The 2017 M’s: The Risks

marc w · April 3, 2017 at 2:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s improbably built a club that gets to talk about playoff expectations just two years after the franchise-altering failure of 2015. The M’s of 2017 boast a formidable defense, a well-regarded bullpen, and an offense that’s helped turn Safeco Field into a home run haven. But we’ve seen this too many times to really believe; there are innumerable monsters out there, and they seem drawn, inexorably, to the M’s.

The past two years saw the projection systems forecast an extremely tight spread between the American League clubs, a fact that help foster some optimism in the northwest. “We’re a few games back of the best team in the AL!” “Parity+an owner willing to spend+a GM willing to trade anything that’s not bolted down=playoffs.” The problem is that real seasons generally don’t look like that: SOME team or teams will win 93-95 games, and some teams will be bad, not just a-bit-below-.500. The projections were a complicated mathematical shrug, an acknowledgment that the error bars were wide enough to swamp true talent. That’s essentially what we got – in 2015, the Astros were just better than anyone thought, and in 2016, the Rangers…ok, I have no idea what’s going on there. The point is that the M’s had reasonably similar projections in both years. What’s changed now is that we all have a better idea of the spread in talent, and we’re more assured that the Astros/Red Sox/Indians are good teams. 84 wins wasn’t good enough when 84 wins was supposed to keep you in it. 84 wins is almost assuredly not going to cut it now.

So what might prevent the M’s from passing Houston? I was looking at Ryan Divish’s answers to that question in the Seattle Times’ Baseball Preview section and agree with all of them. Drew Smyly may be out 2 months and Hisashi Iwakuma’s fastballs may reach Jered Weaver speeds soon, so I’m very concerned about the rotation and the team’s overall health. But what struck me was that some major risks overlap with what Divish (correctly) ID’d as potential strengths.

1: The OF can’t hit, and the embrace of a glove-first OF is negated by another flurry of dingers at Safeco.

I like Mitch Haniger. I think he’ll hit…probably. But he’ll have to beat his projections soundly to be a league average bat, and he’s – by far – the best hitter in the M’s OF. Leonys Martin brought a good glove to CF, and showed flashes of upside last year, tapping into his long-dormant power. But when the season ended, he remained a well-below-average hitter, and one who’s projected to decline from there in 2017.

Flanking him in LF is Jarrod Dyson, a speed-merchant who’ll turn 33 this season and is already nursing a hamstring issue. Never a great hitter, he’s coming off of his best season, but is being asked to play every day. That means facing more left-handed pitching, and he’s *slugging* .285 against them for his career.

Guillermo Heredia and Taylor Motter are capable back-ups, but not yet starting-caliber players for a club in contention. Ben Gamel will start in AAA, and top prospect Tyler O’Neill likely needs seasoning as well. Haniger is the key to this group hitting enough to make use of the middle-of-the-order’s ability, and he’s got all of 123 big league plate appearances to his name. If Martin, Dyson, or both collapse offensively, the offense may struggle.

But defense doesn’t slump, right? The M’s were unquestionably better defenders last year, but even with a fly-ball pitching staff in front of them, they struggled to make up for their lackluster batting lines.

The culprit here may have been as much meteorological as it was anything baseball related: Safeco Field yielded a ton of HRs, meaning there were fewer well-struck balls that remained fieldable by the OFs. That spike in HRs doesn’t seem to be related to a noticeable change in approach, so it may have had something to do with the marine layer in the atmosphere that’s reliably knocked down balls hit in the air. If that doesn’t change in 2017, the M’s may have brought incredible defenders to high-scoring slugfests. If the M’s pitching approach targeting high strikes works to perfection, they’ll produce more high-launch-angle contact: pop flies and shallow fly balls with lots of hang time. Even if scoring is low, that kind of contact can be fielded by anyone, not just the Dysons of the world. The M’s OF defense really should be great, but they require opportunities to demonstrate it if they hope to make up for some mediocre offense.

2: The vaunted middle-of-the-order can’t maintain last year’s production.

Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz have become franchise cornerstones and clubhouse leaders. Kyle Seager made the leap from ‘good’ to ‘great’ at the plate last year, and remains remarkably durable. This group of hitters remains Seattle’s greatest strength, but they may need to recapture their 2016 form if the M’s want to hold off Houston. And that’s going to be hard.

Cruz set a personal best in isolated slugging in a full season in 2016. Robinson Cano narrowly missed his own record, set in 2012 in the bandbox that is new Yankee Stadium. Kyle Seager blew his previous level of performance out of the water, and again, much of the gains came in the form of increased power. Seager will play his age-29 season this year, but given the age of Cruz/Cano, some significant regression seems likely.* If it comes, this puts a lot of pressure on the supplementary pieces to meet or exceed their projections, and as we just discussed above, requiring Dyson and Martin to help out on offense may be asking too much.

The M’s projections already incorporate a noticeable jump in runs scored. It’s easy to say that Jean Segura will add much more at the plate than Ketel Marte – that’s (essentially) a given, and it’s also already factored in. The question is: will the gains from adding Segura/Haniger/Valencia counter the regression from Cruz/Cano after what look like career seasons. The durability of the core three has been remarkable, and it’s a key reason why the 2016 M’s scored so many runs. As with any team, remove a middle-of-the-order bat from the line-up, and the entire run scoring outlook changes dramatically. No one has “good” alternatives for their best players (being irreplaceable is a decent definition of a great player), but given the pitching staff’s expected runs allowed (particularly now with Drew Smyly out), the M’s can’t really afford a down year from their middle-of-the-order stars.

3: The Astros may run away with this.

In last year’s “upside” post, I noted that the Astros (like now, the putative favorite) had some serious issues, especially at first base. (Please don’t read any of the other “upsides” I identified. Focus, please.) While they didn’t go out and grab an Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista, their line-up still looks formidable. Similarly, while they don’t (yet) employ Jose Quintana, their pitching staff looks better thanks to more playing time for Lance McCullers, the emergence of Chris Devenski, and further development by Joe Musgrove. The M’s have amassed some laudable rotation depth, but it simply isn’t in the same league in terms of upside and 2017 ability.

If everyone in the M’s staff stays healthy from this point on (ha!), they can hang around with the Astros. The larger problem is that the Astros are projected to outscore the M’s by over 0.4 runs per game. The M’s core group of Cano/Cruz/Seager now includes Jean Segura, who had a brilliant season for Arizona last year. But the Astros’ group of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick is deeper, better, and significantly younger. There are weaknesses in the OF for both teams, so it’s not like Houston’s put together a 1927-Yankees style juggernaut. But they would seem to have a significant edge in true talent, and thus the M’s margin for error is much less than it was a year ago.

The Astros got off to a terrible start in 2016, but came back in the second half. They were never going to catch the Rangers, but they played well enough to push the M’s for 2nd down the stretch. With more time for Bregman, with Brian McCann replacing Jason Castro, and with role players like Carlos Beltran and Yunliesky Gurriel, they have a projected advantage at 6 of the 9 positions, and the superior pitching staff as well. It’s easy to argue for flipping a few of these – a big year from Haniger can overcome the Astros’ perceived advantage, for example. But the Astros have been building for a while, and now seem like a team that’s built to compete and win the division for the next few years. The M’s last best shot is in 2017, and that unfortunately coincides with Houston’s FIRST best shot.

* Potentially interesting side-note: if Cruz/Cano ARE able to maintain something close to what they did in 2016, it may mean Safeco is once again playing like a home-run park, which, while it takes pressure off of the offense, makes the run-prevention group’s job that much harder.


One Response to “The 2017 M’s: The Risks”

  1. ck on April 4th, 2017 3:11 pm

    M’s President, GM, and Manager all state the Team is in….’Win Now’ mode. That is all a fan can ask for, and a much better place than, ‘…desperate GM trying to save his job by selling the farm…’ mode.

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