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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 …

 

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
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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
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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.…

With the trade deadline only days away and the Seattle Mariners currently on the outside looking in, much space has been put towards dissecting what exactly the team should do this week. Should the M’s be sellers? Could they be buyers? Sitting 9.5 games back in the division and 6.5 games back of a wild card berth entering Tuesday’s games likely suggest the former more so than the latter.

Whatever the case, getting a head start on filling holes for next season should be more important than attempting an incremental upgrade for the season’s final two months. There’s enough talent on the ball club that a hot stretch in August could put them back in the wild card race, but not enough performance to merit another acquisition to bolster the club in 2015 alone.

The players most often discussed as being pieces to sell — Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, Austin Jackson, Fernando Rodney, and Mark Lowe — are free agents. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill mentions Brad Miller and D.J. Peterson among other names that have been brought up in conversations.

Starting with the rotation, the potential departures of Happ and Iwakuma open two spots. Despite his prolongued stint on the disabled list, Iwakuma has played the crucial role of No. 2 starter as recently as last year and has flashed glimpses of having his stuff back since returning. Happ has been excellent in the back-end of the rotation and owns a 3.77 FIP in 104 and 1/3 innings of work.

Felix Hernandez isn’t going anywhere while Taijuan Walker should have one of next year’s rotation slots essentially locked up at this point. Both Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias have had success in the big leagues this year and are solid options. James Paxton is still on the disabled list with an injured finger and a return doesn’t appear imminent.

A rotation of Felix, Walker, Montgomery, Elias, and Paxton has plenty of upside, but none of the non-Felix pitchers really stand out. Walker could presumably take another step forward as a solid No. 3 starter but Elias and Montgomery project more as back-end guys. With the potential loss of Iwakuma, there will be a hole in the rotation, particularly in the No. 2 spot.

A healthy and effective Paxton can fill that role, though he has thrown barely over 130 innings since Opening Day 2014 — the track record simply isn’t there.

Seattle will need more out of what’s been a league average rotation this year and an additional veteran starter will be required as well as the usual depth.

The bullpen has almost literally gone from first to worst. What was a strong point last year has been a weakness this year. Rodney has turned into a pumpkin — though he may have been tipping his pitches — while Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar have taken their turns heading up and down the I-5. The Bartender has been better of late, though, and his peripherals suggest he’s outperforming his earned run average.

The good news is that Carson Smith has adapted nicely to his role as closer and has been excellent. Vidal Nuno and Charlie Furbush are doing well enough in their roles.

Gone are Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone, dealt for Welington Castillo and Mark Trumbo respectively. The dealings of relievers for bats, including Brandon Maurer in the winter, have eaten away at the depth that existed in 2014.

If Lowe leaves as a free agent, the Mariners will need to find eighth inning help, which never seems to come cheap in free agency. The bullpen likely needs an additional major league arm or two as well. It’s possible Nuno competes for a rotation spot but has otherwise worked out well enough in the bullpen.

The infield picture is a little more clear with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both locked into long-term extensions. Seager is in the midst of another excellent season while Cano is enjoying a red-hot July and finally showing signs of life after a terrible first half. Miller is also having a solid season and has a firm grasp on the starting shortstop job with Chris Taylor still waiting in the wings.

As has been the problem for more than a few years now, first base needs an upgrade. After showing progress with the bat last year, Logan Morrison holds an 87 wRC+ and has been replacement level. Mark Trumbo has been better recently, but his season performance is still below league average. Both players are under team control through 2016 so it’s unlikely Seattle seeks a significant upgrade, though there’s an argument that it’s still needed.

Behind the plate Mike Zunino has still played solid defence and picked things up with the bat this past week, but has struggled to hit his weight throughout the season. A trip to Triple-A has been suggested as a potential antidote the struggles at the plate. He’s still only 24 and could very well be the catcher of the future still, but the team needs a second catcher capable of playing three times per week — that’s the real issue. Doing without is only hurting Zunino in the short and long-term.

The outfield picture will become even less clear with Jackson set to depart. Seth Smith is under contract for another year and is enjoying an excellent season as a platoon bat in the corners. Nelson Cruz has played right field more than anyone is comfortable with and that will probably continue next year. If manager Lloyd McLendon is smart it won’t, but it’ll likely depend in part on his other options.

Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano were brought onboard to solidify a pair of outfield platoons but are no longer on the big league team. There’s an increasing chance that Seattle will move on from Dustin Ackley before next spring. Franklin Gutierrez has had a nice return but is likely best-served as one-half of a platoon. He’s a free agent at the end of the year, but it’s not difficult to envision him being kept in the fold beyond.

Assuming Smith, Cruz, and Trumbo are returning and the others not, Seattle will need an outfielder capable of playing center field and another corner bat. Smith and Cruz can probably handle right field duties and Trumbo isn’t really an outfielder. Talk of turning Miller into a super utility player a la Ben Zobrist has cooled but there is a real possibility shortstop prospect Katel Marte could eventually convert to an outfielder.

Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins was on hand to see Marte’s outfield debut for the Tacoma Rainiers and opined that the youngster is going to need time to make the defensive adjustments. By many accounts his bat is big league ready, but we probably won’t know how viable of an option he is until Spring Training.

By my count, when constructing the 2016 edition of the Seattle Mariners there is at least one need in the rotation, a couple holes to fill in the bullpen, perhaps help at first base and definitely behind the plate, and two-thirds of the outfield will need to be revamped.

Seattle lacks the type of players that command high prospect prices at the trade deadline which makes them a less traditional seller. There’s no reason to think that Jackson and Iwakuma couldn’t net a couple decent prospects — probably nothing that helps the M’s immediately. If neither player is part of the future plans, there’s no reason to let them walk for nothing when they could be traded for something. Even Happ would be an upgrade for a club in need of some short-term pitching help and you can’t forget about Lowe as a potential trade piece — teams are always looking for bullpen help this time of the year.

It won’t be easy for the Mariners to admit defeat on a season that was riddled with expectations, but it’s not as though the window for a playoff berth has closed. The core of the club is in place long-term. But as we can see, there are several holes that need to be filled — some remaining from this past offseason.

If possible, the Mariners should be looking to get a head start on filling those holes. Now is as good a time as any and selling the pieces that are about to become free agents can help solve potential problems in 2016 and down the road.…

LoMoYou can find exit velocity — miles per hour off the bat — in a lot of places, including Statcast via MLB.com. I used some of those resources, including PitchfX, to answer a question I had. We often hear and read about exit velocity, usually on home runs. But sometimes balls hit very hard do not leave the yard or even land for hits. I wondered how often balls that leave the bat at certain velocities do indeed fall for hits.

Rather than search and calculate for the entire league over multiple seasons, I focused on the Seattle Mariners and the pre-break 2015 season. I also added the same data for two star right-handed batters and two star left-handed batters, for comparison’s sake.

Hit Percentage on Exit Velocity at 95 mph or higher
Robinson Cano: 46 hits on 97 balls hit 95 mph or higher (47.4 %)
Kyle Seager: 42 of 74 (56.8 %)
Nelson Cruz: 48 of 96 (50 %)
Dustin Ackley: 24 of 51 (47.1 %)
Austin Jackson: 23 of 55 (41.8 %)
Brad Miller: 36 of 68 (52.9 %)
Mark Trumbo (SEA only): 8 of 20 (40 %)
Seth Smith: 36 of 59 (61 %)
Mike Zunino: 22 of 41 (53.7 %)
Logan Morrison: 32 of 86 (37.2 %)

For comparison:
Mike Trout: 60 of 94 (63.8 %)
Albert Pujols: 49 of 94 (52.1 %)
Stephen Vogt: 31 of 53 (58.4 %)
Joey Votto: 42 of 73 (57.5 %)

Hit Percentage on Exit Velocity at 90 mph or higher
Robinson Cano: 49 of 111 (44.1 %)
Kyle Seager: 53 of 112 (47.3 %)
Nelson Cruz:55 of 93 (59.1 %)
Dustin Ackley: 25 of 67 (37.3 %)
Austin Jackson: 26 of 72 (36.1 %)
Brad Miller: 37 of 80 (46.2 %)
Mark Trumbo (SEA only): 11 of 30 (36.7 %)
Seth Smith: 40 of 74 (54 %)
Mike Zunino: 25 of 53 (47.2 %)
Logan Morrison: 39 of 113 (37.2 %)

For comparison:
Mike Trout: 63 of 115 (54.8 %)
Albert Pujols: 54 of 129 (41.9 %)
Stephen Vogt: 39 of 79 (58.4 %)
Joey Votto: 47 of 96 (49.0 %)

Ackley ranks No. 16 in Major League Baseball with an average exit velocity on all hits of 93.5 mph. Morrison ranks No. 41 in the same category at 92.1 mph. Cano, Seager and Cruz are not ranked in the top 50.

What I don’t have the answers to are questions such as “at what velocity most struck in Major League Baseball do balls end up as hits?” and “exactly why does one player with the same exit velocity statistics, totals, hit percentage, average, etc., produce at a drastically lesser level”?

What we do know, partly due to data such as the above, is the more often balls are hit hard (if hard is 90 mph or higher) the more likely a batter is to get a hit of some kind.

We also know that Logan Morrison is either incredibly unlucky, or he hits too many of his hard-hit balls on the ground and into the shift. I think it’s a little of both, more of the latter than the former.…

"SeattleThe 2014 season for Jesus Montero could be best described in one word: forgettable. Between the rough Spring Training entrance to the ice cream sandwich related exit, it couldn’t have gotten much worse. It couldn’t have, if his 2013 season didn’t involve a PED suspension, injuries, losing a starting job and being sent down to the minors.

But all that appears to be in the past for the former top prospect, we hope.

Montero impressed his superiors by showing up to camp this spring in excellent shape and reportedly losing the 40 pounds he was supposed to the previous year. It was going to take an extraordinary showing during Cactus League games to get the right-hander into the Opening Day roster, though, if that was even being considered by management.

It didn’t help Montero’s case that the Seattle Mariners beefed up the right-handed side of the lineup with free agent acquisitions of Nelson Cruz and Rickie Weeks. The pair were expected to take up the DH at-bats with Weeks seeing regular time in left field. Of course, things didn’t quite go that smoothly as Weeks struggled with the transition to part-time outfielder and was released while Cruz became the mostly-regular right fielder. But with Logan Morrison at first and Willie Bloomquist under contract, Montero still found himself on the outside looking in from the get-go.

And so, with a change in attitude, and pant size, Montero began the 2015 season with the Tacoma Rainiers and immediately began to hit.

