Series Wrap-up, Rearranging Deck Chairs, etc.
On June 19th, the Mariners were a couple of games over .500 and just a half game behind the division-leading Rangers. On July 5th – within two weeks! – the M’s were 2.5 back of the Angels/Rangers. Fans on twitter, on talk-radio, everywhere mentioned the M’s exceptional heart and desire – so unlike the 2010 team, who just rolled over and accepted defeat.
Now, on July 17th, the M’s are 9 games below .500, 11.5 back of the Rangers, and people willing to publicly advocate for their “heart,” “fire,” “determination” are thin on the ground. People who point out the similarities between this year’s M’s team and the last are a lot more numerous than they were 10 days ago.
This isn’t to suggest that criticism of the current roster is reactionary and ill-considered – it’s not; this roster is legitimately awful. Rather, I’m trying to remember how it was that THIS team, the one with Adam Kennedy at DH, or Miguel Olivo at clean-up, with Franklin Gutierrez and with the left-field platoon from hell, fancied itself contenders. From 2009 through 2011, only the Mariners have a team wOBA below .300. From 2009 through 2011, the M’s have trotted out the least valuable collection of position players in the majors, edging out the Orioles and Royals. This includes their exceptional fielding performance in 2009, which netted them almost 10 wins (they’ve been worth 29 *total* in 2.5 years). You will tell your grandchildren about the 2010/2011 Mariners. This team will live on in family stories about great hardship (“So after Jim lost his job, and after my unemployment ran out, we were basically sick-Guti there for a while”) or annoying failure (“Damn it! The TV’s gone Olivo again!”).
The way the M’s lost this series makes you question so much about the team’s decent performance through June. The M’s went 20 for 126 against a good-but-not-exceptional series of Rangers hurlers. The M’s were outscored 17-2. Say what you will about sequencing, luck, or slumps, the talent disparity between these two line-ups just jumped off the screen. Seriously, would Endy Chavez hit clean-up on the M’s? Swap out Peguero for Carp, or Peguero for George Brett circa 1980 and the M’s still get swept handily.
The M’s made lefties like CJ Wilson and Derek Holland look great, because many of the team’s RHH struggle against southpaws (Brendan Ryan, Gutierrez, Halman) and the lefties (while they’ve done OK) can’t pick up the slack. The M’s made righties like Matt Harrison look good because Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley are struggling against righties for some reason and people like Olivo, Gutierrez and Ryan never stood a chance anyway. The most shocking thing about the M’s offense is how impervious to regression they’ve been. The M’s finished 2010 several standard deviations from the mean, and have somehow maintained that pace in 2011. The M’s are looking like an offense with a true-talent level so far below league average that you have to start questioning the way the team was put together.
I know, I know: they’ve been hit with some key injuries. Adam Moore was supposed to catch at least 50 games this year, Franklin Gutierrez was supposed to be healthy (or healthier), and David Aardsma and Shawn Kelley were supposed to anchor the bullpen. But Adam Moore put up a .224 wOBA last year, and his ZiPS projection was far lower than, say, Josh Bard’s. It’s not at all clear that the M’s “lost” anything there. David Aardsma’s Tommy John surgery’s thrust Brandon League into the closer role, but that’s clearly last on the list of M’s issues. Shawn Kelley would be nice, but Jeff Gray’s demonstrating just how easy it can be to find RH set-up men. Gutierrez is perhaps the most under-performing player on the roster, but after his 2010, no one was counting on him to be above average with the bat. Even if he was healthy on opening day, he’d likely be a below-average hitter.
All of this is to say that we now know more about how the M’s stack up against Los Angeles and Texas, both this year and since 2009 – and the more we know, the more the M’s seem to drop relative to their rivals. This is a roster that had huge, easily-identified holes when the Zduriencik regime took over, and now has larger, just-as-easily-identifiable holes in other places. The M’s have done well in the amateur draft and in trades, but Zduriencik’s free-agent acquisitions haven’t worked out, and even some of the “good” trades (Brendan Ryan for Maikel Cleto) haven’t helped the M’s relative to their peers. The M’s went from an overpaid glove-first SS to a cheaper glove-first SS, but all that did was push the overpaid glove-first SS to the bench.
I understand that Zduriencik inherited a terrible roster/farm system, and that guys like Taijuan Walker and Nick Franklin might help transform the roster a couple of years from now, but how many years does that mitigating circumstance hold? Zduriencik took over a roster with historically bad 1B/DH spots and shifted the historically-bad spots to CF and 3B. I don’t think any of us would’ve done a whole lot differently, but here we are with a line-up that can’t compete in the wide-open AL West and without much help anywhere in the system (they’ve used Seager and Halman, so there’s absolutely no easy way to project even incremental improvement – Langerhans in CF? Liddi/Catricala at 3B?), it’s not clear how the relative strengths will change. Going into 2009, the M’s had a talent deficit vis a vis Anaheim, but an advantage at GM. At this point, it’d appear the Rangers have the better roster and front office. It’s tough to imagine this changing absent a big trade, but as Dave’s already pointed out, the M’s don’t have a lot of veterans to trade.
This April, the M’s ran advertisements acknowledging how painful 2010 was, and pointing to the farm system as a solution to the problem. Well, the M’s could run the same commercial in April of 2012, as absolutely nothing’s changed. Yes, in many ways, this is the exact wrong time to blame the front office; a long losing streak exaggerates a team’s weaknesses and plays up their rivals’ strengths. But the past two series have exposed the current roster’s deficiencies, and the past few years haven’t given me a whole lot of confidence that the team can buy their way out of their predicament on the free agent market.
Yes, the team’s developed some young players who’re getting their feet wet, and Ackley/Smoak should improve, where does that leave the club? We support a team that, when it’s smart, starts Kyle Seager, Brendan Ryan, and Greg Halman. We cheered when the club swapped out Carlos Peguero for Mike Carp in left field. I think that pretty much encapsulates where the team is and the options they’re currently facing. In the past six months, the Rangers lost Josh Hamilton to a broken arm, saw several of their top pitching prospects go down with injury, saw Brandon Webb’s comeback fizzle out, watched Neftali Feliz regress, and watched Julio Borbon stink up Arlington, then go down with an injury. Going back a bit further, they traded a decent chunk of their high-minors depth for a few months of Cliff Lee. And after all of that, after so many bad breaks, still can’t put the M’s in the Rangers’ class.