The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It look 108 years, but it did happen. The Seattle Mariners have clinched a playoff berth. Well, not yet. But there’s legitimate optimism that for the first time in fifteen years, it will happen in 2017. The team from the North Side did just prove anything can happen, after all.

The Mariners aren’t coming into the season as favorites to win the division. That’d be the Houston Astros. They’re a worthy choice, led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, a talented pitching staff, and some veteran additions to their lineup. If you remember back in 2014, Sports Illustrated declared the Astros the 2017 World Champs. It’s possible they will be right.

There’s also the Texas Rangers who many prognosticators have ranked about even with the Mariners. The Rangers have lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in each of the last two postseasons and return a deep lineup and a one-two punch of Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. The sting of back-to-back World Series losses in 2010 and 2011 is still present.

The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels may bang a few pots and pans during the season. But the A’s are still developing a young core and the Angels are still trying to build a contender around Mike Trout.

With a three-team race and one tiered above the other two, the path to the postseason is a narrow road for Seattle. And that’s before considering that the American League East and Central will offer a couple of the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, and Blue Jays as playoff competition. But, as we have seen with the advent of the second Wild Card, the third-best team in the division can still make the playoffs. And from there, anything can happen.

The challenge is getting there. The external factors won’t be doing them any favors. The window for the Kansas City Royals may be closing but many members of the competition got better.

The internal factors may not be much better as questions have risen around many of the Mariners key parts.

It starts with Felix Hernandez. Can he rebound or is he now a shadow of his former self? Can James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma stay healthy the entire year and produce? With Drew Smyly already on the shelf, the rotation can ill-afford to have another injury.

And there’s the bullpen. Can Edwin Diaz be lights out again or will he tire out before the playoff race really heats up? Is a rehabbing Steve Cishek and a relative unknown in Dan Altavilla enough to bridge the gap to Diaz? Can the rest of the relief staff withstand the annual volatility that hits every bullpen?

Is Jean Segura going to regress or can he repeat his 2016 performance? What happens if Nelson Cruz or Robinson Cano can’t should the load as they get older? The outfield may prevent a lot of runs, but will they be able to provide any offence?

The Mariners have a lot of questions. Perhaps more uncertainty than you’d want to see from a playoff contender. But the point I’d like to make is that all teams, not just Seattle, have multiple question marks when you prod hard enough.

Boston came into Spring Training with three aces. Easily one of the best rotations in the league on paper. But, how will David Price perform once he’s off the disabled list? Will Rick Porcello be able to prove last year wasn’t a fluke? Can Chris Sale handle the move to a tougher division or will his mechanics finally get the best of him?

We can ask questions about nearly every player on every team. Even the World Champion Cubs aren’t without their own. How will the club handle the dreaded World Series hangover, especially with so many kids on the team? What if Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester get hurt? Is the bullpen deep enough? Jason Heyward?

Questions, concerns, uncertainty — they all surround every team. Things like depth and talent help ease some of the concern though, and allow us to predict that the Cubs and Indians will still be very good, even if things go wrong. Can the Los Angeles Dodgers survive an injury to Clayton Kershaw? They answered that last season.

It’s now time for the Mariners to answer all the questions pundits have put their way. These answers will determine whether or not a playoff appearance will happen.

Felix went into the offseason hellbent on reclaiming his throne. Participating in winter ball, an intense workout regime, and the World Baseball Classic were all part of his plan. On Monday he gets a chance to start answering those who feel he has lost his crown. Early returns are positive and if he can locate his fastball again, even with diminished velocity, he can still lead the rotation.

To back him up, particularly in the event he doesn’t get to where he needs to be, General Manager Jerry Dipoto beefed up the rotation with some upside in Smyly. Veteran starter Yovani Gallardo was also added in an upside play. More importantly, Seattle now has some rotation depth at Triple-A in Ariel Miranda, Chris Heston, and Dillon Overton that can offer assistance.

The Mariners had a 30-30 record in one-run games last year. Literally as few as two more runs scored could’ve resulted in a playoff spot. So, Dipoto deepened the lineup.

[pullquote]The days of lumbering outfielders are over as Seattle emphasized run prevention in the outfield this winter. Sluggers are now athletes and more hits should be outs.[/pullquote]

Cano, Cruz, and Kyle Seager remain one of the best offensive trios in the game. Some thump was added at the top of the lineup in Segura along with some speed in Jarrod Dyson. Danny Valencia, Carlos Ruiz, and Mitch Haniger help lengthen the lineup beyond the core three. The bottom of the order should be better too with Leonys Martin and Mike Zunino pushed down. Dan Vogelbach, optioned to Triple-A, may also provide some help later in the year.

The best offense can also be better defense, or something along those lines, so Dipoto beefed up the outfield defense in a big way. Three center fielders figure to patrol Safeco in Martin, Dyson, and Haniger. Not to mention the presence of Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel on the depth chart. Building a team suited to the home ballpark simply made a lot of sense. Better defense should help the pitching staff, too. Cruz spending minimal time in the outfield is addition by subtraction.

If there was one area that wasn’t reinforced, the bullpen could qualify. Tony Zych is close to returning, but along with the aforementioned Cishek and Altavilla, is a question mark. Marc Rzepczynski is a fine addition and will help against left-handers, but he isn’t exactly a high-leverage arm. Perhaps Thyago Vieira and his fastball will show up at some point or Nick Vincent can excel in a seventh inning role again. Evan Scribner is finally healthy and could be a wild card in the pen. Casey Fien may have something left too.

The goal was not to rebuild the core but add to it and perhaps find a way to extend the window. This may be the last opportunity to get the best out of Hernandez, Cano, Cruz, and Seager all at the same time.

With that in mind, Seattle made a multitude of changes this winter, particularly via trade. Taijuan Walker‘s potential was dealt to add an impact bat in Segura and shore up the shortstop position. Haniger may well be an impact piece also. Former top prospect Alex Jackson was dealt to add pitching depth to the upper minors. Luiz Gohara and his tantalizing but risky stuff was traded to bring in Smyly, an impact arm for the rotation.

The 2018 season is a long ways away. Seattle may not have gone all-in on 2017, but in Dipoto’s moves there was a trend towards putting together the best possible team for this season.

Nate Karns could still become an effective mid-rotation starter or even a dynamite reliever. Instead, Dipoto took the floor offered by Gallardo along with some potential upside.

Some things will go wrong this year. If one out of every two trades made ends up working out, Seattle may well take that — especially given they bought odds in bulk, so to speak.

The injury to Smyly would qualify as the first thing to go wrong, World Baseball Classic be darned. One of the outfielders may not hit at an acceptable level and perhaps another veteran in the lineup goes down. Maybe the bullpen is held together by glue and bubble gum by the All-Star break. That’s where the Mariners X-factor comes in: Jerry Dipoto.

If there’s one executive who isn’t afraid to make a deal it’s Seattle’s commander-in-chief. That depth at the Triple-A level can help the Mariners in two ways: through promotion or in trades. If some of the Boog Powells and D.J. Petersons can’t help the big league team themselves, perhaps they can help bring in a veteran depth piece who can. Dipoto still has a couple bullets left to play with but probably doesn’t deal his few top prospects.

The real question is simple: will the Seattle Mariners make the playoffs in 2017? I’m inclined to say yes, if only because of the two Wild Card berths available. But, like we said, you just have to get there.

It’s time to start answering some of those questions.…

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

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

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

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

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

First, here are our Mariners third quarter award winners:

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

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

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Mike Zunino, C
Churchill: Seager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the specific problem? Their rotation.

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

There is hope for the Rangers though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

Much to the chagrin of Seattle Mariners fans, their team was relatively inactive at Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. Certainly, watching two consecutive late-inning losses to the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, while other contenders improved their major league rosters didn’t help their morale either.

It’s not as if the Mariners season is over because they didn’t make any big moves. They remain relatively close in wild card race. Plus, they’re eight games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers with seven contests remaining with Texas. Plus, they’re just 2.5 games behind the second-place Houston Astros.

There is hope. But, I get it. Fans would’ve liked to have seen more action. Me too.

Frankly, I felt the Mariners needed to do more before 1 p.m. on Monday to become more than a fringe contender. But, the club didn’t do more and has 57 games remaining to end the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball.

Certainly, to play meaningful October baseball, Seattle will have to play better than they have to date. That means that the Mariners will have to do well against their division rivals — 63-percent of their remaining schedule is against the American League (AL) West.

With that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to delve into the “deadline season” maneuvers by Seattle’s four division rivals. Each club had a unique approach. There was a buyer, a holder, a sellout r, and a rudderless shipper. Let’s start with the buyer.

Texas Rangers
Most pundits classified the club as a deadline “winner.” I’m not as enthusiastic though. Don’t get me wrong. They did improve their roster and I’ve seen Texas as the team to beat in the AL West since the beginning of the season; I still feel that way. However, they solidified an already strong lineup and remained exposed to risk from a bigger need — their shallow rotation.

It’s not as if general manager (GM) Jon Daniels didn’t try to upgrade his starting staff.  But, the market was thin and he understandably didn’t want to overpay for one of the many ordinary arms on the market, such as Andrew Cashner, Drew Pomeranz, Hector Santiago, or the injured Rich Hill. Can you blame him?

