Elegy for ’18 – Seattle Mariners

Seattle will likely have to replace the bat of Nelson Cruz.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

One would think that setting a 15-year record for wins would feel more satisfying than it ultimately did for the 2018 edition of the Mariners. Alas, the world is as cruel as the Wheel of Fortune suggests: consonants are free but you have to pay for vowels. The A’s finished ahead of the M’s, giving the former club a place in the Wild Card Game.

The Setup

One of the defining features of the Seattle Mariners during the Jerry Dipoto regime is that the payroll has increased — from among the bottom 10 in 2012-13 to the back of the top 10 in 2018 — even though the club hasn’t been particularly active in free agency or signing young talent to long-term extensions.

Dipoto is a great churner of talent who makes a lot of trades and a lot of minor signings and has a pretty decent rate of success on these moves. For example, I was skeptical that the trade of Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales wouldn’t work out for the team — and while there is certainly reason to worry about it over the long haul, the latter did give Seattle a pretty solid 2018 season, with a 3.43 FIP in 166.2 innings.

Going back to the ill-fated Chone Figgins signing after the 2009 season, the Mariners have signed free agents to $20 million contracts only twice, giving a decent-sized deal to Nelson Cruz and a ginormous one to Robinson Canó.

Without really a whole lot to offer in terms of prospects, the Mariners have managed to acquire, going back to the end of 2016, Yonder Alonso, Alex Colome, Zach Duke, Jarrod Dyson, Roenis Elias, Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger, Ryon Healy, Mike Leake, Cameron Maybin, Jean Segura, Denard Span, Sam Tuivailala, and Adam Warren. That’s multiple legitimate starting position players and pitchers, half of a decent bullpen, and some useful role players. Also Yovani Gallardo, but let’s pretend that didn’t happen because this is a family site.

Dipoto’s had to be clever, but when an organization’s farm system isn’t regularly churning out talent and the team isn’t participating for top free agents, it’s necessary to hit on a lot of these low-cost moves to succeed. Not many such deals must fall flat for a club to end up with a low-upside roster and no obvious path to quick improvement.

My main concern about the Mariners entering the 2018 season was how and when they were going to compensate for the decline of King Felix. The 2015-17 seasons made it clear that we were in a post-monarchy era, and the team’s rotation depth was shallow enough that James Paxton wouldn’t be capable of replacing all that was lost. While I wasn’t hopeful about Hernandez making a comeback in 2018, I was optimistic that Kyle Seager, one of the game’s most underrated stars from 2013 to -16, could bounce back from a weak age-29 season.

Seattle seemed like a legitimate playoff contender coming into the season, albeit one that could have made a splashier move to add a pitcher. (Though, with the benefit of hindsight, signing Yu Darvish would not have actually done much for them in 2018, at least.)

The Projection

ZiPS was more pessimistic than I was about the Mariners, projecting them at only 78-84 with an 11% chance of making the playoffs. This difference was one of the larger disagreements I had with the algorithms before 2018 ,and I think this was one I won.

The Results

Ultimately, the Mariners’ season was far from terrible — and, in fact, the club had more than its share of luck in several areas. King Felix was worse than I think even most pessimists imagined and was the weak spot in a starting rotation that, while still missing an answer to most of the contenders at the top, turned out to be better than they had any right to be. In the end, the rotation finished a quite-respectable 13th in baseball in WAR, beating out a number of playoff teams in the process, including the Cubs.

Kyle Seager’s decline became more pronounced, enough so that now there are questions about his future in the majors. But the Mariners got a full season of Mitch Haniger playing at the level of a legitimate star, hitting .285/.366/.493 with 4.6 total WAR for the year.

Edwin Diaz also firmly established himself as a first-tier closer, not just avoiding his occasional lapses of control but eradicating those issues with the brutality of a Death Star. Of the 250 pitchers with 30 innings in relief, Diaz had the 27th-best walk rate, which he combined with the fifth-best contact rate. And he did that without sacrificing anything from his 97-98 mph fastball.

There was certainly a bit of luck for Seattle, who outperformed their Pythagorean record by 12 wins, a difference that can’t simply be attributed to Diaz and the rest of what was an above-average bullpen. Exceeding expectations, both from overall expectations and the RS/RA relationship, Seattle stayed close to the Astros for the entire first half of the season, including a two-week period in June where they were in first place. Seattle’s high-water mark came on the morning of June 5th, with a 38-22 record and a two-game lead in the division.

The offense largely held up, though Dee Gordon’s .252/.271/.332 after the aforementioned date was a major disappointment. Guillermo Heredia didn’t maintain his 124 wRC+ either; then again, nobody really expected that to happen. The Cano/Cruz/Haniger troika kept wailing away, and the team’s 99 wRC+ the rest of the season wasn’t that far off the 105 they had at that point.

The decline of the starting pitching was more severe, with a 4.63 ERA from the rotation, a performance that was across-the-board rather than the product of one or two perpetrators.

Surprisingly, Seattle’s early-season good fortune in Pythagorean record held up, and the team continued to outperform its expected record. The Mariners finished with a 14-1 record in extra-inning games, which while leading to some exciting contests — especially for our Seattle-heavy FanGraphs crew — is not the kind of thing that you ought to expect in 2019.

