“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.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

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

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

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

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 …

With 30 games behind them, the Seattle Mariners sit atop the American League (AL) West division standings with an 18-12 win-loss record. That’s right; the club that’s failed to be relevant for most of the last decade is actually off to a quick start.

Every sophisticated baseball fan knows that a good record with less than 20-percent of the season completed means nothing — especially with the Mariners.

For those not familiar with Seattle’s plight, the situation has become so frustrating that having a winning record on Mother’s Day is newsworthy. After all, we’re talking about an organization that hasn’t started this strongly since 2003, when they were 19-11 in 2003. But, it gets worse.

Mariner fans have dealt with perceived ownership indifference, plus a great deal of losing and disappointment since the club’s inaugural season in 1977. Seattle has recorded just 12 winning seasons and hasn’t appeared in the postseason since their record 116-win season of 2001.

Reasons for optimism
With the bar set so low for so long, it’s understandable that many fans are taking a wait-and-see approach with this year’s edition of the Mariners. Yet, there’s something going on at Safeco Field that’s been a rare occurrence for quite some time. The home team is playing good, fundamental baseball and — more importantly — they’re winning games.

There are several reasons for Seattle’s early season emergence. First, their offense is averaging 4.47 runs-per-game, which is second best in the AL entering today. Moreover, their pitching staff is in the top-five of every significant pitching category. This blend of productive offense and superb pitching could lead the club to postseason contention, assuming it lasts.

Whether the Mariners can sustain their early season success will be determined later — much later. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that general manager Jerry Dipoto’s approach to building a competitive major league roster has yielded early positive returns.

Dipoto’s efforts to reconstruct his club’s roster haven’t been limited to just pitching and hitting though. He’s added “layers of depth” and athleticism to his 40-man roster. Plus, his many deals helped improve another weak link that’s been as troublesome as the club’s run scoring in recent years — defense.

See ball, catch ball
So, just how bad was the club’s fielding and how much has it improved at this very early stage of the season? To get a feel, let’s do a year-by year comparison of how the team’s defense ranked — by position — since the 2011 season using defensive runs saved (DRS) as our comparative metric. As you can see for yourself, the Mariners have struggled with reaching, catching, and throwing the ball for several years.

Seattle Mariners Defensive Rankings (Based on DRS)
Year Team C 1B 2B SS 3B RF CF LF OF
2011 15 27 15 4 1 16 21 15 21 21
2012  9 25 12 5 1 21 5 30 17 23
2013 30 30 26 17 15 24 27 30 30 30
2014 19 26 22 18 11 4 13 20 10 13
2015 29 11 26 26 23 15 26 30 25 30
2016 16 25 9 8 14 12 21 5 20 13

DR what?
For those not familiar with DRS, it quantifies a defensive player’s value by expressing how many runs they saved or lost their team compared to the average player at that position. For instance, +10 DRS recorded by a left fielder means that he was 10 runs better than the average left fielder. If you having a craving for more detailed information about DRS, I suggest reading this article found at FanGraphs.

[pullquote]“We see ourselves as a run-prevention club. You can create a lot of advantage playing good defense.” — Jerry Dipoto[/pullquote]

The fact that Seattle fielders have already shown signs of improvement shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the Mariners general manager since his arrival in the Emerald City. When talking to David Laurila of FanGraphs in mid-November, the 47-year-old executive characterized the team’s defense as “our biggest area in need of improvement.”

So, what changes occurred between since last season that’s improved the defensive outlook in Seattle? A combination of familiar faces and new names.

Fixing the outfield
First and foremost, the acquisition of Leonys Martin helped transform Seattle’s outfield defense from the worst in baseball to league-average during the early days of 2016.

When Dipoto acquired the 28-year-old from the Texas Rangers during the offseason, he told Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune “I think we get one of the premier defensive center fielders in baseball.” There’s no doubt that Martin is an elite defender. Defensive metrics prove it and so does the eyeball test.

