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2013 Preview: The Case for Contention

The blogosphere lights up with season previews on this day, and why not? It is Opening Day. I ought to continue to knock out this major paper that my future career and livelihood depends on, but I have enough time to say a few words about how the next 162 games will hopefully turn out for the Mariners.

The 2013 Mariners are a bona fide sleeper team. They need a few breaks to contend, but not that many. Allow me to make my case.

There is more wisdom to the old adage "that's why they play the game" than many number-crunchers like to admit. I haven't seen any projection that has the Mariners finishing anywhere else besides fourth place in the AL West, and honestly, I wouldn't trust a statistical prognostication that has them anywhere else. In a statistical world, every variable can be assumed and abstracted to meticulous detail (for instance, Felix Hernandez could theoretically start 31.3 contests with a statistical model of a season; how many of us think he'll actually start 0.3 of some game?) The abstractions serve a purpose - they make models more accurate - but ironically can divorce models from actually nailing anything perfectly. The best way to interpret a projected win total is to think of it as a number somewhere near the middle of the range of most likely outcomes for a team.

The 2013 Mariners are built to be a projector's nightmare. For one thing, the roster could look dramatically different by mid-season. Danny Hultzen might be starting games by then. So might Mike Zunino. Brad Miller and/or Nick Franklin could be contributing. Predictions must account for who is playing where and how often. That's trickier than it sounds for any team, and is just about impossible for the 2013 Mariners with so many highly regarded prospects close to the majors.

Even players on the roster could dramatically alter the team's performance. Justin Smoak's new swing might be working, or it might not. Franklin Gutierrez could be healthy, or not. Jason Bay might rebound from his disappointing Mets years. Dustin Ackley's healthy ankle might allow him to hit much better.

Oh, and what exactly will the we fences at Safeco Field do? There's that factor too.

The 2013 Mariners have more unknowns than the average MLB team, which means any projection for them has a wider variation than most. That means they could be much better than expected, but also much worse too.

Will the Mariners really be much worse than their 75-87 record last year though? I doubt it. They get to play new division rival the Houston Astros this season (who are a safe bet to finish in last place in the AL West, don't be fooled by their 8-2 win over the Rangers last night), which should boost their record even if they aren't actually a better team this season.

Will the Rangers be better than they have been the last three years? They won 93 games last year, and the two years prior made it all the way to the World Series. I expect them to be good again, and better than the Mariners, but no better than what they have been.

Will the Angels be better this year? I doubt that too. They lost Zack Greinke and Torii Hunter in free agency (although Josh Hamilton makes up for Hunter, and then some). Mike Trout is a safe bet to stay amazing, but the chances of him improving are near zero, simply because he was so amazing last season.

Will the Athletics be better this season? They were one of baseball's biggest surprises last season, contending out of nowhere. Maybe they have staying power, maybe they don't. Everything seemed to fall into place for them last season, and that's what an upper-end projection looks like. I consider them a safe bet to regress.

If you think the Mariners can be about a .500 team, and I think they can be, then they will contend. It's that simple.

Cool Standings has the Mariners as a .500 ballclub, with the Angels, A's, and Rangers all above them at a projected 89, 85, and 84 wins, respectively. That puts the Mariners 8 games behind the division winners by the end of the season. That means around 90 games into the season (the All-Star break), the projection expects the Mariners to be 4 to 5 games out of the division lead.

Doesn't 4 to 5 games out going into the trade deadline sound like contention? Especially when guys like Mike Zunino and Danny Hultzen will likely be ready for the call to the majors at that point? Maybe a team above the Mariners runs away with the division, but it will be hard for a team to do that if the Mariners are .500 and the neither the Angels, Rangers, nor A's flop. There are only so many wins to go around in the division. So, if the Mariners are a .500 team and well out of first place, they are likely a third place team.

Don't forget that their are two wild cards now as well. The Mariners could make the playoffs as a third place team. They should stay in the wild card hunt into September if they are a third place team.

Remember, all these scenarios are built off the Mariners being a .500 team. That's not an outlandish goal for a team that had 75 wins last year, acquired some veteran sluggers, and has several younger guys poised to take steps forward.

In all likelihood there is still a gap between the Mariners and AL West contenders, but we don't really know until teams start playing games. One thing is for certain: the season starts tonight, and we start talking less about what should happen, and a little more about what has happened. Here's hoping for an entertaining 2013 out of the Mariners. I like this team's chances to deliver.