Playing Pepper 2018: Seattle Mariners

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Seattle Mariners
78-84, third in AL West
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

I don’t know why but I have a bit of a soft spot for the Mariners.  Probably because they had Ken Griffey Jr during the years when I was really getting into baseball (I remember having an article talking about him and the Cardinal rookie that was going to be making an impact–Todd Zeile.)  Then there was King Felix Hernandez, who was a dynamo right out of the gate. Plus there’s the whole cool color scheme and beautiful stadium.  There’s just not a lot of winning that has happened, at least not consistently.  We’ve got three great writers here to talk about whether winning will be happening in the Pacific Northwest this season!

Writer Site Twitter
Tim Chalberg msonmnd24
Megan Shear Section 331 Section331
Dave Nichols The Spokesman DNicholsSR

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Tim: Well, yes, the Mariners improved this winter, but this is the most depressing offseason I can remember in my quarter century of Mariners fandom. However, I will start with the positives first.

Ryon Healy will be a marginal upgrade over Danny Valencia and the couple months of Yonder Alonso we got after the trade deadline, at least assuming that this hand injury doesn’t linger all season. Healy has his own holes, notably in his plate discipline, but Valencia’s production was deceptively shallow. Juan Nicasio is an obvious upgrade as a free agent signing that adds bullpen depth. Dee Gordon is also an upgrade, though it’s hard to say how much of one with him switching to center field. He will hit more than the departing Jarrod Dyson, but time will tell if it will be enough to offset Dyson’s elite baserunning and defense. Gordon has the tools to be a great center fielder, but it’s one thing to have potential and another to perform. I’m rooting for him though because he seems likable and his abundant athleticism make him exciting to watch. His skillset on paper is a better fit in center field than second base or shortstop. I’m surprised nobody tried moving him earlier. He isn’t all that different from Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton, who started out as a shortstop in the minors and only transitioned to the outfield in the high minors before he stuck in the majors.

With all that said, it sure doesn’t feel like the Mariners improved. This entire offseason boiled down to whether the Mariners would get Shohei Ohtani or not, and they did not, but even worse the hated Angels acquired him. Then, on top of that, the defending World Champion Astros added Gerrit Cole. It’s hard to imagine the Mariners leapfrogging either the Angels or Astros next year, or for the next 3-5 years, or maybe even longer since the Mariners have the worse farm system in all of baseball according to Baseball America. The Mariners already have the longest playoff drought in all of North American Sports and after the way this offseason went it feels like whatever shimmer of hope was snuffed out, then dowsed again to make sure that there is no trace of hope. The baseball gods have forsaken the Emerald city.

Megan: Not really? Sort of? I’m not sure, to be honest. After hearing some news coming out of camp so far, it seems like Dee Gordon has easily made his transition to the outfield, and then of course we got Ichiro back. And while I’m not super confident that Ichiro will add a lot to the advancement of the team, it’s nice to have him back in a Mariners uniform. Since I only started being really involved with the game about 11 years ago, Ichiro is basically my Ken Griffey Jr, or my Edgar. I’m getting the chance to see him play in Seattle for at least another year, which is something I didn’t think would happen when he left back in 2012. So in a way, to me, they have improved, just because he creates such a huge buzz wherever he goes, and if you’re a Mariners fan, sometimes all you really have is that concept of the worst day at the ballpark being better than the best day anywhere else.

Dave: The club might have improved — marginally — over the winter with the addition of Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy, but it needed to do much more. With a staff full of injury concerns, the M’s didn’t make a move for pitching, though there were bargains to be had – and still are. And there’s no power in the outfield whatsoever. The Ichiro reunion tour is a cute sideshow for what will probably be another .500 season give or take.

C70: There are a couple of former Cardinals on your pitching staff. What do you think you’ll see out of Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales this year?

Tim: Leake and Gonzales will both log over 100 innings for the Mariners next year. I expect Leake to lead the Mariners in innings pitched and entrench himself as the borderline ace of the staff. He performed remarkably well after the August trade, and I know he won’t be quite so good, but the only pitcher better than him on this staff is James Paxton and he is yet to come close to pitching a full season uninjured. Leake’s hittable, strike-throwing style is not sexy, but it plays up in a big park like Safeco Field with the rangy outfield defense that the Mariners can field as well. Leake is a great fit here and I am excited to see a full season of him.

