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.…

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.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where Paxton and Walker enter the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That leaves us awaiting the return of Walker and Paxton.

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

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

 

 …

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

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

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

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

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

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

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

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

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

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

There is hope for the Rangers though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruz 2Seattle Mariners management must be ecstatic about the performance of Nelson Cruz since he signed with the ball club prior to the 2015 season. During his first year with the team, “Boomstick” slashed .302/.369/.566 slash, hit 44 home runs and was a Silver Slugger award winner. This season, he is — once again — an offensive force for Seattle.

Cruz’s superb play at the advanced age of 36 presents an interesting dilemma for the Mariners. Should they consider trading the slugger now to maximize his trade value?

Yes, it’s unlikely that the Mariners will deal Cruz during this season, especially if they believe they’re in contention. But, Seattle’s play over the last six weeks certainly leaves the door open to the possibility that club will be a seller prior to August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

If that’s the case, why not trade Cruz now? Waiting until the offseason is certainly an option. But, his value will never be higher than it is right now. My suggestion of moving the star player now, or even in the offseason, is likely to make some Mariners fans see red. However, there are compelling reasons to deal the star slugger. The first one is his age.

No one can predict when Cruz — or any player over 35 — will deteriorate and lose significant value. The 12-year veteran has proven to be durable in recent years, playing over 150 games in each the last two seasons and he’s on track to do so again. But, it’s inevitable that his skills will begin to erode.

Am I saying that it’s a certainty that Boomstick will see his performance or health will fall of the proverbial cliff during the last two years of his contract? No. it’s possible that he’ll continue to perform, and be available, at a relatively high level. If he did so, he wouldn’t be alone.

Former Mariner Adrian Beltre (age-37) continues to pad his Hall of Fame resume with the Texas Rangers and the performance of Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (40) has been phenomenal during his farewell tour. Victor Martinez (37), Carlos Beltran (39), and Jayson Werth (37) are more examples of players defying age with good seasons at the plate.

On the flip side, Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, and Ryan Howard — all the same age as Cruz — have seen their respective production plummet due to age and/or injury. What if Cruz’s career takes a downward swing like this trio? Wouldn’t it be wise for Dipoto to avoid the risk of a fading Boomstick by dealing him now?

Even if Cruz can stiff-arm Father Time for a few more years, he’s no longer an asset in the field. Of all of the players I’ve mentioned thus far, Beltre is the only one who continues to excel with his glove. The defensive metrics for the remaining players suggests they’re below-average or worse fielders.

The Mariners could opt to make Cruz a full-time designated hitter like Ortiz and Martinez. I’ve advocated such a move in the past to preserve Cruz’s body. But, that brings me to the second reason for moving the four-time all-star. He’s not a good fit on a Jerry Dipoto roster.

Ever since arriving in Seattle, Dipoto has been attempting to improve his club’s outfield defense and create a more athletic, versatile roster. A full-time designated hitter and/or a below-average outfielder doesn’t help the 48-year-old executive achieve those goals. Couldn’t I argue that Dipoto’s philosophy led to the Mark Trumbo trade?

True, Trumbo has yet to prove he can be as consistently productive as Cruz. But, there are similarities in their style of play — both are above average power hitters with limited athleticism and below-average defensive skills. When Dipoto shipped Trumbo to the Baltimore Orioles last offseason, it was the second time he traded the slugger. If I’m right, why wouldn’t he consider dealing Boomstick too?

There are reasons to wait until the offseason to move Cruz. First and foremost, the club may not be convinced that they’re out of contention by the end of the month. Barring a complete meltdown or unforeseen injury setbacks, the Mariners may find themselves tantalizingly on the fringe of contention.

Cruz’s contract presents a few challenges too. He has a limited no-trade clause to eight teams. After this season, the clause expires giving the club more available trade partners. Also, delaying a trade until the offseason avoids the inevitable blow back from fans who haven’t sniffed the postseason since 2001.

On the other hand, Boomstick is set to make $28.5 million during the next two seasons and, as Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill suggested during last week’s Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, clubs desperate to win now may be willing to absorb the slugger’s salary and assume the risk that he’ll age right before their eyes.

Do I think that the Mariners will move Nelson Cruz during the next two weeks? It’s not very likely. But, they should certainly consider it.

Even if Seattle makes the postseason, I suspect management will consider dismantling the roster and starting anew with players who better fit the Dipoto mold. Moving Cruz when his value is at its highest would be a good first step. There’s certainly a case to do so, even if it upsets fans.…

felix hernandez jerry dipotoWith the All-Star festivities now in the rear-view mirror, the quest for October baseball will ramp up a couple notches as play resumes on Friday. The Seattle Mariners entered the break with a 45-44 record and sit five games back in the Wild Card and eight games back in the division. It’s not an ideal position for a team with postseason aspirations, but at this time one year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the second-half with a 45-46 record before going on an incredible run to end the longest postseason doubt in professional sports.

I know, that’s a lousy comparison. The Mariners offence is nowhere near as prolific as the Jays was in 2015 and the club doesn’t have the trade chips to acquire reinforcements along the lines of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. What the record comparison does speak to, is the fact that this season is far from decided.

The Texas Rangers have been one of the top teams in the American League so far this year but are being hammered by injuries. The Houston Astros have recovered from their slow start as well, making conquering the West a tall task. There’s no reason to believe a wild card slot is out of reach, however.

Here are three things that need to happen in the second half for Seattle to be best positioned for a return to the postseason.

A return of the King
This really could write itself: the Mariners need the best incarnation of Felix Hernandez available. At this point, regaining 2016 Felix would be an upgrade for the rotation. But what the team really needs is its ace back. The 30-year-old has nearly completed his rehab assignment for the calf injury suffered in May and is expected to rejoin the rotation next week.

There were some concerns that Felix wasn’t 100 percent earlier in the season, with particular regards to his decreased velocity. The calf injury is unlikely to change anything there and probably won’t ease much concern over what he’ll be able to produce over the remainder of the season.

The right-hander has made this year he owns a 2.86 ERA and a 4.16 FIP in 63 innings over 10 starts this year. Hernandez’s strikeout and walk rates of 7.57 and 3.71 per nine innings respectfully are both nearly an entire point in the wrong direction from his career marks. The increase in walks speaks to some of the command troubles he has encountered earlier in the year. Not having the sharpest of stuff either has likely hurt the strikeout rate. On the year he owns an 8.5 percent whiff rate, his lowest since 2011 when he posted a 9.1 percent mark.

The good news from Felix’s first half are that the ground balls are still there and the home run rate is within his career norms. The challenge will be responding to the decreased velocity and making adjustments to his appraoch. The changeup and breaking balls are still there and more than a few starters have been successful with diminished velocity.

At the very least, the King comes at a time when reinforcements are sorely needed in the rotation. Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker have both been on the disabled list and Nathan Karns was moved to the bullpen. Reliever Mike Montgomery is expected to make another start following the break.

Expectations for Felix immediately returning to greatness will need to be tempered, but if he can regain more of his former self than he has shown, it will be a significant boost to the club.

Dipoto at the deadline
Rarely does a team enter the beginning of a season complete, and practically never does that team have everything go according to plan over the first three-plus months of the year. Injuries and under-performance have a funny way of messing things up. Even the Chicago Cubs have shown that they are indeed fallible. Tinkering is required throughout the season, but transactions come under extreme scrutiny leading up to the trade deadline.

This will be Jerry Dipoto’s first deadline as general manager of the Mariners. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill has thoughts on the various players the M’s could target, while Luke Arkins digs into Dipoto’s past for clues about how he may act over the next couple weeks. The primary areas of concern are the rotation, bullpen, and outfield. Some help at first base would be nice, but Dae-Ho Lee is doing enough to make that a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have upgrade.

The difficulty is that, even more than usual, prices are already sky-high with supply as low as it has been in years. Not to mention that fact that Dipoto has precious few trade chips to work with.

I’ve often felt that a club can have a successful deadline without making a move. If the price of the product is too high for your taste, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it on the shelf. And really, it isn’t as if the Mariners are a piece away. Drew Pomeranz or Jason Grilli, or even Aaron Hill for that matter, won’t catapult the team to the top of the division.

With minimal help waiting in the wings at Triple-A, making an upgrade or two could be crucial to the club’s Wild Card aspirations. Maybe Nori Aoki figures it out and can contribute something or one of Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Evan Scribner, and Ryan Cook is able to pitch effectively once healthy. But, as we knew heading into the season, there was probably still a missing piece that would need to be found outside of the organization. It’s up to Dipoto to find out.

The bats keep rolling
It may be odd to say, but nonetheless it’s true: the Mariners have been one of the better offensive teams in baseball this year. The club’s 109 wRC+ ranks fourth among all teams, due in part to the 132 home runs hit so far this year. That number is second only to the Cubs. The Mariners enter the second half averaging 4.89 runs per game, just three ticks lower than the Texas Rangers’ 4.92 average.

The combination of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager have combined for 8.9 fWAR so far this year. Cano, the club’s lone All-Star representative in San Diego, is an MVP candidate in a year of resurgence, while Cruz and Seager were plenty deserving of a trip down south. Seager especially.

