When the 2016 team cleaned out their lockers and made their way home on October 3rd, they could look back at the standings and see they were nine games short of division leading Texas. But from second place, the M’s could see they were only three games short of the two wild card spots. Since 2010, the American League West division winner has required as few as 88 wins and as many as 98 wins to claim the title. The wild card winners have required as few as 86 and as many as 94 wins.
Have the Mariners made enough moves AND acquired players good enough to win those three games they couldn’t in 2016 to put themselves in the playoffs? Interestingly, GM Jerry Dipoto was unwilling to predict the number of wins this team could wrack up unlike 2016 when he was a pretty definite 85-86–and proved to be right on.
No Standing Still
This was another exceedingly busy for Dipoto. I count 11 trades, including four over the week period from January 5-12. In that time he reassembled the rotation, completely revamped the outfield, refreshed the bullpen, added key pieces to the infield, and provided needed depth at the minor league level. It was nearly as busy as the 2015-16 offseason, but, it seemed to me, the parts were of somewhat better quality.
If we were to choose a battle cry for Dipoto’s 2016 season, it might “Bounce back,” as Jerry acquired players coming off down seasons or injury who he could acquire on the cheap, in players or cash, and hope they would play closer to their career averages. Examples would be Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin and Steve Cishek Some worked, some did not.
This year the bounce back played a role in some of Dipoto’s choices, for example Gallardo and Smyly, but he also acquired players coming off solid seasons. Jean Segura had a superb year at the plate, leading the National League in hits. Danny Valencia had his fourth consecutive season batting over .280, and hit home runs in double figures for the third time in that period. Jarrod Dyson was the Kansas City Royal everybody hoped to see at the end of a close game for his baserunning ability and outfield defense. These are good players, not guys hoping to resurrect their careers.
When Dipoto was hired, he declined to break the team down and try to trade off some of its valuable assets-Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez in favor of the total rebuild favored by the Astros, Cubs, and likely the White Sox. Instead, he identified these players as the core who would prop open a window of contention for the M’s until their skills declined or the contracts expired. Last year we saw some, but not quite enough, success with this model.
Remember when Jerry said he wanted players who were young, athletic and controllable? Well he departed from that slightly this year. Instead, he went with players who were good and more veteran. In the process, he’s added guys who may only be Mariners for a year or two, at a significantly greater cost, in exchange for players who are less fully developed (or talented) and cost a lot less. Here are some examples
Player F.A Cost* Acquired for FA Cost
Jarrod Dyson 2018 $3.8 M Nate Karns 2021 $523.7K (’16)
Yovani Gallardo 2018**$11 M Seth Smith 2018 $7 M
Jean Segura 2019 $6.2 M Taijuan Walker 2021 2.25 M (proj.) Ketel Marte 2022 515.4 K (2016)
Danny Valencia 2018 $5.5 M Paul Blackburn MiLB AA
Drew Smyly 2019 $6.85 Malex Smith 2022 MLB Minimum Carlos Vargas Age 17 Dom. Sum. Lge. Ryan Yarbrough MiLB AA
**Gallardo has an option for 2018. Baltimore is contributing $2 M toward his salary for 2017.
As you can see, some of the key players acquired in the off-season are not controllable for long. Dyson and Valencia could be gone after the 2017 season. While their quality may be questionable, some of the young players the M’s dealt in these key trades will be quite controllable for a long time, if they remain in the major leagues. If the M’s are to win with this team, they must do so immediately, because in twelve months they will begin scattering to the winds, and big dollars, of free agency.
This also increases the Mariners budget. Cot’s Contracts show the Mariners budget for 2017 currently at $147.7 M with 19 players signed. The remaining players are all eligible for the major league minimum. The 2016 25-man opening-day budget was $142.3 million.
Speed and Defense
If there has been an infusion of veterans into the Mariners roster there is also the fulfillment of one of Dipoto’s desires and that is more speed and defense. On the infield we see it with the addition of Segura who, in addition to extra-base power, added 33 steals to the Diamondbacks line up. Dyson stole 30 more as a part-time player for the Royals. The other oufielders, Leonys Martin, Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia all project to steal bases in double digits. This is a team that should change pitchers’ concentration as they try to hold down a team that can legitimately run, take extra bases, and make defenses throw the ball around a little.
The speed also shows up in the outfield as rookies Gamel, Heredia and Haniger join veterans Martin and Dyson and to form a glove-first outfield. Yes, these guys will still need to get on base, flash some speed and find a way to extend innings and score, but they’ll be expected to cover lots of ground, turn doubles into outs, and support a pitching staff that looks vulnerable. Dipoto turned the page on statues with big bats.
But are they good enough to win?
The ZIPS and Steamer projections are already out there predicting big regressions from Cruz, Cano and Seager, as well as improvement by The King and Iwakuma. In the coming week I’ll offer my comparison of the 2016 and 2017 teams. But let’s face it, we really won’t know how good they are until they play live competition when the team takes the field in Houston April 2nd. It seems clear to me this team has improved, but it’s not clear how much.