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So Many Remaining Free Agents

Justin Morneau (William Andrus, UCinternational: Wikimedia Commons)
This year's free agent market is moving slowly,  meaning several good players remain available. It seems likely that there will be an uptick in movement after the new year as both teams and players feel some urgency to hammer out agreements before spring training begins.

Jerry Dipoto has publicly stated that the Mariners are done making major moves. With that said, there are many decent free agents remaining with only so much time and so many roster spots up for grabs. It seems likely that somebody who could be valuable to the Mariners can be found for cheap - perhaps even as a non-roster invitee signing.

Fangraphs has a helpful sorter that lists remaining free agents with projected 2016 WAR totals. I have split the free agents into three major groups - up the middle defenders, corner defenders, and pitchers. Within those groups I stratified them by projected WAR total for 2016.

Obviously, the best players would help the Mariners most, but I am assuming that the Mariners have little to no money left and largely an interest in bolstering depth. The question is which players as free agents could bolster the Mariners and be interested in a supporting role. I have highlighted my best guesses as good fits in each group:

Second base, shortstop, center field

  • 2 WAR: Howie Kendrick (2.6), Denard Span (2.4)
  • 1 WAR: Dexter Fowler (1.7), Ian Desmond (1.5), Austin Jackson (1.4), Jimmy Rollins (1.4)
  • 0 WAR: Alexei Ramirez (0.8)

The Mariners look quite good up the middle of their infield thanks to the presence of both Chris Taylor and Shawn O'Malley. Taylor may not have hit much in the majors (yet) but his glove is good enough to make him a capable starter for many teams. It is good the Mariners already have infield depth because the free agent market has little to offer up the middle defensively.

However, another player who can patrol center field would sure be handy. Leonys Martin is the everyday man, but what if he does not hit again? Or gets injured?

Austin Jackson could, ironically, be a fit. He would certainly be nice to have as a reserve, given his solid defense, good speed, and youthful age (still just 28, which is young for a free agent).

The real question is if the Mariners are a good fit for Jackson. Ultimately, I doubt it, but the market for center fielders seems tepid at best for now. It could make some sense for Jackson to accept a one-year deal somewhere he thinks he can carve out playing time before trying free agency again. If there are few offers for Jackson and he thinks the Mariners offer the best chance at playing time, perhaps he bites.

First base, third base, left field, right field

The Mariners largely filled their first base hole when they signed Adam Lind but he could use a platoon partner to face lefties. Jesus Montero could be that answer but I would still be monitoring the free agent market if I was Jerry Dipoto. Justin Morneau, believe it or not, has run a reverse platoon split for his career! He is better against lefties and still hits pretty well when healthy. His age and health concerns likely limit his market. He could be a good fit in Seattle, where he would not be expected to play every day but could help the lineup stay strong if Lind or Nelson Cruz goes down with an injury for some time.

Steve Pearce intrigues me the most though. Projection systems really like him. He doesn't fit the Dipoto mold perfectly - he strikes out a ton and does not have great on-base skills - but he has power and struggled last year thanks largely to a bad BABIP rate. He is a strong candidate for a rebound. Moreover, he has experience playing both first base and left field, and he rates as a passable defender in the outfield according to the stats. I don't know what kind of market has developed around him, but he could be a steal as a non-roster invitee. Seattle would have to be an intriguing place to him because there is a clear path to playing time for him as Lind's platoon partner and the chance to slide into the outfield rotation if any of the current quartet (Smith, Gutierrez, Martin, Aoki) goes down with an injury.

I highlighted Kelly Johnson for similar reasons, minus the bullish projection. He would be passable depth, but he has already transitioned into a reserve role. He would seem to be open to that again.

Will Venable and Shane Victorino could both provide potential outfield depth. Venable in particular seems like a great fit because he could slide over to center and be passable. Victorino has a similar skillset but is much older and would have to accept a reserve role. He would essentially have to be willing to take the route of Franklin Gutierrez, and he would be Guti's replacement if Guti were to get injured. Those are big 'if's.


  • 3 WAR: Cliff Lee (3.3), Wei-Yin Chen (3.0)
  • 2 WAR: Scott Kazmir (2.8), Josh Johnson (2.8), A.J. Burnett (2.5), Ian Kennedy (2.3), Brandon Morrow (2.2), Mat Latos (2.1)
  • 1 WAR: Yovani Gallardo (1.9), Mark Buehrle (1.6), Doug Fister (1.5), Alfredo Simon (1.1), Edwin Jackson (1.0)
  • 0 WAR: Aaron Harang (0.9), Tim Lincecum (0.9), Kyle Lohse (0.9), Chad Billingsley (0.8), Joe Blanton (0.7), Ross Ohlendorf (0.6), Jeremy Guthrie (0.6), Jeff Francis (0.5), Tommy Hunter (0.4), Antonio Bastardo (0.4), Fernando Rodney (0.4), Gavin Floyd (0.4), Chris Capuano (0.3), Matt Thornton (0.3), Manny Parra (0.3), Matt Albers (0.3), Neal Cotts (0.2), Ryan Webb (0.2), Randy Choate (0.2), Carlos Villanueva (0.2), Joe Nathan (0.2), Tom Gorzelanny (0.1), Peter Moylan (0.1), Tyler Clippard (0.1), Eric O'Flaherty (0.0), Blaine Boyer (0.0), Franklin Morales (0.0), Matt Belisle (0.0)
No team can have too much pitching. I expect all of these pitchers to sign before the season starts, though it would be reasonable to guess that many of these pitchers will be choosing which team to accept a non-roster spring training invite from. The Mariners are probably not an enticing fit from a non-roster standpoint because the rotation already has six capable arms. However, Safeco's spacious dimensions is also the kind of locale that could allow a pitcher to recover some value and try to get a bigger deal next offseason.

If the Mariners want to go after a reclamation project, Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow fit the mold. Both have power arms and both have broken down over the past few seasons. A transition to full-time bullpen work might make sense for both of them. Morrow has already experienced success in the bullpen, albeit early in his career.

Players with connections to the northwest are always fun to speculate about too. Both Doug Fister and Tim Lincecum could be looking for places to rebound and would make for fun stories if signed by the Mariners.

Now, on to the most realistic options. Tommy Hunter has been a quietly effective reliever the past three seasons, though he took a step back in 2015. However, he possesses a huge fastball that averages over 96 MPH out of the bullpen, and he has some command of it. You would expect more strikeouts from such a big arm, but the results are still solid and he largely fits the mold of a Dipoto pitcher. It's easy to imagine him in middle relief for a Dipoto team and he could get lost in the free agency shuffle. Another big arm that might be had on a non-roster invitee deal is Fernando Rodney. Snicker all you want, but he could be interesting on a non-guaranteed deal.

Manny Parra and Carlos Villanueva both have experience starting in their past with at least decent results. They have also experienced success in the bullpen. Parra throws harder than Villanueva so seems like the better fit for Dipoto's style, but both could be the type of solid innings absorbers that keep quality arms from getting overused.

The next few weeks could be indirectly interesting for the Mariners. They hardly seem in position to pursue anyone, but a handful of players are going to lose out in the game of musical chairs that is MLB free agency. A player or two who could be of surprising value to the Mariners might slip through the cracks and be had for a price that fits the Mariners budget at this point.

Chapman Traded, Bigger Concerns Glossed Over

Aroldis Chapman (Keith Allison, Owing Mills: Wikimedia Commons)
I generally avoid analysis of trades not involving the Mariners, especially given the plethora of deals Jerry Dipoto showered us all with. However, the Yankees pulled off an interesting trade with the Reds today. They acquired flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds for four prospects.*

The trade interests me for two very different reasons, one about baseball, the other less so.

Major League Baseball has never seen a hurler like Aroldis Chapman before, and it might be a long time until someone like him is seen again. He throws absurdly hard and it shows up in his eye-popping strikeout numbers. It also shows up in other absurd ways, like the necessity to add a filter just for his velocities on MLB statcast. To say that Chapman throws hard is an understatement; he throws so much harder than everyone else that it almost seems like he is throwing a different ball or something. So, placing a value on Chapman is hard because there are no real comps for him.

Still, the Yankees at first glance are an obvious landing place for Chapman just based on their overall brand and prestige. Of course the hardest-throwing pitcher of all time would wear pinstripes! What else could he possibly wear?

Not so fast. The Yankees aren't the juggernaut they used to be. They have labored for modest winning seasons in recent years and face significant question marks in their starting rotation. The back end of their bullpen was already among the best in baseball before acquiring Chapman, thanks to the dynamic duo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances - the two relievers with the highest strikeout rates in baseball not named Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees make a strength stronger with this deal and leave question marks unanswered.

