After a brief hibernation period, general manager Jerry Dipoto is back at it. Moments after dealing outfielder Seth Smith for starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo, the Seattle Mariners had another deal completed. In comes speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson and to Kansas City goes starter Nate Karns.

As PI’s Luke Arkins wrote earlier, Gallardo offers the potential to improve the rotation but at a cost of an experienced outfield bat. It’s easy enough to look at Dyson as a direct replacement for Smith — and he technically is in 25 and 40-man roster terms — but he brings a different skill set to the table, one that is valued highly by Dipoto and company.

Dyson, a 50th-round pick in the 2006 draft, has spent his entire career in the Royals organization. The 32-year-old made his debut in 2010 but was most recently noted for his role in the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship as a late-inning pinch-runner extraordinaire and defensive replacement.

For his career, which amounts to 1539 plate appearances, the left-hander owns a .260/.325/.353 slash line with an 86 wRC+. He bested that line in 2016 posting a .278/.340/.388 line and a 94 wRC+ — a few ticks below league average for his position. However, speed and defense have always been and remain Dyson’s calling card.

Last season Dyson swiped 30 bags and has averaged just over 31 steals over the past four years. Defensive metrics have been rather fond of the outfielder, crediting him with 19 defensive runs saved last season. The defensive performance helped push Dyson over the 3.0 fWAR mark for the second time in the past three years.

Karns was originally acquired by the Mariners last winter in the multi-player deal that sent Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays. He made 15 starts in 2016 and over 94 and 1/3 innings pitched, including a handful of relief outings, he posted a 5.15 ERA and a 4.05 FIP. His 9.64 strikeouts per nine were mixed with a rather ugly 4.29 walkers per nine innings pitched.

The right-hander missed a good portion of the season dealing with a back injury but the command issues were evident. Having just turned 29-years-old he’s not without upside, and the M’s had little pitching depth to work with after dealing Taijuan Walker, but he figured to be competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation with Gallardo now on board.

It’s best to look at today’s deals as a whole — the Mariners deal Smith and Karns for Gallardo and Dyson. Arguably the pitching staff lost some upside in Karns but likely gained some floor given Gallardo’s track record as an innings-eater. Losing Smith and his career 112 wRC+ does weaken the lineup, but Dyson figures to make up for that offensive gap in two words: run prevention.

The stolen bases are one thing, but combining Dyson with Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger figure to give the Mariners one of the best defensive outfields in baseball, perhaps the best. This follows Dipoto’s original plan of building a team that suits Safeco Field. There won’t be anymore sluggers lumbering around the outfield, except for when Nelson Cruz makes his cameos. Instead, more athleticism and runs saved on the other side of the ball will be present.

Defensive metrics can be tricky to decipher in small samples, but all three outfielders pass the eye test with flying colors. Moving Dyson to left field where he is expected to play regularly will hurt his value some as his speed and range will be limited. However, it will be a substantial improvement of Smith’s declining defensive abilities and perhaps more importantly, gives Seattle another legitimate option in center. Martin probably could’ve used a couple more days off last season.

The old adage of if you can’t score more runs, you’d best prevent them is at play here. Seattle did make a significant addition to the lineup with Jean Segura inserted at shortstop and the top of the lineup, but otherwise a similar offense will return in 2017. And expecting all three of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Cruz to repeat their performances is foolish. They’re all great hitters, but some regression can be expected.

With a similar offense and a terrible class of free agent pitchers, it made sense for the Mariners to emphasize the value an improved defense brings. The thing about having a stronger outfield is that it can make a below-average rotation better. This may well be what Dipoto is counting on given the question marks existing in the rotation.

