Thirty three, forty six
In 2004, the team made a decision that the team needed more grit. They imported certified grit to supplement their homegrown grit, and the result was a depressing, gritty team that had to be taken apart mid-season — and got better.
This year, they decided they needed power, and they pursued two huge free agents in Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. The result is a depressing team that may still be taken apart mid-season.
This Mariner team is worse in many ways than last year’s: the 2005 squad is 2nd to last in batting average (.254), last in on-base percentage (.314), 2nd to last in slugging, where last year’s squad was tied for 9th, 19th, and 27th. I used to complain that all the 2004 Mariners could do on offense was hit boring singles. This year’s team can’t even manage that.
On the reverse side, the pitching staff now consists of five Ryan Franklin clones gone wrong. They have the worst strikeout rate of any pitching staff in the major leagues, and they’re walking too many hitters and letting too many home runs go to make that a reasonable strategy (tied for 9th overall). It’s last year’s staff with a slightly different flavor.
Who’s to blame on the field?
Bret Boone‘s been below average for his position, but he hasn’t reached truly horrible. We’re a little spoiled with 2001/2003 memories: second basemen, as a group, don’t hit that well. He’s in the last year of a huge three-year deal (containing a fourth year option guaranteed after 400 plate appearances in 2004). It was signed when he was 32, after a out-of-nowhere career year. At the time, we wrote that the team would have been better off taking him to arbitration every year and avoiding even that kind of commitment. Certainly, we don’t know when would they have cut him, and whether they would have found a good replacement? It’s unlikely they’d have seen 2004 coming (even I was saying at that point my arbitration plan would have been less efficent), but after 2004 it’s likely they’d have cut him, and even a random rent-a-player this off-season would have worked out better.
A $35m, four-year deal for a 32 second baseman who’d never hit anywhere near that well isn’t a good risk.
Catcher. Ugly all around. When Rene Rivera can have thirty plate appearances and be the high point of the position’s contributions this year, that’s sad.
Previous research into catcher defense has shown that catcher ERA isn’t a repeatable skill, or at least it’s not showing up easily. That is, a catcher who seems to help his team’s pitcher one year isn’t any more likely to seem to help them the next year compared to someone who hurt them the year before (compared to skills like home run power, where being good at it one year’s an excellent indicator they’ll be good at it the next year).
And yet even as I type that, I think about Olivo and wonder. He seems to constantly get crossed up with his pitchers, for instance. And see Super Reader Paul Covert’s comment below.
The Mariners, as a team, have been awful at catching base stealers (6 for 45). 89% of opposing baserunners are getting there. The break-even point for opposing teams where the extra bases outweigh the value of the outs created is 75%. Every team that faces the Mariners should have everyone with good speed going first-to-second, at least until Borders can get back to throwing out some of them, and Olivo can put that once-feared cannon to use.
Shortstop. Wilson Valdez was helpless with the bat. Pokey was a cheap gamble at short, but he has also been fragile through his career.
The starters. I was worried at the start of the season about this: every pitcher had serious questions and there was little chance that all of them would turn out okay (Pineiro’s the ace everyone thought he’d be! So’s Meche! And Moyer returns to form! Madritsch builds on last season! Someone isn’t awful in the 5th slot!).
What we’ve seen is what we’d most feared: all questions have been answered in the negative. No Mariner starter is above average.
By runs over an average pitcher and Value Over Replacement Pitcher:
Sele, -6, 8.7
Franklin, -7.9, 7.9
Meche, -8.6, 6.5
Moyer, -8.9, 5.8
Pineiro, -12.1, 1.5
The team’s best starter is Aaron Sele, who is still significantly worse than an average starter. These guys are mostly Gillick deals: Moyer and his self-negotiated deal (which only Dave seemed to realize was likely to go horribly wrong for the team), Franklin’s almost inexplicable extension, Pineiro’s long-term deal (speaking of which, how come everyone is willing to talk about how Pineiro’s velocity is way down, and how he’s got to learn to pitch without having a good fastball, but no one talks about the why, or what’s wrong? Isn’t that equally important?).
The bench. Once again, the team filled this drawer of the toolbox with a bunch of the same size, low-quality flathead screwdrivers. Bloomquist at least offers something, no matter how small, while Dobbs and Spiezio have nothing to offer the team.
Adrian Beltre. Could be the hamstring, could be the stance, could be his foot injury last year helped him. It could be last year’s performance is a fluke, and that his early years of promise are too far in the past to be considered.
Whaterver the reasons, his performance so far has been awful. A healthy Justin Leone could hit this well.
And it could be he’s coming back around. We gotta hope.
Who not to blame — Raul Ibanez is working out okay. At the time, I criticized this deal as being too much for too long, and I still think the team could have done better than commit to him for a couple of years. But for a couple million dollars a year, it’s gone okay.
The bullpen’s been a heck of a lot more effective than the rotation, even carrying Thornton.
Reed’s doing okay at the plate and contributing in the field. It’s not the great rookie year I’d hoped for, but it’s something to build on for the future.
What happens next?
Boone’ll be gone. Fortunately for us, the Mariners have a lot of good minor league hitters coming up the middle. Lopez should be able to step up and improve that immediately.
Randy Winn and Raul Ibanez could both be back, but it’s likely Winn will be dealt soon (I’m shocked he wasn’t dealt this off-season). This would open up a left-field slot for an exciting prospect tearing it up in Tacoma right now, which at least would make the team more entertaining.
King Felix, if his arm isn’t blown, might be ready to take one of the rotation spots next year. He’s had a strange year in Tacoma, switching between dominance and wildness inning to inning and even batter to batter, and he’s seemed a lot more effective as he gets into games. Maybe Bobby Livingston, though I doubt they’d want to push him that far.
Aaaaaaaaaaaand that’s all we can look forward to. The farm system doesn’t have five starters to revamp the rotation. Then the choice comes to: do you try and discard each of these guys not under contract and gamble that the free agent market will provide just as good or better replacements?
There aren’t a lot of interesting names who’ll be out there, either. Then you’re risking having the pitching equivalent of Wilson Valdez, which would be even worse. The farm system’s total destruction of nearly every pitcher of worth has left the once-seemingly-rich system with few replacement possibilities.
And there’s your 2006 team, much like the 2005 one: a rotation of questions and uncertainty, two positional upgrades (and, we’d hope, Beltre playing better), continued catching problems, and a bullpen that’ll need some patching.
This year’s team should be a step forward to contending again, a lost transition year that might, in punting some players before the deadline, help in 2006 and beyond. But as we approach the break, we can see that there are things to be concerned about, particularly the team’s failure to plan in depth — faced with a rotation of question marks, they needed to stockpile better depth, and failed. They’re likely to face the same problem next year. Whether they’ve learned a lesson from seeing a bad pitcher take the ball every day, all season long, remains to be seen.