Cano, Cruz, Seager: An Appreciation

In football (and, I guess in all sports, but people seem to talk about it in football the most), the goal is to strike a healthy balance between offense and defense, between high-priced superstars and cost-effective elite youth, between a strong running game and an opportunistic passing attack on offense, as well as stout run defense and a lethal pass rush.  Of course, there have been teams that got by with a stark imbalance (usually a top defense and a meh offense), but even the teams who have won Super Bowls with high-flying offenses usually see an uptick in their defensive production, if only for that championship season.

The Mariners, for years, have been anything but balanced.  The pitching has usually been okay, but for the longest time, the hitting was non-existent.  In the Jackie Z “Rebuild On The Cheap Through Prospects” Era, the middle of our order was riddled with sick jokes.  Power hitters with no on-base abilities who struck out a ton, line drive hitters with warning track-power who struck out a ton, past-their-prime veterans who struck out a ton, injury-plagued veterans who couldn’t even stay off the DL long enough to strike out a ton, and so on and so forth.

It really wasn’t until we signed Robinson Cano in 2014, then paired him with Nelson Cruz in 2015, that we could say we had a middle-of-the-order we could be proud of.  But, there always seemed to be a straggler.  In 2014, Cano was top notch and Seager was Seager, but Kendrys Morales was a lump of crap, and all too many at bats were going to the likes of Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak.  In 2015, Cruz and his 44 homers were far and away our offensive MVP, and while Seager was still Seager, Cano was plagued with nagging injuries and had a forgettable first half of the season.  This three-piece didn’t really all put it together until 2016, but boy did they make beautiful music together!

Not since the trio of A-Rod, Griffey, and Edgar have the Mariners had a middle of the order this formidable.  Don’t take my word for it, though; take these numbers:

  • Cano – .298/.350/.533, 39 homers, 103 RBI
  • Cruz – .287/.360/.555, 43 homers, 105 RBI
  • Seager – .278/.359/.499, 30 homers, 99 RBI

I would like to point out, before we move on, that Seager would’ve had that 100th RBI had his line drive not hit the second base umpire in the last week of the season, as it most certainly would’ve scored the runner from second.

Anyway, as you can see, that’s a ton of production.  We were second in the league in homers, and 112 of our 223 (a hair over 50%) were from those three guys.  They missed a combined 12 games and led us to our best offensive season since the Lou Piniella days.

Cano had a career high in homers, which is particularly impressive coming off of his 2015, when we all wondered if he was beginning his decline a little earlier than scheduled.  He proved he’s still the superstar we signed up for, and even though his batting average dipped under .300 for just the third time since becoming an everyday player, the huge boost in his power numbers were most welcome on a team that stayed in contention throughout the season.  We’re 3 years into a 10-year contract; it’s comforting to believe we have at least a couple more high-level years to go with Cano before we face that inevitable decline.

Cruz has been something of a revelation since leaving the Rangers at the age of 33.  He’s always had impressive power, but lacked consistency.  Everyone figured he’d get a massive deal anyway, because this is baseball and GMs are dumb, but more teams than expected were turned off by his lack of defensive ability.  So, he signed a 1-year prove-it deal with Baltimore and turned out the best season of his career to date, with 40 homers and a 4.7 WAR over 159 games.  He parlayed that into finally getting that massive deal with the Mariners (4 years, $57 million) and somehow had an even BETTER season in 2015!  44 homers and a 5.2 WAR over 152 games (including a .302 batting average and .369 on-base percentage, which remain career highs with a minimum of 110 games played).  It was better than we could have possibly hoped for, considering he played half his games in Safeo Field (moved-in fences or no, it’s still a notoriously tough place to hit dingers).

It would’ve been pretty unrealistic to expect that upward trajectory to continue, and while it came to pass that Cruz’s numbers took a bit of a dip, it wasn’t the nosedive some of us feared.  He still hit over 40 homers and nearly pulled off a .290 batting average in earning another 4.7 WAR season.  Granted, he played a lot more DH than he did last year, but that’s not a bad thing.  Given his limitations in the field, he SHOULD be preserved by playing almost exclusively DH (outside of games in N.L. stadia).  Considering we’re halfway through his contract, and he’s still hitting as well as he did in Baltimore (combined with our tough luck with free agent acquisitions in the past), I feel like we’re playing with house money with Cruz.  Hell, his year THIS year could’ve been even better had he not been dealing with that wrist injury down the stretch!  Talk about a guy playing through the pain and producing at a high level!