Given the current standing of the roster, we can estimate the the Mariners will roll out lineups that may resemble these in 2017:

Projected 2017 Lineups
vs. RHP vs. LHP
Jarrod Dyson Jean Segura
Jean Segura Danny Valencia
 Robinson Cano Robinson Cano
Nelson Cruz Nelson Cruz
Kyle Seager Kyle Seager
Mike Zunino Mike Zunino
Dan Vogelbach Mitch Haniger
Leonys Martin Leonys Martin
Ben Gamel Jarrod Dyson

We could quibble with how the lineups will round out or who hits in the No. 2 hole against lefties, but what we see here is a much more balanced lineup than in year’s past. There certainly projects to be enough power, but there’s finally a couple of legitimate leadoff options in Segura and Dyson.

The first base and right field platoons offer some upside and Valencia’s flexibility will be utilized in the corner spots. Depending on how the bench shakes out, there’s the ability to sit Martin or Dyson against a particularly difficult left-hander.

Losing Smith’s consistent bat and Karns’ upside hurts, but it’s hard to find an angle where for the purposes of 2017, the Mariners roster isn’t better today than it was yesterday. Some more pitching depth would be nice, but it appears that Dipoto finally has the outfield together that he wants.…

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

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

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

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

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

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

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

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

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

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

There is hope for the Rangers though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

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

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortstop depth is adequate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, this year is certainly different in Seattle.

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BABIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

RomeroIn terms of positional flexibility and athleticism, this year’s iteration of the Seattle Mariners is much different than in previous years. Those are clearly traits that general manager Jerry Dipoto values and were apparent in the talent he accumulated throughout the winter. Among the offseason acquisitions was a new first baseman who perhaps, through no real fault of his own, stands out from the rest.

Adam Lind‘s lack of positional flexibility — his outfield career ended in 2010 and shouldn’t be revisited — and large platoon split shouldn’t be held against why he was acquired: to mass right-handed pitching. But, this does require that the Mariners find someone to handle the majority of playing time at first base against left-handed pitching.

So far this spring we’ve heard a lot about former top prospect Jesus Montero and Korean import Dae-Ho Lee being the leading candidates to be Lind’s platoon partner. Gaby Sanchez had been in the mix before being an early cut. The potential concern with both players is that neither offers the club more than their bat and an ability to play a modest first base. For a roster based on flexibility, adding an inflexible part doesn’t make much sense. Depending on your point of view, though, a flexible roster is the exact kind of roster that allows for a one-dimensional piece to exist.

While the two sluggers mentioned remain are the clubhouse leaders for the part-time spot, there’s another player in the conversation that could become involved before it’s all said and done: Stefen Romero.

The 27-year-old began the 2014 as the Mariners regular right-fielder up until the trade deadline. He didn’t have much success at the plate posting a .192/.234/.299 slash line with a well-below average 52 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances. He resurfaced when rosters expanded in September of that year, but would spend the entire 2015 season at Triple-A before again being re-called in September for a handful of plate appearances.

In between those three major league stints, Romero performed well with Tacoma. His .358/.387/.669 slash line with 12 home runs over 163 plate appearances offered a reminder as to why he was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2012. The right-hander’s .292/.333/.494 slash line in 516 plate appearances for Tacoma in 2015 was also solid and accompanied by 17 home runs and 10 steals.

For the most part, Romero doesn’t really have much more to prove in the minors. Over five seasons he’s amassed 2105 plate appearances and owns an .869 OPS. It could be argued that he could use some work on his defense, but the reality is that he only profiles as a fringe-defender in right field and at age-27, what we see is probably what we are going to get.

With a revamped outfield that includes newcomers Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin alongside Franklin Gutierrez and Seth Smith, not to mention the presence of Boog Powell and Daniel Robertson on the depth chart, Romero is in tough to grab a reserve outfield spot. But as a right-handed bat with major league experience, he does potentially fit a need for Seattle.

The question that comes next is the matter of playing first base. Romero has spent the majority of the past three seasons in the outfield after starting in the organization as a second baseman. He’s seen some time at first so far this spring so there’s potential for more work there. While playing first base well isn’t as simple as some make it out to be, Romero is a very good athlete and the previous infield experience works in his favor.

