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The Mariners’ Short Window

The Mariners are in a tough spot.

In 2014, the AL West was baseball’s best division. Yes, Oakland mortgaged their future at the deadline. Yes, the Angels minor league system looks weak. Yes, the Rangers aren’t guaranteed to snap back next year and have a healthy, competitive roster. Yes, the Astros aren’t there yet. There will be prominent sports writers picking the M’s to win their division next year and they will likely get bandied about as a dark horse. But…the Mariners have been baseball’s ninth-best club by BaseRuns and only the third-best in their own division. Next year’s A’s and Angels shouldn’t be drastically different, either.

What makes the Mariners situation so tough, though, is their own muddled roster construction. The M’s had a historically good year at preventing runs but still found themselves right on the edge of contending. In large part that’s because they can’t hit, and the biggest reason they can’t hit is that they have only one average or better right-handed bat, Austin Jackson. Aside from Jackson, the M’s outfield has given big chunks of playing time to four different lefties: Dustin Ackley, Endy Chavez, Michael Saunders, and James Jones.

Their biggest hole, however, has been at 1B/DH, and this isn’t a new thing for the M’s. Last year they received solid production from Kendrys Morales and an average campaign from Justin Smoak, but neither has been anywhere near effective this year. The only bright spot this year has been Logan Morrison with his wRC+ of 110. In sum, the Mariners actually had a historically terrible year from their DHs, and that was nothing new.

Looking to the minors, there is hope. 2013 1st rounder DJ Peterson has already made his way to AA, but may start 2015 back in Jackson after posting a .261/.335/.473 in 248 PAs. Jackson is a fringe candidate to contribute for a stretch run, but probably won’t be a significant contributor for quite some time. In fact, former Rutgers defensive back Patrick Kivlehan may be contribute to the big league club sooner after crushing AA pitching with a .300/.374/.485 line in 430 PAs.

But things get trickier as we look toward the offseason.

When the Mariners signed Robinson Cano, they rapidly accelerated the timeline for fielding a competitive team. While Cano and Felix will still be around when Peterson and 2014 1st rounder Alex Jackson are, theoretically, contributing to the big league club, neither is likely to be better than they are now. Both have had incredible seasons, but realistically both players can only get worse.

The window gets even shorter when you consider that Hisashi Iwakuma, Austin Jackson, and Fernando Rodney will be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season. Couple them with Felix, Cano, and a cost-controlled Kyle Seager, and the M’s, who should have about $20 million in budget flexibility next year after arbitration raises, might be best poised to try and seriously compete next season.

Any big trade or free-agent splash, however, is going to block playing time, and if that sounds like a familiar situation for this club, that’s because it is. When they signed Cano, it gutted Nick Franklin’s value, and it took the Jack Z almost eight months to make a trade.

The best place for the M’s to look would be for a bat-first, right-handed outfielder who can platoon with Michael Saunders and play DH against righties. Torii Hunter would be a great fit, although he alone probably wouldn’t be enough. Manager Lloyd McClendon has repeatedly referred to the need for two bats.

The M’s also could try and use their prospect surplus and to try and land a more impactful player. In Brad Miller and Chris Taylor the M’s have two capable (if not quite good) shortstops at the big-league level, and there had reportedly been lots of interest in Dustin Ackley at the trade deadline even before his strong second half. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the M’s try and lock up with Dodgers for Matt Kemp (with a lot of swallowed salary) or the Red Sox for a piece of their crowded outfield. Shane Victorino would be a great fit on the M’s and could be out of a job. In DJ Peterson, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, the M’s also have chips to land a guy like Yoenis Cespedes, but Jack Z has (wisely) shied away from moving a piece of that caliber.

But if the M’s stand pat, they probably won’t be good enough next year. Chris Young may not be a good a pitcher, and regardless he will be looking for a raise and will likely be elsewhere next season. The M’s don’t have much depth behind what still looks to be a strong group in Felix, Iwakuma, Roenis Elias, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. As stands right now, their 2015 DH is Logan Morrison and their first baseman is Justin Smoak, but the M’s will have to choose between a $3.6M team option and a $200k buy-out, and his Mariners days are probably over.

