Game 115, Padres at Mariners – Another Path Forward?

marc w · August 6, 2019 at 5:23 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Matt Wisler/Wade Le Blanc vs. Dinelson Lamet, 7:10pm

A pair of former Padres face the Padres tonight as the M’s return home from absolute destruction at the hands of the Houston Astros. We’ve been talking about it for years now, but the Astros have essentially separated themselves from the rest of the division and league, and what’s worse, they keep restocking their talent. Sure, they gave up prospects to acquire Aaron Sanchez and Zack Greinke. Sure, they may or may not re-sign Gerrit Cole. But with the emergence of Yordan Alvarez (whose reign of terror is unlike any I’ve seen from a young rookie since, what, Pujols?), they now have a core of three homegrown potential superstars who will be in their mid-late 20s right in the M’s self-identified contention window. This is what has me almost continuously pessimistic.

I caught the latest episode of M’s podcast The Wheelhouse today; this episode was hosted by the great Colin O’Keefe. Almost immediately, Colin asked Jerry Dipoto how to emulate the Astros? How do *we* get a club that’s essentially the divisional favorite year in and year out? Dipoto’s answer was that they planned to build through young players, and that they’d start to chip away at the Astros’ advantage as soon as next year. Candidly, he said they simply weren’t as talented, which is both painfully obvious to observers, and also kind of refreshing to hear from the GM.

Given the emergence of Alvarez, though, the M’s could just as easily see the Astros *widen* the gap next year. I wrote back in March that the M’s needed to identify who their stars were going to be, and to start, they needed to find one player who could put up a 6-8 WAR season. The Astros have several such players, and the A’s have a couple, and the Angels have one who does this in his sleep. The M’s needed to find just one player, and then build around that. Ideally, though I didn’t stress this enough in that piece, that this player should do so convincingly. Jarred Kelenic’s had a great season – one that gives M’s fans hope about a 6-8 WAR ceiling or even consistent 6-8 WAR seasons, but as a 20 year old who’s struggling a bit right now, I don’t know that we can just plug him in for MVP votes in 2020-2021. It could happen! That would be very helpful, but counting on it is madness. Daniel Vogelbach started off so strong that he looked like he would scoff in the face of positional adjustments and slug his way to it. But as the year’s gone on, I fear he may be capped around 3-4 in a good year. The walk rate boosts his floor, but I don’t think he can be a superstar with his current tool set. Mitch Haniger *could*, but after a lost season and some regression, it seems tough to imagine he’ll just put it all together at age 30 (he’ll be 30 in 2021). Marco Gonzales has backed up in just about every conceivable measure, and just didn’t quite have the skillset to get to 6-8 WAR anyway. Judging from the condition I set out, this season’s been a failure.

But maybe I was going about this the wrong way. Another thing I wrote about in that same piece was the importance of getting better-than-league-average performance from JP Crawford. Forget a 6-8 WAR ceiling. Just give me solid defense at SS and a Segura-esque 110 wRC+ or DRC+. Above-average bat and glove is a great player, even if it’s not quite Correa/Bregman good. In THIS case, the M’s and Crawford clearly, inarguably hit the mark. I worry about Crawford’s streakiness at the plate and about the raw hitting ability, but his walk rate ameliorates those worries. I don’t think he’s Xander Bogaerts, but he doesn’t need to be. He could settle in and become a 3-5 WAR SS for years and years, and that’s a player a team can win with. But doesn’t a winning team need more?

In general, yes. The great teams we see today in Houston and Los Angeles, or like the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox, have big-time stars and have filled in around them admirably. The Cubs had Kris Bryant, the Sox had Mookie Betts, the Yankees had Aaron Judge, the Indians had Jose Ramirez or Corey Kluber or Francisco Lindor. Those great players take the pressure off of a GM, because you don’t need big-time production from the rest of the line-up or rotation. You can get more limited players who still add value. Your young players can develop in an environment where they don’t have to carry a line-up/staff, and free agents can fill in known needs in the bullpen or defense, etc. Stars allow you to overcome down years or injuries from contributing players (though of course their presence increases risk, as if THEY go down, you could be screwed). But of course, this isn’t the only way to win. It’s just a really common one.

