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Big Holes, Small Solutions

Last night's drubbing in Houston felt huge. The Mariners had a chance to make a statement. A slumping Astros team with King Felix on the mound felt like a recipe for success. Then Felix threw the worst start of his career and got outpitched by Jesus Sucre, the first M's position player to take the mound since the immortal Jamie Burke nearly a decade ago.

Maybe the worst part is that Felix's disastrous start didn't really matter in the end. The Mariners haven't scored since Wednesday, and recently completed a homestand where they never scored more than three runs. This is a team with problems.

I decided to take a look at Fangraphs team leaderboards and legitimately analyze the problems. I classified Mariner position groups in three tiers: strengths (top 10 in baseball), just fine (middle 10), and holes (bottom 10). Since the Mariners are so bad and frustrating right now, this post will focus on the holes, but include a few comments about the other areas on the team. Here is where the Mariners stand as of right now:

STRENGTHS: Right Field, Designated Hitter, Third Base

Basically the M's strengths are Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. Cruz's torrid hitting as a DH and in right field buoy the overall production for the Mariners in both spots. Seth Smith has also played some right field and is among the M's more productive position players. He also ranks as a better defender in right than left, for what that's worth.

JUST FINE: Starting rotation, Shortstop

Frankly, the numbers suggest that the Mariners should keep Brad Miller at shortstop. He is one of the better ones in baseball, despite his streaky hitting and propensity for errors on defense. His power at the plate and range on the field more than make up for his deficiencies. The subpar play of Chris Taylor and Willie Bloomquist at short drag the overall value of the position down, so just sticking with Miller might make this a strength. Similarly, the M's rotation ranks as average despite injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton, plus the very rough start to the season by Taijuan Walker. These are areas that could emerge as strengths without any moves.


Center Field
Mariners: -0.5 WAR ~ Median 1.1 WAR
The injury to Austin Jackson didn't help, and this hole should become less glaring as the season wears on. However, the depth behind Jackson was stunningly absent. Interestingly enough M's center fielders are tied for 7th most home runs hit by center fielders and rank right around the middle of the pack in ISO despite being the 28th best unit at creating runs. The unit also ranks 28th defensively in run prevention.

Mariners: -0.7 WAR ~ Median 0.6 WAR
Mike Zunino's offensive woes are that bad. He still ranks as an above-average defender, and the M's ISO and home runs from catchers both rank around the middle of the pack. So, Zunino is just fine in several areas, but to date he does absolutely nothing else. When a player does absolutely nothing else but defend and hit home runs, even at catcher, that's a problem. The Mariners should seriously consider sending Zunino down to AAA to work on his hitting and find a replacement level catcher. The problem is that Zunino is still the best catcher the Mariners have because they never bothered to get at least one replacement level catcher. I guess they tried when they signed John Baker to a spring training deal, but how the team didn't have a legitimate backup and a serviceable backstop stashed in AAA blows my mind. That's bad roster construction.

Second Base
Mariners: -0.3 WAR ~ Median 1.1 WAR
You can't blame Mariners management for this hole. Robinson Cano has been a stunning catastrophe so far this season. This was supposed to be a position of strength for the Mariners and it is one of their largest liabilities. It makes sense to keep trotting out Cano and hoping he looks a bit more like his old self.

First Base
Mariners: 0.1 WAR ~ Median 1.1 WAR
LoMo isn't focused on as a problem, but he is relative to other MLB first basemen. His offensive production is decent - right around league average - but first base is typically a position that teams get above-average production from. Hence why this is a spot where the Mariners lag behind the pack. The Mariners would be wise to start splitting time between Morrison and Mark Trumbo at first base.

Left Field
Mariners: 0.0 WAR ~ Median 0.8 WAR
This is a tale of two left fielders, the productive Seth Smith and horrific Dustin Ackley. They have cancelled one another out, so just playing Smith more regularly (as McClendon is doing) will move this position into the "just fine" range. Ackley was a league average starter last year in left field, so his drop-off is a surprising and unfortunate twist this season.

Mariners: 0.3 WAR ~ Median 1.0 WAR
The Mariners bullpen would be serviceable with two reasonable adjustments that have already been made. Tyler Olson accumulated -0.4 WAR in his month in the majors, and Fernando Rodney has been worth -0.4 WAR so far also. Replace those performances with replacement level ones (0.0 WAR) and the bullpen ranks as league average. Olson never should have made the team, despite his phenomenal spring. Nothing about his background or stuff suggested he could make the jump from AA and be a good reliever. Rodney has always been a bit of an adventure, but his drop this season is unexpected and stunning. The Mariners should have always banked on regression from this unit given how crazy good they were last year, but to expect this kind of fall was unreasonable. My biggest bone of contention is giving Olson an opening day spot, but that was remedied pretty quickly.

The Mariners path to a rebound is surprisingly straightforward. They need to hope that Fernando Rodney and Robinson Cano start to look like something resembling Fernando Rodney and Robinson Cano. They could also use one good defensive outfielder that can hit at least enough to be even a below average starter, plus a shot in the arm at first base. That could come from Mark Trumbo if he wasn't going to be played in the outfield. A halfway decent catcher would be good too. Then, beyond all that, getting healthy and staying healthy.

Lots has to go right for the Mariners to improve, but that shouldn't be too surprising with the hole they have carved. However, quite a few things have gone wrong this season that were unreasonable to expect, without an equal number of pleasant surprises performing beyond what could be expected at this point. Really only Nelson Cruz is performing beyond expectations and he has cooled down a fair amount in recent weeks (unsurprisingly right in line with the whole offense tanking).

There are some moves the Mariners could make to help themselves out, and that could make for another post in the near future. However, their best bet to get back into contention is to take a reality check in their own clubhouse, look around the room, and realize that the guys they already have are their best bet to get better in a hurry - and there is some reason to believe a few players could turn their seasons around. They better soon though, before the season is 100% gone. It's pretty close to gone. About the only thing keeping the Mariners afloat is the mediocrity of the American League as a whole, but even that will only keep them afloat for so long without some improvement.