The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It look 108 years, but it did happen. The Seattle Mariners have clinched a playoff berth. Well, not yet. But there’s legitimate optimism that for the first time in fifteen years, it will happen in 2017. The team from the North Side did just prove anything can happen, after all.

The Mariners aren’t coming into the season as favorites to win the division. That’d be the Houston Astros. They’re a worthy choice, led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, a talented pitching staff, and some veteran additions to their lineup. If you remember back in 2014, Sports Illustrated declared the Astros the 2017 World Champs. It’s possible they will be right.

There’s also the Texas Rangers who many prognosticators have ranked about even with the Mariners. The Rangers have lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in each of the last two postseasons and return a deep lineup and a one-two punch of Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. The sting of back-to-back World Series losses in 2010 and 2011 is still present.

The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels may bang a few pots and pans during the season. But the A’s are still developing a young core and the Angels are still trying to build a contender around Mike Trout.

With a three-team race and one tiered above the other two, the path to the postseason is a narrow road for Seattle. And that’s before considering that the American League East and Central will offer a couple of the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, and Blue Jays as playoff competition. But, as we have seen with the advent of the second Wild Card, the third-best team in the division can still make the playoffs. And from there, anything can happen.

The challenge is getting there. The external factors won’t be doing them any favors. The window for the Kansas City Royals may be closing but many members of the competition got better.

The internal factors may not be much better as questions have risen around many of the Mariners key parts.

It starts with Felix Hernandez. Can he rebound or is he now a shadow of his former self? Can James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma stay healthy the entire year and produce? With Drew Smyly already on the shelf, the rotation can ill-afford to have another injury.

And there’s the bullpen. Can Edwin Diaz be lights out again or will he tire out before the playoff race really heats up? Is a rehabbing Steve Cishek and a relative unknown in Dan Altavilla enough to bridge the gap to Diaz? Can the rest of the relief staff withstand the annual volatility that hits every bullpen?

Is Jean Segura going to regress or can he repeat his 2016 performance? What happens if Nelson Cruz or Robinson Cano can’t should the load as they get older? The outfield may prevent a lot of runs, but will they be able to provide any offence?

The Mariners have a lot of questions. Perhaps more uncertainty than you’d want to see from a playoff contender. But the point I’d like to make is that all teams, not just Seattle, have multiple question marks when you prod hard enough.

Boston came into Spring Training with three aces. Easily one of the best rotations in the league on paper. But, how will David Price perform once he’s off the disabled list? Will Rick Porcello be able to prove last year wasn’t a fluke? Can Chris Sale handle the move to a tougher division or will his mechanics finally get the best of him?

We can ask questions about nearly every player on every team. Even the World Champion Cubs aren’t without their own. How will the club handle the dreaded World Series hangover, especially with so many kids on the team? What if Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester get hurt? Is the bullpen deep enough? Jason Heyward?

Questions, concerns, uncertainty — they all surround every team. Things like depth and talent help ease some of the concern though, and allow us to predict that the Cubs and Indians will still be very good, even if things go wrong. Can the Los Angeles Dodgers survive an injury to Clayton Kershaw? They answered that last season.

It’s now time for the Mariners to answer all the questions pundits have put their way. These answers will determine whether or not a playoff appearance will happen.

Felix went into the offseason hellbent on reclaiming his throne. Participating in winter ball, an intense workout regime, and the World Baseball Classic were all part of his plan. On Monday he gets a chance to start answering those who feel he has lost his crown. Early returns are positive and if he can locate his fastball again, even with diminished velocity, he can still lead the rotation.

To back him up, particularly in the event he doesn’t get to where he needs to be, General Manager Jerry Dipoto beefed up the rotation with some upside in Smyly. Veteran starter Yovani Gallardo was also added in an upside play. More importantly, Seattle now has some rotation depth at Triple-A in Ariel Miranda, Chris Heston, and Dillon Overton that can offer assistance.

The Mariners had a 30-30 record in one-run games last year. Literally as few as two more runs scored could’ve resulted in a playoff spot. So, Dipoto deepened the lineup.

[pullquote]The days of lumbering outfielders are over as Seattle emphasized run prevention in the outfield this winter. Sluggers are now athletes and more hits should be outs.[/pullquote]

Cano, Cruz, and Kyle Seager remain one of the best offensive trios in the game. Some thump was added at the top of the lineup in Segura along with some speed in Jarrod Dyson. Danny Valencia, Carlos Ruiz, and Mitch Haniger help lengthen the lineup beyond the core three. The bottom of the order should be better too with Leonys Martin and Mike Zunino pushed down. Dan Vogelbach, optioned to Triple-A, may also provide some help later in the year.

The best offense can also be better defense, or something along those lines, so Dipoto beefed up the outfield defense in a big way. Three center fielders figure to patrol Safeco in Martin, Dyson, and Haniger. Not to mention the presence of Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel on the depth chart. Building a team suited to the home ballpark simply made a lot of sense. Better defense should help the pitching staff, too. Cruz spending minimal time in the outfield is addition by subtraction.

If there was one area that wasn’t reinforced, the bullpen could qualify. Tony Zych is close to returning, but along with the aforementioned Cishek and Altavilla, is a question mark. Marc Rzepczynski is a fine addition and will help against left-handers, but he isn’t exactly a high-leverage arm. Perhaps Thyago Vieira and his fastball will show up at some point or Nick Vincent can excel in a seventh inning role again. Evan Scribner is finally healthy and could be a wild card in the pen. Casey Fien may have something left too.

The goal was not to rebuild the core but add to it and perhaps find a way to extend the window. This may be the last opportunity to get the best out of Hernandez, Cano, Cruz, and Seager all at the same time.

With that in mind, Seattle made a multitude of changes this winter, particularly via trade. Taijuan Walker‘s potential was dealt to add an impact bat in Segura and shore up the shortstop position. Haniger may well be an impact piece also. Former top prospect Alex Jackson was dealt to add pitching depth to the upper minors. Luiz Gohara and his tantalizing but risky stuff was traded to bring in Smyly, an impact arm for the rotation.

The 2018 season is a long ways away. Seattle may not have gone all-in on 2017, but in Dipoto’s moves there was a trend towards putting together the best possible team for this season.

Nate Karns could still become an effective mid-rotation starter or even a dynamite reliever. Instead, Dipoto took the floor offered by Gallardo along with some potential upside.

Some things will go wrong this year. If one out of every two trades made ends up working out, Seattle may well take that — especially given they bought odds in bulk, so to speak.

The injury to Smyly would qualify as the first thing to go wrong, World Baseball Classic be darned. One of the outfielders may not hit at an acceptable level and perhaps another veteran in the lineup goes down. Maybe the bullpen is held together by glue and bubble gum by the All-Star break. That’s where the Mariners X-factor comes in: Jerry Dipoto.

If there’s one executive who isn’t afraid to make a deal it’s Seattle’s commander-in-chief. That depth at the Triple-A level can help the Mariners in two ways: through promotion or in trades. If some of the Boog Powells and D.J. Petersons can’t help the big league team themselves, perhaps they can help bring in a veteran depth piece who can. Dipoto still has a couple bullets left to play with but probably doesn’t deal his few top prospects.

The real question is simple: will the Seattle Mariners make the playoffs in 2017? I’m inclined to say yes, if only because of the two Wild Card berths available. But, like we said, you just have to get there.

It’s time to start answering some of those questions.…

It’s been an extraordinary time for young players in Major League Baseball the past several years. The old guard of David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, among others, has passed on the torch to a collection of meteoric young talent including the likes of Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant, to name a few.

Last season was aptly titled “The Year of the Rookie” and inspired this author to peek into the outlook for a handful of those players heading into their sophomore season. You can read the American League edition here and the National League edition here.

I’m going to steal from last year’s post to remind you that, per MLB’s rules, a player remains a rookie until they exceed 130 plate appearances as a position player, 50 innings pitched as a pitcher, or 45 days active on a 25-man roster. Time spent on the disabled list or when rosters expand in September do not count towards these days.

Without further ado, let’s chat about some AL sophomores.

Gary Sanchez, C — New York Yankees
There are major league debuts, and then there are historic anecdotes. What Sanchez did in two months with the Yankees last season would be the latter. In just 229 plate appearances, the slugger posted a .299/.376/.657 slash line with a 171 wRC+ and 20 home runs. While the 60 home run pace may be unrealistic this coming year, the power displayed within the .358 ISO he posted was very present. The dude simply can hit.

Sanchez is slated to begin the year occupying the No. 2 spot for the Yankees and will be a key cog in their lineup. There’s some concern about how the 24-year-old will hold up over the course of an entire big league season. The simple wear and tear of catching being one part with the other being his strikeout rate of 25 percent in last year’s sample. Especially since we are likely to see last year’s 10.5 percent walk rate drop some as major league pitchers get familiar with the slugger. The slash line may not be as impressive over a full season, but there are plenty of reasons to expect big things from the catcher going forward.

Tyler Naquin, OF — Cleveland Indians
The Indians center fielder presents an interesting case in 2017. He had a great offensive performance posting a .296/.372/.514 slash line with a 135 wRC+ and showed unexpected power with 14 home runs in 365 plate appearances. But he accomplished all that with an unsustainable .411 BABIP and a 30.7 percent strikeout rate. The BABIP will certainly come down some, which is fine. Hitting .300 is a lot more difficult than it used to be, after all. But the spike in strikeouts from his minor league years is concerning.

The left-hander was used primarily in a platoon role last year, but figures to play a full-time role this year. He actually fared well against same-handed pitching in the small sample and can be trusted to hold his own going forward. The former first round pick should build off the Indians’ World Series run as he enters his age-26 season. It’s possible Naquin has double-digit steals in him and given his tools, a season with ten-plus steals and home runs would look very nice. Cutting down on the strikeouts could be a key success factor in the coming year.

Tim Anderson, SS — Chicago White Sox
Chicago saw their first-round pick in the 2013 draft debut this past summer. With a game based on speed and defence and enough of a hit tool to get by, Anderson posted a .283/.306/.432 slash line in 431 plate appearances. His 95 wRC+ was below average for the position, but with solid defence and plus speed, that package can create a lengthy major league career. The 23-year-old only stole ten bases in the majors this past season but managed to swipe 49 in 2015 at Double-A.

The White Sox certainly believe Anderson has room to blossom as they rewarded him with a new six-year contact worth $25 million. This types of deals are relatively low-risk for the club and offer players the ability to focus more on developing their game instead of securing their new contract. On paper that’s the case, anyways. Still, there’s a good chance the security helps the right-hander as he establishes his place on the next good White Sox team. Finding a way to get on-base more often will make up for a potential decline in batting average as the league adjusts to Anderson.

Alex Bregman, 3B — Houston Astros
As hard as it is for any player to go through a 2-for-38 slump, the start of one’s career is as inopportune a time as any. Still, Bregman finished the season strong and over 217 plate appearances in the majors he authored a .264/.313/.478 slash line. His 112 wRC+ last year is a strong starting point for the well-rounded hitter. Most reports out there consider him to show polish beyond his years. With the pressure to perform as a top prospect, the slump could’ve sunk Bregman’s season. But it didn’t. That says a lot more about his maturation process than any cliche could.

