Opening day is suddenly right around the corner, and the Mariners’ roster is close to set. There are a few undetermined spots, but some moves today went a long way to clearing up the options.
The area getting the most attention this week is the rotation, which will start at decidedly less than full strength. Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijaun Walker will both start the season on the disabled list, although the injuries don’t appear serious. At this point, they are working to build arm strength after missing spring training. Both should be back by May, if not sooner.
Until then, the team’s scrambling a bit to find viable replacements. Coming into spring, most assumed veteran Scott Baker would grab a spot. He didn’t ever seem to find his command after missing time for injury and asked for his release rather than start the season in Tacoma. Erasmo Ramirez seems to have solidified a spot, leaving Randy Wolf, Roenis Elias and Blake Beavan as the front runners for the final two spots. Apparently, Wolf would have had a spot, but he balked at signing a clause that would allow the team to send him to the minors later on, and he was also released. (Andrew has more on that below.) The circumstances of the release have caused some consternation amongst fans, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. Wolf isn’t anything special, and if the Mariners thought he is, they would have agreed to forgo the clause and keep him. His main use is as rotation depth, and he can’t fill that role later in the season if he won’t go to Tacoma.
So, it appears Elias will make the surprise jump from Double-A, at least for a month or so. Beavan, or maybe Noesi or an unsigned veteran, will take a few starts until Walker returns. It’s not ideal, but as long as Walker and Iwakuma return as expected, the situation’s not disastrous. There are a couple of other questions on the roster. Outfield seems settled, although it’s unclear exactly who will be the regular starters. The only surprise might be if Nick Franklin can squeeze himself onto the roster as a back-up infielder, which could necessitate a DL move or one less outfielder. The back of the bullpen is also a mess, one I’m not even going to try to figure out right now.
Anyway, my main purpose in writing this post was not to recap roster news, but rather to break down the roster itself to see what this year’s team might be. It’s still a squad with a lot to prove, but some additions, both young and veteran, have brought greater upside. A lot will have to go right for this team to contend, which means they probably won’t, but it’s possible, for the first time in a while. I’m going to group the roster into some categories that seem fairly apparent to me.
With the constant caveat that no one’s a sure thing in sports, given injuries and general unpredictability, the M’s have a few guys who should not cause any worry. Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano are in the arguments for the best pitcher and player in baseball. We’re in for a treat watching Cano. Seattle hasn’t seen as dynamic and talented a player as him since Ichiro’s best years, and he brings power that should make him the line-up stabilizer Seattle’s lacked since Edgar retired. Seager’s not on their level, but he’s very good, steady and still capable of improvement. Iwakuma will miss a month and won’t likely have as good a year as he did in 2013, but he’s still one of the better pitchers in the league and a solid complement to Felix. Fernando Rodney should be a welcome addition at the back of the ‘pen, despite some struggles this spring.
Veterans with Questions
Corey Hart is coming off injury and showing a great deal of rust this spring. If he can get back to close to his previous production, he’s an extremely solid bat, and important to the line-up as one of it’s few righties. I think he will, but it might take a month or two to get his timing down. The other 1B/DH/OF addition, Logan Morrison, doesn’t have Hart’s track record, but he’s been good before and is still young enough to hope for more. He could be anything from a dependable line-up anchor to a bench bat by season’s end, and I wouldn’t be shocked. It’s strange to think of Justin Smoak as a veteran, but he’s been around for a while and has established some level of production. He likely needs to raise that level to remain a starting 1B, but he’s sort of okay, and there’s still some hope he’ll jump a level.
Ready for a Breakout (Maybe)
The Mariners are still quite young, maybe more so this year than the last few. I largely see the youngsters in two groups, the first being the initial wave of talent from a few years ago. This includes guys like Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders and even Erasmo Ramirez. They’ve been around for a bit and have had their struggles, but hope isn’t gone. Ackley in particular seems to have found something, and I would not be surprised at all to see him take a big leap forward. Saunders has more questions, but also has a ton of physical potential and has shown flashes of being a solid to great outfield bat. Erasmo doesn’t get the pub of Taijaun and Paxton, but he has the makings of a solid third starter or more.
The second group here is largely made up of the prospects who debuted last year. Brad Miller has hit like crazy this spring and is garnering a lot of buzz as an under the radar breakout candidate. Mike Zunino might continue to struggle with the bat for a season or two, but he has big power and better defensive skills at catcher than Seattle has seen in a decade. In the rotation, James Paxton has nearly limitless potential as a lefty with a big fastball and bigger curve. Taijuan Walker might experience some growing pains for a few years, but he too has ace potential and the stuff to be a solid contributor until he puts it all together. Nick Franklin is likely to be traded given the Cano-Miller wall in front of him, but should he somehow get a shot, he’s another potential all-star middle infielder. Danny Farquhar need only repeat his 2013 dominance to cement himself as one of the top relievers in the league, and should Tom Wilhelmsen regain his command, he holds similar potential.
Not all of these players will become stars or even decent starters. Some will fail completely, and others will take winding paths to productivity. Still, this is a collection of young talent many organizations would die for, and the Mariners have plenty more coming in the minors.
I don’t intend for that category name to sound derogatory. Each team needs people to fill roles on the periphery, and sometimes these players find their moments and turn into stars. Charlie Furbush is one of the best left handed relievers around, and Yoervis Medina and Lucas Luetge have shown they can be solid parts of a big league bullpen. The rest of the relievers are to be determined, but they fit squarely here for now, as do rotation options like Beavan and Noesi. The two surprises of camp, Elias and OF/3B/2B Stefen Romero, are spare parts for now, but both have the talent to become regular starters eventually. CF Abraham Almonte has talent as well, to go with lots of oppotunity, but it remains to be seen whether he can produce enough to be anything more than a versatile guy at a position of need.
That covers pretty well everyone. Aside from winning, the best the Mariners could have happen this year is for more players to move themselves into the “Sure Things” category. It’s hard to build a team when the majority of the roster could provide such variable levels of production.
Regardless, this could be a fun team to watch. There’s a lot of talent here, led by what could be one of the best middle infields in baseball by season’s end. Hopefully this will finally be the year when the young talent shows what it can do. Believe big!