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.…

One can make the argument there are more questions surrounding the Seattle Mariners’ 25-man roster four weeks into Cactus League play than when camp opened six weeks ago.

  • We still don’t know for sure whether or not the club will carry a right-handed first-base platoon. Gaby Sanchez was released, Ed Lucas appeared to never have much of a chance and sources told Prospect Insider Saturday that the club had made a move with Jesus Montero. Montero, who is out of options, reportedly had cleaned out his locker at Peoria Sports Complex, suggesting he either was traded, claimed off waivers and headed to his new team or cleared waivers and was outrighted to the minor leagues. This leaves Dae-Ho Lee for the gig. But the club has another option; don’t carry such a player on the roster. Instead, carry a player that actually can manage his way around the bases and manage at position off of first base. You know, add value to the club without robbing it of roster flexibility and versatility. That player is Stefen Romero, even over Shawn O’Malley. Romero profiles as a bat that eventually will hit left-handed pitching, is athletic enough to develop acceptable defensive at first and while he isn’t especially good in a corner outfield spot, he’s passable in short stints.  This is the toughest roster spot to project, but after Sunday we’ll know a lot more since Lee’s opt-out decision will come by the end of business. If he opts out, Romero probably gets the gig (or O’Malley or a player acquired in trade). If Lee does not opt out it’s not a guarantee he wins a spot on the roster as he could accept a minor league assignment, but it may be a sign he’s making the club.
  • Both O’Malley and Luis Sardinas have shown the club they handle multiple positions, but judging by how each player has been used the past 10 days or so, Sardinas clearly is the favorite to make the club out of spring training and serve as the utility infielder. Sardinas, markedly more capable at shortstop than is O’Malley over the long haul. also serves as roster insurance in case second-year player Ketel Marte struggles to bring consistent value to the club as the everyday answer at short. Chris Taylor needs someone to help him fix his swing; too flat, too long, lots of wasted motion, all leading to struggles making consistent contact and trouble with even 93 mph fastballs, which are commonplace in MLB. I wrote about the Mariners’ shortstop situation here.
  • Since the original roster projection, the Mariners added Rob Brantly to the catcher mix and by ability and spring production he and Steve Clevenger are in a dead heat. Clevenger is an overwhelming favorite to be the backup to Chris Iannetta based on a more consistent bat. Brantly may actually be a slightly better defensive player overall, but scouts see him as the least likely to contribute consistently. The No. 2 catcher likely gets 60 starts or so in 2016, but the Mariners won’t necessarily need Clevenger to make all of those. Mike Zunino could make himself available this summer — in September, if not forcing his way back to the big leagues sooner. Brantly is out of options, but so is Clevenger.
  • Since Cactus League play started four weeks back, the club has seen three projected opening-day relievers fall into the ‘won’t-be-ready-for-opening-day’ category — Evan Scribner,  Ryan Cook and Charlie Furbush. Justin De Fratus was DFA’d to clear a roster spot and won’t start the year in the majors due to a loss of arm strength the club expects to return early in the year. So, Aside from Steve Cishek, Joquin Benoit, Vidal Nuno and Tony Zych, there is some uncertainty in the bullpen. So much that GM Jerry Dipoto reportedly is looking for an arm to help in the back end. It will be interesting to see whether or not Donn Roach’s ability to throw strikes earns him a spot, and if the club holds onto Mike Montgomery in a long and middle role, knowing he’s capable of starting and throwing strikes if the need arises. Furbush’s injury situation doesn’t necessarily impact Montgomery’s status, but it doesn’t hurt his chances. Nuno will start the year as the main left-on-left option. Joel Peralta may have pitched himself into a job to start the season with the injuries piling up, though I’ve been told by scouts that Casey Coleman is a viable middle-relief option in the short term, thanks to a 55-grade breaking ball. I’m not convinced, but we’ll see. Blake Parker has the best numbers — 2 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, 4 H, 8 IP — but don’t bet on the M’s standing pat here.
  • As for the starting rotation, I believe it’s set, though understandably Dipoto, Scott Servais and company will not say so publicly. Neither James Paxton nor Nate Karns has shown well in March, but Karns, clearly, is the better bet to find some level of consistency and settle in as the No. 4 or 5 starter. Paxton can be optioned to Tacoma to get right and eventually give the club another option when they need one down the road. And no, I do not believe Paxton needs to be banished to the bullpen. His inability to throw strikes consistently isn’t necessarily mitigated by shorter stints. In fact, Paxton has a history of pitching better after 20-30 pitches in terms of control and command. Limiting him to 1-2 innings seems to exacerbate his problems — control, command caused by inconsistent mechanics — not hide them. He could very well be a terrific reliever at some point, but not until his issues are addressed successfully, and if that happens, why not start him?

[the_ad_placement id=”manual1″]

 

Projected 25-Man Roster: Starting-to-shape-up-sorta-but-not-really 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 Nate Karns R/R
RP Mike Montgomery R/R
RP Donn Roach R/R
RP Vidal Nuno
L/L
RP Tony Zych
R/R
RP Joel Peralta 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 Luis Sardinas S/R
OF Franklin Gutierrez R/R
1B/OF Stefen Romero R/R

[the_ad_placement id=”manual1″]…

02242016-spring04 Prior to his decision to sign a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers, I don’t recall any pundits suggesting former Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond as a good fit for the Rangers.

I certainly didn’t expect that he’d end up with a team that already has Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Rougned Odor manning second base. On top of that, the organization has young middle infielders like Jurickson Profar and Hanser Alberto ready to burst onto the scene.

The signing of the 30-year-old was a surprise, but how the Rangers plan to utilize the career shortstop was also unexpected. The team intends to use Desmond as a left fielder and super-utility player. It’s worth noting that he’s appeared in 1607 games as a professional baseball player. Eight were at second base in eight and four in the outfield; the remaining games were at shortstop.

Normally, a shortstop is the most athletic player on the field. Therefore, Desmond should have the skill set to transition. Nevertheless, the learning curve is going to be steep for the Sarasota, Florida native.

Acquiring the former National as a super-sub may have seemingly come out of nowhere, but a team’s desire to have a Swiss Army knife type shouldn’t come as a shock.

Roster flexibility is especially crucial for American League (AL) teams, like the Rangers, who have to sacrifice a reserve spot to fill the designated hitter role. An AL club that uses a seven-man bullpen is left with just four bench players and one of them will be their backup catcher. This leaves managers little wiggle room when attempting to manipulate their bench.

That’s why having a versatile reserve or — better yet — a super-utility player is such an attractive option for ball clubs. If Desmond demonstrates that he can handle the outfield, the Rangers will have a player who can cover multiple spots in the infield and outfield. A factor that makes Desmond even more attractive is his offensive upside — tied with Troy Tulowitzki for most home runs (63) by a shortstop during the last three seasons.

After considering the Rangers move to diversify Desmond’s positional portfolio, I wanted to find players who had demonstrated that they could play multiple spots in the field and deliver some measure of value to their respective team. With that in mind, I compiled a list of players who I thought were the most versatile and productive during 2015. I first placed an emphasis on finding performers who contributed at multiple positions — the more positions, the better. Then, I ranked them by wins above replacement (WAR).

2015 Swiss Army Knives (Ranked by WAR)
Name Tm 1B 2B 3B SS LF/RF CF WAR
Brock Holt BOS 8 58 33 11 35 2 2.6
Yangervis Solarte SDP 28 19 92 0 0 0 2.2
Eduardo Escobar MIN 0 11 5 71 36 0 2.0
Chris Coghlan CHC 5 15 3 0 120 0 1.9
Danny Espinosa WSN 5 82 16 8 5 0 1.9
Marwin Gonzalez HOU 43 15 21 32 15 0 1.8
Josh Harrison PIT 0 37 72 0 27 0 1.8
Danny Valencia 2TM 5 3 55 0 37 0 1.7
Andrew Romine DET 17 13 59 27 2 0 1.6
Enrique Hernandez LAD 0 20 1 16 19 19 1.4
Jose Ramirez CLE 0 33 13 46 2 0 1.4
Brad Miller SEA 0 11 2 89 21 20 0.6
Kelly Johnson 2TM 25 28 12 1 38 0 0.3
Cliff Pennington 2TM 0 33 18 29 8 0 0.2
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/9/2016.

