by Gregory Severin
2018 Record: 89-73 (3rd in AL West)
2018 Payroll: $160,993,827 (10th)
- CF Mallex Smith, .262 AVG/.331 OBP/.366 SLG, 2.3 WAR
- RF Mitch Haniger, .260 AVG/.339 OBP/.445 SLG, 2.9 WAR
- DH Jay Bruce, .234 AVG/.307 OBP/.429 SLG, 0.5 WAR
- 1B Edwin Encarnación, .238 AVG/.337 OBP/.463 SLG, 1.5 WAR
- 3B Kyle Seager, .241 AVG/.310 OBP/.429 SLG, 2.6 WAR
- LF Domingo Santana, .237 AVG/.328 OBP/.405 SLG, 1.3 WAR
- C Omar Narváez, .249 AVG/.332 OBP/.358 SLG, 1.6 WAR
- SS Tim Beckham, .233 AVG/.289 OBP/.380 SLG, 0.4 WAR
- 2B Dee Gordon, .275 AVG/.307 OBP/.357 SLG, 1.5 WAR
- LHP Yusei Kikuchi, 143 IP/4.51 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 1.2 WAR
- LHP Marco Gonzales, 180 IP/4.09 ERA/1.28 WHIP, 2.2 WAR
- RHP Mike Leake, 196 IP/4.62 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 1.5 WAR
- RHP Félix Hernández, 81 IP/4.81 ERA/1.43 WHIP, 0.5 WAR
- LHP Wade LeBlanc, 136 IP/4.73 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 0.7 WAR
Being a Mariners fan may not be the most enjoyable thing in the world, but nobody can call it the most boring. Last year, I remarked that Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto made a flurry of trades, the frequency of which rivaled that of the New York Stock Exchange. Well, if last year was a flurry of trades, this year was a full-blown Polar Vortex. Seriously. If it snowed an inch in Seattle every time a player was dealt to or from the Mariners this offseason, the newly-renamed T-Mobile Park would have to rebrand itself as a snowmobile arena. James Paxton, who last year led M’s starters in FIP, ERA, fWAR, no-hitters, and times used as an eagle perch, was traded to the Yankees for a trio of prospects. Joining him on the other side of town is the perennial All-Star Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz, who was named the best reliever in the AL last year. Jean Segura is also gone, sent to Philadelphia alongside relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos for JP Crawford and Carlos Santana. Santana himself was in Seattle for only a week and a half until he was flipped to Cleveland for Edwin Encarnación.
The common thread among this pile of moves was that they were done to sacrifice short-term success in the name of building a stronger contender in the 2020s. All of these moves except the Encarnación deal—and he himself is a candidate to be shipped off before the deadline—returned either prospects or young, cost-effective, and controllable players who have the potential to contribute more in the long-term than they do the short term.
Dipoto took the same strategy when signing free agents. Yusei Kikuchi, formerly of the NPB’s Seibu Lions, was signed in an attempt to fill the James Paxton-sized hole in the rotation left by James Paxton. He has a curious contract that can go from anywhere from three to seven years, which would carry him into his mid-thirties. The de facto closer is now Hunter Strickland, who is owed $1.3 million and under team control through 2021. 2018 key contributors Nelson Cruz and Denard Span are neither young nor cost-effective, and so they were not offered contract extensions.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of the roster’s so-called reimagining, but I’ve started to come around. After all, the Astros aren’t going anywhere for the near future, the Athletics seem to have put together the hot core of young players the Mariners never could, and the Angels have a roster with Mike Trout on it. Painful as it is to admit, looking forward to a few years in the future makes sense.
But this isn’t the 2021 Mariners Season Preview. It’s the 2019 Mariners Season Preview, doggone it, and I’m here to write about the 2019 Mariners. Well, here goes:
2019 Season Preview
The Mariners are projected to return four of five of their top starters in 2018, the lone departure being the aforementioned Paxton trade. Replacing him is the team’s marquee signing of the offseason: Yusei Kikuchi. Scouts predict that though Kikuchi has the talent to pitch like a No. 2 starter down the road, he’ll likely figure to be a mid-rotation type as he adjusts to Major League hitting. Kikuchi’s presence also means that the Mariners will employ an opener strategy for a few starts this year: in an effort to lessen his workload as he adjusts to an MLB schedule, the lefty will only pitch one inning every fifth start or so.
