The Mariners made a bevy of moves this winter, but is it enough to capture a playoff berth?
The last time the Mariners made the playoffs, Destiny's Child was breaking down the Billboard's top 100, Jake Gyllenhaal was having visions of a demonic rabbit, and Justin Bieber's biggest issue was the Toronto Maple Leafs' recent second round playoff ousting at the hands of the New Jersey Devils.
A lot has changed since 2001, and among those alterations has been the fortune of the Seattle Mariners. The days of dynamic offenses and stellar pitching staffs are over, as the past 12 years have seen the Mariners mired in mediocrity. However, things are beginning to look up in Seattle, as the Mariners' recent spending spree and some success in developing home-grown talent has the franchise trending upwards for the first time in a while. 2014 will be a telltale sign in the direction of the franchise.
OF/1B Corey Hart, 2B Robinson Cano, OF/1B Logan Morrison, C John Buck, IF/OF Willie Bloomquist, OF Cole Gillespie, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Fernando Rodney, RHP Joe Beimel
A majority of the Mariners' additions this winter came on the offensive side of the ball, where they sought to upgrade a lineup that finished 12th in the AL with just 624 runs scored last season.
Robinson Cano will do the most at paying back some of that debt, as the M's handed him a monstrous 10-year, $240 million deal back in December. Cano owns a career 45.2 WAR and 125 ERA+, and he has averaged a 7.5 WAR and 141 OPS+ over the past four seasons. He is set to be the first superstar offensive player the Mariners have had since Ichiro, and he figures to be the focal point of Seattle's plans for 2014 and beyond.
The Mariners other two major offensive additions were Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. Hart, signed to a one-year, $6 million deal earlier this offseason, missed all of 2013 dealing with a knee injury, but has proven to be an offensive boon when healthy. Morrison was acquired in a trade with the Marlins in December, and at just 26, he has plenty of room to grow if he can just stay healthy. Along with Justin Smoak, Morrison and Hart figure to rotate between the first base, right field, and designated hitter positions.
Seattle also made a number of depth signings in adding John Buck, Willie Bloomquist, and Cole Gillespie. All three seem like decent bets to make the Mariners' Opening Day roster as reserves.
On the pitching side, the Mariners' one major move was signing closer Fernando Rodney away from the Rays. Rodney has emerged as one of the best closers in baseball over the past two seasons, with a 1.91 ERA, 3.10 K/BB and 4.3 WAR since 2012. However, those numbers are clouded by his otherworldly 2012 season. Last year, his strikeout rate increased from 9.16 K/9 to 11.07 K/9, but his walk rate spiked from 1.80 BB/9 to an absurdly high 4.86 BB/9. Rodney is set to anchor Seattle's bullpen, but if his walk rate continues to climb, things could get ugly very fast.
Though it flew under the radar a bit, the Scott Baker signing is once that will be of huge significance to the Mariners in 2014, as he is the probable difference between a rotation predicated on the one-two punch of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and one that actually has some resemblance of depth. Baker, who missed all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and made just 3 starts last season, was signed to a minor league deal in January on the basis that he would compete for a starting gig. However, injuries and a lack of depth in the rotation have essentially moved him up to the number two or three starter role to start the season. If Baker can show any resemblance of the pitcher he was in Minnesota from 2008 to 2011, the Mariners' rotation will receive a significant boost.
RHP Carter Capps, LHP Joe Saunders, LHP Oliver Perez, OF/DH Raul Ibanez, 1B/DH Kendrys Morales (probable)
The Mariners' offense underwent a major overhaul this winter, and among the casualties was Raul Ibanez, who sparked the offense with 29 home runs and a 123 OPS+ last season at the ripe age of 41. He departed Seattle for Anaheim, and his presence has since been filled by both Morrison and Hart.
As for Morales, the Mariners appear set on acquiring as many first base/DH types as they can (see Hart, Corey, Morrison, Logan, and Smoak, Justin), leaving the possibility of a Kendrys Morales return to Seattle still in play.
