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.…

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 their 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.

The first two parts of our Third Quarter Report Series analyzed trends within the American League West division and the Mariners’ offense, plus their pitching staff.

In this segment, we’re going to discuss the club’s roster. First, let’s discuss the toll injuries have taken on that roster.

Injury Impact
The loss of key players to injury is always a challenge, especially for a team on the fringe of contention — like the Mariners. When those losses occur in rapid succession to a rotation, it can be season-altering.

Seattle endured such setbacks throughout June and into July. During those two months, they were forced to endure without Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement.

Not only did the club have to scramble just to find healthy arms to start games, the bullpen was over-extended after being repeatedly called upon to absorb the workload of starters who routinely didn’t last six innings.

Since then, all but Sampson have since returned to action. But, Miley is now a Baltimore Oriole and Walker is starting games for Class-AAA Tacoma due to inconsistent performance.

Now, the club is facing another round of rotation uncertainty due to injury. Two other starters — Nate Karns and James Paxton — currently resided on the disabled list (DL).

Granted, Karns was relegated to the bullpen prior to his back strain, but general manager (GM) Jerry Dipoto recently signaled the club intended to return the right-hander to a starting role. Whether that would’ve been with the big league club or in Tacoma is unknown.

Yet, having Karns available right now would be an appealing alternative for a club that’s turned to Joe Wieland and Cody Martin to start games in consecutive weeks.

The outlook for Karns is unknown. Although he’s feeling better, Greg Johns of MLB.com noted that the right-hander hasn’t resumed a throwing program.

When Paxton went on the DL, his loss was much more significant to the team. Initially a replacement for Felix, the 27-year-old had become Seattle’s best starter prior to being struck on his pitching elbow by a line over a week ago.

Fortunately, the prognosis for Paxton is much rosier. He’s expected to be back with Seattle after a rehab start with the Rainiers this weekend.

A quick return by the big southpaw is absolutely vital. It’s difficult to envision a realistic scenario where the Mariners remain competitive without Paxton toeing the mound every fifth game.

The rotation isn’t the only component of the roster to be impacted by injury. Here’s a complete rundown of Seattle players on the DL.

Mariners Injuries
Player Position Injury Status
James Paxton SP  Elbow contusion  15-day DL
Nate Karns SP Lower back strain 15-day DL
Steve Cishek RP Left hip labrum tear Began rehab assignment Aug. 15
Tony Zych RP Right rotator cuff tendinitis On rehab assignment
Evan Scribner RP Strained lat muscle On rehab assignment
Ryan Cook RP Strained lat muscle Shut down after one appearance in July
Steve Clevenger C Broken hand  Started rehab July 17
Charlie Furbush RP  Torn left rotator cuff Out for season
 Adrian Sampson  SP Recovering from elbow surgery Out for season

After missing a year due to shoulder issues, fan-favorite Charlie Furbush will miss next season due to season-ending rotator cuff surgery. Getting the southpaw back into the bullpen mix would’ve been a welcome addition.

Help could be on the way for the bullpen though.

Former closer Steve Cishek and fellow relievers Tony Zych and Evan Scribner are currently on rehab assignments. Cishek is the closest to returning and will provide Servais with another late-inning option.

Cishek didn’t endear himself to Seattle fans by blowing a three-run save to the Chicago Cubs in a nationally televised game. But, he’s experienced in high-leverage situations and possesses a better track record than any other available option on the roster.

Zych’s fastball has been clocked in the 95-97 MPH range during three rehab starts. If he stays on track, he may not be far behind Cishek. Getting Zych back at this point of the season would be akin to adding a high-powered arm via trade.

Scribner will take longer to return since he’s been out all year. But, adding the 31-year-old in September would provide needed length during the last lap of the pennant race.

Considering the injuries the Mariners have sustained, their GM deserves credit for keeping his team close to contention. But, he doesn’t deserve all of the credit and he’ll be the first to say so.

Roster Analysis

When Dipoto took over as GM last September, he repeatedly praised the core of players that he inherited from his predecessor — Jack Zduriencik.

Most fans scoff at Zduriencik’s tenure with the organization. But, over half of the players (13) on the current 25-man roster were with the organization when he was let go 12 months ago.

In reality, the best players on the Mariners are holdovers from the Zduriencik era. That’s why I chose to defend Zduriencik in January.

Should the Mariners have moved past Zduriencik? Yes. But, it’s fair to acknowledge that he didn’t leave the cupboards bare, at least on the major league roster.

That’s where Dipoto comes in. By building around the edges of the Zduriencik core, the new Mariners GM has given his team a chance to break their 14-season playoff drought.

That doesn’t mean the Mariners don’t have issue with their roster — they do.

From a roster flexibility standpoint, having a pair of one-position players at the same position — Adam Lind/Dae-Ho Lee — continues to be a challenge, especially when both are struggling at the plate.

Perhaps, recently acquired prospect Dan Vogelbach will be thrown in the mix after rosters expand to 40 players on September 1. But, barring injury, it’s unlikely management will yield significant playing time to an unproven rookie with the team in contention.

First base isn’t the only platoon that’s been ineffective lately. The corner outfield pairing of Franklin Gutierrez and Seth Smith has scuffled in the second half. Compounding the issue, neither player provides enough defensive value to overlook a prolonged slump.

HerediaAs with first base, replacement options are scarce. Some fans are pining for Guillermo Heredia to return from Tacoma after he slashed .280/.379/.400 during his 12 game/29-plate appearance major league debut.

At the very least, Heredia provides a significant defensive upgrade over Smith and Gutierrez. For now though, the club is willing to ride out the recent struggles of their veteran outfielders.

Another position facing challenges is shortstop. The struggles of Ketel Marte have highlighted the organization’s lack of upper level depth at the position.

When the season began, Luis Sardinas was expected to be the club’s backup plan at shortstop. However, it didn’t work out and he was traded to the San Diego on Monday. That’s where  Shawn O’Malley comes into the picture.

O’Malley has started 28 games at shortstop and 27 in the outfield this season. Lately though, the Richland, WA native spent more time at shortstop due to Marte’s recent stint.

At this time, employing a balanced approach with Marte and O’Malley time-sharing at shortstop would be the best course of action. It’s not an optimum strategy, but it’s a reasonable approach to handle the position for now.

I’ve outlined several challenges facing the Mariners, but there are bright spots too.

One major difference between Dipoto and his predecessor is his ability to pivot when dealing with adversity. The best example of that agility is the transformation of Edwin Diaz.

Transitioning a 22-year-old who was starting games in Class-AA ball in April into a high-leverage major league reliever by June would never had happened in the past. Not that quickly, at least.

Dipoto’s acquisition of Wade LeBlanc in late June is an example of several shrewd deals the 48-year-old executive has made within the last two months.

LeBlanc isn’t overpowering. But, he’s been a solid contributor who helped provide rotation stability during the last 40 games. His presence now looms even larger with Paxton and Karns unavailable and Walker ineffective.

Another new starter — Ariel Miranda — came over in the deal that sent Miley to Baltimore. Under different circumstances, the southpaw would likely be pitching in Tacoma if it weren’t for the club’s rotation issues. But, he’s been thrust into action as a stop gap for now.

From the outside, trading Miley at the deadline with no suitable substitute available seemed peculiar, especially after he delivered three strong starts leading up to the deal. But, the club decided he was longer a good fit.

Perhaps, the Mariners were onto something. Since Miley arrived in Baltimore, opponents have slashed .328/.370/.537 during starts against the southpaw in three starts.

Recent additions of Drew Storen and Arquimedes Caminero have been valuable contributors to the bullpen. Whether they can remain effective remains to be seen. However, they’ve stabilized the bullpen, especially during the Cishek’s absence.

The return of Mike Zunino from his minor league sabbatical not only strengthened the lineup, it upgraded the catcher position by pushing  Chris Iannetta to a backup role. Now, the club is deeper at backstop than it’s been in over a decade.

Although Mariners’ roster has a few blemishes, it’s kept the club competitive throughout the season. Dipoto may be using an inherited foundation. But, he’s built upon it quite well.

 

 

 …

“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.

“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.

Cruz 2Then, the calendar turned to July and the Mariners slowly regained their footing and crawled back into the contention with just over 40 games remaining.

So, 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, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Nelson Cruz, DH
Churchill: Kyle Seager. 3B

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: James Paxton, LHP

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

Surprise
Arkins: Shawn O’Malley, UTL
Churchill: Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP

Standings and Trends
During the mid-season report, we suggested the American League (AL) West division standings would tighten and that’s exactly what’s happened. Here are the AL West standings as of today.

AL West Standings (As of August 17)
Tm W L W-L% GB R RA last10 last20 last30
TEX 71 50 .587 4.7 4.6 7-3 13-7 17-13
SEA 63 55 .534 6.5 4.7 4.3 8-2 13-7 19-11
HOU 61 58 .513 9.0 4.5 4.1 4-6 7-13 13-17
OAK 52 68 .433 18.5 4.0 4.8 4-6 7-13 13-17
LAA 50 69 .420 20.0 4.5 4.8 1-9 6-14 13-17
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

While the Mariners deserve credit for their torrid August, the primary reason they’ve been able to climb back into the AL West race is the mediocre play of the teams in front of them in the standings. During July, Seattle gained two games on the division leading Texas Rangers and lost just half a game to the Houston Astros despite posting a 12-12 win-loss record.

The following table illustrates how AL West teams have fared since the start of the third quarter of the season on July 3.

AL West Standings (Since July 3rd)
Tm W L GB R RA
SEA 20 16 143 152
TEX 19 19 2.0 157 197
HOU 18 19 2.5 160 145
LAA 17 20 3.5 176 174
OAK 17 21 4.0 137 176

For the Rangers, their success down the homestretch will be heavily dependent on run prevention. The club knows how to score runs, but has a -40 run differential since July 3.

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

Since losing starters Derek Holland and Colby Lewis to injury in late June, Texas has been unable to find suitable substitutes. As you’d expect, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels have performed well. But, the rest of the staff entered this week with a combined earned run average (ERA) since the all-star break.

There is hope for the Rangers though.

Holland could be back as early as the end of this week, while Lewis may return to the rotation by the end of this month or early September. Without these two hurlers, or adequate substitutes, the club’s hold on the AL West division lead will be tenuous.

The challenge facing the Rangers’ cross-state divisional rivals is exactly the opposite. The Houston Astros remain relevant thanks to their pitching, while being hamstrung by run production.

I know. Houston’s 160 runs scored since July 3 is second best in the division. But, a closer look at their record reveals they’ve scored two or fewer runs in 18 of those games — nearly half of their third quarter.

Thanks to their strong pitching, the Astros managed to win four of those lose scoring games. However, the offense will have to be more robust for the club to remain in contention.

What’s the offense’s biggest problem? Reaching base.

While Houston has a superb young core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, only one other regular — Luis Valbuena — has an on-base percentage (OBP) above league-average and he’s on the disabled list (DL). It’s tough to generate offense without men on base.

