What To Do At DH Next Year?
After watching one of the worst offenses in recent history, there is little doubt that the Mariners are going to pursue a hitter of some sort this winter. It would be almost unthinkable for them to bring back a similar roster next year and ask people to sign up for season tickets under the premise of “Chone Figgins should improve and Milton Bradley might be healthy this time!” They need a better offense for baseball reasons, but they also need a better offense for attendance and profitability reasons.
However, as we’ve discussed and as Matthew laid out at Looking Landing yesterday, the Mariners aren’t going to have a ton of money to spend this winter. They won’t be players for Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, and will have to inject some life into the offense without shopping in the high rent district. And, in looking at the projected roster for next year, there’s really only one spot open where they could add a bat with some life – designated hitter.
They’re not going to sign a guy to block Michael Saunders from playing left field, as they’ll need to see what he can do everyday next year. They’re not going to sign a first baseman, as ditto on Justin Smoak. They could theoretically sign a third baseman and leave Figgins at second base, but they’re not going to want to close off Dustin Ackley‘s path to the big leagues, and Figgins hasn’t been very good at second base. They won’t be able to unload Jack Wilson‘s contract, and finding a shortstop who can hit isn’t easy anyway. In reality, DH is the only place where they can really add some offense.
Even if Milton Bradley returns to the team next year, they won’t count on him as an everyday player. His lack of production and his injury problems, not to mention his well publicized personal issues, mean that he’ll likely just be fighting for a job as the fourth outfielder and occasional DH in spring training. At best, the team will pencil him in for 300 to 400 at-bats, and probably not even expect that much. So, while he’s on the roster, they’re not going to let his presence stop them from pursuing another DH option.
So, the question is, what should the team do with the DH spot?
Their options are, essentially:
1. Pick up Russell Branyan‘s $5 million option for next year.
2. Sign an aging free agent to a short term deal with the promise of regular playing time.
3. Go with a younger, unproven guy who hasn’t had a real chance to show what he can do with 500 at-bats in year.
I’ll say unequivocally that they shouldn’t go with option #1. Branyan’s a decent enough player, but given his age, back problems, and overall averageness, there’s no reason to give him $5 million next year. He won’t get that from any other team, and there’s no reason for the M’s to blow a good chunk of their winter spending money on a guy with so many questions and so little long term upside. If they could bring him back for $1 million or $2 million, and they didn’t have any better options, that might be something to look at, but there’s no way they should exercise the current option on his deal.
The second option is probably the most likely, as it’s a free agent class filled with guys who have a little bit of offense left in the tank, but not much else. Forget Adam Dunn – he doesn’t want to DH, and he’s certainly not going to relocate across the country to DH for a team that was among the worst in baseball. Other options include Hideki Matsui, Lyle Overbay, and Brad Hawpe, all of whom would likely sign for one year at potentially reasonable prices, but would simply serve as stop-gaps for the 2011 season, and likely have little in the way of a long term future in Seattle.
The last option is the kind of move that the front office made two years ago, when they were renovating the roster that they inherited. They took gambles on Branyan, Franklin Gutierrez, and David Aardsma, seeing all three pay off with returns well above the cost of investment. This is the kind of move that makes the most sense baseball wise, as the team could attempt to find a decent player who could help them in 2011 and beyond, and would likely not take up much of the limited room in the budget.
A great example is Dan Johnson, who the Rays are getting production from after picking him up for a song over the winter. They gave him $500,000 to serve as a bench guy, but then cut him in spring training. He mashed in Triple-A all year, and has continued to hit since being recalled in August. His .235 average isn’t much to look at, but he walks a lot (20.4% BB%) and has good power (.250 ISO), allowing him to produce despite the low batting average. In a lot of ways, he’s like a Russ Branyan with a bit less power, but he has the added benefit of being younger, healthier, and striking out less often.
Johnson will be arbitration eligible this winter, and will probably get between $1 and $2 million based on his service time and pretty solid numbers down the stretch for Tampa Bay. The Rays may choose to hang onto him and just give him their DH job next year, but they also might want to do a little better at DH than a 30-year-old career journeyman, especially if they are trying to replace Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford this winter. I don’t know if he’ll be available or not, but he’s an example of the kind of guy that the Mariners could get a lot of value from.
The last option is the best one, I think, as the team could extract short term and long term value from a position where they don’t have an internal answer ready to step in, and they could do it without using a bulk of the limited resources they’ll have this winter. However, there’s no way to sell Dan Johnson (or someone like him) as a difference maker to the fanbase, and I’m sure there will be pressure to make a splash with a bigger name thumper. Will the team go for the move that makes the most sense given the roster construction, or will they try to appease an angry group of customers who want a guy whose name they know?