mid-rotation arm. In a deep rotation he profiles as a No. 4, but he could easily be a solid No. 3. I think that’s realistically what the club expects out of him; they aren’t going to ask him to be something he’s not.

Still, Miley has several things working in his favor heading into 2016.

The first one that gets brought up is his move to Safeco Field. Though the fences were moved in four years ago, according to ESPN’s park factors for 2015 Safeco was the fourth friendliest park for pitchers. Fenway Park on the other hand, was the fourth friendliest park for hitters. Determining the exact impact of how park factors affect pitchers is tough, but it’s safe to say that starting half his games at Safeco instead of Fenway will benefit Miley.

Miley hasn’t really had a problem with surrendering home runs in his career — his control and ground ball tendencies help — so Safeco’s ability to suppress home runs may not be a considerable benefit.

The second point relates to Miley having a stronger defence behind him in 2016 compared to 2015. Although single-season defensive metrics aren’t the most reliable statistics, the Red Sox were actually an average team defensively last year according to DRS and UZR. The Mariners on the other hand, were the second-worst team in the majors based on DRS — only the Philadelphia Phillies were worse.

However, that should be in the past as new general manager Jerry Dipoto has significantly revamped his club’s overall defence. Offseason acquisitions Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin, Chris Iannetta, and a full season of Ketel Marte all offer defensive upgrades, both small and large, over what we saw in the field last year. We also shouldn’t expect to see Nelson Cruz deployed in right field as frequently going forward which helps.

Back to Miley. The left-hander hasn’t been much of a strikeout pitcher in his career averaging about seven per nine innings. At 29-years-old he’s unlikely to develop further velocity either. What allows Miley to excel is when he limits the free passes. In his career 2012 season, he posted a 1.71 walks per nine rate. He’s coming off a 2.97 mark in 2015 and a 3.35 mark in 2014. Getting that rate closer to 2.50 should yield some more positive results.

Throughout his career, Miley has outperformed his earned run average. His career FIP of 3.80 is 15 points better than his career 3.95 ERA. This was especially apparent last season when he posted a 3.81 FIP compared to a 4.46 ERA. FIP tends to be a better predictive stat than ERA, which means we should expect Miley to perform closer to that 3.80 FIP mark going forward. As mentioned, pitching in a friendlier environment with an improved defence should improve both metrics.

We have Miley, an average to above-average pitcher, with room to grow. There’s value there, but we need to talk about the other value he brought to Seattle: his contract.

The following table shows the performance of other starting pitchers who changed addresses over the offseason. For example’s sake and the rotation conversation, I included Iwakuma in the table.

 Comparable Starters’ Performance in fWAR
Name 2015 2014 2013
2012 2011 Average
Wade Miley 2.6 1.5 1.8 4.1 -0.1 2.0
Ian Kennedy 0.8 3.5 0.6 2.5 4.8 2.4
Shelby Miller 3.4 0.5 2.4 0.5 MNR 1.7
Mike Leake 1.7 2.3 2.0 1.4 1.5 1.8
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8 3.0 3.8 0.7 JPL 2.3

Ian Kennedy holds the highest average fWAR of the group for the sample. At a closer glance, though, he’s been an up-and-down pitcher. Shelby Miller’s track record has some similarity, but with a different story and a higher ceiling — the 2012 sample included only a cup of big league coffee. Mike Leake is perhaps the best comparable for Miley given his consistency. When healthy, and he hasn’t been entirely the past two seasons, Iwakuma has been solidly above average during his short span in North America.

Now let’s look at what the salary numbers will look like for these pitchers going forward.

 Comparable Starters’ Salaries
Name 2016 2017 2018
2019 2020
Wade Miley $6.0M $8.8M $12.0M* FA FA
Ian Kennedy $7.5M $13.5M $16.0M $16.5M $16.5M
Shelby Miller $4.4M ARB ARB FA FA
Mike Leake $12.0M $15.0M $17.0M $16.0M $15.0M
Hisashi Iwakuma $10.0M $10.0M* $10.0M* FA FA

*Denotes a team option.

Miley stands to be the least expensive of the bunch with his salaries locked in through 2018 for a total of $26.8 million if his team option is exercised.. The hit-and-miss Kennedy signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Kansas City Royals and required a first-round pick. Miller will be cost-controlled through his arbitration years, but cost the Arizona Diamondbacks an unprecedented haul. Leake, a reasonable comparable to Miley, was signed to a five-year, $80 million contract by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Mariners had to give up a cost-controlled lefty in Roenis Elias who still has upside as a starter and a dynamic young reliever in Carson Smith and that needs to be considered in the cost. If we were to say that Miley and Leake are similar pitchers — young, low-strikeout, low-walk, innings eaters — we could say that the M’s elected to give up some talent instead of paying premium free agent prices.

Also worth factoring in is that Leake or a comparable starter may not have wanted to sign in Seattle. In the case of Kennedy, for example, the club’s unprotected first-round pick would need to have been relinquished. Miley’s contract, though offering team control for three years opposed to five in the cases of Kennedy or Leake, doesn’t affect long or short-term payroll flexibility the way those deals would.

Seattle paid a steep price to acquire Miley but it includes the potential upside and payroll flexibility that is offers value beyond what we know of the left-hander’s past performance. Durable mid-rotation arms aren’t cheap and while he’s no Mark Buehrle, Miley does have four straight years of 190-plus innings to his credit.…

Rodney 2 At some stage of their baseball career, a relief pitcher was no longer viewed as starting pitcher material by an organization. Perhaps, they couldn’t consistently repeat their delivery, didn’t possess a viable third pitch, or had physical limitations due to their injury history.

These “flaws” can make it challenging to forecast the performance of many relievers, especially during stressful game situations. That’s why baseball analysts frequently use the term “volatility” when describing the inconsistent nature of relief pitching.

“Volatile” is certainly an appropriate way to describe Seattle Mariners relievers during the past two seasons. After being a strength in 2014, the club’s bullpen became one of the worst in the majors last year despite the fact that the cast of characters was largely the same.

I found the Mariners’ regression to be intriguing. What Mariners experienced the largest declines in performance and reliability? How did Seattle’s meltdown stack-up when compared to other teams? Has any team been able to stave off the volatility so often mentioned by baseball experts? How did the new batch of relievers that Seattle has imported this offseason do last year? With these questions on my mind, I set out to get answers. What I found will be considered enlightening and/or exasperating to many Mariner fans.

Weighing reliever contributions
In order to simplify the review process, I wanted to use a lone statistic to illustrate the impact that a reliever can have on winning games. It didn’t have to be a perfect, all-inclusive stat. Just something that would help me gauge a reliever’s effectiveness in tight situations. Fortunately for me, Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons recently noted that FanGraphs has long advocated using Win Probability Added (WPA) to weigh relievers.

I quickly realized that WPA was exactly what I had in mind; a cumulative metric that represents a hitter’s or pitcher’s impact on the win expectancy (WE) of his team during plate appearances over the span of a season. Players are proportionately credited or debited based on their actions and the scenario. For example, a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning will earn a hitter more credit and the pitcher a larger debit than a homer in the first.

Using WPA is especially helpful when looking at a reliever because the best relievers are used during the most crucial moments of a contest. Consequently, elite relievers will have a higher WPA than most starters, while less reliable or inexperienced relief pitchers will have a low or negative WPA. If you’d like to know more about win probability, David Appelman of FanGraphs provides an explanation and additional links to WPA explanations here.

How bad was it?
After having the sixth best bullpen WPA in 2014, the Mariners slipped to number-24 last season. To see who regressed and how much during that two-year span, let’s first look at the Seattle relievers who pitched at least five innings for the club in both 2014 and 2015. Very quickly, it becomes apparent who did well and who were the most “volatile” relievers.

Seattle Mariners Bullpen Comparison (2014-2015)
Name 2014 WPA
2015 WPA
Delta Comments
Fernando Rodney 1.5  -1.2
 -2.7
Traded
Carson Smith 0.4   2.2
  1.8
Traded
Charlie Furbush 0.1
  0.5
  0.4
On team — recovering from injury
Tom Wilhelmsen  1.9
  1.5
 -0.4
Traded
Yoervis Medina  0.0   0.6   0.6 Traded
Danny Farquhar
 1.8
 -1.9
 -3.7
Traded
Joe Beimel  0.7
-0.3
 -1.0
Free Agent
Dominic Leone
 0.4
-1.1
 -1.5
Traded

The only pitchers with a positive WPA in 2015 were the versatile Tom Wilhelmsen, rookie Carson Smith, the injured Charlie Furbush, and Yoervis Medina – who traded to the Chicago Cubs in May, Otherwise, the remaining 2014 holdovers were disappointments.

Clearly, the unreliability of Opening Day closer Fernando Rodney and middle-reliever Danny Farquhar played a huge role in the club’s slide. After bursting onto the scene in 2014 as a rookie, Dominic Leone was very ineffective during limited time with the Mariners last season.

To compound matters, Medina was traded to the Chicago Cubs in May in exchange for catcher Welington Castillo. Just 15 days later, Leone was sent with Castillo to the Arizona Diamondbacks for slugger Mark Trumbo and starter/reliever Vidal Nuno.

