Breakout seasons can be a difficult thing to judge. Sometimes they are the effects of a radical change in approach or mechanics and sometimes they are fluky at best and easy to write off. After a breakout 2016 season, the Seattle Mariners have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from James Paxton even if it’s only three starts into the season.

Things started last year when Paxton was sent to Triple-A to start the year to nail down the mechanical changes that were in process. On June 1st he would debut an electric fastball in the upper 90’s and showed much improved control of the strike zone. The results weren’t great — a 14-6 loss to the San Diego Padres where Paxton yielded eight runs, three earned, over 3 2/3 innings pitched — but we could see that the process was significantly improved. The left-hander did yield two home runs in Petco Park, but he managed to strikeout seven while only walking one.

From that point on Paxton would stick in the major league rotation and and produce a 3.79 ERA and a 2.80 FIP over 121 innings pitched. Also of note was his 8.70 strikeouts and 1.79 walks per nine innings pitched. The results were matching up with the process; he was missing more bats and finding the strike zone more often.

Heading into 2017, the 28-year-old found himself all over ‘breakout player’ lists as the baseball world prepared to see what would follow his breakout season. So far he’s given them plenty to talk about.

The usual April baseball disclaimer applies here. Three starts isn’t rarely indicative of anything significant. But on the surface and from the outside, it looks like Paxton is continuing to build on the foundation he set last year.

In those three starts, the left-hander has put together 21 innings pitched without giving up a single run. A 0.00 ERA is as shiny as it gets but more impressively Paxton is the only pitcher to make three starts this year without giving up a run. The peripheral stats also suggest he’s been dominant as his 1.41 FIP is second only to Noah Syndergaard among pitchers who have three games started. Stretching that sample to two starts and Paxton drops to fourth place in the majors.

So we know that Paxton has been good so far, perhaps one of the best in this short period of time. On Monday he was named the American League player of the week, suggesting the baseball world has taken notice of what he’s done. A week in baseball obviously falls into the small sample size noise category, but when we dig deeper into Paxton’s performance, we can see some factors that likely have influenced the early success and creates the potential for future success as well.

The first thing to look at what Paxton has been throwing. The following chart compares his pitch usage in the majors since 2015.

James Paxton’s Pitch Usage 2015-2017
Season Fastball % Cutter % Knuckle-Curve % Changeup % Two-Seam %
2015 71.9% 2.6% 14.3% 11.1% 0.1%
2016 62.6% 16.8% 13.7% 6.4% 0.6%
2017 64.0% 11.9% 23.1% 1.0% 0.0%

The most noticeable trend is the departure from the changeup and increased reliance on a knuckle-curveball. Paxton had thrown a cutter in the past but began using it more predominantly last season. His average fastball has been a shade under 96 MPH with his cutter coming in at 88 and the curve at 80. Paxton’s managed to mix these pitches effectively and the following results are what he has to show for doing so.

James Paxton’s Pitch Outcomes 2015-2017
Season Line Drive % Ground Ball % Fly Ball % Infield Fly Ball % Soft Contact % Medium Contact % Hard Contact %
2015  17.2% 48.3% 34.4% 8.3% 18.4% 51.9% 29.7%
2016 21.9% 48.1% 30.1% 8.2% 14.1% 52.8% 33.1%
2017 18.8% 39.6% 41.7% 15.0% 18.4% 57.1% 24.5%

The increase in fly balls is interesting, particularly of the infield variety. The overall increase in fly balls could be attributed to Mariner pitches pitching to the strength of the team — outfield defence. But the infield fly balls are often a result of weak contact. So far this year Paxton has reduced the number of balls hit hard by nearly ten percent. On top top that opposing hitters have only made contact 69.7 percent of the time compared to 76.4 percent in 2016. Add an increased swinging strike percentage from 11.7 percent to 4.8 percent and the left-hander’s results stats start to make more sense.

What does this all mean? It’s tough to say. The infield fly balls could definitely be small sample size noise and some point more of the fly balls could find the outfield grass. We also could be seeing some of the effects of an improved outfield defence.

The increase in soft contact and swinging strikes is exactly what we want to see. Those may be some of the best signs that Paxton has in fact taken a step towards stardom. Hitters haven’t been able to adjust to the high heat and spiked curveball to this point. As long as the left-hander continues to command the ball well, he should continue to be a nightmare for opposing hitters.