The right-hander posted a 126 wRC+ for the month of April. May was a little less productive with an 89 wRC+, but he did double his home run total on the year to six. Montero then exploded for a 153 wRC+ and .950 OPS in June. At the time of his call-up he held a .332/.370/.529 slash line.

Mike Curto, the Rainiers play-by-play announcer, detailed Montero’s season to date and dispelled several of the perceptions that surround the slugger’s improvement. No, the 25-year-old is not directly benefiting from hitter-friendly road parks. Neither is he only pummeling left-handed pitching.

It appears that what we are seeing is Montero finally making adjustments as the season goes on. One particular portion from Curto’s piece stood out:

“If you are a scout and you saw Tacoma for five days, June 21-26, you would have seen Montero go 3-for-24 with 10 strikeouts, swinging and missing at pitches low-and-away from right-handers. If you saw Montero this past week, you would have seen him lay off those pitches and get ahead in the count.”

Sluggers can be streaky players. Look no further than Nelson Cruz or Mark Trumbo, as PI’s Luke Arkins recently examined. More often than not, over the course of a full season these types of streaks will even themselves out and we get a better picture to look at.

With the adjustments, Montero has managed to improved his ability to hit for contact and it resulted in him leading the Pacific Coast League in hits with 115 before his re-call. He’s more or less been able to maintain the power numbers he produced in 2014 only with fewer doubles and more triples — imagine that.

His .370 BABIP suggests he’s had some help in piling up the singles but it’s unfair to discredit the adjustments he’s made in favor of luck. At the same time, we are talking about a guy who has over 1500 plate appearances at Triple-A and he wouldn’t be the first to have solved PCL pitching while not succeeding in the majors.

Alas, Montero is now 25. He is no longer riding the top prospect tag. The Mariners were kind enough to comment that, entering Spring Training, expectations for Montero were non-existent. And truthfully, he has done just about everything possible to sabotage what projected to be a solid major league career. Seattle wouldn’t be the first team to give up on a player that didn’t seem to care enough about his on-field success.

With a strong first half performance, and a struggling Mariner offense, Montero finds himself on the big league squad. It could, and probably will, be short-lived as the club will need to make roster room for starter J.A. Happ who was optioned to High-A in order to make room for the right-handed bat. Dustin Ackley has been heating up and is unlikely to be the odd man out. It also doesn’t sound like the club is unhappy with the performance of Franklin Gutierrez either.

I’m not going to advocate dumping a particular player in order to make room for Montero. The club has done well to move on from Bloomquist and Weeks, and while many have been calling for Ackley’s dismissal, his ability to play center field is needed with the uncertainty surrounding Austin Jackson.

We knew that Montero was talented, it was just a matter of whether or not he was willing to put it to work. It appears that he has and the Mariners — or another team — need to give him that chance at the big league level. Picking up a single and a walk in nine plate appearances is not going to cut it for Montero, but he is going to need more than three games to prove himself in the majors.…

"<strongThroughout his tenure as general manager of the Seattle Mariners, Jack Zduriencik has attempted to acquire hitters able to succeed in the pitcher friendly realm of Safeco Field. Often these players are bat-first corner outfield, first base types who are best served as a designated hitter. The term ‘one-dimensional’ encapsulates said player quite well. Some were bought low on, some came at sticker price.

A few of the moves made were questionable from the beginning, with serious concerns arising from the value given up for what was on the return end. The odd one actually worked out.

Mark Trumbo — Acquired via trade with Arizona Diamondbacks in six-player deal
With the offense struggling, Zduriencik made the first big splash of the season when he acquired Trumbo and Vidal Nuno in exchange for Dominic Leone, Welington Castillo, Gabby Guerrero and Jack Reinheimer. In his first three big league seasons, Trumbo belted 29, 32 and 34 home runs while playing decent defence at first and poor defence in the corner outfield. The 29-year old is coming off an injury-plagued 2014 season in which he appeared in 88 games posting a career-low 91 wRC+ and a career-low .180 ISO.

So far it’s been a slow start to his Mariner career, but Trumbo has shown some signs of encouragement in the final week of the first half. He owns a .581 OPS since the trade, entering Sunday’s game, after finishing June with a -5 wRC+. Obviously this trade has several pieces in play, but the center piece of it all is Trumbo, who is a slugging first base, corner outfield type who’s likely best utilized at DH. He owns a career .298 OBP, doesn’t walk a whole lot and strikes out a quarter of the time. His acquisition brought a sense of inevitability instead of an upgrade.

Nelson Cruz — Signed four-year, $57 million free agent deal
After an offseason of back-and-forth about what really happened in winter 2013-2014, the M’s finally added the slugger to the fold this past winter. Only problem is he was coming off an MLB-high 40 home run performance and you best believe Seattle was going to pay sticker price. He was a decent defender early in his career but isn’t exactly graceful in the field and nearly all of his value comes from the bat. He can handle his own though if he’s only partially used in the field and primarily as the DH.

So far in 2015 Cruz has spent more time in the outfield than many are comfortable with, but he has delivered a .308/.373/.546 slash line with 21 home runs — the walk rate is a tick above his career mark as well. His first half performance was good enough to result in a starting gig at this year’s All-Star Game. The last couple years of his deal are probably going to look as bad as everyone figured, but for now, Cruz is living up to his end of the bargain with his bat.

Rickie Weeks — Signed one-year, $2 million free agent deal
The 11-year big league veteran was an interesting pick-up for the M’s late in the winter and at a very inexpensive price. For the bulk of his career, Weeks had been an above average hitting second baseman with average to slightly below defensive skills. He belted 70 home runs between 2010 and 2012 and he’s regularly had a walk rate around 10 percent. However his career 23.5 percent strikeout rate more resembles that of a slugger.

With Robinson Cano manning second base, Weeks transitioned to left field to form a platoon with Dustin Ackley. That would ultimately be a failure. The athletic 32-year old wasn’t a lost cause in the field, but he didn’t look great either. In 95 plate appearances he mustered a .167/.263/.250 slash line with a 51 wRC+. Not only was he transitioning to a new position, but from an everyday guy to a part-time player who pinch-hit frequently which can sometimes be a daunting task. Finding a groove with the bat didn’t happen. Weeks was released by Seattle on June 21.

Logan Morrison — Acquired via trade with Miami Marlins in exchange for RP Carter Capps
LoMo is your classic prospect who succeeded for a few years in the minors, struggled for a couple years in the majors and then received a change of scenery two winters ago. With Justin Smoak flailing as a major league first baseman, the M’s acquired Morrison to give them another option at first, right field, and you guessed it, DH. The 27-year old missed some time with injury in 2014, but managed a 110 wRC+ and supplanted Smoak — now a Toronto Blue Jay — as the everyday first baseman.

The left-hander continues to show signs that he’s capable of another 23 home run season akin to his first full season in the big leagues back in 2011. There’s been some experimentation with using LoMo in the leadoff spot and he finishes the first half with a .229/.300/.385 slash line. Morrison’s being regarded as a good defensive first baseman but the metrics suggest he’s below average. His days in the outfield are done and with a career 108 wRC+ in over 2100 plate appearances, it appears that the M’s have an average, occasionally better, first baseman. Morrison is under club control through 2016.

Corey Hart — Signed one-year, $6 million plus incentives free agent contract
Acquired on the same day as Morrison, the pair are often mentioned in conversation together. The two-time 30 home run hitter was brought aboard as the right-handed slugger to bat behind the newly signed Cano. It was a risky move as Hart missed the entirety of the 2013 season after undergoing double knee surgery. Sure enough he struggled throughout the 2014 season while battling unrelated injuries. Ultimately he would finish with a 70 wRC+ and six home runs in 255 plate appearances.

This move was lauded at the time as a low-risk, high-reward bargain. In a different context this probably would have been a shrewd move. However this was the follow-up to the Cano signing and the ‘protection’ that would hit behind the superstar. Truthfully, it was too much risk betting Hart would be able to resemble his former self one-year removed from surgery without a real clean-up hitter. For what it’s worth, he’s not having all that much success this year as a part-time player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Jesus Montero — Acquired via four-player deal with the New York Yankees
The Mariners were struggling to sign free agent hitters. The Yankees were struggling to develop young pitchers. Both clubs figured they would solve each other’s problems with New York sending Montero to Seattle and Michael Pineda going the other way. Montero entered the 2011 season as the No. 3 ranked prospect in baseball, but few thought the right-handed slugger would last more than a few more years behind the plate — the value his bat provided was amplified by the scarcity at the catching position. The critics were right.

Montero had some struggles in his first full big league season finishing the 2012 season with a 90 wRC+ and then it all went downhill. Underperformance, injuries, weight issues, a PED suspension and an incident involving a scout and an ice cream sandwich made up the following two years. But, a seemingly revitalized Montero showed up to camp this year after undergoing a significant weight loss. The results have followed as he’s posted an .868 OPS at Triple-A this year and was selected to the All-Star team.

The former top prospect was re-called from Tacoma and made his season debut on Friday. In three games he’s 1-for-7 with a pair of walks and a run driven in.

Justin Smoak — Acquired in six-player deal with Texas Rangers
The former blue chip prospect was the centrepiece of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. Ironically enough, Seattle reportedly had a deal with the Yankees that would’ve netted them Montero in exchange for the ace but pulled out once Smoak become available. The switch-hitter was hyped for his bat and regularly hit for high averages in his early minor league career, but was never the power-hitting slugger that some had hoped he’d be. He played parts of five seasons for the Mariners and only finished two seasons with a wRC+ above league average (100).

Despite being regarded as a solid defensive first baseman, and the metrics suggest he’s average on the field, there simply wasn’t enough offensive production to warrant starting the former top prospect. He was supplanted at the position last summer by Morrison and dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays over the winter. The trade has done him well as the 28-year-old is having a very good year in a more limited role for the Jays and owns a 128 wRC+ in 147 plate appearances.

Michael Morse — Acquired in three-team trade in exchange for C/DH John Jaso
Prior to the 2013 season Seattle brought Morse back into the fold for a second tenure — he debuted with the M’s in 2005 and remained in the system into 2009. He was coming off a solid offensive season with the Washington Nationals posting a 113 wRC+. As the team’s everyday right fielder in 2013 he posted a 92 wRC+ with 13 home runs before being dealt to the Baltimore Orioles at the end of August. He was due to depart as a free agent after a disappointing year.

Jaso was actually coming off a career year in 2012 with a 143 wRC+ and producing 2.6 fWAR as a part-time catcher and DH. At the time the move was described as typical of Zduriencik, dealing a well-rounded asset for a slugger who couldn’t play defence. Jaso posted a .394 OBP in 2012, Morse finished 2013 with a .270 OBP. For what it’s worth, Jaso has struggled with injuries since the deal and is now in the Tampa Bay organization.

