The Risks: 2019

marc w · March 27, 2019 at 11:13 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I know, I know, the season’s technically started, but tomorrow’s opening day for most of the league, and it’s the day the M’s kick off their home slate against Boston. I’ve said it before: for as much angst as the team’s…uh..stepback has caused the fanbase, I actually agreed with it from a strategic point of view. Thus, this post – which has been hitherto concerned with things that will prevent the M’s from competing – needs to change. The M’s themselves say that they’re not trying to compete in 2019, so we can’t *judge* their 2019 on wins and losses. Instead, I want to judge them based on the criteria that they’ve set for themselves.

Usually, that would be tough to do, because I’m not invited to ownership meetings or key in-season and post-season confabs with the front office. Thankfully, Ryan Divish’s article in the Times and the quotes the FO has given allows us to hear about the “step back” in the voice of those who ordered it, and we get to hear why it could work from those who engineered it. So for this year’s pessimistic post, I’ve paired my angstsy worries about their step back with a quote from Divish’s article. The idea here isn’t to judge the team based on how Wade LeBlanc or Edwin Encarnacion (or Felix…:Sigh:) does, but by the players Jerry Dipoto sees as the catalysts of the M’s renaissance. Steel yourselves, M’s fans.

1: Expected growth fails to materialize – “The Mariners kept starting pitcher Marco Gonzales and outfielder Mitch Haniger to be the foundation when the prospects begin to arrive to the big leagues at varied times.”

Marco Gonzales had a break out 2018, but as we’ve talked about, that’s more due to the low bar of his previous performance than a transcendent performance last year. Don’t get me wrong, he was successful in ways that portend good things in 2019; it wasn’t just a fluke. The problem is that it’s easy to envision 2018 as a peak, or to see him struggling to maintain his 2018-level of performance. And let’s remember, while it was great by Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR and nearly as good by BP’s DRA-based WAR(P) he posted an ERA of 4. More worrisome, his performance in the second half was significantly worse, not only due to a rise in BABIP/drop in strand rate, but a recurrence of the HR problems that sunk his 2017 campaign.

For the M’s plan to work, Gonzales needs to continue his upward trajectory through 2020. If that doesn’t happen, the M’s entire step back plan starts to look like a real rebuild in that they’d be entirely dependent on their prospects plus whichever players didn’t get extended and made it to free agency. By their own words, they’ve nominated Gonzales and Haniger as the homegrown (kind of) core that they’ll build around, and that their prospects will supplement by 2021. That entire plan is sunk if Gonzales doesn’t continue to grow and improve. He averaged 90 MPH on his fastball last year, gave up too many HRs, and you could argue batters adjusted to his new cutter (and improved curve) by the end of the year.

I’ve already laid out how he can adjust, but I think the M’s are dramatically understating the risk that we’ve already seen peak Marco Gonzales. What’s worse, the same could be said of Haniger. One of the best attributes of the M’s RF/CF is his consistency. His batting line was remarkably similar in 2017 and 2018. He was a above average in every half-season. We’ve seen him as a streaky player due to injury or HR binges and droughts, but overall, he’s been remarkably…similar. The way he’s produced has changed from month to month, but it’s to his credit that he’s essentially always produced. But with such consistency, it’s harder to see how he might elevate his game. He hasn’t been snake-bit by the BABIP gods – his BABIP has swung from .338 to .336 in his two M’s seasons. If that’s down to even .310, then he’s definitely more in the “complementary player” range. He wasn’t showing increased power; his ISO has gone from .209 to .208 in his two seasons…I’m not making this up, the guy who fans often think of as a robot has produced nearly impossibly similar seasons.

So what happens if his 2019 is another robotically similar campaign? If he’s every bit as good as last year, but with maaaybe a touch of BABIP nastiness or recurrence of the minor injuries that have sapped his plate appearances? If that happens, the plan to build around he and Gonzales looks a bit fragile. As I’ve written before, the problem isn’t that Haniger’s bad. The problem is that he’s older AND not quite as good as Matt Chapman, Alex Bregman, Mike Trout, Carlos Correa, etc., and we’re just looking at the AL West. If those guys continue to grow while Haniger stalls out, then the basic problem that occasioned this step back is worse than Dipoto, Mather, and company realized.

