The goal of a front office, per annum, is to win the World Series. From an elevated perspective, it is to build a top down system of acquiring and developing talent that leads to the best odds year in and year out of winning the World Series. By the end of 2017, the Mariners are exceedingly unlikely to achieve either of these goals. Whether the Mariners squeak into the playoffs as a Wild Card, or miss the postseason for a sixteenth consecutive season, the season is most likely a short term failure.
Failure is a loaded term, and one with an undeservedly negative association. After all, as they say, baseball is The Game of Failure. Failure combined with the proper mindset leads to growth, better failure, and finally, success. While the Mariners are not yet the shining city on the hill for all of baseball to admire and aspire to be, the first half of 2017 has seen some notable improvement, from one of their longest running weaknesses.
The performance of the Mariner’s outfield this decade has, until recently, been an utter failure. Like a baseball Statue of Liberty other baseball teams have sent their Morses, their Trumbos, their Ricky Weeks’. If you have watched the team at all in past years this is far from revelatory, but to drive home the point here is the AL ranking of Mariner outfielders in fWAR every year this decade prior to 2017:
2010: 8th (6.6 fWAR)
2011: 14th (-1.3!!)
2012: 11th (3.9)
2013: 13th (0.8)
2014: 15th (1.7) (to hell with you, Austin Jackson)
2015: 6th (10.4)
2016: 4th (8.9)
There are some very low points there, along with that dreaded and familiar term Mariners fans know so well by now: A low ceiling. In fact 2015 stands as the only season of Mike Trout’s career that Mariner outfielders, combined, have accrued more fWAR than him (10.4 vs. 9.0).
So we have a sample of a lot of truly awful, with a smattering of average-slightly above average production.. I went looking to see if there was a common thread in the failures and, by and large, there sure was. Here is the average age of Mariner outfielders by year, minimum 100 plate appearances.
2010: 29.6 years
Let’s chart it!
The data lines up well with what we’ve perceived over the years: The Mariners have been bad at developing positional talent, particularly outfielders. Whenever the team attempted to build a young outfield (Trayvon Robinson, Casper Wells, Mike Carp, etc) the position group’s production took a nose dive. With the mild exception of Michael Saunders it has only been through the acquisition of costly and/or aging talent from outside the organization (ex. Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Raul Ibanez) that the Mariners have managed to drag their outfield into competence.
It is in this way that Jerry Dipoto’s 2017 Mariners stand apart. The average age of Mariner outfielders this year is 27.6 years, and with a little more than half the season banked they are on pace for 12.1 fWAR. Granted the oldest, and most short term member of the group, Jarrod Dyson, leads them with 2.0 wins, but Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, and Mitch Haniger are all close behind, bunched up at 1.9, 1.2, and 1.4, respectively. Let’s update that chart to include 2017’s projected production:
All three rookies (Haniger/Gamel/Heredia) are in the 25-26 age range, and potentially have room for further development and growth. I think the odds are against any of them regularly producing the 5+ wins of a true star, and Gamel and Haniger are due for some harsh BABIP regression. However, they have shown a consistent ability to produce quality at-bats, and feature acceptable to good walk rates, along with average to above average defense at all three outfield positions. They loosely share a well rounded skillset, with the ability to endure some dry offensive periods and still provide value in other ways on the field. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to think that each of them can be a 1.5-3 win player in upcoming seasons.
Let’s go Guillermoooooooooooooo.
The man is a star. pic.twitter.com/JubaWDRqaZ
— Andrew Rice (@Andrew_Rice) July 2, 2017
The potential windfall of pencilling in 4.5-9 wins from your young outfield is enormous due to the other benefit of young players: Club control! Between Haniger, Gamel, and Heredia the Mariners have an almost embarrassing eighteen years of club control, half of which is pre-arbitration, and thus at or near league minimum salary. Baseball’s screw-the-young-guy labor structure allows the team to absorb the expensive decline years of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Felix Hernandez while potentially making up the difference with an incredibly cheap, productive outfield.
This, this is how you overcome years of criminally negligent and incompetent front offices. While Jerry Dipoto has been far from perfect, and the pitching side of the organization is still a barren wasteland where even small oasis of prospect competence has fans lapping at the water like dying men, his work in the outfield stands as his finest achievement in his first year and a half in Seattle. He has taken an organizational black hole, both at the major and minor league level, and filled it so quickly and efficiently that we haven’t even discussed the developing fail safe redundancies in the minors, aka Tyler O’Neill and Kyle Lewis.
We all hope the 2017 Mariners take advantage of a down American League, and find themselves in a playoff game in October. But regardless of this season’s outcome, the organization and the fanbase should remember the final goal, which is best in baseball levels of greatness, year in and year out. There are miles and miles between them and that destination, but a quick glance at outfields past shows many miles have already been traveled. Carry on, Jerry. Carry on.