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State of the Mariners (2014 Midseason Report, Part 2)

Roenis Elias (photo credit: gty.im/451385394 by Otto Greule Jr.)
The Mariners hit game 81 in the schedule last night in about as uninspiring a fashion as possible. Josh Tomlin's 1-hit, 11-strikeout, complete game shutout brought back that good old feeling of hopelessness and deflation that the Mariners have provided so many times the past few years.

Thankfully, that helpless feeling isn't so prevalent in 2014. The Mariners sit at 43-38 on the year, on pace for 86 wins if their totals are simply doubled. That's much closer to good than bad, and good enough to potentially squeeze a wild card berth out of.

The 2014 Mariners are a mix of bright and dark spots so far, as might be expected of a team with the M's win-loss record. Understanding what's gone right and wrong is vital to figuring out possible trades at the deadline which could push this team into the playoffs.

Here's my breakdown, group by group, of the 2014 Mariners at the halfway point. It's part 2 of my midseason report (part 1 focused on the minor leagues). Grades are used to help compare player production to preseason expectations:

Infield

  • Mike Zunino, C - Zunino's the best defensive catcher the M's have had since Dan Wilson. He's also the most powerful catcher the M's have probably ever had. His low contact rate keeps him from being a good offensive player, but the power and defense are very, very nice, and easily enough to make him a bona fide starting catcher right now. I'm very impressed by Zunino's production this year and see star potential in him down the line. He's one of the biggest reasons the Mariners have a winning record this season. Grade: A
  • Justin Smoak, 1B - Smoak has patience at the plate, sure hands at first base, and a great work ethic...but little else. How many more plate appearances do the M's need to decide he's not a starting first basemen in the majors? First base remains a black hole and should be a relatively easy spot for the Mariners to upgrade their production. Maybe LoMo is the answer. Smoak, unfortunately, is not. Grade: F
  • Robinson Cano, 2B - Cano isn't a bust, but he's not a rousing success either. The lack of power remains troubling, though everything else is there. He's going to make the All Star team mostly on recognition, because he's played like an above average position player, not one of the premier talents in all of baseball. The Mariners are certainly better with him, and it's fun to watch him play, but there are lots of good players that are fun to watch that make less than $24 million. Grade: D
  • Brad Miller, SS - The most underrated move of Lloyd McClendon's managing tenure so far was sticking with Miller through his deep slump. His defense remained good through the slump, which helped his overall production tread water. Now that he's starting to hit again his overall WAR is spiking quickly. Even with the huge hitting slump included, Miller's first half puts him on pace to be a decently productive starting shortstop. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if he surges in the second half and ends up being one of more productive shortstops in the AL this year. I think he'll end up being just about what the Mariners hoped he could be this season. Grade: C
  • Kyle Seager, 3B - Seager's home/road splits are crazy this year. He's on pace to put up the best season any batter has ever had at Safeco Field. He continues to improve each year and is now a borderline All Star talent. Moreover, his overall numbers don't suggest any fluky luck. He doesn't have an unsustainably high home run rate, or BABIP, or low strikeout percentage. Seager is one of the best bargains in baseball right now, and his step forward thus far makes him the offensive MVP, even above Cano. Grade: A

