The Mariners Off-Season Should Not Be Over
After talking with Jack Zduriencik at the media luncheon last week, Greg Johns reported that the team “may still add a little chip” but noted that “the club is close to being set” as they head towards spring training. More and more, it’s beginning to sound like the Mariners off-season shopping is essentially over with, and the roster the team has now is essentially the one the team will go into the season with. And, to be honest, this annoys the crap out of me.
Right now, the Mariners project as about a 75 win team – maybe a bit higher if you have big expectations for what Ackley, Montero, and Smoak can do next year, maybe a bit lower if you think they’re all going to take some time before they turn into high quality players (or you don’t think they ever will). But, a reasonable accounting for the talent on the team at the moment should put them somewhere in the range of 75 wins. For example, the boys at RLYW used the 2012 Marcel projections and a simulation engine to come up with a current set of projected standings on Saturday, and the M’s came out as a 76 win team, last in the AL West. Because there are two teams that are significantly better, and one team that is arguably better, the Mariners only won the AL West 3.2% of the time and captured the wild card 0.7% of the time. The only AL teams with worse playoff odds were the Orioles and Twins. (Note – we’re ignoring the possibility of a second wild card here, as it’s unlikely to be in play for 2012, but its existence would only reinforce the point I’m about to make.)
But, look at the line just above the Mariners projection in those standings. Marcel thinks the A’s are currently an 82 win team, and the difference in those six extra wins translates into an extra 11.7% chance to capture the division and 2.4% chance of winning the wild card. All told, the also-ran A’s – the eighth best team in the AL based on the simulations – made the playoffs 18% of the time. Whether or not you think the A’s are actually that good (I’ll take the under, personally) is besides the point here, as we’re really more interested in the rise of playoff expectations as a team adds wins to their roster.
Given an expected last place finish, many people suggest that an organization should just concede the season, take their lumps, play the kids, and figure out what they have in terms of young talent going forward. You hear comments all the time like “what’s the difference between winning 75 or 78 games if you come in last in both scenarios?” I’d venture to say that the common perception among fans and many analysts alike is that adding wins to a non-contender is essentially worthless, and teams shouldn’t bother to pursue significant roster upgrades until they’re expected to contend for a playoff spot.
That argument is essentially hogwash, and the available evidence does not support a punt-seasons-on-purpose plan of franchise building in most cases. There are scenarios where a team is so far away from contending that the value of a marginal win is quite small (the 2012 Astros are in such a situation, for instance), but ~75 win teams are not in that position. While wins 85 to 92 have the largest impact on on a potential playoff berth, there’s still quite a bit of value in improving a roster that is only a few players away from being a .500 club.
The reality of a 162 game season is that every year, one or two teams are the benefactors of significant good fortune, and they destroy their pre-season estimate by 15+ wins. Whether it’s a bunch of guys having career years at the same time, the entire pitching staff staying healthy, winning a bunch of one-run games due to timely hitting or pitching, or just a group of young kids making a larger than expected impact on the big league team, the surprising upstart is an annual tradition at this point. Last year, the Diamondbacks improved by 29 games and won their division going away, despite generally being considered an also-ran before the season started. In 2010, the Reds won their division after finishing in the bottom 10 in the league in winning percentage the year before, and the Padres went from one of the worst teams in baseball to missing out on a playoff spot on the final day of the season. The Rockies went from 74 to 92 wins in in 2009. The 2008 Rays won 31 more games than the season prior and ended up in the World Series. Both the Cubs and Diamondbacks went worst-to-first in 2007. In 1990, the Twins won 74 games and finished dead last in a seven team division, but in 1991, they won the World Series – and that was back when only two teams made the playoffs each year.
The current reality is that a 75 win team is a few good breaks away from playing meaningful baseball in September, and even if it doesn’t result in a playoff spot, that kind of unexpected contention can have a significant positive effect on a franchise. The top four teams in attendance gains last year were the Indians (+449,000), Rangers (+442,000), Giants (+350,000), and Pirates (+327,000). You’ll notice that along with the two teams that played in the World Series the year prior, the two teams that got fans back to the ballparks were the teams who hung around in contention for most of the season during a year where their fans had minimal expectations of success.
