So here's my crack at gaining 15 wins, listed out for easy reference:
- Really, the Mariners need 10 wins...or maybe 20: According to baseball-reference, the 2013 Mariners were expected to win 67 games. Fangraphs expected 75. Baseball-reference leans more on run differential, while FanGraphs is more about WAR, but the bigger idea here is that different methods yield significantly different results. The reality is that the Mariners, if they are an 86-win team in theory, will be an 80-90 win team in reality. The spread might be even wider. The variance is worth keeping the back of our heads as we go through this exercise.
- The Mariners probably need closer to 18 wins, after accounting for lost free agents: Only Kendry Morales and Joe Saunders hit free agency. They combined for 1.8 WAR, or in other words, about 2 victories. If you thrown Aaron Harang's 0.6 WAR, that brings the tally up to 2.4. That ups the goal to 17 or 18 wins, give or take 10 because that's how crazy and beautiful baseball is.
- Win #1: Mike Zunino - Zunino was worth 0 WAR in 52 games last season. However, the seven catchers the M's used last year combined for -0.1 WAR overall. Any sort of development from Zunino will make the M's better than last year. He has no sort of shoes to fill.
- Wins #2 and 3: Nick Franklin - I'm putting quite a bit of faith in Franklin here. He was worth 0.4 in roughly half a season. He clearly had holes in his swing that MLB pitchers exploited. However, Franklin is young and has done a great job of improving at every level. I'm betting that he figures out a few things in the next year. I'm also betting that he'll take away a few of the at-bats given to Robert Andino and Carlos Triunfel last year, who combined for a -0.9 WAR last season.
- Wins #4 and 5: Brad Miller - Miller ended up being the second most productive offensive player on the M's, behind Kyle Seager...despite playing in only 76 games. That says something about Miller, and something about the Mariners offense. A full year of Miller's offense (replacing Brendan Ryan's -0.7 WAR first half) could go a long, long way.
- Wins #6 and 7: Abraham Almonte - I know you're thinking I'm some fanboy all about Almonte, but hear me out. Jason Bay, Michael Morse, and Endy Chavez combined for -2.7 WAR in 822 at-bats. I'm penciling Almonte in as a 0 WAR player in a part-time role, and given the M's outfield production last year, that's worth 2 wins right there. That also leaves at-bats for me to spend on a talent upgrade (more on that later).
- Win #8: Taijuan Walker - Walker could explode on the scene, a la Michael Pineda a few years back, but I'll go conservative with him. He's a young gun with an explosive fastball and inconsistent curveball. That doesn't spell instant stardom to me, but it does spell some production beyond his 0.5 WAR from this past September.
- Win #9: James Paxton - See above.
- Win #10: Erasmo Ramirez - I'm a believer in Ramirez. I don't see a star, but I think he will be a steady performer at some point in the near future. I have no qualms with him at the back end of the rotation. I'm actually even willing to go to spring training with the current starting pitching in tact, thanks in large part to Iwakuma's emergence. The back end will be very green and inexperienced, but it has some real nice upside.
- Win #11: Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps, Carson Smith, and Dominic Leone - Danny Farquhar was worth an absurd 1.9 WAR out of the M's bullpen last year. I think that will sink. However, overall, the quartet of arms I just listed seem poised to take steps forward and usurp the 0 WAR arms that have hung around the M's bullpen. As long as the M's (Lloyd McClendon?) doesn't fall in love with someone irrationally, I think the cream will rise to the top and the M's will have themselves a decent little bullpen one way or another.
So, the good news is that over half the M's improvement can realistically come from within...but I also listed 11 different players that I'm counting on for decent production. Still, in most cases I'm counting on the young guns to mostly replace the massive negative WAR that the M's roster sludge is way too good at accumulating. Seriously, the Mariners negative WAR players totaled -7.5 WAR. That's 7 to 8 victories if the M's can just find ways to replace those innings with guys that are considered replacement level! That's not asking for much.
Now comes the interesting part. I would be looking for 7 WAR on the free agent market, and I left 2.5 spots on the roster to find it: left field, right field, and designated hitter*.
