The Mariners are in a tough spot.
In 2014, the AL West was baseball’s best division. Yes, Oakland mortgaged their future at the deadline. Yes, the Angels minor league system looks weak. Yes, the Rangers aren’t guaranteed to snap back next year and have a healthy, competitive roster. Yes, the Astros aren’t there yet. There will be prominent sports writers picking the M’s to win their division next year and they will likely get bandied about as a dark horse. But…the Mariners have been baseball’s ninth-best club by BaseRuns and only the third-best in their own division. Next year’s A’s and Angels shouldn’t be drastically different, either.
What makes the Mariners situation so tough, though, is their own muddled roster construction. The M’s had a historically good year at preventing runs but still found themselves right on the edge of contending. In large part that’s because they can’t hit, and the biggest reason they can’t hit is that they have only one average or better right-handed bat, Austin Jackson. Aside from Jackson, the M’s outfield has given big chunks of playing time to four different lefties: Dustin Ackley, Endy Chavez, Michael Saunders, and James Jones.
Their biggest hole, however, has been at 1B/DH, and this isn’t a new thing for the M’s. Last year they received solid production from Kendrys Morales and an average campaign from Justin Smoak, but neither has been anywhere near effective this year. The only bright spot this year has been Logan Morrison with his wRC+ of 110. In sum, the Mariners actually had a historically terrible year from their DHs, and that was nothing new.
Looking to the minors, there is hope. 2013 1st rounder DJ Peterson has already made his way to AA, but may start 2015 back in Jackson after posting a .261/.335/.473 in 248 PAs. Jackson is a fringe candidate to contribute for a stretch run, but probably won’t be a significant contributor for quite some time. In fact, former Rutgers defensive back Patrick Kivlehan may be contribute to the big league club sooner after crushing AA pitching with a .300/.374/.485 line in 430 PAs.
But things get trickier as we look toward the offseason.
When the Mariners signed Robinson Cano, they rapidly accelerated the timeline for fielding a competitive team. While Cano and Felix will still be around when Peterson and 2014 1st rounder Alex Jackson are, theoretically, contributing to the big league club, neither is likely to be better than they are now. Both have had incredible seasons, but realistically both players can only get worse.
The window gets even shorter when you consider that Hisashi Iwakuma, Austin Jackson, and Fernando Rodney will be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season. Couple them with Felix, Cano, and a cost-controlled Kyle Seager, and the M’s, who should have about $20 million in budget flexibility next year after arbitration raises, might be best poised to try and seriously compete next season.
Any big trade or free-agent splash, however, is going to block playing time, and if that sounds like a familiar situation for this club, that’s because it is. When they signed Cano, it gutted Nick Franklin’s value, and it took the Jack Z almost eight months to make a trade.
The best place for the M’s to look would be for a bat-first, right-handed outfielder who can platoon with Michael Saunders and play DH against righties. Torii Hunter would be a great fit, although he alone probably wouldn’t be enough. Manager Lloyd McClendon has repeatedly referred to the need for two bats.
The M’s also could try and use their prospect surplus and to try and land a more impactful player. In Brad Miller and Chris Taylor the M’s have two capable (if not quite good) shortstops at the big-league level, and there had reportedly been lots of interest in Dustin Ackley at the trade deadline even before his strong second half. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the M’s try and lock up with Dodgers for Matt Kemp (with a lot of swallowed salary) or the Red Sox for a piece of their crowded outfield. Shane Victorino would be a great fit on the M’s and could be out of a job. In DJ Peterson, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, the M’s also have chips to land a guy like Yoenis Cespedes, but Jack Z has (wisely) shied away from moving a piece of that caliber.
But if the M’s stand pat, they probably won’t be good enough next year. Chris Young may not be a good a pitcher, and regardless he will be looking for a raise and will likely be elsewhere next season. The M’s don’t have much depth behind what still looks to be a strong group in Felix, Iwakuma, Roenis Elias, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. As stands right now, their 2015 DH is Logan Morrison and their first baseman is Justin Smoak, but the M’s will have to choose between a $3.6M team option and a $200k buy-out, and his Mariners days are probably over.
The M’s could write off Kendrys Morales’ 2014 struggles as a result of missing spring training, but his batted ball distance in August and September is down 12 feet from last year, and generally follows what is known of the aging curve for first basemen. Kendrys’ power, at this stage, is probably in the 15-20 home run range, and along with his 49% GB rate, terrible base running, and mediocre defense, that’s not a strong package. What all this means is that, just like last winter, Kendrys will probably look for a lot more than he’s worth, and it wouldn’t be a good gamble for the M’s to be the ones to pay him, even if it’s only a couple million.
In 2018, when the Mariners will theoretically feature DJ Peterson, Alex Jackson, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton in their primes, Oliver thinks Cano will be worth 2.8 WAR. On the plus side, Felix will still only be 32 years old and, theoretically, just beginning his decline phase). Kyle Seager will be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season, so he will either be gone, expensive, or not very good. And even without Seager, the M’s have $50 million committed to Cano and Felix.
As a Mariners fan, it’s been a blessing to watch Cano this year after so many years of offensive mediocrity, but this is the predicament the Mariners have put themselves into with his signing. The M’s were supposed to be about .500 club this year, and even if you look optimistically at their improvement, put faith in Brad Miller breaking out next year, and call Ackley and Morrison’s strong second halves improvement rather than streaks, this club still needs some work.
And, from the looks of things, the Mariners are going to hurt themselves no matter what road they take. Spend now, and they inhibit playing time and take away from extensions for guys like Seager and Paxton. Trade now and they potentially strike out big. The most likely course is that pursue players like Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer hoping for a big year. Jack Z has repeated played the high-risk, low cost card for his clean-up hitters, from Russell Branyan to Milton Bradley to, more recently, Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales. Jack Z has said the M’s will be reasonably aggressive pursuing free agents this winter, but even money may not be enough lure talent to the northwest.
While a 2015 Mariners club with Melky Cabrera and Victor Martinez would be a legitimate contender, and the M’s are flush in TV cash right now, Seattle was a hard sell even after their 116 win season in 2001. Team president Kevin Mather places the blame on the M’s tough travel schedule, but the (at least historically) tough hitting environment, cold and wet weather, and reported organizational dysfunction likely don’t help matters either.
In 2014 the M’s both have led the league with increase in attendance and have failed to sell out important September games. This is club that needs just a little bit more oomph. A 2018 Mariners club with Cano, Melky Cabrera, and Victor Martinez, however, probably isn’t very good though. The 2014 trade deadline had been labeled as make-or-break for Jack Z, and this coming winter won’t be any different.