2014 was a breakout year for the Seattle Mariners, but an array of intriguing prospects could mean the best is yet to come.
3. Patrick Kivlehan, 3B/OF/1B, Age 25, A+/AA
2014 was a huge breakout season with the bat for Kivlehan, answering a lot of questions about both his offense and defense. He started the year with High Desert in the Cal League, mashing like you’d expect a top prospect to in any hitter friendly league. In 34 games, Kivlehan slashed .282/.331/.563 with nine home runs and 20 total extra base hits. That performance obviously earned him a call up to Double-A Jackson, but there the unexpected happened. Kivlehan actually improved against more advanced pitching, hitting .300/.374/.485 with 11 home runs, 23 doubles, and seven triples. He also showed off a bit of speed with 11 stolen bases between the two levels.
A former defensive back at Rutgers, Kivlehan is an ultra-athletic, physical beast. He has a 6’2″, 215 pound frame, with a strong lower body and powerful arms. This athleticism helps produce his short, compact, powerful swing, allowing him to spray line drives all over the field and protect the plate against two-strikes. He also has a solid approach to the plate, hitting to all fields and drawing his fair share of walks.
Defensive versatility is where Kivlehan really shines. So far in his career he has played first base, third base, left field, right field, and center field. While he does have good range and a strong arm, playing center is not a realistic option for him in the Major Leagues. He may never win a Gold Glove, but his ability to play all of the corner positions average or above is extremely valuable.
Baseball nerds argue over the relevance of batting orders. I won’t dive into that debate, because who cares? One of the most enjoyable things about baseball is the lineup. And if you’re imaginative, you love thinking about how you would order the lineup if you were the manager.
I’m not the smartest kid on the block, but I do know that those 3 hitters should come to the plate as often as possible. The higher up in the order, the more at-bats they’ll see.
Of course, having those guys bat 1-2-3 is unrealistic, and would even make me uncomfortable. But having them bat 2-3-4 seems like common sense.
Ever since Cano joined the Mariners, he’s hit in the 3 slot. This is odd, because A) he primarily batted second as a Yankee and was very successful, and B) he doesn’t profile as much of a 3-hole hitter anymore.
In NY, Cano hit homers at a 4% mark for 5 years straight. Last year, his home run rate fell to 2.1%. And this year, it’s wobbling at 0.6%.
Fangraphs writer Michael Barr made this astute observation the other day:
Robinson Cano is currently in a bit of a slump. Surely he’ll come out of it. But will his power return to Yankee-era levels? Doubtful. Cano isn’t a power guy anymore, but he’s still a great hitter, a high OBP guy.
When we signed Cano, we thought he’d be the player to knock other runners in. But maybe he’s the runner other players should be knocking in.
By moving Cano to the 2-slot, and Cruz and Seager following, you’ve all but guaranteed each of them will bat in the first inning. And isn’t that the point? The 3-headed dragon works in tandem. Get them all up there in the first inning! (With a decent OBP leadoff hitter—like Seth Smith—you have something close to an 80% chance that Seager would bat in every first inning.)
Which brings up the other point: There aren’t a bunch of great options to put in front of Cano-Cruz-Seager on this current team. Seth Smith is fine vs RHP. Maybe Rickie Weeks or Austin Jackson does the job for LHP. But placing 2 non-ideal candidates before your core hitters doesn’t make much sense to me.
Lastly, it’s been said that over the course of a year, each batting slot down the order loses 20 plate appearances per year. So, by moving your 3 best hitters up, you give them a combined 60 more at-bats within a season.
For the offensively-stingy Mariners, you’d think they’d jump at that. Every little bit helps, right?
We all know Dustin Ackley is in a spellbinding slump. If you’ve watched the Mariners over the past 5 years, this is nothing new. Dustin Ackley is either red hot or ice cold. And most often, he’s ice cold.
Sitting around waiting for Dustin Ackley to heat up won’t do this team any good. The offensive struggles are too obvious.
Enter Justin Ruggiano.
Ruggs was acquired to be Seth Smith’s platoon mate in RF. Ruggiano also offered CF depth. He was a great addition, in my opinion. (The type of player Billy Beane finds, gives a chance to, produces well, then trades.)
But Ruggiano doesn’t exactly need to be a platoon-only player. Here are his career splits:
vs RHP: .250/.314/.386/.700
vs LHP: .267/.330/.513/.843
As you can see, Ruggiano is quite capable of getting himself on-base against righties. The difference comes in his power numbers. And hey, we all love power.