You’ll notice that the most recognizable super-utility player in the majors– Ben Zobrist —  isn’t on my list. Although he’s capable of playing more positions, he “only” manned the corner outfield spots and second base last season. As you can see, the players on my list were more versatile in 2015.

One tactic that AL teams can use to offset the loss of a reserve spot to the designated hitter is to utilize multiple players at the position during the span of the season. However, a few teams — the Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees — used a full-time designated hitter last season. Texas used Prince Fielder in manner last season and intend to do so again, which is another reason why the Desmond acquisition makes sense — if he can make the transition.

The Seattle Mariners are looking at a similar situation with slugger Nelson Cruz. Although Cruz will see more playing time in right field than Fielder will see at his former position — first base — the Mariners are poised to significantly reduce Cruz’s time in the field to a level far below the 80 games that he played last season.

So, what’s the Mariners plan for their bench? At this point, it’s a work in progress.

Franklin Gutierrez is set to be part of a corner outfield platoon and either Steve Clevenger or Rob Brantly will likely fill the back-up catcher spot behind Chris Iannetta. That leaves only two spots up for grabs.

The Mariners will need to have someone capable of playing shortstop and serving as a right-handed option at first base in order to spot Adam Lind from time-to-time. Whether that takes two individuals or one exceptionally versatile player has yet to be determined.

With that in mind, I decided to shed light on the positions that the team’s potential backups have played during their professional careers. The following table illustrates the total number of games that the players have spent at each position at all levels, including minor league baseball, the Arizona Fall League, and foreign leagues.

   Seattle Mariners Versatility Matrix
Player Pos C 1B 2B SS
3B
LF/RF CF
Jesus Montero 1B 432 186 0 0 0 0 0
Dae-Ho Lee 1B 0 364 0 0 0 0 0
Stefen Romero 1B/OF 0 5 162 0 30 302 0
Ed Lucas 1B 0  104 170 300 493 116 3
Efren Navarro 1B  0  1046  0  0  0  115  0
Chris Taylor SS 0 0 81 348 2 0 0
Luis Sardinas SS 0 0 87 477 40 0 0
Shawn O’Malley IF/OF 0 0 226 484 17 50 32
Daniel Robertson OF 0 0 8 0 0 553 403
Boog Powell
OF 0 0 0 0 0 81 218
Steve Clevenger C 575 122 64 0 9 0 0
Rob Brantly C 505 0 0 0 0 0 0

Seattle doesn’t have anyone as recognizable or talented as Desmond — or any of the “2015 Swiss Army knives” — to fill out their bench. The most recent Mariner to demonstrate that kind of potential made it onto the first table — Brad Miller. He’s now a Tampa Bay Ray.

Barring a trade or free agent signing, Seattle will complete their roster by selecting two players from a list of candidates that includes several young players, a few journeyman, and a player who has played solely in Japan and Korea.

Based on position experience only — not talent — players such as Stefen Romero, Luis Sardinas, Shawn O’Malley, and Ed Lucas would appear to have a better chance of earning one of those final two spots than less versatile players.

Previous position experience isn’t the only “versatility factor” that’s being considered. A player’s ability to add a new position to their repertoire could come into play too. If you’ve been watching Spring Training games, you know what I mean.

The Mariners have used Sardinas at his usual positions. Plus, he’s played center field, which is new to him. Finding a center field alternative hasn’t been mentioned much. It’s been overshadowed by the “who’s going to be the right-handed backup first baseman?” chatter.

The team certainly needs to have someone who can occasionally stand in for starter Leonys Martin. Nori Aoki is certainly an option. Nevertheless, having another choice on hand would provide manager Scott Servais with an added layer of depth that he could utilize during critical moments in a game.

Another example of players getting new — or more — experience at a position is Chris Taylor, who’s been spending time at third base. Assuming there aren’t any unforeseen circumstances, starting third baseman Kyle Seager won’t need much rest during the upcoming season. Over the last three years, he’s played more innings than any other fielder has in the majors. Nevertheless, a little less playing time in the field might actually help the 28-year-old at the plate.

Just last week, Steve Sandmeyer and Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted during the “Joe Jarzynka episode” of their podcast, that reducing Seager’s innings — not games played — might help keep his bat fresh during his usual 155-plus starts.

As far for the backup first base spot — the Mariners job most often discussed on the internet — Dave Sims and Mike Blowers of ROOT Sports mentioned during a recent broadcast that Sardinas might get some playing time at first base. All of this bodes well for a 22-year-old trying to win a roster spot, assuming that he proves he can hold his own at his new positions.

Earlier this week, Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont noted that Romero is a dark horse candidate for a roster spot. He’s primarily been an outfielder in recent years, but is now getting a long look at first base. Factors like previous offensive struggles at the major league level and the fact that he has a minor league option remaining may work against him. As Prospect Insider founder pointed out, Romero’s seemingly hot performance in Peoria doesn’t necessarily equate to success in the eyes of scouts or Mariners management.

From a versatility aspect, Romero presents a better fit for the Mariners than Jesus Montero or Dae-Ho Lee. But, the prevailing belief among observers is that Montero and Lee are the front runners for the job. Although I understand the rationale behind such a choice, it’s still tough for me to believe that the Seattle would go in that direction.

Why do I feel that way? I just don’t see how a couple of one-dimensional sluggers are a good match for the Mariners. Maybe, under previous regimes it would’ve made sense to retain big-bat potential with a limited glove. Still, I can’t fathom the current leadership opting for Montero or Lee.

Both Montero and Lee have limited profiles. They’re “bat first” types who are — at best — passable at first base and available to be a designated hitter or pinch hitter. That’s it. Neither player has proven that they can do any of those jobs at the big league level.

It’s true that the other players vying to make the roster are also unproven commodities at the plate. However, they’ve demonstrated the ability to be — at the very least — an average defender at one or more positions. The same can’t said about either Montero or Lee.

To be fair, Jason pointed out in his most recent piece “several scouts have spoken of Lee in positive tones,” while a rival official assessed Montero as “just OK.” That makes Lee sound like more palatable option. But, it’s just Spring Training and both players are still a one-dimensional.

This brings me back to my original point about the backup first base spot, which Jason refers to as “Chicko’s platoon partner.” I have a tough time envisioning the current regime selecting Montero or Lee. Perhaps, I’m way off base. But, picking one of these two guys just doesn’t add up for a team that’s going to have a near full-time designated hitter.  Then again, I never saw the Desmond deal coming.

In three weeks, we’ll better understand the level of import that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto truly places on having “layers of depth” and positional versatility on his big league roster. Regardless of which players earn the final bench spots, watching the team’s selection process unfold over the next few weeks will be both fun and informative — at least for me. I’m weird that way.…

SoMWe’re about halfway through the Cactus League schedule. The regular season begins in less than three weeks. The Seattle Mariners just got their ace, Felix Hernandez, his first official work in a spring game. The club’s position “battles” are well under way. Except position battles aren’t a real thing and spring results mean absolutely zero.

Not kidding, spring training roster “battles” are not real, because the best “performer” isn’t the one that will necessarily win the job. In actuality they’re position “decisions” by the team and the results, as seen on paper after the fact, mean absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Going 3-for-4, in and of itself, doesn’t help Stefen Romero‘s case.

What in the world am I saying?

It’s simple, and in some form I say the same thing every single March: Clubs wants to see process, not numbers in a box score. For example, if Romero goes 3-for-4 but only one of the hits was squared up on the barrel and none of the plate appearances was versus a good arm, did he really gain ground on Dae-Ho Lee, who may have gone 1-for-2 with a walk and a hard-hit fly ball, including a two-out RBI single on a 1-2 slider from a legitimate big-league arm? No, he didn’t. In this instance, Lee’s day would be considered the better one. Clubs use spring games as a way to scout their own players. When you scout players, you look far beyond the results as fans would see it. Results, for evaluators, include things never show up in the box score. Steve Sandmeyer and I discussed this in regards to Ketel Marte in Episode 22 of Sandmeyer and Churchill (click here to check that out).

