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

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

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

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

We’ll get to all that in the Third Quarter Report Series, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen.

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

How much better has the rotation been lately?

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

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

Seattle’s Rejuvenated Starting Staff
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
IP/GS
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9 6.2
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7 5.8
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11 5.4
July  14 4.8  12-12  8-2 3-10 5.8
August  9 3.0  11-3  6-0  5-3 6.4
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

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

So, who turned around the rotation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution (Thru Aug 16)
Month SP IP SP % SP FIP RP IP RP% RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 152.2 61% 4.36 98.1 39% 4.90
July 140 66% 4.52 72.2 34% 4.10
August 89.2 67% 4.13 43.7 33% 3.14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, more help may be on the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Wade MileyIt was just a few weeks ago that the Seattle Mariners had Wade Miley penciled in as the club’s No. 2 starter, largely in rotation place given the uncertainty beyond Felix Hernandez. Fast-forward those few weeks and a Hisashi Iwakuma re-signing, and that situation isn’t all that different. The club still doesn’t have a true No. 2 starter, but that shouldn’t take away from the value that Miley does provide going forward.

First, the order in which the rotation falls is largely irrelevant. Back in 2014, James Paxton was the club’s No. 2 starter. Teams order their rotation based on skill — you want your best starters to have the most opportunities — but handedness, match-ups, and other factors are taken into consideration. Miley and Iwakuma are the second and third starters on the depth chart right and depending

Secondly, unless he replicates his 2012 season with Arizona, Miley isn’t going to fill the role of a No. 2 starter. With very good command of a balanced repertoire instead of an out-pitch or two, he better resembles a mid-rotation arm. In a deep rotation he profiles as a No. 4, but he could easily be a solid No. 3. I think that’s realistically what the club expects out of him; they aren’t going to ask him to be something he’s not.

Still, Miley has several things working in his favor heading into 2016.

The first one that gets brought up is his move to Safeco Field. Though the fences were moved in four years ago, according to ESPN’s park factors for 2015 Safeco was the fourth friendliest park for pitchers. Fenway Park on the other hand, was the fourth friendliest park for hitters. Determining the exact impact of how park factors affect pitchers is tough, but it’s safe to say that starting half his games at Safeco instead of Fenway will benefit Miley.

Miley hasn’t really had a problem with surrendering home runs in his career — his control and ground ball tendencies help — so Safeco’s ability to suppress home runs may not be a considerable benefit.

The second point relates to Miley having a stronger defence behind him in 2016 compared to 2015. Although single-season defensive metrics aren’t the most reliable statistics, the Red Sox were actually an average team defensively last year according to DRS and UZR. The Mariners on the other hand, were the second-worst team in the majors based on DRS — only the Philadelphia Phillies were worse.

However, that should be in the past as new general manager Jerry Dipoto has significantly revamped his club’s overall defence. Offseason acquisitions Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin, Chris Iannetta, and a full season of Ketel Marte all offer defensive upgrades, both small and large, over what we saw in the field last year. We also shouldn’t expect to see Nelson Cruz deployed in right field as frequently going forward which helps.

Back to Miley. The left-hander hasn’t been much of a strikeout pitcher in his career averaging about seven per nine innings. At 29-years-old he’s unlikely to develop further velocity either. What allows Miley to excel is when he limits the free passes. In his career 2012 season, he posted a 1.71 walks per nine rate. He’s coming off a 2.97 mark in 2015 and a 3.35 mark in 2014. Getting that rate closer to 2.50 should yield some more positive results.

Throughout his career, Miley has outperformed his earned run average. His career FIP of 3.80 is 15 points better than his career 3.95 ERA. This was especially apparent last season when he posted a 3.81 FIP compared to a 4.46 ERA. FIP tends to be a better predictive stat than ERA, which means we should expect Miley to perform closer to that 3.80 FIP mark going forward. As mentioned, pitching in a friendlier environment with an improved defence should improve both metrics.

We have Miley, an average to above-average pitcher, with room to grow. There’s value there, but we need to talk about the other value he brought to Seattle: his contract.

The following table shows the performance of other starting pitchers who changed addresses over the offseason. For example’s sake and the rotation conversation, I included Iwakuma in the table.

 Comparable Starters’ Performance in fWAR
Name 2015 2014 2013
2012 2011 Average
Wade Miley 2.6 1.5 1.8 4.1 -0.1 2.0
Ian Kennedy 0.8 3.5 0.6 2.5 4.8 2.4
Shelby Miller 3.4 0.5 2.4 0.5 MNR 1.7
Mike Leake 1.7 2.3 2.0 1.4 1.5 1.8
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8 3.0 3.8 0.7 JPL 2.3

Ian Kennedy holds the highest average fWAR of the group for the sample. At a closer glance, though, he’s been an up-and-down pitcher. Shelby Miller’s track record has some similarity, but with a different story and a higher ceiling — the 2012 sample included only a cup of big league coffee. Mike Leake is perhaps the best comparable for Miley given his consistency. When healthy, and he hasn’t been entirely the past two seasons, Iwakuma has been solidly above average during his short span in North America.

Now let’s look at what the salary numbers will look like for these pitchers going forward.

 Comparable Starters’ Salaries
Name 2016 2017 2018
2019 2020
Wade Miley $6.0M $8.8M $12.0M* FA FA
Ian Kennedy $7.5M $13.5M $16.0M $16.5M $16.5M
Shelby Miller $4.4M ARB ARB FA FA
Mike Leake $12.0M $15.0M $17.0M $16.0M $15.0M
Hisashi Iwakuma $10.0M $10.0M* $10.0M* FA FA

*Denotes a team option.

Miley stands to be the least expensive of the bunch with his salaries locked in through 2018 for a total of $26.8 million if his team option is exercised.. The hit-and-miss Kennedy signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Kansas City Royals and required a first-round pick. Miller will be cost-controlled through his arbitration years, but cost the Arizona Diamondbacks an unprecedented haul. Leake, a reasonable comparable to Miley, was signed to a five-year, $80 million contract by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Mariners had to give up a cost-controlled lefty in Roenis Elias who still has upside as a starter and a dynamic young reliever in Carson Smith and that needs to be considered in the cost. If we were to say that Miley and Leake are similar pitchers — young, low-strikeout, low-walk, innings eaters — we could say that the M’s elected to give up some talent instead of paying premium free agent prices.

Also worth factoring in is that Leake or a comparable starter may not have wanted to sign in Seattle. In the case of Kennedy, for example, the club’s unprotected first-round pick would need to have been relinquished. Miley’s contract, though offering team control for three years opposed to five in the cases of Kennedy or Leake, doesn’t affect long or short-term payroll flexibility the way those deals would.

Seattle paid a steep price to acquire Miley but it includes the potential upside and payroll flexibility that is offers value beyond what we know of the left-hander’s past performance. Durable mid-rotation arms aren’t cheap and while he’s no Mark Buehrle, Miley does have four straight years of 190-plus innings to his credit.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty has been made about the remake of the Seattle Mariners rotation heading into 2016 and rightfully so. The 2015 edition had considerable upside, but ultimately disappointed. Seattle only had two qualified starters in terms of innings pitched, Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, as injuries limited Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton.

By ERA the rotation ranked 17th in the entire league and by fWAR it ranked 19th. Those aren’t the type of numbers that will end what is now the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball. Unless it’s backed by a terrific offense and bullpen, but a fair share of ink has already been spilled on how those two areas hurt the 2015 Mariners.

Needing some stability in the rotation, Wade Miley was acquired from the Boston Red Sox. Nate Karns was also acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays to bolster the back-end of the rotation. At the time of the Miley acquisition, it appeared that Seattle had finished tinkering with their rotation. General Manager Jerry Dipoto had even gone so far as to say he was “done” making significant additions.

However, some skepticism over Iwakuma’s physical on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ behalf later, and the right-hander is back under contract for the 2016 season and under team control for the next three seasons.

Currently, the Mariners 2016 rotation projects to include Felix, Iwakuma, Miley, Walker, and one of Paxton or Karns. As written by Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins, the Mariners undoubtedly will rely on arms beyond those that are in the Opening Day rotation to contribute to the starting staff. The following table shows pitchers that have made five or more starts for Seattle over the previous five seasons with my estimated projection for starters who will hold that distinction in 2016.

Mariners Five Starts

Within the confines of this table we can get a glimpse of the natural evolution of the Mariners rotation.

What’s interesting about a list like this is that we can begin to break down players by type. There’s the veteran, one-year contract guys: J.A. Happ, Chris Young, Joe Saunders, Jeremy Bonderman, and Kevin Millwood. There’s the prospects that didn’t cut it: Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi. There’s even the pitchers that were dealt for a bat: Jason Vargas, Michael Pineda, and Brandon Maurer.

All told, I think the table of starters listed would resemble that of several teams. All teams have a collection of homegrown talent mixed with trade or free agent acquisitions and veteran filler of some kind. Beyond that though, we can see the evolution of a pitching rotation.

King Felix is the established ace of the rotation and has remained a constant for Seattle beyond the group of five starters. We can also see that Iwakuma has become a mainstay in the rotation as well. This year though, Iwakuma takes the role as veteran on a one-year contract. Of course this case is much different than that of Happ or Young since Seattle is counting on the right-hander to be a No. 2 or 3 starter as opposed to back-end depth. There’s also the matter of Iwakuma having a pair of vesting and club options that could stretch the deal to three years.

Most, if not all, of the great rotations have a pillar or two at the top that support the growth of the rotation among the inflow and outflow of pitchers.

Perhaps more interesting than the year Millwood wore blue and teal — though his presence in the combined no-hitter is a great historical anecdote — before Safeco Joe took his place, is seeing the rise and fall of prospects through the years.

Look at 2011 for example. That year Vasquez made seven starts but is still waiting for an opportunity to throw another major league pitch. Furbush, not a top-flite prospect either, hasn’t started a major league game since, though he has become a solid relief pitcher.

Let’s throw another name into the mix: Erasmo Ramirez. Again, he wasn’t among the organization’s high-upside talent in recent years, but he was a prospect with some tools who toiled between the rotation, bullpen, and Triple-A for a few years before being dealt. Now in his place stands Montgomery who serves as some back-end depth for the moment.

