The Reason To Make Changes
The Mariners have lost six straight and have been absolutely pounded the last two nights. The back end of the rotation has performed even worse than usual, putting a significant strain on the bullpen. The offense is struggling again, scoring just 16 runs in those six games, half of those in one contest. After a couple of weeks of more encouraging signs, the glaring weaknesses of the roster are being exposed again.
With Thursday as an off-day, expect the front office to take advantage of the respite and decide whether it is time to make some changes. I think there are some changes to be made, but before I make any suggestions, I think it’s important to again lay the foundation of what should drive decisions to make roster moves.
As I wrote a week ago, you can’t replace past performance. There’s a school of thought that suggests that people’s job status should be evaluated on a pass/fail basis, and they be replaced when their performance crosses some arbitrary line of unacceptability. You’ve heard this with Brendan Ryan — “they can’t keep running out a guy hitting .150” — and now you’re going to hear it with Aaron Harang, who has an 8.58 ERA and is probably the most likely player to not make the trip to Safeco Field on Friday night.
I find this entire mindset unproductive. It’s a relic of grade school education, substituting test scores for actual evaluations of ability. The job of the front office and coaching staff is not to pass judgment on what players have already done, but to forecast what they are capable of in the future. The primary determinant of a player’s role on a team should be his expected future production. The idea of playing time being available to be earned like a treat for doing ones chores simply serves to relieve the decision makers of the burden of having to make decisions. It’s much easier to simply act as performance judge rather than skilled forecaster, but good teams are built by people who have the ability to see what lies ahead, not those who rely on grading what has just happened.
Aaron Harang’s 2013 performance to date has been unacceptable, but you can’t replace Aaron Harang’s past performance; you can only replace Aaron Harang’s future performance. And you should only replace Aaron Harang’s future performance if you actually think that there’s an alternative that presents the probability of improvement. Saying that Harang’s replacement “can’t be any worse” is not only an untrue simplification, it’s an absolutely terrible way to make decisions.
The Mariners shouldn’t ship players out because they’re unhappy with how they’ve performed. They should ship players out because they believe that the person replacing them is better suited for the job that the incumbent is currently holding. But now there’s a complicating factor, because at 20-27, the 2013 Mariners season is no longer worth saving.
The Mariners have 115 games left to play. If we thought they were the best team in baseball, we might project them to win 60% of their remaining games. A team that wins 60% of their games all year goes 98-64. That’s kind of the ceiling for rational projections. Teams aren’t built to play better than .600 baseball, not in this age of parity.
If the Mariners played .600 baseball the rest of the way, they’d finish with 89 wins. Last year, the two wild card teams each won 93. Even with the addition of the second wild card, the bar to reach the playoffs is 90+ wins, because the second wild card incentivizes more teams to keep their rosters together and try to steal a playoff spot. There’s one more playoff team now than there used to be, but the barrier to entry to play in October hasn’t been lowered that much. 89 wins is not going to get the Mariners to the playoffs.
And, remember, that’s if we decided that, starting Friday, the Mariners were going to instantly transform into the best team in baseball. That’s kind of an absurd notion, because this team isn’t very good. It’d be an accomplishment if this team played .500 baseball the rest of the way. Expecting the Mariners to win 60% of their next 115 games is not quite lunacy but something close, and it still wouldn’t be good enough.
So, no, moves should not be made to try and “right the ship” or “save the season”. The season is lost. The Mariners are 10 games behind the Rangers in the AL West, and there are six teams currently ahead of them in the wild card race, each of whom should be expected to outplay the Mariners over the remainder of the season. Toss in the Angels and Blue Jays, both on their heels in the standings and both with better teams with better expected records over the rest of the season, and the Mariners are something like ninth in the AL Wild card pecking order. The Astros and Twins are the only two teams in the league that you can make any kind of compelling case for having worse playoff odds than the Mariners.
Even in the age of parity, the 13th best team in a 15 team league shouldn’t have any delusions of grandeur. The Mariners should make roster decisions based on what is best in the organization’s long term interests, not trading long term development for short term bandages. The Mariners already tried to rush Brandon Maurer to the big leagues because of a need, and you’re seeing how well that’s worked out. They shouldn’t be in the market for any more of those kinds of promotions.
So, no, Mike Zunino should not come up from Tacoma. He’s not ready. Nick Franklin should not be shoved into the shortstop job; he’s not likely to succeed there. The goal shouldn’t be to just find the best alternatives because an alternative is needed, but to look for alternatives that actually make more sense than the players currently on the roster.
