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.…

“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.

 …

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.

The Major League Baseball (MLB) non-waiver trading deadline is barreling down upon us and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see what general manager Jerry Dipoto does with the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” with the Mariners.

With that in mind, I thought I’d provide a primer for each club in the American League (AL) West division to see where the Mariners and their divisional rivals stand as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

A word of caution though, the trade market will fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Injuries, poor individual performances, and changes in the standings will determine who will be the buyers and sellers in the deadline derby. Moreover, these factors will influence the aggressiveness of all parties involved in the market.

So far, I’ve discussed the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels. Let’s turn our attention to the Houston Astros.

The start of the last two seasons couldn’t have been any different for the Astros. Last year, the club started out by logging a 15-7 win-loss record in April, which was good enough to give them a four game lead in the division. This year though, Houston stumbled out of the gate and found themselves sitting in last place with a 7-17 record and seven games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers when April ended.

Despite early setbacks, team management preached patience and it looks like they were right. Since the end of April, Houston has posted a 26-19 record — fourth best in the AL. Yet, when you look at their statistics, it’s tough to comprehend how they’re doing it.

Yes, they have a young core comprised of three of the brightest young stars in baseball — Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa. However, the team’s overall offense hasn’t been good all season.

The stats aren’t much better during the last month, when they’ve climbed back to wild card relevance. Astros hitters rank near the bottom of the AL in runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage.

Yet, the club finds themselves closing in on the .500 mark. How have they done it?

Beyond the young studs I’ve already mentioned, Houston’s bullpen has been the best in the AL during the last month. Their relief corps leads the AL in fielding independent pitching (FIP), has surrendered the fewest walks allowed and struck out the most hitters. Moreover, they lead the majors in the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR).

Standouts in the ‘pen include Will Harris — selected off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014 — and Michael Feliz. Harris has stepped into replace Luke Gregerson as the team’s closer and has emerged as one of the best relievers in the majors in 2016. The 22-year-old Feliz has solidified the club’s middle relief and the highly heralded Ken Giles, the former closer for the Philadelphia Phillies, has contributed too.

So, what’s not working in Houston? Let’s start with a rotation that’s been okay, but not great.

Staff ace Dallas Keuchel has struggled to regain his 2015 AL Cy Young Award form. To date, the southpaw’s walk and extra base hit rates have climbed from last season, as has his FIP.

Lance McCullers, who started the season late due to shoulder soreness experienced during Spring Training, has been productive. However, he’s never pitched over 160 innings in a season and could run out of innings by season’s end.

Former Seattle Mariner Doug Fister, Collin McHugh, and Mike Fiers have contributed to the rotation and have pitched well during the last month. Still, the starting staff may not be good enough to get Houston to the next level, which would be a deep postseason run. That’s especially true if Keuchel doesn’t return to his 2015 form.

Catcher is another area that’s not a strength. Jason Castro started the season as the Astros’ number-one backstop on the depth chart, but the team opted to send designated hitter — and former Atlanta Braves catcher — Evan Gattis to the minor leagues for a week in May so that he could reacquaint himself with the tools of ignorance and help behind the plate.

To date, Gattis has been splitting time between catcher and designated hitter. Finding a full-time replacement behind the plate makes sense, if the club can find someone who’s affordable and better than their current options.

First base and third base are two other positions that haven’t been productive to date. The Astros rank in the bottom third of the AL in most offensive and defensive categories for both positions.

Tyler White has been the primary first baseman, but he’s struggled at the plate and was sent to the minor leagues yesterday. Ideally, the Astros would prefer to have top-prospect A.J. Reed take over.

Unfortunately, for the Astros, the player who comes in at number-35 on the MLB.com Top-100 prospect rankings hasn’t been hitting well at Class-AAA Fresno. As of this writing, the Reed has a .252/.342/.485 triple-slash and doesn’t appear ready.

For now, Marwin Gonzalez will get the majority of playing time at first base. The switch-hitter has spent time at both corner infield positions and has slashed .259/.301/.400 this season, which is similar to his career averages.

Luis Valbuena has been the primary third baseman, although he’s played some first base. The left-handed hitter’s slash numbers are league-average, but don’t rank favorably against his peers. Of the 25 major league qualified third baseman, he ranks in the bottom 20-percent of every slash category.

Some bloggers have suggested that Houston has an internal option available for third base — Alex Bregman, currently playing at Class-AA Corpus Christi. While the notion of the number-two overall pick in the 2015 draft debuting in the majors makes for a fascinating story, it may not be in the cards.

Bregman is still at Class-AA level though. Even last year’s AL Rookie of the Year — Correa — spent time at Class-AAA, although it was just 24 games. Perhaps, the organization will leap frog the MLB.com number-18 overall prospect to the majors. But, he’s only played eight games at third base this season and only twice during this month, including yesterday.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no chance that Bregman doesn’t debut with the Astros before September 1 call-ups. He could be an injury replacement for Correa, if there was a need. On the other hand, if management feels that their hitting prospect is ready, they could have him leap frog Class-AAA and ship him directly to the majors in order to improve their run production.

Another option could be Houston turning to Colin Moran, who is currently playing for Class-AAA Fresno and the number-six prospect in their organization. Moran was with the Astros for six games in May and was slashing .289/.352/.410 with Class-AAA Fresno coming into yesterday’s play.

Considering the status of the Astros’ current roster and their standing in the AL West, how general manager Jeff Luhnow approaches the deadline is intriguing to me. Does he buy or sell?

Luhnow has been aggressive in both roles since taking over in 2011. Last season, he added starting pitchers Mike Fiers and Scott Kazmir and center fielder Carlos Gomez. In the past, he’s dealt veterans to pick up prospects and reinforce his system

The Astros general manager could take the same approach as last year and pursue upgrades for the weak areas that I’ve mentioned, especially if his team continues to win. Still, Houston has many holes to fill. Attempting to satisfy all of them, via the trade market, presents the risk of negatively affecting the organization’s long-term plans.

The Astros minor league system is still strong. But, Luhnow had to part with multiple prospects to pick up Gomez, Giles, Fiers, and Kazmir during the last 12 months. Will the 50-year-old baseball executive be willing to sell more of his farm to make a run this year?

Another factor to consider is the impending free agency of Castro, Fister, outfielder Colby Rasmus, and reliever Scott Feldman. Perhaps, Houston attempts to recoup value given away last summer by being a seller this year.

Assuming that Houston continues to play well and doesn’t suffer significant injuries, I expect they’ll will act as a buyer. Perhaps, they’ll part ways with a few prospective free agents to shuffle their roster. But, only if those moves don’t affect their competitiveness this season.

Why am I so certain that the Astros will lean forward? The current level of parity in the AL — eight teams are within six games of the wild card — gives every team near the .500 mark at the deadline a chance to earn a wild card berth. Plus, reaching the playoffs is addictive.

Last year, Houston ended a decade-long postseason drought and it’s doubtful they’d squander a chance to return to October play in order to preserve their minor league system. That’s assuming they continue to win between now and the deadline.

I’m not suggesting that Luhnow should give away his club’s future — he won’t. Rather, I expect that he’ll protect his organization’s future, while trying to win now. Playoff windows can quickly close and not reopen for a long time. Luhnow knows that, so do Mariners fans.

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

MLB: AL Wild Card Game-Houston Astros at New York YankeesLast week, Jim Bowden of ESPN and the MLB Radio Network published a list of the 30 best players who could be on the move prior to the August 1 non-waiver trading deadline and where he thinks those players fit best.

For some, it’s a tad early to be discussing deals when the deadline is still two months away. Bowden realizes that too and refers to his list as “my first take of the year” on players who could be dealt. Yet, some fans — and writers — find it fun to speculate on deals that may never occur.

For those not familiar with Bowden, he’s served as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals and has a ton of contacts in the baseball industry. For Seattle Mariners fans, he’s the guy who sent Mike Cameron and others to Seattle in exchange for Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Personally, I think the market is still immature. At this early stage of the season, there a plenty of clubs on the fringe of contention. Therefore, finding a partner willing to “sell” may be difficult to do, unless the club is currently in a rebuilding phase.

Still, there are those dying to discuss deals. To help satisfy the appetite of those hungry for trade talk, I’m going to discuss 14 players Bowden suggested as “best fits” for American League ball clubs. Enjoy.

Julio Teheran , SP, Atlanta Braves                                    Bowden: Boston Red Sox
Bowden points out in his piece that Teheran could be the most coveted pitcher at the deadline. The right-hander is owed a relatively low $25.3 million through the end of the 2019 season with a $12 million club option for 2020, his age-29 season.

Not only is the Braves hurler affordable, he’s performing well. Teheran has gone seven or more innings in six of his first 11 starts, his wins above replacement (WAR) ranks number-15 among major league starters, and his 2.77 earned run average (ERA) puts him in the same neighborhood with such familiar names as Marco Estrada, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez.

The Red Sox certainly would be a good fit for Teheran, but another club to keep an eye on is the Toronto Blue Jays. If Toronto opts to make another postseason push at this year’s deadline, adding another starting pitcher could be in the cards.

The Blue Jays staff has been performing relatively well, but the club has already acknowledged that starter Aaron Sanchez will end up the bullpen due to an innings limit — he’s never pitched over 133 innings as a professional.

Toronto has a new front office in place and they may be more reluctant with parting with prospects, as they did to get David Price last year. Although Teheran is not an elite pitcher like Price, he would be under team control for at least three more seasons, unlike Price who departed as a free agent at the end of last season.

Teheran may be the most sought after starting pitcher as Bowden suggests, but the Braves will have the upper hand in negotiations. With so much time remaining on his contract, Atlanta doesn’t have to rush to deal their star pitcher. They could opt to deal him in the offseason — when more suitors may be interested — or retain him to anchor their rotation.

Rich Hill, SP, Oakland Athletics                                          Bowden: Kansas City Royals
Seattle fans are very familiar with 36-year-old. Hill held the Mariners to just one run in 14 innings while striking out 16 and walking just one batter. It’s not just the Mariners. He’s held all opposing hitters to a .207 batting average.

If the Athletics don’t climb back into the playoff picture, they’ll likely trade several players — including Hill. Any contender looking to boost their rotation will have interest in the 12-year-veteran.

Unlike Teheran, Hill is a “rental player,” who’ll be a free agent at season’s end. For that reason, the southpaw who’s making $6 million this season won’t be as costly to acquire as the Braves’ top starter.

If Teheran isn’t available or too expensive for contenders, Hill instantly becomes the most attractive starter in the trade market. With that kind of negotiating advantage, it’s hard to believe that the Athletics would retain the pending free agent past August 1, if they continue to have a losing record.

