2012 First Half Review: MLB Results Don’t Tell the Whole Story

marc w · July 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

OK, so let’s attempt a more optimistic interpretation of what we just suffered through saw. The first piece, perhaps more honest, and certainly more cathartic to write, is here.

The M’s were a terrible team in 2012, and while many of us had hoped that the team would stay relevant longer, competing in 2012 was always something of a stretch. The TV deal the Angels signed essentially killed off the last hope the M’s had, but Moreno’s millions at least gave the division, and the M’s, some clarity. The Angels utilized their new revenue to upgrade their roster and go for the playoffs a bit earlier. The second wild card makes this bet an even better one. The Rangers are at the peak of their win-curve right now, with Josh Hamilton (likely) departing at the end of the year and Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young all on the down slope. They’re still formidable, and the M’s may be years from getting close to where the Rangers are now, but at least the Rangers aren’t accelerating away from them any more (I hope).

In light of this, maybe taking 2012 to evaluate everyone acquired from 2009-2011 wasn’t such a bad idea. Given where the Angels are, maybe we should be thankful that the team missed out on Prince Fielder (whose 16 batting runs thus far playing in far more hospitable home park would edge the M’s closer to the A’s, but not the Big Two) and Michael Cuddyer. Sure, a veteran bat seems like a great thing to add to a line-up like this one, but the cost of adding one to a line-up and team that’s simply not ready is pretty high. Casper Wells is probably in Tacoma if Cuddyer’s on the team. The M’s need to think very carefully about where they want to add through free agency. They’re going to have to, given that the high minors don’t have a lot of impact bats at the moment. But they can’t do so without first figuring out what they have in Wells, Carp, and Saunders. None of these guys is an impact bat, but the M’s cannot afford to block an average-to-good bat with a free agent.

And despite their first-half stats, the M’s have a lot of potential on the roster. As bad as Dustin Ackley’s first full MLB season’s been, he’s still far, far above replacement level, and with just slight improvement, could end the year as a league-average player. Fans still haven’t come to terms with what baseball *looks* like in the new, low-scoring era. Ackley’s nearly 3-WAR half season last year probably pushed expectations unreasonably high, and he’s been frustrating at times, but let’s be clear: he’s not bad. He’s not what we want him to be, or what the M’s need him to be, at least right now. But just as Ackley wasn’t the .300/.370/.500 hitter he was for a brief, glorious time in the summer of 2011, his true talent level isn’t .233/.311/.325.

Jesus Montero’s numbers have been crushed by Safeco and by his two concussions, but he’s shown flashes of the power that made him such an attractive target. While his first half’s been disappointing, a big second half changes the complexion of the team quite a bit. More importantly, he was not the unmitigated disaster behind the plate that everyone assured us he would be. He struggled with the running game, but that’s frankly an overrated component of catcher defense (it’s overrated because it was easier to measure than everything else). He’s not great behind the plate, but neither has anyone the M’s have had since Dan Wilson retired. The M’s top hitting prospect put up a 78 wRC+ in 2012, but the M’s top hitting prospect is a 22 year old catcher with power. It’s all so easy to wrap up individual seasons in a tidy little narrative – the whole team isn’t as good as we thought, no one develops, abandon all hope. But we can’t let the struggles of everyone from Smoak to Beavan (not to mention our own expectations) impact our assessment of Montero’s bat going forward. It wasn’t pretty, but we didn’t see enough to materially change our view of Montero’s true-talent at the plate.

That need to see patterns also impacts the way a lot of people see Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders. Both have been above average hitters and fielders this year. Going into spring training, the M’s probably would’ve been most worried about 3B and CF. Franklin Gutierrez was hurt and kept adding maladies while on the DL (if you didn’t think Gutierrez was cursed then, his concussion on a pick-off attempt removed any doubt). The 3B position had been manned by Chone Figgins, Adam Kennedy and the young kids Seager and Alex Liddi. The M’s seemed reluctant to move Seager to 3B, but seemed equally reluctant to turn the position over to the free-swinging Alex Liddi. In that context, the M’s made an important and ultimately correct judgment in February/March: Figgins was no longer a 3B. They needed to run an open competition between Seager/Liddi and Vinnie Catricala, and Seager’s run with that opportunity. He’s been bad the past month, but Seager’s essentially answered the questions we all had about him at 3B: would he have enough power? Did he have the arm? Could he hit lefties? He’s not an all-star there, at least right now, but he represents a clear win for the M’s player development staff: a 3rd round pick who sailed through the system, handled a position change, and is adding plenty of value at the big-league level.

