Cynic’s Guide To Justin Ruggiano

December 31, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 33 Comments 

This is based on a simple premise: the Cubs are smart. Well-run. Probably among the smartest, most well-run organizations in the game. They have an enviable, fairly proven front office, that we all believe is on the cutting edge of quantitative analysis. I think most Mariners fans would probably gladly exchange our front office for theirs. Now! Not everyone would agree with that suggestion, and if you don’t, that’s perfectly fine. I can’t make up your mind, and I don’t know everything about baseball. Sometimes I wonder if I know anything about baseball. But anyway, the premise, again: the Cubs seem like they’re really smart, and perhaps smarter than the Mariners. If you accept that, then we proceed.

A short while back, the Mariners picked up Justin Ruggiano from the Cubs, for a player no one had ever heard of. The Mariners needed a right-handed outfielder, and Ruggiano has looked mostly good when he’s played. He’s in his 30s, and he’s projected to cost about $2.5 million. When they dealt Ruggiano, the Cubs indicated they might not have had room for him.

The Cubs subsequently searched for a right-handed outfielder, available on the market. They just today signed Chris Denorfia, who you might remember as having just recently been a Mariner. Denorfia has looked mostly good when he’s played. He’s in his 30s, and he’s going to cost about $2.5 million. For the cost of Justin Ruggiano, the Cubs selected Chris Denorfia instead, and also added a minor-league reliever of not literally no note.

It seems like it’s simple: the Cubs just like Denorfia more than they like Ruggiano. Go back, now, to the premise — if the Cubs are smart, and smarter than the Mariners, then if the Cubs like Denorfia more than they like Ruggiano, what might that mean about Ruggiano? Do they think he’s about to collapse? Do they think he’s not worth anything in the clubhouse? Do they think Denorfia is about to bounce back? One notes that Denorfia was a 4-win player two seasons ago. One notes that Ruggiano just had a .375 BABIP, and his contact rate got worse. Denorfia seems like the better defender. Four years in a row, he was a good and underrated player.

So maybe the Mariners are missing something here. Maybe the Mariners got outsmarted by a top-tier organization. Now, there is the other side, too. Maybe Denorfia wasn’t at all willing to re-sign. Maybe the Cubs are wrong to prefer Denorfia to Ruggiano! Maybe the Cubs are right, but baseball’s unpredictable and Ruggiano will still perform better. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter, since we’re talking about a handful of runs from the light part of a corner-outfield platoon. The Mariners just got Seth Smith. Seth Smith is about to play a lot more baseball than Justin Ruggiano is. So, how much could it matter, really?

It’s not a big deal. Maybe it’s no kind of deal. But it got my attention. The Cubs gave a guy to the Mariners, then replaced him with an ex-Mariner on virtually identical terms. Seldom do I think things are laid out so simply. The Cubs preferred a different guy over the guy they already had. It appears like the Mariners thought the opposite. In truth it’s a little more complicated than that, but this is about as simple as it ever gets, and my gut feeling is that disagreeing with the Cubs will generally leave you on the wrong side of history. But maybe I’m being too nice to them. I tend to see the best in strangers.

Mariners Acquire Seth Smith, Obviously

December 30, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

There was a time, not long ago, the Mariners were openly content with going into next year with Brad Miller as a part-time outfielder. There was a time, not long ago, Glacier National Park projected to keep having a bunch of glaciers in it. Situations change, and as the Mariners came to terms with Miller as an outfielder, the Padres traded for all the other baseball players, which left some players on the outside looking in. The Padres made this easy. They showed the Mariners the way. The Mariners just had to go for a walk.

Having acquired Justin Ruggiano, the Mariners were poised to have a right-field platoon. All they needed was an opposite-handed willing member of a right-field platoon. Transcript of a front-office conversation:

Mariners executive: just about done
Mariners executive: all we could use now is a Seth Smith-type
Other Mariners executive: I have an idea

This became stupid obvious. Everyone knew it and there was no sense in denying it. The one hurdle is that the Padres had promised Smith they wouldn’t trade him back when they gave him a contract extension, but, those were different Padres, with different players under different management. This Padres front office didn’t make that Padres promise, so in the end, the Padres turned Seth Smith into Brandon Maurer, and the Mariners turned Brandon Maurer into one of these guys:


Maurer, of course, isn’t a nothing sacrifice. Yeah, it felt like the ship sailed in terms of his being a starter here. Yeah, the Mariners have a lot of pretty good relievers, and it’s generally not too difficult to accumulate more of them. The Mariners traded from depth. But in the bullpen, you like to have depth, especially hard-throwing young depth under team control for a while. Maurer last year, as a reliever, had 38 strikeouts and five walks, and two of those walks were intentional. Strikes and missed bats are all the ingredients you need to be good for an inning.

But if you figure the Mariners can survive losing Maurer, this is an exchange of a reliever for a semi-regular position player. As a rule of thumb, that’s the sort of deal you can support. Maurer isn’t a proven elite relief arm, and Smith can play a lot, and he’s under control for a few years. He doesn’t do much against lefties, but that’s why Justin Ruggiano exists. Seth Smith plays outfield defense like you’d expect from a guy whose name is Seth Smith, but that doesn’t mean he’s a liability. It means he’s uninteresting. Outfield defense can be a lot worse than uninteresting.

Really, you don’t need a bunch of numbers here. What does Smith do? He hits pretty well against righties. Is that a proven, sustainable skill? Well, you can never tell the future, but he’s been doing it for a while. His contract is reasonable and he’s not yet in his later 30s. He’s always hit enough, and eventually he’ll reach a point where that isn’t true anymore, but he should be fine in the short-term future in which the Mariners are a big-time contender. You don’t need to worry about his transitioning to a pitcher-friendly ballpark — Safeco isn’t Petco, specifically, but Safeco is Petco, generally. Smith’ll survive. Let me take that back. Indications are strong that Smith’ll survive. If he doesn’t, welp. Anyone can do anything, in a good way and a bad way.

