The baseball offseason is underway, with the Mariners already making a few roster moves in the last couple of days. Gone are David Aardsma, Luis Rodriguez, and Jeff Gray, at least temporarily. While Gray was claimed off waivers, Aardsma and Rodriguez were released, so there’s a chance that either or both could be back. With Aardsma rehabbing until at least midsummer, neither would be a huge loss.
Last offseason was surprising in its predictability. I remember writing early on that there seemed to be a number of obvious moves. The team had a lot of holes, and it seemed the best move was to upgrade each spot as much as possible. I never expected Jack Zduriencik to do exactly that. Usually the offseason brings surprises. No one expected Cliff Lee to become a Mariner two years ago. No one expected Vernon Wells to become an Angel last year. Those are two extreme examples at opposite ends of the spectrum, but offseason moves are generally more unexpected than not. Teams have so much more knowledge than fans do, about both themselves and players. We don’t even know what the Mariner payroll will be for next year. We can make guesses, but for all we know they might raise it to $125 million to sign Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes. Not likely, but we just don’t know.
Still, it’s clear what the Mariners need to do: improve considerably, especially on offense. Dave Cameron outlined how far they have to go here, and the task is daunting. Boiled down, Cameron says that the Mariners need to improve by about 25 wins above replacement to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. If that statistic is new to you, wins above replacement (WAR) attempts to quantify all aspects of performance together to show how many wins that player contributes to the team in a season. The name comes from the idea that the baseline (replacement) refers to a player who could be easily acquired at any time, a mediocre prospect at Triple-A, for example. I have some problems with the particulars of WAR, particularly with how it measures defense and that I think the replacement player is a bit of a myth, but overall it’s a very good measure and is especially useful for this type of discussion.
Anyway, Dustin Ackley led the Mariners with 2.7 offensive WAR last season (here’s the whole team, but be prepared, it’s ugly). 2.7 is a solid season, but not great. 4-5 WAR is a very good year, much higher than that and you’re probably in MVP discussions. 25 WAR is a huge amount to add in one offseason. Cameron makes the argument that the Mariners need to avoid using all of their available payroll on one player (Prince Fielder) and instead spread the money around to upgrade multiple positions. In theory, this makes total sense. In reality, I see no way that approach gets them any closer to 25 WAR than going for one big name (Seattle Sports Insider had a series of excellent posts on the subject). 25 WAR is just too much to address in one offseason.
So where does that leave the Mariners? It’s not hopeless. What’s clear is that, whatever direction they go in adding players, they will be relying heavily on drastic improvement from what they already have. Maybe they scrounge up 15 WAR in trades and free agency. That would actually be pretty phenomenal, but it still leaves them a ways away from the number they need. But then suppose that Ackley takes a step forward, and Ichiro rebounds to his old self, and Smoak finally has something go right, and one of the young outfielders puts it together. Suddenly, a winning season and playoff contention doesn’t look crazy.
It’s a lot to hope for, but it’s not impossible. The Mariners have a lot to do, but they have options on how they get there. More importantly, for the first time in a while, they have young players who should get better. It might be a ways off, but the future is looking brighter.
Next up: A positional breakdown before the free agency frenzy.