What a strength the Yankees have though. They just assembled the greatest bullpen baseball has ever seen. I try to avoid hyperbole, but in this case it seems like anything short of calling this 'pen the greatest would be hyperbole. Maybe the Yankees trade one of their premium relievers, but I hope they don't out of curiosity for how the trio would perform together.

The 2015 Yankees bullpen could be the ultimate realization of what Tony La Russa unleashed on the game when he got serious about specializing bullpen roles with the Athletics. Bullpens have become more and more specialized over the last quarter century and teams increasingly value those roles. Many quality arms are now funneled towards the back end of a bullpen, which would have been unthinkable a quarter century ago. Bullpens have steadily evolved in modern baseball and at some point some team was going to go out and build an elite bullpen despite holes elsewhere. The 2015 Yankees could be that team.

I remain skeptical that Chapman makes a big difference for the Yankees because I tend to be old-fashioned with my bullpen views. I think they tend to be overrated in today's game. Basically, my argument is an age-old one: just how much more valuable is one inning near the end of a game than the six or so from a starting pitcher? Especially when a team is adding a third elite reliever like Chapman? Essentially the Yankees purchased an upgrade for the seventh inning. Theoretically they are now set up to "shorten" games down to six innings with Chapman's acquisition.

Sabermetrics provide a tool for figuring out the value of later innings compared to earlier ones. It is called a Leverage Index, which is built upon Win Probabilities. A Win Probability is simply the odds of a team winning in the given game state at the moment. So, for instance, a team that just got the 27th out and has a lead would have a Win Probability of 100 (they just won, therefore they will win 100% of the time in that situation). The Leverage Index measures how much Win Probability fluctuates in a given situation, depending on the outcome of an at-bat. If you've ever heard the term "high leverage situation," it is referencing this statistic, and more importantly, referencing a particular moment where a game's outcome hangs in the balance.

The Hardball Times ran a study a few years ago to get a feel for average leverage by inning. Their results surprised me. The average leverage in each inning is shockingly stable, with one major exception: the bottom of the ninth inning. This data suggests that an elite closer is most valuable when trying to protect a lead on the road, but that all other situations are not all the different over the course of a season.

However, even though the overall average leverage in each inning is not all that different, the distributions vary a noteworthy amount. The same Hardball Times article explored how frequently each inning had a Leverage Index above 2 (which is a very high index; it basically suggests the game is likely won or lost on the next play) and found a steady climb in frequencies throughout the course of a game. First innings only peaked above 2 around 10% of the time, whereas the rate had climbed to 26% in the 8th inning, and goes all the way up to 51% in the bottom of the ninth.

The frequencies are a bit more abstract to understand but more insightful when it comes to bullpen use. The reality is that elite relievers do not pitch every day and a manager chooses when they are deployed. It is possible to hold them in reserve for higher leverage situations, and over the course of a season it is reasonable to expect a good reliever to face high leverage situations twice as frequently as a starter.

There is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg quality to all this analysis though. Bullpens face lower leverage situations more often when starters shut down opponents over six or seven innings, and also when their own team's offense blasts off and builds a huge lead. This is why leverage is a poor tool for analyzing individual performance. It is easily swayed by things entirely out of an individual player's control.

The Yankees bullpen was already automatic in the 8th and 9th inning, so what is the value of an automatic 7th? It largely depends on what happens the first 6 innings, though the elite arms used to depend on what happened in the first 7. There is some value added there, but I am not convinced it is worth $10+ million for only 1 guaranteed year at the cost of a quartet of prospects - marginal prospects, to be fair, but still prospects.

Still, theoretically, a team that looks something like the current Yankees would seem likely to maximize the value of an elite bullpen. They have questionable starting pitching with an aging offense that is probably still okay but features a handful of sluggers in the decline phase of their careers. This is a team likely to have many decent starts and decent offensive outputs, which will hand many close games (the high leverage situations) to their bullpen if things go right.

There is also the ugly reason that the Yankees could acquire Chapman at what is considered a cheap price. He is going through an alarming domestic violence investigation.

There will be no formal charges against Chapman due to conflicting witness accounts, which is important to note. Still, avoiding legal charges because eyewitness accounts conflict is different from saying that nothing happened. Eyewitness accounts agree that Chapman fired a gun multiple times and his girlfriend, at some point, fell on the ground with some sort of assistance from him. It appears likely that a trade between the Dodgers and Reds fell apart once the domestic violence charges surfaced. The Yankees swooped in the ensuing vacuum and picked up Chapman at what is being characterized as a discount price because of the risk that MLB will suspend him.

The NFL gets (rightly) raked over the coals for their blind eye towards domestic violence. Frankly, the severity of the allegations surrounding Chapman approach the concerns in the high-profile cases of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy, but they are not as widespread because MLB is not a pop-culture behemoth steadily turning the North American viewing public into pigskin zombies on Sundays.**

**and Mondays and Thursdays and Saturdays in December, plus the weekends of the scouting combine and draft

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is in a tough spot here, given the touchy nature of Chapman's situation. Chapman technically committed no crime, but this is a chance for Major League Baseball to take a stand on domestic violence that other leagues, notably the NFL, are yet to take. I do not envy the decision that weighs on his shoulders.

Regardless, the discussion around Aroldis Chapman the past 24 hours leaves much to be desired. There is plenty of chatter about how overwhelming he makes the Yankees bullpen, which is true and germane. Mentions of his alarming domestic incident are scattered and woefully shallow. His incident is typically brought up in the context of the threat of a suspension which would keep this hallowed Yankee bullpen from full force. There is no consideration for the woman he at least traumatized.

When did Aroldis Chapman's golden arm become more valuable than the well-being of another human? I wish this was the kind of problem that only existed in the NFL.

Maybe sports reports are not the place for commentary on domestic violence, but framing a domestic violence concern one-dimensionally as an on-field consequence comes across as crass and irresponsible to me. Locking down the end of a Yankees win in April or May is only so important. There might be a few things in life more important.

It was not that long ago that bullpens were holding tanks for all the pitchers not good enough to crack a team's starting rotation. Anyone in a bullpen was an afterthought a generation ago. That certainly is not the case anymore.

'Kuma Caps Auspicious Offseason

Hisashi Iwakuma (LiAnna Davis, wikimedia commons)
The Mariners re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma last Friday in a surprise turn of events. I had counted on the Mariners making a smattering of minor moves that I could post about at my leisure over break, but Jerry Dipoto's wheelings and dealing know no bounds.

Also, to simply say Iwakuma was retained understates the drama that played out. Iwakuma had an agreement with the Dodgers but they wanted to renegotiate based on some things that popped up in a physical they administered. It is rare for deals to fall through because of a physical, and even more rare to watch one disintegrate and have another team so swiftly jump in and take advantage. It appears that 'Kuma's deal with the Mariners took less than 24 hours to come together.

Physicals and medical records are hardly a reasonable blog topic. I am far from a trained medical professional, and there is the whole medical privacy thing that means I have not seen anything of Iwakuma's anyway. Still, it is hard to imagine whatever the Dodgers found to be all that concerning. Iwakuma turns 35 years old early in the 2016 season. The odds of some wear and tear on 'Kuma's arm are extremely high, and it is not as if his arm needs to hold up for another decade. It needed to last three seasons, if the reported deal with Dodgers was accurate. What was so dangerous that the Dodgers, the team spending more money than any other in baseball, worried about their investment?

Also, it seems reasonable that Iwakuma wanted to stay in Seattle. Why would he backpedal out of the Dodgers deal so quickly and sign an incentive-laden deal with the Mariners? He did not even shop around as was his right as a free agent. All I am saying is that I am not convinced whatever concerns popped up in Iwakuma's physical were at the heart of his deal with LA falling apart. The Dodgers might have simply been doing their due diligence and accidentally triggered some soul-searching for Iwakuma.

Bottom line, Hisashi Iwakuma is back with the Mariners, and seems legitimately excited to return. His dabbling with the Dodgers turned out to be a blessing in disguise too.

Jerry Dipoto said that the Mariners had to extend their budget to re-sign Iwakuma, though he also mentioned that it took "less than five minutes" to get authorization. It is clear that ownership thinks highly of Iwakuma, as they should. Still, the reason that the Mariners did not have budget room was because Dipoto had moved on from Iwakuma. In particular, the addition of Wade Miley cost money.

