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. BoomstickNelson 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 ClutchDerek 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.Go!

After watching Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve during a recent a four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners, I was thoroughly impressed by the 25-year-old’s impact on the success of Houston’s offense. An interesting aspect of Altuve’s hitting style is his aggressiveness at the plate compared to his contemporaries. Entering today, he’s only seeing an average of only 3.16 pitches-per-plate appearance (Pit/PA), yet he’s posted a superb triple slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .338/.390/.489. Brief plate appearances are nothing new for Altuve. In 2014, he averaged 3.11 Pit/PA – lowest in the majors – while winning his first American League (AL) batting title. Seeing a player who is so aggressive, yet so successful at the plate, left me pondering whether plate patience was important to success at the plate. Since getting on base is usually the primary goal of every hitter, I’m going to use on-base-percentage (OBP) to determine if there’s a correlation between plate patience and getting on base. On the table below, I’ve also included several other statistics – batting average (BA), slugging percentage (SLG), and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), walks-per-strikeout rate (BB/K), plus percentages for walks and strikeouts (BB% and K%) – in order to give a complete picture on each player’s plate production. Unless otherwise noted, all league-rankings and tables are American League-only. The ten AL hitters with the highest OBP and more than 600 plate appearances is a diverse group of successful players who were successful with varying degrees of plate patience. Six of them – Altuve, Adrian Beltre, Michael Brantley, Robinson Cano, Jose Abreu, and Miguel Cabrera – were below the league-average of 3.82 Pit/PA. The best example of contrasting philosophies at the plate may be the two players who had the lowest and highest Pit/PA, but managed to have the same OBP in 2014 – Altuve and Mike Trout. Highest on-base percentage Name Age Tm PA Pit/PA BA OBP▾ SLG OPS BB/K BB% K% Victor Martinez# 35 DET 641 4.03 .335 .409 .565 .974 1.67 11.4% 15.1% Jose Bautista 33 TOR 673 4.08 .286 .403 .524 .928 1.08 15.5% 14.3% Adrian Beltre 35 TEX 614 3.77 .324 .388 .492 .879 .77 9.3% 12.1% Michael Brantley* 27 CLE 676 3.57 .327 .385 .506 .890 .93 7.7% 8.3% Jose Abreu 27 CHW 622 3.77 .317 .383 .581 .964 .39 8.2% 21.1% Robinson Cano* 31 SEA 665 3.48 .314 .382 .454 .836 .90 9.2% 10.2% Jose Altuve 24 HOU 707 3.11 .341 .377 .453 .830 .68 5.1% 7.5% Mike Trout 22 LAA 705 4.44 .287 .377 .561 .939 .45 11.8% 26.1% Miguel Cabrera 31 DET 685 3.69 .313 .371 .524 .895 .51 8.8% 17.1% Carlos Santana# 28 CLE 660 4.30 .231 .365 .427 .792 1.57 17.1% 18.8% LgAvg per 600 PA 600 3.82 .251 .314 .388 .702 .39 5.1% 13% Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/8/2015. Altuve was aggressive with a purpose. During attempted swings, he made contact with the ball 91-percent of the time – fourth best rate in the AL – and led the majors with 225 hits. Although the Astros’ second baseman didn’t walk often, he was efficient with his plate appearances, registering the second lowest strikeout ratio in the AL and a top-20 walks-to-strikeout (BB/K) rate. A player like Altuve isn’t interested in letting a good pitch pass by, while Trout is more willing to wait for a pitch he can drive. Like most power hitters who take a lot of pitches, Trout is prone to strikeout more often. His 80-percent contact may have only ranked at number-50 in the AL. But, the 23-year-old walked far more often that Altuve. Combine Trout’s superb OBP with his top-three slugging percentage and you have a recipe for a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate and one of the best players on the planet. The success of these two great hitters demonstrates that a player can succeed at that plate by being aggressive or by being patient. Perhaps, the value-added becomes more apparent when reviewed at a club level. Only one AL team – the Boston Red Sox – has been in the top-three in Pit/PA in each of the past five seasons. During that span they’ve had three winning years accompanied by two poor seasons and one postseason appearance – 2013 when they won the World Series. Since winning is a by-product of both run production and run prevention, let’s focus on the main goal of every lineup – scoring runs. Highest runs score-per-game Tm R/G ▾ Pit/PA BA OBP SLG OPS LAA 4.77 3.80 .259 .322 .406 .728 DET 4.67 3.78 .277 .331 .426 .757 OAK 4.50 3.88 .244 .320 .381 .700 TOR 4.46 3.86 .259 .323 .414 .736 MIN 4.41 3.99 .254 .324 .389 .713 BAL 4.35 3.80 .256 .311 .422 .734 LgAvg 4.18 3.85 .253 .316 .390 .706 CLE 4.13 3.89 .253 .317 .389 .706 CHW 4.07 3.80 .253 .310 .398 .708 KCR 4.02 3.74 .263 .314 .376 .690 TEX 3.93 3.82 .256 .314 .375 .689 BOS 3.91 4.05 .244 .316 .369 .684 NYY 3.91 3.90 .245 .307 .380 .687 SEA 3.91 3.73 .244 .300 .376 .676 HOU 3.88 3.88 .242 .309 .383 .692 TBR 3.78 3.81 .247 .317 .367 .684 Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/8/2015. Yes, the Red Sox were tops in Pit/PA, but they were also tied for the third worst runs-per-game (R/G). The team that scored the most runs in the AL –the Los Angeles Angels – were just below the league-average for Pit/PA. At the other end of the spectrum, the team with the lowest R/G – the Tampa Bay Rays – had virtually the same Pit/PA as the Angels. As with the individual players, teams enjoyed success with varying degrees of plate patience. Some may argue that taking a lot of pitches can be a productive team strategy because it’ll get the opposing starter out of the game sooner and get the team into their opponent’s bullpen. That may make sense on a case-by-case basis, but not as an across-the-board strategy. Working counts may make sense against pitchers who have high walks-to-nine innings pitched rate (BB9). For example, taking a lot of pitches against the likes of C.J Wilson in 2014 may have helped chase the southpaw a bit sooner. On the other hand, both Sonny Gray and R.A Dickey were in the top 20 for innings pitched-per-game start (IP/GS) despite being top 10 in BB9. Highest walks-per-nine innings Name Age Tm GS IP FIP IP/GS BB9▾ SO9 SO/W C.J. Wilson* 33 LAA 31 175.2 4.31 5.7 4.4 7.7 1.78 Roenis Elias* 25 SEA 29 163.2 4.03 5.6 3.5 7.9 2.23 John Danks* 29 CHW 32 193.2 4.76 6.1 3.4 6.0 1.74 Yordano Ventura 23 KCR 30 183.0 3.60 6.0 3.4 7.8 2.30 Chris Archer 25 TBR 32 194.2 3.39 6.1 3.3 8.0 2.40 Chris Young 35 SEA 29 165.0 5.02 5.6 3.3 5.9 1.80 Jake Odorizzi 24 TBR 31 168.0 3.75 5.4 3.2 9.3 2.95 R.A. Dickey 39 TOR 34 215.2 4.32 6.3 3.1 7.2 2.34 Sonny Gray 24 OAK 33 219.0 3.46 6.6 3.0 7.5 2.47 Clay Buchholz 29 BOS 28 170.1 4.01 6.1 2.9 7.0 2.44 LgAvg per 180 IP 20 180 3.79 2.9 7.7 2.67 Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/8/2015. On the flip side, a team strategy of working counts can be counterproductive against elite pitchers who have superb command and don’t walk many batters. Most of the pitchers on the top-10 list for lowest BB9 were successful at avoiding the base-on-balls and going late into games. Lowest walks-per-nine innings Name Age Tm GS IP FIP IP/GS BB9 ▴ SO9 SO/W Phil Hughes 28 MIN 32 209.2 2.65 6.6 0.7 8.0 11.63 Hisashi Iwakuma 33 SEA 28 179.0 3.25 6.4 1.1 7.7 7.33 David Price* 28 TOT 34 248.1 2.78 7.3 1.4 9.8 7.13 Hiroki Kuroda 39 NYY 32 199.0 3.60 6.2 1.6 6.6 4.17 James Shields 32 KCR 34 227.0 3.59 6.7 1.7 7.1 4.09 Wei-Yin Chen* 28 BAL 31 185.2 3.89 6.0 1.7 6.6 3.89 Rick Porcello 25 DET 31 204.2 3.67 6.5 1.8 5.7 3.15 Felix Hernandez 28 SEA 34 236.0 2.56 6.9 1.8 9.5 5.39 Corey Kluber 28 CLE 34 235.2 2.35 6.9 1.9 10.3 5.27 Jason Vargas* 31 KCR 30 187.0 3.84 6.2 2.0 6.2 3.12 LgAvg per 180 IP 20 180 3.79 2.9 7.7 2.67 Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/8/2015. Even if a team is able to chase a starting pitcher a little early, how early is early? Assuming that a starter will be permitted to throw 100 pitches during a good start, there really isn’t much difference over the course of a season. An opposing pitcher would face an average of 24.6 Red Sox hitters based on their 4.05 Pit/PA average. Conversely, an opposing pitcher would face an average of 26.3 hitters when facing the Angels and their 3.80 Pit/PA. Is an average of two batters-per-game really a big deal? There is something else to consider; getting to the bullpen may not be the best path to success. Six of the pitchers on the high BB/9 IP list were on a team with a bullpen in the top five for fielding independent pitching (FIP). Regardless of a player’s or team’s approach towards plate patience, the most important factor is the talent of the player with a bat in his hand. During the young 2015 season, the three teams with the most R/G – Toronto, Kansas City, Baltimore – are near or below the league-average of 3.83 Pit/PA. Conversely, the three teams with the lowest R/G – Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle – have similar Pit/PA rates to the top-three teams. Seeing more pitches wouldn’t necessarily help these three offensively-challenged teams unless their hitters delivered positive results. As Altuve has already proven, talent can trump patience.    Go!

