not an expression of surprise - Stephen Dunn
Right now, you're feeling good. The Seattle Mariners had an active offseason in which they didn't end up surrendering much youth. They tried, of course, but ultimately, they didn't. The Mariners are about to hold a press conference at Safeco Field to officially announce a Felix Hernandez long-term contract extension. Pitchers and catchers have reported to camp, so spring training's underway, and spring training is when everyone who isn't the Astros gets a chance to dream the glorious dreams. There are more positive vibes than negative vibes at the moment, so maybe this is exactly the time to note that the Mariners have been picked in a couple places as the most likely American League 2013 surprise.
Here's something from Bill James Online, written by not Bill James. Here's something from Eric Karabell at ESPN. The authors set out to identify the team most likely to catch people by surprise -- in a good way -- and they settled on the Mariners, subsequently citing reasons for why the Mariners make good sense. You can say this much: they don't not have arguments.
Now, naturally, there are abundant flaws here, like the very premise. When you go looking for the next Orioles or A's, you overlook the possibility of there not being another Orioles or A's. There's no guarantee of any team taking huge strides forward. And when you look for a surprise, you can't look at teams whose success wouldn't be surprising. You're trying to predict what is, in a way, unpredictable. By definition, surprises aren't anticipated.
It's kind of like trying to search for the next Mike Trout. It's good for attention, but it isn't great science, and I have a whole list of issues with the Bill James Online methodology. But I'm not here to say those writers are full of crap. It's certainly warming to see the Mariners referred to in a more positive light. There's a sense that the Mariners are building toward something strong and sustainable, and you can't know when they might make the leap. It's not inconceivable that they could be a playoff team in 2013.
Here's the way I'd put it: right now, the Mariners look like something like a .500 ballclub. Maybe a bit worse, fitting in the 75-80 window. If the Mariners were to finish with last year's record, it wouldn't be a shock. But now let's imagine that this Mariners team goes on to win 90 or 95 games. Let's also imagine what the numbers might look like for such a Mariners team. If that season were to play out, I think we could probably look at the year-end statistics and conclude, "yeah, that made sense." Maybe Dustin Ackley looks like the initial version of Dustin Ackley. Maybe Jesus Montero slugs 30 home runs, or maybe Franklin Gutierrez plays 130-140 games and looks fit. Maybe one of the pitching prospects grabs on to a job at the back of the rotation and strikes people out like a motherfucker down the stretch. Maybe Carter Capps and Tom Wilhelmsen prove unhittable in the later innings.
It's easy to see how the Mariners could be average, or mediocre. It's not hard to see how the Mariners could be competitive, because their roster has the upside and there isn't too much crater potential in critical spots. I mean, everything goes to shit if Felix gets injured, but Felix just got looked at closer than he has in years, and no one's worried about anything, at least imminently. The Mariners' win projection has big error bars.
Every team's win projection has big error bars. But the Mariners might have a bigger upside error bar, and that error bar overlaps with the postseason threshold. I imagine the Astros' error bar doesn't. I imagine the Twins' error bar doesn't. Most teams do have a chance at the playoffs, and the Mariners are no exception. And not many people think that about the Mariners, which is why they'd be a surprise if they were good.
I don't know if the Mariners are truly in better position to surprise than some of the other American League candidates. But these Mariners do have it in them to make a lot of noise, even in August and September. It can't be dismissed, and it's the whole reason we get excited around this time of year, every year. Most years, anything is possible. Lots of good things are possible.