The M’s could write off Kendrys Morales’ 2014 struggles as a result of missing spring training, but his batted ball distance in August and September is down 12 feet from last year, and generally follows what is known of the aging curve for first basemen. Kendrys’ power, at this stage, is probably in the 15-20 home run range, and along with his 49% GB rate, terrible base running, and mediocre defense, that’s not a strong package. What all this means is that, just like last winter, Kendrys will probably look for a lot more than he’s worth, and it wouldn’t be a good gamble for the M’s to be the ones to pay him, even if it’s only a couple million.

In 2018, when the Mariners will theoretically feature DJ Peterson, Alex Jackson, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton in their primes, Oliver thinks Cano will be worth 2.8 WAR. On the plus side, Felix will still only be 32 years old and, theoretically, just beginning his decline phase). Kyle Seager will be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season, so he will either be gone, expensive, or not very good. And even without Seager, the M’s have $50 million committed to Cano and Felix.

As a Mariners fan, it’s been a blessing to watch Cano this year after so many years of offensive mediocrity, but this is the predicament the Mariners have put themselves into with his signing. The M’s were supposed to be about .500 club this year, and even if you look optimistically at their improvement, put faith in Brad Miller breaking out next year, and call Ackley and Morrison’s strong second halves improvement rather than streaks, this club still needs some work.

And, from the looks of things, the Mariners are going to hurt themselves no matter what road they take. Spend now, and they inhibit playing time and take away from extensions for guys like Seager and Paxton. Trade now and they potentially strike out big. The most likely course is that pursue players like Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer hoping for a big year. Jack Z has repeated played the high-risk, low cost card for his clean-up hitters, from Russell Branyan to Milton Bradley to, more recently, Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales. Jack Z has said the M’s will be reasonably aggressive pursuing free agents this winter, but even money may not be enough lure talent to the northwest.

While a 2015 Mariners club with Melky Cabrera and Victor Martinez would be a legitimate contender, and the M’s are flush in TV cash right now, Seattle was a hard sell even after their 116 win season in 2001. Team president Kevin Mather places the blame on the M’s tough travel schedule, but the (at least historically) tough hitting environment, cold and wet weather, and reported organizational dysfunction likely don’t help matters either.

In 2014 the M’s both have led the league with increase in attendance and have failed to sell out important September games. This is club that needs just a little bit more oomph. A 2018 Mariners club with Cano, Melky Cabrera, and Victor Martinez, however, probably isn’t very good though. The 2014 trade deadline had been labeled as make-or-break for Jack Z, and this coming winter won’t be any different.

Ferguson and the Cardinals

During spring training I was watching the Mariners, harassing Jesus Montero falling down while fielding and in awe of Robinson Cano’s crazy cool nonchalance, when it occurred to me that most of these guys were maybe not great people. To which those watching with me said, in other words, duh. Baseball players were my childhood heroes, and while there are players like Sam Fuld respected for how they think about the game, I think most baseball fans, including myself, generally grow to favor a player for their athletic performance, or how they wear their hat.

The Mariners players are probably just fine human beings, don’t get me wrong, but are they kind of people that I could be friends with? How does Justin Smoak treat his wife? How does Dustin Ackley vote? What’s the deal with Cano’s child support issues? What do these guys, making at least the major league minimum half-million dollars, think about Seattle’s rise in minimum wage? Brandon Maurer looks like might be a fan of legalized marijuana…what does Jack Z’s drafted core of white dudes from Florida and the Carolinas think about gay marriage?

That said, it’s clearly unfair to judge baseball players on their beliefs. Carl Everett doesn’t believe in dinosaurs. So what?

