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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where Paxton and Walker enter the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That leaves us awaiting the return of Walker and Paxton.

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

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

 

 …

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

At the halfway point of the 2016 season, the rotation of the Seattle Mariners was in disarray and their bullpen ineffective. It looked as if 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.

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

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

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle SeagerThrough game two in The Bronx the Seattle Mariners appear to have rebounded somewhat from the five-game skid at Safeco Field. The final game of the homestand ended in a walk-off home run by Dae-Ho Lee, then the club beat the New York Yankees 7-1 Friday before beating a lefty starter 3-2 in Game 2.

The M’s entered play Sunday 5-6 on the year and while it’s weeks and weeks too soon to take any numbers, advanced or traditional, and draw any sort of conclusions, there are some positive trends. We’ll call them suggestive trends if they remain for six or eight weeks, but until then I’m calling some of them potential early-season anomalies.

It’s easy to buy what Nelson Cruz is selling — .279/.367/.558 through 11 games, though his strikeout rate is destined to rise (four whiffs in nearly 50 plate appearances after a 25 percent rate last season, the highest of his career) and with skipper Scott Servais protecting Seth Smith from left-handed pitching even more this year than the Mariners did a year ago, the veteran’s triple-slash isn’t out of line for being the hot-streak type start it appears to be.

The positive early-season numbers that are likely to prove random and/or lucky/unlucky are:

Leony Martin: .257/.333/.486
Martin has struck out 14 times in 39 plate appearances (35.9 %) and has raced out to his solid start thanks to a .368 batting average on balls in play. The two home runs are of course legitimate, as is the 7.7 percent walk rate, even if the paces of each don’t quite hold up.

Martin’s first 11 games are strange, though, because while the average and on-base percentage are fed largely by the BABIP, his strikeout rate is abnormally high, too — more than 13 percent higher than any other season Martin has played more than 25 big-league games. So, on one hand the BABIP will sink to more normal levels, theoretically shrinking the average and OBP in the process, Martin will make more contact than he has early on, too. The center fielder struggles versus lefties and 16 of his plate appearances have versus southpaws. That rate will change, too, as somewhere between 65-75 percent of the innings in the American League will be pitched by right-handed starters and relievers.

The most interesting part of Martin’s season to date for me is the swing itself. The Mariners, and by ‘Mariners’ I mean The Edgar Martinez, clearly have been working with Martin to try and help him create more backspin, which could help him hit more doubles and even a few more home runs. The bat speed is there, the swing hasn’t been over the course of his career. The club may be convinced, as are most scouts, Martin’s plate skills overall probably aren’t going to improve significantly. So, instead of focusing solely on more contact as if he’s a prototypical top-of-the-order bat — which clearly he is not — getting a few more extra-base hits may be the best way to increase his offensive value. This doesn’t mean Martin’s goal is to hit more doubles and homers — it’s to ‘control the zone’ as best as possible, like everyone else on earth, but with a better chance to take advantage of his bat speed.

Martin is 1-for-19 when his at-bat ends on anything but a fastball (four-seam, two-seam/sinker) with eight strikeouts. That will have to improve, but since about 40 percent of those offspeed pitches are from lefties, this, too, should even out some.

Chris Iannetta: .276/.400/.483
Iannetta batted .188 a year ago and while a .225 BABIP tells part of the story there, the veteran turned 33 earlier this month and his career average even after his solid start this season is .232. Iannetta’s career BABIP is .278, which if inserted in a vacuum here would drop his 2016 start to about .219/.333 to go with the two home runs.

How far Iannetta’s numbers fall from where they are now may be determined in large part to how often the club is forced to use him. This puts pressure on Steve Clevenger to hit some when given the chance to Servais doesn’t feel the need to push it with his No. 1 catcher.

It’s super early, of course, but Iannetta has tallied just the two extra-base hits, and really isn’t much of a power bat, anyway — career high in HR outside Coors Field is 11 and 22 doubles is his best since his Colorado days — so don’t shocked if he goes the rest of the season without hitting two long balls in 10 days.

The AVG-OBP differential of 124 is not out of line with some of Iannetta’s recent seasons, however, so there’s reason to believe that will continue to some level. If he ends the year batting .220 or so, the on-base levels should be around league average, which likely will be between .315 and .320 or so. Any power he produces above a .370 slugging is gravy, yet more than plausible.

Kyle Seager: .132/.267/.263
In Seager’s first full season in the majors he batted .290/.300/.435 in April, then .279/.339/.500 in May. The following year he batted .292/.359/.491 in April and .255/.324/.418 in May. In 2014 he went .225/.319/.450 in April and .272/.348/.447 in May. Last year Seager combined April-May for a .271/.327/.474 triple-slash. The first two weeks of this season have gone awry for the All-Star, Gold Glove third baseman, but yet again some of this, too, appears to be somewhat of an anomaly.

