If the season started tomorrow, the Seattle Mariners would be a consensus fourth-place team. One recalls that last year’s Seattle Mariners were also a consensus fourth-place team, and that they went on to finish…fourth. The year before that they also finished fourth, which, at the time, was last. Same with the year before that, and the year before that. The Seattle Mariners haven’t finished higher than fourth since 2009, when they were third. The year before that they finished fourth. Recent Mariners teams have established something of a pattern. The 2014 team, we’re told, is going for it, and would thus like to finish higher than fourth. But as things currently stand, it seems unlikely.
Many words have been written as to why the Mariners look like a fourth place team, again. The Athletics are two-time reigning division champs, and have only gotten better this offseason. The Rangers made a huge, questionable trade and a huge, questionable free agent commitment, but appear to be a smidge stronger for the coming season. The Angels are filled to the brim with bounce-back candidates and have one of the highest projected WAR totals in all of baseball. The Astros are going to finish last, which leaves fourth place open for the Mariners, again. And the Mariners don’t look nearly as strong as any of their rivals, so here we are.
The Mariners don’t look nearly as strong as any of their rivals for a number of reasons. Offense, for starters, as the M’s really shouldn’t be expecting above-average production from anyone other than Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. Corey Hart and Brad Miller seem like good bets as well, but one is returning from serious injury and the other is still a tiny baby, as far as playing major league baseball is concerned. Things don’t look much better on the other side of the ball, as Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma anchor an otherwise young and hollow rotation. The bullpen is Danny Farquhar and fluff. Oh, and the team’s defense sucks. Let’s talk more about that.
Defense is still one of the hardest things in baseball to quantify. So far we have several popular advanced defensive metrics, which are controversial in nature due to their imprecision. There’s also the good ol’ eye test, in which regular humans without a formula watch baseball and mentally register who is doing good things and who is doing bad things, and how often. The best way to evaluate defense is still a combination of looking at metrics and watching a crapload of baseball. Our subject today is the 2013 Seattle Mariners, so you’ll be excused for having not watched a whole lot of them. They weren’t a very fun team to watch, so let’s lean a little more towards stats here.
Per Fangraphs, the Mariners ranked 30th in the majors by Ultimate Zone Rating, which is one of the most popular defensive statistics available. By UZR/150 they were also 30th, just by a wider margin. Another Fangraphs metric that simply measures total defensive contribution relative to the league puts the team dead last, again. By Defensive Runs Saved they were 29th, ahead of only the Phillies and over thirty runs behind everyone else. You can read more about these defensive stats here and here. Defensive stats did not think at all highly of the 2013 Seattle Mariners. Nor did they have reason to.
Looking at the 2013 Mariners we see that of all regular players, only Brad Miller posted a positive defensive contribution. Even so, his 1.3 DEF is closer to average than it is to noteworthy. There were four 2013 Mariners to finish with better marks than Miller: Yankees shortstop Brendan Ryan and three free agent backup-to-the-backup catchers. At -1.3, Kyle Seager is the next-closest to league average. The rest of the roster was closer to cover-your-eyes bad than they were to adequate, with Raul Ibanez and his -23.6 taking up the rear. In fact, the new Angels DH had by far the worst fielding numbers in the majors, which is hardly a surprise, given that he’s long done this whenever he’s allowed to field.
But 2013 is done, thus directing our focus to the year ahead. The Mariners have a gaping hole of an outfield and an underdeveloped prospect pencilled in as the starting catcher. The only real depth is in the middle infield and at DH. And virtually nobody can play defense. Robinson Cano, for all he’s been worth as a hitter, is actually now the best fielder on the team. His 2.5 DEF last season would have been tops on the Mariners, and he’s a tremendous upgrade defensively over Nick Franklin. The team has also added Logan Morrison, who is a Michael Morse-level defensive liability, and Corey Hart, who has never been good in the field and how has two surgically repaired knees to deal with. Willie Bloomquist, for all his versatility, has negative career defensive ratings at every position he’s ever played.
In order to contend, the Mariners must improve at all facets of the game. They’ve focused exclusively on run production thus far, at the cost of run prevention. In order to succeed with the worst defense in the game, a team must have truly elite pitching and hitting. The Mariners don’t even have anything close to that. If pressed for a recent team that succeeded with this model, the last couple of Tigers teams instantly spring to mind. And the Tigers just spent their offseason obsessively improving their defense by acquiring Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis, ditching Prince Fielder, shifting Miguel Cabrera and promoting Nick Castellanos. Not to mention swapping out the Miller-esque Johnny Peralta for bonafide wizard Jose Iglesias. For all the talk about the Tigers getting worse elsewhere, they could have an above average defense in 2014, especially given the continued presence of Austin Jackson. The Mariners don’t have that kind of pitching or offense, and they’ve basically made it clear that they’re perfectly fine with fielding one of the worst defensive teams possible.
Are there players who could improve next year? Certainly. Mike Zunino is the obvious answer, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect moderate gains from Miller and/or Seager. Dustin Ackley was recently a really good second baseman who could theoretically cut it in center, but his pathetic throwing arm will probably keep him from ever being much more than league average out there. Franklin Gutierrez could certainly bounce back defensively. Abraham Almonte and Michael Saunders are probably better than the stats indicate, though they probably shouldn’t be starters. Even if all these bubble guys make dramatic leaps forward, the team is still going to be relying on Logan Morrison and Corey Hart as outfielders. It’s just as unrealistic to think that the crappy incumbents will suddenly become gold glovers as it is to think they’ll become silver sluggers. This team, as currently built, needs every Dustin Ackley to morph into a Carlos Gomez. That’s utterly insane, and all but guaranteed not to happen.
The 2013 Mariners failed because they were bad at offense, defense, and pitching. The 2014 Mariners are billing themselves as contenders as a result of having added some offense while thus far ignoring pitching and defense. More pitching will come, and the team seems set on adding another outfielder or two, but this is why another Nelson Cruz-type leadfoot would be so disastrous to this kind of team. Last year’s Royals and Diamondbacks rode to the fringes of contention in part due to their sneaky-elite defense, which helps make the rest of the team look that much better. The Mariners atrocious defense has done, and will continue to do, the exact opposite, making the pitching that much less effective and giving the offense a harder job. The Mariners need a major defensive makeover, but are still linked almost daily to Cruz and the like. This front office straight up does not seem to care at all about defense. Which is a shame, since the defense looks to be the biggest weakness of a team that still insists it’s only a few “bats” away from taking the world by storm.