Five Questions: Seattle Mariners

How painful were the Mariners to watch last year? Miguel Olivo was replaced by Pat Borders and it actually constituted an improvement. A full 80% of the starting rotation posted an ERA north of 5.00 while pitching in the cavernous Safeco Field. The opening day middle infield was designated for assignment before the All Star break, and the team’s number one catcher was given away for a player who was subsequently released. Adrian Beltre celebrated his massive new contract with the worst year of his career. The team was so bereft of power that Ichiro finished second on the roster in slugging percentage.

So you’ll understand why everyone-and their mother-is picking the 2006 Seattle Mariners to bring up the rear in the American League West. Thankfully, I am no one’s mother, and I have enough questions about the team to not proclaim this horse dead before the gun sounds.

1. Can the difference in talent between Aaron Sele and Felix Hernandez be measured by human tools?

This would be an unequivocal no. In the last of his 21 starts before he was mercifully released, Aaron Sele threw a “fastball” that still hasn’t crossed home plate. On the 20-80 scouting scale, his velocity ranks as a 15. The Mariners got 116 innings out of Sele, but if they had kept the receipt, they’d have every right to demand a refund, or at least a store credit to Washed Up Pitchers R Us.

Now, Sele has followed my brother to Los Angeles, apparently as retribution for some terrible crime he committed in a prior life. Sorry about that, Jeremy, as well my condolences to the Dodger fans who now have to endure Sele’s attempts to keep baseball’s grim reaper at bay. Replacing Sele in the rotation is a kid you may have heard something about; Felix Hernandez, or, by his proper title, King Felix.

Sele was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. Hernandez, at age 19, is already one of the best. If you took Brandon Webb’s groundball dominance, Johan Santana’s strikeout rate, and mixed it with Bartolo Colon’s conditioning program, you’d have a pretty close approximation to El Cartuela, which we can’t translate because this is a family site and there might be kids with the protractors and scientific calculators readings.

I could put up detailed analysis of Felix’s dominance or spend a few thousand words on his brilliance in trying to describe to you the wonder of watching Felix Hernandez pitch, but like every great thing on earth, you have to experience it to understand. So when you wake up and hear the peasants proclaiming “Happy Felix Day!” in the streets, make a date to experience King Felix.

And, Dodger fans, seriously, sorry about Aaron Sele. Good luck with that, though.

2. Is Kenji Johjima any good?

Yes. The last three seasons in Japan, he averaged .325 with 30 home runs and had more walks than strikeouts in each season. Despite the noticeable flop of Kazuo Matsui, Japanese hitters have fared well when crossing the Pacific, and Johjima has a skill set that works in any park. He’s unlikely to repeat the numbers he posted overseas, but that is more due to being a 29-year-old catcher with 1100 major league games under his belt and less so an effect of the transition to Major League Baseball.

My gut feeling is that he’s going to hit something like .270/.330/.440, which doesn’t sound very impressive until you realize the context it will come in. For a catcher playing half his games in Safeco Field, that’s a near All Star performance.

So how much will having Johjima help the Mariners? It might be the largest upgrade any team made at an everyday position this off-season. The Mariners gave 563 plate appearances to seven bad baseball players last year, and for that seasons worth of playing time, they got 35 Runs Created, or a grand total of 2.46 RC/G. For comparison’s sake, Tony Womack posted a 3.0 RC/G last year, so the M’s catchers were the offensive equivalent of the worst player in baseball. In a slump.

Even if Johjima falls on his face and struggles mightily, there’s no chance he can repeat the pure putridity of the Miguel Olivo and Pat Borders led Gang of Awfulness. They left behind some really tiny shoes to fill.

3. Jarrod Washburn—$37.5 million dollars. Really?

Behold the power of Earned Run Average. Washburn’s 3.20 ERA ranked him 4th in the American League last year, and since he kept runs off the board, the Mariners rewarded him like the front line starter he is not. His peripheral numbers continued to dwindle, and the difference between his ERA and his FIP was the highest in baseball. His xFIP, or expected ERA, essentially, was 5.01, almost two full runs higher than his actual ERA.

Why? He stranded a whole lot of runners. He stranded 81.8% of the runners he put on base and led the league in working-out-of-jams. Unfortunately for Mariner fans, he has no history of this kind of runner-stranding dominance, and it’s almost certainly a skill he won’t be able to repeat over the next four years of his contract. I identified Washburn early in the off-season as the number one free agent landmine, so—of course—the Mariners flipped me the bird and signed him anyway.

It was a bad deal from the moment the ink dried, and I cringe thinking about the team paying Washburn nearly $10 million dollars in 2009. But this is a 2006 season preview, and the most relevant question here is just how effective might he be in his next 35 starts. The answer might surprise you.