Multiple reports suggested Texas was interested in top-shelf starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox. But, they were unable to acquire either hurler. We’ll never whether the Rangers didn’t want to meet Chicago’s demands, or if the duo were actually available.

For whatever reason, Daniels couldn’t secure another starter for his rotation. So, he did the next best thing for his club. He upgraded the team’s offense and added a back-end reliever to his struggling bullpen.

The Rangers aggressively sought out and attained two proven offensive players — catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran — who are certain to ensure that the club’s offense remains prolific.

The duo will help with more than the club’s run-production though. Lucroy’s game calling and defensive skills behind the plate will benefit Rangers pitchers and Beltran adds another clubhouse leader with postseason experience.

Daniels addressed his roster’s weakest link by landing Milwaukee Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress in the same deal that brought Lucroy to Arlington. Texas relievers rank last in the American League —  according to the Fangraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR), They’ve also allowed the most home runs and registered the fewest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any bullpen in the majors.

Jeffress isn’t a marquee name like Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller and he’s not a swing-and-miss type like Chapman or Miller. But, he’s surrendered just two home runs in 44 innings of work this season and has a proven track record in high-leverage situations.

Adding Jeffress into the late-inning mix with hard-throwers Sam Dyson and Matt Bush certainly improves the Rangers’ chances of holding on to leads late in games. The issue is whether their starting staff can hold leads to hand over to their improved bullpen.

At the top of the rotation, the Rangers are in decent shape with co-aces Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, plus southpaw Martin Perez. But, the back-end isn’t proven or reliable.

The injury losses of Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have forced the Rangers to turn to Lucas Harrell — recently acquired from the Atlanta Braves — and A.J. Griffin to round out the rotation. The question for Texas is whether the duo can provide enough quality innings until Holland and Lewis from the disabled list (DL), assuming they arrive back on schedule or at all.

Holland has been on the DL with shoulder soreness since late June and is closest to returning. He’s scheduled to start a rehab assignment on Friday. It’s worth noting that this is the southpaw’s third consecutive season with DL time and that he’s only started 29 games since the start of the 2014 season.

Lewis has also been out since late June with a strained lat muscle. As Mariners fans know, recovery from that injury is a slow process. Seattle relievers Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner have been on the DL with lat strains since Spring Training and neither pitcher has an estimated return date. In Lewis’ case, he’s currently doing a long toss program with no formal return date.

If it sounds like I’m nitpicking the Rangers — I am. They’re a legitimate World Series contender intent on winning it all. I’m just not certain that their rotation is good enough.

Houston Astros
Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Astros were “holders” and remained relatively inactive at the deadline. Their biggest moves were recalling rookie infielder Alex Bregman from the minors and signing Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel.

Bregman — the number-two overall pick during the 2015 amateur draft — was primarily a shortstop during his brief stay in the minors. But, the Astros have that position covered for the foreseeable future with 2015 National League Rookie of the League Carlos Correa.

With shortstop unavailable and the team in need of an offensive spark, the Astros slid the 22-year-old over to third base. Unfortunately, for Houston and Bregman, he’s struggling mightily with just one hit in his first 34 major league plate appearances.

The 32-year-old Gurriel, viewed as a major league ready, will likely join the Astros after completing a short stay in the minors to re-hone his baseball skills. The right-handed hitter has played at second and third base, plus shortstop in the past. Perhaps, he’ll relieve Bregman when ready, permitting the rookie to resume his development in the minors.

The only deadline trades made by Houston GM Jeff Luhnow shipped relievers Scott Feldman to the Toronto Blue Jays and Josh Fields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects. Both pitchers weren’t that effective in the Astros’ superb bullpen and deemed expendable.

The lack of movement by Houston spurred many analysts to portray the club as deadline “losers,” but I can understand the organization’s reluctance to make “win-now” blockbuster deals. Their roster is more flawed than their win-loss record suggests.

In early July, I noted that Houston’s strong June was driven by the scorching bats of several hitters who were overachieving. Specifically, Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gomez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, and Colby Rasmus, who were all dramatically above their career on-base percentage (OBP) in June.

Based on the reasonable assumption that the majority of these players’ numbers would normalize, I suggested during the Mariners mid-season report that Houston’s record would level out. That’s exactly what’s happened. The Astros had a 13-12 win-loss record in July and their OBP plummeted from number-two in the AL during June to eleventh best last month.

What happened to those super-hot June performers? Other than Valbuena, who’s currently on the DL, every other player’s OBP is below the .270 mark since July 1.

Yes, Houston’s core is outstanding. But, their lineup lacks depth and needs several pieces to improve as a unit. With that in mind, their front office wasn’t willing to forsake their future by overpaying at the deadline. Rather, they opted to be holders and ride out the season with their current cast of characters. To be honest, I don’t blame them.

Oakland Athletics
Led by president of baseball operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst, the Athletics have been masterful at orchestrating deals as both buyers and sellers during previous years. This time, they were in the latter category.

In early June, Oakland sent utility-man Chris Coghlan to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for infielder Arismendy Alcantara. The 24-year-old Alcantara was a top-100 prospect as recently as 2014, but he’s struggled during limited big league auditions. Despite his early problems in the majors, the switch-hitter is a good fielder who possesses home run power and stolen base speed. Plus, he has the athleticism to play second base, shortstop, and center field.

The club’s big sell job dispatched outfielder Josh Reddick and starting pitcher Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three prospects. The most notable being Grant Holmes, a 20-year-old right-handed starter who ranks number-82 on the MLB.com top-100 prospect list. Selected by the Dodgers with the number-22 overall pick during the 2014 amateur draft, Holmes projects as a mid-rotation starter.

Oakland also picked up Frankie Montas. The 23-year-old is a hard-throwing starter capable of topping 100-MPH on the radar gun. His issues have been command on the mound and weight control on the scales. It’s possible that the right-hander will eventually transition to reliever. Currently, Montas isn’t playing due to a stress reaction in the rib area where he had offseason surgery. As a result, he’s not likely to pitch again this season.

The third prospect acquired is 24-year-old Jharel Cotton, who projects to be either a mid-rotation starter. With that said, his 5-foot-11 frame may lead Oakland to transition the U. S. Virgin Island-born hurler into a reliever.

The Athletics also traded outfielder Billy Burns to the Kansas City Royals for Brett Eibner. The right-handed hitter is a former second-round pick, who’s endured numerous injuries in the minors. But, he’s blossomed during his last two seasons at Class-AAA level. Eibner made his major league debut in late-May as an injury replacement for center fielder Lorenzo Cain and slashed .231/.286/.423 during 85 plate appearances before returning to the minors upon Cain’s return from the DL.

Although this is a seemingly minor deal, it’s possible that 27-year-old Eibner could be a late-bloomer now that injury issues are behind him. Oakland retains club control over the outfielder through the 2022 season.

Los Angeles Angels
This is an organization in a difficult predicament. They desperately need to upgrade their minor league system — ranked worst in baseball. But, they have few appealing assets on their major league roster. Their most valuable piece — Mike Trout — is a generational talent who isn’t going anywhere.

Still, the team did have opportunities to improve as Monday’s trade deadline approached, but their strategy was peculiar — at least to me.

The club’s biggest deal sent southpaw starter Hector Santiago and minor league reliever Alan Busenitz to the Minnesota Twins for 26-year-old pitching prospect Alex Meyer and 33-year-old starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco. It’s incomprehensible to me that Los Angeles exchanged Santiago for Nolasco.

Yes, the Twins are picking up a significant chunk of Nolasco’s salary for this year and next. But, he hasn’t been good for some time — 5.44 ERA during 56 career starts with the Twins dating back to 2014 — and is five years older than Santiago.

Clearly, the key to this deal for the Angels is Meyer — a 6-foot-9 hard-throwing right-hander, who’s struggled with command throughout his professional career and has been dealing with shoulder problems for most of this season. Before his health issues, Minnesota had converted the number-23 overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft to a reliever.

That’s right; Los Angeles dealt a starting pitcher, who was an all-star last season and under team control for one more year, for a struggling 33-year-old starter and a 26-year-old pitcher with command issues and shoulder problems. How does that make sense?

The team’s only other move saw reliever Joe Smith going to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Class-A pitcher Jesus Castillo. In this case, the Angels were simply moving a rental player. Since Smith hadn’t been effective as in years past, his value diminished in the trade market. In return for their submarine tossing reliever, Los Angeles picked up the 20-years-old Castillo.

Smith may have been the club’s only healthy player with an expiring contract. But, there were several players under team control past this season who could’ve been moved and brought value back to the Angels. Yet, GM Billy Eppler chose to stand pat.

A prime trade candidate was third baseman Yunel Escobar. Los Angeles holds a $7 million club option for next season with a $1 million buyout. Considering that Escobar has been productive at the plate — .322/.370/.411 — and relatively affordable, it’s hard to fathom that the Angels couldn’t find a dance partner interested in the 33-year-old.