Saunders famously retooled his swing and has been a revelation in 2012. He’s hit for power, even in Safeco, and has played a solid CF while putting up a wRC+ of 110. Another late slump colors our view not only of Saunders but the M’s offense as a whole, but he’s proven he belongs in the line-up, even during the rare periods where Franklin Gutierrez isn’t suffering from Chagas disease or sneeze-induced muscle pulls.

The M’s aren’t great at the big-league level, but they’re also not as bad as they’ve looked. It’s tough to get shut out, and it’s dispiriting to hit the way they’ve hit at home. Jason Vargas has taken a step back, and Beavan and Noesi just haven’t taken any steps forward. But, and I realize this damning with faint praise, the team hasn’t made anything worse by tying more payroll into a so-so over 30 bat, and they know more about guys like Casper Wells and Mike Saunders than before. They’ve kept their top-10 farm system intact, and while some of the hitters have taken a step back, others (Stefen Romero, Brad Miller, Jack Marder) have taken a step forward. This is the ugliest part of the rebuild – the great sorting out, which entails a lot of brief cameo appearances, players playing out of position, and prospects polishing up their stuff in the minors. Chone Figgins is still on this team. Miguel Olivo’s still the starting catcher. Brandon League’s in the ‘pen. So much of what’s gone seriously wrong isn’t really a part of the rebuild, and Justin Smoak is…well, uh, he leads the team in HRs. The M’s pitchers have been below average despite a great defense – and the M’s have pitching depth in the minors. The hitters have been suppressed by whatever it is that’s going on at Safeco and by the constant churn of players and line-ups. A steadier rotation coupled with regression to the mean (regression away from curse?) at Safeco, plus a much better bullpen than when they started the season and suddenly this team looks average-ish. It’s tough to see it; it’s tough because we’ve just watched the 2010 and 2011 M’s, so when the 2012 version performs at a similar level, it’s easy to say that nothing’s changed. Progress isn’t always a massive turnaround in winning percentage.

Images of the first half:
Kyle Seager’s HR off of Derek Holland in Arlington. Seager waits on a breaking ball from a tough lefty and absolutely mashes it into the upper deck.
Michael Saunders’ shot to CF off of Francisco Cordero. Saunders always had strength – even when he looked lost, he could occasionally knock a mistake out of the park. But this… this was something else. I hate “best shape of my life” stories just as much as you do, but this is the best possible advertisement for whatever it was he was doing with Josh Bard’s brother.
King Felix versus Boston on June 28th. Complete domination.
Tom Wilhelmsen’s curve ball to Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox. It’s nice to know that even in a season as frustrating as this one, there are still moments that can make you spit whatever you’re drinking out and give a standing ovation to your TV. This was one of them.


10 Responses to “2012 First Half Review: MLB Results Don’t Tell the Whole Story”

  1. Westside guy on July 13th, 2012 3:40 pm

    It might be that I’m just missing some stuff – but it seems to me that, when they spout off about ways to improve the offense, a lot of the media (e.g. Salk, Baker) seem to keep talking about acquiring outfielders.

    But I don’t think the outfield is the problem – or, at least, we have decent pieces in the org already. The real issue has been the left side of the infield and behind the plate. Any outfield “problems” have been due to decisions like playing Liddi and Figgins in left at the expense of Wells, or to a lesser degree not giving Wells some of Ichiro’s playing time during the brief stint Guti was healthy.

    Ackley, Smoak, Olivo, and an inconsistent Montero – those have been the real problems. Also Ryan hitting worse than expected has certainly hurt. I do believe Ackley will right himself, and I think I’d let him do it up here. Smoak though – he’s so broken he needs to go down. And with catcher, I think Wedge is trending the right way (and it’s quite possible we saw so much of Olivo earlier because of Z’s instructions rather than Wedge’s preference).