Why did the Mariners center field defense rank so low last season? After all, the general perception was that Opening Day starter Austin Jackson was a good defender. There were two reasons — Jackson was closer to average, based on DRS, and the club didn’t have an adequate replacement to fill in for him.

There were two points during 2015 when Jackson wasn’t the everyday center fielder for the Mariners — when suffered an ankle sprain last May and after his trade to the Chicago Cubs on August 31. Both times, the Mariners utilized use below-average defenders in his stead.

Look at the players who manned center field last season and their respective DRS. If you were initially surprised to discover that Mariners center fielders ranked so poorly last season, the following breakdown — by player — may help you understand.

2015 Mariners Center Field Defense
Player  Games Innings DRS
Austin Jackson 107  899 -2
Brad Miller 20 146 -10
Dustin Ackley 21 139 -1
Shawn O’Malley 14 90 0.0
Justin Ruggiano 15 88 -6
James Jones 20 82 -5
Ketel Marte 2 14 -1
Stefen Romero 1 4 -1

This is where Martin helps make the entire outfield better. First, he’s a superior defender compared to Jackson. Consequently, he covers a lot of ground — a prerequisite for Dipoto during his search. Being able to cover a lot of real estate in spacious Safeco Field is especially critical because the corner outfield spots are better, but still below average.

While the combination of Nori Aoki, Franklin Gutierrez, Seth Smith, and Nelson Cruz represents a slight improvement in the corner outfield spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dipoto added an outfielder who can both hit and play good defense if the club finds itself in contention.

Better around the horn
A healthy Robinson Cano has already been a difference maker at second base. Yes, Cano will occasionally make have a mental lapse, like forgetting the number of outs. But, to date, his defense is far better than last season when he was suffering with a number of physical ailments.

Starting the season with Ketel Marte as the regular shortstop has proven beneficial to the Mariners. The 22-year-old has also suffered a few mental lapses, which are traceable back to his youth. However, he’s delivered the best shortstop defense since the days of Brendan Ryan. Marte isn’t an elite defender like Ryan. Nevertheless, he’s proven far better than recent shortstops.

[pullquote] “To win, you’ve got to pitch. To have good pitching, you’ve got to defend.” — Mariners manager Scott Servais [/pullquote]

At this early stage of the season, Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee have been better than the cast that patrolled first base last season — Logan Morrison, Jesus Montero, and Mark Trumbo. Lind has superior range to Lee, although the Korean import has proven to have good hands. This area is likely to be average, at best, as the season progresses.

Final thoughts
It’s too early to tell whether the Mariners defensive improvements — or their winning ways — can continue for an entire 162-game season. Yet, it’s encouraging to see the organization place a renewed emphasis on defense and immediately enjoy the benefits — albeit in small sample sizes – of adopting a more practical philosophy.

The Mariners defense has a long way to go before it becomes an elite unit — like the Kansas City Royals. However, if their defenders continue to be run-prevention assets — rather than liabilities — catching pennant fever in Seattle might be possible this season. Wouldn’t that be a welcomed change for Mariners faithful?



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.…

Cain slidingThe upcoming three-game series between the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Mariners gave me reason to pause for a moment and consider the trajectory of both ball clubs since the end of the 2014 season.

Seattle finished with just two fewer wins than the Royals, who went on to win the American League (AL) Championship before losing the World Series to the San Francisco Giants. After doing unexpectedly well in 2014, the Mariners and Royals entered last season with many pundits projecting a deep postseason run for both clubs.

Unfortunately, for Seattle fans, the Mariners never approached contention and fired their general manager before the season’s conclusion. Conversely, the Royals went on to savor October glory by winning their first Fall Classic victory since 1985 by defeating the team that I rooted for as a kid — the New York Mets.

From a standard statistical standpoint, the 2015 Royals offense is an enigma to me. Take a look at their AL rankings in various offensive categories and I’ll try to explain.