Seager’s strikeout rate is up a tad to 20 percent from his career mark of 16.8. His walk rate is up, too, however, which is why his .267 OBP doesn’t look as bad it might if he were running with a batting-average driven triple-slash. Seager’s batting average on balls in play is .143, 135 points lower than a year ago and 143 points below his career mark. This is going to even out some, even if it ends up the lowest BABIP of his career.

Seager started 2014 very slow, too — he was batting .121/.293/.212 on April 13, 11 games into the schedule — and caught fire to end the month the respectable line listed above.

It’s a misnomer than Seager is a slow starter unless you’re just talking about the first few weeks.

Adam Lind: .192/.192/.231
Like Seager, Lind’s early-2016 numbers are absolutely an anomaly that will flip as the season progresses. One can argue Lind actually is a better pure hitter than Seager, posting OBPs of .360, .381, .357 the last three seasons, including his final two years in Toronto. He is 32 now, and while his BABIP (.278) cannot be blamed for his putrid numbers though 26 at-bats, his inconsistent playing time is indeed a legitimate factor. The Mariners have faced six left-handed starters in 11 games and Lind started just one of those games. Furthermore, Lind’s timecard looks like this: Started, OFF, started, 1 PH AB, TEAM DAY OFF, 1 PH AB, started, started 2 AB, OFF, started, TEAM DAY OFF, started, 1 PH AB. Them some spring training type work hours and that will change, too.

While I don’t expect Lind to bat .277 with a .360 OBP and 20 homers like he did a year ago, the guy uses the whole field with a line-drive swing and has proven he can rake right-handed pitching: .291/.380/.503 in 2015, .292/.353/.507 for his career. He’ll hit once he starts seeing his name in the lineup card more regularly, which means more right-handed starters. The Indians series in Cleveland this week likely will see the M’s face three straight righties, though it may be Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, one of the best 1-2-3 punches in all of baseball.

Bullpen: Five HR in 147 BF
While it’s fair to suggest the overall success of the M’s bullpen may not last (3.16 ERA), one reason to believe it could is the unlikelihood of the home run rate (1 per 29.4 batters faced) to stick for the entire season.

Last season the Mariners’ bullpen fell apart and ended up one of the four worst relief units in the American League. That group allowed one home run per 41 batters faced. The worst rate in the circuit last year belonged to the Boston Red Sox’s bullpen: One homer per 28.5, a mark the M’s are hovering around thus far in 2016. Considering Safeco Field and other factors such as pitcher type, they’re more likely to end up closer to last year’s 41.1 than anywhere near the 1/29.4.

To be fair, the M’s starters also have allowed five home runs, a rate which will rise, to be sure. They yielded 126 a year ago and the AL average was 114, so a slight uptick in rate there should be expected, but not as much the bullpen’s numbers should normalize to the positive.

Offense: .251 BABIP
We’re already seeing this normalize a bit for Seattle since arriving in New York, bit the .251 ranks No. 14 in the American League as for as much contact as the Mariners are and should be expected to make all season, this number absolutely will climb as the schedule matures.

The M’s are batting .226/.302/.396 through 11 games. Even if Iannetta and Martin become a little less randomly lucky, Lind, Seager and Cano will more than make up for that. There’s a great chance this year’s roster adds 10-plus points to last season’s .249 team average, and with that likely comes a league-average on-base percentage (.318 in AL in 2015) and perhaps an above-average slugging mark (.412 in AL in 2015, M’s finished at .411).

Future Trends To Watch For
I’m of the belief that if the big if turns his way, Franklin Gutierrez will mash lefties in 2016 like he always has, and even outperform his career marks versus right-handed arms(.242/.292/.365 ) by a long shot, though not to the unbelievable levels he did a year ago — .254/.351/.627, 7 HR… Felix Hernandez isn’t using his fastball a lot right now. He’s averaging about 90 mph on the four-seamer and sinker but per BrooksBaseball.net has thrown 58 percent offspeed stuff through three starts. The fastball usage may have to rise a bit, but the last two seasons Hernandez has thrown the four-seamer or sinker between 43 percent of the time and 44 percent of the time. That can be effective if his other pitches are consistent and he commands the fastball better than he has early in 2016. The trend to watch for here is the slider, as I noted after his Opening Day start. He hasn’t thrown it much yet — 5.7 percent per PITCHf/x versus over eight percent every year of his career — but he’s flashed the best sliders since at least 2012 this season and it’s a real weapon if it becomes more consistent, specifically versus right-handed batters.

