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The Year of Playing Dangerously

Conventional wisdom hasn't treated the Mariners well over the past ten years. Before the prospects arrive, could this be the time for the team to use a little imagination?

the future (although probably not)
the future (although probably not)
Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

This morning, the Cincinnati Reds announced a new plan to die a thousand deaths, and acquiesce to Aroldis Chapman's wish to return to the closer role. The decision was met with a sabermetric shrug of the shoulders. The collective feeling on Twitter: sure, Chapman's more valuable in the rotation, and sure, the Reds are already paying Jonathan Broxton $7 million dollars a season. But it's not that big a difference, and the Reds are in contention in the NL Central. Besides, Chapman is wonderful at pitching. Why mess with success?

I don't agree with this logic, but I understand it. Theo Epstein faced a similar situation in his first season as general manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2003. The wunderkind, armed with reams of statistical evidence, bucked traditional thinking and fan opinion by instituting a closer-by-committee. It lasted six months before falling victim to small sample size in the ALCS; Keith Foulke was brought in to close through free agency the following year, the Red Sox did okay in 2004, and the Old Ways were upheld. It's hard to argue with success, no matter how tangentially success and ideas are related.

The Seattle Mariners face no such dilemmas in their upcoming season. With the majority of the franchise's future still honing its collective skill thirty miles south, and placeholders like Jon Garland and Joe Saunders holding seats warm, it's apparent that 2013 can charitably be described as a transitional year. That's why it's a shame that the Mariners are such a conservatively-run franchise. This is the perfect year to try something new.

Already we've learned that the Mariners will forgo the long-sought-after six-man bullpen, a concept that might have saved the team the trouble of cutting Casper Wells or watching Raul Ibanez strap on catching gear. But even beyond the immediate concerns, there's a fundamental appeal in having a franchise that is organic, inventive, and daring. Rather than listening to the same hoary clichés of out-hustling and out-gritting twenty-nine other teams, the same strategy employed by 99% of teams throughout baseball history, imagine a team that marshals its resources, works the system, zigs when everyone else zags. Imagine a baseball equivalent of the Seattle Seahawks.

The two Seattle franchises couldn't look any more different at the moment. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks leadership do unpopular and seemingly incomprehensible things: they create hybrid defenses that can't possibly work, and draft players Mel Kiper, Jr. wouldn't approve of. They adapt to market inefficiencies, paying cheaply for what other franchises don't want or appreciate. They draft undersized quarterbacks. And it's working.

The Mariners, meanwhile, are infatuated with playing "the right way", never realizing that good teams make their own right way. But there are experiments out there to be made, each with their supporters. One example is the Colorado Rockies, an equally forlorn franchise, considered employing a four-man "piggyback" rotation in 2013, in which each starter will be asked to go 50-75 pitches, and then have a designated second starter take over and go as deep into the game as possible. It's a fascinating and inventive tactic, one that fits well with the team's strengths (excess quantity) and weaknesses (lack of quality). It's a shame that they inevitably scrapped the idea.

Given the lingering specter of Blake Beaven, starting pitcher, now seems like the ideal time to institute a four-man rotation in Seattle. It's not a new idea; Rany Jazayerli wrote about its benefits for Baseball Prospectus ten years ago. But even if such a change strikes you as too dramatic, or the if the murmurs of Felix's elbow post-extension makes you faint, there are other novelties. What if Wedge were to ranking the batting order by OBP, or try a two-inning closer, or call a moratorium on sacrifice bunts? And given that such a thing is patently impossible, why not bring in a manager who might consider it?

There's no guarantee that a radical departure would actually work: four-man rotations and ground/fly platoons have been tried before and failed, usually because the teams in question couldn't afford to fail. Perhaps Chone Figgins's greatest crime against Seattle, among his many, was that he killed the last truly interesting strategy the Mariners have tried: the speed-and-defense based roster of 2010. Though the value of defense is still in debate, Jack Zduriencik was on target with regards to the increasing importance of the stolen base in today's run-dampened environment. It's a shame the results obscured the value of the process.

The optimism of 2010 has vanished, and this year's M's are in the unique position of being perfectly able to afford to fail. If they do, at least the fans will have something interesting to monitor in the latter months. And if they find some small advantage in roster construction, that just makes 2014 all the more exciting.