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.

 …

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.

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.…

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.…

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?

 …

In a matter of days Robinson Cano will have completed his Aug 17, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano (22) runs off the field against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sportsthird Spring Training as a member of the Seattle Mariners. The excitement and shock of the surprise free agent signing has settled into a reality that one of the game’s top players chose to make his home in Seattle. In fact, the reality of the ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’ nature of professional sports has also settled in with some expressing doubt about the rest of the slugger’s career after a down season.

Certainly nobody expected Cano to be a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate for the duration of his contract — ten years is a long time — but to be doubting his future performance this early on is surprising. Some of the concern is warranted though since Cano isn’t 28-years-old anymore and for the first-half of 2015 he looked like a shell of his regular self. What does this mean for his 2016 season? Let’s take a deeper look.

The 33-year-old’s 2015 season is a tale of two halves: the first-half Cano that was among the worst position players in baseball and the second-half Cano who out-performed Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt. We can see the differences in the following chart.

 Robinson Cano’s 2015 Statistics
Position PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ ISO BB% K% HR 2B fWAR
First-Half 369 .251 .290 .370 .290 83 .118 4.6% 17.3% 6 23  -0.4
Second-Half 305 .331 .387 .540 .348 157 .209 8.5% 14.1% 15 11 2.5

If you didn’t know any better, you’d say that each half belonged to an entirely different player. For a player who had accumulated 30.0 fWAR in the previous five seasons, such a slow start seems unprecedented. But, when we apply the information that we now have, it starts to make more sense.

Last July, it was revealed that Cano had been battling a stomach virus since August in the previous season. That in and of itself could explain the first-half slump. Cano mentioned that he hadn’t been able to eat normally and didn’t have any energy.

If we go back to September of 2014 we can see where his offense tailed off, likely due to the virus. His 104 wRC+ for the month plus a couple October games was his lowest of the season since April. Cano’s power also took a hit as his .133 ISO for September was significantly less than his .211 mark for August. When we look at the left-hander’s monthly splits for the first-half of 2015 we see a similarly decreased power output. There were also increased strikeout and decrease walk rates, uncharacteristic of the well-disciplined second baseman.

So, with the stomach virus in the rearview mirror, Cano should have been in the clear, right? Wrong.At the end of the season the six-time All-Star would end up having surgery to repair a sports hernia injury. It’s likely that the injury stemmed from a strained abdomen Cano suffered in late July.

Surprisingly, the injury seemingly didn’t impact his offensive performance given the excellent numbers put up. Where the injury was noticeable was in the field as Cano appeared limited some at second. Undoubtedly the two-time Gold Glove winner was in significant pain, but the second-half performance should relieve any doubt that he wasn’t committed to the franchise or wanted out of Seattle.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cano was dealing with the loss of his grandfather early in the season, who was an influential figure in his life. I’m not going to pretend that I could know what his mindset was like during that time. But it’s safe to say that it may not have been within the confines of the diamond. Understandable and expected.

Now we can move on to the upcoming season, where a healthy Cano should be able to pick up where he left off in 2015.

Both the ZiPS and Steamer projections like Cano to rebound back to a 3-4 fWAR player. It’s fair to expect some hesitancy in thinking he will immediately return to the top-calibre player he was before this past season. Especially since he’ll turn 34 in October. But he still projects as the top second baseman in the game and really, he’s still Robbie Cano.

One of the big reasons why a rebound shouldn’t be an issue is the return of Cano’s bat in the second half, but another reason is that really, the bat never went anywhere; the results did. In the first-half he posted a hard-hit rate of 34.7 percent, which was higher than his career mark of 32.8 percent. The problem was that all those line drives were generating outs instead of hits, and this was reflected in his .290 BABIP in the first-half compared to his career .323 mark.

This isn’t to say his first-half performance was entirely bad luck, really, he struggled. What it does say or tries to say is that Cano’s results should have been better than they were. I touched on this back in July while offering some optimism for Cano’s second half.

Assuming Cano produces a BABIP closer to his norm — the .348 mark he posted in 2015’s second-half seems a tad high — he will also have the benefit of hitting in a more well-rounded lineup.

While I don’t buy in to the theory of lineup protection being a significant variable in hitter performance, it does stand to reason that if more runners are on base, there should be more hittable pitches available to a batter. This isn’t a runners in scoring position thing, either.

Nori Aoki and Ketel Marte are the probable candidates to hit at the top of the order and the likes of Chris Iannetta and Leonys Martin project to hit at the bottom of the order. All told, that should offer improvement in terms of on-base percentage compared to what we have seen in year’s past.

To be honest, and this can be said about every player, if Cano is healthy he will perform. All signs point to that being the case. There’s too long of a track record here to ignore. Some age-related decline could be expected for 2016, but other than that and should everything else remain equal, I’m expecting Cano to bounce back to the player he’s capable of being. Maybe he doesn’t have another six-WAR season in him, but I’d take the over on 4.0 fWAR being his ceiling for 2016.

