Some years ago, I was talking with Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors about a potential project. We would look at writers and journalists, we would keep track of their rumors, and we would evaluate their accuracy. In the end, we'd be left with a list of who to trust the most, and who to trust the least. In theory, it made excellent sense. In reality, such a project is incredibly complicated, with so many variables, and we'd probably just be left with what we expected to be left with. That is, when it comes to baseball information, we have a pretty good idea of the right sources, and it's hard to go wrong with Ken Rosenthal. Rosenthal is one of the good ones.
And earlier Wednesday, Rosenthal got to talking about the Seattle Mariners. Only briefly, only in a couple of tweets, but this time of year all baseball fans are desperate for something to talk about, and Rosenthal has provided us with a few things to talk about. His first message:
#Mariners again seeking offense. Free-agent hitters indicating greater interest with team moving in fences. We’ll see how it plays out.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 7, 2012
Nothing in there should be considered a surprise. Of course the Mariners are on the prowl for offense -- the Mariners' offense is bad. Of course free-agent hitters are more interested in the Mariners now than they would've been absent Safeco dimension adjustments. Free-agent hitters want to play in places where they will be able to hit and post numbers, because baseball hitters don't really have a good grasp of park adjustments and besides, an up-adjusted 100 OPS+ feels different from an unadjusted 100 OPS+ because outs feel like outs. Psychologically, it feels better to hit in a neutral or hitter-friendly environment, and financially, it's still better to hit in a neutral or hitter-friendly environment, because agents and arbitrators are astonishingly bad with advanced statistics.
One of the reasons behind the Safeco adjustments was to make the team more appealing to potential acquisitions. Right now, potential acquisitions are somewhat intrigued. They'll become more intrigued over time, if Safeco becomes demonstrably less pitcher-friendly. They'll become less intrigued over time, if the adjustments somehow don't do anything. Presently the Mariners stand a slightly better chance with free-agent hitters than they would have otherwise.
So that's one Rosenthal message, based on conversations with non-Mariners sources. Here's another Rosenthal message:
Also on #Mariners. Club now views Brandon Maurer in same light as top pitching prospects Walker, Hultzen, Paxton. All highly regarded.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 7, 2012
It's unclear if Rosenthal got this from the Mariners, or if he got this from teams who have been talking with the Mariners. Ordinarily the information is coming from other teams, but here, it's just praise for Brandon Maurer, and the Mariners wouldn't have any reason not to praise Brandon Maurer to the media. The Mariners aren't shy about hyping their own guys, especially those who have talent in the minors. The Mariners, after all, are desperately trying to sell that they're successfully rebuilding from within. I'm not saying they're not; I'm saying they have an agenda.
This isn't the first time we've been cautioned against labeling the Mariners' pitching prospects as the Big Three. When people would talk about the Cerberus in Jackson, sometimes officials would step in to remind the people of Brandon Maurer. Maurer flew under the radar specifically because he wasn't Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, or James Paxton, but Maurer is undoubtedly a talented and young starting pitcher who might have a future as a starting pitcher at a higher level.
The basics are that Maurer is 22 and right-handed and officially 6'5. In the past, he's dealt with elbow and shoulder discomfort, but there was none of that in 2012, when he made 24 starts in double-A. He throws a fastball in the low- to mid-90s, a slider people like, a curve fewer people like, and a changeup fewer people like still. Putting it that way might undersell his repertoire. He does throw four pitches, and "Brandon Maurer" is a changeup name, so I have every confidence that Maurer's change will further develop into a weapon. Say it. "Brandon Maurer". You're imagining a changeup right now. And a lefty. Oh crap, this isn't working.
One can look at Maurer's overall 2012 numbers, or one can split them. I'm opting to split them, because I'm biased, and also because minor leaguers have this tendency to sometimes show progress. I'm going to split Maurer's season after his eighth start.
First 8 starts: 4.61 RA, 10% walks, 14% strikeouts
Last 16 starts: 3.07 RA, 9% walks, 23% strikeouts
From his first third to his last two-thirds, Maurer increased his strikeout rate by 72 percent. Over his first eight starts, Maurer reached or exceeded four strikeouts one time. Over his last 16 starts, Maurer reached or exceeded four strikeouts 13 times. This isn't necessarily a convincing sign of progress, but considering Maurer was adjusting to a new level that was also his highest level to date, it's suggestive. Brandon Maurer's stock is on the rise.
But now this is key. Brandon Maurer is not an elite-level pitching prospect. He's just a pretty good pitching prospect. We've been talking about Cerberus like they're three elite-level pitching prospects, and the Mariners are certainly proud of the talent they have. If the Mariners are treating Maurer the way they're treating Hultzen, Walker, and Paxton, one interpretation is that Maurer is truly something special. If we've been thinking of Cerberus one way, and now the Mariners want to include Maurer with them, then we must think of Maurer the same way. Presto, just another incredible pitching prospect.
But another interpretation, and maybe a more realistic interpretation, is that this says as much about the three as it says about the one. Maurer had himself a very good season, and he seemed to get better. Hultzen was thought to be nearly ready, then he ran into godawful control problems in Tacoma. Paxton had an injury and has yet to fully develop his repertoire. Walker seemed to wear down. Walker was never better than he was in the season's first month.
I wouldn't take it so much as Maurer leaping way ahead of where he was. I think Maurer's stock got higher and Ceberus' stock collectively got lower. Don't take this as me being super down on Hultzen, Walker, or Paxton -- I'm thrilled that the Mariners have those prospects, and I can see long, successful futures for all of them. But this year, they didn't wow. Hultzen wowed in double-A, but then triple-A gave him weirdass fits. The others were fine. That's all. "Helium" is something of a prospecty buzzword, and Cerberus didn't gain much if any helium in 2012.
It's important to have pitching prospect volume, for reasons I don't need to get into. The Mariners aren't barren beyond the three -- the Mariners also have Brandon Maurer. From that group, they should get some amount of big-league value. But don't you dare take any of these guys for granted. If Brandon Maurer is being grouped together with Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton, that says a lot. That says a lot. Prospect statuses can change, in two directions.