Friday, November 15, 2013

Team Postmortem: Seattle Mariners

Record: 71-91, -130 Run Differential

Summary: I'll be honest. I've not been looking forward to this one. Too many of the best writers out there (Dave Cameron, Jeff Sullivan) are Mariners guys, and I pale in comparison in terms of knowing the team, writing talent and analytical talent... soooo everything! But here we are. The 2013 Mariners were not very good. In fact, they were a pretty bad team. By Run Differential, they were only a hair less bad than Miami. The sad thing about this is that this was supposedly an actual attempt to have a winning ballclub rather than just another rebuilding year. So yeah, that didn't go well.

Offensively, it may be tempting to say this was the best Seattle club in a long time. After all, the 188 homeruns they hit were the most for a Mariners team since the 2000 team hit 198. Unfortunately, home runs aren't everything. The 2013 Mariners only scored 624 runs (22nd in MLB) and while they showed excellent patience with a 8.6% walk rate (8th), they also struck out  21.9% of the time (26th), pegging them for an overall K/BB of 0.39 (20th). Despite the homers, their overall offense performance was rather poor: 307 wOBA (20th) and 92 wRC+ (20th). The highlight for the team was the continued emergence of Kyle Seager, who hit 260/388/426 with a 113 wRC+. The young third baseman showed improvement in just about every offensive category, particularly improving his walk rate (9.8% vs 7.1% last year). Also promising in limited action was rookie shortstop Brad Miller with a 103 wRC+. Unfortunately, the team also gave time to the corpse of Jason Bay (68 games, 204/298/393, 91 wRC+) and the vapor-bat of Brendan Ryan (wRC+ 42 in 87 games).

On the other side of the ball, the Mariners were either awesome or horrible with little in between. Overall, the team was above average with a 7.97 K/9 (7th), 2.94 BB/9 (15th), 3.89 FIP (14th), 3.72 xFIP (10th). One should note that the difference between the Mariners' FIP and their actual ERA of 4.32 is the largest gap in the majors this season. The culprit is that they were the worst defensive team in baseball (-11.6 UZR/150). The stars of the show were Felix Hernandez and Hishashi Iwakuma. King Felix was his usual Cy Young-caliber self, if not even better. He stuck out everyone (9.51 K/9) and walked almost nobody (2.03 BB/9) and got all the groundballs (51.4%). His FIP of 2.61 was actually the best of his career. Iwakuma also had a breakout sophomore season. His K/9 stayed about the same (7.58), but he took a cleaver to his walk rate, dropping his BB/9 from 3.09 to a minuscule 1.72. His impressive FIP of 3.44 and workhorse-like 219 innings make is 2015 $7M option an easy pickup. Unfortunately, after them it gets fairly ugly with people like Joe Saunders (4.72 FIP) and Aaron Harang (4.69) getting a significant number of starts.  One other positive note is that highly touted prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker made their debuts (three and four starts respectively) and were impressive in their cups of coffee.

The 2013 campaign was certainly a failure, especially because it was meant to finish at the very least over .500. There is some reason for optimism going forward. The positional players are rather young and could, hopefully, continue to come into their own (though time is running out for some, like Justin Smoak, who is quickly looking to be a washout). With the arrivals of Paxton and Walker joining King Felix and Iwakuma  (and, hopefully soon, Danny Hultzen), the Mariners could conceivably have one of the best rotations in baseball in 2014. The real problem is that it's starting to look like GM Jack Zduriencik may not be able to build a whole team. He, in my opinion, too quickly abandoned the idea of building a team around pitching and defense and switched gears going for Home Runs and "Leadership" in his complementary players. Unfortunately, that was about all those players could do, leading to a team filled with useless scrubs with some power instead of useful all-around players (for an example of this done right, see the Pirates). Worse yet is his inability to manage a 40-man roster, bringing up non-40-man prospects when a player hits the DL for even a minor injury, forcing players to be released when those players return. A prime example was Mike Carp, who was DFA'd to make for... Joe Saunders. Yeah. And Carp? Well, he was a core piece of the Red Sox run. On top of that, to be successful a GM needs a support team of smart, excellent people, and Jack Z. has shown a tendency to fire front office people (and managers--this off-season, the Mariners will be hiring their third manager in Jack Z.'s five years as GM) to cover his own mistakes, which is going to make it hard to gather top talent. Plus building a young core is a noble endeavor, but you have to complement that with smart signings (the lack of which we've discussed a bit) and smart trades, which haven't been going well for the Mariners either. For example, they traded Pineda (who, granted, has been injured) for Jesus Montero, who has been awful, was suspended for steroids, and looks like a complete bust. While things aren't completely hopeless going into 2014, odds are that without a drastic change in approach, there will be only marginal improvement in the on-field product.

Team MVP: Felix Hernandez, 6.0 fWAR

Team LVP: Endy Chavez, -1.3 fWAR

Down On The Farm: Despite the troubles in Safeco and the Front Office, the Mariners still possess an excellent farm system (ranked 9th in Bleacher Report's post-MiLB season rankings).  Many of their top prospects got time in the majors this season, including catcher Mike Zunino and pitchers James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. The biggest piece of bad news for the farm was Danny Hultzen (ranked Seattle's #3 prospect going into the season by Fangraphs) pretty much losing the entire season to injuries. The Mariners have notoriously struggled at converting prospects to actual major-league players, but hopefully some of these players will help change that.

We'll start off looking at #1 prospect Taijuan Walker. Walker, who sadly is not a Texas prospect, is a 21-year-old right-handed starter and a potential Ace in the making.  Walker sports excellent fastball velocity (in his three ML starts, he averaged 94-95, and touched 98), with a excellent changeup and a developing curveball. He spent the bulk of 2013 between AA and AAA putting up excellent numbers as one of (if not the) youngest pitcher in the levels. He posted incredible strikeout rates (10.29 K/9 in AA, 10.5 in AAA), but struggles with command (BB/9 3.21 and 4.24). He earned a cup of coffee in September, making three starts with a impressive FIP of 2.25 and 3.80 xFIP. He could probably use another half-season in AAA to continue to develop his control, but the Mariners may aggressively promote him to the majors and hope Hernandez and Iwakuma can help him refine that control. His ceiling is that of a true #1 starter.

James Paxton is a 24-year-old southpaw with a fastball that has above-average velocity for a lefty (he averages about 95 mph), a solid curveball with plus-plus potential, and an improving changeup. He spent the bulk of the season in AAA where he finally started to tame his control issues (3.58 BB/9 in AAA in 2013, as opposed to 4.57 in AA and 4.82 in A in previous seasons). He will need to continue to work on that, however. Like Walker, he impressed in his call-up in 2013. I'd guess Paxton opens the year in the major-league rotation. If everything goes right, he has a ceiling of a mid-rotation starter, but he could end up in the bullpen if things don't go so well.

If APOD Was GM: First off, forget the worship of the All-Mighty Home Run. With that out of the way, I'd accept that the Mariners are probably not contending for the playoffs in 2014, but could shortly thereafter. The most important thing to do is not mortgage the young talent that has been developed by making a trade for someone like, oh, I don't know, David Price. I would certainly stay away from Robison Cano. I would make a run at Jacoby Ellsbury or Choo if the deal feels right. Both players would improve the team's offense (and, with Ellsbury, it's defense as well) and are in the right stage of their careers to be a big asset as the kids continue to develop. Also, I take Jeff Sullivan's advice for manager because that's just crazy enough to work. Or fail spectacularly. Either way.

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