If Seattle is to end the longest playoff drought in the majors, you can bet that No. 22 is going to have a big say in making that happen.…

In an age of free agency and mobile players, few major leaguers last enough with one club to earn the venerable status of “face of the franchise.” The kind of players I’m referring to not only have been with a team for at least a decade, but also have become the cornerstone of the organization through acts of goodwill and exceptional performance on the field.

Fans fortunate enough to have such a player on their favorite team’s roster probably feel grateful to have them represent their ball club and city. But, what happens when that face begins to lose his luster and show his age?

Depending on the emotional equity that the player has earned through the years, it’s reasonable to believe that most fans will be willing to fail to notice their natural decline. Look no further than the Bronx for a most recent and prominent example of such a phenomenon.

Number two
On the last day of the 2014 regular season, New York Yankees great Derek Jeter was facing Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox in the top of the third inning at Fenway Park. After falling behind one ball and two strikes to Buchholz, Jeter plated Ichiro Suzuki with a high chopper to third baseman Garin Cecchini.

During previous years, Jeter’s single may have affected the postseason fortunes of either club, but not in 2014. Both the Yankees and Red Sox were well out of contention and just playing out the season on that sunny day in Boston. That’s not to say that Jeter’s single wasn’t significant; his plate appearance against Buchholz would be the last of his storied career.

When Yankees manager Joe Girardi — a former teammate of Jeter’s — replaced the future Hall of Famer with a pinch runner after that run-scoring single, the team’s captain received a poignant send-off from the Fenway crowd. It had been an emotional week for Jeter, who had previously announced that 2014 would be the last season of his 20-year career.

Just three days prior, the veteran shortstop’s last hit at Yankee Stadium was a dramatic walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning after his team had blown a three-run lead to the Baltimore Orioles in the top half of inning. Would you expect anything less from a player nicknamed “Captain Clutch?”

The truth hurts
Although fans succumbed to the nostalgia surrounding the Jeter farewell tour, the media wasn’t necessarily as captivated during his final year in the majors.

Early in the season, Ted Berg of USA Today predicted that Jeter’s defense would cost the Yankees. Joel Sherman of the New York Post opined in early September that Girardi needed to reduce Jeter’s role. That’s just a small sample of the criticism that columnists and bloggers delivered during the retiring shortstop’s final season.

Jeter 2 Some fans may not have liked reading those kind of comments, but the pundits were correct to point out that Jeter’s star was no longer shining brightly.

Yankee lovers — and baseball fans in general — can find a measure of comfort in one clear-cut certainty. By the time Jeter is formally enshrined at Cooperstown in the summer of 2020, the thrilling conclusion to his magnificent career will be all that anyone remembers about his last year in the majors.

Irreconcilable differences
Although fans are happy when a player of Jeter’s ilk finishes his career where he started, they want their teams to win championships. Having a face of the franchise on the decline taking a roster spot could hurt the team, as both Berg and Sherman suggested about Jeter.

One could make the case that a sense of misguided sentimentality prevented the Yankees from finishing closer to a wild card berth during Jeter’s last season. The rationale being that a little less Jeter could’ve led to a few more wins and postseason play. That’s a tough sell for me.

Remember, management never found an adequate replacement for departed free agent Robinson Cano. They didn’t have one in 2015 either. Carlos Beltran had a sub-par year — worse than Jeter’s. Finally, let’s not forget that Alex Rodriguez missed the entire season due to suspension. In the end, I don’t think that the casual Yankee fan cared; they just wanted one more year of Captain Clutch.

Next farewell tour
Boston’s David Ortiz will end his career with “the Sawx” after this coming season. “Big Papi” didn’t start his career in Beantown, but he’s now considered a community ambassador, especially after his remarks at Fenway after the Boston Marathon bombing.

The R-rated comment delivered by Ortiz during that brief speech further elevated his already iconic status throughout New England. Only time will tell whether he’ll be able to replicate Jeter’s season-ending heroics. Without doubt, his last trip to Yankee Stadium and his last home stand will be “must see” events.

What if Ortiz gets off to a slow start in 2016 or struggles as the season progresses? How will the media react? Probably in the same manner as they did during Jeter’s last season — by telling the truth.

How about fans? If Papi is scuffling and Boston is in a pennant race, would fans prefer to see him play or ride the bench? This quandary is always possible when the face of the franchise gets long in the tooth.

I suspect that Boston fans will treat Ortiz the same way as Yankee fans did Jeter; they’ll shower him with an outpouring of affection of support regardless of his performance. Both players helped provide many extraordinary moments — and World Series rings – to their respective towns. That helps fans overlook a few blemishes at the end of the line.

