The 2021 Mariners: There Must Be Something More in Here

marc w · March 31, 2021 at 5:31 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s are about to finalize their opening day roster, a process made more difficult by today’s news that a bone bruise will require Kyle Lewis to begin the year on the injured list. But even an injury to the reigning AL Rookie of the Year won’t dramatically change the M’s prognosis for the season. Projection systems all the club as an AL also-ran, with essentially everyone ranking them 4th in a weakened AL West. How should we think about that? About right for a rebuilding club? Or that the projection systems are missing something important about this group?

I think you can make the case for both – acknowledging that, on paper at least, the M’s don’t stack up well against the bulk of the AL, while also pointing out that some of the guys the M’s are counting on are nearly un-projectable due to the pandemic’s disruption and overseas transformations. It’s this sense of volatility around the club that is, while not exactly new, kind of fun – if you’re excited about 2021 (and I understand completely if you’re not), this is why. In recent years, the M’s have had tough-to-project players, and guys who either over- or under-shot their projections by a mile – Dan Vogelbach comes to mind here, but so would Yusei Kikuchi and, in better news, Marco Gonzales. But this year, you can legitimately hope for some serious outliers on the positive side of the ledger. If you’re still pessimistic, you can say that unless they get some, the club’s medium-term outlook is pretty bleak.

To get a sense of the importance of this volatility, let’s zoom in from the team level and take a look at the specific players who’ll matter most to producing a lot more wins than the 71-75 that the projections all coalesce around. First, though, let’s set the stage by talking about where the M’s are weakest. As usual in recent years, the M’s biggest problem is that they don’t look like they can score enough runs. Fangraphs’ projections have them 27th in runs per game, PECOTA’s got them around 25th. They rank 24th in context-neutral scoring per Derek Carty’s projections – you get the point. While they’re not as hopeless on the pitching side, they don’t rank all that well thanks to a bullpen that’s projected to be slightly better than last year’s dumpster fire. Mediocre run-prevention and mediocre run-scoring don’t cancel out.

The Most Important Position Player: Ty France

I’ve mentioned this before, but given all of the confusion over the new baseball, the M’s primary concern is probably stringing together base hits. They’ll hit some home runs, though not as many as most of their rivals. But they simply don’t have a lot of high-average hitters, or, depending on your view of how Mitch Haniger comes back from 1.5 lost seasons, any at all. Enter Ty France.

It’s not clear that France IS a high average hitter, but he certainly has been in the high-minors and, for about a month or so, in Seattle. The projections have no idea what to do with France, a squat, late-blooming hit-first utility guy who was boxed out in San Diego when the Pads threw caution to the wind and procured the best infield money could buy. Nothing jumps out at you from his career stats, but the guy we saw this spring and last summer looks like a sneaky-great hitter – something much more in line with his video-game style PCL stats than his 2019 cup of coffee in San Diego.

That said, his statcast numbers have been atrocious, and were poor last year, despite good results. Thus, Derek Carty’s BAT-X projection has him at .240/.314/.396. But ignore Statcast and use the PCL numbers plus some age-related improvement, and you get to something like Clay Davenport’s line of .280/.358/.456. ZiPS is more towards the bullish end, while PECOTA’s a bit more bearish. Unlike the team as a whole, there’s simply no agreement on France amongst the systems, and that makes him a real wild card.

If the M’s are going to make the most out of a line-up with some productive players who don’t hit for average, they’re going to need to balance that out. The M’s have been down this road before, most notably last season, when their very low average counterbalanced a pretty good amount of plate discipline and OBP. No one’s saying that average is suddenly more important than OBP/SLG%, but the easiest way to boost OBP and SLG% is by getting base hits. If France’s average is near the top end of those projections, AND if he can hit for gap-power with the occasional long ball, the offense simply looks very different than if he’s a younger Kyle Seager, with an average in the .240s and solid on-base skills. If he scuffles, it’s just hard to see how the team overcomes potential regression from Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore. 2021 is a big opportunity for France, and he’s now a critical part of this offense – a great year from France would help show what a decent M’s offense could look like.

