Timing is as crucial an element in baseball as any. As Warran Spahn famously said, “hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Then there’s timing in the form of sequencing and how teams are able to group hits together to score runs. Or there’s the timing of certain players getting together at a certain place and time; see the 2016 Chicago Cubs.

Timing is why Felix Hernandez returning to the Seattle Mariners rotation Friday night couldn’t come at a better time.

The Mariners are coming off a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers and will place a five-game winning streak on the line as they open a series with the division-leading Houston Astros. The offense has been rolling, the defense has been solid and the bullpen is coming together at the right time. A big part of that is the recent returns of Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura to the lineup.


ARKINS: Comparing Felix and Verlander
CHURCHILL: More Trade Ideas
CHURCHILL: M’s Farm Report for May


The starting rotation, held together by duct tape and bubblegum, is finding a way to get it done too with excellent starts from Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore during the Tigers series. James Paxton is also healthy and despite a rocky return appears to be a couple of timing issues away from his early-season form.

Now the starting five gets a boost that few players can offer.

Hernandez, the King, has been off the big league mound since April 25th. It took nearly two months of recovery and rehabilitation to return from a diagnosis of shoulder bursitis, and the 31-year-old is ready. Ready to get back to the mound, ready to get back to being the identity of the Mariners, and ready to lead a team to their first postseason birth since 2001.

While Seattle stands to get their ace back in spirit — and the psychological boost may be as important as anything — what version of King Felix returns remains to be seen.

Prior to hitting the disabled list, Hernandez made five starts and posted a 4.73 ERA and a 4.98 FIP in 26 2/3 innings pitched. A small sample size for sure, and one that may have been influenced by the injury that eventually led him to the DL, but it did reflect the decline the right-hander experienced in 2016.

After a year of discussions surrounding decreased fastball velocity, Hernandez showed an average of 92 miles per hour on the heater; up a tick or two from 2016, but still not where you’d like to see it. The lacking velocity and diminished command played into 2016’s poor numbers as his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction. But in those five starts, Felix boasted 22 strikeouts to only three walks and despite lackluster results, has shown better overall stuff.

One of the culprits behind the ugly ERA and FIP numbers is a gaudy home run rate. If we look at xFIP, which normalizes a pitcher’s home run rate to league average, Hernandez sees a much more respectable 3.54 mark. The reason for the home run spike is hard to identify.

The soft, medium, and hard contact rates look normal. His fly ball and ground ball rates look normal too. Hernandez isn’t getting hit harder or giving up more long fly balls, yet more are leaving the yard. Some of this can simply be attributed to bad luck that over the course of a season will even out. Perhaps it can also be attributed to the major league wide increase in home runs that may have something to do with the baseball itself. And of course, our sample size is still pretty small.

We won’t know how the strikeout, walks, and home runs will normalize for at least a few weeks. But what we can be at least moderately confident in is that Felix, whatever level he is at, will offer a boost to the rotation.

Christian Bergman, Sam Gaviglio, and Chase De Jong have all had their moments while filling in and put together solid outings. But they own FIP’s of 5.97, 5.83, and 5.89 respectively. This isn’t to crack on the replacements, they’ve certainly done the job as best as possible. These just aren’t performances that playoff-caliber teams can afford regularly. Collectively the rotation depth has weathered the storm well enough to keep the Mariners in the race as we near July. Given the volume of injuries that alone is an impressive feat.

Both the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems project Hernandez to post a FIP in the 3.90 range for the rest of the season. While that number isn’t elite, considering the right-hander has missed the last two months, it does seem like a reasonable target to work with. Conceivably his walk rate will get closer to his career mark in the seven percent range and we should see the strikeout rate tick up a few percent points as well..

Does he have a Felix-calibre three months in the tank? The evidence would suggest that won’t be the case, but I don’t have to tell you what he thinks of the suggestion he’s a shadow of his former self.

The King is back, the Mariners are flying high, and the stretch drive is right around the corner. The timing for his return couldn’t be much better that right now.

Happy Felix Day.…

Breakout seasons can be a difficult thing to judge. Sometimes they are the effects of a radical change in approach or mechanics and sometimes they are fluky at best and easy to write off. After a breakout 2016 season, the Seattle Mariners have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen from James Paxton even if it’s only three starts into the season.

Things started last year when Paxton was sent to Triple-A to start the year to nail down the mechanical changes that were in process. On June 1st he would debut an electric fastball in the upper 90’s and showed much improved control of the strike zone. The results weren’t great — a 14-6 loss to the San Diego Padres where Paxton yielded eight runs, three earned, over 3 2/3 innings pitched — but we could see that the process was significantly improved. The left-hander did yield two home runs in Petco Park, but he managed to strikeout seven while only walking one.

From that point on Paxton would stick in the major league rotation and and produce a 3.79 ERA and a 2.80 FIP over 121 innings pitched. Also of note was his 8.70 strikeouts and 1.79 walks per nine innings pitched. The results were matching up with the process; he was missing more bats and finding the strike zone more often.

Heading into 2017, the 28-year-old found himself all over ‘breakout player’ lists as the baseball world prepared to see what would follow his breakout season. So far he’s given them plenty to talk about.

The usual April baseball disclaimer applies here. Three starts isn’t rarely indicative of anything significant. But on the surface and from the outside, it looks like Paxton is continuing to build on the foundation he set last year.

In those three starts, the left-hander has put together 21 innings pitched without giving up a single run. A 0.00 ERA is as shiny as it gets but more impressively Paxton is the only pitcher to make three starts this year without giving up a run. The peripheral stats also suggest he’s been dominant as his 1.41 FIP is second only to Noah Syndergaard among pitchers who have three games started. Stretching that sample to two starts and Paxton drops to fourth place in the majors.

So we know that Paxton has been good so far, perhaps one of the best in this short period of time. On Monday he was named the American League player of the week, suggesting the baseball world has taken notice of what he’s done. A week in baseball obviously falls into the small sample size noise category, but when we dig deeper into Paxton’s performance, we can see some factors that likely have influenced the early success and creates the potential for future success as well.

The first thing to look at what Paxton has been throwing. The following chart compares his pitch usage in the majors since 2015.

James Paxton’s Pitch Usage 2015-2017
Season Fastball % Cutter % Knuckle-Curve % Changeup % Two-Seam %
2015 71.9% 2.6% 14.3% 11.1% 0.1%
2016 62.6% 16.8% 13.7% 6.4% 0.6%
2017 64.0% 11.9% 23.1% 1.0% 0.0%

The most noticeable trend is the departure from the changeup and increased reliance on a knuckle-curveball. Paxton had thrown a cutter in the past but began using it more predominantly last season. His average fastball has been a shade under 96 MPH with his cutter coming in at 88 and the curve at 80. Paxton’s managed to mix these pitches effectively and the following results are what he has to show for doing so.

James Paxton’s Pitch Outcomes 2015-2017
Season Line Drive % Ground Ball % Fly Ball % Infield Fly Ball % Soft Contact % Medium Contact % Hard Contact %
2015  17.2% 48.3% 34.4% 8.3% 18.4% 51.9% 29.7%
2016 21.9% 48.1% 30.1% 8.2% 14.1% 52.8% 33.1%
2017 18.8% 39.6% 41.7% 15.0% 18.4% 57.1% 24.5%

The increase in fly balls is interesting, particularly of the infield variety. The overall increase in fly balls could be attributed to Mariner pitches pitching to the strength of the team — outfield defence. But the infield fly balls are often a result of weak contact. So far this year Paxton has reduced the number of balls hit hard by nearly ten percent. On top top that opposing hitters have only made contact 69.7 percent of the time compared to 76.4 percent in 2016. Add an increased swinging strike percentage from 11.7 percent to 4.8 percent and the left-hander’s results stats start to make more sense.

What does this all mean? It’s tough to say. The infield fly balls could definitely be small sample size noise and some point more of the fly balls could find the outfield grass. We also could be seeing some of the effects of an improved outfield defence.

The increase in soft contact and swinging strikes is exactly what we want to see. Those may be some of the best signs that Paxton has in fact taken a step towards stardom. Hitters haven’t been able to adjust to the high heat and spiked curveball to this point. As long as the left-hander continues to command the ball well, he should continue to be a nightmare for opposing hitters.

At 28-years-old Paxton isn’t too old to break out. Consider the small batches of success we’ve seen during his time in the majors and how injuries have undoubtedly slowed his progress. Now that he’s able to command the velocity he’s unlocked, it’s up to the further development of his other offerings to ensure he’s able to consistently perform at this high level.

It wasn’t that long ago Paxton received the No. 2 starter potential label from scouting types. He’s certainly been effective when healthy, too. Maybe the best thing we can say about Paxton right now, since it’s still April, is that the signs are there to suggest that we have been seeing the real thing.…

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.…

It’s been an extraordinary time for young players in Major League Baseball the past several years. The old guard of David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, among others, has passed on the torch to a collection of meteoric young talent including the likes of Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant, to name a few.

Last season was aptly titled “The Year of the Rookie” and inspired this author to peek into the outlook for a handful of those players heading into their sophomore season. You can read the American League edition here and the National League edition here.

