M’s Set Roster, Choose Volatility over Predictability

marc w · March 28, 2016 at 12:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Today’s roster moves essentially confirm what the news of the weekend strongly implied: Dae Ho Lee will be the right-handed partner at 1B for Adam Lind, while SS/Util Luis Sardinas will take the 25th spot on the bench while Chris Taylor heads to Tacoma for some seasoning and plate appearances. Moreover, James Paxton will officially be rotation depth, and Nate Karns will start the year in the 5th spot in the starting rotation.

To be clear: these decisions shouldn’t make or break Seattle’s season. That these are some of the *last* roster decisions is indicative both of their importance (meh) and the fact that the M’s were deciding between very similar players. Jesus Montero vs. Dae Ho Lee looked like a toss-up, because they’re similarly skilled – and similarly limited – players; it looked like a toss-up, because, statistically, it was. But to me, the decisions the M’s have made increase the volatility of the roster – they have increased their ceiling, and may have dropped their floor a bit. For a team like the Mariners, chasing a good Houston club and trying to fend off the Rangers, that’s the right decision.

We’ve talked about it before, but for pretty obvious reasons, the M’s enter 2016 neither rebuilding or pushing all-in for the playoffs. Jerry Dipoto’s made a lot of moves, but they’ve been a bit more marginal than the ones in, say, Atlanta or Boston, because the M’s core is set and because they’re relatively close to contention. Selling low on Robbie Cano or selling high on Nelson Cruz wouldn’t bring back enough to justify the damage to their 2016 playoff chances, and pushing for David Price would further concentrate the M’s payroll in a handful of over-30 stars. Dipoto’s moves to shore up the catcher, first base and outfield show a GM determined to avoid the black holes that have nuked recent M’s offenses. With these last few moves, though, Jerry’s seemingly decided to amp up the risk/reward a bit. While the difference is somewhat small, we know more about Jesus Montero’s MLB ability than we do about Dae Ho Lee’s. That’s not to say Dae Ho Lee is a husky tabula rasa, but the error bars are a bit wider. Is it possible that Lee can’t adjust to good breaking stuff, or that lefties with plus velo eat him up?* Yes, that’s possible. But it’s *also* possible that Lee absolutely mashes lefties and makes the M’s offense a lefty-killing powerhouse.

The same’s true at SS. Chris Taylor, thanks to some good minor league batting lines and a strong MLB debut in 2014, has better projections than Luis Sardinas, who was just awful last year. That said, Sardinas is both younger and was seen as a big-time prospect not that long ago. So is this a case of Scott Servais picking someone he’d worked with before over the boring-but-steady Taylor? Maybe not. While you don’t want to put too much stock in spring performances, Sardinas showed more pop than he has in the past, and he’s at an age when an increase in ISO seems more reasonable and less Arizona mirage. Moreover, he’s demonstrated an ability to play more positions, like CF, than Taylor. I’ve been a fan of Taylor’s for years, and yes, last year at this time I was excoriating the M’s for carrying Willie Bloomquist over Chris Taylor. But with a clear contender in a tightly-bunched AL, the M’s had a different set of incentives. This year, the M’s aren’t the AL West favorite, and given the roster turnover (and front office turnover), what they really need more than anything is to know where they stand come July. If Lee/Sardinas/Karns help propel the team to contention, that’s great, then they can decide how to acquire more talent for the stretch run. If the newbies struggle, or if the rotation scuffles (which Jeff at Fangraphs points out is a real worry), then they can make some moves aimed more at 2017-18.

We’re used to seeing non-contenders opt for volatile line-ups of prospects and flawed-but-intriguing players – think Houston in recent years, or Atlanta now – but by concentrating that volatility in back-up spots, the back of the rotation and the middle of the bullpen, the M’s may have found a way to get some of the benefits of volatility while minimizing the 110-loss downside we normally think about with rebuilding teams. The focus of the 2016 M’s is the same as it was for the 2015 M’s, and it’ll likely be the same in 2017: The M’s are still fundamentally about Felix, Nelson, and Robinson. But for a team that’s been absolutely destroyed by its lack of depth and lack of bench production, I kind of like this strategy, even if it blows up on them.**

* This is probably nothing, but I think it’s kind of interesting that many players with NPB/KBO experience don’t have the same platoon splits you see in other players. Ichiro famously hit lefties better than righties, and Norichika Aoki’s done the same, albeit in a much smaller sample. The right-handed Jung-Ho Kang mashed *righties* but struggled against lefties last year. The sample of such players is already small, and many (like Kang) haven’t had long MLB careers, so there’s nothing definitive here, but it’s kind of interesting.