The next wave
It’s easy to see how fans would tolerate the decline of stars like Jeter and Ortiz — their final season was at age-40. But, what about franchise faces who’ll see their contracts expire at a younger age? The decision to retain these players won’t be as easy for their respective organizations. Is it possible that fans would be less enthusiastic about keeping a fading star in his mid-thirties, compared to a 40-year-old?

Here are a few players who could fall into the category that I just described. All will be age-30 or older during the upcoming season and are considered the face of their respective franchise.

Player Age Tm 2015 WAR Contract terms Contract ends at age
Dustin Pedroia 32 BOS 2.0 6 yrs / $85M (2016-21) 37
David Wright 33 NYM 0.5 14 yrs / $192M (2007-20) 37
Yadier Molina 33 STL 1.4 10 yrs / $96.5M (2008-17)   34*
Joe Mauer 32 MIN 1.5 8 yrs / $184M (2011-18) 35
Felix Hernandez 30 SEA 4.4 7 yrs / $175M (2013-19)   33*
* Team or player holds an option for an extra year after this age

Diminishing returns
The heir apparent as Boston’s torchbearer is second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who suffered through a tough 2015 season due to injury. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s about to take a nose dive, although the Boston media has already begun to ask whether the “Laser Show” has started to decline.

Pedroia’s hard-nosed playing style has made him an endearing figure in the eyes of Boston fans, but that same gritty approach could eventually accelerate the deterioration of his outstanding skills. The 10-year veteran is under contract with the Red Sox through his age-37 season.

New York Mets third baseman David Wright only played in 38 games last season due to a spinal stenosis diagnosis and has averaged just 95 games during the last three years. Some scribes have already asked whether “Captain America’s” stenosis could affect his career length and, consequently, his Hall of Fame chances.

Two players who started out as catchers — St. Louis Cardinal Yadier Molina and Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer — have begun to show the negative effects of wearing the tools of ignorance for so many years. Molina’s offensive numbers have dropped over the last three seasons and he was limited, due to a thumb injury, during the 2015 postseason.

Mauer — a St Paul, Minnesota native — no longer catches due to concussion problems. Now, he patrols first base for the Twins. Like Molina, he’s seen his offensive stats decline since 2013.

Long live the King?
Seattle Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez is one of the best pitchers in baseball and he took less money to stay with the only team that he ever knew. Why wouldn’t a fan base love this guy?

Hernandez — whose contract expires after his age-33 season — hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but he’ll be on the “wrong side of thirty” by the Mariners’ first home stand ends this season. It’s inevitable that the former Cy Young award winner will start to lose his edge. But, what should the club do when his deal expires?

The Mariners hold an option that they can exercise if Felix spends more than 130 consecutive days on the disabled list due to surgery — or any other procedure — on his right elbow. Basically, he’s a free agent after 2019 if he stays healthy. If he has elbow issues, the team can keep him for 2020 at a very team-friendly price.

It takes two to tango
In 2010, re-signing Jeter probably seemed like a “no-brainer” to the typical Yankee fan. Although he was starting to show signs of decline at the plate and his fielding numbers were below average, he was still a valuable contributor. But, that doesn’t mean everything went swimmingly between management and the player.

Reportedly, Jeter wasn’t a happy camper during his contract extension negotiations with the Yankees. Although he eventually stayed in the Bronx, it’s been reported that the negotiations led to a chill be between Jeter and general manager Brian Cashman.

Affairs of the heart
As we saw with Jeter, the aging face isn’t necessarily smiling when the business of baseball tramples on a decade of goodwill. Pedroia, Wright, Molina, Mauer, and Hernandez could face a similar tact from their respective organization’s management. “Thanks for the memories. But, we reward production.”

Both Pedroia and Wright will be 37-years-old when their deals expire. What happens if they want to continue being a starter, but their team prefers to use them in a more limited role? Maybe, they’re blocking the progress of an up-and-coming prospect. How will Red Sox and Mets fans want their team to handle their franchise icon?

Molina’s and Mauer’s contracts conclude after their age-35 season. From a baseball business perspective, both the Cardinals and Twins would be wise to move on from their long-time stars at that time or — at the very least — lessen their role with the ball club. As with Pedroia and Wright, would the players be willing to accept less playing time?

Say for a moment that Felix maintains his health and is a free agent in the autumn of 2019. Should the Mariners retain him and at what cost? The emotional response is an emphatic “yes!”

After living in the Pacific Northwest for the last seven years, I understand why Mariners fans would feel so strongly about Felix. When his deal expires, he’ll have been with Seattle for 15 seasons; that would rank second to should-be Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez (18).

Despite the love affair that the Emerald City has with their King, the team could potentially face a challenge with re-signing their star pitcher. What happens if his contract demands exceed the value of a 34-year-old pitcher with 15 big league seasons under his belt?