Part of Dipoto’s offseason plans was to augment the lineup surrounding the core. With the exceptions of Adam Lind and Aoki, plenty of those moves have turned out well. Leonys Martin has solidified the center field position and was crushing the ball before a stint on the disabled list. Bringing back Franklin Gutierrez for pocket change to platoon with Seth Smith has stabilized the No. 2 spot. The pair have also combined for 20 home runs.

Lee has found his way into the hearts of Mariners fans as well as a 127 wRC+ in a part-time role that is starting to increase. Chris Iannetta has come as advertised behind the plate, and while unexciting, has an 11 percent walk rate and is a serious improvement from 2015.

All this to say that Seattle needs to keep the level of offense going through the second half, especially if reinforcements aren’t able to arrive for the pitching staff. Cruz probably has another red-hot stretch in him and Cano has better career second-half numbers than first-half.

Conclusion
The reality is that Seattle is a fringe contender right now, which isn’t that far off from where they were projected to be on Opening Day. Help required for the pitching staff could come from within, particularly on the disabled list, but realistically will need outside help. Though I have nothing against Stefen Romero and Daniel Robertson as depth pieces, the help needed for the outfield simply isn’t here right now either.

And no, playing Cruz more in right field is not the answer. The M’s already grade out as one of the poorest fielding teams, and run prevention is just as important as run scoring.

Bottom line: Felix needs to be Felix, Dipoto needs to work some magic, and the offense can have a couple hiccups, but can’t afford to go cold for an extended period of time. The second-half starts tonight and the Mariners are on the clock. Five games out and two weeks until the trade deadline. A lot could be decided between now and then.…

CishekWatching the Seattle Mariners’ 2016 season unfold has been an exhilarating and frustrating experience for their fans. The club started the year by posting a 23-17 win-loss record and things looked so promising in late May. Then came a number of disappointing setbacks that left the Mariners just a game over .500 at the all-star break.

Despite the team’s tumultuous first half, the Mariners remain on the fringe of contention. Now, a big decision looms for team management. The choice at hand is whether to be a buyer prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline. For Seattle fans, it’s a no-brainer. They want the team’s front office to aggressively lean forward and get the franchise back to the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons.

Entering today, being a buyer makes sense for the Mariners. Their 44-43 record has them positioned to compete for their division title and a wild card berth. Moreover, ace Felix Hernandez is set to return from the disabled list in less than two weeks and fellow starter Taijuan Walker shouldn’t be far behind King Felix. Add a few new players prior to the deadline and the Mariners should be set to make a serious run at the postseason. Right?

Absolutely. But, what if the unthinkable happens and Seattle suffers another round of setbacks between now and the deadline? Then what? The answer could be an option that fans would loathe — sell.

I know. No one wants to consider the idea of selling in Seattle. That’s what the Mariners seemly do every year. But, let’s say that it becomes clear that the club can’t realistically compete by the deadline. Shouldn’t the organization sell at that point?

What I’ve suggested isn’t that likely. Still, compiling a list of potential pieces to ship out of Seattle sounds like a fun idea. So, that’s what I’ve done.

Before getting started, I want to point out that I’m not going to discuss the Mariners’ core players. It’s highly unlikely that the club would move players such as Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager for a variety of reasons. With that in mind, let’s look at several pieces that the Mariners should consider moving if the team takes a nose dive.

Hisashi Iwakuma
Trading the fan favorite would be problematic from a public relations standpoint. Nevertheless, the club would have to consider taking advantage of a weak starting pitcher market.

Iwakuma’s durability would certainly come into play during any trade negotiations. In four seasons with the Mariners, he’s reached the 200-inning mark just once — 2013. There’s also the issue of his failed physical with the Los Angeles Dodgers last December.

The fallout from the physical was a club-friendly, vesting deal with Seattle. Assuming he stays healthy and reaches 162 innings — he’s at 114.1 entering today — Iwakuma’s 2017 contract is guaranteed at $14 million. If he falls short for some reason, the Mariners can either retain him for $10 million or pay a $1 million buyout. There’s a similar vesting option in place for 2018.

Iwakuma’s injury history could be a red flag and his salary may be too steep for some contenders. But, the vesting options provide a measure of protection against a physical breakdown and clubs such as the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox could afford Iwakuma. Both are in the “win now” mode, have reportedly expressed interest in the veteran in the past, and need rotation help. Other clubs that could use the services of right-hander include the Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, and Houston Astros.

It’s hard to know whether the Dodgers would want to take another shot at acquiring Iwakuma or if the Mariners would trade within their division. But, there’s going to be a strong demand for starting pitching prior to the deadline and Kuma would be an attractive option for clubs in need of a quality starter.

Steve Cishek
Many fans say they wouldn’t mind seeing the 30-year-old leave Seattle. Especially, after a rough patch during the past two weeks. But, he’s actually performed relatively well as the team’s closer, holding opposing hitters to a .188 batting average.

That doesn’t mean Cishek is a shutdown closer, but he’d be an attractive option for a team looking to add to the back-end of their bullpen. Clubs looking for such a pitcher could include the Cubs, Washington Nationals, and San Francisco Giants.

The biggest “drawback” with Cishek is his salary — he’s due $6 million in 2017. To move the right-hander, the Mariners would likely have to include cash, if they wanted to receive any significant value in return for the seven-year veteran.

Seth Smith
Teams looking for outfield depth could look at the 34-year-old as a good platoon option. Smith’s defense has been regressing, but he’s a professional hitter who was slashing .286/.378/.476 against southpaws entering today. Potential interested parties could include the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, Nationals, and Giants. Seattle holds a $7 million 2017 option — with a $1 million buyout — on their corner outfielder.

Chris Iannetta
The 11-year veteran is another Mariner with a vesting option. His 2017 contract is guaranteed, if he starts 100 games this year and doesn’t end the season on the disabled list with an injury to his right elbow, back or either hip. So far, so good for Iannetta and the team. But, would it be wise for Seattle to retain the 33-year-old, if the team fell out of contention?

The answer to that question may depend on the team’s 2017 plans for Iannetta and Mike Zunino. Will the club retain both players with so many other areas in need of improvement? Keeping both may be tough for an organization with a limited number of trade chips at its disposal.

Some may view Zunino as the better trade option. But, the Mariners would be selling low if they moved the 25-year-old at the deadline. That doesn’t sound like a strategy that general manager Jerry Dipoto would employ. Perhaps, Seattle would prefer to wait until the season ends before making any changes behind the plate. But, the Red Sox, Tigers, Rangers, and Astros all could use a veteran backstop like Iannetta right now.

Wade LeBlanc
Assuming the left-hander continues to pitch well; he’d be a low-cost option for clubs looking for rotation depth. All of the contenders I mentioned during the Iwakuma discussion could be interested in LeBlanc. The Kansas City Royals and Miami Marlins might be interested too.

Vidal Nuno/Joaquin Benoit
Both pitchers could help contenders in different ways. Nuno is a versatile performer who could be helpful to any team making a playoff run. The southpaw isn’t a back-end reliever, like Cishek. But, he’s capable of going multiple innings or even start in a pinch. Granted, he had a tough June — .328 batting average against. But, so did most of the Mariners bullpen.

Benoit, who turns 39-years-old on July 26, has been shelved twice this year due to shoulder issues and has struggled at times. Nevertheless, he continues to be manager Scott Servais’ primary choice to setup Cishek in the eighth inning. Clubs looking for a veteran with setup and closing experience would certainly express interest in the right-hander, who is a free agent at the end of the season.

Dae-ho Lee
Once again, I’m suggesting to trade another fan favorite. The 33-year-old has impressed during his debut season and enters the break slashing .288/.330/.514 with 12 home runs, despite being part of a platoon. Still, if you’re looking to improve for next year, why retain an asset who could garner value at the deadline?  There may not be much demand for first basemen among contenders. Nevertheless, the rookie certainly could help the Mets or the Astros.

Reality check
More than likely, the Mariners are going to remain fringe contenders and be buyers. Will they be adding big-ticket players before August 1? Based on Dipoto’s comments and actions since taking over last September, the answer is no. Instead, I expect the 48-year-old executive to use smaller deals to tweak the supporting cast around his core of Felix, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

Still, if the club were to experience a complete meltdown prior the last week of July, becoming sellers would make sense. Even if it means moving fan favorites.…

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

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

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, starting with the AL West standings and trends. Plus, a look at the club’s ability to generate offense.

First, here are our Mariners mid-season award winners:

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

Surprise
Arkins: Dae-Ho Lee, 1B
Churchill: Lee

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

Standings and Trends
The American League (AL) West division standings have shifted dramatically since our first-quarter review, when the Texas Rangers and Mariners were the only clubs with winning records and the Houston Astros were cellar dwellers thanks to an abysmal April. Here’s where the division stands at the midway point of the Mariners’ season.
AL West Standings
Tm W L GB Strk R RA vWest Home Road last10 last20 last30
TEX 52 30 L 1 4.9 4.4 26-13 28-12 24-18 6-4 14-6 21-9
HOU 43 38 8.5 L 1 4.6 4.2 16-16 23-16 20-22 8-2 14-6 21-9
SEA 42 39 9.5 W 3 4.9 4.3 15-19 21-20 21-19 6-4 8-12 12-18
OAK 35 46 16.5 L 3 4.2 4.9 14-18 17-25 18-21 6-4 10-10 13-17
LAA 33 48 18.5 W 1 4.4 4.8 15-20 16-26 17-22 2-8 7-13 10-20
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2016.

