Why the Mariners might be the best team in the AL right now

Let’s get this out of the way: My favorite team is the Mariners. Been that way for a long time. That comes with certain biases, which I sometimes can’t help, but in this instance, understand that I have nothing to do with the numbers you’ll see. As a matter of fact, I was taken by surprise, and so it feels only natural to write this up, because who doesn’t love discussing surprises?

Right now, teams are reaching out to connect with free agents and with other front offices, as groundwork is laid for future transactions. Eyes have turned to next season, and we’ve already have 2015 player projections. You can find them at FanGraphs, and they go by the name Steamer. It’s not the only projection system around, but all of them are pretty similar. With Steamer, we can start to get an idea of how things look for the moment.

A small group of FanGraphs authors maintains depth charts for all 30 teams, updated on a regular basis. Those same depth charts have been updated to prepare for the offseason, with free agents gone and with certain minor leaguers showing up. Steamer provides individual player projections. Combining player projections with team depth charts produces team projections. Who has the most work to do? Who’s already sitting pretty?

Here are the projections. They are no projected wins and losses, but there are projected team Wins Above Replacement (WAR). For however much the stat gets criticized, it works well here, as evidenced by the last 13 years of data:

Teams that generate a lot of WAR also generate a lot of wins. Teams that don’t generate a lot of WAR don’t generate a lot of wins. The relationship is strong, and while not everything is captured — in particular timely performance — WAR’s a fine tool. Teams who are projected for a high WAR can be thought of as being projected for a good record.

So, I sorted the WAR projections. At No. 1: The Nationals. That’s hardly surprising. The Nationals are talented and are deep, which is why they again look to be a World Series contender. They lead the next-best NL team by more than six projected WAR. Mike Rizzo has a lot of decisions to make, with certain important contracts expiring soon, but he knows he has as good a roster as anyone.

At No. 2, and leading the AL: The Mariners. The same Mariners who didn’t make the 2014 playoffs. They project to be the best team in their own league, and that seems worthy of investigation. The differences are somewhat small. The depth charts are basically educated guesses, and the same could be said of the projections. There does not yet exist a decent projection for Rusney Castillo, and maybe the projections are too down on Matt Shoemaker. There’s a lot to potentially argue with, but let’s make what we can of the position in which the Mariners find themselves.

Below, a table which is broken down by position with WAR above or below the average. The 2014 numbers are based on what happened; the 2015 numbers are based on the projections. What does Steamer think is going to be different? This seems like a good way to look at it.

2014 Mariners -0.7 -1.2 3.4 1.0 2.9 -0.6 -4.7 -1.7 -2.7 0.1 1.7 -2.4
2015 Mariners -0.1 -0.8 3.0 1.1 1.6 -0.1 -0.7 0.2 -0.7 3.6 0.4 7.8

The 2015 Mariners are projected to be about average at:

  • Catcher
  • Left field
  • Right field
  • Relief

The 2015 Mariners are projected to be below average at:

  • First base
  • Center field
  • Designated hitter

The 2015 Mariners are projected to be above average at:

  • Second base
  • Shortstop
  • Third base
  • Rotation

The projections aren’t absurd — the projections are based on what’s happened in the past. The key to understanding this is understanding what happened in 2014. Felix Hernandez was awesome, predictably. Robinson Cano was awesome, predictably. Kyle Seager was awesome, somewhat predictably. Hisashi Iwakuma was good, predictably. But the roster was sunk by individual catastrophes. Most notably, the Mariners were a complete disaster in center field and at DH.

Stefen Romero couldn’t hit, and he batted 200 times. Corey Hart was toast, and when the front office brought in a replacement, Kendrys Morales subsequently looked like toast. Abraham Almonte couldn’t do anything in center field, and then James Jones couldn’t do anything in center field, and then Austin Jackson inexplicably couldn’t do anything in center field, either. Toss in underwhelming cameos by Justin Smoak, Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia and there’s a whole lot of negative value.

Now, this is important: The Mariners, for the time being, don’t have a DH. It’s something they’re going to find, and right now they’re projected for about replacement-level performance in the spot. Also, the Mariners are going to start Jackson in center, despite his miserable first impression. But he’s projected to be about an average player. He’s 27 years old, was fine right before the trade, was fine in 2013 and was excellent in 2012. Jackson should be a lot better than he was.

The DH slot is already better than it was, just because no candidate would be projected to be as bad as last year’s Seattle’s designated hitters. Right now, DH is mostly split between Romero and Chris Taylor, who both have good minor-league track records. Last year’s actual Mariner DHs hit .189 while slugging .302.

The projection calls for a little improvement from 23-year-old catcher Mike Zunino. But the projections also see regression from Seager and the bullpen. The numbers are fond of the idea of Michael Saunders playing more regularly without getting hurt, and while the young starting pitchers like James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias aren’t projected to be anything great, last year Paxton and Walker combined for just 112 innings. The Mariners benefit if those guys don’t miss a bunch of months.

On one hand it’s all so silly to analyze now. The offseason’s barely begun, and it’s hard to know when one player might suddenly stop producing, as Jackson did last summer. The Mariners didn’t think Morales would be bad. They didn’t think Jackson and Jones and Almonte and Hart would be bad. Their underperformance cost the Mariners the playoffs, and it could conceivably happen again. But it’s unlikely the Mariners again have particular struggles that bad, which is why it seems like they’re in a good position. They still need to make some moves — every team still needs to make some moves — but at least if what Steamer is projecting, the Mariners are shaping up to be something strong.

Maybe a different set of projections will have other ideas. Maybe the Mariners’ competition will make a bunch of excellent additions that push the M’s behind. But, looking at the Mariners’ current WAR projection, the most similar WAR teams from between 2002 and 2014 averaged about 91 wins.

The Mariners probably aren’t going to be a total catastrophe at multiple positions, and eliminating catastrophes is just a different way of getting better. Given a normal Jackson and an actual half-decent DH, the Mariners could be as strong as anyone else.