The second overall pick in the 2015 draft comes loaded with pedigree and barely had time to unpack a suitcase at three of the four minor league levels he’s visited. He has a home in Minute Maid Park for 2017 and is slated to hit in the No. 2 hole for the Astros. Though the presence of Carlos Correa will keep Bregman out of his natural shortstop position, this five-tool stud has plenty of success awaiting him.

Michael Fulmer, SP — Detroit Tigers
What’s one way to keep a competitive window open? Trading an expiring contract for an impact player, which is exactly what Detroit did when they sent Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline. Fulmer started 26 games for the Tigers in 2016 and posted an 11-6 record with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. In 159 innings pitched he posted 7.47 strikeouts and 2.38 walks per nine innings. The right-hander was named the American League Rookie of the Year, beating out Sanchez’ historic season.

The development of Fulmer’s changeup played a large role in his success, mixing it with a very good fastball and slider. He may have had some BABIP luck last year and his FIP suggests a worse performance than his ERA, but there’s reason to believe he could be even better in 2017. The challenge will be the grinding march towards 200 innings. Once Fulmer added the changeup to his arsenal in a more prominent way, things began to take off last year. And this time around he’ll have a whole season of it.

Edwin Diaz, RP — Seattle Mariners
Less than a year ago the right-hander was starting games at the Double-A level. A few months later he was debuting in the big leagues as a reliever. Now, he finds himself on the shortlist of top closers in the American League, if not all of baseball. It’s been a whirlwind for Diaz but he remained steady and was a key cog in the second half for the M’s. Combining an otherworldly 15.33 strikeout-per-nine with a 2.61 walks-per nine over 51 and 1/3 big league innings, Diaz managed a 1.9 fWAR season. His 2.04 FIP suggests his 2.79 ERA was better than it appeared.

While he was used aggressively last year, and may have shown some wear towards the end of the season, Diaz is positioned well for success. Combining a whiff-generating slider with a 97 mile-per-hour fastball is his recipe for success — and it works great — but Diaz found himself with a .337 BABIP and 14.7 percent home run rate. Improving in those two areas certainly could push the right-hander into the very elite. With a little experience and confidence in his back pocket, that shouldn’t be a problem.…

Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going away any time soon. And it shouldn’t. A tournament that showcases baseball’s talent and can grow the game internationally is a tremendous opportunity for the sport. Especially since baseball was dropped after the 2008 Olympic Games. Though it’s scheduled to return for 2020, the summer event is bereft of the game’s top talent for the obvious reasons.

Despite the drawbacks for teams and players preparing for the season, the potential for injuries that could reshape division races, and the lack of Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, this event creates a special opportunity for players to represent their countries.

This year the Seattle Mariners will have 12 representatives competing for seven different countries as shown in the table below.

Mariners at the World Baseball Classic
Player Representation
Felix Hernandez, SP Venezuela
Robinson Cano, 2B Dominican Republic
Nelson Cruz, DH Dominican Republic
 Jean Segura, SS Dominican Republic
Edwin Diaz, RP Puerto Rico
 Yovani Gallardo, SP Mexico 
 Drew Smyly, SP* USA
 Tyler O’Neill, OF Canada
 Emilio Pagan, RP  Puerto Rico
 Pat Venditte, RP  Italy
Sam Gaviglio, SP Italy
Sebastian Valle, C Mexico

Easily the biggest impact of the WBC on the Mariners is the participation of Felix Hernandez. After taking a step back performance-wise in 2015, the ace struggled to the worst performance of his major league career in 2016. He went to work this offseason with a pennant-sized chip on his shoulder, and the goal of being ready to represent Venezuela playing a key role in his preparation for the 2017 season.

Early returns on Hernandez’ progress this spring are positive. He arrived in camp in notably better shape and specifically worked on strengthening his lower half. On Sunday, his second outing of the Cactus League season, he went three innings with five strikeouts and no walks. He gave up a couple runs in a long first inning but finished his day with 36 strikes on fifty pitches. On the broadcast, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre mentioned Hernandez having some issues with his changeup, but his other offerings were sharp and he commanded the ball well.

Given the challenges of 2016, and the commitment the club has made to the right-hander in terms of dollars, one would be fair to question why the Cy Young award winner is participating. A regular spring would likely be the optimal choice.

Joey Votto, after another outstanding campaign, declined to represent Canada at the WBC citing a need to improve on some areas of his game he found lacking. It’s unclear what particular things he feels he needs to work on, perhaps defensively, but we do know after earning $22 million in 2017 he will be payed $25 million annually through 2023.

All players have their reasons for or against participating, and as frustrating as that may be on either side of the coin, but you have to respect a player’s desire to represent their country. Teams have frequently voiced their support for players’ participation and are often involved in defining the parameters for how the player will be used during the event.

That goes particularly for the most recent Mariner addition to a WBC roster, Jean Segura. GM Jerry Dipoto spent 20 minutes on the phone with Moises Alou, the GM of the Dominican Republic squad about how his most significant offseason acquisition would be utilized in the tournament.

Ideally Seattle would want to ensure that Segura’s progress at shortstop be maintained heading towards the start of the season. He and Robinson Cano, one of Segura’s teammates at the WBC, will form a new double play tandem in the Emerald City this year.

It’s unclear how much time the two will share in the diamond. Segura replaced Boston’s Hanley Ramirez on the roster, a former shortstop who’s moved over to first base. It would be ideal for Cano and Segura to have the full month of playing together, especially with the latter switching positions for the coming year. But the idiosyncrasies in the field will take time to connect anyways — a week or two of interruption shouldn’t have a dramatic effect on that.

Aside from the starting middle infielders being away, another key piece of the lineup will be too. Nelson Cruz joins his countrymen on the Dominican team and figures to see time both in the outfield and at designated hitter.

The move to DH will be a more permanent role in Seattle for the slugger this year after two seasons where he saw plenty of outfield time. Given the influx of athletic outfielders added, Cruz will be hard pressed to see much time in the field given the emphasis on defense by the front office.

Electric closer Edwin Diaz will have the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico for the first time. Rarely does Spring Training offer the higher leverage situations that many relievers are accustomed too in the season so getting to pitch some critical innings this early may benefit Diaz at the start. But he is just one year into his bullpen journey, and this is his first camp as a major league reliever, so I can’t imagine he has much process to interrupt.

Seattle will be sending three-fifths of the starting rotation when accounting for Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Though Gallardo’s specific participation is still to be determined, Smyly is only going to make one appearance for the U.S. squad before returning to camp. Still, both will miss out on some time to continue developing rapport with their new catchers. However, given the length of this year’s spring there’s been and will be plenty of time to make up for the absence.

Elsewhere top prospect Tyler O’Neill will get an opportunity to shine with Team Canada after impressing in the first couple weeks of spring games. He’s already showed off his power in an exhibition game, blasting an opposite field home run against the New York Yankees.

With so many players away, opportunity is ripe for several players who’s fate have yet to be determined for the upcoming season. Expect to see a lot of Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman, and Taylor Motter as the process of determining the back-up infielder continues and Segura and Cano are absent. Boog Powell will also get a chance to rebuild his stock as he nears a return from an 80-game PED suspension.

While the WBC provides an opportunity for the best players in the world to represent their country at the highest level, it also provides a stage that same opportunity for players who may never reach stardom in the majors. Looking at rosters for some of the less star-studded teams may yield names of former fringe-major leaguers or Triple-A fodder, but I would have to imagine this is a tremendous experience for them.

Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but so many of the knocks against it are easy to work around. Yes, a player is at risk of getting hurt, but how much more risk than facing a minor league pitching with 35-grade command in a spring game?

The timing of the tournament will always be tough, but once every four years the sport can deal with the side effects of an international opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t exist.…

Diaz bulpenYou probably don’t want to read another article discussing modern bullpen usage. But you also can’t argue  Andrew Miller‘s success in this year’s playoffs hasn’t changed they way we look at how relievers are deployed.

The good news is that I’m not going to sell you on how great it would be if the Seattle Mariners made a habit of using their best reliever in the highest leverage situations. But what I can tell you is that something first needs to happen before the M’s can even consider the possibility.

Without oversimplifying things, the reason Terry Francona was able to deploy Miller as needed was because of Cody Allen‘s presence in the back of the bullpen. There’s less worry about holding onto Miller for a certain situation when you have Allen in your back pocket.

The Mariners have an elite reliever of their own in Edwin Diaz. With reliever usage being a hot topic, it’s been suggested that Seattle will look to maximizes Diaz’s usage by deploying him in more high leverage situations opposed to only traditional save opportunities. The problem though, is that Seattle doesn’t have an Andrew Miller to support their Cody Allen, so to speak.

Let’s make things clear; there isn’t likely to be any drastic change in how Diaz, the presumed closer, will be used. It’s possible he may pitch an eighth inning instead of a ninth once in a while. Or the occasional ask for four outs instead of three. But it’s simply impractical to use a reliever during the regular season like they are used in the postseason. There’s a good chance that we see a ratio similar how the right-hander was deployed last season.

Of Diaz’s 49 appearances with the Mariners last season, 10 required getting four or more outs. This includes a near heroic 2 and 1/3 inning appearance in what turned out to be Seattle’s penultimate game of 2016. The fact that Diaz started the year in the Double-A Jackson rotation likely worked in his favor as the now former starter was likely still used to longer outings.

The M’s did try to limit the 22-year-old’s use early on with regard to pitching on back-to-back days but that started to change down the stretch. Seattle was within range of a postseason berth and when it came time to turn things over to the bullpen, Diaz remained the best and too frequently the only option for locking down the win.

This brings us to the plans for 2017. It’s much too early to really drill down on the specifics of the Mariner bullpen. We have heard rumblings the team is in the market for a left-handed reliever and cultivating bullpen depth will again be a priority. Right now, it’s safe to say Seattle doesn’t have a two-headed monster at the back of their bullpen. But there are a couple potential options.

Steve Cishek started 2016 as the closer and had plenty of first-half success. He also succeeded in a set-up role in the second-half. The right-hander’s 2.81 ERA and 3.57 FIP don’t scream dominance, but his 10.69 strikeouts per nine rate better resembles a lock-down reliever.

The only problem is that Cishek may not be ready for the start of the season after undergoing hip labrum surgery. The 31-year-old remains an option to return to a late inning role and has the desired experience. The recovery timeline could cause some difficulties though, and it’s tough to know how he’ll perform upon his return.

Another option could be the up-and-coming Dan Altavilla. The hard-throwing righty gave up a single earned run over 12 and 1/3 innings in the season’s final weeks. He added ten strikeouts and a walk in an impressive showcase. Like Diaz, Altavilla made the jump from Double-A to the majors after being converted to a reliever at the beginning of the year. I would assume he’s penciled in for a major league bullpen role, but may need a stint in the minors to fine tune his skills.

