Should The Mariners Extend Michael Pineda Now?

December 11, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 26 Comments 

Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays continued their strategy of aggressively locking up their young talents even before they’ve established themselves in the big leagues, signing Matt Moore to a five year, $14 million contract (followed by three team options) despite the fact that he’s pitched a total of 19 1/3 innings in the Major Leagues. This deal follows in the footsteps of contracts the team has previous given Wade Davis, James Shields, and Evan Longoria, all of whom were locked up extremely early in their careers. By signing these deals with players who have a year or less of service time, the team has avoided paying some huge raises through the arbitration process, creating significant cost savings for the franchise overall.

Other teams have also begun to look to lock up their best young talents early as well. The A’s gave early career extensions to both Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, while the Blue Jays locked up Ricky Romero in the middle of his second big league season. Anderson is a pretty good example of why the players are willing to take these types of deals – he blew out his elbow last year, but was already set for life and doesn’t have to worry about the injury limiting his future paychecks. Essentially, the team absorbs the injury risk that is usually carried by the player, but if the player stays healthy, the team is likely to come out way ahead.

Based on the other pitchers who have signed deals in this general service time range, it would likely cost the Mariners something in the range of $20-$25 million guaranteed to buy out the next remaining five years of Pineda’s team control, and they’d probably be able to get team options on his first few years of free agency in exchange for guaranteeing him decent paydays this early.

If he stays healthy and develops into a quality starting pitcher, Pineda will make a lot more than that through arbitration, so the team could certainly put themselves in a position to keep his long term costs down. However, pitchers are notoriously risky, and Pineda does have a history of arm problems. You could make an argument that the team should want to see him endure a legitimately full Major League season before they hand him a long term deal, but that comes with the caveat that he’ll be a lot more expensive to lock up next winter if he has a strong second season in the big leagues.

There’s also the trade value aspect of cost certainty – Pineda may very well be a more valuable asset in potential trade talks if the M’s are able to get him signed to one of these extensions that buys out a few free agent years, even if he doesn’t develop into the pitcher the team is hoping for. For instance, Wade Davis has gotten worse each year since arriving in the big leagues, but because the Rays were able to sign him to a deal that pays him peanuts, he still has some trade value despite mediocre performances. If the M’s do decide that they need to move Pineda in order to improve the offense, he could be a more marketable piece if teams knew exactly how long they’d be able to control his rights.

It’s possible that Pineda and his agent may not be interested in signing some free agent years away at this point, but I’d hope the M’s have at least explored the option. As Tampa Bay has shown, being aggressive with signing premium talents early in their careers can create massive long term cost savings and is often worth taking on an additional bit of risk.

A Quick Note About Josh Willingham

December 10, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 28 Comments 

Over the last 12 hours or so, two different people – Nick Camino, a beat writer for the Indians, and Jim Bowden, former GM and current ESPN analyst – have reported that the Mariners are among the finalists for Josh Willingham. Bowden even put the same “front runner” tag on the team that he applied to his Prince Fielder rumor from Dallas, which should probably call into question how much you buy into these reports, as the M’s clearly aren’t going to end up with both players. Signing Willingham would be an alternative to signing Fielder, so I don’t really see how the team could actually be front runners for both at the same time.

But, let’s focus on Willingham for a second. He’s certainly a good hitter, as his wRC+ of 128 over the last three years ties him with David Ortiz and Justin Upton for the 35th best mark in baseball over since 2009. Other players with similar offensive performances over this stretch of time include Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, and Victor Martinez, so Willingham has clearly provided a level of offense that puts him in pretty good company. These aren’t the very best of the best at the plate, but they’re all quality hitters, and Willingham has performed at their standard.

However, I just don’t see him being a particularly good fit for the Mariners. While Willingham owns a pretty solid resume, it’s almost certain that his best days are behind him. He turns 33 in February, and given that he is the owner of a skillset that generally doesn’t age all that well, the question of how much longer he’ll be a productive big league hitter is a legitimate one. In fact, the effects of aging appear to already be setting in on Willingham.

