A popular playoff pick in the preseason, the Mariners instead took a big step backward in a disconcerting and disappointing year in the Pacific Northwest.
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Seattle Mariners.
Current Record: 74–83 (.471, fourth in the AL West)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 27
What went right in 2015: In the first season of his four year, $57 million contract, 34-year-old Nelson Cruz continued his post-Biogenesis surge, besting what appeared to have been a career year in 2014 and again ranking among the best hitters in the majors. Through Monday’s action, Cruz led the majors with 43 home runs and was fourth among qualified major leaguers in slugging and sixth in OPS+. More significantly, his was the best performance by a Mariners hitter since the pre-Ichiro Suzuki days: The last qualified Mariner with an OPS+ as high as his 163 was Alex Rodriguez in 2000, and the last one to hit as many as his 43 home runs was Ken Griffey Jr. in '99.
Cruz’s monster season saved the Mariners from embarrassment, as there was little else encouraging about their year. Still, there were some smaller highlights: the relief dominance of 25-year-old rookie Carson Smith and journeyman Mark Lowe (the latter of whom was dealt at the trade deadline); the successful return of Franklin Gutierrez after years of injury and illness; and 21-year-old Ketel Marte claiming the shortstop job in August.
Perhaps most importantly, the team finally brought an end to its misadventures under Jack Zduriencik, firing the general manager at the end of August, just two months shy of his seventh anniversary on the job. Seattle ultimately replaced him with former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto on Monday.
What went wrong in 2015: A popular preseason pick to win not only their division but also the American League pennant, the Mariners were instead a massive disappointment, failing to climb above .500 at any point after being shut out in the second game of the season by the Angels. Early in the season, much of the blame for their failure was placed on the shoulders of Robinson Cano; in the second season of his ten-year mega deal, he hit just .238/.277/.344 through the end of June, due in part to his struggles with an intestinal parasite and the death of his paternal grandfather in March.
Cano returned to form in the second half—he has hit .324/.380/.524 with 15 home runs in 337 plate appearances since July 1—but the team’s other superstar, Felix Hernandez, has seen his season head in the other direction. The righty got off to a great start, going 8–1 with a 1.91 ERA through the end of May, but since June 1, he has posted a 4.40 ERA in 21 starts, only 12 of which were quality. Four times in the last four months, Hernandez has allowed seven or more runs in a single game, including two of the worst starts of his career (eight runs in one-third of an inning on June 12 and 10 runs in 2 1/3 innings on Aug. 15).
When Hernandez was pitching well, he had very little company in the rotation. After opening the season with three poor starts, all Mariners losses, No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma suffered a strained latissimus dorsi muscle that kept him out of action until July. Heralded rookie Taijuan Walker, meanwhile, managed just two quality starts in his first nine turns, going 1–5 with a 7.33 ERA through May 24. After a run of seven quality starts, Walker’s struggles returned in July: He posted a 4.83 ERA through his final 13 starts before being shut down when he reached his innings limit in mid-September.
Elsewhere in the rotation, sophomore James Paxton strained a tendon in his pitching hand at the end of May and missed most of the rest of the season. In early July, after an impressive month by rookie Mike Montgomery and a pair of poor outings by sophomore Roenis Elias, the team bumped Elias to Triple A, only to have Montgomery pancake, posting an 8.33 ERA over nine starts from July 10 through the end of August before the team finally reversed its decision.
In the bullpen, veteran closer Fernando Rodney was such a disaster that he was dropped from the roster in August after blowing six of 22 save opportunities and incurring four additional losses while posting a 5.68 ERA, with all of his peripherals headed in the wrong direction. Righty setup man Danny Farquhar, who preceded Rodney as the team’s closer in late 2013, suffered a similar collapse; far more predictably, so did veteran lefty Joe Beimel.
Finally, beyond Cano’s poor first half and Cruz’s monster season, the offense as a whole was disappointing. Kyle Seager was the team’s most productive hitter after Cruz, but he failed to improve on his 2014 performance in his age-27 season and the first year of his $100 million extension. Meanwhile, 24-year-old catcher and former No. 3 pick Mike Zunino actually managed to see his batting average and on-base percentage drop from last year's .199 and .254 marks, respectively. Zunino walked more often this year, but his hits didn’t drop in, he didn’t get hit with nearly as many pitches and his strikeout rate went up while his power deflated significantly. Shipped back to Triple A at the end of August, he now seems very likely to open the 2016 season there as well.
Overall Outlook: The optimism surrounding the Mariners this spring was clearly misplaced, so Seattle fans should be cautious about expecting a rebound in 2016. The Mariners are a better team than they showed this year, but they no longer look like a contender. Dipoto has considerable work to do this offseason and beyond to turn Jack Z’s glut of defensively challenged sluggers into a well-rounded baseball team and will have to work within the limits created by the Cano, Hernandez, Cruz and Seager contracts to do so. He will also have to rebuild the culture of the organization which had significant difficulty developing the team’s many promising prospects into valuable major leaguers in Zduriencik’s seven years on the job, with Seager the only sustained success on that front.
In the short term, Iwakuma will be a free agent in November, and Dipoto may want to hire his own manager, something he was unable to do in his previous GM job with Mike Scioscia’s Angels. In the long term, the building blocks for the team we expected the Mariners to be this year are still here, but the stars aren’t getting any younger (Cruz will be 35 next year, Cano 33, Hernandez 30), and the jury is still out on the kids.