Outfield/DH

  • Dustin Ackley, LF - Ackley, the left fielder, is much like Ackley, the second baseman. The hitting still isn't what it was supposed to be back when he was a top prospect. The defense remains surprisingly nice. Overall, that makes Ackley a bench player in a perfect world. There are some numbers to suggest that Ackley is the victim of some bad luck this season though, and if that's the case, he might be a candidate for a second half surge. That would be welcomed. Grade: D
  • James Jones, CF - Jones is a fun player to watch, but he's not terribly productive. His defense, thus far, grades out below average in center field though I think he has the tools to become a good defender with more experience. His approach at the plate maximizes his speed, but also limits him to nothing much beyond a slap hitter. One thing worth noting is that Jones, for whatever reason, seemed to struggle the first half of seasons in the minors and get really hot to finish out the year. Perhaps Jones is just getting comfy in the majors and will go on a tear through August and September. Even though Jones shouldn't be a starter on a contending ball club, the reality is that he basically came straight from AA with only a pit stop in Tacoma and has helped the Mariners outfield stay afloat instead of totally imploding. I'm pleasantly surprised at how well he has done. Grade: B
  • Michael Saunders, RF - Saunders might be the most important position player the M's have, simply because he's the only good outfielder they have. Saunders is blossoming this year into the quality outfielder many thought he could be as he worked through the minors. Thanks to James Jones he can play a corner slot too, which is his best fit. A healthy Saunders the rest of the way is essential to the M's success the rest of the season. Grade: B
  • Corey Hart, DH - Hart looked pretty rusty, as might be expected, even before the injury that has sidelined him for some time now. Still like that the Mariners signed him, and thanks to the structure of his deal, they might have money to spend now because he isn't going to reach incentives put in the contract. A healthy and resurgent Hart would be a huge boost for the offense though. Grade: F

Bench

  • John Buck, C - Is what he is; a dependable backstop you don't feel guilty about leaving on the bench most nights behind Zunino. Grade: C
  • Logan Morrison, 1B/DH/OF - The jury is still out on LoMo, thanks to the injury that forced him to the DL. It would be nice if he could keep up the power he's shown recently. Grade: D
  • Willie Bloomquist, INF - Like Buck, he is what he is and has been used accordingly. Grade: C
  • Stefen Romero, OF - I am impressed at how many at-bats Lloyd McClendon finds for Romero. I worried about him getting buried on the bench when he made the team. Injuries have probably helped carve out his role. With that said, Romero isn't ready for the majors. Every number screams that. If I controlled the team I would demote him immediately and bring back Abe Almonte as a reserve outfielder. Grade: D
  • Endy Chavez, OF - I can't believe Endy keeps finding his way back to the majors with the Mariners and playing significant innings. He's well past his prime and should be at the end of the bench (at best) mentoring younger players. I'm pleasantly shocked at the homer he hit the other day. He earns the following good grade because of that and how low my expectations are of Endy at this stage in his career. Grade: B
  • Cole Gillespie, OF - Cole looks a whole bunch like a AAAA outfielder - consistently strong production in AAA that consistently does not translate in the majors. The Mariners got a short burst of production from him and that's probably about all that could have been hoped for. Grade: C

Starting Rotation

  1. Felix Hernandez - Despite all the love and adoration showered on the King every five days, he is underrated. I really mean that. King Felix, to date, is having the best year of his career and it's not all that close. He should be a legitimate MVP candidate (not just Cy Young) with the way he's been pitching. Felix is in the middle of what could go down as the best season a Mariners pitcher has ever had. He's unreal. Grade: A
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma - 'Kuma isn't a second ace, and thankfully that conversation seems to have subsided with his recent subpar starts. He's a good pitcher though, and his skills play up and look even better in spacious Safeco Field. Iwakuma has given the Mariners exactly what should be expected of him since returning from injury. Grade: C
  3. Roenis Elias - There's an argument to be made that Roenis Elias is the unsung hero for the M's so far this year. The rotation started the year with all sorts of question marks and remains perilously thing thanks to continued injuries. Elias, as it turns out, was going to get the 17 starts he's made so far no matter how good or bad he was. Thankfully, he's been surprisingly good. He was ready for a rotation spot and has room to grow into a legitimate number 3, maybe a number 2 in a career year. Grade: A
  4. Chris Young - Much has been made of Young's comeback season so far, and how much of a savior he has been. Young has been a savior, don't get me wrong, but his success is much less surprising than Elias's. Young just had to stay healthy. He's pitching the way he has pitched for years now when he's healthy. The Mariners would be wise to add some rotation depth before Young gets injured again. Grade: C
  5. James Paxton - It's hard to grade Paxton. One one hand, those first two starts were phenomenal. It's easy to dream on what he could do for the Mariners coming down the stretch. However, he's injured...again. Paxton has a growing history of injuries that sideline him for stretches of seasons. It would be really, really nice if Paxton could get healthy and give the Mariners the depth they need in the rotation. Grade: D
  6. Erasmo Ramirez - I've long been a believer in Erasmo, but he's been horrible this year. It's hard to figure out where his control and command has gone. He's had every opportunity to nail down a spot in the rotation this year and can't find a way to do it. There's still time for Ramirez to develop, given that he's only 24 years old, but this year has been very disappointing thus far. Grade: F
  7. Taijuan Walker - Taijuan should make his season debut tomorrow, and that will be exciting. He has the potential to transform the Mariners rotation into a strength as the team pushes for a playoff spot. I expect Walker to have his ups and downs, but no other wild card contender has an arm like him bolstering their rotation midseason.

