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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where Paxton and Walker enter the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That leaves us awaiting the return of Walker and Paxton.

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

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

 

 …

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

At the halfway point of the 2016 season, the rotation of the Seattle Mariners was in disarray and their bullpen ineffective. It looked as if the Seattle’s season was quickly slipping away, especially after going 10-18 during the month of June.

Cruz 2Then, the calendar turned to July and the Mariners slowly regained their footing and crawled back into the contention with just over 40 games remaining.

So, how did the Mariners reverse course? Can they continue to build off their recent success and finally snap the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball? What role did manager Scott Servais play in the team’s rebound?

We’ll get to all that in the Third Quarter Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Nelson Cruz, DH
Churchill: Kyle Seager. 3B

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: James Paxton, LHP

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

Surprise
Arkins: Shawn O’Malley, UTL
Churchill: Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP

Standings and Trends
During the mid-season report, we suggested the American League (AL) West division standings would tighten and that’s exactly what’s happened. Here are the AL West standings as of today.

AL West Standings (As of August 17)
Tm W L W-L% GB R RA last10 last20 last30
TEX 71 50 .587 4.7 4.6 7-3 13-7 17-13
SEA 63 55 .534 6.5 4.7 4.3 8-2 13-7 19-11
HOU 61 58 .513 9.0 4.5 4.1 4-6 7-13 13-17
OAK 52 68 .433 18.5 4.0 4.8 4-6 7-13 13-17
LAA 50 69 .420 20.0 4.5 4.8 1-9 6-14 13-17
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

While the Mariners deserve credit for their torrid August, the primary reason they’ve been able to climb back into the AL West race is the mediocre play of the teams in front of them in the standings. During July, Seattle gained two games on the division leading Texas Rangers and lost just half a game to the Houston Astros despite posting a 12-12 win-loss record.

The following table illustrates how AL West teams have fared since the start of the third quarter of the season on July 3.

AL West Standings (Since July 3rd)
Tm W L GB R RA
SEA 20 16 143 152
TEX 19 19 2.0 157 197
HOU 18 19 2.5 160 145
LAA 17 20 3.5 176 174
OAK 17 21 4.0 137 176

For the Rangers, their success down the homestretch will be heavily dependent on run prevention. The club knows how to score runs, but has a -40 run differential since July 3.

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

Since losing starters Derek Holland and Colby Lewis to injury in late June, Texas has been unable to find suitable substitutes. As you’d expect, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels have performed well. But, the rest of the staff entered this week with a combined earned run average (ERA) since the all-star break.

There is hope for the Rangers though.

Holland could be back as early as the end of this week, while Lewis may return to the rotation by the end of this month or early September. Without these two hurlers, or adequate substitutes, the club’s hold on the AL West division lead will be tenuous.

The challenge facing the Rangers’ cross-state divisional rivals is exactly the opposite. The Houston Astros remain relevant thanks to their pitching, while being hamstrung by run production.

I know. Houston’s 160 runs scored since July 3 is second best in the division. But, a closer look at their record reveals they’ve scored two or fewer runs in 18 of those games — nearly half of their third quarter.

Thanks to their strong pitching, the Astros managed to win four of those lose scoring games. However, the offense will have to be more robust for the club to remain in contention.

What’s the offense’s biggest problem? Reaching base.

While Houston has a superb young core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, only one other regular — Luis Valbuena — has an on-base percentage (OBP) above league-average and he’s on the disabled list (DL). It’s tough to generate offense without men on base.

Like the Mariners, Houston was relatively inactive at the August 1 trade deadline. Unless general manager Jeff Luhnow makes external additions prior to August 31, his club’s best hope for an offensive upgrade will come from within — heralded prospect Alex Bregman and Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.

Bregman has scuffled since his major league debut on July 25 and Gurriel’s major league debut is being delays because he needs more seasoning in the minors that expected. If both players can find their mojo in the near-term, the Astros immediately become a far more formidable opponent for the Rangers and Mariners during the last 4o games of the season.

Assuming no club makes a significant addition to their respective roster, the Rangers continue to be the class of the AL West division. But, their banged up rotation leaves them vulnerable to a club capable of seizing the moment.

With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the Mariners and their run production.

Offense
As Prospect Insider Jason A. Churchill noted during the Reign Man Edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, it doesn’t really matter how the Mariners scores runs as long as they continue to do so. The club entered the week averaging 4.66 runs scored-per-game — sixth best in the AL.

While Jason is spot-on with his assessment, several notable Mariners are struggling at plate. Let’s look at some of the hitter who were struggling as this week began.

The first base platoon of Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee hasn’t been as productive in month. Despite the early season surge of Lee during limited appearances and Lind’s late-inning heroics, the duo is batting a combined .207 since July 1.

Lind is slashing .268/.333/.439 with two home runs during the small sample size known as August. Perhaps, he’s on the brink of turning around the worst season of his 11-year career.

Two DL stints have reduced the availability of shortstop Ketel Marte. But, his struggles at the plate appear to have more to do with an expanding strike zone than injury or illness.

The challenge for Mariners management during the last six weeks of the season will be balancing their young shortstop’s professional development with their postseason aspirations, especially with no clear-cut upgrade available on the 40-man roster.

Another scuffling regular is center fielder Leonys Martin. Coming into this week, he had a  .223/.279/.325 triple-slash since returning from the DL on June 6. Martin does provide value even when isn’t hitting though. He’s still the best defender they’ve had in center field since Franklin Gutierrez.

Speaking of Guti, he’s been particularly strong against left-handed pitching. But, the 33-year-old tailed off in July with a .189/.318/.297 slash and one home run during 44 plate appearances in July. Fortunately, it appears that he’s returning to form in August.

It’s worth noting that Gutierrez has played in 73 games this season — his most since 2011. That’s a credit to his hard work and devotion and the team’s willingness to adjust his playing time depending on his chronic health issues. In the end, both parties have reaped the rewards of their collaboration.

The all-star break didn’t seem to help Gutierrez’s platoon mate, Seth Smith. After slashing .364/.400/.727 and hitting four home runs during the first 10 games of July, the left-handed hitter is batting just .192 with no home runs since the resumption of play on July 15.

Considering Smith’s veteran status and professional approach, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But, it’s worth mentioning that his second-half offensive production has dropped considerably during the last four seasons.

Another corner outfielder, Nori Aoki is a somewhat enigmatic presence. After struggling greatly against southpaws, the club optioned the 34-year-old to Tacoma in late June. Since his July 20 recall, he’s been the primary leadoff man against right-handed pitching and performed relatively well.

Would management prefer to have a better option than Aoki? Probably. But, there are no proven replacements ready to wrest playing time away from the five-year veteran.

Chris Iannetta isn’t having a good season offensively, but that’s not as worrisome when discussing the backstop position. The 33-year-old has performed admirably while serving as a stopgap until Mike Zunino was ready to return to the big league club. Now, Iannetta is an excellent insurance in case of injury or a Zunino regression.

Speaking of Zunino, the 25-year-old is one of several Mariners who’ve helped buoy the club’s offense despite the struggles of the players I’ve just mentioned.

Thanks to his improved methodology at the plate and his superior defensive prowess, Zunino has effectively become the club’s starting catcher since returning from Class-AAA Tacoma on July 20. The time spent in Tacoma has certainly helped the right-handed hitter, who currently owns a .392 OBP.

The most impressive element of Zunino’s offensive game is his walk rate, which was 11.4-percent after Sunday’s game. That’s nearly four points higher than the major league average and six points above his career norm.

Is Zunino’s production a mall sample size? Yes. But, it’s an encouraging development.

General manager Jerry Dipoto chose to build his 2016 offense around three position players — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager — and it’s proving to be a wise decision.

The trio has missed a combined six games this season and have used their bats to propel the club’s offense throughout the season. At the conclusion of play on Sunday, the threesome was slashing a combined .289/.351/.518 with 23 home runs since July 3.

While it must be reassuring for Servais to have his core players available nearly every day, the club’s recent playoff push would likely stall if any of them were to enter a prolonged slump or be out of the lineup for an extended period.

The sky isn’t falling in the Emerald City, but better performances from the Mariners’ veterans would go a long way in helping the club sustain their recent winning ways. Otherwise, it’s going to be a white-knuckle ride for the rest of the season.

 …

Marte 2In early May, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto made his feelings clear regarding his starting shortstop when told “Danny, Dave and Moore” of 710 ESPN Seattle “I’ve said from the day I got here, maybe the most surprising player of those that I was fortunate enough to inherit is Ketel Marte.”

Dipoto had good reasons for heaping praise on Marte. After a sluggish start to the season, the 22-year-old had a .303 batting average and .328 on-base percentage (OBP) on May 10, plus his defense had significantly improved.

It looked as if the Mariners had finally found something they had been lacking in recent seasons — a legitimate leadoff hitter. Then, the rest of the season happened.

Since those heady days in mid-May, Marte has struggled to reach base on a consistent basis and currently owns a .292 OBP. How bad is it going for the native Dominican? The only Mariners regular who reaches base less often is first baseman Adam Lind.

What’s the root cause of Marte’s problems? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look at a leading indicator of his on-base woes — a low walk percentage (BB%).

Ketel Marte’s On Base Success
Year Teams BA
OBP
BB %
 2013  High Desert/Clinton .295 .322 3.8%
 2014 Jackson/Tacoma .304 .335 4.8%
 2015 AZL/Jackson/Tacoma .321 .366 7.0%
 2015  Seattle .283 .351 9.7%
 2016 Seattle .263 .292 4.1%

As you can see, Marte’s BB% had been increasing at each level of his professional career, until this year. Now, his declining walk rate is torpedoing his 2016 OBP.

Marte is a great example of why batting average is a limited, yet overused metric. The switch-hitter is batting .263 — about league-average for shortstops. But, his anemic OBP isn’t not good enough for any position in the lineup, let alone the leadoff spot.

What can the Mariners Opening Day shortstop do to get back on track? Do a better job of controlling the zone. It’s something that Marte has a history of doing.

In 2014, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted Marte “understands the strike zone, handles the bat very well and, again, can run.” Dipoto even remarked his young player possesses “good zone judgment” during his May interview with the 710 crew.

So, what happened to Ketel Marte?

