By Jon Wells
The Mariners had an exciting season in 2016, General Manager Jerry Dipoto’s first with the team. Seattle posted an 86-76 record, a ten-game improvement over 2015 and good enough for a second-place finish, Seattle’s first since 2007. A Mariners franchise that’s been starved for runs for nearly a decade finished sixth in the Majors in runs scored, with 768—97 more than in any season since scoring 794 runs in 2007. The M’s also hit 223 home runs, third-most in the Major Leagues and the most the club has hit in a single season since Safeco Field opened in 1999.
Yet despite the best efforts of Dipoto, first-year manager Scott Servais, and a trio of sluggers who combined to hit 112 home runs, the Mariners’ playoff drought reached sixteen seasons, the longest such streak in the four major sports, when Seattle finished 2016 three games out in the AL Wild Card race.
The temptation for a team’s management after such a season might be to make a few minor tweaks, but no major changes to a club that seemed to be on the right track.
That’s a mistake the M’s have made a few times before, most recently in 2015. Then-GM Jack Zduriencik figured that, after being eliminated from the playoff hunt on the final day of the 2014 season, an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach was best, but the 2015 team needed much more fixing than Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano (two of the team’s three biggest offseason additions that year) could provide. Additionally, Zduriencik notably failed to acquire any catching depth in case Mike Zunino, who’d hit .199 with 158 strikeouts to just 17 walks in his first full big-league season in 2014, predictably scuffled again. Zunino somehow managed to be worse in 2015 (.174 BA with half as many homers as he’d hit in ’14), but with no suitable replacement options in the organization, he remained in the Majors until late August that year. Naturally, Zduriencik lost his job at the end of that disappointing season.
Similar strategies have failed the M’s time and again during this long playoff drought. A refusal to boost payroll, both in the offseason and at the July 31 trade deadline, coupled with an unwillingness to make bold trades (save for the Erik Bedard
fiasco) or even think outside the box, has doomed the Mariners over the last decade-and-a-half and are the biggest reasons why the club hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since 2002-03.
But Jerry Dipoto’s mind works differently. What other GM in Seattle history would have been bold enough to convert the team’s top minor-league starting pitching prospect to relief a month into a season to fill the team’s most glaring need? One month after Edwin Díaz was moved to the bullpen at Double-A, the fireballer was in the big leagues, and before long he was closing games in place of a struggling Steve Cishek. Considering that there was nobody throwing even 95mph in the Seattle bullpen in the first half and the prohibitive cost of acquiring a flamethrowing closer midseason, the move was a big factor in the Mariners’ ability to contend late into the season.
What did Dipoto see when he evaluated the 2016 M’s after the season? It seems he saw a team with serious flaws: While the middle of the Seattle order could certainly mash, the players at the top of the lineup didn’t get on base enough. The club was poor defensively in spots and wasn’t very athletic. The bullpen lacked a shutdown left-hander. The club had very little depth, which made it unable to withstand injuries and make moves to replace underperforming players.
Addressing these needs, Dipoto turned over more than 40% of the club’s roster over the winter—no less than ten of Seattle’s 25 opening-day players weren’t in the Mariners’ organization at the end of the ’16 season.
The highest-profile move was a November trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks that sent young shortstop Ketel Marte and highly-regarded pitcher Taijuan Walker to the desert in exchange for shortstop Jean Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger. Walker may be a big loss, but the return could be an even bigger gain. Segura was one of baseball’s best hitters last year, batting .319 with 20 homers and 33 stolen bases while leading the National League with 203 hits, and Haniger, while unproven in the bigs, was Arizona’s Minor League Player of the Year last season with an impressive .321/.419/.581 slash line at Mobile and Reno while playing solid defense. Whether Segura’s breakout 2016 season will carry over to the American League does remain to be seen; while some dropoff is to be expected with the shift in leagues (and the move from hitter-friendly Chase Field to Safeco), Segura was so good last year that his numbers could dip quite a bit and he’d still be very productive.
Other trades saw right-hander Nate Karns dealt to Kansas City for left fielder Jarrod Dyson, a fleet-footed defensive whiz with 176 career steals on his résumé; reliever Vidal Nuño to the Dodgers (who then spun him off to the Orioles) for catcher Carlos Ruiz, who figures to be a veteran stabilizing influence for Mike Zunino; Seth Smith to Baltimore and a trio of prospects to Tampa Bay for starting pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly, who will fill out the back of the rotation; and Double-A pitcher Paul Blackburn to Oakland for Danny Valencia, a career .321 hitter vs. lefties who’ll begin the season as the Mariners’ starting first baseman (with Daniel Vogelbach optioned to Triple-A late in spring training). Southpaw Marc Rzepczynski was brought in as a free agent to help neutralize lefty swingers in the late innings, something the M’s weren’t able to do in 2016.