** That’s not to say we should rejoice at the evident end of the Jesus Montero era here. Yes, the trade turned out awful, and yes, Montero absolutely shares some of the blame for that. But Montero’s failure was a text-book example of the M’s player development issues, and highlight the fact that the black holes at pre-Nelson Cruz DH/1B/C were not simply a product of awful pro scouting (“let’s give Miguel Olivo another starting gig!”) but of a profound inability to teach. I hope the M’s will be better at this going forward, and I also hope Montero finds an org with good teachers and has something of a career.


18 Responses to “M’s Set Roster, Choose Volatility over Predictability”

  1. matthew on March 28th, 2016 12:56 pm

    Best of luck to Jesus. We really failed him, Ackley, Zunino, Clement… good grief.

  2. djw on March 28th, 2016 1:14 pm

    I really do wonder if Seager turned out good because they figured he projected as nothing more than a bench player and thus more or less ignored him and let him develop on his own.

  3. matthew on March 28th, 2016 4:48 pm

    That would be an interesting blog piece…

  4. MrZDevotee on March 28th, 2016 5:10 pm

    Can’t help but think a lot of these moves are also about roster depth… When the choices are similar, you put your best AAA/future options in the minors– which is a paradigm shift from “lightning in a bottle/throw AAA spaghetti on the wall” Mr.Z… I’m not entirely enthused about the guys we’re keeping on the big league roster instead– but I have to say it was a bit refreshing to say to myself: “Hey, all the AAA guys are actually starting the season in AAA… (Romero, Taylor, O’Malley, Zunino, Paxton de Fratus, etc)… In a winning organization those are exactly the guys down in AAA waiting for a chance, and giving the guys BELOW THEM something to shoot for, and try to beat out… So at least by appearances it’s a bit refreshing.

    On the flip side it drives home the point that this is not REALLY a contending team… This is a team that if everything falls in place, we win 84 games and that’s our World Series for the year– playoffs or not. The offense should be better, but the bullpen still scares me, and the rotation has a little bit of smoke and mirrors with Wiley and Karns, and Paxton the really only other option…

    I just want to play baseball… Wife, son and I have tickets for the Wednesday 1pm game in Arlington… Driving up from my in-laws in Austin, during Spring Break. Yay baseball!

  5. djw on March 28th, 2016 5:43 pm

    On the flip side it drives home the point that this is not REALLY a contending team

    I don’t really understand this perspective at all. Most of the good projection systems seem to have the division extremely tight, with most teams hovering right around .500 and the Astros a few games ahead. In a circumstance like that, there’s simply no way to read the tea leaves of pre-season roster moves to determine if this is “really” a contending team or not. We’ll know that in August.

  6. ck on March 28th, 2016 6:47 pm

    Lee / Sardinas / Karns ( along with Aoki, Martin, Lind, and the Catchers and Relievers ) are also not Jack Z. guys, they are Jerry’s Kids. Let the Kids play !

  7. MrZDevotee on March 28th, 2016 7:34 pm

    I understand projections djw, but I think a lot of those were predicated on a deep, solid rotation, which I haven’t seen yet, and a bounceback from the bullpen, which we’ve seen no signs of either… I’m not even sure we have a closer yet?

    6 starters, 3 of whom are shaky (counting Paxton there), is not the rotation of a contender in my view. Again, I thought I explained my thinking immediately following saying that? Or did you just give up on me before getting to there? Do the projections have us at more than 84 wins? I thought I was being generous with that, and simply saying unless our starting pitching stays amazingly healthy, and throws a LOT of innings, I don’t see our goal being much more than GETTING to the playoffs– of course anything can happen? But what woud you guess would be the top of a win expectation for the Mariners. I’m curious.

    To Recap: I think the offense will show improvement, but when Miley, Karns or Walker are shaky, and the bullpen is on a bad day of its rotation, we’re gonna give up a lot of runs… And if we lose a starter, or God forbid two– which will likely happen at some point– there’s nobody to plug in that has a track record.

    I’ll be happy with 84 wins. Bottomline. If we make the playoffs, then Hallelujah.