The sample sizes are small, but a comparison of Marte’s rookie season to this year reveals increased aggressiveness at the plate in 2016. Take a look for yourself.

Ketel Marte’s Plate Discipline
Year PA Pit/PA 1st Pitch Swinging O-Swing Z-Swing O-Contact Z-Contact
Pull Cent Oppo
2015 249 3.82 16.9% 26.6% 62.7%  69.3% 88.4% 39.4% 35% 25.6%
2016 317 3.78 25.8%  32% 66.5%  73.3% 89% 44.2% 30.9% 24.9%
O — Outside Strike Zone                                   Z — Inside Strike Zone

I’ve highlighted four stats that caught my eye and illustrate a change in Marte’s strategy at the plate. Most prominently, he’s swinging at the first pitch 8.9-percent more often than last season. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, he’s also chasing balls outside the strike zone (O-Swing) at a higher rate.

Could his expanded strike zone be responsible for the youngster walking less frequently, pulling the ball (Pull) more often, and hitting fewer balls up the middle (Cent) this season? Absolutely.

I’m not suggesting that Marte shouldn’t be aggressive at the plate. Quite the opposite. But, he’s widened his zone without delivering a positive outcome in the form of a higher OBP. Rather, the opposite has occurred.

In all fairness, it’s worth noting that Marte has endured two stints on the disabled list this season, including 20 missed games due to mononucleosis. Two extended absences certainly do not help a young player.

Also, Marte doesn’t turn 23-years-old until October and is only 135 games and 566 plate appearances into his big league career. There’s still plenty of time for him to develop into an everyday major leaguer.

On the other hand, the immediate issue for the Mariners is whether they can wait for their shortstop to find himself while they compete for the postseason with just six weeks remaining in the season.

It’s possible that Marte and the team would be better off if he were able to refresh his skills during an assignment to Class-AAA Tacoma — much like Mike Zunino and James Paxton did earlier this season and what Taijuan Walker is currently undergoing. Sending Marte to Tacoma wouldn’t be easy though.

The Mariners don’t have an adequate replacement available on their 40-man roster. Luis Sardinas appeared to be that option at the beginning of the season, but he’s been designated for assignment. Shawn O’Malley is an adequate fill-in, but he’s not an optimal choice to be the everyday shortstop for a postseason contender.

Another option would be to acquire an established shortstop in order to give Marte more time to develop. Perhaps, that’s why the Mariners were reportedly interested in picking up Zack Cozart of the Cincinnati Reds at the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

The presence of Cozart —  or another established shortstop — would present Dipoto with an opportunity to send Marte to Tacoma and not risk this season’s playoff hopes. Conceivably, the 48-year-old executive could still snag someone before August 31. But, there are no guarantees.

Without a suitable replacement, the Mariners will likely stick with Marte as their everyday shortstop and hope he can better control the zone in the midst of a postseason push.

That’s not a best-case scenario for the team or the player.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, continuing with the bench, the impact of injuries, and analysis of the overall roster.

Bench
Seattle reserves have been an asset during the first half of the season. Two platoons in particular — Adam Lind/Dae-Ho Lee at first base and Seth Smith/Franklin Gutierrez in the corner outfield spots — have delivered positive results for the offense.

Utilityman Shawn O’Malley is the club’s primary backup at shortstop and center field on the 25-man roster, but not viewed as a long-term replacement at either position. Luis Sardinas — currently assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma — performed adequately as an injury replacement for shortstop Ketel Marte when he was lost to the disabled list (DL) for two weeks.

Sardinas remains the organization’s first option to stand in for middle infielders lost for more than a few days. The 23-year-old has occasionally played the outfield while in Tacoma. Once he’s demonstrated proficiency there, the team could opt to have him replace O’Malley on the big league roster.

Prior to his recent injury, Steve Clevenger was providing timely hits during his  weekly starts as understudy to catcher Chris Iannetta. For the time being, Mike Zunino is the team’s new reserve backstop, although it’s unclear if he’ll start more often than Clevenger did or stay in Seattle through the rest if the season. It’s possible that the team adds Rob Brantly to the 40-man roster and sends the former first round draft pick back to Tacoma.

Before being optioned to Tacoma, Nori Aoki was the regular left fielder and was called upon to stand in for center fielder Leonys Martin when he spent two weeks on the DL. Although the 34-year-old’s glove wasn’t atrocious, he’s not an elite-level defender — like Martin. As a result, he wasn’t able to mitigate the below-average range of Seattle’s corner outfielders. In retrospect, the loss of Martin diminished the Mariners’ defense at all three outfield spots.

Injury Impact
After going relatively unscathed during the first six weeks of the season, the list of injured players has grown considerably since May 21. Here’s a complete tally of Mariners affected by injury this year.

Mariners Injuries
Player Position Injury Status
 Jesus Sucre C Right leg surgery On rehab assignment
Tony Zych RP Right rotator cuff tendinitis 60-day DL
Charlie Furbush RP  Left shoulder tightness  Throwing from a mound
Evan Scribner RP Strained lat muscle 60-day DL
Ryan Cook RP Strained lat muscle 60-day DL
Wade Miley SP Shoulder discomfort Back in action
Felix Hernandez SP  Calf strain Preparing for rehab assignment
Adrian Sampson SP  Right flexor bundle strain 60-day DL
Ketel Marte SS  Sprained thumb  Back in action
Leonys Martin CF  Strained hamstring  Back in action
Taijuan Walker SP Right foot tendinitis  Back in action
Steve Clevenger C Broken hand 15-day DL
Nick Vincent RP Mid-back strain 15-day DL

As covered in the mid-season rotation and bullpen report, the starting staff was decimated by the injury bug last month. With a little luck, all five of the Mariners original 2016 starters will be back shortly after the all-star break when Felix Hernandez returns.

The return of relievers Charlie Furbush, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook — all out since Spring Training — would be a welcomed development. Furbush appears closest to returning to Seattle since he’s finally throwing off a mound again. Still, he’s already suffered several setbacks along the way. Considering the nature of each player’s injury and their slow recovery times, expectations for the trio have to remain low until they finally toe a mound in a real game.

Roster Analysis
The offensive output by the Lind/Lee platoon overshadows the versatility lost by having a pair of one-position players sharing the same position. Optimally, a more versatile player who could handle a bat and fill-in at several spots — first base, middle infield, or outfield — would be better for the team. But, there hasn’t been any indication that the Mariners plan to break up their dynamic first base duo.

Aoki was dispatched to Tacoma after struggling against left-handed pitching during the first half of the season. If he can’t improve against southpaws, it’s unlikely that the left-handed hitter returns to Seattle as a full-time player.

Losing Martin to the DL exposed the organization’s razor-thin depth at center field. Currently, only four players in the organization have any major league experience at the position — Martin, Aoki, O’Malley, and Stefen Romero. Only Martin is good at fielding the position though.

Prior to the season, Boog Powell appeared to be to be on track to cover for an injured Martin. Yet, the Mariners turned to Aoki when their center fielder went down; a clear indicator that Powell wasn’t ready. Now, it doesn’t matter. The 23-year-old is out for the remainder of this year and the start of the 2017 season due to an 80-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.

Tacoma’s new center fielder — Guillermo Heredia — may eventually be an option depending on the circumstances. The Cuban signed with Seattle as a free agent in February and his defensive prowess is major league ready. Whether he’ll be able to consistently hit big league pitching is uncertain.

If Martin were to go down for an extended period, general manager Jerry Dipoto would likely go outside of the organization to find a player with big league experience to patrol center field.

For corner outfield spots, Romero remains a viable option in Tacoma. The 27-year-old did play some first base during the early stages of the season, but played there just once in June.

If the Mariners continue to remain relevant in the postseason conversation, Dipoto will likely focus on adding bullpen help, a versatile outfielder who can hit, and another starting pitcher. But, as I mentioned in the team’s deadline deal preview, Seattle has limited trade chips at their disposal.

Conversely, the first-year general manager could become a seller prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, if his team can’t stay in the hunt. That’s highly probable if the rotation doesn’t regain its early season effectiveness after King Felix returns from the DL. Within a few weeks we’ll know which direction Dipoto decided to go.…

ZuninoMiLBThe Seattle Mariners’ catcher of the future is back in the majors. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

Mike Zunino was rushed to the big leagues after being selected No. 2 overall on the 2012 Draft. He received a total of 229 plate appearances in Triple-A Tacoma prior to receiving the call-up in 2013. He’d received 276 minor league plate appearances before that, including the Arizona Fall League, for a grand total of 505 trips to the plate below the major leagues.

But that wasn’t the fire-able offense for the Jack Zduriencik regime in regards to Zunino’s development. It wasn’t even their belief that Zunino would be able to finish his development in the big leagues. It was their steadfast confidence the Florida Gators product would be able to sidestep the detriment of being rushed.

Zunino showed promise in 2014 in his first full season as major-league catcher. Sound defensively, Zunino popped 22 home runs to combat at least a small portion of the very poor .199 average and .254 on-base percentage. But “promise” is about the long-term. One can argue the Mariners should have been aggressive in their pursuit for a veteran starting-caliber catcher prior to 2015. They did not. They even acquired one in May and kept him for a few minutes and traded him away.

But Zunino did start 2016 the same place he ended last season — Triple-A Tacoma. Between his send-down last summer and the first nearly-three months of 2016, Zunino has amassed another 330 plate appearances. Why is this important?

Zunino was a mechanical mess for the better part of ’15, getting out on his front foot early on a regular basis — Zunino called it being anxious; he was not attempting to pull everything. Perhaps the biggest result Zunino needed to combat was the 34% strikeout rate he posted in the majors last season, alongside an uninspiring 5.4 percent walk rate.

In Tacoma this season, Zunino has used the middle of the field more. He’s a few of his 15 home runs to right and right-center field, found a few more hits to center and right-center than before, and his strikeout rate sits at 21.6 percent. For a power bat — Zunino slugged .516 in the Pacific Coast League — 21.6 percent is acceptable. Maybe more importantly, the bottom-half load is more sound and allows Zunino to keep his head and hands still more consistently. How consistently? We’ll find out soon, because the only test that matters is the big-league test.

