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Last week, after FanGraphs released the ZiPS projections for the Mariners, I put together a rough win projection based on that projection system as well as one for the Steamer projections. There isn’t much to be optimistic about. The projections think the Mariners will win between 79-to-83 games, not nearly good enough to compete for the Wild Card.
These projection systems are inherently conservative. They aggregate thousands of iterations of projections, both good and bad, into what we see publically. John and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see what would have to go right (or wrong) for the Mariners to hit some of their outlier projections. With a win projection calculator built already, we thought we could give you, dear reader, a chance to come up with your own scenarios too!
First, here are three plausible scenarios that represent what could happen if things fell into place in just the right way.
Best Case Scenarios:
Stars on Display
Improving the depth of the MLB club has been a focal point of Jerry Dipoto’s tenure, but the players with the highest ceilings for production are three carryovers from the previous regime. Last year, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and James Paxton combined for 11.3 fWAR. While that’s all well and good, Canó and Seager alone were worth 11.4 fWAR in 2016, with an additional 3.5 kicked in by Paxton in just more than half a season. Full health and production from this trio would do wonders for Seattle’s playoff prospects.
In this scenario, based off the ZiPS projections, James Paxton pitches a full healthy season. For all that we malign Paxton, his pockmarked injury history is speckled with flukey and non-structural maladies. One clean season is all we’re looking for here. To get the extra starts, I added 26 innings (Sorry Rob Whalen, Chase De Jong, and Christian Bergman) to give Paxton 202 innings, or around 31-33 starts. Moreover, he maintains around the same quality of production from last year, maintaining a 3.00 ERA, just above his 2.98 from 2017. With the Mariners in the playoff hunt, Pax is recognized nationally as a true ace and a Cy Young finalist.
Offensively, both Kyle Seager and Robinson Canó took dramatic steps back last year. One found himself getting under the ball a bit too steeply, while the other struggled to elevate enough. In this scenario, they balance themselves back out, and produce at the level they provided in 2016. For Seager, primarily that means a few more balls leaving the yard instead of dying on the warning track. It also entails returning to the improved plate discipline we saw in 2016 when he posted a 10.2% walk rate. He’s also never had fewer than 650 PAs in a full season, so I bumped him up to his career average - 668 PAs - at the expense of a few Andrew Romine starts at 3B. It seemed fair.
As for Canó, what he needs is a jolt of 2016 too. At age-35, however, that’s a big ask. However, all Robi really needs for a return to form is a power boost. After spending 2017 hobbled by lower body injuries, Canó finds the intermittent rest he needs (including 25 PAs at DH) to be fresh and resurgent in 2018. While Canó’s footspeed is unlikely to return, there’s no reason his power shouldn’t improve with better health and an offseason to adjust his launch angle. With the ball still jucier than a ripened nectarine, Canó gets back up over 30 homers again, and the 3-4-5 of Canó-Cruz-Seager strikes fear in the hearts of the AL West yet again.
This scenario is favorable towards just three players, and leaves out a few of the individuals that seem like locks to outdo their projections (Jean Segura, most notably). At 87-75, Seattle is the narrow favorite for the second Wild Card, and should be neck-and-neck with the Angels all season long.
Trader Jerry’s Dream
In just a few seasons, Jerry Dipoto has restocked the Mariners roster with a group of players in their mid-20s. He’s traded away established MLB talent, top prospects, and minor league depth to get his guys. These four players form the primary supporting cast to the stars that make up the core of the team. If the Mariners are going to have a successful 2018, they need all of them to take some major steps forward.
In this scenario, we would see Ryon Healy rebound to an offensive level closer to his rookie season. Jean Segura was almost certainly limited by the lower body injuries he suffered last year, and his ZiPS projection seems far too pessimistic (perhaps leaning on his early career numbers too much). I gave Segura a slash line that closely matched that of 2017, with a few extra-base hits for good measure. We all saw the potential of Mitch Haniger on display last April when he slashed .342/.447/.608. My projection doesn’t have him reaching those highs but a boost over what ZiPS thinks he’s capable of certainly gets him closer to that point.
For Marco Gonzales, the most important aspect to a successful year would be good health. I adjusted his playing time by adding 76 innings to his total, the equivalent of 12-14 additional starts. That had the added benefit of reducing the number of innings we’d see from Ariel Miranda or Hisashi Iwakuma. I also pushed his FIP down to 4.24 and his ERA to match. ZiPS had him projected at 4.40 so it isn’t too much of a stretch, though it doesn’t really affect the expected runs allowed as much as dropping Miranda’s playing time does.
With a much healthier offense and slightly better performance from the pitching staff, this scenario sees the the Mariners projection pushed up to 85 wins. That would put them just behind the Angels in the American League pecking order, but well within range to make a push for the second Wild Card spot.
3: A Healthy Pitching Staff: Full years from Paxton and a resurgent Felix and a dominant bullpen
A Healthy Pitching Staff
Without touching the offensive projections, what would happen if the Mariners pitching staff made a 180 degree turn from last year and stayed relatively healthy all season long? It’s an unlikely scenario but with a deep bullpen full of fungible assets, a greater focus on player health and wellbeing, and a little luck, this could happen.
It all starts with 200 innings from James Paxton. If he’s able to stay on the mound for an entire season, the rest of the rotation falls into place around him. A healthy Felix Hernandez would assuage a lot of the concerns about the rotation as well. I added a couple more starts to his projection and adjusted his stat line to mirror his 2016 performance, an improvement over his ZiPS projection.
The performance of those two starters are important but this scenario really hinges on the performance of the bullpen. Back in 2014, the Mariners bullpen was one of the best in the majors—a one year wonder unfortunately. The collection of relievers Jerry Dipoto has assembled is unquestionably more talented than the group of relievers the Mariners had four years ago. I went through the entire relief corps and slightly improved each of their projections and culled some of the depth off the depth chart.
The reliever who had the biggest change was Juan Nicasio because his ZiPS projection still called for a few spot starts. His ERA dropped from 3.95 down to 2.91. Nick Vincent also received a healthy boost to his projection, since the computer still hasn’t figured out his fastball magic. I even addressed some of the relievers farther down the depth chart. Adjusting the projections for Dan Altavilla and Nick Rumbelow might not have a major effect, every little bit counts.
With a dominant bullpen, the Mariners shouldn’t have to rely on so many innings from the back of their rotation. Moving innings from Miranda or Andrew Moore to pitchers like Vincent or David Phelps definitely has a big impact. Allowing just 4.26 runs per game is comparable to what the Astros or Rays accomplished last season. This might be the longest shot of the three scenarios we examined but it could be the most advantageous. In this scenario, the Mariners would be projected to hit 86 wins. Again, close to the Wild Card race, but not any better than the Angels.
Are you ready to come up with your own projections? Head on over to the Win Projection Calculator—the instructions are on the first tab. Please, for everyone’s sake, make a copy of the entire Google sheet before making any changes to the original document. Real-time collaboration is great until you’re fighting with ten other people to try and input the number of home runs you think Kyle Seager will hit this season.
Do you think Felix is capable of returning to his old, regal self? Is the cliff rapidly approaching for Cano and Cruz? Answering these questions and turning them into a win projection has never been so much fun! Warning: some math may be required.
Tomorrow, John and I will present our worst-case scenarios for the Mariners season. It won’t be pretty.