Five Questions: Seattle Mariners

On the heels of a 93-win, second-place season, longtime Mariners GM Pat Gillick stepped down, replaced by Bill Bavasi. Some have suspected that a big reason for Gillick’s departure was that the seasoned GM saw a major decline coming for the M’s, and wanted to jump ship before he was held responsible. That may well be the case. The Mariners head into 2004 with a whopping 8 regulars on the wrong side of 30, and the offseason additions were a little underwhelming… Well, heck, let’s just jump right in:

1) Did the Mariners “win” their offseason?

Obviously, Seattle should be shooting for at least 90 wins this year. It will probably take around 95 to win the AL West, and the Wild Card race looks to involve Boston/New York and Oakland/Anaheim — all fine ballclubs. With the Seattle holdovers likely to suffer an overall decline (or, at best, stay the same), gaining wins with new acquisitions is imperative to the Mariners’ postseason aspirations.

Together, the departing Mariners combined for 61 Win Shares last year, led by Mike Cameron (21 WS), Carlos Guillen (12), and Mark McLemore (8). The new guys combined to earn 51 Win Shares:

              WS
Guardado      15
Ibanez        15
Spiezio       12
Aurilia        8
McCracken      1

Aurilia will do better, and Spiezio might as well, but Guardado and Ibanez probably won’t top their 2003 Win Share totals. Looking at ’03 departures versus ’04 new guys, I’d say the Mariners got, at best, a wash.

2) Can Freddy Garcia return to his 2001 level?

It wasn’t long ago that Freddy Garcia was one of the best starters in the American League. He went 18-6 with a league-best 3.05 ERA for the 116-win Mariners, but since then, Garcia has been an average starter. Actually, halfway through the 2002 season, Garcia had a 3.44 ERA before falling apart in the second half. Check out his numbers since the All-Star break that year:

   IP      W      L     HR      ERA
296.2     17     19     44     4.88

His strikeout and walk numbers the past two years have been basically the same as his ’01 figures, but his home run rate has skyrocketed. From 1999-2001, Garica allowed just 50 homers in 564 innings. Over the last two seasons, he’s given up 61 homers in just 425 innings.

I don’t know why Garcia’s home run rate shot up in 2002, but for him to be successful, that rate has to drop. Since 2000, only four pitchers have allowed 30 homers in a season with an ERA under 3.75. Three of those four — Curt Schilling, Wade Miller, and Ryan Dempster — had high strikeout rates (Garcia’s 2003 rate of 6.4 was a hair above league-average). The fourth guy, Ryan Franklin, turned the trick as a teammate of Garcia’s in Seattle last year, and I’ll be shocked if his ERA is under 4.00 this season.

Garcia’s home run rate doesn’t appear to be much of a function of ballpark, either. Safeco Field is a relatively neutral home run park, and last year, Freddy’s splits were essentially even (16 HR at home, 15 on the road). In 2002, however, he gave up 23 homers in Seattle and 15 on the road. Still, that’s 30 home runs in road games the past two years — way too many. He’s certainly become more of a flyball pitcher over those seasons.

Garcia’s got a sinking fastball, and from what I’ve heard, he tends to use the curve a little too often. It’s really basic, but what if he just tries to keep the ball down? Use that two-seamer, and let the infielders do some work. Maybe it’s already been tried, but that seems to be Garcia’s best chance for a rebound.

3) Should Eddie Guardado be the new Mariners closer?

Ex-Twin Everyday Eddie has the closer’s job, but he’s not all that much better than Seattle’s other top bullpen arms, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Rafael Soriano. Here are the trio’s stats over the past two seasons:

              ERA     K/9     H/9     W/9
Guardado     2.91     8.8     7.0     2.2
Soriano      2.96     9.0     6.7     2.5
Hasegawa     2.32     4.5     7.7     3.0

The one thing that’s clear is that Hasegawa shouldn’t be closing — his strikeout rate is way too low, and his hit and walk rates are the highest of the group. He’s put together a nice career as a middle reliever, but his ERA will be closer to 4.00 than 2.00 this year. Also, I never realized how close Guardado and Soriano have been since 2002. The difference, of course, is that Soriano was utterly dominant last year (11.6 K/9, 1.53 ERA), while Eddie was merely… well, steady.