For hitters

  • Good takes
    Being able to lay off tough pitches out of the zone in pitcher’s counts consistently, and be willing and able to take a pitcher’s pitch before two strikes, even if it means going from 0-1 to 0-2 or 1-1 to 1-2. Good hitters have to be able to do this regularly. Robinson Cano is terrific in this area.
  • Spoiling pitches
    Goes hand-in-hand with ‘good takes’ to help the batter get from 0-2 or 1-2, back to a count where the pitcher has little choice but to throw a pitch the batter has a better chance at handling or risk the base on balls.
  • Barrel
    When contact is made, the ability to put the barrel on the ball at a high rate. Obviously, this produces more hits than the poorly-struck variety.
  • Handling good velocity
    Some hitters can rake versus average velocity but something in their process prevents them from consistently managing satisfactorily versus plus velocity, or average velocity from a pitcher with great deception and explosiveness in his delivery (usually releivers).
  • Mechanics
    Mechanics at the plate appear to work for the hitter without any red flags that suggest a significant problem will present itself in the long run bodes very well for unproven hitters in spring training.
  • Adjustments
    From pitch to pitch, pitcher to pitcher, plate appearance to plate appearance and game to game, showing the ability to make the proper adjustments.

For Pitchers

  • Command
    Not the simple ability to throw strikes, but the ability to locate, hit spots, particularly with the fastball. It all starts here, for even proven aces.
  • Progressing arm strength
    March is the time pitchers are getting their arms in shape for the regular season. At this point in spring games, clubs wants to start seeing typical velocity for those not on an injury program (Charlie Furbush, for instance), as well as more endurance. For relievers, showing well on back-to-back days late in March can be a big indicator.
  • Feel for secondary pitches
    Along with command, this is the area where James Paxton and Nate Karns will win or lose the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Now is about the time Scott Servais and Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. want to see more consistent offspeed stuff. Yes, the air in Arizona can negatively impact the breaking ball, but clubs still can scout the feel for them. Changeups, perhaps the most “feel” pitch of the bunch, come and go throughout the season, but a starter showing a consistent feel for it now may have a leg up on his competition.
  • Mechanics
    If mechanics are out of whack, the short stints on the mound up to this point in March can be random and not trustworthy. Bad mechanics, which is a relative term depending on every pitcher, can produce good results for three or four innings or even consecutive short-stint outings, but suggest issues for the long haul.

Having said all that, here are my thoughts on what’s transpired to this point, just ahead of my mid-spring 25-man roster projection:

  • Neither Karns nor Paxton have separated themselves since Cactus League play started, and likely will not over the next two-plus weeks, barring injury to one of them. If you’re attempting to handicap the No. 5 spot with your friends, bet on Karns. Jerry Dipoto didn’t trade pre-arbs Brad Miller and Danny Farquhar to acquire a starting pitcher that won’t start the season in the majors this season. Clearly there’s a belief in Karns that doesn’t appear to be there in Paxton, and understandably so. Nothing short of injury in 25 or so innings during spring training is changing any of that.
  • While I love the versatility and flexibility of Shawn O’Malley (playable at 2B, 3B, LF, CF, RF, and at SS in short stints), Luis Sardinas make a lot more sense in one way, and about as much sense as O’Malley in all others. He’s a shortstop by trade and is better there than O’Malley, good enough to play there regularly. As much as I like Marte, there’s more than a reasonable chance he struggles enough to warrant a mix at the position, if not an entirely new starter. Sardinas can be that guy, O’Malley cannot, and because he’s never done it at the plate for more than a few weeks, neither can Chris Taylor. If you’re handicapping this one, bet on Sardinas, particularly if the club goes with Romero as the first-base platoon option, since his ability to at least manage in left and right field kills some of the value O’Malley’s defensive versatility brings.
  • With as many as two bullpen jobs up for grabs — Ryan Cook now is on the 60-day disabled list and Evan Scribner likely starts the season on the 15-day DL having not made a single appearance this month — names such as Cody Martin have a more legitimate shot now than three weeks ago. Joel Peralta may be in the lead for one of those four gigs. Only Steve Cishek, Vidal Nuno, Joaquin Benoit, Furbush if healthy and Tony Zych appear to be locks. Want a darkhorse? Donn Roach, who was signed to a minor league deal over the winter and presumed to be about No. 8 or 9 on the rotation depth chart. If Furbush starts the season on the shelf, David Rollins probably starts the year in the big-league bullpen, despite the chance that southpaw Mike Montgomery begins the year as a long man — he’s out of options and being used as a reliever this month.
  • Dae-Ho Lee has been the most impressive hitter among the options for this ridiculous spot on the roster we’ll call ‘Chicko’s platoon partner.’ Yes, Romero is 12-for-25 with just three whiffs, and he makes more sense than Lee because he’s an average runner and can field a ground ball on either side of the infield and a track a fly ball in the outfield. Strictly at the plate, however, several scouts have spoken of Lee in positive tones. “The body is bad, he’s functional at first, with no reach [range) to speak of, but he’s showing like a capable bat,” said one special assistant. “We’ll see [in the long run] but he’s disciplined enough to make it work.” Lee is 6-for-21 with two extra-base hits, two strikeouts and two walks, including 2-for-3 versus lefties, with a home run. Yes, super small sample, but scouts are seeing useful plate skills, despite a long swing. If the Mariners for the best offensive option, Lee leads this race.” Montero has been just OK, according to one rival official. Going back to last season, Montero has focused on using the whole field more, perhaps sacrificing a little of the home run pop to do so. It worked in Triple-A. He’s out of options, a status that plays at least a small factor in the club’s decision. Ed Lucas probably doesn’t have much of a chance here.
  • Tyler O’Neill and Drew Jackson aren’t out of place. Yes, they are in camp for the experience of hanging around the big leaguers. But is it not telling that they are there and getting into a game or two here and there and both Alex Jackson — everyone’s No. 1 prospect in the organization (except mine) — and D.J. Peterson are not? Neither have any chance at all of seeing the majors in 2016, but are being rewarded for their effort and process and giving the big club’s staff a chance to see them work.
  • Rob Brantly, catcher. The Mariners picked up Brantly off waivers this past week. He has big-league experience (112 games, 392 plate appearances, 891 innings behind the plate) and has solid plate skills, but is limited offensively due to fringy bat speed and a swing engineered for anything but extra bases. He’s basically John Baker-ish, which isn’t a bad thing. He’s out of options, though, so he’d have to clear waivers before being assigned to Triple-A Tacoma. As of today, Steve Baron and Steven Lerud project as the Rainiers catchers. Brantly, a left-handed batter like Lerud and Steve Clevenger, isn’t likely to challenge for the No. 2 gig behind starter Chris Iannetta, but he’ll be given some chances to change that.

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.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.…

TrumboDespite the fact many quality free agents are still available, the collection of players scheduled to arrive in Peoria, Arizona in a matter of days will be relatively unchanged. Unless of course, general manager Jerry Dipoto has another trick up his sleeve, but it seems unlikely most clubs focused on arbitration cases at the moment. As it stands, the club will begin the year with at least one fresh face at first base.

Gone is Logan Morrison, the Opening Day first baseman from a year ago. Also departed is Mark Trumbo, the mid-season acquisition that did little to aid an ailing offense. Instead, the Mariners will count on a different former 30 home run hitter, Adam Lind, and a yet-to-be-determined platoon partner. Former top prospect Jesus Montero and recent Korean import Dae-Ho Lee are expected to lead the competition for the right-handed portion of that platoon.

Though Lind may be unspectacular, he’s a solid contributor who offers a slightly more athletic skill set and superior plate discipline skills compared to what had existed. The trio of low-level minor leaguers dealt was not nothing, but none are expected to be major league contributors in the near future. It’s fair to say that some disappointment should be associated with the fact we don’t get to see what Trumbo could do over the course of a full season.

This isn’t because the cost of acquiring him included the only thing resembling a major league catcher in the organization last year. It’s because the idea of Trumbo hitting behind Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager makes for a highly formidable middle of the order. At least on paper.

Instead, and as a means of create a more athletic and flexible roster, Tumbo was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles along with reliever C.J. Riefenhauser in exchange for back-up catcher Steve Clevenger. Equally importantly, approximately $9 million in salary was relieved in the deal. Much of that freed cash will go towards Lind’s contract.

All this leads to the question: are the Mariners better off without Trumbo?

The short answer would be yes, considering Dipoto’s goal in the deal was to gain roster and payroll flexibility. That much he accomplished. But it isn’t fair to judge a deal without considering the other moves it allowed or didn’t allow the club to make; or a few months after the deal took place with a single game yet to take place. But we’re not doing that, exactly.

First, let’s take a look at what Trumbo and Lind produced in 2015, since they are the primary components in this discussion.