All told, we have a player with a minor league track record who needs consistent playing time at the major league level to improve, hits right-handed, and presumably can handle first base while playing the outfield. Now we can mention that Romero has been red-hot down in Peoria with nine hits and a walk in 18 plate appearances. He also has a pair of doubles and a home run alongside seven runs batted in to his credit.

The reason I mention those spring numbers last is because, as Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins wrote in February, statistics accumulated during the month of March are relatively meaningless. The Arizona climate benefits hitters and the pitching isn’t necessarily major league quality or the major league arms are still going through their own preparations and not pitching how they would in the regular season.

A second factor working against Romero is the fact that he still can be optioned to Triple-A and does not require waivers. This ultimately could be what it comes down to. With Lee there has been some talk that it’s the majors or bust, as in, he’ll head back to Japan if he doesn’t break camp with the big league club. With Montero, waivers are required and there’s some percentage chance he is claimed, though it’s likely small.

In terms of asset management, optioning Romero and giving Lee a chance at sticking in the majors probably makes the most sense. Remembering that the season has more to do with a team’s 40-man roster than their 25 gives further justification. Also worth noting, as PI’s Jason A. Churchill mentioned on last week’s Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, Romero serves as some level of protection for Gutierrez. Not to say that there’s any current worry regarding the right-hander, but his history has to be a factor until he puts together a couple consecutive healthy seasons.

Barring a turn of events over the next couple weeks, I would expect Romero to begin the year. Speculation on my part, but maybe he ends up being dealt for relief help if a team is willing to buy into him being one step away from a decent regular or had an injury in their outfield.

There’s still some to be determined on the pitching staff side of things, and the bench isn’t completely finalized, but the right-handed first base option appears to be the biggest roster spot yet to be determined. The fact that we’re not debating if there’s a capable shortstop or No. 3 starter this spring is a nice surprise compared to year’s past.…

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

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

MartinL2Leonys Martin, CF
2015: 95 G, .219/.264/.313, .270 BABIP, .254 wOBA, 50 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR
Martin is, and always has been, considered by some to be an all-glove, no-bat center fielder, but one doesn’t have to look very far to get solid offensive production from the Mariners new free safety. In 2013-14, Martin combined to bat .268/.320/.373 with a .307 wOBA and 88 wRC+. The latter metric is adjusted for park and league, and Martin ranked in the middle of the pack among MLB center fielders — No. 14 to be exact — over that time span. At 28, at least a return to form could be in order.

Martin’s swing always has been less-than-ideal, but since signing he’s been able to iron out a few of the flaws. Those fixes have allowed Martin to make just enough hard contact to produce at or near league-standard batting averages and on-base percentages. There’s more raw power created by above-average bat speed, but the left-handed hitting Cuban does not create good leverage or loft in order to take advantage. At this stage, it’s probably best for him to continue to attempt to make more consistent contact — 22.2 percent career strikeout rate — and control the strike zone to perhaps add a few ticks to his on-base marks.

In 2015, Martin’s numbers sank, but he did suffer an injury that can explain most of that away, and by all accounts he’s back to 100 percent to start 2016. In his short career to date, Martin has struggled with good offspeed stuff, which partially explains his less-than inspiring on-base percentages. He’s has to hit the fastball early in counts or find himself in the hole and at the mercy of breaking balls, changeups and splitters. He also struggles with plus velocity, particularly if he chases above his hands — which is common.

M’s acquire Martin from Rangers

STEAMER projects Martin for .242/.293/.350, but if last season truly was due in large part to the wrist injury — which was reported in May but the severity may not have been known until after he was sent to Triple-A — I’d lean more toward a .260/.310/.360 triple-slash. There are signs he’s improved his ability to create the aforementioned leverage — 33 percent fly ball rate in 2015, up more than 5 percent from 2013-14 combined, though his line drive rate plummeted, perhaps, at least in part, due to the fly balls created from his swing.