Misery loves company
The ebb and flow of relief pitcher performance isn’t a “same old Mariners” thing; it happens across the league in both a positive and negative manner. Take a look at the four bullpens that joined Seattle in taking the biggest step backwards in 2015.

Five Teams with Most Bullpen Regression (2014-2015)
Team 2014 WPA
2015 WPA
Delta
Oakland Athletics 1.7 -7.8 -9.5
Seattle Mariners 5.5 -1.3 -6.8
Atlanta Braves 1.8 -3.9 -5.7
Washington Nationals 4.4 -0.6 -5.0
Miami Marlins 0.8 -3.2 -4.0

Of the five teams listed above, only the Mariners and Washington Nationals were considered strong postseason contenders entering last season. Yet, both clubs were let down by their respective bullpens.

During this offseason, the rebuilding Atlanta Braves and enigmatic Miami Marlins have been relatively inactive in the reliever market. Conversely, the Oakland Athletics, Nationals, and the Mariners have been aggressively retooling their respective relief staffs.

The new guys
WPA isn’t a predictive metric and can’t be used quantify a player’s talent level. Nevertheless, I thought it’d be interesting to review how the Mariners’ bullpen candidates currently on their 40-man roster have improved/regressed over the last two seasons. Unfortunately for Mariner fans, the numbers won’t generate much enthusiasm.

Seattle Mariners Bullpen Candidates
Name 2014 WPA
2015 WPA
Steve Cishek  2.6 -2.8
Joaquin Benoit  2.8  1.2
Charlie Furbush  0.1  0.5
Tony Zych MiLB
 0.2
Evan Scribner  0.0 -1.4
Vidal Nuno -0.3 -0.2
Justin De Fratus  0.9 -1.2
Ryan Cook -0.3 -0.1
Cody Martin -1.0 -0.7
Mayckol Guaipe MiLB -1.0
David Rollins MiLB -0.4

It appears that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is banking on reliever volatility and bounce back performances because his projected eighth inning set-up man – Joaquin Benoit – is the only current Mariner reliever who had a good 2015 season. Everyone else either had a down year or was a rookie in 2015.

Dipoto’s new closer – Steve Cishek – had the worst WPA among major league relievers in 2015. When Seattle signed the side-arming right-hander, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill commented that the club would be “counting on him to get back to where he was the previous seasons.”

Seeing the win probability numbers for Cishek and the rest of the relief staff will likely infuriate fans, especially after watching the team’s two best relievers – Smith and Wilhelmsen – be used as trade chips during the offseason.

The above names won’t be the only candidates who could find themselves in the mix for a bullpen spot. As I mentioned earlier, there are times when a club determines that a starter would be more effective in a relief role; even if it were only on a temporary basis. Mike Montgomery – who is out of minor league options – could be a candidate for a left-handed reliever spot, if he doesn’t earn a rotation spot or isn’t traded.

Former number-two overall draft pick Danny Hultzen has been converted to a reliever after suffering several injury setbacks. He may not be in the mix on Opening Day, but doesn’t exclude him from being an option for the club later in the season.

The Mariners will also have non-roster camp invitees to help generate organizational depth. To date, the club has invited prospect Paul Fry, plus several pitchers with major league relief experience – Casey Coleman, Blake Parker, and Donn Roach. It’s worth noting that Roach may be viewed as rotation depth by the organization, but he does have relief experience. Also, right-hander Adrian Sampson, who finished the season with Tacoma has been invited to camp.

Seeing so many unfamiliar names and unproven performers may frustrate the Mariners fan base. But, there are plenty of examples of teams who’ve turned around their bullpen in just one offseason. It happens every year.

Comeback kids
Here’s a look at the five most improved bullpens from last season. Several of the ball clubs listed below had a far worse WPA in 2014 than Seattle’s tally from last season (-1.4) and went on to reach the postseason.

Five Most Improved Bullpens (2014-20015)
Team 2014 WPA
2015 WPA
Delta
Pittsburgh Pirates  3.7 11.8 8.1
Chicago White Sox -5.3  1.3 6.6
Arizona Diamondbacks -1.7  3.8 5.5
Texas Rangers -0.1  5.0 5.1
Houston Astros -4.6  0.5 5.1

The Pittsburgh Pirates made the biggest improvement last year and maintained the best WPA in the majors too. It’s worthwhile noting that their 2014 bullpen was also solid – their 2014 WPA would have ranked number-10 last season. The Pittsburgh relievers were good and then became much better.

Two of the Mariners’ divisional rivals – the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros – were on the list and reached the postseason. Despite their success last year, both clubs have added key relievers during the offseason. The Rangers added Wilhelmsen, while the Astros acquired closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Houston’s 0.5 WPA doesn’t seem that impressive on the surface, but their late season bullpen collapse (-2.0 WPA in September) is the reason for the low season total. Since WPA is cumulative throughout the season, a bad stretch can significantly influence the overall tally.

In the Astros’ case, their WPA was 2.4 on September 1. If their season ended on that day, they would have ranked tenth in the majors rather than where they finished the season – number-19. That explains their eagerness to strengthen the back-end of their bullpen with Giles.

Championship material
The Kansas City Royals have avoided dramatic swings in bullpen performance during recent years – they’ve sustained their success through four seasons. The following table identifies every Royals pitcher who was used exclusively as a reliever and pitched at least 30 innings for the club during that span. I’ve also included WPA ranking and the reliever’s combined salaries for each season.

It’s important to note that Luke Hochevar missed the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. So, his 2014 salary of $5.21 million wasn’t included above. If Hochevar’s pay was included in the 2014 total, the 2015 jump in salaries wouldn’t appear as dramatic. Either way, it’s clear that the cost of maintaining a strong bullpen has become increasingly expensive for the Royals.

Although there are Royal relievers who’ve been with the team for several or all four seasons, names changed in each season. Going into 2016, Kansas City will experience more turnover. The club non-tendered former closer Greg Holland after he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament last season. Plus, Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales became free agents when their deals expired. Just today, the club designated Louis Coleman for assignment after he spent most of 2015 with Class-AAA Omaha. The Royals’ primary offseason bullpen addition to date has been free agent Joakim Soria.

I’m sure some Seattle fans will see the amount of money that the Royals obligated for their bullpen and lament that the Mariners should follow suit. But, it’s not that simple. Two pitchers – Holland and Wade Davis – accounted for 61-percent of the $24.8 million used on relievers listed above.

The lone reliever with a long-term deal is Davis, who signed a six-year/$27.6 million contract when he was a starting pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays. The only other multi-year deal for a reliever is Hochevar’s two-year contract. Both Davis’ and Hochevar’s pacts expire after next season. Everyone else is either arbitration-eligible or on a one-year contract. That means that the Royals can walk away from any of these pitchers – as they did with Holland – if they don’t perform or become injured.

Final thoughts
Obviously, the Royals enjoyed bullpen success by having talented relievers on their roster. However, the sustainability of that success is at least partially due to the fact that the organization hasn’t over-committed years or dollars to an individual reliever. That’s why amassing inexpensive, live-armed relief pitchers – who have minor league options remaining – makes sense for Seattle in 2016.

Optimally, relievers will provide value for the entire season. But, if a big leaguer under-performs or regresses, having replacement arms stockpiled at Class-AAA Tacoma will afford the Mariners the flexibility to interchange pitchers until they find a suitable substitute or while they wait for the demoted hurler to get back on track in Tacoma.

As Jason noted during a recent edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, Dipoto and team president Ken Mather are intent on the team being “competitive” in 2016, but the club hasn’t taken a “win-now at any cost” approach that would jeopardize the organization’s future. By not over-committing resources to a veteran reliever in the offseason, Seattle has maintained the financial and roster flexibility to add talent from outside the organization – if they find themselves in a pennant race at-or-near the all-star break.

This practical approach won’t sit well with playoff-starved Mariner fans. Nevertheless, it’s a logical strategy for a ball club that’s trying to become viable, while restructuring their organization into a sustainable winner.

 

 …

Aoki Dipoto

After suffering through another losing season and extending their playoff drought to 14 year, Seattle Mariners management decided to hire Jerry Dipoto to be their general manager. Since taking over in late September, the 47-year-old has significantly altered the club’s approach towards scouting, player development, and coaching.

While Dipoto’s initial actions are encouraging, the root cause to the Mariners’ underwhelming record is the fact that they didn’t have enough good players to compete last season. That’s the main reason behind Dipoto’s hiring and why he was the major’s most active general manager during his first five months on the job.

With Spring Training just around the corner, now’s a good time to recap the Mariners’ hot stove progress to date. For the purposes of my review, I’ve decided to the examine the weaknesses identified by Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill in October. The areas mentioned by Jason are closely aligned to Dipoto’s public comments about the team’s shortcomings and the moves that he’s made. If you missed Jason’s piece, you can read it here.

Starting Pitching
The off-season started with a projected 2016 rotation of staff ace Felix Hernandez and a lot of uncertainty. That’s why Jason identified adding a number-two starter as a priority for the club. There were plenty of candidates behind King Felix – Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery. Yet, none were viewed as locks to make the rotation – or even be reliable. It didn’t take long for the club to start dealing.

Dipoto’s first major trade shipped Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, and Danny Farquhar to the Tampa Bay Rays for the hard-throwing Nate Karns, lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser – since traded to Baltimore – and outfield prospect Boog Powell.

