If the 2016 season for the Seattle Mariners is anything like the offseason, it won’t lack excitement. Coming off of a very disappointing 76-86 campaign, new GM Jerry Dipoto put his stamp on the team in several different ways. The Mariners went on a trading spree and spent some dollars in free agency. Scott Servais is the new manager, replacing Lloyd McClendon, who went 163-161 in his two seasons at the helm.

That’s a lot of turnover in one offseason. The Mariners had a decent group of core players in place, like Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, and Robinson Cano, but the complementary cast of players wasn’t enough for Dipoto. Dipoto parted ways with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after his voice wasn’t heard loudly enough over the partnership between owner Arte Moreno and manager Mike Scioscia. To everybody’s credit, the situation played out about as professionally as possible and Dipoto undoubtedly bit a hole through his tongue trying to keep things to himself.

Many seem to think that the Mariners are several notches below the Houston Astros, but anything could happen in the second tier, with the Angels, the Texas Rangers, and the Mariners all jockeying for position and a potential AL Wild Card spot. Health and consistency will be the keys for all of those teams. The Mariners needed eight different starting pitchers to make at least 10 starts last season. That can’t happen again if the Mariners want to compete in what could be one of the toughest divisions in baseball if each team stays healthy.

It’s clear to see why Dipoto went on the transaction spree that he did. It looked like a teenager playing MLB: The Show for the first time wanting to acquire his favorite players. This was a team that needed to infuse some talent and needed some new blood. Heading into the 2015 season, expectations were extremely high for the Mariners with the Cruz signing and 87 wins the previous season. They fell well short of expectations and no team in the American League has a longer active playoff drought than the Mariners. Seattle hasn’t made a trip to the postseason since 2001, even though they won 93 games in 2002 and 2003 and 88 games in 2007. In each of the last eight seasons, the Mariners have been no closer than 11 games out at the end of the year.

The Mariners went from 554 runs allowed in 2014 to 726 runs allowed in 2015. They actually scored 21 more runs in 2015 than they did in 2014, yet finished 11 games worse because of the problems in run prevention. Is there a happy medium? Was 2014 the outlier? These are questions that I’ll attempt to answer as I look at the 2016 season for the Seattle Mariners.

Season win total odds:

BetOnline: 83 (-125/-105)

5Dimes: 82.5 (-135/105)

Bovada: 82.5 (-115/-115)

 

Key additions: Steve Cishek, Adam Lind, Wade Miley, Norichika Aoki, Joel Peralta, Steve Clevenger, Joaquin Benoit, Nate Karns, Chris Iannetta, Ryan Cook

Key losses: Danny Farquhar, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Mark Trumbo, Roenis Elias, Carson Smith, Tom Wilhelmsen

That’s a lot of player movement. The Mariners traded some minor league depth in several of these deals, but it’s clear that Dipoto wants to infuse more veteran leadership into this team. It helps to surround a rookie manager like Scott Servais with some guys that can ease the transition and that’s part of the reason why some of these guys were picked up. A bigger reason is that they fill needs.

Only Tampa Bay was worse offensively at first base than Seattle. Enter Adam Lind. The Mariners were 25th in bullpen ERA and 24th in bullpen xFIP. As a result, you get a plethora of bullpen moves like free agent signing Steve Cishek, trade acquisition Joaquin Benoit, and low-risk free agent deals like Joel Peralta and Ryan Cook. Carson Smith is a really unfortunate loss, but that’s the cost of doing business to acquire a starting pitcher like Nate Karns.

Nori Aoki will slot into left field and bat near the top of the order to set the table for guys like Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, and Adam Lind. The Mariners got a 28 wRC+ from the catching position last season, which is why Dipoto retooled the position with Steve Clevenger and Chris Iannetta. To put a 28 wRC+ into context, Mariners catcher Mike Zunino had a .174/.230/.300 slash with a 34.2 percent strikeout rate and a 5.4 percent walk rate. He had a 47 wRC+.

 

Why bet the over?

Though trades, free agency, or simply organizational development, the Mariners should be better in a lot of places this season. Adam Lind represents a pretty substantial upgrade at first base. It’s a walk year for Lind, who will be looking to cash in after the season. He couldn’t follow up his 2014 .321/.381/.479 slash, but he was 19 percent above league average and posted a .351 wOBA last season for a sinking ship Brewers team. He does a lot of damage against righties, so he provides value on the fat side of the platoon.

It’s hard to properly state how big of an improvement Chris Iannetta will be at the catching position. Servais and Dipoto are both very familiar with Iannetta, who was the backstop in Anaheim the last four seasons. He’s coming off of an awful BABIP season, with a .225 mark that was over 50 points below his career average. He works a ton of counts and has one of the best walk rates in baseball among catchers. He’s got a little bit of pop as well with 10 home runs in just 92 games last season. Projection systems are bullish on a bit of a bounce back that might push him into the 1.5-win range. Considering Seattle catchers were almost -3 fWAR last season, this is very significant.

