Dipoto MarinersFrom the moment Jerry Dipoto became general manager of the Seattle Mariners, he’s emphasized the need to build a roster capable of taking advantage of the expansive Safeco Field dimensions.

As I see it, the 48-year-old executive envisions a foundation of athletic and accomplished players, who are adept at reaching base and wreaking havoc through productive aggressiveness on the bases.

Equally important are outfield defenders who can run down balls in Safeco’s spacious outfield. In Dipoto’s world, a run save is as valuable as a run scored.

To be honest, I thought this season’s Opening Day roster was a massive upgrade over the 2015 version of the Mariners. I’ve been saying as much in previous Prospect Insider pieces and on Twitter. But, the more I think about it, the club has fallen short in a couple of those key areas targeted by Dipoto during the offseason.

This finally became glaringly clear to me in late June when watching the Pittsburgh Pirates take on the Mariners at Safeco. I was thoroughly impressed with the athleticism, speed, and on-base ability of the Pirates. So was Mike Salk of 710 ESPN Seattle, who took to Twitter to deliver his assessment of the visiting team’s roster.

The simple and straightforward comment from the co-host of the Brock and Salk Show hit the nail right on the head — Pittsburgh was better built for Safeco than the home team. This gave me the idea to dig into the Mariners’ home field suitability and look around the league for the teams best built for Safeco.

To get a better feel of where the Mariners stand this season, I decided to see where the team’s on-base ability, outfield defense, and base running ranked against the other 29 major league clubs. I also compared those rankings to last year’s to gauge Seattle’s improvement. Overall, the numbers weren’t encouraging.

Mariners MLB Rankings
Season On-Base Ability Outfield Defense (DRS)
Base Running
OBP BB% SO% OF LF CF RF BsR SB%
2015 22 14 25 30 25 30 26 29 29
2016 10 13 12 28 28 22 24 30 30

As you can see, the Mariners have significantly improved in just one area — reaching base. That’s clearly evident by their top-10 on-base percentage (OBP). Unfortunately, for the ball club and its fans, that’s the only area worth bragging about.

Based on defensive runs saved (DRS), Seattle’s outfield defense isn’t good enough. The addition of center fielder Leonys Martin was a step in the right direction. However, last season’s core of corner outfielders — Seth Smith, Nelson Cruz, and Franklin Gutierrez — remain on the roster.

The trio has combined to play 65-percent of all left and right field innings this season. Based on the defensive metrics, they’re all below-average fielders — as they were last season. This does not bode well for an organization trying to improve their outfield defense.

Nori Aoki was brought in to help the club’s outfield defense, team speed and on-base ability. To date, he’s under-performed in all three areas and finds himself playing for Class-AAA Tacoma as a result. Aoki will likely return to the big league club in the near future. Perhaps, he’ll get his season back on track and help the Mariners make a pennant push.

On the base paths, there’s only one way for me to put it — the baby is ugly. Seattle base runners have cost the team runs and continue to rank at the bottom of the league in both sabermetric and standard base running statistics.

BsR (Base Running) is a FanGraphs statistic that takes into account all aspects of base path action — stolen base success, taking extra bases, being thrown out while on base, etc. If you’ve been watching the Mariners over the last few seasons, their low standing doesn’t surprise you.

The same goes for stolen base percentage (SB%), which is the old-fashioned measurement of how successful a base runner has been at stealing bases. Not only is Seattle still at the bottom of the league, their 53-percent success rate is eight points lower than last season.

Now that I’ve established that the Mariners have a lot of work to do, let’s turn our attention to clubs that I believe are a far better fit for Safeco Field than the home team; based on on-base ability, outfield range, and team speed. Let’s start with the club mentioned by Mr. Salk.

Pittsburgh Pirates
As good as the Pirates look, their roster isn’t the best fit for Safeco among the clubs I plan to discuss. But, their stable of players exemplifies the type of players that fit the mold of what Dipoto has been publicly advocating, especially in the outfield.

The starting trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco form one of the most athletic starting outfields in the majors. Marte leads all major league left fielders in DRS and Polanco ranks tenth among right fielders. Defensive metrics don’t love McCutchen, which confounded me, until I spoke to Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill.

Jason pointed out that Marte/Polanco may be the best corner outfield combo in the majors and that they reach balls in the gaps their peers can’t. As a result, their defensive excellence could be creating the appearance that McCutchen has limited range. Even if McCutchen’s poor DRS accurately portrayed his defensive prowess, the Pirates total outfield is slightly above average, which is all that really matters for any club.

Pittsburgh’s offense is a deep unit that ended the first half of the season with the third best OBP in the big leagues. The club brags nine players — including the rehabbing Francisco Cervelli — with 150 or more plate appearance and an OBP above the league-average (.323). By comparison, the productive Mariners offense has five.

Team speed has been an important element in the Pittsburgh attack. Their base runners entered the all-star break tied with the Houston Astros for third most stolen bases (68) in the big leagues and the fifth best success rate — 76-percent. Leading the way for the Bucs is Marte, who entered the break with 30 swiped bags — second most in the majors.

The Pirates are certainly a better fit for Safeco than the current edition of the Mariners. But, there are two other rosters I like more. The next team has been better known for relying on offensive firepower — not speed, defense, and athleticism.

Boston Red Sox
Boston’s offense reached the all-star break leading the majors in OBP and slugging percentage. In years past, you might have assumed the long ball was the driving force behind their prolific slugging — not in 2016. This version of the Red Sox is only league-average at hitting home runs, but leads the league in doubles and top-10 in triples.

All things considered, the team’s outfield defense has fared well even though left field has been problematic due to injuries to Chris Young, Blake Swihart, and Brock Holt at one time or another. Thanks to the dynamic duo of center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and right fielder Mookie Betts and Holt, the Red Sox outfield ranks number-five in the majors in DRS.

The club’s success on the base paths — third in the majors in BsR — is another new wrinkle in Beantown. Leading the way are Betts, Bradley, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Like the Pirates, the Red Sox are top-10 for stolen bases. More importantly, they have the highest success rate (86-percent) in the majors. That’s seven-percent better than the second best Cleveland Indians.

The Red Sox may play in the oldest ballpark in baseball, but they have a foundation of young, athletic ballplayers fueling their success in the outfield and throughout their lineup.

This season, the Red Sox have used 15 position players 28-years-old or younger. That’s tied for most in the majors. Among those players are Travis ShawChristian Vazquez, Bogaerts, Bradley, Betts, Swihart, and Holt. Yes, having young players doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. They have to be good AND young. That’s the case in Boston.

My favorite roster also plays in a ballpark opened before the start of World War I and employs Boston’s former general manager as their president of baseball operations.

Chicago Cubs
Yes, picking the team with the second best record in the majors isn’t exactly a tough choice. But, I didn’t pick the team with the best record — the San Francisco Giants — and the other teams I’ve discussed started the second half in third place. While the Cubs could win in any park, including Yellowstone, they’d be a great fit for Safeco thanks to their superb on-base skills, outfield defense, and overall athleticism.

