This is one of a series of posts in which we eviscerate each team’s lambastable offseason blunders and laud their miraculous hot-stove coups.
In 2007, the Seattle Mariners shook off three straight losing seasons – during which they had a winning percentage of .432 – to finish second place in the AL West with a surprising 88 wins. Since then, the M’s added one of the best pitchers on the planet in Erik Bedard plus a good back-end-of-the-rotation guy in Carlos Silva to replace the sterling performances of Jeff Weaver (6.20 ERA in 2007), Horacio Ramirez (7.16), Cha Seung Baek (5.15) and Ryan Feierabend (8.03).
Consequently, PECOTA projects the Seattle Mariners to be one of the worst teams in the American League in 2008 with a record of 73-89.
Wait, what? Come again?
On the surface, it appears like a gross error on the part of the computer. It gives the baseball fans who decry the use of electronic projections for human performances a huge opening to cite its ridiculousness. How is it possible that an 88-win team that, at least on paper, improved drastically on their starting rotation be expected to revert back to a 73-win team? What went wrong?
Well, I have some ideas. For one, the 2007 Seattle Mariners should not have won so many games to begin with. For the season, the team was actually outscored by their opponents by 19 runs, making their Pythagorean record 79-83. Hogwash, you say? Not to me, it isn’t. Run differentials can be beaten over the span of a single season. Just ask the 2006 Oakland A’s. But it’s very unusual for it to happen two years in a row. Just ask the 2007 Oakland A’s. So at least in the eyes of those who believe in the importance of run differentials, Seattle went into the offseason as a franchise with the talent-level of a 79-game winner.
Secondly, it appears that this PECOTA projection was calculated prior to the acquisition of Bedard. It’s difficult to overstate how much better he and Silva were over those who painfully ate up innings for the M’s in 2007. Their new ace had a VORP of 54.9 over 182 innings and Silva clocked in at 35.5 in VORP and logged 202 innings. The aforementioned quartet of Weaver, Ramirez, Baek, and Feierabend had a combined VORP of negative 41.9 over 367 innings plus. And yes, that’s abysmal.
Despite this influx of actual talent in their rotation, I still believe that in 2008 the Seattle Mariners will be closer to PECOTA’s prediction than the record they had last season. And here’s why:
Offense. They ain’t exactly a youthful bunch. Catcher Kenji Johjima is turning 32 this year and there’s a lot of miles traveled in both his knees. He played his first pro game in 1995 and caught 1063 games before he came stateside. As a point of reference, fellow-catcher Johnny Estrada was born just three weeks after Johjima in June of 1976 and he’s caught 571 games in his entire career. Jason Varitek is turning 36 in April and he’s at 1142 games caught. Including his two seasons in Seattle, Johjima’s at 1340. So unless he’s Jorge Posada, that slight offensive decline that Johjima had in 2007 probably won’t be corrected. Richie Sexson’s 33 and he was a total mess last year with a sub-.300 OBP while slugging below .400, giving him the worst OPS among first basemen who had at least 400 plate appearances. It’s a pretty good bet that he won’t be as bad in 2008, but given his frame, I have a hard time seeing him becoming even a league-average first baseman ever again. This basically leaves Raul Ibanez and Adrian Beltre as the power bats. Ibanez in particular had his two best offensive years in 2006 and ’07 at the ages of 34 and 35 respectively. Can they rely on him once more as he turns 36? It’s certainly possible, I suppose. But it’s not a bet I feel entirely comfortable making. And at this point in his career, Adrian Beltre is who he is. The one-time super prospect of the Los Angeles Dodgers has pretty much cemented his reputation as a guy with pop who doesn’t get on base nearly enough. And the fact that Jose Vidro is currently penciled in to be the starting DH (think about this – Vidro is considered a hitter) speaks volumes. In addition, the only notable acquisition they’ve made to their lineup during the offseason is Brad Wilkerson, who is replacing Jose Guillen in right field. Although Wilkerson’s not a terrible hitter, and even though I’m no fan of Guillen, this still has to be constituted as a downgrade, especially considering that Wilkerson’s leaving the hitter friendly confines of Arlington into a pitcher’s park.
And of course, there’s Mr. Ichiro Suzuki, a man who, rightly or wrongly, is considered one of the best leadoff hitters of the past decade. I’ve professed my admiration for his skills before, so just know that I have a pretty big bias in favor of my fellow countryman. But his Achilles heel is and always has been his confidence in his own ability to put the bat on the ball. As a leadoff hitter who doesn’t strike out often, he puts the ball in play far more often than pretty much anybody else. Which basically means two things: 1) His ability to beat the throw to first is very useful, and 2) he doesn’t walk a ton, thus relying on his batting average to hold up his OBP (look at his career stats and notice the small difference between his AVG and OBP). So once the speed goes, his value is diminished quite a bit. I don’t expect this to happen in 2008, but this is a 34-year old we’re talking about here. And it’s going to happen at some point. In addition, it’s nearly impossible these days to hit over .350 in consecutive seasons. Teams have gotten far too smart with their defensive positioning and the skill level of the fielders themselves have become too good for this to happen. Remember, in 2004 he batted .372 and followed it up with an “off” year in ’05 where he hit .303.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the main piece the M’s had to send away to acquire Bedard. Adam Jones was slated to fill that RF slot, and it was expected that he would do so very admirably. In fact, PECOTA had projected him to lead the Seattle hitters in VORP with 21.8 at the age of 22. While his plate patience leaves much to be desired at this stage in his development, bringing Bedard on board had a fairly significant impact on their offensive capabilities, as well as their defense. An outfield with Ichiro in center and Jones in right would have been a god send to pitchers. But now that’s just wishful thinking.
Of course, it’s not all bad for the Mariners. Their young middle infield tandem of Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt still have room to grow. And if Bedard and King Felix are healthy enough to log 200 innings a piece (a feat neither of whom are yet to accomplish), they should have a decent rotation that’s supported by the criminally underrated J.J. Putz finishing games.
Projected Batting Order:
1. Ichiro Suzuki – CF
2. Jose Vidro – DH
3. Raul Ibanez – LF
4. Adrian Beltre – 3B
5. Richie Sexson – 1B
6. Brad Wilkerson – RF
7. Kenji Johjima – C
8. Yuniesky Betancourt – SS
9. Jose Lopez – 2B
1. Erik Bedard
2. Felix Hernandez
3. Jarrod Washburn
4. Carlos Silva
5. Miguel Batista
CL: J.J. Putz
SU: Brandon Morrow
Off-Season Grade: C
This was probably the hardest team to evaluate for me because so much depends on your perspective. If you had considered the Mariners as pennant contenders last year, then getting Bedard and Silva made all the sense in the world and would have given them a B. But I’m not one of those people. In my view, they gave up one of the top prospects in baseball and paid a league-average pitcher (Silva) $48 million for the chance to win 80 games. These are two big changes that the organization has made but they stood pretty much still when it came to their offense. Sexson’s contract is up at the end of this year and not a minute too soon. I hope the Mariners at least took a long hard look at Barry Bonds. Talk about a lineup that could have used him at DH. They’re very righty-heavy and are lacking in OBP and power. Why didn’t they? Oh wait… Never mind.