BY Art Thiel 04:47PM 01/27/2017

Thiel: Doubts about Mariners’ top 3 starters

The Mariners seem to have a younger and more athletic roster than in 2016. But the top three starters — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton — supply more questions than answers.

Bad days were more plentiful for Felix Hernandez in 2016. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Gotta say that Jerry Dipoto relieved the baseball souls of numerous Mariners fans when he cleared the air Thursday at the club’s annual “this might be our year” luncheon at Safeco Field.

Referring to his 16 months of roster convulsions, he said,  “We have not done this with pandemonium in mind.”

Whew. Since pandemonium has swept through numerous aspects of our civic lives, it’s good to know the local baseball outfit knows what it is doing.

But minutes later, after he left the interview room and before lunch was served, he cut a minor league relief pitcher to make room for a waiver-wire catcher named Tuffy.

So much for proclamations.

Dipoto also said only nine players remain from the 40-man roster he inherited from former GM Jack Zduriencik. But that became wrong later in the day when C Jesus Sucre was released.

Dipoto, I believe, is Italian for whoosh.

Then again, we’ve seen this sort of churn before around here. In their first two seasons together, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider went through more than 1,000 player transactions before the bewilderment settled to reveal a Super Bowl champion.

New University of Washington coach Chris Petersen booted 10 players off the team he inherited from Steve Sarkisian, and by his third season the Huskies were in the College Football Playoffs.

In mid-season, the Sounders fired their successful longtime coach, who made the playoffs every year, his assistant was hired as a temp and they won their first MLS Cup.

So employing a 52-card pickup methodology is not necessarily a guarantee of failure.

As Dipoto pointed out, his many moves — 36 trades, 12 this winter, including one Thursday during dessert  — helped build a team that went from 76 to 86 wins and just missed the playoffs.

But one deal went too far.

By trading versatile starter/reliever Mike Montgomery to Chicago, where he helped the Cubs win their first championship since the Great Permian Extinction, for minor-league 1B Ben Vogelbach (1-for-12 with six K’s in a September call-up), Dipoto probably induced the rotational instability that kept the Mariners from the post-season.

The Mariners went through a club-record 31 pitchers (remember Donn Roach, Joe Wieland, Adrian Sampson and SS Luis Sardinas?) as injuries and poor performances made a hash of the staff. Staying with Montgomery (2.34 ERA, 1.086 WHIP in 32 games) had to have been worth two wins, just by keeping the truck drivers and insurance salesmen off the mound.

But making the playoffs would have been merely symbolic, ending the 15-year drought but with no meaningful chance to advance. Dipoto said the 25-man roster, including the oldest group of position players in MLB, was full of one-year-contract vets such as Nori Aoki, Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, Chris Iannetta and Seth Smith. They were mostly bridges to 2017. The rallies, the late wins, the home runs were entertaining, not substantive.

For 2017, they’re all gone, replaced by mostly younger players whose best days are ahead, such as the 24-year-old Vogelbach. A 6-1, 250-pound kitchen appliance, he’s booked for platooning at first with newcomer and seven-year vet Danny Valencia.

Dipoto’s idea for 2017 is to get closer to his stated 2016 desire of preferring defense, youth and appearing on the basepaths a little less like a sack of potatoes tumbling down stairs.

“Last year, we were third in the American League in runs scored (4.74) and third in the league in earned run average (4.00),” he said. “We were a poor defensive club and we weren’t very good on bases.

“We don’t think we robbed the first two elements. We feel like a team that can still score runs. Now we feel like we are a team that can better prevent runs and we can be exciting on the bases. This is a team that is built to win and win now.”

Adding athletic outfielders such as Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson buttresses Dipoto’s point. But the roster’s one big vulnerability, at least as seen from late January, is the three key pitching holdovers from last year — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton.

The presumptive top three starters marbled flashes of brilliance and mediocrity with injuries to suggest some degree of vulnerability for 2017.

Iwakuma, 36 in April, managed to get to 199 innings, but with a 4.12 ERA and a staff-high 1.327 WHIP. Paxton, 28, had just 20 games, 121 innings and fingernails made of papier mache. And Hernandez, the subject of a passionate defense Thursday by Dipoto, missed seven weeks with a calf injury. He had his worst season since 2007 and will be 31 in April with more than 2,400 MLB innings on his right arm.

“You have to keep in mind how high the bar is for Felix,’’ said manager Scott Servais Thursday. “He’s still really good. He’s going to be the anchor of that rotation. He will start opening day. He’s going to be our guy.

“It may not be at the level he was always at in the past. But that level was unbelievable.”