Chicago’s long lineup is second best in the majors at reaching base. How long is that lineup? All but one of the 12 position players on the current 25-man roster are above league average in OBP. There’s no breathing room for opposing pitchers when it comes to facing the Cubs’ lineup.

Defensively, the team’s outfield ranks third in the big leagues. The best of the bunch — right fielder Jason Heyward — continues to be an elite-level defender with the second best DRS. The 26-year-old has also logged over 120 innings of center field duty this season.

Regular center fielder Dexter Fowler — currently on the disabled list — isn’t on par with his partner in right field. But, his contributions along with Heyward and Albert Almora, have the Cubs center field defense ranked tenth in the big leagues. Thanks to Kris Bryant, Chris Coghlan, and Almora, Chicago’s left field contingent is also top-10.

Although the North Siders are below league-average in stolen base proficiency, they rank number-five in BsR because they’re adept at taking the extra base, which proves there’s more to base running than just stealing bases.

As with the Red Sox, Chicago boasts a bevvy of young stars. Six key contributors are 26-years-old or younger — Anthony Rizzo (26), Addison Russell (22), Bryant (24) , Heyward (26), Javier Baez (23), and Jorge Soler (24) – currently recovering from a hamstring injury. That’s not counting Kyle Schwarber (23), who’s lost for the year due to knee surgery.

The Cubs style of play works in any park, but their position players would be the best fit for Seattle’s home field. They’re athletic, get on base at a high rate, and play superb defense. That brings us back to the Emerald City’s major league baseball club.

Seattle Mariners
Considering the roster that Dipoto started with last September, he’s done well at improving the club’s center field defense and their ability to reach base in less than a year. But, much more needs to be done to reach his stated goal of using the Safeco Field dimensions as an advantage. Getting younger would be a good first step.

Youthful rosters don’t necessarily guarantee success on the field. Look no further than the Minnesota Twins, who are great example of a young club with a terrible win-loss record. Also, not every young player is a great athlete — refer to Jesus Montero’s stay in Seattle.

Still, acquiring talented, young, and athletic players is the best way to build a sustainable home field advantage in Seattle. Having such players is the primary reason that the Red Sox and Cubs are better fits for Safeco — they each boast a half dozen or more quality players under age-27.

Conversely, the Mariners are tied with the New York Yankees for the oldest group of position players and have used just four under the age of 27 this season — Ketel Marte, Luis Sardinas, Chris Taylor, and Mike Zunino. Marte is the lone significant contributor, while Sardinas and Zunino have spent most of the season in Tacoma and Taylor is no longer with the organization.

Whether roster changes begin within the next two weeks or after the season, they’ll need to happen in order to turn Dipoto’s vision into reality for future seasons. That means more players born during the first term of the Clinton administration and fewer defensively challenged players like Gutierrez, Smith, and Cruz patrolling the outfield.

Can the Mariners accomplish such a turnover prior to next Opening Day? It seems unlikely considering the current state of their roster and minor league system. Until they do though, other clubs will continue to be a better fit for Safeco Field.…

It’s early June and the Seattle Mariners are dealing with injuries. Every club faces the same challenge. It’s part of baseball. Sometimes, injuries are short-term. Other times, they have season-changing consequences.

So far, the Mariners’ injury losses haven’t changed the course of their season. That’s good news for a club with a realistic shot to remain competitive for the entire season and — possibly — earn their first postseason berth since 2001. This year is different in Seattle.

The notion that the Mariners could actually be different in 2016 — meaning competitive and relevant — has revived long-dormant optimism in the Pacific Northwest.  But, newfound hope can quickly turn into angst. Especially, when three Opening Day starters land on the DL at the same time.

Anxiety levels are bound to soar even higher when one of those three players is the team’s ace — Felix Hernandez. Although the calf injury suffered by “King Felix” appears to be relatively minor, uptight fans are concerned that not having their best pitcher available every fifth game puts the team at a huge disadvantage in the competitive American League. Makes sense.

To compound matters, shortstop Ketel Marte and center fielder Leonys Martin are the other two players to join Hernandez on the DL. Both have been catalysts to the Mariners offense and their replacements have inadequate. At least that’s what I’ve been reading on social media.

Seattle fans have a right to be impatient; fourteen seasons without a postseason appearance will do that to a fan base. But, are their concerns about the Mariners’ replacements well-founded?

Considering that general manager Jerry Dipoto made adding depth an offseason priority, a few short-term injuries shouldn’t derail the club. Otherwise, the Mariners aren’t actually ready to make a postseason run after all. Did the 48-year-old executive and his staff fail to build a sustainable roster?

Let’s find out by looking at Dipoto’s layers of depth at the three positions affected by the losses of Hernandez, Marte, and Martin. Perhaps, that will shed some light on the subject.

Rotation
Certainly, losing Hernandez hurts. The King has been an elite-level pitcher for seven seasons, although he hasn’t been the same this year. At times, he’s been closer to average than special. Still, losing the King frustrates and worries the masses. Why is that?

Simply put, King Felix has been the best player on this club for nearly a decade, opted to forego free agency to stay in Seattle, and fans want to see him pitch meaningful innings in October. Even if he’s not at the top of his game, fans prefer to see Felix pitching every fifth day. He’s better than the alternatives. Right?

The answer is “absolutely yes.” But, how much better depends on how the King’s replacement — James Paxton  — fares during his absence. Although the left-hander’s June 1 season debut in San Diego was a disaster for both he and the ball club, the jury remains out on what to expect from the 2010 fourth-round pick.

Last night, Paxton rebounded nicely with a very solid outing against the Cleveland Indians. Although the Mariners lost the game, the big southpaw flashed dominant stuff, registering 10 strikeouts and just one walk during six innings of work.

It’s a tad early to propose renaming the left field corner of Safeco Field the “King James Court.” But, Paxton’s performance was encouraging nonetheless. I must admit that the “Big K James” has a certain ring to it though.

Paxton still needs to prove that he can be consistent at the big league level. However, his performance against the Tribe and his last eight starts with Tacoma — 41.1 innings pitched, 43 strikeouts, and five walks — suggest that he’s capable of filling in for Felix on a short-term basis.

Assuming Paxton remains a solid performer, the club will have an appealing “problem” when their King returns — six major league ready starters for five slots, plus capable starter Mike Montgomery in the bullpen.

Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill points out that a strong showing by Paxton during this audition provides Seattle with several options that could help manage the innings of Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns and/or reinforce the bullpen.

All-in-all, the Mariners have a deeper rotation than most American League clubs and are better prepared to withstand the loss of a starter than many contenders. However, Dipoto could still opt to upgrade that deep rotation, if the struggles of Wade Miley and Walker were to carry over into July or Paxton regresses. Stay tuned.

Shortstop 
When Marte sprained his thumb diving into second base on May 21, the Mariners immediately recalled Chris Taylor from Tacoma. Unfortunately, for the 25-year-old, his stay with the big league club was both notorious and brief.

In his first and only start before returning to the minors, the normally sure-handed Taylor committed two fielding errors in the same inning during a 5-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics. Clearly, those two errors prevented the Mariners from scoring any runs that night.

