State of the defense: Rhode Island

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners defense is still bad, but one upgrade could make a world - or state - of difference.

Rhode Island is the world’s principal exporter of rooster-themed art and the inspiration behind a blog from Martha Stewart's dogs, so you know it’s a special place.  Sometimes they have a pretty good college basketball team.  Rhode Island also covers the least ground of the 50 states, making it the most Mariners of states.

Depending on the metric, the 2013 Mariners deployed the 2nd or 3rd worst defensive unit of the last 10 years.  Only the 2005 Yankees were undoubtedly worse and that team featured one young guy and a bunch of old guys who hit like designated hitters.  The 2013 Mariners defense featured a bunch of young guys a few old guys who hit nothing like designated hitters.  A team can contend for a World Series title with a historically bad defense, but only when paired with a historically good offense.  For reference, here are the four worst defensive seasons over the past 10 years:

Year Team W L wRC+ BsR Off Def
2005 NYY 95 67 116 -7.2 119.3 -163.1
2013 SEA 71 91 92 -11.2 -64.1 -95.8
2006 NYY 97 65 114 8.6 125.5 -95.0
2004 NYY 101 61 113 -0.1 105.1 -90.7

The 2014 Mariners are not going to hit the 2004-06 Yankees, yet they may play defense like them once again.

The Mariners should add a center fielder between now and opening day, but what if they don’t? After all, Jack Zduriencik is sketching a blueprint that looks like a plagiarism of last season’s magnum opus. Corey Hart is Michael Morse. Logan Morrison is Raul Ibanez. The design currently lacks a Kendrys Morales, but it would be easier to get one of those than a center fielder, especially now that the trade market has been depleted of Peter Bourjos, Craig Gentry, Dexter Fowler, Adam Eaton and Justin Ruggiano. Perhaps Zduriencik anticipates Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley to be enough and plans to add one more plodder to the mix. As much as we would like to believe the Mariners are still piecing the defense together, the reality is it may be close to done.

Let’s look at what the Mariners have, avoiding hypothetical trade scenarios that involve either Logan Morrison or Justin Smoak being shipped out and replaced by a plus-defender in the outfield.  Let’s assume a best case scenario of the current roster, one where Morrison rarely wears a glove and Corey Hart starts in the outfield on a semi-regular basis and performs at his pre-double knee surgery level.

To keep our numbers in line with the Mariners/Yankees graphic above, let’s stick with the Def metric provided by FanGraphs, using three-year averages and a rough estimate of projected innings for the players, totaling 1,450 innings per position.  Here are your 2014 Seattle Mariners:

Name Pos Inn Def
Mike Zunino C 1100 -5
Jesus Sucre C 350 3
Justin Smoak 1B 800 -7
Logan Morrison 1B 350 -5
Corey Hart 1B 300 -5
Robinson Cano 2B 1400 6
Dustin Ackley 2B 40 0
Willie Bloomquist 2B 10 0
Kyle Seager 3B 1400 1
Willie Bloomquist 3B 50 0
Brad Miller SS 1400 7
Willie Bloomquist SS 50 0
Dustin Ackley LF 800 -12
Logan Morrison LF 350 -6
Abraham Almonte LF 100 -4
Willie Bloomquist LF 100 -2
Michael Saunders LF 100 -1
Michael Saunders CF 1000 -3
Abraham Almonte CF 250 -2
Dustin Ackley CF 200 -3
Corey Hart RF 750 -3
Abraham Almonte RF 400 -10
Michael Saunders RF 250 4
Willie Bloomquist RF 50 0
Logan Morrison DH 700 -8
Justin Smoak DH 300 -4
Corey Hart DH 350 -4
Mike Zunino DH 100 -1
TOTAL > ALL 13050 -65

This was very quick and dirty, so don’t get caught up in the projected playing time – the positive contributors are locked in and the moveable pieces are comparable shades of bad.  And yes, there are only 12 players here.  The bench is one or two players short, but adding Nick Franklin, Carlos Triunfel, Jesus Montero or some hypothetical player currently outside of the organization does little to improve the defense.

The good news is the Mariners are solid up the middle with Miller and Cano, and there is a decent chance Zunino, Almonte and Ackley improve.  The bad news is everything else.  We can debate the Def ratings for some of the smaller samples, but as far as playing time is concerned, this represents the absolute best case scenario for the Mariners – the premier defender at each position remains healthy all season long.  Hart is projected for 1,400 innings.  Bloomquist is projected for only 260 innings.  Morrison only starts 40 games in left field – because if any of these factors change for the worse, the defense gets worse.

