2018: The Year of Standing Still

marc w · October 10, 2018 at 9:51 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I’d like to believe that there’s no way to call an 89 win season a failure. It’s hard to look past all of that winning and perceive a wave of pain and indifference (paindifference? Apainthy?) looming ahead. It’s also not much fun to read, and I can assure you, not much fun to write. It’s been a strange year, and it’s manifested itself lately in an aversion to writing this post down. That’s odd; in general, I don’t mind criticizing the team’s direction. It’s just that we’ve gone a year and I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything about what the M’s are good at, or how they might want to move forward. I thought this year would reveal something, for good or ill, about the M’s approach, about their player development, about their pathway to challenging the AL’s premier teams. I was wrong.

It’s obvious to all involved, not least Jerry Dipoto and the front office, that they’re in a serious bind. In the weeks since the season ended, Dipoto’s given admirably frank assessments of the painful second-half slide the M’s experienced and the fact that they may have to forge ahead against a rebuilt Oakland side without the services of Nelson Cruz. The Astros saw injury-plagued and/or just plain down years from essentially their entire core: George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve. They won 103 games. The Red Sox won 108, as Mookie Betts put together an inner-circle HOF-type season, Chris Sale kept on getting better, and Xander Bogaerts tapped into his power. Worst of all, the Athletics offense carried a weak and then historically injury-ravaged rotation into the playoffs with 97 wins. The M’s remained in the playoff hunt despite scoring 100 runs fewer than the Astros, about 140 less than the A’s, and a staggering 200 fewer than the Red Sox. They allowed more than each team, too. The Mariners were a balanced team, without too many black holes, and with a pitching staff that did remarkably well considering the circumstances, but even if they can maintain this level of balance, the super teams are balanced, too, and balanced at a much, much higher level.

That’s not to say that the competition has ten times better talent. Ok, you actually CAN say that about the Astros and Red Sox. But teams like the A’s and Brewers don’t boast world-beating pitching staffs, and I think there are probably half a dozen A’s front office employees who couldn’t name all of the pitchers they ended the season with. Despite no real stars, and despite needing to utilize more than 5-7 starters, both teams allowed fewer runs than the M’s. As I said last off-season, great teams now do NOT use analytics to identify star-level players. EVERY team uses analytics, and there’s no hiding someone with a great record of performance. Everyone knows about them. The problem is that Wade Miley just pitched a playoff series-clinching game. Wade Miley is not a more talented pitcher than recent M’s teams have had, because recent M’s teams have had the actual Wade Miley. Wade Miley pitched much, much better this year than he did in Seattle, and while all of this is small-sample stuff, it seems pretty clear that certain teams are doing player development and big league coaching radically better than Seattle.

Christian Yelich slashed .298/.376/.483 in a cavernous pitcher’s park in 2016. It gave him an fWAR over 5, and at 24, it made him an interesting sort of star. He hit the ball on the ground too much to hope for much power, but 21 HRs for a 24-year old OF wasn’t bad in that context, and he had remarkably consistent BB:K ratios. He was forecasted to slug about .480 again in Milwaukee this year, with an .843 OPS (by ZiPS, at least), a mark quite close to Mitch Haniger’s .859 this season. Mitch hit for a bit more power than Yelich’s projection, but Yelich was supposed to take a few more walks. You know what happened: Yelich dropped a .326/.402/.598 season on baseball, making him the MVP favorite. Even as baseball seems to trade HRs for ever more strikeouts, many players are increasing their power while making MORE contact. Alex Bregman did it for Houston a little while after George Springer did it. Betts hit for a ton more power while striking out a teensy bit more, sort of the way Altuve did a few years ago. Aaron Judge was never supposed to be…this. Chris Sale and Gerrit Cole were very good starting pitchers, who’d settled in after several years of MLB play, and then suddenly after getting traded, they became nearly untouchable. Even Trevor Bauer, who’d been talking about this sort of lift-off for years without actually *doing* it, finally went and did it. The M’s had very good seasons from Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger that very clearly “beat” their respective projections, but are not in the same league as any of the others referenced above. Do you think that was bad luck? Was it GOOD luck, but just not as much as these other teams enjoyed? Will Fortune find some random M’s under-appreciated prospect and see him add 6-7-8 MPH on his fastball the way Josh James did this year for…damn it…Houston? I don’t know, and nobody knows, but I know that I doubt it. Mitch Haniger was a revelation this year, but he followed up a 2017 slash line of .282/.352/.491 with a full year of .285/.366/.493. I like the second one better! It’s great! It’s progress! It’s not transformative.