To replace Taylor, Seattle recalled Luis Sardinas; sent to Tacoma to get more at bats and diversify his position portfolio by getting more outfield experience.

Overall, Sardinas held down the fort until Marte’s return to the lineup last night. The 23-year-old provided solid defense and a .235/.257/.324 triple-slash. Although Sardinas’ performance wasn’t at a level commensurate to what fans have come to expect from Marte, it was good enough for a short period.

Optimally, it’d be nice to have a surplus of middle-infielders, like the Texas Rangers. But, that kind of depth is the result of finding and developing good players over the span of many years. The new front office in Seattle hasn’t even drafted a player, yet.

Shortstop depth is adequate.

Center field
The replacement with the most complaints being lobbed in his direction is, without doubt, Nori Aoki. In the eleven games that he’s covered in center field since Martin went down, he’s been inconsistent at the plate. That’s not new though. His defense has fans griping about the 34-year-old.

It’s no surprise that Aoki can’t cover as much ground as Martin. You don’t need metrics to understand that. However, there’s an underlying issue exacerbated by the veteran’s lesser range. The loss of their center fielder further exposed the Mariners’ porous corner outfield defense, which ranked near the bottom of the AL before his injury.

Without Martin available to cover additional ground, more balls are falling into the outfield gaps between Aoki and corner outfielders such as Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Stefen Romero — all average to below-average defenders.

Center field depth is currently tenuous. Perhaps, the Mariners will look inward to minor leaguer Boog Powell for help, but Churchill recently noted that the 23-year-old isn’t ready to be an everyday major leaguer. That doesn’t mean that Powell won’t see action this year. He’s just not the optimum choice to improve the club’s roster. If he were, he’d already be in Seattle.

Finally
Considering the lack of organizational depth when he took over as the Mariners general manager last September, Dipoto and his staff have done an impressive job of putting together a competitive 25-man roster with key pieces sitting at Tacoma ready to be called upon, if needed.

As the trade deadline approaches, I expect that Dipoto will address the needs I’ve touched upon with the outfield and perhaps the rotation. The bullpen could be a likely target too.

I also expect that he’ll be on the lookout to add to his team’s depth. Unlike recent years, the new-look Mariners focus on the entire 40-man roster, not just the major league squad. That’s how you build and sustain a contender.

Yep, this year is certainly different in Seattle.

 …

Herb16The Seattle Mariners began the season the owners of one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball. The only depth in the organization resides on the mound and all but one of the upside plays there began the season above Advanced-A ball and three of them didn’t start the year assigned to a full-season affiliate.

Player development, the biggest factor in the sinking of the farm system under Jack Zduriencik — a system once ranked among the Top 10, only to fade fast thanks to rush jobs and poor planning — is in the hands of Jerry Dipoto, Andy McKay and a supplemented staff, not a revamped one, in the minors.

Numbers only go so far in determining how well players are progressing. After each month of play down on the farm, Prospect Insider will reassess the top talents.

Here is the pre-season Top 25.

Three Up
While No. 1 prospect Tyler O’Neill can’t move up in Prospect Insider’s Mariners prospect rankings, he’s done nothing but help his case to remain there regardless of what Alex Jackson does once he’s sent out — which was expected to be early this month, but we’re still waiting. O’Neill, 20, is batting .327/.387/.557 in 27 games for Double-A Jackson, anchoring the Generals’ lineup and leading the Southern League in home runs (6). He’s also second in slugging percentage, fifth in average and 10th in on-base percentage. His 11 walks all have come in the past 21 games and while his 31 strikeouts in 119 plate appearances is a bit high at 26 percent, it’s improved by four percent from a year ago and seven percent from 2014, O’Neill’s first full season in pro ball.

For the record, the walk rate is up more than three percent from last season and the power remains nearly identical.

From a scouting perspective, O’Neill has shown improved plate coverage with noticeable progress in using center field and right-center field, and even the right-field line with extra-base power. He’s still most dangerous to his pull side by a wide margin, but he’s staying back better on offspeed stuff, which allows him a better shot to hit for some average.

O’Neill is a solid-average outfielder, too, fitting well in either corner — he’s played all but one game in right so far — showing a plus arm and above-average jumps. His lateral routes are more natural than this time a year ago and he’s learning to come in on balls more aggressively. He’ll flash the leather on tough catches and is far from afraid to dive for balls, often making the catch.

Andrew Moore came in at No. 13 prior to the season and in a re-rank after a month might slide up a few spots. The right-hander, who does lack upside but makes up for some of that with the highest probability of any starter in the system, has been terrific in the California League in seven starts, boasting a 36-10 K/BB ratio and allowing just 38 total baserunners in 42 2/3 innings.

Moore has gone at least six innings in all but one start — 4 2/3 scoreless innings on April 12 — and he’s missing barrel and entire bats enough with his average fastball, fringy curveball, and average changeup. In 2016, Moore’s curveball has been tighter and the fastball has shown more life above the hitters’ hands.

Boog Powell entered the season at No. 5 overall and hasn’t lost any ground in 29 games at Triple-A Tacoma. He’s all business, and despite lacking power that plays in the big leagues, the outfielder is average or better in all other facets, including defensive range, throwing accuracy, baserunning, raw speed and the overall hit tool.

Powell is batting .283/.364/.354 with six extra-base hits, but I’d bet the farm on a .300/.370 finish to the season. At times, Powell is the toughest out in a very, very good Rainiers lineup and owns the organization’s best strike zone judgment. He’s drawn 15 walks (11.5%) and 19 strikeouts (14.6%), and his work versus left-handed pitching has improved (.273/.333/.303). Powell also is one of few Tacoma regulars not to have thrived on the road at this point. Cheney Stadium is a little more forgiving than the older version of the ballpark, but the winds and overall environments tends to favors pitching the first six weeks or so. Powell, who relies on line drives, is batting .365/.431/.462 at home and has yet to get rolling on the road, suggesting the full-season numbers are legit.

Whether he’s ultimately a very solid and useful fourth outfielder or a regular in center field, Powell will see the majors and his work early in 2016 has only convinced me more.

Honorable Mention: Tim Lopes, 2B
Lopes fell off the Top 25 after a tough 2015 but he’s stronger this season and that strength is helping his plate skills and strike zone judgment produce more solid line drives. He’s always worked counts well, but now his hard-struck balls are getting through for hits.

Lopes can handle second base and at some point may be considered for some left field duty to increase his chances to serve as a reserve in the big leagues. After 28 games in Jacksom, the 21-year-old is batting .303/.387/.358.

Three Down
D.J. Peterson, 24, was sent back to Double-A Jackson to start the tyear and has been anything but strong over the first month of play. The former first-round pick sits at .241/.297/.361 in 28 games. One scout opines that perhaps Peterson was so thoroughly disappointed in the assignment that no matter how hard he tried to focus there was an “inherited distraction.”

If that’s true, perhaps we can give Peterson a break and look to his past eight games as a potential sign he’s breaking out of the slump. In those eight games, Peterson is 12-for-31 with just one strikeout and three bases on balls.

