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Around the Horn

2019: Actually not that bad

It's over. The long slog of the season, the Dog Days of Summer, the grind of 162 games. Done for another solar orbit. For the 18th year in a row, Your Seattle Mariners head into October as spectators for the playoffs, adding another number to their ignominious total of years as the only American League franchise never to reach the World Series.

Roster churn

M's gone since
a year ago
New M's since
a year ago
Mike Zunino* Mallex Smith
Guillemo Heredia Jake Fraley
James Paxton* Justus Sheffield
Alex Colomé Erik Swanson
Robinson Canó Justin Dunn
Edwin Díaz* J.P. Crawford
Jean Segura Omar Narváez
Juan Nicasio Domingo Santana
James Pazos Shed Long
Ben Gamel Yusei Kikuchi
David Freitas Connor Sadzeck
Roenis Elías Austin Adams
Hunter Strickland Kyle Lewis*
Jay Bruce Donnie Walton*
Edwin Encarnación Art Warren*
Mike Leake Zac Grotz
Tim Beckham Austin Nola
Cory Gearrin Braden Bishop*
  Keon Broxton
  Dylan Moore
  Tommy Milone
  Brandon Brennan
  Taylor Guilbeau
  Reggie McClain*
  Matt Wisler
  Matt Magill
 * Mariners draft selection

And by most metrics, 2019 was a serious failure:

  • 21 fewer wins than the previous season
  • 182 more runs surrendered than last season
  • 25 games further back in the standings than last season
  • Half a million fewer tickets sold than last season
  • 17 point drop in team batting average from last season
  • Record-setting 67 players used this season, including 40 pitchers

All this boiled down to a 94-loss campaign, which while not the worst record in the league—four AL teams were actually worse—was objectively terrible. 39 games back of first place is the furthest back the M's have ever finished (they finished 39 GB twice before, 1983 and 2008, but never worse) and from one game to the next there was always the sense that someone—the bullpen, Scott Servais, whoever was up to strike out with the tying run on third and one out—would blow it.

And yet.

There are a lot of things about this season that bode well. Starting with the plethora of offseason moves after the 2018 campaign, the re-shaping of the Mariners was destined to produce at least one bad year. Personally, I didn't expect it to be quite this bad—I was thinking maybe 75-80 wins—but when you dump big names for farmhands en masse, short-term bad is to be expected. And we knew on Opening Day that the re-shaping was still in process: In order to dump Robinson Canó's contract, the M's had to assume Jay Bruce's; in order to get J.P. Crawford from the Phillies, the M's had to take Carlos Santana's contract of their hands, and for some reason that defies logic GM Jerry Dipoto swapped Santana for Edwin Encarnación, who was trade bait from moment one; and questions abounded about areas that weren't yet addressed like the relief corps. So the metric for 2019 really isn't wins and losses so much as how the re-shaping left the team at the end of the season, and that isn't too bad.

Meanwhile, some individual players turned in some really nice performances in 2019. Top of that list is starting pitcher Marco Gonzales: The 27-year-old southpaw turned in his best season yet, with career bests in wins (16), innings pitched (203), ERA (3.99), strikeouts (147), and durability (league-leading 34 starts). He threw 19 quality starts (defined as at least six innings and allowing no more than three earned runs) and won three games that didn't qualify as a QS, meaning his total of 16 wins was less than a fair reflection of his ability. He was stuck on five wins for over a month, a stretch that included two QS efforts but also a mini-slump in a pair of poor starts at the end of May/beginning of June, then stuck on 12 wins for three weeks despite a pair of quality starts that the Seattle lineup just wouldn't support, and his final two starts of the year—September 22nd in Baltimore and last Saturday evening against the A's—saw him allow just three runs over 14 innings and get hit with two losses. Gonzales had a 20+ win performance this year on a team that failed to reward it.

Omar Narváez, Tom Murphy, and Austin Nola also delivered excellent seasons. Narváez might have been expected to be decent, but he exceeded all reasonable predictions with a .278/.353/.460 line; Murphy and Nola both had zero expectations and became indispensable. Dylan Moore proved himself as a Mark McLemore-type utility player, playing every position except catcher and playing them competently, and even delivered a big hit every now and then. Some of the prospects acquired from those offseason trades and earlier amateur drafts got a chance to shine, and though most are likely not ready for prime time they did show real promise, particularly Justin Dunn, Kyle Lewis, and Shed Long.

Does this mean the M's are ready to contend in 2020? Well, no. They don't appear to be there yet. Holes still abound at the big-league level. But the re-shaping is nonetheless working out.

