Yesterday, we saw a report from mlb.com that stated the Mariners were seeking an impact bat in return for David Aardsma. My reaction? Make a joke about how that’s kind of a fairy tale. Plain and simple, the Mariners simply aren’t going to get anything resembling an impact major league bat for their closer, and they shouldn’t sit around waiting for that kind of offer.
There has been some talk that Aardsma’s market value has surged over the last few months, as the price for free agent relievers has gotten crazy. Logically, this makes sense – Aardsma does look like a relative bargain with a fixed salary of around $4 million next year when compared to the multi-year deals that relievers on the free market are getting. You would think that teams in the market for closers would then see trading for Aardsma as an alternative to paying the market rate, and the increased demand would drive up his trade value. However, as I noted on FanGraphs the other day, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Despite the inflation in free agency, we are not seeing a corresponding rise in trade value for players already under contract. The free agent market and trade market are not moving together.
The consensus seems to be that the main driver of this phenomenon is that teams are hoarding young talent now in a way that they haven’t before, perhaps in reaction to the rise in prices of free agents. If veterans cost more to sign, then teams are less likely to want to trade away players who could fill holes that they otherwise would have to pay market rates to fill. It could be that causality goes the other way, with more teams spending in free agency because they’re less willing to trade away their young prospects, but which one is the chicken and which one is the egg is not as important as the result itself. Right now, it seems like the trade market is pretty stagnant, and sellers are not doing as well as expected when moving veterans for younger talent.
So, the Mariners are faced with something of a dilemma. They can either move Aardsma for whatever the best deal on the table is this winter, likely settling for a decent-but-unspectacular prospect or major league role player in return, or hold onto him, let him rack up as many saves as he can, and then try to flip him this summer when teams won’t have free agent alternatives to add talent. There is a school of thought that closers garner more in return when moved at the deadline than in the offseason, though I haven’t seen much in the way of real evidence to support the assertion. But, beyond just the questionable rise in potential return, there are two main reasons why I don’t think the M’s would be wise to bring Aardsma to spring training.
1. Relievers are notoriously fickle.
Even the best relievers see their numbers shift wildly from year to year. George Sherrill, Trevor Hoffman, and Jonathan Papelbon all posted ERAs under 2.00 in 2009, then saw them balloon tremendously last year. Sherrill and Hoffman were downright terrible, two of the very worst relievers in the game. Papelbon was simply shaky, and saw most of his trade value disappear as his fly balls started to clear the wall with some regularity. Aardsma isn’t as good as any of those three were two years ago, and there’s a pretty good chance that he actually hurts his trade value by taking the mound in 2011. Remember, his ERA at the end of July was 4.59, which is one of the reasons the M’s ended up hanging onto him last summer. The risk of Aardsma tanking next year almost certainly outweigh the minimal increase in return you’d get if he pitched well and raised his trade value incrementally. Keeping him is akin to hitting on 17 in Blackjack. There are scenarios where it works out, but more often, you’ll end up going bust.
2. The M’s need the $4 million they’d save by moving him.
We’ve talked about some of the holes this roster still has. Specifically, they are at least one starting pitcher short, Milton Bradley is currently the team’s only reserve outfielder, and Josh Wilson would have to take a starting role if any infielder landed on the DL. Part of the reason the team hasn’t been more active in filling these holes is that they’re up against their budgetary limitations. Moving Aardsma would likely give them enough money to win the bidding for a starter like Jeff Francis or Kevin Millwood, and they have better internal options to fill Aardsma’s 60 innings out of the bullpen than they do the 180 or so they need from a back-end starter.
In fact, I’d argue that if the Mariners are in danger of losing out on a decent starter (especially Francis) because of a lack of funds, they’d be better off giving Aardsma away than hanging onto him and hoping for a better offer to come rolling in. Aardsma is worth $4 million to other teams. He’s not worth $4 million to the Mariners. They have other areas where the money he’s owed would be better spent, and the best options to fill those areas are going to get picked up in the next few weeks. The M’s can’t afford to let those guys sign elsewhere while waiting for a perfect offer for their closer.
If I’m Jack Z, I’m moving Aardsma for the best thing I can get right now. If that’s just a middling middle reliever or a C prospect, so be it. I’d rather have the $4 million to spend on something else, and I’m not willing to potentially lose out on a solid free agent addition while hoping that the free agent inflation finally does carry over to the trade market. I’m not convinced it ever will, and if the M’s are counting on that happening, they may be in for severe disappointment.