In a four-game stretch last week, multiple scouts noted Peterson was lunging toward the ball at times, pulling off the ball on the inner half and susceptible to the left-handed changeup. Furthermore, lefties have worked him effectively away all season.

Austin Wilson, No. 19 to start the season, has struggled something fierce in his repeat of Bakersfield and at this stage — Wilson is 24 years old — it appears the big right fielder simply is not going to hit.

The pitch recognition and strike zone judgment hold him back, and his swing has been too erratic to consistently make contact. He’s whiffed nearly 40 percent of the time he’s strolled to the plate and he boasts just seven extra-base hits thus far.

While there’s no reason to completely give up on Wilson, holding your breath no longer is a good idea, not that it ever was, Chris Crawford.

Tyler Marlette batted .286, .304 and .297 in his first three full seasons in pro ball. He struggled in Bakersfield last season, batting .216 in 39 games, but jumped to .258 in 50 games in Double-A. Marlette returned to Bakersfield this season and is scuffling along at .153/.228/.236 with just four extra-base hits.

Power is supposed to be Marlette’s calling card but his attempts to improve his ability to hit for average appear to have robbed him of his extra-base prowess. It doesn’t help that he’s focused very much on improving his chances to catch long term, but I have to wonder if these struggles, like with Peterson, are somewhat mental.

Peterson and Marlette are great tests for the new approach at player development; both should be better, have been better and can be better, let’s see if this year the organization can figure it out with both.

Role Change
Edwin Diaz came into the season as the club’ top pitching prospect with a chance to be a No, 3 starter in time. Over the weekend, the organization decided to push Diaz to the Generals’ bullpen, almost certainly to give Diaz a chance to contribute in the big leagues this season. While it’s not necessarily a permanent move — it shouldn’t be — it’s one that actually increases Diaz’s chances to help, while speeding up his timetable to the majors.

Diaz was firing on all cylinders, making six starts and compiling a 38-5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. In a starting role, he pitches comfortably in the 91-94 mph range, setting up an above-average slider that flashes plus. His changeup still grades below average but he’s willing to throw it more now than ever before, and his arm speed is more consistent than a year ago.

In relief, Diaz’s fastball-slider combo may play up enough where he’s sitting 94 mph or better, perhaps touching 97, and the slider could prove more consistently sharp. In the interim, whether that’s this season only or goes into next season the way the Chicago White Sox handled Chris Sale and the Toronto Blue Jays with Aaron Sanchez, Diaz may be asked to focus on attacking hitters with his best two pitches while continuing his attempts to get stronger, which is something he’ll need if he wants to start long term, and refining his command.

Promotion Index
1. Edwin Diaz, RHP (AA to AAA)
As soon as Diaz thrives for a few weeks in his new role, it’s likely he gets moved to Tacoma to continue his trek.
2. Andrew Moore, RHP (A+ to AA)
Moore may replace Diaz on the Jackson roster, so keep an eye on his next 3-4 starts. They could be his last in Bakersfield.
3. Stefen Romero, OF/1B (AAA to MLB)
There’s no room right now, but Romero’s ready for a shot to contribute in a platoon-type role.
4. Blake Parker, RHP (AAA to MLB)
Parker may be the most likely to see the big leagues next with the attrition rate of the bullpen thus far. He’s throwing the ball well and now has his first back-to-back under his belt following a lost season in 2015 due to elbow surgery.
5. James Paxton, LHP (AAA to MLB)
In a starting role, there’s no room for Paxton. All five M’s starters are on solid ground, perhaps none more so than Taijuan Walker and Nate Karns, the club’s No. 4 and 5 starters. Paxton has been really good of late, though, tallying 25 punchies in his last 24 1/3 innings while issuing just one base on balls. He’s made some adjustments, and they’ve worked. Whether he, too, is a relief option at some point this season remains to be seen, but with no room in the rotation until the club looks for ways to curb the workload of both Walker and Karns or until attrition hits the first five, Paxton likely stays in the Tacoma rotation. Come August, though, he’s likely to get starts or be inserted into the big-league bullpen, simply to have the best arms in the majors.
6. Emilio Pagan, RHP (AA to AAA)
He’s 90-94 mph with a plus slider and deception. September call-up candidate.
7. Guillermo Heredia, CF (AA to AAA)
He’s coachable, energetic and has four tools that play.
8. Chris Taylor, SS (AAA to MLB)
Like Romero, Taylor is a victim of the numbers game and while I don’t buy the swing in the majors, Taylor can play shortstop and is improving his contact skills.
9. Mike Zunino, C (AAA to MLB)
Zunino is actually hitting his first slump of the season, so let’s see how he deals with that as it’s an important part of his development this year. Once he’s rebounded and shows he can deal with all the breaking stuff down and away and all the fastballs on the outer half (he’ll need some hits to his backside), there will be no reason to keep him in the minors. We’re a ways away, though, but so far, so good.
10. Tyler Herb, RHP (A+ to AA)
Herb is throwing his offspeed stuff for strikes and commanding his fastball well, which has led to a 41-8 K/BB ration in Bakersfield in 31 innings of work. He pounds the lower half of the zone well, inducing ground balls with his sinking fastball and changeup, which plays well in the Cal League. Herb has touched 94 mph in the past but pitches regularly in the low 90s, getting swings and misses up in the zone versus right-handed batters thanks to good armside run. A challenging promotion is likely ahead for Herb later this summer. …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CanoST14Robinson Cano, 2B
2015: 156 G, .287/.334/.446, .316 BABIP, .335 wOBA, .116 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
Cano was awful last year through the first full week of June, then he started hitting rockets right at people. Finally, the second half of June, Cano started looking like Cano and he went all pre-Seattle Cano on the league, batting .331/.387/.540 with 15 home runs in 70 games after the All-Star break.

The abdominal injuries, plural, and double hernia didn’t show prejudice, though, robbing Cano of a step on the bases and in the field, and it was noticeable. He turned 33 in October, but 33 isn’t 40 and there’s no reason to keep the perennial all-star from producing another .300/.360 season, perhaps with power numbers somewhere near his first two seasons with the Mariners.

Among the areas to watch as the season unfolds include Cano’s strikeout rate, and even more specifically his swing-and-miss rate on pitches in the zone. He whiffed nearly 16 percent of the time in 2015 with a career rate of 12.1 percent heading into this season. If the Mariners’ 3-4-5-6 is going to be as good as it could be, Cano has to be himself; consistent, draw walks at rate around eight percent, put the ball in play a lot and hit a long ball every week and a half.

One thing is certain with Cano, despite the injuries: there were no signs of a loss of bat speed late in the year, and his second-half roll had nothing to do with Nelson Cruz hitting behind him, because Nelson Cruz was hitting in front of him. (lineup protection from the ensuing is a bit of a myth, anyway)

Lind2Adam Lind, 1B
2015: 149 G, .277/.360/.460, .309 BABIP, .351 wOBA, 119 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
Lind batted .291/.380/.503 versus right-handed pitching in 2015 and carries a similar career slash against northpaws. He’s a below-average defender at first, but has decent hands, makes the typical first-base play and has shown he can dig throws from the dirt at an average clip.

