The Optimist’s Guide To Your 109-Win 2019 Mariners

The Mariners started the season 7–1! Forget those claims of playing for 2020, maybe they can compete ahead of schedule!

There’s a blueprint for this.

The 2001 Mariners, after losing Alex Rodriguez in free agency, plugged their roster holes with mediocre veterans. The combined WAR of their top 10 returning starters was 27.1.

Compare this to the combined WAR of the top 10 returning players on 2008 Mariners: 34.7. That team lost 101 games.

Players have breakout years. Injuries either don’t happen, or open paths for better players. Close games go your way (like Thursday’s one-run, extra-inning win).

You’re an optimist. You usually have a good feeling at the start of a season. This year, your feeling will prove prescient. The 2019 Mariners are going to win 109 games.

(If you’re a pessimist, read our Pessimist’s Guide, which explains how the 2019 Mariners are going to lose 109 games.)

Here’s how it goes down, based on wins above replacement. In theory, a replacement-level team wins 48 games. Every WAR amassed adds to the total.

Catcher

In Mike Zunino, the Mariners had a good defensive catcher who was bad at hitting. They tried and tried to teach him to hit better. He never really did.

In Omar Narvaez, the Mariners have a good hittng catcher who is defense-deficient. They are trying and trying to teach him to frame pitches better. Narvaez says it’s something he’s never practiced.

Maybe defense is easier to teach than offense. Maybe Narvaez becomes as good of a receiver as he is a hitter — which would make him among the game’s best catchers.

Catcher WAR: 3.0

Total WAR: 3.0

First Base

Stay tuned, we’ll get to it.

Second Base

On the morning of May 9, Dee Gordon woke up in Toronto sporting a .353 batting average. That night, he fouled a ball off of his foot, breaking a bone in his toe. The injury sapped Gordon’s running speed, a.k.a. his entire offensive game.

Gordon missed only two games, but his batting average after the injury was just .243.

At the top of his game, which Gordon appeared to be before the injury, he posted a 5.1 WAR. Gordon’s defense and league-leading 4 stolen bases makes it look like his speed is back. Gordon records a career year.

Second Base WAR: 5.0

Total WAR: 8.0

Shortstop

STORYTIME! Before the 2001 season, the Mariners signed 31-year-old former top prospect Bret Boone to a one-year contract. Boone had compiled a measly 0.4 WAR in the previous two seasons, despite being an everyday player.

His best year for WAR had been way back in ’95, when he posted a middling 1.9 mark.

Boone went out and dropped 8.8 WAR on the American League.

Before the 2019 season, the Mariners signed 28-year-old Tim Beckham, the 1st overall pick in the 2008 draft. Beckham’s best year for WAR was 2.0, in 2017.

Now. Boone played in a different era. Quadrupling one’s former WAR high, at age 31, might be hard to do, organically, if you catch my drift.

But would a former #1 overall pick suddenly tapping into his talent and doubling his best WAR year be all that nuts?

Beckham’s A.L. Player of the Week start suggests to you, an optimist, that it’s possible.

Shortstop WAR: 4.0

Total WAR: 12.0

Third Base (and First Base, and DH)

Let’s take these all at once. With Kyle Seager sidelined until June, the Mariners will start the season with Ryon Healy at third base, and some mixture of Edwin Encarnacion, Dan Vogelbach, and Jay Bruce sharing 1B/DH at-bats.

This group should put up solid offensive numbers, with Healy as the biggest wildcard.

Healy stunk last year, but his “most similar batter through age 26,” according to Baseball Reference, is Jason Kubel.

At age 27, Kubel busted out for 28 homers and a .907 OPS, his first — and only — good year in the bigs. He was worth 3.5 WAR.

Ryon will be 27 this year, maybe he can pull off a Kubel. After the Tokyo series, he’s on an 81-home-run pace!

Encarnacion’s 2018 featured nagging ankle and bicep injuries. We’ll count on him to do like another power hitter left for dead in his mid-30s, Nelson Cruz, and post a near-career-high WAR.

Meanwhile, Dan Vogelbach will fulfill his promise, and Jay Bruce recapture his, in their shared at bats. It won’t amount to much, but will be positive.

Upon Seager’s return in June, his hard winter weight room work pays off. He once again has the strength to power the ball over and through shifts, getting back to the numbers of his prime (though with only half a season to amass WAR).

As for the defense of this group? Until Seager gets back, you optimistically hope for a lot of groundballs up the middle.