2: The competition gets better – “A big part of this plan is comparing the Mariners to their American League West competition.”

In Divish’s story, the M’s clearly point out that the 2018-style gap in talent can’t last forever. “In two years, the Astros will become very expensive with young stars such as George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman in, or nearing, free agency. The A’s will have to make tough decisions on Matt Chapman and Matt Olson,” writes Divish, with presumably some arguments from Dipoto and company backing that up. Of the players mentioned, only Springer is older than Hangiger/Gonzales, and only Springer could conceivably hit free agency before 2021. If the M’s wanted to point to the A’s and Astros young stars as reasons for hope, I… I don’t quite get the argument here. Chapman and Olson will hit *arbitration* in 2021. The tough decision the A’s will face is to extend an offer to a young 1B who’s won a gold glove and smacked 29 HRs in a pre-arb season, and to extend an offer to a 3B who had a season between 6-8+ WAR as a pre-arb player. I know it’s the A’s, but these decisions are not tough.

Bregman, another player who has demonstrated batting ability that no one on the roster or in the system seems capable of, was just extended, so any concern about the Astros budget in 2021 are moot – he’ll be there, whether we like it or not. Carlos Correa will be a free agent in 2022, so he’ll be in Houston in 2021, and he’ll be hitting his nominal prime, per Jerry Dipoto. He could be extended as well, as the Astros have plenty of flexibility for 2021, just as the M’s do.

That’s not the real problem, though. The problem is that the Astros and A’s (and plenty of others) have shown an ability to get more out of their draft picks and prospects. Sure, the M’s have traded more of their prospects, which is why people like Pablo Lopez are suiting up for other teams, but the Astros and A’s (and perhaps soon the Angels) can point to players they’ve drafter turning into stars, and not just swingmen or “having a promising second half in the Cal League” or complementary guys. If that *continues* then the M’s are in serious trouble.

The M’s don’t need Gonzales/Haniger to match Bregman/Verlander or Chapman/Puk/Luzardo in 2021 WAR. Not exactly, anyway. The M’s position seems to be that Haniger and Gonzales can be above-average players that lead the group of uber-talents the M’s have recently acquired, from Justus Sheffield to JP Crawford to Justin Dunn. Let’s take them at their word. What happens if the Astros hit on one of Kyle Tucker, Forrest Whitley, Josh James or JB Bukauskas? What happens if the A’s pitching prospects materialize, and they’ve suddenly got answers for Sheffield/Dunn AND they’ve got Chapman hitting his prime and Olson as a complement? What happens if Jo Adell of the Angels is everything the prospect gurus say he is, or if they extend Andrelton Simmons along with Mike Trout? There’s nothing in the offing in the M’s farm that can compete with the one-two punch of Simmons/Trout, and the fact that said punch has not been enough to lift the Angels to the postseason is absolutely NOT reassuring, as schadenfreude-rich as it is.

A few of the AL West teams have better talent in 2018-19, and seem to be set up to out-compete the M’s in 2021, even if Evan White is manning 1B and Kyle Lewis has a starting job in Seattle. It’d be a fun competition, but you can’t look at the M’s stated goal and say, “yeah, that’s the best team in the division” let alone the league. But if *any* of their division rivals gets another star, then things start to look bleak. We *just* saw this happen with the Astros, who were the Correa/Altuve/Springer show until they got Cole, rejuvenated Verlander, and watched Bregman go nuts. The A’s saw Chapman go thermonuclear and have seen impressive things from Luzardo, who’ll start in the minors. Their pitching staff is weak at the moment, but could be significantly better by the M’s supposed contention window. The M’s best hope is thus that teams that have shown great ability to develop talent internally suddenly STOP developing talent internally, while the M’s, who’ve ahhhhh struggled in this regard suddenly hit their stride. That…that could happen.