Let's look at the makeup of the team as it stands, broken up by position:

  • Catching: The Mariners rightly cut bait on Mike Zunino last fall, and though the defense took a hit behind the plate overall ability went way up this year. The tandem of Narváez and Murphy gave Seattle their best production from the position in ... well, ever. Narváez went from defensive liability to at least league average over the course of the year and may yet get better still. Murphy was on a one-year contract and might not return, but either way with Omar in place things look solid here.
  • Infield: Third-baseman Kyle Seager has been disappointing in recent years, but after returning from injury and getting his, er, sea legs back, the one-time Gold Glover really turned things around, posting huge numbers in August—.323/.417/.699, including nine home runs—and giving Seattle hope that he was ready to reclaim his former All-Star status. Unfortunately, he crapped out again in September—.202/.292/.383—so we really don't know what to expect from him going forward. But his contract is basically untradeable, so we will find out. Second base still belongs to Dee Gordon, but whether it will next year is in doubt; Dee had an OK year in 2019, not great, not bad, and of course was splendid with the glove as usual, but he makes a lot of money and thus is a candidate to be traded. Shed Long would appear to be the heir apparent if Gordon is dealt, but Long would be a large dropoff defensively and has yet to show he can handle an everyday role. My preference would be to keep Dee around, but Dipoto isn't known to consult me on trade decisions... Shortstop is solidly in J.P. Crawford's hands, and the youngster has shown he has the chops for it; his batting line ended up being pretty modest this year after starting out great when he was first called up in May (first half: .277/.347/.466; second half: .188/.288/.299), which might indicate pitchers figured him out after a bit or that after being up for a couple months he fell into the bad habits that have plagued many Mariner batters. Either way, he'll be given the opportunity to right his ship in the big leagues. First base, the position of greatest need for god knows how long, has been shared by Austin Nola and Daniel Vogelbach since Dipoto finally got rid of Encarnación mid-season; sadly, it remains a position of need. Nola is a keeper, the 29-year-old rookie posted the team's second-best on-base mark among those with 120+ at-bats (behind only Narváez), but whether he's a keeper at first base is iffy; he's valuable as a utility-type, he plays every infield position and catcher, and may fit better in another role (particularly if Murphy does not return). Vogelbach is likely to remain primarily a designated hitter, and even there has some work to do to remain an everyday player; though he earned an All-Star selection with a strong first half, his stellar on-base skill seemed to disappear in the second (.375 before the break vs. .286 after) and only a third of his 30 homers came after June. The bad habits Crawford may have fallen into apply to Vogey as well and need to be addressed systematically, across the lineup. There is still 1B/3B Ryon Healy, who sat out most of the season with injury, but as another sub-.300 OBP hitter he isn't an everyday answer either. There is 23-year-old minor-league standout Evan White, who spent 2019 with Arkansas and hit .293/.350/.488; he has had a brief look at Triple-A in 2018 (18 at-bats), but it would be a big jump for the slick-fielding Kentucky alum to be Seattle's 1B next season.
  • Outfield: Here's where the M's have an embarrassment of riches, at least longer term. Mitch Haniger had a lost year in 2019 thanks largely to injuries, but he will be back and hopefully back to All-Star form. Mallex Smith had a down year after missing all of spring training and being bounced up and down the lineup, but despite posting the worst stat lines of his young career still led the AL in steals with 46; his history suggests that he should bounce back with better performances if—see the pattern yet?—if he breaks out of the bad habits related to pitch selection at the plate: Mallex struck out 141 times this year(!), nearly 150% of his previous season-worst total. Prospects Jake Fraley, Kyle Lewis, and Braden Bishop all could figure into the mix as soon as next season, but only Fraley seems to have a better-than-50% shot at making the 2020 squad out of spring training; unfortunately, Fraley injured his hand shortly after his big-league debut and didn't get much of a chance to audition at the Major League level late this year, but his minor-league ascension was more indicative of a readiness for the bigs than that of Lewis, and Bishop has been severely overmatched in his brief Major League tenure. Bishop may prove to be ready after all after an offseason to completely heal from his rather significant mid-season spleen injury, but that would be a pleasant surprise; likewise, Lewis might buck expectations and show improved ability next spring that counters his current penchant for missing pitches (please learn to hit the breaking ball). More likely, two of the three if not all three will be ticketed for Tacoma next season and a fill-in of sorts will have to man left field to start 2020, but one or more should break through by the 2020 break. That fill-in might be Tim Lopes, who made his big-league debut this year and impressed; not only did Lopes bat .270/.359/.360, the career second baseman gamely agreed to try the outfield and did well despite never playing there in the minors. Hot prospect Jered Kelenic has motored through the lower levels of the minors, but at only 19 has yet to put in much time at Double-A and has yet to see a pitch at Triple-A, so he's a very long shot for next year. One who will not likely be part of the mix is Domingo Santana, whose defensive liabilities and (again) poor plate discipline make him the odd man out; his good first half of 2019 might (hopefully) make him an attractive trade chip despite his late-season injury, and with luck Dipoto will be able to flip him for help in another area.
  • Starting rotation: Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi are locks, and we know Marco will deliver the goods. Kikuchi had a rough year transitioning to the Major Leagues and American culture in 2019 and we really don't know if he'll be more like the Kikuchi of the Seibu Lions next year or not. Hopefully. We'll see. After those two, it's a bit murky. Rookies Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn got some late-season action with the M's this year and did OK; both are expected to be mainstays eventually, but 2020 might be too soon. Both lefties were solid in Double-A Arkansas this year (especially Sheffield), but Sheffield had trouble in Triple-A and Dunn didn't even get there; Sheffield is more likely to be in the ’20 rotation out of the gate despite his uneven ’19, while Dunn is likely headed for Tacoma for at least a few months. That means there are only three starters ready to go and two holes to fill. One might be filled on a temporary basis by Wade LeBlanc, who has a team option on his contract for 2020, but nobody else in the system appears to be a candidate. 22-year-old prospects Ljay Newsome (9-10, 3.54 ERA, 1.084 WHIP at three minor-league levels in 2019) and Logan Gilbert (10-5, 2.13, 0.948 at three levels in ’19) could be awesome in a couple of years, but are both likely Tacoma-bound for 2020.
  • Bullpen: Quick, name the members of the Mariner relief corps this year. Can't do it, can you? The M's tried out basically anyone that asked in this year's bullpen. A few guys stood out and could have futures with Seattle, a few stood out the other way and absolutely do not, and the rest showed themselves to be, well, meh. Those that we can expect to see in 2020 are Sam Tuivailala, who upon returning from a long rehab after offseason surgery turned in 23 solid innings of relief and a 2.35 ERA; Taylor Guilbeau, a lefty specialist acquired at the trade deadline from the Nationals that made his big-league debut with the M's in August; Erik Swanson, who was a spectacular failure as a starter due to a limited repertoire but has the makings of a successful short reliever and may well emerge as a decent closer; and perhaps Anthony Bass, the veteran righty that turned in a sub-1.000 WHIP in 48 innings this season. Beyond them your guess is as good as mine, maybe better. I mean, Zac Grotz might stick around. Reggie McClain? Eh. Manager Scott Servias seems to have an unhealthy affinity for Matt Magill, but I'd rather not see him come back. Gerson Bautista was clearly not ready when he was tried out earlier this year, he'll likely still be in the minors. Austin Adams would be a sure thing had he not ruptured a tendon late in September and cemented his place on the injured list for most if not all of 2020. Art Warren is a possibility, he had a great year at Arkansas (1.71 ERA in 31 innings). But relief pitching is clearly the biggest question mark for the Future M's.