With his repertoire, Diaz has the makings of a pure shutdown, high leverage reliever. However, the current bullpen set-up simply may not allow for use outside of the more traditional closer’s role. After all, the primary set-up options we just discussed include a recovering side-armer and an unproven rookie. Not to mention that Diaz is only a year in to his major league and bullpen career.

The Mariners know that they need to re-stock the bullpen. Middle relief arms will be a priority, but by emphasizing late-inning options and increasing flexibility there, Seattle may be able to get even more value out of Diaz.…

SafecoThere’s an ongoing phenomena in the Pacific Northwest that hasn’t occurred in quite some time.  The Seattle Mariners are fielding a competitive roster in August that has a realistic chance at the postseason.

Sure, the Mariners were within a win of a play-in game for a wildcard berth in 2014, but this time it’s different. This time, the team is much deeper and more resilient roster thanks to the work of first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Understandably, some fans will be slow to jump aboard the “Mariners Express.” After all, the club that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2001. To make matters even worse, they’ve posted a winning record in just three of their last ten seasons. That’s demoralizing.

Still, this version of the Mariners is for real. At least real enough to be in the thick of the wild card race and within six games of the division lead with 38 games remaining. Perhaps, this is the year meaningful October baseball returns to Seattle.

With the club playing so well lately — a 15-6 win-loss record in August — and an allegedly “easy” schedule ahead of them, the Mariners are starting to receive attention from national sports media outlets.

Naturally, pundits are focusing on the team’s highlight reel stars — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Edwin Diaz. The re-emergence of Mike Zunino is likely to catch the attention of some analysts too.

Certainly, the Mariners can’t win without these stars. Yet, the club’s chances of snapping the longest postseason drought in the majors will most likely hinge on the arms of two less-mentioned players — James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Without their help, Seattle may have to wait another year to see playoff baseball at the corner of Edgar and Dave.

That’s why tonight’s arrival of Walker from Class-AAA Tacoma against the New York Yankees and Paxton’s return from the disabled list (DL) on Thursday could set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Any further absence or ineffectiveness from either Paxton or Walker would hamstring the chances of Mariners popping champagne corks in October. Poor performances from both pitchers between now and the end of September would certainly dash the club’s postseason aspirations.

Why are these young guns key to Seattle’s season? Simply put, they’re better than their replacements. Ariel Miranda and Cody Martin have done commendable jobs as fill-ins. But, they’re not as talented as Paxton and Walker and aren’t capable of going deep into games. Right now, getting through the sixth inning is essential.

Look at the following table, borrowed and updated from Prospect Insider’s third-quarter report on the rotation and bullpen. Starting pitchers going deeper into games helps balance the workload for the bullpen and helps deliver results in the win-loss column.

Impact of Rotation on Seattle’s Record
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
IP/GS
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9 6.2
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7 5.8
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11 5.4
July 14 4.8  12-12  8-2 3-10 5.8
August 12 3.7  15-6  10-3  5-3 6.2
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

When the Mariners were flying high early in the season, the rotation was delivering quality and innings. Conversely, their lowest point in the season — the month of June — occurred when their starting staff was unraveling due to injury and ineffectiveness.

Since the club hit rock bottom in June, the Mariners have seen their season slowly get back on track thanks to their rotation. Hernandez returned from the DL, Iwakuma continued to deliver quality starts, Wade LeBlanc helped stabilize the back-end of the rotation, and Paxton was as good as any pitcher in the major leagues in July.

Still, not all was completely well in the Emerald City.

Wade Miley frustrated management and was eventually shipped to Baltimore in exchange for Miranda, while Walker spent most of July on the DL. Despite the upheaval, the Mariners managed to finish July with a 12-12 win-loss record thanks to the combined effort of Felix, Kuma, LeBlanc, and Paxton.

Now, the Mariners are riding high in August. Since their frustrating July 31 meltdown against the Chicago Cubs on ESPN, the club has the second-best record in the American League. During that span, they’ve gained three games on the division-leading Texas Rangers. Things are looking up at Safeco Field.

So, if the Mariners are playing so well, why are two players who’ve spent most of August away from the club so critical? The replacements are putting a strain on the bullpen.

In the last seven games; Miranda, Martin, and LeBlanc averaged a combined 4.9 innings pitched during five starts. That’s an extremely small sample size. But, it’s reasonable to expect the same kind of low-inning output from the trio for the remainder of the season. The bullpen won’t be able to sustain this added workload for very long. They need help.

This is where Paxton and Walker enter the picture.

Assuming Paxton doesn’t suffer any ill effects from taking a line drive off his elbow, he should be able to return to his pre-injury excellence. In the six games leading up to his DL stint, the 27-year-old averaged 6.9 innings-per-start and posted a 2.83 earned run average (ERA). That’s much better than what you’d expect Martin or Miranda to provide for the remainder of the season, right?

PaxtonSure, Paxton could regress to his inconsistent pre-2016 form. But, that shouldn’t happen if he maintains the arm-slot change to his delivery that Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted in May.

As with Paxton’s recent performances, Walker was going deep into games and delivering results early in the season. He held opposing hitters to a .253 on-base percentage (OBP) and posted a 1.44 ERA during his first four starts. Walker also averaged 6.25 innings-per-start.

Walker was transforming into the future ace that many observers — including me — believed the 24-year-old was destined to become. Then, the calendar turned to May.

It’s not as if Walker didn’t have any good outings since April. However, he’s been inconsistent finishing the sixth inning just three times in 13 starts since May 1 — a feat he accomplished four times in April. Here’s a look Walker 2016 journey.

Taijuan Walker’s Two Seasons
Month GS
IP/GS
SO/9
BB/9
HR/9 ERA
AVG SLG
April 4 6.25 9.0 1.0 .36 1.44 .223 .298
May-Aug 13 5 7.6 2.35 1.1 5.12 .242 .523

In Walker’s defense, he’s encountered several injury setbacks since the start of May. He left a start after just two innings due to a stiff neck on May 6. Later in the month, he began to struggle with right foot tendonitis. The young hurler tried to work through the malady in subsequent starts, but eventually found himself on the DL for over a month.

On August 6, Walker made a less-than-triumphant return from the DL, surrendering six earned runs in four innings of work on the same night the Mariners retired the jersey number of Ken Griffey Jr. A few days later, he was playing for Class-AAA Tacoma.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Walker struggled when he returned. As Churchill noted during the Josias Manzanillo episode of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, the young hurler had just one rehab start after missing a month of play. Walker wasn’t ready and it showed.

With that said, it’s clear other underlying issues were behind management’s decision to demote Walker.

Manager Scott Servais told Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News-Tribune what Walker needed to do to get back to the big leagues. “The biggest thing is he needs to continue to compete. When you don’t have it on a particular night or you give up some runs early in the game, how do you stay in the game?”

During his weekly appearance on the “Danny, Dave and Moore Show” on 710 ESPN Seattle, Dipoto echoed the sentiment of his manager. “We need to see Taijuan drop into the sixth and seventh inning zone of a game and prove to us that he can be more efficient with his pitches.”

Optimally, Walker would return to his April form. However, the club has set a lower threshold. Reaching the seventh inning and keeping his team competitive would be just fine. As Dipoto noted, “The guy he was in April was extraordinary. We’re not expecting that. We need someone who can consistently get us into the sixth inning.”

That leaves us awaiting the return of Walker and Paxton.

Neither pitcher has to be at their best during their first start. However, at least one must demonstrate they’re capable of keeping their team in games into the seventh inning. If that happens, the Mariners will have a fighting chance for postseason play.

If both pitchers are up to the task, the Mariners will own a decided advantage during their playoff push. Otherwise, their postseason hopes will likely be dashed again. Wouldn’t that be a terrible ending to such a fun season?

 

 …

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

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

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

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

We’ll get to all that in the Third Quarter Report Series, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen.

Starting rotation
Over the last month, Mariner starters have provided something that the club desperately lacked during their June tailspin — more innings pitched from the rotation.

How much better has the rotation been lately?

During Seattle’s 28 games in June, starting pitchers logged 152.2 innings. That’s an average of 5.4 innings-per-start. Conversely, the rotation pitched 171.2 innings in the first 28 games after the all-start break for an average of 6.1 innings.

Those extra innings certainly helped the bullpen get back on their collective feet until reinforcements arrived. But, the ability of the club’s starters to go deep into games also mattered in the win-loss column. Look at how the starting staff’s effectiveness influenced the team’s ability to win low-scoring games.

Seattle’s Rejuvenated Starting Staff
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
IP/GS
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9 6.2
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7 5.8
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11 5.4
July  14 4.8  12-12  8-2 3-10 5.8
August  9 3.0  11-3  6-0  5-3 6.4
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

Since the start of July, the Mariners have won eight games when they scored three or less runs. That’s more than the first three months combined. This success in low-scoring contests is directly attributable to a rotation that’s been routinely pitching through the sixth inning and an improved bullpen, which I’ll get to in a moment.

So, who turned around the rotation?

Although Felix Hernandez deserves credit for his performance since returning to the active roster on July 20, he’s not the only one who’s been logging the innings recently — far from it.

Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Wade LeBlanc, and Felix have combined for an average of 6.4 innings during their first 21 starts of the second half. Plus, Wade Miley went six or more innings during three starts prior to being traded and Ariel Miranda — the player Seattle received for Miley — went six innings during his Mariners debut.

While the starting staff has been performing superbly over the last 30 days, there’s one significant concern hanging over the rotation as the club enters the home stretch — depth.

The departure of Miley combined with the demotion of an under-performing Taijuan Walker leaves the rotation woefully thin. That’s clearly on display this week with Paxton going to the disabled list (DL) yesterday and Cody Martin thrust into a starting role.

Optimally, the Mariners would prefer to have Paxton and Walker pitching every fifth game with the big league club, permitting LeBlanc to round out the rotation. In the interim, they’ll field a rotation with Felix, Kuma, LeBlanc, Miranda, Martin, and possibly Joe Wieland — he took Walker’s start last week.

The club could recall Walker to help, but that would contradict their stated goal of giving the 24-year-old an opportunity to re-harness his immense potential. Until he demonstrates he can go deeper into games, Walker doesn’t necessarily provide a better option than Miranda, Martin, or Wieland.

Here’s another illustration of how going deep into games has affected the workload and effectiveness of Seattle’s relief staff.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution (Thru Aug 16)
Month SP IP SP % SP FIP RP IP RP% RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 152.2 61% 4.36 98.1 39% 4.90
July 140 66% 4.52 72.2 34% 4.10
August 89.2 67% 4.13 43.7 33% 3.14

As the rotation picked up its fair share, the bullpen’s effectiveness returned to its April levels. This is made evident by the bullpen’s improved fielding independent pitching (FIP) in July and August, when their workload declined.

That’s not to say that the newfound success of the relief corps is solely dependent on the starting staff going deeper into games. Yet, when the rotation sunk during the disaster known as June, the bullpen was sucked under by the resultant whirlpool of overuse.