Moving from Oriole Park at Camden Yards to Safeco Field was supposed to hurt Nelson Cruz. It didn’t. Cruz hammered 44 dingers with a .302/.369/.566 slash, a .396 wOBA, a 158 wRC+ and was in the MVP conversation, even though he doesn’t play a position or plays one very poorly. He has now hit 84 home runs over the last two seasons with over 200 RBI. Say what you want about his inability to play defense, but there aren’t many players that can post almost five fWAR while not playing a position and not being able to run the bases. It’s easy when you can trot around them.

You know who we don’t hear enough about? Kyle Seager. He’s a really good hitter with a smooth line drive stroke and he’s been a pretty decent defender the last two seasons. Some BABIP gains are coming this season after a .278 BABIP and a 24 percent line drive rate. He could see as much as a 10 percent increase offensively and that’s after a 3.9-win season. He should climb back over the four-win plateau and has a better supporting cast around him in the lineup with Aoki and Lind.

Some people are acting like Robinson Cano’s career is dead. Cano wound up posting a .287/.334/.446 slash last season. The power was going to tail off going from the short porch at Yankee Stadium to Safeco’s pitcher-friendly conditions, but Cano is hardly a shell of his former self. In fact, he posted a .331/.387/.540 slash in the second half last season. He also reportedly had a sports hernia late last season. He’s not a guaranteed five-win guy anymore, but expect him to be a lot better in 2016.

A player that I’m really excited about is Ketel Marte. The 22-year-old shortstop puts bat to ball with a little bit of speed and plays quality defense at the shortstop position. Marte could be a high BABIP guy throughout his career because he can run a little and hits very few balls in the air. He’s more of a throwback leadoff hitter as a guy that probably won’t walk a lot, but more of a Juan Pierre type without the elite speed.

The outfield isn’t great, necessarily, but there are varying skill sets that will create value. Leonys Martin is a very good defensive center fielder. Nori Aoki puts bat to ball and can swipe 10-15 bases with mostly league average defense. Seth Smith mashes righties on the fat side of the platoon. Franklin Gutierrez can still go and get it at whatever outfield position and hits lefties extremely well. These are the types of things you look for when betting overs. You look for surplus value from undervalued commodities. These aren’t guys that move the needle at all, but they have skill sets that complement the team very nicely.

Speaking of things that oddsmakers don’t account for, the Mariners were -60 defensive runs saved last season and were among the league’s worst in UZR/150. This was an awful defensive team. The rule of thumb is that 10 defensive runs saved equal about one win. We can make a case that the Mariners cost themselves five or six games by being putrid defensively. The Mariners were also fourth in wild pitches allowed. Iannetta is a big help defensively. A full season of Marte at short will help. A defensive bounce back from a healthy Cano. Adam Lind can be around league average. Leonys Martin is very good in center, where the Mariners were -25 DRS.

Regression is easy for everybody to see in terms of Pythagorean win-loss or BaseRuns. Digging deeper into things like defensive metrics are one great way to find an edge. Here, it’s a big edge for Seattle.

Felix Hernandez showed some cracks in his armor last season, but he’s still very much among the league’s elites. For the eighth straight season, Hernandez eclipsed 200 innings. A regression to his 2011 K/BB rates coupled with a lack of command produced the worst full season of his big league career. Perhaps a new voice and a new coaching staff will find some mechanics problems with Felix. The Mariners have a vastly-improved defense behind him now, so his strikeout losses from last season won’t hurt as much if they continue this season.

Hisashi Iwakuma is back after failing a physical with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kuma is one of my favorite pitchers in the big leagues. He has trouble staying healthy, but an elite control profile and average command are enough to carve out a really good middle of the rotation pitcher. Like King Felix, an improved defense will really help Kuma out and he could sniff a three-win season if he can manage 175 innings.

The duo of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have a ton of upside, but health problems have kept both of them from reaching it. Walker’s inconsistent command led to a 4.56 ERA, but a 3.82 xFIP suggests that the soon-to-be 24-year-old has a lot of room for positive regression. He made it through 169.2 innings last season, but the fortunate thing here is that Seattle runs eight deep with Vidal Nuno, Nate Karns, Mike Montgomery, and possibly even Joe Wieland all capable Major League starters. That’s why Paxton has some value. He can throw 120 good innings and net some value. His problems are more control-based, whereas Walker’s are command-related, but both guys have swing-and-miss stuff and deep arsenals.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Karns slide into that rotation spot because the Mariners paid a pretty penny to get him. Paxton is 27, though, so time is running out for a guy with his injury history. Karns has an injury history as well, but he’s got an excellent changeup and Safeco Field may do some good things for his home run rate. Another guy that could thrive here is Wade Miley. Miley is the second-surest bet behind Hernandez from a health standpoint and that’s why Jerry Dipoto was willing to part with the upside of Roenis Elias for the certainty of Miley. Miley has worked at least 193 innings in four straight seasons and owns league average peripherals pretty much across the board.

The bullpen overhaul brought in three former closers. Steve Cishek came at a bargain price after some struggles in Miami and a subsequent trade to St. Louis. Cishek was climbing up the arbitration-eligible price tag list when he ran into some control issues. He’s a gamble, but there’s a lot of upside at his current salary. He’s expected to close, but Joaquin Benoit will be knocking on that door in short order. Benoit can still get swings and misses, but he has excelled at inducing weak contact over the last two seasons. Safeco’s dimensions should help.

