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Seattle Mariners 2016 Preview and Prediction

Robinson Cano

Robinson Cano

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Perhaps more than any team in baseball, the 2016 Mariners are an unknown entity. New general manager Jerry Dipoto has completely overhauled the mess left behind by Jack Zduriencik. The Mariners of 2015 — a chic sleeper pick to make the World Series — were a disaster. Dipoto has changed more than 50 percent of the 40-man roster he inherited, trying to put together a team that features more athleticism, better defense, fewer strikeouts and more walks at the plate and more strikeouts and fewer walks from the mound. He kept the elite core of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager in place and believes the new pieces around them could lead to a more consistent level of production. But that may not be enough to win a difficult American League West division.

Rotation

If healthy, the Mariners’ collection of starting pitchers is as good any in the American League. The rotation is led by Hernandez, who enters his 12th season in the big leagues. He had a down season by his standards, going 18–9 with a 3.53 ERA in 2015. Hernandez’s numbers were torpedoed by four forgettable starts in which he allowed 32 runs in 14 innings pitched. For about 10 days, it appeared the Mariners had lost Hisashi Iwakuma to the Dodgers in free agency. But a failed physical led Iwakuma back to the Mariners on an incentive-laden one-year contract. It was an unexpected bonus for the staff.

Dipoto had already executed his contingency plan in acquiring Wade Miley from the Red Sox via trade. Much like his stuff, Miley’s numbers aren’t eye-catching. But the Mariners love his durability and four straight seasons of 190 or more innings pitched. But it’s the trio of young starters — righthanders Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns and lefthander James Paxton — behind the veterans who could make the rotation special. After some early struggles to start his first full big league season, Walker went 10–3 in his final 20 starts with 3.62 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 126.2 innings pitched.  When he’s healthy — which hasn’t been often — Paxton has the potential to be top-level starter. He’ll compete with Karns, who was acquired from the Rays after a solid rookie season, for the No. 5 spot.

Bullpen

Seattle had one of the worst bullpens in all of baseball last season. Leads weren’t safe, and one-run deficits were turned into blowout losses. As part of the roster overhaul, Dipoto changed virtually the entire bullpen. Only left-handed specialist Charlie Furbush will be back from last year’s group. In the search for consistency and predictability from a position that offers little, Dipoto traded for 38-year-old Joaquin Benoit from the Padres. Benoit, who has not posted an ERA over 2.40 in his last three seasons, will fill the setup role. The Mariners filled out the bullpen with a slew of free agent right-handed pitchers coming off down seasons, including Steve Cishek, Justin De Fratus and Evan Scribner. Cishek will take over as closer and says the mechanical issues that cost him the closing job with the Marlins have been fixed. After being used in multiple-inning situations with the Phillies last season, De Fratus will move back to a one-inning relief role.

Middle Infield

Cano has played next to six different shortstops in Seattle, and none of them was good enough to assume the everyday job. It appears Ketel Marte may be the exception. Just 21 years old last season, Marte took control of the job after being called up on July 31. A switch-hitter and an aggressive baserunner with plus speed, Marte batted .283 with a .753 OPS in 57 games with 14 doubles and three triples. Cano had a miserable first two months of the season, hitting .251 with a .639 OPS while dealing with stomach issues stemming from an offseason infection. From June 1 until the end of the season (107 games), Cano hit .303 with a .843 OPS, 22 doubles, 19 homers and 63 RBIs despite playing the final 58 games with a double hernia. He had surgery in the offseason and should be ready for spring training.

Corners

Following his philosophy of looking for players who get on base, Dipoto went out and acquired Adam Lind from the Brewers to handle the first base duties. Lind hit .277 with a .360 on-base percentage last season. Lind mashes right-handed pitches, batting .291 with an .883 OPS, 24 doubles, 20 homers and 77 RBI against them last season. He is a logical platoon candidate. But the Mariners aren’t certain which right-handed hitter they might pair with Lind. Jesus Montero could be that player, but there are questions about his ability to hit MLB pitching and his defense at first base. Seager was his typical productive self in 2015, hitting .266 with 37 doubles, 26 homers and 74 RBIs while playing elite defense at third base. He had some struggles with runners in scoring position at times, but the Mariners believe he pressed a little after signing a seven-year, $100 million contract last offseason.

