December 3, 2008
GM for a Day
Wow. There are a lot of opinions about which teams should be covered as we lead up to the Winter Meetings. I doubt I'll be able to get to them all by next Monday, or even next Tuesday, but I'll do my best. I'm still sifting through the feedback, but the Mets, Tigers, Cardinals, and Reds all had significant support. No one seems to want me to write about the Nationals or Royals.
Today, I want to take a run at the Mariners, a somewhat more difficult project than the Dodgers. A year ago, the Mariners built up their 2008 roster at the expense of future seasons, and over the objections of performance analysts. The Mariners were fooled by their 2007 success, when a strong won-lost record had been built on a bullpen whose run prevention didn't quite match the underlying skill sets, and which got a bit lucky beyond even that. In the same way that the 2008 Mariners weren't as good as the 2007 ones would have led you to believe, the 2009 Mariners are better than the '08 version indicates. The '08 Mariners lost a ton of value to the DL, as J.J. Putz and Erik Bedard, good for 17.0 WARP in 2007, produced 6.7. Those two guys repeating their 2007 seasons still wouldn't have put the team in contention, but it would have lessened the perception that it was a disaster going nowhere.
Even so, I am much more optimistic about next year's Mariners, in the short term, than I was about last year's. Last year's Mariners were going to be terrible offensively, and not have nearly enough pitching or defense to make up for it. The '09 version is going to have good, and possibly excellent, run prevention, and has enough time and money to possibly put a representative offense on the field. The AL West could very well be won with 87 games next season, and I'm not convinced that the 2009 Mariners couldn't get there, and without making the kind of decisions they did a year ago.
The Mariners have Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Brandon Morrow, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Carlos Silva, and Jarrod Washburn. Forget that the last two are overpaid fodder; how many AL rotations would you trade, straight up, for the top four guys? Eleven? Twelve? I'd certainly take the Red Sox, and probably the Rays just because of David Price. The Twins? It's close; they don't have anyone with the upside of Hernandez or Morrow. I'd take the Mariners' rotation over the Angels, the Yankees, the Blue Jays, the White Sox... this has the potential to be a fantastic set of pitchers. Bedard has to return from his shoulder issues, of course, and both Rowland-Smith and Morrow have to continue their transition back to starting, which is where the innings-eating qualities of Silva and Washburn may actually be a benefit. Hernandez, Bedard, and Morrow all had Stuff scores of at least 19 last year. Rowland-Smith's mark was -1, and he wasn't great as a starter (35/23 K/BB in 63
The 2009 Seattle Mariners will have one of the five best rotations in the American League, and if you start there, you can get to a lot of places. So if this were my team, I would do everything I could to back up that rotation, with a couple of developing arms and a couple of ball-in-play guys, and with the best defense possible. This is where the Mariners have been going backwards; their defense, as measured by Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, slipped to 26th in MLB last year, 27th the year prior, and has been going backwards since the early years of the decade, when they had some of the best defensive teams in franchise history in 2001 and 2003.
As much as Raul Ibanez is praised as a clutch player, his diminished range is a big part of the declining defensive performance of late. Yuniesky Betancourt hasn't followed up on his excellent rookie season, and Jose Lopez has struggled. Ichiro Suzuki, in terrific shape, is nevertheless 34, and 34-year-olds need to move from center field to a corner spot just as he did at midseason. To help the Mariners, I would try to have as many above-average defensive players on the field-no, more specifically, in the outfield-as is reasonable. Fixing the offense will have to happen, but with enough run prevention-generally cheaper to purchase or acquire-you can get away with an average or slightly-below offense, and there are a lot of cheap bats out there this year.
Ibanez was simply terrible, with a -18 in John Dewan's Plus/Minus system last year, and -25 in 2007. That's plays, which for outfielders translates to singles, as well as doubles and some triples. Upgrade from that to an average left fielder, and you save 10 to 15 runs. Upgrade to a plus outfielder and save 20 to 30 runs. Two candidates are Eric Byrnes, who does play very good defense and who may be available cheaply from the Diamondbacks, and the Nationals' Willie Harris, who will be hard-pressed to play in 140 games again with Josh Willingham added to the fold in Washington. Harris was in the Plus/Minus top ten for left fielders in both '07 and '08, while Byrnes was the best in the game in '07 before missing much of '08 to injury.
In center field, the Mariners could try to acquire a glove man without a role such as the Braves' Josh Anderson or the Pirates' Nyjer Morgan. They could also run Jeremy Reed out there for one last time; Reed is average to average-plus defensively, and is the rare internal solution who might provide their lineup some OBP. Put the emphasis on "might" here; Reed has simply never built on the promise of 2003 and 2004, and in an extended trial last season, he posted a .314 OBP with 18 walks in 312 PA. Something else to watch is that the Mariners have added two minor league free agents, Steve Moss and Mel Stocker, neither of whom is a prospect, but both of whom are defense and speed players. Given how open this situation is, either could win the job. Kevin Goldstein suggests Clay Timpner and Drew Macias as possibilities, if the Mariners want to maximize run prevention in a center fielder.
The answer is similar in the infield, where Adrian Beltre is excellent defensively, and entering the final year of his contract. You can look to trade him at midseason, but unless someone overwhelms you, there's not much need to do so this winter. Again, the AL West simply isn't going to be that great next year, the last year of the pre-Rangers Era. Give yourself a chance to win the game's smallest division by keeping one of your best players. Young veterans Betancourt and Lopez have been a huge part of the team's problem with OBP, walking a combined 39 times on their own power last year in more than 1,200 plate appearances. Both have raw skills that have not translated to performance; at 27 and 25, respectively, it's time for the Mariners to find out if this is a middle infield you can win a championship with, or not. At the least, you want to ramp up their trade value as the Carlos Truinfel Era approaches.
Where the Mariners have to get better production is at first base and DH, which were disasters of biblical proportions last season thanks to the career-ending collapses of Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro, and before that, the organization's inability to identify either as a potential problem. Both of these spots should be much, much better in '08. At DH, the Mariners have to slot Jeff Clement 120 times, giving him 40 other opportunities to catch, in order to find out if his bat will play in the majors. Even a repeat of his .227/.295/.360 line would be an upgrade, and he will hit better than that. At first base... pick a body. I like the idea of bringing in Adam Dunn on a three-year deal. He can play first base, some left field, some DH, and he would immediately become the best hitter on the team. Safeco isn't that bad a park for left-handed power hitters, and the effect of a hitter like Dunn on the lineup would be similar to the bounce the Angels got from Mark Teixeira, where the effect of adding a high-OBP/SLG guy to a team with none of them is non-linear.
Got all that? Here's the final plan:
It may seem insane to project that the Mariners, 61-101 in 2008, could bounce back to contend for a post-season berth in '09. When you consider the competition-a transitional Angels team, an A's squad that could do almost anything, a Rangers team maybe a year early-punting the year doesn't make sense. You can't pare enough payroll to make a difference, and you can't turn your current assets into future ones in a way that will change the long-term prognosis. Don't underrate the immediate potential of the roster, because that could as be damaging, if not by quite so much, as overrating it was a year ago.
With that in mind, take a somewhat short-term view. Take the easy upgrades in left field and at DH that will not only make the '09 team better, but help develop the core strength, the three young starters. Use '09 to evaluate the young veterans and emerging prospects to figure out who gets to go forward with the team, who gets cut loose or traded, and what needs to be acquired next winter.