Mariners at Dodgers Series Preview

Mariners at Dodgers Series Preview
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As much as I understand and appreciate the reason for it, this season’s geographically isolated play is a drag for fans looking for compelling regular-season matchups. For Dodgers fans, it means no Nationals rematch. No Cardinals. No Cubs. No Brewers. No Braves, Mets, or Phillies. No Yankees. No Twins. Not even Cleveland or Tampa Bay. The Padres have been fun, but the Dodgers have just three games remaining against them this year. The season series against the Astros was half over after a pair of wins against no-name rookie pitchers during the season’s first week. The Rockies, who they have yet to face, should be compelling, but the only other team the Dodgers will face this season that is currently sporting a winning record is the A’s, and L.A. will have to wait until the final week of the season for its lone three-game set against Oakland.

That’s good news for the Dodgers’ chances of capturing another first-place finish and the top seed entering this year’s expanded playoffs, but it’s not going to make for lot of exciting baseball between now and then. This week’s four-game set against the Mariners—the first two at Dodger Stadium, the second two in Seattle—could be the nadir, a complete mismatch that doesn’t promise to be terribly memorable for anyone outside of the Seager family.

Mariners are terrible. You may have noticed that the Dodgers haven’t lost a series yet this season. Well, the Mariners have won just one of seven series thus far and haven’t so much as split any of the others (the Dodgers have two four-game splits). That one series win saw Seattle take two of three from the Angels back in July despite being outscored 20-22. The Angels scored at least five runs in every game.

The Mariners have the third-worst record in the majors, but, even more tellingly, they have the worst run-differential. The Dodgers have by far the best. Entering Sunday’s games, the run differential differential, if you will, between the Mariners (-46) and the Dodgers (+55) was a whopping 101 runs. That’s after just 22 games, an average of more than 4 1/2 runs per game.

Winning was never really part of the Mariners’ plan for this year. In the first year of the post-King Félix Era, Seattle is letting the kids play to see what they have. Their typical lineup includes four players age 25 or younger: shortstop J.P. Crawford (25) and 24-year-olds Kyle Lewis (CF), Shed Long Jr. (2B), and Evan White (1B). Lewis and Long made their major-league debuts last year and are getting their first regular playing time in the majors. Lewis still qualifies as a rookie. White spent last year in Double-A and signed a six-year extension (with three club options) in November, clearing his way to the starting first-base job this year.

The results from that quartet have been mixed. Long and White have been awful thus far, but Crawford, the former Phillies prospect now in his fourth major league season, is finally hitting and, after adding the value of his glove and legs, leading the team in wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference version) just ahead of Lewis. The team’s first-round pick in 2016, Lewis didn’t hit much in the minors, but was called up directly from Double-A last year and showed surprising power. Thus far this year, he has shown a better approach and has been flat-out raking, trailing only veteran stalwart Kyle Seager (Corey’s older brother) in OPS+ entering Sunday’s games. However, excessive luck on balls in play appears to be lifting Lewis’s overall performance. It will be interesting to see how his season progresses.

Elsewhere, the Mariners have gotten good early results from a pair of older “youngsters,” sophomores, Dylan Moore (utility/left field) and Austin Nola (catcher and older brother of the Phillies’ Aaron), but at 27 and 30 they don’t seem likely to be part of the next competitive Mariners team. Twenty-seven-year-old 2019 All-Star Dan Vogelbach hasn’t hit a lick thus far.

Here’s the Mariners’ typical lineup against right-handed pitching:

L – J.P. Crawford (SS)

R – Dylan Moore (RF)

R – Kyle Lewis (CF)

L – Kyle Seager (3B)

R – Austin Nola (C)

L – Shed Long Jr. (2B)

R – Evan White (1B)

L – Dan Vogelbach (DH)

R – Tim Lopes (LF)

Against lefties, lefty speedster Dee Gordon plays left field, pushing Lopes to DH and replacing Vogelbach in the lineup. Despite the early success of the top five batters, this has been one of the worst lineups in baseball this year, besting only Texas and Cleveland in runs per game entering Sunday’s action.