I’m going to steal from last year’s post to remind you that, per MLB’s rules, a player remains a rookie until they exceed 130 plate appearances as a position player, 50 innings pitched as a pitcher, or 45 days active on a 25-man roster. Time spent on the disabled list or when rosters expand in September do not count towards these days.

Without further ado, let’s chat about some AL sophomores.

Gary Sanchez, C — New York Yankees
There are major league debuts, and then there are historic anecdotes. What Sanchez did in two months with the Yankees last season would be the latter. In just 229 plate appearances, the slugger posted a .299/.376/.657 slash line with a 171 wRC+ and 20 home runs. While the 60 home run pace may be unrealistic this coming year, the power displayed within the .358 ISO he posted was very present. The dude simply can hit.

Sanchez is slated to begin the year occupying the No. 2 spot for the Yankees and will be a key cog in their lineup. There’s some concern about how the 24-year-old will hold up over the course of an entire big league season. The simple wear and tear of catching being one part with the other being his strikeout rate of 25 percent in last year’s sample. Especially since we are likely to see last year’s 10.5 percent walk rate drop some as major league pitchers get familiar with the slugger. The slash line may not be as impressive over a full season, but there are plenty of reasons to expect big things from the catcher going forward.

Tyler Naquin, OF — Cleveland Indians
The Indians center fielder presents an interesting case in 2017. He had a great offensive performance posting a .296/.372/.514 slash line with a 135 wRC+ and showed unexpected power with 14 home runs in 365 plate appearances. But he accomplished all that with an unsustainable .411 BABIP and a 30.7 percent strikeout rate. The BABIP will certainly come down some, which is fine. Hitting .300 is a lot more difficult than it used to be, after all. But the spike in strikeouts from his minor league years is concerning.

The left-hander was used primarily in a platoon role last year, but figures to play a full-time role this year. He actually fared well against same-handed pitching in the small sample and can be trusted to hold his own going forward. The former first round pick should build off the Indians’ World Series run as he enters his age-26 season. It’s possible Naquin has double-digit steals in him and given his tools, a season with ten-plus steals and home runs would look very nice. Cutting down on the strikeouts could be a key success factor in the coming year.

Tim Anderson, SS — Chicago White Sox
Chicago saw their first-round pick in the 2013 draft debut this past summer. With a game based on speed and defence and enough of a hit tool to get by, Anderson posted a .283/.306/.432 slash line in 431 plate appearances. His 95 wRC+ was below average for the position, but with solid defence and plus speed, that package can create a lengthy major league career. The 23-year-old only stole ten bases in the majors this past season but managed to swipe 49 in 2015 at Double-A.

The White Sox certainly believe Anderson has room to blossom as they rewarded him with a new six-year contact worth $25 million. This types of deals are relatively low-risk for the club and offer players the ability to focus more on developing their game instead of securing their new contract. On paper that’s the case, anyways. Still, there’s a good chance the security helps the right-hander as he establishes his place on the next good White Sox team. Finding a way to get on-base more often will make up for a potential decline in batting average as the league adjusts to Anderson.

Alex Bregman, 3B — Houston Astros
As hard as it is for any player to go through a 2-for-38 slump, the start of one’s career is as inopportune a time as any. Still, Bregman finished the season strong and over 217 plate appearances in the majors he authored a .264/.313/.478 slash line. His 112 wRC+ last year is a strong starting point for the well-rounded hitter. Most reports out there consider him to show polish beyond his years. With the pressure to perform as a top prospect, the slump could’ve sunk Bregman’s season. But it didn’t. That says a lot more about his maturation process than any cliche could.

The second overall pick in the 2015 draft comes loaded with pedigree and barely had time to unpack a suitcase at three of the four minor league levels he’s visited. He has a home in Minute Maid Park for 2017 and is slated to hit in the No. 2 hole for the Astros. Though the presence of Carlos Correa will keep Bregman out of his natural shortstop position, this five-tool stud has plenty of success awaiting him.

Michael Fulmer, SP — Detroit Tigers
What’s one way to keep a competitive window open? Trading an expiring contract for an impact player, which is exactly what Detroit did when they sent Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline. Fulmer started 26 games for the Tigers in 2016 and posted an 11-6 record with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. In 159 innings pitched he posted 7.47 strikeouts and 2.38 walks per nine innings. The right-hander was named the American League Rookie of the Year, beating out Sanchez’ historic season.

The development of Fulmer’s changeup played a large role in his success, mixing it with a very good fastball and slider. He may have had some BABIP luck last year and his FIP suggests a worse performance than his ERA, but there’s reason to believe he could be even better in 2017. The challenge will be the grinding march towards 200 innings. Once Fulmer added the changeup to his arsenal in a more prominent way, things began to take off last year. And this time around he’ll have a whole season of it.

Edwin Diaz, RP — Seattle Mariners
Less than a year ago the right-hander was starting games at the Double-A level. A few months later he was debuting in the big leagues as a reliever. Now, he finds himself on the shortlist of top closers in the American League, if not all of baseball. It’s been a whirlwind for Diaz but he remained steady and was a key cog in the second half for the M’s. Combining an otherworldly 15.33 strikeout-per-nine with a 2.61 walks-per nine over 51 and 1/3 big league innings, Diaz managed a 1.9 fWAR season. His 2.04 FIP suggests his 2.79 ERA was better than it appeared.

While he was used aggressively last year, and may have shown some wear towards the end of the season, Diaz is positioned well for success. Combining a whiff-generating slider with a 97 mile-per-hour fastball is his recipe for success — and it works great — but Diaz found himself with a .337 BABIP and 14.7 percent home run rate. Improving in those two areas certainly could push the right-hander into the very elite. With a little experience and confidence in his back pocket, that shouldn’t be a problem.…

While the majority of us on the west coast were complaining about losing an hour’s sleep, Jerry Dipoto was using the hour he didn’t lose in Arizona to make his first trade in nearly two weeks. The Philadelphia Phillies are sending outfielder Joey Curletta to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for switch-pitcher Pat Venditte. Curletta will report to Seattle’s minor league camp.

While this has the feel of a move made almost for the sake of making a move — Dipoto hadn’t made a trade in a while — there is a path of logic that can be followed.

Venditte, 31, was designated for assignment back in November and was sent to Triple-A Tacoma after clearing waivers. Although he offers the unique ability to pitch both right and left-handed, in 50 and 2/3 major league innings he owns a 4.97 ERA and a 5.01 FIP. He’s been excellent against left-handers though, including a 10.96 strikeouts per nine innings.

But given the influx of new pitchers on the roster and Venditte no longer holding a spot on the 40-man roster, there didn’t appear to be much of a chance of him appearing in a game for the Mariners this season.

Instead he will join a rebuilding Phillies club that may offer a better chance at a big league job. Currently Venditte is pitching for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

Curletta is an interesting add for the Mariners. Interesting because he was the player the Phillies acquired when they traded now current-Mariner Carlos Ruiz to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Also interesting because Curletta isn’t the traditional athletic-type of player that the organization has been pursuing.

Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft by the Dodgers, the 23-year-old boasts plenty of raw power and a terrific throwing arm. However his poor contact abilities minimize the potential of the power and his strikeout rate fits the profile.

His 6-foot-4 and 245 pound frame is likely what limits his mobility in the outfield and on the bases — he grades out with below average speed — but he isn’t sluggish, per se.  The bat is interesting and Curletta has been able to draw walks at an eight-to-ten percent clip despite the strikeouts living in the 30 percent range during his five years in the minors. The concern here is that the strikeout rate has only increased as he’s moved up through the minors and faced better pitching.

Curletta figures to start the year at Double-A with Seattle’s new affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers. In 107 plate appearances with the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate at the end of last season he posted a .206/.280/.371 slash line with an 88 wRC+, so there’s still plenty of work to do. He added four home runs in that time frame and when he connects with the ball, it can go a long way. The challenge for the Mariners player development staff will be to make that contact occur more often.

At 23 the book has started on the outfielder, but it is far from written. Really, in exchange for a waiver-wire reliever, Seattle is able to pick up a prospect with some projectability. He’s a project for sure, but there’s potential. Not bad for a Sunday morning in March.…

Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going away any time soon. And it shouldn’t. A tournament that showcases baseball’s talent and can grow the game internationally is a tremendous opportunity for the sport. Especially since baseball was dropped after the 2008 Olympic Games. Though it’s scheduled to return for 2020, the summer event is bereft of the game’s top talent for the obvious reasons.

Despite the drawbacks for teams and players preparing for the season, the potential for injuries that could reshape division races, and the lack of Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, this event creates a special opportunity for players to represent their countries.

This year the Seattle Mariners will have 12 representatives competing for seven different countries as shown in the table below.