Jack Cust — Signed to a one-year, $2.5 million free agent contact
Despite the fact he resembled the prototypical designated hitter acquired during the Zduriencik tenure, Cust actually had above average OBP skills and was a walk-accumulating machine. The left-hander actually performed close to league average offensively in 67 games as a Mariner in 2011, but after hitting just three home runs, he was released in early August.

The signing was quite reasonable given Cust’s skill set, but he should have been brought on as a part-time player instead of the No. 4 hitter on Opening Day.

Jason Bay — Signed to a one-year, $1 million plus incentives free agent contract
This move I was a fan of given the low-risk nature and me being a fan of Bay during his years in Pittsburgh and Boston. Unfortunately the right-hander was never the same after signing a four-year, $66 million with the New York Mets. He struggled with concussion issues and his contract was mutually terminated with money deferred. No longer the well-rounded player of years past, Bay offered minimal value in the field and little on the base paths entering 2013. He still had some pop in his bat though and was useful against left-handers.

Little harm was done with the move as Bay posted a 94 wRC+ and produced -0.2 fWAR in 236 plate appearances before being designated for assignment. He would be released in early August and has unofficially retired since then.

Raul Ibanez — Signed one-year, $2.8 million free agent contract
The signing marked Ibanez’s third tour of duty with the M’s in 2013. He previously was with the club from 1996-to-2000 and 2004-to-2008. At age 41, Ibanez nearly made history by belting 29 home runs, but was also tasked with regularly playing left field throughout the season. Hitting solo home runs was about all the left-hander did for the Mariners that year, though, as his defensive shortcomings resulted in a 0.1 fWAR for the season. Though his 102 wRC+ would likely be a welcome addition to this year’s incarnation of the club.

Seth Smith, acquired via trade with San Diego Padres in exchange for reliever Brandon Maurer, follows the trend of dealing a reliever for a bat, but unlike many of the other bats acquired, Smith is well-rounded in the box and isn’t a slouch defensively. That’s not to suggest he’s anything special in the field, though he was credited with 6 DRS in 2014. He’s more capable of being an average major league outfielder, which given many of the names who have roamed Safeco Field in the past few years, is a plus.

It is interesting to note that, reportedly, Seattle had an opportunity this winter to acquire Jackie Bradley Jr. from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for reliever Charlie Furbush. Bradley Jr. doesn’t resemble the Jack Z type of player at all: he’s athletic, plus in the outfield and is strong on the bases. Only problem is that he doesn’t hit, and while his skills would upgrade the Mariners outfield defense, the problem to be solved over the winter was finding more runs. Not to suggest the trade should have been accepted if it was in fact offered as Bradley Jr. has a career 50 wRC+ and Smith has been a pleasant addition.

All told, there’s plenty of evidence to show that Jack Zduriencik has targeted these bat-first corner outfielders who should be a DH. But at the same time, his biggest expenditure, Robinson Cano, is a true five-tool player despite the fact he hasn’t shown the same power output. Other exceptions would include Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez who were excellent athletes.…

Jones
The best word to describe the Seattle Mariners offense may be “enigmatic.” That’s been especially true in the month of June. During 14 games this month, the team has scored two or fewer runs – including four shutouts – in nine games, while scoring five or more runs in three other games. The end result is a team with a 5-9 win-loss record and an increasingly frustrated fan base.

This level of offensive unevenness isn’t a new challenge for an organization that’s sputtered at the plate for over a half-decade. When you break down the team’s plate appearances by handedness, it becomes readily apparent that the Mariners’ difficulties rest on one side of the plate. Entering today, Seattle’s .230 batting average against right-handed pitching is the worst in the majors – the current league-average is .253. Yes, that’s right, the Mariners are worse than 15 National League teams who permit their pitchers to hit on a regular basis.

The root of the Mariners’ problem against right-handed pitching is their league-worst .200 batting average by their right-handed hitters. The only Mariners right-handers who are above league-average against right-handed pitching are Nelson Cruz (.291) and Austin Jackson (.261). Seeing these stats won’t stir optimism in any fan who’s desperately looking for any glimmer of hope for a season that seems to be slipping away.

Despite the struggles of Robinson Cano and Dustin Ackley – who are hitting a combined .225 with 19-percent of all team at-bats against righties – the Mariners’ left-handed hitters rank 18 of out of 30 teams against right-handed pitching with a .251 batting average – six points above the league-average. Naturally, the left-handers should outperform the right-handers. But, not by such a large margin.

Unlike their right-handed counterparts, the Mariners’ left-handed hitters are not dead last in the league when they face a handedness disadvantage at the plate – they also rank 18 of 30 against southpaws. To some, this could be viewed as an encouraging sign. On the other hand, imagine how bad the offense would be if the lefties were as unproductive as their right-handed teammates?

Regardless of where the production comes from, the Mariners have to perform better against right-handed pitching or they’ll continue to languish at the bottom of the league in all offensive categories. So, where does Seattle go from here to improve? Let’s look at the key regular players who matter most to the team’s run production.

The good guys
Up to this point of the season, the team’s offensive success has been highly dependent on the performance of Cruz. But, he’s been cooling off during the last month – .269/.327/.366 slash and only two home runs in the last 28 days. Fortunately for the team, Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison have combined for eight home runs and a .306 batting average during that time-frame and Seth Smith has also contributed a .270/.372/.473 slash.

Austin Jackson – who struggled after arriving in Seattle last year – has done well since returning from a sprained ankle in last month, registering a triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage of .305/.337/.439 during the last 28 days. Jackson has also performed well against right-handers in with a .261/.305/.338 slash. It’s realistic to expect that the 28-year-old can maintain that pace since his .261 average is actually 18 points below his career-average against right-handers.

Brad Miller’s .231 batting average isn’t great, but he’s performing well compared to his peers. Entering today, his .711 on-base plus slugging percentage ranks number three in the American League among shortstops who have at least 200 plate appearances. His weakness has been against southpaws – he’s only hitting .114 compared to his .259 batting average against right-handers.

The rest of the bunch
There are several players on the 25-man roster who may be able to help to the Mariners offense, if they can return to their career norms. One is vital to the team’s success, while the others aren’t likely to make a season-changing impact against right-handed pitching.

Robinson Cano
The team’s highest paid position player is experiencing the worst start of his 11-year career. By his standards, hitting .249 against right-handed pitching is abysmal – especially after hitting .327 against righties in 2014 and maintaining a .316 average during his career. Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – discussed a change in Cano’s foot placement during his swing that Mariners’ manager Lloyd McClendon recently noticed during last week’s OFP Report.

If Cano’s tweak to his batting stance truly leads in a return to form, the Mariners offense will certainly improve. This team can’t possibly have consistent success against right-handed pitching without their star second basemen being productive. With that said, there are many holes in this team’s offense and they’ll need more than just the six-time all-star to contribute.

Dustin Ackley
To date, Ackley’s 2015 season has been a huge disappointment. For the first time in his five-year career, the 27-year-old has been part of a platoon. As a result, he’s only had 10 plate appearances against southpaws. Unfortunately for Ackley and the Mariners, the left-handed hitter is only hitting .190 against righties compared to last year’s .259 and .241 lifetime averages.

Ackley’s 154 plate appearances against right-handed pitching constitutes 14-percent of the team’s at-bats against righties. The former North Carolina Tar Heel will either need to dramatically improve soon or the team will be forced to go in another direction. Perhaps, the team is already changing course. Since the acquisition of Mark Trumbo, Ackley has started in less than half of the team’s games and has been used in several games as a late defensive replacement.

James Jones
The return of Jones from Class-AAA Tacoma has the potential to be nothing more than a minor upgrade. Yet, Jones – who played 108 games with the Mariners in 2014 – possesses two distinct attributes that should help the team.

The fleet-footed Jones can put a team’s defense on edge and bring a charge of excitement to the team’s fan base whenever he’s on base. Last season, he successfully stole 27 bases and had a league-best 96-percent success rate for players with more than 25 stolen bases. The addition of a player who had 15 stolen bases in the minors certainly helps, but Jones’ speed isn’t the only vital component to the left-handed hitter’s game. The second attribute that Jones possesses is simple and was just stated – he’s a left-handed hitter.

No, the 26-year-old isn’t going to put the team on his back and carry them to the postseason. But, entering today, Jones’ 2014 major league .250 batting average against right-handed pitching is better than the 2015 numbers of Cano and Ackley – who stands to lose more playing time to Jones.

Mark Trumbo
The newly acquired right-handed slugger has struggled since arriving. But, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll be able to repeat his .241 career average against right-handers. That’s eight points below league-average, but would rank third on the Mariners.

Where to turn?
If the Mariners have any chance of being taken seriously as postseason contender, it’s clearly obvious that getting the offense on-track is paramount. Sure, the second wildcard lets teams perpetuate the notion that they’re still in contention well into September. But, the Mariners can’t be a realistic contender if they don’t score at a higher rate for a sustained period of time and hit close or near to league-average – especially against right-handed pitching.

That’s why the acquisition of Trumbo is so puzzling to me. In fairness to the 29-year-old, his .402 slugging percentage is 16 points above the major league average. But, the team needs hitters who have been more successful against right-handed pitching. His skill set – he rakes against southpaws and has power – is nice to have, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a significant improvement.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, their minor league system has little available in terms of players hitters who could help the team get out of their offensive doldrums against right-handers. Several players with varying degrees of success against right-handers like Jesus Montero (.289), Patrick Kivlehan (.240), Stefen Romero (.266) and Franklin Gutierrez (.337) are most frequently mentioned by fans as possible fixes to the team’s woes.

Montero (.226) and Romero (.164) have not performed well against right-handed major league pitching and Kivlehan isn’t doing well at Class-AAA. “Guti” is a fan favorite and his ongoing battle with health issues are inspirational and he may be able to provide some value. However, he can no longer play on an everyday basis. That’s why the team will likely need to turn to the trade market and waiver wire to significantly improve their fortunes against righties.

About three weeks ago, Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – provided several possible fixes to the Mariners. All of the players suggested by Jason – Michael Brantley, Carlos Gomez, Gerado Parra, Josh Reddick, Will Venable, and Ben Revere – would represent an immediate improvement against right-handers. Each player presents a different level of risk and reward, which Jason covered in great detail in his piece.

Final thoughts
There are a few reasons for fans to maintain guarded optimism – or at least hope – for the remainder of the Mariners’ season. Their best hitter – Cano – is the most likely player on the team to improve, Trumbo and Jackson will probably have career-average years, and Miller and Morrison are on-track to have career-best years. Unfortunately for Mariners fans, hope is not a management strategy that wins championships.

