Saying the Mariners are in rebuild mode is more than a little redundant at this point. A torrid start to 2018 ultimately became an 89 win season that managed to be little more than a disappointment to fans. That disappointment was clearly felt by the front office as well, as the decision was made to gut the team of as many aged, expensive players as possible, and shift toward a nucleus of young, mostly untested players, hoping to strike gold in the near future. Jerry Dipoto has said that the Mariners intend to give as much playing time to young players as possible this season. With that intention came a laundry list of players finding new homes. Those names include Mike Zunino, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, Alex Colome, James Paxton, and more, while Nelson Cruz was lost to free agency. The returns for these transactions brought the Mariners farm system out of the cellar and placed it firmly in the middle, with additions like Jarred Kelenic, Justus Sheffield, and J.P. Crawford, but also resulted in the big club taking a step back, in preparation to contend in the next few years. The Mariners will be kicking off the 2019 season against the A’s on Wednesday, and the travel roster was announced a few days ago. Here is who they are taking with them, and an idea of what the lineup will look like for Game 1.
- Mitch Haniger – CF
- Domingo Santana – RF
- Edwin Encarnacion – DH
- Jay Bruce – 1B
- Ryon Healy – 3B
- Omar Narvaez – C
- Ichiro – LF
- Tim Beckham – SS
- Dee Gordon – 2B
- Braden Bishop – OF
- Dylan Moore – IF
- Daniel Vogelbach – 1B
- David Freitas – C
- Jose Lobaton – C
- Marco Gonzales – LHP
- Yusei Kikuchi – LHP
- Mike Leake – RHP
- Wade LeBlanc – LHP
- Felix Hernandez – RHP
- Tommy Milone – LHP
- Roenis Elias – LHP
- Zac Rosscup – LHP
- Matt Festa – RHP
- Nick Rumbelow – RHP
- Dan Altavilla – RHP
- Cory Gearrin – RHP
- Shawn Armstrong – RHP
- Brandon Brennan – RHP
- Chasen Bradford – RHP
- Hunter Strickland – RHP (CL)
While 30 players going to Japan, two will be cut before the start of the series, as there are only 28 available spots on the roster for the Japan series. In addition, the roster for each game can only have 25 players on it, but the roster can be reset between the first and second game. They will then have to cut three more players to get their 25-man roster before their home opener on March 28 against the Red Sox. The names I expect to be cut by Opening Day are:
- Tommy Milone
- Jose Lobaton
- Matt Festa
- Brandon Brennan
Ichiro will be with the team in Japan, and the expectation is that he will start at least one game. That game is set to be game 1, as it was announced by Greg Johns on Saturday that Ichiro will start in left field. The likelihood that Ichiro will be on the 25-man roster after the team comes home remains a question. Ichiro is a legend in Seattle, but his Spring Training batting average of .091 is dismal at best, and the mission of the Mariners this season is to devote as much playing time to young players as possible. Putting a 45 year old that now struggles to make contact in the lineup flies directly in the face of that goal. There’s a non-zero chance he uses the stage in Japan to announce his retirement from Major League Baseball, but the possibility also remains that he gets to stay on the roster when the M’s come home, and receive a ceremonial farewell from the Seattle crowd. This possibility hinges on the health of Mallex Smith more than anything, and the club has said that they have drawn no conclusions yet. Tommy Milone is making the trip to Japan as some insurance starting depth and may see time in the exhibition games that will be played in Tokyo, but he will not be on the roster on March 28. The bullpen cuts are harder to get a grip on. It’s likely it’ll be two right handers that go down, as the bullpen is very right hand heavy, and axing one of the two lefties would hamstring an already weak Seattle bullpen. The relievers who are pitching for jobs are Festa, Brennen, and Rumbelow.
The Mariners will start the season with a few injuries. The eagle eyed reader probably noticed a certain Kyle Seager was not mentioned in the above roster. Surgery on his broken knuckle will leave him sidelined likely into June. Seager had put in serious work during the off-season, trimming weight with a completely new workout regiment. Seager’s 2018 campaign was less than stellar; his .221/.273/.400 line doing little to help the Mariners offesne. The off-season work seemed like it had been effective, until an awkward dive for a ball in spring training resulted in a shortened redemption season. Also due back in June is hard throwing reliever Sam Tuivailala, who had surgery on his right Achilles in August. Another hard throwing reliever could return as soon mid-March. Gerson Bautista suffered a right pectoral strain throwing a pitch during a spring training game, dropping to his knees and clutching at his chest in pain. But it seems the injury was not as bad as originally anticipated and he could be back before the calendar turns to April. Lastly, center fielder Mallex Smith strained his right elbow before the start of spring training. He hopes to be healthy by the start of the Mariners home opener against the Red Sox, where he would likely start in center field. Outfielder Braden Bishop, whose excellent spring training caught the attention of Mariners management, will likely be sent down to make room for Smith on the 25-man roster.
