One of the worst seasons of my Mariners fandom was 2015. Mind you I’ve followed this team closely since their first season forty years ago. M’s success on the field has been very cyclical. 2009 was surprisingly good followed by five years in the wilderness. The Mariners got to within one game of the playoffs in 2014, were proclaimed AL champs in the 2015 preseason and were absolutely vile. Last year, another so close, but so far away year, and for 2017 after significant re-tooling the Mariners once again have some national notice. Will they break their 15 year absence from the playoffs or will it be one more year of disappointment?
These are the three things I’m looking at moving ahead that give me guarded optimism the Mariners will compete for a playoff spot, as well three areas that leave me sanguine about the possibilities.
More ways to score
In past years, even at times in 2016 when the Mariners scored more runs than they had since 2007, the Mariners would have those games when facing good pitching or just having an off day, they would wait around for a hot bat, a three run homer to put a digit on the scoreboard. This year should be different, for two reasons.
Remember last year’s control-the-zone campaign? Well, it worked. The Mariners went from 22nd in the majors and a .311 OBP in 2015 to ninth and a .326 OBP in 2016. Their spring results were even more remarkable with a .357 OBP, fourth among major league teams. While I would never make too much of spring statistics, it’s also impossible to ignore the organization- wide emphasis on patience at the plate and hitting what’s in the ‘zone. It will result in more baserunners, better pitches to hit and more runs scored.
Speed kills, and for the first time in decades the Mariners have plenty of it. It’s not just a lone Ichiro here or a Julio Cruz there, the M’s have several stolen base threats with Jean Segura, Jarrod Dyson, and Leonys Martin in their lineup. In addition to the proven stolen base threats they have guys who should steal some bases in Taylor Motter and Mitch Haniger. But it’s not just the stolen bases, it’s the extra bases-first to third and second to home on a single, scoring on a sacrifice fly from third, taking an extra base or more on fielding mistakes that give the M’s more potential to pressure pitchers and defenses, and score some extra runs.
More base runners and more speed should add to what is already a potent offense with plenty of thump. But it will no longer be required for the M’s to hit the long ball to take charge of a game.
I’ve written ad nauseum about the need for the Mariners to field an outfield best suited for the size of Safeco Field. Jack Zdurencik’s predilection for assembling outfielders who made Hanley Ramirez look like Joe Dimaggio by comparison was legendary. This year Dipoto went the other direction and and the guys look like greyhounds straining at the slip. Dyson and Martin are both veteran outfielders with superior defense. Haniger, in right field, looks to be an excellent fielder with a strong arm. Reserve outfielder Guillermo Heredia can play any of the outfield positions. This is zones covered, runs saved, pitching performances salvaged much better than the 2016 version.
Jean Segura was an average major league shortstop before he was traded from Milwaukee to Arizona. In 2016 Segura played shortstop for the Diamondbacks, but he’ll revert back to his natural position with the M’s. He replaces Ketel Marte who was a a bad defensive shortstop in 2016. Marte may grow into something much better, but his -2 Defensive Runs Saved, -15.3 UZR 150 and 21 errors won’t be missed. Call Segura a defensive upgrade.
Last year the M’s signed Chris Iannetta to be their starting catcher and exiled Mike Zunino to Tacoma to work on his swing. Iannetta struggled defensively, racking up a -6 defensive runs saved in his 776.1 innings. When Zunino took over the catching duties, he put up 4 defensive runs saved in 443.2 innings. Enter Chooch. The M’s added Carlos Ruiz to their catching corps, the first of Dipoto’s many additions to the 2017 team. There is much to admire about Ruiz: his work with pitchers, his veteran presence, his World Series Championship pedigree. But in his 493 innings of work with the Dodgers last year, Chooch saved 7 defensive runs. The Mariners are much better at catcher than they were in 2016.
The clubhouse intangibles
We rarely talk about chemistry in baseball. It’s a big deal in football, basketball, maybe even in soccer, games that seem to generate so much more emotion on the field than baseball. Baseball often seems a struggle between batter and pitcher, with each taking their turn, and most hitters returning to the dugout trying figure out what to do differently next time.
But this year it feels as though it feels like something is different. The Mariners are sending out bonding smoke signals. Prior to the beginning of the WBC Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, in their interview with Marly Rivera expressed their happiness with the Mariners clubhouse. “It is one of the best I’ve ever been in, in terms of friendship and the way we get along,” Cano said.
Even newcomer and relative youngster Taylor Motter commented on the welcoming atmosphere in the Mariner clubhouse. He especially appreciated Scott Servais’ early morning meeting and role they played in getting know his teammates, according to Shannon Drayer’s March 31st story.