From 2005 to 2010, Willingham posted a walk rate of 11.6% and a strikeout rate of 19.7%. Last year, he posted a walk rate of 9.9% and a strikeout rate of 26.6%. His power remained steady, so he’s probably not headed for a cliff-dive next year, but the significant uptick in whiffs has to be a concern, and it’s supported by a corresponding drop in his contact rate. He didn’t just rung up a lot by bad umpiring – his strikeout rate jumped because he had trouble putting the bat on the ball with the same regularity that he had shown in previous years.

If the deterioration in contact abilities holds, Willingham will have to be a monster when he does hit the ball in order to sustain his value at the plate. And, well, we probably don’t have to talk too much about the odds of success in Safeco Field for an extreme flyball right-handed pull power hitter. Willingham’s skillset is the one most harmed by the park the Mariners play in, as 105 of his career 132 home runs have been to left field, and he’s basically useless when he hits the ball the other way.

It’s not just how many home runs Safeco might take away from him either – among qualified hitters last year, only three players hit the ball in the air more often than Willingham: Alfonso Soriano, Chris Young, and Vernon Wells. Even when he’s not launching the ball over the wall, Willingham is putting the ball in the air with great frequency, and he needs a decent amount of those balls to fall in for base hits. There is perhaps no park in baseball where it is harder to get a fly ball to left field to land for a base hit than the one the Mariners play half their games in.

This isn’t to say that the team should entirely avoid right-handed hitters, or that every fly ball RH bat should instantly be eliminated from consideration. However, if you’re buying a 33-year-old DH on the free agent market, you better know that the bat is going to play in Safeco, and with Willingham, there are plenty of reasons to think it very well may not. If the park does to him what it’s done to so many similar hitters before him, he’d basically be a replacement level player for half of the team’s games, and there’s virtually no way he’d hit well enough on the road to justify a salary earned through free agency.

If the Mariners wanted to add an aging DH to their line-up, they should have gone after David Ortiz or step into the race for Carlos Beltran. There are decent arguments to be made in favor of going with a shorter contract to an older player in order to improve the offense this winter, but Willingham is the wrong target. There are a lot better ways for the franchise to spend money than to spend it on Willingham hoping that he’s the exception who can overcome both the park and Father Time.

One Thing Did Happen In Dallas

December 9, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 77 Comments 

I’m not really much of a toot-my-own-horn kind of guy, so I considered not posting about this here, but in the end I decided that it’s probably something that I should share with those of you who have been so supportive over the last few months. So, I’m putting it up on a weekend, and then we’ll get back to talking about the Mariners on Monday.

Every year at the winter meetings, the Baseball Writer’s Association of America has an annual meeting where they vote on in-house business stuff. For instance, this year they voted to add a few shows on MLB Network that will highlight the finalists for the postseason awards. At these meetings, they also vote on whether to approve new organizations and members.

On Tuesday morning, the BBWAA took a vote on whether FanGraphs should be accepted as an approved organization, and more specifically, whether I should be voted in as a new member. Both measures passed, and so beginning next season, I’ll officially be a member of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America.

While the association has earned their share of derision over the years, they’re clearly working towards a more inclusive approach that allows somewhat untraditional baseball writers to join the club and receive the privileges that go along with being recognized as an official member. I’m proud to be a member, and look forward to using the responsibility I’ve been given to improve my writing overall.

When I started writing about baseball back in, I don’t know, 1998 or so, I never imagined it would turn into a career or that I’d ever be considered an Official Baseball Writer. The world is full of interesting twists and turns, though, and I’m happy to be able to walk through this newest open door.

Horse First, Then Cart

December 8, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 91 Comments 

I’m a bit sleep deprived after a long week in Dallas, but I wanted to make one quick point before heading to bed. I know that the Angels decision to spend big on Pujols and Wilson has caused a lot of people to turn their attention back to the size of the Mariners payroll, and calls are getting louder for the team to spend more money in order to compete in the AL West. I’m not against the team spending more money, but I do believe that we need to understand the actual causation that drives the correlation between a team’s payroll and their record.