Gaze into the distance a bit deeper and the silhouette of 90 wins appears.

Next, let’s match the 2014 Mariners with similar teams in recent history.  I wanted to avoid dragging offense into this post, but we need a set of parameters.  Based on a composite of Oliver and Steamer and our distribution of playing time, the Mariners projected wRC+ is almost exactly 100.  For those unfamiliar with wRC+, 100 is average for a team and just an absolute eruption of offense compared to what we have grown accustomed to.  Pitching matters and the Mariners have a good core, but the defense is responsible for creating over 70% of the outs in any given season regardless of who is on the mound.  This is the primary reason why the 2013 Mariners finished with the 3rd worst ERA despite a league average FIP.  Still, let’s assume the Mariners stick to the plan and address the rotation with an armored truck full of cash or prospects to create a pitching staff that finishes the year somewhere between average and great.

Therefore, the parameters for our list of comparables will include teams from the last 10 years within 20 runs of Def and 5 runs of wRC of the 2014 Mariners.  Any team with a FIP below league average will be tossed out.  Also, because the DH position carries a default Def rating of -17.5 we will only use other American League teams.  Here is the list:

Year Team W L W% wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR FIP
2006 BOS 86 76 .531 100 -10.3 -11.4 -46.2 15.7 average
2009 TOR 75 87 .463 102 10.9 26.3 -50.7 19.2 good
2009 MIN 87 76 .534 104 20.4 54.7 -52.0 21.9 average
2008 NYY 89 73 .549 104 -1.6 32.7 -59.0 18.4 great
2011 CLE 80 82 .494 99 -4.2 -9.7 -60.2 13.4 average
2010 CHW 88 74 .543 101 -1.1 4.5 -61.1 15.4 great
2007 SEA 88 74 .543 103 -8.9 13.3 -70.3 15.4 average
>>>> AVG 85 77 .522 102 0.7 15.8 -57.1 17.1 avg+

The 2014 Mariners prototype conglomerate has won an average of 85 games.  This is both encouraging and discouraging.

Encouraging because, holy crap, 85 wins!  With money to spend and assets to deal, an 85-win team in December is within striking distance of a wildcard spot.  One can envision meaningful games deep into the summer.  MEANINGFUL GAMES.  Gaze into the distance a bit deeper and the silhouette of 90 wins appears.  The Mariners are young.  They feel dangerous, hunkered down on the edge of a thicket, ready to pounce.

85 wins is also discouraging because we looked at the best case scenario of health and roster management.  We assumed there would be a significant upgrade to the rotation and implied typical seasons from the entire 25-man roster.  In reality, players miss time, replaced by lesser versions of themselves.  There is also no guarantee Zdnuriencik will be able to assemble the last few pieces of depth that could keep the team’s head above water when those injuries and sub-par performances occur.

The model is also very delicate.  If the Mariners finish with a FIP somewhere in the bottom half of the league, or their wRC+ drops into the 90-99 range, or the defense is epically bad once again – if just one of those areas goes awry – they are a 75-win team.

And this brings us haphazardly back to the center field position.  Aside from a massive upgrade to the starting rotation, a center fielder that can defend and run the bases would be the best possible upgrade the Mariners could make.  As of now, the Mariners will be trying to squeeze a single win from a left field combination of Ackley and Morrison, no small feat when you consider their projected negative defensive value.  Something as simple as a 2-win center fielder would not only upgrade one position, it would upgrade two positions as Saunders shifts to one of the corner outfield spots where he is a plus defender.  One glove-only center fielder is all it would take to potentially cut the Mariners projected -65 Def rating in half, and it certainly can’t hurt the corner guys to have three plus defenders up the middle of the field.

So why has this not happened yet?  Probably because it is not going to happen.  Four of the best-run organizations in baseball – the Cardinals, Athletics, Astros, and Cubs – wasted little time trading for center field upgrades this winter.  A fifth team – the White Sox – received a center field gift when they decided to trade away a spare arm.  Trading is more difficult than we can imagine, but I can’t imagine a scenario where the Mariners lacked the trade chips necessary to get involved in at least one of those deals.

Zduriencik may bring in another outfielder but it probably won’t be the upgrade the team needs.  For now, the Mariners are Rhode Island and Michael Saunders is the governor.

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