Archive for the ‘Mariners’ Category

Better Luck Next Year: Seattle Mariners

August 26, 2009

Today begins a series that will be in an unspecified number of parts over an indeterminate number of weeks in which I look at a team that is out of the 2009 playoff picture, but that might have designs on 2010.

I’ve been planning for a couple days now to do this starting with the Mariners, a team I already know pretty well, but then yesterday Rob Neyer had to come in and rain all over my parade, concluding that the Ms’ “long-term prognosis doesn’t look so bad. But the growing pains might be a bit ugly. Perhaps the only bright note at the moment is that there’s nowhere to go but up.”

First of all, what? Did he write that last year (when the Mariners were 61-101) and forget to post it until this year? Because right now the Mariners are better than a .500 team, and when you’re a .500 team there’s about as far to go down as there is up. I know what he meant, though: most of the article was about hitting, and the Mariners’ offense has been truly dreadful. And it’s true that you have to score runs to win baseball games.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to score a lot of runs as long as you give up even fewer runs. And that’s been the Mariners’ mantra this year, due mostly to the most vastly improved defense in the entire history of sports that use the term “defense.” I think they’re in a pretty good position to keep doing it next year, too…with a few tweaks here and there.

Here are the Mariners’ best position players currently under contract for 2010, with their current 2009 WAR in parentheses:
C: Johnson(0.5)/Johjima (0.3)
1B: Brad Nelson? (rookie)
2B: Jose Lopez (1.7)
3B: Jack Hannahan (1.1)/Bill Hall (0.2)
SS: Jack Wilson (1.9)
LF: Michael Saunders (rookie)
CF: Franklin Gutierrez (4.2)
RF: Ichiro! (4.2)
DH: Mike Carp (rookie)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Felix Hernandez (3.11)
Carlos Silva? (5.91)
Ryan Rowland-Smith? (5.27)
Brandon Morrow (5.70)
Jason Vargas? (5.26)
Bullpen: Aardsma (3.14), Lowe (3.56), White (3.86)

It looks bad, but it’s not, at least for a starting point. Ichiro seems to go from overrated to underrated and back again just about every other year, and currently he’s underrated again, and having what might be his finest offensive season while still playing great D. Gutierrez has continued to be the best defensive outfielder in the game while blossoming into an average-hitting outfielder, which makes him on balance one of the better players in the league. King Felix will be my recurring pre-season pick for Cy Young every year from 2010 until further notice (perhaps 2019 or so). The bullpen is good.

What they need to MAKE happen:
1. Re-sign Russ Branyan. He won’t be as cheap as he was this year ($1.4 million), but it shouldn’t be all that tough to convince him to stay, either. The Mariners will have ended up giving him something like 100 more PA in a season than any of his seven other teams ever have, and Safeco Field–a pitcher’s park in general but a friendly place for lefty home run hitters–is a great place for him. Brad Nelson is 26 and has put up just an .811 OPS in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League; that’s not going to do it for this team. Branyan provides badly needed power, can get on base, and actually holds his own at first. Unless somebody wants to go crazy and give him a ridiculous contract based on one surprising performance, he’s a no-brainer for them.

2. Sign one pretty good starting pitcher. Erik Bedard and the Mariners were a match made in that place that also brought you Ike and Tina Turner. He’s gone. That starting rotation after Felix looks awful, but remember, they’re a better-than-.500 team with a rotation that’s no better than that right now, plus a fluky performance by Jarrod Washburn. One good pitcher would make a big difference. No telling who will really be available at this point (Rich Harden? John Lackey? Bring back Joel Pineiro? Randy Wolf? The reanimated Ben Sheets?), but they’ll be out there.

3. Re-sign Adrian Beltre. Among the many brilliant things he’s done, rookie GM Jack Zduriencik actually did a fantastic job making arrangements in the event of a Beltre departure in free agency. Bill Hall hits lefties well, Jack Hannahan hits righties…well enough to spell Hall when he’s flailing, and they both play very good defense while costing relatively little. But put them together, and they’re no better than an average player. As Dave Cameron wrote on USS Mariner yesterday (bad day for me to try to talk M’s, come to think of it), they badly need another core player, and as awesome as the Gutierrez trade was for them, they had to give up real major-league value for that–value that they can’t afford to part with this year. A healthy Beltre is that kind of player. He might be a hard sign–he’s a Boras client, and a lot of teams understand how huge his defense is now–but then again he’s coming off a horrible, injury-plagued season, and maybe he likes Seattle. Who knows? If not that, they need another core player. But who? They should have a ton of money–pretty much everyone save Ichiro is pretty cheap right now–but there just aren’t that many free-agents-to-be out there who would fit, and they don’t have the kind of prospects that would being in a superstar.

