My Thoughts on the 2013 Season
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.