The internet has been abuzz with the tragedy and ongoing protests in Ferguson for a while now, and this puts the St. Louis Cardinals in an tricky position. People have strong, vitriolic and polarized responses to the Ferguson protests, and the Cardinals clearly wanted to remain as neutral as possible without leaving the issue unaddressed. Here is the team’s official statement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, for over a century Cardinals baseball has been an integral part of the fabric of St. Louis — bringing us together as a community and enriching our lives in so many important ways. St. Louis is good community with good people who care about one another, our neighborhoods and our city. In recent days we have all been heartbroken by a series of violent events that do not reflect who we are as a people. We ask that you join us tonight in taking a stand against violence as we unite as one community.”

Here’s what Mike Matheny had to say:

“It’s a sad situation. It’s a tough situation for our city. Hopefully, all the voices that are trying to get this resolved get it resolved quick…This is a great city with a lot of great people and we’d just like to all see this get resolved.”

At face value these comments seem admirable, nonpolitical. That said both, Matheny and the Cardinals also seem to be wishing this all away. Perhaps when Matheny wants everything “resolved,” he is quietly suggesting police reforms. Perhaps when the Cardinals refer to “violence,” they refer to all of the original shooting, looting, and police response to protesting. But, as I read those statements, the team and Matheny just want things to get back to normal.

St. Louis prides itself on being the both the kind of city those statements describe, and a baseball town, averaging both the second-highest attendance and second-best TV ratings this year. Not only has the status quo has been great to the Cardinals organization and great for baseball fans, but also it would a big stretch to lay any blame on a baseball team for underlying racial issues in a given city.

But. That the Cards broke camp as one of three clubs with no African-American players is almost certainly not because of any malignant franchise philosophy rather than because MLB has seen a huge decline in African-American ballplayers. In the 1970s, baseball was 27% African-American, now it’s 8.5%. It should be noted that the Cardinals are known for drafting college players, and that may have an impact on the racial chemistry of their teams but the Cardinals draft the way they do for strategic reasons, and they’ve obviously been really successful.

What the Cardinals do demonstrate is the whiteness of baseball. Baseball has increasingly become a game of privilege. The decline in African-American players has in some part influenced by the expense of baseball equipment compared to other sports while income and wealth inequality has grown since the 1970s and the gap between African-Americans and Caucasians is wider than it’s ever been before. Many, including myself, treat baseball as an escape and an entertainment, and as an entertainment I don’t think baseball’s demographics demonstrates an issue itself so much as it demonstrates privilege, and white privilege, in general — it’s a privilege to be entertained.

Do our entertainers have to be good people? No. They have to be entertaining.

That said, many rappers have been vocal in their support of the Ferguson protesters (while others have not). That a rapper might be more articulate than a baseball player, or manager, shouldn’t be any surprise in that rappers make their living with language. I don’t expect Robinson Cano or Matt Adams to have a stance or statement about Ferguson, and it shouldn’t be expected of them.

The Cardinals, though, probably felt they had to make a statement, and they did. To attempt neutrality on a subject like Ferguson is tough, as it’s such a polarizing subject, and neutrality here is akin to apathy. What the Cardinals want is a move back to status quo, for financial reasons or otherwise, and as a baseball organization in a billion-dollar industry they shouldn’t be expected to want anything else.

Before Ferguson politicized the idea of St. Louis, the Cardinals were already busy making themselves look bad.

Mike Matheny, All-Star Game manager, started Adam Wainwright over Clayton Kershaw. He used two Cardinals relievers as well, so, in total, Cardinals pitchers had one-third of the innings in a loss that he probably thinks counts. Wainwright went on to admit to ‘grooving one’ to Derek Jeter and the Cardinals, in general, looked terrible.

After the All-Star Game, the Cardinals announcers played off Matheny’s move as rewarding his guys, and said it’s what All-Star managers usually do. In a more recent game they described Kolten Wong as the clear front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year, despite his having about one-third the WAR of Billy Hamilton at the time. Hamilton has a skillset easily appreciated by traditional measures, so while his UZR has certainly inflated his WAR, it’s also tough to look past a .270 batting average and 40+ stolen bases.

