Busy couple of days in Mariners-land, at least in terms of things related to the club. Let’s do a quick recap.
1. Chuck Armstrong is retiring as team president. I know a lot of people like to blame Armstrong (and Howard Lincoln) for the team’s failures, so for a portion of the fan base, this is going to be seen as great news. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t think there’s any way to know from this distance. I’ve never personally bought into the idea that the Mariners were more interested in profit than winning, or that they were simply a PR marketing firm masquerading as a baseball team, and I don’t have any real animosity towards the Mariners ownership or executives. I wish Mr. Armstrong the best in his retirement.
In terms of what it might mean for the Mariners future, I think the most significant factor is that Armstrong’s replacement will likely have a significant impact on whoever the next GM is, whenever there’s a next GM. Regardless of how optimistic you are about the 2014 Mariners, the reality is that the tenure of a Major League GM is rarely more than 10 years, and Jack Zduriencik is coming up on year six. There’s a pretty high chance that there will be a new GM hired at some point in the next few years, and potentially as early as next year.
More than “bringing respectability” or “lending credibility” or whatever other buzzwords people will use to talk up some celebrity president who they interviewed as a player/manager, the Mariners should be looking for someone who will push the organization towards a more analytical approach than they’ve used in the past. The trend in baseball is clearly moving in this direction, and this could be a chance for the Mariners to bring in someone with some newer ideas, and likely influence the organization to go a little more towards modern thinking when the inevitable front office overhaul happens. The Mariners should absolutely be looking to poach someone like Matthew Silverman from the Tampa Bay Rays, and I’d hope their list of candidates swings far more towards the analytical executive mold rather than a media spokesman type like Nolan Ryan was in Texas.
2. The Mariners announced their new coaching staff. Interestingly, Lloyd McClendon only brought in a couple of guys from outside the organization; Andy Van Slyke (McClendon’s teammate in Pittsburgh during his playing days) and Mike Rojas (Tigers bullpen coach during McClendon’s stint there), while everyone else was promoted from within the organization. Usually, a manager will bring in his own guys and surround himself with people he’s worked with in other organizations, but this at least has the appearance of McClendon not getting the final call on who joined him on the coaching staff. We can’t know exactly how much influence the team had in deciding who got each position, but it certainly looks like McClendon is not going to be given the kind of authority that Eric Wedge clearly coveted during his time in charge.
3. In Mariners writer news, Ryan Divish has officially joined the Seattle Times as their lead beat writer, and had his first day at the paper yesterday. Ryan is a friend and I’m happy for him in his new gig; don’t worry, Ryan, we’ll get the link added to your new blog home shortly. To fill Ryan’s vacancy at the News Tribune, the TNT has hired Bob Dutton, a longtime beat writer for the Kansas City Star. I don’t know Bob personally, but he has a pretty good reputation, and I’m looking forward to reading him on a more regular basis.
A few days ago, Shannon Drayer wrote a post about the Mariners potentially pursuing Robinson Cano, based on comments made by Jim Bowden. The Cano rumors don’t interest me much, because I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the Mariners should or will go after Cano, nor do I believe that Cano would have any interest in relocating to Seattle, and I think the idea of a big free agent signing turning around a franchise’s reputation is pretty much 100% BS. But in that piece, Shannon wrote another thing that was a little more interesting, and something I think is worth mentioning.
If you read my blog on a regular basis, you know I hate to make predictions. I will predict this, however: The Mariners’ No. 3, 4 and 5 starters will be significantly better next year. I know I am going out on a limb, but James Paxton and Taijuan Walker will be an upgrade from 3, 4 and 5 and most likely 6 on that list above. General manager Jack Zduriencik is planning on adding a starter from the outside as well. Great. Add a pitcher, do not trade Paxton or Walker and you can pencil in (I am done with my predictions so we are going with “pencil in” here) a 100-run swing.
Zduriencik has said that upgrading the defense is a priority as well and there is a lot of room for improvement. That translates to runs saved, which you can tack on to that 100-run swing. Go ahead and add a few more for an improved bullpen as well. That 754 runs allowed in 2013 should come down significantly in 2014.
She’s right that the back-end of the Mariners rotation last year was dreadful. Whether you’re looking at Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Brandon Maurer, Jeremy Bonderman, Blake Beavan, or even Erasmo Ramirez, the results were lousy. A lack of starting depth was one of the main reasons the 2013 Mariners were terrible. It should not be hard to improve upon what the team got from those three spots in the rotation. If Walker and Paxton are what some people think they are, and the team acquires a “legitimate #2” — or someone they’ll stick that label on, at least — then the 2014 rotation should project to be significantly better.
But Shannon makes a pretty common mistake that a lot of people make when projecting the future; she focuses only on the positive improvements from replacing lousy performances from the year before. When you do projections like this, and note that Awesome New Guy X is some number of runs better than Old Crappy Guy Y, you’re inherently treating everyone else on the roster like their performance is fixed from year to year. And that is simply not the case.
As great as Felix Hernandez is, and as good as Hisashi Iwakuma was last year, those two simply cannot be expected to repeat their 2013 performances again in 2014. It’s not that they couldn’t possibly throw another 423 innings while allowing just 143 runs (3.04 RA9, combined), but that their performance from last year represents something very close to the upper limit of their potential, and there’s a significant probability that the Mariners will get less from their top two next year. And you absolutely have to factor the expected regression from those two into any kind of forecast for runs allowed by the team in 2014.
