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2018 MLB team preview: The Seattle Mariners are on the fringes of the AL playoff race

The Mariners have talent on both sides of the ball, but might not have the depth to last a 162 game season.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Recently, we have been letting our collective imagination run wild on how the Detroit Tigers could exploit the current free agent market. Sure, they finished with an MLB-worst record of 64-98 last year (and traded several star players away in the process), but there’s still enough raw talent on the roster to squeeze out some improvement in 2018. Adding a free agent or two on a short-term deal doesn’t necessarily hurt the long-term outlook of the franchise, and hey, you might get lucky and contend for a playoff spot.

Now imagine how Seattle Mariners fans feel. The M’s are currently mired in the same sort of baseball purgatory the Tigers found themselves in from 2014 onward, and don’t have enough tradeable assets to dive head-first into a rebuild. Robinson Cano’s contract is as ugly as Miguel Cabrera’s, and Felix Hernandez’s decline is more permanent than what Justin Verlander went through in 2014. They also recently invested heavily in Kyle Seager, Mike Leake, and Jean Segura.

Given the current free agent market and a 16-year playoff drought, one wonders why the Mariners haven’t been more aggressive in addressing some of their shortcomings. Their biggest offseason addition so far is Dee Gordon, who will be learning a new position in 2018. They have hardly touched a starting rotation that had the fourth-highest FIP in the American League last year, and tried to fix a gaping hole at first base (where they were dead-last in WAR) with a couple of bargain bin additions, including a Rule 5 pick.

While the Mariners already have $160 million committed in payroll for 2018, you have to wonder what they could do if they added just a bit more salary. Re-signing Yonder Alonso wouldn’t have cost much, and a reunion with Logan Morrison is still a possibility. There are several free agents who would represent an upgrade over Ben Gamel in left field, too. Even the rotation would have benefitted from someone like Jaime Garcia, who signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays last week.

The M’s are projected to be neck-and-neck with other AL Wild Card contenders throughout the year. Every additional win added between now and September, either through free agency or trade, could literally pay for itself if Seattle snaps its playoff drought. Given how close they are to that level — and how little time their current window will be open — one hopes we don’t look back on their lackluster offseason and wonder what else could have been done to get the Mariners back into the postseason.

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 78-84 | 2017 pythag: 79-83 | 2018 farm system rank: 30
Manager: Scott Servais (3rd year)
SB Nation site: Lookout Landing
Key additions: IF Ryon Healy, 2B/OF Dee Gordon, RHP Nick Rumbelow, IF Andrew Romine, RHP Juan Nicasio
Key departures: LHP Drew Smyly, OF Jarrod Dyson, 1B Yonder Alonso, RHP Yovani Gallardo, IF Danny Valencia

Lineup

The Mariners had one of the better offenses in the American League last season, with a 102 wRC+. This was in large part thanks to the ageless Nelson Cruz, baseball’s best designated hitter by a mile last season. Cruz hit 39 home runs, further cementing that the ill-fated four-year deal he received after 2014 has, in fact, been a bargain. Also a bargain is catcher Mike Zunino, who had a breakout season before finally reaching arbitration this winter. The Mariners probably wish they had a couple of those years of club control back, when Zunino struggled to adjust to major league pitching. He continues to be a rock defensively, though he hasn’t graded out quite as well as a pitch framer over the past couple seasons.

The M’s also had a (mostly) productive infield. Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, and Jean Segura were all three-win players last season that provided above-average output on both sides of the ball. All three players are back in 2018, and Seattle hopes they will each stay healthy enough to compile at least 550 plate appearances apiece (as all three did last year). One might even be tempted to call them the best infield in the game… were it not for a black hole at first base. As mentioned, the Mariners ranked dead last in production at first last season, and they are arguably worse this year. Gone are Danny Valencia and Yonder Alonso. They have been replaced by should-be DH Dan Vogelbach, Rule 5 pick Mike Ford, and former A’s slugger Ryon Healy. One imagines Ford will get the nod over Vogelbach to start the year given his Rule 5 status (and positional versatility?), but both might combine for some at-bats while Healy recovers from a hand injury.

We don’t know what we’re going to get from Dee Gordon in the outfield, but we know what to expect from him at the plate. He’ll get on base despite an abysmal walk rate, and steal a ton of bags once he gets there. This formula has made him a perennial three-win player. One imagines his speed will translate well enough to Safeco’s spacious outfield, even if the instincts are a bit lacking. Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger return in the corners, where they formed two-thirds of one of the better defensive outfields in baseball last season. Both probably overachieved at the plate, but I’d still take the over on their combined projection of 2.6 fWAR (which Haniger might produce himself). With fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia recovering from a shoulder injury, one of Taylor Motter or old friend Andrew Romine might see the occasional outfield start early on.

