Something you've been hearing all offseason (from us and others) is that, as currently constructed, the Mariners are roughly a .500 team with a chance of competing. You may have a little trouble making the connection between those two points - after all, how could an 81-81 team possibly stand a chance of making the playoffs outside of the NL West? - but most of it can be explained by standard statistical variation over a 162-game sample. Given a team capable of a .500 winning percentage over a full season, its final W/L record will fall somewhere between 75-87 and 87-75 more than two-thirds of the time (one standard deviation from the mean), but there's also an 8% chance that it wins at least 90 games, which is usually enough to make some noise in the division and wild card races. So, already, we can say that the Mariners have a legitimate chance of looking like a pretty good team, even if they aren't.
Another factor that comes into play here, though, is the fact that in any given season, there exists the possibility that certain members of the team break out or, on the other side of the coin, totally collapse. A breakout player, like Adrian Beltre circa 2004, will obviously help the team's chances of competing, while a Cirillo-esque bust will do considerable damage. Assessing the likelihood of each team's potential booms and bombs can help you get a better idea of where that team is more likely to finish. After all, if you have a .500 team with a bunch of young players, it stands a better chance of exceeding the mean, but if you re-populate the team with a bunch of equivalently-talented old men, odds are better that it falls short.
So where do the Mariners stand? To answer that, we have to take a look at the players on the roster who are most likely to see a significant change in their productivity between 2005 and 2006. Those players, along with brief explanations for each, are listed below in no particular order:
Potential Breakout Players:
Kenji Johjima: He'll only be 29 at the start of next season, and he put up some eye-popping numbers in Japan. Most projection systems have been conservative and pegged him for an OPS in the mid-.700's, but there's definitely some flip-out potential here.
Adrian Beltre: I don't think I really need to explain this one. He's still just one year removed from one of the best seasons of all time, and he turns 27 in April. Now that he's got a full year of AL experience under his belt, he might be ready to resume beating the snot out of the ball on a consistent basis.
Jose Lopez: A 22 year old with a career .852 OPS in AAA shouldn't have this much trouble in the Majors. He showed some pop after being recalled from Tacoma late in the season, so while it might still take him another year to get comfortable, he may be ready to establish himself as a quality regular.
Jeremy Reed: The wrist is better, and now he's a year wiser. He was an excellent line drive hitter in the minors with fantastic control of the strike zone, and he's still only 24, so a 75-100 point OPS improvement isn't out of the question.
Joel Pineiro: I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he shaves 150 points off of his 2005 ERA. He's not as good as he was four years ago, but he's not nearly as bad as he was last season. I'm expecting him to be a fairly reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher going forward. Still just 27.
Gil Meche: Just kidding.
Felix Hernandez: He's a 20 year old flamethrower who's in line to make 25-30 starts. The team's going to handle him with special care, but he's young, he throws hard, and he has some kinks in his mechanics, so the downside here (major injury) outweighs the upside (keeps being healthy, awesome).
Richie Sexson: He's 31, the injury specter is still there, and last year was pretty much as good a season as anyone could have predicted. He's going to drop off; the only question is how much.
Carl Everett: Fortunately, this one would be pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but Everett has really let himself go over the years, and at this point he features the kind of skillset that can erode rapidly. Turns 35 in early June.
Raul Ibanez: 33 (34 in June), and his BA took a sizeable hit last year, dragging the SLG as well. Looks a lot like one of those guys who's going to draw more walks at the expense of hits as he ages, but he doesn't have the kind of raw power to make a smooth transition.
Jamie Moyer: The man could be your grandfather.
Eddie Guardado: 35 years old, still has a trick shoulder.
Jarrod Washburn: His ratios are going south, he's past his peak, and he's recently been fighting some injury problems. Stands a pretty good chance of adding 100 points to his ERA.
I guess you could also put Kenji Johjima on the second list, just because of the whole Kaz Matsui thing, but I think he's far more likely to succeed than he is to crater.
In the end, while the second list is bigger than the first, I think the probability that certain key players break out is higher than the probability of an implosion or two. Most of the guys on the second list are only there because of injury concerns, and while a few of them may get DL'd during the season, I'm much more confident in some of the guys in the first list taking off as they approach or enter their primes.
The Mariners didn't make themselves any younger during the offseason, but for the first time in a while they're going into next season with a lot of young players in a lot of places. There's plenty of downside to the starting rotation, and there isn't much depth in case something terrible happens, but the starting lineup has upside out the wazoo, and one or two breakout seasons would make it one of the best in the league.
So, to bring this all back to the intro, yes, I think the Mariners are roughly a .500 team (closer to .512, but whatever). And yes, I understand that simple variation can make .500 look a lot like .463. That said, I think the difference between this year's team and the two that preceded it is that the 2006 Mariners stand a much greater chance of finishing above their projected level than below. An injury to Felix Hernandez would be a killer, but I don't think the other potential implosions would be that big of a deal, as the roster could probably cover for them without losing too much. The upside, though...it's there, it's real, and it's huge. This team is one big breakout player away from being legitimately good, and given its youth, I think that's something to be excited about.
Jeff's note: just to clear things up, I omitted Yuniesky Betancourt because I don't think he's real likely to make a substantial offensive improvement in 2006. I like him a bunch, but he doesn't strike me as much of a breakout candidate, at least not yet.