Show Me a Sign

marc w · February 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Given the baseball news this winter, I should’ve titled this something different. The M’s begin their cactus league games this weekend, and despite what looks like a rough season, the M’s have some optimism about them. The primary source is, of course, the outfield tandem of Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, two of the better prospects in the game. For a number of reasons, some baseball-related, and some very much not, neither will break camp with Seattle, and likely won’t play at all until the super 2 deadline next year at the earliest. But it’s still good to see these two players, thrust into the role of franchise co-saviors, turn some heads. Logan Gilbert’s doing similar work on the mound, too. All of that means there’s reason to hope that the next wave of young Mariners might actually be the one to close the gap between the frightful current state of the club and their rivals.

Over the past few days, baseball sites have issued playoff odds and projected standings for 2020. As you’d expect, the picture is especially bleak for Seattle. ZiPS projected standings came out this morning, and foresee the darkest timeline: a 100-loss M’s club. Fangraphs’ projections have them at 66-96, right where Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA sees the M’s finishing. The ever-optimistic Clay Davenport’s got them at 68-94, pretty much exactly in line with where Caesar’s Palace set the over/under line (67.5 wins). Based on everything we know now, based on the statistics, age, growth, attrition, etc. of the roster, the M’s simply aren’t in the same class as the rest of the league.

I know the M’s said that they’d focus on contention in 2021, but that’s now really, really close. Worst-to-first teams happen, but they happen extremely rarely. A whole lot of ground work was supposed to be completed by now, and there’s not a lot of evidence for it. More than anything, that’s what 2020 needs to show us. That while players like Justus Sheffield or JP Crawford or Yusei Kikuchi showed fleeting glimpses of being legitimately good MLB Players, inconsistency and mechanical issues held them back – and that those things won’t hold them back going forward. We still don’t know what to make of players like Kyle Lewis and Evan White, between park effects in Arkansas and up-and-down power numbers over their careers. You can understand why the projections wouldn’t look kindly on the M’s, and if you squint, you can convince yourself that the projections don’t know enough to be relevant. But we need to see it on the field. Arguably, we needed to see it last year, but hey, it’s a new campaign: it’s time for many players to blow their projections out of the water. If they don’t, it’s going to sting for a while.

The reason is that the AL in general is pretty good, and there are several teams rich with developing talent that are developing into contenders right when the M’s self-identified window opens. Those teams are already better than the M’s in current-MLB talent, so if the M’s don’t improve their base talent, not even Kelenic/Rodriguez can help them being defenestrated by the White Sox/Angels/Blue Jays. As I mentioned in the last post, the past year has offered a host or reasons for optimism. Coming into last year, I worried that the gap between the M’s and Astros would continue to widen, as near-term prospects like Josh James and Forrest Whitley helped them improve (or replace talent lost to free agency/trades) faster than Seattle. I worried that the Red Sox and Yankees would create lasting dynasties that pretty much always captured two of the AL’s playoff spots, while Tampa could be a perennial 90+ win team threatening to take the other wild card. Cleveland’s lull was replaced by Minnesota arriving ahead of schedule, and the Jays had no pitching, but two of the game’s best prospects arriving and doing damage in MLB. The White Sox long-simmering rebuild finally started to bear fruit, as Yoan Moncada looked good, and Lucas Giolito became an utterly unrecognizable and effective starter.

But looking back, so much broke FOR the Mariners. The Astros’ scandal has cost them their GM, SP Gerrit Cole left, and Josh James was so-so in the bullpen. Forrest Whitley lost yet another season to mechanical issues and ineffectiveness, and despite the emergence of Yordan Alvarez, there’s hope that the pipeline of talent that’s made them the league’s best team is starting to dry up. The Red Sox are embroiled in their own scandals, and sold off/traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. They are clearly weaker in 2020 than we would’ve expected a year ago, and while the Yankees are better, they remain injury-plagued and older than the rest of these teams. The Indians looked to be building a dominant rotation on the cheap, but another injury to Mike Clevinger means they may not be ready to dominate in the early-going, and their offense won’t inspire terror in opposing teams. Minnesota was great last year, and has gotten better, but they’re split between young, streaky players (Byron Buxton) and older players (Nellie Cruz, Josh Donaldson). They could be great, but you could argue they’re built more for 2020 than 2021.