Healy WAR: 3.5

Encarnacion WAR: 4.5

Bruce WAR: 1.0

Vogelbach WAR: 1.0

Seager WAR: 2.0

Total 1B/3B/DH WAR: 12.0

Total WAR: 24.0

Leftfield

In 2017, Domingo Santana posted 2.9 WAR at age 24 for Milwaukee. That’s pretty good considering Mitch Haniger was a Class A Visalia Rawhide at that age.

Santana sat the bench in 2018 after the Brewers acquired Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. The Brewers seemingly kept Santana around just in case either of those guys stunk. But Yelich won the MVP, with the most WAR in the National League. Cain was second in WAR.

Yelich nearly doubled his career-high WAR in 2018. Santana crushed the ball this spring, and power is one aspect of spring performance that does carry over to the regular season. It sure did carry over to Tokyo. You optimistically believe he can nearly pull a Yelich.

Leftfield WAR: 5.0

Total WAR: 29.0

Centerfield

The Rays did not put much stock in Mallex Smith’s 3.5 2018 WAR, built on the platform of a .366 BABIP. Even an optimist would be overdoing it to assign him a higher 2018 WAR. Smith’s speed and defense game makes him a solid performer, though.

Centerfield WAR: 3.0

Total WAR: 32.0

Rightfield

The Mariners’ only returning All-Star, and best player by both last year’s WAR and this year’s average fantasy baseball draft position, Mitch Haniger is a fulcrum for optimists’ hopes.

From 0.1 to 3.0 to 6.1 WAR, an optimist has gotta think Haniger will keep the good times rolling and improve yet again. Let’s give him a modest rise to 7.0.

Rightfield WAR: 7.0

Total WAR: 39.0

Starting Pitchers

One thing the 2001 Mariners did well was have a guy show up from Japan and put up one of the best seasons in team history. (Who would’ve believed he’d also play on the 2019 Mariners!?)

Another thing the 2001 Mariners did well was have their starting pitchers stay healthy.

Expecting Yusei Kikuchi to put up Ichiro numbers is unfair…but what about a tidy little 4.2 WAR, the same as Freddy Garcia’s 2001? Couldn’t 33-year-old Wade LeBlanc bump up from 2.3 WAR in 2018 to match 38-year-old Jamie Moyer’s 3.4 WAR 2001?

Marco Gonzales (2.5 WAR in ’18) and Mike Leake (1.6) only need to maintain to match the numbers put up by Aaron Sele (2.6 in ’01) and Paul Abbott (1.4).

Then there’s Felix Hernandez. An optimist like you thought Hernandez would be one of the best pitchers of his generation, and he was. Now, even the rose-est colored glasses can’t obscure Hernandez’ diminished fastball velocity and inconsistent command. For King Felix, abdication is nigh.

Perhaps, rookie Justus Sheffield replaces Hernandez in the rotation. He is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Sheffield could produce one of those unexpected rookie seasons that big-winning teams depend on.

Mariner pitchers named Matt Young and Dave Fleming each delivered 5 WAR seasons as rookies. Sheffield can’t do a 4.9?

Starting Pitching WAR: 19.0

Total WAR: 58.0

Relief Pitchers

Bullpen performance is notoriously unpredictable. The Mariners’ collection of outcasts won’t be great. Hunter Strickland, maybe the best of the bunch, is out through June at least. But with an acquisition at the trading deadline, can’t they manage average? You think so. And an average MLB bullpen was worth about 3.0 WAR last year.

Bullpen WAR: 3.0

Total WAR: 61.0

Bench

Won’t matter in this scenario. The Mariners have no viable replacement at catcher, second base, or any of the outfield positions. Injuries would doom this team, so if the bench comes into play, your optimism was misplaced.

Bench WAR: 0.0

Total WAR: 61.0

Total WAR: 61 + 48 (replacement level) = 109 wins!

The Playoffs and Aftermath

With the Astros and A’s around, it takes a lot of wins to finish atop the AL West … but you’d think 109 would do it, and claim the #1 seed. That would match the M’s up against the wild card winner in the divisional round, probably the Astros, Yankees, or Red Sox. With mediocre starting pitching and an average bullpen, this would not be a playoff-optimized team.

But in a short series, anything’s possible! Can you visualize Hunter Strickland throwing his glove in the air after striking out Bryce Harper? Kyle Seager racing over to hug him? Mitch Haniger sprinting in from right field, grinning from ear to ear?

Of course you can, you’re an optimist!