For instance, right now, the Steamer projection system forecasts the Mariners rotation to post a combined 4.07 ERA in 969 innings, barely any improvement over the 4.18 ERA the Mariners got from their starters over 960 innings last year. Part of that lack of improvement is because there is no “#2 starter” included in the depth chart yet, so Shannon’s projecting some improvement from a pitcher the team doesn’t yet have, so you could go ahead and make some adjustments for adding that guy to the mix. And I’d imagine she’s probably more optimistic about the short-term performances from Walker and Paxton than Steamer is, since that system is forecasting something close to league average pitching from both. No one is saying the Steamer projections are the gospel truth and can’t be underselling the expected performances of the team’s 2014 rotation, and perhaps Shannon’s right to be more optimistic about the young kids than the numbers suggest.
However, I think we can say with near certainty that the Mariners rotation will not improve by 100 runs next year. In fact, we can basically prove that they won’t do it just through looking at the recent history of major league rotations.
The Mariners starters allowed 481 runs in 2013. Over the last 30 years, no American League team has allowed 381 runs over a full-season — a bunch of teams did it in 1994, when the season ended in mid-August — and in fact, no team has even come close. The fewest runs allowed by an AL starting rotation over the last 30 years? 412, by the 1990 Red Sox. That was a team that had Roger Clemens throw 230 innings with a 1.93 ERA, and a bunch of good hurlers behind him.
A few other teams have gotten close to that mark recently, including the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays (David Price, James Shields, and a bunch of good young arms) and the 2013 Tigers (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister), but have maxed out around 415 runs allowed. Those are two of the best run prevention rotations we’ve seen any team run out in recent history, and they topped out at about 65 runs better than the 2013 Mariners. Realistically, it would be impossible to expect the Mariners rotation (and defense) to be better than any of the recent Rays teams, last year’s Tigers, or even the ’85 Blue Jays, ’89 A’s, or that 2002 Red Sox team that featured Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe.
Even if we narrow the timeline to the more recent years, as offense in baseball has declined and so comparing the current game to the one seeing 15 years ago is a little bit of apples and oranges, we still only find a handful of teams even getting under the 450 run barrier. Over the last three seasons, only seven different pitching rotations have allowed fewer than 450 runs, and five of those seven were between 432 and 442. If you were to look at the runs allowed totals by the best rotations (and defenses) we’ve seen in the last few years, we’d peg the expected upper limit around 435 or so. It’s possible to push it to 415, but it takes such a remarkable performance from so many elite talents that it’s basically impossible to expect anyone to match those levels.
435 runs allowed isn’t even a 50 run improvement over what the Mariners rotation put up in 2013, less than half of the 100 run improvement that Shannon wrote about. And that’s the level reached by the best starting staffs in the AL over the last few years, which it isn’t entirely clear that we should expect the 2014 Mariners to be. Yeah, Walker is a great prospect, and Paxton had a nice final start to his season, but the performance range of young pitchers is all over the map. Pitching prospects are as flakey as anything in baseball, and it’s not like either Walker or Paxton destroyed Triple-A in a way that suggests that the inconsistencies of young pitchers shouldn’t be expected to apply to them. There’s as good a chance that one or both of them just fall on their face — as Brandon Maurer did a year ago after winning everyone over in spring training — and get shipped back to Triple-A as there is that they pull a Michael Pineda and dominate from day one. The reason we were all impressed with Pineda is because that kind of performance from the start was unusual. You can’t expect that from every young kid who throws 95.
And even if you could, you’d still have to expect less from Felix and Iwakuma. They might stay perfectly healthy and make 64 starts between them again, but there’s basically no room for upside beyond that, and even short DL stints from either one could really cut into their overall production levels. And, realistically, a 2.66 ERA for Iwakuma is almost certainly not happening again. He needed absurdly low rates of hits on balls in play and stranding runners in order to post that mark last year, and those numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year. Even if he pitched the same in terms of walks, strikeouts, and home runs, you’d expect his ERA to go up significantly just due to different timing of events.
It’s fine to expect the Mariners 2014 rotation to be better. It might even be a lot better. But, in reality, a lot better is a 30 run improvement, not a 100 run improvement. If the Mariners really do commit to upgrading the defense, and the bullpen gets some positive regression as well, maybe the overall staff can be 50 or 60 runs better than they were last year. But anything beyond that is really pushing it. 100 runs just isn’t realistic.
So today’s been interesting.
1: The M’s, like all clubs, protected four players from the looming Rule 5 draft by placing them on the 40-man roster. They’ve selected Logan Bawcom, Ji-Man Choi, James Jones and Stefen Romero, leaving two open spots on the 40-man. JY talked about all four, and the two guys most are talking about as potential Rule 5 losses, in his preview the other day. That means there are a few marginal high-minors big-tent “prospects” who won’t be protected – Brian Moran was in this situation last year, and he went unselected despite a remarkable, eye-popping year in 2012. He’s the same guy, pitching off an 85-86mph fastball and striking out tons of hitters, but he sprouted some platoon splits this year and yielded a few more home runs. The sheen is off somewhat, but he’s still a guy who’s pitched very effectively in the Pacific Coast League for nearly two seasons and could presumably help someone as a back-of-the-bullpen arm, but there’s not much projection. I’ll admit that I still hope Moran makes his MLB debut in an M’s uniform, just because there’s something cool about a fly-ball/strikeout lefty throwing 85 and somehow making it work. As JY mentioned, Moran’s got an odd delivery, but it’s not one that’s really conducive to the LOOGY role – it’s very over-the-top, which helps explain the lack of splits in 2012. Sounds nice and all, but it’s probably keeping him out of a big league role, as a drop in arm-angle and a slider would make him much more of a traditional, Lucas-Luetge-esque LOOGY. I think the obsession with defined roles for non-closers is often hard to jusify, but in this case, we’re asking a big league manager to give the ball to a mid-80s lefty and NOT play match-ups with him. Someone may, someday, but I don’t think it’s that surprising that no one’s bit yet. Here’s hoping he has a bounce-back year and gets a look with the M’s in the late summer.
