The Eight

Dave · January 28, 2009 at 8:46 am · Filed Under Mariners 

One of my favorite things about how the M’s have handled this off-season is the willingness to accept uncertainty heading into spring training. In past years, the organization was all about plugging holes with Proven Veterans (TM) in order to establish a predictable 25-man roster where everyone knew their job heading into camp. This year, there are five position players and three pitchers who are basically guaranteed a starting job, and everyone else is fighting for the six other starting gigs and the reserve slots.

Being willing to deal with uncertainty leads to a lot more flexibility and higher potential returns. Simply through sheer quantity of talent, you have a better chance of finding a good rotation when you have eight potential starters rather than five. And that’s exactly what the M’s have – eight potential starting pitchers headed to spring training. Let’s take a look at the spots that probably aren’t available this spring.

#1 – Felix Hernandez. This job isn’t up for grabs.
#2 – Erik Bedard. Can’t trade him in this market until he re-establishes his value. If he’s healthy, he’s a lock.
#3 – Brandon Morrow. The M’s have made it very clear that they see Morrow as a starter.

That leaves five guys fighting for the #4 and #5 starter spots. The candidates:

Jarrod Washburn – $10 million salary makes him untradeable, and while the contract is horrible and they obviously should have moved him when they had the chance, that’s all in the past now. He’s coming to Peoria, so where does he fit on the roster? He’s clearly a below average starter with no future in Seattle, but that doesn’t make him useless. As a flyball pitch-to-contact left-hander, he’s the pitcher we’d expect to benefit the most from a Chavez/Gutierrez/Ichiro outfield. With an outstanding outfield defense behind him, it’s fairly reasonable to see the potential for him to run a ~4.00 ERA in the first half and the team be able to dump him during the summer, saving $5 million or so of the contract that he’s owed. If you put him in the pen, you’re eating the whole $10 million.

Carlos Silva – probably the most obvious regression-to-the-mean candidate in baseball. His 6.46 ERA was two full runs higher than his 4.63 FIP, and that’s as unsustainable as anything you’ll ever see. He’s the exact same guy he’s always been – a strike-throwing ultra high contact starter who relies heavily on his defense. The extreme hatred of Silva simply isn’t justified by what we should expect from him on the mound in 2009. Like Washburn, he’s a 4.7 FIP guy who could easily outperform that mark if the team puts a good defense behind him. Like Washburn, he’s a #5 starter with a hideous contract, but the best way to get him off the roster is to have him re-establish some value as an innings eater. He can’t do that from the bullpen.

Ryan Rowland-Smith – the 25-year-old Aussie is going to have a lot of support for a spot in the rotation from both the blogosphere and the local media (in case you didn’t notice, Geoff Baker is a big fan). He’s young, he’s under team control for several years, he’s also a left-handed flyball pitcher who should benefit greatly from improved outfield defense, and he put up good results after moving to the rotation to finish 2008. If you’re treating 2009 as a build-for-the-future season, it’s worth finding out if Rowland-Smith can establish himself as a back-end starter, allowing the team to potentially close one hole in it’s 2010 rotation. However, there’s other considerations here – RRS wasn’t all that good as a starter, despite the results – his K rate as a starter was lower than Washburn’s, and his command isn’t as good. His success out of the bullpen, and the team’s need for a lefty setup guy, also are factors in the decision.

Aaron Heilman – He’s made no secret out of his desire to be a starter, which is one of the reasons the Mets shipped him off to Seattle in the first place. With a lot of competition, though, he’s going to have to really show improved command and bite on his slider to earn a starting job. His successful years as a reliever, he was a two-pitch guy, and the addition of the slider to his repertoire last year didn’t go so well. He’s not going to succeed as a starter without that breaking ball, though. However, the Ryan Dempster comparisons just won’t go away, and indeed, there are similarities. The Cubs hit the jackpot by moving Dempster to the rotation and finding a high quality starter, and with Heilman under team control through 2010, there’s a good amount of upside to be had if that would repeat itself in Seattle. The best case scenario for the M’s involves Heilman pulling a Dempster, but the question of how likely that is hangs over the rest of the discussion.

Miguel Batista – He’s the guy who really doesn’t have much of a chance unless the team bus crashes into a ditch or something. Coming off a disastrous ’08 season, 38 years old, in the final year of a contract that makes him untradeable, and with prior experience and success a reliever, he’s almost certainly heading to the bullpen. He’s an emergency option if Bedard gets hurt again, the team manages to trade Washburn, and someone else goes down in spring training, but the odds of him breaking camp as one of the team’s five starters are not very good. I expect that he’ll actually be a decently useful reliever, but for all intents and purposes, he’s only marginally involved in this conversation.

