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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
The Mariners' historically awful defense

By David Schoenfield

The Seattle Mariners should be the Oakland A's and the A's should be the Mariners. The Mariners have more money, a better ballpark and have had years of higher draft picks to build up a farm system. Instead, the Mariners are once again awful and the A's are once again going to win the American League West.

At this point, it's pretty obvious: Jack Zduriencek is not Billy Beane. Maybe that's unfair to say; maybe no general manager is Billy Beane. As Dave Cameron pointed out on FanGraphs, even the Rays have spent more on big league payroll than the A's the past two seasons and yet the A's have won 10 more games.

You can argue the A's have been lucky -- nobody expected Josh Donaldson or Brandon Moss to be this good, or Bartolo Colon to resurface as an elite pitcher. But the A's also have a plan; as Joe Sheehan pointed out this week on his podcast, the A's target a certain type of player (Colon being the big -- literally -- exception): Players 25 to 29 years old, the age at which they should either break out or have a career year. Look at the current ages of the players they've added in the past two years: Moss (29), Jed Lowrie (29), Yoenis Cespedes (27), Josh Reddick (26), Chris Young (29), John Jaso (29). OK, Seth Smith is now 30 and closer Grant Balfour is 35. Other than Cespedes, those were all players considered disposable by their former teams. Individually, they don't look that impressive; collectively, they're a team.

Now look at who the Mariners added this offseason: Raul Ibanez (41), Aaron Harang (35), Jason Bay (34), Kelly Shoppach (33), Joe Saunders (32), Mike Morse (31), Kendrys Morales (30). That's not a plan. That's a tragedy.

The A's had options. They had Coco Crisp in center field, but a Gold Glove-caliber defender in Young to back him up. If Josh Reddick's 2012 proved to be a fluke, they still had Young, or Smith or Moss could move to the outfield. Their production from second base and shortstop was horrible last year, so they traded for Lowrie, but he's injury prone so they had other options, either good-glove Eric Sogard or Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima. At second base, they hoped Scott Sizemore would return but he got hurt again; they still had Sogard plus Jemile Weeks. They acquired Nate Freiman to platoon at first base with Moss, but still had Daric Barton hanging in the minors if they needed another first baseman. With more options, odds are that somebody would work out. Turned out Nakajima wasn't that good and has spent the season in Triple-A but Lowrie remained healthy and Sogard has had a nice season at second.

The Mariners, meanwhile, had no apparent plan but to acquire a bunch of veteran leaders, even if that meant having five DHs on their roster. They were counting on injury-prone Franklin Gutierrez to play center field every day. But what was the backup? Michael Saunders had to play a lot of center last year but wasn't that good out there (-13 Defensive Runs Saved). Plus, moving Saunders to center would mean you would have to use a lot more of Ibanez and Morse in the outfield, two obvious defensive liabilities.

So what happened? This happened. The Worst defenses since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking Defensive Runs Saved in 2003:

1. 2005 Yankees: -115
2. 2005 Royals: -112
3. 2009 Royals: -109
4. 2013 Mariners: -100
5. 2010 Royals: -95

Wishing on a healthy Franklin Gutierrez is not a plan. Signing 35-year-old Endy Chavez is not a plan. Ibanez has started 89 games in left field. Morse started 62 games in the outfield. Bay started 50. Dustin Ackley, who began the season as the starting second baseman, has started 40 games in center field. Shockingly, this didn't work out.

So they ended up with one of the worst defenses in recent major league history. They had no Plan B if things didn't go exactly according to script. Morse and Ibanez combined for -29 Defensive Runs Saved in their part-time duty (and Morse didn't hit either). The various center fielders have combined for -34 DRS. The infield hasn't exactly been the 1970 Orioles.

The Mariners will lose 90-plus games for the sixth time in 10 seasons. They haven't outscored their opponents in a season since 2003. It's been 10 years of mediocre or awful baseball teams in Seattle.

No wonder the Sounders are so popular.