Charlie Furbush is an excellent power lefty and the Mariners are gambling on guys like Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook. Joel Peralta has been a rubber-armed reliever throughout his career and should make this ballclub. This isn’t a great bullpen by any means, but it’s passable and the better defense could elevate it.

 

Why bet the under?

Pitcher health is a huge worry here. Really, overall health is a concern, but especially from a pitching standpoint. Felix Hernandez’s velocity is dropping at an early age and that workload on his arm is impossible to overlook. The question we have to answer regarding Hernandez is whether or not the home run spike was due to the drop in velocity or if it was a sign of declining command. Without breaking it down in deep detail, the fact that his line drive rate was still solid, his ground ball rate was elite, and his HR/FB% took a really big spike, the case can be made that it was an anomaly. Hitters may simply be adjusting to Felix. The last two seasons have represented his two worst seasons from a strike-throwing standpoint. All pitchers can become hittable when they pitch behind in the count. A 2.8-fWAR season for Felix will make it very hard for Seattle to compete. He’s huge for this team and it’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical.

The injury questions are far more prevalent with guys like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Walker passed the 140-inning mark for just the second time in his pro career, which began in 2010. The raw stuff is there, but the consistency from at bat to at bat and pitch to pitch just isn’t. If it doesn’t show up, he’s a low-end middle of the rotation starter with a 4.00 ERA and a lot of variance from game to game. He’ll throw eight shutout with 12 K and give up six runs in two innings with three home runs allowed in the next start. Over 162 games, you need consistency for a win total to go over.

In Paxton’s case, health has kept him from reaching his full potential and the Mariners may have to cut the cord this season. He hasn’t worked more than 160 innings over the last two seasons. He’s probably not worth counting on and as we start to get deeper into the starting pitcher depth chart, we start losing viable starters. Nate Karns is also a guy that has been injured multiple times in the past and has only worked more than 150 innings in a season once.

Hisashi Iwakuma failed a physical. It’s entirely possible that the Dodgers had buyer’s remorse and came up with something to get out of the deal, but Iwakuma missed time in 2014 and only made 20 starts last season at the big league level. The Mariners felt comfortable enough to sign him below market value very quickly and it’s a one-year deal with two options. However, here’s a guy with questionable command and a terrible injury past and the Mariners are absolutely relying on him to be a #2 starter. Color me unimpressed.

The Mariners have one ace, one #3 starter, and a bunch of back of the rotation pieces. They have depth, in name, but there’s not a lot of depth to the rotation from a skill or polish standpoint. If Felix isn’t the ace that he can be, this is a rotation with an average ceiling. That’s not great with some of the offensive pieces in this division.

The bullpen has similar injury and performance worries. Joaquin Benoit is 38 and his velocity is likely to start going soon. Steve Cishek, at his best, probably profiles as an average closer. Charlie Furbush only made 33 appearances last season. Ryan Cook has had major injury. Joel Peralta is pushing 40. Evan Scribner gave up 14 home runs in 60 innings. This is not a good bullpen. The best-case scenario is league average and the worst-case scenario is really bad.

Nelson Cruz can still hit, but what if he reverts back to that player that he was with the Rangers? He’ll still be a premier power hitter in an era where premier power is 30 home runs, but he had a .350 BABIP last season, the highest of his career, and also had his highest career walk rate. The expectation should be for regression across the board and his inability to play a position cuts into his value. He may be forced into outfield duty against lefties because of the composition of the roster and that’s a problem. He’s not going to repeat last season’s performance and that wasn’t even enough on a 76-win team.

Robinson Cano turned 33 early in the offseason and second basemen don’t age well. While his batted ball luck got better in the second half, Cano’s K/BB rates both went in the wrong direction. He had one of the lowest zone-contact percentages of his career, which is often a telltale sign of declining bat speed. A guy with his skill set has a high floor, but he also had one of the worst defensive seasons of his career, so his overall value may not be that high.

The outfield situation in Seattle doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Nori Aoki is a bat-to-ball guy that is 34 and missed a large chunk of last season. Leonys Martin’s defense is an asset, but his bat is a tremendous negative. Martin had a 50 wRC+ last season. That means he was 50 percent below league average. He can field, but he certainly can’t hit. Franklin Gutierrez’s small sample size explosion should not be trusted. Seth Smith is good against righties, but he’s a low-average, decent power guy. Offensively, there’s very little to like about this group.

Ketel Marte may not be able to handle playing every day and it’s hard to see the 23-year-old sticking at the top of the lineup. He’ll likely be best suited for a role in the #8 or #9 hole to roll over the lineup. His walk rate in 247 plate appearances didn’t line up with his minor league numbers and the league will be able to adjust to him this season. If he doesn’t stick, the trade of Brad Miller means that the Mariners are extremely thin up the middle defensively.

 

Pick: Seattle Mariners Over 82.5 (-115 – Bovada)

I’m buying in. I may get burned, but I’m buying in. The Mariners have a rookie skipper in Scott Servais, so who knows how things will go with that dynamic, but this is a sneaky good offensive team with some quality starting pitching depth and some experienced bullpen arms. Jerry Dipoto’s falling out with Arte Moreno is Seattle’s gain. Say what you will about Anaheim’s apparent reluctance to use analytics, or at least the reluctance of the manager, but that’s a team that has had prolonged success over the last 15 years. Dipoto is a good executive.

