Reflections on the Mariners
- Updated: March 3, 2009
Last October, Jack Zduriencik was anointed Seattle’s next GM after a ton of success in Milwaukee as Special Assistant to the GM for Player Personnel and Director of Amateur Scouting (and you thought his name was a mouthful, whew!). He may come in with a scouting background to bolster Seattle’s already-strong scouting department, but his first course of action was to create a department of baseball research to combine his subjective analysis with objective — or as some like to call it, Moneyball 2.0. This combination has worked many wonders for the likes of the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox.
Let’s divvy the 2008 results up and have a closer look at the worst win/loss record in Mariners history:
Offense rank: 26th (according to runs scored)
Pitching rank: 22nd (according to FIP value runs)
Defense rank: 26th (according to balls-in-play turned into outs, or Def Eff)
While those ranks are awful, they aren’t normally the ranks of a team that finishes with the second-worst record in the Majors, and Pythagorean Standings agrees that the Mariners weren’t as bad as they seemed. Pythag calls the 2008 Mariners a 66-96 team — not much better, but that’s still a 5-win difference.
So if the Mariners are coming off of a true-talent 96-loss season, where do they stand now? Everyone’s already writing off 2009 as a rebuilding year, but Zduriencik has already made enough progress in less than 5 months on the job to surpass expectations. Personally, I’m very impressed.
2008: Kenji Johjima
2009: Johjima, Jeff Clement
Kenji Johjima, who chipped in a .227/.277/.332 line in 409 PA, was the worst hitter on the Mariners last year. The bad news is that as a catcher in his early 30s, this is certainly expected decline, which can be clearly seen in his .040 drop in ISO and a very serious 3.2% drop in HR/FB. He‘s not going back to the league average hitter he used to be. The good news is that he suffered from a .058 drop in BABIP despite posting a career-high 21.1 LD% in 2008, so he’s bound for some amount of bounce back. Catcher for the Mariners is in for improvement by virtue of regression to the mean, although how much of that will be allowed to happen is up in the air because the Mariners will try one last time to pass the torch to Jeff Clement, who is a big question mark. Will he squander opportunities given to him like last year, or will he begin to translate some of the Bondsian 1.131 OPS he posted in Triple-A’s version of Petco Park in Tacoma? Will he even improve enough behind the dish to warrant staying there? Can’t tell on paper. Regardless, catching prospect Adam Moore will be entering Triple-A Tacoma after a surprise offensive campaign in Double-A West Tennessee last year, and there’s a non-zero chance that he’ll make a push for a call-up.
Replacing first base will be the platoon led by Branyan, and replacing DH will be the platoon led by Griffey. Each of them will get right-handed hitting partners that are yet to be determined but will likely consist mostly of Chris Shelton, Mike Sweeney and Mike Morse. Branyan and Griffey are both still average or above average against right-handed pitching, and considering how much freely available talent is available for a decent right-handed stick with little to no defense, it’s safe to say that if Shelton, Sweeney and Morse can’t do it then they can easily be replaced. Branyan will be given his first real shot at a full season against right-handed pitching since 2002 when he was tried as a full-time player. Because of such a strong bias against his extreme Three-True Outcome offensive production, not many teams wanted his bat despite a career .345 wOBA with serviceable and versatile defense. However, at 33 years old and with old player’s skills, there is an increased chance for bust potential.
Griffey has posted an OPS+ against right-handed pitchers of 116 (2008), 117 and 117 in the past three years. Figure in an age regression, league switch and park switch and things look bleaker. Bleaker still, hitters are typically half a win worse offensively per full season when becoming a DH for the first time. There are lots of ominous signs for Junior and it should be considered a success if he produces an OPS+ north of 100. Hopefully the now-healthy knee nullifies all the red flags, but I’m wary.
If I’m conservative and project 20 runs above replacement total from the bats out of the two positions combined, that’s still a +80 offensive run improvement from the year before. Eighty seems excessive, but consider that the Mariners are coming off a year where the first baseman hit like a poor middle infielder (.245/.320/.369) and the DH hit like a pitcher (.219/.271/.334) and it becomes more believable.
As far as defense is concerned at first base, last year’s awful defense by Sexson was later mitigated by good glove work by LaHair, Cairo and even Jose Lopez to combine for a -2 UZR, which is league average. A conservative projection would have the Branyan-led platoon to be right around there, maybe worse by a trivial amount, but not enough to upset the significant offensive upgrade.
Mike Carp, a piece of the JJ Putz blockbuster, will begin in Triple-A after a very successful Double-A campaign last year in the Mets system. Like Moore, he may be a dark horse by mid season.
2008: Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Lopez
2009: Betancourt, Lopez, Ronny Cedeno
Yuniesky Betancourt is coming off of a terrible season both offensively and defensively, and the Mariners are apparently running out of patience with him. Enter Cedeno. Cedeno is a former top prospect in the Cubs system and now at 26 years old the Cubs decided he was a spare part after showing zero ability to translate his success from Triple-A. But boy does he have a lot of success in the high Minors. In his last two stints in Iowa he hit a combined .357 BA with a decent 9.2 BB% and ISOs of .178 and .163. With a reputation for being a defensive wiz at shortstop, he’s been about league average there in the Majors. But even still, if he translates into a .280/.320/.390 hitter that’s exponentially better than Betancourt’s 2008 replacement level performance. However, like Johjima, Betancourt is a good bet to bounce back thanks to an LD% increase coupled with a slight BABIP decrease, but the very disappointing glove work isn’t showing many signs of improving back to future legendary status that earned him his multi million dollar amateur contract when he was signed soon after defecting from Cuba in 2003.
