Initially I was just planning to do a drive-by post about Robinson Cano and his having played in a bandbox in New York for the last five years. In these situations, there’s always some concern that the hitter in question was just a product of his environment, but with Cano, there’s little reason for worry, which is good. However, by the official Mariners constitution, we’re not allowed to have sustainable good feelings about them or their players or their organization for more than several minutes at a time, so while I was in the process of looking some numbers up, Geoff Baker dropped the bomb.
First, whatever, some Cano splits. New Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, so Cano called that ballpark home for five years. Cano’s a left-handed hitter, and that stadium is laughably generous with left-handed hitters. That would be a concern, but it turns out the concern is unwarranted. The last five years, 155 players have batted at least 1,000 times at home. By wRC+, Cano ranks 30th, at 137. He’s tied with Adrian Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki.
The last five years, 166 players have batted at least 1,000 times on the road. By wRC+, Cano ranks seventh, at 140. He’s between Joe Mauer and Mike Napoli. Cano, at home, has hit more dingers, but on the road, he’s hit more doubles, and when you go through all the calculations there’s no evidence that Cano enjoyed a particular home-field advantage. With Seattle, he probably won’t be so much of a power hitter, but he’ll still be a highly productive hitter, at least at first. Unless, you know, there’s some disaster. We seem to have a lot of disasters.
And here, you can read the disastrous article about how the Mariners have been run under Jack Zduriencik and the people above him. It’s way too thorough for me to try to attempt a one-paragraph summary, so just go read it although I might not read it over an otherwise potentially pleasant weekend. You’ll begin to understand why the Mariners are going for it right now, even though they didn’t come into the winter with a strong enough foundation. You’ll begin to understand an awful lot, and while we’ve written about some of these things before, there are more details and there’s significance in confirmations and material being made public. Not all of this is surprising, and maybe very little of it is surprising, but it’s awful and to our knowledge it isn’t changing. Chuck Armstrong is going away, but that might not meaningfully change anything at all, and, well, this is our ship. It’s up to you to determine whether or not it’s sinking, but the water’s freezing cold and there aren’t any lifeboats.
Robinson Cano is a Mariner, and he’s been excellent away from Yankee Stadium. Also, he’s one of baseball’s premier hitters when it comes to spraying the ball around all fields. Didn’t mention that part before. Cano’s pretty great. The overall situation controlling the franchise is a wreck and the people pulling the strings have very little understanding of player value and evaluation. Lots of people like to drink on Saturday night. Maybe have yourself an extra.
You probably don’t need to read more about how some blogger feels about the Cano acquisition, but, hey, you’re reading a baseball blog. So if you’ll indulge me, this is the third panel of the Cano-analysis triptych.* Dave’s measured lament, Jeff’s cautious…excitement, and now this: I have talked myself into liking this. This is one of those cases where pretty much everyone agrees on the potential gains, the risks, and the alternatives. How you feel about the trade – beyond the universal vertiginous feeling that the phrase “10 years, $240 million” produces – depends on how much you emphasize one versus the other. So here’s what I’m emphasizing: the status quo, as of Thursday, was pretty damned awful.
Yes, yes, the objection is easy: that proves too much. Trading Hisashi Iwakuma for a proverbial can of Sprite would also “shake things up” and alter the status quo. Adding Robinson Cano, I think we can all agree, is not that sort of a shake up. The M’s have kept their valuable prospects (for now) and added one of the best players in baseball. As Jeff said, I’d hoped that this is the route they’d go down, and they have. But you can’t think about the potential careers of guys like Tai Walker and Chris Taylor or Brad Miller without ruminating on the failure (or at least disappointment) of the first wave of M’s prospects under Jack Z. Dustin Ackley is not chopped liver, but is closer to chopped liver than he is to peak-period Chase Utley. Johermyn was a slugger, then just “toolsy”, then a pitcher, and is now a minor league free agent. Danny Hultzen went from #3, to potential ace, to mechanical nightmare to hurt. Vinnie Catricala was great until one day, he wasn’t. Josh Fields. Carlos Triunfel. Alex Liddi. You get the picture.
Obviously, no team turns 100% of their top 10 into MLB regulars. But there was a moment there in 2009-10 when it seemed that the M’s just drafted and developed better than other teams. This club doesn’t need to play in free agency; if they need another lefty reliever, they’ve got 5 of them ready to go. Another middle infielder? Mac and GMZ grow them hydroponically. No one thinks that way anymore, for good reason. This team tried to build a winner by building a home-grown core and adding complementary pieces around it. They failed.
This wasn’t a case of a bad break here or there. Essentially each piece of the plan – technically, the execution of the plan – was flawed. The team clearly came into 2013 needing big years from the anointed line-up core of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. And as disappointing as those three have been, the record with the complementary pieces isn’t much better. Think back on Ian Snell, on Jack Cust, or Milton Bradley. Of course there’ve been some bargain-bin successes, like Russell Branyan, and, hilariously, Mike Sweeney. But the great feedback loop with vets helping prospects helping the next wave of prospects never materialized. They’ve tried it one way, and it hasn’t worked. Personally, I’m not eager to see them double down on the same strategy. Let’s be clear: the plan they tried to implement – develop a young core and add around it – was a *great* idea. That’s what all of us would recommend to any non-Yankees, non-Dodgers club. It’s just that this front office wasn’t good enough to pull it off.
So if you can’t trust an FO to spend wisely, how can you support a…there’s that feeling again…10 year, $240 million contract to one guy? Because there’s no way to avoid the fact that Cano is one of the five best ballplayers in the world. You develop your own core because it’s way, way cheaper than buying one off the shelf. Cheaper, but as we’ve seen, harder to do. So they’re paying retail and simply BUYING their franchise core. Could he implode? Sure he could. Would it be better to spread the risk around 2-3 very good free agents? Maybe, maybe not. If one of the alternatives has a degenerative hip condition and the other is an overrated free agent pitcher, I’m not sure you’ve radically altered the risk profile. Cano costs more because he comes with fewer questions. For whatever reason, the M’s haven’t been really good at finding great bargains (Iwakuma is the massive exception), so they paid for a sure thing.
