The Risks

marc w · March 28, 2018 at 12:08 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Another season is upon us, and I’m trying to take some joy in the fact that the M’s don’t have inflated expectations placed on them this season. That’s good and bad, of course, but the last several times people have expected big things from the M’s, they’ve delivered disappointment. Even just to change things up, I like the idea of the M’s as darkhorses more than what we saw last year, or 2015, or 2010, or 2008, etc. But just because their failure won’t be as spectacular now that no one sees them as having an inside track to a wild card berth doesn’t mean they can’t fail. A season like this is ripe for failures of a different, more insidious, kind. As I’ve done the past few years, let’s explore some of the things keeping me awake at night.

1: The pitching staff continues to hemorrhage dingers and sinks the team

No mystery here. This is not a bold call; it’s the response of pretty much every fan from talk radio to Fangraphs-addled statheads to everyone in between. The M’s used 40 pitchers last year to deal with a plague of injuries AND to paper over their utter lack of high-minors depth behind Max Povse and Andrew Moore, both of whom stumbled hard in 2017. After an offseason that saw them chase exactly no starting pitchers, the same situation’s essentially in place: the M’s have a so-so starting five, anchored by James Paxton, and then a number of question marks after that. If anyone stumbles, they’re back to Povse/Moore, or they can run 2016’s back-up plan and pluck Wade LeBlanc from the bullpen. It didn’t work last year (when the M’s ranked 23rd in fWAR), and it didn’t work in 2016 (when they ranked 18th).

The problem is not just that they’re not set up well to withstand injuries. Almost no team is. At issue is where they realistically need to be. Having a dead-on average pitching staff is a very reachable goal, it’s just not a goal that will translate into a playoff run. The stratification of the league combined with an aging offensive core means that the team really needs the pitchers to carry some weight in producing a sharply positive run differential. The M’s offense isn’t going to be one of the league’s elite groups, though they have a shot at being a bit above average. If that’s the case, then the pitchers need to keep runs allowed right around 700 for the year. In an environment where HRs are this prevalent, do you have a lot of confidence that they can accomplish this?

The M’s solution to a lack of SP depth is to focus on RP depth instead. By shifting innings from starters to relievers, you gain several advantages: you don’t pay the times-through-the-order penalty as much, you can benefit from platoon advantages more, and there’s the all-important fact that relievers give up fewer HRs (probably due to the first two points). That’s the theory behind spending most of their off-season war chest on Juan Nicasio, a reliever who could theoretically go multiple innings, and the theory that argues for an 8-man pen. The problem is that even with Nicasio and closer Edwin Diaz, the M’s bullpen doesn’t really look like a force. The injury to David Phelps clearly hurt, and that was just atrocious luck, but they now need big seasons from guys like James Pazos, who faded down the stretch in 2017, and Nick Vincent, who pulled off the Chris Young trick of giving up a million fly balls but very few HRs. Nicasio himself is coming off a brilliant season, but it comes after two mediocre-for-a-FA-reliever ones in 2015-16.

The M’s other solution is to point to a move they made last year: the acquisition of Mike Leake. Getting Leake in August from St. Louis obviated the need to make a splash for a FA starter, the thinking goes. He also may help limit HRs thanks to his sinker and ground ball profile. His durability is a huge asset, but he’s been so consistent that it’s hard to see how he’d break out now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, his 5-game stint with Seattle last year notwithstanding. Leake should help stabilize the rotation, but again, the rotation simply can’t hang around league average.

The club’s focus on outfield athleticism comes at a bit of a cost on offense (we’ll get to that). It’s all part of the plan I talked about a lot last year, in which the M’s benefit from a very low BABIP as their pitchers court fly balls that their speedy OF track down. If that’s going to work, the pitchers must do *something* different in order to prevent a repeat of 2017, a season that saw them yield 237 HRs. Safeco is no longer a HR-suppressing, pitcher-friendly place. The ball itself has changed to favor dingers. These were unforeseen factors when Jerry Dipoto was hired, but everyone knows them now. The M’s need to adjust, and that adjustment needs to come on the pitching side of the ledger. Are you confident they can make it?

2: The outfield doesn’t hit enough to lift the offense

In 2017, the Mariners outfield put up a collective 92 wRC+. They ranked dead last in baseball in home runs…in the year of the home run. Thanks to their glove work, they graded out a tiny bit below average overall, but the trade-off I mentioned above clearly came at the cost of offense. That’s what happens when you get Jarrod Dyson, and when Mitch Haniger misses time due to injury. The M’s OF is projected to be better than that this year, but they’re clearly built along the same lines.

