The Mariners Have An Outfielder Problem. And It’s Not Ichiro.

The Mariners find themselves with an outfielder problem.

And despite the passionate opinion of a vocal segment of fans, no, it’s not Ichiro.

After being called up from Tacoma at the end of April last year to fill in for the injured Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel introduced himself to opposing pitchers by blistering the baseball to the tune of .348/.405/.489 in his first 55 games. However, Gamel finished out the remainder of his 2017 season by slashing a sub par .219/.255/.354 over the final 77 contests.

Ostensibly, the Mariners hoped that their projected starting left fielder for 2018 would shake off that 77 game slump in spring training and start the new season closer to how he began it in 2017. However, that did not happen as Gamel missed most all of spring training (and the first two weeks of the regular season) due to a right oblique strain suffered at the beginning of March.

After five weeks on the disabled list, Gamel returned April 18 but the results, so far, have been more of how he ended last year.

In his nine games since returning to the starting lineup, Gamel is slashing a lowly .125/.192/.250 with a .198 wOBA, 22 wRC+, and a -0.2 WAR.

Of course, one must point out the fact this is just a sample size of 24 at-bats in 2018. But when added to that 77 game slash line of .219/.255/.354. (.271 wOBA and a 68 wRC+ during that second half of play) the sample size becomes much more worrisome.

Making matters worse, Gamel’s continuing struggles seem to be affecting how the Mariners are managing their 25-man roster.

With Gamel’s injury, the Mariners brought Ichiro back on a near league-minimum one year deal to temporarily serve as a fill-in. As anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media can tell you, the signing of Ichiro caused much skepticism among certain fans.

That skepticism quickly turned to anger last week when the Mariners decided to demote Gamel’s platoon partner, Guillermo Heredia, along with his .968 OPS, to Tacoma in favor of keeping Ichiro with team.

The Mariners rationalized the move by explaining how the abundance of right-handed starters coming up over the next 10 games would limit Heredia’s playing time.

In baseball reasoning, the move made some sense.

However, while the initial plan was for Ichiro to platoon with Heredia in left field until Gamel returned, at which point the Mariners would then provide Ichiro his walking papers, Gamel’s continuing struggles – at least in part – seem to be causing the Mariners some reluctance to cut ties with the future Hall of Famer.

Ichiro is slashing just a .250/.289/.250 in 38 plate appearances in 2018, but over his last 20 at-bats Ichiro is hitting .300 with a .364 OBP, which is akin to what he produced in the second half of last season when he slashed a .299/.384/.379 with a 108 wRC+.

Although the Mariners surely still see the 25-year-old Gamel as the long-term plan in left field, complicating matters is the fact that at some point Jerry Dipoto is going to have to decide whether continuing to pencil the struggling Gamel into the everyday lineup is not just in Gamel’s best interests, but the Mariners’ best interests as well.

And if Dipoto does choose to, say, send Gamel down to Tacoma to work on his swing much like he did with Mike Zunino last season, the Mariners will need a left-handed hitting outfielder to pair with Heredia.

Hence, Ichiro still being on the roster as insurance.

The wild card factor in all of this comes in the form of the all-star and four-time MVP candidate the Mariners have percolating down in the Rainiers outfield.

Before suffering a series of injuries last season that sidelined him for roughly three months, Jayson Werth was slashing a .262/.367/.446 (.814 OPS) as the everyday left fielder for the Washington Nationals.

Despite being 38 years of age, the Mariners are hoping there is still some of that production left in Werth’s bat shown last season.

With Gamel laboring, Ichiro seemingly on borrowed time, and Heredia not yet showing his is capable of playing every day, it would not be a surprise to see the right-handed hitting Werth eventually up with the Mariners as their everyday starter in left field.

One would surmise that Heredia would then serve as the team’s fourth outfelder, with Ichrio being released and Gamel demoted to Tacoma.

But, then again, if Werth is playing everyday, the Mariners may elect to have both Gamel and Heredia getting everyday at-bats in Tacoma rather than having either one sitting on the bench with the big league club.

And if that ended up being the case, one shouldn’t be surprised to still find Ichiro lingering on the roster serving as Werth’s back-up.

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Mariners Benefitting from a “Good Enough” Rotation, and a Resilient Bullpen

After taking two of three games from the Kansas City Royals, the Seattle Mariners find themselves with a 6-4 record and off to their best start through the first 10 games of a season since 2014 where they also began the year 6-4. 

The Mariners’ solid start to the 2018 season has them already four games better than this point last year, which saw the team struggle out of the gate with a 2-8 record.

So, what has been the difference between this year and last?

One could point to the offense, where the Mariners are averaging 4.4 runs scored per game, an increase from the 3.8 runs the team averaged last year over their first 10 contests.

The Mariners have also shown to be one of the better defensive units in the league, where their team UZR of 0.3 ranks 5th best in the American League, and their +6 DRS ranks 3rd best.  

There is also the fact that, unlike last season, the Mariners did not have the daunting challenge of facing the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros in seven of their first ten games.

While all of the above are factors, the biggest reason for the Mariners early season success has been their pitching.

Specifically, the ability of the rotation to hand the ball off to the bullpen with a lead, and the bullpen’s ability to, in turn, protect the lead and preserve the win.

Such an ability has been the plan GM Jerry Dipoto repeatedly talked about since the beginning of the offseason: to have a rotation good enough to get through a lineup two or three times, and then let the Mariners’ power bullpen take things from there.

And in the early going, the plan is working.

Mariners starters have pitched five or more innings seven times this season. In all seven games, the starter has been pulled with the game tied or with the Mariners in the lead. Only once has the bullpen given up the lead.

In other words, the Mariners are 6-1 when their starting pitcher goes at least five innings and leaves with the game tied or with the Mariners leading.

Compare that to the start of last season where the starting rotation was able to pitch five or more innings in all 10 games to start the year. In seven of those games, the bullpen was called upon either with the game tied or with the Mariners ahead. However, unlike what has occurred this season, the bullpen coughed up the lead in five of those seven games.

In other words, last season the Mariners went 2-5 when their starting pitcher went at least five innings and left the game tied or with the Mariners leading.

Of course, that is not to say the Mariners bullpen has been lights out this year. Their ERA (4.04) ranks eighth in the league, while their FIP (3.87) and WAR (0.3) both place 10th in the league.

Clearly, the bullpen is giving up runs here and there. The difference is that while they do give up a few runs, the Mariners bullpen has shown the resiliency to not give up the go ahead run(s) when the game is late and close.

The Mariners bullpen has been the beneficiary of a “bend but don’t break” strategy that has seen their relievers progressively diminish hitters in the 7-9 innings.

To illustrate, the Mariners are allowing a .317 batting average in the 6th inning. That average falls to .279 in the 7th inning, and to .237 in the 8th inning.  

In the 9th inning, with the electric Edwin Diaz closing things out, opponents are hitting just a miniscule 0.83.

Overall, in innings 7-9, Mariners pitchers have tossed 27 innings, are allowing just a .219 batting average against, have issued just 5 walks, and are producing a 6.40 SO/W ratio.

In high leverage situations, the Mariners are holding opposing batters to a .203 batting average and putting up a 5.00 SO/W ratio.

In late and close situations? A .194 batting average against and a 6.33 SO/W ratio.

With those type of numbers, the Mariners have essentially shorted the game to just six innings in the early going.

Despite the cries and complaints by critics of not adding “impact” to the rotation, or being “cheapskates” by not spending to acquire another middle to back end starter, Dipoto stayed true to his vision of a healthy rotation being good enough, and a talented bullpen able to take the ball and close things out.

Whether or not this early season success is sustainable over the next 152 games is unknown. But so far, the plan is showing to be effective for the Mariners.

Ichiro: An Ideal Fit for the Mariners

The Mariners are reportedly bringing Ichiro back. And Mariners fans are throwing a hissy fit over it.

Across the blogosphere, comments such as “the Mariners have given up on the season” and “proof that the Mariners only care about making money” are running rampant.

Even one Mariners blog site equated a possible reunion with Ichiro as the “horrific thought of signing a washed up has been” done so as a mere “money grab.”

Wow.

As the Blacked Eyed Peas would ask, where is the (Ichiro) love?

As we here at Mission Mariner would ask, where is the cognizance?

Or, at least, where is the slight semblance of understanding of the current situation, and the type of players Dipoto and the Mariners look to employ in their outfield?

Instead, news of a possible Ichiro signing has unhooded a large contingency of Mariners fans who seemingly have not been paying attention the past two seasons.

Dipoto has been very vocal in his preference for outfielders that are fast; athletic; provide good defense; can play all three outfield positions; have the ability to make contact; can control the zone and draw a walk; and who can drive the ball from gap to gap.

Ichiro, even at age 44, still checks all the boxes.

Yet, fans have taken to bashing a possible Ichiro signing and, instead, glorifying the remaining free agent barflys such as Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, and Jon Jay.

All of whom are younger and offer a bit more offensive power than Ichiro, but fall well short of meeting the above-mentioned skill-sets that the Mariners seek.

Of the available free agent outfielders, Jon Jay probably comes the closest, and he is someone we felt could have been an adequate fit for the Mariners to replace Jarrod Dyson.

Jay is still a decent corner outfielder (1.9 UZR in 2017) who produced a .296 average and got on base at a .374 clip while playing 141 games for the Cubs last year.

However, coming off that type of a season, Jay is ostensibly looking for at least semi-regular playing time and a contract to match. As such, the Mariners would have to invest more money (and possibly an additional year) into a player that would be needed as a part-time starter for just the first few months of the year.

That could present a problem for the Mariners when Ben Gamel – seen as the future in left field – returns to the lineup in May.  With the Mariners high on Guillermo Heredia as their fourth outfielder, Jay would suddenly become an expensive fifth outfielder who would most likely take issue with his diminished role on the team.

Ichiro primarily saw time as a pinch hitter in 2017. He started only 22 games, and of his 215 total plate appearances, 109 occurred as a pinch hitter where he produced a .270 average and a .324 on-base percentage.

As any player will tell you, coming of the bench cold to pinch hit is one of the toughest jobs in baseball.  And Ichiro did it quite well last year.

The season before, Ichiro started 62 games and hit .302 with a .358 on-base percentage.

Additionally, Ichiro still possesses above average base running where he has combined for a 1.4 BsR the past two seasons. His contact rate remains solid, averaging an 85% over that same time. Moreover, Ichiro would provide strong defense in left field, as evidenced by his 21.4 UZR/150 and 12.0 UZR/150 in 2016 and 2017.

Clearly, Ichiro is no longer the player he once was when he first came to the Mariners. But his production the past two seasons indicates that he is still someone who can provide the type of production the Mariners value as a semi-regular starter as well as a pinch hitter, the latter of which would become his role once Gamel returns from the disabled list.

More importantly, Ichiro understands who he currently is as a player at this stage of his career, and what is expected from him.

With the Mariners looking for a temporary starter in left field who would then become a pinch hitter, pinch runner, and late game defensive replacement when Gamel returns, Ichiro is the ideal fit.

And once Mariners fans stop judging Ichiro against the player he used to be, and start understanding the areas of value he can still provide, the love will return.

The Mariners’ Rotation, Jason A. Churchill, and Quality vs. Impact Starts

With the Mariners opening up Cactus League play today, much trepidation still exists as to whether or not GM Jerry Dipoto needs to go out and secure another starting pitcher for his rotation.

Since the beginning of the free agent period, Dipoto has repeatedly stated his comfort rolling into 2018 with his current rotation of James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, and presumably Marco Gonzales.  This “stand pat” rhetoric continues to draw the ire of many who believe that by not acquiring another impact pitcher (a #3 starter or better) the Mariners are simply sealing their fate of missing the playoffs for the 17th year in a row.

