Abraham Almonte's ineffectiveness and injuries to Corey Hart and Justin Smoak have paved the way for Endy Chavez to be Seattle's DH and leadoff hitter. Chavez is a career bench player who is hitting adequately in 2014 at age 36 following two consecutive poor seasons. The improvement is attributable to a strikeout rate below 8 percent. Chavez is a bit miscast as a top-of-the-order hitter, but you could do worse with a stopgap in the Mariners' current situation. His brother's name is Ender. Endy and Ender. Huh.
The other benefactor of Abraham Almonte's ineffecitveness has been James Jones, one of the Mariners' outfield prospects. Jones has been handling center field for Seattle and while he's a little stretched there, he holds his own. He's racked up 17 steals already for Seattle while hitting for a high average out of the second slot in the order. While some power is expected from his 6'4'' frame, Jones has yet to go deep on the big stage.
Robinson Cano has been a good, productive hitter for the Mariners this season. The problem is that they're paying him to be much better than a good, productive hitter, particularly in these early seasons of his 10-year, $240 million deal. It was to be expected that Cano's power would drop off a bit upon moving from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field, but the slugger has just six home runs as we turn the calendar to July. The spray chart paints a particularly concerning picture. That's a lot of grounders, and when Cano does get some lift on the ball, he's not hitting it to his pull field.
Kyle Seager is in the midst of a breakout season. While a .279/.350/.498 line doesn't scream "MVP," Seager plays half his games in Safeco while contributing good defense at the hot corner. He's been one of the ten or so most valuable players in the American League this year. Nothing about Seager's season looks like all that much of a fluke either. It simply looks like a case of a 26-year-old player taking the next step forward as he enters his prime, particularly in the power department.
Smoak and Hart could return from Triple-A Tacoma soon, but in the meantime, Logan Morrison has been handling first base duties for the Mariners. With each passing year, Morrison looks more and more like a lost cause. He's been more or less banished from the outfield (for good reason), doesn't thump enough to hack it as a regular first baseman, doesn't have much in the way of baserunning ability, and doesn't have much of a platoon split. Those last two bits make it tough to carve out a well-defined part-time role for him. @CupOfLoMo is still a very worthwhile Twitter follow, however. So there's that.
Mike Zunino is one of the role players responsible for Seattle's resurgent season, as he seems to have solved the Mariners' seemingly perpetual catcher problem. Zunino doesn't do much in the way of getting on base, but he has the power to rack up a good homer total despite his home park. Zunino strikes out a ton, but the occasional blast, coupled with good framing and receiving skills behind the plate make him a solid regular. That's special for the Mariners, because the last catcher who could pass for "solid regular" in Seattle was Kenji Johjima in 2007.
Michael Saunders' nickname, per Baseball Reference, is "The Condor". This is an extreme outrage. Like any respectable Chris Sale fan, I associate "The Condor" with only the purest and best of things. I don't see how Saunders deserves this title in any way. He's average at like, everything. A glove that plays well in a corner and not well in center? Real original, Mike. Mid-teens home run power? Yeah, that really stands out. I guess you're left-handed and that makes you kind of special? Well whatever, I'll stop bothering you now, Mike. I know you have urgent business to attend to as a nondescript bystander in a Where's Waldo picture. "The Condor." Pfffffffffffft.
Dustin Ackley never really panned out. After a great rookie season, his decline at the plate was swift. When Ackley came up, he was well-regarded for his defense at second base, but the Mariners started to expose him to other positions last season and with Robinson Cano's arrival, his move to the outfield became permanent. Metrics like Ackley's work in left field, but it's simply not enough as he doesn't have the hitting ability to carry a corner.
Brad Miller got off to a hot start this season then things came crashing down quickly. Like, really quickly. Miller's batting average crossed back over the good side of the Mendoza line on June 22. At the plate, he strikes out more than average and makes fairly weak contact. His value pretty much all comes from his glove at short, where he grades out as well above-average. The Mariners have a good team defense, and Miller's the best of the bunch.
Felix Hernandez is consistently among the best pitchers in baseball, but this season, he's seriously turned it up a notch. He leads all of baseball in FIP, WHIP and (heh) winning percentage. Hernandez has been at the top of his game with his power sinker and stellar changeup. A pitcher than can fan many hitters while walking very few hitters and keeping the ball on the ground is pretty much the whole package.
Hisashi Iwakuma missed the first month of the season with a strained tendon in his finger. He spent most of 2013 making a convincing case that he, not King Felix, was the staff ace. While he hasn't quite had the same results in 2014, Iwakuma is at worst an excellent number-two starter with a devastating splitter and great control. He throws his splitter, slider, sinker, and standard fastball with approximately equal frequency, making it tough for hitters to guess what's coming next.
Taijuan Walker is a monster prospect who has only made one start in the majors this season. The 21 year-old has a hard mid-90s fastball with movement to go along with a slurve. He throws his straight change rather infrequently and that third pitch will be crucial to his effectiveness as a major league starter, but his fastball is so tough to hit that it's pretty certain that he'll be a successful starting pitcher in some capacity. The sky's the limit for Walker, and he'll have a great shot to become an ace if he stays healthy; a shoulder injury prevented him from making his 2014 debut until this past Monday.
The lone lefty in the Seattle rotation, Roenis Elias jumped from Double-A to the majors in response to injuries to Walker and Iwakuma. He's held his own so far, with his knee-buckling curveball and good changeup proving to be more than a match for big league hitters. Elias has given the Mariners at least five innings in all but one start this year. The 25 year-old looks like a reliable back-end starter at the very least.
Journeyman 35 year-old Chris Young held onto his spot in the rotation in the face of Taijuan Walker's promotion, edging out Erasmo Ramirez in part due to Young's very superficial 3.11 ERA. Young has a .203 BABIP and a 24.1 percent ground ball rate, which is by far the lowest in the majors among qualified pitchers. Thanks to Safeco Field, a lot of those fly balls wind up as outs, but as a right-hander with an 85 mph fastball, the margin for error is always razor-thin.
In 2012, Fernando Rodney enjoyed one of the best reliever seasons in history, which helped him resume full-time closer duties. Though he hasn't quite been able to keep the walks down since then, Rodney is very much a changed pitcher from the middling setup man that he was in the middle of last decade. He's essentially a two-pitch pitcher, with a roughly 70/30 mix of fastballs and changeups. Though his fastball sits in the mid-90s, the changeup is the pitch that fueled his ascent into a legitimate ninth-inning weapon.
Outlook & Prediction: The Mariners have been something of a surprise team with a record that ranks up there with the AL's best. With Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Walker all healthy, they're certainly a threat to make the playoffs and do some damage once there. I think they'll be in a dogfight for the second wild card spot come season's end. Predicted record and finish: 87-75, 3rd place, AL West.
This concludes the 2014 team preview series on South Side Sox. I hope you all enjoyed these. Thanks for reading, and happy Fourth of July!