August 11, 2010
Resetting Their Course
Optimism for the 2010 Mariners has been harder and harder to come by as the season drags on in the Pacific Northwest. Yet at the start of the season, it seemed that the possibilities for this team were endless. Well, depending on whom you were talking to, anyway—projection systems didn't love the Mariners, including, but not limited to, PECOTA. In the preseason projections, I slotted them in behind the Rangers and Angels, feeling that their offense just didn't offer enough to overcome those two clubs, and I wasn't alone in this sentiment. Most of the positive vibes for the 2010 Mariners were built up by the fan base and national publications who got a little too excited about the additions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins to a team lucky to win 85 games in 2009 as it gave more runs than it scored.
It was this deflation of the Mariners' fan base that makes this season that much more surprising. Even if you didn't think the Mariners were going to compete for the division title—and as stated above, competing wasn't the prevailing attitude, it was just the loudest—saying they were going to lose 100 games was unrealistic unless everything went downhill. The problem, as you can see in their current record and last-place standing, is that everything has gone downhill.
The question becomes, "Where do the Mariners go from here?" There is more talent on the major-league roster than their win-loss record suggests, but it wouldn't take very long to construct an argument that says there isn't enough talent to compete with the likes of the Rangers, Athletics, and restocking Angels. In fact, we already played that game back in the spring, and now the team is minus Lee. Let's try to understand the Mariners' mind-set heading into 2010 before we say what it is they need to do to right the ship for 2011.
The 2009 Mariners won 85 games but had a negative run differential thanks to an offense that scored just 640 runs. Upgrading the offense, which had a .248 TAv, should have been a priority if they wanted to contend, and the M's made some moves by bringing in Figgins and Milton Bradley. But they also lost Adrian Beltre who, while not an offensive force last season, would be missed defensively, as runs are runs be they saved or produced, and let Russell Branyan, who was second on the club behind Ichiro Suzuki with a .297 TAv and third in equivalent runs, walk because of injury concerns. Their next most productive hitter was Jose Lopez, who had a .264 TAv, and after that it was Kenji Johjima at .246. Even if you assume that Bradley and Figgins would produce at their 2009 levels (Bradley had a .275 TAv, Figgins .286) you're not looking at a much better club than 2009 at the plate.
Given they did not continue to upgrade the offense, it is the clear the Mariners thought they had enough hitting that they could concentrate on improving other areas. It was also clear that the Mariners thought they could win now by trading three prospects for Lee and dealing Brandon Morrow, a promising young starting pitcher, for Brandon League, a relief pitcher.
The Mariners front office thought they saw a window open and made a few moves to attempt to compete in a weak division. The problem is, even after acquiring Lee, Bradley, and Figgins, they were still basically a .500 team. They were more than a move or two away from competing. By going halfway, they brought up the hopes of their fans. The performance has been less than expected, and in many ways they wasted a year. You can argue acquiring Justin Smoak from the Rangers in a trade for Lee was a potential step forward, but losing Morrow was a step back. If they want to go the pitching and defense route, leveraging the inherent advantage of their pitcher-friendly home park would go a long ways toward improving their record. Dealing someone like Morrow—who has control problems that could more than be counteracted by the defense and pitcher-friendly park in Seattle—for a relief pitcher was a head-scratcher.
There were some concerns about just how good the Mariners were defensively. They ranked first in the major leagues in Ultimate Zone Rating in 2009, and the hype reached the point that some people were saying they were possibly one of the best defensive teams ever. They lost Beltre but added Figgins' glove, and having Jack Wilson at shortstop for a full season certainly seemed like an upgrade over Yuniesky Betancourt. The Mariners ranked second Defensive Efficiency in 2009 (which counts the percentage of balls in play converted into outs) but sit in ninth this year. Yes, they have had to deal with injuries, but if a team wants to compete without fielding a respectable offense then it cannot afford to slip elsewhere, and that goes double if it decided that Ian Snell was going to be an important cog in the rotation.
Something else to consider is just how accurately that UZR ranking reflected their talent level, as some here have already done. The Mariners don't need to use UZR to track defense. They just need to use the same kind of data UZR is built on and then not recognize the scorer bias that makes their outfield look better than it is. Overrating your defense, especially when there is no wiggle room for failure, can help point a team in a downward direction. Consider how much of the team's value is tied up in center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro. Now cut a significant fraction of that value because it doesn't actually exist, and you can see where problems could arise.
There is hope for the future, however, no matter how messy this situation looks. The farm system is coming along better. Though it's not full, it is no longer barren. Dustin Ackley was a five-star prospect heading into the season, and his stock remains high. The second-best prospect, Michael Saunders, has hit .234/.304/.420 for the Mariners this season, which doesn't look impressive at first glance, but it's a .262 TAv (right around the league average) and a step up from 2009 for the 23-year-old. Gabriel Noriega's stock has fallen, but 19-year-old Nick Franklin has broken out this year for the Class-A Clinton LumberKings, hitting .278/.340/.496 with 19 homers and 200 total bases. The switch-hitter still needs to improve against lefties, but there's a lot to like there and his progress offsets Noriega's fall. Losing Morrow stings, but they aren't out of young pitchers as Michael Pineda has been great at two levels this year—he's whiffed 59 hitters in 49 innings pitched at Triple-A during his age-20 season after striking out over a batter an inning in Double-A to start the year. Adding Smoak to the mix helps too, despite the poor start to his major-league career. If he develops the way many scouts think, he's going to be a great source of OBP and some pop for the Mariners, and also help out with the glove.
Things are not hopeless for the franchise; it's just that you have to look to the future to see that. The easiest way to "fix" the Mariners is to realize they aren't broken They just need to pick a direction and stick with it, and given the young talent on the major-league roster and in the minors, the path they need to pick is obvious. They need to put more faith in their young players, something they should take to heart as they begin contemplating their off-season moves.