How good are the Seattle Mariners?

 Many pundits had written off the Seattle Mariners before the 2014 season began. The rotation had several questions marks beyond Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and the lineup lacked much punch beyond newly acquired second baseman Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. Lloyd McLendon was the new manager in town after Eric Wedge called it quits with three games left in 2013, and reports about the dysfunction in the front office created some tension.

The club did have a strong contingent of young players ready to make their marks, however the group assembled didn’t resemble a playoff squad come Opening Day. A .500 team maybe, but not a team that would finish one game out of a Wild Card spot and certainly not one that wasn’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs until the season’s final day.

Was the club’s 87-75 record an accurate representation of the compilation of talent on the roster, or was it a classic case of a team that played over their heads? This is rather crucial question that needs to be answered. Not because the front office needs to know how many wins they should be chasing this winter, but because the Mariners likely will do just that. If they believe they’re 3-5 wins from October baseball, they’ll go get 3-5 wins in roster upgrades. If they believe they’re more like an 83-win team, they’ll chase after 7-10 victories. At least that’s been the track record, rather than doing everything possible to become as good as the club possibly can.

So, what is GM Jack Zduriencik working with as the offseason begins?

Seattle’s Pythagorean record was 91-71, four more wins than they actually collected. A team’s Pythagorean record compares their runs scored and allowed in an attempt to determine how many wins a team should have based on those two factors. The Mariners had a near-historic year in terms of run prevention and allowed the fewest runs in the league with 554. However, there was a serious lack of consistency in the run scoring department and the club’s 634 runs scored ranked 19th. BaseRuns credits the Mariners with an 86-76 record, one less win than their actual total.

What do these advanced stats tell us about the M’s record? In essence, they suggest that Seattle’s 87 wins are a reasonable result based on the numbers of runs scored and allowed. In a way these systems help us better understand a team’s record in the same way that a pitcher’s FIP or xFIP relates to their ERA. It’s then up to us to dig deeper and try and see what else is under the surface. By now means does a Pythagorean record tell us a team’s true talent level.

Seattle got their money’s worth when it came to superstars Felix and Cano. The King is in line for his second career Cy Young award and Cano capped off an All-Star season with a Gold Glove nomination. Hernandez had a markedly better season in 2014 than in previous years, but at age-28 he was primed for his beginning of his peak years. There’s also no doubt an improved team behind him and a winning record benefited the ace. The biggest knock on Cano this year was the lack of power displayed. His 14 home runs were the fewest he’s hit since 2008, though the confines of Safeco Field were expected to impact his total power output. Overall Cano had an excellent first year in the Emerald City and gave the club some much needed star power.

The holes in the M’s lineup, however, were glaring. Seattle received -2.1 fWAR from their designated hitter position, second-worst in the league to the Cleveland Indians. That’s after the team took on a slumping Kendrys Morales in July that never recovered from sitting out the first three months of the year. The Corey Hart experiment wouldn’t pay off as the slugger battled health issues. As a unit, the Mariners’ outfield combined for the second lowest fWAR in all of baseball with 1.0. Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, and Abraham Almonte were the only outfielders to produce a positive fWAR.

Ackley was absolutely the player that the Mariners envisioned when they made him a No. 2 overall selection in 2009 from July 1 on, but struggled early in the season. Saunders spent significant time on the disabled list, again, and lost playing time to Stefen Romero and Endy Chavez, regularly. Had the Canadian-born outfielder been healthy for more of the year, or at least played regularly when he was, he would’ve made up for some of the -1.5 fWAR Romero and Chris Denorfia cost the team. Even trade deadline acquisition Austin Jackson went cold as soon as he put on a Mariners uniform, and only showed a glimmer of the talent he displayed in Detroit.

On the infield side of things, aside from Cano, Seattle saw continued growth from Seager who made his first All-Star appearance. The third baseman lead the club in home runs, RBI, and posted a higher fWAR than Cano at 5.5. Justin Smoak continued to flail in the batter’s box, but Logan Morrison, after getting healthy, took the first base job by storm and finished the year with a 110 wRC+ in 365 plate appearances. By fWAR, the Mariners got solid production out of Brad Miller and Chris Taylor at the shortstop position but most of that is due to the duo’s excellent defensive play. Miller struggled mightily at times with the bat and Taylor’s offensive numbers were inflated by a high BABIP. Mike Zunino had an excellent sophomore season behind the plate but struggled to produce consistent offense outside of the long ball.

