My Thoughts on the 2013 Season

Dave · April 1, 2013 at 8:39 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Opening Day is here. After a long winter and an even longer spring training, the season is finally about to begin. Here now are some thoughts I have about the upcoming 162 game stretch for the Mariners.

1. The Mariners philosophical change over the winter, and their subsequent roster makeover, are going to have the unfortunate effect of making the “stats versus chemistry” argument the defining narrative of the season. Because the organization decided to swap out their young depth guys for aging team leader types, you can basically guarantee that any improvement from the young players will be credited to the old guys. Dustin Ackley rebounds from a terrible year? Prepare for Raul Ibanez to get all the credit. Justin Smoak keeps hitting like he did at the end of last year? It’s because the team acquired Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales and allowed him to hit lower in the batting order.

I’m beyond tired of these arguments, and I’ll readily admit that I’m not at all looking forward to a season full of both sides using the teams performance to lob “I told you so” jabs at each other. There is no such thing as one season by one team that proves anything definitively. If the Mariners win, it doesn’t prove chemistry is the most important factor in team building. It the Mariners lose, it doesn’t prove that chemistry is bunk and leadership is useless. This season is not a litmus test for either side.

2. The other big change for 2013 is the expected home run output. The Mariners changed Safeco’s dimensions and prioritized power hitting in their offseason acquisitions, so odds are good that they’re going to hit more dingers than they have in a while. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the Mariners offense is actually going to be a lot better than it was last year, once you adjust for park effects and measure offense by something other than home run total. While everyone keeps talking about the additional power, we seem to be omitting the fact that the team is headed into the season with Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders hitting #1 and #2 in some order.

ZIPS projects a .296 OBP for Guti and a .303 OBP for Saunders. Even if Morse and Morales provide a significant power boost, they’re going to hit a lot of solo home runs until the organization develops a couple of guys who can get on base at a reasonable clip. Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager have some potential to be those guys, so maybe this problem will resolve itself by the end of the season, but historically, the data shows that low OBP + dingers does not equal a lot of runs.

Last year, for instance, the Blue Jays hit 198 home runs — #6 in MLB — but only had a .309 on base percentage, so they posted a 94 wRC+ and only scored 716 runs despite playing in a very hitter friendly ballpark. Same deal with the Orioles, who hit 214 homers, but their .311 OBP contributed heavily to just 712 runs scored and a 96 wRC+. Really, you can even look at the Mariners performance last year. Despite all the talk about the lack of power, they hit 149 homers last year, tied for #20 in baseball despite playing with Safeco’s old dimensions and in a very cold year in the northwest. Their .296 OBP was last in the majors, though, so they only scored 619 runs.

Safeco’s new dimensions will increase HR output, but the results of adjusting the fences at other parks suggests that those extra home runs will come at the expense of fewer doubles and triples. Given that the Mariners have stocked their line-up with aggressive free swingers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the team’s OBP actually went down from last year, and the team’s offense continued to look like a real problem. If Smoak, Ackley, and Montero take big steps forward and live up to their prospect billing, then the offense will likely be better, but without significant improvement from those three, I don’t think this line-up is actually all that much better than it was last year.

3. Pitching is much harder to project than offense and not just because of the frequency of injuries. So, I’d rather have a pitching staff with a bunch of question marks than a group of position players that I didn’t trust. That said, this pitching staff has some pretty serious problems. The post-Felix part of the rotation is one of the worst in baseball. The bullpen features a lot of guys who can struggle to throw strikes and need to be heavily matched-up to exploit platoon advantages. And, despite all the talk about The Big Three, the Mariners don’t really have a lot of depth in Triple-A to come up should things go poorly for the guys who made the staff out of spring training.

Safeco will still help the pitching look okay, most likely. It’s still cold in Seattle, after all, and the ball still isn’t going to fly very well in night games when the roof is open. People aren’t very good at mental park adjustments, so if Blake Beavan puts up a 4.50 ERA, they’re not going to see that as a huge problem, especially because that used to be a decent performance in MLB about 10 years ago. But, when it comes to actually outscoring your opponents, the low run environment of the northwest means that the bar is raised for Mariners pitchers, and giving up four or five runs in Safeco means that the team is probably going to lose. This is the worst pitching staff the Mariners have put together in quite a while, and if this team falls apart, it will probably be due to the lack of quality arms on the roster.

