Dave Cameron laid out the methodology behind the rankings last Friday. Remember that the grading scale for each category is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.
2012 Organizational Rankings
Seattle’s 2011 Ranking: #17
2012 Outlook: 36 (26th)
You don’t have to crunch too many numbers to figure out that this year’s Mariners are an extreme longshot to make the playoffs. They haven’t scored 600 runs in a season since 2009, and the team is breaking in a host of young, inexperienced players, many of whom have significant question marks surrounding their 2012 production levels. The team is basically betting on regression to the mean for previously useful position players (Chone Figgins, Ichiro Suzuki, and Franklin Gutierrez) to bolster the offense, but they’re still likely to be among the lowest scoring teams in the league.
They could make that work if the pitching was truly great, but after Felix Hernandez, the current rotation leaves a lot to be desired. Jason Vargas is a useful #4 starter, but given the other pitchers on the roster, he slots in as the #2 starter on this team. Hector Noesi has potential but needs to show he can miss bats with regularity as a starter, and Kevin Millwood and Blake Beavan are just keeping the seats warm for more talented arms who could join the rotation in the second half of the year.
If enough young players perform up to their talent level and the team gets some bounce back seasons from 2011 underachievers, they Mariners could win 75 games, and maybe even get to .500 if Felix has another crazy season or Dustin Ackley wins the batting title. But, given that they’re chasing both the Rangers and Angels, their odds of winning the AL West are almost nil, and it’s just not realistic to expect them to make any kind of serious playoff push with their current roster. The second half of the season could be more interesting if they get some reinforcements from the minor leagues, but they’ll likely be well out of the race by August.
2013+ Outlook: 52 (13th)
There’s no doubt that the Mariners are building for the future, and the organization’s focus on restocking the farm system is on the verge of paying some dividends. Their trio of top pitching prospects – Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker – are all going to begin the year in Double-A, and there are realistic scenarios where each of them gets to the majors in the next 12 months. Re-stocking the rotation with three dynamic arms would infuse a lot of talent into the roster in a hurry, and could put the team on a track towards being an actual contender again.
However, rebuilding around young pitching is also fraught with risk, and the 2011 Orioles are a perfect example of how that plan can go awry very quickly. Given that their best asset, King Felix, is also a starting pitcher, and this is a high risk rebuilding plan. The team took steps to exchange pitching depth for position player depth in swapping Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero, but they might need to make another trade or two of a similar nature before they have a real core of position players worth building around. Dustin Ackley looks like a quality player at second base, and Montero’s bat may allow him to be productive even as a DH, but there are question marks everywhere else.
Having a top 3 pick again in this summer’s draft will help, and the team has spent aggressively in Latin America the last few years, so there’s another wave of talent coming even after The Big Three pitching prospects reach Safeco. The team is going to have to figure out how to develop some better position player prospects, however, and since they only have Felix under contract for three more years, they’ll have to do it sooner than later.
Financial Resources: 48 (18th)
For most of the last decade, the Mariners ran payrolls north of $90 million and consistently ranked as one of the ten largest spenders on Major League talent. They’ve generally also been one of the top spenders in the international free agent market, investing in academies around the world and giving Bob Engle a large budget to sign talented 16-year-olds. However, as the losses have piled up, attendance has fallen dramatically, and the team has gone into cost-cutting mode as a result. Their $80ish million payroll for 2012 is their lowest in years, and with another losing season likely, the payroll is probably not headed back up until the team turns it around.
There’s no question that the Mariners have the ability to be a large revenue franchise, as they are the de facto team for most of the northwest, a huge geographic area that they don’t really share with anyone else. The continued presence of Japanese players on the team also extends their ability to market the franchise overseas, and they can opt-out of their current television contract after the 2015 season, which will allow them to catch up with Texas and Anaheim in revenues from cable contracts. However, that’s mostly untapped potential at the moment, and will likely remain so until the product on the field improves.
Baseball Operations: 47 (18th)
How you view this category probably depends entirely on whether you believe someone should be evaluated by the process that leads them to their decisions or the results that those decision produce. Since taking over as GM, Jack Zduriencik has hired noted sabermetric analyst Tom Tango, expanded the team’s use of modern analytical thinking, and made a series of transactions that were based on sound logical principles. Many of them just haven’t worked out, and the team has been awful for each of the last two seasons. If you think he should have seen Chone Figgins’ collapse coming, then that signing was a huge mistake. On the other hand, that was generally viewed as one of the better contracts signed during the 2010 off-season, and no one should be expected to predict the future.
The process has been generally good (though not always – the Brandon Morrow for Brandon League trade was a poor decision across the board), but the results have been generally poor. That’s the kind of paradox that leads to a middling rating in this category, and is pretty much exactly what we see here. Whether the Mariners front office can begin to turn nice ideas into positive outcomes remains to be seen, and they’ll understandably be viewed with some skepticism until they do.
Overall: 44 (23rd)
The team’s future is brighter than their present, but with two powerhouse contenders in their division, it’s not clear exactly when the team will be able to put a playoff club on the field once again. The Mariners have essentially bet the future on young pitching, which is a risky proposition, but could also lead to significant improvement as early as the second half of 2012. There’s enough young talent on the Major League roster and in the farm system to dream about, but it’s not clear how those players will fit together to form a winning team. More moves will have to be made to supplement the players already in place, and unfortunately for the organization, they haven’t had much success in bringing in outside talent over the last few years.
There are scenarios where enough of the young players develop in 2012 to give the team real hope for 2013 and beyond, leading to expanded payrolls and a legitimate organizational rebirth. But, there are equally likely scenarios where the team only gets one decent starter out of the Hultzen/Paxton/Walker trio and lack the necessary position players to change the course the team has been on since 2004. There are reasons for hope in Seattle, but the franchise still needs to win some coin flips and have some things go their way before they can realistically expect to put a winning team on the field again.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.