Last June, I wrote a piece reflecting on several non-waiver deadline deals made in July 2011. My rationale for looking back so far was simple. Most of these trades involve prospects who are years away from reaching the majors — assuming they ever do.

Since I enjoyed picking away at those old trades last year, I thought I’d do it again and put several 2012 deadline deals under the microscope this time. There weren’t many sexy moves that year, but I chose a few that I found interesting. I hope that you will too.

Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva
When the Texas Rangers dealt for Dempster, they were leading the American League (AL) West division and trying to earn a third consecutive World Series appearance. It’s hard to criticize the Rangers for making the deal. After losing two consecutive Fall Classics, they were willing to part with prospects to get over the hump.

Dempster pitched adequately during his 12 starts with Texas and became a free agent after the season. Unfortunately for the club though, the resurgent Oakland Athletics won the division and the Rangers lost the Wild Card game to the Baltimore Orioles.

The Chicago Cubs were at the other end of the spectrum. They were in the midst of a 101-loss season, which happened to be the first with Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager. For them, trading soon-to-be free agent Dempster to get much needed prospects made complete sense.

At the time of the deal, Villanueva — a third baseman — was considered the centerpiece of the deal for the Cubs, but he has yet to reach the majors.

Although the 24-year-old ranks number-26 in Chicago’s stacked minor league system, he’s behind National League (NL) Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant on the depth chart. More importantly though, Villanueva suffered a fractured fibula in Spring Training and hasn’t played this season.

Hendricks has experienced better luck and landed in Chicago’s rotation as a full-time starter last season. This year, he’s off to a great start and currently ranks number-13 among NL starters, based on FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR).

David Carpenter, J.A. Happ and Brandon Lyon for Joseph Musgrove, Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Carlos Perez, David Rollins, Asher Wojciechowski, and Kevin Comer
Another club in the midst of a massive rebuild — the Houston Astros — started trading away major league talent a year earlier when they dispatched Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn in deals to the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves respectively.

In 2012, new general manager Jeff Lunhow continued the trend started by his predecessor — Ed Wade — by shipping Happ and two veterans north of the border in an attempt to restock his decimated minor league system. Although ten players were involved in this deal, only a few panned out or provided value to either club.

Lyon, Cordero, and Francisco were gone — via trade or release — within three months. After the 2014 season, Perez was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for catcher Hank Conger, who was subsequently purchased by the Tampa Bay Rays last December.

Carpenter, along with manager John Farrell were sent to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Mike Aviles. Just four days later, Aviles and catcher Yan Gomes were sent packing to the Cleveland Indians for Esmil Rogers, who has since moved on from Toronto.

Rollins was a Rule 5 selection by the Seattle Mariners in December 2015 and currently plays with their Class-AAA affiliate. Wojciechowski was waived last month and subsequently picked up by the Miami Marlins. That leaves Happ, Comer, and Musgrove to discuss.

For Toronto, Happ was the centerpiece of the deal. The southpaw endured a tough run of injury problems with the Blue Jays, although he did provide value when healthy. In December 2014, the Jays swapped the veteran hurler Happ for outfielder Michael Saunders of the Mariners.

Happ must have enjoyed his stay in Canada because he returned to the team as a free agent last offseason after a brief stay in Pittsburgh last summer. Now, the Jays have both Happ and Saunders contributing to the big league club.

For the Astros, Comer hasn’t reached Class-AA yet and isn’t a top-30 prospect. However, Musgrove looks like he’ll eventually pay dividends for Houston. The 23-year-old is currently pitching at Class-AAA Fresno and projects to be a mid-rotation starter.

Zack Greinke for Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura
If I didn’t cover this deal made by current Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, I’d probably lose my parking privileges at the Prospect Insider headquarters.

At the time of the trade, Dipoto was running the Los Angeles Angels. His ball club was just three games behind the first place Rangers and held the lead in the AL wildcard race. Unfortunately, for the Angels and Dipoto, the team didn’t make it to the postseason despite winning 89 games.

The Angels’ dance partner — the Milwaukee Brewers — were hopelessly out of contention and looking to acquire value for Greinke, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Of the three players the Brewers acquired, Segura was the best. In his first full season with the club, he made the 2013 NL All-Star team and posted an excellent .294/.329/.423 triple-slash. The following two seasons, though, he was an offensive disappointment and subsequently shipped off to the Arizona Diamondbacks in January.

Hellweg is now in the San Diego Padres organization after signing as a minor league free agent prior to this season, while Pena is still in the Brewers minor league system. Neither is on their respective club’s 40-man roster.

Although Segura provided mixed results while with Milwaukee, the club did garner some value when they traded him along with pitcher Tyler Wagner to Arizona for minor leaguer Isan Diaz, pitcher Chase Anderson, and veteran infielder Aaron Hill. This was, in essence, the second layer of the Greinke deal.

The 34-year-old Hill will be a free agent at the end of the season and is a likely deadline deal chip for general manager David Stearns. But, Anderson and Diaz have long-term value to Stearns’ organization.

Anderson is under team control for five more seasons and currently a member of their rotation, while Diaz — a 2014 second-round draft pick — currently ranks number-11 in Milwaukee’s minor league system.

Hunter Pence for  Seth Rosin, Nate Schierholtz and Tommy Joseph
Just a year after picking up Pence from the Astros, Philadelphia flipped him to the San Francisco Giants for three youngsters. He’d eventually sign an extension with San Francisco and is under contract through the 2018 season. Along the way, the 33-year-old helped his team win the 2012 and 2014 Fall Classic.

Rosin is no longer with the Phillies after his selection during the Rule 5 draft by the New York Mets in December 2013. He’s currently with Class-AAA El Paso in the San Diego Padres organization, but not on their 40-man roster. Schierholtz became a free agent after the season and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014.

From the Phillies’ perspective, Joseph was the key component of the deal. At the time, the right-handed hitter appeared to Philadelphia’s catcher of the future. Unfortunately, concussions derailed his career behind the plate. As a result, the team moved him to first base on a full-time basis. Now, the 24-year-old appears to be the heir apparent to veteran first baseman Ryan Howard.

Randy Choate and Hanley Ramirez for Nathan Eovaldi and Scott McGough
The Los Angeles Dodgers were hot on the heels of the Giants and their new ownership group wanted to make a splash by reaching the postseason for the first time in three seasons. So, they acquired Choate and Ramirez from the Miami Marlins. Unfortunately, for the club, San Francisco won it all and the Dodgers missed the playoffs altogether.

Although Choate left as a free agent after season, Ramirez proved to be an important contributor who helped the Dodgers reach the next two postseasons before he signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in November 2014.

As compensation for losing Ramirez, Los Angeles received a compensatory draft pick — number-35 overall — and selected Kyle Funkhouser from the University of Louisville. Unfortunately, for the Dodgers, Funkhouser didn’t sign and opted to return to school for his senior year.

For the Marlins, they recouped some value in the deal, although it was in a circuitous manner — like the Greinke deal.

McGough was waived in April, but Miami was able to flip Eovaldi with Domingo German and Garrett Jones to nab David Phelps and Martin Prado from the New York Yankees in December 2014. Phelps is the team’s eight-inning setup man and Prado is their starting third baseman.

Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez for Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner
In another “sell-mode” maneuver, Miami sent Infante and Sanchez to the win-now Detroit Tigers. This deal turned out to be lopsided in favor of Detroit.

The Marlins got little value out of the threesome they received. Turner was traded to the Cubs for minor leaguers Jose Arias and Tyler Bremer two years later. Arias is no longer playing professional baseball and the 26-year-old Bremer has yet to pitch above the Class-AA level.

Flynn was traded to the Kansas City Royals in November 2014 for Aaron Crow, who was granted free agency a year later. Brantly was eventually waived by the Marlins and the Chicago White Sox. He’s currently one of Dipoto’s layers of roster depth at Class-AAA Tacoma.

Conversely, Detroit did much better. Infante played well for the Tigers until he became a free agent after the 2013 season, while Sanchez finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting during his first full season and he’s still toeing the mound in the Motor City.

Ichiro Suzuki for Danny Farquhar and D.J. Mitchell
This deal was a small one, but it did involve a future Hall of Famer and the Mariners. So, I thought I’d mention it.

Ichiro asked to be traded from the Emerald City and the organization obliged by sending him to New York. The former AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year helped the Yankees reach the postseason and played two more seasons with the club before moving on to the Marlins — his current team.

The 42-year-old is on-track to reach 3,000 hits this season and is certain to be a Mariners Hall of Fame member. Perhaps, his Cooperstown plaque will have him wearing a Seattle cap.

Seattle received fair value in return for Ichiro considering that he was 38-years-old and regressing. Although Mitchell was out of the Mariners system less than a year later and currently playing independent league ball, Farquhar helped the club for several seasons.

The right-hander was an asset out of the bullpen and even served as Seattle’s closer in the second half of 2013. During last offseason, Farquhar was part of a six-player deal with the Tampa Bay Rays that brought starting pitcher Nate Karns and outfield prospect Boog Powell to the Mariners.

Finally
Once again, my takeaway is that time is the best judge of deadline deals, not the instant gratification analysis certain to immediately follow after this year’s trades.

My advice to those following a team that deals for prospects next month is be patient and wait about four years before you make your final judgement. That’s easier said than done, but you’ll have a better idea on how your team actually fared. It might prevent your blood pressure from soaring in July too.

 …

Seattle Mariners' J.A. Happ delivers to the Texas Rangers in the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)After the conclusion of the 2014 season we had a pretty good idea that Michael Saunders had played his final game with the Seattle Mariners. Comments made by general manager Jack Zduriencik and the player suggested that it was time for the two sides to part ways. Such things happen in the world of professional sports, and the armchair GM’s quickly began to determine where Saunders would be dealt and what a potential return would be.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t particularly ecstatic to find out that J.A. Happ would be acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for the outfielder. The pitcher more resembled Chris Young — who was available as a free agent for a couple million bucks — than a starting-calibre outfielder.

One of the concerns raised by the Mariners was in regard to Saunders’ durability. The left-hander missed time in 2013 but still managed to appear in 132 games while in 2014 he missed significant time with an oblique strain and was limited to just 78 games.

Interestingly enough, however, Saunders finished the year with 2.0 fWAR — tied for third on the team among position players with Dustin Ackley and trailing only Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.

Unfortunately for Saunders, his 2015 season was stalled before it could begin — he tripped over a sprinkler head in the outfield of the Jays’ Dunedin practice facility and tore a meniscus in his left knee. Although the early prognosis was positive, Saunders didn’t make his season debut until April 25. The 28-year old barely managed to play in games for a week before the knee became an increased problem. Last Monday he had fluid drained from his knee and received a cortisone shot.

After an 0-for-4 performance against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday, the club placed Saunders on the 15-day disabled list with knee inflammation.

The knee, on his plant leg, has noticeably bothered Saunders at the plate this year and has limited the strength he’s been able to generate. In 36 plate appearances he’s managed just six singles and nearly all of his contact — 75 percent — has ended up on the ground. The idea behind the DL stint is that Saunders simply needs rest and there’s no point in having a dormant roster spot for another week or more.

Happ, 33 in October, was coming off his best year since 2009. In 26 starts he posted a 4.22 ERA and 4.27 FIP with a couple added ticks in fastball velocity factoring into his success. So far in 2015 his fastball has averaged about 0.5 MPH less than it did in 2014, but that data is based on April numbers and pitchers typically will build up their velocity as the season goes on.

In six starts this year Happ has produced a 3.29 ERA and a 3.48 FIP including five shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday night. His strikeout rate is in line with his career numbers though he has managed to slash his walk rate in half — his career rate is 3.71 per nine innings compared to 1.88 per nine innings thus far.

Similarly to Young last year, moving a fly-ball pitcher like Happ into the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field figured to yield some rewards. Interestingly enough, the left-hander has performed almost exactly the same at home as he has on the road, in very small sample sizes. His strikeout, walk, and home run rate splits are within decimal points of each other while his FIP and xFIP are identical.

Perhaps more importantly than Happ’s home/road splits is the role he has played in the Mariners rotation. He has been the club’s most consistent starter behind Felix Hernandez. Hisashi Iwakuma is currently on the disabled list with a strained back muscle and may not be available until early June. James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have had up-and-down sophomore seasons while the club is considering skipping Roenis Elias’ next start in the rotation.

The Blue Jays have had their own rotation struggles. After Marcus Stroman went down with a season-ending knee injury in the spring, Drew Hutchison was placed at the top of an inexperienced rotation. Both Hutchison and top prospect Aaron Sanchez have struggled while flashing signs of their potential. Rookie Daniel Norris has already been optioned to the minors while veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle have struggled.

It may be a stretch to suggest anything about an entire season two weeks into May, but I don’t think the Jays would be opposed to the idea of having 150 innings of league average performance from Happ in the rotation.

When healthy, Saunders has proved to be a decent player. He hasn’t been able to stay on the field with the Jays as of yet and has the remainder of this year and an additional year of eligibility to prove himself. Happ could be in the midst of a career year on the eve of free agency. He could also turn into a pumpkin by month’s end.

Despite how the trade may or may not have looked on paper five months ago the early returns suggest that the Mariners have taken the lead in this deal.…

Dustin Ackley, John Jaso

After falling one win short of a postseason berth in 2014, the Seattle Mariners have spent their off-season attempting to improve themselves in their two weakest areas; offensive production and the outfield. Adding outfielders Nelson Cruz, Justin Ruggiano, and Seth Smith during the off-season and Austin Jackson at last year’s trading deadline improves their offensive outlook and  dramatically transforms the team’s outfield situation.