Mariners vs. Pythagoras, 2018
Time Period RS RA Pythag Expected W-L Actual W-L Diff
Through 6/5 262 239 .546 33-27 38-22 +5
After 6/5 415 472 .436 44-58 51-51 +7

The bigger problem was the emergence of the Oakland Athletics. On D-Day, Oakland stood at 31-30, fourth place in the division and closer to the last-place Rangers than the first-place Mariners. Oakland went 66-35 after that, a pace that the Mariners couldn’t come close to matching; even the Astros, the best team in baseball over this period, bested Oakland by only a half-game. In the Cinderella vs. Cinderella throwdown, elephant trumped moose. (I guess this is more a Dumbo vs. Frozen throwdown.)

As the deadline approached, the team’s roster construction presented problems with possible trade pickups. The formula of floods of small trades and low-cost free-agent signings left the team poorly constructed to pull off any July/August stunner that could twist the storyline. While they did make several pickups and improved the team (Duke, Maybin, Tuivailala, Warren), something like a Manny Machado trade likely could not have been made with the prospects at their disposal. And in the end, it may have been good that it wasn’t possible; with the Mariners finishing eight games behind Oakland, acquiring Mike Trout wouldn’t have changed the 2018 outcome.

What Comes Next?

Let’s start with the assumption that, when all is said and done, the Mariners’ roster is equal to something like a .500 team, more or less splitting the distance between their actual and expected 2018 record. Where I have trouble with this organization is, where do they go from here? Where is the source of upside?

The team isn’t escaping from many financial commitments in 2019, at least those that would allow them to be players for a top star in free agency. The team already has $124 million in guaranteed contracts locked up for 2018. Very importantly, that figure doesn’t include Cruz, whose offense they will have to replace somehow — and may have needed to anyway, what with Cruz turning 39 during the 2019 season.

Baseball-Reference’s estimate, just based on the players they have now, bakes the Mariners in as having a $173 million payroll with all options being picked up. It’s $160 million without. Already having to replace Cruz’s offense leaves Seattle precious little room to improve further beyond that. The team isn’t picking up Span, which saves $8 million, but I can’t see an easy route to make this team better without going over the $200 million mark, even jettisoning Erasmo Ramirez via non-tender for additional savings.

With Canó still able to play a more-than-respectable second base, it’d be nice if Seattle found a taker for Gordon if they no longer believe in him as a center fielder (not unreasonable given his -8 by DRS, -5 by UZR in 50 starts). I don’t think they have an easy out in that manner, though, as Gordon’s trade value was likely not inflated much by a 2018 that ended up around replacement-level.

Improvement is also not likely to come from within the system. The team doesn’t seem all that interested in Daniel Vogelbach and even an optimist won’t see him displacing Ryon Healy and becoming a three-win player in 2019. The Tacoma Rainiers were full of veteran and fringe talent, as well: the under-25 hitter with the most plate appearances on the team was Sebastian Ochoa with 21. Nor was the pitching much better.

The team’s limited number of prospects are generally farther from the majors, and I’m not confident in Kyle Lewis or Evan White becoming 2019 contributors. Matt Festa and Art Warren could fill out the bullpen, and Braden Bishop could conceivably give the team what they were missing without Dyson fairly quickly, but I don’t see the near-future game-changers here.

Dipoto may have to wheel-and-deal this offseason as in the past — but, again, that’s a strategy that’s a bit like juggling chainsaws: it’s a great bit until you slip up. I’d like to see the team go after Dallas Keuchel and Michael Brantley, but I’m not sure they’ll even spend that much in free agency.

Way-Too-Early Projection – Mitch Haniger

With reasons to be more pessimistic about Kyle Seager than last year at this point and Nelson Cruz not currently under contract, Seattle has a lot invested in Haniger’s 2017 and -18 being essentially the baseline expectation for his performance going forward.

ZiPS Projections – Mitch Haniger
2019 .270 .343 .465 563 81 152 32 3 24 84 56 142 8 123 6 3.6
2020 .267 .341 .467 535 77 143 32 3 23 80 54 134 8 122 6 3.4
2021 .268 .343 .470 519 74 139 31 4 22 78 53 126 8 124 5 3.4
2022 .264 .339 .454 500 69 132 29 3 20 73 50 118 7 118 5 2.9

OK, there’s a wee bit of regression there, but nothing that drastically changes how Seattle should consider Haniger. He’s likely established being a solidly above-average player on the very edge of All-Star level in his better-than-mean years. A team with nine Mitch Hanigers in the lineup is a good bet for the playoffs — assuming that a couple of the Haniger clones can handle shortstop and catcher of course. After inventing a player-cloning machine, would getting Mitch Hanigers to play shortstop represent that far a stretch?

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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5 years ago

The Dee Gordon trade was obviously ridiculous for a number of reasons, mostly because his whole game is built around BABIP and defense, one of which is volatile and the other one involved him learning a new position.

DiPoto’s strategy is probably to take on big contracts in trades rather than sign guys in free agency. You could see them maybe making a play for Wil Myers or someone similar, but what they really need is starting pitching and and a CF and it’s hard to see how they’re going bridge the gap there.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Agreed that the Gordon trade was craptacular from the go. But the starting pitching – expected to be the weakness of the team prior to the year – was surprisingly decent all year. The real dead weight turned out to be half the lineup slots being constantly occupied by sup-.300 OBP guys like Gordon, Healy, Zunino, and Seager.