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2015 Seattle Mariners season preview

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SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview Is this the year Mariner fans have been patiently waiting for? All signs point to yes.

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Finally, here we are. Entering year seven of the Jack Zduriencik regime, the Seattle Mariners appear poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001. With national expectations through the roof, for once the idea of the Mariners playing for all the marbles doesn't seem like a dream, but a reality. How will the Mariners handle the high expectations? Let's examine in our comprehensive 2015 season preview.

The Lineup

By Scott Weber

This year, it's about balance. After reaching out and splashing on slugger Nelson Cruz on a four-year contract, finally securing the right-handed power bat the Mariners have desired for so long, the M's filled out the rest of the roster with quality, but limited players. Cruz represented the lone major splash of the offseason, but platoons are emerging in the corner outfield spots, as the Mariners nabbed Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano in a pair of trades, along with veteran Rickie Weeks on a one-year deal.

Even though the Mariners bought high on Cruz following a 40-homer career year, he's destined to provide a massive upgrade at the DH position one way or another. The 2014 Mariners were a disaster at DH, as both Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales combined for a whopping -3.2 WAR at the position. Even if there are concerns about the last few years of the Cruz deal, and rightfully so -- it shouldn't be much of an issue in 2015, the year of the push.

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While Austin Jackson attempts to bounce back, he'll resume duties as both the leadoff hitter and the everyday center fielder. After a miserable second half in 2014, Jackson spoke extensively about how he struggled with being unexpectedly dealt from the Tigers, as well as adjusting to the more grueling travel that takes place in the Pacific Northwest. Jackson remains a wild card -- firmly in his prime, Jackson has seen his career slowly trail south. His production is a big key to the Mariners roster.

The corner outfield spots are a pair of platoons, starting with the aforementioned Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano pairing in right field. Though both players are 32, there hasn't been a sign of decline from either quite yet, and the Mariners will hope that by protecting them against their respective weaknesses -- Smith versus lefties and Ruggiano versus righties -- the two will be able to combine for 2-4 WAR from the position. If that's the case, the Mariners will have equaled or exceeded what they could have hoped to receive from oft-injured and unceremoniously departed Michael Saunders.

Left field appeared to belong to Dustin Ackley, who once again teased with a second half surge, though this was more convincing than past ones. But a late signing of Rickie Weeks threw a wrinkle into that plan, and all indications are that Weeks, who has never played a professional inning in the outfield, will now start sharing left field with Ackley. Weeks will face off against lefties, while Ackley will retain the majority of the at-bats against right-handed pitching.

Weeks may also see some action at first base, where he'll backup and occasionally platoon with another player with a late 2014 surge, Logan Morrison. Injuries have been a massive issue for LoMo over his career, but his production when healthy is promising. Justin Smoak is finally out of the Mariners organization, leaving Morrison as the clear man for the job as long as he stays healthy and productive. Jesus Montero, down 40 pounds and looking surprisingly agile at first base, looms as a lottery ticket in AAA.

Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager anchor the rest of the infield, now both nine-figure men after Seager inked a $100 million extension that will keep him in Seattle through at least 2021. Cano, only one year into his ridiculous 10 year, $240 million contract, should continue producing at an all-star level. Both players surpassed 5 WAR for the Mariners in 2014, and they represent the very best second and third base combination in baseball.

Shortstop was a battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor before a broken wrist eliminated the latter from the competition, at least for now. Miller will open as the every day shortstop, attempting to put it together early after a disastrous start to 2014. As a left-handed middle infielder with serious pop, Miller has as much upside as anybody on the Mariners roster, but has struggled mightily with slumps, and mental mistakes in the field remain an issue.

Finally, catcher belongs to Mike Zunino, who provides tremendous value with the glove. His prodigious power offers plenty of offensive upside, but Zunino has a major problem with plate discipline, walking a mere 3.3% last year while whiffing an astounding 33.2% of the time. If Zunino wasn't hit by 17 pitches -- the same amount of walks he took -- his OBP would have been an even bigger disaster than the .254 OBP he logged. Still, Zunino is off to a promising spring with only one strikeout in 14 AB. His power will always make him a danger at the plate, but his talent in calling a game and framing pitches will forever remain his biggest asset to the team.

All together, the Mariners lineup looks surprisingly complete. There are question marks, but they are much smaller than the anemic offenses of years past. A 3-4-5 of Cano, Cruz, and Seager is a formidable group. After scoring more runs each progressive year after 2010, this may be the year the Mariners finally break out and crack 700 runs.

