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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 14, 2013 at 5:15 PM

Plesac sees Mariners as surprise team, and he’s not alone — but metrics don’t agree

Mike Zunino is a big part of the hopes for a brighter Mariners’ future. Photo by Associated Press.

Suddenly, the Mariners are the chic pick to be one of baseball’s breakout teams this year. Geoff has already mentioned that Bill James Online had the M’s as their surprise team in the American League. That sentiment was also expressed on ESPN’s Sweet Spot Blog in an article by Eric Karabell (which may be behind a paywall). In likening the Mariners to the A’s and Orioles last year, Karabell writes, “I don’t think it’s far-fetched to see them in a one-game playoff if these reasonable things happen” and lists three factors the Mariners need to improve in order to contend: More power, more strikeouts by their pitchers, and a bullpen that coalesces. Jeff Sullivan ruminates on the “Mariners as surprise team” meme here, as only he can.

The latest to jump on the Mariners bandwagon is former major-league reliever Dan Plesac, now an MLB Network analyst, who tweeted the following earlier this week:

I got hold of Plesac to ask him why he’s so bullish on the Mariners, and I’ll get to his comments in a bit. But there’s an interesting dichotomy between this rush of optimism, and the cold, hard facts that are being delivered by the various forecasting systems. (You can read about their methodology here. The general idea is to crunch various sets of number to come up with projections for the upcoming season, both in terms of individual performance and/or team performance).

Here are the most recent CAIRO projections, which forecast a 73-89 record for the Mariners — fourth place in the AL West for the fourth straight year — 15 games ahead of the last-place Astros, but 18 games behind the AL West champion Angels.

Hmmm. A two-game decline in the win total doesn’t exactly scream out “surprise team.” If you look at PECOTA (yes, it really helps your projection bona fides if your acronym spells out the first or last name of a mediocre ballplayer), it’s not too much better. They have the Mariners finishing 79-83, a four-game improvement over last year, but not exactly a breakthrough season. The data is supposed to go out only to subscribers, so I won’t spill the beans, but suffice it to say their projections for individual players will not knock your socks off (except Felix Hernandez still rocks, and Kendrys Morales shines).

Then there’s ZiPS, which foresees some incremental improvement by the Mariners’ young hitters (and is high on catcher Mike Zunino), but doesn’t have much optimism for the pitching beyond King Felix (note that new acquisition like Joe Saunders is not included). Dave Cameron has a succint summary of ZiPS’ outlook for the Mariners.

That’s three math-based forecasts without much optimism for the Mariners. But keep in mind that one year ago, CAIRO had the Orioles at 70-92 and the A’s at 76-86. You can’t be a surprise team if the computers think you’re going to be good, right? It ruins the surprise.

So let’s turn to a baseball man, Plesac, who is currently engaged in shooting MLB Network’s “30 Clubs in 30 Days” series (which starts Friday, and will feature the Mariners on Feb. 20). During his playing days (which lasted 18 years), Plesac was one of the most engaging interviews around, and he’s still a fun guy to talk to. Here’s some of his general impressions on the Mariners:

“I think Mike Morse is a huge addition. It’s no secret the Mariners had a difficult time scoring runs, and now the fences are moved in. Dustin Ackley has a chance to be a terrific player. (Franklin) Gutierrez, if he stays healthy, is a great defensive player. (Kyle) Seager showed flashes of being a good player, (Michael) Saunders showed flashes of being a good player. (Jesus) Montero can be a good offensive catcher. The big key for me is (Justin) Smoak. The question that has to be answered, is he what everyone thought coming out of college? He’s had flashes of being a really good power hitter, and flashes where he disappears for two or three weeks. That can’t happen.”

Anyone who follows Plesac on twitter knows he’s a huge fan of the Hernandez signing. And he says of the Mariners’ bullpen, “I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in baseball. Tom Wilhelmsen — that is a curve ball. That is a big-league curve ball. The first time I saw him during a live look-in, my jaw dropped. He’s nasty, and he throws hard.”

Plesac remembers being in Oakland’s camp last spring and talking to manager Bob Melvin, who didn’t know who his starters were going to be behind Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy, and who his  bullpen was going to be beyond Grant Balfour. Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes was a complete mystery as well.

“I would have bet you they were a 100-loss team, and felt bad taking your bet,” Plesac said. “If the A’s of 2012 can do it, anyone could — and the Mariners are light years better than what I thought of the A’s going into 2012.”

Plesac concludes, “I definitely think they’ll have more wins, and they have a realistic shot at one of the two wild-card spots. On paper, the Angels look like the powerhouse of the division with that offense. You have to give the Rangers credit for what they’ve done the past few years. I’d be surprised if the A’s come close to duplicating what they did in 2012. They may do that and I’ll be dead wrong. The Mariners are in the same boat as the the other three teams: They have to take advantage and beat up on the Astros. Those are games they have to win, and series they have to win.”

The topper for the Mariners is the minor-league pitching looming on the verge of being big-league ready.

“All I’ve heard is they have the envy of MLB as far as arms in the minor-league system,” Plesac said.

Add it up, and to Plesac it equates to surprise team. The computers say otherwise — but if you can’t see a half-full glass during the first week of spring training, you never can.

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