Mariners at the World Baseball Classic
Player Representation
Felix Hernandez, SP Venezuela
Robinson Cano, 2B Dominican Republic
Nelson Cruz, DH Dominican Republic
 Jean Segura, SS Dominican Republic
Edwin Diaz, RP Puerto Rico
 Yovani Gallardo, SP Mexico 
 Drew Smyly, SP* USA
 Tyler O’Neill, OF Canada
 Emilio Pagan, RP  Puerto Rico
 Pat Venditte, RP  Italy
Sam Gaviglio, SP Italy
Sebastian Valle, C Mexico

Easily the biggest impact of the WBC on the Mariners is the participation of Felix Hernandez. After taking a step back performance-wise in 2015, the ace struggled to the worst performance of his major league career in 2016. He went to work this offseason with a pennant-sized chip on his shoulder, and the goal of being ready to represent Venezuela playing a key role in his preparation for the 2017 season.

Early returns on Hernandez’ progress this spring are positive. He arrived in camp in notably better shape and specifically worked on strengthening his lower half. On Sunday, his second outing of the Cactus League season, he went three innings with five strikeouts and no walks. He gave up a couple runs in a long first inning but finished his day with 36 strikes on fifty pitches. On the broadcast, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre mentioned Hernandez having some issues with his changeup, but his other offerings were sharp and he commanded the ball well.

Given the challenges of 2016, and the commitment the club has made to the right-hander in terms of dollars, one would be fair to question why the Cy Young award winner is participating. A regular spring would likely be the optimal choice.

Joey Votto, after another outstanding campaign, declined to represent Canada at the WBC citing a need to improve on some areas of his game he found lacking. It’s unclear what particular things he feels he needs to work on, perhaps defensively, but we do know after earning $22 million in 2017 he will be payed $25 million annually through 2023.

All players have their reasons for or against participating, and as frustrating as that may be on either side of the coin, but you have to respect a player’s desire to represent their country. Teams have frequently voiced their support for players’ participation and are often involved in defining the parameters for how the player will be used during the event.

That goes particularly for the most recent Mariner addition to a WBC roster, Jean Segura. GM Jerry Dipoto spent 20 minutes on the phone with Moises Alou, the GM of the Dominican Republic squad about how his most significant offseason acquisition would be utilized in the tournament.

Ideally Seattle would want to ensure that Segura’s progress at shortstop be maintained heading towards the start of the season. He and Robinson Cano, one of Segura’s teammates at the WBC, will form a new double play tandem in the Emerald City this year.

It’s unclear how much time the two will share in the diamond. Segura replaced Boston’s Hanley Ramirez on the roster, a former shortstop who’s moved over to first base. It would be ideal for Cano and Segura to have the full month of playing together, especially with the latter switching positions for the coming year. But the idiosyncrasies in the field will take time to connect anyways — a week or two of interruption shouldn’t have a dramatic effect on that.

Aside from the starting middle infielders being away, another key piece of the lineup will be too. Nelson Cruz joins his countrymen on the Dominican team and figures to see time both in the outfield and at designated hitter.

The move to DH will be a more permanent role in Seattle for the slugger this year after two seasons where he saw plenty of outfield time. Given the influx of athletic outfielders added, Cruz will be hard pressed to see much time in the field given the emphasis on defense by the front office.

Electric closer Edwin Diaz will have the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico for the first time. Rarely does Spring Training offer the higher leverage situations that many relievers are accustomed too in the season so getting to pitch some critical innings this early may benefit Diaz at the start. But he is just one year into his bullpen journey, and this is his first camp as a major league reliever, so I can’t imagine he has much process to interrupt.

Seattle will be sending three-fifths of the starting rotation when accounting for Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Though Gallardo’s specific participation is still to be determined, Smyly is only going to make one appearance for the U.S. squad before returning to camp. Still, both will miss out on some time to continue developing rapport with their new catchers. However, given the length of this year’s spring there’s been and will be plenty of time to make up for the absence.

Elsewhere top prospect Tyler O’Neill will get an opportunity to shine with Team Canada after impressing in the first couple weeks of spring games. He’s already showed off his power in an exhibition game, blasting an opposite field home run against the New York Yankees.

With so many players away, opportunity is ripe for several players who’s fate have yet to be determined for the upcoming season. Expect to see a lot of Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman, and Taylor Motter as the process of determining the back-up infielder continues and Segura and Cano are absent. Boog Powell will also get a chance to rebuild his stock as he nears a return from an 80-game PED suspension.

While the WBC provides an opportunity for the best players in the world to represent their country at the highest level, it also provides a stage that same opportunity for players who may never reach stardom in the majors. Looking at rosters for some of the less star-studded teams may yield names of former fringe-major leaguers or Triple-A fodder, but I would have to imagine this is a tremendous experience for them.

Say what you want about the World Baseball Classic, but so many of the knocks against it are easy to work around. Yes, a player is at risk of getting hurt, but how much more risk than facing a minor league pitching with 35-grade command in a spring game?

The timing of the tournament will always be tough, but once every four years the sport can deal with the side effects of an international opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t exist.…

As evidenced in the early part of Jerry Dipoto‘s time at the helm of baseball operations, the Seattle Mariners have shied away from significant free agent signings. Despite what became a buyer’s market for free agent hitters this winter, Dipoto abstained and stuck to the goal of acquiring depth through trade. The emphasis on youth and athleticism was again a focal point of many transactions.

It’s been a strange winter for free agency in Major League Baseball. A lack of premium talent available has often lead to teams paying good players great dollars. That wasn’t really the case this time around, though. The supply of one-dimensional sluggers in need of a contract this time one-month ago would have made former general manager Jack Zduriencik salivate, and truthfully, the costs were not exuberant. Still, Dipoto stayed the course.

Some teams were able to take advantage of the market, such as the Cleveland Indians who stretched out to sign Edwin Encarnacion. More recently, the New York Yankees added the National League’s home run king from last year, Chris Carter, on a modest one-year deal guaranteeing only $3 million.

The first base remodel began last summer for the Mariners when they acquired Dan Vogelbach from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for left-hander Mike Montgomery. Although Vogelbach better resembles a Zduriencik-era Mariner, there were few questions about his ability to hit.

The remodel appeared complete when Seattle made another trade, this time with Oakland, to bring in the veteran Danny Valencia to complete the right-handed side of the platoon.

Firstly, Vogelbach should be a given a fair chance to take the first base job. He crushed Triple-A pitching last year to the tune of a 156 wRC+. He turned 24 in December and has shown plenty of power and on-base ability throughout his tenure in the minors. This isn’t a Jesus Montero situation where concerns about make-up and injuries are a factor and have impacted performance. By all accounts, he’s ready to go.

But what happens if Vogelbach doesn’t hit right away or can’t make adjustments on the fly to major league pitching? He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie to encounter one or both of those problems.

Valencia has only spent one season as an everyday player back in 2011 and didn’t fair well. Despite a rather pronounced platoon split for his career — a 139 wRC+ against left-handers and an 85 wRC+ against right-handers — he did manage a 104 wRC+ against same-handed pitching last year. In a pinch he could give you some at-bats against right-handers, but counting on consistent production of any sort would be foolish.

Internally the back-up plan at first base appears to start and end with D.J. Peterson. The former first-round pick posted a 96 wRC+ in 192 plate appearances at Triple-A last year and could be an option as soon as mid-season if things go well. There’s always the option of a utility player such as Mike Freeman or Shawn O’Malley filling in if absolutely necessary, but after the platoon, the first base depth is minimal.

Pitchers and catchers reported on Tuesday, and Cactus League games are only days away, but as has been the story this winter, there still are a number of free agents available. Some may even be able to help the Mariners adress this concern.

Looking specifically at left-handed hitters, former Most Valuable Players Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau are still out there. Morneau is representing Canada at the World Baseball Classic and was finally healthy for a prolonged period last year after batting concussion issues. He struggled to a 92  wRC+ and saw his strikeout rate jump — not positive signs for a player nearing the end of their career.

Howard’s fall has been more publicized, and though he still managed to clear 20 home runs last year, appears to have lost all other offensive capabilities. As a pinch-hitter he may still have value on a National League team, but his time as a semi-regular is done.

Neither of those bats are overly appealing. Morneau may be worth a second glance if he hits well at the WBC, but not much more. The player who may actually be able to help Seattle is Pedro Alvarez.

The 30-year-old has primarily played third base during his career but did fill a regular role at first in 2015 and advanced metrics frowned on his work. Throughout his career he has profiled as a below average defender and an average base runner. What he can do, is provide some help against right-handed pitching. He owns a career 118 wRC+ against them over seven years in the majors.

Last season in 376 plate appearances with the Baltimore Orioles, Alvarez posted a .249/.322/.504 slash line with a 117 wRC+. While he does boast a career 9.4 percent walk rate, and beat that last year by half-a-percent, the strikeouts have always been a concern. His 25.8 percent strikeout rate last year was his second-lowest since 2011.

If you combine the walks and home runs, Alvarez starts to resemble a true-outcome hitter. I’d imagine that the on-base percentage fits the type of player Seattle has come to covet, but the strikeouts and poor defensive skills would seemingly go against the grain.

On a minor league deal, bringing in Alvarez to compete, or at least paint a picture of Vogelbach not being handed the job, is essentially a no-brainer. Even giving him the contract Carter received with a small guarantee would make sense.

Obviously the tough part would be having to cut Alvarez and eat the money owed if it came to that. Perhaps management would prefer to earmark the cash for a mid-summer trade or to add another relief arm during the spring.

