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Projecting the 2021 Mariners: ZiPS Edition

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Ty France, Evan White, and everything in between

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the markers of an upcoming MLB season, at least in these numbers-obsessed corners of the Internet, is the release of new ZiPS projections by Dan Szymborski over at FanGraphs. Today, it’s the Mariners’ turn, and the numbers, they are not super pretty.

Let’s get a bit more in depth, both on the players who we’re pleasantly surprised by and by the players who don’t project quite as well.

Highlights

Ty France, Certified Masher
Projection: 112 OPS+, 2.6 zWAR

It’s not a great sign that a player with a grand total of 356 plate appearances in MLB is projected as the team’s best hitter. But at the same time, it’s a great sign for France’s future that ZiPS is so bullish. He exploded onto the scene in 2019 with a AAA slash line of .399/.477/.770, and he excelled last season even with a K% nearly 10 points higher than his most recent minor league rate. If his bat is real, we might have to rename the Austin Nola trade to the Ty France trade.

Kyle Seager, Still Got It
Projection: 108 OPS+, 2.1 zWAR

Just two years ago, when the 2019 ZiPS projections came out after Seager’s disappointing 2018 campaign, our own Jake Mailhot said the following:

Unfortunately, I don’t see anything in his batted ball profile or deteriorating plate discipline that tells me he can reach that same level of success again. I have a hard time seeing his bat provide anything more than league average production in the future.

Jake had every reason to be right! But the longest-tenured Mariner turned things around in 2019 and kept it going in 2020, posting a career-high walk rate and his highest wRC+ since 2016. To its credit, ZiPS has remained high on Seager even after that downturn in 2018, and it’s keeping up that rosy outlook now. Seager featuring as the team’s third-best hitter — and a solidly above average one to boot — would be a welcome sign.

Chris Flexen, Legitimate Contributor
Projection: 4.46 FIP, 0.9 zWAR

It’s been an interesting journey for Chris Flexen. He debuted for the Mets in 2017 at age 23, and posted 68 wholly unremarkable innings over three seasons before departing for Korea. He shined in the KBO last year, earning a two-year deal with a club option for 2023, and ZiPS thinks the adjustments he made overseas are likely to stick. Mikey Ajeto wrote a great piece when the Flexen signing was announced a few weeks ago, and after combining that piece with this rosy outlook, I’m getting real excited about Flexen’s potential.

Rafael Montero & Andres Muñoz, Shiny New Bullpen Arms
Projection: 3.76/3.83 FIP, 0.6/0.5 zWAR

Montero — acquired from Texas this offseason — and Muñoz — acquired in the aforementioned Ty France trade — are the two best Mariners relievers by ZiPS, both with FIPs under 4.00. The Seattle ‘pen of late has felt like a rotating cast, a motley crew of characters who all feel replaceable. Montero and Muñoz turning into featured actors, rather than the latest one-hit wonders, would provide much-needed stability and upside to this team.

Lowlights

Kyle Lewis, Not (Yet) Convinced
Projection: 96 OPS+, 1.1 zWAR

Mariners fans, it’s time to vent away! It’s fair to have concerns, or doubts, around how sustainable Lewis’ breakout 2020 campaign, and ZiPS is inherently conservative (as is any projection system). But it would be incredibly disappointing to see Lewis regress from a career 128 OPS+ to a below-league-average hitter. Part of the regression comes from a reduced walk rate, part comes from a lower BABIP (although ZiPS projects him for a .342 mark). A pessimist sees these things and adjusts down; an optimist focuses on Lewis’ prospect pedigree and the improvements he’s made thus far in his brief MLB career. The truth? It’s probably somewhere in the middle.

Evan White, Yikes
Projection: 76 OPS+, -0.5 zWAR

If last year was the best-case scenario for Kyle Lewis, it was also the worst-case scenario for Evan White. You’re probably all too familiar with his contact issues, and ZiPS isn’t particularly rosy on White’s 2021, or even beyond that. As with Lewis, there are reasons to look beyond the negatives (a 41.6% strikeout rate, a .346 slugging percentage) and focus on the prospect pedigree, but unlike Lewis, he doesn’t have strong MLB numbers to back him up.

Starting Rotation Not Named Marco Gonzales, Low Upside All The Way Down
Projection: Nobody else with a FIP lower than 4.46 or at 2+ zWAR

If the Mariners’ rebuild is going to work, as with any successful team, they will need to combine depth and upside. Marco Gonzales might not be a traditional ace, but he’s been outstanding for three years now, and he looks like a mainstay for years to come. But the M’s need to surround him with some real strength, not just a collection of 4/5 starters. Hopefully, 2021 will see a breakout campaign from one of Justus Sheffield (projected FIP: 4.56), Yusei Kikuchi (4.47), Logan Gilbert (4.63), Nick Margevicius (4.63), or Justin Dunn (5.15). But ZiPS isn’t particularly optimistic...yet.

Overall

One other question we had while reading through these projections: How much value does ZiPS really have for minor league prospects in 2021? With a grand total of zero MiLB games played in 2020, players like Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert — who actually project reasonably well by ZiPS — haven’t been able to showcase their improved skillsets in game action for a long time.

These projections don’t tell us anything new; rather, they’re a way to encapsulate past performance and use it to predict future success. But ZiPS can be a valuable tool to temper our optimism and find value where it might not be so obvious.