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2019 opponent preview: The Seattle Mariners are in a better place than they were last year

The M’s won’t win as many games this season as they did in 2018, but their future is in much better shape.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Years ago, the Seattle Mariners may have entered this past offseason looking to double down on a successful season in hopes of returning to the playoffs. On the surface, this strategy would have made sense. They won 89 games in 2018, and six of their top seven players (via rWAR) were under contract for at least one more year.

Instead, the M’s decided to tear it all down. They traded four of those six players — James Paxton, Edwin Díaz, Robinson Canó, and Jean Segura — along with catcher Mike Zunino and reliever Alex Colomé. Though they spent a bit of money on lefthander Yusei Kikuchi and aren’t willing to use the ‘r’ word, they have entered a rebuild the year after their best season since 2003.

And it might have been the right idea.

See, the Mariners might have won 89 games last year, but they weren’t especially good. The M’s were outscored by 34 runs, and thus out-performed their pythagorean expected record by an incredible 12 wins. A 36-21 record in one-run games (and 14-1 mark in extra innings) was not going to repeat itself again in 2019, and Seattle’s core was probably going to take a step back — especially with slugger Nelson Cruz departing via free agency.

Given the state of the American League, it’s tough to analyze where the M’s stand. Projection systems peg them fourth in their division, with little separation between the four teams not named the Houston Astros. They will almost certainly fall off from last year, especially after trading away so much talent. But with so many other teams around the league also punting on 2019 — not to mention some serious flaws on the rosters of those still in the hunt — it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them keep pace with the other also-rans in the AL West.

This time, they will do it with prospects. As general manager Jerry Dipoto put it, “...we went from being stuck in the middle of the American League to being stuck in the middle of the American League with a future in front of us. That’s a better place to be.”

Team at a glance

2018 record: 89-73 | 2018 pythag: 77-85 | 2019 farm system rank: 14
Manager: Scott Servais (4th year)
First series vs. Tigers: July 25-28 (yes, really)
Key additions: 1B/OF Jay Bruce, RHP Anthony Swarzak, OF Mallex Smith, DH Edwin Encarnación, OF Domingo Santana, SS Tim Beckham
Key subtractions: DH Nelson Cruz, LHP James Paxton, 2B Robinson Canó, RHP Edwin Díaz, C Mike Zunino, SS Jean Segura

How long will Seattle’s legends last?

If there are two things the Mariners have not wanted to discuss this spring, it’s the respective futures of a pair of club legends: Ichiro Suzuki and Felix Hernández. The former may very well be playing his last games this week, a pair of matchups in Japan where he, despite his obvious on-field decline, has been the star of the show. Stateside Mariners fans may get a chance to say goodbye on Opening Day, but it’s hard to imagine Ichiro lasting much longer on Seattle’s roster.

The more uncomfortable goodbye may come with Hernandez, though. King Felix hasn’t been the same for the past few years now, with an ERA that has jumped by a full two runs since 2015. That season, his last as an All-Star, is also the last time he topped the 2.0 WAR mark.

Now entering the final year of his contract, Felix’s days with the Mariners are almost certainly numbered. He has already been passed over on Opening Day, with lefthander Marco Gonzales taking the ball both in Japan and back in Seattle on March 28. The Mariners may look to trade Hernández at the deadline if he improves on a brutal 2018 season, or simply let him walk via free agency next winter. And this assumes he even lasts 162 games; the M’s briefly demoted him to the bullpen last year, and might just cut bait with him if he doesn’t shape up in 2019.

But unless he turns back the clock and pitches his way into July trade conversations, it could end up being an ugly divorce between the two sides.

Who is the Mariners’ best newcomer?

Like usual under Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners have roughly seven billion new players in their organization as they enter the season. Some of them are veterans simply around to keep the ship afloat (Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnación) while others are prospects that we will discuss in the next section.

Domingo Santana is neither of those things. Just now entering his prime at age 26, Santana is coming off a down year with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was an absolute force in 2017, though, hitting .278/.371/.505 with 30 home runs and 15 stolen bases. If you are like me and buy into the theory that his struggles were related to a lack of playing time — Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich understandably took up many of the 607 plate appearances Santana received in ‘17 — then Santana should be in for a big year. He is already off to a great start, with a grand slam on Opening Day out in Tokyo, and, if he keeps hitting behind Bruce and Encarnación, should get plenty of at-bats with runners on base. He will be a Mariner through the 2021 season, giving them another bat to help buoy the lineup over the next few years as their prospects start to reach the majors.

If Dipoto doesn’t trade him next winter, that is.

Down on the farm

The M’s had baseball’s worst farm system at this time last year, but the prospect haul that Dipoto and Co. acquired this winter helped vault them up the ranks a bit. Their actual position differs depending on who you consider a prospect — Baseball America includes lefthander Yusei Kikuchi, while ESPN’s Keith Law does not — but there is little doubt that this system is much improved compared to 2018.

That said, it may take a step back by the time we preview them again in 2020 — or even by the time they finally face the Tigers this season, for that matter. Lefthander Justus Sheffield will start the year in Triple-A, but is a sure bet to reach the majors and exhaust his prospect eligibility at some point. Kikuchi also won’t be on anyone’s list next year, and they won’t necessarily add a surefire top-100 prospect in June; the M’s don’t make their first draft selection until No. 20 overall.

The top of the system looks good, though. Outfielder Jarred Kelenic was the prize of their deal with the Mets, joining recent first round picks Evan White, Logan Gilbert, Kyle Lewis, and Justin Dunn. Lewis’ stock took a hit after a couple of injury-riddled seasons, but he has had a monster spring and could put himself in the conversation for a major league job in 2020 if he continues this hot streak in the regular season. Mariners fans are also excited about Julio Rodriguez, a boom-or-bust teenage outfielder who still has yet to make his stateside debut.

Player to watch: LHP Yusei Kikuchi

There are a lot of different players to keep an eye on here — outfielders Domingo Santana and Mitch Haniger were my “finalists” in this spot — but few things are as exciting in baseball as seeing how a player from a foreign league will fare in the majors. Part of the intrigue, to me at least, is knowing that there will be some level of success. We’ve seen plenty of Japanese talents come over and shine in year one, and the fail rate seems to be remarkably low these days.

While Kikuchi isn’t quite on the same level as a Yu Darvish or Shohei Ohtani, he could be the next coming of Miles Mikolas* or Kenta Maeda. Kikuchi has a well-rounded arsenal, led by a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s, and is projected to produce at close to a two-win pace in a full season of work. The best part? We get to see him early! He will make his first MLB start in a familiar setting, debuting against the Oakland A’s at the Tokyo Dome on Thursday.

Mikolas isn’t Japanese, obviously, but played there for three years before returning to the U.S. in 2018.

Projected record: 75-87

If we accept that the 2018 Mariners were truly just a 77-win team in disguise, it’s actually pretty impressive that Dipoto was able to turn over his team’s roster while only sacrificing two projected wins in 2019. Baseball doesn’t necessarily work like that — Baseball Prospectus’ third-order standings think those M’s were closer to 80 wins, for one — and this younger group may be more susceptible to injuries, slumps, and the like. But veterans like Dee Gordon, Encarnación, and Bruce should help steady the lineup, and the rotation could be better than expected if Kikuchi is the real deal. It may not be enough to push them into contention, but could make for a more palatable “Year Zero” as their newly acquired prospects start to develop down in the minors.