Karns’ first full season in the big leagues came last year at the advanced age of 28. Despite the late arrival, he’s the kind of “swing and miss” pitcher that Dipoto wanted. One area of concern could be durability. As Jason noted in his analysis of the deal, it remains to be seen if Karns can handle a 190-200 inning workload.

The next big change was the acquisition of southpaw Wade Miley, along with reliever Jonathan Aro, from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Elias and dynamic reliever Carson Smith. At the time of the deal, I assessed it as a step backwards. Basically, the trade weakened the already bad bullpen and didn’t add the number-two starter that Jason had identified as a need.

That doesn’t mean that the trade is a bust. Prospect Insider’s analysis pointed out that several “high-ranking scouts that like Miley more than his numbers.” This deal works best for Seattle if the 29-year-old is a legitimate number-three from the onset of the season. It’s important to note that our analysis assumed Miley was the replacement for free agent Hisashi Iwakuma, who had agreed to contract terms with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Little did we know that “Kuma” would actually return to the Emerald City.

When reports surfaced saying that Iwakuma failed his Los Angeles physical, Dipoto pounced on the opportunity to retain the fan favorite. The club Mariners signed Kuma to a three-year deal – with vesting options – which protects the team in the event that he breaks down from a physical standpoint.

Here’s a potential Opening Day rotation compared to the 2015 version. I’ve included the 2015 fWAR for both groups of players and the 2016 Steamer fWAR projection for current Mariners.

   Potential Rotation 2015 Rotation
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
SP Felix Hernandez  2.8  4.7 Felix Hernandez  2.8
SP Wade Miley  2.6  2.1 Hisashi Iwakuma  1.8
SP Hisashi Iwakuma   1.8  2.9 James Paxton   0.5
SP Nate Karns  1.5  1.0 J.A. Happ  1.2
SP Taijuan Walker  1.9  2.4 Taijuan Walker  1.9
Totals  10.6 13.1 8.2

Mission accomplished? No. Going into Spring Training, the rotation looks to be Felix, Miley, Kuma, and Walker with Karns, Paxton, and Montgomery battling for the last rotation spot. The losers will likely go to Class-AAA Tacoma or be traded. That’s a good start, but there’s no clear number-two caliber pitcher behind King Felix.

Bringing back Iwakuma excites fans and it’s true that he can be a number-two – when healthy. But, he’s coming off two consecutive injury-shortened seasons, has only started 30 or more games once in four years with Seattle, and is entering his age-35 season.

Perhaps, Walker will rise to that position. But, he’ll need to be more consistent in 2016 to take the next step in his career become a future ace. Yes, the rotation is better with Karns, Miley, and the returning Iwakuma in the mix. But, it’s debatable whether it’s good enough to contend.

Outfield Defense
The Mariners’ outfield registered -45 defensive runs saved (DRS) – easily the worst in the majors last season. So, Dipoto aggressively made moves to upgrade the team’s outfield defense.

To fix center field, the Mariners dealt popular reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan to the Texas Rangers for Leonys Martin and reliever Anthony Bass – who subsequently signed to play next season in Japan. From Seattle’s perspective, Martin was the cornerstone of the deal. Despite having nearly half the playing time of his contemporaries, the 27-year-old was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. His 15 DRS ranked third behind Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier (42) and Lorenzo Cain (18) during last season.

The signing of Nori Aoki to play a corner outfield spot also improved the defense. Aoki is a solid defender, although he’s known for taking poor routes on balls from time-to-time. Despite his occasional follies in the field, he’s a significantly better defender than any regular corner outfielder that Seattle has used in recent years.

The retention of Franklin Gutierrez to platoon with fellow holdover Seth Smith solidifies left field. Health may have robbed “Guti” of his ability to be a dynamic center fielder, but he’s still good in a corner spot. Smith is the weakest defender of the outfield crew, although he’s not bad. He’s average or slightly below-average.

Although Karns will reach Seattle first and Powell likely starts the season in Tacoma, the 23-year-old outfielder could have a bigger long-term impact. Powell brings a blend of speed, athleticism, defense and contact-style offense that Dipoto craves and he can play all three outfield positions. He’ll likely see action in Seattle during 2016.

Mission accomplished? Yes. Last season, Smith was considered one of Seattle’s better outfielders. Now, he’s ranks last among teammates not named Nelson Cruz. That’s how much Dipoto has improved outfield since taking over – last year’s best is this year’s ‘worst.”

There’s a residual benefit to adding so many defensively sound outfielders, who also can reach base consistently. Management won’t feel compelled to play Cruz in the field as often. Although many fans support his defensive abilities and believe he’s a better hitter when playing right field, the Mariners are better with Cruz as their designated hitter. Keeping “Boomstick” off the field and healthy will help preserve their star hitter.

Bullpen
This unit went from being superb in 2014 to being a complete disappointment last season. After dealing his club’s two best relievers, there wasn’t much left on Dipoto’s roster. So, he’s been in overdrive to find new relievers ever since. The most notable addition is Steve Cishek, who was signed to be the closer.

Cishek was exceptional during 2013 and 2014, but regressed last year. The 29-year-old showed signs of improvement during the second half when he held hitters to a .206/.313/.299 slash. Despite the improved numbers, the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t value him enough to include him on their postseason roster last October. Prospect Insider assesses the side-arming righty as being better suited to be a set-up man than a closer for a contender.

Another veteran newcomer is Joaquin Benoit, who’ll pitch the eighth inning. Benoit has been a durable setup man after missing the 2009 season with rotator cuff surgery. Since then, he’s logged over 60 innings in five of six years, including 67 last season. Jason explained why he liked the Benoit deal for the Mariners here.

Not every face in the relief corps is new. Charlie Furbush returns after suffering a slight rotator cuff tear last season, plus Tony Zych and Vidal Nuno are holdovers who figure to play prominent roles during 2016.

Mission accomplished? No. Losing Smith and Wilhelmsen put a decimated bullpen in a bigger hole and helped spark fan hostility and media skepticism. Steamer projections won’t inspire fans to a leap of faith either – last season’s original relievers provided approximately the same value that’s projected for the new guys assembled by Dipoto.

  Potential Bullpen 2015 Bullpen
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
CL Steve Cishek   0.0  0.0 Fernando Rodney -0.8
SU Joaquin Benoit   0.4  0.3 Carson Smith  2.1
RP Charlie Furbush   0.1  0.4 Charlie Furbush  0.1
RP Tony Zych   0.6
 0.3
Tom Wilhelmsen  0.8
RP Evan Scribner  -0.1  0.5 Yoervis Medina -0.1
RP Vidal Nuno
  0.3  0.3 Danny Farquhar -0.2
RP Justin De Fratus  -0.1 -0.1  Tyler Olson -0.4
Totals    1.2
 1.7                                              1.5

With so many “unknown unknowns” in the bullpen, it’s tough to be optimistic in late January. Clearly, the club is banking on Furbush bouncing back and the Benoit and Cishek combo being able to anchor the back of the pen. But, it’s going to take on-field success to win over fans and skeptics alike.

There is a silver lining though. If the club is in position to contend in July, Dipoto has demonstrated the propensity to fix a bullpen during a season, as he did with the 98-win Los Angeles Angels in 2014. During that season, he acquired star closer Huston Street, plus setup men Fernando Salas and Jason Grilli.

Catcher
At age 24, Mike Zunino is too young to be deemed a bust. Dipoto has repeatedly praised the catcher’s potential, which leaves the impression that he views the former number-three draft pick as a part of the team’s future. Defensively, he’s outstanding. However, his offense took a horrible turn last season when he posted a .174/.230/.300 slash during 386 plate appearances in 2015. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Zunino is likely to spend the entire 2016 season at Class-AAA Tacoma.

As a result of Zunino’s struggles and the weak bat of Jesus Sucre, the Mariners added former Los Angeles Angel Chris Iannetta – who endured his own offensive struggles last season – and former Baltimore Oriole Steve Clevenger to form a new catching tandem for 2016.

Mission accomplished? Yes. Iannetta, who will do the majority of the catching, is a good pitch-framer with proven on-base ability with the exception of last season. Clevenger is a capable backup and can also play first base in a pinch. Since Iannetta is only 32-years-old, it’s reasonable to expect that he can return to pre-2015 form. Regardless, the Iannetta/Clevenger duo is far superior to last season’s catching crew.

Adding two new catchers affords Seattle the opportunity to place both Zunino and Sucre in Tacoma, if they chose to do so. This substantially improves the club’s organizational depth. Plus, it gives Zunino the opportunity to fix his swing and prove whether Dipoto is correct in believing that he’s part of the team’s future.

Fringe Depth
Dipoto has spoken often of adding layers of depth throughout the organization, like he did with the catcher position. Although fringe depth is easily overlooked by both fans and talking heads, it’s imperative to have both major and minor league reserves in order to contend.

To get in front of the issue, Dipoto added 17 new players to 40-man roster with only four – Adam Lind, Aoki, Martin, Iannetta – slated as starting position players. The rest will provide rotation, bullpen, or bench depth for the either Seattle or Tacoma.

Last season, the club didn’t have clear-cut options in the event of injury or lackluster performance, which led to an 86-loss season. Here’s what a notional Opening Day bench could look like and how it compares to last year’s reserves.