I know that sounds cold-hearted, but it’s a factor to consider. As we saw with Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners had a predetermined limit on years and dollars that they wouldn’t exceed. In Iwakuma’s case, the team wasn’t comfortable with three guaranteed seasons due to his health history. Could Seattle reach a similar impasse with the face of their franchise?

This tidbit may make Felix fans cringe a little. In the last 50 years, only five of 29 Hall of Fame pitchers have spent their entire career with one team — Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Whitey Ford. Only Palmer played during in the free agent era.

The sad goodbye
A somber truth awaits fans; their favorite baseball player could hang up their cleats for the final time in a different city. Team supporters want to believe that their icon wouldn’t leave, but history shows that even the greatest players will occasionally leave as the end nears.

Iconic names like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron all finished their memorable careers in an indistinguishable manner with another team. If they could end up somewhere else, why couldn’t Felix Hernandez or Dustin Pedroia?

Does that mean that the players I’ve mentioned are destined to leave the only team that they’ve known? Of course not. However, it’s worth noting that it takes two things to happen for a player to remain with a team; the player has to want to stay and the team has to want to the player to stay.

On the surface, that sounds like an easy proposition. However, agreeing to terms when millions of dollars are involved isn’t necessarily easy. Refer back to the aftermath of the Jeter negotiations as an example of how long-standing relationships can go sideways when factors such as ego and economics come into play.

My advice to baseball fans is simple. Enjoy your stars while you have them and wish them well if they opt to leave. Professional sports has been — and always will be — a business first. That’s why good organizations don’t feel the tug of heartstrings — like their fans do — when it comes to making these tough decisions. Even if an aging face of the franchise is involved.…

FelixPayroll is always a hot topic among Major League Baseball teams and as we get closer to Opening Day, the needle starts to settle on what dollar amount each team will allocate. Of course moves will happen during the season and many teams leave room in their budget for just that occurrence, so the Opening Day number is anything but a final tally. With Ian Desmond now a member of the Texas Rangers for 2016, we can expect any further free agent signings to be of the low-level variety after an extended free agency signing period comes to an end.

That brings us to the Seattle Mariners where the first offseason under a new regime brought significant change to the ball club. About this time last year I analyzed how the Mariners would distribute payroll by position. Unsurprisingly the rotation, featuring Felix Hernandez, and second base, featuring Robinson Cano, took up the largest allocations and combined for just under 40 percent of the team’s nearly $125 million payroll.

That percentage stands to shrink again in 2016 as the Mariners Opening Day payroll is projected to be around $140 million — a consecutive increase. The following table shows the players that have been included for each position for this exercise, and more or less are expected to fill the 25-man roster for Seattle. A few estimations were done on my part for the last few roster spots available.

 2016 Salaries by Position
Position Salary Player(s)
SP $40,230,000 Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade MileyTaijuan Walker, James Paxton/Nate Karns
RP $16,908,000 Joaquin Benoit, Steve Cishek, Charlie Furbush, Ryan Cook, Evan ScribnerJustin De Fratus, Vidal Nuno
C $4,250,000 Chris Iannetta
1B $8,000,000 Adam Lind
2B $24,000,000 Robinson Cano
3B $8,000,000 Kyle Seager
SS $600,000 Ketel Marte
LF  $5,500,000 Nori Aoki
CF $4,150,000 Leonys Martin
RF $6,750,000 Seth Smith
DH $14,250,000 Nelson Cruz
Bench $3,850,000 Franklin Gutierrez, Steve Clevenger, Shawn O’Malley, Jesus Montero
Total $136,488,000

All contract information used comes from Baseball-Reference. For pre-arbitration players I used the following scale: first-year players receive $550 thousand, second-year players receive $600 thousand, and third-year players receive $650 thousand. Typically pre-arbitration players will earn a salary in this range or slightly higher. But a the case where a player is set to earn more than $650 thousand but less than $1 million won’t be all that noticeable in the bigger picture.

Remembering that this is an estimate, the 25-man roster here totals $136.488 million for the year’s payroll. This number is not inclusive since it doesn’t reflect the salaries of other players that are on the 40-man roster.

Of this projection the bullpen is most likely to have a different shape by the time Spring Training is over as both Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook are out with lat injuries. It’s also possible that Dae-Ho Lee beats out Jesus Montero as a platoon bat. And it isn’t a given that Shawn O’Malley makes the team either. Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas are in the mix too. The salaries for the other candidates won’t differ substantially from who is shown as making the team, so for our purposes here, this will work.

With the same names and numbers from the above table, we now see how the Mariners have distributed payroll for the 2016 season in visual form.

