Sea Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .438 (26) 95 (16) 109 (22) 119 (29) -99 (29) -73 (30) -7 (22) 84 (21)
2014 .537 (12) 94 (17) 95 (9) 71 (1)  -11 (19) 8 (10) 2 (11) 107 (17)
2015 .469 (19) 100 (8) 108 (20) 107 (25) -60 (29)  -30 (26) -23 (29) 126 (15)

 

Seattle missed an opportunity to capitalise on a weak American League field in 2015, finishing fourth in perhaps the most wide-open division in all of baseball. They didn’t get particularly unlucky – their third order winning percentage was only 2.5 wins higher – and were never above .500 all season, reaching a high point of 24-24 at the end of May and losing nine of their last 11 to ensure they finished tied for the third-worst record in the AL. The Mariners didn’t wait until the final month to call an end to Jack Zduriencik’s tenure as GM, firing him at the end of August and bringing in former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto just before the season ended.

Dipoto certainly didn’t waste any time after becoming Mariners GM; as SI’s Cliff Corcoran pointed out, the Mariners actually made the most moves of any team this offseason, with 17 new players coming in and two re-signed. Despite all this, it’s hard to actually remember one move that really jumps out, and perhaps that’s because Dipoto didn’t feel the Mariners needed a big move. BP’s Rian Watt demonstrated that, given that the Mariners’ core was actually fairly productive in 2015, what Dipoto did was to turn over almost all of the other roster spots, bringing in higher-strikeout and more homer-prone arms, and lower-strikeout hitters with less power but better defensive skills; moves which, as Watt concluded, look a lot like playing to the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field. Let’s see what that’s done to the team’s projections for 2015:

PECOTA Projection: 84-78, 4.25 RS/G, 4.09 RA/G

BaseRuns Projection: 82-80, 4.29 RS/G, 4.21 RA/G

Best Projected Position Player: Robinson Cano, 4.7 BP WARP; Kyle Seager, 3.8 Steamer WAR

Best Projected Pitcher: Felix Hernandez, 3.1 WARP, 4.5 WAR

PECOTA projects the team that Dipoto has assembled to improve enough to be in the mix for a wild card spot at 84 wins, but lagging behind the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Yankees. Fangraphs’ BaseRuns projection is marginally less optimistic, but still enough that a small amount of luck would be enough for wild card contention.

The effect of Dipoto’s incremental upgrades is that there isn’t a single particularly flashy or exciting move to point to, and the roster doesn’t look all that impressive. First base is a good example: PECOTA sees a combination of new acquisition Adam Lind, Jesus Montero and Shawn O’Malley covering the position, which is not a lineup that one might describe as spectacular. Lind’s projection is passable – a .746 OPS with a .276 TAv – but hardly the kind of production that would even be considered average at first. It seems like a particularly harsh line from PECOTA, especially considering he’s been hovering around a .300 TAv for each of the last three seasons, largely due to the fact that the Blue Jays and Brewers both knew better than to let him get many at-bats against lefties. The left-handed slugger continues to be significantly above-average against right-handed pitching, but has one of the most extreme platoon splits in all of baseball, with a career TAv over 100 points lower against southpaws. If Seattle continues to deploy him as a platoon-only bat, it’s reasonable to think he’ll hit a little better than that projection, even going into Safeco. Unfortunately, Lind doesn’t have any value outside of his performance against righties, as he’s also a poor defender at first and doesn’t add anything on the basepaths. Oh, and he’ll turn 33 this season – we’ll come back to this.

If Lind is largely platooned, Montero figures to get much of the playing time against left-handers. This would be fine if the former top-10 prospect had even approached the level many expected him to reach with the bat, with the kind of promise that led to BP Annual comments about his ability like “spectacular, Roy Hobbs-shattering-the-clock power” (2009), which would have been all the more notable if he’d even been able to make a passable impression of a competent catcher. Sadly, Montero has not only failed to stick behind the plate, he hasn’t made an impression in the batter’s box: a .693 career major league OPS is less Roy Hobbs and more Yuniesky Betancourt. Now 26 and out of options, Montero needs to translate at least some of that promise into genuine production with the bat, because he isn’t going to add any value with the glove or running the bases either.

In short, the Mariners have one player who can’t hit lefties and one player who might not be able to hit at all playing the position where the offensive bar is the highest. However, the bar for ‘better than last season’s Mariners’ is much lower: Seattle first basemen combined to hit .235/.301/.401 last year, tied for second-worst in the majors. We shouldn’t expect first base to be a standout position for the team, but perhaps not standing out as terrible will be enough in itself. The same can be said for the outfield and especially catcher, where topping Mike Zunino’s negative WARP should hopefully not be a challenge, even for Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger.

