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Preseason favorite Mariners look to get back in the race after disappointing early season

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The preseason pundits had a lot of high hopes for the Mariners, but they haven't lived up to them so far. Here's Nathan Bishop of Lookout Landing to give some context on Seattle to Orioles fans as their team comes into town.

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The Seattle Mariners were the trendy pick in a lot of places to take down the American League West. As the Mariners arrive in Baltimore for a three-game series starting tonight, things haven't gone quite according to plan for them, much as they haven't gone to plan for the Orioles. Both teams sit at three games below .500 coming into this series.

To get some perspective from the Seattle side of this upcoming series, I checked in with Nathan Bishop, one of the editors over at Lookout Landing. Turns out that Mariners fans feel a good bit like Orioles fans did before the 2012 season came along. You can read my thoughts on the Orioles over on LL here.

1. There are a number of Orioles fans gazing longingly at the numbers Nelson Cruz is putting up so far this year. He couldn't have looked much better at the plate in his first six weeks as a Mariner. Were you on board with this signing? Do you feel any differently about it now?

Nathan: Prior to the 2014 season most Mariner fans, myself included, would have put Nelson Cruz high on the "Free Agent Landmines" list. An aging, power first (only) bat with almost zero defensive utility and little patience couple with a rumored 75 million dollar price tag left most running away screaming, haunted forever by the ghosts of Richie Sexson forever swinging. Swinging, yet never hitting.

Obviously once the market for Cruz disappeared and he signed his 1 year deal with Baltimore the situation changed watching the Mariners designated hitters put up -2.1 WAR in a season where they missed the postseason by a game is something that made Cruz' 2014 with the Orioles.....difficult. So when he finally signed his 4 year/56 million dollar in Seattle this Winter I, like most, viewed it as short term improvement in a position of need with a likely bad final 2 years at the end of the contract.

Cruz' start to 2015, slugging ~.700, leading baseball in home runs and hitting 2 walk offs doesn't really change my feeling that his acquisition was an overpay, albeit probably a worthwhile one for a team firmly in "win now" mode. However his hot start has been very well timed to offset the slow starts of other hitters on the team. Now, about getting him out of Right Field....

2. As the Orioles TV broadcast on Sunday came to a close, we were told that the Seattle starters for the series weren't set yet. Who do you expect to get the ball in this series? What can you tell us about how they're doing this year?

Nathan: As I write this the team hasn't indicated if they are skipping a starter with the off day. If they stay in rotation, which I think is likely given Felix Hernandez is nursing a sore leg/hip/ankle, the starters look to be Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and J.A. Happ.

Walker has the strong prospect pedigree and the lights out fastball, topping out at 98 MPH. However he has shown below average command and a huge dependence on his fastball/changeup combination, throwing a breaking pitch only 6.5% of the time. While the .359 BABIP is due to regress and helps explain the 2.20 ERA-FIP the FIP is still 5.02 which is.....bad. He's been the team's worst starter and it is not close.

Roenis Elias is a Cuban import who came from relative obscurity in 2014 to rescue an injury depleted rotation with 160 of moderately effective, inning munching competence. His fastball command will come and go but has enough velocity to be effective with his curveball, by far his best pitch and a true out pitch against left handed hitters.

J.A. Happ is probably familiar to most Orioles fans from his days in Toronto. He was acquired in the offseason for Michael Saunders and has been probably the biggest surprise on the team, at the good kind of surprise. The definition of "meh" for the majority of his career Happ has used a career low walk rate and the expansive green of Safeco Field to almost equal his 2014 fWAR in 1/3 of the innings so far this year. When he located his fastball on the corners he can be effective but most Mariner fans would agree he has pitched over his head thus far.

3. I have gotten the impression that Brad Miller is something of a polarizing player in that he has inspired some writers to speak of him as though he's already found greatness. Before this year that hasn't been the case, but a .264/.328/.500 batting line so far looks pretty good. Where do you stand on Miller? Do you think he'll keep up this kind of performance?

