It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning. For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper! We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat. This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal. It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.
76-86, fourth in the AL West
Last year’s Pepper
The Mariners always seem like one of those hidden gems. They are up in the Northwest, on late at night most times, and have one of the best pitchers in the game going for them. We should talk about them more than we do, it feels like. While Seattle will get plenty of play this summer when Ken Griffey Jr. goes into the Hall of Fame, will the team be able to make some noise of its own?
To answer that, we’re talking with two Mariners bloggers today. Megan Shear, making her Pepper debut this year, writes over at Section 331. You’ll find her on Twitter with the same handle (@Section331). Tim Chalbert is the old veteran hand, appearing in his fifth straight Pepper. He’s still writing at Seattle Mariners Musings and you can follow him on Twitter @msonmnd24.
C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?
S331: It’s hard for me to say, really; I felt we had a pretty decent roster for 2015, after we did so well in 2014, but they still just couldn’t really get it done. 2015 was a bit of a lackluster year. Jerry Dipoto came in and really did some housecleaning; I wasn’t too happy about the loss of Tom Wilhelmsen or Carson Smith from our bullpen, but we have Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek now (among a boatload of others, Dipoto really changed our relief pool), so I will be keen to see what they can provide us. Our weakness last year truly was our bullpen, which was a huge change from previous seasons. I also like the fact that Dipoto got Hisashi Iwakuma back, and at good terms for everyone. He’s a favorite, and when he’s healthy and pitching well, he’s absolutely magnificent. If he stays healthy, he does very well in Safeco. As far as our position players are concerned, I like the Adam Lind and Chris Iannetta signings, and Dipoto himself feels that Leonys Martin was his most important piece this year, so it will be fun to see what these guys can do batting in our marine air. I may also be the only Mariners fan happy about Nori Aoki. I don’t know if this will get us a division win, but we did need a roster shakeup, and that is what we got. I feel like our bullpen is a little stronger, and we have new bats to replace some that were lacking; if those can compliment what we already have in fact as well as theory, I will consider Dipoto’s first season here a success.
SMM: Yes. I mean, really, what did they not do? Jerry Dipoto hit the ground in a dead sprint. If anything the Mariners did too much, but I don’t think they did. The 2016 Mariners are flawed, but flawed in a way that could be masked by Safeco Field and west coast ballparks in general (lots of pitcher-friendly environments). It’s a welcome change from previous years where Jack Zduriencik’s obsession with power seemed like a square peg getting jammed in a round hole.
C70: Felix Hernandez is still the face of the franchise, but he had a “down” year (for his standards, not for most others) last year. Is there any concern that’s anything more than a bump in the road?
S331: No. I don’t have much to add to that, really. There were rumors he might have had some issue with a finger, and was trying to pitch through it, but they were unsubstantiated, and he’s had all offseason to recuperate. He’ll be fine.
SMM: Yes, though maybe concern is a bit too strong of a word. Felix took an unusual route to ace status. He got better as he lost velocity and has reinvented himself since entering the big leagues. Jered Weaver is a cautionary tale of what happens when a good pitcher loses too much velocity, even when they do not rely all that much on velocity. However, I think worst-case scenario Felix is still a dependable starter while being the kind of leader that helps Taijuan Walker blossom. That’s enough to continue to love on the King. It’s hard to put into words the deep connection between Mariners fans and King Felix. It’s quite honestly one of the few things that has been special about the Mariners in the past decade, but it’s very special.
C70: Who, beyond the obvious names, seems to have captivated the fan base’s attention?
S331: Boog Powell is getting a ton of attention, maybe more for his name than anything; but he is projected well for this next season (Steamer), and I expect he’ll probably spend some time up in Seattle here and there. I think he’ll win fans down with the Tacoma Rainiers (AAA affiliate, just FYI), and it will be fun to witness. I don’t know much about Dipoto as an organizational leader, but I really don’t want Powell rushed, which is something the Mariners have been kind of notorious about over the past 8 years. Given the nature of his time with the Rays, it would be nice to see a glimpse of him now and then throughout the year; maybe he serves as relief if one of our every day outfielders are injured, but I’m hoping he spends the majority of his time this year developing in triple A, with a September call up if all goes well. And I’m not tied to him even coming up here this year at all. Let him go nuts in triple A and make sure he’s good and ready for major league grass and dirt.
