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Treading Water: A Seattle Mariners preview

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For the third straight year, the Mariners are the final unique American League opponent the White Sox face.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

On August 28, 2015, the Jack Zduriencik era of Seattle Mariners history mercifully came to a close.

Zduriencik became Seattle's general manager in late 2008, and the hiring came with a great deal of buzz. He was replacing the utter joke that was Bill Bavasi and had received a lot of credit for his work in the Milwaukee Brewers organization for building up a strong base of young talent. The Tampa Bay Rays had risen to prominence in the prior year with an emphasis on defense and Zduriencik looked to follow that model.

In his first offseason, he plucked corner outfielder Franklin Gutierrez from the Indians and put him in center, where he became one of the best defenders in the game for a short while. The Mariners boasted far and away the league's best defense in 2009 and that propelled them to an 85-77 record, a 24-win improvement over Bavasi's final season. Adrian Beltre departed via free agency, but by the time 2010 had rolled around, Zduriencik had assembled what looked to be a great defense on paper built around Gutierrez, Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman, Ichiro Suzuki, Wilsons Jack and Josh, Jose Lopez, and eventually, Michael Saunders.

And, well, the defense did turn out okay, but it was a massive downgrade from the year prior (Figgins, in particular, did not adapt well to his move to second base). The real problem, though, was that Seattle had completely sold out for glove work. No one in their regular lineup was remotely threatening outside of Ichiro, and the signing of Milton Bradley to serve as DH was an unmitigated disaster. The Mariners had the worst offense in baseball by wRC+ for the next two seasons and didn't escape the bottom-5 until 2013. They wouldn't see a winning record again until 2014, when they failed to capture the second Wild Card slot by a single game.

Meanwhile, rumors were swirling both within and outside the organization that Zduriencik was a tough man to work with. The young talent that he helped develop in Milwaukee was nowhere to be seen in Seattle, as top prospects Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley both busted under his watch. Zduriencik's tenure of almost seven seasons ended with a pretty horrible 505-595 (.459) record and zero postseason berths.

Jerry Dipoto took over GM duties last September and he was extremely active from the get-go. By the time November had ended, Dipoto had re-signed Gutierrez and acquired Nate Karns, Joaquin Benoit, Leonys Martin, and Chris Iannetta. In December, he re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma and acquired Nori Aoki, Steve Cishek, and Adam Lind. None of these moves was particularly earth-shattering, but Dipoto seemed pretty intent on putting his mark on the roster.

The offseason moves have helped to build an improved Mariners squad that finds itself on the fringe of the Wild Card race. Offensively, Seattle is stronger than it has been in a long time, and it's largely thanks to the performance of their three best hitters. Second baseman Robinson Cano, third baseman Kyle Seager, and right fielder Nelson Cruz are all slugging in the mid-.500s and have combined to hit a whopping 62 home runs.

The role players have been making noise as well. Korean slugger Dae Ho Lee was inked late in the offseason and he's done pretty well stateside, slugging almost as well as the Mariners' big three. Lefty-masher Gutierrez has been hitting the ball well in a psuedo-platoon with Adam Lind, who has hit 13 home runs but has lost all ability to control the strike zone. Lefty platoon outfielder Seth Smith and center fielder Leonys Martin have also chipped in 11 dingers apiece, with the latter registering as a bit of a surprise given that Martin was pretty much only acquired for his defense.

Other than Lind, the only real duds the Mariners have had are Iannetta, who is the only catcher that has hurt his team more with framing than Dioner Navarro, and shortstop Ketel Marte, who will give you some batting average, but it's mostly empty and comes with sub-par defense as a side dish. The Mariners also have a team-wide weakness: baserunning. They've been one of the worst teams in the league in that department and a whopping seven of the above players I've mentioned have yet to steal a base. Marte and Martin might take off every now and then, but opposing batteries generally don't have to worry about Seattle running on them.

Another issue has been the pitching staff, which has lagged behind the bats so far this year. Ace Felix Hernandez has been rehabbing from a strained calf and will be making his return against the White Sox in this series. Prior to the injury, King Felix posted a sterling ERA with middling peripherals. His average fastball velocity has been creeping downward towards 90 mph over the years and he's sitting around 91 now. At 30 years old with a ton of professional innings under his belt, Seattle's longtime number-one might be showing some signs of decline.

Hisashi Iwakuma is now in his fifth season of service as the King's number-two man. Iwakuma is 35 years old and doesn't throw hard. His success is built on keeping walks to a minimum and getting ground balls. This season, he hasn't been as successful at keeping it on the ground, which is the reason for his decidedly un-number-two-like stats. Also seeing rough results is the oft-injured James Paxton, who probably could be picked up for cheap in your fantasy league. When healthy, Paxton's a perfectly acceptable mid-rotation starter whose current .391 BABIP points to better times ahead.

The Mariners' rotation is rounded out by left-handed Wades Miley and LeBlanc. The remarkably similar duo are low-strikeout back-end rotation filler. If you care to tell them apart. LeBlanc is the one who's a run-of-the-mill soft-tossing lefty that struggles to reach the high-80s and Miley throws a bit harder and mixes in a slider. Neither is threatening.

*****

The Mariners made a major change in choosing to shift from Zduriencik to Dipoto, but will this ultimately change their seemingly perpetual status as an also-ran? Like the White Sox, the Mariners seem to be caught in the middle, peaking a team with an outside chance and bottoming out around the 100-loss mark. That's going to be a tough fate to escape as long as they continue to have serious struggles developing position players (sound familiar?). Kyle Seager is the only position player on the 25-man roster that came from Seattle's amateur draft. One (Marte) was inked as an amateur free agent and hasn't been all that valuable. The rest are veterans acquired via trade and free agent signings. Dipoto's been very active since arriving in Seattle, but his ability to change that composition will likely have a big say in whether he can lead the Mariners to their first ever World Series appearance.

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Monday, July 18: Chris Sale vs. Wade LeBlanc
  • Tuesday, July 19: Jose Quintana vs. Wade Miley
  • Wednesday, July 20: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Felix Hernandez

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Leonys Martin - CF

SP1. Felix Hernandez - RHP

2. Seth Smith - LF

SP2. Hisashi Iwakuma - RHP

3. Robinson Cano - 2B

SP3. James Paxton - LHP

4. Nelson Cruz - RF

SP4. Wade Miley - RHP

5. Kyle Seager - 3B

SP5. Wade LeBlanc - LHP

6. Dae Ho Lee - 1B

CL. Steve Cishek - RHP

7. Adam Lind - DH

RP1. Joaquin Benoit - RHP

8. Chris Ianetta - C

RP2. Mike Montgomery - LHP

9. Ketel Marte - SS

RP3. Vidal Nuno - RHP