Like Carter, Alvarez is a flawed player in a market that hasn’t rewarded power-based skill sets. That’s why they were still looking for jobs in February. I’m not suggesting Alvarez is an answer for the Mariners, but rather an option to provide a back-up plan for a position with uncertainty.

Perhaps Dipoto’s plan all along was to give Vogelbach the first couple weeks of spring to lock down the job and, in the event things weren’t heading in a positive direction, dip into the free agent market for a bat that needs a home. We saw last year how Ketel Marte was essentially handed the shortstop job and having a second option in the early-going may have helped the situation.

If Vogelbach is ready to go then there’s no reason for Seattle to hold him back. But in a season that may again leave little margin for error, having an experienced first baseman push Vogelbach to Triple-A for a couple months if he doesn’t seem ready wouldn’t be the worst thing. Especially if the cost is less than a couple million dollars.…

Felix Hernandez would be the first to admit that he didn’t perform as well as he wanted to in 2016. To varying degrees, the Seattle Mariners likely had similar thoughts about two of the other four spots of their rotation, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma aside. So as Felix spends the winter working to regain his crown, the Mariners have worked to shore up their rotation.

Without a lot of help available via free agency, the trade route figured to be the most likely source of rotation upgrades. As seen in his first year at the helm of baseball operations, general manager Jerry Dipoto prefers the trade route for patching holes anyway. However, there was one free agent starter who reportedly caught his eye: Jason Hammel.

The 34-year-old starter was cut by the Chicago Cubs after their World Series victory and remains a free agent as we move into February. It was a curious move as the Cubs didn’t appear to have an heir for the No. 5 spot and haven’t done much to secure one since.

The season-ending elbow injury leaves a damper on what was otherwise a reasonably good season for Hammel and has likely impacted his free agency. In 166 and 2/3 innings the right-hander posted a 3.83 ERA and a 4.48 FIP. His strikeout rate was a notch above his career average and his walk rate was right on par, but he did see an uptick in his home run rate, which could cause some concern.

The bigger concern though, has to be the impact of Hammel’s September collapse, injury-related or not. Over four starts he allowed 21 runs and 20 earned while giving up six home runs. That stretch inflated his ERA from 3.14 at the start of the month to the 3.83 he finished with. Hammel’s FIP didn’t see quite as dramatic a rise, moving from 4.26 to 4.48.

Several outlets had Hammel connected to the Mariners throughout the winter. The fit was obvious as Seattle needed rotation help and the 34-year-old has a recent track record of being a reliable back-end starter. Given the nature of his departure with Chicago, he lost some leverage in an otherwise paper-thin free agent market.

Having a change in agency over the winter didn’t help the right-hander either. It was reported talks broke down with the M’s around this time. Since then, Seattle went out and filled the empty spots in the rotation by acquiring Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo.

Smyly, 27, spent the last two-plus years in the rotation for the Tampa Bay Rays and dealt with some health issues in 2015. Acquired as a key piece in the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, the left-hander is coming off a career high 175 and 1/3 innings pitched. His 4.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP are uninspiring, but his strikeout and walk rates were fine and he should benefit from the move to Safeco and an improved outfield defense.

Gallardo, 31 in February, is coming off a rocky year in Baltimore where a decline in velocity factored into a diminished strikeout rate and an inflated walk rate. He posted a 5.42 ERA and a 5.04 FIP over 118 innings The brief period where he was a top arm for the Milwaukee Brewers is gone, but he’s only one year removed from a seven-year stretch as an average or better starter. He’s a prime bounce-back candidate and should also benefit from the park and outfield defense.

Here’s a look at how the three starters project to perform in 2017 via Steamer.

2017 Steamer Projections
Name GS IP ERA
FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 OBA fWAR
Drew Smyly 29 168.0 3.93 4.11 8.39 2.62 1.30 .232 2.6
 Yovani Gallardo 24  135.0 4.48 4.55 6.41 3.39 1.13 .260 1.0
Jason Hammel 28 158.0  4.35 4.31  7.75 2.67 1.29 .258 1.7

Of the three, Smyly is the obvious exception, so the analysis really comes down to Gallardo and Hammel, who have some similarities. The first stat that stands out is the fWAR column where Hammel projects to be nearly one win better than Gallardo. We can attribute some of that to a better projected strikeout and walk rates over a slightly larger innings total. Hammel is projected to give up more home runs, but both have fly-ball tendencies.

Projection systems tend to favor recent performance and Hammel is the one coming off a better year. However, looking at the previous three years, we can see that their overall production has been similar. Gallardo has the virtue of being younger and holds a more consistent track record prior to last year, though.

Perhaps the most important question is what carries more risk: Gallardo’s diminished velocity or Hammel’s presumed diminished health? Seattle seemed more willing to gamble on the former regaining a step than the latter being healthy for Opening Day.

At this point., anything relating to Hammel’s health is speculation beyond his status at the end of the season and through the playoffs. Not many seem to buy the Cubs acknowledgement of his full health when he was released.

Also to be considered when looking at the two starters is the accompanying financial commitments. We don’t know for sure what Hammel wanted, or hoped for, in free agency. A one-year deal with incentives and maybe an option year would make sense. We do know that the M’s will pay Gallardo $11 million in 2017 and a $2 million buyout in 2018 if they decline a $13 million team option.

The status of Seth Smith and his $7 million contract seemed to play a role in all this. It’s been suggested that the ideal situation for Seattle would have been to deal Smith and the money owed for a minor leaguer and use the freed up cash for Hammel.

If the club saw similar potential in Gallardo and Hammel with the primary goal of dealing Smith’s contract, then it makes a lot of sense to take the route they did. Presuming full health, Hammel should be the better pitcher in 2017. But after viewing his medical records, the potential for a bounce-back season may have made Gallardo look just a little more appealing.

Without more information on Hammel’s health, it’s tough to really determine if the Mariners made the right call. Given the fact he’s still a free agent suggest it’s obvious Seattle isn’t the only team to have shied away.

Regardless, the deals made have helped bolster the starting staff. FanGraphs projects the rotation to land in the middle of the pack while ESPN’s Buster Olney has the M’s rotation cracking his top ten for 2017.

A lot of things still need to go right, but Seattle certainly made the right call in bolstering their starting pitching. That much we do know.…

Diaz bulpenYou probably don’t want to read another article discussing modern bullpen usage. But you also can’t argue  Andrew Miller‘s success in this year’s playoffs hasn’t changed they way we look at how relievers are deployed.

The good news is that I’m not going to sell you on how great it would be if the Seattle Mariners made a habit of using their best reliever in the highest leverage situations. But what I can tell you is that something first needs to happen before the M’s can even consider the possibility.

Without oversimplifying things, the reason Terry Francona was able to deploy Miller as needed was because of Cody Allen‘s presence in the back of the bullpen. There’s less worry about holding onto Miller for a certain situation when you have Allen in your back pocket.

The Mariners have an elite reliever of their own in Edwin Diaz. With reliever usage being a hot topic, it’s been suggested that Seattle will look to maximizes Diaz’s usage by deploying him in more high leverage situations opposed to only traditional save opportunities. The problem though, is that Seattle doesn’t have an Andrew Miller to support their Cody Allen, so to speak.

Let’s make things clear; there isn’t likely to be any drastic change in how Diaz, the presumed closer, will be used. It’s possible he may pitch an eighth inning instead of a ninth once in a while. Or the occasional ask for four outs instead of three. But it’s simply impractical to use a reliever during the regular season like they are used in the postseason. There’s a good chance that we see a ratio similar how the right-hander was deployed last season.

Of Diaz’s 49 appearances with the Mariners last season, 10 required getting four or more outs. This includes a near heroic 2 and 1/3 inning appearance in what turned out to be Seattle’s penultimate game of 2016. The fact that Diaz started the year in the Double-A Jackson rotation likely worked in his favor as the now former starter was likely still used to longer outings.

The M’s did try to limit the 22-year-old’s use early on with regard to pitching on back-to-back days but that started to change down the stretch. Seattle was within range of a postseason berth and when it came time to turn things over to the bullpen, Diaz remained the best and too frequently the only option for locking down the win.

This brings us to the plans for 2017. It’s much too early to really drill down on the specifics of the Mariner bullpen. We have heard rumblings the team is in the market for a left-handed reliever and cultivating bullpen depth will again be a priority. Right now, it’s safe to say Seattle doesn’t have a two-headed monster at the back of their bullpen. But there are a couple potential options.

Steve Cishek started 2016 as the closer and had plenty of first-half success. He also succeeded in a set-up role in the second-half. The right-hander’s 2.81 ERA and 3.57 FIP don’t scream dominance, but his 10.69 strikeouts per nine rate better resembles a lock-down reliever.

The only problem is that Cishek may not be ready for the start of the season after undergoing hip labrum surgery. The 31-year-old remains an option to return to a late inning role and has the desired experience. The recovery timeline could cause some difficulties though, and it’s tough to know how he’ll perform upon his return.