The Mariners baked their cake and ate it too by happenstance. They nabbed a replacement for Hisashi Iwakuma and then got Iwakuma back anyway. This would not have happened if they had signed Iwakuma in the first place, because then there would not have been an authorization to add payroll. Ultimately, this is the real blessing of how the Iwakuma situation played out.

Dipoto and the Mariners already had a solid offseason before signing Iwakuma. Now they have had a very good offseason, if not a great one. The metamorphosis of the 40-man roster is largely done, which is not to say that moves are over and done with, but the overall shape and feel is in place with capable players in each spot.

The 2016 Mariners have the look of a contender, especially with Iwakuma back in the fold. Jerry Dipoto stuffed many stockings with all his moves, and thankfully he doled out very little coal.

Dipoto's Deals Know No End

You know what might be a fun game right now? Trying to guess who is on the Mariners roster right now. The names change daily. I like to keep transactions separate in unique posts, but Dipoto's frantic remodeling has made me reconsider. Plus, this week's moves seem more like a larger suite of deals that all go together. The recap:


  • 1B/"OF" Mark Trumbo and LHP C.J. Riefenhauser traded to the Orioles for C/1B/3B Steve Clevenger - Trumbo was likely to earn around $9 million with a skillset that is essentially the antithesis of what we've come to expect from Dipoto. Trumbo is a very limited defender with minimal on-base skills. Riefenhauser was acquired earlier this offseason from the Rays, which means Dipoto has now traded someone he traded for! That seemed inevitable with his wheeling and dealing. In return, the Mariners got a replacement-level catcher who may or may not allow the M's to give Mike Zunino some development time in AAA. I suppose he adds some defensive versatility too. The Mariners gave up more talent than the Orioles in this trade, but also shed Trumbo's salary and opened up a roster spot to sign someone more in Dipoto's mold.
  • OF/3B Patrick Kivlehan traded to the Rangers as the player to be named later in the Leonys Martin deal - Kivlehan is significant by player-to-be-named-later standards, and he has a chance to carve out an MLB career. It stings a bit to see him leave. However, he helped the Mariners get the center fielder they needed, and his loss opens up another 40-man roster spot.
  • RHP Jose Ramirez traded to the Braves for a player to be named later or cash considerations - Ramirez has control problems but a big arm with some home run troubles. He is not all that far off from the Dipoto mold for pitchers, and Dipoto wants to build up pitching depth. However, he decided that whatever talent Ramirez possesses on the mound did not outweigh the added roster opening at this stage in the offseason. The move reduced the M's from a full 40-man roster to 39. I think it is safe to assume that Ramirez was going to get cut loose at some point in the near future when the Mariners acquire yet another player, and Dipoto found a team who wanted Ramirez bad enough to give the Mariners something.
  • 1B Andy Wilkins, via waiver claim - I don't have much to say about this one. He looks like AAA depth, though Dipoto took the time to claim him on waivers and use a 40-man roster spot on him. This probably says more about his (lack of) faith in Jesus Montero than anything else.
  • OF Nori Aoki, via free agency - I wrote about this move yesterday.
  • RHP Justin De Fratus, via free agency - De Fratus fits the mold for Dipoto bullpen arms. Some success in the past, but not last year, despite underlying peripheral stats that suggest no real change in overall skill.
  • Steve Clevenger, as already mentioned above in the Trumbo trade.
I think it is easier to think of all these separate deals as one big deal because then some clearer trade-offs emerge.

Mark Trumbo was probably a first baseman with the re-worked Mariners roster. He is gone and Wilkins takes his place on the depth chart. Wilkins is not as good as Trumbo, but he also costs $8+ million less. Trumbo was about to become an overpriced starter that produced some value, but not an incredible amount.

Nori Aoki takes Patrick Kivlehan's spot on the roster. This is a clear upgrade for 2016. His salary is also negligible because he costs about as much as Trumbo did in 2015. A trade of Trumbo and Kivlehan for Aoki and Wilkins makes quite a bit of sense for the Mariners. It makes them a better team in 2016 and could only look bad in the years to come if Kivlehan develops into an everyday player in Texas.

Jose Ramirez and Justin De Fratus essentially trade places too. This is another upgrade for the Mariners. De Fratus struggled last year, but he was still better than Ramirez and also comes with a track record of modest success in the majors.

That leaves C.J. Riefenhauser and Steve Clevenger as the final pair in this overall deal. This one is more abstract to figure out since they do not play the same positions. The overall value might be equal here. Clevenger plays the more demanding position (catcher) and has a little more success in the majors to his name, but he is also out of minor league options. Additionally, Riefenhauser is left-handed, which should account for something. However, Clevenger's presence allows the Mariners to much more comfortably make the right decision with Mike Zunino's development. If Zunino can develop into the star that many think he can be as a result of this little depth-bolstering move, then this is a huge gain for the Mariners.

So, overall, the only downgrade the Mariners made this week was at first base, but in the process they got better in several other areas. Moreover, the value they lost at first base should be relatively easy to replace at some point in the offseason. Dipoto might solve first base tomorrow at the rate he is going. The M's 40-man roster stands at 39 players so he might already have someone lined up for all we know.

Still, even before Jerry Dipoto find the M's starting first basement for 2016, the moves this week make sense when considered together. He is doing the equivalent of roster gerrymandering - trying to reallocate skill levels in different levels and different places which will make wins pile up better.

Nori Aoki Signed

Nori Aoki (Keith Allison, Flickr via UCinternational, Wikimedia Commons)
Jerry Dipoto flooded my queue with moves to digest yet again this week. I'll start with free agent signee Nori Aoki.

Aoki, in retrospect, was destined to be a Seattle Mariner once Jerry Dipoto took over. Dipoto has publicly pined for more athletic outfielders and better on-base skills. Aoki fits that profile perfectly and on a budget. He will earn $5.5 million in 2016, and in all likelihood his playing time will trigger a $6 million option for 2017.

There are a few reasons Aoki is relatively cheap. He is not a bargain, but rather probably slated to earn what he is worth. Aoki really only has one above-average skill, and that's his ability to make contact. That drives his batting average north of average, into the .280 range, and since he combines that good contact with average plate discipline his on-base percentage is also above average. Aoki also has some good speed on the basepaths, but how valuable that is remains up for debate in quantitative circles. It's something, but certainly does not make up for his lack of power. Overall, Aoki is a nice hitter.

Aoki is also a decent outfielder, and maybe even a good one. Traditional scouting seems to suggest that he is better than analytics like UZR suggest. However, every metric agrees that Aoki is at least a capable defender in left or right field, and maybe a good one. This is noteworthy given the defensive eyesores Jack Zduriencik was willing to place in corner outfield slots with regularity the past few years. Aoki is a defensive upgrade. The only question is how much of one.

The Mariners starting outfield might be set at this point. Dipoto said that he expects Aoki to play left field regularly and bat leadoff. That would allow the Franklin Gutierrez/Seth Smith platoon to shift to right field while recently acquired Leonys Martin roams around center field. This also assumes that Nelson Cruz will DH more often next year.

All in all, Dipoto has pieced together what promises to be the M's best defensive outfield in years. Catching fly balls and taking more pitches are less sexy skills than CRUSHING BASEBALLS, but it is refreshing to watch the Mariners embrace those "Safeco'd" fly balls instead of trying to rather literally beat the data-confirmed stereotype into submission.

Chris Iannetta Signed

Chris Iannetta (Keith Allison/UCinternational)
The Mariners signed free agent catcher Chris Iannetta to at least a one-year deal, with reports that it might have an option year attached. It is also unclear just how much money they committed to Iannetta as there appears to be performance bonuses, but estimated guesses range from $4.5-$7 million. All in all, this is a relatively minor commitment in the world that Major League Baseball operates in these days.

This is far from a minor move for the Mariners though.

Iannetta struggled last year, I guess. The popular narrative is that he struggled. He batted .188 in 317 at-bats - not a massive sample size, but certainly big enough to make a .188 batting average hard to swallow. Iannetta also struck out in over a quarter of his at-bats, and he has always been strikeout-prone. So, not that any .188 batting average looks good, but Iannetta's rendition of batting below the Mendoza line looked about as futile as one might expect. Lots of flailing.

However, before talking about what makes Iannetta good, let's just assume he replicates his 2015 campaign. Mariners catchers, in 601 combined plate appearances last year, batted .160 and struck out in almost 30% of their plate appearances. They also only hit two more combined home runs than Iannetta despite hundreds of more plate appearances. Let's not forget how woeful the Mariners catching unit was last year. Iannetta is a clear upgrade.