There is probably no roster spot in which the club and projections differ more on than Ben Gamel’s. The Mariners clearly, clearly believe in the LF, and he rewarded that belief in the first half of last season, with his BABIP-enabled run. He fell off – hard – last year, and he’s now dinged up a bit to start 2018. The projection systems see a low-power, low-OBP corner OF, one who was a slightly-below average hitter even with a .340 BABIP and scoff. The M’s see a positive step, and a hitter who’s poised to break out. A repeat of last season would stabilize a position currently forecast as the game’s 28th-best, but the fact that we’re starting with Gamel nursing an oblique injury and thus counting on Ichiro! to get the M’s through April is not encouraging.

As with the pitching staff, the depth in the OF isn’t exactly encouraging. Guillermo Heredia may be better than he showed last year when he was fighting through injuries, but his overall season line was abysmal last year. The M’s continued their stars-of-2009 approach by signing Jayson Werth yesterday, but as a near-40 year old who missed all of spring training, he won’t be ready for a while and will start in Tacoma. While they picked up guys like Andrew Aplin, Cam Perkins and John Andreoli, when they saw they might actually need to play one of them, they instantly opted for Ichiro (and Werth) instead.

Mitch Haniger could become a star if he stays healthy. The problem is that this essentially MUST happen in order for this group to hit enough to provide a serious boost to the offense. Their top 5 hitters last year all played on the IF/DH, and they scored 750 runs thanks to big seasons from those guys. The OF needs to contribute more to help out a pitching staff that’s going to need to high-wire their way to ~700 runs allowed. Getting to 800 runs allowed in a year in which Nelson Cruz will turn 38, Robbie Cano is 35, Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager are 30 means that someone else is going to have to contribute with a huge season. Haniger’s the most likely suspect, and he could’ve had a big year if his 2017 wasn’t impacted by injuries. The problem is that his 2018 spring was also derailed by injuries, and thus he missed most of the Cactus League. Any time spent getting his timing back hurts the magnitude of his contributions. He is, therefore, a microcosm of the M’s OF: if he’s hurt, things get very bad very fast.

3: The competition got a lot better

The Astros have separated themselves from the pack, and the Indians and Yankees are in very good positions as well. The M’s are realistically fighting for a wild card with the likes of the Red Sox, Twins, Angels (and the rest of the AL West), and perhaps a surprise team or two. The Twins came from nowhere last year, and the Blue Jays could conceivably make some noise in the AL East. This is both a more realistic competition for the M’s and a crowded one. The Red Sox’ staff separates them a bit from the rest of this group, but there are still an awful lot of flawed-but-good teams hanging around the second wild card position.

Those teams have been busy. The Angels not only got Shohei Otani, but remade their infield by snagging Ian Kinsler and 2017 breakout star Zack Cozart. Thanks to a rotation that’s banged up and not terribly good, they’re not likely to run off and challenge the Astros, but the moves they’ve made and the projected return to health of Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney mean they’re a formidable challenger for the M’s. The Twins’s starting rotation is about as questionable as the M’s, but they took a big step to shore it up when they signed Lance Lynn to a one-year deal. With Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana dealing with injuries, the club needs a big year from Jose Berrios, but that doesn’t seem like it’s asking for the impossible from the soon-to-be-24 year old. The Blue Jays helped their rotation by signing Jaime Garcia, and might sneak into contention this year behind a decent staff and an offense that will soon see the arrival of Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, both of whom figure to start out in the high minors.

The M’s were content to get Juan Nicasio and hope the rest of the staff avoided injuries, a hope that’s already been dashed by the diagnosis on David Phelps. To make matters worse, they’re facing the toughest schedule out of any of these contending teams. Playing the Astros 19 times hurts, but it points to the fact that the AL West has improved as a unit. While Texas’ schedule is even worse than Seattle’s, the projections have them neck and neck with Seattle to start, and a big season from Willie Calhoun and more-of-the-same from the ageless Adrian Beltre, and the M’s imbalanced schedule goes from bad to worse. Then there are the Athletics, a team without much in the way of pitching, but who built a powerful offense in the second half of 2017. Realistically, the M’s need to get a bunch of wins off of teams in their division, and if the Athletics hitters take advantage of the M’s pitchers’ fly-balling ways, the A’s may scuttle the M’s hopes.

