Why I Don’t Care Too Much About The Opening Day Roster
I spent the last week and a half or so in Phoenix, bouncing between the SABR Analytics Conference, the WBC, Cactus League match-ups, and our FanGraphs staff weekend. During those 11 days, I found myself in a number of conversations about which players were going to make the opening day roster. With one exception, my overall opinion is that it just doesn’t really matter.
On one hand, the “competition” for the final two spots in the rotation is kind of silly. There’s a pretty good case to be made that Erasmo Ramirez is the Mariners second best starting pitcher, and the idea that they might begin the year with him in Triple-A is the kind of thing that is easy to mock, especially considering the competition. The idea that a Major League team is having trouble deciding whether they are better off with Ramirez or Blake Beavan in the rotation is kind of sad. But, at the same time, when talent gaps are as large as they are between those two, bad decisions are usually temporary.
Even if the Mariners decide to go with a Beavan/Garland combo in the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation to start the year, it won’t take long before one of three things inevitably happens:
1. Either Beavan or Garland (or both) will pitch poorly and the team will start looking for a replacement, with Ramirez being the very obvious guy to get their spot.
2. A member of the starting rotation will get injured, opening the door for Ramirez to step into the role he should have been given all along.
3. Beavan and Garland will pitch better than expected, and the cost of choosing an inferior pitcher over Ramirez will be negligible.
You’re just not going to see the Mariners let those two guys throw 100 terrible innings before making the switch. They might not even get 25. If either one struggles out of the gates, they’ll be on a very short leash, and the overall effect is likely that Ramirez will cede ~20 to 30 innings to a pitcher who isn’t as good. Even if we’re very high on Ramirez and very low on Beavan and Garland, the maximum gap you can project is probably something in the range of one run per nine innings pitched. Over ~30 innings, you’re looking at less than half a win. Having the wrong starter in the rotation for April would be annoying, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic.
And that’s why I’m okay with Garland making the team, even if he’s probably not a particularly good pitcher anymore. Pitching depth is important. The Mariners don’t have much, despite the hype around “the big three/four”, and if Garland gives them even 100 useful innings this year, it’s an improvement over the alternatives. I’m less okay with Beavan getting a spot over Ramirez when there’s no real reason to prefer a guy who is just clearly worse, but again, if we’re right about the talent gap, that mistake won’t last long. A decision to choose Beavan over Ramirez might be one that signifies that the people deciding who makes the rotation might not be the right people to lead the team long term, but the actual move is likely not one that will have a major impact on the team in either the short term or the long term.
I see this year’s rotation question as not that different from last year’s 3B/LF decision. Chone Figgins and Mike Carp were both inferior players to Kyle Seager, but because of the team’s desire to squeeze whatever blood they could from that turnip, Seager found himself on the bench for opening day. That was dumb. That also lasted all of one day, as Carp’s injury in game one opened the door for Seager to become a regular and Figgins lost his job as soon as Carp got back. Even if the team picks two worse pitchers than Ramirez to start the fourth and fifth games of the season, my guess is that the alignment won’t last long, and Ramirez will be in the rotation when it becomes painfully obvious that their best team involves him starting every fifth day.
The one battle where there actually is some long term impact for the franchise is in the outfield. It’s basically a given at this point that the Mariners are going to keep Jason Bay, which will necessitate trading Casper Wells, since they’ve decided to punt a roster spot just to have Raul Ibanez serve as Mike Sweeney 2.0. In a vacuum, I don’t have a problem with giving Bay a shot to resurrect his career. If he gets a majority of his at-bats against lefties, I wouldn’t be shocked if he was a semi-useful platoon guy. He’s got a decent approach at the plate and might actually get on base enough vs LHPs to justify some playing time.
But, of course, the odds that he’s actually a better player than Wells right now are slim to none, and keeping Bay means that Wells is going to get dumped. And that’s just silly. With Franklin Gutierrez‘s continuing inability to play regularly, having extra outfielders who can handle CF is a significant advantage. Punting a guy who can play CF would be weird even if Bay was demonstrably better than Wells, which he isn’t. It’s especially weird for a team that is still building for the future, because whatever value the Mariners think Bay might bring to the team is going to be short lived, while Wells is a 28-year-old with some theoretical upside who isn’t anywhere close to free agency. One of these two make sense for a team with a brittle CF, and one of these two make sense for a young team that probably won’t contend for a playoff spot this year. That one is likely to end up on the Astros, Mets, Yankees, or some other team that recognizes that Wells is a useful role player and picks him up for a song. That’s going to be frustrating, and will make the organization worse long term.
But the pitching stuff? That probably doesn’t really matter all that much. If the M’s pick Beavan and Garland over Ramirez, it will be dumb, but probably won’t move the needle in a meaningful way. It will be more evidence that the talent evaluators in charge shouldn’t really get the benefit of the doubt anymore, but in terms of wins and losses, it’s probably not worth having any kind of extreme reaction to.