The Shortstop Battle and its Consequences

marc w · March 10, 2015 at 10:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

A tweet from Bob Dutton makes clear that the M’s intend to send the loser of the battle for starting SS to Tacoma to start, pushing Ketel Marte to 2B and opening up a roster spot on the big league club. At first glance, this is a no-brainer. Brad Miller and Chris Taylor are both young players, and both have things to work on, and it makes sense to have both of them playing every day. The development process may slow if both get 350 plate appearances, and Miller and Taylor’s development will go a long way towards defining what the 2018 M’s look like, and what the front office needs to build around.

The problem, though, is that this plan comes at a cost, and the M’s are finally in a position where they need to think carefully about every single decision that impacts 2015 wins. As we’ve talked about, the M’s are projected as the favorites in the 2015 AL West race. That’s the view of many projections systems (though not quite all), with ZiPS and Steamer putting the gap between the M’s and the A’s and Angels at around 1-3 wins. These are projections, so there’s a margin of error that’s several wins wide around all of these win totals. If the Angels win, it won’t be a historic upset, but at the moment, knowing what we know about who’s going to suit up for each team, the M’s win a few more times than their rivals. For a number of reasons, this may be the M’s best opportunity at playoff baseball, as the A’s collection of moves sets them up better for 2016 and beyond than it does for 2015. The Angels are going to start to feel the ravages of age and attrition, but any team that’s built around Mike Trout is always going to be a threat. The Rangers minus Yu Darvish are awful, but a smart rebuild could set them up for 2017 at the earliest and 2018 if Darvish heals and stays in Texas. The Astros controversial philosophy has to pay dividends at some point, right?

Every team needs to balance the needs of its current big league team and the development of every player on its 40-man roster. The 2014 Texas Rangers weren’t trading prospects for a closer, and the Angels weren’t going to trade CJ Wilson for prospects (that contract…gahhh). For many years, the M’s needed to prioritize development. All things equal, you’d prefer a prospect playing every day and working on specific improvements over coming up and struggling/playing sporadically. At times, the M’s decided that the needs of the big league team were so great that they outweighed the benefit of minor league development; that’s what brought us an over-matched Mike Zunino in 2013, and that’s what necessitated bringing up Nick Franklin and then Miller in the same year. But given the (small) gap between the M’s and their California rivals, the equation’s pretty clearly different in 2015. This year, the M’s need to prioritize big league wins, even if that comes at the expense of a modicum of future depth/strength. The M’s can’t afford to take steps backward in 2015, however small.

Unfortunately, that’s what they’ll do if they consign the loser of the SS battle to Tacoma. It’s not that development is unimportant, and it’s not like both Miller and Taylor are finished products. The problem is that the gap between Miller/Taylor and whoever wins the big league bench job is pretty massive. The Fangraphs depth charts assume Taylor and Miller get (nearly) equal playing time at SS, with Miller also filling in at 3B and RF for a few games. The combination put up about 3 WAR at SS, and then Miller adds fractional WAR at other positions. Swapping one or the other out for Willie Bloomquist, the most likely replacement IF,* results in a total loss of around 1.7 WAR, or about the sum total of the M’s lead over the Angels. To restate it, the M’s are currently projected at somewhere between 1-2 wins better than their rivals, if constructed optimally. The M’s have made it fairly clear that they want the loser in AAA, and that means the optimal roster construction is out the window. Replacing Miller or Taylor (who have different skill sets but project to add roughly the same value to the club) with the replacement level Bloomquist replaces somewhere between 1 and 2 wins with a zero. This seems important.

Let’s acknowledge that if we’re talking about back-up spots/bench bats as the critical decision, that’s light years ahead of where the M’s have been in recent years. And yes, that 1-2 win gap shrinks if you just ramp up the playing time the starter gets in place of Bloomquist or whoever. And I don’t want this to be the latest in a very long string of USSMariner diatribes against Bloomquist. This isn’t about WFB, it’s about the talent level of Miller/Taylor. Bloomquist could potentially add value to a team that needs to avoid replacement-level production at a couple of spots, and/or needs a veteran with some positional flexibility. Given the fact that the M’s HAVE a shortstop battle in the first place, it’s hard to see the M’s as the kind of team that needs what Willie provides. You could use Rickie Weeks as your backup 2B/3B and give him the occasional SS start, but given that the M’s have publicly said he’ll play LF/1B, that’s pretty difficult to envision. The club’s depth means that the drop off between the starter and replacement level is pretty high; that’s great, that’s what a playoff team should look like. That also means that carrying a replacement-level player on the club is a choice, and, given the stakes, not one the M’s should make lightly.

