The Mariners and the Win Curve

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The Major League Baseball Winter Meetings began today in Nashville. Among other activities, owners and general managers (GMs) hang out and talk about signing and flipping assets. Assets being players, in this case. Jonah Keri of Grantland wrote a piece about which 10 teams are most likely to “make a splash.” Regardless of how you define “making a splash,” the Mariners are on the list as they should be.

I would guess that each team’s fans want to “make a splash” in some way. Splashes are exciting, and more often than not, splashes bring with them more winning. But there are certain teams that should be more into splashes, and the Mariners are one of those teams.

It comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. Splashes cost money, but provide benefits in terms of wins, and wins lead to playoffs (sometimes). Wins and playoffs lead to more revenue, and the splash cycle can restart with more juice. But there’s a catch. Five more wins for the Houston Astros or New York Yankees does not provide the same benefit as five more wins for an average team. One of those teams mentioned will not make the playoffs, and one of those teams will (probably) make the playoffs, no matter what splashes are signed.

But now think about a team like Seattle. Without any signings, Seattle’s expectation is probably about 75-to-80 wins. But as the A’s and O’s of 2012, along with the Mariners of 2010, have shown us is that variation in baseball is high. A good team expected to win 85 or 90 games can wind up with just 60, and some mediocre teams expected to win 75 can win 90+ and make the playoffs. That’s the variance of baseball, so consider these theoretical numbers.

1) Results from last year suggest that a team needs at least 88 wins to make the playoffs.

2) Say the Mariners are expected to win 77 games, plus-or-minus 10 games. 67 to 87 wins.

Though these are theoretical expectations so far, we can see that if they are true, the Mariners are unlikely to make the playoffs. If this were, for instance, a 95% prediction interval, then the M’s essentially would have a 2.5% chance of making the playoffs. Now let’s give Josh Hamilton to the Mariners, and increase their expectation by 5 wins, to 82. Now the range of expectation sits at 72 to 92, and a chunk of that expectation lives in Playoffs Land, which is inhabited by Revenue Fairies. This would increase the M’s playoff chances substantially, perhaps to 15 or 20%. Just think if we added both Hamilton and Edwin Jackson ;-)

In this scenario, the benefits of players like Hamilton, Justin Upton, Jackson, or whomever very well could outweigh the financial/asset burden in the near future. I’m not prepared to discuss the future beyond 2013, but I can argue strongly that the M’s are in prime position to make the most of free-agent signings because of their proximity to the “playoff bubble.” The Astros and Yankees are probably far from the playoff bubble, and should not make major changes. The Mariners are extremely close to the playoff bubble, and should take this opportunity to push themselves over the edge. Whether they sign free agents with monetary costs, or trade for MLB-ready talent with asset costs, now is a strategic time to maximize the benefits for our beloved Seattle Mariners.

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