It’s easy enough to look at a chart that includes total payroll and total wins and see that there’s a relationship. Teams that spend more generally win more – not always, but usually. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this is.

However, that’s a correlation. That the two things are related does not mean that increasing payroll will increase your win total to the degree that the correlation would suggest – that conclusion requires causation, and you have to dig deeper to see the actual effects of increasing payroll on team wins.

In reality, there’s causation that goes both ways. Increasing your payroll does increase your expected winning percentage, but raising your expected winning percentage also raises your payroll. In order to win, you need good players, and good players demand more and more money as they get older. A team that has managed to successfully draft and develop a nice young crop of home-grown stars is going to win first, then see their payroll rise as a result of the success of those players. In that situation, the increase in team salary occurs as a result of the acquisition of talent, rather than the increase in salary causing the acquisition of talent.

This is why you have to be very careful concluding that the Mariners failures of late are because of the team’s decreasing payroll relative to the rest of the league. In reality, the poor decision making of the front office over the last decade has actually had more to do with the payroll going down than ownership getting “cheap”. Because the team drafted poorly and traded away most of the young talent they did manage to develop, the franchise simply hasn’t had many players worth locking up to long term deals that escalate the payroll organically.

Here’s the list of meaningful contract extensions handed out by the Mariners over the last 10 years:

Ichiro Suzuki – 5 years, $90 million
Felix Hernandez – 5 years, $78 million
Kenji Johjima – 3 years, $24 million
Bret Boone – 3 years, $24 million
Franklin Gutierrez – 4 years, $20 million
Mike Cameron – 3 years, $15 million

That’s it – that’s the list. In over a decade, the M’s have only given out a half dozen contract extensions to players they wanted to retain due to their quality performances. What young talent did make it to the big leagues generally failed to develop into players that the team wanted to keep around, and thus, the team has entered into very few payroll-raising contract extensions to keep talent on hand.

Put simply, the Mariners lack of talent has had a significant impact on their payroll – there simply haven’t been good enough players to pay to keep around to keep the team’s overall budget going up organically. And so, without good players to retain, the team was forced to hunt for talent in the free agent market, and we all know how well that has worked out for the organization.

Having a $150 million payroll simply shouldn’t be anyone’s goal. The goal is to accumulate so much talent that you need to raise your payroll to that kind of level in order to keep it all. Not every piece of the roster has to be homegrown, and there’s certainly a spot for acquiring veterans from other organizations through free agency or trade, but history shows that teams who increase their payrolls by trying to buy wins in those markets generally don’t succeed. The winners are the franchises who develop talent through the farm and then invest in long term contracts in order to keep those players around.

The correlation between wins and payroll is real, but don’t make the mistake of believing that the relationship between the two means that raising payroll will lead to substantially more wins. For sustained success, the winning comes first, and then the rising payroll follows.

M’s Draft Reliever, Pujols and Wilson Go To Anaheim

December 8, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 111 Comments 

A big morning here in Dallas, and not because anyone really cares about the Rule 5 draft anymore. The Mariners selected LHP Lucas Leutge from the Brewers (shockingly!) with the third pick in the Rule 5, but that’s not what anyone really wants to talk about.

No, everyone’s buzzing about the Angels, who signed both Albert Pujols (10 years, $250ish million) and C.J. Wilson (5 years, $75ish million) to significant contracts this morning. This clearly pushes the Angels up into the tier with the Rangers at the top of the AL West, and means the Mariners can pretty much give up hope on making some miracle run in 2012 that might let them steal the division. You can concoct scenarios where one team struggles and leaves the door open, but the Angels and Rangers are both so much better now that it’s hard to see both teams falling apart enough to let the M’s sneak in with a division title. Contending next year was already a long shot, but these moves basically close that door now.

For the future, I don’t like this as much from the Angels perspective. They’ve made a huge bet on a guy with significant risk factors, and there’s a pretty decent chance that having Pujols on the books is going to force them to let other talented players walk, perhaps leaving them in a worse long term position than if they had simply used this money to retain the good players they already had in-house.

