With this third year of off-season activity by Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto, we’re used to seeing a kind of hyperactivity that led the M’s to the most trades in the major leagues over the past two seasons. Though the M’s have made three deals, and likely lead the majors in 2017-18 off-season deals, things really haven’t gotten started.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself and what we really need to start with is what the Mariners need to do to improve for the coming season. These aren’t improvements that will necessarily put them in the division race, or win a World Series, but it might get them back in the conversation about a Wild Card spot.
The first, and most obvious concern, is pitching, particularly starting pitching. Virtually the entire 2017 spring training starting rotation ended up on the DL or was sequestered due to ineffectiveness at one point or another last year. That’s Drew Smyly, Hisashi Iwakuma, Felix Hernandez and James Paxton on the DL for prolonged, or season-ending periods. Yovani Gallardo and Ariel Miranda were both benched for ineffectiveness. A parade of AAA pitchers took turn getting pounded, or at least showing dramatic levels of inconsistency until September kind of settled out with a rotation that looked like this:
Erasmo Ramirez RHP
Andrew Albers LHP
Marco Gonzales LHP
Andrew Moore RHP
Mike Leake RHP .
They were joined by Hernandez and Paxton as they struggled to get into mlb game shape.
Though the group that finished the season offered stability, nobody can be content that this is a group that can be effective and stay healthy for an entire season. I was pleasantly surprised by Ramirez and Leake. Moore is still very young and should not be asked to do too much. Gonzales is still recovering from TJ surgery. I’m not a great believer that Albers at age 31 has discovered the fountain of effectiveness (but I’m a big Jamie Moyer fan, so who knows.)
I no longer believe that James Paxton has the makings of an ace because he simply can’t stay on the field. His 24 starts and 136.0 innings pitched were the most of his career, but he still had two stints on the DL There is no question that the big Canadian was very effective when healthy, but when your team can’t count on you to take the ball every fifth day, you’re not the Big Maple, just the big Question Mark.
King Felix’s crown is looking pretty droopy these days. He just completed his second consecutive year with fewer than 200 innings, or in this new era of pitching, a second consecutive year of under 180 innings to qualify for the ERA crown. And let’s just cut to the chase. Since 2014 when he should have won a Cy Young Award, Felix has been in a tailspin. It could be that his arm is simply cooked. 2,502.1 innings will do that. It could be that it is a combination of knowing the stuff he has today and not quite being able to use it effectively. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, until he shows us otherwise, Felix Hernandez is not a pitcher the Mariners can count on for regular solid performances. Too many baserunners allowed, too many homers, not enough effective innings. (God, it pains me to write this.)
It’s unclear where Ariel Miranda fits into the picture. Will he contend for a thstarting spot, where he was fairly effective until June. Or does his leap into bad after June make him a candidate for the bullpen or a trade piece?
Dipoto has suggested this team doesn’t need much more pitching. I think Dipoto is a really smart guy and that he’s pulling our collective leg. His intensity around possibly acquiring Shohei Otani demonstrates that acquiring at unique talent, one that can pitch, is crucial. And I can’t believe there isn’t a plan B to acquire more pitching, and not of the bargain basement variety. This team needs a horse, and they don’t have one.
The only starting pitcher the M’s have added to their team at the time of this writing is Hisashi Iwakuma, still gamely rehabbing his shoulder. He is signed to a minor league contract.
This is a spot the M’s seem to have filled, trading RHP Emilio Pagan and infielder Alexander Campos to the Athletics for righty-hitting Ryon Healy.
Healy will be 26 when the season begins, and has had one full year in the bigs. The good news-Healy hit 25 home runs and is a 1.0 WAR player. Last year’s first base duo, Danny Valencia and Yonder Alonso combined for -.6 WAR. Healy also doesn’t suffer from the big platoon splits that has plagued numerous Mariners first basemen. He shouldn’t need a partner, freeing up a roster spot.
The bad–the man can strike out with the best of them (142,) walks rarely (3.8%), and isn’t much of a defender. Oh, and the other thing, he’s cheap and controllable, two of Jerry’s three mantras. Maybe hitting coach Edgar Martinez can help out with strikeouts and on base percentage, maybe not. But Healy is under team control for the next five years and at the major league minimum salary, allows the M’s to funnel money to pitching or other areas that need addressing.
Like . . . Centerfield.
The Mariners lost Jarrod Dyson to free agency, which leaves them Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia from the 2017 roster. Dyson left a big mark on the team, offering elite level defense and speed on the basepaths. Dyson was among my favorite players on last year’s team. A late season injury to Dyson left Haniger and Heredia to play center, though the latter also succumbed to a shoulder injury.
Look, the Mariners made some big improvements in the outfield for 2017. All three of the players above are 26 or younger. They are better defenders than the 2016 outfield trio of Nori Aoki, Seth Smith and Leonys Martin. Their ceiling is still not clear. But Heredia struggled, perhaps the result of fighting a season long battle with shoulder dislocation. Haniger spent two unwanted vacations on the DL. Gamel, after leading the league in batting for a stretch into June, fell off a statistical cliff until bottoming out in September. It’s clear the Mariners need another outfielder, and especially a centerfielder.
With free agent starting pitching at a premium, and a need to make a splash, perhaps this is where the M’s put their splash cash. They could bring back Jarrod Dyson, platooning him with a healthy Heredia. Dyson, as a part time player was never costly, but after having a solid season, if a little light with the stick, will command real money. Not sure how much, but more than the $2.6 million they paid in 2017 when they spirited him away from the Royals
But maybe they go all in the M’s back up the armored car to a vault marked Lorenzo Cain. The Royals centerfielder is entering his age 32 season and will command a pile of cash from some lucky suitor. Cain is a brilliant defender, with good speed. and a solid stick, though with limited power. His 2017 slash was .300/.363/.440 with 15 dingers. MLB trade rumors project his future earnings at four years for $70 million. That’s a lot for a guy who is getting on. You’re betting on health and a very slow decline of speed skills. But if Jerry isn’t going to chase Yu Darvish, this is still a way to dramatically improve the team in exchange for cash money.
A reserve catcher
Don’t know if the Mike Zunino that finished 2017 is the real deal, or not, but I’m thinking we are seeing the true Z. Hopefully he can allay everybody’s fears in March and April, rather than waiting to show us what he has in July. In any case, the M’s will need a backup dude to keep our shiny penny from wearing down. Chooch Ruiz hasn’t retired, but I’m thinking its a good year to try someone else, preferably a someone not named Tuffy.
The Really Big Unknown
Looming over all the inaction is the league holding its collective breath as Shohei Ohtani decides where he will end up. Because money really isn’t an issue, the M’s have as good a shot as anybody. But clearly, the team that is able to successfully lure Ohtani will likely have to have a chance at winning, and be able to offer the young superstar at bats as well as innings pitched. What might that look like in Seattle? It might mean outfield innings for Nelson Cruz and his aging knees. It might mean taking at-bats away from young Mr. Healy. I can’t say I’m against picking up the multi-talented youngster, but it certainly would make things interesting.