While signing a Yu Darvish (update: now signed by the Cubs), Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn certainly would be an upgrade to the rotation, the Mariners believe spending big money on any one of the aforementioned players is not necessary in order to reach their goal of playing meaningful games in October.

Rather, the general thought is that continued advancement by Paxton, a return to health by Hernandez, and full seasons from Leake and Ramirez to go along with a very solid bullpen and a potent offense, the Mariners will have enough fire power to end their playoff drought.

As we detailed in an earlier piece, Dipoto is most likely correct in his rotation assessment (health permitting) given the high quality of his offense, defense and relief corps. Such a standpoint relies on the notion that with increased health will come increased games started. Which, in turn, will result in more quality starts (at least six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs given up) and thereby leading to more wins.

In other words, while investing a ton of years and dollars into an impact pitcher like Darvish would help the Mariners’ efforts of getting into the playoffs, so too would a mere increase in quality starts from the Mariners’ projected rotation.

One of those who is a steadfast believer of needing such impact starting pitching is Jason Churchill over at Prospect Insider.  In a recent article describing what one could expect to receive if the Mariners – heading towards another non-playoff season in 2018 – decided to blow things up and trade off its veterans for prospects, Churchill makes the following conclusory statement:

Of course, all of the above becomes 100 percent moot if the Mariners are the upstart  and end up legitimate contenders in July. But this year it would be a surprise due to a lack of impact additions this winter, and the time to connect the two ends of the hoop is near.

It was an interesting comment for a couple of reasons.  First, it went against one of Churchill’s earlier podcasts where he proposed fixing the Mariners rotation by signing free agent pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Jhouyls Chacin, both of whom would be anything but impact additions.  And second, it disregarded the significance (if any) of receiving the type of expected production from a starting rotation not stricken with catastrophic levels of injuries, as was the case last season.

Accordingly, we decided to reach out to Churchill via Twitter to get his take on what a healthy rotation could mean for the Mariners in 2018.  What transpired was an interesting tit-for-tat on the subject of quality starts versus impact starts as it relates to the Mariners rotation and their chances of reaching the playoffs.

Quality starts versus impact starts is an important examination because not only will the issue intensify as the remaining top three free agent pitchers – Arrieta, Cobb and Lynn –  ostensibly sign with other teams, but the success of the Mariners’ season will hinge greatly on whether the projected rotation can stay healthy and provide the team the type of quality starts that last year’s rotation could not.

Of course, there is great validity of what the addition of a bona fide ace can do for a team looking to get into the playoffs.  But there is the danger of falling into the singular mind-set that without the addition of a bona fide ace, the season is destined for failure. And statistics and history both show that such a belief isn’t necessarily true.

What follows is our “conversation” with Churchill on the subject of quality starts versus impact starts, along with annotation to illustrate some of the pros and cons of each side of the argument.

So, without further ado…

Jason Churchill: Of course, all of the above becomes 100 percent moot if the Mariners are the upstart and end up legitimate contenders in July. But this year it would be a surprise due to a lack of impact additions this winter, and the time to connect the two ends of the hoop is near.

Mission Mariner to Churchill: “Not sure M’s need impact. Rather, just need starts from the projected rotation. 78 wins w/ last year’s staff was a feat. This year’s team is similar to the 2000 squad: great offense, good defense, solid pen. Top four SPs averaged a 4.80 ERA but 29 starts. Result: 92-70 & playoffs.”

Annotation: The gist of the initial comment is to present the question whether adding impact is as necessary as Churchill believes it is. Or, alternatively, would just an increase in mere games started actually be good enough?

The implication here is that adding an impact pitcher like Darvish or Arrieta is not necessary if the Mariners’ projected rotation could consistently take the ball every fifth day and give the team quality outings, something the Mariners did not receive last year due to the rash of injuries to the rotation.  In other words, would a rotation of added quality be good enough despite lacking added impact?

The Mariners’ 2000 squad contained just one impact pitcher in Aaron Sele while the remainder of the staff – Paul Abbot, John Halama, Jaime Moyer, and Freddy Garcia – consisted of middle to back end starters. Despite that quintet of starting pitchers producing a combined (and near league average) ERA of 4.64, they tallied 69 quality starts and the team won 92 games buttressed by very good offense, strong defense, and solid relief.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “Look around. What good teams aren’t getting impact for more than 24 starts? I will save you the time: zero is the answer. Including the Twins last year, even though I wouldn’t consider them a good team.”

Annotation: Churchill responds by focusing on what the Mariners lacked last year, which was games started by impact pitchers.

Churchill tosses out the number 24, which is a reference to Paxton’s 24 starts and the inference that the Mariners ace is the only impact starting pitcher on the team. This is an interesting position to take as impact starting pitchers are those normally projected as #3 types or better, which would make Leake, and maybe even Hernandez, part of the impact pitching equation moving forward.

Nevertheless, Churchill’s estimation seems to be that impact starting pitchers are those who project no less than a #2. Which would mean that the only impact starting pitcher available in free agency is Darvish.  Perhaps one could make the argument that Arrieta is a #2 starter. However, that is a tenuous position to take considering over the past few years Arrieta has seen his production regress significantly.  Any team that signs Arrieta would be wise to do so under the expectation of continued decrease in production, which would make Arrieta no more valuable than Lynn or Cobb.

That aside, Churchill’s main premise here is that last year the Mariners were the only team to receive less than 25 impact starts (again, arguable given who toed the rubber for the Twins and Rockies), and therefore, are not a good team.

Put another way, Churchill is taking the position that “if a team does not receive more than 24 impact starts, then it is not a good team.

Of course, for a premise to be true, its contraposition also has to be true. All it takes is a quick look around baseball – past and present – to know that the following is a fallacy: “if it is a good team, then it is one that receives more than 24 impact starts.

Which brings us back to the initial question: Given the Mariners’ offense, defense and bullpen, is a Mariners rotation that provides quality, rather than impact, good enough to lead the team to the playoffs?

Seemingly, Churchill’s answer is “no” based on the limited number of starts by Paxton.  Churchill does not seem to give credence to the fact that last year’s rotation received only 68 starts from its projected starters and, as a result, was forced to rely on a bevy of minor league pitchers. Churchill also does not acknowledge that last year was last year and, moving forward, ignores what full seasons from Paxton, Hernandez, Leake, and Ramirez could bring.

Instead, Churchill contends that having just one impact starter does not a good team make. Moreover, unless the Mariners sign Darvish or trade for another #1 or #2 type starter, the Mariners can essentially kiss the post-season goodbye.

Mission Mariner to Churchill: “I’m looking, & see a Mariners staff that lost 90 starts from its projected rotation due to injury. Again, the M’s didnt need to add “impact.” They just need starts from their current rotation with non-impactful league average production. Do that, and the M’s see the playoffs.”

Annotation: The intention here is to highlight the rash of injuries suffered by the rotation and to, again, question the actual need for adding impact pitching by emphasizing how an increase in games started by a mostly quality (i.e. non-impactful) rotation should be enough to propel the Mariners into the playoffs even if the rotation produced roughly league average production.

On the surface, it might a bit of a reach to predict playoffs. However, as mentioned earlier, the Mariners rotation in 2000 contained only one impact starter and the team made out pretty well.

Similarly, in 2002, the Mariners rotation included just one impact starter in Freddy Garcia, and their top five starters averaging a 4.05 ERA that was just slightly lower that the league average ERA of 4.26. Yet, that year’s rotation produced 82 quality starts and the team finished with 93 wins.

Conversely, in 2010, the Mariners rotation presented two of the best impact-starting pitchers in baseball in Hernandez and Cliff Lee. The league average ERA that season was 4.26, and at the July 4 mark the Mariners top five starters – led by Hernandez (3.03) and Lee (2.34) – combined for a 3.55 ERA. However, the Mariners’ record was an underwhelming 34-47 and the team stood 14 games out of first place. As a result, Lee was traded to the Rangers and the Mariners would go on to lose 101 games.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “And no, not ‘great’ offense… A lot of things need to happen that didn’t before in order for that to end up being true. A lot.”

Annotation: Churchill takes issue (serious issue?) with last year’s offense referred to as “great.” Relating the current Mariners offense to the 2000 Mariners offense was not to be taken as exactitude but, rather, metaphorically.

A ballpark estimate, if you will.

Regardless, Churchill appears to have a far more negative take on the Mariners offense. Since no explanations are given, the assumption here is that Churchill is relying on something like runs scored where the Mariners finished seventh in the league. Which, admittedly, is not “great” but still good enough to put them in the same offensive neighborhood as the Red Sox, Twins and Rangers, and better than such wild card contending teams as the Orioles, Angels, Blue Jays and Rays.

While runs scored is an important statistic, it is not necessarily the best lens to look through when trying to determine the true ability and worth of an offense. Uncontrolled dynamics such as park factors (elevation, humidity, playing surface, dimensions etc.) and injuries can affect the totality of runs scored.

As such, a better path to take is to rely on statistics that assess an offense’s ability to create runs rather than just adding up how many runs actually crossed the plate.

In that endeavor, wOBA and wRC+ are better barometers of a team’s offense.

Mission Mariner to Churchill: “In the AL, the M’s finished 5th in wOBA, & 4th in wRC+. Those should only improve w/ the add of Gordon. Not “great?” We can call it “really good” then. Doesn’t change the point the M’s dont need to add “impact.” They need starts (health) from their rotation.”

 Annotation: Briefly, wOBA evaluates a player’s overall offensive value or, in other words, how well a player’s offensive ability contributes to scoring runs. Similarly, wRC+ also weighs a player’s ability to create runs. However, it adjusts (or normalizes) for league and park factors. In doing so, wRC+ allows for a more accurate comparison to other players and teams when assessing the ability to create runs.

As noted, the Mariners ability to create and score runs in 2017 was good. How good? In terms of wRC+, better than every team in the league other than the Astros, Yankees and Indians. And in terms of wOBA, it was better than every team other than the Astros, Yankees, Indians and Twins.

Regardless of whether one wants to call that “great” or “really good,” having a top four or five team in run creation mitigates the necessity to field a rotation bursting with impact.

Furthermore, with the addition of Dee Gordon; the continued improvements of Mitch Haniger, Mike Zunino, and Ben Gamel; a return to health by Guillermo Heredia and Robinson Cano; and a bounce back season by Kyle Seager, those numbers should only improve in 2018.

Commentator A to Mission Mariner: “Even with the rise in dingers ERA in 2000 was a lot different from ERA in 2017. 4.92 average AL ERA 2000, 4.36 in 2017.”

Annotation: At this point, other people are beginning to throw their two cents into the conversation. Here, Commentator A brings up the point that, on average, ERA’s across baseball were much higher in 2000 due to the steroid infused offensive upsurge of that time. And he’s correct. Nonetheless, those Mariners teams from 1999 to 2002 consisted of just one impact pitcher in their respective rotations, yet were still good enough to post slightly better than league average numbers to help their teams produce 90+ win seasons.

Mission Mariner to Commentator A: “That’s the point. In 2000 the rotation produced roughly league average ERA. The current rotation doesn’t need “impact.” It needs starts from it’s projected SPs with around league average production which was a 4.38 ERA last year.”

Annotation: To clarify, the 4.38 ERA was incorrect as that was the combined league average ERA for starting pitchers and relievers in 2017. The average ERA for starting pitchers in 2017 was actually 4.54.