Zunino’s accomplished his solid number by staying back and trusting his hands more, and staying closed in the process, which helps him reach pitches on the outer half. He hasn’t chased the right-handed breaking ball as much, and while I’ve been in attendance — nine games, 37 plate appearances — he’s done a good job of attacking only the fastballs he can drive, showing less urgency in hitter’s counts to go with a simplified contact-driven game plan in pitcher=s counts.

What Zunino appears to be capable of today he showed he wasn’t capable of a year ago is all about a swing that now supports more solid contact to areas of the field other than his severe pull side. He still will hit a lot of balls to left field, he still will strike out, too. But perhaps his work the past 330 plate appearances, plus spring training, will result in fewer weak-or-no-contact outs.

An Iannetta-Zunino catching combo is probably where the Mariners were headed for 2017, anyway, but there is risk in the move, up to and including this being too soon to expect Zunino to avoid jumping back into bad habits. Nobody knows better than the Mariners; front office and player development staff, however, and the hope now is GM Jerry Dipoto — who has broken the original plan by calling on Zunino before July, before he gave them “no choice” — remains true to his player development track record, which means if Zunino struggles mightily for an extended period, he’s shipped back before it’s too late.

If it’s not too late, alreay.…

The Major League Baseball non-waiver trading deadline is nearing and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see how general manager Jerry Dipoto handles the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” in Seattle. With that in mind, I’ve been doing “primers” for each American League (AL) West division club to see how the club’s rivals stack up as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

In recent days, I’ve discussed each of Seattle’s divisional rivals — the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the the Mariners.

As mentioned in the earlier pieces, the trade market is certain to fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Some teams will go on a hot streak and feel like they have a chance, while others will stumble. In the end, all will have to decide whether to buy or sell and how aggressive they should be in the market.

The Mariners fall into the category of a “stumbler” and are an excellent example of how quickly a team’s trajectory can veer off course. After posting a 30-11 win-loss record during the first two months, Seattle is 6-13 since. The club’s recent spate of misfortune has probably influenced the opinion of some fans on whether the Mariners should be buyers or sellers.

For the purpose of this primer, I’m going to assume that the Mariners will be buyers. A month from now, their season may look much differently. For now, they’re still above the .500 mark and still very much alive in the divisional and wild card race. First, let’s talk about how Seattle entered their June tailspin.

What happened?
As with any baseball team — or season — there’s no one “thing” that leads to failure. In the case of the Mariners though, there’s one segment of the roster that’s clearly under-performed during the rough patch known as the month of June — their pitching. Look at the following table to see what I mean.

Mariners Run Production vs. Run Prevention
Month RS/Gm RA/Gm
Total W-L
W-L (+4 Runs scored)
W-L (Under 4 Runs Scored)
April 4.3 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9
May 5.6 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7
June 4.8 5.5 6-13 6-5 0-8

As you can see, there’s been a downward trend in runs allowed (RA/Gm) during month of the season. It’s true that club’s offense isn’t as robust in June when compared to their monster May, but it’s still averaging 4.8 RS/Gm. That should be plenty to win the majority of games.

For further proof, look at Seattle’s win-loss record when they’ve scored four or more runs during each month of the season. In April and May, the Mariners combined to go 25-5 in those games. In June, however, they’re barely over .500. In fact, the ball club hasn’t won a game when they’ve scored three or less runs this month. It’s always tough to win when a team scores three or less, but 0-8?

The declining effectiveness of the pitching staff is the root cause to the club’s June swoon. So, what’s the problem with the Mariners staff?

The ugly baby
The most apparent problem with the Mariners’ staff is the is the health of their starters. Many pundits and fans point to losing ace Felix Hernandez to the disabled list (DL) as the turning point. To a degree that’s true, but it’s a bit more complex.

Sure, losing King Felix hurts. But, his replacement — James Paxton — has performed admirably in the King’s absence. Look at the numbers of Felix’s last four starts prior to his calf injury compared to Paxton’s. There are relatively the same.

Felix Hernandez vs. James Paxton (Last three starts)
Player IP H
ER SO
BB
HR
AVG
Felix Hernandez 26.1 23 11 24 8 3 .235
James Paxton
26 28 4 27 8 1 .285

Am I suggesting that Paxton can replace Felix on a long-term basis? Of course not. But, the southpaw isn’t the problem. In fact, he’s been one of the team’s better pitchers in June.

The true pain from Felix’s absence has to do with the subsequent loss of Wade Miley to the DL and the ongoing injury issues with Taijuan Walker. With Paxton subbing for the King, he wasn’t available to fill in for Miley or Walker. That forced the Mariners to turn to Adrian Sampson to take Miley’s most recent turn.

The uncertainty surrounding Walker and the tendonitis affecting his right Achilles region will force Seattle to look to another hurler for Walker’s next scheduled start on Friday. Options include Mike Montgomery, newly acquired Zach Lee, and possibly Vidal Nuno.

Obviously, losing two and possibly three starters would be a major setback for any team. But, it’s been worse for the Mariners. Why? The team was forced to rely more heavily on a bullpen that wasn’t a strength entering the season.

The following table illustrates how the percent of workload has been slowly shifting from the starters to relievers with each passing month. Not coincidentally, the club’s win-loss record has worsened as the bullpen worked more innings. In June, the ugly baby finally appeared.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution and Results
Month SP IP
SP %
SP FIP
RP IP
RP %
RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 104 61% 4.20 67 39% 5.1

As you can see, relievers are inheriting a larger workload. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to deliver the results as a unit. I included their increasing fielding independent pitching (FIP) to make that point.

For those not familiar with FIP, it’s a metric that looks similar to earned run average (ERA), but only measures the outcomes that a pitcher can solely control — strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs. I’m not trying to be a “saber-geek,” but FIP takes out the luck and defense so we can just focus on the pitchers during this conversation. If you want to know more about FIP, you can’t read about it here at FanGraphs.

Before getting into what the Mariners can do to fix themselves during the season, let’s discuss a few harsh realities facing general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Reality check
Seattle has limited resources available to use on the trade market. Their minor league system isn’t barren. However, it started the season ranked number-28 by Keith Law of ESPN.com. Just one prospect — Alex Jackson — ranked in the MLB.com Top-100. He came in at number-85.

After this month’s draft, the club’s number-11 overall pick —  Kyle Lewis — catapulted to second in Seattle’s system, according to Prospect Insider — ahead of Jackson.

Top prospect Tyler O’Neill is a rising star. Should the club consider trading the 21-year-old now? If they did, they’d be selling low. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Yes, the Mariners have a few pieces to sell and that’s the problem — they have FEW pieces. Moving O’Neill, Jackson, or Mike Zunino would bring some value back to Seattle. But, Dipoto would be selling low. He’s more accustomed to buying low.

Does this mean that the Mariners won’t be able to wheel and deal? Of course not. But, they’ll be vying for pieces coveted by market competitors — such as the Astros, Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs — who have many more prospects to offer during negotiations.

Reality check (Part two)
Let’s be honest, the Mariners entered the season as a fringe-contender capable of winning more games than they lost, but not many more games.

Thanks to a strong first two months, fan and pundit expectations for the club have soared. Now, the Mariners are leveling out. What’s changed since the start of the season? Nothing. The team is the same fringe-contender with an underwhelming bullpen. In a way, Seattle is exactly where they should be — hovering near the .500 mark.

Does that mean that club should give up on the season? No. But, selling the farm — if they had one to sell — for a shot at a potential one-game playoff would be short-sighted and unreasonable, especially for a general manager in his first season with a new organization.

Now that I’ve depressed and angered fans throughout the Pacific Northwest, what can be done to improve the Mariners pitchers and the rest of their roster? If it were up to me, I’d take a measured approach that attacked the following areas in this order — bullpen, corner outfield, rotation.

Bullpen
The biggest challenge facing the Mariners — other than limited resources — is that nearly every contender will be looking for relief help. That doesn’t mean that Seattle can’t find help. But, they’ll be facing steep competition.

We already know that Dipoto is innovative and previously fixed the 2014 Angels bullpen — they won 98 games that year. His cornerstone acquisition in 2014 was closer Huston Street. Perhaps, a reunion could take place.

The 32-year-old recently completed a five-week stint on the DL due to a strained left oblique. Assuming that he returns to form and the Angels and Mariners are willing to deal with each other — big assumption — Street would quickly improve Seattle’s bullpen. He’s set to make $9 million next season with a $10 million team option or $1 million buyout for 2018.

Having Street available would permit the Mariners manager Scott Servais to push incumbent closer Steve Cishek to the eighth inning. By doing so, Joaquin Benoit could become Servais’ seventh inning option. Suddenly, the bullpen has a different feel to it with Nick Vincent and Edwin Diaz being the primary middle relief options.

I know what some of you are thinking. Why not snag a big fish like New York Yankees setup man Andrew Miller? It does sounds appealing. After all, he’s flat out better than any Mariners reliever. Jim Bowden of ESPN.com even suggested Miller as a best fit for the Mariners not long ago. But, I don’t agree.

Bowden mentions that the Yankees would want a “young starter or young middle-of-the-order bat” in return for Miller. Who exactly is that in the Mariners organization? The guys that they can’t afford to squander on a reliever.

The same applies to Miller’s teammate — Aroldis Chapman. Having a closer capable of throwing 100-mph would be great. But, Seattle will be competing with clubs who have more valuable pieces to dangle in front of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

All of this assumes that the Bronx Bombers will be sellers. Considering that they haven’t registered a losing season since 1992, I don’t expect them to become sellers until very near the deadline. Even if the Mariners had the resources, can they wait that long?

If snagging a closer isn’t a doable do, the club could acquire relievers, who could help preserve save opportunities for Cishek. Dipoto could turn either to rentals or longer term options. Personally, I’d prefer the latter option.

I’m not going to name every possibility option, but I’ll mention the type of players that could make sense. The first one is familiar to Mariners fans — Fernando Rodney. Seattle’s former closer has been dealing for the San Diego Padres, who hold a $2 million option for 2017 with a $400 thousand buyout. Rodney is likely to be in high demand. Would the new regime bring back the “Fernando Rodney Experience” back to the Emerald City?

Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently suggested several trade options to help the Mariners, including their bullpen. Among the names was David Hernandez of the Philadelphia Phillies. The right-hander is having a good year pitching in the seventh inning with 11.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings during 32 appearances entering today.