Let’s turn our attention to a bullpen that has made a complete turnaround thanks to the shrewd maneuvers of general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Bullpen
The most influential and notable change to the relief corps has been the transformation of Edwin Diaz from Class-AA starting pitcher in May to major league closer by the end of July.

Through his first 32 games of his brief major league career, Diaz has the highest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any pitcher with 30 or more innings pitched this season. Rookie of the Year talk may be a bit premature, but the 22-year-old is certain to garner votes, especially if he helps propel the Mariners into the postseason.

As great as Diaz has been, he’s not the only one who’s made a difference lately. Let’s discuss several other upgrades that have been working for Seattle as this week’s play began.

Since returning from the Texas Rangers in late June, Tom Wilhelmsen has held opposing hitters to a .267 on-base percentage during his first 18 appearances and now finds himself as Servais’ go-to guy during high-leverage situations prior to the ninth inning.

With the exception of last night’s difficulties against the Los Angeles Angels, Arquimedes Caminero has done well since arriving from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The issue going forward is whether he can sustain his strong start with Seattle. If he can, the 29-year-old’s presence provides the club with another effective high-powered arm.

Drew Storen is another new arrival who has performed well during his small sample size stay in Seattle. The right-hander came over from the Toronto Blue Jays in a “change of location” deal that shipped Joaquin Benoit out of the Emerald City. After a bad first appearance with Seattle, Storen has been superb holding opponents to a .226 batting average.

Although he generally goes unheralded, Vidal Nuno has been a solid and versatile performer for the Mariners. The southpaw has pitched two or more innings on ten occasions is the club’s emergency starter in the bullpen.

The recent return of Nick Vincent from the DL has also provides a boost to the relief corps. In his first four appearances after returning, the 30-year-old struck out four and walked none in 3.2 innings. Unfortunately, he surrendered a game-tying home run to Albert Pujols last night.

Last night’s mistake notwithstanding, if Vincent can stay on track and return to pre-injury form, he provides the club with yet another high-leverage option. Suddenly, the back-end of the bullpen has much more length.

Yes, the bullpen has quickly become a bright spot, but reliever volatility is a never-ending challenge for managers and team executives.

Caminero and Storen have looked impressive. However, both pitchers are performing well above what they were doing with their former clubs. Will they be able to sustain their newfound success? Conversely, will they regress to their previous numbers?

In addition, the Mariners are in uncharted territory with Diaz. His workload and health will under close observation as the club finds itself getting deeper into the pennant race.

Fortunately, more help may be on the way.

Steve Cishek should return from the DL in the near future. His presence would be a welcome addition as either a right-handed specialist or a back-end option. Moreover, injured relievers Tony Zych and Evan Scribner are rehabbing and could help the team in September.

Finally
The  bullpen has been a strength for the Mariners during the past month, but the club needs to continue to field a competitive rotation during the homestretch. Otherwise, a repeat of the 2014 season is possible.

For those who don’t recall, Seattle missed an opportunity to play their way into the 2014 wildcard competition by one game. One of the key reasons they fell short was a lack of starters in September, when they shutdown starters Chris Young and Roenis Elias due to health concerns.

With no other reasonable options available, then-manager Lloyd McClendon opted to start Wilhelmsen on September 25. Running out of starting pitching with a week remaining in the season isn’t conducive to reaching the postseason.

That’s why the Mariners will need Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Paxton available and ineffective during the last six weeks of the season. If not, the club could be reliving history during the last lap of an otherwise exciting baseball season in the Emerald City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

storenSaying the bullpen has been revamped over the past week may not be entirely accurate, but the Seattle Mariners continued to shuffle the deck Tuesday night. Mike Montgomery and now Joaquin Benoit are out and former All-Star closer Drew Storen is coming in after being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays along with cash considerations in exchange for Benoit. The cash included is reported to be the difference between the two reliever’s salaries. Both relievers are free agents at the end of the year.

Benoit was an offseason addition to the bullpen and expected to fill the eight inning role vacated by Carson Smith. Despite an improved month of July, the right-hander still posted a 5.18 ERA and a 4.95 FIP over 24 and 1/3 innings of work. His 10.36 strikeouts per nine innings were better than his career mark of 8.94, but it was the accompanying 5.55 walks per nine that caused issues. His 13.8 percent whiff rate was down a couple ticks from the past couple seasons but was still above his career mark of 13.0 percent.

The velocity was still there for the 39-year-old, averaging 94-to-95 miles per hour on his fastball. The problem was that he often didn’t know where it was going. Benoit was only able to produce a clean outing in seven of his 26 appearances. He didn’t have to be perfect, but more was expected from the seasoned veteran.

Edwin Diaz and his gaudy 17.47 strikeout rate have taken over eighth inning and higher leverage duties and have done exceedingly well.

The Blue Jays are getting a reliever who in terms of raw stuff is performing well enough. he’s still missing bats and striking hitters out. But they are hoping that a change of scenery will be rejuvenating, similar to the case of Jason Grilli who was acquired earlier in the year.

On the Mariners end, they receive a struggling reliever with a home run issue. In 33 and 1/3 innings pitched Storen HAS posted a 6.21 ERA and a 5.00 FIP due in large part to a career-high 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate — that number is more than double Storen’s career mark. The good news is that his 8.64 strikeout and 2.70 walk rates are basically right on the right-hander’s career marks so it doesn’t appear to be a command issue at first glance.

The biggest issue surrounding Storen’s troubles is not an unusual one: his velocity has declined. After previously hitting 95-to-96 MPH regularly leading up to the 2016 season, the 28-year-old has found his fastball sitting in the 93-to-94 MPH range. I mention his age there because it’s odd for a pitcher who should be in his prime to have such a sharp decline. Usually this would be due to injury, but there hasn’t been any apparent ailments.

The decline in velocity has caused Storen’s hard-hit rate to spike to 39.8 percent. His soft contact rate sits at a measly 12.0 percent. Everything he’s been throwing has been hit hard. And if you’re wondering how much of a difference that relatively small decline in velocity can make, just look to the top of the Mariners rotation and the struggles that Felix Hernandez has had dealing with his reduced velocity.

Is Storen fixable? His age and solid strikeout and walk rates would suggest so. Pitching at Safeco Field instead of the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre should also help some. But until he can get that velocity back up a couple ticks, or learn how to rely on his breaking pitches, he’ll be in tough to have much success.

For anyone wondering how the Mariners could simultaneously buy and sell in the time leading up to the trade deadline, this is an example. They are selling Benoit, a veteran reliever, to a contending team that’s looking to bolster a playoff-caliber pitching staff. They are buying Storen, a former All-Star closer, to aid the relief corps in the middle innings. Technically they are both buying and selling low here, but it paints a picture.

Are the Mariners better today than they were before the trade? It’s hard to say. You like Storen’s upside because he’s been a solid reliever up to this point and has ten years on Benoit. But you also liked Benoit for his track record and experience, though that was seven months ago.

This could be a trade where a change of scenery helps both pitchers. Or both could continue to struggle. Storen was designated for assignment after all and Benoit’s numbers don’t differ much from Joel Peralta‘s when he was cut loose.

Seattle gets another guy with closing experience, which could help if they decide to deal Steve Cishek who’s name has come up in a few rumors. Otherwise Storen is another middle reliever with a home run problem who you hope can be fixed with a couple minor changes.

It’s far from an exciting trade, and the net result may not produce a clear upgrade, but the Mariners are betting on Storen’s upside and youth. That’s usually a bet teams are willing to take.…

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

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

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen. Both units have suffered significant hard knocks during the past six weeks.

Starting rotation
Thanks to a spate of injuries, the starting staff quickly went from a strength to a liability within the span of a month. Since May 27, the Mariners have seen Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement — head to the disabled list (DL). Moreover, Taijuan Walker missed starts due to tendonitis in his Achilles tendon region.

To compound matters, a pair of starters regressed during the second quarter. Miley was ineffective in his four starts prior to his trip to the DL — 20.2 innings pitched, 17 earned runs, 26 hits, and 11 walks. Plus, the southpaw didn’t look any better when he returned on June 29 — five earned runs and just four innings pitched.

Our first quarter report Cy Young selection — Nathan Karns — struggled so much that he was assigned to the bullpen last week. The right-hander hadn’t pitched past the fifth inning during his five starts in June, compiling a 7.33 earned run average during that stretch.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. It gets worse. Sampson suffered a season-ending elbow injury during warmups prior to his second start. In total, the Mariners replaced five starting pitchers within the span of a month.

The upheaval created by the rapid loss of arms left Seattle reeling throughout June. To see how far the entire pitching staff nosedived, look at the following table that illustrates their increasing ineffectiveness with each passing month.

Seattle’s Fading Starting Staff
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

With Hernandez, Miley, and Walker unavailable, Seattle starters were completing the sixth less often, forcing the bullpen to cover more innings. Ultimately, the Mariners staff surrendered more runs (RA/Gm) and the team saw a dramatic uptick in losses in June.

Even though the club suffered significant misfortune in June, it’s plausible that the staff can get back on track before the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline. First, Hisashi Iwakuma has consistently gone deep into games and James Paxton has done a good job of replacing Hernandez in the rotation.

Furthermore, Walker appears to be healthy and veteran Wade LeBlanc has performed well during his first two starts with the team. Whether LeBlanc can sustain his crafty success remains to be seen. But, he’s been a revelation thus far.

If all of Seattle’s starters are healthy again and if they’re all performing as expected — two big “ifs” — they’ll be able to construct a competitive rotation from a pool that includes Felix, Kuma, Paxton, Walker, Miley, LeBlanc, and possibly Karns. On the other hand, it’s going to be a long summer in the Emerald City, if the Mariners rotation doesn’t improve during the second half.

Bullpen
June really was a perfect storm for the Mariners. The devolving rotation pushed an already suspect bullpen to the breaking point. In the end, the relief corps was unable to keep the team afloat. The following table illustrates just how much extra slack the relievers picked up as the season progressed.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution and Results
Month SP IP
SP %
SP FIP
RP IP
RP %
RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 152.2 61% 4.36 98.1 39% 4.90

After the first month of the season, relievers were covering 31-percent of the workload and the bullpen performed well, as evidenced by their 3.15 fielding independent pitching (FIP). By June though, relief pitchers were covering eight-percent more workload and their FIP ballooned to 4.90 — worst in the AL last month. The Mariners can’t contend unless these numbers improve.

Although the bullpen has struggled recently, there have been several bright spots. Rookie Edwin Diaz made the jump from Class-AA starter to major league reliever in less than a month. To date, he’s fanned over 40-percent of the batters he’s faced and is now getting the opportunity to pitch in higher-leverage situations.

Steve Cishek has done well as the team’s closer and looks to stay in the job barring injury or a string of very bad outings. Mike Montgomery has adapted well to bullpen duty since transitioning from a starter in Spring Training and leads the club with 15 multiple-inning relief appearances at the midway point of the season.

