Game 162 A’s at Mariners – What’s It All Mean?

marc w · September 29, 2019 at 12:48 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Tanner Roark, 12:10pm

It was a rebuilding year, so there was never any doubt – save for a couple of crazy nights in early April – that the M’s string of seasons without a playoff game would continue. The M’s asked to be judged on a very different set of criteria, and while attendance and their win total have declined, it’s perfectly valid given their circumstances. I’m not opposed to the direction they took, but I’m still not feeling confident about their future, and that’s despite some luck finally going their way. I think my main issue is this: I thought we’d see clear, obvious evidence that this rebuild was on track, or that it was doomed. Yet again, I think we’re somewhat in the middle. It’s possible that my evidentiary standards are too high, and that we should see the lack of clear signs that it’s doomed as a good sign. But in a league that’s so bifurcated between superteams and everyone else, pretty much everything needs to go right for them…for multiple years. Not everything went right.

Back in March, I did my annual upside and risks posts. On the upside, there were three things they needed – to identify a superstar player (even if they didn’t play like one in 2019), having a prospect make the leap to one of the game’s best, and an above-average year from JP Crawford. I’d give them one out of three here, as *both* Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic have indeed become two of the game’s 15-25 best prospects. The development that occurred in the minors was formidable, but that growth was supposed to supplement growth that occurred at the major league level. And that side of the equation’s a bit harder to solve. Crawford looked like a 3-5 WAR shortstop at times, but fell into horrific slumps that left his overall season slash line well below average. He comes into the last game slashing .229/.316/.375. There are positives in there, of course, and he could tap into a bit more power as he develops, or get some BABIP help to up that batting average. But as is, the pure bat-to-ball skills haven’t materialized to help him make use of his amazing batting eye. His defense was simply way better than advertised, so again, not everything’s disastrous. But his streaky play and the unreal state of the shortstop position in baseball (7 shortstops hit over 30 HRs, and 12 hit over 20) makes it harder to see Crawford as the 6-8 WAR superstar who gives the M’s an obvious advantage in most every match-up.

Daniel Vogelbach looked like he’d finally arrived, torching the league in April and making an All-Star team. But he’s essentially been replacement-level since then, hitting .160/.286/.343 in the second half, and .189/.319/.383 since *April 21st*. As a DH/kinda-1B, that’s not going to cut it. I still think he can contribute, especially if he swings more at pitches in the zone, but this was a worrying slide. I’m not really sure if Vogelbach is in the plans going forward now that Evan White looms, and the M’s can’t afford to miss out on players like that. Is he just Bryan LaHair 2.0, or is there a 7-10 year starter lurking underneath the hot/cold streaks?

It’s the same question with Mallex Smith, whose late-year improvements may have saved his 2020 job, but who now looks like someone the M’s can’t count on to man CF long-term. He’s hitting .228/.301/.337, with essentially all of his numbers cratering since his 3+ WAR 2018. Even with the new ball, he’s never going to be a power hitter, which makes the low average harder to stomach. It wasn’t just BABIP luck, as that number was on the good side of .300, just down from the .366 it stood at in Tampa. You know all about his defensive struggles, and while I’m glad those turned around somewhat, it’s harder to see him as a consistently excellent defender now. The M’s have young OFs on the way up, with Jake Fraley, Kyle Lewis, and of course Kelenic, but I’m not sure any of those three should be in CF full time. Braden Bishop probably should, but his injury-plagued 2019 makes it harder to see how he breaks out of the 4th-outfielder ceiling many have slapped on him. It was only 58 PAs, but .109/.140/.109 is not how you make a great first impression.

That brings us to the two players the M’s themselves identified as critical: Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales. Haniger’s lost year made 2019 harder to watch, and harder to evaluate. He wasn’t tearing things up before he tore…a really important thing up, but I’m fine giving him a mulligan. We’ve all been waiting for him to make the leap from excellent/All-Star candidate RF to superstar, and he’s still got the possibility, though it’s diminishing with age. And if Mitch was hard to evaluate, I’m not even sure what to say about Marco Gonzales. I’ll start with this: He’s better than a lot of people, including me, give him credit for. I think I’ve been the most pessimistic about his chances to succeed with diminished velo, but he’s been a quality MLB starter this year, albeit with some hot/cold streaks of his own. It all adds up to someone that’s more than the sum of his peripherals/measurables, and I think I’ve underestimated him because of that.