A good team needs 45 WAR or more to really contend. By Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, that’d put you at about 92-93 wins; by Baseball Prospectus’ WARP measure, you’d be in the mid 90s. The best teams in recent memories got 30 or so from position players and another 20-25 from pitchers, but of course you can mix and match based on the talent you have. Pitching and defense win championships except when offense slugs its way to the crown. Anyway, what would a team without any big stars look like? Can the math work out to get you to 45-50 WAR without any one player amassing 6-8? Sure. If you’d like to see how this could work operationally, look at the Minnesota Twins.

Depending on the WAR framework you use, they may have an outlier. Baseball Prospectus sees Jorge Polanco as a *bit* to good for this analogy to really work though he’s in the 4s currently. Fangraphs sees SP Jose Berrios as the guy who doesn’t belong, while BP thinks he and the rest of the Twins pitchers have been decidedly unimpressive. But the Twins are still 4 games up in the Central, and for our purposes, you could knock a win or two off and still have a good, young, contending team. The Twins have an OF of Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, and Eddie Rosario. Buxton has star-level tools, but hasn’t yet put up a superstar season. He might have this year, but he’s been hurting. Kepler seemed stuck in the Nomar Mazara loop of eschewing development and putting up the same season year after year, but he’s already hit 30 tanks this year and has become a very solid player. The hit tool, position, and walk rate prevent him from Mookie Bettsing things, so he’s perfect: a 3-5 win RF. Eddie Rosario’s aversion to plate discipline keeps him at 2-4 WAR even with a legitimately good hit tool. Check, check, and check in the OF. SS Polanco’s having a breakout season, so may be on his way to a 5-7 win year, but knock some off of his SLG% or batting average, and I think JP Crawford could replicate it at his peak. If Crawford clicks and gets you 4-5 wins, then perfect, the M’s have their Polanco-equivalent…almost. Shed Long seems like a decent pick to be league average, as he was nearly league average at the plate in his first taste of MLB. The glove isn’t ideal, but give him a year plus of seasoning and a 2-3 win season is quite reasonable. The Twins catcher production is another spot that threatens to be TOO good for this analogy to work, but then, that’s been the M’s strength as well. A bit of defensive improvement and Omar Narvaez can get to 3-4 WAR on his own; pair him with anything but a black hole, and the position can get you 4-5 fairly easily.

Now, I’m not quite sure what to do about 3B. The Twins have Miguel Sano, who’s reclaimed some of his prospect luster, but the M’s are quietly sending off Kyle Seager and don’t really have a 3B ready to go in the minors. I’ll waive my magic free agent wand and assume they can find one. CF’s a bit rough, too, with Mallex Smith’s faceplant this year. He’s young so it’s not hopeless, and the positional value makes a 2 WAR season a fairly low bar, but he’s not come close this year. That said, a bounce-back (he’s already HAD a 3 WAR season) or the emergence of Jake Fraley could take care of this. Nelson Cruz is a high bar for anyone, as he’s already at 3 WAR despite missing time. But Vogelbach can get to 3 WAR this year, so that already fits the bill, and he could do more by 2021.

It’s obviously tougher when we look at pitching. But instead of pretending Marco Gonzales is an ace, the M’s just need to find more league-average arms to have a contender. The Twins rotation is anchored by Berrios, but they’ve got Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez, and Jake Odorizzi contributing well, too. BP’s down on the group, but they’re all around league average by Fangraphs. Marco’s had one better-than-average campaign and could get back there with some tweaks, I think. From here, we get more speculative. Erik Swanson and Justus Sheffield – the two high-minors prospects with rotation pedigrees – have been awful this year, but a league average year is a hell of a lot more attainable than the #2 starter tag that I think many attached to Sheffield (the M’s #1 prospect heading into 2019). Swanson, too, has some tools along with his gopheritis. You can’t count on it, but the pair could conceivably figure things out by 2021. Justin Dunn could be a 4th average starter, I suppose, leaving one spot for a free agent or pop-up prospect. The M’s would need 6 or so WAR from their bullpen, which is tougher without a dominant star-level closer like 2018 Edwin Diaz, but again, the Twins and Taylor Rogers are showing that it can be done (by M’s cast-offs like Ryne Harper!).