Should he fail to crack the Opening Day roster, and because he’s out of minor league options, he could find himself dealt for a similar starter who doesn’t fit his current club’s plans and has an existing option. Practically all organizations cycle through these kinds of starters hoping to find a diamond, or more often an above average season that they can cash in on the trade market or bide time with for a younger arm.

After debuting in September 2013, Walker and Paxton were expected to become mainstays near the top of the rotation. That hasn’t exactly happened yet. Walker is coming off a solid season and appears primed for a potential breakout season. Paxton on the other hand, has struggled with health and finds himself competing for the fifth spot in the rotation instead of beginning the season in the No. 2 slot a la 2014.

The examples of Walker and Paxton speak volumes to the evolution because the development of prospects make up such a big part of it. Teams devote significant resources into these players with the hope that they will headline their next championship team but can’t find a tangible reason for why that player is performing contrary to the skill set they possess.

Walker and Paxton have the tools to be the No. 2 and No. 3 starters in a rotation, provided the Canadian lefty can develop a little more command. Do they get there at some point? Only time will tell. Ideally we see the next steps in both player’s evolution take place in 2016 as Walker continues to be a solid contributor and Paxton proves he can be one.

One thing that we haven’t seen happen with the Mariners’ rotation over the past couple seasons is the development and influx of young talent. Don’t get me wrong, the discussion allotted to Walker and Paxton are warranted, but those two are about it. Roenis Elias was dealt as part of the Miley trade and had some upside. Michael Pineda was also a fine pitcher and Edwin Diaz could turn into the next big thing. But there’s always been the feeling that the rotation was a Felix Hernandez injury — and last year a Hisashi Iwakuma injury, it seemed — from falling apart.

Last season the St. Louis Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright for the bulk of the season. However, despite an ace on the disabled list, the club still managed to win the NL Central with the likes of Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha — all homegrown and developed talent — stepping up to fill the void. The deal for John Lackey during the previous season helped too.

The Mariners rotation is better-prepared for injuries this year than they were last, but is there a candidate to step up and fill a potential void left by a key starter? Montgomery had moments last season, but couldn’t sustain anything. Is Vidal Nuno the guy who takes a big step this year? Or maybe Karns?

It’s unfair to expect the results of the new regime bringing large changes to the player development side of the organization right away. We won’t realistically be able to see the difference until several years have gone by, but all signs point to the future looking significantly brighter than it did a year ago.

The Mariners do have talent in the lower minors, like Diaz, but they are still several years away from contributing to the big league roster. That will change as other players come in and some take steps forward, but it’s no secret that replenishing the minor league system, particularly at the upper levels, is a priority for Dipoto.

This season will offer us a look at what the rotation stands to be in 2017 and 2018 as well. How do Miley and Karns fit? Where do Walker and Paxton go from here? Can Iwakuma stay healthy and pitch effectively? Is Felix able to continue being Felix. We’ll see.

It’s important to remember that there is no formula to putting together a major league rotation. Even the World Series champion Kansas City Royals offered a rotation that included that same Chris Young alongside growing star Yordano Ventura, offseason signee Edinson Volquez, and trade deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto.

Seattle has the ace and some interesting wild cards to see play out as the rotation begins another series in the evolutionary process.…

Aoki Dipoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Kuma

Last night, Seattle Mariners fans received an unexpected and welcome surprise when general manager Jerry Dipoto announced that starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma would be returning to the team for the 2016 season.

Yesterday was a tumultuous day for the 34-year-old starter and his fans. Earlier in the day, rumors were circulating that the Los Angels Dodgers were backing away from a three-year/$45 million deal with the right-handed free agent due to concerns with the results of his physical exam.

By the end of the day, “Kuma” was back with the only major league team he’s known. The financial terms of the deal are unknown, but the team has announced that he’s under contract for next season with vesting options for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that Iwakuma can earn near to $45 million, if both seasons vest. He reportedly received a full no-trade clause too.

While I’ve been lukewarm to the notion of bringing Iwakuma back to Seattle, the circumstances surrounding the veteran hurler’s return to the Emerald City have immediately improved the Mariners’ 2016 outlook in several ways. His presence instantly improves the rotation’s strength and depth, plus it helps deepen the bullpen – which is the club’s weakest link.

Rotation strength
Having a pitcher of Iwakuma’s caliber is always a good thing – as long it’s at the right price and risk is mitigated. His return has more impact now than it would’ve a month ago because Seattle added Wade Miley when it appeared that Iwakuma was signing with the Dodgers.

Miley’s inclusion in the middle of the rotation helps alleviate Iwakuma durability concerns and pushes everyone down a notch on the depth chart. On the following table, I’ve listed the Mariners’ most prominent rotation candidates, as today. That’s important to note, because the roster is definitely a living, breathing document under Dipoto. Included are the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) and the Steamer fWAR projections for the candidates, plus the fWAR for the key starting pitchers from last season.

   Rotation Candidates Key 2015 Starters
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
Felix Hernandez 2.8 4.7 Felix Hernandez 2.8
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8 2.9 Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8
Taijuan Walker 1.9 2.4 James Paxton 0.5
Wade Miley 2.6 1.9 J.A. Happ 1.2
Nate Karns 1.5 1.3 Taijuan Walker 1.9
James Paxton 0.5 0.8 Roenis Elias 0.6
Mike Montgomery 0.3 0.1 Mike Montgomery 0.3
Totals 11.4 14.1                                           9.1

As you can see, there are seven names in the mix and they project to add more five wins than last season’s top-seven starters. Based on the above projections, the rotation should be Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Miley, and Nate Karns. If it were only that easy. The truth is the Mariners – and every team – will need more than five starters next season.

Starting pitching depth
A month ago, I pointed out that major league teams have averaged 10 starting pitchers-per-season since 2000, which is why pitching depth is a Mariners need. Even the best teams will need way more than five starters to survive the rigors of a 162-game season and a possible postseason run. Here’s a look at the number of starters used by each 2015 postseason team.

# SPs  Team(s)
16    Los Angeles Dodgers
13    Houston Astros
12    Texas Rangers     /   Toronto Blue Jays
10    Chicago Cubs      /    Kansas City Royals      /   New York Mets      /   New York Yankees   
9    St. Louis Cardinals
8    Pittsburgh Pirates

The Dodgers – who had two of the top-three Cy Young award vote-getters – used 16 starting pitchers on their way to winning the National League West division. The team that eventually beat them in the playoffs – the National League champion New York Mets – needed 10 starters, as did the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals. Guess who else used 10 starters last season? The Seattle Mariners.

Seeing these numbers should help stymie the trade James Paxton and/or Mike Montgomery for the time being. It’s possible that Dipoto will move someone, but what’s the hurry? Trading Paxton now would be selling-low. Based on three months of observations, dealing from a position of weakness doesn’t seem to be a “Dipoto thing.”

As far as Montgomery goes, a roster decision is pending on the southpaw. As I mentioned two days ago, he’s one of six Mariners out of options. The 26-year-old has to make the big league roster out of Spring Training or he has to pass through waivers before reassignment to Class-AAA Tacoma. There’s no doubt that Montgomery wouldn’t get through waivers. Barring injury, he’ll either be traded or make the roster as either a starter or reliever.

No one can guarantee that Montgomery would be a fit in Seattle’s bullpen. He’s been primarily a starter throughout his professional career. But, but adding another lefty reliever into the bullpen discussion certainly can’t hurt. Plus, his trade value will increase when some team inevitably loses a starter to injury during Spring Training. Who knows, that team could be the Seattle Mariners.

Having Montgomery – and whoever else loses out in the rotation battle – available to spot start would be beneficial. Remember how the Mariners needed last year’s rotation battle runner-up – Roenis Elias – and Montgomery when Paxton and Iwakuma went down? Back-of-the-rotation options matter for an organization that expects to make the postseason in 2016.

For a recent example of starters helping the bullpen of contenders, look no further than the 2015 World Series. Three starting pitchers had a huge impact on the outcome of games – former Mariner Chris Young, Bartolo Colon, and Jonathon Niese. You can never have enough starting pitching. It’s reasonable to expect that two starting pitchers will miss time in 2016. I bet Dipoto is banking on it.

Bullpen depth
As Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish and Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill pointed out here Iwakuma’s presence improves the Mariners’ bullpen flexibility since Vidal Nuno has held left-handed batters to a .200/.268/.315 slash during his three-year career as a starter and reliever.

Those numbers are very similar to projected set-up man Charlie Furbush, who has a career .203/.269/.269 against lefties. Nuno’s success against left-handed hitters could prove to be vital, especially if Furbush hasn’t fully recovered from the partial rotator cuff tear he suffered last season. It’s important to note that the southpaw is reported to be progressing well, but hasn’t started throwing yet.

Conclusion
The Mariners are better because Hisashi Iwakuma is back on their roster. I still have reservations about the back-end of the bullpen and its overall quality. However, I feel more comfortable calling the team a “fringe contender” now than I did yesterday. Being fringy isn’t exactly something to celebrate – but it’s only December and it’s better than what the Mariners were 24 hours ago.

 

 

 …

A right-hander that helped lead the Kansas City Royals to the World Series was notched firmly below Max Scherzer and Jon Lester among starting pitchers when discussing the 2014-2015 free agent class. James Shields ended up joining the San Diego Padres on a four-year, $75 million deal last winter, a winter in which the Padres were heralded as the winners of the offseason. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and with a few key pieces already departed, the Friars are reportedly looking to deal their ace.

Shields, who’ll turn 34 a few days before Christmas, had a down year in 2015 by his standards despite clearing the 200-inning plateau for the ninth consecutive season. He did post a career-best strikeout rate, but also a career-worst walk rate. Perhaps one of the main reasons for Shields’ down year, and this is strange having pitched half his innings at Petco Park, was difficulty with the long ball. His 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate was nearly double the rates he had posted in the previous two seasons.