But you can put a thumb or two on the scale for his pitchability and competitiveness and still not have an ace, and I’m still not sure why the M’s have seemed to argue that he is one, or could become one. Gonzales ended up essentially repeating his good 2018, albeit with fewer strikeouts and more walks. The ERA was essentially identical, so he’s got two years of a 4.00 ERA, and two years of solid HR-suppression. I think his 2018-2019 run is essentially the best anyone could hope for given his bat-missing and velocity, and while that level of production is higher than I ever would’ve thought possible, I simply don’t see a path to a 6-8 WAR season. Give Marco 5 extra MPH and you could, but at this point, I’d just settle for him stopping the velo decline. Justus Sheffield was supposed to push his way into the rotation in May, but that didn’t happen. His rebound from a worst-case-scenario type of April/May has been encouraging, and his change-up is probably better than I think it is, but a wholesale change in M’s pitching coach/PD approach didn’t unlock #1 potential in Sheffield, at least not yet. If the M’s have an ace in 2021, it’s not going to be someone on the team now.

With their OF prospect superstars and an absolutely massive year from Logan Gilbert, the M’s clearly have the potential for a home-grown core that has real upside in 2021. Gilbert could easily be their #1 in 2021 or 2022, and that takes a lot of pressure off of Sheffield and today’s starter, Justin Dunn. The question is, what does that get you? I’m not sure they’d be ready to fully compete, but you can identify some obvious stars that’ll make them much more compelling to watch than this year’s group. But as we watched the Astros continue to lay waste to the league, we need to come to terms with just how massive the gap between the M’s and the superteams really is, and how many complimentary players they’ll need *even if* the prospects hit their 99th percentile outcomes in the bigs. That’s why figuring out what the hell the A’s are doing is even more critical. The Indians keep churning out pitchers like Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. The Twins look ready to be at least a wild card player for years, and here are the A’s, fighting through ridiculous injury luck to win 90+ games for a second straight year.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Smith, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Dunn

More to come in the days ahead, as we dig through 2019 and where the M’s go from here. It’ll actually be a fascinating off-season for them, as they’ll have several key decisions to make. Thanks again for reading this season.


5 Responses to “Game 162 A’s at Mariners – What’s It All Mean?”

  1. Westside guy on September 30th, 2019 6:18 pm

    Thanks for all your work here, Marc.

    I haven’t been participating in the game threads much this year simply because I haven’t been watching the games (walking away from the onerously expensive Comcast cable tiers has had one unfortunate side effect). I’d occasionally listen on radio, but for the most part I’ve just followed the box scores after the fact, along with the stories online. However I have continued to come here and read (and enjoy!) your insights, along with the occasional stuff from Jay. I look forward to reading what you have to say regarding the off season.

  2. bat guano on October 2nd, 2019 8:23 am

    Nice summary of where we are. Thanks for all of your work on this site. (I especially appreciate the minor league recaps) It will be interesting to see what Jerry does this off-season and what the team looks like a year from now.

  3. LongDistance on October 2nd, 2019 11:18 am

    Thanks Marc. For me, your posts permitted this season to have a there there.

  4. Stevemotivateir on October 8th, 2019 11:03 am

    Thanks, Marc. It amazes me how you’ve been carrying the whole load here. Much appreciated.

    One thing I would point out about the prospects is that Seattle probably isn’t expecting all or even most of them to break out into stars. But if they can get 3 or 4, they might be able to buy whatever’s still needed.

    It really isn’t a big deal if Vogelbach doesn’t hit or Fraley and Bishop can’t handle full-time roles. There’s time to find answers.

  5. Westside guy on October 25th, 2019 9:11 pm

    So The Condor is retiring:

    I always felt like he got a bit of a bum break coming up with the Mariners when he did. It made me inordinately happy when he finally – if, unfortunately, only briefly – succeeded, even if it was mostly with the Blue Jays.

    He always seemed like a good guy. Good luck managing the young’uns, Michael!

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