“Middle Ground” – A Seattle Mariners preview

I started writing team previews in 2014, making this the fifth time that I’ve had to say something about the Seattle Mariners. After awhile, it gets difficult due to the dagnabbed sameness of it all. Throw in a joke about the postseason drought. Point out that they haven’t been able to spend their way out of their mediocrity despite posting above-median payrolls. Throw in a pot/kettle dig at their inability to develop players. Mention the fact that their farm system is consistently talent-poor. Harp on the fact that they’re perpetual also-rans, a team that seems consistently without direction and just sort of floats in the AL West among teams that have been to the playoffs five times this decade (Rangers), have Mike Trout (Angels), have a plan (Astros), or have an excuse (Athletics). The story doesn’t change from year-to-year, so why the hell should I?

If there is one thing notable about the Mariners, it’s that they’re part of a borderline-extinct class in baseball as a team that occupies the middle ground between competing and rebuilding. The Mariners have virtually zero hope of winning the AL West this season, especially given the way that Shohei Ohtani has breathed life into the Angels to challenge the Astros for the division crown. They’re also about as far as you can get away from being set up for the future, given that they don’t have a glut of strong veteran trade assets and there’s no elite talent banging on the door of the major league roster. Seattle isn’t set up to contend, nor are they set up to win in the future. They’re set up to exist.

Of course, any team that isn’t outright punting on the season can get lucky and snag one of the two Wild Card slots, so I guess there’s still something to play for. Maybe I’ll talk about some Seattle players after all.

This iteration of the Mariners’ failure features a strong lineup that will be undone by the putrid pitching staff. Seattle picked up Dee Gordon at the Marlins’ garage sale next to the sign that says, “A little old, but still runs! (Power source not included)”. With the still-productive (but notably not-slugging) Robinson Cano entrenched at second base, the Mariners deployed their new gadget in center field, where Gordon’s considerable wheels haven’t helped to distinguish him out in the pasture. Seattle’s signing of Nelson Cruz from before the 2014 season was considered risky, but could not have worked out much better to this point. Cruz has averaged over 40 home runs per season with the Mariners and would still be well worth the money even if he goes all 2011 Adam Dunn all over everyone this year.

Last June, the Mariners reacted quickly to a hot start from contact-hitting shortstop Jean Segura and extended him long-term. Segura is a passable defensive shortstop who doesn’t walk much, but can sustainably hit for a high average while swiping the occasional base and popping the occasional dinger. His neighbor on the left side of the infield, Kyle Seager, is scuffling at the plate this season but remains a good defender and has been one of the most underrated players in baseball of the decade.

The player hitting the ball the best in the Mariners’ lineup so far is 2017 breakout star Mitch Haniger. Haniger exhibits good command of the strike zone and has paced the Mariners thus far with six home runs. Cubs castoff Dan Vogelbach is finally getting a chance to get some regular playing time and has been passable at first base as a three-true-outcomes guy; almost half his plate appearances this season have ended in a walk, strikeout, or homer. Power-hitting catcher Mike Zunino contributes some good defensive chops behind the plate (not that many Mariners pitchers have been effective enough for it to matter) and the lineup is rounded out by a platoon of Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel, the former of which has been scorching hot to start the year.

Now, we get to the bad news. It’s sad, but Felix Hernandez has become a shell of his former self before he ever got a chance to see the postseason. The 32-year-old (and it’s an old 32, given the mileage on that arm) has seen his fastball velocity decline to about 90 mph and his results and peripherals now resemble those of late-stage John Danks. Hard-throwing lefty James Paxton has a filthy cutter, but he’s been undone this season by a lack of control and what’s been a very punishable curveball so far this year. Soft-tosser Mike Leake has lost over 2 mph on his fastball this season; accordingly, even fewer people have been whiffing at his offerings than usual (and it wasn’t a lot to begin with).

Marco Gonzales is a pretty good example of why FIP isn’t the greatest metric. He strikes out plenty of hitters and owns a 6.33 K/BB ratio (that’s great!) and has allowed a below-average amount of home runs, leading to a 3.15 FIP. However, his 5.94 ERA is much more representative of how well he’s pitched, as a .365 xwOBA, 31.4% line drive rate, and 41.2% hard-hit rate all paint the picture of a guy who’s wild within the strike zone. The Mariners’ bullpen has been really bad as well. Closer Edwin Diaz has been his usual brand of effective wildness, but non-Diaz relievers have allowed 12 home runs in just over 62 frames.