But for the Mariners, getting people on-base— and not making automatic outs— is essential.
Meanwhile, let’s look at Ackley’s career splits:
vs RHP: .245/.310/.374/.684
vs LHP: .236/.294/.340/.635
Ruggiano is better in every category against RHP. And what’s mind-boggling is that these stats from Ackley include his great rookie season in 2011, and all of his hot streaks.
Here’s Ackley’s current line:
Why am I so annoyed? Because in 4 games this past week— including today— Justin Ruggiano has sat on the bench while Dustin Ackley has started the game. I find this completely bewildering. The point of a platoon is to give your team the advantage…
What advantage are we gaining by putting Ackley in the starting lineup?
Often the rebuttal is “Well Robinson Cano and Taijuan Walker are struggling, too.” Okay, but Robbie Cano is “slumping” with a .300 OBP, not to mention his outstanding career numbers, and Tai Walker is a 22 year old kid trying to figure it out in the big leagues.
Dustin Ackley is a 5 year MLB veteran with a record of being bad, albeit with hot streaks mixed in. He really has no business being a starter on a good baseball team. If you want to keep him as a bench player, fine. Want to use him more in August when he’s streaking? Fine.
Want to use him while he’s a terrible? While there’s a better option on the bench?
Enough is enough.
As far as logic goes, this move is a great one.
Most people will look at the Mariners’ catching struggles in the offense department. But for me, the one glaring issue with our backstop situation was depth. Or, what the hell happens if Mike Zunino gets hurt?
Think about it. Zunino goes to the DL, and you’ve got Jesus Sucre and John Baker and John Hicks. Baker is the owner of a .378 OPS in AAA. (I’m gonna repeat that: Baker is the owner of a .378 OPS in AAA.) Hicks, an interesting prospect, has only 200 PA’s in AAA. In an emergency, you could call him up, but he really shouldn’t be an option until 2016.
So, to say this club was shallow with catching is an understatement.
The idea that Welington Castillo is Zunino’s replacement is absurd. Castillo is a very good option for second catcher. His offense will greatly eclipse Sucre’s, and perhaps even Zunino’s for awhile. In fact, if Castillo hits, you could see something close to a time-share between him and Zunino.
But Mike Zunino has been progressing. Surely his AB’s can quickly go awry. But he’s also producing some excellent ones as well. And for the month of May, Zunino owns a .805 OPS. (One big game will do that for ya….)
The complaint lodged at Castillo seems to be his pitch-framing skills. One would hope that Seattle’s coaching could help him improve this somewhat. Regardless, for a backup catcher, the ability to block the sinker ball is most important. Castillo is getting older and thus less robust (say those 3 words out loud). But all signs suggest his presence will be an upgrade to the Mariners 25-man roster.
Finally, Yoervis Medina.
He’s a reliever. The Mariners excel at finding relievers and trading them. No tears will be shed.
However, it should be noted that Medina consistently over-performed his FIP and xFIP numbers. Significantly. Even if you disregard his 2015 early season struggles due to small-sample size and un-stretched-out winter arm, there’s still a good chance his luck catches up to him, and he becomes a reliever not good enough for our excellent bullpen.
Jack Zduriencik improved the Seattle Mariners today. It’s not a monumental move in any sense, but it was a very smart one.
Medina started the year with Seattle, but was sent down after posting an xFIP of 5.37 with a 5.25 BB/9. It’s been obvious that the tram has lost faith in the righty, having blown many leads while seeing his velocity drop two miles per hour from last year. We’ve seen over the past two years that Jack Zduriencik is more than willing to move a reliever for a hitter (see Brandon Maurer, Carter Capps, Matt Brazis). Medina was likely on his way out anyways, which makes getting something (especially a high upside catcher) in return a huge positive for Seattle. He will continue pitching in Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs.
Welington Castillo has had 47 plate appearances spread across 24 games while acting as a third string catcher for the Chicago Cubs. The lack of consistent at bats has been reflected in his stats this year as he is hitting .163/.234/.349. His career numbers are decent with a .252/.320/.398 slash line and 97 wRC+ over 310 games, so there is definitely reason to believe he can return to a somewhat decent offensive player. Castillo does have a great career defensive WAR, but he ranked second to last in pitch framing in 2014, while Mike Zunino ranked second overall.
