Mastering the JeDi code

 From what I’ve been able to determine, social media bestowed Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto with the nickname of “JeDi” while he was still working for the Los Angeles Angels. I wasn’t aware of this clever nod to the fictional characters in the “Star Wars” movie franchise until I noticed it on Twitter after his Seattle arrival. I have to admit that it did make me chuckle a bit.

[pullquote]The lineup needs to be a little bit longer. The rotation needs to be a little bit deeper. The bullpen needs to have more layers than it presently has. — JeDi code [/pullquote]

In honor of Dipoto’s sci-fi handle, I decided to explore the key components of his 2016 roster revitalization plan — the “JeDi code” — which was first announced when he was initially introduced in late September of last year. Have the master’s guiding principles gained a foothold within the organization or is there more work left to do?

Lengthen the lineup
Despite a second-half offensive surge, Seattle’s on-base percentage (OBP) ranked number-22 in the majors and lagged behind 10 National League teams that actually let their starting pitchers to swing a bat. As JeDi alluded to during his introductory presser, the lineup lacked “length” and was heavily dependent on the success of three core players — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.

The team’s bottom-three lineup spots — not including pitchers — combined to rank number-29 in OBP last season. The top-two spots in the batting order weren’t much better, placing number-28. Only the middle of the lineup, which ranked eleventh in the majors, demonstrated any measure of effectiveness at the plate.

When looking at the following table, which breaks down each spot in the batting order and its corresponding OBP ranking, it becomes very clear that Seattle’s lineup was “short” and inadequate. If a team could limit damage caused by the four middle spots in the order, their chances of beating the Mariners were much better.

Seattle Mariners “Short” 2015 Lineup
Split BA OBP SLG MLB OBP Rank
Batting 1st .247 .307 .394 24
Batting 2nd .255 .312 .424 24
Batting 3rd .273 .326 .470 22
Batting 4th .314 .377 .542 2
Batting 5th .260 .333 .449 8
Batting 6th .249 .312 .396 13
Batting 7th .233 .298 .400 20
Batting 8th .196 .265 .296 27
Batting 9th .196 .250 .295 15
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2016.

From a roster standpoint, Dipoto has addressed this significant deficiency through several steps. First, he retained Franklin Gutierrez to be part of the team’s corner-outfield platoon. The oft-injured “Guiti” enjoyed a healthy 2015 and proved that he could still contribute at the plate, when his body doesn’t betray him.

Another internal move that’s likely to help is the club’s decision to go with Ketel Marte as their starting shortstop. During his two-month debut with the team last year, the switch-hitter demonstrated a penchant for reaching base. Whether the 22-year-old can sustain a .359 OBP has yet to be determined, however his impressive 82-percent contact rate combined with his plus speed should at least translate to an OBP that surpasses league-average.

When making deals this winter, JeDi placed a premium on acquiring hitters who had a history of being able to consistently reach base. Because of this new strategy, some of the players that the general manager inherited didn’t fit into his vision for the ball club. Two players who fell into category were slugger Mark Trumbo and first baseman Logan Morrison, both were used as trade chips this offseason

New starting players with a history of on-base success include veterans Chris Iannetta, Adam Lind, and Nori Aoki. The only starting position player acquired who has struggled to consistently reach base during his big league career — Leonys Martin — is expected offset his offensive shortcomings with his superb glove. “A run saved is the same as a run scored” says the JeDi.

Potential Opening Day Lineup w/Steamer Projections
Batting Order
Name AVG OBP SLG
Batting 1st Nori Aoki .270 .332 .360
Batting 2nd Ketel Marte .269 .312 .356
Batting 3rd Robinson Cano .285 .344 .444
Batting 4th Nelson Cruz .255 .321 .476
Batting 5th Kyle Seager .265 .332 .443
Batting 6th Adam Lind .268 .342 .431
Batting 7th Seth Smith .248 .331 .408
Batting 8th Chris Iannetta .215 .323 .353
Batting 9th Leonys Martin .242 .293 .350

The team’s new players combined with holdovers Marte, Gutierrez, Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Seth Smith give the Mariners a much deeper, more diverse lineup going into 2016. Considering Seattle’s woeful offensive performances in recent years, these changes should help provide the team’s faithful with some measure of optimism as Opening Day approaches.

Deepen the rotation
JeDi’s first major trade helped address this element. He dealt Morrison, Brad Miller, and Danny Farquhar to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for hard-throwing starter Nate Karns and outfield prospect Boog Powell — another player with good on-base ability. Some may believe that what happened next during the rotation build was either karma or influenced by a cosmic power of some sort.

When it appeared that the Mariners had lost fan-favorite Hisashi Iwakuma to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they struck a deal with the Boston Red Sox to acquire veteran starter Wade Miley and reliever Jonathan Aro for pitchers Carson Smith and Roenis Elias. Just a few weeks later, Iwakuma returned to the Mariners when his deal with Los Angeles fell through.

It’s almost as if someone had played a mind trick on Dodgers management and told them that “Kuma” was “not the pitcher you’re looking for.” Perhaps, it was always the 34-year-old’s destiny to return the Emerald City.

As Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont noted, Miley isn’t likely to fill the role of a number-two starter for Seattle, but he does provide value. The addition of both Miley and Karns, plus the retention of Iwakuma deepens a rotation that also has ace Felix Hernandez and the young trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Mike Montgomery returning.