Lopez on the other hand made huge offensive strides. After a very disappointing 2007 with a .639 OPS, 2008 showed improvement across the board. More contact, more power, less strikeouts, more walks. The Mariners second baseman turned himself into a league average hitter at age 24. Durability + league average hitter + league average defense + cheap contract = organizational asset. No doubt, Lopez gave Seattle absolutely nothing to complain about. Expectations are higher in 2009 from a player development standpoint, but it’s also possible he stagnates or takes a baby step back, as is common with young second basemen. His defense has been on a steady decline and there are whispers of him showing up to spring training with more weight (albeit muscle). He’s hoping to fulfill his Carlos Baerga-like upside, but he’ll have to mimic Baerga’s prime next year to improve upon 2008 if his D keeps slipping. I’m very afraid that he’ll neglect his defensive duties, and seeing as how the new front office now puts value on defense, it certainly won’t slip under the radar. I project Lopez to repeat his league average self, even if he does top a .300 average with 20 home runs. Hopefully he surprises me, because I was an advocate of selling high on him in the offseason and handing second base duties to the lefty-swinging, walk-taking, defensively-minded Luis Valbuena by mid season (I hope Valbuena likes wearing Indian red).
2008: Adrian Beltre
2009: Adrian Beltre
Widely-anointed by the mainstream as a contract bust and one of the worst signings ever, but Adrian Beltre has actually been worth every single penny. Thanks to the best defense at third base that’s ever been in a Mariner uniform, Fangraphs.com calculates that Beltre’s overall production has been worth $57 million on the free market while he’s only been paid $50.6 million. 2008 in particular, he was worth $19 million while being paid more than $5 million less. Even better for his 2009 projection: he must’ve caught the same bug Johjima and Betancourt did because he posted a career-high 21.7 LD% despite an 18 point BABIP drop. Even better, he posted his highest HR/FB% in a Mariner uniform in 2008 as well, and displayed not-insignificant improvements in BB% and K%. All despite playing all year and the last month of 2007 with a torn thumb ligament that’s now completely healed.
Yes, he still swings at bad pitches too often, he still gets on base at a poor clip, and for a very rich man that came here 4 years ago with 40 home run expectations (by shallow analysis) he still hasn’t topped the 30 home run mark since signing his $65 million blockbuster contract. But so what? There are plenty of ways to win ballgames, and Beltre isn’t the problem on this team. His good-power/spectacular defense combo make him a +4 win player going forward, and believe it or not, there are plenty of +4 win players out there people call “stars.” I’m not only calling Adrian Beltre a star — I’m going out on a limb and calling for another breakout performance in 2009*.
*No, he’s still not going to hit 40 home runs, shut up.
2008: Ichiro, Raul Ibanez, Brad Wilkerson, Wladimir Balentien, Jeremy Reed
2009: Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez, Wladimir Balentien
Thanks to the market inefficiency for defense, it’s difficult to recognize that Gutierrez and Chavez — the two biggest fish reeled in by using the JJ Putz bait — combine to be better than Putz and Ibanez combined. So really, the Mariners are losing nothing in the win column by swapping out old roster users with the new. Hard to believe, right? It’s true. Even though Gutierrez was disappointing 2008, using Wins Above Replacement figures (WAR, or Value Runs) we know that it was still as good as Putz’s 2007 which Putz isn‘t likely to ever replicate. More unbelievable: while Ibanez’s offense may have been a whopping 29 runs better than Chavez’s last year, Chavez’s UZR per 150 games is 38 runs better than Ibanez’s! This means that Endy Chavez is a better player than Raul Ibanez on a per-AB basis. However, Wladimir Balentien’s (likely) below replacement presence will share playing time with Chavez, which probably negates any overall left field upgrade Chavez brings. No, I’m not calling Chavez even an average corner outfielder — I’m calling Ibanez a below average one because for every run he creates, he surrenders more with the glove.
Talking about Balentien, like Clement, he just couldn’t translate his huge success from Tacoma to Seattle. He’s still likely to be traded before the season starts because of the up-and-coming presences of Michael Saunders and Gregory Halman that will be entering Triple-A sometime next season, and Safeco is just about the worst park for his skill set — Safeco’s got a big left field to cover for a poor defender and a big left field to hit home runs over for a pull-happy righty. However, we can’t overlook the fact that he did OPS .900 in previously-mentioned hitter’s hell for 2 years straight while making very unprecedented strides in plate discipline and patience. He can still become a good player, but Seattle just isn’t the place for him to become one.
Ichiro began to show red flags of decline for the first time in his career, but he’s still totally awesome. Considering how his skill set is so much different than everyone else‘s in modern times, he has no real historical comparisons and nobody ever really knows what he’s going to do with the bat next year. They always just give a base line: 200 hits, 35 steals, 160 games played, Gold Glove defense — go ahead and put him down as locks for those marks, but as he has sporadically shown he may just challenge for another batting crown. His BABIP last year was his lowest since 2005 and second-lowest of his career so he’s poised to better his .310 BA of last year, but again, neither human interpretation or statistical projection systems have ever been able to pin him down on paper. Do expect his power to continue to trend downwards as it has for the last 4 years, but considering all the other facets of how he impacts the game, it matters much less than most would think.
For part two of this Mariner review, please come back tomorrow at the same Bat time, same bat channel…