On the Value of Flexibility to a Marginal Contender

JH · May 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

A couple of commenters on recent posts have brought up a common refrain among Ms’ fans these days: that the team’s biggest need is a big bat, and that until they acquire one nobody should waste any time worrying about incremental improvements to the 24th or 25th spots on the roster.

Obviously, the Mariners’ offense has not been very good. Nobody will seriously argue that there aren’t many different positions at which the Mariners could conceivably get better. If the right player came along, and the asking price was right, I have no doubt that the powers that be would love to add another solidly above average bat to improve the team’s .290 wOBA. That underlying point is obvious to the point of being pretty much not worth mentioning.

The specific point conveyed by these comments, though, simply could not be more wrong. After watching the Texas series, this should be abundantly obvious.

A team built around run prevention that struggles to score runs absolutely must worry about the flexibility the last few roster spots give them. Far, far more than a team with a good offense, in fact. A team like the Yankees will routinely run away with games. In contrast, 9 of the Mariners’ 11 wins this season have been by 3 runs or fewer (7 of them by either 1 or 2 runs). With strong pitching, great defense, and a mediocre at best offense, this team will see more close games than pretty much any other team in baseball with a shot at contention.

The team’s weak offense makes optimizing its bench more important. Not less.

Comments

41 Responses to “On the Value of Flexibility to a Marginal Contender”

  1. el_presidente on May 3rd, 2010 2:10 pm

    Geoff Baker takes the first swing and USS Mariner fires right back… Classic

  2. JH on May 3rd, 2010 2:12 pm

    I actually didn’t read Geoff Baker’s post until after I wrote this. I was truly only responding to the commenters.

  3. Mousse on May 3rd, 2010 2:13 pm

    Great post, JH.

  4. themedia on May 3rd, 2010 2:29 pm

    I mostly agree, but it seems like you’re using circular logic. If one person says “We need more offense, not a great bench!” and you say “We need a great bench because our offense is terrible!”, aren’t you just proving their point?

    It seems like improving the offense makes the 25th man less important (according to you and them). I certainly don’t disagree that there’s more than one way to win, but it seems foolish to espouse that perspective before saying “my way is best.”

    Am I missing something?

  5. Dave on May 3rd, 2010 2:33 pm

    Improving the bench is easy. Improving the offense is hard.

  6. aNewYorkerWhoLovesIchiro on May 3rd, 2010 2:34 pm

    [Let's not go there.]

  7. ppl on May 3rd, 2010 2:36 pm

    I am glad Zduriencik moved early on making some changes. Last year the DH platoon was intact all year, and (except when Johjima was hurt) the Catching duo as well. But beyond that the bench completely changed over during the season.

    We went from Tui at the outset along with Cedeno and the Balentien/Chavez platoon, to Langerhans, Woodward, Hannahan, Hall, Josh Wilson and Saunders.
    And Catchers Burke and Quiroz both has stints as well.
    If Zduriencik could make that situation work and still get a winning season out of it, I am confident he can pull that off again.

    Wakumatsu has much more bench flexibility now with Langerhans and Wilson. People underestimate how a few little tweaks here and there can make a difference, they should know better, they could not have had a much better demonstration than last year.
    This does not solve every problem, but we are a better team today than we were yesterday.

  8. JH on May 3rd, 2010 2:38 pm

    I mostly agree, but it seems like you’re using circular logic. If one person says “We need more offense, not a great bench!” and you say “We need a great bench because our offense is terrible!”, aren’t you just proving their point?

    If this were a theoretical debate about roster construction and we were starting with 25 empty roster spots, then sure. We’re not. The best player even remotely theoretically available in trade (Adrian Gonzalez) doesn’t suddenly turn this into a powerful offense. And we’re not going to get Adrian Gonzalez.

    Absent one or two spots we could stand to upgrade, this is the team we’ve got. This team needs a flexible bench.

  9. themedia on May 3rd, 2010 2:39 pm

    Improving the bench is easy. Improving the offense is hard.

    Point taken. In fact, maybe that point does make it “best.”