So, yeah, not there yet. The M's need pitchers and perhaps a first baseman. By 2021 the rotation could be stellar if even two of Sheffield, Dunn, Gilbert, and Newsome pan out. (Or it could be a bust if none of them do.)

M's strikeout rate

2018: 20% 2019: 25.5%

They also probably need a new hitting coach. They've already fired third-base coach Chris Prieto and bullpen coach Jim Brower as well as reassigned pitching coach Paul Davis to some other role, but the one that needs attention is Tim Laker. Laker came into the hitting coach gig fairly well-regarded, but these bad habits at the plate are a massive issue and they've been affecting almost everyone on the team. Strikeouts are up all over the Majors, but it's been absurd with the M's this year. Only the Detroit Tigers struck out more times in 2019, and while there are times when a strikeout is just an out, there are plenty of others—and boy, were there a lot of them for the M's this year—when a K is a fundamental failure to advance or score a runner. The Mariners need a hitting coach that teaches contact, that reminds players what the fundamentals of the game are and that there is such a thing as a productive out. Mallex Smith in particular needs to to learn better bunting, with his speed he could have a score of bunt hits in a season if he was skilled at it. Everyone needs to adopt a two-strike approach that recognizes the need to either put the ball in play or draw a walk. Several Mariners have histories of being selective and disciplined at bat and yet racked up a ton of Ks this year—Vogelbach (.395 career minor-league OBP, 17% strikeout rate) struck out 149 times in 558 plate appearances (26.7%), Dylan Moore (career minor-league .349 OBP, 18.5% K rate) K'd 93 times in 383 PAs (24.3%), Mitch Haniger (career minor-league .370 OBP, 17.4% K rate; pre-2019 MLB .346 OBP, 22% K rate) struck out 81 times in just 283 PAs (28.6%), J.P. Crawford (.368 career minor-league OBP, 15.2% K rate) had 83 strikeouts (21%), and as previously noted Mallex (.347 pre-2019 MLB career OBP, 20% K rate) had 141 Ks in 566 PAs (25%). Even Domingo Santana, who has always been a strikeout machine, had a K rate higher than his career 30.8%. Yes, minor-league numbers are not directly translatable, but except for Mallex, that's where the vast bulk of the pre-’19 M's numbers come from for these guys and it's still plenty suggestive. This year's Mariner environment worsened the strikeout habits, and something needs to change. So let's start the hashtag #FireLaker.

Even if the M's only reach middling levels next year, things are still looking up. The re-shaping is becoming a chiseled form rather than a sludgy clay blob. Some more development time for starting pitchers and outfielders (and Evan White), some less-bombastic trades to get another pitcher, and a tweaked hitting philosophy will define that chiseled form into a contender soon. Ish. Hopefully. Fingers crossed. Please?

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