   Potential Bench 2015 Bench
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
C Steve Clevenger   0.0  0.4 Jesus Sucre  -0.3
INF Chris Taylor  -0.4  0.3 Willie Bloomquist  -0.6
OF Franklin Gutierrez   2.3  0.6 Justin Ruggiano  -0.1
OF Shawn O’Malley   0.1  0.0 Rickie Weeks -0.7
Totals   2.0  1.3                                             -1.7

Mission accomplished? Mostly. Building organizational depth is never ending process, but it’s clear that this year’s bench will be significantly better than the 2015 version. For example, Ketel Marte is seemingly destined to be the starting shortstop. Consequently, holdover Chris Taylor and import Luis Sardinas will vie for the reserve infielder spot with the loser likely to start the season with Tacoma. Also, Powell presents the Mariners with their best rookie outfield call-up option in years. These kind of options didn’t exist on Seattle’s roster a year ago.

In addition to “splashy” moves, the Mariners have quietly added several non-roster invites who could potentially add to their depth. To date, those players include pitchers Casey Coleman, Brad Mills, Blake Parker, infielder Ed Lucas and outfielder Mike Baxter. Also, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN reports that first baseman Gaby Sanchez has agreed with the Mariners on a minor league deal. Expect more names to be added during the next month.

Final thoughts
Having Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Felix to build around makes it easier for the Mariners to compete in 2016 without jeopardizing its future success or payroll flexibility. The “riskiest” contracts signed this winter are Cishek’s two-year deal and Iwakuma’s incentive-based contract. Neither will cripple the team’s future plans.

While this bodes well for the team in the long-term, it’s hard to really know how well the Mariners will perform in 2016. Take a look at the projected Opening Day starters compared to last year’s group and you’ll see that this year’s lineup should perform better than 2015 version. But, is it good enough?

   Projected Starters 2015 Starters
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
1B Adam Lind  2.2  1.5 Logan Morrison -0.2
2B Robinson Cano  2.1  3.5 Robinson Cano  2.1
SS Ketel Marte  1.7  1.8 Brad Miller  0.9
3B Kyle Seager  3.9  3.7 Kyle Seager  3.9
LF Nori Aoki  1.5  0.9 Dustin Ackley -0.6
CF Leonys Martin  0.5  1.2 Austin Jackson  2.3
RF Seth Smith  2.2  1.2 Seth Smith  2.2
DH Nelson Cruz  4.8  1.6 Nelson Cruz  4.8
C Chris Iannetta  0.5  1.7 Mike Zunino -0.5
Totals 19.4 17.1                                        14.9

Dipoto’s approach of building around core stars, while simultaneously giving the organization a major facelift makes sense. Whether that strategy leads to a winning campaign in 2016 remains to be seen. If the season started today, the Mariners are far better than the 76-win disappointment of 2015. But, their current rotation and bullpen can’t be considered ready to propel the club into contention.

Right now, the Mariners are a “fringe contender” at best. The club is banking on players like Cano, Iwakuma, Paxton, Martin, Aoki, Iannetta, Cishek, Furbush and most of their relievers to rebound after a down season. If the majority of these ball players bounce back, the Mariners will be the sweethearts of baseball’s talking heads – much like the 2015 Houston Astros. If things don’t go as well as planned, they’ll be fighting to stay above the .500 mark.

That assessment shouldn’t dishearten or irritate fans. After all, Opening Day isn’t until April and a lot can change between now and then. As I pointed out a few months ago, every 2015 playoff team wasn’t ready by Opening Day. Fans can also find comfort in knowing that their team’s general manager isn’t afraid to pivot from mistakes or address under-performance.

If the Mariners are in contention by June or July, Dipoto has the wherewithal to add pieces – he’s done it before. If the club is out of the hunt, he can use next off-season to continue reshaping the organization and building the contender that Mariner fans so desperately crave.

 …

DipotoSince becoming the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, Jerry Dipoto has aggressively worked to transform the club’s roster. In just under three months, he’s added 16 players to the club’s 40-man roster. The 47-year-old’s moves have been greeted with a mixture of optimism, scorn, and indifference depending on the names of the players involved and fan’s perceived value of the individuals traded away and received.

For example, dispatching Carson Smith and Roenis Elias to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro and the signing of free agent catcher Chris Iannetta didn’t sit well with the Seattle faithful. Conversely, the addition of Nori Aoki via free agency was much better received. Despite the mixed reviews on Dipoto’s numerous transactions, the Mariners appear to be on track to be better next season.

It’s impossible to know with certainty how much value that Seattle’s new players –  or their holdovers – will provide in 2016. None of us can predict the future, although it can be fun trying to prognosticate. The next best thing to being a seer is using sabermetric projections, which can at least provide some insight into a team’s and player’s future performance.

With that in mind, I decided to compare Seattle’s potential Opening Day 25-man roster to the squad that started last season against the Los Angeles Angels on April 6 at Safeco Field. To help with the comparison, I opted to use Steamer wins above replacements (WAR) projections found here at FanGraphs. Since I’m using the the FanGraphs version of WAR, I’ll be referring to it as “fWAR” from this point going forward.

I understand that fWAR isn’t universally accepted as a reliable measure of a player’s performance by all fans and some in the media, but fWAR helps encapsulate a player’s total value into one statistic that includes base running, defense, and hitting.

fWAR isn’t a concrete measure like batting average or home runs. Rather, it’s an estimation of value that happens to be relatively accurate. Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto were the top five position players in 2015 – based on fWAR.  All of these players were in the top three of their respective league’s Most Valuable Player voting. That’s not a coincidence.

First, let’s look at the starting position players from Opening Day 2015 and the likely starting position players for next season. You’ll see that I’ve included the 2015 fWAR for both groups of players and the 2016 Steamer fWAR projection for the current Mariners. At the bottom of each column, I included totals.

   Projected Starters 2015 Starters
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
1B Adam Lind  2.2  1.5 Logan Morrison -0.2
2B Robinson Cano  2.1  3.5 Robinson Cano  2.1
SS Ketel Marte  1.7  1.8 Brad Miller  0.9
3B Kyle Seager  3.9  3.7 Kyle Seager  3.9
LF Nori Aoki  1.5  0.9 Dustin Ackley -0.6
CF Leonys Martin  0.5  1.2 Austin Jackson  2.3
RF Seth Smith  2.2  1.2 Seth Smith  2.2
DH Nelson Cruz  4.8  1.6 Nelson Cruz  4.8
C Chris Iannetta  0.5  1.7 Mike Zunino -0.5
Totals 19.4 17.1                                    14.9

A few words of caution before going any further. The projections listed above are nothing more than estimates based on factors such as each player’s playing history and age. Moreover, they can’t predict injuries – like Robinson Cano’s abdominal issues or James Paxton’s finger tendon injury. Thereby, projections are imperfect by nature, especially for young players with a small sample size of appearances in the big leagues. But, it’s still fun to use them during the Hot Stove season.

Even though Steamer projections have Nelson Cruz tailing off considerably in 2016, the starting crew that Dipoto has assembled projects to outperform the 2015 squad. First base, left field, and catcher are clear upgrades – based on last season’s fWAR value. Plus, Cano is expected to continue his second-half turnaround from last season into next year.

The projected Opening Day bench also looks to provide more value in 2016, although that’s not a very high bar to get over. The 2015 bench was an absolute disappointment.

   Projected Bench 2015 Bench
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
C Steve Clevenger   0.0  0.4 Jesus Sucre  -0.3
INF Chris Taylor  -0.4  0.3 Willie Bloomquist  -0.6
OF Franklin Gutierrez   2.3   0.6 Justin Ruggiano  -0.1
OF Shawn O’Malley   0.1  0.0 Rickie Weeks -0.7
Totals   2.0  1.3                                        -1.7

Since these are just projections, it’s possible that some of the names I’ve used won’t be with the club when it breaks camp next year. Barring injury, Franklin Gutierrez is the most certain to make the squad followed by Steve Clevenger. Regardless of who earns spots on the club’s bench, there’s a good chance that they’ll surpass the low value of last season’s Opening Day reserves. There’s no where to go, but up.

As with bench players, manager Scott Servais will have more options than the ones I’ve listed in the below starting rotation projection. For example, Mike Montgomery will be in the mix and it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities that Dipoto will acquire more arms to either compete in Peoria or provide depth after the season begins.

Dipoto might even trade one of the players I’ve projected to make the rotation. Heck, he might make a move before the end of the evening. But, as of December 13, these five players appear to be the best options for Seattle.

   Projected Rotation 2015 Rotation
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
SP Felix Hernandez  2.8  4.7 Felix Hernandez  2.8
SP Wade Miley  2.6  2.1 Hisashi Iwakuma  1.8
SP James Paxton  1.5 1.3 James Paxton  0.5
SP Nate Karns  1.5  1.0 J.A. Happ  1.2
SP Taijuan Walker  1.9  2.4 Taijuan Walker  1.9
Totals  9.3 11.5                                       8.2

Of all of the deals made by the Mariners new GM, the Miley deal has been met with the most fan anger. That probably has more to do with departure of Carson Smith in the trade and the fact that Miley was chosen to replace fan-favorite Hisashi Iwakuma, who joined the Los Angeles Dodgers via free agency. If Miley had been a free agent acquisition by the Mariners, the resistance may have been more muted.

