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Behind Enemy Lines: Heading out west with Lookout Landing

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The Tigers kick off their final west coast trip of the season on Monday in Seattle.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

West coast trips are the bane of existence for just about every baseball team (and fanbase) on the east coast. The Detroit Tigers were unfortunate enough to have two trips out west on the schedule this year, and they kick off the second on Monday in Seattle.

The Mariners, currently mired in the longest active playoff drought in baseball, are hot on the heels of the Tigers in the AL Wild Card race. The M’s have a 57-53 record, and sit just 3 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the AL standings.

In order to preview this important series, we spoke with Nathan Bishop, managing editor of Lookout Landing, SB Nation’s excellent Mariners site. Nathan and the rest of their staff have long been one of my favorite reads on our network, and their Mariners coverage is second-to-none. Nathan’s comments on the 2016 Mariners are below, and you can read our half of the Q&A over at Lookout Landing.

Heading into the season, the Mariners' starting rotation seemed like a strength, but they have been relatively average by most measures. What went wrong? And what's up with Felix Hernandez?

The answer to the first part is, primarily, injury. The only Mariner in the preseason starting rotation that has managed to stay healthy all year has been Hisashi Iwakuma, who only came back to the team after the Dodgers decided he was too much of an injury risk. Taijuan Walker, Nathan Karns, Wade Miley, and yes, Felix Hernandez have all struggled with injury and ineffectiveness.

Tiger fans probably remember June 23, when Mariner emergency starter Adrian Sampson had to leave the game with an elbow injury before throwing a single pitch. Yeah, it's been that kind of year for the starters.

As for Felix, well, y'know, y'all have Justin Verlander so you have walked down this path as well. Felix's reduced velocity is nothing new, and over the years he's shown little loss in effectiveness, primarily due to his secondary offerings all being incredibly good. However, the combination of velocity loss and reduced command appear to have crossed over the threshold, and it's hard to imagine him regaining his form as an elite starting pitcher. He is still very effective, and at the risk of doing bad analysis he competes as well as any pitcher alive. But the days of Cy Youngs, and complete game shutouts, appear to be over.

On the other hand, the Mariners offense has been better than expected. Entering play this weekend, they rank second in the AL with a 107 wRC+ and third in the league in home runs, even ahead of the Tigers. How did this happen, and is it sustainable?

Do you want me to answer that question with some in depth analysis, or do you wanna watch the Mariners crush some dingers?

The Mariners of the late 90s used the cozy confines of the Kingdome, and the talents of Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and others to hit home runs at a rate still unmatched in baseball history. The idea of an offense in that mold being recreated was thought to be impossible, due to restrictions on PEDs, "Marine Layers", and larger ballpark dimensions.

The 2016 Mariners have succeeded by flipping that conception on its head. While they are an amazingly bad baserunning team, their 156 home runs rank behind only Boston and Toronto in all of MLB. They don't hit sutationally, they don't take the extra base. They mash. Again, Detroit fans will probably recognize the style.

During the offseason, new general manager Jerry Dipoto seemingly made a move every other day, even if they weren't all that sexy. How do you grade his performance thus far?

Dipoto inherited a deeply, deeply dysfunctional organization. The Mariners not only have an expensive, and aging core, but Jack Zduriencik's staff failed to develop the farm to an astonishing degree. Player development, coaching, philosophical design and impact were all disastrously broken, to the point that seemingly every single young player the Mariners touched played to about his 10-20% outcome.

The new front office has attempted to maximize whatever window remains from the Cano/Felix/Cruz/Seager core, by acquiring veteran talent on short term deals, with no longterm risk, and little cost to acquire. Players like Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta, Leonys Martin, Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, and on and on. The results have been mixed, as buying low propositions tend to be, but it has been sufficient to plug the gaps in a badly flawed MLB roster.

As for player development, the early results are very promising. Dipoto hired relative unknown Andy McKay to run the player development program. McKay is a thoughtful, interesting guy, who believes mental skills and preparation are the next frontier of baseball development. Mariner minor leaguers have responded, with players like Mike Zunino, DJ Peterson, Tyler O'Neill, Andrew Moore, and many others all enjoying huge bounceback years.

The key to Dipoto's regime will be turning the Mariners farm system into a talent factory. It's something the franchise has never really had, even in their brief glory years. Here's hoping.

Maybe it's just the people I follow on Twitter, but Mike Zunino seems like a huge fan favorite in Seattle. He had an awful 2015 season, but is showing signs of improvement in 2016. Obviously, a 211 wRC+ isn't sustainable, but how good do you think peak Mike Zunino will be?

It's hard to overstate just how awful Mike Zunino was in 2015. For my money he was the easiest non-pitcher out I think I have ever seen in major league baseball. A 47 wRC+, 34.2 K%, and .230 on-base percentage. It was the bleakest of bleak, and Zunino apparently nearly had a breakdown over his frustration.

The important thing to realize with Zunino is how much value he adds simply by hitting acceptably. This is a player that accrued 1.8 fWAR in 2014 while hitting .199. He is by all accounts above average to excellent at the defensive side of the game. His development has been all about pitch recognition, which is something he was not afforded by the previous administration, which promoted him to MLB in 2013 as a 22-year old with just over 100 professional games under his belt, and a 96 wRC+ in Triple-A.

Zunino's plate discipline appears vastly improved, his contact rate is way up, and his power has never been in question. While, clearly, he isn't the second coming of Pudge Rodriguez the talent of an All-Star Catcher has always been there. It appears, once again, he has a chance to reaching that level, and the way he has been handled this year is perhaps the single biggest feather in Jerry DIpoto's cap.

The Mariners had a relatively quiet trade deadline, but made a last-minute move to trade Wade Miley to Baltimore. Was this a good move for the M's, and are fans ok with being sellers (even in a relatively small sense)?

I don't think fans view them as being sellers. While I was fine with the team potentially selling players like Taijuan Walker to restock the farm in a huge seller's market, the Miley trade appears to have been an attempt to replace his middling production with a younger, cheaper equivalent in Ariel Miranda.

The Mariners are in an odd spot, record wise. They aren't particularly close to a playoff spot, but after spending two months playing teams with a combined 53.2% winning percentage, while being ravaged by injury up and down the roster, the schedule is letting up. Their series with the Tigers is their last against a team with an above .500 record until the Rangers at the end of the month. Simultaneously, Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, reliever Nick Vincent, and shortstop Ketel Marte are all back or due back very soon.

This is a roster that, when healthy through May, had one of baseball's best run differentials, and records. The talent is there for a late season run, and while buying under these circumstances would have been foolish, not selling, and letting it play out, was the right call.

★★★

Once again, a big thank you goes out to Nathan and the rest of the Lookout Landing staff for taking the time to answer our questions. The other half of our Q&A is over here — pretty sure blogs are also tape-delayed on the west coast — and be sure to check out their site for the very best Mariners coverage and analysis!