Are the Seattle Mariners Rebuilding?

Image from Mariners Blog.

Traditionally, teams that win 89 games in the previous season don’t typically become sellers in the following offseason. Those types of teams are a few players away from solidifying a roster that has a chance to make a deep run into the playoffs. The Seattle Mariners may disagree with that notion, and it isn’t because of their roster. They play in one of the most competitive divisions in baseball. The Astro’s (103-59) and the Athletics (97-65) each went to the playoffs last season, and neither team shows any sign of being on the decline.

According to the CGMs Statistical Power Rankings, the Astro’s were the most talented team and the Athletics were the seventh best team in baseball last year. The Mariners were respectably ranked 13th, but competition in the American League was fierce and as talented as the Mariners roster was going into the offseason, they were still on the outside looking in going into the 2019 season. The Mariners were in need of a top of the rotation starting pitcher (to replace a declining Felix Hernandez), a middle reliever to bridge to Edwin Diaz (now a Met) and another high-powered outfield bat to help bridge the gap between themselves and the rest of the AL West. As a middle-market team, the Mariners had little change of luring a top free agent, and instead would need to orchestrate a plus-version of Moneyball to compete with a dominant Astro’s team, and an Athletics team run by a man that can only be described as a sorcerer in Billy Beane.

The Mariners had three options:

  1. Become buyers in the offseason and spend money (which they may not have, they paid $157,000,000 for their roster) on free agents, or trade for bonafide MLBers by mortgaging what little talent they had left in their already depleted farm system.
  2. They could sell off some of their more expensive chips, and attempt to maintain their roster’s integrity by acquiring younger players while trying to outlast the dominance of the Astros at the expense of the immediate.
  3. Blow it up, sell off their pieces, reload their farm system, and wait three to five years for Houston to hit the cliff.

From what we can tell, the Mariners are exercising option two. In the last week, they made what will likely be the biggest trade in the offseason, sending the MLB’s best closer in RHP Edwin Diaz, who posted 57 saves, a .79 WHIP and a 1.96 ERA to the New York Mets along with 13-year veteran 2B Robinson Cano. Cano, coming off an 80-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, hit .303 last year and was serviceable at second base, but is still owed half of the 10-year $240M contract he signed with the Mariners. In return, the Mariners received a compliment of young and veteran players from the Mets. The deal was headlined by fifth overall pick OF Jarred Kelenic, who projects as a top 50 MLB prospect without ever having stepped in a professional batters box, and is joined by another top 100 prospect in RHP Justin Dunn who is still a year or two away from the bigs, but is a candidate for a training camp invite. The Mariners also received three MLB-ready players in OF Jay Bruce, RHP Anthony Swarzak, and RHP Gerson Bautista. Bruce had a rough 2018 campaign, but has a lot of pop in his bat, a plus arm, and is one of the best clubhouse personalities in baseball. Bautista projects as a plus reliever and has good “stuff” that should keep him around in the league for a long time. Swarzak is a veteran middle reliever who should immediately fill the 7th inning role for the M’s despite a down 2018 season.

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The trade accomplished a few important things for the Ms:

  1. It replenished their weak farm system with three young prospects that project as starting to all-star caliber players.
  2. It dumped the contract of 2B Robinson Cano who was still owed $120M.
  3. It brought in serviceable talent at multiple positions.

The Mariners continued making moves a few days later by trading their leadoff hitter and two-time all-star, SS Jean Segura along with RHP Juan Nicasio and LHP James Pazos to the Phillies. Segura, the 28-year old breakout star who the Mariners acquired in a trade with D-backs hit .302 in his two years with the Mariners. In return, the Mariners received 1B Carlos Santana-who posted a career-low batting average (.229) and OPS (.766)-and Phillies former top prospect, SS J.P. Crawford. Although Crawford has maintained himself as a top 50 prospect since 2013, his MLB service time has been forgettable.  He’s hit .214 in 225 plate appearances and struck out 59 times over that span. What he did manage to do well was flash what may be the best glove in baseball along with posting a respectable .333 OBP.  I have doubts that he will become a better player than Segura has become, but he’s young and the Mariners could be the change of scenery and the fresh start he needs.