Fan sorrow aside, Miley provided provide more value to Boston than Iwakuma did to Seattle in 2015. Plus, Miley’s 2016 projected fWAR surpasses Iwakuma’s 2015 value. The combination of newcomers Miley and Nate Karns and the projected performance improvements of holdovers Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton are expected to help boost the club’s rotation value by over three wins next season.

After being a strength for the Mariners in 2014, the bullpen went through a season-long tailspin in 2015. Appearances by closer Fernando Rodney were so erratic that they were commonly referred to as the “Fernando Rodney Experience” on social media. The combination of Rodney’s inconsistency, the regression of Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar, and a season-ending injury to Charlie Furbish turned the bullpen into the club’s Achilles’ heel.

  Projected Bullpen 2015 Bullpen
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
CL Steve Cishek   0.0  0.0 Fernando Rodney -0.8
SU Joaquin Benoit   0.4  0.3 Carson Smith  2.1
RP Charlie Furbush   0.1  0.4 Charlie Furbush  0.1
RP Anthony Bass   0.1  0.3 Tom Wilhelmsen  0.8
RP Evan Scribner  -0.1  0.5 Yoervis Medina -0.1
RP Vidal Nuno
  0.3 0.3 Danny Farquhar -0.2
RP Justin De Fratus  -0.1 -0.1  Tyler Olson -0.4
Totals    0.7  1.7                                         1.5

The trades of the team’s two best relievers – Tom Wilhelmsen and Smith – has led to a great deal of hostility from fans and skepticism from the media. Steamer projections won’t help inspire fans to a leap of faith either – last season’s original relief corps provided approximately the same value that’s predicted for new one assembled by Dipoto. It’s important to note that Smith provided the majority of that value though.

Clearly, Dipoto is expecting Furbush to bounce back from injury and that new acquisitions Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek will be able to anchor the back of the bullpen.

Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill assesses the side-arming Chisek as being better suited to be a set-up man rather than a closer for a contender. Jason goes on to point out that if the Mariners find themselves in position to contend in July, they could deal for a better option if neither Benoit nor Chisek demonstrate the ability to maintain their grip on the closer spot.

Fortunately for the team and its fans, it’s only mid-December and there’s still plenty of time for more pieces to be added to the rotation, bullpen, and even the bench. Jason identified several players here who could potentially help contribute to what the Dipoto attempting to accomplish during his roster reboot.

If the season started today, I’d project this team to be better than the 76-win unit that finished a distant fourth place last season. However, neither the Mariners’ rotation nor their bullpen is ready to propel the club into contention. They wouldn’t even qualify as a “fringe contender” at the moment.

 …

A right-hander that helped lead the Kansas City Royals to the World Series was notched firmly below Max Scherzer and Jon Lester among starting pitchers when discussing the 2014-2015 free agent class. James Shields ended up joining the San Diego Padres on a four-year, $75 million deal last winter, a winter in which the Padres were heralded as the winners of the offseason. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and with a few key pieces already departed, the Friars are reportedly looking to deal their ace.

Shields, who’ll turn 34 a few days before Christmas, had a down year in 2015 by his standards despite clearing the 200-inning plateau for the ninth consecutive season. He did post a career-best strikeout rate, but also a career-worst walk rate. Perhaps one of the main reasons for Shields’ down year, and this is strange having pitched half his innings at Petco Park, was difficulty with the long ball. His 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate was nearly double the rates he had posted in the previous two seasons.

The right-hander’s spike in home runs could be worrisome, but it appears that it could simply be an outlier as his BABIP and contact rates were in line with his career averages. Shields has lost a tick on his fastball over the past couple years, but he has never been a guy who has relied on velocity so that shouldn’t be concerning

It’s conceivable that Shields could regain his form as a three-to-four WAR pitcher next season, but I would bet on the lower end of that spectrum given his age and the miles on his arm. Still a valuable asset, though.

ESPN’s Buster Olney reports via Twitter that there is significant interest in the Padres’ ace. Olney also points out that Shields passed through revocable waivers last August. There was speculation that San Diego wanted to rid themselves of the contract at that time and are looking to do so again.

So we have a quality arm who’s proven to be good for 200 productive innings annually. First question, why are the Padres trying to move him? Second, why hasn’t anyone taken him yet? Answer: the contract.

Of the $75 million guaranteed to the right-hander, only $10 million of it was paid in 2015. Part of how the Padres were able to sign Shields, amidst their other big money transactions, was to front-load the deal. For each of the next three seasons, Shields is due $21 million. He will also be owed a $2 million buyout for a $16 million team option for the 2019 season.

Also to be aware of: Shields can opt-out of his contract after 2016. This means he could be a one-year rental to an acquiring club. If he has a rebound season it’s not inconceivable to see him get a new three-year deal with an average annual value north of $20 million. But it could be tough to get a fourth-year guaranteed so there are pros and cons on Shields’ side for opting out.

Let’s assume he doesn’t opt out, and we can say Shields is owed $65 million for the next three years. That’s $20 million more than now former Mariner, Hisashi Iwakuma, received in his three-year free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It doesn’t sound as if the total sum of money was the issue for Seattle not re-signing their No. 2 starter. GM Jerry Dipoto said yesterday that the club wasn’t comfortable with paying Iwakuma for his age 35, 36, and 37 seasons while mentioning sustainability. Some reports had the Mariners offering two years and $25 million.

For the next three years Shields will pitch in his age 34, 35, and 36 seasons — just one year younger than Iwakuma. However, if sustainability is the desired target, that’s where Shields differentiates himself from Iwakuma. In the past three seasons, Iwakuma has one campaign of 200-plus innings to Shields’ three.

As seen in yesterday’s trade with the Boston Red Sox, the Mariners gave up Carson Smith and Roenis Elias for a similar sustainability. Wade Miley has four straight years of throwing 190-plus innings, but is only 29-years-old and his total cost for the next three years would be slightly less than $27 million if his 2019 option is exercised. There’s value in cost certainty and the potential for slightly more upside with a pitcher yet to hit 30.

The Padres are reportedly willing to eat salary to move Shield’s contract. This morning they dealt $7.5 million and Jedd Gyorko to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jon Jay and his $6.225 million salary. Obviously this was a different scenario, but between the cash sent and money owed to Jay, the Padres were willing to eat almost $14 million of the $33 million guaranteed to Gyorko over the next four years.

How much the Padres are willing to eat in order to move Shields will be less relevant than what Seattle would potentially be willing to take on.

We haven’t talked about the potential fit, but that much should be self-explanatory. Miley sits No. 2 to Felix Hernandez on the depth chart, but better reflects the skill set of a No. 3 starter in a good rotation, and perhaps a No. 4 in a great rotation. Nothing against Miley, he just doesn’t quite fill the gap that a healthy Iwakuma leaves.

Shields could still be a solid No. 2, and with an improved outfield defense behind him — a lack of Matt Kemp would help anybody — should be able to succeed in Seattle.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Mariners value Shields between $15-to-$18 million annually. This would mean getting the Padres to eat $3-to-$6 million annually. Part of the value Miley brings, according to Dipoto, is that what he provides the kind of value that would cost between $12 and $18 million on the free agent market.

Without having an inside look at the Padres’ financials, I’m going to suggest that an arrangement along those lines would be feasible. But, it would involve San Diego getting that much more in player value as the return.

Seattle doesn’t have a Brad Miller available anymore to solve the Padres’ shortstop problems. After trading Elias it’s unlikely a James Paxton or Taijuan Walker would be on the move and there’s literally no more bullpen depth to deal from. Chris Taylor or Ketel Marte could probably be a conversation starter, but would the M’s need to add a D.J. Peterson to get the Padres’ attention?

If San Diego is open to less-immediate major league help, maybe rising prospect Tyler Smith could be of interest. Top prospects Edwin Diaz and Alex Jackson are still a few years away from the majors and while I don’t love the term untouchable, they should only enter the conversation if Seattle is getting a top-flite young player with multiple years of control.

Perhaps an ideal situation would be the Padres taking back old friend Seth Smith. With Justin Upton departing via free agency there is some need for additional outfield depth, and the money owed to Smith could balance out the finances some.

A deal based on Smith and Taylor with a mid-level prospect going to San Diego could be a starting point, but I have a feeling another club will be able to offer more than Seattle can, either in player value or in portion of contract assumed.

After dealing Carson Smith, Elias, Miller, and Patrick Kivlehan, the Mariners don’t really have the depth to make a significant deal without moving major league parts or young roster players. I don’t think that will or should stop Dipoto from trying to make a big splash, but it is a legitimate consideration.

I think getting James Shields at three years and $45-to-50 million would be a solid buy based on what’s going on with free agency. Last winter Brandon McCarthy signed for four years and $48 million, and we already have J.A. Happ costing the Toronto Blue Jays $36 million over three years. There are other examples, but Shields at $15 million annually is a much better buy than either of those two starters at $12 million per.

Given the demand for Shields, I don’t think the market will soften enough to the point where he fits what Dipoto wants to do. Until we hear a little more about what the potential ask might be, it’s tough to speculate on what the M’s would need to give up.