How Lind helps Mariners
Lind has extra-base power from the right field line to left-center and will use it regularly. He’ll make consistent contact and is a very good fastball hitter — .319 with nine homers and .494 slugging in 2015 versus the heater. Lind also stays back well on changeups and curveballs. Where he struggles is the cutter-slider, and left-handed pitchers will use angles to get him out front.

How often Lind sees a lefty starter is one of the bigger questions heading into the season. The club has brought in numerous platoon options, though carrying such a one-dimensional player makes pretty much zero sense. The Mariners are better off finding a right-handed batting/lefty-mashing OF-1B on the scrap heap this month. If such an opportunity doesn’t arise, don’t force the first-base platoon.

At that point, the option is to start Lind versus lefties — moving him down in the order to seventh or eighth. Ideally, the club would have an option here, but using four percent of your roster — and 25 percent of your bench — for about 2.5 percent of your plate appearances — with negative defensive value, negative baserunning value and absolutely zero versatility — sounds like a move a GM in 1982 might make, not one in 2016.

Keep in mind: Lind batted .221/.277/.298 in 112 PAs versus lefties in 2015 and still ended the season at .277/.360/.460. The club’s first basemen batted .198/.259/.263 versus LHP a year ago and for the year sported a .235/.301/.401 triple-slash

SeagerShotKyle Seager, 3B
2015: 161 G, .266/.328/.451, .278 BABIP, .335 wOBA, 116 wRC+, 3.9 fWAR
Seager is a model of consistency but I believe there’s another 8-15 points in the batting average and 10-25 more points in the on-base department as the 28-year-old learns to hit against the shift, use more of the backside and refines his ability to make decisions in his game plan at the plate; .280/.340/.470 is not out of the question for Seager in 2016, though all three are probably ceiling suggestions.

Seager is one of the top five defensive third basemen in baseball, behind Evan Longoria, Nolan Arenado, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado. Seager’s right there with Josh Donaldson, holding off a charge from the likes of Matt Duffy, Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier.

Last season a bit odd for Seager with the bat, as he was better versus lefties than versus righties, but don’t expect that to continue. It’s a good sign, though, that Seager made an adjustment or two and lefties did not for an entire season. I’d expect him to settle in around .255/.310/.410 versus southpaws, while climbing back to where he was in 2014 against righties — 283/.358/.504.

Seager is a 3.5-4 fWAR player by default. If he takes another small step forward, he’ll be among the 5-8 most valuable third baseman in the game, despite having the physical tools of a good utility player. Between the ears he’s Robby Cano or Paul Molitor.

Ketel Marte, SS
2015: 57 G, .283/.351/.402, .341 BABIP, .330 wOBA, 112 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
Marte fits the mold of what Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto wants in an offensive player up the middle (sure, everyone would like to have Xander Bogaerts or Troy Tulowitzki). He’ll make contact, he runs well, can handle the bat, and he’s improved as a switch hitter to the point where abandoning it isn’t even a remote possibility.

Marte’s numbers from his two-month stint last season are not indicative of what’s likely to occur in 2016. Expect his BABIP to sink to the low-300s or so, and I base that on his swing and game plan, not random randomness. I also don’t expect his walk rate to approach 10 percent (9.7 in 2015). But he does have solid range at shortstop — he’s improved greatly going to his right the past year or two — with consistency in his throws the main question. He’s not going to win a Gold Glove anytime soon, but more dependability goes a long way in securing the position long-term for the 22-year-old.

Marte is a 60-65 grade runner and is quick out of the left-handed batter’s box. He’s a decent base stealer, but not a great one.

If Marte repeats his 1.7 fWAR from a year ago, sign me up right now. There’s more upside there, however, and the chances he loses grip on his job during the season aren’t as high as with Brad Miller the past few years, simply because of his style of offensive play raising the floor on his overall value.

Luis Sardinas, SS
2015: 36 G, .196/.240/.216, .260 BABIP, .203 wOBA, 17 wRC+, -0.8 fWAR
Sardinas is a sound glove at shortstop and above-average runner, but he doesn’t bring much to the table with the bat. He’s still just 22, like Marte, and has shown better offensively, including a 43-game stretch for Texas in 2014 that resulted in a respectable .261/.303/.313 slash line.

Sardinas is the best of the group in terms of serving as a backup shortstop; He’s a more consistent glove than is Chris Taylor and makes better contact at the plate, and Tyler Smith isn’t quite ready for such a role.

Jesus Montero, 1B
2015: 38 G, .223/.250/.411, .267 BABIP, .284 wOBA, 81 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR
Dear Jim Moore, Jesus Montero is the best and most likely option, in my opinion, to serve as Lind’s replacement versus left-handed starters, even though I think carrying such a player on the roster makes no sense. Sincerely, Jason A. Churchill … and you’re welcome.

Montero has shown he can hit lefties in the past, even in the big leagues; In 2012, Montero hit .322/.366/.463 versus lefties in 191 plate appearances. He struggled in 77 big-league PAs a year ago, but hit .364/.432/.644 against LHPs in Triple-A Tacoma before being called up in July.

He’s worse than Lind defensively, but is getting better at making the routine plays. He does have arm strength but still looks new to the position when pivoting to make throws to second and third — which is difficult to work on, since it doesn’t occur much in games. He’s a 35 runner at best, even after the weight loss.

If Montero hits, he has value, but since he’s not a catcher — and no, he’s not going back to catcher and shouldn’t go back to catcher just because he lost weight — he’ll have to hit big to be a major leaguer; .260/.300/.420 isn’t good enough. Montero will have to absolutely crush lefties and hold his own versus righties or any role for him on the big-league roster will be forced.

He’s out of options, so one of two things is likeliest to happen this month: either Montero will make the club as Lind’s platoon mate, or Montero will be traded for a sack of sacks. There’s a chance he could clear waivers if the club wanted to go that route, but the 26-year-old has shown too much the past year-plus to be a safe bet to get through 29 other teams.

Dae Ho Lee, 1B
2015:
NO MLB STATS
Lee is a big dude — he’s reportedly lost 40-50 pounds coming into this season, but from the video and photos courtesy of the terrific Seattle media covering spring training, Lee remains a very big human.

Despite the opinions of some, Lee is not a good fielder in any manner outside arm strength. He’s slow laterally, slower coming in on balls and I’ve been told he’s also had some issues running back and toward the stands on foul pops. He’s fringe-average digging balls out of the dirt, but tends to let the ball play him, rather than aggressively going after the ball. That said, Lee was signed for his bat, anyway, so he’s very much like Montero in that regard.

There are three opinion types on Lee to completely ignore: those that look at his numbers in Korea and Japan and assume they’ll play in the states; those that ignore that fact that Lee now is 33 years of age; those that pass off their opinions on what others are saying about Lee.

