JJ Keller is a true-blue Seattleite and Mariners fan; Louie Opatz has recently arrived to Seattle and is a depressed Twins fan. The duo began an email correspondence in late January — picture that Keanu Reeves movie where he writes letters to dead people or is dead himself I don’t know I never saw it — about the 2017 Mariners season as Louie asked what to expect and J.J. gave the lay of the Mariners’ land.
Louie: Hey, JJ. I’m a newly arrived Seattleite, part of the gentrifying horde depending on your once-cool Seattle to homogenize it and smooth its distinctive edges. My invitation must have been lost in the mail — no sweat!
As a new arrival, I’m bringing my old baseball allegiances — in this case, the abysmal Twins — to a city with its own, slightly less crappy team, the Seattle Mariners.
As Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan pointed out, Dipoto has made 35 trades in under 16 months at the helm — including 11 trades in the last 11 weeks.
My point is, J.J., that though this team is entirely new to me, it’s also going to look pretty new to you, I’d wager. This mess of trades has reshaped the starting lineup: Jean Segura‘s your new everyday shortstop; Danny Valencia will be half of a platoon with Dan Vogelbach at first; Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger will be patrolling 2/3 of the outfield; and Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo will (one hopes) help strengthen a shoddy pitching staff.
That’s a lot of turnover!
Steamer projects the M’s to have three good hitters — Robby Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager — and one 200-inning pitcher, King Felix. To my mind, the pitching looks more frightening. There are a lot of question marks and a lot of discouraging signs (*cough* Felix has thrown 2,415 innings *cough*) in that rotation.
But hey: I’m not the expert. I’m the newbie.
As a seasoned vet, what are your first impressions of this revamped roster and what do I need to know as an incipient Mariners fan?
JJ: Hey, Louie. There’s definitely been an obscene amount of turnover, not only this offseason, but stretching back to 2015 when Jerry Dipoto took over. Upon first glance those 36 trades may seem excessive — and they might be, to be honest — but after about seven years of Jack Zduriencik (long enough for me to memorize how to spell his name), most of which were lousy, I think many fans were open to change. Those teams were full of old, slow, power only guys, and the farm system was left pretty thin. Jerry had good reason to shake things up.
That said, not all of the trades make total sense on their own. My opinion is that Dipoto seems a bit too willing to overpay in order to get a deal done, or get his guy. None of the trades appear to be total highway robbery, but if you dig into surplus value and the like, he’s likely to get the short end of the stick a lot of the time. I’ve often compared him to Dwight Schrute in the episode of The Office where they have a garage sale, and Dwight is determined to trade his way up to the best thing by the end of the day.
Maybe he just values these guys differently (many of them are from the previous FO), but it just feels like he is almost too willing to make trades. But, it also means he has a plan and a vision and wants to execute it.
It’s pretty clear that the theme has been speed, defense, and youth, which certainly includes Segura, Dyson and Haniger, as you mentioned, along with Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia. The team has five players capable of playing center field, a far cry from the Zduriencik days when we were lucky to have one. Last year’s offense was second in baseball in wRC+ behind only the Cubs, and the pitching staff wasn’t terrible despite dealing with a lot of injuries. It makes a lot of sense to supplement the core of Cano, Cruz and Seager with some more athletic players, and I think the hope is that Jean Segura regresses a bit less than some expect, and can be a nice 3+ win shortstop to complement that core, and that Dyson, Haniger and others help round things out.
As you said, the pitching certainly has some downside to it. Felix has not been the same guy the last two seasons. Iwakuma is 36, his performance declined, and while he managed 199 innings in 2016, he’s usually a good bet to land on the DL at some point. Gallardo has a solid history, but we’ll have to see whether he can bounce back and stay healthy.
That leaves a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the two lefties — James Paxton and Drew Smyly. Paxton has always had talent, but has had trouble staying on the field (there’s a theme taking shape with this rotation). Last year, after starting the year in Triple-A, he really came on strong, was throwing high-90s from the left side, and posted 3.5 fWAR in just 121 innings. If he’s healthy, he could be the new ace.
Smyly — who seems to the favorite acquisition of many fans — has great K/BB numbers, but can’t keep the ball in the park, and has also had some health concerns. The upside is there, but he’s maxed out at 2.2 fWAR because in years when he is healthy, he hasn’t pitched as well as years when he has hit the DL.
Overall, this looks like a team with an above average offense, above average defense, and an average pitching staff that seems to stand a good chance of at least competing for a wild card spot.
