Hart: ’14 Mariners similar to ’08 Brewers; young and exciting

The Seattle Mariners held their 16th annual FanFest this past weekend and set a record with an attendance of 21,019 combined for the two days. The event offers a chance for fans to rub elbows with the players, wonder Safeco Field, and take part in various activities (zip line!). In keeping up with the trends, the Mariners had several players hit the social media booth to take questions from fans via Twitter. Newcomer Corey Hart was one of them, and offered an interesting answer to a question sent his way by yours truly.

 

Hart’s comparison has some validity on the surface since the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers were relatively young and an exciting team to watch considering the explosive offence they put together. This year’s incarnation of the Mariners would be similar based solely on the fact there’s plenty of youth ready to break out, and any team that has the potential to lead the league in home runs and will send Felix Hernandez to the mound every fifth day is bound to bear some excitement. While the ’14 Mariners aren’t coming off of an 83-win season and probably need another year to see what some of their young guys can do, perhaps there’s more validity to Hart’s comment than meets the eye.

The ’08 Brewers lineup featured two of today’s premier hitters entering their age 24 seasons, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and the pair would combine for 71 home runs and 208 runs batted in on the year. Joining them in the lineup were Hart, JJ Hardy, and Mike Cameron, who all belted 20 or more dingers as well. Collectively the team finished third in the National League with 198 home runs, but finished twelfth in the NL with a combined .252 batting average. Braun would finish third in NL MVP voting that year and led the Brew Crew with his .285/.335/.553 line, although he has since admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, clouding his stats slightly to say the least.

Perhaps Hart just might be on to something as the Mariners finished second in the American League with 188 home runs in 2013 led by Raul Ibanez (29 HR), Kendrys Morales (23), Kyle Seager (22), and Justin Smoak (20). However the team’s .237 batting average was last in the league and Morales’ .277 average led the team. Gone are Ibanez and Morales, but if Hart and fellow newcomer Logan Morrison are both able to stay healthy the entire year, it’s possible they could replace the production lost from the departed sluggers. Robinson Cano brings his career .309/.355/.504 line to the team as well as four consecutive finishes in the top six AL MVP voting.

Currently the 2014 M’s are projected to hit 218 home runs according to Steamer, six more than the major league leading Baltimore Orioles hit last year, so the lineup will remain homer-heavy, which always carries some excitement. Cano, Hart, and Smoak are all projected to hit more than 20 long balls this year, and five others are projected to be over the thirteen mark as well. Having a homer-heavy lineup is obviously much more effective when a team can capitalize with runners on base; 19 of Ibanez’s 29 home runs last year were solo shots. The ’08 Brewers drove in 722 batters as a team compared to just 597 driven in by the ’13 Mariners. Steamer projects 683 runs batted in for this year, not only a marked improvement from last year but also a number that would’ve placed Seattle among the top ten teams in baseball last season.

While the home run production is comparable between the two clubs, a key difference was that Milwaukee didn’t pay for their long ball with defence. Without dwelling on the misadventures of Ibanez, Mike Morse et all, UZR gave Seattle a defensive rating of -73.0. Ouch. The Brewers on the other hand, received a 15.9 UZR rating in 2008. Cano will help in this department, but the outfield looks almost abysmal defensively; especially if Michael Saunders spends much time in center. For what it’s worth, Seattle only stole 49 bases compared to 108 stolen by Milwaukee and Steamer only projects Saunders  and Brad Miller to steal more than ten bases in the upcoming year. How important steals are is debatable, but the point being made is that the ’08 Brewers featured a much more rounded offensive than the ’14 Mariners project to field.