Another option could be the up-and-coming Dan Altavilla. The hard-throwing righty gave up a single earned run over 12 and 1/3 innings in the season’s final weeks. He added ten strikeouts and a walk in an impressive showcase. Like Diaz, Altavilla made the jump from Double-A to the majors after being converted to a reliever at the beginning of the year. I would assume he’s penciled in for a major league bullpen role, but may need a stint in the minors to fine tune his skills.

With his repertoire, Diaz has the makings of a pure shutdown, high leverage reliever. However, the current bullpen set-up simply may not allow for use outside of the more traditional closer’s role. After all, the primary set-up options we just discussed include a recovering side-armer and an unproven rookie. Not to mention that Diaz is only a year in to his major league and bullpen career.

The Mariners know that they need to re-stock the bullpen. Middle relief arms will be a priority, but by emphasizing late-inning options and increasing flexibility there, Seattle may be able to get even more value out of Diaz.…

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 their season was quickly slipping away, especially after going 10-18 during the month of June.

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

The first two parts of our Third Quarter Report Series analyzed trends within the American League West division and the Mariners’ offense, plus their pitching staff.

In this segment, we’re going to discuss the club’s roster. First, let’s discuss the toll injuries have taken on that roster.

Injury Impact
The loss of key players to injury is always a challenge, especially for a team on the fringe of contention — like the Mariners. When those losses occur in rapid succession to a rotation, it can be season-altering.

Seattle endured such setbacks throughout June and into July. During those two months, they were forced to endure without Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement.

Not only did the club have to scramble just to find healthy arms to start games, the bullpen was over-extended after being repeatedly called upon to absorb the workload of starters who routinely didn’t last six innings.

Since then, all but Sampson have since returned to action. But, Miley is now a Baltimore Oriole and Walker is starting games for Class-AAA Tacoma due to inconsistent performance.

Now, the club is facing another round of rotation uncertainty due to injury. Two other starters — Nate Karns and James Paxton — currently resided on the disabled list (DL).

Granted, Karns was relegated to the bullpen prior to his back strain, but general manager (GM) Jerry Dipoto recently signaled the club intended to return the right-hander to a starting role. Whether that would’ve been with the big league club or in Tacoma is unknown.

Yet, having Karns available right now would be an appealing alternative for a club that’s turned to Joe Wieland and Cody Martin to start games in consecutive weeks.

The outlook for Karns is unknown. Although he’s feeling better, Greg Johns of MLB.com noted that the right-hander hasn’t resumed a throwing program.

When Paxton went on the DL, his loss was much more significant to the team. Initially a replacement for Felix, the 27-year-old had become Seattle’s best starter prior to being struck on his pitching elbow by a line over a week ago.

Fortunately, the prognosis for Paxton is much rosier. He’s expected to be back with Seattle after a rehab start with the Rainiers this weekend.

A quick return by the big southpaw is absolutely vital. It’s difficult to envision a realistic scenario where the Mariners remain competitive without Paxton toeing the mound every fifth game.

The rotation isn’t the only component of the roster to be impacted by injury. Here’s a complete rundown of Seattle players on the DL.

Mariners Injuries
Player Position Injury Status
James Paxton SP  Elbow contusion  15-day DL
Nate Karns SP Lower back strain 15-day DL
Steve Cishek RP Left hip labrum tear Began rehab assignment Aug. 15
Tony Zych RP Right rotator cuff tendinitis On rehab assignment
Evan Scribner RP Strained lat muscle On rehab assignment
Ryan Cook RP Strained lat muscle Shut down after one appearance in July
Steve Clevenger C Broken hand  Started rehab July 17
Charlie Furbush RP  Torn left rotator cuff Out for season
 Adrian Sampson  SP Recovering from elbow surgery Out for season

After missing a year due to shoulder issues, fan-favorite Charlie Furbush will miss next season due to season-ending rotator cuff surgery. Getting the southpaw back into the bullpen mix would’ve been a welcome addition.

Help could be on the way for the bullpen though.

Former closer Steve Cishek and fellow relievers Tony Zych and Evan Scribner are currently on rehab assignments. Cishek is the closest to returning and will provide Servais with another late-inning option.

Cishek didn’t endear himself to Seattle fans by blowing a three-run save to the Chicago Cubs in a nationally televised game. But, he’s experienced in high-leverage situations and possesses a better track record than any other available option on the roster.

Zych’s fastball has been clocked in the 95-97 MPH range during three rehab starts. If he stays on track, he may not be far behind Cishek. Getting Zych back at this point of the season would be akin to adding a high-powered arm via trade.

Scribner will take longer to return since he’s been out all year. But, adding the 31-year-old in September would provide needed length during the last lap of the pennant race.

Considering the injuries the Mariners have sustained, their GM deserves credit for keeping his team close to contention. But, he doesn’t deserve all of the credit and he’ll be the first to say so.

Roster Analysis

When Dipoto took over as GM last September, he repeatedly praised the core of players that he inherited from his predecessor — Jack Zduriencik.

Most fans scoff at Zduriencik’s tenure with the organization. But, over half of the players (13) on the current 25-man roster were with the organization when he was let go 12 months ago.

In reality, the best players on the Mariners are holdovers from the Zduriencik era. That’s why I chose to defend Zduriencik in January.

Should the Mariners have moved past Zduriencik? Yes. But, it’s fair to acknowledge that he didn’t leave the cupboards bare, at least on the major league roster.

That’s where Dipoto comes in. By building around the edges of the Zduriencik core, the new Mariners GM has given his team a chance to break their 14-season playoff drought.

That doesn’t mean the Mariners don’t have issue with their roster — they do.

From a roster flexibility standpoint, having a pair of one-position players at the same position — Adam Lind/Dae-Ho Lee — continues to be a challenge, especially when both are struggling at the plate.

Perhaps, recently acquired prospect Dan Vogelbach will be thrown in the mix after rosters expand to 40 players on September 1. But, barring injury, it’s unlikely management will yield significant playing time to an unproven rookie with the team in contention.

First base isn’t the only platoon that’s been ineffective lately. The corner outfield pairing of Franklin Gutierrez and Seth Smith has scuffled in the second half. Compounding the issue, neither player provides enough defensive value to overlook a prolonged slump.

HerediaAs with first base, replacement options are scarce. Some fans are pining for Guillermo Heredia to return from Tacoma after he slashed .280/.379/.400 during his 12 game/29-plate appearance major league debut.

At the very least, Heredia provides a significant defensive upgrade over Smith and Gutierrez. For now though, the club is willing to ride out the recent struggles of their veteran outfielders.

Another position facing challenges is shortstop. The struggles of Ketel Marte have highlighted the organization’s lack of upper level depth at the position.

When the season began, Luis Sardinas was expected to be the club’s backup plan at shortstop. However, it didn’t work out and he was traded to the San Diego on Monday. That’s where  Shawn O’Malley comes into the picture.

O’Malley has started 28 games at shortstop and 27 in the outfield this season. Lately though, the Richland, WA native spent more time at shortstop due to Marte’s recent stint.

At this time, employing a balanced approach with Marte and O’Malley time-sharing at shortstop would be the best course of action. It’s not an optimum strategy, but it’s a reasonable approach to handle the position for now.

I’ve outlined several challenges facing the Mariners, but there are bright spots too.

One major difference between Dipoto and his predecessor is his ability to pivot when dealing with adversity. The best example of that agility is the transformation of Edwin Diaz.

Transitioning a 22-year-old who was starting games in Class-AA ball in April into a high-leverage major league reliever by June would never had happened in the past. Not that quickly, at least.

Dipoto’s acquisition of Wade LeBlanc in late June is an example of several shrewd deals the 48-year-old executive has made within the last two months.

LeBlanc isn’t overpowering. But, he’s been a solid contributor who helped provide rotation stability during the last 40 games. His presence now looms even larger with Paxton and Karns unavailable and Walker ineffective.

Another new starter — Ariel Miranda — came over in the deal that sent Miley to Baltimore. Under different circumstances, the southpaw would likely be pitching in Tacoma if it weren’t for the club’s rotation issues. But, he’s been thrust into action as a stop gap for now.

From the outside, trading Miley at the deadline with no suitable substitute available seemed peculiar, especially after he delivered three strong starts leading up to the deal. But, the club decided he was longer a good fit.

Perhaps, the Mariners were onto something. Since Miley arrived in Baltimore, opponents have slashed .328/.370/.537 during starts against the southpaw in three starts.

Recent additions of Drew Storen and Arquimedes Caminero have been valuable contributors to the bullpen. Whether they can remain effective remains to be seen. However, they’ve stabilized the bullpen, especially during the Cishek’s absence.

The return of Mike Zunino from his minor league sabbatical not only strengthened the lineup, it upgraded the catcher position by pushing  Chris Iannetta to a backup role. Now, the club is deeper at backstop than it’s been in over a decade.

Although Mariners’ roster has a few blemishes, it’s kept the club competitive throughout the season. Dipoto may be using an inherited foundation. But, he’s built upon it quite well.

 

 

 …

“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.

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

Hisashi IwakumaSo, 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, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen.

Starting rotation
Over the last month, Mariner starters have provided something that the club desperately lacked during their June tailspin — more innings pitched from the rotation.