As with Teheran, Hill could fill the void in Toronto’s rotation once Sanchez moves to the bullpen.

Another interested party could be the Red Sox. Hill has already had two tours of duty with Boston, including last year when he resurrected his big league career after starting the season pitching for Class-AAA Syracuse and the Independent League Long Island Ducks.

It’s worth noting that Hill suffered a “real mild groin strain,” according to manager Bob Melvin, during yesterday’s contest against the Detroit Tigers. Assuming this injury causes no setbacks; his trade value should remain unchanged.

James Shields, SP, San Diego Padres                              Bowden: Detroit Tigers
“Big Game James” is an intriguing trade candidate. He’s no longer a number-one starter, although he’s having a solid year with the Padres. But, his contract limits his trade value.

The right-hander is making $21 million this season and makes the same amount during the next two seasons. There’s also a $16 million option for 2019 — his age-37 season– with a $2 million buyout. In total, Shields stands to make at least $44 million between now and 2019, unless he opts out of his contract after this season.

That’s the second challenge with Shields’ contract — enticing a team to trade for a player who could potentially walk after this season. Considering that he had to wait so long to find a team during his last free agency — he didn’t sign until February 11, 2015 with the Padres — he may not want to test the market again. On the other hand, this year’s free agent market is very thin for starting pitching.

Clubs can find workarounds to challenges like Shields’ opt out, but it requires two amenable partners and a player willing to go along. That usually means the player has to get something in return for passing on his opt out.

As mentioned by Bowden, the Tigers make sense. So do the Red Sox. Both clubs have previously demonstrated a willingness to spend and could use a durable middle-of-the-rotation type — like Shields.

Another team to watch will be the Chicago White Sox. Jon Heyman of MLB Network has reported that the Chicago White Sox have shown interest in the right-hander.

As I alluded to at the onset, Shields’ contract will be an issue — even for ball clubs with deep pockets. To move the veteran starter, the Padres may have to include money to help offset his steep salary or expect to receive very little in return.

Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers                       Bowden: Tampa Bay Rays
The seven-year veteran turns 30 next month and the Brewers hold a relatively cheap $5.25 million club option on Lucroy for the 2017 season. So, any club acquiring the services of the right-handed hitter for about a year and a half.

Obviously, Milwaukee will be looking for prospects as they continue to rebuild. However, I’m not sure that the cash-strapped Rays would be willing to part ways with top prospects for an 18-month addition, who could be the team’s third highest player in 2017.

The Tigers, on the other hand, are more aggressive when it comes to making “win-now” deals and they aren’t getting much production from the catcher position. Once again, Boston makes sense too.

Derek Norris, C, Padres                                                        Bowden: Rays/Houston Astros
Coming into today’s action, Shield’s battery mate had a .182/.238/.338 triple-slash — significantly below his career norms, although it’s important to note that offense from the catcher position is secondary. The major league batting average for catchers stands at .234.

It’s worth noting that Norris has experience at first base and a career .286/.359/.479 triple-slash against southpaws.

The 27-year-old is making $2.9 million this year and is arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons, which may scare off clubs on a tight budget, unless they’re looking for a starting backstop. Once again, it’s hard for me to fathom the Rays being interested in adding payroll and parting with prospects to get a catcher who doesn’t necessarily represent a significant upgrade at the position.

The Astros are already experimenting with Evan Gattis at the catcher spot. Whether Houston would be amenable to acquiring Norris at the deadline would come down to their long-term plans for Gattis and their position in the standings.

If the Astros’ record improves and opt to move Gattis out of the catcher spot, they might be more inclined to go after Lucroy than Norris. After all, Milwaukee and Houston have a history as trade partners. Last July, the Astros picked up Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers in exchange for prospects.

Other trade possibilities could become reality, if a contender suffers an injury at the catcher spot. Norris would be a good addition for a contender who needs an injury fill-in or wants to add more depth to the position.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH, Blue Jays                           Bowden: Chicago White Sox
Another potential rental player is Encarnacion, who’s making $10 million this season. The 33-year-old is off to a sluggish start, as is his team. Bowden also suggested teammate Jose Bautista as a best fit with the Chicago Cubs.

It’s too early to tell whether Toronto will buy or sell — they have a 26-26 win-loss record entering today. However, Encarnacion to the White Sox makes sense, assuming his numbers improve. Otherwise, the “South-Siders” would be better to look for other options or stick with current designated hitter Avisail Garcia, who’s posted better slash numbers than Encarnacion.

If I was forced to place a wager, I’d bet that both Encarnacion and Bautista won’t be traded by the deadline. Both players are popular with fans and it’s unlikely that the Blue Jays will completely fall out of the postseason race by August 1.

Carlos Gonzalez, RF/LF, Colorado Rockies                   Bowden: Red Sox
When considering the production of Colorado players, the “Coors Field affect” has to enter the conversation. Gonzalez’s slash numbers are considerably lower when playing on the road, plus he’s making $17 million this season and due to make $20 million in 2017.

Moving “CarGo” this season would be a wise move for the rebuilding Rockies. Bowden suggested catcher Blake Swihart as a possible trade target from the Red Sox. However, getting arms would be a wise move for a club that’s struggled to entice elite free agent pitchers to come to Denver.

Gonzalez is a good player, not a superstar. Nevertheless, he’d be a considerable grade in left field for the Red Sox. Another destination that would make sense — from a baseball perspective — would be the Washington Nationals, who are getting very little production from a 37-year-old left fielder Jayson Werth.

From a business perspective, making the deal might be difficult. Werth will make $21 million next year, while Gonzalez will be earning $20 million. Werth, like CarGo will be a free agent after next season. But, I have an idea.

Perhaps, both teams could swap their high-paid players and the Nationals could throw in a few top-shelf pitching prospects to make the deal worthwhile for Colorado. That’s probably the wackiest trade proposal I’ve ever concocted. However, both teams would get something they need.

The Nationals get instantaneous help in their lineup for this year and next without disrupting their budget, while the Rockies get a few top prospects along with Werth, who makes approximately the same salary as CarGo.

Colorado did something similar last year when they traded Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for highly paid shortstop Jose Reyes, reliever Miguel Castro, top-100 pitching prospect Jeff Hoffman and fellow minor leaguer Jesus Tinoco.

There’s probably no chance that this happens, but it was fun hatching that hair-brained that scheme. Okay, back to reality.

Josh Reddick, RF, Athletics                                                  Bowden: Royals
The A’s right fielder was off to a great start before fracturing his left thumb, while sliding into second base. Fortunately, for Reddick and Oakland, he’s projected to return by the end of June.

Like Hill, the eight-year veteran is a free agent at the end of the season and a likely trade chip, assuming Oakland can’t climb back into the postseason race.

Bowden projected that the Athletics would trade Reddick back to where he began his career — Boston. With that said, he’d be a nice fit with the Seattle Mariners from an offensive and defensive standpoint. The 29-year-old is a solid defender with one of the best arms in the game.

I don’t know if executive vice president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst would be willing to make a deal with a division rival during the season, but Reddick would be a nice addition for the Mariners.

It’s important to note that a hand injury can slow a hitter’s return to productiveness. I have no insight into the extent of Reddick’s injury, but his effectiveness at the plate bears watching after he returns. Certainly, possible suitors will be doing just that.

Yasiel Puig, RF, Los Angeles Dodgers                              Bowden: Royals/Athletics
Just 25-years-old, Puig has already produced an extensive highlight reel during four-year career. At other times though, he’s looked disinterested leading him to run afoul of managers and teammates. To top it off, his production numbers have declined in each of the last three seasons.

Despite the Dodger’s apparent frustration with Puig’s distinctive personality, the team could be reluctant to part ways with their mercurial outfielder. Trading him now would require the club to sell low with a player who has tremendous upside and is owed a relatively low $17.5 million for the next two seasons.

Perhaps, the change of scenery suggested by Bowden would be best. However, the Dodgers’ outfield production has been below league-average, which leads me to believe that they’d have to be blown away to part with their potentially best outfielder during a season when they’re trying to contend.

If the situation in Los Angeles has truly become untenable, the same actors — White Sox, Red Sox, and Tigers — may be willing to take a chance on Puig.

Melvin Upton Jr, LF/RF, Padres                                        Bowden: White Sox
The older brother of Detroit Tigers outfielder Justin Upton has experienced a nice bounce back after several down seasons with both the Padres and Braves. Bowden suggests that the 31-year-old would be an upgrade over current White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson, although I don’t necessarily agree.

Upton’s current triple-slash of .258/.323/.416 is slightly better than Jackson’s slash, but that’s a small sample size. Over the past three seasons, Jackson’s production has been better. Trading for a player on the wrong side of 30, who is two years older than the incumbent is, and set to make $16.5 million next year doesn’t add up.

For the Padres to move Upton, they’d likely have to help pay a good chunk of his salary or expect to receive little in return. Otherwise, I can’t see a contender dealing for his league-average production and exorbitant salary.

Andrew Miller, RP, New York Yankees                            Bowden: Seattle Mariners
The big left-hander has been thoroughly dominant. Currently the setup man for closer Aroldis Chapman, Miller would be closing for most teams in the majors.

There’s a big assumption with this suggestion by Bowden — the Yankees will be sellers. Considering the club hasn’t had a losing season since 1992, it’s tough for me to picture general manager Brian Cashman dealing the reliever this season.

If I’m wrong and Cashman opts to move veterans to help the future, snagging the 31-year-old — who’s making $9 million annually through 2018 — will be costly. The Yankees could simply opt to hold onto Miller, deal him in the offseason, or retain him to be their closer — if they opted to trade or not re-sign Chapman instead.

Bowden sees the Mariners as the best fit for Miller. There’s no doubt that the southpaw would significantly improve the back-end of Seattle’s bullpen, but does using so many resources and expending that much payroll to get one player sound like something that general manager Jerry Dipoto would do? His brief history in Seattle leads me to say “no.”

If Seattle is in contention, they’ll need to add more than one arm to the ‘pen, plus another corner outfielder. Using a significant amount of resources to acquire Miller — or any high profile player — would make it difficult for the club to get those additional pieces.

Perhaps, Cashman moves Chapman if he thinks he can grab a few pieces that could help his club this year and in the future. In the end though, I expect that both Miller and Chapman will end their season wearing Yankee pinstripes.