  2. Auggeydog on July 13th, 2012 3:53 pm

    Marc, I am going to go the positive route with this team. I see young guys learning the game, and needing more time to learn it. I think we are fine at pitching, in the next year or two, the big 5 should all be here, barring injury of course. Catcher is a year or two off, I think Montero and Jaso can fit the bill until Zunino gets called up. 3rd, I have always liked Seager, from day one. I think he is fine until we have a young guy that comes up and hits his way into the spot. SS I am not sure of, not sure how far away Franklin is. I hate Ryan’s bat, but love his glove. A pretty special hitting SS would have to move him, if we can sign him another year or two. 2nd, I think Ackley is there, and should not move. I hope he can get over his problems, which it could just be the dreaded Soph slump. 1st, I have not given up on Smoak, and do not see anyone taking his spot just yet. OF, hopefully Guti gets back and stays healthy for a bit, Saunders keeps hitting like he has, and we end up with Wells in RF, all for next year.

    I think our biggest need for next year is an OF that can hit for some power in Safeco. We can make some improvements on the bench, but that can come from the guys on the roster,like Wells. He would be a fine 4th OF. Besides the OF and maybe SS, is there any other spot you think they need to focus on? I think with a little more seasoning these guys can turn into a pretty good ball team, throw in a few extra pieces, and a really good one. I am not a fan of spending the money of a Fielder Pujols type guy, by the time the contract is done the player is not living up to it, like Ichiro. I would rather see young high ceiling guys come in. I know it is more of a gamble, but they would have contracts that would not cripple the team if they suck.

    What is your take on either FA’s or trade pieces we could pick up, and who would we have to give up?

    I am not sure if I made this clear, but I think it is for next year, not this year. I think they still have too much area to grow in.

  3. jwgrandsalami on July 13th, 2012 4:24 pm

    great recap, but one quibble. The Mariners didn’t decide in February/March that Chone Figgins was an outfielder. He spent most of spring training at third base and began the season as the team’s starter at the position. Then Mike Carp got hurt in the very first game of the season, which pushed Figgins to LF and gave Seager his opportunity.

  4. Mariners35 on July 13th, 2012 4:53 pm

    Great recap, both in this one and the previous, and excellent insights and perspective all around. However, I respectfully disagree with you here:

    The M’s need to think very carefully about where they want to add through free agency. They’re going to have to, given that the high minors don’t have a lot of impact bats at the moment. But they can’t do so without first figuring out what they have in Wells, Carp, and Saunders. None of these guys is an impact bat, but the M’s cannot afford to block an average-to-good bat with a free agent.

    The M’s don’t need to think too hard about free agency at all. For one, this coming year’s free agent class is, IIRC, sketchy at best. But much more importantly, they need to treat both free agency and the trade market this winter like the draft.

    That is to say, just as you don’t “draft for need”, they shouldn’t “hire / trade for need”. This winter, they should make available to Z a truly competitive payroll, then take their money and their existing trade chits, and go get the best available. If that moves aside or makes redundant one of Carp, Wells, Saunders or Guti… so? We’re losing some pricey veterans, pricey utility men, fringey players, and fringey pricey veteran utility men. There will be room for one of those guys to become a 4th outfielder, or part of a DH platoon, or a 25th man, or even part of a trade.

    The goal this winter has to be improving the major league club, by whatever means necessary, so long as the farm and its top prospects are not gutted. It doesn’t have to be an overspend or go-for-it-this-year. It also shouldn’t be more of the blue-light specials that are used for placeholders or cheap “veteran presence” while pinning all hopes on the best M’s prospects. Go look for objectively good players – not just low-cost bargains, not just better-than-in-house, actually solid players.

    Saving room for players whose ceiling are average to above-average, doesn’t make sense to me. If the best bats available are at RF, or CF, or 1b, or 2b, or – miraculous steal that it would be – SS or C, go get them. The depth chart will attend to itself.

    The depth chart will especially attend to itself when you consider that Ichiro and (*sniffle*) Kawasaki will be gone due to contracts being up, Olivo’s option might be declined (he said, hopefully), Figgins will likely be traded for peanuts or released (he said, hopefully), Liddi might not make the 25-man next season, and I believe Ryan’s contract is up this year and he’s due for arbitration next year (if I’m reading Cot’s right; entirely likely I’m not). That’s 4 – 6 spots in the position players available for FA or trade imports, and that’s not even considering possible in-place upgrades or shuffling around given all the pitchers that will be gone.