“To get to know my new teammates, inside-out, families, hobbies, the things that they do outside of baseball,” Motter said. “It’s not just be a good teammate, be a good teammate, a good person, and let the rest take care of itself.”
It’s too early to know whether this will contribute to a winning culture on the field. But I remember the poisonous atmosphere of past Mariner clubhouses: the whispering against Ichiro, Mike Sweeny’s threat to punch out whoever revealed Ken Griffey, Jr’s naps in the clubhouse to the media. This has got to be better.
How different is the 2017 starting rotation than the 2016 version?
2016 began with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Wade Miley and Nate Karns. Each and every one of them suffered through extended periods of ineffectiveness and in many cases injury. Only Iwakuma made all of his scheduled starts. The rotation was filled out with various Wade LeBlancs, Cody Martins and a host of lesser lights.
In 2017, most of those starting five are gone. Tonight Felix will start the season, followed by James Paxton, Iwakuma, Ariel Miranda and Yovani Gallardo. Each of these pitchers have pretty large question marks hanging over their heads. If one had to put an up or down arrow over their heads based on last year’s performance, only Paxton would have an arrow pointing up. Miranda might have one pointing sideways. It’s my belief the team will go as far as the starting pitching will take it. A modest improvement should propel the Mariners into the playoffs.
The bullpen is filled with uncertainty and unknowns. With many of the players the Mariners counted on for this season still recovering from injury, Servais will be nursing them through until reinforcements arrive. Even wunderkind closer Edwin Diaz, a superstar in the making, faltered at the end of 2016. It remains to be seen whether Evan Scribner, Casey Fien and Nick Vincent can do the job in late innings. Dan Altavilla, James Pazos, and Dillon Overton haven’t had much experience at the major league level. That the bullpen has so many left-handers to start the season is a sign the relief corps is pretty thin. It will be interesting to see how things will shake out when Zych, Cishek and Simmons return. The bullpen is, at best, a question mark.
Albert Pujols is beginning his age 37 season, his sixth of the ten year contract he signed with the Angels. He came to Los Angeles as one of the greatest hitters in major league baseball history, 30th in WAR with 91.1 (according to FanGraphs) behind only Lou Gehrig and Mel Ott as first basemen. In his ten years with St. Louis, Pujols never earned less than 5.4 WAR. In 2003 he stroked an amazing 9.5 WAR. In the years of his Angels contract, he has garnered a total of 9.8 WAR. Some of the decline is due to his shift to DH, in which he suffers a penalty, but most is due to injury and eroding skills.
The Mariners have several key players facing one cliff or another. The age cliff is a big one on this team. Nelson Cruz and Hisashi Iwakuma are both 36. Robinson Cano is 34. Jarrod Dyson is 32. Felix Hernandez and Yovani Gallardo are both 31. Just because a players crosses the age 30 threshold doesn’t mean they are doomed. Just ask Bartolo Colon or Ichiro if they can still play the game at age 40+. But it is a fact that bat speed can decline, fast ball velocity decreases with age and use. We haven’t seen it yet in the case of Cruz or Cano, but at some point they are going to turn the corner on their talent. All of the projection services see them finishing below their 2016 production; a lot below. And don’t get me started on Felix or Kuma.
The more a player ages, the more likely they are to suffer injury. Each of these guys are key players for this staff. The loss of any of them for an extended time will seriously affect the Mariners plans. Dipoto has worked hard to insure the organization has more depth, but let’s be clear; there is nobody in the organization to replace Cruz or Cano. Chris Heston cannot be Felix.
Finally there is the cliff of regression. Some players have such good seasons, they simply can’t repeat that level of performance again. Jean Segura had that kind of performance last year. His .319/.369/.499 slash was vastly superior to his career .280/.319/.396. Which is more indicative of the player the M”s traded for? I’m betting on a 10-15% slide from 2016. But even that is a huge improvement to standing pat with Ketel Marte. Other players may be subject to regression too. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both had career highs for homers. Is there more upside to their power? I have a hard time imagining they do. What will Dyson’s performance look like as an every day player? Can he hit left-handers well enough to get the 600 at-bats he desperately wants as he heads into 2018 free-agency?
There are lots of reasons to be excited about the Mariners as they open their season tonight. But it’s definitely best to head into the season with eyes wide-open. It’s been an exciting hot-stove season, and an interesting spring warm-up. But I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed about ending that playoff drought. If the pitching turns out and everyone stays healthy, there should be exciting times. If the pitching struggles, the season could be long and frustrating. The Mariners should be competitive for the AL West title, but I’m holding out for a wild card spot. Or they could finish 2017 just as they finished 2016, dazzlingly close, but not quite able to close the deal. Go M’s .