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Mariners: Robinson Cano signing puts them in the conversation, but there's a lot of work left to do

Being competitive in major league baseball is a cold-hearted bitch of an assignment. Teams will literally spend decades trying to turn themselves around and expecting your team to win a World Series at some point could leave you sad and alone in fifty years. That's just the hard-to-swallow truth about a sport with 30 teams (hey, that only leaves, at best, one per team for the next 30 years), without a salary cap, with guaranteed contracts, and that might be the toughest to master in all of the major sports in America.

Why do you think teams have resorted to signing 12-year-old's with fractured elbows, Angels cheating, and 12-year-old's that inherit teams from their grandparents and assign themselves as the manager?! What's a "movie"?

In reality, as a baseball fan, all you really want to do is be in the conversation. You just want to compete as often as possible and put a good product on the field. Even that can be really hard to do for many teams and we've only just seen the Royals and Pirates have competitive seasons for the first time in 20 years. How did they finally do it? How did the Buccos finally get themselves in the conversation?

It starts with having the second-most valuable hitter in baseball. That's what finally gets you started, but it's hardly the only answer.

By signing Robinson Cano on Friday, the Seattle Mariners are back. Not back to competing, but back to thinking about the possibility of maybe competing... if they want to. The good news is that it is the hardest thing to do. Finding an elite player is understandably difficult, because they represent less than one percent of all professional baseball players.

The bad news is that it's only just the beginning.

While having Cano and Felix Hernandez is an excellent first step, there's a lot more work to be done. What I want to find out is: How much more work? What are we missing? What do winning teams have in common? What do elite players have in common as far as how it correlates to playoff appearances and regular season success.

Here is how I decided to look at that:

Cano was worth 6.0 fWAR in 2013, placing him 12th among all major league position players. That seems like a perfect cutoff point: 12 players, 12 months, 12 days of Chrimbus, not to mention 6.0 fWAR. Since six is a multiple of 12, and twelve is an anagram of pie, meat pie, there's no "I" in "Josh Hamulton." Anyway, I'm getting off track here.

What was the success of the teams of the 12 best position players during the 2013 season?

The players:

Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Donaldson, Carlos Gomez, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Carpenter, Evan Longoria, Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, Joey Votto, Cano.

The teams:

Angels, Pirates, Athletics, Brewers, Tigers, Cardinals, Rays, Diamondbacks, Reds, Yankees, and the Orioles x2.

The results:

11 teams, six playoff appearances, 87.7 average wins.

The winners:

Pirates, A's, Tigers, Cards, Reds, Rays.

The losers:

Angels, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Yankees, Orioles.

So, what we really want to know is: What's the difference between a "Winner" and a "Loser" because that's all that really matters. How can we be a lot more like the Cardinals (I must abide by the 6 WAR cutoff, but the Red Sox had Jacoby Ellsbury and his 5.9 fWAR) and a lot less like the Angels? Especially since Los Angeles had the most valuable player in baseball (Trout had 10.4 fWAR) but finished with a losing record. Right now, finishing at 78-84, like they did, doesn't seem like a far-off reality for Seattle.

How do we avoid it, what went wrong for Anaheim?

What the winners have in common:

- A minimum of two "sidekick" hitters.

Without even looking at pitchers yet and without examining the losers, here is what we know about the six playoff teams among the elite position players. They each had at least two other players that were worth at least 3.0 fWAR, and most of them had two that were over 4.0.

The A's had Donaldson (7.7 WAR) but also had Coco Crisp (3.9) and Jed Lowrie (3.6.) Maybe not household names before or now or ever (which could bode well for the current Mariners, but we'll get to that later) but those three players combined for 15.2 fWAR. The Mariners' top three hitters of 2013 combined for 6.8.

Oakland's three most valuable hitters after their top three (Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Derek Norris) combined for 7.0 WAR. That means that the average WAR value of their top six position players was 3.7 fWAR. It wasn't just Donaldson's efforts as a surprise elite position player that put them in the position to win the AL West, it was the fact that he was supported by the whole lineup. Even Brandon Moss checked in at 1.9 fWAR, which would have ranked second among Seattle hitters last season.

The Pirates had McCutchen (8.2 WAR) but also had Starling Marte (4.6) and Russell Martin (4.1). The next three up (Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer) combined for 7.2 WAR.

The Tigers had Cabrera (7.6 WAR) but also had Jhonny Peralta (3.6), Austin Jackson (3.1) and Omar Infante (3.1.) That's three well above-average position players after your elite hitter. In fact, Prince Fielder was only fifth on the team in WAR (2.2) after Torii Hunter (2.5.)