The M’s seem to have a great analytics group, and they’ve built a development staff who’s receptive to input from that great analytics group. They have coaches who seem interested in getting good ideas out of the spreadsheet and on to the field. It just doesn’t seem to be…happening the way I hoped it would. The M’s deserve a lot of credit for helping vets like Robinson Cano and Nellie Cruz *maintain* all-star level performance when age should be stripping it away, and they deserve credit for helping Gonzales and Haniger improve (though they’re both essentially at an age where performance peaks anyway). It’s not perfect: Kyle Seager’s slumped and Felix…I don’t want to talk about it. But my criticisms shouldn’t be taken as a blanket condemnation of the M’s front office. They’re fine, but despite having money, despite having a deep bench of former Baseball Prospectus writers and the like, something’s getting lost in translation somewhere.

You know the times-through-the-order penalty: that as pitcher face batters multiple times in a start, they fare a bit worse each time. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s that batters can time their pitches/know their repertoire once they’ve seen it again, but this is a sabermetric idea that’s essentially common knowledge at this point. Anyway, the league put up a .315 wOBA overall on the year, but that rises to .321 after seeing the pitcher at least once before their current at-bat. If they’ve seen the pitcher twice already, it inches up to .322. This is completely normal. The M’s .313 overall, and if they’d seen the pitcher before, that moved up to… .312. If they’d seen him twice or more? .309. The M’s have a completely normal times-through-the-order penalty, it’s just that they’ve started assessing it on their own batters.

The M’s line-up was supposed to be a strength, although it was never really clear just why. The M’s clearly punted on OBP, opting to put a ton of balls in play in a home park that suppresses BABIP. Worse, those swing-early-and-often hitters seem to have had some exploitable holes, and the more pitchers saw them, the more they went ahead and exploited them. Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager had uppercut swings, seemingly designed to attack sinkers and low fastballs. Soooo pitchers pitched them up, and on fastballs more than 6″ above the center of the strikezone, Seager put up a .233 wOBA and Zunino a .174. It’s small sample stuff, of course. Maybe everything will be fine next year. I wouldn’t stake my job on it, though. The M’s need to frankly assess their players strengths and weaknesses AND the strengths and weaknesses of their coaches and they *process* of delivering actionable information to those coaches and players.

I wanted to see the M’s make the playoffs this year, or at least see a resurgent Felix Hernandez give some hope – and entertainment – to a few years that look a bit bleak on paper. The M’s opponents are better, while the M’s may be getting worse. They can rebuild after a fashion, but with well over $100 M tied up in untradeable veteran contracts, it’ll be an odd sort of rebuild. To move forward, the M’s will need to sell off the most valuable players they employ – the kind of players they’d love to build around if they have a reasonable pathway to contention in the next 3-4 years. It sounds like they’re already seriously considering how likely that really is, and they’re probably looking at all manner of painful scenarios. If the team had fallen on its face this year, we’d likely already have seen a clear directional shift, with either Diaz or Paxton, or both, already traded. As it happened, they all stuck around and made a valiant run at the playoffs, which just delays the decision. The M’s can absolutely re-sign Nellie Cruz and hope to get to 86-89 wins (though matching this year’s win total will require more than just more Nellie), but they have to think about what 86-89 wins will get them.

I still don’t really know what the M’s bankable skills are, as an organization (OK, it’s marketing/communications/social and media relations). I can’t quite tell if getting 2-4 top-100 prospects would be playing to strengths or just wishcasting. I can’t quite tell if Trader Jerry will come up with a Walker-for-Hanigura blockbuster or a Peralta-for-Adam Lind, Enyel de los Santos-for-Joaquin Benoit, Chris Taylor-for-Zach Lee stinker. I can’t tell if Safeco’s back to being a serious, serious pitcher’s park again (look at these actual/expected wOBA numbers), or if MLB will quit messing around with the baseball. All of this impacts how the M’s approach this off-season. But I find myself frustrated at being in the same position as last year – they’re no better than they were relative to their peers, and obviously coming off an 89-win season with a negative run and HR differential, they’re quite likely worse. I’m frustrated that I still don’t see some positive signs from a barren farm system – a wave of players becoming unrecognizable versions of themselves all at once. The mitigating circumstances are everywhere: how COULD the farm system do much when everyone’s been traded (or hurt)? How could the M’s know that the ball would sink their 2016 season, or that injuries might sink their 2017? Those caveats make it hard to give in to cynicism and say “fire the lot” and start over. Optimism generally finds it hard to take root in these arid soils, so that’s not really an option either. Yes, it was great to see them succeed for much of the first half, and yes, it was awesome to see Edwin Diaz put up an all-time relief season. On day 1, I said the M’s needed to win that 2nd wildcard *or* see a great lion-in-winter season from Felix. They got neither, AND I feel like I haven’t learned anything about the game or the team I love. I have no idea what they plan to do next, nor any real rational basis for criticizing or supporting their decision. That rational basis needs to be grounded in some plan to leverage the org’s strengths, and I’m still no clearer on what those are.


