Bestest Possible Start

How 'bout them Mariners?! Emphatic 10-3 and 8-3 victories against the Angels, on the road, to begin the season? No room for complaining whatsoever.

The hard part of such a glorious start is gleaning proper meaning and perspective. I find it difficult to go anywhere besides two polar extremes, which are...

  • Finally, it's all come together. This is going to be the season Mariners fans have longed for since 2001!
  • Whatever, it's only 2 games out of 162. The nice start means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Here's my best attempt to sort out what two spectacular games might mean for the M's fortunes going forward.

Even if the two games are total flukes, they are very helpful flukes

The Mariners open the season with 20 games against AL West opponents. That makes these games more important because these are the teams the Mariners directly compete against for a playoff berth. So, the Mariners haven't just won a pair of games; the Angels have also lost a pair of games, and that matters.

Most everyone believed the Mariners were a worse team than the Angels at the start of the season. How much worse is up to interpretation. Baseball Prospectus has them seven wins apart. Beyond the Boxscore had them at a four-win gap. Whatever the true gap in talent actually is, the reality is that the Angels must be two wins better than the Mariners the rest of the way to beat them. That's now a fact. So, already beating the Angels twice has cut into the projected gap between the Mariners and Angels anywhere from about 25-50%. Even if the M's two victories are total flukes, the results are set in stone.

The Angels are considered a contending team, by the way.

Maybe the Angels are bad

Sometimes teams crumble out of nowhere. The Mariners have done that a few times in the past decade. The Blue Jays experienced a cliff dive last season. Both of these first two games were close until the Angels bullpen came in, so it's possible that we are witnessing a bad bullpen more than an emerging offense. The Angels had a questionable bullpen last year and didn't do a whole bunch to improve it in the offseason.

The early offensive explosion is legitimately promising

The Mariners, through two games, are averaging 9 runs a game. Obviously no team can keep up that pace, so there's no doubt that the hitting will cool off to some degree. The question is how much.

The Mariners have had some timely hits (9 runs a game demands timely hits) particularly with 2 outs. Stringing hits together is critical and hard to quantify. It's handled as good luck and/or good fortune to some degree in any theoretical projection or metric gauging a batter's value. The timely hitting won't stay as timely as it's been. In the ebb and flow of baseball there's little doubt this is more of a high point in how the Mariners can look.

However, it's also worth noting that the Mariners are stinging the ball as a team. Yes, the hits have been timely, but the types of hits are worth being excited about. A three-run home run from Smoak on opening night, fallowed by a bases-clearing triple by Dustin Ackley in that same, glorious ninth inning that put away the opener. Then, last night, Brad Miller's second home run was timely, as was a double from Justin Smoak earlier in the game.

What made all these hits timely is that there were so many runners on base to drive in. However, the hits themselves weren't lucky bounces. They were crushing drives. Again, some of the success might be a result of poor pitching, but extra base hits suggest some bona fide offensive skill that will carry throughout the year, especially given how well the team hit in spring training and the surprising number of home runs the Mariners hit last season. The evidence is mounting that the Mariners have a decent offense.*

*One bad stat: the M's have struck out quite a bit in this series too, and strikeouts were an issue last year. The power comes at a cost for this team. So far we've only seen extra base hits in crucial spots and it makes the offense look amazing. There will be quite a few strikeouts in critical spots moving forward and those will be frustrating. I still don't think the Mariners have a good offense, but decent would be a huge improvement from the historically anemic offerings in the not-too-distant past.

A hot start beats a cold start, and it makes it easier to believe that the Mariners might reach the upper end of their potential this season. However, it's worth noting that it's just as likely this series illuminates bad things about the Angels as it does good things about the Mariners. Solid answers won't come for a while, but each good day increases the odds ever so slightly that the Mariners are a good team while also putting pressure on the AL West to be better than the Mariners the rest of the way.