By adding these players and turning the page on Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, and Abraham Almonte, the Mariners are certain to have two different starting outfielders and a different designated hitter on April 6th when they open the season against the Los Angeles Angels. The lone holdover from Opening Day 2014 appears to be left fielder Dustin Ackley.

Ever since Ackley posted a .273/.348/.417 triple slash and hit a team-leading seven triples in just 90 games during his 2011 debut season, Mariners faithful have been waiting for the former North Carolina Tar Heel to become a mainstay in Seattle’s lineup. Unfortunately for the Mariners and the number two overall pick in the June 2009 Amateur Draft, he hasn’t approached those heights again.

How much time is enough?
Young players need experience, plus the patience and support of their organization to adjust to playing in the major leagues so they can eventually flourish. For example, Kyle Seager struggled during his 53 game debut in 2011, but has incrementally improved with each passing season and is now one of the best third baseman in either league. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value and future role have normally become clear. This is not an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to have that conversation.

For most of Seattle’s core of young position players, it’s too early to determine their long term value or role due to their relatively low amount of major league service time. It’s a challenging proposition for a team with designs on making their first postseason appearance since 2001; develop youngsters while attempting to contend. Among Seattle’s current crop of young players, Seager and Ackley have reached the 2,000 plate appearance mark with Logan Morrison quickly approaching that milestone.

Position Players

Consistently inconsistent
While Morrison will eventually come under similar scrutiny, Ackley is a far more enigmatic figure in Seattle thanks to being a high draft selection, quickly ascending through Seattle’s minor league system, initially being successful in the majors, and subsequently struggling since 2012. My initial perception of Ackley was that he was a slow starter who performed much better in the second half of seasons; that’s not completely accurate. Although it’s true that his overall career numbers are better in the second half, he’s both struggled and flourished during the first and second half of different seasons. I believe that best way to describe his offensive production is “consistently inconsistent.”

To better illustrate that point, I decided to use his month-by-month on-base plus slugging (OPS) because OPS is a metric that takes into account a player’s ability to make contact, their plate discipline, and their power. Although the league average for OPS fluctuates from year-to-year, the league-average hovers near .730. Fangraphs provides the following table as a reference for assessing a player’s performance based on their OPS.

OPS Ratings

With the exception of his torrid 2011 debut season, Ackley has been limited to bursts of productivity surrounded by longer periods of ineffectiveness. Since the start of the 2012 season, he’s been significantly below the major league average for OPS in all but four months and has only been over league-average for two consecutive months once; July and August of 2014. Since 2012, his OPS has been below-average for each season.

Ackley career OPS

The .286 OPS for June 2013 is not a typo, but it’s important to note that he only played in three games in that month after spending most of the month at AAA-Tacoma in an attempt to regain his swing. The main reason for his quick return was an injury to outfielder Franklin Gutiérrez.

Possible turning point?
So, what changed and led to Ackley putting together his best OPS in consecutive months and best overall half-season since 2011? Perhaps, it was a change to his batting stance. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill touched on mechanical adjustments made by the left-handed hitter in two July 2014 tweets.

My interpretation of those comments are that, thanks to the changes made at the plate, Ackley was able to handle middle-away pitches better by being closer to the plate and by closing his batting stance. The July 24 picture illustrates the changes, which may be the underlying reason for Ackley’s resurgence in July and August.

After July 15th, Ackley was 23rd in the American League (AL) in OPS for the remainder of the season, finishing ahead of teammates Cruz (25) and Seager (41).

September swoon
Despite his mid-season adjustments, Ackley’s performance fell off considerably in September when he posted a .149/.205/.299 triple slash during 18 games. One contributor to his September decline were bone spurs in his left ankle that hampered him and resulted in him missing four games. This isn’t the first time that Ackley has experienced problems with bone spurs; he had surgery to remove bone spurs after the 2012 season. At that time, it was believed that the spurs affected Ackley’s ability to push off at home plate and to run the bases.

During this off-season, he visited an ankle specialist who made recommendations to the team on how to handle the situation going forward. Every indication from the team is that Ackley is physically ready to go and will be played frequently during Spring Training by manager Lloyd McClendon. The question that lingers going into 2015 is whether his September struggles were injury-induced or a regression back to previous consistency.

2015 role with Mariners
The general consensus among fans and national pundits has been that Ackley will be Seattle’s Opening Day left fielder barring injury; that’s not necessarily certain though. During his January 17th Hot Stove Report podcast for 1090 The Fan, Jason discussed General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s comments about the left field position on the Steve Sandmeyer Show. Zduriencik stated that he and manager Lloyd McClendon plan to “put the best club on the field whatever that is.”

“To say that anyone is on scholarship or somebody’s got something locked in, they’ve got to prove it in Spring Training.”
— Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on The Steve Sandmeyer Show

To me, Zduriencik’s comments open the door to the possibly using Smith in left field against tough southpaws or even Ackley losing left field playing time to either Ruggiano or James Jones. I don’t McClendon will proclaim Ackley as his left fielder early in Spring Training as he did last February.

There’s a clear benefit to using the left-handed hitting Smith over Ackley against southpaws. Smith’s 2014 OPS against left-handed pitchers was appreciably better than Ackley’s. Smith’s career OPS versus lefties is lower than Ackley’s, but the 32-year-old veteran has been far more productive and consistent than Ackley during his eight-year career.

Smith-Ackley OPS vs LHP

Conclusion
With the exception of his 2011 debut season, Dustin Ackley has struggled to sustain long periods of average to above-average production and hasn’t matched the lofty expectations placed upon him after being selected one pick after Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft. If the soon-to-be 27-year-old doesn’t continue his 2014 second half performance into 2015, the team should transition in a new direction just as they did with first baseman Justin Smoak. After entering last season with 1942 plate appearances, Smoak was waived by Seattle after playing in 80 games and 276 plate appearances in 2014.

If Ackley’s 2014 mechanical adjustments are a permanent fix, he’s best suited to be part of a left field platoon and play primarily against right-handed pitching. The thought of Ackley being a part-time player will disappoint many Seattle fans. However, being a platoon player gives him the best opportunity to repeat his 2.1 fWAR value and help the team contend for the AL West crown.

 

 

 …

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners

For over five years, the Seattle Mariners’ offensive output has hampered the team from being considered competitive at the start of the regular season. Consequently, the organization has spent the past two years aggressively courting offensive player-makers capable of leading the team to their first postseason berth since 2001. The arrival of 2014 American League (AL) home run leader Nelson Cruz and the complimentary bats of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano should bolster the Mariners’ offense. But, will these acquisitions be enough to let Seattle emerge as a serious contender for the AL West division championship in 2015? Based on the team’s low offensive production over the last half-decade, there are several reasons for observers to have reservations.

A history of offensive futility
Since 2008, the Mariners have languished near the bottom of the AL in almost every offensive category. Despite the best efforts of the organization’s leadership, Seattle’s run production has remained stagnate with very little improvement over the past three years. Even the addition of perennial all-star Robinson Cano and the offensive emergence of Kyle Seager didn’t help propel the 2014 Mariners’ offensive output. They struggled in every element of run production; getting on base, advancing base runners, and driving in runners.

Mariners 2014 Run Production vs American League
Statistic SEA Rank AL Best AL Worst
Runs 12 LAA TBR
Hits 14 DET HOU
Home Runs 10 BAL KCR
Walks
14 OAK KCR
Stolen Bases 8 KCR BAL
AVG 13 DET HOU
OBP 15 DET SEA
SLG 12 DET TBR
OPS 15 DET SEA
Base running (BsR) 12 KCR CWS
Weighted Stolen Bases (wSB) 9 KCR TEX
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) 12 DET TEX

Getting on base is paramount
Seattle has posted the worst on-base percentage (OBP) in the AL in the six out of the last seven years. Recently, league-average OBP has hovered near .320. Only three Mariners with more than 250 plate appearances surpassed that milestone in 2014; Cano (.382), Seager (.334), and Michael Saunders (334). Only Cano and Seager were full-time players and Saunders has since been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Mariners’ offensive challenges were not solely isolated to hitting the ball; they were 14th in the league in hits and walks.

Mariners OBP (2009-2014)
Year OBP League Avg AL Rank
2014 .300 .316 15 (last)
2013 .306 .320 13
2012 .296  .320 14 (last)
2011 .292 .323 14 (last)
2010
.298 .327 14 (last)
2009 .314 .336 14 (last)

Adding Cruz, Smith, and Ruggiano is bound to help the team’s ability to create scoring opportunities. Yet, the level of improvement that these three players will deliver is unclear. Cruz posted a .333 OBP in 2014, which is on-par with the 2014 performance of Seager and Saunders. However, the 34-year-old slugger’s career OBP during 204 Safeco plate appearances is only .309. There’s no doubt that Cruz will dramatically improve the designated hitter position and even a sub-par 2015 by his standards would be a dramatic improvement over the ineffective production supplied by 2014 Mariner designated hitters.

Smith, who recorded a .367 OBP while playing his home games in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, appears to be the most likely of the three to flourish in Seattle. The left-handed outfielder has a career .361 OBP during 61 plate appearances in Seattle. Ruggiano has only had exceeded 400 plate appearances once since debuting with Tampa in 2007 and possesses a league average .319 OBP. A potential Smith/Ruggiano right field platoon has the potential to be effective, although subtracting the Mariners’ third best position player (Saunders) lessens the benefit of adding this tandem.

Driving the baseball 
Seattle was slightly better at slugging than getting on base, although they also underachieved in this category placing 12th in the AL in extra base hits. Cano and Seager led the team with a .454 slugging percentage (SLG) with Saunders close behind at .450. The only other teammates who met or exceeded .400 were Logan Morrison (.420) and Mike Zunino (.400). The Mariners will benefit from the arrival of Cruz’s .440 SLG at Safeco.

Running the bases
Team speed has not been a key element to Seattle’s offensive strategy. Fan Graphs’ base running metric (BsR) considers how many times a base runner has stolen a base, been caught stealing, took an extra base, and was thrown out while running the bases. The Mariners were 12th in BsR and finished near the middle of the pack in stolen bases. Outfielder James Jones accounted for 28 percent of the team’s stolen bases despite posting a sub-par .278 OBP.  The 26-year-old speedster was effective at advancing himself on the bases when he was able to get on base, which was not often enough for him to be considered a dependable weapon.

The Safeco effect
Safeco Field, always considered to be one of the most pitcher-friendly stadiums in the majors with a reputation for suppressing right-handed power, is certainly a contributor to Seattle’s offensive woes. However, it’s possible for a team to flourish in Safeco. The most obvious example would be the 2001 Mariners team that led the league in multiple offensive categories.  The 2002 and 2003 versions of the team also did well, proving that it’s possible to field a successful offense in the Emerald City.

Since Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) adjusts for a stadium’s impact and permits comparison of a player’s offensive contribution, using wRC+ can help provide insight into the effectiveness of Seattle hitters. Of the 12 Mariners with more than 250 plate appearances in 2014, only four were above the league-average wRC+ of 100. This suggests that the Mariners’ recent offensive woes are more attributable to an insufficient number of productive hitters than the dimensions of Safeco Field. Fortunately, the wRC+ of Cruz (137), Smith (133), and Ruggiano (113) indicates that Seattle has acquired three player capable of improving the team’s offensive production.

2014 Mariners wRC+ (250 or more plate appearances)
Player wRC+
Robinson Cano 136
Kyle Seager 126
Michael Saunders 126
Logan Morrison 110
League average
100
Dustin Ackley 97
Endy Chavez 97
Mike Zunino 86
Brad Miller 86
Austin Jackson 85
Justin Smoak 77
Corey Hart 70
James Jones 68

How did Seattle win so many games?
Simply stated, the Mariners recorded their most wins since 2007 by having one of the most effective pitching staffs in the majors; perhaps the best. Seattle’s prolific pitching compensated for their low run production. A statistic that illustrates the relationship between the team’s run production and run prevention is run differential (runs scored – runs allowed). It’s important to note that run differential only totals the combined efforts of run creation and run prevention. The goal of every team is to outscore the opposition; how they accomplish this goal depends on the strengths and weaknesses of their roster.

Mariners Run Differential  (2009-2014)
Year Runs/Gm Runs Allowed/Gm  Run Diff/Gm Wins Runs/Game (AL)
2014 3.91 3.42 .49 87 13
2013 3.85 4.65 -.8 71 12
2012 3.82  4.02 -.18 75 14 (last)
2011 3.43 4.17 -.74 67 14 (last)
2010
3.17 4.31 -1.14 61 14 (last)
2009 3.95 4.27 -.32 85 14 (last)

Recording a positive run differential for a season increases the likelihood of winning although having a run differential in the red doesn’t automatically doom a team’s season, nor does a possessing a positive differential guarantee winning. Look no further than the 2009 Mariners, who had a winning season and a negative run differential. More recently, the 2014 New York Yankees had a winning record and a negative differential, while the cross town rival Mets were in the black and only registered 79 wins. On the other hand, no team has made the postseason with a negative run differential since the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks.

Run Prevention
The Mariners’ were exceptional at preventing the opposition from scoring by being near the top of nearly every major pitching category and being adequate in other run prevention components, such as defensive runs saved (DRS) and the percentage of runners caught stealing (CS%).

Where the Seattle’s offense suffered, the pitching staff shined. Mariner pitchers surrendered the fewest hits and runs in the league and faced the second fewest hitters while recording the lowest staff Earned Run Average (ERA) and opponent’s batting average (BAA). If opponents were fortunate enough to reach base, staff hurlers were third best at stranding them on-base. The bullpen was even more impressive leaving 80.7 percent of runners on-base; seven percent better than second place Kansas City.

