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Pressing Questions: The Seattle Mariners

Brandon Funston
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Who's excited about the M's '14 season? Anyone? ... Anyone? (USAT)

We continue our series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 4-5 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report soon. Fantasy owners report immediately...

That big (and, undeniably, hilarious) photo above sort of sums up the general feeling about the Mariners these days, at least among Seattle sports fans. The NFL's Seahawks just brought the city of Seattle its first major sports championship since '79. The Seattle Sounders, with a wanna-be EPL fan base, has averaged 44k fans each of the past two seasons, twice as much as any other team in Major League Soccer. Throw in a devoted group of Bring Back the Sonics enthusiasts, and you could say that the Mariners, with four consecutive seasons with 75 wins or less, have become a threadbare afterthought amongst the Seattle sports fabric.

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Certainly the Mariners have helped exacerbate their situation, thanks to some questionable PR tactics. A couple years ago, the team made the very unpopular move of positioning itself as a political roadblock for Chris Hansen, who is trying to build a NBA/NHL stadium in the M's backyard. And, then there was the Seattle Times report by Geoff Baker that came out in December, with former manager Eric Wedge and many other ex-employees helping detail the dysfunctional work environment in the M's front office under GM Jack Zduriencik.

If ever a team was in need of some positive vibes, it was the Mariners heading into this past offseason. Enter Robinson Cano, for 240 million dollars over the next 10 years. And that's the obvious place to start our '14 Pressing Questions for Seattle:

Q: No longer in pinstripes, is Cano still worth a first-round draft pick?

A: The thought of leaving band box Yankee Stadium for the marine-layer shrouded Safeco Field is certainly less than ideal for a hitter. But if anyone can make the move with the minimum amount of suffering, it's Cano. First off, among the 82 players with at least 18 home runs last season, Cano ranked a solid 32nd with an average of 403.9 feet of true distance on his homers (h/t HitTrackerOnline). And if you go to Cano's page on HitTrackerOnline and select the Safeco Field overlay, you'll see that he may have only lost a home run or two at Safeco Field given the distance of his '13 home runs. Also, his home and road OPS since new Yankee Stadium came into existence in '09 are comparable, with Cano not once in that span posting a road OPS below .832. He also topped a .900 OPS on the road twice, including a .947 mark in '10 that is higher than any OPS he's ever posted at new Yankee Stadium.

At the risk of sounding cliche, Cano is a professional hitter that lasers line drives (top 14 in LD% each of the past two seasons) all over the park, be it against lefties or righties. The change to a new park shouldn't prevent him from pushing a .300 batting average and 25 home runs. The most obvious cause for concern here should be leaving a team that has averaged 229 more runs per season than the M's over the past five seasons. That's a huge number, a regrettable amount of run production forfeited. But the good news is that last season, the Yankees finished an un-Bronx Bomber-like 16th in Runs (650), just 26 more than Seattle (624). And while that led to Cano's first sub-100 Run season since '09 (81), he did manage to drive in 107 runs, the third-best mark of his career.

There's also an argument to be made that Cano might be better off, at least for the upcoming season, in the middle of Seattle's lineup. After all, the Yankees only scored 26 more runs than the M's last season with Cano in the Yankees lineup. Without him, the team will be relying heavily upon 39-year old Derek Jeter, 36-year old Carlos Beltran, 38-year old Alfonso Soriano and 33-year old Mark Teixeira in the heart of the Yanks' order. That's a group that is fraught with DL peril. As for the Mariners, there's plenty of question marks as well, but there's at least not a projected offensive starter older than 31 (Cano and Corey Hart). And if Hart can get even close to recapturing his '12 form (.270/30/83/91/5) coming off a '13 season lost to microfracture knee surgery, Cano should be in pretty good shape hitting between steady hot corner Kyle Seager and Hart in the heart of the M's order. There's also strong rumors that Seattle is trying to add Nelson Cruz, but more on him later.

So, back to the question at hand: Is Cano worth a first-round pick in fantasy drafts. I'll put him down for a fantasy line of .290, 24 HRs, 90 RBIs, 85 Runs and 6 SBs. And the nice thing about Cano is that he's played at least 159 games in seven consecutive seasons. So his projection carries a little more weight than trying to project other top tier middle infielders like Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez or even Dustin Pedroia, players that are no strangers to the Disabled List. Cano definitely loses some of the vault to his offensive ceiling leaving New York, but I'm still putting him in the later part of the first round (ahead of Tulo, HanRam and Pedroia) because of his elevated floor and because he plays a position with few upper tier guarantees.

Q: Cano wasn't the only offensive acquisition. What should be expected of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison?

A: Here lies the $64k question, although to be brutally honest, Morrison probably isn't worth much of a discussion even if he does rebound to career-high levels since he was never much more than a fringe-level player in standard mixers anyways. So let's leave the post-hype Morrison discussion alone (we'll put it in a box next to Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, et al and spare everyone the annual rehashing of now meaningless past Baseball America prospect rankings).

As for Hart, there's still some fantasy intrigue here. At 31, he's not in the traditional over-the-hill territory. And his averages over his past three full seasons (.279, 29 HRs, 83 RBIs, 87 Runs, 6 SBs) make for a tidy fantasy line. Of course, all that was in Milwaukee, in a decidedly offensive-leaning home park and more than a season ago.

For what it's worth, in a January Yahoo mock draft, Rotoworld's Drew Silva rolled the dice on Hart's rehabilitated knees in the 18th round of a 12-team draft, pick No. 213 overall. In the Yahoo rankings of first basemen, Hart slots in among the aggregate ranks at No. 33, between Colorado's Justin Morneau and White Sox slugger Adam Dunn.

