thoughts on the Mariners, MLB draft, and more homelinksdraftabout me

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.