The Chicago Cubs recent championship run highlighted a near-perfect rebuilding effort by President Theo Epstein. Although the fanbase had to endure several losing seasons a combination of well-crafted drafts, trades and free agent signings led to a winning team.
Complete tear-downs of a team are common in all sports. Analytics-driven GMs have long advocated for teams being very good or very bad, but to avoid being mediocre. In the NBA, NHL and NFL, high draft picks can change the fortune of a franchise for a decade. Thus, the evolution of tanking has spread throughout sports in efforts to secure these coveted draft picks.
In baseball, however, the line leading from draft pick to superstar is often less direct. Rebuilds, while necessary for some, are not nearly as easy as the Cubs made it appear (insert a list of your team’s stalled rebuilds here). Still, the Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays are organizations that recently bottomed out, accumulated picks and through development or trade, made it back to the playoffs.
Indeed, small market teams such as Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Kansas City, Tampa, Oakland and the Montreal Expos were in perpetual rebuild mode, due in large part to financial constraints. For instance, from 2007 -11 the Royals spent $45 on draft bonuses, and with a successful developmental program, their farm system prospects were estimated to be worth $245 million by 2011. Four years later, the Royals core developed into a championship squad. Rebuilding was the most reasonable option for these teams and although each suffered through long periods of losing, they all made it to the playoffs in recent years. The key to all of these rebuilds was an ability for teams to support their high draft picks with coaching, patience and development.
Yet, complete team tear-downs are not a guaranteed success. Residing in the competitive AL East, the Blue Jays have found themselves in a slightly different situation. Not exactly a small market team, the Jays were unable to keep pace with a pair of free-spending powerhouses in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The 1998 Jays won 88 games and finished in third place in the Eastern division, a full 26 games back of a historic Yankees team.
A decades long drought followed, with several rebuilding efforts, including one built around Carlos Delgado and a trio of young, high ceiling starting pitchers in Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, and Kelvim Escobar. When that failed, a second wave was built around Halladay, Vernon Wells, Scott Rolen, and Alex Rios. None of those teams made the playoffs, a pattern that repeated until the Jays finally broke through in 2015 and returned to post-season play. Leveraging a strong collection of prospects, the Jays finally succeeded by making a series of aggressive win-now moves (e.g., David Price, Troy Tulowitzki) that emptied the farm system. Ending the drought was achieved by accepting a very narrow window, which the Jays may see closed this upcoming season. Right or wrong, the Jays were competitive again after years of rebuilding.
With the Jays back in the post-season, the Seattle Mariners have become the unfortunate owner’s of the longest playoff drought in the majors. Former GM, Jack Zduriencik led a prolonged rebuilding project that involved many painful losing seasons, while stocking the farm system. However, misses in player assessment and development stalled out an entire cohort of players including Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Brandon Morrow, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and Josh Fields, (the exception being third-round pick Kyle Seager) followed by a second wave of Danny Hultzen, Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino and DJ Peterson. Indeed, by 2013 there was little enthusiasm for the team on the field (The Seattle Mariners: Into Darkness) or the prospects for the future (Are the Mariners’ days of future already past?). By March 2016, with the team coming off another losing season, Seattle’s farm system was rated 28th out 30 teams by the Baseball Prospectus.
Amidst the chaos, however, change was afoot. In 2015, The Mariners hired former LA Angels general manager, Jerry Dipoto as their new GM. Under Dipoto, Seattle’s developmental system improved resulting in better performances from their young players and increased organizational depth. Even so, the core at the major league level remained largely unchanged. Heading into 2017, concerns center on the aging roster and questions surrounding how long a window for winning remains. Key players include Robinson Cano (34), Nelson Cruz (36), Hisashi Iwakuma (35) and Felix Hernandez (30). The question that remains is what level of performance should be expected from Seattle’s core for next year and beyond?
Cano landed in Seattle in 2014 at a time when the roster needed an everyday leader. Cano brought legitimacy to an organization that had suffered through some historically bad offenses in 2010 and 2011. His 10 year contract runs through 2023, so it was always assumed that Cano’s time with the Mariners would extend beyond his competitive window. The, literally million(s) dollar question was, how long would that window last?
I 2014, Cano performed as expected. A solid hitter, he anchored the batting lineup and his defense was light years ahead of any other Mariner. With Robinson leading the way, the young Mariners followed and nearly made the playoffs. Injuries (a double hernia) limited Cano in 2015 both at the plate and in the field. As a result, the Mariners underperformed and were never in contention, a fact that drew the ire of former hitting coach Andy Van Slyke and contributed to the firing of GM Jack Z and manager Lloyd McClendon. Cano was back to form in 2016, and not surprisingly, the team remained competitive through September. So, in his fourth season with the team, how much does Cano have left in the tank?
Looking at career performances of some notable second basemen through MLB history provides some context for Cano’s future. Whereas, there is clearly variation among players, a consistent drop in performance, as measured by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is observed around 34 years of age. Robinson performed well in 2016, looking comfortable both at the plate and in the field. It will, therefore, be very interesting to see whether he can maintain that level of play in 2017.
In rightfield and at DH, Nelson Cruz‘s “Boom stick” has powered the Mariners offense with 44 and 43 home runs in 2015 and 2016. Cruz is signed for two more years and although there is likely to be some decline over that time (Fig. 2), it seems reasonable to assume that he will contribute from the DH spot.
Ultimately, the Mariners fortunes will be largely shaped by the performance of the starting pitching staff. The leader of that group is and has been Felix Hernandez. Felix has reinvented himself a few times, dominating early in his career with his fastball, and being just as effective with his curve and change-up more recently. Hernandez started his major league career early (19 years old), and his blazing velocity was lost long ago. His repertoire of pitches paired with his experience has allowed Felix to remain an effective ace for the Mariners. Nonetheless, Hernandez’s performance has declined sharply the past two seasons (Fig. 3). His performance in 2016 was not sustainable as an ace, and must be improved if the Mariners hope to contend in the West.
Power pitchers appear to be capable of maintaining a level of performance through their 30’s, so there is hope that Felix can right the ship. For the Mariners to compete in 2017, they need Cano, Cruz and Felix to perform against the odds until some of the organizations prospects rally to their aid.