Taijuan Walker‘s two-start sample is promising, if nothing else. He started poorly a year ago and has been better so far in 2016, but I’m talking about his pitch usage. Walker used his curveball just 7.8 percent of the time last year — with several starts featuring merely two or three — and threw 66 percent fastballs. He’ll enter his next start having throwing 56.5 percent fastball and nearly 13 percent curveballs. This suggests the pitch is at very least one he feels more comfortable with as well as one the new staff believes he should throw a little more than he did last season. Without it, Walker is throwing 93-96 mph fastballs, often up in the zone and without optimal command, and twp firm offspeed pitches in a cutter-slider at 90 mph and a split-change at 88 mph. His curveball sits 73-76 mph with late, sharp bite. He hasn’t commanded it well in the big leagues, but the raw offering is solid-average and should be thrown to batters regularly to give them a different speed to consider… Wade Miley has pitched very well in two starts, avoiding the base on balls and missing some bats with his sinker, slider and curveball and creating terrific deception and velo differential with his changeup (82 mph average versus 91.6 mph fastball). He’s served up twp three-run homers – one on a bad pitch to Prince Fielder and another on a pitch most batters wouldn’t keep fair, let alone hit out, but Adrian Beltre is a martian. Miley’s dealing right now and has been every bit the best of the starters thus far.…

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?

 …

02242016-spring04 Prior to his decision to sign a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers, I don’t recall any pundits suggesting former Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond as a good fit for the Rangers.

I certainly didn’t expect that he’d end up with a team that already has Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Rougned Odor manning second base. On top of that, the organization has young middle infielders like Jurickson Profar and Hanser Alberto ready to burst onto the scene.

The signing of the 30-year-old was a surprise, but how the Rangers plan to utilize the career shortstop was also unexpected. The team intends to use Desmond as a left fielder and super-utility player. It’s worth noting that he’s appeared in 1607 games as a professional baseball player. Eight were at second base in eight and four in the outfield; the remaining games were at shortstop.

Normally, a shortstop is the most athletic player on the field. Therefore, Desmond should have the skill set to transition. Nevertheless, the learning curve is going to be steep for the Sarasota, Florida native.

Acquiring the former National as a super-sub may have seemingly come out of nowhere, but a team’s desire to have a Swiss Army knife type shouldn’t come as a shock.

Roster flexibility is especially crucial for American League (AL) teams, like the Rangers, who have to sacrifice a reserve spot to fill the designated hitter role. An AL club that uses a seven-man bullpen is left with just four bench players and one of them will be their backup catcher. This leaves managers little wiggle room when attempting to manipulate their bench.

That’s why having a versatile reserve or — better yet — a super-utility player is such an attractive option for ball clubs. If Desmond demonstrates that he can handle the outfield, the Rangers will have a player who can cover multiple spots in the infield and outfield. A factor that makes Desmond even more attractive is his offensive upside — tied with Troy Tulowitzki for most home runs (63) by a shortstop during the last three seasons.

After considering the Rangers move to diversify Desmond’s positional portfolio, I wanted to find players who had demonstrated that they could play multiple spots in the field and deliver some measure of value to their respective team. With that in mind, I compiled a list of players who I thought were the most versatile and productive during 2015. I first placed an emphasis on finding performers who contributed at multiple positions — the more positions, the better. Then, I ranked them by wins above replacement (WAR).

2015 Swiss Army Knives (Ranked by WAR)
Name Tm 1B 2B 3B SS LF/RF CF WAR
Brock Holt BOS 8 58 33 11 35 2 2.6
Yangervis Solarte SDP 28 19 92 0 0 0 2.2
Eduardo Escobar MIN 0 11 5 71 36 0 2.0
Chris Coghlan CHC 5 15 3 0 120 0 1.9
Danny Espinosa WSN 5 82 16 8 5 0 1.9
Marwin Gonzalez HOU 43 15 21 32 15 0 1.8
Josh Harrison PIT 0 37 72 0 27 0 1.8
Danny Valencia 2TM 5 3 55 0 37 0 1.7
Andrew Romine DET 17 13 59 27 2 0 1.6
Enrique Hernandez LAD 0 20 1 16 19 19 1.4
Jose Ramirez CLE 0 33 13 46 2 0 1.4
Brad Miller SEA 0 11 2 89 21 20 0.6
Kelly Johnson 2TM 25 28 12 1 38 0 0.3
Cliff Pennington 2TM 0 33 18 29 8 0 0.2
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/9/2016.

You’ll notice that the most recognizable super-utility player in the majors– Ben Zobrist —  isn’t on my list. Although he’s capable of playing more positions, he “only” manned the corner outfield spots and second base last season. As you can see, the players on my list were more versatile in 2015.

One tactic that AL teams can use to offset the loss of a reserve spot to the designated hitter is to utilize multiple players at the position during the span of the season. However, a few teams — the Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees — used a full-time designated hitter last season. Texas used Prince Fielder in manner last season and intend to do so again, which is another reason why the Desmond acquisition makes sense — if he can make the transition.

