Mariners Figure to Extend Streak in 2018
Photo: Shari Sommerfeld
James Paxton says he wants to pitch 200 innings this year. Can he stay off the DL long enough to do it?
March 28, 2018
Quick, in all of the major North American sports, what team has gone the longest without appearing in a playoff game? That's right, your Seattle Mariners, who haven't tasted the postseason since 2001. The M's are also the only American League team never to win a pennant, and unlike the National League's never-been-to-the-World-Series team, the Washington Nationals, it doesn't appear that they have much of a shot at it this year, either.
That's not to say the '18 Mariners aren't a good team. They are, on paper, at least, so long as they stay away form the plethora of injuries that plagued them in 2017. But good isn't necessarily good enough, especially when playing in the same division as the mighty Houston Astros, a defending World Champion that is favored to run away with the division again. The best the M's can realistically hope for is a Wild Card berth, and while anything can happen in a postseason—just ask the '88 Oakland A's—even if they somehow get to the Wild Card game, the Mariners don't appear to have the depth to get very far after that.
We could be wrong, of course, and the M's should be improved from last year's team that went 78-84. If nothing else, the pitching staff should be in better shape—how could it not be, as 2017's starting rotation appeared to be made up entirely of Spinal Tap drummers, with a disabled list that included Felix Hernández, James Paxton, Drew Smyly, Hisashi Iwakuma, Rob Whalen, Evan Marshall, Ryan Weber, Hernández again, and Paxton again. And that doesn't include the disabled relievers—Tony Zych, Shae Simmons, Steve Cishek, Evan Scribner, David Phelps, Zych again, and Phelps again. Seattle trotted out a Major League record-tying 40 pitchers—forty!—last year, a number nobody wants to see repeated or even approached ever again. Position players caught the injury bug too, and games wherein the starting lineup did not include someone playing in place of a player on the DL were few and far between. Jean Segura was out 34 days on two DL stints. Mitch Haniger was out 65 days in two stints. Robinson Canó, Jarrod Dyson, and utilityman Shawn O'Malley also saw time on the shelf. Guillermo Heredia played the whole season with a dislocated shoulder. It was a banner year for the team doctors and training staff.
The team isn't going to be injury free this season; their 2018 DL tally has begun early with reliever David Phelps already lost for the year and Ben Gamel starting the season injured. Hernández was set back in his season prep when he was hit on the arm by a line drive in his first spring outing, and new first baseman Ryon Healy got a late start because of offseason hand surgery. But we won't see the WebMD buffet we saw last year. It's not possible. Right?
Meanwhile, GM Jerry Dipoto addressed the team's needs in a flurry of moves from late last season through the winter and spring. The Mariners have a new center fielder in Dee Gordon, a new first base combo (again), and some promising new starting pitchers. Of course, any team with Dipoto in charge could well look a lot different in September than it does in April, but this is what the 2018 team looks like as the season begins.
Though Felix Hernández was tapped for his 10th opening day assignment, the real ace of the staff is now James Paxton. The left-handed Canadian emerged as the dominant force we always knew he could be last year, going 12-5 with a dandy 2.98 ERA. Had he not lost so much time to injury, he surely would have gotten some Cy Young votes; as it was, he was twice AL Pitcher of the Week and once AL Pitcher of the Month, thanks to an amazing 6-0/1.37 month of July. The Big Maple has set a goal of 200 innings pitched for himself this year, but he'll have to stay healthy in order to achieve it.
Felix Hernández looks to bounce back from an
injury-plagued 2017. Photo: Jon Wells
Hernández also needs to take care of himself, as the M's can't afford to have King Felix go down with another bout of bursitis. Felix is not the pitcher he used to be—his best fastball tops out at around 93mph these days—but he's still formidable when his arm isn't hurting. His arsenal doesn't depend on velocity and he clearly knows how to pitch. He's only two years removed from his last "typical Felix" season (18-9, 3.53 in 2015), but the fragility shown since then is a concern.
In the third position is Mike Leake, who was incredible in five starts after coming over in a trade with the Cardinals last August (3-1, 2.53, 27 Ks). For his career, Leake has posted more modest numbers, but plenty serviceable ones; in eight Major League seasons (all in the National League until arriving in Seattle), he has a sub-4.00 ERA and has made 30+ starts each year since 2012. Though his fastball isn't overpowering, it does have decent movement to it and generates more grounders than fly balls; he also features a sharp curveball and slider and change.