  8. Notfromboise on March 30th, 2016 3:57 am

    First of all : Last year at this time the final set roster included names like Willie Bloomquist, Rickie Weeks, Justin Ruggiano, Dustin Ackley, James Jones, etc… That, my friends, is textbook black holes.
    And we did it without sacrificing much ceiling to *really* boost our floor.

    I actually agree with MrZ in that there is a lot of false security in the starting rotation. I actually put Miley in with Felix as someone I’m not worried much about. The health of Iwakuma/Paxton/Walker and the overall learning curve of the latter two will be something all Mariner fans follow closely. Karns is a great insurance policy, and he’s had a good spring.

    Bullpen is anyone’s guess. M’s front office didnt put a whole lot of thought into it this offseason, so i won’t either. Next!

    The lineup is interesting. Martin’s a slight upgrade, especially with the glove and speed. Aoki /Guti/Smith feels worlds better than Miller and Ackley playing out of position… Umm… We all know my lack of love for Ianetta, but he’s obvious going to improve upon Zunino’s 2015. I’ll miss Montero, more for the fun of rooting for him than anything tangible. I do like the Lee/Lind combo, especially since with DH and some PHing duty, both guys could easily see 400 at bats. Marte has a lot to prove.

    I think Marte/Aoki/Martin will really be the X factors that swing the mariners between 80-82 and 90-72 depending on their output. Just a hunch. Hope to see Robbie Cano healthy and happy as well. Play Ball! 🙂

  9. MrZDevotee on March 30th, 2016 7:44 am

    Interesting ESPN write up on Felix’s 2015… Funny that as a huge Felix fan I didn’t see his numbers as this much off his norm… Please, Mr. Babeball Gods, let Felix be his same ol self for awhile longer… Pretty please:

    From the ESPN article:

    “So he’s not that guy anymore. His 91.8 mph average fastball velocity was the lowest of his career. He’s also coming off his highest ERA since 2007, although some of that 3.53 mark can be attributed to that atrocious Mariners defense that ranked 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved. But it’s also true that his walk rate was up and his strikeout rate was down from 2014. His home runs allowed were up, but that might have simply been some bad luck. He allowed home runs on 10.7 percent of his fly balls; he hadn’t been above 6.7 percent in the previous seven seasons.

    His unhittable changeup became a little more hittable in 2015 (.610 OPS versus .392 in 2014). Was that because there wasn’t enough separation between his fastball and the hard changeup that sits in the upper 80s? A few more left up in the zone? The deep-dive data like spin rate and movement don’t reveal anything obvious, so it appeared to be a location thing. More precision on his changeup will certainly be a key for Hernandez, who averaged just 6.5 innings per start in 2015, his lowest since 2008, when he was 22.”

    Again, I can’t say I noticed anything different about 2015 in The King myself… But these numbers are worth keeping an eye on going forward.

  10. djw on March 30th, 2016 8:40 am

    I understand projections djw, but I think a lot of those were predicated on a deep, solid rotation, which I haven’t seen yet, and a bounceback from the bullpen, which we’ve seen no signs of either… I’m not even sure we have a closer yet?

    1. You’re overreacting to spring training results. I think the flaws with this approach have been pretty well-covered here over the years.

    2. Bullpens are incredibly volatile and difficult to predict.

    3a. Has there been any news to indicate that Cishek isn’t the closer at any point since he signed?

    3b. It doesn’t really matter who the closer is, as long as the better relievers are used in high-leverage situations.

  11. MrZDevotee on March 30th, 2016 12:29 pm

    1. I’m not even paying attention to Spring Training results… I’m paying attention to the idea that every guy we picked up needs to have a bounce back season, except maybe Aoki…

    2. Exactly, and these guys we’re relying we’re asking to have much better years than last year…

    3. See #2… I’m not saying he isn’t our closer– I’m saying we have no idea if he can STILL BE A WORTHWHILE closer.

    4. It matters if “better relievers” is relative to not very good relievers…

    And again, it’s not like I said they’re gonna win 70 games… 84 is a pretty generous prediction.

    And you didn’t answer the question of what you see as their win projection and a reason why to be more confident than that?

    (PS- I feel bad about my Felix post– I think I jinxed him today… 4 runs in the 1st inning)

  12. djw on March 30th, 2016 12:31 pm

    The chances of bounceback seasons, and collapse seasons, and everything in between is built into the projections that show the median outcome for the team as similar number of wins as the rest of the division.