Yes, the deal will look “bad” in seven years. The question is “how bad?” and “what will it prevent the M’s from doing?” If baseball inflation, fueled by dizzying TV revenue and MLBAM’s bargaining, continues the way it has, then the deal won’t be any sort of a problem. If it IS an impediment, there are two possible reasons why: one, that the M’s have added a lot of complementary pieces or signed some young stars to long extensions. That is, it’s a problem because the M’s finally identified their window, and are in the thick of the AL race. It would be frustrating if, in 2020, the Cano deal is a problem them, but *that is the kind of problem I would like to have.* I’m sick of the M’s current problem, which is a complete inability to play baseball at a level approaching that of their AL West rivals. The second reason the contract could be an impediment in 2020 is that the TV party is over, inflation stops or even kicks over into deflation, and the M’s regional sports network is an albatross and not a golden goose. Compared to this, the Cano contract is nothing – if the cable TV market implodes, then yes, it’s going to be tough to pay Cano. If the cable TV market implodes, though, the M’s (and baseball) will have much, much bigger problems than dead money to an aging 2B.
That the M’s now own a majority of their RSN actually helps align incentives here. There’s still no business I’d be more scared to invest in today than cable TV, but that decision was last year’s nervous-excited-dizzying move. If the M’s are to get some of that delicious, luxury-tax-shielded revenue from the RSN’s profits, the M’s need viewers. Right now, they don’t have any. It’s easy to say that the M’s got desperate and attempted to buy relevance instead of a contending team, but just because the M’s needed something doesn’t mean they bought the wrong thing. Of course adding Cano, by itself, won’t magically produce ratings like 2002′s. But the M’s got better yesterday, and they’ve got much better than they would have by waiting for one of the youngsters to develop into a superstar. The M’s have an opportunity to add pieces around Cano and be a good (not just “promising”) club in 2015.
This highlights a problem: we’re trying to evaluate this deal without knowing what else is coming. We can only see half the picture right now. This deal will look disappointing (not necessarily ‘terrible’) if their prospects continue to fizzle out and if they’re unable to add any meaningful talent around Cano. That is, they’d be in a very similar position that they’d be in without this move. The serious risk is several years out, when we have very little ability to measure it. That doesn’t mean that seeing this as a desperate gamble is necessarily wrong, it’s just that the M’s likely have several years to plan for and deal with the consequences of that gamble. The M’s could see what they have in 2014 and make a serious push at 2015. They could also make a couple of disastrous trades and make a run at 2014 instead. As Jeff mentioned, Price-for-Walker is the deal to worry about. You can argue that getting Cano makes those risks somehow more likely, as it’s now easier for someone to claim that the M’s are good enough to justify a win-now trade like Walker/Price, but the problem there doesn’t have anything to do with the Cano deal itself – you need to take some imaginative leaps and analytical failures to get to the really, really damaging part. Could the M’s screw this up? Of course, they’re the M’s. I’ve been about as pessimistic about this club as anyone, and it’s easy to itemize how to start with Cano and end with a smoldering wreck of an organization. We all want to guess at and second guess at the next two or three moves. But let’s look at this in isolation for a minute: the M’s just added a brilliant player (a brilliant *player* and not a brilliant ‘power hitter’ or ‘line-up legitimizer’ or whatever) and didn’t give up any talent to do so.
This could all go wrong, in 6 years or 6 weeks. But almost everything’s gone wrong for the past three years. The M’s added several wins at a stroke, and they have given themselves an opportunity to change the AL West race in a few years. I’m all for adding wisely, and building internally, but the gap between the M’s and the teams they’re chasing was so big, the task has seemed impossible. The M’s have in no way completed that task, and while they’ve added some risk way down the road, they’ve bought something really important for the next three-four years: possibility.
* I have unwittingly made Jeff’s post’s title a lie. Sorry Jeff. Sorry everyone.
Let’s just face it: we’re hopeless. We’re all hopeless, and by definition there’s not really anything we can do about it. We have no prayer of being able to properly understand a ten-year, $240-million contract. We’re not wired for the right perspective; we can’t balance the long-term against the short-term. Executives have the same problem. Maybe I shouldn’t say problem — perhaps natural deficiency. We’re short-term thinkers. We have to be. We want what’s immediately satisfying, and it’s worth acknowledging that by the end of the Robinson Cano contract, the people in charge won’t be the people in charge anymore. Even good executives tend not to last that long, at least below the ownership level. Who the hell can see ten years? Who the hell can see three years? Who the hell can see a month? How far back in your own life do you have to go to find the oldest point at which you figured you’d be where you are today? And there’s literally nothing you know better than you.
We all have a sense of what’s right and wrong, long-term. We all know on some level not to have the extra slice of pizza. Many of you have probably set up retirement accounts. Many of you probably haven’t contributed enough. Even when we know we’re doing the right thing for the future, there’s no immediate reward for that, and we naturally want what’s rewarding now. It’s why we splurge on unnecessary things and then justify it by saying it’s been a hard week, or we’ll save money later, or what’s one little extra expense? We suck and we can’t not suck. Even when we know what’s absolutely right, it can be unappealing if we don’t get a short-term benefit. Save money for retirement and you actually lose money, effectively, today.
The Robinson Cano contract is probably worse than you think, and on some level you probably know that. You probably know, objectively, that these things generally turn into problems, sometimes ultra fast. This is less like the first Alex Rodriguez contract, and more like the second one, the second one that’s causing even the New York Yankees major problems. This could conceivably look bad for five, six, even seven years. But those are years in the future, and we don’t know what those situations are going to be so we can’t hope to relate to them. The feeling right now is that the Mariners added one of the best players in baseball, by surprise. They did that! Cano is outstanding! He won’t be, later, when he’s still expensive, but we can’t approach this with the right balance. Even if we can put the right balance on paper, it isn’t what most of us will feel.