2015 Royals Offensive Rankings (AL)
Team Hits 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG Total Bases
KCR 1497 (2) 300 (2) 42 (4) 138 (14) 383 (15) 973 (15) .269 (3) .322 (7) .412 (8) 2298 (7)
Lge Avg 1411 278 31 176 470 1219 .255 .318 .412 2276
American League rankings in parenthesis

I’m not trying to portray the Royals offense as a mystery for the ages. However, their approach is unique. For example, they ranked near the bottom of the league in home runs, yet were above league-average for total bases. Additionally, Kansas City was the only team to finish in the top-five for batting average, but not on-base percentage (OBP). Their relatively low OBP is a result of having the fewest walks in the AL.

Despite going at their work differently, the Royals were successful at generating runs. Certainly, ranking near the top of the league in hits and having the fewest strikeouts helped fuel offense’s engine. Nevertheless, there’s another key offensive element that’s worth noting — speed.

I’m not talking about just stealing bases though. Yes, the Royals ranked number-two in that category last year. But, there’s more going on with this ball club than swiping bags. To be honest, it didn’t dawn on me until I was watching Kansas City take on the Mets on Opening Day. Once the light bulb went on, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see it sooner.

During their contest with their World Series opponent, the Royals created four runs and won the game without an extra base hit. How did they do it? By excelling on the base paths when the ball is in play. Their aggressive — yet smart — base running approach has proven to be a profound difference maker for Kansas City during their current run of success.

Last season, the Royals posted the second-highest extra base taken percentage (XBT%) in the AL. For those wondering, extra base taken percentage represents how often a base runner advanced more than one base on a single and more than two bags on a double. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mariners were woeful at advancing on the base paths.

Let’s see just how bad Seattle base runners were last year by comparing them to the World Series champions. In addition to extra base taken percentage, I included each club’s success rate at scoring from first base on a double and from second base after a single.

2015 Royals/Mariners Base Running Comparisons
Team Runs/Gm SB SB% XBT% 1B to HP Double % 2B to HP Single %
KCR 4.47 (6)
104 (2)
75% (2)
44% (2)
44.1% (4) 69.9% (1)
SEA  4.05 (13)
 69 (11)
 61% (14)
 34% (15)
 21.2% (15)  50.7% (12)
American League rankings in parenthesis

Certainly, the Royals were superior to the Mariners in many ways last season. They had a superior bullpen, ranked near the top of the league defensively, and excelled at putting bat to ball. Seattle lagged well behind in all of these areas. Still, Kansas City’s ability to create runs with their feet gave them a distinct edge against their opponents.

When watching the Royals take on the Mariners at Safeco Field this weekend, watch how often a Kansas City player is able to take the extra base on a ball they or a teammate has put into play. It’s an approach could work for Seattle too.

Mariners’ general manager Jerry Dipoto has already started to move his roster in that direction by adding fleet-footed players like Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, and Luis Sardinas during the offseason. The combination of these three players, plus a full season from Ketel Marte enhances his club’s ability to create more offense by having more players in the lineup who are capable of taking the extra base when a defender is slow to retrieve a ball or doesn’t have a strong throwing arm.

Acquiring quick players may be a foreign concept to many Pacific Northwest baseball fans, who’ve become used to the Mariners being more intent on adding sluggers. Those kind of players tend to be “station-to-station” runners, who generally clog the base paths. The new regime has definitely taken a fresh approach to roster building.

I’m not suggesting that Dipoto is attempting to create a west coast version of the Royals. But, he’s already on record saying that improving his roster’s athleticism and taking advantage of the Safeco Field dimensions are priorities. Adding the players that I’ve already mentioned accomplishes both goals and adds a new dimension to the Mariners offense — speed.

Whether the Mariners can be as successful as the Royals will be determined later, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding their bullpen. However, if the club is able to improve its extra base hit percentage from last season’s dreadful showing, Seattle will be rewarded with more runs-per-game and a higher win total. That’s why I say “Run Mariners! Run!”