The starting rotation has gone through a pretty significant shake-up going into 2019. Only one name is different than 2018, but another name has been moved from his familiar spot, Felix Hernandez. Deep breath Mariner fans, we’re going to get through this. Felix was informed early last week that he would not get the opening day start that has been all but guaranteed to him for the last 10 years, a streak that he was very proud of. When asked to describe how he felt about having his streak broken, he declined to comment. Felix is on the final year of his 7 year, $175 million contract that was signed after the 2012 season. But Felix is not the same as he was when signed that contract, and the management personnel that offered him that contract are not the same as the management personnel that decide when he gets to pitch now. His decline has been well documented since it began in 2016, the first full season of Jerry Dipoto at GM and Scott Servais at head coach. When Dipoto and Servais stepped in, no one knew that Felix’s best days were behind him, and no one could’ve expected that the decline would be this brutal. From 2016 to 2017 the management duo handled Felix with respect, acknowledging that no matter what the result, Felix was their guy and that he was going to pitch as long as he was healthy. Fast forward to August 10, 2018, and Felix’s run as the dominant starter of yesteryear was well and truly over. Felix was demoted to the bullpen for a short while, making a single relief appearance, before being brought back to the rotation shortly afterward. The demotion did not sit well with Felix, and it was a clear marker of the relationship between Felix, Dipoto and Servais starting to turn sour. When asked during spring training about whether Felix would be a starter this year, Dipoto said, “he will get the ball every fifth day”, and left it at that. Marco Gonzales was announced to be the starter for game 1 in Japan, as well as the starter for the home opener against Boston, showing that the Mariners are not willing to appease Felix any longer, and will from now on treat Felix on his current accomplishments, and not his past ones. Felix’s first start of the season will not come until game 1 of the series against the Angels on April 1, firmly implanting him as the fifth starter in the Mariners rotation.
What it all amounts to going into 2019 is a beleaguered hometown hero, who has lost his velocity and his control to the ravages of time, as well as workload. Felix is only 33 years old, but has been pitching since 2005 when he debuted at the age of 19, accruing 2655.2 innings in that time. The whole while pitching for Mariners teams that did not contend, and teams that did not support him with runs. He won a Cy Young award in 2010, threw a perfect game in 2012, and earned an entire section of the Safeco Field stands devoted to cheering hardest for him when he pitched at home. Now though, Felix is tired, his stuff is nowhere near what it used to be and he cannot hit his spots. The organization has given him plenty of opportunities to try to find different ways to contend, and he has not made the effort. It almost seems like for most of spring he was not fighting for a spot, instead just going out to the mound because that is what he is paid to do, not because he wants to.
Felix still wants to pitch in the Major Leagues, but if he keeps pitching after this season, it will not be in Seattle. The relationship has broken down too far, and a chance exists that Felix will not be pitching with the Mariners by the end of this season. As far as the front office and Felix are concerned, the sooner this partnership is over, the better it is for everyone. If Felix can pull together a decent enough season the Mariners may be able to trade him for a nominal return, something they would be all to happy to do, and Felix would surely be all to happy to wave his no-trade clause for. It is in the best interest for both parties for Felix to dig deep and try to pull together some success, but this might end up being a big, ugly lose-lose.
On the flip side of Felix is young lefty Marco Gonzales. Gonzales will be the starter in both the season opener in Japan, and the home opener against the Red Sox. Marco has worked hard to earn these roles and could not be happier about getting the opportunity. When Marco was drafted by the Cardinals, very few anticipated he would one day be getting opening day starts, and while that may be viewed as a condemnation of the Mariners starting rotation, it is also a reflection of how highly he is viewed by the Mariners coaching staff. In 29 starts in 2018, he put up a 4.00 ERA, but don’t let that number fool you. The 27-year old has fully bought into the Mariners goal of controlling the strike zone. In 2018, he walked only 32 batters, while striking out 145 in 166.2 innings. He, as well as the rest of the Mariners pitching staff will be pounding the strike zone this season, looking to stay ahead in counts. While Marco may not be a bona fide ace, he will be the one pitching against Chris Sale on March 28, and the Mariners are excited to see what he can do as the new number 1.