Moreover, batting average is just about the worst way to judge Iannetta's skillset. He has never hit for high averages, most likely thanks to his propensity to strike out and his lack of speed. Iannetta has some power though, and more than that, he has great plate discipline. Iannetta, despite owning a .231 batting average for his career (about 25-30 points below league average) also owns a career .351 on-base percentage (about 20-25 points above league average). Iannetta draws way more than his fair share of walks.

Iannetta might have simply had poor luck last season. His strikeout and walk rates were close to his career averages, as was his ISO (a metric that measures power). The only stat that was way off was his BABIP, which clocked in at an unsustainable .225 (the average MLB player has a BABIP around .300). Iannetta had nothing fall in for him last year, and when a player already does not collect many hits, that problem looks way worse. There is a good chance that Iannetta simply needs better luck to rebound.

Also, Chris Iannetta is a good defender. He has rated as a positive contributor behind the plate in all but one of his 10 seasons in the majors, and that negative year was back in his overall disastrous 2010 campaign.

There was no other catcher available that fit the Mariners better than Chris Iannetta. This is not the kind of move that saves a franchise, but it still plugged a gaping wound perfectly. Iannetta is a veteran headed towards back-up catcher/mentor status. He could become the next David Ross. Iannetta could start most days if needed, split time, or catch more infrequently. Whatever works best.

Iannetta is a wonderful piece to pair with a guy like Mike Zunino, who appears to have a similar skillset to Iannetta. Zunino also gets high marks for his defense, but his powerful swing remains filled with holes. Zunino seems to be the kind of guy who works very hard and gleans whatever he can from those around him, so watching Iannetta could make a difference for him.

The Mariners will not have a black hole at catcher this next year. In the process they even acquired some on-base skills, which will be a very welcome addition to the lineup. Seriously, given that the Mariners accumulated nearly -2.0 WAR behind the plate in 2015, the Iannetta signing might have boosted the team WAR total by almost 3 wins. That is significant. Jerry Dipoto continues to identify role players that fit together, at least on paper. Hopefully the 2016 Mariners link together just as nicely on the field.

Hultzen's Prospect Status Officially Died Friday

Teams had to figure out by Friday whom to add to their 40-man rosters in preparation for the Rule 5 draft. The Mariners added two players to their roster, 1B/3B/OF Patrick Kivlehan and OF Boog Powell. Neither are surprises whatsoever. It would have been surprising to see either of them unprotected.

However, to make room on the 40-man roster, the Mariners had to cut one player loose. They chose LHP Danny Hultzen.

On one hand, Hultzen is the obvious choice. He has been injured for the vast majority of the past three seasons. There is no guarantee he will ever have a healthy enough shoulder to pitch in the major leagues, much less carve out a respectable career. Oft-injured arms yet to ever reach the majors are dispensable commodities.

However, not every pitcher is a former first round draft pick selected second overall. It is jarring to see a young man considered one of the Mariners brightest prospects a couple seasons ago cut loose without ever getting a chance in the major leagues. It is even more jarring considering that Hultzen was drafted in 2011, which is just four seasons ago. He was expected to move quickly through the minors, and did. He reached AAA before major arm woes surfaced. However, those injuries have now knocked Hultzen completely off the roster.

It's a sad situation, plain and simple. All accounts say that Danny Hultzen has tremendous character. He works hard, stays positive, and clearly had talent before the injuries. I always liked the pick, probably more than most, so maybe this move is especially disappointing for me. However, even those less enamored with the Hultzen pick would have to admit that this is a sad move. Even the Hultzen skeptics were mostly skeptical because he lacked a high ceiling. Nobody doubted that he was a safe bet to make the major leagues.

I have harped on the Mariners player development in recent months as Jerry Dipoto has taken the reins and cleaned house in that department. However, I am not convinced that Hultzen's failure rests in the hands of the M's player development. This looks like a case of bad injury luck. For better or worse, a new leadership that did not draft him came to town and decided his injured shoulder was not a part of the Mariners future core. Would Jack Zduriencik have come to the same conclusion? We will never know.

Hultzen's Mariners career might not be over. In fact, it might be likely to continue. He could pass through waivers, given the status of his shoulder and the premium that teams place on 40-man roster spots right now. Basically, at this point in the offseason, teams either have full rosters or reserved a few spots for free agent targets and/or eligibility in the Rule 5 draft. It's easy to believe that a handful of teams still like Danny Hultzen, but the real question is if some team likes him so much that they are willing to cut loose somebody they are currently protecting on their roster. That's a harder question to answer.

We will learn more about Hultzen's fate in the next couple weeks. I don't know if I want his Mariner career to continue, because at this point that would mean no team in baseball values him as a 40-man roster member. The only thing that is certain as of today is that he is no longer a core member of the M's future. Whatever rebound Hultzen may or may not make would be a pleasant addition. It is not something the Mariners are counting on.

Dipoto Grabs More D, Acquires Sardinas

Jerry Dipoto, it turns out, is a man of his word. He said he wanted to make the Mariners more athletic and focus on run prevention. Both of his outfield acquisitions, Boog Powell and Leonys Martin, fit that mold. However, the Mariners were starved for outfielders. Dipoto's most recent trade really begins to show his value in defense.

Yesterday the Mariners made a minor move, shipping OF Ramon Flores to the Brewers for INF Luis Sardinas. I would argue this trade is the most interesting of Dipoto's so far because it gives us the best look at his vision. It's the first deal he made that did not address a gaping hole on the roster, so presumably this says something about how he values Sardinas and his skills.

Let's start with Flores though. We hardly got to know him. He was part of the package the Mariners got in return from the Yankees for Dustin Ackley at the trade deadline. Flores got off to a torrid start in Tacoma but broke his leg and missed the remainder of the season.*

*I was at the game where Flores broke his leg. It was weird. No contact involved. He crumpled to the ground in the middle of running down a ball in the right-center field gap.

I felt that Flores had a fringy toolset, but in areas where the Mariners lacked any skills. He batted leadoff in Tacoma and I quickly fell in love with his approach at the plate. Flores worked counts and was a safe bet to put the ball in play, often enough in the form of a pretty solid line drive. I liked him as a darkhorse to make the Mairners opening day roster, assuming he had recovered from his broken leg.

Luis Sardinas is an interesting return for a player like Flores. Sardinas is not much of a hitter (at least yet) but he can play shortstop and already has experience at second and third base. At worst he is a utilitiy infielder. However, Sardinas is only 22 years old and has a few cups of coffee in the majors to his credit already. He was also listed among the top 100 prospects in all of baseball in 2013 and 2014 by Baseball America. For a little perspective, neither Brad Miller nor Chris Taylor had gone beyond AA by the time they were 22 years old, and neither were ever listed as a top 100 prospect. This is hardly a guarantee that Sardinas will be an impact player in the majors, but he brings some interesting upside to the Mariners while also adding defensive depth around the infield.

I doubt anyone, Jerry Dipoto included, thinks that Luis Sadinas is a better hitter than Ramon Flores. So, Dipoto is banking on Sardinas providing value defensively, especially at shortstop. However, the Mariners already have Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor on the roster, so Sardinas is a bit buried on the depth chart. He is almost certainly more buried than Ramon Flores was.

Perhaps the Sardinas deal is actually a harbinger of yet another trade, ala when Dipoto acquired Joaquin Benoit and then shipped away Tom Wilhelmsen. However, this deal can also stand on its own. Sardinas is younger with better reports on his defense. He fits the Dipoto of team control and run prevention. He appears to show just how serious Dipoto is about both, given that Sardinas does not play a position of need like other Dipoto acquisitions have.

Ultimately, Sardinas reminds me some of Joaquian Arias, who is the definition of a replacement-level infielder. So, this trade is not likely to make a huge impact. However, from a skillset perspective, it says something about how devoted Jerry Dipoto is to defense and run prevention.

Mariners Acquire Leonys Martin

Leonys Martin
(EricEnfermero, Wikimedia commons)
Jerry Dipoto's feverish schedule isn't compatible with my full-time teaching gig.  I have no room to complain though. It's nice to have a backlog of interesting things to talk about when it comes to the Mariners. It's been a while since I've felt that way.

Today's interesting topic: the big five-player swap the Mariners made with the Rangers this week. The Mariners acquired CF Leonys Martin and RHP Anthony Bass for OF James Jones, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, and a player to be named later.

Let's start with whom the Mariners parted ways with in this trade.