But I think what I am most impressed with is that Dipoto has managed to make the roster a bit younger even as he is in “win-now” mode. He didn’t go out and sign a bunch of 32 year olds to 5-year deals (he seems to hate free agency, in fact); instead, he added young, controllable players. There may not be a star in the bunch, but he has done a good job of making a competitive roster now without totally wrecking the future.
In terms of what you need to know: the team really needs to win now. As much as Dipoto was able to not totally wreck the future, the core is still aging, and an already weak farm system wasn’t helped by all these trades. The realistic window seems to be this year and next year before there needs to be at least a soft rebuild as Cruz and Iwakuma come off the books and Cano and Felix enter their mid-30s. But who knows, Dipoto has surprised us many times so far. Maybe he’ll do it again.
Louie: OK JJ, I’ve been dragging my feet because I don’t want to be rude, but I think it’s time. We need to talk about Felix.
I took a few screenshots that I’ve attached. Again, I’m not trying to start anything.
I’m new here so I don’t know the rules. Are Mariners fans allowed to talk about Felix’s 2016 season? Or is it the elephant in the room that M’s fans politely ignore? (I’m picturing the “This is fine” meme.) Apologies if I’m breaking an unwritten rule here.
I only bring it up because this pitching staff doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, and if Felix is irrevocably broken, the Mariners may be in big trouble.
JJ: I actually think there’s been more Felix dialogue than you might expect, and most seem to have pretty tempered — if not pessimistic — expectations. I haven’t seen anyone who expects Felix to be the prime, 6+ WAR version of himself, but I also don’t think he needs to be.
Jerry Dipoto said the other day in a media event that “The demise of Felix Hernandez is being grossly exaggerated.” Obviously he isn’t going to come out and say “Oh yeah, our ace is toast,” but he sounded almost angry at the idea that he’s done because of a bad year. He went on to say that they felt his biggest issue was the injury, more than the performance. I’ll have to disagree with that a little bit, as he also had an xFIP of 4.45, but if he had managed his normal 200 innings, his season does look a little bit better.
The velocity drop is a concern, but he’s been losing velocity for a while, as the chart shows, and it hasn’t really been too big of an issue; he’s been able to adjust almost every time, and who knows how much the injury issues factored into that as well. He is certainly going to have to be a different pitcher than he had been in the past, but that’s doesn’t mean he can’t be successful.
The bigger issue seemed to be a lack of command, and maybe a bit less movement. Whereas Felix can normally locate the fastball in the zone and then work off of that with curveballs and changeups in the dirt, hitters began laying off of that, and waiting for him to miss with a 90 MPH fastball. He generated his lowest O-Swing rate since 2009, along with his highest Zone Contact rate since…ever. That’s not a good combo, and he will need to figure out how to adjust.
The “best shape of his life” meme is obviously pretty dubious by this point, but by all accounts, Felix is putting in a ton of work this offseason. He started working out with the guy who trains Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano, who goes by the name of “Iron Glenn,” and that has resulted in many Instagram videos showing what appears to be an angry Felix Hernandez.
Previously, Felix had more or less set his own schedule and had his own routine, and some comments from the new FO and coaching staff seemed to indicate they didn’t think he was doing enough. That might make sense for a #1 starter in his mid-late 20s; not so much for a 31 year old who’s beginning to struggle. While, as I said, fitness only goes so far, we aren’t talking about Justin Smoak or Jesus Montero here. We are talking about a guy who only a couple years ago was among the best in the game.
Ultimately, I don’t ever expect to see vintage King Felix again, save for a few flashes here and there. But I do think a steady, 2.5-3 WAR season is well within reach if he figures out what adjustments he needs to make, and executes them. If it was anyone else I would likely be more pessimistic, but Felix has already evolved so much over his career, and is coming from such a high peak, that it’s not too hard to imagine him being an above average starting pitcher again. James Paxton may be the new ace of the staff, so if Felix can settle in as a nice number 2, along with the reasonable 3-4-5 and solid depth that they have, the rotation would be okay.
Louie: I’m glad you brought up James Paxton, because it does feel like so much of the 2017 Mariners hinges on whether, at age 28, the late bloomer has truly blossomed into a top-of-the-rotation guy.
The first two things that grab my attention when I look at Paxton’s BR page are two seemingly incongruous facts: (1) Paxton is, as I just said, 28 years old — while still retaining the feel of a high-upside, “this year will be his year” fantasy breakout-type profile — and (2) he has thrown a grand total of 286 major league innings. After starting in the minors last year and making “a minor mechanical tweak,” as beat reporters always so lovingly call it, Paxton was back up and blowing smoke.
