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Fix It, Felix! - A Seattle Mariners preview

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A look ahead at our final new opponent of 2015.

LEFT: A player, pictured immediately after signing a $240 million contract with the Mariners. RIGHT: A GM, immediately after signing one of the best players on the market. NOT PICTURED: Joy
LEFT: A player, pictured immediately after signing a $240 million contract with the Mariners. RIGHT: A GM, immediately after signing one of the best players on the market. NOT PICTURED: Joy
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Times have not been pleasant for the Chicago White Sox of late, but you should thank your lucky stars you aren't a Seattle Mariners fan.

Once the Toronto Blue Jays finish locking up a playoff spot this year, the Mariners will have the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball. The Mariners have never been to the World Series, much less won it. They recently had a stretch in which they finished in last place seven times in nine seasons, a run that was cut short by a year due to the putrid Astros moving into the AL West in 2013; the Mariners still finished 25 games out of first place. In 2013, Seattle posted a solid 87-win campaign, only to fall one game short of a Wild Card slot and 11 games behind the division-leading Angels.  The Mariners haven't finished within ten games of first place since 2007 and haven't won the division since their last postseason appearance in 2001, which was eight fired managers ago.

Seattle has managed to accomplish this string of futility while sporting one of the greatest pitchers of this era in Felix Hernandez.  If you think Chris Sale's career is being wasted, consider that Hernandez is knocking on the door of 50 WAR over nine-plus seasons without a postseason appearance to his name. He's locked up through 2020 and is still just 29 years old, so Hernandez's teammates need to work on getting the world a chance to see him toss a gem in the playoffs sooner rather than later. Hernandez has shown some chinks in the armor this year as his sinker has been getting hammered, but no one can touch King Felix's curveball.

The failures of the Mariners haven't been for lack of bold moves by the front office. When the poorly-regarded tenure of Bill Bavasi came to an end after the 2008 season, current general manager Jack Zduriencik took over. Zduriencik's hiring was widely praised, but his results have been very uninspiring. To attempt to buck that trend, Zduriencik has made a couple high-profile moves in recent years to fix what has frequently been a problem over his tenure: the offense.

With ample financial flexibility, the Mariners signed Robinson Cano in December of 2013 to a ten-year, $240 million contract. Though Cano played like the MVP candidate they paid for in 2014, he's had a rougher go this season as his command of the strike zone seems to have eluded him. To Cano's credit, he's rebounded from a horrid start and has been on fire lately, but the specter of his .251/.290/.370 first half still looms.

Seeking a chance to avenge his near-miss in 2014, Zduriencik's second big attempt to cure the offense came last December when he placed a big bet that Nelson Cruz's huge age-33 season would translate as he trucked along into his mid-30s. So far, not only have the results held up, but Cruz has somehow found a way to build on them as he's been one of the top few hitters in the major leagues this year.  Like Cano, Cruz has saved his best for August, so the middle of the Mariners' order is clicking on all cylinders right now.

Seattle sets the table for these guys with the left side of their infield, which includes the underrated Kyle Seager and leadoff man Ketel Marte, who was recently promoted from Triple-A Tacoma. Marte is a slick fielder and could emerge as a good contact hitter, but his arm is on the weak side for a shortstop and would benefit from a move to second base. That isn't happening anytime soon in this organization.

The presence of Marte has reduced former starter (and power threat) Brad Miller into a time share arrangement at both short and way down the defensive spectrum in left field. In left, the Mariners primarily rely on a platoon of Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez. Not only is Gutierrez apparently still alive, but his ability to shred lefties is completely intact, which makes him a particular danger to the White Sox.

Speaking of "oh, you still exist" types, the Mariners employ yet another platoon at first base of Logan Morrison and Jesus Montero, which, given career splits, should theoretically be enough to keep the Mariners treading water despite the offensive expectations of the position.  The Mariners have done a good job of getting the most out of their roster space; everyone serves an important purpose and there's plenty of flexibility to play to hitters' strengths.

Unfortunately, the Mariners' defense hasn't been good in aggregate, and that problem has been compounded by the fact that they've yet to assemble a credible cast of pitchers to support Felix Hernandez this decade. For guys that have the privilege of pitching half their games in Safeco Field, Seattle's pitchers allow way too many home runs. Number-two starter Hisashi Iwakuma was one of the chief culprits before (and immediately after) a long DL stint with a strained lat, but as his recent no-hitter suggests, he's back to pitching like his old self.

Taijuan Walker has similarly spun a recent gem, but he has a more identifiable issue.  Other than his curveball, which is thrown under 10 percent of the time, all three of his primary pitches have an average velocity between 89 and 95 mph. The consistent pitch speed makes it relatively easy for a hitter to establish their timing against Walker, as there's no fear of a changeup to keep them guessing.

Those of you who followed the Royals' farm system back when it was super-interesting may remember the name Mike Montgomery. Montgomery was a once well-regarded prospect and a late first-round pick of Kansas City in the 2008 draft. To give you some idea of how far his stock has fallen, he was recently traded straight-up for Erasmo Ramirez. Both guys, however, seem to be enjoying their new surroundings. 'The Eraser' got a boost from Tampa Bay's ballpark and defense, and Montgomery finally got a major league opportunity. He astonishingly threw back-to-back complete game shutouts (!!) at the end of June and his season lines looked rosy until the Red Sox obliterated him on August 14. He looks like a viable lefty at the back of a major league rotation.

Star-divide

2015 looks like yet another lost year for the Mariners, but the future isn't necessarily grim in Seattle. The Mariners actually project as a slightly-above .500 team going forward, and with an offseason ahead of them to make improvements, they can find themselves right in the playoff mix next year in an American League in which teams struggle to separate themselves from the pack. Variance around true talent is more significant than ever these days, so it's tough to really count the Mariners out. Then again, these are the same generic hopes that you can assign to every mediocre baseball team.

Predicted Record and Finish: 76-86, 4th place AL West

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, August 21: Chris Sale vs. Felix Hernandez
  • Saturday, August 22: Carlos Rodon vs. Vidal Nuno
  • Sunday, August 23: John Danks vs. Taijuan Walker

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Ketel Marte - SS

SP1. Felix Hernandez - RHP

2. Kyle Seager - 3B

SP2. Hisashi Iwakuma - RHP

3. Nelson Cruz - RF

SP3. Taijuan Walker - RHP

4. Robinson Cano - 2B

SP4. Mike Montgomery - LHP

5. Franklin Gutierrez - LF

SP5. Vidal Nuno - LHP

6. Austin Jackson - CF

CL. Carson Smith - RHP

7. Mark Trumbo - DH

RP1. Fernando Rodney - RHP

8. Jesus Montero - 1B

RP2. Joe Beimel - LHP

9. Mike Zunino - C

RP3. Mark Lowe - RHP

Star-divide

For the second straight year, the Mariners conclude our annual team preview series here at South Side Sox. I hope you all found these enjoyable, and thanks for reading!