4. I realize these last few paragraphs sound pretty negative, so let me change the tone a bit. I don’t think this team is terrible, and the addition of the Astros to the AL West should give them a decent shot at finishing around .500. On true talent level, I’d peg this as a 75-77 win team, and then the schedule adjustment might push them up to 78-80 wins. Any team that projects as an 80ish win team heading into the season has a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot simply due to normal variance. If enough things break the Mariners way, they could win 90 and challenge a wild card spot. On the flip side, if enough things don’t break their way, they could win 70 games and we could be in for another season of same-old, same-old. The outcome isn’t written in stone. There’s enough young talent in place that things could legitimately go either way.

And, long term, there are reasons to think that this organization could be a winner. I’m very bullish on Mike Zunino, and wouldn’t be shocked if he was one of the Mariners best players by next season. The flawed veterans are all on short term deals, and if this season goes off the rails, they’re not going to be blocking better young players down the road. While a lot of the focus for 2013 is going to be on Morse, Morales, Saunders, and the rest of the rent-a-veterans, this franchise is still built around Ackley, Seager, Smoak, Montero, Zunino, and the rest. I don’t love the supporting cast, but I haven’t given up on the core group yet. With better role players around them, this organization could be a winner in the not-too-distant future. I just wouldn’t bet on that future manifesting itself in the first half of 2013.

And now, for just a few random predictions, based on things I think might happen this year.

Jesus Montero will spend at least a couple of months in Tacoma. With DH out of the picture for now, he’s only going to play as much as they’ll let him catch, and I don’t think the coaching staff is going to want him catching as much as he’s slated to right now. I think Kelly Shoppach may be the regular starter as early as mid-May, and Montero might end up in Triple-A in order to get regular playing time rather than sit and watch in the big leagues. If Zunino starts strongly in Tacoma, he might by up by mid-summer, but either way, I don’t expect the Montero-as-starting-catcher experiment to last that long.

Dustin Ackley is going to remind everyone why he’s the best young hitter in the organization. People are hurting themselves in an effort to get off his bandwagon, but Ackley’s hit tool is still well above average, and all of his numbers suggest that 2012 was a bit of a fluke. High contact, patient hitters with gap power succeed in the big leagues all the time. Ackley might not be a thumper, but I expect he’ll end the year back near the top of the batting order.

The Mariners will extend Michael Morse pretty soon. If he hits at all in the first few months of the season, I’d expect the team to approach him about a deal that keeps him from free agency. They’ve invested a lot into the Michael Morse Spectacle this spring, and with a complete void in outfield prospects in the pipeline, they’ll have extra motivation to keep him around. My wild guess is that he gets 3/45 before the All-Star break, and that I’ll write a long post explaining why the team just signed up for Richie Sexson 2.0.

The 8th inning proves to be a significant problem for the team this year. Charlie Furbush had a great year in 2013, but I can’t see him coming close to that performance again, and Carter Capps looks like a guy who is still best used situationally to me. Wilhelmsen is really the only guy down there I’d trust against batters from both sides of the plate, so there are going to be nights when the bullpen isn’t fresh enough to mix-and-match, and leads will be blown in the 8th inning because Wedge has to leave a pitcher out there to face an opposite handed batter in a high leverage situation. While focusing on bullpen development shouldn’t be a priority for a rebuilding team, this organization could really use one more shutdown reliever.

The second half roster will look very little like the opening day roster. Whether due to injuries or trades, I’d expect Michael Saunders to finish the year in center field and Brad Miller to begin manning shortstop in the second half of the year, while the rotation will likely include Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen. The Mariners are veteran heavy coming out of spring training, but I think they’ll end the year with a very young roster once again.

And, finally, I expect everyone will be back for one more run next year. I think the young guys will show enough to keep anyone from getting fired, though the team won’t win enough to earn long term extensions for everyone in charge either. They’ll get one more shot to win with the young players they’ve acquired. 2014 is the make-or-break year. 2013 is another building-for-the-future season, or will be seen that way in retrospect, at least.

Gun to my head, I’ll peg the 2013 Mariners for 79 wins, +/- 10 wins in any direction. But like the rest of the recent years, this season will be judged more on the individual performance of young players than the final record.


36 Responses to “My Thoughts on the 2013 Season”

  1. djw on April 1st, 2013 8:55 am

    I honestly hadn’t considered the possibility of a Morse extension, because (I thought) Montero would need to occupy the DH spot for the near future, and the thought of an aging Morse roaming the Safeco outfield for years to come would give smart baseball people the same kind of nightmares it gives me. That’s the most depressing Mariners-related speculation I’ve read in a while. Please be wrong.

  2. seagood3 on April 1st, 2013 8:57 am

    69-89 wins, that is really going out on a limb.

  3. Violinguy72 on April 1st, 2013 9:21 am

    Boy, I sure am excited for this year. Ugh.