The Seattle Mariners are looking at a similar situation with slugger Nelson Cruz. Although Cruz will see more playing time in right field than Fielder will see at his former position — first base — the Mariners are poised to significantly reduce Cruz’s time in the field to a level far below the 80 games that he played last season.

So, what’s the Mariners plan for their bench? At this point, it’s a work in progress.

Franklin Gutierrez is set to be part of a corner outfield platoon and either Steve Clevenger or Rob Brantly will likely fill the back-up catcher spot behind Chris Iannetta. That leaves only two spots up for grabs.

The Mariners will need to have someone capable of playing shortstop and serving as a right-handed option at first base in order to spot Adam Lind from time-to-time. Whether that takes two individuals or one exceptionally versatile player has yet to be determined.

With that in mind, I decided to shed light on the positions that the team’s potential backups have played during their professional careers. The following table illustrates the total number of games that the players have spent at each position at all levels, including minor league baseball, the Arizona Fall League, and foreign leagues.

   Seattle Mariners Versatility Matrix
Player Pos C 1B 2B SS
3B
LF/RF CF
Jesus Montero 1B 432 186 0 0 0 0 0
Dae-Ho Lee 1B 0 364 0 0 0 0 0
Stefen Romero 1B/OF 0 5 162 0 30 302 0
Ed Lucas 1B 0  104 170 300 493 116 3
Efren Navarro 1B  0  1046  0  0  0  115  0
Chris Taylor SS 0 0 81 348 2 0 0
Luis Sardinas SS 0 0 87 477 40 0 0
Shawn O’Malley IF/OF 0 0 226 484 17 50 32
Daniel Robertson OF 0 0 8 0 0 553 403
Boog Powell
OF 0 0 0 0 0 81 218
Steve Clevenger C 575 122 64 0 9 0 0
Rob Brantly C 505 0 0 0 0 0 0

Seattle doesn’t have anyone as recognizable or talented as Desmond — or any of the “2015 Swiss Army knives” — to fill out their bench. The most recent Mariner to demonstrate that kind of potential made it onto the first table — Brad Miller. He’s now a Tampa Bay Ray.

Barring a trade or free agent signing, Seattle will complete their roster by selecting two players from a list of candidates that includes several young players, a few journeyman, and a player who has played solely in Japan and Korea.

Based on position experience only — not talent — players such as Stefen Romero, Luis Sardinas, Shawn O’Malley, and Ed Lucas would appear to have a better chance of earning one of those final two spots than less versatile players.

Previous position experience isn’t the only “versatility factor” that’s being considered. A player’s ability to add a new position to their repertoire could come into play too. If you’ve been watching Spring Training games, you know what I mean.

The Mariners have used Sardinas at his usual positions. Plus, he’s played center field, which is new to him. Finding a center field alternative hasn’t been mentioned much. It’s been overshadowed by the “who’s going to be the right-handed backup first baseman?” chatter.

The team certainly needs to have someone who can occasionally stand in for starter Leonys Martin. Nori Aoki is certainly an option. Nevertheless, having another choice on hand would provide manager Scott Servais with an added layer of depth that he could utilize during critical moments in a game.

Another example of players getting new — or more — experience at a position is Chris Taylor, who’s been spending time at third base. Assuming there aren’t any unforeseen circumstances, starting third baseman Kyle Seager won’t need much rest during the upcoming season. Over the last three years, he’s played more innings than any other fielder has in the majors. Nevertheless, a little less playing time in the field might actually help the 28-year-old at the plate.

Just last week, Steve Sandmeyer and Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted during the “Joe Jarzynka episode” of their podcast, that reducing Seager’s innings — not games played — might help keep his bat fresh during his usual 155-plus starts.

As far for the backup first base spot — the Mariners job most often discussed on the internet — Dave Sims and Mike Blowers of ROOT Sports mentioned during a recent broadcast that Sardinas might get some playing time at first base. All of this bodes well for a 22-year-old trying to win a roster spot, assuming that he proves he can hold his own at his new positions.

Earlier this week, Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont noted that Romero is a dark horse candidate for a roster spot. He’s primarily been an outfielder in recent years, but is now getting a long look at first base. Factors like previous offensive struggles at the major league level and the fact that he has a minor league option remaining may work against him. As Prospect Insider founder pointed out, Romero’s seemingly hot performance in Peoria doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the eyes of scouts or Mariners management.

From a versatility aspect, Romero presents a better fit for the Mariners than Jesus Montero or Dae-Ho Lee. But, the prevailing belief among observers is that Montero and Lee are the front runners for the job. Although I understand the rationale behind such a choice, it’s still tough for me to believe that the Seattle would go in that direction.

Why do I feel that way? I just don’t see how a couple of one-dimensional sluggers are a good match for the Mariners. Maybe, under previous regimes it would’ve made sense to retain big-bat potential with a limited glove. Still, I can’t fathom the current leadership opting for Montero or Lee.