James Jones is a likeable player with a skillset that the M's previous player development unit arguably ruined. Jones, when first drafted, was an intriguing two-way player who had pitched and played outfield. He was noted for his strong arm (unsurprisingly), and while raw at the plate, flashed both speed and power.

However, somewhere along the way, Jones lost most of his power in the minor leagues and transformed into a slap hitter. This had to be intentional, or at least sure looks intentional. Jones belted 34 home runs in his first four professional seasons, and has just 10 since (over three seasons), including none in 359 MLB plate appearances.

Jones's transformation wouldn't be a huge issue if he was a good slap hitter. His speed should play up well with a slap-hitting approach that gets the ball in play and lets him use his wheels. However, Jones still strikes out a bunch, and his rate is especially high for a player sacrificing power to make more contact. This is ultimately why Jones is not an MLB-caliber baseball player.

The Rangers are almost certainly hoping that their player development team can either help Jones become a bona fide slap hitter, or (more likely) help him find his missing power stroke. Texas has a good player development record under Jon Daniels, and given the M's horrible player development record under Zduriencik, there is good reason to expect Jones to take a step forward with this move. I hope he does, because like I said earlier, he seems like a quality human being.

Tom Wilhelmsen was one of my favorite Mariners of the past few years, so as a fan it is hard to see him go. His classic power-fastball power-curve combo was fun to watch when he was on. His background of quitting baseball, bartending, and then resuscitating his career with the Mariners is the stuff of magical baseball stories that aren't supposed to happen in the 21st century where sports is a multi-million dollar industry filled with athletes who have trained their entire life. Plus, Wilhelmsen just seemed like a cool dude - unafraid to dance, scream, and generally have a great time in the bullpen. I would want to be on a bullpen bench night in and night out with a person like Tom.

However, the analytic side of me has wanted to see Wilhelmsen traded. His spotty command makes him susceptible to hot and cold streaks. He is also becoming more expensive as he hits his arbitration years. Wilhelmsen is an above-average reliever, but he is above-average by being untouchable for stretches and unbearable in others. I was convinced some team - maybe many teams - would be convinced that they could coax the untouchable Wilhelmsen out of him a little more often. I was even more convinced of that when Tom went on his hot run as a closer at the end of the season. Dipoto is selling high on Wilhelmsen in this trade.

More importantly, Dipoto sold high on Wilhelmsen to get a very worthwhile return.

First of all, Anthony Bass is sort of Wilhelmsen's replacement, but not really. The recently acquired Joaquin Benoit is Tom's replacement, and an upgrade at that. Bass projects to a similar WAR as Wilhelmsen, so the same overall value, but he compiles it in a completely different way. Bass is anything but flashy, or at least his numbers suggest no flash. Bass simply absorbs innings quietly and relatively effectively, at least in 2015. He reminds me a bit of Ryan Franklin, for those of us who remember the last time the Mariners were relevant. Maybe a better comparison is a right-handed Vidal Nuno. Bass could provide multiple innings in middle relief or start as necessary. The Mariners needed a pitcher like Bass to lengthen their depth on the pitching staff.

However, the centerpiece of this deal is Leonys Martin. The Mariners have themselves a bona fide center fielder that is built for Safeco Field.

Martin became available for two reasons. First of all, Delino DeShields Jr. emerged as an everyday outfielder and leadoff hitter for Texas. Second, Martin struggled through a miserable 2015 season - at least at the plate. Martin has graded out as a well above-average defender in center field for three seasons running, including last year. He is 27 years old, so also just entering his prime. Martin is a safe bet to cover Safeco's cavernous gaps. He is the ideal defender the Mariners have sorely lacked in center field since Guti's health problems arose.

Moreover, there are reasons to believe the Martin's bat will rebound in 2016. Martin's BABIP was a rather low .270 last year, which appears to be unsustainably low. An average MLB player has a BABIP around .300, and Martin is not average. He possesses great speed, which shows up on the basepaths and also goes a long way towards explaining his excellent range defensively. Players with great speed also tend to have elevated BABIP. Sure enough, Martin's BABIP in 2013 and 2014 were .319 and .336 respectively. Simply regressing Martin's BABIP towards the league average or his previous seasons brings his 2015 batting line in line with others he has produced.

Make no mistake, Leonys Martin is unlikely to become an impact hitter in the Mariners lineup. However, he should not be a black hole. Dipoto expects Martin to plug into the lower third of the M's lineup and that is a great spot for him. Martin is not an automatic out and will wreak some havoc on the bases when he gets aboard. Moreover, he would be aboard for the top of the Mariners lineup, which should be rather good. Zduriencik assembled a good core of hitters. It was the steep dropoff from the core that was the problem.

The Mariners finally have an outfield that lets me rest easy at night. They look set to platoon Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez in left field with Leonys Martin in center field and Nelson Cruz in right. I am not crazy about Cruz in right, but it will work fine with the supporting parts. It also looks like Dipoto still wants to add one more outfielder and the odds of that player being a good defender are high.

All in all, the Mariners gave up a AAA outfielder that might have some upside along with an up-and-down reliever for a pedestrian bullpen innings-eater and a legitimately good defender in center field. That's a trade I make 11 times out of 10, especially given the glaring holes on the roster before the trade.

The Mariners have taken a step forward this offseason, and they were not all that far away from playoff contention last year. The offseason has barely begun too. It's good to be a Mariners fan at the moment.

Mariners Acquire Joaquin Benoit

Joaquin Benoit
(Keith Allison, Flickr via Wikimedia Commons)
The Mariners made a relatively small deal today, but nonetheless a trade that impacts the 2016 roster and sends a message. They acquired RHP Joaquin Benoit from the Padres for minor-leaguers Nelson Ward and Enyel De Los Santos.

First of all, a couple quick blurbs on the minor-leaguers. Ward is organizational depth. He is 23 years old and finished the season in advanced A ball in Bakersfield. Ward has put together some nice hitting numbers but nothing sensational.

Enyel De Los Santos is the baseball equivalent of a lottery ticket. He is just 19 years and has a whopping total of two months' professional experience. Granted, those couple months looked good, but we are talking about a 19-year-old pitching prospect in short-season rookie league. If De Los Santos ever makes it to the majors, and especially if he becomes an impact player in the majors, it will be thanks to the Padres development of him over the next two to four years as much as his natural ability.

Benoit is an interesting acquisition for the Mariners. It is relatively easy to see why the Padres wanted to get rid of him. He is owed $8 million next year and will turn 39 years old - all as a reliever. Spending $8 million on relievers crowding 40 is not the most efficient use of funds.

However, while Benoit may not be the most efficient use of salary, he is pretty darn good. In fact, Benoit might be among the most underrated relievers of the past decade. His career has largely flown under the radar because he has rarely been his team's closer, but his numbers compare favorably with glitzier names.

Moreover, Benoit shows no signs of slowing down. His average fastball velocity remains steady around 94 mph, his pitch selection has not changed much over the past decade, and his results have been remarkably steady as well. Even if Benoit loses some fastball velocity his best pitch is a deadly change-up, so he should be able to stay productive for the near future. Basically Joaquin Benoit is Fernando Rodney with a little less velocity and way more command.

The Mariners needed some bullpen depth, but I had assumed Jerry Dipoto would address it through waivers - essentially collecting castoffs from other teams, such as Cody Martin (who the M's picked up on waivers October 19). Benoit does not fit this mold at all.

The only point in acquiring Benoit is if you plan to contend in 2016. Benoit is an expensive asset in one of the more flexible areas of any roster, the bullpen. Kevin Mather said he wanted a GM who would not waste the prime years of King Felix, Cano, and Nelson Cruz. Jerry Dipoto said he wanted to build a winner. These are easy things to say, but picking up Benoit, as relatively small as the move is, puts some teeth in those words.

This is going to be a busy offseason. Jerry Dipoto is not playing around. The Mariners are going to be a contender next year.

2016 Hall of Fame Ballot Announced

The BBWAA announced the 2016 Hall of Fame candidates today. This could be an interesting voting year for a few reasons. Let's dig in to the candidates. First of all, the newcomers:

First ballot: Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman

'Nuff said. Maybe Hoffman has to wait because he is a reliever, but I doubt it. He and Rivera are in a world of their own, and quite possibly a world we will never see again as teams realize that relievers are more fungible than the monolithic Hoffman and Rivera suggest.

One and done: Luis Castillo, David Eckstein, Mark Grudzielanek, Jason Kendall, Randy Winn

Maybe someone in here gets at least 5% of the vote, but I doubt it. These were all good players, but not Hall of Fame players. Maybe Kendall gets a boost because he is a catcher.