Pitching staff

Even though there is still a King on staff, James Paxton has become the Mariners’ unquestioned ace. “Big Maple” built on a breakout 2016 season to put up 4.6 fWAR in just 136 innings last year, striking out nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced. His fastball velocity and walk rate regressed somewhat, but the only real concern is that he still couldn’t stay fully healthy. Injuries were a common theme for more than just Paxton, though. Felix Hernandez also struggled to stay on the mound for the second straight year, resulting in his lowest innings total since his rookie season. He also struggled to keep runs off the board, in large part due to the highest home run rate of his career. If he can continue to get by without relying on the fastball -- he threw his curveball and changeup more than ever last season -- he might be able to defy Father Time for just a bit longer.

In order to get to the playoffs, the Mariners will need a surprise performance from at least one of their three back-end starters. The most likely to beat expectations is Mike Leake, who had five stellar starts down the stretch last season after the Mariners acquired him from St. Louis. His 2.53 ERA in those 32 innings are over a full run better than anything he has done from 2013, but his high ground ball rate plays well with Seattle’s excellent infield defense. Lefty Marco Gonzales could also be that breakout pitcher, especially if his lower arm slot continues to pay dividends.

Marco’s motion as a whole seems elongated, as if he’s attempting to generate more power, and his leg lift is noticeably higher. Finally, his release point is further out from his body and lower, as his arm slot is now somewhere between 3/4ths and sidearm.

The challenge? Gonzales still needs to refine his secondaries (the changeup, in particular) with these new mechanics. Meanwhile, the Mariners may need to find a new fifth starter — or a temporary one, at least. Righthander Erasmo Ramirez was the frontrunner for the final rotation spot heading into this spring, but has already been sidelined with a lat injury. While his current timetable is only a couple weeks, lat injuries can be rather fickle. If Ramirez is unable to go, the M’s will likely turn to either aging righty Hisashi Iwakuma or replacement level lefthander Ariel Miranda.

Seattle’s bullpen sat right around league average in most statistical categories last season. It was a noticeable drop-off from 2016, when they were among the top few teams in the American League in ERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate. Closer Edwin Diaz saw his strikeout, walk, and home run rates all trend in the wrong direction, resulting in a FIP that nearly doubled from the season before. He momentarily lost his job at one point, but is still their top reliever heading into this season. Righthander Nick Vincent was the only other main holdover from 2016, but he was actually better last season, accumulating a career-high 1.8 fWAR. New addition Juan Nicasio will also battle for setup innings, while James Pazos, David Phelps, and a slew of younger arms will round out the rest of the ‘pen.

Down on the farm

General manager Jerry Dipoto’s constant roster tinkering has left the Mariners with, among other things, the worst farm system in baseball. They have sapped nearly all of their system’s depth, and the result is reminiscent of what we saw from the Tigers a few years ago. Outfielder Kyle Lewis is the team’s lone shot at a homegrown star at present, though his return from an ACL tear in 2017 didn’t go so well. I thought righthander Sam Carlson would have been a great pickup for the Tigers in the second round of the 2017 MLB draft, but the M’s nabbed him two picks earlier. If his velocity improves, he could open some eyes. First round pick Evan White is one of those weird “bats right, throws left” players, and a potential elite defender at first base. Other than that, this system is mostly middle relievers and fourth outfielders. Ah, those were the days.

Player to watch: Mitch Haniger

I don’t know if there was a bigger surprise in baseball last April than Mitch Haniger. Originally an intriguing secondary piece in the trade that brought Jean Segura to Seattle, Haniger initially looked like the type of player that Arizona would sorely regret trading in a couple years. He hit an incredible .342/.447/.608 in his first 21 games, but strained his oblique and missed the next six weeks. Injuries to his hand and face would follow, but not before his OPS fell by nearly 300 points in 152 plate appearances. However, a strong September rekindled hope that Haniger is, in fact, the masher we saw in April.

Now that pitchers have had a full offseason to study his tendencies, 2018 will be an interesting second act for Haniger. Is he the All-Star caliber right fielder he looked at times last season, or will pitchers find a way to avoid his happy zone?

Outlook

It’s tough to pinpoint who to blame for Seattle’s mediocrity over the past two decades, especially if the M’s miss the playoffs again this year. Ownership has generally been reticent to spend over the years, though has opened their pockets recently. General manager Jerry Dipoto has made trade after trade after trade, but with little to show for it aside from a depleted farm system. Previous organizational missteps are still being felt. Even Father Time deserves some blame for what he has prematurely done to King Felix.

Despite all of these obstacles, it’s not hard to picture the Mariners in the Wild Card race this summer. Their everyday lineup is as talented as anyone’s outside the American League’s “Big Four,” and their defense is good enough to support a solid if unspectacular pitching staff. Health will be crucial, especially for Paxton, and an extended injury to even one of their top hitters could spell doom. But if they stay healthy? Who knows, maybe we’ll finally see them snap baseball’s longest playoff drought this year.

Welcome to our 2018 team preview series. Over the next few weeks, we will be previewing each of the Tigers’ 19 opponents this season (and maybe MLB’s other 10 teams if I’m feeling ambitious). They will not be published in any particular order, other than who I felt like researching and writing about at the time. Tips and suggestions are always welcome!