    It seems like the only realistic chance the M’s have to improve the offense is to do it over time. I remember a few years ago you guys were calling for management to buy Nelson Cruz cheap. Unfortunately…

    Z. needs to find a cheap offensive solution—even if it doesn’t make the M’s better immediately.

  10. wetzelcoatl on May 3rd, 2010 2:40 pm

    I agree with Dave. I’m sure everyone in the organization would love to have someone who could go out and hit 30 home runs but those players just aren’t as easy to come by as they were 10 years ago. Big bats are far too valuable for us to be able to afford one in trade, you can’t expect Jack Z to go out and find a guy like Branyan every year. That being said you would think that the defense first approach which the front office is taking with the position players would cause them to have a shorter leash than they have shown at the DH spot as our lack of offense in the field makes getting production out of the the DH even more important.

  11. charliebrown on May 3rd, 2010 2:41 pm

    Z. needs to find a cheap offensive solution—even if it doesn’t make the M’s better immediately.

    Offensive solutions are rarely (if ever) cheap.

  12. urne33 on May 3rd, 2010 2:41 pm

    Dave and Geoff need to have an on-air weekly show where they can hash out their different opinions on the M’s. Problem is their radio appearances are on competing stations. I don’t know how that could be resolved. Maybe a podcast on Seattletimes?

  13. Gomez on May 3rd, 2010 2:42 pm

    It’s worth noting that while we should expect to see positive regression at the plate from guys like Jose Lopez… we should also expect some regression the other way from our pitchers posting great early season performances, like Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. Do the 3-2 games become 6-2 games, or 6-5 games? Is the expected positive regression of our lineup going to be enough to call it a wash?

  14. charliebrown on May 3rd, 2010 2:46 pm

    The M’s can’t realisticly improve the offense by changing the “first 23″ guys on the team. They only shot they have is to improve the last 2 or so.

    This is why so many people were worried about the offense before the season started. There’s just no chance to improve it until the trade deadline and until then, even if the team does jettison Sweeney, the Mariners will struggle to score runs.

    I fear Mariners fans are in for a lot of 1 run ball games this year, which leads to a lot of frustrating 1 run losses.

  15. snapper on May 3rd, 2010 2:52 pm

    Offensive solutions are rarely (if ever) cheap.

    Offense only players have been cheap the last two offseasons, but the M’s chose to saddle themselves with a mascot platoon at DH.

  16. kinbote on May 3rd, 2010 3:03 pm

    I think when all is said and done, bicycle-gate will go down as one of the funniest baseball stories of the year.

  17. themedia on May 3rd, 2010 3:23 pm

    Offensive solutions are rarely (if ever) cheap.

    Do you really think the Nationals overpaid for Adam Dunn at $10M a year? And that’s just a free agent. What about guys like Nelson Cruz, Casey McGehee, etc., who were undervalued but have developed into really good offensive players. It’s hard to hit on the next Russell Branyan, but Z. didn’t really try to this last offseason. He didn’t expect 30 homers from Kotchman, and he shouldn’t have expected it from Bradley (I don’t think he did).

    It’s not easy, I’ll grant you that, but it doesn’t seem like Z. really even tried to find power the same way he did with Branyan.

  18. Drew Garret on May 3rd, 2010 3:34 pm

    “The team’s weak offense makes optimizing its bench more important. Not less”
    We just witnessed two losses were a walk an error and a fly ball took us out.

  19. wetzelcoatl on May 3rd, 2010 3:45 pm

    Do you really think the Nationals overpaid for Adam Dunn at $10M a year?

    I think the thing that a lot of people are forgetting about here is the payroll limitations. We don’t know how much if any flexibility Z was given with payroll and so while Adam Dunn may be a well worth $10 mil and guys like Vlad, Johnny Damon, and Matsui may have been available for reasonable prices during the offseason if Z didn’t have $6 mil to spend there wasn’t much he could do even if he wanted to get a bat. So while there may have been bats available in the off season its not necessarily that simple. I have a hard time beleiving that this team would be better off having spent $5-10 mil to get Vlad or someone else at the expense of getting guys like Figgins and Jack Wilson.

