Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team. It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams. We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well. Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.
On July 1, the Mariners sat a half-game out of first place. Some of the underlying numbers made it feel that success wasn’t completely sustainable and, from that point on, the team went 35-42 to slide out of contention. Never one to be content with sitting still, Jerry Dipoto again shuffled things around and now the Mariners are set on the path to rebuilding. Is that the best path? We’ve got some folks today to tell us just what they think of the direction this team is heading.
C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?
Tim: I like this offseason, and strangely enough, I am more excited for the Mariners now than I was at the end of last season, even though the roster is clearly worse. I was worried that the brain trust would make some last gasp efforts to hold on to an aging core that got lucky to win as many games as they did last year, and still finished comfortably behind a pair of division rivals. A path to contention was virtually impossible to see, and I was preparing to watch this current iteration of the Mariners die a tepid, monotonous death.
Dipoto changed the narrative in a hurry, as has been well documented. This is not the place for a full breakdown of all the trades, but I will say that I generally like the deals, and definitely appreciate the change in direction of the franchise. It does not feel great letting go of a vast majority of the 2018 roster that brought joy (specifically James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, and even likable role players like Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia), plus a Hall of Fame talent like Robinson Cano (though he had a decidedly mixed 2018), but it was therapeutic to see the team I root for actually face reality. 2018 felt a whole bunch like 2007, when Seattle rode a negative run differential to 88 wins. The ’07-’08 Mariners were convinced they were a couple pitchers away from true contention, so they traded Adam Jones for Erik Bedard, and signed Carlos Silva. The moves didn’t work out, to say the least. You can look up just how badly it worked out if you are the type that enjoys schadenfreude. I’m thankful the ’18-’19 Mariners didn’t go the same route. I suppose that is a very low bar to clear, but when you are approaching a quarter century without a postseason appearance, I guess you take what you can get. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. This offseason will not drive me insane, and I appreciate that.
Corey: I think the path they chose, to rebuild, was really their only course of action. With payroll at an all-time high in 2018, with an aging roster and a handful of immovable contracts WITH the rest of the league’s top teams showing no sign of slowing, it made sense to rebuild. I know some scouts have told me they didn’t land a real IMPACT guy, but I think they acquired a lot of interesting high-ceiling guys who could aid their rebuild.
Dave: Lots of turnover. It had to be done, but the 2019 edition of the Mariners is going to be tough to watch at times. I think the Paxton deal was pretty good, the Segura one not as much. I still think they’ll move Edwin Encarncion, Domingo Santana and Mike Leake and perhaps Mitch Haniger at some point in the season.
C70: Justus Sheffield was obviously the stand-out name in the James Paxton deal. Does he start the season in the bigs and what kind of year do you think he’ll have?
Tim: Sheffield will start the year in AAA Tacoma, but I should mention that I am biased as a Tacoma season ticket-holder! I really want to see him up close early in the season. However, with all honesty, the Mariners development mantra is “control the zone,” which for hitters means plate discipline, and pitchers means throwing strikes. Sheffield’s walk rate is a bit high and I think the Mariners would rather work on his command in Tacoma before giving him regular time in the majors. I also think they will have an easier time managing his innings if they do this too. I don’t know what kind of year to expect out of Sheffield, but if I had to guess now I think he will get 12 starts or so in the big leagues, all in the back half of the season (predominately August and September.) I would anticipate inconsistency, but some flashes of brilliance. In my head I see him looking a bit like Brandon Morrow or Roenis Elias did very early in their Mariner careers.
Corey: I think Sheffield starts the season in Triple-A but we could we see him soon. The Mariners have mentioned his name as a guy who could piggyback off of one of Yusei Kikuchi‘s short starts. I think they’ll watch his workload and use this season as a year to get him assimilated to the big leagues. I’m really curious about this guy. I’ve seen projections that he’ll be a No. 2 anywhere to a No. 4 or even a reliever.
Dave: I don’t think Sheffield starts in Seattle – unless there’s an injury in spring training (cough Felix cough) to open the door. There is no “AAAA” starting pitching depth in the organization so he’s likely the first call-up when necessary.
C70: If there’s one under-the-radar player that could come up big this year, who would it be?
Tim: There are several candidates here, largely because I think you could make the argument most everyone on the Mariners beyond Mitch Haniger would qualify as “under the radar” at a national level right now. With that said, I will go with what I hope is more interesting answer than some younger, unproven player that asserts himself, and say Dee Gordon. He will be back at second base where his glove is definitely better than center field, and without a doubt he will generate some highlight-reel plays. More importantly, Dee tried to play through a foot injury the second half of the season and he really shouldn’t have. In the first half of the season he had a .326 BABIP, and in the second half a meager .263 BABIP, which I would argue was largely caused by his bum foot (his career BABIP is .338.) You can go across the board and see how Gordon’s stats nosedived most everywhere and he suffered through the worst season of his career. He will bounce back and assert himself as solid everyday player and be among the league leaders in stolen bases. Honorable mentions for under-the-radar player go to Domingo Santana and Ryon Healy.
