Game 1, Mariners at Athletics
King Felix vs. Brett Anderson, 7:05pm
Happy Felix Day, and happy opening day. So much of the conversation in the Spring and before centered on the M’s projections and how their new-look offense would perform in their new-look ballpark. As Dave’s post below touches on, the M’s have real problems, and the gap between them and the elite teams in the division and the American League again looks formidable. They’ve made some headscratching roster moves, and they weren’t able to reel in a few players they targeted in free agency and the trade market. The team is forecast to finish 4th in the division, and the Fangraphs Positional Power Rankings illustrates why: the M’s had the 4th best players at nearly every position. But today’s not about any of that. Today’s opening day, featuring a great pitching match-up. Most of all, today means we can take a break from the focus on roster construction, disappointments, talent gaps and questionable rotations: today we can put the focus back where it should be, on Felix Hernandez.
This isn’t to suggest that I/we are giving up on analysis or that this blog is converting to a Felix fanfic tumblr format (there’ve been enough changes in the M’s blogosphere, frankly). But I’ve missed baseball more than anyone who’s watched three consecutive last-place teams has any right to. There’s a trap in reveling in the exploits of one singular talent on a bad club in that it becomes ‘enough’. The team’s frittered away three years, but give me 32 Felix Hernandez starts and, well, how bad to we really have it? That’s all well and good, but for today, it actually IS enough. Opening day means we can stop tabulating probabilities and start rooting *against* them. It’s something that numerophobic fans fail to understand: knowing how unlikely something is doesn’t mean you’re disappointed if you achieve it. If anything, it heightens one’s appreciation of it. Felix is pitching and the M’s are only a half-game back of the Astros, who, frankly, probably peaked last night. The M’s chances at a wildcard are slim, but they’re not zero, and while a rotation of Felix and some question marks doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence, it’s tough to be too pessimistic about a rotation that starts off like this one.
While I’ve got your pixels, I thought I’d give my own thoughts on the 2013 season. This isn’t exactly a response to Dave’s post, just a slightly different way of getting to the same basic answer:
I’m completely agreed that there’s an undercurrent of antagonism between segments of the M’s fanbase, though this is probably to be expected given the debates roiling in baseball as a whole. There’s so much point scoring, so many jeremiads, because “I don’t know” blog posts and columns don’t get traffic. I am deeply, deeply skeptical that there’s any real value in veteran-ness, but I’d be lying if I said that Brandon McCarthy or other players views on the subject didn’t make me think. I’m going to try and remember that the first few times I see correlation-equals-causation article. I’ll also try and enjoy the fact that if I’m seeing such an article, at least some of the youngsters would be producing, and I’m tired of watching the crappy version of Justin Smoak.
My view on the M’s pitching depth is a bit more optimistic. Erasmo Ramirez is an excellent starter, provided that his elbow soreness clears up. It’s worth remembering he had a brief bout of it last year, but that was before his excellent stretch run, so hopefully it’s something that won’t hinder his progress in the medium/long term. Beyond Ramirez, I have reasonably high expectations for Danny Hultzen, whose command simply isn’t quite what we thought it was coming out of college, but isn’t anywhere close to the Dalkowski-essque mess we saw in Tacoma last year. James Paxton is a wild card here as well; he didn’t look ready this spring, but he was brilliant late in the year and into his first few appearances in the Arizona Fall League. There are other, more replacement-level, starters behind these three, and then there’s Tai Walker, the most talented of all, sitting in AAA. I think some fans may overstate how MLB ready guys like Hultzen are right now, but the M’s best pitchers are all in the very high minors, and this gives the M’s more depth than all be one or two teams int the majors.
We all saw it with Ichiro and the absolutely baffling arguments we somehow needed to have about him: a certain segment of the fanbase focuses its ire on the team’s best player. Well, there’s got to be a corollary for focusing one’s ire on a reliably mediocre player. It’s not as crazy as hating on the team’s best player, but the M’s have been a target rich environment for replacement-level ballplayers in recent years. So I really don’t quite get the bafflement at Blake Beavan being the target of such scorn. This team suited up Chone Figgins last year! Hector. Noesi. I’m with Matthew that Beavan is a bit underappreciated here – he’s the 5th starter, and isn’t claiming to be anything else. In a bit over one full year of playing time, he’s amassed 1 fWAR. That’s – I mean, that’s not any good, but it’s better than replacement level, obviously. And if you look at runs on the scoreboard/fielding dependent WAR, he’s almost league average. You don’t have to believe that his RA WAR tells the whole story, but this isn’t a bad 5th starter. Particularly if he’s able to get more ground balls this year, he could post a 1-1.5 WAR year in 175IP or so, and while it’s not going to put the M’s over the top, that’s pretty darn good for your league minimum 5th starter.
1: Dustin Ackley rebounds, because how can he not, but he remains an enigmatic disappointment. The contact skills aren’t quite as elite as we thought, but they’re definitely good enough for him to raise his average significantly, but his power won’t match his rookie half-season’s. I sincerely hope Dave’s right and Dustin’s the most talented young hitter in the organization, but this is a doubles hitter who’ll be playing in a park that may suppress doubles. Dave’s right that he wasn’t as bad as his raw stats suggested, but there are some troubling signs there too – I’ve mentioned it before, but he’s been an extremely pull-happy hitter, particularly on ground balls. These slow grounders to 2B seem to be the result of reliably bad contact – like his hit tool allows him to make a certain kind of contact, even when he’s fooled. This is something he did in Tacoma in 2010, but looked to get away from in 2011. If he’s going to be anything like the best hitter in the org, he’s going to have to make those adjustments again.
2: I’ll definitely take the over on the M’s bullpen’s projections. I think Furbush is in for some regression (as is Luetge), but that will be partially balanced by solid years from Capps and Wilhelmsen. In addition, the bullpen’s usage is going to work to their advantage. I think the M’s are going to have the platoon advantage in more at-bats than most teams – gone are the generalists like Shawn Kelley and in their place are specialists like Perez, Capps, Kinney and Furbush. This could make the 8th inning interminable, but the M’s bullpen figures to post decent raw stats.
3: I’m with Dave on essentially all of the roster changes between the 1st and 2nd halves – the M’s will get younger because they have to. We’re going to see some line-ups with 6 players over 30 for a while (not tonight, however). I also think Michael Saunders ends the year as the starting CF, either due to another injury to Guti or due to a trade. I’m not sure the M’s would send Montero to Tacoma because it’s not clear he’d have a better shot to play full-time down there. With the M’s sending Mike Zunino to AAA, I think it’d be problematic to have TWO future catchers on the same roster. It’s possible, of course, but I think the M’s would DH him at the big league level for a while until they either moved Morales or Shoppach around the deadline.
4: The Astros don’t make a run at infamy and post a bad instead of historically significant season. The M’s win total improves due to their presence, but they’re not winning 15-16 of these games. I’d put them at 68 wins or so – a far cry from the low-50s I’ve seen in various places. Still comfortably in last place, of course.
All told, I think the M’s end up right at .500 at 81-81. I think there’s enough talent to improve upon last year’s finish, but enough inconsistency and volatility to prevent a real run at the division or wildcard. Certainly hope I’m wrong.
Let’s go M’s, and let’s go Felix!
Your opening day line-up:
1: Gutierrez, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, LF
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Montero, C
8: Ackley, 2B
9: Ryan, SS