So, how should this all shake out? If the season started tomorrow, I’d go with Washburn and Silva as the #4 and #5 starters, but with Heilman and Rowland-Smith both working multi-inning reliever roles. Yes, I know, this will make a lot of you upset, but the team has a limited window of opportunity to get some value back from the Washburn/Silva contracts, and there’s real value in getting some ROI out of those two rather than just eating their entire contracts.

The goal, of course, would be to move Washburn as soon as possible. If he strings together five good starts to begin the season and someone calls him about him in May, you give him away and throw a party. At that point, you move either Heilman or Rowland-Smith into the rotation and give them a chance to show what they’ve got. Both of them are unlikely to be able to handle a full season starters’ workload anyway, so letting them start the year in the ‘pen will help keep their innings down while the team puts out marketing pamphlets selling Washburn to anyone who will listen.

By June or July, the team should have an idea of whether they have a real shot at winning a weak division or not as well as seeing if Bedard is going to pitch well enough to establish some trade value. If the team is out of contention and he’s pitching well and healthy, trading him is a no-brainer, which then opens up a slot in the rotation for the other Heilman/Rowland-Smith starter to join and finish out the year as a starter. If the team is contending and he’s pitching well, you probably keep him and make a run at a playoff spot. And, of course, if he’s injured again, then the rotation spot for Heilman/Rowland-Smith has already been created.

If you start the year with Rowland-Smith or Heilman in the rotation at the expense of Washburn or Silva, you’re not significantly upgrading the roster and you’re passing on the opportunity to rebuild some value from those two while you still can. I know those two are pariahs in the blogosphere, and they stand for everything that was wrong with the last administration, but those aren’t good reasons to make decisions on who should be pitching for the 2009 Mariners coming out of spring training.

The team has seven arms (and Batista) for five spots, but two of them are likely to be traded during the season, so there should be enough innings for everyone.


16 Responses to “The Eight”

  1. xxtinynickxx on January 28th, 2009 8:48 am

    Bye bye Aaron Heilman, hellooooo Ronny Cedeno…maybe……

  2. bakomariner on January 28th, 2009 8:52 am

    Just read:

    “According to ESPN Radio’s Bruce Levine, the Cubs are close to acquiring pitcher Aaron Heilman from the Mariners. The Ms want shortstop Ronny Cedeno and pitching in return. Heilman was dealt to Seattle in the J.J. Putz trade earlier this winter. Earlier this month, Ken Rosenthal mentioned that the Mariners were likely willing to trade Heilman, “who they did not consider a key component of the Putz trade.”

    So, that might help solve the problem some…

  3. mironos on January 28th, 2009 8:58 am

    But Washburn’s contract ends this year. Why would you keep him in a rotation at the expense of a young arm just on the off-chance you can save half a year’s salary? Unless the M’s are truly contending at the trade deadline, that extra $5 million isn’t going to help much in the middle of the season.

    I also have doubts that Silva’s value will ever be built enough to get someone else to take on his contract, but I suppose you never know.

  4. Dave on January 28th, 2009 9:03 am

    Why would you keep him in a rotation at the expense of a young arm just on the off-chance you can save half a year’s salary?

    $5 million buys a hell of a lot of international prospects. Or it allows you to spend a draft pick on a guy who falls because of bonus demands. Or it gives you the flexibility to give Felix more money up-front to get him to sign an extension.

    $5 million isn’t trivial. It’s a real return that the organization could invest in a lot of ways.

    I also have doubts that Silva’s value will ever be built enough to get someone else to take on his contract, but I suppose you never know.

    They’ll probably never be able to dump the whole thing, but if you get a full 200 inning/4.00 ERA season out of Silva, and he’s on the books for 2/24 next winter, you could probably get away with only eating half of it. That would peg the ROI for a good Silva season at around $12 million. That’s worth doing.

  5. mironos on January 28th, 2009 9:23 am

    Yes, but is it really $5 million? For one, we don’t know that Washburn will pitch well enough to garner other teams’ interests.

    If there’s a 50% chance that Washburn starting will make him tradeable at the deadline (which, granted, is a percentage I just made up), that number really becomes $2.5 million. I don’t know what the opportunity cost is of keeping RRS out of the rotation, but $2.5 million isn’t a lot to save.

    I’d also argue that $5 million in the middle of the season (if you’re not in contention) is worth less than it is is the offseason, inasmuch as you’re not trying to sign free agents during the season. $5 million could buy us a decent free agent outfielder right now, but there is less to spend that money on during the season.