19 Responses to “2018: The Year of Standing Still”

  1. LongDistance on October 11th, 2018 6:55 am

    A little less than 5 years ago I thought, and said, there was going to be an arc concerning Cano’s signing. And I wasn’t thinking of a gifted athlete’s ability, but how it would hogtie options. So in a sense I expected this. I assumed the club would adjust, by a sort of subterranean rebuild going on in the minors. And maybe they did… But whatever they did certainly didn’t pan out. And in hindsight, and unfairly, it seemed like Carpe Diem and crossed fingers. How’s that for bitter?

  2. Stevemotivateir on October 11th, 2018 2:49 pm

    I think the biggest question right now is what the hell to do with players under contract for the short-term or don’t figure to be in the plans when some of the prospects are ready to contribute.

    Leake, Gordon, Zunino, Paxton, Colome, Nicasio, Vincent, and Ramirez, should all be available. Not all of them have value, and giving Zunino and Nicasio a chance to rebound first would be understandable, but I’d like to see an honest assessment of how they feel they stack up against the rest of the league and take steps towards a realistic target date for contention. Hard to see that being 2019. Hard to see that being 2020.

    The positives for me this season had nothing to do with wins, but with the performances of Haniger, Diaz, Gonzales, and the progression of White, Bishop, and even Lewis at the tail end.

  3. MrZDevotee on October 11th, 2018 7:45 pm

    I think the problem as a fan this year was the EXTREMELY unsustainable emotional patterns the team presented us throughout the year. Leading up to the All-Star break, AND in the wake of the Cano suspension, the team was playing out of their minds, with the 3rd best record in the AL at one point… And we all knew that wasn’t the true talent of this team, but if you had written this article then, you’d have to indescribably say “whatever the Mariners are doing is working– and working really well”… But then the 2nd half happened, and during that time we inexplicably played the 3rd WORST of any team in the AL… I still remember the 2 weeks that captured the oddity best– we split a series with Houston, then got swept by the Padres, and lost 2 of 3 to Baltimore… That summed up the WTF-ness of this team’s fate. There was no sustainable center to the season, which is why it feels impossible to put a finger on it in hindsight. Very unsatisfying experience as fans… They were too good to believe for half the season, and then too bad to believe the other half. That sucked overall.

  4. MrZDevotee on October 11th, 2018 7:55 pm

    To sum up–
    Kinda reminds me of the joke about 3 statistical analysts going deer hunting… When they came upon a big buck out in a field, the first guy shot and missed 3 feet to the left, then the second guy shot and missed 3 feet to the right… Finally, the 3rd guy jumped up and down and yelled “we hit it, we hit it”! That was the M’s season. We didn’t actually hit anything, and the data was really misleading and inaccurate, in both directions.

  5. Stevemotivateir on October 12th, 2018 6:22 am

    Another positive was Rodriguez in rookie ball. I don’t want to think about the trades we saw over the offseason through the deadline.

  6. bookbook on October 12th, 2018 11:19 am

    Rodriguez was a real positive in rookie ball. Evan White has probably matured from a 2% chance of ever f being a league average 1b, to maybe 20 or 25%, Which is amazing progress. Meanwhile, the farm may not have anyone else who will ever deserve to be a starter, and the starting pitchers are all still interesting potential. Kyle Lewis lost another year of shine and dropped off everyone’s top 150 prospect lists. This isn’t a team that can plan around the arrival of reinforcements in three years or less. They may not make the playoffs until the Astros young core ages out of their prime…

  7. MKT on October 12th, 2018 5:40 pm

    As strange and ungrateful as it may be to feel bad about an 89-win season, I think that is what the situation calls for. Because the Ms were not as good as their early-season wins suggested; they were merely lucky.

    Before this season most of us thought, correctly, that the 2018 Ms were a team that was (a) not good enough and (b) on the verge of getting worse. The Ms tried to disprove that and succeeded in getting a lot of first-half wins, but in the end could not overcome the underlying truth.

