Applying the A’s strategy to the M’s

 It’s a strange thing. Normally the first person that comes to mind when speaking of a professional sports organization is an iconic player or even coach. It rarely is an executive. But I guess that comes with the territory when one is portrayed by Brad Pitt on the big screen.

There has been much talk with respect to what exactly the Oakland Athletics have been doing this offseason. Or more specifically, what is Billy Beane doing. Rebuilding? Retooling? Going for it, again?

Recently at FanGraphs, prior to the Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar trade, Miles Wray offered his thoughts on what exactly the Athletics are trying to do this winter. He theorizes that instead of relying on superstars, the A’s are stocking their roster with as many players who project as league average or better as possible. It’s a play on the idea that the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts.

For context, a league average player is worth about 2.0 fWAR. Wray opines that Oakland may be of the mind that a lineup without any noticeable holes can make up for the lack of premier hitters.

In discussing the A’s standing in the American League West after the Zobrist deal, I had a similar sentiment:

The two infielders acquired today alongside [Brett] Lawrie and Ike Davis, who was acquired from the New York Mets, could make for an improved infield overall compared to last year. There is risk associated with all four new players … but it looks as if the departure of Donaldson won’t be felt quite as hard in terms of production.

After seeing increases in payroll over the last several years, it’s possible that the A’s ownership group wanted to see total player salary decrease. That’s bad news for a club that’s already financially restricted due to it’s small market nature.

There’s still plenty of time left in the offseason for Beane to throw another wrench into the mix so it can’t be said that this is his final strategy. Though it does make an awful lot of sense when you think about it.

The Seattle Mariners finished the 2014 season one game behind the Athletics in the AL Wild Card race. This occurring after the A’s spent big on mid-season acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. Certainly seeing a lack of success with the method of acquiring superstar-level players could inspire a GM to invest resources over multiple assets instead of the big fish.

Last winter the Mariners added their big fish in Robinson Cano. Alongside Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager there’s plenty of star power on the team. With cornerstones to build around, the realistic goal for this winter was to patch holes with good players or find incremental upgrades. After all, Seattle received below average production from six different positions in 2014: catcher, first base, left field, center field, right field, and designated hitter.

Several Mariners under performed last season but there were some obvious holes. So far Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, and Justin Ruggiano have been brought aboard. It’s still possible that an addition is made to supplement the corner outfield spots as well as first base. Not to mention the fact a backup catcher is still needed.

Alongside the A’s theorized goal of building a balanced roster let’s see how the Mariners roster stacks up in terms of projected production by position players.

At the time of this writing reports indicate that the Athletics have agreed to deal Yunel Escobar to the Washington Nationals. But for the sake of this exercise, we will include him and his projection.

The major disclaimer about these projected lineups is that we don’t know how the playing time is going to shake out yet. Chris Taylor very well could find himself at Triple-A to begin the year. What the job-share in right field between Smith and Ruggiano looks like also remains to be seen. But the specifics aren’t the focal point.

The A’s utilize the platoon and player’s multi-position eligibility to their strengths. Craig Gentry is expected to spend some time in both left field and center field while Zobrist is expected to see most of his playing time between second base and shortstop, but is projected to make meaningful contributions in the corner outfield spots, too.

If we make those allocations, we can begin to see that at practically every position, the Athletics project for at least 2.0 fWAR. Or, project as major league average at each of those positions if not well above average. In fact the only position that clearly projects below average, and it’s only by half a win, is at designated hitter. Ironically the A’s agreed to pay Billy Butler $30 million over the next three years to cover that position.

On the Mariners side of things, the projections are similarly favorable. Mike Zunino, Austin Jackson, Cano, Seager, and the shortstop and right field platoons all project for 2.2 or more fWAR. In only three places the M’s project for below average production.

At first base Logan Morrison projects for 1.8 fWAR. The big concern for him in 2015 will be health. When he was able to stay on the field in 2014, particularly in the second half, he was a fairly consistent performer. While nothing spectacular, and you’d certainly want to see better power numbers from your first baseman, a 110 wRC+ is not a bad thing.

In left field Dustin Ackley projects for 1.9 fWAR. This is a position of concern for Seattle as what version of Ackley we will see in 2015 remains to be seen. He was an excellent No. 2 hitter at times last year but was also dormant for stretches. It’s possible that Smith sees some time in left field should Ackley struggle.

As is the case with the Athletics, the Mariners newly-minted DH, Nelson Cruz, projects as below average at 1.5 fWAR. In terms of wins above replacement, designated hitters are penalized slightly not because they aren’t playing the field, but because there is some value in being able to defend at a replacement level. But Cruz was brought onboard to hit, and that’s all Seattle is worried about. If Cruz is indeed able to match his projection, it would still mark a marginal upgrade of 2.0-3.0 fWAR at the position compared to 2014.

The Athletics lineup is projected to be very balanced, as it appears to have been designed to. Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, and Josh Reddick project to be very good players, but not Josh Donaldson-esque. Now, that isn’t to say having superstar players is a bad thing. The Athletics have simply chosen to value them differently than the Mariners have, for example, and that decision is likely resource-based.

Seattle signed Robinson Cano to be a superstar. His paycheck is not just for being a premier player, it’s for being a face of the franchise as well. He’s a talking point and attraction. We could spend much more time discussing the other values that come with a superstar, and their importance to Seattle compared to Oakland, but for now we will not.

Because the Athletics have had such a strange offseason, we’ve attempted to determine their formula or plan. At a closer glance, it does in fact, appear that the club has utilized the strategy that the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts.

Because the Mariners have invested in superstars like Cano and Seager, we know that their strategy is different. But upon comparing the two lineups, we do see some similarities.

At the end of this past season we talked a lot about if the M’s could’ve gotten league average production from just one more position they would’ve been a playoff team. There’s significant value in the way the Athletics have constructed their roster. It certainly isn’t foolproof, and everything we’re saying is still hypothetical, but we can start to see how the changes should translate to the win column.

The Mariners made a significant upgrade at DH this winter, filling arguably their biggest hole in 2014. The goal this winter was to add two everyday bats, and with the platoon of Smith and Ruggiano, it appears that goal has been met. Having Jackson man center field for an entire season should also count as an upgrade. Especially if he’s able to rebound.

Seattle has, on paper, a reasonably balanced lineup — not quite as balanced as the Athletics are, but there isn’t an obvious hole. There is considerable risk with players like Ackley and Morrison, but you can only plan for risk. Adding an Allen Craig type of player who can play some first base and corner outfield would be ideal in alleviating some of the risk and improving depth. There’s still time for something like that to happen.

The Mariners are entering 2015 with an improved lineup compared to the one that started Opening Day 2014. Typically that’s one way we determine whether or not an offseason was successful.

There’s still time to go before Spring Training begins, but on paper, the depth of the Mariners lineup appears similar to the Athletics — the team that was one game better and playoff-worthy last year.

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Tyler Carmont

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