Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can the Seattle Mariners compete in 2014?

Last night I was tweeting that writing was coming hard for me lately. After cranking out over 3,000 long-form posts over the last five years, the cupboard has gotten a bit empty. After bemoaning my state, a long-time Twitter bud, Chris Cochran (@kingkube), suggested I write about the Seattle Mariners' chances of winning the AL West. I wrote back that I had to believe that was a possibility before I could write it. But for Chris' sake and since Mariners fans are about as passionate as there are in baseball, let's take a look anyway.

Before we start assessing where they currently are, we need to look at what happened last year. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Mariners ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in runs scored, 26th in runs allowed giving them the 26th worst scoring differential in baseball. The team's Pythagorean win/loss record should have been 67-95, but the team actually won 71 games.

On top of this tough season, stories blew up from their former manager and a former front office guy that the organization was a disaster and they are currently looking for a new president of team operations. All these factors do not point to a pretty picture.

But the Mariners made a gigantic splash into the free agent pool and got the biggest fish of the off season in Robinson Cano. Most Mariners fans are not mindful at the staggering cost and years of the contract and instead are focusing on the short term benefits, as they should. Cano is going to help.

They also signed Corey Hart and traded for Logan Morrison. On top of those items of good news, they will start the season (so it seems) with two great prospects in the rotation with Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, who won't have to pitch all that well to beat the likes of Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang and Brandon Maurer (though I am not giving up on Maurer just yet).

Such developments lead Mariners fans to hope for much better results in 2013. But will they be enough? The A's are still tough, the Rangers have weakened a bit and the Angels should be better. Is there any chance at all they can leap frog all of those teams this coming season?

Let's look at the starting lineup:
  • Batting First (projected): Dustin Ackley. Mariner leadoff batters had an on-base percentage of .296 last season (Yuck!) and an OPS of .688. Ackley has a career OBP of .315 and while that is not very good either, he showed ability to get on base in the minors. He is still young and could finally start to figure things out. Improvement possibility here.
  • Batting Second: Kyle Seager. The batting order position for the Mariners had a .700 OPS in 2013. Seager had a .764 OPS last year, so that is a big improvement. Seager has to figure out how to hit in his home ballpark. His OPS on the road was 147 points higher in 2013 and 189 points higher for his career. If he can lick that, he can be a star.
  • Batting Third: Robinson Cano. The third batters in the Mariners' lineup compiled an OPS of .697 in 2013. If Cano cannot beat that by more than 150 points, it will be a huge disappointment. He should considering his history.
  • Batting Fourth: The fourth batter in 2013 for the Mariners had a compiled OPS of .782. It was their most productive batting order position with Kendrys Morales batting there. He is not back and Corey Hart takes his place. Hart has a lifetime OPS of .824 and he has been around that area consistently. But the Mariners play in a park that is much tougher on offense than in Milwaukee and Hart has missed an entire season. He should be able, despite all this to at least equal .782.
  • Batting Fifth: Justin Smoak: While Smoak still has a ways to go to prove he can be an offensive threat in MLB, his OPS last season was .746, or 57 points higher than what Mariners' fifth batter hitters compiled last year.
  • Batting Sixth: The sixth batter for the Mariners was their second most productive in the lineup with an OPS of .782 in 2013. Logan Morrison is penciled into that lineup slot according to MLB Depth Charts. Morrison's career OPS is .764, but has not risen above .709 the last two seasons. My thought is that he will finish around .730 to .740. So I am giving this position in the order a -42 points.
  • Batting Seventh: Michael Saunders. Saunders had a .720 OPS in 2013 and the batting order position for the Mariners compiled a .717. So let's call that one a wash.
  • Batting Eighth: This one is difficult because new catcher, Mike Zunino is there backed up by John Buck. Zunino was fast-tracked with only two years of minor league ball. His .775 OPS in Triple A and .690 in his brief MLB experience gives some indication that perhaps .730 is a decent range for him. Buck is a career .701 OPS guy. But combined, they should beat last year's .650 OPS by Mariner eighth place hitters by 50 points.
  • Batting Ninth: Brad Miller finished his short season at the MLB level at .737 and was much higher consistently in the minors. A .750 OPS is not a stretch for him this year and it could be much higher. Mariner ninth batters compiled a .530 in 2013, so we have a 200 point plus there--at least when the pitcher does not have to bat there during interleague games.
As you can see, the offensive is actually looking quite improved this season. Every position in the batting order except one should be better, most by a long shot. If Walker and Paxton are the real deal and greatly enhance the rotation after Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and the bullpen can be better anchored from the beginning of the season with Lord Farquhar, then perhaps the optimism is warranted.

Will the Mariners compete in 2014? Maybe I am more optimistic than when I started this process. But all these things mentioned have to go well just to get them close to the A's and the rest of the AL West. It should be a lot more interesting to watch than I originally thought.


Anonymous said...

Another Kool-Aid Drinker writing about the competitiveness of a team that has not improved one bit!

Anonymous said...

okay- is there a stat for team holds? and im betting the mariners were at the bottom of the heap

William J. Tasker said...

They were third from the bottom with holds with 65. But it would be difficult to go much higher when the team only won 71 games. They were fourth from the bottom in save percentage, which is not good. They wee fourth from the top in inherited runners scoring, so at least they were good there. The bullpen needs to improve from last year. No doubt.