So is there a realistic path to contention in 2021? No, not really. Not that I can see, anyway. The Astros, Yankees and Twins figure to be in contention for the division in 2021, with the Angels, A’s, Rays, White Sox, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Indians fighting with Seattle for the two wild cards. All of these teams were better in 2019, and all of them are projected to be better in 2020. And not by 5-6 games: in most cases, the gap is simply massive (15-20 games or more). The M’s can chip away at that gap by spending money in free agency next winter, and with players like Betts or JT Realmuto on the block, they could add a lot of talent. But they have to build up the talent level of the team in order for Betts or Realmuto to raise them to contention.

The Blue Jays and White Sox offer two glimpses at paths that rebuilding teams have taken, and are cautionary tales about a rapid rebuild. The Jays thought they’d have a team on the very edge of the second wild card last year, at least if their uber-prospects Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr. were able to have immediate success in the majors. Bichette was transcendent, and while Guerrero was more up-and-down, he put up a 105 wRC+ at age 20, which isn’t too bad. They got a near best-case version of their top prospects, the Canadian equivalents of Kelenic/Rodriguez, and they were still abysmal. They traded off Marcus Stroman, and now have a very deep array of pitching prospects, but a nearly-as-deep stable of pitching prospects couldn’t save their 2019 season. Lourdes Gourriel was as-advertised, Cavan Biggio showed flashes, but the base-level talent wasn’t good enough to lift the club to .500, let alone contention. Even with a full year of their top prospects and age-related growth/development, they don’t appear ready to challenge Tampa, let alone New York. They do seem a year ahead of the M’s pace, though, and while you could plot a course for the M’s to pass them in 2021, it seems more likely that that extra year will keep them ahead of Seattle in a future wild card race.

The White Sox had a contending team, but decided to blow it all up, selling off Chris Sale and Jose Quintana (on cheap extensions) and acquiring J2 superstars to build up their farm system. This began in 2016, and this is really the fourth year of the complete rebuild, as Sale went to Boston before the 2017 season. For much of this time, the Sox have looked stuck: Moncada, the headline return for Sale, wasn’t awful, but high Ks and meh power sapped his value. Giolito, the big return for OF Adam Eaton, was even worse. In both cases, their 2018 was worse than their 2019; they simply weren’t developing on schedule. But everyone took a step forward in 2019, with Eloy Jimenez sticking in Chicago, Moncada breaking out, and Giolito putting together a great year. This year, Luis Robert’s ready to debut. Given where both Cleveland and Minnesota are, I’m not sure they’re quite ready in 2020, but they look to be a solid wild card-contending club in 2021. The moral here is that unless the player development group is a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine, even top prospects don’t improve in a linear fashion: there are ups and downs.

What’s the moral here? The Blue Jays big prospects hit immediately, while the White Sox prospects took longer. In both cases, poor talent surrounding those prospects meant that the clubs couldn’t contend even when the prospects broke out. For both, pitching was a key problem, as was depth in the line-up. The M’s want to greatly accelerate the timeline to contention that these teams are on, AND pass them by next year. The two clubs’ histories show why that’s a tall order. If it DID happen, it would require the M’s starting rotation to be a source of strength, and not what looks like a massive, gaping hole. Justus Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi need to be good from day one. Justin Dunn needs to make the next big step forward, and Marco Gonzales needs to recapture some velo and become a legitimately good MLB starter, not just a good Mariners starter. Shed Long and Evan White need to be solid players, and JP Crawford needs to gain some consistency. Whatever happened to Mallex Smith and Dan Vogelbach last year needs to stop, immediately, as they’re probably gone fairly quickly if they don’t adjust. One of the OF prospects like Jake Fraley or Braden Bishop needs to show that they’re capable of being a solid fill-in. That’s a lot of what-ifs, but none of them are all that unlikely on their own. The M’s need a whole bunch of them to happen at once, though. That would be a sign that the M’s oft-preached values of development and coaching are actually causing changes at the big league level. That would be a sign that the problems that have left them in a position where they’re forecasted to be a league doormat *a year before their self-identified contention window* have been solved. Show me something, M’s.


