Since the rise of the A’s five or so years ago, the AL West has featured, at minimum, two teams who could be reasonably ranked in the top five or six in all of baseball. For much of that time, the Seattle Mariners were one of them, winning at least 90 games four consecutive years—including, of course, the 116-win season in 2001—and earning two post-season berths in the process. That epoch is over. The Mariners lost 99 games last year, but even if they had lost only 85, they have been passed by the Rangers and now stand as the fourth-best team in a four-team division.
State of the Nation
One of the conundrums of getting used to winning is that, well, you get used to it. It becomes an addiction. Only, like all addictions, it becomes harder and harder to satisfy as time goes on. Making matters worse, the conflicted addicted cannot or will not recognize their problem, and subsequently any effort to cure their problem, if in fact they make any effort—more than likely they will simply persist in the destructive behavior—actually exacerbates it. As one approaches the abyss, one either makes another futile turn of the screw or comes to understand that the behavior must cease. This latter option means hard work, but inevitably it also means stripping back to the beginning and starting over, no matter how frightening that prospect.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “OK, so maybe I had an addiction to Q-Bert, and maybe now I have an addiction to rookie pitchers in fantasy baseball. But aren’t we supposed to be discussing the Seattle Mariners? And what are they addicted to, anyhow?” Fair enough. The Mariners do not suffer from classic addictive symptoms (pardon me while I have my 14th cccccccccccup of cccccccoffee for the day), nor are they at the point where they have to start over like the Diamondbacks. The good news for the Mariners is that they have a consistent revenue stream; they can afford to throw cash at the likes of Adrian Beltre. The bad news is that, if the last two off-seasons are an indication, the Mariners don’t always know how to spend their money.
Addictive discourses aside, signing free agents does not require complete restraint, a coda made more effective when restraint is not a prerequisite for survival. As I say above, the Mariners have money, and they’re apparently willing to spend it. Addendum to what we said about addiction: if you’re addicted to spending money, at least spend it on quality goods and services. In the baseball world, the Red Sox have mainly figured this out (Keith Foulke, Manny Ramirez, Matt Clement, with Edgar Renteria being something of an exception); the Yankees (Gary Sheffield, Roger Clemens) had it mostly figured out until recently (Jason Giambi, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano); the Angels are right in the middle (Vlad Guerrero good, Bartolo Colon eh, Orlando Cabrera not good).
The Mariners would seem to fall near the Angels. Looking at this year’s free agent crop exclusively, it’s hard to knock the Adrian Beltre signing. Even if he does not sustain last year’s pace—and he won’t—Beltre should settle into .300/.350./.560, 35 HR territory. As far as statistical real estate for third basemen go, that’s beach-front territory, next to Scott Rolen and Eric Chavez’s mansions. (Incidentally, Baseball Prospectus projects Beltre’s WARP—Wins Above Replacement Value—to be 28.2 over the life of the deal. Chavez, during the same time period, checks in at 30.1, while Rolen is worth nearly six more games than Chavez, at 35.8.) This is not to say there is not some risk involved. Up until last season, Beltre’s hype had far exceeded that of his production. But given that he also plays excellent defense and that he will be 31-years-old when his contract expires, if Beltre finds a statistical home near Chavez, he’s going to earn the money.
The contract given to Richie Sexson, however, was arguably the worst of the off-season—not for the Mariners but for all of baseball, including the League Of Jewish Voters softball tournament I used to play in. That this signing was dreadful is not news for Mariners fans, or for anyone, really. Even assuming he’s healthy—and is anyone really willing to assume that?—it’s not likely that Sexson will return to his 45-HR days, given that Safeco is not a hitter’s park like the BOB or Miller Park in Milwaukee. At his peak, Sexson, except in 2003, was not an elite hitter in the same way as Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, or Carlos Delgado. The more pressing question is why bother with a first baseman in the first place, especially after you’ve already pumped millions into Beltre? Bucky Jacobson is nothing spectacular, and will be exposed over the course of a 162-game season, but his counting numbers would look respectable enough for a corner infield position. More importantly, he’s cheap. The money wasted on Sexson should have gone to an ouftielder with power, to a Grade A starting pitcher, or to both areas. The M’s certainly need help at the dish, but they’ve chosen to spend $50 million at a position where mildly, but not dramatically, inferior production is available at a fraction of that cost. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with the hard-core sabermetric community, but on this one I do: it is folly to over-spend on a first basemen.
