January 10, 2017
A Season Before Dying
It almost worked. Last offseason incoming Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto took over an aging roster full of heavy contracts and busted prospects, applied a slathering of industrial-grade spackle, and nearly assembled a playoff team. An instant teardown would have been acceptable, if not welcomed; certainly, Mariners fans had been through more than one. But the idea was that the team’s core of Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, and Robinson Cano was worth a shot. The Salts won 86 games and fell a weekend short of the postseason for the second time in three years.
The second edition of the Seattle Mariners patchwork quilt has proven more difficult. The Mariners fielded the oldest roster in baseball in 2016, averaging 30.1 years. The free agent market has resembled an Atlanta Publix on the morning of a snowstorm. And the team has already engineered an exodus of the former regime’s prospects, most recently dismissing former first-round draft pick Alex Jackson to Atlanta for a pair of arms.
Baseball fans tend to think about windows a lot, perhaps even more than teams themselves do. Franchises concentrate on the accumulation and maintenance of talent, scouting and developing, maximizing their resources, and sustaining themselves. In the days of tradable long-terms extensions and the occasional one-year veteran flip, as well as the obfuscation of everyday, variance-filled baseball, it’s not generally clear-cut where a team is on its progression; take, for example, the first-to-last-to-first Red Sox. Windows are, to some degree, more of a narrative tool.
But the Mariners are, in so many ways, a perfect test case. Their market size and their budget are almost perfectly average, making $/WAR calculations fairly safe. And their aging core and still-recovering farm system make their long-term situation far more concrete than most. PECOTA isn’t out for 2018 yet, but the Mariners will almost certainly be bad, no matter what they do in the next 12 months.
Cruz will be 37, Cano will be 35, and King Felix will be 2,600 innings old. (As Marc Webster notes at USS Mariner, the M’s core isn’t exactly stable itself, but for our purposes we’ll assume they hold together for a year; if they don’t, the rest of this is academic.) Like it or not, believe in Dipoto or not, the die was cast before he even got the job: 2016 and 2017 were it.
With that in mind, here’s how the 25-man roster has changed for the Mariners this offseason:
Dipoto won general acclaim in 2015-2016 by patching the holes in the roster left by his predecessor; this year, he’s done the same, except this time the holes are of his own making and the effect is somewhat less impressive. Not that he’s had much to work with: Without a deep farm system, the Mariners' general manager has been forced to raid his own larder for supplies.
None of the outgoing free agents will be particularly missed from a production standpoint, except perhaps Franklin Gutierrez, who lacked a defensive home with Cruz in service. Instead, Ketel Marte’s disappointing 2016 season may have been the domino that knocked down the team: trading Walker to find his replacement led to a hole that required another trade to fix. The result has been like a game of whack-a-mole, with each trade necessitating another.
With the void of 2018 staring them down, it makes sense that the Mariners would emphasize winning now, even though they’ve held few chips. They’ve cashed in what little future they can, in the form of giving up years of control in Marte, Walker, and Karns for more established names in Segura, Dyson, and Valencia. But it doesn’t appear, at this point, to have been enough. The Rangers rode the league's eighth-best run differential to an easy AL West title last season, and this year the Astros have awoken from their budgetary slumber to obtain Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann. They’ve also been connected to Chris Archer of the Rays, and unlike the Mariners, they have plenty of resources to do it.
BP's team projections aren't finalized yet, but as it stands the Astros are projected by FanGraphs to be a 90-win team, and the Mariners a mere 82. Of course, Houston was projected to pretty good last year and instead stumbled out the gate, and to say that it couldn’t happen again would be a gambler’s fallacy. But given their relative situations, and the sheer divide between Seattle and the AL’s upper echelon in terms of pure talent, a conventional approach was never going to close the gap. What the Mariners need is 2017’s Jesse Hahn.
Not the 2017 Jesse Hahn, which is a different thing. If you’ve forgotten him, a brief recap: Acquired from the Padres in the Derek Norris deal, Hahn started 16 games for the 2015 A’s and looked promising, mostly because of a deadly curveball. Going into 2016, PECOTA declared him the starter with the highest chance of a breakout in the coming year. This didn’t mean that he was guaranteed success, just that he was a highly volatile resource. If that curve kept working, he was a potential mid-rotation guy; if not, he could be a disaster. It did not; Hahn looked ugly in spring training, then ugly in the minors, then ugly in the majors when the team finally called him up.
What the Mariners need is the next Hahn, the next scratch ticket: someone whose average performance isn’t that great, but whose variance provides the possibility of cheap greatness. Of course, as Hahn himself proved, the boom-or-bust strategy has plenty of the latter. Here’s a list of the five or six most volatile pitchers—when adding their breakout and collapse odds—per year for the past three years:
Last season was unkind for people looking looking for a sleeper. But in the past, it’s worked as often as it’s failed, which is what one would expect. We don’t have 2017’s additions to this list yet—PECOTA’s return is still a few weeks away—but we don’t need numbers to guess where Taijuan Walker and Nate Karns would be on the list, despite the former’s inconsistency and the latter’s injury woes. This especially compared to replacement Yovani Gallardo, whose upside at this stage of his career amounts to continued employment.
This is a team that already needs nearly everything to go right, and the team demonstrated this offensively by acquiring higher-ceiling, higher-risk players like Segura, Haniger, and Vogelbach. But on the pitching side, the team seems to have taken the opposite approach. Barring a complete renaissance from the King, James Paxton enters the 2017 season as the only Mariners starter with real upside. The others—Iwakuma, Gallardo, and Miranda, plus the swingmen—will have to hope for the excellent outfielders to play the line drives. It’s not a terrible recipe for success, but the Mariners need more than not terrible out of their pitching, given the other questions on the roster.
Dipoto has claimed that he’s open to an additional starter; of course, few options remain. The ideal risk/reward candidate on the market is Tyson Ross, recently a four-win pitcher. But with so many teams interested, and with the budget so tight, it’s unlikely that he winds up in Northwest green. So it’s a return to that age-old strategy for rolling the dice: the injury-prone starter. Brett Anderson and C.J. Wilson aren’t exactly exciting names, and are more likely than not to have an “injured” next to their name in next year’s volatility rankings.
But they do provide the slimmest possibility of a comeback, that glimmer of a longshot, and the all-important price would be right. Besides, the M’s are long past the time for making sexy, forward-thinking moves. They have little time left, and even less to lose.