  2015 Statistics
Name PA  HR RBI
BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Adam Lind 572 20 87 11.5% 17.5% .183 .309 .277 .360 .460 119 2.2
Mark Trumbo 545 22 64 6.6% 24.2% .187 .313 .262 .310 .449 108 1.1

From the power point of view, the pair were actually similar hitters in 2015 as their home run, ISO, and slugging percentage marks were in the same ballpark. What separates the two, besides Lind being a slightly better defensive first baseman, are the plate discipline numbers. Simply, Lind walks more and strikes out less. Again, those were characteristic desired by Dipoto, and add value to what the Mariners are collectively trying to do.

Lind did hit for a higher batting average, but the rate at which he drew walks gives him a considerable edge over Trumbo in the on base department. Five percent doesn’t seem like a big number, but over 400-to-500 plate appearances, that’s 20-to-25 times that the left-hander was able to get on base instead of making an out. Or in Trumbo’s case, striking out. Adding up marginal improvements like this one can make a big difference over the course of a season.

Posting a 108 wRC+, Trumbo was barely better than a league average first baseman with the bat. Lind’s 119 mark isn’t earth-shattering, but does play a role in his overall production as a league average player — this with a considerable platoon split, which we will touch on shortly.

Second, let’s look ahead at what both hitters project to produce in 2016 using the Steamer projections provided by FanGraphs.

  2016 Statistics
Name PA  HR RBI
BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Adam Lind 483 15 59 10.0% 17.8% .162 .302 .268 .342 .431 114 1.1
Mark Trumbo 544 25 73 7.4% 24.9% .203 .291 .252 .307 .455 104 0.6

Trumbo is projected for a comparable offensive year in 2016, his first in Camden Yards, to his 2015. Lind on the other hand is projected for some regression. Lind will turn 33 next summer and his prime years are likely behind him, but there’s a case to be made that his 2016 numbers could more closer resemble his 2015 performance than that projection. Now we can bring in the matter of that platoon split.

In 2015 Lind saw left-handed pitching in just under 21 percent of his plate appearances. For his career he owns a 54 wRC+ and a 25.4 percent strikeout rate against lefties. It isn’t always as simple as protecting him completely from left-handers, but his overall numbers would likely look better if he only faced them 12 to 15 percent of the time instead. Of note: all 20 of Lind’s 2015 home runs came against right-handed pitching and against left-handed pitching he struck out more often than he picked up a hit.

Lind owns a career 130 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. This is where most of his value comes from. Who he will be platooned with has yet to be determined. Early speculation is that Montero will be his other, probably not better, half.

I’m in favor of giving the slugger a chance provided he performs in Spring Training and the gains made last year don’t appear to be lost. The former top prospect is out of options and needs a legitimate shot against major league pitching so the organization can figure out if he’s even worth discussing anymore. Dipoto has said that Montero will have every chance to crack the roster. At this point, if he can handle his half of a platoon job well enough and not be a total liability on defense, he offers some value.

Let’s see what a potential Lind/Montero platoon could look like based on the Steamer projections.

  2016 Statistics
Name PA  HR RBI
BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Adam Lind 483 15 59 10.0% 17.8% .162 .302 .268 .342 .431 114 1.1
Jesus Montero 207 7 26 5.6% 21.1% .169 .309 .268 .310 .437 107 0.3

Combined, the pair project to be worth about 1.4 fWAR, which would would be below average for a single position player. Getting 22 home runs out of first base isn’t terrible and the position should be a source for some power by looking at the isolated power and slugging percentage numbers.

Montero’s platoon split is less significant than Lind’s — a career 115 wRC+ against left-handed pitching and a career 77 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. Combining that 115 mark against the left side with Lind’s career 130 mark against the right side could make for a solid player from an offensive standpoint. Of course it’s not as simple as combining those two numbers, but they do provide some framework to estimate with as they are career marks and not career-bests.

If Lind and Montero are adequately protected from same-handed pitching they will be positioned to succeed. By fWar the platoon projects to be twice as valuable as Trumbo in 2016 and should get on base plenty more. There is the problem of having two one-dimensional players on an otherwise flexible roster, but we will see how that shakes out in the spring.

Stefen Romero has also had his name tossed in the mix as a candidate and offers the flexibility of playing all three outfield positions as well. In 214 career plate appearances though, he owns a paltry 54 wRC+ and has yet to prove he can consistently hit major league pitching. This is a significant roadblock for him.

Gaby Sanchez‘ name is worth a mention as he’ll be in the mix for a role. But over parts of seven major league seasons he has a pedestrian .254/.332/.413 slash line and probably doesn’t give anything that Montero doesn’t.

Lee is the real dark house since as he’s a relative unknown right now. He could adjust well to the North American game or require several months in the minors. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill further details Lee and what he could bring to an MLB roster. What we know with some certainty is that he doesn’t provide any value in the field or on the bases. For him it’s the bat or bust.

The Mariners are subtracting a potential 30 home run hitter from the lineup, but in 2015, Lind actually out-slugged Trumbo by 11 points — a testament to his more well-rounded skill set at the plate. There’s even a possibility that Lind is more valuable than Trumbo by himself solely as a platoon hitter. If his mate can produce at or above a league average level then the potential for improvement at the position only increases.

As Jason discussed, there’s legitimate concern for having a truly one-dimensional player — be it Montero, Lee, or another player — but that’s a conversation for a different day.

Overall, it would appear that, indeed, the Mariners are better off without Trumbo, and we didn’t even mention any value that his return, Steve Clevenger, could bring as a solid back-up catcher. The star potential may not be there quite as it would be with Trumbo, but Seattle has increased their certainty at a position that has been anything but in recent years.…

Romero
New Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has repeatedly discussed adding “layers of depth” to his organization roster since taking over the club’s baseball operations four months ago. Accordingly, he’s added 17 new players to the club’s 40-man roster and extended Spring Training invites to over a dozen non-roster players.

Despite Dipoto’s hectic pace, he didn’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater. The 47-year-old retained 23 players from the Jack Zduriencik era for good reason; his best players were already with the team when he became general manager. Take a look.

Three Zduriencik holdovers intrigue me more than the rest – Jesus Montero, Chris Taylor, and Stefen Romero. At some point during their respective careers with the organization, each player was poised to contribute at the major league level. Now, they’re facing career uncertainty.

Jesus Montero – first base/designated hitter
Since arriving from the New York Yankees in exchange for starting pitcher Michael Pineda, the 26-year-old has been an enigma. After posting respectable numbers during his rookie season in 2012, he’s suffered many self-induced setbacks.

Following his first year in the Emerald City, Montero regressed on the field, suffered a knee injury, earned a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, arrived to Spring Training out of shape, and was involved in a confrontation with a roving scout during a rehab assignment. The former highly touted prospect’s outlook with the ball club was no longer bright.

With so much uncertainty surrounding his future, Montero transformed himself with the help and support of the Mariners organization. He arrived to 2015 Spring Training with a new attitude and in great physical shape. The new-look Jesus Montero produced an impressive .355/.398/.569 slash and 18 home runs during 98 games with Tacoma, rekindling the notion that he still might be able to contribute as a big leaguer.

Entering Spring Training this year, Montero finds himself vying to be the Mariners’ right-handed complement to starting first baseman Adam Lind. When referring to the former catcher in December, Dipoto told MLB Radio in that the team would to give the slugger a chance to “win at bats at first base and DH.”

Barring injury or trade, Montero doesn’t appear to be a fit with Seattle because he doesn’t play another position on the field. That’s a challenge for a team that’s likely to carry only four bench players. Two of those spots will be taken by Franklin Gutierrez and the backup catcher. That leaves room for an infielder who can play shortstop and someone who can play first base and preferably another position. For those wondering, Montero doesn’t catch anymore.

To compound matters, the former Yankee doesn’t have any remaining minor league options. Therefore, he has to make the Mariners’ Opening Day roster or clear waivers before returning to Tacoma. It’s unlikely that he’d get through waivers without another team claiming him. The only other alternative would be to trade the slugger, as the Mariners did with pitcher Erasmo Ramirez when he was out of options and not going to make the team last March.

Chris Taylor – shortstop/second base
The 25-year-old performed well enough during his 2014 debut with Seattle to force a starting shortstop competition with Brad Miller during Spring Training last year. Unfortunately, the contest ended prematurely when the former fifth-round draft pick suffered a broken bone in his wrist after just nine Cactus League games.

