Coming off an 89-win season—the most victories since the 93-win campaign of 2003—that saw the Seattle Mariners miss the playoffs, yet again, by 8 games, general manager Jerry Dipoto changed course during the offseason by trading away many of the familiar names on the roster and attempting to get younger, more athletic, and cheaper.
Household names in Seattle such as Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino, James Paxton, and Edwin Diaz are gone. The replacements at both the major-league level and within the farm system are in place for what Dipoto refers to as the opening of a 2020-21 window of playoff viability.
Here is a brief overview of the 2019 Mariners:
In the offseason, Mike Zunino, the Mariners’ primary catcher for four of the last five years (slumping and injured in 2016), was dealt to the Tampa Rays, along with fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia and Michael Plassmeyer, in exchange for this year’s projected center fielder, Mallex Smith, and outfield prospect Jake Frayley.
In 2017, it appeared Zunino had figured it out at the plate, hitting .251/.331/.509 with 25 HR and an OPS+ of 125. But last season he regressed to his impatient approach, posting a .201/.259/.410 slash line, striking out 37% of the time, with a below league average 85 OPS+. His 1.5 fWAR was largely a product of his play behind the plate, not swinging the bat at the dish.
This season, the Mariners will primarily deploy Omar Narvaez, who was acquired from the Chicago white Sox this offseason in a trade that saw reliever Alex Colome go from the Emerald City to the Windy City in the deal.
Last season with the Sox, Narvaez played in 97 games with 322 PA, slashed .277/.373/.429 for a wRC+ of 122. This season, the most generous of projections sees Narvaez as a logging 111 games, 448 PA, while hitting .270/.352/.388 and a wRC+ of 111. While maybe not as good as Zunino defensively, Narvaez should provide a little bit more consistency getting on base.
Mariners fans will see some continuity at first base. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.
Returning to primary duty at 1B in 2019 is Ryon Healy. Last season, Healy was competent (at best) at the plate, hitting .235 with an abysmal .277 OBP and slugging .412 to create a wRC+ of 90 or 10% below league average, at what is usually the offensively productive position of first base.
Defensively, the 6’5”, 225-pounder was just short of a nightmare. Pick your advanced defensive metric of choice: UZR was the most generous at -4 runs while DRS (defensive runs saved) charted Healy at -9 runs.
But perhaps with two full seasons in the majors now under his belt, Healy can show some improvement in the field. The problem is, his size and range don’t suggest it.
For the 2019 season, Healy projects to hit in the .250’s, get on base at a sub-.300 clip, slug in the .450 range, and produce positive WAR—a vast improvement over last season’s -0.6 fWAR and matching bWAR.
Sharing some of the load at first will be offseason acquisitions Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion. Bruce came over from the New York Mets in the deal that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to Queens. Encarnacion comes from the Cleveland Indians in a three-way deal with the Rays that sent Carlos Santana, who wasn’t in Seattle long enough to get a cup of Starbucks, to the Indians. The Rays sent cash and a draft pick to the Mariners. The Mariners also agreed to pay $6MM of Santana’s contract for the Indians. And yes, keeping up with Jerry Dipoto is a full-time job in and of itself.
Both Encarnacion and Bruce are best suited to DH, but rest and play in NL parks will necessitate some service time at first. Encarnacion, once a feared hitter, remains a threat at the plate. Last season was the first time he slugged below .500 since 2011. Still he managed to hit .246/.336/.474 in in 579 PA and crush 32 HR. For the upcoming season, ZIPS projects .237/.337/.445 with 26 HR, a wRC+ of 118 and 1.6 WAR.
In 94 games for the Mets in 2018, Bruce hit .223/.311/.437 with a below average wRC+ of 89 and an fWAR of 0.1. For this season, ZIPS projects .233/.311/.427, a slightly above average wRC+ of 102 for 0.8 WAR.
If either Encarnacion or Bruce is productive early, do expect Dipoto to move them at the deadline in order to stockpile more prospects. In the meantime, they will mostly DH, with Encarnacion getting the majority of AB.
Jerry Dipoto managed to unload the back half of Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240MM contract, a figure that seems antiquated and quaint in the aftershocks of Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300MM contract, Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330MM deal, and the rumors of a Mike Trout extension worth $350MM over 10 years.
However, unloading Cano’s contract (and to be fair: It’s paid for itself so far in excellent production) did come with a price. In order to get the Mets to take Cano’s contract, ace reliever Edwin Diaz was included in the deal. Critics during the offseason questioned the quality of the players acquired, which included top-50 prospect Jarred Kelenic, for the lights out Diaz. But pitcher’s arms being what they are and aging curves still mattering, it may one day seem fortuitous to part ways with the 36-year-old second baseman coming off a PED suspension and the electric Diaz for an up and coming nineteen-year-old centerfielder.
