Cactus League – Is it Time to Worry?

marc w · March 12, 2019 at 12:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Carlos Rodon, 1:10pm Live Audio

Lookout Landing published an optimistic article yesterday evaluating what the M’s might look like in 2021, the year M’s GM Jerry Dipoto expects the M’s to compete for the playoffs. “It’s hard not to look at this team and be excited,” writes Grant Brondson. Maybe I’m still surly from the news that Kyle Seager will miss a month-plus with surgery on his hand/wrist, but I think I’m up to the task.

As currently constructed, the M’s are a team in transition. They’ve got clear areas of strength, like the outfield, and some areas of real concern/weakness, like the infield and the bullpen. That’s fine; they’re not really trying to win in 2019, so the point is to figure out which of the youngsters who’ll be counted on to play meaningful innings this year will be around for the 2021 playoff push. Will Justin Dunn join Justus Sheffield as a rotation mainstay? Will Seager be a major leaguer in 2021? Perhaps most importantly, will JP Crawford demonstrate he’s more than just a competent starter who can rely on a good batting eye? As Brondson’s article demonstrates, by 2021, you can easily see a path to a team in which their present question marks and deficits get resolved. What’s harder to see is a path to team that’s better than their rivals.

The problem is simple: the best players in the league are not only better than the M’s best players, they’re also younger. The Astros have been better than the M’s in recent years, and will be far better in 2019. In 2021, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa will be 27 and 26, respectively. Mitch Haniger will be 30. Correa and Bregman both have two-year stints that exceeded 10 WAR, as does Jose Altuve, who’s a half-year older than Haniger. Haniger’s best year is shy of 5 WAR by Fangraphs and shy of 4, by BP’s WARP metric. He’s forecasted to stay under 4 by PECOTA, ZiPS, Steamer, etc. The M’s best postition player, the player who they would seem to need to pace their 2021 contention campaign, looks like he’s in a different class to the Astros’ top players, who’ll be entering their theoretical prime right when the M’s window supposedly opens.

It’s not just the Astros. Mike Trout’s younger than Haniger, Andrelton Simmons is coming off of back-to-back 5+WAR seasons, and their teenage phenom’s seen as a better bet than Jarred Kelenic. We’ve got Kikuchi, they’ve got Ohtani. This isn’t to say things are hopeless, but that something pretty big needs to change for the M’s to really look like they can swat away their rivals and take charge in what’s realistically a wild card chase in 2021.

What about pitching, you ask? Marco Gonzales’ PECOTA projection is downright scary, so ignore it and go with ZiPS and Steamer, but you’re still looking at a solid-average #3. Yusei Kikuchi’s projected to be a below-average starter this year, but even if we double his projected contributions, we’re most likely looking at a top of the rotation that’s a bit underpowered given the division. The M’s would get a major boost if Justus Sheffield shakes off his control issues and if Justin Dunn builds on a great 2018. But the Astros have *4* pitchers in the league’s top 100 prospects to the M’s 2, and while they may lose Gerrit Cole to free agency, by the end of 2019, we may learn more about what Josh James and Forrest Whitley can do in extended big league appearances. Friends, I’m not sure I’m going to like that answer.

Beyond the Astros young pitchers, 2019 should get us a lot more information about the competition down the road. The A’s Franklin Barreto has been great this spring, and we’ll see if he can make a bit more contact. The A’s will call up Jesus Luzardo as soon as they’ve extracted another year of club control, and we could see AJ Puk in the second half. The Astros 1B/DH issues could be cleared up if Tyler White shows his 2018 wasn’t a fluke, and/or if AJ Reed steps up. The biggest issue will be the development of the Astros young starters, and the M’s younger position players, specifically JP Crawford. Fangraphs sees Crawford as a decent but unspectacular starter. But BP’s PECOTA sees a near-replacement-level player in 2019, and with only moderate growth in the years to come. To be clear: if the M’s are going to compete in 2021, those projections *have to be completely wrong.* One of Gonzales/Sheffield/Kikuchi can’t be merely above-average. They’ve got to be stars. Otherwise, the M’s will have demolished a team that was stuck in the purgatory of being pretty good to create a team that…might become merely pretty good.

Crawford’s the key for the position players. He’s always had a solid eye, but he hasn’t made enough contact at the major league level to overcome only middling power. A low-BA, low-HR SS isn’t unplayable, but I just don’t like the M’s chances to hold off, say, the Rays and Twins in 2021 with that, forget the Astros and potentially Angels. Crawford’s going to have to make a plateau jump this year, and he’s clearly young enough to do so. Today, he’ll face a tough lefty in FB/Slider maven Carlos Rodon. One way to help ensure he can get his average up over .250-.265 (a far cry from the .210-.220s of his projections) would be to shore up his ability to hit same-handed pitching. He’s shown that ability to an extent in the minors, though not having big splits isn’t a saving grace if the overall line isn’t outstanding. The M’s need JP Crawford, and I hope their entire hitting coaching staff is plotting out what they’ll do with him in Tacoma (where he’ll be sent to get an extra year of club control) and then in Seattle.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Narvaez, C
5: Healy, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, RF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Kikuchiiiii!