Like the Mariners, Houston was relatively inactive at the August 1 trade deadline. Unless general manager Jeff Luhnow makes external additions prior to August 31, his club’s best hope for an offensive upgrade will come from within — heralded prospect Alex Bregman and Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.

Bregman has scuffled since his major league debut on July 25 and Gurriel’s major league debut is being delays because he needs more seasoning in the minors that expected. If both players can find their mojo in the near-term, the Astros immediately become a far more formidable opponent for the Rangers and Mariners during the last 4o games of the season.

Assuming no club makes a significant addition to their respective roster, the Rangers continue to be the class of the AL West division. But, their banged up rotation leaves them vulnerable to a club capable of seizing the moment.

With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the Mariners and their run production.

Offense
As Prospect Insider Jason A. Churchill noted during the Reign Man Edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, it doesn’t really matter how the Mariners scores runs as long as they continue to do so. The club entered the week averaging 4.66 runs scored-per-game — sixth best in the AL.

While Jason is spot-on with his assessment, several notable Mariners are struggling at plate. Let’s look at some of the hitter who were struggling as this week began.

The first base platoon of Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee hasn’t been as productive in month. Despite the early season surge of Lee during limited appearances and Lind’s late-inning heroics, the duo is batting a combined .207 since July 1.

Lind is slashing .268/.333/.439 with two home runs during the small sample size known as August. Perhaps, he’s on the brink of turning around the worst season of his 11-year career.

Two DL stints have reduced the availability of shortstop Ketel Marte. But, his struggles at the plate appear to have more to do with an expanding strike zone than injury or illness.

The challenge for Mariners management during the last six weeks of the season will be balancing their young shortstop’s professional development with their postseason aspirations, especially with no clear-cut upgrade available on the 40-man roster.

Another scuffling regular is center fielder Leonys Martin. Coming into this week, he had a  .223/.279/.325 triple-slash since returning from the DL on June 6. Martin does provide value even when isn’t hitting though. He’s still the best defender they’ve had in center field since Franklin Gutierrez.

Speaking of Guti, he’s been particularly strong against left-handed pitching. But, the 33-year-old tailed off in July with a .189/.318/.297 slash and one home run during 44 plate appearances in July. Fortunately, it appears that he’s returning to form in August.

It’s worth noting that Gutierrez has played in 73 games this season — his most since 2011. That’s a credit to his hard work and devotion and the team’s willingness to adjust his playing time depending on his chronic health issues. In the end, both parties have reaped the rewards of their collaboration.

The all-star break didn’t seem to help Gutierrez’s platoon mate, Seth Smith. After slashing .364/.400/.727 and hitting four home runs during the first 10 games of July, the left-handed hitter is batting just .192 with no home runs since the resumption of play on July 15.

Considering Smith’s veteran status and professional approach, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But, it’s worth mentioning that his second-half offensive production has dropped considerably during the last four seasons.

Another corner outfielder, Nori Aoki is a somewhat enigmatic presence. After struggling greatly against southpaws, the club optioned the 34-year-old to Tacoma in late June. Since his July 20 recall, he’s been the primary leadoff man against right-handed pitching and performed relatively well.

Would management prefer to have a better option than Aoki? Probably. But, there are no proven replacements ready to wrest playing time away from the five-year veteran.

Chris Iannetta isn’t having a good season offensively, but that’s not as worrisome when discussing the backstop position. The 33-year-old has performed admirably while serving as a stopgap until Mike Zunino was ready to return to the big league club. Now, Iannetta is an excellent insurance in case of injury or a Zunino regression.

Speaking of Zunino, the 25-year-old is one of several Mariners who’ve helped buoy the club’s offense despite the struggles of the players I’ve just mentioned.

Thanks to his improved methodology at the plate and his superior defensive prowess, Zunino has effectively become the club’s starting catcher since returning from Class-AAA Tacoma on July 20. The time spent in Tacoma has certainly helped the right-handed hitter, who currently owns a .392 OBP.

The most impressive element of Zunino’s offensive game is his walk rate, which was 11.4-percent after Sunday’s game. That’s nearly four points higher than the major league average and six points above his career norm.

Is Zunino’s production a mall sample size? Yes. But, it’s an encouraging development.

General manager Jerry Dipoto chose to build his 2016 offense around three position players — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager — and it’s proving to be a wise decision.

The trio has missed a combined six games this season and have used their bats to propel the club’s offense throughout the season. At the conclusion of play on Sunday, the threesome was slashing a combined .289/.351/.518 with 23 home runs since July 3.

While it must be reassuring for Servais to have his core players available nearly every day, the club’s recent playoff push would likely stall if any of them were to enter a prolonged slump or be out of the lineup for an extended period.

The sky isn’t falling in the Emerald City, but better performances from the Mariners’ veterans would go a long way in helping the club sustain their recent winning ways. Otherwise, it’s going to be a white-knuckle ride for the rest of the season.

 …

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?

 …

CishekWatching the Seattle Mariners’ 2016 season unfold has been an exhilarating and frustrating experience for their fans. The club started the year by posting a 23-17 win-loss record and things looked so promising in late May. Then came a number of disappointing setbacks that left the Mariners just a game over .500 at the all-star break.

Despite the team’s tumultuous first half, the Mariners remain on the fringe of contention. Now, a big decision looms for team management. The choice at hand is whether to be a buyer prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline. For Seattle fans, it’s a no-brainer. They want the team’s front office to aggressively lean forward and get the franchise back to the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons.

Entering today, being a buyer makes sense for the Mariners. Their 44-43 record has them positioned to compete for their division title and a wild card berth. Moreover, ace Felix Hernandez is set to return from the disabled list in less than two weeks and fellow starter Taijuan Walker shouldn’t be far behind King Felix. Add a few new players prior to the deadline and the Mariners should be set to make a serious run at the postseason. Right?

Absolutely. But, what if the unthinkable happens and Seattle suffers another round of setbacks between now and the deadline? Then what? The answer could be an option that fans would loathe — sell.

I know. No one wants to consider the idea of selling in Seattle. That’s what the Mariners seemly do every year. But, let’s say that it becomes clear that the club can’t realistically compete by the deadline. Shouldn’t the organization sell at that point?

What I’ve suggested isn’t that likely. Still, compiling a list of potential pieces to ship out of Seattle sounds like a fun idea. So, that’s what I’ve done.

Before getting started, I want to point out that I’m not going to discuss the Mariners’ core players. It’s highly unlikely that the club would move players such as Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager for a variety of reasons. With that in mind, let’s look at several pieces that the Mariners should consider moving if the team takes a nose dive.

Hisashi Iwakuma
Trading the fan favorite would be problematic from a public relations standpoint. Nevertheless, the club would have to consider taking advantage of a weak starting pitcher market.

Iwakuma’s durability would certainly come into play during any trade negotiations. In four seasons with the Mariners, he’s reached the 200-inning mark just once — 2013. There’s also the issue of his failed physical with the Los Angeles Dodgers last December.

The fallout from the physical was a club-friendly, vesting deal with Seattle. Assuming he stays healthy and reaches 162 innings — he’s at 114.1 entering today — Iwakuma’s 2017 contract is guaranteed at $14 million. If he falls short for some reason, the Mariners can either retain him for $10 million or pay a $1 million buyout. There’s a similar vesting option in place for 2018.

Iwakuma’s injury history could be a red flag and his salary may be too steep for some contenders. But, the vesting options provide a measure of protection against a physical breakdown and clubs such as the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox could afford Iwakuma. Both are in the “win now” mode, have reportedly expressed interest in the veteran in the past, and need rotation help. Other clubs that could use the services of right-hander include the Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, and Houston Astros.

It’s hard to know whether the Dodgers would want to take another shot at acquiring Iwakuma or if the Mariners would trade within their division. But, there’s going to be a strong demand for starting pitching prior to the deadline and Kuma would be an attractive option for clubs in need of a quality starter.

Steve Cishek
Many fans say they wouldn’t mind seeing the 30-year-old leave Seattle. Especially, after a rough patch during the past two weeks. But, he’s actually performed relatively well as the team’s closer, holding opposing hitters to a .188 batting average.

That doesn’t mean Cishek is a shutdown closer, but he’d be an attractive option for a team looking to add to the back-end of their bullpen. Clubs looking for such a pitcher could include the Cubs, Washington Nationals, and San Francisco Giants.

The biggest “drawback” with Cishek is his salary — he’s due $6 million in 2017. To move the right-hander, the Mariners would likely have to include cash, if they wanted to receive any significant value in return for the seven-year veteran.

Seth Smith
Teams looking for outfield depth could look at the 34-year-old as a good platoon option. Smith’s defense has been regressing, but he’s a professional hitter who was slashing .286/.378/.476 against southpaws entering today. Potential interested parties could include the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, Nationals, and Giants. Seattle holds a $7 million 2017 option — with a $1 million buyout — on their corner outfielder.

Chris Iannetta
The 11-year veteran is another Mariner with a vesting option. His 2017 contract is guaranteed, if he starts 100 games this year and doesn’t end the season on the disabled list with an injury to his right elbow, back or either hip. So far, so good for Iannetta and the team. But, would it be wise for Seattle to retain the 33-year-old, if the team fell out of contention?

The answer to that question may depend on the team’s 2017 plans for Iannetta and Mike Zunino. Will the club retain both players with so many other areas in need of improvement? Keeping both may be tough for an organization with a limited number of trade chips at its disposal.

Some may view Zunino as the better trade option. But, the Mariners would be selling low if they moved the 25-year-old at the deadline. That doesn’t sound like a strategy that general manager Jerry Dipoto would employ. Perhaps, Seattle would prefer to wait until the season ends before making any changes behind the plate. But, the Red Sox, Tigers, Rangers, and Astros all could use a veteran backstop like Iannetta right now.

Wade LeBlanc
Assuming the left-hander continues to pitch well; he’d be a low-cost option for clubs looking for rotation depth. All of the contenders I mentioned during the Iwakuma discussion could be interested in LeBlanc. The Kansas City Royals and Miami Marlins might be interested too.

Vidal Nuno/Joaquin Benoit
Both pitchers could help contenders in different ways. Nuno is a versatile performer who could be helpful to any team making a playoff run. The southpaw isn’t a back-end reliever, like Cishek. But, he’s capable of going multiple innings or even start in a pinch. Granted, he had a tough June — .328 batting average against. But, so did most of the Mariners bullpen.

Benoit, who turns 39-years-old on July 26, has been shelved twice this year due to shoulder issues and has struggled at times. Nevertheless, he continues to be manager Scott Servais’ primary choice to setup Cishek in the eighth inning. Clubs looking for a veteran with setup and closing experience would certainly express interest in the right-hander, who is a free agent at the end of the season.

Dae-ho Lee
Once again, I’m suggesting to trade another fan favorite. The 33-year-old has impressed during his debut season and enters the break slashing .288/.330/.514 with 12 home runs, despite being part of a platoon. Still, if you’re looking to improve for next year, why retain an asset who could garner value at the deadline?  There may not be much demand for first basemen among contenders. Nevertheless, the rookie certainly could help the Mets or the Astros.

