Walking The Tightrope
The Mariners 1-6 stint last week did a number on their playoff odds. With the Angels surging even before the reinforcements arrive, this was a bad time for the M’s to fall on their faces. The contend-this-year plan was basically predicated upon getting an early lead and hanging on for dear life, as it’s hard to find too many people who think this team can actually chase down the Angels from behind in a pennant race. Now that the M’s are looking up at Los Angeles in the standings, I’d imagine people are once again getting comfortable with the idea that this team is probably not headed for October baseball, and that the franchise should be valuing 2010 over 2009 at this point.
For Zduriencik and crew, this presents something of a challenge. They cannot punt 2009 this early in the season, especially as the organization tries to get fans back to Safeco this summer. The team has played well enough to still be in contention through mid-May, and baseball is a weird game – just as they ran off six straight losses last week, they could run off six straight wins this week. They aren’t in a position to tell the guys in the clubhouse or the fans “Hey, I know you’re only 1.5 games out of first place, but we’re going to make some moves to get better for the future at the expense of the present. Thanks for a good five weeks.”
On the other hand, they have two volatile assets in Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn. They’ve ridden some high quality innings from those two to their strong start, and this rotation would be an absolute disaster without them. They’ve both been pitched like All-Stars so far, and given the constant demand in the game for quality left-handed starting pitching, the M’s could potentially get some real value back for both of them – yes, even Washburn. His salary is less of a hindrance now that free agency is over, and he’s pitched himself back into being movable.
However, the window of opportunity to trade these two for value could literally close at any minute. Bedard’s health is a constant question, and all it would take is a twinge in his shoulder that requires a short DL stint and he’ll move from “best pitcher available at the deadline” to “I’ll just sign Ben Sheets instead, thanks”. Every pitch that Bedard throws, his trade value is at risk. He could elevate his status a bit with continued success and health through May and June, but the downside is a lot larger than the upside. You might get a little bit better package for Bedard by letting him continue to prove he’s healthy and back to ’07 form, but the incremental increase in potential value has to be weighed against the risk that the value disappears entirely.
Same deal for Washburn, though for slightly different reasons. We’re not as concerned about him tweaking his elbow, as he’s generally a durable guy. However, his strong start to the season isn’t built on entirely sustainable improvements. Yes, he’s pitching better than he has in the past (that 3.11 K/BB rate is all Washburn), but his HR/FB% is 5.8%, and he can’t keep it that low. A few extra flyballs sailing over the fence, and his ERA could jump to 4.00+ pretty quickly. It’s a lot easier to get a team to swallow his contract and send back a prospect when he has a sub-3 ERA. It’s a start-to-start thing to see if he’ll be able to keep limiting the long balls, and like Bedard, his value could take a big hit with one bad night.
There’s a fine line that the M’s front office has to walk here. They have to keep Bedard and Washburn for at least a few more weeks while the team is still within spitting distance of first place. However, they also need to be in a position to move very quickly on a deal if they determine that they won’t be winning the AL West this year. The risk of holding Bedard and Washburn too long is very real. These guys are not CC Sabathia. You can’t assume that they’re going to hold their current value for two more months.
I know Zduriencik has publicly stated that the team hasn’t even considered trading players away in July, and I believe him. I’m sure that their work the first five weeks of the season was almost entirely focused on helping this team win as many games this year as they could. However, the job of a front office is to manage the long term health of the franchise, and so now, they have to prepare for multiple scenarios. They can’t wait until July to make some phone calls and lay the foundation for deals involving the volatile assets. Beltre, you can wait on. There’s no hurry with guys like him or even Batista/Branyan/Chavez, all of whom could potentially be dealt later this summer if the team falls apart or the Angels just run away with this thing.
But Bedard and Washburn are a different animal. Keeping them comes with a potentially huge opportunity cost, and the organization has to be able to avoid overplaying their hand.
I’m not punting 2009 yet, but I’m really hoping that Zduriencik has already started having preliminary conversations with teams like the Dodgers, Mets, Blue Jays, Phillies, Cardinals, and Brewers. Depending on how the next couple of weeks go, the organization might be best served pulling the trigger on deals for both Bedard and Washburn around the beginning of June.