Jarrod Washburn is a fly ball pitcher. Thanks to Studes work on park factors in the 2006 Hardball Times Annual, we know that Safeco Field turns fly balls into fly outs with more regularity than just about any park on earth. If there’s a place for a fly ball pitcher to succeed, it’s Seattle. Just ask Ryan Franklin, Jamie Moyer, Julio Mateo, or Eddie Guardado. The Mariners have had significant success turning guys with average stuff who allow a ton of fly balls into useful pitchers by showing them the cavern in left center field and telling them to throw it over the heart of the plate.

Washburn might not be a very good pitcher, and the fact that Bill Stoneman admits to openly chuckling when Washburn requested a contract extension shouldn’t make Mariners fans feel very good about the disaster that is his contract, but don’t let the fact that he’s wildly overpaid blind you to the fact that he is now in the best environment possible for him to succeed. The Mariners and Jarrod Washburn are a match made in heaven. That is, if heaven had a really, really expensive entry fee.

4. Isn’t Adrian Beltre the biggest free agent bust in recent history?

That would be a resounding no. While running the risk of having my sabermetric analyst card revoked, I will still contend that there is a great chance that at the end of this contract, the Mariners will have gotten the better end of the deal.

Beltre had a bad 2005 season. So did Eric Chavez and Hank Blalock. It was not a good season for third basemen in the American League West. But interestingly enough, you don’t see too many eulogies for the careers of Chavez and Blalock, and rightfully so. The same goes for Adrian Beltre. The rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Clearly, Adrian Beltre’s 2004 season was a career year, a perfect storm of his talent and good fortune meeting to create a season far beyond any possible expectations. Add in the fact that it was his free agent year and people naturally expected a huge regression to the mean.

Beltre regressed far beyond any reasonable mean performance, however. He had the worst year of his career at age 26. Regression to the mean does not predict a collapse to the lowest point of a player’s previously established performance, but that’s what the Mariners got out of their star free agent signing.

So what is Adrian Beltre? He’s pretty obviously not the guy who hit .334 and led the majors in home runs in 2004, but he’s also not the guy who looked like an honors student from the Pedro Cerrano School of Hitting last year. He is a guy with terrific raw power that is undercut by issues with pitch recognition and a poor approach at the plate. Interestingly, however, players of that skill set tend to improve their deficiencies before their power wanes and often improve later in their careers.
Aramis Ramirez stands out as the most obvious current comparison for Beltre. His 2001 season jumps off the page as a fluke just as Beltre’s 2004 season does, but he’s settled into an All Star caliber player in his age 26 and 27 seasons. I’m not projecting Beltre to hit like Ramirez next year, but we have to acknowledge the fact that it’s more than a remote possibility. It’s more likely, in fact, that he hits like the 2005 Aramis Ramirez than it is that he repeats the performance of 2005 Adrian Beltre.

5. Okay, fine, they’re better. But how much can they improve in one season, really?

I’m glad you asked. While common baseball wisdom tells us to look at a team’s previous record, tweak it a bit for free agent additions and subtractions, and call that a prediction for the new year, history rebukes those efforts as folly. Every single year, one or more teams make huge leaps forward and contend for a playoff spot:

2005: Chicago White Sox (+16 wins), Cleveland (+13)
2004: St. Louis (+20), Texas (+18), Anaheim (+15), San Diego (+13)
2003: Kansas City (+21), Florida (+12), Chicago Cubs (+11)
2002: Anaheim (+24), Atlanta (+13), Boston (+11)
2001: Seattle (+25), Chicago Cubs (+23), Houston (+21), Philadelphia (+21), Minnesota (+16), Oakland (+11)
2000: Chicago White Sox (+20), St Louis (+20), Seattle (+12), San Francisco (+11)

It isn’t rare at all to see a team “come from nowhere” to make a strong push for the playoffs. It’s actually so common, you have to expect it. Teams who underperformed the previous year, have significant young talent, and got career years from a key player or two entering their prime often blow the common wisdom out of the water and remind everyone that improvement does not have to come in small, incremental steps.

There isn’t a team in baseball better poised to make that leap this year than the Mariners. They have young players with solid track records or established stars at every position on the diamond besides left field and a pitching staff that will be anchored by the best young arm to enter the major leagues in a couple of decades.

This isn’t to say that the Mariners should be considered favorites in a tough American League West. Clearly, Oakland, Anaheim, and Texas can all claim their own strengths and provide solid cases for why they are better than the Mariners. However, the Mariners have significant talent at key positions and have all the earmarks of a team that could surprise a lot of experts.

And, if I’m totally wrong and the team stinks, it’s okay, because we still have King Felix and you don’t.

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