Both Montero and Lee have limited profiles. They’re “bat first” types who are — at best — passable at first base and available to be a designated hitter or pinch hitter. That’s it. Neither player has proven that they can do any of those jobs at the big league level.

It’s true that the other players vying to make the roster are also unproven commodities at the plate. However, they’ve demonstrated the ability to be — at the very least — an average defender at one or more positions. The same can’t said about either Montero or Lee.

To be fair, Jason pointed out in his most recent piece “several scouts have spoken of Lee in positive tones,” while a rival official assessed Montero as “just OK.” That makes Lee sound like more palatable option. But, it’s just Spring Training and both players are still a one-dimensional.

This brings me back to my original point about the backup first base spot, which Jason refers to as “Chicko’s platoon partner.” I have a tough time envisioning the current regime selecting Montero or Lee. Perhaps, I’m way off base. But, picking one of these two guys just doesn’t add up for a team that’s going to have a near full-time designated hitter.  Then again, I never saw the Desmond deal coming.

In three weeks, we’ll better understand the level of import that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto truly places on having “layers of depth” and positional versatility on his big league roster. Regardless of which players earn the final bench spots, watching the team’s selection process unfold over the next few weeks will be both fun and informative — at least for me. I’m weird that way.…

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.…

Aoki Dipoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Dipoto Aoki

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the Seattle Mariners’ reboot of their roster and – to the chagrin of some Mariners faithful – I concluded that the current roster had not ascended to the level of “fringe contender.”

My doom and gloom rationale was primarily driven by the club’s lack of proven depth in the bullpen and rotation. I just don’t believe that Seattle’s current cadre of pitchers is ready to catapult the Mariners to the next level. The club is making sound moves to address their pitching, but I’m not ready to buy-in. It’s that simple.

The fact that I’m down on the Mariners’ pitching doesn’t mean that I think that new general manager Jerry Dipoto is doing a bad job or that the Mariners are on the wrong track – quite the opposite. He’s done an impressive job of turning over the roster after some national pundits said it would take over a year to transform the club. The 47-year-old executive didn’t see it that way.

In just three months, Dipoto has added 18 new players to the organization’s 40-man roster and he’s not done yet. He’ll undoubtedly continue to amass players who’ll compete to make the Opening Day roster or provide depth at Class-AAA Tacoma. There are reasons to feel optimistic about the club’s direction. The most obvious to me is the projected length of their lineup.

That’s right, I actually like something about the Mariners. From an offensive perspective, their projected Opening Day lineup is far superior to anything that they’ve put on the field in recent years. I’m not the only person who’s arrived at the same conclusion. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill noted during the most recent edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast that Dipoto has done a great job of lengthening his lineup and adding more hitters with on-base ability.

To gauge the Mariners’ improvement, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of Seattle’s 2015 production for each lineup spot and the 2016 Steamer projections for the nine players expected to fill those spots in the order. If you’d like to read more about Steamer, you can find it here at FanGraphs.

Before looking at the stats, I feel compelled to acknowledge that projections are nothing more than estimates based on factors such as each player’s playing history and age. No one can predict injuries or exactly when an aging player will fall off the proverbial cliff.

It’s also important to note that the likelihood of a projection being correct increases substantially when there’s a larger sample-size available. Robinson Cano’s Steamer projection is more credible because it’s based on the results of an 11-year career, while Ketel Marte has played just 57 major league games.

Projections are imperfect by nature, but can be fun to discuss in mid-December. Take it from personal experience, they can spark very animated Twitter conversations. Okay, let’s look at the numbers.

  2015 Mariners Lineup 2016 Projections
Spot in Order
HR AVG OBP SLG OPS Name HR
AVG OBP SLG OPS
1st 18 .247 .307 .394 .702
Nori Aoki  6 .270 .332 .360 .691
2nd 22 .255 .312 .424
.736
Ketel Marte  5 .269 .312 .356 .667
3rd 33 .273 .326 .470 .796
Robinson Cano 18 .285 .344 .444 .787
4th 36 .314 .377 .542
.919
Nelson Cruz 32 .255 .321 .476 .797
5th 26 .260 .333 .449
.782
Kyle Seager 22 .265 .332 .443 .774
6th 20 .249 .312 .396
.708
Adam Lind 17 .269 .343 .431 .774
7th 23 .233 .298 .400
.698
Seth Smith 11 .248 .331 .408 .739
8th  9 .196 .265 .296
.561
Chris Iannetta  9 .215 .324 .354 .677
9th 11 .196 .250 .295
.546
Leonys Martin  8 .242 .293 .350 .643

Overall, the lineup is considerably better than the 2015 version, even though Steamer has Nelson Cruz tailing off considerably. It’s reasonable to expect “Boomstick” to decline since he’ll be age-36 next July.