Reality check
More than likely, the Mariners are going to remain fringe contenders and be buyers. Will they be adding big-ticket players before August 1? Based on Dipoto’s comments and actions since taking over last September, the answer is no. Instead, I expect the 48-year-old executive to use smaller deals to tweak the supporting cast around his core of Felix, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

Still, if the club were to experience a complete meltdown prior the last week of July, becoming sellers would make sense. Even if it means moving fan favorites.…

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

Forty 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, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners mid-season award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

Surprise
Arkins: Dae-Ho Lee, 1B
Churchill: Lee

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

Standings and Trends
The American League (AL) West division standings have shifted dramatically since our first-quarter review, when the Texas Rangers and Mariners were the only clubs with winning records and the Houston Astros were cellar dwellers thanks to an abysmal April. Here’s where the division stands at the midway point of the Mariners’ season.
AL West Standings
Tm W L GB Strk R RA vWest Home Road last10 last20 last30
TEX 52 30 L 1 4.9 4.4 26-13 28-12 24-18 6-4 14-6 21-9
HOU 43 38 8.5 L 1 4.6 4.2 16-16 23-16 20-22 8-2 14-6 21-9
SEA 42 39 9.5 W 3 4.9 4.3 15-19 21-20 21-19 6-4 8-12 12-18
OAK 35 46 16.5 L 3 4.2 4.9 14-18 17-25 18-21 6-4 10-10 13-17
LAA 33 48 18.5 W 1 4.4 4.8 15-20 16-26 17-22 2-8 7-13 10-20
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2016.

Back in May, I suggested that the division’s contenders and also-rans would be more apparent by the season’s midway point and that’s certainly turned out to be true. Both Texas and Houston flew by Seattle in the standings in June, while the Mariners have struggled to remain relevant.

The Rangers have continued to win despite losing three starters to the disabled list (DL) within the last 30 days — co-ace Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis. Credit for the club’s resiliency goes to the strong performances of co-ace Cole Hamelsfellow starter Martin Perezand their torrid offense — ranked number-four in runs scored during June.

The Texas bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in the AL during June, which is actually an improvement over its first quarter stature. Sam Dyson has done relatively well since assuming the closer role from incumbent Shawn Tolleson. But, the club only has one “swing and miss” arm in the ‘pen — former shortstop and number-one overall draft pick Matt Bush, who wasn’t even a reliever or in professional baseball a year ago. This is an area ripe for an upgrade prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

At the end of the first quarter, I referred to the Astros as “the most enigmatic team in the AL West.” Since then, only the Rangers have won more games than Houston in the AL.

The Astros flourished despite the ongoing struggles of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who has seen his fielding independent pitching (FIP) and earned run average (ERA) skyrocket this season. Sophomore Lance McCullers has been the rotation’s best performer after getting a late start to the season due to shoulder soreness, while the rest of the staff has kept their team in games.

The key to Houston’s resurgence has been several extremely hot bats. In June, the club ranked second in the AL in on-base percentage (OBP), thanks to hot stretches by Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus. It’s highly unlikely that this group can sustain their recent uptick since all are performing well above their career averages.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics have become the also-rans thanks to a barrage of significant injuries. The only questions remaining for these clubs this season is how soon will they become sellers and who are they willing to move in deals?

Although Texas is certain to cool off, they continue to be the best team in the AL West. Making the club even more formidable is the fact that, as noted in the Rangers deadline deal preview, general manager Jon Daniels possesses the assets and resourcefulness to be a major player in the trade market.

Whether Houston can sustain their current trajectory with a less-than-optimal ace and a streaky supporting cast behind young stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer is debatable. Still, general manager Jeff Luhnow has also proven that he’s willing to wheel and deal at the trading deadline.

Despite the recent struggles of the Mariners and the June bounces of the Rangers and Astros, I expect the division race to tighten as the season progresses. A lot can change within the span of six weeks. Just ask fans in Houston and Seattle. Now, let’s turn our attention to the team from the Emerald City.

Offense
Although the Mariners struggled to win games during the last six weeks, offense hasn’t been the problem. A comparison between Seattle’s MLB run production rankings at the first-quarter mark and the midway point of the season demonstrates that point.

Mariners MLB Run Production Rankings
Year Runs/Gm BB% SO% BA OBP SLG
1st QTR
7 14 11 17 16 10
Midway 6 11 8 12 10 6

Run production has remained essentially the same in league rankings and the team actually scored slightly more runs since the start of the second quarter. So, what’s working for the club? A lot. Let’s start with the heart of the batting order inherited by general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Robinson Cano continues to demonstrate that last year’s sub-par performance was actually due to health issues and not age-related regression. Kyle Seager is on track to hit 20-plus home runs and repeat his career .263/.329/.440 triple-slash. Finally, Nelson Cruz has avoided the decline that many — including me — had predicted for the 36-year-old.

The main stars aren’t the only contributors this season. New supporting cast members Adam Lind, Leonys Martin, Dae-Ho Lee, and Chris Iannetta have improved the offense to varying degrees. They’ve blended nicely with the heart of the order, plus holdovers Seth Smith, Ketel Marte, and Franklin Gutierrez to create a consistently productive lineup.

In the offseason, Dipoto placed a strong emphasis on lengthening the club’s everyday lineup and improving the roster’s on-base ability in order to withstand a slumping player — or players. Overall, his plan has worked. But, that doesn’t mean that everything has gone as well as conceived.

Take a look at how the OBP of each position ranks against the rest of the AL. Although there are mostly bright spots, a few areas of concern do exist.

Mariners OBP Rankings (by Position)
Position OBP League OBP (Position) AL Rank
C .321 .293 2
1B .306 .326 12
2B .358 .331 3
3B .346 .330 4
SS .292 .316 12
LF .321 .324 11
CF .316 .327 8
RF .331 .343 12
DH .380 .325 2
PH .312 .295 8

At shortstop, Marte has been effective at making contact. But, his OBP has tanked due to an extremely low 3.4 walk rate that ranks in the bottom-10 among qualified major league hitters. Since returning from the DL on June 6, the switch-hitter has been even worse (2.1-percent).

Fortunately, for the Mariners and Marte, there’s a good chance he’ll fix his on-base woes. The switch-hitter posted a 9.7-percent rate with Seattle during the second half of last year and 7.5-percent during parts of two seasons with Class-AAA Tacoma. Getting the 22-year-old back on track would provide a significant boost to the offense and provide Servais with another option to leadoff.

Both corner outfield positions under-performed during the first half. As a result, Dipoto shook up the roster by optioning left fielder Nori Aoki to Tacoma on June 24. The 34-year-old had battled inconsistency at the plate all season, particularly against left-handed pitching.

Considering Aoki’s career success against southpaws — .360 OBP — his struggles come as a surprise. This year, the left-handed hitter posted an anemic .244 OBP during 87 plate appearances against lefties. In Aoki’s place, the club is using Gutierrez and Smith in both corners spots, plus Cruz is getting more playing time in right field.

Aoki’s demotion not only affects the outfield. His absence changes the status quo at first base and designated hitter. When Cruz is patrolling right field, one of the members of the first base platoon — either Lind or Lee — is getting the opportunity to be the designated hitter, while the other plays first base.

Getting both Lind and Lee more consistent playing time may improve both players’ offensive numbers. Lind has been performing well below his career slash numbers and is sitting at .236/.266/.421 through the end of June. His struggles have spurred fan outcry for more playing time for Lee. Now, they’re getting their wish.

Lee has certainly created a swirl of excitement with his bat and his contagious smile. But, some observers believe that Servais’ shrewd use of Lee has helped obscure flaws in the the rookie’s game. In another six weeks, we’ll know whether that’s true and if Lind can salvage his season. For now though, management seems content to stick with their first base platoon setup.

Unlike recent seasons, the Mariners aren’t overly reliant on one or two hitters in order to score runs. Now, it’s a collaborative effort that’s been highly productive. That’s certainly a deviation from the norm in Seattle.

“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

HERNANDEZ Since debuting as a 19-year-old in 2005, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez has witnessed a lot of losing in Seattle. From the day “King Felix” debuted until the end of last season, the Mariners have posted a dreadful 772-904 win-loss record.

During the King’s reign, the Mariners have zero postseason appearances and entered September with a realistic shot at postseason play just twice — 2007 and 2014.

Knowing that one of the best pitchers in the game — who opted to forgo free agency and stay in Seattle — has yet to toe the rubber during a postseason contest doesn’t sit well with Felix’s loyal subjects.

Fans lament that the Mariners have never surrounded Felix with a strong supporting cast. When you look at the team’s record, it’s hard to disagree. This season could be different though.

New boss, different results
Since arriving in Seattle last September, one of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s stated goals was to build a competitive team for 2016. The results, thus far, are encouraging — an impressive 21-13 record and first place in the American League West division.

Sure, it’s only May and the Mariners have played just 34 games. But, entering today, they’re off to the third-best start in the franchise’s 40-year history. In playoff-starved Seattle, this is cause for optimism in some circles.

Best 34-game Starts in Mariners History
Year 34-game record Season Record Final Standings Comments
2001 25-9 116-46 First Lost ALCS (4-1)
2002 24-10 93-69 Third
1997 21-13 90-72 First Lost LDS (3-1)
2003 21-13 93-69 Second 2 GB for Wild Card
2016 21-13 ? ? ?

Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of season remaining — 89-percent to be exact. Yet, it’s hard to ignore such a strong start by a club that hasn’t experienced playoff baseball since 2001. Could this finally be the year that Felix reaches the postseason? Perhaps. But, what if he’s incapable of pitching like a “King” anymore?

Is the end near?
The notion that Hernandez may no longer be capable of being “Felix-like” is a genuine concern among some fans. They fret that their King has developed chinks in his armor an can no longer perform like an elite-level starter. What exactly is fueling this worry?

Some talking heads cite Felix’s decreasing fastball velocity and his unusually high walk-rate as evidence that his reign is nearing an end. They believe that Hernandez’s 2178 innings pitched — most by any active major league pitcher since 2006 — is the reason behind the “un-Felix-like” start to 2016.

Hearing and reading this kind of analysis — the incomplete, lazy kind — over the airwaves and via the blogosphere has raised the anxiety level among some Seattle fans.

The King falling on his sword now would be a worst-case scenario for Mariners faithful two reasons. First, no one wants to see a star declining at the young age of 30, especially one as beloved as Felix.

On top of that, there’s a prevailing belief among fans and pundits that teams can’t seriously contend without an established ace. Therefore, no King equals no postseason this year.

Is it actually true that teams can’t win without an ace? Would the Mariners season be doomed if Felix doesn’t bounce back to his normal level of performance? I don’t believe so. Please allow me to demonstrate why I feel that way.

What’s an ace? 
There’s no clear-cut definition of what constitutes an ace. My definition is a starting pitcher who produces a value of four or more wins above replacement (WAR) during a season. In some years, 18 pitchers reach that mark. In others, it might be 22. Bottom line; my idea of an ace is a top-20-ish pitcher.

Now that I’ve established my standard, let’s look at several recent postseason contestants that didn’t have a pitcher who fit my +4 WAR criteria. To help illustrate each rotation’s depth, I included the top-five pitchers who started during at least 90-percent of their appearances.

