Dave’s Offseason Plan, v.2007
For the fifth year in a row, I’m putting out an offseason plan – sort of. Each of the last few years, I’ve offered up suggestions for offseason roster maneuvers based on players I was in favor of acquiring, encouraging the team to continue to build its core roster while also giving themselves a chance to contend.
This year, I’m going to do it slightly differently. Looking back over the posts of the last four years, the suggestions hold up well in terms of the philosophy we’d like to see the organization adopt, but don’t work as well in terms of practical suggestions. It’s one thing to explain why the Mariners should be interested in guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, or A.J. Burnett, but its another thing entirely to actually complete that kind of acquisition, especially given the constraints that the front office operates under.
So, this year, I’m breaking it into two posts. This one is more practical, less dramatic, and offers some suggestions that are actually within the realm of possibility given the current organizational structure. I’ll do another post at a later date that acts as more of an idealistic scenario where we could shape the roster how we wanted it worrying about the P.R. impact or how those moves would be looked upon by the executives or the guys in the clubhouse.
In this post, I’m taking into account the logistics of the people in place – John McLaren is the manager, Bill Bavasi is the GM, Chuck Armstrong is the president, and the team is coming off an 88 win season. Trading a bunch of veterans and turning over half the roster just isn’t going to happen in this kind of framework. These guys want to keep their jobs, and to do that, they’re going to try to win as many games in 2008 as possible. They have inherent biases towards experience that have to be accounted for. So, I’ve tried to take all those external factors into account and find options that both fit the necessary criteria while also improving the roster without destroying the future of the franchise.
So, without further ado, here’s the roster.
|2.||Sean Green||RH Setup||$450,000|
|3.||George Sherrill||LH Setup||$450,000|
|6.||Mark Lowe||Long Relief||$450,000|
|7.||Cha Seung Baek||Long Relief||$450,000|
And here are the actual transactions that were assumed:
Trade Richie Sexson and $4.5 million in cash to San Francisco for Ray Durham
Trade Ben Broussard to Baltimore for random prospect with a pulse.
Non-tender Horacio Ramirez and decline option on Chris Reitsma.
Sign Geoff Jenkins to a 1 year contract worth $8 million.
Sign Bartolo Colon to a 1 year contract worth $10 million.
Sign Jeremy Affeldt to a 3 year contract worth $9 million.
Three free agent signings, none of them considered major, and a couple of minor trades. In all, a fairly boring winter, and one that probably incurs an initial reaction of “That team sucks”. However, hear me out, as I think there’s some logic here.
On paper, the Sexson-Durham swap is basically one free agent disappointment for another, with the M’s covering all but $2 million of the differences between their ’08 salaries. It’s not a big cash savings deal, and Durham is one of the few players in baseball that was actually a worse regular than Sexson last year. Durham turns 36 in a month and, based on his .218/.293/.343 line from last year, looks just about finished as a ballplayer.
However, take a closer look. This is a guy who hit .293/.360/.538 in 2006, making him a borderline all-star, and his underlying performance didn’t change all that much.
BB%: 2006 – 9.2%, 2007 – 11.0%
K%: 2006 – 11.0%, 2007 – 14.0%
GB%: 2006 – 46%, 2007 – 46%
LD%: 2006 – 17%, 2007 – 14%
His walkrate and strikeout both went up slightly, indicating that he was starting to lose a little batspeed and compensated by working the count more often. This is pretty common in aging players. His groundball rate remained the same, so there wasn’t a dramatic change in the arc of his swing. His line drive rate dropped a bit, but this is less predictive than you might think, and a 3% drop isn’t nearly enough to account for the massive change in results between 2006 and 2007.
So where was the difference? Here:
Batting Average On Balls In Play: 2006 – .292, 2007 – .238
Among major league hitters with 300+ PA, Durham posted the third lowest BABIP in the major leagues. Richie Sexson actually posted the lowest (.217), with Dave Ross (.228) coming in second. Some other low BABIP guys include John Buck, Jason Kendall, Dan Johnson, Adam Kennedy, and Andruw Jones.
BABIP is definitely a result born out of a collection of skills for a hitter (unlike with pitchers), as high contact/speed guys (Ichiro, for instance) will almost always post higher BABIPs than base-clogging sluggers. However, performance in batting average on balls in play is still influenced significantly by factors beyond the hitters control, and it’s not at all uncommon for players to experience wild swings in their BABIP from year to year.
