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The AL Rest, Part 3: How Do the 2019 Mariners Compare to the Astros?

The Mariners made a flurry of moves this winter after a surprising 2018, but it looks more like a reload than a rebuild. Will they be a nuisance to the Astros again this year?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve already covered the Angels and the Athletics in our season preview series, but we haven’t covered the team that was on the Astros’ heels for most of the 2018 season: the Mariners. Expectations were low for Seattle entering last year, but they surprised everyone and spent the first half of the season swapping with the Astros between first and second place in the AL West. And while they faltered down the stretch and fell into third place, it’s still worth noting that they only finished two games behind the AL Central-winning Indians. Despite that, the Mariners have made a lot of changes going in to 2019; could they again be surprise contenders?

The Seattle Mariners

2018 in review

As mentioned, most people predicted the Mariners to finish third or fourth in 2018. But they shocked the baseball world and finished…well, third still, but it was a strong third, one that saw them in second place for most of the year before fading down the stretch.

Part of what made it especially shocking, though, was how they did it in spite of being outscored by 34 runs. Indeed, they finished 12 games ahead of their Pythagorean record, ending the year at 89-73. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough to hold off a surging Oakland Athletics, and the M’s once again failed to end pro sports’ longest playoff drought. And coming off of that disappointment, their transaction-happy GM Jerry Dipoto went to work…

What’s New in 2019?

Basically everything. The Mariners decided to completely reshuffle their roster heading into the 2019 season. It looks like a rebuild, with eight of their top twelve players in 2018 (by Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement) on new teams this year, but that’s not quite the case. And since they surprised everyone and came out of nowhere last year, we might as well see if their new look has the potential to pull off more surprises.

Still, it definitely looks like success will be a tall order to repeat. Gone is Jean Segura, All-Star shortstop under contract through 2023, who was sent to Philadelphia with Juan Nicasio and James Pazos. Gone also is long-time Mariner Carlos Santana, who came to the team in the Segura trade but was sent back to Cleveland after his ten heart-wrenching days Seattle, which felt much longer than that. Edwin Encarnacion is still here and penciled in to start at DH, but they’ve reportedly been shopping him, so his long tenure in the Pacific Northwest may also soon come to a close. J.P. Crawford, the top prospect from Philly that came over in the Segura trade, will likely spend most of 2019 as the starting shortstop given that his main competition is fellow new acquisition Tim Beckham.

Gone also is Robinson Cano, who missed half of 2018 on a steroid suspension. The 36-year-old, eight-time All-Star was packaged with breakout closer Edwin Diaz in a deal with the Mets. In exchange, they took on Jay Bruce (whose contract ends three years earlier and costs $96 million less than Cano’s) and a few prospects.

Those were the big-names-for-big-names swaps, but that wasn’t all the Mariners did this winter. There was the regular old “big-name-for-prospects” deal, where James Paxton was sent to the Yankees for Justus Sheffield. Sheffield is probably the new top prospect in the Mariners’ system, and will also probably see playing time in the bigs this year.

And then, there were the smaller deals. Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia were both sent to Tampa Bay for Mallex Smith, who will start in center after a breakout year that saw him post a 117 wRC+ and lead the league in triples. Ben Gamel was sent to Milwaukee in exchange for former Astro Domingo Santana, who seemed like he figured things out for the Brewers in 2017, but took a step backwards in 2018. And reliever Alex Colome was traded to the White Sox for catcher Omar Narváez, who has seemed decent in part-time work and saw his hitting improve noticeably last year at age 26.

There were free agency moves, too. Nelson Cruz moved on after four strong years as their DH, signing with Minnesota. Denard Span and Cameron Maybin also left. Their big pick-ups on the market were mostly relievers, including Hunter Strickland and Cory Gearrin, with the biggest exception being Japanese starter Yusei Kikuchi. MLB Trade Rumors had Kikuchi, who will turn 28 in June, as the twelfth-best free agent of this past winter.

Phew, that was a lot to cover.

Key Players in 2019

Mitch Haniger’s 2018, his first season of 100+ games, was a breakout performance that helped cover for a lot of disappointments across the team. Haniger posted a 135 wRC+, played strong defense in right field, and wound up finishing eleventh in MVP voting while picking up an All-Star selection. We’ll see if the 28-year-old is a one-season wonder or if this is just the beginning, but if the Mariners want to shock everyone again in 2019, they will need him at his best.

A big reason for that is that just about any other potential big seasons the team might see will have to come from at least somewhat-surprising places. If you’re looking for another All-Star to back Haniger up, Mallex Smith taking another step forward seems like the most plausible option to me, but even that would require a new best from him. J.P. Crawford and Justus Sheffield’s high ceilings are enticing as well, although that’s a lot to ask of young players with so little major league experience. Of course, maybe Kikuchi or 27-year-old former-prospect Marco Gonzales takes over as a top-of-the-rotation guy, although solidly-above-average would do a lot for this team as well. Or perhaps Domingo Santana finally puts it all together this year for real? There’s a lot you can dream on here, but most of it is still just dreaming at the moment.

After them, the Mariners are probably hoping for a bounce back from one of their former stars in their early-30s. Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager have had some good seasons in the near past, and are both entering just their age-31 seasons, so it could happen. But Seager’s been on a downward trajectory for two seasons, and two of Gordon’s last three seasons have been pretty mediocre. And of course, there’s the perpetual hope that this is the year that soon-to-be 33-year-old Félix Herández returns to his earlier Hall-of-Fame pace in the final (guaranteed) year of his contract after three years in the wilderness, but that’s looking less likely after all this time.

And then, there’s the off-chance that another veteran, like Mike Leake or Edwin Encarnacion can put things together one more time and turn in an above-average or even fringe-All-Star kind of year. I feel like the larger point here is, this is a mostly-solid roster, and there are a decent number of players who might outperform what we’re expecting, but most of those feel like long-shots. “All-around-okay, nothing more” still seems like the most likely outcome for this team.

How do they measure up to the Astros?

Let’s just get this out of the way: the Mariners really didn’t measure up to the Astros last year, despite how close the AL West race was for a large part of the year. They ended up finishing 14 games behind Houston in the standings, and 32 games behind the Astros in Pythagorean record.

Even if you assume the Mariners’ flurry of moves left them no worse off than they were last year, they still have a ton of ground to make up just to cover up the likely regression to the mean that is coming. And while a lot of the players they lost are pretty replaceable (no M’s fan should weep over the loss of Mike Zunino or Alex Colome or Denard Span, for instance), there still was a lot of talent leaving town. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz have been incredibly reliable well into their 30s, even if their ages and contract situations made them prime candidates to move and move on from, respectively, and Edwin Diaz was a huge part of last year’s success.

Still…the Mariners weren’t likely to repeat 2018 even if they brought back everyone from last year, and with enough breaks in their favor, they might even be better on a pure talent level this year. Although given that it’s almost certain they won’t repeat their success in one-run games, Seattle could have a stronger roster overall this year and still lose more games, but that’s just baseball for you. If nothing else, the 2019 roster looks a little better set up for long-term success than the 2018 one, and while they aren’t as dangerous as the A’s or Angels, they also don’t seem to be in full-on rebuild like the Rangers, and that in and of itself means it’s too early to treat them as a total non-threat on the Astros’ schedule.