Fangraphs sees Miller and Taylor as 2-3 WAR players over the course of a full season. They’re both projected at just shy of 2 WAR because Fangraphs assumes a job share between them. Bloomquist’s projected for a flat 0.0 WAR (ZiPS thinks better of his bat, while Steamer thinks he won’t cost as many runs in the field). If you hand more of the PAs at SS to Miller/Taylor, the production goes up, but so does the gap between the starter and back-up. You can whittle down the penalty by playing, say, Miller almost all the time, but that in itself may have consequences, and you maximize the hit to the line-up when you give him a rest. The benefit of carrying Miller and Taylor is that each gets a few more at-bats against opposite-handed pitchers. While Lloyd McClendon may hate the term “platoon,” the M’s ability to mix and match with Ruggiano/Smith in RF and Ackley/Weeks in LF could pay dividends. It needn’t be a strict platoon, but giving Taylor more at-bats against lefties may help bring his bat along slowly, and letting Miller face more than righties wouldn’t hurt; enabling both to face slightly more opposite-handed pitchers bends their offensive projection up a bit. Beyond that, Taylor would add additional value as the pinch runner – he added 1.4 baserunning runs last year in his short time with the club, while the aging Bloomquist’s BsR have been in the red the last three seasons. Either one could spell Cano and Seager whenever they need an off day.

So sending one of the them to Tacoma has some ramifications for the big league club. But what about Tacoma? The M’s 3rd best prospect is SS Ketel Marte, who rode a surprisingly solid bat to AAA midway through 2014. Given that the M’s have two cost-controlled SS, plus Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, there’s essentially no way to squeeze Marte onto the team. Marte actually *does* need development time, and he’s also one of the M’s most marketable trade chips.* The M’s aren’t parting with DJ Peterson or Alex Jackson, so if they need to move someone at the deadline, Marte seems like a likely suspect. And if that’s the case, it seems unlikely that having him start at 2B in 2015 is a good way to showcase his value as a near-ready big league SS.

I’ll stipulate that carrying both Miller and Taylor could impact both players’ development. It’s possible that it affects the M’s projections in 2016 and 17, and those seasons matter too. But it’s hard to argue that impact is larger than the cost to 2015 of NOT carrying both. Miller is the rare left-handed bat that can back-up every IF position and even play some corner OF. Taylor adds value on the basepaths and is an ideal late-game defensive replacement. That he bats righty makes him all the better for late-game situations when a lefty’s facing Miller. Keeping Marte at SS could help maximize his trade value, given that it’s hard to see him adding value to the M’s in any other way. Letting Miller/Taylor play every day has *value.* It’s just that you have to ascribe so MUCH value to it in order for it to pencil out that it strains credibility. The M’s are finally at a place where they can legitimately play for *this* year. They need to make roster decisions accordingly.**

* The M’s have stated that they’ll go with a 12 man bullpen, so that leaves spots for 13 position players. Cano, Zunino, Seager, Ackley, Jackson, Smith, Morrison, Cruz, either Miller/Taylor and a back-up catcher get you to 10, and the club looks likely to take Weeks and Ruggiano to enable don’t-call-them-platoons in the OF corners. The last spot, #13, should go to someone who could fill in at SS, which seems to leave the loser of Miller/Taylor, Bloomquist or Ketel Marte.