I’m not going to say that the Mariners could be this season’s Texas Rangers, but I’m not going to deny that I have a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that it happens. It obviously wouldn’t be as dramatic of a turnaround, but this is a really fine ballclub with a good offense, significantly improved defense, and a pretty high ceiling. After quite a few unders in the AL East and the AL Central, things look a little bit rosier in the AL West.

Other Teams: Baltimore, Boston, New York (AL), Tampa Bay, Toronto; Chicago (AL), Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota; Houston, Los Angeles (AL), Oakland, Texas;

 

-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-

 

The Seattle Mariners made things very interesting down the stretch in the chase for the second American League Wild Card spot and that seems to have zapped any potential value on the Mariners as a “sleeper” team in 2015. The Mariners face one of the highest win total numbers on the market following their 87-75 season.

It’s certainly justified. No AL team allowed fewer runs than the Mariners last season. At the same time, the Mariners have won 88 games once since 2003 and they have not won the AL West since 2001. With a run differential of +80, the Mariners’ expected record by Pythagorean Win-Loss Record was 91-71. Thanks to their awful 18-27 record in one-run games, the Mariners fell short of that mark and also fell short of the playoffs. It didn’t help that the Mariners played their worst baseball in September. They were 14-13, which wasn’t their worst record by month, but they were outscored 113-97.

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Normally, when a team has a ballpark as pitcher-friendly as Safeco Field, they tend to be much better at home than they are on the road. That was not the case for the Mariners, whose offense scored 72 more runs on the road and whose pitching staff allowed only 42 more runs away from home. The Mariners averaged 3.46 runs at home and allowed 3.16 en route to a 41-40 mark. They averaged 4.36 runs per game on the road.

With one of the best starting pitchers in the league, possibly the best #2 starting pitcher in the league, and a big power bat in the lineup thanks to free agency, everybody seems high on the Mariners. Are their feelings justified? Can this team find a way to repeat the road success and carry it over into more success at home?

Oddsmakers have a lofty set of expectations for the Mariners. BetOnline opened at 87.5 and the brick-and-mortar sportsbooks Westgate Superbook (87.5) and Atlantis (85) also have high hopes for the Mariners this season. 5Dimes and Bovada are currently at 86.5.

Key additions: Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, J.A. Happ, Justin Ruggiano

Key losses: Endy Chavez, Chris Denorfia, Kendrys Morales, Michael Saunders, Brandon Maurer

Any time you add 40 home runs to the lineup, it’s going to register in a big way with bettors and that seem to be the case with Nelson Cruz. The beauty of it for the Mariners is that they signed Cruz to be the designated hitter, so they won’t have to watch him destroy a chunk of his offensive value by puttering around the outfield.

Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano could form a very interesting platoon in right field. Smith hits righties well and can’t help lefties, while Ruggiano does the opposite. With Austin Jackson in center and Dustin Ackley in left, the Mariners have some interesting depth in the outfield. James Jones is another player that will get some reps if he makes the club. J.A. Happ is a good safety net at the back of the rotation.

The Mariners lost some defensive value in players like Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia, but they didn’t lose any regular players and that’s the key. Brandon Maurer is a failed starter ticketed for the San Diego bullpen and Michael Saunders, while talented, couldn’t stay healthy and in the lineup. Cruz is the highlight signing and it’s part of the reason why opinions are so high on the Mariners.

Why bet the over?

The Mariners are a hot team entering the season and with good reason. Normally I like to start with the lineups, but the place to start for the Mariners is in the starting rotation. Felix Hernandez anchors a starting staff that has the potential to be the best, or really close to it, in the American League. Hernandez is a perennial Cy Young candidate and he is coming off of a career year. He threw 236 innings with a 5.4 K/BB rate, a 2.14 ERA, a 2.56 FIP, a 2.51 xFIP, and a 15-6 record, for those of you that like win-loss records. Hernandez increased his ground ball percentage to 56 percent and his strikeout increase from 2013 stuck around. He’s elite. He has #rig. He is special.

Hisashi Iwakuma was limited to 28 starts and 179 innings, but he had another fantastic season with a 3.52 ERA, a 3.25 FIP, and a 2.85 xFIP. Kuma’s home run rate was about the only blemish because 13.2 percent of his fly balls left the yard. With a big ground ball split, a fly ball rate like that is really going to impact the ERA, which is why his xFIP is so much lower. His 2.94 SIERA suggests that positive regression could happen in 2015. His 7.33 K/BB ratio was the third-best in the league behind only Phil Hughes and Clayton Kershaw. He’s been worth 7.2 fWAR over the last two seasons and should be in that 3-3.5 win range again this season.

The future is now for the Mariners with James Paxton and Taijuan Walker projected to be a big part of the team this season. Paxton sits in the mid-90s with a devastating curve ball and his 13-start stint in the bigs last season yielded a 3.04 ERA with a 3.28 FIP and a 3.54 xFIP. Walker is only 22, so he may start at Triple-A, but he won’t be there long. He flashes great swing-and-miss stuff with a good fastball and also has a knack for missing the fat part of the barrel. In 38 innings, he posted a 2.61 ERA and a 3.68 FIP, but he is likely ticketed for Triple-A.