Is this likely? Err, not really. You really need to essentially shoot the moon here. 16-18 WAR from the staff means the M’s need to get 3+ WAR from every field position to get to 45 WAR(P). And even that figures to be behind the Astros, who could conceivably replace Gerrit Cole with a potted plant and be the divisional favorite in 2021. But while 2019 has failed to see the M’s develop a superstar, effectively closing the door on the way *I* thought they wanted to compete in 2021, Crawford and Narvaez point to another route to relevancy. It’s incredibly hard and may not be enough, but at least this door’s still open. From this vantage point, the not-awful debuts of Long and Austin Nola along with the big step forward by Vogelbach look more interesting. I’m not sure they can get there on the pitching side, but it beats pretending that Sheffield or Gonzales is going to be an MLB #2 anytime soon.

The Padres are in town advertising the classic Astros-style team build. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. has blown away even the most optimistic, fever-dreamy expectations fans put on him and may be a perennial All-Star. With Chris Paddack, Manny Machado, and a solid bullpen, they’ve got some star power to go with a formidable minor league system. They drop off pretty quickly, but the ceiling remains high. Cal Quantrill’s adjusted to MLB much better than I’d have guessed, and with Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi, they have a solid 1-4 in the rotation. #5 has been a bit more volatile, with Nick Margevicius and Matt Strahm struggling. As a result, the Pads have turned back to Dinelson Lamet, a starter in 2017 who went down with TJ surgery and lost all of 2018 and much of 2019 with rehab. In 2017, he averaged 95 on his rising four-seam fastball, and threw a ton of 86 mph sliders that utterly confused hitters. He wasn’t dominant – despite the dominant breaking ball – due to fastball command and control; he paired too many home runs and too many walks. But he wasn’t bad, and could easily get back to league average or better if he stays healthy.

Besides health, he’s going to have to figure out what to do about lefties, who’ve killed him in 2017 and in his 2019 return. His fastball’s still at 95-96, but it’s more cutter-like with less horizontal and vertical movement. It’s been hit hard in his small-sample 2019, but the slider’s still effective. Tough match-up for the righties today, so the M’s need Vogelbach and Seager to have a nice night.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 2B
8: Moore, LF
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Wisler/Le Blanc

Tim Beckham’s been suspended 80 games for a positive PED test (it was stanozolol). That’ll end his M’s career, and really hurts his market as he hits free agency with some remaining suspension to serve.

I got to see the Rainiers yesterday on a beautiful Monday morning, but they were dismantled 10-1 by the Iowa Cubs. Newcomer Bryan Ellington was intriguing, hitting 98 multiple times in the 8th inning. The PCL’s off today.
West Virginia sacked Rome 5-2, vandalizing the Braves’ pitching staff for 13 hits. Justin Dunn got the win, but gave up 4 runs on 2 dingers in 5 1/3, as Arkansas beat back the separatists of Northwest Arkansas, 6-4.
Justus Sheffield starts for Arkansas against NW Arkansas’ Dan Tillo, an old-school sinkerballer, in the system’s key game today.


7 Responses to “Game 115, Padres at Mariners – Another Path Forward?”

  1. 11records on August 6th, 2019 6:29 pm

    Some strong, and slightly depressing, analysis.

    If we wanted to take a more optimistic view, there’s a decent chance that Logan Gilbert could be ready in 2021, as he’s already proving himself at the AA level. And Justus Sheffield is in the midst of what looks to be another dominant start tonight. So, it might be premature to write off his year as a total loss. Esp if he shows well in the 3 or 4 September starts that he’ll likely get.

    **the M’s could call him up as soon as the next turn thru the rotation, but I think they’ll likely keep him in Arkansas thru the AA playoffs?

    I also wonder if Kyle Lewis or Evan White have a little lottery ticket left to their development? White might have some nascent power in there (112mph off the bat isn’t an accident) and Lewis has been like Ken Griffey on the road (and like Al Martin at home.)

  2. Microsoft Zunino on August 6th, 2019 7:22 pm

    “High ceiling” and “low ceiling” are cliches but I wonder if some of the gap between the M’s and Astros is explained by it. Jeff Luhnow was quite bold in asserting from the get-go that Houston’s Process had one goal in mind, and the Astros philosophy in drafting and acquiring talent has consistently mirrored that swing for the fences approach: can I see this guy winning a WS in our uniform? Houston is studded with that type of player.

