So, what now?
There are two days left in June, 82 games left in the season, and five weeks until the non-waiver trading deadline. The Mariners are 40-39, one game over .500 for the first time in something like 183 years, and have a +29 run differential, the best in the American League West. They are two games behind Oakland for the lead in the AL West, but the A’s have only scored two more runs than they’ve allowed, so they haven’t exactly been playing stellar baseball all year long.
So, the question on everyone’s minds is what do the Mariners do now? Is this for real? A month ago, we were counting down the days until Mike Hargrove was fired and figuring out if any of the veterans had trade value to flip for prospects in the annual summer sell off. Right now, however, breaking up this team is incomprehendable, as this is the most fun Mariners fans have had in years. The offense is steamrolling people right now, as 7 of the 9 regulars are posting an .800+ OPS for the month, with Ichiro/Ibanez/Johjima all being over 1.000. They’ve won their last four games, scoring 9, 9, 11, and 10 runs in those four games. The memory of Joe Blanton making these guys look miserable seems like ages ago.
The most encouraging signs have clearly been the improvement of Adrian Beltre, who is wrapping up his best month as a Mariner (.314/.375/.588, 17 of his 32 hits are XBH), and Felix Hernandez, who has posted a 3.38 ERA in 34 2/3 innings during June, giving up just three home runs, six walks, and striking out 29 batters. With Good Adrian and Good Felix replacing Bad Adrian and Bad Felix, the team has swung into another gear, essentially removing replacement level production and adding all-star level production. Those two both have all kinds of talent, and we’ve seen what this team can do when they are providing production that goes along with expectations.
However, we’ve also seen this team at its worst, when Beltre and Sexson aren’t hitting, Felix isn’t commanding his fastball, and the team spins its wheels due to the lack of firepower in the middle of the order and front of the rotation. That they’re playing well now does not guarantee that they’ll play well in July, August, or September. The M’s are full of players with huge variances in plausible performance. Adrian Beltre in April was the worst player in baseball, and we saw him struggle for almost all of 2005. However, in June, he’s been one of the best third baseman in the game, combining a high offensive level with his usual terrific defense. Despite what you feel about Beltre, both of these performances are well within reasonable expectations for the rest of the year. Beltre could be great, or he could be horrible. A large percentage of the team is like that.
So, what do you do? Personally, I think this team is a contender for the AL West (run differential makes that point almost inarguable), and the team should be looking at ways to improve the current 25 man roster. I’m not advocating a mortgage-the-future series of moves where the young talent in the minors is shipped out for modest upgrades, but this team is in a position to have a legitimate pennant race down the stretch that would bring excitement back to the organization for the first time in years, and they should not squander that opportunity.
The M’s, even while playing well, have some issues. There are spots on this team that could be easily upgraded. Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
Raul Ibanez is helping carry the offense right now, and his surge has been a big part of the reason why the team is scoring runs in bunches. However, while we’ve been wrong about Ibanez before, I still don’t feel its wise to expect him to sustain this level of performance – he’s never been this good, and its not often that a player has a career year power wise at age 34. Keep in mind, he slugged .474 before the all-star break last year and .393 afterwards.
He’s also a defensive liability in left field, and his lack of range was on full display last night. His defensive skills are best suited to DH’ing at this point, and the team’s current DH is hitting like a middle infielder. With Carl Everett reaffirming what we already believed, that he’s done as a major league starter, the team would do do well to slide Ibanez back to his DH role and acquire a left fielder to both upgrade the offense and the outfield defense. Jarrod Washburn, especially, would appreciate the help.
The M’s have some internal options here that, in my opinion, are more attractive that completing a deal for a rent-a-player. Doyle is hitting .271/.385/.415 for the Rainiers. The low SLG isn’t representative of how well he’s hitting the ball – 13 of his 32 hits are for extra bases, but 11 of those 13 are doubles. If a player is making consistent contact like Doyle is, he’ll drive the ball out of the yard more often than that. He also has the ability to work the count and a history of providing a high OBP even when he’s not hitting, which is something the offense lacks at the moment. Doyle would be a perfect fit in the #2 hole, but if the team decided not to mess with Beltre’s success, he could improve the bottom of the line-up as well, sliding in to the #7 spot.
His defensive skills aren’t what they once were (though he still has a very good arm), but he’s a better outfielder than Raul Ibanez. He’s been playing center field for Tacoma to stay away from the chainlink fences of Cheney Stadium, but that wouldn’t be a concern in major league parks, and his range is best suited to a corner. Having him and Raul shift between LF/DH could be a good way to keep the workload off both of them, while improving the offense and defense without having to acquire outside help.
Health is obviously the main concern, but he’s healthy now, and the organization shouldn’t let fear that he may get injured again stop them from reaping the benefits of what he can provide while he’s on the field.
Replacing Everett with Doyle would improve the team both offensively and defensively, all with the simultaneous advantage of keeping Carl Everett’s 2007 option from vesting. Everett has played badly enough that his benching/release could be easily explained as a performance issue to avoid any issues with the players union. While the team may take a don’t-mess-with-what’s-working attitude, they also can’t ignore that they’ve been on their biggest tear with Carl Everett on the bench. If his intangibles that they love so much can be provided from the bench during interleague play, they can be provided from the bench when the team has a DH too.
So for the LF/DH, Doyle should be option #1. Option #2 would be making a trade that doesn’t cost the team a significant piece of the future or bring in salary commitments for 2007 – the big name guys like Carlos Lee don’t interest me. We’re not at the point where we want to be trading away top prospects, but if the team could pick up Jose Cruz Jr for a guy like Oswaldo Navaroo or Mike Wilson, I’m fine with that. They could also promote Shin-Soo Choo, but despite his recent surge, he’s still a fourth outfielder in the majors. Adam Jones isn’t an option – he’s not ready, and he shouldn’t see Seattle until 2007 at the earliest.