Nick Vincent was proving to be an asset before heading to the DL last week with a sore back and Vidal Nuno has been a versatile performer who even made an emergency start when Sampson went down during his pregame warmup.

One reliever who hasn’t been doing well lately is eighth inning setup man Joaquin Benoit. The 38-year-old has already been shutdown twice for shoulder problems — once in Spring Training and once during the season. Plus, his hard contact rate jumped to 43-percent in June after averaging 25-percent for the first two months of the season. Benoit will have to improve quickly or the club will have to find someone else to be the bridge to Cishek.

Speaking of making changes, general manager Jerry Dipoto has been creatively attempting to improve his relief staff. He’s been shuffling pitchers between Class-AAA Tacoma and Seattle on a regular basis and parting ways with ineffective hurlers, when necessary. Moreover, the organization’s idea to convert Diaz into a reliever looks like a stroke of genius thus far.

The move of Karns to relief is intriguing because it presents the potential of having another effective power arm in the bullpen. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill explains here how this could help both pitcher and ball club. Time will tell if the right-hander can flourish as a reliever.

Dipoto even added a player he traded away in the offseason — Tom Wilhelmsen. Whether “The Bartender” can return to his pre-trade form with is unknown. But, once again, the opportunity to add another effective power exists.

Despite the shrewd maneuvers made by Dipoto, it’s unlikely that the current crop of relievers can succeed, unless the starting staff gets healthy. Even then, more bullpen help may needed to keep the Mariners competitive throughout the season.…

The Major League Baseball non-waiver trading deadline is nearing and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see how general manager Jerry Dipoto handles the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” in Seattle. With that in mind, I’ve been doing “primers” for each American League (AL) West division club to see how the club’s rivals stack up as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

In recent days, I’ve discussed each of Seattle’s divisional rivals — the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the the Mariners.

As mentioned in the earlier pieces, the trade market is certain to fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Some teams will go on a hot streak and feel like they have a chance, while others will stumble. In the end, all will have to decide whether to buy or sell and how aggressive they should be in the market.

The Mariners fall into the category of a “stumbler” and are an excellent example of how quickly a team’s trajectory can veer off course. After posting a 30-11 win-loss record during the first two months, Seattle is 6-13 since. The club’s recent spate of misfortune has probably influenced the opinion of some fans on whether the Mariners should be buyers or sellers.

For the purpose of this primer, I’m going to assume that the Mariners will be buyers. A month from now, their season may look much differently. For now, they’re still above the .500 mark and still very much alive in the divisional and wild card race. First, let’s talk about how Seattle entered their June tailspin.

What happened?
As with any baseball team — or season — there’s no one “thing” that leads to failure. In the case of the Mariners though, there’s one segment of the roster that’s clearly under-performed during the rough patch known as the month of June — their pitching. Look at the following table to see what I mean.

Mariners Run Production vs. Run Prevention
Month RS/Gm RA/Gm
Total W-L
W-L (+4 Runs scored)
W-L (Under 4 Runs Scored)
April 4.3 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9
May 5.6 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7
June 4.8 5.5 6-13 6-5 0-8

As you can see, there’s been a downward trend in runs allowed (RA/Gm) during month of the season. It’s true that club’s offense isn’t as robust in June when compared to their monster May, but it’s still averaging 4.8 RS/Gm. That should be plenty to win the majority of games.

For further proof, look at Seattle’s win-loss record when they’ve scored four or more runs during each month of the season. In April and May, the Mariners combined to go 25-5 in those games. In June, however, they’re barely over .500. In fact, the ball club hasn’t won a game when they’ve scored three or less runs this month. It’s always tough to win when a team scores three or less, but 0-8?

The declining effectiveness of the pitching staff is the root cause to the club’s June swoon. So, what’s the problem with the Mariners staff?

The ugly baby
The most apparent problem with the Mariners’ staff is the is the health of their starters. Many pundits and fans point to losing ace Felix Hernandez to the disabled list (DL) as the turning point. To a degree that’s true, but it’s a bit more complex.

Sure, losing King Felix hurts. But, his replacement — James Paxton — has performed admirably in the King’s absence. Look at the numbers of Felix’s last four starts prior to his calf injury compared to Paxton’s. There are relatively the same.

Felix Hernandez vs. James Paxton (Last three starts)
Player IP H
ER SO
BB
HR
AVG
Felix Hernandez 26.1 23 11 24 8 3 .235
James Paxton
26 28 4 27 8 1 .285

Am I suggesting that Paxton can replace Felix on a long-term basis? Of course not. But, the southpaw isn’t the problem. In fact, he’s been one of the team’s better pitchers in June.

The true pain from Felix’s absence has to do with the subsequent loss of Wade Miley to the DL and the ongoing injury issues with Taijuan Walker. With Paxton subbing for the King, he wasn’t available to fill in for Miley or Walker. That forced the Mariners to turn to Adrian Sampson to take Miley’s most recent turn.

The uncertainty surrounding Walker and the tendonitis affecting his right Achilles region will force Seattle to look to another hurler for Walker’s next scheduled start on Friday. Options include Mike Montgomery, newly acquired Zach Lee, and possibly Vidal Nuno.

Obviously, losing two and possibly three starters would be a major setback for any team. But, it’s been worse for the Mariners. Why? The team was forced to rely more heavily on a bullpen that wasn’t a strength entering the season.

The following table illustrates how the percent of workload has been slowly shifting from the starters to relievers with each passing month. Not coincidentally, the club’s win-loss record has worsened as the bullpen worked more innings. In June, the ugly baby finally appeared.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution and Results
Month SP IP
SP %
SP FIP
RP IP
RP %
RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 104 61% 4.20 67 39% 5.1

As you can see, relievers are inheriting a larger workload. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to deliver the results as a unit. I included their increasing fielding independent pitching (FIP) to make that point.

For those not familiar with FIP, it’s a metric that looks similar to earned run average (ERA), but only measures the outcomes that a pitcher can solely control — strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs. I’m not trying to be a “saber-geek,” but FIP takes out the luck and defense so we can just focus on the pitchers during this conversation. If you want to know more about FIP, you can’t read about it here at FanGraphs.

Before getting into what the Mariners can do to fix themselves during the season, let’s discuss a few harsh realities facing general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Reality check
Seattle has limited resources available to use on the trade market. Their minor league system isn’t barren. However, it started the season ranked number-28 by Keith Law of ESPN.com. Just one prospect — Alex Jackson — ranked in the MLB.com Top-100. He came in at number-85.

After this month’s draft, the club’s number-11 overall pick —  Kyle Lewis — catapulted to second in Seattle’s system, according to Prospect Insider — ahead of Jackson.

Top prospect Tyler O’Neill is a rising star. Should the club consider trading the 21-year-old now? If they did, they’d be selling low. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Yes, the Mariners have a few pieces to sell and that’s the problem — they have FEW pieces. Moving O’Neill, Jackson, or Mike Zunino would bring some value back to Seattle. But, Dipoto would be selling low. He’s more accustomed to buying low.

Does this mean that the Mariners won’t be able to wheel and deal? Of course not. But, they’ll be vying for pieces coveted by market competitors — such as the Astros, Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs — who have many more prospects to offer during negotiations.

Reality check (Part two)
Let’s be honest, the Mariners entered the season as a fringe-contender capable of winning more games than they lost, but not many more games.

Thanks to a strong first two months, fan and pundit expectations for the club have soared. Now, the Mariners are leveling out. What’s changed since the start of the season? Nothing. The team is the same fringe-contender with an underwhelming bullpen. In a way, Seattle is exactly where they should be — hovering near the .500 mark.

Does that mean that club should give up on the season? No. But, selling the farm — if they had one to sell — for a shot at a potential one-game playoff would be short-sighted and unreasonable, especially for a general manager in his first season with a new organization.

Now that I’ve depressed and angered fans throughout the Pacific Northwest, what can be done to improve the Mariners pitchers and the rest of their roster? If it were up to me, I’d take a measured approach that attacked the following areas in this order — bullpen, corner outfield, rotation.

Bullpen
The biggest challenge facing the Mariners — other than limited resources — is that nearly every contender will be looking for relief help. That doesn’t mean that Seattle can’t find help. But, they’ll be facing steep competition.

We already know that Dipoto is innovative and previously fixed the 2014 Angels bullpen — they won 98 games that year. His cornerstone acquisition in 2014 was closer Huston Street. Perhaps, a reunion could take place.

The 32-year-old recently completed a five-week stint on the DL due to a strained left oblique. Assuming that he returns to form and the Angels and Mariners are willing to deal with each other — big assumption — Street would quickly improve Seattle’s bullpen. He’s set to make $9 million next season with a $10 million team option or $1 million buyout for 2018.

Having Street available would permit the Mariners manager Scott Servais to push incumbent closer Steve Cishek to the eighth inning. By doing so, Joaquin Benoit could become Servais’ seventh inning option. Suddenly, the bullpen has a different feel to it with Nick Vincent and Edwin Diaz being the primary middle relief options.

I know what some of you are thinking. Why not snag a big fish like New York Yankees setup man Andrew Miller? It does sounds appealing. After all, he’s flat out better than any Mariners reliever. Jim Bowden of ESPN.com even suggested Miller as a best fit for the Mariners not long ago. But, I don’t agree.

Bowden mentions that the Yankees would want a “young starter or young middle-of-the-order bat” in return for Miller. Who exactly is that in the Mariners organization? The guys that they can’t afford to squander on a reliever.

The same applies to Miller’s teammate — Aroldis Chapman. Having a closer capable of throwing 100-mph would be great. But, Seattle will be competing with clubs who have more valuable pieces to dangle in front of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

All of this assumes that the Bronx Bombers will be sellers. Considering that they haven’t registered a losing season since 1992, I don’t expect them to become sellers until very near the deadline. Even if the Mariners had the resources, can they wait that long?

If snagging a closer isn’t a doable do, the club could acquire relievers, who could help preserve save opportunities for Cishek. Dipoto could turn either to rentals or longer term options. Personally, I’d prefer the latter option.

I’m not going to name every possibility option, but I’ll mention the type of players that could make sense. The first one is familiar to Mariners fans — Fernando Rodney. Seattle’s former closer has been dealing for the San Diego Padres, who hold a $2 million option for 2017 with a $400 thousand buyout. Rodney is likely to be in high demand. Would the new regime bring back the “Fernando Rodney Experience” back to the Emerald City?

Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently suggested several trade options to help the Mariners, including their bullpen. Among the names was David Hernandez of the Philadelphia Phillies. The right-hander is having a good year pitching in the seventh inning with 11.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings during 32 appearances entering today.

Divish also suggested Daniel Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hudson is serving as Arizona’s eighth inning setup man and has surrendered just .786 walks and hits-per-innings pitched. An intriguing factor with the 29-year-old — he was acquired by Dipoto during his first month as interim general manager of the Diamondbacks in July 2010.