Could linger, but won't make the Hall: Garret Anderson, Brad Ausmus, Troy Glaus, Mike Hampton, Mike Lowell, Mike Sweeney

The problem for all of these players is that they are (or at least should be) buried by existing candidates on the ballot. For instance, Mike Sweeney was really good - maybe even debatably a Hall of Famer - but can he really go in before Fred McGriff? Would Mike Hampton go in over Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina? Garret Anderson over Larry Walker? There are probably some debates worth having in this group, but not until the ballot opens up a little bit.

Borderline newcomers: Jim Edmonds, Billy Wagner

The case for Edmonds ultimately hinges on his defense. His hitting is quite good but pales in comparison to a guy like Larry Walker, who has some Hall of Fame support but is far from making the Hall at the moment. If Edmonds is viewed by voters as an elite defender with a good bat he might show well this year. In general, if/when the ballot clears up a bit, I think he could be a fun Hall of Fame case.

Billy Wagner is even more interesting because there is no doubt that he was an elite closer for several years. Was he elite enough for long enough though? We are just on the front edge of the one-inning closer era, so these debates are still getting sorted out. Trevor Hoffman won't settle where the line is. He is simply too good. Billy Wagner's vote total this year may give us a better idea.

The BBWAA elected four new Hall of Fame members last year, and I would think that this ballot only has two first-ballot members. So, that opens up at least two new slots on a minimum of three-quarters of ballots (since 75% is the magic marker for making the Hall of Fame). Here are the key people to pay attention to:

Above 60% support last year: Mike Piazza (69.9%)

Piazza is almost a shoo-in to make it this next year. He is too close and there are too many openings on ballots after last year's huge class.

Above 50% support last year: Jeff Bagwell (55.7%), Tim Raines (55.0%)

Both Bagwell and Raines need to be listed on about 20% more ballots, which is a huge jump, but in reality means only getting listed on 1 out of 5 more ballots. There is no reason to think they would get bumped off a ballot they were on last year given the nature of the newcomers and the abnormally large class inducted last season. Additionally, Raines is in his second-to-last year of eligibility, which could develop a sense of urgency around him.

Players in second year of eligibility: Gary Sheffield (11.75%), Nomar Garciaparra (5.5%)

Some voters believe in the mystique of the first ballot, thinking that there is a distinction between first ballot Hall of Famers and those who must wait a few years to get in. Voters who make this distinction may vote for a player in their second year who they believe is a Hall of Famer but did not support just because they did not believe they were First Ballot material. Only Sheffield and Garciaparra remain from last year's ballot. Given their low vote totals from last year, and the glut of strong candidates that remain, neither is likely to gain a ton of steam this year. I would not be surprised to see both of them take noteworthy jumps though.

Players in last year of eligibility: Alan Trammel (25.1%), Mark McGwire (10.0%)

Neither Trammel nor McGwire are going to make it into the Hall of Fame. But what do their supporters do on this year's ballot? Do they pull their support and start promoting other Hall of Fame cases? Is their a sudden surge of support for either of them?

Final hot take: 2016 could be another big Hall of Fame class, and it needs to be if the BBWAA is ever going to solve the ballot gridlock. Griffey, Hoffman, and Piazza are locks to make it in this year. Bagwell, Raines, and Wagner all have chances, I think. Not all of them will get in. The BBWAA has never elected more than five members in one class.

However, electing at least a fourth member would be good for future ballots, and more importantly good for the game. There are too many players on the ballot right now that deserve enshrinement. They won't all get in without some big classes for the foreseeable future.

I anticipate both Raines and Bagwell making the Hall of Fame at some point, but the sooner the better. Their candidacies aren't so much about them anymore. The clock is ticking on the likes of Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, and others. The longer that Bagwell and Raines linger, the more the door closes on some of the '90s and early 2000s best players. Hence why, as a staunch Edgar supporter, I have my fingers crossed for both Bagwell and Raines in 2016.

Robertson Claimed, Piles Grow

The Mariners made a small move yesterday, claiming OF Daniel Robertson off of waivers. He is the second waiver pick-up by Jerry Dipoto so far. The other is RHP Cody Martin, which happened so far underneath the radar that I did not notice until yesterday. The move actually happened October 19.

Neither Robertson nor Martin are exceptional on their own, but they both provide more clues on Dipoto's vision.

It is easy to see why Robertson was available on waivers. He is 30 years old and listed at 5'8". Unsurprisingly, Robertson has never hit for power, and really has not hit at all in the majors. However, Robertson is a capable defender at all three outfield positions and has a strong history of plate discipline throughout his time in the minor leagues. Jerry Dipoto has stated publicly that he wants athletic outfielders and prefers a style of baseball with lots of baserunners moving from station to station. Robertson is hardly an impact bat, but his limited skills are the ones that the Mariners did not have under Jack Zduriencik.

Cody Martin made his MLB debut last year and was about as unfortunate as unfortunate gets. He got lit up to the tune of a 7.92 ERA out of the bullpen. That was caused, predictably, by a high home run rate (21.1% of fly balls, over double the league average). Martin also suffered from a very low strand rate, meaning his baserunners came around to score well more than average. Martin has a track record of solid success starting in the minor leagues though, and Jerry Dipoto is clearly banking on both regression to the mean and Safeco's friendly confines masking the dinger issue. Plus, the Mariners needed some pitching depth. Martin is exactly the kind of pitcher that Dipoto should be going after to fill in roster depth.

Obviously, the offseason has barely begun and Jerry Dipoto likely has many more moves left before the Mariners report to Peoria next spring. However, even with the few moves on the books, it is clear that Dipoto is focused on finding strikeout pitchers with lots of team control (even if they have elevated home run rates), and speedy outfielders with on-base and defensive skills. So why not take a peek at what the Mariners opening day roster might look like right now? Here is my best guess:

  1. Boog Powell (CF)
  2. Ketel Marte (SS)
  3. Robinson Cano (2B)
  4. Nelson Cruz (DH)
  5. Kyle Seager (3B)
  6. Mark Trumbo (1B)
  7. Seth Smith (RF)
  8. Franklin Gutierrez (LF)
  9. Mike Zunino (C)
  • Chris Taylor (INF)
  • Shawn O'Malley (UT)
  • Daniel Robertson (OF)
  • Jesus Sucre (C)
  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Taijuan Walker
  3. Nate Karns
  4. James Paxton
  5. Roenis Elias
  • Cody Martin
  • Tony Zych
  • C.J. Reifenhauser
  • Vidal Nuno
  • Tom Wilhelmsen
  • Charlie Furbush
  • Carson Smith
This is just my best guess, and actually I would guess that neither Dipoto nor Scott Servais has conducted this thought experiment with how crazy early it is in the offseason. I assumed all Mariners free agents were gone (hence no Iwakuma) and also assumed no free agent signings.

The 2016 Mariners will obviously look different, and in all likelihood better, than this current projected roster. That's not really the point of the exercise though. The point is that it is pretty easy to see the overall structure of the roster already. The outfield looks different, and the skillset Dipoto is focused on out there is likely to make the top and bottom of the lineup look very different. The pitching staff already looks like it will generate lots of swings and misses, but also more than fair share of fly balls. This makes a good defensive outfield all the more important.

I hope that Dipoto builds up some more depth, and there is little doubt he will do that. I like the overall feel of the Mariners team he is building. The little moves so far are building up some piles of serviceable players in spots where the Mariners had no replacement level players. It seems like the players being brought in are puzzle pieces that contribute to a better whole. This is progress.

