Gustafson: Mariners’ hitting woes not just about free agents – it’s developmental

Jun 8, 2023, 9:12 AM

Seattle Mariners...

Eugenio Suarez of the Seattle Mariners reacts after striking out on May 24, 2023. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

(Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

“I’m tired of the Seattle Mariners not adding bats in free agency.”

That’s certainly been a phrase – or at least a train of thought – among Mariners fans for a while now.

What’s wrong with Seattle Mariners’ bats? A look at their biggest issues

The current front office, led by former general manager and current president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, came to Seattle at the end of 2015, with their first season being 2016.

Since then, the Mariners have largely been quiet in free agency, especially on the hitting side of things. This front office has never given a multi-year contract to a free-agent hitter, with the largest deal handed out being a one-year deal for outfielder AJ Pollock for $7 million this past offseason.

The Mariners’ lack of free agency action has been widely discussed on the Seattle Sports airwaves and website, as well as by M’s fans and analysts across the World Wide Web. Some think it’s a big deal while others say it’s not.

Here’s the thing: The Mariners’ approach to free agency – be it by design or by not being able to close the deal with bigger named players – is amplified by another issue this organization has had.

That would be the development of hitting.

That’s a very general term, but what I mean is that more specifically, this regime has largely failed to develop bats in-house, and that means the free agent inactivity looks even worse by association.

Some Seattle Mariners draft history

Since taking over in 2016, this front office has had seven MLB Drafts and eight international free agency cycles to work with.

The results have been stellar on the pitching side, with Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Bryce Miller becoming key parts of the franchise.

The M’s have shown they can develop pitching with the best of them, be it in the draft, with under-the-radar signings and trades, and even waiver claims. They’ve also gone big for notable stars like Luis Castillo (trade in 2022) and Robbie Ray (free agency after the 2021 season).

But the hitting has been a different story.

How many hitters that the Mariners signed or drafted would you call “hits”?

For me, it’s a measly two – Julio Rodríguez and Cal Raleigh.

What I mean by a “hit” is that these are hitters who have stayed with the Mariners, made it to the MLB roster and emerged as central pieces to the team’s future.

There’s a case to be made for 2016 first-round pick Kyle Lewis, who was the AL Rookie of the Year in the shortened 2020 season, but he basically had a hot three-week stretch in 2019, a good first month of 2020, and then the rest of his M’s career was riddled by injury or poor play when on the field. He’s now in Arizona, where he’s on the injured list once again.

The Mariners have certainly added some impact guys via trade, such as J.P. Crawford and Ty France, or Mitch Haniger further back, but those three all made their MLB debuts before coming to Seattle.

Jarred Kelenic is worthy of mentioning here, but one, he wasn’t drafted by the Mariners, and two, even though his 2023 has been night and day better than his first two years, those first two years were poor enough to still have at least a sense of caution around the young outfielder after his first two months of this season.

Now, it’s too early to make any definitive statements on the Mariners’ 2021 or 2022 prospect classes. The M’s used first-round picks on Harry Ford (2021) and Cole Young (2022), plus a second-rounder on Tyler Locklear (2022) in the draft, and highly-touted shortstop Felnin Celesten headlined an international signing class early this year, though those players typically take longer to develop since they’re usually signed at just 16 or 17 years old.

So let’s look at 2016-20, focusing on early-round picks and international signings.

On the international front, Rodríguez leads the way. After some early struggles in 2023, the 2022 AL Rookie of the Year looks like he’ll be more than fine. Aside from him, the international cycles haven’t produced much of note aside from some trade chips like Noelvi Marte, who was dealt to Cincinnati in the trade for Castillo. It is worth keeping an eye on Jonatan Clase, though, as he’s quickly rising through the system and is on the 40-man roster.