15 Responses to “Cactus League – Is it Time to Worry?”

  1. Stevemotivateir on March 13th, 2019 7:44 am

    Unless Houston expands payroll and figures out how to extend a number of players (*star players*), they may be a completely different team in 2021 and Correa is only under contract through 2021.

    LA has a ton of salary tied up in two players and they’ll have to reach in deep to keep Trout around beyond 2020. Simmons is a free agent in 2021, so getting him extended should be a non-cheap necessity as well.

    Forgive me for not sharing your pessimism, but I don’t see Seattle’s situation the same. Though I completely agree about Crawford, and I would add that catcher is going to be an area of need, the team can trade from its outfield surplus and fill the holes with cash wherever prospects fail (assuming all of them don’t fail).

    That’s a better situation to be in than needing to spend big to keep what you have and then spend even more to get better.

    The answer to your question in the headline is “no”. It’s too early to worry.

  2. Stevemotivateir on March 13th, 2019 7:58 am

    Lookout Landing didn’t do a very good job researching projected payroll, either. Spotrac has Santana on the books for 2021 and the salaries of LeBlanc and Leake are not guaranteed (mutual and club options). The committed salary appears to be under 45 million with the buyouts/payouts included.

    The situation is far less alarming from a financial standpoint.

  3. currcoug on March 14th, 2019 5:51 pm

    Actually, Marc is the realist, and it is even worse than he stated. The Astros also have two of the top 10 OF prospects in baseball:

    Kyle Tucker (22)
    Yordan Alvarez (21)

    It is also worth noting that Dipoto passed on Whitley and Kirilloff…in favor of Lewis.

    As for Crawford, I wouldn’t bet the farm on the guy. He was already a bit of a bust for the Phillies, and it could get worse.

  4. Stevemotivateir on March 14th, 2019 8:21 pm

    Actually, Marc is the realist, and it is even worse than he stated.

    No, and no. And that isn’t a slam on Marc, but too many very real facts and significant information were not considered, which is why I responded. Future payroll commitments alone are a huge part of everything we’ve seen.

    The Astros also have two of the top 10 OF prospects in baseball:

    Kyle Tucker (22)
    Yordan Alvarez (21)

    It is also worth noting that Dipoto passed on Whitley and Kirilloff…in favor of Lewis.

    There is a lot of wrong with this.

    First, Tucker and Alvarez have to prove themselves just like Kelenic and Rodriguez will, but Seattle’s outfield for 2021 on paper is stronger right now than Houston’s and Marc recognized that strength as well.

    Second, even if Houston were to hit on those two, they are due to lose Verlander, Cole, Springer, Gurriel, Brantley, Smith, McHugh, Peacock, Harris, Pressly and Osuna over the next two years. Correa and McCullers are free agents after 2021. How are they going to fill those holes? Internal options and extensions won’t cover everyone. I would take it further and suggest that they’re probably not going to be as strong this season as they were last season.

    Third, you’re really faulting Dipoto for selecting Lewis instead of Whitley or Kirilloff? Where were you at the time of the draft complaining about his selection? We don’t even know if Lewis isn’t going to be as good or better than either one, but using hindsight to criticize Dipoto before we’ve seen any of those players is incredibly weak.

    Lastly, Crawford is unproven and somewhat worrisome, but he battled injuries last season and hasn’t been given any kind of consistent playing time in the majors. Calling him a “bit of a bust” isn’t fair. He comes with questions, but he’s young and there is no pressure in Seattle. If it were my call, I would probably be looking at Bogaerts or Simmons through free agency in the coming years if he doesn’t make the grade (or even if he does, in which case he could move to third), but none of the legitimate concerns with Seattle compare to the dilemmas Houston and LA are facing in 2021 and beyond.

  5. sexymarinersfan on March 15th, 2019 9:08 pm

    A trade?! Don’t forget Dipoto loves to “wheel and deal.” And bring Springer to the Mariners! I wanted him way before he was even drafted.

  6. sexymarinersfan on March 15th, 2019 9:15 pm

    Kyle Lewis still has the chance to be something really good. I’m not ready to admit those players will have better careers just yet.

  7. Stevemotivateir on March 17th, 2019 6:35 am

    ^Lewis’ injuries cost a couple years of his development, but that isn’t Jerry’s fault. This year is kind of important for him to show he still has his stuff now that he’s 100% (or close), but I’m not writing him off, either.

