Today is the first official day of the presidential campaign season, as vote counting for real begins with the Iowa caucuses. I prefer my big events annually as baseball season begins its spring auditions a scant 17 days from now when Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria on February 18th.
Even though the Mariners haven’t made any big moves in more than a month, leaving us all breathless as General Manager Jerry DiPoto churned the major league roster, it’s not like the aerobic quality of the off-season moves didn’t continue. There has been constant coming and going of fringe players on the 40-man roster, and a refreshing reconstruction of minor league (Tacoma) lineups with an eye toward actual needs rather than just piling up guys.
I’ve been impressed with all aspects of the DiPoto regime to date. It’s time to get players on the field and see what we’ve got. There will be some interesting story lines to follow during their yearly sojourn in Arizona, and here are the ones I’m most interested in:
At FanFest DiPoto identified four relievers he was counting on to have good years: closer, Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Charlie Furbush, and Evan Scribner. Of those four only Benoit had a great year in 2015. The others either underperformed, or, in the case of Furbush, suffered serious injury. Bob Dutton wrote at length yesterday about the Furbush injury, and that he is not yet ready to pitch. If these are the four guys DiPoto is counting on, what does that say about the pile of guys he has assembled, and from whom it must pick out another three players to put together a seven man bullpen staff? These include Jonathan Aro, Justin DeFratus, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, Danny Hultzen, Ryan Cook, Mayckol Guaipe, Casey Coleman, Cody Martin, Blake Parker, David Rollins, Joe Wieland, and Tony Zych. A big enough cast to please D.W. Griffith.
But this is not a laughing matter. In my view the bullpen is this team’s greatest weakness. All the work of what looks to be a very strong rotation, and an improved offense will go for naught if the bullpen cannot hold a lead. The lack of a proven bullpen is my biggest concern going into the season.
The Rotation Battle
The Mariners will be looking at seven pitchers with proven big-league starting experience when pitchers and catchers report: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Nate Karns and Mike Montgomery. Based on their previous experience, I would think Felix, Kuma, Miley and likely Walker have this team made. The fifth spot however will be a battle between Paxton, Karns and Montgomery. Hopefully everyone emerges from spring training healthy, but if not, the Mariners are much better equipped to deal with it than in past years. One would like to give the inside edge to Paxton because he’s shown flashes of brilliance. Montgomery is out of options, so he’ll get a look as a reliever too. The M’s gave up their best trading piece in Brad Miller to get Karns, so I would hope he proves useful too. It be interesting to see how this all plays out, but it’s nice to see the M’s have enough guys with big league talent and experience rather than simply trusting to luck.
The First Base Platoon
We know Adam Lind is going to get the majority of at-bats at first base, and likely will see a few left-handers too, according to Scott Servais at FanFest. But the guy who shares the position with him from the right side could be one of a variety of players. I’ve already commented on Jesus Montero, and I’m sure he’ll get a long look. The Mariners also recently signed Gaby Sanchez from the Japan League’s Rakuten Golden Swallows. With 2,271 major league at bats, Sanchez hit lefties to the tune of .291/.382/.481 and wRC+ of 112. He is an average defender at first base. Another potential first baseman is Stefen Romero. With far less big league time than Montero or Sanchez, Romero has far less to show for himself. However, he has the advantage of athleticism and position flexibility. Of course, he’s never played first base at the big league level. So it isn’t Montero or nobody, and I’m glad to see some competition for this spot.
The Mariners don’t look set, but the starting spots are won. It’s the fringe and bullpen spots that are still mostly up for grabs. The M’s don’t look like locks for a division title or a playoff spot, but they should be competitive and a lot more interesting than past teams. I’m looking forward to seeing the DiPoto/Servais philosophy at work on the field.