On the back end, we have Erasmo Ramírez and Marco Gonzales, two more late-season acquisitions last year. Ramírez we've seen before—he came up with the M's in 2012—and we know he can be very good and we know he can get lit up. He projects to be a fairly average back-end starter. Gonzales, on the other hand, is largely an unknown quantity. A former first-round draft choice, he's clearly very talented, but he's also had Tommy John surgery and little big-league experience. He impressed during spring training and will be given every opportunity to grow into a solid starter with the Mariners. Ramírez is recovering from a strained latissimus muscle and will start the year on the DL, so when the M's get to the point in the schedule when they need a fifth starter, that job will likely go to Ariel Miranda, who led the Mariners in starts and innings pitched a year ago as the last man standing on a decimated staff. The Cuban lefty held his own in a tough circumstance, but ended up with an ERA over 5.00. He was much better at home than on the road, but wherever he pitched he was prone to serving up the longball, particularly to right-handers—he also led the M's in homers allowed, with 37 (32 to righties).
The season didn't begin well for the relief corps, as David Phelps, counted on to be a setup man in the later innings, tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm during a spring training game and has been lost for the year. Fortunately, the M's have some depth in the bullpen; newcomer Juan Nicasio and holdovers Dan Altavilla and Nick Vincent have all been very effective in the role Phelps was to fill. After Phelps went down, Dipoto re-acquired veteran lefty Wade LeBlanc, who started eight games for Seattle in 2016 before being traded to Pittsburgh; last year he worked exclusively in relief, throwing 68 innings (4.50 ERA) for the Pirates. Those four and left-handers Marc Rzepczynski and James Pazos will work ahead of closer Edwin Díaz, who continues to develop into a top 9th-inning man. Last year Díaz saved 34 games in 39 opportunities, but the hard-throwing Puerto Rican still has issues to overcome—he can be wild at times and walked 32 in 66 innings, a rather high rate for a closer, and for whatever reason was far less effective in front of the home crowd at at Safeco Field than on the road.
Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have shown a preference for carrying a ridiculous number of relievers; last year it may have been worthwhile, given the spate of injuries, but in general this seems like an invitation for trouble, as it leaves the bench extremely thin. Nevertheless, odds are good we'll see a number of others in relief for the Mariners this year, including Casey Lawrence, who made 23 appearances with Seattle last year after being claimed on waivers from the Blue Jays; Nick Rumbelow, who spent 2017 between Double-A and Triple-A and is just a year removed from Tommy John surgery; Chasen Bradford, who was 2-0 with a 3.74 ERA as a Met last year; Erik Goeddel, another former Met, who owns a career 3.96 ERA; and Cody Martin, a sometime-starter in Tacoma that threw 26 innings for the M's in 2016. Miranda may also see time in the 'pen when not needed in the rotation.
Mike Zunino made huge strides forward last season. After beginning 2017 poorly (again), Zunino was sent down to Tacoma and while there made some changes. With a retooled swing, the up-to-then underachieving catcher turned things around in a hurry. He posted a line of .293/.356/.707 in twelve games with the Rainiers and earned his way back to the big club as a new man. He hit .270/.349/.571 the rest of the way, with 25 homers and 62 RBI. And as Z went, so went the M's—Zunino batted .305 in Mariner victories, but just .193 in losses.
Backing up Zunino is 28-year-old Mike Marjama, who came to the M's in an August 2017 trade with the Rays. A Triple-A All-Star last year, Marjama made his big-league debut with the M's last September. He is a relative latecomer to catching, having been an infielder in his college and early minors career, but relishes the position because of its psychology. Relating to pitchers is key, and Marjama has a talent for it; in the offseason, Marjama has been a substitute teacher at middle and high schools in the Sacramento area, and feels like catching involves a similar skill set.
In four years with Seattle, Robinson Canó has
hit .295 with 97 home runs. Photo: Jon Wells
The Mariners start 2018 with a new first baseman—just like in 2017 and 2016. The position has been a tough one for Seattle; you have to go back to Justin Smoak in 2013 and '14 to find consecutive opening days with the same guy at position 3 on your scorecard. This time the new man is Ryon Healy, a 26-year-old defensively-challenged power hitter that put up solid numbers in his first year-and-a-half in the bigs with the Oakland A's (.282/.313/.475, 38 HR, 115 RBI). Healy had surgery on his hand over the offseason and didn't start playing spring training games until halfway through camp. The backup option is 25-year-old Daniel Vogelbach, also a defensively-challenged power hitter, who had a tremendous spring training. "Vogey" crushed the ball in the Cactus League, batting .407/.529/.926 to force his way onto the opening day roster.
Second baseman Robinson Canó is four years into his ten-year contract with the M's, and at age 35 projects to have another 20+ HR, 80+ RBI season. The unofficial leader of the squad, Canó was slowed this spring by a strained hamstring. He's only been on the disabled list twice in his 13-year career, but one of those times was last May.