As far as the roster is concerned, you figure things are just about complete. Bullpen’s stocked. Rotation’s stocked. Lineup’s stocked. Only thing missing from the bench is a right-handed corner-infield type, someone who looks a lot like a decent version of Jesus Montero. The Mariners might now believe they possess a decent version of Jesus Montero. If not, maybe they’ll get someone else, in a trade or as an NRI. I expect that Montero will be given an opportunity in March, as impossible as that would’ve been to believe last September.

Maybe the most interesting thing here is what it could mean for Brad Miller. God knows the most interesting thing isn’t Seth Smith. Miller, fortunately, is still Mariners property. They’ve gotten this far in the offseason keeping that the case. As things stand, Miller and Chris Taylor will compete for the starting shortstop job in spring training. The loser presumably heads to Triple-A. That feels like something of a concern, given that both Miller and Taylor project to do well in the season ahead, but, one thing the Mariners haven’t had a lot of is depth. Two potentially good shortstops increases the probability that you end up with one actual good shortstop, and there are also potential injuries, and cases of under-performance, and whatnot. It’s not a bad thing to have Miller or Taylor available in Tacoma. There doesn’t have to be a rush, and this way, midseason adversity would be a little less likely to be a significant problem. And this way, nothing changes about the chance of Miller becoming a long-term center fielder. The Mariners still like him as a possible outfielder. This just means he’s not an outfielder, in Seattle, at the start of next season.

Because of Seth Smith. Welcome, Seth Smith, perhaps the least surprising Mariners acquisition since Nelson Cruz, which I guess was hardly any amount of time ago. The Mariners have attempted a lot of fairly predictable things. They’ve pulled off a few of them. None of them have been dreadful, and the end(ish) result is a team that looks about as good as any other team in the league. Seth Smith does little to alter anything in a major way, but there was a piece missing from the puzzle, and the Mariners slid in the appropriate and recommended puzzle piece, from the box. That’s what you’re supposed to do, but you still feel a little buzz when you get the right pieces to fit.

M’s Adding Seth Smith?

December 30, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 14 Comments 

Shannon Drayer tweeted that a deal sending LH OF Seth Smith from San Diego to Seattle was imminent. At this point, the only name associated with San Diego’s return has been Brandon Maurer, but the final deal hasn’t taken shape yet. Bob Dutton mentions that the player heading south is a reliever, so while it might not be Maurer, it’s probably not Taijuan Walker or one of the shortstops.

Smith is a classic platoon OF, a lefty with patience (a major league walk rate above 10% for his career) and a bit of power, he’s a career 123 wRC+ hitter against righties, but he’s completely lost against southpaws (wRC+ of 63, career SLG% of .314). He’s coming off his best season as a big leaguer, with a slash line of .266/.367/.440, good for a wRC+ of 133. In July, with his wRC+ hovering in the 150s, the Padres extended Smith a new two-year, $13 million deal. Unfortunately, Smith immediately dropped off – his power vanished and he dealt with minor injuries – and while his contract is still quite reasonable, he was no longer a starter in San Diego, who just acquired three full-time OFs in Wil Myers, Matt Kemp and Justin Upton (they’ve still got Will Venable, too, at least for now).

His Steamer projection has him giving up quite a bit of the offensive gains he made last year, but still settling in as a reasonable bench bat, adding a few runs above average as a platoon player. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection is similar – a slash line of .245/.328/.396 in Safeco. The line’s a bit lower than the Steamer projection, but then Steamer didn’t know he’d be playing in Safeco. Smith isn’t an asset on defense, but he combines with Justin Ruggiano to form a pretty good RF tandem.

Maurer clearly has the talent to pitch in the bigs, but his M’s tenure was frustratingly inconsistent. After opening eyes and winning a rotation spot in 2013, he fell apart – an ERA well over 6, a trip to the minors, rumblings that he was done as a starter. He seemed like a great bounce-back candidate in 2014, but his starts weren’t any better. While he showed decent stuff, he struggled with men on base, and gave up too many home runs. However, a move to the bullpen and one-inning starts produced excellent results, as his velocity played up (he averaged 97 down the stretch) and his change-up allowed him to be effective against lefties.

There’s still a lot to like in Maurer. As a set-up man, he’s got plus velocity, a decent slider, and at least the makings of a good change-up. He hasn’t commanded it thus far, but he’s also not completely lost against lefties the way he was in 2013. His FIP has been better than his ERA both seasons, and he’s young enough that a move back to the rotation could still work. As a fly-baller, he’d be in a good environment in Petco and the NL West, too. For the M’s, though, this is another trade from depth. Maurer’s FIP was lower than his ERA because his ERA was absurdly high. He was effective out of the pen, but the M’s have so many solid righty bullpen arms that he had more value to them in trade. Turning a 23rd round bullpen arm who’d been demoted in both 2013 and 2014 (and looked mentally lost at times) into a league-average OF bat is pretty amazing. Maurer has potential, and he looked electric in short stints last year. But it’s only that potential – potential he struggled to deliver on – that makes this swap a possibility.

Podcast: A Ripple Amongst a Storm

December 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 28 Comments 

Many teams made big splashes (nautical puns!) but the Mariners satisfy themselves, for now, with a tiny ripple.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner┬áin general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!

Justin Ruggiano For Basically Free

December 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 36 Comments 

The Cubs are trying to contend right now. I think that’s become pretty clear, with the moves that they’ve already made. If you examine the Cubs’ current roster, I think it’s fairly evident they could use some help in the outfield. Okay, so, file that away.

Have you ever heard of Matt Brazis? Had you ever heard of him before today? I don’t know anything about Matt Brazis, and I’m sure he’s a great guy, but the people to whom Brazis is most important have nothing at all to do with major league baseball. Brazis has never been on the organizational radar. I should note that, by the way, Brazis was in the Mariners’ system. He’s not anymore. He’s the guy the Cubs just accepted, in exchange for Justin Ruggiano.