Each year, successful major league organizations assemble rosters using various approaches and achieve the same desired results – postseason contention. This year is no different, which can be illustrated by a review of ten projected “contenders” for 2015. So, which teams should be considered “contenders” in 2015? Instead of using my own projections – or those of a national media outlet – to classify a team as a contender, I’ve opted to go “in-house” and use the Major League Baseball (MLB) projections of Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan, Jason A. Churchill. The ten teams that I’ve chosen are the six division leaders projected by Jason and two second-place teams from from each league to represent wild card teams. Before we start The number of players in the categories listed below reflect how each team’s 25-man roster was configured on Opening Day. “Homegrown” refers to players who were selected and signed during the MLB amateur draft process or otherwise signed to their first professional contract. Free agents are players who were already professionals in the major leagues or internationally. Examples of international players are Los Angeles Dodger Yasiel Puig or Seattle Mariner Hisashi Iwakuma. “Rule Five” refers to players who were selected by their current team during the rule five draft this past December or in a previous year. The remaining category of players – trades and waivers – should already be understood. There will be instances when significant contributors on the disabled list will be mentioned, although they’re not on the 25-man roster. Players such as Los Angeles Angel Josh Hamilton and Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander fit into that category. When that happens, their injury will be mentioned or there will be a (DL) after their name. Team payrolls and player salaries were obtained from the compensation page on baseballprospectus.com. Boston Red Sox The team that won the 2013 World Series was awful in 2014. Consequently, the Red Sox started retooling last July by dealing Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Andrew Miller, and Jonny Gomes, while acquiring outfielder Allen Craig, starting pitcher Joe Kelly, and Yoenis Céspedes – who they flipped for pitcher Rick Porcello in December. After the season, Boston added starter-level talent by signing free agents – third baseman Pablo Sandoval, left fielder Hanley Ramírez and starting pitcher Justin Masterson – and trading for pitcher Wade Miley. Importing top talent isn’t a new practice for Boston – designated hitter David Ortiz, outfielder Shane Victorino, closer Koji Uehara (DL), and first baseman Mike Napoli are all imported and have contributed to the team’s championship success.The Red Sox have also been involved in the expanding Cuban import market by signing both outfielder Rusney Castillo and infielder Yoan Moncada, although neither player is on the 25-man roster. Despite the heavy dose of imports, several of Boston’s key contributors are homegrown – star second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Opening Day starter Clay Buchholz, center fielder Mookie Betts, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts were all developed by the organization and are considered key pieces to the team’s success in 2015 and beyond. Cleveland Indians In the mid-to-late 1990s, Cleveland was a powerhouse that won five consecutive division titles and had two World Series appearances. During that era, the team maintained a stable of homegrown players who were signed to long-term contracts. The 2015 team was primarily built through a trade market that landed them their best players – 2014 American League Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, outfielders Michael Brantley and Brandon Moss, Silver Slugger award winner Yan Gomes, and first baseman Carlos Santana. Conversely, their big free agent acquisitions – center fielder Michael Bourn, designated hitter David Murphy and Nick Swisher – have underachieved.Despite the less-than-expected production from their high-cost free agents, Cleveland is considered a contender because the team’s management has sprinkled-in several homegrown contributors – second baseman Jason Kipnis, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, shortstop José Ramírez, and closer Cody Allen – to complement their key imports. Being successful with such a low payroll is made possible by having many relatively inexpensive players on their roster. Everyone on the team, except Nick Swisher (DL) and Bourn, makes $6.5 million or less. Their four best 2014 performers – Brantley, Gomes, Kluber, and Santana – earned a combined $14.2 million, less than Swisher’s $15 million salary. Detroit Tigers Detroit is a “win now” organization willing to spend money and the heart of its line-up – second baseman Ian Kinsler, perennial Most Valuable Player candidate Miguel Cabrera, designated hitter Víctor Martínez, plus outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez –  have arrived via trades and free agency. None of the current starting pitchers – including trade acquisitions David Price and Anibal Sánchez – were originally signed by the team. However, former Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander (DL) is a product of Detroit’s system.The Tigers have the fifth largest payroll in the majors, although their highest paid free agent is designated hitter Victor Martinez, who is earning $14 million and just re-signed with the team after his original free agent deal expired. A second-order effect of trading for proven stars is adding their large salaries to the inventory. Four players acquired in the past three years – Price, Sanchez, Cespedes, Kinsler – account for $63 million, while contract extensions for Verlander and Cabrera account for another $50 million. Los Angeles Angels Although the most notable stars on the Angels’ roster came from within the organization or by way of free agency, over half the roster arrived via trades including third baseman David Freese, catcher Chris Iannetta, outfielder Matt Joyce – all starters – and Huston Street who is closing games. Including the currently injured Josh Hamilton, the team has four free agents – first baseman Albert Pujols, starter C. J. Wilson and reliever Joe Smith – that accounts for 50-percent of the team’s payroll.Among the team’s significant in-house contributors is one of the best players on the planet – center fielder Mike Trout. Other key homegrown players like shortstop Erick Aybar, designated hitter Kole Calhoun, and starting pitchers Jered Weaver, Matt Shoemaker, and Garrett Richards (DL). This hybrid roster of players helped the Angels win 98 games last year and make them a contender once again. Los Angeles Dodgers Since 2012, the Angels’ crosstown rival has almost tripled their payroll, including $28 million for two players – Matt Kemp and Dan Haren – no longer with the team. The Dodgers have five other players making more than $18 million, including three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw at $32.5 million. The franchise has delved into the international free agent market by acquiring Cuban defector, Yasiel Puig, to a seven-year/$42 million dollar deal and Korean Hyun-Jin Ryu (DL) to six-years/$36 million.Hiring former Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman to take over the team’s baseball operations may signal that the organization, which has deep pockets, is interested in balancing short-term success with long-term sustainability. Going into 2016, the team has $166.3 million committed to 12 players – including $3.5 million to Kemp – although that could shrink if pitcher Zack Greinke decides to opt out of his contract after the 2015 season and spurns the $26 million that he’s owed in 2016. New York Mets With the team reportedly enduring financial difficulties, general manager Sandy Alderson has relied heavily on homegrown players and complemented his organization’s talent with a few high-paid free agents and assets cleverly picked up in trades. The Mets’ best players – third baseman David Wright, pitchers Matt Harvey and 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, gold glove center fielder Juan Lagares, all-star second baseman Daniel Murphy, and first baseman Lucas Duda – were all developed internally.The veteran free agents that Alderson has chosen to augment his homegrown foundation are pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielders Curtis Granderson, and Michael Cuddyer. All are signed to relatively inexpensive short-term contracts that helps the team control cost. His best trades garnered him catcher Travis d’Arnaud and top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard for a Cy Young award winner – R.A. Dickey – and pitcher Zack Wheeler (DL) for pending free agent Carlos Beltran. The Mets rebuilding process is well underway after enduring six consecutive losing seasons. How far they go in 2015 will depend on how far their homegrown players can take them. Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington and his staff have restored an organization that went two decades without a winning record by building a strong farm system, acquiring young talent when trading veterans, retaining their own young talent by locking up players early in their careers, and judiciously signing affordable free agents.The foundation of this team is their homegrown talent, which includes one of the best players in baseball – Andrew McCutchen. The perennial MVP candidate is joined by a core of young players that includes position players Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco, and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. He’s supplemented his homegrown core with affordable imports such as third baseman Josh Harrison, starting pitchers Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke, closer Mark Melancon, reserves Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, and Andrew Lambo, plus Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang. Every starting position player is under age-30 and the team has locked-up McCutchen, Harrison, and Marte to long-term extensions that rewards the player and promotes organizational stability. Seattle Mariners When Jack Zduriencik took over general manager in late-2008, he set out to improve the team’s minor league system and use it as a foundation to build a winner. Homegrown contributors include gold glove third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino, left fielder Dustin Ackley, and three starting pitchers – perennial Cy Young award candidate Félix Hernández, along with youngster James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker.Seattle has incrementally increased its payroll by 32-percent since 2011 by retaining their two best homegrown players – Hernandez and Seager – with seven-year extensions. Their free agent acquisitions include second baseman Robinson Cano, all-star and Cy Young award finalist Hisashi Iwakuma, closer Fernando Rodney, slugger Nelson Cruz and outfielder Rickie Weeks. Though the outcome of some of Zduriencik’s trades haven’t yielded the desired results, he’s been able to add veterans Austin Jackson, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and first baseman Logan Morrison without losing any assets that the team was going to need at the major league level. St. Louis Cardinals This franchise is often referred to as one of the best organizations in the baseball for good reason; they have registered seven consecutive winning seasons, been to four consecutive League Championship Series, and made two World Series appearances during that time frame. The Cardinals continue to stay committed to developing their own talent in order to control cost and maintain roster stability, including eight MLB amateur draftees who are vital to the team’s lineup – infielders Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams, catcher Yadier Molina – and their pitching staff – Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Trevor Rosenthal.Although the focus of the organization may be on developing their own talent, St. Louis has strategically imported key elements to their lineup, rotation, and bench. Starting pitchers Adam Wainwright and John Lackey and outfielders Jason Heyward and Matt Holliday have all arrived via the trade market and shortstop Jhonny Peralta was signed as a free agent. Washington Nationals 2015 is a pivotal season for Washington, which has four key players – shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Denard Span (DL) and pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann – who are likely to leave the team via free agency at season’s end. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s squad is loaded with players developed by his organization – Zimmermann, Desmond, infielders Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon (DL), plus outfielder Bryce Harper, closer Drew Storen, and starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg.To fill-in their roster, the Nationals have added several valuable pieces with trades – Fister, Span, infielder Yunel Escobar. Plus, they’ve demonstrated a willingness to occasionally go after big-ticket free agents when it makes sense. Most notably, outfielder Jayson Werth in 2010 and pitcher Max Scherzer this year – both players will earn a combined $38.6 million in 2016. Although the team is looking at losing key players after 2016, they’re not abandoning their future as evidenced by trading some of their minor league depth for prospects the team believes will help them in the future – one of the San Diego Padres top pitching prospects, Joe Ross, and reportedly the Padres’ 2014 first-round draft, shortstop Trea Turner. Final thought Regardless of each contending team’s motivation to use a certain blueprint for constructing a winner, they all have two things in common – good players on their major league roster and an increased chance to compete in the postseason. All that’s left is for them to do is perform on the field.Go!