 …

Marte A little over a week ago, the Seattle Mariners started their 2016 regular season in dramatic fashion by taking two out of three games from the Texas Rangers in an intense series that saw a former Mariner plunking a new one and late-inning scoring surges that spearheaded Seattle to victory on consecutive days.

While in Arlington, the Mariners treated their fans to a fireworks show. Robinson Cano hit four home runs, the team averaged seven runs-per-game, and rookie manager Scott Servais showed some competitive fire by getting into a heated exchange with his Rangers counterpart, Jeff Banister. The Mariners 2016 season was off to a thrilling start.

By the time the Mariners returned to the Emerald City for their home opener against the Oakland Athletics last Friday evening, the energy was soaring at Safeco Field. As with each Opening Day, fans cheered the red carpet introduction of Mariners players and the late Dave Niehaus’ voice echoed over the public address system as he “Welcomed back baseball.” Hearing Dave voice is always leads to an emotional moment in my household.

As icing on the cake, Hall of Famer inductee Ken Griffey Jr. threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Felix Hernandez — who may one day join “Junior” in Cooperstown. Needless to say, the crowd of 47,065  was in a frenzy and ready for baseball. Then, the game started and the mood abruptly took a nose dive.

Unfortunately for the Mariners and their long-suffering fans, the team lost 3-2 to the Athletics that night on a late home run by Chris Coghlan off new closer Steve Cishek. Seattle would go on to lose five consecutive games before eking out an extra inning, walk-off win against the Rangers in front of a sparse crowd of 15,075 yesterday. A lot had changed for the Mariners within the span of a week.

After their initial success in Texas, the Mariners now head out of town with a 3-6 win-loss record and an anemic offense. Ineffective run production is nothing new to Seattle fans. This version is batting just .181 against left-handed pitching.

Seattle Mariners Handedness Splits
Split PA H 2B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
vs RHP 171 36 8 7 15 38 .234 .310 .422 .732
vs LHP 170 27 2 7 15 33 .181 .276 .336 .612
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

So, as the ball club heads to New York to start a road trip, they leave behind a wary fan base; many of whom believe that they’re facing yet another disappointing season with the “same old Mariners.” Is that actually true though?

Honestly, it’s too early to tell how well Seattle will do this season. However, I’m certain that — barring significant injuries — their offense will improve, especially versus southpaws. Why am I so sure?

Before I explain my rationale, let’s look at just how bad Seattle has been against left-handed pitching. A quick review of their standing among American League (AL) teams at the conclusion of yesterday’s games illustrates their ineptitude.

AL Batting Avg. Rankings (vs. LHP)
Rk  Team G PA HR BB SO BA ▾ OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1 BOS 5 24 1 4 3 .368 .458 .579 1.037 .375
2 CHW 4 27 1 1 5 .333 .407 .625 1.032 .389
3 HOU 5 26 1 2 6 .333 .385 .542 .926 .412
4 DET 6 127 5 13 20 .297 .365 .468 .834 .318
5 TEX 7 105 3 4 29 .296 .314 .429 .743 .377
6 KCR 6 43 3 3 10 .282 .326 .564 .890 .296
7 OAK 8 136 3 4 29 .252 .272 .366 .638 .300
8 NYY 6 80 1 11 17 .235 .342 .324 .665 .300
9 LAA 8 138 2 16 18 .218 .321 .311 .632 .242
10 BAL 6 56 2 4 13 .216 .286 .373 .658 .250
11 CLE 6 147 3 7 41 .213 .245 .338 .583 .271
12 TBR 5 47 2 1 8 .205 .255 .364 .619 .206
13 MIN 5 66 0 9 15 .200 .313 .255 .567 .275
14 TOR 6 75 4 4 19 .188 .240 .377 .617 .191
15 SEA 9 170 7 15 33 .181 .276 .336 .612 .182
 Totals 92 1267 38 98 266 .238 .303 .381 .684 .275
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

I’m sure that seeing that their team ranks at the very bottom of the AL in batting average versus left-handed pitching may have just sent some readers over the edge. Their on-base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) isn’t much better. But, hold on demoralized Mariners fan. I see a glimmer of hope going forward.