At Safeco, however, the 2013-14 version of Martin — 22 percent line drives, 28 percent fly balls, 50 percent ground balls — likely produces more value.

Defensively, Martin is as-advertised from his amateur days, using above-average speed, jumps and routes to grade somewhere in the Top 8 in all of baseball. His arm is above-average to plus, too, and Martin is easily the best defensive center fielder Seattle has employed since Mike Cameron. He also enters the season as the club’s best base stealer, posting 36, 31 and 14 the past three seasons. If the bat returns, even 85-90 percent of what it was 2013-14, the M’s have a very solid answer in center this season.

Nori Aoki, LF
2015: .287/.353/.380, .298 BABIP, .326 wOBA, 112 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR
Aoki, even at 34, projects as a solid-average answer to the top of the lineup for the contact-and-OBP-starved Mariners. He missed two months last season but if healthy again should be able to produce in the 90 percentile of his career numbers — .287/.353/.386 — with average outfield defense.

Aoki handles the bat well and is a good baserunner, despite merely solid-average speed. He gets good jumps, but isn’t likely to swipe more than 10-15 bases. He rarely strikes out, though — 6.4 percent in 2015, 7.7 percent career — which gives the club improved opportunities to scratch a few more runs across, especially since the middle of the order is a full hitter deeper in 2016, even if it’s reasonable to expect a little regression from one if its holdovers.

Aoki’s value to Mariners

Ideally, Aoki would fit in as part of a platoon, but he’s shown severe reverse splits over the course of his four-year career in the states. If the club were to acquire an everyday answer in a corner, Aoki probably wouldn’t lose much playing time, but may be used as more of a utility outfielder that gets near full-time at-bats.

Angels Mariners BaseballSeth Smith, RF
2015: .248/.330/.443, .298 BABIP, .331 wOBA, 113 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
Smith’s first year in Seattle was a successful one, despite the former college QB slashing .219/.319/.394 after the all-star break. Smith is best used in a pure platoon role, facing few lefties and being replaced late defensively a good portion of the time. He’s passable but below-average in right field with the metrics showing that in combination the last five years, and Smith is a below-average runner as he leaves his prime years.

He can still hit right-handed pitching, though, posting a .255/.343/.455 triple-slash against them in 2015, including a .343 wOBA and 122 wRC+. He’ll draw a walk — 11.5% versus righties — and his strikeout rates was a very-acceptable 20 percent.

Smith’s value doesn’t necessarily equal his salary in 2016, but $6.75 million hardly serves as a bad contract as long as Smith produces when called upon at the plate.

FG2Franklin Gutierrez, RF
2015: 59 G, .292/.354/.620, .340 BABIP, .410 wOBA, .167 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR
Gutierrez took 2014 off and exceeded any and all expectations after being called up last summer. While he’ll always be monitored for workload, the 33-year-old still brings some upside in a platoon role with Smith. In 2015, Gutierrez batted .317/.357/.615 versus left-handed pitching — a triple-slash nearly equalled versus right-handers — and for his career the former Gold Glove standout owns a split of .291/.346/.491. He’ll be asked to do just that in 2016 — hit lefties — without the pressure of playing everyday or handling center field.

If Smith repeats his 2015 performance versus righties and Gutierrez comes close to his career mark versus lefties, the Mariners right-field platoon would end up at .270/.345/.465 with about average defense. This puts the onus on the new skipper to use his pieces properly.

Translation: No need for Boomstick23 in right field this season. None at all.

Nelson Cruz, DH/RF
2015: .302/.369/.566, .350 BABIP, .396 wOBA, 158 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR
It’s understandable why most projections systems expect a rather enormous regression from Cruz in 2016; first, he’s 35. Second, he’s coming off a career year and perhaps the best power season in the organization’s history from someone not named Griffey, Buhner, Rodriguez.