That feels like a data point. The Mariners just filled a need in trade, and they did so for basically nothing, getting a guy who might’ve helped the team he was already on. That tells you something about how the Cubs viewed Ruggiano, and that can’t be ignored, but we can proceed only with what we know and what we know is that Ruggiano appears like a fine short-term fit with the roster the Mariners have built.

He’s right-handed, so, check. He’s a versatile outfielder, so, check. He’s relatively inexpensive, so, check. Ruggiano isn’t Justin Upton, and he’s not even close. This isn’t the sexy acquisition so many people have been hoping for. Ruggiano shouldn’t even be a starter. But, again: the Mariners didn’t need one outfielder. They needed to find two. Ruggiano’s one, and I think Brad Miller turns into the other.

Maybe the Mariners keep scouring the market, and maybe they bring in another guy, but as is I think that’s unlikely. Seems like there’s one more spot open on the bench, but that could go to someone capable of spelling Logan Morrison. Even more helpful would be a guy capable of replacing Logan Morrison against left-handed pitchers. Because it’s still the middle of December we can’t predict exactly how the spring-training roster will shape up, but I think if you look at what the Mariners have, you’ve got a more or less complete team.

A key with Ruggiano is that he has a lifetime 128 wRC+ against southpaws. He has the same number of extra-base hits against lefties as against righties, in a little over half the trips to the plate. So Ruggiano pairs well with Miller and Dustin Ackley, and he’s center-field capable, while short of center-field good. Miller, for the record, has posted a 104 wRC+ against righties, and a 72 wRC+ against lefties. Against righties, he’s had more power, and against lefties, he’s had more strikeouts. It was obvious last year that Miller struggles against even decent left-handed pitching, and though most people expect his bat to improve, the Mariners can have only so much patience in a season where they’re trying to win a championship.

Naturally, there are valid concerns. Ruggiano is coming up on 33 years old. Everyone younger than 33 is coming up on 33 years old, but Ruggiano is closer to the finish line than most. Last season he fought some injuries and he flashed less power, especially to the pull side. It’s possible the Mariners are adding a useful player too late, like they did with Chris Denorfia. Denorfia was an underrated asset with the Padres earlier on, but by 2014 he’d become a shell, and he stopped hitting. If Ruggiano’s just about toast, all this will do is lead to outs, and the Mariners will have to search for help again. But considering the price, I think this is a worthwhile shot. If Ruggiano doesn’t work out, the team isn’t stuck with him. And they won’t be killed by a role player being ineffective for a handful of months.

As for Miller as an outfielder and a utility type, it’s looking increasingly likely. The Mariners did try to trade him once, for Matt Kemp, but that didn’t go anywhere and since then the team’s become more protective of the guy. Obviously, they didn’t bid up Melky Cabrera too far. They didn’t bid up Alex Rios. They haven’t made a strong push for Justin Upton. The Mariners keep talking about how they believe Miller is going to hit, and some of that is just supporting their own player, but also, I think the confidence is real. And the idea of Miller moving around and playing some outfield isn’t a new one. Some say he’s a natural. So why pay steeply for an outfielder if you might not actually need one?

Ideally, Chris Taylor does well at short, and Miller and Ruggiano do well in right. There you go, two positions solved. Miller is also valuable as Taylor insurance, in case his bat doesn’t really come around. Under those circumstances, you demote Taylor, you shift Miller to short, and in the middle of the year you try to pick up a left-handed role player. If Ruggiano doesn’t do anything, you try to pick up a right-handed role player. If Taylor and Ruggiano bust, you find a regular outfielder. If Taylor and Miller bust, uh oh. If all three of them bust, come on, pitching staff! There are a lot of ways this can go. The most likely way is that, at both positions, the Mariners are fine. Maybe not great, but probably not terrible. And they’d have a right-field solution that was inexpensive, and didn’t sacrifice any future assets.

A lot of people want impact additions. A lot of people want an impact right fielder. A lot of people think an impact right fielder would put the Mariners right over the top. Well, maybe, but, at what cost? Impact additions are distracting. In a lot of ways they’re overrated. Justin Upton is something like a 3-win player. Maybe 4, if he’s really clicking. What do you make of Ruggiano and Miller, as a tandem? Is that 2 wins? That doesn’t seem over-optimistic. I’d say it might even be low. What’s the real difference between Upton and a Ruggiano/Miller platoon? Would it be worth giving away what it would take? What if the Mariners traded Miller for a right fielder? Would it be worth giving up the talent and the shortstop insurance? If nothing else, I’m content to let the Mariners evaluate what they have and re-visit if they need to in June or July. Prices will be higher, but by then at least we’ll know if the Mariners actually need anything.

I don’t think they need much more than they have. Not at the moment. The Mariners are almost through the offseason, and they have a good team, and they still have Miller, and Taylor, and Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, and an intact farm system. They’re down one Michael Saunders, and I’ll never like that, but this all could’ve gone worse. The Matt Kemp trade probably would’ve been worse. Now the Mariners have added a useful role player and they seem open to leveraging Brad Miller’s pop and athleticism. As many different ways as this could’ve gone, it’s gone a decent way. Justin Ruggiano doesn’t make the Mariners a World Series contender on his own, but he fits with what was already a legitimate World Series contender, and the future’s remained untouched.

A Quick And Unoriginal Thought

December 14, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 56 Comments 

Girlfriend and I are finally getting through House Of Cards. I won’t spoil anything, and I’ll expect that you won’t spoil anything, but at one point there’s a reference to the “deep internet”, where like 96% of the internet exists, in private. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, because I don’t actually know anything about technology, but I’m just using it here as an introductory technique so let’s all agree to play along. The idea is that there’s the public internet, the face of the internet that anyone can see, but then there’s a lot more to it behind the scenes, and you have to know how to get there in order to gain whatever information you seek. That’s enough of this paragraph, since I’m sure you get the concept.

So let’s talk front office. Let’s talk the Seattle Mariners’ front office. We know all the moves they actually make, because we hear about them and we read about them and we analyze them and we see players come and go. We know that the Mariners signed Robinson Cano because we saw press releases, and photographs, and then most importantly we saw Robinson Cano playing for the Mariners. That transaction list on Yeah, those are all real events. Think of that as the surface internet.

