Seven Players That Could Make or Break the Mariners’ Season

ZiPS and Steamer projections have just been released, and the ZiPS projections have something very exciting for Mariners fans. While ZiPS has the Astros winning the AL West with an 88-74 record that tied the Red Sox for the American League lead, it has has the Mariners squeaking into the playoffs along with the Yankees with 82-80 records. If we can take ZiPS’ projections with more than a grain of salt, then the Mariners have very little margin for error if they are serious about making the playoffs. In baseball, much can go wrong that isn’t under your control. There’s dumb luck with injuries, sequencing of all sorts (game schedules, opponents, etc.), and just plain luck. Dipoto and Co. will have to do the best with what they have, and to be frank, what the Mariners have won’t blow anyone away. Besides Felix. Felix will blow people away.

Dipoto spent the offseason revamping the roster and the farm system to better align with his (and the front office’s) philosophical and analytical views. He shipped off fan favorites including Brad Miller, Roenis Elias, Logan Morrison, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Mark Trumbo. Haha, just kidding. About Mark Trumbo, that is. He was no one’s favorite. He wasn’t even his own favorite. For all I know, his nickname was the Rusty Trumbone/Trombone. Anyways, that’s besides the point. Dipoto made a lot of moves! Some were more questionable than others, but for the most part, they make sense with the direction this organization is moving towards.

When Jack Zduriencik first began his tenure as the M’s GM, he made it a point to initially build his team around pitching and defense. As for the offensive side, it was all about on-base percentage, Moneyball style. Jack Z was good at his job! He had people like Tom Tango and Tony Blengino in his ear, and they obviously were saying good things. He acquired Guti (among other players) for very little, and the M’s started winning more. Then they started losing, he abandoned ship (swan dive style), and changed his whole philosophy. Gone were Tango and Blengino. Gone were defensively savvy players. To save you a ton of time, Z went away from what was effective and started sacrificing defense for dingers. This meant more players like Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez, and less players like Franklin Gutierrez and Brendan Ryan. It was all about #dingers, as far as he was concerned.

What Dipoto is doing now is very similar to what Zduriencik was doing early on, and that isn’t said to scare you. He was called Trader Jack for a reason, up until a point. Safeco Field is spacious, which means we should try to take advantage of all of the space we have, and the thick marine air. Not muscle home runs out of it. Dipoto has been very vocal about that. Getting on-base, pitching well, controlling the zone, and playing good defense are imperative to these new Mariners. That may sound like a ‘duh’ statement, but Z clearly didn’t operate this way in his last few years with the Mariners.

The following players have the potential to be the most volatile and have the biggest range in their output and performance this upcoming year, in my opinion.

Chris Ianetta

Chris Ianetta is about as statistically inconsistent as it gets. Although most years you can expect him to be at least average offensively, he’s had years in which he’s far above average, as well as far below average. Last season he hit 20% below league average, according to a metric called wRC+ (weighted runs created plus). Heading into the spring, he stands to be the team’s starting catcher.

A stat and method in its relative infancy is pitch framing. The thought is that the better a catcher frames and manipulates what a pitch looks like, the more strikes he will “steal” due to an umpire calling a ball a strike. Likewise, it also prevents umpires from calling a strike a ball. That difference can be the difference between striking out a hitter in a 3-2 count, or walking said hitter (and many other combinations of outcomes). Due to pitch framing being somewhat in its infancy analytically, the metrics aren’t exactly reliable yet.

That being said, in 2015, Ianetta ranked fifth in the MLB in RAA (runs above average) with 14.4, ahead of Zunino’s 12.4 RAA. That’s good. In other years, however, he’s ranked -5 in RAA (2014) and -15 RAA (2013). How could he go from terrible to one of the league’s best? Volatility in pitch framing analytics, good coaching and hard work, luck, a combination all of all three? Who fuggin’ knows?

Chris Ianetta is going to be a lefty masher and be a solid defensive catcher. That’s more than we can say for Mike Zunino. Behind Ianetta we have Clevenger, who looks like he’s pretty darn meh.

This now concludes the most information you have ever, and will ever, read about Chris Ianetta in your life. Onto Leonys!

Leonys Martin

In 2014, Leonys Martin was one of the most valuable center fielders in the MLB. In 2015, he was one of the worst center fielders in the MLB. How is that? Well in 2014, Martin hit 11% below league average, which for a center fielder isn’t too shabby. It’s passable for sure. In 2015, Martin hit 50% below league average. Almost as bad as Mike Zunino in 2015 (who was atrocious). Yet in 2015, he still was worth 0.5 WAR due to his ever so consistent defense. Martin may not be what Franklin Gutierrez was in the early 2010s for the Mariners, but he’s sure close.

Leonys Martin dealt with a wrist injury during the 2015 that ultimately led to him getting his hamate bone removed in his right hand. Whether or not this had to do with his poor offensive output is unknown, but it is something that could have absolutely affected his play. It was initially injured in May but took until August to operate on. The pain was so severe that he couldn’t grip his bat at one point, even though his fielding wasn’t badly impaired. This probably (and hopefully) explains his dreadful offense in ’15.