The other “snub” was IF Ty Kelly, the former Orioles farmhand the M’s got for Eric Thames in a waiver deal last summer. Between the IL and PCL, Kelly racked up 100 walks despite minimal power (his career OBP> his career SLG%). He’s a good utility-man candidate, so could conceivably stick with someone, but without power, above-average defense or good speed (3 SBs for Tacoma, but 7 caught-stealing), it’s not clear how any team would use him at the big league level next year. That’s not to say he’s worthless – with Stefen Romero moving to the OF and with a raft of IF promotions the past few years, the M’s could use some IF depth in the high minors, and a bench guy with some patience probably sounds better than it ought to for the OBP-starved M’s.
Congratulations to Bawcom, Choi, Jones and Romero – I haven’t said as much about them, as Jay covered it already, but it’s a testament to some hard work by each player and by the M’s player development staff. Bawcom struggled a bit when he first came to the org (in the Brandon League deal), and wasn’t great in the Arizona Fall League. But a solid season for Tacoma and good stuff make him a good choice to protect. Choi’s defensive limitations and voluminous injury history don’t change the fact that he can hit. If he’s healthy, he could put up decent numbers for Tacoma. Stefen Romero is one of those great draft bargains that Tom McNamara comes up with from time to time – a 12th round pick after an injury-shortened career at Oregon State. He had an up and down AFL this year, but has some pop (a HR in Arizona registered as the hardest-hit ball of the circuit, according to Trackman data. The HR left Romero’s bat at 110mph); as I mentioned recently, his success against Michael Wacha (1-2, with two well-stroked line drives) looks much better in retrospect than it did at the time. He’s got a ways to go, but given his potential and the open slots, this move makes perfect sense.
2: Speaking of the Winter Leagues, it’s been something of a disappointing campaign for the M’s. Danny Hultzen’s injury meant that the M’s lacked a really high-ceiling guy, as Jesus Montero’s the guy with the best prospect resume actually playing, and that resume’s only worth looking at if you pretend his big league tenure never happened, something many M’s fans are actively trying to do. Carson Smith (another guy who looked great in both pitch FX and Trackman) is still a very good relief prospect despite so-so numbers (obligatory small sample warning) which just goes to show that Smith didn’t really have much to gain this fall. Of the guys who did, a few took a step forward – Dominic Leone hit 97mph fairly regularly, and showed solid control in his innings for Peoria. His very hard cutter at around 90mph looks like a good pitch, and though he made some mistakes, Arizona’s a place that punishes missed location a bit more severely than most. He had scouts talking throughout the year, and he backed it up on a bigger stage this fall. Chris Taylor had a brilliant first few weeks in Peoria, and while he faded a bit down the stretch, he showed that his presumed ceiling of a glove-first utility IF was too low. Splitting time at 2B/SS and with great speed, he could add value as a bench player, but could work his way to a starting role as well. On the other end of the spectrum, we find Patrick Kivlehan, the guy I said had the most to gain from his AFL experience as any player on Peoria’s roster. He slugged .213 in 61 AB with a K:BB ratio of 17:3. It…it could’ve gone better.
3: The Alex Rodriguez saga has been a thoroughly ugly affair, pitting two towering ego with limitless resources against each other in a battle to discredit the other. It’s easy to hope they both succeed and get back to watching the Seahawks, but the NY Times story on the case a few weeks ago was absolutely riveting. Today, A-Rod walked out of an arbitration hearing when a judge refused to compel Bud Selig to testify. MLB clearly won that particular battle, but as Wendy Thurm’s great recap for Fangraphs makes clear, the Arb hearing (despite being ‘binding’ and the final step in adjudicating discipline according to the CBA) won’t end the matter. Rodriguez will certainly appeal to the federal courts, and even if he loses both in Arbitration and the courts, this is shaping up as a very Pyrrhic victory for MLB.
The conduct outlined in the Times article, and repeated by Rodriguez’s attorneys is pretty shocking, and while MLB can constrain the Players’ Association’s response for now, it’s probably going to be an issue when the CBA’s renegotiated. As today’s hearing showed, the Commissioner’s office sometimes sits above the arbitrator, and the anti-trust exemption means it’s really tough for players to seek any sort of remedy outside of the CBA. None of this mattered before, and it’s amazing the lengths to which Selig’s willing to go to ensure it matters in the A-Rod case. It’s not like Congress ever seriously debates the anti-trust exemption, and no, Congress isn’t going to be moved by A-Rod’s pleas that he’s being railroaded, but we’ve got an absolute trainwreck of a case (buying evidence, witnesses switching sides, etc.) that show that, in this specific instance, the fruits of that exemption have been put to, well, questionable use. You don’t have to feel sorry for A-Rod, but this has gone about as poorly as it could’ve for both sides.
4: So, there was a trade today. Dave’s got a couple of posts on the deal at FG. The deal can certainly work out well for both teams; both are contenders, and both fixed a weakness for 2014 through this swap. It allows the Rangers to make a space for one of baseball’s biggest prospects in Jurickson Profar, while it may allow the tigers to extend Max Scherzer and replace Omar Infante. You can make a case that Detroit “wins” thanks to that flexibility, and I think it’s a great argument, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to seeing Prince Fielder in Arlington next year.