The right-hander’s spike in home runs could be worrisome, but it appears that it could simply be an outlier as his BABIP and contact rates were in line with his career averages. Shields has lost a tick on his fastball over the past couple years, but he has never been a guy who has relied on velocity so that shouldn’t be concerning

It’s conceivable that Shields could regain his form as a three-to-four WAR pitcher next season, but I would bet on the lower end of that spectrum given his age and the miles on his arm. Still a valuable asset, though.

ESPN’s Buster Olney reports via Twitter that there is significant interest in the Padres’ ace. Olney also points out that Shields passed through revocable waivers last August. There was speculation that San Diego wanted to rid themselves of the contract at that time and are looking to do so again.

So we have a quality arm who’s proven to be good for 200 productive innings annually. First question, why are the Padres trying to move him? Second, why hasn’t anyone taken him yet? Answer: the contract.

Of the $75 million guaranteed to the right-hander, only $10 million of it was paid in 2015. Part of how the Padres were able to sign Shields, amidst their other big money transactions, was to front-load the deal. For each of the next three seasons, Shields is due $21 million. He will also be owed a $2 million buyout for a $16 million team option for the 2019 season.

Also to be aware of: Shields can opt-out of his contract after 2016. This means he could be a one-year rental to an acquiring club. If he has a rebound season it’s not inconceivable to see him get a new three-year deal with an average annual value north of $20 million. But it could be tough to get a fourth-year guaranteed so there are pros and cons on Shields’ side for opting out.

Let’s assume he doesn’t opt out, and we can say Shields is owed $65 million for the next three years. That’s $20 million more than now former Mariner, Hisashi Iwakuma, received in his three-year free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It doesn’t sound as if the total sum of money was the issue for Seattle not re-signing their No. 2 starter. GM Jerry Dipoto said yesterday that the club wasn’t comfortable with paying Iwakuma for his age 35, 36, and 37 seasons while mentioning sustainability. Some reports had the Mariners offering two years and $25 million.

For the next three years Shields will pitch in his age 34, 35, and 36 seasons — just one year younger than Iwakuma. However, if sustainability is the desired target, that’s where Shields differentiates himself from Iwakuma. In the past three seasons, Iwakuma has one campaign of 200-plus innings to Shields’ three.

As seen in yesterday’s trade with the Boston Red Sox, the Mariners gave up Carson Smith and Roenis Elias for a similar sustainability. Wade Miley has four straight years of throwing 190-plus innings, but is only 29-years-old and his total cost for the next three years would be slightly less than $27 million if his 2019 option is exercised. There’s value in cost certainty and the potential for slightly more upside with a pitcher yet to hit 30.

The Padres are reportedly willing to eat salary to move Shield’s contract. This morning they dealt $7.5 million and Jedd Gyorko to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jon Jay and his $6.225 million salary. Obviously this was a different scenario, but between the cash sent and money owed to Jay, the Padres were willing to eat almost $14 million of the $33 million guaranteed to Gyorko over the next four years.

How much the Padres are willing to eat in order to move Shields will be less relevant than what Seattle would potentially be willing to take on.

We haven’t talked about the potential fit, but that much should be self-explanatory. Miley sits No. 2 to Felix Hernandez on the depth chart, but better reflects the skill set of a No. 3 starter in a good rotation, and perhaps a No. 4 in a great rotation. Nothing against Miley, he just doesn’t quite fill the gap that a healthy Iwakuma leaves.

Shields could still be a solid No. 2, and with an improved outfield defense behind him — a lack of Matt Kemp would help anybody — should be able to succeed in Seattle.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Mariners value Shields between $15-to-$18 million annually. This would mean getting the Padres to eat $3-to-$6 million annually. Part of the value Miley brings, according to Dipoto, is that what he provides the kind of value that would cost between $12 and $18 million on the free agent market.

Without having an inside look at the Padres’ financials, I’m going to suggest that an arrangement along those lines would be feasible. But, it would involve San Diego getting that much more in player value as the return.

Seattle doesn’t have a Brad Miller available anymore to solve the Padres’ shortstop problems. After trading Elias it’s unlikely a James Paxton or Taijuan Walker would be on the move and there’s literally no more bullpen depth to deal from. Chris Taylor or Ketel Marte could probably be a conversation starter, but would the M’s need to add a D.J. Peterson to get the Padres’ attention?

If San Diego is open to less-immediate major league help, maybe rising prospect Tyler Smith could be of interest. Top prospects Edwin Diaz and Alex Jackson are still a few years away from the majors and while I don’t love the term untouchable, they should only enter the conversation if Seattle is getting a top-flite young player with multiple years of control.

Perhaps an ideal situation would be the Padres taking back old friend Seth Smith. With Justin Upton departing via free agency there is some need for additional outfield depth, and the money owed to Smith could balance out the finances some.

A deal based on Smith and Taylor with a mid-level prospect going to San Diego could be a starting point, but I have a feeling another club will be able to offer more than Seattle can, either in player value or in portion of contract assumed.

After dealing Carson Smith, Elias, Miller, and Patrick Kivlehan, the Mariners don’t really have the depth to make a significant deal without moving major league parts or young roster players. I don’t think that will or should stop Dipoto from trying to make a big splash, but it is a legitimate consideration.

I think getting James Shields at three years and $45-to-50 million would be a solid buy based on what’s going on with free agency. Last winter Brandon McCarthy signed for four years and $48 million, and we already have J.A. Happ costing the Toronto Blue Jays $36 million over three years. There are other examples, but Shields at $15 million annually is a much better buy than either of those two starters at $12 million per.

Given the demand for Shields, I don’t think the market will soften enough to the point where he fits what Dipoto wants to do. Until we hear a little more about what the potential ask might be, it’s tough to speculate on what the M’s would need to give up.

If Shields does plan on opting out, which we won’t know for 11 months, it doesn’t make sense to pay a steep price for a rental. If the Padres were to deal him as a potential rental though, the asking price would likely reflect that. Maybe guaranteeing Shields’ 2019 option with an equal AAV to his other three years could convince him to drop the opt-out. That’s my own speculation though.

Obviously every player makes sense at a certain price and Shields may not end up at a price that makes sense for Seattle. This may not be an idea worth pursuing, but it’s worth exploring in order to beef up the rotation for potentially the next couple seasons.…

 

It didn’t take long for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to turn to “Plan B” after losing Hisashi Iwakuma to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This afternoon, he acquired starting pitcher Wade Miley along with right-handed reliever Jonathan Aro from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias.

Although Dipoto didn’t waste much time in moving past Iwakuma, this deal and the recent trade of versatile reliever Tom Wilhelmsen leaves the Mariners’ bullpen in worse condition than the one that was so atrocious last season. Plus, the team still needs more starting rotation help.

In effect, the team took a step backward today. Fortunately for them and their long-suffering fan base, it’s only day-one of the Winter Meetings and there’s still plenty of time for the club to improve their roster.

According to MLB.com, the 25-year-old Aro was the number-26 prospect in Boston’s minor league system. He projects as a middle reliever and may end up being Triple-A depth in Tacoma. Although that doesn’t sound sexy, minor league depth matters during an arduous major league season. For proof, look no further than last season when the Mariners bullpen went into a tailspin and no one from Tacoma could help the team. With that said, Miley was the key to this deal.

Dipoto and Miley have a history that goes back to when the Mariners GM was the Arizona Diamondbacks director of scouting when they selected Miley with the number 43-overall draft pick in 2008. Moreover, he had the opportunity to observe the 29-year-old with Boston, when he served as a senior adviser in the Red Sox front office during the second half of the 2015 season.

The 29-year-old is owed $15 million over the next two years, plus the Mariners will hold a $12 million team option for Miley’s age-31 season. That’s considerably less than the $45 million that the Dodgers are paying Iwakuma. Some may not view Miley as a direct replacement for Iwakuma, but the southpaw presents some upside that “Kuma” didn’t during his tenure in Seattle.

Although Miley – at best – projects as a number-three starter, that’s where Iwakuma needed to be if he remained in the Emerald City. So, the Mariners essentially replaced Kuma with a cheaper, younger pitcher.

It’s true that Iwakuma has been more valuable than Miley during the past four seasons. But, the Mariners’ newest starter has been more durable averaging 198 innings-per-season compared to Iwakuma’s 163 during that four-year span.

As with all trades, adding Miley comes at a cost. The Mariners had to part ways with Elias and Smith, who both are young and under team control for five more seasons. Smith was clearly Seattle’s best reliever in 2015. Whether Elias was actually in the mix for the 2016 Mariners rotation is debatable. I’ve heard Dipoto refer to the 27-year-old as a factor in the bullpen on two separate occasions.

On the surface, the Red Sox did much better than the Mariners in this deal. Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill said as much during his analysis of the trade. In addition, Buster Olney of ESPN reports that Boston is getting “rave reviews from rival executives” for the acquisition of Smith. There’s no doubt that the Red Sox are the winners today.

The deal doesn’t provide the Mariners with a clear-cut number-two starter. Perhaps, the team is using the “hope theory” that Taijuan Walker is ready to move up into that spot. Walker may be ready to rise to the next level, but he hasn’t done it yet. So, it’s natural for observers to be cautious in expecting the 23-year-old to be “the next man up” behind ace Felix Hernandez.

With that said, I’m going to hold judgement on this trade until I see the follow-on deals that Dipoto will inevitably make to shore up the bullpen, and possibly the rotation. Jason mentioned a number of free agent options who could help fill out the reliever corps.

Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners looked at free agent and former Mariner Doug Fister or one of the trade targets that Jason mentioned during his trade target piece in order to bring in more depth to the rotation.

Seattle is down to 11 players on the club’s 40-man roster who were on last season’s Opening Day roster. That number will certainly drop down to the single digit level by the start of the season, if not the end of the week. Hopefully for the team and its fans, the future moves that shreds players from the roster will be aimed at helping bolster their starting rotation and the bullpen.

Although today’s signifies a step backwards for the bullpen and maybe the rotation, it’s not fair to judge the Mariners’ hot stove season on this one trade or conclude that the club is heading down the wrong path. As I keep saying, it’s only early December and Dipoto is far from done.

Even as I peck away on my keyboard, Seattle is in hot pursuit of Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Adam Lind, who would be Seattle’s best first baseman since I arrived to the area in 2009.

All of this roster upheaval should excite fans and not discourage them. The team is on a trajectory to be far better than the 2015 version and it’s only December 7.…

The Seattle Mariners reportedly have acquired left-hander Wade Miley and right-handed reliever Jonathan Aro from the Boston Red Sox. Miley is the main piece here, potentially filling a mid-rotation role in Seattle, where the ballpark will help him eliminate some of the bad innings he displayed with the Red Sox.

The 29-year-old southpaw has been somewhere between average and slightly above-average over the course of his career, landing in the former range with Boston in 2015. He posted a 4.08 FIP, 6.8 K/9 and an acceptable yet not ideal walk rate just under three.

Miley sits 90-92 mph from a lower-than-typical slot with both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, using the two-seamer more often than not. His mid-80s slider is average, flashing above-average at times, and his curveball is typically grades out in the 40-50 range, with obvious inconsistency. His changeup has become his best pitch and he used it nearly 20 percent of the time this past season.

While not being a severe fly ball pitcher, Miley also isn’t a ground ball machine, per se, and his home run rates could maintain the potential outlier produced in ’15 due to the ballpark changes.

He tossed 193 2/3 innings in 2015 after back-to-back 200-inning campaigns with the Arizona Diamondbacks. His performance, career arc and trends, plus what his environment likely will be in 2016 suggests Miley is a strong No. 4 starter with a chance to be a soft No. 3. He has missed more bats than the 6.8 K/9 he posted last season, but getting back over eight strikeouts per nine innings does not appear to be in the cards considering stuff and command.

Aro, 25, is a short right-handed reliever that made his big-league debut in ’15. He offers a fastball up to 94 mph from a three-quarters arm slot, setting up an average slider and a changeup that’s inconsistent but has shown promise and more movement in most recent outings. Aro is Triple-A depth, from what I can gather, without a true plus pitch or the delivery and physical attributes to start games, though he has generally been used for multiple innings out of the bullpen, logging nearly two frames per appearance in 2015 at Triple-A Pawtucket.

The Red Sox get left-hander Roenis Elias and right-hander Carson Smith. Elias is an ultra-athletic arm with enough angle and stuff to pitch out of the bullpen but a lot of upside as a starter, still. The fastball is low-90s — up to 94 on occasion — to go with a plus curveball that he didn’t command consistently in 2015. His changeup has improved, giving him a chance at a third big-league offering and he’ll change arm angles with the first two pitches versus left-handed batters.

Elias, despite being 27, has five years of club control remaining and with the right attention to his mechanics could end up better than Miley ever has been, though he’s not right now and his exact role in Boston remains to be seen.

Smith was the Mariners’ best reliever in 2015 by a wide margin and also comes with five years of control left, including two more before arbitration kicks in for the right-hander. He throws from a low three-quarters slot, turning over a nasty slider he commands well and consistently and the fastball has tremendous sink up to 95 mph. His command is above-average, though his walk rate in 2015 doesn’t suggest so, thanks to a stint after the all-star break where things went awry for about 10 outings.

With the Red Sox, Smith likely will be one option in the seventh and eighth innings and if necessary can handle the ninth in close situations. Smith was one of the best relievers in the American League this past season, and with the Sox’s recent acquisition of Craig Kimbrel, the back-end should be difficult to navigate for opposing teams if Boston hands them a lead.

With Miley due $6 million in 2016 and $8.75 million in 2017 (with a 2018 club option worth $12 million), the Mariners do get the southpaw for at least two years at a reasonable price. If this were Elias-for-Miley, it’s be easy to understand and easy to get behind, despite my personal belief that Elias has a lot more to give with the right focus and instruction and it could happen as early as 2016. Adding Smith-for-Aro is where this hurts most, especially considering the lack of bullpen arms in Seattle. The club added Joaquin Benoit, but without Smith even the eighth innings is a huge question mark now, rather than just the sixth and seventh.

As of this moment, there is no word of any cash being involved, though for me it wouldn’t make a significant difference unless it came from Boston and nearly-equaled Miley’s entire salary for ’16.

In conclusion, I don’t like this trade for Seattle and I absolutely love it for Boston. The Sox shed a little payroll, add a useful, multi-dimensional lefty with cheap controlled years left, and a devastating right-handed reliever who also will be dirt cheap for two more seasons.

I know a few high-ranking scouts that like Miley more than his numbers, but in order for this trade to even out for the Mariners, Miley needs to be a legitimate No. 3 starter from the get-go, and I’m not sure he’s a 200-inning, 3.5-3.6 FIP starting pitcher. Clearly, GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff believe he is just that.

I wouldn’t call this deal awful or terrible or any other exaggerated, hyperbole-driven adjective, but the Mariners are giving up what they’ve coveted prior to this deal, and that’s control years and upside. If they lose on the wager that Miley is better than No. 4 starter, this trade will be a bust, as the upside for Aro has no chance to make up for it. As for how the roster looks now, they did get at least a little better in the rotation with Miley’s advantage in probability, of not production, too, but the bullpen needs more help than Donald Trump’s combover and the club still is without a clear No. 2 or No. 3 starting pitcher to compliment Felix Hernandez.

The news isn’t all bad for Seattle, however, as reports now are filing in that Dipoto is after Adam Lind, who would be the club’s best first baseman in years. Simply adding Lind to the lineup without considering trade cost and payroll, it’s exciting to see the length and likely production throughout, without having to hope upon hope that some of the young players explode.…

One of the first things mentioned by new Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto upon his hiring was how the club lacked general depth, particularly in the upper minors. Many clubs welcomed impact and contributing rookies to their rosters this past season. But Seattle’s inability to develop talent at the higher minor league levels during Jack Zduriencik’s tenure nearly left the Mariners out of the aptly named ‘year of the rookie’ in 2015.

Ketel Marte and Carson Smith were major league contributors as rookies though Seattle didn’t have a Kris Bryant or a Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings. Or even a Roberto Osuna for that matter.

We knew that pieces surrounding the core would need to be augmented and practically all executives talk about a need for depth. There’s no secret: the Mariners are a team with holes. We saw how the offense fizzled behind a slumping Robinson Cano in the first half and the pitching staff was exposed throughout the season. When Mike Zunino struggled, there was no Plan B.

Dipoto’s first deal as general manager, a six-player trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, took a step towards rebuilding the starting pitching depth. Nate Karns is coming off a 26-start rookie campaign but will turn just 28 in a few weeks. As Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill noted, Karns could start the season in the bullpen or in the back end of the rotation. In some ways he gives the M’s more flexibility with Vidal Nuno — both are rotation and bullpen candidates or one could be sent to Triple-A to get stretched out early in 2016. Nuno is likely a better fit in the bullpen, though.

PI’s Luke Arkins recently covered the pitching needs in depth. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are leading rotation candidates with Roenis Elias and Mike Montgomery next on the depth chart. Montgomery is out of options meaning he would be exposed to waivers if sent down but Elias can still be sent down. Beyond them the rotation depth In Tacoma is slim to none with Sam Gaviglio and Jordan Pries atop that list. Top pitching prospect Edwin Diaz is likely another year or more away from being major league ready.

Smith has graduated to the big league squad and despite some struggles this past season, figures to start the year in a start-up role. C.J. Riefenhauser figures to take Danny Farquhar‘s spot in the bullpen, only from the left side, so no additional depth was added there. With Charlie Furbush recovering from a slight tear in his rotator cuff, the southpaw depth could be tested with David Rollins and Rob Rasmussen also in the picture.

Tony Zych made his major league debut in September and in 13 appearances, including one start, he pitched a 2.04 FIP and 11.79 strikeouts per nine over 18 and 1/3 innings. He should have the inside track on one of the middle relief gigs. Mayckol Guaipe, J.C. Ramirez, and Jose Ramirez are other names to keep an eye on. None of the three have the upside of a Smith, for example, but do provide some bullpen depth. Cody Martin is also among the right-handed options after being picked up on a waiver claim.

Over on the infield, Seattle is set at second and third base long-term. The trade of Brad Miller suggests the club is confident in Marte and his ability to be a starter. The 22-year-old had a strong debut producing a 112 wRC+ while offering solid and improving defense.

Chris Taylor now finds himself No. 2 on the shortstop depth chart but struggled offensively in 2015. He’s hit well enough at Triple-A in recent memory, but at least offers a reliable glove in a key defensive position. Shawn O’Malley made a decent impression during his September cameo displaying on-base skills and picking up three stolen bases. Perhaps his best asset is his positional flexibility. Tyler Smith has also taken some steps forward and could become an option in the second half.

D.J. Peterson appeared to be readying for show time one year ago, but it was a difficult year for the top prospect and he’ll likely begin 2016 at Triple-A. It’s a similar story for Patrick Kivlehan who had a slightly down year offensively in his first taste of Triple-A action. Both are nearing major league readiness and provide nice depth at the infield corners for the second half. And of course, there’s the perennial name squeezed between the major league and Triple-A depth charts, Jesus Montero.

Behind the plate the story is the same as it was in 2015. Zunino may still need time in Triple-A to continue restructuring his swing and Jesus Sucre and John Hicks have proven that they aren’t offensively capable for the majors. It’s no secret that catching is a major concern for the Mariners.

James Jones and Stefen Romero are joined by Boog Powell in the outfield depth chart. Powell has a shot at breaking camp as the club’s starting centerfielder given his contact and defensive skills but the other two should start the year in Tacoma at this point. Daniel Robertson was claimed off waivers from Dipoto’s previous employer, the Los Angeles Angels. The 30-year-old spent the majority of 2015 at Triple-A where he posted an underwhelming 83 wRC+ but has solid plate discipline skills.

Ramon Flores, acquired from New York in the Dustin Ackley trade, had his 2015 season ended early with a compound fracture in his ankle and is worth keeping an eye on.

The most glaring position of weakness for the Mariners is at catcher, but that’s nothing new. Around the infield Seattle appears to be in reasonable shape depth-wise. Dealing Miller hurts, but the addition of a veteran infielder would allow Taylor to potentially start the year at Triple-A, making the depth look better.

The outfield is susceptible with Seth Smith being the only real major league caliber outfielder on the depth chart. Powell, Jones and Romero are considerations for the open spots as we speak, but if all three were to make the club, Flores and Robertson would make up the Triple-A depth. That could be scary.

You always need more pitching depth so that much goes without saying. The bullpen was a major issue for Seattle in 2015 and with all the pieces dealt over the past year, is in need of a makeover. It’s hard to evaluate the starting pitching given how many question marks there are. A combination of Walker, Paxton, Karns, Nuno, Elias, and Montgomery figure to take two rotation spots and probably a couple bullpen spots as well.

Not every position needs to have a bonafide starter or back-up caliber player at Triple-A, but the presence of legitimate options will be a welcomed change. Remember, it doesn’t take much for depth to appear. A couple solid minor league signings, a couple prospects taking a step forward, and a couple surprises can quickly change the tone in how we reference the players in Tacoma.

It’d be unfair to expect Dipoto and his staff to fix every problem the M’s currently face in year one, but rebuilding the catching and outfield positions while stockpiling arms would be meaningful progress. The pitching staff already looks stronger than it did at season’s end.

The first steps have already been taken with many more to come.…

Just last week, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill highlighted starting pitching and the bullpen as two deficiencies that the Mariners will need to address during the offseason. Jason opined that the team needed two pitchers to follow ace Felix Hernandez so that young arms Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, and Mike Montgomery could compete for the final two spots in the rotation with the losers being used as trade bait or needed depth.

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto and Jason may share a brain because Dipoto made his first major deal yesterday and it involved adding pitching depth. Seattle acquired right-handed starting pitcher Nate Karns and southpaw reliever C.J. Riefenhauser – along with well-regarded outfield prospect Boog Powell – from the Tampa Bay Rays for shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison, and reliever Danny Farquhar.

Karns doesn’t fit the bill as a one of the starters that Jason referred to in his piece, but the 27-year-old adds much needed depth and you can never have enough starting pitching. Look no further than the Mariners 2015 season as proof.

As the season opened, it seemed like the Mariners had plenty of starting pitching. Walker had won the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation and Elias was dispatched to Class-AAA Tacoma to serve as a back-up plan. Plus, the team had flipped Erasmo Ramirez for Montgomery adding more minor league depth. Then, the season began.

Injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Paxton limited them to 20 and 13 starts respectively. Plus, there were inning limits placed on Walker and Montgomery. On top of that, Walker, Elias, and J.A. Happ struggled with consistency and Happ was dealt at the trading deadline. All in all, the Mariners used 10 starters last season.

2015 Seattle Mariners Starting Pitchers
Felix Hernandez Taijuan Walker Hisashi Iwakuma J.A. Happ James Paxton
Roenis Elias Mike Montgomery Vidal Nuno Edgar Olmos Tony Zych

All of this upheaval certainly made the stomachs of fans churn as the 2015 season unraveled. But, needing so many starting pitchers shouldn’t be considered a “Mariners thing.” History shows us that every team needs many more arms than their projected starting five to survive a 162-game season.

Since the 2000 season, major league teams have used an average of 10 starting pitchers during each season. The lone team to use only five starters since then were the 2003 Mariners. That staff was comprised of Ryan Franklin, Freddy Garcia, Gil Meche, Jamie Moyer, and Joel Pineiro.

Conversely, the 2006 Kansas City Royals, 2004 Texas Rangers, and 2003 Cincinnati Reds are tied for using the most starters in one season at 17. You may be thinking that those three teams couldn’t have been very good. That was my first thought. But, that’s not completely accurate.

Yes, the Royals and Reds had losing records with the Kansas City losing 100 games. But, the 2003 Rangers won 89 games under manager Buck Showalter and only finished three games out of first place.

So, what about this year? Let’s take a look at the ten postseason entrants to see how many starters they needed.

# SPs  Team(s)
16    Los Angeles Dodgers
13    Houston Astros
12    Texas Rangers     /   Toronto Blue Jays
10    Chicago Cubs      /    Kansas City Royals      /   New York Mets      /   New York Yankees   
9    St. Louis Cardinals
8    Pittsburgh Pirates

It may be a surprise to some of you that most of this year’s playoff teams were in double-digits with starting pitchers. Despite all of the fanfare that the New York Mets’ staff received during the postseason, they needed 10 starters to get through the season – just like their World Series opponent and the Mariners.

Okay, so it’s clear that the Mariners will need more than five or six starters to make it through a six-month season and a potential postseason run. But, that’s only part of the challenge that awaits Mariners management.

Look at how many relief pitchers that each playoff team used this year. Bear in mind that I’m only counting pitchers who pitched 100-percent of their innings as a reliever – starters used out of the bullpen or a reliever used as a spot starter are not included below.

# RPs  Team(s)
23    New York Yankees   
19    Chicago Cubs        /   Texas Rangers  
16    New York Mets    /   Toronto Blue Jays
15    Los Angeles Dodgers
14    St. Louis Cardinals   /   Kansas City Royals   
13    Pittsburgh Pirates
11    Houston Astros

Even the best teams needed lots of relief help to get through the season. That was the case in Seattle too. Mariners fans are well-versed on the club’s relief corps regression from 2014 excellence to 2015 unreliability. In total, the Mariners used 18 pitchers who appeared exclusively in the relief role. As with the starters, the need for bullpen depth can’t be overstated.

Help can come from the trade market – like it did yesterday – or the waiver wire like right-hander Cody Martin who was picked from the Oakland Athletics last month. But, the competition is steep because every team is trying to augment their bullpen.

There’s no guarantee that Martin will make the 25-man roster or even be with the Mariners organization when next season begins, but acquiring multiple arms – like Martin and Riefenhauser – increases the chances of building the major and minor league depth needed to compete well into the postseason. That’s why the minor leagues is the first place teams look for help. Unfortunately for the Mariners, that a bit’s of a challenge.

Anyone familiar with the organization already knows that Seattle has lagged behind with player development in recent years. This has contributed to the club not having the necessary depth to properly react to injury or poor performance at the big league level. Both GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have both touched on this during their introductory press conferences.

A lack of minor league depth poses a challenge for any front office, especially a new one with many needs that go beyond pitching. Here’s a look at who’s available to the new regime on the Mariners 40-man roster. Free agents Iwakuma and Joe Beimel aren’t listed.

Pitchers on Seattle Mariners 40-man Roster
Felix Hernandez Carson Smith Mayckol Guaipe Jose Ramirez
Taijuan Walker Vidal Nuno Charlie Furbush
J.C. Ramirez
Hisashi Iwakuma Edgar Olmos Nate Karns
Cody Martin
Roenis Elias James Paxton Edgar Olmos
Danny Hultzen
Mike Montgomery Tony Zych David Rollins
 C.J. Riefenhauser
Tom Wilhelmsen Tyler Olson Rob Rasmussen  

When fans read that Seattle has added the likes of Martin, they should be encouraged that club is aggressively trying to add the depth needed to compete. Yes, it’s true that these minor moves aren’t sexy. But, they can be difference makers in a time of need. Most will not work out, but a few will.

Last year, the Mariners added the likes of David Rollins, Beimel, Sam Gaviglio, Edgar Olmos, Joe Saunders during the offseason and then Vidal Nuno in the Mark Trumbo deal in early June and Rob Rasmussen, J.C Ramirez, and Jose Ramirez prior to the deadline. Some never pitched in the big leagues and others didn’t perform well with the Mariners. But, Beimel and Nuno made positive contributions in 2015.

The challenge for the new Mariners front office will be balancing the need to add position player depth without compromising pitching depth. Assuming that the team Dipoto-Churchill mind-meld continues and Seattle adds two more starters to the rotation, the “excess” starters would be attractive commodities in the trade market and could help Dipoto fill-out needs at other positions.

Whether the team opts to hold onto their depth or use it in the trade market will be one of the tougher choices facing Dipoto during his first year on the job. Holding on to Iwakuma would make it easier to dispatch a young arm in a deal. But, the return of “Kuma” isn’t certain.

Regardless of what the Mariners GM decides, you can bank on the team needing much more pitching than the 12-13 hurlers who make the 2016 Opening Day 25-man roster. There’s no doubt that Dipoto is banking on it too.

With the trade deadline only days away and the Seattle Mariners currently on the outside looking in, much space has been put towards dissecting what exactly the team should do this week. Should the M’s be sellers? Could they be buyers? Sitting 9.5 games back in the division and 6.5 games back of a wild card berth entering Tuesday’s games likely suggest the former more so than the latter.

Whatever the case, getting a head start on filling holes for next season should be more important than attempting an incremental upgrade for the season’s final two months. There’s enough talent on the ball club that a hot stretch in August could put them back in the wild card race, but not enough performance to merit another acquisition to bolster the club in 2015 alone.

The players most often discussed as being pieces to sell — Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, Austin Jackson, Fernando Rodney, and Mark Lowe — are free agents. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill mentions Brad Miller and D.J. Peterson among other names that have been brought up in conversations.

Starting with the rotation, the potential departures of Happ and Iwakuma open two spots. Despite his prolongued stint on the disabled list, Iwakuma has played the crucial role of No. 2 starter as recently as last year and has flashed glimpses of having his stuff back since returning. Happ has been excellent in the back-end of the rotation and owns a 3.77 FIP in 104 and 1/3 innings of work.

Felix Hernandez isn’t going anywhere while Taijuan Walker should have one of next year’s rotation slots essentially locked up at this point. Both Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias have had success in the big leagues this year and are solid options. James Paxton is still on the disabled list with an injured finger and a return doesn’t appear imminent.

A rotation of Felix, Walker, Montgomery, Elias, and Paxton has plenty of upside, but none of the non-Felix pitchers really stand out. Walker could presumably take another step forward as a solid No. 3 starter but Elias and Montgomery project more as back-end guys. With the potential loss of Iwakuma, there will be a hole in the rotation, particularly in the No. 2 spot.