No, my sense of optimism isn’t a byproduct of Washington’s legalization of marijuana. There’s a few reasons for Mariners fans to have hope. First, their team has had a disproportionate amount of plate appearance against southpaws during the the first two weeks of the season. Take a look.

AL Leaders Plate Appearance Leaders (vs. LHP)
Rank  Team Games Total PAs LHP PAs LHP %
1 SEA 9 341 170 49.9%
2 CLE 6 212 147 69.3%
3 LAA 8 325  138 42.5%
4 OAK 8 363  136 37.5%
5 DET 6 282  127 45.0%
6 TEX 7 376  105 27.9%
7 NYY 6 269  80 27.9%
8 TOR 6 332  75 22.6%
9 MIN 5 296  66 22.3%
10 BAL 6 298  56 18.8%
11 TBR 5 276  47 17.0%
12 KCR 6 291  43 14.8%
13 CHW 4 299  27 9.0%
14 HOU 5 336  26 7.7%
15 BOS 5 314  24 7.6%

Before play began today, the Mariners easily led the AL in plate appearances against southpaws. But, look a little closer. The club has actually faced more lefties than the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, and Tampa Bay Rays combined. This imbalance is bound to even out during the upcoming weeks.

Consider this for a moment. Over the past five seasons, major league hitters have faced southpaws during 28-percent of their plate appearances. Seattle currently sits at nearly 50-percent. That will change for the better, as will the team’s win-loss percentage.

Okay, so the Mariners have faced a disproportionate amount of southpaws and it’s certain to drop to a more league-average level. But, that’s not the reason that they’re struggling so mightily, right? Of course not.

Take a look at the Mariners’ individual player production, versus left-handed pitching, and you’ll quickly see who are prime culprits behind their southpaw woes. At the same time, fans can find reasons for optimism — assuming they’re willing to be patient.

Seattle Mariners vs. Southpaws (2016)
Rank Name G PA H HR BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Seth Smith * 4 6 2 1 0 1 .333 .333 .833
2 Luis Sardinas ** 2 6 2 1 0 2 .333 .333 .833
3 Chris Iannetta 5 19 5 1 3 4 .333 .474 .533
4 Dae-ho Lee 5 11 2 1 0 2 .200 .273 .500
5 Robinson Cano * 5 21 4 2 0 5 .190 .190 .524
6 Nelson Cruz 5 21 3 1 2 2 .167 .286 .389
7 Kyle Seager * 5 21 2 1 3 4 .111 .238 .333
8 Nori Aoki * 5 21 5 0 0 3 .238 .238 .238
9 Franklin Gutierrez 5 15 1 0 3 5 .091 .333 .091
10 Leonys Martin * 5 15 1 0 1 5 .077 .200 .154
11 Ketel Marte ** 4 17 1 0 1 2 .071 .176 .071
12 Adam Lind  * 3 6 0 0 0 5 .000 .000 .000
* Left-handed hitter                                                                  ** Switch-hitter
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

Although left-handed hitters normally struggle against southpaws, Cano and Kyle Seager are capable of doing far better than they’ve fared against lefties during the beginning of this season. The same is true about right-handed hitters Nelson Cruz and Franklin Gutierrez.

Think about it for a moment, the Mariners’ four best best hitters from 2015 are batting a combined .147 against lefties. All of these players are proven commodities who — if healthy — certain to improve tremendously from their slow start as the season progresses.

Facing so many southpaws has influenced the starting lineup. Historically strong hitters, like Seth Smith and Adam Lind, have been kept on the bench more often than desired.

Once the lefty/righty proportions level out, Lind will become a regular fixture in the Mariners lineup and more productive at the plate. To date, he’s started five of his team’s nine games, which is 55-percent of the team’s games. Barring injury, he’s likely to start at least three-quarters of the club’s games in 2016.