The Cardinals had Carpenter (7.0) but then had Yadier Molina (5.6) and Matt Holliday (4.5.) Remember that Kyle Seager had 3.4 fWAR last season, which would mean that our best hitter on the entire team, would be the equal of a Peralta or a Lowrie to a playoff team. We could not place the expectation on Seager to ever become as good as Cano, but he's still vital to the success of a successful team. Just not as the best position player on the team.

The Cards 4-through-6 leaders in WAR would be Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran and Jon Jay. All a minimum of 1.9 WAR, with Matt Adams coming in at 1.7. Again, 1.7 ranks seventh on the Cardinals, but second on the 2013 Mariners.

The Rays had Longoria (6.8 WAR) but also Ben Zobrist (5.4), Yunel Escobar (3.9) and Desmond Jennings (3.2). Next up are James Loney, Wil Myers, and seventh on the team again with 1.7 WAR was Matt Joyce. Brad Miller was our "1.7 fWAR hitter" last season and only played in 76 games, which is encouraging, but that still leaves a full season of Kendrys Morales as our third most-valuable position player of the 2013 season, at 1.2 WAR.

Finally, the Reds had Votto (6.2 WAR) but followed him with Shin-Soo Choo (5.2 WAR) and Jay Bruce (4.1 WAR.) It's interesting to look at a player like Bruce and examine what he represents. Once the top hitting prospect in baseball, Bruce is currently the guy that you're hoping supports your elite player, not the elite player himself. Expectations of prospects have to change as they adapt to the majors, as the majors adapt to them, and how we let our expectations of them adapt over time. You almost always need an elite position player, but you can't necessarily expect a prospect to ever turn into that. For the M's, they decided to get one in free agency, which is certainly one way to do it.

Of the above players, two were traded for and four were homegrown. (Donaldson wasn't trade for as an elite player, but as part of a prospect package in the Rich Harden deal. So you could consider him homegrown, in a way.)

We still know that for every elite player that made the playoffs, they had at least two good-to-great support position players but also had a pretty solid 4-through-7 or more.

What about for the big, old LOSERS?

Do the elite LOSERS have support:

The Angels have Trout (10.4 WAR) but their next two up are Howie Kendrick (2.7 WAR) and Mark Trumbo (2.5) so they don't have a second position player worth 3.0 WAR or more. They had a significant number of players worth positive WAR, but only those three and Chris Iannatta (2.1) were even worth 2.0. Josh Hamilton checked in fifth (1.9) and Albert Pujols came in 10th (0.7.)

The Brewers had Gomez (7.6) plus Jonathan Lucroy (3.6) and Jean Segura (3.4) so he does have two sidekicks. Though I would also point out that if the above WINNERS didn't have at least two more players with 4.0 WAR, then they had a long string of valuable players (2.0 WAR and above) after the top three. Milwaukee did not. Next up was Scooter Gennett at 1.9. If Ryan Braun played a whole season as the Braun we remember (1.7 in 61 games) things probably would've been different. Maybe not the playoffs, but definitely a lot more encouraging then how their season ended.

We'll save Baltimore for a second.

The Diamondbacks had Goldschmidt (6.4) plus Gerardo Parra (4.6) and AJ Pollock (3.6) which probably should be enough to warrant better than an 81-81 record in most instances. Especially since they played in the NL West, not the AL West, AL East or NL Central. They had a decent supporting cast, but not a great one. They had a couple good starting pitchers, but not much else.

The Orioles are interesting because they didn't just have two elite hitters in Davis (6.8) and Machado (6.4) but they were supported by Adam Jones (4.2) and JJ Hardy (3.4), plus Nate McClouth (2.5) and Matt Wieters (2.4). The O's were fifth in team batting WAR (26.6) but unfortunately only third in their division (Red Sox were first, Rays were second.) That presents one problem. The other issue is that they finished 20th in pitching WAR. (Red Sox were third, Rays were 14th.)

The Yankees though are probably the team we want to pay the closest attention to. They were led by Cano (6.0) but only followed him up with Brett Gardner (3.4) and no other position player on the team had more than 2.0 WAR. The 2013 Mariners would look at a lot like the 2013 Yankees, if you just switched Cano to Seattle and that's not very encouraging. While it might be nice for a team like the M's to finish 85-77 for once (as New York did last year) let's not forget that the Yankees only got that way after basically every good player besides Cano got hurt or got hurt and missed work and couldn't take steroids so it didn't hurt to miss work.

