Nobody has backed up the definition of putting their stamp on their team like Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto. DiPoto has built a reputation as one of the game's up and coming executive though he dealt with an uncomfortable situation at his last job in Los Angeles. DiPoto has been big on analytics. A philosophical difference between him and manager Mike Scioscia led to his resignation from the Angels. One of DiPoto's first decisions was to replace manager Lloyd McClendon with longtime aide Scott Servais. The Mariners then signed free agent outfielder Norichika Aoki (.287 batting average, 5 home runs, 26 runs batted in, .733 on base plus slugging in 93 games) to a contract to be the team's everyday left fielder. Aoki has been the definition of consistent as in his four big league seasons he has finished with batting averages of .288, .286, .285, .287, respectively, which by itself, is amazing. DiPoto then set out on a series of trades to acquire first baseman Adam Lind (.277, 20, 87, .820), center fielder Leonys Martin (.219, 5, 25, .576) and catcher Chris Iannetta (.188, 10, 34, .628). DiPoto also acquired two starting pitchers, Boston Red Sox left hander Wade Miley (11 wins, 11 losses, 4.46 earned run average, 147 strikeouts, just less than 194 innings pitched) and Tampa Bay Rays right handed pitcher Nate Karns (7-5, 3.67, 145, 147). Completing the overhaul, the Mariners traded for right handed relievers Joaquin Benoit (6-5, 2.34, 63, just over 65 with the San Diego Padres) and Evan Scribner (2-2, 4.35, 64, 60 with the Oakland Athletics and signed free agents Steve Cishek (2-6, 3.58, 4 saves, 48, just over 55 with the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals) and Joel Peralta (3-1, 4.34, 24, 29 with the Los Angeles Dodgers).
The Mariners return three huge core pieces in 2016, including second baseman Robinson Cano (.287, 21, 89, .779). Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (18-9, 3.53, 191, just less than 202) continues to be one of the best in all of baseball. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz (.302, 44, 93, .936) continues to defy the odds by finishing with career highs in runs scored, hits, on base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases at age 34.
Cano and Cruz are joined by third baseman Kyle Seager (.266, 26, 74, .779). This will constitute the middle of the order, though the addition of Lind will help out a lot. Outfielder Seth Smith (.248, 12, 42, .773) can be a wild card in the potency of the Mariners offense. If he can take his game up a level, which scouts have always said he has the ability to, as an offensive player, the Mariners lineup got a little deeper. Smith has had as good of a spring as any player in the sport, hitting over .500 with 20 spring training hits. Shortstop Ketel Marte (.283, 2, 17, .753) takes over everyday with incumbent Brad Miller dealt to the Rays in the Karns deal. Marte is a strong defender with an ability to be a solid hitter in regards to average, though he does not possess much power. The lineup I would go with would be Aoki LF, Marte SS, Cano 2B, Cruz DH, Lind 1B, Seager 3B, Smith RF, Iannetta C, Martin CF.
The Mariners do not have much of an expanded or deep bench. However, catcher Steve Clevenger (.287, 2, 15, .740) served as a quality backup catcher for the Baltimore Orioles last season and may be able to balance out the offensive handicapped Iannetta. Infielder Luis Sardinas is in from Milwaukee and can play shortstop, second and third base. Veteran Franklin Gutierrez (.292, 15, 25, .974) is back with the Mariners after putting up solid numbers last season. The so called center fielder of the future has played the role of the figure in the game of operation, as injuries have threatened to ruin his career. Waiver pickup Dan Robertson is also another option for the bench, as is non roster invitees Ed Lucas and Mike Baxter.
The Mariners biggest strength will be their starting pitching, led by Hernandez and veteran Hisashi Iwakuma (9-5, 3.54, 111, just less than 130). Left hander James Paxton (3-4, 3.90, 13 starts, 67 IP) was on the rise in 2014, but injuries plagued his 2015. Though he has had a rough spring, it seems as if he is in the right health to make an impact in the rotation. His presence may not initially be needed with the addition of Miley and Karns. The Mariners have also been waiting for right hander Taiwan Walker (11-8, 4.56, 157, just under 170) for a while now, but there seemed to be signs last season that the former top prospect has finally turned the corner. Karns gives the team a solid one through five, with left hander Mike Montgomery (4-6, 4.60, 16 starts, 90 innings) likely to play the role as long reliever. Perhaps Paxton is in the same role, but I expect to see Paxton to get his share of starts. I would not even rule out Seattle going to a six man rotation for a short period of time.
The Mariners bullpen is the one part of this team that has over gone a major overhaul. Cishek will serve as the closer, with Benoit and Peralta serving as the bridge. Left hander Charlie Furbush (1-1, 2.08, 33 games, just less than 22 IP) will miss the start of the season and is extremely valued, leaving lefty Vidal Nuno (1-5, 3.74, 81 Ks, 89 IP) as a pitcher the Mariners will expect a lot out of. Scribner should be back by the end of April. Look for the Mariners to use Tony Lych, Donn Roach and Casey Coleman to hold temporary spot until Scribner, Furbush and Montgomery are used as the last three relievers. Of course, there is no sign that any Mariners starting pitcher (knock on wood) will miss opening day, so the longtime Royals and Rays prospect is ticketed to start the season in Seattle's bullpen.
Top prospect Alex Jackson needs probably another season or two in the minor to develop. He should be watched this season as a player who can break out in the minors. He is clearly looked as a regular outfielder for the Mariners in the future. Infielder DJ Peterson is another to watch in the same way. Shortstop Drew Jackson hit .356 last season and could get a little bit of a more serious look this season. Right hander Edwin Diaz may be on the horizon for a September call up after averaging over a strikeout an inning. On the major league roster, look for Marte to take a big step and be a solid MLB regular shortstop by the end of the season.
I liked the Mariners last season and was proven wrong, mostly because of injuries to Iwakuma and Paxton. Both have returned and the team did add Karns, which gives the Mariners one of the most underrated starting rotations in all of baseball. The biggest question, which I have asked about many teams, is how the new pieces will work out together. The Mariners have brought in a lot of new players, most of whom have never played together before. I like the fact that most players brought are of the complementary variety, meaning the three most impact full players are looked at as being figure heads in the clubhouse. The use of analytic stats led by DiPoto and Servais fit pretty well with the influx of players brought in. I can see the Mariners taking a big step from the 76 win season of a year ago. Las Vegas puts the Mariners at 83 wins for their over/ under, so I think odds makers are seeing a similar improvement. I have the Mariners doing even better than that, finishing at 89-73, first place in the American League West division. I pick the Mariners because of their talent but also because the lack of a front runner in the division and my predicted digressions (albeit temporary in some cases) of the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, and Angels.