***

If you think that much of Seattle’s general outlook sounds like the Ghost of White Sox Past, you’re not alone. Looking at Seattle at least lets one appreciate the White Sox’ acquisition and development of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Adam Eaton, because at least the Sox had major pieces to really jump-start their rebuild, whereas the Mariners don’t have any sort of obvious exit strategy. Then again, maybe Seattle fans are looking at the White Sox and saying, “at least we’re still playing fun, competitive baseball”. Whatever the perspective, things are unlikely to change for the Mariners anytime soon, and despite the departures of disaster general managers like Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik, the franchise seems perpetually stuck in limbo. Be sure to tune in again next year in case you want to read me say all of this again in a slightly different way.

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Monday, April 23: Mike Leake vs. Carson Fulmer
  • Tuesday, April 24: Marco Gonzales vs. TBD
  • Wednesday, April 25: Felix Hernandez vs. TBD

Probable Lineup

  1. Dee Gordon – CF
  2. Jean Segura – SS
  3. Robinson Cano – 2B
  4. Nelson Cruz – DH
  5. Kyle Seager – 3B
  6. Mitch Haniger – RF
  7. Dan Vogelbach – 1B
  8. Mike Zunino – C
  9. Ben Gamel – LF

Pitching

  • SP1: Felix Hernandez – RHP
  • SP2: James Paxton – LHP
  • SP3: Mike Leake – RHP
  • SP4: Marco Gonzales – LHP
  • SP5: Erasmo Ramirez – RHP
  • CL: Edwin Diaz – RHP
  • RP1: Nick Vincent – RHP
  • RP2: Juan Nicasio – RHP
  • RP3: Mark Rzepczysnki – LHP
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Patrick Nolan
Patrick Nolan
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MrTopaz

Sometime last season I asked Jim and Josh who would get back to the playoffs first, the Sox or the Mariners? I think they both thought the Sox had a better chance. I’ll admit that the start to this season had me questioning that, but not anymore.

Trooper Galactus

I give the Mariners credit for not half-assing it in free agency or with their star players. Mike Leake has the fourth largest contract on their roster, and it would be the largest in Sox history by a comfortable margin. Jean Segura, fifth highest, would also be first unless Abreu’s signing bonus is taken into account. What would be new territory for the White Sox spending-wise is basically second tier stuff for a team that’s actually willing to invest in their roster.

I know spending doesn’t guarantee success, but the Mariners’ contracts have generally turned out fairly well. They’ve been undercut by the same problems that have plagued the White Sox all these years: poor drafting, bad trades, and a resulting lack of depth. The difference is their success in free agency has allowed them to maintain some semblance of average-ness and meeting of expectations.

mikeyb

Heh that Dan Vogelbach note just made me realize that Yoan Moncada is the 2nd-most 3 True Outcomes-y player of 2018 so far (even without the HR he’d still be 2nd, so maybe he’s 2 True Outcomes-y).

Reindeer Games

I like James Paxton, so I just assumed you would slander him since that seems to be your thing in the previews now ;-P Sean Manaea FTW

Reindeer Games

I look forward to you shitting on Jameson Taillon in two weeks.

MrTopaz

Plus the guy’s been through enough, right?

katiesphil

WooHoo! Somebody the Sox ought to be able to take a couple from. Sad, but I’m heartened by somebody else’s bad pitching coming to town.
Thanks, Patrick. As ever.

Lurker Laura

Where would be be without somebody else’s bad pitching?

As Cirensica

Still at the bottom?

Greg Nix

One thing not mentioned is that the M’s have one of the most interesting GM’s in the game, in my opinion. Aside from the Gordon gamble, which I find fascinating, Jerry Dipoto is by far the most active GM on the trade market with 69 (nice) trades in the 2.5 years since he took over. He’s also the only current GM who played in the majors.

As Cirensica

Really?
I still remember him. It wasn’t long ago.

Greg Nix

I didn’t realize until well into his Mariners tenure. It makes all the trades even more interesting, since he has unique insight into what getting dealt feels like but wheels-and-deals like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Trooper Galactus

Billy Beane spent six years in the majors.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I think he got a promotion, same as Kenny.

Greg Nix

Correct, Beane is EVP of Baseball Operations. David Forst is the A’s GM.

Ah yes, I guess he doesn’t qualify for the list now.