    I wouldn’t rule anything out with Dipoto, but I think it’s more probable he invests in infielders before outfielders, but Trout’s comments made me curious after he cited Seattle as being his favorite road city to play in.

  8. currcoug on March 17th, 2019 8:26 pm

    “First, Tucker and Alvarez have to prove themselves just like Kelenic and Rodriguez will…”

    Agreed, and I love Kelenic. However, Alvarez has already advanced to AAA, and is only 21. Alvarez is having a decent spring (.779 OPS). Tucker just turned 22, but got his first taste of the majors in 2018, although he struggled. Tucker has posted a .800 OPS for the spring. BTW, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dipoto eventually trades Rodriguez to bolster the 2021 club roster, unless Rodriguez really rockets through the system.

    “…Seattle’s outfield for 2021 on paper is stronger right now than Houston’s…”

    Disagree, and I’ll take Houston’s drafting, development, trade and free agent record over Seattle’s. Yes, they lose big names, but they also have other players in the pipeline, as well as Bregman and Correa (it is high unlikely Houston is going to let him get away).

    “Third, you’re really faulting Dipoto for selecting Lewis instead of Whitley or Kirilloff?”

    Yes. Dipoto also passed on Luzardo (in favor of Brigman)…passed on Bichette (in favor of Rizzo). Oops. At some point, you have to admit other clubs are simply out-drafting Dipoto….but that would be inconvenient for your position. I was hot for Whitley, because the Mariners’ system was barren of young pitching prospects like him. I will agree that Dipoto had bad luck in regards to the devastating knee injury Lewis suffered.

    As for Crawford, I am hardly the only person who has used the term “bust” when discussing Crawford’s plummet down the prospect lists.

    Finally, I don’t expect the Rangers to continue to suck, and the A’s have run circles around Seattle over the last 17 years.

  9. Stevemotivateir on March 18th, 2019 9:43 am

    ^You’re more of a pessimist than Marc, I’ll give you that.

    Apart your opinions and faith in the unproven with one team while dismissing your team, you’re still ignoring the fact that Seattle’s positioned better financially, and we still don’t know how Dipoto’s drafts will turn out, but there’s still plenty of hope for Lewis, White is looking good, and we haven’t even seen Gilbert yet.

    It has been three years and graduation dates have yet to be set. Assuming his picks have failed compared to other GM’s isn’t realism, it is pessimism. You are assuming quite a lot and no GM gets every pick right, but sure, go ahead and single out what you don’t like while ignoring the choices that haven’t looked great for other teams.

    And about the Rangers and A’s, they should be good teams in the near future as well. But I would argue Texas has more work to do and Oakland will have some very real payroll/arbitration issues as they’ve already experienced this off season.

    Still waiting for your argument over LA being better off and, again, Crawford has questions, but he’s 23 and hasn’t had consistent playing time. Most people–realistic people–know that a high-profile player has to have an opportunity before being labeled a bust.

  10. currcoug on March 18th, 2019 8:13 pm

    For starters, Crawford is 24 years old, and I referred to him as a “bit of a bust…and that it could get worse.” That’s a fair assessment, IMHO.

    Again, the scouting services (realistic people) dropped Crawford down the prospect list for good reason…and there wasn’t a lot of hand-wringing by Phillies fans over his departure. It is a clear case of Dipoto buying low on a fading prospect. Was it worth dealing Segura? That’s the gamble. Right now, the Phillies are the winners short term.

    As stated previously, the Astros and A’s have consistently run circles around the Mariners over the years, and I have seen enough of Dipoto to believe that is going to continue. Sorry, but I don’t like the guy, and I’m not drinking his Kool-Aid any more. Finally, Houston and Oakland have outstanding farm systems…and young, established superstars like Correa and Bregman (both signficantly younger than Haniger). Ditto for the A’s.

    To sum up, I would trade every player, and our front office/ownership group for those in Houston and Oakland. I said the same thing several years ago, and many of the same reasons apply today.

    The Angels? If I was Trout, I would leave.

  11. Stevemotivateir on March 18th, 2019 9:52 pm

    Holy Crap, you got me. Crawford had a birthday in January and I missed it. There goes my whole argument! But I’ll continue anyway.

    First, Crawford wasn’t even the focus of this and I was clear that I hold reservations with him myself. But a bust, or “bit of a bust”, he is not. Skepticism is understandable, but bust status will or won’t come after he’s had a fair share of MLB playing time.

    Second, we have had Dipoto for 3 years. Whatever Jack’s regime jacked up isn’t on him. Very few coaches and managers were held over. It’s a new staff, with a new system, and we don’t have anything conclusive yet. But we do know that when Dipoto arrived he was tasked with reaching the post season with limited payroll space and a weak farm to get it done. It didn’t work, so here we are.