Pop quiz: which qualified Mariner starter led the team in ERA last year? Okay, pencils down. If you guessed Félix Hernández, you haven’t paid attention to Mariners Baseball since 2014. If you guessed Paxton, you’d be disappointed to learn that he fell 1 1/3 innings short of qualifying for that mark. If you guessed journeyman long reliever turned spot starter turned #5 starter Wade LeBlanc, I’d laugh at you but for the fact that you’re right: over exactly 162 innings, he posted a 3.72 ERA that bested rotation-mates Marco Gonzales and Mike Leake. LeBlanc got by last year with a crafty and effective combination of mixing his pitches well and painting the edges of the plate; this was perhaps best shown when he held the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox to two hits in 7 2/3 shutout innings on national television. He wasn’t the Mariners’ best starter in 2018, and he probably won’t be their best starter in 2019, but LeBlanc proved last year that he was serviceable, even if his Jamie Moyer-esque strategy of “throw 87 and hope they don’t crush it” will give fans heart attacks.
Leake and Gonzales also return for their second full years in Seattle. Similar to LeBlanc, Marco Gonzales is a southpaw who relies not on velocity but pinpoint command and a versatile arsenal of pitches that he uses at any time, to any batter, and on any count. By now, he should have made a full recovery from his 2016 Tommy John surgery and will be able to improve on a 2018 that saw him earn 3.6 fWAR, buoyed by a solid 3.43 FIP. After changing his number to #7 in the offseason, Gonzales joins Leake (#8) to form what I believe to be the only rotation in baseball history to have two pitchers with single-digit numbers. That’s just about the only interesting Mike Leake fact I know. Leake returns to provide another year of stability in the middle of the rotation, and barring something unforeseen we should see another low-4 ERA for 180 more innings from the steady veteran.
Filling out the rotation is the King-in-exile Félix Hernández. Félix had a 2018 that was in many ways similar to his 2017. Though he showed flashes of his former ace pedigree, inconsistency and plummeting velocity and command sent him to the bullpen late last season. Though a comeback isn’t completely out of the cards (how long ago was it when we were writing Justin Verlander off?), Hernández will likely never return to his old electrifying self.
Ultimately, the Mariners’ starters won’t blow anyone away with the firepower of a James Paxton or 2014 Hernández. They will, however, minimize mistakes and provide a stability that has been noticeably absent from its incarnations in 2017 and 2018. With enough run support, one could overlook the lack of a real ace pitcher and be comfortable running out at least the trio of Gonzales, Kikuchi, and Leake for 180 innings each.
Unfortunately, this team is unlikely to provide that run support. The lineup has been gutted: instead of seeing Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz slugging in the middle of the order, they have been replaced with infielder-turned-outfielder-turned-infielder Dee Gordon and a probable platoon of Jay Bruce and Dan Vogelbach. Bruce is trying to rebound from an atrocious and injury-plagued season that saw his power numbers crater. He did post career highs in BB% and K% though, so he may be able to bounce back somewhat. If Bruce does rebound, then he—like Encarnación—is likely to be traded for a few more prospects. Vogelbach continues to rake in Triple-A Tacoma, but his vaunted plate discipline there (20.4 BB% in 2018) continues to be absent in the majors, where he’s posted a 12.9 BB% and 24.0 K% in three late-season callups. If you find yourself asking “could this be the year a player has a breakout season?” for the fourth season in a row, the answer’s probably going to disappoint you.