Yusei Kikuchi has arrived. After the Mariners front office failed to convince Shohei Ohtani to come to Seattle, they tried their hand with the next Japanese phenom, this time succeeding. Kikuchi is a crafty left hander who wickedly hides the ball behind his back leg before delivering it to the plate. A mid-90’s fastball and a wicked curveball are his feature pitches, and he has shown in spring training just how devastatingly effective they can be. Kikuchi has a great deal of Japanese media following him for now to chronicle his first season in the MLB, just as Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and Shohei Ohtani did before him. The pressure from home always combines with the pressures of the big leagues, and Kikuchi will have to work through this to be successful. If he can manage that, it may well be that YK is the true ace of this staff. Just watch the way he works back from a 2-0 hole against Joey Votto in his first spring training start, only to work back quickly and fool Votto horribly with a 2-2 curve.
Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc round out the rest of the rotation. Leake is entering his ninth season, LeBlanc his eleventh. Leake is 31, and LeBlanc will turn 35 this season. Neither are blow away pitchers, but instead rely on their use of the strike zone and their ability to spot their pitches in order to collect outs. Leake is the righty, who started 31 games for the Mariners last year, earning a 4.36 ERA and striking out 119 batters, while LeBlanc started 27 with a 3.72 ERA. Leake was inserted into the 3rd spot of the rotation in order to break up the three lefties in the rotation, and is capable of eating up innings, which is good when the Mariners bullpen is what it is. LeBlanc is the elder statesman of the Mariners pitching staff, and his 40 walks last year was the most he has allowed since 2010, but he is still able to spot his pitches where he wants them, and the Mariners goal of controlling the strike zone seems to resonate with him. Mike and Wade will work together out of the middle of the rotation to chew up innings and keep the bullpen as rested as possible.
Moving on to the position players. Mitch Haniger is coming off an All-Star year, hitting .285 with 26 homeruns and 93 RBIs, and he is looking to build. The Mariners spent all off-season listening to trade offers on pretty much every member of the team, and Dipoto has said that teams asked about Haniger, but weren’t able to offer enough to get the Mariners to part with him. At 28-years old, his career is young, but he has shown an aptitude for hitting anywhere in the lineup Servais puts him. He may well be hitting leadoff in the Japan series, but expect to see most of his at-bats coming from the second or third spot. Mallex Smith is expected to take over the leadoff spot when he returns from his elbow injury, as well as centerfield, allowing Haniger to return to his more natural right field position. Expect big things from Haniger in 2019, including plenty of big dingers, and gap splitting doubles.
A different power-hitting right hander is a little more surprising to see still with the team. Edwin Encarnacion was brought to Seattle in part exchange for 1B Carlos Santana. When Edwin arrived, the prevailing sense was that he would likely never even put on a Mariners uniform. When asked about the likelihood of Encarnacion playing for the Mariners in 2019 after he was acquired, Assistant GM Tom Hollander said, “we’ll see where the market takes us,” and apparently it took them nowhere. As a result, Encarnacion is still with the Mariners as Opening Day inches closer. The potential lineup for the opener in Japan has Encarnacion hitting third, but clean-up is where he will get the bulk of his at-bats, and likely as a DH. At 36 years old, Encarnacion is still a near guarantee for 30 homeruns and 100 RBIs. The Mariners will likely look to shop him when the trade deadline approaches, as contending teams may need to add some pop.
With Robinson Cano now in Queens, the second base job in Seattle is officially Dee Gordon’s. Dee played most of the season there on the heels of Cano’s suspension, and showed off a flashy glove and a lot of range. Dee’s offense in 2018 was not as solid as it has been in past years, but he is still a fan favorite in Seattle. Dee struggled to get on base for most of the season, as free swinging tendencies showed themselves. Dee hit .268 with a .288 OBP. The .288 is what the Mariners and Dee set out to fix during spring training and it seemed to work. During the 2018 season, Dee walked 9 times. In spring training, Dee walked 5 times. Mentioned earlier was the Mariners intentions to control the strike zone. This is being applied to hitters as well, and Dee seems to be listening. A more patient Dee Gordon is coming to Seattle, and if he starts hitting like he did in 2015 or 2017, he could retake the leadoff spot. Dee’s speed on the base paths is still just as game-changing as it has always been, and with a second speedster on the team in Mallex Smith, the Mariners may be running a lot in 2019.
