Staring a fifth consecutive fourth-place finish in the American League West in the face, the Mariners went out last offseason and signed Robinson Cano to the fourth-largest contract in baseball history at the time. The addition of Cano, a bullpen resurgence, and outstanding pitching from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma led Seattle to a 16-win improvement in 2014. Approaching the offseason from the other side of the win curve now, the Mariners could eschew a big splash signing to merely fill their holes—designated hitter, shortstop, first base—and make it to the postseason. Before they make their moves, though, let’s take a look at the relevant fantasy players currently under the Mariners’ control.
Felix Hernandez – SP
Is “stud” strong enough to describe the King after his 2.14 ERA this year? Felix answered all lingering questions that followed an uneven finish to his 2013, when he had a 5.77 ERA in his last eight starts and hit the disabled list with an oblique strain in September. It was his lowest innings total since 2008 (204.1 innings), but Hernandez made gains in his strikeout and walk rates—lowering his FIP from 2.84 in ’12 to 2.61—which carried over to his magnificent campaign this year. The last summer in which he didn’t make the All-Star team or win the Cy Young award, I was just starting college. Go forth and spread beauty and light.
Robinson Cano – 2B
After he left the Yankees, it was safe to assume that Cano’s run totals would be down—he posted his lowest runs (77) and RBI (82) totals since 2008—but his 14 home runs were surprising (and also his lowest total since 2008). Leaving the short porch of Yankee Stadium doesn’t completely explain his power outage, as Cano hit 16 home runs on the road with a .220 ISO in 2013. Looking at his batted-ball data, Cano wasn’t the same hitter this season. He was hitting the ball on the ground more (52.6 percent ground-ball rate up from 44.3 percent in ‘13) in favor of line drives (22.6 percent line-drive rate, 26 percent in ’13) and fly balls (24.7 percent fly-ball rate, 29.8 percent in ’13). Cano’s also not hitting it out nearly as often as he did in the past when he does hit the ball in the air as his 10.7 percent HR:FB rate is (and you can say it with me this time) his worst since 2008. Assuming some combination of Cano lifting more baseballs and a few hitting the “Jetstream” just right, he’ll improve on 14 dingers next year, but by how much? Well, at 32 years old, I know I’m not counting on him to hit 25 homers.
Hisashi Iwakuma – SP
Iwakuma was absolutely outstanding and perhaps a bit fortunate in his first full season as a starting pitcher, as his BABIP allowed was .252 and his strand rate was 81.9 percent, en route to a sparkling 2.66 ERA in 219.2 innings in 2013. His price on draft day 2014 would’ve been higher if not for a finger injury, which would keep him out for the first month, but it turned out that innings wouldn’t be the only category in which he took a step back. Iwakuma’s 3.44 FIP from 2013 was almost a spot-on preview of his 2014 ERA (3.52), as his BABIP allowed (.287) and strand rate (74 percent) came back to earth. Looking a little closer, Iwakuma ruined his ERA with a 7.88 mark in his last seven starts of the season. 3.40-3.50 is more of the range I expect him to be in with his ERA and FIP going forward, but he’s still getting the stud treatment here because of his dynamite WHIP, which is 1.06 for his career as a starter. Still not convinced? There were three qualified American League starters with a strikeout rate of at least 21 percent and walk rate below four percent in 2014: David Price, Phil Hughes, and Iwakuma. Assuming he makes at least 33 starts in 2015, you’re looking at an innings workhorse and WHIP-beast. Iwakuma’s also entering a contract year, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Kyle Seager – 3B
One might look at Seager’s season totals over the last three years and come away impressed with his consistency. For three years, he’s played between 155-160 games, scored between 62-79 runs (stay with me), hit between 20-25 home runs, and posted an average between .259-.268. Now, let’s go back and look at his triple slash lines for his last four half-seasons (starting with the second half of 2014): .253/.311/.402, .279/.370/.493, .212/.309/.336, and .293/.359/.488. Entering August 2013, his line for the year was .298/.361/.492, before he cratered and hit .183/.294/.292 over the final 55 games of the season. Even with Seager’s second-half swoons, he’s been a reliable fantasy player at a position where there simply aren’t as many of those as there used to be. Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, and Josh Donaldson were the only third basemen to earn more than Seager in AL-only leagues this year.
