Thursday, February 23, 2017

TIME FOR SOME BASEBALL!


I’m cautiously optimistic about the Seattle Mariners this year.  That is, I think they will be a bit better than last year, which means they may be good enough to get into the playoffs for a change.  The playoff drought has lasted a while, and it’s well past time that my team made a post-season appearance.

 

What makes it different this time around?

 

For starters, the team returns its best players from 2016.  When the Mariners dished out a $240 million contract to Robinson Cano a few years ago, many wondered if this was such a great move.  In terms of his age and likely drop-off in skills by the end of the ten-year deal, it didn’t seem like a good investment at first.  As things have turned out, Cano has been a leader for the ball club, both on the field and in the clubhouse.  His strong work ethic and easy-going style have helped make the Mariners into a team that has fun as they go about their business, and he backs it all up with a great glove and a stellar bat.

 

Nelson Cruz is back, and this year it looks like he will mainly be the designated hitter.  While his glove is not bad in right field, he no longer has the range or skills needed to keep him from being a liability at times.  His bat will still be in the lineup on a daily basis, though.

 

Kyle Seager continues to be as steady a third baseman as you will find in the majors.  He has Gold Glove skills in the field, and he hits consistently well. 

 

And while the team has been terrible at base running in recent years, it looks like there is now some help coming.  The new shortstop, Jean Segura, is coming off of a career year with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  He should slot into the order as the new leadoff hitter.  Jarrod Dyson was acquired from the Kansas City Royals, and he also adds speed, along with good outfield defense.  Returning center fielder Leonys Martin is a good defensive player who can also help charge up the offense at times. 

 

General Manager Jerry DiPoto smartly brought in veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz to help incumbent catcher Mike Zunino along.  Zunino is still a “project”, but it appears a stint in the minors last season has helped him develop into a better major-league hitter.  Zunino’s defensive skills are already major league caliber.  If his bat should falter this season, Ruiz brings a hitter’s eye, as well as defensive skills that remain quite adequate despite his age. 

 

First base, corner outfield positions, and utility roles should comprise most of the battles during Spring Trianing for the M’s this year.  Daniel Vogelbach was acquired from the Cubs in trade for pitcher Mike Montgomery last season, and at age 22 has yet to make his mark in the majors.  The organization has concerns about his ability to field his position, so DiPoto has brought in veteran Danny Valencia to help man first base in case Vogelbach is not ready.  Valencia has been a decent hitter throughout his career. It remains to see how he will fit in as a team member, as this has apparently been difficult for him in the past. 

 

Several young, athletic outfielders will be vying for playing time alongside Martin and Dyson.  Seattle is high on Mitch Haniger, acquired via trade this winter in the same deal that brought Jean Segura to the M’s.  The organization knows Haniger has good defensive skills, and they believe he can hit for power and for average.  Early indications are that he will see a lot of time in right field.  Others who could play outfield roles for the team this year are Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia.  While neither was particularly impressive in stints with the team in 2016, both are young and have good minor-league track records.

 

Utilitiy player Shawn O’Malley was fun to watch with the Mariners last year.  He is a gutsy player who epitomizes this year’s team motto, “Whatever it takes”.  This spring he will have competition from Taylor Motter and Mike Freeman for the jack-of-all-trades role.

 

In 2016, the Mariners had tough times here and there with their pitching.  Injuries played a major role, as did inconsistency.  Felix Hernandez, usually the Mariners ace starter, had a down year in 2016.  He underwent a strenuous conditioning routine over the winter, and results have been positive so far.  He will be joined in the rotation by two holdovers from last year, lefty James Paxton and righthander Hisashi Iwakuma, and two newcomers, veterans Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly.  All five of these starters have experienced success at the major league level, and the Mariners hope Safeco Field will provide a pitcher-friendly environment for everyone.  Paxton has appeared on the verge of breaking out the past few seasons, but he has been derailed by nagging injuries.  Iwakuma has been unspectacular most of the time, but has been a fairly reliable pitcher.  If the guys in the rotation are all pitching well, look out.

 

The bullpen is a bit of a question too, although as a former major league reliever, DiPoto seems to know how to assemble a workable group of relievers.  In 2016, righty “Electric” Edwin Diaz rose from AA ball to become the Mariners’ closer.  He was a raw rookie and he had his ups and downs, but he was mostly reliable in his role.  He and fellow AA right-handed pitcher Dan Altavilla hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun on a regular basis.   Altavilla impressed with the Mariners at the end of last season.  From among Steve Cishek, Tony Zych, Ariel Miranda, Chris Heston, Evan Scribner, Nick Vincent and a number of others, DiPoto and manager Scott Servais will assemble a bullpen that can get the job done.

 

While the Mariners added speed, defense and pitching during this winter’s Hot Stove League, they also added some organizational depth at the AAA level.  The team now has some options in Tacoma should any of their players get injured or falter in the majors.  Look for youngsters such as pitchers Rob Whalen and Max Povse, acquired from Atlanta, to help with pitching if needed.  If Gamel and Heredia are not on the major league roster to begin the year, they will be playing regularly in Tacoma, possibly alongside outfielder Boog Powell, catcher Tuffy Gosewitch, and others who have major league experience.  Relievers who don’t make the Mariners pitching staff will likely log a lot of innings in AAA, and Miranda and Heston have both been starting pitchers in the majors.  If the M’s need to call someone up, there should now be plenty of options. 

 

What does this all mean? 

 

The team improved itself in terms of speed, defense, and on-base percentage, and possibly in terms of starting pitching, all without decimating its major league roster or minor league system.   After an 86-win season in 2016, look for the Mariners to win at least that many again this year.  I’m thinking more like 89 or 90 wins…  and that ought to be enough to get them into the playoffs, at least as a wild card team. 

 

Whatever it takes! 

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