Still, I find it incredible how quickly Fielder’s contract turned ugly. The statheads would say it was obviously too high from the day it was signed, and I’m patting myself on the back for that a bit, truth be told. But Fielder was young, he’s incredibly durable, and had a very good 2012 before slumping a bit in 2013. It was self-evidently not an anchor, and while the Tigers threw some money in, Prince Fielder had a market, even with a lot of money and a lot of years remaining. Still, I wonder if we’ll come to see the Fielder deal as some sort of peak in the value of pure power hitters on the open market. The Pujols deal may end up looking worse in time, and the Ryan Howard contract is still so bad it’s basically in a separate category, but throw in Mark Teixeira and you’re looking at a lot of dead money for 1Bs. As Dave’s mentioned, this is part of a trend where contracts have lengthened, showing that teams are holding the line on single-year salary and stretching their commitment over time instead. But while Fielder’s deal isn’t going to seriously impact Robinson Cano’s negotiations, I wonder if we may not see many deals like, say, Joey Votto’s extension for a while. We won’t really be able to see for a while, not until the very reasonable extensions for young players like Arizona’s Paul Goldshmidt run out, but the fact that the Reds will be paying Votto $25m in 2023 looks odd, and Votto’s a much better hitter than Fielder. Basically, will this lead to a re-valuation of good-not-historically-great ballplayers?
These things seem to go in cycles. The Mike Hampton contract haunted owners dreams, and thus frustrated agents of free agent pitchers, for years. The rising tide of revenue, extensions buying out some pre-arb years as well as free agencies, and the corresponding willingness of teams to “eat” some bad years on the back end of contracts changed all of that, and so long term deals for guys like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez raise fewer eyebrows. Hampton, Darren Dreifort and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Brown, seemed to be the poster children for the baseball truism that pitchers are simply far more risky investments. But as you survey the baseball landscape, it certainly seems less true than it once was. Barry Zito’s contract was silly, but it’s nothing compared to the Ryan Howard extension, and you can make a case that the Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp deals would be more damaging to a team (er, as long as that team isn’t the hyper-wealthy Dodgers). That’s kind of a separate issue from the very healthy and still youngish Prince Fielder, but I wonder to what extent teams would say that pitchers really are more risky for these 8-figure contracts. It’s possible I’m still scarred by Franklin Gutierrez’s collapse, and Chone Figgins…whatever the hell that was. Still, just as some of the received wisdom of sabermetric studies of the draft (HS pitchers are terrible, college 1Bs are awesome, college>>>>HS players) slowly became less and less predictive, I wonder if this (or 2010-2012) marks another inflection point, or if cable deals will make all of it irrelevant for a few more years.
Over at FanGraphs, we’re rolling out our off-season prospect lists, with some additional content as well. Today is the Mariners turn, and we’ve got four pieces up that may be of interest to you:
The Top 10 Prospects, by Marc Hulet.
A Q&A with Austin Wilson, by David Laurila.
DJ Peterson and the Wisdom of First Round First Baseman, by Al Skorupa.
Steamer Projects the Mariners Prospects, by Carson Cistulli.
It’s a veritable cornucopia of content, and hopefully you’ll enjoy the pieces.
I don’t have much to say about this — I just found it an interesting paragraph. Not long ago, I mistakenly identified the Cardinals as less of a sabermetric organization. In doing so, I casually cited outdated reputation instead of really thinking about it, and the truth of the matter is that the Cardinals have long been one of the more forward-thinking organizations in baseball. That was just a stupid error on my part, as my fingers got ahead of my brain. Someone who worked for the Cardinals for a long time is Jeff Luhnow, the current general manager of the Astros. Luhnow recently had something to say about the process of hiring a manager. The Mariners recently hired a new manager in Lloyd McClendon. All right, that’s the connection. This is the excerpt:
Luhnow, a former CEO who leans on analytics perhaps more than any other general manager, called hiring a manager the most important job of a front office. In hiring Porter, the Astros were “not looking for someone we could dictate how to do their job,” he said. But he demanded a candidate “curious enough to listen and bright enough” to be open to new ideas.
It’s funny how a word, or the absence of a couple words, can change everything. If Luhnow called hiring a manager one of the most important jobs of a front office, it would be an easy paragraph to ignore. That would just be interpreted as a statement of little substance. Instead, it’s very matter-of-fact: hiring a manager is the most important job of a front office, according to Jeff Luhnow. He didn’t give himself any wiggle room. He made a statement, asserting it as fact, and Jeff Luhnow is very smart and good at baseball.
And, you know, okay, maybe he’s wrong. Nobody’s right all of the time. But my inclination is to give baseball people the benefit of the doubt with most baseball questions, and Luhnow’s a hell of a baseball person. This is something he’s thought about before, at length. And while it’s obviously important to hire the right manager, it’s an interesting situation to have a manager be considered this important, when fans by and large don’t know and don’t care. Fans care about the roster. Fans care about the manager only when they have reason to complain about him.
Two points, to summarize what we’ve got here:
(1) according to at least one smart GM, there’s nothing more important for a front office than hiring the right manager
(2) we might not ever have any idea how well or poorly a given manager did with a given team in a given year
It’s maybe the most important thing, and we know nothing about it. Even when we think we do, we don’t for sure, but if Luhnow is to be believed, the Mariners just made a very significant decision in bringing on Lloyd McClendon. Of course, I don’t know if that’s a good decision or a bad decision, and there’s little sense in analyzing the quotes since McClendon’s just making a first impression and everybody’s positive, but let it not be suggested that the Mariners’ offseason isn’t underway. McClendon’s here now, and he’s going to try to develop a new and better team culture. For all I know that’ll be the biggest thing of all. Never underestimate what might be hidden in your blind spots.
