Win the World Series, repeatedly
“I am a patient boy
I wait, I wait, I wait”
In a previous post, I outlined how the M’s could contend for baseball’s championship next year if they’re willing to spend about $100m and tie themselves down to a bunch of free agents for a while. I mentioned, in passing, why that’s not the greatest idea for the franchise’s long-term prospects, but let’s talk about that.
What prevents the Mariners from competing for more than division titles, and for more than just a year?
There aren’t any significant handicaps. The A’s and Twins have a tiny payroll and win, but in general, fielding a good team requires money, and being poor is a barrier to winning. Even as we might bitch that the Mariners are stingy with our money, they’re still a lot more spendy than other teams, and while they’re not investing in the on-field product as much as we might like, they’re pouring money into player development, which makes me happy. And there’s no reason they couldn’t spend a ton of money if they decided to: they’re well-capitalized and if they wanted to spend $200m on this year and this year only, they could do it.
That’s beside the point, though. How’s the window of opportunity look? Let’s look at this in a different way over the next five years. Start with a baseline of “awful” (team wins ~30% of their games) and then tack on contributions of players who aren’t awful.
An example of how to do this: King Felix will be worth +5 games/year every full season, assuming he’s healthy. I think he’s a good bet to have at least one year where he puts up Cy Young numbers in that span, but in fairness, as with any pitcher, he’s a risk to have a down year. Initially, we should crank that back a little assuming the team limits his innings. So:
So, for the next five years:
2006: 53 wins
2007: 54 wins
2008: 55 wins
2009: 55 wins
2010: 55 wins
Now we do that for everyone on the roster, and assume (for now) that everyone not under contract is replaced by someone awful at league minimum (with the team pocketing the money).
Sexson: figure a conservative +4.5 game total contribution through his contract.
Beltre: For a moment, I’m going to use the M’s line that Beltre will be between last year and 2004. At halfway between, that’s +5 games/year (I know, I know, and I’ll get to that).
Ichiro: Again, split the difference between 2004 and 2005, and we’re at +6 for the next two years of his deal.
Ibanez the DH: in his last year, I’m putting him down for +3, which is reasonable.
Bullpen: the M’s have a ton of random, cheap contributors now, and even if the farm system’s starting prospects flame out, they can be an asset here. Losing Guardado’s no big deal, as he can be replaced with a couple of guys on hand now. I’m putting them up for +5 as a group every year, and that’s also conservative.
Betancourt develops slowly, so +2, +2.5, +3, and so on. Reed and Lopez too. That’s pessimistic on that group as a whole early, and possibly optimistic late.
Here’s the core-surrounded-by-awfulness chart o’wins, then:
2006: 81 (78 Beltre sucks)
2007: 81 (78… and so forth)
Note, too, that this assumes the M’s make no more moves, ever, that they rely entirely on the farm system to supply bad players for every other roster spot. Ibanez leaves after 2006? Welcome Greg Dobbs, your everyday DH. Ichiro leaves after 2007 and is replaced by Jamal Strong or whoever’s walking by the stadium that day.
A pessimistic Beltre estimate clips a couple wins off there, but you can see (as Dave points out) that this isn’t a bad core — having just one guy as good as Hernandez locked up makes a huge difference in a team’s ability to keep their head above water.
That’s not far off contending in any year, and if player-development pays off, the guys coming up through the system in 2008+ may well be huge talents (and, if it doesn’t, well, we bite down on the hollow tooth).
It also starts to point to some interesting long-term things. A five-year plan isn’t worth the effort it takes to make one, but consider the gaps:
Position-wise, there’s one tough-to-fill position immediately:
C — Jojima may sign, but if not, we’re hoping for Clement in a couple years
And a couple of others that are historically a lot easier to find players at:
1B — Sexson becomes a free agent in a few years
LF — We could use one now, and in the future
DH — Ibanez potentially leaves after next year
RF may be open if Ichiro departs after his current deal runs out.
Then at trouble positions internally, Adam Jones may push Jeremy Reed quickly. There’s a crop of middle infield prospects if Lopez doesn’t develop as we’d hope. Some of those look like they may turn into third basemen (taking over for Beltre) or right fielders (taking over for Ichiro).
For pitching, in the short term the team’s got a batch of guys who should be able to take a rotation spot and, at least, be more effective than the frustrating Meche-and-Pineiro combo. They will need free-agent or trades to patch it now, though — there are too many holes. So splurging on a quality pitcher, even if it’s expensive for a while, makes sense from a roster construction view as well as a win-now one: while it’s possible that every pitcher in the system could push for a rotation spot in the next couple of years, that’s unlikely. And even if does occur, no team has trouble moving quality pitching prospects for good value.
What should be even more interesting is that with Felix and the cheap contributions of the Betancourt-Reed-Lopez (or whoever) youth movement, the team will have a lot of free cash for rent-a-player acquisitions… but the more productive the farm system, the more positions filled on the cheap and the more money they have to spend on fewer spots. If the prospect pipeline starts cranking (and that’s a big if, of course, as even great player development organizations are still rolling dice) which is one of the most important things Bavasi & Co. have been trying to do, a return to contention doesn’t have to be a half-hearted flirtation. They’ve got a couple years before Felix hits free agency. The clock is ticking.