    I really hope the young guys step up and surprise us all.

  4. bookbook on April 1st, 2013 9:24 am

    Dave and Jeff on the same blog. That’s like Coke and Pepsi in the same cup! Love it.

    79 wins is more positive than the tenor of your comments this Spring would have suggested to me.

    What’s your take on Maurer? Potential to stick?

  5. scraps on April 1st, 2013 9:25 am

    seagood3: Dave is an analyst, not a sportswriter; and thank god.

  6. californiamariner on April 1st, 2013 9:41 am

    79 seemed more positive than the article was leading on. I was hoping to see Dave’s opinion on Maurer.

    One thing I know is that opening day is exciting and we should all enjoy it and you never know when luck can put you in the playoff race.

  7. RaoulDuke37 on April 1st, 2013 9:56 am

    I just want a winning season.

    If winning has to be a product of grit, veteran leadership, willie bloomquist bobbleheads, and low-obp home runs. So be it.

  8. CCW on April 1st, 2013 10:08 am

    This seems about right to me. This team does deserve especially large error bars for a few reasons:

    – Smoak, Montero, Ackley and Guti were pretty horrible last year, and yet are young enough and have the pedigree to be far better than average this year. There’s a 15-20 win error bar packed just into those 4 guys.

    – The starting rotation is… probably bad. But not necessarily. Pitching is difficult to predict in any case and particularly so when 3/5 of your starting rotation has very little track record and the next two guys in line at AAA are kids as well.

    I think the reason the article seems negative is that the M’s didn’t accomplish much over the off-season despite increasing payroll (though not as much as expected). They rearranged their strengths and weaknesses but didn’t do anything to improve other than by the natural development of their young players. If they’d spent their money more wisely (not traded Jaso for a more expensive Morse, not signed Ibanez, and instead improved the starting rotation), the prediction might be 82 wins. So… I feel negative too. I think it was kind of a bad off-season.

  9. johndango on April 1st, 2013 10:09 am

    @Bookbook Coke and Pepsi in the same cup sounds terrible. Jeff and Dave on the same blog though? Refreshing!

    PS – Can we get a real commenting system in place?

  10. maqman on April 1st, 2013 10:43 am

    Wow this is the worst burst of negativity about the Ms I can recall seeing this year. It’s absolutely Bakeresque. Although as noted previously above predicting wins from 69-89 sure leaves you a lot of wiggle room. I respect your knowledge Dave but this is your worst call since you said you’d trade Felix for Justin Upton straight up.

  11. The_Waco_Kid on April 1st, 2013 10:52 am

    Jeff and Dave together is a great combo. Also enjoying Marc’s write-ups. “THE CACTUS LEAGUE IS MADE OF PEOPLE!” lol

  12. charliebrown on April 1st, 2013 10:58 am

    69-89 wins, that is really going out on a limb.

    Thank goodness there’s a wide variance. That’s the reason to watch this year. If Dave or anyone could predict the exact number wins then why would we watch? The whole point of watching sports is that it’s unpredictable.

  13. PackBob on April 1st, 2013 11:04 am

    Any real improvement in 2013 will be because the young guys have started to realize their potential. Talent trumps everything else.

  14. Adam S on April 1st, 2013 11:04 am

    Agree with Dave. The starting pitching is just terrible but will be masked by Felix, Safeco and cold April weather.

    And the 4 DH (Montero, Morse, Morales, Ibanez) roster construction is a disaster. I do think they’ll stick with Montero at C for 1/2 season and DH him some.

    I see this as a 74 win team +/-7.

  15. bookbook on April 1st, 2013 11:14 am

    The rotation ain’t that bad. Iwakuma ans Saunders are legit 3-4 types. Felix is Felix. Maurer, Hultzen, Erasmo, et al will provide some positive value. It isn’t championship quality, but not horrific.

  16. terryoftacoma on April 1st, 2013 11:27 am

    This is not quite as negative as I thought it would be. Personally, I think the off season was very short and went pretty much as I expected.
    I think the starters and the bullpen are better than what Dave states. They’re not great by a long shot but they’re not terrible either. I don’t think Montero will spend a day at AAA unless he gets injured. When Zunino is ready, I think Montero slides into DH and we trade Morales.
    I think right around 80/81 wins is about right.

  17. ChrisFB on April 1st, 2013 11:27 am

    I’m going to infer from Cameron’s dismissal of the non-Felix starters that he has not bought into Maurer at all.

  18. ripperlv on April 1st, 2013 11:29 am

    seagood3: Dave is an analyst, not a sportswriter; and thank god.

    Well actually, he is both.

