SEATTLE – As the hours click down to the non-waiver trade deadline at 1 p.m. on Monday, the perception persists the Mariners are, or should be, in a go-for-broke mode because they face a bleak future.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently summed up the prevailing industry view in a recent online post regarding the Mariners’ alleged pursuit of Oakland pitcher Sonny Gray by saying they might as well “go all-out” because they “are bound to crash.”
Is that true?
Bound to crash?
It’s a common view for reasons that are easy to identify.
The Mariners’ three most-recognizable players are each in their 30s and showing signs of age: long-time ace Felix Hernandez is 31, second baseman Robinson Cano is 34 and designated hitter Nelson Cruz is 37.
The club’s farm system is lightly regarded, which is reflected in the fact the Mariners had no prospects cited among the Top 60 in Baseball America’s midseason rankings.
Aging roster plus no prospects equals no future, right?
“We don’t think we’re getting ready to crash into the earth,” general manager Jerry Dipoto countered bitingly. “We think we’re a sustainable product. We like our team.
“We’re built around a core of players like Robby, Nelson, Felix and Kyle (Seager), but there is a reason why you’ve heard me talk over the last two years about raising the floor.
“I think we’ve effectively raised the floor. We’ve got the second- and third-leading hitters in the American League (in Jean Segura and Ben Gamel).”
Here’s the case for the defense offered by Dipoto and others in the organization. It’s just an overview, but it should be enough for you to judge for yourself:
- Gamel is one three rookie outfielders, along with Mitch Haniger and Guillermo Heredia, who are 26 or younger and have a plus-1.7 WAR (wins above replacement) value or better. All three are controllable for at least five more years.
- On the infield’s left side, Seager is 29, and Segura is 27. Seager is under contract through 2021 with a club option for 2022; Segura is under contract through 2022 with a club option for 2023.
- Mike Zunino is a 26-year-old catcher under club control through 2020. After a rough start that included a demotion to Triple-A Tacoma, Zunino has recovered to the point where he has 16 homers and a 1.2 WAR rating.
- Left-hander James Paxton, 28, shows signs of evolving into the sort of ace who can front a rotation. He is under club control through 2020.
- Lefty Ariel Miranda, 28, projects as a reliable mid-rotation starter. He is under club control through 2022.
- Closer Edwin Diaz is 23 and under club control through 2022. Relievers Tony Zych, James Pazos, Emilio Pagan, Dan Altavilla and Max Povse are all 26 or younger and under club control for at least four more years.
“We’ve got a group of young players around the field who are doing positive things,” Dipoto said. “We’ve got a bullpen that is coming together nicely and, with some of the more recent additions, is sustainable and diverse.”
Half of the 14 players cited in those bullet points above were acquired on Dipoto’s watch which, he acknowledges, has been frenetic in efforts to construct a younger, more athletic roster with greater flexibility and controllability.
Some more numbers:
A year ago, players who were 29 or younger accounted for 41 percent of the club’s plate appearances. This year, it’s 58 percent. Nearly 75 percent of the club’s innings this season have come from pitchers who are 29 or younger.
Further, the four-player core of Hernandez, Cano, Cruz and Seager in 2015 accounted for 70 percent of the Mariners’ cumulative WAR value. That dropped last season to 56 percent and is currently at 29 percent.
Those numbers suggest the roster is turning over without a complete teardown.
The Mariners also like their rotation’s future better than many in the industry, who seem to see a declining Hernandez and little else.
In addition to Paxton and Miranda, the Mariners believe right-handers Andrew Moore and Nick Neidert (a consensus Top 100 prospect) will be solid contributors over the next several years.
Club officials were caught off-guard at the criticism that followed a July 21 trade that sent outfielder Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis for left-hander Marco Gonzales, a former first-round pick in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.
The Mariners saw the deal as one in which they dealt from an area of strength (outfielders) to address an area of need (starting pitching). Gonzales, 25, won his first start at Triple-A Tacoma and is 7-4 with a 2.91 ERA this season in 13 starts.
“Clearly, we like Marco Gonzales better than the mainstream media,” Dipoto said, “but the mainstream media hasn’t been familiar with Marco Gonzales for a year-and-a-half.
“You know what happens? Sometimes pitchers have Tommy John (surgery), and sometimes they come back and they’re good.”
Even if Hernandez’s days as an elite starter are behind him, the Mariners see no reason he can’t provide the rotation with reliable production over the two remaining guaranteed years on his contract (which has a club option for 2020.)
One scout from a rival club likened Hernandez at this point to Pedro Martinez’s time with the New York Mets. Martinez was 32-23 with a 3.88 ERA in 79 starts over four seasons for Mets at age 33-to-36.
“We need to adjust our starting pitching,” Dipoto acknowledged. “But in order to get starting pitching, you draft it, you cultivate it, you grow it – or you sign it as free agents. Because trading for starting pitching is ridiculously expensive.
“You can see by the fact we’ve got one of the 15 best wRC-plus hitters in the league (Haniger) playing right field and the league’s second-leading hitter (Segura) at shortstop from trading a mid-rotation starter (Taijuan Walker).”
That’s why several recent national reports linking the Mariners to Gray made little sense since the price to acquire Gray, or any front-line starter, would be exorbitant.
“I don’t think that’s ever been very likely,” Dipoto said. “I think we’ve been very conscious of preserving our talent pool.”
While the Mariners traded O’Neill and four other prospects in two recent deals, they held onto the three players they most valued: center fielder Kyle Lewis, first baseman Evan White and Neidert.
Club officials believe all three could be big-league ready by 2019.
So, again, are the Mariners bound to crash?
“We might,” Dipoto said, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen because we weren’t attentive too controlling our own player pool.”
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