Back in May, I suggested that the division’s contenders and also-rans would be more apparent by the season’s midway point and that’s certainly turned out to be true. Both Texas and Houston flew by Seattle in the standings in June, while the Mariners have struggled to remain relevant.

The Rangers have continued to win despite losing three starters to the disabled list (DL) within the last 30 days — co-ace Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis. Credit for the club’s resiliency goes to the strong performances of co-ace Cole Hamelsfellow starter Martin Perezand their torrid offense — ranked number-four in runs scored during June.

The Texas bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in the AL during June, which is actually an improvement over its first quarter stature. Sam Dyson has done relatively well since assuming the closer role from incumbent Shawn Tolleson. But, the club only has one “swing and miss” arm in the ‘pen — former shortstop and number-one overall draft pick Matt Bush, who wasn’t even a reliever or in professional baseball a year ago. This is an area ripe for an upgrade prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

At the end of the first quarter, I referred to the Astros as “the most enigmatic team in the AL West.” Since then, only the Rangers have won more games than Houston in the AL.

The Astros flourished despite the ongoing struggles of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who has seen his fielding independent pitching (FIP) and earned run average (ERA) skyrocket this season. Sophomore Lance McCullers has been the rotation’s best performer after getting a late start to the season due to shoulder soreness, while the rest of the staff has kept their team in games.

The key to Houston’s resurgence has been several extremely hot bats. In June, the club ranked second in the AL in on-base percentage (OBP), thanks to hot stretches by Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus. It’s highly unlikely that this group can sustain their recent uptick since all are performing well above their career averages.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics have become the also-rans thanks to a barrage of significant injuries. The only questions remaining for these clubs this season is how soon will they become sellers and who are they willing to move in deals?

Although Texas is certain to cool off, they continue to be the best team in the AL West. Making the club even more formidable is the fact that, as noted in the Rangers deadline deal preview, general manager Jon Daniels possesses the assets and resourcefulness to be a major player in the trade market.

Whether Houston can sustain their current trajectory with a less-than-optimal ace and a streaky supporting cast behind young stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer is debatable. Still, general manager Jeff Luhnow has also proven that he’s willing to wheel and deal at the trading deadline.

Despite the recent struggles of the Mariners and the June bounces of the Rangers and Astros, I expect the division race to tighten as the season progresses. A lot can change within the span of six weeks. Just ask fans in Houston and Seattle. Now, let’s turn our attention to the team from the Emerald City.

Offense
Although the Mariners struggled to win games during the last six weeks, offense hasn’t been the problem. A comparison between Seattle’s MLB run production rankings at the first-quarter mark and the midway point of the season demonstrates that point.

Mariners MLB Run Production Rankings
Year Runs/Gm BB% SO% BA OBP SLG
1st QTR
7 14 11 17 16 10
Midway 6 11 8 12 10 6

Run production has remained essentially the same in league rankings and the team actually scored slightly more runs since the start of the second quarter. So, what’s working for the club? A lot. Let’s start with the heart of the batting order inherited by general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Robinson Cano continues to demonstrate that last year’s sub-par performance was actually due to health issues and not age-related regression. Kyle Seager is on track to hit 20-plus home runs and repeat his career .263/.329/.440 triple-slash. Finally, Nelson Cruz has avoided the decline that many — including me — had predicted for the 36-year-old.

The main stars aren’t the only contributors this season. New supporting cast members Adam Lind, Leonys Martin, Dae-Ho Lee, and Chris Iannetta have improved the offense to varying degrees. They’ve blended nicely with the heart of the order, plus holdovers Seth Smith, Ketel Marte, and Franklin Gutierrez to create a consistently productive lineup.

In the offseason, Dipoto placed a strong emphasis on lengthening the club’s everyday lineup and improving the roster’s on-base ability in order to withstand a slumping player — or players. Overall, his plan has worked. But, that doesn’t mean that everything has gone as well as conceived.

Take a look at how the OBP of each position ranks against the rest of the AL. Although there are mostly bright spots, a few areas of concern do exist.

Mariners OBP Rankings (by Position)
Position OBP League OBP (Position) AL Rank
C .321 .293 2
1B .306 .326 12
2B .358 .331 3
3B .346 .330 4
SS .292 .316 12
LF .321 .324 11
CF .316 .327 8
RF .331 .343 12
DH .380 .325 2
PH .312 .295 8

At shortstop, Marte has been effective at making contact. But, his OBP has tanked due to an extremely low 3.4 walk rate that ranks in the bottom-10 among qualified major league hitters. Since returning from the DL on June 6, the switch-hitter has been even worse (2.1-percent).

Fortunately, for the Mariners and Marte, there’s a good chance he’ll fix his on-base woes. The switch-hitter posted a 9.7-percent rate with Seattle during the second half of last year and 7.5-percent during parts of two seasons with Class-AAA Tacoma. Getting the 22-year-old back on track would provide a significant boost to the offense and provide Servais with another option to leadoff.

Both corner outfield positions under-performed during the first half. As a result, Dipoto shook up the roster by optioning left fielder Nori Aoki to Tacoma on June 24. The 34-year-old had battled inconsistency at the plate all season, particularly against left-handed pitching.

Considering Aoki’s career success against southpaws — .360 OBP — his struggles come as a surprise. This year, the left-handed hitter posted an anemic .244 OBP during 87 plate appearances against lefties. In Aoki’s place, the club is using Gutierrez and Smith in both corners spots, plus Cruz is getting more playing time in right field.

Aoki’s demotion not only affects the outfield. His absence changes the status quo at first base and designated hitter. When Cruz is patrolling right field, one of the members of the first base platoon — either Lind or Lee — is getting the opportunity to be the designated hitter, while the other plays first base.

Getting both Lind and Lee more consistent playing time may improve both players’ offensive numbers. Lind has been performing well below his career slash numbers and is sitting at .236/.266/.421 through the end of June. His struggles have spurred fan outcry for more playing time for Lee. Now, they’re getting their wish.

Lee has certainly created a swirl of excitement with his bat and his contagious smile. But, some observers believe that Servais’ shrewd use of Lee has helped obscure flaws in the the rookie’s game. In another six weeks, we’ll know whether that’s true and if Lind can salvage his season. For now though, management seems content to stick with their first base platoon setup.

Unlike recent seasons, the Mariners aren’t overly reliant on one or two hitters in order to score runs. Now, it’s a collaborative effort that’s been highly productive. That’s certainly a deviation from the norm in Seattle.

It’s early June and the Seattle Mariners are dealing with injuries. Every club faces the same challenge. It’s part of baseball. Sometimes, injuries are short-term. Other times, they have season-changing consequences.

So far, the Mariners’ injury losses haven’t changed the course of their season. That’s good news for a club with a realistic shot to remain competitive for the entire season and — possibly — earn their first postseason berth since 2001. This year is different in Seattle.

The notion that the Mariners could actually be different in 2016 — meaning competitive and relevant — has revived long-dormant optimism in the Pacific Northwest.  But, newfound hope can quickly turn into angst. Especially, when three Opening Day starters land on the DL at the same time.

Anxiety levels are bound to soar even higher when one of those three players is the team’s ace — Felix Hernandez. Although the calf injury suffered by “King Felix” appears to be relatively minor, uptight fans are concerned that not having their best pitcher available every fifth game puts the team at a huge disadvantage in the competitive American League. Makes sense.

To compound matters, shortstop Ketel Marte and center fielder Leonys Martin are the other two players to join Hernandez on the DL. Both have been catalysts to the Mariners offense and their replacements have inadequate. At least that’s what I’ve been reading on social media.

Seattle fans have a right to be impatient; fourteen seasons without a postseason appearance will do that to a fan base. But, are their concerns about the Mariners’ replacements well-founded?

Considering that general manager Jerry Dipoto made adding depth an offseason priority, a few short-term injuries shouldn’t derail the club. Otherwise, the Mariners aren’t actually ready to make a postseason run after all. Did the 48-year-old executive and his staff fail to build a sustainable roster?

Let’s find out by looking at Dipoto’s layers of depth at the three positions affected by the losses of Hernandez, Marte, and Martin. Perhaps, that will shed some light on the subject.

Rotation
Certainly, losing Hernandez hurts. The King has been an elite-level pitcher for seven seasons, although he hasn’t been the same this year. At times, he’s been closer to average than special. Still, losing the King frustrates and worries the masses. Why is that?

Simply put, King Felix has been the best player on this club for nearly a decade, opted to forego free agency to stay in Seattle, and fans want to see him pitch meaningful innings in October. Even if he’s not at the top of his game, fans prefer to see Felix pitching every fifth day. He’s better than the alternatives. Right?

The answer is “absolutely yes.” But, how much better depends on how the King’s replacement — James Paxton  — fares during his absence. Although the left-hander’s June 1 season debut in San Diego was a disaster for both he and the ball club, the jury remains out on what to expect from the 2010 fourth-round pick.