And there can be so much…let’s just call it luck. There’s so much unpredictability when it comes to players you move. Chone Figgins looked like a tremendous investment until it turned out he was one of the worst investments ever. Franklin Gutierrez looked like an amazing long-term center fielder until he came down with a virtually undiagnosable illness. Going just a little bit deeper, the Mariners got more than they could’ve expected out of Chris Young. Yet, they had to know that the Nationals were going to dump Chris Young, and the Mariners also needed for Randy Wolf to turn down their contractual advances. Young was a big reason why last year’s M’s were able to compete. What if that were Randy Wolf instead?

It’s easy to observe everything that happens on the surface. Humans know what the tops of the oceans look like. We know surprisingly little about the rest. As easy as it is to see what there is to be seen, it’s also easy to forget there’s a hell of a lot more that doesn’t happen. And sometimes it can come really close to happening. For example, Melky Cabrera just signed with the White Sox for the same sort of contract that the Mariners were offering him to play right field. Cabrera ultimately didn’t want to play as far away from everything as Seattle, but that could’ve easily happened. Whatever the Mariners do in right field, that could’ve been Cabrera. Maybe with a little more money. Maybe if Cabrera had just slept different.

There’s that talk about what the Mariners offered to get Matt Kemp at about half his salary. It seems, before the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz, they offered the Dodgers Brad Miller, Michael Saunders, and a third piece. I wouldn’t have loved that trade for the Mariners, but while the team says Miller isn’t exactly on the way out, the fact of the matter is that they offered him in a trade that easily could’ve been accepted. Ultimately the Dodgers did even better, but the Mariners made a hefty bid.

You, of course, remember that the Mariners agreed to trade for Justin Upton, and then Upton used his no-trade clause to block it. That’s as close as you get to a thing that happened, among moves that didn’t officially happen. The Mariners right now are trying to talk up Taijuan Walker. What if they didn’t have him? They tried to not have him, as well as Nick Franklin and more. How different would things be?

What if the Mariners successfully convinced Josh Hamilton to sign with them instead of the Angels? What if the Mariners successfully convinced Prince Fielder to sign with them instead of the Tigers? Last winter, the Mariners offered Nick Franklin and more for a mediocre short-term starting pitcher. When the deal was accepted, the Mariners pulled it off the table. Recently, the Mariners declined a trade proposal that, in the short-term, I think would’ve made them probably the best team in the majors. It would’ve set them up to be something of a 2015 juggernaut. It was turned down, but it didn’t have to be turned down, and the proposal wasn’t absurd. So many things, and more, that come close to happening, that just don’t happen. We hear about a few of them. We don’t hear about most of them. There’s a steady stream of proposals going in two directions, and you don’t want to leave that stuff out when you’re thinking about how you want to evaluate a given front office. It’s just, what do you do when you have such a large set of the mostly unknown?

Let’s say someone asked you to rate a general manager. Where do you start? You look at team success. But then you have all the unknowns. To what extent was the GM able to spend? How many members of the front office were responsible for various moves? What do you do with the draft? How do you factor in player development? What about randomness around player performance? Around team performance? What about moves you know about that didn’t happen? What about moves you don’t know about that didn’t happen? The last one is so potentially big. We interpret a big-league roster to be reflective of the front office’s plan. But to what extent is that true? How well is the front office able to execute its actual plan, and how much is just responding to things no one really saw coming?

There aren’t any answers. We can only evaluate based on what we know. What we know is probably insufficient, but then that’s why people read so heavily into quotes and little moves that might reflect roster-building philosophies. It turns into a gut-feeling thing, and while one doesn’t like to lean upon gut feelings in baseball analysis, there’s not a whole lot else we can do. What’s your opinion of the Jack Zduriencik front office? How big are your error bars? What would that opinion be if Zduriencik were free to do exactly what he wanted to do? What if he were more predictably punished and rewarded? This team right now could look so different. Wouldn’t have taken too much. So how heavily do we weight Jack Zduriencik’s actual, right-now baseball team? It’s an unanswerable question, and this is just a philosophical think-piece, but then I wasn’t prepared for Melky to be off the board so quickly. Thought I’d be writing more about Melky Cabrera. Got thrown for a loop.

What are the Seattle Mariners? They’re complicated. They’re a sports team, though, and the neat thing about sports teams is however much you think about the people in charge of building the team, when the season’s actually happening it’s easy to forget about all that nonsense and just root for wins and health. From an outsider’s perspective, a lot of baseball’s too hard to predict. It’s not all that different from an insider’s perspective. They, at least, know the moves that do and don’t happen. They know how they actually think. We’re just left to root for one version of a roster that could’ve been a thousand other rosters.

Rule 5 Draft Caps Off Frenzied Winter Meetings

December 11, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

The Rule 5 Draft took place this morning in San Diego, with teams looking to glean a useful player from the pile of former-can’t-miss-prospects, injured pitchers, and org guys. Of course, it’s tough to focus on the draft when teams have made so many moves over the past few days. The M’s added a new lefty today, but the story of the past week has been how much the division landscape has changed since late November.

First, let’s do some due diligence about the Rule 5 draft. The M’s selected lefty David Rollins, a pitcher in the Astros organization. This was actually the third time they’d drafted Rollins, tabbing him in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft, and then the 46th round a year later (this after he turned the Dodgers down out of high school). He eventually signed with Toronto, and then moved to Houston in a 10-player trade that sent new Mariner JA Happ to the Jays. Rollins’ splits against lefties are impressive, so the thought process makes some sense here – the M’s did well in grabbing Lucas Luetge a few years back, and they probably see Rollins in that role. He’ll probably compete with Edgar Olmos, the lefty the M’s grabbed from the Marlins, for a LOOGY role in the 2015 bullpen. The M’s didn’t lose anyone in the draft this year. The only M’s name that BA’s Rule 5 guru JJ Cooper had mentioned in the run-up to today’s draft was Steven Baron, so….yeah, not a huge shock there. Some teams may have thought about Jabari Blash, but the power-hitting OF would be tough to keep on a roster, and isn’t realistically ready to contribute now.