Fans want hope. Winning provides hope while losing breeds resentment. The singular focus on wins as they relate only to a team’s ability to win a championship is a misunderstanding of the value of a marginal win to a franchise. Back in 2007, Vince Gennaro published a piece at The Hardball Times dealing with win curves and the marginal revenue benefits associated with adding wins for each franchise. Based on the team’s market size, he estimated that adding five wins to push the team from 78 to 83 wins would produce an additional $6 million in revenue for the franchise. That’s just a fraction of the $16 million that would be added by gaining wins 86-91, but there is a real tangible benefit to improving from mediocre to decent.
Why should we care if the Mariners make more money? Well, any basic understanding of economics will tell you that additional revenues support capital expenditures, and teams with higher revenues can support higher payrolls. This isn’t about making the team more profitable – a better team in 2012 gives the team more money to play with next winter, and the winter after that, and the winter after that. Wins produce present value that creates compounding future value.
And so, if the Mariners are really content to sit on their hands and avoid improving this team any further, they’re missing an opportunity to not just make the team less bad, but to really improve their odds of winning both in 2012 and in the future. I’m all for building the nucleus of a roster through the farm, and I’ve spent the entire off-season explaining why I didn’t support a massive contract for Prince Fielder, but my point all along has been that the team could take the money they would have given Fielder and improved the roster in a more efficient way.
Taking the money they would have given Fielder and just putting it in a savings account isn’t helpful. It’s less actively harmful to the organization than signing up for another awful contract, so I’ll take this off-season over one that involved the M’s giving Fielder $200+ million, but at no point have I been advocating for the time to just put their money away and avoid improving the roster when they have the financial capability to do so.
I’m not one of the guys who believes that increasing payroll is the panacea that will allow the Mariners to be competitive again, nor do I believe that Mariners ownership is cheap or is simply defrauding us of a quality product for their own financial gain. I think any reasonably objective look at the team’s expenditures over the last 15 years requires a rejection of that kind of thinking. However, there’s no getting around the fact that the team (as currently constructed) represents a significant downward adjustment in payroll from where the budget stood a year ago, and that’s a bad thing.
This roster has holes in it that could have easily been improved upon with a more aggressive off-season plan. If the organization really decided that their best course of action this winter was to simply wait around to find out exactly how much Prince Fielder would cost, then not invest the money that they would have allocated to him in order to fund alternative upgrades, they screwed up. That’s just a bad plan, and unfortunately, I don’t think the Mariners are all that much closer to being competitive in the AL West than they were in November. They moved some pieces around and brought in some depth to help stave off disaster scenarios where the team might lose another 100 games, but in terms of just pushing the organizational talent level forward this winter, I can’t call this off-season anything other than a failure.
Asking for patience is fine. We’re not expecting a miracle, nor are we demanding that the team just start spending recklessly in order to appease an angry mob. But, there’s no reason the Mariners should cut payroll in 2012, and right now, that looks to be exactly what they’ve decided to do. This team could use more good players, and there have been good players changing teams this winter at prices that were reasonable and easily within the scope of what the team has spent on talent in prior seasons. They didn’t have to sign Prince Fielder to improve the team, but they should have done more than this.
Right now, the Mariners have something like a 1-in-25 shot of making the playoffs. Signing a guy like Edwin Jackson could have pushed those odds to something more like 1-in-10, and put the Mariners in a better position to capitalize if they do catch lightning in a bottle next year. That the team has apparently made a conscious decision to ignore that kind of potential upgrade is frustrating.
I know some will argue that the team is simply leaving themselves more money for next winter, when guys like David Wright and Josh Hamilton could be available to add the roster, and that by going young, the organization will have a better idea of just who they can and can’t count on going forward. But, I don’t see that bringing in another good player or two on reasonable contracts would have interfered with the team’s ability to pursue a premium talent next off-season, nor would those players have significantly interfered with the development of the core of the next good Mariners team. They had room to both go young and still get better this winter.
That they chose to only do one of the two is just simply disappointing.