Another player that the Mariners general manager is familiar with is Angels reliever Joe Smith, currently on the DL with a hamstring problem. Assuming he returns within a few weeks, Smith could be an option. The side-arm thrower wasn’t effective prior to his injury. If Smith proves to be back to his normal self, he’d be a good value as a middle-reliever.

If the Mariners wanted to expend more resources, there are options out there. Examples include Padres rookie Ryan Buchter, Arodys Vizcaino of the Atlanta Braves, and Tyler Thornburg and Jeremy Jeffress of the Milwaukee Brewers. All are having good years and come with with multiple years of team control.

Several relievers under team control through just next year include John Axford and Fernando Rodriguez of the Athletics and Fernando Abad of the Minnesota Twins. Each player is have varying degrees of value. They’d cost more than a rental, but less than the players with multiple years previously mentioned.

Divish noted that Jeanmar Gomez of the Philadelphia Phillies as a possible fit. He’s the team’s closer and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. Gomez could help with the ninth inning or could take over the eighth inning.

Corner outfield
Mariners left fielder Norichika Aoki has been the target of fan scorn this season. The veteran has a league-average OBP of .322, but only 12 extra base hits coming into today. Plus, his outfield defense has been — at best — slightly below-average. Improving the left field spot, both offensively and defensively, may be a tall order.

Big names like Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, and Carlos Gonzalez could be available and are under team control for several years. Plus, there’s Carlos Beltran, who would be a rental. Each sounds sexy, but all have drawbacks.

Kemp is slashing .256/.274/.470 and owed nearly $64 million through the 2019 season — that’s not counting the $10.5 million that the Los Angeles Dodgers are chipping in. Even if the Padres were willing to pay some of Kemp’s contract, adding another regressing outfielder on the wrong side of age-30 would make zero sense.

Braun and Gonzalez are putting up good numbers, but the haul required to get them is realistically out of reach for the Mariners. Moreover, Braun is due to make over $80 million between now and the end of the 2020 season, when he’ll be 36 years-old. That doesn’t include the $15 million mutual option/$4 million for 2021. Getting older just doesn’t make sense.

Beltran would cost much less. But, when will the Yankees become sellers? Will they sell?

A lower profile name like Jon Jay of the Padres would make more sense. Yes, I’d rather see the team pick up a player with more control than Jay — he’s a free agent at the end of the season. However, he’s be a significant upgrade over Aoki. Entering today, the 31-year-old is slashing .296/.345/.407 slash and would present Servais with another center field option — if Leonys Martin were unavailable or needed a day off.

Tampa Bay Ray Steve Pearce would be an interesting option. Although he wouldn’t be a center field replacement. The versatile right-handed hitter has spent time at first base, second base, and both corner outfield spots during the last two seasons. Like Jay, he’ll be a free agent at season’s end.

Another potential corner outfield rental would be Josh Reddick of the Athletics. Reddick is currently on the DL due to a broken thumb, but he’s close to returning. Assuming that he’s back and healthy by the deadline, the 29-year-old would be a nice fit in right field.

Before his injury, the left-handed hitter was slashing .322/.394/.466, which were career highs. Even if he returned to his normal league-average numbers, he’d provide the Mariners with a better glove, arm, and bat.

Adding a right fielder, like Reddick, would actually help left field indirectly. Such a move would permit the Franklin Gutierrez/Seth Smith platoon to left field and significantly reduce the outfield time for Nelson Cruz. Essentially, adding one player would help both corner outfield spots.

Rotation
Here’s where I’m really going to get in trouble with Mariners fans. I recommend doing nothing with the rotation. At the most, make a minor deal late. Why do I feel that way?

To me, there’s no reason to use scarce resources on a starter. If there are any more significant issues with the starting staff, the Mariners aren’t likely to be serious contenders anyway. That probably doesn’t sit well with some Mariners faithful. But, it’s true.

As of today, Felix and Miley appear to be on track to return within the next month and there’s no indication that Walker’s problem is season ending. It’s quite possible all three could be back before or near the all-star break. Assuming that Seattle regains the trio without losing another starter, they’ll be in good shape with their starting pitching. Otherwise, there’s not much hope of postseason contention in 2016.

Finally
What I’ve presented is a plan for a team that’s two games over .500 entering today. For a club in that position, the best course of action would be to make incremental improvements to the roster without forsaking the future for a shot of instant gratification.

If the Mariners plummet during the next month, they’d be better served to consider being a seller at the deadline. Conversely, if they were soaring after the all-star break, leaning forward in a common sense way would be reasonable.

Fans don’t like to read or hear that kind of talk. But, it’s the best approach for a club that started the year as a fringe-contender.

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

AL West trade primer: Houston Astros

AL West trade primer: Texas Rangers

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle MarinersWe’ve discussed James Paxton for years here at Prospect Insider. He was a first-round talent that fell to Round 4 in 2010, having sat out most of the spring after not signing with the Toronto Blue Jays the previous summer. He’s tall, throws hard and has had his moments in the majors. He’s also had problems staying healthy and throwing strikes consistently. Many have wanted to banish him to the bullpen for years. That never made sense, as he’s shown flashes of brilliance in a starting role, including Monday night at Safeco Field, but mostly because the left-hander’s struggles only would be magnified in shorter stints.

In what ofen are higher leverage, issuing walks at a high rate cannot be part of a quality major-league reliever’s resume. It just doesn’t work. So Paxton has remained a starting pitcher, which also is the best way for any pitcher to work through issues; mechanics, pitches, et al, regardless of his future major league role.

Paxton issued eight walks and allowed 25 hits in Peoria during spring training then walked nine batters in his first 6 1/3 innings pitched for Triple-A Tacoma. Since his work with pitching coach Lance Painter, covered here, the left-hander has walked seven batters over 42 innings split between Triple-A Tacoma and the big leagues. He’s struck out 59 in the same span.

Having cleaned up his front side mechanically, Paxton is pounding the strike zone. The fastball command — note the difference between basic control, which is simply throwing strikes, and command, which is locating pitches in specific spots — remains a bit spotty, but he’s up to 100 mph and his spike curveball has ticked up since early in the year, too. Paxton’s changeup remains below-average but occasionally useful, but in a very short time the 89-92 mph cutter has moved toward true slider status, showing a little more depth, which means the way he used Monday is plausible long term. He’s also shown he can command the pitch better.

The pitches are there; three of them look average to plus right now, with a fourth flashing fringe-average. The consistency hasn’t been there just yet, specifically with the changeup and the command, but we’re seeing more signs of all that, too. Paxton, for now, is the club’s choice to start games while Felix Hernandez is on the disabled list, which may last into late June or beyond, per most recent reports. Once Hernandez returns, the Mariners have a decision to make. If that decision includes the good version of Paxton the club saw Monday, Paxton will remain in the rotation. If it’s the old Paxton — spring training, through the first two starts — it’s an easy choice to ship him back to Tacoma. If it’s somewhere in between, which may be the most likely, the choices should be limited to the following:

1) Taijuan Walker or Nate Karns optioned to Tacoma or placed on DL — for rest purposes only

Before the season began, GM Jerry Dipoto made it clear the plan with both right-handers would be to limit to about 185 innings. As of June 6, Karns is projecting to just 176 2/3 innings, Walker is on pace for 171 1/3. Walker hasn’t looked right the past handful of starts, however, and 175 might be a better number for him anyway. Paxton, even the not-as-good-as-Monday edition, may be as good or better than Walker lately. Perhaps giving him a bit of a break now is in order. At some point both Walker and Karns may have to be skipped or pushed back to keep them away from a workload the organization wants to avoid. Paxton should be the key cog in this plan.

2) Send Paxton to Triple-A Tacoma, but not to start

If Paxton is pitching well, he’s one of the 12 best arms in the organization and the club needs him in the big leagues, even if it’s in a relief role. Using him in relief for 2-3 weeks in Tacoma helps him nail down a new routine; it’s what Edwin Diaz did before the club called up the 22-year-old. If that sort of process wasn’t value and necessary, Diaz would have been called up a month ago.

For years I ripped into the thought Paxton should be pushed toward the bullpen because it didn’t make sense. And it never has, until now, and that’s because Paxton is throwing a lot of strikes, and more quality strikes than at any other point in his career.

From a relief standpoint, Paxton offers even bigger strikeout potential and despite lacking the ideal angles a lot of lefty relievers create with their delivery, the adjusted arm slot and developing cutter-slider each give him weapons versus left-handed batters than he’s never had, and the velocity range and power curveball suggest Paxton could be a very good high-leverage arm out of the bullpen. Throwing harder more consistently — of which many arms reap the benefits in such a transition — can also take care of some of the hittability (not a real word) that shows up on Paxton’s B-REF splits page.

One way or the other, Paxton’s chances to help the 2016 Mariners is greater than ever, and no matter the role the club should do what it takes to field the best staff possible. There’s no way the newest version of Paxton — going back eight starts in the minors through his most recent one in the bigs — isn’t one of the best 12 pitchers in the organization. Such a move, however, wouldn’t mean Paxton permanently stays in the bullpen. But it may be the best way for him to help this year’s Mariners once the rotation is healthy again. His value to the 2016 Mariners starting in Tacoma all year? Zero.

Assuming Tony Zych returns from the disabled list at some point — which seems reasonable, unlike the futures of other injured relievers Evan Scribner, Ryan Cook and Charlie Furbush — a Mariners’ bullpen including Paxton may have more quality relievers than they can keep, and even have the power arms they were missing earlier in the year.

Potential Bullpen Options
Reliever FB Velo Range FB Max Velo Strikeout Pitch
Steve Cishek, RH 90-92 93 SL
Joaquin Benoit, RH 92-95 97 SPL
Edwin Diaz, RH 94-98 102  FB/SL
Mike Montgomery, LH 93-95 97  FB/CB/CH
Vidal Nuno, LH 88-90 91  SL/CH
Steve Johnson, RH 87-89 91  NA
Nick Vincent, RH 89-92  93 FB/CUT 
 James Paxton 94-100 101 FB/CB
Tony Zych, RH (DL) 94-96 99  FB/SL
Ryan Cook, RH (DL) 92-95  97 SL 
Charlie Furbush, LH (DL)  89-92 94 SL
 

Moving Paxton to the bullpen in early July or so doesn’t mean he can’t start games later in the in the year if necessary, either. Something the Mariners have done with Montgomery that keeps him closer to being ready to jump into the rotation if needed is use him in multi-inning stints a lot. In nine of Montgomery’s 16 appearances he’s gone two innings or more.

The move with Diaz and potentially the same move with Paxton could set up the club to stay in-house with the bullpen for the summer, rather than spending trade assets to acquire more help this summer. The Mariners may be able to use their limited trade assets to patch up other areas, which, unfortunately, may end up including the starting rotation. No, not at the bottom where Walker has struggled the past month or so, but more toward the top where Hernandez and Iwakuma haven’t performed like No. 1 or No. 2 starters and Wade Miley’s slow start has gotten worse rather than better. The rotation has been a strength overall, but it’s also where the biggest impact can be made by either acquiring high-level assistance. Somewhere in the outfield is another spot that may warrant some help. That doesn’t necessarily mean Nori Aoki is designated for assignment. It could come down Aoki and Adam Lind. Lind, who’s hit a little better of late, may be squeezed off the roster if the club gets the chance to add a more versatile option — you know, the kind of option for which carrying two 1B/DH types doesn’t allow — if he doesn’t start to hit consistently soon.