So long as Leonys Martin isn’t a disaster in the batter’s box in 2015, he’ll be a great addition to the M’s. If he continues his struggles, we’ll have to throw the likes of Shawn O’Malley or an unknown such as Boog Powell in center.

Adam Lind

One of the big reasons for the Mariners making a huge jump in projections from last year’s on-base percentage to this year’s is Adam Lind. Lind absolutely destroys right handed pitching, and is 2015-Leonys-Martin/Mike Zunino bad against left handed pitching. This makes him a perfect platoon parter with Mark Trumb-, erm, Jesus Montero? Dae-Ho Lee, maybe? Who knows? Jesus Montero has proven to be capable of hitting left handed pitching, but that’s about all he’s good for at this point. Dae-Ho Lee, on the other hand, may not have age on his side like Montero (Lee is 33), but he did pack a punch in the Nippon Professional Baseball league (the highest level of baseball in Japan). Last year, Lee OPS’d a cool .892 that included 31 homers. Prior to the NPB, Lee spent 11 seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization demolishing the opposition.

Jesus Montero and Dae-Ho Lee have a little more in common than the fact that they’re competing for the same job. Both are limited to first base defensively due to their frames and defensive prowess. Lee was, at one point, playing at 6’5”, 285 lbs. Montero has been criticized for his weight and once attempted to attack former Mariners cross-checker Butch Buccala by throwing an ice cream sandwich at him while wielding a bat. Yup. Re-read that sentence again. It happened.

I expect Jesus Montero to win the job going into the season, although I don’t think Dae-Ho Lee is going down without a good fight. Hopefully this time it involves less ice cream and no bat wielding. Actually, scratch that. A fight between Jesus Montero, Dae-Ho Lee, and ice cream sandwiches is exactly what I want to see. Lee is set to make up to $4M with incentives if he makes the club over Montero.

Robinson Cano

Two years through his decade-long contract (sigh), Robbie looked like he was starting his inevitable downfall early for the first half of the season. Then something clicked in the second half of the season, and Robbie looked like Robbie again. It was too late for the Mariners playoff hopes, but at least the Mariners didn’t have to spend the next eight years with a washed up second baseman on the hook for $192M. Well, that might still happen, but it looks like for now we can postpone that for a later date.

Cano nursed a sports hernia injury throughout a portion of last season and had an October surgery that revealed injuries to his “right and left side core muscle, indicating his injury may have been more severe than previously reported.” This is hopefully the reason for his first-half skid. Robinson Cano will need to have a strong 2016 if the Mariners want to make the playoffs. With a more complete lineup, look for Cano to have a better 2016 than his ZiPS and Steamer projections suggest.

The Mariners’ Shiny Brand New Bullpen Trio

Jerry Dipoto did a major overhaul of the M’s ‘pen over the offseason, and it’s much more interesting, if not better. Dipoto followed his off-season pattern of obtaining players coming off of subpar, atypical season. The only remaining bullpen members who were on the 25-man roster last season were Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Mayckol Guiape, and David Rollins. The latter three pitched for a meager grand total of 70 innings.

The trio we’re concerned with include Steve Cishek, Ryan Cook, and Joaquin Benoit. While Tony Zych looks like he’ll be an interesting, effective reliever, we won’t include him for our purposes. Off we go! In order!

Steve Cishek was among the best relievers in baseball for three years before he dropped a stinker in 2015. The overarching consensus on Cishek’s struggles is the loss of his devastating slider. For years, it was his most effective pitch. Then in 2015, his slider lost velocity, and it got hit around. It isn’t necessarily due to the drop in velocity, but his lowest slider velocity of his career is notable. Given his upside, Cishek is easily worth the upside, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to revert back to his elite ’11-’14 form.

Ryan Cook represents yet another reliever who has shown upside and some inconsistency. A 2012 All-Star, Cook has been mired with injury issues and a drop in velocity, a la Cishek. Fortunately, he won’t be forced into high leverage situations early on. This is a common Dipoto buy low move that has typified this offseason. If Cook works out, we got a very solid reliever with an option for cheap. If he doesn’t, we can move on.

Last (and probably least) is Benoit. Benoit is the surest thing of the trio, but also has the lowest ceiling by far. At 38 years of age, we know what to expect out of Benoit. He doesn’t light up the stat sheet, but he should be rather efficient. In the past three seasons, he has sported an ERA of 2.34 or less. While his FIP shows he may have been rather lucky last season, Safeco Field should do him just as well as Petco Park did him, if not better.

Jeff Sullivan said it best in his 2/19 FanGraphs chat when he said “Steve Cishek has Joaquin Benoit insurance, Evan Scribner has Ryan Cook insurance, etc.”

So…

Jerry Dipoto has constructed a solid baseball team to the best of his abilities. He’s managed to build a team that can compete now, while being cognizant of the future at the same time. Overall, the Seattle Mariners are a more balanced team than they were in 2015. There’s a bit of time from now until Opening Day, but the Mariners look like they’ll be very solid.

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