Was it unbelievable? Every substantial playoff team seems to have an “unbelievable” ace. When Hernandez was at his apex, most of the rest of the roster was not, constituting a great squandering. As with many once consistently great players, he’s capable of the feat occasionally. But that’s not the definition of a No. 1.

Hernandez was said to be in intense training. Dipoto said the many stories written of his career expiration will only add fuel. That may be true. And if it isn’t quite true, Dipoto insisted the team surrounding him is better.

“We’ve built a team that could better support a winning core,” he said, referring to Hernandez, 2B Robinson Cano, OF/DH Nelson Cruz and 3B Kyle Seager. “We feel like we’ve done that. We won 86 games a year ago. I feel like this team has every chance to be that good and better.”

Could be. But, to risk another football analogy, the top of the Mariners’ rotation feels at the moment a little like the Seahawks’ offensive line. When it doesn’t work, the rest of the team seems forced to play perpetual catch-up.


  • drwheelock

    Wow Art…Mr. Pessimistic! Are you kidding me?

    1. We have the best Defensive OF in MLB along with several CFers as 4th & 5th OFers.
    2. Haniger is our Sleeper this year that could easily put up 20+ HRs.
    3. 2016 SS was our biggest hole, and Marte only provided 1 HR on top of horrible Defense. Segura is hands a top defender at SS, and he’s got a bat with gap and power!
    4. We have a lot of power arms in the BP from both sides of the mound.
    5. Now we have one of the top Infields too.
    6. And we have a strong 5 in our rotation, with Paxton I think will demonstrate Ace stuff in 2017. I truly believe Gallardo and Smyly with both each produce a min of 2 WAR for us, but they both have potential of being a lot more.

    The only questionable issue I have is Vogelbachs defense, but Valencia’s defense at 1B is above avg. And Vogelbach has outstanding minor league OBP (400+) over the past 4 years, as does Haniger our RFer now! And Valencia platooning with Vogelbach I’m thinking will crush RHP/LHP on that Platoon scenario. If vogelbach can’t handle stepping up on his 1B Defense then he will be replaced in the 2nd half.

    I think Dipoto kicked butt this offseason. Our team is a replica of the Kansas City team with they went to the World Series for 2 years in a row, and won it once…BUT we had the #2 HR power in MLB in 2016, and we still have our “core” HR power from 2016, but adding Haniger/Segura/Valencia/Vogelbach/Dyson will easily replace the HRs from the players we let go this offseason.

    But along with the HR power we will maintain in 2017, we have BETTER OF defense, SS defense and a pretty decent rotation with Paxton a strong potential ace breakout this year!

    • art thiel

      Several good points, especially about the prospect of runs saved by defense. The team is improved. As is everyone in AL West. We can’t know yet whether the top three starters have the physical ability to produce at the expected levels. Biggest question for 2017.

      • drwheelock

        I think our Rotation has more upside than downside personally. With all the other improvements Dipoto made, I’d be happy if all 5 SPs could produce a 2-WAR, and if our rotation can accomplish that with all the other improvements I think we are going places this year. But I truly think Paxton will breakout this year as our ace. Iwakuma should be the same. Felix will need to step up from last year, but even if Felix maintains a 3-3.7 era I think we’ll be fine with that rotation. Gallardo has only had one down year, and I really like the Smyly addition. It’s nice to know Miranda and his 3.5 era is waiting in the wings in case of the need for an emergency starter. I truly believe Paxton & Smyly will provide us with a WAR greater than 2.

        Regarding the rest of the AL West?

        1. Oakland is worse than last year and lost a lot in the Offseason.
        2. Rangers lost a lot more than they replaced, even if they eventually ad Napoli this next month. If they add Napoli then they should be pretty competitive with Houston and Seattle.
        3. I don’t think Angels are much improved, except for adding Valbuena. They had the worse rotation in MLB last year, and they did NOT improve their SP by much after losing several of their starters to FA. The Angels are an old team with no Farm system. But “If” they “all” can stay healthy they will be competitive. But a lot has to go right for them to even have a chance at the Wild Card in my view.
        4. Houston? OUCH they are our main competition in 2017! They added Reddick, Morton & Beltran. But they also lost: Rasmus, Fister, Valbuena, Castro.
        6. Seattle? Has #1 OF Defense, Improved SS offense/defense drastically, has depth in the rotation, added amazing speed on the bases with Segura/Dyson.

        My think this is where the AL West will be come 10/1:

        1. Houston/Seattle
        2. Seattle/Houston
        3. Rangers
        4. Angels
        5. Oakland

        I definitely feel we are the Wild Card favorites at this point, and with some luck can win the division. But over the past 6 years, what has pissed me off the most is that Seattle has lost more 1-run games than any team in MLB. Dipoto improved that in 2016, but we still lost more 1-run and close games than we should have. They tightened OF/SS defense, and adding 63 more SBs with Dyson & Segura to be on the bases in front of Cano/Cruz/Seager/Haniger. I’m EXCITED to see how many Runs & RBIs scored having Dyson/Segura at the top of our lineup.