Nobody truly knows with any level of confidence, really, what Lee is capable of in Major League Baseball. He has bat speed, brute strength, has seen a lot of good breaking balls in his day and has the kind of raw power that no ballpark holds down to zero value. How well might Lee adjust to seeing a four-pitch mix every night includes speeds from 72 mph on a two-plane curveball to 95 mph on a four-seamer with late life up in the zone? Stateside arms are much better at attacking all areas of the strikezone than in Japan and Korea, and the stuff, in general, is significantly better. Even some relievers in MLB offer pitches that move horizontally in each direction to complement velocity and vertical break.

Spring will be a nice test for Lee, and maybe his batting eye is better than he’s shown because it will have to be a focus for him. But maybe he takes a statistical hit the same way Ichiro and Hideki Matsui did when they came over to the U.S.; Both were still very good, and Ichiro has a few MVP-caliber seasons, but offensively, both took large hits.

Ichiro, who arrived in his prime at 28 years of age, batted .350, .321, .312, .372 and .303 his first five season with Seattle. He did hit .351 in 2007, and .352 in 2009. That’s pretty darned great. Ichiro slugged between .416 and .455 those first five seasons. But in Japan, he went .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343, .387 in the years leading up to his deal with the Mariners, and those Wade Boggs-like averages came with slugging percentages of .549, .544, .504, .513, .518, .572 and .539.

If Lee takes the same hit to his numbers — 25-60 points of average, 100+ points of slugging — he’s set for a .250-260 average and a slugging percentage that struggles to approach .400. That’s .400, not .500, as Lee slugged .524, 454, .493 his last three season in Japan.

Matsui was the same way as Ichiro, so if you’d prefer a power bat versus a power bat, fine. Matsui’s career slugging percentage in Japan was .582. He joined the Yankees in 2003 at age 29 and slugged .522, .496, .494 and .488, and he was four years younger than Lee is now.

I’m not saying Lee can’t succeed, especially if the role is limited to platoon-like status, but the odds are stacked high against him, and making the 25-man out of spring camp isn’t likely barring injury or trade. He has an opt-out late in March.

Chris Taylor, SS
2015:
37 G, .170/.220/.223, .254 BABIP, .201 wOBA, 23 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR
Taylor remains a viable option at shortstop, but has yet to show any consistency at the plate, where his lengthy, yet flat, swing produces too many swings and misses and no chance to turn on good fastball and hit them with authority.

Taylor works counts in the minors, but in the big leagues simply has fallen behind in counts, which induced an attacking mode. That plays against longer swings that don’t produce power, because big-league pitchers are smart enough to deal with it accordingly.

Taylor’s swing needs to shorten, if nothing else (there are a few more things that could be changed, but aren’t easy to do, such as bring his feet closer together and using the front leg as a better timing mechanism), and he needs to get back to being what he is — a line-drive hitter with solid-average speed and glove, and in general a player that plays with energy and instincts. He played as if he’d lost confidence — understandably — in each game he appears with Seattle in 2015.

If I am the Mariners here, I get Taylor some time at third base and left field, and perhaps see what he thinks of playing center field, too. He’s 25 now and the best way for him to help a major-league club may be as a true utility player. He’s fine at shortstop, so now go see if he can handle center, or at least left and third. He’s not going to forget how to play short in the meantime, so if he’s needed in Seattle at the position, he’ll be OK.

Benji Gonzalez, 2B
2015: NO MLOB STATS
Gonzalez is a second baseman by trade and his shot of making the big club are as close to zero as it gets among invites to camp. He does, however, bring an interest track record to the table, one that may sound familiar. Let’s see if you recognize the following: Good contact hitter, above-average speed, gets on base, has defensive versatility. I thought so.

Gonzalez,26, has no power of which to speak but he’s a switch hitter with quick hands and as a lefty can reach the gaps on occasion. In the field he has terrific footwork, gets rid of the ball quickly and is very surehanded.

The former 7th-round pick likely finds a home in Double-A Jackson or Triple-A Tacoma, and that’s if he makes it through camp.

Gaby Sanchez, 1B
2015: NO MLB STATS
Sanchez, whose minor league deal includes an opt-out believed to be in April or May, is another candidate to share first base with Lind. He spent 2015 overseas, but it’s his stateside track record that strongly suggests his big-league career is over and done. In 2014 with Pittsburgh, he 32-year-old Sanchez batted .229/.293/.385 after a .254/.361/.402 line in 2013.

He’s below average defensively and with offensive trends like that, Sanchez is behind the eight-ball — and about four others — in this position battle.

Ed Lucas, 1B
2015: NO MLB STATS
If there’s one candidate Sanchez starts ahead of, it may be Lucas, who has limited big-league experience and never has profiled as a first base type. But can he hit lefties? Who knows? But in 150+ big-league games, he does sport a career line of .330/.360/.469 versus southpaws, and his glove is better than any of the other options for the gig.

He won’t walk much, but he does make contact, at least versus lefties. Does the 33-year-old Lucas sound like a dark horse for this job?

Stefen Romero, 1B/OF: SEE — OUTFIELD CAPSULES

Tyler Smith, SS: No. 15 Prospect — Tyler Smith
2015: NO MLB STATS
Smith won’t make the big club this season, but has the makeup and offensive profile of a Dipoto-Servais player, so don’t be surprised if he finds his way onto the roster later in the year.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 …

 

There’s been a lot written about Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano lately. First, there was the hyperbolic rant of a fired coach that spurred a media frenzy. A few days later, the New York tabloids speculated that he’s not happy in Seattle and would welcome a return to the Yankees. Since those reports surfaced, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto and Cano’s agent have both shot down the notion that the veteran wants out of Seattle

Now that both player and club are publicly on the same page, should the Mariners consider moving their all-star second baseman? I’m not talking about a trade. Rather, a relocation to another position on the playing field. Specifically, first base.

I’m sure that some will criticize the suggestion of moving a two-time Gold Glove second baseman who’s played all but one fielding inning at that position during 11 seasons. If now isn’t a good time to ask, when should the question be posed?

Considering Cano will be entering his age-33 season, wouldn’t it behoove the team to at least contemplate a transition plan for their most expensive player? Doing so might help keep him healthy and productive until his contract expires, plus improve the team’s second base defense.

It’s true that the Mariners’ second baseman has been very durable, averaging 159 games-per-season since 2007. But, the six-time all-star is on the wrong side of 30 and bound to show signs of decline during the latter years of his 10-year/$240 million deal. It’s possible that his defense is already showing signs of decline.

During his first two seasons with Seattle, Cano posted a combined -9 DRS and ranked 13 of 15 qualified second basemen in that category. The eyeball test says that Cano has superb hands and a strong, accurate arm. He makes it look easy on the balls that he reaches. But, does the reduced DRS signal that his range is decreasing?

To be fair to Cano, he had zero DRS in 2014 and actually accumulated the -9 last season while suffering with stomach issues and a sports hernia. Hopefully for the team and player, his health issues were the prime reason for his below-average DRS in 2015 and he’ll bounce back next year. But, what if he doesn’t improve in 2016 and last season was actually a preview of what’s to come?

Cano – who’ll be age-40 during his final season with Seattle in 2023 – wouldn’t be the first to be a regular second baseman at that advanced age, but several historical comparisons suggest that his fielding will continue to decline and be a detriment to his team.

