Hope you’re ready for endless Mariners discussion! This year, I don’t think there’s going to be one definitive 2015 Mariners Preview post. Rather, I think I’m going to roll them out occasionally, over the next couple months.
These are exciting times to be a Mariners fan. That’s all relative, of course. Compared to all the losing we’ve been exposed to in recent years, just about ANYTHING ELSE could be considered exciting. I keep waffling between the Mariners being really good in 2015 – as many smart baseball types are predicting – and being another huge letdown. I mean, you know how the Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001? Well, there HAVE been winning seasons since then. 2007 and 2009 come immediately to mind in the particularly wretched stretch from the years 2004 thru 2013. So, we HAVE come off of winning seasons, only to fall right on our asses with 100-loss teams. Granted, the 2007 and 2009 Mariners were paper tigers and were due to regress (though, 100 losses seems to be a bit of an over-correction on the whole regression to the mean argument), but it’s not impossible to see the 2015 Mariners hit the toilet.
One thing I keep telling myself is: the 2014 Mariners won 87 games, and for the most part, the core is intact. We’re bringing back seven of our eight starting position players, all of our starting pitchers except for Chris Young, and all of our relievers except for Brandon Maurer. Even if we added NOTHING to last year’s team, you’re looking at some semblance of a .500 roster. Then, take into account the vast upgrade at DH (Nelson Cruz over Hart/Morales/Other), the possible moderate upgrade in right field (Smith/Ruggiano over Saunders), the possible even trade in our rotation (Happ over Young), and the bevy of young, hard-throwing right handers in our bullpen to step up and replace Maurer, and yeah, it all looks pretty promising.
But, injuries wipe that all way. If we lose Cano, Seager, Cruz, or Felix for any significant period of time, we’re kinda screwed. Or, if we lose a large amount of regulars from the second and third tiers of this team’s talent pool, we certainly won’t have enough depth to overcome.
I mean, look at our depth in general! Who’s our backup second baseman if Cano is out for a month? Bloomquist? Oh, that’s fun. What do we do if Seager sprains an ankle? Move Miller over to third? Bloomquist again? What happens when LoMo inevitably gets injured? Bring up a guy from Tacoma who isn’t ready? Bloomquist one more time? Shit, what if Bloomquist isn’t able to come back from his surgery in time for the season?
That’s saying nothing of the very real possibilities that one or more of our outfielders comes out of the gate sucking dick and needing to be replaced. How much do we trust Ackley or A-Jax? What do we even know about this right field platoon? What if we’re forced to play Cruz in the field more than at DH? And what if that leads to him getting injured like Hart was all year last year?
It’s no slam dunk that this Mariners team makes the playoffs. You really gotta hope that this team’s most important players are able to stay healthy for the duration. But, I guess that’s what baseball is. I mean, how often do you run into an organization that’s overflowing with depth at every position? If you run into an unlucky streak, you turn into the Texas Rangers of last year. That was a GOOD team, but they suffered injuries at just about every single fucking position and ended up being one of the worst teams in baseball. Don’t think that can’t happen to the Mariners, because if I know my Seattle sports history, I’ll tell you THAT living hell is very much on the table.
For now, I’ll try to set aside all doom & gloom and make an effort to tell you what I actually think is going to happen this year. Let’s start with the starting rotation and call it a day. I’ll work on the bullpen and the everyday starters in separate posts.
Felix Hernandez – Ahh, what would I do without Felix? Last year, he had maybe the greatest season of his career, yet he came OH SO CLOSE to winning his second Cy Young award. He’s been on quite the roll since he was unleashed in 2009 and allowed to pitch unlimited innings. I would expect more of the same greatness, though it may be unfair to expect him to be as good as he was last year. Nevertheless, he has it in him to be even BETTER, so I wouldn’t totally count it out. Count him for 30+ starts, 200+ strikeouts, and I’m gonna say it: 20+ wins! BOOM! What’s more, his season won’t be defined by some lame start in Toronto in September, either.
