The Rebuild is On?

marc w · November 6, 2018 at 5:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The Hot Stove League’s season is still young, but the M’s are all over the news. Importantly, we’ve seen the M’s signal their willingness to move key members of the 2018 roster if a deal can be made. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ve revamped their coaching staff, indicating that they need a new approach to player development *at the major league level.*

Discussions of the M’s predicament are thick on the digital ground in the M’s blogosphere and nationally. The M’s remain mired far, far behind the likes of Houston and Boston, and now must contend with an up-and-coming A’s club as well as an Angels squad that still has 2-3 of the best players in the world, depending on your definitions. The M’s have the highest payroll obligations for 2019 *and* the worst farm system in the AL West, and they’re coming off of a year in which they finished 3rd in the division.

The M’s have a decision to make this offseason, but it’s set up with a series of smaller decisions. The former dominated the news cycle today, as news broke nationally that the M’s are taking offers on just about everyone and exploring a full-on rebuild. The M’s ability to pull off what, say, the White Sox did a few years ago or the Cubs before that is limited because of the fact that so much of their payroll is tied up not in young, exciting players like literally Chris Sale or, say, Jeff Samardzija. They’re tied up in Felix Hernandez and a weird version of Kyle Seager who just finished a full season with an OBP of .273. But that’s where the smaller decisions come in: the M’s made a very non-traditional hire at Pitching Coach by picking up the St. Louis Cardinals’ erstwhile Director of Pitching Analytics, Paul Davis. They’re looking for a new hitting coach, too, with Edgar Martinez stepping back from that role to more of an advisor position.That’s important because a lot of *why* the M’s are paying untradeable players is that they simply weren’t able to coach those players to higher levels of performance. Whether they do a tear-down now, or wait until the trade deadline, the M’s need to have coaches in place who are all about getting players to a fundamentally different level of performance. Population-level data was really revolutionary in the Moneyball era, but it’s all but meaningless now in an environment where all clubs have it, and any fan can access it. Successful teams are upending those general rules, and terrifyingly for the M’s, it doesn’t look like luck. There’s a reason Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton got better in Houston, and there’s a reason players as disparate as Aaron Judge and CC Sabathia contributed more than anyone would’ve imagined in New York the past two years. Unless and until that changes, not even a free agent spending spree would fundamentally alter the M’s trajectory.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that the M’s could forego a rebuild by committing to be major players in free agency. With impact classes both now and next year, and with the M’s cash crunch easing after 2019 AND with the luxury tax level rising, there are no baseball reasons to worry about investing in some of the bigger names on offer this year. Ownership may not want to, and I know exceeding the luxury tax threshold in 2019 may be unpalatable, but it’s not some major impediment: the penalties really ramp up for exceeding the soft cap three years in a row, and the M’s don’t need to do that. Moreover, coaching changes can help the M’s become the team that helps free agents unlock hidden potential instead of remaining a team trying to compete against newly-Astrofied competition.

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I’m perhaps reading too much into the public statements, but it’s somewhat interesting to me that the M’s seem to be making Marco Gonzales all but untouchable, even as James Paxton becomes trade bait. A part of that may just be a testament to how much “club control” uh, controls discussions of player value, and it may be that the team doesn’t see their window of contention overlapping with Paxton’s remaining contract. But Gonzales (and Paxton!) are a good reminder of another way the club can start to chip away at the gap in current/projected talent: defense. M’s fans point to Gonzales finishing in the top 20 in Fangraphs’ WAR measure, and it’s true, there he is at #20! A low walk rate, moderate dingers keep his FIP low. But using Fangraphs’ own RA-9 based WAR, he drops to 39th. BBREF’s different version of RA-9 WAR slots him behind Wade LeBlanc, for example. Now, sure, a high BABIP pushed his ERA higher than his FIP, and that’ll regress, right? Well, we’ve been saying that about James Paxton now since this point in 2016, and it simply hasn’t. Paxton’s wOBA-allowed with men on base has remained stubbornly higher than his overall mark, and Gonzales’ is following the same path. Both of them have posted high BABIPs now for multiple years in a row, and it’s possible that neither is all that great at contact management. Again, that could be related to coaching to some extent, but some of it is clearly defense. The M’s have tried to build a great team defense, and it hasn’t quite worked out, just as the A’s own attempts to turn around an awful run-prevention group succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining this year. Other teams can do this. If Marco Gonzales is going to be a centerpiece of the next good M’s team and not just a perfectly cromulent, cheap #3-4 starter, then they need him to give up the runs FIP says he should, not the runs the scoreboard said last year.