[pullquote]Of the batters acquired in the offseason and at the trade deadline, only Cano, Morrison, and Willie Bloomquist posted a positive fWAR. Morales, Jackson, Denorfia, Hart, Chavez, and John Buck were all below replacement value.[/pullquote]

Aside from Cano, Seager, and to some extent Zunino, the M’s really could’ve gotten more production out of their infield. Some might argue Seager played over his head, but his production has been trending upward for the last few seasons. First base has been a black hole for years and is an obvious source of underachievement. The shortstop position is difficult to knock since the defensive play was so strong, but it’s fair to say that from an offensive standpoint the position underachieved.

Seattle’s No. 2 starter, Iwakuma, had a solid campaign including the second-lowest walk rate among qualified pitchers at 1.06 per nine innings. However the right-hander was absent for the first month of the season recovering from a sprained finger. Rookie James Paxton posted a strong 3.28 FIP but was limited to just 13 starts after being sidelined with an oblique injury for more than three months. Top prospect Taijuan Walker was also expected to cement the second half of the rotation but struggled with consistency and shoulder inflammation and was limited to just five big league starts. Had the pair of rookies been healthy for even half of the season each, the rotation definitely would’ve been stronger.

The one positive thing Walker’s preseason injury allowed was an opportunity for Roenis Elias to secure a spot in the rotation, and he did not disappoint. The 26-year old had yet to pitch above Double-A prior to this season and in 29 starts earned a 4.03 FIP, slightly higher than his 3.85 ERA. Elias was excellent at times this year, but showed signs of fatigue as the innings piled up and was eventually shut down in September with arm soreness. Veteran hurler Chris Young also had a resurgent 2014 after struggling with injuries the last several years. In 165 innings and 29 starts the right-hander posted a strong 3.65 ERA but finished with a 5.02 FIP after some struggles in September. Like Elias, he had run out of gas.

In some ways the success of Elias and Young cancel out the lack of production that was expected from Paxton and Walker. With that, one could say that the M’s rotation performed approximately as expected, all told. Earlier in his career Young was a dependable starter but considering the uncertainty surrounding a guy who had thrown 100 innings in just one year in 2008, Seattle was likely hoping to milk five-to-ten decent starts out of Young if they were lucky.

It’s fair to expect the best bullpen in baseball would have to overachieve to some extent, but the talent was there and the staff was strong from beginning to end. Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Charlie Furbush all had excellent seasons following solid 2013 campaigns. Brandon Maurer had a successful transition from starter to power reliever in the second half and posted a 1.85 FIP in 37 1/3 relief innings. Dominic Leone had a strong rookie season and solidified the middle relief corps. Even journeyman Joe Beimel had an outstanding season as a specialist posting a 2.20 ERA but it came with a 4.18 FIP which suggests that he did overachieve.

Closer and free agent acquisition Fernando Rodney also had an impressive campaign, though not quite at the level of his career year in 2012. The enigmatic star performed as expect this year, racking up saves and strikeouts while providing plenty of drama in the process.

It’s fair to say that the bullpen could be a big source of overachievement in 2014 considering that seemingly everything went right. Especially since the majority of the staff that contributed to the second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball last year returned to post the best mark in the majors.

Every team has to deal with injuries while riding the wave of breakout and slumping players. The Mariners were no different in that regard. It’s hard to say how much of the team’s success can be attributed to the managing of McLendon and his staff, but we do know that their management of King Felix was a crucial aspect of his performance this year.

Was 87 wins an overachievement for this edition of the Seattle Mariners? From the outset maybe, and there’s certainly an argument that they did, but at a closer glance the talent for a playoff club is there. The Kansas City Royals certainly have proved that a strong pitching staff and plus defence can take a team a long way, and many would agree that the Mariners pitching staff was even better than the American League champions.

The fact that nobody expected Seattle to perform as well as they did shouldn’t be indicative of whether or not they overachieved. Some players had surprise seasons, some players performed poorly. There’s evidence that suggests that this team may have even underachieved since they received less than replacement level value out of several players. But that’s an argument for another day.

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Tyler Carmont

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