The Mariners season is almost upon us, and there seems to be a lot of pessimism in the fan community. Coming off of a season where the team lost 101 games for the second time in the last three seasons, pessimism is understandable. However, there are a lot of reasons to believe that the Mariners should be markedly better this season.
While Bill Bavasi was in Seattle, “incremental improvement” seemed like a dirty phrase. The problem was that Bavasi often sacrificed substantial production to fulfill an ignorant agenda, opting for contact hitters over power hitters, and experienced veteran fielders over young, rangy ones, all to conform to archaic traditional philosophy. What we’ve seen in Jack Zduriencik is that he’s committed to long-term process improvement.
There is a certain amount of risk associated with every move any team makes. Limiting that risk is important—avoiding it entirely is counterproductive in the end. The one advantage of having an above-average payroll budget is that it allows teams to absorb negative outcomes (notice, I didn’t say mistakes).
Last year the Mariners went into the season in some way depending on recent veteran acquisitions like Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson and Milton Bradley, as well Erik Bedard, who the team had re-signed after receiving about 80 percent of a season's worth of work in the previous two seasons after Bavasi famously traded for him. The results produced by those guys were universally disappointing. Bedard didn’t pitch at all, Wilson played only 61 games, Bradley played only 73 games along with having serious off-field issues and Figgins played nearly every game, while having his on-field effort questioned during the season.
However, those guys combined with other now-send-offs like Ken Griffey Jr., Casey Kotchman, Josh Wilson, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell, Cliff Lee and Jose Lopez, as well as the exit and reduced role of the catching duo of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore respectively.
Even in the most devoutly “sample-size aware” blog communities in Seattle, recent performance often becomes reality instead of anomaly.
So, while this offseason was decidedly underwhelming compared to the 2010 offseason, it may ultimately bring the Mariners back to relevance, if not prominence, because at most positions there is pretty good reason to believe that the Mariners should be significantly improved:
2010 Players and Results
Cliff Lee: 3.9 WAR
David Pauley: 0.1
Ian Snell: -0.6
Ryan Rowland-Smith: -1.6
Total: 1.8 WAR
Replaced by: Erik Bedard, Michael Pineda
Rob Johnson: 0.4 WAR
Josh Bard: 0.2
Adam Moore: -0.5
Total: 0.1 WAR
Replaced by: Miguel Olivo
Jack Wilson: 0.0 WAR
Josh Wilson: -0.3
Total: -0.3 WAR
Replaced by: Brendan Ryan
Chone Figgins: 0.6 WAR
Total: 0.6 WAR
Replaced by: Jack Wilson, Dustin Ackley*
Jose Lopez: 0.7 WAR
Total: 0.7 WAR
Replaced by: Chone Figgins
Justin Smoak: 0.0 WAR
Mike Carp: -0.3
Casey Kotchman: -1.1
Total: -1.4 WAR
Replaced by: Justin Smoak
Russell Branyan: 0.9 WAR
Mike Sweeney: 0.5
Milton Bradley: -0.1
Matt Mangini: -0.3
Eric Byrnes: -0.4
Ken Griffey Jr.: -0.8
Total: -0.2 WAR
Replaced by: Jack Cust
So last year, at these five positions on the field, and two rotation spots, there was a total of 1.5 WAR, or minus-2.4 WAR for the rest of the team not named Cliff Lee. Of the four positions in the infield, three of them see players return who either played a different position last year (Figgins, Wilson) or who saw significant time there last year (Smoak).
Replacing Lee, at least in part, is Erik Bedard. The big knock on Bedard has always been how often, and for how long he is on the mound. His career FIP is actually better than Lee, and his xFIP is better by a wider margin. While Bedard is on the mound he’s pretty much always been effective, the trick is to keep him there for as many innings as possible.
Last year the Mariners catchers were very bad at the plate. The only thing that kept them from being historically bad relative to their era was that catchers struggled mightily league wide last year. Miguel Olivo has been worth between one and two wins the past five seasons, excluding his Coor’s Field-aided 2010 season. His skill set at the plate philosophically opposes the profile of a successful hitter in Safeco Field.
But if Figgins returns to being just a replacement-level hitter, which is below his career averages, and remains one of the best fielding third basemen in baseball, the Mariners could be looking at a three-win swing at third base, and if Jack Wilson can field at a league-average rate at second base (assuming he holds the position all year), he’ll have about an 18 RAR cushion at the plate before he’s as bad as Figgins was last year.
According to UZR/150, Brendan Ryan was the best defensive shortstop in baseball last year. While he’s not a much better hitter than Jack Wilson, if his defense continues at its present rate, he’s worth about a win more than Wilson.
And considering that Jack Cust is taking over for an awful DH position from last season, has a skill set that won’t be destroyed by Safeco Field and has posted 8.5 WAR in the past four seasons in Oakland, in a tough hitters' environment, there is reason to believe that he can continue that in Seattle.
But while juggling the infield, and a few incremental improvements to the lineup, as well as some reasonable regression to the mean, the real place where this Mariners team has room to become much better is with its three young top prospects: Smoak, Ackley and Pineda.
Justin Smoak’s potential to improve first base is solely based on perceived development, which is inherently volatile. Is Smoak going to be worth 40 RAR at the plate? Probably not. It certainly fits within the ceiling of his profile, but chances are, in what amounts to being something between a rookie and sophomore season, he’ll have some residual growing pains. But if he’s an average fielder, being a 2-4 WAR player isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Ackley will likely find some resistance early on, as making an adjustment to major league pitching is tough, and he doesn’t have enough power to supplement early struggles. However, there isn’t much doubt that Ackley will eventually hit, even if his future power is highly debatable. The biggest thing working against Ackley’s development though, is his glove. Ackley has the physical ability to play second base, and there is reason to believe he’ll develop the fundamentals, but until he does, his bat would have to play very well to be a positive impact on the roster. Ackley has the biggest swing of any of the youngsters, as he could probably be anywhere between replacement level and four wins.
Pineda is probably the least replaceable of any of the youngsters this year. While Ackley and Smoak may have arguably higher ceilings than Pineda, the team has guys they may be able to shuffle into those positions who could produce above replacement level. There is no such player among starting pitchers. Behind Pineda is a stable of castoff starters and yet-to-develop prospects. The Luke Frenchs and David Pauleys of the world are a dime a dozen, and the reason that Pineda made the team is because management believes he will perform considerably better. Developing his offspeed pitches will be key to his development, but if he can adjust on the fly, he could be somewhere between a 1-3 win player.
With upwards of a 15-20 win upswing based on reasonable outcomes possible, and several young players (not included in this article were guys like Josh Lueke, Tom Wilhelmson, Dan Cortes and some other exciting bullpen arms who could make an impact this season), this year’s Mariners team has high probability to be fun to watch, and an outside shot at being competitive.
We subscribe to a cynical fanbase, but this year’s team is receiving as much surplus cynicism as last year’s team received praise.
Check out more work like this at North and South of Royal Brougham, including this article on Washington Huskies Spring Practice