The Upside, 2021

marc w · March 31, 2021 at 11:35 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Another season is upon us. Hope *generally* spring eternal, even if it often misses my house, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about right now. The vaccine roll-out is picking up speed, heralding a return to normalcy or something like it within a few months. The M’s care enough about Jarred Kelenic to mess with his service time, and Kelenic himself just showed us all what he can do in an electrifying spring. The team’s brought in some wild cards, like Chris Flexen and Rafael Montero, who could really solidify the team’s run prevention. And for the first time in several years, the best teams in the league and division don’t feel completely out of reach – like they’re playing a completely different sport.

Thus, it’s time for another post on the potential upsides to 2021 for the M’s. No, they don’t really figure to contend, but a lot *could* go right, and set up them up nicely for 2022. This isn’t about starry-eyed optimism and ignoring projections or track record entirely. Instead, this is about figuring out where there are gaps that projections might miss, and potential production that hasn’t shown itself in a projectable track record to date.

1: The Projections are Fundamentally Too Low on the M’s Due To Bad Luck
Ok, I’ll admit it. After saying this isn’t just ignoring the projections, this looks a heck of a lot like…ignoring the projections. It’s not – or at least, it’s not JUST that. The point here is that the M’s in 2020, and to a degree in 2019, wildly under-performed even their own meager true-talent level. Especially in the shortened season of 2020, weird statistical anomalies can creep in, and ossify as objective data for future projections to work from.

For example, the Mariners finished dead last – 30th out of 30! – in batting vs. left-handed pitchers last year. No one’s going to confuse the 2020 Mariners with Murderer’s Row, but that’s 1) weird and 2) less relevant to 2021 than you might expect. Sure, many of the M’s left-handed hitters or lefty-dominant guys like JP Crawford or Dee Strange-Gordon struggled against lefties. But what really *sunk* the M’s was the production from *righties*. Kyle Lewis was fine, but Ty France, Evan White, and Dylan Moore showed weird reverse splits.

What’s wrong with France, White, and Moore? Well, nothing. It was a 60-game season, and now we’re splitting it in less-than-half. Weird stuff can happen. Is there any real, fundamental, baseball-reason why Ty France can’t hit lefties? Of course not – he had all of 33 PAs against them in an M’s uniform. It’s utterly, utterly meaningless. Evan White struggled overall, but his .212 BABIP had more to do with his reverse splits than any meaningful trouble in seeing the ball out of a lefty’s hand. This is just noise.

And that means that the M’s simply didn’t show their true talent in 2020. It happens, particularly when the season’s cut to just 60 games. But even if it WAS their true talent, you’d have to be excited by the return of Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy, two powerful right-handed bats. If anything, this club is primed to do damage against lefties *more* than righties, and the fact that the club was kind of okay against righties thus becomes an encouraging omen.

The same is true for the pitchers. The M’s were flummoxed by left-handed batters last year, and a number of *lefties* like Yusei Kikuchi were the prime offenders. Look, there’s no way that a fastball/slider/cutter guy with Kikuchi’s velocity is going to struggle against lefties. Marco Gonzales is a completely different style of pitcher, and the fact that he doesn’t really show platoon splits makes sense, but I don’t think he has some special vulnerability to same-handed bats. Why would he? And just to be sure, just for that extra layer of protection, the M’s re-signed James Paxton, another high-powered lefty arm. The 2020 M’s had a weird vulnerability, but it can’t drive our expectations about the 2021 club.

As solid as the starters were in 2020, the bullpen was remarkably bad. As a crew of waiver-claims and minor-league signings, you wouldn’t have predicted great things, but I think their statistical record is at least partially the result of bad luck. The massive turnover in the group makes it harder to claim that the poor record hurts the M’s projections for 2021, but it clearly has some impact for guys like Aaron Fletcher, Kendall Graveman, and Nick Margevicius.

The M’s bullpen had the worst walk rate in the game. They had one of the worst home run rates. Thanks to Philadelphia, they weren’t clearly the most inept group out there, but man, Philly’s bullpen cleaned Seattle’s clock in K:BB. But what do you expect? The M’s fielded essentially a AAA pen of minor league vets, and then traded off anyone who was close to league average. What’s that got to do with this group?

Well, the M’s bullpen has been reinforced not just by the relatively minor FA and waiver claims, but also by the club’s starting pitching depth. This is where a Margevicius or Newsome can help out with reasonable IP that don’t sink the team. Importantly, neither guy is liable to run unpalatable walk rates. Reinforcements like Domingo Tapia are waiting in the wings. I’m not saying they’ll be great; they don’t really need to be, and yet again, if they are, they’ll get moved at the deadline. What I’m saying is that the M’s had a weakness that looked worse than it actually was due to luck, and the perception is that they didn’t do enough to address it. In that narrow sense, they’re probably OK, just as we saw with the line-up. Their past performance was unreasonably bad, and their future performance isn’t dictated by those unsightly numbers.