So the M’s 40-man is once again full, and Fangraphs’ depth charts give us the first, hazy glimpse of how the AL stacks up. By this measure, the M’s have the best team (on paper) in the AL, fractionally ahead of the Tigers and Red Sox. So the projection systems must really be high on Nelson Cruz, right? Not so much. Instead, the story of the off-season is how much the M’s have benefited from their rivals’ roster moves. The A’s, again, on paper, were an elite team. By run differential, they were the clear #1 team in baseball. By base runs, they were neck and neck with the Angels, Nationals and Dodgers, but still a 94-95 win behemoth. As Dave has said many times, you can’t simply take last year’s *results*, add/subtract for player movement, and come up with a new expected winning percentage. Clearly, the team wasn’t “starting” from a 95-win base, not with Jon Lester and Jason Hammel on their way out the door. Still, the point is that the core of their roster was very good, maybe even excellent, heading into 2015. With Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Jeff Samardzija earning arbitration salaries, that core wasn’t terribly expensive, either (it was clearly more expensive for the A’s than it would be for the M’s or other teams, but these were not guys making market-rate salaries by any stretch). Between Nov. 29th and December 9th, the A’s essentially dumped that core, for a collection of pieces that replenish a farm system depleted by last summer’s trades and cost-controlled young players to fill out the 2015 roster. That helps balance their ability to compete now with their ability to compete going forward, but let’s be clear – an AL West favorite as of late November has voluntarily sunk their playoff odds for 2015.

Maybe this is what they had to do, given that their roster wasn’t necessarily improving. Maybe the A’s are especially loathe to lose a player like Samardzija to free agency instead of dealing him with a year left on his deal. Maybe Joey Wendle will shock the world, the way the A’s did the last time they did something like this, back in the winter of 2011. Clearly, the A’s aren’t done with their shopping, either. At this time in 2011, they didn’t have several of the players that would star on their 2012 division winner, notably Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. Still, the A’s appeared to have a team that would’ve been running with the Angels and M’s for AL West supremacy, and have instead settled for a team that looks – right now – to be a bit better than .500. They’ve been very public in saying that they didn’t believe that they could compete with their 2014 core, but look at any projection system you want, and that claim looks…odd. Steamer/ZiPS have been optimistic about the players they’ve added, notably Marcus Semien, Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie. But the drop from Moss, Donaldson and Samardzija is still too much to overcome. Whatever the gap between what they gave and what they got really is – and personally I think it’s a bit more than the projections show – the *direction* of the gap shouldn’t be in doubt. The A’s got worse for 2015, the year that the M’s have pushed their chips in the middle and decided to go for it.

This may make a lot of sense for the A’s, who have constraints the rest of the division doesn’t have. They may see the fangraphs projections for the Angels as too pessimistic; David Forst and Billy Beane have both talked about an “eleven win gap” between the A’s and Halos in justifying their activity, breaking sabermetric orthodoxy and giving a roundabout vote of confidence to Matt Shoemaker and the rest of the Angels’ staff. Whatever the reason, and however you personally rate Shoemaker, CJ Wilson and Garrett Richards’ chances, the M’s have been given something of a gift here. The M’s have added through the subtraction of others. For years, we’ve been looking at an M’s window that always seemed at least two years away. The gap between the M’s and the other teams was just too big in the short term, and then you had the perpetually loaded system of the Rangers to deal with as well. I always worried that the M’s would hit their window only to find a 98-win monster in Arlington or Anaheim waiting for them. The A’s had what looked like an elite team last year, a team that wouldn’t be as good for 2015, but that had enough talent to challenge the M’s at a minimum, and they’ve cashed it all in. It’s impossible to know now how the teams will stack up in March, but man the M’s look better today than they did a few weeks ago.

What’s interesting to me as that, as is so often the case, the A’s seem to be moving in the opposite direction as everyone else. The talk in baseball for the past year has been that thanks to the second wild card, almost no teams are ever clearly out of the running. The number of “selling” teams at the deadline was limited to the truly down-and-out. The M’s would’ve been sellers in years past thanks to a massive gap between 2nd and 3rd, but now could exchange Nick Franklin for a CF and continue their run. This offseason, we’ve seen that last-place teams can make a run at the next season’s pennant if they have some money. The Cubs and White Sox each won 73 games last year, but have been incredibly active, trading young players for stars and making a splash in free agency. The Cubs have perhaps passed the A’s on paper at this point, while the White Sox still need a few more moves (or a breakout), but both have clearly ditched the old conventional wisdom about building over a period of years, and identifying a young core. The Sox grabbed Samardzija for a single year; this is not a long-term play. The Padres [edit] *tried to grab* Cuban free agent Yasmani Tomas,* and just completed a trade with the Dodgers to land OF Matt Kemp, despite a lackluster 2014, and a chasm between their club and the Dodgers/Giants at the top. All of this speaks to the value these clubs put on contention and making the postseason. So why have the A’s hacked away at their chances in 2015? Sure, they may have helped their chances in 2017 or so, but every other move suggests that the A’s don’t value 2015 playoff odds the way other teams do.

One possibility is that, given the state of the game, the best place to be on the win curve for a team without a ton of money, is right at that 82-83 win mark, and with a young club. Sure, you know you’re starting the year a step behind the division leaders, but you have several months to see who steps up, and you go into the trade deadline knowing what you need – or knowing that you have assets to sell. In this scenario, the marginal cost to move from, say, a 25% chance of a postseason berth to 50% far outstrips the marginal utility. The error bars on all of these projections are wide enough that maybe the A’s are right, and that from, say, 81-87 wins, it’s all more or less the same – that the smart play is to either go big (pushing to 91 or so projected wins), or go nimble by sticking at a cheap 82. I have no idea if any of this is right. I’m just happy that we’re dissecting the A’s decision to get worse (for now) and not the M’s. The A’s may be right about the economics of it all, but the M’s organization could use a playoff push, economics be damned.