Honest Abe

The Mariners, for all intents and purposes, set their 25-man roster yesterday with the cuts they made. Perhaps you've caught on by now, but I've used spring training to feature particularly interesting players on the team - ranging from relative unknowns (Stefen Romero and Roenis Elias) to knowns that will hopefully take a step forward (Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley). Today I round out the previews with Abraham Almonte.

The Mariners acquired Almonte last year from the Yankees when they traded away Shawn Kelley. It's hard finding much in terms of analysis about the trade because Almonte wasn't considered much beyond depth. He opened up last year in AA, despite being 23 years old, a rather advanced age for AA.

However, thanks to a lack of outfield depth combined with a surprising season at the plate, Almonte surged to AAA and muscled his way into the majors for a look in September which showed some promise. In particular, Abe flashed surprising power last year, blasting 17 home runs combined across AA, AAA, and MLB after his previous season-high in the minors was 8. His walk rate also improved without a loss in batting average. Lloyd McClendon reportedly likes Almonte's power-speed combo, so the spike in home runs is noteworthy.

Still, Abe Almonte, opening day center fielder? He's never been considered a bona fide outfield prospect. McClendon also appears set on making him the leadoff hitter, which further asserts that he's seen as a real piece on the 2014 Mariners. Is Almonte everything McClendon thinks he is?

Let's start with Almonte's defense. There's no way to know how good it is. Here's what is known though: the other options aren't good. Michael Saunders is capable, but below average and better suited for a corner. Ackley also didn't look big-league caliber in his short audition last season. Playing Almonte in center at least allows others to play better fits defensively; so, if Almonte can play center field capably, if not spectacularly, it's a real boost to the ball club. I am not convinced that Almonte is any better in center than Saunders, but why not find out? Nobody should argue that Ackley, Almonte, and Saunders are the M's best defensive outfield, given the other options on the roster.

My biggest bone of contention is with Almonte's hitting. He is not a leadoff hitter, plain and simple. Never has been, likely never will be. His strikeout rate in the minors has hovered in the 16%-20% range - in other words, a whiff roughly once every 5 or 6 trips to the plate. Predictably, that rate spiked a bit in the majors last season. He's likely to strikeout, on average, about once a game, which as a regular puts him on pace for 150-160 strikeouts in the season.

The strikeouts aren't enough of a reason on their own to bump Almonte down in the order but they point to the main issue, and in my humble opinion, the main error in McClendon's thinking. It seems that those in love with Almonte's skill set see a young man who hustles with great speed and surprising pop - basically a guy who will put lots of stress on the defense and stir things up at the top of the order.

Indeed, Almonte has great speed, and it results in both stolen bases and overall above-average base running according to the data available on FanGraphs. However, Almonte's greatest traits are only factors when he puts the ball in play, and he doesn't do that often enough, especially given his marginal power (even with the boost this past season) to be a true impact batter.

I worry that Abe Almonte will be for Lloyd McClendon what Brian Hunter was for Lou Piniella in 1999. Hunter was a gangly gazelle of sorts that the Mariners acquired as their latest, greatest solution in left field. He looked the part of a classic leadoff hitter - not much power but blazing speed. He stole 44 bases that season so he put that speed to good use. It was easy to see him flying around the bases in front of that loaded late '90s murder's row that the Mariners put together.

However, take a closer look, and Hunter was an abysmal lead off hitter in 1999. He sported a .277 OBP, which might explain how he scored only 71 runs with the Mariners despite Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez (all in their primes) batting immediately behind him.

Almonte is a better hitter than Hunter ever was. That's not where I'm going with the comparison. My main point is that it seems McClendon only sees the positives in Almonte. That's the kind of thinking that leads managers to trot the Brian Hunters of the world out in pivotal positions despite crippling flaws.

There are good reasons that scouts have always projected Abe Almonte as outfield depth. He is versatile, with some speed, and even some power, but holes in his swing and only capable but unspectacular defense. The Mariners are thin in center field, to say the least, so it's not surprising that a fringe player like Almonte is about to get regular playing time, particularly after a career year (at least to date). Playing Almonte is not a bad idea, given the available options.