As for the end of the excerpted paragraph? We’ll see about McClendon’s curiosity, and we’ll see if he’s provided with new ideas. Or, probably, we won’t see that, directly. But we’ll see if the team looks different. The person who knows the most about Lloyd McClendon is Lloyd McClendon. The people who know a lot are the Mariners. The people who know nothing, aside from what they’ve been fed, are us. We might never know whether the Mariners made a good move or a bad move, but I sure would welcome good moves. I’d like for this to be one.
We’re presently in one of the offseason doldrums that precedes the winter meetings, a time of frenzied anticipation when we pretend as though things are going to happen and then they usually don’t. That means it’s time for me to step in and talk a bit about other forms of anticipation, namely prospects, and who we might see get added to the 40-man in preparation for the deadline, which is I think a week from now. Given that the M’s keep promoting these guys, I don’t know that it’s more or less interesting, given the obscurity of the players in the eyes of most.
The name of the game this year is last year’s game’s name moved up a digit: ’09 high school draftees and early international signings and ’10 college draftees need to be on the 40-man lest they be kidnapped by other organizations. The international portion of this is always the most dicey as players can “debut” in instructs the year they sign, but as I’m not seeing that from the media guide, I’m guessing that Guillermo Pimentel and Alexy Palma are not on the list, which is great because I don’t want to write about them now, or unless they’re doing things worth writing about. All advanced metrics are courtesy of StatCorner, your Corner for Stats (and nB%, if unfamiliar, is unintentional walks plus HBP)
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) November 12, 2013
Let’s put aside the Carlos Beltran stuff for now. The Yankees want Beltran, the Rangers want Beltran, the Cardinals want Beltran back; barring some kind of unreported desire to have access to fresh caught salmon, there’s little reason to think that Carlos Beltran is going to be particularly excited about playing for the Mariners. The Mariners are interested in Carlos Beltran the same way that most 18 year old males are interested in taking a swimsuit model to the prom.
So let’s talk about the first part of that tweet. Jerry Crasnick suggests that the Mariners would like to sign free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz. Because most of us have been busy speculating about how many dollars the Mariners will throw at Jacoby Ellsbury this winter, we haven’t talked too much about Cruz here, but it makes perfect sense that the Mariners would be interested in Nelson Cruz. Because we know that this front office places a very high value on this particular skillset. For your reference, below are Nelson Cruz’s core offensive numbers over the last three seasons, compared to the same numbers that Michael Morse put up in the three seasons prior to be acquired by the Mariners last winter.
Morse’s overall offensive totals from 2010 to 2012 were better than Cruz’s from 2011 to 2013, but that was entirely due to the fact that Morse had one of the highest rates of hits on balls in play, a number that has a lot less predictive value than things like walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power. In these core numbers, Cruz and Morse are basically identical twins.
The similarities don’t end there, of course. Both are physically built like linebackers. Both are right-handed power hitters, which the Mariners believe they need to add to their line-up for balance and to help against left-handed pitching. Both are injury prone, spending parts of nearly every season of their career on the disabled list. Neither are particularly good defenders or baserunners, and accumulate almost all of their damage at the plate. Both have been suspended for using PEDs. Both are on the wrong side of 30 and are headed to the decline phase of their careers.
Their overall performances aren’t exactly equal. 2010 to 2012 Morse was a slightly better hitter (thanks to the aforementioned BABIP) and worse fielder than 2011 to 2013 Cruz has been. Over those three seasons, Morse averaged +12 runs of offense and -15 runs of defense compared to an average player, while Cruz was +6/-11. Cruz is a little less bat and a little more glove, but it’s basically the exact same player type. There are few players in baseball more similar than Cruz and Morse.
The Mariners, of course, were thrilled to acquire Michael Morse last winter. They made a big deal about how he was going to revolutionize their line-up, and how he was the kind of Big Bat they’d been missing for years. He was considered a vital cog of the 2013 plan, and if you ask them what went wrong last year, they will frequently point to his early season injury as a big reason for why the plan didn’t work.
At no point has the organization ever suggested that they think perhaps it wasn’t a very good plan, however. They love players like this. It’s why they’ve kept non-prospects like Carlos Peguero hanging around and acquired a thousand low rent versions of this same player type. The list of low walk, high strikeout, one dimensional sluggers the Mariners have stockpiled over the last few years is getting absurdly long; no one likes this player type more than Jack Zduriencik’s Mariners. Of course they’re interested in Nelson Cruz.
But they really shouldn’t be. Cruz is Texas’ Kendrys Morales, a mediocre player with an outsized reputation based on irrelevant HR/RBI numbers. While Morales is a “professional hitter”, Cruz is “right-handed power”, and in both cases, the talking points are about how scarce these things are in the “post Steroid Era”. Like with Morales, what is not mentioned is that the “power” isn’t exactly that amazing to begin with, it comes with weak on base percentages, and Cruz does nothing else to add any value to a big league team. The Rangers made Cruz a qualifying offer which he turned down, so he’s now a compensation attached free agent, and he turned the offer down because he’s expecting to land a multi-year deal this winter.
The FanGraphs Crowd projected Cruz’s contract to come in at $32 million over three years, while former GM (and recent successful prognosticator of free agent contracts) Jim Bowden projected $48 million over those same three years. The guys over at MLBTradeRumors guessed three years and $39 million. Everyone’s in the same ballpark, basically, so let’s just take the average of the three guesses and say Cruz will cost $40 million over three years.