Not long ago, I discussed his eventual decline and my suggestion on how to preserve the slugger. Whether Cruz drops off as much as projected is debatable and certain to initiate one of those “animated” Twitter salvos I referred to earlier.

Regardless of how Cruz performs in 2016, he’ll have a much stronger supporting cast around him. It won’t be just Cano and Kyle Seager like last year. The last four spots in the 2015 lineup became a black hole that killed many rallies and the top of the order wasn’t much better.

In 2016, number six/seven/eight spots project to be above league-average with Adam Lind, Seth Smith, and Chris Iannetta respectively. Leonys Martin’s projected .295 on-base percentage in the nine hole is sub-par, but still far better than last year’s production.

One aspect of the offense that’s likely to decline is home run power. The heart of the order should provide similar power since the same three players are returning. But, the rest of the order projects to lag behind 2015 totals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the lineup gets on base as often as projected. Power is good, but men on base increases the potency of that power.

Bear in mind that 31 of Cruz’s 44 home runs were solo shots. Last season, he had just 287 plate appearances with at least one runner on base. That’s a measly 43-percent and indicative of the Mariners’ poor on-base performance. Imagine how much better the offense could have been if there were men on base 50-percent of the time?

The Mariners lineup projects to reach base more often and theoretically score at a better rate than last season. Does that mean that the team’s lineup is good enough? That depends.

For me, the best answer for me is that Seattle’s lineup is much improved, but it’s “to be determined” whether the lineup will be good enough to contend. That will depend on father time.

The majority of Seattle’s lineup is on the wrong side of 30, which means that most of their key guys have entered their post-prime seasons. It’s tough to determine with certainty when they’ll start to decline or the rate of their decline. Only Seager and Martin are in their prime years and the lone player under 25-years-old – Marte – has been in the big leagues for a whopping two months. So, he’s still an unknown factor.

Perhaps, I’m sounding like the doom and gloom guy again. But, I really do believe that Mariners fans have reasons for optimism even if it seems like there’s a dark cloud hanging over my keyboard.

If this renovated lineup performs at career norms and stays healthy, it’s good enough to contend. Whether the team can actually contend will depend on their pitching depth. If that’s not addressed, they won’t ascend to the fringe contender level.…

 

I’m not a native of Seattle and I only moved to Washington in early 2009. So, the most vivid highs and lows in the history of the Seattle Mariners aren’t embedded into my psyche like they are for so many Pacific Northwesters. The team’s trade of Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez’s departure via free agency, and the infamous late inning melt downs of Bobby Ayala don’t make my blood boil just like the Mariners’ historic 116-win season isn’t the first thing that I recall about the 2001 baseball season. Perhaps, that’s why I was indifferent to the June hiring of former Mariner great Edgar Martinez to be the club’s hitting coach.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that Edgar should already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Moreover, my wife is a life-long Mariners fan and she’s thoroughly briefed me on his importance to the franchise and its fan base. Even if I wasn’t married to a die-hard Mariners and Edgar fan, it’s not hard to figure out what he means to the local community.

Considering that the 52-year-old has a Safeco Field cafe named after him and there’s a street outside the stadium bearing his name, it’s pretty clear that Edgar is a Seattle fixture. Regardless of his stature with fans, his Hall of Fame worthiness, and my bride’s passion for “Gar,” I’ve remained ambivalent to the hiring.

There’s no disputing that Seattle hitters performed much better after the all-star break, which commenced shortly after Edgar’s hiring on June 20. The club had more hits, slugged more home runs, and walked more often despite having fewer at-bats in the second half. Plus, they had significantly better triple-slash numbers. That’s why it’s understandable if a casual observer linked the team’s resurgence with the five-time Silver Slugger award winner’s arrival.

Yes, the numbers show that the Mariners’ offense was far superior after Edgar arrived. But, should the credit go the team’s new hitting coach or was it something else?

Split AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1st Half 2993 312 705 130 14 93 245 713 .236 .296 .382 .678
2nd Half 2551 344 674 132 8 105 233 623 .264 .328 .446 .773
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/7/2015.

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Out with the old
As the Mariners’ bats sputtered during the early months of the 2015 season, former GM Jack Zduriencik tried his best to tweak the 25-man roster prior to the July 31 trading deadline in hopes of jump-starting the team’s ineffective offense. Most notably, he parted ways with three players – Willie Bloomquist, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks – via the designation for assignment (DFA) process. All three were gone by July 6. Shortly thereafter, Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley were traded away to postseason contenders.

