The Upside, 2019 Edition

marc w · March 19, 2019 at 5:41 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It’s somehow almost opening…uh..night-morning? As I’ve done for several years, I’m going to lay out two visions for how the season could play out, one optimistic, and the other rather less optimistic. We’ll start with optimism, as there’s something about kicking off a rebuild/step back that seems to get dedicated fans optimistic. Those who’ve been fans a long time will note that we’ve seen quite a few such step-backs fail, but there’s no doubt that there’s a new energy to the team given how much younger they are and given that the club has an actual farm system for the first time in several years.

Let’s be clear: the M’s don’t plan to compete, so the job of this post isn’t to figure out a way in which the M’s become out-of-nowhere contenders for the AL Pennant. It’s not impossible (and see Baseball Prospectus, who found one simulated season in 100,000 in which the M’s won 101 games, most in the AL), but the possibility is remote enough that we can evaluate the M’s progress the way they say THEY’LL evaluate it: on the development of a new core. As great as a bounce-back from Edwin Encarnacion would be, it would likely be cashed in for prospects at the trade deadline. Here are three key examples of what would count as demonstrable improvement in the condition of the franchise at the end of the 2019 season.

1: The M’s identify one (at minimum) player capable of 6-8 WAR seasons.
Before last season, I wrote that Mitch Haniger was the most important player on the team. A player young enough and promising enough that he could break out and anchor the line-up for a few years. His projections weren’t great, and he was coming off a solid – if injury-shortened – year, and lo and behold, he went out and put up an even better season in 2018. The problem is that it’s not enough.

Essentially all of his component numbers moved forward last year, from his walk rate to his batting average to, crucially, his plate appearances and games-played. That was good enough for a 3.9 WARP mark by BP, and over 4 WAR from Fangraphs. That’s really good, and at 28, he’s young enough that the systems think he’ll stick in that neighborhood. But it’s tough to build around when the Astros have younger players with much more of a track record. It’s not Haniger’s fault that Alex Bregman, Mike Trout, Carlos Correa, Shohei Ohtani, Matt Chapman, etc. are all younger. But for the M’s to really see this year as a success, they need to identify one player capable of a good season from one of these guys.

Haniger’s the most likely to actually accomplish this, but of course it doesn’t have to be him, specifically. Marco Gonzales turned in an excellent season (hey, one of last year’s Upside things came true!), but without a ton of swing-and-miss ability, his impact may be capped at or near what he put up last season. One way to prove that the M’s player development had truly turned a corner, then, would be if Marco made another plateau leap by increasing his strikeouts.

It’s tough to do at 90 MPH, but he could potentially get there by transforming his aesthetically-pleasing-but-not-actually-all-that-effective change-up. We all identified several potential reasons why Gonzales COULD break out before 2018, from increased velocity to a lower release point, to a new cutter, to disguising his cambio more effectively. The real reason had nothing to do with any of these; it had much more to do with pitch mix and a revitalized curve. That’s great and all, but there’s still potential in Marco’s change: he just needs some better pitch design. Right now, the pitch doesn’t drop very much compared to his fastball; it has tailing action rather than splitter-like vertical dive. It functions like a slower sinker, rather than a pitch that’s very distinct from his fastball, and that trend has been growing. The velocity difference between his fastball and change was nearly 11 MPH when he debuted with the Cardinals in 2014. Last year, it was under 7 MPH.

There are valid reasons to have a change like this that’s trying to elicit bad contact, but it’s not really doing that either. It’s put in play shockingly often, and batters slugged .413 off of it last year. If the M’s can help him change his grip to choke off a bit of velocity and hopefully modify the spin axis a bit, he could have a pitch that moves more vertically. That combination of drop and velo can help generate swings and misses versus leaving things up to the BABIP gods. The Astros have been remarkably effective at coaching this type of pitch (think of Chris Devenski or now Josh James), as have the Yankees. Pitch design would require the buy-in of the pitcher, but luckily Gonzales seems like one of the more coachable/hardest working players on the team.

2: A minor league player takes a massive step forward from “good prospect” to “one of the best prospects in the game”

High bar, I know, but if Haniger/Gonzales *don’t* become capable of 6-8 WAR seasons, then one of the kids is going to have to do it. Kyle Lewis’ spring was perhaps the story of the 2019 spring, but it’ll be an even better story if he’s able to build on it and become an elite prospect. The talent’s there, he just hasn’t been healthy or consistent enough for it to turn into production.