That leaves Roenis Elias and J.A. Happ in the mix for innings. Elias was better than expected last season in his first year in the Majors with just one five-inning Triple-A start under his best. The Cuban import made a rapid ascent through the minor league system and posted a 3.85 ERA with a 4.03 FIP and a 3.95 xFIP last season. He did flash some control problems at times because he likes to vary his release point, but at the back of the rotation, Elias is more than adequate.

Happ is an intriguing pitcher in Seattle because of his pretty neutral GB/FB split. Earlier in his career, Happ was more of a fly ball guy, and returning to that would certainly benefit him at Safeco. The field could neutralize some of his home run problems and his K/BB rates started to gradually improve last season. He’s a good back-end guy and that’s all it takes to compete.

How many teams had two position players worth 5.2 fWAR or more? The answer is three. The Seattle Mariners are one of those two teams. The others were the Brewers (Gomez and Lucroy) and the Tigers (Kinsler and Cabrera). Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano were the two for the Mariners and the Cano signing really paid dividends last season. Seager was actually the 15th-most valuable position player in baseball with a solid .268/.334/.454 slash line and 10 defensive runs saved. Seager reportedly spent time this offseason working on beating the shift, so he could see a spike in this average and on-base percentage, though that may mitigate some power.

Cano posted a .314/.382/.454 slash line and cut down on his strikeouts last season. Unfortunately, the switch from Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field cut down his power numbers as he only hit 14 home runs and saw a major drop in doubles as well. The 32-year-old is still an extremely productive offensive player, especially in the context of second base. He also played at least 157 games for the eighth straight season, so he’s durable, dependable, and reliable.

The reason that the Nelson Cruz signing was so big is because the next highest player in fWAR was Dustin Ackley at 2.1. The Mariners are not a great offensive team. Cruz had the second-best season of his career with a .370 wOBA and 40 home runs. Only his 2010 season surpassed what he did last year and would have ranked around the same in the counting statistics, but Cruz was limited to 445 plate appearances. In Cruz, the Mariners get a bona fide power threat and he won’t be able to kill them defensively because DH at bats are plentiful.

A player to watch for a bounce back is Austin Jackson. Jackson was traded from Detroit in the three-team David Price deal and never fully fit in with Seattle. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon spent a long time as a hitting coach, so a full spring to work with Jackson is going to be beneficial to both parties and should lead to a bounce back. Jackson isn’t the .300 hitter he was in 2012 with the Tigers, but a bounce back in the .265 range is nice with a good baserunner like Jackson.

The Mariners quietly have a strong bullpen. Fernando Rodney lived up to his contract with 48 saves and a 2.85 ERA with a 2.83 FIP. Danny Farquhar and Charlie Furbush struck out well over a batter per inning in setup roles with better than a 5/1 K/BB ratio, and Tom Wilhelmsen got himself back on track to post a 2.03 ERA over 75.1 innings of work. Funky Cold Yoervis Medina made 66 good appearances for the Mariners. This is a very good bullpen and could be a bit better than Oakland’s.

Why bet the under?

This number is very high. The Mariners are still a mediocre offensive team, even with the addition of Cruz, and there are some statistical red flags speckled throughout the roster. We’ll start with Felix Hernandez, who posted a career year last season. Don’t get me wrong. Felix is elite. But when you’re talking about a number this high, any regression, minor or otherwise, has to be considered. Felix held batters to a .253 BABIP last season with an increase of ground balls. Ground balls find holes. The 0.42 run differential between Felix’s ERA and FIP signals regression because his 3.07 ERA is very close to his career 3.15 FIP. Not only that, but Hernandez saw some correction from 2010 to 2011 when he posted a similarly low BABIP. Felix is great and the K/BB rate improving is great, but don’t be shocked if his ERA goes from 2.14 to 3.04 or something similar. That BABIP is unsustainably low for a ground ball pitcher and he will give up more runs. As evidenced by the King’s 125-92 record with a 3.07 career ERA, his margin for error is miniscule.

Speaking of regression, Hisashi Iwakuma’s going to be around the same this season. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but Kuma’s 2.66 ERA in 2013 is not the expectation that you should have. The 3.52 ERA is the expectation that you should have. It’s still plenty good enough to be valuable, but Kuma could see a regression in his fantastic walk rate that would add some more baserunners. He already gives up a high number of home runs for a ground ball pitcher, so a regression in walk rate plus his penchant for home runs should keep his ERA in that 3.40 or 3.50 range. Again, not a bad thing, but we’re talking about a large number of wins.

The Mariners rotation isn’t as cut-and-dry as it seems. James Paxton has a great skill set and a lot of promise, but he has never thrown more than 170 innings in a season. Injuries limited Paxton to 84.1 innings last season. The raw talent and the upside are there, but the durability is not.

Taijuan Walker is in that same boat. The 22-year-old has incredible promise, but Walker threw under 130 innings last season while dealing with injury. He also has major command problems right now and he would best be described as “effectively wild” in the Majors. That only works for so long before hitters start laying off of pitches.