To live up to that contract, Cruz would have to be a league average player over the life of the deal, or maybe slightly above average. $40 million over three years should buy you something like +6 or +7 WAR from 2014 to 2016.
From 2011 to 2013, Nelson Cruz produced +3.9 WAR. From 30-32, he was 2/3 of the player he’d need to be from 33-35 in order to justify the expected cost of signing him, and that’s not even including the loss of the draft pick in the calculation. In reality, Cruz projects to be about a +1.5 WAR player next year, and then probably a +1.0 WAR player in 2015, and probably a +0.5 WAR player in 2016. A team signing him should expect to get roughly +3 WAR over the next three years. In a rational market, Cruz would probably land a deal roughly similar to the one David DeJesus signed with Tampa Bay, which paid him $5 million per year for two years with a team option for the third year.
DeJesus, while being wildly different than Cruz, is basically as valuable. This is what a slightly below average outfielder heading into his decline phase should cost. But teams have decided to pay ridiculous prices for power hitters while undervaluing performance in things that are not home runs, so players like Cruz cost way too much to acquire and hardly ever provide a positive return on investment. And that’s why I ranked Nelson Cruz as the #1 land mine of the 2014 free agent class. There is no player available this winter who has a bigger gap between his perceived abilities and his actual value.
And there’s no player who fits the mold of the player the Mariners overvalue more than Nelson Cruz. So, yeah, maybe we should have all seen this coming. Maybe instead of expecting the Mariners to throw a lot of money at a very good speed-and-defense player, we should have expected the Mariners to throw a little bit less money at a mediocre dingers-and-ribbies player. After last off-season, expecting anything else was probably wish-casting.
Kendrys Morales may be a Seattle Mariner next year, but it won’t be on a one year, $14 million contract, as he declined the team’s qualifying offer today and is now a compensation-attached free agent. Scott Boras will look to land him a big money multi-year contract this winter, to which I offer him a hearty good luck. As a rule, I generally try not to doubt that Boras can convince someone to be foolish with their money, but this might be his biggest challenge in a while. Morales isn’t that good and as a DH, his market will be heavily limited, so Boras is going to have to pull a bit of a rabbit out of a hat if he’s going to find a pot of gold for his client.
For the Mariners, they now have three choices:
1. Engage Morales and try to re-sign him to a multi-year contract.
2. Celebrate their new-found draft pick and extra pool allocation, not make Morales another offer, and go find a cheaper player who can provide value at DH without costing them that pick or Boras’ asking price.
3. Settle in for a long game of chicken, keep the DH spot available for Morales but hold firm at a much lower price than Boras is asking for, and simply wait for him to get to the end of the off-season without a significant contract, then swoop in as the hero who will give him a job after a winter of rejection. This is the Adam LaRcohe plan, basically, but hopefully at even a lower price than the Nationals re-signed LaRoche for last winter.
Personally, I’d go for door #2. It’s just not that hard to find a player who can produce at something close to Morales’ level, and the pick should have significant value to the team, especially if they punt a pick or two (as expected) in pursuing free agents this winter. While people will say that the Mariners are at the point where they need to start prioritizing winning now over the future, the reality is that you always prioritize both, and undervaluing a draft pick just because the team has spent years rebuilding with little success is silly. The pick has value, and it shouldn’t just be frittered away because people aren’t willing to see that there are a lot of guys in baseball who can perform about as well as Kendrys Morales.
Door #3 wouldn’t be an awful strategy, though it would leave them open to the possibility that Boras never does back off his ridiculous demands and they end up watching better alternatives get acquired while hoping for a potential ending that might not ever develop. Door #1 is the one to be afraid of, as its pretty easy to see the team trying to sell an off-season of Ellsbury, Morales, and free agent pitchers as the Winter of Hope and Dreams. That plan kind of sucks though, and it’s the one to root against.
By way of Jeff Evans, this is an article by Colin O’Keefe that examines the state of the Seattle Mariners’ analytics department. While, by very definition, the lead isn’t buried, I’d say that it is somewhat glossed over: the Seattle Mariners have an analytics department. That is a thing which exists, and I recommend you take the few minutes to read the article, if only for the emotional comfort of seeing the Mariners linked to HITf/x. It’s right there on the Internet, and the Internet hasn’t lied to me since that one time it said the Mariners walked a Padres hitter on three balls. Haha, Internet, you’re so crazy.
It’s a good article based around a good conversation, and it undermines the caricature of the Mariners, where they’re a hopeless organization that has everything completely backwards. The team, obviously, has bright and motivated young people working for it. The goal is to win, to be sustainably successful, and these people wouldn’t get paychecks if they didn’t serve some purpose. I guess they could be unpaid interns since baseball is a miserable industry to work in when you’re just starting, but then replace “paychecks” with “responsibilities”. The Mariners’ front office isn’t a bunch of 60-year-olds farting around a conference table.
The rest of this post isn’t intended to come off as negative, so try not to read it that way. Rather, I just want to write out a few follow-up points after reading O’Keefe’s article twice. He had a good chat with a smart guy who works for the Mariners. If he blogged about a different team, he could’ve had a good chat with different smart guys who work for other organizations. The reality of baseball today is that just about every organization has young thinker-types, working on numbers and trying to find value. The Phillies might be the last holdout, or possibly it’s the Twins, but even the Phillies are beginning to crack. Analytics is just a part of the game now. Fans tend to exaggerate the mindsets of the unsuccessful. Basically every team is using computers, and while it’s encouraging to know the Mariners have a whole staff working on the smart stuff, that serves to answer only the first question. As I see it, there’s more to explore.