If the Mariners are in the race, Dipoto isn’t going to stand pat and after the rotation, corner outfield and Lind’s spot on the roster are the best chances to improve the club. It’s early June, so we’ll pick up this conversation in about five weeks when trade season gets hot. But the bullpen situation likely will play a key role in what the club is able to do; have to spend on a reliever, among the more pricey commodities in July? Less to spend on other areas. Bullpen fine because Diaz and maybe even Paxton are part of the group? Yeah, the latter is the better scenario.…

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. …

DiazAARight-hander Edwin Diaz will begin a new path as a relief pitcher, Prospect Insider learned Monday. The No. 3 prospect in the Seattle Mariners organization was developing as a starter, but perhaps the opportunity for the club to get Diaz’s fastball-slider combo to the big leagues sooner was too enticing on which to pass.

Diaz, the starting version, entered the season with a few obstacles, including continued development of his third pitch, a well below-average changeup that lacked consistency and movement. Despite signs of things continuing to move in the right direction, the club may see Diaz’s sleight build as yet another hurdle between his success in Double-A and what profiles as a viable starting pitcher in Major League Baseball. Strength has been a concern since Day 1 — he was drafted as 160-pound live arm and currently is listed at 165, but clearly has added some weight into the 175-180 range. Still, at 6-foot-3, one can understand the potential long-term ramifications.

Diaz was on a path that likely would have seen a big-league start as early as next summer. As a relief option, that timetable moves up as much as a full calendar year. And it doesn’t mean his prospects as a starter are done and gone. Many future starting pitchers — good ones, too — begin their careers in a relief role. Aaron Sanchez, now a strong starting pitcher in Toronto, spent last season in the bullpen. Roberto Osuna is the Blue Jays’ closer, and the club has not given up on his long-term chances to start. Historically, names such as Curt Schilling and Johan Santana have benefited from a year or two of relief work before pushing through to a rotation gig.

Those benefits include time to develop physically, which may be Diaz’s most critical step remaining. It also gives him a chance to face big-league hitters with a greater chance at success, all the while working on the changeup and fastball command.

Diaz remains in Jackson to start his new role, but don’t be surprised to see him move to Triple-A Tacoma before the warmer weather sets in for the summer. And depending on how well Diaz performs in shorter stints — which could be lights out, considering he’s flashed 93-97 mph fastballs and a plus slider in such appearances — there’s a non-zero chance he ends this season in the Mariners bullpen, particularly if the club is in the thick of a race to the postseason.

And we all know the M’s have depth issues in the bullpen with injuries to Evan Scribner, Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit, Charlie Furbush and Ryan Cook.…

Prospect NotebookSeattle Mariners right-handed pitcher Edwin Diaz came into this season ranked No. 3 on Prospect Insider’s Mariners Top 25, and very early on scouts are thinking maybe I was a little pessimistic with that ranking.

Diaz, who just turned 22 last month, has flashed electric on his way to 11 strong innings for Double-A Jackson in 2016. He’s yielded just six hits — two extra-base hits — and one base on balls. He’s been a little shy of utterly dominant, but only a little.

“I put a lot of 6s and 7s down both times,” said one scout who’s seen each of Diaz’s outings. “He’s sinking it well and there’s some tail to it at 90-93 (mph). He showed 95 when he went four (-seamer) and at least a handful of average sliders… a few I tossed 6s on.”

Diaz throws from a three-quarters slot but has stayed on top well generating sink and inducing ground balls. The developed armside run on the two-seam sinker helps him stay out of the middle of the strike zone, which is more critical than staying down.

The club wants Diaz to throw more sinkers in the zone so he can get ahead with it, either on swings and misses, foul balls or called strikes. Through last summer, it was a pitch Diaz used mostly in two-strike counts or when he wanted to get a ground ball from a favorable count. The changeup still is a work-in-progress but at times in 2015 he displayed a fringe-average version and the more he gets batters thinking 90-95 mph fastballs the more effective even a 50-grade changeup can be. More consistent arm speed remains key.

Diaz is still a bit on the light side; he’s listed at 165 pounds, though he’s probably closer to 175-180 at 6-foot-3. He’s stronger now than even a year ago and uses his lower half better , though there’s still work to do in this area, as well as bending a little more at the waist to make sure his body supports his arm.

Diaz has yet to make what I’ll call a big-league style start; 7-plus innings, 100-110 pitches — he’s only made one 100-pitch start but lasted just 5 2/3 innings in that outing last June. The next step is the 100-110 range in back-to-back starts but his body and performance has allow the club to get there. Perhaps that takes place when Diaz is nice and loose and in warmer weather than April brings.

Stay tuned.

Was Tyler O’Neill Rushed to Double-A?
The club’s top prospect mashed last season in Advanced-A Bakersfield, particularly after starring for Team Canada in the middle of the campaign. He’s still a bit raw in some areas with the hit tool but he’s a very good athlete with tremendous desire to succeed and the Mariners saw that as worthy of an assignment to the Southern League despite being just 20 years of age.

Early in 2016 O’Neill has held his own collecting eight hits in his first 24 at-bats. He’s whiffed six times and has yet to draw a walk. He’s also pounded out just one extra-base hit. Despite the .333 batting average a few are wondering if O’Neill was rushed like several recent Mariners’ prospects appear to have been, including Mike Zunino.

The obvious answer is it’s too soon to tell, but my answer is absolutely not. O’Neill showed there’s little to nothing left for him to learn in the California League, where, by the way, the pitching talent may actually be down a notch from a year ago. Double-A was the right challenge for O’Neill, even if he has to repeat the level to start next season at age 21.

It’s also worth remembering that overall numbers, nor any specific areas of performance or the lack thereof, should dictate a club’s decision. The addition of Andy McKay as player development guru is expected to include more of an emphasis on the mental side of the game, which if inserted into the decision process, too, potentially reduces the pressure on player to put up ‘numbers.’ Instead, development, both mental and physical, should be the criterion.

For O’Neill, more specifically, strike zone judgment, overall discipline and using the middle of the field and the right-center field are some of the things he needs to improve upon this season. Of his eight hits this season, six have reached the outfield and four of them have been to either center field or to the back side, including his lone extra-base hit, a triple to right. He has at least one hit in all six games.

We’ll see where he is in June and July, but O’Neill is as safe a bet to handle the challenge, and the new M’s approach to player develop…

It’s the 10th annual Prospect Insider Seattle Mariners prospect rankings. A few things you should know before continuing:

