Last year, the Seattle Mariners finished 75-87, last place in the AL West, a spot that they have held for seven of the last ten years. What are the Mariners doing to build a contender?
The club is loaded with pitching prospects, like Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, and James Paxton, and they have collected some fine offensive prospects, like Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin, and Brad Miller along the way. With Jesus Montero being added last season and the ascension of Dustin Ackley to the majors, you would think that the Mariners were building for a run in 2015.
However, that can’t be the case after the club has traded for Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse, both free agents after the 2013 season. While the club gave up John Jaso to get Morse and Jason Vargas to get Morales, the Mariners left themselves with some question marks.
With Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, and Blake Beaven penciled into the rotation, the club may have to rely on Hector Noesi, Hultzen, or Paxton in the rotation to start the year. Noesi was 2-12 with a 5.82 ERA for the M’s in 2012, Hultzen was just 1-4 with a 5.92 ERA in 12 Triple-A starts in 2012, and Paxton would be jumping to the majors from Double-A. While Vargas isn’t close to being considered an ace, the Mariners will have a tough time replacing the 217 innings and 3.85 ERA that he provided last year.
After trading Jaso to Oakland, the Mariners only have Jesus Montero at catcher. Montero, who turned 23 in November, caught in just 56 games in 2012, throwing out 17 percent of base runners and posting a -8 Rtot (runs below average that he was worth defensively). While his bat has great potential, Montero is not an everyday catcher at the major league level.
There are two examples of their everyday lineup that I have found:
C: Montero C: Montero
1B: Morse 1B: Smoak
2B: Ackley 2B: Ackley
3B: Seager 3B: Seager
SS: Ryan SS: Ryan
LF: Ibanez LF: Morse
CF: Gutierrez CF: Gutierrez
RF: Saunders RF: Saunders
DH: Morales DH: Morales
Example one is eliminating Justin Smoak from the equation. Smoak has over 1,200 at-bats and has a career slash of .223/.306/.377 line, but he is just 26 years old and he posted a .341/.426/.580 in September, showing a glimpse of what he can do when he is healthy, and he has battled a thumb issue for the last couple of seasons.
Example two eliminates Raul Ibanez from the lineup. Ibanez has had great success in Seattle, having played 10 of his 17 seasons with the Mariners, but at the age of 41, he may just be a situational talent.
The Mariners could really use a catcher. If the club was able to deal Smoak to Boston for Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway, the Mariners could then move Montero to DH, Morales to first, and Morse can play left field. The Red Sox only have Mauro Gomez at first base right now, so the deal would make sense for both clubs, as the Sox have David Ross and whatever catcher they don’t trade to roster.
The M’s could also rush Mike Zunino, who was the top college player in last year’s MLB draft. Zunino could take over at catcher, allowing for the same moves with Morales and Morse as above, while the club could keep Smoak around in case of an injury. Zunino had 51 at-bats in Double-A last year, so he could use some more seasoning in the minors, but he could be a better option behind the plate than Montero already.
Regardless of the moves at catcher that the Mariners could make, the additions that the club has made have not been stellar.
Morse has a powerful bat but he has issues making contact, having posted a 223:52 K:BB while hitting 49 home runs over 928 at-bats over the last two seasons. Turning 31 years old in March, Morse has two seasons with a WAR over 1.0 (1.2 in 2010 and 3.1 in 2011), so one has to wonder if his 2011 season (with 31 home runs and a .910 OPS) was his peak.
Ibanez is not a player that a rebuilding team needs. His age and declining skills limit his potential.
Morales rebounded nicely after missing nearly two years due to injury, posting a .787 OPS. In 2009, Morales posted a .924 OPS and he had an .833 OPS in 2010 prior to his celebratory injury. Is the drop in production due to his injury, timing issues due to being away from the game, or pressing to hit at the levels that he did in 2009? Can he reach those numbers when he is playing half of his games in Seattle?
Add in the interest that the Mariners have in Justin Upton and the supposed offer (Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Stephen Pryor, and Charlie Furbush) that they made, and the team seemingly has no long-term or short-term direction. The Mariners pitching, as it stands, is questionable at best. If the team is rebuilding, why would they offer two of their top five prospects instead of cashing in on any of their veterans that have value, even Felix Hernandez?
While John Jaso and Jason Vargas aren’t superstars, you have to wonder if the club would have been better off with the two players still on their roster. While they wouldn’t have made many moves to improve upon their last place finish from 2012, the Mariners wouldn’t have question marks all over the field like they do right now.