What To Make Of This Team
Off days are always good for reflection, and as we mentioned a few days ago, it’s pretty likely that the front office and coaching staff will be meeting today to discuss the roster, what they want to do going forward, and the approach they’re going to take the rest of the season. Six games back with 108 to play is not an easy hole to dig out of, and the M’s playoff odds stand at somewhere around 15% right now. However, it’s also not an insurmountable task, and it’s likely that the new front office will give this team a bit more time to see how the 2009 season unfolds. So, what should we expect from this team going forward, now that the first third of the season is in the books?
Adrian Beltre – The guy is a really streaky hitter, so while his lousy first two months weren’t any fun to watch, he always brings the possibility of a .360/.410/.600 stretch into every month of the season. Beltre’s glove kept him contributing even without the offense, so he was worth +0.8 wins over the first 33% of the year. Given that he’s a +3 to +4 win player, we should expect him to be worth about +2.3 wins over the remainder of 2009. In other words, he’ll be a bit better, but the improvement will be more marginal than dramatic, as the offensive gains will be somewhat offset by lower expected defensive contributions.
Jose Lopez – At 25, he’s having the worst year of his career, which isn’t exactly normal. He hasn’t been able to sustain his offensive step forward from last year, and his defense just continues to deteriorate. Even his most ardent supporters will admit that the idea that he’s an average defensive 2B is a myth now. His lack of range means he has to hit in order to be valuable, and while he’ll hit better than he has so far, how much he’s going to hit is a real question mark. He was worth -0.6 wins through the season’s first trimester, and I’d peg him for about +0.6 wins over the rest of the year. Like Beltre, there’s improvement coming, but it’s not dramatic.
Brandon Morrow – The one guy in the bullpen we shouldn’t have had to worry about, Morrow’s command fell apart and his reliance on one pitch turned him into a home run machine. However, relievers are finicky, and it doesn’t take much for them to fix their problems and see the performances shift quickly. Morrow’s still the best arm the team has in the bullpen, and he should be able to add +0.5 wins in the second half of the year, a nice little improvement from the -0.3 wins he contributed so far.
Russell Branyan – I’m as thrilled with the guy as anyone else, and he’s the kind of pickup we’ve been begging the organization to make for years, but he’s simply not a .319 hitter. Thanks to some balls finding holes (.394 BABIP), he’s been worth +2 wins to the team already, but that’s really unlikely to continue, as much as we’d all love it to. A realistic projection for Branyan over the next four months has him contributing +1 win. His expected regression is of a similar magnitude to the bounce back we’re expecting from Lopez.
Erik Bedard – Again, I think we’re all thrilled that he’s pitching well, and he’s giving the team a chance to win every time he takes the mound. However, his 2.37 ERA is more than a run lower than his 3.46 FIP, and that’s more luck than defense. His 84.7% LOB% is higher than anyone posted last year, and even if you thought he was the best pitcher in baseball, he wouldn’t be expected to keep stranding runners at this rate. Over the next 20 starts or so, we should expect Bedard to give up nearly a run more per nine innings than he has so far.
Jarrod Washburn – Washburn is legitimately pitching better than he has at any time since 2002. From 2003 to 2008, he posted FIPs ranging from 4.35 to 4.97. Right now, his FIP is 3.58, which would be the best mark of his career if it held out all year. It’s not going to. His HR/FB rate is 6.3%, about 3% lower than his career mark. We can certainly expect him to pitch better over the rest of the year than we thought he would at the beginning of the season, but he’s not going to continue to pitch this well all year. Like with Bedard, we need to add nearly a full run per nine innings over what he’s given the team so far in 2009.
Jason Vargas – Hopefully, I don’t need to write a lot of words to explain why he won’t keep posting a 1.93 ERA. He’s done a nice job since taking Carlos Silva’s spot in the rotation, but his strand rate is off the charts. He’s put 31 men on base, and allowed 5 home runs, and only eight men have scored off of him. That’s ridiculous. It’s been helpful, but it won’t last. Vargas is a #5 starter, and we should expect an ERA more in the 4.50 to 5.50 range over the rest of the season.
There are some other lesser roles that we would expect some minor performance shifts in, but they aren’t as significant as these seven. Getting Rowland-Smith and Shawn Kelley back will help the pitching staff, but Sean White won’t keep getting outs on balls in play at the same rate. Griffey will probably hit a little better, but Ichiro will probably hit a little worse. Most of those things are just going to even out, or come close to it.
The seven fairly major changes we should expect, from Beltre-Lopez-Morrow-Branyan-Bedard-Washburn-Vargas, actually point to a slight regression in performance from this roster. The things that are expected to get worse will be more harmful to the team’s win-loss expectancy than the things that are expected to get better.
In other words, you can’t look at this roster and say “hey, awesome, they’re only two games under .500 with Beltre and Lopez hitting like crap. Once they catch fire, we’re golden.” That’s just bad analysis.
We said at the start of the season that this roster looked like a 78 win team to us. They are currently on pace to win 78 games. This team has performed almost exactly as we would have expected. Not every player is going to match their projections, obviously, but as a whole, this team is what we thought it was – not terrible, but not great.
So, what do they do now? If the M’s want to try to make a run at the Rangers and Angels, they need to upgrade several pieces of the roster, most notably the middle infield. This isn’t a playoff caliber team with Betancourt and Lopez playing SS-2B. One (or both) need to be replaced, preferably by a left-handed hitter.
Over the winter, Jack showed an adeptness and moving a valuable major league piece for some guys who could help the team both now and in the future. With the team kinda sorta hanging around the AL West race at the 1/3 mark of the season, but doing it with several free agents to be who aren’t going to keep performing this well, it will be interesting to see if he can do it again. Right now, a buy-and-sell approach might be the M’s best bet. Move Bedard and Washburn while their value is at its peak, and either get players back who can help you right now, or line up simultaneous deals where you’re comfortable giving up prospects to improve the middle infield due to the return you got for the two pitchers.
There are lots of ways the M’s could go from here. It will be interesting to see which path Jack chooses.