by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 15th team preview of the series, featuring the Seattle Mariners (the second of three consecutive AL West previews).
The Seattle Mariners have alternated solid and not-so-solid seasons over the past several years. In 2014 and 2016, the M’s posted almost identical records of 87-75 and 86-76. In 2015 and 2017, Seattle finished under .500 with records of 76-86 and 78-84. The organization has fielded solid clubs but for one reason or another it hasn’t resulted in their first postseason berth since 2001. They entered 2017 with the expectations to play around .500 ball and potentially nab a Wild Card berth, but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be. With their contention window steadily closing since a large part of their core is on the wrong side of 30, what happened in 2017 certainly wasn’t ideal.
After a 10-4 win against the Rangers on September 14th, the Mariners found themselves just 3.5 games back of the Twins in the Wild Card race. With 15 games to go, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for the M’s to make a run at the playoffs. Unfortunately, Seattle proceeded to go 1-8 over their next nine games, essentially thwarting any shot they had at the postseason. The pitching in particular struggled over this stretch; over the nine game period, the Mariners allowed seven or more runs four times. The offense deserves some blame, too—they put up two runs or less in five of those nine games.
Mike Zunino was yet another catcher that broke out in 2017 after years of subpar production. He slashed .251/.331/.509 with a career-high 25 home runs, posting a 126 wRC+. He finished 24th among catchers with an adjusted FRAA of 4.2 and 15th in Framing Runs with 7.3. It wasn’t all good for the young backstop, though. The 25-year-old had a BABIP of .355 which, based on his previous track record and his approach at the plate, is far from sustainable. The 36.8% strikeout rate was also tied for the 4th highest mark in the league among batters with at least 400 plate appearances.
Danny Valencia was not supposed to make 500 plate appearances in 2017. Despite having a solid year in 2016 with the Athletics, Valencia was supposed to be a short-term stop gap, at most. Alas, Valencia was the starting first baseman for most of the campaign and wasn’t very impressive. He contributed 15 home runs but slashed .256/.314/.411 en route to a 95 wRC+. He wasn’t great in the field, either, finishing with a -4.5 UZR at first base. He regressed as expected and proved that he has the upside of a bench player, not a starter.
It might not be a coincidence that the Mariners go as Robinson Cano goes. Cano shocked some people when he decided to sign with Seattle after the 2013 season. In the years that the Mariners have finished above .500, Cano has posted wRC+’s of 137 and 138. In the years that the Mariners have finished below .500, Cano has posted wRC+’s of 116 and 112. Last season, the second baseman hit to a line of .280/.338/.453 with 23 home runs. The power expectedly dropped off a bit, but the strikeout and walk rates that the former Yankee had (13.1% and 7.6%) were still solid. He didn’t hurt the Mariners in the field, either, finishing with a 1.8 UZR at the keystone.
Jean Segura played for his third team in three years in 2017, making a solid first impression with the Mariners. The shortstop had a career year with the Diamondbacks in 2016 and while he dropped off just a tad with Seattle, he still managed to slash .300/.349/.427 with 11 home runs and 22 stolen bases. The 26-year-old wasn’t great defensively, posting a -3.3 UZR in the 1,084 innings he logged at shortstop. Still, the 15/20 potential the former Brewer showcased in 2017 was intriguing.
Positive: Kyle Seager has appeared in at least 154 games in every campaign since his rookie season in 2011. Negative: Seager posted his worst offensive numbers since that aforementioned rookie season last year. The third baseman had an above average wRC+ of 106 which makes it weird to say that he had an off year. Seager hit 27 bombs and slashed .249/.323/.450, but he’s been much better in previous seasons which is why 2017 was a bit of a surprise. Part of it could be attributed to a career-low .262 BABIP, so it wouldn’t be too shocking to see 2017 as an outlier for Seager and not the new norm.
The Mariners utilized four main outfielders throughout the course of the 2017 season. Mitch Haniger led the way for the unit, finishing with a triple-slash of .282/.352/.491 while contributing 16 home runs and passable walk and strikeout rates (7.6% and 22.7%). The former Diamondback was limited to just 410 plate appearances due to injury but definitely impressed in those opportunities. Ben Gamel seemingly came out of nowhere and started off the season hot, eventually finishing with a line of .275/.322/.413 with 11 homers. His final stats become a bit more concerning when you look at his splits. Over the first half of 2017, the former Yankee prospect hit .323/.379/.449 on the back of a completely unsustainable .422 BABIP. Over the second half of the campaign, the young outfielder hit just .227/.262/.376, albeit with seven of his 11 dingers. What is Gamel’s true talent level? Probably somewhere in the middle.
Jarrod Dyson has been in the league since 2010, and it’s well known at this point in his career what kind of commodity he is. Dyson hit .251/.324/.350 in 2017 en route to an 85 wRC+. He exhibited little power (five home runs, 13 doubles in 390 plate appearances), but managed to steal 28 bags (the sixth straight season he swiped at least 26) while providing plus defense in center as made evident by his 5.4 UZR. Guillermo Heredia received 426 plate appearances after his rookie go-around in 2016 and wasn’t entirely spectacular. The outfielder hit .249/.315/.337 while not really providing much in any offensive department. He wasn’t great in the field, either, posting UZR’s of -4.0 in center field and 0.3 in left field.
