The Shortstop Battle and its Consequences
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.