    And that’s where we are now, with a team that is indeed not good enough and getting worse. I acknowledge the nice games and wins early in the season but in the end the Ms were about what we expected.

    Not a lot of reason for optimism before the season, not a lot of reason for optimism after the season. Some reason for optimism early in the season, but they turned out to be illusory (and I’m guessing that most of us were at least subconsciously waiting for the other shoe to drop especially once the As started winning).

  8. Stevemotivateir on October 12th, 2018 5:50 pm

    Kyle Lewis finished the season on a strong note. He was handling CF and finally starting to hit down the stretch. He’s still very much a top prospect with star potential.

    I’m probably higher on Bishop than most, so I don’t see the outfield as a pressing area of need. It’s the infield that concerns me.

  9. bookbook on October 13th, 2018 5:48 pm

    Kyle Lewis? He could be a star, but he lost development time and the injury took the speed he’d need to play CF well, (as well as looking pretty bad for most of 2018). If he ends up a solid starter at a corner that’s a better than expected outcome from here.

  10. Stevemotivateir on October 14th, 2018 9:32 am

    Everything I’ve seen suggests Lewis was handling center field pretty well and he was playing there regularly to close out the season. He probably is more likely to end up in a corner, but it seems pretty clear that they haven’t abandoned the possibility of him staying there.

  11. mksh21 on October 15th, 2018 11:09 am

    At the start of the 2019 season-

    Haniger will be 28
    Segura will be 29
    Neither of them will be around for the next great M’s team
    Diaz value will never be higher and what do they need a closer for?
    Seager could be traded as well but torpedo’d his value.

    Diaz is valuable for a contending team but not going to do anything but close out wins for a team that has no incentive to. Let Cruz walk, Hernandez contract run out.. Cano well nothing they can do with him.

    But I have no problem with a tear down for prospects and cost control and 2 seasons of crap for higher draft picks.

    The Cubs and Astros took their 100 loss lumps and built it back up. The M’s need to do the same.

  12. eponymous coward on October 15th, 2018 1:38 pm

    “The Cubs and Astros took their 100 loss lumps and built it back up. The M’s need to do the same.”

    So did the Pirates in the mid-90’s. Took them 20 years to be good, and it got them some wild card games (1 win, 2 losses, 0 NLCS appearances). Now they’re a .500 team again. What if that’s what you get, more of the same meandering around MLB with good but not great teams, interspersed with a long, long time full of awful baseball?

    The Mariners blew the team up multiple times in the 00’s, in effect… I haven’t noticed any pennants hanging in Safeco.

    You actually have to execute on the strategy of turning high draft picks into high MLB performers to make it work. Right now there’s not a lot of evidence that if you hand the current M’s management some raw talent, it will turn into World Series rings. Let’s say we’re in year 3 of “blow it up”, there’s a .500 team, it doesn’t look like the M’s are any closer than we were in 2018… do we fire Jerry and press the reset button again?

    The other problem is if you have 10 MLB teams tanking every year like they do now, they don’t all get to draft first. You have a decent chance of finishing something out of the top 5 in draft picks even if you have a bad team (the Rangers lost 95 and they won’t draft in the top 5), and there actually isn’t THAT much difference between drafting 5-10 and 15-20.


    “Blow it up and tank for a couple years” was easier when nearly half the league wasn’t doing it.

  13. LongDistance on October 15th, 2018 2:05 pm

    The sentiment, I get. But you can’t tear down something that’s nailgunned to the wall. Unless you rip the wall out. We’re heading into smoke and mirrors, and bobbleheads, and Fun Family Experience territory. Buhner as outfield coach. Griffey as bench coach. And trade the Moose. This isn’t Dipoto’s fault. But that no longer matters. Maybe they could offer Robbie part ownership………….. bleh.

  14. Stevemotivateir on October 15th, 2018 2:13 pm

    At the start of the 2019 season-

    Haniger will be 28
    Segura will be 29
    Neither of them will be around for the next great M’s team
    Diaz value will never be higher and what do they need a closer for?

    Haniger and Diaz are under control for 4 more years and there’s an option for Segura in 2023. *If* Seattle tanked for two years, all 3 would still be around, which is exactly why Dipoto might be inclined to hang on to them.

    But as eponymous explained, tanking these days is a far cry from what it used to be. There’s competition. It took the Astros 9 years (I think) before they even came close to a post-season appearance and 11 to get to the top.

    Blowing it up wouldn’t guarantee anything. Retooling wouldn’t either, but if the odds are overwhelmingly against them over the next couple of years, moving players with value that aren’t currently under contract beyond 2020 would make sense.