Why are you such a Loser (What to avoid):

The Brewers, 74-88

Despite elite play by one guy and very good play from two more, the reason that the Brewers finished with the worst record among these teams is that they got terrible play from Rickie Weeks, Alex Gonzalez, Juan Francisco and Yuniesky Betancourt. Those four players combined for -4.5 WAR and played in a significant number of games.

More importantly, their most valuable pitcher was Kyle Lohse at 1.8 WAR. Next up were Yovani Gallardo (1.7) and Marco Estrada (1.6) and Wily Peralta (1.1) and a bunch of other dudes rounding out the number five spot in the rotation, though all of these players mostly pitched like "a number five starter." The number five starter for Cabrera's Tigers was Rick Porcello with 3.2 WAR. (If that helps give you an unreasonable expectation of a rotation, but still.) The Brewers really lacked a number one and a number two, and arguably a number three.

The Angels, 78-84

While Anaheim really didn't have "the dregs" like Milwaukee did (only Brendan Harris had over 100 plate appearances and posted negative WAR) they lacked much of any support around Trout. Given bounceback years from Hamilton and Pujols, normal play from Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Mark Trumbo, David Freese, you may expect them to get over .500 on that alone next season.

But everything else points to Jered Weaver peaking in 2010 (3.32 xFIP to 3.80 to 4.18 to 4.31) and posting just 2.4 WAR in 24 starts. C.J. Wilson was good (3.3) but not great. The rest of the rotation was bad to awful.

The Yankees 85-77

This is probably the most relevant to the Mariners at the moment. We already mentioned that outside of Cano, the position players were pretty terrible. They did have Gardner, but a player of Gardner's talents is really even more valuable when surrounded by good players. What good is all that speed and on-base ability if Cano is the only other guy doing the hefty living? Soriano played pretty well for 58 games, but otherwise, this lineup was barren. The rotation was definitely good enough to get you to the playoffs (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda all at 2.5 WAR and up) but lacked a true ace. Sabathia's 2.7 WAR was the lowest of his career.

Everything about last year's Yankees screams 85 wins and not 75 or 95.

How do the Mariners get to 95 wins instead of 85, while also avoiding 75?

It's also important to look at the 2013 playoff teams that did not have a 6.0 WAR player:

Boston Red Sox 97-65, AL East, World Series champions

As mentioned earlier, Ellsbury just missed the cutoff at 5.9 WAR. But he's that close. Oh, by the way, so was Shane Victorino (5.6) and Dustin Pedroia (5.4). What about 4, 5, 6, and 7? All were over 3.0 WAR:

Mike Napoli 3.9, David Ortiz 3.8, Jarrod Saltalamacchia 3.6, Stephen Drew 3.4.

Boston was so good you wouldn't believe it. The 2013 value of Kyle Seager on the Mariners would stick between the Red Sox' fifth and sixth most valuable players on offense. In the rotation, Jon Lester posted 4.3 WAR, Clay Bucholz was at 3.2 in half of a season, John Lackey was at 3.2 in a full season. Koji Uehara (3.3) is more valuable than many teams number one starter.

The 2013 Red Sox were great, which is a good strategy for anybody long-term. Not much of a strategy for the 2013-to-2014 Seattle Mariners.

You could argue that:

Cano is equal to Ellsbury.

Seager is equal to Drew.

Sign Napoli.

Sign Choo as equal to Victorino.

And you'd improve that much and still be without a Pedroia, an Ortiz, and a Salty. Maybe Brad Miller could put up 3.0 WAR. But that's just to give you an idea of how far the M's are from the World Series champs, though getting that number one elite player is the hardest step.

Cleveland Indians, 92-70, Wild Card berth (lost)

The Indians suck because they're the type of team that does nothing bad and nothing great. They're just no darn good for this experiment!

Led by Jason Kipnis (4.5 WAR), the player that I wanted Dustin Ackley to become, they also got a surprising 3.7 WAR from Yan Gomes in 88 games and 3.6 from Carlos Santana. Three more had 2.0 WAR or more (Ryan Rayburn, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn) plus 1.7 from Michael Brantley.

The rotation was just like the lineup.

Justin Masterson (3.4) and Ubaldo Jimenez (3.2) were at the top of it, with nobody super exceptional but not a single "Beavan" among them. The good news is that there's obviously not a Felix among them either, which does give the Mariners a leg up.

It's just a matter of avoiding that awful back-end that can make it hard to win every fourth or fifth day. The M's rotation was mostly awful after Felix and Kuma.

