Are the Seattle Mariners any good?

This season’s version of the Seattle Mariners has been a lot like other versions of the Mariners. They show promise in some respects, but they can also be quite infuriating at other times.

The team started the season with horrible pitching and contributions from former top prospects. The pitching would even out as players got healthy, and the team dumped Hector Noesi, but then the ostensible development from the aforementioned top prospects proved hollow.

Now we’re back where we started, rooting for a team with a kinda crappy offense and pretty good pitching. Of course, you’ll read that the Mariners have an ERA that ranks near the top of the American League. Of course, ERA means very little, especially when offered without the context of park factors. Coming into Sunday’s action, the Mariners ranked 27th in wRC+ of 30 MLB teams. They rank 10th in xFIP. After Sunday’s loss to the Astros the Mariners have a 24-25 record. Nearly 50 games into the season they’re one game under .500, they’ve scored nine more runs than they’ve allowed, and they’ve amassed about 1.5 WAR less than league average.

The Mariners have been an average team in on whole, which isn’t surprising considering even the most rudimentary metrics. But are they better this year?

The team has an isolated power that is 20 points lower than last year. They’re striking out at about the same rate, but are a percent behind on their walk rate. Their BABIP is five points higher, and that isn’t because of some huge jump in line drive rate, but likely due to a drop in their rate of infield fly balls.

Robinson Cano has been very good, and considering his batted ball rate and rate of extra base hits, the Mariners and their fans shouldn’t panic over his lack of home runs to this point. He’ll probably be fine, or at least as fine as one would expect from a guy leaving a hitter’s haven in New York for the more stingy confines of Seattle. That said, he’s been basically as good as Kendrys Morales. Considering the lack of production the team has received from Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, losing Morales, Raul Ibanez, and even Michael Morse has appeared to be basically a wash to this point.

That was always the downside of the Robinson Cano signing. Cano may end up a five-win player this year, and at that point he’d be worth his 2014 salary, with some surplus, but wins numbered 71-through-76 have relatively low value. Consider the hole the team dug losing the production of mostly Morales and Ibanez, and a good argument could be made that the team was actually buying wins 68-73 in Cano, making his signing even less valuable.

Of course, the Mariners didn’t figure to receive only partial seasons from Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Hisashi Iwakuma. ZiPS projected 6.4 WAR from the trio, and the potential for either Walker or Paxton to outperform their projections is relatively high considering their inexperience.

For literally years at this point, I’ve been screaming as much as one can scream via the digital pages of a crappy blog that the Mariners next good team would be built on the development of prospects. This isn’t profound. Almost all good teams are built this way. Good teams can become great teams by adding free agents, but free agents are a horribly inefficient investment. This isn’t a new theory, and I didn’t just make it up.

I’m a fan of Brad Miller. I think he’s got potential to be a three-win shortstop for several years. He’s been particularly awful, especially considering the relative promise he showed in the minor leagues, in the bigs last year, and in spring training. The 34 wRC+ he’s posted this year is the worst among qualified hitters.

The Mariners will get better production there for the rest of the year. It’s not that Brad Miller will improve drastically for certain, though it’s nearly impossible to consider a scenario where he doesn’t improve if given enough opportunities. Rather, the team won’t continue to roll out a shortstop that is so terrible. The only problem is that despite more than a half-dozen errors, UZR actually likes his defense so far this year. Sure, he’s been worth less than -10 runs this year, but he’s still been worth only -0.3 WAR.

Even though Nick Franklin has the best shot at replacing Miller in at least the short-term, it’s easy to get too infatuated with his offensive potential at the position, without considering the defensive margin the team is losing. Most scouting reports and modern metrics have Franklin a long ways behind Miller defensively. Some loud local voices have said that Franklin is a fine alternative to Miller at the position, but data indicates that those opinions are being based on gut feelings and narratives rather than quantitative evidence.

Even Chris Taylor, who has a swing with some reputed holes in it, is likely to post better than a 34 wRC+, and he probably has the best glove of the bunch.

Ultimately, though, defense is where the Mariners are really better. The team managed more than 70 wins with Brendan Ryan‘s offense at shortstop. One thing that really hurt them, however, was the -78.4 runs they surrendered in the field last year compared to average, which was worst in the league by more than 10 runs.

The Mariners were able to out perform their peripherals in 2009 largely on the shoulders of an outfield defense that was incredibly good. They had functionally three players (Franklin Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Endy Chavez) who had a skill set that worked fine in center field. Their outfield defense this season has already been worth 9.3 runs above average according to UZR.

The Mariners have ridden a pretty good pitching staff and solid defense to something close to average. This isn’t a new concept. Defense is valuable. More valuable than its cost would indicate.

In summation, Robinson Cano will probably be better than he already has been. The Mariners’ shortstop position will almost certainly be better than it has been. And the team’s outfield defense, which has been pretty good so far, could keep their pitching staff from regressing all the way back to the mean. James Jones will regress, but the Mariners aren’t even receiving out-of-the-ordinary performances from anyone on offense.

The Mariners are average, but while a series loss to the Houston Astros can be disconcerting, there’s certainly reason to have some hope that the team will be better than average going forward, and in this year’s version of the American League West, that could be enough to keep the team close enough to contention to make a bold move before the end of July.

 

All stats from Fangraphs, and all coming into Sunday’s game.