Reliever Cam Bedrosian is a player who had to be in high demand and could’ve returned value to the organization. The son of former major league reliever Steve Bedrosian is under team control until 2022 and has been highly effective — 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings — as the eighth inning set up man for manager Mike Scioscia.

With the trade of Smith and closer Huston Street going to the DL, Bedrosian has assumed the closer role in Anaheim. Wouldn’t it have made sense for the Angels to start retooling their system by moving the 24-year-old?

Another trade piece could’ve been starter Matt Shoemaker. Granted, the club’s rotation has been so decimated by injury that moving a starting pitcher in-season might have been difficult. But, considering what the Tampa Bay Rays received from the San Francisco Giants for Matt Moore — major league third baseman Matt Duffy and two top-30 prospects from the Giants farm system — it’s plausible that the Angels could’ve found similar or more value for Shoemaker.

Admittedly, moving right fielder Kole Calhoun would be a tough pill to swallow. After all, the 28-year-old is slashing .275/.354/.415. Other than Trout, he’s the club’s best position player and under team control through the end of the 2019 season.

On the other hand, how do the Angels plan to be competitive by 2019?

Considering the current state of the Angels’ minor league system, it’s unlikely it’ll be able to provide significant relief within the next three seasons. Plus the Angels will enter 2019 with a 27-year-old Mike Trout with one year remaining on his contract and a 39-year-old Albert Pujols with two left on his deal. Both men will be making a combined $62 million. Under these circumstances, I fail to see a road map to success for the Angels.

So, Seattle Mariners fans. There is a glimmer of hope for your team’s playoff expectancy. The two teams in front of you in the AL West standings have played better, but have flawed rosters too. It’s going to come down to which teams are best positioned to overcome their flaws.

In my mind, the Rangers continue to be in the driver’s seat. But, their starting staff could be their undoing in the divisional race or postseason. Plus, the Astros are struggling enough to be caught by Seattle.

For the Mariners to leapfrog Houston and — gasp — Texas, they’d need a few breaks along the way. Most importantly, they’d need their starting staff to regain its early season form and avoid injury to their core position players. That’s a lot to hope for with less than two months remaining in the system. But, at least there’s hope Mariners fans.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MVP
Arkins: Robinson Cano, 2B
Churchill: Cano

Cy Young
Arkins: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
Churchill: Iwakuma

Defensive MVP
Arkins: Leonys Martin, CF
Churchill: Martin

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

Next, our league mid-season award winners:

AL MVP
Arkins: Jose Altuve
Churchill: Altuve

NL MVP
Arkins: Clayton Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL Cy Young
Arkins: Chris Sale
Churchill: Corey Kluber

NL Cy Young
Arkins: Kershaw
Churchill: Kershaw

AL ROY
Arkins: Nomar Mazara
Churchill: Mazara

NL ROY
Arkins: Corey Seager
Churchill: Seager

AL MOY
Arkins: Buck Showalter
Churchill: Showalter

NL MOY
Arkins: Bruce Bochy
Churchill: Bochy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Major League Baseball (MLB) non-waiver trading deadline is barreling down upon us and Seattle Mariners fans are anxious to see what general manager Jerry Dipoto does with the club’s roster during his first “deadline season” with the Mariners.

With that in mind, I thought I’d provide a primer for each club in the American League (AL) West division to see where the Mariners and their divisional roster stand as the August 1 trade deadline approaches.

A word of caution though, the trade market will fluctuate greatly during the next six weeks. Injuries, poor individual performances, and changes in the standings will determine who will be the buyers and sellers in the deadline derby. Moreover, these factors will influence the aggressiveness of all parties involved in the market.

So far, I’ve discussed the Oakland Athletics,  Los Angeles Angels, and Houston Astros. Let’s turn our attention to the Texas Rangers.

After being swept by the Athletics on May 18, the defending division champions went on a 23-6 tear and currently possess the best record in the AL and a commanding 8.5 game lead over the Mariners in the AL West. With so much going right, the Rangers appear ready to make a deep postseason run and possibly win the first World Series in franchise history. That’s why they’re likely to be active players in the deadline deal market.

The roster spots that Texas attempts to improve will partially depend on the recovery of players currently on the disabled list (DL) and the production of several position players.

The most glaring injury snag involves starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who looked impressive after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, for the club and the 29-year-old, he returned to the 15-day DL with neck and shoulder tightness after only three starts.

Although he’s eligible to return this week, Darvish has yet to throw from a mound. His status has to be the key planning factor for the club’s front office as the deadline approaches.

Reliever and Seattle native Keone Kela had surgery to remove elbow bone spurs in April and hopes to return by the all-star break. Assuming there are no setbacks, getting the 23-year-old back would be a boost to a bullpen that currently ranks in the bottom third of the AL.

On the field, center fielder Delino DeShields, first baseman Mitch Moreland, and designated hitter Prince Fielder have performed well below expectations in 2016.

During his rookie season in 2015, DeShields took over the center field job from current Mariner Leonys Martin and flourished in the lead-off spot with a .344 on-base percentage (OBP) and 25 stolen bases. This year, however, the 23-year-old struggled at the plate during the first five weeks of the season. As a result, he’s currently playing at Class-AAA Round Rock. Perhaps, his stay in the minors will help DeShields regain his form so he can help the ball club during their pennant push.

Moreland has also been scuffling at the plate with his batting average and OBP hovering 20 points below his career norms. Fortunately, for the veteran and Texas, Moreland’s bat has shown of life of late — he’s slashing .361/.410/.861 during the last two weeks. If the left-handed hitter can’t sustain his improvement, the Rangers may first look to other options within the organization to improve first base production.

This season, the Rangers have used Ryan RuaJurickson Profar, and top prospect Joey Gallo at first base on a limited basis. All are inexperienced at the position and it’s possible none of them would be the solution, if Texas opted to make a change.

The biggest drop in performance belongs to Fielder. At the start of today’s action, the Rangers designated hitter is slashing .200/.269/.310 with just five home runs after winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year award last season. Complicating matters for the Rangers is the fact that he’s owed approximately $110 million through the 2020 season — his age-36 season.

Despite the offensive struggles of Fielder and Moreland, the Rangers have flourished thanks to their long lineup and the emergence of former shortstop Ian Desmond in center field, Rookie of the Year candidate Nomar Mazara in right field, and Profar. All three men have helped fill gaps caused by injury, suspension, and poor performance. But, there’s still work to be done with this roster, if the club wants to return to the Fall Classic.

Although adding depth to the relief corps was a priority for general manager Jon Daniels during the offseason, the club’s bullpen has been a weak link. The unit has been better lately, but it’s currently not good enough for a serious postseason contender.

Daniels’ biggest bullpen acquisition — Tom Wilhelmsen — struggled during the first 10 weeks of the season and is no longer with the organization after refusing a minor league assignment. Another new addition, Tony Barnette hasn’t performed well during his debut season in MLB. Used primarily as a middle reliever, opponents are batting .315 against the Federal Way, Washington native in 27 games.

The back-end of the bullpen has been a concern too. Manager Jeff Banister removed Shawn Tolleson from the closer role due to ineffectiveness and inserted Sam Dyson. To date, the hard-throwing right-hander has been effective, while holding opponents to a .206/.270/.265 slash in June. With that said, adding a front-line closer would permit the team to move Dyson back into the setup role and immediately deepen the bullpen as a result.

New York Yankees relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman are possible options for the Rangers. Either could be season-changers for the ball club. However, it’s important to note that the Yankees haven’t waved the white flag to concede the season. Furthermore, this team hasn’t posted a losing record since 1992. Becoming a seller will be a rapid departure from the norm for the organization and its fans.

The starting staff has been solid, but a serious World Series contender could use another strong arm at the top of the rotation, especially with questions about Darvish’s recovery.

A player who could interest Daniels is starting pitcher Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves. A few weeks ago, Jim Bowden of ESPN concluded that the 25-year-old could be the most coveted pitcher at the trade deadline. Although I suggested that the right-hander would be a good fit for the Boston Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays, he’d be make sense for the Rangers too.

Teheran is owed a relatively low $25.3 million through the end of the 2019 season with a $12 million club option for 2020, his age-29 season, and he’s performing at a high-level — number-seven among National League (NL) starting pitchers in wins above replacement (WAR).

The Braves don’t have to rush to trade their star pitcher and could opt to hold him until the offseason, or just keep him. With such an advantage, they’ll be able to ask for a lot of value in return and Texas could certainly meet their needs, if they want to.

Perhaps, the Rangers will pursue Athletics starter Rich Hill, who is a free agent at the end of the season and have much lower price tag. If Hill is healthy — he’s currently on the 15-DL with a mild groin strain — he’ll be a hot commodity in the trade market.

Trade rumors have linked Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy and the Rangers, but I suspect that the organization is more likely use its available chips to address other areas of concern first.

To date, the Rangers’ backstops — Bryan Holaday, Bobby Wilson, Robinson Chirinos, and Brett Nicholas — have done a nice job at holding down the position. The quartet has delivered reasonable offensive performance and value — .254/.309/.458 slash and the seventh highest WAR in the majors from the catcher position.

