But will the Mariners be better?

Franklin Gutierrez
Will a resurgent Franklin Gutierrez and the other many changes to the Mariners be enough to push them into the playoffs?

With four games left to play in the Cactus League and only seven days remaining until the Mariners open on the road in Texas, the team looks set. As they head into their game against the Indians at six tonight, manager Scott Servais will want to see what they really have with lots of playing time for the regulars.

They enter today’s game with a five game Cactus League win streak to improve their record to 15-12.  Robinson Cano hit four home runs in his last two games, including a monstrous blast over the batter’s eye in centerfield yesterday. They are hot . . . in a not particularly pitching dominant manner of speaking.

But forget all of it.  When the season begins in Texas on Monday, it means nothing. Servais and G.M. Jerry Dipoto know what they are looking for during the exhibition season, and chances are it’s different than what we’re seeing. All we have is the numbers.  They’re looking for process, adjustment, and results and that just doesn’t translate in a box score. After all the off-field maneuvering, assembling the pieces, adopting and implementing a different on-field philosophy, and putting the final team together, the question remains: will the Mariners be better? Can they win?

So let’s break the team down and see what we have:

Catcher

2016:  Chris Iannetta. Back-up Steve Clevenger or Rob Brantley

2015:  Mike Zunino. Back-up Jesus Sucre

Zunino and Sucre were especially bad offensively in 2015, while providing more than respectable defense.  Given a chance to the make the Mariners in 2016, the M’s wasted little time before assigning him to minor league camp, while Sucre suffered a serious injury playing winter ball. The M’s are hoping for bounce-back from the 33-year old Iannetta who also struggled to a .188/.293/.335 wRC+ of 80 in 2015. Iannetta is still a plus defender and if he gets a little closer to his career averages .231/.351/.405 it will be a big improvement. Clevenger is left handed and can also play a little 1B.  Brantley, picked up off waivers from the White Sox, has shown offensive and defensive ability.

Any way you look at, at least on paper and in spring training performances, the Mariners have upgraded at catcher.

First Base

2016: Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee in a left/right platoon.

2015: Logan Morrison and Mark Trumbo

When Morrison and Trumbo were both dealt in the off season, Dipoto made a commitment to try something better at a key offensive position. They brought in righty masher Adam Lind and committed to platooning him with a lefty masher.  Lee, Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez and Stefen Romero were all marooned on The Island together and when the dust cleared only Lee was left. Lind had a spring in line with his career statistics, while Lee we are still uncertain about.  But he’s said to make good adjustments as he learns the pitchers, and he hasn’t been over-matched. Together the Mariners should be able to count on some power, and considerably better on base skills than we saw last year from LoMo and Trumbo.

The Mariners have upgraded at first base.

Second Base

2016: Healthy Robinson Cano

2015: Sick and injured Robinson Cano.

2015 was a tale of two seasons for Robinson Cano.  He got off to the slowest start of his career.  It was an embarrassingly bad  beginning.  And then he turned it around into a much more productive second half.  The inevitable questions were asked about whether the Mariners $240 million man was already past his pull date. Would he be the Seattle version of Albert Pujols-an age related decline together with more frequent injury.  Cano is in the middle of an excellent run in Spring Training, but it will take the grind of the regular season to see if he’s back to 2014 production or better.

The Mariners have not upgraded at second base.

Third Base

2016: Kyle Seager

2015: Kyle Seager

Seager is entering his age 28 season, his fifth in the major leagues. He’s found his sweet spot.  His career slash line of .268/.328/.434 is pretty indicative of his career though his power numbers are higher the last two season. Seager is a dirt-in-the-mouth kind of player, a diamond rat who just loves the game and plays hard. He is also an above average defender But you wonder if at his age and years in the game if there isn’t another level he’s going to kick into.  The average goes up to .290, he cuts down on strikeouts and walks more, he gets mentioned in the same breath with Brooks Robinson, or even Scott Rolen. Maybe. Maybe if the press keeps bugging him about his brothers . . .

Same ol’ Kyle, and that’s not a bad thing.

Shortstop

2016: Ketel Marte

2015: Brad Miller, Ketel Marte

With Brad Miller safely out of the picture, and the Friends of Brad silenced, Marte can focus on his game.  Coming in as a second baseman, Marte played 57 solid games in the major leagues, 51 of them at shortstop.  Defensively, he showed he was at least average at one of the most important positions in the game.  Offensively, Marte showed he could get on base by hook or by crook, using his speed as well as a 9.7% walk rate.  His 2015 slash was .283/.351/.402 with a wRC+ of 112.  Honestly I’m not expecting much better if Marte can maintain that production over a season.

