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January 14, 2008 at 8:03 AM

Who will M’s be?

One of our newest, more prolific contributors on recent comment threads, Pete, was kind enough to point out this post from Saturday on the U.S.S. Mariner site. It seeks to identify what the 2008 Mariners will look like in the event of an Erik Bedard deal and uses the 2007 Toronto Blue Jays as the model. Now, I must say, of all the teams to compare the potential 2008 Mariners to, this was probably a flawed choice. After all, the Blue Jays compete in a division with two perennial playoff contenders instead of the one that the Mariners will have to overcome next season. Toronto also had one of the weaker offenses in the AL, posting an OPS+ of only 96, compared to 104 for the Mariners. Seattle, therefore, was four percent above league average of 100 while the Blue Jays were four percent below.
Toronto had some of the better pitching and defense in the league, but alas, won just 83 games largely because of an inability to score runs. But the U.S.S. Mariner was right to identify the offensive shortcomings as well as to point out that the Blue Jays are, in fact, much like the Mariners, trying to use pitching and run reduction to overcome the gap between them and their division leaders. It’s just their conclusion about how this all pertains to the 2008 Mariners that falls short, mainly because of using Toronto for the comparison. Instead, I’ll submit that a more reasonable comparison for what the Mariners are apparently trying to accomplish is the 2006 Minnesota Twins.