Maybe Almonte is about to break out and become a bona fide starter. However, the odds are against that. Raul Ibanez is the only outfielder I can think of in the past 25 years that emerged as a pleasant surprise from the M's farm system, and he blossomed with the Royals, not the Mariners. The only surprise from Almonte last year was 11 home runs in 396 PCL at-bats - a league that tends to favor hitters, by the way. That power surge, especially in such a short span in a hitter's league, shouldn't overwrite years of data and scouting reports, at least not yet.

Overall, Almonte's skills still scream outfield depth much more than leadoff center fielder. Maybe he is more, but expecting it isn't a smart gamble.

Dustin Ackley 2.0 Reloaded With a Vengeance

Dustin Ackley, looking like a good hitter
Lloyd McClendon anointed Dustin Ackley the starting left fielder in spring training and Ackley has done nothing in camp to relinquish the spot. McClendon's announcement was a minor surprise at the time, given the M's seemed to acquire corner outfielders (or at least definitely not center fielders) in Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, and Ackley played center field last year after getting moved off of second base.

Ackley is one of the more interesting pieces to the Mariners 2014 puzzle now, especially given a sizzling spring training where he has sprayed hard line drives into the outfield gaps with a regularity unseen since his rookie campaign. What might he be as the Mariners regular left fielder? Can he be more than a spring training mirage?

I think so. There are reasons to believe that this is the year Dustin Ackley finds a home in the majors.

Let's start with Ackley's big spring training. Neil Payne at the re-launched FiveThirtyEight investigated spring training stats and found that they do have some predictive power. Payne's model suggests that especially hot (and icy) spring trainings warrant updated projections. He identified a handful of players at the extremes this year, and Ackley falls in the "extremely hot" category.*

*Along with Brad Miller. Crazy legs could be very good this year. Enjoy saying you knew how good he was before everyone else finds out.

Payne uses Marcel projections for a player's offensive output, which put Ackley at a .316 wOBA (below average). His spring puts him at a projected .323 wOBA (almost average).

Hitting isn't the whole story though. There's also Ackley's base running and defense. He routinely grades out as an above average baserunner (2.0-ish BsR per year), and in limited left field action last year looked bad statistically (-10.3 UZR/150). So, I went looking for a 2013 left fielder with about a .323 wOBA, 2.0 BsR, and -10.3 UZR/150 to see how valuable he was.

The best I came up with was Michael Brantley, who strikes me as a decent comparison beyond statistics. Like Ackley he has marginal power with good speed. Brantley had a .320 wOBA last season with 3.1 BsR and -10.8 UZR/150. That amounted to 1.7 WAR. Roughly 2.0 WAR is considered an average everyday player by rule of thumb.

So, given Ackley might hit just a bit better than Brantley but run a level below him on the base paths, with roughly the same defense, I'd pencil him in for a projected 1-1.5 WAR. That would make Ackley a below average left fielder but at least a contributor.

However, a 1 WAR left fielder would be a real victory for the Mariners. Neither Raul Ibanez nor Jason Bay ran a positive WAR in the outfield last year, despite all their combined home runs. Moreover, Casper Wells is the only Mariner since 2009 to log any time in left field and post a WAR over 1.0 (he got up to 1.2 in 2012, though split time in center and right too).

There's also the matter of Ackley's -10 UZR defense. It's based off of only 81 innings in left field - literally only 9 full games worth. It's worth remembering these are games Ackley played in left field after practicing second base full time for the better part of four years. Even with little practice and a sudden change in mid-season, Inside Range metrics suggest Ackley made the expected plays in left field at a 95% rate and never faced the sort of marginal ball which could have been used to show where his range compares to other left fielders. So really, it's arguably more accurate to say Ackley's left field defense is an unknown.

