2016 Mariners-Crown Em’

Besides being humans and playing baseball for the Seattle Mariners, can you think of something in common between Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Seth Smith? This group are the only Mariners that will take part in the opening day ceremonies next week that did the same last year with the M’s. The other 18 men were not on the M’s opening day roster in 2015. A lot can, and has, changed in the past few months for the Mariners and many other teams around the league. Though I would imagine a 72% overhaul of opening day rosters from one year to the next is higher than league average, by a considerable margin. If I had the time I’d like to know if it ranks as the most changed roster, which it well may. It’s all to be expected when a new manager and general manager are brought in, as is the case with Seattle. But is all the change a good thing? Time will tell, but in this case, I think it is.

A year ago I couldn’t go a day without reading a new predictions tweet or article that had the M’s in the World Series. It was all a bit surreal. This year, most pundits see the M’s extending their 13 year postseason drought another year. This makes sense given how 2015 played out, to say nothing of the prior decade. But aside from expectations, there is good reason to think the M’s actually look a good bit better today than April, 2015. Below are how the opening day rosters compare. The 18 new faces all have a player they are essentially replacing, as the chart shows. As for the impact column, that is my opinion whether the current player is an upgrade (+), downgrade (-), or no real change (o).

2015 2016 Impact
James Paxton Wade Miley +
J.A. Happ Nate Karns o
Danny Farquhar Nick Vincent +
Charlie Furbush Mike Montgomery
Yoervis Medina Joel Peralta o
Tyler Olson Vidal Nuno +
Fernando Rodney Steve Cishek o
Carson Smith Joaquin Benoit o
Tom Wilhelmson Tony Zych o
Mike Zunino Chris Iannetta +
Jesus Sucre Steve Clevenger +
Logan Morrison Adam Lind +
Brad Miller Ketel Marte +
Willie Bloomquist Luis Sardinas +
Dustin Ackley Nori Aoki +
Austin Jackson Leonys Martin +
Justin Ruggiano Franklin Gutierrez +
Rickie Weeks Dae-Ho Lee +
Felix Hernandez Felix Hernandez o
Hisashi Iwakuma Hisashi Iwakuma o
Taijuan Walker Taijuan Walker +
Robinson Cano Robinson Cano +
Kyle Seager Kyle Seager o
Nelson Cruz Nelson Cruz o
Seth Smith Seth Smith o

There are dozens of variables and caveats to an exercise like this, and we can differ on opinion, but I see the M’s upgrading in 14 spots this season, downgrading in 1 (though Furbush is still on the roster), and staying even in 10. Each spot is a case by case assessment but in general I’m looking at the performance of the 2015 player versus the reasonable expectation/projection of the 2016 player. Let’s dig in a little further.

Starting Pitching
The rotation is deeper and projects better in 2016. Felix is Felix, no reason to expect he won’t be an ace and in the thick of Cy Young contention. A year ago Paxton broke camp as the #2 starter, this year he is healthy but in Tacoma. Not many teams have a #6 guy like James, who still has a high ceiling. Wade Miley was brought in to replace Iwakuma, but then Iwakuma returned after all, which was a bonus. Taijuan returns to the rotation and is poised to build off his rookie campaign. Tai was terrible in April and May last year, but found his rhythm in the summer. Happ for Karns feels like a wash for 2016 but Karns will be a key piece for years to come.  Few may realize he actually started the third game for Tampa Bay last year, and was a key piece of their rotation all year. Thanks to retaining Kuma and adding Miley, I think the rotation is significantly improved.

Bullpen
There’s no disputing the bullpen is the biggest question mark. I won’t try to convince anyone that the pen will be good, but honestly can it be worse than last year? I don’t know that it can and I like Dipoto’s strategy of completely overhauling the pen and bringing in a heap of arms which will sort itself out as the season goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the M’s give 15+ guys a chance in the pen this year. Whether the depth is any good is TBD but there are reinforcements if a couple guys get hurt (Scribner, Cook, Furbush) or potentially suck. Last year few alternatives existed, which is a huge reason why the bullpen went from bad to disastrous. Cishek and Benoit will go a long way in determining the success but I feel a little better about the bullpen with Vincent’s acquisition today. The bullpen can’t be worse and maybe it isn’t a ton better, but ’16’s version looks poised to improve on ’15.

Lineup
Gone are LoMo, Brad Miller, Austin Jackson, and Ackley. In are Lind, Marte, Leonys, and Nori Aoki. Gimme that 4 for 4 trade any day! Beyond the areas of change, the lineup, at least at present, does not look to have a black hole (Zunino is in Tacoma). Seager, Cruz, Cano, and Seth Smith are all back, and while Cruz may not match last year’s incredible season, Cano is finally healthy and I imagine Seager and Smith will continue their career norms as above average players. I have some worries about this lineup, given the offensive woes that seem to haunt the M’s, but on paper it looks league average and capable of 4 runs/game.

Bench
Say goodbye to Rickie Weeks, Ruggiano, Sucre, and WFBloomquist. They’ve been replaced by Dae-Ho Lee, Gutierrez, Steve Clevenger, and Luis Sardinas. Again, anyone not willing to take that 4 for 4 trade? Seems like a no brainer. The bench will be better, quite significantly in my opinion.

Defense
The theme of Dipoto’s offseason was constructing a roster built for Safeco Field. That hadn’t happened in a long time. To do so, Jerry brought in guys who get on base and can field their position, above average in most cases. Aoki and Leonys are instant upgrades to the outfield, which had been a glaring weakness during the Jack Z era. Marte isn’t flashy but he makes all the plays you’d expect at short stop, something that cannot be said of Brad Miller. Sardinas is a terrific defender, WFB is not. The defense is vastly improved.

Depth
MLB is a 162 game season, so depth is pretty important. Jack Z learned the hard way that you can never have enough pitching and catching. Dipoto is all about accumulating guys who can play in the majors, particularly if they’ve tasted some success. You need depth, so in addition to the 25 guys who will take the field in Arlington next week, there had better be a plethora of other options. Paxton, Zunino, Taylor, Romero, Blash, O’Malley, Furbush (DL), are all still in the organization and can step in. You also have Daniel Robertson, Boog Powell, Efren Navarro, and Rob Brantly, plus another 5-8 bullpen candidates (Roach, Parker, Guaipe, Aro, De Fratus, Scribner, Cook) . Last year, that sort of depth simply did not exist, particularly in the bullpen and at catcher.

To recap, I feel better about all areas of the 2016 Mariners as compared to last year. Most fans probably feel the same about their team, hope springs eternal and all that. But last year’s team won 76 games, so it will take a big jump forward to be in playoff contention. The rest of the AL West, mid-season acquisitions, how Servais adjusts to managing, and of course injuries, slumps and so many other factors will help determine how the season shakes out, but the Mariners should not be bad. In fact, they should probably be good.

Dipoto makes some tasty Kool-Aid, and I’m drinking it. Crown em’.

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