  15. eponymous coward on October 16th, 2018 12:12 pm

    The Houston tank job was 3 years of 50 win teams from 2011-2013, a fourth year of a 92 loss team, then a couple of high 80s win teams + one Wild Card appearance in that time, then their current stretch.

    That being said, if Houston ends up being on the other side of those 2-1 wins in last year’s ALDS, we’re talking about “Gee, the Yankees never seem to have to completely blow up their team, but they keep winning…”

    You have to go back to 1992 to find a Yankee team that didn’t finish above .500. They have NEVER had back to back 90 loss seasons. Or take Boston- you have to go back to the 1960’s to find back to back 90 loss seasons. The Dodgers had back to back 89 loss seasons in the late 80’s, but you have to go a WAYS to find a really bad stretch (Ty Cobb was playing then, which just shows you).

    Why exactly is “tank to excellence” a viable model but “build a franchise that might have a down year or two but is consistently good” not?

  16. eponymous coward on October 16th, 2018 12:28 pm

    I mean, imagine the 2019-2021 M’s trade the good young cost controlled players for very not-ready talent, leave Seager/Felix/Cano behind, fill out the roster with cheap players and AAA talent, and meander around at 60-65 wins a year (so bad, just not LEGENDARY BAD), because Cano is still a Mariner, maybe Seager bounces back, the team gets a little bit “lucky” (and remember, almost half of baseball is actively tanking/not going after talent today in order to win tomorrow), and what are you going to do, bench Cano or Seager because they are actually not complete garbage and screwing up your chance at a top draft pick? Deliberately sabotage the team? Maybe deliberately do TOOTBLANS?

    A bad but not terrible team might not even get them a top 5 draft pick some or all of those years. So what did you blow up the team for? To save money? Safeco and MLB is making plenty of money for you. Marginally better draft picks in the first round? You could have added talent in free agency or kept your players…

    I think the real question is “is DiPoto the guy”, and we’re still ????s on it. On the one hand, no pennants yet, not really very close. On the other, the team’s respectable WITHOUT a complete tank job. I don’t know, how long a leash do you give?

  17. Stevemotivateir on October 16th, 2018 1:13 pm

    Maybe I was off when their rebuild actually started, but I had them marked for 2007 when they won 73 games. They rebounded for 86 wins in 2008 (finishing 3rd in the division), but then finished with 74 wins in 2009 and 76 in 2010.

    Regardless of when it started, it took them quite a while to build a strong, consistent team, and that was before the modern-day tanking era.

    The Yankees have had the luxury of filling their holes with free agents while hanging on to most of their prospects, but their scouting and development program deserves props for an excellent job done over the years.

    Tampa has kind of quietly rebuilt their team without spending on expensive free agents or completely tanking. I’m not convinced Seattle needs to go that route, either. But if they’re not going to put a significantly better team on the field over the next two years, they probably should move the short-term contracts, hang on to their prospects and take a stab at some of the international players looking to migrate.

    Maybe 2021 or 2022 becomes more promising? I just hope we don’t see more crap shoots that result in more 80+ win seasons on the outside of the post-season looking in.

  18. Westside guy on October 21st, 2018 1:20 am

    I don’t know how much I blame Dipoto much to this point. He attempted to play the hand he was dealt, which involved trying to figure out how to win before the window closed on some rather expensive leftovers from Jack Z (and how much of that was his choice versus a directive from ownership, we’ll never know). He obviously lucked out on Cruz (although I hope Jerry’s not thinking about re-signing him). I don’t know that the team deserves much credit for Robbie – we now have a pretty good idea of how he was defying age, and can’t count on that carrying forward. Plus Felix got old in a hurry, which in itself may have doomed the whole effort.

    But in the end Jerry gambled a good chunk of an already thin farm on winning now, and the bottom line is it didn’t work.

    I know none of that is particularly deep. I guess all I’m trying to say is – in my mind, what Jerry does this off-season and next season may give us our first clear look at his actual intent. But yeah, he’s certainly burdened himself with an additional handicap, making an already difficult task that much harder.

  19. Stevemotivateir on October 21st, 2018 4:28 pm

    I think Dipoto’s intent was always to try to win on the fly while avoiding expensive, long-term contracts so he could eventually have a fresh core to move forward with as the contracts for Seager, Felix, and Cruz expire. No getting around Cano.

    I suppose wining now is still possible, though it’s looking more and more improbable.

    I’m morbidly curious who gets moved this off-season, but not particularly excited about spring or the 2019 season.

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