Marco Gonzales will remain a lightning rod for controversy in Seattle because the guy the Mariners gave up, Tyler O’Neill, was a prospect many a Mariners fan fell in love with. Those biceps! The thunderous power! He was fun to follow in ways that Gonzales is not. Moreover, Gonzales did not show well in his month or so with the Mariners last season but I see what Dipoto sees in him. He throws strikes and is aggressive with his fastball early, commanding it fairly well. His changeup flashes as a true strikeout pitch when he gets ahead in the count, and word in spring training is that he has also added a cutter into the repertoire. Gonzales will make this team though and log significant innings, probably as a swing man.

Megan: I have to admit I’m not familiar with Marco Gonzales. I just looked up his numbers on FanGraphs, and it seems like he is still super new even to the game, and certainly to the majors. Unfortunately I didn’t get to many Rainiers games last year (it is a slog through bad traffic between Seattle and Tacoma, and not an easy haul to make frequently), but his numbers look alright for the two(?) games he played last year. Looks like he was with the Cards for the majority of the year? He’s still young, so I guess we’ll see. Mike Leake, on the other hand, seems really excited to be here, and appears to be projected well for the upcoming season. Another thing about being a Mariners fan, it’s nice to have players who actively want to be in Seattle. We’ve been down in the basement for so long, an enthusiastic player is something people really glom onto.

Dave: Leake is still in his prime and finished strong last season so I expect he’ll provide his normal 30 starts with serviceable peripherals. I’m not sold on Gonzales. He seems like a two-pitch guy with only one real plus pitch, his changeup. Still, the M’s are going to give him every opportunity to stick in the rotation. And they really don’t have much of a choice at this point.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Tim: I think people may overlook how decent the starting rotation is. There has generally been hand-wringing over the lack of pitching moves after the atrocious season that M’s starting pitchers had last year. However, nobody would have survived last year’s incredible barrage of injuries. There were two separate stints last year where ALL FIVE pitchers in the opening day rotation were injured at the same time. Yovani Gallardo easily paced the team in innings pitched despite breaking camp as the mop up man in the bullpen! Nobody is going to look good when they go with starters 6 through 10 for extended periods of time. The Mariners rotation will be significantly better this year even if only two or three pitchers in their rotation miss several months. That’s a low bar to clear and I have faith that they will. Mike Leake is also essentially a new pickup for 2018 given how late the Mariners acquired him in the 2017 season so he makes me feel even better about the staff.

Megan: I don’t know how to answer that, really. I think people have us pegged for the most part; we have a bunch of really fun players but for whatever reason that gear just hasn’t clicked into place. We’ve come really close in recent years, but no dice. A lot of fans probably can say this about their teams, but I feel like we have a lot of guys who really love the game and love playing here, and who genuinely love the fans. I sometimes feel like outsiders think that it’s just gloomy and awful to play for and be a fan of the team; but that’s just not the case. For myself, the game is priority; the Mariners are just the icing on that particular cake. They work hard, they’re engaging, and their fun to watch, even if the season goes poorly. We still support them. 

Dave: I touched on it earlier but the rotation is paper thin with the injury-prone James Paxton and Felix Hernandez as its anchors. Paxton is a No. 2 on anyone’s staff but has yet to make more than 24 starts in a season. Felix, still a fan favorite, is an old 32.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Mariners to do well?

Tim: I would say Felix Hernandez at this point. If he can stay healthy and productive then the starting rotation looks pretty solid. Paxton, Leake, and Hernandez are a top 3 that works with the offensive and defensive talent the Mariners possess. King Felix does not have to be a Cy Young candidate again, but 25-28 quality starts in the 6 inning, 2-3 run range would go a long way for this ballclub.

Megan: I have two answers; Felix Hernandez and Mike Zunino. Felix spent a lot of last year in a bad situation with injuries and sub-Felix performances, and now he’s out again with an injury from a line drive in a game the other week. We may see someone else rise to take his place next to James Paxton, but right now I really just want to see him come back to being better than last year. He won’t be 2009 Felix again, and we all have to live with that, but I want to see him back to at least at 2011 Felix. Mike Zunino has slowly been working his way up to being a hard-hitting catcher, and he and Felix work well together at the plate, and we have never really had a catcher that can just wail in a long time. I think if both of these things can happen this year, we might come out alright.