I don’t have a problem with Guardado closing at this point. He’s as reliable as relievers come, and sharpened his control last year. With Guardado likely to be almost exclusively a 9th-inning guy, Soriano is poised to become the AL’s answer to Octavio Dotel. At 24, he is Seattle’s closer of the future, and will be an elite stopper the moment he is given the role.

4) John Olerud and Edgar Martinez have both had great careers. Where do they stand in the Hall of Fame discussion?

Olerud is almost never discussed as a Hall of Fame candidate, but if he remains a regular into his early-40s, he could reach 3,000 hits. According to the 2004 Bill James Handbook, Olerud has an 18% chance of reaching the 3000-hit mark in his career. Those are higher odds than Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, and basically even with Alfonso Soriano and Vladimir Guerrero.

It appears that Doug Mientkiewicz, a perfect “poor man’s Olerud,” swapped ’03 stat lines with the real Olerud. Mientkiewicz batted an Olerud-esque .300/.393/.450, while the original model hit .269/.372/.390 — almost identical to Mientkiewicz’s numbers in 2002.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe that Olerud’s ’04 was more off-year than decline, and I expect, if not a return to his .300/.403/.490 hitting of two years’ past, at least a return to the .280, 15 homer range.

If Olerud can bounce back, he’ll be in a decent position to make a run at 3000 hits (he’s currently at 2079). In terms of Win Shares, he’s at 284 right now — not enough for the Hall. But if he hangs on for another 5 or 6 seasons, Olerud’s Win Shares will climb north of 370, which would make him one of the best players not in the Hall.

Edgar Martinez‘s Hall of Fame case has been much more discussed than Olerud’s. Those opposed to Martinez’s enshrinement will point out that he’s a career DH (aside from 563 games at 3B and 28 at 1B). The pro-Martinez camp will counter with the argument that Edgar’s been arguably the best right-handed hitter since 1990, and that he shouldn’t be blamed for not getting a shot until he was 27.

Personally, I can see it both ways. So does Rob Neyer, apparently — in his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, which he wrote in 2002, Rob said, “If they ever let me vote for the Hall of Fame… I’ll put a check mark in the box next to Edgar Martinez with nary a second thought.” Then in June, Rob did an about-face:

When you look at the context, along with Martinez’s general inability to stay in the lineup over the years — he’s played in 140 or more games only seven times in his career — I think one can conclude that though Martinez certainly has been a great hitter, he perhaps hasn’t been quite great enough for quite long enough to merit election to the Hall of Fame. Especially considering that his contributions on the basepaths and in the field are something close to nil.

Martinez has 297 Win Shares, and with 2004 likely his farewell season (though we said that about 2003 as well), Edgar’s looking at around 320 Win Shares for his career. That’s good, but it’s not clearly a Hall of Fame total. Other guys in the same range include Hall of Famers Enos Slaughter, Joe Medwick, and Orlando Cepeda, but also a whole bunch of guys who just miss the cut: Willie Davis, Vada Pinson, Norm Cash, Graig Nettles, etc. In fact, most of the Hall of Fame hitters within range of Edgar are among the more debatable inductees.

No, the key to Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame campaign is the fact that he didn’t get a chance until he was 27. It’s rather remarkable, really. In 1987, the 24-year-old Martinez batted .329/.434/.473 with AAA Calgary. In a 13-game stint with the big club that September, he tore the cover off the ball, to the tune of a .372 average.

Yet, he was returned to AAA the following year, with .220-hitting Jim Presley keeping the Seattle 3B job. Now 25, Edgar took his game to another level, batting .363/.467/.517 with Calgary. That merited another late-season call-up, in which Edgar hit .281.