Solid middle reliever
While we love Soriano and Putz at the end of games, and Sherrill is death to lefties, the rest of the bullpen is replacement level or worse. Woods, Green, Mateo, and Guardado simply aren’t good enough to be pitching in high leverage situations. This team needs another arm who can come in and strand baserunners. The back end of the bullpen is mostly contact flyball pitchers who can’t miss enough bats to be useful in situations with runners on and a tight lead to protect.
The M’s don’t have many good in house options here. Fruto and Cruceta have enough stuff to miss bats, but both need improved command, and its unlikely Mike Hargrove would trust them in critical situations over a “proven veteran” such as Eddie Guardado or Julio Mateo. The M’s need another arm back there that Grover can trust, and that’s probably going to have to come from outside the organization.
The nice thing is that good relievers can be acquired without paying an arm and a leg, especially if you’re not paying for the proven closer tag. Kyle Farnsworth was acquired last year while pitching extremely well for the Cubs, and the Tigers gave up Roberto Novoa, Bo Flowers, and Scott Moore. None of these guys are or were top prospects, and they’re the kind of expendable talent that isn’t that hard to replace. The M’s could really use an arm like Farnsworth to help get them through to Soriano and Putz at the end of the game, and if the cost is a couple of guys who could be role players down the line if everything breaks well, that’s a reasonable price to pay.
Some potential targets could include Jon Rauch (Washington) or Jorge Julio (Arizona) if they want to avoid a financial commitment, or Bob Howry (Cubs) if they feel like taking on some salary.
Joel Pineiro’s been terrible. His stuff is gone, and at this point, he’s a junkballer who hopes the other team gets himself out. There’s almost no chance he returns next year, and he’s barely hanging onto his rotation spot.
However, a #5 starter is easily marginalized if the team is willing to use its off days to skip his starts, so I don’t think this upgrade is as important as improving the LF/DH spot or adding another arm to the pen. The fifth starter goes away entirely in the playoffs, so you don’t want to mortgage the farm to pick up a guy who may not even pitch critical innings for you in games that count the most.
That said, it would be helpful to have someone who was more effective than Pineiro taking the hill every five days. Again, there’s probably not anyone in the system who Grover would trust with the role – he’s seen and voted against Bobby Livingston and Clint Nageotte (neither of whom are lighting up Tacoma, to be honest), and Cruceta isn’t likely to get a real shot in the rotation. Cha Baek has less stuff than Pineiro and would be a batting practice pitcher in the majors, so again, any upgrade probably has to come from outside the organization.
So, here’s a crazy suggestion; trade for Jeff Weaver. He’s been terrible for the Angels this year, sporting a 6.29 ERA and he’s due over $4 million for the rest of the year. The Angels are on the verge of replacing him with his brother Jered, who is simply a better pitcher right now.
However, Jeff Weaver is a great bet to pitch better as the year goes on. His 6.29 ERA isn’t close to his Fielding Independant ERA (5.20) or xFIP (4.61), which adjusts for HR/FB rate. Weaver’s peripherals aren’t much different than what they were previous years – 2.0 walks, 6.0 strikeouts, 39% GB rate. He’s a flyball pitcher who throws strikes and occassionally misses bats.
This year, he’s been struggling because teams are getting more hits on balls in play than expected, he’s giving up more homers per fly ball than expected, and he’s got worst Left on Base% of any starting pitcher in the American League. Basically, he’s the anti-Jarrod Washburn, who last year had those three things break in his favor and cashed in on non-repeatable skills. Weaver’s not going to keep giving up home runs at this rate, and he’s not going to keep giving up hits with RISP at this rate. He’s a great bet to pitch better in the second half of the year than he has to date.
The difference between Joel Pineiro’s salary the rest of the year and Jeff Weaver’s is about $1 million. Weaver, on a one year deal with the Angels, has almost no chance to be back with the club next year, while Joel Pineiro will be arb. eligible and still under club control. I would imagine, in purely speculative form, that the Angels would gladly eat the million dollar difference to gain the rights to a pitcher who they could still potentiall have on their roster next year while opening a rotation spot for Jered Weaver without having to demote his brother to the pen in order to create the opening.
So, working off the assumption that the Angels would make up the cash difference, would you rather have Joel Pineiro or Jeff Weaver the rest of the year:
Pineiro: 3.0 BB/G, 4.0 K/G, 47.2 GB%, 16.7% HR/FB, 68.2 LOB%, 4.83 xFIP
Weaver: 2.0 BB/G, 6.0 K/G, 39.2 GB%, 16.8% HR/FB, 62.4 LOB%, 4.61 xFIP
Weaver has outpitched Pineiro despite pitching in a less friendly park (FIP and xFIP aren’t park adjusted), and he has better stuff and a better track record.
Jeff Weaver’s not the answer to all the Mariners problems, but he’s a better bet for the second half than Joel Pineiro is. It’s the classic change of scenery trade that potentially helps both clubs. The Mariners are reticent to trade within their own division, but this is a time where the two sides could benefit too much to ignore such a deal.
So, that’s my plan, as of June 28th. Bring up Doyle and let him and Raul share LF/DH with Everett playing DH occassionally to keep everyone healthy, package a couple okay-but-not-great prospects for a servicable middle reliever, and swap Pineiro for Jeff Weaver with the Angels picking up the salary difference.
The current roster gets better and the future is still intact. The M’s have a shot to win this division – they shouldn’t ignore that. However, they also shouldn’t be overconfident, because the reality is that this team still has some significant downside potential. They have a month to figure out if they’re for real. Right now, they look good enough to contend in a mediocre division, and I’d like to see them increase their chances of making September a good time to be a Mariner fan again.