Of course, everything is speculative based upon the health of his knees. At the Mariners FanFest in late January, Hart offered a bit of an update on his health, saying, "I’ve ramped up everything. I’ve been running bases and doing baseball stuff. I haven’t gotten on the field yet to do fly balls, but I’ve been doing simulated ground balls to work on my footwork and agility. It’s been progressing. I’ve been able to do everything. It’s been nice.”

The Mariners are more than likely to put him a DH role to open the season and let him progress to the field if/when it seems like his knees can handle it. But, as a guy that even if healthy, probably doesn't project to more than a .250-.260 batting average with low 20s HR upside, I'd probably spend my time fishing for younger players on the upswing rather than trying to extract whatever it is that Hart has left in the tank.


Q: The M's rookie middle infield of Nick Franklin and Brad Miller showed some promise in '13. Where do things stand with them now?

A: With Cano cemented at second base for the foreseeable future, the only opening for either Miller or Franklin is at shortstop. And Miller, who handled the position with aplomb in his first MLB tour last season, has a big leg up on Franklin for the starting job.

Miller, in fact, was a top 15 fantasy middle infielder from June 30th to season's end a year ago, hitting .266 with eight home runs and five steals in 76 games. Miller, a throwback type who eschews batting gloves and rocks the high-sock look, shows a good approach at the plate and makes solid contact (21.6 LD%). And while he's not a terror in the power/speed department, he's a reasonable bet for lower double figure totals in both departments. And if Dustin Ackley again struggles out of the gate, Miller could settle in at the leadoff spot, where he hit most of the time last season. But with Cano just a couple bats down the order, the top of the order should have more to offer this time around. Miller has a very good chance to finish as a top 15 fantasy shortstop in '14, and many of you will be able to land him outside the top 20 SS-eligible players selected.

As for Franklin, his star faded in the second half of '13, when he hit .194 in 64 games. In terms of power/speed, he has a little more upside than Miller, but he'd be a downgrade from Miller defensively at shortstop, and he's got more to figure out in terms of plate discipline/pitch recognition - his strikeouts spiked down the stretch of '13 as he couldn't adjust to a heavier dose of off-speed pitches.

With Dustin Ackley able to fill in at second base should ironman Cano encounter an injury, Franklin seems most likely to be a candidate for a trade at some point during the season, especially if he makes another splash in Triple-A like he did to open '13 and builds some value back in his brand. If not, it's possible that the M's make Franklin a luxury utilityman. Deeper leaguers will want to keep tabs on how his season is progressing, but he's no more than an AL-only consideration coming out of the '14 gates.

Q: How about the top-heavy rotation - any diamonds in the rough behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma?

A: Taijuan Walker. That's the name you need to know. The 21-year old's physical makeup has been compared to Dwight Gooden's. Standing 6-foot-4 with a basketball build and a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, Walker has the stuff to be a true ace. He held his own (3.60 ERA, 12 K, 4 BB in 15 IP) in his only three starts for Seattle in '13 despite being a work in progress with all his offerings save an excellent fastball. He's averaged almost 10 Ks per 9 IP in the minors, but that comes with a 3.61 BB/9 rate. Controlling his curveball and developing a changeup stand in the way of stardom. But there's no reason to think he won't get there. He sits at No. 67 among starters in the Yahoo Starting Pitcher rankings, and it might only take a standout spring for him to start pushing top 50 territory.

Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton and veteran Scott Baker, coming back from elbow surgery, will likely lead the pack of starters vying for the final two spots in the rotation. All have some interesting aspects to explore should they win a starting role. But until that becomes official, none are worth drafting in standard mixers.

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M's & M's: Here's a quick take on some other items of interest

Fernando Rodney's signing effectively kills Danny Farquhar's fantasy value in standard mixers. Too bad. Farquhar was a revelation for the M's down the stretch in '13, saving 16 of 18 games with a 2.23 ERA and 0.93 WHIP after the All-Star break. And among those that pitched at least 50 innings, Farquhar ranked seventh with a K/9 rate of 12.77. The M's needed to improve the bullpen this offseason, so the Rodney signing was more about adding a quality arm to the 'pen. With the more experienced Rodney taking over the closer role, Seattle can now move Farquhar to a high-leverage setup role. Good for the Mariners. Bad for Farquhar's fantasy value. Unless, of course, Rodney channels his inner 2001. Stay tuned.

The hope was that the Mariners would sign Nelson Cruz before this article had to be pushed live. I guess I should be clear that it was my hope as the author of this column, but not as a Mariners fan. Personally, I'm not overly excited about adding a 33-year old with a history of soft tissue injuries and PEDs. Seattle, though, needs right-handed hitting in a pretty bad way, especially if Hart doesn't pan out. Safeco Field is a tough place for right-handed power hitters to make a living, although moving the fences in last season certainly helps. And for his career, Cruz has hit eight home runs in 48 games at Safeco Field, a 28-HR projected 162-game pace. Of course, Cruz has played more than 128 games in a season just once. And who knows how many of his best seasons benefitted from "enhancement." As it stands, the Yahoo experts aggregate rankings place Cruz at No. 42 among the outfield crowd. And signing with Seattle wouldn't be all bad. Alfonso Soriano hit 17 home runs and drove in 50 runs in 56 games hitting (mostly) behind Robinson Cano last season.

Hitting in front of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager is looking like a nice draft value considering that he sits just 13th at the hot corner in the Yahoo rankings, and that's basically where he finished '13 in actual fantasy value (14th). The fact that he is only 26 and now in his third full season, one that should feature a better supporting cast than he's ever had, should push him closer to the top 10 third baseman discussion than where he currently stands.

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