Winter Report Card: Busy Mariners make small roster improvements
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Seattle Mariners. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
76–86 (.469), fourth place in American League West (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
The Mariners have been the busiest team in baseball this winter, turning over nearly half of their 40-man roster amid a flurry of moves under new general manager Jerry Dipoto, who was hired at the end of September. Seattle has acquired 17 players since the end of the 2015 regular season—a number that doesn’t included re-signed free agents Hisashi Iwakuma and Franklin Gutierrez. Add those two, and 19 of the 40 men on Seattle’s roster were brought in by Dipoto, who has been with the organization for roughly 3 1/2 months. That’s an incredible amount of turnover, and it’s evenly distributed throughout the team. Projecting the Mariners' 25-man roster: Four members of the starting lineup, one bench player, two starting pitchers and a minimum of four relievers were acquired this off-season, again not counting Iwakuma and Gutierrez.
Despite all of that, none of the Mariners' moves have been earth-shaking. The largest free-agent contract they handed out was Iwakuma’s, which consists of a reported guarantee of $12 million, $10 million vesting options for 2017 and '18 and various innings-based incentives. The next largest was the two-year, $10 million deal given to former Marlins closer Steve Cishek. Of the ten trades Dipoto executed, meanwhile, the most significant were the six-player deal that sent shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and reliever Danny Farquhar to the Rays for sophomore righthander Nathan Karns and two others, and the four-player deal that sent intended closer Carson Smith and lefty Roenis Elias to the Red Sox for lefty starter Wade Miley and a minor-league reliever.
Those moves add up to the most confounding part of the Mariners' off-season. Dipoto’s biggest misstep was the decision to trade Smith—who showed the potential to be a dominant closer last year and has five team-controlled years remaining—for Miley, a league-average innings eater who is under contract for just two more years. With Karns (another league-average arm), Iwakuma and Miley joining Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the Mariners already have six starters you’d expect to be in the rotation. Iwakuma’s health may not be guaranteed (he signed his incentive-laden deal only after a three-year deal with the Dodgers fell apart due to his physical results), but the M’s also have Mike Montgomery (who is out of options), Vidal Nuno and former Padres prospect Joe Wieland as starting depth on the roster. Before the Smith trade, the Mariners had Elias in Miley’s place and believed they had lost Iwakuma to the Dodgers. Still, Seattle trading Smith for Miley, then replacing Smith with Cishek—a clearly inferior reliever who saw his velocity and peripherals all head in the wrong direction in 2015, resulting in a 1.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a season in which he saved just four games total for two teams—was not a good result.
More positive, though—again, to small degrees—were the moves made on the other side of the ball. The incumbent first-base platoon of Morrison and Mark Trumbo has been replaced by one of Adam Lind and Jesus Montero (who is also out of options). Signing Nori Aoki to a one-year, $5.5 million deal locks Nelson Cruz, who started 80 games in rightfield last year, into the designated hitter spot; keeping Cruz’s glove on ice could improve the team by a win or two all by itself. With Gutierrez re-signed to platoon with Seth Smith in leftfield, those moves should improve the Mariners on the left side of the defensive spectrum.
The additions of Lind and Aoki should also help at the plate. Seattle’s first basemen hit just .235/.301/.401 last year; Lind (a career .293/.354/.509 hitter against righties) and Montero (career .292/.341/.429 against lefties) should easily surpass that. If Aoki can out-produce the Mariners’ non-Cruz rightfielders and designated hitters from 2015 (.236/.309/.403 combined)—and there’s a good chance that he can—he would be an upgrade on offense, too.
Up the middle, the M’s had nowhere to go but up from a catching corps that produced a .159/.205/.259 line last year. New addition Chris Iannetta is a career .252/.383/.477 hitter against lefties and an excellent pitch framer, and he should pair nicely with lefty backup Steve Clevenger, who was acquired from Baltimore for Trumbo and reliever C.J. Riefenhauser. That duo should have little problem improving on last year’s catchers, who were led by first-round pick Mike Zunino; he will likely open the year in Triple A.
The bar isn’t quite as low for new centerfielder Leonys Martin, acquired from the Rangers with since-released reliever Anthony Bass for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen and outfielder James Jones (the latter since demoted to a non-roster invitee by Texas). Still, the .261/.318/.381 line of last year’s Mariners centerfielders is one Martin is capable of matching, allowing his outstanding fielding to provide an upgrade at the position over last year’s combination of Austin Jackson’s average glove and some brutal centerfield defense from the rest of the roster. Add in a full season of Ketel Marte at shortstop and a likely rebound from 33-year-old second baseman Robinson Cano, who had a big second half last year, and the Mariners’ starting nine should be much improved from last year despite the lack of big-splash upgrades.
Unfinished Business: The bullpen
Paxton’s name repeatedly surfaced in trade rumors this off-season, and there’s a sense that a Paxton trade never developing led to Seattle’s rotation getting somewhat overstuffed. Still, Iwakuma has proven fragile, and Paxton has four team-controlled years remaining, so it's hard to argue that the Mariners should have traded the 27-year-old lefty.
It’s much easier to argue that Dipoto, a former major league reliever himself, bungled the bullpen. Trading Smith for such an underwhelming return remains confounding, and replacing him with Cishek and Joaquin Benoit, who will turn 39 in late July and saw his peripherals head in the wrong direction last year, feels like a big step backward. Among Dipoto's other bullpen additions, middling righties Justin De Fratus and Evan Scribner are both out of options, and among the incumbents, only lefty Charlie Furbush and righty Tony Zych—who combined for just 46 major league appearances last year—inspire much confidence.
Preliminary Grade: B-
The Mariners under Dipoto are a better team with a more balanced roster than they were under his predecessor, Jack Zduriencik, but they are not dramatically better. Seattle's bullpen is worse, and none of the solutions Dipoto came up with this off-season will dramatically alter the future of the franchise or have much lasting impact at all—of the additions listed above, only Karns (who is already 28), Clevenger and Scribner will remain under team control in 2019.