Take a look at two Hall of Famers and a Hall-eligible player who were everyday second basemen during the latter years of their respective careers. Even in their late thirties, Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, and Joe Morgan were still capable of contributing at the plate. But, the defensive prowess of the trio had declined significantly.

Player From To G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Joe Morgan 1982 1984 373 1496 316 60 5 36 .256 .377 .401 .778
Craig Biggio 2004 2006 456 1958 469 120 1 71 .265 .323 .454 .777
Jeff Kent 2006 2008 372 1509 391 86 5 46 .292 .363 .466 .829
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2015.

xx
Biggio registered -32 DRS during his last three seasons, while Kent was at -40. Advanced fielding metrics weren’t available when Morgan played. But, two standard fielding statistics shed light on his decline. The Hall of Famer’s fielding percentages during his final two seasons were below his 22-year career average, plus he totaled 27 errors in those years after having 30 miscues in the four previous seasons.

The decline of Biggio, Morgan, and Kent doesn’t mean that Cano will fade as badly in the field. But, he’s human and bound to falloff at some point between now and 2023. So, wouldn’t it be prudent for the Mariners to at least explore the option of moving Cano in 2016?

Let’s just suppose for a moment that Seattle relocated their star second baseman next year. It’s not likely, but doing so would make it easier to part ways with Mark Trumbo, who’s expected to make an estimated $9.1 million in 2016 and will be a free agent at the end of next season. Trading the slugger would not only give the Mariners a more athletic player at first base, but also give the team added payroll flexibility to address other roster needs.

Moving Cano to first base would also present the Mariners with the option to shift shortstop Ketel Marte to second base and assign a more consistent fielder to play shortstop. Yes, I know that Marte had a great run during his brief stay in Seattle last year. But, his throwing has been suspect throughout his professional career and he’d likely become a superior fielding second baseman.

Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill briefly discussed the possibility of moving Marte to second base during the 2015 prospect rankings. The 22-year-old has played second base at each level of his professional career, including in Seattle. So, he has experience. If the team did opt to change Marte’s position, Chris Taylor could be an internal option to man shortstop or the club could look outside the organization.

I’m not necessarily advocating that Cano become Seattle’s full-time first baseman in 2016 or even moving Marte next season. But, it’s worth considering. Perhaps, having Cano play 15-20 games at first base next season is worth trying, especially if his defensive metrics don’t bounce back like his offense did during the second half of 2015.

Changes may not occur in 2016, but Dipoto is a disciple of sabermetrics and isn’t likely to accept below-average fielding from the second base position for the next eight seasons, regardless of the stature of the player manning the position. Starting to transition Robinson Cano to first base makes sense to me. Perhaps, the Mariners GM will eventually agree.

 

 …

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.…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Trumbo 2015 vs. career averages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Zunino monthly splits

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

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

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

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

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

Logan Morrison monthly splits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

"Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Dustin Ackley, John Jaso
The Seattle Mariners have a 15-17 record after their first 32 games – which happens to be the 20-percent mark of their 2015 season – and it’s been a bumpy ride for a team that was projected to be a serious World Series contender by many national pundits. With such a small sample size of data, it’s still too early to put much credence into the statistical aspect of the team’s struggles. With that said, comparing a 20-percent sample against a player’s career history may help clarify a fan’s expectations for the team in 2015.

The main contributor for distress among the Mariners’ fan base has been the team’s offensive production – their four runs-per-game average (R/G) is ranked twelfth in the American League. Many pundits and fans alike believed that adding the bats of Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks to complement holdovers Robinson Cano, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, and Kyle Seager would help the team climb above the league-average mark in R/G, which currently stands at 4.39. So, what’s the problem with this team’s lineup?

Heart-of-the-order
The three-through-six spots have a combined .825 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), which is second-only to the Kansas City Royals in the American League. Granted, it helped having a clean-off hitter – Cruz – producing at such a torrid rate while Cano, Seager, and Morrison under-performed during April. But, there are signs of a turnaround from the trio.

During the last 11 games, Cano has a .326/.375/.395 triple slash– batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage – while Morrison is at .300/.404/.775 with five home runs during the same time-frame. Seager’s numbers are still below expectations, although his .244 batting average is actually one point higher than his 2014 average after 32 games. Since Seager has a proven track record, there’s no reason for alarm about the all-star third baseman so early in the season. The bottom line is that the middle-of-the-order will be fine. The rest of the batting order, however, isn’t getting the job done.

Rest of the bunch
The top two spots and last three spots in the batting order have combined for an anemic .217/.274/.358, which is well below the league-average of .252/.316/.396 for all players. Having such a tremendous drop-off in production in the five consecutive spots after Morrison isn’t acceptable for a team with postseason aspirations.

During the first 20-percent of the season, the only constant to the lineup has been the positions held by Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Morrison. The other five spots have varied from game-to-game as manager Lloyd McClendon has attempted to find the right mix of players. Since the line-up has been in a state of flux, let’s look at the team’s offense position-by-position rather than line-up spots. I’m forgoing a review of the positions held by Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Morrison since I’ve already discussed these players.

Note: the numbers in parenthesis next to each position are the cumulative statistics for every player who has played the position, while they were playing the position. Individual statistics encompass a player’s total production regardless of position played.

Left field (.209/.285/.327)
Dustin Ackley (.198/.221/.346) has been the primary left fielder with Weeks (.196/.317/.333) getting the second most plate appearances.  Ackley, who has a reputation for slow starts and being a streaky hitter throughout his four-year career, is off to another extremely slow start again. He’s been used primarily against right-handers and that hasn’t helped his performance at the plate. There’s not much left to say about the left-handed hitter. His numbers are not commensurate with those of a major-league starter.

Weeks’ overall numbers don’t look very good, although he’s done his job during 25 at-bats against left-handed pitching – two home runs and .320/.393/.600. Conversely, he hasn’t performed well during his limited appearances against right-handed pitching with only two hits in 26 at-bats for a .077 batting average. If he were playing more often against righties, his batting average would likely resemble the .227 he posted against righties between 2012 and 2014.

Designated hitter (.207/.273/.414)
Although Cruz has been entrenched in right field lately, he’s only two plate appearances behind Smith’s team-leading 43 at designated hitter. The left-handed hitting Smith, who has also spent time in left and right field, is performing as expected. He’s playing nearly exclusively against right-handed pitching and is delivering numbers very similar to what he did in 2014 with the San Diego Padres. Smith, like Weeks, is doing what he was brought to do – perform well as a platoon player.

Center field (.231/.291/.346)
This is a unique situation to examine since the player with the bulk of playing time – Austin Jackson – is on the disabled list. Last year, Jackson struggled tremendously after being traded to the Mariners on July 31. Although his 2015 numbers are better than what he posted as a Mariner last season, he’s only batting .229 against right-handers compared to .280 against southpaws.

