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, Jack Zduriencik, at the time perhaps the most respected scouting director in the game, took over a team that was dying of stale thinking. He hired an impressive new manager, Don Wakamatsu, along with a new coaching staff and some smart statistical analysts. He got rid of hopeless old players, brought in solid, underappreciated ones such as Russell Branyan and, for what it was worth, managed to change a grumpy clubhouse into a happy one in which Ken Griffey Jr. rehearsed Japanese curse words with IchiroSuzuki and people smiled. A team that won 61 games in 2008 won 85 under the new regime, did so for less money, and did it in style.
This winter, Zduriencik followed all that up with the best run of moves that any general manager made. He traded iffy prospects for ace Cliff Lee, signed third baseman Chone Figgins away from the division-rival Angels, traded one of the worst starters in the game for 2008 American League OPS leader Milton Bradley and signed incumbent ace Felix Hernandez to a five-year contract extension. By basic math, 85 wins plus a new ace and a couple key offensive pieces should equal a serious run at the AL West title, and so the Mariners enter this year laboring under weighty expectations.
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 Jarrod Washburn and the injured Erik Bedard did last year, when they combined for 216 innings with a 2.71 ERA. Obviously the Mariners are better off for having him, but they aren't likely to get more out of the No. 2 spot in the rotation than they did in 2008.
Similarly, while signing Figgins was a good idea, he hardly represents a grand improvement on Adrian Beltre, whom he's replacing. True, Beltre and his backups hit for a lousy .597 OPS last year, which Figgins (.751 career) will surely better. But Beltre is also one of the most gifted defenders in baseball, and what the Mariners gain at the plate they'll likely lose in the field.
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 Eric Byrnes will outdo that by tons. This will, though, likely be offset by a decline elsewhere. In 2009 Suzuki hit for the second-highest OPS of his career (.851), and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez had one of the great defensive years in memory, worth 29 runs according to UZR -- the fielding equivalent of batting .400. Suzuki will probably hit closer to his career norm of .811, Gutierrez will likely come back to earth a bit, and the Mariners will give back some of what they gained over the winter.
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 -- Baseball Prospectus, for one, has Seattle pegged for 83 wins. The Mariners have a chance, of course, as they have some great players, a roster with few dead spots and a manager who's demonstrably good at using limited players in ways that hide their weak points. But you can say that of a lot of teams, none of them objects of the kind of adulation that the Mariners have enjoyed lately.
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 Zone of Alienation, they have people so excited that a respectable 83 wins would be a real disappointment. But what's impressive isn't the quick turnaround, which was a bit of a fluke and was largely driven by great performances from players such as Branyan and Washburn, who were never going to have a future with the team, anyway. Nor is the impressive thing the balance that the Mariners have found between traditional scouting and quantitative analysis -- the whole idea that there's some great distinction between them is a bit of a rat trap, as information is information and the point is what you do with it.
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.