Another key contributor to the Mariners current lineup hasn’t been kept out of the lineup by the presence of southpaws, but he’s struggled against them — starting shortstop Ketel Marte.

Ketel Marte’s Handedness Splits (2016)
Split G PA AB H BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
vs RHP as LHB 4 14 13 4 1 5 .308 .357 .308 .665
vs LHP as RHB 6 19 16 1 1 2 .063 .158 .063 .220
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

The switch hitting Marte hasn’t enjoyed much success from the right side of the plate thus far. It’s not uncommon for switch hitters to stumble out of the gate from one side of the plate. After all, they have to hone two separate swings with a limited number of Spring Training plate appearances.

During Cactus League play, Marte had just 15 plate appearances against lefties compared to the 40 times he faced a righty. I can’t predict how much the 22-year-old will improve once he gets his groove versus southpaws. But, I’m certain he’s better than the .063/.158/.063 triple-slash he’s registered during his 19 regular season plate appearances.

Granted, the Mariners offense needs to hit better, regardless of handedness. Facing left-handed pitching 45-percent of the time hasn’t deterred the Detroit Tigers from feasting at the plate.

Still, the Mariners don’t have to be an offensive juggernaut — like the Tigers — to compete in the AL West division. Their veterans just need to perform at career norms. Fortunately for Seattle, there’s 153 games remaining in the regular season. Let that number sink in for a moment.

That’s right, the club has played just six-percent of its games and some long-suffering fans have already jumped off the bandwagon and into the “same old Mariners” camp. I get it. The club has the longest postseason drought in major league baseball. It’s tough to maintain a persistent stare at the club’s substandard performance.

Personally, I don’t believe that the Mariners are that “same old” team. New general manager Jerry Dipoto has built the deepest, most talented roster that seen in Seattle since I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009.

Entering the season,I thought that the Mariners would have a winning record. Nothing that I’ve seen thus far has changed my opinion. If I’m wrong and the Mariners can’t reach the fringe of contention, it’s more likely that injuries or the bullpen will be the root cause; not struggles at the plate.

Hopefully for their own sake, disillusioned Mariners fans will give their team a fair shake before abandoning ship on a potentially promising season. One of these years, they won’t be the “same old Mariners” and it’d be a shame to miss the start of something special due to previous disappointments.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mariners walk off During his first season with the Seattle Mariners, slugger Nelson Cruz lived up to or exceeded the expectations of pundits and fans alike. Despite the fact that 2015 Mariners turned out to be a huge disappointment as they extended their postseason drought to 14 seasons, “Boomstick” was a bright spot in the team’s otherwise pedestrian offense.

Last year, Cruz’s home run and hit totals — plus his .302/.369/.566 slash — were well above his career averages. Moreover, he delivered the highest wins above replacement (WAR) of his career. Considering his 2015 production, fans are likely hoping that Boomstick will be able to repeat his first-year success with the Mariners. But, is that a reasonable expectation? Probably not.

Cruz is getting older and it’s inevitable that his skills will begin to erode. That doesn’t mean that 2016 is the year that the 11-year veteran suddenly becomes “Slumpstick.” On the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll fall back from his stellar performance of last year. How much he declines is the “unknown unknown” facing both the team and its star slugger.

Entering this season, projection systems aren’t being kind to Cruz, who turns 36-years-old on July 1. Both Steamer and ZiPS, developed by Dan Szymborski of ESPN, project that the Mariners slugger will not be nearly as productive in 2016.

Some may point to Cruz’s his outstanding physical fitness and the fact that he’ll have a rejuvenated Robinson Cano as batting order protection as two reasons why he should be able to duplicate his superb offensive production from last season. This makes for a compelling argument. But, isn’t it possible that Cruz’s 2015 was nothing more than a statistical aberration and will be difficult to repeat regardless of his physical prowess, age, or lineup protection?

Why am I so leery of Cruz in 2016, other than his age? One statistic stands out as an area of concern for me going into 2016 — batting average on balls in play (BABIP). I’m not trying to go to “saber-geek” on you, but hear me out.

