I have a theory about baseball right now: Every team is getting better. The league is making leaps and bounds forward in terms of total talent, and the level of play is rising faster than at any other time in the history of the game.

Intuitively, it just makes sense. The level of public and private investment in the game is higher than it has ever been, and is growing at a dizzying rate. That creates more incentive to succeed in the industry, whether as a player, a front-office executive or a stadium employee. The changes to the competitive structure of the game (revenue sharing, expansion of the playoffs, the mitigation of free agency, et cetera) let every team believe it can be good for the long run, provided they employ the right process.

Teams understand the game better than ever. They better identify and value talented players. They better deploy those players, minimizing the pain of their shortcomings, maximizing the value of their strengths. They shape their rosters more carefully, within the rules that govern those things. The best players sign long-term contracts before they can become so expensive as to make those deals damaging to the team. Players 30 and older are losing their foothold in the game to those 26 and younger, more in their prime. Scouting and player-development processes have taken giant leaps forward.

Those are the reasons the theory makes sense. The Seattle Mariners are the reason I think the theory actually holds. The Mariners are a young, medium-market team that has slowly (not patiently, really, but slowly, because of some missteps) assembled a passel of talented players. Their projected 2014 infield will consist of:

  • Kyle Seager, 3B, 26
  • Brad Miller, SS, 24
  • Nick Franklin, 2B, 23
  • Justin Smoak, 1B, 27
  • Mike Zunino, C, 23

They will also have a pair of rookie studs in their starting rotation, in Taijuan Walker, 21, and James Paxton, 25. All of that goes along with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, two of the American League’s 10 best starting pitchers. There are also Michael Saunders, 27, a center fielder who does a bit of everything; Dustin Ackley, 26, a frmer second overall pick who seemed to finally figure things out after a move to the outfield from second base this season; and Jesus Montero, 24, once the game’s top hitting prospect, now a reclamation project.

That’s a lot of young talent. There’s a lot of upside there. Smoak and Montero have the huge hype in their past, hype to which they’re not too old to live up, at least in part. Ackley and Zunino were both top-five first-round draft picks, two seasons apart. It’s hard not to like what they’ve strived to put together there.

It won’t be enough, though. The Mariners are, if they’re lucky, the third-best team in the American League West, and one of the two one might be able to push them past—the Houston Astros—can give you a list a lot like the one above, of young talent of their own, on the way right now.

As a matter of fact, nearly every team in the league is this good. Some are much, much better. Every team that doesn’t have established stars has this kind of youth movement going. The notion of the success cycle is dead. Every team wants to win in perpetuity, and no one sells out to win in a single season. The result of that paradigm is that unless a team is trying to lose, in order to execute a full-scale rebuild (and we may be seeing the last of those teams, in the Astros, Marlins, Cubs and Twins, right now), every team is tough.

That makes predicting the game harder than ever. The imbalance of the league’s schedule makes deciding which teams are really the best almost impossible. Chaos reigns. So it’s not that the Mariners have no shot, really. It’s just that, despite all their youth and their eagerness to upgrade their roster, they have an awfully tough uphill climb in front of them.

Position Players

If you’ve read any of my other recent team breakdowns, you know that I talk a lot about balance among position players. I will drill down on balance of skill sets, of handedness, of offensive and defensive value, of building a team that can thrive in one’s home park without building one that can’t win on the road, and on and on.

I rarely talk about balancing risk profiles, or uncertainty. I probably need to do so more often. In the Mariners’ case, though, it would be hard to avoid the subject. The blend of upside and downside on this roster is interesting, and where several guys come out will determine whether they’re a contender or a total loser.

Seager, Miller, Franklin, Zunino and Saunders each have median projections right around an average big-league regular. Translating that into WAR (Wins Above Replacement, which attempts to give the number of games a given player will win for a team, relative to a theoretical Triple-A fill-in), I’m seeing each of those five as two-win players, in the most likely case. However, Seager’s five-win 2013 notwithstanding, I don’t see any of them as having a ceiling much higher than three wins added. Zunino might well have five- or six-win seasons someday, but I don’t foresee that kind of breakout for him next season, as a rookie backstop.