After one disappointing half-season in center field, the Dee Gordon Experiment is officially over. He will return to second base, where he should continue to play at a Gold Glove-caliber. A broken toe hampered his effectiveness at the plate and on the basepaths last season, and he finished the season with a .288 OBP and only 30 stolen bases. He had a career low BABIP of .304 in 2018, likely a product of his injury, so Gordon is a strong candidate to recover now that he’s back at full health. Joining him in the middle infield is former top prospect JP Crawford, the team’s lone return in a trade that sent Jean Segura and James Pazos to Philadelphia and, ultimately, Carlos Santana to Cleveland. Crawford rode his incredible plate discipline to 225 plate appearances in the majors across the past two years. Though that element of his game remains strong, he needs to prove that he can actually hit major league pitching and play defense, neither of which he has managed to do yet. In the likely event that he doesn’t start at shortstop Opening Day, Tim Beckham is here on a one-year deal to avoid rushing Crawford’s development (and keep his service time down: if Crawford isn’t on the major league roster come May, the Mariners control him until 2025).
The rest of the infield is Kyle Seager and Edwin Encarnación. Seager had been in a steady offensive decline since 2016, but 2018 was when it became noticeable. His walk rate dropped to a career low of 6.0%, while his strikeout rate ballooned five full points to 21.9 %, resulting in an atrocious .273 OBP. He’s been swinging and missing a whole lot more often as well, up to 9.9% after hovering around 7.5% for the majority of his career. Though he remains a defensive asset, Seager is unlikely to be moved in the case that he does rebound thanks to a contract that converts a club option before his age 35 season in 2022 to a $15 million player option. Encarnación, only under contract for 2019 with a team option for 2020 and coming off his seventh straight 30+ HR season, is much more likely to be moved. If he is indeed not around long for Seattle, Ryon Healy will take over manning first. Though he looked impressive in his 2016 rookie campaign, Healy has trended downward ever since, with the nadir coming in 2018. Part of the problem may have been an unnaturally low .257 BABIP, but high strikeout rates and an abject refusal to walk will limit his effectiveness even if that normalizes in 2019.
At catcher, Omar Narváez will take over from fan favorite Mike Zunino, now a Tampa Bay Ray. Narváez is in many ways the Anti-Zunino: a bat-first catcher who can take a walk; his OBP is a full 107(!) points higher than the defensively talented but offensively maddening Zunino. His defense, however, particularly his pitch-framing skills, need work. As of the writing of this article, Martín Maldonado is a free agent. He would not only be an upgrade over current backstop backup David Freitas, his strong defensive skills behind the dish would help him contribute greatly to Narváez’s development.
The outfield is where the 2019 Mariners’ strength lies. In Mallex Smith, they once again have an actual center fielder. One of the fastest players in the Major Leagues, Smith is the rare player for whom a .366 BABIP is not as troubling. He may yet be due for regression (.366 is still incredibly high), but Smith is still capable of getting on base and with his speed, he’s a candidate to steal 40 bases. Joining him in right field is third-year man Mitch Haniger, the most talented offensive player on the team. Left field is a bigger question mark. Domingo Santana figures to be the everyday left fielder after being unable to establish himself in a crowded Milwaukee outfield. Ichiro also returns as a non-roster invitee, and he should at least make the team for the opening Japan Series. At 45, Ichiro is more folk hero than valuable contributor to the team, but if he plays well in Spring Training and the first couple games I’d expect him to stick around. And why not? He says he wants to play until he’s 50, and the man joins Edgar Martínez, Randy Johnson, and Ken Griffey on the Mount Rushmore of all-time Mariners. Having Ichiro around is good for baseball, period.
Finally, we arrive at the Mariners’ barren bullpen. Long gone are the days of Álex Colomé and Edwin Díaz dominating in one-run situations, as the two of them have been traded to Chicago and New York, respectively. Last year, Díaz tied for the second-highest single-season saves total in MLB history. The amount of games he saved in the 2018 season—57—nearly doubles the career saves total of every Mariner pitcher on the team’s current active roster. Saves are a fairly silly stat, of course, but the consistency at the back of the bullpen last year was a huge part of why they could win 89 games with a negative differential. Now that Díaz, Colomé, and dependable lefty James Pazos are all gone, the best high-leverage reliever on the team may well be a man more focused on punching out Bryce Harper than he is striking out Bryce Harper.