I mean, I know this probably isn’t wise, and I’m still damned excited. How couldn’t I be? Cano is as good as a position-player version of Felix. Hard to make a bigger upgrade with one single transaction. Instantly, we get to think about the playoffs again, even if the odds remain slim. They’re considerably less slim, and the Mariners aren’t finished augmenting. This is the feeling the Royals pursued a year ago, and it’s a real thing. Buzz is a real thing, and everyone in Seattle is talking about the Mariners today while the Seahawks look like they can practically coast to the Super Bowl.
This is one of the very biggest events in Mariners history. It was huge when the Mariners re-signed Felix, and it was huge when the Mariners re-signed Felix again, but Felix was already a Mariner, and for some reason his loyalty has never wavered from the start. Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson were big, but this is bigger than both of those combined. This is Seattle taking a superstar away from New York. It’s a money thing, of course. It’s not like the Mariners are more appealing than the Yankees as a team to play for at the moment. Cano doesn’t have a particular bond with Seattle yet — he signed for the biggest deal. The Mariners knew that, in order to lure Cano, they’d have to out-bid the Yankees by an awful lot. But now that this has happened, maybe next time the Mariners don’t need to out-bid the competition by so much. In the minds of players, this does make Seattle more alluring, because they’ve attracted a star and now they’re trying to win. It’s a factor, even if we can’t really measure it.
And while some of the above words might seem skeptical or cynical, to be perfectly honest I don’t think this is a catastrophe, per se. No, I wouldn’t have wanted to pay Cano $240 million over ten guaranteed years. He’s going to be 40. 40 is old and Cano is going to be not good by then. But I would have been okay offering Cano a hell of a lot, so it isn’t about the total commitment — it’s about the difference between the total commitment and a reasonable big commitment. There are ways Cano makes sense as a $200-million man. There are ways he makes sense as an eight- or nine-year acquisition. The Mariners aren’t wasting $240 million. They might fail to get a return on some fraction of that.
The key to making this sensible, though, is to get even better, right now. Cano doesn’t make good sense on this contract on this team, if this team were finished building. With a deal like this, the value is toward the front. The idea is to win toward the front. So now the Mariners have to try to win toward the front, while Cano is still good and not a squawking albatross. Cano has to be one of several moves as the Mariners target a window between 2014-2016 or whatever. It’s not like it would be impossible for the Mariners to win around a declining Cano, because he’ll be one guy taking up one fraction of the payroll, but this has to move the plan up. The Mariners are signaling that it is time to win.
And they’re busy, at this very moment, trying to do other things. The Mariners aren’t close to done, as silly as that might sound on the heels of giving out a quarter of a billion dollars. They’re going to address the rotation and the lineup and probably the bullpen, and while maybe this isn’t the absolute ideal plan, there are ways to go about this more smart and less smart. For better or worse, the Mariners now have their current team and their current budget with the current landscape of available players. They need to build a contender, and it isn’t impossible.
I should hope they don’t trade Taijuan Walker and more for David Price. One of the potential consequences of going for it is the front office making a bad trade. That wouldn’t be the fault of the Cano acquisition, but they would be related. My preference, if anything, would be to overpay for a free agent. It would be great if they could avoid overpaying, and a guy like Bartolo Colon has my interest. I have little interest in adding to 2014 by subtracting talent from 2014 at the same time. Like to keep Walker. Like to keep James Paxton. Seems like Nick Franklin is all but gone, given, you know, but you can stomach losing Nick Franklin given a good enough return. There’s a Robinson Cano in the way.
Basically, there’s reason for short-term hope, now, but the front office has plenty of work still to do. There are good and bad potential approaches, and there are approaches that would leave the team in better and worse shape later on. I should hope that the Mariners leave themselves enough for the future, even going for it today, and that’s still possible, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t fearful. This is a volatile time, with plenty of emotional upside and mirroring emotional downside. This is salvageable. This is exciting. This could be a mess that leaves the organization in tatters.
Something I wouldn’t feel right ignoring — free agents tend to be lousy investments, on average. At least, underwhelming investments. A theory is that free agents are a selected group of guys their old teams let go. I don’t know exactly how negotiations went with Cano, but he’s getting ten years and $240 million from the Mariners, and word is the Yankees wouldn’t go past seven years and about $175 million. Cano, in New York, was a homegrown superstar. The Mariners beat the Yankees by three years and something like $65 million. What does it say, that the Yankees themselves didn’t want to come close to this, despite their financial strength? Maybe they’re just overly conservative. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they’re absolutely right, and the Mariners will be in some long-term trouble. Even if Cano makes the Mariners more relevant today, how long does that effect last, if he gradually declines and becomes a problem a few years down the road? Nothing about this is permanent. It will all come down to player and team performance, in the end.
It’s always my preference to overpay in money instead of talent, given the condition of necessary overpayment. As a friend said a few days ago, giving away talent is final. The Mariners are rich, and they ought to get richer, and they say they’re boosting payroll. Even in the worst-case scenario, the Mariners can afford the Cano contract, and he won’t sink the organization. Individual players can’t really do that. If Cano sucks in 2018, and he’s getting paid $24 million, and the Mariners’ payroll is in the low nine figures, that still leaves enough flexibility that Cano can’t shoulder all of the blame. These things get tricky when they add up, and people exaggerate an individual contract’s ability to cripple. It will be bad if Cano gets bad ahead of schedule. In turn, that would simply require that the Mariners be better with their remaining money, if they want to not be bad too. That would be on whoever’s in charge.
And maybe Cano ages extremely gracefully. By the end of his deal, his salary won’t be worth what it looks like in today’s money. Everybody understands, even Cano himself, that ten years from now he’ll be a shell of what he is at the moment. Everybody knows he’s going to get worse, instead of get better. No one knows how he’ll get worse, and everyone knows he’s starting from a lofty level of talent. This is justifiable. This is enormous.