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On the other side of the ball, the Mariners are continuing to give the kids a chance with a six-man rotation. Here are the projected pitching matchups for this series:

Mon. 8/17, L.A., 6:40 p.m. RHP Justin Dunn (4.85 ERA, 13 IP) vs. RHP Ross Stripling (3.97 ERA, 22 2/3 IP)

Tues 8/18, L.A., 4:10 p.m. LHP Marco Gonzales (3.97 ERA, 22 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Tony Gonsolin (0.00 ERA, 8 2/3 IP)

Wed 8/19, Seattle, 6:40 p.m. LHP Julio Urías (2.53 ERA, 21 1/3 IP) vs. RHP Taijuan Walker (4.05 ERA, 20 IP)

Thur. 8/20, Seattle, 4:10 p.m. LHP Clayton Kershaw (2.65 ERA, 17 IP) vs. LHP Yusei Kikuchi (5.28 ERA, 15 1/3 IP)

Justin Dunn is another well-regarded, 24-year-old former first-round pick. Acquired from the Mets in the Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz trade prior to last season, he, too, was called up directly from Double-A late last year. He made four starts as an opener with good results in all but the first and seemed to improve each time out. Dunn’s slim build and limited repertoire (low-90s fastball, slider, occasional changeup) give him a reliever’s profile, but the Mariners are stretching him out this year and appear willing to give him every chance to stick in the rotation. His last outing was the first quality start of his young career (6 IP, 2 R against the Rangers), and he should be pitching without excessive limits against the Dodgers on Monday night.

Gonzales is the lone stalwart in the Mariners rotation and their default ace. He proved a reliable league-average lefty over the last two seasons, and is proving similarly valuable this season, leading the team in innings, ERA, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. A soft-tossing lefty who rarely breaks 90 miles-per-hour on the radar gun, Gonzales is very much in the same category as the Padres’ Zach Davies, who held the Dodgers to two runs over seven innings last Wednesday. One wonders if seeing Davies so recently could benefit the Dodgers in facing Gonzales Tuesday night.

Walker is back in Seattle after Tommy John surgery ruined his time in Arizona. Non-tendered by the Diamondbacks in December, he signed with the Mariners in February and has thus far pitched in line with his career results by alternating good and bad starts. If the pattern holds, he’s due for a clunker after holding the Rangers to one unearned run over six innings his last time out. Walker doesn’t have the upper-90s heat he did pre-surgery, but he can still flash 95 or 96 and he has a deep repertoire, adding a sinker, slider, split, and curve to his four-seamer.

Longtime Seibu Lions lefty Kikuchi was a bust in his first year in the states last year, surrendering 36 home runs in just 161 2/3 innings with a below-average strikeout rate and a 80 ERA+. Things have gone better thus far this year in his age-29 season. Kikuchi’s velocity and slider use are both up, as are his strikeouts, and he hasn’t allowed a single home run in 15 1/3 innings across three starts. Unfortunately, his results haven’t been radically better, as he has sandwiched one strong outing between two lousy ones. Kikuchi has had the bad luck to draw the Astros, A’s, Rockies, and Dodgers in his first four starts, so let’s not bury him even if he struggles on Thursday. Still, whatever the Mariners thought they were going to get when they signed Kikuchi to a four-year, $56 million deal (on top of a $10.275 million posting fee to the Lions) last January, they haven’t gotten it.

The Dodgers’ hitters have very little familiarity with the Mariners’ starters, and vice versa. Justin Dunn and Tony Gonsolin have never faced any of the other team’s current hitters in the majors. Mookie Betts is the only Dodger to have faced Kikuchi or Gonzales before. He is 0-for-3 against Kikuchi and 2-for-7 with a pair of strikeouts against Gonzales. Dee Gordon is the only Mariner to have faced Urías before. He is 2-for-2. With that possible exception, the only matchup history worth noting is that Betts, Joc Pederson, and Corey Seager are a combined 12-for-25 against Walker.

If the above descriptions of the Mariners’ starters might make their pitching sound more middling than awful, consider that these are the top four of their six starters, and the bullpen, with 29-year-old former Brewer Taylor Williams closing, had a 6.34 ERA entering Sunday’s action. Only the Phillies’ bullpen (which appears to be dousing the baseballs in lighter fluid) had a worse mark to that point in the season, while the Mariners’ overall team ERA+ of 74 was dead last in the majors. 

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.