Opening Day is finally upon us. But this isn’t the same Opening Day that has come in previous years. The Seattle Mariners begin the season as a legitimate World Series contender and American League favorite, according to many pundits. The rebuilding and retooling tags have been shed. The ‘bubble team that needs things to break right’ better defined the 2014 season and hasn’t even been mentioned when discussing 2015. This time last year, Alex Carson posed the question, “is optimism silly?” when discussing the 2014 Mariners. He noted the addition of Robinson Cano and how there was a sense of change from previous seasons under former manager Eric Wedge. There wasn’t any expectations of success, but reasonable ground for being hopeful about the coming season. This time around though, it’s all different. The Mariners are expected to have success not only in the regular season but the playoffs, also. Missing the playoffs by a single game will dramatically alter the outlook of any team, particular one that hasn’t played October baseball in more than a decade. Perhaps it was enough to alter the public’s perception of the Seattle franchise who are now picked by many to make a playoff run. Going from optimism to expectations often starts when the games aren’t being played: the offseason. To some extent, the winter played out has many expected: Seattle acquired a right-handed power bat, traded a bullpen arm, picked up a veteran starter, traded Michael Saunders, and added reasonable outfield depth. The acquisitions of Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks all made sense. Sure, the Cruz deal may not look great two years from now nor is Smith the definition of an impact bat, but altogether, we’ve started to see how the pieces appear to fit. Slotting Cruz between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in the lineup gives Seattle one of the best middle-of-the-orders in baseball. Having Smith and Ruggiano as options in the No. 2 spot allows Dustin Ackley to hit closer to the bottom of the order. Should Austin Jackson struggle with the bat, again, Weeks could be a viable option at the leadoff position. Happ effectively replaces the departed Chris Young, who signed with the Kansas City Royals, and could be a perfect match for Safeco Field. Dealing Maurer made sense given the number of right-handed relief options at manager Lloyd McLendon’s disposal. Perhaps the real difference-makers though, will be those already in the organization. Taijuan Walker has dazzled this spring. And James Paxton is healthy. Between the pair, the Mariners could see No. 2 and No. 3 starter performance — and we’re not talking about their projected ceilings as top prospects. They could be such in 2015. The best part? The two will slot behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma who are still one of the top one-two punches in baseball. This doesn’t even consider that Roenis Elias, who threw over 160 innings last year, begins the season at Triple-A. Brad Miller starts the year as the everyday shortstop but will have Chris Taylor breathing down his neck in just a few weeks. If he can take the next step with the bat, he could be the top shortstop in the division. Logan Morrison showed some promise with the bat when he was healthy last year and at age-27, he’s entering a make-or-brake season. Dustin Ackley? Basically the same story. Austin Jackson is entering his walk year and will have to prove he’s closer to the player he was in 2012 than 2014, if he wants to get paid. The best bullpen in the major leagues in 2014, sans Brandon Maurer and Joe Beimel, will be back. Rookies Tyler Olson and Carson Smith will start the season in the pen while Dominic Leone works out some kinks at Triple-A and David Rollins serves an 80-game PED suspension — both offer depth that will be utilized in the coming months. For all the depth in place, there are a few areas that aren’t without concern. What happens if Morrison gets hurt again? Jesus Montero is next on the depth chart and despite a much improved physique, he’s a major question mark. Mike Zunino played 131 games last year and will likely carry a similar workload this year since Jesus Sucre offers next to nothing in the batter’s box. Though the back-up should mark a defensive improvement over what John Buck offered for the first few months of 2014 and conceivably improve offensively. There’s also the possibility that Jackson under performs once again and Ackley can’t find any consistency with the bat. But this is where the difference between the 2015 and 2014 Mariners lies: McLendon has options. If Ackley struggles, Weeks can play left field off the bench. Or one of Ruggiano and Smith. If Walker struggles out of the gate or one of the starters hits the disabled list, Elias is waiting in the wings. Leone, who is coming off an excellent campaign, is the first reliever called-up if needed. We keep talking about the Mariners depth and how if an 87-win team could make just a few marginal upgrades, the result would be a playoff berth. Well, the M’s have made marginal upgrades, and conceivably will see better performance out of a few existing players. Even if the bullpen regresses and Cruz can’t crack 20 home runs, this is still a much-improved club overall. A total of 90 wins or better is completely realistic. One of the reasons why the M’s have become a popular pick is the lack of clarity in the American League West — not to take away from the quality of the team itself. The Los Angeles Angels didn’t make any significant upgrades this winter and the loss of Howie Kendrick will certainly be felt. Aside from Mike Trout and Albert Pujols the lineup lacks punch. The bullpen looks stronger with a full season of Huston Street in the closer’s role though the rotation will probably determine how far this club can go. Garrett Richards is on the mend but Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will need rebound seasons. The Oakland Athletics seemingly turned over the entire roster in an effort to replenish organizational depth and deploy a new strategy of receiving league average or better performance out of each position. The losses of Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija will hurt. Brett Lawrie, if healthy, could finally live up to some of his potential. Ben Zobrist was a nice pick-up, too, and his flexibility is a perfect match for the club’s style. Sonny Gray is a breakout candidate atop the rotation and Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffen are nearing returns. The Texas Rangers have all but been written off for 2015 after ace Yu Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery. Healthy seasons from Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will help, as will the presence of the seemingly ageless Adrian Beltre. But Yovani Gallardo and Derek Holland head a weak rotation that probably won’t be supported well from the bullpen. There’s a chance that Texas could be interesting if things work out, but there are definitely the makings of another lost season. The Houston Astros are on the upswing and should top the 70 wins the club finished 2014 with. Evan Gattis and Jed Lowrie are nice upgrades and Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena were under the radar pick-ups. Alongside Jose Altuve and George Springer the lineup could be pretty good, albeit strikeout-heavy. The rotation lacks intrigue behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, though. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshak were surprising bullpen expenditures, but their value will probably be realized once they are traded for other assets. The AL West certainly doesn’t project as a weak division, especially in comparison to the other American League divisions that have their own sets of question marks. In comparison to the other four teams, the Mariners project as the most complete overall. Even looking at other American League heavyweights, the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the rising Cleveland Indians, the Mariners still, on paper, have the most complete team. It’s much easier to sneak under the radar a la the 2014 Kansas City Royals. But there’s something to be said for living up to expectations. This season is ripe with opportunity. How pumped is Felix going to be when he takes the mound for the first time on Monday after narrowly missing the playoffs? Sure, the Mariners have been pegged as favorites before and the result was a 101-loss season. But that shouldn’t be anywhere near the case this year. The influence of McLendon and the leadership in the clubhouse has conjured up a a club that believes in themselves, and that’s as good a foundation for a team as any. The roster is set. Spring Training is complete. All that’s left is to play the games. Go Mariners.Go!

The Seattle Mariners went over their payroll budget in 2014 with a final tally of $107 million. At the outset of the offseason, GM Jack Zduriencik made it clear that the club wouldn’t be pulling back from that number. That sentiment was echoed by president Kevin Mather who said that the club would be doing what they could to add five or six wins to an 87-win season. We don’t know what the M’s total salary expenditure for 2015 will be until season’s end. But, after the signing of Rickie Weeks to a one-year deal, we can estimate that total to be around the $120 million mark — at least a 10 percent increase from 2014’s total. We do know that Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano represented approximately 52 percent of Seattle’s $92 million payroll, according to the Associate Press. With the increase in payroll for the upcoming season, and additions of several players, Seattle is looking at a much different distribution of payroll. In fact, several positions will see an increase in payroll space. The chart on the right shows an approximation of how the Mariners will distribute their payroll this year based on a projected Opening Day roster. These are the players that are included at each position: SP: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker/Roenis Elias RP: Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Dom Leone, Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar, Carson Smith, Lucas Luetge C: Mike Zunino 1B: Logan Morrison 2B: Robinson Cano 3B: Kyle Seager SS: Brad Miller LF: Dustin Ackley CF: Austin Jackson RF: Seth Smith DH: Nelson Cruz Bench: Rickie Weeks, Jesus Sucre, Willie Bloomquist, Justin Ruggiano, Chris Taylor The numbers shown are approximations, although now that Tom Wilhelmsen’s arbitration case is settled, we should have a pretty good idea as to what payroll will look like. For pre-arbitration guys I used a simple estimate of $500 thousand for first year, $600 thousand for second year, and $700 thousand for third year. This was done to give some separation between each service year. Typically most of these salaries will fall in the $500-to-600 thousand range depending on the team. I also ignored the potential outfield and shortstop platoons as, for these purposes, it’s simpler to have a designated starter for each position. Right now it would make sense for Smith and Ruggiano to platoon in right field. There’s also reason to believe Miller and Taylor will platoon at shortstop though one could seize the everyday job and the other starts at Triple-A. We also don’t know how much Weeks will be able to play in the outfield yet, but it’s conceivable he could end up in a platoon with Dustin Ackley in left field. One of Walker and Elias will take the No. 5 spot but will earn a very similar salary in 2015. Despite what may or may be going on with Bloomquist and his recovery, the assumption is that he will be on the bench. It is also unlikely the club utilizes an eight-man bullpen to start the year, but as there is an extra player on the bench factored in, I did the same with the bench. Danny Hultzen is owed $1.7 million for 2015, but he will start the year in the minors and go from there, so his salary is not included. So, without further ado and in pie chart form, the 2015 salary distribution for the Mariners. As we can see, the bulk of payroll is allotted to the starting rotation and second base which should not be a surprise. Felix and Cano, the team’s highest paid players, are due $24.86 million and $24 million in 2015 respectively. Seager, who signed a $100 million extension this winter, will receive just $4.5 million of it this year. What is interesting to note though, is that Cano’s contract no longer covers one quarter of the M’s payroll. In fact, after the club’s expenditures this offseason, he represents about 19 percent of total payroll. Approximately the same goes for Felix, meaning just under 40 percent is allotted to this two players — down from about 50 percent on Opening Day 2014. Without reading to much into this, we have proof that ownership is in fact committed to the club’s payroll. As mentioned off the top: payroll was said to be increasing, and we can clearly see that it has. Otherwise, the payroll is fairly evenly distributed. The catching and shortstop positions make up the smallest portions of the chart with all three of Zunino, Miller, and Taylor playing as pre-arbitration guys. Again, both shortstops may or may not start the season on the big league roster. In the following chart, we can see how the Mariners compare to the rest of the American League West in terms of payroll distribution by position. The same caveats used for the Mariners — playing time, pre-arbitration salaries, etc. — apply for the other four teams as well. A few things that I made note of: The division will spend very little on the catcher position. The Los Angeles Angels Chris Iannetta is the highest paid catcher and will earn $5.53 million in 2015. Left field is another position with minimal expenditure across the division except for Josh Hamilton. The slugger is due $25.4 million for the season but is currently rehabbing an injured shoulder and when he will be ready is still up in the air. The Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics project to have the smallest payrolls in the division, but have the highest portion of payroll allotted to the bullpen. The Astros signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to lucrative deals this winter while the A’s acquired Tyler Clippard in a trade with the Washington Nationals. Based on the estimation, less than $1 million more has been spent on the rotation than the bullpen by the Athletics. With the pricey free agent acquisitions, the Astros are projected to spend more on their bullpen than rotation this year. The highest-paid first basemen in the division, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are both near the beginning of monster contracts that already appear to be albatrosses as both have battled significant injuries recently. The pair are expected to be healthy for Opening Day. After the signing of Rickie Weeks, the Mariners have the most payroll allotted to their bench — nearly double what the Astros, with the next highest amount, will spend this year. With more than one month until Opening Day, there’s still a chance that each of these teams adds to their payroll. *All salary information, aside from the noted pre-arbitration estimates, is from Baseball-Reference.Go!

