The Troubled Mind of the M’s Fan
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior
We are, thankfully, a year removed from the acrimonious debates over the Jaso/Morse trade. The past year has probably been kinder to the M’s than to most of their divisional rivals, due to a combination of injury and Robinson Cano. We’ve spent the past four years, or, if you really think about it, the last TEN years, searching for progress. Here, as the 2014 season begins, we have it. We can quibble about the magnitude of the progress, or what it says about management, or any number of things, but the M’s start the 2014 season with a real chance at postseason baseball. After years of doubt, scorn, and apathy, M’s fans must be ecstatic, right? Well, no, not really. Jeff described the psychological state of the M’s fans in his “If It Goes Right” post, and it’s worth repeating: the 2004-2013 Mariners are a classic case of operant conditioning. A decade spent eradicating hope; glimmers of promise felled by a series of misfortunes (Guti) and missteps (Horacio Ramirez). You can argue that this metaphor obscures more than it helps: that a bad trade for a crappy DH either one or seven years ago doesn’t illuminate the 2014 season, it just illuminates your own cynicism. The problem is that you can’t pretend that these moves aren’t linked. If you’ve lamented the direction the team’s gone, you can’t just tell yourself that the moves this FO made in the past have no bearing on the moves they’ll make in the future. If you believe that there’s something fundamentally wrong in how the team assesses pro talent, you probably aren’t convinced that everything will work out now that the stakes are higher.
So here I am, feeling both excitement and dread at the same time. Picking apart every minor move because they seem so haphazard and picking apart every minor move because, for the first time in a while, they might actually matter. Lamenting the missed opportunities and the obvious holes, but looking around the division and seeing obvious holes everywhere. Worrying that way too much is needed from Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino and Roenis Elias, and thinking that I’d rather have Zunino over JP Arencibia, and Elias over Nick Martinez, and wait, are you seriously starting Josh Wilson at 2B, Texas? The M’s bought the premier player in free agency, and then everyone told them that Cano, on his own, wasn’t enough to change the AL West picture. The M’s stayed put, and then the baseball gods changed the AL West picture for them. And now our brains can’t stop debating it all.
“Chris Young is a great stopgap for the 5th rotation spot. This isn’t about giving an “Ex-All Star” a job based on his name, and it’s not about a good spring training line. Chris Young was broken, and now M’s scouts are convinced he’s not. Thoracic Outlet surgery changes the picture completely, and it has the benefit of being a much easier procedure to rehab from than a labrum or rotator cuff tear. Randy Wolf was bad, and then left when he demanded more security than the M’s felt comfortable offering. Young’s problem has been durability, and now he’s in a position where durability just isn’t a big concern. Young’s been good, and with the 45-day opt out, the M’s can remake the rotation in May if Hisashi Iwakuma’s ready to go.”
“Let the record show that perhaps the best argument in favor of the Young pick-up is that he recently had his third shoulder surgery. I’m told he’s now throwing 88mph again, much better than he showed last year. But this sort of thing is trotted out about as often as “best shape of his life” stories. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that Scott Baker came in amid whispers he was throwing harder than he was last year with the Cubs. He came out in early March and touched *92*. Jeremy Bonderman did this last year. The real reason Young is here is that he signed the 45-day opt out and Wolf didn’t. That’s it. Flexibility is important, and no team wants to just waste $500-750,000. But this kind of flexibility can be overstated. In any event, the M’s are going into the 2014 season projected to be very close to the division’s top teams, and the best they they could do was to see what Roenis Elias was capable AND buy high-ish on Chris Young?
“The M’s OF depth isn’t great on paper, but the M’s will be able to mix and match players and get the platoon advantage while also improving the OF defense overall. Abraham Almonte showed signs that he could be a league-average bat, and using Saunders/Ackley in the corners will give the M’s much more range than they had last year. The M’s OF defense was -17.5 runs by UZR in 2013, 1.5 WINS worse than the Angels’, and 2-3 wins worse than the A’s/Rangers. Push them to average, and the division is basically a toss-up. Against good lefties, they can deploy Corey Hart and/or Stefen Romero. That’s an offense-for-defense trade to be sure, but it illustrates that the M’s have actual options both when they look at pitching probables and for late-game situations. This is the M’s weak point, and the ability to swap players around means that it shouldn’t be a black hole. Their depth in AAA isn’t excellent, but it’s no worse than their rivals. Importantly, it means that if Almonte’s awful, they can just swap him out.”