2016 Mariners Salary Distribution 2

As mentioned, second base and Cano still make up the biggest portion of the distribution among position players, though that percentage has decreased a tick as payroll has grown. Seager, signed to a seven-year contract extension prior to the 2015 season, enters year-two of the deal and his salary will continue to rise over the next couple seasons. Felix and his $25.86 million salary tops the club and accounts for just over half of the total allocation for the rotation.

Compared to last year, more dollars have been invested into the bullpen, catching, and first base. This is consistent with the offseason acquisitions of Benoit and Cishek in the bullpen, Iannetta at catcher, and Lind at first base. Since Mark Trumbo was a midseason acquisition his salary was not reflected in the 2015 edition that took place prior to the season.

The distribution across the outfield is similar to last year’s as Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson combined to earn just over $10 million while the newly acquired Aoki and Martin along with a raise to Smith will eat up all of that.

Seattle will have the advantage of Marte and several pitchers playing in their pre-arbitration years and earning less than $1 million. This appears to be a slightly more veteran ball club compared to last year with the likes of Iannetta and Aoki taking the places of Mike Zunino, who is likely ticketed for Triple-A, and Ackley, who was dealt to the New York Yankees last summer.

Interestingly enough, the Mariners will again distribute 42 percent of their payroll to pitching. For 2016, 30 percent will go to the rotation and 12 percent will go to the bullpen while in 2015, 32 percent went to the rotation and 10 percent went to the bullpen.

There isn’t too much to be taken away from this exercise, but we can add some context by showing how the Mariners’ spending compares to the rest of the American League West division, as shown in the following chart.

2016 ALW Salary Dist

The same caveats used for the Mariners — playing time, pre-arbitration salaries, etc. — apply for the other four teams as well. Here are a few things that I made note of:

  • Josh Hamilton: the embattled outfielder will likely start the season on the disabled list, but when he does return, he stands to come off the bench for the Texas Rangers. Hamilton’s salary creates a misleading distribution of the Rangers bench situation since they are actually only paying a couple million dollars of his salary with the Los Angeles Angels on the hook for the rest.
  • The Oakland Athletics beefed up their bullpen this winter with the likes of Ryan Madson, John Axford, and Liam Hendriks and have allotted almost $7 million more to their bullpen than rotation.
  • The Houston Astros are in a similar position with several high-priced relievers remaining on the roster after a strong contending year.
  • Part of the reason the A’s and Astros have more invested in their bullpens than rotations is due to the pre-arbitration salaries for pitchers such as Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Lance McCullers, and Collin McHugh.
  • The investment the A’s have made into their rotation is in the form of two free agent contracts to starters Henderson Alvarez and Rich Hill. Alvarez is recovering from shoulder surgery and could join the team in May while Hill is looking for a healthy, bounce-back season.
  • As was the case last year, the division is distributing very little to the catching position. The M’s Iannetta is now the second-highest paid catcher in the division with the Astros Jason Castro set to earn $5 million.
  • The Rangers have invested heavily in a handful of players at five positions in Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo with three positions receiving relatively little investment.
  • The only position the Mariners are clearly spending more at than their division rivals is second base.
  • The A’s have a somewhat interesting roster puzzle with Coco Crisp and Chris Coghlan expected to start on the bench but combining to earn almost $16 million. You’d have to think president Billy Beane has another trick up his sleeve somewhere.

Typically the majority of the jobs on a given big-league roster that are ‘open’ have a heavy favorite, and there are few ‘open’ job with which to begin. The Seattle Mariners’ roster is just about solved, but there are a few questions yet to be answered, including the following:

  • Will the club carry a first-base platoon?
    as I have noted many times, it’s not a great idea, but if the club does carry one, there are several candidates in camp.
  • Who will win the first-base platoon gig?
    The candidates are: Jesus Montero, Dae Ho Lee, Stefen Romero and Ed Lucas. Romero brings the versatility of having played second base, third base and the outfield in the minors.
  • Who will serve as the utility infielder?
    Luis Sardinas and Shawn O’Malley are the two top candidates, with Chris Taylor also in the mix to some level.
  • Who will win the No. 5 spot in the rotation?
    It appears the battle is between right-hander Nate Karns and lefty James Paxton. Both have options remaining, but the loser also could start the year in the bullpen.
  • Below is the way-too-early-to-tell edition, but I’ll update this in two weeks, then again the day before the rosters are typically announced.
Projected M’s 25-Man Roster: Way-Too-Early Edition
Pos. Player
B/T
SP Felix Hernandez R/R
SP Hisashi Iwakuma
R/R
SP Wade Miley L/L
SP Taijuan Walker R/R
SP Nathan Karns R/R
RP Ryan Cook R/R
RP Evan Scribner R/R
RP Vidal Nuno
L/L
RP Tony Zych
R/R
RP Charlie Furbush L/L
RP Joaquin Benoit R/R
RP Steve Cishek
R/R
1B Adam Lind
L/L
2B Robinson Cano L/R
3B Kyle Seager L/R
SS Ketel Marte
S/R
C Chris Iannetta R/R
DH Nelson Cruz R/R
OF Nori Aoki
L/R
OF Leonys Martin L/R
OF Seth Smith
L/L
C Steve Clevenger L/R
IF Shawn O’Malley S/R
OF Franklin Gutierrez R/R
1B/DH Jesus Montero
R/R