  20. Chris_From_Bothell on May 3rd, 2010 4:07 pm

    You’re forgetting or downplaying one basic thing:

    The people you’re arguing with are willing to trade a certain amount of defense we have now in order to get certifiable offensive upgrades. They either don’t know or don’t care about the math behind it.

    So with these fans, you can’t seperate the lineup shuffle discussion from the roster construction discussion. The people who didn’t like this approach to roster construction to begin with, see this past April as proof that that theory didn’t work, and won’t accept “A team built around run prevention that struggles to score runs absolutely must worry about the flexibility the last few roster spots give them.”

    They won’t want to continue the experiment by giving the run-prevention approach more time and incremental upgrades. Rather than seen as making necessary moves within a specific plan, it’s seen as wasting one quality start after another, one bases-loaded opportunity after another, one close game after another.

    It gets into a religious debate rather quickly. I don’t know if there’s much more you can say.

    I think the value of flexibility to this specific marginal contender is more accurately summed up this way:

    Build your bench any way you want, get whatever depth you need in the OF or IF or at catcher, but for pity’s sake, an American League team needs a) 1 DH who can actually H and b) no more than 1 player who can only DH.

  21. Paul B on May 3rd, 2010 4:15 pm

    It is expensive and difficult to obtain an all-star level player. It is far cheaper and easier to obtain an adequate player.

    Therefore, it makes perfect sense to look for the positions in the lineup or bench that are sucking chest wounds (aka negative WAR players), and plug those up with players that are mediocre, or players that are one dimensional albeit actually good in that one dimension.

    The two moves the M’s just made were just such cheap plugs.

    They can make a lot of progress by making a few other cheap moves.

  22. Chris_From_Bothell on May 3rd, 2010 4:22 pm

    They can make a lot of progress by making a few other cheap moves.

    Well, as far as I know:

    - they can’t upgrade catcher unless there’s a trade possibility somewhere I haven’t heard about
    - can’t do better than Langerhans in left in-house
    - Bradley should be getting enough DH time to force Grief-y and Sweeney out
    - Sweeney could be swapped for any replacement level player, to provide backup for almost any position, and be more useful

    So I’m not seeing a heck of a lot more progress to be made other than Hannahan for Sweeney. Unless a trade is already possible in the first week of May.

  23. wtnuke on May 3rd, 2010 4:25 pm

    What’s the likelihood that we can sell high on a guy like Doug Fister? I like him, but according to Dave he’s not that great, just overperforming. Any chance we can fool other teams into believing he’s the next Maddux?

  24. Paul B on May 3rd, 2010 4:43 pm

    So I’m not seeing a heck of a lot more progress to be made other than Hannahan for Sweeney.

    I’d rather see someone on the bench who could play outfield, and preferably hits right (for the reasons Dave put forth in the previous post). I don’t see that player in Tacoma either, but perhaps could be acquired cheaply.

    And, either of the veteran catchers in Tacoma for Rob Johnson. Assuming that they can catch the ball.

    And Carp for Griffey, which won’t happen.

  25. mlathrop3 on May 3rd, 2010 4:55 pm

    And… Bill Hall goes deep in Boston. At least it was against the Angels.

    Almost forgot what a HR looked like.

  26. djw on May 3rd, 2010 5:09 pm

    The people you’re arguing with are willing to trade a certain amount of defense we have now in order to get certifiable offensive upgrades. They either don’t know or don’t care about the math behind it.

    I get your point in the macro sense of simply pointing out that some people are irrational. But this trade has something to offer people who only care about offense, as Langerhans provides more of it than Byrnes did, and will probably provide more of it than Griffey/Sweeney does, should be take at bats away from them.

  27. joser on May 3rd, 2010 5:14 pm

    And… Bill Hall goes deep in Boston. At least it was against the Angels.
    Almost forgot what a HR looked like.

    Bill Hall probably had started to also. His last one was September 17th last year (for the M’s, off Jenks, tying things up in the 9th inning of a game that would ultimately take 14…. the M’s had trouble finding runs last year, also).