A healthy and effective Paxton can fill that role, though he has thrown barely over 130 innings since Opening Day 2014 — the track record simply isn’t there.

Seattle will need more out of what’s been a league average rotation this year and an additional veteran starter will be required as well as the usual depth.

The bullpen has almost literally gone from first to worst. What was a strong point last year has been a weakness this year. Rodney has turned into a pumpkin — though he may have been tipping his pitches — while Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar have taken their turns heading up and down the I-5. The Bartender has been better of late, though, and his peripherals suggest he’s outperforming his earned run average.

The good news is that Carson Smith has adapted nicely to his role as closer and has been excellent. Vidal Nuno and Charlie Furbush are doing well enough in their roles.

Gone are Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone, dealt for Welington Castillo and Mark Trumbo respectively. The dealings of relievers for bats, including Brandon Maurer in the winter, have eaten away at the depth that existed in 2014.

If Lowe leaves as a free agent, the Mariners will need to find eighth inning help, which never seems to come cheap in free agency. The bullpen likely needs an additional major league arm or two as well. It’s possible Nuno competes for a rotation spot but has otherwise worked out well enough in the bullpen.

The infield picture is a little more clear with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both locked into long-term extensions. Seager is in the midst of another excellent season while Cano is enjoying a red-hot July and finally showing signs of life after a terrible first half. Miller is also having a solid season and has a firm grasp on the starting shortstop job with Chris Taylor still waiting in the wings.

As has been the problem for more than a few years now, first base needs an upgrade. After showing progress with the bat last year, Logan Morrison holds an 87 wRC+ and has been replacement level. Mark Trumbo has been better recently, but his season performance is still below league average. Both players are under team control through 2016 so it’s unlikely Seattle seeks a significant upgrade, though there’s an argument that it’s still needed.

Behind the plate Mike Zunino has still played solid defence and picked things up with the bat this past week, but has struggled to hit his weight throughout the season. A trip to Triple-A has been suggested as a potential antidote the struggles at the plate. He’s still only 24 and could very well be the catcher of the future still, but the team needs a second catcher capable of playing three times per week — that’s the real issue. Doing without is only hurting Zunino in the short and long-term.

The outfield picture will become even less clear with Jackson set to depart. Seth Smith is under contract for another year and is enjoying an excellent season as a platoon bat in the corners. Nelson Cruz has played right field more than anyone is comfortable with and that will probably continue next year. If manager Lloyd McLendon is smart it won’t, but it’ll likely depend in part on his other options.

Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano were brought onboard to solidify a pair of outfield platoons but are no longer on the big league team. There’s an increasing chance that Seattle will move on from Dustin Ackley before next spring. Franklin Gutierrez has had a nice return but is likely best-served as one-half of a platoon. He’s a free agent at the end of the year, but it’s not difficult to envision him being kept in the fold beyond.

Assuming Smith, Cruz, and Trumbo are returning and the others not, Seattle will need an outfielder capable of playing center field and another corner bat. Smith and Cruz can probably handle right field duties and Trumbo isn’t really an outfielder. Talk of turning Miller into a super utility player a la Ben Zobrist has cooled but there is a real possibility shortstop prospect Katel Marte could eventually convert to an outfielder.

Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins was on hand to see Marte’s outfield debut for the Tacoma Rainiers and opined that the youngster is going to need time to make the defensive adjustments. By many accounts his bat is big league ready, but we probably won’t know how viable of an option he is until Spring Training.

By my count, when constructing the 2016 edition of the Seattle Mariners there is at least one need in the rotation, a couple holes to fill in the bullpen, perhaps help at first base and definitely behind the plate, and two-thirds of the outfield will need to be revamped.

Seattle lacks the type of players that command high prospect prices at the trade deadline which makes them a less traditional seller. There’s no reason to think that Jackson and Iwakuma couldn’t net a couple decent prospects — probably nothing that helps the M’s immediately. If neither player is part of the future plans, there’s no reason to let them walk for nothing when they could be traded for something. Even Happ would be an upgrade for a club in need of some short-term pitching help and you can’t forget about Lowe as a potential trade piece — teams are always looking for bullpen help this time of the year.

It won’t be easy for the Mariners to admit defeat on a season that was riddled with expectations, but it’s not as though the window for a playoff berth has closed. The core of the club is in place long-term. But as we can see, there are several holes that need to be filled — some remaining from this past offseason.

If possible, the Mariners should be looking to get a head start on filling those holes. Now is as good a time as any and selling the pieces that are about to become free agents can help solve potential problems in 2016 and down the road.…

tom wilhelmsenWith a return of Hisashi Iwakuma from the disabled list expected to take place on Monday, the Seattle Mariners sent three pitchers to Triple-A Tacoma after Friday night’s vicotry. Starter Roenis Elias was optioned — to make room in the rotation for Iwakuma — as well as relievers Tom Wilhelmsen and Vidal Nuno.

The three players called-up to fill the roster spots include relievers David Rollins and Mayckol Guaipe and outfielder James Jones.

Iwakuma, out since April with a strained back muscle, has not been officially re-called yet. But there is no real benefit to having him on the big league roster until his scheduled start, which explains the likely temporary re-call of Jones. Kuma will be re-called following Sunday’s game or prior to Monday’s.

The right-hander has not pitched well this year, when he was healthy, posting a 6.61 ERA and a 6.27 FIP in three starts. He struggled with the long ball and was generally ineffective. Just because he’s healthy doesn’t mean he should automatically own a rotation spot for the remainder of the season. The 34-year old did not resemble the No. 2 starter he has been for the previous two years, but he will see every opportunity to have success at the big league from here on forward. He is a free agent following the season.

Elias had actually been pitching well during Iwakuma’s absence. Although he was hit hard in two of his previous four starts, allowing 19 earned runs in 20 innings pitched. With rookie Mike Montgomery coming off back-to-back complete game shutouts there was no way he was going to be the odd man out. Former top prospect Taijuan Walker has also found his groove in the rotation and was rock solid throughout the month of June. Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins explored what a potential six-man rotation would look like for the Mariners.

Back to Elias for a moment. PI’s Jason A. Churchill offered a pair of tweets regarding the left-hander’s value after being sent down to the minors again this year:

Like I said, despite a couple lacklustre starts in his rearview mirror, with Elias the demotion isn’t a performance thing. Given the lack of starting pitching depth it’s unlikely he’s dealt before the end of the month, but could become trade bait over the winter. It’s reasonable to suggest keeping him in the bullpen so that he’s available in a pinch for a spot start or long relief duty, but there’s no reason to take him out of his routine as a starter. Unless it was absolutely necessary for whatever reason.

Wilhelmsen has been up and down in 25 appearances out of the bullpen, with peripherals suggesting he’s been better than his ERA indicates. The right-hander hasn’t been walking more batters than in the past and his strikeout rate is actually up a couple batters per nine innings compared to last year. The problem is that in June he’s allowed 13 runs, 11 earned, in 13 innings pitched for a 7.62 ERA. He made only three scoreless appearances in 12 outings. Simply put, it’s a matter of execution and performance.

Manager Lloyd McLendon said that Wilhelmsen just needs to work on his command at Triple-A.

With Nuno, who was acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade, the demotion is slightly more curious on the surface. While he hasn’t been bad during his first month as a Mariner, a 2.53 ERA and a 3.93 FIP in 10 and 2/3 innings pitched, the majority of his work has come in the form of two appearances of long relief. With Charlie Furbush in the bullpen, Nuno wasn’t going to get any of the key lefty on lefty match-ups.

Oddly, many of his appearances were coming late in games with one team having a sizeable enough lead to suggest the game was all but over. Perhaps there was a lack of trust from the manager, but that’s my own speculation.

The real reason for Nuno’s demotion probably had to do with the incoming presence of last winter’s Rule 5 draft pick, Rollins. Adding the left-hander would give the M’s four southpaws in the bullpen including Nuno, Furbush and Joe Beimel, and it’s unlikely McLendon wanted to go that route. Even having three is abnormal by some standards.

Rollins was suspended in late March for a positive PED test and after serving his 80-game suspension completed a 16-day rehab assignment at Triple-A on Friday. He pitched nine and one-third scoreless innings across seven appearances while striking out eight and walking one. I offered a scouting report on Rollins back in December when he was acquired. He’s a hard-throwing lefty with a fastball in the 92-to-95 MPH range and a solid slider. He commands the ball well enough, but without a third average or better pitch isn’t likely to have prolonged success as a starter.

Guaipe surfaced with the big league squad earlier in the year, making his major league debut on June 1. He threw two and one-third perfect innings with a pair of strikeouts. He owns a 3.94 ERA and 4.00 FIP in 29 and 2/3 innings at Triple-A and has seen some time in the closer’s role. With Wilhelmsen going down, Guaipe replaces his right-handed arm in the bullpen.

The third re-call is likelythe placeholder for Iwakuma as Jones gives the Mariners a fifth player on the bench. With Jesus Sucre, Chris Taylor, Franklin Gutierrez and Dustin Ackley already in the picture it doesn’t make a lot of sense to carry three outfielders long-term. Even if Nelson Cruz and Trumbo aren’t really outfielders.

Jones gives Seattle his usual element of speed on the base paths and an ability to play center field. He has yet to record a hit in ten plate appearances at the big league level this year but does have two walks. Expect to see him used as a pinch-runner or late inning defensive replacement. He shouldn’t be starting Saturday or Sunday’s games unless it’s an emergency.

Out of all the moves, the two players I’m most interested in watching are Iwakuma and Rollins. A couple weeks in the minors for Wilhelmsen to re-establish some command and confidence should work out — I have little doubt that The Bartender will be back sooner than later.

We will probably learn more about any pitch or innings limits for Iwakuma’s first start closer to game time, if any are in place. The rotation hasn’t been terrible in his absence, but if the Mariners can insert a No. 2 or 3 starter into the mix it would be a huge boost. Truthfully, any value Kuma can provide Seattle at this point should be counted as extra. There’s a non-zero chance that the struggles continue: he appeared to be broken before the injury as opposed to struggling because of the injury.