Last night, Paxton rebounded nicely with a very solid outing against the Cleveland Indians. Although the Mariners lost the game, the big southpaw flashed dominant stuff, registering 10 strikeouts and just one walk during six innings of work.

It’s a tad early to propose renaming the left field corner of Safeco Field the “King James Court.” But, Paxton’s performance was encouraging nonetheless. I must admit that the “Big K James” has a certain ring to it though.

Paxton still needs to prove that he can be consistent at the big league level. However, his performance against the Tribe and his last eight starts with Tacoma — 41.1 innings pitched, 43 strikeouts, and five walks — suggest that he’s capable of filling in for Felix on a short-term basis.

Assuming Paxton remains a solid performer, the club will have an appealing “problem” when their King returns — six major league ready starters for five slots, plus capable starter Mike Montgomery in the bullpen.

Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill points out that a strong showing by Paxton during this audition provides Seattle with several options that could help manage the innings of Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns and/or reinforce the bullpen.

All-in-all, the Mariners have a deeper rotation than most American League clubs and are better prepared to withstand the loss of a starter than many contenders. However, Dipoto could still opt to upgrade that deep rotation, if the struggles of Wade Miley and Walker were to carry over into July or Paxton regresses. Stay tuned.

Shortstop 
When Marte sprained his thumb diving into second base on May 21, the Mariners immediately recalled Chris Taylor from Tacoma. Unfortunately, for the 25-year-old, his stay with the big league club was both notorious and brief.

In his first and only start before returning to the minors, the normally sure-handed Taylor committed two fielding errors in the same inning during a 5-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics. Clearly, those two errors prevented the Mariners from scoring any runs that night.

To replace Taylor, Seattle recalled Luis Sardinas; sent to Tacoma to get more at bats and diversify his position portfolio by getting more outfield experience.

Overall, Sardinas held down the fort until Marte’s return to the lineup last night. The 23-year-old provided solid defense and a .235/.257/.324 triple-slash. Although Sardinas’ performance wasn’t at a level commensurate to what fans have come to expect from Marte, it was good enough for a short period.

Optimally, it’d be nice to have a surplus of middle-infielders, like the Texas Rangers. But, that kind of depth is the result of finding and developing good players over the span of many years. The new front office in Seattle hasn’t even drafted a player, yet.

Shortstop depth is adequate.

Center field
The replacement with the most complaints being lobbed in his direction is, without doubt, Nori Aoki. In the eleven games that he’s covered in center field since Martin went down, he’s been inconsistent at the plate. That’s not new though. His defense has fans griping about the 34-year-old.

It’s no surprise that Aoki can’t cover as much ground as Martin. You don’t need metrics to understand that. However, there’s an underlying issue exacerbated by the veteran’s lesser range. The loss of their center fielder further exposed the Mariners’ porous corner outfield defense, which ranked near the bottom of the AL before his injury.

Without Martin available to cover additional ground, more balls are falling into the outfield gaps between Aoki and corner outfielders such as Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Stefen Romero — all average to below-average defenders.

Center field depth is currently tenuous. Perhaps, the Mariners will look inward to minor leaguer Boog Powell for help, but Churchill recently noted that the 23-year-old isn’t ready to be an everyday major leaguer. That doesn’t mean that Powell won’t see action this year. He’s just not the optimum choice to improve the club’s roster. If he were, he’d already be in Seattle.

Finally
Considering the lack of organizational depth when he took over as the Mariners general manager last September, Dipoto and his staff have done an impressive job of putting together a competitive 25-man roster with key pieces sitting at Tacoma ready to be called upon, if needed.

As the trade deadline approaches, I expect that Dipoto will address the needs I’ve touched upon with the outfield and perhaps the rotation. The bullpen could be a likely target too.

I also expect that he’ll be on the lookout to add to his team’s depth. Unlike recent years, the new-look Mariners focus on the entire 40-man roster, not just the major league squad. That’s how you build and sustain a contender.

Yep, this year is certainly different in Seattle.

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marte A little over a week ago, the Seattle Mariners started their 2016 regular season in dramatic fashion by taking two out of three games from the Texas Rangers in an intense series that saw a former Mariner plunking a new one and late-inning scoring surges that spearheaded Seattle to victory on consecutive days.

While in Arlington, the Mariners treated their fans to a fireworks show. Robinson Cano hit four home runs, the team averaged seven runs-per-game, and rookie manager Scott Servais showed some competitive fire by getting into a heated exchange with his Rangers counterpart, Jeff Banister. The Mariners 2016 season was off to a thrilling start.

By the time the Mariners returned to the Emerald City for their home opener against the Oakland Athletics last Friday evening, the energy was soaring at Safeco Field. As with each Opening Day, fans cheered the red carpet introduction of Mariners players and the late Dave Niehaus’ voice echoed over the public address system as he “Welcomed back baseball.” Hearing Dave voice is always leads to an emotional moment in my household.

As icing on the cake, Hall of Famer inductee Ken Griffey Jr. threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Felix Hernandez — who may one day join “Junior” in Cooperstown. Needless to say, the crowd of 47,065  was in a frenzy and ready for baseball. Then, the game started and the mood abruptly took a nose dive.

Unfortunately for the Mariners and their long-suffering fans, the team lost 3-2 to the Athletics that night on a late home run by Chris Coghlan off new closer Steve Cishek. Seattle would go on to lose five consecutive games before eking out an extra inning, walk-off win against the Rangers in front of a sparse crowd of 15,075 yesterday. A lot had changed for the Mariners within the span of a week.

After their initial success in Texas, the Mariners now head out of town with a 3-6 win-loss record and an anemic offense. Ineffective run production is nothing new to Seattle fans. This version is batting just .181 against left-handed pitching.

Seattle Mariners Handedness Splits
Split PA H 2B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
vs RHP 171 36 8 7 15 38 .234 .310 .422 .732
vs LHP 170 27 2 7 15 33 .181 .276 .336 .612
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

So, as the ball club heads to New York to start a road trip, they leave behind a wary fan base; many of whom believe that they’re facing yet another disappointing season with the “same old Mariners.” Is that actually true though?

Honestly, it’s too early to tell how well Seattle will do this season. However, I’m certain that — barring significant injuries — their offense will improve, especially versus southpaws. Why am I so sure?

Before I explain my rationale, let’s look at just how bad Seattle has been against left-handed pitching. A quick review of their standing among American League (AL) teams at the conclusion of yesterday’s games illustrates their ineptitude.

AL Batting Avg. Rankings (vs. LHP)
Rk  Team G PA HR BB SO BA ▾ OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1 BOS 5 24 1 4 3 .368 .458 .579 1.037 .375
2 CHW 4 27 1 1 5 .333 .407 .625 1.032 .389
3 HOU 5 26 1 2 6 .333 .385 .542 .926 .412
4 DET 6 127 5 13 20 .297 .365 .468 .834 .318
5 TEX 7 105 3 4 29 .296 .314 .429 .743 .377
6 KCR 6 43 3 3 10 .282 .326 .564 .890 .296
7 OAK 8 136 3 4 29 .252 .272 .366 .638 .300
8 NYY 6 80 1 11 17 .235 .342 .324 .665 .300
9 LAA 8 138 2 16 18 .218 .321 .311 .632 .242
10 BAL 6 56 2 4 13 .216 .286 .373 .658 .250
11 CLE 6 147 3 7 41 .213 .245 .338 .583 .271
12 TBR 5 47 2 1 8 .205 .255 .364 .619 .206
13 MIN 5 66 0 9 15 .200 .313 .255 .567 .275
14 TOR 6 75 4 4 19 .188 .240 .377 .617 .191
15 SEA 9 170 7 15 33 .181 .276 .336 .612 .182
 Totals 92 1267 38 98 266 .238 .303 .381 .684 .275
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

I’m sure that seeing that their team ranks at the very bottom of the AL in batting average versus left-handed pitching may have just sent some readers over the edge. Their on-base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) isn’t much better. But, hold on demoralized Mariners fan. I see a glimmer of hope going forward.

No, my sense of optimism isn’t a byproduct of Washington’s legalization of marijuana. There’s a few reasons for Mariners fans to have hope. First, their team has had a disproportionate amount of plate appearance against southpaws during the the first two weeks of the season. Take a look.

AL Leaders Plate Appearance Leaders (vs. LHP)
Rank  Team Games Total PAs LHP PAs LHP %
1 SEA 9 341 170 49.9%
2 CLE 6 212 147 69.3%
3 LAA 8 325  138 42.5%
4 OAK 8 363  136 37.5%
5 DET 6 282  127 45.0%
6 TEX 7 376  105 27.9%
7 NYY 6 269  80 27.9%
8 TOR 6 332  75 22.6%
9 MIN 5 296  66 22.3%
10 BAL 6 298  56 18.8%
11 TBR 5 276  47 17.0%
12 KCR 6 291  43 14.8%
13 CHW 4 299  27 9.0%
14 HOU 5 336  26 7.7%
15 BOS 5 314  24 7.6%

Before play began today, the Mariners easily led the AL in plate appearances against southpaws. But, look a little closer. The club has actually faced more lefties than the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, and Tampa Bay Rays combined. This imbalance is bound to even out during the upcoming weeks.