Corey Brock’s got an interesting piece at the Athletic today about the M’s High Performance Camp in Peoria today. Instead of working on skills, the camp seems to be about building strength, diet/exercise habits, and about assessing their mental state after a grueling season of bus rides and fast food. There are no baseballs, but lots of wearable tech, cooking lessons and discussions. It’s a great idea, particularly given the brutal nature of the minor league season. But I also don’t think the M’s will get as much of a benefit from it unless the entire team – meaning coaches at every level – are on board. If the M’s want more players to cook and not eat out all the time, then they need a way to make that practical in Clinton, Iowa and Charleston, West Virginia, and Modesto, California. The M’s wanted a change in their primary big league coaches. More important than any one coach below them, though, they need every coach to be speaking the same language. I’m not sure that happened last year, impacting how well players developed and how they transitioned between minor league levels and between the minors and majors. Several of those coaching spots will turn over, as the M’s already know several minor league coaches won’t be back. That’s an opportunity to do things differently, of course, but it’s something they absolutely have to get right if they want to restock the team with prospects due to, say, and Edwin Diaz trade.

The White Sox embarked on a full-on rebuild in late-2016/early-2017 by shipping off Chris Sale, signed to an absurdly cheap extension, and Adam Eaton. Later in 2017, they offloaded another cheap/good starter, Jose Quintana, as well. With an excellent coaching staff led by Don Cooper, the Sox bet on themselves in opting for high-ceiling talent in return for Sale/Eaton/Quintana instead of league-average, high-floor closer-to-guarantees. It was an interesting approach, with super high-risk guys like Michael Kopech, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and more coming to the Sox. If they were able to coach these guys to their potential, they’d pair with Carlos Rodon and high draft picks and build a team that could compete with the Cubs/Red Sox. It’s still early…kind of…but they haven’t gotten all they would’ve liked. Giolito’s been roughly replacement level in 200+ innings, Carson Fulmer’s been worth less than that, and Kopech needed Tommy John not long after debuting this year. Moncada’s improving, but led the league in Ks this year with a SLG% of exactly .400. He’s only 23, things can and will get better, but they gave up several absolute market-defining players and are still in wait and see mode, with two awful seasons in the books and more to come, it looks like. This is a collective failure – albeit one that they still have time to correct. The M’s won’t be trading anyone like Sale (though Diaz may come close), but whoever they get, they absolutely need to have a higher batting average on the players they get than Chicago’s had to date.

The M’s got here because they bet on their ability to develop players at the big league level and lost that bet. They’ve bet on their ability to build around a core of players locked up with long-term contracts, and while they’ve done OK at finding players to slot in around them, the core’s production has dropped alarmingly. They seem to recognize the danger here, and the changes in staffing and development processes are an attempt to address the risk. But this absolutely needs to be straightened out in advance, and thankfully, addressing the gap in player development (or the consistency of message in player development?) can help whatever path forward the M’s choose.

Comments

8 Responses to “The Rebuild is On?”

  1. LongDistance on November 7th, 2018 11:21 am

    Yep. They have to acquire the ability to develop players. The problem is, it’s a bit hard to know whether they’ve accomplished that … up front. Which means, then, there’s no way to make decisions based on any verifiable results.

    You couldn’t be more correct to be using the word bet to describe the Mariner’s current method of forward planning. What an interesting 2019 we’re going to have…

  2. don52656 on November 7th, 2018 11:56 am

    Marc, I’ve missed you and that was an excellent write-up. I’ve believed for a long time now that the Mariners were lousy at player development….I mean, all you have to do is look at all the players in the league who blossomed after leaving the organization and compare it to the players which blossomed after arriving here. It’s a lopsided list.

    I totally agree about the team defense issue, though. I can’t enumerate the number of fly balls that looked catchable but weren’t caught or grounders that bounced through the infield. I saw a game this year where the other team stole 4 bases and didn’t even draw a thrown for 3 of them. It just seems that the communications and attitudes were just too lackadasical. I don’t know who to blame this on, but it looks like a team problem to me and not an individual one.

  3. bookbook on November 7th, 2018 5:29 pm

    By the middle of next year, they can the manager.

  4. JMB on November 7th, 2018 6:50 pm

    Trade everyone.

  5. Grayfox3d on November 7th, 2018 7:40 pm

    Trading Zunino to get Mallex BACK… I’m not very happy about this trade, Especially because we already had Mallex for all of 70 Minutes.

  6. groundzero55 on November 8th, 2018 7:45 am

    I’m not heartbroken at trading Zunino…yet. If we end up with Gattis as a replacement, then I’ll be upset. I just don’t see that happening. We have basically zero plausible catchers left in the org, so someone will be coming in. Mallex had a pretty damn good season, much better than Z had, and we were in need of a CF who doesn’t require a platoon.

  7. djw on November 8th, 2018 2:53 pm

    I don’t get it. Why would our previous temporary acquisition of Mallex Smith color your evaluation of this trade, Grayfox3d? In what sense is it relevant?

    If you want to say we should have just kept him, OK, but hindsight is 20-20, there’s no reason to believe management had any way to know Smyly was going to go down with a 2+ year injury, and we can’t change the past regardless. I just don’t understand how it’s relevant to what the team should do now.

  8. Westside guy on November 8th, 2018 9:06 pm

    It seems apparent this will be an interesting off-season…

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