At 28-years-old Paxton isn’t too old to break out. Consider the small batches of success we’ve seen during his time in the majors and how injuries have undoubtedly slowed his progress. Now that he’s able to command the velocity he’s unlocked, it’s up to the further development of his other offerings to ensure he’s able to consistently perform at this high level.

It wasn’t that long ago Paxton received the No. 2 starter potential label from scouting types. He’s certainly been effective when healthy, too. Maybe the best thing we can say about Paxton right now, since it’s still April, is that the signs are there to suggest that we have been seeing the real thing.…

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.…

Felix Hernandez would be the first to admit that he didn’t perform as well as he wanted to in 2016. To varying degrees, the Seattle Mariners likely had similar thoughts about two of the other four spots of their rotation, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma aside. So as Felix spends the winter working to regain his crown, the Mariners have worked to shore up their rotation.

Without a lot of help available via free agency, the trade route figured to be the most likely source of rotation upgrades. As seen in his first year at the helm of baseball operations, general manager Jerry Dipoto prefers the trade route for patching holes anyway. However, there was one free agent starter who reportedly caught his eye: Jason Hammel.

The 34-year-old starter was cut by the Chicago Cubs after their World Series victory and remains a free agent as we move into February. It was a curious move as the Cubs didn’t appear to have an heir for the No. 5 spot and haven’t done much to secure one since.

The season-ending elbow injury leaves a damper on what was otherwise a reasonably good season for Hammel and has likely impacted his free agency. In 166 and 2/3 innings the right-hander posted a 3.83 ERA and a 4.48 FIP. His strikeout rate was a notch above his career average and his walk rate was right on par, but he did see an uptick in his home run rate, which could cause some concern.

The bigger concern though, has to be the impact of Hammel’s September collapse, injury-related or not. Over four starts he allowed 21 runs and 20 earned while giving up six home runs. That stretch inflated his ERA from 3.14 at the start of the month to the 3.83 he finished with. Hammel’s FIP didn’t see quite as dramatic a rise, moving from 4.26 to 4.48.

Several outlets had Hammel connected to the Mariners throughout the winter. The fit was obvious as Seattle needed rotation help and the 34-year-old has a recent track record of being a reliable back-end starter. Given the nature of his departure with Chicago, he lost some leverage in an otherwise paper-thin free agent market.

Having a change in agency over the winter didn’t help the right-hander either. It was reported talks broke down with the M’s around this time. Since then, Seattle went out and filled the empty spots in the rotation by acquiring Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo.

Smyly, 27, spent the last two-plus years in the rotation for the Tampa Bay Rays and dealt with some health issues in 2015. Acquired as a key piece in the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, the left-hander is coming off a career high 175 and 1/3 innings pitched. His 4.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP are uninspiring, but his strikeout and walk rates were fine and he should benefit from the move to Safeco and an improved outfield defense.

Gallardo, 31 in February, is coming off a rocky year in Baltimore where a decline in velocity factored into a diminished strikeout rate and an inflated walk rate. He posted a 5.42 ERA and a 5.04 FIP over 118 innings The brief period where he was a top arm for the Milwaukee Brewers is gone, but he’s only one year removed from a seven-year stretch as an average or better starter. He’s a prime bounce-back candidate and should also benefit from the park and outfield defense.

Here’s a look at how the three starters project to perform in 2017 via Steamer.

2017 Steamer Projections
Name GS IP ERA
FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 OBA fWAR
Drew Smyly 29 168.0 3.93 4.11 8.39 2.62 1.30 .232 2.6
 Yovani Gallardo 24  135.0 4.48 4.55 6.41 3.39 1.13 .260 1.0
Jason Hammel 28 158.0  4.35 4.31  7.75 2.67 1.29 .258 1.7

Of the three, Smyly is the obvious exception, so the analysis really comes down to Gallardo and Hammel, who have some similarities. The first stat that stands out is the fWAR column where Hammel projects to be nearly one win better than Gallardo. We can attribute some of that to a better projected strikeout and walk rates over a slightly larger innings total. Hammel is projected to give up more home runs, but both have fly-ball tendencies.

Projection systems tend to favor recent performance and Hammel is the one coming off a better year. However, looking at the previous three years, we can see that their overall production has been similar. Gallardo has the virtue of being younger and holds a more consistent track record prior to last year, though.

Perhaps the most important question is what carries more risk: Gallardo’s diminished velocity or Hammel’s presumed diminished health? Seattle seemed more willing to gamble on the former regaining a step than the latter being healthy for Opening Day.