Consider this for a moment. Over the past five seasons, major league hitters have faced southpaws during 28-percent of their plate appearances. Seattle currently sits at nearly 50-percent. That will change for the better, as will the team’s win-loss percentage.

Okay, so the Mariners have faced a disproportionate amount of southpaws and it’s certain to drop to a more league-average level. But, that’s not the reason that they’re struggling so mightily, right? Of course not.

Take a look at the Mariners’ individual player production, versus left-handed pitching, and you’ll quickly see who are prime culprits behind their southpaw woes. At the same time, fans can find reasons for optimism — assuming they’re willing to be patient.

Seattle Mariners vs. Southpaws (2016)
Rank Name G PA H HR BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Seth Smith * 4 6 2 1 0 1 .333 .333 .833
2 Luis Sardinas ** 2 6 2 1 0 2 .333 .333 .833
3 Chris Iannetta 5 19 5 1 3 4 .333 .474 .533
4 Dae-ho Lee 5 11 2 1 0 2 .200 .273 .500
5 Robinson Cano * 5 21 4 2 0 5 .190 .190 .524
6 Nelson Cruz 5 21 3 1 2 2 .167 .286 .389
7 Kyle Seager * 5 21 2 1 3 4 .111 .238 .333
8 Nori Aoki * 5 21 5 0 0 3 .238 .238 .238
9 Franklin Gutierrez 5 15 1 0 3 5 .091 .333 .091
10 Leonys Martin * 5 15 1 0 1 5 .077 .200 .154
11 Ketel Marte ** 4 17 1 0 1 2 .071 .176 .071
12 Adam Lind  * 3 6 0 0 0 5 .000 .000 .000
* Left-handed hitter                                                                  ** Switch-hitter
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

Although left-handed hitters normally struggle against southpaws, Cano and Kyle Seager are capable of doing far better than they’ve fared against lefties during the beginning of this season. The same is true about right-handed hitters Nelson Cruz and Franklin Gutierrez.

Think about it for a moment, the Mariners’ four best best hitters from 2015 are batting a combined .147 against lefties. All of these players are proven commodities who — if healthy — certain to improve tremendously from their slow start as the season progresses.

Facing so many southpaws has influenced the starting lineup. Historically strong hitters, like Seth Smith and Adam Lind, have been kept on the bench more often than desired.

Once the lefty/righty proportions level out, Lind will become a regular fixture in the Mariners lineup and more productive at the plate. To date, he’s started five of his team’s nine games, which is 55-percent of the team’s games. Barring injury, he’s likely to start at least three-quarters of the club’s games in 2016.

Another key contributor to the Mariners current lineup hasn’t been kept out of the lineup by the presence of southpaws, but he’s struggled against them — starting shortstop Ketel Marte.

Ketel Marte’s Handedness Splits (2016)
Split G PA AB H BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
vs RHP as LHB 4 14 13 4 1 5 .308 .357 .308 .665
vs LHP as RHB 6 19 16 1 1 2 .063 .158 .063 .220
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/14/2016.

The switch hitting Marte hasn’t enjoyed much success from the right side of the plate thus far. It’s not uncommon for switch hitters to stumble out of the gate from one side of the plate. After all, they have to hone two separate swings with a limited number of Spring Training plate appearances.

During Cactus League play, Marte had just 15 plate appearances against lefties compared to the 40 times he faced a righty. I can’t predict how much the 22-year-old will improve once he gets his groove versus southpaws. But, I’m certain he’s better than the .063/.158/.063 triple-slash he’s registered during his 19 regular season plate appearances.

Granted, the Mariners offense needs to hit better, regardless of handedness. Facing left-handed pitching 45-percent of the time hasn’t deterred the Detroit Tigers from feasting at the plate.

Still, the Mariners don’t have to be an offensive juggernaut — like the Tigers — to compete in the AL West division. Their veterans just need to perform at career norms. Fortunately for Seattle, there’s 153 games remaining in the regular season. Let that number sink in for a moment.

That’s right, the club has played just six-percent of its games and some long-suffering fans have already jumped off the bandwagon and into the “same old Mariners” camp. I get it. The club has the longest postseason drought in major league baseball. It’s tough to maintain a persistent stare at the club’s substandard performance.

Personally, I don’t believe that the Mariners are that “same old” team. New general manager Jerry Dipoto has built the deepest, most talented roster that seen in Seattle since I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009.

Entering the season,I thought that the Mariners would have a winning record. Nothing that I’ve seen thus far has changed my opinion. If I’m wrong and the Mariners can’t reach the fringe of contention, it’s more likely that injuries or the bullpen will be the root cause; not struggles at the plate.

Hopefully for their own sake, disillusioned Mariners fans will give their team a fair shake before abandoning ship on a potentially promising season. One of these years, they won’t be the “same old Mariners” and it’d be a shame to miss the start of something special due to previous disappointments.…

Baseball, like no other sport, relies upon statistics to recognize greatness. Even the casual fan recognizes the significance of milestones such as 3,000 hits, 500 and 600 home runs, and 300 pitching wins. Reaching these heights of statistical superiority places a player in exclusive company.

Fans aren’t the only users of these time-tested milestones. Nearly every baseball writer refers to statistics when discussing the players who merit inclusion into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

It doesn’t matter whether fans view Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds as the game’s all-time home run leader. The fact that that can easily identify one of these great players as the home run king demonstrates the love affair baseball fans and pundits have with records. In recent years, a new method of measuring performance has crept into the collective consciousness of baseball fans — sabermetrics.

As a Prospect Insider reader, you’re already familiar with these advanced metrics, which take an innovative approach to gauging performance — and value — on the diamond. A mainstream fan is most likely to hear about this new-age methodology during baseball broadcasts when on-air personalities note how sabermetrics have influenced defensive shifts, which are a by-product of clubs analyzing the specific tendencies of individual hitters.

Whether it’s the designated hitter, instant replay, or wild card berths, the introduction of something new into baseball is certain to lead to controversy and grumbling from the old guard. The same applies to sabermetrics. Not long ago, I noted the disdain that Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage directed at the new generation of executives who he derisively referred to as “nerds.”

Gossage feels that the new wave of front office personnel are ruining the game. He’s not a solitary voice in the proverbial wilderness when it comes to disparaging these “nerdy” stats. Plenty of fans and pundits — mostly of the older variety — prefer to stick with time-tested statistics such as batting average and runs batted in.

Not every “old guy” loathes the new-age stuff. I’m a Baby Boomer who happens to be well versed in historic milestones and, yet, comfortable with using advanced metrics in my Prospect Insider contributions. I guess that makes me some sort of a hybrid capable of blending old and new ideas together.

With that said, I’m not a “saber-drone.” When doing research, I tend to gravitate towards straightforward stats that help quickly quantify a player’s performance level or value. The last thing I’m looking for is a math lesson and I certainly don’t want to give one to the reader. Just give me something that makes it easier for me to convey my point to a reader. That brings me to wins above replacement.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. — FanGraphs

Note: For those of you who want to know more about my favorite saber-stat, you can find a superb explanation from FanGraphs here.

Some fans and pundits embrace the use of WAR, while others detest the thought of using such a radical measure. Longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan made it clear that he’s frustrated with the influence that WAR is having on baseball writers and “seamheads” when he declared, “WAR is nonsense.”

To be fair, Ryan isn’t a saber-hater. He believes sabermetric pioneer Bill James “led a true revolution in baseball thinking and has performed a valuable service.” However, the veteran writer laments that the revolution started by James has been “commandeered by zealots.”

Although I don’t fall into the “zealot” category, I do consider WAR my “go to” stat when initially reviewing and comparing position players. It lets me compare players who played different positions or in a different era. I guess you could call me a WAR-monger.

For me, WAR serves as a starting point, but not a stand alone statistic. To see how it can serve as a starting point of an analytical journey, let’s take a look at the five position players who had the highest WAR during the 2015 season.

Rk Player WAR Year Age Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Bryce Harper 9.9 2015 22 WSN 153 654 172 38 1 42 6 .330 .460 .649 1.109
2 Mike Trout 9.4 2015 23 LAA 159 682 172 32 6 41 11 .299 .402 .590 .991
3 Josh Donaldson 8.8 2015 29 TOR 158 711 184 41 2 41 6 .297 .371 .568 .939
4 Paul Goldschmidt 8.8 2015 27 ARI 159 695 182 38 2 33 21 .321 .435 .570 1.005
5 Joey Votto 7.6 2015 31 CIN 158 695 171 33 2 29 11 .314 .459 .541 1.000
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2016.

I think that most fans would agree that these individuals deserve consideration for a top-five player ranking. Sure, some will bicker over the order or suggest several other worthy names. There’s no denying that WAR provided a good yardstick, but further analysis is required.

The next five players prove that point. A couple of names listed below provide ammunition for anti-WAR activists who dispel the use of WAR as utter “nonsense.”