While it’s clear that the team can’t succeed in 2015 without a better version of Robinson Cano, the Mariners need more than just their 32-year-old star to reach the postseason. They have to minimize the ineffectual Ackley and Jones may help in that regard, but he’s an unproven commodity. The Mariners can either “hope” that Jones is up to the task or they can opt to add two more players who are more proven against right-handed pitching to complement Jones and the rest of roster. Otherwise, the chances of Seattle making the postseason for the first time in 2001 will fade away.…

McClendon
When I served in the Navy, I had the privilege of working with a superb aircraft maintenance officer and a dynamic leader who was simply known throughout Naval Aviation as “Big John.” On one particular occasion the unit that I was leading had endured a series of discouraging events, but we eventually bounced back and succeeded when it really mattered.

When I talked to John about the difficulties leading up to our eventual success, he simply said that you “can’t argue with results.” John’s philosophy was simple – all that matters is the outcome of your actions, not the preceding build-up or talk. This philosophy applies to all professions and certainly to the Seattle Mariners, who have underachieved this season.

With about 35-percent of the season completed, Seattle – once again – can’t effectively produce runs. The team ranks 29 out of 30 major league teams in runs-per-game – only the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies are worse. Think about that for a moment; the Mariners run-production is worse than the output of 14 National League teams – who permit their pitchers to hit. Throw in the slowest start of perennial all-star Robinson Cano’s career and you’re left with an underachieving offense and a frustrated fan base.

Many – including me – believed that the Mariners had a realistic shot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001 after they reloaded their offense during the offseason. The biggest move was the signing of slugger Nelson Cruz, who hasn’t disappointed – so far. Cruz’s arrival along with the acquisitions of veterans Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks signaled that the team knew that they needed to bolster an offense that had languished near the bottom of the league during the previous five seasons.

The arrival of proven players weren’t the only factor that fueled higher-than-usual expectations. Fans maintained a relatively reasonable expectation that Austin Jackson would bounce back from a disappointing 2014 and that their young players – Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Chris Taylor, Mike Zunino – would incrementally improve from their 2014 performances. Miller and Morrison have been productive, but, there isn’t enough historical data to gauge whether either will continue to perform for the remainder of the season and Taylor and Zunino have scuffled at the plate.

Although their recent offensive drought is not indicative of the talent on the roster, the team has not delivered results and will likely continue to struggle with run-production even after the current drought ends. Jackson is showing signs that he’s returning to his career norms at the plate and it’s reasonable to expect that Kyle Seager, Jackson, Smith, Trumbo, and Weeks will perform at career norms, if utilized properly. However, Cruz is due for a cool down – his career numbers say so – and there’s no other clear-cut candidate for a strong second half other than Cano.

With that reality staring them in the face, the team made several moves designed to help kick-start the offense, although it’s debatable if the changes will actually help their overall production. First, Seattle added slugging outfielder/first baseman Mark Trumbo a week ago. Then, they designated Ruggiano last Friday in order to make room for back-up catcher Jesus Sucre, who had been assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma. General Manager Jack Zduriencik explained the move – which included sending back-up catcher Welington Castillo to Arizona – and the team’s designation of Ruggiano for assignment on The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan.

The team’s decision to designate Ruggiano for assignment was mildly surprising. As I’ve stated previously, waiving a right-handed hitter who could play all three outfield positions instead of Ackley or Weeks hurt the Mariners. Replacing Ackley and/or Weeks with Trumbo in the field is an improvement albeit a small one. The 29-year-old primarily played right field for Arizona and his .303 OBP at the position was below the league-average for that position (.324). Is he a better option than Ackley and Weeks? Absolutely! But, this was a small improvement for the struggling offense.

It’s not just Trumbo’s limitations that are unsettling to a fan base hoping for meaningful October baseball. The loss of the offensively-orientated Castillo as back-up for starting catcher Mike Zunino is counter-intuitive for a team needing more offense and power. When discussing the acquisition of the right-handed hitting catcher in May, Zduriencik himself stated that “he has the ability to hit, and he’s got power.” Now, the team has returned to the weak-hitting Sucre.

Unless the team falls completely out of contention, they will likely make more deals to improve the roster. Based on the available resources within the Mariners’ system and their trading history, it’s highly improbable that any blockbuster deals will be made by the July 31 trading deadline. In reality, this team is – at best – looking at incremental improvements.

Until those acquisitions arrive, most of the answers will have to come from the team’s 40-man roster. I believe that there are several personnel moves and strategies that the team can do today with the resources under their control that would – at least – slightly improve their outlook. My suggestions are “limited” solutions because the replacements being suggested are just that – limited. But, the changes are doable by the team and should be done sooner than later while Zduriencik works the trade market and waiver wire.

Replace Dustin Ackley with James Jones
This move would provide an upgrade – but not a long-term fix – to an abysmal situation. Although the left-handed hitting Jones has significantly less power than Ackley, he’d be an offensive upgrade over the 2015-version of Ackley and he’d provide something that Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon seems to crave – a true base stealing threat. He’s successfully stolen 15 bases and has only been caught three times at Class-AAA Tacoma – the Mariners have 24 stolen bases as a team.

The left-handed Jones has posted a .275/.365/.394 triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage against right-handed pitchers as a Rainier this year. The 26-year-old may not be able to reproduce those numbers in the majors, but his .251/.280/.309 slash against southpaws as a Mariner last season suggest that he wouldn’t be much worse than Ackley’s .259/.310/.442 output against lefties in 2014.

Deploy the Brad Miller/Chris Taylor tandem
No, removing Miller from shortstop is not the answer. Although he’s had his defensive lapses, he’s not a bad defender. His .714 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) ranks third in the American League among shortstops with more than 180 plate appearances. Miller is a far superior hitter against right-handed hitting as evidenced by his .254/.347/.469 slash. Having a right-handed platoon mate would help the team. That’s why I’ve previously suggested the tandem of the left-handed Miller and right-handed Taylor, who delivered a combined value of 2.8 wins-above-replacement (WAR) in 2014– which ranked sixth among all American League shortstops.

Despite Taylor’s difficulties during his brief stay in Seattle, the 24-year-old performed well against left-handed pitching with a .364/.417/.636 slash. Granted it’s small sample size. But, he did post a .276/.354/.345 slash against southpaws during 66 plate appearances in 2014. Returning the right-handed bat of Taylor from Class-AAA Tacoma would be a good addition and he’d provide more athleticism and better defense than the current back-up shortstop – Willie Bloomquist.

Replace Rickie Weeks with Justin Ruggiano
The Mariners should pull Ruggiano off of waivers and part ways with Weeks. Once again, this is a move with limited implications that is neither an indictment of Weeks nor an endorsement of Ruggiano as a long-term solution. The skill set of Trumbo replaces most of the value that Weeks potentially provided to the team and leaves the 32-year-old more expendable than the right-handed Ruggiano who can play all three outfield positions.

Play Trumbo at first base against southpaws
Morrison’s numbers – .200/.254/.218 – against lefties in 2015 make Trumbo a better option against left-handed pitching, plus resting “Lo Mo” – a player with an injury history – from time-to-time makes sense. This strategy isn’t exactly rocket-science, but it’ll help the offense and rest an every day player at the same time.

Stop trying high-risk base stealing attempts
It didn’t take a big brain to come up with this idea either. To date, the Mariners’ 53-percent base stealing success rate is the lowest in the American League and they’re tied with the Detroit Tigers with the most runners (23) caught stealing. The Tigers are able to withstand the runners caught stealing because they enjoy an on-base percentage that’s forty points higher than Seattle and they’ve put 239 more base runners on base than than the Mariners. Losing a significant number of base runners in high-risk situations is something that the offensively-challenged Mariners can ill-afford.

Reality check
The outcome of the moves I’ve suggested won’t guarantee a winning record, but they would make the team more athletic and provide a slight uptick in offensive capability. As Big John plainly stated, results are inarguable and the Mariners’ results are inadequate. It’s clear that the strategy of juggling a line-up of the usual suspects won’t solve this team’s woes at the plate. Each day that passes with the current “status quo” roster diminishes the team’s hopes of realistically jumping back into the Wild Card conversation, let alone the American League West race.

 …

Mariners walk off
After a sluggish start to the 2015 season, the Seattle Mariners’ record has started to improve, which is encouraging for the team’s fan base since the team has been a popular pick to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001. Yet, fans continue to voice their concern that the Mariners’ offense continues to struggle with scoring runs.

Entering today, the Mariners were averaging 3.8 runs-per-game (R/G), which ranks twelfth in the American League (AL). Understandably, fans are going to be frustrated when they see stranded runners and too few runs being scored, especially when the team is losing or struggling to hang on to leads. It’s as if nothing has changed from last year’s Mariners squad, which also couldn’t consistently mount a reliable offense to support their superb rotation.

As the offense has scuffled through April and nearly all of May, one “statistic” that’s been used repeatedly by some pundits to quantify the team’s early struggles is batting average with runners-in-scoring-position (RISP) and it drives me crazy.

It’s not that I don’t agree that the Mariners have issues scoring – they do. But, run-scoring success – or futility – can’t simply be pinned on RISP effectiveness, which is a random statistic that doesn’t accurately reflect a team’s or player’s ability to score runs. Frankly, using RISP to assess the offensive production of an individual player or a team is lazy analysis.

Yes, the Mariners are currently mired in the bottom three of the AL in both runs-scored and RISP. But, the correlation between run-scoring and RISP doesn’t measure up when you look around the league – half of the teams that are above the league-average in R/G are below-average in RISP average. The most glaring contradiction is the worst scoring team in the AL – the Chicago White Sox – they have the fifth best RISP batting average (.276) of the young 2015 season.

Looking back at the 2014 Mariners provides another example of the meaninglessness of using RISP success as an assessment tool – Seattle’s RISP (.262) was six points higher than league-average and fifth in the AL. Yes, that’s right, the team that was near the bottom in virtually every offensive category  – including thirteenth in R/G – had the fifth-best batting average with RISP. How can that be?

Small sample of a small sample
One of the biggest issues I have with “RISP analysis” is that small sample sizes of data are used to express offensive effectiveness. Using small amounts of data to characterize the “clutchness” of an individual player reduces the reliability of the RISP statistic being quoted. Yet, I continuously read comments discussing the performance of a team or a player during a short span of games.

Even a player’s RISP batting average for an entire season is small sample size. In 2014, Robinson Cano hit .339 in 149 plate appearances with RISP. That’s pretty good! But, you wouldn’t award a player a batting title for hitting .339 for such a short time period. So, why label a player as “clutch” or “not clutch” with such a small sample size?