At this point., anything relating to Hammel’s health is speculation beyond his status at the end of the season and through the playoffs. Not many seem to buy the Cubs acknowledgement of his full health when he was released.

Also to be considered when looking at the two starters is the accompanying financial commitments. We don’t know for sure what Hammel wanted, or hoped for, in free agency. A one-year deal with incentives and maybe an option year would make sense. We do know that the M’s will pay Gallardo $11 million in 2017 and a $2 million buyout in 2018 if they decline a $13 million team option.

The status of Seth Smith and his $7 million contract seemed to play a role in all this. It’s been suggested that the ideal situation for Seattle would have been to deal Smith and the money owed for a minor leaguer and use the freed up cash for Hammel.

If the club saw similar potential in Gallardo and Hammel with the primary goal of dealing Smith’s contract, then it makes a lot of sense to take the route they did. Presuming full health, Hammel should be the better pitcher in 2017. But after viewing his medical records, the potential for a bounce-back season may have made Gallardo look just a little more appealing.

Without more information on Hammel’s health, it’s tough to really determine if the Mariners made the right call. Given the fact he’s still a free agent suggest it’s obvious Seattle isn’t the only team to have shied away.

Regardless, the deals made have helped bolster the starting staff. FanGraphs projects the rotation to land in the middle of the pack while ESPN’s Buster Olney has the M’s rotation cracking his top ten for 2017.

A lot of things still need to go right, but Seattle certainly made the right call in bolstering their starting pitching. That much we do know.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where Paxton and Walker enter the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That leaves us awaiting the return of Walker and Paxton.

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

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

 

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help could be on the way for the bullpen though.

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

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

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

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

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

Roster Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much better has the rotation been lately?

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

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

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

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

So, who turned around the rotation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, more help may be on the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll get to all that in the Third Quarter Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

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

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

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

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

There is hope for the Rangers though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Marte 2In early May, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto made his feelings clear regarding his starting shortstop when told “Danny, Dave and Moore” of 710 ESPN Seattle “I’ve said from the day I got here, maybe the most surprising player of those that I was fortunate enough to inherit is Ketel Marte.”

Dipoto had good reasons for heaping praise on Marte. After a sluggish start to the season, the 22-year-old had a .303 batting average and .328 on-base percentage (OBP) on May 10, plus his defense had significantly improved.

It looked as if the Mariners had finally found something they had been lacking in recent seasons — a legitimate leadoff hitter. Then, the rest of the season happened.

Since those heady days in mid-May, Marte has struggled to reach base on a consistent basis and currently owns a .292 OBP. How bad is it going for the native Dominican? The only Mariners regular who reaches base less often is first baseman Adam Lind.

What’s the root cause of Marte’s problems? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look at a leading indicator of his on-base woes — a low walk percentage (BB%).

Ketel Marte’s On Base Success
Year Teams BA
OBP
BB %
 2013  High Desert/Clinton .295 .322 3.8%
 2014 Jackson/Tacoma .304 .335 4.8%
 2015 AZL/Jackson/Tacoma .321 .366 7.0%
 2015  Seattle .283 .351 9.7%
 2016 Seattle .263 .292 4.1%

As you can see, Marte’s BB% had been increasing at each level of his professional career, until this year. Now, his declining walk rate is torpedoing his 2016 OBP.

Marte is a great example of why batting average is a limited, yet overused metric. The switch-hitter is batting .263 — about league-average for shortstops. But, his anemic OBP isn’t not good enough for any position in the lineup, let alone the leadoff spot.

What can the Mariners Opening Day shortstop do to get back on track? Do a better job of controlling the zone. It’s something that Marte has a history of doing.

In 2014, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted Marte “understands the strike zone, handles the bat very well and, again, can run.” Dipoto even remarked his young player possesses “good zone judgment” during his May interview with the 710 crew.

So, what happened to Ketel Marte?

The sample sizes are small, but a comparison of Marte’s rookie season to this year reveals increased aggressiveness at the plate in 2016. Take a look for yourself.

Ketel Marte’s Plate Discipline
Year PA Pit/PA 1st Pitch Swinging O-Swing Z-Swing O-Contact Z-Contact
Pull Cent Oppo
2015 249 3.82 16.9% 26.6% 62.7%  69.3% 88.4% 39.4% 35% 25.6%
2016 317 3.78 25.8%  32% 66.5%  73.3% 89% 44.2% 30.9% 24.9%
O — Outside Strike Zone                                   Z — Inside Strike Zone

I’ve highlighted four stats that caught my eye and illustrate a change in Marte’s strategy at the plate. Most prominently, he’s swinging at the first pitch 8.9-percent more often than last season. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, he’s also chasing balls outside the strike zone (O-Swing) at a higher rate.