Looking at the projected top four starting pitchers for the 2018 Mariners, one will see that in 2017, Paxton (2.98), Felix (4.36), and Leake (3.92) produced ERAs well under 4.54 while Ramirez ended up just north of the league average at 4.74.

Among the two AL wild card teams, the Twins’ top four starters produced ERAs of 3.28 (Santana), 5.07 (Gibson), 3.89 (Berrios) and 4.50 (Maija) which is not all that far off from the Mariners.  The Yankees top four starters were better, but not by a wide margin: 2.98 (Severino), 4.74 (Tanaka), 3.88 (Montgomery), and 3.69 (Sabathia).

The point here is not to contend that the Mariners starting rotation was better than that of the Twins or Yankees, but to simply underline the point that the major advantage gained by the Twins and Yankees’ rotations was games started, not impact.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “No, they did not lose 90 (it’s actually 84) because the rotation was injured. Maybe get that right first and then take a fresh look at it.

Annotation: Churchill jumps back in and discerns between 90 and 84 games lost to injury.  Curiously, there must be importance in Churchill’s mind about a difference of six games or else he would not make it a point to indicate that such a difference warrants a “fresh look.”

However, without Churchill providing any details, whatever point he is trying to make falls moot.  Left alone, the difference between 90 and 84 games is a wash, as the overarching point is that whether 90 or 84 games, it was a lot of games. A TON of games. In fact, the Mariners top four projected starting pitchers for 2017 missed a combined 438 games due to injury. That will cripple any team’s chances of making the playoffs.

Commentator B to Churchill: “Um…don’t be a dick.

Annotation: A different explanation for Churchill’s comment is thrown into the mix.  A better explanation than “being a dick” is probably Churchill just trying to be flippant.  Clearly, not everyone saw the humor in it.

Mission Mariner to Churchill: “Um, are you really quibbling over +/- a few starts (84 vs 90)? Put another way, the M’s top four projected SPs started a combined 46 games. Increase that number to, say, 110 and the rotation suddenly has a “fresh look” to it.

Annotation:  It seems self-explanatory that had the Mariners top four starters remained healthy, they would have made over twice as many starts and, therefore, most certainly given the Mariners a greater chance to add to their 78 wins.

For example, with 60-70 more quality starts, it is reasonable to believe the Mariners could have picked up, say, eight more wins. If that had been the case, the Mariners would have ended the year with 86 wins and been owners of the second wild card.

Just a few weeks ago, PECOTA came out with their 2018 projections and had the Mariners finishing second in the AL West with a record of 83-79 and missing the playoffs by just one game to the Tampa Bay Rays.   One of the driving forces for the Mariners going from 78 wins to 83 wins was just the mere projection of full seasons of from Paxton, Hernandez, Leake and Ramirez.  Here, PECOTA projected an average of 26 starts from each starter and a combined 50 quality starts.

Last season, 57% of the games started by Paxton, Hernandez, Leake and Ramirez ended up being quality starts. Over a full season in 2018, that would project to 11 more quality starts (73) than the Mariners received from all 17 starters used in 2017.

Commentator C to Churchill: “You know that’s not what he’s saying.

Annotation: It’s still unclear whether Churchill’s comment regarding 90 lost starts verses 84 lost starts actually has importance, or if it was just him being pedantic.  It is also possible, however, that Churchill is the type that simply becomes hyper-focused on mere technicalities.

Regardless, what is most noteworthy about this comment is the following response it elicits from Churchill.

Churchill to Commentator C: “I have no idea what he’s saying. Sounds like he’s saying it’s a 90-plus win team.

Annotation: So at this point things begin to get a bit peculiar as Churchill starts throwing out some puzzling stuff.

First is the “I have no idea what he’s saying” comment. Either Churchill is lying, or he is a complete dolt. On four separate occasions, it is stated:

  1. Not sure M’s need impact. Rather, just need starts from the projected rotation.”
  2. “Again, the M’s didnt need to add “impact.” They just need starts from their current rotation….”
  3. Doesn’t change the point the M’s dont need to add “impact.” They need starts (health) from their rotation.
  4. The current rotation doesn’t need “impact.” It needs starts from it’s projected SPs….”

Given the number of times the subject was stated, it is fairly nonsensical for Churchill to play possum. After all, a handful of casual observers to the discussion understood, so it is hard to believe Churchill was the only person left standing in a complete state of confusion.

Then again, maybe what Churchill was trying to say was that although he understood what was being stated, he simply disagreed.  For argument’s sake, that could be a possibility. Most everyone would agree that a full season of Darvish would be a significant improvement to the rotation. However, as previously shown, that also does not mean that full seasons from Paxton, Hernandez, Leake, and Ramirez would also not be a significant improvement to the rotation.

Then there is Churchill’s “90-plus win team” claim. Nowhere is it asserted that this is a 90-plus win team. Churchill is either not paying attention, or is responding while sitting in a pub throwing back a few pints of Guinness.

If it is the latter then, I get it. If not, then it seems Churchill has gone rogue with the truth.

In trying to gauge Churchill’s angle regarding this comment, one explanation could be that he is of the opinion that to obtain the second wild card, it will take 90-plus wins to do so. That could be a valid estimation, and undoubtedly adding someone like Darvish would help in reaching that win total.

However, last year the Twins took the second wild card with just 85 wins, and most 2018 projection systems see the second wild card requiring somewhere between 84-89 wins.  In addition, over the past five seasons, only once has a team needed to win more than 90 games to secure the second wild card.  Moreover, the Rays, Angels, Twins and Blue Jays will most likely be the teams competing with the Mariners for second wild card, and none of those teams looks to be on the threshold of breaking the 90-win ceiling.

Commentator D to Churchill: “dude you misread that tweet.”

Annotation: Commentator D bring up another valid possibility.  Churchill may have just simply misread the comment.

Commentator C to Churchill: “He basically is saying that the planned M’s rotation missed a ton of starts last year and that if they had remained healthy they would have won more games.

Annotation:  Bingo! We have a winner.

Churchill to Commentator C: “LOL. If they were healthier they would have won more games. GENIUS!

Annotation: Maybe Churchill does not understand that the goal is to actually win more games.

Obviously, adding an impact starting pitcher would help in winning more games. But, as Churchill seemingly admits, so too would a healthy rotation.  Which again begs the question: how many more wins would the Mariners have gained by simply having a healthy rotation?

Maybe Churchill’s opinion is that a healthy rotation would not win enough games to secure a playoff berth? Perhaps. However, a decimated-by-injuries rotation nearly made the playoffs last season.  So, what if the Mariners had received 25-30 starts each from Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, Smyly & Gallardo?

In other words, what if the Mariners had received a full season of games started by a rotation consisting of one impact pitcher, three #3 pitchers, and a #5 pitcher? Good enough to get the Mariners into the playoffs last year? I think most would agree that it would have been.

How about adding a #3 starter in Alex Cobb?  Would Paxton, Hernandez, Cobb, Leake and Ramirez be good enough in 2018?  Again, per Churchill, we are talking about a rotation still consisting of just one impact starter.

Then there is the fact that the Astros made a deal this offseason to acquire an impact starter in Gerrit Cole .  However, Cole produced a worse ERA (4.26), and was worth the same amount of wins (3.1), as Leake, who is not considered an impact starter.

Mission Mariner to Churchill and Commentator C: “Church knows what I’m saying. He’s just being a bit obstinate. Which is somewhat surprising. No biggie. Everyone is entitled to a bad day.

Annotation: Time to throw some snark back at Churchill. Given how the issues have been spelled out for him, and the fact others easily clued in on the questions being asked, one can assume Churchill clearly understands.  Oddly, though, Churchill is reluctant to address the issue.  No counter facts, rebuttals, or explanations.  Rather, just a lot of redirection.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “Lol. Literally had no idea what you were trying to say. But go ahead and blame me for it. It had nothing to do with the way you worded it, not at all you were perfect.

Annotation: Churchill does not take the snark well.  Moreover, while his response indicates that he now understands, Churchill still avoids the issue and, instead, decides to take the fallacious path of ad hominem.

Mission Mariner to Churchill: “Given the comments, you seem to be the only one who didn’t understand. Again, the Mariners top 4 projected SPs in ’17 started a combined 46 games. Increase that number to, say, 105-110 starts, & there’s that “impact” you say the M’s didn’t go get. It’s not difficult.

Annotation: Churchill is kindly reminded that the only person who outwardly voiced any confusion was he while a handful of others seemed to quickly understand the question(s) being presented.

More pertinent to the discusssion, however, is the fact that the Mariners received just 46 combined starts from Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Smyly in 2017.  The inference, again, being that receiving a significant increase in games started (i.e. health) from the Mariners’ projected rotation in 2018 would – by itself – produce “impact.” (See what was done there?)

In 2017, Paxton made 24 starts, tallied 14 quality starts, and the Mariners won 10 of those quality starts. Hernandez made 16 starts, had seven quality starts, and the team won four of those quality starts. How about Ramirez? He made 11 starts, produced seven quality starts, and the Mariners won three of those quality starts. Leake, you ask? Five starts, four quality starts, and the team winning two of those quality starts.

(Note: For the season, Leake made a combined 31 starts, had 18 quality starts, and his teams won 11 of those quality starts. Compare that to Darvish who made 31 combined starts, tallied 19 quality starts, and his teams won 11 of those quality starts.)

So, what does that all mean?

Combined, that is 56 starts, 38 quality starts, and 19 quality start wins. Over a full season with Paxton, Hernandez, Ramirez and Leake each making 25 starts in the rotation, the Mariners would project 61 quality starts and 33 quality start wins just from their top four starters.  That is not only a substantial upgrade over 2017 which would result in a lot more wins, but it would also reduce a great deal of wear and tear on the bullpen.

Commentator E to Mission Mariner: “But the pitching on the roster isn’t good. Hasn’t been good for a few years. If the thought is youre ok with Felix. Paxton. Kuma. Ramirez. Gonzo. Leake. Miranda. And Moore. You have two 3s and a bunch of 4-5s. It’s a big ask for Kuma and felix to last and bounce back.”

Annotation: Commentator E brings up three points of concern: 1) The pitching has not been very good the past few years, 2) The Mariners do not have a #1 starter, and 3) It’s hard to believe that Iwakuma and Felix can stay healthy and bounce back to their respective previous form.

While the concerns are all valid, health (or lack thereof) rather than ability seemingly sits at the epicenter of resolving all three points of worry.

While the pitching has not been very good the past few years, the biggest reason for that has been injuries.

In 2016, Hernandez, Paxton and Taijuan Walker all struggled with injuries. And despite Paxton showing the stuff and makeup of a true #1, his inability to stay off the disabled list has hindered his stature of being a bona fide ace.

As for Iwakuma and Hernandez, the issue of “bouncing back” has less to do with rediscovering their former ability, but more to do with regaining their health. If they can do that, both Iwakuma and Hernandez should still be able to produce solid numbers.

Mission Mariner to Commentator E: “The question is whether the Mariners rotation is good enough? What Church misses on is that rotations don’t require impact 1 thru 5 when there is impact in the pen, the offense, & solid defense. Getting 25+ starts from our 1, two 3s, 4 and 5 will be a huge upgrade.”

Annotation:  The point here is that the Mariners have a lot of talent on offense, defense and in the bullpen.  As such, would that type of support behind a healthy Mariners rotation be good enough to result in seeing the playoffs in 2018?

Again, over a full season with the Mariners’ top four starters each making 25 starts, the foursome would project 61 quality starts and 33 quality start wins. That nearly matches what all of the Mariners starting pitchers tallied last year, and would certainly prove significant in the win column.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “OK. You’re 100% right. That good enough for you to STOP trying to convince me?