That Minnesota team, which captured the AL Central with 96 wins, had an offense with an OPS+ of 101, which is right around league average and slightly worse than Seattle’s last season. It was on the pitching side where the Twins made a real difference, posting an ERA+ of 113, much like the 112 for the 2007 Blue Jays. So, you take that Toronto pitching last season and combine it with even a league-average offense and you have the makings of a serious contender.
The Mariners already have that offense. The question then, should be whether they accomplish what the Blue Jays did on the mound last season. Or what the Twins did pitching-wise in 2006. I’d actually say the Mariners, with Bedard, would hope to accomplish all that and more.
What the 2006 Twins and 2007 Blue Jays had in common was a pair of starting pitchers well above-average at the top of their rotation. They also had two to three other average-to-slightly-above-average pitchers to round out the rotation when healthy. Keep that in mind, because it’s the latter part about health that can really make the difference where Seattle is concerned.
The top two starters, in terms of ERA+, for the 2006 Minnesota Twins were:
Francisco Liriano — 207
Johan Santana –161
For the 2007 Blue Jays:
Roy Halladay — 120
A.J. Burnett –119
Here’s the problem. The Twins’ Liriano only made 16 starts in 2006. So, his exceptional ERA totals from that season are probably a bit out-of-whack with reality and would have come down to more Santana-like levels over a full season. Still, it was an exceptional front-line duo. The Mariners would be thrilled to get that type of production out of Bedard and Felix Hernandez over a full season.
In Toronto’s case? One of the misleading things about the 2007 Blue Jays is how their pitching numbers were compiled. Toronto’s current rotation put up ERA+ numbers quite close to what Seattle envisions, but also suffered through a rash of injuries. Halladay was the only pitcher to make more than 27 starts last season. Burnett made 25, about nine starts shy of where the team needs him to be. He missed all of July and half of August with an arm problem.
Some of the younger arms contributing to Toronto’s pitching success, like Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch, didn’t join the rotation until the season was well underway. So, all of their above-average totals did not help the team over a full season. In fact, 30 of Toronto starts were picked up by the below-average arms of Josh Towers, Tomo Ohka, and Gustavo Chacin.
Had the 2007 Blue Jays been able to trot out the kind of rotation Seattle envisions, over a full season, they likely would have done far better in the won-lost column. Especially had Halladay pitched more like the past ace he’s been, the one who put up an ERA+ of 143 in 2006. Instead, the Blue Jays had the equivalent of a pair of No. 2 starters more than dual aces. Indeed, their Pythagorean expectation, based on run differential, was a solid 87 wins even with a below average offense. Imagine what the Blue Jays could have done had they actually hit the ball more, stayed healthy on the mound and had the Halladay they expected?
Why, they quite possibly could have been last year’s version of the 2006 Twins, who also took some hits on the health side that season and had some below-average pitchers filling in for a spell. Here are their below average starters from that year and their ERA+ totals:
Carlos Silva — 75 (31 starts)
Scott Baker — 70 (16 starts)
Matt Garza — 78 (9 starts)
So, that’s 58 starts by below-average arms. If they’d managed less, their team ERA+ likely would have been higher than 113. But remember, that team still won 96 games and the division.
So, now we come to the Mariners. Last season, the M’s saw 68 games started by pitchers with a below average ERA+.
Jeff Weaver — 70 (27 starts)
Horacio Ramirez — 61 (20 starts)
Cha Seung-Baek — 84 (12 starts)
Ryan Feierabend — 54 (9 starts)
As we saw with the Twins and Blue Jays, simply trotting two strong arms out there isn’t enough. The fewer games given away by the rest of a rotation, or injury replacements, can impact how many games a team ultimately wins.
By acquiring Bedard, to join with the signing of Silva (who has since upped his game and his ERA+ to a more palatable 103), the M’s will effectively replace the Weaver/Ramirez tandem of putrid ERA+ scores — compiled over a whopping 47 starts — with two average or slightly above-average arms. Those would be chosen from either Silva, Miguel Batista, or Jarrod Washburn, on the rotation’s back-end. That alone should result in a significant production increase. All three of those arms threw for more than 190 innings, far outdistancing the 169 2/3 innings by last season’s second-busiest Toronto starter, McGowan. Those innings on the back-end should limit the amount of time that sub-standard arms will be needed as fill-ins or injury replacements.
But then there are also the dual aces up top. Bedard and his outstanding ERA+ of 146 last season was fairly close to what Santana put up for the Twins in 2006. A question-mark is how much improvement Felix Hernandez will show from his ERA+ of 110 last season. If Hernandez can get up into the 120 to 130 ERA+ range, while throwing 200 or more innings, I’d argue the 2008 Mariners have a shot at besting the ERA+ of 113 posted by both the 2006 Twins and the 112 of the 2007 Blue Jays.
Remember, Hernandez threw 25 more innings than Toronto’s Burnett did last year while spending a month of his own on the DL. Hernandez’s career track so far should see him hit 200 innings this year. Avoid another DL trip and that spares Seattle another six starts by a sub-standard replacement arm. As for Bedard, it’s true that his durability has been called into question. But he still threw 196 1/3 innings the season before last. He threw 180 innings last year despite missing all of September with an oblique problem.
That’s far more innings than Burnett’s 165 with the 2007 Blue Jays, or Liriano’s 121 with the 2006 Twins. And unlike those two, whose woes can be traced to serious arm troubles past and present, Bedard’s were separate, isolated injuries not necessarily prone to be repeated.
Yes, it’s a given that Bedard and Hernandez both have to stay healthy and post 200 or more innings for this plan to work. The rest of the rotation also has to do its part and stay relatively close to its career norms. But if that happens, I’d argue that an ERA+ higher than 112 or 113 is not out of the question for Seattle. It’s true that the Twins and Blue Jays both had better defenses than the Mariners. But that can be mitigated by the Mariners having the better offense and slightly better pitching 1 through 5 in the rotation.
Keeping the offense on-course would require a merely average contract season by Richie Sexson instead of the all-time low he produced last year. That boost would offset the departure of Jose Guillen on the offensive side. And any regression by Raul Ibanez or Jose Vidro could be offset somewhat by progression from younger players like Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez. Remember, the Twins of 2006 won 96 games with an OPS+ of 101. The Mariners were at 104 last season, despite Sexson dropping off the planet. Even if Seattle slides backwards slightly on offense, there is still some room to play with.
The 2006 Blue Jays were in far worse shape offensively at their OPS+ of 96. So, I’d argue, that if the Mariners are looking for a team to model themselves after, it isn’t Toronto.
I’m not saying Seattle is going to win 96 games like those Twins of 2006. But I’d rather make the apples-to-apples comparison with the Minnesota team that had only one other club, the Tigers, to worry about in the division. The Blue Jays have to suffer the Yankees and Red Sox some 19 times per year each, which increases their runs allowed and losses. The 2006 Twins are also a better comparative choice because, like the Mariners, they had at least some semblance of an offense.
And when you add Bedard to the equation and start running those Twins numbers as a comparison, all of a sudden, the impossible dream for Seattle starts to seem a little more plausible.
NOTE (10:21 a.m.) — For Steve in the comments section, the Silva ERA+ of 75 was from his career-worst year in 2006. The 103 was from last season, which obviously is the plan that the Mariners are counting on in signing him. Hope that helps.

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