In the last two seasons Mariners fans have been forced to accept many new and sudden changes. A team whose strength was in its pitching staff has seen its production come almost exclusively from position players this season. A team that had familiar prospects developing slowly in the farm, albeit often chaotically and ineffectively, has become a team of new arrivals and trade acquisitions. But what if Trader Jerry wasn’t? What if Dipoto, chastened by his salacious trade history and fearful of another Albert Pujols banging on his door, swore off all transactions save those to retain current players after the 2016 season? What would the 2017 roster look like? Grant Bronsdon and I are here to determine exactly that.
Projected Opening Day Rotation:
SP: Félix Hernández
SP: James Paxton
SP: Hisashi Iwakuma
SP: Taijuan Walker
SP: Nate Karns
The top three members of the rotation remain unchanged, but no spot in the rotation is free of question marks. While Taijuan Walker struggled to find consistency in Seattle, a late-season adjustment with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre last year was the beginning of a more consistent (and healthy) Taijuan, and he’s been a solid performer in Arizona this year, accruing 2.2 fWAR and a 3.32/4.09/4.42 ERA/FIP/xFIP in 143.2 IP so far. He had a 10-day DL stint this year, missing three or four turns in the rotation, but his 25 starts would still be tops among his compatriots in this alternate history. Paxton and Félix have made 20 and 13 starts respectively, while Iwakuma has managed just six, and looked grisly doing it. Karns has been similarly snake-bitten, posting a K/9 over 10 this year, but making just eight starts before being sent to the 60-day DL and being shut down for the season with surgery on his forearm.
Standing pat, then, would mean digging into the rotational depth, just as it has in reality in 2017. Ariel Miranda would have been the first to rise, most likely, and we have seen how that turned out. Vidal Nuño would have been another likely replacement, though his struggles before and during 2017 suggest that would’ve been short-lived. With Cody Martin requiring extended Spring Training, Zach Lee and Sam Gaviglio would have been called upon early and often to fill in the rotation. Much like this year’s hope for Drew Smyly’s midseason return, Mariners fans had reason to look forward to July, as Adrian Sampson would begin his rehab assignment and could provide a boost for the rotation in late August.
After allowing for time to develop and pending the team’s proximity to contention (unlikely), more promising prospects like Paul Blackburn and Ryan Yarbrough would likely receive a call-up. Although Blackburn is almost two years Yarbrough’s junior, he’s received ten starts this year, and found reasonable success despite peculiar peripherals (there aren’t many guys with a K/9 lower than their FIP that have still been passable). Sadly, after spending too much time absorbing knowledge from the Big Maple, Blackburn took a line drive off the wrist and was sent to the 60-day DL after just ten starts in reality, and you can rest assured that’d happen to Blackburn if he was wearing teal. Yarbrough has posted a solid 3.87 FIP in AAA this year, and he and Andrew Moore would likely be finishing the season out in the rotation, perhaps alongside Sampson, Gaviglio, and Walker. A combination of injury-prone players and poor luck appears destined for this figment of inactivity, although Walker’s presence delivers a degree of reprieve. Still, it’s tough to see this being a successful unit following either of these paths.
Projected Opening Day Bullpen:
CL: Edwin Díaz
RHP: Nick Vincent
RHP: Drew Storen
RHP: Evan Scribner
RHP: Dan Altavilla
RHP: Jonathan Aro
LHP: Vidal Nuño
Bullpens are fickle creatures, but the bulk of the Mariners’ pen has been set prior to the 2017 season. Steve Cishek and Tony Zych began the season on the DL, as you may recall, but upon their return the pen would look mighty similar to what came to pass in actuality. Scribner’s health once again was his undoing this year, so his spot would soon re-open for one of the returnees, and Altavilla would likely shuffle up and down pending his effectiveness. Poor Drew Storen saw his velocity fall yet again this year, and after sitting around 94 mph just two years ago he’s barely averaging 90. Unfortunately, the collapse of the rotation would put a rapid strain on the bullpen, likely resulting in Nuño entering the rotation, Paul Fry being called up to fill the LOOGY role, and ultimately an extension into an eight-man pen. Sam Gaviglio and Zach Lee might begin in the long-relief role before shifting fatefully into the rotation.
Ryne Harper and Andrew Kittredge would assuredly make appearances replacing a struggling Aro, though Emilio Pagan’s eventual emergence would hopefully prove a salve. If Edwin Díaz struggles with his consistency early as he did in reality this year, he might lose his closer role again to Cishek, whose return to health would be slow but worthwhile, as he re-established himself as a top level late inning reliever in the second half of the season. With Cishek, Zych, and Vincent putting together strong seasons once healthy, and Díaz rounding into decent form, the bullpen of the transaction-free 2017 season would likely be a similar unit to the one we’ve seen this year - neither dominant nor an embarrassment, and stretched well beyond its means by a feeble rotation.