Annotation: Churchill is amiss in his approach to the interchange. The objective is not for him to be “convinced.”  Rather, it is for Churchill to try and “convince” others of his position via fact, proof, or some other form of validation.  Or, at the least, to provide some substantiation for why he believes the way he does.  Whether one is convinced or not is unimportant.  There is no shame in agreeing to disagree.

Unfortunately, Churchill seems to be of the notion that his opinion is unquestionable.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “Also, clearly you do NOT understand what impact means within this conversation. Even if every projected starter made all 32-33 starts, they’d lack impact in the rotation, because they’re a group of 3-5 starters after Paxton.”

Annotation:  I guess Churchill did not “see what was done there?” when placing quotation marks around the word impact.

In addition, rather than address the merits of the discussion, Churchill again chooses more ad hominem.   Interestingly, however, Churchill’s response  presents the exact premise repeatedly expressed indicating why the Mariners current rotation is actually good enough to lead the team to the playoffs if healthy and able to make a full season of starts.

Which brings us to the irony in the entire discord – does Churchill actually understand what impact starting pitching is?

As stated earlier, impact starting pitching is generally considered as #3 type starters or better.  Even a quick glance over at Fangraphs and one can find impact starting pitching defined as being a third starter or better.”  

Yet, Churchill presumably is of the position that impact starting pitching is that of a #2 starter or better.

Maybe this is just Churchill’s own personal opinion. Which would make some sense given Churchill’s condition of “within this conversation” thereby suggesting the existence of a different understanding of “impact” beyond the boundaries of this exchange.

If one is to accept the customary understanding of what an impact starting pitcher is, then the Mariners will enter 2018 with arguably three impact starting pitchers in the form of Paxton, Leake and Hernandez. And if one is to believe Ramirez will produce like he did in 2015 when he started 27 games, produced a 3.51 ERA, and averaged roughly six innings per start, then the Mariners will begin the 2018 campaign with possibly four impact starting pitchers in its rotation.

Mission Mariner to Churchill: “Holy Christ, that’s the point. The Mariners don’t need so-called “impact.” They simply need starts (aka health) from their current projected rotation. Not sure how much clearer – or how many more times – it can be stated.”

Annotation:  In a nutshell, it is about quality starts versus impact starts.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “You’ve made it very clear you don’t understand what impact starting pitching is. But feel free to dig the hole a little deeper. You know, because you don’t know how to shut the fuck up for your own good.”

Annotation: Some colorful word choices from Churchill. And some projection from Churchill regarding impact starting pitching.  But, ultimately, just more ad hominem rather than addressing the merits of the discussion.

Commentator F to Churchill: “Why dont you stop being so tongue in cheek Jason and be a professional and explain to this poor fan exactly what impact pitching is?

Annotation: Commentator F brings up a very good point. No, not the part about Churchill being a professional. Rather, the idea that if Churchill actually believes there is a non-understanding as to impact pitching, then explain what it is he is trying to convey.

In other words, by providing some facts and reason as to why Churchill believes the Mariners’ rotation needs added impact, the analysis might be found interesting, informative, and actually persuasive.  Which, again, should be the desired outcome of any interaction.

Commentator G to Churchill: “Jason I think you have a general idea of the point he’s trying to make. No need to be a dick about it. You’re just being rude and disrespectful.”

Annotation:   Churchill’s entire interaction summed up in three short sentences.

Churchill to Mission Mariner: “You’re Blocked.  You can’t follow or see @ProspectInsider’s Tweets.”

Annotation: Well, to say the least, being “blocked” by Churchill was a somewhat surprising and disappointing ending. Especially considering that nothing offensive was ever stated.

Nevertheless, it was a stark reminder that people who think their shit don’t stink, do not like to be reminded that their shit actually does stink.

Truth be told, though, one won’t know how the rotation will perform or what the effect an increase in quality starts will have until the season is in full swing.

Yet, if Dipoto stays true to his word and does not add to his current projected rotation, what we do know is that the Mariners starting staff will consist not only of one of the best pitchers in the American League, but a #2 starter who finished seventh in the Cy Young Award just two seasons ago; a #3 starter who produced a 3.92 ERA last year; a #4 starter who owns a 4.25 ERA over 82 career games started; and a #5 starter once considered the #50 rated prospect in all of baseball prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Will that type of rotation be good enough help lead the Mariners to the playoffs?  Hard to say.

But impact or not, if health remains on the Mariners side, then no one should be all that surprised if the Mariners find themselves knocking down the door to the playoffs.

I’m pretty sure Dipoto won’t be.

R.A. Dickey Could Be The Pitcher The Mariners Need

With pitchers and catchers set to report to camp in roughly three weeks, the Mariners continue to keep an eye on the free agent market for the possibility of adding one more pitcher to their starting rotation.

GM Jerry Dipoto has gone on record to say he is “confident” with his current rotation. If that notion holds true, the Mariners will stroll into the 2018 season with James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, and Erasmo Ramirez occupying the top four rotation positions, with the final spot being filled by Ariel Miranda, Andrew Moore, Marco Gonzales, or Max Povse.

While we have detailed how holding firm on the current state of the rotation could have merit, it is still our opinion that adding one more proven starting pitcher would be the prudent move to make.

Someone who could give the Mariners around 30 starts, close to 200 innings, and not go too far north of a 4.00 ERA would be the ideal candidate.

Certainly any one of the big four – Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn – would be capable of meeting such wants. However, with those four pitchers having dealt with recent arm injuries and looking to sign four or five year deals for upwards of $100M or more, making that type of commitment to a 30-somethings pitcher with health concerns is a risky endeavor.

Jaime Garcia is someone whose asking price should be a bit more economical, and he comes close to meeting the criterion after having averaged 28 starts, 164 innings, and a 4.55 ERA over the past two seasons.

However, while a deal for Garcia should probably not exceed two years, Tyler Chatwood’s three-year deal with the Cubs still remains the market bench mark for starting pitching. As a result, the much more experienced Garcia is surely looking for a similar type contract, if not better. A three-year deal might be too much for a soon-to-be 32 year old pitcher who has already undergone the holy trinity of arm surgeries: Tommy John, rotator cuff, and thoracic outlet.

Outside of Garcia, there isn’t much left to choose from. Ostensibly, the Mariners would have to take a flyer on a bounce back candidate such as Chris Tillman, Jeremy Hellickson, or even Andrew Cashner. Yet, after enduring the not-so-good Yovanni Gallardo experiment, it would be difficult to see Dipoto dip back into that well again.

But what about R.A. Dickey?

Now, before you go all Jackie Moon on me, consider what the knuckle baller accomplished in 2017.

The 43-year-old Dickey started 31 games and tossed 190.0 innings for an average of 6.12 innings per start. In addition, Dickey produced a solid 4.26 ERA, struck out over twice as many batters than he walked, and kept the ball on the ground 46.9% of the time.

Not bad, right? Well, it gets better.

Digging into his game logs, Dickey managed to pitch at least six innings in 22 of his 31 starts, including seven or more innings in 11 of his starts.

Zoom out even more, and Dickey went at least five innings in 29 of his 31 starts, and allowed four earned runs or less in 26 of his 31 games.

Don’t look now, but that’s the type of return on investment one would expect from Darvish, Arrieta, Cobb, or Lynn.

And it would cost just a fraction of the price. Say, a one-year deal for $10M.

Such reliable production would be a huge stabilizer to a somewhat precarious Mariners rotation.

In addition, it would give Dipoto options, such as moving Ramirez to the bullpen, thereby adding another solid multi-inning reliever to Dipoto’s “wolfpack” relief corps.  It would also take some of the pressure off a less experienced arm like Gonzales should he emerge from Spring Training as the fifth starter.

That all said, Dickey has hinted at retiring in order to spend more time with his family. Moreover, even if Dickey did decide to post-pone retirement for another season, would he even consider a team that is over 2,300 miles away from his home in Nashville?

Dickey has stated that any team he decides to play for in 2018 would have to present the “ideal situation” for him and his family. One would have to assume close proximity to Nashville would be a factor. If that were the case, it would be very hard to envision Dickey coming to Seattle.

Then again, Dickey is familiar with the Mariners organization after spending a season with them back in 2008. Perhaps Dickey misses the fresh ocean air and abundance of coffee houses, and would be interested in spending another year in the Pacific Northwest?

I mean, what could be better than riding off into the retirement sunset after having helped lead the Mariners to their first playoff appearance since 2001?

Sounds like it could be a pretty ideal situation for not only Dickey, but the Mariners as well.

Is GM Jerry Dipoto Correct – the Mariners Rotation is Good Enough?

When it comes to discussions about the most urgent priority for Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners this offseason, it is to upgrade the starting rotation.

Everywhere one looks, and at every corner one turns, there seems to be a universal agreement that finding at least one, and maybe even two, proven starting pitchers is a necessity.

We even wrote about such a need in our offseason plan, advocating for the acquisitions of Julio Teheran and Jaime Garcia.

Nevertheless, for every article or interview informing Mariners fans of the need for rotation help, there sits Dipoto, telling us that the starting staff is more than capable of being successful.

Such was the case earlier this week when Dipoto sat down for an interview on 710 ESPN’s Bob, Groz, & Tom Show.  Here, Dipoto described how he was more than “comfortable” heading into the 2018 season with a rotation led by James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, and Erasmo Ramirez.

Hearing such indication that there may be no further additions made to the starting rotation, I suddenly sensed pain and outcry as if there had been a great disturbance in the force.

I could feel coldness, despair, and my soul being consumed, as if in the presence of a Dementor.

As I sat there listening, I prayed to the baseball gods that Dipoto would say something – anything- to give fans reassurance that rotation help was on the way.

I waited for Dipoto to cast his petronus and whisk away the suffering and torment.

Nothing.

Instead, an interesting phenomenon took place. As I listened to Dipoto make his case for possibly sticking with the status quo, his words actually began to make some sense.

Blasphemy, you say?

To paraphrase Dipoto, his pitch about the starting rotation went something like this:

“Paxton was one of the best pitchers in the league last year despite the time he missed. Even if he can only give us 24 starts again, that would be more than welcomed production. Hernandez is just a few years removed from garnering Cy Young votes. He just needs to be healthy, and he will be. In addition, he is 32 years old, which is the same age as most of the free agent pitchers coming off recent injuries that our fans want me to dish out a mega contract for. Do all you fans see what I am saying? Leake has been in the league for seven years and consistently ranks in the top 50 for starting pitchers. Again, that is top 50. Do the math here. With 30 teams in baseball, and five starters per team, the math says that Leake ranks in the top third of all starting pitchers. Pretty darn good. And Ramirez? Well, Ramirez is a really sneaky pitcher. I’m not sure what I mean when I say that, but I like sneaky. And for his career, Ramirez has started a ton of games in his career while averaging five plus innings with a sub 4.00 ERA. So, what does this all mean, you ask? Due to the rash of injuries last year, we were forced to rely on minor league arms and we somehow still finished with 78 wins. If Paxton can give us what he gave us last year, Felix gets healthy, and with full seasons from Leake and Ramirez, our rotation should be much improved.”

Okay, I could buy some of that. I mean, looking back at who was toeing the rubber every fifth day, reaching 78 wins was, indeed, quite remarkable. In that regard, getting another season from Paxton like the one he produced last year, in addition to full seasons from Leake and Ramirez, would definitely be a boost.

Then again, a lot of what Dipoto was projecting came across as the glass half full talking. Realistically speaking, no one has any idea what Paxton and Felix are going to bring in terms of health. And, as for Ramirez, he has only one year under his belt as a full time starter, which was back in 2015.