Could his expanded strike zone be responsible for the youngster walking less frequently, pulling the ball (Pull) more often, and hitting fewer balls up the middle (Cent) this season? Absolutely.

I’m not suggesting that Marte shouldn’t be aggressive at the plate. Quite the opposite. But, he’s widened his zone without delivering a positive outcome in the form of a higher OBP. Rather, the opposite has occurred.

In all fairness, it’s worth noting that Marte has endured two stints on the disabled list this season, including 20 missed games due to mononucleosis. Two extended absences certainly do not help a young player.

Also, Marte doesn’t turn 23-years-old until October and is only 135 games and 566 plate appearances into his big league career. There’s still plenty of time for him to develop into an everyday major leaguer.

On the other hand, the immediate issue for the Mariners is whether they can wait for their shortstop to find himself while they compete for the postseason with just six weeks remaining in the season.

It’s possible that Marte and the team would be better off if he were able to refresh his skills during an assignment to Class-AAA Tacoma — much like Mike Zunino and James Paxton did earlier this season and what Taijuan Walker is currently undergoing. Sending Marte to Tacoma wouldn’t be easy though.

The Mariners don’t have an adequate replacement available on their 40-man roster. Luis Sardinas appeared to be that option at the beginning of the season, but he’s been designated for assignment. Shawn O’Malley is an adequate fill-in, but he’s not an optimal choice to be the everyday shortstop for a postseason contender.

Another option would be to acquire an established shortstop in order to give Marte more time to develop. Perhaps, that’s why the Mariners were reportedly interested in picking up Zack Cozart of the Cincinnati Reds at the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

The presence of Cozart —  or another established shortstop — would present Dipoto with an opportunity to send Marte to Tacoma and not risk this season’s playoff hopes. Conceivably, the 48-year-old executive could still snag someone before August 31. But, there are no guarantees.

Without a suitable replacement, the Mariners will likely stick with Marte as their everyday shortstop and hope he can better control the zone in the midst of a postseason push.

That’s not a best-case scenario for the team or the player.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

felix hernandez jerry dipotoWith the All-Star festivities now in the rear-view mirror, the quest for October baseball will ramp up a couple notches as play resumes on Friday. The Seattle Mariners entered the break with a 45-44 record and sit five games back in the Wild Card and eight games back in the division. It’s not an ideal position for a team with postseason aspirations, but at this time one year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the second-half with a 45-46 record before going on an incredible run to end the longest postseason doubt in professional sports.

I know, that’s a lousy comparison. The Mariners offence is nowhere near as prolific as the Jays was in 2015 and the club doesn’t have the trade chips to acquire reinforcements along the lines of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. What the record comparison does speak to, is the fact that this season is far from decided.

The Texas Rangers have been one of the top teams in the American League so far this year but are being hammered by injuries. The Houston Astros have recovered from their slow start as well, making conquering the West a tall task. There’s no reason to believe a wild card slot is out of reach, however.

Here are three things that need to happen in the second half for Seattle to be best positioned for a return to the postseason.

A return of the King
This really could write itself: the Mariners need the best incarnation of Felix Hernandez available. At this point, regaining 2016 Felix would be an upgrade for the rotation. But what the team really needs is its ace back. The 30-year-old has nearly completed his rehab assignment for the calf injury suffered in May and is expected to rejoin the rotation next week.

There were some concerns that Felix wasn’t 100 percent earlier in the season, with particular regards to his decreased velocity. The calf injury is unlikely to change anything there and probably won’t ease much concern over what he’ll be able to produce over the remainder of the season.

The right-hander has made this year he owns a 2.86 ERA and a 4.16 FIP in 63 innings over 10 starts this year. Hernandez’s strikeout and walk rates of 7.57 and 3.71 per nine innings respectfully are both nearly an entire point in the wrong direction from his career marks. The increase in walks speaks to some of the command troubles he has encountered earlier in the year. Not having the sharpest of stuff either has likely hurt the strikeout rate. On the year he owns an 8.5 percent whiff rate, his lowest since 2011 when he posted a 9.1 percent mark.