* Initially said that the Pads got him, which of course they didn’t – the D-Backs did. The Padres surprised a lot of people by hanging in that particular bidding war, but ultimately it was another disappointing NL West team that came out with Tomas.

Why You Don’t Trade Brad Miller

December 9, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

Oh, you can trade Brad Miller for Steven Souza. That’s fine. That’s filling a need. You can trade Brad Miller in a good trade. A good trade probably involves a long-term piece coming back. I don’t like the idea of discarding Miller for a year or two of a guy. I’ll go on to explain! This post is not over.

Right now there are two Mariner trade pieces that get talked about. You’ve got the Mariners trading Taijuan Walker, or you’ve got the Mariners trading Brad Miller. Maybe you’ve got the Mariners trading them both! But those are the two, as rumors circle that the M’s want a right fielder or something else. There are six team-controlled years of Taijuan Walker to look forward to. Brad Miller, five years. That’s one fewer year, but then Walker’s more likely to miss a full year because something got achy. And I don’t want to trade either one.

It isn’t true that Miller is redundant. Chris Taylor hasn’t proven anything. He certainly hasn’t proven more than Brad Miller has. And while Baseball America is apparently pretty high on Ketel Marte, I wouldn’t bet five dollars on Ketel Marte ever hitting, so what appears like three upper-level shortstops is really maybe one or none combined. If the season were to start today, you’d probably have Taylor starting at short most games. What do you do with Miller? That’s where the fun begins.

Shannon wrote the other day about how the Mariners and some other teams occasionally see Miller as an outfielder. He has a tiny bit of practice experience out there and the reviews were generally positive. We all know he can run, and while there are concerns about both his throwing accuracy and his footwork, it’s funny what happens when you move to the lawn. You don’t have to switch so much between long strides and choppy steps, and when you’re throwing, you get to set your feet without throwing off balance or while moving in the other direction. Brad Miller could very well be a big-league shortstop, but he also has the tools to be a big-league outfielder. And because of his speed, he has the tools to be a big-league center fielder.

So now let’s think about this. The Mariners don’t just need one outfielder. They need two outfielders, unless you believe in James Jones or Stefen Romero. And it’s by no means a sure thing that Willie Bloomquist will be 100% around the start of the year, given what he went through. If the Mariners were to trade Miller for an outfielder, they need an outfielder. If they were to end up with an outfielder, Miller could work as another one. Or Miller could even be the main guy.

The Mariners say they want a righty or a switch-hitter, and that’s why they’re focused, apparently, on Melky Cabrera. That’s all fine. If they don’t trade for Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, they could just sign Cabrera. Or they could sign Alex Rios. Or they could swing a little trade for, say, Justin Ruggiano or Marlon Byrd or Drew Stubbs or, god help us, Dayan Viciedo. Depending on the ability of the outfielder brought in, you’d determine how much outfield time Miller could get. But Miller can serve in a useful, versatile role in 2015, and then he could be of great use down the road.

For next year, if the Mariners found a right fielder without trading Miller, Miller could be a dual fourth outfielder and backup to the infield backup. It helps to have Nelson Cruz at least not literally incapable of handling an outfield corner. Miller would make for good depth and also valuable Taylor insurance in case he has a rough go of things. Crucially, Miller will cost barely more than the league minimum. As you pile up contracts like Felix’s, Cano’s, and Cruz’s, you have an increasing need for cheap regulars, even if they aren’t particularly great.

And at issue here isn’t just 2015. The Mariners’ center fielder is Austin Jackson. Jackson is lined up to be not the Mariners’ center fielder in 2016. Which is a problem, because the Mariners don’t have a center fielder in the system. Alex Jackson is super neat, but he’s probably not a center fielder. Austin Wilson is only a little less neat, but he’s not a center fielder. James Jones might be a center fielder, but he isn’t and won’t be a good one. There’s no reason for me to bring up Jesus Montero in this paragraph but boy has that guy sucked. The Mariners absolutely aren’t making moves right now for the sake of 2016 and beyond, but there’s a compelling argument to be made that the Mariners’ long-term center fielder, after Jackson, could be Brad Miller. I have to think he’s good enough to handle the responsibilities, and so, how eager should one be to see Miller get dealt?

If you take Miller away from short, for the most part, it will do a number on his trade value, but at the same time, not everyone is convinced that Miller is a long-term shortstop anyhow. And if Miller were to end up in center field, he’d preserve a lot of that value, because that’s a crucial up-the-middle position. You groom him for a Zobrist kind of role in 2015, and then from there you groom him to move into the middle. That is, if he’s hitting. And that is, if Chris Taylor is good enough. You like Miller as short-term insurance, and you like Miller as a long-term solution to a looming problem.

There are long-term young assets here. Taijuan Walker. James Paxton. Roenis Elias. Mike Zunino. Miller and Taylor. Others, maybe. One hopes that D.J. Peterson will shortly join them, as well as Patrick Kivlehan and so on and so forth. But Nelson Cruz is going to get worse as he stays just as expensive. Robinson Cano isn’t getting any better, probably. There’s a truth about Felix Hernandez I’d prefer not to acknowledge. The Mariners seem to have more money than ever, but they still have limitations, so if you have a player with five controlled years left who can help you now and who could conceivably help you at a position of need a year down the road, is that really a player to lose? Is that really a player to lose for, say, a three-win player for one year, when Miller himself might be something like a two-win player?