When Taylor was ready to return to game action just a month later, he started with Tacoma. The right-handed hitter produced at a torrid pace until he joined Seattle in early May. The former Virginia Cavalier started 19 games with the club during the initial stages of the “Brad Miller super-utility player” science project, but he struggled at the plate with a paltry .159/.221/.206 slash and returned to the minors after just four weeks with the Mariners.

Despite the Seattle setback, Taylor responded well with a .300/.391/.429 slash during 396 plate appearances as a Rainier. The right-handed batter has hit at every minor league stop and has proven that he possesses average-or-better defensive skills. Despite his superb minor league performance, Taylor is no longer the first choice to succeed the since-traded Miller as the Mariners’ starting shortstop.

In late-July, the Mariners promoted shortstop prospect Ketel Marte to the majors. The youngster thoroughly impressed team observers with his composure at the plate and his better-than-expected defensive play during the last third of the season. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the 22-year-old appears to have the inside track to the starting shortstop job.

With Marte seemingly entrenched at shortstop and Robinson Cano expected to play second base for a few more seasons, the likelihood of Taylor getting an opportunity to start for Seattle is diminishing. Now, Taylor is left vying with Luis Sardinas, Shawn O’Malley, and several non-roster invites for the utility infielder spot on the roster. That’s a sharp decline for a player who was in the hunt for a starting role just 11 months ago.

Stefen Romero – corner outfield/first base
The former Oregon State Beaver earned a spot on Seattle’s 2014 Opening Day roster, but his bat didn’t respond well to inconsistent playing time. He slashed .196/.236/.324 during 159 plate appearances and was eventually demoted in June. Since then, Romero hasn’t received another significant chance with the Mariners, except for being a September call-up for two consecutive years.

[pullquote]We’ve talked about Stefen Romero as an internal candidate for a role on our club. That could include some first base to take the load off Adam and it could also benefit from having a sixth outfielder who’s capable of a number of spots. — Jerry Dipoto[/pullquote]

Although Romero became an afterthought for the former regime, Dipoto is on record suggesting that the 27-year-old will get a look at being the platoon relief for Lind. That’s a big step for a player with just three professional starts at first base. Assuming that he can handle the position, Romero offers a versatile, right-handed alternative who can capably play both corner outfield spots, and fill in at second and third base in an emergency.

What’s next?
If they can’t win a spot on the 25-man roster, Taylor and Romero have a minor league option remaining and can serve as “layers of depth” at Tacoma. For Montero, his course is different and hinges on the club’s philosophy towards bench players.

If the Mariners are willing to carry a one-position backup to cover first base, he has a chance of making the ball club. Otherwise, barring unforeseen circumstances, his days with Seattle are dwindling.

Assuming that Montero doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he still has value as a trade chip. Granted, the return wouldn’t be as nearly as impressive as a young Michael Pineda. Nevertheless, new management can’t undo past transactions; only move on and make the club better.

Finally
Witnessing how the expectations for Montero, Taylor, and Romero spiraled downward after they reached “the show” is a stark reminder that getting to the big leagues and then actually succeeding is a formidable challenge.

Whether these players, and others, would’ve enjoyed more success with a different management team or another organization is irrelevant at this point. For me, the only topic that’s worth discussing is whether Montero, Taylor, and Romero can succeed in the majors after struggling during their earlier auditions. That’s why I’ll be keeping a close eye on this trio’s progress in Peoria.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stefen Romero1At this time last season Stefen Romero found himself as a regular in the Seattle Mariners lineup. In a similarly timed late-May weekend series against the Houston Astros in 2014, he started all four games at designated hitter, picking up two singles and three walks in 16 plate appearances. Not a terrible performance, but perhaps indicative of how the season would end up going for him: not enough performance with the bat.

Prior to cracking the M’s Opening Day roster out of Spring Training last year, Romero’s bat was described as major league ready. The 26-year-old posted a .277/.331/.448 slash line in 411 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2013, his only action above Double-A. At the conclusion of that season the right-hander had amassed approximately 1500 minor league plate appearances so it’s fair to suggest that he was very close to being ready for the show, if not already so.

As we all have seen, Triple-A performance doesn’t always translate to MLB performance. Romero produced a dismal .192/.234/.299 slash line with a 51 wRC+ in 190 plate appearances at the major league level in 2014. The right-hander was clearly in over his head but wasn’t sent down to Triple-A until the end of June. This was largely because the Mariners simply didn’t have anyone else, sans Endy Chavez, to employ in right field with Michael Saunders on the disabled list.

Romero would be re-called for another stint but sent back down after Seattle acquired Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the trade deadline.

So far in 2015 the story hasn’t been negative for Romero, who started the season with the Tacoma Rainiers and has stayed there to this point. But it hasn’t exactly stood out, either.

The right-hander played in 36 games and had 163 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2014. Entering play on Saturday, Romero has played in 37 games, collecting 164 plate appearances. There are similarly sized samples that we can compare, and here is a look at the right-hander’s performance over those periods.

Stefen Romero 2015 TripleA

The positive here is that Romero has managed to increase his walk rate slightly. The downside is that his entire slash line has taken a major hit. The isolated power and slugging percentage numbers are down almost entirely because he’s hit a third fewer home runs in 2015 — he’s hit one more double this year compared to last and an equal number of triples.

Sure, the sample size is far too small to make a judgment about Romero’s 2015 season and future, but it would be far more encouraging to see him equal or better the numbers he was posting in Triple-A last season. So far he’s merely been good, and being good at Triple-A isn’t going to earn you a spot on the big league roster, particularly when there are far more options to select from.

This is not to be overly critical of Romero. At 26 he’s considered younger as opposed to young, and after a dismal first big league season the prospect tag has more or less disappeared — he eclipsed the 130 plate appearance plateau in 2014, using up his rookie status as well.

There are countless examples of late bloomers, however, and Romero could well have major league success in his future if he is given the opportunity. The problem is finding him that opportunity.

Between Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, Dustin Ackley, Willie Bloomquist, Rickie Weeks and Nelson Cruz there aren’t many outfield at bats available at the moment. Factor in that Brad Miller is starting his transition to the outfield and Austin Jackson nearing a return and there’s simply no room.

Barring a sequence of injuries, Romero’s quest for a return to the big leagues this year is simple: force the Mariners hand with performance. So far he hasn’t done that yet. There’s also too many guaranteed contracts in the way for Seattle to simply make a change for the sake of change.

Projecting a role for Romero on the 2016 club is probably as simple as assuming there won’t be one, though that may not be the case. Weeks, Jackson and Bloomquist are all free agents after this season and it could be the end of the line for Ackley, too. That leaves Cruz, who at most is a part-time outfielder, the platoon of Smith and Ruggiano and whatever becomes of Miller. There definitely could be room for another outfielder.

An interesting note regarding Romero is that this past week on Tuesday he made his first career start at first base. He’s primarily played the corner outfield spots but does have some experience at third base to his credit. Seattle has Logan Morrison under club control for 2016 before he’ll be eligible for free agency and realistically, Romero will have to find a way to provide more power than his skill set currently holds to make it as an average major league first baseman.

One scenario for Romero is that he finds himself with a different organization for next season, perhaps as an added piece in a significant trade for a premium bat or starting pitcher. At the end of the day, Romero has the tools to potentially become a fringy major leaguer who lives above replacement level. It’s just a matter of whether or not he will be able to do it with the Mariners or somewhere else.

There’s no reason for the Mariners to even think about giving up on Romero in 2015 seeing as he is playing quite well and offers depth with some major league experience. And as the usual, annoying caveat, it’s still only May. Talk to me in July and we’ll reassess Romero’s production and role in the organization. Right now, there isn’t enough reason to be concerned.

Romero hasn’t played well enough to earn a spot in the majors, but he hasn’t been struggling at Triple-A either. So for now and the foreseeable future, he’ll stay in Tacoma.…

Endy ChavezAs the Seattle Mariners complete their annual Fan Fest event, Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports that the club has brought back veteran outfielder Endy Chavez on a minor league deal. He will receive an invite to Spring Training in March. Dutton also reports that a minor league deal with Franklin Gutierrez is nearing completion.

Chavez, 37 in February, signed a minor league contract with the Mariners in each of the past two seasons. Last year he was re-called at the end of May and would appear in 80 games. The left-hander posted a .276/.317/.371 slash line with a 97 wRC+ in 258 plate appearances. Chavez primarily played right field and saw plenty of time hitting at the top of the lineup in the absence of Michael Saunders.