Mariners Run Prevention vs American League
Statistic SEA Rank AL Best AL Worst
Runs Allowed/Game 1 SEA MIN
Fewest Hits Allowed 1 SEA MIN
Fewest Walks Allowed 6 NYY CWS
Opponent Batting Avg (BAA)
1 SEA MIN
Opponent OBP
2 OAK MIN
Runners Left On Base % 2 BAL MIN
Runners Caught Stealing % 10 MIN NYY
Defensive Runs Saved 6 DET CWS

Conclusion
Despite being straddled with a lackluster offense in 2014, the Seattle Mariners barely missed a postseason berth thanks to their outstanding pitching staff, which surrendered fewer runs than any Mariners staff has during the Safeco Field era. With that in mind, would the team be better served to use their remaining resources to secure a top or middle-of-the-rotation starter and/or add more depth to the bullpen? Essentially, reinforce their strength in order to overshadow their weakness. Exploring this option should be considered.

Seattle has struggled with generating offense for over five years and adding Cruz, Smith, and Ruggiano are positive steps towards reversing that trend. However, these three new acquisitions combined with the yet-to-be-determined improvement of Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, and Logan Morrison may not prevent the Mariners’ offense from hovering near the four runs-per-game mark and continue to be below league-average. Augmenting the roster with another average or slightly-above-average hitter would be beneficial, but probably not enough to propel the team into serious contention for the division championship. That’s why Seattle should consider adding more pitching, unless they plan to use their remaining resources to acquired an established all-star caliber offensive talent.…

Max ScherzerAs the calendar turns into January, the hot stove typically cools until pitchers and catchers report in February. Although in recent years, including this one, a high-profile Scott Boras client has remained unsigned and figures to be a talking point for the next couple weeks. James Shields is also available, but Max Scherzer is the big fish that has yet to find a home.

The Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees are the most discussed landing spots for Scherzer, and one can’t count out the Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers. Any of those four clubs, as well as the San Francisco Giants, could be potential fits for Shields too. One team that hasn’t been connected to either of the aces, for a myriad of sensible reasons, is the Seattle Mariners.

A rotation topped with Felix Hernandez doesn’t require the addition of a true No. 1 in the same way the rotation of the Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays do. Hisashi Iwakuma in the No. 2 slot gives the club one of the best one-two punches in the game. If James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are able to pitch up to their top-of-the-rotation stuff, the M’s could easily have the best rotation in the American League.

For a team that’s already boosted payroll beyond $110 million for the upcoming season, including a pair of players earning north of $24 million annually, spending big on a starter doesn’t make much sense. The addition of Nelson Cruz already marks a significant expenditure this winter.

Realistically, if there’s a sizeable hole on this ball club it’s that the lineup could use one more significant addition, not the rotation.

That’s probably why we haven’t seen the Mariners involved with Scherzer and Shields or Jon Lester before he signed with the Chicago Cubs. The need for frontline pitching really isn’t there. However the goal for the M’s this winter was to improve the roster. Arguably that can be done at any position not held by Felix, Robinson Cano, or Kyle Seager.

And the M’s have the resources to do so.

I don’t want to suggest investing heavily in Scherzer or Shields is the right thing for Seattle to do right now. Safeco Field could set Happ up for a career year, Paxton was excellent when healthy last season, and Elias has another season of professional ball under his belt. Walker is a bit more of a wild card given his struggles last year with injury and effectiveness but showed flashes of brilliance at the end of the season.

There’s strength in the rotation with some significant upside. Even if Elias shows some signs of regression, perhaps this is the year Walker puts it all together.

This is more an exercise to show that the Mariners do have the financial flexibility to make another big move, should they choose to. Acquiring another starter over the next calendar year may become necessity given the uncertainty that will eventually come. The following is a glance at the contract situations for the Mariners starting pitchers.

Mariners SP Salaries

Salaries for pre-arbitration players typically fall between $500,000 and $600,000 but I was purposely generous with the amounts — $500,000 for first year, $600,000 for second, and $700,000 for third. It’s also not exactly clear how much cash the Blue Jays will be including to complete the Michael Saunders trade. Reportedly it will amount to the difference between Happ and Saunders’ salary. The outfielder is arbitration-eligible and is projected to earn around $4 million in 2015.

The part that stands out most in that chart is the $13.7 million set to come off the books with the impending free agency of Iwakuma and Happ. It’s too early to speculate on Iwakuma’s future with the club. He is an extension candidate but there have been no reported talks this winter. Same goes for Happ, though the former seems to be the one more likely to be extended of the two.

For example’s sake, let’s assume that the two will depart as free agents. Another $7 million will be taken off the books as closer Fernando Rodney’s contract will expire after the 2015 season as well. That’s approximately $20 million that will be freed up on the pitching side of things alone.

Shields figures to command an annual salary around the $20 million mark for his next deal and Scherzer is aiming to top the $25 million Lester will earn over the course of his new deal. Seattle could add a $25 million salary to the books in 2016 given the payroll that figures to be shed. Add in the influx of television money and holding three and eventually four salaries — remember the Seager extension — in the $20 million range in 2017 and beyond is feasible.

As it has been noted before, the incoming television money is significant. A future payroll in the $150 million range is palpable. Whether or not ownership is willing to earmark that much to player salary remains to be seen, however. The one thing we do know is that these financial resources will be used in some capacity or another; for example, significant upgrades to the Spring Training facility in Peoria.

[pullquote]Earlier in the winter, Prospect Insider profiled the pair of free agent starters. Scherzer’s profile can be seen here, and Shields’ here.[/pullquote]

The problem with adding one of these starters may be in the present. Payroll is already set to increase for the upcoming season and it’s unclear exactly how much more ownership is open to spending. The club was willing to pay Melky Cabrera $14 million or so in each of the next three seasons, but that was before acquiring Seth Smith. The left-hander will earn $6 million in 2015.

Justin Ruggiano, previously acquired from the Cubs, is projected to earn between $2 and 3 million through arbitration as well. Between the two outfielder most of the Cabrera money has already been eaten up.

GM Jack Zduriencik has gone on record saying that ownership is willing to give the green light to the right payroll-adding transaction. But adding another $20 million to the 2015 payroll doesn’t seem likely. Of course the club could backload a deal to make the cost palatable in the short-term, but there’s no evidence to suggest Shields or Scherzer are willing to do that right now.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that Shields may in fact have a five-year contract worth more than $100 million in hand right now and is seeking a higher guarantee. If the dollars get crazy like that then obviously the M’s would be wiser to abstain. Just because there is money to spend doesn’t mean that it should be spent haphazardly. Zduriencik and company obviously have some sort of plan in place, and Shields isn’t the type of pitcher worth blowing it up for.

Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill and Alex Carson addressed the Mariners payroll situation and potential interest in Shields and Scherzer on this past week’s edition of The Hot Stove Report. The conclusion drawn was that a fit between the two sides is unlikely at this point in time. Adding significant payroll also doesn’t appear imminent given the sizeable increase from Opening Day 2014.

Right now the bulk of what will be the 2015 Seattle Mariners roster appears to be in place. The addition of a back-up catcher and some pitching depth are the most likely tasks to be perpetrated over the coming weeks.

The Mariners aren’t likely to make another big splash this winter, but at least it’s nice to know that they could if they wanted to.…

Blue Jays Mariners BaseballThe Seattle Mariners fell tantalizingly short of making the 2014 postseason by just one game, which has led to high 2015 expectations by many in the national media and within the Mariners’ fan base. Many pundits and fans have hailed that the addition of slugger Nelson Cruz as the move that will get Seattle over the hump and into the postseason for the first time since 2001, while others believe that the team still needs one more bat to ensure contention.

While Cruz will certainly help Seattle improve and adding another slugger is a need, the Mariners need to improve at numerous positions in 2015. Otherwise, they’ll be no better than a fringe contender.

Reasons for optimism
It’s easy to see why there’s a positive outlook by so many when you look at the Mariners’ standing amongst American League (AL) teams that had 85 or more wins. Seattle was sixth overall in the AL for team-total wins above replacement (WAR) only trailing the five teams that made the postseason. That’s great and can be attributed to the team’s strong pitching staff, outstanding performance by Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, and value delivered by the Brad Miller/Chris Taylor platoon at shortstop.

WAR for 85+ Win AL Teams
Team WAR
Wins
Los Angeles Angels (LAA) 46.8
98
Baltimore Orioles (BAL) 46.8 96
Oakland Athletics (OAK) 45.6 88
Detroit Tigers (DET) 41.5 90
Kansas City Royals (KCR) 40.5
89
Seattle Mariners (SEA) 39.5
87
Cleveland Indians (CLE)
38.2
85

Projecting Opening Day lineup
If no more significant moves are made and barring injury, it’s very plausible that Seattle’s 2015 Opening Day lineup could be very similar to the starting lineup for the last game of the 2014 season. The team will definitely have new faces at designated hitter (DH) and in right field (RH). Other than shortstop where Miller could start in place of Taylor, everyone else may be the same. Does anyone believe that changing those two faces will make Seattle a serious contender?

Mariners starting lineup on last day of 2014 season
CF Austin Jackson
LF Dustin Ackley
2B Robinson Cano
DH Kendrys Morales/Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
1B Logan Morrison
RF Michael Saunders/Justin Ruggiano
C Mike Zunino
SS Chris Taylor (Brad Miller could replace him)
SP Felix Hernandez

So, where does this team need to improve? Looking at a team’s WAR, by position, helps illuminate areas requiring improvement. In this article, WAR refers to the base-reference.com computation of a player’s value. The position value illustrated below incorporates every player who played that particular position during the 2014 season. The players’ contributions are pro-rated by the plate appearances (PA) they had while playing that position. For example, second base is calculated by including the values of Cano (630 PA), Willie Bloomquist (24), Nick Franklin (19), and Miller (15) who all played the position in 2014. Obviously, Cano’s value drive the positional value at second base.  But, there are other positions such as first base, shortstop, and the outfield positions that had multiple players with significant playing time.

Team WAR Value by Position (American League)
RNK SP RP
C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF OF DH
1 DET 16.5
CLE 8.2
CLE 5.5
DET 4.9
SEA 6.1 TEX 7.4
LAA 3.8
KCR 6.5
LAA 7.6
OAK 4.6
LAA 14.1
DET 4.9
2 SEA 13.8
KCR 7.7
OAK 4.0
BAL 4.1
HOU 6.1
OAK 6.7
BAL 3.7
BAL 5.2
BAL 5.0
LAA 4.5
KCR 13.7 BAL 3.9
3 TBR 13.2
SEA 7.5
KCR 2.7
TOR 3.6
BOS 5.5
SEA 5.6
TOR 3.0
CLE 4.2
CHW 5.0
TOR 4.2
BAL 13.1
BOS 3.0
4 CLE 12.4
OAK 6.5
LAA 2.6
CHW 3.3
DET 5.4
MIN 3.9
CHW 3.0
NYY 3.7
TBR 4.8
BOS 3.0
OAK 10.2
TOR 2.7
5 KCR 12.3
NYY 6.0
CHW 2.5
BOS 3.0
MIN 5.3
BAL 3.5
CLE 2.6
DET 3.4
KCR 4.6
BAL 2.9
TBR 9.5
HOU 1.9
6 HOU 11.8
BAL 5.6
NYY 2.5
LAA 2.7
LAA 5.3
TBR 3.3
SEA 2.6
OAK 3.3
TEX 4.2
HOU 2.8
TOR 9.2
OAK 1.6
7
OAK 11.4
DET 5.3
HOU 2.4
OAK 1.8
TBR 2.6
NYY 3.3
KCR 2.4
TOR 3.3
NYY 3.8
KCR 2.6
NYY 8.0
LAA 1.4
8 LAA 10.9
BOS 4.8
MIN 2.0
NYY 1.6
NYY 1.9
TOR 2.0
MIN 2.1
TBR 2.8
MIN 3.2
TBR 1.9
BOS 7.4
TBR 1.3
9 TOR 10.7
TBR 4.3
BAL 1.8
TBR 1.5
TOR 1.6
CHW 1.6
HOU 1.8
LAA 2.0
CLE 3.1
DET 1.4
DET 7.0
MIN 0.8
10 CHW 9.8
MIN 4.1
TEX 1.6
CLE 1.0
BAL 1.1
CLE 1.6
OAK 1.2
BOS 2.0
HOU 2.8
SEA 1.1
HOU 6.4
CHW 0.8
11 NYY 8.8
TEX 3.7
DET 1.4
MIN 1.0
KCR 1.0
LAA 0.3
TEX 1.1
SEA 1.5
BOS 2.3
NYY 0.5
CLE 6.3
TEX 0.3
12 BAL 8.8
TOR 3.4
TOR 1.4
KCR 0.6
CLE 1.0
KCR 0.3
BOS 0.6
HOU 0.8
OAK 2.3
TEX 0.5
TEX 4.6
NYY -0.1
13 MIN 4.1
DET 2.3
SEA 0.7
SEA 0.3
OAK 0.5
BOS -0.6
TBR 0.6
TEX -0.1
DET 2.2
MIN -0.4
CHW 4.2
CLE -0.1
14
TEX 1.7
CHW 1.5
BOS 0.6
TEX -0.6
CHW 0.5
HOU -1.2
DET -0.1
CHW -0.1
TOR 1.7
CHW -0.7
SEA 3.0
SEA -0.2
15
BOS 0.8
HOU -2.4
TBR -1.1
HOU -1.3
TEX 0.5
DET -1.4
NYY -0.1
MIN -0.3
SEA 0.4
CLE -1.0
MIN 2.5
KCR -0.4
Avg 9.8 4.6 2.0 1.8 3.0 2.4 1.9 2.5 3.5 1.9 7.9 1.5

Where does Seattle need help?
The Mariners were below the AL average at six out of nine non-pitching positions. In some cases, they were among the worst in the league. Does that mean that the Mariners need to make sweeping changes? No. But, Seattle will need to improve considerably to be a serious contender for the AL West title. Take a look at each position to see where there are opportunities to improve internally and where there is help needed from outside the organization.

