Seattle Support Staff: Have the Mariners Surrounded Their Stars With Enough Talent to Finally Make a Playoff Run?

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

With both Pittsburgh and Kansas City finally tasting October baseball over the past two seasons, just three franchises still wander the wilderness of decade-plus playoff droughts: the Blue Jays (21 seasons), the Mariners (13 seasons), and the Marlins (11 seasons). Could we see another Pirates- or Royals-like emergence into the postseason promised land this year? Yes, in an unsettled, chaotic American League — with top talents like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields off to the National League, and traditionally acquisitive teams like the Yankees, Angels, and Tigers notably not aggressive in free agency — the numbers do happen to project playoff baseball in Seattle.

At first glance, given the makeup of the Mariners’ roster, that may seem like an aggressive prediction. Coming off an 87-win season, the M’s boast two superstars in Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, while Kyle Seager and Hisashi Iwakuma sit just a half-notch below. After that, it’s a morass of question marks for a 25-man roster filled with high-variance players.

Still, ownership deserves some credit for actually spending some of its $115 million–a-year, local-TV-contract windfall, acquiring Cano after the 2013 season and then bringing in Nelson Cruz this offseason to bolster a moribund offense. While the fate of this year’s team will rest, largely, on a passel of homegrown players who should be entering their prime but remain uncertain commodities, the M’s finally have enough of a foundation in place to seriously make a postseason run.

Here are six of the biggest questions for Lloyd McClendon’s crew as they head into spring training.

1. What Kind of Difference Will Nelson Cruz Make?

nelson-cruz-marinersOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The M’s first looked hard at Cruz following the 2013 season, ultimately opting not to buy low on a player coming off a PED suspension. Instead, they waited a year … and then bought high, signing Cruz to a four-year, $57 million contract after he went nuts (40 homers and a .271/.333/.525 line in 159 games) on a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles in 2014. Generally speaking, this is a terrible way to run a baseball team and a great way to accumulate albatross contracts. Cruz is 34 years old, he’s topped 128 games played in a season only twice, and he offers nothing beyond his bat. This deal is probably going to end terribly.

Still, the first year of the contract could hold some promise. Even a lesser version of 2014 Cruz would provide a big boost for these Mariners. The M’s hit 136 homers last season, 10th among American League teams — and we can’t chalk all of that up to park effects either, not when Seattle ranked 12th among AL teams in park-adjusted offense. Generally speaking, Safeco Field is murder on right-handed power hitters, but Cruz’s power last year was so immense that no major league ballpark would’ve made a major difference in his total output. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, 23 of Cruz’s 40 home runs would’ve been homers if he’d hit them all to dead center at Safeco (401 feet). Cruz did hit 13 homers in 2014 that just barely cleared the wall, but that’s a typical figure for the major league leader in round-trippers.1

The designated hitters Cruz will be replacing slashed a meek .206/.276/.335 and produced a .274 Weighted On Base Average in 2014, both second-worst in the AL.2 And they hit .199 with 11 home runs against fastballs, compared with Cruz’s .324 and 23 home runs against the same pitch.

So yes, the M’s royally botched the timing of the Cruz signing and paid the price, but there’s also little doubt he’ll help a popgun offense that sorely needs a power spike in 2015. With only two other right-handed hitters (catcher Mike Zunino and center fielder Austin Jackson) projected to be everyday starters and/or see the bulk of a platoon’s playing time, Cruz’s righty juice should provide an offensive boost.

2. What About New Right Fielder Seth Smith?

Smith isn’t a big bopper like Cruz, but he’s a legitimate on-base threat, delivering a .367 OBP in 2014 and sporting a career .347 mark. The M’s could sorely use that production: In addition to failing to hit homers, they consistently struggled to get on base last year, flashing a lowly .300 OBP that was tied for 28th in the majors.

The hope will also be that Smith wears down opposing pitchers with his patience at the plate. Among 146 batting title–qualified players, his 13.2 percent walk rate ranked seventh, while Seattle’s 6.6 percent walk rate placed 26th among all teams.

3. How Will the Roster Changes Affect the Outfield Defense?

austin-jackson-seattleRob Leiter/Getty Images

Last season, on fly balls hit at least 250 feet that ended up in the field of play, the Mariners limited opponents to a .086 batting average — the third-stingiest mark in the AL. When those balls were also classified as hard-hit, the Mariners held opponents to a .301 batting average, the fourth-best mark in the junior circuit. Even more impressive: Those fly-chasing results came despite 1,150 combined innings played by James Jones and Endy Chavez. Although Jones boasts impressive speed and Chavez has a past reputation as an all-world defender, both rated as below-average glovemen last year, according to Baseball Info Solutions metrics.

More important, the M’s will benefit from getting a full slate of Jackson. After trading for the center fielder last July, they allowed a .273 batting average on hard-hit balls to center field hit at least 250 feet and into the field of play — 23 points lower than the league average and 46 points lower than they’d allowed before the trade. Flanking Jackson, Dustin Ackley — who saved seven more runs than the average left fielder last year — enters his second full season as the starting left fielder, and the combination of Smith, roughly a league-average outfielder in 2014 per Baseball Info Solutions, and platoon-mate Justin Ruggiano should be no worse than Jones and Chavez.

