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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 12, 2008 4:42 PM

Countdown...4...3...2...1...

Posted by Geoff Baker

I'm staring outside at a lovely palm tree in my front yard, so that can only mean one thing. Either I've been abducted to Hawaii, or I'm in Arizona getting ready for the start of spring training. As in tomorrow morning, when pitchers and catchers report. That was quite the debate we've had over the last 24 hours. I'd like to thank Graham over at Lookout Landing for getting the ball rolling in the right direction with the coin flip analogy. The best part about is was: he got people to focus on the methodologies and thinking behind all the simulations and predictions about the 2008 Mariners going on in the Seattle blogosphere.

Never thought it would lead to a blog-battle with this site used as the battlefield.

For what it's worth, I put a good deal of stock into what Dave Cameron at U.S.S. Mariner has to say. His methodologies are well thought out and articulated. That doesn't mean I agree with everything on his site. Didn't agree with the ZiPS simulations the other day that suggested the Oakland A's are going to win the AL West. Any of you truly believe that, head on out to Las Vegas right now and get in on that action.

I have become a fan of Detect-O-Vision over the past year, largely because of the site's (and Dr. D's and SABRMatt's) ability to think "outside the box" in regards to numbers and sabermetrics. Who would have thought it would come to that so quickly? A few years ago, "outside the box" and "sabermetrics" went hand-in-hand. Not so much anymore, I'm afraid. Thanks to some inflexibility and perhaps the fear of losing any ground/respect gained, that domain is often victim to the same "group think" that old-school baseball traditionalists were once accused of operating under. Not always, thankfully. There are folks, even Bill James, dedicated to revisiting their own past theories and changing them if they no longer stand up to scrutiny. This is the true spirit of what sabermetrics are supposed to be about. Nowadays, I find too much of it sounding like dogma. Perhaps that's just my impression here on the front lines of the blogosphere. But it's nice to see folks willing to challenge the newer sets of numbers that some insist is baseball gospel without the accuracy or certainty to back that up.

Naturally, I am a fan of Lookout Landing and Jeff Sullivan, a very talented writer. It was an LL post by Graham that helped get this debate started. We are very lucky to have a blogosphere like this one in Seattle and it pains me to see Cameron, the Doc, or Sullivan dragged through the mud and flat out insulted. Challenge them all you like. Get a little snarky and aggressive if you want. But treat them all with the proper degree of respect, please.

For the record, as much as I disagree with plenty of U.S.S. Mariner's take on the Jones/Bedard trade signaling the beginning of the end (author's exaggeration) of mankind as we know it, their red flags are worth taking seriously. For the M's to ignore their Pythagorean record of 79-83 and assume they are truly an 88-win team would be foolish. Yes, they do need production in right field from Brad Wilkerson. Yes, they do need the offense to at least be a league-average producer.

If the offense falls apart, down to a 95 OPS+, it is going to be very difficult for the Mariners to contend.

If the defense is too much worse than last year's, this team will also be hard-pressed to contend.

That is not the product of wild guesswork. It's the truth where this team is concerned. Getting Bedard was not the signal to start mapping out a parade route. A whole bunch of stuff needs to be answered by this team. I agree with U.S.S. Mariner's assessments. Just not their conclusions.

I don't think the outfield defense will be much worse than last season. You take Wilkerson over Guillen defensively in right and then, with Ibanez in left, look for his healthier body (burdened for a half-season by injury last year) to offset any expected age regression. Looks like a sawoff to me.

In the infield, you hope that Beltre stays Beltre, that the middle infielders continue to improve with another year of experience, and that Richie Sexson doesn't kill you. But if you've got to have one defensive position killing you on a team, first base isn't the worst spot to have it. Will Kenji Johjima improve as a catcher? I can't see why not, given how he upped other areas of his game last year and how the plan this spring is to tackle other areas he falls short in. Framing pitches would be a good place to start.

But overall, I just don't see the defensive apocalypse many are predicting is about to strike.

I also don't see the huge offensive dropoff many are predicting. Nor do I see Sexson hitting 40 home runs. But if he hits 25, that's a great addition from last year. I do see some type of "Sexson bounce" back from the abyss. How big it is will go a long way towards helping this offense hold on to its 104 OPS+ from last season. Somebody needs to replace Guillen's lost power. If not Wilkerson, the help needs to come from other positions.

If this offense holds its position, which I think it can with some Sexson and Jose Lopez bounce -- and Jose Vidro parlaying his second-half from 2007 into a full-season -- then I do see the Mariners contending. I don't think the loss of George Sherrill is going to harm the bullpen all that much, largely because I think the starters delivering more innings and keeping the relievers fresh will mitigate the loss of one of the game's top situational lefties.

Here's a thought. I'd do the math, but I have to run out and stock our Seattle Times condo with some groceries. How badly did the bullpen collapse in September hurt the team's Phythagorean record last year?

You'd have to look at the relievers' splits, month-by-month, and the average number of runs given up before it ran out of gas. I'd pick mid-August as the breaking point. After that, look at how many more runs per game the bullpen allowed on average. Subtract those extra runs from the season total and I'm sure the Pythag record goes up accordingly.