The Rotation

By Jake Mailhot

Last year, the Mariners’ starting rotation ended up carrying the team to within one game of the playoffs. In the American League, the Mariners ranked 4th in ERA-, 6th in xFIP-, but 11th in FIP-. However, that last mark is a bit misleading. Heading into September, the Mariners were ranked 5th in FIP- and looked to be surging forward in the Wild Card race. But down the stretch, the rotation faltered and the rest is history.

This year, the main cast of the rotation is back with a few key additions, and like last year, this group will hold the key to the Mariners’ success.

It all starts with the King, Felix Hernandez. Last year may have been his best year yet—he set career bests in strikeouts, walk rate, ERA, FIP, and xFIP. Felix will turn 29 in April and has been the picture of durability in his ten year career with the Mariners. It may seem silly to expect him to continue to improve upon his already ridiculous numbers, and we may see some regression back toward the mean, but he should continue to set the standard for excellence in the American League.

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The hidden secret to the Mariners’ pitching success lies in Felix’s shadow. Over the last two years, Hisashi Iwakuma has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the majors, yet few seem to notice outside of Seattle. Iwakuma’s 3.08 xFIP over the last two years is good for the 11th best mark in the majors, sandwiched between Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer. Despite improvements to his peripheral numbers across the board, and a FIP to match, a late season swoon showed us the ugly side of what could be. He will turn 34 in April and will be a free agent at the end of the year. Barring any late season fatigue, Iwakuma should continue to be one of the best #2 starters in the American League.

The shadow of injury hangs over James Paxton, but when he was on the mound, he was able to show us what he’s capable of during the last two months of the season last year. It seems like he discovered the secret of the "rising" fastball, generating a surprising amount of groundballs with it. This, combined with his whiff-inducing secondary pitches, made him incredibly successful down the stretch last year. He won’t be as lucky this year—he only gave up a single home run after returning from his injury—but he should continue to build upon the success he found last year and will be an integral part of the Mariners’ rotation.

The newest member of the Mariners’ rotation, J.A. Happ, should benefit immensely from the confines of Safeco Field. An increasing fastball velocity throughout his career and a career low walk rate last year gives Happ some allure as a breakout candidate. More likely is a solidly average performance over 150-175 innings at the back of the rotation. That’s a valuable thing in an increasingly volatile pitching era.

The fifth spot in the rotation will be decided during Spring Training. Roenis Elias was able to make the leap from Double-A to the majors last year and was surprisingly competent. The challenger is the young phenom, Taijuan Walker. I expect both pitchers to see time with the major league club this year so the winner of the Spring Training battle doesn’t really matter all too much. Of the two, Walker clearly has the higher upside. If he’s able to harness his raw stuff, his secondary pitches, and his command, he should be a force to be reckoned with. Even if he’s only able to accomplish one or two of those things, he should be a positive contributor with all the ups and downs expected of a rookie 22-year-old in the majors.

The lack of depth behind these six starters is a bit concerning. If things go south, there aren’t many reinforcements waiting in Triple-A. Erasmo Ramirez will probably be a waiver casualty this spring which leaves Kevin Correia, Mike Kickham, and possibly Joe Saunders to pick up the pieces. That’s not an inspiring bunch.

The best case scenario sees the rotation leading the Mariners into October, with King Felix leading the charge. Injuries will occur, but if the Mariners can avoid any major, season ending injuries or a rash of injuries all at once, this group should be able carry this team all the way.

The Bullpen

By Andrew Rice

In 2014, the Mariners bullpen was one of their clear strengths. They had the best ERA and best xFIP in all of baseball, blowing only 11 saves all season long. Seattle had the luxury of using an eight-man bullpen for most of the year and everyone stayed healthy and was able to contribute. Looking towards 2015, the Mariners seem unlikely to return to an eight-man relief corps, but their bullpen should still be relatively strong. Six of the M's key relievers in 2014 are likely to return this season, and each has a good chance to once again contribute.

A quick look at the Mariners projected bullpen in 2015:

Fernando Rodney (RHP): The Mariners mercurial closer, Rodney oftentimes seems to be a small step from disaster (largely due to his high walk rate which routinely hovers around 4 BB/9). However, for what it's worth, he did lead all of baseball in saves last season (48 in 51 chances). The Fernando Rodney Experience can be a bit tumultuous, but it rarely goes off the tracks. At almost 38-years-old, Rodney still has the arm to be an effective reliever (his fastball averaged 95+ MPH last year) and if he can manage to limit his free passes in 2015, he could once again be a fairly dominant reliever.

Danny Farquhar (RHP): Since joining Seattle in the Ichiro trade, Farquhar has continually exceeded expectations. Each pitch in his arsenal was a plus pitch last season and he has the ability strike out a ton of batters. If Rodney does falter, Farquhar should be more than prepared to slide into the role of closer (a position he successfully filled for the M's in the second half of 2013).

