(Ryan Langerhans is congratulated by Brendan Ryan after his home run in Oakland Sunday. Photo by Getty Images.)
Judging by the pre-season prognasticators, the Mariners are the biggest lock in the American League. And not in a good way: They are a virtual unanimous pick to finish last in the AL West.
No other place in the standings inspires such consensus. At the top of the AL West, you’ll find pockets of support for both Oakland and Texas. Most people think Boston is going to win AL East, but the Yankees are being chosen here and there. And while most forecasters see the Orioles finishing last, their late surge under Buck Showalter convinced some to place Toronto at the bottom. In the AL Central, Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago are all getting some support to finish first. And you’ll find some people picking Kansas City for last, others Cleveland.
But after perusing the web last week at the outset of the season, when every baseball site unveiled their season forecasts, I was struck by the absolute certainty that the Mariners would finish last in the AL West. Struck by morbid curiosity, I set off on a mission: Find someone, anyone, who had the Mariners finishing out of last place.
Not at the Seattle Times. All of us — myself, Geoff Baker, Steve Kelley, Jerry Brewer and editor Bill Reader — picked the M’s last in our baseball preview issue. Not at CBS Sportsline. All eight of their experts had the Mariners last. So did the three gurus at Yahoo, and all 10 at a site called The Yankees Analysts. I bore down on my search, heading off the beaten track, and found more of the same. The M’s were picked last by Disciples of Uecker, by Jeff Pearlman.com, by The American Spectator, by tstarr17 on YouTube, by Brewed Sports, by Midwest Sports Fans, by CBS St. Louis, by Matthew Trent of “Matt’s Perspective,” by Hamster Wheel Sports (Slogan: “Ruffling the Woodchips of Today’s Sports World”), by American Daily, by Southside Sox.
I had pretty much despaired of finding the M’s selected anywhere but in last place when I finally clicked on The Hardball Times– an excellent repository of baseball analysis and insight — and viewed their staff selections. Lo and behold, three of their 22 staffers had the Mariners finishing…drum roll…third. In each case, they had the Angels last.
I dashed off an email to all three — David Gassko, Max Marchi and Dave Studeman — to ask the thought process that led them to see Mariner optimism where no one else did. All three were gracious enough to answer with well-reasoned arguments, which I present here, with their knowledge:
David Gassko (described on the site as a former consultant to a major-league team):
“I think the Mariners and Angels are pretty close in terms of talent. The Mariners won’t hit as badly as they did last season, and while their offense will still be one of the worst in baseball, so will the Angels’. LA only scored 681 runs last year, and while it will help to have Kendry Morales back, that is likely to be balanced out by substituting a full season of Jeff Mathis for Mike Napoli. Overall, I don’t think they’re going to hit any better than they did last year.
In terms of fielding, the Angels have definitely improved their outfield but the Mariners have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball with Ichiro and Gutierrez. Both teams have fairly average infields.
Pitching-wise, the two teams are also pretty even: The Mariners have the best starter, but the Angels have more depth in their rotation. If Pineda is as good as he looks, though, and if he approaches 200 innings, the Mariners might have the edge here too.
Overall, I think the two teams are a wash. The Angels tend to get overrated because they spend a lot of money and they’ve been very good for much of the past decade, but the current squad just isn’t very good. I don’t think they’re necessarily worse than the Mariners, but I don’t think they’re better either. So in making my picks, I flipped a coin, and it came up M’s.”
Max Marchi (his bio on the site states: Max is a statistician who does analysis on infectious diseases as a day job. When he is at home his attention shifts toward baseball data):
“I believe the team-to-team gap in the AL West is not that wide. I think I shuffled my rankings a lot of times before choosing the one published on THT.
The Mariners had everything going the wrong way last year, thus a substantial advance in the W column is expected even if the team hasn’t improved a lot.
Having the Cy Young Award winner pitching every fifth day should bring some success (I believe Felix will tally more than 13 W even if his performance regresses from last year). Eric Wedge is a smart manager who has shown he can play the percentages (and, most importantly, knows them) when he was in Cleveland.
On the Angels side (since they are the ones I put behind the M’s), I think they did not improve in their offseason. Their manager is always able to pull a few rabbits off the hat and their rotation can range from really thin to very deep, depending on how Kazmir’s and Santana’s seasons turn out.
However, their catching situation is suspect and their lineup does not scare anyone. Probably they are a better team than the M’s, but when they find themselves out of contention before they are accustomed to, they’ll be less motivated to fight for third place than Seattle.”
Dave Studeman (Dave and Pete Simpson are the creators of the Baseball Graphs website, and Dave is currently the manager of the Hardball Times. According to his on-site bio, his work has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other fancy journals, and mentioned in several books, such as Fantasyland. His work has even been translated into Taiwanese, a language in which he actually makes some sense):
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything deep to say. It comes down my belief that the Mariners’ players (particularly the batters) weren’t as bad as they seemed last year and that the Angels seem primed to disappoint.
It’s also a reflection of the projection system I rely upon the most, THT’s Forecasts. SG (of Replacement-Level Yankee blog) runs Diamond Mind simulations of each year before the beginning of the season. One of the systems he included this year was Oliver (our Forecast system), and it resulted in a dead heat between the Angels and Mariners for last place.
I’m not sure why our Forecasts like the Mariners more than other projection systems do (or dislikes the Angels more) but I can tell you that it really likes Michael Pineda: 9-7 with a 3.62 ERA.”
I should point out that these exchanges all took place late last week, before the Mariners stormed out of the gate by taking two out of three from one of the division favorites, the Oakland A’s. We’ll check back in September and see who looks the smartest, the vast majority of Mariner naysayers, or this trio of lonely souls who don’t envision quite so much doom in Seattle in 2011.