This is something I've alluded to several times in the past few weeks, but now that we've hit something of a lull in team-relevant news and rumors in late December, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the subject at a bit more length.
For the longest time, baseball was about doing two things - hitting and pitching. If you did both of those well, you were going to win a lot of games and make some noise in the playoffs. And that's how it remained for a very long time until quite recently, when DIPS theory and teams like the 2001 Mariners and 2005 White Sox illuminated the value of having a good defense. Baseball is now typically considered the sum product of these three components, and any team that's above-average in each of them stands a real good chance of seeing October.
To me, though, there's a fourth factor that comes into play, one which is very frequently overlooked - the matter of team depth. A lot of teams feel pretty good about their chances in April, but the roster you start with is rarely the one you ride through the summer, and only those teams that are able to make necessary replacements and adjustments on the fly come out looking good in the end.
Although it usually isn't the lone deciding factor, depth can play a significant role in determining how the standings shake out. Rarely is a team able to make it through an entire season without at least one major injury, the way the Mariners did in 2003 or the Indians did this past summer (each team had its own DL stints, but I'm not digging real deep for examples, so just bear with me). Where would the Dodgers have wound up had they been able to find capable replacements for guys like Eric Gagne, Odalis Perez, JD Drew, and a handful of others? Where would the Angels have been without Chone Figgins, Juan Rivera, and Ervin Santana? Would Oakland have won the division with someone better than Scott Hatteberg taking over for the injured Erubiel Durazo? The Yankees had Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, and Aaron Small hanging around, and all three were vital in helping New York fend off Boston in the East. You get the point. Successful teams have Plan B's in case some part of Plan A goes awry.
For those of you who, like me, need to see some numbers to understand what's going on, consider this:
- The five starters with which each team entered the season last year made an average of 130 total starts, meaning that (on average) 32 starts, or roughly 180 innings, went to guys who weren't expected to pitch out of that role.
- Among the 14 AL teams last season, the nine members of the Opening Day starting lineup accounted for an average of 74.7% of that team's total at bats by the end of the year.
These are significant values. A fifth of each team's starts went to "replacement players" last year. The same goes for more than a quarter of their at bats. In case that fraction doesn't really mean anything to you, last season it was the equivalent of 1484 at bats per team, or approximately nine AB's per game. That's an awful lot of playing time for guys who weren't supposed to start more than a few times a month.
Pretty much every team goes into the year with five starters and nine position players they expect to use for the majority of the season. However, not every team gets the luxury of actually having it work out that way, and if they don't plan for a few guys getting hurt or slumping ahead of time, then as those things begin to happen they'll sink further away from the top of the division. It's an unfortunate fate, one which invariably prompts excuses like "things would've been different if (player) hadn't gotten hit by that truck," but realistically speaking, if one injury is enough to kill a team's chances, then that's the team's own fault. You're not unlucky if injuries hurt your team; you're lucky if they don't. It's all about anticipating the worst-case scenario and making sure you're prepared in case disaster strikes. Anything less is tantamount to crossing your fingers and hoping that those 14 players make it through 162 games relatively unscathed. There's already enough incertitude that goes into building a successful roster, so why add to the uncertainty by ignoring team depth and praying that everyone stays healthy and effective for the duration of the year?
I've said it a few times before, but as far as the Mariners are concerned, I think the team depth stinks. That said, adding Matt Lawton helped a ton - the team could now survive a month-long injury to any one of Richie Sexson, Raul Ibanez, Carl Everett, Jeremy Reed, or Ichiro without losing too much production (although the team would certainly be at least a little worse in four of those five instances). But that's only one player. Behind Lawton, there really isn't much of anything on the position player side; Rivera's going to be a huge dropoff from Johjima, neither Bloomquist nor Morse look like capable infield replacements, and I'm not sold on Choo or Bohn being able to do much of anything in the Majors. I suppose being without, say, Jose Lopez for a few weeks wouldn't be a killer, but anything longer than that and we'd be in trouble, and if - God forbid - two players get hurt at the same time, then we're probably screwed, because that sets in motion a cascade reaction with really bad results.
It doesn't look much better on the pitching side of things. The bullpen's fine - I don't think even Guardado missing the entire season would be much of a concern - but the rotation's a mess, and there isn't much immediate help hanging around. Jeff Harris is probably our top "sixth starter" right now, and he's really not good. Jesse Foppert still has a ton to prove, Clint Nageotte needs to show that he can pitch effectively for more than two innings at a time, and Bobby Livingston and Yorman Bazardo need a lot more work in AAA before we can even think about plugging them into the ML rotation. As interesting as some of these guys may be, right now they're just arms, and hardly represent any kind of quality rotation depth.
This wouldn't be as big of a problem if the Mariners had something even remotely resembling a reliable fivesome of starters, but instead what they have is a 20 year old, a 43 year old, and three guys with injury histories. One of these pitchers is going to get hurt. I don't know who, and I don't know for how long, but we're going to need a sixth starter at some point this season, and none of them are appealing. God help us if we have to squeeze a dozen starts out of Jeff Harris down the stretch. This team, with perfect health, probably stands just a 20-25% chance of making the playoffs; every injury just picks away at that percentage, dragging the Mariners further and further away from being legitimate contenders.
If Felix gets hurt, forget about it. Season's over. There's not really much you can do about that. But Washburn, Moyer, or Pineiro missing clumps of starts here and there will have a negative effect in its own right, and it would be nearly impossible for the Mariners to make the playoffs were that to occur. I don't even want to think about what would happen if we lost two or more players for months at a time. The good news, I guess, is that playing for 2006 was never really the stated goal of the organization, so missing out on the playoffs shouldn't be considered too big of a disappointment, but the possibility is definitely there that we'll be watching Felix mow down opponents in the middle of October. I just wish the depth were a little better, and the odds a little higher.