The 2015 season is upon us, and people are bullish on the Mariners! No, really! They made the cover of Sports Illustrated! Felix and Robbie Cano, and they look really excited! Ok, so, to be fair, it was one of four REGIONAL covers (the Royals, Indians, and Nationals made the others), but the guys at SI seem to think the Mariners are the team to talk about in the West, and that’s real progress, people!

To review, Jack Zduriencik (most often pronounced “Zee”), has been widely criticized over the past several years for everything from his roster construction to personnel decisions, to the team lacking any discernible identity, to just plain old dysfunction. As Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh mentioned in their season preview podcast, the Jack Z Mariners have been all about defense and scrappiness, then all about home runs, then all about young players, and then all about Nelson Cruz, who went from being Omigodnotthisguy to being the splashy signing that just might put the Mariners over the top.

The 2014 Seattle Mariners finished a surprising 87-75, and almost made the playoffs. It’s kind of crazy (almost)! So, who exactly are these 2015 Seattle Mariners? Let’s take a peek!

Offense/Run Production:

The 2015 Mariners, as currently constituted, are not exactly primed to be an offensive juggernaut. They have lost one Justin Smoak and one Michael Saunders (who was pretty good!), and gained one Nelson Cruz. So if you’re looking strictly at WAR, that’s anywhere from a net loss of .3 WAR (Steamer) to a net gain of .9 WAR (ZiPS) if you’re looking at projections, or, if you’re optimistically (and perhaps foolishly!) expecting Cruz to duplicate or approach his 3.7 WAR from last year, a net gain of 2.1 WAR. That’s a lot of numbers and fancy talk, but I think we can call it a very slight upgrade in offensive production from last year, or just a wash. So what you have is basically the 2014 Mariners offense redux.

Let’s look at that offensive unit a little more closely. They were not tremendously offensively inclined. The team amassed an OPS+ of 95, good for 11th in the American League. They scored 3.91 runs per game, which also ranked 11th. They hit 136 home runs (10th), walked 396 times (14th), and turned in an on base percentage of just .300 as a unit. On a positive note, the team’s hitters were among the youngest in the American League, an average age of 27.6, which was good for 2nd in the AL. So there’s room for these kids to grow, right?

That said, these “kids” were led by elder statesman Robinson Cano’s 142 OPS+. He’s is a fine hitter, but Cano didn’t quite come with the power he’d shown with the Yankees, racking up just 14 homers, after hitting 27, 33, 28, and 29 the four years before. Kyle Seager was easily the team’s second best hitter, an All-Star and one of only three Mariners starters with more than 10 home runs, with 25 (Mike Zunino was the third, with 22), and a pretty nifty slash line of .268/.334/.454.

As for what we can expect for 2015, we’re left to look at the projections. ZiPS, Steamer, and PECOTA are all pretty good, but I usually defer to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections because a) they’re free and b) a deep dive into projections done over at The Hardball Times found ZiPS to have the lowest mean absolute error, albeit by a very, very narrow margin over Steamer and PECOTA.

If we’re looking at ZiPS projections for the Mariners’ offense, there are some reasons to feel pretty good about this squad! Cano, the team’s best hitter, isn’t projected to repeat what was a very good 2014, but looks pretty promising overall, with a .299/.363/.453 projected slash line and 17 homers, which is just outstanding for a middle infielder. Seager takes a slight step back in his projections, losing points in each part of his slash line at .261/.327/.430, and four fewer homers with 21. I personally like Seager to outperform his projection, because he’s improved slightly in every offensive category each of the last three years, he’s only 27 and just entering his peak years, and his BABIP was perfectly normal, even a little below league average last year. The newly arrived Nelson Cruz takes a big step back from his monster 2014, due in large part I’m sure to his cavernous new home park and that pesky marine layer. He’s projected to hit .250/.309/.458, which is a pretty typical Cruz line, and his 29 homers would easily lead the team. So not too bad, really!

ZiPS isn’t a big fan of Austin Jackson, projecting him to hit .245/.309/.360. Ditto Seth Smith, who comes in with a projected .245/.328/.396 and Mike Zunino, who the computers see dropping his long ball output to 17 and slashing an unimpressive .217/.279/.383. I’ll take the over on Zunino, who showed good power in his first full season, and could take baby steps forward with his approach at the plate. ZiPS does like Brad Miller to take a small step forward, projecting him to hit .249/.308/.382 with 12 homers, which is pretty good for a shortstop.