Catcher
Seattle is content with going forward with Mike Zunino, who had the majority of plate appearances ((472) for the catcher position. Although his value was below league average, it’s important to note that the 23-year-old has only played in 279 major and minor league games since graduating from the University of Florida in 2012. The Mariners’ belief in their young receiver is well placed; Zunino struggled at the plate in 2014 while demonstrating impressive right-handed power and is a superb receiver. It’s realistic to expect that he will continue to add more value to the position in 2015.

Zunino shared the position with John Buck, Humberto Quintero, and Jesus Sucre who provided minimal value to the position; the three backups provided a replacement level value of .2 WAR, with all of that coming from Sucre. Adding a better backup would help improve the position’s value, reduce risk if Zunino were to miss prolonged time due to injury, and ensure that the starting catcher doesn’t get worn down during the season.

First base
Logan Morrison provided the most value (1.4 WAR) of all Mariner first basemen in 2014. Actually, he’s the only Mariner first baseman who had a positive value at the position. Once he supplanted Justin Smoak at first base, “Lo-Mo” posted an impressive .284/.341/.448 triple slash in the second half of the season. If he can stay healthy, it’s reasonable to assume that the position’s value will increase in 2015. Staying on the field has been a problem for Morrison during his five-year career; the most games he’s played were 123 in 2011. So, having a competent backup is a must.

Left field
Only the Minnesota Twin’s outfield ranked worse that the Mariners’ in 2014. In left field, Dustin Ackley provided near-starter 1.9 WAR after a strong second half delivering a .783 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Despite his second half resurgence, Ackley’s .212/.255/.298 season record against left-hand pitching demonstrates that more help is needed.

Center field
After trading for center fielder Austin Jackson at the July 31st trading deadline, the Mariners had to be disappointed in his offensive performance during the postseason push. In Jackson’s defense, his .1 WAR for August and September was only a small part of Seattle’s lack of value in center field. James Jones and Abraham Almonte patrolled center field for 111 games and delivered a combined 0.0 WAR. Improvement in center field will hinge on Austin’s ability to bounce back although it should be noted that his 2014 WAR with the Detroit Tigers was a substitute level 1.7.

Right field
In right field, the Mariner who provided the most value was Michael Saunders, who was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for J. A. Happ. His 2.4 WAR value easily exceeded than the combined value of Endy Chavez and Stefen Romero (-1.1) who had a combined 281 plate appearances compared to Saunders’ (220) in right field. The addition of Justin Ruggiano is a positive step. But, it’s unlikely that his contributions will significantly improve outfield value unless he’s used in a platoon role. . Improving right field is an incomplete project for General Manage Jack Zduriencik.

Designated hitter
Adding Cruz instantly makes DH better. Even if he provides half of his 2014 value in 2015, he’ll be significantly better than the every 2014 Mariners’ DH combined.

Holding strong in previous areas of strength
Areas of strength in 2014 are not necessarily guaranteed to repeat in 2015. Barring injury, Cano and Seager should be safe to deliver excellence again. Also, shortstop should be better than last year assuming that the young tandem of Miller or Taylor continues to improve. The bullpen is in good shape too because most of their best arms are young. On the other hand, the young arms of the team’s starting rotation could add risk.

Starting pitching
In some circles, there’s a perception that Seattle has a deep starting pitching core. It’s true that the Mariners’ pitchers are talented and/or have tremendous upside. But, going into the season without adding more depth could come back haunt Seattle if any of their pitchers are lost due to injury; particularly Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Remember, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan, and Tom Wilhelmsen started 14.8% of all Seattle Mariners’ games in 2014. The addition of J. A. Happ helps, but he has only pitched over 160 innings once in his career; 166 in 2009. Considering that Elias, Paxton, and Walker averaged a full inning/start less than King Felix and Kuma (5.65 vs. 6.67), adding another veteran pitcher who can eat innings would help take pressure off of the bullpen.

Conclusion
The Mariners will need improved value from Zunino, Morrison, Ackley, Jackson, their right fielder, and their young starting pitchers in 2015 if they want to contend for a playoff spot. But, Seattle isn’t ready to compete for the AL West title with their current roster, at least not without either marked improvements from 1-2 of the incumbent young players, or incremental improvements from a number of them. Getting more from catcher, first base, left/right field, and from the starting rotation is paramount for a team that wants to play deep into October.

Final thought
It’s important to note that Mariners pitchers and catchers don’t report until February 20th and the regular season doesn’t start until April 6th so there’s plenty of time left to upgrade.  But, there’s a lot more to do before Opening Day.…

Justin RuggianoThe Seattle Mariners added another right-handed bat to their roster today with the acquisition of outfielder Justin Ruggiano from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for minor league pitcher Matt Brazis. The former Cub had a .281/.337/.429 triple slash during an injury-plagued 2014.

Intense trade rumors have swirled around the Mariners for the past 24 hours after Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com reported that the Seattle was close to trading for a hitter.

Although  it’s uncertain if a larger deal is imminent, adding Ruggiano definitely addresses an area of need for Seattle; outfield depth and value. Since the end of the season, Seattle has parted ways with free agents Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia and traded Michael Saunders to the Toronto Blue Jays.  On top of that, recently-signed Nelson Cruz is expected to be the primary designated hitter in 2015 and will only play the outfield sparingly.

The departure of Chavez, Denorfia, and Saunders provides General Manager Jack Zduriencik with an opportunity to upgrade a Mariners outfield that ranked near the bottom of the American League in 2014. Although Ruggiano only provided substitute-level value in 2014,  Saunders and Dustin Ackley were the only Seattle outfielders who exceeded his .4 fWAR.

Ruggiano, who is capable of playing all three outfield positions, provides manager Lloyd McClendon with additional roster flexibility. In 2014, he played 38 games in the corner outfield spots, while patrolling centerfield for 18 games. He could be used as a part of a right field platoon or team with Ackley in left.

The Austin, Texas native can also serve as a right-handed bat off of the bench; he had a .296 batting average during 29 pinch hitting appearances in 2014. Ruggiano has hit second thru ninth in the batting order, although nearly half of his 2014 plate appearances were in the two hole, posting a .327 batting average.

Throughout his relatively short major league career, Ruggiano has performed well against left-handed pitching with a career .836 on-base plus slugging (OPS).  He continued that success against southpaws in 2014 with a.305/.333/.512 triple slash, while posting a respectable .268/.340/.380 against righties.

The 32-year-old has made several trips to the disabled list (DL) during his career. In 2011, he lost 23 games to knee bursitis. In 2014, he had two stints on the DL missing 66 games due to groin, hamstring, and ankle issues. The ankle injury led to season-ending surgery in August.

Entering his second year of arbitration eligibility, Ruggiano is projected to make $2.5 million after earning $2 million in 2014. His addition will be more costly Denorfia ($2.1 million in 2014) and Chavez ($750,000).

Justin Ruggiano isn’t going to replace Michael Saunders and he isn’t the offensive boost that the Mariners or their fans desire.  But, he is a younger and better version of Denorfia and Chavez and he’ll improve the outfield’s depth and overall value provided he recovers well from his ankle surgery.…

Marlon ByrdThe outfield market was thin to begin with and after a couple transactions during the Winter Meetings, it is now even thinner. The Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to trade Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres and the Boston Red Sox dealt Yoenis Cespedes to the Detroit Tigers. Kemp in particular was a target of the Seattle Mariners who reportedly had a deal in place that would have sent Brad Miller and Michael Saunders to LA for the outfielder and cash.

We have already heard that there is some talk surrounding Dayan Viciedo, a former target of the Mariners, and perhaps they may take a second look at another former player of interest: Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd.

The 37-year old outfielder is coming off consecutive seasons with above average power numbers. Between 2013 and 2014 Byrd has hit 49 home runs and 63 doubles. His batting average took a hit in 2014 however, dropping his wRC+ to 109 compared to a solid 137 in 2013. Given Byrd’s age the decline in performance was not unexpected. He was a 4.1 fWAR player in 2013, a 1.9 fWAR player in 2014, and Steamer projects him to be just above replacement level in 2015 at 0.4 fWAR.

His right-handed bat would still play well in the Mariners lineup, presumably in the No. 6 spot between Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison. The Mariners offseason quest for right-handed hitters saw some resolve when Nelson Cruz was brought onboard. But with Dustin Ackley, Robinson Cano, Brad Miller, Seager, and Morrison expected to play regular roles, the lineup is still heavy on the left side.

While Byrd isn’t a great defender he hasn’t been abysmal in the outfield recently. He was credited with 18 defensive runs saved between 2013 and 2014 and has routinely posted an UZR rating just above the zero mark. The presence of Nelson Cruz, who’s a much worse defender, will limit the number of at bats Byrd could see at designated hitter. Although the free agent splash is likely to still get some time in the field, possibly spending 25 percent of his playing time there.

One of Seattle’s keys to success in 2014 was the strong defence behind the even better pitching staff. Collectively Mariner right fielders were credited with two DRS on the season. The now departed Michael Saunders logged approximately one third of the club’s innings in right. The Canadian’s strong defensive play was offset by the below average performances of Endy Chavez and Stefen Romero who filled in while Saunders was hurt. Byrd has an average throwing arm, but would hurt the Mariners overall defence much less than one may think.

Byrd can hit, get by on defence, and has a relatively affordable contract. He is due $8 million in 2015 and won’t turn 38 until August 30. The problem, as it was at this past year’s trade deadline, is the 2016 vesting option. Byrd’s option — also for $8 million — will vest with 1,100 plate appearances between 2014 and 2015 or 600 plate appearances in 2016. Otherwise it simply becomes a club option with no buyout. He made 637 plate appearances in 2015 meaning he needs to step into the batter’s box just 463 times in 2015 for that option to vest. This should be very manageable provided Byrd stays healthy the entire year.

Also included in Byrd’s contract is a no-trade provision that allows the outfielder to block trades to four teams. Prior to the trade deadline, it was reported that both the Mariners and Kansas City Royals were on that list and Byrd would only waive his rights if the acquiring club were to guarantee his vesting option for 2016.

Prospect Insider has learned that Byrd changed at least one of the four clubs on his no-trade list at the completion of the season. Whether or not he can still block a trade to the M’s is unknown, but there is no evidence to assume he’s removed Seattle from the four teams.

[pullquote]The most prominent trade between the M’s and Phils in recent history was in 2009 when Seattle dealt three marginal prospects for Cliff Lee. One of the better deals GM Jack Zduriencik has made.[/pullquote]

More often than not these no-trade clauses are more about creating player-leverage than an actual playing preference. Byrd was completely willing to come to the Pacific Northwest in July, but only if the M’s agreed to pay him in 2016, too. How far those trade talks ended up going remain to be seen.

The Phillies officially began a rebuild phase when they dealt veterans Jimmy Rollins and Antonio Bastardo during the Winter Meetings. It is believed that Cole Hamels will be the next player to go. The club is also looking to deal Ryan Howard and his albatross contract. Byrd is very much available, at the right price.

So far only the Baltimore Orioles have been connected to Byrd with a meeting between the O’s and Phillies took place during the Winter Meetings where the outfielder was discussed. It’s unclear what the Phillies are looking for in return, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. won’t give his outfielder away to save cash or open a spot.

His club is probably not looking for any type of player in particular other than prospects or a major leaguer with significant club control. The trade of Rollins does open up the middle of the infield and create further uncertainty on the left side. Brad Miller has seen his name pop up in several trade rumors — including conversations regarding Ian Desmond of the Washington Nationals — but is too much to give up for an aging outfielder. Chris Taylor is also expected to be held on to unless there is a bigger return. Katel Marte could be of interest to the Phillies as the prospect has seen is stock rise greatly in the past year.

The Mariners seem more likely to be willing to trade prospects that are still at least a year or two away from the major leagues. Outfielders Gabriel Guerrero and Austin Wilson could be of interest as well as pitchers Victor Sanchez and Tyler Pike. Catcher John Hicks could also make sense for the Phillies who have veteran backstop Carlos Ruiz under contract for two more years with no clear succession plan.

Philadelphia is reportedly willing to include cash in a deal if it improves the return. Seattle is more than capable of handling Byrd’s $8 million salary in both 2015 and 2016. There is also enough mid-level prospect depth to deal a Wilson or a Pike and not hurt the health of the system.

For what it’s worth, even if Byrd didn’t require his 2016 option to be guaranteed in a deal he would waive his no-trade clause for, there is a very good chance he’ll make enough plate appearances for the option to vest. It certainly is risky to give the guarantee, but $8 million isn’t much more than the $6 million plus incentives Seattle agreed to pay Corey Hart in 2014.

If the Mariners can work out a reasonable trade for Byrd, they shouldn’t let his option be a deterrent. On the free agent market Nick Markakis got a four-year, $44 million commitment from the Atlanta Braves and veteran Torii Hunter will earn $10.5 million for the 2015 season. The cost of free agents will not be going down any time soon and Byrd will only have to be a fringe-average player to equate his salary in terms of free agent value.