  28. Hud67 on May 3rd, 2010 5:16 pm

    I agree with a couple of posters today. The amount of money and sunk cost that the Mariners were saddled with had been talked about here in the offseason. The Mariners did not have a bunch of money to throw around in free agency (and there was not much offense available anyway). I am not a big fan of the product that the Mariners currently are putting on the field offensively. However, with Langerhans in left the Mariners will have one of the best defenses in all of baseball (except for catcher). This is going to be a long season of 3-2 and 2-1 games. It is my hope that some (hopefully most) of those one run ball games begin to go in the M’s favor.

  29. davepaisley on May 3rd, 2010 5:22 pm

    This is a poor offensive team that is collectively struggling and collectively playing well below its potential.

    What makes it even worse is Wak’s insistence on spreading the reasonably “hot” hitters out as thinly as possible, which means the odds of scoring go down even more. Can you say, “Jose Lopez, cleanup hitter”?

    While it’s supposed to be the case that lineups make little difference in the long run, it is quite easy to show that hit, out, hit, out, etc. is going to score a lot less runs than hit, hit, hit, out, out, out… Oh, especially when the hits are all singles.

    Once offensive output drops below a certain level it’s quite easy to never score a run – ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2010 Mariners…

  30. JMHawkins on May 3rd, 2010 5:35 pm

    Going back to a post Dave made a few days ago, despite all the offensive incompetence, the Keystone Cops baserunning, the Hugger platoon, a pair of “Missers” behind the plate, Cliff Lee spending the first month on the DL, and the seven-man milk carton bullpen (“Have you seen me in a game lately?”), the M’s are within spitting distance of the division.

    The team doesn’t need massive changes. Marginal improvements will pay off. Sure, Fister and Vargas will probably regress, but Figgins, Bradley and Lopez will probably progress. A little better defense in LF, a little better defense at SS after Wilson is pinch hit for, better lefty-righty matchups in high leverage situtaions, and we can have a legitimate shot at the playoff, and Felix/Lee means a legitimate shot at a title.

  31. Hud67 on May 3rd, 2010 5:42 pm

    Is anyone else nervous with Tampa Bay and Anahiem coming to town this week? Thank goodness the M’s are not in the AL East. We would be talking about completely blowing up the roster by now.

  32. Dave on May 3rd, 2010 5:45 pm

    The Angels are worse than the Mariners.

  33. G-Man on May 3rd, 2010 5:59 pm

    So we’re still in it. But what if the other teams improve? Or get lucky for a while?

    I don’t want to make an expensive acquisition, but I’d like to replace Sweeney with an actual MLB player.

  34. pumacamo on May 3rd, 2010 6:03 pm

    The team doesn’t need massive changes. Marginal improvements will pay off.

    I 100% agree. How many time’s have we seen marginal mistakes make all the difference? A Sweeney pinch hit leads to Tui at short which leads to a run costing error. An Eric Byrnes pinch run leads to an Eric Byrnes at bat, which is by virtue of physics a complete meltdown.

    This team can be affected by the seemingly small differences made by the FO. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” sometimes its just the few little things that can add up and “tip” something over the edge into a full blown epidemic. Well, we might be looking at three of four more wins and being atop the AL West if some of our “marginal” improvements had occurred weeks ago. The DFA’ing of Byrnes is a step in the right direction.

    Now let’s focus on some new margins.

  35. djw on May 3rd, 2010 6:09 pm

    But what if the other teams improve? Or get lucky for a while?

    If that happens, we probably won’t win the division. That’s how these close races work out sometimes :)

  36. mariners2009 on May 3rd, 2010 6:57 pm

    In retrospect, I am starting to think the M’s should have signed Washburn. At least he can hit.

  37. themedia on May 3rd, 2010 7:01 pm

    You’re forgetting or downplaying one basic thing:
    The people you’re arguing with are willing to trade a certain amount of defense we have now in order to get certifiable offensive upgrades. They either don’t know or don’t care about the math behind it.
    So with these fans, you can’t seperate the lineup shuffle discussion from the roster construction discussion. The people who didn’t like this approach to roster construction to begin with, see this past April as proof that that theory didn’t work, and won’t accept “A team built around run prevention that struggles to score runs absolutely must worry about the flexibility the last few roster spots give them.”
    They won’t want to continue the experiment by giving the run-prevention approach more time and incremental upgrades. Rather than seen as making necessary moves within a specific plan, it’s seen as wasting one quality start after another, one bases-loaded opportunity after another, one close game after another.
    It gets into a religious debate rather quickly. I don’t know if there’s much more you can say.