Although he was almost exactly replacement level (-0.1 fWAR) in 2014, Chavez did chip in offensively here and there. Manager Lloyd McLendon praised the outfielder often and described him as, “a very valuable player” and a pro.

For all the intangibles Chavez brought to the clubhouse, he didn’t really add tangible value on the field. He did hit well at home with a 112 wRC+ and was a very good pinch hitter when called upon. If anything, he exceeded expectations on the offensive side of things. But he was below average in the field and on the base paths.

Entering his age-37 season it isn’t a surprise to see the veteran having to settle for a minor league deal again. Longevity is certainly an asset and Chavez has managed to forge a 14-year major league career as a part-time outfielder. But as his speed and defensive skills declined, he offered little help to clubs.

Entering 2015, should he surface with the Mariners at some point, he will probably assume a No. 5 outfielder role. Currently the club has Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson slated to play left and center field respectively. Newcomers Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano are expected to platoon in right field. The bench will likely feature James Jones as a pinch-runner extraordinaire and spot starter.

There’s already five outfielders on the roster without considering Stefen Romero who spent much of 2014 on the big league club.

Like Chavez, the Mariners had signed Gutierrez to a minor league deal last spring. Unfortunately the outfielder suffered a relapse of the stomach problems that ailed him previously and he shut himself down for the entire season. It was reported back in September that Seattle might have interest in bringing him back into the organization for another season.

Gutierrez will turn just 32 in February and made 10 appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League in December. Dutton mentions that returning to the Mariners would be the right-hander’s preference as he attempts a comeback to the bigs. Gutierrez would likely start the year at Triple-A to test his body and see how he is able to perform.

Gutierrez came to Seattle in a notable multi-player trade with the New York Mets and Cleveland Indians prior to the 2009 season. He would go on to have a breakout season and ink a four-year, $20.2 million extension.

When healthy, Gutierrez was one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball. His last appearance in the majors was 2013 when he played in 41 games for the Mariners. He posted a .248/.273/.503 slash line with an unprecedented 10 home runs. The former Gold Glove Award showed some encouraging signs in between a myriad of injuries. But ultimately, health issues stalled what turned into a very respectable career.

Neither Chavez or Guiterrez, should his signing become official, should be expected to make the Opening Day roster barring an injury to one of the regular outfielders. But both could serve as essential depth at Tacoma and as veterans should be able to fill in if required.

These moves aren’t particularly shiny, but a stash of depth in the upper minors is essential to success throughout the season. Seattle knows both of these players well and familiarity between the player and organization likely factored into the decision of Chavez and pending decision of Gutierrez.

The M’s know what they’re getting with Chavez and they’ve seen Gutierrez at his best and at his worst. All Seattle is hoping for is something in the middle.…

Blue Jays Mariners BaseballThe Seattle Mariners fell tantalizingly short of making the 2014 postseason by just one game, which has led to high 2015 expectations by many in the national media and within the Mariners’ fan base. Many pundits and fans have hailed that the addition of slugger Nelson Cruz as the move that will get Seattle over the hump and into the postseason for the first time since 2001, while others believe that the team still needs one more bat to ensure contention.

While Cruz will certainly help Seattle improve and adding another slugger is a need, the Mariners need to improve at numerous positions in 2015. Otherwise, they’ll be no better than a fringe contender.

Reasons for optimism
It’s easy to see why there’s a positive outlook by so many when you look at the Mariners’ standing amongst American League (AL) teams that had 85 or more wins. Seattle was sixth overall in the AL for team-total wins above replacement (WAR) only trailing the five teams that made the postseason. That’s great and can be attributed to the team’s strong pitching staff, outstanding performance by Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, and value delivered by the Brad Miller/Chris Taylor platoon at shortstop.

WAR for 85+ Win AL Teams
Team WAR
Wins
Los Angeles Angels (LAA) 46.8
98
Baltimore Orioles (BAL) 46.8 96
Oakland Athletics (OAK) 45.6 88
Detroit Tigers (DET) 41.5 90
Kansas City Royals (KCR) 40.5
89
Seattle Mariners (SEA) 39.5
87
Cleveland Indians (CLE)
38.2
85

Projecting Opening Day lineup
If no more significant moves are made and barring injury, it’s very plausible that Seattle’s 2015 Opening Day lineup could be very similar to the starting lineup for the last game of the 2014 season. The team will definitely have new faces at designated hitter (DH) and in right field (RH). Other than shortstop where Miller could start in place of Taylor, everyone else may be the same. Does anyone believe that changing those two faces will make Seattle a serious contender?

Mariners starting lineup on last day of 2014 season
CF Austin Jackson
LF Dustin Ackley
2B Robinson Cano
DH Kendrys Morales/Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
1B Logan Morrison
RF Michael Saunders/Justin Ruggiano
C Mike Zunino
SS Chris Taylor (Brad Miller could replace him)
SP Felix Hernandez

So, where does this team need to improve? Looking at a team’s WAR, by position, helps illuminate areas requiring improvement. In this article, WAR refers to the base-reference.com computation of a player’s value. The position value illustrated below incorporates every player who played that particular position during the 2014 season. The players’ contributions are pro-rated by the plate appearances (PA) they had while playing that position. For example, second base is calculated by including the values of Cano (630 PA), Willie Bloomquist (24), Nick Franklin (19), and Miller (15) who all played the position in 2014. Obviously, Cano’s value drive the positional value at second base.  But, there are other positions such as first base, shortstop, and the outfield positions that had multiple players with significant playing time.

Team WAR Value by Position (American League)
RNK SP RP
C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF OF DH
1 DET 16.5
CLE 8.2
CLE 5.5
DET 4.9
SEA 6.1 TEX 7.4
LAA 3.8
KCR 6.5
LAA 7.6
OAK 4.6
LAA 14.1
DET 4.9
2 SEA 13.8
KCR 7.7
OAK 4.0
BAL 4.1
HOU 6.1
OAK 6.7
BAL 3.7
BAL 5.2
BAL 5.0
LAA 4.5
KCR 13.7 BAL 3.9
3 TBR 13.2
SEA 7.5
KCR 2.7
TOR 3.6
BOS 5.5
SEA 5.6
TOR 3.0
CLE 4.2
CHW 5.0
TOR 4.2
BAL 13.1
BOS 3.0
4 CLE 12.4
OAK 6.5
LAA 2.6
CHW 3.3
DET 5.4
MIN 3.9
CHW 3.0
NYY 3.7
TBR 4.8
BOS 3.0
OAK 10.2
TOR 2.7
5 KCR 12.3
NYY 6.0
CHW 2.5
BOS 3.0
MIN 5.3
BAL 3.5
CLE 2.6
DET 3.4
KCR 4.6
BAL 2.9
TBR 9.5
HOU 1.9
6 HOU 11.8
BAL 5.6
NYY 2.5
LAA 2.7
LAA 5.3
TBR 3.3
SEA 2.6
OAK 3.3
TEX 4.2
HOU 2.8
TOR 9.2
OAK 1.6
7
OAK 11.4
DET 5.3
HOU 2.4
OAK 1.8
TBR 2.6
NYY 3.3
KCR 2.4
TOR 3.3
NYY 3.8
KCR 2.6
NYY 8.0
LAA 1.4
8 LAA 10.9
BOS 4.8
MIN 2.0
NYY 1.6
NYY 1.9
TOR 2.0
MIN 2.1
TBR 2.8
MIN 3.2
TBR 1.9
BOS 7.4
TBR 1.3
9 TOR 10.7
TBR 4.3
BAL 1.8
TBR 1.5
TOR 1.6
CHW 1.6
HOU 1.8
LAA 2.0
CLE 3.1
DET 1.4
DET 7.0
MIN 0.8
10 CHW 9.8
MIN 4.1
TEX 1.6
CLE 1.0
BAL 1.1
CLE 1.6
OAK 1.2
BOS 2.0
HOU 2.8
SEA 1.1
HOU 6.4
CHW 0.8
11 NYY 8.8
TEX 3.7
DET 1.4
MIN 1.0
KCR 1.0
LAA 0.3
TEX 1.1
SEA 1.5
BOS 2.3
NYY 0.5
CLE 6.3
TEX 0.3
12 BAL 8.8
TOR 3.4
TOR 1.4
KCR 0.6
CLE 1.0
KCR 0.3
BOS 0.6
HOU 0.8
OAK 2.3
TEX 0.5
TEX 4.6
NYY -0.1
13 MIN 4.1
DET 2.3
SEA 0.7
SEA 0.3
OAK 0.5
BOS -0.6
TBR 0.6
TEX -0.1
DET 2.2
MIN -0.4
CHW 4.2
CLE -0.1
14
TEX 1.7
CHW 1.5
BOS 0.6
TEX -0.6
CHW 0.5
HOU -1.2
DET -0.1
CHW -0.1
TOR 1.7
CHW -0.7
SEA 3.0
SEA -0.2
15
BOS 0.8
HOU -2.4
TBR -1.1
HOU -1.3
TEX 0.5
DET -1.4
NYY -0.1
MIN -0.3
SEA 0.4
CLE -1.0
MIN 2.5
KCR -0.4
Avg 9.8 4.6 2.0 1.8 3.0 2.4 1.9 2.5 3.5 1.9 7.9 1.5

Where does Seattle need help?
The Mariners were below the AL average at six out of nine non-pitching positions. In some cases, they were among the worst in the league. Does that mean that the Mariners need to make sweeping changes? No. But, Seattle will need to improve considerably to be a serious contender for the AL West title. Take a look at each position to see where there are opportunities to improve internally and where there is help needed from outside the organization.