Byrd will help the Mariners in 2015. Right now James Jones and Romero are slated to cover right field duties and that simply isn’t good enough for a club with playoff aspirations.…

Melky CabreraWith the signing of free agent slugger Nelson Cruz official the Seattle Mariners have turned their attention to other outfielders that could potentially improve the roster. Melky Cabrera is of interest to the club, according to Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune, and could potentially fill the vacated right field hole.

This comes just days after the Mariners dealt their best all around outfielder Michael Saunders to the Toronto Blue Jays for starter JA Happ. Incidentally, Saunders will essentially fill the left field spot that was occupied by Cabrera in Toronto for the past two seasons.

Cabrera is coming off his first full season of play since 2011 and posted a .301/.351/.458 slash line with a 125 wRC+. He missed 50 games in 2012 due to a suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal and finished 2013 on the disabled list with what turned out to be a benign tumor in his lower back. Cabrera hit 16 home runs, the second highest mark of his career, and occupied the No. 2 spot in the Blue Jays order for the majority of the season.

The 30-year old is reportedly looking for a five-year deal worth more than $50 million according to Dutton, in line with previous reports that he was after a five-year deal specifically. Given his age a contract of that length is certainly feasible, but we have yet to see the market really heat up for the switch-hitter. It could very soon, however, with Cruz now locked up to a four-year, $57 million contract. Cabrera is the top remaining outfielder on the free agent market.

Cabrera would be a near-perfect addition for the top of the Mariners order as he hits from both sides of the dish and has solid on base skills. There’s also some home run pop in his bat and he hit 35 doubles last year. His 7.2 percent career walk rate isn’t particularly inspiring, but his career .286 average and .339 on base percentage could be. Especially considering the production Seattle received from Abraham Almonte, James Jones, Austin Jackson, Endy Chavez, and Dustin Ackley at the top of the lineup last year.

If the club decides to keep Ackley in left, Cabrera would logically fit on the right side. He saw regular time in center field as recently as 2011, but isn’t a great fielder overall. Cabrera is credited with minus four defensive runs saved in 2014 and hasn’t posted a positive UZR since 2009. He does have a strong arm though, and with the tumor troubles behind him, his mobility in the outfield should be as good as it has ever been. Not having to play half his games on the Rogers Center ‘turf’ in Toronto would certainly help as well.

The switch-hitter received and turned down a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays so he would require a compensatory draft pick to sign. However, after the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz and relinquished their first round pick to the Baltimore Orioles, Cabrera would cost the club their second-round pick in next June’s amateur draft.

[pullquote]Presuming Austin Jackson will hit leadoff to begin 2015, Cabrera would slot between him and Robinson Cano and provide some needed righty-lefty balance. The M’s preference is still to add another bat on the right side.[/pullquote]

Cabrera did indicate a preference to stay on the East Cost, particularly with the Blue Jays, but Dutton says that he is open to other clubs, too. He has spent time with the New York Yankees, Kansas City Royals, and San Francisco Giants aside from the Jays. It is believed that both the Royals and Giants have interest in bringing the outfielder back for a second time.

The biggest factor in bringing Cabrera to Seattle will be, as it always is, the cost. The $50 million number isn’t troubling as much as the five years might be. It’s likely that Seattle will be carrying some dead payroll weight on the back end of the Cruz deal, and considering Cabrera’s injury history and PED connection, there’s a possibility that he will present the same problem. That shouldn’t be a concern for the Mariners though, as the club has signalled a clear intention of competing in 2015.

The loss of the draft pick shouldn’t matter either. If anything, the M’s should be more inclined to add a second qualified free agent given that they’ve already given up 2015’s first round pick, making it much easier to sacrifice a second pick.

On the financial side of things the Mariners are in position to add another significant contract even after the Cruz deal. Reports indicate that Kyle Seager’s brand new extension will be slightly backloaded, as expected, and won’t take up significant space on the 2015 budget. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times asked GM Jack Zduriencik if there was still payroll flexibility available and received, “Yes, yes” as the answer. Given the club’s reported interest in Matt Kemp and Justin Upton, there is certainly room in the budget for a $15 million outfielder.

Cabrera shouldn’t have a problem receiving a four-year deal in the $50-60 million range, akin to the deal signed by Cruz, but it will likely be the team willing to go five years that signs him. We saw the same thing happen with Russell Martin. Five years isn’t terrible if the total value of the deal is between $50 and $60 million, but an average annual value of less than $13 million probably doesn’t get the deal done.

The best thing about Cabrera is that he only costs money, something the Mariners have a lot of. He’s currently projected for 1.7 fWAR in 2015 by Steamer and for comparison Kemp is projected for 2.1 fWAR and is owed $107 million over the next five years. Though the Los Angeles Dodgers are expected to include cash in any potential trade.

A five-year, $75 million contract is a steep price to pay, but certainly isn’t unrealistic at this point. Should the M’s convince Cabrera to head West, the same four-year deal that Cruz signed would be a reasonable price to pay. The fifth year is scary, but as the Mariners are going to find out very quickly, that’s often the cost of success in this industry.

Update: Jon Heyman of CBS Sports confirms the Mariners’ interest in Cabrera and reports that the club is thought to be willing to make a deal in that’s similar in value to the one Cruz signed — four-years and $57 million. Heyman points out the relationship between Cabrera and Cano as a potential point of interest as well as the relationship with Cruz. All three hail from the Dominican Republic and were teammates internationally.…

KumaThe past couple of days have been busy in the rumor mill, though the Seattle Mariners remain among the many clubs that have yet to strike a significant deal this offseason.

We did get the Michael Saunders news Monday — he changed agents, not teams (yet), and the club did announce the signing of Cuban left-hander Misael Siverio. The 25-year-old figures to provide depth in the upper minors with a shot to see the big leagues in some capacity.

Joe Beimel is a free agent, so there is a potential need for a second southpaw out of the bullpen, though the idea that two lefties are a necessity is short-sighted, in my opinion. Siverio could be among those vying for that spot in spring training.

Boston Eyeing Iwakuma?
In more significant rumors, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported Sunday that the Red Sox have at least had internal conversations about Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma is under contract for one more year at $7 million. Cafardo mentions a deal swapping ‘Kuma for Yoenis Cespedes could make sense.

In theory, yes, it does. The Mariners need offense and the Red Sox are looking for starting pitching. Beneath the surface, it’s a terrible idea for the M’s. Seattle’s rotation, as I wrote here last week, was not superb last season beyond the top two starters — Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma — and the tip candidates to fill out spots 3-5 — James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias — are far from sure bets in both availability and performance/development terms.

Seattle’s starting pitchers ranked No. 7 in the American League in FIP and No. 11 in innings. The bullpen, and occasionally some defense, were highly cooperative with the rotation, particularly beyond the top two starters.

Trading Iwakuma shouldn’t be out of the question, but doing so without reinforcements in place first is weakening one area to strengthen another. The overall trade-off could even make the club worse. Both are projected to post somewhere in the range of 3.0 WAR.

Justin Upton 2.0?
Two winters ago the Mariners reportedly had agreed to a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks that would have sent Taijuan Walker and at least two other strong prospects and a big-league reliever to the desert in exchange for right fielder Justin Upton. Upton’s no-trade clause allowed him veto, and he did so. Eventually, he was dealt to Atlanta.

Upton, however, has removed the Mariners from his no-trade list — well, he essentially just replaced them with other clubs — and Bob Nightengale Tweeted Monday that even though they have dealt Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves still could move Upton this offseason.

The 27-year-old has one year left on his deal and will earn $14.5 million in 2015. This does not mean contract extension before a trade, it does not mean hope for a contract extension after the trade. Not from the Mariners’ position going into the idea. The acquiring club is trading for one year of Upton. Not one year of him plus the chance at an extension. The chances he passes up free agency are closer to zero than slim and once he gets there all 30 clubs have the same shot at him.

The question here is: What is one year of Justin Upton worth? First, he costs $14.5 million. Second, in this scenario he’ll be added to the roster before the start of the regular season, so ultimately losing him lands the acquiring club a draft pick if he’s tendered the Qualifying Offer and signs elsewhere.

After that it’s about what the player brings to the table. Upton has posted .342/.491 and .344/.460 OBP/SLG combos since the trade to Atlanta. Turner Field is as fair a ballpark as there is in assessing a batter’s ability to hit in neutral environments. He’s played 159, 150, 149, 154 and 144 games the past five years and has been a 3.1 and 3.9 fWAR player the past two years. He’s still young-ish and should be better defensively than the metrics says he’s been, but he’s not thought of as a liability with the glove. He’s a solid baserunner and his career year still may be in front of him.

What the Mariners can’t do here is give up five years of control of a Walker or Elias for one season of Upton. What they can do is try and make this deal a lot bigger than Upton and a young arm. If they’re going to move one of their young starters, making it worth their while is imperative. Demanding more than Upton — perhaps including Evan Gattis — can take care of the lack of control; Gattis has four years of club control left.

The Braves, who received right-hander Shelby Miller in return for Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden, are looking to stockpile young pitchers, so there may be no way around such an asking price in any deal. But the other pieces may be easily settled upon from the Mariners perspective. Atlanta does not have an obvious future second baseman, nor are they stacked in the outfield, particularly if they are trading away Upton and/or Gattis. Saunders, Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller and Chris Taylor all could be intriguing pieces if and when the two clubs exchange ideas.

Prospect Ketel Marte also could interest Atlanta. He’s a shortstop with a chance to stick, but could be a plus glove at second and is about a year from the majors.

Again, however, the Mariners have to cover themselves if they deal away Walker, Elias or Paxton, and if they were to move Miller or Taylor, they’re essentially counting on the other to handle the position in 2015. The alternative is going after other shortstop options this winter, potentially including Hanley Ramirez, Elvis Andrus, Alexei Ramirez and Stephen Drew.

The sequence of events doesn’t have to be clear, but they do have to occur at some stage of the cold months.

Buzz
Among the clubs that I’m told have expressed interest in Saunders include the San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays … Seattle has touched base with Melky Cabrera’s reps, but there are no indications serious conversations have taken place … Jon Lester, profiled here, is taking the free agent tour after meeting with the Red Sox this week, but it’s unclear at this stage if he has any interest in Seattle or if the M’s have any level of interest in the southpaw … I’m also told the M’s are telling agents and other clubs that they have not ruled out any scenario of acquisitions this season. Multiple trades and/or free agent signings, no position other than second base is off the table (interest in a third baseman suggests he plays another position, however), and no one financial presentation is out of the question … Speaking of third basemen, at some point over the next three months the club and Kyle Seager’s agent, Andrew Lowenthal of Jet Sports, have to have serious discussions regarding a multi-year solution for the All-Star. Some level of contact has to have been made by now, but like I’ve been pointing out for six months, the longer the wait the more expensive Seager gets. Seager clearly has committed himself to the Mariners. Time for the club to reciprocate, and there’s little chance they don’t get it done before the start of the 2015 schedule.…

Kyle SeagerThe short answer for what’s at the top of the wish list for the Seattle Mariners this winter is obvious: bats, offense, runs, whatever one wants to call it. As has been the case for much of the Jack Zduriencik era and beyond, the club enters the offseason with the need to upgrade the offensive corps. The club’s 634 runs scored tied them with the Boston Red Sox for No. 18 in Major League Baseball and only the St. Louis Cardinals reached the playoffs while scoring fewer runs than did Seattle.

There are just a few spots on the field where everyday upgrades are not necessary, but there are others where the chances significant resources are put into better personnel is neither wise nor very likely. Those include second base, third base, and for different reasons shortstop and catcher. Robinson Cano is the answer at second base, obviously, with Kyle Seager now one of the better third baseman in the game. The Mariners are very likely — and wisely, due to the lack of options on the free agent market and ultra-high cost via trade — to stick with what they have at shortstop (Chris Taylor, Brad Miller) and behind the plate in former No. 3 overall pick Mike Zunino.

There are, however, several others places to add necessary pieces. Before we get into specific pieces, let’s identify those areas.

Resources
Seattle Mariners 2015 Payroll Commitments
2015 MLB Draft Order
2014-15 MLB Free Agents

Rotation
One of Seattle’s biggest strengths in 2014 was their starting rotation, but there will be holes to fill heading into next season. Chris Young is a free agent and may look to maximize his salary on a one-year deal after a strong comeback campaign, although there’s reportedly mutual interest in a return to the Emerald City. King Felix Hernandez isn’t going anywhere and his second in command, Hisashi Iwakuma, is also under contract for 2015 with an affordable $7 million club option that reportedly was exercised last week. Iwakuma is a candidate for an extension beyond 2015 and locking up the 33-year-old should be among the priorities for Zduriencik.

The club entered this past season with the hope that top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton would be able to provide two-fifths of the big league rotation. That wasn’t the case as Paxton missed significant time with injury and Walker struggled early with shoulder inflammation and then finding consistency once he was healthy. There’s also the case of surprise rookie Roenis Elias who is coming off a strong campaign that ended with some concerns over his elbow, though the team refuted claims that they were of any significance.

[pullquote]Seattle had 10 different pitchers start a game in 2014 and four made 28 starts or more. Healthy seasons from Paxton and Walker should replace Young’s 29 starts if he moves on this winter.[/pullquote]

A rotation consisting of Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Walker, and Elias is strong on paper, though there are legitimate concerns surrounding the latter three hurlers. When Paxton was healthy in 2014 he was a capable No. 3 starter and should he stay healthy in 2015 the club can expect 190 innings of that quality of work. Walker finished the season with a strong September and got some work in the Arizona Fall League in October. The stuff is absolutely there for the top prospect, but he’ll have to put a disappointing year behind him and move towards his top-of-the-rotation potential.