Before this spring, I was pretty worried about Justus Sheffield’s ceiling and his ability to deal with righties and/or the strike zone. I’m less worried now, and while I still don’t think he’s got super-star upside, he could be a very good player for the M’s. As I mentioned, we have only a couple of throws from a trackman park this spring, but it looked like the M’s had started to tweak his change in just the way I’d like them to tweak Marco’s: it’s less of a running sinker and more of a true change-up. It’s still too close in velo, but it’s better than in his cup of coffee in New York. We’ve seen that he can be an exceedingly tough AB. Now, he just needs to build consistency and show he’s capable of shutting down line-ups start after start. He’s already in the top 50, and he probably won’t be down in the minors long enough to really qualify here, but I would love to see him put in a month or two of dominant performances in the PCL.

Evan White had an excellent second half last year in the Cal League, changing his swing and tapping into power for the first time as a professional. That’s a very welcome sign from a player I was beginning to get worried about, but too many M’s prospects have put up great lines in High-A only to falter in the high-minors (DJ Peterson, where have you gone?). It’s next to impossible for a 1B prospect to be seen as an elite prospect, but then, White’s always been a weird prospect. Marry his batting eye with legitimate power and contact ability AND defense and you’d have something pretty unique. All it would take is a thunderous performance in the Texas league. I think White’s going to have a good year, but this is probably the least likely one just given the way people evaluate 1Bs, but that may be changing. It’s also going to require a massive leap in ISO. I know his first half holds him down, but a wRC+ of under 130 and middling overall power numbers aren’t going to cut it. Even in the second half, his ISO was a bit under .200. He can’t simply repeat those solid months, he’s got to build off of them and do even more. Here’s hoping he can, and that the M’s coaching staff can help him do it.

3: JP Crawford looks like an All-Star again

Crawford isn’t really a prospect anymore, and I don’t think anyone thinks he’s got the 6-8 WAR ceiling. That said, the M’s look like a completely different team if he’s one day able to become something like the hitter Jean Segura was for this club. I don’t mean that he’d put up a batting line like Segura’s – Crawford is much more patient, but K’s a lot more – I mean seasons with Segura-like production. By BP’s DRC, that’s 5% or so above the league average. By Fangraphs’ wRC+, it’s more like 10-12% above average. It’s not asking for massive, Correa-level or even Andrelton Simmons-level hitting. It’s just getting on the right side of the average line.

Crawford’s been beset by injuries and it’s led to an inconsistent swing. He’s shown gap power at times, and he’s shown good bat to ball skills, but they haven’t really aligned, and his K rate’s increased as he’s moved up to the majors worryingly (this has been Dan Vogelbach’s issue). But it’s not crazy to think he could put things together and become a lower-average, higher-OBP, solid .400s SLG% hitter that’s an amazing table setter and contributing part of an effective line-up.

To do that, he’s going to have to cut his Ks and continue to pull the ball when he can. One good sign is that the M’s line-up generally improved their K rates last year. The M’s development hasn’t been great all around, but credit where it’s due, Haniger, Cruz, Segura, and guys like Ben Gamel improved their contact ability over time with the M’s. We tend to focus on the development misses like Zunino, but contact has been a forte for the coaching staff (and I know they’ve largely changed over time).

Crawford’s now got loft on his swing, but it’s come at the expense of average. Ks are a big part of it, but he’s simply got to get more base hits. I certainly haven’t seen him enough to know if he’s vulnerable to certain kinds of pitches or approaches pitchers use on him, but the M’s desperately need to close some holes in his swing. He’ll start in Tacoma, but he should be in Seattle for a good chunk of the year. Crawford doesn’t need to be a franchise savior or a clean-up hitter – he just needs to be a threat at the plate.


2 Responses to “The Upside, 2019 Edition”

  1. bookbook on March 20th, 2019 4:14 am

    This is very good, measuring the M’s on their own goals for the season.

    I might add Shed Long proves he can be a Kyle Seager level part of the core at 2b/3b.

    And Dipoto turns Leake/Bruce/Encarnación into prospect juice.

  2. Stevemotivateir on March 20th, 2019 8:57 am

    Curletta has my attention after his 2018. Watching him, Long, Crawford and Bishop in AAA will be fun.

    I don’t know if any of the names mentioned in this piece are 6-8 WAR players, including Haniger, but if several turn out to be 3-5 WAR players, I’ll be semi-happy. Kikuchi could be in that group.

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