Think of it this way: which AL West team’s outlook over the next 3-5 years would you swap with the M’s? Isn’t the answer pretty much all of them? I would never want to be a fan of the Athletics, but they look intriguing right now, albeit a bit imbalanced. The Rangers don’t look great and their best prospects are waaaay down in the low minors, but the same’s true of the M’s. The Angels have Trout and an absurdly-cheap wildcard in Ohtani. The Astros are the best team in baseball, just added Gerrit Cole, and still have Forrest Whitley, Kyle Tucker, etc. The M’s are in quite a predicament here, and while it’s not entirely of their own making, getting out of it is going to take years of very challenging work.


6 Responses to “The Risks”

  1. globalalpha on March 28th, 2018 1:21 pm

    Um…. Felix is ours and you can’t have him? That’s all I got.

  2. swimat on March 28th, 2018 2:49 pm

    I also think they’re particularly vulnerable at 2B,3B, and SS. If Cano, Seager, or Segura go down it’s a bunch of playing time for Motter, Vincej, and/or scrub journeymen.

  3. stevemotivateir on March 29th, 2018 7:28 am

    Was this supposed to be a preview, or a doomsday forecast?

  4. heyoka on March 29th, 2018 7:47 am

    Generally speaking
    “The Risks” = doomsday

    My prediction (and you heard it here first, folks) is that these Mariners will win more than 40 games this season.

  5. LongDistance on March 29th, 2018 9:18 am

    So, in brief, the only things we have to really, really worry about are: the pitching, the bats, and that the off season sucked.

    Oh well, at least there are good odds to score one last Ichiro bobble head, eh? No?

  6. stevemotivateir on March 29th, 2018 9:30 am

    It’s more of a worst-case scenario. I just don’t see it as all doom and gloom. Their starter depth is thin, no question. But Whalen, Miranda, and Moore are certainly more appealing than Heston and Overton were. I would argue LA has far more SP durability questions than Seattle does and I’d love to hear the argument suggesting Oakland and Texas’ rotations and depth (and bullpens!) look better. LF looks weak for Seattle, but Gamel’s batted ball profile looked better at the end of the season, so there’s hope for him. 1st base could be another concern, but Valencia’s gone and Vogelbach did about everything you could ask for this offseason and spring.

    The Mariners need to stay healthy. They didn’t have a healthy spring, so there’s that. But they don’t look worse off than their divisional opponents apart from Houston. In fact, Baseball Prospectus has them neck and neck with Minnesota and Tampa for the second Wild Card.

    Not all doom and gloom.

    As far as the 3-5 year outlook goes, Houston, though they should have financial room to work with, has a whole lotta extensions to work out. They have almost no one proven apart from Altuve (at 29 million) and Bregman beyond 2021–and Bregman is under control just through 2022. They have some solid looking prospects, but not enough to field a full roster. Better outlook than Seattle? It’s certainly not going to be a cakewalk for them. I would argue their window is now through 2020.

    The Angels have to worry about a Trout extension and have a farm just as poor as Seattle’s, but with virtually no one under control apart from Pujols, Upton, and Ohtani beyond 2020.

    The Rangers have almost nothing committed beyond 2020. Great, but they lack elite prospects and their best pitching prospect is probably destined for the bullpen. They have nobody really worth extending, with Mazara and DeShields–maybe–being exceptions. Gallo and Odor certainly don’t look like cornerstones.

    The A’s have an interesting young team and a lot of interesting young prospects that should be able to start contributing by 2021. They look well-poised for the future. But as with any young team, they’ll likely need to find some veteran anchors, and with their payroll restrictions and with free agents knowing job security is almost nonexistent in Oakland, they’ll have their share of challenges with the finishing touches.

    Seattle has considerably more commitments than their rivals. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’ll have control of most of the same team on the field we’ll see today, and though LF and 1B are notable question marks, they have decent prospects to potentially help in the near future (White, Bishop, and Lewis). They’ll have to extend Paxton, or find a couple of frontline starters and a middle-order bat to replace Cruz (possibly as soon as 2019) if internal options don’t cut it, but as things stand right now, they’ll have less to worry about. Despite a thin farm, they have decent looking relievers (Festa, Warren, and Gillies) to help replace outgoing names. I’m higher on Povse than most and believe he can help at the back-end of the rotation or in the bullpen.

    Again, not all doom and gloom. Things could go sour, sure, but there’s just as much reason for optimism. It doesn’t hurt that ownership has been opening up the wallet, either.

    I get that these are the fears Marc conveyed. Maybe I should be less optimistic and more worried, but I see the rewards just as clearly as I do the risks.

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