The Risks: 2020

marc w · July 24, 2020 at 1:38 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Does anyone need pessimism in the year 2020? Do I need to write about it? It’s all we think about when we stop trying – really trying – to think about other things. It seems silly to do a post like this and not just have every item be “Someone dies.” Juan Soto tested positive yesterday, and the Braves lost both of their catchers to Covid as well. This is going to keep happening as we wait for news of Jarred Kelenic’s development or Kendall Graveman’s velocity. It’s hard to tune it all out and just be entertained.

But I’m going to try. Pessimism about everything is easy, and if there’s anything we’ve learned as M’s fans, it’s that there are occasional (bizarre) joys to be mined once you leave the easy path. They take work, they’re not just sitting there on the surface (“we won the championship!”), and experience beats a naive, perpetual hope out of you. But they’re hiding in there somewhere. I know it feels cynical to look for those joys in 2020, I know it feels weird to look forward to fake crowd noise, and radio broadcasters getting surprised by a home run because they’re just watching the game on TV, and I *definitely* know there are more important things going on. We need this because of them, not in spite of them.

So if we’re going to get anything out of this delusion, we have to set aside the sickening feeling that is always just below the surface. We’re going to try and take this seriously, and, for tradition’s sake and because this delusion demands it, let’s think about what would happen if this all goes wrong. But not too wrong.

1: The Mariners’ young core just isn’t going to work out

Going into what was assuredly a non-contending season, the M’s allowed themselves a minor splurge when they picked up Yusei Kikuchi for a multi-year (the exact length of the deal is kind of complicated given the opt outs) contract. He was young enough that he could be around when JP Crawford and Logan Gilbert and Evan White were ready, and he could spend 2019 and 2020 getting used to things and building up his innings. Great idea, great move all around. Kikuchi was essentially replacement level, with a 5.71 FIP and a DRA so bad I don’t want to actually type it here. Sure, it didn’t really matter, and yes, he’s made mechanical changes, and pitchers can surprise you, and maybe he’ll be good in 2021, but we all feel differently about Kikuchi and his role on a hypothetical good M’s team now.

What if that essentially happens to all of the young players we’ll be watching in 2020? I mean, it’s not a crazy thought. The M’s projected record is bad because the M’s individual projections are all…really bad! ZiPS projects Evan White to get on base at a .277 clip. It forecasts JP Crawford to essentially duplicate last year’s disappointing season at the plate, and for Shed Long to regress to a sub-Crawford level of offensive “production.” Somehow, Kyle Lewis’ projections are even worse (.227/.281/.376). ZiPS is actually pretty bullish on Dan Vogelbach, but we all saw Vogelbach’s second half, so we know what’s possible.

They’re only projections. Young players improve, and now they can focus on that improvement without expectations or fans or anything. But, and I know this is crazy for long-time M’s fans… what if they don’t? What if we’re forced to fall into that most familiar of M’s-fan postures and speculate about the NEXT wave? I think many of us are almost primed for it – gun to our head, I think many of us would rather watch the intra-squad games in Tacoma, at least once Julio Rodriguez is healthy and playing again. This club has potential, but right now, on paper, their flaws are so numerous and exploitable that profound, dispiriting, Zunino-in-2015-or-2019 ways. What if the one thing we’re looking forward to – young players improving in a short, meaningless season – goes away, and we end up watching the league humiliate Crawford/Lewis/White/Dunn/Sheffield/Long? Wouldn’t that be the most 2020 thing ever?

Statistically, it’s likely that a few of them will blow those projections out of the water. But some won’t even reach the low bar that ZiPS (or PECOTA, or Steamer, etc.) set. Maybe it’ll be easier to set that kind of public failure aside in this weird season, but it’s got to hurt psychologically. Not only that, but many of the standard ways to fix a young player in a horrible slump aren’t available. Remember Mallex Smith’s jag where he was so lost at the plate that he forgot how to catch baseballs? He worked with coaches and got right by playing for the Rainiers for a while. Well, no one can play for the Rainiers in 2020. Many of the coaches are working remotely. Maybe a few Zoom meetings would’ve worked just as well for Mallex Smith last year?

2: Injuries!

It’s baseball, people get hurt all the time. But the M’s progress towards contention depends so powerfully on development, and 2020 is doing everything it can to make that impossible. You could argue that the loss of the minor leagues and the chaos of 2020 has hurt the M’s more than just about any other team. What does losing your age-18 season *do* to Noelvi Marte, long term? What about Logan Gilbert?

