Sunday, October 15, 2006

Crewel to be Kind

As we knit away the cold that's blowing in with the leaves (sorry, outside the Northwest we have deciduous trees, etc.), I have been struck by the possible corollaries between the Mariners and the reborn, AL Champion, Tigers.

To be sure, I'm not the first baseball fan to entertain this idea. But the more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that the M's could, possibly, duplicate the successes in Motor City.

Now, I'm just ruminating here; the Fall Classic hasn't even got a losing National League team in it yet. More thoughtful, stat-filled posts will follow. But as Fall leads us into the cycle of death and rebirth over Winter and Spring, as we set to spinning and knitting during the post-harvest downtime on the farm (oh, wait...I'm not particularly rural. It's a METAPHOR, people), let's start thinking about the differences between the 2006 Mariners and the 2006 Champs.

From the top-down, team level, we find that the Mariners rank in the lower half of the AL in both hitting and pitching, while the Tigers are in the upper half. Specifically, the kitties scored runs at a 5.07 per game pace, good for 5th in the AL, while the M's tallied but 4.67 R/G, a tie for 12th with the powerhouse Kansas City Royals. Meanwhile, Detroit led the league in pitching, allowing only 4.17 R/G to their opponents, while Seattle came in 9th in that category by surrendering 4.89 R/G.

I know. You're thinking, "Hey, we're ONLY 0.4 R/G behind on offense, and ONLY 0.72 back in pitching. We're gonna win!" Before you get going too far on planning for a 2007 victory parade, let's have a reality check. The season is played over 162 games, which means that to catch Detroit, the Mariners would have to find a way to add about 65 runs on offense, keep the defense the same, AND pitch better to the tune of allowing over 116 fewer runs to the opponents.

OK, so it won't be easy. But it's not impossible, either. Other sites have hashed and rehashed the rebuilding of Detroit, and there are differing opinions about whether it was the hiring of curmudgeonly chain smoker Jim Leyland as manager, or the influx of youth on the Comerica mound, or the savvy addition of veterans like curmudgeonly cameraman-swatter Kenny Rogers, that were the "key" moves in the improbable reconstruction of the Tigers. The point is, though, that they did accomplish a quick turnaround (the team posted a 71-91 record in 2005). The M's are positioned to do exactly the same kind of thing.

[Editorial aside: no, Pollyanna has NOT replaced, abducted to a dolphin planet, or otherwise possessed the author.]

Havalook: We can expect that the Mariners' lineup is pretty much set, although some tinkering is possible. But that set lineup already reflects a fair amount of in-season tinkering, such that players like Chris "I've been on the DL so long I'm already nearing arbitration" Snelling can be expected to help add the missing 65 runs to an offense that not so long ago proudly sported a late-model Carl "I give Christianity a bad name" Everett. Or he could, if only drooling imbecile Mike Hargrove didn't have a raging man-crush on Willie Bloomquist (career, over 988 trips to the plate, every one carrying a stick: .257/.312/.329. Another way to put it: he has established himself to be worth TWENTY-SEVEN PERCENT worse than the AVERAGE major league hitter. In five seasons. Ggguh!).

I submit that we could really use some bench upgrades, but that with the current on-field manager, it would be foolish to bring in any "veteran" bats for the bench, since Grover would just start the bench guys over our young starters. But I digress.

Nahh, the offense is what it is. We live or die with Snelling and Benuardo instead of Reed and Everett, plus the odds that Raul Ibanez can keep his production somewhere between 2004 and 2005, and that Adrian Beltre's improvements at the plate can offset Raul's inevitable decline.
If that's not 65 runs, then we're adding to the burden of improving on the mound.