CanoST14Robinson Cano, 2B
2015: 156 G, .287/.334/.446, .316 BABIP, .335 wOBA, .116 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
Cano was awful last year through the first full week of June, then he started hitting rockets right at people. Finally, the second half of June, Cano started looking like Cano and he went all pre-Seattle Cano on the league, batting .331/.387/.540 with 15 home runs in 70 games after the All-Star break.

The abdominal injuries, plural, and double hernia didn’t show prejudice, though, robbing Cano of a step on the bases and in the field, and it was noticeable. He turned 33 in October, but 33 isn’t 40 and there’s no reason to keep the perennial all-star from producing another .300/.360 season, perhaps with power numbers somewhere near his first two seasons with the Mariners.

Among the areas to watch as the season unfolds include Cano’s strikeout rate, and even more specifically his swing-and-miss rate on pitches in the zone. He whiffed nearly 16 percent of the time in 2015 with a career rate of 12.1 percent heading into this season. If the Mariners’ 3-4-5-6 is going to be as good as it could be, Cano has to be himself; consistent, draw walks at rate around eight percent, put the ball in play a lot and hit a long ball every week and a half.

One thing is certain with Cano, despite the injuries: there were no signs of a loss of bat speed late in the year, and his second-half roll had nothing to do with Nelson Cruz hitting behind him, because Nelson Cruz was hitting in front of him. (lineup protection from the ensuing is a bit of a myth, anyway)

Lind2Adam Lind, 1B
2015: 149 G, .277/.360/.460, .309 BABIP, .351 wOBA, 119 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
Lind batted .291/.380/.503 versus right-handed pitching in 2015 and carries a similar career slash against northpaws. He’s a below-average defender at first, but has decent hands, makes the typical first-base play and has shown he can dig throws from the dirt at an average clip.

How Lind helps Mariners
Lind has extra-base power from the right field line to left-center and will use it regularly. He’ll make consistent contact and is a very good fastball hitter — .319 with nine homers and .494 slugging in 2015 versus the heater. Lind also stays back well on changeups and curveballs. Where he struggles is the cutter-slider, and left-handed pitchers will use angles to get him out front.

How often Lind sees a lefty starter is one of the bigger questions heading into the season. The club has brought in numerous platoon options, though carrying such a one-dimensional player makes pretty much zero sense. The Mariners are better off finding a right-handed batting/lefty-mashing OF-1B on the scrap heap this month. If such an opportunity doesn’t arise, don’t force the first-base platoon.

At that point, the option is to start Lind versus lefties — moving him down in the order to seventh or eighth. Ideally, the club would have an option here, but using four percent of your roster — and 25 percent of your bench — for about 2.5 percent of your plate appearances — with negative defensive value, negative baserunning value and absolutely zero versatility — sounds like a move a GM in 1982 might make, not one in 2016.

Keep in mind: Lind batted .221/.277/.298 in 112 PAs versus lefties in 2015 and still ended the season at .277/.360/.460. The club’s first basemen batted .198/.259/.263 versus LHP a year ago and for the year sported a .235/.301/.401 triple-slash

SeagerShotKyle Seager, 3B
2015: 161 G, .266/.328/.451, .278 BABIP, .335 wOBA, 116 wRC+, 3.9 fWAR
Seager is a model of consistency but I believe there’s another 8-15 points in the batting average and 10-25 more points in the on-base department as the 28-year-old learns to hit against the shift, use more of the backside and refines his ability to make decisions in his game plan at the plate; .280/.340/.470 is not out of the question for Seager in 2016, though all three are probably ceiling suggestions.

Seager is one of the top five defensive third basemen in baseball, behind Evan Longoria, Nolan Arenado, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado. Seager’s right there with Josh Donaldson, holding off a charge from the likes of Matt Duffy, Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier.

Last season a bit odd for Seager with the bat, as he was better versus lefties than versus righties, but don’t expect that to continue. It’s a good sign, though, that Seager made an adjustment or two and lefties did not for an entire season. I’d expect him to settle in around .255/.310/.410 versus southpaws, while climbing back to where he was in 2014 against righties — 283/.358/.504.

Seager is a 3.5-4 fWAR player by default. If he takes another small step forward, he’ll be among the 5-8 most valuable third baseman in the game, despite having the physical tools of a good utility player. Between the ears he’s Robby Cano or Paul Molitor.

