Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and Spring Training gets underway it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) here! Welcome back to M-SABR’s Season Preview 30 Teams in 30 Days series, where our staff writers share their insights on what to expect from your favorite team and players in 2018 and get you ready for that very first first pitch. Today Gregory Severin takes on the Seattle Mariners. Enjoy!
by Gregory Severin
2017 Record: 78-84 (.481)
2017 Payroll: $190,000,077
All player projections for 2018 from Steamer
- CF Dee Gordon, .280/.319/.363, 1.8 WAR
- SS Jean Segura, .275/.322/.404, 2.0 WAR
- 2B Robinson Canó, .282/.338/.469, 3.1 WAR
- DH Nelson Cruz, .274/.353/.523, 2.6 WAR
- 3B Kyle Seager, .262/.338/.468, 3.5 WAR
- RF Mitch Haniger, .254/.325/.434, 1.7 WAR
- C Mike Zunino, .224/.298/.450, 2.5 WAR
- LF Ben Gamel, .257/.314/.386, 0.3 WAR
- 1B Mike Ford, .239/.334/400, 0.2 WAR
- RHP Felix Hernandez, 162.0 IP/4.38 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 2.0 WAR
- LHP James Paxton, 176.0 IP/3.54 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 3.7 WAR
- RHP Mike Leake, 186.0 IP/4.58 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 1.8 WAR
- RHP Erasmo Ramirez, 126.0 IP/4.80 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.9 WAR
- LHP Marco Gonzales, 81.0 IP/4.49 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 0.5 WAR
- LHP Ariel Miranda, 100.0 IP/5.03 ERA/1.40 WHIP, 0.2 WAR
At the start of the offseason, GM Jerry Dipoto was up to his usual antics, making trades with a frequency usually reserved for the New York Stock Exchange. First baseman Ryon Healy was acquired from the Athletics to replace the expiring contracts of first basemen Yonder Alonso, acquired from the Athletics in July, and Danny Valencia, acquired from the Athletics last offseason. If at first you don’t succeed, I guess. To fill the void in center field left by new Diamondback Jarrod Dyson and his blazing speed, Dipoto took full advantage of the Marlins’ fire sale to get Dee Gordon and his blazing speed for what essentially amounted to a bag of magic beans. Gordon, a Gold Glove-winning infielder who has never played an inning in the outfield, has spent the remainder of the offseason in Outfield Boot Camp to learn how to use his speed—which would have made him last year’s fourth fastest center fielder—effectively. Additionally, first baseman Mike Ford was selected from the Yankees farm system in the Rule 5 draft.
The only major free agent the Mariners signed was reliever Juan Nicasio (2 years, $17 million), who will likely take up duties as set-up man for third-year closer Edwin Diaz. Maybe the best acquisition the Mariners made this year was the front-office addition of Dr. Lorena Martin as Director of High Performance, a title that includes responsibilities in physically and mentally training players and staff and oversight of conditioning and medical departments. Considering the numerous conditioning woes this team had in 2017, an injury-prevention specialist should result in a welcome change on the field.
However, the Mariners’ offseason will not be defined by who they managed to acquire, but by who they failed to sign. The Mariners went all-in in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, trading away several minor-leaguers to boost their international bonus money and become a more appealing target in the process, only to be stunned by Ohtani choosing the division rival Angels instead. Additionally, Dipoto elected not to improve the rotation, opting to sit on his hands instead of negotiating with marquee starters Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta or more affordable options like Tyler Chatwood and Jaime Garcia. Other key rotation moves include letting Yovanni Gallardo go to the Brewers and bringing back Hisashi Iwakuma on a minor-league contract. Considering Andrew Albers, who was a serviceable No. 5 starter in his time with the club, left the team to go to Japan, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the M’s rotation is now worse off than it was last year.
Oh, and sportswriters are still refusing to let Edgar Martinez into the Hall of Fame. And that’s terrible.
After spending the majority of this offseason listening to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill on repeat and tearfully reading stories about Ohtani’s blossoming bromance with Mariner nemesis Mike Trout, Seattle fans are desperate for some good news. And there is good news: this team boasts one of the most complete lineups in the American League. Shortstop Jean Segura is one of the most underrated contact hitters in the league, and coupling him with Gordon at the top of the lineup will give pitchers fits. Reigning DH of the Year Nelson Cruz continues to outrun…er, outhit age, compensating for regressing power by increasing his walk rate and cutting his strikeout rate. Newcomers Mike Ford and Ryon Healy, as well as catcher Mike Zunino, provide some power at the bottom of the order. If sophomore outfielder Ben Gamel can build off of a promising newfound ability to hit the down and away breaking ball, the Mariners will enter 2018 with a lineup that lacks any glaring flaws.