Crazy Legs for Boog (and Others): Offseason Begins Unexpectedly

Brad Miller
(Flickr via Wikimedia Commons, Keith Allison)
Jerry Dipoto consummated his first deal as Mariners GM, a six-player swap with the Rays. It also doubles as the first transaction of the offseason made by any team. The trade is (probably) not star-studded, but nonetheless and interesting six-player deal that raised some eyebrows. The blow-by-blow recap:

Rays acquire:

  • RHP Danny Farquhar - Lord Farquhar was a revelation in 2014, and really near the end of 2013 too. He combined a 96-mph heater with a very good cutter and racked up strikeouts at a prolific rate. However, Farquhar struggled mightily last season and shuttled between Seattle and Tacoma a bit. Farquhar could regress next year, which for him means improving to his 2014 form, but his inclusion in this deal suggests that Dipoto saw him as fringy depth.
  • SS? Brad Miller - Crazy legs is clearly the key piece in this deal, and in all likelihood the best player of all six traded. However, Miller's value is hard to judge, and his trade value is especially mysterious. Miller is a polarizing player because of his skillset. He has gap power, nice speed, and just enough contact and plate discipline to be a respectable hitter. This is a tremendous combination for a shortstop, but opinions of Miller's defense at shortstop vary wildly. Some think he is awful and must move off the position immediately. Others point to data like UZR and suggest that he his at least league average. An average defender at short with a league-average bat is a borderline all-star. An average defender in left field with an average bat is a fringe starter. So, a team who sees Miller as a shortstop would value him much more than a team who thinks he must move off the position. Any team acquiring Crazy Legs likely sees him as a shortstop, but also likely knows that he should come at a bit of a reduced price because other teams would have no interest in him. I always liked Miller as a shortstop so his inclusion in this trade his hard for me to stomach. More on this in the analysis to follow.
  • 1B Logan Morrison - Frankly, I view LoMo as less than a throw-in. He penciled in as a bench bat slated to make around $4 million in arbitration. There was little doubt in my mind that Dipoto would get rid of him one way or another. The Mariners collected way too many 1B/DH types under Jack Zduriencik. The $4 million man most likely to sit on the bench many days was a very logical guy to go.
Mariners acquire:
  • RHP Nate Karns - Karns fits the Dipoto mold. He is a hard-throwing righty that racks up strikeouts, along with a disproportionate amount of home runs. Whether his high home run rate is an unsustainable fluke or an underlying flaw in his game remains to be seen. Either way, Safeco Field is likely to mask this problem. At worst, Karns is a serviceable starting pitcher under cheap team control for several years. At best, he could take a step forward and be a legitimate mid-rotation starter.
  • CF Boog Powell - Powell also fits the Dipoto mold, or at least the vision he shared of his kind of Safeco Field team. Powell has little power to speak of, but has exhibited great patience, plate discipline, and contact ability throughout the minors. Moreover, scouting reports suggest that Powell can serviceably defend all three outfield positions. Powell's skillset screams marginal MLB talent, but his specific things he is good at are things that were virtually non-existent on the Mariners roster.
  • LHP C.J. Riefenhauser - A lefty reliever yet to do much in the majors (albeit in limited opportunities), Riefenhauser has been productive in the minors and has lots of years of team control remaining. The lengthy team control is probably his greatest asset, though he is also highly likely to log some time in the M's bullpen in 2016.
It is easy to look at this trade and be disappointed in Dipoto and the Mariners. Farquhar, Miller, and Morrison all logged significant time with the Mariners the last two years. Only Karns has done much of anything in the majors among the trio the Mariners receieved. Also, Farquhar, Miller, and Morrison were among the Mariners more interesting, charismatic players. Brad Miller with his crazy legs and gorgeous stirrups, Farquhar with his brutal honesty in interviews (like saying he was sent down because he sucked), and LoMo with things like running to the mound and asking Fernando Rodney where his arrow went. I simply enjoyed the presence of the players the M's got rid of in this trade, and the players received are, at least at the moment, so anonymous.

I am glad I waited a day to write this post though. The deal has grown on me considerably in the past 24 hours. It is a tad risky, but makes good sense, especially when some hidden assets in the deal are considered.

The Mariners needed some team-controlled, cost-controlled depth. Robinson Cano, King Felix, and Kyle Seager are all signed for $100+ million for the next several years. Nelson Cruz is not exactly cheap either and has three years remaining on his deal. The Mariners have to count on these players being the core of their team. However, the Mariners won't win with this core if they cannot assemble decent talent around them, and that talent will have to come on a budget. These players do not need to be stars, but they need to be complimentary pieces at reasonable prices - in other words, decent players who are years short of hitting free agency.

Boog Powell has 6 years of team control remaining. His MLB clock hasn't started. Riefenhauser has at least 5 years of team control. Karns has at least 4. LoMo had 1 year of team control left, Farquhar and Miller were at 3 or 4 apiece. The Mariners added several years of cheap, team-controlled talent in this trade, which cannot be ignored in the overall valuation of this deal. In fact, the gap in team-controlled years involved in this trade is large enough to expect the Mariners needed to give up more talent to offset this gain - and pursuing decent players with lots of team-controlled years, given the current structure of the Mariners payroll, is somewhere between wise and necessary.

So, Danny Farquhar is probably a more talented reliever than C.J. Riefenhauser. However, I would argue he is a less valuable overall asset. Riefenhauser is left-handed with a couple more years of team control. If both Farquhar and Riefenhauser project as bullpen depth - either in middle relief in the majors or as one of the first call-ups from Tacoama - taking the guy with more cheap, team-controlled years is a no-brainer. The talent gap doesn't matter as much as the millions of dollars that can be spent somewhere else.

Similarly, this is why Logan Morrison could almost be considered a liability for the Mariners. He projected to have marginal playing time at best*, with only one year of team control remaining, and a relatively pricey year given his projected role. LoMo's lumbering lefty power would have been nice to have stashed away on the bench, but LoMo as an overall asset did not make much sense for the 2016 Mariners. The price point and lack of team control are not good fits at all.

*Assuming Mark Trumbo plays first base, which seems especially safe with this trade.

Ultimately, this all suggests that the talent gap between Brad Miller and the combination of Nate Karns and Boog Powell has to be substantial before this deal turns out bad for the Mariners. There is room for Miller to blossom for the Rays and for the Mariners to still be better for making this trade. 

The deal is even less likely to turn out bad given the complexion of the Mariners roster. They desperately needed capable defensive outfielders and some plate discipline, the two things Zduriencik completely ignored the last few years as he horded ALL THE DINGERS FOREVER. Boog Powell has plate discipline and outfield defense. It remains to be seen if Powell's skills are strong enough to carve out a legitimate spot in the majors, but he at least possesses skills the Mariners sorely lacked. 

As for Karns, he will help eliminate the need to stretch out relievers to start, which is what the Mariners ended up doing after the All-Star break (Vidal Nuno, Edgar Olmos, and even Tony Zych for one start). Rotation depth was absolutely necessary, especially with Hisashi Iwakuma as an impending free agent.

At worst, the Mariners got a little depth with lots of cheap, team-controlled years. At best, they got themselves a nice mid-rotation starter and an everyday centerfielder who could also be an effective leadoff hitter. Dipoto's comments suggest that he believes he got the latter, not the former, which makes it easy to see why he would part with Brad Miller. I think Dipoto is looking through this trade with rose-tinted glasses based on his comments, but even an outcome noticeably short of Dipoto's vision is still one worth making.

Learning From the Royals

The Kansas City Royals won the World Series last night. I'm guessing you already knew this if you read this blog, but in case you didn't, there you go. Hope you didn't DVR game five and avoided all sports news only to stumble upon this information here.

The Royals won the World Series in what seemed to be typical KC fashion. They trailed deep into the ballgame, got a runner aboard, then ran with reckless abandon as line drives and ground balls of many shapes and sizes dropped in, or at least dropped far enough away from a defender to justify running. The most dramatic play came when Eric Hosmer sprinted for home with two outs in the ninth inning, forcing Lucas Duda to make a throw to the plate. Duda's throw was far from perfect. Tie game. Advantage: Royals, eventually, when they blew the game open in the 12th inning.

Kansas City, without a doubt, is a good team. They had the seventh best team WAR total - a quick estimate for how much underlying talent is on an entire roster. Their WAR total this year did not change much from their WAR total in 2014. Perhaps this makes sense, since both years they ended up in the World Series.

However, what are the odds of the seventh best team making it to back-to-back World Series? Even the best of teams struggle to pull off such a feat. It's the kind of a thing a budding dynasty does, or at the very least a great team over the course of a few seasons.

So, are the Royals great? Or, maybe more specifically, have the Royals found a sustainable way of winning games that is not accounted for in current statistical analysis?

I don't have a firm answer in my own head. This is an open question. I only have a few thoughts to consider. If I were to build a team capable of beating projections year in and year out, I would think that it would look something like the Royals.

For starters, the Royals field an incredible defense, anchored by four legitimate Gold Glove contenders - Salvador Perez at catcher, Alcides Escobar at shortstop, Lorenzo Cain in center field, and Alex Gordon in left field. Catcher, shortstop, and center field are easily the most demanding defensive positions on the field, so having such amazing defenders in ALL those spots might be a good way of improving defense across the board.