The Cardinals organization seems to like to toot their own horn. On the one hand, what team doesn’t? On the other hand, Matheny and the announcers both have demonstrated an inability to act with fairness and understanding when ‘their own guys’ are involved. So who are the Cardinals’ guys in Ferguson? They’d tell you it’s not any group or side, but the language of their statements suggests they’re certainly not with the protesters.

In 2001, in the midst of their 116-win season, the Mariners asked the city of Seattle to shut up the iconic trains whistles in broadcastable earshot of Safeco Field. Their reasoning, as offered to the city:

“[To] ensure that Seattle and Safeco Field are shown in the best possible light — something we are sure you will agree is important given the less than favorable opinion many people have of Seattle in the wake of the WTO and the Mardi Gras riots.”

The Mardi Gras riots mentioned were racially charged and resulted in 70 injuries and one death. Neither event is looked back on rosily. But in 2001 the Mariners, and in 2014 the Cardinals, missed the point.

Bill James defined sabermetrics “as the search for objective knowledge about baseball” and FanGraphs is an extension of that search. Matheny wanting Ferguson to be “resolved” is a little different than wanting a pitcher to resolve an issue in his mechanics. Objectively there is something wrong happening when people protest. Protesters feel there a problem or inequality, and whether they are justified may be subjective opinion but in this case someone died needlessly. Wanting that to go away isn’t going to fix anything. Objectively there are still a lot of things wrong with our country, and baseball isn’t one of them, but MLB shouldn’t position itself in the way of progress either. This is the sport that Jackie Robinson played, after all. Baseball can make a difference.

Projecting the Mariners

At the time of writing, the Seattle Mariners are 54-50 and 0.5 games back in the race for the second wild card spot. With rumors flying as to the upcoming trade deadline, the benefit of selling prospects to improve their odds varies heavily based on how view their current roster. Dave Cameron rang the warning bell for all the of the second wild card contenders, pointing out that these teams are vying for a one game playoff in Anaheim. Not such a great prize.

But. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs in 13 years and the prospect of a wild card spot has made this most exciting campaign in a decade. So how good are the Mariners? At 54-50, the Mariners have won at a clip of .519, but FanGraphs’ projection models paint a very different picture of the team. FanGraphs’ playoff odds page believes the Mariners are a .503 team going forward. Not so hot.

But. The Mariners’ season-to-date-stats projection from FanGraphs is a lot more favorable, suggesting the true talent level of M’s, based on CoolStandings’s version of Pythagenpat adjusted for remaining schedule, is .557. To put that in context, it’s the 4th best in baseball, behind the third-place Angels (.572) and 5th place Dodgers (.549). The Mariners, by this measure, are the both the 3rd best team in the AL West and the American League.

The CoolStandings model, like that of Baseball Prospectus, relies on base runs and a modified Bill James Pythagorean W-L. As best I understand it, this means that the Mariners, by base runs, have been ‘unlucky’ to the tune of the gap between their projected rest of season W% and their current W%, for a loss of 0.038 W%. 3.8% of the M’s 104 games already played comes out to 4 wins, so the Mariners’ ‘true talent level’ record would be 58-46. That’s still a good margin worse than the Angels, but it’s also well above all the other wild card contenders. By this model, the M’s would be expected to win 86.1 games this year, beating out the next-best Blue Jays by almost 2 wins.

Conversely, by the FanGraphs Zips-Steamer projection system, the M’s should win 83 games and come a game or so short of the Blue Jays. By these numbers, the M’s still finish the as the best team not to make the playoffs.

There is a huge gap between these projections, coming out to about 8 wins over a full season and 5 over the roughly two-thirds of the season already played. The rest of this article is an amateur attempt to account for that gap, and to assess how good the Mariners might actually be.

The CoolStandings model relies on past performance and therefore absorbs some mathematical ‘luck.’ For example, the Mariners’ runs allowed this season has to have been impacted by a league high strand-rate. For that reason, the figures are probably overly optimistic of the M’s chances.