If Daniels wants to make a blockbuster to fill any of his needs, as he did by acquiring Hamels last year, he has the pieces to do so. The Rangers have a deep minor league system, which ranks number-nine in the majors, according to Keith Law of ESPN, and boasts four players on the MLB.com Top-100 prospect list.

The Hamels deal was a significant game-changer for both Philadelphia and Texas. The Phillies picked up three MLB.com Top-100 prospects — Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, and Nick Williams — plus, pitchers Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff, currently pitching near the top of the rotation. Conversely, the Rangers landed a top starting pitcher and a reliever — Jake Diekman — both under team control through at least the 2018 season.

Would Texas be willing to make another mega-deal? Sure, but I suspect the haul would have to include controllable players — not just rentals — just like last year. Regardless of the Rangers’ approach, it’s certain that they’ll improve their roster between now and the deadline. Whether division rivals are willing to keep pace with them remains to be seen.

AL West trade primer: Oakland Athletics

AL West trade primer: Los Angeles Angels

AL West trade primer: Houston Astros

Last June, I wrote a piece reflecting on several non-waiver deadline deals made in July 2011. My rationale for looking back so far was simple. Most of these trades involve prospects who are years away from reaching the majors — assuming they ever do.

Since I enjoyed picking away at those old trades last year, I thought I’d do it again and put several 2012 deadline deals under the microscope this time. There weren’t many sexy moves that year, but I chose a few that I found interesting. I hope that you will too.

Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva
When the Texas Rangers dealt for Dempster, they were leading the American League (AL) West division and trying to earn a third consecutive World Series appearance. It’s hard to criticize the Rangers for making the deal. After losing two consecutive Fall Classics, they were willing to part with prospects to get over the hump.

Dempster pitched adequately during his 12 starts with Texas and became a free agent after the season. Unfortunately for the club though, the resurgent Oakland Athletics won the division and the Rangers lost the Wild Card game to the Baltimore Orioles.

The Chicago Cubs were at the other end of the spectrum. They were in the midst of a 101-loss season, which happened to be the first with Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager. For them, trading soon-to-be free agent Dempster to get much needed prospects made complete sense.

At the time of the deal, Villanueva — a third baseman — was considered the centerpiece of the deal for the Cubs, but he has yet to reach the majors.

Although the 24-year-old ranks number-26 in Chicago’s stacked minor league system, he’s behind National League (NL) Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant on the depth chart. More importantly though, Villanueva suffered a fractured fibula in Spring Training and hasn’t played this season.

Hendricks has experienced better luck and landed in Chicago’s rotation as a full-time starter last season. This year, he’s off to a great start and currently ranks number-13 among NL starters, based on FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR).

David Carpenter, J.A. Happ and Brandon Lyon for Joseph Musgrove, Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Carlos Perez, David Rollins, Asher Wojciechowski, and Kevin Comer
Another club in the midst of a massive rebuild — the Houston Astros — started trading away major league talent a year earlier when they dispatched Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn in deals to the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves respectively.

In 2012, new general manager Jeff Lunhow continued the trend started by his predecessor — Ed Wade — by shipping Happ and two veterans north of the border in an attempt to restock his decimated minor league system. Although ten players were involved in this deal, only a few panned out or provided value to either club.

Lyon, Cordero, and Francisco were gone — via trade or release — within three months. After the 2014 season, Perez was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for catcher Hank Conger, who was subsequently purchased by the Tampa Bay Rays last December.

Carpenter, along with manager John Farrell were sent to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Mike Aviles. Just four days later, Aviles and catcher Yan Gomes were sent packing to the Cleveland Indians for Esmil Rogers, who has since moved on from Toronto.

Rollins was a Rule 5 selection by the Seattle Mariners in December 2015 and currently plays with their Class-AAA affiliate. Wojciechowski was waived last month and subsequently picked up by the Miami Marlins. That leaves Happ, Comer, and Musgrove to discuss.

For Toronto, Happ was the centerpiece of the deal. The southpaw endured a tough run of injury problems with the Blue Jays, although he did provide value when healthy. In December 2014, the Jays swapped the veteran hurler Happ for outfielder Michael Saunders of the Mariners.

Happ must have enjoyed his stay in Canada because he returned to the team as a free agent last offseason after a brief stay in Pittsburgh last summer. Now, the Jays have both Happ and Saunders contributing to the big league club.

For the Astros, Comer hasn’t reached Class-AA yet and isn’t a top-30 prospect. However, Musgrove looks like he’ll eventually pay dividends for Houston. The 23-year-old is currently pitching at Class-AAA Fresno and projects to be a mid-rotation starter.

Zack Greinke for Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura
If I didn’t cover this deal made by current Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, I’d probably lose my parking privileges at the Prospect Insider headquarters.

At the time of the trade, Dipoto was running the Los Angeles Angels. His ball club was just three games behind the first place Rangers and held the lead in the AL wildcard race. Unfortunately, for the Angels and Dipoto, the team didn’t make it to the postseason despite winning 89 games.

The Angels’ dance partner — the Milwaukee Brewers — were hopelessly out of contention and looking to acquire value for Greinke, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Of the three players the Brewers acquired, Segura was the best. In his first full season with the club, he made the 2013 NL All-Star team and posted an excellent .294/.329/.423 triple-slash. The following two seasons, though, he was an offensive disappointment and subsequently shipped off to the Arizona Diamondbacks in January.

Hellweg is now in the San Diego Padres organization after signing as a minor league free agent prior to this season, while Pena is still in the Brewers minor league system. Neither is on their respective club’s 40-man roster.

Although Segura provided mixed results while with Milwaukee, the club did garner some value when they traded him along with pitcher Tyler Wagner to Arizona for minor leaguer Isan Diaz, pitcher Chase Anderson, and veteran infielder Aaron Hill. This was, in essence, the second layer of the Greinke deal.

The 34-year-old Hill will be a free agent at the end of the season and is a likely deadline deal chip for general manager David Stearns. But, Anderson and Diaz have long-term value to Stearns’ organization.

Anderson is under team control for five more seasons and currently a member of their rotation, while Diaz — a 2014 second-round draft pick — currently ranks number-11 in Milwaukee’s minor league system.

Hunter Pence for  Seth Rosin, Nate Schierholtz and Tommy Joseph
Just a year after picking up Pence from the Astros, Philadelphia flipped him to the San Francisco Giants for three youngsters. He’d eventually sign an extension with San Francisco and is under contract through the 2018 season. Along the way, the 33-year-old helped his team win the 2012 and 2014 Fall Classic.

Rosin is no longer with the Phillies after his selection during the Rule 5 draft by the New York Mets in December 2013. He’s currently with Class-AAA El Paso in the San Diego Padres organization, but not on their 40-man roster. Schierholtz became a free agent after the season and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014.

From the Phillies’ perspective, Joseph was the key component of the deal. At the time, the right-handed hitter appeared to Philadelphia’s catcher of the future. Unfortunately, concussions derailed his career behind the plate. As a result, the team moved him to first base on a full-time basis. Now, the 24-year-old appears to be the heir apparent to veteran first baseman Ryan Howard.

Randy Choate and Hanley Ramirez for Nathan Eovaldi and Scott McGough
The Los Angeles Dodgers were hot on the heels of the Giants and their new ownership group wanted to make a splash by reaching the postseason for the first time in three seasons. So, they acquired Choate and Ramirez from the Miami Marlins. Unfortunately, for the club, San Francisco won it all and the Dodgers missed the playoffs altogether.

Although Choate left as a free agent after season, Ramirez proved to be an important contributor who helped the Dodgers reach the next two postseasons before he signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in November 2014.

As compensation for losing Ramirez, Los Angeles received a compensatory draft pick — number-35 overall — and selected Kyle Funkhouser from the University of Louisville. Unfortunately, for the Dodgers, Funkhouser didn’t sign and opted to return to school for his senior year.

For the Marlins, they recouped some value in the deal, although it was in a circuitous manner — like the Greinke deal.

McGough was waived in April, but Miami was able to flip Eovaldi with Domingo German and Garrett Jones to nab David Phelps and Martin Prado from the New York Yankees in December 2014. Phelps is the team’s eight-inning setup man and Prado is their starting third baseman.

Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez for Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner
In another “sell-mode” maneuver, Miami sent Infante and Sanchez to the win-now Detroit Tigers. This deal turned out to be lopsided in favor of Detroit.

The Marlins got little value out of the threesome they received. Turner was traded to the Cubs for minor leaguers Jose Arias and Tyler Bremer two years later. Arias is no longer playing professional baseball and the 26-year-old Bremer has yet to pitch above the Class-AA level.

Flynn was traded to the Kansas City Royals in November 2014 for Aaron Crow, who was granted free agency a year later. Brantly was eventually waived by the Marlins and the Chicago White Sox. He’s currently one of Dipoto’s layers of roster depth at Class-AAA Tacoma.

Conversely, Detroit did much better. Infante played well for the Tigers until he became a free agent after the 2013 season, while Sanchez finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting during his first full season and he’s still toeing the mound in the Motor City.