In fact, if I was going to make a list of the most likely hitters to rebound in 2008, Richie Sexson, Ray Durham, and Andruw Jones would all be on the list. It’s no coincidence that all three guys appear to have fallen off a cliff in 2007, but had their performances significantly dragged down by extremely low BABIP rates. For a projection going forward, we should expect all three to perform significantly closer to their career average BABIP marks than their 2007 BABIP marks.
J.C. Bradbury actually built a model called PrOPS, or projected OPS, that essentially gives us an expected BA/OBP/SLG line that accounts for the variance in BABIP. According to PrOPS, Ray Durham “should have” hit .257/.332/.392, all significantly better than his actual ’07 performances. Sexson, by the way, should have hit .264/.346/.474, so PrOPS would suggest an even stronger rebound from Richie next year.
However, as you guys are probably sick of hearing, offense is only part of the story. The projected rebound by Sexson gives the Giants a valid reason to want to acquire him to serve as a power hitting first baseman that they’ve been missing for years, but the Mariners simply have too many 1B/DH guys on the roster as is, and one of them has to go. In Ray Durham, the team acquires a rebound candidate who offers extreme roster flexibility.
A natural second baseman, Durham would give the team a legitimate option to push Jose Lopez next year, hopefully motivating him into living up to his potential. However, Durham is also athletic enough to play multiple positions and fill the super-utility role that Mark McLemore made famous years ago. Durham’s made it clear that he’d be open to moving to another city if it gives him the chance to play everyday (the Giants would prefer to hand the second base job to youngster Kevin Frandsen), and entering into his contract year, it shouldn’t be too tall of a task to convince him to pick up additional positions to offer flexibility and added value.
As a switch-hitting 2B/3B/1B/LF/RF/DH candidate, Durham would offer McLaren all kinds of options in putting out a line-up. Jose Lopez is struggling? He plays second base, and the team doesn’t experience a huge dropoff. Adrian Beltre need a day off? No problem. Raul Ibanez’s hamstrings are acting up and the team’s facing a RH pitcher? Durham plays first base, with Ibanez sliding to DH. Jose Vidro hits like the no-power wuss we all think he is? That’s okay, because there’s a switch hitter with a better bat on the bench. Durham could easily get 300-400 at-bats playing six positions. Swapping Sexson for Durham clears a positional logjam while giving the Mariners another useful role-player and no long term financial commitment.
Durham also gives the team a potential platoon partner for new left fielder Geoff Jenkins (and yes, I’d rather have him in right with Jones in left, but I don’t think McLaren’s up for that). Jenkins is the classic Safeco Field hitter, an extreme-pull power lefty who could take advantage of Safeco’s short right field porch, much like Raul Ibanez has. The team badly needs another left-handed power hitter, and with Jose Guillen looking for big money on a multiyear contract, the Mariners can go back to the free agent well for a one year stopgap deal while evaluating how Wladimir Balentien develops in Tacoma. Jenkins is basically a better defensive version of Ibanez, offering basically the same offensive skillet but with actual range in the outfield. Like Ibanez, he can’t hit lefties, and would be best served rarely starting against southpaws. With Durham on the roster, this isn’t a problem, as Jenkins can be best used in his role of left-handed power hitter and deployed appropriately.
With Jenkins, Durham, and Jones essentially replacing Sexson, Broussard, and Guillen, the team gains significantly more flexibility in the daily line-up, allowing McLaren to give more rest to the everyday players without forcing Willie Bloomquist into regular action. The team also improves by leaps and bounds defensively, getting Ibanez and Guillen out of the outfield and replacing them with significantly better defenders. In Safeco Field, this is a big deal.
Ibanez is unlikely to be much defensively at first base, but this roster also presents options. If Durham adjusts to 1B as well as I expect, he becomes a legitimate option, as does Mike Morse against left-handers. Ibanez could easily slide to designated hitter with Jose Vidro getting relegated to pinch-hitter extraordinaire, and all of the sudden, a Durham-Lopez-Betancourt-Beltre-Jenkins-Ichiro-Jones defense goes from one of the leagues worst to something that should be above average, and potentially very good.
Overall, the offense should be similar to the 2007 version – overly aggressive, inconsistent, but about average in terms of scoring runs. The line-up depth makes up for some of the weakness in the middle, and by retaining Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien and storing them in Tacoma, the organization has some internal options in case a bat is needed at mid-season.
