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Brad talks with Derek Jacques about the Mariners’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Can a team that’s finished in their division cellar for three straight years win the World Series? Sure, why not–I like Acta, I’ve always been a Snelling fan, if they plug him into the–oh. Not the Nationals? Well, the Royals have some good young players, Alex Gordon’s great, Butler–wait, you mean the Mariners?

Oh.

They could do it. But they’re going back to rob the same convenience store, hoping that the safe’s left open this time, that there’s money in it, that the cops don’t respond to the alarm, no customers witness them doing it, the getaway car starts, that all of the things they believed would go right and didn’t before go off perfectly this time, all of them, and they can get the cash and, heck, a six-pack of tall boys.

That said, the American League West isn’t locked up, and the Mariners may not need a lot of luck to win the division. Both the Athletics and Angels appear to be better teams headed into the season, but not by much. If the players the Mariners believe in to defy the odds all reward the team’s faith in their potential, they’ll easily contend all season long.

Gary Huckabay wrote about the importance of luck in his San Francisco Giants piece, and the Mariners need it. And they need it in a lot of places.

Let’s start with DH. Since Edgar Martinez retired, here’s what the M’s have received from their DHs:

2005: .268/.333/.390
2006: .233/.298/.358

Last year, they paid a premium to get veteran leadership with the left-handed sock of Carl Everett. That didn’t work. They traded for Eduardo Perez, then added his Cleveland platoon partner Ben Broussard. They didn’t hit either.

The solution for 2007? They spent two prospects to get older and vastly more expensive, bringing in Jose Vidro, a broken-down infielder on a steep decline. Their fervent belief is that Vidro, like third baseman Edgar Martinez did back in the day, will stay healthier as a designated hitter, that they’ll be able to help him keep his legs working. They believe that Vidro will return to his peak form: play in 150 games, hit over .300, take a couple walks, and hit for power.

They want his 90th percentile PECOTA projection, not that they would phrase it like that.

They need much the same from their pitching. They’re down two starters–the adequate goodness of Gil Meche will be found in Kansas City these days, and the collapsed career of Joel Pineiro, now seeking redemption in Boston. They pursued Jason Schmidt, they fell short with Barry Zito. So, what they have now is a stable of mid-rotation guys and hope. They see Horacio Ramirez as a potential ace, an impact starter who can match up with anyone else’s #1, #2 guys, though he’s yet to show that. His highest Stuff score at any level where he’s thrown more than fifty innings was last year’s ‘3’–zero is replacement level, and ten is average. They also need him to throw 200 innings of quality pitching, which he’s done once.

They want his 90th percentile PECOTA projection, not that they would phrase it like that.

Then they signed Miguel Batista to a three-year, $27 million contract. At 36, they’re looking for mid-rotation stability, an average starter, healthy, reliable. If they’re going to be competitive, they need Batista to finish the season with an ERA down around four instead of up around five.

They want his 90th percentile PECOTA projection, not that they would phrase it like that.

Instead of handing a rotation spot to a gamble, like Cha Seung Baek or Jake Woods, they spent eight million on Jeff Weaver, hoping that he’ll show the postseason form of last year, the Jeffe Weaver he used to be, the innings-eating good pitcher last seen in 2004.

They want his 90th percentile PECOTA projection, not that they would phrase it like that.

I know, I’m getting repetitive, but it gets worse. They not only need their belief in these guys to be rewarded, they need to keep all the luck to themselves. Every team could compete by getting a couple of surprise seasons out of unlikely candidates. The Mariners desperately require at least two of those, and more like four, to win the World Series, and at the same time they need that to not happen for the A’s, or the Angels, and the Rangers can’t be too lucky either. Bartolo Colon can’t come back from his injury and be the super-good Colon, for instance, and Mark Ellis can’t hit .300 with great power as part of a resurgent A’s offense that doesn’t miss a beat after losing Frank Thomas.

But say the M’s are right about those guys, and PECOTA and all the other projection systems are wrong. Let’s say all of the new guys–Vidro, Ramirez, Batista, Weaver–have the season the Mariners see when they’re daydreaming. That’s a great team. They’d win 90 games easily, and cruise into the playoffs, beating up on their divisional opponents all season long.

Even so, they could help their chances by firing Mike Hargrove and putting a potted plant on the bench to not make decisions. Hargrove’s inability to see what his players can do and make the most of them, instead focusing on their limitations, limits their chances in turn. Adam Jones, recently converted from shortstop, didn’t look good enough in center for Hargrove, so if the team needs an injury replacement midseason, you’re more likely to see Willie Bloomquist, the worst player in baseball to get more than 200 at-bats last year, than you are the superior player that Hargove doesn’t like. In every season, injuries or ineffectiveness require a manager to find reasonable solutions using the talent at hand, whether that’s picking the pitcher to make a spot start or two, or patching at an infield position when the regular strains a muscle and has to sit for two weeks. Hargrove needs to be smarter about that kind of thing, or they need to not have Hargrove making their decisions.

They need to let Jose Lopez be Jose Lopez. As a pull hitter, Lopez has good line-drive power. Encouraged to be a spray hitter, he’s an unproductive groundout machine, yet applauded by his manager for it. If Hargrove’s not going to be fired, the best scenario is that Lopez puts ball after ball over fences in spring training, and the organization mandates Hargrove not to talk to him about hitting approach ever again.

The Mariners also need Hargrove to stop giving away games. Last year, when the team desperately needed relief outs, and instead a home run would end the game, he brought in Julio Mateo, the most fly-ball, homer-prone guy on the staff, to get ground ball outs–because Hargrove believed that Mateo was the best ground-ball pitcher available. Hargrove is paid a ton of money to know these things.

It’s hard to count on luck when you know the team’s starting out with that kind of handicap. You can win at blackjack; the long-term odds are always against you, but it’s possible that in a given session you come out ahead if you follow an optimal strategy. But to get to the playoffs, this team doesn’t just need that kind of luck; they need the kind of luck that someone who doesn’t know blackjack strategy at all, who’s been drinking, and who hasn’t slept in a couple days needs. They need card after card to bail them out of bad decisions.

Once in the playoffs, though, the Mariners may be better suited than many teams. Felix Hernandez is a legitimate ace, and aces have dragged worse teams through playoff rounds. They’ll play good defense, should have a strong bullpen that could be used effectively, and if they’ve made the playoffs, it means they’ll have a balanced attack led by Ichiro, who’s been patiently waiting for another shot at postseason glory since 2001. It doesn’t take much once you’re in, and the Mariners may be well-suited to get hot, surprise everyone, and for the first time in their thirty-year history, play in and win the World Series.

It could happen. There’s hope.

To read Derek Zumsteg’s other articles, click here. Derek’s book The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball ships April 2, 2007. Click here to order a copy.

Brad talks with Derek Jacques about the Mariners’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.




Click to download mp3

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