If Shields does plan on opting out, which we won’t know for 11 months, it doesn’t make sense to pay a steep price for a rental. If the Padres were to deal him as a potential rental though, the asking price would likely reflect that. Maybe guaranteeing Shields’ 2019 option with an equal AAV to his other three years could convince him to drop the opt-out. That’s my own speculation though.

Obviously every player makes sense at a certain price and Shields may not end up at a price that makes sense for Seattle. This may not be an idea worth pursuing, but it’s worth exploring in order to beef up the rotation for potentially the next couple seasons.…

 

It didn’t take long for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to turn to “Plan B” after losing Hisashi Iwakuma to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This afternoon, he acquired starting pitcher Wade Miley along with right-handed reliever Jonathan Aro from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias.

Although Dipoto didn’t waste much time in moving past Iwakuma, this deal and the recent trade of versatile reliever Tom Wilhelmsen leaves the Mariners’ bullpen in worse condition than the one that was so atrocious last season. Plus, the team still needs more starting rotation help.

In effect, the team took a step backward today. Fortunately for them and their long-suffering fan base, it’s only day-one of the Winter Meetings and there’s still plenty of time for the club to improve their roster.

According to MLB.com, the 25-year-old Aro was the number-26 prospect in Boston’s minor league system. He projects as a middle reliever and may end up being Triple-A depth in Tacoma. Although that doesn’t sound sexy, minor league depth matters during an arduous major league season. For proof, look no further than last season when the Mariners bullpen went into a tailspin and no one from Tacoma could help the team. With that said, Miley was the key to this deal.

Dipoto and Miley have a history that goes back to when the Mariners GM was the Arizona Diamondbacks director of scouting when they selected Miley with the number 43-overall draft pick in 2008. Moreover, he had the opportunity to observe the 29-year-old with Boston, when he served as a senior adviser in the Red Sox front office during the second half of the 2015 season.

The 29-year-old is owed $15 million over the next two years, plus the Mariners will hold a $12 million team option for Miley’s age-31 season. That’s considerably less than the $45 million that the Dodgers are paying Iwakuma. Some may not view Miley as a direct replacement for Iwakuma, but the southpaw presents some upside that “Kuma” didn’t during his tenure in Seattle.

Although Miley – at best – projects as a number-three starter, that’s where Iwakuma needed to be if he remained in the Emerald City. So, the Mariners essentially replaced Kuma with a cheaper, younger pitcher.

It’s true that Iwakuma has been more valuable than Miley during the past four seasons. But, the Mariners’ newest starter has been more durable averaging 198 innings-per-season compared to Iwakuma’s 163 during that four-year span.

As with all trades, adding Miley comes at a cost. The Mariners had to part ways with Elias and Smith, who both are young and under team control for five more seasons. Smith was clearly Seattle’s best reliever in 2015. Whether Elias was actually in the mix for the 2016 Mariners rotation is debatable. I’ve heard Dipoto refer to the 27-year-old as a factor in the bullpen on two separate occasions.

On the surface, the Red Sox did much better than the Mariners in this deal. Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill said as much during his analysis of the trade. In addition, Buster Olney of ESPN reports that Boston is getting “rave reviews from rival executives” for the acquisition of Smith. There’s no doubt that the Red Sox are the winners today.

The deal doesn’t provide the Mariners with a clear-cut number-two starter. Perhaps, the team is using the “hope theory” that Taijuan Walker is ready to move up into that spot. Walker may be ready to rise to the next level, but he hasn’t done it yet. So, it’s natural for observers to be cautious in expecting the 23-year-old to be “the next man up” behind ace Felix Hernandez.

With that said, I’m going to hold judgement on this trade until I see the follow-on deals that Dipoto will inevitably make to shore up the bullpen, and possibly the rotation. Jason mentioned a number of free agent options who could help fill out the reliever corps.

Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners looked at free agent and former Mariner Doug Fister or one of the trade targets that Jason mentioned during his trade target piece in order to bring in more depth to the rotation.

Seattle is down to 11 players on the club’s 40-man roster who were on last season’s Opening Day roster. That number will certainly drop down to the single digit level by the start of the season, if not the end of the week. Hopefully for the team and its fans, the future moves that shreds players from the roster will be aimed at helping bolster their starting rotation and the bullpen.

Although today’s signifies a step backwards for the bullpen and maybe the rotation, it’s not fair to judge the Mariners’ hot stove season on this one trade or conclude that the club is heading down the wrong path. As I keep saying, it’s only early December and Dipoto is far from done.

Even as I peck away on my keyboard, Seattle is in hot pursuit of Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Adam Lind, who would be Seattle’s best first baseman since I arrived to the area in 2009.

All of this roster upheaval should excite fans and not discourage them. The team is on a trajectory to be far better than the 2015 version and it’s only December 7.…

The Seattle Mariners reportedly have acquired left-hander Wade Miley and right-handed reliever Jonathan Aro from the Boston Red Sox. Miley is the main piece here, potentially filling a mid-rotation role in Seattle, where the ballpark will help him eliminate some of the bad innings he displayed with the Red Sox.

The 29-year-old southpaw has been somewhere between average and slightly above-average over the course of his career, landing in the former range with Boston in 2015. He posted a 4.08 FIP, 6.8 K/9 and an acceptable yet not ideal walk rate just under three.

Miley sits 90-92 mph from a lower-than-typical slot with both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, using the two-seamer more often than not. His mid-80s slider is average, flashing above-average at times, and his curveball is typically grades out in the 40-50 range, with obvious inconsistency. His changeup has become his best pitch and he used it nearly 20 percent of the time this past season.

While not being a severe fly ball pitcher, Miley also isn’t a ground ball machine, per se, and his home run rates could maintain the potential outlier produced in ’15 due to the ballpark changes.

He tossed 193 2/3 innings in 2015 after back-to-back 200-inning campaigns with the Arizona Diamondbacks. His performance, career arc and trends, plus what his environment likely will be in 2016 suggests Miley is a strong No. 4 starter with a chance to be a soft No. 3. He has missed more bats than the 6.8 K/9 he posted last season, but getting back over eight strikeouts per nine innings does not appear to be in the cards considering stuff and command.

Aro, 25, is a short right-handed reliever that made his big-league debut in ’15. He offers a fastball up to 94 mph from a three-quarters arm slot, setting up an average slider and a changeup that’s inconsistent but has shown promise and more movement in most recent outings. Aro is Triple-A depth, from what I can gather, without a true plus pitch or the delivery and physical attributes to start games, though he has generally been used for multiple innings out of the bullpen, logging nearly two frames per appearance in 2015 at Triple-A Pawtucket.

The Red Sox get left-hander Roenis Elias and right-hander Carson Smith. Elias is an ultra-athletic arm with enough angle and stuff to pitch out of the bullpen but a lot of upside as a starter, still. The fastball is low-90s — up to 94 on occasion — to go with a plus curveball that he didn’t command consistently in 2015. His changeup has improved, giving him a chance at a third big-league offering and he’ll change arm angles with the first two pitches versus left-handed batters.

Elias, despite being 27, has five years of club control remaining and with the right attention to his mechanics could end up better than Miley ever has been, though he’s not right now and his exact role in Boston remains to be seen.

Smith was the Mariners’ best reliever in 2015 by a wide margin and also comes with five years of control left, including two more before arbitration kicks in for the right-hander. He throws from a low three-quarters slot, turning over a nasty slider he commands well and consistently and the fastball has tremendous sink up to 95 mph. His command is above-average, though his walk rate in 2015 doesn’t suggest so, thanks to a stint after the all-star break where things went awry for about 10 outings.

With the Red Sox, Smith likely will be one option in the seventh and eighth innings and if necessary can handle the ninth in close situations. Smith was one of the best relievers in the American League this past season, and with the Sox’s recent acquisition of Craig Kimbrel, the back-end should be difficult to navigate for opposing teams if Boston hands them a lead.

With Miley due $6 million in 2016 and $8.75 million in 2017 (with a 2018 club option worth $12 million), the Mariners do get the southpaw for at least two years at a reasonable price. If this were Elias-for-Miley, it’s be easy to understand and easy to get behind, despite my personal belief that Elias has a lot more to give with the right focus and instruction and it could happen as early as 2016. Adding Smith-for-Aro is where this hurts most, especially considering the lack of bullpen arms in Seattle. The club added Joaquin Benoit, but without Smith even the eighth innings is a huge question mark now, rather than just the sixth and seventh.

As of this moment, there is no word of any cash being involved, though for me it wouldn’t make a significant difference unless it came from Boston and nearly-equaled Miley’s entire salary for ’16.

In conclusion, I don’t like this trade for Seattle and I absolutely love it for Boston. The Sox shed a little payroll, add a useful, multi-dimensional lefty with cheap controlled years left, and a devastating right-handed reliever who also will be dirt cheap for two more seasons.

I know a few high-ranking scouts that like Miley more than his numbers, but in order for this trade to even out for the Mariners, Miley needs to be a legitimate No. 3 starter from the get-go, and I’m not sure he’s a 200-inning, 3.5-3.6 FIP starting pitcher. Clearly, GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff believe he is just that.