Roenis Elias is a league average pitcher. He didn’t do anything particularly special pitching at Safeco Field and there’s not much reason to believe that he, or J.A. Happ, are more than league average fifth starters. On a team that has offensive problems, Elias is the kind of pitcher that isn’t going to do a whole lot to help this bet, except for eating some innings.

Everyone seems sky high on the Seattle rotation, but I’m not. I see regression from Felix and I see Kuma’s 3.50 ERA as a pretty true measure of his arsenal and skill set. There are a lot of injury concerns and mediocrity at the back end of the rotation and I can’t anoint the Mariners as the best team in the AL West like some win totals lines have.

Offensively, what are the Mariners? They don’t do anything particularly well. They posted a .244/.300/.376 slash line, a 93 wRC+, a sub-.300 wOBA, a 20.6% K% and a 6.6% BB%. I can’t buy into that, even with the addition of Cruz. Remember “cluster luck”? I’ve talked about it before. It’s a concept from Joe Peta’s great book Trading Bases that suggests that anomalies in batting with the bases empty and men on base will regress and normalize. The Mariners posted a .231/.285/.351 slash with the bases empty. With men on, it went to .263/.323/.412 and with RISP it was .262/.328/.411. In fairness, the numbers with the bases empty are likely to go up, but the numbers with men on base are likely to go down.

Pick: Under 87.5

This is an easy one for me. The Mariners are a good team with a high ceiling, but it’s going to take a lot for this team to reach that high ceiling. I believe that their road record is going to regress and I believe that their starting rotation is not as good as people are projecting it to be. The talent is there, but the refinement is not. We’re talking about a group of pitchers that have to sustain a high level of production for 162 games.

Iwakuma has had sporadic shoulder problems. Paxton can’t stay healthy. Walker can’t stay healthy and isn’t sure where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. Elias is always an injury risk with trouble repeating his mechanics and a heavily reliance on sliders. Felix is about the only constant in this rotation and I already outlined why I think he will post more “human” numbers this season.

The offense isn’t good. Robinson Cano’s lack of power is a concern because he’s on the wrong side of 30 and second basemen have one of the fastest declines among position players. If Kyle Seager wants to use the whole field, he’s going to do it at the expense of hitting for power. Nelson Cruz isn’t all he’s cracked up to be and that home run total is going to drop with games in Seattle, Oakland, and Anaheim as opposed to Baltimore, Toronto, New York, and Boston.

Ultimately, this is a team that I expect to wind up in the low 80s in wins. I don’t think they’re good enough to win the AL West and I really don’t think that they are an 88-74 team. They are a team with an inflated perception because of how close they made the playoff race and the signing of Cruz. Play against the perception and go with the under for the Mariners.

 

-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-

 

The Seattle Mariners should send some gifts to the Houston Astros. It was the addition of the Astros that kept the Mariners from a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the American League West last season. Four straight losing seasons tend to force change and that’s what happened as Eric Wedge stepped down while being fired and the Mariners shelled out a gargantuan sum of money to Robinson Cano. The 2014 Mariners will rely on an interesting group of youngsters and the big bat of Cano to put the team back on the plus side at the end of the season.

Robinson Cano shocked some people when he took a 10-year, $240M deal from the Seattle Mariners. After giving 61 of the 162 starts to Aaron Harang, Joe Saunders, and Jeremy Bonderman, the Mariners will let their young arms learn on the job as Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, and James Paxton will all have a major role in the starting rotation. Young guys like underappreciated third baseman Kyle Seager, relative unknown Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino will hold great importance for the offense.

The young Mariners offense went through a lot of growing pains last season, finishing 15th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, and 10th in both slugging percentage and OPS in the American League. Despite playing half of their games at Safeco Field, the Mariners finished second in the AL in home runs with 188 and had nine players hit 10 or more home runs and four of those nine hit over 20. They also had the third-most strikeouts with 1,353.

As for the pitching staff, when Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, or James Paxton pitched, things were pretty good. Those three combined for a 2.77 ERA, a 3.05 FIP, and a 4.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 68 starts. In the other 94 games, Mariners starters posted a 5.41 ERA. Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders are gone, replaced by Taijuan Walker and Erasmo Ramirez.

It’s clear that the Mariners will have a different look this season, but will it be enough to finish over .500? That’s what it will take to win a Mariners over bet. BetDSI.eu has the lowest number at 80.5 with the over juiced at -129. Both 5Dimes.eu and BetOnline.ag are at 81 with juice on the under, while Bovada.lv has the highest number at 81.5 with -125 on the under.

Key additions: Robinson Cano, Fernando Rodney, Logan Morrison, Corey Hart, Willie Bloomquist, John Buck

Key losses: Oliver Perez, Carter Capps, Kendrys Morales, Joe Saunders, Raul Ibanez

All in all, it was a pretty decent offseason for the Mariners as they have clearly decided to let the young starters in the rotation have a chance and mixed in a few veterans to help mentor the young group. Another key addition/loss is the swap of Eric Wedge for Lloyd McClendon. Wedge had squabbles with the front office and their player evaluations and way of doing business that created a distraction and a major disconnect for a team filled with young players left in limbo about their status. McClendon had very little success with the Pirates from 2001-05, but it was clearly time for Wedge and the Mariners to go their separate ways.