Seattle's bullpen was also not exempt from Jack Z's transaction flurry. Carter Capps and his 5.49 ERA were shipped to Miami in the Logan Morrison trade, and Oliver Perez signed a two-year deal with the Diamondbacks. Perez has been particularly good over the last two years as Seattle's primary LOOGY. While his presence will surely be missed, the Mariners do have an adequate replacement in Charlie Furbush, who should provide roughly the same production as Perez at a fraction of the cost.
Players to watch
The Mariners have a number of intriguing names to watch this season, and among them is 21-year-old starting pitching phenom Taijuan Walker. Since being drafted 43rd overall in the 2010 draft, Walker has emerged as one of the premier pitching prospects in the game, with many considering him a top-10 prospect overall, including Baseball Prospectus, who recently ranked Walker as the 8th best prospect in baseball.
Walker was expected to start the season in Seattle's rotation, but that appears to no longer be the case as the right-hander was shut down in late-February with shoulder inflammation. Walker is expected to miss the first month or so of the season, and when he returns, expectations will be exorbitant for him to succeed immediately due to Seattle's lack of arms.
As I alluded to earlier, Logan Morrison will be a pivotal piece on this year's Mariners club. A former top prospect, Morrison has yet to live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival to the big leagues and subsequent play in 2010 and 2011. After posting a 119 OPS+ over his first 163 big league games, Morrison has just a 92 OPS+ since. He has also posted three consecutive negative-WAR seasons (although this is admittedly due to atrocious defense, a key component in WAR), and there is no shortage of baggage that comes with his acquisition.
While Morrison's bat will have to come around for him to succeed, he is also facing the challenge of playing the outfield again. Morrison's outfield play is dreadful, and the numbers back up that belief, as he has a career DRS (defensive runs saved) in the outfield of NEGATIVE 36 in just over 2,000 innings of play. Morrison will have to hit quite a bit to make up for his putrid defense, and if he fails, he could once again turn in a sub-replacement level season.
Since coming over in 2010's Cliff Lee trade, Justin Smoak has been largely viewed as a bust, but he finally broke that mold last season as he delivered a 113 OPS+ season at the age of 26. The odds of Smoak ever reaching his previously lofty projections are slim to none, but further development from his bat could turn the first baseman into a middle-of-the-order threat.
Best Case Scenario
If everything goes right (emphasis on everything), then the 2014 Mariners could be a 90-95 win, but that requires quite a bit of wishfulness. To reach their best case scenario, the Mariners will have to have a number of things go right, particularly among their pitching staff, which is currently Hernandez, Iwakuma, and a bunch of question marks. The team will also have to avoid the injury bug, while also seeing quick recuperations from both Iwakuma and Walker.
On offense, the team is going to need to see one or more of its incumbents breakout. The living-up-to-expectations of former big-name prospects Smoak, Morrison and Dustin Ackley could be hugely beneficial, as could the further development of youngsters such as Mike Zunino and Brad Miller.
Worst Case Scenario
The worst thing the could happen to the Mariners would be if Hernandez went down with an injury. Considering their oft-mentioned lack of rotation depth, Felix's loss would be a huge blow to Seattle's postseason aspirations.
Defense could also play a big role in the Mariners' undoing. For a team that prided itself on its defensive capabilities not too long ago, Seattle's current defense is downright bad, as it features three first base/DH types (Morrison, Hart, Smoak) and another player out of position (Ackley).
The Mariners are certainly hoping that their rash of moves this offseason pay off. In a highly competitive AL West, they still appear to be behind a trio of teams despite their lavish spending this winter. PECOTA currently projects a 82-80 record and fourth place finish for the 2014 M's. While those projections may seem a tad low, it's tough for any team to make an 11-game improvement, let alone a team that still has as many holes as the Mariners. Expect improvements, but this team isn't exactly a true playoff contender just yet.