    Do you know what “building a straw man” is? Just in case you don’t, I’ll tell you: It’s where you make up a target that is irrelevant to an argument and then argue why that made up position is wrong. It’s pretty easy to do.

    If you’re talking about people who haven’t been posting in this dialogue, who might actually think this, then, OK. But if you’re talking about me, and others, who have said, essentially, that if Z. upgrades the DH—that doesn’t effect run prevention, according to my metrics—then you take another route to addressing the state of the M’s.

    My earlier point was that the logic behind this way of building a team is cyclical; you create needs by not addressing others (if our offense can’t score, then the last few players on the bench are crucial to our success, etc.).

    And I, for one, am not a dogmatic supporter of offense, which you seem to suggest. I was only gesturing toward something Dave and others have been trying to prove since USSM started: there is more than one path to success.

  38. pinball1973 on May 3rd, 2010 10:28 pm

    JH is spot on with this post. And the sort of fan who talks (only) about a “big bat” and the need to sell the farm, now, for half a season of one is the time I really want to go “flame on” and simply release a string of insults worthy of a political non-discussion.

    Jack Z. will lead us to the playoffs this year, I really think. The breaks haven’t gone our way and we’ve been putting out a team that can’t weather even mildly bad breaks. He (and Wak, I hope!) are figuring out a definite, and likely head-spinningly fantastic, solution. I think.

  39. Chris_From_Bothell on May 3rd, 2010 11:26 pm

    themedia – I wasn’t talking about you. There are more blogs than just this one, more fans than just the ones here, more opinions than the ones here. Not a straw man at all.

  40. JMHawkins on May 4th, 2010 12:13 am

    One other point about the value of marginal improvement. Baseball is a game of accumulating small things until they become big things. I forget who said it, but someone once said the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter is one extra hit a week.

    Now, average is a bad stat to use, a good hitter will make a difference more than once a week, but the basic point is stil valid. The difference between a good player and a mediocre one (or between a mediocre and a bad) is small, but it adds up. With 9 guys in the lineup, upgrading a couple of positions just a little bit, enough to save a run here and score a run there, and pretty soon you’re winning an extra game every other week that you would have lost without the upgrades. Now your 78 win team is a 90 win team and in the pennant race.

    That’s the difference. One week, Langerhans catches a ball in the gap that would’ve been a game winning double if Bradley was playing the field. The next week Bradley (DHing) hits a sac fly to score Ichiro for the go-ahead run instead of Griffey hitting into a 4-6-3 DP and we win another game. A couple weeks later, somebody who knows what to do with a catcher’s mitt blocks a 58 foot curveball to keep the runner on third and let Felix strike out the side and get out of a jam. Shawn Kelley pitches a scoreless 7th instead of a worse reliever (who’s on the team because he’s out of options and in the game because he “needs the work”) giving up a walk and a bomb to blow the save.

    Four games right there. Four extra wins with those little things. They add up.

    But they take time to add up. We’ve already squandered five weeks and several wins. No more time to waste.

  41. Burkholderj on May 4th, 2010 12:38 am

    Rob Johnson and Adam Moore aren’t getting the job done at catcher. Granted Johnson is good at calling an effective battery but on the flip side to that coin you got to be able to catch that ball you called for. Too many times has a PB happened and that run eventually scores from it. It makes the difference in our numerous one run ballgames. A definite upgrade is needed. We should upgrade at LF as well because the more we have Bradley DHing the less of a chance he is out in the field making a bonehead play (perfect example from this weekend). We know Gutz can catch just about anything, but he can’t play left and center. Surrendering the precious runs scored we need to protect. JMHawkins makes a great point about the little things and the way we are playing it’s all about protecting the little offense we have. Come on Z you have pulled off some unbelievable moves already in your tenure to put us in contention but a couple more will solidify our A.L. West pennant.

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