As for depth, Dipoto also acquired no less than five talented young starting pitchers to join Ariel Miranda, who did well in a ten-start audition in the second half last year, to be on call in the minors. Four of them—Chase De Jong, Rob Whalen, Chris Heston, and Dillon Overton—are likely be in Tacoma’s starting rotation, just a quick drive up the freeway should one of Seattle’s starting five get hurt.
The other major issue facing the M’s is whether staff ace Felix Hernández can bounce back from a disappointing 2016. The King posted his highest ERA since 2007 last year (3.82) and fell short of 200 innings pitched for the first time in nine years, thanks to a calf injury that sidelined him for six weeks.
Overall, if a few things break right for the Mariners, this is a team that’s fully capable of not just making the postseason, but reaching the ultimate goal—the World Series. After so much futility in Seattle’s baseball history, that would be sweet, sweet redemption for the M’s and their fans.
Here’s a look at how the 2017 Mariners stack up, position by position:
The M’s are looking for improvement from their starting pitchers, who failed to go more than five innings in 57 of their 162 games in 2016. Seattle’s record in those games? A dismal 13-44.
As usual, the Mariners’ rotation begins with Felix Hernández. While he’s seen a decline in his fastball velocity in recent seasons, until 2016 he had continued to dominate opposing hitters by relying more on his off-speed pitches and commanding the strike zone. But last year was a different story for The King—his pinpoint control simply wasn’t there. He posted the highest walk rate of his career (3.8 walks per nine innings), which made him more hittable and affected his ability to put batters away. His strikeout rate was the lowest of his career (7.2 Ks per nine innings) and he failed to strike out more than four batters in any of his last seven starts in 2016.
Has Hernández, now 31, reached the decline phase of his career? It’s a reasonable question; eight straight seasons of 200+ innings does take a toll on the arm. But The King is nothing if not a competitor. Now that the M’s have the horses around him to contend, he certainly doesn’t want to be the reason the team falls short of a title. Challenged by the Mariners to work harder in the offseason, he did just that, spending the winter working diligently with Robinson Canó’s trainer and adding 17 pounds of muscle to his 207-pound frame. Some may have already given up on Felix as the team’s ace, but we wouldn’t bet against him bouncing back in a big way this year.
Hisashi Iwakuma was the Mariners’ only starter to make all of his scheduled starts last year, but his performance fell off a bit, with a 4.12 ERA, career-high 28 home runs allowed, and his lowest strikeout rate since joining the M’s. Still, he averaged a solid six innings per start and doesn’t issue many free passes, so he’s valuable even if he’s no longer a classic number-two starter.
Left-hander James Paxton made significant strides last year, increasing his velocity to the high 90s and occasionally reaching 100mph after making mechanical adjustments early in the season at Triple-A. He also made some adjustments in the mental side of the game, pitching with more attitude at the suggestion of M’s manager Scott Servais. The results were there—he struck out more batters and walked fewer, usually a recipe for success. He also improved his consistency as the year went on, allowing no more than three runs in nine of his final eleven 2016 starts. The lone question remaining for Paxton is durability, as lingering injuries have been a problem for him in past seasons. If the 28-year-old can take the ball every fifth day for a full season, Seattle’s odds of making the playoffs will get a significant boost.
The trade of Taijuan Walker in late November left a gaping hole in what was already a questionable starting rotation, so Jerry Dipoto spent much of the offseason looking for a reliable starter to take Walker’s spot. Dipoto didn’t like the available free-agent options and he didn’t have the minor league pieces to acquire the pitcher he wanted—until January, when the most active GM in baseball (he’s made 40+ trades since being hired by the M’s in September 2015) pulled off a four-player deal with Atlanta to get speedy center fielder Mallex Smith. Dipoto had been looking at Tampa Bay left-hander Drew Smyly all winter and he knew the Rays liked Smith, so that same day he spun Smith and two minor leaguers off to Tampa, with Smyly coming to Seattle. At first glance it might be unclear why Dipoto was so anxious to land Smyly, who went 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA last year while allowing a career-high 32 longballs. But there’s a lot to like: Smyly misses a lot of bats and is typically among the league leaders in forcing infield flies. He doesn’t walk many and his home run problems should be helped by the move to Safeco. Smyly showed increased velocity in an impressive performance this spring for the USA in the World Baseball Classic, striking out eight Venezuelans in 4 2?3 innings.
The fifth spot, at least to open the season, belongs to Yovani Gallardo. Long a reliable starter with Milwaukee (six double-digit win seasons), he had a rough 2016 in Baltimore (6-8, 5.42 ERA) and his K rate has declined significantly in recent seasons. Part of the struggle last year was injury-related, but it’s unclear how much the 31-year-old, acquired in a December trade for Seth Smith, has left. Baseball Prospectus isn’t optimistic about a resurgence, writing this spring, “Unless he learns a cutter, starts pitching left-handed, or procures compromising photos of a general manager, Gallardo is likely nearing the end of the line.” With big stakes on the line this year, his leash won’t be long.