  19. Westside guy on April 1st, 2013 11:35 am

    Maurer is 21 and has not pitched above AA until now. Not expecting him to be brilliant is NOT the same as writing him off. Even if he sucks and gets sent down… long term he’s still a very good pitching prospect.

  20. djw on April 1st, 2013 11:43 am

    Wow this is the worst burst of negativity about the Ms I can recall seeing this year.

    ??? All the win projection systems I’ve seen have the Mariners between 70-76. The gambling sites I, er, follow opened the O/U season wins for the Mariners at 76.5 or 77, and the odds had to be adjusted for all the money pouring in on the under. 79 as the 50th percentile outcome is the most optimistic projection I’ve seen from anyone taking an analytic approach. This is a balanced but overall positive assessment. If you read this as the most pessimistic take on the 2013 Mariners you’ve seen, you must be limiting your exposure to some very magical thinking M’s homers. (I’m curious who you’re reading, actually–where are you seeing predictions for a winning season for the Mariners this year?)

    Although as noted previously above predicting wins from 69-89 sure leaves you a lot of wiggle room.

    This is what we should expect from a serious analyst, even if the style of sports commentary predictions contains a lot of false bravado. Baseball has a lot of randomness and unpredictability, and projections that don’t contain wide error bands are only offered with confidence only by those who don’t understand the role chance plays in baseball, probability, or both.

  21. stevemotivateir on April 1st, 2013 12:20 pm

    I still feel better about an opening day lineup that features Morales, Morse, and Seager, rather than Carp, Olivo, and Figgins. I think the rotation is questionable, but I feel better about our chances with Iwakuma and Maurer, than I did with Noesi and Millwood. Vargas and Saunders seem to write each other off. Never felt good about Beavan and that hasn’t changed.

    What amazes me, is how we could head into the offseason with a glaring hole in the outfield, and address it by acquiring three bad fielders, all on one-year deals. Topped off by ditching the one decent fielder we had on the bench.

    Why chase players like that? There’s nobody in the system to block! Maybe they didn’t wanna commit so much money to free agents like Swisher and Bourn, but they could have likely had both for little more than they were willing to spend on Hamilton. They would have had their veterans, would have had their middle of the order guy, and their lead off guy.

    Sure, Morse will likely get extended, but Guti may very well be gone before too long, and we’re still banking on Saunders putting up similar numbers (or better) from last year. I could see this blowing up easily. And I can see how the outfield issue could become even more serious moving forward.

    Having said that, I look forward to seeing how this all plays out. And I’m hopeful we can see guys like Ackley produce like we all know he’s capable of.

  22. scraps on April 1st, 2013 12:25 pm

    but this is your worst call since you said you’d trade Felix for Justin Upton straight up.

    Where was this??

  23. scraps on April 1st, 2013 12:32 pm

    Oh: April 1. Got me!

  24. Section329 on April 1st, 2013 12:39 pm

    I love Dave, Jeff and Opening day-especially the home opener. That said, Dave’s analysis fits my disappointment in the off season and Z in particular.

    I will be watching anyway.

  25. eponymous coward on April 1st, 2013 12:56 pm

    I think the reason the article seems negative is that the M’s didn’t accomplish much over the off-season despite increasing payroll (though not as much as expected).

    Some of that increase in payroll is because MLB minimums increased (in other words, it doesn’t really represent real increases in payroll allocated for players making above MLB minimums).

    Baseball-reference has the M’s at 81ish million. Last year was 78ish million.

    Well played, Mariner front office, well played.

    I can’t find anything to really argue with the analysis, though four years in, we’re still where we were in 2009 when it comes to the 25 man roster (yes, I know the farm system is better)- if the team gets lucky we might get over .500 (2009), if we’re not so lucky, it’ll be various shades of bad (2010-2012).

    Also, wouldn’t it be nice to have Fister and Morrow in this bad rotation? Go figure.

  26. Sports on a Shtick on April 1st, 2013 1:13 pm

    One of the big positives I’ll take going into the season is that the organization has helium. There are a lot of upward trends that lead me to think this team is going in the right direction.

    Of course, that momentum can be deflated in a hurry but for now I will look at the glass as half full.

  27. djw on April 1st, 2013 1:18 pm

    Oh: April 1. Got me!

    Dang it, now my previous post looks pretty silly. Well played, maqman.

  28. don52656 on April 1st, 2013 1:42 pm

    Last year, the rotation started out as Felix, Vargas, Noesi, Beavan, Millwood. From my viewpoint, we’re starting out with a better rotation this year.

  29. MrZDevotee on April 1st, 2013 1:53 pm

    We are who we are… I’m pretty much on the fence with this season (which I think means improvement over last season).