Good hitters hit regardless of the situation, while below-average hitters continue to be below-average – a player’s career RISP success will look similar to their overall career batting average. To see what I mean, take a look at the career numbers of veteran Mariners and you’ll see that their career batting average is relatively close to their batting average with RISP. They’re either good or bad, regardless of the base runner situation.

Is something wrong with Robinson Cano in 2015?
The answer to the question is “nothing.” It’s true that Cano has gotten off to a slow start and is batting a lowly .205 with RISP. Is this a reason to decry that the 32-year-old is over-the-hill? Not after a whopping 49 plate appearances with RISP. A review of Cano’s career numbers illuminates the fact that he’s the same player with or without RISP. The Mariners’ second baseman has an overall career batting average of .308, while his career average with RISP is .284. His career on-base percentage (OBP) with RISP (.353) is nearly identical to his overall OBP of .356.

Boomstick
Nelson Cruz has made an impressive debut in Seattle by leading the AL in home runs and earning recognition as AL Player of the Month for April. Yes, he’s hitting extremely well (.346) with RISP. But, his overall average (.341) is virtually equal. As I said earlier, the 2015 sample size is too small to use. Like Cano, the 34-year-old slugger’s career numbers with or without RISP are similar – .287 and .272 respectively.

The enigmatic Mariner
Seattle’s most confounding hitter – Dustin Ackley – hasn’t produced with RISP throughout his five-year career, but he’s below league-average regardless of situation. The 27-year-old has a career average of .225 with RISP and .242 otherwise – neither are good. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value has normally become apparent. This isn’t an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to consider the future role of a player. In the case of Ackley, his course seems to be set based on his 2,100-plus plate appearances.

The rest of the gang
There are six other Mariners with more than 2,000 career plate appearances – Willie Bloomquist, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks. Only Morrison has a significantly different batting average – .250 overall vs. 215 with RISP – while the averages for the others are within 30 points. This demonstrates that players are basically the same player regardless of the RISP situation; that even applies to a player renowned for his poise in pressure situations.

Captain Clutch
Derek Jeter earned the moniker of “Captain Clutch” for making impressive postseason plays – in the field and with his bat – that left an impression that the retired Yankees shortstop was better under pressure. It’s true that the future Hall of Famer provided some of the most memorable plays in the last twenty years. But, Jeter’s career batting average was .310, while he hit .301 with RISP – good, but very similar numbers. In reality, Jeter was consistently great in every situation and that’s why Cooperstown awaits the Yankee great.

Creating opportunities
The Mariners’ 2014 success with RISP didn’t lead to the team doing well in the runs-scored category because they didn’t create enough scoring opportunities – they were fourteenth in plate appearances with or without RISP. The team that ranked last – the Baltimore Orioles – was able to overcome their shortfall of runners by easily leading the majors in home runs, being second in the AL in slugging percentage, and being slightly above league-average in batting average. The Mariners aren’t constructed to consistently power their way to scores and have to create scoring opportunities by getting more runners on base.

The Mariners currently rank thirteenth in plate appearances (409) with RISP – league-average is 445. This reinforces the real problem with the Mariners’ offense – they don’t get on base often enough, let alone hit with RISP. For this team to succeed, they’ll need to create more scoring opportunities by getting on base at a higher rate, which is a topic that Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – broached just last week when he offered suggestions to fix the Mariners.

“Clutch” hitting isn’t the problem for the Mariners– they just need to get on-base at a higher rate in order to increase their scoring opportunities. Seattle will need to make incremental moves similar to the ones that Jason has suggested or the team will continue to have difficulties scoring – regardless of their success with RISP. I’m not advocating to ban “RISP” from the lexicon of the baseball pundits. But, I do believe that it’s a hollow stat that doesn’t tell the “rest of the story” and – at the very least – should be put into context when being offered to fans during an offensive drought.…

Stefen Romero1At this time last season Stefen Romero found himself as a regular in the Seattle Mariners lineup. In a similarly timed late-May weekend series against the Houston Astros in 2014, he started all four games at designated hitter, picking up two singles and three walks in 16 plate appearances. Not a terrible performance, but perhaps indicative of how the season would end up going for him: not enough performance with the bat.

Prior to cracking the M’s Opening Day roster out of Spring Training last year, Romero’s bat was described as major league ready. The 26-year-old posted a .277/.331/.448 slash line in 411 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2013, his only action above Double-A. At the conclusion of that season the right-hander had amassed approximately 1500 minor league plate appearances so it’s fair to suggest that he was very close to being ready for the show, if not already so.

As we all have seen, Triple-A performance doesn’t always translate to MLB performance. Romero produced a dismal .192/.234/.299 slash line with a 51 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances at the major league level in 2014. The right-hander was clearly in over his head but wasn’t sent down to Triple-A until the end of June. This was largely because the Mariners simply didn’t have anyone else, sans Endy Chavez, to employ in right field with Michael Saunders on the disabled list.

Romero would be re-called for another stint but sent back down after Seattle acquired Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the trade deadline.

So far in 2015 the story hasn’t been negative for Romero, who started the season with the Tacoma Rainiers and has stayed there to this point. But it hasn’t exactly stood out, either.

The right-hander played in 36 games and had 163 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2014. Entering play on Saturday, Romero has played in 37 games, collecting 164 plate appearances. There are similarly sized samples that we can compare, and here is a look at the right-hander’s performance over those periods.

Stefen Romero 2015 TripleA

The positive here is that Romero has managed to increase his walk rate slightly. The downside is that his entire slash line has taken a major hit. The isolated power and slugging percentage numbers are down almost entirely because he’s hit a third fewer home runs in 2015 — he’s hit one more double this year compared to last and an equal number of triples.

Sure, the sample size is far too small to make a judgment about Romero’s 2015 season and future, but it would be far more encouraging to see him equal or better the numbers he was posting in Triple-A last season. So far he’s merely been good, and being good at Triple-A isn’t going to earn you a spot on the big league roster, particularly when there are far more options to select from.

This is not to be overly critical of Romero. At 26 he’s considered younger as opposed to young, and after a dismal first big league season the prospect tag has more or less disappeared — he eclipsed the 130 plate appearance plateau in 2014, using up his rookie status as well.

There are countless examples of late bloomers, however, and Romero could well have major league success in his future if he is given the opportunity. The problem is finding him that opportunity.

Between Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, Dustin Ackley, Willie Bloomquist, Rickie Weeks and Nelson Cruz there aren’t many outfield at bats available at the moment. Factor in that Brad Miller is starting his transition to the outfield and Austin Jackson nearing a return and there’s simply no room.

Barring a sequence of injuries, Romero’s quest for a return to the big leagues this year is simple: force the Mariners hand with performance. So far he hasn’t done that yet. There’s also too many guaranteed contracts in the way for Seattle to simply make a change for the sake of change.

Projecting a role for Romero on the 2016 club is probably as simple as assuming there won’t be one, though that may not be the case. Weeks, Jackson and Bloomquist are all free agents after this season and it could be the end of the line for Ackley, too. That leaves Cruz, who at most is a part-time outfielder, the platoon of Smith and Ruggiano and whatever becomes of Miller. There definitely could be room for another outfielder.

An interesting note regarding Romero is that this past week on Tuesday he made his first career start at first base. He’s primarily played the corner outfield spots but does have some experience at third base to his credit. Seattle has Logan Morrison under club control for 2016 before he’ll be eligible for free agency and realistically, Romero will have to find a way to provide more power than his skill set currently holds to make it as an average major league first baseman.

One scenario for Romero is that he finds himself with a different organization for next season, perhaps as an added piece in a significant trade for a premium bat or starting pitcher. At the end of the day, Romero has the tools to potentially become a fringy major leaguer who lives above replacement level. It’s just a matter of whether or not he will be able to do it with the Mariners or somewhere else.

There’s no reason for the Mariners to even think about giving up on Romero in 2015 seeing as he is playing quite well and offers depth with some major league experience. And as the usual, annoying caveat, it’s still only May. Talk to me in July and we’ll reassess Romero’s production and role in the organization. Right now, there isn’t enough reason to be concerned.

Romero hasn’t played well enough to earn a spot in the majors, but he hasn’t been struggling at Triple-A either. So for now and the foreseeable future, he’ll stay in Tacoma.…

Willie-Bloomquist
Despite their recent uptick in success –- five wins in the last seven games -– the Seattle Mariners continue to struggle at consistently generating offensive production. This week exemplifies the Mariners’ offensive unevenness during the 2015 season. After scoring 11 runs on May 12, Seattle scored a total of five runs in the next three games, including last night’s 2-1 walk-off win against the Boston Red Sox.

Just like in 2014, the team is well below league-average in every major offensive category, with the exception of home runs and that can be attributed to one player – Nelson Cruz. Seattle’s struggles are even more profound against right-handed pitching; they have a .236 batting average against right-handed pitching – 19 points lower than their average against southpaws. This is an especially troubling sign since, over the past three seasons, 66-percent of the team’s plate appearances have come against righties.

Despite the team’s sluggish start, I still expect that the Mariners will remain competitive for a postseason berth because of the talent on the roster. There are many fans – frustrated by the team’s inconsistent offense – who don’t agree with me. They want the team to make dramatic changes by changing the roles or even dispatching players such as Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Justin Ruggiano, Rickie Weeks, and Mike Zunino. Seattle’s impatient faithful have also called for the promotion of multiple players from Class-AAA Tacoma or even trades involving established stars like Carlos Gomez or Troy Tulowitzki. One current Mariner who doesn’t get mentioned at the same frequency as his teammates is veteran Willie Bloomquist. This made me wonder, what is his role with this team?

No, the 37-year-old isn’t going to single-handedly ignite the Mariners’ offense. However, the right-handed hitting Bloomquist’s career .264/.307/.327 triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage –against right-handers suggests that he’d be a better option than several of his left and right-handed teammates including Ackley, Ruggiano, and Weeks. The task-at-hand is to find a place for the veteran utility player to contribute more often.

Based on how the roster is currently constructed and how the South Kitsap High graduate has been utilized to date – 13 games and 27 plate appearances – I don’t see how the team could find Bloomquist additional opportunities. Looking at the players vying with Bloomquist for playing time helps illustrate the challenge of getting the veteran utility man on the field more often.

Chris Taylor/Brad Miller
I combined these two players because their joint presence on the roster represents the largest impact to Bloomquist’s opportunities. When the team recalled Taylor on May 3 to become their regular shortstop, it signaled the start of the left-handed Miller’s transformation from starting shortstop to super-utility player – the role that Bloomquist was signed to fill. Since Taylor’s arrival, Miller has started at designated hitter four times, shortstop twice, and in left field once. His .284 batting average against right-handed pitching makes Miller the perfect choice to fill-in at multiple positions against righties.

