Seattle Mariners 2014 Outlook

Now that we’re into the second week of the Major League Baseball season, it seems like a good time to say something about the Seattle Mariners. I had a chance to watch them in spring training, which in additional to some statistical analysis and a good hard look at the roster and the disabled list, some things jump out.

First, we should quickly recap the last couple of years.  Two years ago, the Mariners began a major rebuilding effort, by bringing in a bunch of young players and focusing on developing them at the expense of being competitive in the current season. Conventional wisdom is that a positional player (i.e. everyone except the pitchers) needs about 1500 plate appearances before they fully develop their swing against major league pitching. A player who is in the starting lineup will get between 500 and 600 pate appearances in a full season (depending on injuries, PED suspensions, days off, etc) so we’re talking about sometime in the third year they hit their stride and we know what to expect pretty much for the rest of their career.

As expected, the new guys sucked in 2012. We were counseled to be patient; fair enough. They also sucked throughout most of 2013. So much so, in fact, that the Mariners manager, Eric Wedge, fell on his sword halfway through the season and resigned. By most estimations, very few of the new guys were on a path to mature into successful major league players. So much for patient rebuilding.

The winter brought new management, and a commitment to get much more competitive, much more speedily. So the back office cleaned house on the weak talent, went out to the free agent market and wrote some big checks.  The two big acquisitions were Robinson Cano, arguably the best second baseman in professional baseball today, and Logan Morrison, a high-strung, somewhat injury prone infielder previously of the Miami Mariners. They also picked up utility player Corey Hart, and closer Fernando Rodney.

Cano is the real deal. The other three are reasonably talented, with moments of glory separated by long periods of mediocrity. They are still an upgrade over the people they replaced.

The Mariners, like all teams, have advantages and disadvantages in building a team. A big advantage is that they are one of the richer clubs; they get a significant amount of revenues from broadcast rights in Japan (which is why you will always see at least one high-profile Japanese player on the roster). That lets them spend on expensive players like Cano.  They also have a double-edged sword in that Safeco Field strongly favors pitchers: the heavy sea air, the prevailing winds, and the large amount of playable foul territory all conspire to keep more fly balls inside the park and playable. Felix Hernandez loves that he gets to play half of his games in Safeco field; Cano, other the other hand, loves that he gets to play half of his games in other parks. Safeco Field is where batting averages go to die; Cano’s career stats will take a dive because of this move, and you can assume that was built into the fat contract he signed  (and why the Mariners were unable to land any other top hitting talent).

Because of all this, the Mariners’ strategy to win will always be grounded in their pitching staff. The top of the rotation is, of course, Felix Hernandez (aka King Felix).  He is 28 years old and at the top of his form. The patience management showed in not overplaying him in his early years is paying off now. I’ll write a separate piece on Felix; there’s too much to say here. He looked great in spring training, and he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch again this year.

Sadly, that’s the end of the “pure” good news.  The second arm in the rotation, Hisashi Iwakuma, had a fantastic 2013 — in fact by pretty much every measure, he pitched better than Felix. Not bad for a 32-year old — conventional wisdom is that pitchers peak around age 28-30, and then their skills start declining. Unfortunately, Iwakuma strained a tendon in his right hand early on in spring training (or in the offseason — this was never clear) and has been nursing it back to health.  He started the season on the disabled list, and if all goes well he should be back in the rotation at the end of April.

The big new name in the rotation is young phenomenon Taijuan Walker. He was brought up from the AAA team last September and impressed everyone in his major league debut.  Unfortunately, he also came into spring training injured — he is suffering from shoulder inflammation. The good news there is that his shoulder is now feeling better, he is currently doing a rehab assignment in the minors, and he should hopefully be back in the next couple of weeks. They are rightfully being super cautious with him because he’s very young and they want to get many, many years of top-flight pitching from him, but we’ll hopefully be seeing him in Safeco Field soon.

Erasmo Ramirez is a back-of-the-rotation pitcher who, because of the injuries to Iwakuma and Walker, is currently in the middle of the rotation. He’s very young, only 23, and really deserves more time to develop before being judged where he currently site. Nevertheless, he’s off to a shaky start in 2014, and we shouldn’t expect it to get much better.

James Paxton is a rookie starting pitcher, who also was called up last September but didn’t wow anyone. He was off to a good start this season, but yesterday strained a muscle in his arm and was placed on the DL This kind of injury, depending on the severity, could keep him out anywhere from a couple of weeks to months.

So that’s three starting pitchers on the DL. The hope is that by the beginning of May they will have Felix, Iwakuma and Walker all healthy and pitching at the top of their form. But right now it’s looking very ugly — they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for starting pitchers to get them through April.

And yet, somehow they swept the Angels in their opening series. Who’da thunk. It says something about the Mariners defense, and about their hitting, both of which have been decent.  The sample size is still very small, but so far the carryovers from last year are doing about what you would expect, Cano is hitting well (when they actually pitch to him — he has 7 walks so far), and the rest is a bit of a mix (again, too early to draw trend lines).

The guy to watch is Brad Miller. He’s 24, he was called up mid-season last year, and he spent all of spring training in a heated battle for the starting shortstop position against carryover Nick Franklin.  Miller completely, utterly dominated in spring training (and was great fun to watch), and easily won the starting job (Franklin got sent down to AAA, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets traded to the first team that needs a shortstop this year).  Miller still needs to work on his plate discipline (he’s struck out 11 times in 33 plate appearances s far in April), but he looks like the real deal. Keep your eye on him.

So to sum up: the pitching rotation looks like a hospital ward for the next month, but with a little luck by May things will be much better in that department.  The hitting is a definitely improvement over last year, but still with many question marks.  Of the handful of survivors from this winter’s great purge of the 2012 rebuilding team (Ackley, Seager, Saunders, Smoak), they will all be at 1500 at-bats or more by the end of this season. If they rise to the occasion, there could be a ton of upside in the 2014 Mariners. If they don’t, well, we can still enjoy watching King Felix pitch every five days.

Batter up!



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