Given what we’ve seen out of him over the first half of his contract, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect him to continue playing at a high level at least through the 2017 season.  One would hope, barring injury, that his decline doesn’t officially kick in until 2018 or beyond, but suffice it to say these declines can start at any time, and when they hit, it’s remarkable how fast a player can go from being at the top of his game to out of baseball entirely (see:  Sexson, Richie).

The real player I’m in awe of in 2016 is Kyle Seager.  I just don’t remember ever seeing a player like him before.  He consistently gets better with each passing season!  It’s incredible!  Usually those guys end up leaving Seattle, and finding their success with other teams.  There have certainly been Mariners players who have been better than Seager, but guys like A-Rod and Griffey were superstars as infants.  Edgar was already a pro hitter when he was still languishing in the minors.  Cano and Cruz obviously made their names elsewhere before cashing in here.  But, Seager is a true rarity.  A true find.  A homegrown stud at a difficult defensive position who was rewarded with a contract extension, and who continues to improve at his craft.  We’ve had Seager in Seattle for six years (five full seasons), and the best part of his game is that he could continue to improve for six more years!

He’s played in at least 155 games in every full year he’s been in the Majors.  Before 2016, he’d hit for an average of around .260 to .270.  He’s increased his homer production each and every year.  He’s got a gold glove under his belt.  He’s been an All Star.  But, this year, he took his hitting to a new level.  Yes, yes, the career highs in homers, RBI, and runs scored.  But, also career highs in average, on-base percentage, and slugging!  And, we’re talking considerable jumps:

  • .278 average, previous high of .268 in 2014
  • .359 on-base percentage, previous high of .338 in 2013
  • .499 slugging percentage, previous high of .454 in 2014
  • .858 OPS, previous high of .788 in 2014

This coincides with a smarter approach at the plate.  If you look at his spray charts this year compared to years past, you’ll see while he’s predominantly a pull hitter when it comes to homers, he’s much better at distributing batted balls evenly throughout the field.  Still a lot of ground-outs to the second baseman, but not nearly as pronounced as it was even two years ago.  If he can continue to improve in this regard, he might even be able to get teams to stop shifting so much when he comes to the plate.

I still contend there’s a .300 hitter lurking beneath the surface of Kyle Seager.  The more he works at hitting to all fields, the better his chances of cracking that barrier.  Of course, you take the good with the bad, and there are definite limitations to Seager’s game.  He’s got power, but not to all fields.  So, the trick is, maintaining that 20-30 homer power, while morphing into that .300 hitter I keep saying (every year) that we’re going to see one of these days.  It’ll happen, and when it does, I’m going to go hoarse from saying “I Told You So” so many times.

The best part of this 2016 Mariners team was its heart of the order.  These 3-4-5 hitters.  Even if they went through individual slumps, they weren’t long-lasting.  And, it seemed like there was never a point in the year where all of them were in a slump at the same time.  There was always one or two of these guys hitting to pick up the slack.  And, when all three were on at the same time, it was usually a bloodbath for the other team.  Now, whether that contributed to the hitters around them being better, or getting better pitches to hit, I couldn’t tell you.  I do know that we had 9 guys (including our fearsome Big Three) who had over 10 homers, which is pretty impressive.  I’m sure guys ahead of them (pitchers not wanting to walk guys ahead of Cano) and behind them (pitchers not wanting to give up more RBI, as there would most certainly be at least one guy on base by the time the 6-hole batter came up) saw better pitches to hit.  But, this was also a very veteran team, that by and large was able to work a count better than we’ve seen in over a decade.  So, it’s tough to say how the Big Three affected the rest of the lineup.

I just know what they were able to do, and it was the best we’ve seen ’round these parts in quite some time.

Ideally, we’ll get more of the same in 2017.  We’re probably going to need it, as I can’t imagine the pitching staff is going to drastically improve between now and then.  But, if they start to regress, at least we’ll have 2016.  It didn’t end in a post-season berth, but it was still an entertaining year of baseball thanks to these three guys.

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