Alright I’ve mentioned this Mallex Smith guy several times now so let’s talk about him. This is actually Mallex Smith’s second go around as a Mariner, as in 2017 he was traded from Atlanta to Seattle, spent about 77 minutes here, and then was flipped to Tampa Bay for Drew Smyly. Now he is back, and has been here for much longer than 77 minutes. Someone else can do the math, I don’t feel like it. Mallex can play pretty much anywhere in the outfield, as his plus speed allows him to cover a lot of ground. His contact based approach has him looking like he will start in the leadoff spot when he returns from his elbow injury. At the plate he can stretch singles into doubles, and doubles into triples, as well as steal bases to get into scoring position for Haniger or Encarnacion. He led the American League with 10 triples in 2018, and had 40 stolen bases. Show me Smith and Gordon on base together, and I will show you a nervous pitcher.
Not many people expected Ryon Healy to be on the Mariners going into this season, but with Kyle Seager on the shelf until June, it is a good thing he is here. Healy will be taking over the hot corner for a while, a position he has played before, and with Healy being known so well for his solid defense at first, the Mariners feel comfortable moving him across the diamond for a couple months. His offense was not quite as consistent in 2018 as the Mariners might have been hoping for when they acquired him. His .235/.277.412 was a bit of a let down after his 2017 season with the A’s when he hit .271/.302/.451. Nevertheless, Healy will be starting at third, and the Mariners can still rely on him to hit 25 bombs, and drive in about 70 runs. Who knows? Maybe a move to third will be good for him.
With Mike Zunino going to Tampa Bay, there was a very large gap to be filled behind the plate in Seattle. Dipoto acquired Omar Narvaez in a trade that sent reliever Alex Colome to the White Sox. Narvaez is a bit different from Zunino. Where Zunino devoted most of his time to being a great backstop, and focused less on hitting, Narvaez is the opposite. Seattle acquired Narvaez knowing he can hit, as his line in 2018 was .275/.366/.429, and in 187 games between 2017 and 2018, he walked 76 times, which is only one walk fewer than Dee Gordon has in his last 523 games. The Mariners goal was to take a good, patient hitter, and teach him some of the finer points of catching that some long time Mariners pitchers came to trust from Zunino, pitch framing being a top priority. Narvaez is in a position to get his first full season of catching under his belt as a Mariner, and if he learns enough to be the capable catcher the Mariners want him to be, he may fit quite nicely into their future plans. Expect to see some flaws behind the plate that you might not be used to seeing in Seattle, but watch for any and all improvements, and just be happy we finally have a catcher whose average should stay comfortably far away from the Mendoza line.
Yet another new name on the Mariners roster is Domingo Santana. Arriving via trade from Milwaukee, Santana will be playing mostly left field for the Mariners. The Mariners hope that with enough playing time, Santana can replicate the offensive production he had in 2017. In 2017 he played in 151 games for the Brewers, hitting .278/.371/.505 with 30 bombs, 85 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, and 73 walks. He did not get nearly the same amount of big league playing time in 2018 or in any other season of his career, but with the Mariners that shouldn’t be the case again. Playing time for young players, you know the drill. It already looks like he’s back to his old ways. In spring this year he hit .400 with 4 homers and 9 RBIs. If the key to Santana’s success is something as simple as playing time, then Santana might just be a lock for an All-Star Game appearance in 2019.
Another new name! Are you sensing a pattern yet? Anyway, Jay Bruce is with the Mariners this season. Bruce has had an excellent spring, hitting .433 with 2 homeruns and a 1.252 OPS. Bruce is coming off a 2018 season where injuries kept him out for several weeks, playing in less than 100 games for the first time in his career. Before he was finally put on the DL, his health issues had hampered his ability to hit, and his offensive production was not the consistent brand of 25-30 bombs and 90-100 RBIs that he has become so well known for. But this spring he looks healthy and ready to go. Bruce is not one of the “young players” on the Mariners this season, but he will see plenty of time on the field, especially with Seager hurt and Healy moving to third means someone needs to play first. Bruce and Encarnacion may do a bit of sharing the DH spot for a little while, but expect most of Bruce’s time to be at first base this season.
