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The Seattle Mariners Will Be Better Than You Think in 2016

Thursday, October 08, 2015

 

Calling the Seattle Mariners’ 2015 season disappointing is the same as calling a hurricane a light rainstorm. It quickly became apparent, as early as May, that the World Series expectations surrounding the team were painfully overblown.

As a result, this year has been trying for the Mariners. They fired their general manager, Jack Zduriencik, and replaced him recently with former Los Angeles Angels GM Jerry DiPoto. The new man in charge has plenty of experience in the division, but he’s got his work cut out for him. While field manager Lloyd McLendon appears to be safe, a lot can change between the last pitch of this season and the first pitch of the next.

The bullpen was, to put it nicely, an abject nightmare. Robinson Cano experienced a massive slump in the second year of his staggering 10-year contract, due in part to a stomach illness he’s dealt with for over a year. Moreover, the reigning division champion Angels were joined by surprise contenders in the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers, making it even tougher for the Mariners to make much noise.

In spite of everything, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Mariners could again be a trendy, dark horse pick by Opening Day 2016. It’s unquestionably a long shot, considering both the state of the franchise and the division, but if everything breaks right, there may be cautious optimism in Seattle once more. Is there any other kind?

First, the rotation wasn’t as terrible as the bullpen, but there’s still room for improvement. Mariners pitchers have thrown 1463 innings this year, good for fourth in baseball. Felix Hernandez, despite being shut down for the remainder of the season, recorded his eighth straight season throwing 200-plus innings, although his 3.53 ERA is his highest mark since 2007. It was still the lowest figure on the staff, with Hisashi Iwakuma (3.54) and James Paxton (3.90) the only other starters to record a sub-4.00 ERA. All three of them had a higher FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, or a pitcher’s ERA determined by the things he controls – strikeouts, walks and home runs), which is a troubling sign. Taijuan Walker, pegged as a potential ace, threw to a 4.56 ERA in 169 2/3 innings, although in contrast to his rotation mates, his FIP was lower at 4.07.

Although they can easily turn things around, don’t forget that this year’s free-agent class is one of the strongest we’ve seen in years, especially with pitchers like Zack Greinke, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann hitting the market. Any one of them or a smattering of second-tier guys (Mat Latos, Jeff Samardzija et. al., and Washington native Tim Lincecum could possibly be had on a minor league deal) would be an instant boon to the starting staff.

Second, many hurlers in the bullpen are likely to rebound just by regressing. Of the 16 Mariners who threw at least 10 innings in relief this season, half of them had a BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play, or how often a ball drops in for a hit as opposed to being caught for an out) over .300. Rob Rasmussen, acquired at the trade deadline from the Toronto Blue Jays, ranked at the top with an astonishingly unlucky .469 BABIP, which informs his dreadful 10.67 ERA with Seattle. Because they don’t pitch more than a couple of innings in any given appearance, relievers are always volatile, putting up video game numbers one year and crashing mercilessly back to earth the next. Hmm, who does that sound like…right, Fernando Rodney! Simply by seeing those numbers come down a bit (and not having Rodney in the pen), the relief corps could be significantly better in 2016.

Robinson Cano

Third, the lineup, although perennially abysmal, continues to show signs of life. Garnering extra bases isn’t part of the problem: Mariners batters typically bash a lot of homers (their 198 long balls this year rank fifth in the game), and their cumulative .164 Isolated Power ranks seventh in baseball. Their 100 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus, or how effective a hitter is at creating runs at the plate and on the basepaths), while just average, is good enough for eighth in the league.

Cano’s illness sapped him of his ability to hit with any regularity for the first half of the season, although his second half surge (.331/.387/.540, with 15 of his 21 total homers) portends extremely well. Nelson Cruz has been a godsend in the first year of a 4-year pact, hitting 44 long balls in 150 games. While power hitters don’t age well at Safeco, nobody expected Cruz to even repeat his 2014 campaign; he has now improved on it. Kyle Seager has posted career highs in all three triple-slash categories, hits, runs, homers and total bases. He’s still just 27, meaning it’s reasonable to expect even bigger numbers from him going forward.

The free-agent market also features some stellar hitters like Chris Davis, Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes. In particular, Justin Upton might be the perfect fit for the Mariners: They’ve twice tried to acquire him, once during his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks and later when he was with the Atlanta Braves. He’ll undoubtedly come with the stigma of draft pick compensation and will likely command a payday in excess of $100 million, but the three guys mentioned in the prior paragraph are proof that the team is willing to open their wallet to lure a power hitter to the PNW.

Again, a lot would have to break right for the Mariners to make it to the postseason next year. Their core players are all another year older, and the farm system will bear few fruits in the foreseeable future. I just wouldn’t immediately count them out in such a fluctuating division.

Team stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com, individual stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, all stats current through the end of the regular season.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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