SMM: Does Kyle Seager count as an obvious name or not? He’s got to be the most anonymous $100-million man in baseball today. Seager definitely among the fan favorites in Seattle. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ketel Marte and/or Nori Aoki emerge as fan favorites in 2016. This is a hard question because of all the changes in the offseason!
C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?
S331: I would love to say Mike Zunino, but I fear that is probably not going to be the case, so my real answer is James Paxton. I just feel like 2016 is his year. He’s spent a bunch of time in triple A since we drafted him, and I had hoped last year would be the one, but he was injured and that hindered development; starting out the year with an injury seems to really slow the roll of some guys, and it’s pretty anticlimactic for fans. Waiting for a guy all winter and then having him sprain a thumb or stub a toe takes the momentum out of the year sometimes. But I really do think this will be Paxton’s breakout year. If he can get some work in on his contact rate and keep his pitches down further in the zone than they have been, he should be able to do well for us at a major league level. Taijuan Walker you don’t hear a whole lot about outside the city, but he is steadily making a name for himself, and he seems like a very level-headed athlete. He’s been a big deal in Seattle for a while, but he has the chops to be a nationally-known name. Just took a glance at his projections, and it would seem that statisticians feel the same way; several of them feel his WAR will go up significantly this year.
SMM: There are so many candidates because Jerry Dipoto targeted players who had bad seasons in 2015. I will go with Leonys Martin. His defense in center field should give him some time to find his stroke again, and he doesn’t have to hit all that much to be a quality starting center fielder.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?
S331: That’s always such a difficult call to make for me, and I usually don’t try. 2010 was supposed to be a big year for us, with Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins, and the new and at-the-time-supposedly-burgeoning career of Justin Smoak; and then we completely tanked, it was their second 101 game loss in three seasons, and the clubhouse almost literally imploded; we had two players (Eric Byrnes, Ken Griffey Jr) simply walk out of the clubhouse and never come back mid-season. It was a disaster. So I usually just go with that I’ll be happy with a .500 season. I see a lot of bloggers and press alike claiming a win column in the upper 80s, and just because I’m pessimistic, I’ll say we’ll be 3rd this year. I don’t know if I really believe that, but I usually aim low.
SMM: The Mariners will go 87-75 and finish second in the division, but earn a wild card berth to break the longest playoff drought in the majors at the moment.
C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?
S331: I used to really hate the Angels, but then they started getting easier to beat, and then it was the Rangers, and I’ve never really hated Oakland at all for some reason. The Astros have been an interesting surprise. They went from being a team I kept forgetting about to a team that is quite the opponent, and of course now that they’ve joined the AL they pose a far greater threat than they did when we only had to deal with them like once every two or three years. I’m a Mariners fan, but I’m also a baseball fan, so really I’m just hoping for my team to win, and I can accept the losses as they come, and I only hold my own team responsible for it. I’ll be a Rockies fan for two days in May when I go to Coors Field for a bit of a vacation. Most of the teams I truly enjoy beating can sometimes depend on the players on that team’s roster any given year. Where’s AJ Pierzynski? Atlanta? This year I will be happy to be against the Braves, but we don’t play them this year, so I’ll stick with the Astros in 2016. We had a 5-10 record with them last year, so it would be nice to improve that this season.
SMM: The Angels for sure, and it’s not even close. The abrasive red, the rally monkey, lucking into Mike Trout to keep the team afloat with all of their awful contracts, the whole “Los Angeles of Anaheim” branding trick…just so much to hate about that team. I predict the Mariners will beat the Angels by 20 runs every time they play. Some highlights will include another perfect game from King Felix and a 21-strikeout performance from Taijuan Walker.
My thanks to Megan and Tim for talking about the Mariners with us. They tend to be my go-to team for late night MLB.tv watching, so I’m hoping they’ll have another good year!