Runner-Up: Taylor Trammell

In 2019, Taylor Trammell – long one of baseball’s top prospects – was traded from Cincinnati to San Diego, and finished off a very disappointing campaign. His batting numbers slipped from 2017 to 2018, before falling hard in 2019 – culminating in a below-league-average line in AA for Amarillo: .229/.316/.381 in 133 PAs. His OBP in particular had been better pre-trade, thanks to his excellent eye, but overall, Trammell looked like a corner OF without enough in-game power to make the most of his talent. Then, the 2020 minor league schedule got wiped out, and he was packaged with France in the Austin Nola trade. How do you project a player like this?

It’s essentially impossible. All they can go on is what they saw in 2019 and before, and then project him playing against the best competition in the world. It’s…it’s not pretty, and here, there’s a lot more agreement than we saw with France. Essentially everyone expects Trammell to be nearly unplayably bad this year. But that doesn’t quite comport with what we saw in Peoria, and while you’d never take a couple of weeks of meaningless games over a long minor league track record, what happens when there was no 2020 season? Is his 2019 *really* more relevant? If so, by how much?

Trammell’s final line could be anything. It could be considerably worse than the already-dire projections; this was Evan White’s fate last year. It could look much more like Kyle Lewis’ 2020, with a high K rate balanced by lots of walks and the occasional dinger: that’s got considerable value. I’ve been saying for years that the M’s need players not to just meet or exceed their projections, but to utterly demolish them. In this case, that bar is pretty low, and Trammell is talented enough to pull this off. Thanks to the incredibly talented prospects below him, he’ll make his MLB debut on opening day and yet doesn’t suffer from unreasonable expectations. Trammell’s just a great story, not the savior of the franchise, but he could be a big part of the M’s scoring far more than they’re supposed to.

The Most Important Pitcher: Chris Flexen

Essentially the only MLB pitchers to throw at least 100 IP in 2020 are those who’ve come from the Japanese NPB or Korean KBO. Again, you can do a statistical translation of their seasons in Asia and have it inform a projection, but the error bars are a mile wide. Chris Flexen flamed out as a Mets prospect, undone by horrendous control at the big league level. That problem didn’t make the trip to South Korea, where Flexen struck out a ton and kept walks in check. Some part of this is obviously confidence, mechanical adjustments, aging, and coaching – all of which are still a part of his arsenal now. Some of it is usage, and the M’s six-man rotation may help him translate his success in Korea back to MLB. The wild card here, as in each season since 2015, is the baseball itself.

Many pitchers who’ve played in both leagues have noted that the ball in MLB is physically different, particularly the seams. It’s never quite clear how consistent this is, but it given the differences in manufacturer and given how much the MLB ball has changed in recent years, it’s got to be a factor. Can a minute difference in seam height really turn a guy who couldn’t throw strikes into a control artist? No, I don’t think so. But Flexen has had to make some adjustments during the spring to re-acquaint himself with the Rawlings ball, and he appeared to do so pretty well.

No, he didn’t have a jaw-dropping spring the way, say, Trammell did, but Flexen missed more bats than I think I would’ve expected, and while he had some control issues, he got better as time went on. More than any other pitcher in the rotation, Flexen is *prepared* to log some serious innings this year. Because of Marco and the signing of James Paxton, Flexen doesn’t need to be the ace – he just needs to be the bulk guy in the rotation, taking the pressure off of a bullpen that’ll be taxed early and often. What he does in those innings will be crucial to the M’s surprising people, or falling out of the running by late May. If Flexen is able to be league average, the rotation looks fundamentally different, even if Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield regress a bit. If he falls flat, the M’s need to count on even more innings from Nick Margevicius, Justin Dunn and Ljay Newsome.

Given his arm angle, I think Flexen’s going to be the most fly-ball oriented of the M’s starters. As such, he’s probably the most interested in what’s going on with the damn ball. The league talked about reducing the COR (“bounciness”) of the baseball and increasing drag in an effort to rein in the home run surge. I’ve already covered some estimates of how that might impact individual players. However, today the Ringer published an article from the great Rob Arthur that shows that the new ball was used in the spring, and caused HRs per batted-ball-event to…rise. The M’s have seen a few of their FA starters sunk by the tidal wave of dingers, and have to hope MLB’s “adjustments” to the ball have the intended effect.

