This Friday, February 19th, 2016, kicks off the Seattle Mariners 2016 baseball season.
And while I appreciate all the changes new Mariner GM Jerry Dipoto has made since he took office in September, the most burning question I have is, just what can we expect from this team in 2016?
Dipoto says all the right things, that the Mariners foundation is excellent, build a team that has flexibility, balance and is sustainable and the team needs to add depth. What else is he supposed to say, right?
But there is one thing I found different than any of the other GM’s that have sat in that chair for the Mariners. He is taking a holistic view of the team and rather than try to have instant success via free agency, he is going to build from a farm system that is stocked with some very good talent.
We all can trace back to the failures the Mariners have tried in bringing up players who appeared to be ready but weren’t. The most glaring example is that of Mike Zunino.
In college, while at Florida, Zunino was a career .320 hitter and averaged 58 RBI’s per season. Had an excellent slugging percentage of .605 and an on base percentage of .383, excellent numbers for a catcher. And no one could dispute his defensive skills. When the Mariners drafted him 2013, I could see Zunino behind the dish full-time in 2015.
Zunino continued to excel in the minor leagues, moving quickly from A ball to AAA ball by 2013, just a year out of college. And with the numbers he had in the minors, it wasn’t surprising he was called up at the end of the 2013 season. Slugging percentage of .597, batting average of .313 and showed some power hitting 27 home runs and driving in 94 during his short time in the minors.
When he was slated as the starting catcher to start the 2014 season, I thought it was too soon. But I got the feeling the Mariners were in panic mode and wanted him up. And he was a major flop at the plate over the next two seasons. Sure, he hit 22 home runs and drove in 60 in 2014, but his batting average was an anemic .199 and the on base percentage dropped to .294. Add to that and he struck out 158 times, often in critical RBI situations.
2015 was even worse, hitting only .174, striking out 132 times with a mere .300 slugging percentage. It was clear that Zunino had some major flaws in his swing that big league pitchers graphically exposed. Interim GM Jeff Kingston mercifully shipped Zunino down to the minors and kept him there for the remainder of the season instead of calling him up in September.
Dipoto knew that a cultural change was needed. And while I liked Lloyd McClendon as a manager, the writing was on the wall when Dipoto was hired in. I like the hiring of Scott Servias, whom Dipoto worked with during his stint with the Angels. And while Servias has never managed at any level, Dipoto hired some savvy veteran baseball men in Tim Bogar and Manny Acta.
There was an immediate need to change the culture, not just at the major league level, but through out the entire organization. I think one of the reasons why Zunino flamed out was because he had connected with the coaching staffs at the minor league levels but not with Howard Johnson, who was the batting coach for the Mariners when Zunino was first called up. And by the time Edgar Martinez could put some time in with him, Zunino was so screwed up that the best thing they could do was let him work it out in the minors.
Dipoto gathered all of the coaches from every level and wanted to get everyone on the same page, stressing what the big league club needed to succeed. And to do that, the players coming up from the minors needed to have good on base percentage and low strike-out ratios. The idea is to make opposing pitchers work, to stretch them out early and get to the opposing teams middle relievers as soon as they can.
The hitting coaches in particular needed to stress the same things at every level. Dipoto and Edgar Martinez came up with a game plan that will start in A ball and have the same game plan all the way to AAA ball. So when a player is called up, he will need to meet the same expectations as he did in the minors and the surprises will be minimal.
I suspect that was the issue with Zunino. His expectations in the minors were vastly different than what was expected in the majors. His whole hitting philosophy was changed by Howard Johnson when he got there and he had to think to much while at the plate, which caused indecisiveness, which caused hesitation, which caused him to strike out.
When a player, regardless of the sport, has to think too much, he’s toast. As the great Crash Davis always said “Get out of your head” is always a great mantra to follow.
I agree with most of the predictions out there, that the Mariners will hit about 75 – 83 wins this year. And while that might be a disappointment again, we need to give this management team a chance to impellent their plan because I believe this is a solid foundational plan that will make Seattle a baseball town again. Not for just a couple of years, but for a couple of decades.
Looking forward to the season!