** The Players Union has said it’ll be watching the situation in Chicago pretty closely, where uber-prospect Kris Bryant may start the year in the Minors, despite all-world projections for the Cubs. The reasons why the Cubs might want to keep Bryant in the minors are pretty clear – they’d gain an extra year of club control if they keep in in Iowa for a month or so. As both Miller and Taylor have played a good chunk of 2014, they’re in a slightly different position, but there’s still a CBA impact. If Taylor is kept down for much of the year, the M’s could avoid having him burn more service time. If he stayed down until the rosters expanded, the M’s could end up delaying arbitration and free agency by a year. This would be much tougher with Miller, since he saw plenty of time in 2013 as well, but just wanted to point out that there are salary implications with the move too. Again, if a team’s on the upswing and expects contention in a few years, keeping a player down for reasons other than ability make some sense from management’s point of view. As the Angels learned in 2013, though, putting a weaker team on the field, even for a month, can make a critical difference between making the playoffs and heading home.


29 Responses to “The Shortstop Battle and its Consequences”

  1. thinkfull on March 10th, 2015 10:39 pm

    Look, you’re not wrong about wanting the best possible 25 man roster this year.

    My only qualm is that IF Miller doesn’t get the starting job this year, I still expect he should eventually.

    I don’t mind Taylor as the backup/ bench IF, with some ability to bump Miller into other positions, but I’d argue that it’s better for both the present and the future to have Miller working on SS in AAA if he doesn’t make it to the big club- because the reason he wouldn’t would be his defense. His bat is solid, and will be the better of the two; I suspect his defense can be as well with more work.

    Let’s win this year AND 2016, right?

  2. LongDistance on March 10th, 2015 11:59 pm

    Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains, and sometimes you’ve got WFB.

  3. Woodcutta on March 11th, 2015 1:20 am

    Unless he impodes in AAA, Marte’s trade value shouldn’t take a huge hit if he’s forced to play 2b. It should come down to how Marte is viewed by the front office. If he is truly seen as a future everyday SS for the M’s then Taylor/Miller should be kept on the bench and WFB should be cut/DFA’d/otherwise not on the 25-man roster. If Marte isn’t, then allowing Miller/Taylor get the necessary work to improve is more important at this point.

  4. djw on March 11th, 2015 7:34 am

    This situation is almost enough to make one think it might be unwise to commit to multi-year contracts to aging replacement level players with no upside.

  5. PackBob on March 11th, 2015 7:39 am

    It may be that the Mariners are looking at one of Miller/Taylor as the trade chip, and the shortstop battle is as much a showcase of available ML talent as it is deciding who will stick. If a player craters, say Morrison at 1st or Jackson in CF, Happ, or any player gets injured, having a ML-ready SS to trade could upgrade what the M’s could get for a replacement.

    Not saying that’s so, but a possibility.

  6. Longgeorge1 on March 11th, 2015 8:42 am

    Miller makes too many errors on routine plays. First do no harm. The routine plays need to be made.

  7. djw on March 11th, 2015 9:00 am

    Please explain why one slice of defensive value is more important than overall defensive value. If player A flubs 10 more routine balls than player B, but makes plays on 20 more difficult balls, why would that player be a better option? The first rule of defense is ‘convert more balls into outs’ because balls that aren’t converted into outs are harmful, whether they’re routine plays or not.

  8. ck on March 11th, 2015 9:30 am

    M’s making (forced to make) Roster construction decisions to maximize MLB wins in the current season. What’s next? Assembling a roster to best match-up against a post-season opponent?

  9. Vortex on March 11th, 2015 9:50 am

    the M’s are finally in a position where they need to think carefully about every single decision

    Expecting a bit much from this FO aren’t we?

  10. bookbook on March 11th, 2015 10:08 am

    If this were a choose and then you’re done decision, I would agree. What I think the M’s may be doing is hoarding assets. By starting both Miller and Taylor at Tacoma and the majors for the first month, they get to hold onto WFB a bit longer, majestic sure both youngsters are healthy, and be assured via real game action that both are playing well/holding on to second half improvements on both offense and defense, By mid-May, I bet SS will be a Miller/Taylor jobshare, or that we’ll have good reason not to want such a thing.

  11. 11records on March 11th, 2015 11:54 am

    Hear, hear. Totally agree.

    Plus, I still think Brad Miller is the best in-house candidate to be the Ms centerfielder next year.

  12. WA-BraH on March 11th, 2015 12:47 pm

    I’m just saying, Miller’s hair needs to be cut asap.