Please note that players acquired in-season have an asterisk next to their name and their WAR is a season total — not just the value produced for their new team. Additionally, World Series winners are in yellow.

Postseason Teams Without Ace (2011-2015)
Team Year Wins 1 2 3 4 5
KCR 2015 95
Volquez (2.5) Young (2.5) Cueto (2.1) * Ventura (1.9) Duffy (1.5)
NYY 2015 87 Tanaka (3.0) Eovaldi (2.2) Severino (1.9) Pineda (1.7) Sabathia (1.0)
KCR 2014 89 Duffy (3.6) Shields (3.3) Ventura (3.2) Vargas (2.4) Guthrie (1.1)
BAL 2014 96 Tillman (2.4) Gonzalez (2.1) Norris (1.9) Chen (1.8) Gausman (1.0)
PIT 2014 88 Volquez (2.5) Liriano (1.6) Worley (1.6) Cole (1.2) Morton (0.4)
ATL 2013 96 Medlen (3.3) Teheran (3.2) Minor (3.1) Hudson (1.0) Hale (0.7)
CLE 2013 92 Masterson (3.4) Jimenez (2.7) Kluber (1.4) Salazar (1.2) Kazmir (1.1)
BAL 2012 93 Hammel (3.0) Chen (2.6) Tillman (1.6) Saunders (0.8) Britton (0.1)
MIL 2011 96 Marcum (3.0) Wolf (2.6) Gallardo (2.3) Greinke (1.5) Narveson (0.6)
STL 2011 90
Carpenter (3.5) Lohse (2.2) Garcia (0.7) Jackson (2.9) * Westbrook (-0.2)
* Deadline deal acquisition                  World Series champion

Who needs an ace?
As you can see, several very good teams didn’t have a top-shelf hurler on their staff, yet they found ways to win games. In some cases, many games. The Kansas City Royals are the best example.

The Royals’ success is proof that a team can reach the postseason, and even win the World Series, without an elite-level pitcher. It’s worth noting that they tried to add one at the trading deadline — Johnny Cueto. However, he didn’t deliver “ace-like” results during the remainder of the season. Yet, Kansas City won the Fall Classic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that having an ace doesn’t matter. Given a choice, I would’ve taken the 2015 New York Mets’ rotation over the Royals’ staff. In the end though, Kansas City overcame the Mets’ superior starting pitching to win it all.

Why not the Mariners?
Let’s imagine for a moment that Felix has truly started his decline. I haven’t seen compelling proof that’s the case, but, let’s suspend reality for moment and imagine.

In the “Bizarro World” I just created, Hernandez delivers a 2.5-or-higher WAR — far below his career-norm. Could the Mariners compete with such a meager contribution from the former King? Of course.

Seattle has a rotation that’s deeper and better than several of the previously listed postseason clubs. Look at the previous and current value of the arms Dipoto has amassed for this season, including Mike Montgomery — who’s in the bullpen — and James Paxton at Class-AAA Tacoma.

Seattle Mariners Rotations (2014-2016)
Player 2013 2014 2015 2016
Felix Hernandez  5.2 6.8 4.4 0.6
Hisashi Iwakuma  7.0 2.5 2.4 0.3
Wade Miley 1.3 0.8 2.5 -0.2
Nate Karns -0.4 0.1 2.4 0.4
Taijuan Walker  0.1 0.9 1.1 0.3
James Paxton
1.1 1.4 0.6
Mike Montgomery 0.5 0.3 *
* Value accrued as reliever

Let’s assume that Taijuan Walker and Nate Karns surpass their 2015 value — a reasonable expectation for both pitchers. Plus, Wade Miley and Hisashi Iwakuma manage to deliver a combined value similar to last season’s total for the two pitchers. Why wouldn’t this rotation be competitive? It wouldn’t be great, but it’d be solid.

Obviously, there’s more to reaching the postseason than having a solid rotation. Otherwise, the Mariners wouldn’t be in the midst of a 14-season playoff drought. But, unlike other years, Seattle has a more balanced roster in place — thanks to Dipoto and his staff.

At the start of play today, the Mariners are above league-average in runs scored, playing solid defense, and their bullpen is a strength. With so much going right for the club, the rotation doesn’t have to be stellar — just solid. Having an ace would be nice, but not critical.

I have no idea whether Felix Hernandez’s best days are behind him. Perhaps, he’s adjusting to being on the wrong side of 30. Maybe, it’s just a case of dealing with an uncharacteristically slow start — no one outside of the Mariners organization knows for sure.

What I do know is that the roster assembled by Dipoto has the potential to contend, assuming it can avoid health complications and that the bullpen doesn’t crater. Those are big “ifs,” but the 47-year-old has demonstrated throughout his career that he’s capable of pivoting when faced with adversity.

Finally
Felix perfectoAlthough I had no rooting interest for the team he represented, I found great pleasure in watching Ray Bourque finally hoist the Stanley Cup at the end of his Hall of Fame career. Similarly, it was nice to see Peyton Manning go out on top after a storied career.

The same sentiment applies to Felix. Someone who’s been so great for so long deserves to perform on his sport’s biggest stage.

Perhaps, the Mariners will fall back in the standings and not contend by year’s end. Personally, I believe they can compete and end their league-leading postseason drought — if they can avoid the injury bug and the bullpen remains viable.

Regardless of how the season unfolds, Mariners fans should find some measure of solace in knowing that Felix no longer has to carry the club on his shoulders in order for them to win. One of these years — hopefully soon — his teammates will be the ones carrying him on their shoulders, as they celebrate winning the ultimate prize.

That would be a storybook ending fit for a King.…



KarnsAs a relatively new baseball writer, I’m constantly trying to expand my knowledge by watching games, reading other writer’s work, and listening to the thoughts of analysts and pundits from outlets such as MLB Network and MLB Radio. I don’t always agree with what I hear or read, but that’s okay. Diverse opinions help broaden perspective.

A popular topic that I’ve encountered during my quest for added baseball intelligence is the belief among pundits that the current crop of 25-years-old and younger position players is historically special. Perhaps, you agree.

Although I believe in heeding the baseball opinions of others, I’ve also quickly learned that hyperbole can overshadow reality, especially when there’s airtime to fill or clicks to gather. With that in mind, I decided to determine for myself whether today’s 25-and-under ball players were a truly special group.

Before getting very far into my research though, I realized that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had already done an excellent job of providing detailed analysis on younger players.

Cameron noted that players under 26-years-old accounted for 33-percent of plate appearances in 2015 — a normal portion for their age group. Yet, these youngsters tallied 39-percent of the total wins above replacement (WAR) produced by position players last year. That’s the most value delivered by this age group since 1974, when they accounted for high 44-percent of plate appearances.

The following table is my creation. It looks back to 1985 in five-year intervals and lists players who  produced a WAR of four or higher and were age-25 or younger during the season noted.

Although it didn’t require higher-level thinking to create, the table quickly illustrates and supports Cameron’s conclusion that we may be looking at best group of young hitters in the history of the sport. As you can see for yourself, there are many impressive names on the list, including several Hall of Famers.

It’s clear that the current group of 25-and-under players is delivering historic value, but the importance placed on age is both excessive and misleading.

Why such a strong statement? A player’s service time is far more critical than his age when constructing a roster. This is especially true for a veteran-laden team like the Seattle Mariners. Before discussing the Mariners any further, let’s briefly review service time.

For those not familiar with the term, “service time” refers to the number of years and days a player has spent on a major league roster. A year of service time — as defined by the current collective bargaining agreement — is 172 days.

Baseball information resources, such as Baseball Reference, represent service time in a “years.days” format. For example, Felix Hernandez started 2016 with ten years and 60 days of service time — expressed as “10.060.” Generally, teams maintain the rights to a player for six “service time” years.

During the first three years, clubs don’t have to pay players more than the league minimum salary — $507,500 in 2016. In the final three years of team control, players are eligible for arbitration, which allows players to earn more money based on their performance. However, their wages won’t ever reach the level of free agent money.

There are exceptions to these guidelines. For instance, international professional free agents such as Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu, and Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma don’t fall under the same criteria as other new players, although these players have accrued six years of Major League Baseball (MLB) service time. If you’d like to read more about service time, you can find a great rundown at FanGraphs here.

Why is service time so important to the current version of the Mariners? Payroll. A review of how general manager Jerry Dipoto re-constructed his roster during the offseason helps illustrate the club’s payroll challenges coming into this season.

After taking the reins of baseball operations last September, Dipoto aggressively added pieces to complement the veteran foundation that he inherited — King Felix, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Kyle Seager, plus the re-signed duo of Iwakuma and Franklin Gutierrez.

Since he and team president Kevin Mather stated that the organization’s goal was to compete in 2016, Dipoto brought in more veterans — Adam Lind, Joaquin Benoit, Wade Miley, Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta, and Steve Cishek.

All told, the 47-year-old general manager fashioned a 13-player veteran core designed to be competitive. But, there’s a price tag with having so many vets — $121.8 million. That’s more money than the payrolls of 15 clubs.

With so much committed to his experienced players, Dipoto had to find bargains when filling out the rest of his 25-man roster and adding much-needed minor league depth. This is where service time — not age — enters the picture.

Look at the players from Seattle’s Opening Day roster, who hadn’t reached arbitration eligibility prior to this season. There are several notable names that aren’t that young — relatively speaking. But, they’re inexpensive and valuable to Mariners manager Scott Servais.

Seattle Mariners “Pre-Arb” Players (As of Jan 1)
Name Age Service Time 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Steve Clevenger 30 2.123 $516.5k Arb Arb Arb FA    
Nick Vincent 29 2.067 $525.5k Arb Arb Arb FA    
Vidal Nuno 28 2.015 $532.9k Arb Arb Arb FA    
Taijuan Walker 23 1.142 $528.6k Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA  
Nate Karns 28 1.033 $523.7k Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA  
Luis Sardinas 23 0.143 $512k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Mike Montgomery 26 0.089 $515k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Ketel Marte 22 0.066 $515.4k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Tony Zych 25 0.034 $511k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Dollars Committed   $141.5M $92.3M $84.6M $71.4M $43.5M $42.5M $24M
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/4/2016.

The inherent flaw with using an arbitrary age — such as 25-years-old — when discussing new players is that the practice can lead to fans overlook slightly older contributors with similarly low service time and value.

Not only has Dipoto added controllable and inexpensive talent at the big league level, he’s built “layers of depth” throughout his 40-man roster. Look at the service time of the following players. Some could potentially find themselves in Seattle by the end of the season; some already have.