We don’t know yet what role Castillo will serve on the Mariners (and we’ll update this when we know). He doesn’t need to do much to be an offensive upgrade over both Jesus Sucre and Mike Zunino, though he will likely be a downgrade defensively. Castillo could find himself as the starter if Zunino goes down to work on his hitting. If Sucre goes down, he and Zunino could be fighting for playing time. This is the first real challenge to Zunino’s playing time since his call up, and it will be interesting to see his response.
Well it could have been worse. It also could have been a lot better, too.
Record: 17-20 (3-3); 3rd in AL West, 7.5 GB
Well at one point it looked as if Brad Miller would be on his way out, replaced by fellow short stop Chris Taylor. Maybe Miller could play outfield, but his bat had not justified the inevitable struggles he would have while learning the position on the fly. However, this past week he has absolutely crushed the ball, hitting four home runs, three doubles, and accumulating 24 total bases over a six game period. In addition, he has raised his slash line from .225/.286/.348 to .264/.328/.500. Miller has found time at short stop, designated hitter, and even made his first start in left field. Chris Taylor has been hitting the ball well (to no avail unfortunately), so it’s not likely they’ll make him a permanent bench player yet. Regardless of where he is playing, Brad Miller’s new found stroke could make a huge difference for the Mariners offensively.
(Update: Miller has been named AL Player of the Week)
There were times in 2014 where Robinson Cano was able to carry the Mariners’ offense. That just hasn’t been the case so far this year, and this past week epitomized his struggles at the plate 2015. Cano struck out seven times in six games, lowering his season stats to .253/.294/.353 with a wRC+ of 81 and a 5% BB rate. Slow starts in April are common for Cano, and he has struggled even worse in May throughout his career, so his underwhelming performance up to this point is not unheard of. 2007 is a great example, where he posted wRC+’s of 72, 82, 99 in April, May, and June before posting a 175 mark in July. Cano has always been a summer hitter, and there is no reason to expect he won’t finish the season as one of the games best players.
Austin Jackson looks like he will be returning to the team soon, which is great news for an outfield that has featured Rickie Weeks an uncomfortable amount of times. Jackson started his rehab assignment Saturday and has since gone 2-for-7 with a walk and a run scored. Manager Lloyd McClendon has said he doesn’t want to rush him back, but it does appear he can return by weeks end.
The team didn’t make any transactions after making a lot of moves last week.
2014 was a breakout year for the Seattle Mariners, but an array of intriguing prospects could mean the best is yet to come.
4. Ketel Marte, SS, Age 21, AA/AAA
It’s hard to believe that at just 21 years old, Ketel Marte is starting his fifth season in the Seattle Mariners’ organization. Marte signed out of the Dominican Republic back in 2010, and has been consistently increasing his reputation ever since. 2014 is the season Marte really established himself as one of baseball’s best middle infield prospects, shining on both sides of the ball. At the plate, Marte hit .304/.335/.411 with 29 stolen bases in 128 games between Jackson and Tacoma. He was one of the youngest players in both the Southern League and the Pacific Coast League, showing maturity beyond his years while keeping up with much older players.
Marte is a classic contact hitter, profiling to hit second in the order. His aggressiveness combined with short swing give him the ability to make consistent contact and avoid piling up strikeouts. Even as an extremely young-for-his-league hitter, Marte only struck out 14% of the time in 2014. He also possesses above average speed, and brings the aggressiveness and instincts from the batters box to the base paths, making him a very good base stealer. He’s been improving on base running every year and already has 13 in his first 36 games of 2015. If there is a downside to Marte’s offensive game, it’s his inability to draw walks. They aren’t frightening low numbers, but he only walked 4% of the time in Double-A last year, something he’ll need to improve on if he wants to become a leadoff hitter.
Defensively, Marte can be extremely frustrating. He has the ability to make the spectacular play, but he will boot his fair share of routine grounders. He has great range and footwork which allow him to get to just about any ball, and his arm strength allows him to throw runners out from anywhere. The tools are certainly there for him, but he’ll need to cut down on the mental mistakes in order to stay at the position.
Marte’s future with Seattle is cloudy. While he would make an All-Star second baseman, assuming his bat held up, Robinson Cano currently holds a monopoly on that position through 2023. There is already a log jam at short stop, with Brad Miller and Chris Taylor already in the Major Leagues and competeting for playing time. If Miller does move to the outfield, and Taylor fails to hit, Marte would easily be the third (and final) option for the Mariners at short stop. Marte is currently toiling around in Tacoma, again showing that he can play well above his age and is ready for the next level. We will see Marte in the Major Leagues at some point during 2015, whether that is in a Mariners uniform or not has yet to be determined.