More later on the M’s future, but for now, let’s take a quick look back.
2004: What went right?
Very little. Ichiro hit .372 and broke the major-league record for hits, rookie Bobby Madritsch emerged as a potential staff ace, Jacobson provided some long-ball fever in September, and . . . erm . . . well, that ought to do it.
What went wrong?
Nearly everything else. Since every team suffers from injuries, should we mention what happened to the Mariners? Yes. Rafael Soriano, Eddie Guardado, Joel Pineiro, Clint Nageotte, Julio Mateo, Travis Blackley, Raul Ibanez, and dozens of others (if we’re being hyperbolic, it’s on the low end) all spent significant time on the DL, destroying the rotation and overall bench depth in the process. Bret Boone declined, third base remained a disaster, Jamie Moyer got peppered, a drought beset the Pacific Northwest, the gubernatorial race was a thinly-veiled clichéd fiasco, George W. Bush won the 2004 U.S. presidential election, I had to finally get a job which enabled me to get a new car that I later dinged up and ended up costing me $700 (U.S.). It was that kind of year in Seattle.
Key questions for 2005
1. Has Beltre finally turned the corner? After years of teasing the Dodgers (and his fantasy owners), Beltre exploded last year, hitting .334/.388/.629, with 48 home runs. Dodger stadium is a notoriously bad place to hit, so if Beltre really has figured things out, moving up the coast to Safeco, another tough park to hit in, shouldn’t affect him much. Expecting another year like 2004, however, is asking too much.
2. Can Sexson stay healthy? A hitter who injures himself swinging a bat is like a conductor hurting himself while waving his wand. Do you really want to spend $50 million to have John Williams lead the Boston Pops at your company picnic, even though he can’t lift his conducting arm?
3. Who fills out the rotation? The good news for the Mariners is that two of the teams in front of them, the A’s and Rangers, have legitimate pitching concerns. The bad news is that those two teams are better off nearly everywhere else.
New Old 3B Adrian Beltre Edgar Martinez 1B Richie Sexson SS Pokey Reese Projected lineup Ichiro Suzuki, RF Randy Winn, LF Adrian Beltre, 3B Richie Sexson, 1B/DH Raul Ibanez, 1B/DH Bret Boone, 2B Miguel Olivo, C Jeremy Reed, CF Pokey Reese, SSWhat is striking about the lineup is the utter lack of upside. If Jeremy Reed breaks out? He’ll hit .330 with little power. Miguel Olivo? A .450 slugging percentage. Beltre is not going to be better, and in all probability will be worse. Ditto for Ichiro. Sexson is, at best, a mystery, Ibanez is as good as he’ll ever be, and while Boone may have one more “Where did that come from?” year left in him, it’s best not to assume such sanguine events. Pokey Reese and Winn? Meh. One possible area of strength? The bench. Scott Spiezio and Jacobson form parts of what could be a decent group of reserves, along with Justin Leone, who made a mild splash in 2004 before getting hurt. (Hey, when you’re an answer to “Who played third base for the Mariners after Jeff Cirillo was traded?” it’s not hard to make a splash.) On the other hand, when there are already four players in the every day lineup who would make effective bench players, you can see the problem.
Still, it won’t take career years from anyone to pump up the offense. In 2004 the Mariners were last in the AL in runs scored. Adding Beltre can only help, and the 50 or so games Sexson will play won’t hurt, either. If Beltre reaches his 90th percentile PECOTA—and those projections are conservative for Beltre: .310/.371.524, 31 HRs—his VORP will be 57.9, or approximately a million times better than the goons the M’s lined up at 3B last year. The problem, as should be obvious, is who’s going to get on base in front of him? Ichiro is not likely to hit .372 again, though he’ll likely hit over .320. Randy Winn is a nice complementary player on a team with good hitters, which is to say he’s mis-cast in Seattle. Winn is not a necessary piece to the Mariners. As a corner outfielder, he won’t hit for enough power to justify his spot in the lineup. A trade would move Ibanez to LF and open up some DH time for Jacobson.
