The Crossroads That Is 2011
There are 70 games left in the 2010 season, but no one thinks they really matter much anymore. Yes, it’s nicer to win than to lose, and no one is just going to give up and roll over, but the team is playing for the future and everyone knows it. The question, though, is whether that future can begin next year?
Based on players currently in the organization, the 2011 roster looks something like this:
SS: Jack Wilson
I don’t think anyone would look at that team and think it was a legitimate contender. There’s two guys who have never played in the majors in starting roles, three young guys still trying to find their way as regular position players, and a rotation full of question marks behind Felix. Oh, and the bullpen isn’t great either.
The team will have some money to spend, somewhere the $10 to $20 million range depending on what the budget is and who else they trade away in the next few weeks. But, there’s almost no way to turn that team into a contender by adding a couple of pieces, because the strength of the team in young talent may also be the thing that keeps them from winning next year.
There are some potential foundation pieces in place. Smoak, Saunders, and Ackley could all hold down their respective positions for years to come. Pineda could give the team another dynamic power arm that it lacks behind Felix right now. Moore could still be a useful catcher. These guys have enough talent to be real building blocks – guys you don’t want to block with veteran players. They all should come to camp next spring with a chance to win a job on Opening Day. You could bring in insurance policy types who can push them and serve as placeholders if they’re not ready, but you’re not going to bring in an established quality player that will get in the way if the kids prove that they’ve little left to learn in Triple-A.
So, what positions can the Mariners realistically try to upgrade at? C, LF, 2B, and 1B are off the table because of the kids. 3B, CF, and RF are out because you’ve got guys under long term contracts at those spots. That leaves, essentially, shortstop, designated hitter, and the rotation as potential points of upgrade this winter.
Even if the team decided to bring in two established starters to go with Felix, Fister, and Vargas, you’re still looking at four spots on the roster that you can really make significant upgrades at (the bench and bullpen don’t matter enough to count). And at two of those, you have guys already under contract for 2011 – Jack Wilson and Milton Bradley.
Bradley is unmovable, beyond just releasing him, which the team probably won’t do unless they have someone they expect to hit better as the DH. They don’t have that guy right now, and its unlikely that they’ll spend much money this winter to bring in a guy who doesn’t play defense, and is likely at the end of his career. So, the Mariners only option is, essentially, try like crazy to move Jack Wilson’s contract in the next couple of weeks, freeing up money and a position to seek an upgrade this winter.
There’s a problem with that, too, though – good shortstops aren’t exactly laying around waiting to sign low money deals to play in Seattle. The big free agent shortstops this winter will be Derek Jeter – and, honestly, I’m more likely to take the field for the Mariners on opening day next year than he is – and a bunch of guys who aren’t any better than Jack Wilson. The team could try to trade for a young shortstop, but they did that last summer, and they found that Wilson was the best guy they could get. The best case scenario for picking up a guy in trade would be a guy like Ryan Theriot, but he’s basically just the same thing that Wilson is at the plate, only with less glove.
A substantial upgrade at shortstop is essentially not realistic. The team could potentially pursue a guy like Carlos Pena to DH and dump Bradley, but does anyone think that the line-up above, with Pena added to the mix, is the makings of a winner? And would Pena even want to stop playing the field regularly at this point in his career? The answer to both of those questions is probably not.
And so, we’re left with the reality that the Mariners have reached a point where they’re not really playing for 2011, but instead, they’re playing for 2012. They’ll lose $20 million in commitments when Bradley and Wilson become free agents, the young kids will have hopefully matured or proven themselves not worthy of full-time jobs, and they’ll still have all the useful pieces that are on the team now. Realistically, that’s probably their next chance to contend – the year when Ackley, Smoak, Saunders, and Pineda could be contributors rather than kids still adjusting to the big leagues and they have the resources to go out and add some talent at positions like SS and DH.
Who knows – maybe Jack will make some moves in the next few months that surprise me and steal enough talent away to turn this team around before next year begins. I just don’t see how he could pull that off, though. Right now, I think this team realistically will need another year. They’re playing for the future, but they’re not playing for next year.