The Seattle Mariners Went Crazy This Offseason

Posted: 02/09/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

I’m excited to not write about football for a while. We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting Super Bowl, but in the end we got another Patriots Super Bowl victory after easily the biggest comeback victory in Super Bowl history (they were down by 25… the biggest previous comeback win was from 10 points down). And I’m sorry, but I can’t get excited about writing about another Patriots Super Bowl victory. Bill Belichick is good, Tom Brady is good, the Falcons choked, the overtime rules are unfair. The end. With pitchers and catchers reporting next week, I think it’s time for some baseball.

Given that I’ve entirely neglected baseball’s offseason, I had a hard time figuring out where to start. Way too much happened for me to recap it all in one post, so I’m going to chip away at it over the next few weeks. There’s no better place to start than with the team that’s made perhaps the most meaningful moves (quantity-wise if not quality-wise) in MLB: the Seattle Mariners.

Last year, the Mariners went 86-76, three games out of a playoff spot. They had a +61 run differential, fourth-best in the AL. They were 41-32 after the All-Star break. This was a pretty good team. But “pretty good” clearly wasn’t good enough for ownership or the front office, which makes sense. Seattle owns the longest active playoff drought in baseball, after all, at 15 years. If the streak reaches 16, it’s not for lack of trying. The core of the team — Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Hisashi Iwakuma — remains intact, but there are a lot of moving parts around those five. The motivating factors are pretty clear: a need for defense, speed, and pitching depth.

The 2016 Mariners ranked 22nd in Fangraphs’ all-encompassing “defense” stat and 23rd in both Ultimate Zone Rating (-24.9) and Defensive Runs Saved (-22). And this was despite getting typically solid play from Cano at second base, Seager at third, and Leonys Martin in center. They were so bad because of really poor defensive efforts from guys playing positions where defense is often ignored. Adam Lind was as bad at first base as you would expect from a guy who has been the 15th most harmful defender in baseball (out of 610 qualifiers) over the last decade. Nori Aoki (who was consistently overrated defensively because of his speed) was disastrous in left field. Depending on the stat you prefer, Ketel Marte was between mediocre and very bad at shortstop. Whenever Cruz played in right, he was really bad. Same with Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez (who at 33 is nowhere near the defensive maestro he was seven years ago). With the exception of Cruz, a key cog in the offense and normally the DH, nobody I just mentioned is still on the Mariners. Smith and Marte were traded, Aoki was lost on waivers, and both Lind and Gutierrez remain free agents. Coincidence? I think not. Smith was moved in a deal that netted Jarrod Dyson, one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. The Marte trade netted Jean Segura, a solid defensive shortstop, and Mitch Haniger, a rookie outfielder who posted outstanding defensive numbers in limited action last year. The Mariners aren’t trying to trick anyone with these moves: they’re obviously trying to improve their defense. And I expect it to work, especially with catcher Mike Zunino, who is known for his outstanding defensive skills, moving into an everyday role this year. The Mariners’ big defensive problem last year was having too many holes. It’s easy enough to hide one defensive liability (see: the Royals with Eric Hosmer, a sneaky-terrible defensive first baseman). It’s impossible to hide four, even if three play at corner positions. With Haniger, an ex-centerfielder, playing in right and Segura and Dyson filling in at SS and LF, the defense will be better.

There was another reason the Mariners acquired Dyson and Segura: to provide a spark at the top of the lineup. They ranked 16th in OBP and 26th in OPS from the leadoff spot last year, and got just 13 steals from the table-setter (usually Aoki, who was a big disappointment). And they were 18th in OBP and 14th in OPS from the two-hole with two steals. I can guarantee you that Dyson and Segura, who are likely to slot in as the first and second hitters in the lineup against right handed pitchers, are going to steal more than 15 combined bases. Dyson’s averaging 31.2 steals over the past five years despite never getting even 350 plate appearances, while Segura is averaging 30.5 steals over the past four seasons. The Mariners swiped 56 bags as a team last year. They’re going to nab a whole lot more than that this season. The real question is whether Dyson and especially Segura can be big offensive upgrades over Aoki and Marte. Dyson has seven career homers and a .353 slugging percentage, so the most that you can hope for is that he gets on base enough to avoid being a liability at the plate. Segura is the real wild card. In 2015, he slashed .257/.281/.336, good for 63 wRC+, tied for second-worst in baseball (141 qualifiers). Last year, his only season with Arizona, he slashed .319/.368/.499. He hit 20 homers, nearly doubling his career total. He added 5.0 WAR, 22nd among all hitters. If the Mariners get that guy hitting in front of the Cano-Cruz-Seager axis, they’re going to be really good. I just don’t think they will get that guy, given that all the evidence we have. His career year came in a very hitter-friendly park. Safeco field is just that — safe — for pitchers. He was a horrendous hitter in both 2014 and 2015. I don’t think he’ll be that bad, but I think it’s fair to expect some regression. The positive news for the Mariners? It won’t take much to do better than Marte (.259/.287/.323) did last year. But still, Segura’s numbers between 2014 and 2015: .252/.285/.331. Pretty Marte-esque, if you ask me. Just saying.