And this is risky, and it’s going to lead to subsequent risks. All that’s left to do for the moment is hope that the front office does a good job the next couple weeks. There are ways to make the Mariners good, around Cano and Felix Hernandez. There are ways to make them good that don’t involve giving up too many present and future assets. Right now, they’re on the bubble of wild-card contention, and more upgrades could put them in the thick of things in the AL West. The Mariners are a real baseball team again. Now it’s a matter of making sure that lasts.
Hypothetically, still, because we’re still not in charge, you and I. I just ran this very same poll two days ago. Things have changed since two days ago a little bit. So I’m curious again.
10 years, $240 million for Robinson Cano. The Mariners are all-in on big splashes. Let’s hope it works out better than it did for every other team who has tried this recently.
Robinson Cano makes the Mariners better. Hopefully, he makes them better enough real soon for this to be worth it before this contract turns into a total albatross. I don’t see a contending roster even with Cano, but maybe by the end of the winter, the Mariners will have a team that justifies this kind of go-for-broke strategy. We’ll see.
And here’s my FanGraphs post about the deal.
And here’s Tony Blengino’s take on Robinson Cano’s aging curve. Yes, that Tony Blengino. He writes for FanGraphs now. I know!
I noted tonight on Twitter that if the Mariners have $240 million (or $225 million, whatever the offer ends up being) for Robinson Cano, that there are better ways to spend it than throwing it all at one player on the wrong side of 30. That brought about a natural question: what else could the Mariners actually do, since “you have to overpay” to get someone to sign in Seattle? To be honest, a bunch of the guys I would have liked to see the Mariners pursue have already been acquired by other teams (at more than reasonable prices, I will note), so I can’t suggest the team retroactively go trade crap for Dexter Fowler or sign Dan Haren or Scott Kazmir to a low-risk, short-term contract. But even with many of the better bargains already off the board, I still think there are viable plans that could help the team just as much as the rumored go-for-broke plan without doing the same kind of long term damage to the franchise.
For instance, let’s just say that the Mariners current plan involves something like signing Robinson Cano (9/$225M), trading Taijuan Walker, Dustin Ackley, and some live arms for David Price (2/$30M), flipping Nick Franklin for Billy Butler (2/$20M), and then spending the rest of their budget on a veteran reliever (1/$5M?), some kind of Raul Ibanez-esque outfield depth piece (1/$2M), and a backup catcher (1/$2M). Assuming they backload Cano’s contract a little bit, that’s about $50 million in salary additions, and would give the team the starter, “two bats”, and bullpen help they’ve said is the goal, plus fill out the bench.
Replacing Franklin with Cano (+3 WAR), Walker with Price (+2 WAR), Montero with Butler (+2 WAR), and accounting for the depth pieces, you’re looking at probably a +8 WAR upgrade, or something in that range. For $50 million in salary (plus a crazy long commitment to Cano) and a bunch of good young talent going elsewhere, that’s not a lot of bang for the buck, and I don’t think it’s enough to make this team a contender. Which is why I’d rather see them pursue a more balanced approach that added pieces to the players already in place rather than paying a premium to land splashy big name guys. And I don’t think it’s really all that hard to do, even with what’s left on the market now.
For instance, let’s just say the team did this instead.
Traded Dustin Ackley to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp and $30 million, bringing total commitment to Kemp to 6/$100M.
Signed Matt Garza for 5 years, $70M.
Signed Mike Napoli for 4 years, $52M.
Traded Tom Wilhelmsen to Cleveland for Drew Stubbs, who is projected to get $4M in arbitration.
Kemp, Garza, and Napoli all project as roughly +3 WAR players, while Stubbs is forecast for +1 WAR in a half season’s worth of playing time.
In this instance, Kemp replaces Ackley (+2 WAR upgrade), Garza bumps Paxton or Ramirez to #6 starter (+2 WAR upgrade), Napoli replaces Montero (+2 WAR upgrade), and Stubbs joins Saunders and Almonte in a CF/RF rotation, replacing Xavier Avery or Carlos Peguero or whatever other scrub you have penciled in for OF time right now (+1 WAR upgrade). And then you still have a few million left to sign a catcher and a bullpen piece if you want.
That magnitude of the upgrade for those kinds of moves would be very similar to the Cano/Price/Butler plan, and would achieve many of the same goals. You’d get your “two bats”. You’d get a veteran starter to slot in between Felix/Iwakuma and the kids. You’d get some outfield depth. You’d get to have a bunch of press conferences to impress everyone with how aggressive you were in adding big name players.
And you’d still have Taijuan Walker. You wouldn’t be on the hook for a monster contract that pays nearly $30 million per year when a player is approaching 40. You’d have at least a reasonable rotation of Major League outfielders.
This isn’t even an ideal plan. I’d rather take a shot on Corey Hart for one year than try to lure Mike Napoli away with a four year deal, but I figure providing an alternative plan has to involve “go for it” type moves, not convince people of the wisdom of multiple good values instead. I think, in reality, you could get a decent approximation of what Garza would give you for a lot less by signing a buy-low pitcher like Chris Capuano or Roberto Hernandez instead, but no one seems interested in those kinds of pick-ups right now.
So, instead, here’s a separate path for spending a bunch of money that gets you to a pretty similar place, only doesn’t cost you your best young arm and a $225M contract in the process.
With a different approach from the start of the winter, the M’s could have done even better. But even after having sat out and watched a lot of the good buys sign elsewhere, there’s still other options for the Mariners. They don’t have to sign Robinson Cano or spend no money, and they don’t have to trade for David Price or not land a rotation upgrade. They can outbid everyone else for Garza and Napoli just as they can outbid everyone for Cano and Price. There are other options here.
Don’t ever let yourself belief that there’s only one path, one plan; that’s how you end up making mistakes. There are always options. In this case, they don’t even take that much creativity. If the Mariners want to overspend on free agents, there are other free agents to overspend on. If they want to make a trade for an expensive player, David Price isn’t the only expensive player on the market. Don’t punt the future just because you think it’s the only way forward.
