Purists adore them for their commitment to pitching and defense. Numbers junkies revere them for their innovative use of math and technology. The rightness of the Seattle Mariners is the one thing on which everyone in baseball agrees. But there's more to this story than meets the eye.
A bit more than a year ago,
This winter, Zduriencik followed all that up with the best run of moves that any general manager made. He traded iffy prospects for ace
That basic math, though, doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The Mariners were outscored by 52 runs last year. Run differential tells a bit more about a team's quality than winning percentage does, so in truth Seattle needed to make some improvements just to hold its ground this year. The significant thing about their winter may be that they didn't really make those improvements.
Take the acquisition of Lee, for example. He's a terrific pitcher, probably one of the five best in baseball, and with Hernandez he gives the Mariners arguably the nastiest 1-2 punch in the game. He's also unlikely to do much better than the departed
Similarly, while signing Figgins was a good idea, he hardly represents a grand improvement on
Go around the diamond and it's hard to see just where the Mariners have gotten better, on balance. Take the outfield. Last year their left fielders hit for an appalling .609 OPS; Bradley and free-agent signee
Offensively, the Mariners look likely to improve a bit at designated hitter, shortstop and left field, to decline a bit at first base, center field and right field, and to stay even elsewhere. Four hundred and fifty innings of Hernandez and Lee is a very good start toward the rotation doing again what it did last year, when it ran up a league-leading 3.89 ERA in 961 1/3 innings, and the bullpen looks like it will solid again -- last year its 3.83 ERA was third in the AL -- but given the vagaries of pitching there's more potential to get worse than to get better here.
In all, it's hard to see how this works out to the kind of improvement that the Mariners need to have a really solid shot at repeating last year's win total, let alone stealing the division. Statistical systems seem to agree --
This is where the problem comes in. Zduriencik, Wakamatsu and crew are every bit as good as the hype, the best proof perhaps being that less than a year and a half after taking over a franchise that looked like something out of the
What is impressive is the way in which Zduriencik and Co. have taken a franchise that had lost its way and set a clear and intelligent course. Everything they do makes sense and everything has a purpose, and that purpose clearly has more to do with 2013 than 2010. That a knack for finding neglected talents and making canny trades has the Mariners in position to contend this year is nice, but it isn't the point. It would be a shame if that's lost in the hype about a great leap forward that probably isn't coming this year, anyway, because the lesson it offers is one that nearly every team in baseball could stand to learn.