How much better has the rotation been lately?

During Seattle’s 28 games in June, starting pitchers logged 152.2 innings. That’s an average of 5.4 innings-per-start. Conversely, the rotation pitched 171.2 innings in the first 28 games after the all-start break for an average of 6.1 innings.

Those extra innings certainly helped the bullpen get back on their collective feet until reinforcements arrived. But, the ability of the club’s starters to go deep into games also mattered in the win-loss column. Look at how the starting staff’s effectiveness influenced the team’s ability to win low-scoring games.

Seattle’s Rejuvenated Starting Staff
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  9 3.0  11-3  6-0  5-3 6.4
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

Since the start of July, the Mariners have won eight games when they scored three or less runs. That’s more than the first three months combined. This success in low-scoring contests is directly attributable to a rotation that’s been routinely pitching through the sixth inning and an improved bullpen, which I’ll get to in a moment.

So, who turned around the rotation?

Although Felix Hernandez deserves credit for his performance since returning to the active roster on July 20, he’s not the only one who’s been logging the innings recently — far from it.

Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Wade LeBlanc, and Felix have combined for an average of 6.4 innings during their first 21 starts of the second half. Plus, Wade Miley went six or more innings during three starts prior to being traded and Ariel Miranda — the player Seattle received for Miley — went six innings during his Mariners debut.

While the starting staff has been performing superbly over the last 30 days, there’s one significant concern hanging over the rotation as the club enters the home stretch — depth.

The departure of Miley combined with the demotion of an under-performing Taijuan Walker leaves the rotation woefully thin. That’s clearly on display this week with Paxton going to the disabled list (DL) yesterday and Cody Martin thrust into a starting role.

Optimally, the Mariners would prefer to have Paxton and Walker pitching every fifth game with the big league club, permitting LeBlanc to round out the rotation. In the interim, they’ll field a rotation with Felix, Kuma, LeBlanc, Miranda, Martin, and possibly Joe Wieland — he took Walker’s start last week.

The club could recall Walker to help, but that would contradict their stated goal of giving the 24-year-old an opportunity to re-harness his immense potential. Until he demonstrates he can go deeper into games, Walker doesn’t necessarily provide a better option than Miranda, Martin, or Wieland.

Here’s another illustration of how going deep into games has affected the workload and effectiveness of Seattle’s relief staff.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution (Thru Aug 16)
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 152.2 61% 4.36 98.1 39% 4.90
July 140 66% 4.52 72.2 34% 4.10
August 89.2 67% 4.13 43.7 33% 3.14

As the rotation picked up its fair share, the bullpen’s effectiveness returned to its April levels. This is made evident by the bullpen’s improved fielding independent pitching (FIP) in July and August, when their workload declined.

That’s not to say that the newfound success of the relief corps is solely dependent on the starting staff going deeper into games. Yet, when the rotation sunk during the disaster known as June, the bullpen was sucked under by the resultant whirlpool of overuse.

Let’s turn our attention to a bullpen that has made a complete turnaround thanks to the shrewd maneuvers of general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Bullpen
The most influential and notable change to the relief corps has been the transformation of Edwin Diaz from Class-AA starting pitcher in May to major league closer by the end of July.

Through his first 32 games of his brief major league career, Diaz has the highest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any pitcher with 30 or more innings pitched this season. Rookie of the Year talk may be a bit premature, but the 22-year-old is certain to garner votes, especially if he helps propel the Mariners into the postseason.

As great as Diaz has been, he’s not the only one who’s made a difference lately. Let’s discuss several other upgrades that have been working for Seattle as this week’s play began.

Since returning from the Texas Rangers in late June, Tom Wilhelmsen has held opposing hitters to a .267 on-base percentage during his first 18 appearances and now finds himself as Servais’ go-to guy during high-leverage situations prior to the ninth inning.

With the exception of last night’s difficulties against the Los Angeles Angels, Arquimedes Caminero has done well since arriving from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The issue going forward is whether he can sustain his strong start with Seattle. If he can, the 29-year-old’s presence provides the club with another effective high-powered arm.

Drew Storen is another new arrival who has performed well during his small sample size stay in Seattle. The right-hander came over from the Toronto Blue Jays in a “change of location” deal that shipped Joaquin Benoit out of the Emerald City. After a bad first appearance with Seattle, Storen has been superb holding opponents to a .226 batting average.

Although he generally goes unheralded, Vidal Nuno has been a solid and versatile performer for the Mariners. The southpaw has pitched two or more innings on ten occasions is the club’s emergency starter in the bullpen.

The recent return of Nick Vincent from the DL has also provides a boost to the relief corps. In his first four appearances after returning, the 30-year-old struck out four and walked none in 3.2 innings. Unfortunately, he surrendered a game-tying home run to Albert Pujols last night.

Last night’s mistake notwithstanding, if Vincent can stay on track and return to pre-injury form, he provides the club with yet another high-leverage option. Suddenly, the back-end of the bullpen has much more length.

Yes, the bullpen has quickly become a bright spot, but reliever volatility is a never-ending challenge for managers and team executives.

Caminero and Storen have looked impressive. However, both pitchers are performing well above what they were doing with their former clubs. Will they be able to sustain their newfound success? Conversely, will they regress to their previous numbers?

In addition, the Mariners are in uncharted territory with Diaz. His workload and health will under close observation as the club finds itself getting deeper into the pennant race.

Fortunately, more help may be on the way.

Steve Cishek should return from the DL in the near future. His presence would be a welcome addition as either a right-handed specialist or a back-end option. Moreover, injured relievers Tony Zych and Evan Scribner are rehabbing and could help the team in September.

Finally
The  bullpen has been a strength for the Mariners during the past month, but the club needs to continue to field a competitive rotation during the homestretch. Otherwise, a repeat of the 2014 season is possible.

For those who don’t recall, Seattle missed an opportunity to play their way into the 2014 wildcard competition by one game. One of the key reasons they fell short was a lack of starters in September, when they shutdown starters Chris Young and Roenis Elias due to health concerns.

With no other reasonable options available, then-manager Lloyd McClendon opted to start Wilhelmsen on September 25. Running out of starting pitching with a week remaining in the season isn’t conducive to reaching the postseason.

That’s why the Mariners will need Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Paxton available and ineffective during the last six weeks of the season. If not, the club could be reliving history during the last lap of an otherwise exciting baseball season in the Emerald City.

“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.…

Much to the chagrin of Seattle Mariners fans, their team was relatively inactive at Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. Certainly, watching two consecutive late-inning losses to the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, while other contenders improved their major league rosters didn’t help their morale either.

It’s not as if the Mariners season is over because they didn’t make any big moves. They remain relatively close in wild card race. Plus, they’re eight games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers with seven contests remaining with Texas. Plus, they’re just 2.5 games behind the second-place Houston Astros.

There is hope. But, I get it. Fans would’ve liked to have seen more action. Me too.

Frankly, I felt the Mariners needed to do more before 1 p.m. on Monday to become more than a fringe contender. But, the club didn’t do more and has 57 games remaining to end the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball.

Certainly, to play meaningful October baseball, Seattle will have to play better than they have to date. That means that the Mariners will have to do well against their division rivals — 63-percent of their remaining schedule is against the American League (AL) West.

With that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to delve into the “deadline season” maneuvers by Seattle’s four division rivals. Each club had a unique approach. There was a buyer, a holder, a sellout r, and a rudderless shipper. Let’s start with the buyer.

Texas Rangers
Most pundits classified the club as a deadline “winner.” I’m not as enthusiastic though. Don’t get me wrong. They did improve their roster and I’ve seen Texas as the team to beat in the AL West since the beginning of the season; I still feel that way. However, they solidified an already strong lineup and remained exposed to risk from a bigger need — their shallow rotation.

It’s not as if general manager (GM) Jon Daniels didn’t try to upgrade his starting staff.  But, the market was thin and he understandably didn’t want to overpay for one of the many ordinary arms on the market, such as Andrew Cashner, Drew Pomeranz, Hector Santiago, or the injured Rich Hill. Can you blame him?

Multiple reports suggested Texas was interested in top-shelf starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox. But, they were unable to acquire either hurler. We’ll never whether the Rangers didn’t want to meet Chicago’s demands, or if the duo were actually available.

For whatever reason, Daniels couldn’t secure another starter for his rotation. So, he did the next best thing for his club. He upgraded the team’s offense and added a back-end reliever to his struggling bullpen.

The Rangers aggressively sought out and attained two proven offensive players — catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran — who are certain to ensure that the club’s offense remains prolific.

The duo will help with more than the club’s run-production though. Lucroy’s game calling and defensive skills behind the plate will benefit Rangers pitchers and Beltran adds another clubhouse leader with postseason experience.

Daniels addressed his roster’s weakest link by landing Milwaukee Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress in the same deal that brought Lucroy to Arlington. Texas relievers rank last in the American League —  according to the Fangraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR), They’ve also allowed the most home runs and registered the fewest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any bullpen in the majors.

Jeffress isn’t a marquee name like Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller and he’s not a swing-and-miss type like Chapman or Miller. But, he’s surrendered just two home runs in 44 innings of work this season and has a proven track record in high-leverage situations.