Divish also suggested Daniel Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hudson is serving as Arizona’s eighth inning setup man and has surrendered just .786 walks and hits-per-innings pitched. An intriguing factor with the 29-year-old — he was acquired by Dipoto during his first month as interim general manager of the Diamondbacks in July 2010.

Another player that the Mariners general manager is familiar with is Angels reliever Joe Smith, currently on the DL with a hamstring problem. Assuming he returns within a few weeks, Smith could be an option. The side-arm thrower wasn’t effective prior to his injury. If Smith proves to be back to his normal self, he’d be a good value as a middle-reliever.

If the Mariners wanted to expend more resources, there are options out there. Examples include Padres rookie Ryan Buchter, Arodys Vizcaino of the Atlanta Braves, and Tyler Thornburg and Jeremy Jeffress of the Milwaukee Brewers. All are having good years and come with with multiple years of team control.

Several relievers under team control through just next year include John Axford and Fernando Rodriguez of the Athletics and Fernando Abad of the Minnesota Twins. Each player is have varying degrees of value. They’d cost more than a rental, but less than the players with multiple years previously mentioned.

Divish noted that Jeanmar Gomez of the Philadelphia Phillies as a possible fit. He’s the team’s closer and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. Gomez could help with the ninth inning or could take over the eighth inning.

Corner outfield
Mariners left fielder Norichika Aoki has been the target of fan scorn this season. The veteran has a league-average OBP of .322, but only 12 extra base hits coming into today. Plus, his outfield defense has been — at best — slightly below-average. Improving the left field spot, both offensively and defensively, may be a tall order.

Big names like Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, and Carlos Gonzalez could be available and are under team control for several years. Plus, there’s Carlos Beltran, who would be a rental. Each sounds sexy, but all have drawbacks.

Kemp is slashing .256/.274/.470 and owed nearly $64 million through the 2019 season — that’s not counting the $10.5 million that the Los Angeles Dodgers are chipping in. Even if the Padres were willing to pay some of Kemp’s contract, adding another regressing outfielder on the wrong side of age-30 would make zero sense.

Braun and Gonzalez are putting up good numbers, but the haul required to get them is realistically out of reach for the Mariners. Moreover, Braun is due to make over $80 million between now and the end of the 2020 season, when he’ll be 36 years-old. That doesn’t include the $15 million mutual option/$4 million for 2021. Getting older just doesn’t make sense.

Beltran would cost much less. But, when will the Yankees become sellers? Will they sell?

A lower profile name like Jon Jay of the Padres would make more sense. Yes, I’d rather see the team pick up a player with more control than Jay — he’s a free agent at the end of the season. However, he’s be a significant upgrade over Aoki. Entering today, the 31-year-old is slashing .296/.345/.407 slash and would present Servais with another center field option — if Leonys Martin were unavailable or needed a day off.

Tampa Bay Ray Steve Pearce would be an interesting option. Although he wouldn’t be a center field replacement. The versatile right-handed hitter has spent time at first base, second base, and both corner outfield spots during the last two seasons. Like Jay, he’ll be a free agent at season’s end.

Another potential corner outfield rental would be Josh Reddick of the Athletics. Reddick is currently on the DL due to a broken thumb, but he’s close to returning. Assuming that he’s back and healthy by the deadline, the 29-year-old would be a nice fit in right field.

Before his injury, the left-handed hitter was slashing .322/.394/.466, which were career highs. Even if he returned to his normal league-average numbers, he’d provide the Mariners with a better glove, arm, and bat.

Adding a right fielder, like Reddick, would actually help left field indirectly. Such a move would permit the Franklin Gutierrez/Seth Smith platoon to left field and significantly reduce the outfield time for Nelson Cruz. Essentially, adding one player would help both corner outfield spots.

Rotation
Here’s where I’m really going to get in trouble with Mariners fans. I recommend doing nothing with the rotation. At the most, make a minor deal late. Why do I feel that way?

To me, there’s no reason to use scarce resources on a starter. If there are any more significant issues with the starting staff, the Mariners aren’t likely to be serious contenders anyway. That probably doesn’t sit well with some Mariners faithful. But, it’s true.

As of today, Felix and Miley appear to be on track to return within the next month and there’s no indication that Walker’s problem is season ending. It’s quite possible all three could be back before or near the all-star break. Assuming that Seattle regains the trio without losing another starter, they’ll be in good shape with their starting pitching. Otherwise, there’s not much hope of postseason contention in 2016.

Finally
What I’ve presented is a plan for a team that’s two games over .500 entering today. For a club in that position, the best course of action would be to make incremental improvements to the roster without forsaking the future for a shot of instant gratification.

If the Mariners plummet during the next month, they’d be better served to consider being a seller at the deadline. Conversely, if they were soaring after the all-star break, leaning forward in a common sense way would be reasonable.

Fans don’t like to read or hear that kind of talk. But, it’s the best approach for a club that started the year as a fringe-contender.

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

AL West trade primer: Houston Astros

AL West trade primer: Texas Rangers

Herb16The Seattle Mariners began the season the owners of one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball. The only depth in the organization resides on the mound and all but one of the upside plays there began the season above Advanced-A ball and three of them didn’t start the year assigned to a full-season affiliate.

Player development, the biggest factor in the sinking of the farm system under Jack Zduriencik — a system once ranked among the Top 10, only to fade fast thanks to rush jobs and poor planning — is in the hands of Jerry Dipoto, Andy McKay and a supplemented staff, not a revamped one, in the minors.

Numbers only go so far in determining how well players are progressing. After each month of play down on the farm, Prospect Insider will reassess the top talents.

Here is the pre-season Top 25.

Three Up
While No. 1 prospect Tyler O’Neill can’t move up in Prospect Insider’s Mariners prospect rankings, he’s done nothing but help his case to remain there regardless of what Alex Jackson does once he’s sent out — which was expected to be early this month, but we’re still waiting. O’Neill, 20, is batting .327/.387/.557 in 27 games for Double-A Jackson, anchoring the Generals’ lineup and leading the Southern League in home runs (6). He’s also second in slugging percentage, fifth in average and 10th in on-base percentage. His 11 walks all have come in the past 21 games and while his 31 strikeouts in 119 plate appearances is a bit high at 26 percent, it’s improved by four percent from a year ago and seven percent from 2014, O’Neill’s first full season in pro ball.

For the record, the walk rate is up more than three percent from last season and the power remains nearly identical.

From a scouting perspective, O’Neill has shown improved plate coverage with noticeable progress in using center field and right-center field, and even the right-field line with extra-base power. He’s still most dangerous to his pull side by a wide margin, but he’s staying back better on offspeed stuff, which allows him a better shot to hit for some average.

O’Neill is a solid-average outfielder, too, fitting well in either corner — he’s played all but one game in right so far — showing a plus arm and above-average jumps. His lateral routes are more natural than this time a year ago and he’s learning to come in on balls more aggressively. He’ll flash the leather on tough catches and is far from afraid to dive for balls, often making the catch.

Andrew Moore came in at No. 13 prior to the season and in a re-rank after a month might slide up a few spots. The right-hander, who does lack upside but makes up for some of that with the highest probability of any starter in the system, has been terrific in the California League in seven starts, boasting a 36-10 K/BB ratio and allowing just 38 total baserunners in 42 2/3 innings.

Moore has gone at least six innings in all but one start — 4 2/3 scoreless innings on April 12 — and he’s missing barrel and entire bats enough with his average fastball, fringy curveball, and average changeup. In 2016, Moore’s curveball has been tighter and the fastball has shown more life above the hitters’ hands.

Boog Powell entered the season at No. 5 overall and hasn’t lost any ground in 29 games at Triple-A Tacoma. He’s all business, and despite lacking power that plays in the big leagues, the outfielder is average or better in all other facets, including defensive range, throwing accuracy, baserunning, raw speed and the overall hit tool.

Powell is batting .283/.364/.354 with six extra-base hits, but I’d bet the farm on a .300/.370 finish to the season. At times, Powell is the toughest out in a very, very good Rainiers lineup and owns the organization’s best strike zone judgment. He’s drawn 15 walks (11.5%) and 19 strikeouts (14.6%), and his work versus left-handed pitching has improved (.273/.333/.303). Powell also is one of few Tacoma regulars not to have thrived on the road at this point. Cheney Stadium is a little more forgiving than the older version of the ballpark, but the winds and overall environments tends to favors pitching the first six weeks or so. Powell, who relies on line drives, is batting .365/.431/.462 at home and has yet to get rolling on the road, suggesting the full-season numbers are legit.

Whether he’s ultimately a very solid and useful fourth outfielder or a regular in center field, Powell will see the majors and his work early in 2016 has only convinced me more.

Honorable Mention: Tim Lopes, 2B
Lopes fell off the Top 25 after a tough 2015 but he’s stronger this season and that strength is helping his plate skills and strike zone judgment produce more solid line drives. He’s always worked counts well, but now his hard-struck balls are getting through for hits.

Lopes can handle second base and at some point may be considered for some left field duty to increase his chances to serve as a reserve in the big leagues. After 28 games in Jacksom, the 21-year-old is batting .303/.387/.358.

Three Down
D.J. Peterson, 24, was sent back to Double-A Jackson to start the tyear and has been anything but strong over the first month of play. The former first-round pick sits at .241/.297/.361 in 28 games. One scout opines that perhaps Peterson was so thoroughly disappointed in the assignment that no matter how hard he tried to focus there was an “inherited distraction.”

If that’s true, perhaps we can give Peterson a break and look to his past eight games as a potential sign he’s breaking out of the slump. In those eight games, Peterson is 12-for-31 with just one strikeout and three bases on balls.

In a four-game stretch last week, multiple scouts noted Peterson was lunging toward the ball at times, pulling off the ball on the inner half and susceptible to the left-handed changeup. Furthermore, lefties have worked him effectively away all season.

Austin Wilson, No. 19 to start the season, has struggled something fierce in his repeat of Bakersfield and at this stage — Wilson is 24 years old — it appears the big right fielder simply is not going to hit.

The pitch recognition and strike zone judgment hold him back, and his swing has been too erratic to consistently make contact. He’s whiffed nearly 40 percent of the time he’s strolled to the plate and he boasts just seven extra-base hits thus far.

