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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6 Comments

  1. I think the Lawrie/Donaldson trade could work out really well for Oakland. Donaldson is probably right at his peak value right now. Although Donaldson still has a few years of team control left, he’s 29 and has been a major overachiever up till this point. Lawrie is a few years younger, and has great tools. He’s good now, but I think there is room for a lot more.

    I think Lawrie’s upside is Josh Donaldson, so Beane could have made a lateral move for a younger player that also landed him three good prospects.

    It will be interesting to compare Lawrie and Donaldson’s stats after next season.

  2. Thanks, Paul.

    The Gattis trade definitely adds some more intrigue to the Astros this year. Obviously Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle are the top three teams in the division. Texas is kind of a wild card because guys like Fielder and Choo, if healthy, could make the team much better this year. Don’t think the Rangers have enough pitching depth to last, but they certainly have the pieces to keep things interesting.

    Going to be a very fun year, for sure!

  3. Thanks, Jerry.

    I think executives are also starting to look for more certainty with players being acquired in these mega-deals. Oakland certainly could’ve gotten a more exciting prospect for Donaldson, but elected to acquire Lawrie because he can fill a role on the major league roster and still carries All-Star calibre upside.

    For me Zduriencik’s unwillingness to deal from his starting pitching and shortstop depth up to this point suggests the team may be putting an emphasis on having that depth. Those are probably the top five run organizations in baseball. I’m not ready to put Seattle too high on that list, but we’ve seen a step in the right direction for sure.

  4. Great article Tyler,

    I’ve talked about this a few times, but I think that depth is the new market inefficiency. Billy Beane is the king of identifying market inefficiencies, and his moves this offseason shows that this is what he’s focusing on. Whenever he trades big-name guys, people always freak out and assume that he’s breaking down the club to rebuild. But if you look at his trades, they mostly returned ML-ready or high ceiling guys who could help soon. His strategy is pretty clear: make every position at least league average, and build a ton of depth.

    With the salaries of elite players skyrocketing, this makes a lot of sense. But even for bigger payroll teams – like the M’s should be – building a balanced and deep roster is a great plan. The Rangers and Angels are great examples of what not to do. The 2014 Rangers and 2013 Angels were built around expensive guys with a track record for elite performance. When a significant number of those guys got hurt or struggled, they were screwed. The A’s keep trading those types of guys, but keep winning consistently. Depth is the best way to avoid well below average performance. The M’s haven’t had much depth lately, and that’s a big reason why we had 6 below average positions last season.

    Thus, the biggest difference I see between the M’s and the A’s is in depth. The projections for our club include a wide range of variability for guys like Ackley, Zunino, Taylor/Miller, Morrison, and Jackson. If those guys fail, we don’t have a deep team to replace them. And if one of our key players go down, the same rule applies. For pitching we are in a bit better shape, especially the bullpen. But our team, overall, isn’t very deep. We’ve graduated a lot of players from the upper level of the minors, but lots of those guys still haven’t proven themselves. We don’t have very good Plan B’s. If we get lucky, we could be really good. But there is considerable downside, too.

    The increased focus on depth isn’t just the A’s. The Red Sox, Dodgers, Nationals, and Cardinals have all built ridiculously deep teams, although through variable methods. The Cubs are doing the same right now. All those teams are run by VERY smart front offices. I’m hoping the M’s jump on this bandwagon.

  5. …also, I live in Houston now and the Astros are improved and will win more games. Depending on how things work out with Texas, they may not be the “LASTROS” this year…

  6. Enjoyed the article and comparison Tyler! The AL West is going to be a fun division this year, super competitive. Angels bring everyone back and also get healthy (sure hope they don’t splurge on a remaining high priced free agent pitcher). Texas has talent but we’re incredibly unlucky last year, who knows what they are this year? Seattle is Improved and Oakland is always in the mix. Can’t wait for spring training!

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