3: Injuries hit the up-and-coming players – “maybe the most oft-mentioned of the target players was J.P. Crawford.”

The common thread with these posts in the Dipoto era is this: The M’s front office thinks much more highly of a player than the projections/industry consensus. That was true about guys like Evan Scribner, Ben Gamel, and Ryon Healy, but also about Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, and Wade LeBlanc. The track record isn’t perfect, but it’s not crazy for the front office to see, say, JP Crawford as a fundamentally better player than he’s shown, or that even his optimistic projections foresee.

OK, so now imagine that JP Crawford goes down in May with an injury. This isn’t some weird, nightmarish, remote possibility. He missed significant time due to injury *twice* in 2018. You know what the best predictor of a DL visit in year X+1 is, right? What would this plan look like if any one of Dunn/Sheffield/Swanson/Gilbert missed significant time? The M’s already lost Sam Carlson to TJ last year, and they haven’t appeared to be remarkably good at avoiding injuries as a group.

This isn’t philosophical; the M’s pointed to a wave of injuries as the reason they failed to compete in 2017, but then watched as Oakland and even Houston got past just as severe a spate and outperform them. The M’s are now younger than they were in 2017, and that pushes the likelihood of a recurrence of that injury wave lower, but this step back makes a recurrence all the more dangerous. The M’s are in this position in part because of Kyle Lewis’ horrific injury and slow recovery. They got Marco Gonzales because he was coming off of TJ rehab, and Crawford was available because the Phillies couldn’t wait for a low-power SS who kept missing time. If Lewis’ knee problems recur, if Crawford’s hand/forearm issues recur, or if Gilbert/Sheffield do what pitchers do and hurt their elbows, the entire timeline is thrown out of whack. The M’s don’t look like contenders in 2021; given the talent levels in the division, they’re right back where they are now, looking a few years down the road.


One Response to “The Risks: 2019”

  1. Stevemotivateir on March 28th, 2019 12:48 pm

    Does anybody actually think Gonzales is or needs to be a front line starter? I don’t. I would be surprised if Jerry does. The hopes for the pitching staff down the road are equally as high or more so with Kikuchi, Sheffield, Dunn, and possibly Gilbert. The ability to add a free agent or two remains possible as well, so I don’t think Seattle is banking on Gonzales as heavily as some people seem to believe.

    If Haniger were to regress significantly, I would be concerned. But if the 2018 version of Mitch proves to be the norm, that’s probably enough. Seattle needs more than just Mitch Haniger to eventually contend, but the answers don’t have to come from just internal options. That’s exactly why getting rid of Cano’s contract and having Gordon, Bruce, Felix, Encarnacion, and Swarzak off the books is so important. It frees up a lot of money.

    The A’s haven’t had a lot of success retaining stars. It’s just as speculative to assume that Chapman and Olson can be extended as it is to assume Seattle will have trouble finding complements to Haniger and Gonzales. Then there’s the pitching. Does anyone think Oakland’s staff is better poised for the future than Seattle’s? I don’t, and that’s without considering Oakland’s payroll restraints.

    With Houston, they appear to have improved the odds of keeping their window open longer with the recent extensions. But Bregman was already under control through ’22 or ’23, so his extension didn’t effect the short term. Houston probably needs to hit on all of Whitley, Tucker, James, etc. They aren’t in the same boat as Seattle financially. They have nearly 85 million committed to 2021 without Springer, without Gurriel, without Brantley, without McCullers/Osuna/Correa (late arbitration years) factored in, and without Cole. They still have a ton of work to do, and though I agree that their ability to draft and develop players is encouraging for them, they still have to come up with some answers to keep that window open and they probably won’t have the same kind of financial resources Seattle should have. Houston will have some other possible issues as well. Is Verlander going to be effective at age 38 while being paid 36 million? An injury or two could easily derail Houston just as easily as any other team.

    I could see Seattle needing an extra year or two, especially if they fail to strengthen their infield. But I still don’t things are that bleak. I think they’re encouraging, even if 2021 ends up not being the big year Seattle’s hoping for.

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