After Strickland, there’s a whole lot of nothing. After leveraging a solid 2017 into an expensive contract with the Mets, Anthony Swarzak is looking to recover from a dismal 2018 that saw him post a 5.48 FIP, give up over 2 home runs per nine innings, and be included in the Díaz/Canó deal as salary relief. If Swarzak does recover, he’ll be offloaded at the deadline to a team that has better use for him. Joining Swarzak and Strickland in the bullpen are a bouquet of relievers with minimal major-league experience; with 338 major-league innings under his belt, 30-year-old swingman Roenis Elías is the elder statesman of the bunch. Will this bullpen be good? Probably not. Will this bullpen be capable of doing what their 2018 counterpart did and turn a 75-win team into a 90-win team? Definitely not.
Record Prediction: 73-89
Don’t be fooled by their 89 wins last year. The 2018 Mariners would have been a 77-win team if not for their constant late-inning heroics. After they dealt away their staff ace, all-star setup man, all-world closer, and a double play combo that combined to produce 6.7 fWAR, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see the same lightning in a bottle in 2019 that the 2018 squad managed to capture. Then again, the goal of the 2019 Mariners isn’t to win games, it’s to develop a core of young talent so that in a few years they can win games. In other words, this team is the Iron Man 2 to the 2021 squad’s Avengers: the product right now isn’t going to be the best, but it’s going to put itself in the position to be something much better in a couple of years.
Player to Watch: RF Mitch Haniger
This time last year, I was throwing Mitch Haniger’s name around as a potential star. This year, I get to do away with the “potential” part. After injuries shortened his rookie campaign to only 96 games, the Mariners right fielder enjoyed a breakout 2018 where he posted a .366 OBP and a 138 wRC+ that barely missed being top 10 in the majors. He continued to improve his plate discipline, cutting his strikeout rate while improving his walk rate to a cool 10.7 percent. He did all of this while providing above-average defense while patrolling right field, cutting down several careless baserunners on his way to a league-leading 12 outfield assists. It’s easy to say that Haniger is the most complete baseball player on this team, and he should have no problems building on his explosive 2018 season.
Player to Watch: LHP Yusei Kikuchi
Just as longtime staff ace Félix Hernández’s effectiveness started to drop, the eyes of Seattle’s faithful turned to a man whom many felt would take Félix’s mantle to lead their rotation for years to come. Unfortunately, that man was James Paxton, who’s now a New York Yankee. Enter Yusei Kikuchi, hoping to follow the footsteps of Kazuhiro Sasaki, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Ichiro as Japanese baseball players who found success with the Mariners. His arrival to the MLB was met with substantially less fanfare than last year’s Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, but Kikuchi has both his UCLs and also demonstrated himself to be a proven talent in Japan. In his eight seasons with the Seibu Lions, Kikuchi posted a 2.77 ERA, peaking in 2017 when he led the NPB with a 1.97 ERA and struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings.
2019 figures to be an adjustment year for the lefthanded rookie as he acclimates himself to another continent, another league, and a heavier workload. The rotation-fronting potential is still there, though: After facing Kikuchi for the first time in Spring Training in an at-bat that resulted in an ugly swinging K, Joey Votto compared the portsider’s looping curve to Clayton Kershaw’s. I’m obviously not about to hype Kikuchi up to be the next Kershaw, but the potential of his pure stuff should tantalize Mariners fans. At 27 years old, and under contract for as long as seven years, he should be a major contributor to this team for years to come.
Player to Watch: RHP Dan Altavilla
If Strickland doesn’t pan out as the M’s closer, keep an eye on Altavilla. Similar to the dearly departed Díaz, Altavilla was initially developed as a starter before transitioning into a high octane, K-intensive relief ace. Only Altavilla doesn’t really qualify as an ace yet. A fifth round draft pick in 2014, Altavilla has pitched fewer than 80 innings in the majors. However, he has been impressive in his limited time, showing off an upper-90s fastball and slider that has literally generated swinging strikes while going through a batter’s legs:
He’s been bogged down in the past by control issues, and his 2018 ERA of 2.61 obscures an ugly 4.66 FIP, but he has the pure stuff to hold down a ninth-inning role.
Photo via USA Today