As long as the Mariners keep the stone-handed, 230-pound statue that is Cruz far, far, far away from any position other than DH, the outfield should again provide some solid defensive support.

4. Can the M’s Find an Effective Third Starter?

There’s no debating that this rotation’s top two are formidable. Just consider the following:

• Hernandez struck out 135 batters with his changeup last season on his way to a second-place Cy Young finish. Fourteen entire pitching staffs didn’t have that many strikeouts with changeups last year.

• Iwakuma got batters to swing at his splitter outside of the strike zone 46.4 percent of the time last season, more frequently than any other qualified pitcher in MLB.

Assuming Hernandez can keep his streak of 2,000-plus innings pitched and no major injuries going, and Iwakuma can keep dominating at age 34, the Mariners can claim one of the top 1-2 combinations in the league.

The other 60 percent of the rotation is where things could get dicey. Lefty James Paxton showed promise in his rookie season, generating a 54.8 percent ground-ball rate over 74 innings pitched, and veteran southpaw J.A. Happ posted the lowest walk rate of his career last season with the Jays. Roenis Elias, meanwhile, is coming off a playable rookie season in which he hurled 163.2 innings with close to league-average results, and should offer some depth. But questions surround 22-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker: A consensus top prospect just last year,3 it’s still unclear whether he’s anything more than a fastball/cutter slinger with iffy command and an inability to stay healthy.

What’s most concerning is that those four will be attempting to replicate the production of what was mostly an unreplicable season from the departed Chris Young. Despite giving up hard contact at a near–18 percent rate last year, fifth-highest among qualifying starters, the veteran right-hander allowed just 23.8 percent of balls in play to fall in for hits, which was the lowest among all AL starters — and a gigantic fluke.

While the new guys are almost certainly better than Young ability-wise, it’ll be tough to surpass his aberrant 2014 performance. So if the M’s fancy themselves legitimate playoff contenders, acquiring a reliable and effective no. 3 starter before the trade deadline should be high on their to-do list.

5. Can the Bullpen Plow Through the League Again?

fernando-rodney-seattleRob Leiter/Getty Images

M’s relievers produced a league-low 2.60 ERA in 2014, but bullpen performance is inherently volatile, and your best bet when trying to project a reliever’s performance is to take the under: Mainstays like Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel are stupendously rare exceptions, and even then, skill erosion and/or injuries are inevitable — there was only one Mariano Rivera. With a battalion of relievers who excelled for an entire season, you have a prime candidate for regression.

The good news is that Seattle’s bullpen wasn’t filled with a bunch of soft-tossing Chris Young–type luckmongers. As a group, M’s relievers averaged 93.6 mph on their fastballs, the highest in the AL. They posted the ninth-highest chase rate on fastballs and the 11th-highest rate on breaking balls, and allowed a .172 hard-hit average on fastballs thrown in the strike zone, good enough for third in the AL. Given the simple law of averages, we shouldn’t expect another stable full of Dennis Eckersleys, but there’s a decent chance the pen could be a net asset in 2015.

6. What About Everyone Else?

This is where Seattle’s season could turn. Ackley, Zunino, and shortstop Brad Miller, who’s going into his first season as the guaranteed, first-choice starter, combined to post an atrocious .274 on-base percentage last year. Respectively heading into their age-27, -24, and -25 seasons, they’re all prime candidates for breakouts — or at least tangible improvement. If Miller falters, top middle-infield prospect Chris Taylor could get a crack at his job, while Ackley could receive some support from recently signed veteran Rickie Weeks, who was brought on as a utility man but still hasn’t played a single game as a pro in the outfield.

Although Weeks and Ruggiano should help improve on last year’s lack of depth — Mariners pinch hitters posted an atrocious .253 OBP and .259 slugging average in 2014 — Seattle still lacks impact prospects in the high minors. The M’s are incredibly vulnerable to, say, the extremely fragile Logan Morrison hitting the DL, Cruz having one of his nearly annual extended absences, or Iwakuma’s arsenal of high-stress pitches finally catching up with his 34-year-old arm.

Most of these questions have promising answers, and in an American League that lacks a clear favorite, the Mariners have the talent to finally snap their long playoff drought — in addition to the financial wherewithal to acquire a few pieces at the deadline, if need be. If a handful of their youngsters make good on their potential, and if the front office is able to reinforce the starting rotation at some point, Seattle fans just might have some baseball to watch come October.

Ken Woolums from ESPN Stats & Information provided research assistance for this article.

Filed Under: MLB, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners, American League, Kyle Seager, Hisashi Iwakuma, Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Austin Jackson, Taijuan Walker, Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, AL West, MLB Preview, 2015 MLB Preview, Baseball, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, comes out March 3 and is now available for preorder.

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