Dipoto would continue on, this time addressing the bullpen. Again, to paraphrase:

“Our bullpen rocks!  We have a really deep and versatile pen. We have the league’s best young closer in Diaz. In addition, we were the only team in the league last year to have three relievers with 20 or more holds.  Those are really important things because, if you remember what I said earlier, I believe the league is headed towards using a six-man rotation with starters going only five plus innings, and there definitely will be times during the upcoming season that we will utilize that strategy in order to reduce the amount of innings for our starting pitchers.” 

 I took a moment to let sink in all of what Dipoto was trying to sell.

Without a doubt, Paxton was one of the best pitchers in the AL last season. In 24 starts, he posted a 2.98 ERA, averaged 5.7 innings, 10.3 SO/9, and a 4.22 SO/W. Not to mention a 12-5 record, including six no decisions where he allowed three earned runs or less.

Two years ago King Felix was Cy Young material, finishing seventh in the voting after making 31 starts, tallying over 200 innings pitched, and going 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA. The following season, however, was very un-King like, with Felix making just 25 starts, tossing 153.1 innings, and producing an 11-8 record with a 3.82 ERA. It might be a pipe dream to think Felix can return to his Cy Young ways of two years ago. However, is it all that far-fetched to believe Felix can still take the ball 25 times, average close to six innings per start, and produce a sub 4.00 ERA like he did in 2016?

For his career, Leake has averaged 30 starts, a 3.98 ERA, and 181.0 innings per season. Last season alone, the eighth of his career, was no different as Leake produced a 3.92 ERA and 186.0 innings over 31 games started. Top 50 type numbers? You bet. Moreover, unless Leake suffers his first major injury of his career, there is nothing to indicate that Leake shouldn’t continue to put up similar numbers in 2018.

In 2015, Ramirez served as the #3 starter for the Tampa Bay Rays, making 27 starts, producing a 3.51 ERA and tossing 151.1 innings. Since then, he’s been used mostly as a reliever. However, after being traded to the Mariners last year, Ramirez started 11 games and posted a 3.92 ERA. I’m not quite sure what Dipoto meant when he called Ramirez “sneaky” but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Ramirez has quietly put together a pretty solid track record as a starting pitcher. In 82 total games started, Ramirez owns a 23-23 record with a 4.25 ERA, and has averaged 5.4 innings per start.

To put that type of production into perspective, Ramirez’s numbers are very equivalent to those of Tyler Chatwood, who is not only five months older than Ramirez, but who also just signed a three year deal with the Cubs for a guaranteed $38M to be their #4 starter.

Okay, so there are some possibilities with the rotation. But what about that “wolfpack” bullpen?

With the addition of Juan Nicasio (2.61 ERA), as well as having David Phelps (3.40 ERA) for an entire season, Dipoto has added two lights out relievers capable of throwing multiple innings. Add them to a bullpen already featuring Nick Vincent (3.20 ERA), James Pazos (3.86 ERA), Tony Zych (2.66 ERA), and closer Diaz (34 saves, 3.27 ERA), Dipoto may very well be correct when he says he has a bullpen capable of chewing up quite a few innings.

If Dipoto has in fact created that “wolfpack” bullpen he keeps talking about, then the need to garner upwards of 200 innings from his starting pitchers is no longer the necessity is has historically been. Rather, solid but reduced production could undoubtedly help allow the rotation to stay healthy which, in turn, would result in a pretty big upgrade over last season’s projected starting five that managed to combine for only 68 starts.

Looking at recent history, receiving the following numbers from the Mariners top four starters doesn’t seem all that unrealistic:

  • Paxton: 25 starts, 160.0 innings, 2.80 ERA.
  • Hernandez: 25 starts, 145.0 innings, 3.80 ERA.
  • Leake: 30 starts, 185.0 innings, 3.90 ERA.
  • Ramirez: 28 starts, 160.0 innings, 4.20 ERA.

With that, Dipoto would just have to figure out a way to divvy up the remaining 55 starts. Ostensibly, the leading candidates would be Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Moore.

Miranda is the only one of the aforementioned who has proven he can take the ball every fifth day, as evidence by his 29 starts last season. Granted, he produced an underwhelming 4.90 ERA over those 29 starts, but Miranda was a tale of two pitchers.

For the first three months of the season (17 starts), Miranda went 7-4 with 3.82 ERA while averaging nearly six innings per start. However, in his remaining 12 starts, Miranda went 1-3 with a 6.71 ERA, and averaged under five innings per start.

It is difficult to say what the cause was for his second half demise, but a strong possibility is that – due to 2017 being his first full season in the rotation – Miranda simply wore down. Assuming that was the case, Miranda could be looked upon (at the very least) to serve as an effective starter for 20 games.

That would leave 34 starts for Gonzales and Moore. Arguably, 34 games could be too many to leave for a couple of unproven rookies. However, the wild card in this whole thing is Hisashi Iwakuma. If Iwakuma returns in May as projected, he could end up taking the ball 20 times (maybe even more) which would then just leave Gonzales and/or Moore to handle the remaining 15 starts.

Under this hypothetical, the rotation’s season ending stat line regarding games started could end up looking like this:

  • Paxton: 25 starts
  • Hernandez: 25 starts
  • Leake: 30 starts
  • Ramirez: 28 starts
  • Iwakuma: 20 starts
  • Miranda: 20 starts
  • Gonzales/Moore: 15 starts

To say the least, that is a lot of moving parts. Eight moving parts to be exact.

Nevertheless, it may be more of a reality than people first think, especially when one looks at what the Houston Astros did last season.

The Astros top five pitchers started 28, 25, 23, 22 and 21 games, respectively. Two others started 15 and 12 games, while four more combined to pick up the remaining 16.

The most innings pitched by any starter was Mike Fiers’ 153.1. In addition, as a collective unit, Astros starters averaged about 5.5 innings per start while depending upon a bullpen that – led by Chris Devenski –was capable of pitching multiple innings.

Sounds eerily similar to what Dipoto is talking about, right?

This all said, it wouldn’t surprise to see Dipoto add an “innings eater” to the rotation thereby making much of this kind of a moot point.

However, if he doesn’t, it may be because Dipoto’s foresight regarding the changing nature of rotations and bullpen usage is something the rest of us are not quite capable of envisioning yet.

Let’s not forget that it wasn’t all too long ago the baseball world was blind to the idea of a 9th inning closer. That is, until Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley came along and showed everyone otherwise, thereby changing bullpen usage over the past three decades.

Perhaps 2018 will be the year starting rotations are transformed for the foreseeable future, with much of the credit for that transformation going to Dipoto.

Seattle Mariners 2018 Preview, Offseason Plan

For GM Jerry Dipoto, the 2017 season didn’t go exactly as planned. 

Fresh off a 2016 campaign that saw the Mariners finish 87-75 and eliminated from playoff contention on the second to last day of the regular season, Dipoto had visions of ending baseball’s longest playoff drought by bolstering the team’s starting pitching. To accomplish this, Dipoto boldly dealt away the talented, yet, inconsistent and long ball-prone Taijuan Walker; swiftly added Drew Smyly via a series of trades; swapped a pair of one-year contracts to acquire Yovani Gallardo; and added Christian Bergman, Chris Heston, and Chase De Jong to Ariel Miranda and Sam Gaviglio as Triple A depth pieces. 

With expectations that ace James Paxton and former ace Felix Hernandez would be fully healthy, and Hisashi Iwakuma had at least one more season left in his arm that could produce something close to the 16 wins, 4.12 ERA, and 199 innings that he provided the year before, the Mariners felt pretty confident about their rotation heading into the new season. 

But that optimism was short lived, and came crashing down faster than pulling the wrong block in a game of Jenga.  

By the end of May, the rotation Dipoto assembled had been completely decimated by injuries.

Smyly’s season came to an end before it ever started as he was lost for the year during  Spring Training. Paxton was placed on the disabled list for four weeks just after his fifth start.  He would land there again in August for another five weeks.  

Hernandez promptly followed suit, being placed on the disabled list for two months after his fifth start.  And like Paxton, he would end up there again in July for six more weeks.  

Even the ever-reliable Iwakuma wasn’t immune to what was occurring to the starting staff.  After his sixth start, Iwakuma was placed on the disabled list and never returned.   

To really understand the dire nature of things, consider that Gallardo – acquired in hopes he could bounce back from his 6-8 record and a 5.82 ERA in 2016 – suddenly went from fifth starter to staff ace.  And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, Gallardo was replaced by rookie Andrew Moore in June due to ineffectiveness.

DEFCON level 1, anyone?

All said and told, the opening day rotation combined to start a total of just 68 games in 2017.  

Dipoto now heads into the offseason tasked with the same job as last offseason: upgrade the starting rotation.  Presumably, Iwakuma, Smyly, and Gallardo will not be back (although Iwakuma or Smyly could return on a minor league deal) leaving Dipoto the responsibility of finding three starting pitchers to join Paxton and Hernandez.  Dipoto got a head start in this endeavor by acquiring Mike Leake from the Cardinals at the end of August, who now heads into 2018 as the Mariners’ #3 starter.  Dipoto also made moves to acquire Erasmo Ramirez, Andrew Albers, and Marco Gonzales, all of whom will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.

In addition to addressing the starting pitching, the Mariners will need to find a first baseman to replace departing free agents Danny Valencia and Yonder Alonso.  Dipoto will also need to find a replacement for Jarrod Dyson who split time with Guillermo Heredia in center field. 

Dipoto has shown a preference – perhaps obsession – for filling needs via trade. However, with most of Dipoto’s draft picks still developing in the lower minors, and most of the “better” prospects left over from the Jack Zduriencik era having already been traded for players now at the major league level, Dipoto may have to bite the bullet and go the route of free agency to fill his team needs.

What transpires below is our offseason plan for 2018 that we believe can land the Mariners in the playoffs.  So, without further ado…

  • Trade CL Edwin Diaz and OF Guillermo Heredia to the Atlanta Braves for SP Julio Teheran and OF Christain Pache.

Did we actually say the Mariners may have to go the route of free agency rather than trade to fill needs?  Scratch that.

Yes, dealing Diaz is a bold move, and one that would essentially create two needs at the cost of filling just one. But being able to acquire a #2 caliber pitcher at just $31M over the next three years is a bargain in today’s market.  Plus, there is no sense in retaining a young electric closer if you lack a rotation that can pitch well enough to help you win games.  Teheran is a #2/#3 type starter who over the past five seasons owns a 57-52 record, a 3.55 ERA, an average of 197.0 innings tossed, and a near 40% ground ball rate.   The two time All-Star struggled a bit in 2017, recording an 11-13 record with a 4.49 ERA, the highest of his career.  However, those numbers may be attributed to hitter-friendly SunTrust Stadium where Teheran went 3-10 with a 5.86 ERA.  On the road, Teheran profiled much closer to his career numbers by going 8-3 with a 3.14 ERA.  That kind of production would make the 27 year old Teheran the perfect fit right behind Paxton in the rotation.

The Mariners also acquire Atlanta’s #10 prospect in Pache.  Known for speed, defense, and athleticism, Pache is a younger version of Heredia.  Pache spent 2017 in Class A where he hit .281, produced a .335 on base percentage, and swiped 32 bases.  Pache is still a few seasons away from making the jump to the majors, but profiles as an everyday centerfielder.  However his current path is blocked by the presence of Atlanta’s top prospect (and baseball’s #10 overall rated prospect), center fielder Ronald Acuna, who slashed a .344/.393/.548 at Class AAA last season and is primed to break into the majors.  With Acuna projected to be Atlanta’s centerfielder for the foreseeable future, Pache would have to move to a corner outfield position where his lack of power (.343 slugging percentage in 2017) would diminish his overall value. 