I wouldn’t call this deal awful or terrible or any other exaggerated, hyperbole-driven adjective, but the Mariners are giving up what they’ve coveted prior to this deal, and that’s control years and upside. If they lose on the wager that Miley is better than No. 4 starter, this trade will be a bust, as the upside for Aro has no chance to make up for it. As for how the roster looks now, they did get at least a little better in the rotation with Miley’s advantage in probability, of not production, too, but the bullpen needs more help than Donald Trump’s combover and the club still is without a clear No. 2 or No. 3 starting pitcher to compliment Felix Hernandez.

The news isn’t all bad for Seattle, however, as reports now are filing in that Dipoto is after Adam Lind, who would be the club’s best first baseman in years. Simply adding Lind to the lineup without considering trade cost and payroll, it’s exciting to see the length and likely production throughout, without having to hope upon hope that some of the young players explode.…

It’s that time of year again. No, not that time where we are questioning why the grocery store has been playing Christmas music for four weeks despite the fact December only just begun. That time when baseball free agency reaches it’s peak: the annual Winter Meetings.

This year thousands of executives will meet in Nashville, Tennessee for four days starting on Monday, and ending on Thursday with the Rule 5 Draft. We don’t know exactly what will happen over those four days, but we do know that David Price, Zack Greinke, Jeff Samardzija, and John Lackey won’t be part of numerous transactions that will take place.

As Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins recently discussed, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t wait for the first week of December to begin shaping his roster. Already, seven players have been acquired via trade, seven via free agency, and three via waivers.

Coming into the offseason, the outfield and pitching staff figured to be the primary issues needing to be resolved as well as the catching situation. Dipoto would be the first to tell you that the current iteration of the Mariners is far from ready for Opening Day, but let’s take a look at what has already been accomplished through the offseason’s first month and what still needs to be done.

Rotation: Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery
The only addition to the starting staff so far is Karns, who was the key piece coming back to Seattle in the multi-player deal that sent Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Reportedly, the Mariners are ramping up their efforts to retain free agent Hisashi Iwakuma. Seattle is said to be the preference for the right-hander, but given the contracts given out free agents thus far, it’ll probably take a three-year guarantee and $45 million to get a deal done. I wouldn’t blame the Mariners for being uncomfortable with either of those numbers. However, after missing out on Greinke, I wouldn’t expect Iwakuma’s draft pick cost to be an issue for the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants.

Regardless of Iwakuma’s situation, the Mariners need a No. 2 starter. Ideally, they get a No. 2 and a No. 3, which would allow Walker to start the year in the No. 4 slot. I wouldn’t expect Iwakuma to sign this week, but given how hot his market has become, it’s certainly possible. With Montgomery out of options, a couple depth pieces should also look to be added.

Bullpen: Joaquin Benoit, Carson Smith, Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Anthony Bass, Vidal Nuno, David Rollins, Justin De Fratus, Rob Rasmussen
Dipoto has already secured the eighth and ninth innings with the addition of Benoit. It’s not yet determined whether he or Smith will close, but the prevailing wisdom is that the veteran will begin the year in that role. Bass and De Fratus should fill the role in the pen left by the departed Tom Wilhelmsen and solidify things from the right side.

Some work will need to be done on the left side though as Furbush recovers from surgery and Nuno will likely be in the mix for a back-end rotation spot. Rasmussen and Rollins offer some depth, but the club is without a shutdown lefty that most elite bullpens offer.

Infield: Chris Iannetta, Steve Clevenger, Mike Zunino, Jesus Montero, Andy Wilkins, Robinson Cano, Ketel Marte, Kyle Seager, Luis Sardinas, Chris Taylor, Shawn O’Malley
The catcher’s position that shortened the M’s lineup to eight spots throughout 2015 has been adequately restored with the additions of Iannetta and Clevenger. The pair will allow Zunino to start the year at No. 3 on the depth chart and be able to work his way back to the majors; an ideal situation. Wilkins and Sardinas join Taylor as infield depth. A bounce-back season from Cano, who’s currently recovering from hernia surgery, would represent a major upgrade on it’s own.

With Mark Trumbo and Logan Morrison dealt, the first base position currently rests in Montero’s lap. Dipoto has all but said the former top prospect won’t be the club’s Opening Day first baseman and is working to supplement the position via trade. If Trumbo hadn’t of been dealt, the infield would have presumably been set. With nothing having changed since then, that’s the only hole that needs to be filled within the base paths.

Outfield: Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, Boog Powell, Daniel Robertson
In just a few weeks Seattle has a fresh outfield, with a couple familiar faces, that could run laps around the outfields constructed by the previous regime. Literally. Martin was a buy-low candidate after a rough season and will provide a huge boost in center field. Gutierrez was re-signed to platoon with the lone holdover, Smith, in one of the corners with the newly acquired Aoki in the other. Powell and Robertson provide depth that is stronger than what James Jones — who was non-tendered by the Texas Rangers — or Stefen Romero would offer.

The constant in the Mariners outfield acquisitions: athleticism, defensive skills, and the ability to get on base.

I would expect another outfielder to enter the picture as a depth piece, particularly if Seth Smith is dealt. Overall though, the outfield is positioned to be a plus for the Mariners in 2016. There wasn’t a Jason Heyward added, but it could easily be argued that all three spots have already been improved.

Designated Hitter: Nelson Cruz
One of the biggest benefits of the outfield re-haul is that it leaves little room for Cruz to be anything but a DH. This is a win-win scenario. Now, I don’t think there’s any reason to restrict Cruz as a DH-only. I have no problem seeing him in the outfield once, maybe twice a week at most. As it stands Cruz is the fourth or fifth best option to play the field instead of the second or third as he was last year. And I’ll say it because it bears repeating: Cruz is not going to become a first basemen. He simply doesn’t possess the capabilities to do so regardless of any predispositions that playing first is a mindless task.

Big picture, a lot of the heavy lifting is done. In speaking to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Dipoto expects at least one more trade to take place with multiple conversations having taken place or are ongoing. This makes sense as Dipoto suggests the club won’t be signing any marquee free agents this winter. Read: Chris Davis, most likely.

I see the same two major needs that everyone else does right now: a No. 2 starter and a first baseman. A stronger left-handed presence in the bullpen should also be targeted. The fact that the outfield picture is all but solved — perhaps the most daunting task the new GM faced — is a huge plus.

It’s been noted that Dipoto has yet to make a ‘signature’ move that will truly make the 2016 Mariners his team. With the presence of Felix, Cano, Cruz, and Seager there isn’t the need for more star power specifically. The current payroll situation likely doesn’t allow for another $20 million allocation.

If I were to guess on a potential big move that could take place, and this is pure speculation, it would involve a young controllable starter. Probably not a Jose Fernandez type since, Walker aside, the M’s don’t really have the kind of bullets required.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a very fun next few days.…

New general manager Jerry Dipoto is wasting no time in his efforts to improve the Seattle Mariners. One day ago Franklin Gutierrez was re-signed for another year and a deal with veteran catcher Chris Iannetta was reported to be close. Today, reliever Joaquin Benoit has been acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for two minor league players.

Since debuting in 2001 and splitting the next three years between the rotation and bullpen, Benoit has been a reliable bullpen arm. He did miss the 2009 season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery, but now has five consecutive years of good health under his belt. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan noted on Twitter that the right-hander is in fact throwing a notch harder than he did ten years ago.

Despite a sub par 2015 in which he saw his strikeout, walk, and home run rates go in the wrong directions, Benoit can still be looked at as an eighth or ninth inning option. He’s posted a pair of sub-2.00 ERA season since returning from surgery and saved 24 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2013.

In the last five seasons there are only two in which Benoit hasn’t produced at least 1.1 fWAR; 2012 and 2015. The common denominator in both? Spikes in his home run per fly ball rate. In 2012 he allowed nearly twice as many home runs per nine compared to his career mark. Pitching in Safeco Field half the time should mitigate some of the home run risk even though he had some struggles pitching in Petco Park last season — a similarly pitcher-friendly environment.

Benoit relies on a fastball-changeup combination similar to that of former Mariner reliever Fernando Rodney. Not to suggest the two share similarities beyond that, but the latter was tremendous in his first season donning blue and teal before disintegrating prior to the end of his second.

The Padres picked up Benoit’s $7.5 million option a week ago so he doesn’t come cheaply. But for a proven veteran on a one-year deal in a relief market that could boon, it’s a reasonable price. More importantly, he takes some of the pressure off Carson Smith as the club’s go-to option in the late innings. Either player is capable of setting-up or closing and it will be interesting to see how first-year manager Scott Servais goes about positioning them in his pen. My guess is that, if nothing else changes, the veteran starts as the closer with the youngster having to take the job away from him.

In exchange for the Benoit, the Mariners are sending two prospects to San Diego: right-hander Enyel De Los Santos and infielder Nelson Ward.

De Los Santos is the more interesting prospect of the two as a power arm with potentially above average secondary stuff. The 19-year old was signed as an international free agent about 16 months ago to a $15,000 bonus. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill saw De Los Santos pitch in Everett this summer and surmised that he belongs among the organization’s top 20 prospects. Though he is very raw, the right-hander had an impressive professional debut notching 71 strikeouts and 18 walks in eight starts between Everett and Peoria (Rookie League).