Hypothetically, of course, because this decision isn’t actually up to us. I think. I hope? I do not hope? I feel like that would be too much responsibility. Life’s hard enough as it is, you know?
Used to be it was fun to compare the Mariners to the Padres, in no small part because they basically swapped all of their players. The last year or two or so, though, the running half-joke has been that the Mariners are the Royals, more or less. It’s been a half-joke because it’s been simultaneously funny and frightening. The Mariners haven’t gone full Royals yet, but I’ve been anticipating an offseason attempt to duplicate the Royals’ last offseason attempt. A year ago, the Royals decided they were tired of being bad, so they tried to go for it. They got panned, and a little bit better in the short-term. Now it seems the Mariners have decided they’re tired of being bad, too, and rumors say they’re trying to go for it. And it’s not all a load of crap. Even Jack Zduriencik is talking.
Zduriencik on mega-deals: “You have to adapt to the market. In some cases, if you have to stretch more than you want to, you just have to.”
More Zduriencik: “…always have felt there would be a time where we have to augment this club. I think we’re at that time.”
In the past, publicly, Zduriencik has been all about patience, all about sticking to his guns and his salary ceilings. Now it’s like he’s preparing us for a bunch of aggressive maneuvers. Of course, also a year ago, Zduriencik came out of nowhere to almost get Josh Hamilton, and to almost get Justin Upton. But now he’s deliberately setting an expectation. There’s no stealth behavior here — the Mariners are making no secret of their desire to add, no matter what it takes.
I don’t want to step on Dave’s post below, because it’s excellent and I agree with just about every word. But I did want to weigh in with my own piece, along some similar lines. The Mariners want to get better in a hurry. It’s noble of them, unusually bold of them, but you have to wonder about them picking their spot.
Let’s just accept that there’s pressure on the team to improve. Let’s accept that there’s all but a mandate to spend, and let’s accept that there’s some air of desperation. Maybe a desperate front office shouldn’t be the front office in charge in the first place, but we can’t get around reality. What’s the situation right now?
I can give you one idea. This is a link to some current FanGraphs projections based on team depth charts. They’re far from perfect, but they’re going to do for the time being. At present, the Mariners are pretty clearly better than the Astros. They’re presumably better than the Twins and the White Sox, too. And…that’s it. In the American League, anyway. They’re at least a little bit behind everyone else, and there are still more pieces to arrange. Figure the Yankees still re-sign Robinson Cano? All right, well, there goes the Mariners being close to them in the WAR projections. The Mariners are not a team on the fringes of contention. They’re a team on the fringes of the fringes of contention. They’re worse than three of their immediate rivals.
But, all right, the Rangers are looking a bit thin, and the Angels are in some trouble. The Athletics are good and super deep, but it’s not like 2014 would be an impossible mission. If the Mariners insist on being aggressive, they can spend to buy more wins. But a David Price trade doesn’t seem to belong. At least, not as it’s rumored. It violates both of my principles.
For one, the Mariners don’t seem like they’re good enough right now to really go for it in the short term. I think they’re worse than the Royals were a year ago, and I didn’t like what they did. And for two, if you’re going to try to make yourself better in the short term, don’t in turn give away pieces who can help you in the short term. One of the big problems with the James Shields trade was that the Royals made themselves a lot worse in right field by losing Wil Myers. If the Mariners gave up Taijuan Walker in a package to get Price, they’d get better on account of Price, but they’d also lose value at the same time losing Walker. And they could lose more giving up another piece or two from the big-league roster, like, I don’t know, Nick Franklin or Dustin Ackley. Hard enough for the Mariners to pick up enough new WAR to contend in the next couple years. They don’t need to lose WAR in adding it.
Walker, right now, is probably an adequate big-league starter. Worse than Price, of course, but Walker isn’t to be grouped with other good pitching prospects, because he’s already graduated to the highest level. He’s risky, still, but less risky. He’s survived all the levels. For whatever it’s worth, Price himself had a DL stint a year ago with an arm problem. The Mariners need not just better talent, but more talent, so Price for Walker would be an addition and a subtraction.
And the other critical thing here is that there’s absolutely nothing more valuable in baseball than young talent under cheap team control. Those players give you performance and all kinds of financial flexibility, because they don’t cost anything for years. Walker, as is, belongs to the Mariners through 2019. Willie Bloomquist will earn more next season than Walker will probably earn the next three seasons, combined. Jack himself has addressed this before, in pleading for patience:
“We’re committed to staying the course with these kids and trying to build,” he said. “I’ve had several scenarios where I could give up two or three of these players, but what has to be weighed is the return you’re getting, the years of control for what you’re giving up.
“Could I have made a trade? Of course. But taking on cost and getting a player with less years of control and giving up your very strong assets, that’s fine if it makes a lot of sense.”
Since a year ago, the Mariners haven’t really gotten better. Does trading Walker and more for Price make a lot of sense? If Jack weren’t under pressure to get better fast, would this be his course? You can point to the Upton trade, but then Upton was a position player with an extra year left. The prospects going the other way were a year less developed. Price would be a shorter-term gamble, at at least an equivalent player price, and he’s not cheap and the Mariners aren’t good. It’s a difficult thing to figure.
Of course, the Mariners could still do more. They’d need to. Maybe getting Price would make them more appealing to other targets, I don’t know. But if you trade for David Price, you don’t go halfway. You really have to add wins in the short term to bolster an intended contender. You probably have to get another starter, and you have to get a position player or two because the current crop is unremarkable and the outfield is too thin. Get David Price, and you sure as hell better make sure other pieces follow. Good ones. With Price and another good starter and a good position player, maybe the Mariners start to look like a Wild Card contender. Maybe they start to look like, you know, the 2013 Royals.
It just seems to me that the Mariners can maneuver aggressively without giving up that much player value. I’d rather overpay in money for free agents than overpay in young talent for non-free agents. I mean, I’d rather not overpay at all, but this isn’t an ideal situation. And there are other available moves, too, lesser moves, trades for players who aren’t as splashy and flashy. It doesn’t seem right for this team to lose Walker and more for two years of a great starter. The team isn’t good enough, and Price isn’t good enough. He is very good, but that’s only a fraction of the whole picture.