While there’s no reason to completely give up on Wilson, holding your breath no longer is a good idea, not that it ever was, Chris Crawford.

Tyler Marlette batted .286, .304 and .297 in his first three full seasons in pro ball. He struggled in Bakersfield last season, batting .216 in 39 games, but jumped to .258 in 50 games in Double-A. Marlette returned to Bakersfield this season and is scuffling along at .153/.228/.236 with just four extra-base hits.

Power is supposed to be Marlette’s calling card but his attempts to improve his ability to hit for average appear to have robbed him of his extra-base prowess. It doesn’t help that he’s focused very much on improving his chances to catch long term, but I have to wonder if these struggles, like with Peterson, are somewhat mental.

Peterson and Marlette are great tests for the new approach at player development; both should be better, have been better and can be better, let’s see if this year the organization can figure it out with both.

Role Change
Edwin Diaz came into the season as the club’ top pitching prospect with a chance to be a No, 3 starter in time. Over the weekend, the organization decided to push Diaz to the Generals’ bullpen, almost certainly to give Diaz a chance to contribute in the big leagues this season. While it’s not necessarily a permanent move — it shouldn’t be — it’s one that actually increases Diaz’s chances to help, while speeding up his timetable to the majors.

Diaz was firing on all cylinders, making six starts and compiling a 38-5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. In a starting role, he pitches comfortably in the 91-94 mph range, setting up an above-average slider that flashes plus. His changeup still grades below average but he’s willing to throw it more now than ever before, and his arm speed is more consistent than a year ago.

In relief, Diaz’s fastball-slider combo may play up enough where he’s sitting 94 mph or better, perhaps touching 97, and the slider could prove more consistently sharp. In the interim, whether that’s this season only or goes into next season the way the Chicago White Sox handled Chris Sale and the Toronto Blue Jays with Aaron Sanchez, Diaz may be asked to focus on attacking hitters with his best two pitches while continuing his attempts to get stronger, which is something he’ll need if he wants to start long term, and refining his command.

Promotion Index
1. Edwin Diaz, RHP (AA to AAA)
As soon as Diaz thrives for a few weeks in his new role, it’s likely he gets moved to Tacoma to continue his trek.
2. Andrew Moore, RHP (A+ to AA)
Moore may replace Diaz on the Jackson roster, so keep an eye on his next 3-4 starts. They could be his last in Bakersfield.
3. Stefen Romero, OF/1B (AAA to MLB)
There’s no room right now, but Romero’s ready for a shot to contribute in a platoon-type role.
4. Blake Parker, RHP (AAA to MLB)
Parker may be the most likely to see the big leagues next with the attrition rate of the bullpen thus far. He’s throwing the ball well and now has his first back-to-back under his belt following a lost season in 2015 due to elbow surgery.
5. James Paxton, LHP (AAA to MLB)
In a starting role, there’s no room for Paxton. All five M’s starters are on solid ground, perhaps none more so than Taijuan Walker and Nate Karns, the club’s No. 4 and 5 starters. Paxton has been really good of late, though, tallying 25 punchies in his last 24 1/3 innings while issuing just one base on balls. He’s made some adjustments, and they’ve worked. Whether he, too, is a relief option at some point this season remains to be seen, but with no room in the rotation until the club looks for ways to curb the workload of both Walker and Karns or until attrition hits the first five, Paxton likely stays in the Tacoma rotation. Come August, though, he’s likely to get starts or be inserted into the big-league bullpen, simply to have the best arms in the majors.
6. Emilio Pagan, RHP (AA to AAA)
He’s 90-94 mph with a plus slider and deception. September call-up candidate.
7. Guillermo Heredia, CF (AA to AAA)
He’s coachable, energetic and has four tools that play.
8. Chris Taylor, SS (AAA to MLB)
Like Romero, Taylor is a victim of the numbers game and while I don’t buy the swing in the majors, Taylor can play shortstop and is improving his contact skills.
9. Mike Zunino, C (AAA to MLB)
Zunino is actually hitting his first slump of the season, so let’s see how he deals with that as it’s an important part of his development this year. Once he’s rebounded and shows he can deal with all the breaking stuff down and away and all the fastballs on the outer half (he’ll need some hits to his backside), there will be no reason to keep him in the minors. We’re a ways away, though, but so far, so good.
10. Tyler Herb, RHP (A+ to AA)
Herb is throwing his offspeed stuff for strikes and commanding his fastball well, which has led to a 41-8 K/BB ration in Bakersfield in 31 innings of work. He pounds the lower half of the zone well, inducing ground balls with his sinking fastball and changeup, which plays well in the Cal League. Herb has touched 94 mph in the past but pitches regularly in the low 90s, getting swings and misses up in the zone versus right-handed batters thanks to good armside run. A challenging promotion is likely ahead for Herb later this summer. …

ZuninoMiLBMike Zunino was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma last summer after struggling somewhat historically in the big leagues for four months. He hit the ball well in the Pacific Coast League for a month, showed positive results in spring training last month and now is off to a roaring start with the Rainiers in 2016 — .415/.439/.868, 3-2B, 7 HR, 3 BB, 9 SO in 13 games.

But numbers aren’t what’s necessary for Zunino to earn his way back to Seattle at some point. It’s all about the process. Some of the adjustments are mechanical, some are mental. Fans may want to see a ‘new’ Mike Zunino, but they aren’t going to get that, at least not according to Zunino. The prized catcher says is going back in time to help him right the ship. But make no mistake about it, there are some ‘new’ concepts to the adjustments that may just unlock more of his potential as a hitter.

“(I’m) actually going back to stuff that I did more so in college and my first year and a half in pro ball,” Zunino said Saturday from Cheney Stadium. “Getting back to trusting what I was doing, trusting that my mechanics were fine and using the same approach I had at the plate, knowing that for better or worse it’s going to help me more times than not.”  What Zunino does well from a tools and raw ability standpoint is generate leverage and loft thanks to a power swing path and solid-average bat speed. The swing, when he’s right, is short to the ball. So why all the chasing of breaking balls?

“When you’re clouded mentally and not sticking to your approach,” Zunino explained, “the only thing you’re going to be able to do is rush, and a lot of times when you rush it looks like you’re trying to pull the ball. That’s not something I’ve ever tried to do consciously.”

Zunino is known for being intelligent beyond his 24 years and for having a good baseball IQ. That certainly is apparent in talking to the former No. 3 pick, and always has been. But as a hitter, does he know what kind of swing works in big-league baseball? Does he know his swing?

Before we get to what Zunino said about his swing here is what Edgar Martinez said to me last spring, just months before the club named him the big-league hitting coach.

“Where your bat goes, where you put the head of the bat, that is where the ball will go in batting practice. But in real games you aren’t going to the pitches right down the middle of the plate very much so the barrel has to get to the pitches wherever on, or around, the plate it’s headed. We want these guys to find that contact point all over the strike zone, but let the pitch, the pitch location, determine where the ball is hit.”

Here’s Zunino:

“Your swing dictates where you hit the ball, it’s just a contact point,” Zunino said. “I know if I (stick to my) approach, (I’m) going to hit balls to right, center, left, dictated by the pitch.”

Sound at all familiar?

While Zunino speaks of being “clouded” after struggling for a period of time, suggesting it became a mental struggle to some level, the details of that are even more interesting. His wording is a bit conversational, but stay with me here.

“Going up there, you know, instead of feeling like those weren’t my at-bats, now I’m staying with my approach.”

Zunino also added: “When you’re trying to help the team somehow, you know, instead of going 0-for-4… I’ve tried to chase hits before, tried to chase RBI, it just sort of spirals you down. You only can take what he game’s giving you.”

Such comments make it clear he indeed was pressing, which took him away from what he’s good at and down a forced path of attempting to do too much, and by ways he’d not been successful in the past. It’s also clear Zunino’s mind is more at ease, with clarity now, with a goal to stay the course on who he is as a hitter rather than pushing to be, say, Nelson Cruz or someone else on the team that’s successful.

Zunino set no goal for a return to the majors, nor statistical goals, or anything beyond his focus to remain Mike Zunino and only Mike Zunino. Why not? “Because when you set goals like that, you can become focused on that rather than the next pitch.”

Zunino’s handling of his struggles is new to him; he raked his way to Gainesville, starred at the University of Florida, was the No. 3 pick in the 2012 Draft, lit up the short-season Northwest League that same year, skipped Class-A Clinton and Advanced-A ball, lit up the Southern League for a short time — still in his Draft year — and had fewer than 250 plate appearances at Triple-A before the Mariners called him up to the majors. In terms of fixing his own struggles, he wasn’t able to do that a year ago.  I asked him how might he deal with that differently once a 3-week period occurs — and it will — when he doesn’t hit.

The club’s all-time single-season home run leader for a catcher said it’s about not trying to please everybody or do what others are doing that is working for them.

Sounds like a lot of help was coming in and Zunino tried to use a lot of it, if not all of it.

Not all of Zunino’s adjustments since last summer have been mental, however. As I have stated before, his mechanics show favoring his pull side, whether that’s conscious to him or not, and his upper body fell extremely robotic in his upper half, something scouts term as ‘rotational.’ It means the swing isn’t a full-body force anymore, it’s the hands and arms dragging the hips, waist and upper body into a circular-style motion. These kinds of mechanical flares cause issues such as plate coverage, both horizontal and vertical, susceptibility to even average velocity, removing contact capabilities and even power on most pitch types and locations. Zunino recognizes that, too, among the task of handling the pitching staff being a backstop’s No. 1 job. Completely unsolicited, the catcher noted:

“Does it give you the short end of the stick sometimes? Maybe, but I’ve always done a pretty good job of separating the two, but I did go back and put a lot of focus on my at-bats this offseason, and I’ve done that more years than not, so it was pretty easy to convert back to it.

“I’ve tried to clean up my (swing) load, I’ve gone back to more of a lower-body load I used in college” Zunino said. Load is mostly in the hands, sometimes moving back or even vertically in both directions to help a batter generate more strength in the swing, in hopes bat speed and leverage is the result.  Using the lower half to help here also aids a hitter’s ability to maintain a more compact swing, yet still create the power. A more useful lower half could help Zunino cover the plate better, too.

“With my upper body I’m focused on not getting too rotational, Zunino added.”