Perez, Escobar, and Cain could cover lots of sins - if there were any sins to cover. The Royals don't have amazing defenders anywhere else, but they have solid to good defenders everywhere else. This is rare. There is no black hole in Kansas City's defense, just shining stars in critical areas and capable players everywhere else. Unsurprisingly, the Royals ERA beat its FIP projection. This could be considered lucky, but with KC's defense, it's more likely a tangible outcome of their defense. There is no soft spot an opponent can exploit, and the best parts are up the middle where they are just about impossible to avoid.

The Royals offense excels at relatively obscure skills, particularly given the way their skills blend together. To start with, most of their players are solid to good hitters for their positions. Again, the lack of a gaping hole is not sexy, but worth noting. It lowers the need for superstars to cover up for gaps.

The one hitter who was truly awful was Alcides Escobar (except for his incredible run through these playoffs, which is about the only luck the Royals got but nonetheless luck). However, Escobar's hitting is palatable given his incredible defense. Furthermore, Escobar is a terrific baserunner, meaning his hitting went farther than the raw numbers suggest.

In fact, if I had to guess the main reason that Kansas City has surpassed expectations two years running, I would point to the combination of their baserunning with their lineup depth. Baserunning only matters if the hitters behind a runner are good enough to advance them with some regularity. Kansas City's mix of good/great baserunners with capable hitters up and down their lineup creates a relentless pressure that would be hard to quantify in statistics.

Maybe the best way to understand Kansas City's brilliance is to think in terms of their opponent. The typical team, over the course of a game, will make good and bad pitches, good and bad throws, take good and bad routes to balls, and so on. Most teams have strong and weak points in their lineups, defense, and pitching staff, so every now and then a team lucks out with their lapses (they happen against a weak spot) and every now and then they don't.

The Royals lack weak spots, both on offense and defense, which gives them a better chance to capitalize on a team's mistakes. Moreover, their aggressive baserunning allows them to make more of a team's defensive mistakes, or perhaps even force mistakes more regularly.

The Royals, I am convinced, win by waiting for their opponent to screw up. This is an underrated strategy because baseball is far from a sport of perfection. Batters are considered great if the only fail 7 out of 10 times. Pitchers have had an excellent outing if the only throw a ball every three pitches or so. Failures are easy to find in baseball, so creating a team that is able to extort the most out of an opponent's errors might find success in ways that are hard to quantify.

Then again, maybe the Royals are lucky. They were a few outs away from certain elimination in the 2014 play-in game before a miraculous comeback against the A's. There is no run to the 2014 World Series without that stunning comeback. This year, Jeurys Familia became the first pitcher to ever blow three saves in one World Series. The flip side of that is that the Royals came back extremely late in three of their four victories. It is not all that hard to dial up an alternate universe where the Royals are not on this little championship run.

Still, the fact remains that Kansas City has been much better than they should have been on paper for two years running now. They somehow survived the playoff meat grinder two years in a row to make the World Series in back-to-back seasons. They have surpassed their expected win totals, based either on team WAR totals or run differential, in both of those years.

There are plenty of examples of one-year-wonders in baseball. Two-year wonders are more rare. The Royals are at least worth pondering. They might help us understand what it takes to win ballgames just a little bit better.

Dipoto's Delightfully Insane Front Office

Jerry Dipoto more or less locked in his whole front office this week (manager included!) A few weeks back I had a list of people who did not know their fates. Those fates are now known. Let's start there:

The remaining unknowns:
  • Tom Allison (pro scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Roger Hansen (assistant to the GM) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Jeff Kingston (assistant GM) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Tim Kissner (international scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Tom McNamara (amateur scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
I find this non-news rather remarkable news in itself. Dipoto did not come in and blow up the leadership. Only Hansen pre-dates Jack Zduriencik, so it isn't like any of these people are lifers within the Mariners franchise. They were Zduriencik hires and now they remain. This will not get enough attention because the lazy narrative has already been written: New GM comes in, fires manager, cleans house. Dipoto let Lloyd McClendon go over differences in approach, which seemed like a convenient euphemism for "I'm not dealing with another Mike Scioscia situation."

However, given how many people Dipoto kept on from the Zduriencik regime, it sure seems like Dipoto legitimately talked with McClendon and took time to discern whether he and McClendon could work together. Dipoto clearly gave everyone in the front office some time and thought, and ended up deciding their vision fits with his.

However, Jerry Dipoto made one splash, and it looks significant. He hired Andy McKay as the new farm director. McKay replaces Chris Gwynn, who resigned - though, now that we can see the whole picture a bit more clearly, he was likely either going to choose to leave or be told to leave.

Nobody knows how McKay will do as farm director, McKay included. He was the "peak performance coordinator" in Colorado when Dipoto reached out to him about the M's opening. He was a mental coach of sorts.

Dipoto and McKay did not know each other before McKay's interview with the Mariners, though Dipoto knew of McKay. Apparently Dipoto reached out about a position with the Angels a few years back, but one way or another an interview never happened.

McKay seems to have some strong opinions on how teams develop players, especially mentally. He went as far as saying no team does a good job developing the mental side of the game. McKay added that he has developed a program for mental training. Seems pretty obvious that the 2016 Mariners will be his first real guinea pigs.

I knew nothing about Andy McKay until roughly Wednesday of this week, but I am convinced this is a huge hire. The idea of Andy McKay is what's so powerful. None of us know how this move will work out, but I love the theory and there is only one way to find out if the theory actually works - put it into practice and see what happens.

Sports psychology has been a big topic rumbling around the back of my head for a few years, probably thanks to where my research as a high school teacher has led me. I say with some confidence that I think about student metacognition on math problems more than 99% of baseball bloggers, but every now and then those thoughts drift perilously close to baseball.

For instance, one of the most powerful ideas I've ever read about is Carol Dweck's research on mindsets.* Her research suggests that human beings approach contexts with either fixed or growth mindsets. The basic notion is that people with fixed mindsets believe they are permanently only so good or so bad at something. Meanwhile, people with growth mindsets believe that their abilities change over time depending on what they do and experience.

*I also say with some confidence that I am among, I don't know, 1-5% of baseball bloggers who could quote research from Carol Dweck in a baseball post? I know you've all been waiting for some educational research to show up on the Musings! #Shocktober

Theoretically, two people with identical pre-requisite skills and knowledge could approach a situation with different mindsets. What Dweck's research has shown is that these two theoretical people, over time, will end up in different places. The person with a growth mindset is more likely to grapple with challenges, persist, and ultimately get better. A person with a fixed mindset is more likely to feel threatened by a challenge and avoid it, which results in a skill plateauing or possibly even fading.

It's not that mindset is everything, but it is clearly something. Moreover, there are ways to frame communication and rephrase feedback which promotes growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. Mindsets can be cultivated, or in sports terms, be coached. There are moves I make which research suggests push my students towards growth mindset in math. Sometimes I've paused and wondered if similar moves could be used in a minor league system. It seems like something that would generalize quickly and easily.

I don't know what McKay's program entails, but I thought about things like mindset. They matter, they have been shown through scientific research to make a difference, and sports have been more blind to them than just about anything else that could impact performance. This is why sports psychology has struck me as a field for potentially massive growth, and I've wondered who would be the first team to make an aggressive push into the field.

Answer: the Seattle Mariners. Shocktober!

Of course, there is a reasonable chance many (or all) teams are doing something with sports psychology. However, nobody with McKay's background has held such a significant leadership position, with the power and responsibility that such a position entails.

McKay is a bold hire, and if he works out like Dipoto hopes, the Mariners will enjoy a significant advantage over everyone else for a few years before other teams catch on. If he doesn't work out - oh well. The Mariners player development has been a disaster for several years now. It is the most logical explanation for why the team cannot develop MLB talent despite high draft picks that are consistently praised as good picks across baseball. The draft is a crapshoot, but it's not nearly as bad of a crapshoot as the M's player development track record suggests.

It is also interesting to see how surgical and open-minded Jerry Dipoto is. He kept Zduriencik's leadership in tact except for two key places, farm director and manager. Adam McKay brings a revolutionary approach to player development, and new manager Scott Servais comes from a background in player development. It's very obvious now that Jerry Dipoto believes the main (if not only) problem with the Mariners under Jack Zduriencik was player development.

Dipoto now has a manager who has never managed and a farm director who has never directed anything in a front office that he had never met until a week or two ago. These are the men charged with fixing the Mariners, especially given that nobody else changed. How could this possibly go wrong?

The plan has a self-evident disaster factor, but the Mariners player development was already a disaster. There is nothing to lose. This is an obvious situation worth taking a wild risk in with hopes of a massive reward. I kind of like this Dipoto guy.