Now, to the pitching. I laid out the case for Bartolo Colon last week, and to me, this is the obvious move of the winter. I slotted him in for $10 million because I’ve historically underestimated the cost of free agents, but I think he could reasonably be had for $7-$10 million without a long term commitment. He gives the team a veteran, World Series tested arm with a track record, as well as adding another strikeout arm to a rotation that pitches to too much contact. If I could only make one move this winter, this would be it.
Behind Colon, I’d make Ryan-Rowland Smith the favorite for the #5 starter job heading into camp, making Cha Seung Baek and Brandon Morrow significantly outpitch him in March to beat him out. Rowland-Smith has the skillset that is perfectly aligned to Safeco Field, and is exactly the kind of pitcher who can fill innings at the back-end of a rotation just through throwing strikes and letting the home park do the rest. By improving the defense as well, RR-S can simply focus on putting the ball over the plate, and his three pitch repertoire should be good enough to be a capable fifth starter.
Baek makes the roster in the long reliever/6th starter role, offering a fill-in for any starters who need to skip a start, while Brandon Morrow heads to Tacoma to work on learning how to pitch. With a Tacoma rotation headed by Morrow-Feierabend-White-Rohrbaugh-Campillo, the team should have enough internal options behind Baek should they need to get some replacement starters from Triple-A during the year.
The core of the bullpen remains mostly unchanged, with only lefty Jeremy Affeldt as a newcomer. A local white kid who always loved the Mariners growing up and now has World Series experience, he fits in perfectly with the kind of player the organization loves to acquire. A groundball lefty with good enough stuff to miss bats and two breaking balls that keep both lefties and righties honest, he fits in well as a multi-inning middle reliever and a nice complement to Sean Green and George Sherrill. His command is his biggest weakness, but as Morrow showed last year, that can be somewhat overcome in relief if you keep the ball in the park (Affeldt does) and get your fair share of strikeouts. He also has experience as a starter and could be an option in the rotation if need be.
Mark Lowe is penciled in as a low leverage reliever, but this spot is basically up for grabs in spring training. If Kameron Mickolio and his 96 MPH fastball prove ready to get major league hitters out, I have no problem sending Lowe back to Tacoma to get some work. Low leverage innings are perfect for guys like Lowe or Mickolio, who can simply work on gaining experience against major league hitters without being put in critical game situations to begin the year.
So that’s the roster, and including the money being paid to San Francisco as part of the Sexson deal, the team comes in at about $105 million for 2008, with $47 million of that coming off the books after next season, giving the team significant financial flexibility going forward.
Here’s the basic expectations for this team compared to the 2007 model.
1. Significantly improved defense, especially in the outfield. Having three guys capable of chasing down flyballs, two of whom are good enough to play center, should improve the run prevention by 20-30 runs.
2. Improved left-handed power in the line-up. Jenkins gives the team another LH bat, making it harder for teams with RH heavy rotations (such as the Angels) to just shut down the offense.
3. Better roster flexibility. Durham and Morse give the team the ability to platoon if desire, and Durham’s potential to play five positions on the field while providing decent offensive production gives the team options when guys are hurting or need a day off.
4. A somewhat better rotation. Batista and Washburn are both candidates to take a step back, but that should be mitigated by Colon and Rowland-Smith improving the back end, and Felix’s potential to take a big leap forward is still a wild card.
5. More depth. With Clement, Balentien, and Morrow hanging out in Tacoma at the beginning of the year, the team has talented options in case an internal solution is needed to an unforseen problem (or a forseen problem, such as Jose Vidro being terrible) and valuable trade chips if the team is contending in the summer.
Now, despite those strengths, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t a great team, an 80-85 win roster that could get to 92-95 if absolutely everything breaks right. However, if the Angels sign A-Rod and Bonds, we’re hosed, because this team isn’t going to keep up with Los Angeles in that case. But I’d argue that if LA goes for broke, we’re hosed no matter what, and this plan at least keeps the nucleus of a potential contender in place beyond 2008 without saddling the team with any more long term contracts.
For $105 million, perhaps we should be able to get more than “we might contend if the Angels don’t sign A-Rod”, but considering the constraints this roster and an 88 win season put in place, I think this is a viable plan to put a quality team on the field next year without sacrificing the future of the franchise in an ill-fated attempt to win at all costs.