Bullpen

  • Joe Beimel - Beimel has resurrected his career in the M's bullpen and been a nice addition. Grade: B
  • Danny Farquhar - Lord Farquhar's breakout 2013 campaign was no fluke. He's filthy this year too. Sneaky good acquisition in the Ichiro trade. Grade: C
  • Charlie Furbush - The 'Bush has settled down after some early season struggles. He's taken a step back this year, though he's still quite good. Grade: D
  • Dominic Leone - While it's nice to think that Leone "came out of nowhere," minor league scouts raved about his stuff once the M's made him a full-time reliever. His success is nice, perhaps a pleasant surprise, but it hardly came out of nowhere. I think he's the first of a handful of nice bullpen arms the Mariners will develop over the next few seasons. Grade: B
  • Yoervis Medina - He is what he is, the definition of effectively wild - thankfully, emphasis on "effectively" so far this year. Grade: C
  • Tom Wilhelmsen - The Bartender found his command again this year, at least a bit better than last year. If I were Jack Zduriencik I'd actually be shopping him around a bit, because I'm guessing some other teams can see him as a closer again, or depth in case their closer struggles or gets hurt. Grade: B
  • Fernando Rodney - As much as I still believe that Rodney was an unnecessary investment, given how little budget the M's apparently had remaining, he's earning his keep. He is the M's best reliever, despite the roller coaster rides from time to time, because that fastball-changeup combo is rather unhittable. As a fan, I secretly enjoy ninth innings with Rodney. They are very entertaining, and for the most part successful. Grade: B
Averaging the grades I gave, the infield earns a 2.2 GPA, the outfield a 1.75 GPA, and the bench a 1.83 GPA. Overall, that suggests the offense has been near what was expected at the start of the year, or perhaps slightly below what was expected.

The starting rotation earns a 2.16 GPA from me, and the bullpen garners a 2.4 GPA. Overall, at least in my eyes, the pitching staff has been better than expected, and is ultimately the reason the Mariners have a winning record. I figured this would be a .500 team at the start of the year, and they are slightly better than that. Some of the credit for the pitching staff's success has to go to Mike Zunino and his precocious handling abilities early on in his career. Some also has to go to Lloyd McClendon, at least in my opinion, because both the rotation and bullpen seem to have a strong sense of when they will and won't pitch. I think that helps pitchers mentally prepare themselves and ultimately allows them to perform closer to their full potential.

I hope the Mariners make some deadline trades to improve this team. It's a team worth bolstering. They are in the thick of a playoff hunt and a little added talent could go a long way. There are clear areas of need at first base in the outfield, which makes improvement easier to do. It doesn't take an All Star to make this team better; a serviceable veteran at first base or in the outfield would do.

Overall, the Mariners have delivered an enjoyable season to date. There are good reasons to believe they can deliver an exciting pennant chase deep into September, if not beyond.