Rk Player WAR Year Age Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
6 A.J. Pollock 7.4 2015 27 ARI 157 673 192 39 6 20 39 .315 .367 .498 .865
7 Kevin Kiermaier 7.3 2015 25 TBR 151 535 133 25 12 10 18 .263 .298 .420 .718
8 Lorenzo Cain 7.2 2015 29 KCR 140 604 169 34 6 16 28 .307 .361 .477 .838
9 Manny Machado 7.1 2015 22 BAL 162 713 181 30 1 35 20 .286 .359 .502 .861
10 Jason Heyward 6.5 2015 25 STL 154 610 160 33 4 13 23 .293 .359 .439 .797
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2016.

Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays is a great player, but he wouldn’t make the top-10 list of many baseball fans or observers outside of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t a dynamic and valuable player. But, he’s not a top-10 player.

The “problem” with Kiermaier is that the majority of his WAR value is rooted in his superb defensive prowess, while his on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage were both league-average in 2015.

Although most fans would love to have Kiermaier patrolling center field, I believe that most would prefer Lorenzo Cain, Andrew McCutchen, or Mike Trout to Tampa Bay’s star.  Kiermaier may “out-glove” the trio. But, all three are — at the very least — decent fielders and provide more offensive upside than the 2015 Gold Glove winner.

The other player who’s likely to receive scrutiny from the casual fan and WAR opponents is Jason Heyward, who signed an eight-year/$184 million deal with the Chicago Cubs during the offseason.

Observers who rely upon conventional statistics generally believe that Heyward is a solid player, but his good — not great — performance didn’t merit the fourteenth highest contract in the history of baseball. Although I’m a WAR proponent, I tend to agree.

In my mind, Heyward is much like Bernie Williams. An excellent player who makes a good team better. Every fan wants players like them on their team’s roster. However, they’re not the kind of player who can carry a team. They’re elite-level complementary players if there’s such a thing.

Both Kiermaier and Heyward catapulted into the top-10 thanks to their value as a defender. When ranked based solely on offensive WAR (oWAR), the top-five had the same names. But, the next five had a much different look to it.

Rk Player oWAR Year Age Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
6 Nelson Cruz 6.0 2015 34 SEA 152 655 178 22 1 44 3 .302 .369 .566 .936
7 A.J. Pollock 5.9 2015 27 ARI 157 673 192 39 6 20 39 .315 .367 .498 .865
8 Andrew McCutchen 5.8 2015 28 PIT 157 685 165 36 3 23 11 .292 .401 .488 .889
9 Manny Machado 5.7 2015 22 BAL 162 713 181 30 1 35 20 .286 .359 .502 .861
10 Kris Bryant 5.5 2015 23 CHC 151 650 154 31 5 26 13 .275 .369 .488 .858
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2016.

Gone are Kiermaier, Heyward, and Cain, while Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, and Kris Bryant take their place. I suspect that the new players combined with the holdovers from the previous lists would form a better-received top-10 list in the eyes of most.

As I said earlier, WAR lets us compare players from different eras, which helps put today’s performances into context and helps fuel another passion of baseball fans — the annual Hall of Fame arguments.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the 10 players with the highest career WAR ever. All are historical figures and I doubt that the outcome will come as a surprise to most baseball fans.

Rk Player WAR From To Age G PA H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Babe Ruth 163.1 1914 1935 19-40 2504 10622 2873 506 136 714 123 .342 .474 .690 1.164
2 Barry Bonds 162.4 1986 2007 21-42 2986 12606 2935 601 77 762 514 .298 .444 .607 1.051
3 Willie Mays 156.2 1951 1973 20-42 2992 12496 3283 523 140 660 338 .302 .384 .557 .941
4 Ty Cobb 151.0 1905 1928 18-41 3034 13087 4189 724 295 117 897 .366 .433 .512 .945
5 Hank Aaron 142.6 1954 1976 20-42 3298 13941 3771 624 98 755 240 .305 .374 .555 .928
6 Tris Speaker 133.7 1907 1928 19-40 2792 11995 3514 792 222 117 436 .345 .428 .500 .928
7 Honus Wagner 131.0 1897 1917 23-43 2795 11749 3420 643 252 101 723 .328 .391 .467 .858
8 Stan Musial 128.1 1941 1963 20-42 3026 12718 3630 725 177 475 78 .331 .417 .559 .976
9 Rogers Hornsby 127.0 1915 1937 19-41 2259 9480 2930 541 169 301 135 .358 .434 .577 1.010
10 Eddie Collins 123.9 1906 1930 19-43 2825 12046 3315 438 187 47 741 .333 .424 .429 .853
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2016.

Babe Ruth is viewed by most as the greatest baseball player in the history of the sport. Therefore, it’s no surprise to find him at the top of the list. I suspect that most baseball observers would agree that Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron belong in the top-five conversation.

Some may not view Barry Bonds as an all-time great due to allegations of performance enhancing drug use and that’s fine. I’m not trying to defend anyone’s credentials. But, there’s no denying that the statistics that Bonds amassed during his 22-year career — including his WAR — place him among the top performers in the game, ever.

Some fans may notice that a couple of notable names — Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig — didn’t make the top-10 WAR list. There’s a simple explanation in both instances that proves why you can’t rely on WAR alone to solve problems.

Rk Player WAR From To Age G PA H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
11 Ted Williams 123.1 1939 1960 20-41 2292 9788 2654 525 71 521 24 .344 .482 .634 1.116
13 Lou Gehrig 112.4 1923 1939 20-36 2164 9663 2721 534 163 493 102 .340 .447 .632 1.080
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2016.

Williams — the last player to hit .400 or higher in a season — lost considerable playing time to the real and devastating kind of war. The “Splendid Splinter” didn’t play for three full seasons between 1943-45 due to military service during World War II. He also lost most of two seasons to the Korean War when he only played in a combined 43 games during 1952-53.

Let’s put that lost playing time into perspective. Williams’ first tour of military duty occurred between the ages of 24 and 26. Imagine the impact on the baseball careers of Mike Trout or Bryce Harper if they missed the next three seasons when they’d be approximately the same age as Williams during his World War II involvement.

Considering that Williams’ combined WAR was 21.5 during the seasons prior to and after his return from World War II, it’s realistic to assume that he’d have registered another 25-30 WAR if he had never left. Add value lost due to the Korean War and you’re looking at one of the top-three players of all-time. Perhaps, the best.

Sadly, Gehrig’s career and life were shortened by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Unlike Williams, Gehrig’s lost playing time came at the end of his career.

Known as the “Iron Horse” for playing in a record-setting 2,130 consecutive games, his WAR dropped from 7.7 in 1937 to 4.3 the following season. Under normal circumstances, that decline would be chalked up to Father Time since Gehrig was 35-years-old at the time.

In retrospect, the underlying cause of Gehrig’s withering value was ALS. Assuming his performance regression followed a more conventional path; it’s reasonable to expect that he would’ve played three or four more years and cracked the top-10 list.

So, what does all of this prove? For a WAR-monger like me, it proves that WAR is a great metric to gauge a player’s value to his team and his standing among peers and even all-time greats.

With that said, relying solely on WAR is inadvisable. As we saw with Ted Williams, Gehrig, Kiermaier, and Heyward, you have to look deeper in order to get the “rest of the story” on players. But, WAR is a good starting point.

In the end, isn’t every baseball statistic nothing more than a conversation starter? Debating which player was the best of all time is a time-honored tradition for baseball fans. WAR just adds another layer to the fray. All that I’m saying to Goose Gossage, Bob Ryan, and other naysayers is don’t take WAR off the table as an option. Just give WAR a chance.

 

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening DayProspect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill fearlessly shared his forecast for 2016 yesterday. So, I figured that I should I join the fray and add my projections for the new season, although mine are more likely to end up in either the “fearful” or “foolish” categories.

Since Jason skillfully covered the standard stuff — playoff teams and awards winners — I decided to do something a little different. Perhaps, offbeat or quirky in the eyes of some. I’m going to avoid projecting the winners of awards and pennants. Instead, I’ll make several Seattle Mariners predictions and a few random projections about the rest of the league. Some of my choices will be safe bets. Hence, the use of the term “fearful.” The rest have a decent chance to land in the “foolish” category.

Regardless of how my projections turns out, it’ll be fun to look back at the end of the season to see how I did. It’ll either be fun for me when I’m crowing about how smart I am, or you’ll be provided with more opportunities to remind me how dumb my predictions turned out to be. Without further ado, let’s get going.

The King will reign on Opening Day
I’m not exactly going out on a limb with this one. Felix Hernandez has a 6-0 record with a 1.49 earned run average (ERA) on Opening Day. Still, I wanted to include this one because it’s tied into a larger issue; Spring Training stats are irrelevant.

Felix, once again, posted so-so results with a 0-2 win-loss record and 4.11 ERA and, once again, some fans were sounding the alarm on social media. In mid-February, I discussed the annual madness that goes on when a player either overachieves or stumbles down in Peoria. Yet, the insanity continues.

FelixFor those of you don’t remember, “King Felix” had a 10.22 ERA in Cactus League play last year, while Taijuan Walker was lights out during his audition for the fifth starter spot. Look how things turned out for both hurlers after the real games started.

Hernandez was outstanding during last season’s opener and Walker struggled until Memorial Day. Walker may become the eventual heir to the King’s thrown. However, his 2015 Spring Training numbers didn’t foreshadow his early-season difficulties or Felix’s regular season success.