Ketel Marte, SS
2015: 57 G, .283/.351/.402, .341 BABIP, .330 wOBA, 112 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
Marte fits the mold of what Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto wants in an offensive player up the middle (sure, everyone would like to have Xander Bogaerts or Troy Tulowitzki). He’ll make contact, he runs well, can handle the bat, and he’s improved as a switch hitter to the point where abandoning it isn’t even a remote possibility.

Marte’s numbers from his two-month stint last season are not indicative of what’s likely to occur in 2016. Expect his BABIP to sink to the low-300s or so, and I base that on his swing and game plan, not random randomness. I also don’t expect his walk rate to approach 10 percent (9.7 in 2015). But he does have solid range at shortstop — he’s improved greatly going to his right the past year or two — with consistency in his throws the main question. He’s not going to win a Gold Glove anytime soon, but more dependability goes a long way in securing the position long-term for the 22-year-old.

Marte is a 60-65 grade runner and is quick out of the left-handed batter’s box. He’s a decent base stealer, but not a great one.

If Marte repeats his 1.7 fWAR from a year ago, sign me up right now. There’s more upside there, however, and the chances he loses grip on his job during the season aren’t as high as with Brad Miller the past few years, simply because of his style of offensive play raising the floor on his overall value.

Luis Sardinas, SS
2015: 36 G, .196/.240/.216, .260 BABIP, .203 wOBA, 17 wRC+, -0.8 fWAR
Sardinas is a sound glove at shortstop and above-average runner, but he doesn’t bring much to the table with the bat. He’s still just 22, like Marte, and has shown better offensively, including a 43-game stretch for Texas in 2014 that resulted in a respectable .261/.303/.313 slash line.

Sardinas is the best of the group in terms of serving as a backup shortstop; He’s a more consistent glove than is Chris Taylor and makes better contact at the plate, and Tyler Smith isn’t quite ready for such a role.

Jesus Montero, 1B
2015: 38 G, .223/.250/.411, .267 BABIP, .284 wOBA, 81 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR
Dear Jim Moore, Jesus Montero is the best and most likely option, in my opinion, to serve as Lind’s replacement versus left-handed starters, even though I think carrying such a player on the roster makes no sense. Sincerely, Jason A. Churchill … and you’re welcome.

Montero has shown he can hit lefties in the past, even in the big leagues; In 2012, Montero hit .322/.366/.463 versus lefties in 191 plate appearances. He struggled in 77 big-league PAs a year ago, but hit .364/.432/.644 against LHPs in Triple-A Tacoma before being called up in July.

He’s worse than Lind defensively, but is getting better at making the routine plays. He does have arm strength but still looks new to the position when pivoting to make throws to second and third — which is difficult to work on, since it doesn’t occur much in games. He’s a 35 runner at best, even after the weight loss.

If Montero hits, he has value, but since he’s not a catcher — and no, he’s not going back to catcher and shouldn’t go back to catcher just because he lost weight — he’ll have to hit big to be a major leaguer; .260/.300/.420 isn’t good enough. Montero will have to absolutely crush lefties and hold his own versus righties or any role for him on the big-league roster will be forced.

He’s out of options, so one of two things is likeliest to happen this month: either Montero will make the club as Lind’s platoon mate, or Montero will be traded for a sack of sacks. There’s a chance he could clear waivers if the club wanted to go that route, but the 26-year-old has shown too much the past year-plus to be a safe bet to get through 29 other teams.

Dae Ho Lee, 1B
2015:
NO MLB STATS
Lee is a big dude — he’s reportedly lost 40-50 pounds coming into this season, but from the video and photos courtesy of the terrific Seattle media covering spring training, Lee remains a very big human.

Despite the opinions of some, Lee is not a good fielder in any manner outside arm strength. He’s slow laterally, slower coming in on balls and I’ve been told he’s also had some issues running back and toward the stands on foul pops. He’s fringe-average digging balls out of the dirt, but tends to let the ball play him, rather than aggressively going after the ball. That said, Lee was signed for his bat, anyway, so he’s very much like Montero in that regard.

There are three opinion types on Lee to completely ignore: those that look at his numbers in Korea and Japan and assume they’ll play in the states; those that ignore that fact that Lee now is 33 years of age; those that pass off their opinions on what others are saying about Lee.

Nobody truly knows with any level of confidence, really, what Lee is capable of in Major League Baseball. He has bat speed, brute strength, has seen a lot of good breaking balls in his day and has the kind of raw power that no ballpark holds down to zero value. How well might Lee adjust to seeing a four-pitch mix every night includes speeds from 72 mph on a two-plane curveball to 95 mph on a four-seamer with late life up in the zone? Stateside arms are much better at attacking all areas of the strikezone than in Japan and Korea, and the stuff, in general, is significantly better. Even some relievers in MLB offer pitches that move horizontally in each direction to complement velocity and vertical break.