Brad Miller – SS
Miller took a big step back offensively while his strikeout rate soared to 23.1 percent in 2014. Entering the year with eligibility at both second base and shortstop and a TAv of .279 in 335 plate appearances from the year before, Miller’s NFBC ADP was 15th among shortstops. The wheels came off right out of the gate as through two months Miller was “hitting” .158/.234/.250 with 43 strikeouts in 45 games. He was able to hit .265/.326/.447 with seven home runs in 242 plate appearances the rest of the way, but even that came with a 21.4 percent strikeout rate and .314 BABIP. Given that Miller was both swinging less (50.1 percent to 48.1 percent swing rate) and not making as much contact when he did swing (82.7 percent to 79.2 percent contact rate) compared to 2013, I’m not predicting he’ll improve on his career .281 BABIP next year. He’s also showing a fairly significant platoon split in his career in the majors: .248/.311/.413 vs. RHP and .222/.280/.330 vs. LHP. Miller can’t go for more than $5 in AL-only this year and that money would perhaps be better spent on milk duds anyway.
What You See Is What You Get
Fernando Rodney – CL
The man in the crooked hat was up to his old tricks again in 2014 as he saved 48 games for the second time in the last three years. Greg Holland, David Robertson, and Koji Uehara were the only Opening Day closers to earn more than Rodney in AL-only leagues this year. His 2.83 FIP was nearly identical to the 2.84 mark in his final season with Tampa Bay. With the Mariners in win-now mode, it’s safe to consider Rodney a middle-of-the-pack closer.
Austin Jackson – CF
To say that Jackson’s offense suffered upon being traded to Seattle would a gross understatement. His TAv of .195 in 54 games should grab your attention. Jackson went below the Mendoza line on TAv, which unlike regular batting average is a measure of total offensive value. He still earned $17 in AL-only, though that was entirely due to his time with the Tigers and even there he was spotty. Jackson was only a productive player in April and July with his July (.349/.390/.505) just hot enough for Detroit to sell high. Those were the only months in which Jackson posted an ISO above .095 or AVG above .265. His walk rate declined for the third straight season (to 7.2 percent) and his strikeout rate was at least 21 percent for the fifth consecutive campaign (that’s every year of his major league career). If you’re still waiting on a repeat of his 2012, it’s really time to move on, but Jackson will have some value in 2015 as the Mariners continue to shoehorn him into the leadoff spot.
Dustin Ackley – OF
An early-September MRI revealed bone spurs in Ackley’s ankle—the same injury required surgery back in 2012—but even his batting line with September removed left room for improvement (.260/.307/.414). He traded walks (walk rate down to 5.9 percent from 8.7 percent in ‘13) for power (ISO improved to .153 from .089) and hit the ball in the air more often (36.3 percent fly ball rate up from 27 percent). Looking closer, he made these adjustments in mid-season.
Second half: 244 PA, 4.5% BB rate, 15.2% K rate, 41.6% GB rate, 38.9% FB rate, 13.5% HR/FB, .269/.307/.476, .282 BABIP.
Even with his awful September numbers (.149/.205/.299) baked in, Ackley hit .269 with a .207 ISO in the second half. Assuming the walks are gone for good, though, we can still take solace in the fact that he also cut his strikeouts in the second half. More solid contact was the recipe for success in Ackley’s second half and gives him a pretty decent floor with some upside going forward.
James Paxton – SP
Generally, spending the majority of the season on the disabled list with a lat strain is no way to endear oneself to fantasy owners. It was Paxton’s performance, of course, in the 13 games he pitched that practically has owners drooling over what he could to in a full season. His control (9.1 percent walk rate in 98 career big-league innings) is an issue, but not a debilitating one because of his ability to get strikeouts (20 percent strikeout rate), induce ground balls (55.8 percent ground-ball rate), and keep the ball in the park (0.46 HR/9). Paxton’s lack of control might make him even harder to hit; he allowed a .220 AVG, 3.04 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 74 innings this year. All of the caveats that come with young pitchers still apply here as Paxton didn’t come close to pitching a full season in the majors, but this is an up-and-coming starter worthy of the attention now.
Taijuan Walker – SP
A balky shoulder shelved Walker during spring training, and he didn’t see a major-league mound until almost July. He made just five starts and had one extended relief appearance go six innings. It wasn’t the season many saw coming for the top pitching prospect in the American League back in February, but it’ll happen to even the best young pitchers. The good news is he was able to finish the season healthy and pitching well as he threw eight innings of one-run ball against Toronto in his final start. Walker pitched briefly in the Arizona Fall League (nine innings over two appearances) before packing it up for the winter. Walker’s arsenal of pitches is remarkable as he can reach the upper-90s with his fastball and backs it up with a cutter and slow curveball. His changeup is an underrated pitch that will get better with experience.