Prior to the Taylor promotion from Tacoma, Bloomquist held the responsibilities of back-up second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman and saw very limited opportunities at those three positions – 26 innings total in five games. Since Taylor’s arrival, Bloomquist has played just one inning at second base. The lone advantage Bloomquist holds over Taylor and Miller is that he’s played first base; a position never played by the duo. That in itself, may not enough to keep Bloomquist employed – he’s substituted from Logan Morrison in only two of the team’s first 35 games.

Rickie Weeks
Some believe that the former Milwaukee Brewer was signed as a contingency in the event that Bloomquist wasn’t ready to go after having micro-surgery on his knee in 2014. The right-handed Weeks has been part of left-hand/right-hand platoon in left field and designated hitter. Although he owns a .067 batting average against right-handed pitching, Weeks has done extremely well a – .320 batting average – against southpaws.

Manager Lloyd McClendon’s apparent preference to use Weeks over Bloomquist against lefties closes the door on another opportunity for the Puget Sound native to contribute in either left field or designated hitter. Even against right-handed pitching – where Bloomquist maintains a distinct advantage – McClendon has preferred Weeks.

Justin Ruggiano
Much like Bloomquist, the right-handed hitting Ruggiano didn’t get much playing time in April. That changed significantly when center fielder Austin Jackson was placed on the disabled list on May 3. Since then, he’s played eight games in Jackson’s place. Approximately half of his 50 plate appearance have come against right-handed pitching and he hasn’t fared well with a .130 batting average. The 33-year-old is hitting southpaws better at .238, although it’s below his career .265 average. A significant advantage Ruggiano has over Bloomquist is that Ruggiano can play all three outfield positions. When he’s played in the outfield, Bloomquist has primarily been in left field.

Dustin Ackley
Although Ackley was been the team’s regular left fielder, I threw him into the mix since he’s struggled so much against all types of pitching. Bloomquist has a far better offensive track record than the left-handed hitting Ackley. But – like Ruggiano – Ackley has the ability to play center field and has also spent time at first base during his professional and collegiate career. It’s possible that Ackley may see significantly diminished playing time if his offense doesn’t come around soon. But, that void would likely be filled by the ensemble of Miller, Ruggiano, Smith, and Weeks rather than Bloomquist.

Final thoughts
Willie Bloomquist’s playing opportunities have been diminished greatly thanks to the call-up of Taylor, the Miller position change, and the off-season acquisitions of Smith, Weeks, and Ruggiano. The blending of these five players’ skill sets has reduced the usefulness of Bloomquist to the Mariners. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t contribute to a major-league roster, but there’s no longer a clearly defined path to playing time in Seattle. Right now, Bloomquist is an insurance policy that the Mariners can’t afford to maintain.

Late next week, a roster move will have to be made in order to make room for Jackson. This would be an appropriate time to let Bloomquist go, if the Mariners don’t have plans to use him more often. Even if the team to opts go in another direction and remove Ackley from the 25-man roster, or send Miller to the minors to hone his outfield skills, it’s still time to give Bloomquist a chance to contribute elsewhere.

Not including back-up catcher, Seattle has three reserve position player spots on their 25-man roster. Considering their struggles at the plate, they can ill-afford to under-utilize one of those spots. Replacing Bloomquist with Franklin Gutiérrez would benefit the team. He’d likely be used in a limited capacity – a good thing due to his injury history – but he’d provide an upgrade in outfield defense and a capable right-handed bat that could be used in left field or at designated hitter.    

Willie Bloomquist hasn’t done anything wrong; he’s just doesn’t have a clearly defined role on the team anymore. He deserves an opportunity to demonstrate that he can still play. Unfortunately, that opportunity isn’t likely to be in his hometown.

 …

Dustin Ackley, John Jaso
The Seattle Mariners have a 15-17 record after their first 32 games – which happens to be the 20-percent mark of their 2015 season – and it’s been a bumpy ride for a team that was projected to be a serious World Series contender by many national pundits. With such a small sample size of data, it’s still too early to put much credence into the statistical aspect of the team’s struggles. With that said, comparing a 20-percent sample against a player’s career history may help clarify a fan’s expectations for the team in 2015.

The main contributor for distress among the Mariners’ fan base has been the team’s offensive production – their four runs-per-game average (R/G) is ranked twelfth in the American League. Many pundits and fans alike believed that adding the bats of Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks to complement holdovers Robinson Cano, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, and Kyle Seager would help the team climb above the league-average mark in R/G, which currently stands at 4.39. So, what’s the problem with this team’s lineup?

Heart-of-the-order
The three-through-six spots have a combined .825 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), which is second-only to the Kansas City Royals in the American League. Granted, it helped having a clean-off hitter – Cruz – producing at such a torrid rate while Cano, Seager, and Morrison under-performed during April. But, there are signs of a turnaround from the trio.

During the last 11 games, Cano has a .326/.375/.395 triple slash– batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage – while Morrison is at .300/.404/.775 with five home runs during the same time-frame. Seager’s numbers are still below expectations, although his .244 batting average is actually one point higher than his 2014 average after 32 games. Since Seager has a proven track record, there’s no reason for alarm about the all-star third baseman so early in the season. The bottom line is that the middle-of-the-order will be fine. The rest of the batting order, however, isn’t getting the job done.

Rest of the bunch
The top two spots and last three spots in the batting order have combined for an anemic .217/.274/.358, which is well below the league-average of .252/.316/.396 for all players. Having such a tremendous drop-off in production in the five consecutive spots after Morrison isn’t acceptable for a team with postseason aspirations.

During the first 20-percent of the season, the only constant to the lineup has been the positions held by Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Morrison. The other five spots have varied from game-to-game as manager Lloyd McClendon has attempted to find the right mix of players. Since the line-up has been in a state of flux, let’s look at the team’s offense position-by-position rather than line-up spots. I’m forgoing a review of the positions held by Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Morrison since I’ve already discussed these players.

Note: the numbers in parenthesis next to each position are the cumulative statistics for every player who has played the position, while they were playing the position. Individual statistics encompass a player’s total production regardless of position played.

Left field (.209/.285/.327)
Dustin Ackley (.198/.221/.346) has been the primary left fielder with Weeks (.196/.317/.333) getting the second most plate appearances.  Ackley, who has a reputation for slow starts and being a streaky hitter throughout his four-year career, is off to another extremely slow start again. He’s been used primarily against right-handers and that hasn’t helped his performance at the plate. There’s not much left to say about the left-handed hitter. His numbers are not commensurate with those of a major-league starter.

Weeks’ overall numbers don’t look very good, although he’s done his job during 25 at-bats against left-handed pitching – two home runs and .320/.393/.600. Conversely, he hasn’t performed well during his limited appearances against right-handed pitching with only two hits in 26 at-bats for a .077 batting average. If he were playing more often against righties, his batting average would likely resemble the .227 he posted against righties between 2012 and 2014.

Designated hitter (.207/.273/.414)
Although Cruz has been entrenched in right field lately, he’s only two plate appearances behind Smith’s team-leading 43 at designated hitter. The left-handed hitting Smith, who has also spent time in left and right field, is performing as expected. He’s playing nearly exclusively against right-handed pitching and is delivering numbers very similar to what he did in 2014 with the San Diego Padres. Smith, like Weeks, is doing what he was brought to do – perform well as a platoon player.

Center field (.231/.291/.346)
This is a unique situation to examine since the player with the bulk of playing time – Austin Jackson – is on the disabled list. Last year, Jackson struggled tremendously after being traded to the Mariners on July 31. Although his 2015 numbers are better than what he posted as a Mariner last season, he’s only batting .229 against right-handers compared to .280 against southpaws.

Ruggiano has been given an opportunity to play more often since Jackson injured his ankle on May 3. With that said, the sample size of Ruggiano’s performance is still very small – only Willie Bloomquist, Chris Taylor, and Jesus Sucre have fewer plate appearances. Considering that the 33-year-old owns a career .266 batting average in 466 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, the right-handed hitting outfielder deserves more time and opportunities to demonstrate his value to the team.

It’s likely that Jackson will resume patrolling center field once he returns from the disabled list, which may be as early as next week. His ability to hit right-handed pitching will be worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

Shortstop (.236/.281/.330)
Shortstop is another unique situation because the team has recently transitioned from Brad Miller to Chris Taylor, who was recalled from Class-AAA Tacoma on May 3. Consequently, it’s too early to judge Taylor with such a small sample size of career major league playing time. The apparent reason for moving on from Miller at shortstop were his defensive lapses. Despite his  issues with the glove, the left-handed hitter has performed superbly against righties with a .282/.350/.451 triple slash. Conversely, he’s hitting a paltry .095 against left-handers.

The team has openly discussed using Miller as a super-utility player much in the vein of Bloomquist. It’s unclear if Seattle will send the left-handed hitting infielder to Class-AAA Tacoma to learn the outfield or have the 25-year-old learn on-the-job with the Mariners. It’s likely that Seattle’s path with Miller will become clearer when a roster space needs to be opened for Jackson next week.

Catcher (.171/.235/.343)
Due to the importance of the position from a defensive standpoint– blocking balls in the dirt, throwing out runners, calling games – under-performing with the bat is far easier to accept than at other positions. Both Mike Zunino and his back-up, Sucre, are performing superbly behind the plate even if their performance with the bat leaves much to be desired in 2015.

Zunino, who has appeared in every game, has caught 247.2 of the 288.2 innings that Seattle has played in 2015 and has been the target of many frustrated fans due to his poor offensive production in April. Sucre is doing even worse with limited playing time – one hit and no walks during 14 plate appearances.

In May, Zunino’s bat has been showing signs of life (.294/.333/.618). But, his improvement is based on an extremely small sample size and, unlike Seager, Cano, and other veterans, the 25-year-old’s career numbers reflect offensive struggles. Regardless of Zunino’s challenges, the team can withstand poor offense from this position as long the rest of the order is performing.

Utility player (.200/.231/.200)
The lone player in this section is Bloomquist, who only has 26 plate appearances during twelve games in 2015. It’s hard to expect the Puget Sound native to be productive when he’s used so sparingly. During his three years in Arizona prior to returning to the Seattle, he posted an impressive .289/.328/.368 triple slash, including a .278 batting average during 558 at bats against right-handed pitching. Depending on he’s used, the 37-year-old could provide value to the team.

