If you’re one of those statheads inclined to pooh-pooh early-season action, avoid hasty conclusions, and prattle on about small sample sizes-and I’m one of the most guilty-there is one thing that a look at the standings should tell us that we might not have believed three weeks ago. What is it? That out in the AL West, the Mariners should be taken seriously as a team with win-now potential. No, really. Taking a look at Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report, you’ll see that our daily million-season exercise in forecasting based on where we’re at right now suggests that the M’s have a 35 percent chance of reaching October action, 33 percent by virtue of winning their division outright. Go with the slightly more advanced, PECOTA projection-enhanced version of our forecasts of the remainder of the season, and the Mariners do better still, winning their division almost 37 percent of the time.
What gives? Well, first off, a dynamic forecasting system like our own adapts to what’s already on the books. Beyond their stack of injuries in the rotation, the Angels were already at risk of fielding a mediocre offense, but now that they’re without Vladimir Guerrero, they become that much more likely to struggle to achieve even that epithet. Up in Oakland, a rotation reliant on young talent has yet to gel, and the famed Moneyball offense remains as AWOL with Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday in the fold as it has been in recent years before their addition. Before the season even started, it was hard to see either of those teams as clubs likely to get out of the mid-80s in total wins. The Mariners were forecast as the likely winners of 77 or 78 games, or very much in the playoff picture, both in real terms and mathematically-already inside 10 games in a big-picture projection, where not that many things have to go right or wrong to put Seattle up with the initial favorites. Add in the virtue of head-to-head play in the league’s short stack, going up against teams whose problems only seem to be mounting, and you get a brand of hope and faith that transcends Opening Day-inspired make-believe.
Now, as we could anticipate before the season, it’s not a rock-solid bid, of course, but many of the same factors that made the Mariners a credible contender in some people’s minds heading into the 2008 season after an 88-win campaign in ’07 are still present on this year’s ballclub. A rotation stocked with a blend of experience and talent that was supposed to fuel that ’08 bid has actually been delivering in 2009. With the benefit of a healthy Erik Bedard as well as Jarrod Washburn‘s apparently building on his solid second half last season (when he posted a 3.56 ERA in his last 15 starts) in his first four outings this year, it looks as if Felix Hernandez might finally have a couple of wing men who can deliver winnable ballgames. A reflection of that is captured by the Mariners’ rotation ranking third in the American League in per-game Support-Neutral performance; in 2008, with Bedard missing half the season, Washburn ineffective early on, and Carlos Silva and Miguel Batista contributing disasterpieces two of every five nights for much of the year, they ranked 11th. Obviously, much depends on Washburn and Bedard continuing to do those things they’ve done, and Silva’s menace is still present in the rotation, but throw in King Felix’s ascending to acedom, and the rotation could keep games tight.
Can the pen keep games close as well? Even with J.J. Putz dealt to the Mets, the decision to replace him with Brandon Morrow seems to be working out quite nicely, headlining a crew of mostly homegrown talent shored up with free-talent pickup David Aardsma (although handicapped by Batista, a free-agency gift that keeps on giving things nobody should want). If one of the most important tasks for any manager is how he handles his pitching staff, it would appear that rookie skipper Don Wakamatsu has something to work with, and is getting good results, not just from Morrow and Aardsma, but also Shawn Kelley and Mark Lowe. While control issues might undermine some or all of them, all four also have the stuff to be quality relievers. If Wakamatsu creates roles where each succeeds, it wouldn’t be the first good bullpen made up of relatively non-famous people, and it won’t be the last.
So, if the pitching’s a good group, can the offense do enough to hold up its end to make this bid plausible? Here, things get even more speculative. Players such as Adrian Beltre, Jose Lopez, and Yuniesky Betancourt don’t have a lot of breakout potential, Endy Chavez isn’t a big league-caliber bat in left, and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez has yet to prove that he’s anything more than a Gold Glove center fielder with a platoon bat only really worth starting versus southpaws. A lot of the decisions as far as who’s in the lineup have been informed by position player’s defensive value, and while that’s a decision that’s been reinforced by early results-the Mariners rank sixth in the majors in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency-they’ll do themselves a favor by considering in-season upgrades at offense-oriented positions like first base or in left. Happily, getting a veteran at either position with a pre-deadline deal, someone who’s probably free agency-bound, and employed by a team looking to cut salary and who won’t take even a second-rank prospect to acquire, is one of the staples of the current trading environment. When you’re talking about improving upon a Chavez or a Russell Branyan, adding an outfielder, and (perhaps) bringing back a Jeff Clement from Triple-A to move to first base for the stretch run is a realizable bit of in-season shoring up.
That’s the fun to be had with the Mariners’ immediate future, in how it represents the perils of the fragile contender. While another sabermetric saw is that every game matters equally, timing really can be everything. Getting out to an early good start can and does inform subsequent decision-making, which can lead to decisions that have enormous subsequent impacts on the shape of the team. If the Mariners had gone into the tank in the early going, we’d be talking about what new GM Jack Zduriencik would need to shop for and the best possible deals to be struck for free agents-to-be Bedard, Washburn, and Beltre. Instead, by getting out to a hot start, the Mariners can take their present seriously, balancing the risks and rewards of winning now and watching some of their free agents depart (perhaps leaving draft compensation picks in their wake) against the prospect packages they’d receive if they chuck the vets and duck out of the playoff race.
How the Mariners play their opportunities reflects a saw of a different sort: it’s why they play the games. But playing in the smallest division, one that’s also unencumbered by any greatness, there’s a chance here for Seattle to take a shot at a division title right now, perhaps not one that involves running with the big dogs of the AL East come October, but at least giving their fans a meaningful season while Zduriencik also achieves the progress he was brought in to achieve, with organization-wide retooling from the player development side on up. While that’s the long way ’round, the fun is that the Mariners can enjoy the benefits of a quick short-cut to relevance right now.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .