The Mariners at the Break

marc w · July 12, 2019 at 12:10 am · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s are now halfway through the first season of a multi-year process, and it seems like a good time to taste for sweet/savory balance and check the spice levels. This is much easier when it’s not actually MY work; I’m just one of those stern cooking instructors who scowls at someones buerre blanc or whatever. Worse than that, I don’t really know how to, uh, cook a playoff baseball team (I guess this is where the metaphor dies). We can’t know at this point how they’ll look in 2-3-4 years time, and thus we can’t really judge the process until then. But this team set out to craft a world class step-back, and it’s abundantly clear that’s no longer what they’re cooking up. At the same time, there’s enough going on in the lower levels of the minors that contention – albeit on a later timeline – isn’t out of the question.

1: Is it a step-back?

No, it’s not. Do you know how I know? It’s because of all of the losing. No one said they’d compete for the playoffs, but with the vets they acquired as salary dumps, the club was going to have a decent offense. All they needed was a pitching staff that was not awful, and they’d be respectable, or a bit below .500. Their offense has indeed been solid, but they simply haven’t figured out how to pitch.

The idea of Marco Gonzales as a #1 starter was always somewhat far-fetched, but the real issue has been Yusei Kikuchi’s inability to string quality starts together. On a rotation with soft-tossers and pitch-to-contact guys, Kikuchi stands out for his legitimate velocity and undeniable talent. But none of that’s translating into a middle-of-the-rotation guy, and that’s something of a pre-requisite for contention. The M’s didn’t get him expecting an ace, but he was their one big FA signing, the one guy who’d be around both now and in the all-important 2021. He’s got time to acclimate to pitching every 5th day (with some starts skipped or shortened!), but I don’t think anyone expected an RA/9 and FIP over 5.

2: How does the close-to-the-minors talent look?

As concerning as Kikuchi’s scuffles, the two big pitching prospects acquired in the James Paxton trade immediately fell on their face. Erstwhile #1 prospect Justus Sheffield had an awful start in Tacoma, and was demoted to AA Arkansas (where, to his credit, he’s been very good). Erik Swanson was immediately called up to Seattle, but got battered and returned to Tacoma, whereupon his command went south. Both seemed ready to join the rotation, but struggled so much that they seemed to lose confidence.

This is important, because the M’s remade their coaching staff to coincide with this influx of talent. That doesn’t seem to have worked, as every single indicator shows the M’s as one of the 2-3 worst pitching staffs in the game. As John Trupin at LL mentioned, they have the worst fastball results, and poor breaking ball/offspeed results. They have little velocity and can’t miss bats. They give up a ton of home runs and hard-hit balls. They somehow lead the league in doubles allowed despite pitching in a home ballpark that’s extremely hard to hit doubles in. Their FIP and ERA is over 5, and by runs-allowed per game, they’re slumming it with the Orioles.

It’s easy to say that they intentionally didn’t invest in pitching and knew this was a lost campaign, but as mentioned above, they DID invest in Kikuchi, and they hyped Marco Gonzales. The issues seem pervasive, as both the rotation and bullpen have similar lines, and both have similar struggles with strikeouts and homers. To put it mildly, this wasn’t in the plan. I was actually somewhat optimistic on this score, as I worried that departed pitching coach Mel Stottlemeyer Jr. wasn’t getting the most out of his charges. But he decamped to Miami, a team with even *less* invested in the pitching staff, and they’re exceeding expectations while the M’s seem to be getting some regression from Gonzales, Wade Le Blanc and others.

But just as their pitching woes would seem to doom any hope of contention, their near-majors position players have, if anything, exceeded expectations. Jake Fraley dominated in AA, and his more than holding his own in AAA, seemingly ready to try his hand in Seattle whenever they need him. Shed Long had a rough time in the majors, but demonstrated a keen batting eye, and has played well in his first go-round in AAA. JP Crawford shook off a rough first week or two and played his way on to the M’s, where he’s looked good.

