2014 Team Preview: Seattle Mariners

Otto Greule Jr

The Mariners aren't likely to be in the chase the American League West crown, but if the dominoes fall their way, they could sneak up on some teams.

One of the bigger storylines of the offseason was whether the Seattle Mariners were going to do, well, something. While many free agents have spurned them in previous offseasons, and for a while, it looked like they would this offseason, this year was different. The Mariners finally caught the big fish.

The addition of Robinson Cano highlights a fairly long list of new faces in Seattle. Corey Hart and Fernando Rodney, among others, also joined on. We'll detail more of the new faces in a bit.

But, here's another big question: Did the Mariners do enough? Sure, the team paid Cano a pretty penny, but many believed that the Cano signing marked just the outset of a stream of moves. It didn't. Seattle didn't add a front line starter. No David Price. No Jeff Samardzija. No Ervin Santana. Go down the list. And now, with Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma both likely out for at least the first couple of weeks of the regular season, the team's choice not to add a pitcher or two is looking more and more questionable.

Nonetheless, let's dive in.

2013 Season In Review

With a 71-91 record, the Mariners finished in fourth place for the third consecutive season. But thanks to the lowly Astros, the Mariners can't call a fourth-place finish a "last-place finish." For whatever that's worth, and I'm guessing it's not much.

There were, however, a handful of bright spots. How about Hisashi Iwakuma's emergence to a four-win pitcher? Felix Hernandez did Felix Hernandez things by pitching to a 6.0 fWAR, sixth-best among all qualified starters in 2013. On the offensive side, Kyle Seager mustered a solid 3.2 fWAR and Brad Miller had a 1.7 fWAR in just 335 plate appearances.

Those were some bright spots, but the overall record speaks for itself, so let's end on that and start looking ahead.

Key Offseason Moves

Signed Robinson Cano for 10 years, $240 million

This, obviously, was the big fish--for the Mariners specifically and among all free-agent signings. How could it not be when $200+ million plus is being tossed around? And sure, you can quibble with the 10 years. You could also make a case that Cano's money could have been better allocated. But every deal carries some sort of risk, with some carrying more than others. In this case, Cano isn't likely to justify his contract on the back-end of the contract, but he'll provide plenty of short-term value.

And in the short-term, Cano should improve a Mariners' offense that was baseball's 11th-worst in 2013, posting a measly 92 wRC+. Not only will Cano bolster that number, but his presence at second base makes the incumbent Nick Franklin expendable. Perhaps he's trade bait for a starter, or at least some meaningful return, as he is a valuable asset.

Signed Fernando Rodney for two years, $14 million

The Mariners' bullpen mustered a 3.79 FIP in 2013, tying them with the Indians for baseball's 11th-worst mark. Mixed in, however, there were a couple of positives: Danny Farquhar pitched to a 1.86 FIP (fourth-best mark in MLB). Southpaw Charlie Furbush had a 3.06 FIP. So, naturally, Rodney pushes both down on the depth chart, creating more flexibility and, more importantly, quality depth.

Seattle Mariners By the Numbers

There were a few candidates for this honor--or dishonor, should I say. But I chose to pick on the Mariners' atrocious outfield defense, which probably isn't going to improve much in 2014.

So, the plain number: -58.8, the Mariners' outfield UZR

Yeah, pretty bad indeed. League-worst by a significant margin, in fact. But when it comes to the "surprise factor" of that number, well, I wasn't shocked. Think about it: the Mariners had Raul Ibanez (-17.1 outfield UZR) and Michael Morse (-12.8) roaming the outfield on a somewhat regular basis (not so much Morse), with semi-bad defensive efforts by Michael Saunders (-4.2), Dustin Ackley (-7.0) and Endy Chavez (-7.4). Expecting anything better than "bad" would have been a bit too optimistic. Instead of bad, though, it was more of a hot mess.

But that was 2013, and 2014 should produce better results, right? Well, slow your horses. Yes, Ibanez and Morse are gone, but Corey Hart  or  Logan Morrison will replace one of the vacant outfield spots, and going from Ibanez/Morse to Hart/Morrison hardly qualifies as an upgrade. Both have wobbly sets of knees and both don't have very good defensive track records as outfielders.

Elsewhere, MLB Depth Charts has Saunders slated to patrol center field, which isn't the worst possible situation. Perhaps he settles right into the neutral zone--not bad, but not good, which is conceivable, given that 2013 was a bit of an outlier. He was a plus center fielder in 2010 and 2011, and he was barely a negative center fielder in 2012 before mustering an outlandish -9.6 center field UZR in 2013. The Mariners would surely settle for something in between.

And finally, Ackley is projected to man left field. He's not an Alex Gordon-like defensive whiz, but he'll hold down the fort adequately.

