The 2014 Seattle Mariners season is over. Maybe that still hasn’t hit home for you – I know it’s only now becoming a clear reality for me, now that the AL wild card game has been played without the participation of the Mariners. The playoff game the Mariners fell just short of appearing in ended up being an all-time classic, a 9-8 Kansas City win in twelve innings after trailing by four in the eighth and by one in the twelfth. The Mariners missed the playoffs, then the playoffs immediately went crazy. Yeah, the season is over.
Just three days ago the season was alive and Safeco Field was rocking. The A’s clinched the last playoff spot mid-game, sending the Mariners game into full-on “thanks for the memories” mode. Stars were pulled to standing ovations, the Angels were swept, and the best Mariners team in a decade wrapped up an amazing season.
We’re already looking forward, wondering what friends, be they old or new, will help this team win even more games in 2015. James Paxton reminds us that there’s some serious talent to be found in the minor league system, while Roenis Elias makes us note that perhaps the farm is even deeper than we’d think. Victor Martinez is winking at us from the free agent bleachers, and Matt Kemp still might be just a trade away. The 2015 team will not look the same as the 2014 team. These things hardly ever hold year to year.
But let’s not move too fast. Or rather, let’s look forward while also remembering to look back on how awesome this all was. We have end-of-season numbers now, and those are a treat. We can now look back in full on some of the seasons that unfolded since April, and properly assess what kind of team these Mariners were.
Offense has been down in baseball for years. This we all know – pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and hitters haven’t been able to keep up. But only ten teams in MLB were able to post above-average wRC+ marks. Only four of those teams – the Tigers, Dodgers, Angels, and Pirates – were more than five percent better than league average. Fourteen teams were five-plus percent worse than league average. There’s some serious parity as far as the death of offense is concerned.
The Mariners checked in with a 93 wRC+, a team line seven percent below league average that ranks 19th in the majors. Big change from last year, when they were… 18th in the majors, with a 94 wRC+. As offense fell, the Mariners fell with it. But remember, last year was the big bopper year with Raul Ibanez and a not-the-worst-player-you-c0uld-ever-imagine version of Kendrys Morales. These Mariners seemed slappier, and sure, they hit for less power. But they didn’t take a huge step back. They’re merely in the middle of a cluster of bad hitting, which includes more than half the teams in the game.
These Mariners were often praised for their defense, but FanGraphs has them as the 22nd-best defensive team, at -9.5 runs over the course of the season. That’s a full win lost because of bad defense. Huh? Still a big improvement from last year, but still, huh? Sort by plate appearances and you’ll notice that Robinson Cano was the only negatively ranked Mariner to make over 400 plate appearances. But you watched him play defense this year – this seems like noise, given that Cano rountinely looked fantastic in the field. No numbers are perfect. We know batting average isn’t perfect, and neither are fielding metrics. Nothing’s perfect. Cano was shy of being a gold glover, but it’s hard to argue his defense significantly hurt the team in any way.
It’s the Endy Chavez and James Jones part of the list where we start to see the holes. The Mariners defense was good, generally, but the bench didn’t have a lot to offer on that end. The first basemen stunk, of course, but the reserve outfielders were a clear step down from the starters defensively. Stefen Romero and Corey Hart were statues out there, and Chris Denorfia provided some uninspired glovework of his own. Cole Gillespie – remember him? – was a disaster. Thanks, Dustin Ackley, for learning to play a competent left. That was nice.
By ERA, the Mariners had the second-best pitching staff in baseball. By fielding-independent pitching, or FIP, they slip to the twelth spot. Remove home runs allowed from the equation and the M’s are back to fifth. So what’s the deal? Obviously this pitching staff is one of the better ones in MLB, but determining the extent of that can go a long way towards feeling okay about the staff for 2015.
Something that stands out about this staff is the lack of dead weight. There are five M’s pitchers who racked up negative WAR in 2014: Hector Noesi (gone), Joe Beimel (free agent, posted a fantastic ERA despite not striking anyone out), Blake Beavan (non-factor), Lucas Luetge (non-factor), and Erasmo Ramirez (has probably needed surgery for a few years now). Even the dead weight doesn’t seem so bad! This is a strong pitching staff, and they could all be back.
It’s easy to see that FIP and think “this pitching was largely an illusion.” But look at Beimel! Look at Chris Young! FIP is designed to devalue the things that they do best, and so it’s not a great metric by which to evaluate them. Just as last year’s bullpen was obviously better than the collective ERA it posted, this year’s team is probably better than a middle-of-the-pack FIP. It’s tricky, evaluating pitchers. The best thing one can do is to avoid using any one definitive metric.
Felix Hernandez? Awesome. Hisashi Iwakuma? Awesome. The front two are still aces, and behind that there’s two former top prospects making good on their promise. Then there’s Elias, then there’s the maybe-returning Young, and then there will be additional depth. Not Beavan, but real depth. The M’s know this. They’re going to get more rotation depth.
It could be argued the Mariners bullpen is near-optimized, but that shouldn’t stop the team from tinkering. There are always parts to be added, as Fernando Rodney showed this last year. He’s unlikely to be this awesome again, even if Danny Farquhar is. The Mariners have a good-to-great staff, but it wasn’t a best-ever as it sometimes seemed.
This season ended three days ago, and already it’s easy to see that the team doesn’t have a lot of long-term problems to worry about. LoMo’s second half goes a long way towards addressing a huge, horrifying hole at first, and no parts of the rotation or bullpen need serious attention. The team was a little below-average offensively, but so was everyone else. The defense was good, with obvious room for improvement on the bench. Built to last? Probably. We’ll see!