Elias struggled with command and eventually fatigue in 2014 but that was to be expected. Another year of experience should do the young left-hander wonders, but the question that will be asked is whether or not he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments next year to stay on top of major league hitters.

If the club retains Young it’s possible that Walker starts the year in the bullpen or at Triple-A, but it’s likely the club would prefer to have him a part of the big league rotation. Erasmo Ramirez provides insurance for the rotation though he has had his share of struggles in the past. The Mariners have two bullpen arms that may have an opportunity to be stretched out in the spring for the rotation in Tom Wilhelmsen and Brandon Maurer. It seems unlikely that Wilhelmsen will transition to a starter, though he did pitch strong in several extended outings in 2014. Maurer came up through the system as a starter but excelled in the bullpen in the second half. It’s likely he gets at least one more shot at cracking the rotation, though he may be better suited to his role in the pen.

Seattle doesn’t need to add premium talent to the top of their rotation and may already have some in the form of Walker and Paxton, but it’s not impossible that they take a run at Jon Lester, or one of the other top starters available. Adding a pitcher like Lester, and to a lesser extent Brandon McCarthy for example, could make it easier for the Mariners to move a young pitcher in a deal for middle-of-the-order bat, if the free agent market dries up on them. If Seattle is to acquire the power hitter they covet via trade, it’ll likely be at the expense of one of Paxton and Walker, though there’s nothing to suggest that the club is intent on trading one of them at this time.

The rotation is in good shape and arguably is one of the club’s biggest strengths heading into 2015. However, no team can have too much depth in that department and the M’s should look to add a couple arms that can be stockpiled at Triple-A in case of emergency while the limited number of pitching prospects in the lower levels develop.

Bullpen
The bullpen is one aspect of the club that can maintain the status quo and arguably be just as strong in 2015. Joe Beimel is the lone reliever set to hit the open market and despite a strong platoon split, wasn’t used as a specialist. His 2.20 ERA in 45 innings may be difficult to replace, but his 4.18 FIP was nothing special and easily can be replaced on the cheap with another veteran. Beimel has expressed a desire to stay in Seattle, Lucas Luetge is one possible in-house answer.

Closer Fernando Rodney is under contract through 2015 and is expected to anchor the back of the relief corps again. Danny Farquhar and Yoervis Medina will likely return as set-up men with Charlie Furbush and Dominic Leone in the picture as well. Rookie Carson Smith should also be a fixture in the 2015 bullpen after a strong September in some big situations. Maurer and Wilhelmsen were mentioned as plausible rotation candidates but are likely to continue providing middle relief innings. Medina, Wilhelmsen and Maurer are the three M’s relievers most likely to be moved over the winter, at least from the club’s standpoint, as Farquhar, Smith and Leone have shown enough to take over full-time setup duties.

Outfield
Once glance at the M’s returning outfield crop suggests Zduriencik and company have to be burning up the phones for better options. It’s clear the Mariners prefer Dustin Ackley over Michael Saunders, so expect Saunders to be traded over the winter, despite the fact that Saunders is a better player. The M’s should not bank on Ackley, either, though, since they already are counting on Austin Jackson to return to form. The time for hoping and wishing on players has to be over with after the club showed promise with 87 wins this past year. Since it’s probably too much to ask for the club to find an everyday centerfielder that can hit, hoping on Jackson’s rebound seems more likely and wiser than praying Ackley’s second half (again) is what he’ll be for 2015.

Either way, the M’s have at least one spot open in the outfield. There will be talk of free agents and trade targets alike, but if one regular is not acquired this winter in some manner, Seattle’s outfield is likely to be their weak spot, yet again.

One outside-the-box idea, however, is to shop some talent (including Jackson) in a deal to acquire another center fielder that is more adept at making consistent contact, though as previously stated it is not an easy position to fill. Something tells us Lloyd McClendon would balk at the idea of trading Jackson, a player he’s familiar with from his days in Detroit, almost no matter the return, and despite the fact he’s not the player he was three years ago by any stretch of anyone’s logical imagination.

First Base/Designated Hitter
Logan Morrison may have done enough to warrant a regular job to start 2015, and it doesn’t matter if he’s considered the DH or the first baseman at this point. He’s a capable first baseman, albeit fringe-average rather than anywhere near Gold Glove caliber. That still means the club has no designated hitter. There is more than one way to fix this; One, Zduriencik can try and spend money to add a proven DH, or two, the club can acquire at least two outfielders and give skipper Lloyd McClendon some flexibility within his lineup.

[pullquote]The St. Louis Cardinals were the only team to make the playoffs with an average runs scored per game of less than 4.00 with 3.82. The Mariners actually scored a higher rate of runs per game at 3.91, but the AL playoff team with the lowest average was the Kansas City Royals at 4.02 runs per game.[/pullquote]

It could be argued that the Mariners are in an enviable position heading into the winter. The pitching staff is strong on both the rotation and bullpen fronts, though both still have room for upgrades. Up the middle the club has strength at the catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field positions — providing a bounce back year from Jackson — which are typically regarded as the toughest to fill. Unless another higher-end centerfielder becomes an option, the M’s can look to bolster both corner outfield spots and one of first base or designated hitter, depending on where Morrison fits.

Seattle’s lineup flexibility stems from have no fixed DH at this time. If an upgrade at first base is the target, Morrison can move to DH and spot start at first. If a veteran corner outfielder with durability concerns is brought in, they can take a regular turn in the DH slot to preserve their health. The M’s could double up on the veteran corner outfielders and enter the year with four regulars that rotate through the DH position — any number of lineup possibilities are plausible.

For the Mariners to sign any free agent who has received and declined the $15.3 million qualifying offer, they would have to surrender their first-round draft pick, which will be No. 21 in the 2015 amateur draft.

The hole in the middle of the lineup is obvious, but Zduriencik can’t forget about the top of the order. Despite the strong month from Jones and the addition of Jackson, the leadoff position was a mess for much of the season. After being acquired Jackson did not hit anywhere aside from the leadoff spot in a Mariner uniform despite spending much of his time in Detroit this year hitting in the No. 5 and No. 6 spots. The centefielder posted an 81 wRC+ as a leadoff hitter in 2014 and has a reputation for being a streaky player who strikes out often. Paired with the uncertainty of Ackley, the M’s could have an issue setting the table for the bats of Cano and Seager.

Certainly Jackson performed below expectations in a Mariner uniform and is expected to produce more offense in 2015, but what if he doesn’t? McClendon was married to his leadoff hitters until he absolutely had to make a change. Almonte spent three weeks in the role despite clearly being over-matched and Chavez had a prolonged stint in the role despite clearly being a below average player. Saunders and Jones took turns at the top of the order as well, but they may not be regulars in 2015. Taylor is the most likely in-house option to hit in the No. 1 or No. 2 spots given his contact abilities, but he may be a stretch at this point.

The term leadoff hitter is largely an irrelevant term, but it’s vital that those receiving the most plate appearances each game are able to get on base.

The one thing that the Mariners absolutely cannot do this winter, if they fancy themselves playoff contenders for 2015, is fail to upgrade at least one of the outfield positions. A threesome of Ackley, Jackson, and Saunders is a legitimate major league outfield but they are all question marks entering 2015 due to injury and production issues. One question mark out of three is manageable, but two questions marks out of three is recipe for another disaster … and three “we hope he hits” is downright criminal.

Depth
One common denominator among postseason clubs, and especially those that have success in October, is depth. They can play matchup against good bullpens, they can cover injuries with satisfactory or better secondary options and they have reserves that can do more than just fog a mirror. Bench play is important in Major League Baseball and while the Mariners need a plethora of starting lineup additions, they could use a key backup or two to add to what they’ll carry over from last season.

Some of the depth issues will occur naturally should the club add, say, an everyday outfielder, pushing a current projected starter to a reserve role, but don’t count on Michael Saunders being in Seattle come Opening Day. There’s nothing wrong with acquiring a player that has proven he can produce in a part-time or platoon role, anyway.

Conclusion
In the end, the M’s need a lot of help. Most of their needs are in the everyday lineup where there boast merely two solid to very good hitters joined by a bunch of ‘we hope he hits’ options. Outfield, perhaps times two, and either first base or designated hitter are the obvious spots in the field to add such offense. Whether it’s free agency or the trade market, the Mariners have a number of roster spots to upgrade which may include adding a premium starting pitcher. There are few untouchables in the organization from the big leagues all the way to their top prospects and they have no business worrying much about protecting their first-round draft pick. Expect a lot of rumors, but a lack of action by the Seattle Mariners would surprise the entire league. The M’s are motivated from top to bottom, ownership to field staff, and they aren’t all that far away, particularly if they’re lucky enough to get marked improvements from a few of the young players in addition to a few key winter acquisitions.

Buckle up.…

Seager, Morrison celebrationMany pundits had written off the Seattle Mariners before the 2014 season began. The rotation had several questions marks beyond Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and the lineup lacked much punch beyond newly acquired second baseman Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. Lloyd McLendon was the new manager in town after Eric Wedge called it quits with three games left in 2013, and reports about the dysfunction in the front office created some tension.

The club did have a strong contingent of young players ready to make their marks, however the group assembled didn’t resemble a playoff squad come Opening Day. A .500 team maybe, but not a team that would finish one game out of a Wild Card spot and certainly not one that wasn’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs until the season’s final day.

Was the club’s 87-75 record an accurate representation of the compilation of talent on the roster, or was it a classic case of a team that played over their heads? This is rather crucial question that needs to be answered. Not because the front office needs to know how many wins they should be chasing this winter, but because the Mariners likely will do just that. If they believe they’re 3-5 wins from October baseball, they’ll go get 3-5 wins in roster upgrades. If they believe they’re more like an 83-win team, they’ll chase after 7-10 victories. At least that’s been the track record, rather than doing everything possible to become as good as the club possibly can.

So, what is GM Jack Zduriencik working with as the offseason begins?

Seattle’s Pythagorean record was 91-71, four more wins than they actually collected. A team’s Pythagorean record compares their runs scored and allowed in an attempt to determine how many wins a team should have based on those two factors. The Mariners had a near-historic year in terms of run prevention and allowed the fewest runs in the league with 554. However, there was a serious lack of consistency in the run scoring department and the club’s 634 runs scored ranked 19th. BaseRuns credits the Mariners with an 86-76 record, one less win than their actual total.

What do these advanced stats tell us about the M’s record? In essence, they suggest that Seattle’s 87 wins are a reasonable result based on the numbers of runs scored and allowed. In a way these systems help us better understand a team’s record in the same way that a pitcher’s FIP or xFIP relates to their ERA. It’s then up to us to dig deeper and try and see what else is under the surface. By now means does a Pythagorean record tell us a team’s true talent level.

Seattle got their money’s worth when it came to superstars Felix and Cano. The King is in line for his second career Cy Young award and Cano capped off an All-Star season with a Gold Glove nomination. Hernandez had a markedly better season in 2014 than in previous years, but at age-28 he was primed for his beginning of his peak years. There’s also no doubt an improved team behind him and a winning record benefited the ace. The biggest knock on Cano this year was the lack of power displayed. His 14 home runs were the fewest he’s hit since 2008, though the confines of Safeco Field were expected to impact his total power output. Overall Cano had an excellent first year in the Emerald City and gave the club some much needed star power.

The holes in the M’s lineup, however, were glaring. Seattle received -2.1 fWAR from their designated hitter position, second-worst in the league to the Cleveland Indians. That’s after the team took on a slumping Kendrys Morales in July that never recovered from sitting out the first three months of the year. The Corey Hart experiment wouldn’t pay off as the slugger battled health issues. As a unit, the Mariners’ outfield combined for the second lowest fWAR in all of baseball with 1.0. Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, and Abraham Almonte were the only outfielders to produce a positive fWAR.

Ackley was absolutely the player that the Mariners envisioned when they made him a No. 2 overall selection in 2009 from July 1 on, but struggled early in the season. Saunders spent significant time on the disabled list, again, and lost playing time to Stefen Romero and Endy Chavez, regularly. Had the Canadian-born outfielder been healthy for more of the year, or at least played regularly when he was, he would’ve made up for some of the -1.5 fWAR Romero and Chris Denorfia cost the team. Even trade deadline acquisition Austin Jackson went cold as soon as he put on a Mariners uniform, and only showed a glimmer of the talent he displayed in Detroit.

On the infield side of things, aside from Cano, Seattle saw continued growth from Seager who made his first All-Star appearance. The third baseman lead the club in home runs, RBI, and posted a higher fWAR than Cano at 5.5. Justin Smoak continued to flail in the batter’s box, but Logan Morrison, after getting healthy, took the first base job by storm and finished the year with a 110 wRC+ in 365 plate appearances. By fWAR, the Mariners got solid production out of Brad Miller and Chris Taylor at the shortstop position but most of that is due to the duo’s excellent defensive play. Miller struggled mightily at times with the bat and Taylor’s offensive numbers were inflated by a high BABIP. Mike Zunino had an excellent sophomore season behind the plate but struggled to produce consistent offense outside of the long ball.