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
C: Michael Accorsi Zunino
1B: Dan Vogelbach
2B: Robinson Canó
3B: Kyle Seager
SS: Ketel Marte
LF: Guillermo Heredia/Ben Gamel
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Seth Smith/Franklin Gutierrez
DH: Nelson Cruz
The biggest shift here is up the middle, as neither Jean Segura nor Jarrod Dyson take the field for this version of the Mariners, and in the outfield, which is also missing Mitch Haniger, aka Mark Harbinger. The outfield lacks the athleticism of the current iteration, with right field serving as a particularly glaring hole, but Guti has fallen pretty far from his 2015-16 resurgence in Seattle. He’s currently slashing .232/.317/.339, and when you combine that with Seth Smith’s .259/.340/.439 line, you get a very replaceable lineup spot.
In the infield, Marte at shortstop and Vogelbach as the everyday first baseman represent huge question marks. In an admittedly small sample (just 199 plate appearances), Marte has rediscovered the path to first base, with his OBP jumping from .287 in 2016 to a robust .357 this season. His standout numbers in AAA also lend credence to the idea that he’s turned a corner. Though Segura has obviously been great this season, he’s also missed a healthy dose of 2017 with various injuries, and Marte’s availability might have been more valuable for this year’s postseason race. (I’d still rather have Segura, however!) And Danny Valencia’s 0.9 bWAR, though unspectacular, is much more reliable than Vogey, who has yet to make a positive impact in two short cups of coffee in the big leagues. There’s time yet, and there’s certainly talent present, but Jerry certainly upgraded for 2017 by acquiring Valencia.
So where does this leave our lineup? If Jerry just kept the whole gang intact, this team would be almost assuredly worse. The outfield depth is sorely lacking -- see Martin’s struggles and the iffy right field situation, particularly prior to Boog Powell’s suspension ending -- and trusting two young players like Marte and Vogelbach as full-season, full-time regulars is tempting fate. Affordable free agents like Jon Jay or Matt Joyce might have helped bridge the gap, but in terms of WAR, neither is comparable to Dyson’s impact on this year’s squad.
Bench: Chris Iannetta
Bench: Ben Gamel
Bench: Franklin Gutierrez
Bench: Shawn O’Malley? Mike Freeman?
This bench is a bit of a mixed bag. Taylor Motter was certainly a nice/acceptable/mediocre addition as a utility infielder, and Dipoto did well to add more positional flexibility especially in the outfield. O’Malley’s labrum injury in Spring Training went on to keep him out for effectively the entire season, however, meaning a season of Mike Freeman and his -27 wRC+ or perhaps some Zach Shank time. But it would be nice to replace Carlos Ruiz and his surprisingly acceptable 92 wRC+ with Chris Iannetta’s 113 wRC+. His presence would have been especially valuable given Zunino’s early-season struggles. Keep in mind that Dipoto might have kept Norichika Aoki in this alternate reality, although I’d rather have Gamel and Guti than Aoki. With the team assuredly well out of contention, Tyler O’Neill might see a September call-up as well, although if the 22-year-old’s offensive production in AAA is as slow-developing as it was in our universe’s 2017, they might not choose to start his contract clock a year early.
On the Farm:
C/OF: Alex Jackson
OF: Tyler O’Neill
LHP: Luiz Gohara
LHP: Ryan Yarbrough
RHP: Paul Blackburn
There’s no way around it: This hurts. Losing guys like Gohara, a high-ceiling prospect who started the season in High-A and is now pitching in the bigs, certainly takes away from this team’s future. It’s true that some questioned Gohara’s ability to remain a big-league starter, but at the same time, it’s inarguable that Mariners fans would rather have Gohara to Drew Smyly’s Injury Report™. The team is better now, but has thinned its margin for error in the future.
What can we take away from all of this? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s important to make transactions to try to better your team. Duh. There’s no logical reason any general manager would have kept the outfield from last year intact given who was hitting free agency, and Dipoto’s decision to further pursue pitching depth was vindicated given the unholy rash of injuries suffered this season.
But it’s also easy to conclude that though the Mariners are a better team in 2017 for all of the front office’s machinations, they aren’t necessarily a better team for 2018 and beyond. Without guys like Gohara or Jackson (or, I suppose, Mariners legend Mallex Smith), the farm is devoid of high-ceiling guys other than Kyle Lewis, maybe Nick Neidert, and a few players drafted in 2017. Is it worth winning a few more games this year? Probably not. But were the moves, taken together in aggregate at the time, generally correct? Harder to say -- but I lean yes.