Let’s take Jerry Dipoto’s word that he isn’t making any significant adds to Your Seattle Mariners for the coming season. Maybe some relief pieces on minor league contracts, some waiver wire signings, still need a back-up catcher, but expect nothing major. The team you see is the team you got.
The first thing I gotta say is, this is not a bad team. On paper, the rotation is not strong, but it’s certainly serviceable. It’s not Houston Astros or Boston Red Sox good, but they should keep the team in games, assuming there are no extenuating. circumstances.The bullpen is likewise serviceable, maybe even good. The addition of Juan Nicasio helps, the subtraction of Emilio Pagan hurts. They are at least middle of the pack decent, but not a dominant shut-down group, though they did that for at least a month or two in 2017. The strength of the team should be on offense with the addition of Dee Gordon, but important pieces of the puzzle continue to age, and keeping them all more than just ambulatory becomes more difficult with each passing day.
I know my previous post was a downer, and sounded hopeless. On reflection, I am excited about the start of the 2018 season as I am about the beginning of any baseball season. Do I think the M’s will win their way into the playoffs? I think they have a pretty tough road ahead, with the Angels and Yankees both so improved. It seems to me the M’s have a very narrow window and a lot of things will have to break right for them to win the 90+ games it will likely take to win a Wild Card spot. But it certainly won’t require simultaneous meteor strikes on the other 14 American League cities to pull it off. Maybe just 11 or so.
No, I think there are three key factors to the M’s winning in 2018.
1. James Paxton must take the next step
There is little question that James Paxton, with deference to Felix Hernandez, is the current royalty in the Mariners starting rotation. Since 2015, we’ve seen his time on the field increase from 67.0 innings to 121.0 innings in 2016 to a career high innings to 136.0 innings in 2017. Over that same three year span all of his important peripherals have improved: ERA, ERA+, FIP, xFIP, WHIP, all of them at elite levels. His K/9 of 10.3 and HR/9 in 2017 were career bests, and though his walk levels were up a bit last year his K/BB ratio of 4.22 is still excellent.
Paxton made 24 starts in 2017. In those games he pitched 6.0 innings or more in 14 them. Of the remaining games, he definitely had a tough June after his May stint on the disabled list. Likewise, September was not so good after an August stay on the DL. Paxton is a really big man who thrives when all his mechanics are aligned, and when he is out of sync, struggles. Time on the DL costs the Mariners starts, and the four or so in the wake of his return mess with his mechanical momentum.
If the Mariners are to have a shot at winning, Paxton must take the next step and pitch a full season. For me, a full season is a minimum 30 starts and a minimum 180 innings. Even with time away, Paxton was one of the best starters in the American League, His FIP of 2.61 was good for 3rd in the American League, and his 3.9 WAR tied for 10th (Baseball Reference) IF he’d had enough innings to count in the final tallies. Paxton has the stuff to pitch effectively against the Chris Sales, Cory Klubers, and Dallas Keuchels, the aces of the American League. The Mariners need a full season of the real James Paxton.
Honorable Mention: Felix Hernandez. Let’s be clear, I believe the King’s glory days of 2009, 2010, and 2014 are likely gone. But if he wanted to surprise me, that would be good. No, I’m hoping for a return to 2015. Not a great year by Felix standards, but 31 starts for 201.2 IP, 108 ERA+, 3.72 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9. Yes, I’d definitely take that.
2016 was a tough year for injuries, but paled in comparison to 2017’s utter shitshow. We could go through lists. If you want a real glimpse at all the Mariners transactions, take a look at the list of ESPN’s team transactions But just to illustrate the depth of their injury issues I’ll share the most illustrative examples I can remember.
May was the most devastating month for the Mariners litany of wounds. Evan Marshall was an April waiver claim from Arizona after Drew Smyly was placed on the disabled list. He threw relief in five mostly forgettable games in April, and was summoned in to a May 5th extra inning game against Texas and collapsed with a severe hamstring injury and had to be helped off the field. Ryan Weber was a November 2016 waiver claim who began the season in Tacoma. He was pressed into the rotation on May 13th after the failure of various Chris Hestons, Dillon Overtons, and Chase DeJongs to provide the depth General Manager Jerry Dipoto promised. Weber pitched into the fourth allowing one run against Toronto, when he walked off the field with an arm injury. Even the injury emergency call-ups were injured.