Now, there are a couple of potential wrinkles to the projections at MLB Depth Charts. Small ones, but ones still worth noting.

First, it's a real possibility that Abraham Almonte breaks camp as a starter. Yes, the same Abraham Almonte that, as of this writing, has a .222 OBP in 63 spring plate appearances. But manager Lloyd McClendon basically told Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune that the numbers are a deceiving representation of Almonte's spring, and that the 24-year-old could very well break camp as the team's leadoff hitter--and, by my speculation, their starting center fielder.

The impact on the team's outfield defense, you ask? Probably nothing too substantial. Saunders would likely move to left. He's no defensive whiz, though, neither is Ackley, who would be pushed to the bench.

But then again, defensive stats can be tricky to judge, and with Almonte, we only have a total of 167.2 innings to analyze. The numbers (-2 Defensive Runs Saved, -2.4 UZR) in those 167.2 innings aren't great, but he might be significantly better than that one-year sample size. So I'll hold off on any further comments for now.

The second wrinkle: Kendrys Morales returns, which I'm hesitant to rule out. Before news broke that Hart would get most of his at-bats at DH for the start of the season, MLB Depth Charts had Logan Morrison penciled in as the designated hitter--in line with Dutton's report that the team had no plans to play him in the outfield. But with Hart temporarily limited to DH (or permanently, who knows), MLB Depth Charts projects Morrison to be Seattle's right fielder.

But if Morales returned, he would DH, which would create a sticky situation if Hart's various ailments prevented him from playing in the field, especially if Hart was swinging the bat well. Sure, one possible alternative involves Justin Smoak struggling and Morales playing first, allowing Hart to remain at DH.

Either way, the puzzle gets even more complicated with Morales in the fold, and it's not something worth dwelling over at this point in time, because Morales is still a free agent, not a Mariner.

So, should we expect to see any defensive improvement from the Mariners' outfield in 2014? I doubt it. There are a lot of pieces--Hart, Morrison, Ackley, Saunders and Almonte, among others--just no defensive studs. Sure, there are combinations that would be better than others--all of those combinations don't include Hart and Morrison, in case you were wondering. Another option would be to mix-and-match depending on the day's starting pitcher, pairing the best defensive outfield--Saunders, Ackley and Almonte--with a fly-ball pitcher. We could go on and on with potential solutions.

But to reiterate: it's tough to imagine a scenario in which we could call the Mariners' outfield defense "good" or even "average.

One to Watch - Corey Hart

Sure, all eyes will be on Robinson Cano, but Robinson Cano is probably going to keep doing Robinson Cano things--at least for the next few years. So let me steer your attention to Corey Hart.

We've already discussed his defense, which, with a wobbly right knee and an already "meh" defensive track record, I'm less than bullish about. But the Mariners surely didn't take a flyer on his defense; they took a flyer on his offense, which isn't a bad gamble.

Since he started garnering regular at-bats in 2007, Hart has been a below-average hitter just once--in this case, "below average" means a wRC+ south of 100. And we're not talking about wRC+'s in the low 100's. His peak (2010-12) saw him post a 130 wRC+, 29th-best mark in baseball during that span. That sandwiched him between David Wright and Joe Mauer. I'll say that that is some good company.

The point: Hart should still be able to hit. He did so in 2012 when he was coming off March knee surgery. That isn't to say that he'll mash the ball coming off a second surgery on the same knee (or maybe he will), but Steamer sees the 31-year-old hitting to the tune of a decent 114 wRC+ in 2014. ZiPS is considerably less optimistic (99 wRC+).

Maybe there's an in between, or maybe Hart goes above and beyond. But, if he stays healthy (obviously a big "if"), the Mariners should be able to squeeze some offensive production out of Hart's bat. How much? That's something to watch.

2014 Outlook

The American League West is a tough division. To put a ranking on that assessment, I refer you to this handy graph courtesy of Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs. I'm not going to display it here, but here's all you need to know: only the AL East and NL West are projected to be better divisions. The AL West is no walk in the park.

So another fourth-place finish for the Mariners isn't out of the question, and that's where FanGraphs' projected standings place them, but there is a bit of good news: the gap between third place and fourth place shouldn't be nearly as large. Again, using FanGraphs' projected standings, we find that the Rangers are projected to finish in third place with 85 wins. The A's and Angels are both at 86. The Mariners are at 83. So while "fourth place" doesn't have a nice ring to it, the gap isn't big, and It should be much closer than it was 2013. With a couple of surprising seasons from the list of question marks, perhaps the Mariners sneak up on some teams.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Depth chart/roster notes courtesy of MLB Depth Charts

Jake Dal Porto is a Featured writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.

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