The replacements
So, who at Tacoma can help the Mariners? There are several names that continue to get bandied about by the media and fans alike. It’s important to note that minor-league replacements share a unique status with back-up quarterbacks; they’re trendy during bad times and generally not as good as the incumbent. Otherwise, they’d be starting. Despite the usually overinflated status that replacements generally hold with a team’s fan base, it’s appropriate to at least discuss the Mariners’ replacement options in Tacoma.

Jesús Montero (.336/.356/.500)
The mercurial former catcher and current Rainiers’ first baseman/designated hitter lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and appears to taken a more serious approach to being a professional baseball player. The result of his transformation has been impressive numbers against both left and right-handed minor league pitching, although the right-handed hitter is striking out nearly twice as often against righties. It’s a small sample size, but Montero has demonstrated glimpses of the offensive potential that motivated Seattle to trade Michael Pineda to get the 25-year-old. If he were to be called up, he could fill roles as either a designated hitter or first baseman against tough left-handers.

Franklin Gutiérrez (.324/.457/.554)
The 32-year-old former Mariner has been performing superbly with Tacoma in 2015. As always with Gutiérrez, his ability to stay on the field has been the primary issue. So far, the right-handed hitter has demonstrated the ability to play multiple consecutive days, which has been the main concern of the Mariners in recent years. “Guti” is no longer the center fielder who was once described by the late Dave Niehaus as “Death to Flying Things.” Now, he’s primarily a left fielder and an occasional designated hitter. Gutiérrez would likely be a good fit in Seattle if they need to make a change at designated hitter and or need help in left field. Playing the latter would be predicated on his much-maligned durability.

James Jones (.271/.316/.343)
The 26-year-old was slowed by a concussion early in the season and has only appeared in 19 of the team’s 33 games. Jones spent over half of 2014 with the Mariners before the team’s acquisition of Jackson. During his time with the big-league club, the left-handed hitting center fielder struggled equally against both righties and lefties. Despite his difficulties with getting on base, he led the team with 27 stolen bases during just 108 games and he already has stolen eight bases this year. If Jones were to demonstrate that he could consistently hit right-handed pitching, he could provide the Mariners with several intriguing options, such as being part of a platoon in left or center field.

Ketel Marte (.346/.384/.419)
Just over a year ago, Prospect Insider founder and co-host of the Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan, Jason A. Churchill, discussed the ascension of the 21-year-old switch-hitting infielder in great detail. Since then, Marte has continued to establish himself as an offensive table-setter – he’s played in all 33 games, stolen 12 bases, and leads the Pacific Coast League with 44 hits. The issue with Marte continues to be his defense. Until the call-up of Taylor, he was splitting his time between second base and shortstop and has already registered four errors at shortstop in 24 games and one at second base in 12 games. That follows 31 errors in 2014 and five errors during 58.2 Spring Training innings. Since Taylor has been in place for just over a week, I’d expect Marte to remain a Rainier and work on improving his glove work.

It’s important to note that all of the potential replacement players – with the exception of Taylor who was injured during Spring Training – weren’t ready or able to beat out the incumbents with the big-league club just six weeks ago. So, it’s tough to accept that 33 games of minor-league play suddenly makes these players better options than the players with the Mariners.

What’s next?
Adding a player from Tacoma sounds easy until it’s time to choose the player to remove from the 25-man roster. The first hard choice comes next week, assuming Jackson stays on track to return on time. The most likely candidates would be Miller, Bloomquist, and Ackley for varying reasons.

Miller, as mentioned earlier, is in state of transition with Seattle. If the team decides that he needs some seasoning at his new positions in the minors, the return of Jackson would seem to be the logical jumping off point. Bloomquist hasn’t done anything wrong from a performance perspective because he’s barely been had an opportunity to perform. The team is paying a player $3 million who is averaging approximately four at-bats weekly in 2015. The team’s reluctance to “eat” his salary will likely factor into their final decision with Bloomquist.

Fair or not, the 27-year-old Ackley has never lived up to the expectations that come with being a number-two overall draft selection and he hasn’t demonstrated the consistency to be a starter-level major-league player. Going into this season, he’s on his second manager and third hitting coach since debuting in 2011 and continues to be struggle at the plate.

It’s clear that offense needs to improve for this team to compete for a postseason berth. I suspect that Miller will be playing the outfield in Tacoma by the end of next week. Once he’s demonstrated he’s ready for prime time, he’ll return to the Mariners as their regular left fielder. At that time, the Dustin Ackley era in Seattle will likely end.…

OFPRectangleIn this week’s episode of The OFP Report, Jason A. Churchill, Alex Carson and Brendan Gawlowski discuss the bullpen of the Seattle Mariners whether or not it’s too early to get aggressive on the trade market and the Man In The Box is Logan Morrison (22:38), whose recent streak begs the question of what may or may not be realistic for the first baseman moving forward.

The guys also name The OFP Report’s Player of the Week (51:16) and offer their thoughts for the rest of the Mariners’ homestand, as well as T Bag (24:42) and some notes on This Day in Mariners history (45:18).

Listen here or Download: iTunes | TuneIn | Stitcher

Walker
A few days ago, I had to calm down a frustrated life-long Seattle Mariners fan who was frustrated by the team’s slow start. I felt like the Kevin Bacon character from the movie “Animal House” when he’s performing crowd control at a parade and tells the masses to “remain calm, all is well.” Yes, it’s certainly possible that the Mariners could underachieve and be a disappointment. But, after just 15 games of a 162-game baseball season, it’s way too early to panic about the Mariners or any other team in the majors.

Nonetheless, a groundswell of social-media angst has developed after the Mariners registered only six wins during their first 15 games. A slow start during the first half-month of a season that’s nearly six-months long has created a furor among some fans who are wondering if the team will be “the same old Mariners” that hasn’t appeared in the postseason for over a decade.

Considering the high expectations being placed on this team, it’s understandable if new fans are a bit anxious about Seattle’s slow start. After all, the Mariners came excruciatingly close to making the postseason in 2014 and they’ve aggressively upgraded their offense in order to overcome their most glaring weakness of the 2014 season – inadequate run production. Longtime Mariners fans are all too familiar with the fact that their team – along with Montreal/Washington – are one of only two Major League Baseball franchises to never appear in a World Series. Yet, they’ve faithfully stuck with the team despite no postseason appearances since 2001. The combination of pent-up frustrations, high expectations, and a slow start by the team have led to a somewhat frustrated baseball fan-base in the third week of April.

The standings
With all of that said, take a look at where the Mariners stood after their first 15 games in 2014 and compare it to this year’s start. For me, it’s easy to see that the factors that compelled many to project Seattle as a World Series contender haven’t changed – especially after just two weeks.
Current AL West Standings
The first thing that becomes apparent is that the standings mean nothing after 15 games. Seattle isn’t the only team to have a less-than-ideal start to the 2015 season. They are just two games behind the American League (AL) West division-leading Houston Astros and only two games separate the entire division. Considering how things started last season, no team in the division should be too high or too low about their 2015 start.

At the 15-game point of last season – April 17 – the Oakland Athletics were off to a very hot start and the Texas Rangers also had a winning record. By the end of the season, the Rangers had self-destructed from injuries and were cellar-dwellers, while Oakland experienced an epic second-half collapse and barely reached the postseason with Seattle breathing down their neck. Here’s a reason to remain calm – the 2015 Mariners only have one less win than last year and that team was in the midst of an eight game losing streak.
April 2014 standings
The team finally ended the streak on April 23 when Kyle Seager hit two home runs, including a walk-off three-run shot in the bottom of the ninth against Houston. Afterwards, Seattle started its climb back towards eventual playoff contention. This year’s team has a far superior roster to the 2014 version, although it’s true that some elements of the roster have underachieved. But, there’s been no red-flags that would justify the concerns being expressed by some fans. No team has run away with the division, like the 1984 Detroit Tigers, and only one team even has a winning record. Yes, this fact should give Mariners fans a reason to believe that all is well.

Pitching
For many people, it was a foregone conclusion that the team’s strength in 2014 – pitching – would continue to be the foundation of the team’s success in 2015. After all, the team still has their ace – Felix Hernandez – and Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker are all healthy after having injury issues during 2014. Plus, the team added newcomer J.A. Happ to give the rotation veteran depth to complement the young arms of Paxton and Walker.
Pitching Staff Comparison
When the Mariners traded for Happ, many viewed the veteran southpaw as nothing more than a number-five starter who might not even make the rotation. After a rough Spring Training, that opinion continued to prevail with some pundits and fans who continued to clamor for the team to drop Happ from the rotation in favor of fellow southpaw Roenis Elias. Happ made the rotation and, after three starts, the perception of the lefty has shifted drastically.

Thus far, the 32-year-old has pitched the most innings and has been the most consistent starter in the rotation. More than likely, Happ’s numbers will normalize to his career averages as the season progresses. But, the team has been fortunate to have the veteran hurler during the early stages of the season. The troubling aspect for the rotation has been the inconsistent performances of Iwakuma, Paxton, and Walker. Each entered the season with a different set of expectations, while all suffering from a common challenge – struggling with their command.

Iwakuma was viewed as the number-two starter behind King Felix, but he’s struggled in each of his starts. After a solid 2014, Paxton was expected to advance and eventually replace “Kuma” as the number-two starter in the rotation, while Walker earned his spot in the rotation during a superb Spring Training when he beat out Elias for the final spot in the rotation. Certainly, the Mariners will need more from this threesome to be serious contenders. Since all three pitchers appear to be healthy and only need to work out the bugs in their individual deliveries, I don’t see any reason for concern after only three starts. Harken back to the early stages of 2014 when the Mariners had to rely on a group that included Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, and Blake Beavan – Seattle’s rotation has a far better outlook than they did at this time last year. Relievers

Another factor in the high expectations for Mariners’ staff is the fact that the team had one of the best bullpens in 2014 and had all of their key contributors returning with a few new potent arms added to the mix to help augment the holdovers. According to social media, the bullpen is a weakness, although I believe that it’s quite the opposite – the bullpen has been performing well. Granted, there have been a few lapses and it’s true that closer Fernando Rodney and fellow reliever Danny Farquhar have struggled in a few of their outings. But, the pen has worked nearly 11 extra innings and has virtually the same number of walks and hits-per-innings pitched (WHIP) as in 2014.

The Mariners’ bullpen ended last season with a 1.15 WHIP and there are signs that this year’s squad will see their WHIP to decline significantly as the season progresses and their innings pitched increases. My optimism is based on the superb performances from rookie Carson Smith and sophomore Dominic Leone, plus Rodney seems to have re-discovered his command during his last three outings. Lastly, I expect that Farquhar will get back on track in the near future. He, like every other Mariner pitcher who has struggled, is healthy and only needs to improve his command. The only area of concern for me is the increased workload of the bullpen as the rotation works through their issues.