Name G AB H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Austin Jackson 107 419 114 18 3 8 .272 .312 .387 .699
Justin Ruggiano 36 70 15 4 0 2 .214 .321 .357 .678
Dustin Ackley 85 186 40 8 1 6 .215 .270 .366 .635
Rickie Weeks 37 84 14 1 0 2 .167 .263 .250 .513
Willie Bloomquist 35 69 11 1 0 0 .159 .194 .174 .368
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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With the exception of Jackson, the group performed woefully at the plate. Even with Jackson’s league-average level of production included, these former Mariners produced a combined .234/.279/.328 triple-slash while accounting for 28-percent of the team’s first-half at-bats. Replacing these five players with better options played a pivotal role in boosting the team’s production at the plate.

In with the new
Four players – Franklin Gutierrez, Ketel Marte, Mark Trumbo, and Jesus Montero – were the key position player additions to the major league squad in 2015. They joined the Mariners at different times, but their arrival helped usher out the five players previously mentioned. The “new guys” accounted for 33-percent of the team’s second half at-bats and their .269/336/481 slash helped rejuvenate an offense that scored the second fewest runs scored in the American League during the first half. Conversely, Seattle ranked number-five in runs scored during the second half.

Name G AB H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Franklin Gutierrez 59 171 50 11 0 15 .292 .354 .620 .974
Ketel Marte 57 219 62 14 3 2 .283 .351 .402 .753
Mark Trumbo 96 334 88 13 0 13 .263 .316 .419 .735
Jesus Montero 38 112 25 6 0 5 .223 .250 .411 .661
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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Of the four new players, Trumbo was the only big league regular when Edgar arrived. During his first month with Seattle, the slugger was terrible with a .151/.184/.205 slash and one home run. Fortunately for the 29-year-old slugger and the Mariners, he bounced back by slugging 12 homers and posting a .295/.351/.479 slash for the remainder of the season.

Couldn’t Trumbo’s resurgence be a by-product of Edgar? Sure, but I’m not ready to say Trumbo’s bounce back was due to his new hitting coach because the right-handed power hitter is known to be a streaky hitter. A comparison of his 2015 totals to his career averages illustrates that he didn’t do much more than perform at his career norms.

Mark Trumbo 2015 vs. career averages

Year Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2015 TOT 142 545 133 23 3 22 36 132 .262 .310 .449 .759
162 Game Avg. 162 648 150 28 2 31 42 161 .250 .300 .458 .758
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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Strong finishers
Another factor in the Mariners’ rebound was the second-half turnaround of two of Trumbo’s teammates – Robinson Cano and Brad Miller. Cano was easily the most disappointing Mariner during the first half. He was under-performing in most offensive categories and wasn’t contributing at the level expected for a player who earns $24 million annually.

By now, it’s well known that the 32-year-old struggled with stomach-related issues earlier in the season. Since opening up about his health struggles in early July and getting his gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) under control, the six-time all-star – like Trumbo –  “flicked the switch” and began delivering outstanding numbers after July 1.

Name G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Robinson Cano 70 305 92 11 1 15 .331 .387 .540 .926
Brad Miller 60 203 49 9 1 3 .274 .338 .385 .724
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/10/2015.

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Miller’s defensive struggles at shortstop made the 25-year-old the one of the more scrutinized Mariners during the 2015 season. But, his fielding miscues were exaggerated as were his alleged issues with the bat. Miller was a good – although inconsistent – offensive contributor. Like Seager and Cruz, he had two bad months. In Miller’s case, it was May and July. Interestingly, he struggled most during the same two months in 2014 before finishing strongly with Howard Johnson as his hitting coach.

Steady performers
There were a couple of Mariners who played at relatively the same level throughout the season – Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Imagine how bad the first-half offense would have been without this duo? Cruz was the team’s big free agent signing last offseason and he performed well above the expectations of many in 2015 and will likely receive votes for American League Most Valuable Player award. He won’t win the award, but he certainly was the Mariners’ best offensive performer.

Name G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Nelson Cruz 65 293 77 9 0 23 .294 .365 .592 .957
Kyle Seager 73 330 79 18 0 14 .264 .327 .465 .792
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/10/2015.

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Seager was – once again – a strong presence in Seattle’s line-up. The 27-year-old performed near his career averages despite June and August struggles. Like Cruz, Seager could be counted on to play virtually every day; he only missed one game in 2015. Thanks to Cruz and Seager, the Mariners had two hitters who stabilized the lineup, while accounting for 22-percent of the team’s at-bats in 2015.

Help needed
Although I was unmoved by Edgar’s hiring and contend that his presence wasn’t the reason for the offense’s strong second half, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that his expertise isn’t needed. There are several Mariners who could learn from the two-time batting champion – if the players are willing to listen and learn.

When Edgar assumed the role as the Mariners’ hitting coach, the player most mentioned as a candidate for reclamation was the team’s catcher – Mike Zunino. The right-handed hitter is a superb defender behind the plate who possesses immense power with the bat. Unfortunately for him and the team, he struggled mightily throughout 2015 and became a boo-bird target.