The Mariners improve slightly having Marte for an entire season–unless there is a sophomore jinx.

Designated Hitter

2016: Nelson Cruz

2015: Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith and a cast of thousands

Two important numbers to remember: .337/.402/.670 with 31 home runs-.263/.333/.450 with 13 home runs.  The first number is Cruz’s offensive production as a right fielder.  The second is his production as a DH. It’s not easy being a DH.  It’s hard to keep your head in the game.  Clearly Cruz was a happier camper playing in the field. If he slumps will Servais be forced to play him more in the field?  Hard to say.

The Mariners did not improve with Cruz at DH.

Left Field

2016: Norichika Aoki

2015: Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez–you name ’em.

Left field was a mess last year.  Roles weren’t clear, defense was bad.  Left field was a swamp. The Mariners picked up Nori Aoki, another player hoping for a bounce back after suffering a serious beaning in 2015. In his four years in the major leagues, Aoki is remarkably consistent.  His 2015 slash .287/.353/.386 is almost exactly his career averages.  He’ll bring some speed and very little power to left field. He should offer better defense than past Mariners left fielders. Aoki will also likely lead off.

Overall, Aoki offers a defensive improvement and better on-base skills.  He’s an upgrade

Leonys martin 2
Leonys Martin could be a difference-maker for the Mariners if he can hit enough to stay in the lineup.

Center Field

2016: Leonys Martin

2015: Austin Jackson and a bunch of little people after the trade.

I’m a great believer that center field is the most important position on the team, especially one playing in Safeco’s wide open spaces. When the team parted ways with Austin Jackson, they subsequently traded for a player who could better roam Safeco’s large center field. Leonys Martin is  a superior defensive center fielder.  His bat remains the question mark. Martin will have a few things going in his favor with the Mariners.  He won’t be asked to hit leadoff, or become a power threat. Hopefully he’ll be able to hit enough to stay in the lineup every day and avoid a platoon

A vast improvement if Martin can find a way to get on base, a major complication if he can’t.

Right Field

2016: Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez platoon

2015: Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano platoon for 15 minutes, then Nelson Cruz.

Last year’s right field situation was an inexplicable mess. But in the end Cruz was the guy who was out there most of the time. Despite his considerable hitting heroics, Nellie simply didn’t play good defense, and it’s not surprising Dipoto is doing his best to corral him at DH and minimize his time in the field. A Smith/Gutierrez platoon is a smart move and takes advantage of two talented but limited players available to the M’s.  If used properly, Smith and Guti will give the right balance of on-base, power and defense.

Depending on how the players are used and Cruz gets his time in the field. Should be a slight improvement for the Mariners.

Starting Rotation

2016: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns

2015: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias, James Paxton, Mike Montgomery, and dozens of guys lost on the freeway northbound from Tacoma.

2015 was a living, breathing demonstration of what happens when your organization has no pitching depth.  When Iwakuma and Paxton went down with injuries, the already thin rotation trusted to luck and by July was broken. This year looks much stronger with the acquisition of Miley and Karns.  Will they be brilliant- no probably not, but they’ll definitely give the Mariners innings. This could be Tai Walker’s year to take a big step forward.

This is a significant improvement over last year.

The Bullpen

2016: Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Joel Peralta, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, a bunch of injured guys, and many more pounding on the bullpen door.

2015: Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar, Joe Beimel, Mark Lowe, Carson Smith, Charlie Furbush and a dozen smoldering gas cans.

It’s so hard to know what to write about these guys.  Spring training is rarely the pitchers’ friend, and so many guys have competed for the six or seven spots that are open, while others like Evan Scribner and Furbush aren’t even available to compete. Last year’s bullpen melt-down left me gun-shy and unable to make an honest judgment.  I don’t have the sense these guys are better, but how could they be worse? The bullpen is the one area I have recurrent nightmares about-involving fire, and arrows, and dancing.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t feel like the bullpen is a significant upgrade over 2015.

Overall

Yes I left out the bench.  But overall this team should be better than last year’s 76-86 team.  How much better is unclear to me, but I don’t believe it’s the 86-87 wins needed to win the wild card or the 88-90 needed to win the AL West. The M’s have taken strides in the right direction, but they’re counting on too many bounceback seasons and their path to the playoffs is too complicated.  I’m thinking 84 wins is a stretch, and 82 wins seems more likely. Health will play a big role in this team’s success because things are thin in the minor leagues.  However I do think there is a good chance we see James Paxton and Boog Powell at some point during the long season.

 

 

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