It’s great to see the Mariners building for the season just ahead. They’re good, and they could do great things. What you don’t do, though, is borrow too heavily from the future for the sake of loading up for one or two runs. If you can trade Miller for a Miller-like asset somewhere else, I can take it. But why would you want to trade him for something else? Brad Miller might not be the Mariners’ shortstop, but the thing about an athletic young shortstop like him is he can be an athletic young whatever you want.*

* maybe even a shortstop

JA Happ and Why Velocity Matters

December 5, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

J.A. Happ’s Fangraphs page does not make for encouraging reading. A fly-balling left-hander sounds like a good fit for the park,* but ideally the M’s would want a bit more than a generic label in exchange for a good cost-controlled OF, whatever his injury history. Happ’s home parks have hurt, no doubt, but it’s the combination of high walk rate and high home run rate that have really made his career FIP a mess. Unlike, say, Chris Young, Happ doesn’t have a history of beating the fielding-independent stats – he did, rather famously, back in 2009, but that looked like a fluke, and at this point, I think it’s pretty safe to call it one.

There is something worth talking about here – a reason for hope beyond the generic “lefty in Safeco” tag. Happ’s throwing a lot harder than he used to. This is something I talked about when he faced the M’s last year, and it’s something Jeff’s mentioned in his analysis of the deal over at Fangraphs. When he debuted with the Phillies, Happ’s fastball averaged around 89-90. Last year, it was around 93, well above average among qualified starters. Just to be clear, Happ is 32 (he played last year at age 31). This isn’t supposed to happen, but it keeps happening – Brandon McCarthy threw 89-90 in 2008, then 91 with Oakland, and last year, at the age of 30-31, started sitting at 93, and touched 95 occasionally.

But so what? Happ used to throw 89 and was bad. Last year, he threw 93 and was still pretty bad. Is this another case of people overrating velocity? Well, it matters because hitters, as a group, fare much worse against fastballs thrown faster than 92. This isn’t earth-shattering research or anything. But it’s not just whiff rates – batters slugging percentage drops when velocity increases.** Here’s a table of league-wide slugging percentages off of hard pitched (four- and two-seam fastballs, plus cutters) both faster than 92 and slower than 92 (data from BaseballSavant):

League Ave SLG% on FB> 92 SLG% on FB<92
2009 0.410 0.477
2010 0.402 0.459
2011 0.389 0.456
2012 0.402 0.472
2013 0.393 0.459
2014 0.382 0.442

That’s an average gap of about 65 points of slugging, and as you can see, the trend is downward, especially for the faster fastballs. Despite league-wide velocity rising a bit, hitters are still having more trouble with plus-velo, or what used to be plus-velo and is now a shade above average velo.

Ah, but that’s cheating, you say. By slicing it that way, you add in all of the high-octane relievers and elite power arms like Strasburg, Fernandez, Richards and Harvey. Let’s look at some pitchers whose fastball averages around 92 and see what THEY look like with the same criteria – slugging percentage on fastballs above and below that 92mph mark:

Player SLG% on FB> 92 SLG% on FB<92
JA Happ 0.361 0.459
Roenis Elias 0.39 0.626
Phil Hughes 0.395 0.495
James Shields 0.477 0.482
Felix Hernandez 0.349 0.396
Clayton Kershaw 0.349 0.409
Sonny Gray 0.344 0.508
Henderson Alvarez 0.420 0.414
Brandon McCarthy 0.277 0.433
Greinke 0.383 0.468

Same thing. The range is a lot higher, but the pattern is very consistent (except for Henderson Alvarez, who remains baffling to me). Happ and McCarthy fit the pattern, though obviously the sample size differences are huge (they just recently became capable of throwing 92). Felix is awesome in every context, which is why we love him. But look at Sonny Gray and Phil Hughes! Elias’ splits are hilarious, but again, the sample is tiny. Or look at Kershaw, whose splits here mirror the league-wide numbers, albeit shifted lower. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but maintaining good FB velo should help Happ.

So why didn’t it help him last year? In part, it’s because he had some bad luck on his other pitches. In part, it’s because he pitched in the AL East, home to a number of good hitters’ parks (his road stats were worse than his home line). In part, it’s because, despite the velocity, he’s not a great pitcher. Still, given the overall numbers, you can see why the M’s might see Happ as a good fit. The value of the pick-up is still, uh, debatable given salary, control and Saunders, but Happ may be better than he’s looked.

* So, about those park differences. You all know that Toronto inflates HRs to LF while Seattle suppresses them, but Tony Blengino’s granular batted ball park factors – something we get glimpses of in his articles at FG, are still something to behold. In this piece on Michael Cuddyer, Blengino includes a table of the park factors for fly balls to left center field. Toronto inflates production on such fly balls by just shy of 30%, as fly balls produced about 130% more runs than expected, given velocity and angle. Safeco? Safeco annihilates such balls in play, as actual production was just *36%* of expected given their launch angle and initial speed. 36%! To be fair, Happ’s HRs came more down the line than in the alley, but Safeco *also* suppresses doubles, which Happ also struggled with.

** This makes some sense, but may be counterintuitive to those who grew up on people saying the “pitcher supplies the power” and watching replays of Mark McGwire’s 500’+ HR off of Randy Johnson.

The M’s Put a Premium on Certainty

December 4, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

Soooo, welcome Nelson Cruz. Thanks for everything, Michael Saunders. Enjoy playing in that ballpark in which you’ve hit your longest career HR, and hit more HRs than you did in Texas, Anaheim or Oakland. The M’s seemed desperate to improve their offense, and thus they didn’t balk at four years for a 34-year old slugger. Despite this, they took some public shots at their 3rd best hitter – on a rate basis – last year, and all but hung a “make an offer” sign around his neck. How do we interpret these moves? What’s the pattern here?

First of all, we need to address the M’s very public infatuation with “right handed power.” As every sabermetric fan reminds them, production is production, and it doesn’t matter how you get it. That’s true for most every team, but if any team can make the case that they’re falling short *because* of a specific offensive hole, it’s probably Seattle. From 2012-2014, the M’s have been in a dead heat with the Marlins for the worst offense against left-handed pitchers. Limit it to the last two seasons, and the M’s have been the worst offense in baseball. The M’s wRC+ keeps dropping, and they were saved from last place in 2014 thanks only to a truly horrific showing by the Padres. Now, wRC+ is park adjusted, but perhaps it’s not adequately accounting for the marine layer, and 2014’s stats include Kendrys Morales’ weird collapse, and remember that Morse was hurt in 2013, and…. You can quibble with the numbers, but only at the margins. What’s worse is that all of baseball knows it, and thus they know how to attack the M’s. Over the last three years, no team has had more plate appearances AGAINST left-handed pitching than the M’s, and it’s not particularly close.