The good news is that our pitchers sucked ass for most of the season, so improvement is easy. Honestly, if we paid a diffenbachia the major league minimum, I'm pretty sure it could get out batters at the prodigious rate of a Joel Pineiro. (Don't laugh--I've seen diffenbachias exhibit WAY more toughness and character than I've ever seen from Gil Meche or Julio Mateo.) I expect that we've got 3 rotation spots to fill, either via free agency or from within. Felix and Washburn are the only givens, so we have a #3 and a #5 starter already, and need to fill 1, 2, and 4 in the pecking order. The bullpen is pretty well set, although there are some injury concerns with Soriano, and potentially Lowe.

So if in shifting from Meche, Pineiro, and Moyer/cast of thousands, to the 2007 solutions, we can save somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 runs (more is better, particularly because I'm loathe to count on too much offensive improvement), then the M's can contend for the AL West crown as early as 2007. 120 divided by three pitching slots is only (ONLY!) 40 runs per pitcher, which means we're talking about massive improvement here (For instance, to save 40 runs, Gil Meche would have had to post a 2.56 ERA instead of his 4.48 mark.) So that's not realistic. Except that it IS potentially within reach, since King Felix almost can't do any worse next year, so any runs he saves over 2006 (96 ER and a 4.52 ERA) will contribute to the needed pace.

Even so, mediocre starting pitchers won't make the grade. But who do we get? There is disagreement amongst bloggers and the media regarding how much cash the organization has to spend this offseason; I'm guessing about $22-24 million, personally, but in part that depends on stupid accounting tricks by the Mariners, and by the level of payroll they budget for this season. At current market prices, the FA market cannot yield three quality starting pitchers for that price. The big names are Jason Schmidt (local, once awesome, now a solid #2 type who will be 34 years old next season), Barry Zito (great curve, once won a Cy Young, will be 29 in 2007), and the soon-to-be-posted phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka (will be 27 in 2007). There are also wild and crazy rumors about other NPB hurlers, in particular Hiroki Kuroda. Lesser MLB free agents include pitchers like Tony Armas Jr., Miguel Batista, Bruce Chen, Adam Eaton, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Joy Mays, Mark Mulder, Tomo Ohka, Ramon Ortiz, Vicente Padilla, Andy Pettitte, Mark Redman, Jeff Suppan, John Thomson, Jeff Weaver, Kip Wells, Randy Wolf, ...blech. It's no wonder that many expect Gil Meche (who's got his youth going for him, as he'll be only 29 in 2007) to cash in this year as a FA.

Internal options are one fewer since the M's gave up on Francisco Cruceta last week. We could try to resign Meche, but...why? The point is to get better, and I'm afraid that we've already gotten his peak performance. I'm happy to be wrong, but there's no way I take that gamble myself. Mark Lowe looked pretty dominant on the hill most of the time he was up, but then injury derailed the young man. Rafael Soriano was once viewed as a potential SP, but he has major injury history as well, making you wonder about the wisdom of ADDING to his pitching workload. Then there are minor leaguers like Bobby Livingston, Cha Seung Baek, and I suppose Jorge Campillo. As you might respond to Michael Feldman if you were in a crowd and he asked "Whaddya know?"..."Not much. You?"

I'll return in later weeks with some more statistical ammunition, but if the Tigers are our model, then Bill Bavasi has to hit some home runs in the roster construction arena this offseason. We won't settle, by the way, for just scraping by to win the West. The goal is the World Series. We have the resources, and even the offensive core and the bullpen to get there. Don't leave King Felix alone in the starting rotation as the only top-of-rotation caliber pitcher.

If none of that appeals to you, Bavasi, then think of it this way: only on a championship roster is there a really good place to carry Willie Bloomquist as a legitimate 25th man/pinch runner/last resort as defensive replacement/water boy. Think about it.


At 10:18 AM, Blogger Tad said...

I think I'll need to do a longer post on this, but I don't think you can improve the pitching enough. So while the lineup does appear set and everyone in it is either adequate or at least cost-effective, I think the Mariners need to add a bat. The displaced adequate dude becomes trade bait.


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