Rollins was great in Spring Training and appeared to be heading for a bullpen spot on Opening Day before the positive steroid test. His stint in the minors is encouraging and he appears ready for his big league debut. Worst case scenario the M’s return the lefty to the Houston Astros or work out a trade to keep him in the organization. But it’s possible he could become a real weapon in the bullpen. Remember: this is the third time the Jack Zduriencik regime has acquired Rollins — twice previously in the amateur draft. He’ll get his chance.

Any upgrade made by the Mariners helps at this point in time. If these moves solidify the rotation and bullpen, Seattle can turn efforts towards fixing the remaining holes on the field, such as back-up catcher.

Left-hander James Paxton has started some on-field activities but is still several weeks away as he recovers from a strained finger on his pitching hand. As is the current case with Iwakuma, any value Paxton can provide down the stretch is gravy.

Montgomery and Walker, and Elias too, have done an excellent job of plugging the holes in the rotation.…

Iwakuma
Last Sunday’s captivating debut by New York Mets pitching prospect Steven Matz signaled the start of the team’s plan to use Matz – along with Matt Harvey, Bartolo Colon, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese, and Jacob deGrom – as part of a six-man rotation. New York’s motivation to use an extra pitcher is based on their desire to manage the workload for both their young starters and veteran arms.

Reducing the number of innings would permit the Mets to improve the availability of their entire starting staff through the end of the season – and possibly into the postseason – while helping to prevent the shutdown of their young pitchers who are likely to reach career-highs in innings pitched (IP). As one might expect, going to a six-man rotation has caused a groundswell of debate in New York and among national baseball media.

In the Mets’ case, each of their six projected starters have experienced arm issues during their professional careers. Harvey, deGrom, and Matz have undergone surgery on their pitching elbow, while Syndergaard has experienced tightness in his forearm in each of the last two seasons. Colon has been relatively healthy since missing 2010 due to shoulder surgery, but he is 42-years-old. On top of that, the team lost Zack Wheeler who underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery on his elbow in Spring Training. On the surface, protecting a young core of such promising pitchers seems to make a lot of sense.

The Mets’ youth movement has already risen to national prominence thanks to having the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and a few budding stars who have inspired nicknames like “The Dark Knight” and “Thor.” With so much talent abound, the Mets don’t have a clearly defined ace like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, or Felix Hernandez – who are head-and-shoulders above their peers on their respective staffs. New York’s National League franchise has a committee of young guns that includes co-aces in Harvey and deGrom and several others with number-one caliber starter potential.

The discussion surrounding the Mets’ strategy made me wonder whether the Seattle Mariners would consider doing the same thing when starter Hisashi Iwakuma returns from a stint on the disabled list. Iwakuma – who made his third rehab start last night for Class-AAA Tacoma – pitched five and two-thirds innings allowing one earned run on five hits, while striking out six and walking just one hitter. Unfortunately for the 34-year-old, he had to prematurely leave the game due to a blister on his right middle finger – Iwakuma has previously experienced blisters with Seattle. Assuming that the right-handed veteran doesn’t have any lingering issues from last night, he could be available to pitch with the Mariners this weekend.

How the team plans to manage their sudden glut of starting pitching is a hot topic of discussion in the local media and with the team’s fan base. Regardless of the specific plan the Seattle employs, something will need to be done to control the workload of their young starters.

Why take action?
As I pointed out earlier this year, the top four starters on a World Series entrant have averaged 23 additional innings over the past five years. Assuming that the Mariners were to undergo an increasingly improbable turnaround and reach the postseason – and the World Series itself – pitchers not named Felix Hernandez or Hisashi Iwakuma would have to pitch more innings than they’ve ever done in the past. Based on the career-highs of their remaining starters – Roenis Elias, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, and J.A. Happ –  the team will need to reduce the burden on some or all of their pitchers in order for them to be available well into October.

Seattle Mariner Career-High Innings Pitched
 Name Career High * Season 3-Year Avg
Felix Hernandez 261.4 2010 241
Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 238.2 2013 187
 J.A. Happ 193.1 2011 157
 Mike Montgomery
159.2 2011 131
 Roenis Elias 190.4 2014 166
 Taijuan Walker 163.1 2013 139
 James Paxton (DL)
172.4 2013 132
 * Includes Spring Training and regular season (majors and minors)

When I looked at the Mariners’ 2015 numbers, I was surprised to see that Walker – thanks to his 27 innings in Spring Training  – has actually pitched more innings than anyone else on the Mariners staff. Based on his current innings and average innings-per-game, the 22-year-old is on pace to easily eclipse his career-high during the regular season. Teammates Elias, Montgomery, and Happ – based on their current average innings pitcher-per-game – are also on a trajectory to surpass previous career-highs.

Mariners 2015 Numbers
 Name Innings Pitched *
IP/Game (Regular Season -MLB & MiLB)
 Felix Hernandez 112 6.5
 Hisashi Iwakuma (DL) 39 5.4
 J.A. Happ 102 5.6
 Mike Montgomery
108 7.4
 Roenis Elias 101 6.0
 Taijuan Walker 117 5.6
 James Paxton (DL) 68 58
 * Includes Spring Training and regular season (majors and minors)

Before getting into the specifics with the Mariners, I want to cover a few points about the utilization of the six-man rotation and some of the things said about the approach.

Goods and others
Using an expanded rotation – if used over the course of a full season – reduces the number of games started by a full-time starter by approximately six starts and about 30-40 innings. Proponents praise this aspect of the six-starter strategy because it decreases workload, but it comes at the cost of reducing the appearances of a team’s ace. For example, the use a six-man rotation for a full season would mean Hernandez would start about 27 games rather his five-year average of 33.

One could argue that fewer starts by a team’s top starter equates to a better-rested staff ace for the postseason. On the other hand, a team that doesn’t reach the postseason because they lost games that their ace may have won will be relieved of the burden of managing pitcher workload – or anything else – in late October.

A fringe competitor like Seattle can’t afford to lose six starts from Hernandez when it’s likely that they’ll have to compete until the last day of the season – just like in 2014 – to overcome the team’s poor first-half. The Mariners will need to maximize starts from their 29-year-old ace to have any chance of turning around their disappointing 2015 season.

With that in mind, is there a way that the Mariners could use a six-man rotation – or another strategy – that could achieve the goal of controlling IP for their starters, while not significantly detracting from the value of the team’s superstar pitcher?

“What if drill”
When I served in the Navy, planning for any contingency was vital to the success of the organization for the unit and the mission. We used to refer to these planning evolutions as “what if drills” because we’d have to plan for scenarios that would likely never happen. Speculating on how a major league team will utilize their starting pitchers certainly falls into the “what if drill” category because there’s a wide variety of approaches at the Mariners’ disposal.

Since I’m more interested in illustrating the Mariners current workload pace and the impact of potential mitigation strategies, I’m only going to focus on four fairly straightforward approaches. The underlying theme for each plan is that Hernandez is the anchor of the rotation and – with the exception of the six-man plan – the perennial Cy Young award candidate’s routine experiences the least disruption.

My “plans” are predicated on a July 5 return by Iwakuma, which assumes that he doesn’t suffer a significant setback from the blister. For the sake of this exercise, I’ve arbitrarily chosen to use Montgomery as the odd man out in tables of scenarios that require only five pitchers. I could’ve chosen Elias or Happ because they’re all within six innings of each other in 2015. I’ve opted to omit the newest member of the rotation only because he’s the new guy. Based on his impressive first month in the majors, he’s not going to be the odd man out.

Five-man plan
The first strategy changes the rotation the least. Seattle would go with five pitchers for the remainder of the season – King Felix, Kuma, and three others pitch in the same order for the remainder of the season. The five-man scenario maximizes the effect of Hernandez, but places the highest load on the arms of two of the team’s three youngsters whether it’s Walker and Elias – as in my example – or another combination that includes Montgomery.

Five-man rotation
Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
Felix Hernandez 232 34
Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 118 20
J.A. Happ 196 32
Mike Montgomery
81 10
Roenis Elias 206 32
Taijuan Walker 206 32
* Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Regardless of the names selected, two of the three would exceed their career-high by the largest margin. Realistically, this is the least likely to happen due to the individual limitations of the young starters. Although improbable, this scenario demonstrates the challenge facing management in Seattle – they have to figure out a way to lessen the onus being placed on their inexperienced starters.

Six-man plan
Like the five-man plan, it’s an unchanging rotation with six pitchers – with Montgomery added back in – that isn’t altered from July 5 until the last day of the season. The obvious advantage of using a straight six-man plan is that it’ll reduce the strain on arms in the greatest fashion, although it comes at the expense of two less starts from Felix. That’s a high cost for Seattle considering the situation they’re currently facing.

Six-man rotation
Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
Felix Hernandez 219 32
Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 102 17
J.A. Happ 179 29
Mike Montgomery
179 24
Roenis Elias 29 189
Taijuan Walker 29 188
* Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Felix-flex plan (FFP)
This is an alteration to the six-man plan, which ensures that Felix pitches every fifth game – regardless of days off – and plugs in the others in and around the staff ace. The FFP gives the Mariners one less Felix start, but helps reduce the workload on the rest of the staff.

Felix-flex plan
Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
 Felix Hernandez 226 33
 Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 108 18
 J.A. Happ 173 28
 Mike Montgomery
172 23
 Roenis Elias 189 29
 Taijuan Walker 188 29
 * Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Schedule issues
Another consideration with the plans I’ve mention thus far is the Mariners’ schedule later in the season. The table below shows that the team is currently in the midst of their second-longest stretch without a day-off for the remainder of the season. The longest remaining period without a break comes immediately after the all-star break when the team plays 20 consecutive days.

Mariners Upcoming Schedule
 Time frame Consecutive days played
 Jun 26 – Jul 12 16
 Jul 17 – Aug 5 20
 Aug 7 – Aug 12   6
 Aug 14 – Aug 19
  6
 Aug 21 – Sept 2 13
 Sept 4 – Sept 16 13
 Sept 18 – Sept 20
  3
 Sept 22 – Sept 30   9
 Oct 1 – Oct 3   3

The Mariners have seven scheduled off-days in the second half, including two that are within four days of each other – September 17 and 21. Thanks to the placement of their off-days, Manager Lloyd McClendon will have opportunities to shuffle the rotation and get those who are in need of added rest an extra day off.

