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The Total WAR Project, Part VII: Seattle Mariners

The Total WAR Project is a series of posts that analyzes the closest competition facing the Phillies in 2010. The posts use Wins Above Replacement, a metric designed to use offensive and defensive production within a single stat.

In today’s Total WAR Project, we visit the famous story of the jilted ex-boyfriend. You know the feeling when, as Gloria Gaynor famously sang, “you see me with somebody new,” and your heart immediately falls into your colon? Well, it’s not exactly like that, but there will always be a sense of “what-could-have-been” for Phillies fans with Cliff Lee. Yes, the Phils dumped him for a stud, but the grass is always greener, etc. Sort of like when I broke off my torrid romance with Holly Hunter to be with Kate, my Long-Suffering Girlfriend. I’m happy now, but every time I watch Broadcast News, there’s that little twinge of regret. But I digress.

We have identified, studied, and otherwise examined the six teams that are most likely to deny the Phillies the pennant, either by preventing them from winning the division or Wild Card or by knocking them out in the NL playoffs: the Braves, the Mets, the Rockies, the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and the Brewers.

And so we journey to the mystic American League West to take a look at the first of three teams that could give the Fightins the most trouble in the World Series: The Seattle Mariners.

2009 Roster

C1: Rob Johnson (0.3 WAR)
C2: Kenji Johjima (0.9 WAR)

1B: Russell Branyan (2.8 WAR)
2B: Jose Lopez (2.6 WAR)
3B: Adrian Beltre (2.4 WAR)
SS: Yuniesky Betancourt (-0.8 WAR); Josh Wilson (0.5 WAR); Ronny Cedeno (-0.7 WAR); Jack Wilson (0.1 WAR)
INF: Jack Hannahan (0.5 WAR); Mike Sweeney (0.4 WAR)

OF1: Franklin Gutierrez (5.9 WAR)
OF2: Ichiro Suzuki (5.1 WAR)
OF3: Endy Chavez (0.9 WAR)
OF4: Ken Griffey, Jr. (0.3 WAR)
OF5: Bill Hall (-0.5 WAR)

SP1: Felix Hernandez (6.9 WAR)
SP2: Jarrod Washburn (2.7 WAR)
SP3: Ryan Rowland-Smith (1.5 WAR)
SP4: Eric Bedard (1.9 WAR)
SP5: Ian Snell (0.3 WAR)
SP6: Jason Vargas (0.4 WAR)

CL: David Aardsma (1.9 WAR)
SU: Mark Lowe (1.3 WAR)
RP: Miguel Bautista (0.1 WAR)
RP: Sean White (0.7 WAR)
RP: Shawn Kelley (0.0 WAR)
RP: Brandon Morrow (0.2 WAR)
RP: Carlos Silva (-0.1 WAR)
RP: Garrett Olson (-0.8 WAR)

2009 Total WAR: 37.7

For those of you keeping score at home, statnerds absolutely love this team. They act like Beatles groupies around GM Jack Zduriencik, worship upon the altar of Franklin Gutierrez, who posted off-the-charts defensive numbers as a center fielder last year and broke off a 5.9-win season (just better than Matt Holliday and Kevin Youkilis) despite only hitting .283 with 18 home runs and a .339 OBP. They won 85 games last year, despite only scoring 640 runs and being outscored by 52 runs.

Last season, this was a very top-heavy team. The two best non-pitchers, Ichiro and Gutierrez, made up more than half of the total value of Seattle’s position players. Those two, plus Felix Hernandez and 2/3 of a season of Jarrod Washburn, were more valuable than the rest of the team combined.

Zduriencik took over in 2008 and has since dealt freely. The theory behind the Mariners is to set the tactical clock back about 95 years. Assemble a team of guys who get on base and play great defense in this ridiculously big park and hitch your wagon to a couple top-flight starting pitchers.

The Mariners finished 4 games over .500 while carrying arguably the worst position player (Betancourt) and the worst pitcher (Silva) in baseball. Both have since been cashiered, and a frenzy of moves has made this team into a contender and the obligatory “team no one wants to face in the postseason.”