There’s that term again. I never mentioned it to him, I simply asked about any mechanical adjustments he’s made, and he noted immediately the lower-body load and being too rotational. Sounds like a good place to start, particularly when some of his issues compounded due to a mental lapse in what sounds like a loss in identity.

Whatever he’s doing there is working in the minors thus far. We’ll see how he handles the first prolonged slump, and over the next several weeks I’ll be looking for mechanical differences between now and last season. The one thing I noticed on Opening Night was more athleticism in his knees and feet during his at-bats, and a bit more of an open stance. It appears he’s stayed with that, and the small-sample, minor-league results are all positive.

Stay tuned.…

Jack 3 One of the biggest complaints that Seattle Mariners fans had with the Jack Zduriencik era — other than the multiple losing seasons — was the inability of the organization to produce top-notch prospects despite owning a top-three selection in three of the first four Major League Baseball (MLB) amateur drafts of Zduriencik’s tenure.

Whether draftees Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad MillerDanny Hultzen, Nick Franklin, and Chris Taylor and acquired prospects Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero were bad choices or improperly developed is a debate that still rages on in Seattle. In the end, all that’s certain is that the Mariners’ lack of success in the draft — and the standings — ultimately cost Zduriencik his job.

When the draft gets underway on June 9, the Mariners will have a new general manager — Jerry Dipoto — at the helm for the first time in seven years. The 47-year-old inherits a minor league system that currently ranks number-28 — per Keith Law of ESPN.com — and continues to be a cause of fan angst.

New GM Jerry Dipoto has the unenviable task of keeping the big league club competitive while trying to restock the fallen system. — Keith Law of ESPN.

With that in mind, I thought it might be both fun and informative to review the draft record of Dipoto’s former club — the Los Angeles Angels — during his tenure as their general manager. At first blush, the impression isn’t good.

In the eyes of many Angels fans, Dipoto was a failure at the draft. They point to the fact the organization has zero prospects in the MLB.com top-100 prospect listing. Plus, Law rates the club’s system as the worst in the majors.

From a distance, it appears that Dipoto wrecked the Angels minor league system — that’s what the blogosphere contends. Should the disappointing Angels system be a red flag for Mariners fans? Let’s dig into the Angels draft history to find out.

For starters
Since Dipoto joined the Angels in October 2011 and departed in July 2015, he was present for just four MLB amateur drafts, which brings up a point to consider as we review draft selections. Unless we’re going to venture through a wormhole to the future, enough time hasn’t elapsed to judge the overall success – or lack thereof — for any MLB team’s 2012 draft. Please let me explain.

As of this week, only 69 players drafted in 2012 have spent any time in the big leagues. When I say “any,” I mean enough time to at least have a plate appearance or toe the mound. As you’d expect, even fewer players — 24 in total — have reached the majors from the 2013 and 2014 draft classes and no one from last year’s draft has even had a cup of coffee in “the show.”

Although most 2012 draftees haven’t broken through, there are recognizable names who’ve already spent time on a major league roster. A close look at the following list may help you identify the first significant challenge that Dipoto and his staff faced as they attempted to acquire top-level talent.

Certainly, there are several superb players on the list, including 2015 American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. However, with the exception of just a few of the names, nearly all of the players were selected early in the draft. This is the initial problem that Dipoto faced during his first two years as Angels general manager; his club didn’t have a first round pick.

Hamstrung from the start
In 2012, the Angels lost their first round pick after signing free agent Albert Pujols. As the preceding table illustrates, the St. Louis Cardinals selected starting pitcher Michael Wacha with the number-19 overall selection, which would’ve belonged to the Angels if they hadn’t signed Pujols. Essentially, the Cardinals exchanged Pujols for Wacha.

Not only did the Angels lack a first round pick during Dipoto’s first year on the job, they also forfeited their second round slot by signing free agent starting pitcher C.J. Wilson. When the team finally chose a player in the third round, they selected right-handed pitcher R.J. Alvarez with the number-114 overall draft choice. By that point, all but two of the players listed above were off the draft board.

The following year, the Angels lost their first round choice after signing outfielder Josh Hamilton to an ill-fated free agent deal. Consequently, the club didn’t select until the second round — number-59 overall. Unfortunately, for both player and team, the draftee selected — pitcher Hunter Green from Warren East high school in Bowling Green, Kentucky — just retired due to chronic back problems.

On the surface, drafting later may not seem like a big deal; it is though. Of the 76 players in the MLB.com top-100 who were selected via the draft — the remaining were amateur free agents — 89-percent were either a first or a second round selection. The early rounds matter.

Obviously, it’s not just drafting early that helps an organization. As the Green injury demonstrates, unforeseen circumstances can influence the success of a draft class. However, Dipoto’s Angels started at a major disadvantage during his first two years at the helm.

Another factor that comes into play when considering the Angels’ draft record during the Dipoto years was the use of minor leaguers as trade chips. Some may argue that the club should’ve been more cautious when dealing away prospects. But, it’s never that simple.

Let’s make a deal
Every owner wants to win, but some want it more than others do. Those kind of owners don’t care what it takes to get to the postseason, especially, after they’ve seen their team thrive in the playoffs. Certainly, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno falls into the “win now” category.

General managers who work for such an owner face the uphill battle of winning right now, while trying to build a controllable, cost-effective foundation for the future. Undoubtedly, Dipoto performed this balancing act throughout his stay in Los Angeles.

Although he didn’t trade away any franchise studs when trying to put his team over the top, Dipoto did have to dig into his already shallow minor league talent pool to get needed help for the big league club. His most prominent deal included the very first draft choice of his tenure.

In July 2014, the Angels dealt Alverez, along with Taylor Lindsey, Elliot Morris, and Jose Rondon, to the San Diego Padres for closer Huston Street and fellow reliever Trevor Gott. Here’s a look at all of the players drafted during the Dipoto regime, who were subsequently flipped in trades. It’s worth noting that several of the deals happened after he left the organization last July.

Dipoto Draft Picks Dealt by LAA
Date Prospect Traded To
Comments Traded For Comments
Jun 2013 Kyle Johnson NYM Class-AA Collin Cowgill Purch by CLE (Dec 2015)
Jul 2014 R.J. Alvarez SDP Traded to OAK Huston Street Current LAA closer
Taylor Lindsey Class-AA Trevor Gott Traded for Yunel Escobar
Elliot Morris AZL Padres  
Jose Rondon #5 SDP
Nov 2014 Mark Sappington  TBR Class-AAA    Cesar Ramos  Free agent (2015)
July 2015  Eric Stamets  CLE Class-AA  David Murphy Free agent (2015)
Nov 2015 Sean Newcomb ATL #19 MLB Andrelton Simmons LAA starting SS
Chris Ellis #14 ATL
Jose Briceno Class-A+
Jan 2016  Kody Eaves  DET Class-AA Jefry Marte Class-AA 

It’s tough to argue with Dipoto’s rationale for trading away minor leaguers for a proven commodity like Street. I suspect that most Angels fans don’t have a problem with this deal since the club went on to win 98 games after acquiring their new closer. Nevertheless, the trade didn’t help the organization’s woefully thin minor league depth.

One transaction that did raise eyebrows was made after Dipoto’s departure from Anaheim. The Angels’ new front office dealt the first player drafted in the first round by Dipoto’s regime — Sean Newcomb — and fellow prospect Chris Ellis, along with veteran shortstop Erick Aybar to the Atlanta Braves for Andrelton Simmons and minor league catcher Jose Briceno.

The Angels got a starting shortstop — Simmons — who’s under team control through the 2020 season. However, they traded away their two top prospects to land the offensively challenged Simmons. While the 26-year-old is an elite defender, his addition — combined with Aybar’s departure — didn’t improve an offense that ranked near the bottom of the American League last year.

Time will determine whether dealing Newcomb and Ellis for Simmons was a wise move by the Angels. But, there’s no denying that the trade weakened an already diminished system.

Hitting rock bottom
As I peel back the Angels’ draft history, it’s clear that the poor standing of the Angels’ minor league isn’t a case of simply doing a bad job of drafting the right players. That’s a factor, but it’s far more complex.

Team ownership spearheaded the signings of several high-priced, overvalued free agents at the cost of payroll flexibility and high-round draft picks. Simultaneously, both Dipoto and new Angels general manager Billy Eppler traded away some of the organization’s future to acquire major league ready talent.

I’m not trying to absolve Dipoto of blame for the moves and draft selections made by the Angels under his stewardship. In the end, he was the man at the top and the buck stops with him. On the other hand, he wasn’t able to employ his baseball philosophy during nearly four years in Anaheim, while he’s already done so with Seattle in just seven months ago.

Turning the page
With the Mariners, Dipoto has complete control over all baseball and personnel moves. As a result, he’s been able bring in his own people and choose who to retain from the Zduriencik regime. Conversely, he inherited field manager Mike Scioscia and scouting director Ric Wilson in Los Angeles.

The history between Dipoto and Scioscia is well chronicled and doesn’t merit repeating. In the case of Wilson though, it’s worth noting that the scouting director is the person who actually runs the draft for an organization — not the general manager.

That’s not to say that Dipoto wasn’t involved in the selection process. Of course, he was involved. However, a general manager has to rely on the scouting director and his staff to do the “heavy lifting” when it comes to actually going out and seeing potential draftees in person on multiple occasions. In Seattle, the scouting director is Tom McNamara — a Zduriencik holdover.

Finally
Dipoto’s tenure with the Angels reminds me of an incomplete novel. The author had a vision, but his publisher didn’t give him enough time or artistic liberty. Consequently, he didn’t get to write the final chapter.

In Seattle, ownership will give Dipoto the opportunity to do a rewrite, on his terms, so he can see his story through to its natural conclusion. Whether Dipoto produces an epic tale that leaves Mariners fans wanting more or he delivers a clunker destined for the discount rack will be determined later. In the interim, I’d suggest that Mariners faithful consider two things.

First, don’t be surprised if Dipoto opts to deal young players to improve his ball club, assuming that the Mariners are in contention at the all-star break. He did it with the Angels and he’s already shown a willingness to part with minor leaguers such as Enyel De Los Santos, Nelson Ward, and Patrick Kivlehan in order to beef up his club’s 2016 roster.