    What stands out to me is that switching a couple of pickups for Swisher and Hamilton would not significantly effect the expected wins of this team. (If we’re realistic, and account for time lost for Hamilton, and Swisher being asked to carry more of the offense than his talents suggest being appropriate.)

    Having Jaso and Wells here is maybe a win or two better. But that too isn’t much.

    Like Dave said, this team is built to depend upon its young players improving with experience. This is the year we see if that happens. They are set up by all those “traditionalist” ideas, as Dave also mentioned, like “protection”, not being asked to do too much, having wise sage’s around the locker room. And the fences coming in, a well polished Dave Niehaus statue, etc.

    There won’t be any excuses left after this year, so I’m not as optimistic about the staff sticking around if we don’t hit 80 wins. It will be time to head in a new direction (if even just the players we evaluate/bring into the team).

    That said, I think almost to a man we should see an increase in stats, and more specifically OBP– from Guty, Ackley, Ryan, Smoak, Montero, Seager,– from last season. It would be difficult to collectively be worse than last season. And if nothing else, Morse, Morales and Bay all offer a step up in OBP versus much of last year’s roster, even if still well below “great”.

    I’m also more bullish on the pitching– seeing Iwakuma as above Vargas, Saunders and Millwood as interchangeable, and Maurer as an upgrade over Noesi (all dependent upon Beavan’s time being limited before Ramirez or Hultzen take over).

    So yeah, this is gonna be an interesting year to watch unfold. And Dave was dead on with the 69-89 wins, because this just feels like a roster with HUGE variable to it… With 2nd Wildcard and 90+ losses both on the table of possibilities.

  30. smb on April 1st, 2013 3:02 pm

    The time to have a gun to your head may actually be over, and we may win 80 games without having to resort to suicide fantasies at all.

  31. ChrisK on April 1st, 2013 3:45 pm

    Even better, if the defense is horrible but there’s more dingers to cheer for, the pitchers will get all the blame because, hey, Morse hits some long HRs!

  32. ripperlv on April 1st, 2013 4:55 pm

    Quick which team lead the league in OBP in 2011 and didn’t make the playoffs? Which team was 19th in OBP in 2010 and won the world series? My only point is to remain optimistic despite what the numbers may seem to predict.

  33. Bremerton guy on April 1st, 2013 6:57 pm

    I’ve been bullish on Morse since before the first time he was here. My prediction for him is that by June he’ll be the regular DH (so everyone’s worry about his defense won’t matter), and he’ll have 32 home runs, 109 RBIs, an .800 OBP, and a WAR above 3.5. Free Mike Morse!

  34. Bremerton guy on April 1st, 2013 6:58 pm

    Edit: .800 OPS

  35. dirkvdb on April 1st, 2013 9:04 pm

    Great analysis. Compare it to Geoff Baker’s analysis on kjr this morning. I am thinking barely sub .500 again.

  36. eponymous coward on April 2nd, 2013 9:42 am

    If we’re realistic, and account for time lost for Hamilton, and Swisher being asked to carry more of the offense than his talents suggest being appropriate

    … and when we add in time lost for Morse and Morales being asked to carry more of the offense than his talents suggest being appropriate…

    Seriously? If we just go ahead and assume Hamilton and Swisher got added, Jaso was kept and Morse, Bay, Shoppach, and Ibanez were dropped from the current roster (this assumes the handwaving regarding salary increases was really true, and the team decided they were going to add 10+ million in salary), that’s probably 4-5 wins of true talent being added to the team.

    4-5 wins of true talent increases your “puncher’s chance” by quite a bit when you’re taking a 79ish win team to an 83ish win team. Remember, the probabilities of where the M’s end up with wins with a given amount of “true talent” are a bell curve/normal distribution. If you push the peak of the curve rightward on the wins chart, a move of a few wins in talent really increases the area on the other side of the 90 win line that denotes “good shot at the playoffs”.

    The thing is… I don’t think the M’s were really ever that serious about adding cash to improve their “puncher’s chance” in 2013- they made a good show but when it was all said and done 2013 payroll is pretty much the same as 2012. I think they thought that 2013 was, as Dave says, another building-for-the-future season, and sure, if filet mignon is on sale for a nickel they’ll take it, but they clearly weren’t going to pay market rate for any real talent on the FA market. This is why all the cash got spent on players who are on short term deals, largely, save for Felix, who they just can’t trade for cheap sexy prospects because a) it would make the charade of “vamp for time until the kids are ready” obvious, b) it would alienate the fan base, and c) they think that he’ll still be a force when this team is “ready” in 2014 and onwards.

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