The core quartet of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez are all still projected to be significant contributors, but even here there are significant questions. Seager is definitely the least-heralded and perhaps the most consistent. He’s an above-average hitter with a great glove, making him a very dependable 4-5 win player in the prime of his career. Hernandez had his worst season since 2008 in 2015, now has well over 2000 major league innings on his arm, and will be celebrating his 30th birthday when he takes the ball on Opening Day.

With nine straight seasons of at least 156 games played, Cano can stake a claim to be one of baseball’s most durable players, but he failed to impress in his second season in Seattle, with both his strikeout and walk rates going alarmingly in the wrong direction. The metrics indicate that his defense also took a turn for the worse, and even if Andy Van Slyke’s assertion that Cano was the “worst defensive second baseman ever” in 2015 was slightly overblown, it’s not a good sign that Cano’s glove is already rating below average. He was still worth 3 wins by WARP, so the Mariners didn’t pay $24 million for nothing; only eight more years to go.

Cruz, by contrast, made suggestions that his power might not play as well in Safeco look laughable, as he blasted 44 home runs, the highest total of his career. The 35-year-old keeps getting better as he gets older, which is not a trend you’ll see on many aging curves. Thus far, Cruz hasn’t given anyone reason to doubt his bat, and Dipoto’s moves should give him the opportunity to play DH much more often, both reducing his injury risk and significantly improving the Mariners’ outfield defense. Nevertheless, depending on players who will soon turn 36 is not a long-term strategy, and that brings us to the fact that, as is abundantly clear from looking at the roster, this team is not youthful.

At 22, Ketel Marte sticks out like a sore thumb in the projected starting lineup; he is six years younger than Kyle Seager and Leonys Martin, and at least ten years the junior of each of the other six. Those six – Cano, Cruz, Lind, Nori Aoki, Seth Smith and Iannetta – will all be at least 33 by mid-season. Hisashi Iwakuma and Franklin Gutierrez are also part of that club, as are relievers Joaquin Benoit and the team’s elder statesman, 40-year-old Joel Peralta. A lot of hope for the future appears to rest on Marte and Taijuan Walker, who has lost some of his top prospect sheen but showed flashes of brilliance in 2015. At 23, Walker still has plenty of time to develop into a top-tier starter, although the Mariners probably need him to do so sooner rather than later to be serious contenders.

Just as this season’s Mariners look very different outside the core, Dipoto’s approach means that there’s a pretty good chance that the 2017 team will be completely different again. Wade Miley and Steve Cishek are the only players acquired who are guaranteed money for 2017, with Iwakuma, Smith and Iannetta all signing deals with club options for next season, Aoki holding a mutual option, and essentially every other deal being of the one-year variety.

Despite not committing to many players, the Mariners still have the 5th-largest payroll for 2018, and even if they end Miley and Iwakuma’s contracts early, they will be paying that core a total of $92.5 million two years from now. This might be less of an issue if there were a lot of promising contributors in the farm system; unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Baseball America just ranked Seattle’s minor league system 28th, the third year in a row it has been in the bottom six. BP’s outlook wasn’t any better, leading off their top ten prospect list with this depressing assessment: “Seattle’s pitching depth is nonexistent and there’s as little talent in the upper minors as in any system.” Top prospect Alex Jackson was almost impossibly awful in 28 games in the Midwest League last season, posting a .453 OPS. His upside isn’t gone, but the outlook is a lot less rosy than when he was drafted. The graduates haven’t been much better of late, most notably Montero and first-rounder Zunino. Like Montero, Zunino was touted as a potentially elite hitter for the position and instead has whiffed his way to a .605 OPS in 1055 MLB plate appearances, courtesy of a 32% strikeout rate. He’ll start the season in the minors. All of this is a long way of saying that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of help on the way for the Mariners.

It’s easy to see a scenario in which Seattle does at least get a wild card spot in 2016: Cano and Hernandez rebound to more of their career norms, Seager and Cruz continue doing what they’ve been doing, Walker takes a step towards becoming a front-line starter, and the upgrades around the edges drag up many of the other positions from dreadful to around average, vaulting the win total into the mid-to-high eighties. A lot of teams don’t have a core with this kind of extensive track record of performing at such a high level, and it certainly sets a baseline which is particularly useful in the era of the second wild card.

It’s also not difficult to see how the Mariners could fail to impress both this year and in the coming seasons: if Cano really is a 3-win player instead of a 6-win player, or 2015 was just the start of the decline for King Felix, or Cruz’s bat does finally slow down, there’s clear potential for the team to be stuck with an incredibly expensive core and hardly any valuable cost-controlled talent, giving them little room for manoeuvre. The short-term deals mean that Dipoto hasn’t committed a lot, but much of the payroll was already committed several years in advance when he arrived, and if things don’t break right this year, it will be telling to see if he adopts a similar approach next offseason. I think the Mariners will improve, but they won’t improve enough: 80-82, with a lot of difficult questions to be asked next winter.

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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