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Tom Wilhelmsen (RHP): Wilhelmsen has the ability to do just about anything for the Mariners. In 2014, he started a couple games, worked as a long man in relief, picked up a save, and was used effectively as a setup man in the seventh and eighth innings. He has a nasty fastball and when his offspeed stuff is working, he can be absolutely lights out.

Yoervis Medina (RHP): Like most relievers, when he is able to limit his walks, Medina can be very effective. He can throw the ball hard (95-96 MPH) and will generate his share of whiffs, but he has to decrease his walk rate (4.4 BB/9 in 2014) in order to be truly effective.

Charlie Furbush (LHP): In 2014, Furbush was oftentimes used as a LOOGY, compiling just 42.1 IP in 67 appearances. He's very good at retiring lefties (.257 career wOBA vs LHB), and although he's not completely useless against righties, he does run a very large lefty-righty split. When used efficiently and strategically, Furbush represents a solid weapon for the Mariners.

Dominic Leone (RHP) (or maybe Carson Smith): Leone was great last season as a rookie, striking out batters and limiting damage. However, he sometimes struggled with his control and can still be optioned down to AAA. If he struggles early or if Lloyd feels like tinkering, another young righty could be called up from the minors. Carson Smith and his nifty fastball could be the first choice considering his success in nine appearances late last season.

A second lefty (Lucas Luetge/David Rollins/Joe Saunders/Rafael Perez): The battle for this spot is currently ongoing in spring training. Lloyd has expressed a strong preference for having two lefties in his bullpen, so one of these men (or maybe someone acquired later in ST via trade) seems likely to make the team.

As a unit, Mariners relievers will almost certainly regress from their performance last season (the xFIP of 3.32 they put up in 2014 was the fourth best for a team bullpen over the past 13 seasons). However, they have the arms and the depth requisite to be a very successful group of pitchers and will likely once again finish near the top among MLB bullpens.

The Bench

By Colin O'Keefe

The Mariners began the 2014 offseason with one clear goal: to add a premier right-handed bat to the heart of their order. When that was accomplished relatively early, with the big deal for Nelson Cruz, there were no more huge holes to fill. It wasn’t a perfect team, and still isn’t, but there were no clear and obvious upgrades.

So the team turned to improvement by way of depth. A trade of outfielder Michael Saunders to Toronto for veteran lefty J.A. Happ—one many suspect happened due to more than on-field reasons—began them down the improve-through-depth route and, by opening up a hole in the outfield, set the stage for putting the finishing touches on the team and this bench.

First off, outfielder Justin Ruggiano was acquired from the Chicago Cubs for minor league reliever Matt Brazis, a player unfamiliar to nearly all Mariners fans. At a cost only marginally above "nothing" to a contending team, the Mariners receive a right-handed outfield bat who boasts a career 128 wRC+ against lefties and can back up center field in a pinch.

While Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is loathe to label it as such, Ruggiano will primarily operate in a platoon with lefty Seth Smith, who the Mariners acquired for starter-prospect-turned-relief-ace Brandon Maurer. The Mariners hope, between the two, they’ll have built the plus-hitting defensively-decent corner outfielder they’ve needed for years—and for cheap.

And right field won’t be the only place where the Mariners utilize a platoon. Despite having a 25-man roster nearly set, they added former all-star Rickie Weeks to the mix. Seattle is about as set as any team could be at second base, so Weeks is headed to the outfield, where he’ll platoon with Dustin Ackley to form a due of two second baseman each, once upon a time, drafted second overall by Jack Zduriencik.

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But while many fans would love to see Ackley prove he doesn’t need a platoon-mate, he’s not the only one in this pair capable of battling for a full-time gig. Weeks has a track record, balanced approach, Safeco-conquering power and, at age 32, an opportunity to redefine himself as his career enters its second act.

After the platoons, the bench gets progressively more questionable.

In an era where catcher defense is all the rage for the league’s progressive organizations, the Mariners are going all-in on the notion with backup Jesus Sucre. A plus receiver and thrower behind he dish, he’s effectively a pitcher when standing beside it. After replacing John Buck with Sucre halfway through last season, the team’s hesitation to go with an offense-first backup who can’t hit enough to start is understandable—but with starter Mike Zunino still finding his way at this level, catcher is a position to watch.

Finally, there’s Willie Bloomquist. While the Mariners’ optimal roster construction would’ve seen them give the utility infielder bench spot to the loser of the Brad Miller v. Chris Taylor shortstop battle that a.) was probably never going to happen and b.) can’t now after a wrist injury sidelined Taylor through April. So the spot's Willie’s to do with what he will—hopefully, that miraculously includes capable shortstop defense after microfracture surgery.