(1) Are the analysts good?
I don’t mean good, in a vacuum. I mean good, relatively. You could go hang out with Pete Kozma. You could spend a whole week with him, training and taking grounders and batting practice. You could talk to Kozma about his approach and his thought processes, why he does things the way he does, adjustments he’d like to make. You’d come away pretty convinced that Kozma is an awesome player, and he is an awesome player. He’s an amazing shortstop. He’s also a profoundly mediocre shortstop by big-league standards, and he’s a shortstop the Cardinals are going to try desperately to improve on in the coming months. Kozma doesn’t get points for being better than most baseball players. He loses points for being worse than his big-league peers, and this is where we don’t know enough about the Mariners. And can’t know, really. Especially since they’ll never go into detail explaining their own methods. How good is the Mariners’ analytical staff, relative to, say, the Angels’? The Rangers’? Dare I ask, the A’s or the Astros’?
These days, an analytical staff is basically like a shortstop. You’re just expected to have one and you’d look silly if you didn’t. All right, everybody has shortstops. How good is your shortstop? Do the Mariners have Troy Tulowitzki? Elvis Andrus? Daniel Descalso? I’m not asking as a literary technique as I get to the answer. I don’t have the answer. Doubt the Mariners do, either. Don’t think the analysts are spending their time analyzing the analysts. That’s a little too meta for the real world.
(2) Do the analysts matter?
We know that the department serves a purpose, because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist. When Tony Blengino stopped serving a purpose, he disappeared after an awkward stretch. The way it’s laid out is that the department is free to explore its own ideas, and sometimes specific requests are filed, and the information generated becomes part of the conversation at the highest levels. But what’s the significance of that information to Jack Zduriencik and his closest associates? Can it drive decisions? Can it tip them? Is it almost entirely ignored, like it’s been for some time in Washington, at least in years past?
Zduriencik has said several times in the past that everything is a group decision, and everybody gets a chance to express his or her own feelings. Ultimately, it falls to Zduriencik to make the calls, so he decides how much he cares about what the numbers say. We have evidence to suggest he listens to the numbers less than he used to, but that isn’t scientific and, additionally, minds can change. Zduriencik’s mind has changed at least once. It’s possible the Mariners have an awesome analytics department that gets ignored. It’s possible they have a lousy analytics department that doesn’t get ignored, which might be worse. Everything in between is possible, too. Every team has to decide how much it’s going to trust its own eyes.
(3) How much trickles from the top down?
That is, while the analytics department could be very talented, within what kinds of framework does it go about its business? What’s the role if, say, the Mariners decide they need to field a winner in 2014? What if the Mariners decide to change focus or shift priorities, like from defense to dingers? Does the department try to come up with the best suggestions that fit a theme, or does it try to come up with the best suggestions, just? To what extent is it a two-way relationship between the analysts and the general manager? I’m not doing a very good job of exploring this point, but I can’t think of what I want to say, exactly, so hopefully this at least touches on it.
There’s also the matter of the elephant in the room — how much do we overrate the importance of analysts within a front office? How much do we overrate the importance of “sabermetric thinking”? There aren’t that many disagreements over who is and isn’t good. This year, the Cardinals made the World Series, and their strength isn’t exactly sabermetrics. The Tigers were an awesome team all season and they’ve never been thought of as progressive. The Red Sox won it all, and of course the Red Sox are famously sabermetric, but then for one thing, this year they put so much emphasis on chemistry, and for another, the 2013 Red Sox are no more or less representative of the front office than the disastrous 2012 Red Sox. There are so many other things that contribute to winning, and there’s so much random variation, and we still don’t properly appreciate the Tampa Bay miracle. 90+ wins in five of six years. 84 in the other. Miracle. We like to think the Rays validate the sabermetric ideas, but really, the Rays validate unparalleled genius. No one should realistically be held to that standard.
I think the fact of the matter is that while we want the Mariners to be smart, and while the Mariners should want the Mariners to be smart, the key for them is probably going to be player development more than anything else. Things would look super different if the team could count on bigger things from Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Jesus Montero. What if Danny Hultzen were healthy, and Brandon Maurer were better, and Hector Noesi didn’t suck a lot? Obviously not everyone can be a success, but strong internal development is what you should count on to make a mid-market team sustainably competitive.
Analytics as we understand it is mostly about players in the bigs, or the very high minors. The goal is to identify talent and value, and just about every team has a department trying to do the same thing. Similar departments will identify similar players, and then there are only so many to go around. You can’t acquire all the value you identify, and your exclusive talent pipeline is your own minor-league system. Those are the players that only you have, and those are the players who can make and keep a team good for a while. The Cardinals’ player-development system seems awesome, and the Cardinals are always good. Same goes for the Rays. The Pirates’ player-development system sucked when the Pirates sucked. They couldn’t dig themselves out until they started churning out their own talent. They’ve made some shrewd moves in the market, and they’ll try to make some more, but right in the middle you’ve got McCutchen, Marte, Alvarez, Walker, Cole, Morton, and Locke.
And you’ve got whatever made Francisco Liriano good again. Sabermetrics didn’t chop his FIP by a run and a half. There’s player development, and there’s player rehabilitation, I suppose. Maybe a better umbrella term would be talent maximization. That’s where the Mariners really need to be better. Some of that, probably, is analytics, but it’s also scouting and coaching and ensuring general wellness. You know, the kind of stuff we can’t speak to. We love analytics because at least we mostly understand them.