[pullquote]Of the batters acquired in the offseason and at the trade deadline, only Cano, Morrison, and Willie Bloomquist posted a positive fWAR. Morales, Jackson, Denorfia, Hart, Chavez, and John Buck were all below replacement value.[/pullquote]

Aside from Cano, Seager, and to some extent Zunino, the M’s really could’ve gotten more production out of their infield. Some might argue Seager played over his head, but his production has been trending upward for the last few seasons. First base has been a black hole for years and is an obvious source of underachievement. The shortstop position is difficult to knock since the defensive play was so strong, but it’s fair to say that from an offensive standpoint the position underachieved.

Seattle’s No. 2 starter, Iwakuma, had a solid campaign including the second-lowest walk rate among qualified pitchers at 1.06 per nine innings. However the right-hander was absent for the first month of the season recovering from a sprained finger. Rookie James Paxton posted a strong 3.28 FIP but was limited to just 13 starts after being sidelined with an oblique injury for more than three months. Top prospect Taijuan Walker was also expected to cement the second half of the rotation but struggled with consistency and shoulder inflammation and was limited to just five big league starts. Had the pair of rookies been healthy for even half of the season each, the rotation definitely would’ve been stronger.

The one positive thing Walker’s preseason injury allowed was an opportunity for Roenis Elias to secure a spot in the rotation, and he did not disappoint. The 26-year old had yet to pitch above Double-A prior to this season and in 29 starts earned a 4.03 FIP, slightly higher than his 3.85 ERA. Elias was excellent at times this year, but showed signs of fatigue as the innings piled up and was eventually shut down in September with arm soreness. Veteran hurler Chris Young also had a resurgent 2014 after struggling with injuries the last several years. In 165 innings and 29 starts the right-hander posted a strong 3.65 ERA but finished with a 5.02 FIP after some struggles in September. Like Elias, he had run out of gas.

In some ways the success of Elias and Young cancel out the lack of production that was expected from Paxton and Walker. With that, one could say that the M’s rotation performed approximately as expected, all told. Earlier in his career Young was a dependable starter but considering the uncertainty surrounding a guy who had thrown 100 innings in just one year in 2008, Seattle was likely hoping to milk five-to-ten decent starts out of Young if they were lucky.

It’s fair to expect the best bullpen in baseball would have to overachieve to some extent, but the talent was there and the staff was strong from beginning to end. Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Charlie Furbush all had excellent seasons following solid 2013 campaigns. Brandon Maurer had a successful transition from starter to power reliever in the second half and posted a 1.85 FIP in 37 1/3 relief innings. Dominic Leone had a strong rookie season and solidified the middle relief corps. Even journeyman Joe Beimel had an outstanding season as a specialist posting a 2.20 ERA but it came with a 4.18 FIP which suggests that he did overachieve.

Closer and free agent acquisition Fernando Rodney also had an impressive campaign, though not quite at the level of his career year in 2012. The enigmatic star performed as expect this year, racking up saves and strikeouts while providing plenty of drama in the process.

It’s fair to say that the bullpen could be a big source of overachievement in 2014 considering that seemingly everything went right. Especially since the majority of the staff that contributed to the second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball last year returned to post the best mark in the majors.

Every team has to deal with injuries while riding the wave of breakout and slumping players. The Mariners were no different in that regard. It’s hard to say how much of the team’s success can be attributed to the managing of McLendon and his staff, but we do know that their management of King Felix was a crucial aspect of his performance this year.

Was 87 wins an overachievement for this edition of the Seattle Mariners? From the outset maybe, and there’s certainly an argument that they did, but at a closer glance the talent for a playoff club is there. The Kansas City Royals certainly have proved that a strong pitching staff and plus defence can take a team a long way, and many would agree that the Mariners pitching staff was even better than the American League champions.

The fact that nobody expected Seattle to perform as well as they did shouldn’t be indicative of whether or not they overachieved. Some players had surprise seasons, some players performed poorly. There’s evidence that suggests that this team may have even underachieved since they received less than replacement level value out of several players. But that’s an argument for another day.…

James Jones and Chris TaylorAside from receiving key contributions from rookie pitchers in 2014, including top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the Seattle Mariners also saw rookie hitters make serious contributions as well. Last year it was Mike Zunino and Brad Miller who played large roles, especially in the second half, for the team. Nick Franklin also saw the bulk of the middle infield innings as a rookie in 2013, but was finally dealt at the trade deadline after months of speculation. Jesus Sucre and Abraham Almonte would also make their big league debuts and eventually impact the 2014 edition of the Mariners.

Seattle had five different rookie hitters step into the batters box in 2014. Let’s take a look at the impact each of them made during the season.

Chris Taylor, 24, SS | 2013: High-A, 319 PA; Double-A, 300 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 346 PA; Called-up 7/25

Taylor 2014

Taylor was called up in July when Willie Bloomquist hit the disabled list with a knee injury requiring micro-fracture surgery. At the time of his call up, the 24-year old had a .894 OPS with a 133 wRC+ at Triple-A. The regular shortstop, Brad Miller, had struggled earlier in the season but had begun to show some signs of life in July. Taylor, a right-handed hitter, and Miller, a left-handed hitter, formed a natural platoon for the remainder of the season. Taylor’s high batting average is somewhat inflated due to a .398 BABIP, however he showed some maturity at the plate with a reasonable walk rate and eight of his 31 hits went for extra bases.

Known for his stellar defence and strong throwing arm, Taylor was credited with four defensive runs saved this year although that was in just 365 innings of work. The Mariners fifth-round pick in 2012 accelerated through the minors, hitting well enough to prove that there’s more to him than just a glove-first shortstop.

From Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill’s preseason PI HandbookTaylor has exceeded the expectations of most observers … [with] … above-average instincts in all phases of the game, and provides some leadership-by-example along with the plus defence.

Abraham Almonte, 25, OF | 2013: Double-A, 120 PA; Triple-A, 396 PA; MLB, 82 PA

Almonte 2014

Almonte broke camp as the club’s starting centerfielder after essentially being handed the job before spring training even started. He also took the role of leadoff hitter to begin the year but struggled mightily in four weeks with the big league club. The 25-year old barely hit his weight at the top of the order and struck out at a rate approximately 15 percent higher than he posted in the minor leagues. The nearly doubled strikeout rate with little power to show for it presented a huge hole in the Seattle lineup. Almonte has been in the minors since 2007 so he isn’t raw, but he was overmatched in his first real taste of major league action.

The outfielder would be traded to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline with minor league pitcher Steve Kohlscheen in exchange for veteran Chris Denorfia. He would be sent to Triple-A, but was recalled by the Padres and posted a .682 OPS in 107 plate appearances.

From Churchill’s preseason handbook: Almonte brings a much higher probability than … [others] … he is, however, limited in many areas and as a result comes with little upside.

Jesus Sucre, 26, C | 2013: Triple-A, 95 PA; MLB, 29 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 181 PA; Called-up 7/8

Sucre 2014

Called-up in July after the Mariners cut ties with veteran back-up John Buck and assumed the role of Mike Zunino’s partner in crime. The 26-year old didn’t see much action however, making just 21 appearances in the following 12 weeks. Sucre got the call as Buck wasn’t able to provide enough defence in his back-up role and didn’t disappoint. What he didn’t do though, was hit. He picked up just 13 hits, two doubles, and didn’t walk once this year. Not that he was expected to be an offensive force, but with the team in a playoff race, it was hard to make up for the lack of offensive capabilities Sucre offered in an already susceptible lineup.

Sucre did not crack Churchill’s preseason top-30 prospects list and doesn’t possess the upside of an everyday major league catcher. He does have noted defensive and pitch-framing skills and fits the mould of a major league back-up catcher, but he’ll need to find a way to get on base more often if he hopes to stick around much longer.

James Jones, 26, OF | 2013: Double-A, 405 PA; Triple-A, 17 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 173 PA; Called-up 4/16, Optioned 8/1, Re-called 8/11, Optioned 8/17, Re-called 8/29

Jones 2014

Jones relieved Almonte of his center field and leadoff hitter duties and performed well out of the gate. His debut month of May included a 105 wRC+ and a .709 OPS — a breath of fresh air from the production of Almonte. Jones continued to hit well into June and stole 12 bases during that month alone, one more than any other Mariner stole during the entire season. The comparisons to Juan Pierre were mostly deserved as Jones has a similar tall and skinny profile with the ability to steal, bunt, and hit for practically no power. The metrics did not like the 26-year old’s defence in center field however, giving him a -24.7 UZR/150 rating.

After an unproductive July and the Mariners acquisition of Austin Jackson, Jones was sent down to Triple-A and eventually re-called permanently prior to September. He became a key asset for manager Lloyd McLendon as a pinch-runner supreme, and stole five more bases. Jones finished the year with 27 swiped bags, the most by a Mariner since Ichiro Suzuki stole 40 in 2011.

From Churchill’s preseason handbook: Jones has a slightly-long swing, but good bat speed and chance to hit .270 with 20 homers. Defensively the arm is plus and then some, and he’s fringe-average in center while showing well above average in right field.

Stefen Romero, 26, OF | 2013: Triple-A, 411 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 190 PA; Optioned 6/29, Re-called 7/17, Optioned 8/1, Re-called 9/1

Romero 2014

Like Almonte, Romero cracked the roster out of spring training and saw regular time in right field in April and May. Even more so when Michael Saunders hit the disabled list the first time on the year. His 69 wRC+ in May was the highest he posted in any single month this year — he was overmatched by big league pitching from beginning to end. Of his 34 hits 11 were for extra bases so he did show some power. Romero posted a 166 wRC+ in 163 plate appearances this year so it’s possible he just wasn’t able to feel comfortable at the big league level.

There was plenty of controversy as to why McLendon continuously sent Romero out in right field when the clearly superior option, Saunders, sat on the bench. Especially when the 26-year old showed nothing at the plate and was average in the field. Romero regularly went on four-to-five game hitless streaks while with the big league club and went 2-for-8 as a pinch-hitter with one of his three home runs on the year..

From Churchill’s preseason handbook: Romero is among the more MLB-ready bat and outfield options on the 40-man roster … [and] … is capable of hitting line drives from line to line and [shows] extra-base power to the right-center field gap.

There wasn’t a Walker-esque position player set to crack the Mariners 2014 lineup as this class offered less upside than in 2013 with Miller and Zunino. Taylor has been a pleasant surprise and replaces the depth at shortstop that was lost when Franklin was dealt. Almonte was used to secure Denorfia, though the veteran failed to add much substance to the big league team in a limited role. Romero and Sucre are likely to be what they are now, a fourth outfielder and a back-up catcher, but Jones is definitely the most interesting player to watch given his speed.

The jury’s still out on what the roles of the four rookies — Almonte is obviously excluded — will be in 2015 as they could be used as pieces in trades or upgraded upon. At the moment it appears likely that Taylor, Sucre, and Jones will have a shot at breaking camp with the Mariners next year.…

SaundoFact: Michael Saunders is the best outfielder on the roster of the Seattle Mariners. Even considering he missed 70 games due to injury in 2014, that fact remains. Saunders is the best defensive corner outfielder on the club, one of its best baserunners and the third best bat behind Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.

The research, scouting and metrics each tell the same story, yet the Mariners benched their third-best player 28 times this season in favor of Corey Hart, Endy Chavez, the struggling version of Logan Morrison and to some extent Dustin Ackley, Stefen Romero and Kendrys Morales. The club obviously has some issue with Saunders.

The social media joke is ‘why do the Mariners hate Michael Saunders?’ Certainly the club doesn’t hate Saunders, but the real question isn’t whether or not they dislike Saunders. We know the answer to that. The real question is ‘why?’ and ‘what was Saunders’ response when he was informed of the issue?’

The answer to the latter is there was no response because he was never told.

In March, new manager Lloyd McClendon told the media that Ackley was his left fielder, Justin Smoak was his first baseman and that Abraham Almonte was his centerfielder. This was in March, before the club had played a full slate of Cactus League games, long before the regular season was under way. Those choices appear to have been made based on nothing McClendon had seen up to that point. Saunders performed in Arizona, Almonte did not (not that judging a player’s worth based on spring stats is a good idea… it’s not), and Saunders had performed in the majors, Almonte had not.

So how did McClendon come to the conclusion Saunders was not one of the best three outfielders on the team? He couldn’t have seen Saunders enough as an opponent while in Detroit to know what he had or didn’t have in a player, one would imagine, and spring training performance suggests Saunders by far was the best option, and should have been starting.

Some of the benchings clearly were about handedness, which also makes no sense. Saunders outperformed even Seager versus left-handed pitching in 2014. He was solid versus lefties in 2012, and after a dip in ’13, bounced back this past season. Seager was left in the lineup versus left-handed pitching despite a .242/.291/.370 triple-slash against them. Saunders batted .252 with a .352 on-base percentage against southpaws.

When asked before the year began about Saunders’ role and after Saunders had told the media he wants to play everyday, general manager Jack Zduriencik said “we want that, too. But that’s up to Michael Saunders.”

Sounds like Saunders just needed to play well and be the best option, but he was just that — the best option — and still he didn’t play due to managerial decisions. Twenty eight times.

McClendon stated in May that Saunders is more effective when kept rested. He said on May 28 that he based the rest idea off watching Saunders “the past few months.” That means the idea that Saunders needed rest to maintain the ability, as McClendon put it, “to climb that ladder.”

That means McClendon was basing that assessment on either 36 April at-bats and 82 at-bats in May, plus, perhaps, spring training. There’s absolutely zero evidence in those two-plus months, including March’s Cactus League contests, that Saunders needs regular rest to be effective enough to remain in the lineup.

There also is no evidence of that from any previous season in the majors or the minors. I did the research, I checked every season since Saunders signed with the club.

