I decided to save the second-baseman-we-could-trade for a larger post next week, since there will be some crossover with guys who could fill the backup SS/utility infielder role. If the Mariners don’t like any of the cheap free agent second baseman, it’s likely they may look to the trade market to fill both of the 2B and UT holes, and they’ll be buying from the same market, so we’ll just look at that all at once.
So, today, we focus on the boppers. The Mariners are probably going to make a run at some kind of offensive upgrade this winter, and as we’ve discussed, DH is really the only line-up spot where they can do that. Especially if they go with cheap stop-gaps at second base and in the rotation, they’ll have some money to spend on a guy who can hit the ball over the wall. The problem will be that, as a pretty obvious rebuilding team, they’re not going to be very high on the list of destinations for many free agents, especially the older guys who are looking to land with a contender and have already made a lot of money. Jim Thome would probably love hitting in Safeco Field, but I doubt he wants to spend his age 41 season on a team that will be projected to finish in the cellar by just about everyone.
And, by nature, most DHs are older. It’s a position generally stocked by guys at the end of their careers who can’t play the field anymore. So, that presents another dilemma – should the team really be spending a decent amount of its budget on a guy who is on his last legs? Yes, the offense needs improving, but if the team isn’t going to win the World Series next year, they probably shouldn’t spend $7 or $8 million on a guy in his late-30s anyway, as that money would have to come from the pool that could potentially be invested into players who would actually be productive in 2012 and beyond.
So, we’re basically throwing out guys who might be on their last contract. They’ll probably want to play elsewhere anyway, and it doesn’t make sense for the M’s to use a lot of resources on a guy who may not be an active player in 12 months. We’re also going to eliminate all right-handed hitters from the search, because bringing in a bat-first guy who will get killed by Safeco doesn’t really accomplish anything. Oh, and as we mentioned in the last piece, the organization probably can’t afford to have the DH be only a DH if they’re going to carry Milton Bradley – they’ll need him to be able to fake it, at least, at first base or in left field, to give them necessary roster flexibility.
Using those filters, we can say goodbye to the following possibilities, for the most part: Jason Giambi, Troy Glaus, Paul Konerko, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez
Suddenly, a deep group of available hitters looks a lot smaller. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities.
Adam Dunn, Free Agent
Let’s just get this one out of the way – he’s the longest of long shots to fill this spot. He’s stated his distaste for DH’ing before, and if he had his druthers, he’d stay in the National League. He’s said the right things about being open to being a DH, as his agent certainly wants him too have as many bidders as possible, but it’s not something that he really wants to do, and odds are pretty good that he’s not going to want to do it for a last place team. Given that teams like the White Sox are known to be going after him, there’s little chance that he’ll end up signing a contract in the team’s budget anyway. He’s available, and he fits the mold of what the team is looking for in some ways, but he’s probably not going to be the guy they end up with.
Prince Fielder, Milwaukee
I threw water on these rumors a few weeks ago, arguing that his $15+ million salary in 2010 and desire for a huge, long term extension priced him out of the Mariners plans. However, after I wrote that post, I had a couple of people in the game tell me that they think the Brewers will be aggressive in trying to move Fielder this winter, and that they’ll work with teams who might not be able to afford him to get them into the bidding. It sounds like they realize that there won’t be a huge market for Fielder this winter if they don’t create one, so while they’re not going to pick up any of his 2011 salary, they might be amenable to taking back some salary in a deal that got them the pitching they were looking for. I’d still say its a longshot, but the odds might be a couple of points higher than I thought they were when I wrote that post.
Carlos Pena, Free Agent
Once a guy who figured to be way out of the team’s price range, Pena’s ridiculously bad September (.122/.258/.232) and ugly showing against Cliff Lee could be driving his price down significantly. He has the kind of offensive skillset that the Mariners would like – patience, power, and relative youth – but he’s also a pretty decent defender at first base, and it’s unlikely that he would want to relegate himself to being a DH at this point in his career. The M’s could offer him a chance to split time at first with Justin Smoak, but that’s probably not going to be that enticing either. I’d expect Pena to land with a club that needs a first baseman, and right now, that’s not the Mariners.
Aubrey Huff, Free Agent
Huff is the walking definition of an enigma. His wOBA by year since 2004: .365, .315, .346, .337, .387, .297, .388. There’s a couple of really bad years, a couple of mediocre years, and a couple of great years in there. And that was during his prime. Now, headed for age 34, he’s probably on the downside of his career, except that he just had the best season of his life. He upped his walk rate by 50 percent without striking out any more than he did in 2009, and the left-handed power is still there. He’s young enough that a multi-year contract isn’t out of the question, but would the Mariners want to take commit several years to a guy who was below replacement level in 2009? I’d imagine the Giants will probably try to re-sign him as well, so they’d have to outbid a winning team where he’s comfortable in order to get him. He’s an option, but there are hurdles here.