Paxton’s fastball averaged 96.7 miles per hour, according to Pitchf/x, the third-fastest average fastball by a starter in the majors last year, which helped the Canadian log a career-high 121 innings with 117 K’s and 24 walks on his way to a 3.79 ERA, 2.80 FIP and 3.85 DRA. That’s pretty damn good!
Paxton also had an abysmal .347 BABIP, the second-worst mark in the league among pitchers with 120 IP or more. The BABIP should dip down, I’d think, after the Mariners bolstered their defense, adding Dyson, Haniger and Segura to a team that posted the 25th-highest Fielding Runs Above Average in MLB last year, a -18.8 number, per BP. This year’s team projects for a 59.2 FRAA, according to PECOTA, an almost incomprehensible gain. That augurs well for a downturn in Paxton’s BABIP & ERA and a helpful boost to the Mariners pitching and run prevention in general.
PECOTA projects a 40-point drop in BABIP for Paxton and a 50th-percentile projection of 159.2 IP, 3.64 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 151 K’s and 49 walks — plenty good, but is it good enough? Paxton, Felix, Drew Smyly and Hisashi Iwakuma all project to have solid seasons buoyed by an airtight defense, though there’s a gaping, Yovani Gallardo-sized hole in the 5th spot. Oh, and the four starters not named Yo are not exactly trustworthy, now are they? Injuries abound, let’s say.
But I’ll tell you this: filling a spacious Safeco with a fast-as-hell outfield, a sure-handed infield and a fantastic pitch-receiver in Mike Zunino can sure paper over some pitching deficiencies. Those deficiencies better not include any injuries, however, or one of the Dillon Overton/Robert Whalen/Ariel Miranda triumvirate will be thrown into the mix. There may not be enough defense in the world for that.
I’m probably being over-pessimistic, though; every team save three or four can’t handle pitching injuries without throwing a similarly sad back-end at the issue. If that’s the Mariners’ biggest issue, they should be in good shape.
JJ: I hesitate to place too much of the burden on any one player, but it does feel like Paxton is as important as anyone this year. After not even making the team out of Spring Training, he worked with Tacoma’s pitching coach Lance Painter and dropped his arm slot — he had previously been very over the top, and now works closer to the three-quarter slot. As you alluded to, that change allowed him to start throwing even harder than before. That, combined with a new wipeout cutter and above-average curveball had him looking like a true #1 at times last year.
He does give up some hard contact more often than you’d like — his 33.1% hard contact rate is a couple ticks above the league average of 31.4% — so that might suggest he will continue to run a slightly higher-than-average BABIP. How meaningful that is is unclear, as there are a few guys that give up even more hard contact than him who are really good pitchers (Danny Duffy and John Lackey, for example) and guys who allow less hard contact who are much worse pitchers (like Christian Friedrich and Bud Norris). Plus, if he keeps running a K/BB near 5, it won’t really matter either way, and the shiny new outfield defense should help his BABIP as well.
I think — and this is just speculation — that Jerry and Co have some kind of information that suggest that either 1) outfield defense is underrated and/or 2) that building the team to the park, rather than trying to beat it like Zduriencik did, can help them outperform their projections.
The rotation is the biggest question mark on this team, but that isn’t due to a lack of depth, in my opinion; Jerry made it a point to go out and acquire enough pitchers that he can fill another starting 5. They obviously aren’t great pitchers, but few teams have great pitchers hanging out in Triple-A.
The issues, in my estimation, have more to do with a lack of top-end talent. Even though I think Felix will bounce back some, this team doesn’t really have an ace right now; Paxton has a chance to fill that role. If he does, Felix, Iwakuma, Smyly and Gallardo can all fall in line behind him, and (assuming reasonable health) the rotation should be okay, with the upside to be pretty good. An okay rotation with an elite defense and above average offense could make for a really nice team.
Louie: All told, it’s hard to gauge the Mariners too intensely with all their moving and shaking. But, with Cano, Cruz, and Seager, they do retain one of the best 3-4-5 trios in the majors and have significantly upgraded their defense at a park that requires good gloves. No matter what, this year’s team should be fun to watch. You’ve got Jarrod Dyson, for God’s sake!
I’m having a hard time coming up with a good conclusion. But this seems as good as any.