First, for those not familiar with BABIP, it measures how many balls put into play go for a hit — not including home runs. FanGraphs adeptly points out that several factors affect BABIP rates for individual players, including defense, luck, and talent level.

Since we know that Cruz is talented and league defense is relatively stable from season to season, that leaves luck as the remaining factor. Look at Cruz’s BABIP over the span of his career and you’ll see a dramatic uptick in 2015 after he hovered around the league-average mark between the 2011-2014 seasons.

BABIP

I understand that some of you may not buy into BABIP, but Mariners general Jerry Dipoto is a believer. He specifically cited the stat when explaining the acquisition of center fielder Leonys Martin. When discussing his newest player with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle, Dipoto noted, “He did not have a very high batting average on balls in play, which is typically an indicator that it will turn around.”

Assuming that Cruz’s BABIP returns closer to his norm, he’s looking at a drop-off from his 2015 numbers. That doesn’t mean that his 2016 performance falls off the face of the earth. However, based on his age, he’d be occupying rarefied air if he were able to repeat last year’s performance at the plate. Look at the 10 best individual seasons for 35-year-old players since 2010 and you’ll see what I mean.

Top-10 Individual Seasons for 35-year-olds (since 2010)
Rk Player oWAR Year Tm G PA H 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Adrian Beltre 5.9 2014 TEX 148 614 178 33 19 .324 .388 .492 .879
2 Victor Martinez 5.8 2014 DET 151 641 188 33 32 .335 .409 .565 .974
3 Lance Berkman 5.3 2011 STL 145 587 147 23 31 .301 .412 .547 .959
4 Jayson Werth 4.7 2014 WSN 147 629 156 37 16 .292 .394 .455 .849
5 David Ortiz 4.0 2011 BOS 146 605 162 40 29 .309 .398 .554 .953
6 Jimmy Rollins 3.7 2014 PHI 138 609 131 22 17 .243 .323 .394 .717
7 Marlon Byrd 3.7 2013 TOT 147 579 155 35 24 .291 .336 .511 .847
8 A.J. Pierzynski 3.7 2012 CHW 135 520 133 18 27 .278 .326 .501 .827
9 Chase Utley 3.5 2014 PHI 155 664 159 36 11 .270 .339 .407 .746
10 Mark Teixeira 3.3 2015 NYY 111 462 100 22 31 .255 .357 .548 .906
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/2/2016.

To rank players, I opted to use offensive WAR (oWAR) as the determining factor. For those wondering, Cruz’s oWAR was 6.0 in 2015. I chose oWAR because it takes the defensive component out of the equation and places the focus squarely on the player’s offensive prowess. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all can admit that most — not all — of the individuals listed above were still stars thanks to their bats, not their defense.

To be clear, I still think that Boomstick will continue to hit tape measure shots and contribute to the Mariners offensive production. I’m only suggesting that it’ll be at a diminished rate when compared to 2015. Despite the gloomy picture that I’ve just painted, there’s a reason for Seattle baseball fans to hold their collective chins up.

Thanks to their new general manager, the Mariners won’t need to be as reliant on Cruz to score runs — or win — during the upcoming season. From what I understand, winning despite an aging slugger is a foreign concept for baseball fans from the Emerald City. That’s about to change.

During the offseason, Dipoto placed a high degree of emphasis on adding players with good on-base ability. Here’s a look at the core players — ranked by on-base percentage (OBP) — who project to get majority of playing time under Dipoto and new manager Scott Servais.