It sounds like the top remaining free agent will soon have a home. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reports that James Shields is weighing multiple offers and is expected to make a decision by the end of the week. Morosi mentions the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres have been in recent talks with the right-hander. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports tweets that the Yankees, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Angels are not among the finalists for Shields. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports that the Boston Red Sox aren’t involved either while Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star reports that the Kansas City Royals are more interested in the draft pick they’re due for Shields rejecting the qualifying offer. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tweets that the St. Louis Cardinals prefer to fill their rotation hole internally. By the power of deduction we have the Padres and Miami Marlins, who have maintained interested in Shields, as the most likely destinations for the right-hander at this point. The Seattle Mariners have not been connected to the free agent recently. Although Shields ranked a tier below the top free agent starters this winter, he can still pitch at the top of a major league rotation. For his career the right-hander has a 3.72 ERA and 3.77 FIP in 1910 and 1/3 innings pitched. His career strikeout and walk rates are 7.66 and 2.13 respectively with eight straight seasons of 200 or more innings pitched. Entering his age-33 season, there is obviously some concerns that the volume of innings is going to catch up with Shields sooner than later. The right-hander has reportedly been looking for a five-year deal but at this point that seems like a long shot. Shields is the definition of a workhorse and has averaged just under seven innings per start in his career. Mark Buehrle was able to parlay a similar skill set — albeit with slightly worse overall numbers — into a four-year, $58 million contract prior to the 2012 season. At this point, Shields may well end up with a similar contract. Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors notes that no free agent pitcher has secured more than a $50 million guarantee in February. Most teams have the bulk of their roster constructed and money that was available in December has, for the most part, been utilized. Ubaldo Jimenez did manage to secure a four-year, $50 million deal last winter from the Baltimore Orioles in February, but would appear to be an exception to what has become more or less a rule: significant free agent money isn’t available this late in the winter. When I profiled Shields’ free agent stock back in December, I concluded that the $90-plus million it would cost to sign Shields would likely be better utilized by the Mariners elsewhere. Since then the M’s have added Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith to bolster their lineup. Right now Seattle’s payroll projects to land in the $115-to-120 million range. In other words, it’s about maxed. [pullquote]Even at a reduced cost, Seattle is an unlikely landing spot for Shields. The presence of Walker and Elias serves as a deterrent for committing big dollars to the right-hander.[/pullquote] GM Jack Zduriencik has mentioned in interviews that he still has room for minor moves but suggested under the right circumstances, ownership may allow for a significant addition. As discussed by Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill and Alex Carson on The Hot Stove Report, the possibility of Shields signing in Seattle, even at a deflated price, is still very unlikely. First and foremost, the Mariners don’t really have room in the 2015 rotation for Shields. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton are locks with one of Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias likely to take the No. 5 role. That doesn’t include Erasmo Ramirez who is out of options and would have to clear waivers to be sent down to Triple-A this year. If we are talking about the 2016 rotation, it’s a slightly different story. Both Iwakuma and Happ are slated to hit free agency and at least one rotation spot should be opened up. Between the two and closer Fernando Rodney, upwards of $20 million will be cleared off the books at season’s end. That would essentially cover Shields’ potential salary in 2016 and each year beyond. The question then turns back to 2015: is Shields the guy the M’s want to break the bank for? There’s little doubt that Shields does improve the team in the short-term, despite the starting pitching depth. He’s likely a better starter in 2015 than anyone currently in the rotation mix not named Felix. But we have to look at the marginal increase in value that Shields adds as opposed to purely evaluating what he brings. For example’s sake, let’s say Walker wins the No. 5 job and pitches the entire season with the big league club. He probably winds up producing along the lines of an average big league player — 1.5-2.0 WAR. Shields was worth 3.7 fWAR in 2014 and Steamer projects him for 3.0 fWAR in 2015. Let’s split the difference and call Shields a 3.5 fWAR pitcher in 2015. We’re looking at a projected 1.0-2.0 WAR upgrade over Walker. However, Walker arguably has the potential to reasonably beat that projection while Shields has the potential to fall short. Walker won’t turn 23 until August and Mariners fans don’t need to hear about the talent and potential this kid has. Shields on the other hand, will pitch at 33 and as noted, is likely due for a decline at some point in the near future. Both come with risk, but Walker doesn’t carry a $15-to-20 million salary. The numbers support Shields continuing his pace as he ages — particularly an increase in fastball velocity — but the risk is still there. Shields’ ceiling in 2015 is probably in the 4.0-to-4.5 WAR range. I would not expect a career year out of the right-hander. Does Shields improve the Mariners in 2015? Definitely. Would he be a nice piece to have when planning for 2016 and beyond? Definitely. But considering where the club sits in terms of payroll, and a more pressing need for an additional bat, Shields doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even at a reduced price from the five years and $100 million he was seeking a few months back. And no, Shields will not be signing a one-year deal this winter. Maybe if a team was willing to pay him $40 million for that year, but the chances are practically nil. Even at a $16 million salary, Shields would guarantee himself about $50 million on a three-year deal. Not exactly the contract numbers he was hoping to achieve, but not small change either. The is a non-zero chance that James Shields is a Seattle Mariner in 2015. The veteran is known to prefer signing with a west coast team, but too much stock shouldn’t be put into that. It also appears unlikely that Shields will sign with an American League West foe. The Angels, despite the clear fit, are said to be out and the Texas Rangers haven’t been mentioned in a while. I suppose the Houston Astros could make a surprise run, but that feels unlikely. All three of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays would make sense as landing spots for Shields, especially Toronto. The Jays don’t have a clear ace and despite being near the top of their budget, could convince ownership that the expenditure is needed to break the longest playoff drought in pro sports. The Marlins remain in the picture even though they are out east. If they are willing to go four years, I’d imagine that’d probably put them as the favorites. The Padres, who have already made a number of significant moves, should also be watched closely. It sounds like the club still has some payroll to play with and could also use a boost at the top of the rotation. If Seattle is to make one more major transaction before the start of the season, expect it to be by trade. The missing link simply does not appear to be available via free agency.Go!

Jon Lester can really pitch. He’s never won a Cy Young and has finished in the top 5 just twice. Heck, he’s made just three All-Star teams in eight years despite high-level consistency across the board, but he’s shown ace-like abilities and is among the top lefties in baseball. Now the former Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics ace is a free agent looking to cash in on a 6.1 fWAR campaign. Throws: LeftAge: 31 on January 7Service: 8.075Agent: ACESQualifying Offer: N/A Scouting Report Lester has one of the better sinker-cutter-curveball combinations in baseball and he’s worked very hard to perfect a delivery that might be the undoing for most starting pitchers. He sat 90-92 witht he sinker with the occasional 94-95 with a four-seamer. The slider has been replaced by a cutter he commands well in on right-handed batters. He’ll steal a strike versus a lefty with it and can throw any pitch in any count. Lester posted perhaps his best command-and-control season of his career, issuing fewer than two walks per nine innings and the second-best HR/FB rate. He remains occasionally susceptible to the stolen base, but has been above average in that regard the past three seasons. He’s pitched in pennant races and is postseason tested, including two terrific outings in the 2013 World Series. He’s a nightmare for lefties but has been better versus right-handed bats the past couple of seasons. The Upside The 30-year-old is bonafide No. 1 starter with no signs of slowing down. The raw stuff can carry a team for weeks and the veteran command he’s developed bodes well for his immediate future. Any contending rotation that adds Lester to the mix automatically jumps a full level and greatly improves its chances to get to and succeed in October. The Downside Lester turned down a four-year contract extension in April, reported Ken Rosenthal. He’s 31 in January and six-year deals for any pitcher generally do not work out well for the club. Considering Lester’s only free-agent competition in terms of top flight starters is right-hander Max Scherzer, the player has great leverage this offseason. There are some high-ranking scouts that wondered early in Lester’s career whether or not his arm slot and somewhat unorthodox mechanics might contribute to a shorter career or some injury concerns. Those concerns went away years ago when he began compiling 200-inning seasons one right after the other. As he ages, however, those thoughts may return. Cost & Conclusion: Mariners Perspective It would shock most in the industry if Lester signed for less than five years, with six years a good possibility. Something in the $20 million range also figures to be a certainty with the lone question being the exact AAV. All be told, Lester could end up with $125-$150 million over 5-7 years. Many have linked Lester to the Seattle Mariners based on Lester having grown up in Puyallup and attending Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep. The connection isn’t strong, however, as the pitcher entrenched himself in the Boston community and with the Red Sox, having spent 12 years with the organization. The good bet is the lefty seeks out the best combination of contract and a chance to win right away. If the bidding gets well beyond the $20 million range, it’s difficult to imagine such a number fits in with what the Mariners are trying to do over the next few years. His addition could free up a Taijuan Walker for GM Jack Zduriencik to acquire a cleanup hitter, but Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano already are eating up nearly $50 million per season. The club is flush with cash; the RSN deal kicked in this year, which reportedly is worth around $2 billion over 17 years ($115-120 million in revenues per season through 2030) and with local interest growing the general revenues are growing, too. But the chances the M’s start splurging huge dollars for multiple player per offseason are slim, and if they do choose that route the chance a starting pitcher is among them is even slimmer. The Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers appear to be the most likely to opt to make the big offer to Lester, and the Kansas City Royals are among the clubs that have checked in on him this month. The Baltimore Orioles could certainly use Lester, as could the Texas Rangers. One recent report by Nick Cafardo makes one think, however. Cafardo wrote Sunday that the Mariners have fielded calls from clubs inquiring about right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma now is under contract for 2015 at $7 million. Cafardo added that Boston has at least had “internal conversations” about the M’s No. 2 starter and that Seattle would want an impact hitter, such as Yoenis Cespedes, in return. It’s an intriguing thought — Iwakuma-for-Cespedes — but the Mariners do not have a starting pitching surplus by any stretch. As I wrote last week, the Mariners’ rotation was solid in 2014, but not great, and relying on kids such as James Paxton, Walker, Roenis Elias, to step up their game, remain healthy and provide impact innings in Iwakuma’s absence is a poor plan and one I don’t believe Seattle will risk. If they spent money on a free agent starting pitcher or two, however, Iwakuma could become available in the manner in which I previously mentioned Walker. But it would take a significant starter — like Lester — to make the right-hander an expendable commodity.Go!