In summary, it isn’t a perfect bench, but it’s a good one. For a team that’s long filled out theirs with guys who should’ve been in triple-A and vets who couldn’t play, it’s a nice step forward.

National Perception

By Peter Woodburn

It is an odd feeling for many Mariners’ fans out there. For the first time in a long while, we are expected to be good. How good? Pretty damn good, actually.

Of course, there is a lot that can go wrong, but that is baseball. So who cares about what can go wrong? Let’s focus on what will go right and how the Mariners will fulfill the lofty expectations the national media has projected.

The power rankings are extra excited about the Mariners. Sports Illustrated ranked Seattle No. 4. David Schoenfield of ESPN put the Mariners at No. 6. Business Insider placed the Mariners at No. 3! The verdict is in across the nation -- this is the year the Mariners are finally back in the playoff fold.

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The Mariners were one game back from the playoffs last season. This season, it appears to be a forgone conclusion the Mariners will make the playoffs. The real question is how far will they advance? According to FanGraphs, the Mariners have the highest odds at making the playoffs at 68.9 percent. They also have the highest odds in the AL at winning the World Series at 9.6 percent.

Vegas mirrors much of FanGraphs’ enthusiasm. The Mariners are tied with the Los Angeles Angels to go the whole way, according to Bovada. Both teams have 14/1 odds to win the 2015 World Series, behind the Nationals, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cardinals.

The AL West isn’t exactly going to be a pushover. The Astros and the Rangers are, well, members of the division. No one knows how the Athletics will perform except for Billy Beane, and usually that means surprisingly well. Everyone expects the fight for the top to involve the Angels and the Mariners. FanGraphs' projected 2015 standings give us an ever-so-slight edge, pegging Seattle to finish the season 87-75 and the Angels one game back at 86-76. We’ll have the third best run differential in the game, behind the Nationals and Dodgers. The offense will be middle of the pack, averaging 4.12 runs per game, but the Mariners will be top-notch on the other half of the inning, giving up 3.77 runs per game, good for sixth best in the league.

Last season, the Mariners opened the year ranked No. 24 in ESPN’s power rankings. They finished the season one game out of the playoffs and ranked No. 11. This season, the entire storyline that we have gotten accustomed to is flipped, and that weird feeling that we are supposed to be good is a beautiful thing.

If it all goes wrong

By Nathan Bishop

I am looking at stars. I’m on my back and gazing at those amazing points of light. I ponder their age, the distance and eons that light has traversed to reach my eyes at this exact moment. The connection felt from this perspective is great. My soul hums and quivers across the taught string of time. I am in tune with the universe, or at least more so than I typically am. I ponder that those stars, so beautiful from a distance, are massive balls of super hot fire and death on a scale I cannot possibly grasp. The thought makes me think of the 2015 Mariners.

I am brought out of the harmony, the horrific and tragic events of the past six months laid out before my mind fresh. Damn you Mariners.

When viewed through the illusory qualities of history the season made perfect sense. Everyone knew the Nelson Cruz signing was flawed and contained inherent risks. Of course he was a bad fit for Safeco. Of course his age was advancing to the precarious stage of any player, let alone power only designated hitters. It goes without saying that nagging knee and back injuries would limit him to 97 games. I can’t imagine how we ever thought he would hit more than the 17 home runs he finished the years with.

Robinson Cano was steady but his batting average slipped to .297, the home runs and doubles remained disconcertingly low and you could begin to see the threads fray on his magical Sweater of Impeccable Defense. We have gotten through the best 20% of the Robinson Cano contract. We can all hope the decline is slow, but it’s here.

All across the board it seemed MLB spent the entire season exploiting any and all weaknesses Mariner hitters contained. Brad Miller and Chris Taylor provided 600 AB of barely replacement level offense, Miller’s defensive woes escalating to the point where he spent August in Tacoma only to be called up to the bench all September. Toss Brad Miller into the Sarlaac Pit with Dustin Ackley, Jeremy Reed, and so many others. Ultimately it appears we are the ones destined for a thousand years of endless suffering.

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As for pitching? Ha we are such damn fools. We talked ourselves into Hisashi Iwakuma’s 2014 swoon being a blip, rather than the beginning of the end.  2014 was Fernando Rodney jumping his motorcycle over car after car after car. In 2015 he crashed and we watched that crash roll and roll and roll annnnnnd rolllllllllll. Rodney finally lost the closer spot to Carson Smith in early August after the debacle against the White Sox at Comiskey. He is yet another reminder of the fickleness of closers.