Hisashi Iwakuma – Last year, Iwakuma missed the first month of the season with a sprained ligament in his finger. His season as a whole was considerably worse than what he brought to the table in 2013, with a rough final seven starts really doing the damage. It’s impossible to say what’s wrong – if anything – but you’ve got to be at least a little concerned. But, his strikeout rate was marginally better, and he was fantastic at limiting walks. The only thing you can really point to is his BABIP increasing from .233 in 2013 to .274 in 2014. Meaning he went from being incredibly lucky in 2013 to about average (or maybe even still better than average) in 2014. Anecdotally, it seemed to me that Iwakuma was a little too in love with the strike zone last year, and got beat accordingly too many times. He also found himself up in the zone more than I’m sure he’d like, which resulted in him getting pounded just a little bit harder. His double plays were down, and overall he wasn’t pitching quite as deep into ballgames.
I’m not going to say he’s fallen off the cliff, but it would be nice to see a bounce-back season. I wouldn’t expect the greatness of 2013 – when he seriously contended for a Cy Young Award – but also not the relative failure of 2014 either. Somewhere in the middle would suit me right down to the bone. At this point, it’s probably insane to predict a full season of health out of Iwakuma, but here’s hoping we keep him upright for the majority.
J.A. Happ – Suffice it to say, I’m less than thrilled with this guy just being handed a rotation spot. I highly doubt what he’s going to produce is going to be as good – let alone better – than what we would get from Roenis Elias. But, I understand the sentiment. You’ve GOT to have rotation depth, especially if you’re in a position to contend like the Mariners are this year. If we were coming off of a 60-win season, I highly doubt Happ would be on our roster today. We’d be pushing as many young pitchers as we could out into the spotlight to see how they fare. The Mariners are in a fortunate position, though, as – with Happ – we now have six guys who are (or could be) legitimate Major League starters. Three of those six guys have options, meaning we can stash them in Tacoma without much fuss. Also, not for nothing, but of those three guys, no one really DESERVES to be handed a spot in this rotation. So, it’s not batshit crazy to stick Walker, Elias, or even Paxton down in Tacoma for a little additional seasoning, until the time is right to bring one of them back up. Happ doesn’t have options, and at least in his Safeco starts he should be Good Enough, so whatever.
Part of me expects Happ to find his way to the DL at some point. The homer in me hopes that DL stint is some manufactured injury due to him struggling, while one of the starters below gets his crack at being called up from Tacoma. Overall, he might get a slight bump from pitching half of his games in Safeco, but I’m not going to wet my pants over the prospects of J.A. Happ having a career year. If his ERA is under 4, I’d be ecstatic
James Paxton – Of the three guys we’ve got for the final two spots, I’d say Paxton is the consensus safest bet. If he’s able to stay healthy, I think he could top out – this year – as this team’s second-best starter in our rotation. If not, or if he wears down by season’s end, I think he could still be a very good chip for us in our hopes of contending for a playoff spot. It’s hard to expect him to go a full season, but I would expect a considerable jump in innings from last year to this year. Here’s to hoping he makes it back in time for a September stretch run.
Taijuan Walker & Roenis Elias – I expect, like many others do, that Walker and Elias will be battling for the 5th starter job. I’ve been of the opinion that Elias deserves to have consideration over Walker, if for no other reason than he was here pretty much the whole season last year and acquitted himself very well. That should give a guy a leg up over someone who spent most of last year injured, then the rest of last year toiling down in Tacoma before a September call-up.
But, you can’t deny that Walker has the “stuff” over Elias. Walker’s potential is Future Ace. Elias should end up as a nice mid-rotation lefty if everything pans out. Also, you’ve got to look at the rotation around Elias. We’ve already got two lefties, including another relatively soft-tossing lefty in Happ. It would seem to be unwise to have Happ & Elias pitching back-to-back, just as it would seem unwise to throw three lefties in a row with Happ, Paxton, and Elias. All of that, combined with Paxton and Walker finally being healthy, combined with Paxton and Walker having the higher pedigree, combined with Elias having made the jump from AA to the Bigs (completely skipping AAA), it’s reasonable to expect Elias to start the year in Tacoma, and to be ready for the inevitability when one of the other five starters gets injured for a spell.
While I expect Walker to make the rotation out of Spring Training (assuming all are healthy), I don’t necessarily expect Walker to excel out of the gate or for the duration. It wouldn’t shock me to see Walker and Elias swap roles at some point due to performance rather than injury. Nevertheless, I do like Walker to improve as the season goes on, and eventually reclaim that #5 role before the year ends.