        I think Seattle will definitely be in the playoff fight right up until the last weekend of the season again, but hopefully what Dipoto did will help finally get us to the playoffs…US FANS DESERVE IT GREATLY!

        • art thiel

          Good thoughts, Wheelock. Almost by definition if you get 2+ WAR lineup, a team should be in the playoffs. But as I suggested, the 1-2-3 rotation spots are fragile. No ace in his prime, and Felix must master being a different kind of pitcher.

  • 1coolguy

    Montgomery and now Walker. I am just very much questioning letting these two go. I’m one that sides with great pitching over everyday players, as the best defense typically beats the great offense, and with three (3) starters, it means there are really two (2), as one will be out. So who are the other pitchers?
    I would love to buy M’s tickets again, but I’m still on the sidelines, not buying fools gold at this point. As to Felix, I sure hope he takes his age seriously and gets himself in top physical shape, as his pitching last year was so inconsistent. His fastball set up his other four pitches and without it, he became much less feared and the results showed it. So hopefully he shows up in GREAT physical condition and can get back to a consistent, say, 96 fast ball.
    Paxtson is always a walking wounded and Iwakuma is, well, 36, so I see there being 2 of these 3 available once we’re, say, 1/3 into the season. So who are the other 2-3 starters? They are on the Cubs and Diamondbacks.

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    • art thiel

      Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo are the 4-5 pitchers, definite upgrades from the previous year. But the 1-2-3 have more questions than answers in late January. If they have career average years, M’s are in the playoffs. The “if” is large.

  • coug73

    Optimism and spring baseball go hand in hand.

  • (redacted)

    I think Paxton is primed for a huge breakout season, as long as he stays healthy. He was utterly dominant last September with 35 K’s and 1 BB. I’m thinking he’s going to transition into our ace this year and make up for whatever regression Kuma and Felix may have, although I think Felix is primed for a bounce back year.

    • art thiel

      Paxton has always had ace talent. It’s head and health that have denied him. Her claims to be ready for the breakout.

      • drwheelock

        I’ve always felt Paxton had Kershaw type ability, but up until last August he just hasn’t pulled it together due to lots of injures and some needed adjustments. I noticed last August the coaching staff was credited with helping him make some of those needed adjustments and ever since early August 2016 he’s been demonstrating his Kershaw type ability.

        Here’s hoping those adjustments will work for a “full” season without injuries this year!

      • (redacted)

        But last year he remained healthy besides a couple flukey things like a hangnail and getting hit by a liner. And he also added a couple MPH to his fastball with his mechanical adjustments. It just seems the stars are aligning.

  • Sam Base

    All in all a very interesting team. Dipoto has done his job well in service of his vision. I’m ready for the season right now.

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    • art thiel

      Shoring up the corner OF spots and SS were big deals. We’ll see if the rotation holds up.

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  • woofer

    Your last paragraph inadvertently holds the key: bolster the starting rotation with a few off-season Seahawks offensive linemen. These guys are incredibly versatile. I’ll bet one or two of them can play baseball at least as well as they play football. George Fant can do just about anything!

    My secret sauce for marinating the Mariners into contention is for Mike Zunino to finally have a breakout year at the plate. He’s got the talent and power to be a good hitter. Edgar seems to have instilled a little patience and discipline in him last year. Just a little more could be enough together him over the hump.

  • Kme Moxee

    Vogelbach is listed at 6 ft & no more inches and 250#

  • Husky73

    I am generally a pessimist when it comes to Seattle baseball. I sat in the unfinished bleachers at Sicks Stadium in 1969 and thought to myself, “This isn’t going to work out.” BUT…I am optimistic about the 2017 Mariners! There, I said it. The new SS is big time. And, Dipoto’s quantity over quality approach may bring enough mass to the roster where by throwing everything imaginable against the wall, something will stick. I think he’s found some starters, relievers, outfielders and catchers– all with a pulse– who may actually add up to 90 wins.

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    With this franchise it’s always been, “next year”. Lot’s of changes to the team and most for the better. The starting rotation will be the teams weakest link, Kuma 36, Felix 31 that has throw a kazillion pitches and Paxton constantly in need of a manicure will most likely be the downfall once again. Hopefully the team catches some breaks and the staff performs well. My belief that the team will be able to obtain more pitching for the 2018 season due to more and better free agents being available. Hope springs eternal, Go M’s.