The salary dump of Cano and Segura should help the Mariners sign a few players to fill some gaps over the next few years, but what these trade really do for the franchise is cement the next five years at a few positions. Dunn, Kelenic, Crawford, and Bautista should be in a Mariners uniform for a long time to come. The Mariners may not be better than they were Yesterday, but playing in the AL West all but guarantees that for the next few years, their ceiling is the wild card. Mariner fans should be pleased with the trades, despite giving up Segura and Diaz. If J.P. Crawford and Jared Kelenic can live up to their potential, it’s going to be a fun team to watch down the road.

Commentary: Who Is Winning The NFL Free Agency So Far? Top 3 Free Agencies

It’s hard to quantify what a free agent or trade addition will do to help a new team in the coming year. You can never be sure how a player will fit into a new scheme, or play alongside different personnel. So what then becomes the metric to determine how well a team is doing in their offseason additions? Do we have to wait like Mike Mayock and refuse to give out grades? No, there’s no fun or intrigue in waiting to give out offseason grades and rating a teams additions. Instead, we have to assess whether or not the additions have helped make the team better than the previous iteration. For some teams like Cleveland with a lower floor, the additions mean a lot more than other teams that may have added a good player to an already competitive team. So with this in mind, I will begin the objective and abstract process of determining the top three offseasons to date.

Los Angeles Rams
Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Lamarcus Joyner, Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters. There’s not much else that needs to be said about that. Following the departure of standout Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, the defensive backfield became a question mark. They elected to use the franchise tag on Joyner instead of WR Sammy Watkins, but the team still had holes to fill at the cornerback position. That hole was quickly filled by veteran Aqib Talib, acquired in a trade from Denver, and rising superstar Marcus Peters. The retention of Nickell Robey-Coleman gave the unit their third corner, and veteran Sam Shields provides another reliable defensive back that can contribute on passing downs.
The team did elect to move on from talented Linebackers Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn, but both were casualties due to the team’s transition to a 3-4 defense. Quinn’s high cap number also contributed to his departure, and both were moved for mid-round picks that can be used to improve upon their weakened front seven. The retention of Defensive Lineman Dominique Easley alleviates some of those concerns if he can stay healthy, but the signing of Suh provides the team with their another standout 3-4 end to compliment Aaron Donald. If the Rams manage to draft or bring in a veteran linebacker, the team will have greatly improved an already strong Wade Phillips led defense.
The offensive unit still has some holes to fill and the team may be in the market for another receiver after losing WR Sammy Watkins to Kansas City. The Rams will likely pursue a veteran to add to their trio of Woods, Austin, and Kupp, but there have been rumors that the New York Giants are taking offers for Odell Beckham Jr. ODB has reportedly refused to set foot on the field until he signs a new contract, so the Giants may be best served by trading the talented wide receiver and there are few teams that are in the mix to compete now with the cap and desire to trade for Beckham who is not guaranteed to resign. The Giants, who appear to be trending down as the rest of the division trends up, need to seriously consider the impact of an ODB trade on their future, and the Rams are just the team that wants to exploit their weakness. As recently as today it was reported that ODB, “wants in,” on the Rams.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland is the one team that you can point to that has added to their win total this offseason (which after last year wasn’t hard to do). Losing hall of fame Left Tackle Joe Thomas is a big blow to the teams offense, but the additions of RB Carlos Hyde, WR Jarvis Landry, QB Tyrod Taylor, OT Chris Hubbard on offense, and the defensive additions of CB T.J. Carrie, CB E.J. Gains, CB Terrance Mitchell, and S Damarious Randall have put this team in a position to compete in 2018 and beyond. They still sit comfortably with the number one overall pick in this year’s draft, with which they will likely draft their quarterback of the future, the fourth overall pick, and eight total picks in the first four rounds.
If you look around the division, Pittsburgh remains the far and away favorite until Ben Roethlisberger decides to retire, and indications are that it could be sooner rather than later after the star quarterback reportedly considered walking away prior to last season, but the rest of the division aside from Cleveland is not making any significant strides to improve. The long game of the Browns may very well make put them in a position to succeed by 2020, but much of their potential success rests on the shoulders of Head Coach Hugh Jackson and new General Manager John Dorsey. Renewing their commitment to Jackson came as a shock to much of the league after two straight seasons ending in last place finishes, but Cleveland, which has been a carousel for coaches and quarterbacks understands that continuity breeds success… Assuming they have the right man for the job.

Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears have quietly gotten better during a free agency which has seen the division rival Vikings reaching a historic agreement with their new Franchise Quarterback Kirk Cousins, the LA Rams moving former centerpieces and acquiring star defensive talent, and Cleveland bringing in playoff QB Tyrod Taylor, and elite WR Jarvis Landry, completely reshaping their offense. The Bears are currently at the bottom of the NFC North, a division which is quickly making a case as the most competitive in the NFL, but with a few key additions and the retention of some of their more impactful pieces, the bears are putting themselves in a position to compete in 2018 and beyond.
To do that, QB Mitchell Trubisky will need to take the next step in his development and improve upon his rookie campaign. This offseason, the Bears were able to move on from some of their more expensive contracts and bring in impactful players that can help on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Their most robust signing came in the form of a three-year $42M contract with WR Allen Robinson, who instantly improves the Bears passing game and gives Trubisky a legitimate #1 receiving option. To further cement their commitment to improving their offensive attack, they also brought in WR Taylor Gabriel on a respectable four-year $26M deal and TE Trey Burton on a four-year $32M contract. In moving on from QB Mike Glennon (who is now with Arizona), the team was able to bring in veterans Chase Daniel (two-years $10M) and Tyler Bray to compete as Trubisky’s backup. Daniel will likely secure the job in camp, but both are experienced guys who will positively contribute to the quarterback room and help Trubisky develop. The Bears may not be in the mix to win the division this year, but they are well on their way to fielding a roster that can make a splash in the division.

Analysis: Is AJ McCarron an Upgrade for Buffalo?