    I’m not saying $5 million is nothing, I just think there’s more benefit to starting RRS than taking the chance that we might be able to trade half a year of Washburn if we start him instead.

  6. Mike Snow on January 28th, 2009 9:33 am

    But $5 million in the middle of the season is exactly the right time if you reallocate that money to international signings, as Dave suggested. And even in the free agent market, it’s looking increasingly like there may be some players still available to spend that money on when the season starts (not that I would recommend it).

  7. bakomariner on January 28th, 2009 9:37 am

    I would hope they’d use it to sign the draft picks…I’d hate for us to draft a stud and then not sign him because of the slotting prices…

  8. msb on January 28th, 2009 9:39 am

    [RRS] is going to have a lot of support for a spot in the rotation from both the blogosphere and the local media

    already happening on KIRO, with Schwartz & Rizzs

  9. Henry Jasen on January 28th, 2009 10:25 am

    You folks talk like the M’s only get to save $5million for trading Washburn in midseason. They will also get someone else, likely minor leaguers with potnetial. If you like Jack Z so far, you might trust that he can get some valuable talent in the deal.

  10. DMZ on January 28th, 2009 10:39 am

    They might not. Shopping Washburn last year the best offer for him was nothing in return.

  11. CMC_Stags on January 28th, 2009 12:52 pm

    RRS MLB splits:
    72 IP, 27 BB, 38 SO, 10 HR
    85 IP, 36 BB, 81 SO, 7 HR

    Washburn (07-08 seasons, including 2 relief appearances):
    347.1 IP, 117 BB, 201 SO, 42 HR

    RRS as Starter:
    3.375 BB/9, 4.75 K/9, 1.25 HR/9

    Washburn as Starter:
    3.03 BB/9, 5.21 K/9, 1.09 HR/9

    I know that RRS’s sample size as a starter in MLB is small, but Washburn has outperformed him by the controllable stats in that role. You can’t just take RRS’s combined stats and use those for what he will do as a starter.

    Dave’s point – and I completely agree on this one – is that the most effective use of the current players is to use Washburn as a starter and RRS as a long reliever / 6th starter. Assuming that RRS is roughly equivalent to Washburn as a starter, and that RRS is a more capable reliever, then RRS should be in a ‘pen and Washburn should be starting. This is the most efficient allocation of resources.

    Lets say that Washburn is a 1.5 WAR starter or a 0 WAR reliever and that RRS is a 1.5 WAR starter or a 1 WAR reliever… the optimal solution for them – assuming 1 starting spot and 1 spot in the ‘pen – is obvious. Even if you think that RRS is a 2 WAR starter, Washburn should still start.

    That’s all before you get into the realm of possibilities for dumping Washburn’s contract should he have a good stretch to start the season.

  12. joser on January 28th, 2009 1:55 pm

    Dave’s point about the workload is a good one too. Starting the season with RRS in the bullpen means he’ll still have gas in the tank to go a half season of starts if somebody gets injured or traded. And the likelyhood of that is pretty high. So with Heilman gone, RRS becomes the defacto “6th starter” ready to move up when the opportunity arises.

  13. MrMalibog on January 29th, 2009 3:02 am

    EXCELLENT article Dave! I would like RRS in the rotation but with the solid defense we will have I think we can actually make both Wash and Silva tradeable by the deadline and then bring RRS to the rotation. Wash should have decent value and maybe pick up a decent prospect as well being a lefty solid AL SP. Silva I think will improve greatly to be a decent overpaid #4 SP and just maybe with some luck we can dump him as well. If that can happen then we can sit back and watch Z really have fun!

  14. Jon Hildahl on January 29th, 2009 3:39 am

    It seems like a lot of people in the Mariner blogsphere think that Bedard will most definately be moved mid-season given the chance. I’m wondering why this is such a no brainer? If he has the potential to be an ace starter and he shows it, why wouldn’t the M’s want to hold on to there investment? Doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to get back anywhere near what they lost to obtain his services.

  15. MrMalibog on January 29th, 2009 5:30 am

    Jon I agree with you. I do not think it is a for sure that we will trade him. If we were to somehow sign up long term that would give us I think one of the top 5 rotations in MLB for 5 years plus and that does not even count Pineda and Aumonte… However, a healthy Bedard would be one of those rare ACE SPs that could be available for a comtender down the stretch and that could fetch a great trade….

  16. NODO Dweller on January 29th, 2009 11:35 am

    Likely the “no brainer” opinion on trading Bedard has to do with team control and signability. If you don’t think it’s likely he will re-sign you have to look seriously at a trade, especially if what is offered is better than the compensation you get back if he leaves as a free agent.

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