In 1989, Martinez started the season as the M’s Opening Day third baseman. He was excellent in May and June, but struggled in April and August, and Jim Presley got his job back by August. Of course, Edgar continued to hit when he was demoted to AAA that year, finishing with a .345 average at that level in 1989.

Edgar Martinez was a dominant hitter in the minor leagues, and hit very well in his first two major-league trials. Fortunately, his up-and-down 1989 season wasn’t the end of the story; he hit .302 as a major-league regular in 1990, and hasn’t looked back.

It’s hard to weigh performance against opportunity, but in this case, I have to say that Edgar hasn’t done enough. Yes, had he been given the opportunity, he’d have a couple more .300 seasons under his belt. That still wouldn’t bring him close to 3000 hits in his career, though, and he’d only have around 1400 RBI.

I know RBI isn’t a good stat to evaluate hitters, but think about this — Edgar Martinez’s position is basically “hitter,” and even giving him credit for his missed opportunities early on, he wouldn’t have 1500 RBI.

Like Rob, I think Edgar “hasn’t been quite great enough for quite long enough to merit election to the Hall of Fame.” If he is elected, though, he will by no means be a disgrace to the Hall — there are numerous inductees with far, far worse credentials than Edgar Martinez.

5) How about Jamie Moyer? What does he need to do to make the Hall?

Like Edgar Martinez, Moyer blossomed late. On the day he was traded from Boston to Seattle for Darren Bragg, Moyer had a 66-77 career record and a 4.50 ERA. He was 33 years old, and I don’t think anyone could have forseen the next 7 1/2 years of his career. Since coming to Seattle, Moyer has gone 119-55 (.684 winning percentage) with a 3.73 ERA. Look at Moyer compared to Andy Pettitte since 1996:

               W      L     WIN%         IP      ERA
Pettitte     137     69     .665     1617.2     3.92
Moyer        126     56     .692     1621.0     3.77

Basically, right now Jamie Moyer is Andy Pettitte plus 9 years of mediocrity. All told, Moyer has a 185-132 record and a 4.07 career ERA. He’s also got 167 career Win Shares.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Moyer has a 40-40 record left in the tank (he’ll do better, but we’re just arguing here). That would put his record at 225-172 — almost identical to Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Jim Bunning (though also close to Luis Tiant, who isn’t in the Hall). At a time when starters are winning fewer games, 225 career wins might be enough for the Hall.

In terms of Win Shares, tacking on another 40 would give Moyer 207, one more than Catfish Hunter and 13 more than fellow lefty Sandy Koufax, but most pitchers with 207 Win Shares are borderline candidates at best.

Assuming he’s decent for another three years, I think Jamie Moyer is a reasonable Hall of Fame candidate. If he ends up with 240-250 wins — a distinct possibility, considering how he’s pitched the last few years — I will, to borrow from Rob Neyer, put a check mark in the box next to Jamie Moyer with nary a second thought.

One last thing about Jamie Moyer — to reach 250 career wins (and become a clear Hall of Famer), he’ll have to win 65 more games. Moyer is 41 years old this year, and not one left-handed pitcher in history has won that many games from age-41 on. The only two southpaws with more than twenty wins from 41 onward are Warren Spahn (54) and Tommy John (40). In fact, only three righties have as many as 60 victories from age-41 on: Phil Niekro (100!), Jack Quinn (84), and Nolan Ryan (63).

In Closing…

The Mariners didn’t really improve themselves over the offseason, and it is very likely that last year’s holdovers will decline as a group. Where does this leave the M’s? Third place, it seems. That isn’t to say they don’t have a real shot at the postseason: the A’s are as mortal as ever, and Anaheim is starting Darin Erstad (.252/.309/.333 last year) at first base.

Still, Seattle is fighting age, and the extent to which they succeed will be the extent to which their key players can fend off Mother Nature.

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