What they need to HAVE happen:
1. Those few core players they do have–Ichiro, Felix, Gutierrez, and hopefully Beltre or a reasonable facsimile–need to stay healthy. You always hear that, but this is an especially thin team at the top, making it especially true.

2. Brandon Morrow needs to make a big comeback. No, he’ll never be the guy who was drafted five picks later, but he’s still got basically unhittable stuff. A little control would go along way.

3. One of those rookies, Saunders or Carp, needs to show something. I’m sure Zduriencik can (and will) replace one of those guys, but not both, and there’s really nothing else on the way up.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I like the team and really want this to be true, but seeing how they’re doing this year, I think with a few tweaks and a little luck, this team could win 90-93 games in 2010 and make a really good run at the division.

All Those "Surprise" Teams…and the Jays

May 13, 2009

In the first week or so of this blog, away back 3-4 weeks ago now, I profiled the Orioles, Mariners, Marlins, and Padres, four teams that had started the season off much better than anyone anticipated. How about a month later (actually, just 22 days after the fourth post)?

  • Taking their records as of the day I wrote about them, the four teams were a combined 32-9 (.780).
  • Since? 28-66 (.298). .298!!!! These guys as a whole have been playing at a 114-loss pace since then, and I guess the Mariners have been playing a little better than the other three, but it’s not like any one team is dragging the pack down.
  • Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report now has the O’s with a 1.39% chance of making the playoffs (down from 8% when I reported on April 15); the M’s retaining a 23.34% chance (down from 28% on April 16, and from a high of 42% on April 25); the Fish with a 4.51% chance (down from 6.59% on April 18); and the Padres at 1.18% (down from 7.46% on April 21). Realistically, then, we’re 4 1/2 months from the end of the ball, and three of the four Cinderellas have already headed home.

A team I chose not to write about, though, is the Toronto Blue Jays. It was almost as much of a surprise that they were 10-4 on April 20th as it was that the Padres were 9-4, but what with sharing their division with the Orioles, I didn’t think anybody had really figured the Jays for last place at the start of the season.

So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that, if one of the surprises from the year’s first week or two were going to keep it going, it would be the team that was the best to begin with. The Jays are 12-8 (.600) since that 10-4 start and sit at 23-12, first place in the East, jostling with the Dodgers for the best record in baseball. And to the extent that run differentials mean anything at this point in the season (they don’t), they’re just about exactly at the record their run differential would predict.

So why does Baseball Prospectus still hate them? Through Tuesday, the same report has them ending the year at 82-80 and in fourth place, seven games behind the third-place Rays and fifteen behind the first-place Red Sox. It gives them just a 4.58% chance to win the division and 13.83% to make the playoffs at all.

Well, there’s Aaron Hill, who, much as I like him, won’t finish the year hitting .350 with a .550 SLG. And Marco Scutaro, a 33 year old who averages ten homers per 162 games (he’s already hit 5) and has a career .330 OBP (currently sitting at .406). And there’s the fact that they’ve already had nine different pitchers who have started at least two games for them, and aside from the awesomeness that is Roy Halladay and possible late bloomer Scott Richmond, none of them figure to be very good (assuming they can even stay healthy).

Mostly, though, it’s that they play in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. The Jays might be good enough to win the Central or West, but I’m pretty well convinced that those three other teams in the East, flawed as they’ve all looked at one point or another in the early going, are still the best three teams in baseball.

I’ll be pulling for the Blue Jays, though. If it’s a four-team race into August or September, that could be some of the most interesting baseball we’ve seen in decades. And if it’s a three-team race sans Yankees or Sox, well, that’s okay, too.

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part II: The Seattle Mariners

April 17, 2009

Full disclosure: I love the Twins more than is probably healthy, but to the exact extent that it’s possible to love two teams in the same league, I love the M’s. And I love their weird-ass fans, who I think I’ll probably have to write a whole thing about someday. But today is not that day.

As I type this on Thursday night, the Mariners, who ended ’08 all alone at the bottom of the AL with 101 losses, are 7-2, all alone at the top of the AL, and three games clear of all the other teams in the sorry-looking West.

What they’re saying: Yesterday, I noted that people didn’t seem all that excited about the Orioles’ hot start. Those Mariner fans? Not so much. My sense is that when this season started, nobody in the Northwest actually noticed. But nine games later and they’ve won a bunch of them? Well now!

  • Rob Neyer notes in passing while on a trip to Seattle that “the good citizens are wondering if the Mariners will ever lose again (seriously: people here are talking about 2001 and they’re not kidding).”
  • The Olympian’s Gail Wood would like you to avoid making the mistake of thinking that these are last year’s Mariners. She extols their leadership, their pulling together, and their stringing together of hits, and is very excited indeed.
  • The Seattle Times’ Larry Stone encourages everybody to get giddy for the hot start and home opener, but then basically says it ain’t gonna happen.
  • The P-I’s (hey, didn’t they fold?) Gerry Spratt notes that Wednesday night’s Mariners game out-ratingsed American Idol, Lost and Law and Order in Seattle.