In addition, it’s likely that we won’t see 2016 draftees at the big league level for another four to six years. That’s the typical time it takes prospects to reach the majors. That means that the next President of the United States will be running for re-election before we have any idea on how well Dipoto’s organization has performed in the draft.

If the Mariners general manager is still with Seattle in six years, there’s a good chance that fans will be satisfied with the organization’s draft and player development reputation, plus their win-loss record. Otherwise, they’ll be commiserating with Angels fans and looking for another author to write that non-fiction tale about October baseball set in Seattle.

 

 

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iannetta2Chris Iannetta
2015: 92 G, .188/.293/.335, .225 BABIP, .281 wOBA, 80 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR
Iannetta, 32, fell of the map at the plate last season, but maintained his sound defense while fighting some minor, nagging injuries. The Mariners are hoping he’ll bounce back, and despite 6774 innings behind the plate, that triple-slash is headed north in 2016. The question is: how far back does he get?

It’s reasonable to expect what STEAMER does — .215/.323/.353 — and probably not much more, though Iannetta’s career marks sit at .231/.351/.405. The innings in the crouch don’t scare me much — Russell Martin, Yadier Molina and Brian McCann all have over 10,000 innings and still are producing fairly close to career levels — but I do believe Iannetta’s workload in 2016 does. Not the raw number of starts or innings, but making sure he’s not run into the ground. This means his backup will have to be used consistently, almost regardless of how well or poorly he performs.

Iannetta, even in the down year, was very respectable against left-handed pitching at .230/.359/.405, and he’s an above-average pitch framer with a sound approach to game calling.

ClevengerSteve Clevenger
2015: 30 G, .287/.314/.426, .314 BABIP, .316 wOBA, 97 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR
Clevenger has just 148 big-league games to his record with just 30 of them coming in 2015. At 29, he may be ready to double that, despite fringy, though not awful, defense. The arm strength is fringe-average, as-is the accuracy, but he does block the ball well and is accurate on throws after fielding the ball, i.e., bunts.

Clevenger’s value comes mostly at the plate, both when he’s starting and when skipper Scott Servais calls for him in a pinch-hitting role. Clevenger batted .280/.309/.430 versus right-handed pitching a year ago, and the former 7th-round draft pick always has shown solid plate skills, making fairly consistent contact.

Mike Zunino
2015: 112 G, .174/.230/.300, .235 wOBA, 47 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR
Zunino, 25 in March, is in fix mode, likely to spend at least a good portion of 2016 in the minors somewhere, working on a better foundation at the plate to support a game plan of using more of the field while trusting his hands.

The defensive work already is solid, including well above-average pitch framing and a solid-average throwing arm with accuracy. He’s heady, a leader and a worker, and simply needs to return to his 2014 offensive rates to get back to the big leagues.

The new player development regime’s most critical task is to save Zunino, but he doesn’t have that far to go to become serviceable with the bat. He’s been there done that, even, but needs help making the adjustment to how clubs attacked him a year ago.

I’d be surprised to see Zunino in the majors before August, but I’d also be surprised if he didn’t make an appearance to help by September, barring injury. Where he starts the season, however, is anyone’s guess at this early stage of spring workouts.

Jesus Sucre
2015: 52 G, .157/.195/.228, .189 wOBA, 15 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR
Sucre is all-glove, but is a reliable receiver. The bad news includes Sucre likely missing the year after breaking a bone in his lower leg and tearing a tendon in his foot sliding into second base in a winter league game in Venezuela.

Steve Lerud
2015:
NO MLB STATS
Lerud is necessary for Seattle so if an injury occurs, they don’t have to either force a Zunino call-up or dig too deep into the organization for help. The 31-year-old has just nine big-league games and hasn’t seen the majors since 2013 with the Philadelphia Phillies, but he’s sound defensively with high strikeout rates and a patience game plan with the bat.

Lerud will start the year in Triple-A Tacoma, which now seems highly likely he stays around with the injury to Jesus Sucre.

Steve Baron
2015:
4G, 11 PA
Baron made his big-league debut last September, but isn’t ready to face big-league pitchers, even though his defense and baseball IQ are ready to handle a staff.

Baron has plus arm strength and his accuracy continues to improve. His progress at the plate includes a swing that produces from alley to alley, but he appears caught, still, between hitting for power — he does have good bat speed — and calming things down to make consistent contact.

Baron will start the year in Tacoma, and could combine with Lerud to allow the Mariners to place Zunino anywhere from extended spring training to Double-A Jackson to Tacoma (three catchers can work in the minors where development is most important) to start the season.

Marcus Littlewood
2015: NO MLB STATS
A converted shortstop, Littlewood continues to make progress behind the plate, but still has been inconsistent with the bat. Much of that is to be expected, however, as catcher — and even more so, converted versions — take more time to get the bat going. Littlewood, at some point, may be asked to give up switch hitting, but he continues to show more power from his overall-weaker side — right.

Keep an eye on Littlewood, 24 in March. He’ll likely start 2016 back at Double-A Jackson, but these kinds of converts have a history of clicking almost out of nowhere.…

Peoria Sports ComplexWhen pitchers and catchers from the Seattle Mariners officially report to the Peoria Sports Complex in just a few days, baseball will begin to re-enter the consciousness of many Seattle sports fan for the first time since the start of preseason football.

This annual “re-awakening” of the casual baseball fan from their gridiron hibernation will begin to take hold by the middle of next month. Spring Training is such an exciting time for fans of all teams. After all, everyone has a chance of winning before the regular season begins.

Mixed in with fans catching baseball fever are an unfortunate lot who’re susceptible to a more sinister illness that can be contracted by merely watching Spring Training baseball or reading box scores from the games. The principal symptom of this disorder is placing any level of importance on March statistics.

Steve Sandmeyer briefly touched upon the condition during the Vincent Askew” edition of the weekly podcast that he co-hosts with Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill from Mulleady’s Irish Pub in Seattle. During that episode, Steve opined that he gets irritated when Spring Training statistics come into any conversation on who should or shouldn’t make a club’s roster.

I know that many fans agree with Steve. Perhaps, they’ve built up their immunity after succumbing to this illness in the past or they just know better. Sadly, others will inevitably fall into the trap of putting weight into Spring Training numbers.

It happens every year. A player will unexpectedly take the Cactus or Grapefruit league by storm and those infected with this malady will take to social media or call into a local sports talk radio show to express their optimism about this emerging superstar. Eventually, the regular season will start and it’ll become painfully obvious for this poor soul that Spring Training stats are nothing more than fool’s gold.

After hearing Steve’s comments about the silliness of Spring Training performance evaluations based on numbers alone, I thought it’d be interesting to look at some of the more bright and shiny Peoria performances that didn’t lead to regular season success. Since I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest since January 2009, I decided to narrow my focus to the seven years that I’ve been observing the Mariners.

To be eligible for consideration, a position player had to play at least 15 games during Spring Training. The position listed next to each player’s name is the position listed on the official MLB statistics for that particular Cactus League season. The only exception was Jesus Montero, who was still a catcher in 2013. I needed a designated hitter for my squad and he was my choice. Without any further ado, here’s my handpicked “Peoria wonder” starting lineup.

   Spring Training   Regular Season
Pos
Name Year
Hr AVG OBP
SLG   HR AVG OBP SLG
1B Justin Smoak 2014 3 .292 ,368 ,523   7 .202 .275 .339
2B Chone Figgins 2011 1 .373 .448 .490   1 .188 .241 .243
SS Munenori Kawasaki 2012 0 .455 .489 .523   0 .192 .257 .202
3B Alex Liddi 2012 1 .370 .453 .587   3 .224 .278 .353
RF Michael Morse 2013 9 .357 .439 .893   13 .215 .270 .381
CF Austin Jackson 2015 0 .333 .359 .467   9 .267 .311 .385
LF Dustin Ackley 2014 2 .382 .408 .603   4 .253 .319 .341
C Mike Zunino 2015 7 .352 .435 .852   11 .174 .230 .300
DH Jesus Montero 2013 2 .400 .438 .711   3 .208 .264 .327

This group should evoke memories – mostly bad – for longtime fans of the Mariners. If served truth serum, I’m sure that more than a few o the team’s faithful would admit that they were excited – or at least encouraged – by the Spring Training performances of at least a few of these players. Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley were the only players to perform near league-average after Opening Day. The rest of the group had an underwhelming regular season after shining so brightly during the stupendously small sample-size of March baseball.

The players listed above weren’t the only Cactus League studs available for selection. Oh no, there were plenty of Peoria overachievers available for selection. Here are a few more notable examples of great March play that meant nothing once the regular season got underway. I hope that all of these lists won’t cause nightmares or give Seattle fans the urge to drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

   Spring Training   Regular Season
Pos
Name Year
Hr AVG OBP
SLG   HR AVG OBP SLG
 1B   Chris Shelton  2009 3 .460 .534  .720    0 .231  .286  .308
LF  Cole Gillespie 2014  0  .433  .469  .533    1  .254  .312  .324
 3B   Matt Tuiasosopo 2009  2  .424  .453  .644    1  .227  .280  .409
1B  Justin Smoak 2013  5 .407  .455  .797    20  .238  .334  .412
1B  Justin Smoak 2012 0  .378  .479  .486    19  .217  .290 .364
 SS  Yuniesky Betancourt 2009  3 .400  .419  .683    2  .250  .278  .330
2B Josh Wilson 2011 1 .348 .423 .500   2 .224 .258 .353
 2B  Robert Andino 2013  1 .327  .413 .455    0  .184  .253  .237

Ironically, a few of the players listed above did well during several Spring Training seasons only to disappoint during the regular season. Most notably, Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Mike Zunino fall into that category. Smoak was a“Peoria Triple Crown” winner by playing superb desert baseball in three different years.

This Peoria-bred lunacy knows no boundaries and applies to starting pitchers too. Since there are fewer players vying for a limited number of rotation spots each spring, I selected only three Peoria Cy Young award winners for review. This trio looked so great in March, yet they couldn’t keep it going after Opening Day.