Outfield

The group should be better defensively than in 2015, when there were times when Mark Trumbo was in left field and Cruz was in right. Seattle acquired the speedy Leonys Martin to be the everyday center fielder. Martin is a plus defender with an outstanding throwing arm. His inconsistency at the plate cost him a starting job in Texas. Nori Aoki will see the bulk of his time in left field but also fill in for Martin in center on days when a tough left-handed pitcher is on the mound. Dipoto loves Aoki’s approach at the plate, with his career .353 on-base percentage and ability to hit left-handed pitching. Seattle will employ a platoon in right field on most days with Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez. The left-handed-swinging Smith hit .255 with an .801 OPS vs. right-handed pitching last season. After missing the entire 2014 season while adjusting to an arthritic condition called ankylosing spondylitis, Gutierrez flourished as a part-time player. In 59 games, he hit .292 with a .974 OPS, 11 doubles and 15 homers.

Catching

Chris Iannetta hit .188 last year for the Angels in 92 games. It was one of the worst seasons of the veteran’s career. And yet, the Mariners would have happily taken that .188 batting average and .293 on-base percentage that came with it. That’s how bad Seattle’s catching was last season. Last season’s everyday starter — Mike Zunino — is expected to spend most of 2016 in Class AAA trying to rework his swing. The acquisition of a starting catcher from a slim free agent market was one of Dipoto’s main offseason priorities. He signed Iannetta to a one-year, $4.25 million contract, believing the veteran will return to his more normal form, specifically his career .351 on-base percentage. Backup Steve Clevenger offers a good compliment as a left-handed hitter.

DH/Bench

Cruz prefers to play in the field, but the Mariners’ everyday lineup will be best when he’s at the designated hitter spot, particularly from a defensive standpoint. Cruz had a brilliant first season at the plate with the Mariners, hitting .302 with 44 homers and 93 RBIs. The Mariners won’t have many position battles in the spring, but utility infielder will be a competition between Luis Sardinas, Chris Taylor and Shawn O’Malley. Sardinas has the edge as a switch-hitter and a natural shortstop. 

Management

Scott Servais has never managed a game at any level. He’s worked in an assortment of capacities in baseball and shares the same philosophies as Dipoto, which is why he was hired to replace Lloyd McClendon. Servais, a former big league catcher, has assembled a coaching staff featuring plenty of managerial experience to help him with in-game mechanics. Bench coach Tim Bogar is a long-time minor league manager, while third base Manny Acta has managed 890 big league games.

Final Analysis

With so much roster turnover, it’s hard to project what the Mariners can be as a team. They should be more consistent with better defense and an overall improved approach at the plate. But Dipoto acquired many players coming off down years in the hopes that they would return to previous form. It seems unlikely they will all have bounce-back seasons to push them to an AL West title.

Prediction: 4th AL West

Lineup

LF Nori Aoki (L)

SS Ketel Marte (S)

2B Robinson Cano (L)

DH Nelson Cruz (R)

3B Kyle Seager (L)

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RF Franklin Gutierrez (R)

1B Adam Lind (L)

C Chris Iannetta (R)

CF Leonys Martin (L)

Bench

OF Seth Smith (L)

1B Jesus Montero (R)

C Steve Clevenger (L)

INF Luis Sardinas (S)

Rotation

RHP Felix Hernandez

RHP Hisashi Iwakuma

LHP Wade Miley

RHP Taijuan Walker

LHP James Paxton

Bullpen

RHP Steve Cishek (Closer)

LHP Charlie Furbush

RHP Joaquin Benoit

RHP Justin De Fratus

RHP Evan Scribner

LHP Vidal Nuno

RHP Ryan Cook