2: The M’s Finally – FINALLY – Have OF Depth

Taylor Trammell played his way on to a big league OF that returns both reigning ROY Kyle Lewis (ok, after he heals from a bone bruise) and 2018 All-Star Mitch Haniger. Jarred Kelenic, Mathered away in Arizona, is only a call away, and is able to help the team *responsibly* in only the couple of weeks it takes for the club to gain an extra year of club control. Jake Fraley could figure some things out in the pressure-free first month of the season, and we’re not even getting to Julio Rodriguez.

In recent years, if there’s been one constant to the M’s woes, it’s been the production from their outfielders. Mallex Smith was brought in to solidify the group, but face-planted. Dee Strange-Gordon was traded for to become a CF, but that was quickly abandoned (not that it mattered where he played, given his batting line). LF famously became a revolving door, much to Kelenic and his agent’s frustration.

The M’s were attempting to buy time while guys like Rodriguez and Kelenic developed, and they’ve *mostly* done that. Importantly, they get Haniger back right when Trammell went nuts during the spring, both bringing some hope to 2021 while giving the team some options while Lewis recovers. Both Trammell and Haniger are especially hard to project given what happened in 2020 *and* 2019. Trammell was an underperforming prospect in 2019, then hung out at two different alternate sites in 2020, away from meaningful games. Haniger’s 2019 and 2020 were, if anything, worse, given that they began with a destroyed testicle in 2019 and, improbably, got worse from there.

But both looked rejuvenated in the spring, and after a horrific start, Fraley looked ready to be a competent back-up – a role he’s failed at in extremely brief looks in 2019 and 2020. Importantly, no one needs this group to be world-beaters. The projections already have Trammell imploding and Haniger regressing towards his disappointing 2019 half-season. It doesn’t take some improbable set of circumstances for this group – headlined by Lewis, of course – to become a league-average or better unit. And if that happens, the M’s offense isn’t the dead weight the projections think it is.

3: The AL West Got Bad in a Hurry

For years, I’ve been fretting not just about Houston’s advantage in current talent – guys like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yordan Alvarez will make you feel insecure about your team, too – but about their farm system. If Houston turned their prospects into big league production at a better clip than the M’s, then not only would the M’s finish behind the ‘Stros, but the gap would get wider and wider over time, the way it did from 2015-2019.

Worse, it wasn’t just Houston. The Angels had been, if anything, worse than Seattle in developing talent, at least in the post-Trout world. So, in 2020, they stopped trying, and simply signed Anthony Rendon. Now, they’ve tried to solidify an awful pitching staff by picking up Jose Quintana, after last year’s reclamation project – Dylan Bundy – turned out so well. That’s great and all, but their pitching has been bad for years, and despite the change in GM, they haven’t shown a clear skill in getting more out of the free agent market OR the draft in terms of pitching production.

The division lost Gerrit Cole to free agency last year, then Justin Verlander to injury a couple of innings into 2020. This year, they lost Framber Valdez to injury, and saw perennial pitching prospect Forrest Whitley go down with TJ surgery. The A’s lost world-beating closer Liam Hendriks to free agency this past off-season, and have seen injuries delay the arrival of most of their best pitching prospects, like AJ Puk and James Kaprelian. Texas hasn’t developed a serious pitching prospect since, what, Derek Holland? Not only did the division fail to increase the gap, the gap narrowed without the M’s doing anything.

The Mariners aren’t the laggards in player development anymore, and now boast by far the division’s best prospects. In a multiple wild card environment, it’s not clear that we should be as focused on the division as we were before, but even still, the M’s rank among the game’s elite systems. They’ve been there before, and managed to turn that expected production into some minor trades, a waiver claim, and a flying ice cream sandwich, so things can go south at any time. But the gap between the M’s and their divisional rivals hasn’t been this narrow since 2015-17, and the M’s haven’t had the edge in minor league systems since 2010-12. This is a fundamentally different picture than the one the M’s confronted in 2019 and even at the beginning of 2020.

The M’s can’t simply wait it out, though. After a down year in 2020, the Astros are projected for 92-95 wins, easily 20 better than Seattle. But there’s a path to contention now, and one that doesn’t rely on increasingly unlikely developmental wins. The M’s aren’t there yet, but you can see a pathway to contention in a way that wasn’t there in recent years, no matter what Jerry Dipoto said.


3 Responses to “The Upside, 2021”

  1. schwingy on April 1st, 2021 12:49 am

    Great write up as usual.
    Here we go 2021!!!
    I’ll be in R field near the foul pole with my highly excited 15yo son. First opening day game for him, as he is battling for a HS pitching rotation.
    Let’s do this !!!!!’

  2. Stevemotivateir on April 1st, 2021 7:35 am

    Catcher and Outfield depth are definitely the positives on this team. The rest remains to be seen.

    But we have baseball today. That alone is a win!

  3. Sportszilla on April 1st, 2021 11:19 am

    Wow I can’t believe I had forgotten about the flying ice cream sandwich until this post. Thanks Marc, and Go M’s!

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