  5. Rainiers_fan on July 13th, 2012 5:17 pm

    Nice look at the season so far Marc. I think you made some very valid points. Before the year started I told myself repeatedly this would be a building year with lots of young players thrown into the fire with management evaluating them and sorting the good from the bad. My thought was that signing stop gap guys who weren’t much above replacement level would hold us back because those kind of players aren’t permanent fixes and just end up being problems later. As painful as it has been the team has stayed away from short term fixes so they did what I hoped in that area.

    The other thing I wanted to see was the young players get real shots and not get bounced around. The team has been ok in that area. I have a quibble or two about playing time such as Jaso playing more and Olivio less but that’s beating a dead horse. For the most part the team has given the deserving players a chance and that is what this year was all about. As a Rainiers season ticket holder I can’t point to many guys that deserve calling up right now. I would like to see Smoak take a bus ride down to Tacoma to find his confidence. I just wish we had a legit first base prospect pushing him for time.

    So far this year has had some good moments, some mediocore, and some really mind numbingly bad ones. The road/home splits have made evaluating what we have more difficult than expected, but we do know a few things and they aren’t all bad. As the sample sizes begin to mean something let’s hope they confirm that Seager and Saunders are pieces we want to keep.

  6. terryoftacoma on July 13th, 2012 5:31 pm

    This is a fair recap. I might disagree with a few minor things but overall it’s fair. The team is about where I expected them to be at this time.

  7. maqman on July 14th, 2012 4:16 am

    While I expected some players to go to Tacoma to work out their batting kinks I’m not bothered that they are keeping them in place. As noted there is not a lot of high ceiling talent ready to step into the lineup, although there are several players in Tacoma with 900+ OPS. This season is toast so we might just as well find out what we have for next year.

  8. sexymarinersfan on July 14th, 2012 5:44 am

    The writing is on the wall for a Josh Hamilton type of hitter. Only problem is, by the time this team is ready to contend, Josh may be an old man(baseball wise). Does that stop you from going out and getting him? What if Romero keeps tearing up AA ball and see’s an early promotion this September? I like to think of a future OF of Saunders, Wells, Gutierrez, Romero, and I would like to see us get a legit big bat this offseason….OR,

    …..go after Greinke, stick him right in the rotation with Felix, Vargas, Hultzen, and Ramirez, then you have pieces to dangle to go out and acquire your bat.

    We need to see something out of Carp or Smoak. What would it take to get LaHair or Rizzo out of Chicago?

    For me, Zunino couldn’t get here fast enough. I love Olivo, but he is hurting this ball club. There needs to be equal sharing time behind the dish for Jaso and Montero.

  9. make_dave_proud on July 14th, 2012 10:31 am

    This is a pretty solid summary, and I like the approach in trying to mitigate any current feelings about the team as an assessment of it over the entire season.

    That said, one statement sticks out to me:

    “The M’s aren’t great at the big-league level, but they’re also not as bad as they’ve looked.”

    I disagree – you are what you are. If less-than-expected results are due to bad luck, they’re also due to good luck. It cancels itself out, especially over half a season. The Mariners are more than just “not great” — they’re distantly worse than the rest of the league. We’re seeing some progress in individual instances (Seager, Saunders) that we hope is sustained improvement in development. Defensively we’re fine, but it is not near enough to counteract the offensive incompetence of the team. In the aggregate, there are just too many players on the Ms roster who cannot contribute offensively at a passing level.

    I would really appreciate seeing JZ and management acknowledge that there is more than a little bit going on with the Ms that isn’t succeeding. I want to see/hear something — anything — that indicates there’s a strategy in place for getting better. At this point, it’s not just the players that aren’t competing at an average big-league level — it’s the entire organization.

  10. 1000N on July 14th, 2012 3:19 pm

    One thing that has positively impressed me is that the Ms have a run differential of -29, better than 10 other teams, including both Cleveland and Baltimore and their winning records.

    Moreover, they have scored 339 runs as opposed to the 301 that last year’s team had scored through this point in the season. If 2012 pitching had matched 2011 pitching, the Ms would have a run differential of +15 at this point and likely would be sporting a winning record. While it’s easy to point out the flaws in the offense, the deterioration in the pitching is the real reason the team hasn’t taken a noticeable step forward.

    That said, I’m not worried about the pitching. There’s lots of help on the way. The improvement in the offense is real, and the pitching setback seems likely to be temporary. I’m more confident about the Mariners near term future than I have been in several years.

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