Ward was selected in the 12th round of the 2014 draft and finished this past season with Class-A Bakersfield. In 76 games in the hitter-friendly California league he hit seven home runs to go along with eight stolen bases. Ward has the makings of a contact hitter and has primarily played second and third base early in his minor league career. He’ll turn 24 next summer and could begin the year at Double-A for the Padres.

Despite Seattle’s farm system being in a state of distress, the trade doesn’t subtract too much from it. De Los Santos is several years away from the majors but carries enough upside to be an interesting prospect. Ward on the other hand appears to be more of an organizational player.

From the Padres perspective I like this deal. They shed Benoit’s salary while picking up a lottery ticket arm and some minor league depth. For Seattle, filling a position of significant need without dealing any impact talent from the system makes tremendous sense. It could be five years until we see what De Los Santos is for a major league club. The Mariners, and Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, and Nelson Cruz, don’t have five years to wait and find out.

Benoit will turn 39 next summer but you can all but count on him for 60 innings of quality high-leverage pitching. After the bullpen implosion of 2015 he should come as a sigh of relief for Mariners fans.…

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.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"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.…

Walker
A few days ago, I had to calm down a frustrated life-long Seattle Mariners fan who was frustrated by the team’s slow start. I felt like the Kevin Bacon character from the movie “Animal House” when he’s performing crowd control at a parade and tells the masses to “remain calm, all is well.” Yes, it’s certainly possible that the Mariners could underachieve and be a disappointment. But, after just 15 games of a 162-game baseball season, it’s way too early to panic about the Mariners or any other team in the majors.

Nonetheless, a groundswell of social-media angst has developed after the Mariners registered only six wins during their first 15 games. A slow start during the first half-month of a season that’s nearly six-months long has created a furor among some fans who are wondering if the team will be “the same old Mariners” that hasn’t appeared in the postseason for over a decade.

Considering the high expectations being placed on this team, it’s understandable if new fans are a bit anxious about Seattle’s slow start. After all, the Mariners came excruciatingly close to making the postseason in 2014 and they’ve aggressively upgraded their offense in order to overcome their most glaring weakness of the 2014 season – inadequate run production. Longtime Mariners fans are all too familiar with the fact that their team – along with Montreal/Washington – are one of only two Major League Baseball franchises to never appear in a World Series. Yet, they’ve faithfully stuck with the team despite no postseason appearances since 2001. The combination of pent-up frustrations, high expectations, and a slow start by the team have led to a somewhat frustrated baseball fan-base in the third week of April.

The standings
With all of that said, take a look at where the Mariners stood after their first 15 games in 2014 and compare it to this year’s start. For me, it’s easy to see that the factors that compelled many to project Seattle as a World Series contender haven’t changed – especially after just two weeks.
Current AL West Standings
The first thing that becomes apparent is that the standings mean nothing after 15 games. Seattle isn’t the only team to have a less-than-ideal start to the 2015 season. They are just two games behind the American League (AL) West division-leading Houston Astros and only two games separate the entire division. Considering how things started last season, no team in the division should be too high or too low about their 2015 start.

At the 15-game point of last season – April 17 – the Oakland Athletics were off to a very hot start and the Texas Rangers also had a winning record. By the end of the season, the Rangers had self-destructed from injuries and were cellar-dwellers, while Oakland experienced an epic second-half collapse and barely reached the postseason with Seattle breathing down their neck. Here’s a reason to remain calm – the 2015 Mariners only have one less win than last year and that team was in the midst of an eight game losing streak.
April 2014 standings
The team finally ended the streak on April 23 when Kyle Seager hit two home runs, including a walk-off three-run shot in the bottom of the ninth against Houston. Afterwards, Seattle started its climb back towards eventual playoff contention. This year’s team has a far superior roster to the 2014 version, although it’s true that some elements of the roster have underachieved. But, there’s been no red-flags that would justify the concerns being expressed by some fans. No team has run away with the division, like the 1984 Detroit Tigers, and only one team even has a winning record. Yes, this fact should give Mariners fans a reason to believe that all is well.

Pitching
For many people, it was a foregone conclusion that the team’s strength in 2014 – pitching – would continue to be the foundation of the team’s success in 2015. After all, the team still has their ace – Felix Hernandez – and Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker are all healthy after having injury issues during 2014. Plus, the team added newcomer J.A. Happ to give the rotation veteran depth to complement the young arms of Paxton and Walker.
Pitching Staff Comparison
When the Mariners traded for Happ, many viewed the veteran southpaw as nothing more than a number-five starter who might not even make the rotation. After a rough Spring Training, that opinion continued to prevail with some pundits and fans who continued to clamor for the team to drop Happ from the rotation in favor of fellow southpaw Roenis Elias. Happ made the rotation and, after three starts, the perception of the lefty has shifted drastically.

Thus far, the 32-year-old has pitched the most innings and has been the most consistent starter in the rotation. More than likely, Happ’s numbers will normalize to his career averages as the season progresses. But, the team has been fortunate to have the veteran hurler during the early stages of the season. The troubling aspect for the rotation has been the inconsistent performances of Iwakuma, Paxton, and Walker. Each entered the season with a different set of expectations, while all suffering from a common challenge – struggling with their command.

Iwakuma was viewed as the number-two starter behind King Felix, but he’s struggled in each of his starts. After a solid 2014, Paxton was expected to advance and eventually replace “Kuma” as the number-two starter in the rotation, while Walker earned his spot in the rotation during a superb Spring Training when he beat out Elias for the final spot in the rotation. Certainly, the Mariners will need more from this threesome to be serious contenders. Since all three pitchers appear to be healthy and only need to work out the bugs in their individual deliveries, I don’t see any reason for concern after only three starts. Harken back to the early stages of 2014 when the Mariners had to rely on a group that included Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, and Blake Beavan – Seattle’s rotation has a far better outlook than they did at this time last year. Relievers

Another factor in the high expectations for Mariners’ staff is the fact that the team had one of the best bullpens in 2014 and had all of their key contributors returning with a few new potent arms added to the mix to help augment the holdovers. According to social media, the bullpen is a weakness, although I believe that it’s quite the opposite – the bullpen has been performing well. Granted, there have been a few lapses and it’s true that closer Fernando Rodney and fellow reliever Danny Farquhar have struggled in a few of their outings. But, the pen has worked nearly 11 extra innings and has virtually the same number of walks and hits-per-innings pitched (WHIP) as in 2014.

The Mariners’ bullpen ended last season with a 1.15 WHIP and there are signs that this year’s squad will see their WHIP to decline significantly as the season progresses and their innings pitched increases. My optimism is based on the superb performances from rookie Carson Smith and sophomore Dominic Leone, plus Rodney seems to have re-discovered his command during his last three outings. Lastly, I expect that Farquhar will get back on track in the near future. He, like every other Mariner pitcher who has struggled, is healthy and only needs to improve his command. The only area of concern for me is the increased workload of the bullpen as the rotation works through their issues.

Offense
Despite the dramatic home runs and offensive performance of Nelson Cruz, this year’s team offense has actually scored three fewer runs than the 2014 version. At this point last year, Corey Hart led the team with four home runs, although it should be noted that he would only two more homers during the remainder of the season.
Offense Comparison

The team’s batting average is up in 2015, but the sample size is so small to that it really has no bearing at this time. But, there are two positive signs that the Mariners could potentially be more productive in 2015– they’re walking more and striking out much less. That’s an encouraging development for a team that’s been offensively challenged during recent seasons. Let’s look at several players who’ve received a great deal of positive and negative attention during the young season.

First, Cruz has quickly demonstrated that is that he’s not just a slugger – he’s a professional right-handed hitter who has demonstrated that he can be productive at Safeco Field. Certainly, he’s not going to continue to hit at the torrid pace that resulted in his selection as AL Player of the Week for last week. But, he’s poised to be a solid cleanup hitter throughout the season and that’s something that the Mariners have sorely missed in recent years. 2015 OffenseCatcher Mike Zunino has struggled at the plate during the first 15 games and has even looked lost at times. But, he’s shown signs of improving during the last few games and could be snapping out of his funk. If he’s still striking out 38-percent of his plate appearances at Memorial Day, there will be reason for concern – not now though.

Another holdover from 2014 – first baseman Logan Morrison – has struggled out of the chute this season. But, he had issues during the start of last season too. At the start of 2014, he was spending time in the outfield, designated hitter, and first base and wasn’t an everyday player like he is in 2015. The 27-year-old has been hitting the ball hard, but directly at fielders who are shifting to defend his tendency to pull the ball. Going forward, he’ll need to prove that he can beat the shift and be a dependable offensive first baseman. Like Zunino, there’s no need to be concerned until June.

Outlook
There’s no disputing that the Mariners and their fans would have preferred that the team avoided a slow start. But, every team goes through a 6-9 stretch at some point during the season. The key for Seattle will be turning around their fortunes in the next six weeks. Last year’s Mariners started slowly and ended up competing until the last day of the season. Considering that the team that eventually led the majors in wins during 2014 – the Los Angeles Angels – had a losing record after 15 games, I’m convinced that – barring injury – the Mariners will be fine in 2015. This year’s roster is far superior and built to win now.

If the team continues to stumble, I suppose that I could end-up suffering the same fate of Bacon’s “Animal House” character – being trampled during the mass hysteria. Nothing that I’ve seen in the last two weeks has me concerned about a possible trampling – the Mariners will be fine.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated Bench 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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