You want fans back? Win. Win for more than one or two years. The Mariners lost attendance in 2009, and they lost attendance in 2010 despite the splashes. That’s because the team still wasn’t good enough, and success is what fans respond to in the bigger picture. You achieve sustainable success by doing the right things. It can, sometimes, be the right thing to give up long-term value for short-term value, but the Mariners aren’t facing that circumstance. And if they were to really, really try, they’d need a hell of a lot of puzzle pieces to fall into place, because Price wouldn’t be close to enough. That’s just a few more wins for a team that still likely wouldn’t finish .500.
The Royals just won 86 games and gained fans. 134 of them, on average, per home game. That does ignore that ratings were up and morale was up, and people did get a chance to care about the Royals again for more than one or two months. That isn’t worth nothing. It’s still probably not worth what the Royals did. This season they get a second chance with Shields, but they’re still on the outside looking in, and Wil Myers was the Rookie of the Year. We all want the Mariners to be better. We all want the Mariners to win as soon as they can. There are worse ways to try to get there, and less worse ways. At least, don’t act like a window is closing when the window hasn’t yet opened.
Tonight, both Jeff Passan and Ryan Divish have suggested that the Mariners and Rays have at least had some dialogue about what a deal might look like that would bring David Price to Seattle. David Price is really good. David Price would make the Mariners better. Exciting rumor, right?
Sure, if you only focus on the potential guy coming and not the guys going. Because, as Passan notes, well, just read it:
The Mariners have considered including 21-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker as part of a deal for Price, sources told Yahoo Sports, knowing he represents the sort of frontline player the Rays would seek in such a trade. Packaging him along with a young middle infielder (Nick Franklin or Brad Miller) and other prospects would constitute a difficult-to-top offer – and give the Mariners a rotation of Price, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the best 1-2-3 in the major leagues.
That’s right, the reported asking price (no pun intended) is a package built around Taijuan Walker. Not just Walker himself, but Walker and more. A couple of days after Doug Fister — who is far closer in value to Price than their reputations would suggest — was traded for a non-elite pitching prospect and a couple of throw-ins, there are now rumblings that the Mariners are looking to make a trade not too dissimilar from the the one the Royals made with the Rays last year, when they sent an elite prospect and stuff to the Rays for James Shields. I’ve compared the Mariners to the Royals more than once, and this kind of rumor only makes it more clear that the team is headed down a very similar path as the one Kansas City traveled a year ago.
I hated the James Shields trade for the Royals, so you probably won’t be too surprised that I don’t love this idea either. Not that I think Taijuan Walker is as valuable as Wil Myers, because there’s a significant difference in value between hitting prospects and pitching prospects, simply due to the significant injury potential that pitchers carry. Walker is a talented kid, but the chance that he flames out is quite high, much higher than it was with Myers or other top offensive prospects. There are plenty of scenarios where trading Walker now is actually selling at the peak of his value, and a totally justifiable decision.
But if you’re going to move a piece like Walker, you have to make sure that it’s absolutely the right move and the right time to make that kind of trade. And I’m not convinced that David Price is the right guy, nor am I convinced that the 2014 Mariners are the right team, for this kind of trade to be worth doing.
Price is an excellent pitcher, one of the very best in baseball. Over the last three years, he’s 8th in WAR (whether you use FIP or RA9) among pitchers, and at his best in 2012, he was as good as Felix Hernandez. He’s worthy of the title of an ace. You absolutely want David Price on your team.
But Major League teams trade for contracts, not players, and while David Price is an excellent player, his contract status makes him somewhat less valuable. He’s under team control for just two more seasons, and because he was a Super-Two player who reached arbitration early, his annual salaries have already gotten pretty pricey. He’s projected to earn approximately $13 million in 2014, and with an expected good season, he’d probably jump up to around $17 or $18 million in 2015. In other words, the two years of control that Price would come with would cost the Mariners roughly $30 million in salary.
Taijuan Walker, meanwhile, will make the league minimum over the next two years, or about $1 million in total. Price is going to cost about $29 million more than Walker over the time that the Mariners would control Price’s rights. That’s $29 million the Mariners wouldn’t have to spend on adding other pieces, and in particular, that’s $29 million the team couldn’t spend to add a starter to Taijuan Walker since they’d be using those resources to replace him instead of build around him.
With that $15 million per year to spend, you could very reasonably assume that the Mariners could sign a pitcher like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez, and add them to Taijuan Walker. Do you really think Price is dramatically more valuable than Walker and Garza/Jimenez? Sure, you’d have to give more than a two year commitment to either of those starters, but you’d also get more than two years of performance from the free agent hurler, and you’d be retaining six years of Walker’s performance at the same time. Trading Walker for Price isn’t just turning an “unproven prospect” into a “reliable ace”, it’s turning an unproven prospect and currency that could buy you another quality starter into that ace, and then dramatically shortening the window of performance in which the team would control their assets.
For that kind of trade-off to be worth it, the gap between the two would have to be absurdly large. And it really just isn’t.
David Price, for his career, has a 3.19 ERA/3.39 FIP/3.53 xFIP. No matter how you want to evaluate him, you should probably expect an ERA south of 3.50 next year. The Steamer projections suggest 3.44. You could probably argue for something even as low as 3.25. And you’re probably going to expect around 200 innings at that level, which makes Price an extremely valuable piece. That ERA forecast means that, over 200 innings, you’d expect Price to give up somewhere between 72-76 earned runs.
How much of an upgrade over Walker is that? Well, your forecasts for Walker are going to be a little more uncertain, since he doesn’t have Price’s track record. Steamer projects a 4.39 ERA, which seems reasonable to me, but you could probably realistically defend anything between 4.00 and 5.00. If you think Walker is ready to pitch at this level and you’re forecasting a 4.00 ERA, then you’d be expecting him to give up 89 runs over 200 innings; at a 5.00 ERA, you’re looking at 111 runs. So, basically, somewhere between 90 and 110 runs is a reasonable range of expected performance from Walker if he threw 200 innings. He probably wouldn’t, so you’d have to allocate some of those innings to other pitchers, but let’s just keep this simple for now.