Seattle Mariners “Ready Reserve”
Name Age Position Service Time Comments
Evan Scribner 30 Relief Pitcher 2.142 60-day Disabled List
Mike Zunino 25 Catcher 2.084  Class-AAA Tacoma
James Paxton 27 Starting Pitcher 2.027 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Steve Johnson 28 Relief Pitcher 1.046  Recalled to Seattle
David Rollins 26 Relief Pitcher 1.000  Class-AAA Tacoma
Stefen Romero 27 Outfield/First Base 0.170 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Chris Taylor 25 Shortstop 0.139  Class-AAA Tacoma
Cody Martin 26 Relief Pitcher 0.075 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Shawn O’Malley 28 Infield/Outfield 0.063 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Mayckol Guaipe 25 Relief Pitcher 0.054  Recalled to Seattle
Jonathan Aro 25 Relief Pitcher 0.040  Class-AAA Tacoma
Steven Baron 25 Catcher 0.027  Class-AA Jackson
Boog Powell 23 Outfield 0.0 Class-AAA Tacoma

Thanks to Dipoto skillfully taking advantage of service time, Seattle has a relatively low $5 million committed towards two starting pitchers, four relievers, their starting shortstop, and two bench players. How else could this club possibly compete with $122 million already committed to 13 veterans?

While the exploits of young players such as Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte capture the imagination of fans and pundits, where would the Mariners stand today without the contributions of “older” players with similarly low service time? Specifically, Nate Karns, Nick Vincent, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, and Steve Clevenger? Probably not first place.

Age is just a number for the Mariners.…

felix hernandez jerry dipotoIt’s been more than 18 months since Brad Miller crossed the plate on an 11th-inning Austin Jackson single to secure a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels and keep the playoff hopes of the Seattle Mariners alive until Day 162. On September 27, 2014 Safeco Field and the surrounding streets following the game had an atmosphere that hadn’t been felt in more than a decade. Tomorrow, the Mariners were sending Felix Hernandez to the hill and, with the help of an Oakland Athletics’ loss, could clinch a Wild Card slot with a victory.

Unfortunately, Athletics’ pitcher Sonny Gray mirrored the excellent performance of Seattle’s ace on that day and secured Oakland’s place in the playoffs.

Fast forward to Opening Day 2015 where the Mariners found themselves, surprisingly enough, at the top of nearly every pundit’s list of American League favorites. The team had patched some holes in the offseason and Nelson Cruz was brought in to fill the hole behind Cano that loomed for nearly all of 2014. But, as these things have a tendency to, it didn’t happen. Just ask the Washington Nationals.

Cano went on to have the worst first-half performance of his career, due in large part to a myriad of ailments. King Felix had moments where he appeared mortal. And the bullpen imploded. Literally, it imploded. What was one of the M’s biggest strengths in 2014 became a brutal weakness in 2015.

It would all add up to a 76-86 record and the acquisition of a new, undesirable title: the team with the longest playoff drought in professional sports. Last fall the Toronto Blue Jays tasted the postseason for the first time since Joe Carter touched home plate in 1993. Even the Chicago Cubs took a serious run at breaking their championship-less streak. If the magic of 2001 feels like it was a long time ago, that’s because it was.

The disappointment was felt amongst the fan base and the organization, which prompted the firing of general manager Jack Zduriencik in late August. Manager Lloyd McClendon would also become a casualty of failed expectations, but not before a new mind was brought onboard to right the ship. On September 29th Jerry Dipoto was officially hired as the club’s new general manager. A few weeks later Dipoto’s colleague from their days in Los Angeles, Scott Servais, was hired to manage the team.

With the front office changes complete, work began on retooling a disappointing team. Without much help waiting in the wings in the upper minors, wholesale changes were coming.

The core of the franchise remained intact with Hernandez, Cano, Kyle Seager, and Cruz locked up to multi-year deals and Taijuan Walker still in his pre-arbitration years. But familiar names like Brad Miller, Tom Wilhelmsen, Roenis Elias, and Carson Smith were dealt with names like Wade Miley, Leonys Martin, and Nate Karns set to become familiar in the coming years.

After years of acquiring sluggers who impersonated outfielders, the Mariners built an outfield that should be a considerable upgrade defensively and with more offensive potential. Seth Smith remained with the club and will platoon in right field with Franklin Gutierrez, who was re-signed. Nori Aoki will be the primary left fielder and gives the club a legitimate option in the leadoff spot. Leonys Martin was the big name acquired in a multi-player deal with the Texas Rangers and even if he doesn’t hit much, should give the club above average defense or better in center field.

One of the benefits of these acquisitions is that Cruz is no longer required to play right field consistently. He still will make the odd appearance though and while he’s not a complete liability for a game at a time in the field, his skill set is optimized when kept to designated hitter duties. Regardless of what the small sample outfield numbers may lead you to believe, this is the case.

The infield required less work with Cano and Seager in place. Ketel Marte, who excelled in the second half of last season, holds the reigns for the everyday shortstop gig and will offer the club contact and speed skills and has shown improved defense. Luis Sardinas will back-up the infielders and offers of versatility off the bench.

First base received a makeover with Adam Lind coming over to mash right-handed pitching and Korean import Dae-Ho Lee set to be his other half. There’s plenty of uncertainly with Lee and his ability to hit major league pitching, which his roster spot depends on.

The catching position also received a makeover with Chris Iannetta brought onboard with Steve Clevenger, acquired in the Mark Trumbo deal, providing back-up. Mike Zunino starts the year in Tacoma where he will have ample opportunity to continue working on his offensive game and could resurface later in the season.

The rotation received some help with the additions of Miley and Karns as well as the re-signing of Hisashi Iwakuma. While the rotation lacks a true No. 2 behind Hernandez, Walker is a prime breakout candidate and could find himself in that role by the summer, should everything go right. Lefty James Paxton will start the year at Triple-A after a rough spring in hopes of regaining his command. The benefit of the added rotation depth is that the 27-year-old can be allotted the time to figure things out instead of being relied upon at the major league level.

The bullpen situation looks a little more problematic in the early going. Veterans Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek were brought in to anchor the back-end of the pen but Charlie Furbush, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook will start the year on the disabled list. Tony Zych has the potential to be a shutdown set-up man, but otherwise the bullpen lacks much punch.

With the injuries it’s difficult to fairly examine the bullpen. There will also be some fluctuation among the arms with bullpen candidates waiting in the minors. Given the negative impact the bullpen had on Seattle last season I would imagine a close eye will be kept on the waiver wire and trade front for potential arms to bolster the corps.

At the start of the 2015 season, I penned a piece entitled “From Optimism to Expectations: The 2015 Seattle Mariners.” To expand, the Mariners found themselves moving from an optimistic state to start the 2014 season to an expectant state. Heading into the 2016 season, Seattle finds itself somewhere in between.

With all of the organizational changes and new personnel brought onboard, there is a new optimism surrounding the Mariners. However, considering how the results of the previous campaign and the ascension of the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers over the past season, that optimism hasn’t extended itself into expectations of a playoff run. But, should some things go the M’s way, a meaningful September definitely is not out of the question.

Does that make the Mariners a sleeper? Perhaps. With the attention on the Texas teams in the American League West and what should be very competitive AL Central and AL East divisions, it’s easy for Seattle to slip to the back burner.

With a first-year manager and superstars coming off disappointing performances in Hernandez and Cano there’s no need for additional motivation. The clubhouse culture also appears to be much more favorable this year, and we saw what some of those effects can have on a club while watching the Blue Jays during their incredible second-half run. Acquiring a David Price helps, too.

The Mariners are a veteran club built to win now, not later. The improvements to the organization will likely be seen immediately, but a slow start could kill much of the offseason momentum.

On the plus side, the American League remains wide open. There is an upper echelon of clubs including the Jays, Astros, Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and World Champion Kansas City Royals. But it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and perhaps, the Seattle Mariners are able to grab a Wild Card spot at the least.

There’s a level of optimism and a level of expectations for the Mariners and both sides are justified. After all, on Opening Day, every team has a shot.…

In an age of free agency and mobile players, few major leaguers last enough with one club to earn the venerable status of “face of the franchise.” The kind of players I’m referring to not only have been with a team for at least a decade, but also have become the cornerstone of the organization through acts of goodwill and exceptional performance on the field.

Fans fortunate enough to have such a player on their favorite team’s roster probably feel grateful to have them represent their ball club and city. But, what happens when that face begins to lose his luster and show his age?

Depending on the emotional equity that the player has earned through the years, it’s reasonable to believe that most fans will be willing to fail to notice their natural decline. Look no further than the Bronx for a most recent and prominent example of such a phenomenon.

Number two
On the last day of the 2014 regular season, New York Yankees great Derek Jeter was facing Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox in the top of the third inning at Fenway Park. After falling behind one ball and two strikes to Buchholz, Jeter plated Ichiro Suzuki with a high chopper to third baseman Garin Cecchini.

During previous years, Jeter’s single may have affected the postseason fortunes of either club, but not in 2014. Both the Yankees and Red Sox were well out of contention and just playing out the season on that sunny day in Boston. That’s not to say that Jeter’s single wasn’t significant; his plate appearance against Buchholz would be the last of his storied career.

When Yankees manager Joe Girardi — a former teammate of Jeter’s — replaced the future Hall of Famer with a pinch runner after that run-scoring single, the team’s captain received a poignant send-off from the Fenway crowd. It had been an emotional week for Jeter, who had previously announced that 2014 would be the last season of his 20-year career.

Just three days prior, the veteran shortstop’s last hit at Yankee Stadium was a dramatic walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning after his team had blown a three-run lead to the Baltimore Orioles in the top half of inning. Would you expect anything less from a player nicknamed “Captain Clutch?”

The truth hurts
Although fans succumbed to the nostalgia surrounding the Jeter farewell tour, the media wasn’t necessarily as captivated during his final year in the majors.

Early in the season, Ted Berg of USA Today predicted that Jeter’s defense would cost the Yankees. Joel Sherman of the New York Post opined in early September that Girardi needed to reduce Jeter’s role. That’s just a small sample of the criticism that columnists and bloggers delivered during the retiring shortstop’s final season.

Jeter 2 Some fans may not have liked reading those kind of comments, but the pundits were correct to point out that Jeter’s star was no longer shining brightly.

Yankee lovers — and baseball fans in general — can find a measure of comfort in one clear-cut certainty. By the time Jeter is formally enshrined at Cooperstown in the summer of 2020, the thrilling conclusion to his magnificent career will be all that anyone remembers about his last year in the majors.

Irreconcilable differences
Although fans are happy when a player of Jeter’s ilk finishes his career where he started, they want their teams to win championships. Having a face of the franchise on the decline taking a roster spot could hurt the team, as both Berg and Sherman suggested about Jeter.

One could make the case that a sense of misguided sentimentality prevented the Yankees from finishing closer to a wild card berth during Jeter’s last season. The rationale being that a little less Jeter could’ve led to a few more wins and postseason play. That’s a tough sell for me.

Remember, management never found an adequate replacement for departed free agent Robinson Cano. They didn’t have one in 2015 either. Carlos Beltran had a sub-par year — worse than Jeter’s. Finally, let’s not forget that Alex Rodriguez missed the entire season due to suspension. In the end, I don’t think that the casual Yankee fan cared; they just wanted one more year of Captain Clutch.

Next farewell tour
Boston’s David Ortiz will end his career with “the Sawx” after this coming season. “Big Papi” didn’t start his career in Beantown, but he’s now considered a community ambassador, especially after his remarks at Fenway after the Boston Marathon bombing.

