I know, I know, things have drastically changed for Mariner fans over the last year. Change can be difficult, but change can also help you grow into more. At first, it was hard to accept that trading away all that talent was the right thing to do. James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Mike Zunino, and Jean Segura
Those guys almost led us back to the playoffs. The key word in that sentence is almost.
That just isn’t good enough; these fans deserve better than almost. Frankly, the team the M’s fielded last year was decidedly more accomplished than the team we have this year. Unfortunately, it was built around aging stars that were beginning to fade. Something had to be done or it would have eventually crashed and burned. I for one didn’t believe that team was ever going to break the playoff-less streak. They were good but not good enough to win it all and that is arguably the worst position for an MLB team in the current landscape. That means no high draft picks and no playoffs, it’s no wonder the fans just didn’t quit supporting their M’s with so little to cheer for. The fans stayed true to the blue, to the tune of over 2 million in attendance at Safeco Field for the last four seasons.
Fortunately, they will have a lot more to be excited about at T-Mobile Park with their new and improved Mariners.
#5) The season opens in Japan
It is difficult to understand just how important Ichiro Suzuki is to baseball in his home country. He has been an icon there for around 25 years. He is the real deal. The true hit king has amassed 4,367 hits thus far in his professional career. The guy eats, sleeps, breathes baseball and he would like to continue to play until he is 50. Whether or not that takes place here in Seattle or Japan, it is an honor to have him back with the Mariners once again. It is only fitting he will be in blue as we kick off the season in Japan vs the Oakland Athletics March 20th and March 21st in the Tokyo Dome. The Japanese fans are going to erupt when they get to see their hero take the field or even take BP for that matter.
The juice that this experience will provide the now young Mariner ballclub will be unmeasurable. Watching with their own eyes how much he is appreciated by Japanese fans will be incredibly moving for them. I guarantee everyone in that locker room has already learned something from the master and everyone respects him. The man gives them all something to strive for, not just how he conducted himself on the field but how he has been an example off the field for his fans. He is a living legend.
Don’t Forget about Yusei Kikuchi either, he brings more to the Mariners as far as production on the field in 2019. He was one of the best starting pitchers in Japan until now and he like Ichiro also dreamed of playing in the MLB. The Mariners were able to sign him to a team friendly long(ish) contract without breaking the bank. I can’t help but think that Ichiro was one of the factors that helped the team land this stud lefthander. He will have an opportunity to play in front of his countrymen as the teammate of his hero and theirs. A moment I’m sure he will never forget. It should be one amazing opening day for the Mariners and their fans. Needless to say, last year’s opening day will pale in comparison to this year.
#4) The new and improved outfield
For years the Mariners outfield has been a point of frustration. Playing in a pitcher’s park like T-Mobile it makes sense to have athletic outfielders who can run out there as well as on the base paths. That has not been the case for much of the last 10 years. There have been a lot of first basemen/left field/DH types who have played in the outfield for the Mariners. Many of which were not only poor in the field, but they also had troubles hitting for the team as well. The outfield is normally a source of power and consistent hitting for a lineup. Capable leadoff men and middle of the order bats should come from this position group. Finally this season, the M’s should have three impact bats as well as gloves in the outfield. Each of the three projected starters is above average at their position defensively and will provide a spark offensively.
Mallex Smith proved to be a capable leadoff man with a .367 OBP and 40 stolen bases for the Rays last year. I’d expect those numbers to improve as he will be in his second full season in the big leagues. He is also a plus defender in center field (all be it was a small sample size as he spent most of his time in left field).
Center was a position that the M’s had trouble with last year. Starting with the Dee Gordon experiment and then moving on to a combination of Herredia/Haniger/Maybin. All three of the regular starters in the outfield this will be capable of covering center. That is a nice luxury for manager Scott Servais to have as it will provide flexibility. Not to mention rest, playing center everyday wears guys down. I think Mallex once healthy, is an all-around upgrade from Herredia and will be more productive and exciting to watch.
The trade for Domingo Santana may go down as the biggest steal Jerry Dipoto has pulled off yet. He is a very large 6’5 220, an athletic, speedy, powerful outfielder with a strong arm to boot. Capable of playing all three positions in the outfield, he figures to spend most of his time in right field. He is the 3rd fastest mariner on the roster this year after Gordon and Smith. He has displayed power this spring smacking four home runs in 18 at-bats. He hit 30 home runs for the Brewers in 2017 when he was an everyday starter. The Mariners gave up Ben Gamel and pitching prospect Noah Zavolas for this turnkey player.