*I'm penciling in Dustin Ackley for some sort of consistent time in the outfield.
7 WAR would be pretty tough to get if it had to come from only one spot...but when it's up to 2.5 players with upwards of $50 million to spend, that's not so bad. Here's my methods:
- Dream Scenario: Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo, combined with practically anyone else - I'm scared of the contract lengths for both of these aging outfielders, but they are the best bets on the free agent market this side of Robinson Cano to be worth 5.0 WAR or more. Ellsbury is the best fit, not because of his local ties, but because he's got the kind of speed and defense to cover a still-expansive Safeco Field. Choo would be passable in a corner though, particularly after watching Raul Ibanez and Mike Morse lumber around for too much of 2013. This is an ideal scenario though; I'm not convinced a high-profile free agent will sign with the Mariners. Either of them would leave the M's looking for 1-2 WAR from 2 remaining free agent hitters. They might even be able to find that in the right non-roster invitee.
- More realistic scenario: Curtis Granderson, Corey Hart, and Chris Young - Granderson missed half the season with injuries, unlike Ellsbury, Choo, and Carlos Beltran. He might be lower on teams' radars because of that, and the Mariners have the money to get him. Corey Hart missed all of 2013, but had a pretty powerful bat before his injury. He's a candidate to bounce back, and I would pencil him in as a DH with occasional starts at first base and right field. Chris Young got buried on the A's bench, and had a pretty bad year. However, before last year, he graded out as a well above-average defender in center field with a little pop. At 30 years old, he might be a candidate to bounce back. Young is also much better against righties than lefties, which makes him a nice platoon candidate with Dustin Ackley. I don't think this free agent trio is worth 7 wins, unfortunately, but 5 might not be out of the question.
- Wildcard scenario: Andre Ethier and Jesus Montero - Ethier does just fine against righties, Montero against lefties. They platoon at DH, with Ethier spelling folks occasionally in the outfield, and Montero playing (very) sparingly at first base. Not an ideal roster construction, but it might be worth 3-4 wins. Sign Curtis Granderson, or ideally Choo or Ellsbury, and the magical 7-8 WAR total is in sight.
- One more move: Ryan Hanigan - The Reds just signed Brayan Pena, which seems to indicate there is an odd man out behind the plate in Cincy. Hanigan would make sense, he of a .198 batting average. However, Hanigan grades out as an above-average defender and seemed to have some bad luck last year. He's a catcher with some patience. I see a bit of John Jaso in him, except with real defense behind the plate. He might supplant Zunino, and I'm okay with that if that happens. He would likely cost a real prospect, though not a top-flight one. I would dangle John Hicks and a bullpen piece, maybe even an MLB piece like Tom Wilhelmsen. No idea if that's enough to get Hanigan, but worth a shot.
If you are a fan of projected rosters, here is what my theoretical team looks like, using the "more realistic" scenario in free agency:
- Brad Miller, SS
- Kyle Seager, 3B
- Curtis Granderson, RF
- Corey Hart, DH
- Justin Smoak, 1B
- Chris Young, CF
- Michael Saunders, LF
- Mike Zunino, C
- Nick Franklin, 2B
- Dustin Ackley, OF
- Abe Almonte, OF
- Ryan Hanigan, C
- Alexi Casilla, INF
- Felix Hernandez
- Hisashi Iwakuma
- Erasmo Ramirez
- James Paxton
- Taijuan Walker
- Yoervis Medina
- Tom Wilhelmsen/Carson Smith/Dominic Leone
- Carter Capps
- Oliver Perez
- Stephen Pryor
- Charlie Furbush
- Danny Farquhar
It's hard to pencil out a playoff team in 2014, but it's not as hard as 71 wins might suggest to pencil out a decent team. A decent team has a chance to hang in contention for a while. Once in a blue moon a decent team pops out a shocking season too, and squeezes into the playoffs. No matter how juicy the M's offseason moves end up being, the M's success in 2014 mostly rests in the hands of the young talent already on the roster. That's the best and worst news the M's have. It gives them potential, both for better and for worse. I think the odds are that it will work out for the better though. The question is how much better.