The R-rated comment delivered by Ortiz during that brief speech further elevated his already iconic status throughout New England. Only time will tell whether he’ll be able to replicate Jeter’s season-ending heroics. Without doubt, his last trip to Yankee Stadium and his last home stand will be “must see” events.

What if Ortiz gets off to a slow start in 2016 or struggles as the season progresses? How will the media react? Probably in the same manner as they did during Jeter’s last season — by telling the truth.

How about fans? If Papi is scuffling and Boston is in a pennant race, would fans prefer to see him play or ride the bench? This quandary is always possible when the face of the franchise gets long in the tooth.

I suspect that Boston fans will treat Ortiz the same way as Yankee fans did Jeter; they’ll shower him with an outpouring of affection of support regardless of his performance. Both players helped provide many extraordinary moments — and World Series rings – to their respective towns. That helps fans overlook a few blemishes at the end of the line.

The next wave
It’s easy to see how fans would tolerate the decline of stars like Jeter and Ortiz — their final season was at age-40. But, what about franchise faces who’ll see their contracts expire at a younger age? The decision to retain these players won’t be as easy for their respective organizations. Is it possible that fans would be less enthusiastic about keeping a fading star in his mid-thirties, compared to a 40-year-old?

Here are a few players who could fall into the category that I just described. All will be age-30 or older during the upcoming season and are considered the face of their respective franchise.

Player Age Tm 2015 WAR Contract terms Contract ends at age
Dustin Pedroia 32 BOS 2.0 6 yrs / $85M (2016-21) 37
David Wright 33 NYM 0.5 14 yrs / $192M (2007-20) 37
Yadier Molina 33 STL 1.4 10 yrs / $96.5M (2008-17)   34*
Joe Mauer 32 MIN 1.5 8 yrs / $184M (2011-18) 35
Felix Hernandez 30 SEA 4.4 7 yrs / $175M (2013-19)   33*
* Team or player holds an option for an extra year after this age

Diminishing returns
The heir apparent as Boston’s torchbearer is second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who suffered through a tough 2015 season due to injury. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s about to take a nose dive, although the Boston media has already begun to ask whether the “Laser Show” has started to decline.

Pedroia’s hard-nosed playing style has made him an endearing figure in the eyes of Boston fans, but that same gritty approach could eventually accelerate the deterioration of his outstanding skills. The 10-year veteran is under contract with the Red Sox through his age-37 season.

New York Mets third baseman David Wright only played in 38 games last season due to a spinal stenosis diagnosis and has averaged just 95 games during the last three years. Some scribes have already asked whether “Captain America’s” stenosis could affect his career length and, consequently, his Hall of Fame chances.

Two players who started out as catchers — St. Louis Cardinal Yadier Molina and Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer — have begun to show the negative effects of wearing the tools of ignorance for so many years. Molina’s offensive numbers have dropped over the last three seasons and he was limited, due to a thumb injury, during the 2015 postseason.

Mauer — a St Paul, Minnesota native — no longer catches due to concussion problems. Now, he patrols first base for the Twins. Like Molina, he’s seen his offensive stats decline since 2013.

Long live the King?
Seattle Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in baseball and he took less money to stay with the only team that he ever knew. Why wouldn’t a fan base love this guy?

Hernandez — whose contract expires after his age-33 season — hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but he’ll be on the “wrong side of thirty” by the Mariners’ first home stand ends this season. It’s inevitable that the former Cy Young award winner will start to lose his edge. But, what should the club do when his deal expires?

The Mariners hold an option that they can exercise if Felix spends more than 130 consecutive days on the disabled list due to surgery — or any other procedure — on his right elbow. Basically, he’s a free agent after 2019 if he stays healthy. If he has elbow issues, the team can keep him for 2020 at a very team-friendly price.

It takes two to tango
In 2010, re-signing Jeter probably seemed like a “no-brainer” to the typical Yankee fan. Although he was starting to show signs of decline at the plate and his fielding numbers were below average, he was still a valuable contributor. But, that doesn’t mean everything went swimmingly between management and the player.

Reportedly, Jeter wasn’t a happy camper during his contract extension negotiations with the Yankees. Although he eventually stayed in the Bronx, it’s been reported that the negotiations led to a chill be between Jeter and general manager Brian Cashman.

Affairs of the heart
As we saw with Jeter, the aging face isn’t necessarily smiling when the business of baseball tramples on a decade of goodwill. Pedroia, Wright, Molina, Mauer, and Hernandez could face a similar tact from their respective organization’s management. “Thanks for the memories. But, we reward production.”

Both Pedroia and Wright will be 37-years-old when their deals expire. What happens if they want to continue being a starter, but their team prefers to use them in a more limited role? Maybe, they’re blocking the progress of an up-and-coming prospect. How will Red Sox and Mets fans want their team to handle their franchise icon?

Molina’s and Mauer’s contracts conclude after their age-35 season. From a baseball business perspective, both the Cardinals and Twins would be wise to move on from their long-time stars at that time or — at the very least — lessen their role with the ball club. As with Pedroia and Wright, would the players be willing to accept less playing time?

Say for a moment that Felix maintains his health and is a free agent in the autumn of 2019. Should the Mariners retain him and at what cost? The emotional response is an emphatic “yes!”

After living in the Pacific Northwest for the last seven years, I understand why Mariners fans would feel so strongly about Felix. When his deal expires, he’ll have been with Seattle for 15 seasons; that would rank second to should-be Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez (18).

Despite the love affair that the Emerald City has with their King, the team could potentially face a challenge with re-signing their star pitcher. What happens if his contract demands exceed the value of a 34-year-old pitcher with 15 big league seasons under his belt?

I know that sounds cold-hearted, but it’s a factor to consider. As we saw with Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners had a predetermined limit on years and dollars that they wouldn’t exceed. In Iwakuma’s case, the team wasn’t comfortable with three guaranteed seasons due to his health history. Could Seattle reach a similar impasse with the face of their franchise?

This tidbit may make Felix fans cringe a little. In the last 50 years, only five of 29 Hall of Fame pitchers have spent their entire career with one team — Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Whitey Ford. Only Palmer played during in the free agent era.

The sad goodbye
A somber truth awaits fans; their favorite baseball player could hang up their cleats for the final time in a different city. Team supporters want to believe that their icon wouldn’t leave, but history shows that even the greatest players will occasionally leave as the end nears.

Iconic names like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron all finished their memorable careers in an indistinguishable manner with another team. If they could end up somewhere else, why couldn’t Felix Hernandez or Dustin Pedroia?

Does that mean that the players I’ve mentioned are destined to leave the only team that they’ve known? Of course not. However, it’s worth noting that it takes two things to happen for a player to remain with a team; the player has to want to stay and the team has to want to the player to stay.

On the surface, that sounds like an easy proposition. However, agreeing to terms when millions of dollars are involved isn’t necessarily easy. Refer back to the aftermath of the Jeter negotiations as an example of how long-standing relationships can go sideways when factors such as ego and economics come into play.

My advice to baseball fans is simple. Enjoy your stars while you have them and wish them well if they opt to leave. Professional sports has been — and always will be — a business first. That’s why good organizations don’t feel the tug of heartstrings — like their fans do — when it comes to making these tough decisions. Even if an aging face of the franchise is involved.…

Seattle Mariners v San Diego PadresFelix Hernandez, RHP: 4FB, SNK, CB, CH, SL
2015: 31 GS, 201.2 IP, 8.52 K/9, 2.59 BB/9, 56.2% GB, .288 BABIP, 3.72 FIP, 2.8 fWAR
Felix Hernandez had his worst season in eight years in 2015, but still was very solid at the top of the Seattle Mariners’ rotation and despite the buzz about the 2,200 innings under his belt in his 10-plus seasons, the ace still averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball and his issues last season don’t appear to have been physical in nature. All this suggests 2015 is likely a bit of an anomaly, not the new norm.

Don’t let people point to the workload and tell you Hernandez just isn’t what he once was without offering legitimate evidence. Age and workload don’t qualify. Zack Greinke is 32, has amassed nearly 2,100 big-league innings in the same timeframe, despite a few trips to the minors on rehab assignments, and Greinke hasn’t slowed much. Yes, Hernandez has had to reinvent himself into a command-and-feel pitcher, but still has the plus curveball to compliment the sinker and changeup.

Hernandez’s command was spotty last season, however, and the changeup registered its lowest value since it became his best weapon in Year 3 of his career. Fly balls left the yard more — up to 15.3% in ‘15, career rate at 10.6 % — with random bad luck sharing the blame with the lack of ideal fastball command and the oft-absence of the good changeup.

He’ll be 30 April 8, but there’s no strong evidence that Hernandez has slipped much and there’s a good chance he rebounds some in 2016. Don’t be surprised if he returns to Cy Young contention this season and makes 32 or more starts. And if the games in September are meaningful, expect big moments from King Felix in his attempt to take the mound in the postseason for the first time in his already-illustrious career.

IwakumaHisashi Iwakuma, RHP: 4FB, SNK, CB, SL, SPL
2015: 20 GS, 129.2 IP, 7.70 K/9, 1.46 BB/9, 50.4% GB, .271 BABIP, 3.74 FIP, 1.8 fWAR
Hisashi Iwakuma isn’t likely to make all 33 scheduled starts, but the 25-28 he does make will tease No. 2 starter results and increase the Mariners chances to win — over the alternative — significantly. He’s 35 in April, yet still displayed above-average secondary stuff to go with fringe-average velocity that all plays up due to plus command. Perhaps most importantly, Iwakuma’s contact authority still results in some ground balls — 50% in 2015, which is line with carer rates — and gets help from Safeco Field, and divisional rivals ballparks O.co in Oakland and Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

The right-hander hasn’t lost anything off the fastball, but he is throwing the four-seamer less in favor of the sinking two-seamer. While there’s no reason to expect that to revert back, there is reason to believe his splitter usage could return to the 21-23 percent range if he’s commanding well early in counts. Iwakuma used his curveball more than ever in 2015, and with good results (.188 BAA, .313 SLG), so the veteran enters this season with a little different book on him than one year ago, which is advantage Iwakuma.

Anything over 170 innings from Iwakuma is a gift to the M’s, but the club’s medical staff has worked minor miracles with Iwakuma before — see: 2012 — and it’s most important he’s available down the stretch if the club remains in contention. If he avoids the long stint on the disabled list,, the chances Seattle actually gets to that point improve quite dramatically.

WalkerTaijuan Walker, RHP: 4FB, CB, CH, SL
2015: 29 GS, 169.2 IP, 8.33 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 38.6% GB, .291 BABIP, 4.07 FIP, 1.9 fWAR
Taijuan Walker showed in larger glimpses last season that he can be dominant, using a plus fastball up to 97 mph with life above the batter’s hands and some sink down in the zone to set up a firm-but-promising split-change and a curveball that’s been up-and-down and has come with numerous grips. Walker added what he’s calling a slider, but has the look of a hard cutter, a pitch he mastered a few years ago in Triple-A but went away from to focus on his changeup.