Anchoring the list of projected starters is 2018 All-Star Mitch Haniger. He is one of the pieces that this new look team is being built around. Last year he spent time all over the field and the lineup. He played mostly in right field, but also in center and left. He batted leadoff, cleanup, second, third. I expect that his versatility will be on display once again in 2019.
These three players figure to be a part of the Mariners present and future plans. They all have a full season of service under their belts and have been impressive when they have been given the opportunity. A young trio that has a high ceiling and position that is clearly improved from last season.
#3) A respectable farm system
At this point last season, there was not a lot to talk about when it came to Mariner prospects. Lewis was injured and Bishop and White were still a few seasons out. The difference between that and this year is night and day. There are so many quality players in the system now I would have to dedicate an entire blog to cover them all properly. Kudos to the Mariners brass for attacking that deficiency head-on. The seeds they planted should bear fruit on the major league level for years to come.
Starting with the guys who we had prior to this season. Kyle Lewis looks healthy and finally living up to his expectations when the Mariners selected him 2nd overall in 2016 out of Mercer. Lewis hit a home run in his first at-bat with the Mariners A squad this spring. Seems like a good omen for his 2019, I’d expect him to play in Everett and Tacoma this season. No need to rush him. When he is ready, he will have a spot in Seattle.
Braden Bishop has had a solid spring for the M’s, showing some added power with three home runs already. He is also a very good defender in center field. I would expect him to start in Tacoma and be called up to the bigs at some point during the season. Hopefully, his bat gets hot and he sticks, no question his defense will improve the groups overall fielding performance immediately.
The other homegrown player close to breaking out is the defensive first baseman Evan White, his defense has been highly touted dating back to his days at the University of Kentucky. The M’s selected him with the 17th overall selection in the 2017 draft. He has delivered on his promise as a first baseman, the question for him is when will he be ready at the plate. Most likely he will be in Everett to start the season and could get the call up to Seattle as early as 2020.
The youngest player raising eyebrows this spring has been the teams International signing Julio Rodriguez. He has impressed with his powerful swing at the plate. The sound of the ball off his bat has Mariners brass anxiously watching his development, he has the potential to be a game-changing bat. At only 18, he won’t get the call for quite some time. He adds to the depth of the farm system and to the excitement surrounding it.
Now let’s cover the prospects we’ve acquired through trades this offseason, starting with the starting pitcher Justus Sheffield who came over in the James Paxton deal, has been impressive. So impressive that the group of veterans in front of him should all be on their best behavior because this young guy is ready. Over the course of a full season, I’m sure he will hit a rough patch or two and keeping him at Triple-A to start will not hurt him. Having six capable starters will not hurt the Mariners either. You can never have too many of those around as we’ve witnessed the last few years when injuries depleted our rotation and the personnel team had to get creative in order to compete.
Eric Swanson also acquired in the Paxton deal is a big right-hander who will be in the starting rotation for Tacoma this season. He may also get a look in Seattle at some point in 2019. Gerson Bautista acquired from the Mets in the Cano/Diaz deal has been the most impressive pitcher this spring. He throws an upper 90’s to low hundreds fastball with a nasty slider. Remind you of anybody? I think he will probably play with the MLB team for most of this season. His stuff is major league ready, he has worked hard in the minors and in the Dominican Republic to get himself ready for this season. He could eventually be the closer. Also acquired in the deal with the Mets is righthander Justin Dunn. He figures to be ready in 2020, but you never know when he will be too good to keep off the Major league roster. He could get a call up this season as well.
For the position players, let’s start with the guy who will eventually be the starting shortstop for the Mariners, J.P. Crawford, he is a young player with tremendous upside who was forced to play in the bigs before he was ready last season. The M’s will work with his development and get him ready for his call up before they make that move. A sure glove at short, his struggle was at the plate where he has hit .214 over his career. A slow start last season affected his numbers. I look to see him playing in Seattle around the All-Star break in 2019.
Jake Fraley acquired from the Rays with Mallex Smith is another outfielder who can play all three positions. He has been red hot all spring, leaving many Mariner fans wondering if he is ready to help the big-league club now. Fraley has been injured through much of his minor league career and doesn’t figure to have enough experience to push for a roster spot.
Outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams is a phenomenal athlete who has huge potential. Acquired from the Yankees, he figures to play mostly in AA Everett this season but could always move up fast with his skill set. Jared Kelenic another outfielder, was considered one of the best position players available in last season’s armature draft. At only 19 he will take some time to develop but the Mariners are happy to help him sharpen his skills in the minors. He was also a part of the trade with the Mets.
Then there is Shed Long, a player the Mariners tried several times to acquire from the Cincinnati Reds without success. Finally, they were able to jump on and trade between the Reds and Yankees and land their man. Shed has looked good in camp, he can play second base, third base, and both corner outfield positions. With some work with his new infield coaches, the hope is he can become a quality utility man in the MLB. His bat appears to be ready to go today, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a call at some point this season.
Baseball players come into a farm system from all sorts of different backgrounds. It is very difficult to gauge how much impact a particular teams farm system is capable of having on the big-league club and when. Some of the best players get overlooked and some of the biggest disappointments were once highly touted prospects. However, it is clear the Mariners are much improved in this department from last season. Some of which has come from their own recent draft choices and international signings. Most have come from the trading of veteran players this offseason.
#2) The starting rotation
To the casual fan on the surface, it probably appears that the Mariners have taken a step backward in regards to the starting rotation. I think this unit has taken a step forward. The main reason is depth, with Justus Sheffield waiting in the wings you now can afford to have an injury or a current starter underperform. The Mariners now have a few clear options in Triple A. In the past, they relied on veteran relievers or spot starting young pitchers who really were not major league quality. Let’s take comfort in having six legitimate major league starters on the roster. As well as Roenis Elias and Anthony Swarzak who have both started in the past, Justin Dunn may be ready at some point to give a quality contribution to this group also.
I loved watching James Paxton when he was healthy and confident. Unfortunately, he tended to break down over the course of a season and lose his confidence. The most innings he has ever pitched was in 2018 when he threw just over 160. I just don’t think he is built to take the ball every fifth start over a 162 game season. Yusei Kikuchi essentially replaces him. While he may not be as spectacular (or he may be) he will likely be more durable and consistent. In his time in Japan, he was nothing if not reliable, starting over twenty games in each of the last five seasons.
With an overall upgrade in Kikuchi and the improved play of Marco Gonzales this unit will likely be improved. The rest of the group are veterans; Mike Leake, Felix Hernandez, and Wade LeBlanc. I expect those performances similar to what they did last year. I’d take my chances with this group over the one from last year any day.
#1) Financial flexibility
In professional sports today if you want to compete for championships, it is so crucial that your team has the flexibility to improve the roster when they see fit. For years during and after Jack Zduriencik’s tenure the Mariners spent and spent and spent. They brought in veteran players year after year who they depended on to fill major roles, they were expected to become the team’s core. Just to drive this point home let’s name a few veterans, try not to get too upset. Have a seat if you’re a diehard, we brought in Chone Figgins, Cliff Lee, Milton Bradley, Adam Kennedy, Brendan Ryan, Erik Bedard, Kevin Millwood, Raul Ibanez (at 41), Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Austin Jackson etc. Not all of them were terrible but they were all overpaid for their production. That young core had talent, but nothing like we have now. The players who produced the most on those teams were often the younger and cheaper talent such as Seager, Smoak, Ackley, Saunders, Lopez, Paxton, and Zunino.
The plan for the current front office is to always have a group of young players who will be the core players for a 3-5-year window and then to add complimentary veteran players via trade or free agency. The other major change in philosophy will most likely involve allowing some of the young talent to leave once they are beyond the arbitration period.
At that point, players start demanding salaries in the 20 plus million dollars a year range. We have not gotten the best from Felix and Seager after signing them to large extensions. I’m not saying every player should not be signed to an extension after the arbitration period, but most do pull their weight after that point. I believe this group will be more careful in evaluating what they can afford to pay players in these situations. With more money to spend, you can afford to add a few more expensive veterans to one- or two-year deals to provide depth and stability in areas you need it. Say you have a young catcher who is great behind the plate but is struggling with his swing. You can afford to acquire a quality veteran catcher or even two, so you don’t have to rush that young player and allow him to develop properly.
With all the positive changes that have taken place, I don’t think the playoff-less streak stands to last much longer. I expect the Mariners to be in contention for the next several seasons. Starting in 2019, not 2020.