Tyrod Taylor departed Buffalo in what can only be described as unusual circumstances. There are not many teams that go to the playoffs, ending one of the longest active playoff droughts in major sports, only to then move on from the quarterback that helped get them there. There’s no denying that the relationship between the front office and Taylor was tenuous at best. At one point during the season, benching him in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman who had a historic first start, throwing five interceptions in 16 pass attempts, only to be removed for Taylor later in the game. It was clear that the front office wanted to move on, and Taylor’s playoff performance where the team only scored three points did nothing to help cement himself as their long-term option, and following his trade to the Browns, enter new Signal Caller AJ McCarron.
McCarron saw his quarterback market collapse around him. Following a trade deadline where the Browns reportedly offered multiple picks to Cincinnati in a botched attempt to secure McCarron’s services, many thought his market would be more competitive. Instead, Buffalo got great value with a minimal investment and McCarron settled for a two-year deal worth $10M with roughly $7.9M guaranteed to act as Buffalo’s interim starter. That role may be short-lived, as Buffalo could have propelled themselves into the mix to draft a quarterback after trading OT Cordy Glenn to move up to 12th overall, swapping first round picks with Cincinnati. Buffalo, with two first-round picks, has enough ammunition to move up in the draft, or select a quarterback at 12 (should one fall to them), but following the Jets trade with Indianapolis, Cleveland might be the only willing trade partner left, and it will likely cost Buffalo both of its first-round selections to leapfrog an interested Denver.
His future’s uncertainty aside, does McCarron provide an upgrade to Buffalo’s offense? It’s hard to compare body’s of work when judging Taylor and McCarron side by side. McCarron, who played behind Andy Dalton in Cincinnati doesn’t have the same amount of tape as Taylor, and much of his analysis is based off a small sample size and potential scheme fit. His historic college career demonstrates a winning pedigree and ability to exercise ball security, but he played for Nick Saban on an Alabama team with one of the most daunting defenses protecting his leads. Similarly, in Buffalo, McCarron will have a high performing defense that will keep games competitive, and if his past is any indication, should provide an upgrade over Taylor with regards to ball security. Taylor turned the ball over a respectable eight time’s last year (rushing and passing), and has a career interception ratio of 2.8:1, whereas if McCarron can maintain his limited sample of 3:1, it may limit the demand on Buffalo’s stellar defense to protect short field.
Taylor’s big arm and his persistent threat to run gave him the opportunity to throw the ball deep off play action, but Buffalo’s offense under Head Coach Sean McDermott was largely ineffectual on high percentage offensive plays. Attempting among the fewest short pass plays in the league which accounted for only 31.82% of their offense. Only Carolina had less of their offense come from these high-efficiency plays with 31.59%. It should be noted, that this metric is not necessarily a causal mechanism for judging offensive effectiveness, the New York Giants had a league-best 41.3% of their offense driven through short passing plays and they were one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL last season (15.4 ppg ranked second to last). But, the metric does show moderate correlation, teams who ran a high frequency of short pass plays such as New England, San Francisco, Los Angeles Chargers, and Pittsburgh averaged 28.9, 20.7, 22.2, and 26.4 points per game respectfully.
Adding to Buffalo’s offensive woes, Tyrod Taylor scrambled over 40 times on broken plays where he threw the ball (third behind Seattle and Cleveland), and his hesitation to release the ball resulted in only 15 of those plays being converted for first downs. His time to throw the ball on average ranked among the bottom of the league at 3.01 seconds after the snap in 2017, and 3.1 seconds in 2016. As a comparison, quarterbacks synonymous with success such as Brady, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger averaged 2.7, 2.64, 2.58, and 2.56 seconds respectively. Only four qualified quarterbacks had their time to throw longer than three seconds in 2017. Tyrod Taylor (3.01), Brett Hundley (3.0), Deshaun Watson (3.1), and Russell Wilson (3.05). Each of their teams missed the playoffs in 2017, although a significant knee injury hampered Watson’s promising campaign. Taylors slow release and willingness to move outside of the pocket likely contributed to his 46 sacks, which was 3rd highest in the league behind Jacoby Brissett (52) and Matthew Stafford (47), a number that is expected to decrease with the more conservative and quick firing McCarron under center.
It’s hard to determine what other factors contributed to Buffalo’s offensive stagnation last season, Taylor ranked 16th among qualified passers in quarterback rating (89.2), 13th in QBR (56.4), and 16th in completion percentage (62.6%). Where he fell out of the middle of the pack was in yardage, he ranked 25th with 2,799 yards. 1,778 yards behind the league passing leader and MVP Tom Brady. Much of the success in the NFL is symptomatic of the scheme, and while Taylor was unable to thrive under McDermott, he is uniquely suited for Cleveland’s offense under Head Coach Hugh Jackson. Jackson prefers playing to the strengths of a mobile quarterback, and I expect weapons such as Jarvis Landry, Duke Johnson, David Njoku and Corey Coleman, and a commitment to the running game with the addition of Carlos Hyde to help Taylor put together a better campaign in 2018.
McCarron, on the other hand, comes to a Buffalo team that has fewer offensive weapons than Cleveland. Much of Buffalo’s offense was generated through LeSean McCoy, but to develop offensive potency, Buffalo will need to add at least one more weapon in the passing game to complement a developing Zay Jones and big framed Kelvin Benjamin. I think McCarron will put up a better statistical year in 2018 than Taylor did in 2017, but it’s hard to assess whether or not the switch at quarterback will result in added wins. My gut says that Buffalo remains a 9-win team in 2018, but it’s hard to imagine Buffalo’s offense doesn’t improve from its mediocre 2017 showing, and if McCarron does take the next step, we could be looking at a second consecutive playoff berth for the Buffalo Bills.

FA Signing Grade: B+
McCarron’s contract makes him a good investment for Buffalo, even if they draft a quarterback, the team will still be spending less than most of the NFL on the position. McCarron has seen limited action in the NFL, but in his few regular season and playoff opportunities, he has looked more than serviceable. His time in the NFL should make him more polished than the player we saw at Alabama, and if Buffalo’s waiting game pans out and McCarron is their future quarterback or McCarron is an effective bridge for their future franchise quarterback, they would have secured him by playing it safe and allowing their funds to be allocated to needs elsewhere.

Statistics and Data retrieved and generated from NFL Savants, NFL.com, and Pro Football Reference.