The Most Important Mariner

marc w · December 15, 2017 at 12:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Not content with explaining his process to podcast listeners, Jerry Dipoto made his case that he and his underlings are doing a fantastic job to Larry Stone and the Seattle Times today. Couple a disastrous (and old) 40-man roster, a foundering farm system and an aging core, and Dipoto would argue that the team was worse than the 76-86 record that got Jack Zduriencik fired. The injury wave that broke over the M’s last year hid the progress his re-tooled roster made. Thus, argues Jerry, the team has actually rebuild on the fly, and is preparing to contend.

The M’s lack of activity in free agency is a feature, not a bug. “If you build your club in free agency, you are going down a very long and dark hallway,” he said to Stone. This is an important philosophical point, and one fans often conflate with penny-pinching owners; Dipoto legitimately doesn’t believe in signing huge contracts that have the potential to limit flexibility for years. That’s perfectly understandable, but it means that the M’s need to get star players through other means. The M’s have not been terribly aggressive in international free agency (Ohtani aside), and they’ve resisted trading for prospects, opting instead to trade their own prospects for immediate help like David Phelps. Clearly, the M’s have been very active in the trade market, using it to rebuild their bullpen and their outfield. The result has been a much more well-rounded roster, with the M’s getting production from complementary players in a way they never did under Zduriencik.

The problem is that their core isn’t as productive as it once was. With Felix’s fall from grace, and Robinson Cano’s production becoming a bit more volatile, the M’s problem *now* is that they don’t really have a superstar player. Nelson Cruz, the Nelson Cruz who’ll turn 38 next season, posted the team’s highest position-player fWAR/bWAR in 2017 at around 4. For a DH, that’s spectacular, but if the M’s can’t count on 4-6 from Cano and Felix, they need someone else to step up. The M’s hoped Jean Segura would be that player, as he was coming off a 5 win season in Arizona. Injuries and a lack of power pushed his production around 3, and while his projections look laughably low, it’s perfectly reasonable to think Segura may have peaked in 2016. Dee Gordon’s come close to 5 wins before, but given a position change and a park that severely impacts doubles and triples, it’s going to be tougher for him to get there in Seattle. The M’s need a star-level player and they’re not getting one in free agency, and the minors aren’t going to supply one anytime soon. If the M’s are going to get a star-level player, if they’re going to pack serious production into one roster spot, they need a huge improvement from someone currently on the roster. If the M’s are going to make a playoff run, they’re going to need a big year from Mitch Haniger.

Haniger always seemed like a very intriguing piece of the Segura/Tai Walker trade, and even after fighting through injuries, he posted a .282/.352/.491 line, good for a 129 wRC+. That’s not intriguing, that’s not “a nice second piece,” that’s really good, and there’s reason to believe his trajectory is still headed up. Thanks to a so-so cup of coffee with Arizona and his age, Haniger’s Steamer projections aren’t that great; he’s projected for a 105 wRC+, 4th on the club behind three “core” members of the franchise. If Haniger’s able to maintain his power production and play a few more games, he’s the one non-Cano/Seager/Cruz Mariner capable of producing a 5-6 WAR season.

Wait, wait, what about Segura? Segura could conceivably get there, especially once you factor in his position. To get back to the lofty heights of his 2016 season would require much more gap and HR power than he showed last year. While I’ve been banging on about Safeco no longer being a HR-suppressing park, it’s clearly a different – and tougher – park to play in than Chase Field in Arizona. That park seems to produce an inordinate amount of well-struck contact (whether this is atmospheric, or something to do with the batters’ view, I don’t know), and it’s also got plenty of room for well struck balls to rattle around in. Safeco’s dimensions help with HRs, but make it very hard to get doubles and triples. Add it up, and Segura’s extra-base hit rate went from 9.8% of plate appearances in 2016 to 7.6% in 2017. That’s perfectly fine from your SS! With a couple more HRs or a better BABIP, Segura could easily crest 3.5 WAR, and that would help a top of the line-up that may need help to maintain the solid OBPs they posted last year. I’m glad the M’s extended Segura, but the younger/more complete hitter in Haniger’s the guy they need to make the leap to great player.

What about Paxton? He could easily get to 5 WAR (he was at 4.6 fWAR last year), but it’s going to take something he’s not been able to do in any season, and that’s to stay healthy consistently. Paxton is the team’s best player on a rate basis, but his injury history is impossible to ignore, and he’ll play next season at 29. The M’s need a star player not for a year or two, but for several years: they need a new core to build around. Paxton’s incredible, but tougher to plan around; much of that is simply due to his position, of course. But for all of Dipoto’s moves, the M’s still haven’t solved the question of who the team’s going to build around once Cruz walks at the end of 2018 and Cano/Seager are no longer in their peak seasons. Dipoto’s all but said he doesn’t want to replace these cornerstones through free agency, and Kyle Lewis aside (whose knee injury has proven much more severe than we first thought), there’s really no one in the system capable of becoming such a player. As such, the team desperately needs Mitch Haniger to develop into a star-level player and not just a promising, late-blooming corner OF. Paxton’s incredible, and Segura’s a critical top-of-the-line-up hitter, but Mitch Haniger’s the most important Mariner for 2018 and beyond.


5 Responses to “The Most Important Mariner”

  1. TumwaterMike on December 15th, 2017 3:37 pm

    It just might be Dee Gordon and his transition to Centerfield.

  2. Edward Baker on December 16th, 2017 12:06 pm

    Everything Marc had to say in this post makes sense, but other than the comments on Pax and his injuries, he has nothing much to say about the rotation. JDP is arguing that they can win with this rotation and I can´t find anyone to agree with him. All of which leads me to believe that he doesn´t really think they can win with what they´ve got, even with eight capable guys in the pen. Can Marc or anyone else make some sense of this?

  3. stevemotivateir on December 17th, 2017 2:11 am

    Haniger is without question going to be a key to 2018. But Gamel and Heredia rebounding from horrific second halves will be important as well.

  4. billr on December 17th, 2017 5:35 pm

    I think Haniger is more likely to be a 5 WAR player, but if Mike Zunino plays 140 games with a .250/.330/.500 slash line is he worth 5 WAR? It seems like the next 3 years are likely to be his best years…

  5. turin07 on January 15th, 2018 9:45 pm

    There is money or there isn’t. There isn’t.

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