After the season concluded, during the press conference wrapping up the 2014 season, Zduriencik again was asked about Saunders’ role. Again, Zduriencik answered that it’s up to Saunders to earn his way into the lineup.

Zduriencik reiterated the same answer, almost verbatim, when he joined 1090 The Fan last week. It’s unclear what the details are, as the club has offered none. What’s clear is the Mariners want something more from Saunders. What’s also clear, at least from Camp Saunders, is that they’ve never told him what that is.

“Jack’s comments surprised me. The first Michael and I heard of it was the day of the press conference,” said Mike McCann of Frye-McCann Sports, who represents Saunders. “Michael is frustrated with the comments. He’s frustrated because he felt he could have helped the club win when he was available.”

Saunders has never been notified of any issues the club might have with the way he goes about preparing for a game, for a season or coming off injury. Before the press conference not a single employee of the Mariners expressed concern with Michael’s off-the-field preparation, according to McCann.

“Some are freak injuries. Some are things that just happen,” Zduriencik said after the season. “But some of these things need to be handled from a maintenance standpoint where he puts himself in a position to be able to compete through the course of a season.”

“That was the first and last time we’ve heard it,” McCann said of the statement that Saunders is lacking something in the preparation and/or maintenance department. If there is something specific you want from Michael Saunders, communicate it to him.

“Michael works extremely hard to prepare himself physically, McCann continued. “He came into spring training this past year in the best shape of his life. Nobody is as disappointed as Michael is with the time he missed. It’s discouraging Michael injured himself chasing a ball down, making the catch and slamming into the wall. I think you ask most clubs, ‘do you want a player willing to sacrifice himself to make a play?’ They appreciate a that type of player. But what’s overlooked in all of this is, why when Michael Saunders was available to play wasn’t he used regularly? He played sparingly in April and wasn’t in the lineup at several critical times in September. He can change the game in so many ways. Michael has become an above-average hitter, he is effective against left-handers, too. He hits for power. He is a threat on the bases. He’s shown you he can steal 20 bases. He can score from first base on a ball hit to the gap. Michael Saunders is a gold glove caliber right fielder. He plays the game hard.”

Saunders posted a 1.9 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR this season — in 78 games and just 263 plate appearances, rivaling what Ackley did in 142 games and 542 plate appearances. The numbers, traditional and advanced metrics alike, back up the claim that he’s a good baserunner and corner outfield defender. His .346 wOBA tied Seager for No. 2 on the team as did his 126 wRC+.

Saunders’ injuries are not the issue here, either. Nobody is suggesting the club invests five years of guaranteed, market-value money to Saunders, who, by the way, played in 132 games in 2013 and 139 in 2012 before spending more than two months on the disabled list this past season. When your better players are available, they need to play. Either the Mariners do not value Saunders’ contributions as much as the various ways of evaluation suggest — which are difficult to argue against — or they are sending some kind of subliminal message, potentially (definitely) at the expense of putting their best team on the field.

The M’s were one win away from extending their season. Maybe Saunders doesn’t help the club win that one extra game. Probably (definitely), though, he does, if he’s given another 20-25 games of action.

If the Mariners are questioning Saunders’ conditioning practices and how he trains both over the winter and during the season, perhaps they should ask the player what he’s doing and suggest alternatives. That hasn’t happened. McClendon was quoted by MLB.com saying Saunders needs to hit the weight room. Again, that was never told to the player.

Saunders has been with the club through numerous managers and hitting instructors, and he’s incorporated any suggestions they had into his game, “perhaps at his own detriment,” McCann added. “Michael is not immune to instruction, he’s very open to it.”

Saunders’ injuries have been of the freak variety and due to effort, not lack of it, nor lack of attention to conditioning, McCann said. The Mariners believe something is missing, however.

McCann continued, “what is the ‘something?’ What could he have done differently preparation (and maintenance) wise? If there is something, what is it?”…

Seager and CanoThe last time we checked in on the American League Wild Card race the Los Angeles Angels were leading the way with the Seattle Mariners holding the second spot, five-and-a-half games back. How things have changed. The Angels have been on a tear the last couple weeks and now lead the AL West by eight games. The Kansas City Royals continue to hang on to the AL Central lead, but the Detroit Tigers are just a single game behind entering Tuesday night’s action.

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.

Oakland Athletics | 80-63, +1.0 GB
As mentioned at the top, the A’s have faded to some extent since the middle of August and have scored just 198 runs since the All-Star break. Now, many have been quick to surmise the subtraction of Yoenis Cespedes from the lineup as the reason Oakland has struggled to score runs and win games, but hitters like Brandon Moss, Sam Fuld, Coco Crisp, and Alberto Callaspo all of wRC+’s between 45 and 65, so it’s not as simple as that, though it is a factor. Jeff Samardzija has been good but not great for the A’s while Jon Lester has been his usual solid self. It seems that the A’s struggles are more of a situation where everything that could go wrong has. The injury to Sean Doolittle was critical as the bullpen has faltered of late, but he’s expected to return soon. There’s still a very good chance that the Athletics make the playoffs and it’s completely unfair to write them off given the talented roster they boast.

Seattle Mariners | 79-64, —
Despite all the offensive struggles and string of less than royal starts by Felix Hernandez in the second half of August, the Mariners are actually in very good shape heading into the final 19 games of the season. In one month’s time the M’s have made up nine games on Oakland, and yes, you did read that correctly. What’s there to say? Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano have been outstanding of late, Chris Taylor has continued his steady play, and Brad Miller has been red-hot at the dish. Kendrys Morales has even began to show some signs of life. The club also gets Michael Saunders back from an oblique injury that cost him 50 games, but Dustin Ackley — who’s been one of the key contributors over the last couple months — has been battling bone spurs in his ankle and is expected to be out a few more days. For the first time in a long time, the Mariners are a legitimate playoff club.

[pullquote]Aside from the current series with the Houston Astros and the three-game set next weekend, the Mariners will not play a game against a sub-.500 team for the remainder of the year. This includes seven games against the Angels, three against the Athletics, and four against the Blue Jays.[/pullquote]

Detroit Tigers | 79-65, 0.5 GB
Entering the year Detroit boasted an envious rotation with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez and after their addition of David Price at the trade deadline, most were ready to punch their ticket to the American League Championship Series. Not so fast. Sanchez has been hurt, Verlander is still struggling with a sore shoulder, and the pitching staff has some serious holes as the bullpen continues to be an issue. But the good news is that Miguel Cabrera has been red-hot and Victor Martinez has been one of the best hitters in baseball this year. If Verlander is able to recapture some of his 2012-13 magic the Tigers will probably be just fine. However, Detroit looks a lot more susceptible than they have in recent memory and currently sit on the outside looking in. Don’t count them out just yet.

Cleveland Indians | 74-68, 4.5 GB
Aided by a pitching performance that will rival King Felix for the AL Cy Young award this year from Corey Kluber, the Indians have surprisingly been able to stay in the race — as much as one considers four-and-a-half games back with just a couple weeks left to be in the race. Manager Terry Francona lead his club to a near-historic run last September that jettisoned the club into a Wild Card spot so it’s still tough to count them out, but they’ll be hard-pressed to recreate that magic. Lonnie Chisenhall has managed a 77 wRC+ since the All-Star break after a phenomenal first half of play, and it appears that the Indians just don’t have enough firepower to make the necessary push to get past the Tigers and Mariners, but are a team to keep an eye on.

New York Yankees | 73-68, 5.0 GB
Give the Yankees credit for trying to make something out of Derek Jeter‘s final season, but it looks like it’s fair to say that they will fall short this year. Although Masahiro Tanaka has made progress, it’s tough to know what one can expect from him in the couple starts he may make before the end of the year. For my money, it’s not worth it and the club should shut him down. Brandon McCarthy has pitched well enough to earn a moderate payday this winter and Michael Pineda has been effective when healthy, but it’s been Hiroki Kuroda that’s anchored the pitching staff, once again. Oh yeah, and that Jeter guy? Among qualified shortstops, Jeter has the fourth-lowest wRC+ at 73, but I will say that it’s a good thing for baseball that he’s able to go out on his own terms after missing 2013 due to injury. Well done, Captain, it’s been a wonderful career.

Toronto Blue Jays | 74-69, 5.0 GB
The Jays have actually been playing solid baseball lately and have won seven of their last ten, but it looks like it’ll be too little too late for the blue birds. Melky Cabrera was lost for the season due to a pinky fracture that required surgery and Brett Lawrie is officially done for the year as well. Despite the scorching bat of Jose Bautista, the offense still lacks much punch behind Joey Bats and Edwin Encarnacion. Catcher Dioner Navarro has began to heat up as well lately, but the club has had to give regular playing time to Danny Valencia and now Anthony Gose. Not to mention the fact the J.A. Happ has been a regular member of the rotation that has for the most part disappointed, again. On the bright side, young stud Marcus Stroman pitched a complete game shutout on Monday night, the first of his career, and needed just 93 pitches to do it. The Jays may have an ace in the making as they begin to turn their thoughts towards 2015, though baseball allows for just enough randomness that there’s still a chance they could make a late push for a Wild Card spot.…

"<strongNearly three months after hitting the disabled list with an oblique injury, it appears that outfielder Michael Saunders is set to make his return to the Seattle Mariners lineup. The 27-year old began a rehab assignment several weeks ago but stepped away from the process briefly when he was granted paternal leave for the birth of his daughter. Unfortunately after one of the happiest moments in the life of the Victoria native he contracted a viral infection that cost him two weeks and more than 10 pounds of body weight.

However, all that appears to be in Saunders’ rearview mirror as it was reported Sunday that the outfielder was expected to be activated before Monday’s game against the Houston Astros.

Saunders last appeared in the majors on July 10th and hit the disabled list with a .276/.327/.434 slash line and a 115 wRC+ which would all constitute career highs. His 1.7 fWAR in 65 games played is still the third-highest mark among Mariner position players, though that mark is now equaled by the resurgent Dustin Ackley who’s played a key role during the Canadian’s absence. Plain and simple, Saunders was a big part of the first couple months of the 2014 season and despite Seattle’s success over the last three months, his absence has been noticeable.

Seattle did acquire some outfield depth when Chris Denorfia was added at the July 31st trade deadline, but the club has relied heavily on veteran Endy Chavez to fill the regular right field role. Even though Chavez has been precisely replacement value during 2014 — the fact he’s managed a 101 wRC+ should really be considered a plus considering his 76 career mark — he doesn’t play the strong brand of defence or offer the pop with the bat that Saunders does. So far on the year, and keep in mind the sample sizes are small, Saunders has been credited with 6 defensive runs saved while Chavez has cost the M’s two runs in the outfield. A net loss of 8 DRS can actually be substantial, especially when one considers that it equals the difference between having Kyle Seager and Matt Carpenter at third base. Of course there’s positional consideration in play among other factors with that example, but I digress.

[pullquote]Arguably the biggest knock on Saunders lately has been his inability to stay healthy for an entire season. He has a strong arm, can play a solid right field, run the bases well, and has some pop in his bat without any real platoon split. He had already missed 20 games prior to the oblique injury, and should he return Monday, he can add roughly 50 more games to that total.[/pullquote]

More often than not teams don’t carry much concern over a player who’s slightly below average in the field so long as their bat makes up for it, and vice versa. But the combination of Chavez and Stefen Romero that’ve covered more than two-thirds of the playing time in right field this season haven’t even been average offensively or defensively at the position. On the year the Mariners are getting a 90 wRC+ out of the right field position. Subtract the production Saunders has contributed and that number falls to 81. That may not be a significant gap, but when you consider the major difference on the defensive side of things and the fact Saunders also provides value on the base paths that the club’s other right fielders haven’t, one really begins to see how significant not having Saunders for the last three months has been. It also shows how much better this team would be had he remained healthy.

Prior to the injury, the left-hander was hitting .296 in the leadoff spot and .327 in the No. 2 spot of the lineup, but those two spots have now been occupied by Austin Jackson and Ackley, and there’s no reason to suspect that’ll change any time soon. Since Robinson Cano, Seager, and Kendrys Morales fill the next three spots in the lineup, it allows the M’s to hit Saunders in the bottom half — a significant area of weakness for the club of late. And it gives them a legitimate option for the No. 2 spot if Ackley needs another day off during the last portion of the season.

Consider that the No. 6 through No. 9 spot in the lineup went just 1-for-10 in Sunday’s shutout loss to the Texas Rangers. Having Saunders take three or four of those at bats should allow the club to generate more offense. Especially since Jackson had a pair of hits in the leadoff spot that could’ve hypothetically push a base runner into scoring position and potentially lead to a run, if not more. Of course it’s not quite that simple as that since pitchers and batters alike act differently in any given situation, but the old adage that getting runners on base will lead to runs applies in this situation. And with the difference in games sometimes being decided by a single run, it makes it all that more valuable.

Is Saunders the difference in whether or not the Seattle Mariners are able to snap a 12-year postseason drought? Probably not, but how many other contenders can boast a significant September addition to their lineup? Look at the dividends the Oakland Athletics have received from their late acquisition of Adam Dunn. Saunders can easily provide similar value when one considers the entire skills package that he provides.

Seattle has managed to get by just fine during Saunders’ absence and remain in the thick of the Wild Card race as the second week of September begins. Should the Detroit Tigers defeat the San Francisco Giants on Sunday night — they have a 6-1 lead as of this writing — the M’s will be down to a half-game lead on the second Wild Card spot but are now just two games behind the Athletics at the top of the Wild Card ladder.

This is what a postseason push feels like. Enjoy it, Mariner fans, for it is well deserved.…