At 18-13, in first place by half a game, the Mariners are off to the kind of start that a generation of their fans have never experienced before. Unlike seasons such as 2007 and 2009, where the Mariners seemingly rode a few updrafts of elite performance and some good fortune to surprisingly good overall records, this team has the look and feel of an overall contender. When looking up and down the roster it seems clear that Jerry Dipoto has been able to assemble a team not only consisting largely of quality players, but players whose skillsets compliment each other well.
So it is, with thirty-one games in the books, that we look forward to the upcoming one-hundred and thirty-one games with a higher level of persnicketude(?) than your average Mariner season. Gradually, almost subconsciously, we're beginning to remember what it's like to root for a winning baseball team. With that, and the Mariners seemingly ever rising playoff odds in mind, let's take a look at three things about the team that will need to be reckoned, sooner or later.
The Bullpen is going to regress in the bad way
There is no larger, nor more pleasant surprise in the early going than the Mariners' bullpen. Despite the disabled list absorbing five of its preseason members, Steve Cishek, Joel Peralta's duct tape'd arm, and a variety of unproven and/or little known entities have combined to produce a bullpen with the following ranks:
They have been great, and a lot of the numbers say it's not a fluke. However, there is the matter of BABIP, always the BABIP. There, the bullpen is living a charmed life:
BABIP: .229 (1st)
Back in April, Grant took a look at Mariner hitters and their comically low BABIP. It seemed the team couldn't buy a hit unless they hit a home run. Sure enough, while still well below league average the team has seen their BABIP rise by almost thirty points in the past three weeks, and the outlook of the entire offense has predictably risen along with it.
This is going to happen with the bullpen, but in the way you are going to like far, far less. I am not predicting imminent collapse for Mariner relief pitchers. As I just cited many of the numbers with far more predictive value than BABIP show this bullpen performing quite well. However, this is a team that has seen one run outcomes in almost 40% of its games so far. The Mariners' bullpen performance thus far hasn't just been a pleasant surprise, it has been a necessary component of their fast start.
If and/or when Charlie Furbush, Joaquin Benoit, Tony Zych and co. return this has the makings of a very good bullpen. But until that time the Mariners are tap dancing on a high wire with no trampoline to catch them underneath. They could really use some more blowouts. Speaking of which....
First base is a mess
Coming into the season much of the drama surrounding first base was who among Stefen Romero, Dae-Ho Lee, Gaby Sanchez, and a few other NRIs would break camp as Adam Lind's platoon partner. The Mariners went with Lee, and in minimal playing time it's hard to be upset with big, lovable Korean's 143 wRC+, .564 SLG, and more-nimble-than-we-expected-ok-we-expected-nothing defense at first base.
The problem has been Adam Lind, who has been positively atrocious. Here are his ranks among first basemen with a minimum of sixty plate appearances, in a potpourri of things we'd like him to be far higher in:
wRC+: 35th (of 37)
BB%: 37th (dead last)
That, um, is bad. Being last in things like walk rate, is bad. Lind's walk and strikeout rates are way, way, waaaaaaay off from his career norms, and to the eye and by the stats he looks like a hitter trying to hit his way out of a slump. Unlike Kyle Seager's April struggles we can't even blame BABIP, as Lind's is .272. That is below his career norms, but not out of the question for a lumbering first baseman.
There's little to be done about it, at least in the short term. Lind will, and probably should, be given until at minimum mid-June to start hitting like something resembling the patient zero for Whelming he's always been. But until that time, the Mariners decision to run a platoon at first base has a cascading squeeze effect on the rest of the roster. It's worth it if they get above average production at the position, but until they do it's a big pain in the ass.
The Outfield is still flawed
Look, I love Franklin Gutierrez. You love Franklin Gutierrez. I don't think I would care if he was hitting .000/.000/.000 on the year, I would still love him. "Guti Forever" has been my rallying cry, and dammit forever includes now. HOWEVER, on a roster where the presence of a dedicated first base platoon makes every roster spot a precious commodity, having a corner outfielder with a 82 wRC+, and limited defensive utility simply doesn't work, particularly when the team's only center fielder has a K% greater than thirty and a stat line propped up by an unsustainable power surge.
Leonys Martin's defense has been, as we expected, a boon for this team. It almost makes it worth it to run his below average offense and comically large swing out there daily just to experience the soothing, cooling balm that is watching him track down every fly ball hit anywhere in the same postal code as him. But, the absence of offense in center shifts the need to the corner outfield spots, and with Nelson Cruz seemingly finally on the way to a more full-time DH role, the team needs Nori Aoki, Seth Smith AND Franklin Gutierrez to carry water.
I would like the team to explore some creative ways to get Gutierrez more plate appearances. Be it DH on the odd days when Cruz plays the field, or occasionally resting Aoki against a RHP. Unless we hear that Gutierrez's always fragile health is an issue, this is the hitter that slugged .620 in 2015 and who's power appeared very much intact during Spring Training, thumping four home runs. Get Gutierrez some ABs, or, if you absolutely do not trust him, find someone you do.