Fernando Rodney, RP, Padres                                              Bowden: Blue Jays
Seattle fans are probably rolling their eyes right now. After all, during his stay in Seattle, they dubbed Rodney’s relief appearances as the “Fernando Rodney Experience” due to the volatile nature of his outings. During this season in San Diego though, the 39-year-old has done a nice job of resurrecting his career after losing the Mariners closer job last year.

Not only is Rodney performing well, he’s affordable and comes with a low financial risk. He’s making $1.6 million this season and the Padres hold a $2 million team option for 2017, with a $400 thousand buyout.

Picking up the charismatic right-hander would be a good move for any contender looking to reinforce their bullpen depth, including the Seattle Mariners. My ears are already burning after that comment.

Joe Smith, RP, Los Angeles Angels                                    Bowden: Tigers
The side-arming reliever is a free agent after the season and has been filling in as the Angels closer during the absence of Huston Street.

Adding Smith should help bolster the bullpen of any contender, although it’s worth noting that the 32-year-old’s home run and walk rates are up and his strike out rate has decreased during this young season.

As a rental setup man, who’s not performing below career norms, Smith shouldn’t command a high price tag. Assuming that there’s no trade embargo going on between Dipoto and his former club, Smith would be another potential option for the Mariners.

Certainly, Dipoto is familiar with his former pitcher and the general manager has demonstrated an interest in bringing former players from his days in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Then again, he’s familiar with Street too.

Arodys Vizcaino, RP, Braves                                                   Bowden: Blue Jays
Trading a closer from one of the worst clubs in the majors makes sense. However, when he’s having a great season, is only 25-years-old, and under team control through the 2019 season, there’s no rush in moving him.

As with Teheran, the Braves would likely make a deal if they get a great offer. Alternatively, they can just wait until the offseason when there may be more suitors interested in their top reliever.

Final thoughts
While it’s fun and interesting to talk deadline deals on Memorial Day, a lot can change between now and August 1. Perhaps, the White Sox continue their free fall in the standings and the Mariners tank too. Maybe, the Toronto Blue Jays will catch fire as they did last year.

There’s also the possibility of injuries affecting sellers — as with Reddick and Hill — or buyers who lose a key player.

Still, I get it. Trade speculation is entertaining to many baseball fans. As the trade deadline gets closer, Prospect Insider will be providing ongoing analysis of potential and actual deals involving the Mariners and other major league clubs.

It’s going to be a fun summer.

 …

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.…

FelixPayroll is always a hot topic among Major League Baseball teams and as we get closer to Opening Day, the needle starts to settle on what dollar amount each team will allocate. Of course moves will happen during the season and many teams leave room in their budget for just that occurrence, so the Opening Day number is anything but a final tally. With Ian Desmond now a member of the Texas Rangers for 2016, we can expect any further free agent signings to be of the low-level variety after an extended free agency signing period comes to an end.

That brings us to the Seattle Mariners where the first offseason under a new regime brought significant change to the ball club. About this time last year I analyzed how the Mariners would distribute payroll by position. Unsurprisingly the rotation, featuring Felix Hernandez, and second base, featuring Robinson Cano, took up the largest allocations and combined for just under 40 percent of the team’s nearly $125 million payroll.

That percentage stands to shrink again in 2016 as the Mariners Opening Day payroll is projected to be around $140 million — a consecutive increase. The following table shows the players that have been included for each position for this exercise, and more or less are expected to fill the 25-man roster for Seattle. A few estimations were done on my part for the last few roster spots available.

 2016 Salaries by Position
Position Salary Player(s)
SP $40,230,000 Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade MileyTaijuan Walker, James Paxton/Nate Karns
RP $16,908,000 Joaquin Benoit, Steve Cishek, Charlie Furbush, Ryan Cook, Evan ScribnerJustin De Fratus, Vidal Nuno
C $4,250,000 Chris Iannetta
1B $8,000,000 Adam Lind
2B $24,000,000 Robinson Cano
3B $8,000,000 Kyle Seager
SS $600,000 Ketel Marte
LF  $5,500,000 Nori Aoki
CF $4,150,000 Leonys Martin
RF $6,750,000 Seth Smith
DH $14,250,000 Nelson Cruz
Bench $3,850,000 Franklin Gutierrez, Steve Clevenger, Shawn O’Malley, Jesus Montero
Total $136,488,000

All contract information used comes from Baseball-Reference. For pre-arbitration players I used the following scale: first-year players receive $550 thousand, second-year players receive $600 thousand, and third-year players receive $650 thousand. Typically pre-arbitration players will earn a salary in this range or slightly higher. But a the case where a player is set to earn more than $650 thousand but less than $1 million won’t be all that noticeable in the bigger picture.

Remembering that this is an estimate, the 25-man roster here totals $136.488 million for the year’s payroll. This number is not inclusive since it doesn’t reflect the salaries of other players that are on the 40-man roster.

Of this projection the bullpen is most likely to have a different shape by the time Spring Training is over as both Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook are out with lat injuries. It’s also possible that Dae-Ho Lee beats out Jesus Montero as a platoon bat. And it isn’t a given that Shawn O’Malley makes the team either. Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas are in the mix too. The salaries for the other candidates won’t differ substantially from who is shown as making the team, so for our purposes here, this will work.

With the same names and numbers from the above table, we now see how the Mariners have distributed payroll for the 2016 season in visual form.

2016 Mariners Salary Distribution 2

As mentioned, second base and Cano still make up the biggest portion of the distribution among position players, though that percentage has decreased a tick as payroll has grown. Seager, signed to a seven-year contract extension prior to the 2015 season, enters year-two of the deal and his salary will continue to rise over the next couple seasons. Felix and his $25.86 million salary tops the club and accounts for just over half of the total allocation for the rotation.

Compared to last year, more dollars have been invested into the bullpen, catching, and first base. This is consistent with the offseason acquisitions of Benoit and Cishek in the bullpen, Iannetta at catcher, and Lind at first base. Since Mark Trumbo was a midseason acquisition his salary was not reflected in the 2015 edition that took place prior to the season.

The distribution across the outfield is similar to last year’s as Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson combined to earn just over $10 million while the newly acquired Aoki and Martin along with a raise to Smith will eat up all of that.

Seattle will have the advantage of Marte and several pitchers playing in their pre-arbitration years and earning less than $1 million. This appears to be a slightly more veteran ball club compared to last year with the likes of Iannetta and Aoki taking the places of Mike Zunino, who is likely ticketed for Triple-A, and Ackley, who was dealt to the New York Yankees last summer.

Interestingly enough, the Mariners will again distribute 42 percent of their payroll to pitching. For 2016, 30 percent will go to the rotation and 12 percent will go to the bullpen while in 2015, 32 percent went to the rotation and 10 percent went to the bullpen.

There isn’t too much to be taken away from this exercise, but we can add some context by showing how the Mariners’ spending compares to the rest of the American League West division, as shown in the following chart.

2016 ALW Salary Dist

The same caveats used for the Mariners — playing time, pre-arbitration salaries, etc. — apply for the other four teams as well. Here are a few things that I made note of:

  • Josh Hamilton: the embattled outfielder will likely start the season on the disabled list, but when he does return, he stands to come off the bench for the Texas Rangers. Hamilton’s salary creates a misleading distribution of the Rangers bench situation since they are actually only paying a couple million dollars of his salary with the Los Angeles Angels on the hook for the rest.
  • The Oakland Athletics beefed up their bullpen this winter with the likes of Ryan Madson, John Axford, and Liam Hendriks and have allotted almost $7 million more to their bullpen than rotation.
  • The Houston Astros are in a similar position with several high-priced relievers remaining on the roster after a strong contending year.
  • Part of the reason the A’s and Astros have more invested in their bullpens than rotations is due to the pre-arbitration salaries for pitchers such as Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh.
  • The investment the A’s have made into their rotation is in the form of two free agent contracts to starters Henderson Alvarez and Rich Hill. Alvarez is recovering from shoulder surgery and could join the team in May while Hill is looking for a healthy, bounce-back season.
  • As was the case last year, the division is distributing very little to the catching position. The M’s Iannetta is now the second-highest paid catcher in the division with the Astros Jason Castro set to earn $5 million.
  • The Rangers have invested heavily in a handful of players at five positions in Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo with three positions receiving relatively little investment.
  • The only position the Mariners are clearly spending more at than their division rivals is second base.
  • The A’s have a somewhat interesting roster puzzle with Coco Crisp and Chris Coghlan expected to start on the bench but combining to earn almost $16 million. You’d have to think president Billy Beane has another trick up his sleeve somewhere.

There’s a groundswell of unease taking hold of Major League Baseball (MLB). Both executives and pundits alike are expressing concern that the league is facing a problem that, if not addressed, could jeopardize the integrity of the game and ultimately lead to a loss of fan confidence. When Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote about the sport’s dilemma in January, an unnamed team official stated, “I’ve never seen the game so messed up.”

What predicament could possibly be so troublesome that it would spur such pessimistic commentary from a baseball official? Believe it or not, tanking in baseball.

For the casual sports fan, “tanking” carries a negative connotation and is typically used to characterize a strategy to “tank” games or seasons by deliberately building a non-competitive roster. Essentially, lose today in order to have a brighter tomorrow.

Baseball’s “tankers”
Those who believe that tanking is “a thing” in MLB, generally point to a couple of organizations — the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs — as recent examples of clubs that tanked their way to the top.

After languishing at the bottom of the standings for several years, both teams started anew in 2011 by hiring new front office personnel who set out to overhaul their respective rosters. Five years later, Houston and Chicago are now poised to be serious postseason contenders in 2016 and beyond.

The success of the Astros and Cubs has helped ignite concerns that other clubs are now adopting the tactic of tanking. The teams most frequently referred to as “tankers” are the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and Milwaukee Brewers. All of these organizations have been shedding payroll and trading veterans for prospects; each projects to do poorly during the upcoming season, according to FanGraphs projections.

Why the anxiety?
The heart of the matter is how the appearance of intentional losing could damage the reputation of MLB. Joel Sherman of the New York Post points out that baseball has vigorously worked to safeguard its integrity ever since the Black Sox Scandal. As Sherman notes, a key principle to protecting the league’s brand is advancing the expectation that every team is trying to win every game.

The integrity of baseball isn’t all that’s at stake, apparently. The simple pleasure of watching MLB games is at risk according to Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gordon opined that the Cardinals try to win every year and that “Our National Pastime would be far more enjoyable if every other team shared that ambition.”

Based on the passionate outcry from these insiders and others, a casual observer might conclude that baseball is facing a new threat as ominous as the previously mentioned Black Sox Scandal, the lost 1994 postseason, or the steroid era. Fortunately for the sport and its fans, what’s going on in baseball is neither new, nor a threat to the game.