Robinson Cano is clearly the biggest name that the Mariners added. Cano has been an All-Star each of the last four seasons and the Mariners simply got tired of waiting for Dustin Ackley to develop into the player he was supposed to be. Fernando Rodney is another big addition, as the Mariners had some flux in the closer’s role last season.

Logan Morrison and Corey Hart will attempt to fill the production of Kendrys Morales in what may be a platoon setup at first base. Willie Bloomquist’s career comes full circle since he began his MLB career with the Mariners in 2002. He’ll be a jack-of-all-trades for the Mariners.

Oliver Perez and Carter Capps are big losses to the bullpen as Perez surprisingly got a two-year deal from Arizona and Capps was traded for Morrison. Raul Ibanez stayed in the AL West, signing with the Angels.

Why bet the over?

If you can pitch, you can win. The Mariners can pitch. The statistics mentioned above are proof of how terrible the back of Seattle’s rotation was last season. Even though Hisashi Iwakuma is behind schedule a little bit and Taijuan Walker was shut down for a bit in Spring Training, this rotation is significantly better than what the Mariners sent out there every five days last season.

It begins with Felix Hernandez, one of the game’s best pitchers that has often been overlooked because the Mariners have been awful and he hasn’t had the gaudy win totals that similar pitchers have accumulated. By fWAR, Felix Hernandez has been the fourth-most valuable pitcher over the last four seasons, racking up 22.1 wins above replacement player. Out of 178 qualified pitchers over that span, Hernandez has the fifth-best FIP, the ninth-best ERA, the 12th-highest strikeout rate, the 14th-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, and the seventh-lowest run support per nine innings at 3.71. Those numbers are over 131 starts.

Hernandez is a bona fide ace. How’s this for impressive? Everybody knows that Safeco Field has been a pitcher’s park pretty much since the day it opened. In Hernandez’s career, which began in 2005, his ERA and FIP at home and on the road are nearly identical. At home, Hernandez has a 3.21 ERA and a 3.11 FIP. On the road, Hernandez has a 3.18 ERA and a 3.34 FIP. The FIP discrepancy is not from home runs, as one might think, but from the umpire bias of pitchers getting friendlier calls at home. His first half and second half splits are also very similar. He is the picture of consistency in a starting pitcher. You can definitely bet on another quality season from King Felix.

If somebody asked you who finished third in American League Cy Young voting last season, how many guesses would it take you to get to Hisashi Iwakuma? The Japanese import performed much better in Baseball-Reference’s WAR calculations than he did in Fangraphs’s metric with 7.0 wins above replacement player. In his second year in the Major Leagues, the 33-year-old was 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA and a spectacular 4.4/1 K/BB ratio in 219.2 innings of work. Iwakuma’s WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) put him in some elite company as he trailed only Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer, and Jose Fernandez. He finished in a tie for fifth, with Cliff Lee, who possesses some of the most elite command in the game. Between Iwakuma and Hernandez, the Mariners already have a great chance to win in 40 percent of their games.

Behind Hernandez and Iwakuma, there’s a youth movement that shows a ton of promise. At various points throughout this season, the remainder of the Mariners rotation will feature some collection of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Erasmo Ramirez.. Walker is one of the more polished 21-year-olds in the league. He threw 156.1 innings between Double-A, Triple-A, and the Majors with 172 strikeouts and a 2.99 ERA. He showed swing-and-miss stuff in his brief 15-inning stint with the Mariners. A shoulder problem limited Walker in Spring Training, but his ceiling is still high.

James Paxton misses out on the buzz that fellow young arms get because he’s 25 and not lighting up the Majors yet, but he’s a quality arm with a high ceiling. If Paxton can correct some of his control issues, he has a workhorse kind of frame at 6’4”, 220. Erasmo Ramirez put up good numbers in the minor leagues as a crafty little righty with a four-pitch mix and good command.

The offense has the ability to put up good numbers assuming things go right with the development of the team’s young players. Cano will be his usual self, though there could be a minor regression in his numbers with the shift from hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Either way, you can expect Cano to bat .300 with 25 or more home runs and somewhere around 90 RBI.

Kyle Seager and Brad Miller should combine for one of the better left sides of the infield in the American League this season. Seager is a rather unknown commodity, with back-to-back 20-homer seasons and pretty standard plate discipline stats. He did see an uptick in walk rate to place him above average, likely a byproduct of the substandard lineup around him, but his BABIP could go up a bit in his third full season and his line drive rates suggest that it should be a bit higher. As for Miller, he had a great Spring Training to secure the job over Nick Franklin and projection systems put him at around 15 home runs with a pretty good slash line for a shortstop and double-digit steals. That’s valuable, especially from a mediocre offensive position.

The lone remaining everyday starter is Mike Zunino. The former Florida Gator had a rough 2013 with some growing pains and a broken hamate bone. He still has plenty of potential and a veteran backup like John Buck will help Zunino in all facets of the game. He won’t be a high-average hitter, but catchers with power are a nice luxury for most teams. The 23-year-old was rushed through the Mariners system and a chance to catch his breath can only help.

