If the team win probability model built by Nate Silver in his tenure at Baseball Prospectus, known as PECOTA, is the gold standard for predicting the standings in baseball, then Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections is the benchmark for forecasting player performance, year over year. Hardcore baseball fans wait patiently throughout the winter months as slowly but surely Dan runs his proprietary model on each and every player in each organization in MLB. Earlier this week, the ZIPS projections for the Seattle Mariners were published at Fangraphs for the upcoming season. The results reveal a team in nearly full tear down with a bumpy ride ahead.
Only three position players for the 2020 Mariners project as 2+ WAR players – Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, and Dan Vogelbach. Haniger will miss opening day recovering from core surgery, a factor ZIPS does take into account, but also he is no longer a prospect having turned 29 last month. Haniger may be the only remaining piece on the Mariners major league roster that could fetch a prospect in return, so his projected 2.6 fWAR may end up contributing to another team come mid-season. Seager is now 32 and the monster 2016 season when he hit 30 bombs and had an OPS+ of 133 is in the rearview mirror, but he did bounce back from an abysmal 2018 to put up decent numbers last year. Seager could also draw some interest from contenders at the trade deadline, given his relatively cheap by today’s standards $15MM per contract with two years remaining. The only potential complication is that the 2022 team option becomes a player’s option if Seager is traded. Vogelbach is entering his age 27 season and should be a competent DH, having proved to be less than adequate defensively at 1B. Evan White, who was drafted 17th overall in 2017 out of the University of Kentucky, is expected to be a strong candidate for first base coming out of spring training.
By position, the aforementioned 1B and also LF are projected to be liabilities for the 2020 Mariners. ZIPS projects a tandem of White and Austin Nola at first returning -0.4 fWAR and a combination of 2016 first-rounder Kyle Lewis and 2016 second-rounder, acquired from the Tampa Rays, Jake Fraley to contribute -0.2 fWAR in left. White, Lewis, and Fraley will be making their major league debuts this season, fresh off leading the Arkansas Travelers to a Texas League AA championship. Nola played in 79 games last year, but at age 30 isn’t considered an integral part of the Mariners rebuild. His major contribution in 2019 won’t be in left or at first but behind the plate as backup catcher to Tom Murphy.
Other familiar names from 2019 include Dee Gordon at 2B, Mallex Smith, a fantasy god for his SB, in CF, and JP Crawford at SS. ZIPS forecasts 0.5 fWAR, 1.6 fWAR, and 1.6 fWAR respectively for the trio. Gordon will turn 32 in April and is in the last season of a 5yr / $50MM contract he signed with the Miami Marlins. The Mariners can only hope for a fast start that might entice trade interest. Otherwise, they will almost certainly not exercise the 2021 option and part ways after this season. Mallex Smith’s speed on the basepaths didn’t quite translate in the outfield last season as he had -12 defensive runs saved (drs) and a -9 ultimate zone rating (UZR). Ultimately, top prospect Jarred Kelenic, who GM Jerry Dipoto stole from the New York Mets in the Robinson Cano / Edwin Diaz trade, will spell Smith in centerfield, but probably not this season, as the Mariners are in no hurry to get him to the big leagues. Fans in Little Rock will enjoy Kelenic’s AA debut this summer. (Fun fact – ZIPS best comp for Kelenic is borderline HOFer Bobby Abreu). Crawford, who just turned 25, needs to show progress in several areas. Once a top prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, Crawford hit just .226/.313/.371 with a below-average 87 OPS+, while costing the team -6 Rdrs in just 93 games played for the Mariners in 2019. ZIPS projects Crawford at .232/.322/.362 with 89 OPS+ and contributing 1.6 fWAR, behind only Haniger, Seager, and Vogelbach for everyday players.
In 2020, Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, and Justus Sheffield will be the mainstays in the rotation. The soon-to-be 28-year-old Gonzales has proven to be a solid starter, if not the ace of a contender’s staff. In 2019 he pitched to a 3.99 ERA, outperforming his 4.15 FIP and 5.11 xFIP, for 3.5 rWAR or 3.7 fWAR. ZIPS anticipates a bit of a regression based on those peripheral numbers and projects Gonzales as the only +2.0 WAR pitcher on the team at 2.3 fWAR. Kikuchi struggled in his first major league season after leaving the Saitama Seibu Lions of the Japanese Nippon League to sign with the Mariners in MLB. The pitcher who lit up the Nippon League in 2017 with a 1.97 ERA, struggled in the big leagues and posted a horrific 5.46 ERA. ZIPS expects a positive regression, albeit not to where the Mariners might have hoped, with a 4.56 ERA and 1.5 fWAR. In a late-season small sample size, former New York Yankees prospect Justus Sheffield started 7 games in 2019 for the Mariners and posted a 5.50 ERA, but with a 4.71 FIP. Not yet 24, Sheffield still has plenty of time to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter. The lefthander (all of the three are lefty’s) is projected for 29 starts, a 4.56 ERA, and 1.1 fWAR.
Two other names that should be on Mariners fans’ radars in 2020 are Zac Grotz, a reliever, and Logan Gilbert, a starter. Also part of the Travelers championship team in 2019, Grotz is a bit of a late bloomer, drafted out of college in 2015. He posted a 2.51 ERA in AA and pitched some out of the bullpen in Seattle last year. ZIPS rank him tied with Justus for third place among Mariners pitchers in WAR in less than half the innings. The 22-year-old Gilbert (turns 23 in May) pitched at three levels last season, A, A+, and AA, for a combined 2.13 ERA. ZIPS projects Gilbert with 120.7 innings with the Mariners and a 4.66 ERA. As the Mariners’ 2019 pitching prospect of the year, his first stint in the majors may be a bit rocky, but expect good things to come in time. Between Gilbert and Justus, the Mariners project to have a solid middle of the rotation for the foreseeable future.
What to Expect in 2020
A look around the diamond for the Mariners in 2020 and three distinct categories stand out. There are aging players who won’t be here in 2022 – Dee Gordon, Kyle Seager, and maybe Mitch Haniger. There are placeholders, most notably Mallex Smith. And there are prospects such as Evan White, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley, and possibly still JP Crawford. The prospect list is obviously led by Jarred Kelenic, but he likely won’t see much, if any, playing time in the majors this season.
On the mound, Marco Gonzales at 28 may be an integral part of the 2022 Mariners as he is arbitration-eligible in 2021 and doesn’t become a free agent until 2024. Yusei Kikuchi, the second-oldest starter at 29 behind only Wade LeBlanc at 35, needs to show that he can pitch in MLB. He is under team control through 2025 and could play a role similar to Hisashi Iwakuma from the last winning Mariners teams. The future will be on display on days that Justus Sheffield and Logan Gilbert take the mound. Their season-long statistics in 2020 likely won’t look that impressive, but there very well may be flashes of brilliance that bode well for the future in Seattle.