The easy analysis includes a BABIP that is not sustainable for someone with Cruz’s career skill set, and his increased strikeout rate that reached 25 percent in 2015 poses concerns, too. One argument for the flip side — a regression but perhaps not one that includes a 50-point drop in AVG/OBP — is that Cruz’s line-drive rate was up more than three percent last season and he’s increased his walk rate four straight seasons, suggesting improved skills.

STEAMER has Cruz dipping to .255/.321/.476 with 31 home runs in 140 games, which isn’t absurd, but it may be aggressive if the hit tool that’s produced the improvements in line-drive rate and walks is indeed a change in ability (rare for a player to do in his mid-30s, but not unheard of and not implausible). Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS is probably closer, in my opinion, projecting a .265.328/.494 season for the slugger. Add that to the removal of at least half of the damage his defense brings to his overall value and Cruz could repeat his 3.7 fWAR from 2014 with the Orioles.

Oh, and no matter what happens with Cruz’s bat this season, none of it will be because he’s not playing the outfield. The argument that he’s a better hitter when he plays the field versus DH’ing is complete and utter hogwash. None of the numbers that ‘back up’ that argument are from a large enough sample, particularly those with Cruz serving in the designated hitter role.

It’s reasonable to suggest, based on the history of the DH, that players need time to adjust to not playing defense. But Cruz has never been the DH for extended periods of time, allowing for literally no useful sample size to suggest he’s not a good DH or can’t be just as good as when he’s playing the outfield. It’s a ridiculously stupid argument and a poor excuse for former skipper Lloyd McClendon giving in to the player over the good of the club last season.

All signs point to that not being the case this coming season.

Shawn O’Malley, IF/OF
2015:
24 G, .262/.418/.357, .357 BABIP, .354 wOBA, 129 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR
O’Malley is a natural infielder and a good athlete who has taken to the outfield well. He’s an above-average runner with plus quickness and he has a solid game plan at the plate supported by a short swing. There’s almost no home-run power in the bat, but he can reach the gaps and take the extra-base. He’s a better hitter from the right side but makes consistent contact from each.

He profiles as an average second baseman, average in left field and third base and can manage in short stints at shortstop with arm strength showing as the main . He’s shown fringe-average in center field, too, and another step in the same direction suggests O’Malley is an ideal utility option, at least with the glove.

If O’Malley is the 25th man, and continues to show what he did a year ago with energy and sound fundamentals, the Mariners’ bench is in good shape.

Stefen Romero, OF/1B
2015: 13 G, .190/.292/.381, .214 BABIP, .298 wOBA, 90 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR
Romero, 27, has handled Triple-A pitching and on the surface has done nothing in the majors specifically suggesting any the minor-league success will translate. A pure platoon role might make a difference, however, and it’s a job Romero will get a chance to win this spring.

General manager Jerry Dipoto mentioned this winter Romero would get a shot to play some first base and win a job on the 25-man roster. The biggest question here isn’t whether or not Romero can play first base — with enough reps, I’d wager he can, at least to acceptable levels, considering he spent his college years and the first several years of his pro career playing second and third base — it’s whether or not he’ll hit.

He’s below-average in the outfield, but is a better option in the long run than Cruz and is a fringe-average to average runner, so if his bat wins him the job he’s a more ideal fit than Dae Ho Lee, Gaby Sanchez, Ed Lucas or Jesus Montero.

I’ve seen him a ton in Tacoma, and he consistently mashes lefties; .314/.340/.529 in 2015 and .419/.447/.791 in 43 ABs in 2014.

Daniel Robertson, OF
2015: 37 G, .280/.299/.307, .309 BABIP, .262 wOBA, 67 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR
Robertson, who was claimed, designated for assignment and outrighted to the minors by Seattle over the offseason, is a right-handed batter with no power, above-average speed and left-field defense (average in CF) but he works counts, gets on base and makes consistent contact.

Robertson is another energy player with a blue-collar approach to the game. The swing is very short to the ball and engineered for line drives and ground balls. He’s limited offensively and isn’t a burner but did bat .271/.333/.333 in 70 games with the Rangers in 2014 and in 37 games with the Angels a year ago posted a .280/.299/.307 triple-slash.