10 Responses to “Show Me a Sign”

  1. MKT on February 21st, 2020 3:49 pm

    “I know the M’s said that they’d focus on contention in 2021”

    Yep. What we can foresee is a Mariners team that will contend to reach .500 in 2021. But not a team that’s going to contend to be in the postseason.

    Even Junior Griffey was just 3.3 WAR his rookie season. These incoming prospects are not going to lift the Ms into contention in 2021.

    And even when/if the Ms do reach .500 in 2021 or 2022, what will they do to move to the next level? That’s where a skilled GM can try to tweak the roster, maybe sell a little of the future in return for short-run success. But DiPoto was unable to get them over the hump when they were in similar .500+ positions in recent years.

  2. Stevemotivateir on February 21st, 2020 5:27 pm

    Has anybody bothered to take a look at what’s on the books for 2021? 2022? If they did, it shouldn’t be hard to see how they might be able to fill in the gaps pretty quick.

    I couldn’t care less if 2021 doesn’t end in the post-season, I care about the long-term prognosis.

    So, let’s say 2021 isn’t the year. In 2022, Kelenic, Rodriguez, and Gilbert might have a full year under their belts (more, in Gilbert’s case), and both Kirby and Williamson should be in the picture. Even Marte could be breaking camp and he might be one of the most underrated prospects in the system, though Baseball America is high on him.

    Seattle will need a lot of things to go right to contend in 2021, but they’re still in good shape for 2022 and beyond.

  3. sexymarinersfan on February 22nd, 2020 1:51 am

    First of all, who is the writer for this site?

    Secondly, I specifically remember listening to Dipoto state that augmentation to the roster would begin around the trade deadline of this year to begin adding pieces and building towards contention. I am not one to have a short term memory, but I’d like to see if that statement still holds water.

  4. Stevemotivateir on February 22nd, 2020 3:30 am

    ^*Could begin at the break. But that seems unlikely.

  5. bookbook on February 22nd, 2020 6:05 am

    So, the Mariners are trying to do the same thing 29 other teams are doing at the same time. To succeed, they must do it better. This is a tall order.

    What Jerry has achieved:
    1. Destroyed the liability problem. After 2020, the team has more ability to spend on free agents than free agents worth spending on.
    2. Brought along potential stars who could be the core of a future champion. (Kelenic, Rodriguez, Gilbert)
    3. Filled out the bulk of potential league average guys who could potentially contribute to a future champion.

    Is it all going to come together? Probably not. The other 29 guys are smart hardworking folks as well. It’s really hard to fill holes with Free Agents these days, since every team locks up their talent as soon as they can. Potential stars sometimes don’t get there, as all Mariners fans know. Not all of the league average guys will develop.

    Is it possible to squint and see the Ms winning the WS in 2024? Yes, if most things break right. That in itself is kind of mind boggling.

  6. eponymous coward on February 22nd, 2020 6:49 am

    “ Destroyed the liability problem. After 2020, the team has more ability to spend on free agents than free agents worth spending on.”

    That’s not actually a good thing. It means you have money that can’t actually be used to help you win. I mean, I guess it’s nice that the owners will make profits, but…

    “ Is it all going to come together? Probably not. ”

    Then why bother hiring DiPoto? You could have kept Zduriencik or Bavasi if you wanted a team that vacillated between above .500 but no playoffs/sustained success and bad.

    It’s funny, baseball is a game without goalposts but we’re sure willing to move them.

  7. bookbook on February 22nd, 2020 9:02 am

    If your measure of success is something with a 3% chance of happening—yeah, you’re going to spend most of your life disappointed. Dipoto has maneuvered the team into a real shot. It takes a shit-ton of good luck in top of that.