One thing that I’ve been worrying about after Tom Murphy, Julio Rodriguez, Austin Adams, Mitch Haniger, Sam Haggerty, and Gerson Bautista got hurt is a wave of injuries hitting the M’s. It makes sense: the season’s a short 60-game sprint, and everyone wants to impress the front office. Pitchers know they won’t be logging 200 (or even 100) big league innings, so why not air it out like every start’s a relief outing? The M’s are doing everything they can to care for pitchers – going to a 6-man rotation, or exploring piggy-back starts, etc. But what if creating entirely new routines doesn’t put the players at ease?

The strange rules around the 60-man player pool makes things difficult, too. Without the minor leagues, the M’s brought essentially every top prospect to Tacoma to monitor their development/ensure SOME development would take place. They did this without regard to when a player (Mr. Marte is the best example) would be ready for the majors. It took some getting used to, but I think that was the right decision. Having near-to-the-majors talent ready to step in is vital for contenders, but doesn’t mean much to the Mariners. But seriously: what happens if the M’s need real help in the outfield? The worry isn’t so much that Jose Marmelojos or Tim Lopes can’t hang out in LF, but that players will be hesitant to admit that they need a break, or that the little ankle injury may be more severe than it seemed. Players probably never want to go on the 10-day IL, but now that 10-days is a solid chunk of the season? I think we’re going to see a lot of minor injuries turn into bigger injuries this season.

To be fair, small injuries aren’t going to tank a season that was tanked before it began. But what about a big injury? What about a TJ surgery or shoulder trouble from one of the M’s young starters? What about another injury to Julio? The M’s have been living this with Haniger, who had a series of small injuries followed by a cascade of big injuries that sunk his 2019 and threaten to take the entirety of 2020 as well. Opportunities for development are so rare, so precious right now. Losing that opportunity to injury would be a cruel blow. There’s never been a season like this where injuries could be both more common and more harmful.

3: The M’s player development settles in around the middle of the MLB pack

It’s the one thing we’ve been legitimately excited about: the M’s took two solid prospects into 2019 and finished it with three of the games’ best. Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic became top-10-in-MLB prospects, and Logan Gilbert flew through three levels looking like a potential ace. For so long, M’s player development lagged their peers in Houston and Oakland, and it killed their chances to build a dependable, consistent contending club. 2019 offered hopeful signs that that flaw had been remedied.

What this post presupposes is…maybe it wasn’t. What if the team had great years from three very well-thought-of prospects, and there’s no magic at work – no game-changing processes or cutting-edge theories. Let’s say Kelenic/Rodriguez/Gilbert are in the league in ’21, and are pretty good in ’22. If the M’s player development group is merely average, this rosy scenario isn’t going to be nearly enough, not when the Astros are still the Astros and the Angels have Trout/Rendon/Adell in the middle of their line-up. The beauty of a year like this is that we get to cheer on development without worrying about the standings. But what if it becomes clear that the Mariners are losing at *that* too?

Jesus Luzardo wins Rookie of the Year (which I picked in Baseball Prospectus’ Staff Predictions), maybe Forrest Whitley puts it all together, maybe the White Sox contend thanks to Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez. None of these things are all that outlandish. Individually, they don’t threaten the idea of a contending M’s team in 2022 or your year of choice. But taken as a whole, they’d be a pretty concerning sign that other teams – who are, to put it mildly, a bit better than the M’s right now – are developing great prospects, too. The M’s need to develop prospects, but because of the whole zero-sum nature of sports, they need to develop more and better prospects to win. If their rivals have as many hits and as many failures as they do, it’s hard to see how things materially change.

We’ve been so focused on the Astros that the Twins’ remarkable turnaround caught us (or at least me) unaware. I’ve been mocking the White Sox player development for years, but they’re beginning to look a bit scary. The Indians keep turning boring minor league arms into Shane Biebers and Mike Clevingers, and I have no idea how they’re doing it. That’s just one division! The A’s and Astros have been doing this for years, and as a fan of a divisional rival, it sucks. If Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn struggle – meaning if they put up similar seasons to their 2019 campaigns – while the likes of Jose Urquidy or Griffin Canning or Kolby Allard succeed, it’s going to make wishing on 2022 pretty hard. It’s all we’ve got, and I’m very worried it’ll get yanked away.


One Response to “The Risks: 2020”

  1. Stevemotivateir on July 26th, 2020 10:39 am

    Prior to the draft I had felt that Seattle had 4 potential core players in Kelenic, Gilbert, Rodriguez, and Marte. Hancock is now in that tier. I didn’t know what to think of Lewis and White, and I’ve been pessimistic myself about a number of other players in starting or regular roles.

    But really, the key to all of this is equally as much about who Seattle brings in from the outside and when. They should probably start investing in proven veterans this off-season and invest more in the 2022 off-season.

    The biggest mistake Seattle could make, in my opinion, would be to stubbornly sell themselves on a prospect with flags and miss out on an opportunity to bring in a strong veteran. Some prospects should probably be seen as potential bonuses, rather than absolutes.

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