The 2013 Indians were a solid team, but I think it would surprise no one if they fell to 80 wins next season.

Los Angeles Dodgers, 92-70, NL West

The Dodgers actually had two elite players, and we all know it, and we all know why they're the exception to this breakdown. Hanley Ramirez was worth 5.1 WAR in 86 games, making him almost as valuable as Mike Trout for those 86 games. Yasiel Puig was worth 4.0 WAR in 104 games, and at times really did look like the best hitter in baseball. Not only that, but Juan Uribe was worth 5.1 WAR in 132 games.

They had four other players over 2.0 WAR: Adrian Gonzalez, AJ Ellis, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier.

The rotation had the best starter in the NL, at least, and two other great starters.

I think it's fair to say that the Dodgers were the Red Sox, but due to the late starts of Puig and Ramirez, finished five games back of the Cardinals and lost homefield advantage for the NLCS. Whether this had a direct effect on the outcome or would've changed if the Dodgers had homefield advantage, we will never know. But I do know that in the NLCS they were 2-1 in Los Angeles and 0-3 in St. Louis.

Atlanta Braves, 96-66, NL East

If I arbitrarily titled 6.0 WAR as "elite" then 4.5 WAR might be "second tier" for position players. The Braves had Freddie Freeman (4.8) and Andrelton Simmons (4.7) plus Jason Heyward (3.4) and Justin Upton (3.3).

Chris Johnson (2.8) and Brian McCann (2.7) represent a well above-average 5 and 6 in value.

The rotation was non-spectacular, but on par with other rotations we've seen on this list that lacked a true ace.

So, where does that leave the Seattle Mariners as of now?

A playoff team will almost always have an elite position player. Of the top 13 position players by WAR, seven of them made the playoffs with their teams. That's 70% of the 2013 playoff teams. Of the three teams that made it without one of the top 13 position players: The Dodgers had possibly three players that would qualify as "elite" over 162 games. The Braves had two "second tier" players, two at the next level (and Heyward only played in 104 games) and two above-average players with a good rotation in arguably the worst (or at best second-worst) division.

The Indians are just weird.

You almost certainly need an elite position player.

Check!

Of the elite position players that did not make the playoffs, we have five examples. Mathematically, we already know that there were only three playoff spots left, so we know that by definition not all of these elite players can make it. But what separated the wheat from the chaff?

You need to give him Support.

Robinson Cano was on a mostly-bad team, playing in a tough division that featured five of the top 12 position players in baseball by fWAR. Davis and Machado had some support on offense, but a terrible rotation. Trout had almost zero support from what should have been a good lineup on paper. Gomez was a surprise "elite" player on a bad team all-around.

You almost certainly need to give your hitter support in the lineup.

No check.

Seager and Miller represent a starting point. The good news is that Seager has now posted consecutive seasons of 3+ WAR, and we can feel confident that he can continue this, if not rise up to 4+ WAR. That would only make him one additional player though.

Miller was worth 1.7 WAR in less than half of a season, so if he can continue that production (if not improve it) then we'll be looking at a 3+ WAR player as well. But that still leaves a lot of space between the top three position players on the roster and the other six guys.

Saunders was worth 1.2 WAR last year, which would only be helpful if he was, say, the eighth most valuable player on your team. As this roster is presently constructed, he is the fourth most valuable. Ackley was worth 0.5 WAR in 115 games but in the second half of the season raised his wRC+ from 44 in the first half to 126 in the second. If they decide to keep him and he continues to hit well, Ackley could arguably be a 2 WAR player in 2014 within reason.

Again, that's nice if he's your seventh most valuable player.

Let's say now that you've got these spots:

Elite (check, Cano)

Second tier (check, Seager)

Second tier (no)

Third tier (check, Miller)

Third tier (check, Ackley)

Average (no)

Average (no)

Not terrible (check, Saunders)

Not terrible (no)

Which players do the Mariners presently have on the roster that we'd be relying to roll with today? Well, Justin Smoak was worth 0.4 WAR last year. If he could uptick that to 1.5 WAR, he'd be kicking it with Saunders at the bottom of that value chart.

It's really hard to continue this exercise without kicking something really hard.

Where they do find relief is in the rotation. Six pitchers finished with 6.0 WAR in 2013, including Felix Hernandez. That gives the Mariners two players that finished with exactly 6.0 WAR last season, something that only the Orioles, Tigers and Cardinals can boast right now. (Tigers had two 6 WAR pitchers, Cards had one.)