Left field profiles well for Ackley's skill set, especially in Safeco Field. He has the speed to cover left field's ground in Safeco and he won't face the long throws that would be demanded of his below-average arm in center and right field. The only matter for turning his speed into good outfield defense is developing his ability to read fly balls and take direct routes to where they land. That's probably a matter of work more than anything else, and Ackley worked himself into an above average second basemen from scratch once he was drafted. Ackley was an outfielder and first basemen at North Carolina. He could be a decent left fielder and beat the below-average projection I used. Even if he ends up at 0 UZR that would add 1 WAR to his projected total.

Coming up with Ackley's projected 1-1.5 WAR is the result of forecasts built on top of forecasts. That means there is a large margin for error, especially in a sport already as variable as baseball. However, it's safe to say that more theoretical outcomes end up with Ackley being a positive contributor than not, and at a position where the Mariners haven't had a regular contributor for quite some time.

Also, if Ackley's scouting reports and production as a prospect are still worth something, then it seems his spring training is more a return to what he should be than some inexplicable leap forward. His athletic talent and work ethic suggest that he could be a decent defender in left field too. Projecting 1-1.5 WAR might be conservative for Ackley, and something closer to league average, or maybe even above, is a real possibility.

Forever Young

Chris Young
The Mariners signed RHP Chris Young to an MLB deal this morning, meaning the Mariners finally signed a starting pitcher! He likely thrusts either Blake Beavan or Roenis Elias out of a rotation spot (odds are it will be Beavan). The Mariners made room on the roster by designating LHP Bobby LaFramboise for assignment.

First, a note on LaFramboise. He's a side-arming lefty reliever who has been very productive in AAA the past two seasons. He got a quick look from the M's last year and in 10 innings gave up quite a few runs. However, he also struck out over a batter an inning without many walks. He's a capable bullpen arm and I'll be very surprised if he sneaks through waivers. Somebody will claim him, and he might even get some legitimate big league time depending on who claims him. Hector Noesi seemed like a more logical DFA candidate, given that he is out of options, seems to fit the role that Chris Young will now fill, and has struggled more than LaFramboise the last two seasons. I won't get up in arms yet though; it seems likely that there will be more casualties to get non-roster guys on the roster.

Young got cut loose by the Nationals just days ago so he wasn't an option when the Mariners signed (and cut loose) veterans like Scott Baker and Randy Wolf. Young is more interesting than either Baker or Wolf, and he just might be better too.

The first thing that stands out about Young is him standing - literally. He is 6'10", the same height as Randy Johnson. The height likely makes him more True to the Blue than either Baker or Wolf, both of whom are diminutive in comparison. That's about all that Young and the Big Unit have in common though.

Young is now tower of power on the mound. His fastball topped out in the low 90s when he cracked the majors back in 2007, and averaged a stunningly low 84.6 miles an hour in 2012. He didn't pitch at all in the majors in 2013 thanks to major shoulder problems. Furthermore, Young combines his soft pitches with extreme fly ball tendencies - so extreme, in fact, that he has a lower ground ball percentage than any other pitcher in the past decade.

Ladies and gentleman, your fifth starter! A 6'10" monolith to fly balls, finesse pitching, and shoulder problems. In all honesty I make this move sound worse than it probably is, though it is every bit as absurd as I make it sound.

Chris Young's injury history the past four seasons very strongly suggests that he will break down at some point this season. That's probably okay though. What the Mariners really need to know is that he can make it through April, and since he's healthy right now that's not a bad bet to make.

Also, velocity has never been a big part of Chris Young's game. That 85-mph heater in 2012 was good for a 4.15 ERA and 0.9 WAR over 115 innings with the Mets. Moreover, his only bad season was an injury-marred 2009 campaign (other than the missing seasons he has accumulated with injuries.) There are reasons to believe that the Mariners will get some solid starts out of Chris Young until he inevitably gets hurt.