Logan Gilbert is waiting in the wings, and he’s more than capable. But there are so many innings to go around in a 162 game season following a shortened season. Today’s COVID diagnoses in Detroit and Washington remind us that teams have to be ready to swap players out at a moment’s notice. The M’s most talented starter, Paxton, is not a model of health. All of these factors put more pressure on Flexen to give the M’s a chance each time out. If he can, this becomes the best one of the better free agent moves of the Dipoto era.

Runner Up: Rafael Montero

The M’s bullpen last season was a disaster, with an ERA and FIP near 6 in over 200 innings. They yielded more than twice as many runs as Oakland’s league-leading unit, and in the clutch, when it mattered most, they somehow got worse. While Chris Flexen’s workload makes him a more valuable pitcher overall, even a great season from Flexen could be rendered irrelevant if the bullpen doesn’t improve. Jerry Dipoto knew this, of course, and made bullpen improvement a priority this offseason. They brought in Keynan Middleton, who’d been cast away by an Angels bullpen that was about as bad as Seattle, and they’ve brought in other vets who’ve opened eyes like Drew Steckenrider, who just made the opening day roster. But this focus on the bullpen hinges on the man Dipoto brought in to close: Rafael Montero.

On paper, it’s a curious choice to entrust your highest-leverage innings to a guy with a career walk rate over 11%, and with a FIP/DRA in the mid-4s. Somewhat like Flexen, Montero came up in the Mets system and walked pretty much everyone in three seasons, mostly working as a starter. After injuries and getting canned by the Mets, he reinvented himself in 2019 with the Rangers, tossing 29 sparkling innings and taking over the closer job. Not only did his velocity inch up pitching in one-inning stints, but his control was inch-perfect. He looked like a completely different pitcher.

But last year was a bit rougher, as it was for all of us. He wasn’t *bad* by any stretch, but his walk rate essentially split the difference from his Mets days and his brilliant 2019. His FIP and DRA were only so-so, and some other peripherals were worse. He averaged 96 MPH on his four-seamer, and kept it in the park, but it’s just so hard to make much out of less than 20 innings last year.

The bullpen behind Montero is essentially a shrug emoji. Kendall Graveman would presumably close if Montero struggles, but there are a lot of old waiver claims in that pen. The M’s don’t need great seasons from pretty much any of them, but a team like this simply cannot afford to give away wins late in games. If the offense – through a combination of talent and run environment – struggles to score runs, then high leverage innings are only further magnified. Montero needs to take the job he’s been handed and run with it. If he doesn’t, things could get ugly.

On the other hand, if he takes off under the M’s coaching, he could be a nice trade target at the deadline, even if the M’s are out of it. The M’s could be sellers, and it’d help to have a closer on a hot streak to get some infield help or even just more bullpen lottery tickets. I don’t think a closer can make or break a season like the Mariners’ 2021, but Montero is either a brilliant match of innate talent with player development staff, or a curious-in-hindsight move of giving the closer job to an up-and-down guy with very little track record of being effective and before any sort of competition began.


One Response to “The 2021 Mariners: There Must Be Something More in Here”

  1. Stevemotivateir on April 1st, 2021 7:13 am

    All of this is pretty fair. It just feels like many of these younger guys are more likely to end up as role players. That has value too, but it would put more pressure on Kelenic and Rodriguez before they even settle in.

    That said, I’m high on France, bullish on Lewis, and still think White can get on track. Though the batting line isn’t flattering, I was impressed with White this spring. Slow start, but the process looked good after that first week and a half or so.

    One thing I keep thinking about is the drive of Kelenic and how that could light a fire under some of these players. With the lack of a veteran presence, it will be interesting to see who/what pushes the team–especially if Paxton and Haniger get traded and Seager isn’t retained.

    Another thing on my mind is the lack of infield depth. With just one injury, things could get ugly pretty quick. I still can’t believe Seattle didn’t bring in a single fielder.

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