Seattle Mariners Projected Regular Players
Player Age G AB H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
Nelson Cruz 34 152 590 178 22 1 44 3 .302 .369 .566 .936
Adam Lind 31 149 502 139 32 0 20 0 .277 .360 .460 .820
Franklin Gutierrez 32 59 171 50 11 0 15 0 .292 .354 .620 .974
Nori Aoki 33 93 355 102 12 3 5 14 .287 .353 .380 .733
Ketel Marte 21 57 219 62 14 3 2 8 .283 .351 .402 .753
Robinson Cano 32 156 624 179 34 1 21 2 .287 .334 .446 .779
Seth Smith 32 136 395 98 31 5 12 0 .248 .330 .443 .773
Kyle Seager 27 161 623 166 37 0 26 6 .266 .328 .451 .779
Chris Iannetta 32 92 272 51 10 0 10 0 .188 .293 .335 .628
Leonys Martin 27 95 288 63 12 0 5 14 .219 .264 .313 .576
League Avg .254 .317 .405 .722

New players such as Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, and Chris Iannetta all have demonstrated an above-average knack for reaching base during their big league careers. Combining these veterans with holdovers Robinson Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ketel Marte should propel the Mariners to their highest OBP since 2009, when they were a league-worst .314. The bar isn’t very high, so it shouldn’t be difficult for Seattle to vault it, even if Cruz takes a step backwards.

That’s why I’m convinced that the Mariners offense will be more productive than in any season since I first made the Pacific Northwest my home in 2009. They won’t make anyone forget the era when the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar MartinezAlex Rodriguez, and Brett Boone wore a Mariners uniform.

As Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill points out, the club’s offense stands to be a strength this season. When was the last time you could say that about the Mariners?

Ironically, it’s highly unlikely that Cruz would’ve landed in Seattle if Dipoto had been the Mariners general manager prior to last season. He’s not a proponent of big-ticket free agents, and, unlike his predecessor, the 47-year-old executive doesn’t fixate on acquiring sluggers.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, Dipoto has chosen to build a roster with on-base ability that can score more runs and — in theory — win more games, even if Cruz takes a step declines.

If Boomstick proves people like me wrong and fends off Father Time for another season, the Mariners will be even better poised to host postseason baseball at Safeco Field this coming October — assuming the bullpen doesn’t collapse upon itself. Wouldn’t that be something?

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Typically the majority of the jobs on a given big-league roster that are ‘open’ have a heavy favorite, and there are few ‘open’ job with which to begin. The Seattle Mariners’ roster is just about solved, but there are a few questions yet to be answered, including the following:

  • Will the club carry a first-base platoon?
    as I have noted many times, it’s not a great idea, but if the club does carry one, there are several candidates in camp.
  • Who will win the first-base platoon gig?
    The candidates are: Jesus Montero, Dae Ho Lee, Stefen Romero and Ed Lucas. Romero brings the versatility of having played second base, third base and the outfield in the minors.
  • Who will serve as the utility infielder?
    Luis Sardinas and Shawn O’Malley are the two top candidates, with Chris Taylor also in the mix to some level.
  • Who will win the No. 5 spot in the rotation?
    It appears the battle is between right-hander Nate Karns and lefty James Paxton. Both have options remaining, but the loser also could start the year in the bullpen.
  • Below is the way-too-early-to-tell edition, but I’ll update this in two weeks, then again the day before the rosters are typically announced.
Projected M’s 25-Man Roster: Way-Too-Early Edition
Pos. Player
B/T
SP Felix Hernandez R/R
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
R/R
SP Wade Miley L/L
SP Taijuan Walker R/R
SP Nathan Karns R/R
RP Ryan Cook R/R
RP Evan Scribner R/R
RP Vidal Nuno
L/L
RP Tony Zych
R/R
RP Charlie Furbush L/L
RP Joaquin Benoit R/R
RP Steve Cishek
R/R
1B Adam Lind
L/L
2B Robinson Cano L/R
3B Kyle Seager L/R
SS Ketel Marte
S/R
C Chris Iannetta R/R
DH Nelson Cruz R/R
OF Nori Aoki
L/R
OF Leonys Martin L/R
OF Seth Smith
L/L
C Steve Clevenger L/R
IF Shawn O’Malley S/R
OF Franklin Gutierrez R/R
1B/DH Jesus Montero
R/R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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