Steamer projections illustrate a club with more — and better — rotation options than last year’s squad. Using the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) to compare value, Seattle’s starting staff provided 8.7 fWAR last season, which ranked 19th in the majors. The current cadre in Peoria projects to be at 14.5 fWAR during 2016.

Steamer Projections for 2016 Rotation Options
Name IP ERA FIP fWAR
Felix Hernandez 221.0 3.18 3.12 5.0
Taijuan Walker 184.0 3.68 3.86 2.4
Wade Miley 175.0 4.00 4.04 1.9
Hisashi Iwakuma 168.0 3.44 3.57 2.8
Nate Karns 128.0 4.06 4.15 1.2
James Paxton 72.0 4.11 4.09 0.8
Vidal Nuno 9.0 3.39 3.72 0.1
Joe Wieland 9.0 3.80 3.98 0.1
Michael Montgomery 9.0 3.93 4.04 0.1
Total 977.0 3.66 3.73 14.5

Some may wonder why there are so many names on the list, but a team can never have enough starters or relievers. For example, the Mariners used ten starters last season, which was the major league average for 2015. That’s why you see names like Vidal Nuno, who has started and relieved in the big leagues, and Joe Wieland listed above. The club has also extended non-roster invites to Brad Mills and Donn Roach, who both have major league starting experience and provide additional fringe-depth.

Add layers to bullpen
As of today, the relief corps is definitely deeper compared to the unit that concluded last season. But, there are more layers of uncertainty than reliable depth. Until the bevy of new faces acquired by JeDi have an opportunity to prove themselves, doubts will remain.

Last season, Mariners suffered due to reliever volatility. The club’s bullpen delivered a value of 1.1 fWAR. Only the relievers of Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, and Boston Red Sox were worse. If the Seattle’s relievers do not significantly exceed their Steamer projections, this year’s bullpen will only rank a few spots higher than the 2015 edition.

Steamer projections for 2016 Bullpen Options
Name IP LOB% ERA FIP fWAR
Steve Cishek 65.0 72.4 % 3.85 3.91 0.3
Joaquin Benoit 65.0 75.6 % 3.41 3.72 0.5
Charlie Furbush 55.0 75.1 % 3.37 3.61 0.4
Tony Zych 55.0 74.4 % 3.41 3.62 0.3
Evan Scribner 45.0 76.4 % 3.11 3.30 0.3
Cody Martin 40.0 73.7 % 3.78 3.96 0.0
Vidal Nuno 35.0 76.0 % 3.39 3.72 0.0
Jonathan Aro 30.0 73.7 % 3.93 4.25 0.0
Justin De Fratus 25.0 71.5 % 4.27 4.47 0.0
Ryan Cook 20.0 72.6 % 3.87 4.04 0.0
David Rollins 15.0 74.0 % 3.55 3.78 0.0
Joe Wieland 10.0 73.3 % 3.80 3.98 0.0
Mayckol Guaipe 10.0 71.7 % 4.07 4.22 0.0
Danny Hultzen 10.0 69.5 % 4.74 4.50 0.0
Michael Montgomery 10.0 71.6 % 3.93 4.04 0.0
Joel Peralta 10.0 75.7 % 3.75 4.18 0.0
Total 481.0 74.2 % 3.58 3.81 1.8

Clearly, JeDi is counting on bounce back years from Charlie Furbush, who is returning after an injury-shortened season, several other holdovers, and imports Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Evan Scribner, Jonathan Aro, Cody Martin, Joel Peralta, Ryan Cook, and Justin De Fratus to provide enough depth.

How important is bullpen depth? Even the World Series champion Kansas City Royals — known for having the best bullpen in the majors last season — used 14 pitchers who were relievers during at least 90-percent of their appearances. Last season’s league-average for relievers used was 17; Seattle used 19. Without readily available bullpen reserves, it’s highly improbable that any team can remain in contention during an arduous 162-game season.

Obviously, quantity is nothing without quality. That’s why the Mariners’ pen will be an “unknown unknown” during the early stages of the regular season. Of the three elements that make up the “JeDi code,” this one is most likely to pull the team towards the dark side of losing baseball. Only time will tell what the future holds. Even with his immense foresight, JeDi cannot forecast the outcome of his bullpen dealings until after Opening Day.

Fortunately, for the team and its playoff-starved fan base, all hope won’t be lost if my bullpen doubts prove to be correct. Prospect Insider writers have routinely noted that Dipoto has demonstrated a knack for fixing a bullpen during the regular season while still with the Angels. In 2014, he acquired star closer Huston Street, plus setup men Fernando Salas and Jason Grilli and his former club went on to 98-games that year.

A new hope
Since his arrival, the new Mariners’ general manager has been strongly advocating another principle that shouldn’t be overlooked — controlling the strike zone, which permits hitters and pitchers to better control their own destiny. The 47-year-old believes that the team that controls the count “generally wins the game.” This philosophy is an encouraging development for the Seattle Mariners, but may require time to take hold at all levels of the organization.

Despite the new ideology espoused by Dipoto — new for the Mariners that is — and the positive changes he’s implemented, I still view this club as being on the fringe of contention as of late February. Although I maintain a measure of guarded optimism that the offense and rotation will be improved, I continue to remain wary of the Mariners bullpen. Some may find my lack of faith be disturbing, but it’s a bit too early in JeDi’s retooling process to have delusions of grandeur.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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