Nelson Cruz proved the naysayers wrong yet again, posting another productive season at the age of 37. The DH produced a triple-slash of .288/.375/.549 while cranking 39 home runs in 645 plate appearances. 2017 marked the first time since 2013 that Cruz failed to hit 40 home runs, but in all honesty 39 is close enough. His strikeout rate of 21.7% was okay and he complimented that by walking close to 11 percent of the time.
In a vacuum, Seattle’s pitching staff wasn’t awful. They finished 15th in the league in ERA, posting a 4.46 total. James Paxton was able to make the most starts of his career and, naturally, experienced the break out that everyone has been waiting for. He finished with an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.98/2.61/3.25. The southpaw posted strikeout and walk rates of 28.3% and 6.7% and allowed just nine home runs in 136 innings. Health-permitting, Paxton proved that he can be one of the better pitchers in the league.
Felix Hernandez has continued his steady descent from brilliance, posting an ERA (4.36) over four for the first time in his career. He was limited to just 86.2 innings due to injury. His strikeout rate of roughly 21 percent was lower than his career average, and King Felix allowed 17 home runs in just 86.2 innings. His talent was wasted on shoddy Seattle teams, and the decline that everyone was waiting for seems to have set in last year. Erasmo Ramirez was traded from the Rays back to the Mariners, and the M’s decided to utilize him as a starter rather than as a reliever. Over 11 starts, Ramirez pitched to a 3.92 ERA and 4.71 FIP. The right-hander posted strikeout and walk rates of 21.0% and 5.8%, but the 1.74 HR/9 mark was a little unsightly. He’s probably better used as a reliever who can make spot starts, but if nothing else he proved that he can be serviceable in a starting role.
Three other arms made at least 10 starts for the Mariners and weren’t particularly effective. Ariel Miranda regressed as expected, posting a 5.12 ERA and 5.73 FIP over 29 starts. Miranda somehow allowed 37 home runs in 160 innings and posted a walk rate (9.3%) close to 10. Seattle was hoping for a bounce back year out of Yovani Gallardo when they acquired him last offseason. They didn’t get what they had hoped for, though, as Gallardo pitched to a 5.72 ERA and 5.53 FIP in 130.2 innings. Sam Gaviglio finished with a 4.62 ERA before a trade to Kansas City, but his 6.11 FIP was more indicative of his actual performance. He allowed 15 homers in 62.1 innings while posting unappealing 15.4% and 8.1% strikeout and walk rates.
Seattle’s bullpen was as good as advertised, finishing 13th in baseball with a 4.08 ERA. In 569.2 innings of work, the relievers struck out 547 while walking 211. 23-year-old Edwin Diaz made 66 appearances and pitched to a 3.27 ERA and 4.02 FIP, notching 89 strikeouts and 32 walks. Nick Vincent was also impressive. The veteran led the M’s with 69 appearances and finished with a 3.20 ERA and 2.82 FIP. The righty struck out 50 and walked 13 in 64.2 innings. Tony Zych tossed 40.2 innings of 2.66 ERA/3.99 FIP ball in 45 games, but had 35 strikeouts to 21 walks, which isn’t ideal.
Emilio Pagan impressed in 50.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.22 and FIP of 3.29. He struck out 56 batters while walking just eight. Southpaw James Pazos was solid in his 53.2 innings, finishing with an almost identical ERA (3.86) and FIP (4.05). Pazos finished the season with 65 strikeouts and 24 walks.
For a team with a contention window that’s rapidly closing, the Mariners made a plethora of moves this offseason. Jerry Dipoto is often an active general manager and he utilized both the trade and free agent markets in an attempt to improve the team. The biggest addition was Dee Gordon, the former Marlin who was acquired in a trade for three prospects. Gordon will move from second base to center field for Seattle. This will be the first time he’s played outside of the middle of the infield in his career.
The Mariners didn’t really lose a ton over the offseason. They no longer have Danny Valencia, but they replaced him with Ryon Healy. They no longer have Jarrod Dyson, but they replaced him with Gordon. They didn’t retain Gallardo, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They lost Tony Zych and Emilio Pagan, but brought in Juan Nicasio, Nick Rumbelow, and David Phelps.
Best Case: The Mariners make the playoffs for the first time since 2001. The offense will be really boom or bust in 2018, but more often than not it’s on the boom side. Zunino regresses as expected, but the rest of the offense picks up the slack. Ryon Healy exhibits the potential he showcased with the Athletics, Seager rebounds from an off year, and the middle infield of Cano and Segura shine. Nelson Cruz manages to fight off father time for another season. King Felix, Paxton, and Mike Leake combine to form a suitable top three, and the bullpen is reliable.
Worst Case: The Mariners are not able to make the postseason, extending their drought for at least one more season. The offense will be really boom or bust in 2018, and for the most part it busts. Cruz, Cano, and Segura hold up their end of the bargain but the rest of the offense struggles. Healy and Zunino regress and Seager performs just as he did in 2017. Paxton proves to be the only good arm in a really weak rotation, and the bullpen doesn’t perform as expected. With one of the worst farm systems in baseball and an again core, the future in Seattle doesn’t look bright.
PECOTA Projected Record: 82-80, 780 RS, 769 RA