The Seattle bullpen was a bit of a mix-and-match operation last year, as Dipoto targeted several relievers with injury issues to overhaul what had been a terrible ’pen in 2015. Some of the moves worked and some didn’t, but unlike the bullpen that began the ’16 season, the majority of this year’s seven-man April relief corps will be returnees.
Flamethrowing rookie Edwin Díaz took over closing duties from Steve Cishek last July with great results. In just his first professional season as a reliever, Díaz not only solidified the ninth inning for the M’s, he etched his name in the record books with an astonishing strikeout rate (17.97 per nine innings) that was the eighth-best in history. He faltered a bit down the stretch, likely due to fatigue, but he should be rested and ready for a successful season closing out wins.
Cishek had offseason hip surgery and will open the season on the DL. He could return within a few weeks and should be an asset in the late innings if he can keep the ball in the ballpark. Despite allowing eight home runs in 2016, twice as many as he’d given up in any of his five previous seasons, his overall numbers were stellar. He allowed barely one baserunner per inning and fanned 10.7 batters per nine innings. Not Díaz-like, but pretty good in its own right.
Right-hander Evan Scribner might have made more of an impact on the Mariners’ fortunes in ’16 if he hadn’t been sidelined for the first five months of the season with a back injury. He was used heavily in September and dominated, allowing just five hits and two walks in 14 innings, striking out 15. The M’s are hoping for more of the same in 2017.
The M’s acquired Nick Vincent from San Diego right at the start of the ’16 season and he was outstanding in April and May. But home runs became a serious problem for the 30-year-old as the season progressed; he allowed eleven longballs, six of them leading directly to five Seattle losses. He’ll need to keep the ball in the yard this year or pitch in lower-leverage situations, because that can’t happen again.
With Charlie Furbush unable to throw a single pitch after suffering what appeared to be a minor injury in July 2015, the Seattle bullpen lacked a weapon against lefty swingers in the late innings last year. Dipoto made a rare foray into the free agent market this winter to sign 31-year-old southpaw Marc Rzepczynski, who has a long record of success against left-handed hitters and is usually among the league leaders in forcing groundballs. While the veteran’s walk rate spiked in ’16, a closer look shows that nearly a third of the walks he issued last year were of the intentional variety.
A contending team’s bullpen usually has at least two left-handers, and 28-year-old Ariel Miranda had the inside track on the second spot this spring despite having more success last year against righties than lefties. Miranda did a nice job in the rotation in the second half of ’16, and he could return to starting if there’s a need, but for now he adds a live arm to Seattle’s ’pen. James Pazos, a 25-year-old lefty acquired from the Yankees in November, has a fastball that averages 95mph, but fastball command has been an issue for him, as has the development of his slider. He’s likely to begin the year at Tacoma, but could be a big addition to the M’s at some point this year.
Several other right-handers were in the mix for opening day, most notably Dan Altavilla, Tony Zych, Shae Simmons, and Casey Fien. The hard-throwing Altavilla, the M’s fifth-round draft pick in 2014, was shifted to the bullpen last year at Double-A Jackson with solid results (7-3, 1.91 ERA in 56 innings). Just like Edwin Díaz before him, he skipped Triple-A, joining the Seattle bullpen in late August. The 24-year-old did well in high-leverage situations, allowing just one run in 15 appearances. Zych, the feel-good story of 2015, when he emerged as a go-to reliever after being acquired from the Cubs for $1, was hampered by injuries in ’16 and had tendon replacement surgery in October. He’s likely to start the year at Triple-A, but could be a factor come May or June. Simmons, a power arm acquired from the Braves in the offseason, had been mentioned as a closer candidate in Atlanta after a sizzling start as a rookie in 2014. But he missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 after Tommy John surgery; when he returned late last year, he was dominant, albeit with command issues. In nearly 160 innings, Simmons has allowed just one home run in his professional career. Fien, a 33-year-old veteran who’s had several productive seasons with Minnesota, is coming off a miserable campaign where he gave up a home run every three innings (13 in 39 IP!), but he rarely walks batters and for his career he’s struck out nearly five batters for every walk. If Fien can avoid the longball, he could be an asset.
Perhaps the biggest question regarding M’s position players this year is whether Mike Zunino can take a step forward after spending much of 2016 at Triple-A. He delivered some big hits after returning to Seattle in August, but slumped in September. A good sign was an increased walk rate, but he’s still not hitting for average and is striking out too much. On the other side of the ball, he calls a great game and is above average when it comes to framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Zunino is very capable of punishing pitchers’ mistakes—he actually hit more home runs (12) and drove in more runs (31) in 164 at-bats in ’16 than he did in 350 at-bats in ’15. 38-year-old Carlos Ruiz will back up behind the plate. While he’s no longer the hitter he was in his prime as a starting catcher with the Phillies, he’s still solid defensively, has good on-base skills, and is great in the clubhouse.