Not for nuthin’
I respect the writers I’ve mentioned, but the term “tanking” is hyperbolic click-bait that’s led to misplaced outrage. In reality, the types of overhauls performed in Houston and on the north side of Chicago aren’t new to MLB. Why is that so hard to see?

The Braves, Brewers, Phillies, and Reds have made the unpopular move of announcing to their faithful that are they’re in a rebuilding phase — that’s not tanking. By being upfront, these clubs aren’t impinging on the integrity of the game and they’re not permanently damaging their relationship with fans.

A review of league standings and playoff participants over the last decade points to something far more questionable than a few teams “blowing up” their rosters and starting over — prolonged inferior performance by teams not mentioned during tank-talk. Please, give me an opportunity to show you why I feel this way.

Clunking
Why haven’t the caretakers of the baseball’s reputation, who’ve decried the pitfalls of tanking, been equally vocal about the long postseason droughts of the Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox, and Colorado Rockies?

These “clunkers” have been out of serious contention for much longer than the accused tankers — several have failed to enact a clear-cut plan to become relevant again. Isn’t “clunking” worse for MLB than the “tanking” that’s allegedly going on?

If maintaining competitive balance and fostering credibility with baseball fans are truly key objectives for the guardians of the game, shouldn’t complicity mediocre organizations be the targets of more scrutiny? In a couple of cases, clunkers have produced an inferior on-field product for over a decade. Look at the postseason drought “leader board” to see what I mean.

Longest MLB Postseason Droughts
Years Team Last PO Appearance .500 or better seasons (since 2011) Est. 2016 Payroll
14 Seattle Mariners 2001 ALCS
One $141M
12 Miami Marlins 2003 World Series
Zero $64.4M
9 San Diego Padres 2006 NLDS
One $102.5M
7 Chicago White Sox 2008 ALDS
One $127M
6 Colorado Rockies 2009 NLDS
Zero $109.9M
5 Minnesota Twins 2010 ALDS
One $108.2M
4 Arizona Diamondbacks 2011 NLDS
Three $99.9M
4 Philadelphia Phillies 2011 NLDS
Two $101.5M
4 Milwaukee Brewers 2011 NLCS
Three $63.4M

It’s somewhat ironic that alleged tankers receive so much attention, although the Marlins blew up their roster after winning the 2003 World Series and haven’t been back to the postseason since.

Two of the current teams viewed as tankers — the Phillies and Brewers — have made a combined seven postseason appearances since the Marlins and Mariners last played October baseball — which was during the first presidential term of George W. Bush. Yet, the overhaul of the Phillies is more detrimental to the sport? I bet the baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest and south Florida would disagree.

One could contend that the Mariners and White Sox, unlike some of the team listed above, have been willing to spend money. That’s true. However, neither club has been able to buy a winning roster.

Then, there are the Padres and Rockies. Neither projects as contenders this year, nor do they appear to be heading towards a cure for their perpetual case of the doldrums. How can anyone be anxious about so-called tankers when so many other teams have been second-rate — or clunking — for so long?

How bad is it, really?
So, just how “messed up” is baseball right now? Based on the statements from the pundits, you’d expect to discover that the number of 90-loss and 100-loss teams has been steadily climbing, right? Well, not really.

A Decade of Losing
Year # of 90-loss teams 100-loss teams
2006 6 TBD/KCR
2007 8 None
2008 7 WSN/SEA
2009 7 WSN
2010 7 PIT/SEA
2011 9 HOU
2012 8 HOU/CHI
2013 6 HOU/MIA
2014 6 None
2015 7 None

The number of bad teams has remained relatively the same over the past decade. It’s also worthwhile noting that there hasn’t been a 100-loss team during the last two seasons. That’s the first time since 1999-2000 that MLB has gone two consecutive seasons without a 100-loss team. Perhaps, the sky isn’t falling.

With that said, I’m sure that seeing the above table further infuriates the fan bases of the Mariners and Marlins. They are the only two franchises listed that haven’t returned to the postseason since their last 100-loss season.

Everyone does it, right?
When discussing tanking, both Sherman and Gordon emphasized that it’s critical for MLB teams to present their best roster for the entire season. That’s a noble thought, but what about the clubs that start the season believing they have a shot at the playoffs until reality sets in?

At the start of last season, the Detroit Tigers were — once again — serious postseason contenders. When things didn’t work out as planned, the team opted to become “sellers” at the trade deadline. Detroit traded ace David Price, closer Joakim Soria, and star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to three postseason contenders.

On July 31, the Tigers were 3.5 games away from the second wild card berth with 58 games remaining. Yet, they traded away three of their best players. Why doesn’t that doesn’t that constitute a tank job? Where’s the outrage?

When Detroit signaled they were sacrificing 2015 in order to be better in the future. I don’t recall any writers or executives decrying the impact of their moves on the competitive balance of their remaining schedule. Yet, some pundits fretted when the Phillies traded away their ace — Cole Hamels — to the Texas Rangers at the same trading deadline?

To be fair, both Price, Soria, and Cespedes were about to become free agents, while Hamels is under contract until 2020. So, there’s a distinction between the players’ situations. Nevertheless, Detroit could’ve kept all three players, tried to win as many games during the remainder of 2015, and then attempt to retain all three. After all, they’re a “win-now” type of ball club. Right?

Instead, the Tigers opted to deal players and finish poorly and “earn” a top-10 protected draft choice, just like the Phillies.

The Boston Red Sox took a similar stance in 2014. The club dealt pitchers John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, outfielder Jonny Gomes and shortstop Stephen Drew at the deadline when they were hopelessly out of contention.

Yes, Boston picked up Cespedes, outfielder Allen Craig, and reliever Joe Kelly in the deals. However, didn’t the “Sawx” symbolically throw in the white towel for 2014 when they parted ways with their ace and their best reliever? Why wouldn’t that be tanking?

Some may argue that the Red Sox and Tigers are win-now teams, unlike to the tankers expected to sink to the bottom this year. That may be true, but Boston’s 2014 purge didn’t lead to a winning 2015.

What if Detroit suffers a similar fate and is out of contention by mid-July? Will they sell again? How many years does a team have to be a seller at the deadline before they’re a tanker?

Don’t get me wrong. The Tigers and Red Sox made wise choices by being sellers at the deadline. So did the Phillies in dealing Hamels. To me, these deals are all the same. Teams are taking advantage of an opportunity to improve their rosters for the future, even if it means not fielding the best roster possible for the current season.

One last thought on building the best roster possible for the entire season. If maintaining the highest level of quality on the field is paramount, why does the league permit their teams to dilute their major league rosters by expanding from 25 to 40 players on September 1?

Reality check
As for that executive who had never saw “the game more messed up,” I didn’t need to look back decades for examples of when baseball was less competitive. Try five years ago.

In 2011 — the year that the Astros and Cubs changed leadership and started their alleged tanking — the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise ended a 30-year playoff drought. The Nats weren’t alone in enduring postseason futility at that time. The Baltimore Orioles (14 years), Toronto Blue Jays (18 years), Pittsburgh Pirates (19 years), and Kansas City Royals (26 years) were still in the midst of their postseason droughts.

Since then, the Orioles, Pirates, Blue Jays, and the Royals have reached the postseason, just as the Astros and Cubs did in 2015. So, no, the game isn’t more messed up than ever.

Finally
Clearly, fans in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia aren’t ecstatic with the thought of watching their team plod through successive losing seasons. I’m sure that game attendance will suffer and fan patience will eventually wear thin.

At least teams that are attempting to kick-start themselves provide some measure of hope to their respective fan bases. It’s certainly a better alternative than what’s been transpiring in Seattle, Miami, Denver, San Diego, and the south side of Chicago.

Baseball teams mired in mediocrity for extensive periods will eventually see their fans migrate away and become infatuated with other options on the sports menu, such as NFL preseason or professional soccer. Seattle is an excellent case study of that phenomenon.

Only time will tell if teams, like the Mariners, can re-earn the trust of those who walked away or never became interested due their failure to be relevant for so long. When you look at it from that perspective, “tanking” for three to five years and then becoming a sustainable winner doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it?

 

 

 

 

 

 …

Jun 14, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians designated hitter Francisco Lindor (12) reacts to tripping over first base after he hits a single in the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsYesterday, we looked at seven National League players set to enter their sophomore year: Kris Bryant, Matt Duffy, Joc Pederson, Odubel Herrera, Randal Grichuk, Anthony DeSclafani, and Noah Syndergaard. Today we will look at seven American League players entering their sophomore seasons.

To recap, per MLB’s rules, a player remains a rookie until they exceed 130 plate appearances as a position player, 50 innings pitched as a pitcher, or 45 days on an active 25-man roster — this doesn’t include time spent on the disabled list or when rosters expand in September.

This is why, for example, Chris Taylor wasn’t considered a rookie in 2015 after picking up 136 at-bats in 2014 but Shawn O’Malley will enter the 2016 season with his rookie status intact after just picking up major league at-bat No. 58 this past season.

Kyle’s younger brother Corey Seager does not appear on this list, despite finding himself in the top 20 NL rookies in terms of fWAR last year and being the consensus top prospect in baseball because, with just 98 September at-bats, he’s still a rookie. Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman is entering his third major league season despite missing nearly all of 2015 following knee surgery since he surpassed the 50 innings pitched mark back in 2014.

Without further ado, let’s get to those American League sophomores.

Francisco Lindor, SS — Cleveland Indians
If it wasn’t for the following shortstop, Lindor would have easily taken home the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year award. Arguably he should have anyways. He posted an impressive .313/.353/.482 slash line and his 128 wRC+ was second among AL shortstops with 400 plate appearances. The 22-year-old was regarded as an excellent defender and proved in year one that he has the range and arm to stick as a major league shortstop. Lindor’s 12 home runs and stolen bases in 99 games only added to his impressive season.

The power numbers in his first taste of major league action are likely due for regression considering his .482 slugging percentage is far beyond anything he had posted in the minor leagues. Double-digit home runs should be possible on a regular basis though, and if he gains strength over the next few years he easily could profile as a 15 home run, 15 stolen base guy. The elite defense will keep Lindor in the majors, but his offensive output will be worth watching in 2016 as pitchers will have adjusted and some of the power may not be there. Still, he projects as a star, or even a superstar, in the making.