Again, Spring Training results mean nothing and that’s why I’m taking the easy path on my first prediction; the King reigns supreme on Opening Day. If he doesn’t, I guess I’ll be considered the court jester.

The Mariners will use at least ten starting pitchers
This isn’t a very bold prediction either. Yet, it’s worth reiterating that the starting five in April rarely makes it through the entire season without needing reinforcements. Actually, the 2003 Mariners were the last major league team to use just five starters during a season.

That’s why the “Nate Karns or James Paxton for fifth starter” discussion during Spring Training won’t matter by the end of the season. Paxton, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, and a few others are likely to start games for the Mariners in 2016.

I opted to predict ten starters because that’s been the major league average for ball clubs during recent seasons and that’s how many starting pitchers that the Mariners and both World Series participants — the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals — used last season. The fewest starters used was eight by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who still felt compelled to add a starting pitcher — former Mariner J.A. Happ — at the trade deadline last season.

Boomstick will lose some boom
It’s not exactly courageous to predict that Nelson Cruz — who’ll be his age-36 by the end of the season — will slow down. Some fans won’t agree with me, but I covered my reasoning in great detail yesterday when I discussed if the Mariners could survive a predicted swoon by their star slugger.

Fans will blame Cruz’s decline on playing DH
In 2015, “Boomstick” played 80 games in right field and 72 as the Mariners designated hitter. Most observers expect that he’ll spend considerably less time in the outfield compared to his first year in Seattle or during any point in his 11-year major league career.

If my prediction about a Cruz regression pans out, a segment of Mariners faithful will protest that his reduced playing time in the field will be the true reason for his decline. They’ll even back it up with career splits that illustrate that he’s always been a better hitter when used as a fielder.

Nelson Cruz’s 2015 Splits
Split G PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
as RF 80 346 105 11 0 31 31 78 .337 .402 .670 1.072
as DH 72 309 73 11 1 13 28 86 .263 .333 .450 .783
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/3/2016.

There’s no disputing that there was a sizeable production split between Cruz’s outfield and designated hitter time during 2015. But, it’s a small sample-size that doesn’t distinguish the fact that 32 of his 72 games at designated hitter came when he was hobbled with injuries in June and September — his two worst statistical months during last season.

Is it possible that Boomstick struggles in his new role? Sure. But, I’d be more inclined to chalk up any difficulties to age-related regression, injuries, or just an old-fashioned slump. Even if Cruz stumbles out of the gate, he’ll have a good role model and mentor at his disposal — hitting coach Edgar Martinez. After all, the award that annually recognizes the best designated hitter in baseball is named after Edgar.

Okay, onto a few non-Mariners items. Let’s see how I do at making predictions about other teams and baseball related issues.

The Yankees will have a winning record
Perhaps, the Bronx Bombers will fall below the .500 mark this season. But, they haven’t registered a losing record since 1992 and I have no reason to believe that the streak will end in 2016.

The Mets will have a better record than the Yankees
This one has little meaning outside of the New York metropolitan area. Nevertheless, I grew up a Mets fan and I haven’t had many opportunities to say that the Mets are better than the Yankees. Therefore, I’m saying it now and it’s not just some deep-seeded resentment speaking.

The “Amazins” have a far superior starting staff — maybe the best in baseball — plus a decent offense and defense to support it. The Bombers, on the other hand, are not nearly as deep and play in a much more competitive division. The Yanks will have a winning season; they just won’t be as good as the Mets. Boy that felt good!

Minnesota stalls
The Twins are chock full of young talent that’s either on their big league roster or very close to reaching the majors. However, this is a ball club that overachieved last season when they finished with an 83-79 win-loss record.

From a statistical standpoint, they shouldn’t have been in contention for the second wild card spot going into the last full week of the season. Yet, they were. Minnesota had the worst team on-base percentage in the American League, and they were also near the bottom of the league in batting average and slugging percentage.

Twins hitters weren’t very good against right-handed pitching — which constitutes approximately 80-percent of the league — and mid-pack when facing southpaws. Their pitching was similarly pedestrian and was either below league-average or at the bottom of the league in most significant categories. So, how did they do it?

This may make some Twins fans see red, but luck? The offensive category that Minnesota excelled at is my least favorite statistic, batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP). Last year, I tried my best to debunk RISP and the notion that the metric indicates whether a play is or isn’t “clutch.” Yet, baseball broadcasters and pundits continue to refer to this small-sample size statistic as if it were reliable, or predictive in nature.

With that said, I don’t think that the Twins will take a huge step backwards. But, I expect that their 2015 RISP luck has run out.

Fallen Angels
Anytime you look at the Mariners’ woeful rankings for offensive production in 2015, you’ll find Anaheim lingering nearby in every category. The former club of Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t have a potent offense last year and the new front office didn’t do much in the offseason to improve their chances for 2016. It’s true that they have one of the best players on the planet in Mike Trout, but who’s going to get on base so Trout can drive them home?

When I discussed how the runs batted in (RBI) stat had no value in early January, I pointed to the fact that, among the nine players with 40 or more home runs last season, Trout had the fewest runners on base when he came to the plate. What’s the use of having a player of Trout’s ilk if the players in front of him in the batting order can’t get on base?

Assuming that Anaheim’s rotation continues to be near league-average as they were last season, it’s tough envisioning them scoring enough to win as many games as last year. They’ll finish closer to the bottom of the division than the top in 2016.

The Diamondbacks won’t take the next step
This pick isn’t much of a reach either, at least in my mind. Though it’ll probably upset the team’s fan base. There’s no doubt that the Diamondbacks made several splashy moves during the offseason. But, I don’t see how trading away the number-one overall pick from the 2015 amateur draft (Dansby Swanson) and an outstanding defensive outfielder (Ender Inciarte) for starting pitcher Shelby Miller, plus overpaying (six-years/$206.5 million) to 32-year-old ace Zack Greinke actually helps Arizona in 2016 and beyond.

Yes, their starting pitching will be significantly better and they have one of the most underrated and best hitters in the game — Paul Goldschmidt — in their lineup. But, I don’t see it being enough to win the National League (NL) West division and winning a wild card berth will be a challenge with some many good teams in the NL East and Central divisions.

Unfortunately, for Arizona and baseball, A.J. Pollock will be lost for three months due to a broken elbow. Losing a budding star like Pollock leads into a conversation about ownership’s willingness or ability to add salary and make in-season roster adjustments.

According to information available at Baseball Prospectus, the Diamondbacks have exceeded their current 2016 payroll projection of $91 million only once during their club’s history. Will management make the necessary moves or will the Greinke deal hamstring the team’s ability to improve? I suspect it will.

Letting pitchers hit will continue to be a dumb
Other than the entertainment value of watching a Bartolo Colon helmet swirl, what’s the point in having pitchers continuing to make plate appearances?

Colon HittingWhat’s the result of letting pitchers hit? More pinch-hit appearances and fewer runs scored, which leads to less fun. Only five NL teams scored over the major league average of 4.25 runs-per-game in 2015, while major league pinch hitters batted .218 last season. This doesn’t make for compelling baseball, ever.

As comedian/writer Larry David might say while during his most recognizable political impersonation, “Enough is enough!”

There’s still hope at the All-star break 
Even if your team is struggling at the midway point of the season, there is hope. Look at how many first place teams from the last five all-star breaks didn’t win their division or completely missed the postseason.

First Place Teams at the All-Star Break
Year AL East AL Central AL West NL East
NL Central NL West
2015 NYY KCR LAA WSN STL LAD
2014 BAL DET OAK WSN MIL LAD
2013 BOS DET OAK ATL STL ARI
2012 NYY CHW TEX WSN PIT LAD
2011 BOS DET TEX PHI MIL SFG
Finished as a Wild Card                                  Missed the postseason

Some old guy will spout off about something
Another former player will likely follow in the steps of  Goose Gossage and gripe about Bryce Harper or other players who don’t “respect the game.” For the old-timer, the bat flip is sacrilegious. Today’s fans and players don’t see it that way.

That “get off my lawn” guy will echo Gossage’s sentiments. As I noted in a recent “N4N” piece, complaining about the kids is rite of passage for the older generation.

As an “old guy” myself, I can’t say that I like everything that Millennials do on the field. But, who cares? It’s baseball played by young men, not people eligible for Social Security. Besides, nothing that the younger generation of ball players do will ever bother me as much as Washington state drivers who loiter in the passing lane of highways.

Alright, enough of the old guy speak. Let’s close this out with a few more Mariners related items.

The Mariners bullpen will be better than last year
This projection isn’t exactly hard to envision either. With the exception of Carson Smith, the 2015 relief corps was a complete disappointment. Yes, the current group may not inspire confidence. But, I expect it’ll still be better than last year’s group. No where to go, but up, for Seattle’s relief corps.

Jerry Dipoto won’t stand pat
Second easiest prediction ever; the easiest one comes later. During his first offseason with the Mariners, Dipoto added 12 new players to his club’s 25-man roster, including two starting pitchers, his closer and eighth inning set-up man, and four starting position players.