Ruggiano has been given an opportunity to play more often since Jackson injured his ankle on May 3. With that said, the sample size of Ruggiano’s performance is still very small – only Willie Bloomquist, Chris Taylor, and Jesus Sucre have fewer plate appearances. Considering that the 33-year-old owns a career .266 batting average in 466 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, the right-handed hitting outfielder deserves more time and opportunities to demonstrate his value to the team.

It’s likely that Jackson will resume patrolling center field once he returns from the disabled list, which may be as early as next week. His ability to hit right-handed pitching will be worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

Shortstop (.236/.281/.330)
Shortstop is another unique situation because the team has recently transitioned from Brad Miller to Chris Taylor, who was recalled from Class-AAA Tacoma on May 3. Consequently, it’s too early to judge Taylor with such a small sample size of career major league playing time. The apparent reason for moving on from Miller at shortstop were his defensive lapses. Despite his  issues with the glove, the left-handed hitter has performed superbly against righties with a .282/.350/.451 triple slash. Conversely, he’s hitting a paltry .095 against left-handers.

The team has openly discussed using Miller as a super-utility player much in the vein of Bloomquist. It’s unclear if Seattle will send the left-handed hitting infielder to Class-AAA Tacoma to learn the outfield or have the 25-year-old learn on-the-job with the Mariners. It’s likely that Seattle’s path with Miller will become clearer when a roster space needs to be opened for Jackson next week.

Catcher (.171/.235/.343)
Due to the importance of the position from a defensive standpoint– blocking balls in the dirt, throwing out runners, calling games – under-performing with the bat is far easier to accept than at other positions. Both Mike Zunino and his back-up, Sucre, are performing superbly behind the plate even if their performance with the bat leaves much to be desired in 2015.

Zunino, who has appeared in every game, has caught 247.2 of the 288.2 innings that Seattle has played in 2015 and has been the target of many frustrated fans due to his poor offensive production in April. Sucre is doing even worse with limited playing time – one hit and no walks during 14 plate appearances.

In May, Zunino’s bat has been showing signs of life (.294/.333/.618). But, his improvement is based on an extremely small sample size and, unlike Seager, Cano, and other veterans, the 25-year-old’s career numbers reflect offensive struggles. Regardless of Zunino’s challenges, the team can withstand poor offense from this position as long the rest of the order is performing.

Utility player (.200/.231/.200)
The lone player in this section is Bloomquist, who only has 26 plate appearances during twelve games in 2015. It’s hard to expect the Puget Sound native to be productive when he’s used so sparingly. During his three years in Arizona prior to returning to the Seattle, he posted an impressive .289/.328/.368 triple slash, including a .278 batting average during 558 at bats against right-handed pitching. Depending on he’s used, the 37-year-old could provide value to the team.

The replacements
So, who at Tacoma can help the Mariners? There are several names that continue to get bandied about by the media and fans alike. It’s important to note that minor-league replacements share a unique status with back-up quarterbacks; they’re trendy during bad times and generally not as good as the incumbent. Otherwise, they’d be starting. Despite the usually overinflated status that replacements generally hold with a team’s fan base, it’s appropriate to at least discuss the Mariners’ replacement options in Tacoma.

Jesús Montero (.336/.356/.500)
The mercurial former catcher and current Rainiers’ first baseman/designated hitter lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and appears to taken a more serious approach to being a professional baseball player. The result of his transformation has been impressive numbers against both left and right-handed minor league pitching, although the right-handed hitter is striking out nearly twice as often against righties. It’s a small sample size, but Montero has demonstrated glimpses of the offensive potential that motivated Seattle to trade Michael Pineda to get the 25-year-old. If he were to be called up, he could fill roles as either a designated hitter or first baseman against tough left-handers.

Franklin Gutiérrez (.324/.457/.554)
The 32-year-old former Mariner has been performing superbly with Tacoma in 2015. As always with Gutiérrez, his ability to stay on the field has been the primary issue. So far, the right-handed hitter has demonstrated the ability to play multiple consecutive days, which has been the main concern of the Mariners in recent years. “Guti” is no longer the center fielder who was once described by the late Dave Niehaus as “Death to Flying Things.” Now, he’s primarily a left fielder and an occasional designated hitter. Gutiérrez would likely be a good fit in Seattle if they need to make a change at designated hitter and or need help in left field. Playing the latter would be predicated on his much-maligned durability.

James Jones (.271/.316/.343)
The 26-year-old was slowed by a concussion early in the season and has only appeared in 19 of the team’s 33 games. Jones spent over half of 2014 with the Mariners before the team’s acquisition of Jackson. During his time with the big-league club, the left-handed hitting center fielder struggled equally against both righties and lefties. Despite his difficulties with getting on base, he led the team with 27 stolen bases during just 108 games and he already has stolen eight bases this year. If Jones were to demonstrate that he could consistently hit right-handed pitching, he could provide the Mariners with several intriguing options, such as being part of a platoon in left or center field.

Ketel Marte (.346/.384/.419)
Just over a year ago, Prospect Insider founder and co-host of the Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan, Jason A. Churchill, discussed the ascension of the 21-year-old switch-hitting infielder in great detail. Since then, Marte has continued to establish himself as an offensive table-setter – he’s played in all 33 games, stolen 12 bases, and leads the Pacific Coast League with 44 hits. The issue with Marte continues to be his defense. Until the call-up of Taylor, he was splitting his time between second base and shortstop and has already registered four errors at shortstop in 24 games and one at second base in 12 games. That follows 31 errors in 2014 and five errors during 58.2 Spring Training innings. Since Taylor has been in place for just over a week, I’d expect Marte to remain a Rainier and work on improving his glove work.

It’s important to note that all of the potential replacement players – with the exception of Taylor who was injured during Spring Training – weren’t ready or able to beat out the incumbents with the big-league club just six weeks ago. So, it’s tough to accept that 33 games of minor-league play suddenly makes these players better options than the players with the Mariners.

What’s next?
Adding a player from Tacoma sounds easy until it’s time to choose the player to remove from the 25-man roster. The first hard choice comes next week, assuming Jackson stays on track to return on time. The most likely candidates would be Miller, Bloomquist, and Ackley for varying reasons.

Miller, as mentioned earlier, is in state of transition with Seattle. If the team decides that he needs some seasoning at his new positions in the minors, the return of Jackson would seem to be the logical jumping off point. Bloomquist hasn’t done anything wrong from a performance perspective because he’s barely been had an opportunity to perform. The team is paying a player $3 million who is averaging approximately four at-bats weekly in 2015. The team’s reluctance to “eat” his salary will likely factor into their final decision with Bloomquist.

Fair or not, the 27-year-old Ackley has never lived up to the expectations that come with being a number-two overall draft selection and he hasn’t demonstrated the consistency to be a starter-level major-league player. Going into this season, he’s on his second manager and third hitting coach since debuting in 2011 and continues to be struggle at the plate.

It’s clear that offense needs to improve for this team to compete for a postseason berth. I suspect that Miller will be playing the outfield in Tacoma by the end of next week. Once he’s demonstrated he’s ready for prime time, he’ll return to the Mariners as their regular left fielder. At that time, the Dustin Ackley era in Seattle will likely end.…