It was expected that Daniel Vogelbach, acquired from the Cubs last July for relief pitcher Mike Montgomery, would begin 2017 as Seattle’s starting first baseman. The 24-year-old slugger seemingly had little left to prove in the minors after he smacked 23 homers and drew 97 walks at Triple-A last year, but a rough spring in which he fanned in 19 of his 57 at-bats earned him a ticket to Tacoma. While Vogelbach should be back at some point, the M’s began the season with veteran Danny Valencia at first. Valencia has always hit left-handers well (.321/.373/.500 in seven big-league seasons), but his numbers against righties have improved in recent years. The 32-year-old, who’s also capable of playing third base and the outfield corners, hit .287 with 17 home runs last year with Oakland.
After suffering through a rough first half in 2015, second baseman Robinson Canó quieted the doubters last year with one of the best seasons of his career. He not only regained his health in ’16, his home run stroke returned and he slammed 39 longballs, a new career high. He also drove in 103 runs, a total that should improve this year with better on-base guys in front of him in the Seattle lineup. At .298 he fell just short of hitting .300 for the ninth time in his twelve-year career. The seven-time All-Star was again smooth in the field, turning double plays with the best of them while making just six errors. He’s also been the vocal leader the Mariners have never had and a mentor to the team’s younger players.
Shortstop has been a problem position for Seattle ever since Alex Rodríguez departed nearly two decades ago and it was almost certainly the weakest spot on the diamond last year, as 22-year-old Ketel Marte wasn’t able to build on his strong finish to 2015. He was shaky in the field and delivered little offensively, walking just 18 times all season after drawing 24 free passes in his two-month big-league trial in ’15. Marte is gone, dealt to Arizona in the trade that netted the M’s their new shortstop, Jean Segura. Mechanical changes paid off for Segura in ’16, as he hit .319 and led the National League in hits, 68 of them for extra bases, including a career-high 20 home runs. At 27, he’s still smack in the middle of his prime and should be a huge upgrade over Marte even if his numbers fall off a bit. He played second base last year for the D-Backs, but he’s got a strong arm and good range, so a move back to his natural position shouldn’t be an issue.
Kyle Seager has been a model of consistency since claiming the third base job in 2012 and he had his best season last year, setting career highs in average (.278), homers (30), and RBI (99) while playing excellent defense at the hot corner. The seven-year, $100 million he signed in November 2014 is looking like quite the bargain.
Shawn O’Malley and newcomer Taylor Motter, acquired from Tampa Bay in November, battled it out for the utility infield job this spring. O’Malley, the fourth-fastest baserunner in the Majors according to a 2016 ESPN study, has been successful on 85% of his steal attempts in his three seasons in the Majors. While Motter may be the more complete player and has more power, a utility infielder isn’t likely to start many games, so manager Scott Servais’ ability to use O’Malley’s speed as a weapon in the late innings may prove to be more useful.
Only center fielder Leonys Martín remains from all the outfielders on Seattle’s opening day roster in ’16 (not counting DH Nelson Cruz), as Dipoto’s stated goal of making the M’s outfield more athletic came to fruition in the offseason. Martín had been acquired for his elite defense and throwing arm, but delivered a career high 15 homers in ’16 and stole 24 bases in 30 tries. Right fielder Mitch Haniger, a .341 hitter at triple-A Reno last year, has mostly been a center fielder in the minors, so should be an asset in a corner spot. If Haniger’s numbers can translate to the Majors, he could be the athletic right fielder the M’s have been seeking for the last 15 years or so… Speedy Jarrod Dyson, an excellent defender, was mostly a part-timer in his five seasons with the Royals, but still managed to steal 30 or more bases in four of the five. He’ll get an opportunity to play left field on a regular basis this year, but could be pushed for playing time by youngsters Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel. Heredia proved capable in ’16 even though he hadn’t played in two years after defecting from Cuba. He had a breakout spring training and could ultimately prove to be more than a bench player. Gamel, acquired from the Yankees last summer, was the International League MVP in ’16 despite hitting just eight homers.
Nelson Cruz proved the “experts” wrong for a second straight season in 2016, batting .287 and driving in a team-high 105 runs while smacking 40+ homers for a third consecutive season. The four-year, $57 million deal Cruz signed with Seattle before 2015 was universally panned by the internet, but Cruz is in the midst of the most productive stretch of his career. It will be critical to keep the 36-year-old’s bat in the lineup, and the move to full-time DH should help.