As steady as this lineup projects to be, the rotation is another story. James Paxton is an ace with health issues. 32-year-old Felix Hernandez is in sharp decline… and can’t stay healthy. His HR/9 has risen dramatically—from 1.12 in 2016 to 1.77 in 2017. Mike Leake might turn out be the pitcher who put up a 2.58 ERA in five starts for the club last year, but he could also turn out to be the pitcher the M’s traded for, who started strong but put up FIPs of 6.13 and 5.03 in his last two months with the Cardinals. After Leake are a bunch of question marks. Portsider Ariel Miranda was the most dependable starter for the Mariners last year in terms of innings pitched, but he 1) failed to meet the 162 IP threshold for ERA title eligibility; and 2) would have earned the “crown” of highest ERA in the American League if he had qualified. It means something that I miss Andrew Albers, a 32-year-old journeyman who left Seattle for the NPB’s Orix Buffaloes this offseason.
For all the rotation’s misgivings, I trust the bullpen to protect the leads they’re given. Anchored by flamethrowing closer Edwin Diaz and the newly-signed Juan Nicasio, this is projected to be a deep unit of capable firemen. After reworking his mechanics in late May, the lanky Diaz is back to his typical K-intensive ways. Midseason acquisition David Phelps and lefty James Pazos are both quality relievers who can pitch multiple innings an outing, though Pazos has run into control issues. Nick Vincent’s ERA was hurt significantly by a dismal September, but a full year of Phelps may help fix that by lessening his workload.
Unfortunately, it appears that the injury bug that ailed the team so mightily in 2017 has already returned with a vengeance this young season. Starters Felix Hernandez and Erasmo Ramirez were bit in the first week of Spring Training, but both will be ready for Opening Day. In the lineup, Healy and Gamel have both been ruled out with bone spurs and a strained oblique muscle, respectively. This final injury, coupled with the inactivity of projected right fielder Mitch Haniger—who was only recently cleared to begin swinging a bat with his sore hand—and the offseason shoulder surgery of fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia, has led to an eleventh-hour signing of one of the Mariners’ all time greats. Ichiro, most recently of the Miami Marlins but still a Mariner in our hearts, has returned to Seattle on a one-year deal. Though Ichiro, 44, is a shadow of his former MVP-caliber self, he can provide depth in a now-shallow outfield while making a wonderful addition to the team’s clubhouse. Besides, having a team legend return to the Pacific Northwest may be a lone bright spot in 2018, should injury trends continue at their current pace for the rest of the year.
Coming into 2018, it seems that the Mariners are exactly where they were last year, and the year before that: a bizarre baseball purgatory, not good enough to be a bona-fide World Series contender but not bad enough to be out of the discussion entirely. This club showed remarkable toughness last year, battling through an avalanche of high-profile injuries to stay in the Wild Card race until finally losing pace in September. If this team manages to avoid the injury bug (and the ensuing dependence on Ariel Miranda), then their threshold is likely that of an 85-win team—incidentally the same number of wins that got the Twins into the playoffs last year.
Predicted Record: 84-78
Player to Watch: James Paxton
The 2017 season saw Paxton elevate his status from “that guy on my friend’s fantasy team” to “small-market superstar.” The Big Maple earned national attention during last year’s campaign after a collection of dedicated Mariners fans brought a maple tree to Safeco Field in his honor. Shortly after the tree’s installation (in a section dubbed the Maple Grove, naturally), he went on a tear, being named Pitcher of the Month after going 6-0 and posting a 1.37 ERA in July. The biggest question mark for Paxton coming into this season isn’t a matter of talent, but of health. He made a career-high 24 starts last year, but he missed nearly all of May with a forearm strain and suffered a pectoral injury towards the end of the season. With Felix Hernandez’s increasing decline, the Mariners need an ace to step up and lead this rotation. If he can stay healthy, James Paxton is more than capable of being that ace.
Player to Watch: Mitch Haniger
The most exciting part of Mitch Haniger’s rookie season wasn’t the numbers he put up. Okay, maybe it was the numbers he put up, but almost as exciting was how he put them up. Before an injury-riddled second half, Haniger was on pace to have a 4-win season, largely due to his strikingly developed plate discipline and barrels statistics. Unlike fellow second-year man Ben Gamel, who in the first two months of last season had a top five batting average fueled by a .400-plus BABIP, Haniger’s numbers appear to be sustainable. The Mariners should look forward to getting a full season out of their rising star in right field.
Player to Watch: Felix Hernandez
This one is painful. Felix was the only bright spot for a series of seemingly increasingly horrible Mariners teams in the late 2000s-early 2010s. His perfect game is the greatest Mariner moment since The Double. But after the Mariners leaned on him to give so many innings for so many years, age is finally catching up to the King. In his 16 starts in 2017, he posted an ERA of 4.36 and a FIP of 5.02. His fastball velocity has been dropping like a stone, down to an average of 90.5 MPH in the past two years. The issue hasn’t really been with strikeouts or walks, though—his BB/9 was slightly above his career average of 2.6 and his K/9 was up from 7.2 last year to 8.1; rather, it was his newfound tendency to give up the long ball. What’s interesting about this is that his flyball % was only 2 percentage points higher than his career average, yet his HR/FB was a stunning 22.4%-good enough for the highest in baseball history had this number sustained itself for a full season. Maybe part of the issue was an atrocious sinker, one that was turned on for a home run over 2% of the time. Maybe the strain of last year’s injuries somehow exacerbated this problem. If this issue can be fixed, though, and if Felix can avoid serious injury this year, there may yet be hope for a King in decline.