In the draft, the Mariners selected 12 hitters in the first five rounds between 2016 and 2020. Of those 12, four are still with the organization, and four made it to the big leagues with the Mariners: Lewis, Donovan Walton, Evan White and Raleigh. Of those four to reach the Mariners, only two (Raleigh and White) remain in the organization, and White has been injury-plagued and didn’t produce with the bat when he was active with Seattle (though he did win a Gold Glove in 2020). Lewis and Walton were both traded, with Lewis returning catcher Cooper Hummel and Walton going to San Francisco for pitching prospect Prelander Berroa.

And that’s just the first five rounds. Before 2020, the draft had 40 rounds, and outside of Cade Marlowe, who has yet to debut, there haven’t been any potential late-round gems on the hitting front.

With so many internal bats not panning out for the Mariners, coupled with the lack of spending on bats in free agency, Dipoto and Co. have had to build the lineup largely through the trade market.

Many of those trades have paid dividends, with deals for France and Crawford panning out now, and Haniger being a great contributor for the team when healthy for a few years. Eugenio Suárez also went from the less-heralded piece in a trade with the Reds that included Jesse Winker to a key bat in last year’s playoff run.

Obviously not every trade has worked out, with some recent bigger moves coming to mind – Winker and Adam Frazier last year, and Teoscar Hernández and Kolten Wong this year.

Dipoto has repeatedly stressed that the Mariners are a “Draft, Develop, Trade” team, and in some ways that’s true. The M’s have been great at drafting and developing pitching, and they’ve been an active trade team for years with some top contributors coming to Seattle that way.

But the drafting and developing of hitters has left a lot to be desired, and when free agency has been ignored – again, either by design or not being able to get pen to paper – that creates even more problems, especially when that’s how the team says it wants to be built out.

The impact on the field

Dipoto and Co. inherited a very good offense when they came to the Seattle Mariners.

Seattle had a “big three” of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager that was among the best slugging trios in baseball. The M’s also boosted that group via trade ahead of 2017 by adding Jean Segura and Haniger to the mix.

Early on in this front office’s tenure, the results were very good at the plate.

From 2016-18, the Mariners on average ranked in the top 10 in baseball in batting average and strikeouts (meaning they didn’t strike out much). They were also in the top half of the league in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, runs scored and home runs.

After 2018, as we all know, Seattle underwent a rebuild.

Before going further, I want to make it clear that I did, and still do, think that the rebuild was the right way to go. The M’s had an aging core, their pitching was largely decimated and the farm system was considered the worst in baseball.

Continuing on, the Mariners from 2019-22 have on average been bottom 10 in baseball in average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, runs scored and strikeouts.

If you take out the first two rebuild years of 2019 and 2020 (before a 90-win 2021 campaign), it’s a little better in some areas, but still leaves much to be desired.

In 2021 and 2022, the Mariners were bottom three on average in batting average and still bottom 10 in on-base and slugging percentage, OPS and runs. Home runs and walks were a strength, with Seattle ranking in the top 11, but strikeouts were an issue the last two years, as well.

The last two years, the Mariners did just enough offensively to capitalize on a combination of a great starting pitching staff, defense and bullpen. While the pitching in 2023, even after a rough week of action against the Yankees and Rangers, has more than done its job, the bats have again lagged behind. Seattle entered Wednesday bottom 11 in every major offensive category save for walks, where it’s 17th. And the strikeouts are still piling up at an unsustainable clip for a contending club.

The Mariners were in a similar situation in the standings last year as they are now, and they turned it around. They still can, but it’ll be a lot tougher this year thanks to the American League being so good through the season’s first two months. The team’s continual offensive struggles certainly highlight that identifying and developing bats has been an issue not just this year but for a while now.

That’s not going to change in-season, and the best thing for the Mariners is their biggest bats (Rodríguez, Suárez, Hernández, Raleigh and France) getting hot during the summer and leading the charge. But if the bats stay stagnant between now and October, there’s a lot of evidence to show there needs to be some soul-searching and change to this organization’s approach to hitting.

Fann: Much for Seattle Mariners to prove before they can buy at trade deadline

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