Seattle Mariners: Panic or Don’t Panic?

Posted: 06/08/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

Well, this hasn’t gone according to plan. Coming into the season, the Mariners were a good bet to win the AL West. They were a team on the rise, with 87 wins last year and some key additions to the team, none bigger than Nelson Cruz, who was coming off a season with a league-leading 40 homers. I was certainly drinking the cool-aid, picking the Mariners to win the division and make the World Series. So too did many others, as Seattle was one of the most popular World Series picks. So far, it hasn’t worked. At all. The Mariners are 25-32 with a -30 run differential that ranks sixth worst in baseball. They’re already 8.5 games behind the first place Astros in the West, five behind the Rangers, and three behind the Angels. So, it’s time to ask the standard question: what are Seattle’s problems, and can they fix them in time to make a playoff push?

The biggest problem is, unsurprisingly for the Mariners, the offense. Seattle ranks 29th in baseball in runs scored. They are hitting .237/.297/.388. They strike out a lot (22.5%, fourth in baseball) and don’t walk much (7.3%, 20th). It’s clear that a lot of the blame has to be placed on GM Jack Zduriencik. For years, Jack Z has been obsessed with building a powerful offense at Safeco field, a very pitcher-friendly park. Power has taken precedence over plate discipline and on base percentage, both when signing players and, presumably, when teaching prospects. Well, the Mariners now have power; they’ve hit 63 homers, tied for fifth in baseball. The only thing that’s missing? Plate discipline and on base percentage. The Mariners rank 28th in contact percentage, which is a big reason that they have been so poor offensively. To be fair to Jack Z, Cruz, who was signed this offseason, has been pretty much all of Seattle’s offense. The league leader in homers (again) with 18, Cruz is slashing .329/.385/.613 with 21.6 Fangraphs value added offensively and 182 wRC+. He also only has 39 RBI and leads the league in solo homers, thanks to the lack of production around him in the lineup. Robinson Cano, the second baseman Seattle snagged from the Yankees (nearly unheard of), has been the biggest disappointment. After a so-so year last season, he’s been terrible this year, with two homers, a .598 OPS and 69 wRC+. His WAR is -.4, and he’s had 237 plate appearances. When your highest paid player is playing so badly, it’s hard for the rest of the team to pick up the slack. The rest of the offense hasn’t been much better. Guys like catcher Mike Zunino (.170/.238/.346 in 169 plate appearances) and Dustin Ackley (.197/.241/.331 in 140 PAs), players who are homegrown and at one point were top prospects, have been absolutely atrocious. Heck, the Mariners made a panic trade for Mark Trumbo (of all people!) just so they could send Ackley to the bench. Justin Smoak, the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade, is gone, a total bust. Michael Pineda, who’s excelling for the Yankees, happened to be a good Mariners prospect… until they traded him for Jesus Montero, who is stuck in AAA. The offense is not pretty, with Seth Smith placing second to Cruz in Fangraphs offensive value added at 5.7. So, is there a remedy for the offensive struggles? Well, the Mariners have been the fourth unluckiest team in baseball, so they’ll get more runs there. Cano will get better. But really, the Mariners need to make some trades for guys who can work a count and get on base. Do you trust Jack Z to make this trade? I don’t, especially after he traded for Mark Trumbo, who boasts a career .297 OBP and a 4:1 K:BB ratio. The offense is never going to be good, at least not this season.

The Mariners have also been an average (at best) fielding team, as they rank 24th in Fangraphs defense and 17th in defensive runs saved (per Baseball Reference). Zunino is a great fielding catcher (otherwise he’d have been sent down weeks ago), Brad Miller has been a very good shortstop, and Kyle Seager, the team’s third best player (behind Cruz and Felix Hernandez), is a pretty good fielder too. But Cruz has predictably been a disaster in right field, and he can’t play DH because Trumbo is an even worse fielder than he is. Meanwhile, Logan Morrison has been bad all-around at first base and Cano’s best days look to be behind him at second. Really, though, is any of this a surprise? The GM really hasn’t prioritized fielding, and it’s not as if fielding is the team’s biggest problem. It’s not, however, going to be an aspect of the game that saves Seattle valuable runs.

At worst, Seattle was supposed to be good at pitching. They had King Felix, a good #2 in Hisashi Iwakuma, young studs James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, and a reliable #5 in J.A. Happ. That hasn’t gone too well, either. Having the eighth best ERA seems nice, but they are closer to 16th than they are to fifth. In a pitcher’s park, that’s just not going to cut it. Hernandez hasn’t been the problem; he has a 2.51 ERA and a 9-2 record. Happ has been pretty good, too, with a 3.31 ERA and, thanks to awful run support, seven no decisions in 11 starts. But Iwakuma had three bad starts and then got placed on the DL, Paxton hit the DL in May, and Walker, who has the stuff to be the second best starter on the team, has a 5.80 ERA. As a result, the Mariners have had to turn to guys like Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias, pitchers who just aren’t going to move the needle and certainly won’t lead a poor offense to the playoffs. And with return dates for Iwakuma and Paxton still vague, it probably won’t get better anytime soon. Any rotation with King Felix at the top of it is going to be a decent one, but the Mariners had the potential to have a dominant rotation; right now, that doesn’t seem too likely.

Meanwhile, the bullpen has been worse. Seattle relievers have racked up 15 losses, most of any team. Fernando Rodney and Danny Farquhar, who entered the season as the closer and setup man, have posted ERAs over 6.94 and 6.46. Rodney is unsurprisingly no longer the closer, which means that the Mariners will rely on Carson Smith, a rookie who has pitched very well, to close games. Unfortunately, the rest of the bullpen isn’t very good, either, and teams with one good reliever rarely have good bullpens.

I want this team to do well, and I want to say they have a chance to turn things around and make the playoffs. The deficit isn’t too daunting, especially since the teams sitting first and second in the division don’t have that much talent. Cano will get better, and so will the team’s luck. At the same time, besides a few blue chippers, this team really doesn’t have much going for it. The rotation was always going to have to carry this team, and with the injuries it’s already suffered, I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Unfortunately, Mariners fans should probably…

Panic

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