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The Path to Contention

By now, we've all been assured by baseball's Minister of Conventional Wisdom that the Seattle Mariners, even with the addition of Robinson Cano, can not compete without adding 'several other pieces'. And yes, wouldn't we love to have another reliable starter, a glove-first center fielder, and Mr. Choo? Well, of course. That would be splendid.

But guess what. Even those moves wouldn't be enough to make post season play likely. We are not going to be significantly better without a few breakthroughs from our young people. There's no way around it.

From the following list of nine potential breakthrough performers...we need a few actual breakthroughs. Not Chris Davis going from 2.0 WAR to 6.8 WAR in a single season...or Josh Donaldson's even more unexpected jump from 1.5 to 7.7. Crazy leaps like that can't be predicted, and shouldn't be anticipated.

The numbers in parentheses indicate the current average WAR projection between Steamer and Oliver:

Zunino (2.35)

Miller (3.3)

Smoak (0.65)

Morrison (2.1)

Hart (1.85)

Saunders (1.9)

Ackely (1.55)

Walker (1.3)

Paxton (1.35)

First, let's plug in our little fantasy from above: we sign Choo; we sign Ervin Santana; and somehow the Yankees give up the last year of Brett Gardner for a marginal return. If those moves push Ackley to the bench, Smoak to the bench, and Erasmo to long relief in favor of Santana, we wind up with a net gain of a little better than 4 WAR. Nothing to sneeze at--but also nothing determinant.

In the second scenario, let's back out the additions and just assume regular roles for the nine above. Because Mariners, I'm going to assume that between Zunino, Miller and Smoak, there is no improvement over what's projected, and that, in fact, one of them gets hurt long enough to force us to a replacement level sub, costing an estimated 1.5 WAR.

On the other hand, here's hoping that both LoMo and Hart stay upright long enough to better their projections by a mere win apiece. Similarly, let's hope that between Paxton and Walker, they find enough control to combine for an extra 3 WAR. That doesn't seem impossible.

And finally, without wishing for an impossible 5 Win jump from either one, let's say that both Ackley and Saunders actually turned the corner with their second half numbers last year, and both add a couple wins--both becoing 4 WAR performers.

Yes, this is optimistic--but not delusional. Things very un-Mariner like would have to happen. But the net result of this scenario is a jump of almost 8 WAR--twice what the free agent/trade plan would create. This isn't intended to represent a prediction--just an idea of how important player development is to the organization. Without it, Cano + Hart + LoMo probably doesn't matter.

And what this doesn't take into account is any improvement from Franklin and D.J. Peterson--which could well come in the minors. Improvements there could lead to much higher future WAR from first base...and maybe an even more highly valued trade chip.

How can higher WAR be generated? By people playing better. Whether it's the approach of Zunino or Ackley...the control of Walker and Paxton...maybe the most important thing that will happen this season is the way they're 'coached up'. And in that sense, the emphasis on 'teaching' mentioned by Lincoln, Z and McClendon makes a lot of sense. Let's hope the coaches are up to the task.

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