Honestly, how close are the Mariners to contention?
The more I thought about game fives, the more I thought about what makes them special, and perhaps illuminating with the correct data. Winner-take-all games foster the purist winning strategies. Neither team plays for tomorrow. They must put their absolute best lineup on the field that day, and every move is made for the sole purpose of winning the current ballgame. This is a rarity in baseball, where managing the daily grind is often as big of a deal as managing the current game at hand.
This year provided a chance to look at four game five winners. A total of 57 players were used by the four winners, for an average of 14.25 players per team. Starters account for 9.5 of those (one league has the DH, the other doesn't), and the remaining 4.75 players are roughly a 50/50 split between a team's bench and bullpen.
The following graph is a look at these 57 players' career trajectories, from the first season they appeared as a professional to today. Seasons where a player split time at multiple levels were counted to the level they spent the most time at (judged by plate appearances for position players and innings pitched for pitchers):
The overall trends are interesting to think about. The heights of the bars flatten around 2009, suggesting that nearly everyone who played for the division series winners in game 5 was drafted/signed and playing in the minor leagues by that season. Furthermore, by 2008, over half of the game 5 winners were already in the major leagues. Big takeaway: it really does take some time to build a winning ballclub.
Let's take a closer look at the 2011 data, because this tells us where players were for the ALCS and NLCS teams last season, the season before they made the championship series. What we find is that 43 out of 57 players (75%) were in the majors, 9 (16%) were in AAA, and 4 (7%) in AA or lower. One player (Adam Wainwright) did not play at all due to injury.*
*He probably shouldn't have played in game five for the Cardinals either, based on the results.
The percentages suggest that, for the 2013 Mariners to have the same complexion as the current quartet in the championship series, their top 14 players should consist of 10-11 players that were in the majors in 2012, 2 players that were in AAA in 2012, and 1-2 players from lower in the minors.
In my estimation, here are those 14 players for the Mariners right now (players with an asterisk have been in the majors since 2009):
- Felix Hernandez (SP) - MLB*
- Jesus Montero (DH) - MLB
- John Jaso (C) - MLB
- Justin Smoak (1B) - MLB
- Dustin Ackley (2B) - MLB
- Brendan Ryan (SS) - MLB*
- Kyle Seager (3B) - MLB
- Michael Saunders (LF) - MLB
- Franklin Gutierrez (CF) - MLB*
- Eric Thames (RF) - MLB
- Tom Wilhelmsen (RP) - MLB
- Carter Capps (RP) - AA
- Casper Wells (BN) - MLB
- Mike Carp (BN) - MLB
That would be 13 MLB players and 1 from AA. Furthermore, only 3 players have been in the majors since 2009, and a contender (based on this year's final four) would likely have 10 players with at least that much experience. The Mariners, particularly when compared to contenders, are incredibly inexperienced.
Really, this isn't the kind of study that suggests how to construct a roster. The Mariners should not go out and ditch MLB players for minor league ones to hit some magical quota. They also should not sign a bunch of older MLB players to meet some quota.
My bigger point is that it takes the right mix of star power, veterans, and unproven talent to make a deep run in the postseason. The attention will be on trades and/or free agent acquisitions of bigger name hitters (hopefully), and those need to happen. However, even among MLB's current final four, a handful of unsung heroes came up from the minor leagues. These players did not just idly sit on the bench either. They logged time in their respective game fives, the most critical game of each of these teams' seasons.
The 14 players I listed would not be the 14 Mariners that appear in a hypothetical game five next year in the playoffs. Veterans will be acquired. It is also likely that a pair of Rainiers - guys like Alex Liddi, Vinnie Catricala, Nick Franklin, Carlos Peguero, Carlos Triunfel, or maybe even veterans like Darren Ford and Luis Rodriguez, would step up and play a role on a hypothetical 2013 M's contender.
Just some food for thought, perhaps as you dream of what a Mariners ALCS would look like.