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Building a better Mariners

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With the season's first two months a distant memory, it's time for to re-examine the best way to put together this roster.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After beginning the month at 30-21, the Mariners have gone 8-17 in June, plummeted out of the AL West lead, both Wild Cards, and find themselves in third place in their division. This kind of free fall is never as simple as one failing player, one broken roster construction concept, or a single trend.

The Mariners’ June has been the result of things both within, and without management’s control. Injuries to Wade Miley, Felix Hernandez, Leonys Martin, Ketel Marte, Taijuan Walker, and Tony Zych are, until baseball breaks through the injury-science barrier in earnest, largely unavoidable, and can be termed something like bad luck. Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano, the team’s two best hitters, are seeing unsustainably large splits in production between low, medium, and high leverage at bats that are costing the team crucial runs:

Robinson Cano (wRC+)

Low leverage: 179
Medium leverage: 113
High leverage: 110

Nelson Cruz

Low leverage: 188
Medium leverage: 125
High leverage: 55

The list goes on, as there are plenty of ways to lose baseball games, and this month the Mariners have seemingly found almost all of them. Despite still largely being an above average defensive third baseman Kyle Seager has made numerous costly errors at key moments. The bullpen, after posting FIPs of 3.16 and 3.40 in April and May respectively, has seen that number in June soar to 5.32. Almost certainly related is that Mariner relievers have seen their average innings per game increase every month this season, as injuries to the rotation have decimated what little depth there was:

Average bullpen innings per game:

April: 2.78
May: 3.23
June: 3.53

That’s about two more outs a game for Steve Johnson, Jonathan Aro, David Rollins, Donn Roach and other pitchers who began the season far off the radar to get against major league hitters, and predictably it hasn’t gone well.

The truth of the matter is most likely the Mariners season is sunk unless Walker, Miley, and Hernandez return from injury whole, and solidify a rotation that was built to carry this team. At this point the team is not adding an impact starting pitcher through trade. There aren’t any impact starting pitchers to acquire through trade. Unless by impact you mean "bad". Then, yes, there are impact starting pitchers available.

With the odds now against them and health a factor largely out of team control, it’s tempting as a fan to give into fatalism, begin long soliloquies on the oncoming heat death of the universe, and the lack of Mariners baseball ability to stop it, etc. However, while Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto may largely be stuck in an on the rails shooter for the rest of 2016, every bit of efficiency adds up. Here are a few ideas on ways to squeeze a bit more juice from the pulp of this roster:

Rearrange the bullpen roles

For two months, as Joaquin Benoit, Tony Zych, and others fell to injury Nick Vincent carried the mail for Scott Servais’ bullpen. The acquisition of Vincent was, and is, a coup for Jerry Dipoto. He is an effective major league reliever, had from the Padres for peanuts. However, as his June numbers (5.78 FIP, 4 HR in 14.1 IP) push his season line above his career norms it’s time for him to stop being, as Kate found out last week, the highest leverage reliever on this team.

In addition, the desire to use Joaquin Benoit as the team’s setup/8th inning reliever was very understandable, as it's a role he has thrived in for years. Whether small sample size, age, or lingering injury Benoit's walk rate has soared to 13.4%, and subsequent 5.19 FIP, are damaging this team in close and late situations.

Despite youth and relative inexperience there is little doubt in my mind that Edwin Diaz belongs, for the rest of this season, in a combination set up/high leverage reliever role. Having struck out 19 in hitters in 11.1 IP, and flashing a fastball over 100 MPH to go along with is a devastating slider, there is no pitcher in the Mariner bullpen as capable of overwhelming opposing batters, or generating a needed strikeout with runners on base. In yesterday's loss it was Nick Vincent pitching in a tie game, and Diaz with a two run deficit. It is time to switch those two around.

In addition, given the state of the bullpen, the team would benefit from experimenting with Vidal Nuno as a potential LOOGY reliever. Nuno has been largely effective in relief, despite being used largely in mop up and long relief. With Charlie Furbush feeling more and more like a longshot to pitch in 2016, and Mike Montgomery thriving in longer relief, Nuno fits the bill.

More Guti

This one has already started to correct itself, so let this serve as more of an affirmation. After being buried on the bench for the season's first month, injury and ineffectiveness from Nori Aok,i and others have resulted in Gutierrez getting more playing time in June. He has responded by mashing the past two months, posting a wRC+ of 160 and 144 in May and June, respectively. Although age, injury, and weight gain have robbed him of the vast majority of his once expansive range, his instincts and graceful athleticism in the outfield are still there to make tough plays, like yesterday's.

With a season long wRC+ of 131, even with a fairly large platoon split Gutierrez is this roster's second best outfielder, and as long as his fragile health allows there should be a spot in the lineup for him more days than not. I'm incredibly biased, as he might just be my favorite player on this team, but until the team finds a better option, it's the right call. That brings me to my next topic...

Ditch Nori Aoki, acquire an outfielder

I was not a big fan of the Nori Aoki acquisition, and his play thus far has done very little to make me feel better about his place in the organization. With below average defense, no power, a career high strike out rate, and atrocious baserunning, Aoki's only above average major league tool is command of the strike zone, and working a walk. As his power continues to deteriorate, and pitchers discover there is nothing to fear by throwing him strikes, I expect the on base ability to diminish soon as well.

With a vesting option at 480 plate appearances there is little to no reason for Aoki to continue to be on this roster, outside of the fact that thanks to Boog Powell's suspension there is absolutely no one better qualified currently with the organization. If the team continues to fade, Aoki's play potentially opens up an opportunity for Guillermo Heredia to receive a major league audition. However, as long as the team remains in Wild Card contention it is corner outfield that stands out as the position of biggest need for trade.

Melvin Upton Jr. did and does stand out as the best option, as a right-handed bat with enough defense to spell Leonys Martin in center against tough left-handed pitchers. In reality, his cost both in salary and talent needed to acquire may prove too much for the team. But given that left field, in grand Mariner tradition, currently sits as a vast, gaping hole of suck, even a marginally useful player could represent a substantial upgrade.

*****

The Mariners built themselves a large amount of breathing room through April and May. They have used all of it and more up in a horrendous June. At 38-38, they appear to be the average/slightly above average team many of us viewed them as before the season started. Time will show if "slightly above average" is enough to make the playoffs this year in the American League, and due to Jack Zduriencick building a comically top-heavy organization Jerry Dipoto, Scott Servais, and company have limited options. But changes are needed, and many of them can be accomplished with little to no cost to the team. At this point, they are out of games to waste.