    I don’t see anything different than what the projection systems see. 81-85 median, with fat long tails. There are a lot of question marks and that goes both ways. Which is why I think it makes no sense to decide whether this team is “really” trying to contend at this stage. Posing such a suggestion/question seeks an answer we don’t have enough information to answer.

    Increasingly, given the level of parity in MLB, separating out between contending seasons and rebuilding ones doesn’t make sense. Most teams aren’t the Cubs or the Phillies. You do the best you can without mortgaging the future, and if it works out for the first 3-5 months, you do what contending teams should do. If it doesn’t, you don’t. No answer about whether such a team is “really” trying to contend makes any sense in the pre-season.

  13. MrZDevotee on March 30th, 2016 12:40 pm

    All I tried to say is that maybe we make the playoffs, but not sure we have the pitching depth and bullpen to win it all.

    Hopefully if we’re in it in July we can pick up somebody for either/or the rotation or bullpen to give us some more solidity in pitching.

    Personally, my fear is the volatility of Iwakuma and (gasp) Felix… We’ve been a little spoiled by how solid they’ve been (other than Iwakuma’s random injuries- that haven’t been serious)… I mean, a major league team failed Iwakuma on his physical… Yes we knew the issues, just speaks to his vulnerability as he ages…

  14. djw on March 30th, 2016 5:37 pm

    All I tried to say is that maybe we make the playoffs, but not sure we have the pitching depth and bullpen to win it all.

    1. If we look playoff bound with shaky pitching, that’s where we consider upgrading

    2. This a really terrible way for a GM to think, and I really hope our new one doesn’t think like that. You try and make the playoffs, and how that goes is really more about luck than pretty much anything else. At least you’ve got a shot.

  15. seattleslew on March 31st, 2016 1:30 pm

    I really like how the roster is constructed. Lee in place of Romero and his added OF flexibility is debatable, but I appreciate the AAA depth. Compared to last year, there are several areas that the M’s have greatly improved. Every new player, at least on paper, has a better or more versatile skill set. Martin is essentially Mike Cameron without the power — he’s undervalued and will bring more to this team than many might realize. The potential for injury amongst the rotation is a little concerning, but the depth is there to step in.

    After several years of inept leadership, It’s difficult to be optimistic, but I finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

    Barring significant injuries, I can see this team winning 85 games.

  16. Notfromboise on March 31st, 2016 4:50 pm

    Cameron walked a lot more than Martin does, we’re looking at a good 30+ points of OBP. Martin’s Trumbo-ish OBP pretty much guarantees he’s hitting 9th, but regardless it *is* nice to have a young, solid defender in center field finally.

    I’m super excited for this season, our ceiling has never been higher. I really trust in the front office’s direction. In all honesty, there are two areas I’ve poked some serious fun at: Our catching corps and our bullpen. Both of those things have been pretty lazily addressed, but that triple AAA depth could be used at the trade deadline to bring in a solid reliever or catcher should our stopgaps prove to be lackluster in those areas.

    I can see the Mariners winning 90+ and contending. I’m so impressed with our depth I think you could make the case the Mariners can weather some pretty serious injuries and still get to 85 wins if things don’t break their way. Honestly, even in a dumpster fire of a season where all heck breaks loose it’s hard to imagine them being sub .500 for any reason.

  17. eponymous coward on March 31st, 2016 5:35 pm

    All I tried to say is that maybe we make the playoffs, but not sure we have the pitching depth and bullpen to win it all.

    Having a reasonable chance of making the playoffs, when 6 months ago your franchise was a disaster, plodding it’s way through a forgettable season and doing another “we need to blow up the front office” routine, along with a pretty barren farm system? Seems pretty good to me. I didn’t exactly expect this franchise to turn into the Mets or Cubs overnight. Nobody in the AL looks “OMG, next dynasty” to me. Seems to be born out by the projection systems.

    And the reason you GET 6 reasonable MLB starters isn’t for the expectation that you’ll have a superdeep rotation for the entire season; it’s so your first option when someone goes south (as they inevitably do) isn’t Vidal Nuno or Mike Montgomery. I’d say Paxton is a step up from them.

  18. Westside guy on April 1st, 2016 10:22 pm

    A couple more days and the games start counting! I’m looking forward to it – I hate not having baseball during the bleakest months of the year.

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