Ichiro Suzuki for Danny Farquhar and D.J. Mitchell
This deal was a small one, but it did involve a future Hall of Famer and the Mariners. So, I thought I’d mention it.

Ichiro asked to be traded from the Emerald City and the organization obliged by sending him to New York. The former AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year helped the Yankees reach the postseason and played two more seasons with the club before moving on to the Marlins — his current team.

The 42-year-old is on-track to reach 3,000 hits this season and is certain to be a Mariners Hall of Fame member. Perhaps, his Cooperstown plaque will have him wearing a Seattle cap.

Seattle received fair value in return for Ichiro considering that he was 38-years-old and regressing. Although Mitchell was out of the Mariners system less than a year later and currently playing independent league ball, Farquhar helped the club for several seasons.

The right-hander was an asset out of the bullpen and even served as Seattle’s closer in the second half of 2013. During last offseason, Farquhar was part of a six-player deal with the Tampa Bay Rays that brought starting pitcher Nate Karns and outfield prospect Boog Powell to the Mariners.

Finally
Once again, my takeaway is that time is the best judge of deadline deals, not the instant gratification analysis certain to immediately follow after this year’s trades.

My advice to those following a team that deals for prospects next month is be patient and wait about four years before you make your final judgement. That’s easier said than done, but you’ll have a better idea on how your team actually fared. It might prevent your blood pressure from soaring in July too.

 …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortstop depth is adequate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, this year is certainly different in Seattle.

 …

MiLBDespite the historic influx of impact rookies last season in Major League Baseball, the crop of prospects in 2016 again is strong. Some began the season in the majors and remain stalwarts, while others began the season there and either remain or have since been promoted.

I spent the past week digging, studying, calling, texting and emailing scouts that have seen the top talents to get their takes on the first month of the season for the game’s best prospects.

For context, I’m using Keith Law’s Top 100, since he’s the best in the industry evaluating young talent.

1. Corey Seager, SS — Los Angeles Dodgers
While the youngest Seager kid is the most talented, many expect him to eventually move to third base where his brother Kyle excels for Seattle. In the meantime, he’s handling shortstop and producing on the high end of the offensive spectrum for the position, sitting at .252/.322/.398 through 27 games.

There’s plenty more there for Seager, particularly in the batting average and slugging percentage areas, but he’s finding the barrel plenty, using the entire field and pitchers still haven’t found a real good way to get him out consistently, even though he now has nearly 230 plate appearances in the majors.

Seager officially graduated from prospectdom in April (130 official at-bats threshold) but stardom is next. If and when he slides over to third, there’s enough Longoria-level power in the swing and even better hand-eye suggesting Seager may settle in as a .280 or better hitter, likely producing .350 or better on-base marks along the way.

2. Byron Buxton, CF — Minnesota Twins
Buxton, 22, also now has surpassed the at-bats threshold for rookie status, but he has been shipped back to Triple-A after starting the year .156/.208/.289 with a 49 percent strikeout rate in 17 games.

The biggest issues are coming from Buxton’s plate discipline. He’s swinging and missing a lot, including nearly 20 percent of the time he offers at pitches in the strike zone. His out-of-zone rate is putrid at under 49 percent. For context, the major-league average in 2016 is 61.1 percent.

Buxton, said one Twins official, simply needs more time to learn about his swing and approach. One scout opined “he’s caught in between like he wants to sit on a specific pitch every pitch, rather than reading and reacting.” This combined with the chasing and swing-and-miss issue suggests pitch recognition is a rather large factor here.

Buxton remains an elite prospect with a superstar ceiling. In case you’re wondering, Mike Trout was awful in his first 123 at-bats in the majors, hitting .220/.281/.390 in 2011, when he league was actually batting .258/.322/.407 versus the .246/.313/.398 it’s posing now.

3. Lucas Giolito, RHP — Washington Nationals
Giolito had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and has skated through his rehab and return to the mound, often touching 98 mph and pitching comfortably at 96. After starting last season in extended spring training, the right-hander was dominant in the Carolina League at age 20 and flashed more of the same in the Eastern League later last summer. He began 2016 back at Double-A Harrisburg.

In five starts Giolito has had problems locating his fastball consistently, and the 70-grade curveball hasn’t been there for him with regularity, but scouts are loving his mound presence, how he’s managing baserunners and the raw stuff shows up in spurts between the control problems.

The Nationals’ future ace remains on track to break into the big leagues next season and the only reason 2016 is highly unlikely is workload. He threw 117 innings a year ago and the club may limit the former first-round pick to somewhere in the 140-inning range, give or take 5-10 innings or so and depending on Giolito’s status at the time.

Scout: “We haven’t really seen it yet (in ’16) but he’ll find it (command) and he may be one of the elite starters in the bigs by this time next year.”

4. J.P. Crawford, SS — Philadelphia Phillies
Crawford, a first-round pick just three years ago, has zoomed through the minors and may be on track for the majors as early as September of this season.

The left-handed hitting shortstop is a smooth glove and a polished bat for his age and experience and spent more than half of last season in the Double-A Eastern League at age 20. Crawford returned there to start 2016 and has not disappointed. He’s batting .279/.421/.395 in 23 games with the lone negative dynamic from one scout’s report being “he was too selective in this series,” referring to Crawford potentially taking strikes he could be hitting into the gap.

He won’t be 22 until next January, but he’s not long for the minors and could be the next young star the Phillies ride into contention sooner than later. Odubel Herrera, Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Nola and Maikel Franco will welcome Crawford with open arms and challenge the Mets and Nationals as soon as 2018.

5. Julio Urias, LHP — Los Angeles Dodgers
Urias is fresh off six no-hit innings versus New Orleans. Yes, that’s Triple-A New Orleans and Urias is 19 years old for almost the entire minor league season.

Urias throws a rather easy 95 mph fastball, commanding well at 91-94 with two plus pitches in a curveball and changeup. He repeats well, per Law’s report, and he’s grown out of a soft, stocky build to 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He’s yet to get to 100 pitches in a single outing and has generally been held to 80 or fewer this season, suggesting he’s at least a year away from starting in the big leagues. But he’s dominating Pacific Coast League batters — 29-3 K/BB ratio and a .163 opponents batting average — and may not be far behind Giolito in joining baseball’s next wave of young pitching stars.

There’s no question the stuff and delivery project to ace status. The only question is when he arrives.

6. Tyler Glasnow, RHP — Pittsburgh Pirates
Glasnow has struggled some with his command and control in five starts this season, but the stuff has been as advertised, touching 96 mph and spinning a plus curveball.

He’s yet to show a useful changeup with any consistency, suggesting his first time in the majors could be spent in the Pirates bullpen in a pennant race, but considering the early-season performance of both Jeff Locke and Jonathon Niese, Glasnow likely is an upgrade over one if not both.

Scout: “I’d be worried about his ability to get through five or six consistently,” said one scout of Glasnow’s current projection in the big leagues.

7. Rafael Devers, 3B — Boston Red Sox
Devers, 19, is the highest rated prospect that started the 2016 season lower than the Double-A, and the Carolina League has been a challenge for the left-handed hitting Dominican native. Devers batted .144/.245/278 in 24 games through May 4, but seven of his 13 hits have gone for extra bases and he’s drawn 12 walks versus 17 strikeouts.

Devers may stay in Salem all season as he not only works on the hit tool — and a swing that gets loopy — and his defense at third base. As Law writes, Devers has a big-time arm, great hands and is agile despite being considered “big” for being just six feet tall.

One thing to watch for with Devers is his work versus left-handed pitching. While the numbers in 2015 don’t look great, he did bat .252 versus southpaws as an 18-year-old in the Sally League. It will take some time, but the power and ability to make contact will win out in the end. He’s probably 2-3 years from the majors, but likely cuts down Travis Shaw‘s maximum stranglehold on the hot corner at Fenway at three seasons.

8. Alex Reyes, RHP — St. Louis Cardinals
Reyes has yet to pitch in 2016 as he serves out his 50-game suspension for testing positive for a drug of abuse (marijuana) — not a performance enhancing substance.

Reyes should make his debut in the lower minors sometime in late May and eventually — and likely quickly — work his way to Triple-A Memphis. He’s just 21 with a projectable frame at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds and already sits 93-98 mph and has hit 100 in the past. He has tremendous arm speed and the ball explodes out his hand with late life all over the zone and some armside run.

He did have a bout of shoulder soreness that cut about a month off his season a year ago, which mat be the only true concern moving forward. Law sees an ETA of 2017 as reasonable, though if he’s healthy he may have innings left for some kind of role later this season since his season will get started late.

9. Nomar Mazara, OF — Texas Rangers
Mazar exited the 2015 season with a lot of positives in his pocket at age 20 and now that he’s a just-turned 21-year-old big leaguers, the knocks have gone away.

Mazara has not showed the tendency to get out on his front foot and he’s used the middle of the field and gone the other way with two strikes. The left-handed batter went 6-for-12 with a homer in three games in Triple-A Round Rock before Shin-Soo Choo‘s injury landed him the majors. In 21 games with the Rangers, Mazara has been terrific, hammering three long balls and batting .325 with eight walks to balance out a reasonable 16 punch outs in 90 plate appearances. He’s also played a strong right field.

