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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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February 1, 2008 9:21 AM

M's need more than weak division

Posted by Geoff Baker

Lots of discussion the past day or so about the Brad Wilkerson deal and the chances of the Mariners winning the wild-card rather than the AL West. On Wilkerson, I think it was a solid move with a big potential for upside. On the hitting front, Wilkerson was a lot closer to a league average hitter his past few, injury hampered, seasons than Jose Guillen was in 2006 before signing with Seattle.

Though Wilkerson's upside is not what Guillen's was, it should be only a small offensive downgrade. Defensively, it's a small upgrade. Compared to Adam Jones, who may finally get traded "officially" in the next day or two, Wilkerson could exceed his offense, while not being as good defensively. How much will that cost the team? We don't know, but I assume that Wilkerson overall will be at least a slight downgrade from what Jones overall will produce in his first full season. How that translates in the won-lost column is anyone's guess. And when it comes to Seattle's overall defensive efficiency, much will depend on the continued improvement of the middle infield versus the regression of the older outfielders. Remember, this team won 88 games with two below average defensive corner outfielders last season, combined with a sub-par starting rotation.

A suggestion by Donovan in the comments thread yesterday, which I had made on a couple of occasions previously, is that Seattle's wild-card hopes could be greatly improved by the fact there will likely be two weak teams in the AL West next season. The operative word in that sentence is "could" because when it comes to the AL wild-card, recent history shows the "two weak teams" theory doesn't guarantee much.

My favorite example of this would be the 2001 season, when the AL East boasted (well, nobody was boasting, so a bad choice of a word) two sub-.400 teams in Baltimore and Tampa Bay. To go along with that, the AL Central had a .407 team in Detroit, combined with a .401 squad in Kansas City. So, naturally, the AL wild-card had to come from one of those two divisions, right?

Yeah, sure.

The wild-card that year went to a 102-game winner in Oakland. Seattle, as we all know, won 116 games and the AL West that year. The bottom two teams in the division? Anaheim had a .463 winning percentage, while Texas was at .451. Nothing to write home about, but a whole lot better than the bottom two in other divisions.

It was the M's who won the wild-card in 2000 despite only one sub-.500 team in the division, while there were two apiece in the AL East and Central.

There were three AL West clubs with at least 93 wins in 2002, while the AL Central had a pair of .383 and .342 squads. There were three losing squads in the AL East that year, including a .383 dud from Tampa Bay. Yet somehow, the Angels from the AL West stormed their way to 99 wins and the wild-card.

The AL Central had a .260 (!!!) Tigers team and a .420 squad from Cleveland in 2003 and yet, it was the Red Sox in the AL East who won the wild-card.

It was a toss up as to whether the AL East or Central had the bottom three worst teams in 2004, but the Red Sox from the East did prevail for the wild-card. So, the "bad teams" theory did gain some ground there.

But it didn't work out in 2005 when the AL Central had a .346 and .438 stinker in their midst, yet watched the Red Sox take the wild-card, playing in a division with three teams that won 80 or more and a fourth that won 74.

The Tigers took the wild-card in 2006 despite the bottom two teams in the AL East being worse than the bottom two in the AL Central. The Central had lowly KC with a .383 winning percentage, but that was trumped by a .377 from the Devil Rays in the East. Baltimore that year had a .432 winning percentage as well, compared to .481 from the next-to-worst Central team. No matter. It was Tigers by a landslide for the wild-card.

Last season does give some reason for M's fans to hope. Seattle contended for the wild-card -- and actually led it -- all the way to September, helped largely by two losing teams that went .469 and .463 in their division. But alas, the Yankees took the wild-card, playing in a division with two bottom squads checking in at .426 and .407 respectively.

Seeing a pattern here? Good, because I don't.

Obviously, it's been pretty random all decade long. But granted, the M's do have a shot at padding their win total with a pair of sub-.500 teams in the division. How do I know this?

Because here are the win totals of the second-place AL West teams in years in which the division has had a pair of clubs with losing records:

2007 -- 88
2006 -- 89
2005 -- 88
2003 -- 93
2001 -- 102

Hey, it doesn't guarantee anything. But it's a start. The rest will depend on the M's. As Donovan mentioned, the advantage the Mariners will have is getting to play 38 games against what should be a pair of losing teams in Oakland and Texas. That won't be the same as having to go head-to-head against the Yankees, Tigers, Indians and Red Sox. Seattle will have to pad its record as best it can within the division and hope to remain competitive (close to .500) with the other contenders.

That route helped plenty last season. The M's went 25-13 against losing A's and Rangers squads. They held their own against the Yankees, going 5-5, and went 5-4 against the World Series champion Red Sox. They went 4-6 against Detroit and 3-4 against Cleveland. So, they went a game under .500 against the four AL behemoths not in their division.

So, why only 88 wins? Well, first off, 88 wins is nothing to sneeze at. But to get into the 90s, that 11-8 record against Texas probably had to be a couple of wins more dominant. And going 6-13 against the Angels? Can't happen. Not for a team that wants to sniff the playoffs. Obviously, improving the record against the Angels is a must and adding a pitcher of Bedard's ilk could help in those head-to-head matchups.

But yes, the M's will have to stay dominant against the AL West bottom-feeders to have a shot.

UPDATE (3:16 p.m.): No more word on the Bedard trade just yet. To Steveboise in the comments thread, Wilkerson has a career OPS+ of 107 versus 101 for Guillen, if we're going to compare career numbers. Yes, Guillen has jumpstarted his numbers since 2003. There could be all kinds of reasons to explain that boost -- we've seen some of them suggested in news reports this winter. Not saying Wilkerson is the be-all, end-all, but he's been a steady, slightly above league average hitter -- even when not healthy. Every year except for 2006. He hit almost as many home runs as Guillen did last season with only 338 at-bats.


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