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