At the optimistic end, Walker would be projected to be about 15 runs worse than Price; at the pessimistic end, it’s about 35 runs. In terms of wins, we’re talking roughly a two to four win swing, once you account for the fact that Walker wouldn’t throw as many innings and some of those would be transferred to inferior pitchers. That’s not an insignificant figure, but the Mariners could likely make up a large chunk of that gap by simply giving that same $15 million per year to a pitcher on the free agent market. Just like Price is significantly better than Walker, Garza or Jimenez would be projected as significant improvements over Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, and whatever other back-end starter candidates you want to pencil into the #5 spot in the rotation right now. And if you add a free agent to the current crop, you still have Ramirez around as depth for when someone inevitably gets hurt; if you trade Walker for Price and slot Ramirez into the #5 spot (because you just blew the $15 million you had allocated for a rotation upgrade), now you’re turning to someone you don’t want in the big leagues whenever anyone misses a start.
Maybe Price/Ramirez/random scrubs is little bit better than Garza/Walker/Ramirez or Jimenez/Walker/Ramirez, but the gap isn’t anywhere near that 15-35 run spread we were talking about earlier. Now we’re talking about maybe a difference of one win — and that’s if you’re kind of down on Walker; if you’re not, it’s not clear that the Price trio is any better — and you’ve cashed in the future value of Walker in order to get that marginal upgrade. Plus all the other stuff the Rays would manage to extract along with Walker to make a Shields-like deal. As Passan noted, the deal probably costs you a guy like Nick Franklin too, and probably doesn’t stop there. By the time you count the value heading out of town, it’s not going to be clear at all that the team is really any better even in 2014 than they would be by just keeping the kids that the Rays would ask for and signing a pitcher instead.
And that’s not even counting the long term value. Sure, maybe you can convince David Price to sign a monstrous contract extension and keep him here beyond 2015, but again, that’s money that could be allocated to other players, other players the team won’t be able to afford because now they’re on the hook for $50 million a year to two pitchers. There’s no question that the future value of having cost-controlled players like Walker, Franklin, and whoever else would go away in the deal is more valuable than the chance to give David Price a huge contract. It’s not even close.
To justify giving up that kind of long term value, you have to get a lot better in the short term in order to make it worth it. There are times to trade present for future, and just push your chips in on the team you have assembled for next year. But replacing Walker with Price (and Price’s salary) wouldn’t really make the Mariners that much better than just keeping Walker and spending his money in other ways, and while the Mariners might like to fancy themselves as a team on the verge of contending, you cannot make a serious argument that they’re anything better than the 10th or 11th best team in the American League right now.
They’re not even close to teams like Boston, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Oakland, or Texas. I’d easily put Anaheim, Kansas City, and Cleveland ahead of them too, and then you have other high variance rosters with talent and flaws, such as New York, Baltimore, and Toronto. If the Mariners sign Robinson Cano, trade for David Price, and then make one other win-now move, maybe you push them ahead of those three and into the group with the Angels/Royals/Indians, but even then, you’re projecting them for something like the 6th-8th best team in the AL. And it would a team heavily reliant on the performances of a few stars, with hardly any depth in case of injury, not too dissimilar from the kinds of rosters that sunk the Angels the last few years.
This isn’t a team that is a small upgrade away from going from almost contender to legit powerhouse. The Mariners should absolutely be trying to get better, but they should be measured in their willingness to trade future for present, because the reality is that even with a few big splashes, their roster in 2014 is probably going to be no better than decent. The Royals tried this exact same thing last year, punting Wil Myers in a desperate attempt to move up their timeline, and they ended up with 86 wins, no playoff berth, and a hole in right field.
Maybe the stars would align for the Mariners and they’d do better than that. It’s possible, but it’s not the kind of outcome the Mariners should expect even if they make a bunch of big splashy moves, and it’s not the kind of sustainable success that the team could count on for years to come.
We saw Bill Bavasi make this same kind of play after the 2007 season. He got tricked into thinking he had a winning team that was closer to contention than it actually was, and decided to turn Adam Jones and stuff into Erik Bedard. Walker is less valuable than Jones was at the time, and Price is better (or at least likely healthier) than Bedard was, but this organization made this same mistake six years ago. It was Bill Bavasi’s final big mistake, and it’s still haunting the Mariners years later as they struggle to find anyone who can play the outfield. Trading Walker and stuff for Price wouldn’t be the same kind of obviously terrible decision that the Bedard trade was, but it’s a tree from the same garden of wrong thinking.
David Price is flashy, just like Robinson Cano is flashy. Getting both would make a lot of news and allow the team to have some pretty excited press conferences. I just don’t think this path would lead to enough wins in 2014 to make the costs of such a pursuit worth it. In the end, I think the flash would fade, and we’d all just be left disappointed that the big bet didn’t work. Again.
A week or two ago, Jim Bowden speculated that the Mariners could steal Robinson Cano from the Yankees with a massive offer. I think most of us shrugged it off as nothing more than conjecture. Today, though, speculation of what might be possible turned into a suggestion that the Mariners are actually attempting to sign Cano, as Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York reported that the Mariners had “emerged as major players” for the game’s best second baseman. So, let’s talk about Cano and the Mariners for a second.
Robinson Cano is a very good player, having been worth +5 WAR or more in each of the last four seasons. In fact, over that four year span, he ranks #2 in WAR behind only Miguel Cabrera. A decent defensive second baseman who can hit like a first baseman is an absurdly valuable thing. Robinson Cano is asking for a huge contract because he’s one of the game’s very best players. The Mariners need more talent than they have, and no free agent would inject more talent into the organization faster than Cano would.