Adding Jeffress into the late-inning mix with hard-throwers Sam Dyson and Matt Bush certainly improves the Rangers’ chances of holding on to leads late in games. The issue is whether their starting staff can hold leads to hand over to their improved bullpen.

At the top of the rotation, the Rangers are in decent shape with co-aces Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, plus southpaw Martin Perez. But, the back-end isn’t proven or reliable.

The injury losses of Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have forced the Rangers to turn to Lucas Harrell — recently acquired from the Atlanta Braves — and A.J. Griffin to round out the rotation. The question for Texas is whether the duo can provide enough quality innings until Holland and Lewis from the disabled list (DL), assuming they arrive back on schedule or at all.

Holland has been on the DL with shoulder soreness since late June and is closest to returning. He’s scheduled to start a rehab assignment on Friday. It’s worth noting that this is the southpaw’s third consecutive season with DL time and that he’s only started 29 games since the start of the 2014 season.

Lewis has also been out since late June with a strained lat muscle. As Mariners fans know, recovery from that injury is a slow process. Seattle relievers Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner have been on the DL with lat strains since Spring Training and neither pitcher has an estimated return date. In Lewis’ case, he’s currently doing a long toss program with no formal return date.

If it sounds like I’m nitpicking the Rangers — I am. They’re a legitimate World Series contender intent on winning it all. I’m just not certain that their rotation is good enough.

Houston Astros
Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Astros were “holders” and remained relatively inactive at the deadline. Their biggest moves were recalling rookie infielder Alex Bregman from the minors and signing Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.

Bregman — the number-two overall pick during the 2015 amateur draft — was primarily a shortstop during his brief stay in the minors. But, the Astros have that position covered for the foreseeable future with 2015 National League Rookie of the League Carlos Correa.

With shortstop unavailable and the team in need of an offensive spark, the Astros slid the 22-year-old over to third base. Unfortunately, for Houston and Bregman, he’s struggling mightily with just one hit in his first 34 major league plate appearances.

The 32-year-old Gurriel, viewed as a major league ready, will likely join the Astros after completing a short stay in the minors to re-hone his baseball skills. The right-handed hitter has played at second and third base, plus shortstop in the past. Perhaps, he’ll relieve Bregman when ready, permitting the rookie to resume his development in the minors.

The only deadline trades made by Houston GM Jeff Luhnow shipped relievers Scott Feldman to the Toronto Blue Jays and Josh Fields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects. Both pitchers weren’t that effective in the Astros’ superb bullpen and deemed expendable.

The lack of movement by Houston spurred many analysts to portray the club as deadline “losers,” but I can understand the organization’s reluctance to make “win-now” blockbuster deals. Their roster is more flawed than their win-loss record suggests.

In early July, I noted that Houston’s strong June was driven by the scorching bats of several hitters who were overachieving. Specifically, Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus, who were all dramatically above their career on-base percentage (OBP) in June.

Based on the reasonable assumption that the majority of these players’ numbers would normalize, I suggested during the Mariners mid-season report that Houston’s record would level out. That’s exactly what’s happened. The Astros had a 13-12 win-loss record in July and their OBP plummeted from number-two in the AL during June to eleventh best last month.

What happened to those super-hot June performers? Other than Valbuena, who’s currently on the DL, every other player’s OBP is below the .270 mark since July 1.

Yes, Houston’s core is outstanding. But, their lineup lacks depth and needs several pieces to improve as a unit. With that in mind, their front office wasn’t willing to forsake their future by overpaying at the deadline. Rather, they opted to be holders and ride out the season with their current cast of characters. To be honest, I don’t blame them.

Oakland Athletics
Led by president of baseball operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst, the Athletics have been masterful at orchestrating deals as both buyers and sellers during previous years. This time, they were in the latter category.

In early June, Oakland sent utility-man Chris Coghlan to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for infielder Arismendy Alcantara. The 24-year-old Alcantara was a top-100 prospect as recently as 2014, but he’s struggled during limited big league auditions. Despite his early problems in the majors, the switch-hitter is a good fielder who possesses home run power and stolen base speed. Plus, he has the athleticism to play second base, shortstop, and center field.

The club’s big sell job dispatched outfielder Josh Reddick and starting pitcher Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three prospects. The most notable being Grant Holmes, a 20-year-old right-handed starter who ranks number-82 on the MLB.com top-100 prospect list. Selected by the Dodgers with the number-22 overall pick during the 2014 amateur draft, Holmes projects as a mid-rotation starter.

Oakland also picked up Frankie Montas. The 23-year-old is a hard-throwing starter capable of topping 100-MPH on the radar gun. His issues have been command on the mound and weight control on the scales. It’s possible that the right-hander will eventually transition to reliever. Currently, Montas isn’t playing due to a stress reaction in the rib area where he had offseason surgery. As a result, he’s not likely to pitch again this season.

The third prospect acquired is 24-year-old Jharel Cotton, who projects to be either a mid-rotation starter. With that said, his 5-foot-11 frame may lead Oakland to transition the U. S. Virgin Island-born hurler into a reliever.

The Athletics also traded outfielder Billy Burns to the Kansas City Royals for Brett Eibner. The right-handed hitter is a former second-round pick, who’s endured numerous injuries in the minors. But, he’s blossomed during his last two seasons at Class-AAA level. Eibner made his major league debut in late-May as an injury replacement for center fielder Lorenzo Cain and slashed .231/.286/.423 during 85 plate appearances before returning to the minors upon Cain’s return from the DL.

Although this is a seemingly minor deal, it’s possible that 27-year-old Eibner could be a late-bloomer now that injury issues are behind him. Oakland retains club control over the outfielder through the 2022 season.

Los Angeles Angels
This is an organization in a difficult predicament. They desperately need to upgrade their minor league system — ranked worst in baseball. But, they have few appealing assets on their major league roster. Their most valuable piece — Mike Trout — is a generational talent who isn’t going anywhere.

Still, the team did have opportunities to improve as Monday’s trade deadline approached, but their strategy was peculiar — at least to me.

The club’s biggest deal sent southpaw starter Hector Santiago and minor league reliever Alan Busenitz to the Minnesota Twins for 26-year-old pitching prospect Alex Meyer and 33-year-old starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco. It’s incomprehensible to me that Los Angeles exchanged Santiago for Nolasco.

Yes, the Twins are picking up a significant chunk of Nolasco’s salary for this year and next. But, he hasn’t been good for some time — 5.44 ERA during 56 career starts with the Twins dating back to 2014 — and is five years older than Santiago.

Clearly, the key to this deal for the Angels is Meyer — a 6-foot-9 hard-throwing right-hander, who’s struggled with command throughout his professional career and has been dealing with shoulder problems for most of this season. Before his health issues, Minnesota had converted the number-23 overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft to a reliever.

That’s right; Los Angeles dealt a starting pitcher, who was an all-star last season and under team control for one more year, for a struggling 33-year-old starter and a 26-year-old pitcher with command issues and shoulder problems. How does that make sense?

The team’s only other move saw reliever Joe Smith going to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Class-A pitcher Jesus Castillo. In this case, the Angels were simply moving a rental player. Since Smith hadn’t been effective as in years past, his value diminished in the trade market. In return for their submarine tossing reliever, Los Angeles picked up the 20-years-old Castillo.

Smith may have been the club’s only healthy player with an expiring contract. But, there were several players under team control past this season who could’ve been moved and brought value back to the Angels. Yet, GM Billy Eppler chose to stand pat.

A prime trade candidate was third baseman Yunel Escobar. Los Angeles holds a $7 million club option for next season with a $1 million buyout. Considering that Escobar has been productive at the plate — .322/.370/.411 — and relatively affordable, it’s hard to fathom that the Angels couldn’t find a dance partner interested in the 33-year-old.

Reliever Cam Bedrosian is a player who had to be in high demand and could’ve returned value to the organization. The son of former major league reliever Steve Bedrosian is under team control until 2022 and has been highly effective — 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings — as the eighth inning set up man for manager Mike Scioscia.

With the trade of Smith and closer Huston Street going to the DL, Bedrosian has assumed the closer role in Anaheim. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the Angels to start retooling their system by moving the 24-year-old?

Another trade piece could’ve been starter Matt Shoemaker. Granted, the club’s rotation has been so decimated by injury that moving a starting pitcher in-season might have been difficult. But, considering what the Tampa Bay Rays received from the San Francisco Giants for Matt Moore — major league third baseman Matt Duffy and two top-30 prospects from the Giants farm system — it’s plausible that the Angels could’ve found similar or more value for Shoemaker.

Admittedly, moving right fielder Kole Calhoun would be a tough pill to swallow. After all, the 28-year-old is slashing .275/.354/.415. Other than Trout, he’s the club’s best position player and under team control through the end of the 2019 season.

On the other hand, how do the Angels plan to be competitive by 2019?

Considering the current state of the Angels’ minor league system, it’s unlikely it’ll be able to provide significant relief within the next three seasons. Plus the Angels will enter 2019 with a 27-year-old Mike Trout with one year remaining on his contract and a 39-year-old Albert Pujols with two left on his deal. Both men will be making a combined $62 million. Under these circumstances, I fail to see a road map to success for the Angels.

