M’s Get a Few Breaks, Still Project Poorly for 2020

marc w · February 11, 2020 at 12:10 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The on-again, off-again trade between the Red Sox and Dodgers for Mookie Betts was finally completed the other day. The Dodgers get much better in 2020, and the Red Sox win the financial flexibility pennant. After Twins prospect Brusdar Graterol’s medicals held things up, the Dodgers finally acquired the fireballer along with a catching prospect while the Twins continue to solidify their grip on the AL Central by picking up Kenta Maeda. The Dodgers and Twins get richer in baseball terms, while the Red Sox get richer in a more literal fashion. What’s this got to do with the Mariners? Well, the original deal had the LA Angels acquiring Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling from the Dodgers. That component didn’t survive last weekend, and thus the Angels are down a solid starting pitcher as well as a big corner OF upgrade. Combine that with the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing scandal (from the firing of their GM to draft penalties) and you can argue that this off-season went as well as it possibly could have from an M’s point of view, especially if you take it as a given that the M’s were never going to target free agent talent. The M’s stock vis a vis the leaders of the AL West improved, not through any action the M’s took, but because a trade got messed up and because the League levied punishments on the divisional colossus. Not bad.

And yet, it hasn’t materially impacted the M’s predicament, one nicely summarized by the just-released PECOTA-based projected standings from Baseball Prospectus. As of this morning, the M’s project for 66-96, securely in last place, some seven wins below the Rangers, and 32 behind the still-colossal Astros. The reason is clear: PECOTA thinks the M’s do not have a capable major league starter, and the bullpen is basically CJ Edwards and a bunch of fungible AAAA guys. BP’s pitching metrics were remarkably bearish on the M’s starters – and Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi in particular – last year, but they were similarly unimpressed by the seasons turned in by Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn. An optimist can pretty easily see how to add 10-15 wins to this projection: assume a bounce-back from Kikuchi, more of the same from Marco, and some improvements from Sheffield and perhaps even Logan Gilbert, and you’ve got a rotation that won’t embarrass itself the way PECOTA thinks it will. Of course, even with all of that, they’d just barely scrape .500. It may be a very long year.

Let’s take a look at Clay Davenport’s projections instead. Davenport’s generally been the most optimistic of the projection systems, as it saw the M’s winning 83 games last year (PECOTA forecast just 72), 87 in 2018, and 86 in 2017. They’ve projected the M’s to be over .500 each year since 2014; surely, this is the place for optimism, right? Well, Davenport’s got the M’s at 68-94, with the problem again on the pitching side of the ledger. The M’s are forecast to allow more runs than all AL teams save for Baltimore and Kansas City. The offense is also a concern, though, with low batting averages/OBPs sinking the run-scoring despite solid seasons from Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager. After a dalliance with a high-average/low-power offense in 2018, the M’s will sink or swim with guys like JP Crawford and Dan Vogelbach, whose patience can partially make up for low averages. Then there’s the fact that all systems see a decline for Tom Murphy, and don’t see Evan White/Kyle Lewis as completely ready to be above-average corner IF/OF bats in 2020. PECOTA’s a bit higher on Vogelbach than most, but much lower on Mallex Smith.

It’s one thing to forecast a slash line correctly, it’s another thing to get playing time right (especially with teams that have made so many roster moves, like the M’s), and it’s yet another thing to assess what that production *means*. Mallex Smith’s line is virtually identical between PECOTA (.249/.316/.362), Davenport (.250/.321/.370), and ZiPS (.250/.319/.364). But between slightly less playing time, park adjustments, and the run value of the entire league, you get a big swing in what those numbers mean. By ZiPS, that OBP-heavy line is worth 1.6 WAR. Davenport sees him at 0.6, while PECOTA thinks it’s just about replacement level.

No one really thinks this year’s going to be exciting due to a playoff run or contention. The only that matters, I suppose, is finding out which players, and especially which pitchers, blow their projections out of the water. Of course the error bars are much wider on guys like Sheffield and Dunn (to say nothing of Gilbert or George Kirby), as they’ve got less experience to project from. But the M’s have to start hitting on prospects and turning them into star-level players. All the financial flexibility in the world won’t mean as much come next year if the M’s still need 3-4 starters and 3-4 position players to compete. The good news is that the division isn’t completely running away from them, at least not right now. But the gap remains, and other teams have young players who’ll be around to frustrate the Kelenic/Rodriguez fever dreams of M’s optimists. Sheffield and Dunn need to make the projections look foolish, and Evan White needs to hit early and often. It won’t matter much this year, but it’s the only way to get to a point where the M’s next wave could be decisive in shifting the balance of baseballing power.


5 Responses to “M’s Get a Few Breaks, Still Project Poorly for 2020”

  1. eponymous coward on February 12th, 2020 5:34 pm

    This is why I don’t get the “we aren’t going to bother to spend this year” rigidity. This has the potential to be a really bad 60ish win team, less if we’re dealing with bad luck and indifferent development. It’s a lot tougher to go from 60-65 wins to contention than 75 wins to contention. This feels more like a team that’s going to spend 2021 and 2022 pulling talent together to still try to get over the goat rodeo of a really bad 2020.

  2. bookbook on February 12th, 2020 7:25 pm

    True contention in 2021 requires too many things going right to realistically worry about. Gonzales/Kikuchi/Sheffield/Gilbert/Dunn would presumably be the rotation.

    Would be the line-up.

    That’s looking more 2023 than 2021.

  3. Stevemotivateir on February 12th, 2020 7:58 pm

    Does it really matter if Evan White doesn’t hit much this season, or if Sheffield or Dunn fail to hold any position in the rotation?

    You want to see progress, but they don’t have to hit on everyone this year. It’s perfectly ok if White, Fraley, Bishop, and Lewis need time in AAA. It’s ok if Sheffield and Dunn do as well.

    They may not contend in 2021, but most people probably understand that that’s a long shot anyway.

  4. Lailoken on February 13th, 2020 1:56 pm

    The team has dead money for Bruce & Encarnacion coming off the books after 2020. Also Gordon, Hirano, & Walker will hit free agency. That’s money opening up when they start to intend to contend.

    I thought one bigger bullpen addition would have been nice but really we know how the division is stacked up this year & if real contention is in 2022 why pay upfront for what may fall apart over 2+ years?

    The ETA for a lot of the prospects is 2021 or 2022. I think JeDi was right in saying we’d be more interesting in the 2nd half of 2020 & up for a little contention in 2021. Spending on a few more extensions & then a bigger FA piece or two before opening day 2021 with a couple of aging assets traded off sounds about right to me.

    There’s definitely not enough room for all the outfielders & bullpen arms. If the farm develops young starting pitching well enough this year three will be a surplus there too.

    The plan appears sound. Aim for younger, bounce back types then decide if you want to keep them or parlay them for younger talent down the road in the contention window. Sound thinking.

  5. Stevemotivateir on February 15th, 2020 7:55 pm

    ^I don’t think we know anything about our outfielders or relievers yet (or anyone else). Once we know what Fraley, Lewis, Bishop, Kelenic, and Rodriguez are or aren’t, then we can start thinking about trades. Same goes for all the other prospects.

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