  • Ceiling/potential value is only part of the equation. Probability, among other things, also is a significant factor.
  • The player’s likely future role can dictate his value as much as his chances to get to the majors or his upside.
  • While I do not crawl into each organization’s farm systems with a microscope, I did have numerous conversations about where the weakest Mariners system in some time fits in baseball right now. Keith Law and Baseball America have Seattle at No. 28. While I don’t necessarily disagree, I do like the Mariners system better than five others; Angels, Marlins, Tigers, Orioles and White Sox.
  • I value upside more than simple depth, and if the ‘depth’ in question carries more risk than anything else, it’s not really depth.
  • I greatly value the reliable information I can gather on a player’s offseason training habits and how he handles himself between games during the season.
  • Simply put, the same bat at a premium position is more valuable. The position tree: catcher, shortstop, second base, center field, third base, right field, left field, first base.
  • Pitcher prospects carrying the high probability of late-inning relief work are not typically as valuable as potential starters, even if they’re chances of getting to the majors are greater, and/or they are closer to the big leagues. A potential setup man or closer with a 2016 ETA, however, may very well be more valuable than a high-risk, medium reward starter who is four-plus years away.
  • The potential for superstardom, all-stardom and average everyday contributions far outweighs a high probability fringe regular. The whole point of a farm system is to avoid free agency as much as possible to maintain great financial flexibility to supplement a good club and make them World Series contenders. Fringe-regular talents are a dime a dozen. The lone possible exceptions are catchers, in which a case-by-case basis will be utilized.
  • It’s important to keep in mind that organizational rankings or individual rankings are no guarantee of anything whatsoever. For example, go check out Baseball America’s org rankings. They also display that club’s ranking the past five years. Many of the top 10 ranked systems from 2011 and 2012 did absolutely nothing toward winning. The Braves ranked No. 2 in 2011, haven’t done squat with that group and now are rebuilding. Colorado ranked No. 10 — they haven’t been any good for years. Same with the Reds, who ranked No. 6 in 2011 and No. 7 in 2012. The Rays have actually gotten worse since ranking No. 3 in 2011 and No. 4 in 2013. This isn’t to say BA is bad at rankings — FTR, Keith Law is far and away the best in the business of talent evaluation in all facets, individual and team — it’s simply proof that good farm systems only mean something if the front office knows how to get the talents developed and knows how to use the good, solid farm system. Kansas City is a great example of that. The New York Yankees, No. 5 in 2011, No. 6 in 2012, are not.
  • Below are the Top 25 prospects in the Seattle Mariners organization. Take note that there are two grades listed for each tool. The first is present showing, the second is ceiling. It is NOT the most likely outcome.
  • Click on the player’s name for scouting report and tools grades.
Seattle Mariners Top 25 Prospects
No. Player
Pos.
1 Tyler O’Neill RF
2 Alex Jackson
RF
3 Edwin Diaz RHP
4 Drew Jackson SS
5 Boog Powell CF
6 Nick Neidert RHP
7 D.J. Peterson 1B
8 Jacob Brentz
LHP
9 Braden Bishop
CF
10 Dylan Thompson RHP
11 Luiz Gohara LHP
12 Andrew Moore
RHP
13 Nick Wells
LHP
14 Ryan Yarbrough LHP
15 Tyler Smith SS
16 Tony Zych RHP
17 Greifer Andrade
SS
18 Brayan Hernandez CF
19 Austin Wilson RF
20 Gareth Morgan
RF
21 Christopher Torres SS
22 Carlos Vargas
SS
23 Dan Altavilla RHP
24 Tyler Marlette
C
25 Jio Orozco RHP
Just Missed The Cut
  • Luis Rengifo, 2B
    Switch hitter, pounds fastballs, solid hands and arm.
  • Luis Liberato, CF
    Possesses solid tools that show average in games. Lacks instincts at plate, in field.
  • Adrian Sampson, RHP
    Low three-quarters slot, 89-93 mph fastball, average mid-80 slider, firm changeup. Fits well in relief role.
  • Marcus Littlewood, C
    Converted shortstop; on track for a chance at big-league defense. Bat still inconsistent but shows patience.
  • Juan De Paula, RHP
    Has performed in DSL with above-average velocity, fringe secondaries that need a lot of refinement, but gets good spin on breaking ball.
  • Austin Cousino, CF
    Strong defender, runner; has line-drive swing, power hitter’s game plan.
  • Tyler Pike, LHP
    The hope is Pike can fix his delivery and get back on track; solid-average arsenal including big-league curveball and changeup.
  • Dario Pizzano, OF/1B
    Hit tool shows in games, average power, too, but has no position; 2016 a big year for him.
  • Paul Fry, LHP
    Sits 90-93 mph with solid-average slider and 55-60 command. Chance to see majors in 2016.
  • Tim Lopes, 2B  
    Short on physical tools — fringe-average across the board with no power — but good feel, can handle second base, work counts.
  • Ramon Morla, RHP
    Former third baseman; Up to 99 mph with short but effective slider. Had Tommy John surgery in 2014.
  • Joe DeCarlo, 3B
    Three tools show — 55 run, 60 arm, 65 raw power — the latter not yet in games due to 30 hit tool.
  • Rayder Ascanio, SS
    Not much to dream on at the plate, but above-average runner and plus glove at short.
  • Ismerling Mota, C
    Good receiver, has the arm strength. Considered solid all-around offensive threat. Years away.
  • Matt Anderson, RHP
    Purely in a relief role Anderson sits 90-93 mph, touching 95. Slider flashes plus, command still below-average.
  • Mayckol Guaipe, RHP
    Poor man’s Yoervis Medina stuff wise; better control, same poor command that dooms him.
  • Steve Baron, C
    Swing still needs work but Baron has come a long way. Defensively he can do the job; Works, smart, understands the game very well.
  • Carlos Misell, RHP
    Bullpen piece masquerading in the rotation for now; 89-92 mph, changeup, slider; Velo may play up in shorter stints due to arm speed.
  • Emilio Pagan, RHP
    Two average or better pitches, plus control, 40-45 command. Chance at middle-relief role by 2017.
  • Zack Littell, RHP
    Raw stuff remains unpolished, but up to 95 mph with improved delivery and changeup.
  • Kyle Wilcox, RHP
    Up to 97 mph with life and deceptive arm action. Could move quickly.
  • Danny Hultzen, LHP
    Without knowing his health status and long-term role (for now he’ll pitch in relief in attempt to simply get him back on the mound and keep him there), his value is impossible to infer.
  • David Rollins, LHP
    Rollins touched 94 mph and flashes a quality slider but the ceiling likely sits somewhere between the taxi-squad and middle reliever.
  • Leurys Vargas, 1B
    Vargas, now 19, is a strong, left-handed hitter with plus raw power. He’s still learning to make contact and hit a snag in 2015 with breaking balls. The swing is long, but the Mariners’ staff already has helped Vargas make an adjustment, and that likely continues.
Gone From System/Off Radar/Graduated
  • Trey Cochran-Gill, RHP — Traded to Oakland for RHP Evan Scribner.
  • Daniel Missaki, RHP — Traded to Milwaukee for 1B Adam Lind.
  • Freddy Peralta, RHP — Traded to Milwaukee for 1B Adam Lind.
  • Enyel De Los Santos, RHP — Traded with IF Nelson Ward to San Diego for RHP Joaquin Benoit.
  • Carlos Herrera, RHP — Traded to Milwaukee for 1B Adam Lind.
  • Tyler Olson, LHP — Traded to L.A. Dodgers for PTBNL/cash. Now with New York Yankees.
  • Jabari Blash, RF — Rule 5 pick by Oakland. Now with San Diego Padres.
  • Erick Mejia, 2B/SS — Traded to San Diego for RHP Joe Wieland.
  • Ji-Man Choi, 1B — Signed with Baltimore Orioles as minor league free agent.
  • Jack Reinheimer, SS — Traded to Arizona May, 2015 with OF Gabriel Guerrero, RHP Dom Leone for 1B Mark Trumbo.
  • Gabriel Guerrero, RF — Traded to Arizona, May, 2015 with IF Jack Reinheimer, RHP Dom Leone for 1B Mark Trumbo.
  • John Hicks, C — Designated for assignment, claimed by Minnesota Twins.
  • Patrick Kivlehan, OF — Traded to Texas Rangers with RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, OF James Jones for RHP Anthony Bass, CF Leonys Martin.
  • Jabari Henry, OF
  • Leon Landry, CF
  • Jose Leal, OF
  • Stephen Landazuri, RHP
  • Julio Morban, OF
  • Corey Simpson, RF
  • Jochi Ogando, RHP
  • Ketel Marte, SS
  • Mike Montgomery, LHP

Plenty has been made about the remake of the Seattle Mariners rotation heading into 2016 and rightfully so. The 2015 edition had considerable upside, but ultimately disappointed. Seattle only had two qualified starters in terms of innings pitched, Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, as injuries limited Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton.

By ERA the rotation ranked 17th in the entire league and by fWAR it ranked 19th. Those aren’t the type of numbers that will end what is now the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball. Unless it’s backed by a terrific offense and bullpen, but a fair share of ink has already been spilled on how those two areas hurt the 2015 Mariners.

Needing some stability in the rotation, Wade Miley was acquired from the Boston Red Sox. Nate Karns was also acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays to bolster the back-end of the rotation. At the time of the Miley acquisition, it appeared that Seattle had finished tinkering with their rotation. General Manager Jerry Dipoto had even gone so far as to say he was “done” making significant additions.

However, some skepticism over Iwakuma’s physical on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ behalf later, and the right-hander is back under contract for the 2016 season and under team control for the next three seasons.

Currently, the Mariners 2016 rotation projects to include Felix, Iwakuma, Miley, Walker, and one of Paxton or Karns. As written by Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins, the Mariners undoubtedly will rely on arms beyond those that are in the Opening Day rotation to contribute to the starting staff. The following table shows pitchers that have made five or more starts for Seattle over the previous five seasons with my estimated projection for starters who will hold that distinction in 2016.

Mariners Five Starts

Within the confines of this table we can get a glimpse of the natural evolution of the Mariners rotation.

What’s interesting about a list like this is that we can begin to break down players by type. There’s the veteran, one-year contract guys: J.A. Happ, Chris Young, Joe Saunders, Jeremy Bonderman, and Kevin Millwood. There’s the prospects that didn’t cut it: Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi. There’s even the pitchers that were dealt for a bat: Jason Vargas, Michael Pineda, and Brandon Maurer.

All told, I think the table of starters listed would resemble that of several teams. All teams have a collection of homegrown talent mixed with trade or free agent acquisitions and veteran filler of some kind. Beyond that though, we can see the evolution of a pitching rotation.

King Felix is the established ace of the rotation and has remained a constant for Seattle beyond the group of five starters. We can also see that Iwakuma has become a mainstay in the rotation as well. This year though, Iwakuma takes the role as veteran on a one-year contract. Of course this case is much different than that of Happ or Young since Seattle is counting on the right-hander to be a No. 2 or 3 starter as opposed to back-end depth. There’s also the matter of Iwakuma having a pair of vesting and club options that could stretch the deal to three years.

Most, if not all, of the great rotations have a pillar or two at the top that support the growth of the rotation among the inflow and outflow of pitchers.

Perhaps more interesting than the year Millwood wore blue and teal — though his presence in the combined no-hitter is a great historical anecdote — before Safeco Joe took his place, is seeing the rise and fall of prospects through the years.

Look at 2011 for example. That year Vasquez made seven starts but is still waiting for an opportunity to throw another major league pitch. Furbush, not a top-flite prospect either, hasn’t started a major league game since, though he has become a solid relief pitcher.

Let’s throw another name into the mix: Erasmo Ramirez. Again, he wasn’t among the organization’s high-upside talent in recent years, but he was a prospect with some tools who toiled between the rotation, bullpen, and Triple-A for a few years before being dealt. Now in his place stands Montgomery who serves as some back-end depth for the moment.

Should he fail to crack the Opening Day roster, and because he’s out of minor league options, he could find himself dealt for a similar starter who doesn’t fit his current club’s plans and has an existing option. Practically all organizations cycle through these kinds of starters hoping to find a diamond, or more often an above average season that they can cash in on the trade market or bide time with for a younger arm.

After debuting in September 2013, Walker and Paxton were expected to become mainstays near the top of the rotation. That hasn’t exactly happened yet. Walker is coming off a solid season and appears primed for a potential breakout season. Paxton on the other hand, has struggled with health and finds himself competing for the fifth spot in the rotation instead of beginning the season in the No. 2 slot a la 2014.

The examples of Walker and Paxton speak volumes to the evolution because the development of prospects make up such a big part of it. Teams devote significant resources into these players with the hope that they will headline their next championship team but can’t find a tangible reason for why that player is performing contrary to the skill set they possess.

Walker and Paxton have the tools to be the No. 2 and No. 3 starters in a rotation, provided the Canadian lefty can develop a little more command. Do they get there at some point? Only time will tell. Ideally we see the next steps in both player’s evolution take place in 2016 as Walker continues to be a solid contributor and Paxton proves he can be one.

One thing that we haven’t seen happen with the Mariners’ rotation over the past couple seasons is the development and influx of young talent. Don’t get me wrong, the discussion allotted to Walker and Paxton are warranted, but those two are about it. Roenis Elias was dealt as part of the Miley trade and had some upside. Michael Pineda was also a fine pitcher and Edwin Diaz could turn into the next big thing. But there’s always been the feeling that the rotation was a Felix Hernandez injury — and last year a Hisashi Iwakuma injury, it seemed — from falling apart.

Last season the St. Louis Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright for the bulk of the season. However, despite an ace on the disabled list, the club still managed to win the NL Central with the likes of Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha — all homegrown and developed talent — stepping up to fill the void. The deal for John Lackey during the previous season helped too.

The Mariners rotation is better-prepared for injuries this year than they were last, but is there a candidate to step up and fill a potential void left by a key starter? Montgomery had moments last season, but couldn’t sustain anything. Is Vidal Nuno the guy who takes a big step this year? Or maybe Karns?

It’s unfair to expect the results of the new regime bringing large changes to the player development side of the organization right away. We won’t realistically be able to see the difference until several years have gone by, but all signs point to the future looking significantly brighter than it did a year ago.

The Mariners do have talent in the lower minors, like Diaz, but they are still several years away from contributing to the big league roster. That will change as other players come in and some take steps forward, but it’s no secret that replenishing the minor league system, particularly at the upper levels, is a priority for Dipoto.

This season will offer us a look at what the rotation stands to be in 2017 and 2018 as well. How do Miley and Karns fit? Where do Walker and Paxton go from here? Can Iwakuma stay healthy and pitch effectively? Is Felix able to continue being Felix. We’ll see.

It’s important to remember that there is no formula to putting together a major league rotation. Even the World Series champion Kansas City Royals offered a rotation that included that same Chris Young alongside growing star Yordano Ventura, offseason signee Edinson Volquez, and trade deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto.

Seattle has the ace and some interesting wild cards to see play out as the rotation begins another series in the evolutionary process.…