The biggest developments for Walker last season included health — not even a blip on the radar in this department — general control and the innings to which the health led. The right-hander issues walks to just 5.7 percent of the batters he faced, good for No. 11 among qualified starters in the American League, right behind Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.. In the end, Walker took a fairly significant step forward and doing so again this season gets him into dangerous territory — for opponents, that is.

In order to take that step, Walker’s curveball must become a bigger part of his arsenal, and the fastball command needs to take a step forward. Using his lower half better is a great idea in general, but it can only help him in each of the aforementioned areas. The 23-year-old also needs to execute a game plan more consistently so he can get through a lineup three times; eventually, the knob-high fastball will catch too much of the plate and big-league hitters will put the barrel on it and do damage. Being able to pitch backwards sometimes, attacking certain spots that expose a batter’s weakness and using more secondary offerings to do the same all are attributes of a frontline starter. That’s Walker’s target direction, and he could arrive in 2016.

Wade MileyWade Miley, LHP: 4FB, 2FB, SL, CB, CH
2015: 32 GS, 193.2 IP, 6.83 K/9, 2.97 BB/9, 48.8% GB, .307 BABIP, 3.81 FIP, 2.6 fWAR
Miley’s first season with Seattle will be his first in a ballpark that doesn’t severely favor hitters. This doesn’t always turn into marked cuts in opponents production for pitchers making such a move, but Miley may be different than the likes of J.A. Happ, et al, since he simply has better stuff, and more options if one of his offerings leaves him for a month.

The 29-year-old left-hander pitches comfortably at 90-92 mph with both a two-seam and four-seam fastball,, but his slider is his most effective pitch since 2013 — .214 BAA, strikeouts in 34 % of the PAs that ended in a slider. He also throws a changeup that improved considerably last season when he was forced to throw it more to keep right-handed batters from trying pepper The Green Monster with 320-foot fly balls.

Miley’s two-seamer has sink and can get some ground ball outs, but he does like to rasie the eye level of the hitter with his four-seamer at the top of the zone. Both fastballs have run in on right-handed batters.and Miley pitches from the third base side of the slab, creating an easier path in on righties.

Miley’s one of those ho-hum looks; you watch start after start, never say ‘wow,’ rarely come away particularly impressed, but he makes 30-plus starts, keeps the ball in the yard and gets into sixth and seventh consistently. There’s not much more in the box than that, but he’s as reliable as it comes in terms of mid-rotation left-handers in the American League.

KarnsNate Karns, RHP: 4FB, 2FB, CB, CH
2015: 27G/26GS, 147 IP, 8.88 K/9, 3.43 BB/9, 41.9% GB, .285 BABIP, 4.09 FIP, 1.5 fWAR
Nate Karns, 28, had a strong first three months last season, struggled in August and missed almost all of September with forearm stiffness. If healthy to start 2016, he’s a good bet to build on his 147-inning performance and perhaps reach the 170-inning range for the Mariners. Karns always has been a power arm, but last season his changeup was average — plus at times — and he took some mphs off his curveball, adding more depth. Batters swung and missed more than 13 percent of the time on Karns’ curveball, which approaches the upper third among American League right-handers.

There are reason to buy Karns as the power starter he was a year ago — 8.9 K/9, 23.4% of batters faced, and his entire professional career has been led by high whiff totals — but now there’s a book on Karns, whose fastball sits 90-93 mph, far from the type to get away with a lot of mistakes. Safeco Field and the marine layer should help some, but Karns likely will need an adjustment or two; veteran catcher Chris Iannetta is Karns’ best friend in this regard.

Karns is more of a risk than the typical starting pitcher because he has a history of injuries, and on the worrisome side the forearm issue he suffered last summer can end with Tommy John surgery. Here’s where the club’s medical staff — which has a great track record — comes into play. Like Iwakuma, anything north of 150 innings is gravy, more than 170 is Christmas morning.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle MarinersJames Paxton, LHP: 4FB, CB, CH, CUT
2015: 13 GS, 67 IP, 7.52 K/9, 3.90 BB/9, 48.3% GB, .289 BABIP, 4.31 FIP, 0.5 fWAR
James Paxton’s stuff is good enough to profile as a No. 3, perhaps even a No. 2 starter when the changeup is at its best. Unfortunately, Paxton’s delivery and tendency to find the disabled list the last two years hasn’t allowed for any of the explosive 95 mph fastballs or plus curveballs do much for him or his teammates.

Beyond staying on the field, Paxton’s arm path is long, often creating a more difficult-to-repeat delivery, particularly in terms of release point. Stuff wise, the curveball flashes plus but he buries a lot of them in the dirt; he employs the spike curveball, otherwise known as a knuckle-curve, which includes digging the top of the finger or fingers into the ball, putting pressure on the ball with the fingernail. Paxton’s had issues keeping the fingernail from tearing away, adding to his issues staying active and on the mound.

Ditching that grip on the curveball may be in order, but there’s no sign that’s in the plans, and Paxton still has yet to show he can command his fastball and changeup enough to back off the curveball usage without sacrificing effectiveness. He’s used a cutter-slider before, which could be a weapon for him again, but his first order of business is staying off the medical wagon. If he does that, he can finish off his development and add underrated value to the Mariners’ rotation.

There’s more than just an off chance Paxton starts the season either in Triple-A Tacoma (more likely) or in the bullpen, since he’s probably No. 6 on the rotation depth chart.

"<strong/Mike Montgomery Rainiers” width=”300″ height=”238″ class=”alignleft size-medium wp-image-7041″ />Mike Montgomery, LHP: 4FB, 2FB, CB, C, CUT/SL
2015: 16 GS, 90 IP, 6.40 K/9, 3.70 BB/9, 51.2% GB, .290 BABIP, 4.67 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
Montgomery is a fine back-end option for most clubs, including Seattle, which may not have a need for him, clouding his immediate future. He’s out of options, so Triple-A isn’t an option — there are multiple clubs that at any point in March would snatch him up and add him to the mix — leaving a trade or a role in the bullpen his most likely destiny.

The left-hander is more of a command-and-feel southpaw, but not without stuff to get outs, including an average changeup that spikes plus and a mid-70s curveball he uses to change the pace and eye level. He’s dabbled some with a two-seamer and uses a cutter-slider, but primarily sits 90-92 mph with a four-seam fastball with some armside run, setting up his change and curve.

Montgomery has to be efficient or his effectiveness dulls in higher pitch counts enough to shave off his ceiling at the No. 4 starter range, but staying healthy and continuing to build arm strength for deeper seasons should be his main goal in 2016.

NunoVidal Nuno, LHP: 4FB, 2 FB CB, SL CH
2015: 35G/10GS, 89 IP, 8.19 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, 42.2% GB, .296 BABIP, 4.42 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
Nuno is a solid No. 5 starter that will start this season in a full-time relief role, where his stuff plays up a bit and the club can take advantage of his three pitches that are devastating to left-handed batters.

As a starter, Nuno sits 88-90 mph with both a two-seamer and four-seamer, getting some fade and sink on the former and some upper-zone life on the latter. His bread and butter is a combination of command, change of speeds and deception in his delivery, which help his secondary offerings — mid-80s slider with tilt, 78-80 mph curveball with some depth and an average changeup — play up, particularly in shorter stints.

If the M’s end up needing to dig as deep as most clubs do during the course of a season, Nuno will make a few starts in 2016, and if he’s literally the No. 8 starter in 2016, Seattle is in terrific shape.

BMillsBrad Mills, LHP: 4FB, CUT/SL, CB, CH
2015: 1GS, 5 IP, 1.80 K/9, 1.80 BB/9, 35% GB, .316 BABIP, 6.53 FIP, -0.1 fWAR
Mills is a soft-tossing middle-relief type, but in an emergency has starting experience that suggest he can get through a lineup once or twice and still give the club a chance to win the game.

Mills doesn’t throw very hard, and never has, sitting around 85 mph in 2015. He’ll throw an occasional cutter-slider in the low-80s to get in on right-handed batters, and his low-70s curveball is fringe-average, despite good shape. Mills’ changeup is where he draws Moyer-lite comparisons, but this kind of arsenal doesn’t play for more than a few innings, typically.

Mills is a depth lefty much more likely to start 2016 in Triple-A or with another club, but could be a serviceable southpaw and a last-second rotation saver.

RoachDonn Roach, RHP: 4FB, 2FB/SNK, CUT, SPLIT, CB, CH
2015: 1 GS, 3.1 IP, 2.70 K/9, 2.70 BB/9, 68.8% GB, .500 BABIP, 3.43 FIP, 0.1 fWAR
Roach, 26, has the kitchen sink in his holster, but his best offerings include a 72-76 mph curveball with two-plane break and a sinking two-seamer with natural gloveside run. He’ll sit 88-91 mph with his fastballs, occasionally cutting one in on a lefty to set up something away. The slider has been a quality pitch in the past, albeit inconsistent in both command and bite.

Roach, like most rotation options beyond the initial projected five, is more likely to see time in Triple-A to start the season, but may be ahead of even Vidal Nuno on the depth chart since the southpaw likely will be entrenched in an important relief role.

The right-handed Roach, a third-round pick in 2010 who played JC ball with Bryce Harper, has 17 games of big-league experience, including two starts, one for San Diego and one for the chicago Cubs a year ago. He’s not going to miss a lot of bats, but is another serviceable option if the club gets desperate for innings.

WielandJoeJoe Wieland, RHP: FB, CB, CH, SL
2015: 2 GS, 8.2 IP, 4.15 K/9, 5.19 BB/9, 38.7% GB, .276 BABIP, 6.94 FIP, -0.2 fWAR
Joe Wieland might be a wild card for the bullpen as much as Ryan Cook, but has a starting background, including nine in the big leagues.

The 26-year-old has a lively fastball despite average velocity in the 89-91 mph range, but he’s pitched comfortably at 90-93 before injuries (Tommy John in 2012, missed half of ‘12, all of 2013) slowed his development. Even in the minors Wieland never was a big strikeout artist, mostly due to two below-average breaking balls and an inconsistent and often-times flat changeup.

In a relief role, the 80-82 mph slider may play up some and the fastball could build back toward 92-94, lending Wieland a few legitimate big-league weapons. He pitches from a high arm slot, creating downward plane and a better chance to keep the ball in the yard. This also bodes well for his curveball and changeup.

If he’s starting games for the Mariners in 2016, it’ll mean one of two things: 1) Wieland has returned to form and significantly improved his curveball or slider, or 2) Seattle is awful. Even two injuries unlikely get the M’s all the way down to Wieland for starts without the latter taking place in March and April (in the minors).

AdSampsAdrian Sampson, RHP: 4FB, 2FB, SL, CH
2015: (AAA) 28 GS, 162.2 IP, 6.79 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, .341 BABIP, 4.46 FIP
Adrian Samspon was acquired in the trade with the Pittsburgh for lefty J.A. Happ last summer. The Skyline HS and Bellevue College product posses a solid-average fastball up to 94 mph, but typically pitches at 89-92 with some sink and armside run from a low three-quarter slot. The four-seamer will show life up in the zone.