2010 Projected Roster

C1: Rob Johnson (0.6 WAR)
C2: Adam Moore (0.3 WAR)

1B: Casey Kotchman (0.9 WAR)
2B: Jose Lopez (2.6 WAR)
3B: Chone Figgins (3.2 WAR)
SS: Jack Wilson (1.3 WAR)
INF: Jack Hannahan (1.3 WAR); Ryan Garko (0.8)

OF1: Franklin Gutierrez (3.0 WAR)
OF2: Ichiro Suzuki (2.9 WAR)
OF3: Milton Bradley (1.7 WAR)
OF4: Ken Griffey, Jr. (-0.6 WAR)
OF5: Eric Byrnes (0.5 WAR)

SP1: Felix Hernandez (6.0 WAR)
SP2: Cliff Lee (6.0 WAR)*
SP3: Eric Bedard (2.3 WAR)*
SP4: Ryan Rowland-Smith (2.7 WAR)*
SP5: Ian Snell (1.8 WAR)*

CL: David Aardsma (1.2 WAR)*
SU: Mark Lowe (0.8 WAR)*
RP: Brandon League (1.1 WAR)*
RP: Sean White (0.5 WAR)*
RP: Shawn Kelley (0.5 WAR)*
RP: Ricky Orta (o.o WAR)–No previous ML experience
RP: Jason Vargas (0.6 WAR)*
RP: Kanekoa Texeira (0.0 WAR)—No previous ML experience

2010 Projected Total WAR: 43.5

Now, I’m not really sure what to make of these predictions. I wouldn’t bee too swayed by the higher WAR total–the FanGraphs fan rankings have a tendency to systematically overrate. However, CHONE foresees that the values of Franklin Gutierrez, Chone Figgins, and Ichiro will each be cut in half. I have no clue why. WAR adjusts for park effects, and it’s not like Ichiro’s ever going to stop hitting .350.

On the other hand, the advanced fielding stats (or as some say, “metrics,” a term I tend to avoid because I find it pretentious) tend to be somewhat finicky from one year to the next, and defense was, after all, the foundation of Gutierrez’s absurd value.

The Mariners also lost their only two big power bats: Beltre and Russell Branyan. That those two were the heart of the Mariner order last year should tell you everything you need to know about this team. They do not have a player on their active roster who hit more than 20 home runs last season. They do, however, start the order with Chone Figgins (.395 OBP in 2009) and Ichiro (.386 OBP), so whoever does hit third, most likely Bradley, will have ample RBI opportunities.

The lack of power could be a problem, or Mariner opponents could suffer Death by 1,000 Hit-and-Run Singles. Who knows?

However, in spite of losing those bats and picking up the “troubled” Milton Bradley, there are a lot of things to like about this team. First, they picked up some dude named Lee who they tell me is pretty decent. Affable Aussie Ryan Rowland-Smith is a solid pitcher. Eric Bedard, once he comes back, could team with Lee and Hernandez to form a potent top-of-the-rotation combination. They also shored up what was a terrible bullpen last year with the addition of Brandon League, a hard-throwing former Blue Jay who was acquired in a trade for Dallas Stars center Brenden Morrow. (I know they’re not spelled the same way, but I still think it’s funny.)

Speaking of bullpen power arms, the returning closer, David Aardsma, has always been a favorite of mine. In 2004, he broke one of Hank Aaron’s most famous records 3 years before his then-Giants teammate Barry Bonds took out the home run record. Aardsma surpassed Aaron for first on the all-time list of major league players in alphabetical order by last name, a record that could stand a while if there’s not a Dutch infielder with a last name that starts with three a’s in a row.

The Mariners also pillaged the Pirates in a seafaring player swap at last year’s trade deadline, pilfering shortstop Jack Wilson and pitcher Ian Snell. CHONE predicts Wilson, a decent hitter and excellent defender, to pick up only a token 1.3 wins. Even if he only does that well, the combination of Yuniesky Betancourt and Ronny Cedeno were literally 1.5 WAR worse than a minor leaguer off the street would have been. It’s still a huge upgrade at short.

Another thing to like is outfielder Michael Saunders, who is not listed here because he’s not near the top of the depth chart. FanGraphs rates him as the organization’s top prospect, and Phillies fans might know him as The Guy We Wanted for Cliff Lee But Didn’t Get. Saunders is 23, and in 2009 he turned it on in AAA, cutting his strikeout rate by a third, hitting for more power, and upping his batting average to .310 in 282 plate appearances. In limited duty with the Mariners last year, he didn’t really impress, hitting only .221 with a dismal .057 isolated power. But lots of good young hitters struggle in their first big-league action, so if Saunders can figure it out and crack the lineup, he provides insurance for the aging and fragile Ken Griffey and the batshit-insane Milton Bradley.

The AL West is shaping up to be a difficult division, with 3 teams in the hunt to win it. It’s no lock that the Mariners will even make the playoffs, but if and when they do, they could put the fear of God into the other World Series contenders.

The knock on the Mariners is that they don’t hit. With this pitching staff, this defense, and SAFECO Field, they may not have to.

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