For Atlanta, Diaz allows the Braves the option of moving Arodys Vizcaino back to his setup role after taking over the closer role from 34 year old Jim Johnson, who struggled with eight blown saves and a 5.56 ERA.  Heredia provides the Braves youth, speed, defense, and athleticism to an aging outfield that saw 32 year old Matt Kemp (115 games) and 33 year old Nick Markakis (160 games) handle most of the duties in left and right fields.  

  • Sign 1B Carlos Santana to a 4 year/$56M contract.

The Mariners haven’t been able to find a long(ish) term solution at first base since Richie Sexson played the position from 2005 to 2008. In the nine seasons since the Sexson era, the Mariners have seen six different players start a season at first base, including last year’s starter, Danny Valencia, who slashed a .256/.314/.411 with 15 home runs.  The Mariners did pick up Yonder Alonso in the second half in an attempt to increase production at the position, and were rewarded with a .265/.353/.439 and six home runs in 42 games.  With both Valencia and Alonso free agents, the Mariners end the revolving door at first base by signing the switch hitting 31 year old Santana to a four year deal. Over the past five seasons, Santana has averaged a .250/.366/.447, 25 home runs, and gold glove type defense.  Last year alone, Santana slashed a .259/.363/.455 and 23 home runs. 

  • Sign OF Jon Jay to a 2 year/$15M contract. 

With the trade of Heredia to the Braves, and Jarrod Dyson’s pending departure via free agent, the Mariners turn to Jay for outfield help.  Jay, 32, is no longer an every day player, and cannot cover the same amount of ground he once did in his younger days. However, Jay is still capable of providing average defense at all three outfield positions. And with Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel both capable of playing center, the Mariners have the option of utilizing a rotation at the position to alleviate the need for any one person to play there full time.  While Jay would be a step down from Heredia and Dyson in terms of defense and speed, he would be an offensive upgrade over both players.  Jay slashed a .296/.374/.375 in 141 games in 2017, and because he doesn’t carry significant hitting splits, Jay can be used against left and right handed pitching.

  • Sign SP Jaime Garcia to a 2 year/$20M contract with $12M option.

Dipoto has developed an appetite for ground ball pitchers.  After the 2016 season, Dipoto flipped the script by announcing that Safeco Field is actually not a good home for fly ball pitchers.  Under this new assessment, Dipoto focused his attention on ground ball pitchers, picking up Leake and his career 51.1% ground ball rate, as well as Ramirez and his 44.8% ground ball rate.  With trips to the disabled list by Paxton and/or Hernandez a likely possibility in 2018, adding some more rotation should be on Dipoto’s to-do list.  The 31 year old Garcia brings with him a career 56.2% ground ball rate, and fits right in with Dipoto’s growing number of starters who can keep the ball on the ground.  While Garcia’s past has seen him deal with his fair share of injuries, he’s been a model of good health for the past two seasons, averaging 29 starts and 164 innings pitched. 

  • Trade SP Oliver Jaskie and OF Chuck Taylor to Kansas City for RP Joakim Soria.

With Diaz gone to Atlanta, Dipoto must find someone to anchor the back of the bullpen.  Several in-house candidates do exist for Dipoto to choose from.  Veteran setup men David Phelps and Nick Vincent could slide into the closers role.  The hard throwing James Pazos, who tallied a 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings last year, is a viable option, as are fellow fire ballers Tony Zych, Dan Altavilla, and Shae Simmons.  But rather than weaken a strong setup tandem, or roll the dice that one of his young high-octane relievers can suddenly step in and handle the pressures that comes with the closer’s gig, Dipoto opts to trade for the veteran Soria to stabilize the back of the bullpen.  With one year and $9M remaining on his contract (plus a $10M mutual option for 2018) Soria provides the Mariners another proven veteran arm at the back end of the bullpen with plenty of closing experience.  After solidifying himself as one of baseball’s dominant closers during his first nine seasons, averaging 25 saves and a 2.57 ERA, Soria served as the Royals’ late inning setup man to closers Wade Davis (2016) and Kelvin Herrera (2017) the past two years where he averaged a 3.89 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per 9 innings. 

  • Sign OF Leonys Martin to a 1 year/$1M contract.

Yes, we know that Martin hit a horrendous .174/.221/.287 with the Mariners last year.  And, yes, we know he was released as a result.  And double yes, we realize Martin hit even worse after being picked up by the Cubs.  But we’re not eyeing Martin as a starting outfielder.  Rather, we’re talking fourth outfielder here.  One who can spell Gamel, Jay, or Haniger.  And even though Martin was pretty atrocious at the plate in 2017, the guy plays all three outfield positions, can flash the leather, and runs the bases well.  Those attributes alone make Martin a decent (and affordable) option as a late inning defensive replacement, a pinch runner, and occasional starter even if his bat should remain dormant for s second straight year.  But with 2018 being just his age 30 season, odds are Martin’s offense will return closer to his career .247/.300/.360 numbers, which isn’t great by any means, but more than fine given what the rest of his game brings.

The Ohtani Factor

We should let it be understood that our offseason plan excludes the possibility of winning the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes.  Why?  Well, because Ohtani is a complete wild card.  Since money is not an issue (Ohtani is subject to the league minimum) every team is a possible destination thereby making the answer to where Ohtani will end up anyone’s guess.  With the final decision completely out of the control of the teams wanting him and, instead, resting solely with Ohtani himself, for reasons that are only known to him, we decided it best to just eliminate Ohtani altogether.  To include him in our offseason plan would be like formulating a Seahawks offseason plan for the 1988 season centered around the acquisition of Brian Bosworth even though the supplemental draft lottery hadn’t taken place yet.  A bit nonsensical, to say the least. 

The 25-Man

Infield:  1B Carlos Santana ($14M); 2B Robinson Cano ($24M); SS Jean Segura ($9.5M); 3B Kyle Seager ($19M); C Mike Zunino ($3.2M)

Outfield:  LF Ben Gamel ($.50M); CF Jon Jay ( $7.5M); RF Mitch Haniger ($.50M) 

Designated Hitter: Nelson Cruz ($14.25M)

Bench:  UT Andrew Romine ($1.9M); OF Leonys Martin ($1M); C Mike Marjama ($.50M)

Rotation:  James Paxton ($5.6M); Julio Teheran ($8M); Mike Leake ($11M); Felix Hernandez ($26.8M); Jaime Garcia ($10M)

Bullpen: Marco Gonzales ($.50M); James Pazos ($.50M); Marc Rzepczynski ($5.5M); Erasmo Ramirez ($4.7M); Tony Zych ($.50M); David Phelps ($5.8M); Nick Vincent ($2.7M); Joakim Soria ($9.0M)

The Wrap 

Our offseason plan involves six moves that come in at a total cost of $49.5M.  This brings the total payroll to $186.45M, which would be an increase of just over $31M from last year.  That’s a pretty lofty jump in payroll, one that would have made the Mariners the fifth highest payroll team entering 2017.  But with roughly $42M coming off the books in the next two seasons due to the looming free agencies of Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez, the increase in payroll is manageable as the Mariners will have the option to bring that number down beginning in 2019 without having to drastically alter their roster.  

The big move, of course, was to acquire Teheran in order to pair another young top flight arm with Paxton.  With there still being some volatility with the rotation, adding a top shelf pitcher was a priority.  The other big move was the signing of Santana to a four year deal, which surpasses any other free agent deal handed out by Dipoto during his tenure as Mariners GM by two years.  In acquiring the switch hitter, the Mariners add another hitter who fits in with the team’s emphasis on controlling the hitting zone and getting on base.  In addition, Santana brings some power, evidenced by his 57 home runs and .477 slugging percentage the past two seasons.  And with his ability to hit from both sides of the plate eliminates the need to use a platoon at first base, thereby freeing up a bench spot for someone with a bit more versatility. 

Despite the addition of Teheran, the potential of injury to Paxton and/or Hernandez has us add further depth to the rotation with Garcia.  A proven veteran starter, Garcia would also allow Dipoto to use Erasmo Ramirez and/or Marco Gonzales out of the bullpen, where their respective abilities to toss multiple innings will help ease the burden of the rotation and bullpen.  (More on that later)

The outfield will see Jon Jay take over as the primary starting center fielder, although both Gamel and Haniger can see time there as well.  Leonys Martin returns to take over the fourth outfielder duties.  And utility man Andrew Romine, picked up off waives from Detroit after the season, will be able to slot in at a corner outfield position as well.  If the Mariners go with a four man bench, fellow utility man Taylor Motter could make the team again and see time in the outfield.  However, we’re guessing Dipoto goes with a three man bench in order to utilize an eight man bullpen during the season.

Ok, so it’s not really a “guess” that the Mariners may go with and eight man bullpen.  Dipoto has already stated that next year’s starters may be limited to going through a batting lineup just three times in an attempt to prevent wear and tear.  It has also been  indicated that relievers will be looked upon to toss multiple innings.  With all signs pointing to a bullpen expected to work more innings than it has in the past, carrying an additional reliever seems like the logical move.  And the acquisition of Joakim Soria not only adds a proven closer to replace Diaz, but someone who has had success in a set-up role as well.

So there you have it.  Six moves, a bump of $31M in payroll, and a team that is even deeper and more versatile than the one Dipoto put on the field in 2017.  Is it good enough to see the playoffs?   We believe so.   

 

Playoffs or Not, Mariners Must Be Buyers at Trade Deadline

To be or not to be, that is the question for GM Jerry Dipoto and his Seattle Mariners. With the July 31 trade deadline just around the corner, Shakespeare’s words have never resonated more true as Dipoto and company must decide whether to be, or not to be, buyers or sellers.

The Mariners find themselves at the all-star break with a record of 43-47, a lofty 17.5 games behind the Houston Astros in the AL West race, and 4.0 games back in a very crowded race for one of the two wild cards playoff spots. They are also trending in the wrong direction after having lost 10 of their last 14 games.

For much of the season, the Mariners have been without their top four starters in Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Drew Smyly. Minor league call-ups Ariel Miranda, Christian Bergman, and Sam Gaviglio were able to step in and somehow help keep the Mariners afloat. The prospect of a healthy return of the team’s starting rotation had Mariner executives – and fans alike – believing a strong second half playoff run was possible.

That belief, however, has waned slightly in recent weeks.

Hernandez returned to the mound on June 23 after being placed on the disabled list April 26 with bursitis in his throwing arm. Since his return, however, Hernandez has been far from his former Cy Young self, giving up 19 hits and 11 earned runs in four starts.  Such results have provided fodder to those who believe that the days of “King Felix” are over.

Paxton returned May 31 after missing four weeks with a forearm strain. While Paxton seemed to be on his way to supplanting Felix as the new “King” by posting a 1.43 ERA in his first six starts of the season – including four starts where he gave up zero runs – Paxton has since provided an unroyal-like 5.40 ERA in his seven starts since coming off the disabled list.

Iwakuma went on the disabled list May 10 with shoulder inflammation and was expected to be back sometime in June. However, his return has been put on hold while the club tries to figure out why Iwakuma’s velocity, normally in the 88-91 mph range, remains at 80-83 mph.

Smyly, Dipoto’s main offseason pitching acquisition, was shelved during spring training after suffering a flex strain in his throwing arm. Targeted for a July return, Smyly is now scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery and will miss the remainder of the season.

Yovani Gallardo, Dipoto’s other offseason pitching acquisition, is the only starter who has remained healthy all year long. However, an inability to consistently pitch past the fifth inning resulted in his demotion to the bullpen with rookie Andrew Moore, the organization’s top pitching prospect, taking his place in the rotation.

