Four Mariners to watch

It is prediction season, one of my favorite times of year in which we all get to display our prescience or our ignorance of what is about to happen in the coming season.  Predictions for the Mariners are pretty interesting. I put myself out there at a low of 82 wins and a ceiling of 84 wins, which is kind of where the conventional wisdom puts them.  I’ve seen lows of 79 wins, so everybody has the Mariners improving, but nobody is crowning them as AL West champions.  Not saying the M’s couldn’t win more, but an awful lot of bounce-backs and question marks would have to break their way.  Maybe, but I’m not betting on it. The Mariners have four players that I have a concern for who have considerable influence over the direction the team takes across six months of baseball. They are Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz and Steve Cishek.

Robinson Cano, Felix Herandez, Nelson Cruz
Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano, left, and Felix Hernandez, center, take charge of the wardrobe work on teammate Nelson Cruz prior to the start of a spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Monday, March 30, 2015, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Robinson Cano

Robinson Cano is getting a lot of attention as the M’s head toward the starting gate. And that’s as it should be.  Cano is entering his age 33 season, usually considered the twilight of a player’s prime. In 2014, his first year in Seattle, Cano put up this slash: 314/.382/.454 with 14 home runs and wRC+ of 137.  That was in-line with his career numbers though the home runs tied his lowest career numbers of 2005 and 2008.  Last year Cano was injured, impacting his offensive and defensive contributions to the team, with a ghastly first half of the year followed by spectacular second half, he managed to reach .287/.334/.446 with wRC+ of 118.  Projection systems Steamer and ZIPS do not look kindly on a Cano comeback, predicting a year like 2015.  The Fans(44) system shows a stronger bounce-back, but not back to 2014 and Yankees production.

Cano, is, in my mind, the most important Mariner player. Felix is the leader of the pitching staff, and the symbol of Mariners Nation, but Cano plays every day. He’s had a very good spring.  In interviews he is quick to speak out about his return to health and how that is affecting his game. Because he is counted on to get on base, get key hits, play good defense in a critical position, his bounce-back is critical

However, in an interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Cano also shared the reliance rookie manager Scott Servais has put on him and veterans like Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez as well as the improved clubhouse climate.  Cano seems to have responded positively to the new regime and his role.  But Cano must be healthy and successful on the field in order to keep the clubhouse together off the field.

Felix Hernandez

No player has more Mariners institutional memory than Felix Hernandez.  He’s pitched on decent but not good enough teams, and he’s pitched on 100 loss teams. He is the enduring symbol of what it means to be a Mariner and a Mariners fan-pride, loyalty, and perseverance.

In that time he’s won a Cy Young Award, and been a very close second twice. He is an ace, no matter how you define it. But, I am a great believer that regardless of how great a pitcher you are, God only gives you a limited number of bullets. Felix has thrown 2,262.1 innings, at least 200 per year since 2008. He is number 315 on the all time list for innings pitched. In his next game he will pass Freddy Garcia.  This year he’ll surpass Sandy Koufax.  Only four active players have more career innings: John Lackey,  Bronson Arroyo, CC Sabathia, and Bartolo Colon.

Throw away the 18 wins, last year was not a good one for The King. Walks were up. His HR/9 skyrocketed: 1.03 to career .73. K/9, though in line with his career numbers, were down compared to 2013-14. Felix threw three games in which he utterly melted down. Houston June 12th, Arizona July 29th, and Boston August 15th. Pundits note his declining velocity every year, but somehow Felix simply manages to get outs.

Was this an anomaly? Is it much ado about nothing?  We can only hope so, because Felix Hernandez is the pitching anchor of this team. Without him at his best, even with an improved rotation, the Mariners will struggle, and nobody has the ability or the stature in the clubhouse to replace him.

Before the 2015 season ended, Felix confessed that he didn’t look at video enough and he would have to begin preparing differently.  Let’s hope it isn’t the beginning of a physical decline. He’s the Mariners hoss.  But he’s been rode hard.  Hopefully with a new season, and perhaps some different preparation he’ll be the same ol’ King. We need him.

Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz had the best year of any Mariner in 2015. Bar none. Period, The end. He really was a thrill to watch.  Bouncing a home run off the train in Minutemaid Park may have been my highlight of the year. By any measure-traditional stats, WAR, wRC+, 2015 was the best year of Cruz’s career at age 35.  Though he is not a talented outfielder, it is not through lack of effort, and he hustles on the basepaths-I was incredibly impressed. The Mariners scored 656 runs in 2015.  Cruz scored 90 and drove in 93.  Cruz was involved in scoring 27.9% of their runs.

Cruz, like Cano and Hernandez, is one of the core pieces of this team.  Is it realistic to expect him to repeat those kinds of numbers in his age 36 year? He hit the most home runs of his career, and had only his second year hitting higher than .300.  Despite a late season injury, he also stayed relatively healthy while playing 80 games in right field.  One more question to deal with is the time he plays in the field. Nelson Cruz is not a good defensive player.  He was -8 Defensive Runs Saved, and he has an UZR/150 of -11.1.  However, as I’ve explained before, he is a much better hitter when he plays in the field than when he is a DH.

It is not realistic to expect Cruz to repeat his 2015 numbers.  As if to underscore that point, he nursed a nagging injury through spring training and has struggled to get on track. But if he is subject to regression, how much are we looking at?  How much Nellie is enough to make this team a winner? None of the projections like Cruz in 2016.  He was a 4.8 WAR player last year.  None of them sees him higher than 3.2 for 2016, and Steamer has him at .252/.318/.469 for 1.4 WAR.Is that the way it will be?  Hope not.

Like Cano, however, Servais has leaned on Cruz to provide veteran leadership in the clubhouse to work with new guys like Chris Iannetta and young guys like Ketel Marte. It is difficult to lead amid personal struggles.  If the Mariners are to succeed between the lines and in the locker room, Nelson Cruz has to succeed too.

02262016-MarinersTraining0226_33
Pitcher Steve Cishek throws a live batting practice at Seattle Mariners spring training in Peoria, Arizona, Thursday February 25, 2016. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Steve Cishek

I love it when I hear SABRmetricians say saves are overrated, that anyone can close, just run your best six or seven guys out to the bullpen and close by committee.  Ask Lloyd McClendon how that worked for him last year.  How many questions did he have to field about Fernando Rodney last year?  Here’s a sample

Q: What about Rodney, he sure had a tough night again tonight?

Lloyd: Ahh, he’s a veteran, he’s got how many career saves?  He’s a veteran, he’s done it before, they just beat him tonight.

Q: Yeah but that’s three times this week, what about Smith or Wilhelmsen, do you think about using them?

Lloyd: Nah, he’s our closer.  He’ll be fine next time. That’s all for tonight boys

Lloyd thought bubble: Are you kidding? I want to shoot that goddamn arrow through both his eyeballs and send him straight down to Everett.  Fernando Rodney!!!!  What does Fat Jack think I’m supposed to with this guy?!!!!!

You don’t need a closer until you don’t have one. I can only imagine that when a closer or bullpen closing by committee,  blows games on a regular basis, it simply tears a team apart.  Clubhouse chemistry, gone. Team confidence, history. You’re just playing for stats.

That’s why Steve Cishek’s success is so important to this team.  If they are to succeed, if they have a shot at the playoffs, Cishek has to be a dominant closer.  Fernando Rodney saved a lot of games in 2014, not so much in 2015, but he always danced the knife’s edge and it was always freakin’ scary.  The difference between making the playoffs and not in 2014 was one Rodney blown save.

The M’s invested $10 million in Cishek for two years, in what was not a particularly fertile free agent class of closers.  They probably could have spent more and traded up-in football parlance, but they didn’t.  They have nobody else. Maybe Benoit, but he’s made it clear he prefers set-up to closing.  Carson Smith is gone.  Tony Zych may be a closer in the making but he’s not there now. It’s all on Cishek and he has to be the man, and he has to be more than  Rodney, more than Carson Smith, and more than Tom Wilhelmsen. He can make or break this team.

The M’s have invested heavily in the core of this team-Felix, Robbie, and Nellie (and Kyle, but not quite as much.) It’s squeezed funds for other things, like a dominant bullpen.  Together with Cishek, the core has to do its job for this team to have a chance to win, to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. And yes, the M’s have added some pieces in Aoki, Lind, Miley, Martin and others who need to succeed to make the team better, but if the core players don’t have big years, the kind we expect them to, this team is doomed.  Don’t take this for granted. I begin the year hopeful, but skeptical, as all good fans should be.

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