There’ve been a lot of moving parts, but I think the group of position players is overall going to be better than it was last year, as long as the 3-4-5 hitters can maintain their level of production. Can they? Well, Cano had a career year power-wise last year, sacrificing a little of his average. I don’t think he’ll be an MVP candidate again this year, but another 5+ WAR year is likely. You would think that the 36-year old Cruz will slow down at some point, but he posted his second consecutive elite offensive season last year. In fact, the last two years have been the best seasons of Cruz’s career. He’s a DH and wasn’t an everyday player until 2009, so maybe there’s less wear and tear on his body. And I’m least worried about Seager, who’s in the prime of his career at 29, has five straight 3.5+ WAR seasons, and posted a career year offensively last year. If any of the three ends up improving this year, it’ll be Seager. But with Cano and Cruz both well past 30, I think it’s fair to expect some regression, which will put more of an onus on the new (and improved?) pitching staff.

If Felix Hernandez and/or Hisashi Iwakuma had pitched as well as they normally do last year, the Mariners probably would have been a playoff team. But they didn’t, and the Mariners slumped from 14th to 22nd in ERA from their starters. Hernandez’s year (3.82 ERA, 4.63 FIP, 1.32 WHIP) seems like an aberration, but it’s actually his second straight mediocre season. His control deserted him last year and his fastball is really slowing down. I think the Mariners realize that he’s no longer going to be the guy who had a 2.14 ERA in 2014 and ranked first among starters in WAR between his 2005 debut and 2014. But on a more positive note, they should bank a few more wins from a better performance from Felix, because he’s still a better pitcher than he showed last year. I’m less confident that there will be an improvement from Iwakuma, who always seemed to rely on smoke and mirrors in his more successful seasons. He’s almost 36 now, so maybe the new normal is a 4-4.5 ERA. That’s still very useful, especially if he remains as durable as he was last year (and wasn’t in 2014 or 2015). James Paxton has quietly developed into perhaps a second ace, as he barely walked anyone last year and boasted a 3.79 ERA and a 2.80 FIP (which has proven to be more predictive than ERA). Paxton only made 20 starts and went 6-7, so he understandably flew under the radar, but he should start getting more attention this year. I think he’s probably their best pitcher at this point. If the rotation’s going to improve meaningfully from last year’s performance, it’ll be because of Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly, both of whom were acquired via trade (see, they really did make a lot of trades this offseason). They’ll replace Taijuan Walker, a former top prospect who was mediocre last year and was traded in the Segura deal, and a bunch of fringe starters (notably Wade Miley, who started 19 games and posted a 4.98 ERA). Gallardo was really bad last year, but the Mariners seem to think it was an aberration. Given that he’s only had one year with an ERA worse than 3.85 in seven years of 30+ starts, I’m inclined to agree with them. He’s still only 30, although he’ll turn 31 before the season starts. Gallardo is a rich man’s Miley (slowish fastball, reliant on a slider and curveball. He’s a rich man’s Miley because his fastball is much more effective than Miley’s). Then there’s Smyly, who’s got great strikeout stuff and oozes potential. The one problem? He can’t keep the ball in the park. He gave up 32 homers in 175.1 innings last year, a year after giving up 11 bombs in 66.2 frames. But he’s still just 27, last year was his first season with an ERA over 4.00, and fits perfectly on this team. Not only does he get to pitch in pitcher-friendly Safeco, but he’ll also benefit from Seattle’s drastically improved outfield defense. He’s a fly ball pitcher, but Safeco is going to keep a lot of fly balls in the park, and Martin, Haniger, and Dyson are going to track down most of those fly balls. That’s why I expect Smyly to serve as an upgrade over last year’s version of Walker, who was adequate but no better. Here’s how I expect the rotation to break down (I’m listing them in my own order, rather than the one they’re likely to start the season in):
Paxton — ~3.30 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
Hernandez — ~3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Smyly — ~3.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
Gallardo — ~3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Iwakuma — ~4.20 ERA, 1.25 WHIP

That would be pretty good, and certainly better than what they got last year.

The Mariners also added three pitchers to their bullpen, with Marc Rzepczynski, Casey Fien, and Chris Heston joining the fold (the first two via free agency, Heston via trade). None of the three will be thrust into a late inning role, which speaks to the bullpen’s depth. Rzepczynski is a classic LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY), while Fien was solid until last season. Heston is an ex-starter who once threw a no-hitter and will slot in as a long reliever. The loss of Mike Montgomery in the middle of last year was a big one (he had a 2.15 ERA in 50.1 bullpen innings), but they’ve also gotten rid of ineffective relievers. Closer Edwin Diaz was a revelation last year, racking up an astronomical number of strikeouts. He ended the season with 15.33 strikeouts per nine innings, but he was over two per inning for most of the season. And it wasn’t just the strikeouts — Diaz has a 2.79 ERA and a 2.04 WHIP. Ex-Marlins closer Steve Cishek is a reliable setup man, as is Nick Vincent.

Bottom line: Last year, this team was an offense-heavy squad with a lot of holes. It worked pretty well for them, but not well enough. This season, they’re trying a different approach, opting for more balance (defensively, in the lineup, and in the rotation) and hoping their star hitters continue to carry the offense. Pencil them in for at least 85 wins, with the potential for 90+ if a lot goes right. They’re probably going to be playing for a wild card spot, because the Astros look really good at this point.

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Comments
  1. quadrangular says:

    Glad to see baseball back. Play ball!

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