He’s depth for Triple-A Tacoma, but the kind of depth that gives himself a chance versus big-league pitching, albeit with a low ceiling.

Boog Powell, CF
2015: NO MLB STATS
Powell will start 2016 as Triple-A Tacoma’s regular center fielder with a chance to help the major-league club later in the season, as well as earn an everyday gig for the future. He’s a left-handed hitter with no home-run power but an above-average hit tool with a line-drive stroke. He’s an above-average runner and center-field glove. All of the above plays right into what Dipot and skipper Scott Servais want their roster to look like.

No. 5 Prospect Scouting Report: Boog Powell, CF

The upside in Powell is Adam Eaton without the power and with better contact rates, but there’s a good chance he’s simply a very solid fourth outfielder who finds his way into the lineup 80 or 90 times a year. Either way, the Mariners likely will see Powell at some point this season, even if it’s for a short period of time or in September when rosters expand.

Dario Pizzano, OF
2015: NO MLB STATS
Pizzano has hit some all the way through Double-A Jackson, posting solid on-base percentages to go with some power. He struggled to hit for average in 2014 — .244 — but his .353 OBP was strong and he bounced back to hit .308/.366/.457 in 2015.

That all sounds good until you look up and realize he’s already 24 — 25 in April — and has no real value defensively. He’s a fringe-average runner and will be tested by Triple-A pitching for the first time this season. Pizzano is a longshot, not only to make the big club out of spring training, but to see the majors at any point in 2016.

Mike Baxter, OF
2015: 34 G, .246/.348/.263, .326 BABIP, ,281 wOBA, .74 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR
Baxter,a left-handed hitter, is a 31-year-old veteran with nearly 500 MLB plate appearances scattered across six seasons, including a stint with the Chicago Cubs a year ago. He’s never hit for average with any consistency but makes enough contact and draws enough walks to be of some value — as a regular in the minors and a bench option in the big leagues.

Baxter doesn’t hit for much, power, though, and since he’s merely average in an outfield corner and doesn’t burn up the base paths, he’ll again serve as depth in the minors. The trend here for Seattle is even clear in their non-roster invitees and acquired minor leaguers; contact and/or on-base skills and/or speed and/or defensive value. Not one single acquisition lacks each of these skills, including Lee, who always has shown he can get on base in Korea and Japan. Baxter fits the same mold.

It’s worth noting not all NRIs stay with the organization. Many times players have March opt-outs that allow them to head elsewhere in search of a better opportunity. Sometimes the player doesn’t perform or isn’t healthy and the club releases the player from his minor league deal.…

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.

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CespedesThe short, easy answer to the title question is, no, they shouldn’t. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that, because, well, in a vacuum, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes are better players than those the Seattle Mariners project to use in both corner outfield spots in 2016.

Before we go too far, let’s clear some things up about such a scenario. Paying either player 5-6 years worth at $18-20 million per isn’t happening, nor should it. The Mariners, under the tutelage of new GM Jerry Dipoto, are on a mission to build sustainable success. With this kind of plan typically comes a few seasons where it’s not wise to go for broke — usually the first year or two. What’s developed this winter, however, is slower markets for both veteran outfielders, suggesting at least the plausibility of one of them accepting a short-term deal, such as a one-year, show-me deal that reinserts the player into next year’s market in hopes of landing the long-term solution.

So why not the Mariners on a one-year pact? First all, it remains unlikely either player will be forced to take a one-year deal, but for the Mariners, it blows the budget for 2016, impacting the chances of impact moves during the season should the Leonys Martins, Steve Cisheks, Ketel Martes and Chris Iannettas perform well enough to support the Big Three (Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz) all the way to legitimate contention. Such a one-year buy also could impact the club’s payroll negatively for future years, since the club prefers to view budgets as a rolling, multi-year venture, rather than simply year-to-year.