Carlos Correa, SS — Houston Astros
Not often are Alex Rodriguez‘ early years referenced, but the comparison is warranted here for the recipient of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Correa burst on to the scene as a 21-year-old and lead all American league shortstops with his 133 wRC+. Equally impressive was his ascent to the majors. Correa began the year in Double-A, but by the second week of June debuted in the Astros’ lineup. He finished the year with 22 home runs and a 9.4 percent walk rate; both impressive numbers for a rookie and key aspects to the team’s run to the Wild Card game.

There’s conversation that Correa is already the best shortstop in all of baseball. Offensively, that was the case last season but he did find himself fifth among all shortstops in fWAR, though he played in just 99 games. Expectations will deservedly be high for Correa heading into 2016 and there’s evidence that he could be even better. The 133 wRC+ could be topped if he’s able to add a few more home runs and steals while keeping the strikeout rate steady. There’s also some room for improvement on the defensive side of his game, but we are already looking at a franchise cornerstone before his 22nd birthday

devon travisDevon Travis, 2B — Toronto Blue Jays
It was a year of what could have been for Travis. Among AL rookies he was tied for third with 2.3 fWAR but that was accomplished in just 62 games and 238 plate appearances before losing his season to shoulder problems. He accompanied his .304/.361/.498 slash line with eight home runs and solid defence at second base. At 25 he’s still young enough to have some upside beyond being an average hitter at a premium position, and his only appearances at Triple-A came this past season so his ability to hit major league pitching so well last year was impressive.

The power output was a tad unprecedented, but Travis does have a pair of 10 home run seasons in the minors to his credit. Otherwise he profiles as a solid all-around hitter at a premium position. The major question mark though, is health. He still isn’t resumed baseball activities and won’t return for Opening Day but could rejoin the club before summer officially begins. Ultimately health will be what his sophomore season comes down to. He may need some time in the minors to regain strength in his shoulder once he’s healthy, but only Ryan Goins is in his way on the depth chart so he should have every opportunity to contribute to the big league club this season.

Miguel Sano, DH — Minnesota Twins
If a a major leaguer is going to have success with one above average tool, it’s probably going to be with power. And Sano has all kinds of it. The 22-year-old skipped Triple-A on his way to the big leagues after pummeling Double-A pitching for the first two-plus months of the season. In 335 plate appearances with the Twins, the right-hander posted a .269/.385/.530 slash line with 18 home runs — good for second-most among AL rookies. He was error-free in 82 innings played in the field, but it’s expected that he will primarily DH for the bulk of his career.

There’s always significant risk with a true outcome player — a term given to one who is likeliest to strikeout, walk, or hit a home run (the three true outcomes for a hitter) in each plate appearance — and Sano is no different. His 35.5 percent strikeout rate — a good five percent higher than his worst minor league rate — was accompanied by a 15.8 percent walk rate. Since he won’t be providing any value on the field or base paths, cutting down the strikeouts even by a few percent could be a big deal. Sano isn’t the type of player you build an organization around, but Adam Dunn and others have proven that this type of skill set can be valuable for a major league team. There’s a lot of risk here, but we’ve seen how much teams covet right-handed power.

Ketel Marte, SS — Seattle Mariners
Potentially the forgotten man in an impressive class of rookie shortstops, Marte was late to the party compared to his counterparts as didn’t debut until July 31. In just 247 plate appearances, the 22-year-old ranked third among AL shortstops with his 112 wRC+ and sixth with his 1.7 fWAR. Marte’s .283/.351/.402 slash line provided a spark to the top of the Mariners’ order and was a bright spot in a mostly disappointing season for the club. Given his speed and contact skills, the switch-hitter should be able to maintain an above-average BABIP and hit at the top of the order.

There’s still debate as to whether he’d be better suited at second base or center field, but he has made strides at short and in the meantime will stick there. Long-term it’s unlikely to be his best fit though. Brad Miller was dealt over the offseason so Marte will have a reasonably long leash at short in his sophomore year. He did manage to improve his plate discipline in 2015 posting an impressive 9.7 percent walk rate but keeping that up will be a little tougher now that the league has gotten to know him some. There’s a good chance the stolen bases will increase as well under a management team that appears to be encouraging it more. Overall, Seattle could be looking at a solid if unspectacular all around sophomore season from Marte.

lance mccullersLance McCullers, SP — Houston Astros
The former first-round pick found himself in the big league rotation due to injuries despite only 32 innings at Double-A but didn’t look all that much out of place. He made 22 starts for the surprising Houston Astros and in 125 an 2/3 innings pitched posted a 3.26 FIP. McCullers’ 9.24 strikeouts per nine innings was second among AL rookie starters to teammate and fellow sophomore Vincent Velasquez. The 22-year-old’s 2.8 fWAR handily topped AL rookie starters as well.

McCullers has an excellent fastball that sits in the mid-90’s and an above average breaking ball. He’ll need to further develop his changeup in order to have three major league-caliber offerings that can be mixed, but give him the benefit of the doubt since he probably entered 2015 with another year or two of time in the minors allotted to do so. McCullers is coming off a professional career high for innings pitched and could find himself limited to the 150-range. He’ll have some adjustments to make as the league adjusts to him and I’d expect a few struggles as the changeup development continues, but he has a solid rookie season to build upon and should be fine in 2016.

Carlos Rodon, SP — Chicago White Sox
It’s rare for any player, even for a No. 3 overall pick, to debut in the big leagues after just 34 and 2/3 innings in the minors. But Rodon and his electric slider debuted in late April and went on to produce a 3.87 FIP across 23 starts and 139 and 1/3 innings pitched. The 23-year-old posted a strikeout rate of 8.98 per nine innings but struggled throughout the year with the free pass at a rate of 4.59 per nine.

Obviously the big thing going forward will be reducing the walk rate, but the raw tools are all there — including an improving changeup. As many young pitchers are susceptible to, Rodon had rough patches throughout the season where he was knocked around. The walks came down in August and September last year and the left-hander’s results improved ERA-wise, but his FIP disagreed with what we were seeing. The key to sophomore success will be continuing to develop consistency. At times Rodon’s lack of seasoning was telling in 2015, but with a full year under his belt, 2016 should be a step forward for the rising star.…

WalkerThere are many ‘Under 25′ or ’25 and Under’ player rankings to go along with the farm system rankings put out by Keith Law, MLB.com and Baseball America. A good number of the sites covering prospects offer such a ’25 and Under’ type list, apparently in attempt to better evaluate where each club is in terms of young talent. Not Prospect Insider. Why? I’ll explain.

For starters, the age of 25, or any other age one might choose as the cut-off, is 100 percent arbitrary. Why not 27? Why not 23? Second, There are much more significant cut-off criterion than age, or even rookie status when attempting to determine the long-term status of an organization, and since the mere presence of these ‘Under 25′ types suggest an attempt to take the analysis deeper than the farm, let’s go yet one step further, and with more meaning. Let me explain that, too.

Baseball teams do not benefit specifically from having as many good and/or promising players 25 years of age and under as possible. They benefit from having as many good and/or promising players under club control for as long as possible, and good+cheap+now is more valuable than any other combination. No matter how good a club’s up-to-25’s are, if they’ve accrued three or more years of service time, or happen to qualify for Super 2 arbitration status, they start to dent the organization’s financial flexibility, often impacting immediate or future plans. If a player broke into the big leagues at 22 years of age and stayed there, he’d be arbitration eligible after his age 24 season, making his age-25 season one under an arbitration salary — which almost always hits seven figures.

When clubs look to rebuild — such as the Atlanta Braves the past two seasons — they do not seek players of specific ages to go with certain levels of abilities. They seek controllable talents, sprinkled across all levels of experience levels and statuses. Many played all of 2015 in the minors. Most of those will do so again in 2016. Others have four-to-six years of club control attached. Rather than having to immediately write payroll checks for seven figures on several players, the Braves will pay their young big-league talents the league minimum for up to three full seasons. This is how they’ll be able to extend the contracts of key players heading toward free agency or perhaps even splurge on an impact free agent or two as they approach legitimate contention in the National League East. It’s also how they’ll entice other clubs to part with what they desire in order to complete their roster.

The same idea is why the Houston Astros are so dangerous right now — a threat to win it all for the next three or more season. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Lance McCullers and company will make peanuts for at least two more years, barring contract extensions, which only come at the club’s discretion.

The age of the player is arbitrary. His rookie status is meaningless. This is what makes the Nathan Karns trade a potential gem for the Mariners; he’s 28, yes, but has just one year of service on the ledger. The right-hander may be entering his prime years while the club is required to pay him only the league minimum for both 2016 and 2017, his age 28 and 29 seasons.

Here are the AL West’s top players who have yet to qualify for arbitration, heading into the 2016 season. Below that is a group of players in Year 1 of arbitration, which typically are very affordable stages for the club. Add the following groups to the farm system rankings of your choice and that combo is a better representation of where each club is in terms of housing the necessary young talent to put forth its best foot for the longer-term future — beyond 2016. The overall organization ‘ranking’ may not change much when implementing pre-arbitration talents, but clubs only can house 25 players on the big-league roster, 40 on the reserve list and players run out of options. The difference between the clubs is more opportunities to mitigate cost. Front office mistakes reduce such an advantage.

After the Mariners’ groups are those of the other four clubs in the American League West, for comparison. Of course, the financial situation of each club matters when trying to determine what their chances at long-term success may be, so keep that in mind.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Nathan Karns RHP 1.033
Taijuan Walker RHP 1.142
James Paxton LHP 2.027
Ketel Marte SS 0.066
Mike Montgomery LHP 0.089
Jesus Montero 1B/DH 1.167
Chris Taylor SS 0.139
Mike Zunino C 2.084
Vidal Nuno LHP 2.015
Stefen Romero OF 0.170
Steve Clevenger C 2.123
Luis Sardinas SS 0.143

It’s worth noting a player such as Mike Zunino is far from guaranteed to earn the nearly-year of service he needs to hit arbitration status after this coming season. Taijuan Walker is likely to hit Super Two status after 2016 — as you can see, he’s paced to end this coming year with two years, 142 days of service time. After the 2015 season, the Super Two cut-off was two years, 130 days, a mark Clevenger missed by just seven days of service.

Keep in mind that if James Paxton doesn’t win a spot in the starting rotation this spring, there’s a great chance he starts the season in Triple-A Tacoma. He enters 2016 needing almost a full season in the majors — 145 days, to be exact — to reach three years of service. He needs just 105 days of or so to join Walker in Super Two status, however, if we assume the cut-off repeats at two years, 130 days (it typically is different every season, however). In order for Paxton to miss out on arbitration after this season he’ll need to spend more than two full months in Triple-A, not counting rehab assignment time.