The schedule affects all of the previously mentioned scenarios, but it makes a straight six-man plan and the FFP the least untenable options because the almost-weekly off-days after August 5 would lead to pitchers having seven or more days between starts on several occasions. That’s impractical, although the placement of off-days would help facilitate the use of a five-man scenario – if there wasn’t a concern about IP limits.

Six-men until August
A “hybrid” approach that would take advantage of an excess in starters in the near-term, but wouldn’t employ six pitchers on a regular basis after August 5 is another option. This would help extend the rest for the staff during the last long stretch of the season without causing havoc to the pitching order.

Six-men until August
 Name Projected Innings Pitched *
Projected Games Started
 Felix Hernandez 226 33
 Hisashi Iwakuma(DL) 113 19
 J.A. Happ 190 31
 Mike Montgomery
116 15
 Roenis Elias 200 31
 Taijuan Walker 200 31
 * Includes sum of Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and projected IP

Disrupting routines
As I just alluded to, a point of contention directed towards a six-man rotation is the impact of adding off-days to a starting pitcher’s routine. That’s a valid concern that has to be considered when mulling over six starters. More than likely, results would likely vary from pitcher-to-pitcher. Here’s a breakdown on how major leaguers performed, based on days of rest during the 2014 season.
With so many pitchers involved in the the above table, it’s tough to gauge the impact of the days-off on individual starters. Here’s a look at Hernandez’s career numbers followed by those of veterans Happ and Iwakuma. I didn’t include the youngsters because of their inexperience at the major league level.J.A. HappHisashi IwakumaDuring most seasons, the Mariners veteran-threesome has averaged between one and three starts with six days extra rest. The results from Hernandez and Iwakuma indicate that they’ve performed at approximately the same level with extra off time, while Happ has not been as sharp. It’s a too small of a sample size to make any concrete conclusions though.

Rotation impact
There’s another drawback to the use of six starters – the loss of either a bullpen arm or a position player. Seattle is currently carrying seven relievers and four reserve position players. Bear in mind that one of the position reserves is currently a catcher who is essentially a defensive back-up. This issue may not necessarily be a show-stopper, but it’s certainly a significant consideration and will be front-and-center in the team’s decision-making process.

Best plan
So, what’s the best option among the choices I’ve provided? It’s certainly debatable. However, I’d go with the six-man rotation until August 5. This choice provides the best of both worlds, which is a lot of Felix-innings while reducing the workload on their younger arms.

The approach selected by the Mariners will be likely be determined by an event – or events – that can’t be predicted at this time. Iwakuma could suffer a setback in the next few days or not perform well when he returns. During his brief stint with the team in 2015, “Kuma” didn’t pitch well. If he were to falter again, he could be pulled from the rotation. It’s also possible that performance could drive someone else from the rotation.

As much as Montgomery has flourished in June, Elias has struggled. Perhaps, the 26-year-old will be returned to Tacoma where he started the season with Montgomery. Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish suggested this possibility along with other possible scenarios to deal with Iwakuma’s return.

Barring injury or setback, using a six-man rotation until late July or early August would help extend the seasons of a few of their starters. By going down this road, the team could let the dust settle after Iwakuma’s return and determine who is best suited for assignment to Tacoma or – perhaps – the bullpen. Another option would be to trade one of the starters.

Recently, Prospect Insider Executive Editor – Jason A. Churchill – discussed the possibility of trading away players – including starting pitchers – if the Mariners decided to be sellers. As reported by Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune, General Manager Jack Zduriencik has already stated that Seattle won’t be adding any significant pieces for the rest of the season. That makes moving a young gun – who is inexpensive and under team control well past 2015 – less probable at the deadline. If the team were to make such a significant move, it would occur in the off-season. Making deadline deals with pitchers who are free agents at the end of the season – like Iwakuma or Happ – could be beneficial if Zduriencik were able to pick up a player – or a few players – who could help the team in 2016 or beyond

Final thought
Trading a veteran arm – like Happ or Iwakuma – has merit if they’re not in the team’s plans past 2015. Elias, Walker, Montgomery, and Happ are all performing well. But, their availability will be non-existent later in the season due to the unsustainable pace they’re maintaining.

Even if the teams completely fall out of contention, the use of the youngsters will have to be tempered. It’s possible that James Paxton will return. But, Dutton recently reported Paxton isn’t likely to return before August. Based on his slow recovery from a finger injury, the team has to view the southpaw’s possible return as icing on the cake and not a planning factor that they can count on.

The Mariners’ judicious management of their young hurlers in recent years suggests that they’ll find a way to balance competing for the postseason and mitigating any risk to the long-term health of their pitchers. The team will likely have to make their first of several rotation-related decisions once Iwakuma is cleared to return. Perhaps, they’ll choose one of the options I’ve mentioned, a combination of those options, or something completely different. Regardless of the Mariners’ decision, changes are brewing for the starting rotation.…

"Seattle

Austin Jackson is set to rejoin the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday in Tampa Bay after completing his rehab assignment. The player who’s roster spot he will be taking, at least temporarily, isn’t who many hoped or thought it should be. Former closer Danny Farquhar was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma on Monday night following the M’s following a 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

The demotion of Farquhar isn’t all that surprising. Simply put, the right-hander has struggled. He owns a 6.46 ERA and a 4.24 FIP in 23 and 2/3 innings of work so far this year. His walk rate — 3.04 per nine innings — is up slightly over his 2014 performance but is still more or less in line with his 3.19 career rate. Farquhar’s strikeout rate, however, is down to 7.61, a full three punch outs less than his 10.69 career rate.

Part of Farquhar’s struggles can be attributed to a decline in his fastball velocity. As pointed out by Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill, he simply doesn’t command the pitch well enough to miss bats at a reduced velocityin the 92-to-93 MPH range compared to the 95 MPH he’s averaged in previous years. Churchill also points out that Farquhar seems to be relying on his cutter more than he should and utilizing his off-speed pitches more could be a solution.

What’s causing Farquhar to not throw as hard could be as simple as a mechanical issue with a remedy including a couple weeks at Triple-A to straighten things out. Obviously there’s always the possibility of some form of injury in play but there’s no need to jump to any doomsday scenarios at this point.

One other possibility could simply be fatigue. The 28-year-old made 66 appearances out of the bullpen last year and is already nearing a third of that total with 20 appearances in this first quarter of the season. Again, a demotion to Triple-A to relieve some pressure and allow for a few off-days could be the right medicine. For what it’s worth, Farquhar has mentioned that

The demotion of the right-hander leaves the following relievers at manager Lloyd McClendon’s disposal: Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Mark Lowe, Carson Smith and Joe Beimel.

Rodney has had his struggles and owns a 5.89 ERA — his FIP is better at 4.78 — but earned save No. 13 on Monday.

Aside from a stint on the disabled list, Wilhelmsen has had an excellent first ten innings of the season with an increased strikeout rate.

Furbush has once again excelled in his lefty specialist role though he is outperforming his peripherals.

Lowe has had some control problems, but has otherwise been solid over the past couple weeks. His velocity is back in the 95-to-97 MPH range.

Smith has been excellent this year striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings in his rookie campaign.

Beimel hasn’t been used a lot since being called up three weeks ago, but has gotten outs and has McClendon’s trust after a solid 2014 campaign.

Seattle can get by with a six-man bullpen in a short-term scenario, as can many teams. However the club is seven games into a stretch of 20 consecutive games with another stretch of 16 consecutive games to follow — not an ideal time to shorten the relief staff. The starting pitching has been better of late, but has proven to be inconsistent outside of Felix Hernandez.

J.A. Happ has been the solid veteran the club expected but lasted only two innings in his most recent start against the Baltimore Orioles.

James Paxton appears to have turned the corner after early struggles and has now gone six or more innings in five consecutive starts while allowing two or fewer earned runs.

Taijuan Walker has shown a few glimpses but has struggled more frequently than he has succeeded. The right-hander has allowed eight runs, all earned, over his last two starts totalling 9 and 1/3 innings pitched. He’s now one month removed from an excellent outing against the Texas Rangers where he threw seven innings yielding one unearned run and striking out five.

Roenis Elias had a solid six-inning performance on Monday generating whiffs with both his curveball and changeup. He’s also performed well in his previous starts and may have moved up a rung on the rotation depth chart if Hisashi Iwakuma were to be activated from the disabled list today.

McClendon admitted that had Elias failed to throw six innings on Monday that sending down Farquhar may not have been a possibility. If that was indeed the case, would we actually be talking about Willie Bloomquist or Dustin Ackley being removed from the big league roster? Tough to say.

I don’t need to rehash what we already know about the pair. Bloomquist’s role on the team is little more than veteran leadership and grit– and apparently hitting Mark Buehrle. Ackley has once again struggled mightily at the dish.

A healthy Chris Taylor gives the Mariners two options at shortstop, even while Brad Miller learns the outfield. Jackson will return to everyday center field duties and Justin Ruggiano is capable of handling a spot start there every so often.

Realistically, it should have been a position player that was sent down considering the tough stretch of schedule the M’s find themselves in. It’s possible this current arrangement isn’t meant to last more than a few games.

Some have suggested that the move with Farquhar simply buys the Mariners some time to make a real decision regarding Bloomquist or Ackley. This may well be the case and often times we see situations like this solve themselves, despite the fact that an easy solution already exists.

Perhaps it’s worth asking: what if this wasn’t entirely McClendon’s call? Maybe cutting Bloomquist and his guaranteed salary is something the higher-ups simply won’t do right now? That absolutely should not be the case, but it wouldn’t be the first time the organization has made a questionable decision.

The rotation has been better of late, as has the bullpen, but a couple short outings from starters before this week is over could become problematic. There’s absolutely no reason to be taxing a bullpen this early in the season.

Point is, Seattle is playing with fire running only six relievers for the time being. And for what? To keep a struggling part-time player around? Doesn’t sound like something a playoff team would be doing.…