The remainder of the Mariners lineup could see a lot of platoon potential. With switch hitter Justin Smoak, whose splits are much better against righties, right-handed former power hitter Corey Hart, left-handed bat Logan Morrison, left-handed outfielder Michael Saunders, second baseman/outfielder Dustin Ackley, switch hitting middle infielder Nick Franklin, and switch hitter Abraham Almonte all in the mix for at bats. Several of these guys have sharp batting splits and the Mariners could cobble together a decent lineup if all of these guys perform to their strengths.

The bullpen is anchored by Fernando Rodney. After one of the best relief seasons ever in 2012, Rodney regressed to human numbers last season with a 3.38 ERA and a 2.84 FIP. It was still a quality season for Rodney, as his strikeout rate increased slightly. The important thing to remember about Rodney is that, while he regressed, these are numbers that are far more likely to be repeated, so the Mariners know what his true value is. He’s still a solid reliever and a move from the AL East to the AL West should lower his home run rate a bit.

The setup man is Danny Farquhar. Farquhar was the knight in shining armor for the bullpen last season after a myriad of closer issues forced him into the role. Retooled mechanics helped Farquhar light up the gun in the mid-90s and add some additional separation to a power cutter. Don’t be afraid of his 4.20 ERA as his advanced metrics signal that he was far better than that with a 1.86 FIP and a 2.23 SIERA. This is a quality reliever and a great bridge to Rodney.

The rest of the Mariners pen is a mix of guys with big arms that miss bats and also miss the strike zone. There’s talent here in guys like Yoervis Medina and Charlie Furbush is a solid matchup lefty. Deposed closer Tom Wilhelmsen is reportedly adding a cutter to his fastball-curveball mix, which will give him as many as five pitches to work with.

If you like the over for the Mariners, you’re buying into their potential. It’s a very young team with two stars in Hernandez and Cano, a highly underrated fringe-star in Hisashi Iwakuma, and a collection of young guys with minor league and college track records that clearly have talent.

Why bet the under?

While the rotation has a lot of upside, expecting length from Paxton, Walker, Ramirez, and Baker is not something bettors should hang their hats on. A bullpen that lacks depth will be used a lot when anybody but Hernandez and Iwakuma are pitching. This is a Mariners team that could see a lot of early leads evaporate in the middle innings before Farquhar, Furbush, and Rodney can get in the game.

Promise and potential are great, but baseball is a results business. The truth is that the Mariners have very few everyday players and are reliant on a lot of flawed players to combine to form above average players. That’s a very difficult thing to expect. Smoak and Ackley look like failed prospects, Saunders cannot stay healthy, and Hart missed all of 2013. Speaking of Hart, park factor has meant a lot to him as his Miller Park performance led to a .291/.352/.539/.891 slash line, while he has batted just .262/.316/.446/.762 away from Milwaukee. And Safeco Field is not a great hitter’s park like Miller Park.

The Mariners were the second-worst team in baseball defensively last season, posting a defensive runs saved mark of -99. Included in the calculation of defensive runs saved is range and the Mariners had the worst defensive range of any team in baseball last season. With largely the same group for this season, if not a little bit worse with guys like Hart, it’s not likely for that number to improve a whole lot. Cano is a decent defensive second baseman, but who knows what his effort level will look like when things go south. Not to mention, he’s 31 now and it’s been proven that second basemen age the worst of any position in baseball.

Things like defensive prowess are something that oddsmakers don’t properly factor. They’ll look at hitting and pitching, but miss one of the most important elements in the game – fielding. As baseball analysis gets better and more progressive, the onus has been on improving fielding metrics. While most stats do remain flawed, defensive metrics are still better than ever before and it will take time for the oddsmakers to start properly accounting for defense.

Hisashi Iwakuma is progressing rather slowly with the finger problem that he has had in Spring Training. Because of the inconsistency of young players, if the Mariners fall too far behind the .500 pace early in the season, it will be very difficult for them play good baseball over a four or five-month stretch to go over this win total. Iwakuma’s health is critical to the Mariners and, at 33, who knows if it happens. He missed time with shoulder injuries in the past and he started in the Japan Pacific League at 20, so there’s a lot of mileage on that arm.

Pick: Under 80.5 (+109, BetDSI)

In this instance, I’ll trade the half-win for the 25 or so cents of juice. This team has a ton of potential and it really wouldn’t be surprising if the Mariners’ young rotation comes together and the platoons piecemeal enough offense to make this team a contender in the AL West. Oakland and Texas have pitching problems and the Angels are no sure thing. Ultimately, there are too many “if” statements about the Mariners. The difficulty in going against the Mariners is that they have a great shot to win 40 percent of the time with Hernandez and Iwakuma. Of course, the Mariners were 14-17 in Hernandez’s 31 starts last season and 19-14 in Iwakuma’s 33 starts. That’s a 33-31 mark, which probably wouldn’t be good enough this season to force a .500 record with the rest of the starters.

The middle relief is really a huge concern with a back-end of the rotation that’s going to walk guys and not work deep into games. Rodney, Farquhar, and Furbush will close the games that they get a chance to close, but those opportunities could be few and far between.

The Mariners will be a team to watch in the future depending on the rotation, but with a lot of below average offensive performers and a young rotation with control issues, plus a very competitive division in spite of the hardships encountered so far for the other teams, the Mariners are going to fall a little short of this total.