Are The Seattle Mariners The Best Team In The American League?


If you’re expecting the Seattle Mariners to lose 101 games next year, you are both understood and forgiven. That’s kind of what they do after winning seasons – it happened in 2008, and it happened in 2010. Who’s to say 2015 should be any different?

Certainly, the 2014 M’s featured some serious over-performers. The entirety of the bullpen, for example, and Chris Young for another. Logan Morrison looks improved, but is it for real? Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano gave typical superstar performances, but they’re each a year older now. Even Kyle Seager made big gains but is a regression candidate. This is an 87-win team with serious question marks.

The difference between 2015 and 2010 is that there’s youth in place and producing. The only two long-term contracts on the books are massive, but the players attached to those contracts are two of the very best players in the sport. Last time the Mariners were supposed to contend they had Felix Hernandez and a bunch of guys with varying degrees of upside. This time it’s more of the same. Except this time, the projection systems don’t like the Mariners – they love them.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs and U.S.S. Mariner, writing for Fox Sports on Just a bit Outside, has a new piece up today. It’s about the Mariners, and it’s about the Steamer projection system. Steamer’s one of the more prominent player projection systems in the game today, and generally gives pretty good approximations of how a given player or team is likely to perform going forward. And Steamer really, really likes the Mariners.

The best team in baseball, according to Steamer’s projections, is the Washington Nationals. Second best? The Seattle Mariners.

Let’s address this as clearly as possible: it’s early. It’s really, really early. You know how in mid-May people are saying it’s early? Well, the World Series ended less than two weeks ago, and the biggest free agent signing since then has been Jeff Francis. It’s almost crazy-early to be talking about who’s gonna be good next year. The M’s have the earliest of early projections on their side. Better than to not be in that position, of course, but it’s critically important to remember that this guarantees nothing.

So why does Steamer love the M’s so much? Well above-average production is expected from second, third, short, and the starting rotation. This all seems reasonable, as the M’s got stud performances from Cano and Seager last year. The Brad Miller/Chris Taylor shortstop situation was above-average last year and has obvious room for improvement. And the rotation is still two aces, solid depth, and two kids with top-of-the-heap upside.

So nothing seems amiss there. The bullpen is projected to be roughly average, but with a bunch of fireballers who didn’t issue a lot of walks last year maybe the projections are missing something there. There’s still no reason to expect big things from LoMo at first, and whoever comes in to DH is going to have a lot to prove after the black hole that position has been since Edgar Martinez retired. But Austin Jackson is unlikely to repeat his second half, so maybe you bump that projection up a bit. All over the place you can see where the M’s can pick up some of the slack from last year.

As Sullivan points out, the Mariners were good in a lot of places last year. They missed the playoffs because of the miserable production they got out of first, DH, and center field, where a revolving door of sub-replacement players sunk the team with an onslaught of negative value. Addition by subtraction, then: give less plate appearances to crappy players and the team improves.

This projection still seems a bit nuts, even considering the math and logic behind it. THE Seattle Mariners? Best team in the league? But pick it apart and it starts to become believable, that this team projects to win over 90 games. Legitimate strengths, fixable weaknesses, and no black holes. Stefen Romero and James Jones aren’t getting hundred of plate appearances in this best-team-in-the-league scenario, but that really should be the goal anyway. Don’t let the scrubs play, and the Mariners are suddenly excellent.

There are very strong teams all over the league. Los Angeles of Anaheim still looks amazing, especially with their ace expected back. Oakland’s gonna be good again, probably, and there’s three talented teams in the Central with two more on the upswing. The Rangers could bounce back. The Astros could take off! And that’s to say nothing of the five-headed AL East. Virtually everyone in the American League can claim to be making a run at a title in 2015. But the Seattle Mariners damn well might have a leg up on all of them. Which is as neat as it is nutty.