While the offense will be better, will it be enough to get the Mariners to .500? Much of that depends on the pitching. This pitching, in fact.
SP Joel Pineiro SP Jamie Moyer SP Bobby Madritsch SP Gil Meche SP Ryan Franklin RP Eddie Guardado RP J.J. Putz RP Shigetosi Hasegawa RP Scott Atchison RP Julio Mateo RP Ron Villone
Everyone in that rotation has question marks, some bigger than others. At this stage of his career, Moyer, who gave up 44 home runs last year, is like a knuckle-ball pitcher: you never know what you’ll get from start-to-start. It’s possible he’ll throw together 33 effective starts, put up an E.R.A. around 3.50, and win 15 games. It’s equally or more possible he’ll get strafed again and lose his job in July. In any event, do you really want a rotation anchored by Tim Wakefield-lite? Madritsch, a fun player to watch and a success in his first go-round, is likely to take a step or two back, as nearly all young pitchers who succeed right away do. Pineiro is coming back from shoulder surgery, which is about as encouraging as being a democrat in the United States. Sure, things could break your way eventually, but it’s probably a good idea to lay low for a while—like, say, 40 years. At best Pineiro will be Adam Eaton. At worse he’ll be Ryan Franklin, which would be OK if the M’s didn’t already have the original Ryan Franklin. The M’s are on the hook for $2 million to Franklin, so he’ll keep getting the ball every fifth day. This is not as thrilling as a Blair Witch Project prequel in which that annoying girl was pre-emptively slaughtered by rampaging hordes of venomous horned frogs, thereby vanishing the original Blair Witch Project in the space-time continuum.
The bullpen is equally as mediocre. Closer Eddie Guardado, a luxury for this team, will not pitch until May. The sooner he proves himself fit, the sooner he can get flipped to a contending team, preferably the Yankees. Behind every day Eddie? A functional crew, but very little to get excited about, unless your idea of excitement is Matt Thornton. I prefer the excitement of a well-played game of Sorry!, but I’m not exactly normal.
Long-term, the bad news for the Mariners is that even if Beltre and Sexson work out, their gains will be mitigated in future years by the declines and/or departures of their good hitters—Ichiro, Boone, Winn—the overall mediocrity of others—Ibanez, Olivo, Spiezio, Lopez—and the sheer vapidness of their farm system. Take a look around, friends: it is hard to find a single Grade B+ hitting prospect. Jeremy Reed is an exciting young player, but his power is a work in progress, and one does not build a team around singles-hitting outfielders—especially when there are already two capable singles-hitting outfielders on the team. The story from the mound is not much better. While the M’s have arguably the best pitching prospect in all of baseball—Felix Hernandez—there is little else. Having Grade A pitching prospects is fine, but it’s really good if you somehow get paid for Google searches with “Pulsipher, Isringhausen, Wilson” as key words. Hitters are more reliable, and the M’s are thin. This would be bad enough, but their pitching prospects have the unfortunate propensity to keep blowing out any and every thing that can be blown out from the pinky to the shoulders. For better or worse, the Mariners will be filling their needs via the free-agent route. While signing Beltre is a good idea, signing Sexson is not. The jury, as they say, is still out.
None of the preceding paragraph will, of course, have any bearing on the 2005 season. Barring career years from, well, everybody on the Mariners, and barring a complete collapse of the Angels, A’s, and Rangers, the Mariners are staring at 80 wins and another last-place finish. A healthy Sexson could push that total to 84 wins, but what’s the point? In fact, that forecast should hold for the next few years. Considering the strength, short-term and otherwise, of the three teams in front of them, even if the Mariners somehow improve to 90 wins by 2007, it’s a good idea for their fans to keep a DVD of that 2001 season around.