More importantly, however, signing Cespedes or Upton to a one-year deal worth $18 million or more simply isn’t worth it. Here’s why:

Let’s use Cespedes as the sample, but Upton isn’t necessarily a better or worse fit for some of the same reasons, and the player value projects eerily similar. Much of Cespedes’ defensive value is in his arm rather than covering ground, though he’s in much better shape now than he was in 2013 and 2014, with a quicker first step and even more effort into his jumps and routes. At Safeco Field, range is important, though, and I’d project the 30-year-old as an average right fielder who helps additionally with his arm. There may still be a few prime-level years left for the Cuban-born, but the true upgrade here would all be in the bat, not on the bases and not in the field.

At the plate, Cespedes’ value spiked in 2015, particularly after the trade to the New York Mets. Overall, his line-drive rate was up, his hard-hit rate was up, largely contributing to his explosion over the final few months. And while there’s no reason to assume with all certainty that he reverts back to his previous years’ rates, it’s reasonable to expect some level of a regression to the means, even considering Cespedes’ small sample in the states.

Steamer projects Cespedes as a 2.9 fWAR player in 2016 — I actually think that might be a little pessimistic, since I believe sometimes, even later in a player’s career, they can simply become better, especially in terms of finding the barrel and plate discipline. Cespedes may just be better at finding the barrel than he has been in prior years. Maybe it simply took him some times to build his own book on pitchers and the ways of Major League Baseball. In the end, I’m more optimistic on him for 2016 and would toss a 3.5 fWAR range on him.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assign Cespedes, even at Safeco Field, a value of 3.5 wins above replacement this coming season.

The Mariners are expected to run in right field with Nori Aoki, and a little bit of Nelson Cruz. It’s also likely Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez, and perhaps a utility player, makes a few appearances, too. But for now, we’ll stick to the main pair, since the periphery contributions aren’t likely to change much whether it’s Aoki/Cruz or a player like Cespedes.

Aoki is projected by Steamer as a 0.9 fWAR player, no doubt based very much on his age, 34, and the fact he got hurt and played just 93 games in 2015. It’s reasonable to expect 125+ games for the veteran, which all by itself adds value. Aoki is probably a safe bet for 1.3-1.7 fWAR in that case. We’ll split the difference and call it 1.5.

Cruz’s contribution to right field isn’t going to amount to much, as he’ll be the regular DH, but we’re probably looking at 25 games or so. Like Cespedes, Cruz’s Steamer projections are low, but since the negative value of the slugger’s defense will be suppressed greatly, a 1.6 fWAR is suggesting Cruz will be about 33 percent as valuable in 2016 and he was in 2015. That simply doesn’t happen a lot, and unless the 35-year-old falls off the planet at the plate, which is not what is called a reasonable expectation of production.

Again like Cespedes, Cruz likely is worth more than his Steamer projection; for the sake of this exercise, Cruz likely is worth about three wins above replacement. There’s a chance he’s worth even more since he was so good at the plate last year he was worth 4.8 fWAR, despite his 80 games in the field where he tore down his overall value, but we’ll stick with 3.0 fWAR for now.

His right-field portion amounts to about a half of a win, based off 25-30 games in the field.  In the end, it’s very reasonable to believe the Mariners will get about 2.0 fWAR out of Aoki/Cruz in right field in 2016. This means, signing Cespedes costs the club the salary — which likely is at least $18 million and as much as $22 million — and subsequent payroll damage, plus the surrendering of the No. 11 draft pick if you choose Upton, and flexibility the pick’s bonus pool creates for the rest of the draft.

All for about 1.5 wins above replacement. For one season.

Such a transaction is indicative of a club in a position to win it all with one more player upgrade, not an organization looking to reset and build for the long haul.

And if you want to make the argument for either player in left field rather than right, well, the same exercise will demonstrate the same marginal upgrade at the same prohibitive cost.

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