Is that it? That can’t be it. This can’t be what the American League West is going to look like come Opening Day. Is it possible the Mariners could make it through an entire off-season, upgrading the majority of their weaknesses while their primary competitors in the division stood idly by, making nary an upgrade of any significance?
Unless something changes, the biggest 2015 addition any non-Seattle AL West team will have made is the Athletics signing Billy Butler for $30 million. The Mariners didn't have an overwhelmingly great offseason, but context is everything, and after no AL West team got to feel better about its 2014—no divisional foe should feel any better than the Mariners about their respective off-seasons to date.
Now, before a look around the rest of the division, let’s examine where things stand for the Mariners right now, courtesy of Fangraphs' oft-cited projections.
Those things are bound to move around a bit, and they have already. But it’s clear, the projections have the Mariners better than the American League West by a not-insignificant margin. And the same holds true when you look at straight projected fWAR, which has them about four clear of the Angels and Athletics, and almost nine up of the Rangers.
Naturally, there’s been a healthy dose of skepticism for the Fangraphs projection, one that has both Brad Miller and Chris Taylor as top ten shortstops. That’s understandable. But in looking at the downside, remember there's upside too—as the Mariners' lofty projection has 2015 James Paxton about as good as 2014 Roenis Elias. But again, projections are projections.
So how do they look when it comes do the eye test? Are people who cover the game convinced the Mariners are ready to take a step forward?
The Mariners will be the popular pick to win the AL West going into the '15 season. Upgraded lineup, strong pitching. http://t.co/4ykpj5ZRez— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 30, 2014
"Seattle Mariners are your AL West Champs book it, signed, sealed, delivered" -Greg Amsinger @MLBNetwork— Justin Myers (@JustinMyers710) January 7, 2015
From Sporting News:
So the Mariners are expected to be good. We already knew that. We don’t know whether or not they actually will be—because no one does and anything can happen—but they’re supposed to be. They made the necessary moves, and they’re supposed to be good. Been a while since anyone could say that.
It also feels like it’s been a while since their biggest opponents didn’t have an off-season where they continued to put significant distance between themselves and the M’s. And that appears to be the case as well.
For a long time, it could be reasonably feared that either the Rangers or Angels would use one of the remaining big-name free agent pitchers to bolster their rotations—maybe even both. Lord knows they could use it as the Rangers have serious question marks in the middle and back-end of their rotation, and the Angels would be a whole different team with an established ace up front.
That was actually the impetus for this post, the surprising realization that each club simply might not be interested.
The Rangers, first off, haven’t been tied to Scherzer in any way. Evan Grant wrote back at the end of September that he just wasn’t a feasible option for the club. Then, the team met with James Shields and his representatives. The two parties haven’t talked since.
"We're not in that game," Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels told MLB.com. "We like the pitcher, he would be a good fit for our team. He is a talented strike-thrower. But we're not in the mix."
The Angels are a different beast.
It could be argued that the Angels have their ace in Garrett Richards, and in looking at his performance last year, that wouldn’t be incorrect. But the right-hander is coming off a serious knee injury, one that could have some lingering effects on his mechanics after he returns "at some point in April."
"We have not engaged with any free-agent pitcher at all," General Manager Jerry Dipoto told the Los Angeles Times. "We’re still committed to the guys we have. We haven’t explored anything beyond the pitching we have now."
Now, it must be noted—as my brother Conner did last night in our podcast—that this was the general manager speaking, and that’s likely not the individual Scott Boras is leaning on to throw down $200 million for his guy. No, he’s talking to Arte Moreno.
While Moreno may yet haphazardly splurge on the class’ best free agent, owners hate the luxury tax, and reports indicate the Angels can't add Scherzer without getting into that range—even after trading away Howie Kendrick.
And there's a key point, it isn't as if the Angels didn't do anything—which seems very much the case for the Rangers. The Angels traded Kendrick for an excellent pitching prospect in Andrew Heaney, a player who's unlikely to make a significant contribution in 2015 but should prove formidable in future years. They did get Matt Joyce for for Kevin Jepsen, which is a nice little pickup.
Now, I should say it isn't certain the big-market AL West teams are done. Various rumors have tied both clubs to Ben Zobrist, and each clearly could use the Rays über-utility man. But, so could every team. There will be steep competition, and for the Angels and their barren farm especially, you wonder if they have the pieces to get it done.
Now, outside the Athletics and the Rangers, the Athletics are still there—what, with this as their off-season.
There will be some out there quick to write them off—I've seen some even putting them behind the Astros in their projected standings—but there's no reason they can't stay competitive in the division, especially with the return of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin.
Still, for a team that faded badly down the stretch, their off-season reeks more of packing it in for the future versus gearing up for another run. Many have chose to wait to see how the winter looks in its entirety before judging what Billy Beane is doing, but the days are slowly getting longer and spring training is crawling closer, and it's looking less and less likely significant improvements are around the bend.
Then, there's still the Astros. By way of natural progression and a few key additions, a good case can be made for Houston as the team that will improve the most heading into 2015. Those key additions, of course, are middle reliever Luke Gregerson and set-up man Pat Neshek.
Matching up against Houston will be irritating, as it always is. But still, it's hard to imagine the Astros being more than the occasional annoyance for the division's contenders. They'll be good, but they still have ground to cover.
Now, I didn't write this all to discount the rest of the teams in the division, or to proclaim the Mariners as prohibitive 2015 AL West favorites. That isn't the case. But look around—besides the Rangers getting healthy and the Astros naturally progressing, no one looks to be signficantly better in 2015 than they were in 2014. And outside of Butler, relievers and Joyce, everyone's counting on what they already have. It might be good enough, sure, but it might not either.
Being the favorite heading into the year doesn't mean a whole lot, that we know. Things can change quickly, and they may yet change between now and Opening Day. But context is everything, and contending is just as much about the teams around you as it is putting together a quality roster.
And right now, the context looks good. Pennants aren't won on paper, but after years and years of being way down the page—if even on it at all—it feels good to have people and projections putting the M's right up towards the top.