Add this all together and conventional wisdom would point to the Mariners being sellers.

Then again, 4.0 games back in the wild card race is not insurmountable, especially with the type of offense the Mariners put out on the field each and every game. Dipoto clearly understands that his club is just another hot streak away from taking control of the second wild card.

And whether or not the Mariners have a realistic shot at making the playoffs, one truth remains: The Mariners need starting pitching. Not just for this year, but for next and beyond.

Which, by all conventional wisdom, should necessitate the Mariners being buyers.

Looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, Iwakuma may have thrown his last pitch not just for the Mariners, but for his career. The same could be said for Smyly. At the very least, Smyly will miss a good portion of 2018 while he recovers from surgery. Gallardo will not be retained. And Felix is resembling more of a solid mid rotation arm rather than the ace he once was.  That leaves Paxton, who has shown ace-like stuff, but also a continued penchant for inconsistency and injury.

The Mariners do have the aforementioned Miranda, Gaviglio, and Bergman. But all three project more as back end starters. Moore has shown in his brief major league career that he belongs in the rotation. But at this juncture it remains unknown whether he’ll settle in as a top of the rotation starter, or just another young arm to round out the bottom half of the staff.

Dipoto could wait until the offseason to attempt to sign or trade for pitching. But the trade deadline presents a unique opportunity not necessarily found at season’s end. Unlike the offseason where most teams are competing to acquire (in this case) pitchers they believe will get them into the playoffs, the trade deadline is where half (or more) of MLB teams throw in the towel on the season and, as a result, look to sell coveted MLB assets for high end prospects.

Simply put, there is less competition at the trade deadline to acquire pitching.  So, even if the playoff odds are not in the Mariners favor, the reduced number of teams looking to invest in major league ready assets increases the odds of Dipoto being able to land a sorely needed starter to help this year and beyond.

The following is a short list of pitchers Dipoto should have his eyes on:

Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox, Age: 28, 2017 Record: 4-8, 4.49 ERA, Team Control: Under contract for $30.85M over next three seasons including team options in 2019 & 2020.

  • If made available, Quintana will most likely be the most sought after pitcher. He’s young, under contract until 2021, and has top of the rotation stuff. While Quintana’s stats this season are not quite on par to last year’s when he went 13-12 with a 3.20 ERA, teams will assuredly be more inclined to assess Quintana from his five prior seasons where he has compiled 49 wins, and averaged a 3.41 ERA, 190.0 innings pitched, and holds just over a 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio.

Gerrit Cole, Pittsburg Pirates, Age: 26, 2017 Record: 7-7, 4.43 ERA, Team Control: Arbitration eligible 2018 & 2019. Free agent in 2020.

  • Should the Pirates decide to dangle Cole, interest will be high. Like Quintana, Cole’s stats this year are not as good as those in past years, including two seasons ago when Cole finished with 19 wins, was selected to the All-Star team, and was fourth in the Cy Young Award voting. However, any team looking to add a pitcher who could produce ace-like results for seasons to come will be closely monitoring Cole’s availability.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves, Age: 26., 2017 Record: 7-6, 4.79 ERA, Team Control: Under contract for $31M over the next three seasons, including a $12M team option in 2020.

  • Recent reports have surfaced indicating that the Braves may look to move Teheran for the right price. At first thought, this would seem unlikely, as the Braves are in rebuilding mode, and trading away a 26 year old fire-baller who has a 3.39 ERA over his first five seasons doesn’t really make much sense. Then again, the Braves current rotation already contains a few youngsters in Mike Foltynewicz (25) and Sean Newcomb (24), and their minor league system is stacked with highly regarded pitching prospects, as evidenced by their seven pitchers listed in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 prospects.

Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers, Age: 24, 2017 Record: 9-6, 3.19 ERA, Team Control: Arbitration eligible 2019-2022. Free agent in 2023.

  • The idea that the Tigers would part ways with Fulmer is impossible to fathom.  For one, the veteran-laden Tigers are in need of getting younger.  And two, Fulmer is not only “younger” but the kind of young major league talent no team want to trade away.  I mean, what GM trades away a sub 25 year old pitcher who in their first two seasons as a major leaguer is a combined 20-13 with a 3.11 ERA, won the 2016 Rookie of the Year Award,  finished 10th in the 2016 Cy Young Award voting, and was selected to this years All-Star team?  But just like the Braves and Teheran, there are whispers that the Tigers could be willing to move Fulmer for the right price.  That “price” would surely be steep, and have to entail several top shelf prospects that would end up filling multiple future needs for the Tigers.

Dan Straily, Miami Marlins, Age: 28, 2017 Record: 7-4, 3.31 ERA, Team Control: Arbitration eligible 2018-2020. Free agent in 2021.

  • Two seasons ago, Straily was a journeyman pitcher who the Reds claimed off waivers from the Padres. There must have been something in that Cincinnati water because all Straily did in 2016 was go 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA. Straily has continued that breakout success this year with Miami by going 7-4 with a 3.31 ERA. It may be still too early to claim Straily as a top end starter, especially considering not long ago that he wasn’t even considered 40-man roster material. However, many see Straily’s improvement not as an outlier, but due to his maturation and development resulting in reduced walks, upped strikeouts, and an overall increase in velocity.  At age 28, the former top 100 prospect may finally be coming into his own.

Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics, Age: 27, 2017 Record: 4-4, 4.00 ERA, Team Control: Arbitration eligible 2018 & 2019. Free agent in 2020.

  • The question for most teams concerning Gray is health. After establishing himself as one of the top young arms in baseball by averaging 11 wins and a 2.88 ERA from 2013 to 2015, including a third place finish in the 2015 Cy Young award voting, Gray endured an injury plagued 2016 campaign where he made only 22 start, went 5-11, compiled a 5.69 ERA, and landed on the disabled list twice, the final time coming August 7 where a forearm strain essentially ended his season. The beginning of the 2017 season didn’t do much to dissuade any injury concerns as Gray missed the first three weeks of the season with a strained lat. But since coming back on May 2, Gray has steadily worked himself into form, and has stayed healthy thereby lessening concerns about his health.  In Gray’s last seven starts, he has limited hitters to a .227 batting average, has an ERA of 3.45, and is averaging 6.3 innings per start. All of which could be a sign that the Gray of old is on the verge of returning.

Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants, Age: 31, 2017 Record: 6-7, 4.51 ERA, Team Control: Under contract for $109.4M over the next five seasons including a $22M team option in 2022.

  • Of all the pitchers listed, Cueto is the oldest at 31. But with age comes a track record of being a bonafide #1 starting pitcher. Cueto has produced seasons of 18, 19 and 20 wins. He has a career 3.31 ERA. He just missed out on the Cy Young award when he placed second to Clayton Kershaw in 2014, and finished sixth last year after going 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA. Cueto certainly would be a boost to any team that acquires him. But Cueto is also a huge risk.   Not only is Cueto owed an average of $21.8M through his age 35 season, he also has an opt-out clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent at season’s end should he so chooses to exercise it. What this means is that any team that acquires Cueto not only risks being stuck with an albatross of a contract, but will most likely have to pay deeply for a player who could end up being just a second half rental.

This all said, the big question is whether Dipoto could even put together an enticing enough package to land a pitcher with this mix of youth, proven results, and team control. The Mariners farm system is far from loaded with coveted talent, but they do have a couple top MLB prospects in outfielders Kyle Lewis (#34) and Tyler O’Neil (#38). They could also part with one of their young MLB outfielders in Mitch Haniger, Brad Gamel, or Guillermo Heredia. And the emergence of Moore in the starting rotation could allow Dipoto to part with someone like Miranda who could immediately step into a major league rotation.

In his short tenure with the Mariners, Dipoto has proven the ability to acquire the players he wants. Let’s hope come this trade deadline, Dipoto has his sights set on a top flight starting pitcher.

Seattle Mariners 2017 Preview, Offseason Plan

Last season, Jerry Dipoto’s first foray into the offseason as GM of the Seattle Mariners involved reconstructing an entire bullpen, finding two starting pitchers, and filling holes at first base, catcher, left field, and center field. His offseason moves translated into an 86 win season, second place in the AL West, and just missing out on the playoffs.

Heading into 2017, Dipoto still has work to do but the challenges are not near as daunting. At the top of Dipoto’s wish list are finding a right handed bat to platoon at first base with rookie Dan Vogelbach, a left-handed reliever, and a corner outfielder.

As was the case last season, Dipoto has come out of the offseason gates quickly, having already made trades for catcher Carlos Ruiz, first baseman/designated hitter Danny Valencia, and shortstop Jean Segura. Below is our offseason plan, with corresponding updates.

So, without further ado…

  • Trade SP Taijuan Walker, 1B/OF Stefan Romero and minor league RHP Brandon Miller to the Miami Marlins for OF Marcel Ozuna and SS Adeiny Hechavarria. 

Dipoto enters the offseason with only one everyday outfielder on his 25-man roster: center fielder Leonys Martin. With Nelson Cruz set to see even more time at designated hitter, Seth Smith strictly a platoon player, and Franklin Gutierrez most likely having played his last game wearing blue and green, the Mariners find themselves short on experienced outfielders.  Youngsters Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel showed flashes of being solid everyday players, however, the two have a total of 164 at-bats between them at the mlb level.

To address this problem, Dipoto revisits the Ozuna trade talks from last offseason, this time agreeing to part with the talented, yet inconsistent and injury-prone Walker. Last season was another up and down year for Walker, one in which he showcased stretches of pure dominance as well as looking completely lost.  Still, Walker is young, cost-controlled, and has a high ceiling.  In a market where average starting pitching commands big dollars and multi-year contracts, Walker’s young age and high ceiling still renders him a desirable asset.  In Romero, the Marlins acquire a young hitter who can compete for the team’s need for a right-handed platoon bat at first base. Romero has produced against minor league pitching throughout his career, averaging a .299/.347/.514 at Tacoma, but is out of options with the Mariners.  Romero could fill the Mariners own platoon need at first base, however, having two inexperienced players at that position is not ideal. And should Romero struggle, the Mariners would be left with no alternative but to release him.

With the addition of Ozuna, Dipoto adds another young, athletic outfielder who can hit and play superb defense. Dipoto has expressed his preference to have Ketel Marte begin 2017 in Tacoma so he can further hone his shortstop skills.  Inserting Hechavarria as the everyday shortstop will allow such a wish.  Hechavarria struggled at the plate last year, slashing a .236/.283/.311, but some of that could be attributed to a slight dip in his babip, down from his career mark of .310 to .269.  In his previous two seasons, Hechavarria averaged a .278/.311/.676 so the ability to be a league average hitter exists.  And with Hechavarria’s defense, league average offensive production would be more than enough.  All Hechavarria did defensively last season was put up an 8.3 UZR and +9 DRS.  The year before, a 15.8 UZR and +9 DRS.  Even with his dismal showing at the place, Hechavarria was still worth 0.4 fWAR in 2016.  In comparison, Marte’s value came in at -0.7 fWAR.

Update: Dipoto pulled the trigger on the biggest deal of the offseason so far, trading Walker and Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for all-star shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Mitch Haniger and left-handed pitcher Zac Curtis.  While we felt finding an upgrade in the outfield should be priority number one – with Walker the asset to accomplish such a need – it’s hard to argue with the addition of Segura.   

Swapping out Marte for Segura (319/.368/.499, 20 homeruns, 33 steals shortstop, 5.0 fWAR in 2016) provides an instant upgrade and a legitimate leadoff hitter to the lineup. Haniger brings defense at all three outfield positions and a right handed bat that can spell Gamel and/or Smith against left handed pitching, and Curtis provides much needed left handed pitching depth, with the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Mariners’ bullpen.   

