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Six big questions facing the 2020 Mariners

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We wanted to make this “20 questions for the 2020 Mariners” but couldn’t think of twenty

MLB: Seattle Mariners at San Francisco Giants D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest differences a rebuilding team has from a contending team isn’t just the number of unanswered questions, but the very nature of those questions. As teams move closer to contention, the questions facing a team become more focused: should the team sign free agent A or B? Will this player be recovered enough to hold down the third base job all season? Who will close out games, and when that player fails, who will be waiting in the wings?

Rebuilding teams have the luxury of being a little more vague about the exact whos and whats, but face broader, more existential questions like why and how and how long, again? The Mariners have committed themselves to following a “stepback” season with another rebuilding season. We have some more general questions for the GM of the team regarding the overall direction of the franchise, covered in a different article, but mostly, we here at the site accept the necessity of the rebuild. Here, then, are some specific questions we feel are the most pressing facing the Mariners as they start to crawl out of the hole of 2019 and towards contention.

Are Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield MLB-level starting pitchers capable of anchoring the middle of the Mariners’ rotation starting in late 2020/2021?

Some analysts—notably Keith Law—still see Justin Dunn as a future bullpen piece, which would be very-bad-to-devastating to Seattle’s commitment to fielding a competitive team by 2021. Dunn is currently mostly a two-pitch pitcher, living on a fastball he can move all over the plate and a deadly slider, which is what prompts analysts like Law to declare him a reliever. But the Mariners have also been working with Dunn on his curve, formerly a get-me-over offering that showed better bite at Arkansas, and he throws a changeup as well that shows promise. With actual wizard Rob Marcello Jr. installed as Tacoma’s pitching coach, Dunn has some time and space there to continue refining his arsenal, and the noncompetitive Mariners have no reason to rush him into a starting job at the big leagues in 2020.

Sheffield is a different case; a long-time veteran of the minors, Sheffield should spend the bulk, if not all, of 2020 in the Mariners’ rotation, honing his offerings against big-league competition. The swing-and-miss slider is a true out pitch but it will be getting his changeup to MLB-quality that will determine Sheff’s position in the rotation. With pitcher-whisperer Marcello in Tacoma, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to have Sheffield spend a little time there before making the move up I-5 full-time.

Is Scott Servais the right steward to lead a young team through this rebuild on and off the field?

Judging from Dipoto’s Town Hall and also questions we get on Twitter and in person, Scott Servais’s job security is at the forefront of the minds of Mariners fans—much more, it seems, than it is on Jerry Dipoto’s, who has repeatedly affirmed (and re-affirmed, and re-re-affirmed) his support for Servais. It’s not fair to judge Servais’s performance as a manager on the current toothless teams, although certainly one can examine the three years of contention they did have prior to 2019, when the team posted a winning record in all but an injury-riddled 2017 for a combined record of 20 games over .500 between 2016-2018, and yet made no playoff appearances, although whether that’s poor management or poor luck remains open for debate.

One point to discuss regarding Servais is his age, especially as the average age of the team dips lower and lower. For a club that prides itself on being at the forefront of MLB trends and thinking outside the box in making hires, Servais is right smack at the average age for MLB managers. Major League majors currently range between ages 38 (Tingler, Baldelli) to 65 (Maddon). Servais, at 52, rests almost exactly in the middle of that range, at just a shade over the average managerial age of 51. The Mariners have shown a tendency to mix ages and experience levels in their MiLB coaching staffs: at Modesto in 2019, 49-year-old MLB veteran Denny Hocking was balanced by 41-year-old hitting coach and MiLB vet Jose Umbria along with 28-year-old pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr., who never played above the college level. 24-year-old pitching strategist Max Weiner is younger than many of the players he coaches. We don’t expect Scott Servais and his years of experience in MLB to go anywhere, but wouldn’t be surprised to see him surrounded by some support staff who might be those more out-of-the-box hires.

Who will be the pitching coach?

Shortly after the Mariners season ended, it was announced that Paul Davis, last season’s pitching coach, would be re-assigned within the organization, as the Mariners seek someone who can more effectively communicate with players for that role. Data maven Jim Brower, who was seemingly well-regarded by players, was also let go, while biomechanics expert Brian DeLunas remains with the organization. So far we know that Pete Woodworth, who has overseen the pitching staff at Double-A for the past two years, will have some role on the MLB pitching staff, although whether or not that’s as the head pitching coach or as a bullpen coach is unclear at this time. Woodworth is just 31 years old, barely older than some of the players he’d be coaching, and didn’t pitch above rookie ball, but has experience coaching at the college level and has drawn rave reviews from players who have worked with him like Art Warren, who will likely begin the season as part of Seattle’s bullpen.

