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Where We Stand

It's probably way too early in the offseason to write this post, since there's still plenty of time for Bavasi to change the look of the active roster if he feels like it, but in the wake of all this recent pessimism I wanted to share my thoughts on the current 2007 Seattle Mariners.

The Mariners are better now than they were a year ago. The difference isn't huge, and I can't blame you if you don't see it, but it's there and it's real. The way I figure, at the most basic level, there are two ways to improve a roster:

(1) replace decent players with great ones
(2) replace awful players with decent ones

#1 is more sexy, and that's the one we were all looking forward to, but in certain situations #2 can be just as effective. Generally speaking, a ten-run improvement is a ten-run improvement, regardless of how you get it. Last season the Mariners gave 20% of their at bats to guys with OPS's under .700, and gave 165.2 innings to one of the worst ERA's in franchise history. They had black holes at DH, in center field, and at the back of the rotation, and now those holes have been patched up with players who don't look to be nearly as bad. It really is 'addition by subtraction,' if you want to look at it that way; the improvement isn't so much about the players we added as it is about the players we lost. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone on the current roster who promises to be as bad as Carl Everett, Jeremy Reed, or Joel Pineiro in a starting role.

If nothing else, this group of Mariners should be pretty steady. It's a team with few standouts and few glaring problems, with Cha Baek figuring to have the highest odds of total annihilation. With Everett, Reed and Pineiro, there were a bunch of reasons to expect a godawful season, but I don't see much of that on the current roster. The lineup is solid from top to bottom and while I don't expect anything extraordinary, the rotation shouldn't kill us. These guys are going to play a lot of close games, and they're going to win more of them than they did a year ago.

I was talking with Dave a few days ago, and he mentioned that after he plugged in a bunch of Bill James Handbook hitter projections, he got an ~800-run offense. That seems about right - it's a 40+ run improvement on last year, mostly thanks to Everett going away. Bear in mind that 800 runs in Safeco is something like 850-860 in a neutral ballpark. That's a good lineup. When Yuniesky Betancourt is the worst-hitting regular on the team, you know you're set up to score some runs.

So let's use '800 runs scored' as the expected offensive performance. Obviously there are error bars pointing in each direction, but since I'm not planning on submitting this to a scientific journal, we don't need to worry about that much detail. Now, in the past decade, the worst Pythagorean record to make the playoffs in the AL was 85-77. Using that W/L as the minimum that the Mariners need to target to have a shot at the playoffs, a team with an 800-run offense needs to have a 760-run pitching staff (at worst).

That sounds simple - 760 is a lot of runs - but last year's group allowed 792, and the talent level hasn't changed that much. Pineiro's gone, but so are Meche, Moyer, and Soriano (replaced by Baek, Batista, Ramirez, and Huber). It's going to be tough to make up 30-40 runs with this pitching staff.

Since the big change is in the rotation, let's look at the starters in isolation. In 2006 they allowed 562 runs in 958.1 innings, good for a 5.28 RA. Now let's look at this year's rotation. Assuming the same number of total innings, let's make some cocktail-napkin projections:

Felix: 190 IP, 4.00 RA
Washburn: 190 IP, 5.00
Batista: 190 IP, 5.25
Ramirez: 180 IP, 5.25
Baek: 150 IP, 5.35
Others: 58.2 IP, 5.75

Felix improves, Washburn stays the same, Batista and Ramirez remain steady but switch leagues, Baek gets exposed, and the other guys suck. Seems reasonably fair. Using these numbers, the rotation is 30 runs better than it was a year ago. Knock that down because of the worse bullpen and you're still at a ~20-run improvement in the pitching staff, or a Pythagorean 84-78 record. Just about where you need to be.

It seems like there's some room for improvement, too, but I'm not sure that there is. Moving from the NL to the AL is a substantial change, and while Batista and Ramirez are going to benefit from the park and the defense, I may have been too optimistic with those 5.25's. And a 5.35 RA for Baek puts him in Jon Lieber/Tim Hudson territory, which I'm not all that comfortable with. Consider this a 60th-percentile PECOTA projection, then, if you will. Slightly optimistic, but not out of the question or anything.

So there you go. If this team scores 800 runs and allows 770, it should win around 84 games. If it scores 770 and allows 800, it should win around 78. I'd lean closer to the former than the latter, myself. The talent is clearly there for a .500+ season, and who knows after that; get lucky in some one-run games and you could see the second week of October. It's unlikely, because an awful lot of things would have to go right for that to become a reality, but it's not like the division is particularly strong. One big injury to Vlad or Lackey and we could be right in the thick of things.

The biggest problem with the current Mariner roster, as I see it, isn't a lack of depth, but rather a lack of upside. There aren't many players seemingly poised to break out in a big way. I'm not talking about Jarrod Washburn lucking his way into another 3.20 ERA; that's just random chance, and it's impossible to predict. I'm talking about someone making a leap in performance, like (say) Justin Morneau did. Felix is obviously the top candidate, but who's behind him? Lopez's power disappeared, and while he has a shot at a breakout, the odds are pretty slim. Betancourt doesn't have the swing. I'm done thinking that Beltre's ever going to repeat his 2004. Jones is blocked. Snelling could, but he'll only get that chance if someone else has already sucked for a while. Neither Ramirez nor Baek have the stuff. The #2 candidate is probably Jose Guillen. (For those of you saying that Sexson's due to bounce back: you're right, he is, but that'll probably be negated by a drop in Ibanez's production.)

If the Mariners want to depend on something other than good luck to make a playoff push, their best bet is relying on Felix and Guillen to elevate their games from the level that's expected. If they can squeeze Lopez in there too, then you're looking at a dangerous team capable of winning 90+ games and contending for the division. It's a long shot, and an injury to any number of irreplaceable regulars socks that dream right in the kisser, but there's still a chance. It's been a disappointing winter so far, but don't kid yourself into thinking that Bavasi has destroyed the roster. He hasn't. The Mariners have gotten a little better, Oakland hasn't, and sometimes entering the season with an average roster can work out better than you thought it would.