How bad was it for Zunino in 2015? Former manager Lloyd McClendon opted to have a player with above-average extra base power sacrifice bunt 10 times, which tied him for sixth most in the American League. Yes, Zunino’s former skipper would rather have him bunt despite the fact that he could “run into” a ball and easily hit it over 400 feet.

On the surface, it initially appeared that the 24-year-old was turning a corner under the tutelage of his new hitting mentor after he hit .222 in July. Another sign of how bad it was for Zunino in 2015 –  a .222 batting average for a month created optimism.

Mike Zunino monthly splits

Split G PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 22 70 8 1 0 2 3 6 27 .129 .214 .242 .456
May 22 81 18 5 0 5 12 2 29 .237 .275 .500 .775
June 25 86 10 0 0 2 3 8 31 .130 .212 .208 .420
July 25 89 18 5 0 1 8 2 25 .222 .256 .321 .577
August 18 60 7 0 0 1 2 3 20 .130 .175 .185 .361
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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The former Florida Gator’s improvement didn’t last though. In late August, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish described via Twitter just how badly Zunino had regressed. The next day, the power hitting receiver was demoted to Class-AAA Tacoma and he didn’t return when rosters expanded on September 1.

In retrospect, May turned out to be Zunino’s best month when he had a better batting average and far superior slugging percentage. Perhaps, Edgar’s guidance will take hold with the young backstop in 2016.

Another underachieving Seattle regular who could use Edgar’s help is first baseman Logan Morrison. The 28-year-old started off very poorly in April, although he showed signs of returning to form during May and June. Regrettably, the combination of a bruised thumb and Montero’s arrival significantly reduced his second-half playing time at first base.

Morrison did bounce back in September and made sure to give his hitting coach credit when he told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle “Shoot, I have a new swing. He’s been trying to get me to do this for like a month now.” Only time will tell if “LoMo” can sustain the improvement he enjoyed during the last month of the regular season.

Logan Morrison monthly splits

Split G PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 21 80 15 1 0 1 .197 .238 .250 .488
May 28 116 27 3 2 5 .273 .379 .495 .874
June 26 107 25 3 1 3 .253 .308 .394 .702
July 21 80 9 0 0 3 .129 .225 .257 .482
August 22 55 10 5 0 1 .204 .278 .367 .645
Sept/Oct 28 73 17 3 0 4 .266 .342 .500 .842
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/8/2015.

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Two others who spent time with Seattle this season who could benefit from Edgar’s expertise are infielders Marte and Chris Taylor. Although Marte hit the ground running in Seattle, “Gar” may be able to help the switch-hitter with his hand placement, which is different from each side of the plate.

Like Marte, the right-handed hitting Taylor could also benefit to changes with his hands. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted in August that Taylor’s “hitch in his swing makes him late on good velocity and perhaps later than is ideal on offspeed stuff.”

Coincidentally, hand placement is something that Edgar emphasizes. During a wide-ranging conversation about hitting, the seven-time all-star told David Laurila of FanGraphs.com that “how you position your hands is important.” Marte and Taylor are just two examples of young Mariners who can learn from the Mariners icon.

Finally
Edgar Martinez has been a positive influence on the team’s hitters – Morrison’s comments reinforce that point. But, that doesn’t mean that the greatest designated hitter in the history of the game was the impetus behind the Mariners’ second-half offensive surge.

Even Edgar acknowledged the difficulty with hitters making in-season changes when he told Laurila “breaking a habit is difficult and it takes time. It’s hard to make an adjustment like that – a bigger adjustment – in the middle of the season.” His own words appear to confirm that the Mariners’ second half had more to do with the players than their guru.

At best, all a coach can hope to do is maximize a player’s potential. Edgar isn’t going to turn Zunino into Buster Posey. On the other hand, it’s plausible that Edgar might be able to kick-start the three-year major leaguer’s career before it’s too late. That, in itself, would be an impressive feat.

Having the time to work with Zunino, Marte, Taylor, and other youngsters when there aren’t any games will help because, as Edgar puts it, “it’s not easy to make a change, because they’ve done the same thing for so long.”

Fortunately for Edgar fans and the Mariners, he’s been afforded the opportunity the stay with the club as their hitting coach despite the fact that they have a new manager in Scott Servais. GM Jerry Dipoto has made it clear that improving as a player is a career-long process and not just a minor-league function when he stated that “player development at the major-league level is never ending.”

Who better to help usher in young hitters than a should-be Hall of Famer who has the designated hitter named after him? Having Edgar around the batting cage, in the clubhouse, and in the dugout will certainly help the Mariners’ offense in 2016. However, Dipoto getting better hitters will help the offense much more than any coach could – even if their name is Edgar Martinez.…