Michael Saunders – OF
The baseball media might mess around and get a lot of real baseball fans disappointed when Saunders doesn’t save your team next year. In 2014, Saunders had his best year by TAv (.316) by far, but only played 78 games due to shoulder inflammation and an oblique strain. His production was also fueled by a .327 BABIP (career .290 BABIP). Soon the Mariners will head to the winter meetings and shop him around, but this entire situation reeks of Omar Infante Theory. Infante was in the midst of the best season of his career in 2013 with the Tigers when an ankle injury cost him over a month of playing time. His batting line (.318/.345/.450) was propped up not only by his .333 BABIP but also the lack of playing time, where he likely would’ve regressed. Saunders obviously has a much different skill set which is dependent on walking and hitting for power, but just like Infante, he absolutely won’t be repeating his batting average. A left-handed hitter with a low average like Saunders is redundant in Seattle, but there are plenty of teams where he’d be a fit. His power and speed combination could make him a decent addition to the back end of your fantasy outfield if he stays healthy and average isn’t your main concern.
Chris Taylor – SS
A spring training battle with Miller could decide who the Mariners’ shortstop is for next year (and beyond) if a move isn’t made by then. Taylor got some experience down the stretch in 2014 starting 21 games in August, 15 in September, and riding a .398 BABIP to a .287/.347/.346 line. An unremarkable hitter with no power may appear weak on the surface, but if given the playing time Taylor could steal 25-30 bases. It’s not a sexy profile, but he’s not to be overlooked if he falls into playing time.
Roenis Elias – SP
Elias, who was so under the radar prior to this season he wasn’t even mentioned in the Seattle chapter of the Baseball Prospectus annual, wound up making 29 starts at the backend of the Mariners’ rotation. His numbers are far from outstanding (3.85 ERA, 4.06 FIP, 1.31 WHIP), but he misses bats (20.6 percent strikeout rate) and gets ground balls (45 percent ground ball rate). Elias won’t win you any leagues, but you could do much worse than Seattle’s likely fifth starter for an end-of-the-auction bargain.
Tom Wilhelmsen – RP
The Bartender pitched his way out of the closer role and to the minor leagues in 2013, but he rebounded nicely holding down a spot in the Seattle bullpen this year. Wilhelmsen was used for multiple innings on numerous occasions and even started two games in the second half. He wasn’t stretched out for those starts, but the Mariners let him throw at least 50 pitches in an outing three times leading to speculation that he could be a starting option at some point in 2015. That remains to be seen, but Wilhelmsen will have AL-only value if he’s simply able to repeat his 2014.
Danny Farquhar – RP
Lord Farquhar is the Mariners’ eighth inning guy and would likely take over for Rodney if anything were to change regarding his status as the closer. In two seasons with the Mariners, Farquhar has a 30.8 percent strikeout rate. He’s a sensible stash and will post solid ratios.
James Jones – OF
It’s unclear where Jones fits on the Mariners at the moment, but if he’s able to amass around 300 plate appearances again next year then he’ll likely have some value in “only” leagues again. Jones isn’t a target because of his lack of offensive game, but he stole 27 bases while only being caught once in 2014. That’ll play if you’re desperate enough for the speed.
Mike Zunino – C
This is a more interesting case than you might imagine, as Zunino is coming off a season in which he basically matched J.P. Arencibia’s 2013—the gold standard for inept catchers with power. No walks (3.6 percent walk rate), all the strikeouts (33 percent strikeout rate), and some homers. Zunino continued his free swinging habits, which were prevalent in the minors, and blasted 22 home runs with a paltry .194 AVG and the third lowest contact rate of AL players with 400 plate appearances. Seasons like this are so rare because teams generally replace a player struggling to that degree at the plate and yet Zunino will continue to receive a starter’s share of playing time because he’s a young player the Mariners hope will improve and they don’t have anybody else. He’ll drag down your batting average again, but there will be bombs.
Logan Morrison – 1B
The oft-injured Morrison once again missed time as a hamstring strain landed him on the disabled list before coming back in June, where he hit .262 with four home runs. He also woke up a bit in the second half and hit .284/.341/.448 with six home runs in 60 games. I assume the Mariners will at least look for a replacement this offseason as Morrison is arbitration eligible and his lack of durability makes him tough to count on. However, if he is the starting first basemen in 2015, he’ll hit some home runs and have some value in deeper formats.
Prospects for 2015
D.J. Peterson – 3B
Peterson isn’t necessarily knocking on the door of the major leagues just yet as he spent half of his 2014 at Double-A, but he’s a good enough prospect to be listed here in a weak system. Peterson can mash at the plate and has plus raw power. He might not stick at third base in the future, but his offensively profile will be enough to make a move to first base or corner outfield.
Jabari Blash – OF
Blash unfortunately made headlines this summer when he was suspended for 50 games after a second positive test for a drug of abuse in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. When he was on the field, at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, Blash hit .221/.347/.467 with 18 home runs in 82 games. The toolsy outfielder turns 26 next July.
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