Mike Montgomery and Jesus Montero are out of options, but if the latter makes the club out of spring training and spends most of the season in the big leagues, arbitration likely will be part of his offseason, too.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Leonys Martin CF $4.15m
Evan Scribner RHP $807,500

Steve Clevenger, clearly, will get to arbitration status after this season, needing but a week or two to get there. Karns is set for two more full seasons of club-controlled contracts with no chance to get to arbitration until after the 2017 season. Evan Scribner was a Super Two qualifier this season, but remains affordable at under $1 million for 2016. Leonys Martin was a rather pricey first-year arbitration qualifier and a poor 2016 likely means a non-tender scenario for the center fielder next winter.

The Texas Rangers rank between No. 6 and No. 10, depending on who you ask, but we can add the following to their future chances to sustain the success they started a year ago.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Rougned Odor 2B 1.121
Sam Freeman LHP 2.050
Nick Martinez RHP 1.143
Delino DeShields, Jr. SS 1.000
Keone Kela LHP 1.000

Rougned Odor is a rather key name here, as is Delino DeShields, Jr., since both were big parts of the club’s success in 2015. The pair’s value, while earning just league-minimum salaries, is especially critical with other large contracts on the books, including Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder. Once Odor, for example, gets expensive, Fielder’s deal will be nearing expiration.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Shawn Tolleson RHP $3.275m
Jake Diekman LHP $1.255m
Tanner Scheppers RHP $900,000
Jurickson Profar SS $605,000
Sam Dyson RHP CC

For Texas, this group may be more important, since their best bullpen arm, Shawn Tolleson, and a potentially-terrific trade chip in Jurickson Profar, remains relatively cheap. Profar’s health is a major concern at this point, but if such injuries would have occurred in 2018, instead, Profar might be in non-tender territory. The Rangers can afford to sit back and hope for another year or two, which could pay off big, considering Profar’s immense talent.

The Los Angeles Angels ranked near the bottom of everyone’s list, topping out at No. 26 and bottom out at, well, the bottom. Their list of controlled contracts and first-year arbitration players isn’t impressive, either. At press time, the club was rumored to be near acquiring former Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders, who is a first-year arbitration player.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Matt Shoemaker RHP 1.166
Tyler Skaggs LHP 2.066
C.J. Cron 1B/DH 1.110
Mike Morin RHP 1.137
Cory Rasmus RHP 1.155
Johnny Giavotella 2B 2.055

Tyler Skaggs could be the key player here. The lefty has a chance to be a reliable No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but is coming off Tommy John surgery and may not reach such status in 2016, but there appears to be a good shot he nets the service time to hit arbitration status. He’ll likely remain super cheap into 2017, however. C.J. Cron being a cheap, useful bat — especially with Albert Pujols’ current health situation — is a pretty big deal for the Angels, who remain nearly $30 million from the luxury tax threshold for 2016 but did not go out and add insurance for their incumbents.

Cory Rasmus, Mike Morin and Johnny Giavotella are role players who have some value as long they’re not making much money.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Kole Calhoun RF $3.4m

Kole Calhoun reached Super Two status after last season and is one of the Angels’ best players — probably No. 2 behind Mike Trout — and is a value at $3.4 million for 2016. It may be on Damon Oppenheimer’s to-do list to seek controllable players — there’s no doubt it is — but doing so without return value is difficult and certainly will test the first-time general manager’s ability to get deals done with creativity.

The Oakland Athletics are in a unique position; they’re lacking in talent down on the farm, sitting at No. 18 in Keith Law’s Org Rankings, and having but a small handful of controllable talents that figure to be key cogs in whatever machine they’re looking to build.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Khris Davis OF 2.104
Liam Hendriks RHP 2.038
Sonny Gray RHP 2.061
Stephen Vogt C 2.084
Josh Phegley C 1.114
Marcus Semien SS 1.118
Kendall Graveman LHP 1.014
Chris Bassitt RHP 0.127
Jesse Hahn RHP 1.086
Billy Burns OF 1.020
Mark Canha OF/1B 1.000

There are two pieces of good news, however. First, Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt are two of Oakland’s club-controlled players that aren’t yet earning arbitration dollars in 2016. Second, the A’s have but $34.7 million on the books for 2017 and just $13.7 million on the books for 2018. This strong suggests the financial flexibility to cover most or all of Gray’s arbitration years, and perhaps even a free agent year or two. Marcus Semien is a big value here, too, manning the shortstop position with some upside at the plate, all for the league minimum.

The A’s haven’t a single first-year arbitration player, though, and as shown above many of their key pre-arb players will hit arbitration status after 2016.

The Houston Astros are in the best shape of any club in the division, even when it goes beyond the farm system itself. Their strong rookie class of 2015 — Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr. leading the way — puts them in a great spot for years to come, but the Astros are in good shape at all levels of service time.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Carlos Correa SS 0.119
Lance McCullers RHP 0.139
Ken Giles RHP 1.113
Collin McHugh RHP 2.085
Brad Peacock LHP 2.124
Will Harris RHP 2.102
George Springer SS 1.166
Mike Fiers RHP 2.085
Jake Marisnick OF 1.145
Matt Duffy 3B 1.059
Dan Straily RHP 1.126
Preston Tucker SS 0.150

Three of the Astros best six players reside in 0-3 territory, an impressive roster set for GM Jeff Luhnow and staff. One cam make an argument that 10 of the club’s 15 best players will earn less than $6 million in 2016, with five of them earning less than $1 million.

Not only is the Houston farm system still solid enough — No. 17 by Law — despite graduation several over the past two seasons, but their list of 0-3s and first-year arbitration players is as impressive as it gets in Major League Baseball, and Luhnow added to that over the winter in the form of closer Ken Giles.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Dallas Keuchel LHP $7.25m
Josh Fields RHP $900,000

The one area that may get a bit difficult for Houston is with Dallas Keuchel, whose first-year arbitration salary broke a record for pitchers. His Cy Young Award didn’t hurt, but the Astros may not be in a position to compete with Keuchel’s future market. The onus will be on Luhnow to continue to find starting pitching so he can trade Keuchel — if they prefer not to pony up the big dollars to keep him. His 2017 salary projects north of $10 million — perhaps somewhere in the $12-13 million range — with another bump to the $17-18 million or higher likely heading into 2018. The other controllable assets on the roster make it plausible for the Astros to keep such a salary, however, so don’t expect a break-up of this ultra-young group in H-town.

In the end, 0-3s and first-year arbitration talent is a continuation of the poor farm system for the Angels, but the Astros get a significant boost from the 17th-best farm system, suggesting long-term success as well as the immediate chance to win. The Rangers’ top-10 farm system doesn’t get a huge lift from their 0-3s or first-year arbitration eligibles, but there’s enough there to maintain the optimism moving forward beyond the next two seasons. The Mariners have some upside in their 0-3s that isn’t present in a bottom-quarter farm system, thanks to Walker, Paxton, Karns and Marte, lifting their overall future outlook a full step or two. Walker’s solid final three months to 2015 lend an extra half-step, too, since we could be talking about a No. 2 or No. 3 starter this season.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 …

Aoki Dipoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

 

Hamels
Last season was a forgettable one for Seattle Mariner fans who were forced to watch the American League (AL) West division standings turned upside down in a way that didn’t result in their team reaching the postseason. The two worst teams of 2014 reached the postseason and the two teams that had reached the postseason the season prior took a step backwards. At the same time, the Mariners – who were projected to be a World Series contender – ended up losing 86 games.

This abrupt change of fortune made for an exciting baseball season, plus helped set the stage for an interesting Hot Stove season. As with every off-season, priorities vary between teams as will their respective approach to address weaknesses and/or accentuate areas of strength. With pitchers and catchers set to report next month, it’s about time to review what the Mariners’ rivals have done to improve their rosters so far. It’s important to emphasize the “so far” because there’s still time for deals to happen, especially with several high-impact free agents still on the market.

For each team, you’ll see a payroll projection from baseball-reference.com. The numbers will become more firm after the arbitration process has run its course. For those interested in specifics, MLB Trade Rumors provides arbitration estimates that are widely used by numerous baseball sites, including Baseball Reference and Prospect Insider, which can be found here.

Next, up is each organization’s needs at the end of last season – based on projected free agent losses and areas of weakness. After that, there’s some background information on each club, a summary of their moves to date, and what’s left to be done before the teams break camp for the regular season.

Houston Astros
Estimated payroll: $88.9M
Needs: 1B/ LF/SP/RP

The massive roster reclamation undertaken by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow propelled the team into the playoff picture much sooner than most observers had predicted. Houston led the division for most of the season before falling on hard times in September. Despite their late season setback, Houston managed to beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and extend the World Series champion Kansas City Royals to five games before bowing out in the Divisional Series.

It’s reasonable to anticipate that last year’s rapid improvement and high expectations for 2016 will lead to a groundswell of fan support in 2016. What’s unknown is club owner Jim Crane’s willingness to provide Luhnow with more payroll flexibility. Player salaries have incrementally increased over the past few seasons from a league-low $26 million in 2013 to approximately $72 million last season. Although the team’s payroll will increase again, it’s projected to remain in the bottom third of the league despite the fact they franchise is based in the fourth largest city in the United States.

Off-season action:
Thanks to the bevvy of young talent that Luhnow and his predecessor – Ed Wade – have amassed and the fact that they were able to retain a couple of key free agents, the Astros haven’t made dramatic changes to their roster. In fact, they’ve added the fewest new major league players of any club in the AL West.

The club’s biggest move was picking up closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles’ arrival permits Houston to make former closer Luke Gregerson their eighth inning set-up man. Another move that helped bolster their bullpen was their retention of southpaw Tony Sipp, who was in high demand on the free agent market.

The Astros filled their left field hole when Colby Rasmus became the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer. As with the Giles deal, keeping their own player improves their overall by keeping Jake Marisnick and prospect Preston Tucker waiting in the wings.

What’s next?
It appears that the Astros plan to use Evan Gattis as their primary designated hitter and rely on former top prospect Jon Singleton at first base after the club non-tendered Chris Carter. The team would be well-served to either acquire a full-time first baseman or at least someone provide depth at the position.

Since Chris Davis has opted to stay in Baltimore, the market for first baseman has thinned out considerably. Justin Morneau can still play, but his concussion history makes him a risk. Another option would be Steve Pearce who can play first base or in a corner outfield spot. That kind of versatility is always a plus for any organization, especially if the team carries eight relievers and only has three bench players  – including a catcher. Based on market availability, the club may be best served to look for a trade partner.