Meanwhile, Miller and Franklin have some downside risk attached to them. They’re solid fielders, but Miller was widely viewed as an erratic shortstop in the minors, and it might be hard for the pair to sustain defensive value. That would be a problem, because though each is a serviceable hitter, neither would be a prospect if they couldn’t play the middle infield. They just aren’t good enough hitters to add much if their gloves aren’t a plus.

Montero, Smoak and Ackley have more upside, but it seems much less likely they will attain their 90th-percentile projection, and they have real bust potential—in fact, each has already had significant stretches of bust-level production. Their downside is daunting, and might well offset even the fairly steady and solid performance I foresee for the five others.

Now, whichever free agent they sign to play their last vacant outfield spot will almost certainly be their oldest player. The relatively pessimistic projections above might not account well enough for the youth of this group. Ballplayers usually peak at age 26 or 27, and stay more or less in their prime through age 29 or 30. That means that the Mariners, if they do field all eight of the guys above, are stacking the good side of the aging curve. From that perspective, Seattle is leveraging risk well.

Now, young teams are usually good defensive teams, and it looks like this one should be no exception. That will be a welcome change, after a 2013 season in which, according to StatCorner.com, their outfield defense cost them about 50 runs. They brought in too many old, slow players, and as a result, frequently had two of Mike Morse, Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez (combined age: 106) in their corner outfield spots. The rumor mill has them fixated on either Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo this winter. In either case, along with Saunders and Ackley, that would round out a solid defensive group.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Kendrys Morales. The Mariners made him a qualifying offer ($14.1 million for one season), which guarantees them an extra draft pick in the 2014 draft if Morales should sign elsewhere. As highly as teams value those picks these days, though, having that hanging around his neck could obliterate Morales’ market value. If he senses that, he could accept the offer, in which case Seattle would be saddled with him. (In fairness, it’s not as though Morales is a bad investment, even at that rate. Given the rest of the positional core, Morales could be insurance against terrible showings by either Smoak or Montero in the spring, and would guarantee some stronger production in a lineup that mostly hopes to chain together league-average bats. The problem is that if both Montero and Smoak find their groove, Morales would still be the highest-paid position player on the team, and yet, the M’s would want to bench him.)

If the Mariners want to win soon, they need to not strike out this winter. If Choo and Ellsbury are their chief targets, they need to land one, because this collection of positional talent is not playoff-caliber without a top-billed name of that caliber.

Pitchers

Felix Hernandez is becoming a different, better pitcher, which should scare absolutely every AL offense to death. At 27, he encountered a bit more fatigue and a bit less velocity in 2013 than that with which he used to pitch, but he made some marvelous adjustments. His command basically stood pat, although he hit just three batters, after hitting an average of eight during the five previous seasons. What took a counterintuitive step forward, despite the velocity drop, was his strikeout rate. In fact, after years of consistently striking out about 23 percent of opposing batters, he struck out 26 percent of them in 2013. He kept inducing ground balls, too. Hernandez might not be able to sustain his workhorse status forever—he started two fewer games and faced 100-plus fewer batters than he had in any of the last five years. When he is on the mound, though, he’s better than ever, or at least, he was.

Iwakuma was dominant in 2013, too, with a dizzying 185:40 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio. Walker is one of the game’s top three starting pitching prospects, and should be in the rotation right away in April. Paxton has a bit more to overcome—he’s left-handed, he has some command and deception issues and his velocity spiked late last season, but has generally been in flux. It sounds like Seattle is hoping to make a significant pitching addition, to round out the rotation, rather than rely on Erasmo Ramirez and other fringy young arms.

What’s Next

Again, Seattle can’t begin the winter in an aggressive posture, then let the pitch float by. They have to connect. They have to make a move. It’s not because they’re on the brink of dominating the AL West; quite the opposite. It’s because they have made that part of their plan, and because without a substantial addition, they’re a 70-75-win team again next season. I really like this group of players, but the Rangers and Angels have better star power, and the Athletics have better depth.

It’s hard to catch up to the pack these days, because the good teams are also looking to improve, and the days of teams getting old and stiff by refusing to acknowledge when their stars have passed through their prime seem to be gone. Seattle has youth and solid starting pitching, but it’s going to take more than that.

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