Down the list, you'll also find Hisashi Iwakuma at 18th in fWAR at 4.2. (Baseball-Reference was much kinder, not only giving Iwakuma 6.9 bWAR but that ranks him fifth in the American League. Among ALL players, hitters included.)

But things just get really difficult when you see that three out of every five days, you're putting a fairly shoddy product on the mound. Frankly, it can be quite hard to win more than half of your games, when 60% of your rotation is bad. Think of it like this:

W 5-0, W 5-1, L 7-4, L 6-5, L 9-2

Then let's say one of your bad pitchers has a good day or your lineup goes off:

W 5-3, W 7-1, W 3-0, L 8-2, L 6-4

Great! You're back to .500! Okay, but not even Felix is perfect all of the time:

L 3-2, L 6-4, L 4-0, W 9-8, L 4-3

Wah-Wah, you're four games under .500 just like that.

Take ONE of those rotation spots and turn it into an above-average starter, and all of a sudden it becomes much easier to win on a consistent-enough basis to compete. The M's current crop of pitchers on the 40-man roster would rely on these players to fill three spots:

Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer, Hector Noesi, Chance Ruffin

Ideally, you'd like to say that the first three names on that list would take the spots and play up to the expectations that we've set for them. If that happened, the M's would win 120 games because hey, Walker is a projected ace, Paxton would be no worse than a Brandon Morrow-type, and Erasmo could definitely maintain an ERA of 3.00 at his best.

Unfortunately, baseball rarely works that easily. And that doesn't account for injuries and poor performance, as well as not accounting for the worst case scenario: That we'd have to replace the one or two for a time (sorry!)

If Seattle had only one spot in the rotation that was open, we wouldn't be worried about getting a name like David Price or Ubaldo. It's just one spot and certainly, one of the above guys would eventually, probably, grab it and hold onto it. But the Mariners have three such spots and that's too many for a team that just signed a player to a $240 million contract with the intention of starting contention by next season.

Though I don't think that they need to win right away, because you don't sign a guy to a 10-year contract because you're "pushing all-in," there's never as good of a time to compete as today. We don't know what the world will look like in 2015, let alone 2021, so they'll want to extract the most possible value out of Cano and Felix right now. Try to win it early.

That's why it is still imperative that the M's sign either Ubaldo, Bartolo Colon, or trade for Price, or do something else. Even Ervin Santana would be an option, though his supposed $100 million+ price tag seems too much for a pitcher of his caliber. At $80-85 though, you have to consider it, because he's exactly the "number three, reliable" starter that I'm talking about. You plug someone like Santana in and now it's the above names for two spots.

Additionally, the Mariners still require a position player or three. Their current catchers are Mike Zunino, Jesus Montero and Jesus Sucre. They probably won't be able to get away with that, and at the least, it's not like they need a 3 WAR player in that position. They'll take a 1 WAR player and someone to rotate with Zunino.

They need a DH. This could be almost-literally any hitter on the team. Or a number of free agents. If it was Napoli, it would instantly give them a reliable 2-4 WAR DH/1B/C that fits into the above chart anywhere from "second tier" to "fourth-most valuable" position player on the team.

They need an outfielder. You could even stick with Ackley and Saunders and probably survive, but your third outfielder would have to be a good one. Beltran is good and would be a good value, probably, at three years and $48 million. Matt Kemp would be a potentially elite one, but at a lot more money and a lot more risk. The M's will likely use Nick Franklin as the key piece to land this outfielder, if they decide not to sign Beltran, Choo, Corey Hart, or even Nelson Cruz. I know people don't want Cruz, but you never know if he might come incredibly cheap.

The ideal scenario is Choo if they want to pay the man, the band-aid is Beltran, the low-risk move is Hart.

The Mariners did the hardest thing to do, which is find an elite player. It now puts them in the conversation with the above playoff teams. But as we saw with the above teams that did not make the playoffs, it only gets you in the conversation. It does not get you into the playoffs. In order to do that, you don't need a player, you need a team.

Seattle needs to sign a DH (Napoli, who would fill multiple roles), an OF (Kemp, Choo, Beltran or Hart), a C (John Buck is one of the few still available) and a SP (Colon, Jimenez, Price, other.) They've got FOUR big moves left to make if they wanted to contend in 2014. That's not an easy task, but now that they've got Cano, it's a possible one.

We are now in the conversation.

(Prediction: Napoli, Buck, Colon, and very possibly Andre Ethier, because his contract is easier to swallow and might only cost you Franklin.)

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