Let's use WAR to assess the Mariners' roster
Knowing where value was derived from can provide much-needed perspective on a team's needs.
Wins above replacement (WAR) isn’t embraced by everyone, which is fine. But the advanced metric can help us determine what a good Mariners team needs to do this offseason to achieve greatness next year and then sustain it.
As a refresher, WAR represents a player's impact in all phases of the game in one number. Essentially, it permits us to gauge the value an individual brings to his team.
During our discussion, I’ll be using the Baseball Reference version of WAR to assess several aspects of Seattle’s roster.
Let’s begin by discussing the types of acquisitions generating the most value for the Mariners this year. Doing so probably won’t lead to an “a-ha” moment for anyone. But it could reinforce a certain belief held by many Seattle fans.
The following illustrates basic acquisition methods you’re already familiar with: the draft and international amateur free agency (homegrown players), trades, free agent signings, plus the combination of waiver claims and Rule 5 draft selections.
As you can see, most of the value accrued by the Mariners was produced by individuals developed internally or added via the trade market. Not a surprise for an organization subscribing to a “draft, develop, trade” roster-building approach.
To this point, Seattle’s top-15 in WAR were all homegrowns and trade pickups.
M’s WAR Leaders in 2023
Julio Rodríguez (5.3) - Homegrown
J.P. Crawford (5.0) - Trade
George Kirby (3.9) - Homegrown
Luis Castillo (3.4) - Trade
Cal Raleigh (3.2) - Homegrown
Logan Gilbert (3.1) - Homegrown
José Caballero (2.4) - Trade
Eugenio Suárez (2.2) - Trade
Teoscar Hernández (2.1) - Trade
Jarred Kelenic (2.0) - Trade
Justin Topa (1.6) - Trade
Matt Brash (1.3) - Trade
Bryce Miller (1.2) - Homegrown
Tom Murphy (1.2) - Trade
Cade Marlowe (1.0) - Homegrown
It’s worth noting J.P. Crawford, José Caballero, and Jarred Kelenic were still developing when Seattle traded for them. So, it’s not unreasonable to suggest coming to Seattle played a crucial role in the trio’s professional growth. They may not have been “homegrown,” but their skills reached MLB-ready status after joining the Mariners organization.
Benefitting from trades and internally developed players is a good news story for the Mariners. But I suspect a large segment of fans are more interested (and frustrated) by the team receiving more value from waiver claims and Rule 5 selectees than its free agent signees.
WAR of M’s Free Agents
Paul Sewald (0.9)
Mike Ford (0.6)
Dylan Moore (0.6)
Tommy Milone (0.2)
Luis Torrens (0)
Ryder Ryan (0)
Tommy La Stella (-0.1)
José Rodríguez (-0.1)
Robbie Ray (-0.2)
AJ Pollock (-0.5)
Chris Flexen (-0.9)
To be fair, losing 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray in April negatively affected the season WAR tally for Seattle free agents. But even if Ray repeated his 2.1 WAR from 2022, this group still wouldn’t have delivered enough value in 2023.
Youth was served
A point of pride for the Mariners front office is the major-league performance of its many young players.
With this in mind, let’s review the team’s WAR once it’s been divided into age groups. It turns out the kids are definitely alright.
Valuable 26-and-under players included Kelenic, Caballero, All-Stars Julio Rodríguez and George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh, Bryan Woo, Bryce Miller, Matt Brash, Andrés Muñoz, Dominic Canzone, Cade Marlowe, and Isaiah Campbell. That’s an impressive baseline to improve upon.
Headlining the 27-to-30-year-old group was Crawford, arguably Seattle’s MVP. Opening Day starter Luis Castillo was also in this subset along with Ty France, deadline acquisition Josh Rojas, and Teoscar Hernández.
Seattle’s most notable supporting cast members were also part of the 27-to-30 demographic. Specifically: utility-men Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty, designated hitter Mike Ford, and relievers Eduard Bazardo, Gabe Speier, Trent Thornton, and Tayler Saucedo.
It’s worth noting Castillo, pending free agent Hernández, Moore, and Ford join the 31-and-under gang next season. This was the smallest and most disappointing demographic of the roster.
Everyday players Eugenio Suárez (2.2 WAR) and Kolten Wong (-1.2) underperformed the back of their baseball cards by a sizable margin. So did aging veterans AJ Pollock (-0.5) and Tommy La Stella (-0.1), who were expected to provide some measure of value. This did not happen whatsoever.
Injuries also befell the oldest group of Mariners. We’ve already mentioned Ray. Fellow southpaw Marco Gonzales also missed most of the 2023 campaign with an elbow issue. Backup catcher Tom Murphy, who was having a great offensive season, missed the final six weeks of the year with a thumb injury.