Offense
Despite the dramatic home runs and offensive performance of Nelson Cruz, this year’s team offense has actually scored three fewer runs than the 2014 version. At this point last year, Corey Hart led the team with four home runs, although it should be noted that he would only two more homers during the remainder of the season.
Offense Comparison

The team’s batting average is up in 2015, but the sample size is so small to that it really has no bearing at this time. But, there are two positive signs that the Mariners could potentially be more productive in 2015– they’re walking more and striking out much less. That’s an encouraging development for a team that’s been offensively challenged during recent seasons. Let’s look at several players who’ve received a great deal of positive and negative attention during the young season.

First, Cruz has quickly demonstrated that is that he’s not just a slugger – he’s a professional right-handed hitter who has demonstrated that he can be productive at Safeco Field. Certainly, he’s not going to continue to hit at the torrid pace that resulted in his selection as AL Player of the Week for last week. But, he’s poised to be a solid cleanup hitter throughout the season and that’s something that the Mariners have sorely missed in recent years. 2015 OffenseCatcher Mike Zunino has struggled at the plate during the first 15 games and has even looked lost at times. But, he’s shown signs of improving during the last few games and could be snapping out of his funk. If he’s still striking out 38-percent of his plate appearances at Memorial Day, there will be reason for concern – not now though.

Another holdover from 2014 – first baseman Logan Morrison – has struggled out of the chute this season. But, he had issues during the start of last season too. At the start of 2014, he was spending time in the outfield, designated hitter, and first base and wasn’t an everyday player like he is in 2015. The 27-year-old has been hitting the ball hard, but directly at fielders who are shifting to defend his tendency to pull the ball. Going forward, he’ll need to prove that he can beat the shift and be a dependable offensive first baseman. Like Zunino, there’s no need to be concerned until June.

Outlook
There’s no disputing that the Mariners and their fans would have preferred that the team avoided a slow start. But, every team goes through a 6-9 stretch at some point during the season. The key for Seattle will be turning around their fortunes in the next six weeks. Last year’s Mariners started slowly and ended up competing until the last day of the season. Considering that the team that eventually led the majors in wins during 2014 – the Los Angeles Angels – had a losing record after 15 games, I’m convinced that – barring injury – the Mariners will be fine in 2015. This year’s roster is far superior and built to win now.

If the team continues to stumble, I suppose that I could end-up suffering the same fate of Bacon’s “Animal House” character – being trampled during the mass hysteria. Nothing that I’ve seen in the last two weeks has me concerned about a possible trampling – the Mariners will be fine.…

Mariners Celebrating
The Seattle Mariners are set to open their 2015 season tomorrow and, much to the chagrin of some fans, the team is this year’s “sexy pick” to make a deep postseason run. During the six-years that I’ve lived in the Puget Sound area, I’ve come to realize that being a favorite can create anxiety for some local fans.

That’s understandable considering the fact that Seattle along with Montreal/Washington are the only two Major League Baseball franchises  that have never appeared in a World Series. Yet, there are valid reasons for fans to have optimism entering the 2015 season. Why? The cadre of proven hitters that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and his staff have assembled will be able to compensate for any regression that the pitching staff could potentially experience.

Run scoring
Anyone familiar with the Mariners is well-aware of the organization’s recent offensive struggles. During the last five years, the team has ranked at-or-near the bottom of the American League (AL) in virtually every offensive category. Ironically, the Mariners have actually slightly improved their average runs-per-game (runs/gm) over the past two seasons. An area that didn’t improve was on-base percentage (OBP), which explains why Zduriencik has been constantly attempting to upgrade the team’s offense since the signing of second baseman Robinson Cano prior to the 2014 season. The roster that he’s constructed is capable of ending the team’s 14-year postseason drought. Mariners Production

While the acquisition of 2014 AL home run leader Nelson Cruz is the most notable addition to the team’s arsenal during this offseason, the acquisitions of veterans Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks will further “extend” the team’s lineup. All four of these players exceeded the league-average for OBP (.316) in 2014 and they’ve been above that mark throughout their careers.

Include Austin Jackson, who struggled mightily after being acquired last July, and the team is significantly better than last year’s Opening Day squad. Even if Jackson doesn’t completely return to his career OBP level of .336, the team has added five players who are significantly better than the players they’ve replaced. A side-by-side review of the likely 2015 Opening Day lineup compared to last year’s opener in Anaheim reinforces the fact that the offense will be far better than in 2014.

LineupAs for the holdovers from last season, there’s no reason to expect that Cano or Kyle Seager will experience any appreciable regression in 2015. With that said, the remaining holdovers — Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Mike Zunino – have yet to establish themselves as consistent and reliable contributors to the offense. Thanks to their new teammates, the foursome can positively contribute to run production by merely not regressing from an offensive standpoint.

A second order effect of Zduriencik’s deals is a much stronger bench, particularly in the outfield. McClendon is certain to mix and match Ackley, Ruggiano, Smith, and Weeks in order to optimize their production. Top to bottom, this Mariners team is far better than the one assembled for Opening Day 2014.

Updated Bench 2

Pitching
The 2014 Mariners’ pitching staff compensated for the team’s below-average run production, as evidenced by the team’s positive run differential (runs-scored minus runs-allowed). Manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits masterfully guided the crew to an AL leading 3.17 earned run average (ERA). Their superb bullpen helped offset the unplanned losses of Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, and Brandon Maurer to injuries prior to the start of the season and the poor performance of several replacement starters. Despite the setbacks, the starting staff led the AL in the fewest runs-allowed during 952 innings pitched (IP).
AL Pitching Projetions
Let’s take a look at the projected outcome for the 2015 pitching staff; all projections are based on Steamer projections on FanGraphs.com. I decided to use fielding independent pitching (FIP) to illustrate last year’s performances and this year’s projections because FIP is a metric fashioned after ERA that demonstrates the quality of a pitcher’s performance by eliminating plate appearances involving defensive plays. In essence, the pitcher is not penalized or rewarded by the defense behind him. League-average for FIP in 2014 was 3.74. Despite an expectation that the pitching staff should regress from last year’s stellar performance, they are projected to have approximately the same FIP and be at the top of their league in 2015.

If the team can avoid the injury bug this year, the projected rotation should be much better with the addition of J.A. Happ from Toronto and having Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Walker for the entire season. Another encouraging development is the team has the luxury of having Roenis Elias, available at Class-AAA Tacoma. The southpaw was a 10-game winner during his rookie campaign in 2014 and will be primed to fill-in as an injury replacement or as a spot starter whenever needed. Having a quality starter at the ready in Tacoma will be a welcome change from the 2014 season.

RotationThe bullpen, which has many of the same faces returning, stranded 80.7 percent of base runners in 2014; seven-percent better than second-best Kansas City. Although bullpen performances have a tendency to fluctuate from year-to-year, the addition of the two youngsters – Carson Smith and Tyler Olson – should help stave off any letdown from 2014. Smith was impressive during his short debut last September by not allowing an earned run, while striking out 10 batters in 8.1 innings. Olson earned his way onto the Opening Day roster by having a superb Spring Training. The southpaw didn’t allow an earned run, while striking out 15 batters and walking none in 12.1 innings.

New BullpenProjecting 2015
With FanGraphs projections indicating that the offense will be more productive than it’s been in over a half-decade and that the pitching staff will regress slightly and still remain at-or-near the top of the AL, what should be the realistic expectations for Mariners fans? According to the FanGraphs, the team is projected to score 667 runs, surrender 609 runs, and win 88 games. They’re using Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation formula, which relies on run-differential to project a team’s winning percentage.

Before going any further, it’s important to keep run-differential in proper perspective; it’s possible to have a winning record with a negative run-differential or a losing record with a positive differential. Both the 2009 Mariners and 2014 New York Yankees had winning records while posting a negative run-differential. Conversely, the New York Mets posted a losing record with a positive run-differential in 2014. Nevertheless, James’ Pythagorean Expectation formula has proven to be reasonably accurate in projecting a team’s winning percentage by using run-differential.Pythagorean Outcome 5Take a look at a comparison of the projected wins – based on run differential – and the actual wins that postseason teams and Seattle registered in 2014. The Mariners scored 634 runs and allowed 554, which resulted in a run-differential of 80. Based on the Pythagorean Expectation formula, Seattle should have won 91 games, but actually finished with 88 for a deviation of four wins. Being off by only four wins over the span of 162 games is a relatively close projection, which was the case for most of the teams that made it to the postseason last year. The average deviation for all ten playoff teams and the Mariners was 3.6.  The Oakland Athletics were the only team that was completely; they were projected to win 99 games and ended up winning 88. That large deviation can be attributed to the combination of Oakland’s torrid first-half – when their run-differential had the team on track to win a projected 109 games – and their second-half collapse.

The Pythagorean Expectation formula is not a perfect tool. But, it definitely can give you an decent idea on where a team could finish. With that in mind, take a look at the “Projecting the 2015 Mariners” table to see why Mariners should feel reasonably optimistic about the upcoming season. FanGraphs projects that Seattle will win 88 games and have a run-differential of 58 in in 2015. Assuming that the FanGraphs projection of 609 runs-allowed is the worst-case scenario for Seattle’s run-prevention, how would the team fare if they scored more runs than projected?2015 Projections for Mariners 4If the team were to score the projected league-average of 682 runs, the team projects to win 89 games. Take it a step further and plug in McClendon’s stated belief that his team can score 700 runs in 2015.  Reaching the projected league-average or even McClendon’s goal are realistic expectations considering that reaching those marks would require the team to score only 48-66 more runs than they scored in 2014. For presentation purposes, I added in run scoring marks of 715 and 725, which are far less likely and would require career years from several veterans and breakout seasons from several of players like Ackley, Miller, Morrison, and Zunino.

Reason for optimism
Jack Zduriencik and his staff have primed this team to win now by adding several proven position players, who know how to get on base and score runs, and sustaining a pitching staff that’s good enough to be at-or-near the top of the AL. The Seattle Mariners may never be known as an offensive juggernaut because they play half their games at Safeco Field. But, this team won’t need to be to reach the FanGraphs projection of 667 runs and reaching the 88-win mark.

As far as reaching the 700 run goal set by the Mariners’ skipper, that’s an attainable mark that will hinge on the combined effort of Ackley, Miller, Morrison, Ruggiano, Weeks, and Zunino. With one day to go before the season starts, it’s up to Seattle’s faithful to decide whether to buy-in to upgraded roster now or take a “wait and see” approach with a team that’s been a disappointment for over a decade. I expect that, barring injury or fatigue, this team will reach the postseason for the first time since 2001.…