Dave: It’s Felix. He’s slotted as the No. 2 behind Paxton and after Leake at No. 3 it’s a collection of question marks, never-weres and soft-tossers. If Felix can’t give the Mariners 25 competent starts this year they won’t come anywhere close to competing.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Tim: I think the Mariners end up 78-84, third in the AL West behind the Astros and Angels. I could also see them slipping behind the Rangers and maybe even the A’s.

Megan: I am terrible at this, so I’m not going to even try. Mostly, I just hope for a winning season. I think that it’s great that people want to try and guess what will happen, and I know that’s part of the numbers game, but I have been too optimistic and been let down too many times to want to play with that kind of fire. I’d be happy if we came in second in the AL West; but I also know we have some very heavy competition there, and getting past the Astros is a high bar. That doesn’t answer your question, really, but that’s the way I approach the game and the team; supportively and cautiously.

Dave: This is a .500 ballclub. There’s enough hitting with Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager to make things interesting on occasion. Dee Gordon will be fun to watch running around the bases and flopping around in center field. But the rotation is one injury away from nightmare status and there’s not a single pitcher that has “upside” written on him. They needed to buy a starting pitcher during the off-season.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Tim: You should have asked “will the Mariners innovation off the field turn into wins in 2018 and beyond?” The Mariners hired a couple women, which in itself is unfortunately radical. However, in particular, Dr. Lorena Martin is overseeing player health and training and has some radical ideas as far as baseball is concerned. She has talked about mandatory days off for everyone and different models for managing pitchers that are optimal for health and performance. One of the most intriguing concepts is minimizing the traditional starting pitcher role and going with what Lookout Landing calls “the wolfpack.” The basic concept is that a starting pitcher would go to the mound only trying to get through 4 or 5 innings, then a pitcher or two come in to throw multiple innings, and an overpowering closer finishes off the game. In theory this approach would limit high pitch counts while also allowing a pitcher’s stuff to play up more because of the limited endurance needed. There is some thought that Nicasio was specifically signed because of his starting background, which would suggest he is just fine being used in multiple inning relief outings. Both Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales, likely candidates for the back end of the M’s rotation and long spots in their bullpen, profile similarly well. The whole staff makes a little more sense if some version of this strategy will get deployed by Scott Servais in the regular season. The Mariners are in that .500 limbo range where every little edge counts, especially now that the second wild card is a path to the playoffs. If different training can make the team play 2% better (or something like that, and I know that’s a very abstract way to think about this) then maybe this team reaches more of an upper end estimate of their true talent, which lives somewhere in the low to mid-80s for a win total. That’s a record that keeps the Mariners in the playoff hunt into September, or certainly long enough to rationalize some trade deadline acquisitions that could further push the team over the hump.

Megan: You probably would not have known to ask it, but “What’s up with the Maple Grove?” would have been an excellent question. The answer is: Team Fun. A handful of us started the Maple Grove cheering section early in the season last year, during a game James Paxton started against the Jays. I don’t know what happens in St Louis on the probably rare occasions you face Toronto, but here in Seattle, fans in BC get on tour buses and come down in droves. My friend Daniel and I started making Hunter Pence-style signs as a harmless joke two years ago to troll the Canadian fans, and that turned into “reclaiming” Canada during this Paxton start last year (Paxton is from British Columbia). More of our friends got into it (other fans on Twitter, basically), and then the team helped us out by providing a Japanese maple tree in whatever section we sit in (usually left field bleachers), and now we have a Twitter account to announce the section prior to the start, and fans come and take pictures of the tree and our banner and get their “Eh” cards, designed by our gal Hillary (who also made the banner we hang behind us). Paxton himself seems to really dig it, and win or lose, we just hang out, make up chants, invite people to chill in our section, and have a good time at the ballpark. It’s a rowdy but friendly atmosphere, and everyone is welcome to join. Go Mariners!

Dave: Is this the year Dan Vogelbach sticks in the big leagues? Probably not, since the M’s acquired Healy to play first. But Vogelbach is still only 25 and has plenty of power so even if they stash him again he’s the in-house replacement for Cruz at DH when Cruz’ contract expires at the end of the season.

It’s going to be an interesting year out west and it would be surprising if the Mariners at least don’t play some role in it.  My thanks to everyone for giving us some thoughts about the club!

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