    Meanwhile, DiPoto is talking about Control the Zone and a contention window 24 months down the road, and aside from a few exciting prospects, the M’s seem to have emphasized getting low ceiling/ high floor players. But as you emphasize, there’s few guys in the M’s org that make you think “Future World Series MVP.” Evan White and Kyle Lewis, as nice as they are, aren’t that type of player. After the Zduriencik Thirst For Bop years, it’s still a welcome change, but discouraging to see other franchises stay ahead even while we advance.

    What complicates this is the effect the coaching staffs have. By all accounts, Houston’s is as good as anybody’s; you read accounts of players getting traded to Houston and sitting down as the coaching staff blows their minds with how deep their analysis is – and the players get geeked for it! The Dodgers have also had some notable success “coaching up” several seemingly destined to AAAA guys like Chris Taylor and Max Muncy into remarkable improvement as hitters. The M’s after years of being viewed almost as the Bermuda Triangle of player development, are gaining a reputation for doing something similar with pitchers. But I wonder if they’re just helping low ceiling guys achieve a low ceiling, while Houston and LA are helping theirs reach October.

  3. MKT on August 6th, 2019 10:27 pm

    “West Virginia sacked Rome 5-2, vandalizing the Braves’ pitching staff for 13 hits. ”

    Nice classical references! Unfortunately the Ms instead of “Veni, vidi, vici” are more like “Veni, vidi, victus”.

  4. marc w on August 6th, 2019 10:43 pm

    I liked it. Glad someone else did.

  5. marc w on August 6th, 2019 10:48 pm

    Right, this is the crux of the argument. It’s not that there’s no development of any kind going on. It’s: is there development at a certain scale that can really close the gap with the Astros or, as you point out, Dodgers.
    It’s great to get kids settled in the low minors or to help, I don’t know, Jake Fraley make some key improvements. It’s another to take some cast off or even a big prospect and turn them into a star at the big league level. JP Crawford is getting better. Erik Swanson…I hope the M’s can develop him, but the jury is out thus far.

  6. Stevemotivateir on August 7th, 2019 6:46 pm


    Dipoto (note the “p” is not capitalized) inherited a nearly worthless farm, and though you could argue he whiffed on the Chris Taylor trade (he did), he hasn’t traded away any prospects with elite potential. O’Neill might have had the most, but that kS% was a huge red flag. Still is.

    It has been less than a year and the farm has jumped from dead last to eighth (fangraphs). What more could you possibly ask for in less than a year? How does that suggest there’s a problem with Seattle’s organizational coaching?

    Regarding those lottery-tickets mentioned, the Red Sox won the WS with a Moreland/Pearce duet at 1B that racked up 2.2 fWAR combined; Houston, the year before, won it with Gurriel at 1.8 fWAR. If those teams represent the bar for Evan White, I’ll take the over. Kyle Lewis was never a high-floor/low-ceiling type, and though he got off to a terrible injury-plagued start, he hit .313/.414/.410 in June and .337/.394/.547 in July. 11records was spot-on with his comment about those two. He wasn’t suggesting they’re destined to be WS MVP types (how many actually are!?), he’s suggesting they may prove to be more valuable than some of you are giving them credit for. I’m suggesting that, anyway.

    Again, we’re less than a year into this rebuild. Seattle has a stronger farm than Houston right now, and the collection of outfield prospects is second to none. They could use an ace, a third baseman and probably a closer to move forward with, but the desperation list has shrunk considerably as has their committed payroll for 2021 and beyond.

    Not bad at all for less than a year of changes.

    Houston may lose Cole, Verlander, and Springer over the next two years. Those names wouldn’t be easy to replace. It shouldn’t be difficult to see how Seattle could give the Astros a run for their money in a few years.

  7. Stevemotivateir on August 8th, 2019 5:19 am

    Kelenic extended his hitting streak to 8 games in which he’s hitting .424 with an OPS of 1.035.

    I still think he’s 2 years away, but his arrival will hopefully mark the beginning of a new era.

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