Lance Berkman, Free Agent
If the Mariners are going to sign an older guy, this would be the one I’d be the most in favor of. Yes, he’ll be 35 next year and struggled with the Yankees, but he’s still got some good baseball left in him. A switch-hitter with one of the most patient approaches in MLB, the question is how his power will hold up as he ages. He had trouble driving the ball this year after a wrist injury, but that shouldn’t linger into 2010. Prior to this year, he’d posted a wOBA of .383 or higher in every single season of his career, since his brief debut in 1999. He’s a legitimate offensive force, and he’s still mobile enough to play first base when necessary.
The problem will be location. He negotiated a full no-trade clause into his contract with the Astros because he’s a Texas guy who values being close to his home. There was some talk that he was planning on going back to the Astros this winter, but they did trade for Brett Wallace and have talked about moving Carlos Lee to first base, so that might not be an option. The Rangers, however, have a gaping hole at first base and will have money to spend this winter, so if they show interest, Berkman probably won’t choose Seattle. If the Rangers pass, for whatever reason, he could be a really good fit though. His numbers and age will keep him from getting a huge paycheck, so he’ll be in the M’s range in terms of salary, and he could reasonably be a good hitter for several more years. The key would be convincing him to sign here – if they could do that, he’d be a good guy to target.
Luke Scott, Baltimore
A guy I’ve been advocating for quite a while, the M’s probably missed their chance to acquire the O’s slugger. Given how well he finished the 2010 season, Baltimore will be inclined to keep their best hitter, even as a second year arbitration eligible guy. They can afford to give him a raise to the $6 or $7 million range, so they don’t need to trade him this winter. Odds are they’ll keep him for the start of 2011, let him crush some more home runs in the first few months of the season and shop him around this summer at the deadline.
Hideki Matsui, Free Agent
Now we start to get into the pool of guys who just aren’t all that great, and don’t represent the kind of upgrade that the team is looking for, and would generally just be a waste of money. I’d throw Adam LaRoche, Lyle Overbay, and Russ Branyan into this mix as well. They’re all average at best players with some real limitations, and if the Mariners were just going to go with a guy who would be a decent-but-not-great hitter, I’d rather see them give an unproven kid a shot. I just don’t see much point in paying money to have any of these guys around for one year. They won’t make the team that much better, and there’s basically no upside with any of them. Pass.
Brad Hawpe, Free Agent
If the team can’t get any of their higher priced targets to come here, Hawpe could be an interesting flyer. After years of productive offense (along with putrid defense) in Colorado, he just fell apart this year, hitting .245/.338/.419. For an epically bad defender, that’s just not going to cut it, and that’s why he got released this summer. He didn’t hit after catching on in Tampa Bay either, so he’ll be looking for any team that is willing to give him a chance to get his career back on track this winter. He’s not in the position to be choosy, and if the Mariners offered him a low base salary with incentives and a chance for 600 plate appearances, it would probably be the best offer he’d get all winter.
He’s not an elite hitter, but it seems unlikely that all of his offensive skills evaporated at age 31. Interestingly, he’s not a classic pull-power lefty, as only 40 percent of his career home runs have been hit to right field. He’s shown power to all fields before, and while his numbers are inflated by Coors Field, there are reasons to think that he could be a good hitter again. He’d come with more risk and less upside than a guy like Berkman, but he’d be significantly cheaper and is more likely to sign here. He wouldn’t be my top candidate, but I’d make sure he knew I was interested before he took a deal from someone else.
Dan Johnson, Tampa Bay
I threw his name out there a couple of weeks as the kind of guy that I’d like to see the Mariners give a shot to, though he’s basically a stand-in representation for any number of older minor league sluggers who haven’t gotten a real shot at a full-time job. The M’s basically went this route with Russ Branyan a couple of years ago and it worked well, but I get the sense that they might not be willing to do so again. The team is willing to admit that they’re rebuilding only to a point, and they’ve repeatedly avoided going with a full fledged young roster that would lead to low expectations and lower attendance. The casual fan is going to be looking for some kind of big offensive acquisition this winter, and Dan Johnson won’t be what they’re looking for.
While I think there’s a baseball argument to be made for using the position to try to find a guy who might be here for several years at a low cost, there’s also a legitimate business argument to be made that the team needs to put a decent product on the field next year or risk alienating a portion of the fan base that can be hard to win back. A few years ago, I probably would have dismissed that reasoning, but declining attendance is a legitimate concern, especially since the team continues to tie payroll to number of people who come to the games. With jobs on the line and some angry customers to appease, hesitation in going with another “trust me on this one” type of guy is valid. Besides, Tampa Bay won’t want to just give Johnson away, so you’d have to give up some kind of asset to take that risk in the first place. I can see why spending money on a bigger name guy is more appealing.
That’s not an exhaustive list, as there are other guys who could become available throughout the winter, but hopefully it gives you some idea of what the team will be looking at this winter. There’s a couple of guys in the high rent district that they can’t afford, a couple of middle age guys who might be fits if they wanted to play in Seattle, and some low cost flyers that the team might have to settle for if they can’t land a bigger name.