Ideally, you’d like Miller, and everybody else for that matter, to walk a little bit more, but making contact a la the KC Royals last year seems to be the favorite market inefficiency these days, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be aggressive. The 2014 Mariners were right in the middle of the pack in the AL in strikeouts, and swung at pitches outside the strike zone at a rate of 31.2%, which ranked 7th in the AL, so they’re not the Royals exactly, but not the Astros either. They seem reasonably ok at making contact, and you can expect that to likely be the case in 2015 as well, with the newly arrived Cruz’ strikeout rate coming in right around league average, a tick over 20%. If Cano and Zunino manage to somehow beat the projection computers, there’s the potential for the M’s to have four guys in their lineup top 20 homers.

Speaking of that lineup, you can expect it to look something like this, which they trotted out the other day in Spring Training:

1. Austin Jackson, CF
2. Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano, RF
3. Robinson Cano, 2B
4. Nelson Cruz, DH (Please DH!)
5. Kyle Seager, 3B
6. Logan Morrison, 1B
7. Mike Zunino, C
8. Dustin Ackley, LF
9. Brad Miller, SS

Starting Pitching:

This was undeniably the team’s biggest strength in 2014, leading the league with a dazzling 3.17 ERA (3.61 FIP, #5). They had a little luck, with a .275 BABIP, which is well below-average, and a Chris Young, whose 3.65 ERA went with a 5.02 FIP. Felix Hernandez pitched brilliantly, as always, striking out 248 in 236 innings, while walking only 46, and finishing with a glowing 2.56 FIP. Hisashi Iwakuma was also very good, pitching to a 3.25 FIP. Then there was Young, and the surprising Roenis Elias, who finished with a 3.85 ERA (4.02 FIP) in 163 pretty solid innings. Erasmo Ramirez was awful (5.38 FIP in 75 innings), but James Paxton was a revelation, with a 3.28 FIP in 74 innings.

Well, now it’s 2015, and Young is gone, replaced, ostensibly, by J.A. Happ, with the Mariners hoping for a repeat performance from Paxton, and banking on Taijuan Walker to finally have figured things out. Happ is an interesting guy here, because he can look brilliant in some stretches and putrid in others. He pitched to a kind-of-ok 4.27 FIP in 2014, and increased his ground ball generation by four percentage points, though it’s still only about 40%. There is some reason for optimism with Happ, though, in that his average fastball velocity spiked to 92.7 mph, which is a full 2.1 mph faster than his career average. There’s no obvious or even anecdotal explanation for this, so I’m left to assume it’s the result of several cases of Muscle Milk, and, I don’t know… Crossfit? But either way, a Happ that throws 93 mph is preferable to a Happ who throws 91, and anybody knows that. So maybe Mariners fans will be able to enjoy the new Happ!

So what do the computers think about 2015? ZiPS really likes Felix, to the tune of 217 IP, a 2.65 ERA, and a 2.70 FIP. That’s really good! Iwakuma comes in at 170 IP, 3.34/3.43. Also good! ZiPS is surprisingly bullish on Paxton, projecting a 3.82 ERA/3.87 FIP combo. As for Taijuan Walker, the machines see him as pretty good for a young guy, with a 4.06 ERA and 4.09 FIP, but he’s no James Paxton, which is a little weird considering Walker has been the better (or at least more hyped) prospect. The word out of Spring Training (which everyone will tell you means NOTHING!) is that Walker looks great, so maybe he’ll outperform his expectations. He was pretty good in limited action in 2014, and really good in three September starts, so maybe his success will carry over. His fastball averaged 94.2 mph, and got all the way up to 99.5, so there’s some life in the arm!

The rotation should probably go Felix, Iwakuma, Paxton, Walker, Happ, but Happ might get bumped up because of his experience, at least initially, and maybe to take some of the pressure off the young guys.

Bullpen:

The 2015 Mariners featured the league’s stingiest bullpen, which finished with a league-best 2.60 ERA and a 3.24 FIP, also #1. Tom Wilhelmsen put up the best numbers, with a 2.27 ERA and 3.74 FIP over 75 innings. Danny Farquhar was sharp, too, at 2.66/2.86 over 71 IP. Yoervis Medina seemed like he came out of nowhere to throw 57 very effective innings, at 2.68/3.45. And for all the talk about Fernando Rodney eventually turning into a pumpkin, he hasn’t thus far, pitching to a 2.85/2.83 line in 2014 over 66 IP. Now, we all know bullpens are volatile by nature, in season, and year-to year, but the Mariners at least have a strong foundation to work with. With the exception of Rodney, their relievers are all on the right side of 30, and they throw hard! Wilhelmsen and Rodney featured average fastball velocities approaching 95 mph, with Farquhar and Medina coming in just a tick below that, Farquhar just under 94 (93.4) and Medina just over (94.4). As for the projections, ZiPS likes Farquhar to still be really good, with a 2.94 ERA and 2.95 FIP, but is less bullish on Medina (3.58/3.82) and Rodney (3.26/3.29), and sees Wilhelmsen taking a big step back closer to 2013 numbers, with a 3.46 ERA and 3.83 FIP. The arms are there for another strong bullpen, but the Mariners will need a little luck to come close to the dominance they enjoyed in 2014.