  13. The Ancient Mariner on March 11th, 2015 1:21 pm

    Because what this outfield needs is more converted infielders?

    I don’t think we should assume that the FO is to be taken at face value on this one.

  14. californiamariner on March 11th, 2015 4:39 pm

    What could Taylor bring back in a trade? (I still want to keep Miller)

  15. Longgeorge1 on March 11th, 2015 7:23 pm

    I don’t think Miller has enough of a “range advantage” over Taylor that it makes up for the E-6’s we will see. No one has a crystal ball, soo????? It’s like hr and strikeout hitters vs high OBP. What do you value more? I would rather not give up obvious outs rather than maybe making a play that the other guy may or may not make. I just think that Taylor has above average range and is more consistent than Miller. My 2 cents.

  16. djw on March 11th, 2015 8:51 pm

    It’s like hr and strikeout hitters vs high OBP. What do you value more?

    That’s the wrong question, and a very misleading way of thinking about how to evaluate players, focusing on broad types, and not cumulative contributions. I don’t value one more in the abstract. Each has measurable and incremental value. I like the player with the most likely future added value, from any source, more.

    As for the two shortstops, they both project to be above average defenders; I would probably go with Taylor over Miller on defense alone, but I don’t see any reason to think it’s anything but a very close call. Turning to offense, I just don’t see a whole lot there in Taylor. Miller offers a lot more potential; Taylor’s value with the bat is tied up in an almost certainly unsustainable OBP. Recall that despite his horrific first 1/3 of the season, Taylor actually struck out more than Miller last year. There is little in Taylor’s skill set to to suggest he is likely to sustain his 2014 batting average. The difference in offensive projection is simply a bigger gap in favor of Miller than defense favors Taylor, and if we think about this in terms of upside, the gap is slightly bigger.

    Perhaps there’s an analysis of what the two offer going forward that suggests Taylor is a better bet, and I’m just not seeing it. But if it’s going to be persuasive, it’s got to make the case that he offers more overall. Picking out one part of their game–effectiveness on routine plays–are arbitrarily assigning it trump value over an evaluation of all their strengths and weaknesses–isn’t a serious or persuasive way to comparatively evaluate players.

  17. Longgeorge1 on March 12th, 2015 7:50 am

    DJW – This team SEEMS to be fairly strong and does not APPEAR to need to outdo itself to compete. The lineup contains some real hitters and is in a situation to carry a “glove” if needed. What Taylor will do offensively is a question. For that so is Miller, remember Brad and Bad Miller from last year? I remember Miller being the league MVP last year, unfortunately it was the Cactus league.
    We have two pitchers, Felix and Kuma that throw a lot of ground balls, I want defense at short and I think Taylor is just a better defensive player. The routine plays are the obvious difference. I don’t see any area on defense where Miller is better though.
    Errors in baseball are like turnovers in football they are killers. You can not give teams 4outs.

  18. Kazinski on March 12th, 2015 10:22 am

    Really the only justification for this is if you are going to move Miller to CF as a potential starter next year, or as a backup plan for Jackson later this year. He’s got the bat, the athleticism and the youth, I just don’t know about the instincts.

    Jackson showed some worrysome signs last year, and while Blengino thinks the only adjustment that Jackson needs to make is to start trying to pull more fly balls, because his batted ball authority going the other way is declining, that is not guaranteed to be a successful adjustment at Safeco for a RH hitter.

    If Miller makes the transition easily to CF, I wouldn’t even mind seeing a platoon in CF too, and use Miller/Weeks and the backup IF as well. Since Miller is a LH, and Weeks RH, then one is available on the bench at all times, or throw Ackley or Jackson in the game when Miller we need an IF.

    If done right this team has a ton of flexibility.

    I’d also love to see the M’s flip one of Elias, Happ, or Erasmo for OF prospects. There are some teams desperate for pitching, and if Hultzen is back healthy the M’s have a ton of starting pitching that they should use for outfield or 1b prospects and depth.

  19. djw on March 12th, 2015 6:44 pm

    Errors in baseball are like turnovers in football they are killers. You can not give teams 4outs.

