The Conversation: Nathan Bishop on the Mariners

New York Mets v Miami Marlins

By Edward Overend

EO: The baseball season is just a few days old and its great to have it back. One of this season’s trendy picks to do well are the Seattle Mariners, who just missed the postseason last year, having their best season in a long while. It’s 14 years since postseason baseball was played in the Pacific North West, so thought it would be good to catch up with Nathan Bishop of SB Nation’s Mariners site, Lookout Landing. Nathan, after coming so close in 2014, baseball seems to have captured the imagination of the Seattle public once again if attendances this week are anything to go by. Do you share the renewed optimism about the Mariners or are you one of those fans who, after so long in the doldrums, thinks that something is bound to go wrong?

NB: I will exercise my god-given right to hem and haw around the question. The roster of the 2015 Mariners is almost without question the strongest one the franchise has put together since at least 2003. The greatest strength of the team appears to be the lack of a glaring weakness, with a competent lineup 1-9, a deep starting rotation and a bullpen that spent 2014 as one of the best in the league. 

The media wonks have put the Mariners near the top of their click-grabbing “Power Rankings” and for once the analytical community appears largely to concur, with Fangraphs pegging the team as the favorites not only in the AL West but in fact the entire American League. It’s a rarefied altitude for the team and its fans these days.

However this is arguably the saddest franchise in all of Major League Baseball, one that has not made the postseason in 14 years, one of only two to never make a World Series. The word “Mariner” is a verb and not one with a pleasant connotation. There is no amount of projection or positive press that will completely eliminate the hard-wired expectation I have of the team to fall completely on their face. I don’t expect that to change until they win and even then they may need to do it for more than one year before I can shake that sad identity.

EO: As a Mariners fan myself, I feel your pain. It’s been an excruciating 14 years. The team has been lumbered with some of baseball’s all time most anaemic offenses. Occasionally the pitching has been half decent, led for so long, of course, by Felix Hernandez. However, the front office has made some monumentally awful trades, highlighted perhaps by the Erik Bedard for Adam Jones and Chris Tillman one with the Orioles. 

Jack Zduriencik is now into his seventh year as General Manager. From my point of view, his strength has been the draft. However, with the big league club, he seems to have struggled with the direction he has wanted to take the team. This year, he has decided upon a completely different way to construct the team, looking at platooning both corner outfield spots and shortstop and having increased bench depth. What are your views on Jack Z?

NB: Jack Zduriencik has seen his esteem with Mariner fans rise and fall violently during his tenure. When first hired he was hailed for publicly declaring his support of advanced analytics and developing the organizations first real in-house “stats department”. In 2009 his first team won 85 games and he was considered by many to have built one of the game’s premiere front offices. 

Since then of course the Mariners have suffered defeats in the field and been dealt some disastrous blows in the media that have largely taken the shine off Zduriencik’s career thus far. Only recently has Zduriencik’s commitment to development and the draft begun to pay off with an above average farm system feeding quality major leaguers to the big squad.

Personally I have always felt Zduriencik was never as good as most thought in 2009 and never as bad as he’s often been portrayed since. It is important to remember that when we speak about “General Manager Jack Zduriencik” we are in essence discussing not just the man but the entire staff of front office employees he has cultivated. That group has seen a massive amount of flux since 2009, most notably when Zduriencik’s “stat guy” Tony Blengino left the team on acrimonious terms.

It is also important to note that Zduriencik’s skill set, knowledge and perhaps even overarching philosophy on roster construction are not static entities. This is his first time being a general manager and it is easy to read the history of his ups and downs as someone simply learning on the job. He should absolutely be held accountable and blamed for his seeming endless infatuation with one-dimensional right-handed power hitters (Nelson Cruz being only the latest in a long line of similarly skilled players) and he should just as rightly be given credit for his steadfast refusal to trade young players like James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, who now stand poised to be major contributors for a playoff contender.

Will Jack Zduriencik ever head up a top 5 MLB front office? I would say no. However if he can continue to draft well, avoid the rate of pitcher attrition so many other teams in the league seem to suffer from and benefit from a top-ten MLB payroll there is not reason he cannot build a perennial playoff contender in Seattle. 

EO: As I mentioned previously, the Mariners have not exactly been synonymous with scoring runs over the last decade. Sure, some of this is down to having Safeco Field and its pitcher friendly environs but for an American League team to rank as low annually in MLB has been dire. 

Even last year in a winning season, the offense ranked well into the bottom half in most categories. There have been concerted efforts made this offseason to add bats to the lineup. Seth Smith came from San Diego to be the strong side of a platoon in right field, the aforementioned Nelson Cruz has been added to the middle of the lineup and Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano have come in as bench options. Added to the trade for Austin Jackson at last year’s deadline, does this offense have the capability to produce the runs required for a strong challenge?

NB: I think it does when taken in context with the overall strength of the team, which is still pitching. The Mariners don’t need a top 5 or even a top 10 offensive output to be a strong contender. If the pitching hits anything close to its projected results all that’s needed is ~league average production from the bats.

Probably the best thing Jack did in the offseason as far as adding players is building a flexible roster. With the double platoon in LF and RF of Dustin Ackley/Rickie Weeks/Justin Ruggiano/Seth Smith the Mariners for once have a lineup 1-9 that looks void of, well voids. Coupled with Nelson Cruz, who should be a vast improvement over the worst DH production in the American League and the Mariners should lose far fewer games in the tired 1-0, 2-1 fashion they have done so often the past 5 years.

EO: Pitching is indeed projected to be the foundation of this team. Behind King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma, you have these two young potential stars in Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Backed up by a bullpen that had MLB’s lowest ERA in 2014, Seattle ought to be competitive in most games. However, bullpens have a funny habit of being unpredictable season to season and just yesterday closer Fernando Rodney had an abomination of an outing in Oakland, blowing a 4 run lead in the ninth. Tom Wilhelmson, an important reliever, has also just been placed on the DL. On top of this the Mariners had to trade Erasmo Ramirez just before the season as he was out of options. Is there sufficient depth in pitching in AAA Tacoma to survive the inevitable injuries that a 6 month season throws up?

NB: The team appears to be well suited to handle an injury to one of its starting pitchers, Felix Hernandez excluded of course. Roenis Elias came from seemingly nowhere in 2014 to provide 160 innings of satisfying, inning-gobbling numbers. With the stellar Spring of Taijuan Walker coupled with the acquisition of J.A. Happ there was simply no room for Elias in the majors and he is starting the season in Tacoma. Should the team need a starter he is doubtless first in line to get the call.

One thing to keep an eye on is the workload of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, neither of which have ever thrown anything close to a full major league season’s worth of innings. It is not inconceivable the team would look to preserve those two by occasionally skipping them on off-days and/or using Elias to spot start.

Should the team contend as many hope and suffer substantial pitcher attrition I fully anticipate they will look to add an arm at the trade deadline. The Mariners are all in for 2015 being the end to the long playoff drought and I anticipate them to exercise all of their available resources to push towards October should the opportunity present itself.

EO: Here’s hoping! Go M’s.

Nathan can be found writing at www.lookoutlanding.com and on Twitter @NathanHBishop

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