The Brew Crew featured a steady yet unspectacular rotation until they acquired CC Sabathia in a July trade with the Indians that year. After the 22-year old Yovani Gallardo went down with injury, the staff anchored by Ben Sheets, Dave Bush, and Jeff Suppan helped combine for the National League’s second lowest ERA at 3.85. This was actually a very productive year for Sheets who had missed parts of 2007 and 2006 with injuries. In 198 1/3 innings pitched he posted a 3.09 ERA with a 3.38 FIP and 3.88 xFIP; good for 4.3 fWAR and bWAR. Sabathia was the real game changer for the rotation however, posting a sparkling 1.65 ERA in 17 starts, seven of which were complete games. His performance with the Brewers even garnered some National League Cy Young and MVP attention despite pitching half his season in the American League.

Now, one would like to think that a pitching staff highlighted by King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma wouldn’t have one of the worst earned run averages in the AL, but that was the case in 2013. Only the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros had worse results than Seattle’s 4.32 ERA. Although Felix and Kuma only represented about 30 percent of the innings pitched by the staff, the other 70 percent was pretty ugly. Youngsters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton impressed in their September cameo appearances, and Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush, and Oliver Perez  were effective out of the bullpen.

As it stands, the Mariners’ rotation features nearly zero certainty after the top two spots. Some incarnation of Walker, Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez, and the newly signed Scott Baker figure to fill out the remaining three rotation spots. Much has been made about the height of Walker’s ceiling, and there’s a good chance Paxton becomes a productive starter down the line, but both are almost complete question marks for 2014 and probably best served starting the year at Triple-A. Maurer and Ramirez  are still young and could develop into useful pieces, but unless they’ve improved tremendously this winter, there’s no reason to pencil them in for any more than a bullpen gig. A healthy Baker is a legitimate back end rotation guy, but that’s still to be determined as well.

The Brewers did get something resembling a breakout year from Manny Parra in his first full big league season. After nine appearances in 2007, the then 25-year old posted a 4.39 ERA, 4.16 FIP, and 3.81 xFIP over 29 starts and 32 appearances. That would turn out to be his the most productive season of his career thus far, but at the cost of a league minimum salary, nobody was complaining about his performance in 2008. For what it’s worth, Paxton is entering his age 25 season and if he can contribute something resembling Parra’s 1.9 fWAR and contribute over the course of the entire season, that’d be huge for the club. Even when Gallardo went down with injury, the Brew Crew were able to get a decent result out of ten Seth McClung starts. If Walker or Paxton are unable to go for whatever reason, the Mariners’ rotation once again hinges on guys like Ramirez. I’d rather have McClung, thanks.

Outside of Sabathia, Milwaukee’s rotation was regarded as far from flashy heading into the 2008 season. There was still some notable hype surrounding Gallardo who was the Brewers’ second round choice in the 2004 draft, though it was less than that associated with Walker currently. Sheets had dealt with injuries the previous two campaigns and Suppan and Bush had yet to established much consistency in their respective games. But, Milwaukee did enter the year with a set of fairly dependable arms and got a little bit of luck aside from the Gallardo injury. The Mariners’ projected 2014 rotation isn’t just a little bit of luck and health away from being Wild Card calibre.

Obviously Hart comparing the 2014 Seattle Mariners to the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers wasn’t meant to be analyzed this much. His reasoning could be as simple as the fact that the Mariners are going to hit a lot of home runs this year and will feature several young players with the ability to be difference makers; both are attributes of exciting baseball.

The Brewers would go on to lose in the National League Division Series in four games to the Philadelphia Phillies in ’08, a result that seems too far out of the Mariners’ reach at this point. Acquiring David Price would certainly help, but maybe the M’s should allocate most of their available resources to help the outfield and attempt to bring in a Bush or Suppan circa 2008 type of starter instead. Felix and Kuma offer enough star power at the top of the rotation to allow for a Bronson Arroyo to fit in the three spot until Walker or Paxton claim it as their own. Unless Ervin Santana falls into their lap, there’s not much left for free agent starters.

All in all, the Mariners may just be in a similar position to where the Brewers were six years ago. A lot will have to go right for the club to be a legitimate playoff contender this year, but a strong step towards fielding a contending team in 2015 may be just as good of a result.

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Tyler Carmont

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