The Value Of Quality Role Players
The Mariners are 59-64, and have the best record in the American League since the All-Star break. They’ve scored as many runs as they’ve allowed on the season. The’re playing baseball in a way that has to encourage you about the improving state of talent on the franchise.
Seriously, that might be the most amazing part of the team’s improvement. Those three guys came into the year as the core of the offense, the guys who were going to make this team go. Ackley was the best position player on the team, and the one young guy who didn’t come with many question marks about his performance. Smoak was more of a lottery ticket, but there were reasons to think he could take a step forward offensively. Montero was a right-handed bat with opposite field power who could drive the ball out of Safeco. Everything else about the line-up was concerning, but if those three hit, then we thought the team could take a step forward.
Well, those three haven’t hit. In 1,328 trips to the plate, those three have hit .230/.289/.353, good for a 77 wRC+. They haven’t walked, they haven’t made contact, and they haven’t hit for power. You have to squint really hard to find any positives in their performances this year. They’ve all been pretty bad.
And yet, the team is still competitive. With the three most important position players all falling on their faces, they’re still winning games. This is the value of building a roster that produces value from all corners, and isn’t simply a bunch of big named, high-priced guys whose performance dictates all.
The team is winning because they picked up John Jaso over the winter, and he’s been one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball this year. He’s at +2.4 WAR in part-time duty, and has basically provided the offense that the team hoped they would get from Ackley.
The team is winning because they picked up Brendan Ryan the winter before, and they had the fortitude to stick with him during his early season slump. While he’s not a big offensive contributor, his defense at shortstop is invaluable, and he’s been worth +1.7 WAR in 364 PAs, again displaying that he’s an above average Major League shortstop.
The team is winning because they kept Michael Saunders around for one more year, giving him one last chance to show that his tools could turn into big league performance. While he’s had his ups-and-downs, Saunders has played a quality center field this year and provided more offense than anyone expected, producing +1.7 WAR while filling in admirably for Franklin Gutierrez.
The team is winning because they signed Kevin Millwood and Hisashi Iwakuma to stabilize the back-end of the rotation and provide quality innings that allowed them to not rush the kids too fast. Between them, they’ve thrown 217 innings and produced +2.3 WAR, essentially teaming up to make one league average starter for a fraction of what solid, healthy innings eaters sign for every winter.
The team is winning because Tom Wilhelmsen and Charlie Furbush have turned into lights out relievers, giving the team a dynamic late-inning shut-down reliever from each side. While relievers are often overrated, these two have combined for +2.3 WAR in just under 100 innings pitched. They’re really good.
Jaso, Ryan, Millwood, and Iwakuma were all the product of dumpster dives, where the team identified potential value in a player that the rest of baseball had little interest in. They’ve produced the kind of value that essentially makes up for the fact that Ackley, Montero, and Smoak haven’t hit. You can’t win it all with your core players slumping and the role players carrying the load, but these guys are showing just how valuable building a complete roster actually is.
Baseball is a team sport. It might be more flashy to land a guy like Prince Fielder, but building a team through finding value at multiple positions is a better way to go. The Mariners didn’t make the splashy moves last winter, but they made a lot of good moves that flew under the radar. And those moves have essentially saved the franchise from another disastrous seasons, since the big moves the team has made simply haven’t worked.
Pretty soon, Jack’s going to have make some big moves that work. You can’t just rely on dumpster dives to provide value. But, as this team is showing, these kinds of small acquisitions can really make a difference, and they shouldn’t be ignored simply because they’re not headline grabbers. Role players matter, and good teams find useful bit pieces by hunting around and finding value. The Mariners deserve credit for doing exactly that last winter.