Seattle Mariners: Signing Nelson Cruz Doesn’t Guarantee Success

Rumored Mariner signing Nelson Cruz would add a powerful bat to a lineup already bolstered by the arrivals of Robinson Cano and Corey Hart. What signing Cruz doesn’t do is guarantee success.

An offensive triumvirate of Cruz, Cano and Kyle Seager isn’t one to balk at, and is a wonderful foundation for the team moving forward, but in terms of success, it guarantees nothing.

In most divisions, like say the NL West, these kinds of additions (Cano, Cruz, Hart) would push a team towards the top of the table. Not so much with the Mariners in the AL West.

The rest of the division is stocked. The Mariners’ rise to “playoff-contender” status, if not the realm of respectability, has vaulted the division to a ridiculous level. On paper, the Angels, A’s and Rangers all have the talent to be playoff teams. Throw in Seattle, and you end up with a lot of unhappy teams come the postseason.

It wouldn’t be completely surprising to see, even with Cano and friends, the M’s finish in the same exact place in the standings as last year. They’re probably going to have an improved record, but as stated, the division is stacked.

If one thing is clear after watching postseason baseball, it’s that pitching is needed to contend. Teams like Detroit, Boston, St. Louis and Oakland found great success last year with tremendous staffs. And it wasn’t just those four teams; most playoff teams boasted strong pitching. Great pitching is nearly synonymous with a playoff squad now-a-days.

Which brings the topic of one-way conversation in the piece to the Mariners’ pitching.

The M’s will use some combination of Erasmo Ramirez, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer and recent signing Scott Baker for the last three spots in the rotation. This is where question marks come into play. Moving into the future, both Walker and Paxton figure to be mainstays in the Seattle rotation thanks to their fantastic potential, but between them they have a grand total of 39 innings at the big league level. Whether they continue to show promise or hit a wall remains to be seen.

Ramirez and Maurer have both shown flashes of potential in the past, but the jury remains largely out on the pair. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Baker, given his experience and quality, leapfrog one or both of them to claim a rotation spot. The bottom line is that the Mariners’ rotation could show the promise and poise that Oakland’s young hurlers have shown, or they could continue to display the growing pains that have plagued the team.

If anything, a potential Cruz signing puts more pressure on the rotation to succeed. The one-time Brewer coupled with Cano, Hart and Logan Morrison would vastly improve a team that had issues scoring runs. The run output in Seattle should, at the very least, be slightly above average. The Mariners need their young pitchers to step up. If they can do this, Seattle will be in a position to contend. If not, well let’s just say get ready for all those low-scoring losses to turn into higher-scoring losses.

Free Agent Find- Josh Johnson

The Mariners have a dilemma on their hands. One that involves pitching. The team gave up the fifth most runs in baseball last season. They also finished in the statistical basement in categories such as WHIP, homeruns and wild pitches. A lot of that has to do with their starting pitchers, based on sheer workload compared to the bullpen.

The current starting rotation consists of Felix Hernandez, Hishashi Iwakuma, Joe Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer.

Going forward, Hernandez and Iwakuma are the only real locks. Saunders could be kept around, but that’s a story for another time.

The dilemma that I alluded to earlier is this: Seattle needs to upgrade its starting pitching, but they don’t want to block the path of the Big Three. No, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish aren’t walking through that door, but James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker are.

Seattle could throw all three of them in the fire and use the rookies with their two All-Stars, but in all likelihood, not all of the pitchers will be ready. Hence the M’s need a stop-gap player.

Enter Josh Johnson.

The former Marlins’ Ace struggled in a Blue Jays uniform. In 16 starts north-of-the-border he posted a 2-8 record with an ERA of 6.20. Not only did his ERA balloon, he also gave up more homeruns in 16 starts than he gave up in nearly twice as many starts in his final year in Miami. The potential is still there. He posted 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his first year in the AL, his highest total since 2010 when he was an All-Star and received votes for the Cy Young (finished 5th) and MVP (25th).