When Choo is ready to return, he should DH, perhaps even part time, and the Rangers should consider moving Ian Desmond in a deal to a team needing a shortstop.

10. Orlando Arcia, SS — Milwaukee Brewers
While the Brewers are likely even further away from contention than are the Phillies, Arcia is ahead of Crawford by a few months or more in terms of development. There are some similarities between the two, but Arcia doesn’t come with quite the upside, instead trading probability and the aforementioned timetable advantage.

Arcia is an above-average runner with above-average range and arm and a tremendous ability to come in on slow rollers and handle everything around the bag with big-time instincts. He’s not without power at the plate, perhaps reaching double figures in home runs while reaching the gaps regularly, but he’s aggressive and isn’t likely to post big OBP numbers, at least early in his career. This is what separates Crawford from Arcia in the long run.

Arcia’s at Triple-A Colorado Springs batting .304/.333/.435 in 23 games. He may need less than half of this season to prove he’s ready for the majors, but it’s unclear what the Brewers’ plan for him is considering their present status as a no-chance bottom feeder in the National League.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Mariners Salary Distribution 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 ALW Salary Dist

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

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

WalkerThere are many ‘Under 25′ or ’25 and Under’ player rankings to go along with the farm system rankings put out by Keith Law, MLB.com and Baseball America. A good number of the sites covering prospects offer such a ’25 and Under’ type list, apparently in attempt to better evaluate where each club is in terms of young talent. Not Prospect Insider. Why? I’ll explain.

For starters, the age of 25, or any other age one might choose as the cut-off, is 100 percent arbitrary. Why not 27? Why not 23? Second, There are much more significant cut-off criterion than age, or even rookie status when attempting to determine the long-term status of an organization, and since the mere presence of these ‘Under 25′ types suggest an attempt to take the analysis deeper than the farm, let’s go yet one step further, and with more meaning. Let me explain that, too.

Baseball teams do not benefit specifically from having as many good and/or promising players 25 years of age and under as possible. They benefit from having as many good and/or promising players under club control for as long as possible, and good+cheap+now is more valuable than any other combination. No matter how good a club’s up-to-25’s are, if they’ve accrued three or more years of service time, or happen to qualify for Super 2 arbitration status, they start to dent the organization’s financial flexibility, often impacting immediate or future plans. If a player broke into the big leagues at 22 years of age and stayed there, he’d be arbitration eligible after his age 24 season, making his age-25 season one under an arbitration salary — which almost always hits seven figures.

When clubs look to rebuild — such as the Atlanta Braves the past two seasons — they do not seek players of specific ages to go with certain levels of abilities. They seek controllable talents, sprinkled across all levels of experience levels and statuses. Many played all of 2015 in the minors. Most of those will do so again in 2016. Others have four-to-six years of club control attached. Rather than having to immediately write payroll checks for seven figures on several players, the Braves will pay their young big-league talents the league minimum for up to three full seasons. This is how they’ll be able to extend the contracts of key players heading toward free agency or perhaps even splurge on an impact free agent or two as they approach legitimate contention in the National League East. It’s also how they’ll entice other clubs to part with what they desire in order to complete their roster.

The same idea is why the Houston Astros are so dangerous right now — a threat to win it all for the next three or more season. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Lance McCullers and company will make peanuts for at least two more years, barring contract extensions, which only come at the club’s discretion.

The age of the player is arbitrary. His rookie status is meaningless. This is what makes the Nathan Karns trade a potential gem for the Mariners; he’s 28, yes, but has just one year of service on the ledger. The right-hander may be entering his prime years while the club is required to pay him only the league minimum for both 2016 and 2017, his age 28 and 29 seasons.

Here are the AL West’s top players who have yet to qualify for arbitration, heading into the 2016 season. Below that is a group of players in Year 1 of arbitration, which typically are very affordable stages for the club. Add the following groups to the farm system rankings of your choice and that combo is a better representation of where each club is in terms of housing the necessary young talent to put forth its best foot for the longer-term future — beyond 2016. The overall organization ‘ranking’ may not change much when implementing pre-arbitration talents, but clubs only can house 25 players on the big-league roster, 40 on the reserve list and players run out of options. The difference between the clubs is more opportunities to mitigate cost. Front office mistakes reduce such an advantage.

After the Mariners’ groups are those of the other four clubs in the American League West, for comparison. Of course, the financial situation of each club matters when trying to determine what their chances at long-term success may be, so keep that in mind.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Nathan Karns RHP 1.033
Taijuan Walker RHP 1.142
James Paxton LHP 2.027
Ketel Marte SS 0.066
Mike Montgomery LHP 0.089
Jesus Montero 1B/DH 1.167
Chris Taylor SS 0.139
Mike Zunino C 2.084
Vidal Nuno LHP 2.015
Stefen Romero OF 0.170
Steve Clevenger C 2.123
Luis Sardinas SS 0.143

It’s worth noting a player such as Mike Zunino is far from guaranteed to earn the nearly-year of service he needs to hit arbitration status after this coming season. Taijuan Walker is likely to hit Super Two status after 2016 — as you can see, he’s paced to end this coming year with two years, 142 days of service time. After the 2015 season, the Super Two cut-off was two years, 130 days, a mark Clevenger missed by just seven days of service.

Keep in mind that if James Paxton doesn’t win a spot in the starting rotation this spring, there’s a great chance he starts the season in Triple-A Tacoma. He enters 2016 needing almost a full season in the majors — 145 days, to be exact — to reach three years of service. He needs just 105 days of or so to join Walker in Super Two status, however, if we assume the cut-off repeats at two years, 130 days (it typically is different every season, however). In order for Paxton to miss out on arbitration after this season he’ll need to spend more than two full months in Triple-A, not counting rehab assignment time.

Mike Montgomery and Jesus Montero are out of options, but if the latter makes the club out of spring training and spends most of the season in the big leagues, arbitration likely will be part of his offseason, too.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Leonys Martin CF $4.15m
Evan Scribner RHP $807,500

Steve Clevenger, clearly, will get to arbitration status after this season, needing but a week or two to get there. Karns is set for two more full seasons of club-controlled contracts with no chance to get to arbitration until after the 2017 season. Evan Scribner was a Super Two qualifier this season, but remains affordable at under $1 million for 2016. Leonys Martin was a rather pricey first-year arbitration qualifier and a poor 2016 likely means a non-tender scenario for the center fielder next winter.

The Texas Rangers rank between No. 6 and No. 10, depending on who you ask, but we can add the following to their future chances to sustain the success they started a year ago.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Rougned Odor 2B 1.121
Sam Freeman LHP 2.050
Nick Martinez RHP 1.143
Delino DeShields, Jr. SS 1.000
Keone Kela LHP 1.000

Rougned Odor is a rather key name here, as is Delino DeShields, Jr., since both were big parts of the club’s success in 2015. The pair’s value, while earning just league-minimum salaries, is especially critical with other large contracts on the books, including Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder. Once Odor, for example, gets expensive, Fielder’s deal will be nearing expiration.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Shawn Tolleson RHP $3.275m
Jake Diekman LHP $1.255m
Tanner Scheppers RHP $900,000
Jurickson Profar SS $605,000
Sam Dyson RHP CC

For Texas, this group may be more important, since their best bullpen arm, Shawn Tolleson, and a potentially-terrific trade chip in Jurickson Profar, remains relatively cheap. Profar’s health is a major concern at this point, but if such injuries would have occurred in 2018, instead, Profar might be in non-tender territory. The Rangers can afford to sit back and hope for another year or two, which could pay off big, considering Profar’s immense talent.

The Los Angeles Angels ranked near the bottom of everyone’s list, topping out at No. 26 and bottom out at, well, the bottom. Their list of controlled contracts and first-year arbitration players isn’t impressive, either. At press time, the club was rumored to be near acquiring former Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders, who is a first-year arbitration player.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Matt Shoemaker RHP 1.166
Tyler Skaggs LHP 2.066
C.J. Cron 1B/DH 1.110
Mike Morin RHP 1.137
Cory Rasmus RHP 1.155
Johnny Giavotella 2B 2.055

Tyler Skaggs could be the key player here. The lefty has a chance to be a reliable No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but is coming off Tommy John surgery and may not reach such status in 2016, but there appears to be a good shot he nets the service time to hit arbitration status. He’ll likely remain super cheap into 2017, however. C.J. Cron being a cheap, useful bat — especially with Albert Pujols’ current health situation — is a pretty big deal for the Angels, who remain nearly $30 million from the luxury tax threshold for 2016 but did not go out and add insurance for their incumbents.

Cory Rasmus, Mike Morin and Johnny Giavotella are role players who have some value as long they’re not making much money.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Kole Calhoun RF $3.4m

Kole Calhoun reached Super Two status after last season and is one of the Angels’ best players — probably No. 2 behind Mike Trout — and is a value at $3.4 million for 2016. It may be on Damon Oppenheimer’s to-do list to seek controllable players — there’s no doubt it is — but doing so without return value is difficult and certainly will test the first-time general manager’s ability to get deals done with creativity.