    This is folk wisdom, but it’s demonstrably false. (and, of course, not getting to a ball in the whole gives a team an extra out just as much as an error does, so the folk wisdom fails on its own terms.) There is no added value or run-expectancy for reaching base on an a one-base error than reaching base on a single.

    The Mariners really need to maximize value, offensive and defensive. 10 projected points of wOBA is much greater than the projected advantage Taylor can muster on defense, where we’re talking ‘above average’ vs ‘slightly more above average’, doesn’t make up that difference. Special pleading for some outs being worth more than others is almost always the kind of special pleading we see when someone wants to their gut feeling good analysis, but doesn’t have the best evidence on their side.

  20. Longgeorge1 on March 12th, 2015 8:35 pm

    DJW Again you are projecting that Miller will reach and make plays on balls that Taylor won’t.
    I realize that how you reach base is basically irrelevant. Some times an extra out just amounts to an extra pitch or two and sometimes it turns a game around. Sometimes a great play ends a promising inning and sometimes it is just another out. Walks do not score more often than singles, yes I know and we could go on forever here, part of the appeal of the game I would say.
    Projections are that, a couple of days ago Jeff stated that the M’s were projected for 88 wins and that the outfit doing the projecting had a record showing that teams projected at 86-90 wins over the past 20 years actually averaged 88 wins ,which sounds great. On closer examination the teams actually had anywhere from 65-100 wins. Which is 1st or worst. Projecting a team is easier than an individual since one slump, one injury or one argument with a girlfriend does not turn the entire season for a team. If individual projections were anywhere near reliable we would not need GM’s or scouts. Even with all the metrics most early first round picks still fail to become stars. I still think that the M’s would be better off with Taylor at SS and Miller somewhere else. Unfortunately roster construction would make that Tacoma. I really don’t also want to hear about moving guys around. Quite a few big leaguers played SS at sometime early in their career. It is where the best player is in Little league or high school more times than not. Ackley, Montero, Seagar, Weeks, and LoMo have all changed positions in the majors. Taijun was a SS in high school. I like Miller, just not at SS while we have Taylor.

  21. LongDistance on March 13th, 2015 1:22 am

    There are errors, and there are errors. There are base hits, and there are base hits. The thing is, base hits have other statistics which define qualities. You could, indeed, make compiled errors statistically meaningful if you linked them situationally to things like runners on base or in scoring position, RBIs, number of outs, or what is set up for the lineup that follows. Endless combinations that we see and understand in a flash at the ballpark, but doesn’t show up on paper in the number itself. That’s where gut instinct comes into play, because we know there are times when they are much more than just an equivalent to a BH, but they simply aren’t given any further statistical nature to show that. Or maybe there is, somewhere, some stat created by an esoteric bean counter to qualify errors, but I’ve never seen it.

  22. djw on March 13th, 2015 7:24 am

    “Projections aren’t perfect, why not go with the weaker player on a hunch” isn’t smart.

    Arguably the biggest reason to choose Taylor over Miller is concern about Miller’s defensive consistency on what should be routine plays. I would submit that the biggest reason to choose Miller of Taylor is that Taylor’s offensive value is largely the product of an unsustainable BABIP, and he’s unlikely to develop power to compensate. Miller’s flaw is the kind of thing young players often fix; Taylor’s is not.

  23. Longgeorge1 on March 13th, 2015 8:16 am

    Miller may well turn out to be a better player than Taylor. He might well be our next CF, we might have to move him to SS when Taylor implodes. I would rather bench a guy because he fails rather than on a metric that is predicting future failure because is present success is statistically exceeded .
    Should we bench Seagar because he has exceeded what Ackley has done and Ackley projected higher. Paxton was projected mid-rotation at best and so far as exceeded his two running mates. Numbers are great for drafting and fantasy games, I prefer to grade on actual results. If Miller turns out better than Taylor I would not hesitate to reverse my stance. There is no right answer here. I would not even contend that Taylor is better than Miller now, just not at short. This team could contend, I don’t want it to fail because our SS let a ball go through the wickets every week or so.

  24. djw on March 13th, 2015 9:30 am

    Should we bench Seagar because he has exceeded what Ackley has done and Ackley projected higher.