Catcher
Seattle is content with going forward with Mike Zunino, who had the majority of plate appearances ((472) for the catcher position. Although his value was below league average, it’s important to note that the 23-year-old has only played in 279 major and minor league games since graduating from the University of Florida in 2012. The Mariners’ belief in their young receiver is well placed; Zunino struggled at the plate in 2014 while demonstrating impressive right-handed power and is a superb receiver. It’s realistic to expect that he will continue to add more value to the position in 2015.

Zunino shared the position with John Buck, Humberto Quintero, and Jesus Sucre who provided minimal value to the position; the three backups provided a replacement level value of .2 WAR, with all of that coming from Sucre. Adding a better backup would help improve the position’s value, reduce risk if Zunino were to miss prolonged time due to injury, and ensure that the starting catcher doesn’t get worn down during the season.

First base
Logan Morrison provided the most value (1.4 WAR) of all Mariner first basemen in 2014. Actually, he’s the only Mariner first baseman who had a positive value at the position. Once he supplanted Justin Smoak at first base, “Lo-Mo” posted an impressive .284/.341/.448 triple slash in the second half of the season. If he can stay healthy, it’s reasonable to assume that the position’s value will increase in 2015. Staying on the field has been a problem for Morrison during his five-year career; the most games he’s played were 123 in 2011. So, having a competent backup is a must.

Left field
Only the Minnesota Twin’s outfield ranked worse that the Mariners’ in 2014. In left field, Dustin Ackley provided near-starter 1.9 WAR after a strong second half delivering a .783 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Despite his second half resurgence, Ackley’s .212/.255/.298 season record against left-hand pitching demonstrates that more help is needed.

Center field
After trading for center fielder Austin Jackson at the July 31st trading deadline, the Mariners had to be disappointed in his offensive performance during the postseason push. In Jackson’s defense, his .1 WAR for August and September was only a small part of Seattle’s lack of value in center field. James Jones and Abraham Almonte patrolled center field for 111 games and delivered a combined 0.0 WAR. Improvement in center field will hinge on Austin’s ability to bounce back although it should be noted that his 2014 WAR with the Detroit Tigers was a substitute level 1.7.

Right field
In right field, the Mariner who provided the most value was Michael Saunders, who was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for J. A. Happ. His 2.4 WAR value easily exceeded than the combined value of Endy Chavez and Stefen Romero (-1.1) who had a combined 281 plate appearances compared to Saunders’ (220) in right field. The addition of Justin Ruggiano is a positive step. But, it’s unlikely that his contributions will significantly improve outfield value unless he’s used in a platoon role. . Improving right field is an incomplete project for General Manage Jack Zduriencik.

Designated hitter
Adding Cruz instantly makes DH better. Even if he provides half of his 2014 value in 2015, he’ll be significantly better than the every 2014 Mariners’ DH combined.

Holding strong in previous areas of strength
Areas of strength in 2014 are not necessarily guaranteed to repeat in 2015. Barring injury, Cano and Seager should be safe to deliver excellence again. Also, shortstop should be better than last year assuming that the young tandem of Miller or Taylor continues to improve. The bullpen is in good shape too because most of their best arms are young. On the other hand, the young arms of the team’s starting rotation could add risk.

Starting pitching
In some circles, there’s a perception that Seattle has a deep starting pitching core. It’s true that the Mariners’ pitchers are talented and/or have tremendous upside. But, going into the season without adding more depth could come back haunt Seattle if any of their pitchers are lost due to injury; particularly Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Remember, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan, and Tom Wilhelmsen started 14.8% of all Seattle Mariners’ games in 2014. The addition of J. A. Happ helps, but he has only pitched over 160 innings once in his career; 166 in 2009. Considering that Elias, Paxton, and Walker averaged a full inning/start less than King Felix and Kuma (5.65 vs. 6.67), adding another veteran pitcher who can eat innings would help take pressure off of the bullpen.

Conclusion
The Mariners will need improved value from Zunino, Morrison, Ackley, Jackson, their right fielder, and their young starting pitchers in 2015 if they want to contend for a playoff spot. But, Seattle isn’t ready to compete for the AL West title with their current roster, at least not without either marked improvements from 1-2 of the incumbent young players, or incremental improvements from a number of them. Getting more from catcher, first base, left/right field, and from the starting rotation is paramount for a team that wants to play deep into October.

Final thought
It’s important to note that Mariners pitchers and catchers don’t report until February 20th and the regular season doesn’t start until April 6th so there’s plenty of time left to upgrade.  But, there’s a lot more to do before Opening Day.…

Marlon ByrdThe outfield market was thin to begin with and after a couple transactions during the Winter Meetings, it is now even thinner. The Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to trade Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres and the Boston Red Sox dealt Yoenis Cespedes to the Detroit Tigers. Kemp in particular was a target of the Seattle Mariners who reportedly had a deal in place that would have sent Brad Miller and Michael Saunders to LA for the outfielder and cash.

We have already heard that there is some talk surrounding Dayan Viciedo, a former target of the Mariners, and perhaps they may take a second look at another former player of interest: Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd.

The 37-year old outfielder is coming off consecutive seasons with above average power numbers. Between 2013 and 2014 Byrd has hit 49 home runs and 63 doubles. His batting average took a hit in 2014 however, dropping his wRC+ to 109 compared to a solid 137 in 2013. Given Byrd’s age the decline in performance was not unexpected. He was a 4.1 fWAR player in 2013, a 1.9 fWAR player in 2014, and Steamer projects him to be just above replacement level in 2015 at 0.4 fWAR.

His right-handed bat would still play well in the Mariners lineup, presumably in the No. 6 spot between Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison. The Mariners offseason quest for right-handed hitters saw some resolve when Nelson Cruz was brought onboard. But with Dustin Ackley, Robinson Cano, Brad Miller, Seager, and Morrison expected to play regular roles, the lineup is still heavy on the left side.

While Byrd isn’t a great defender he hasn’t been abysmal in the outfield recently. He was credited with 18 defensive runs saved between 2013 and 2014 and has routinely posted an UZR rating just above the zero mark. The presence of Nelson Cruz, who’s a much worse defender, will limit the number of at bats Byrd could see at designated hitter. Although the free agent splash is likely to still get some time in the field, possibly spending 25 percent of his playing time there.

One of Seattle’s keys to success in 2014 was the strong defence behind the even better pitching staff. Collectively Mariner right fielders were credited with two DRS on the season. The now departed Michael Saunders logged approximately one third of the club’s innings in right. The Canadian’s strong defensive play was offset by the below average performances of Endy Chavez and Stefen Romero who filled in while Saunders was hurt. Byrd has an average throwing arm, but would hurt the Mariners overall defence much less than one may think.

Byrd can hit, get by on defence, and has a relatively affordable contract. He is due $8 million in 2015 and won’t turn 38 until August 30. The problem, as it was at this past year’s trade deadline, is the 2016 vesting option. Byrd’s option — also for $8 million — will vest with 1,100 plate appearances between 2014 and 2015 or 600 plate appearances in 2016. Otherwise it simply becomes a club option with no buyout. He made 637 plate appearances in 2015 meaning he needs to step into the batter’s box just 463 times in 2015 for that option to vest. This should be very manageable provided Byrd stays healthy the entire year.

