2014 MLB Season Preview: Seattle Mariners


Haha, HOV! Haha, Brooklyn! Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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Projected AL West Finish: 3rd out of 5

Coming into this season, here at That Ball’s Outta Here we want to preview each team in the majors, with a different writer covering each division in the order of projected end of year standings. In this installment, I’m continuing through the AL West with the Seattle Mariners.

Special Thanks to Sudo Mojo, the Fansided Mariners blog, for offering some insight onto the team.

Off-Season Review

Major Additions: 2B Robinson Cano, 1B/DH/OF Corey Hart, LF/1B Logan Morrison, RHP Fernando Rodney

The 2014 winner of the Anaheim Pujols award for “biggest and most surprising splash of the off-season” goes to the Seattle Mariners for their signing of former Yankees’ second baseman Robinson Cano. For 10-years and $240 million dollars, it’s a sizable commitment by ownership, who presumably wouldn’t spend that much money on anything if they didn’t believe they could win.

At least, after years of losing and  asking for patience developing prospects, ownership know that they have no excuse to not be competing at this point. At the least for the first few years, there’s no doubt that Cano will be worth his money.

However, no 10-year deal in baseball, given to a 30-year old player, has ever been a good long-term value. Given the value estimate thrown around this off-season of $7.5 million/WAR, he’d have to be worth 32.0 WAR over the course of the deal to be considered a good value. With his value of 34.2 rWAR over the last five seasons, it’s probable (even presuming a probable decline) that Cano will achieve at least that over the next 10.

In addition to their 2B, management also signed Corey Hart to a one-year contract and traded for Logan Morrison, because apparently the team requires at least three probable 1B/DH types on the active roster. In seriousness, Hart and Morrison will likely each see some time in the outfield, given their almost impressive lack of depth there.

Hart spent all of 2013 on the DL with knee problems, but people forget how strong his bat has been – he’s a .276/.334/.491 career hitter (.824 OPS), averaging 26 HR per 162, with an above-average 117 wRC+ for his career. His defense is not so good, and as a presumably less mobile fielder after serious knee issues, if he plays as much RF as advertised, that could become a liability. However, given the strength of his offense (with no evidence yet of on-field decline), he has to be considered a pre-season favorite for the AL Comeback Player of the Year.

Logan Morrison, received in a trade from the Marlins for RHP reliever Carter Capps, has similarly suffered knee injuries over the last two seasons. He’s a left-handed bat, and has sat right at .707 and .709 OPS’s over the last two seasons. His only full season (2011) was stronger, posting a .797 OPS with 23 HR in 525 PAs.

He doesn’t hit for high average, but still manages to walk at a good rate. For his career, he’s a .249/.337/.427 hitter, averaging 26 HR per 162 with 108 wRC+. However, he’s never actually hit as many as 26 HR in one season because that’s just an average – he’s never been on the field for more than 123 games in a season. His defense, and staying on the field should be areas of concern for Mariners fans.

In an attempt to solidify their bullpen, Seattle signed former Rays closer Fernando Rodney on a two-year deal. His 2013 looked like a huge regression following his historic 2012 ERA (3.38 vs. 0.60, respectively), but other numbers show it wasn’t as significant a drop.

His K/9 actually improved, from 9.16 to 11.07. He did walk significantly more batters from year to year, from a sparkling 1.81 BB/9 to a more mediocre 4.86/9. Opposing batters’ BAbip regressed to a normal rate (from .220 to .298), and his change in FIP (2.13 to 2.84) shows a more conservative decline than the ERA presents. The significant areas of worry are the natural instability in closers, and his age (he’ll be 37 this season).

Offensive Potential

Impact Bats: 2B Robinson Cano, 3B Kyle Seager, OF/1B/DH Corey Hart, 1B/DH Justin Smoak, OF Dustin Ackley

Aug 29, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley (13) reacts after striking out during the seventh inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The obvious place to begin talking about the Mariners’ offense is with the aforementioned Mr. Cano. He’s the crux of the offense, and is as close to a sure thing as anyone.

He batted .314/.383/.516 with 27 HR, 7 SB and a 142 wRC+ in his final season with the Yankees, and he should be expected to continue a lot of the same in 2014. Outside of Cano, however, it becomes a little murky.

Corey Hart has probably the most past offensive production, and if he is healthy and matches past production, his power could make him a strong option for this club’s #4 hitter.

Hart is likely to split time between RF (with Michael Saunders) and DH (with Morrison). Morrison looks to backup both Hart and recent top-prospect Justin Smoak at 1B.

Smoak will be limited to the 1B/DH portions of that grouping, but is coming off of his best season (if still disappointing, given his pedigree), finally hitting 20 HR, with a .746 OPS and having a slightly above-average 109 wRC+.

His 76.9% contact rate is below league average, but he walks at a great rate and has the raw power to be an impact bat.

With a .260 BA last season, 3B Kyle Seager hit for the highest average of any Seattle everyday regular, outside of Kendrys Morales (AKA, of those still on the team).

He is currently the strongest of the “homegrown Mariners infielder” prototype (above-average walk rates, 20+ HR power, but an underdeveloped hit tool).

