M’s Set Roster, Choose Volatility over Predictability
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.