But that isn’t to say the M’s look like a .503 ballclub either. To account for the difference between the M’s .519 W% and their .503 Zips-Steamer talent level, I looked at the ZiPS projections for the rest of the season, but in ignoring Steamer, this is only a rough guess at how the projection could be too pessimistic .016% of 104 games is about 2 wins, so that’s the extent of the disagreement between reality and luck against the projections. For the remainder of the season, that .016% is worth about one win.

For example, Michael Saunders has been worth 1.7 fWAR this year in 219 PAs, a pace of approximately 4.2 fWAR over 550 PAs, but Zips says he’ll be worth 0.7 fWAR over 161 PAs the rest of this year, a clip of 2.39 fWAR/550. If we say the M’s have played two-thirds of their season already, that says that Saunders should’ve been worth 1.6 fWAR this year, and has overperformed to the tune of .1 of the M’s wins.

Looking a little deeper, we can see that ZiPS doesn’t punish Saunders playing time projection very much despite his injury trouble, in that it sees him basically playing full time the rest of the way. If we take the ZiPS projection and put it over his 219 PAs of 2014 service time, the picture is a little clearer: ZiPS says Saunders should’ve been worth 0.95 fWAR this year. So Saunders has already given the M’s almost a full win more than he should’ve, says ZiPS.

Other contributors to the M’s supposed over-performance include Felix and Ackley.

Ackley’s defense has been fine so far, per UZR, but ZiPS says it should be bad. So despite underperforming at the plate by 9% per wRC+, ZiPS says Ackley’s glove has already given the M’s a full half-win more than can be expected.

A topic of some discussion, Ackley’s fielding is hard to assess. To the naked eye he’s looked ok, not terrible, and UZR seems to agree. There was his spectacular catch the other day, and there’s also his mediocre arm, which possibly has been taxed at a below-average rate, but this is all speculation. But if we trust Ackley’s to date figures and performance, we can give the Mariners a third of a win back over their remaining schedule.

And then there’s Felix, who has already contributed a remarkable 5.5 fWAR. ZiPS penalizes Felix quite a bit, expecting him to regress quite a bit. If Felix continues pitching at his current level, the M’s again would be expected to win another half game more than ZiPS suggests. Felix both has reached new highs with his changeup and has benefited quite a bit from Zunino’s pitch framing, as have the M’s, and Zunino’s framing is neither accounted for by the projection systems nor his season-to-date fWAR.

Then there’s Chris Young. Young has been worth 0.6 fWAR and 2.7 rWAR. Young alone can account for the gap between FanGraphs’ and ZiPS’ perception of the Mariners and their current performance. A lot has been written about Young’s season, and going back to 2009, the last season ZiPS looks at for their projections, Chris Young’s 2014 is the single greatest overperformance of ERA against FIP. Young probably hasn’t been as good as his ERA nor nearly as bad as FIP, but I can’t speculate at his true talent.

Between Young, Zunino’s framing, Ackley’s defense, Saunders’ somewhat expected improvement, and Felix’s dominance, the Mariners seem like an especially tough team to project. For a counter example, the Blue Jays are expected to win 84.3 games by ZiPS-Steamer and 84.9 by Cool Standings, versus the Mariners 3 game swing between the projections. Clearly ZiPS-Steamer is the more reliable model and clearly it’s missing a significant piece of the picture. But were I a betting man, I’d certainly bet the M’s finish better than 83 wins.

What these numbers suggest is that by both the models the Mariners are close enough to be competitive for the wild card, and that acquiring marginal talents like Marlon Byrd or a DHing Matt Kemp (not going to happen) could have a real impact on the team’s chances. By both models, going all in for Ben Zobrist at SS and a right-handed OF might not be be such a bad idea, nor would be so ludicrous to pursue David Price. That said, a bad trade is a bad trade no matter the context of standings, and the M’s suffer from an overpay in any event.

What the holes in the ZiPS projections say, however, is that maybe the M’s recent slide isn’t especially important, and that while this probably isn’t the 4th best squad in baseball, it’s still probably a good team, and a team to be excited about. Because even if the M’s fail to make another roster move, they should be a competitor.