Western Front reporter Evan Elliott writes his thoughts on this past and upcoming season.
This year was our year. Coming into the season we had everything it takes to go and win the World Series – solid starting pitching that includes a bonafide ace, dominant bullpen arms, and (finally) the wherewithal to score runs. It seemed we were destined to snap a postseason drought that has lasted since 2001. This season has ended and the postseason drought still remains. All the aforementioned traits of the now clearly overly hyped Seattle Mariners squad of 2015 are gone and replaced with question marks.
So where to begin? And where do the Mariners go from here?
The organization started by hiring a new general manager in Jerry Dipoto after firing Jack Zduriencik in late August. Dipoto is a former major league player who went into the front office side of baseball following his career. He is known as an “analytics guy,” meaning he obsessively analyzes players’ stats in order to compare and evaluate the performance of these players. This should be a welcome change for Mariner fan. Dipoto has stressed he will be looking for athletes, and the type of players that meet the challenges of playing at Safeco Field.
That leads to the many question marks on the Mariners depth chart, top to bottom, that Dipoto will have to address.
Up the Middle
It’s commonly agreed that good baseball teams are built up the middle. Meaning that catcher, second base, shortstop and centerfield are tremendously vital positions to have shored up. One can argue we don’t have an answer to any of those positions.
Yes, in the short term second base is under control with our $240 million man Robinson Canó. But is it really as much of a given as you think? Canó is enduring arguably his worst statistical season as an everyday player as he has notched his lowest totals in hits, runs batted in, batting average, on base percentage and on base plus slugging since 2008. This goes without mentioning the fact that he has lingering concerns about his health, having been dealing with a sports hernia since July that will require surgery in the offseason. Canó will also put up his highest strikeout total of his career this season, having waved 107 times.
How about catcher? The answer is Mike Zunino, the first overall selection for the Mariners in 2012. Zunino was rushed to the big leagues in less than a year and the ramifications of that decision can be seen in his career batting average that sits at .193. I still believe that Zunino can be the catcher we all hoped he would be, but Dipoto will at the very least need to bring in a veteran to catch in 2016 to give Zunino the time he was robbed of to develop in the minor leagues. Top free agents for catcher include Detroit’s Alex Avila, Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Atlanta’s A.J. Pierzynski.
Shortstop and centerfield present some of the more interesting questions for the club. The second half of the season saw 21-year-old rookie Ketel Marte emerge onto the scene and become one of the bright spots for the Mariners. He has speed, switch hits and gets on base but you’re still not sure what you’ll get out of him in a 162 game season.
At centerfield there’s another young, intriguing talent that just so happened to be the opening day starter at shortstop. Brad Miller has done the bulk of the centerfield duties since the dealing of veteran Austin Jackson at the trade deadline, and has looked athletic out there at best. Miller has a very strong arm and always looked a little skittish at shortstop, but his bat is too loud to ignore and he needs to find a spot somewhere in the lineup next year. But, Mariners fans know the dangers behind putting an infielder in the outfield to try and keep them in the lineup (I’m talking to you, Dustin Ackley).
Moving away from the middle of the field, the Mariners have Kyle Seager locking down the hot corner at third base and Nelson Cruz in right field as well as designated hitter – from there, it’s more questions.
In this instance, my biggest question mark is what to do with Franklin Gutiérrez. Yes, I know that first base is an epic shrug fest of who the guy should be, but with Gutiérrez the negatives and positives are balanced so perfectly imperfect that it should be seen as one of Dipoto’s biggest decisions. Gutierrez will be 33 next season and had such poor health that it’s a small medical miracle he managed to play in 2015 – and play he did. Gutierrez hit 15 home runs in just 59 games, three homers less than his career high that came in 153 games of work. Still that doesn’t alleviate my concerns about his age and health, which makes his ability to play everyday questionable. Regardless, I think it can be a low risk/high reward situation – he will be a free agent and he needs to be brought back.
The other main question of outfielders is what to do with Seth Smith. Smith doesn’t fit the mold of the athletic team Dipoto seeks to build, but he still enjoyed a serviceable season as he was third on the team in doubles. I wouldn’t be shocked if he is moved, but could see him back with the team in a similar role he played this season.
Then comes the final spot for position players: first base. Jesús Montero is going to be another of Dipoto’s huge decisions, and if he’s not an opening day starter I don’t think he’s in a Mariners uniform. Then there’s Logan Morrison who had an average year at best, and Mark Trumbo who seemed to catch fire as he got comfortable in Seattle after being traded by Arizona. I don’t anticipate all three being on the roster come opening day, and think Trumbo seems to be the favorite to play there next season as the roster stands. But still, not a lock.
Usually this is a spot where the Mariners shine. For years we lost 3-2 and 2-1 games, allowing outing after quality outing by a starting pitcher to be wasted by a pedestrian offense. Our offense is relatively set with producing runs, the problem is defensively in run prevention. Preventing runs is also what needs to be addressed this offseason by our pitching staff, the first time this problem has been present in a long time. The earned run average for the club ends at 4.18 compared to the 3.17 mark put up last season. The starting pitching situation isn’t as worrisome as the bullpen, but you’re still not sure what to expect in 2016. The King was inconsistent most of the season as he finishes with his worst earned run average since 2007, his third year in the league. Aside from Félix, the only pitcher to stay healthy was Taijuan Walker and he showed flashes of greatness as well as reminders that he still might be a year away from being really good. From there it gets a little dicey with Roenis Elías, James Paxton and Vidal Nuño rounding out a rotation projection for next season. With no real possibility for a starter to emerge from the farm overly soon, I anticipate Dipoto going out and adding at least one starting arm this offseason. The biggest need for renovation comes in the form of our imploded bullpen. This is one of Dipoto’s largest tasks, no team can contend with a bullpen blowing as many games as this years’. Build a quality bullpen and the Mariners should be set in the short term.
The other of Dipoto’s largest tasks is restocking the empty cupboard that is a farm system. Yet, there are reasons to be excited for this next season. The Mariners should feel as if they can bring in pieces here and there to patch up those problems that doomed the team this season. The American League West will send two teams to the postseason this year and yet you have to like the possibility for a turnaround.