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The Mariners' pitching staff could be their undoing

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Despite bullish projections, the Mariners are running a fine line with starting pitching and depth.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

After the Mariners narrowly missing the playoffs last season, the projections like them going in to the 2017 season. PECOTA currently projects them to win 87 games and get the first Wild Card spot in the American League. Similarly, FanGraphs has them tied for the second Wild Card spot with the Angels and Rangers. However, the Mariners’ less-than-stable foundation makes their odds pretty uncertain.

The Mariners boast a strong core of offensive players that is hard to ignore. The group is led by Kyle Seager. After posting 27.1 bWARP in his first five full seasons, he’s squarely placed himself among today’s best position players despite being somewhat underappreciated. Robinson Cano is the team’s other mainstay star. Even entering his age-34 season, Cano remains one of the best players at the keystone.

Seattle has also added Jean Segura to its star-studded infield. Segura has had a bit of an odd career arc. After being one of the worst hitters in the league in 2015, he bumped his TAv by 83 points to .300 and had a breakout offensive season. PECOTA is not necessarily as bullish on him offensively — even his 90th percentile projection only has him at .276. However, Segura’s exceptional speed and solid contact skills help define his profile and generate that 3.7-bWARP projection. Finally, Nelson Cruz provides the overwhelming power profile in the middle of the lineup. The most kind description of Cruz is that of an offensive star. It’s no secret that Cruz lacks much of anything outside of what he provides at the plate. Thankfully, though, he no longer has to stretch his skills, making him a solid all-around player.

The Mariners’ offseason, after acquiring the likes of Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, and Segura, left them looking reminiscent of those AL Champion Royals teams. Dyson — himself a member of those squads — is lightning fast. That’s no secret. Even projecting him to come to the plate only 496 times, PECOTA still has him as a 60-steal player. In addition to that value on the basepaths, the Mariners hope to maximize his skills as a plus defender with a regular platoon role.

Haniger hasn’t been in the big leagues long; however, his upper-minors performance has people feeling bullish on his 2017 season. To add to the defense Dyson and Leonys Martin provide, Haniger moves to a corner spot from his home in center field, which presumptively helps his overall defensive profile with less ground to cover. The outfield in Seattle — like the one in Kansas City — should swallow up most of the fly balls it sees.

Overall, this strategy of adding speed allows the M’s to add another wrinkle to their offensive game. On top of that, the defensive push — which adds to the quality fielding that the likes of Seager, Zunino, and Martin have provided — helps their pitching play up and maximize the pitcher-friendly nature of their ballpark.

When you look at the Mariners’ pitching, it’s no surprise why they feel the need to supplement it with a defensive focus.

Felix Hernandez was the constant for Seattle for many years. His insanely consistent, high level performance almost single-handedly put the Mariners in a position to break the postseason drought more than a few times. However, he finally began to show cracks in his age-30 season. The year was his worst of his career by DRA standards. Hernandez posted an uninspiring 3.78 DRA that leads him to a projected 2.2-pWARP season for 2017. That said, his durability and skill base at least lend him to be a solid rotation piece despite a perceived downturn in his value.

Hisashi Iwakuma is another former top-of-the-rotation piece that hit a bit of the skids last year. After having a deal fall through with the Dodgers due to concerns with his physical, Iwakuma re-signed with the Mariners. It’s easy to see why L.A. passed up on Iwakuma. In 2016, his velocity continued to dip. His four-seamer, which he used over 23 percent of the time, saw a large drop of over 1 mph. Iwakuma had never been a particularly hard thrower, but at a point something has got to give. With a career-worst 4.52 DRA last year, he certainly seems to have reached that point. So the question for him is how long can he both stay healthy and stay (relatively) effective.

The most promising piece of the rotation is James Paxton. The former top prospect really showed what brought him that hype this past season. He flourished on the mound with an above-average strikeout rate and an incredible walk rate around 4.5 percent. He also looks to be a huge beneficiary of improved defense, because he was not particularly good — or bad, for that matter — at inducing soft contact.

The problem with Paxton is that he’s never thrown more than 121 MLB innings in a single season. This inning progression is a part of any young pitcher’s timeline, and Paxton did handle the workload of over 170 innings between MLB and AAA last season. But there still remains that uncertainty of whether Paxton can maintain performance levels across that span in the Major Leagues.

The fourth slot in their rotation poses some recurring questions for the Mariners. After pitching a career high 153 innings in 2014, Drew Smyly had a very injury-plagued 2015. With a tear in his labrum, he sat out and rehabbed it without surgery, came back successfully at the end of the year, and pitched well. In 2016, however, he faced some difficulties. His strikeout dipped by almost six percentage points, and he wasn’t able to make up for it elsewhere. Despite that, he still threw over 170 innings and was a 2.5-pWARP pitcher, which is what you’d like to see out of your #4 guy. But can the Mariners weather the storm if something goes wrong even with Smyly?

Based on the players the M’s have behind him, I’m not confident they can. The final spot of their rotation is essentially emblematic of the Mariners’ overarching issue. Yovani Gallardo was bad last season. After posting both an ERA and DRA over five, Gallardo barely clocked in over replacement level at 0.3 pWARP. For some reason, the Mariners sent platoon specialist Seth Smith to the Orioles for Gallardo and part of his contract. Instead of signing one of the available arms such as Jason Hammel, the Mariners opted for the warm body that’s capable of throwing 150 subpar innings.

Behind Gallardo, the Mariners don’t have much else. They have essentially no pitching prospects, unless you count Max Povse. Instead, they possess a cadre of mediocre, at best, arms. The group of Ariel Miranda, Rob Whalen, Chris Heston, and Dillon Overton combined for 115 innings last year. Miranda made up the majority of that, throwing 58 innings for the M’s and Orioles. Miranda started 10 games for the Mariners and did well by an RA-9 measure, but his DRA- sat just above 110. He may be the most acceptable spot starter of the group. It’s understandably hard to imagine the Mariners persevering if any one of their top four starters went down.

By most measures, the playoff hopes in Seattle rest on the laurels of guys like Cano and Seager. But, they may also fall on the health and consistency of each individual arm in a mediocre staff.