The 47-year-old’s aggressiveness is another reason to believe that the team’s bullpen will be better in 2016. Dipoto won’t rest if his relievers are collectively tanking, especially if the Mariners are have a reasonable chance to make a postseason run at the all-star break.

Based on his busy offseason and his stated willingness to pivot when things don’t work out, Dipoto should keep the Prospect Insider staff busy during the regular season.

The Mariners will have a winning record
I’m not saying they’ll be in the postseason. But, I do believe that the Mariners are — at least — six wins better than last season when they finished with a 76-86 win-loss record. So yes, I do expect his club will have a winning record during the first year of the Dipoto/Servais regime.

As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times noted, Dipoto feels the same way and expects to enter the season with a chance of winning 85-86 games. As the new general manager said, “We built the roster with the idea to get into the mid-80s.”

Whether the Mariners have a realistic shot to contend will likely come down to their overall health, how the revamped bullpen performs, and how well Dipoto pivots during adversity. Regardless, the team should crack the 81-win barrier in 2016.

Finally…Seattle will rejoice when Junior goes to Cooperstown 
This is the easiest prediction I’ve ever made. Ken Griffey Jr. made baseball and Mariners history when he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in January. First, the best player to wear a Mariners uniform justifiably earned the highest vote percentage ever recorded during the Hall’s 80-year history.

Then, the club unexpectedly announced that “Junior” would be the first Mariners player to have his uniform number retired. From this point forward, no one will ever wear the number “24” at any level within the Mariners organization.

Regardless of how the Mariners do during the 2016 season, Seattle will celebrate on July 24, when Griffey formally enters Cooperstown, and during “Ken Griffey Jr. Weekend” at Safeco Field on August 5-7, when his jersey is officially retired. At least I know that I’ll get one 2016 prediction right.…

Mariners walk off During his first season with the Seattle Mariners, slugger Nelson Cruz lived up to or exceeded the expectations of pundits and fans alike. Despite the fact that 2015 Mariners turned out to be a huge disappointment as they extended their postseason drought to 14 seasons, “Boomstick” was a bright spot in the team’s otherwise pedestrian offense.

Last year, Cruz’s home run and hit totals — plus his .302/.369/.566 slash — were well above his career averages. Moreover, he delivered the highest wins above replacement (WAR) of his career. Considering his 2015 production, fans are likely hoping that Boomstick will be able to repeat his first-year success with the Mariners. But, is that a reasonable expectation? Probably not.

Cruz is getting older and it’s inevitable that his skills will begin to erode. That doesn’t mean that 2016 is the year that the 11-year veteran suddenly becomes “Slumpstick.” On the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll fall back from his stellar performance of last year. How much he declines is the “unknown unknown” facing both the team and its star slugger.

Entering this season, projection systems aren’t being kind to Cruz, who turns 36-years-old on July 1. Both Steamer and ZiPS, developed by Dan Szymborski of ESPN, project that the Mariners slugger will not be nearly as productive in 2016.

Some may point to Cruz’s his outstanding physical fitness and the fact that he’ll have a rejuvenated Robinson Cano as batting order protection as two reasons why he should be able to duplicate his superb offensive production from last season. This makes for a compelling argument. But, isn’t it possible that Cruz’s 2015 was nothing more than a statistical aberration and will be difficult to repeat regardless of his physical prowess, age, or lineup protection?

Why am I so leery of Cruz in 2016, other than his age? One statistic stands out as an area of concern for me going into 2016 — batting average on balls in play (BABIP). I’m not trying to go to “saber-geek” on you, but hear me out.

First, for those not familiar with BABIP, it measures how many balls put into play go for a hit — not including home runs. FanGraphs adeptly points out that several factors affect BABIP rates for individual players, including defense, luck, and talent level.

Since we know that Cruz is talented and league defense is relatively stable from season to season, that leaves luck as the remaining factor. Look at Cruz’s BABIP over the span of his career and you’ll see a dramatic uptick in 2015 after he hovered around the league-average mark between the 2011-2014 seasons.

BABIP

I understand that some of you may not buy into BABIP, but Mariners general Jerry Dipoto is a believer. He specifically cited the stat when explaining the acquisition of center fielder Leonys Martin. When discussing his newest player with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle, Dipoto noted, “He did not have a very high batting average on balls in play, which is typically an indicator that it will turn around.”

Assuming that Cruz’s BABIP returns closer to his norm, he’s looking at a drop-off from his 2015 numbers. That doesn’t mean that his 2016 performance falls off the face of the earth. However, based on his age, he’d be occupying rarefied air if he were able to repeat last year’s performance at the plate. Look at the 10 best individual seasons for 35-year-old players since 2010 and you’ll see what I mean.

Top-10 Individual Seasons for 35-year-olds (since 2010)
Rk Player oWAR Year Tm G PA H 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Adrian Beltre 5.9 2014 TEX 148 614 178 33 19 .324 .388 .492 .879
2 Victor Martinez 5.8 2014 DET 151 641 188 33 32 .335 .409 .565 .974
3 Lance Berkman 5.3 2011 STL 145 587 147 23 31 .301 .412 .547 .959
4 Jayson Werth 4.7 2014 WSN 147 629 156 37 16 .292 .394 .455 .849
5 David Ortiz 4.0 2011 BOS 146 605 162 40 29 .309 .398 .554 .953
6 Jimmy Rollins 3.7 2014 PHI 138 609 131 22 17 .243 .323 .394 .717
7 Marlon Byrd 3.7 2013 TOT 147 579 155 35 24 .291 .336 .511 .847
8 A.J. Pierzynski 3.7 2012 CHW 135 520 133 18 27 .278 .326 .501 .827
9 Chase Utley 3.5 2014 PHI 155 664 159 36 11 .270 .339 .407 .746
10 Mark Teixeira 3.3 2015 NYY 111 462 100 22 31 .255 .357 .548 .906
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/2/2016.

To rank players, I opted to use offensive WAR (oWAR) as the determining factor. For those wondering, Cruz’s oWAR was 6.0 in 2015. I chose oWAR because it takes the defensive component out of the equation and places the focus squarely on the player’s offensive prowess. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all can admit that most — not all — of the individuals listed above were still stars thanks to their bats, not their defense.

To be clear, I still think that Boomstick will continue to hit tape measure shots and contribute to the Mariners offensive production. I’m only suggesting that it’ll be at a diminished rate when compared to 2015. Despite the gloomy picture that I’ve just painted, there’s a reason for Seattle baseball fans to hold their collective chins up.

Thanks to their new general manager, the Mariners won’t need to be as reliant on Cruz to score runs — or win — during the upcoming season. From what I understand, winning despite an aging slugger is a foreign concept for baseball fans from the Emerald City. That’s about to change.

During the offseason, Dipoto placed a high degree of emphasis on adding players with good on-base ability. Here’s a look at the core players — ranked by on-base percentage (OBP) — who project to get majority of playing time under Dipoto and new manager Scott Servais.

Seattle Mariners Projected Regular Players
Player Age G AB H 2B 3B HR SB BA OBP SLG OPS
Nelson Cruz 34 152 590 178 22 1 44 3 .302 .369 .566 .936
Adam Lind 31 149 502 139 32 0 20 0 .277 .360 .460 .820
Franklin Gutierrez 32 59 171 50 11 0 15 0 .292 .354 .620 .974
Nori Aoki 33 93 355 102 12 3 5 14 .287 .353 .380 .733
Ketel Marte 21 57 219 62 14 3 2 8 .283 .351 .402 .753
Robinson Cano 32 156 624 179 34 1 21 2 .287 .334 .446 .779
Seth Smith 32 136 395 98 31 5 12 0 .248 .330 .443 .773
Kyle Seager 27 161 623 166 37 0 26 6 .266 .328 .451 .779
Chris Iannetta 32 92 272 51 10 0 10 0 .188 .293 .335 .628
Leonys Martin 27 95 288 63 12 0 5 14 .219 .264 .313 .576
League Avg .254 .317 .405 .722

New players such as Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, and Chris Iannetta all have demonstrated an above-average knack for reaching base during their big league careers. Combining these veterans with holdovers Robinson Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ketel Marte should propel the Mariners to their highest OBP since 2009, when they were a league-worst .314. The bar isn’t very high, so it shouldn’t be difficult for Seattle to vault it, even if Cruz takes a step backwards.

That’s why I’m convinced that the Mariners offense will be more productive than in any season since I first made the Pacific Northwest my home in 2009. They won’t make anyone forget the era when the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar MartinezAlex Rodriguez, and Brett Boone wore a Mariners uniform.

As Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill points out, the club’s offense stands to be a strength this season. When was the last time you could say that about the Mariners?

Ironically, it’s highly unlikely that Cruz would’ve landed in Seattle if Dipoto had been the Mariners general manager prior to last season. He’s not a proponent of big-ticket free agents, and, unlike his predecessor, the 47-year-old executive doesn’t fixate on acquiring sluggers.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, Dipoto has chosen to build a roster with on-base ability that can score more runs and — in theory — win more games, even if Cruz takes a step declines.

If Boomstick proves people like me wrong and fends off Father Time for another season, the Mariners will be even better poised to host postseason baseball at Safeco Field this coming October — assuming the bullpen doesn’t collapse upon itself. Wouldn’t that be something?

 …