That said, second will be manned for now by Dee Gordon. With the failed outfield experiment behind him (-8 DRS in 435.1 innings), Gordon returns to the middle of the diamond where he found himself after the Cano suspension. He’s at least league average defensively and still at age 30 brings speed on the base paths, if not great on base skills.
In 141 games last season, Gordon hit .268/.288/.349 for a wRC+ of 79 and zero WAR. He also stole 30 bases.
For the upcoming campaign, ZIPS projects Gordon .284/.311/.335 with 39 SB. The lack of pop will certainly result in a sub 100 wRC+ but the return to a comfortable defensive position pushes his projected WAR back up to 1.8.
Gone after two 3+ WAR seasons is shortstop Jean Segura. In exchange for Segura, the Mariners obtained one-time elite prospect J.P. Crawford from the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mariners also sent pitchers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to Philly and got back Carlos Santana who was flipped for Edwin Encarnacion almost immediately.
Crawford who was the 16th overall pick in the 2013 draft just turned 24 in January, but he has struggled at the major league level.
In 225 PA over two seasons, Crawford has hit .214/.333/.358 with a 91 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR. To be fair, he hit well in the minors, and the Phillies moved him around the diamond a lot having him play second, short, and third. Possibly some early season time in Tacoma and a commitment by the Mariners to play him at shortstop will ease Crawford back onto the trajectory seen for him back in 2013.
In the meantime, the Mariners will rely on offseason-signing Tim Beckham. In a career spent with the Rays and the Baltimore Orioles, Beckham has been worth 4 WAR, while hitting .252/.304/.424 for a 98 wRC+.
According to both DRS and UZR, Beckham is an adequate, if slightly below-average fielder. Clearly the Mariners view Beckham as a stop-gap at short and then as a utility infielder going forward.
Another familiar face will be manning the hot corner this season. Coming off a down year, Kyle Seager looks to rebound. After six consecutive years of above-average hitting, including a wRC+ of 127 in 2014 that earned him his current seven-year, $100MM contract (a bargain in retrospect) and a career high wRC+ of 134 in 2016, Seager continued a disturbing downward spiral that began in 2017. For 2018, Seager slashed .221/.273/.400 in 630 PA. His 84 wRC+ was a career low, as was his 1.6 fWAR.
All projections predict a bit of a bounce back with Fans being the most optimistic. If, in fact, Seager could hit .253/.317/.449 with a 111 wRC+ and 3.8 WAR as Fans predicts, Mariners fans would be ecstatic.
The most rumored trade piece and the one that would have brought back the greatest yield wasn’t traded. Dipoto covets Mitch Haniger and believes he fits in cleanly with the rebuild. With his skill set and the fact that he just turned 28, Haniger is the star of the 2019 Mariners, for now.
In his breakout season, Haniger hit .285/.366/.493 with 26 HR, a wRC+ of 138, for 4.6 fWAR. Haniger experienced a bit of a slump last July but bounced back nicely in August and September to push his second half numbers to be even better than the first half. Fans projections are the most bullish on Haniger, projecting a slash line of .290/.377/.518 with 28 HR, 112 R, 103 RBI, and 7 SB.
Keep an eye on him during your fantasy draft. In real baseball, the expectation by Fans is a 148 wRC+ for 5.7 fWAR. Of all the players on the current Mariners roster, expect to see Mitch Haniger at the All-Star game barring injuries.
In centerfield, Mallex Smith should see the majority of playing time. Acquired from the Rays as the primary component in the Mike Zunino deal, Smith is coming off his second major league season hitting .296/.367/.406 with 40 SB. With little pop but a whole lot of speed and plus-defense, Smith provided a 117 wRC+ and 3.4 fWAR in 2018. Given his on base superiority to the Mariners other speedster, Dee Gordon, Smith looks to slot in at lead-off. The projections range between 2.3 and 3.3 WAR with Fans, again, being the most optimistic. Fans expects a 2019 Mallex Smith campaign to look like .282/.348/.379 with 36 SB (the high end of projections is 43 SB), a wRC+ of 107 and the aforementioned 3.3 WAR.
In left, Domingo Santana, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Ben Gamel and minor league pitcher Noah Zavados, is just one year removed from a 30-HR season. In 2017, Santana slashed .278/.371/.505 with 30 HR, 88 R, 85 RBI, and 15 SB for a 127 wRC+ and 3.3 fWAR. Last season Santana struggled and did spend some time back in AAA. Over the course of 85 games in the majors, Santana hit an OK .265/.328/.412 with only 5 HR, a below-league average 97 wRC+, and 0.7 fWAR. But in September and October, after returning from the minors, Santana hit .409 and tallied 2 of the 5 HR.