For example, the bullpen gave up five runs on Aug. 28, three runs on Aug. 30, eight runs on Sept. 4, seven runs on Sept. 5, five more runs on Sept. 8 and four runs on Sept. 10. There was an off-day in there as well, so that's about half the games in a two-week span in which the bullpen allowed three or more runs -- which is a lot. I'm not claiming this to be scientific, but I don't think it's going out on a limb to suggest the M's could vastly improve their Pythag by avoiding a bullpen collapse. I think the better rotation in 2008, combined with another year of experience and arm endurance for the young relievers, will help avoid this.

By the way, that late-season stretch where Seattle dropped 15 of 17 to fall out of the race? They ran a minus-51 in run differential over that stretch. Any study of the team's Pythag should begin right there. If you ask me, by shoring up the rotation and helping the bullpen avoid a late collapse, that run differential problem is dramatically improved. I would think.

Not the entire solution. But for me, you can make as rational an argument for tackling the team's problems from this starting point as you can in arguing for improved outfield defense and power.

See you all tomorrow.

ADDITIONAL NOTES (9:20 P.M.): To Adam, great stuff as usual. It's nice to have readers who aren't afraid to challenge what is said. I'd find it tough to disagree with anybody who suggested the Angels also saw their bullpen overworked in the first half of 2007 and your numbers seem to suggest it. They had Bartolo Colon out for the first month, saw Jered Weaver go down as well and Ervin Santana imploded early and often. Didn't help that Justin Speier got felled by virus for two months, further taxing the bullpen. Perhaps that's a reason Scot Shields performed so poorly down the stretch? Remember, K-Rod wasn't exactly lights-out in the second half, either. The Angels bullpen was actually a huge second-half concern if I remember correctly.

You also alluded to the inexperience in Seattle's bullpen as opposed to the more-seasoned Angels relievers. That's putting it mildly. Here are the major league innings previously logged by Seattle's young bullpen arms prior to 2007, compared to what they actually threw last season:

O'Flaherty:

2007 -- 52 1/3
pre-2007 -- 11


Green:

2007 -- 68
pre-2007 -- 32

Morrow:

2007 -- 63 1/3
pre-2007 -- 0


Rowland-Smith

2007 -- 38 2/3
pre-2007 -- 0


So, those younger mainstays had thrown all of 43 innings in the majors prior to last season, before logging 222 1/3 combined frames in 2007. A five-fold increase against big-leaguers. Yes, they had thrown plenty of innings in the minors, save for Morrow, who was fresh out of college. But remember, throwing to major leaguers is not the same as logging innings at Class AAA, or college ball, in seasons that run through until Sept. 1 at the latest. It's those games that run past Sept. 1 that really test the endurance of arms that have yet to experience a full major league season.

Sure, some guys did OK in September. Probably because the team began backing them off in August. And remember, simply throwing a bunch of mop-up innings in the sixth and seventh is not the same as working high-leverage situations in the eighth.

Let's look at the more experienced arm of George Sherrill.

In 2006, Sherrill threw 40 innings of major league ball. By the all-star break last season, he'd already logged 28 and was on-pace for 54 over a full-season before the M's put the brakes on. Sherrill's worst month of the season, by far, came in August.

J.J. Putz wasn't a problem at all last season, though his ERA did rise slightly in the second half. But Putz's arm had already been tested the previous year, put through the rigors of a full season as a back-end major league bullpen regular.

As for the other arms, they were asked to do more, under more stressful conditions, than ever before. The "youth" quotient that, in theory, would give a pitcher more raw strength, doesn't really factor in to what is actually an endurance test. And these pitchers simply ran out of gas. The fact that some may have had better final months simply shows that they were allowed to catch their breaths (thanks to Rick White and John Parrish) before making it through the last few weeks on fumes.

So, the fact that the Angels, who'd all been there/done that before, were able to log a similar amount of innings doesn't lessen the fact that the M's were gassed. They were overworked relative to what they were capable of producing without a major letdown.

For Mark W, in the comments thread, yes, I am much more excited about this coming season than I was heading into last year. Though I am putting the M's second for now, I feel the team is capable of moving up to first place. Any writer would rather cover a contender. I have spent 10 years in this business, waiting for a team I covered to make a move as bold as the M's just did. And not foolish bold, either. They saw the same window I see and they went for it. Not every team does. Many lack the talent to trade, or the fortitude to take a risk. Some can't afford the cost. I give the M's kudos for doing this.

I can tell you, it's a lot more fun covering the team when it wins and the stakes are raised. Not that it will make me blindly cheerlead for them to make such moves all the time. After all, I may be excited about the M's acquiring Bedard and taking their shot. But it does me no good if I spend all winter writing about what a great idea landing Bedard will be, only to see the team go out and fall flat on its face. I'd rather cover a losing team, if I know it's a loser, and be right in my professional assessment. That's why I would not be touting this move unless I believed in it. After all, who's going to get nailed on this blog if it all blows up in Seattle's face?

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