Nathan: Brad Miller is polarizing in the sense that before 2014 a very prominent writer labeled him "The best shortstop in the American League" and then Miller went on to hit .158/.234/.250. He hit .265/.326/.447 the rest of 2014 and is off to that sparkly start you mentioned in your question, including just being announced the AL Player of the Week.

At Lookout Landing we are pretty sold on the idea of Brad Miller as a plus major league hitter. The question is his defensive future. His defense at Shortstop is sporadic, largely due to a throwing arm that will always do 2 things: 1) Get the ball somewhere in a big damn hurry and 2) the ball's destination is anywhere from the first basemen's glove to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. After a particularly rough stretch the team recalled Chris Taylor, a much more traditional glove first/light hitting shortstop and declared that Miller would learn outfield. "Zobrist-like" was the term bandied about. In the ~2 weeks since that statement Miller has played 7 innings in Left Field, some at shortstop and some at DH, the last particularly humorous when you remember Nelson Cruz is "patrolling" right field on a nightly basis.

Wherever his glove ends up Brad Miller is a 25 year under club control with who (thanks to fellow Lookout Landing writer Colin O'Keefe for this) over the past calender year has a 119 wRC+, exactly the same as, wait for it, Ben Zobrist. We like him. He also runs funny.

4. The Mariners seemed to be a popular preseason pick to win the AL West this year. Were you buying into that hype? What has gone wrong for things to end up with a 17-20 record, and do you believe that is going to turn around?

Nathan: I was, and to an extent still am, buying the hype. Since the last time the Mariners made the playoffs in 2001 they have had a few teams that media wonks have predicted good things for, primarily in 2008 and 2010. However analytical projections were far from kind to those teams and they indeed fell flat on their faces. However the 2015 Mariners were, according to Fangraphs playoff odds, the preseason American League favorite. They are still just under %50 to make the playoffs with that model.

As for what's gone wrong it has been a lot of little things. Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano have started slow, Mike Zunino continues to be one of the worst hitters in baseball, albeit one of its better defensive catchers. Dustin Ackley appears close to washing out with the organization. Hisashi Iwakuma was dreadfully ineffective before a strained lat landed him on the disabled list. The bullpen, one of last year's great strengths, has seen a collective regression from almost every single member save Carson Smith.

Perhaps the biggest issue has less to do with the Mariners and more to do with the damn Astros, who have the American League's best record at 25-13 and refuse to lose baseball games, despite everyone expecting them to. Even given that Houston will almost certainly not win 100 games the Mariners find themselves already longshots to win the division at 8 games back. Although I would almost certainly take Seattle's roster over Houston's for 2015 going forward I don't know if I would do so spotting Houston that kind of lead. It's going to be a challenge, and that's with most of us expecting the team to play markedly better going forward.

5. $240 million man Robinson Cano is presently sitting below replacement level. He's been a good-to-great hitter in eight of the previous nine seasons. That isn't showing up this year. What's the prevailing theory on the source of his sudden struggle?

Nathan: We are planning on a more granular look at Cano later in the week but the short story is he's making less contact and drawing fewer walks, which is funny given those who still desperately cling to the Protection Theory were sure that Nelson Cruz's signing portended better pitches for Cano to hit. Instead he has continued to hit ground balls at 2014's career high rate and, while the BABIP is a bit low at .301 he is currently dealing with a walk rate half of last years (5.0% to 10.4%) and a K rate more than half as high (16.9% to 10.2%).

Those of us that enjoy sleeping at night comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Cano didn't really get going last year until June but given that he's only in the 2nd year of a 10 year deal and, one assumes, not going to get a lot better in years 3 on there is a moderate amount of sphincter tightening going on every time he has an ugly strikeout or grounds out to the pitcher.

**

Thanks for shining some light on this week's opponent, Nathan. Best of luck to the Mariners, as soon as they leave Baltimore.

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