So, yes, Robinson Cano is a fit for the Mariners, even though they already have one second baseman too many. If signing Robinson Cano for a reasonable price becomes a reality, you don’t bother worrying about what you’re going to do with Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley. The goal isn’t to find an outfielder or a #3 pitcher or a closer; the goal is to get better. Robinson Cano would make the Mariners a lot better.
And the Mariners have money to spend. Enough money to make Cano a big time offer. Enough money to offer more than the Yankees are reportedly offering. It’s an unusual situation, but the Mariners are in a position to outbid the Yankees. This is what happens when you have two players under contract. If the Mariners want to make Cano choose between money and geography, they can. And I’d imagine a lot of people will want them to do exactly that, noting that Cano would give the Mariners credibility again, and would signify to everyone that they’re not just perpetually rebuilding. I expect that there are a lot of people who are very excited about the idea of the Mariners pursuing Robinson Cano.
Personally, I’m less excited. Less excited because I don’t think Robinson Cano is actually all that likely to be interested in playing for Seattle. Less excited because I think the gap between the offer the Mariners would have to give him and what the Yankees are willing to make is likely going to have to be so enormous that any deal for Cano would automatically restrict the organization from upgrading at other positions. Less excited because part of the failures of the front office the last two winters has been the seductive possibility of paying big money for a star, and by the time they realized it wasn’t happening, better alternatives were no longer available.
Two years ago, it was Prince Fielder. The M’s waited around for Fielder’s price to come down, keeping their options open in case Scott Boras decided to engage them on a deal for a contract south of $200 million. Fielder stayed on the free agent market until January 26th, and the Mariners basically sat out most of the winter waiting to see what might happen with Fielder. They skipped out on other young players who could have helped both short term and long term — such as Jose Reyes and Yu Darvish — and waited too long to get into the trade market, eventually flipping Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero three days before Fielder signed with the Tigers.
Last year, it was first Josh Hamilton, then Justin Upton. They went after Hamilton first, using the winter meetings as a chance to make a run at the best power hitter on the free agent market. Finally, on December 15th, they learned that Hamilton would be signing with the Angels instead, so they switched gears and tried to make a big trade with Arizona to bring Upton to Seattle. They finally reached an agreement on the players with Arizona on January 10th, only to have Upton use his no-trade clause to block the deal. Again, they found themselves in January without their preferred options, and moved on to trading John Jaso for Michael Morse instead.
By all reasonable accounts, Robinson Cano’s free agency is going to take a while. The Mariners aren’t going to sign him this week, or even next week, most likely. He’s not going to just rush into changing teams without testing the Yankees resolve to keep him. Odds are pretty good that his preferred option is to re-sign with New York, so the only way the Mariners are going to convince him to come west is to make the financial difference so large that he can’t turn it down. But the size of that gap won’t be known until the Yankees make their last and best offer. And they haven’t done that yet. They probably won’t do that any time soon. The Yankees don’t need to get Robinson Cano resolved before they can move on with their off-season.
So, Cano’s representatives will keep flirting with the Mariners. If they’re going to get the Yankees to raise their offer, they need a reason to make them do so, and no other team has shown any serious interest yet. The Mariners interest in Cano is useful to Cano’s representatives, even if Cano has no real interest in signing here. It’s in their interest to drag this thing out; it is not in the Mariners best interest to be involved in another empty pursuit of a splashy signing.
And really, it might not even be in their best interest to sign Cano. The Yankees reported first offer was for $160 million over seven years, with reports suggesting they’d push up to $175 million, which would put them at $25 million per season. For the Mariners to convince Cano to leave New York, they’re not going to get him for $180 million or $190 million. He’s not going from New York to Seattle for an extra $2 or $3 million per year. If they’re going to get Cano to really consider leaving New York, they’re going to have to guarantee those last few years where New York is saying no. They’re going to have to go to eight or nine or maybe even 10 years. They’re going to have to come in well north of $200 million, maybe even pushing towards $250 million. That’s the kind of offer that would turn this from a flirtation into an actual possibility.
But Robinson Cano is not worth $250 million. Last month, I wrote a piece about long term deals at FanGraphs, and used an example of a nine year, $225 million contract for Cano to illustrate the changing value of the deal over the life of the contract. For the estimate, I started Cano as a +6 WAR player, and a $225 million contract still came out to $7 million per projected win, a little higher than the going rate for free agents right now. But, in reality, Cano’s probably more of a +5 WAR player than a +6 WAR player in 2014, and it’s more reasonable to start him from a lower threshold. If we repeat that table but lower the estimate of his performance a bit, we get this.
|Year ?||Salary||Projected WAR||$/WAR|
Simply shifting Cano from the starting spot of a +6 WAR player to a +5 WAR player drives the price from $7 million per win to nearly $10 million per win. And that’s without the 10th year, which would be projected to be a total waste at this point. If they had to go to 10/250 to get him, you’d be looking at $11 million per win, almost double what other teams are paying. You can argue that the Mariners have to pay more to get free agents to sign here, but they shouldn’t have to pay double. When a free agent is costing you that much of a premium, you’re better off just reallocating your dollars to players who don’t have that kind of leverage and will take something closer to market rates to play here.
For $200+ million, Cano might make the Mariners better by five or six wins next year. But they could also buy five or six wins for a whole hell of a lot less than $200 million by pursuing players who don’t require crazy overpays to leave the Yankees. I’m not arguing that the Mariners shouldn’t sign Cano because I don’t want the M’s to spend money; I just want them to spend their money well enough so that it’s not Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, and 23 piles of crap.
I’d write more, but news is breaking that the Yankees are about to sign Jacoby Ellsbury, so now i have to go write about that. So here’s a very brief conclusion. Mariners, I get why you like Robinson Cano. I get why he’s pretending to like you back. Don’t fall for it, though. Don’t be the nerd doing the pretty girl’s homework in hopes that she’s going to realize that the jocks are stupid and you’re the one for her. You’re just going to end up in the friend zone. Go find someone who is actually into you for you, and not someone who wants to use you for your money.