The Oakland Athletics are in a unique position; they’re lacking in talent down on the farm, sitting at No. 18 in Keith Law’s Org Rankings, and having but a small handful of controllable talents that figure to be key cogs in whatever machine they’re looking to build.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Khris Davis OF 2.104
Liam Hendriks RHP 2.038
Sonny Gray RHP 2.061
Stephen Vogt C 2.084
Josh Phegley C 1.114
Marcus Semien SS 1.118
Kendall Graveman LHP 1.014
Chris Bassitt RHP 0.127
Jesse Hahn RHP 1.086
Billy Burns OF 1.020
Mark Canha OF/1B 1.000

There are two pieces of good news, however. First, Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt are two of Oakland’s club-controlled players that aren’t yet earning arbitration dollars in 2016. Second, the A’s have but $34.7 million on the books for 2017 and just $13.7 million on the books for 2018. This strong suggests the financial flexibility to cover most or all of Gray’s arbitration years, and perhaps even a free agent year or two. Marcus Semien is a big value here, too, manning the shortstop position with some upside at the plate, all for the league minimum.

The A’s haven’t a single first-year arbitration player, though, and as shown above many of their key pre-arb players will hit arbitration status after 2016.

The Houston Astros are in the best shape of any club in the division, even when it goes beyond the farm system itself. Their strong rookie class of 2015 — Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr. leading the way — puts them in a great spot for years to come, but the Astros are in good shape at all levels of service time.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Carlos Correa SS 0.119
Lance McCullers RHP 0.139
Ken Giles RHP 1.113
Collin McHugh RHP 2.085
Brad Peacock LHP 2.124
Will Harris RHP 2.102
George Springer SS 1.166
Mike Fiers RHP 2.085
Jake Marisnick OF 1.145
Matt Duffy 3B 1.059
Dan Straily RHP 1.126
Preston Tucker SS 0.150

Three of the Astros best six players reside in 0-3 territory, an impressive roster set for GM Jeff Luhnow and staff. One cam make an argument that 10 of the club’s 15 best players will earn less than $6 million in 2016, with five of them earning less than $1 million.

Not only is the Houston farm system still solid enough — No. 17 by Law — despite graduation several over the past two seasons, but their list of 0-3s and first-year arbitration players is as impressive as it gets in Major League Baseball, and Luhnow added to that over the winter in the form of closer Ken Giles.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Dallas Keuchel LHP $7.25m
Josh Fields RHP $900,000

The one area that may get a bit difficult for Houston is with Dallas Keuchel, whose first-year arbitration salary broke a record for pitchers. His Cy Young Award didn’t hurt, but the Astros may not be in a position to compete with Keuchel’s future market. The onus will be on Luhnow to continue to find starting pitching so he can trade Keuchel — if they prefer not to pony up the big dollars to keep him. His 2017 salary projects north of $10 million — perhaps somewhere in the $12-13 million range — with another bump to the $17-18 million or higher likely heading into 2018. The other controllable assets on the roster make it plausible for the Astros to keep such a salary, however, so don’t expect a break-up of this ultra-young group in H-town.

In the end, 0-3s and first-year arbitration talent is a continuation of the poor farm system for the Angels, but the Astros get a significant boost from the 17th-best farm system, suggesting long-term success as well as the immediate chance to win. The Rangers’ top-10 farm system doesn’t get a huge lift from their 0-3s or first-year arbitration eligibles, but there’s enough there to maintain the optimism moving forward beyond the next two seasons. The Mariners have some upside in their 0-3s that isn’t present in a bottom-quarter farm system, thanks to Walker, Paxton, Karns and Marte, lifting their overall future outlook a full step or two. Walker’s solid final three months to 2015 lend an extra half-step, too, since we could be talking about a No. 2 or No. 3 starter this season.…

Aoki Dipoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 …

 

Hamels
Last season was a forgettable one for Seattle Mariner fans who were forced to watch the American League (AL) West division standings turned upside down in a way that didn’t result in their team reaching the postseason. The two worst teams of 2014 reached the postseason and the two teams that had reached the postseason the season prior took a step backwards. At the same time, the Mariners – who were projected to be a World Series contender – ended up losing 86 games.

This abrupt change of fortune made for an exciting baseball season, plus helped set the stage for an interesting Hot Stove season. As with every off-season, priorities vary between teams as will their respective approach to address weaknesses and/or accentuate areas of strength. With pitchers and catchers set to report next month, it’s about time to review what the Mariners’ rivals have done to improve their rosters so far. It’s important to emphasize the “so far” because there’s still time for deals to happen, especially with several high-impact free agents still on the market.

For each team, you’ll see a payroll projection from baseball-reference.com. The numbers will become more firm after the arbitration process has run its course. For those interested in specifics, MLB Trade Rumors provides arbitration estimates that are widely used by numerous baseball sites, including Baseball Reference and Prospect Insider, which can be found here.

Next, up is each organization’s needs at the end of last season – based on projected free agent losses and areas of weakness. After that, there’s some background information on each club, a summary of their moves to date, and what’s left to be done before the teams break camp for the regular season.

Houston Astros
Estimated payroll: $88.9M
Needs: 1B/ LF/SP/RP

The massive roster reclamation undertaken by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow propelled the team into the playoff picture much sooner than most observers had predicted. Houston led the division for most of the season before falling on hard times in September. Despite their late season setback, Houston managed to beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and extend the World Series champion Kansas City Royals to five games before bowing out in the Divisional Series.

It’s reasonable to anticipate that last year’s rapid improvement and high expectations for 2016 will lead to a groundswell of fan support in 2016. What’s unknown is club owner Jim Crane’s willingness to provide Luhnow with more payroll flexibility. Player salaries have incrementally increased over the past few seasons from a league-low $26 million in 2013 to approximately $72 million last season. Although the team’s payroll will increase again, it’s projected to remain in the bottom third of the league despite the fact they franchise is based in the fourth largest city in the United States.

Off-season action:
Thanks to the bevvy of young talent that Luhnow and his predecessor – Ed Wade – have amassed and the fact that they were able to retain a couple of key free agents, the Astros haven’t made dramatic changes to their roster. In fact, they’ve added the fewest new major league players of any club in the AL West.

The club’s biggest move was picking up closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles’ arrival permits Houston to make former closer Luke Gregerson their eighth inning set-up man. Another move that helped bolster their bullpen was their retention of southpaw Tony Sipp, who was in high demand on the free agent market.

The Astros filled their left field hole when Colby Rasmus became the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer. As with the Giles deal, keeping their own player improves their overall by keeping Jake Marisnick and prospect Preston Tucker waiting in the wings.

What’s next?
It appears that the Astros plan to use Evan Gattis as their primary designated hitter and rely on former top prospect Jon Singleton at first base after the club non-tendered Chris Carter. The team would be well-served to either acquire a full-time first baseman or at least someone provide depth at the position.

Since Chris Davis has opted to stay in Baltimore, the market for first baseman has thinned out considerably. Justin Morneau can still play, but his concussion history makes him a risk. Another option would be Steve Pearce who can play first base or in a corner outfield spot. That kind of versatility is always a plus for any organization, especially if the team carries eight relievers and only has three bench players  – including a catcher. Based on market availability, the club may be best served to look for a trade partner.

As far as the rotation, adding a solid starter like Texas native Yovani Gallardo – who’s made 30 or more starts in seven consecutive seasons – would help provide depth and an innings eater for the Astros. Another option could be former Mariner Doug Fister who hasn’t been as durable, but would come with a lower price tag.

Fortunately for the team, the main pieces of their roster are relatively inexpensive and the lineup should improve simply by having AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and fellow rookie Lance McCullers for an entire season as long as they avoid a sophomore letdown. Also, healthy production from outfielders Carlos Gomez and George Springer for an entire season provides an instant improvement. With that said, the areas that I just noted need to improve in order for the club to get ahead in the competitive AL West.

Peter Gammons of the Gammons Daily noted yesterday that three different baseball executives have told him that they believe that free agent Yoenis Cespedes could end up in Houston. Certainly, the Astros could afford the 30-year-old outfielder from a financial standpoint, especially with so many young stars under team control for the foreseeable future. However, the club would likely need to move one of their outfielders or Gattis to make room for the right-handed slugger on their roster.

Oakland Athletics
Estimated payroll: $83.1M
Needs: 1B/2B/SP/RP

The Athletics are attempting to get back on track after a disastrous last place finish. Oakland fans were forced to watch their team finish with 68 wins, while former Athletic Josh Donaldson – who was traded last off-season – won the AL Most Valuable Player and helped the Toronto Blue Jays reach the AL Championship Series.

The fact that the club has demonstrated a willingness to deal a budding superstar, like Donaldson, has led to speculation that the A’s might do something similar with ace Sonny Gray. After all, the 26-year-old would bring a significant return. Team vice president Billy Beane recently told MLB Radio that he doesn’t intend to trade their star hurler and best player. The right-hander has a 2.88 earned run average (ERA) in 74 career starts and is under team control through the 2019 season. That’s right, the pitcher who finished third in last season’s AL Cy Young award voting will earn the league minimum in 2016. If Beane changes his mind, he won’t have trouble finding potential trade partners.