Shortstop will once again be manned by Jean Segura, who was so good in his first year with Seattle that he earned himself a contract extension through 2022. Segura finished '17 batting an even .300 and stole 22 bases despite missing a month's worth of games with injury. The speedy Dominican was among the slightly wounded in spring training, nursing minor hamstring tightness and a sore thumb, but nothing that would threated his availability to start the season.
Over at the Hawt Corner, Kyle Seager hopes to rebound from a disappointing 2017 back to the form he had in 2016, when he hit 30 homers and finished 12th in the MVP voting. The elder Seager brother would also like to earn another Gold Glove award; he won one in 2014, when he made a grand total of eight errors at an error-prone position, but despite another exceptional campaign at third last year was overlooked in favor of finalists José Ramírez, Manny Machado, and winner Evan Longoria (Longoria is now in the National League and Machado is no longer a third baseman, so maybe Seager will get more recognition this season).
Utilityman Taylor Motter was on the bubble as spring training came to a close, and likely headed for Tacoma despite a decent Cactus League performance.
Until this spring, center fielder Dee Gordon had never played the outfield professionally save for a brief time in Dominican winter ball in 2013. Any concern about the Gold Glove middle infielder's ability to make the transition was put to rest in spring training; Gordon prepared for the switch over the offseason with help from, among others, Ken Griffey Jr. (Gordon and Griffey's son Trey are good friends), and arrived in Peoria looking like he'd played the position all his life. The second-generation Major Leaguer (his dad is former All-Star reliever Tom "Flash" Gordon) is among the fastest men in the Majors and has thrice led the National League in stolen bases, including last year when he swiped 60 bags for Miami. For a leadoff hitter, Gordon doesn't walk much, but with 200-hit seasons, as he had last year and in 2015, he doesn't have to.
Right fielder Mitch Haniger hopes his second big-league season involves less pain than his first did. Not only did Haniger lose a month and a half to a strained oblique muscle, he was hit in the face by a Jacob deGrom pitch that gave him a concussion and a laceration bad enough to require minor reconstructive surgery. The injuries interrupted a terrific rookie campaign—Haniger was batting .342 when the first injury hit, then finished with a .353 mark in September after recovering from the second. We look forward to seeing what a healthy Haniger can do over a full season.
In left, an old friend steps in to start the year. With Ben Gamel on the DL for the first month or so, Ichiro Suzuki will get to strut his stuff in the Safeco Field grass once more. The M's signed Ichiro early in the spring, giving the 44-year-old international baseball icon an opportunity to add to his storied Major League career. He's obviously not the Ichiro of old; no one expects him to play every day or hit .350 again. Last year with the Marlins, Ichiro only stepped to the plate 215 times, but in 2016, when Miami's regular outfield was a bit banged up, he got more playing time and hit .291/.354/.376 in 143 games (365 plate appearances).
Guillermo Heredia will share time with Ichiro to start the year. Heredia has a surgically-repaired right shoulder, having discovered the hard way last season that playing baseball with a dislocated joint is not a good idea. Heredia is an impressive defensive outfielder, but we've yet to see what he can really do with the bat, what with the whole dislocated shoulder thing getting in the way.
Meanwhile, Gamel is recovering from the same kind of oblique injury that felled Haniger last year. It'll likely be well into May by the time he returns, and when he does it will be interesting to see what Jerry Dipoto decides to do with the roster. In his rookie season last year, Gamel was exceptionally good for three months—he put up a .323/.379/.449 line through June—and then fell off a cliff in the second half. He recovered somewhat at the end of the year to finish at a respectable .275/.322/.413, but his first half/second half split was so stark we wonder if he's just streaky or if the league figured him out and the latter months are what we can expect now that pitchers have seen him a few times.
Age apparently means nothing to Nelson Cruz. Now 37, Cruz is in the final year of his four-year free-agent deal signed in December 2014, a deal that many decried as foolish—he's old! He's one-dimensional! He's going to break down! Those naysayers have eaten a lot of crow; Cruz has been tremendous and shows no signs of slowing down. Well, figuratively, anyway; he was literally slowed much of last year by a tender quadriceps. But when the ball leaves the yard, or even hits the wall, footspeed is not that big a concern. In 2017, Cruz actually led the league in RBI (119) and posted the highest full-season on-base percentage of his career (.375).
Finally, there's utilityman Andrew Romine. The switch-hitter spent the last four years in Detroit, capping his Tigers career with a game last September 30th in which he played every defensive position, including pitcher (he retired his only batter on a ground ball). Most of his career innings have been played at shortstop, but he won't hurt you at any position on the diamond, and on a team like the Mariners that tends to carry a short bench, that versatility can be exceptionally valuable.