Fielding:

The 2014 Mariners were a bit confounding when it comes to advanced fielding metrics, but then again, no one can seem to agree about the merits of those metrics, so maybe the Mariners were just average. The team finished with -10 Defensive Runs Saved above average (BIS Rdrs), but +27 Fielding Runs Above Average (Total Zone). We can either clarify or muddy the water by incorporating UZR, which showed the Mariners to have a couple pretty good fielders in Seager (+10.6 UZR), Ackley (+7.6), Chris Taylor (+4.4) and Brad Miller (+1.4), and a couple pretty bad ones in Robinson Cano (-3.9 UZR), Austin Jackson (-1.1). In 2015, the team will trot out Seth Smith in right field, and the numbers show he’s been over all pretty bad at that position over his career, getting low grades in part because of his relatively weak arm. He’ll likely be spelled on occasion by Justin Ruggiano, who the numbers indicate is at or slightly below average there. There is the off-chance Nelson Cruz could find himself in the outfield at some point, but Mariners fans will likely be hoping this will be not very often or at all. (He’s not very good there!)

At catcher, the Mariners look pretty good. The catcher framing numbers compiled by Matt Carruth at StatCorner really like Mike Zunino, rating him the second best framing catcher in 2014, rating him 22.3 runs above average in terms of pitch framing, ahead of noted framers Jonathan Lucroy, Hank Conger, and Rene Rivera.

Manager:

Lloyd McClendon seems like a pretty cool cat, and is generally liked by his players, and respected around the league as a baseball lifer. He says some old-school things, like he doesn’t like shifting, but he also seems ok deploying the shift to his team’s advantage. According to Baseball Info Solutions, cited in a Mariners Blog post, the Mariners had 9 defensive runs saved because of the shift, which was 7th best in the AL. In 2014, McClendon wasn’t a platoon guy. Lefties had 1053 plate appearances against lefties, and right handers had 1026 PA against righties. This spring, however, he has hinted at platooning Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks in Left Field. Then again, this was in early March, and if you read what McClendon said a couple times, you could convince yourself he only meant the platoon would be used during Spring Training, but who knows. As the article points out, Ackley really doesn’t have a platoon split, but Weeks does have a history of mashing right handers. McClendon also seems set up for a pretty obvious platoon with Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano in Right Field. Smith boasts a career line of .205/.291/.314 against lefties, with Ruggiano clobbering them to the tune of .266/.329/.508. It will be interesting to see how, when, or if he employs either of those platoons.

Bench:

Leading the charge off the bench is the ubiquitous Willie Bloomquist, who had a career-high 468 at bats… in 2009 with the Royals. He owns a perfectly serviceable career line of .272/.319/.346, which is fine for a utility guy, and useful he is, indeed, playing every position for the Mariners last year but center, catcher, and pitcher. He’s not going to knock your socks off, or generally the ball around the park, but he’s there, saying “Put me in coach!” The aforementioned Ruggiano, Weeks, and backup catcher Jesus Sucre will likely round out the bench, which isn’t deep, per se, but does seem flexible.

On the Farm:

A couple years ago, the Mariners had one of the top-rated farm systems in baseball, but virtually all of those prospects have now graduated to the big leagues, including Nick Franklin (gone via trade), Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer (gone via trade), Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, Stefen Romero, and even Carson Smith. That’s not to say that the cupboard is entirely bare. Likely the first big name to see the big leagues will be 1B prospect D.J. Peterson. He hasn’t exactly hit the cover off the ball this spring (.156/.171/.281), indicating he’s likely going back to AA for some more seasoning, but he owns a nifty .297/.360/.552 line over 495 minor league at bats, with 31 HR, so there’s some reason to be excited for his arrival, with hopes that he might soon fill the sucking void that has been first base for the Mariners. Behind Peterson is OF prospect Alex Jackson, who was quickly converted from catcher after being drafted 6th overall in 2014. He’s 6’2”, 215 pounds, and has the kind of bat scouts think will land him in the big leagues, possibly even on an accelerated schedule. After those guys, you get into utility infielder/4th outfielder/toolsy kid territory.

Overview:

The 2015 Mariners, as currently constructed, and barring catastrophic injury, appear to be in a good position to compete for a playoff spot. They have a strong pitching rotation with upside, and a strong bullpen that throws really hard. They have a capable manager, the makings of a decent bench, and potential to be very good.

Prediction: 91-71, 2nd Place in the AL West, and a Wild Card berth

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