Off-season action:
Since the cash-strapped club is never in the market for a upper-tier free agents and management is currently unwilling to part with their staff ace, the Athletics are more inclined to assume risk and make unconventional acquisitions like free agent starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who was signed to a one-year $4.25 million deal. Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins after having shoulder surgery last summer, will open the season on the disabled list. However, he’s only entering his age-27 season and will be under team control through 2017.

Another reclamation project is southpaw Rich Hill. The 35-year-old – who’s been a reliever for the majority of his 11-year career – will be starter for the Oakland in 2016. Both Alvarez and Hill present different kinds of risks for the club. Time will only tell if either gamble pays off for the Athletics.

To upgrade second base, the club obtained infielder Jed Lowrie from the Astros, which prompted them to ship Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for minor league pitchers Jeffrey Wendelken and Zack Erwin – a fourth round pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur draft. I’m sure that some Oakland fans feel a sense of irony in seeing Lawrie leave just one season after being part of the package received for Donaldson.

At first base, the A’s acquired Yonder Alonso in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The left-handed hitter represents a significant upgrade at the plate over Ike Davis and is viewed as a good defender. Alonso will likely pair with the right-handed hitting Mark Canha to form a first base platoon when Canha isn’t playing in the outfield.

Oakland aggressively addressed their bullpen needs by adding relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski. The team hopes that these four veterans – plus a healthy Sean Doolittle – will help reinvigorate a relief corps that permitted an AL-worst 34-percent of inherited runners to score last season.

What’s next?
With the trade of righty Jesse Chavez for Hendriks, Manager Bob Melvin will have to rely upon Hill and youngsters Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Aaron Brooks to form a rotation behind Gray. Jarrod Parker could also be in the mix after missing the past two seasons due to arm surgery.

Teams with higher operating budgets would have the payroll flexibility to address their rotation needs by going after a lower-tier free agent starter like Gallardo, or even Fister. Perhaps, the market will drive down the price on one of the remaining free agents. If the club stands pat with the current roster, a lot of things have to go just right for Oakland to contend in 2016.

Los Angeles Angels
Estimated payroll: $167.7M
Needs: C/3B/LF/more offense

The Angels remained in postseason contention until the last day of the 2015 season, but fell short to Houston for the second wild card spot. The abrupt mid-season departure of former general manager Jerry Dipoto provided an opportunity for the Angels to redo their front office and assess their roster with a fresh set of eyes.

New general manager Billy Eppler inherits a roster weighed down by the $45 million that veterans Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson will be earning in 2016. Plus, the team is on the hook to pay former Angel Josh Hamilton $26.4 million, although he’s playing for the Texas Rangers. In total, the Halos have over $70 million obligated to four players who are either in decline or playing for a divisional rival.

To compound matters, owner Arte Moreno is on record saying that he’s reluctant to go over the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. As a result, the team hasn’t been active in an big-ticket free agents.

Off-season action:
Shortly after taking over the baseball operations, Eppler pulled off his first significant deal by getting shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league player Jose Briceno from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for shortstop Erick Aybar and pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.

Adding a defensive stalwart like Simmons is a plus for the Angels. But, it came at the cost of two prospects and didn’t address an area viewed as an urgent need – shortstop. Newcomb is a potential top-end starter, who is ranked in the top-20 among all major league prospects and number-two in the Braves system. Filling a more urgent hole in a deal would have beneficial for the Angels’ 2016 outlook.

The remaining moves made by the Angels were low cost additions. With the departure of last year’s third baseman – David Freese – via free agency, the club acquired Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals in exchange for reliever Trevor Gott and minor leaguer Michael Brady. Newly acquired Geovany Soto is expected to pair with youngster Carlos Perez to form the Angels’ catching tandem. Plus, free agent Cliff Pennington can play second base, shortstop and third base and some outfield, if needed.

What’s next?
Although Eppler has stated that he believes Moreno would approve exceeding the luxury tax mark for the right player, the team has yet to find that player and make a significant upgrade at any position from an offensive standpoint.

The area that desperately needs that “right player” is left field. For a club that ranked number-25 in on-base percentage last season, upgrading the position with an established offensive player would be a step in the right direction towards reinvigorating the club’s offense. Currently, the club has arguably the best player in the game – Mike Trout – in center field and Gold Glover Kole Calhoun manning right field. Calhoun has pop in his bat, but his batting average and on-base percentage are just league-average.

That leaves a potential tandem of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry to man left field. Other outfielders currently on the team’s 40-man roster include Todd Cunningham, Efren Navarro and minor leaguer Rafael Ortega. If the Angels can’t find more offensive punch from their outfield, 2016 could be another year of the club’s offense being Mike Trout and eight other guys.

Three free agent outfielders who would be an immediate upgrade be Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Justin Upton. But, it comes back to the same thing – ownership’s reluctance to go over the luxury tax mark. Perhaps, they can sign a lower tier free agent like Austin Jackson or Denard Span. Neither is a perfect fit, but would present better options than what’s on the current 40-man roster.

Texas Rangers
Estimated payroll: $144.2M
Needs: C/SP/RP

The defending AL West division champions were forced to take a broken road to postseason contention last year. First, the club lost ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John elbow surgery in Spring Training. To make matters worse, the club was forced to go without the services of fellow starters Derek Holland and Martin Perez for the first half of the season. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding slugger Prince Fielder – who was returning from neck surgery – and the Rangers 2015 outlook appeared bleak.

While most observers didn’t expect Texas to be a contender after their run of bad fortune with their rotation, general manager Jon Daniels never waved the proverbial white flag. He continued to look for opportunities to improve his roster for 2015 and beyond throughout the season. He first reacquired former Ranger Hamilton from the Angels after he wore out his welcome in Anaheim. Hamilton’s contributions proved to be limited. But, Daniels made his most significant moves in July when he traded for Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels and added relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson to bolster his bullpen.

Fortunately for Daniels and his ball club, the Rangers were able to ride out their early misfortune. Holland and Perez returned after the all-star break, Fielder earned American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, and Hamels helped the club make a late surge to pass the Astros and Angels to win the division. Now, the club is poised to compete for the postseason again.

Off-season action:
To a degree, Daniels got an early start with his off-season shopping when he picked up Hamels, Diekman, and Dyson last July. The club’s major hot stove move was trading outfielder Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan. The key to this deal for Texas was adding the hard-throwing and versatile Wilhelmsen to buoy their bullpen, which now brags a core of closer Shawn Tolleson, Diekman, Dyson, sophomore Keone Kela, and their newest addition from Seattle.

The Rangers also signed former Mariners outfielder Justin Ruggiano – who rakes against left-handed pitching – to boost outfield depth and possibly be a back-up first baseman. Ruggiano also provides the team with some insurance in case Hamilton encounters performance or availability issues. Although the fan favorite is expected to be a regular contributor, Hamilton underwent another knee procedure this off-season and has struggled to stay healthy. The silver lining for Rangers’ management is that the Angels are paying the majority of his salary. So, the team won’t be fiscally constrained if they need to move past the former league MVP.

Despite the speculation that the club wouldn’t retain their arbitration-eligible catchers – Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos – both players are still on the roster. Gimenez would appear to be the low-hanging fruit if another option were to be found. He had a strong 2015, however, his .255/.330/.490 slash in a small-sample size of 113 plate appearances were well above career averages.

What’s next?
The team appears to be satisfied with going to the Cactus League with Darvish and Hamels serving as co-aces and having Holland, Perez, Colby Lewis, Nick Martinez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez competing for the final three rotation spots.

Top prospect – third baseman Joey Gallo – wowed fans with his tape measure home runs after being called up to fill in for the injured Adrian Beltre last season, but his high strikeout rate landed him back in Class-AAA ball after Beltre returned. The team began playing the young slugger in left field last season and could permanently transition him to the outfield, especially if reports are correct that the club is working on extension for the seemingly ageless Beltre. It’s also possible that Gallo could be an injury replacement at first or third base.

It’s possible that Daniels will, once again, wait until the regular season to further upgrade his roster. One potential trade chip – shortstop Jurickson Profar – could be in high demand if he proves that he’s ready to play the field after two shoulder surgeries and a long recovery. It’s unlikely that Daniels would be willing to move the former number-one overall prospect in the majors when his value is so low. It’s more probably that he’ll hold onto Profar until he regains his form either with the big league club or at Class-AAA ball.

Final thoughts
It’s important to note once again that there’s still time for deals to be made, especially with several high-profile and many lower-tier free agents still on the market. Position players like Cespedes, Upton, and Dexter Fowler would make sense for more than one AL West club, if the price was right. The same could be said about Gallardo or Fister.

Every one of these clubs will continue to attempt to add major league talent, plus extend minor league invites to players in order to create more depth opportunities, especially with relievers and starting pitchers. Even after the season starts, there’s still time to make additions to the roster. Just look at the 2015 Rangers and their in-season maneuvering if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to upgrade on the fly.

Later this week, I’ll cover the Mariners’ very active Hot Stove effort to upgrade their roster and brighten their 2016 outlook.