The good news from Felix’s first half are that the ground balls are still there and the home run rate is within his career norms. The challenge will be responding to the decreased velocity and making adjustments to his appraoch. The changeup and breaking balls are still there and more than a few starters have been successful with diminished velocity.

At the very least, the King comes at a time when reinforcements are sorely needed in the rotation. Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker have both been on the disabled list and Nathan Karns was moved to the bullpen. Reliever Mike Montgomery is expected to make another start following the break.

Expectations for Felix immediately returning to greatness will need to be tempered, but if he can regain more of his former self than he has shown, it will be a significant boost to the club.

Dipoto at the deadline
Rarely does a team enter the beginning of a season complete, and practically never does that team have everything go according to plan over the first three-plus months of the year. Injuries and under-performance have a funny way of messing things up. Even the Chicago Cubs have shown that they are indeed fallible. Tinkering is required throughout the season, but transactions come under extreme scrutiny leading up to the trade deadline.

This will be Jerry Dipoto’s first deadline as general manager of the Mariners. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill has thoughts on the various players the M’s could target, while Luke Arkins digs into Dipoto’s past for clues about how he may act over the next couple weeks. The primary areas of concern are the rotation, bullpen, and outfield. Some help at first base would be nice, but Dae-Ho Lee is doing enough to make that a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have upgrade.

The difficulty is that, even more than usual, prices are already sky-high with supply as low as it has been in years. Not to mention that fact that Dipoto has precious few trade chips to work with.

I’ve often felt that a club can have a successful deadline without making a move. If the price of the product is too high for your taste, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it on the shelf. And really, it isn’t as if the Mariners are a piece away. Drew Pomeranz or Jason Grilli, or even Aaron Hill for that matter, won’t catapult the team to the top of the division.

With minimal help waiting in the wings at Triple-A, making an upgrade or two could be crucial to the club’s Wild Card aspirations. Maybe Nori Aoki figures it out and can contribute something or one of Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook is able to pitch effectively once healthy. But, as we knew heading into the season, there was probably still a missing piece that would need to be found outside of the organization. It’s up to Dipoto to find out.

The bats keep rolling
It may be odd to say, but nonetheless it’s true: the Mariners have been one of the better offensive teams in baseball this year. The club’s 109 wRC+ ranks fourth among all teams, due in part to the 132 home runs hit so far this year. That number is second only to the Cubs. The Mariners enter the second half averaging 4.89 runs per game, just three ticks lower than the Texas Rangers’ 4.92 average.

The combination of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager have combined for 8.9 fWAR so far this year. Cano, the club’s lone All-Star representative in San Diego, is an MVP candidate in a year of resurgence, while Cruz and Seager were plenty deserving of a trip down south. Seager especially.

Part of Dipoto’s offseason plans was to augment the lineup surrounding the core. With the exceptions of Adam Lind and Aoki, plenty of those moves have turned out well. Leonys Martin has solidified the center field position and was crushing the ball before a stint on the disabled list. Bringing back Franklin Gutierrez for pocket change to platoon with Seth Smith has stabilized the No. 2 spot. The pair have also combined for 20 home runs.

Lee has found his way into the hearts of Mariners fans as well as a 127 wRC+ in a part-time role that is starting to increase. Chris Iannetta has come as advertised behind the plate, and while unexciting, has an 11 percent walk rate and is a serious improvement from 2015.

All this to say that Seattle needs to keep the level of offense going through the second half, especially if reinforcements aren’t able to arrive for the pitching staff. Cruz probably has another red-hot stretch in him and Cano has better career second-half numbers than first-half.

Conclusion
The reality is that Seattle is a fringe contender right now, which isn’t that far off from where they were projected to be on Opening Day. Help required for the pitching staff could come from within, particularly on the disabled list, but realistically will need outside help. Though I have nothing against Stefen Romero and Daniel Robertson as depth pieces, the help needed for the outfield simply isn’t here right now either.

And no, playing Cruz more in right field is not the answer. The M’s already grade out as one of the poorest fielding teams, and run prevention is just as important as run scoring.

Bottom line: Felix needs to be Felix, Dipoto needs to work some magic, and the offense can have a couple hiccups, but can’t afford to go cold for an extended period of time. The second-half starts tonight and the Mariners are on the clock. Five games out and two weeks until the trade deadline. A lot could be decided between now and then.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

AL West trade primer: Houston Astros

AL West trade primer: Texas Rangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortstop depth is adequate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, this year is certainly different in Seattle.

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age is just a number for the Mariners.…