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October 30, 2012 at 10:53 AM

Mariners need a greater margin for error across the board

Yesterday, we discussed how the San Francisco Giants had spent around the potentially problematic contract of pitcher Barry Zito with a top-10 payroll, rather than waiting seven years for the deal to run out. Lookout Landing honcho Jeff Sullivan used a different terminology, pointing out that bigger payrolls simply buy teams like the Giants a better margin of error.
In the Giants’ case, Zito would be the great, big error. And yes, he played a key role in the Giants winning it all this year with a strong post-season. But no, it doesn’t erase the fact it’s been a terrible contract from the Giants’ perspective.
Today, I want to talk about a different way to increase a team’s margin for error that goes beyond payroll.
I actually wrote about this roughly 14 months ago in a blog post that attempted to explain why teams have traditional notions of certain positions being geared towards power hitters versus others — more up the middle — that tend to employ lighter-hitting types. It all comes down to supply and demand. A power-hitting catcher is tough to find, so if you can get your hands on one of those, you buy yourself a margin for error at other positions.
It can allow you to take a chance on a third baseman who might be undervalued because he lacks traditional power, but can get on-base.
To use the Giants as an example, they found an MVP-type of hitter in catcher Buster Posey (photo above) via the draft and have used his presence to take some chances at other positions they normally could not afford to risk having not work out. Posey was a key member of the 2010 World Series champion Giants and was helping to lead a first-place team last season before he got hurt. But he was back again this year and the Giants used his presence to go out and get some more cost-effective, undervalued players at other positions.
In other words, if those players failed, the Giants still had Posey supplying first baseman’s hitting numbers at the catcher’s spot. Follow so far?
Is this a route the Mariners could take? Of couse they could, as I mentioned in the referenced blog post from the 2011 season. But there’s an obvious problem with that type of thinking.
Photo Credit: AP

Problem being, the Mariners don’t have a Posey type of player at the non-traditional hitting positions. They were a below average hitting team at every position other than third base, where Kyle Seager was slightly above average in a hot corner spot that has experienced a downward hitting-trend of late throughout the league.
So, not only do the Mariners lack a Posey type of hitter at the non-traditional catcher, shortstop, second base and center field spots, they lack them at virtually all of the traditional corner infield and outfield spots as well.
Ichiro might have won over the Big Apple for three months. But his final two years with the Mariners saw him as the worst-hitting right fielder in baseball over that span.
Justin Smoak, as we all know, hasn’t lived up to the hype.
The biggest hopes the Mariners have had for above average production at lesser-hitting positions were from Franklin Gutierrez in center and Dustin Ackley at second base.
But that hasn’t materialized.
We’re not only talking home run power here, either. I’ve written for years that if a hitter can supply an OPS of .800 via mostly doubles, I’m all for it. Doubles are supposed to be what Ackley’s game is all about and if he can start hitting them again, the Mariners will be a much better team for it.
As for the Gutierrez thing, we’ve been waiting on it for four years. Even in his relatively healthy 2009 season, he still slowed down and never took his game to the next level — as he’ll quickly tell you — because of knee soreness in the second-half. When the Mariners gave him his contract extension, it was under the assumption he’d continue to provide Gold Glove defense, but also elevate his overall offensive game to the point where he could do over a full six months what he’d shown flashes of during a month or two in 2009.
Gutierrez started off like he would do that in April 2010. But ever since, it’s been illness and injury.
So, banking on Gutierrez pulling a bit of a Posey this winter — for the fourth straight off-season — is starting to sound more like desperation than any kind of a plan.
You can hope Gutierrez will rebound. Or hope that Smoak will rebound. Or hope that Ackley will rebound. Or hope that Michael Saunders takes his game to the next level. Or hope that Mike Zunino becomes Posey in two or three years.
But hoping for all of that to happen at the same time? Again, four years into a rebuilding plan, that’s a bit desperate.
At some point, this team will have to reduce its margin for error.
The Mariners could try to do it the pitching and defense way like the Giants did. All they’ll need now is another staff ace or two like Felix Hernandez. And they’ll need them to overcome the new Safeco Field dimensions.
The fact the Mariners have moved in the Safeco Field fences is your first clue that even they feel the key to better times lies in the offense, not in a pitching-and-defense approach like the Giants. Put it this way: the Giants were spending Hernandez-type money on three starting pitchers in 2012. The Mariners are nowhere close to going in that direction.
For certain, they need to improve on the mound with the fences coming in. But not by as much as they need to on offense.
It would be nice if the Mariners played in the NL West like the Giants and could count on facing feeble-hitting Colorado and San Diego some 38 times per year. But they don’t. They get to face Texas and Los Angeles and an Oakland team that — for all its mound prowess — was scoring five runs per game in the second half.
So, yeah, the Mariners need bats to go with their mound guys and defenders.
They don’t necessarily need home run bats. Doubles power will work, though one big bopper in the middle of the order to make opposing pitchers think never hurt a club. But they don’t automatically need a Prince Fielder at first base. If they are confdent that Ackley’s bat will take off next year, they can afford to take a chance at one of the power positions. Or, if they bring in a first baseman, they can maybe afford to gamble on Casper Wells becoming a full-time right fielder.
As the blog post from last year states, the team can run Seager out there nightly as a third baseman and not need him to hit like Adrian Beltre does. But that also requires the Mariners to make up for it at other positons.
The Mariners have not done that. Which is why, they keep running the league’s worst offense out there night after night. Which is why they have moved the fences in, in an effort to try to get a free offensive stats boost.
Which is why Jack Zduriencik keeps saying he’d like to get a bat.
Which is why we’re paying very close attention to what this team does with payroll, and also with the acquisitions it makes.
We want to see whether this team can acquire more of a margin for error. Or, whether it wil keep walking that tightrope and hope that every single thing works out and that Chone Figgins miraculously revives his career rather than hoping for a cash-saving trade that isn’t looking very promising at the moment.
There is no “right way” to build (or rebuild) a team, as we’ve been stating for years now. But there are quick ways and there are slow ways.
This Mariners route is a slow one indeed, as we’ve seen via the results. That doesn’t mean they, too, can’t contend at some point in a non-traditional way. But unless that plan involves closing your eyes, rubbing a lamp and hoping a genie grants some wishes, there are pro-active steps needed to take this last-place club over at least two others in the AL West before that can happen.
The Mariners need to spend some money to buy themselves more of a margin for error. But they also need to hope that at least some of these players they’ve banked on at non-traditional hitting positions manage to pan out.
That would buy them margin for error as well. And it would allow them to be more flexible in who they pick up this winter.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino


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