As far as the rotation, adding a solid starter like Texas native Yovani Gallardo – who’s made 30 or more starts in seven consecutive seasons – would help provide depth and an innings eater for the Astros. Another option could be former Mariner Doug Fister who hasn’t been as durable, but would come with a lower price tag.

Fortunately for the team, the main pieces of their roster are relatively inexpensive and the lineup should improve simply by having AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and fellow rookie Lance McCullers for an entire season as long as they avoid a sophomore letdown. Also, healthy production from outfielders Carlos Gomez and George Springer for an entire season provides an instant improvement. With that said, the areas that I just noted need to improve in order for the club to get ahead in the competitive AL West.

Peter Gammons of the Gammons Daily noted yesterday that three different baseball executives have told him that they believe that free agent Yoenis Cespedes could end up in Houston. Certainly, the Astros could afford the 30-year-old outfielder from a financial standpoint, especially with so many young stars under team control for the foreseeable future. However, the club would likely need to move one of their outfielders or Gattis to make room for the right-handed slugger on their roster.

Oakland Athletics
Estimated payroll: $83.1M
Needs: 1B/2B/SP/RP

The Athletics are attempting to get back on track after a disastrous last place finish. Oakland fans were forced to watch their team finish with 68 wins, while former Athletic Josh Donaldson – who was traded last off-season – won the AL Most Valuable Player and helped the Toronto Blue Jays reach the AL Championship Series.

The fact that the club has demonstrated a willingness to deal a budding superstar, like Donaldson, has led to speculation that the A’s might do something similar with ace Sonny Gray. After all, the 26-year-old would bring a significant return. Team vice president Billy Beane recently told MLB Radio that he doesn’t intend to trade their star hurler and best player. The right-hander has a 2.88 earned run average (ERA) in 74 career starts and is under team control through the 2019 season. That’s right, the pitcher who finished third in last season’s AL Cy Young award voting will earn the league minimum in 2016. If Beane changes his mind, he won’t have trouble finding potential trade partners.

Off-season action:
Since the cash-strapped club is never in the market for a upper-tier free agents and management is currently unwilling to part with their staff ace, the Athletics are more inclined to assume risk and make unconventional acquisitions like free agent starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who was signed to a one-year $4.25 million deal. Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins after having shoulder surgery last summer, will open the season on the disabled list. However, he’s only entering his age-27 season and will be under team control through 2017.

Another reclamation project is southpaw Rich Hill. The 35-year-old – who’s been a reliever for the majority of his 11-year career – will be starter for the Oakland in 2016. Both Alvarez and Hill present different kinds of risks for the club. Time will only tell if either gamble pays off for the Athletics.

To upgrade second base, the club obtained infielder Jed Lowrie from the Astros, which prompted them to ship Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for minor league pitchers Jeffrey Wendelken and Zack Erwin – a fourth round pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur draft. I’m sure that some Oakland fans feel a sense of irony in seeing Lawrie leave just one season after being part of the package received for Donaldson.

At first base, the A’s acquired Yonder Alonso in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The left-handed hitter represents a significant upgrade at the plate over Ike Davis and is viewed as a good defender. Alonso will likely pair with the right-handed hitting Mark Canha to form a first base platoon when Canha isn’t playing in the outfield.

Oakland aggressively addressed their bullpen needs by adding relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski. The team hopes that these four veterans – plus a healthy Sean Doolittle – will help reinvigorate a relief corps that permitted an AL-worst 34-percent of inherited runners to score last season.

What’s next?
With the trade of righty Jesse Chavez for Hendriks, Manager Bob Melvin will have to rely upon Hill and youngsters Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Aaron Brooks to form a rotation behind Gray. Jarrod Parker could also be in the mix after missing the past two seasons due to arm surgery.

Teams with higher operating budgets would have the payroll flexibility to address their rotation needs by going after a lower-tier free agent starter like Gallardo, or even Fister. Perhaps, the market will drive down the price on one of the remaining free agents. If the club stands pat with the current roster, a lot of things have to go just right for Oakland to contend in 2016.

Los Angeles Angels
Estimated payroll: $167.7M
Needs: C/3B/LF/more offense

The Angels remained in postseason contention until the last day of the 2015 season, but fell short to Houston for the second wild card spot. The abrupt mid-season departure of former general manager Jerry Dipoto provided an opportunity for the Angels to redo their front office and assess their roster with a fresh set of eyes.

New general manager Billy Eppler inherits a roster weighed down by the $45 million that veterans Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson will be earning in 2016. Plus, the team is on the hook to pay former Angel Josh Hamilton $26.4 million, although he’s playing for the Texas Rangers. In total, the Halos have over $70 million obligated to four players who are either in decline or playing for a divisional rival.

To compound matters, owner Arte Moreno is on record saying that he’s reluctant to go over the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. As a result, the team hasn’t been active in an big-ticket free agents.

Off-season action:
Shortly after taking over the baseball operations, Eppler pulled off his first significant deal by getting shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league player Jose Briceno from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for shortstop Erick Aybar and pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.

Adding a defensive stalwart like Simmons is a plus for the Angels. But, it came at the cost of two prospects and didn’t address an area viewed as an urgent need – shortstop. Newcomb is a potential top-end starter, who is ranked in the top-20 among all major league prospects and number-two in the Braves system. Filling a more urgent hole in a deal would have beneficial for the Angels’ 2016 outlook.

The remaining moves made by the Angels were low cost additions. With the departure of last year’s third baseman – David Freese – via free agency, the club acquired Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals in exchange for reliever Trevor Gott and minor leaguer Michael Brady. Newly acquired Geovany Soto is expected to pair with youngster Carlos Perez to form the Angels’ catching tandem. Plus, free agent Cliff Pennington can play second base, shortstop and third base and some outfield, if needed.

What’s next?
Although Eppler has stated that he believes Moreno would approve exceeding the luxury tax mark for the right player, the team has yet to find that player and make a significant upgrade at any position from an offensive standpoint.

The area that desperately needs that “right player” is left field. For a club that ranked number-25 in on-base percentage last season, upgrading the position with an established offensive player would be a step in the right direction towards reinvigorating the club’s offense. Currently, the club has arguably the best player in the game – Mike Trout – in center field and Gold Glover Kole Calhoun manning right field. Calhoun has pop in his bat, but his batting average and on-base percentage are just league-average.

That leaves a potential tandem of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry to man left field. Other outfielders currently on the team’s 40-man roster include Todd Cunningham, Efren Navarro and minor leaguer Rafael Ortega. If the Angels can’t find more offensive punch from their outfield, 2016 could be another year of the club’s offense being Mike Trout and eight other guys.

Three free agent outfielders who would be an immediate upgrade be Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Justin Upton. But, it comes back to the same thing – ownership’s reluctance to go over the luxury tax mark. Perhaps, they can sign a lower tier free agent like Austin Jackson or Denard Span. Neither is a perfect fit, but would present better options than what’s on the current 40-man roster.

Texas Rangers
Estimated payroll: $144.2M
Needs: C/SP/RP

The defending AL West division champions were forced to take a broken road to postseason contention last year. First, the club lost ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John elbow surgery in Spring Training. To make matters worse, the club was forced to go without the services of fellow starters Derek Holland and Martin Perez for the first half of the season. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding slugger Prince Fielder – who was returning from neck surgery – and the Rangers 2015 outlook appeared bleak.

While most observers didn’t expect Texas to be a contender after their run of bad fortune with their rotation, general manager Jon Daniels never waved the proverbial white flag. He continued to look for opportunities to improve his roster for 2015 and beyond throughout the season. He first reacquired former Ranger Hamilton from the Angels after he wore out his welcome in Anaheim. Hamilton’s contributions proved to be limited. But, Daniels made his most significant moves in July when he traded for Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels and added relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson to bolster his bullpen.

Fortunately for Daniels and his ball club, the Rangers were able to ride out their early misfortune. Holland and Perez returned after the all-star break, Fielder earned American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, and Hamels helped the club make a late surge to pass the Astros and Angels to win the division. Now, the club is poised to compete for the postseason again.

Off-season action:
To a degree, Daniels got an early start with his off-season shopping when he picked up Hamels, Diekman, and Dyson last July. The club’s major hot stove move was trading outfielder Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan. The key to this deal for Texas was adding the hard-throwing and versatile Wilhelmsen to buoy their bullpen, which now brags a core of closer Shawn Tolleson, Diekman, Dyson, sophomore Keone Kela, and their newest addition from Seattle.

The Rangers also signed former Mariners outfielder Justin Ruggiano – who rakes against left-handed pitching – to boost outfield depth and possibly be a back-up first baseman. Ruggiano also provides the team with some insurance in case Hamilton encounters performance or availability issues. Although the fan favorite is expected to be a regular contributor, Hamilton underwent another knee procedure this off-season and has struggled to stay healthy. The silver lining for Rangers’ management is that the Angels are paying the majority of his salary. So, the team won’t be fiscally constrained if they need to move past the former league MVP.

Despite the speculation that the club wouldn’t retain their arbitration-eligible catchers – Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos – both players are still on the roster. Gimenez would appear to be the low-hanging fruit if another option were to be found. He had a strong 2015, however, his .255/.330/.490 slash in a small-sample size of 113 plate appearances were well above career averages.

What’s next?
The team appears to be satisfied with going to the Cactus League with Darvish and Hamels serving as co-aces and having Holland, Perez, Colby Lewis, Nick Martinez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez competing for the final three rotation spots.

Top prospect – third baseman Joey Gallo – wowed fans with his tape measure home runs after being called up to fill in for the injured Adrian Beltre last season, but his high strikeout rate landed him back in Class-AAA ball after Beltre returned. The team began playing the young slugger in left field last season and could permanently transition him to the outfield, especially if reports are correct that the club is working on extension for the seemingly ageless Beltre. It’s also possible that Gallo could be an injury replacement at first or third base.

It’s possible that Daniels will, once again, wait until the regular season to further upgrade his roster. One potential trade chip – shortstop Jurickson Profar – could be in high demand if he proves that he’s ready to play the field after two shoulder surgeries and a long recovery. It’s unlikely that Daniels would be willing to move the former number-one overall prospect in the majors when his value is so low. It’s more probably that he’ll hold onto Profar until he regains his form either with the big league club or at Class-AAA ball.

Final thoughts
It’s important to note once again that there’s still time for deals to be made, especially with several high-profile and many lower-tier free agents still on the market. Position players like Cespedes, Upton, and Dexter Fowler would make sense for more than one AL West club, if the price was right. The same could be said about Gallardo or Fister.