“The M’s actions this offseason, particularly regarding the outfield, show that THEY don’t believe they’re contenders. The division is incredibly tight and the M’s all but gave the starting CF job to a guy with a career MiLB slugging percentage of .399, and who wasn’t really a full-time CF until he was pressed into the job due to injuries/promotions/other people failing. The team has more speed in the OF corners, but they have career wRC+ numbers of 89 and 86, respectively. If they couldn’t run, they’d be out of baseball. And running’s nice, but Ackley hasn’t demonstrated great range in the OF. That’s not necessarily is fault, and the tools are there, but he’s learning on the job, as is Romero. If Hart plays significant time in RF, the OF defense could still be a problem. Hart’s progress has been achingly slow, which seems to hurt the group’s chances of adding value offensively. To top it off, Almonte starts the year in the lead-off spot for reasons no one can fathom. The M’s were contenders by default, and their lack of attention to a clear, known weakness will prevent them from taking advantage of it.”
“How can you criticize the M’s for not making more moves to shore up the team when your biggest fear was management making rash moves to protect their jobs? The cynics were the ones lamenting an overpay for Nelson Cruz or David Price or [insert trade candidate here] before they happened; they can’t then turn around and say the M’s didn’t do enough to improve. The division’s tight, and the M’s still have Nick Franklin and Tai Walker in the fold. Walker will be an important part of the M’s rotation and Franklin could either be a factor for the team in the 2nd half or a potentially even-more-valuable trade chip at the deadline. More importantly, the M’s have positioned themselves for 2015 and beyond. They haven’t closed any doors by overreacting to spring training injuries to Oakland/Texas. This means they can actually compete in 2014 while at the same time assessing which players they can count on for 2015. Is Dustin Ackley slow to develop, or is it just not going to work? Is Nick Franklin’s struggles against lefties fixable? Is Mike Zunino making steady progress, or will his contact issues plague him? The M’s have a free year – they’re figuring out who’s going to be a part of the next great M’s team AND they can compete in the short term thanks to Felix/Iwakuma/Cano/Miller.”
“If the only options were “Stand pat” and “make stupid, panic-driven overpays,” we wouldn’t spend much time on baseball. Those are *never* the only options. The M’s shouldn’t have traded the farm for David Price, but they saw Ervin Santana sign a one-year deal and opted to go with Roenis Elias instead. Teams around baseball need help at SS/2B, and the M’s held tight to Nick Franklin, waiting to be blown away by a ludicrous offer that never came. Like Nelson Cruz or Santana, the M’s could’ve adapted to the market, or they could’ve gone for one of the free agents once their market tanked. It’s not enough to say that the M’s can evaluate their youngsters this year when they’ve shown no ability to have contingencies. That’s why they started the season last year with Jesus Montero at C, Justin Smoak at 1B and Dustin Ackley at 2B. Zunino helped them avoid the full effects of Montero’s collapse, but they still need Ackley and Smoak to produce. They’ve had the same “youngsters” for years, and while Cano is a huge upgrade, they’re still surrounded by Almonte/Saunders/Zunino. What, exactly, is going to change next year?”
I’m really glad I’m not anticipating big philosophical arguments with fans of the Morse deal, but all that means is that the big philosophical arguments have moved to my own head. This is a strange, strange 2014, and despite all of the angst and teeth-gnashing, it’s a better version of strange than we’ve seen in a while. How much that has to do with the FO and how much has to do with pitcher attrition elsewhere is still a big question. However you resolve it is up to you, and ultimately, it’s fun that circumstances (“no! prudent management.” “I’ll concede the point only if you can identify the team’s employee who decimated Texas’ clubhouse this spring”) let us have the debate with the gap between the M’s and their rivals smaller than at any point since 2009.