What They Did: 75-87, 4th Place AL West.
Actual Runs: Scored 619 runs, Allowed 651.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 77.3 (2.3 below actual)
Restated: Scored 598 runs, Allowed 647.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 75.1 (0.1 above actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Mariners, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 75 games.)
Led most visibly by ESPN.com’s fantasy baseball guru, Eric Karabell, the Seattle Mariners have become this year’s sexy Spring Training pick to reach the playoffs. In a piece written last week, Karabell laid out the reasons Seattle could be this year’s Baltimore or Oakland and, in truth, he simply expressed what a number of people have said to me as well. The Mariners, you will hear, will score a lot more runs this year because they’ve acquired legitimate power threats in Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse. Additionally – and I swear you’re going to read this in every Seattle preview as if it’s a breathless revelation – the Mariners have moved in the fences at Safeco! (Sometimes I think people forget that, unlike the domes in America’s newest stadiums, the fences aren’t going to be retractable. They will also be closer when opposing teams are on offense as well.) Further, the logic goes, combine age-related improvement from a trio of under-27 stars-to-be Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and Justin Smoak and add in a strengthened bench led by newly acquired Jason Bay and a rejuvenated Raul Ibanez and the Mariners offense will be greatly improved. Finally, anchored by the dominating Felix Hernandez, the revamped pitching staff looks to get better performances from the back-end starters and the bullpen.
Morales will become the new DH, moving Montero to full-time catcher. That means, on the margin, Morales will be replacing John Jaso in the line-up. I’ve got some disappointing news for Mariners fans: Jaso had a better year in 2012 than Morales. Only once in his career has Morales posted an OPS higher than Jaso’s .850 in 2012, and that was in 2009 (.924) before Morales suffered a severe injury that cost him the majority of 2010 and all of the 2011 season. Morales has had a lower slugging percentage every year since 2009; the Mariners should be very pleased if Morales can simply match the .456 mark Jaso posted last year. By far the Mariners biggest weakness is getting on base (an anemic .296 on-base percentage in 2012, by far the worst in baseball) and in jettisoning Jaso, Seattle traded away the only player on the team who had an OBP above the league average of .319. That stupefying sentence alone sums up why I think there is far too much ground to make up, performance-wise, to make Seattle a credible dark-horse playoff candidate.
Morse, given away by Seattle four years ago after getting just 79 plate appearances over his age 24-26 seasons, returns to the Emerald City (at the cost of John Jaso) after having established himself as a legitimate power threat in Washington. His insertion in the lineup in left field legitimately improves the Mariners run scoring outlook in 2013. He also significantly worsens their defense – more on that below.
Of course, all optimism surrounding the Mariners fortunes are anchored by the same person that anchors the starting rotation. Felix Hernandez was as dominant as ever in 2012, but his record in 2012 reflected the perils of weak offensive support. When Hernandez didn’t throw a complete game shutout – which he did a MLB-leading five times in 2012, his record was merely 8-9.
Hisahi Iwakuma and Blake Beavan return to the rotation as well, although they inspire vastly different levels of fan enthusiasm. After starting 2012 in the bullpen, Iwakuma made 16 starts by the end of the year and had tremendous success going 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA. Even though results like that may lead Mariners to think they have the equivalent of the Tigers Verlander and Scherzer at the top of their rotation, Iwakuma isn’t nearly that good. He was aided by an insane 83% strand rate of runners that reached base (highest for all MLB starters – min 95 innings pitched), but his impressive skill-set does suggest another staff-mate of Hernandez who will deliver an ERA that starts with a “3” handle. Erasmo Ramirez, just 22 years-old last year, made 8 starts and was very impressive. There is no doubt Hernandez, Iwakuma and Ramirez could, one day, form a formidable starting rotation but asking the arms of the latter two to make the jump from 24 starts to 60+ and maintain the same level of effectiveness is a lot to ask in 2013.
Finally, the same optimism that surrounds the first three starters cannot be replicated for Blake Beavan (4.43 ERA in 2012, “supported” by a 10.5% strikeout rate – fifth worst among all MLB starters) and staff newcomer, the much-traveled Joe Saunders. Saunders returns to the AL West having never had particular success during his six seasons with the Angels.
For a number of seasons, the Mariners defense has been as critical to its run-suppression success as the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco field. 2012 was no different as I had the Mariners matching the Angels for the most effective defense in baseball, a level of performance that added about three and one-half wins to the season-ending total compared to an average defense. In improving its offensive outlook, Seattle will almost certainly pay a partial tax for those extra runs on defense. Montero, whose prodigious offensive potential is crucial to their future success, is very lightly regarded as a catcher. He’s very young (just 23 in 2013) so that can change with experience but, like the addition of Morse, his presence in the field represents a very transparent effort by Seattle’s front office to trade some run suppression for run scoring in 2013.
Outsider enthusiasm for worst-to-first type success for the Mariners reminds me a lot of similar enthusiasm for the Royals last year. Unlike that misplaced optimism, if I squint, I can at least see how that could come to fruition for Seattle in 2013. The problem, more realistically though, is that the Mariners didn’t have any hidden areas of success in 2012 that would portend a regression-fueled surge in 2013. To paraphrase noted scholar Denny Green, the Mariners were exactly what we thought they were last year – a 75-win team. As a 75-win team they had considerable weaknesses and I don’t see enough corrections to get over the .500 level this year.
Truly wish-casting a Mariners post-season berth depends on at least two of either Montero, Ackley, or Smoak making the leap to All-Star level performer and, to be sure, that’s not impossible. Still, I see an offense that lacks any offensive table-setters to reward the additional power and offset a weakened defense. They may be sexy this year, but they’re still at least a year away from emerging as a credible threat to the trio of teams in their division better built for success in 2013.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Mariners total wins market opened at 78 ½ and I suspect the over is going to be a very popular bet in Las Vegas over the next five weeks. Like the Rangers, it certainly feels like Mariners market is low versus public expectations. (The other side of that balanced coin will emerge with the preview for the final AL West team, the Houston Astros.) I think Seattle’s market is spot on however, and wouldn’t be tempted with a flier on the over.
78-84 – Fourth in AL West
644 Runs Scored 669 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. It is available for pre-order from a number of on-line booksellers. Here are three you can currently choose from:
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