When we checked in last week, the Los Angeles Angels had a firm hold on the top American League Wild Card spot while the red-hot Kansas City Royals had surged themselves into the second spot. Since then the Royals have knocked the Detroit Tigers out of the top spot in the AL Central division while the Angels have added a game to their lead. The Seattle Mariners have propelled themselves back up into the second Wild Card slot after taking two of three from the Detroit Tigers who now sit half a game out. GB represents how many games the team is behind in the Wild Card race and does not represent where they sit in their respective division races. Los Angeles Angels | 72-50, +5.5 GB It was a short week for the Wild Card leaders as they had a two-game series in Philadelphia in between a couple of off days. Los Angeles won both games against the lowly Phillies before taking two of three from the Texas Rangers over the weekend. The restructured bullpen continues to be a strongpoint for the club with Huston Street in the closer role. However he did blow the save in Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers, but the pair of runs he allowed were the first he’s given up in an Angels uniform after 12 scoreless outings previously. On the offensive side of things, superstar Mike Trout has been struggling of late as he’s recorded just two hits in his last 27 plate appearances — albeit one of those was a two-run home run — but the more publicized slump is the one belonging to Josh Hamilton. After striking out seven times in the first two games in Texas, manager Mike Scioscia described the slugger as “not the same player” he was when he was a Ranger. On the year Hamilton owns a .753 OPS and a 114 wRC+, which isn’t all that bad, but he has just eight home runs and 35 runs batted in. The 33-year old has always been a streaky hitter with a relatively free swing, but if he could get things going with the bat the lineup would become that much more potent. Not to mention the fact he’s being paid to perform like he did in his peak Ranger years. Seattle Mariners | 67-56, — The M’s have been red hot of late after sweeping the Toronto Blue Jays and taking two of three from the Tigers, and for the moment, hold sole possession of the second Wild Card slot. The offense has had a coming out party of sorts as the M’s scored 19 runs in three games against the Jays and 17 in three games against the Tigers. Robinson Cano has swung a hot bat and hit a pair of home runs in the past week while Kendrys Morales has finally woken from his half-season slumber and picked up a pair of doubles and homers in the Toronto series. Kyle Seager and Chris Taylor have continued their consistent play and Trade Deadline pick-up Chris Denorfia has contributed seven hits in his last five games as well. Pitching continues to be the true strength of the club and the staff’s ERA now sits at 2.97 — the AL West leading Oakland Athletics have the next best mark with a 3.17 ERA. James Paxton had another strong outing on Friday going six innings while yielding a single run on five hits and isn’t showing any signs of rust after missing most of the season. The M’s elected to start Roenis Elias at Triple-A this week but he was re-called for Monday’s start in Philadelphia with James Jones sent back down to Tacoma. [pullquote]The Cleveland Indians currently sit five games behind the Mariners in the Wild Card race but have lost five of their last ten games and are starting to look like a long shot. They’ll face the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros this week.[/pullquote] Detroit Tigers | 66-56, 0.5 GB Things haven’t been so nice in Motown lately as the Tigers now find themselves a game and a half back of the Royals in the AL Central and on the outside of the playoff picture entirely on Sunday night. The team split a four-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates before losing two of three at the hands of the Mariners. An MRI revealed that Justin Verlander has been dealing with some shoulder inflammation after he was pulled after just one inning in his last start. The right-hander isn’t expected to spend any time on the disabled list and could start as soon as Friday if a Tuesday bullpen session goes well, but he’s been struggling throughout the year and his velocity has been done. Offense hasn’t necessarily been Detroit’s issue — though they were outscored 17-7 in the Seattle series — their bullpen has continued to be the problem. Joakim Soria is on the disabled list with an oblique strain but is expected to return to action in the next week or so. Closer Joe Nathan has continued his up-and-down play and after finishing Wednesday’s game against the Pirates he made a pair of gestures to the home fans that caused some controversy– he has since apologized. Athletics cast-0ff Jim Johnson was re-called prior to Sunday’s game and allowed three runs, though just one was earned, in his Tigers debut. New York Yankees | 63-59, 3.5 GB After losing five straight games the Yankees managed to stay in the thick of things by winning their last two games against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday and Sunday. The team did receive some good news today as Masahiro Tanaka reportedly felt fine after throwing a 25-pitch bullpen on Sunday. He’s set to throw another in the coming week but there’s still no time table for when he’d be able to return to the majors, but at this rate it’s possible he could return before the end of September, but it may not be that bad of an idea to keep him shut down for the rest of the season. Shane Green has done a solid job filling a hole in the rotation and turned in another six-inning two-run performance on Saturday. If the Bronx Bombers want to hang in the race they’ll need to start getting the offense rolling again. Mark Teixeira has been the hot hand in the lineup, but outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury just snapped a four game hitless streak on Sunday. New York has managed to keep pace up to this point so it’d be unwise to count them out yet. It’s also possible they could make another waiver-trade before the end of the month but nothing appears imminent. Toronto Blue Jays | 61-61, 4.0 GB If there’s one team that appears to be fading, it’s the Blue Jays. Toronto was swept by the Mariners earlier in the week and lost two of three against the Chicago White Sox over the weekend. Slugger Edwin Encarnacion returned to the lineup on Saturday and belted a two-run home run in Sunday’s loss, but the Jays were actually very productive on the offensive side of things in Chicago — it was their pitching that let them down. Toronto managed to score 16 runs against the White Sox but only won one of the three games; the Sox put 21 runs on the board in the series. Starter Drew Hutchison was tagged for for seven runs on Sunday and Marcus Stroman gave up five on Friday and failed to complete the first inning of a start for the first time in his young major league career. Veteran Mark Buehrle owns a 6.67 ERA and has been clubbed for a .963 OPS since the All-Star break while failing to complete the sixth inning in three straight starts. Toronto heads to Milwaukee for a two-game set before finishing the month with series’ against the Rays, Boston Red Sox, and Yankees. They’ll have their work cut out for them if they hope to pull off a playoff spot at this point.Go!

The addition of the second Wild Card slot in both leagues has certainly increased the intrigue surrounding the playoff race as we enter the stretch drive in August. Plenty of teams still look like they have a shot at earning a chance to play a one-game playoff for a berth in the American League Division Series. Let’s take a look at how the race is shaping up in the American League. GB represents how many games the team is behind in the Wild Card race and does not represent where they sit in their respective division races. Los Angeles Angels | 68-49, +4.5 GB The Angels have a four-and-a-half game cushion for the first of two Wild Card slots, but got dealt a blow to their rotation on Sunday with news that Tyler Skaggs will require season-ending Tommy John surgery. The 23-year was enjoying his first full season of big league action and threw 118 innings across 18 starts. He ends his rookie campaign with a 4.30 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 3.67 xFIP, and will be shelved for the entire 2015 season as well. LA is rumored to be in the market for a starting pitcher to take the place of Skaggs and will rely on Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago in the back of the rotation for the time being. Mike Trout and Erick Aybar have lead the majors’ second best offense with 550 runs scored and Albert Pujols has chipped in a solid season as well now that he’s healthy. Josh Hamilton still remains an x-factor in the Angels offense as he can be a difference-maker when he’s healthy and hitting the ball out of the park like he can, but his 30.5 percent strikeout rate is a problem, even by his standards. The Halos have closed the gap on the division leading Oakland Athletics, but may have to settle for a one-game playoff to stick around in the postseason. They shored up their bullpen prior to the Trade Deadline and aside from the loss of Skaggs, don’t have any significant holes at the moment. Kansas City Royals | 63-53, —- The Royals have been red hot of late and are winners of nine of their previous ten games. Although their offense has been below average, their pitching staff has a 3.58 ERA, good for tenth-best in baseball. Led by free-agent-to-be James Shields, the rotation has gotten excellent production out of Jason Vargas and the emerging Yordano Ventura. The Royals bullpen has also been outstanding with Wade Davis and Greg Holland playing key roles. Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez have lead the offense with some help from outfielder Lorenzo Cain who’s building on a solid 2013 season with a 106 wRC+ and 16 stolen bases. Kansas City made modest deals at the deadline picking up veteran relievers Jason Frasor and Scott Downs but could be in good shape if Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer are able to heat up offensively. The Royals can get by for now on their pitching, but the bats need to start carrying their weight or the postseason drought will continue for the club. [pullquote]The Cleveland Indians took two of three from the Yankees over the weekend and now find themselves five games back in the Wild Card chase, but could take the form of a long shot if they don’t go on a hot streak in the very near future.[/pullquote] Seattle Mariners | 62-55, 1.5 GB Lead by the best pitching staff in the majors, the Mariners have kept themselves in the race despite an offsense that doesn’t show up at least once a week. Felix Hernandez is in the midst of a Cy Young calibre season Hisashi Iwakuma has been as good a No.2 starter as any other team has to offer. The bullpen has also been unbelievable with a 2.33 ERA and the ever-erratic Fernando Rodney who is second in the American League in saves. The club also received a boost with the return of James Paxton to the rotation after he missed the bulk of the season with a lat injury. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager have been stalwarts in the lineup that received some much needed support on July 31st with the acquisitions of Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia. Dustin Ackley has been red hot the past several weeks and if Kendrys Morales wakes up from his slumber, the M’s could have a playoff-calibre one-through-five in their lineup. Michael Saunders should also return from injury within the next week and will push Endy Chavez, who’s played a regular role in the lineup, to the bench which will further improve the lineup. Seattle’s gotten a near-historic performance from their pitching staff and it would be a shame to see it wasted due to their offensive troubles. If they can keep up the solid play — they just took three of four from the Chicago White Sox — then it’s possible three AL West teams could qualify for playoff spots, but the offense is going to need to step it up for that to happen. Toronto Blue Jays | 63-56, 1.5 GB The Blue Jays were the team to beat heading into the 2013 season, but after a disappointing year lost to injuries, they’re now within arms reach of their first playoff appearance in two decades. The club had lead the AL East for most of the last month-plus, but the resurgent Baltimore Orioles have distances themselves from the pack with a five game lead. Toronto’s offense — fourth best in baseball with 532 runs scored — features a pair of premier sluggers in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but the latter hit the disabled list in early July and is just setting out on a rehab assignment. Jose Reyes has remained healthy this year and helped offset the lost contributions of Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie who’ve all spent significant time on the disabled list. Pitching has been the Jays weakness this year as the staff’s 4.08 ERA is the seventh worst in baseball. R.A. Dickey has been good, but not the ace he was two years ago. Mark Buehrle had an outstanding start to the season that netted him an All-Star selection, but has struggled in his last couple starts. Rookie Marcus Stroman has taken the reigns of the rotation and has been a huge plus for the Jays with his 3.02 FIP in 13 starts including a two-run nine inning performance on Saturday — he was not credited with a complete game since the contest went into extra innings. The bullpen has been steady but unspectacular. Toronto elected to stand pat at the trade deadline despite a clear need for a top of the rotation starter and possibly a middle infielder. They were reluctant to include their top prospects Aaron Sanchez, who’s pitching out of the bullpen, and Stroman and obviously were unwilling to meet the price tags of the elite starters that were available. The club will get a huge boost when Encarnacion returns, but it appears as though their pitching could end up being the reason they don’t reach the postseason. New York Yankees | 61-56, 2.5 GB If there’s one team that you can’t ever count out, it’s the Yankees. Despite having a rotation held together by duct tape — quite literally as Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda are on the disabled list — New York has gotten another solid season out of veteran starter Hiroki Kuroda and Brandon McCarthy, whom they acquired prior to the deadline, has also pitched well. Dellin Betances and David Robertson have shined in the bullpen while Shane Greene has been effective in his first taste of major league action as well. The Yankees spent big on their offense in the winter adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, but have still gotten below average run production on the year. Derek Jeter, now playing in the final months of his career, has had a decent season at the plate while Brett Gardner has been the team’s most productive batter with his 127 wRC+. Health has once again been a factor for Mark Teixeira who’s put together a decent season with 19 home runs, and the club has managed to patch holes around the infield with Stephen Drew and Chase Headley — both were acquired prior to the deadline. New York wasn’t going to pack it in for the Captain’s final season, but it’s difficult to see them making a serious push considering their lack of pitching depth and aging roster. That could change if Tanaka is able to return, but that’s no sure thing at the moment.Go!