As mentioned above, the Mariners like to blend ages and experience levels, and maybe after Davis, they would feel more comfortable going with someone who has been on an MLB mound and can share that experience with players. However, the candidates who fit that criteria and are analytics-friendly, well-versed in modern baseball, and effective communicators...well, it’s a small pool, and “effective communicator” beats out “MLB experience” any day of the week. University of Michigan coach Chris Fetter has been a popular name this off-season, reportedly interviewing with both the Yankees and the Mets, and the Mariners have dipped into the college coaching ranks once already this season, hiring Elon’s Sean McGrath on as a minor-league pitching coach, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them go that route if they feel like a more seasoned voice is called for as pitching coach.

If Kyle Seager falters or get injured again in 2020 or 2021, what’s the back up plan for third base? (This is mostly hypothetical because Kyle Seager will never say die)

Just to be clear, the only thing that will be keeping Kyle Seager off the baseball field for the Mariners in 2020 would be some crucial part of Kyle Seager becoming separated from the rest of Kyle Seager. Forget a sliced-off thumb ligament; Seags could be leaking oil like an indy car stitched together like a class of third graders and still stumble his way onto the field. That’s partially testament to Seager’s Iron Man makeup (the thumb injury that felled him last season is the first time Kyle has spent extended time on the IL in his entire ten-year tenure in the system), partially due to his level of un-trade-ability, and partially a nod to the utter dearth of backups behind him. Dylan Moore, Donnie Walton, and Tim Lopes are all stopgap options if worse comes to worst, but all three are more middle infielders than third basemen, and none have the sock in the bat of our beloved Seags.

Should the problem persist into 2021, when the team is theoretically rounding into its competitive window, that becomes more of an issue. Joe Rizzo is the only corner infielder relatively close to sniffing the majors in the system, and he might be a second baseman, and needs to prove at Double-A this year that his bat can keep up with the demands of second or third in the upper minors. Dealing from the wealth of outfielders in the system for a third base prospect isn’t the worst idea; apparently the Reds are shopping Jonathan India, which would be an intriguing idea.

With Daniel Vogelbach’s rough second half, is DH open for auditions for 2020 or is the role Vogelbach’s to lose still?

Sorry Vogey—this roster spot is very much open for auditions. Daniel Vogelbach was a great story, and he still is. We, unabashed Daniel Vogelbach stans, hope that he can turn it around and see his production settle approximately between his first-half and second-half levels in 2019. Vogelbach’s abysmal 2019 BABIP of .232 points to possible positive regression.

The Mariners, however, need to evaluate the flexibility—or lack thereof—created by rostering Vogelbach. Vogey can only play DH, and that lack of positional flexibility would have hurt the M’s had they actually been in contention in 2019. With a pure DH on a roster, you’re limited to rostering one fewer backup infielder or outfielder. If someone goes down, the lineup can quickly look ugly; hello, Mac Williamson.

Successful teams in the American League like the Yankees or Astros have primary DH’s like Yordan Alvarez and Edwin Encarnacion that can shift to other positions in times of need. Even Encarnacion can hold his own at first base. Vogelbach can’t, and for that reason, he doesn’t just need to pull his own weight; he needs to do even more to justify that roster spot. (ZG)

If the Mariners are 3-5 wins out of a playoff spot at the 2020 trade deadline, what kinds of moves will the team be willing to make? If a playoff opportunity presents itself, how hard would the team push so early in its hopeful contention window?

Look, if the 2020 Mariners are 3-5 wins out of a playoff spot at the trade deadline, that’s most likely not because they played great baseball, and more because the rest of the AL has apparently cratered around them. We’re talking Matt Chapman coming down with a case of gigantism, Mike Trout being hypnotized into believing he’s a chicken, Joey Gallo hospitalized after a bar fight in which he argues that Lord Palmerston was the greatest British Prime Minister, and the entire Houston Astros organization getting radiation poisoning. While it’d certainly be tempting to mortgage some pieces of the future to make an unlikely run and get everyone to shut up about the Mariners’ playoff drought, the team has been pretty declarative in saying they’re not interested in mortgaging the future for short-term gains. They might move some deckchairs around, but wouldn’t do anything with the building blocks they have down on the still-tenuous farm, which would limit their ability to make any kind of impact trades. Julio and Jarred aren’t going anywhere, people.