That said, Evan White seems to have regressed again, despite some recent success. [EDIT: This was too harsh. His brutal April is holding down his seasonal line, but White’s taken most of his 2018 gains into AA this year. I think it’s increasingly likely that he’s not a star-level player, but I think any of us would take that, especially after his 2018 first half.] Kyle Lewis is in AA and kind of holding serve, but he’s obviously been passed by Fraley, and his strikeout rate is nearing 30%. So is Dom Thompson-Williams, and after a solid start, he’s been a bit quiet. He’s hit 2 HRs since late May, and doesn’t have the patience that Lewis has exhibited, though he’s hit for a bit more power. We expected some strong performers to push their way to a midseason promotion to AAA, but I don’t think we would’ve predicted who it’d be.

This is kind of a mixed bag. I think the contention plan in 2021 really rested on Lewis/White making the leap and getting a look this September, which doesn’t look too likely right now. And yes, if Fraley’s everything we hoped Lewis would be, that’s cool, and takes the pressure of Lewis. But they need a bit more out of their homegrown prospects, if only because that raises the ceiling for future prospects/draft picks. Not only that, but Mitch Haniger’s injury and some first-half issues have demonstrated that the M’s really need OF depth, something they haven’t had in years, as evidenced by half-hearted moves of Brad Miller to RF up to Dylan Moore manning LF in recent weeks. Fraley’s cool, but they may need more than one young OF.

3: How about the younger prospects from recent drafts and the Mets trade?

Hooo boy. I’ve been hard on the M’s, and they seem to make it easy for me to indulge my pessimism. But gadzooks, the M’s seem to have homered in acquiring Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn. In addition, their 2018 first-rounder, Logan Gilbert, shook off mono and has utterly laid waste to the low minors in his first pro season.

The M’s hyped up Dominican prospect Julio Rodriguez, and the 6’4″ outfielder skipped short-season ball and headed for the Sally League instead, a testament to the M’s view of his maturity as much as his batspeed. Rodriguez has repaid that faith by rocketing up the rankings, landing on Baseball Prospectus’ midseason top 50 prospects along with Kelenic and Gilbert. There was so little to go on with Rodriguez that his season really could’ve gone in any direction. It could’ve taken him more time to adjust to full-season velocity with his long-levered swing. He could’ve struggled to adjust to life in a new country, or hunted HRs at the expense of Ks or K:BB ratio. But he’s been as advertised, and the M’s development staff deserves a lot of credit for that.

Still, the biggest prize seems to be Kelenic, who hit his way out of the Sally League and is now in the Cal League with Modesto. The gap power he exhibited with the Mets org is quickly becoming HR power, and he seemed to overwhelm single-A. He’s had some ups and downs in Modesto, but is clearly, clearly one of the biggest prospects in the game, and it’s been a while since we could say that about anyone in this org. This was one of the key indicators in my “upside” post, and this one gets a clear and unambiguous check next to it.

Beyond the hyped big three (all of whom have skipped past Justus Sheffield if you re-ranked the M’s prospects today), there’s additional depth in the lower minors. C Cal Raleigh had a poor start at the plate which obscures just how hot he’s been for the past month. Raleigh now has 20 HRs on the year, but was stuck on 7 less than a month ago. The M’s are seemingly set at C for a bit with Omar Narvaez’s emergence, but it’s tough to overstate just how valuable it’d be to have Cal Raleigh turn into a legitimate top-tier catcher prospect. Whatever they’re teaching the position players about hitting, it seems to be working.

4: Who’s the big 6-7 win player that the M’s can build around for 2021?

I don’t know. The M’s went 1.5 out of 3 on my optimistic scenarios, which isn’t terrible. But the all-important question of who’s going to *anchor* the M’s contention, who’s the shoo-in All-Star or down-ballot MVP candidate… that remains unresolved. The M’s thought it’d be Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales, and that belief’s taken a beating this year. Haniger’s plate discipline went south, and while he’s been a streaky hitter, there were legitimate questions about his ability to jump to a new level of production, and his poor start doesn’t help. Gonzales has been somewhat better of late, but overall has been even worse than Haniger. By BP’s DRA measure, Gonzales has been below replacement. His FIP and ERA are decent, but given his unearned runs and declining velo, I’m not heartened by those metrics. He’s been solid and then a mess, and the problem is I still have no idea WHY he was solid, and can see all too easily why he struggled.

Gonzales’ velocity spiked in his return from TJ, first in the Cards system, then in Tacoma, and after his call-up in 2017. It’s been nearly straight down since then. His reworked curve and the introduction of a cutter took the pressure off of his fastball, and that seemed to continue this April, even as his velocity dropped below 89. But batters learned to hit his cutter too, and his signature change is still a work in progress. The pessimistic post gets the check mark here.

He had a very solid year in 2018, so it’s not hard to imagine how he could get back to productivity. But for an org that’s had some success improving the velocity of their prospects, the decline in SP velocity, seemingly across the board, is a real concern. Gonzales needs to sit 90+, and ideally 91-92. He befuddled batters with an array of non-fastballs, but I worry that scouting reports are getting used to him and his approach. I think he can make some adjustments, but I just don’t see those adjustments getting him to 6-7 WAR – they’ll bring him back to a decent #3. The M’s will need to find their superstar somewhere else.

In that optimistic post I mentioned that the team would look very different if JP Crawford was a solid Jean Segura-level performer. He’s shown that he can do that, with a patient approach that’s lifted his batting line up by wRC+. But he’s been streaky, and BP’s DRC isn’t buying his walk-heavy approach at all. I tend to come down in between wRC+ and DRC, but that’s fine: that’s exactly what I was hoping for. I don’t think Crawford’s the star in the making he looked like a few weeks back, and I don’t think he’s a below-average hitter in his peak, either. I think he’s a bit above average, with a bit above average D, or defense that’s close to the median. That’s not Bregman/Story/Correa/Lindor, but that’s a hugely-important piece to build around. The M’s aren’t close to identifying a superstar for 2021, but I wanted to see that Crawford could be an important contributor, an All-Star at his peak, and he’s doing just that. There’s enough ambiguity in his advanced metrics that he bears special attention in the second half, but you can’t complain about his first half in Mariner blue.

5: How the rest of the division shaping up?

This is a fascinating one. At present, the Astros are simply playing a different game, but we already knew that. The M’s aren’t ready to challenge them, and won’t be for a while. But my worst fears were that the Astros player development advantages would push the gap further away, making 2021 look like a total pipe dream. 2021 may be a pipe dream, but it’s not because of the Astros’ player developement.

Coming into the year, the M’s and Astros had some solid near-majors prospects, with Sheffield and Swanson for the M’s and Josh James, Forest Whitley and JP Bukauskas for the Astros. Sheffield scuffled and has been demoted, as mentioned above. James, a prospect I have absolutely dreaded watching against the M’s, seemingly had a rotation spot in hand. But a spring injury set him back, and he’s been a frustrating middle-relief arm for Houston fans. He still has good velo and a strong K rate, but not much else has gone right for him.

A mediocre MLB season’s more than JB Bukauskas has managed, though. The UNC product went on the DL in early May, and has had poor results in AA. Forest Whitley’s coming off a drug suspension (non PED) in 2018, and has never looked the same as he did in the low minors. He’s been among the game’s top pitching prospects for a while now, but simply hasn’t pitched like it since 2017. Bukauskas’ ERA starts with a 6 right now, but Whitley’s was over 12 before he was shut down with shoulder issues. He’s back in their complex league in Florida at the moment. The Astros are so, so good that this hasn’t really slowed them down, but I worried that player development was going to give the Astros an entire staff made up of freakish 98-100 MPH aces who’d cut through the division and the game. I’m pleasantly surprised – in a way – that they’re instead making do with a revamped Wade Miley behind the 98 MPH of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.
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The A’s were hit hard by injuries, losing top pitching prospects AJ Puk and Jesus Lizardo, so their near-majors depth took a huge hit before 2019 began. This has left their rotation in a seemingly similar position to the M’s, in that it’s lacking bat-missing stuff. But the A’s are making it work, similar to what they did in 2018. On paper, you might even prefer the M’s starters over the likes of Daniel Mengden and Chris Bassitt, especially after breakout star Frankie Montas went down with an 80-game PED suspension. But the A’s have kept the ball in the park while the M’s haven’t, and thus the A’s get to live the M’s upside dreams, just like last season.