In the end I wonder what makes Chris Young more desirable than Scott Baker or Randy Wolf. I will say that Young performed better in Nationals camp than Baker did with the Mariners. He's had a year off like Wolf, but was more productive before his injury than Wolf was with his, and Young's shoulder woes are arguably less impactful than Wolf's Tommy John surgery. However, it's worth noting that Chris Young got an MLB deal from the Mariners, which is a much higher commitment than the non-roster deals both Baker and Wolf signed.

Chris Young is a Mariners starting pitcher as of today. That's probably a good thing despite the odd, twisting path that got Young and the Mariners to this point. There is a good chance he pitches better than Beavan, Wolf, or Baker would have. I don't understand how the Mariners justify giving him the money they wouldn't hand Randy Wolf, but whatever. The Mariners added a starting pitcher today instead of dropping one and that's a positive development.

Mariners Payroll Actually Expanded

As I came to grips with the bizarre Randy Wolf news last night, I quoted that the Mariners payroll was around $74 million, which would be about $10 million less than last season. Then this morning the Associated Press estimated it at $92 million, which would be about $8 million more than last season. The gap begs investigation.

First of all, upon closer inspection, my $74 million estimate is way too low. I made some mistakes. I used the 2014-2019 payroll commitments at Cot's Baseball contracts, and at the bottom of the 2014 column you will find the number $73,994,643. That's the number I used. However, I realized this morning that total does not include Fernando Rodney's salary, even though he is listed in the Mariners payroll commitments. Including Rodney's salary brings the projection up to $81 million.

Additionally, payroll commitments are slightly different than the payroll. Players under team control who haven't reached arbitration are not included in the Cot's payroll commitments. All of these players earn $500,000 essentially. The Mariners have 13 players with payroll commitments so they would need 12 players making minimum salary to round out a 25-man roster. That adds another $6 million to the overall payroll, bringing the estimate up to $87 million. I should have quoted this figure, not $74 million, to begin with. My apologies.

The AP payroll estimate also includes their estimates for player salaries. I took all the Mariners they listed and added them up. The total came to $88.6 million, though it is worth noting their projection includes 29 players. Removing 4 minimum-salary players saves $2 million, which brings the M's estimated payroll to $86.6 million, which is essentially the same number I got from Cot's contract data.

Still, even with $88.6 million in player salaries, the AP estimates that the Mariners have $92 million in payroll commitments. That's a gap of $3.4 million. The article (linked to above) warns that "cash transactions and buyouts are reflected in the team payroll figures, so they will differ from the sums of player salaries," and these anonymous expenses must be what drives the gap.

Where did that money go though? The Mariners finally shed all their dead weight in salaries. Chone Figgins and his $9 million annual salary was still on the books last year. Things like that would contribute to payroll.

I've only got two guesses. Joe Saunders had a mutual option that was declined at the start of free agency. Perhaps there was a buyout included in that option. Terms of the mutual option were never public. This happened at the start of free agency and was for a 2014 contract year so perhaps the AP calculating system includes some money attached to this transaction. In addition, perhaps Franklin Gutierrez still earned some money one way or another, even though he is on the restricted list and will not earn any money during the 2014 season. These are the best ideas I can come up with.

The AP estimate still seems a bit high to me because it assumes 30 players on the active roster the entire season. Players on the DL collect salary but it seems a bit extreme to assume 5 players will be on the DL the whole season.* However, at the end of the day, arguing over DL spots is splitting hairs. Maybe it's the difference between $91 million and $92 million.

*although maybe not since it looks like the Mariners will open up the season with 5 players on the DL (Danny Hultzen, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer, Stephen Pryor)

In the end the Mariners actually expanded their payroll with Robinson Cano - or maybe they expanded it for Fernando Rodney. The payroll increase over last year is almost exactly the value of his salary, and he was the last player they signed to an MLB deal. The Mariners really wanted that magic plantain of his. Maybe it's true to the blue.