To coincide with our Seattle Mariners of the month feature, Prospect Insider will also be highlighting a couple of top performers from around the major leagues on a monthly basis as well. In May it was outfielder Yasiel Puig and starer Corey Kluber that took home the honors. Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager took the honors for the June M’s of the month, and as a reminder, Mariners players will not be included in these posts. Let’s take a look at who were the best of the best in June. Mike Trout, OF, LAA — 102 PA, .361/.471/.759, 238 wRC+, .398 ISO, 10 2B, 1 3B, 7 HR, 21 RBI, 5 SB If there was ever any doubt that Trout would be able to return to his 2013 form after a slow start to the year, by his standards anyway, that can be erased after a red-hot June. The Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder topped the league with his wRC+, ISO, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage numbers, and was fifth among qualified hitters in batting average — all while playing plus defence in center field and getting a positive baserunning score from FanGraphs. The 22-year old did battle some back discomfort and missed a game, but that didn’t stop him from accumulating seven multi-hit games in June — three of which were three-hit performances. In fact, there were just three games all month that Trout failed to reach base in, and in one of those he left after just one plate appearance due to the aforementioned back injury To sum it up, the 5-tool stud continued to do exactly what he’s done so far in his short major league career. He truly is a special talent and is well on his way to hitting the 10.0 fWAR plateau for a third consecutive year. Trout’s Angels went 15-10 for June — a pair of games were postponed — and are now in possession of a Wild Card slot and are just 3.5 games behind the division leading Oakland Athletics. If the season were to end today, the Angels would face the Mariners in a one-game playoff. Runner-UpJonathan Lucroy, C, MIL — 117 PA, .359/.427/.602, 185 wRC+, .243 ISO, 10 2B, 1 3B, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 1 SB Clayton Kershaw, SP, LAD — 6 GS, 6-0, 44.0 IP, 0.82 ERA, 1.19 FIP, 1.19 xFIP, 61 K, 4 BB As ridiculous as King Felix’s month of June was, Kershaw’s month is the only one that might challenge it. Starting with the no-hitter he threw against the Colorado Rockies on June 18th — it would’ve been a perfect game sans a Hanley Ramirez error — the Dodgers’ ace has been lights out after a slow start to the season due in large part to injury. Kershaw pitched seven or more innings in five of his six starts and only allowed runs in three; he allowed a pair of runs or more on just one of those occasions. The 26-year old struck out at least seven batters in each start and a career-high 15 in his no-hitter. He also struck out 13 batters in his most recent start against the St. Louis Cardinals. His June earned run average is backed by his outstanding peripherals, and his strikeout to walk rate is other worldly. When the debate of who the best pitcher on the planet is right now, Mr. Kershaw is usually the first name that comes to mind — and for good reason. It looks like he’ll have an excellent case for winning his second consecutive Cy Young award and the third of his already illustrious career by the time this season comes to a close. Runner-UpJake Arrieta, SP, CHC — 6 GS, 4-0, 39.1 IP, 0.92 ERA, 1.45 FIP, 2.07 xFIP, 48 K, 6 BBGo!

The Seattle Mariners completed a sweep of the Los Angeles Angels for the first time since 2006 on Wednesday night, and they did so in convincing fashion by outscoring their opponents 26-8 over the three games. Everything appears to be clicking for the club thus far as they start a year with three wins for the first time in 18 years. Is it time to get excited about the Mariners again? They just may be up to something here. Rookie James Paxton made his first start of the 2014 season and looked excellent pitching seven innings of shutout ball and allowing just two hits. He also walked a pair of batters, but struck out nine including a run of six straight outs recorded via the punch out. His velocity was touching 98 miles per hour at times and his curveball was making hitters look foolish. Paxton only needed 99 pitches to get through his night and recording 64 of them for strikes. The 25-year old did find himself in a couple trouble spots, but managed to settle himself enough to escape unharmed. The offence continued to run on all cylinders with six players collecting two hits a piece. Mike Zunino and Corey Hart  hit their first home runs of the season while Justin Smoak hit his second long ball and collected his seventh run batted in. Stefen Romero got the start in right field and pick up the first hit and run batted in of his major league career after going 0-4 in Tuesday night’s contest. If there’s a negative point anywhere in the box score, it’d be Dustin Ackley failing to reach base for the first time this season, but that was about it; his batting average fell to a measly .364 from the .571 he entered the game with. We all knew what to expect from Felix Hernandez on Opening Day, but the fact Erasmo Ramirez and Paxton were able to follow him up with solid performances of their own is huge as the rotation is still a work in progress. The trio has allowed just four earned runs in 20 innings pitched and has struck out 26 batters while walking just three. This is great news for the club as their rotation depth appeared paper thin at the beginning of the season and will likely stay that way for another month. At the top of the lineup Abraham Almonte has managed to get on base five times and Brad Miller picked up his fourth run batted in of the year. Robinson Cano has quietly gone 5-11 with three walks so far and collected his first RBI as a Mariner on Wednesday night. As it stands, Michael Saunders and Logan Morrison are the only Mariners who have yet to collect their first base hits of the season, although LoMo hasn’t seen any action since Opening Day. Obviously there’s still 159 games separating the team from the finish line, but hey, let’s enjoy this streak as long as it lasts. Things actually look good in Mariner land at the moment, don’t be the guy who spoils the mood for everyone. The starters are pitching effectively, the entire lineup is contributing, the outfield defence hasn’t looked awful, and the bullpen has been solid too, Hector Noesi aside. There actually appears to be some room for optimism beyond the first couple games. Next up for Seattle is a four-game set with the Oakland Athletics that will feature the major league debut of Roenis Elias on Thursday evening and the first start for Chris Young since September 29, 2012 on Friday.Go!

It was an extraordinarily busy winter for the five clubs in the American League West. Each organization made significant moves, with all but the Los Angeles Angels spending big dollars to improve their respective rosters. Two of the biggest free agents — Robinson Cano and Shin-Soo Choo — joined the AL West and even the Houston Astros made noise spending some money and acquiring an impact centerfielder. Let’s take a look at what each club gained and lost over the winter, starting with the defending division champions. Oakland Athletics | 2013: 96-66 It was deja vu for the Athletics who were eliminated in the American League Division Series in five games by the Detroit Tigers for the second straight year. The A’s were lead by a deep pitching staff that combined for a 3.56 ERA, seventh best in baseball, and averaged 4.73 runs per game as one of the league’s top offences. Billy Beane has remained one of the smartest GM’s in the game and only time will tell if his latest efforts will pay off in winning a championship. Who’s In Jim Johnson, RP — 0.9 fWAR | Acquired via trade from Baltimore Orioles in exchange for 2B Jemile Weeks and a player to be named.Luke Gregerson, RP — 1.0 fWAREric O’Flaherty, RP — -0.1 fWAR | Signed two-year, $7 million dealScott Kazmir, SP — 2.5 fWAR | Signed two-year, $22 million dealCraig Gentry, OF — 3.4 fWAR | Acquired via trade from Texas Rangers in exchange for OF Michael ChoiceSam Fuld, OF — -0.3 fWAR | Signed minor league contract Who’s Out Seth Smith, OF — 1.1 fWAR | Traded to San Diego Padres in exchange for RHP Luke GregersonGrant Balfour, RP — 0.6 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Tampa Bay RaysJerry Blevins, RP — 0.3 fWAR | Traded to Washington Nationals in exchanged for OF Billy BurnsPat Neshek, RP — -0.2 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with St. Louis CardinalsBartolo Colon, SP — 3.9 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with New York MetsBrett Anderson, SP/RP — 0.3 fWAR | Traded to Colorado Rockies in exchange for LHP Drew Pomeranz, RHP Chris Jensen and $2 million cashChris Young, OF — 0.5 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with New York MetsKurt Suzuki, C — 0.4 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Minnesota Twins 2014 In one of the offseason’s surprise moves, the Athletics acquired a reliever, Johnson, who will be paid $10 million this year; quite uncharacteristic for any small market team. The additions of Gregerson and O’Flaherty, who will return mid-season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, figure to give Oakland one of the best bullpens in the majors with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle still aboard. The departure of Colon will hurt the rotation, but if Kazmir can build off his comeback year with the Cleveland Indians in 2013, they’ll have effectively replaced Colon with a pitcher still on the right side of 30. Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily, and AJ Griffin return to the rotation while youngster Sonny Gray is expected to spend his first full season in the majors as well. Oakland’s lineup remained intact for the most part over the winter with Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Reddick leading the charge again in 2014. Coco Crisp was re-signed and will also play an important role in the A’s lineup once again. Gentry, who is coming off of two solid seasons with the Rangers, has quickly become one of the better defensive outfielders in the game today and could play an important role this year. After sporting just less than a $62 million dollar payroll in 2013, the Athletics 2014 payroll is expected to land around $76 million or so with Cespedes and Johnson being the only players earning $10 million or more. Oakland projects to be a top team in the American League in 2014 and shouldn’t have a problem finding themselves in either the pennant race or at the very least, the Wild Card race when September roles around. Texas Rangers | 2013: 91-72 After consecutive losses in the World Series, the Rangers failed to reach the playoffs this past year for the first time since 2009. Texas featured a top ten offence again in 2013, averaging 4.48 runs per game and hitting 176 home runs, but you could say that once again, they were done in by their pitching last year; even though the Rangers managed the third lowest bullpen ERA in the bigs. They’ll have their work cut out for them if they plan on going the distance in 2014. Who’s In Prince Fielder, 1B — 2.2 fWARShin-Soo Choo, OF — 5.2 fWAR | Signed seven-year, $130 million dealJP Arencibia, C — -0.6 fWAR | Signed one-year, $1.8 million dealTommy Hanson, SP — 0.4 fWAR | Signed one-year, $2 million deal Who’s Out Ian Kinsler, 2B — 2.5 fWAR | Traded