Rounding out the lineup is new shortstop, Tim Beckham. Beckham signed a one year contract with the M’s in the off-season. Dipoto brought him in as veteran insurance at the position in case J.P. Crawford needed more time in Triple-A to develop. While Beckham will be starting the season at short, he can move around and play second or third if need be. Beckham can swing it as well. In 2017 he hit 22 home runs with 18 doubles and 5 triples. He can steal a base here and there, and is a nice piece to round out the Mariners lineup for the season.
The bench players the Mariners are going with this season may wind up seeing a decent amount of opportunities this season. Playing time for young players, we are all on the same page. First-baseman Daniel Vogelbach is a strong, long ball hitting prospect that many fans of the organization have been waiting to see get more time with the big club for a while. His 2018 numbers in Triple-A Tacoma were good enough to earn him a spot as a September call-up: .290/.434/.545 with 20 bombs and 60 RBIs. He can hit the ball real hard, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired. Most of his swings might come as a pinch hitter until his defense improves. Dylan Moore is a utility infielder who impressed the organization in spring and earned a spot on the Mariners roster going forward. Braden Bishop also had a strong spring and his ability as a defensive outfielder has caught the eye of the Mariners management. He may not remain on the 25 man roster when the club returns to Seattle, but he is excited to go to Japan, and will likely get some at-bats in the Mariners exhibition games. David Freitas will be the second catcher for the Mariners this season. He was the only catcher on the roster before Narvaez was acquired, and has the most experience with the Mariners pitching staff of any of the team’s catchers. He needs to find some offensive production, but he is the team’s best defensive catcher for the time being.
The Mariners bullpen in 2019 is pretty much the exact same it was in 2018. Just kidding! The Mariners sent Edwin Diaz, the best closer in baseball last season, to the Mets, and sent their setup man Alex Colome to the White Sox, and those were their two best relievers. Left behind was long reliever Roenis Elias, right-handers Chasen Bradford, Dan Altavilla, Nick Rumbelow, and Shawn Armstrong. Hunter Strickland was signed to the team and will be the team’s closer, and two others were added; lefty Zac Rosscup and righty Cory Gearrin. The bullpen is the clear weakness of the Mariners. The lineup will need to score a lot of runs to make any lead feel safe. Hunter Strickland is healthy after a back issue flared up in spring. He closed some games for the Giants in 2018, collecting 14 saves, but he is unlikely to be anywhere near the lights out closer for the Mariners that Diaz was last season. Roenis Elias started a couple games for the Mariners in 2018, but most of his work was out of the bullpen. A 2.65 ERA in 51 innings was pretty good, as he was consistent out of the pen for much of the season. He is one of only 2 southpaws in the Mariners bullpen this season, so he might see a heightened workload this year. Zac Rosscup is the only other lefty. He has 5 years in the majors but only 65.2 innings of work to show for it and a career 5.21 ERA. But he has swing-and-miss type stuff, shown by his 87 career strikeouts. Chasen Bradford pitched with the Mariners last year to the tune of a 3.69 ERA in 53.2 innings, but his control is a bit of a concern still, as he hit 5 batters in 2018. Dan Altavilla pitched only 20.2 innings in 2018, but he walked 15 batters to only 23 strikeouts. The Mariners want to control the strike zone this year, and walking batters is not something they want their pitchers to do. Altavilla will be expected to keep more of his pitches in the zone this season. Shawn Armstrong will be looking to get more innings in 2019, as he only has 58 since his debut in 2015.
The bullpen could get better as the season goes on. A few of the Mariners injuries exist in the bullpen. Gerson Bautista and Sam Tuivailala are hard throwers whose returns would bring a bump in velocity to the Mariners. Anthony Swarzak was acquired from the Mets in the Cano trade, but he missed most of spring with a shoulder issue, and only recently started pitching off a mound. These returns could help fill some gaps in the pen as the season progresses.
There are no expectations of a playoff berth for the Mariners in 2019, with most projections showing the Mariners around the 70-75 win mark. However, there is a lot to be watchful for. Improvement and consistency from the young core of players that the Mariners hope to take with them into the future is the key to how soon this team can contend. The Felix situation will be an unpleasant cloud hanging over the season, but keeping careful eyes on players’ development in the lower levels can keep fans hopeful for what the future might hold. If the rebuild works the way Jerry Dipoto envisions it, then the days of Mariners fans being among the most tortured in baseball may soon be just a bad memory, but it needs time to unfold. The longest playoff drought in North American sports will get another year longer, but there is a light on the horizon.