   Spring Training   Regular Season
Pitcher
Year GS
IP ERA OPP AVG   GS IP ERA OPP AVG
Erasmo Ramirez  2014  5 23.2  1.14  .212    14 75.1  5.26 .277
 Brandon Maurer  2013  4  24  1.50  .261    14  90  6.30 .311
Chris Jakubauskas  2009  4  22.2 1.99  .215    8  93 5.32 .254

Unlike position players, who play nearly every day in Peoria, starting pitchers get a limited number of opportunities to show their stuff. Normally, the most Spring Training starts a pitcher gets is five. To compound the evaluation process, pitch counts are limited as the hurlers build their arm strength. As you can see from the list above, all three starters pitched very well and logged just over 20 innings.

On the topic of bad performances, those fans enamored by Spring Training metrics will succumb to being anxious about the poor performance of an established player. My advice to those afflicted is don’t worry, everything will be okay. Look at these five Cactus League pitching performances to see what I mean.

   Spring Training   Regular Season
Pitcher
Year GS
IP ERA OPP AVG   GS IP ERA OPP AVG
Felix Hernandez 2013  12.1 4  10.22  .277    31 204.1  3.04  .242
Roenis Elias 2013  14.2 4 6.75  .426    29  163.2  3.85  .248
Doug Fister 2011  23.1 6  5.01 .275    31  216.1  2.83 .237
Felix Hernandez  2014  13.1  4  4.73  .250    34  236.0  2.14  .200
Hisashi Iwakuma  2013  19  5 4.26  .254    33  219.2 2.66  .220

Although Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma pitched poorly – statistically speaking – during Cactus League play, they went on to be finalists for the American League Cy Young award; Felix in 2014 and Kuma the year prior. Make sure to point this out to the inflicted if Felix stinks up the Peoria Sports Complex next month. He knows what he’s doing and the odds are good that he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

If you encounter someone suffering from the Peoria strain of March madness, try logic first. Point out that an everyday player will typically get roughly 60 at-bats during Spring Training. That’s slightly more than half of what they normally log during a full month of regular season play. The sample size isn’t large enough to gauge performance. Maybe that will shake some sense into the person.

Another option would be to get the afflicted person to make frequent visits to Prospect Insider and faithfully listen to the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast. Perhaps, constant exposure to common sense and good baseball judgement will help reverse the illness.

When all else fails, try to be patient with this soon-to-be tormented fan. Reality will likely crash down on their Spring Training dreams by Memorial Day and they’ll need a friend to help prevent a recurrence of their Peoria madness in March 2017.…

Aoki Dipoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Montgomery

After aggressively remodeling his club’s roster for the past three months, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto says that the team’s roster is essentially set for the beginning of Spring Training.

Assuming for a moment that the 40-man roster remains intact between now and the start of Spring Training, the club will enter camp with six players who have no options remaining. This could set the stage for several tough roster-related choices by Dipoto and his staff.

If these players don’t make the big league roster out of Peoria, they’d have to clear waivers before being assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma. That’s a risky proposition because most or all of them wouldn’t make through the waiver process before being snatched up by another club. Take a look at the six players to see what I mean.

Mike Montgomery – starting pitcher
The Mariners expect the 26-year-old to compete for a rotation spot. However, he’ll be the dark horse when pitchers and catchers report on February 19. Ahead of him are ace Felix Hernandez, newly acquired starters Wade Miley and Nate Karns, plus holdovers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

After being exchanged for Erasmo Ramirez – who was ironically out of options – the southpaw got off to a good start after making his major league debut on June 2. Montgomery held opponents to a .191 batting average and threw two consecutive complete game shutouts during his first seven starts. Unfortunately for the rookie and the team, opponents hit .368 during his five final starts in August when he surrendered 21 earned runs in 19.1 innings.

Perhaps, his late season decline was caused by his career-high 155.1 innings pitched. However, his walk and strikeout rates with Seattle weren’t much worse than what he posted during eight minor league seasons. It’s possible that we’ve seen the best that the southpaw has to offer and his destiny is in the bullpen.

It’s too early to determine Montgomery’s future with certainty. But, barring injury or trade, he’ll face an uphill battle earning a spot in the Mariners’ rotation. His destiny may be to start the season in the bullpen with Seattle or be used as trade piece by Dipoto.

Jesus Montero – first baseman/designated hitter
Also age-26, the former catcher has endured a tumultuous three seasons after being dealt to the Mariners for pitcher Michael Pineda. After a decent first season with Seattle in 2012, he fell on hard times that were mostly self-induced.

During the 2013-14 seasons, he performed poorly on the field, received a 50-game suspension due to his involvement with the Biogenesis performance enhancement scandal, arrived to Spring Training 40 pounds overweight, and was in an altercation with a roving scout during a rehab assignment game.

Since then, Montero has turned his life around with the help of the Mariners organization. In 2015, he arrived to camp in the best shape of his life and with a new attitude. On the field, he posted an impressive .355/.398/.569 slash and hit 18 home runs during 98 games for Tacoma. However, his new approach may have come too late for the previous front office.

Due to his previous struggles – and the acquisition of right-handed slugger Mark Trumbo – Montero was in low demand during the 2015 season. Even after his July 10 recall from Tacoma, he had just 116 plate appearances with the big league club during the remainder of the season.

The new regime has outwardly endorsed Montero and Dipoto has called him as “an asset” to the organization. When referring to the right-handed slugger, the Mariners GM recently told MLB Radio that they were going to give him an opportunity to “win at bats at first base and DH.”

That comment came shortly before the arrival of the left-handed hitting Adam Lind, who will be the team’s primary first baseman. Lind’s struggles against southpaws leaves the door open for a right-handed counterpart at first base. Could Montero be that player?

Despite Dipoto saying all of the right things Montero, I can’t envision a scenario where he’ll get enough at bats to justify a spot on the Mariners 25-man roster. Let’s face the facts – he isn’t the kind of player the GM has been targeting in his deals. Montero doesn’t play another field position and he’s a power-first offensive player.

More than likely, the Mariners will only have four reserve position players and that’s including a backup catcher. And no – Montero isn’t a catcher anymore.

Ideally, the Mariners’ backup first baseman can play the outfield. If not, he’ll have to be capable of playing passable defense at another position. Remember, the new leadership has placed an emphasis on improving the team’s fielding and versatility. Montero doesn’t fit into that mold.

Seattle will already be carrying two other players who will only play one position – Lind and catcher Chris Iannetta. If Montero were a third, the bench would consist of outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, backup catcher Steve Clevenger and one infielder.

It’s true that both Lind and Iannetta have played other positions during their respective careers. Lind has played the outfield, but hasn’t done so since 2010. Iannetta has manned first and third base, although it’s been for three or fewer games during any given season. Both players are going to play one field position.

Based on the strategy that the Mariners have been using to reboot their roster, they’ll want to have more versatile bench players. That’s why newly acquired Ed Lucas may be better positioned than Montero to make the team out of Peoria.

The right-handed hitter can play all four infield positions, and has totaled nearly 900 innings playing corner outfield spots during his professional career. His hitter’s defensive versatility could potentially make him an asset. Moreover, he’s hammered left-handed pitching with a .330/.360/.469 slash during a very small sample-size of 179 plate appearances.

Lucas may not be the eventual choice to make the team and may end up being minor league depth. But, a player with versatility similar to Lucas’ will have the edge over a less adaptable player – like Montero.

When discussing Montero, Dipoto relayed to Tacoma News Tribune beat writer Bob Dutton that “He is out of options. So he’s going to be exposed to waivers if he doesn’t make our club. One thing I can say is we do believe Jesus can hit. We’re going to find out if that fits for us.”

Barring injury or trade, I believe that Dipoto will determine that Montero isn’t a fit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the club or the player. Perhaps, the Mariners can add a piece to an area of weakness – like bullpen depth – by dealing Montero.

Plus, the former highly-touted prospect may be best served by starting over with a new organization that has a spot for him. Montero has nothing else to prove in the minor leagues and deserves a shot after reinventing himself and turning his life around. Personally, I’m hoping that the guy gets the chance to succeed somewhere in the majors.

Steve Clevenger – catcher
Although the 29-year-old has only appeared in 148 big league games in five seasons, he has the best chance to make the club out of Peoria. Clevenger provides Seattle with much needed catching depth and is a better alternative to last year’s backup – Jesus Sucre.

Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill pointed out here that Clevenger is a player who possesses good on-base abilities and is capable of playing more than one position– both are qualities that Dipoto values. In Clevenger’s case, he’s played first and third base during his professional career. This is another strike against Montero.

Clevenger’s presence also permits the club’s former starting catcher – Mike Zunino – to spend the entire 2016 season at the Class-AAA level, if that’s what it takes to get his offensive development back on track. If the former Mariners’ former number-one draft pick figures it out sooner, Clevenger would likely be the odd man out.

Anthony Bass, Evan Scribner, Justin De Fratus – relief pitchers
All three players – who are new acquisitions – will vie for spots in the bullpen. Bass is the most versatile of the threesome. As Jason pointed out when the right-hander arrived from the Texas Rangers, he’s a “Swiss Army Knife” who can fill multiple roles including long-reliever or spot starter. This versatility gives the 28-year-old a leg up on his competition.

Both Scribner and De Fratus will also compete for spots on the major league roster and are the type of “buy-low” players that Dipoto’s been adding during the offseason. Scribner demonstrated superb control of the strike zone in 2015 while striking out 64 hitters in 60 innings and only walking four. That’s an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio. On the flip side, he was victimized by the long ball – he surrendered 14 home runs.

De Fratus appears to be a victim of overuse last season. While with the Philadelphia Phillies, he logged 80 innings – second most by a reliever in 2015. Also, he had 26 multi-inning appearances last season – twice as many as in 2014. More than likely, De Fratus’ second-half decline was directly attributable to his heavy workload.

Considering the current bullpen uncertainty, all three relievers have a good chance of making the relief squad out of Spring Training, although it’s important to note that Dipoto will continue to add more arms to the mix when an opportunity arises. Just today, he added reliever A.J. Schugel, who was designated for assignment by the Arizona Diamondbacks last week.

There are two more details that need to be mentioned – Jerry Dipoto is always willing to make a that will help improve his roster and it’s only December 16. So, some of the “men without options” could be dealt prior to the beginning of Spring Training.

In the end, all six players will land on a major league roster if they earn it. Whether that spot is with Seattle or another team will be determined by their performance, the competition, fate, or the trade market.…