  • Trade minor league prospects SP Zach Lee and OF Gareth Morgan to the New York Yankees for OF Brett Gardner, and 
  • Trade OF Seth Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for RP Trevor Rosenthal. 

With Ozuna set as the new right fielder, the Mariners turn their focus towards left field. Gamel is slated to start in one of the corner outfield positions, but the to-be 25 year old rookie has only 33 major league games under his belt and a .188/.278/.292 to show for it.  Given those facts, it would be difficult to believe Dipoto wouldn’t go with someone better if available.

That “someone better” would be Gardner, as it is reported the Yankees are listening to offers for the veteran outfielder. In Gardner, Dipoto is able to fill two glaring needs: finding an established left fielder and someone to hit at the top of the batting order.  Last year, Gardner split time with Jacoby Ellsbury at the leadoff spot, slashing a 261/.351/.362 with 16 stolen bases.  Gardner still possesses one of the better hitter’s eyes in baseball, posting a 0.66 walk-to-strikeout ratio.  And the former center fielder showed he can still flash the leather, producing a 5.7 UZR/150 while winning his first gold glove.

In exchange, the Mariners part with minor league pitcher Zach Lee and outfielder Gareth Morgan. Lee, 25, a former first round draft pick and top 100 prospect, came to the Mariners in last year’s trade that sent Chris Taylor to the Dodgers and should be able to compete for a spot in the Yankees rotation.   Lee struggled some in 2016 going a combined 7-14 with a 6.14 ERA with Triple-A Oklahoma City and Tacoma.  His 2015 season with Oklahoma City was much more akin to his top prospect billing as he went 11-6 with a 2.70 ERA, 81 strikeouts and only 19 walks.  The 6’4, 220 pound Morgan, 20, was a second round pick in 2014 and possesses a quick bat and impressive power.  Morgan’s swing and miss tendencies have hurt his overall ability as a hitter. However, scouts believe should Morgan improve his contact ability, he profiles as a legitimate middle of the order bat.

With Gardner and Ozuna set in the corner outfield positions, the Mariners look to deal from their excess of outfielders, sending Seth Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for reliever Trevor Rosenthal.   Smith, used primarily against right handed pitching, produced a .758 OPS with 16 homeruns in 2016.  Rosenthal served as the Cardinals closer in 2014 and 2015, averaging 46 saves and a 2.65 ERA.  But last season Rosenthal struggled with his command in save situations, issuing 14 walks in 16 innings and four blown saves to start the season.  Rosenthal eventually lost his closer role to Seung Hwan Oh who went on to save 19 games with a 1.92 ERA.  With Oh set to be Cardinal closer in 2017, and Smith and Rosenthal due to make roughly the same amount in salary ($7M), the two teams swap contracts allowing the Mariners to add another high octane arm to their bullpen, and the Cardinals filling their need for a productive outfielder.   

  • Trade UT Mike Freeman to the San Diego Padres for LHR Brad Hand. 

Last season’s deadline deal sending Mike Montgomery to the Chicago Cubs for Vogelbach left Vidal Nuno as the lone left hander in the Mariners’ bullpen. In his quest to find a replacement, Dipoto turns to San Diego left-hander Brad Hand.  Claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins at the beginning of last season, Hand proceeded to go 4-4 with a 2.92 ERA for the Padres and limited lefty swingers to just a .125/.221/.200.   In exchange for Hand, the Mariners send the Padres utility infielder Mike Freeman who saw time at second base, shortstop, and both corner outfield positions between stops in Arizona and Seattle last year.  With former Mariner Luis Sardinas in line to be the Padres opening day starter at shortstop, the addition of Freeman adds extra depth and insurance in case Sardinas struggles.

  • Sign 1B/OF Steve Pearce to a 2 year/$11M contract.

The Mariners’ search for a right-handed bat to pair with Vogelbach at first base brings them to a player we advocated for last year. As we profiled in our 2016 offseason plan, Pearce lacks the traditional homerun power normally desired from the position, but brings with him a productive bat that put up a .288/.374/.492 last season as well as a track record of success against left-handed pitching. For his career, Pearce owns an .852 OPS against southpaws, including a 1.028 OPS last season. In addition, Pearce’s ability to play both corner outfield positions as well as second and third base provides valuable versatility.  At the end of the season, Pearce underwent surgery to repair a flexor mass in his right forearm and may not be ready by the beginning of the season. So health is a consideration for any team interested in his services. However, all indications are that Pearce will be fully recovered by the first month of the season.

Update: Dipoto filled his need for a right-handed bat at first base by trading minor league pitcher Paul Blackburn to the Oakland Athletics for Danny Valencia. Like Pearce, Valencia lacks the traditional power of a first baseman but is productive against left-handed pitching and can play first, second and third base, as well as both corner outfield positions. For his career, Valencia has produced an .873 OPS against left-handed pitching, including a .924 OPS in 2016. Valencia is third year arbitration eligible and projected to make $5.3M this season, so his acquisition most likely saves Dipoto from having to lock into a multi-year deal for a near-equivalent type of player in Pearce. 

  • Sign SP Jon Niese to a 1 year/$5M contract with incentives. 

With Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Nate Karns and Ariel Miranda all returning to the rotation, Dipoto reaches out to former Mets’ opening day starter, Jon Niese, in order to add depth to a rotation thinned by the trade of Walker to Miami. Niese, 30, struggled in 2016 going 8-7 with a 5.50 ERA with the Pirates and Mets before landing on the disabled list with a torn meniscus in his left knee.  Much of Niese’s struggles were attributed to a sudden spike in home runs allowed where he served up a career high 25 long balls.  Niese’s track record, though, shows much better as he averaged a 3.65 ERA and 174 innings pitched from 2012 to 2015.  Niese is projected to be healthy for the start of 2017, and should his 2016 simply be an outlier, the Mariners will have acquired a solid mid rotation arm that can eat up innings for well below market cost. It would also allow the hard throwing Miranda to be moved to the bullpen as the second left-handed reliever.

  • Sign C Dioner Navarro to a 1 year/$4M contract. 

Having spent most of 2016 at Tacoma fine tuning his hitting mechanics, Mike Zunino will enter spring training as the starting catcher. After being recalled in July, Zunino showed improved plate discipline (.318 OBP) and power (.470 SLG) to go along with his usual strong defense.  However, Zunino ended the season batting just .207 with an astonishing 33.9% strikeout rate.  Those latter two stats remain as red flags heading into the new season, and should compel the Mariners to seek a backup catcher capable of stepping into the everyday role should Zunino struggle.  Navarro played in 101 games last season, but hasn’t done much with the bat since he put up an .856 OPS in 2013.  However, he’s still a solid defender who brings with him a track record of durability and veteran leadership in the clubhouse.

Update: The Mariners acquired veteran backup catcher Carlos Ruiz from the Dodgers in exchange for Vidal Nuno.  Ruiz played in 62 games last season producing a .264/.365/.34, and, like Navarro, is a solid defender and bring with him strong leadership qualities.   

The Lineup

Position Players 

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Steve Pearce, 1B
  3. Robinson Cano, 2B
  4. Nelson Cruz, DH
  5. Kyle Seager, 3B
  6. Marcel Ozuna, RF
  7. Mike Zunino, C
  8. Leonys Martin, CF
  9. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS

Bench

  1. Dioner Navarro, C
  2. Dan Vogelbach, INF
  3. Shawn O’Malley, UT
  4. Ben Gamel/Guillermo Heredia, OF

Rotation

  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. James Paxton (L)
  3. Hisashi Iwakuma
  4. Jon Niese (L)
  5. Nate Karns/ Ariel Miranda (L)

Bullpen

  1. Brad Hand (L)
  2. Vidal Nuno (L)
  3. Dan Altavilla
  4. Evan Scribner
  5. Steve Cishek
  6. Trevor Rosenthal
  7. Edwin Diaz (CL)

Mariners Make Mistake by Keeping Seth Smith over Nori Aoki

Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners made their first substantial off-season moves by picking up Seth Smith’s $7 million option, declining Chris Iannetta’s $4.25 million option, and waiving Nori Aoki, who was immediately claimed by the Houston Astros.

All three players were inconsistent in 2016, with Iannetta and Smith fading badly in the second half, and Aoki taking a full first half before delivering the type of production that was envisioned when initially signed.

Dipoto previously stated that Mike Zunino would be penciled in as the starting catcher for 2017, that he planned on retaining Smith, and that Iannetta’s option was too pricey for a backup catcher.  So none of these moves were surprising.

But did Dipoto error by keeping Smith and discarding Aoki?

Both Smith and Aoki fit the mold of Dipoto’s preferred type of offensive player: contact hitters who can control the zone and draw a walk.  And both players put up similar numbers, with Smith slashing a .249/.342/.415 in 2016, and Aoki a .283/.349/.388.

However, once getting past the slash line, Aoki begins to distance himself as the more valuable player.

For starters, Aoki is more athletic than Smith, and far more fleet of foot on the bases, both of which are qualities Dipoto favors.

Production-wise, Smith is used primarily against right handed pitching.  And in this role, Smith was solid, producing a .256/.351/.431.  But against right handed pitching, the switch hitting Aoki was better, slashing a .300/.364/.428.

Aoki is also much better at making contact. In 2016, Aoki put bat-to-ball at a 89.3% clip with a strike-out rate of just 9%.  Smith’s contact rate was 79% while striking out 20% of the time.

Turning to defense, neither Aoki or Smith are close to being gold glove caliber players. Yet, as uninspiring as Aoki was on defense, Smith was far worse.

Aoki produced a -8.0 UZR/150 and a -4 DRS in the OF last season, which is not good. But Smith was nearly twice as bad, posting a -16.6 UZR/150 and a -7 DRS.

And then there is that second half drop off in offensive production that taints Smith each and every season. This was a concern of ours way back when Smith was first acquired.  This concern has yet to go away.

In 2016, Smith produced a .277/.366/.450 in the first half. In the second half, those numbers plummeted to a .222/.312/.361.   In 2015, Smith’s first half numbers were .268/.338/.477.  In the second half those numbers dropped to .219/.319/.394.   What about 2014 you ask? .283/.387/.508 in the first half, .243/.340/.346 in the second.

For his career, Smith has averaged a .276/.359/.471 in the first half, and a .240/.323/.414 in the second half.

Aoki was the opposite of Smith in 2016, producing an underwhelming .245/.323/.313 in the first half.  But after a brief stint in Tacoma, Aoki returned to destroy AL pitching in the second half to the tune of a .339/.390/.500.

This drastic split in 2016 was, for the most part, an anomaly for Aoki as his career first/second half marks are faily even, with a .289/.352/.366 in the first half, and a .289/.353/.414 in the second.

Add all of this up, and Aoki was worth 1.2 fWAR in 2016 while Smith was worth 0.5 fWAR.

Given all of these factors, its hard to imagine the reason for keeping Smith over Aoki, especially since Aoki would have cost less.  Perhaps Dipoto did so in order to retain Smith as a trade piece in to fill other needs, much akin to the San Diego Padres picking up Joaquin Benoit’s option last off-season with the intent to trade him.

Smith did hit 16 homeruns last season so, in a league that still values the long ball, Dipoto may feel Smith would appeal more to other teams looking to upgrade their offense.

Dipoto has repeatedly stated that no single transaction should be viewed in isolation.  Let’s hope picking up Smith’s option is just the first step in a series of connected future moves to improve the team for 2017.