Spring will be a nice test for Lee, and maybe his batting eye is better than he’s shown because it will have to be a focus for him. But maybe he takes a statistical hit the same way Ichiro and Hideki Matsui did when they came over to the U.S.; Both were still very good, and Ichiro has a few MVP-caliber seasons, but offensively, both took large hits.

Ichiro, who arrived in his prime at 28 years of age, batted .350, .321, .312, .372 and .303 his first five season with Seattle. He did hit .351 in 2007, and .352 in 2009. That’s pretty darned great. Ichiro slugged between .416 and .455 those first five seasons. But in Japan, he went .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343, .387 in the years leading up to his deal with the Mariners, and those Wade Boggs-like averages came with slugging percentages of .549, .544, .504, .513, .518, .572 and .539.

If Lee takes the same hit to his numbers — 25-60 points of average, 100+ points of slugging — he’s set for a .250-260 average and a slugging percentage that struggles to approach .400. That’s .400, not .500, as Lee slugged .524, 454, .493 his last three season in Japan.

Matsui was the same way as Ichiro, so if you’d prefer a power bat versus a power bat, fine. Matsui’s career slugging percentage in Japan was .582. He joined the Yankees in 2003 at age 29 and slugged .522, .496, .494 and .488, and he was four years younger than Lee is now.

I’m not saying Lee can’t succeed, especially if the role is limited to platoon-like status, but the odds are stacked high against him, and making the 25-man out of spring camp isn’t likely barring injury or trade. He has an opt-out late in March.

Chris Taylor, SS
2015:
37 G, .170/.220/.223, .254 BABIP, .201 wOBA, 23 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR
Taylor remains a viable option at shortstop, but has yet to show any consistency at the plate, where his lengthy, yet flat, swing produces too many swings and misses and no chance to turn on good fastball and hit them with authority.

Taylor works counts in the minors, but in the big leagues simply has fallen behind in counts, which induced an attacking mode. That plays against longer swings that don’t produce power, because big-league pitchers are smart enough to deal with it accordingly.

Taylor’s swing needs to shorten, if nothing else (there are a few more things that could be changed, but aren’t easy to do, such as bring his feet closer together and using the front leg as a better timing mechanism), and he needs to get back to being what he is — a line-drive hitter with solid-average speed and glove, and in general a player that plays with energy and instincts. He played as if he’d lost confidence — understandably — in each game he appears with Seattle in 2015.

If I am the Mariners here, I get Taylor some time at third base and left field, and perhaps see what he thinks of playing center field, too. He’s 25 now and the best way for him to help a major-league club may be as a true utility player. He’s fine at shortstop, so now go see if he can handle center, or at least left and third. He’s not going to forget how to play short in the meantime, so if he’s needed in Seattle at the position, he’ll be OK.

Benji Gonzalez, 2B
2015: NO MLOB STATS
Gonzalez is a second baseman by trade and his shot of making the big club are as close to zero as it gets among invites to camp. He does, however, bring an interest track record to the table, one that may sound familiar. Let’s see if you recognize the following: Good contact hitter, above-average speed, gets on base, has defensive versatility. I thought so.

Gonzalez,26, has no power of which to speak but he’s a switch hitter with quick hands and as a lefty can reach the gaps on occasion. In the field he has terrific footwork, gets rid of the ball quickly and is very surehanded.

The former 7th-round pick likely finds a home in Double-A Jackson or Triple-A Tacoma, and that’s if he makes it through camp.

Gaby Sanchez, 1B
2015: NO MLB STATS
Sanchez, whose minor league deal includes an opt-out believed to be in April or May, is another candidate to share first base with Lind. He spent 2015 overseas, but it’s his stateside track record that strongly suggests his big-league career is over and done. In 2014 with Pittsburgh, he 32-year-old Sanchez batted .229/.293/.385 after a .254/.361/.402 line in 2013.

He’s below average defensively and with offensive trends like that, Sanchez is behind the eight-ball — and about four others — in this position battle.

Ed Lucas, 1B
2015: NO MLB STATS
If there’s one candidate Sanchez starts ahead of, it may be Lucas, who has limited big-league experience and never has profiled as a first base type. But can he hit lefties? Who knows? But in 150+ big-league games, he does sport a career line of .330/.360/.469 versus southpaws, and his glove is better than any of the other options for the gig.

He won’t walk much, but he does make contact, at least versus lefties. Does the 33-year-old Lucas sound like a dark horse for this job?

Stefen Romero, 1B/OF: SEE — OUTFIELD CAPSULES

Tyler Smith, SS: No. 15 Prospect — Tyler Smith
2015: NO MLB STATS
Smith won’t make the big club this season, but has the makeup and offensive profile of a Dipoto-Servais player, so don’t be surprised if he finds his way onto the roster later in the year.…