Corey: I don’t know if he’s under-the-radar, but I think Kikuchi can have a sneaky-good year. I think his stuff will play well at this level and he can attack hitters on each side of the plate. I think the slider will play, too. They will watch his workload, but it should be a lot of fun every fifth day when he pitches.
Dave: Shed Long is an interesting power/speed prospect the M’s picked up in a three-way deal with the Yankees and Reds. It seems like he has many of the same tools they gave up in Josh Stowers, but plays second base rather than the outfield.
C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?
Tim: I expect the Mariners to lose 90 games and “battle” with the Rangers for last place in the AL West. The Astros are still the class of the division. The Angels and A’s will battle each other for second place, and I can see them battling each other hard enough to knock each other out of wild card contention.
Corey: I think this is probably a 73-75 win team. The bullpen is an area that probably still needs some work. That area was such a plus for them a year ago and a big reason why they were good so early. I think they finish fourth, ahead of the Rangers.
Dave: Jerry Dipoto has once again built a .500 ballclub, trying to remain interesting at the MLB level while restocking the system a bit. It’s not a contending team, but shouldn’t lose 100 games like some feared when Dipoto started trading away just about everything that wasn’t nailed down.
C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?
Tim: The biggest question is how many more veteran players will the Mariners trade off, and what will they get in return? There has been chatter around the Mariners shopping Mike Leake, Kyle Seager, and Edwin Encarnacion. I bet at least one of these players will be dealt between me writing this answer for Playing Pepper and it getting published. Hunter Strickland and/or Anthony Swarzak will close out ballgames and may emerge as bullpen arms that could be dealt at the trade deadline. Tim Beckham might become available if/when JP Crawford becomes the starting shortstop. I am sure Jay Bruce and/or Dee Gordon could be acquired at the right price. Ryon Healy generated some interest even as he struggled last year, and as first base prospect Evan White works his way ever closer to the majors Healy could look more and more expendable. Jerry Dipoto loves his trades and the stage is set for plenty of activity as the season unfolds. In the end, I predict about a quarter of the players on the Mariners opening day roster (so 5-7 players) will get traded during the season. It’s impossible to say where they will go and what the Mariners will get in return, but in general I predict that they will be traded for prospects in the upper levels of the minors with relatively high basements and low ceilings. These new prospects will take the place of other prospects in AA and AAA as those players get promoted to fill the holes created by the trades.
Corey: Will the rotation hold up. They got big years out of Wade LeBlanc and Marco Gonzales and will need that again. Mike Leake is going to give you innings. I think Kikuchi will be fine. The fifth spot is there for Felix Hernandez to win. I honestly can’t say what happens there. Also, the bullpen is still a question for me. The Hunter Strickland signing (with three years control) was nice. They might not be done there.
Dave: Was Justus Sheffield worth trading James Paxton for? And is Mallex Smith a legitimate long-term MLB solution in center field? Only playing time for both will tell the answer.
C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?
Tim: For me personally I will get the most joy out of the roster churn for the M’s AAA affiliate the Tacoma Rainiers, because I go to more of their games (I live in Tacoma). I anticipate a handful of prospects – specifically Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, JP Crawford, Braden Bishop, and Evan White – logging time in AAA, plus the oddly satisfying return of Dustin Ackley on a minor league deal. However, at the MLB level, I am a sucker for Dee Gordon’s style of play. The analytic side of me understands how empty his slap-hitting, aggressive batting style is, but watching him run and constantly put the game into motion is aesthetically pleasing. I could also see touching farewells for Ichiro and Felix Hernandez as the season unfolds.
Corey: I think it’s Kikuchi and also the young players, Sheffield, J.P. Crawford, Erik Swanson (part of the Paxton deal). Also, it’s always fun to watch Mitch Haniger hit. I don’t think this guy has reached his ceiling yet.
Dave: It will be fun watching Yusei Kikuchi adjust to American baseball and big league hitters. And hopefully Felix Hernandez finds something left to contribute in his final season with the Mariners.
My thanks to this group for thoughts on the Mariners. (An aside: this might be our most “press-heavy” Pepper, with Corey at The Athletic and Dave covering both the Mariners and the Spokane Indians for The Spokesman-Review.) No matter what happens, things are never going to get stale in Seattle!