Obviously the Mariners are hoping for the 2017 Santana. All of the projections systems are also expecting a bounce back, Fans being the most generous with a .273/.352/.469 line, 25 dingers, 129 wRC+, and 3.4 WAR. More likely is something a bit more conservative like the ZiPS projection of .231/.329/.430, 22 HR, 112 wRC+, and 1.6 WAR.
The two major subtractions from last season’s stable of arms are, of course, top of the rotation lefty James Paxton and lights out closer Edwin Diaz. Not even the most casual of fans didn’t notice those moves this winter.
Paxton was dealt to the Yankees, in exchange for the highly touted lefty, Justus Sheffield, righty Eric Swanson and outfielder Don Thomas-Williams. Diaz went to the Mets with Robinson Cano in the deal that returned Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Jarred Kelenic, and Justin Dunn, with prospect Kelenic being the real value in the move.
On the flip side, the two major additions to the pitching staff are Japanese free-agent left hander Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield. Both project to be middle to top of the rotation starters in the major leagues. Neither is probably an “ace,” but both could be above average twos or threes on a big-league roster.
Kikuchi, who will turn 28 in June, has pitched for the Saitama Seibu Lions in the Japanese Nipon League for eight seasons, posting a 2.77 ERA and a 1.169 WHIP. Following in the paths of Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka, Kikuchi will need to adjust to the larger MLB baseball and a five-man rotation, as opposed to six. That said, all projections see Kikuchi throwing somewhere in the 140-inning range with an ERA anywhere from 3.95 to 4.51. All reports from Spring Training so far, however, indicate those estimates could be on the conservative side.
Justus Sheffield will turn 23 in May and was taken 31st overall in the 2014 draft by the Cleveland Indians out of high school. In 2018, he pitched five games in AA before being promoted to AAA Scranton in the Yankees system. There he pitched 20 games to a 2.56 ERA with 8.59 K/9 but 3.58 BB/9. Command, so far, has been his issue as everyone lauds his stuff. If he can master command of his off-speed pitches, Sheffield has a top of the rotation ceiling. His floor is middle of the rotation. Most projections for this season place him in the 120-130 inning range with an ERA between 4.27 and 4.63.
Marco Gonzales looks to be the number one on the staff. That may be more telling of the Mariners in 2019 than of Gonzales. With a career 4.46 ERA, Gonzales is entering his age twenty-seven season. Last season, Gonzales hurled 166.2 innings to a 4.00 ERA, albeit with a 3.43 FIP and a 3.59 xFIP. Most projections see Gonzales in the 160-180 inning range with a best-case scenario ERA of 3.92.
Veteran Mike Leake returns to the mound for the Mariners off a 10-10, 185.2 inning, 4.36 ERA 2018 campaign. At 31, the right-hander pretty much is what you see: a middle-of-the-rotation innings- eater. That has value on any MLB team. Several projections have Leake nearing the 200-inning threshold, which is becoming increasingly rare. In an era when pitchers rarely go through the lineup three times, his mid 4 ERA probably means he will be handing the ball off most games in the 6th or the 7th with 3 or 4 runs on the board.
Rounding out the lefty-heavy rotation is last year’s surprise, Wade LeBlanc. The 34-year old went 9-9 in 162 innings for a 3.72 ERA. May was outstanding for LeBlanc with a 1.72 ERA in which he allowed just a .214 BA. His performance was impressive enough for the front office to extend him midseason. This season, LeBlanc is projected to pitch in the 140-160 inning range and provide a solid mid 4 ERA.
The big question mark in the rotation is franchise icon Felix Hernandez. Coming off two consecutive injury-plagued seasons and entering the final year of his contract, Hernandez posted a career high 5.55 ERA in 2018. Whispers from Arizona indicate that Felix didn’t look in “the best shape of his life” when he reported and his first Spring outing was rocky, at best.
A second outing did look more encouraging. None of the projection systems see Hernandez topping 130 innings. In fact, that one projection is the only one foreseeing an inning total over 100. It would be nice to see the King bounce back, but Mariners fans shouldn’t hold their breath. If he struggles early, it will be very strange to see him coming out of the bullpen.
Countdown to Opening Day
The Mariners will begin their season early with two games in Tokyo against the Oakland A’s where Ichiro Suzuki will likely play his final games in a Mariners uniform. All the new players will get a chance to perform outside the Pacific Northwest (has T-Mobile named the stadium yet?) in preparation for the home opener against the defending World Series Champion, Boston Red Sox.
Preseason projections have the Mariners winning anywhere from 73 to 79 games this season.
The Seattle Mariners in 2019 may not be good, but they should be interesting to watch as Dipoto attempts to transition them into contention circa 2020-2021.