Also included in Byrd’s contract is a no-trade provision that allows the outfielder to block trades to four teams. Prior to the trade deadline, it was reported that both the Mariners and Kansas City Royals were on that list and Byrd would only waive his rights if the acquiring club were to guarantee his vesting option for 2016.

Prospect Insider has learned that Byrd changed at least one of the four clubs on his no-trade list at the completion of the season. Whether or not he can still block a trade to the M’s is unknown, but there is no evidence to assume he’s removed Seattle from the four teams.

[pullquote]The most prominent trade between the M’s and Phils in recent history was in 2009 when Seattle dealt three marginal prospects for Cliff Lee. One of the better deals GM Jack Zduriencik has made.[/pullquote]

More often than not these no-trade clauses are more about creating player-leverage than an actual playing preference. Byrd was completely willing to come to the Pacific Northwest in July, but only if the M’s agreed to pay him in 2016, too. How far those trade talks ended up going remain to be seen.

The Phillies officially began a rebuild phase when they dealt veterans Jimmy Rollins and Antonio Bastardo during the Winter Meetings. It is believed that Cole Hamels will be the next player to go. The club is also looking to deal Ryan Howard and his albatross contract. Byrd is very much available, at the right price.

So far only the Baltimore Orioles have been connected to Byrd with a meeting between the O’s and Phillies took place during the Winter Meetings where the outfielder was discussed. It’s unclear what the Phillies are looking for in return, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. won’t give his outfielder away to save cash or open a spot.

His club is probably not looking for any type of player in particular other than prospects or a major leaguer with significant club control. The trade of Rollins does open up the middle of the infield and create further uncertainty on the left side. Brad Miller has seen his name pop up in several trade rumors — including conversations regarding Ian Desmond of the Washington Nationals — but is too much to give up for an aging outfielder. Chris Taylor is also expected to be held on to unless there is a bigger return. Katel Marte could be of interest to the Phillies as the prospect has seen is stock rise greatly in the past year.

The Mariners seem more likely to be willing to trade prospects that are still at least a year or two away from the major leagues. Outfielders Gabriel Guerrero and Austin Wilson could be of interest as well as pitchers Victor Sanchez and Tyler Pike. Catcher John Hicks could also make sense for the Phillies who have veteran backstop Carlos Ruiz under contract for two more years with no clear succession plan.

Philadelphia is reportedly willing to include cash in a deal if it improves the return. Seattle is more than capable of handling Byrd’s $8 million salary in both 2015 and 2016. There is also enough mid-level prospect depth to deal a Wilson or a Pike and not hurt the health of the system.

For what it’s worth, even if Byrd didn’t require his 2016 option to be guaranteed in a deal he would waive his no-trade clause for, there is a very good chance he’ll make enough plate appearances for the option to vest. It certainly is risky to give the guarantee, but $8 million isn’t much more than the $6 million plus incentives Seattle agreed to pay Corey Hart in 2014.

If the Mariners can work out a reasonable trade for Byrd, they shouldn’t let his option be a deterrent. On the free agent market Nick Markakis got a four-year, $44 million commitment from the Atlanta Braves and veteran Torii Hunter will earn $10.5 million for the 2015 season. The cost of free agents will not be going down any time soon and Byrd will only have to be a fringe-average player to equate his salary in terms of free agent value.

Byrd will help the Mariners in 2015. Right now James Jones and Romero are slated to cover right field duties and that simply isn’t good enough for a club with playoff aspirations.…

Dexter FowlerIt’s no secret that the Seattle Mariners are in dire need of an everyday outfielder. Particularly one that can hit left-handed pitching and bat near the top of the order. Reports have linked the M’s to free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera, but it doesn’t sound as though the two sides are or were close to an agreement. Trade talks surrounding Matt Kemp and Justin Upton appear to have cooled on the Mariners front as well, at least for the moment.

Fowler, 28, is in the final year of a two-year contract and is owed $7.4 million in 2015. He will then be a free agent. The switch-hitter posted a .276/.375/.399 slash line with a 124 wRC+  in 2014. Fowler has excellent on base skills with a career walk rate of 12.5 percent. He has also posted a career 118 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. Earlier in his career he was more of a stolen base threat but swiped just 11 bags in 2014. He has regularly scored as an above average baserunner.

Fowler has been a center fielder for the majority of his career but the defensive metrics are not fond of his play in that spot. He was credited with -20 DRS and a -21.8 UZR in 2014.

The Houston Astros, who are slowly piecing together a solid base of young talent, had reportedly extending offers to free agent relievers David Robertson and Andrew Miller. Robertson would sign a four-year, $46 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. Miller would sign a four-year, $36 million deal with the New York Yankees. It is believed that the Astros offered both relievers the four guaranteed years they were looking for and more money than either wound up signing for.

After being spurned by the top free agent relievers the Astros will have to look elsewhere for bullpen help.

The Mariners had the best bullpen in baseball last season. As it stands the entire group will return minus lefty specialist Joe Biemel who is a free agent, although there is believed to be mutual interest in a reunion. Many have suggested that Seattle could and should deal from their relief depth. After all, pitchers like Tom Wilhelmsen, Brandon Maurer, Danny Farquhar, and others are valuable assets to other clubs, too. Wilhelmsen and Charlie Furbush are arbitration for the first time but the others have at least one more season of control at the league minimum.

Naturally there’s an obvious fit where Fowler could be swapped for a package involving a reliever. The emergence of Carson Smith last year should allow the M’s flexibility to deal a right-hander like Farquhar. There has been some talk that Maurer could be stretched out in the spring with another shot at a rotation spot, so Seattle may prefer to hang on to him.

There hasn’t been anything to suggest that Houston is not interested in trading Fowler and reportedly had discussions with the Toronto Blue Jays earlier in the month. It wasn’t clear what the Astros were looking for in return at that time or how serious talks got.

Presumably the Astros would want something that will help their major league roster in the short-term. The club is still a few players and possibly years away from serious contention, but the young talent could clique early in 2015 and cause the club to get off to a hot start. There’s likely some pressure from the fan base to field a more competitive team as well.

Seattle can offer prospects such as Victor Sanchez or Austin Wilson who will play in the upper minors in 2015. If Houston desires to replace the outfield depth lost Gabriel Guerrero could also be of interest. A depth player a la Stefen Romero or Erasmo Ramirez could be added to a deal too. Perhaps a package of Farquhar and Wilson could make sense for both clubs. I’m not suggested that is the asking price or a deal the M’s should make. The outfield trade market is still very fluid at the moment.

Fowler is a couple steps below the talent of a Jason Heyward who netted the Atlanta Braves Shelby Miller in a multi-player deal. The cost of Fowler is very unlikely to be that high.

Obviously there is some concern about an intra-division trade. However with the Mariners pushing all cylinders forward for 2015 that should not be an issue. Especially if the cost is a reliever and a lesser prospect. Jack Zduriencik has been willing to deal with division rivals in the past: Cliff Lee was dealt to the Texas Rangers for a Justin Smoak headlined package, Jason Vargas was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for Kendrys Morales, and John Jaso was traded to the Oakland Athletics in a three-time deal that brought Mike Morse to Seattle.

Presumably the M’s will wait until there is some resolution with Cabrera before pushing the trade market much harder, if their interest is sincere. The club is believed to be willing to offer a four-year deal in the $50 million range but it is believed that the switch-hitter is looking for a five-year deal. There have been conflicting reports about where the two sides are at. Based on reports my speculation would be that discussions have reached a point where the M’s know what Cabrera wants and Cabrera knows how far the M’s are willing to go at this point.

Of course things could end up changing in a hurry and middle ground could be found. Some thought that Cabrera could sign during the Winter Meetings, but that is still up in the air.

Fowler would give the Mariners the right-handed flexibility that they desire.  Austin Jackson is slated to hit leadoff and man center field again in 2015, which could push Fowler into the No. 2 spot and right field. Typically outfielders who struggle in center will perform better in a corner spot. Fowler doesn’t have a great arm, but is athletic enough to be average in right field. That would still be an improvement on the play of Endy Chavez and Stefen Romero in right field last year. Again, Michael Saunders and his defensive capabilities are no longer in the picture.

On paper Fowler makes plenty of sense for the Mariners. His salary is affordable and his cost should be significantly less than a Kemp or Upton. Most importantly, he would represent an upgrade for 2015.…