Due to numerous variables, Johnson won’t garner as much free agent attention as other starting pitchers who are also out of contract. Part of that has to do with his down year. It also has to do with the moderately strong class of free agent starters. Matt Garza, AJ Burnett and Masahiro Tanaka headline the group with other names such as Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and Ricky Nolasco sure to garner interest.

The underlying theme here is that Johnson could be had for cheap, relative to his value. Teams won’t necessarily be lined up around the block with money to offer him like they will/would for Tanaka or Garza. This could be a one-man gold mine for the Mariners.

Obviously Johnson isn’t going to be a long-term piece in Seattle. He won’t sign a long contract and the Mariners like their youngsters moving forward, but Johnson could be a very enticing fit in the Emerald City.

Put it this way, the Mariners sign Johnson, he regains some of the form that he lost from his Cy Young worthy years, and the Mariners sell high on him at the deadline in order to gain a young piece for the future.

Not only is Johnson an attractive option to sign and flip come deadline day, he also will improve the M’s pitching staff.  His 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings were higher than every M’s starting pitcher not named Hernandez. That’s 2.2 more than Maurer, 2.7 more than Harang and 3.8 more than Saunders. This is useful considering the fact that the M’s were an extremely poor defensive unit, no matter what advanced stat you use. To sum it up, that’s two to three more outs that Johnson didn’t expose his fielders to, outs that never left the batters’ box.

Who knows, maybe the M’s contend with a trio of Felix, Iwakuma and Johnson. Maybe they decide that they like Johnson and want to keep him long term. This could allow them to trade the lesser, in their opinion, of the Big Three in a package for an impact bat along the lines of what they tried to get with Justin Upton.

Josh Johnson, one man gold mine for the Mariners.


Determining the Mariners’ Outfield of the Future

The Mariners probably can’t believe their luck with the embarrassment of riches they have in terms of young, exciting talent. Kyle Seager is already a bona fide star, Nick Franklin and Brad Miller continue to settle into their respective middle infield roles earlier than expected and Mike Zunino has showed well in a limited stint with the big boys. The future cornerstones of the team also include the highly heralded “Big Three” pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. The current season, while leaving much to be desired from a win-loss standpoint, has yielded the M’s a group of potentially useful relievers such as Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar and Brandon Maurer, the latter of whom could still be a major league starter down the road.

What’s missing, you’ll notice, is the mention of any outfield player. The questions surrounding the current group, even those in AAA, are numerous. Can Dustin Ackley establish himself as an outfielder both offensively and defensively? Does either Endy Chavez (35) or Raul Ibanez (41) have anything left in the tank after the conclusion of next season? Can Michael Saunders hit above .250? Can Carlos Peguero hit for contact? Will Franklin Gutierrez play 140 games in a season ever again? Or even 100?

These questions would be all right if the M’s had a handful of outfield prospects waiting in the wings. They don’t. DJ Peterson, the M’s most recent first-round pick, might be moved there to avoid being blocked by Seager, and while his bat will be strong in the outfield; he will never be Ichiro Suzuki. Austin Wilson, another recent draft pick, shows promise defensively in the outfield but is still, like Peterson, in his first season professionally. Not to mention they are both at High A Everett.

The Mariners’ biggest question is who will be in that outfield in the future? Potentially Chavez and Ibanez could be gone come next Opening Day. The alternatives are to make multiple trades for outfielders or sign replacement players on similar contracts to the previously mentioned trio.

Seattle needs to start finding itself an outfield that works now and later. Best case scenario, the team would probably like to see Guti return to the form he showed in his earlier days in Seattle and patrol center field. Next to him in right would probably be Saunders, showing the promise he has flashed numerous times. Over in left, for the short term, would probably be Ibanez, should he continue to hit home runs. Long term, Ackley or Stefan Romero could all be options if they can hit well enough to stay in the lineup.

The most likely case scenario will probably play out somewhat like it has this season. The M’s will tinker and mix and match with a group of low-risk, high-reward veterans on short contracts while they wait for prospects to come to the big club. Whether those be players like Peterson and Wilson or prospects acquired in a trade, the M’s future out field is a long ways away.