Mariners move quickly, hoping small offseason moves add up

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For the second consecutive offseason, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has moved early. The Chicago Cubs have barely sobered up from their World Series celebrations and the Mariners have already traded for Danny Valencia and Carlos Ruiz and, on Friday, acquired Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer from the Tampa Bay Rays for prospects Dylan Thompson, Andrew Kittredge and Dalton Kelly.

The players serve a similar purpose: They all bat right-handed, and Valencia, Motter and Shaffer have all played multiple positions, bringing versatility to a lineup that leaned too left-handed in 2016, when five of the team’s six best regulars hit from the left side. In part because of Nelson Cruz‘s dominance against southpaws — 1.020 OPS — the Mariners actually held their own against lefties, but Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both had sizable platoon splits, so bringing in more right-handed depth is a good idea.

Valencia is the biggest pickup here, as he’s hit .308/.382/.496 against left-handers the past two seasons. He’ll slot in at the minimum in a platoon at first base with Dan Vogelbach, but can also play a corner outfield position. Ruiz will share time with Mike Zunino, and Dipoto and manager Scott Servais would be ecstatic if Ruiz can come close to the .365 OBP he posted in 2016. Motter played six positions with the Rays, including shortstop. While he struggled in his brief big league trial, he had a 1.070 OPS against lefties at Triple-A in 2015. Shaffer is a four-corners guy who had a tough 2016, but hit 26 home runs across three levels in 2015.

These aren’t glamorous pickups, but they do continue Dipoto’s mission to build a stronger 40-man roster than existed under former GM Jack Zduriencik. One thing you heard about the 2016 Mariners is that the good parts of it were primarily Zduriencik’s leftovers. He signed Cano, Cruz and Hisashi Iwakuma and drafted Seager, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Zunino and Edwin Diaz (Felix Hernandez was a holdover from the Bill Bavasi regime).

Still, Zduriencik was never able to successfully fill out the roster around his core. The 2015 Mariners, who finished 76-86, had negative-12.4 WAR of value from below-replacement-level players. The 2014 club, which won 87 games, was better thanks to MLB’s best bullpen, seeing just minus-5.1 WAR from its sub-replacement group. The 2013 Mariners were 71-91 and had minus-10.1 WAR. The 2016 Mariners had just minus-3.6 WAR combined from their below-replacement players. They won 86 games, not just because Cano and Cruz had big seasons, but simply because they had fewer crummy players.

At the same time, Dipoto’s initial offseason brought a mixed bag of results:

  • Traded Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Danny Farquhar to Tampa Bay for Nate Karns and Boog Powell. Miller hit 30 home runs, but his poor defense at shortstop and .304 OBP meant he was worth just 1.6 WAR. Morrison and Farquhar bring the WAR total up to 2.4. Karns was worth just 2.2 WAR. Advantage: Rays.

  • Traded Mark Trumbo to Baltimore for Steve Clevenger. This was basically a salary dump. Still, it didn’t look good when Trumbo led the AL with 47 home runs and Clevenger ended the season sending out racist tweets while injured. Advantage: Orioles.

  • Acquired Leonys Martin from the Rangers for Tom Wilhelmsen and Patrick Kivlehan. Martin filled a big hole in center field and produced 1.2 WAR. Wilhelmsen and Kivlehan (for a spell) actually both ended up back with Seattle. Advantage: Mariners.

  • Traded Carson Smith and Roenis Elias to the Red Sox for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro. Smith got hurt, Elias spent the year in Triple-A, Miley had just 0.4 WAR before being traded for Ariel Miranda and Aro made just one major league appearance. Advantage: nobody.

  • Acquired Adam Lind from the Brewers for three low-level minor leaguers. Lind was a big flop as his OPS fell from .820 to .717. Advantage: nobody (yet; depends on how the prospects develop).

  • Acquired Joaquin Benoit from the Padres for two minor leaguers. Benoit was part of the team’s early bullpen issues and was eventually traded to the Blue Jays (where he pitched well). Advantage: Depends on prospects.

The remarkable aspect is Dipoto traded away 77 home runs and the Mariners still finished second in the American League with 223, helping them to finish third in the league in runs. The front office, however, will have to assume some regression from Cano and Cruz given their ages (34 and 36, respectively, entering the 2017 season), so it’s imperative to lengthen the bottom of the lineup. That’s why adding another veteran outfielder to the roster remains a possibility if there’s room in the budget. Right now the lineup looks something like this:

RF Ben Gamel / Taylor Motter

LF Seth Smith / Guillermo Heredia

2B Robinson Cano

DH Nelson Cruz

3B Kyle Seager

1B Dan Vogelbach / Danny Valencia

C Mike Zunino / Carlos Ruiz

CF Leonys Martin

SS Ketel Marte

The bullpen should be better with a full season from Diaz, good health from Tony Zych and Evan Scribner, and the addition of hard-throwing Dan Altavilla, although Steve Cishek will miss the start of the season after surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. Zych is also a question mark after surgery on his biceps. The rotation can no longer count on Hernandez as an ace, so must count on improvement from Walker and a full season from Paxton along with Iwakuma, Karns and Miranda. On paper, the Astros and Mariners probably now project to be better than the Rangers (remember, both had a bigger run differential than Texas in 2016).

Of course, it’s only mid-November. Odds are Dipoto has a few more deals to go. (Indeed, as I was writing this, the Mariners acquired lefty reliever James Pazos from the Yankees for minor league pitcher Zack Littell.)



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