The A’s have quietly been building a PD machine, too, and while it’s not as deathstar-like as Houston’s, they’re turning out some quality position players. The trade of Jeff Samardzija reinvigorated their line-up, and then coaching turned Marcus Semien into a true asset at SS, and it gives them a left side of the IF that’s almost as good as Houston’s – and better in season’s like this one and last year when Carlos Correa misses time. All the same, they’ve got to figure out how to keep their pitchers healthy. Despite making Plan C, D, and E work in 2018 and 2019, they need some consistent starts out of Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, AJ Puk, Jesus Lizardo, Andrew Triggs, etc. Sometimes PD success is turning premium prospects into superstars, the way Houston did with, say, Alex Bregman. But the A’s getting non-awful production out of their staff when something like 8 out of their top 12 or so pitchers have missed significant time is pretty amazing.

The Angels’ staff has taken an absolute pounding, as their ballpark’s renowned HR-suppression seems to have collapsed, just as T-Mobile park’s did in recent years. They’re still a solid club thanks to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, who’s proving last year’s batting line wasn’t a fluke. But Jo Adell bounced back from a so-so statistical line in 2018 to push for the #1 overall prospect spot, and the team has pushed SP prospect Griffin Canning to the majors. They’re still not quite ready to contend, and some regression from Andrelton Simmons has kept them near .500, but they could be good by 2021.

Overall, this is still a mixed signal. The M’s lower-minors PD success coupled with the Astros high-minors pitching issues means that the gap between the two teams’ 2021 projections isn’t radically different now than before. But it’s time for the M’s to close the gap, and not celebrate that the gap isn’t still widening. The Astros have a ton of players who seem like they’ll be peaking around 2021-22. The M’s don’t know WHO might be a superstar in 2021, and banking on any of the Cal League prospects seems a bit of a stretch. Gilbert’s the closest of the bunch, but asking him to anchor the rotation in 2021 is a bit of a stretch.

The M’s are still in the position where they’ll need some savvy FA pick-ups to help out their pitching staff, and they may be competing with quite a few teams to get them. If Houston’s still the odds-on favorite for 2021, then the M’s need to worry about the developments in Tampa and Minnesota, too. Beyond the division, other clubs are already contending with young players, and that makes the M’s job harder, especially in the years they need to wait until Kelenic’s ready to lead the line-up.

Overall, the implosion of the pitching staff has made 2021 a pretty unrealistic goal. This was the key to their step-back approach, and it’s blown up. Instead, the M’s are in a traditional rebuild, albeit one that may be a bit further along than many. Daniel Vogelbach’s emergence and JP Crawford’s patience has made the top of the order almost tolerable, especially when Dee Gordon or Mallex Smith don’t lead off. There are several complementary pieces here that could make 2021’s line-up very long and challenging to get through. But they still need a superstar or two, and I’m not sure the first half of 2019 has helped them identify who that might be.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Mariners at the Break”

  1. LongDistance on July 12th, 2019 12:00 pm

    Good post. Thought provoking if only because it spins forward off where we are now (a bit to the left of the middle of nowhere) towards …

    OK, never mind that. But the gist of this season, if we want to talk about any form of salvage, was that the pitching (too late to talk about what might have been) gets some sort an upgrade going into August to lift things into .500 territory. To at least give fans a half a chance to see them win a home game?

    Ahem. Yeah. But, honestly, I think it’s a fair thing to factor in: ticket sales. Connie Mack always took it in count (and, I hate to admit it, Jack Z), and it would be a bit amiss to not attribute those conditions to the FO’s concerns.

    Also, I noticed that Felix wasn’t alluded to, even obliquely. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?

    I know. But my heart bleeds.

  2. Stevemotivateir on July 13th, 2019 10:18 pm

    Gilbert-Kikuchi-Gonzales-Dunn-Sheffield in any order isn’t a terrible foundation and I think everyone knows they intend to buy a front line starter at some point.

    An outfield featuring Kelenic, Fraley, and Rodriguez with Bishop in reserve isn’t scary (and that’s excluding the current regulars) and catcher could be set with or without Narvaez.

    I’m higher on White than most probably are, but I have some reservations over Long holding 2B or 3B, and there are no other foreseeable answers for 3B down the road.

    So, a focus on acquiring infielders appears to a given and it’s easy to believe that Dipoto might move Haniger, Smith, and Santana during the off season, if not before the deadline.

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