  8. eponymous coward on February 22nd, 2020 11:47 am

    Read the post. “Sustained success” not “title every year”.

    Also, so basically the response to the “2021-I mean 2022 or later” goalpost move is “we’re set up for sustained success as long as we let DiPoto have six or seven years with no results or expectations of results at the MLB level, trust the system”.

    I think the whole point of Marc’s article is that a productive farm system with some talent is necessary but not sufficient for sustained success and a superior organization. So great, there are kids. So when do we have the talent surrounding them instead of dumpster dives?

    Oh, while you’re at it- can you point me to very good GMs, who basically don’t produce sustained winners for their first decade in MLB, who go on to a career where they’re up there with the Cashmans or Epsteins after that decade? Because what I see so far is “average-ish GM” between Angels and M’s. I mean, that’s better than Bavasi or Zduriencik, sure. But if our GM isn’t actually better than (pick random GM), where’s the organizational advantage?

  9. Stevemotivateir on February 22nd, 2020 4:13 pm

    Eponymous, you’re the one moving the goalposts.

    First, nobody ever guaranteed that 2021 would be the year we break out of the rebuild. Not Jerry, not Scott, nor anyone else I’m aware of. Most fans (here) recognized that 2021 would be optimistic and that 2022 or even 2023 were more realistic, because the best of the best prospects weren’t expected to graduate until then and rational fans understand that rookies don’t always produce immediate results.

    Second, you keep lumping Dipoto’s experience together to fit your narrative. He was hired to try to win with what he inherited and what he inherited was an aging core with limited financial flexibility. After 3 years, it was clear a change was needed, and change is what we got. Further, what Jerry did in LA is irrelevant. Period.

    Right now, we are on a new plan in a new direction. We are starting year two of this plan. Same GM, yes, but not the same situation. Rather than short-term success, trying to sneak into the post-season with a wildcard, the organization is being built for long-term success. That isn’t a bad thing.

    Third, though last season failed to yield much experience for prospects, such as Sheffield, Bishop, Fraley and Long, this rebuild is still ahead of Schedule as the most important prospects – Gilbert, Kelenic and Rodriguez – are primed for debuts earlier than expected.

    Last, you’re trying to spin the payroll flexibility as a negative, because your belief is that they should be spending right now. I already addressed that in previous comments weeks ago. Though they spent on Kikuchi, and they probably should have at least considered trying to get Grandal (star free agents might have a hard time being lured to teams clearly still in rebuild-mode), rebuilding teams typically don’t spend much before they know what they already have internally and are ready to try to break out an contend.

    You make it sound like nothing is going right. You couldn’t be more wrong. The farm features some of the best prospects in baseball, most of which are due for 2021 debuts. Future payroll flexibility is a 100% positive no matter how you try to spin it, and there are a number of excellent players due to hit free agency in the 2021 and 2022 offseasons, right when we start to pull out of this and aim for the post-season baseball. We probably won’t see enough to get there next year, but having an additional free agent, had we signed one this off-season, probably wouldn’t make any difference, or not enough of one.

    2021 should get us some good experience for what should be the youth in our core, and we should see more wins in the process. Regardless of whether or not we contend, we should see better baseball, and 2022 is still primed for something more special, and it won’t be a roster without free agent or trade acquisitions filling in the gaps.

    But keep thinking this is a train wreck and there’s little or no difference than what we had with previous regimes.

  10. bookbook on February 23rd, 2020 10:42 am

    Eponymous: I’d agree the Dipoto is not Cashman or Epstein or the LA Dodgers guy. If one of those is available, I’d go for it,

    I’d say the restock and rebuild is going better than we could have reasonably expected in the minors. I also do have faith that Jerry can trade in a hurry to fill holes (paying more than I’m comfortable with, but getting the job done). This is his one obvious talent. These two combine to make me feel we are above average with this Front office. Not #6, but maybe #9 or 10. I see no evidence that Seattle can do better right now.

    If he can get a core together, homegrown with a few key free agents, I believe in his ability to plug holes on the fly and achieve true contention. I’m excited to see this play out.

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