to Detroit Tigers in exchange for 1B Prince Fielder and $30 million cashNelson Cruz, OF — 1.5 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Baltimore OriolesAJ Pierzynski, C — 1.6 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Boston Red SoxMatt Garza, SP — 2.2 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Milwaukee BrewersJoe Nathan, RP — 2.5 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Detroit TigersLance Berkman, DH — -0.2 fWAR | RetiredCraig Gentry, OF — 3.4 fWAR 2014 It was a busy offseason for the Rangers who shipped their All-Star second baseman to the Detroit Tigers for a much needed power hitting compliment in the lineup aside Adrian Beltre. They also saw 130 million reasons to make Choo their leadoff hitter, another hole that needed filling, for the next several years to come. The veteran Pierzynski will be replaced at catcher with Arencibia and the returning Geovany Soto, who was re-signed back in November. Perhaps one of the biggest determinants in trading Kinsler was the fact it could open up an everyday spot for Jurickson Profar in the lineup, and he will line up at second base with Elvis Andrus. A dash of good health and consistent production should have the Ranger offence near the top of the league again in 2014. Nathan’s departure will hurt the bullpen to some extent, but Neftali Felix and Joakim Soria are still around to anchor the relief corps. The Rangers did almost nothing to add to a rotation that is susceptible behind ace Yu Darvish, and took a major hit now that Derek Holland expected to miss significant time with a knee injury. Both Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando are capable mid-rotation arms, but what can reasonably be expected from their acquisitions of Hanson, who struggled with injuries, and Joe Saunders, who struggled to be not completely awful, in 2013? If the rotation and bullpen are able to hold up and Darvish can put together another Cy Young calibre campaign, the high powered offence could be enough to land the Rangers back into the playoffs this year. Los Angeles Angels | 2-13: 78-84 Times have been tough in Disneyland as it’s now been four years without a playoff appearance for the Angels and believe it or not, Mike Trout isn’t quite good enough to single-handedly guide a team to a Wild Card berth. Despite injuries to key parts of their lineup, LA still managed to put up 4.52 runs per game which was good for seventh in all of baseball. It was the pitching staff that did them in however, as they combined for a 4.24 ERA, placing them near the bottom of the league. With the strength of the Athletics and Rangers, the Halos may have a spend another October watching from the sidelines. Who’s In David Freese, 3B — 0.3 fWARRaul Ibanez, OF/DH — 0.0 fWAR | Signed one-year, $2.75 million dealTyler Skaggs, SP — 0.1 fWARHector Santiago, SP — 1.5 fWARJoe Smith, RP — 0.4 fWAR | Signed three-year, $15.75 million dealFernando Salas, RP — 0.0 fWAR Who’s Out Jason Vargas, SP — 1.5 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Kansas City RoyalsPeter Bourjos, OF — 1.1 fWAR | Traded to St. Louis Cardinals with OF Randal Grichuk in exchange for 3B David Freese and RHP Fernando SalasJerome Williams, SP — 0.3 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Houston AstrosTommy Hanson, SP — 0.4 fWARMark Trumbo, 1B/OF — 2.5 fWAR | Traded to Arizona Diamondbacks with player to be named later in three-team trade in exchange for LHP Hector Santiago (White Sox) and LHP Tyler Skaggs (Diamondbacks) 2014 It was a different offseason for the Angels than we’ve seen in recent years: they didn’t commit big dollars to a marquee free agent. Instead, they made a couple of trades that could work out nicely for the club. The signing of Smith will help shore up the bullpen alongside Ernesto Frieri and Kevin Jepsen, while Salas figures to contribute to the pen in 2014 as well. Although health is relatively important to any club with playoff aspirations, it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that once again, the Angels’ success this year will depend on whether or not Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton can stay healthy and produce like their former selves. Add Trout to those two, and the Angels have as good a 2-3-4 punch as any team in the league when they’re firing on all cylinders. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will once again form a very solid but perhaps unspectacular duo at the top of the rotation. Never say never with the Angels, especially since they make an interesting dark horse to win the AL West, but they’re going to have some very stiff competition for a Wild Card spot this year. Seattle Mariners | 2013: 71-91 It’s been a long 13 years since Seattle last saw playoff action and they have managed just one season above .500 since 2008. Despite a Cy Young calibre season from Hisashi Iwakuma in 2013, Mariner pitching produced a combined 4.32 ERA, the fifth-highest in all of baseball, and their bullpen ERA of 4.58 was the second worst. Even with one of the top home run totals in the league, the offence floundered for 3.85 runs per game due to a poor .237 team batting average and a lack of on-base production. The M’s spent big on an All-Star this winter, but it looks like they’re still a couple pieces away from seriously returning to contention. Who’s In Robinson Cano, 2B — 6.0 fWAR | Signed 10-year, $240 million dealJohn Buck, C — 1.6 fWAR | Signed one-year, $1 million dealWillie Bloomquist, IF/OF — 0.5 fWAR | Signed two-year, $5.8 million dealFernando Rodney, RP — 1.3 fWAR | Signed two-year, $14 million dealScott Baker, SP — 2.8 fWAR (2011) | Signed minor league dealLogan Morrison, 1B/OF — -0.6 fWARCorey Hart, OF/DH — 2.2 fWAR (2012) | Signed one-year, $5 million deal plus up to $8 million in incentive bonuses Who’s Out Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH — 1.2 fWAR | Remains a free agentRaul Ibanez, OF/DH — 0.0 fWARHenry Blanco, C — -0.5 fWAR | Signed minor league deal with Arizona DiamondbacksOliver Perez, RP — 0.8 fWAR | Signed two-year, $4.25 million deal with Arizona DiamondbacksCarter Capps, RP — -0.3 fWAR | Traded to Miami Marlins in exchange for 1B Logan MorrisonJoe Saunders, SP — 0.6 fWAR | Signed one-year deal with Texas Rangers 2014 The Mariners opened their pocketbooks and landed Cano, the best available free agent, at a cost just shy of a quarter of a billion dollars. It was a peculiar move given the fact Seattle hasn’t been all that good in recent memory, but perhaps the tide could be turning sooner than later. Felix Hernandez will once again lead a rotation riddled with slightly more uncertainty than expected now that Iwakuma and top prospect Taijuan Walker are expected to miss the start of the season with injuries. Baker, who signed an incentive-laden minor league deal this winter, suddenly becomes a very important name in camp with respect to the rotation. The only problem with that is it’s not 2009 anymore when Baker was a 3.9 fWAR pitcher and he’s thrown just 15 major league innings across the past two years. If he’s healthy, and early reports from camp indicate he is, he could end up being a vital part of the pitching staff this year and hopefully can produce like one. It’s also looking like James Paxton has all but locked up a rotation spot as well. Seattle’s bullpen got a much needed boost with Rodney signed on to be the club’s new closer, likely shifting Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen into set-up or seventh and eighth inning roles. After plenty of trade rumors circulating around the likes of David Price and Matt Kemp this winter, the M’s didn’t make the big splash nearly everyone was anticipating after Cano was signed. It was reported that club had reached the top of their budget, but could make an exception for another player if it was the right situation. If Hart is able to recover from the two knee surgeries that kept him out for the entire 2012 season he could end up being the much needed right-handed slugger in the lineup behind the All-Star second baseman. There’s also a possibility that Morales could be re-signed as well, but the M’s may prefer to hope he signs before the draft so they can receive a compensatory draft pick, which would then be the pick sacrificed for signing Cano. All in all, Seattle projects to fall short of the playoffs once again, but if a couple of prospects can breakout this year and another piece is added, they just might be in the hunt. Houston Astros | 2013: 51-111 When the Astros joined the American League West prior to the 2013 season, Mariners fans began to rejoice since they could nearly rest assured that their team was likely only doomed for second last in the division. Houston hasn’t sniffed playoff baseball since losing the World Series in four games back in 2005 and have put together a streak of three straight 100+ loss seasons while they’ve been in a total rebuild. Their pitching staff was the worst in baseball with a 4.79 ERA while their offence managed a meager 3.77 runs per game in 2013. It’ll be another season of development for the Astros in 2014, but the future is starting to get a little brighter for the club. Who’s In Scott Feldman, SP — 2.1 fWAR | Signed three-year, $30 million dealJerome Williams, SP — 0.3 fWAR | Signed one-year, $2.1 million dealDexter Fowler, OF — 2.2 fWARJesse Crain, RP — 1.9 fWAR | Signed one-year, $3.25 million dealChad Qualls, RP — 0.5 fWAR | Signed two-year, $6 million deal, plus 2016 optionMatt Albers, RP — 0.3 fWAR | Signed one-year, $2.45 million deal, plus 2015 optionJesus Guzman, 1B/OF — 0.0 fWAR | Signed one-year, $1.3 million deal Who’s Out Erik Bedard, SP/RP — 1.4 fWAR | Signed free-agent deal with Tampa Bay RaysBrandon Barnes, OF — 1.0 fWAR | Traded to Colorado Rockies with RHP Jordan Lyles in exchange for CF Dexter Fowler and player to be named laterJordan Lyles, SP — 0.4 fWAR 2014 Years of futility in any sport will eventually garner a club enough high draft picks that, if developed effectively, can help make the team relevant again. The Astros have developed Jose Altuve and Jason Castro into a pair of solid lineup cornerstones recently, and there’s much more talent yet to come in the pipeline. Acquiring Fowler for a couple of replaceable players was a great move for the Astros, who also opened the bank account to sign Feldman to a three-year deal and provide a little more certainty to their young rotation. Perhaps the most important moves of this past winter were the additions of Crain, Qualls, and Albers to what was the worst bullpen in the league in 2013. Despite the improvements to the major league roster, Houston still projects as cellar dwellers in the AL West once again. They will have the first overall selection in the upcoming Rule IV Draft in June which should allow them to add another youngster to a top prospect list that includes the likes of Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and George Springer. It’s reasonable to suggest that eventually the Astros will have obtained enough young talent to be competitive at some point in the next several years, but when that happens is anyone’s guess. The upcoming season is likely another write-off and 2015 only looks a little better at this point. Perhaps 2016? Whatever the case, Houston has plenty of exciting young players that should be reason for at least some optimism in 2014, and certainly the years to follow. *All player WAR’s shown are via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.Go!