It’s important to acknowledge a pair of thirty-something relievers who were integral contributors to the Mariners’ bullpen - Paul Sewald and Justin Topa. That said, Sewald was dealt to Arizona on July 31 for Canzone, Rojas, and minor-leaguer Ryan Bliss.
Hitters vs pitchers
Contrasting the value Seattle received from its position players and pitching staff reinforces what we already knew. Pitching propelled the club, while the lineup lagged behind.
The 17.8 WAR provided by Seattle pitchers ranked sixth in MLB and was third-best in the American League. Meanwhile, the 24.7 WAR delivered by the position player group was tenth-best in the majors. Ironically, it was only good enough to rank third in the AL West behind Texas (35.1) and Houston (31.7).
That’s a tough pill to swallow for Mariners fans as the Astros and Rangers prepare to meet in the ALCS.
Position player breakdown
Since it’s become clear the position player group needs to be addressed this offseason, let’s review the value Seattle received from individual position groups.
As you likely expected, the three positions head-and-shoulders above their respective MLB averages were catcher, shortstop, and center field. Also, not a surprise: Raleigh, Crawford, and Rodríguez delivered the value.
Perhaps this will surprise some fans; the corner outfield spots were average-ish. Hernández was the primary stakeholder in right field with Kelenic and Canzone among others subbing for the eight-year veteran when he served as Seattle’s designated hitter or had a rare off-day.
An injury suffered by Kelenic in July made left field a slightly more collaborative effort than expected. The 24-year-old was Seattle’s main left fielder. However, Marlowe, Canzone, and Moore did a nice job of covering for him during his IL stint.
Although he endured a suboptimal season at the plate, Suárez’s third base defense buoyed the hot corner to league-average status. The same can’t be said about first base. France’s inconsistent bat produced disappointing results and minimal value.
Second base was a major issue for most of the year until the Mariners acquired Rojas, who delivered 0.7 WAR for his new team. Still, there’s no getting around the reality that the position was a major liability in 2023.
Finally, there’s designated hitter. A position the fan base wanted the Mariners to upgrade last offseason with a player from outside the organization.
It’s worth noting the DH spot did improve as the 2023 season unfolded. That said; a team struggling to consistently score runs can ill-afford to receive below-average production from a position with one purpose - create offense.
Number of “good” players
For this comparison, let’s define a “good” player as a pitcher or hitter with a WAR of three-or-greater. On the surface, the Mariners had six individuals meeting this criteria, which compares well to their AL West rivals and postseason clubs.
The Mariners possessed more 3+ WAR players than four AL postseason clubs - the Rangers, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Twins. This might be viewed as an encouraging development by some fans.
Still, some of these organizations held an edge over Seattle in a similarly important category - supporting cast.
What am I talking about?
Players with a WAR falling between 2.0 and 2.9. I realize that’s a very small window. But these are solid and important contributors worthy of regular playing time falling short of our “good” descriptor.
It turns out the Mariners lagged behind the Rangers, Blue Jays, and Twins in this crucial demographic. With this in mind, let’s consider Texas. A division rival that blew past Seattle this year after enduring six consecutive losing seasons.
The Rangers boasted five “good” players on its roster: Adolis García, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Dane Dunning, and Nathan Eovaldi. But they also had a large supporting cast that included starting pitchers Jon Gray and Jordan Montgomery, hitters Mitch Garver, Jonah Heim, Josh Jung, Nathaniel Lowe, and Leody Taveras.
Essentially, Texas built a wider foundation of valuable players than Seattle did.
This exercise didn’t lead to any new revelations for me. But it did help me formulate three takeaways regarding what it’ll take for the Mariners to go from good to great next year.
First, Seattle has a solid core of young players. There’s a lot to like, but youth can inject uncertainty into the situation. Whether they’ll be All-Stars, everyday contributors, or become reserves is yet to be determined. This is a planning factor that can’t be ignored when building next year’s roster.
Furthermore, the Mariners must receive more consistent production (and value) from their position players. It’s not just about adding “good” players to the mix. Raising the floor of the roster, including the bench and pitching staff is a must. Otherwise, the possibility of regression in 2024 can’t be dismissed.
Finally, I’m not suggesting the Mariners have to land a premier free agent, although doing so would be a fun and exciting development. But free agency must prove to be a much more valuable resource for the team next year than it was in 2023.
Perhaps ownership won’t have the appetite to commit to a big (and expensive) name. Maybe the front office will prefer strictly adhering to its draft, develop, trade mantra. Having said that, another season of 0.5 WAR of value from its free agent acquisitions could lead to another missed postseason opportunity for Seattle in 2024.
That’s an outcome Mariners fans don’t want to relive for a long time.
My Oh My…
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