Moreover, the M’s have tried remedying this situation in several ways. Morse was acquired in a (bad) trade as an arb-eligible player. Corey Hart was a low-cost bargain-bin pick-up after a year off due to injury. Casper Wells came in trade, as did Franklin Gutierrez. They tried marginal prospects of their own (Liddi); they tried other teams’ marginal prospects (Wily Mo Pena. They tried switch-hitters from Justin Smoak to Milton Bradley to Chone Figgins, and all of it has blown up in their face. The M’s have apparently decided that they’d rather buy some line-up balancing right-handed production at full price rather than continue to try to cobble it together on the cheap. And frankly, given what we’ve seen of the market thus far, that may be understandable. I’m not thrilled that the M’s are so dead set on such a limited player, but that doesn’t mean they should’ve given MORE money for a Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez, two players with defensive ability, but a particular kind of defensive ability the M’s don’t need. You could theoretically play them in an OF corner or 1B, but their prices are determined by where they COULD play, not where you’ll actually play them.

Thanks to their position on the win curve*, the M’s didn’t want to turn their pitching prospects or Saunders into prospects, and for a number of reasons (including what sounds like LA’s asking price) they haven’t made a move for Matt Kemp, who’d cost plenty in dollars and talent. So, hey, Nelson Cruz. The M’s – and fans – don’t seem to care about the “value” of the deal; I think everyone essentially agrees it’s dead money in years 3-4, but for the first time in a long while, the M’s can focus on the short term.

So what does this have to do with Michael Saunders? The M’s pretty clearly hated the fact that he was hurt several times. That sounds petulant or uncaring, but teams obviously put a very high premium on durability – on the ability to play every day. Nick Markakis just signed a four-year, $44m deal with Atlanta that can only make sense if teams are willing to pay for durability (even then, I’m not sure this deal will ever make sense). Ryan Divish of the Times talked about this on twitter last night, saying that durability is something teams and managers focus on, and pointing out that it’s something arbitrators look at in salary hearings. Michael Saunders played less than 100 games in 2011 and 2014, and missed time in 2012 and 2013 as well. While on the field, his production was great – he put up more batting runs in 2014 than Dustin Ackley has in his entire career, but the M’s were frustrated with Saunders. WAR incorporates playing time, and replacement level’s utility rests, in part, on its ability to highlight the *value* of playing every day, even at a below-average level. But it’s pretty apparent that at least some teams assessment of the value of part-time production and health don’t line up with our publicly available stats. That’s interesting, if only because the implied premium looks so high.

Both of these deals seem like a way to gain certainty, or lower variance. The M’s got the top HR hitter because they were tired of trying to patch a long-term problem with home-grown talent, trade pieces and lower-tier free agents. They were tired of not knowing when they could write Saunders’ name in a line-up, and decided instead to bolster their rotation. So were the M’s…right? Does this make a kind of sense? Well, sure, but it doesn’t answer the question everyone’s asking: “were these good moves? Do they make the team better?” The premium teams place on durability seems like one piece of a larger puzzle of how teams’ own valuation of players *has to be* different than ours. I don’t say that to suggest Fangraphs/BP/whoever have the right numbers in every case. I’d hope the teams could do better. But the gap is so large that it’s worth wondering if teams (or maybe managers) don’t OVERvalue health.** Still, the M’s have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from their investment in Felix and Robinson Cano. Felix’s greatness comes in part from his remarkable durability, and Cano showed the value of buying premium production if you haven’t been able to develop it yourself.

Ultimately, however you frame the moves, it all comes down to talent, and developing talent. The M’s are in a position where they absolutely needed to upgrade their DH slot, and balance their line-up a bit more. The M’s are in this position because they failed, spectacularly, to develop a half-decent right-handed hitter, and their attempts to buy or trade for one haven’t gone much better. It’s not that the M’s haven’t tried other ways to fill this need, it’s that they keep trying to fill this need with limited, flawed and out and out bad players. That they cast out Saunders, a guy who M’s fans may be overrating but at least has shown the ability to hit at the big league level, puts the Figgins/Hart/Morse/Tui/Mangini/Bradley/etc. history in even starker contrast.

Nelson Cruz has far more pull power, and more power overall (5th highest ISO on fastballs in MLB last year) than Morse or Hart. The M’s in-house options at DH included Carlos Rivero and Stefen Romero, both of whom own career minor league slugging percentages below .400, and Jesus Montero, who…yeah, not an option. You can see why the M’s think they’ve plugged the hole, and honestly, I think the team’s got a better chance at the playoffs with Cruz than they did with either Romero, Billy Butler, or Michael Cuddyer. Moreover, I think taking on more of Kemp’s contract or signing Hanley Ramirez would have been more likely to hamstring the team’s finance in 2017-19 than the deal Cruz signed. But at the end of the day, the M’s signed an aging, one-dimensional player to a contract that everyone agrees is too long. The M’s traded a good, cost-controlled young hitter despite having serious issues with outfield depth. The M’s value certainty, but they haven’t proven they can identify it yet.

* I wonder what effect the Josh Donaldson deal had on the M’s. Maybe none, but the M’s chief rival for the 2014 wild card just traded their best player, and will lose their best pitcher in FA. The M’s were going to upgrade anyway, but maaaan, the A’s certainly made it easy for the M’s to justify an overpay.

** To make this pencil out, you’d essentially have to reject the concept of replacement level – the idea that Saunders+Player X might give you more in total than a healthy-but-bad Player Y. Incidentally, the M’s have been burned on this both ways. They dealt with Erik Bedard’s injury woes and Milton Bradley’s existential ones, and watched as some of their most durable players posted lackluster batting lines. Mariners!

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