So, Seattle Mariners fans. There is a glimmer of hope for your team’s playoff expectancy. The two teams in front of you in the AL West standings have played better, but have flawed rosters too. It’s going to come down to which teams are best positioned to overcome their flaws.

In my mind, the Rangers continue to be in the driver’s seat. But, their starting staff could be their undoing in the divisional race or postseason. Plus, the Astros are struggling enough to be caught by Seattle.

For the Mariners to leapfrog Houston and — gasp — Texas, they’d need a few breaks along the way. Most importantly, they’d need their starting staff to regain its early season form and avoid injury to their core position players. That’s a lot to hope for with less than two months remaining in the system. But, at least there’s hope Mariners fans.…

The 2016 Major League Baseball non-waiver trading deadline came and went without the Seattle Mariners making a significant upgrade to their major league roster. That’s a surprise to most observers — including me — who expected first-year general manager (GM) Jerry Dipoto to be active during the hours and days leading up to today’s 1 p.m. deadline.

The most notable deal during this year’s “deadline season” happened yesterday when Seattle sent left-handed starter Wade Miley to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for a minor league starting pitcher. That’s not exactly the kind of action fans were expecting.

Why no other moves? Simply stated, the market didn’t permit any.

Dipoto explained to Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish that “the greatest opportunities we had were to sell off, and that’s just not something we were willing to do.” That’s a disappointing development for Seattle faithful. At the same time, it’s encouraging that the front office didn’t forsake their future for a slim chance at making the postseason this season.

Despite the disappointment felt by fans, Dipoto did make several moves that improve his ball club now and potentially in the future. Let’s look at them starting with yesterday’s transaction.

Miley to Baltimore Orioles for Ariel Miranda
In retrospect, the Mariners may never have acquired Miley from the Boston Red Sox, if they had known Hisashi Iwakuma would be returning to Seattle. At the time of the deal, “Kuma” was reportedly set to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not knowing that Iwakuma’s deal with the Dodgers would fall through within a week, Dipoto did what anyone in his position would do — find a replacement. That led to the Mariners GM shipping reliever Carson Smith and starter Roenis Elias to Boston for Miley and minor league reliever Jonathan Aro.

The deal wasn’t optimal for the Mariners, who were exchanging two young pitchers with a combined 10 years of club control for three years of Miley — a slightly above-average performer — and Aro, who may never be anything more minor league depth.

Unfortunately, for the Mariners and Miley, he didn’t even deliver average value. Known for being an innings eater, the southpaw averaged just 5.9 innings-per-start with Seattle after averaging 6.2 since during his four previous seasons. That may not sound like a big difference, but the end result was the 29-year-old not completing the sixth inning in 32-percent of his starts — not exactly what you’d expect from an “innings eater.”

In recent starts, Miley did display some signs of improvement with a .243 opponents on-base percentage (OBP) and 2.79 earned run average (ERA) during his last 19.1 innings. Despite the uptick in productivity, Dipoto opted to deal the southpaw to Baltimore rather than wait to see if the former number-one pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks had actually turned a corner.

In return for Miley, the Mariners received the 27-year-old Miranda, who Dipoto views as “major league ready.” Currently assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma, the southpaw may eventually transition into another power arm out of the bullpen for Seattle. In the short-term though, he’ll likely see action with the big league club by taking Miley’s former spot in the rotation on Thursday.

Whether the Mariners should’ve moved or retained Miley is debatable, but there’s certainly going to be some measure of scrutiny on what Dipoto received from Baltimore, especially when the Tampa Bay Rays received considerably more for a pitcher similar to Miley in age, value, and cost — Matt Moore.

In exchange for Moore, Tampa Bay was able to acquire a young major league infielder — Matt Duffy — from the San Francisco Giants, plus two top-30 prospects from the Giants farm system. Although the Moore deal looks far more appealing on the surface, there may be underlying reasons why the Mariners couldn’t strike a similar deal. The most obvious one being money.

The Orioles were willing to pay all of Miley’s salary — just over $2 million for the remainder of this season, plus $8.75 million next year. As a result of Baltimore’s willingness to accept all of Miley’s salary, the Mariners had to settle for a lesser return.

My takeaway from yesterday’s deal is that Dipoto is willing to acknowledge, through his actions, when he’s made a mistake and that he’s more than willing to adjust course. That’s an encouraging development for an organization that’s historically been too slow or rigid to pivot when confronted with adversity.

Mike Montgomery / Jordan Pries to Chicago Cubs for Dan Vogelbach / Paul Blackburn
This is a deal that helped the Mariners get younger and deeper and may help them as early as this season. The key to the deal, from Seattle’s perspective, was Vogelbach. With three-time all-star Anthony Rizzo standing in his way, the 23-year-old first baseman didn’t have a future with Chicago.

The Cubs’ surplus at first base and need for pitching provided Seattle with an opportunity to pick up the left-handed slugger in exchange for Montgomery and Pries. As with Dipoto views Vogelbach as major league ready. If the Mariners opt to move past their current left-handed hitting first baseman — Adam Lind — in the coming weeks, Vogelbach could find himself first base for Seattle. If he doesn’t get his chance this year, he’s likely to enter Spring Training with an opportunity to win the first base job for 2017.

Blackburn, who’s been assigned to Class-AA Jackson, has the potential to be a back-end starter. The combination of Miranda and Blackburn means that the Mariners added two minor league starters closer to reaching the big leagues than nearly any other prospect in their minor league system.  That’s a factor that can’t be overlooked for an organization that started the season with one of the worst systems in the majors.

Recalling Edwin Diaz from Class-AA Jackson
Arguably, the Mariners’ biggest move was the promotion of the hard-throwing right-hander, who only converted from starter to reliever in mid-May. Since debuting with Seattle on June 6, Diaz has quickly ascended to the eighth inning setup role thanks to his 17.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate — highest among major league pitchers with 25 or more innings pitched.

It’s plausible that Diaz could move into the closer role, although it’s important to note that assigning the 22-year-old to close games doesn’t fix the bigger problem that the Mariners face — a shortage of high-leverage arms. For now, Steve Cishek remains the closer and Seattle’s bullpen continues to be the team’s weakest link.

Joaquin Benoit to the Toronto Blue Jays for Drew Storen
This was essentially a change of location move that will, hopefully, benefit both players and teams. Benoit, shut down twice this year due to shoulder issues, had lost his job as the team’s eighth inning setup man to Diaz.

Similarly, Storen has fallen on hard times since losing his closer job with the Washington Nationals after the club acquired Jonathan Papelbon at last year’s deadline. Once relegated to the setup role, the 28-year-old’s performance dropped off dramatically and he was dealt to the Blue Jays in the offseason. After vying with Roberto Osuna for Toronto’s closer job during Spring Training, Storen he found himself in the setup role and, once again, he failed to deliver.

Since becoming a Mariner, the right-hander has seen action in two relatively low-leverage appearances and delivered mixed results. In his Mariners debut, he pitched a clean sixth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 3-1 ballgame; however, he surrendered four runs the following inning. During last night’s game with the Cubs, he worked another clean sixth inning.

Free agent signing of Tom Wilhelmsen
Another change of location move involved the return of a familiar face. Wilhelmsen, who went to the Texas Rangers in the deal that brought Leonys Martin to Seattle, struggled with the Rangers and eventually became a free agent after refusing assignment to Class-AAA Round Rock. That opened the door for “The Bartender” to return to Seattle.

Since returning to the Emerald City, the big right-hander has rebounded nicely. Although it’s a small sample size, he’s held opposing hitters to a .278 OBP during his first 10 innings with the Mariners. Whether the 32-years-old can continue to sustain his rejuvenated performance remains to be seen. But, so far, the versatile reliever has been an asset for manager Scott Servais.

Player to be named later or cash to the Toronto Blue Jays for Wade LeBlanc
During the Mariners’ nosedive known as the month of June, the club suffered significant injury losses to their rotation. Among those lost were Felix Hernandez, Miley, Taijuan Walker, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement — for most or all of June.

In need of someone who could hold down a rotation spot — at least temporarily — Dipoto turned to LeBlanc, who was pitching for Class-AAA Syracuse in the Blue Jays system. In four starts, the southpaw has held opposing hitters to a .275 OBP. With the departure of Miley and the club still waiting for Walker to return, LeBlanc re-enters the rotation this week against the Red Sox.

Will this be the most memorable deal made by Dipoto during the deadline season? No. But, the Mariners GM deserves credit for finding a competent replacement player for virtually no cost.

Finally
There’s no doubt that the Mariners are a good team capable of finishing with a winning record. But, their big league roster lacks the necessary depth for them to be considered a serious contender. Does that mean they can’t make the postseason? No. But, their shallow bullpen and degraded rotation leave them at a severe disadvantage.

Sure, King Felix and Walker could return to form and Nick Vincent and Charlie Furbush may come back from injury to reinforce the bullpen. But, that’s a lot to hope for during the last two months of a season that’s seen so many things go wrong. Isn’t it?

 …