    Third, you’re still failing to grasp the severity of the position Seattle’s rivals are heading into. Their past doesn’t matter, nor does Seattle’s right now. It’s 2021 or 2022 that matters and the issues I’ve already outlined are very real. Oakland already has arbitration problems; Houston will probably lose many or most of their stars and neither Houston or Oakland has Seattle’s spending ability. Correa is only under control for 3 more years, so he’s probably going to be apart of the Astro-exodus we’ll be witnessing, barring an expensive extension.

    Lastly, it doesn’t matter if Trout stays or goes. If he stays, LA will have a ton of committed salary and the same pitching issues with a number of holes elsewhere. If he goes, they’ll have room for 2 or 3 mediocre players for their team stuck in mediocrity.

    Seattle isn’t in terrible shape for the future. Things could change, but it’s odd to me that anyone would think or suggest this is still a mess. Seattle’s farm isn’t far off from Houston’s and it’s arguably better than Oakland’s.

    Maybe the “Kool Aid” wasn’t your issue.

  12. jorax on March 19th, 2019 10:19 am

    Stevemotivateir , I admire your optimism. As a life-long Washington resident and M’s fan I have a difficult time agreeing with you purely out of habit. Yet I always have a tiny sliver of hope – which is why I keep watching games and keep reading about the team here and elsewhere…

    Looks like Trout is about to sign with the Angels for north of $35M/year. Feels about right given his production, but you do have to wonder about their ability to construct a team around him with so much committed money.

  13. currcoug on March 19th, 2019 10:24 am

    “First…skepticism is understandable, but bust status will or won’t come after he’s had a fair share of MLB playing time.”


    “Second…it’s a new staff, with a new system, and we don’t have anything conclusive yet.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. Unfortunately, Dipoto has made enough mistakes to make conclusive judgments. IMHO, he isn’t an elite GM, which is what Seattle desperately needed. On the other hand, a lot of the problem was and still is ownership.

    “Third, you’re still failing to grasp the severity of the position Seattle’s rivals are heading into. Their past doesn’t matter, nor does Seattle’s right now.”

    Of course their past matters. Oakland and Houston have amply and repeatedly demonstrated their ability to overcome very difficult problems. Seattle hasn’t, and IMHO, won’t under Dipoto. Moreover, you are deluding yourself if you really believe Houston is going to let Correa leave.

    Since you keep bringing up the Angels, my opinion is that we should stop hiring x-Angel GM’s.

  14. Stevemotivateir on March 20th, 2019 8:11 am

    ^What is conclusive about this new system? Let’s see your evidence. How many draftees from this new era graduated?

    We don’t have anything conclusive. Jerry inherited a weak farm and was asked to make magic happen. You can blame ownership to an extent, you can blame Jack to an extent, but the odds were stacked against Dipoto from day one. He’s fortunate he’s getting the chance at a fresh start.

    We’ll know in a couple of years if he has this organization in the right direction, but the fact that it’s in a different direction says a lot.

    And about our history.

    The past = Jack era; Future = nothing to do with Jack era. It doesn’t matter. Our past has stunk and that won’t change, but what matters now is where they’re going, not where they’ve been. Are you going to be that guy who can’t enjoy future success because you’re still hanging on to the playoff drought? Oakland and Houston will still have to prove they can hang with some new names. Their past won’t get them any free passes.

    And about Correa, you’re still not getting it. Houston doesn’t have a huge budget. They’re paying 29 million in 2022 for Altuve. They’ll have to pay to keep Correa if he wants to stick around, which I already noted, but that would have an impact on their ability to retain or replace a number of other important players (some of which they’re already trying to lock up). Houston, Oakland, and LA have serious challenges ahead, projected at a time where Seattle should get younger with a lot of financial wiggle room.

    Once more you’ve dodged the question about the Angels, who appear to have Trout locked up now. That’s a good thing for them, but they’ll need to overhaul their entire pitching staff, try to extend Simmons, and fill a number of other holes which is going to cost them dearly if they don’t half-ass it.

    You’re more than welcome to assume the worst and criticize Jerry, but the reality is that we’re just getting started and the jury is still out on him and everyone else in this system. The good news is that there isn’t any long-term contracts at the moment, so if all else fails there will at least be a clean slate for someone new to work with.

  15. Stevemotivateir on March 20th, 2019 8:19 am

    jorax, skepticism is completely understandable. I have my doubts like everyone else. But for the first time in ages, Seattle has a respectable farm and the ability to spend as teams like Houston and Oakland will be struggling to hang on to the teams they have now. Currcoug might think that I’m dismissing those teams, but I’m not. The point is that their challenges may prove to be far greater than the ones we’ll be facing. If nothing else, we should have plenty of room to buy what is still needed.

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