The slider flashes average at 83-86 mph and Sampson keeps it down well, assisting in keeping the ball on the ground, which is his M.O. with the fastball mix. His changeup is a bit firm at 86-88 but occasionally has shown a better velocity differential (83-85), which also shows more movement away from left-handed batters. It’s well below average, but isn’t a throw-away at this stage.

Sampson needs to return to the minors and continue his work on command with the fastball, the changeup as a whole and perhaps more two-seam sinkers so he can carve out a nice little sinker-slider career for himself as a swing arm or No. 5 starter.…

JeDi DipotoFrom what I’ve been able to determine, social media bestowed Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto with the nickname of “JeDi” while he was still working for the Los Angeles Angels. I wasn’t aware of this clever nod to the fictional characters in the “Star Wars” movie franchise until I noticed it on Twitter after his Seattle arrival. I have to admit that it did make me chuckle a bit.

[pullquote]The lineup needs to be a little bit longer. The rotation needs to be a little bit deeper. The bullpen needs to have more layers than it presently has. — JeDi code [/pullquote]

In honor of Dipoto’s sci-fi handle, I decided to explore the key components of his 2016 roster revitalization plan — the “JeDi code” — which was first announced when he was initially introduced in late September of last year. Have the master’s guiding principles gained a foothold within the organization or is there more work left to do?

Lengthen the lineup
Despite a second-half offensive surge, Seattle’s on-base percentage (OBP) ranked number-22 in the majors and lagged behind 10 National League teams that actually let their starting pitchers to swing a bat. As JeDi alluded to during his introductory presser, the lineup lacked “length” and was heavily dependent on the success of three core players — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.

The team’s bottom-three lineup spots — not including pitchers — combined to rank number-29 in OBP last season. The top-two spots in the batting order weren’t much better, placing number-28. Only the middle of the lineup, which ranked eleventh in the majors, demonstrated any measure of effectiveness at the plate.

When looking at the following table, which breaks down each spot in the batting order and its corresponding OBP ranking, it becomes very clear that Seattle’s lineup was “short” and inadequate. If a team could limit damage caused by the four middle spots in the order, their chances of beating the Mariners were much better.

Seattle Mariners “Short” 2015 Lineup
Split BA OBP SLG MLB OBP Rank
Batting 1st .247 .307 .394 24
Batting 2nd .255 .312 .424 24
Batting 3rd .273 .326 .470 22
Batting 4th .314 .377 .542 2
Batting 5th .260 .333 .449 8
Batting 6th .249 .312 .396 13
Batting 7th .233 .298 .400 20
Batting 8th .196 .265 .296 27
Batting 9th .196 .250 .295 15
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2016.

From a roster standpoint, Dipoto has addressed this significant deficiency through several steps. First, he retained Franklin Gutierrez to be part of the team’s corner-outfield platoon. The oft-injured “Guiti” enjoyed a healthy 2015 and proved that he could still contribute at the plate, when his body doesn’t betray him.

Another internal move that’s likely to help is the club’s decision to go with Ketel Marte as their starting shortstop. During his two-month debut with the team last year, the switch-hitter demonstrated a penchant for reaching base. Whether the 22-year-old can sustain a .359 OBP has yet to be determined, however his impressive 82-percent contact rate combined with his plus speed should at least translate to an OBP that surpasses league-average.

When making deals this winter, JeDi placed a premium on acquiring hitters who had a history of being able to consistently reach base. Because of this new strategy, some of the players that the general manager inherited didn’t fit into his vision for the ball club. Two players who fell into category were slugger Mark Trumbo and first baseman Logan Morrison, both were used as trade chips this offseason

New starting players with a history of on-base success include veterans Chris Iannetta, Adam Lind, and Nori Aoki. The only starting position player acquired who has struggled to consistently reach base during his big league career — Leonys Martin — is expected offset his offensive shortcomings with his superb glove. “A run saved is the same as a run scored” says the JeDi.

Potential Opening Day Lineup w/Steamer Projections
Batting Order
Name AVG OBP SLG
Batting 1st Nori Aoki .270 .332 .360
Batting 2nd Ketel Marte .269 .312 .356
Batting 3rd Robinson Cano .285 .344 .444
Batting 4th Nelson Cruz .255 .321 .476
Batting 5th Kyle Seager .265 .332 .443
Batting 6th Adam Lind .268 .342 .431
Batting 7th Seth Smith .248 .331 .408
Batting 8th Chris Iannetta .215 .323 .353
Batting 9th Leonys Martin .242 .293 .350

The team’s new players combined with holdovers Marte, Gutierrez, Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Seth Smith give the Mariners a much deeper, more diverse lineup going into 2016. Considering Seattle’s woeful offensive performances in recent years, these changes should help provide the team’s faithful with some measure of optimism as Opening Day approaches.

Deepen the rotation
JeDi’s first major trade helped address this element. He dealt Morrison, Brad Miller, and Danny Farquhar to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for hard-throwing starter Nate Karns and outfield prospect Boog Powell — another player with good on-base ability. Some may believe that what happened next during the rotation build was either karma or influenced by a cosmic power of some sort.

When it appeared that the Mariners had lost fan-favorite Hisashi Iwakuma to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they struck a deal with the Boston Red Sox to acquire veteran starter Wade Miley and reliever Jonathan Aro for pitchers Carson Smith and Roenis Elias. Just a few weeks later, Iwakuma returned to the Mariners when his deal with Los Angeles fell through.

It’s almost as if someone had played a mind trick on Dodgers management and told them that “Kuma” was “not the pitcher you’re looking for.” Perhaps, it was always the 34-year-old’s destiny to return the Emerald City.

As Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont noted, Miley isn’t likely to fill the role of a number-two starter for Seattle, but he does provide value. The addition of both Miley and Karns, plus the retention of Iwakuma deepens a rotation that also has ace Felix Hernandez and the young trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Mike Montgomery returning.

Steamer projections illustrate a club with more — and better — rotation options than last year’s squad. Using the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) to compare value, Seattle’s starting staff provided 8.7 fWAR last season, which ranked 19th in the majors. The current cadre in Peoria projects to be at 14.5 fWAR during 2016.

Steamer Projections for 2016 Rotation Options
Name IP ERA FIP fWAR
Felix Hernandez 221.0 3.18 3.12 5.0
Taijuan Walker 184.0 3.68 3.86 2.4
Wade Miley 175.0 4.00 4.04 1.9
Hisashi Iwakuma 168.0 3.44 3.57 2.8
Nate Karns 128.0 4.06 4.15 1.2
James Paxton 72.0 4.11 4.09 0.8
Vidal Nuno 9.0 3.39 3.72 0.1
Joe Wieland 9.0 3.80 3.98 0.1
Michael Montgomery 9.0 3.93 4.04 0.1
Total 977.0 3.66 3.73 14.5

Some may wonder why there are so many names on the list, but a team can never have enough starters or relievers. For example, the Mariners used ten starters last season, which was the major league average for 2015. That’s why you see names like Vidal Nuno, who has started and relieved in the big leagues, and Joe Wieland listed above. The club has also extended non-roster invites to Brad Mills and Donn Roach, who both have major league starting experience and provide additional fringe-depth.

Add layers to bullpen
As of today, the relief corps is definitely deeper compared to the unit that concluded last season. But, there are more layers of uncertainty than reliable depth. Until the bevy of new faces acquired by JeDi have an opportunity to prove themselves, doubts will remain.

Last season, Mariners suffered due to reliever volatility. The club’s bullpen delivered a value of 1.1 fWAR. Only the relievers of Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, and Boston Red Sox were worse. If the Seattle’s relievers do not significantly exceed their Steamer projections, this year’s bullpen will only rank a few spots higher than the 2015 edition.

Steamer projections for 2016 Bullpen Options
Name IP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
Steve Cishek 65.0 72.4 % 3.85 3.91 0.3
Joaquin Benoit 65.0 75.6 % 3.41 3.72 0.5
Charlie Furbush 55.0 75.1 % 3.37 3.61 0.4
Tony Zych 55.0 74.4 % 3.41 3.62 0.3
Evan Scribner 45.0 76.4 % 3.11 3.30 0.3
Cody Martin 40.0 73.7 % 3.78 3.96 0.0
Vidal Nuno 35.0 76.0 % 3.39 3.72 0.0
Jonathan Aro 30.0 73.7 % 3.93 4.25 0.0
Justin De Fratus 25.0 71.5 % 4.27 4.47 0.0
Ryan Cook 20.0 72.6 % 3.87 4.04 0.0
David Rollins 15.0 74.0 % 3.55 3.78 0.0
Joe Wieland 10.0 73.3 % 3.80 3.98 0.0
Mayckol Guaipe 10.0 71.7 % 4.07 4.22 0.0
Danny Hultzen 10.0 69.5 % 4.74 4.50 0.0
Michael Montgomery 10.0 71.6 % 3.93 4.04 0.0
Joel Peralta 10.0 75.7 % 3.75 4.18 0.0
Total 481.0 74.2 % 3.58 3.81 1.8

Clearly, JeDi is counting on bounce back years from Charlie Furbush, who is returning after an injury-shortened season, several other holdovers, and imports Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Evan Scribner, Jonathan Aro, Cody Martin, Joel Peralta, Ryan Cook, and Justin De Fratus to provide enough depth.

How important is bullpen depth? Even the World Series champion Kansas City Royals — known for having the best bullpen in the majors last season — used 14 pitchers who were relievers during at least 90-percent of their appearances. Last season’s league-average for relievers used was 17; Seattle used 19. Without readily available bullpen reserves, it’s highly improbable that any team can remain in contention during an arduous 162-game season.

Obviously, quantity is nothing without quality. That’s why the Mariners’ pen will be an “unknown unknown” during the early stages of the regular season. Of the three elements that make up the “JeDi code,” this one is most likely to pull the team towards the dark side of losing baseball. Only time will tell what the future holds. Even with his immense foresight, JeDi cannot forecast the outcome of his bullpen dealings until after Opening Day.

Fortunately, for the team and its playoff-starved fan base, all hope won’t be lost if my bullpen doubts prove to be correct. Prospect Insider writers have routinely noted that Dipoto has demonstrated a knack for fixing a bullpen during the regular season while still with the Angels. In 2014, he acquired star closer Huston Street, plus setup men Fernando Salas and Jason Grilli and his former club went on to 98-games that year.

A new hope
Since his arrival, the new Mariners’ general manager has been strongly advocating another principle that shouldn’t be overlooked — controlling the strike zone, which permits hitters and pitchers to better control their own destiny. The 47-year-old believes that the team that controls the count “generally wins the game.” This philosophy is an encouraging development for the Seattle Mariners, but may require time to take hold at all levels of the organization.

Despite the new ideology espoused by Dipoto — new for the Mariners that is — and the positive changes he’s implemented, I still view this club as being on the fringe of contention as of late February. Although I maintain a measure of guarded optimism that the offense and rotation will be improved, I continue to remain wary of the Mariners bullpen. Some may find my lack of faith be disturbing, but it’s a bit too early in JeDi’s retooling process to have delusions of grandeur.…