Every one of these clubs will continue to attempt to add major league talent, plus extend minor league invites to players in order to create more depth opportunities, especially with relievers and starting pitchers. Even after the season starts, there’s still time to make additions to the roster. Just look at the 2015 Rangers and their in-season maneuvering if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to upgrade on the fly.

Later this week, I’ll cover the Mariners’ very active Hot Stove effort to upgrade their roster and brighten their 2016 outlook.

ChapmanEvery day through July 31, and even deep into August to a lesser extent, there will be multiple reports regarding clubs having trade discussions with other clubs, about certain players, and there always are contract details, payrolls and many roster scenarios to consider. We won’t be the rumor round-up hub, but we’re here to fill in some of the missing pieces, offer thoughts on the process and if we happen to run into some information that is useful, we’ll share in in this column.

Royals Going For It
The Kansas City Royals reportedly were close to acquiring right-hander Johnny Cueto Saturday night. The deal fell through due to an apparent lack of medical clearance for one of the players headed from Kansas City to Cincinnati in the deal. Even with the deal failing to go through, this news tell us the Royals are going for it.

Cueto, a legitimate No. 1 starter, is a two-month rental and the Royals went for it. Certainly they will continue to attempt to land such a piece, perhaps even Cueto still. With such aggressiveness at the forefront, one has to wonder if the club also will look to grab an outfielder. Alex Gordon is out for a few months, and while Alex Rios has swung the bat better in July, he may not be a trustworthy bat. Gordon likely will return for October but if there are any setbacks with his rehab the Royals could be down a hitter in the postseason.

Brewers’ Sale
Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tweets that right-hander Mike Fiers has drawn trade interest, but adds that the club is trying to move Kyle Lohse and/or Matt Garza, instead.

Good luck.

Lohse and Garza started the year with a chance to create nice value, but neither have pitched well. Garza has $25 million guaranteed still on the books, too, with a vesting option based on games started and the avoidance of the disabled list worth $13 million or a $5 million buyout. Lohse is movable, perhaps even without cash going with him. Garza is not, unless a bad contract is coming back.

Garza has posted a 4.89 FIP while seeing his strikeout rates fall for the fourth straight season. He’s still throwing 91-94 mph with three offspeed pitches but his fastball is getting hit hard and his above-average slider and curveball have also dipped in effectiveness. He’s 32 in November and has not gone more than 163 1/3 innings since 2011.

Milwaukee, however, is expected to strongly consider offers for Carlos Gomez, who may net the club a future impact piece. Fiers, by the way, is a solid No. 3 starter with four more years of club control remaining. He will not be arbitration eligible until after the 2016 season.

Chapman, Kimbrel
Aroldis Chapman may or may not be traded this summer, but if he or Craig Kimbrel lands in Washington the Nationals will have even fewer excuses for an October failure than they have had in the past.

ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark tweeted Saturday that rival executives believe if Nats GM Mike Rizzo makes a move it will be a big one. Chapman or Craig Kimbrel would be pretty big. Either’s presence would push solid closer Drew Storen to the eighth inning.

The Padres and Reds aren’t contending and could jump start a busy offseason by maxing out their value this month, rather than reducing their value by hanging onto them for two more months. Expect both to be dealt, as A.J. Preller and Walt Jocketty get busy on a reload job.…

Every day through July 31, and even deep into August to a lesser extent, there will be multiple reports regarding clubs having trade discussions with other clubs, about certain players, and there always are contract details, payrolls and many roster scenarios to consider. We won’t be the rumor round-up hub, but we’re here to fill in some of the missing pieces, offer thoughts on the process and if we happen to run into some information that is useful, we’ll share in in this column.

Cishek Deal Not A Market Setter
While Oakland’s haul in return for Scott Kazmir may indeed help set the market price for starting pitcher rentals this summer, the Steve Cishek acquisition by the St. Louis Cardinals won’t come close to doing so.

For one, Cishek, 29, has struggled this season. So much that at one point he was shipped back to Triple-A. His velocity is down a bit, he’s walking more batters and striking out fewer and simply allowing more hard hit baseballs. He’s also owed more than $2 million over the final two months of 2015.

Not only does the trade cost for Cishek — 25-year-old Class-AA reliever Kyle Barraclough — not set the market for closers, it likely doesn’t do so for setup men, either. He may very well end up a solid pick-up for the Cardinals, but we’ve yet to see a legitimate high-leverage reliever change teams, so we’ll have to wait until one does to get a sense of what the price is going to be for such arms.

Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria and Francisco Rodriguez are among the proven closer rumored to be somewhat available this month. Late-inning, setup or mid-level closer types that may be available include Brad Ziegler, Joaquin Benoit, Addison Reed, Jake McGee, Will Smith, Jim Johnson, Mark Lowe, Brad Boxberger, Jonathan Broxton and Shawn Kelley. The Red Sox, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, have received interest in Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara but there are no indications Boston will move either right-hander.

Who Needs CF Help?
Contenders that have not received much production from their centerfielders and could be on the lookout for some assistance there before the July 1 deadline:

St. Louis Cardinals: 76 wRC+, .279 wOBA
Peter Bourjos has taken away most of the playing time from Jon Jay and has been much more acceptable offensively with a .314 wOBA and 100 wRC+ supporting a solid .339 OBP.

With so little available on the market, the Cardinals do not appear likely at all to try and trade for a Cameron Maybin, Austin Jackson, Ben Revere or Rajai Davis.

Houston Astros: 76 wRC+, .280 wOBA
Jake Marisnick is a solid glove but at .229/.266/.367 and a .275 wOBA, the contending Astros could use a little more offense. But they also need corner-outfield help and it appears they’re more likely to get a decent player in that search.

San Francisco Giants: 86 wRC+, .286 wOBA
Angel Pagan has scuffled most of the season — .302 OBP, 277 wOBA, 79 wRC+ — and he’s not the glove he was three or four years back. The Giants may prefer to go after starting pitching — they have been linked to Mike Leake and might be a terrific fit for Hisashi Iwakuma if the Mariners end up selling — but center field is a weak spot without question. Pagan has hit left-handed pitching well in the small sample that is 102 plate appearances, suggesting perhaps a platoon partner might make more sense than attempting to land an everyday replacement. Revere is the ideal option in this case.

Tampa Bay Rays: 91 wRC+, .294 wOBA
Moving Kevin Kermeier to a corner or acquiring another centerfield-type defender and playing him left — even if the offensive output isn’t significant — may be the best way a surprise Rays club can get better without spending big in trade cost or salary. Of course, a healthy Desmond Jennings could change the approach and he’s on the comeback trail after knee surgery last month.

Catchers
Several clubs would like to add at least a No. 2 catcher, if not a split-advantage backstop or even a starting-quality option, but there’s not much available and the cost for those that are is quite steep.

Seattle, since trading Welington Castillo in the deal to land Mark Trumbo, has been one of those clubs. One of the clubs they spoke to requested a high-end prospect in exchange for a veteran backup catcher who will be a free agent after the season. The talks, apparently, dies right there.

Here are some catchers that may be discussed over the next week, and some of them perhaps beyond into the waiver deadline period in August:

Rene Rivera, Tampa Bay
Alex Avila, Detroit
A.J. Pierzynski, Atlanta
Stephen Vogt, Oakland
Nick Hundley, Colorado
Geovany Soto, White Sox
Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia
Brayan Pena, Cincinnati
Michael McKenry, Colorado

There aren’t a lot of clubs contending right now that are having significant issues behind the plate. Minnesota is getting a down year from Kurt Suzuki at the plate, Baltimore’s Matt Wieters hasn’t hit much yet and the Rays, who may end up selling instead, are getting nothing offensively from their group. Chris Ianetta’s poor year is hurting the Halos but they aren’t going to move on from him at this stage of the season while they lead the division.

Some have speculated the Padres may be willing to listen on Derek Norris, and if that is the case, like with Oakland and Vogt, clubs may come out of the woodwork to consider him.…

IwakumaIf Hisashi Iwakuma goes out in five days and pitches well again, the Seattle Mariners absolutely will have the opportunity to trade the right-hander to a contender, and the package Oakland received in exchange for Scott Kazmir could serve as a baseline for any deal Seattle makes involving the 34-year-old. This should increase the chances the club makes such a trade.

Iwakuma isn’t going to bring back the same level of package as Kazmir just did — he hasn;t been as good in 2015 and is even more of a concern to clubs in terms of his health, but Kazmir returned a potential future above-average everyday catcher in Jacob Nottingham plus a future back-end starter or reliever in Daniel Mengden.

Such a haul suggests Seattle could net something useful in return for Iwakuma, provided he doesn’t blow up next time out. He’ thrown the ball well three straight times out and despite giving up for homersin his first start off the disabled list, he did show something in that one, too. He’s struck out 18 in his last 20 2/3 innings, walked just four over that span and has induced a lot of ground balls outs. His four starts since being activated have been versus Detroit twice, the Yankees and a red-hot Angels club, too.

Iwakuma could be attractive to clubs that don’t like the asking price for Jeff Samardzija, David Price, Johnny Cueto and even Mike Leake. Those interested in Leake or other mid-rotation types could end up with a better deal and a better pitcher in Iwakuma, who has looked the part of a No. 2-3 type starter of late.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted earlier Thursday that indications are the Mariners are “hesitant to sell.”

Of course they are, because it tells the fan base that 2015 is a failed season, which doesn’t bode well for attendance, TV ratings or the job security of the general manager. It’s the right things to do, however, which is why the A’s went ahead and did so, even though starting play Thursday they were ahead of the Mariners in the standings.

Reports surfaced last week that Detroit, who sits several games ahead of Seattle, is exploring trading their own pending free agents such as ace David Price and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. More evidence that a smart seller can take advantage of so clubs preferring to buy this summer.

Clubs that may see Iwakuma as ideal may include the Baltimore Orioles, who want to add a bat and perhaps a starter, too, but don’t have a lot of ammo to land both and as a result could get left in the cold for the bigger names. The Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals (who need multiple starting pitchers) and even San Francisco Giants also could see a reasonably-priced Iwakuma as a solid option.

Waiting to ‘make sure’ they’re out of the race before selling could cost the Mariners a chance to capitalize on the market. Doing so with Iwakuma and/or J.A. Happ is a ridiculous mistake, especially considering a perfectly capable Roenis Elias is awaiting a recall from Triple-A Tacoma. If the M’s get hot and somehow find themselves in the race in late September, it won’t be because of a negative value differential between Iwakuma (or Happ) and Elias. Not to mention there’s still a chance James Paxton makes it back at some point.…