The hyped pair of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton predictably battled inconsistency and injury, respectively. There is maybe no more appropriate metaphor for the season than Paxton missing a month and a half when that elevator in the Space Needle broke and he concussed himself in the ensuing panic. Like the Mariners, the Space Needle is massively hyped and ultimately overpriced and disappointing.

Last and worst the words I can barely type. We approach that exploding star and feel it boil and burn our very soul. It’s not beautiful at all. It’s just fire. Felix said it was just soreness. And that’s all it was at first. It was just a missed start, taking advantage of an off day to rest. Then he "couldn’t get loose." He had an MRI. The news came and none of us really know what to do. We’ve had so little to cheer for over the years. But the one thing we could cling to was Felix. Now? We have no idea.

2015 saw the Mariner lose and lose badly. They have lost badly  before of course but never when they were expected to do so well. The season was fire. It burned everything it touched. It burned our dreams, it burned the Summer, and it burned our King. It all looked so beautiful from a distance.

If it all goes right

By Matt Ellis

What happens if it all goes right?

Those words might sound familiar to you, for a number of reasons. For one, they have been said before, literally, on this very website! But for another, perhaps more abstract reason, it’s because those words have crept into your consciousness at least once, even though you knew with all your being that Justin Smoak’s propensity for the warning track wasn’t a deviation from the mean, and that Chone Figgins.

See, you’ve thought about how it could all go "right" before, but what you were actually imagining was a ball of crumpled up cellophane taped to a skateboard rolling down the hill and oh yeah, it’s on fire, too, and there is some gasoline. You were hoping this monstrosity would win the race, but what you were really hoping for was that the wind would put out the fire and that the smoldering remains would stumble across the finish line after all the other cars, like, explode or something.

Now, the Mariners have yet to win a single game in the 2015 season. We can’t get ahead of ourselves here. But this time, "going right" means something ontologically different than our sad little go-kart. This time, "going right" is Robinson Cano simply being himself, Brad Miller doing what he has proven he is capable of, and for Felix to just literally be Felix. If it goes right, that means that James Paxton and Taijuan Walker will pick up where they left off, that Dustin Ackley will do the same and if not, well, Rickie Weeks.

If it goes right, the Mariners will be leading the playoff race under a radiant August sun, and even though you won’t catch every single game, you will seek out what you missed because it means something, actually means something for once. If it goes right, the Mariners won’t need to scour the waiver wire for injury help, now handling the inevitable with depth and a farm system capable of delivering more than a way to kill a September evening.

We could mention the bullpen repeating their unpredictable 2014 and Logan Morrison surpassing—not just matching—his career high 123 games. Maybe Rodney’s command at age 39, Austin Jackson rebounding, or Nelson Cruz sustaining his power through the marine layer.

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If it all goes right, the Mariners will make the playoffs, but that’s silly because you expected that sentence to be the first. No. If it all goes right, you will remember that time you went to the Safe on a Tuesday night in September and stayed to watch Russell Branyan ground out to end the game, and you won’t regret a second of it. If it all goes right you will watch Felix roar after striking out the side in a playoff game, and you’ll roar right back at him from the sellout crowd or from the national television broadcast.

If it all goes right, you’ll be talking about Mike Zunino with your bartender, and checking your phone during work, and answering questions for new fans realizing that something incredible is happening down in SoDo, suddenly realizing they should join in on the fun. Heck, if it all goes right, you reading this right now, yes, you who hasn't watched a baseball game in years, will forget why you ever stopped watching in the first place.

But, you know, the whole World Series thing would be nice, too.

Season prediction

By Scott Weber

It may not get any better than this. This is the team Jack Zduriencik has taken a long time to build, and it looks far better than anything else he's ever created. The rotation's upside is massive. The bullpen should once again be one of the game's best. The lineup, despite some questions, has a dangerous heart of the order. Lloyd McClendon appears to be the right man for the job. After ending up one game short in 2014, on paper, this team shouldn't finish short again. 90 wins and a Wild Card appearance seem likely. 93 wins and a division title certainly aren't out of the question. The World Series? Sure, why not. Did you see the teams competing for last year's title? Think of the damage Felix and the rest of this rotation could do in a seven-game series.

This is a legit team. Wrap your head around it. Beat the pessimism and snark out of your skull. The Seattle Mariners should make the playoffs. It's not a joke. It's not blind optimism. This team has the baseline of talent to succeed and the upside to soar. It's been a long time coming. Always the underdog, underachieving and under-delivering, the Mariners are poised to finally regain their status as AL West contenders. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.