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February 14, 2008

Prospectus Today

The Mariners Mirage

by Joe Sheehan

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As I type this, baseball players are in uniform, stretching on fields in Florida and Arizona, shaking hands, laughing in the sunshine, catching up, and going through the time-worn rituals that mark the end of winter. Yes, folks…pitchers and catchers have reported. Winter may not be over, but you can see its end from here, and it's a beautiful thing. No matter what the weather is like outside your window, if you're a baseball fan, it's warm and sunny today.

A combination of the Spring Training Previews and a sinus infection has kept me from touching on the biggest story of last week. As an aside, why do we have sinuses? I mean, have you ever heard anyone say, "It was a tough day, but I got through it thanks to my sinuses." Or "she's cute, funny, and she has terrific sinuses." "He got the job because of his sinuses." As far as I can tell, my sinuses exist to take two productive days away from me every quarter, rendering me useless. Even more so than usual.

Anyway, I want to chime in on the Erik Bedard trade, which was timed to render two of my spring training capsules almost worthless seconds after they hit the site. In the deal, the Orioles sent their best pitcher, and by far their best remaining trade asset, to the Mariners in exchange for four prospects: Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio and Tony Butler. Lefty reliever George Sherrill, 31, was also included in the deal, for reasons that elude understanding.

Even with the presence of Sherrill, who would seem to have little value to a 65-win team, the package is a strong one for the Orioles. Unlike the Twins, who were forced to settle for a package from the Mets that did not include the Mets' best prospect, and who were unable to strike any deal that included one of the top prospects in the game, the Orioles got one in Jones. He's played too much to be listed among BP's top 100 prospects, although he ranked 44th in each of the past two seasons. According to Kevin Goldstein, had Jones been eligible he would have ranked in the bottom half of the top ten this season, and choosing between Jones and Colby Rasmus would have been very hard.

Jones is exactly the kind of high-upside combination of tools and skills that the Orioles have had no success drafting and developing. He is their best prospect since Mike Mussina, and along with Nick Markakis and 2007 #1 pick Matt Wieters forms a core that gives Orioles fans some long-term hope. This trade completes the long-overdue process of conceding that the Orioles cannot compete as they'd been constituted in recent years, and that a rebuild centered on young players was the only way to get back to competitiveness. Credit Andy McPhail with what he's done here, and if I didn't necessarily like the package he got for Miguel Tejada, the net effect of the two trades is a positive for the franchise.

The other three prospects in the deal are more than afterthoughts. Chris Tillman took over Jones' #44 spot on the Top 100 list. The young righty is more projection than performance-he was hit hard in the Cal League, although that's forgivable given his age last year (19). Scouts love his fastball, curve, and projectable body. He was the Mariners' second-best prospect on Kevin Goldstein's Top 11 list. Butler and Mickolio, who like Tillman were drafted in 2006, are even more raw, also good-sized, and many years from the majors. They help flesh out a weak Orioles' system, and remind us that the way to develop two pitchers is to start with 10 pitching prospects.

In Jones and Tillman, the Mariners gave up two of the top three prospects in their system, making the deal an expensive play for 2008 and 2009, after which Bedard can leave Seattle as a free agent. It's the kind of move many teams never make; recent editions of the Angels and Twins, it can be argued, were hamstrung by general managers who never leveraged deep farm systems to improve the major league team at a point when a good trade for the right player could have made a big difference.

So why am I not more bullish on this trade for the Mariners? Well, those Angels and Twins teams were simply better than this one is. The 2008 Mariners looked like a .500 team, maybe a bit worse, before this trade was made. Having Bedard make 32 starts instead of having Cha Seung Baek or someone make them saves 35-50 runs, worth three to five wins in the standings if you assume there will be no cost to having Brad Wilkerson in right field rather than Jones (which, in 2008, may actually be true). That shortens the gap between them and the Angels, but it doesn't close it by any means, and it doesn't make them a factor in the wild-card race.

The problem, of course, is that GM Bill Bavasi isn't looking at his Mariners as a .500 team. He's seeing last year's 88-74 record and figuring Bedard, along with improvement from Felix Hernandez and bounce-backs by Jose Lopez and Richie Sexson, makes the Mariners as good as the Angels. The 2007 Mariners may have posted an 88-74 record, but that record was…misleading. The Mariners were outscored by their opponents, 813 to 794, a differential expected to produce a 79-83 team. Now, while the true ability of the Mariners was debated throughout last season-with a reasonable case being made that the gap between their run differential and record was not just luck, but the result of strong relief pitching and terrible back-end starters-in evaluating a team at the end of a season, it's the run differential, and not the record, that is the better predictor of future performance.

Bavasi didn't add Bedard to an 88-win team. He added it to an 80-win one, and the difference between those two numbers is the difference between a trade that makes sense and one that doesn't. Even with Erik Bedard, a fine pitcher, the Mariners are a clear underdog to the Angels. Bedard doesn't make enough difference in the team's chance of winning the division or reaching the postseason to warrant trading away the age-22 through age-27 seasons of Adam Jones, who has the ability to be the best player on a championship team for much of that period. Forget the rest of the deal; from where the Mariners sat 10 days ago, trading Jones for Bedard-even straight up-did not make sense.

The Mariners made this deal because they allowed last summer's anomalous performance to mislead them. That bullpen, which allowed the M's to win so many close games for the first four months, featured performances that could not possibly be sustained. Through early June, Brandon Morrow had an ERA of 1.80, despite walking 24 men in 25 innings. The ERAs of Sherrill, Sean Green and Eric O'Flaherty rose in kind throughout the season, despite somewhat better peripherals. Morrow, Green and O'Flaherty combined, for the season, to allow six home runs in 183 2/3 innings, or basically one a month. Their combined G/F of 1.5 to 1 doesn't come close to supporting that kind of rate, even in Safeco. Whatever team skill allowed them to go 27-20 in one-run games is just not repeatable.

Looking forward, the Mariners are returning the same lineup that had a batting-average-heavy .264 EqA, slightly above average, in 2007. The Ms hit .287 as a team, after hitting .272 the year before with essentially the same roster. The changes did serve to boost BA-Jose Guillen replaced a collection of failures in right field and hit .290, while Jose Vidro hit an empty .314 at DH. However, as you look at the '08 Mariners the key question is, where will the runs come from? It's a very old lineup-six Opening Day starters are 30 or older, and just Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt are under 29. No one walks frequently, and some of the hitters walk approximately never. How much of a slip in BA from Johjima (.287, 32 years old), Ibanez (.291, 36), Ichiro Suzuki (.351, 34) and Vidro (.314, 33) can be carried before the offense falls off of a cliff? What's more likely, that a 33-year-old Richie Sexson will bounce back, or that he's exactly the kind of player who disappears in his early thirties?

The 2007 Mariners were a team with 77-win talent that won 88 games because they hit .287 and because their bullpen pitched out of its mind for three months. With neither of those things likely to be repeated, they should have been evaluated as a 77-win team. Bill Bavasi, trying to build on the illusory success of '07 and no doubt mindful that a reversal could cost him his job, dealt away the future to protect a present that, quite frankly, doesn't exist.

Erik Bedard is going to have a terrific season, and it's going to end quietly on September 28, because his new team isn't good enough to play past that date.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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