Baseball is a sport, a demanding athletic contest in which highly skilled athletes are pushing their bodies to their limits to pitch, catch, throw and hit those little bitty balls. If you doubt this, check out the still photos of pitchers as they throw and their impossible arm angles, or watch Ben Gamel run into the wall down the left field line at Safeco Field. The Mariners can chalk their two year run of injuries up to the breaks of the game, or their turn, karma or whatever. But for the M’s to compete this year they must be healthier. More guys have to get rest. Perhaps the most disturbing injury news out of Mariners camp was news that CF Guillermo Heredia suffered multiple dislocations of his non-throwing shoulder finally resulting in off-season surgery. That he kept playing through this condition is appalling.
Perhaps the addition of Dr. Lorena Martin as Director of High Performance will have an impact on keeping players healthier. But injuries, whether the serious pitching kind, bumps and bruises, strains and pulls are just part of this game. The M’s simply must have fewer of them.
3. Offense Needs to Party like it’s 2016
Three reasons the M’s offense might improve in 2018-Mike Zunino, Dee Gordon and Mitch Haniger.
The Mariners made a lot of position changes in 2017, swapping out their shortstop, their outfield and their perennial search for an adequate first base combo. The result was an offense that was within a tick or so of league average up or down for many important stats. Some were downright bad. Contrast that with 2016 when the Mariners were in the upper half of the league for most offensive statistics, most importantly runs scored. In 2017 the M’s scored 750 runs for 7th in the league, but in 2016 their 768 runs scored was good enough for 3rd. The 2016 team walked more, hit more home runs, and had a higher slugging percentage. Add to this a qualitative improvement in the American League with scoring up a little over 4% and the M’s definitely took a step backwards.
The M’s made some choices after 2016 that definitely impacted their run scoring ability. They went with a younger, athletic outfield that hit fewer homers than the Seth Smith/Franklin Gutierrez-led teams. They opted for Danny Valencia rather than the Adam Lind/Dae Ho Lee combo at first. They also made a choice for an upgrade at shortstop with Jean Segura in place of Ketel Marte. None quite worked out the way they were intended, but, with the exception of Valencia, none was really a failure.
Injuries played an important role in the M’s offensive development. Leading the pack was Segura who only played 125 games due to a couple of trips to the DL. An ankle injury also robbed him of much of his speed, which the Mariners were counting on to bust loose their moribund base running for 2017. Two trips to the DL also cost the Mariners 66 games worth of Mitch Haniger, who started the season hot as a laser cannon, but suffered an oblique strain and was later hit in the face with a pitched ball. Haniger struggled after his trips to the DL, but finally recovered his spring form in September.
Two of the Mariners core, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, never approached their 2016 numbers.
In 2016 Cano slashed .298/.350/.533 with 39 homers, good for 7.3 WAR. In 2016 Robbie was down to .280/.338/.453 with 23 dingers and only 3.4 WAR.
Likewise Seager struggled with .249/.323/.450 and 27 homers for 2.5 WAR in 2017, compared to his career best .278/.359/.499 with 30 homer good for 6.9 WAR in 2016.
Cano and Seager have been better and let’s hope they are in 2018. But there are other reasons to hope for more scoring in 2018. Catcher Mike Zunino finally delivered on his potential in the second half of the season. The addition of Dee Gordon offers another player with high batting average and a history of leading the National League in stolen bases.
Even with the addition of Gordon, however, the M’s must end their string of leading the galaxy in base-running numbskullery.. Scott Servais promised in his end-of-year overview it would improve, and so it must. A healthy Segura and the addition of Gordon really offer the M’s some opportunity to wreak havoc on the basepaths, and that should also improve the offense.
So there you have it, three pathways to improvement and possibly a playoff berth for the 2018 Mariners. All are fraught with danger, but certainly not impossible. My fingers are already crossed.