The Mariners have an analytical department, staffed by multiple people. Those people take requests from the bosses above, and they’re involved in decision-making. They are, probably, quite smart, and quite driven. We don’t know how good they are, relatively speaking. We don’t know how significant their role is within the Mariners organization. We don’t know how much they’re driving decisions, and how much they’re responding to ideas. And at the end of the day, numbers aren’t going to make young talent better, not by themselves. I’m pleased to know at least one person within the Mariners organization spends time with HITf/x. I’d like to know if Justin Smoak’s ever going to slug .450.
The other day, Ken Rosenthal expressed that the Mariners want Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo. On its own, that hardly says anything — every team would want Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo, and indeed each player will have maybe as many as a dozen serious suitors. They’re two of the very best players on the market, freely available, where by “freely” I mean “absurdly expensive and”. But we know the Mariners have money to spend, and we know they have a need, for both talent and excitement. We know they were linked to Ellsbury and Tim Lincecum for a while, and Ellsbury hasn’t signed a contract yet, and he has the loosest of area ties. It’s easy to envision a Mariners offseason in which they make a splash by spending big on a free-agent outfielder. Provided the outfielder lets them.
There are arguments in favor of such a move, and there are arguments against. Among the latter, this is the simplest. Let’s just use Ellsbury’s name. Let’s say the Mariners sign Ellsbury, and they get him at a six- or seven-year commitment worth $20+ million a pop. Ellsbury would project to be a valuable player. But he’d also be getting paid like a valuable player, as the Mariners would have paid the market rate, or realistically something a little higher than that. The real core of value is in the difference between what you should be making and what you are making, as a good player. With Ellsbury, there likely wouldn’t be a big difference. He’d make the Mariners X wins better, at the market cost of something like X wins.
It’s easy to just focus on names, and Ellsbury’s is a significant one. Hero in Boston, and all that. Widely hyped. He’d bring the Mariners some more star power. But teams are made up of names with salaries. Yes, if the Mariners were to sign Ellsbury, you could write Ellsbury’s name in for the next several years. But the same money could be put toward other names, multiple names. It isn’t a choice between the Mariners with Ellsbury and the Mariners without him. It’s a choice between the Mariners with Ellsbury and the Mariners with other acquisitions, at least in theory. Other acquisitions that would provide Y wins, at some other market cost.
There’s something to be said for talent consolidation, but the Mariners aren’t at the point at which they can worry about talent distribution. They still need to worry about just talent, and it’s not like they’re in pretty good shape across the board. Obviously, last offseason’s Red Sox went the way of spending on a bunch of different guys, and while that’s not the only model that could work, that’s a model that just worked. Don’t get caught up on Ellsbury’s name. There’s a lot more to the picture.
A pretty important factor: what tends to be the case is that big-time free-agent signings provide the most value toward the beginning of the new deal. Over time, the players get worse while the salaries remain high, and teams accept that because of the earlier years. As currently constructed, the Mariners look like something like a 70-win team. It’s hard to come up with any offseason plan that makes them much better than .500. The point being that the Mariners don’t look to be on the verge of something, new star or no. So a big-time acquisition now might spend the most valuable years on a team that isn’t good enough yet.
In theory, the Mariners would have some advantage from having so many cheap young players contributing on the roster. Performance from low salaries allows a team the flexibility to pay for performance from high salaries. In reality, the Mariners don’t have much in the way of established quality youth. It doesn’t help that the team can’t count on Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero or Justin Smoak. It’s a nice thought, and it might come true, but it can’t be counted on like it’s automatic.
Of course, bad teams have to get better somehow, and money needs to be spent, since it doesn’t do anyone any good to have extra budget flexibility go back into the owners’ pockets. This is a simple argument, to which the simplest counter-argument is
- who cares
- do something
I know I’m tired of not caring. I know I want to be passionate about the Mariners again, and I know I’d be excited by a new Ellsbury or Choo. Ultimately we just want to feel, and it’s such a rush when the team makes headlines with an acquisition. It makes it so much fun to look forward, it makes it so much fun to daydream, and fans can worry only so much about crap like “being responsible”. But a business can’t stand to give in to emotion like that. You must stay the course of responsibility. If you get frustrated with under-performance and become irresponsible, that can make the problem only worse, kickstarting a miserable death spiral from which there’s little hope of recovery. Recovery, that is, without starting over again.
Here’s maybe the neatest thing, though, at least for fans of bad teams, like us: while we can often identify what is and isn’t responsible front-office behavior, baseballing success isn’t determined just by responsibility. There’s this huge, huge element of luck, or at least unpredictability, that allows a team like the Giants to win two world championships during the Barry Zito Era. The Cardinals can make a World Series with a shortstop like Pete Kozma, and the Mariners can make a World Series with a somewhat irresponsible front office, so it’s not like signing Ellsbury would mean anything other than the Mariners signed Jacoby Ellsbury. All that would guarantee is that Ellsbury would suit up in the uniform. There’s not actually any telling how it would play out, and this gives more substance than you might like to admit to the “who cares / do something” crowd. Who cares? Do something. It might work out super. Maybe it won’t, but maybe the responsible course wouldn’t work out, either.
The Mariners are likely to go hard after Jacoby Ellsbury. They might sign him, and if they do, they’ll be committing nine figures. On paper, it probably won’t be the smartest thing. There would, however, be points in support, and we’d all be pretty fleetingly excited, and when it’s all said and done, welp, lots of stuff is going to happen that we didn’t see coming. The reality of an unknowable future can be used to justify anything, dangerously, but then there is a reason for that. There’s certain comfort in chaos.