OF Dustin Ackley is another one of the former top-25 prospects who hasn’t yet maximized his potential. He’s been a decent regular for the last three seasons (including an astounding rookie season in 2011), but annually the question is asked if he’ll emerge as the All-Star player he was advertised as being when drafted.

He (and all of the above mentioned) have been dominating so far in Spring Training (see stats here). What’s a promising sign for the team is that the homegrown core has been importantly hitting for high average. If that trend continues in the regular season, we’ll see a much more competitive offense in Seattle than many are predicting.

Pitching Potential

Impact Arms: RHP Felix Hernandez, RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP Taijuan Walker, LHP James Paxton, RHP Fernando Rodney, RHP Danny Farquher

Feb 13, 2014; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez throws during team workouts at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Felix Hernandex, Felix Hernandex, Felix Hernandez. The King is the obvious ace and the biggest factor in the pitching success of the Mariners.

The team is thin in pitching depth (as I’ll mention below), so any scenario with a winning Mariners team in 2014 begins with Felix Hernandez pitching up to his ability. Basically, that entails at least 200 IP, to a low 3.00’s ERA or better (appropriate over FIP in this case because allowed runs is the desired measurement, regardless of the cause).

Also, because of the weakness of the defense on this team, he’ll need to repeat the high strikeout numbers from last season (9.5 K/9).

Behind Felix, there’s last season’s other ace, RHP Hisashi Iwakuma. He’s another guy who’s success is crucial this season, but is already hurting with a finger strain keeping him off the mound until late March. He is not expected to be ready for opening day. Last season, he provided 219.2 IP, a 3.44 FIP, and a 1.006 WHIP. Considering that no remaining starter pitched more than 90 MLB innings last season, I have no clue how the Mariners make up the difference if Iwakuma is unavailable for any lengthy stretch of time.

Behind those two, the team likely relies on two prospects, RHP Taijuan Walker and LHP James Paxton. Walker is arguably the top or 2nd best pitching prospect in baseball, and features both an elite slider and fastball.

In AAA in 2013, he pitched to a 3.62 FIP, with 10.05 K/9, but a less-sterling 4.24 BB/9. He has the potential to be a #1 starter, and made three MLB starts at the end of last season. Worrisome is that he already has also shut down until mid-March with shoulder soreness, so extra caution is being taken as he’s only 21-years old.

James Paxton has the potential to be a mid-rotation starter, and can reach as high as 98 mph on his fastball. However, his inability to consistently repeat his mechanics prevents him from staying there.

He reached the big leagues for four starts last season and performed well in his stint. The team might prefer to begin him in AAA, but with little depth in the best case scenario, and additional questions surrounding Iwakuma and Walker, they may not have much of choice.

Rounding out the rotation, Erasmo Ramirez will probably beat out Brandon Maurer. However, any opening day injuries to Iwakuma or Walker would result in the inclusion of both.

In terms of the bullpen, probable closer Fernando Rodney was already discussed above.

Outside of him, the one noticeably impressive arm from last season is 27-year old RHP Danny Farquhar, who struck out 12.77 batters per 9 IP, walked 3.56 per 9, had a 1.186 WHIP, and overall a stellar 1.86 FIP. He was the recipient of poor luck, however, and ended up with an ugly 4.20 ERA.

Farm System

Major Prospects: RHP Taijuan Walker, 3B D.J. Peterson, LHP James Paxton, LHP Luiz Gohara

Feb 20, 2014; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker (32) poses for a picture during photo day at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners’ farm system is ranked 25th by Baseball America, which is fair considering that it is relatively top-heavy system. #1 and #3 organizational prospects, Walker and Paxton, should easily graduate from prospect-eligibility this season, leaving the farm system a little more exposed.

As described above, both Walker and Paxton are definite rotation-quality arms, with Walker a potential #1 starter, and Paxton being a mid-rotation guy. This past off-season, Walker was the target of a lot of trade discussions focusing on Rays ace David Price, but nothing materialized out of that.

Outside of those two, there are two key prospects of note. 2013 first round pick D.J. Peterson showcased skills well above his assigned levels (short-season and low-A) in his post-draft season.

In 55 games, he hit .303/.365/.553 with 13 HR until he was hit in the mouth with a pitch, breaking his jaw and requiring surgery. He’s picked up in the same spot in Spring Training, and the injury seems to be behind him. Despite that he may require a move to first base down the line, watch for him to be a quick riser through the system.

Finally, LHP Luiz Gohara is a 17-year old starting pitcher with a fastball currently sitting 92-93, with the potential for more in the future. He has little command over his secondary pitches, but similarly to Dodgers’ prospect Julio Urias, he held his own against professional, older competition at the age of 16 (though not as spectacularly as Urias). VERY long term, he has a likely mid-rotation ceiling.

The Mariners’ system is not the same juggernaut it was the previous season, when Baseball America ranked it second overall in terms of strength.

It’ll be crucial for some additional lower-level talent to emerge this season to make up for the likely graduation of its top-level prospects. Otherwise, next season the Mariners’ system ranking could be even further down than currently.

2014 Team Phase: Cusp of competing