    Please don’t be ridiculous. I’m suggesting you go with your best play for 2015 based on all the information we have about the players. There probably was a time where such a strategy might have suggested playing Ackley over Seager. Now we have more information. Obviously, it’s entirely possible Taylor and Miller perform in such a way going forward that I’d have to adjust my judgment. Nothing in my position denies this uncertainty; as with all baseball decisions it’s playing the odds..Obviously, out of thousands of possible futures, there are hundreds of them in which Taylor/Miller would be vindicated. So what?

    Numbers are great for drafting and fantasy games, I prefer to grade on actual results.

    Does ‘grade on actual results’ include pretending 400 BABIPs are sustainable? Because if so, it’s not a good idea. We should use all the relevant information going forward, not the subset of it selectively chosen to generate a preferred outcome.

  25. Longgeorge1 on March 13th, 2015 12:44 pm

    .400 BABIPs are an indication of a possible problem or they could be an indication that the balls put in play are well struck. As long as Taylor gets on base at an acceptable rate I would play him. What was Ted Williams BABIP? I guess .400 is sustainable (very, very rare). Anyway I really appreciate your points, and don’t want to sound dismissive. It happens when I type (slowly) as I try to shorten my answers. I would rather have the problem of optioning a good player than trying to fill a hole with roster fodder.

  26. djw on March 13th, 2015 2:30 pm

    Ted Williams career BAPIP was good but by no means historic 328. His high batting average was much more a project of historically low strikeout rates. Here’s a list of all time leaders:

    To really do this properly we’d need some era and park adjustments, but it’s a start. There is, to put it mildly, nothing about his batted ball profile that suggests he’s likely to sustain an outlier BABIP at the major league level with the tools he has. People who sustain high BABIPs through unusually strong contact are pretty rare, and those that do usually have at least one of two things–moderate or better power, or world-beating speed. Taylor has neither. And if, as is likely, his BABIP is merely above average going forward, rather than notably better than Ty freaking Cobb, he’s still a useful player, but measurably less useful than Miller’s 50th percentile future.

  27. Longgeorge1 on March 13th, 2015 8:29 pm

    DJW – I said if he maintains his OBP a reasonable level. (I have never contended that his BABIP was sustainable but it would be reasonable for him to be above average.) He is a line drive hitter with not world class but above average speed. His SB% in the minors is over 70%. He is also an above average bunter who is not opposed to bunting if the 3B plays back. Also my comment on Williams had more to do with a single season, he did bat over .400 on occasion, so I would assume his BABIPs for those seasons were pretty high. I did not research that at all. I know how to find and read numbers, I do not dwell. Taylor hits the ball on the ground a lot Doesn’t pop-up much. My estimates are based on his play at Cheney where I watch nearly all my games these days. His slash was .328/.497/.894. (Yes AAA) All three numbers were higher than his career numbers at the lower levels. I don’t know his minor league BABIP but his numbers show an improving trend and they are quite good. You appear to be willing to overlook three years of solid numbers, moving in a positive direction all based on 151 PA that show a statistical anomaly. SSS. I have never heard of a guy losing his job who was succeeding in the field but his BABIP was too high. Young has a better range factor, a +14 runs saved, to Miller’s -4 at SS. At 2B Miller was at -53 runs saved. Just 13 games but I put in in for a laugh! They both had a WAR of 1.5, but Young did it in much fewer games.
    Miller has a more complete resume, Taylor at the MLB level is an unknown. Citing any stat on Taylor at the MLB level as a final answer is ridiculous. Taylor has a strikeout problem, but he was over 3.5 years younger than his competition in AAA, I think he could improve with experience.
    Anyway Mac is going to put Miller at SS citing his experience and hopefully Ajax wont be fielding to many ground balls through the 6.

  28. Longgeorge1 on March 14th, 2015 1:07 pm

    I guess the SS battle is over. Taylor got a hit with a broken wrist in his last at bat. I wish him the best and hope Miller exceeds my expectations. Go M’s

  29. djw on March 14th, 2015 2:22 pm

    Ugh. Not how I wanted Miller to get the job.

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