With 2014 just around the corner, it’s time to take a look at how each team is shaping up at this point in the offseason. With several marquee free agents still available, expect these numbers to fluctuate over the next couple months, making this exercise exactly what it’s meant to be; a rough estimate at this point in time. Firstly, we’re going to look at how American League West teams, including your Seattle Mariners, project in 2014 and compare it to their 2013 seasons. -All numbers are provided by FanGraphs Looking at the Mariners, most of us will be happy to see that the team projects to be 15.5 fWAR better in 2014 than they were in 2013. A lot of that increase comes in the form of Robinson Cano and his 5.1 projected fWAR, but the additions of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart project to add 1.7 fWAR and 1.9 fWAR respectively to the M’s lineup as well. It’s interesting to note that both LoMo and Hart are projected to be almost completely average defenders in left field in 2014. That I’ll believe when i see it. Catcher Mike Zunino is also projected to be worth 1.9 fWAR in what stands to be his first full season in the majors. Shortstop Brad Miller is looking to take another step forward after a strong  2013 campaign, and is projected to be worth 3.3 fWAR in 2014; nearly double his 1.7 fWAR in 2013. The only real subtraction to the M’s lineup from 2013 appears to be Kendrys Morales who provided 1.7 fWAR in 2013 as the primary DH. The M’s pitching staff projects to provide similar value in 2014 despite projected declines in value for both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix will still be Felix, but Iwakuma isn’t projected to repeat his sensational 2013 campaign. Relievers Danny Farquhar and Charlie Furbush are also projected to regress from their 2013 seasons by nearly 1.0 fWAR each. With the 2014 bullpen situation not entirely clear quite yet, the bullpen projections should be taken with a grain of salt. The real wild cards in the rotation come in the form of prospects Taijaun Walker and James Paxton as it’s unknown what their contributions are expected to be next year. In 140 innings, the pair are projected to be worth 1.5 fWAR and 1.3 fWAR respectively. While most have reserved a rotation spot for one of Walker and Paxton, it would take the acquisition of at least one decent rotation arm for both to not be the best in-house options for the 2014 staff behind Hernandez and Iwakuma. The M’s may prefer to see both spend a little more time at Triple-A, the new plans of contention in 2014 could dramatically alter the timetable for the youngsters; as would a trade of Walker or Paxton for possibly an establish pitcher. Realistically, the M’s are likely to at least pick up some back end of the rotation fliers to compete for jobs in Spring Training. There’s no sense in banking on two pitchers who’ve thrown a combined 39 innings at the MLB level, especially when a pitcher like Matt Garza is available and will only cost money. If Seattle is truly serious about competing in 2014, they’ll need to add at least one more rotation piece, and probably two to provide a safeguard for the rookies. Overall, the Mariners project to be a better team in 2014, but that much appeared to be obvious. The new-look lineup and the continued progress of other youngsters will provide a strong boost to the M’s offence in 2014. Ideally the M’s add another arm to the middle of the rotation and at least one veteran reliever, perhaps an Oliver Perez reunion would make sense, to consider their 2014 staff to be improved. There’s a lot of good pieces in place, but it doesn’t appear to be enough compared to the rest of the division as Seattle projects to be the fourth best team in the AL West. The Texas Rangers project as the top team after opening their pocketbooks this winter to better a championship contender who fell short once again last season. Not only did the team spend big on acquiring Prince Fielder, they also made a splash in the free agent market when the brought Shin-Soo Choo onboard. Despite the additions, the Rangers are only projected to be 0.7 fWAR better in the batting department due to the losses of Ian Kinsler and Craig Gentry who were both dealt. Joe Nathan‘s departure from the bullpen leaves the closer role vacant, but the Rangers have plenty of internal options. The bullpen will remain a strong point in 2014 as Neftali Feliz returns and Joakim Soria is still around. A healthy season from Matt Harrison would help to offset the projected decline of Derek Holland in the rotation that’s still headlined by Yu Darvish. Pitching doesn’t look to be an issue heading forward if Feliz and Harrison are about to contribute full seasons of work. The Rangers are the favourite it win the AL West, but they won’t be without competition. The Oakland Athletics will be looking to defend their division crown after a fury of transactions this offseason, but like the Rangers, they project to be a few fWAR worse in 2014. Free agent acquisition Scott Kazmir and his projected 2.7 fWAR come in to replace the departed Bartolo Colon and the 3.9 fWAR he produced last season. Sonny Gray should stick in the rotation for the entire year after a great performance throughout the stretch drive last season. The A’s made a peculiar decision to acquire a star closer in Jim Johnson since the All-Star is likely due $10 million in ’14. The A’s bullpen is projected to regress despite Johnson’s presence though, but that could change depending on how the rotation ends up looking. Slugger Josh Donaldson is projected to come in shy of his 7.7 fWAR 2013 season, but a 5.0 fWAR year is nothing to make light of. Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie both project to produce approximately 1.0 fWAR less each than they did in 2013, but they still figure to set the table well for Donaldson and the rest of the A’s batting order. Even with a bit of regression from some prominent players, the Athletics should provide plenty of challenge for the Rangers. The Halos rotation has proved to be troublesome beyond Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson the past couple seasons, and with Jason Vargas leaving for greener pastures, the Angels brought in Tyler Skaggs to help shore up the rotation. It’ll probably be a year with some growing pains for Skaggs as he’s just 22, but he’ll have plenty of room for error with the infamous Joe Blanton still in the picture. Times weren’t so good for the Los Angeles Angels last season, both on but off the field. Between injuries to recentfree agents signings Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and turmoil in the front office with management, dysfunction was a term often associated with the Angels. Not to be overshadowed by the mess though, was phenom Mike Trout who posted a tremendous 10.3 fWAR season. Trout projects short of the 10.0 fWAR mark, but the sky appears to truly be the limit for 22-year old. The Angels have avoided the big ticket free agents so far this winter, and instead acquired David Freese to add some pop to the middle of the lineup. Overall, the Angels project to be in the hunt for a playoff spot next summer, although their projected 4.3 fWAR increase hinges on Pujols and Hamilton staying healthy and producing closer to the levels they’re paid to play at. If not, it’s going to be another long year in Disneyland. No it’s not a figment of the imagination; the Houston Astros are projected to be the most improved team in the AL heading into 2014. Coming off a third consecutive season with 100 or more losses, the Astros decided to boost their young nucleus with some veteran talent in the form of Dexter Fowler, Chad Qualls, and Scott Feldman to join budding stars Jason Castro and Jose Altuve. The additions seem slightly surprising as the Astros have worked with an incredibly small payroll the last several seasons, but with new television money coming in, the time may be right to supplant the young core with some more experienced pieces. Houston has stayed the course with their rebuilding plan the last several seasons and have plenty more quality prospects coming up through their system. Even with a projected increase of 24.4 fWAR for the club, next year looks to be just another step in the rebuilding process as the club projects to land near the bottom of the American League once again. Feldman is the top Astros pitcher on paper, but there’ll be plenty of room for their youngsters to make some noise. Houston has all the time in the world for their youngsters to develop and form what’ll likely be a very good team several years from now. Despite what the fWAR projections say, it’s easy to see how every team in the division could be improved in 2014. The feeling among many right now, and projections as well, is that the Rangers have an upper hand on the division, with the A’s a close second behind them. Depending on a number of factors, the Angels and M’s figure to hold the three and four spots in the division, and despite a very good offseason in Houston, they appear headed for cellar dweller status yet again.Go!

Amidst all the rumors circulating from the General Managers’ meetings in Florida, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal dropped an interesting nugget in his notes column late Wednesday night. As the Kansas City Royals are considering making an attempt to bring back Carlos Beltran, Rosenthal speculates if such a move were made, that would open up the possibility of trading Billy Butler. Of course, as has been the case and will be throughout the winter, the Seattle Mariners conveniently pop up as one of the teams rumored to be very interested in trading for Butler, as they were a year ago. But that wasn’t the rumor that caught my attention from that particular piece. After suggesting the M’s as a trade partner, Rosenthal subtly notes Seattle actually tried to trade for Rookie of the Year Wil Myers last offseason, before Royals’ GM Dayton Moore went in another direction and opted for the Tampa Bay Rays proposal centered on right-hander James Shields. What were the Mariners offering, you ask? Rosenthal reports they were focusing on a one-for-one deal, where Seattle would ship one of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton or Danny Hultzen to Kansas City for Myers. But alas, that is in the rearview mirror. However, there is no reason why a similar trade couldn’t occur this winter. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume Seattle isn’t going to trade Walker unless it’s for Giancarlo Stanton or someone along those lines. And Danny Hultzen’s injury prevents him from going anywhere anytime soon. So, following a strong September showing, perhaps other teams would be interested in acquiring James Paxton and value him enough to ship off something the Mariners need? Trade Proposal No. 1: Seattle trades LHP James Paxton and 2B/SS Nick Franklin to Kansas City for 1B/DH Billy Butler This deal would be predicated on the Royals acquiring a hitter via free agency, such as Beltran. Even then, who knows if Moore would be interested in moving Butler for two unproven talents. Perhaps they would insist on Walker, which is too much with which to part, at least from my point of view. But this type of move could make sense for both clubs if the right mix of players is involved. Seattle would be acquiring a right-handed hitter not solely reliant on the long ball, adding balance to a lefty-heavy group from a year ago. Butler is a career .300 hitter, can hit both lefties and righties, and is arguably just entering the prime of his career at age 27. Instead of having to mix and match at designated hitter, they would be able to plug Butler in everyday as they did Morales in 2013. Butler is durable too, having missed only 11 games the past five seasons. Kansas City would unquestionably have a tough time letting go of one of their cornerstone players the past five seasons, but acquiring a young starter in James Paxton should be enticing. I’m no expert, but with Ervin Santana unlikely to return, the Royals shouldn’t place all their eggs in the basket of Jeremy Guthrie, Luis Mendoza and possibly Bruce Chen, if he re-signs. Paxton is a bit of a wild card, but he has the potential to be a solid No. 3 starter. With the addition of Nick Franklin to the deal, the Royals can stop playing roulette at second base with the likes of Chris Getz and Emilio Bonifacio, and actually build on the middle infield of Alcides Escobar and Franklin. Butler is signed through 2014 at $8 million, with a club option for 2015 at $12.5 million or a buyout between $1-2 million. Trade Proposal No. 2: Seattle trades LHP James Paxton to Colorado for CF Dexter Fowler The possibility of the Mariners acquiring Dexter Fowler has been circulating throughout the rumor mill lately, including this tweet from Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi. Honestly, I do not believe the Rockies would trade Fowler straight up for Paxton, but if I’m the Mariners, that’s the most I would offer, at least in terms of potential impact talent. Fowler isn’t exactly a spring chicken anymore — he’s actually the same age as Billy Butler — and he is injury prone. An injury prone, but potentially dynamic center fielder, where have we heard that before? No I won’t go there. In his five seasons as the everyday center fielder, Fowler has not been able to stay healthy for even one full season. This past year, he missed a career high 43 games. His on-base percentage has remained steady over the years, hovering around .350, but that’s about the only constant in his game. He’s not a regular source of power and his stolen base numbers have steadily declined. Still, he’s a legitimate defender in center — albeit not elite by any stretch — and the switch hitter is strongest from the right side. It’s also noteworthy that his swing fits Safeco Field well. He would provide some stability at the leadoff spot, when healthy, and he is only one year removed from his career year in 2012, where he hit .300 and provided decent pop. One major question: Fowler’s career numbers away from Coors are not very good — .241/.333/.361 with 13 of his 40 career long balls. The Rockies have always had a tough time luring pitchers to the Coors Field, and Paxton would provide them with a young pitcher that isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2017. Left-handed pitchers have had success at Coors Field recently, too. Take a look at Jorge De La Rosa, who went 10-1 with a 2.76 ERA in Denver last season. Trade Proposal No. 3: Seattle trades LHP James Paxton and RHP Erasmo Ramirez to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for 1B/DH Mark Trumbo and CF Peter Bourjos This one is probably the most far-fetched of the three as I do think the Angels would be giving up a little much here — or would require more in return. But, did you see their pitching staff last season? Yeah, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson aren’t going to cut it. Trumbo would provide the M’s with the right-handed power they have been seeking at a much, much lower cost than, say, free agent Nelson Cruz. He is going to strikeout. He is not going to hit for average. But he will hit for 25-plus home runs. He’s not much of an on-base guy, either, however, so there are some holes in his game that make his salary critical to his value. Bourjos, for me, is a prime trade target, one the Mariners should pursue heavily even outside the parameters of a deal such as this one. His 2013 campaign was injury-riddled, but the speed and outfield defense he brings to the table would offset any potential defensive downgrades the M’s make by signing a Cruz/Trumbo/Beltran type player. Like Trumbo, he is another cost-effective upgrade that would keep payroll open to go after another bat on the open market. For the Angels, it’s a matter of enduring the dynamic duo of Blanton and Hanson again, or swapping them out for a couple young guns with a lot of potential in Paxton and Ramirez. They’re stuck with Blanton’s contract, but can cut bait with Hanson — if they have other options. Paxton’s September performances were promising, though limited, meaning the jury is still out on his value. The Mariners could be missing out on a solid starter for years to come by shipping him out to acquire offense, but at some point that is the price they have to pay to bring hitters to Safeco Field and to improve upon an offense that has not surpassed 700 runs scored in six seasons.Go!