So basically, the fan base is now freaking the geek out. Good idea? …Well, yes it is. As Stone says above, why not go nuts? It’s the home-opening series. It’s baseball in the best modern stadium in the game. Go for it, people. Yet, onward:

Reasons for hope: Well, they’re not going to win 116 games. Only two teams ever have, and there will be another, but it won’t be this bunch. They’re also not going to win 100. But there are reasons to think they might be playing games that mean something in September:

  • Ichiro! hasn’t been around for this. The leadoff hitter and face of the franchise just made his season debut yesterday. He’s 35 and not likely to be the truly great player he was in ’01 and ’04 and ’07. But he’s awfully good. He’s maybe the only player you can count on to get on base at a good clip without really drawing walks, and he’s an excellent fielder and baserunner. Ichiro means that Junior doesn’t have to drag himself around the outfield, and that Endy Chavez doesn’t have to lead off (I have to assume he’ll be dropped to 9th once the effects of his season-opening hot streak disappear). These are good things.
  • That outfield defense is unbelievable. With Chavez, Ichiro! and Franklin Gutierrez, the M’s are starting top-flight center fielders in every outfield spot. It really is a treat to watch these guys run around, especially in the vast emptiness that serves as Safeco’s outfield. They also have the best defensive third baseman in the league in Adrian Beltre, and though the rest of the infield (the lumbering Branyan/Sweeney combo, the enigmatic Jose Lopez and the sure-handed, awesome-named, lead-footed Yuni Betancourt) is a singles-hitter’s dream, the Mariners have put together a mostly-flyball staff, which plays to the strengths of both their defense and their spacious park.
  • Eric Bedard is healthy. Under old management, the Mariners made a foreseeably terrible trade with the O’s to nab Bedard, and it got worse when Bedard proved hurt, unhappy and ineffective. Through his first two starts, though, Bedard has thrown 13 innings, struck out 15 batters and walked just 1 with a 2.08 ERA and a crazy 1.53 FIP, looking much more like the Bedard they thought they were getting (3.88 K/BB ratio, 3.19 FIP in 2007) than the one they did get in ’08 (1.95 K/BB, 4.32 FIP). If he stays healthy, along with Felix Hernandez, 40% of their games will be started by one of the ten or so best pitchers in baseball.
  • Adrian Beltre is in a contract year. There is evidence that players do perform better when their continued employment or a big raise is on the line, and the last time Adrian was in that position, he had one of the best years a third baseman has ever had. He’s put himself in a bit of a hole on the trip back to that level, but you never know.

Why it won’t happen: Well, it might. But concerns:

  • The other 60% of the rotation is awful. Carlos Silva, probably the most overpaid active player in baseball (thanks again to the prior administration), is an extreme ground-ball pitcher (at least when he’s not completely lost, which happens), and he’s not as bad as his ERA is going to look, but as long as it’s Betancourt, Lopez and Sweeney/Branyan trying to track down the ground balls he induces, he’s going to keep looking about that bad. They’ve been trying to dump Jarrod Washburn since the end of ’08, and there are good reasons for doing so, and for the same good reasons, it hasn’t worked.
  • There’s no real offense here. Chavez and Betancourt look pretty awesome right now, but they’re not. Of the nine starting position players, only Beltre, Lopez and maybe Ichiro figure to be above-average hitters for their position, and they won’t be by much. When this team wins, they’ll have pitching, defense, and a bit of good luck to thank. Lots of close games.
  • They’ve been lucky so far, though not in the same way as the Orioles; they’ve got a very solid run differential and reasonable BABIP. But they’ve scored about an average number of runs, and have had to hit .362 with runners in scoring position to do it. When that number comes down to earth, they could have some problems.

What PECOTA is saying: Before Thursday night’s game against the Angels (which looks like a loss as I near the end of this), Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report had the M’s finishing 79-83 on average (good for a virtual tie for second in their craptastic division), and with a 28% chance of making the postseason. That is huge for a team that lost 101 last year.

My take: I was one of the crazy few who actually thought the Mariners would win about 80 games before the season started, and obviously I like what I’ve seen so far. The brilliant Dave Cameron at the brilliant USS Mariner blog would say that I need to adjust that figure upward for the fact that they’re now 7-3: that record + my original expectation of .494 play over the next 152 = 83-79. And I have no doubt that that’s mathematically accurate, but I’m not going to do it. I think BP’s projection is basically dead-on; this is a near-.500 team that, if it gets a little lucky and the A’s and Angels get a little unlucky, has a pretty decent shot at making a run at the postseason. That’s not 2001, but it’s a pretty solid six-month turnaround for the new bosses.