In my view, there are a few such alternatives. So, with that long setup, here’s what I would suggest in terms of roster changes.
Option Brandon Maurer, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero to Tacoma.
Recall Hector Noesi from Tacoma. (Can’t actually do this for a few more days, due to 10 day option rule.)
Purchase the contract of Nick Franklin and Jesus Sucre.
Designate Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala for assignment.
Noesi replaces Maurer in the rotation.
Nick Franklin takes over as the everyday second baseman.
Jesus Sucre becomes the new backup catcher.
Martinez/Catricala are removed from the 40 man roster to make room for Sucre/Franklin (and also because Martinez is terrible and isn’t a good use of a 40 man roster spot).
Maurer just needs more work in the minors before he’s a big league pitcher. His non-slider secondary stuff isn’t there yet. That’s okay. He wasn’t supposed to be ready. He’s not ready. It’s not a crime. He just needs to work on some stuff.
I’m not giving up on Dustin Ackley, but he’s a mess right now. A break from constant failure could do him some good, and give him a chance to work on getting his swing back to what it was when he was able to drive the ball to all fields. He needs to stop pulling everything, and he needs to cover the outer half of the plate better. This is fixable. It’s probably easier to fix it in Tacoma.
Jesus Montero just isn’t a Major League player. The catching experiment should end, and he should go down to Tacoma and just try and start hitting again. Let him DH everyday and try to remember that he used to have a lot of promise as a guy with power to all fields. Release him of the burden of being the worst defensive catcher on earth and let him focus on getting back to being an interesting offensive prospect. Let him take some reps at first base while he’s down there and see if he can be not horrific at the easiest defensive position on the field. More than anything, though, tell him to just remember how to hit, and he can come back to the majors when the bat is ready to carry the rest of his skills.
Noesi probably isn’t going to be any better than Maurer would be, but he’s also not as important a piece to the team’s future as Maurer, so letting him be the one to take some lumps in a role he’s not cut out for is better for the organization. And, you know, maybe his command takes enough of a step forward to be mediocre enough to not kill them every five days.
Sucre is a nothing player, but he can catch the ball and play once a week while Kelly Shoppach takes over the regular catching duties. Shoppach isn’t good enough to play everyday on a team trying to win, but he’s by far the best catcher the organization has right now, so he’s the best choice. It wouldn’t hurt to look outside the organization for a better fill-in to share time, but Sucre will have to do until or unless one is identified.
As for Franklin, Ackley’s struggles present the opportunity for the team to see if he’s part of the long term infield solution. I’m not convinced he’ll be a dramatic upgrade, but this would be a promotion to evaluate his progress against better competition, not a move made to try and turn the season around. If Ackley’s going to get a few months to try and figure things out in Tacoma, that’s the best possible time to give Franklin a half season of big league time and see what he can do. They can even stick him at shortstop occasionally if they want to see how he is on that side of the bag, but by having him replace Ackley at second, he won’t have to be good enough at SS to play regularly.
In each case, the moves are made not to satisfy the need to do something, but to try and give the players their best chance to succeed in Seattle long term. Maurer, Ackley and Montero shouldn’t be given up on, but they don’t need to be in the majors right now. Franklin is worth looking at in an extended trial. Noesi and Sucre aren’t super important pieces, so if they are overmatched, it’s not the end of the world.
Yes, this means that Harang and his 8.58 ERA stay. 28 innings of a high BABIP and HR/FB ratio are not enough to decide that a guy who succeeded almost entirely through BABIP and HR/FB suppression last year is cooked as a big league pitcher. He’s not great, certainly, and the team needs more than he’s given them so far, but logic suggests that he’s still capable of giving them better than he’s given so far, and there’s no one else in the minors who is any better.
I know there’s some call for Jeremy Bonderman, just because he’s a familiar name and in Tacoma, but he hasn’t been very good for Tacoma, and hasn’t been a good big league starter in a very long time. If Noesi bombs in his next big league start, maybe you go with Bonderman just to try it out, but I don’t think there should be a strong priority on giving him a look. If he opts out of his Tacoma contract because the team didn’t give him a look, so be it. He’s not a piece I care much about.
So, that’s what I’d do. It wouldn’t fix the team, certainly, but this team isn’t fixable in-season. It’s a roster that makes some necessary adjustments, and then can get back to hoping that Felix and Iwakuma can pitch like inner circle hall of famers often enough to keep the rest of the roster afloat.