I know people will look at this and say that the Mariners now need to sign Prince Fielder to keep up with the Joneses, but I’d argue that this probably makes that kind of move even less necessary now. The Angels decision to go for it in the next few years means that the added value from having a guy like Prince Fielder on the roster is lessened, as adding him is less likely to result in a near term playoff run and revenue boost. Instead, the team should be focused on maximizing their chances of contention in 2013, and they can do better by setting up the roster with quality players at multiple positions than by betting the house on one player who could easily be untradeable in a year.

This move isn’t any kind of death knell for the Mariners, nor is it a sign that they need to buck up and spend like crazy just because their division rivals have decided to do so. The Mariners simply need to continue to make smart decisions, add talent to the organization, and exercise some rational decision making rather than panicking and making an emotional response.

Not Expecting Much Today

December 7, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 52 Comments 

On the national front, it seems likely that we’re going to get resolution to the Albert Pujols situation today, but in terms of the Mariners, I don’t know that we’re going to see much happen today. The M’s are basically in a holding pattern while they flirt with Prince Fielder, and that’s not going to get resolved today or this week, in all likelihood. Since signing Fielder would take all of their available dollars (and then some), they essentially can’t do anything that costs money until they get a decision on him one way or another.

It’s possible Jack has a trade up his sleeve that we’re not expecting, but my guess is this holding patterns going to go on for another week or two, and we’re not going to see the M’s do anything today.

Rockies Rumors

December 6, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 28 Comments 

While the M’s basically don’t leak anything and we usually don’t know what we’re up to, it seems likely that the Mariners and Rockies have had a few discussions about matching up in a potential deal the last few days. The Mariners have been tied to outfielder Seth Smith since last week, and in more recent days, rumors have also attached them to third baseman Ian Stewart, with the Rockies apparently showing some interest in taking Chone Figgins as long as the Mariners pay the bulk of his remaining contract.

So, just briefly, I thought I’d give an overview on my view of Smith and Stewart. The short version – yay on the former at the right price, meh on the latter.

Smith is a pretty solid left-handed bat who would upgrade the line-up and could form a nifty platoon with Casper Wells, but he lacks a lot of high end potential. He does everything decently – draws some walks, makes some contact, hits for some power – but doesn’t excel in any particular area, and has historically had significant problems against left-handed pitching. He’s also not a fantastic defender, so his value has to come primarily from his bat, and the bat is more good than great.

For bat-only players, they need to hit a lot to be stars, and even playing in Colorado, he’s yet to show that he can be a big time impact hitter. If the Rockies aren’t asking too much for his services, he’d be a solid low-salary left field option, but it sounds like they might want a pretty significant return for his services, and I wouldn’t see Smith as such a valuable piece that I’d want to give up a real part of the future to pry him away. If the cost is a few guys that the organization can spare, okay, but let’s not go too far overboard for an average left fielder who needs a platoon partner.

As for Stewart, I’d essentially just no thanks. There’s this idea that somehow Stewart has “upside” or “potential”, but I just don’t see that as a position supported by much in the way of evidence. Stewart isn’t exactly a kid anymore, as he turns 27 in April, and he’s been a pretty lousy Major League player during his first 1,500 trips to the plate. He essentially has a fatal flaw – contact rate – that serves to significantly limit his ability to produce at the plate, even though he draws some walks and hits some homers.

When you strike out in 28% of your plate appearances, you have to be ridiculously great on contact to be a good hitter, and Stewart just isn’t – his career ISO of .192 is fine for someone who hasn’t played half their games in Colorado, but given the context, it’s pretty mediocre. Lots of strikeouts and just okay power is a pretty terrible combination, and we shouldn’t be overly surprised that Stewart hasn’t been able to make the skillset work in the big leagues. I know it’s tempting to look at Stewart’s minor league numbers and believe that he just needs to make some adjustments, but remember that the Rockies Triple-A team is in Colorado Springs, and there’s a lot of air in those numbers as well.

Essentially, Stewart is a mediocre defensive third baseman who is among the most whiff-prone hitters in the sport and doesn’t do enough to make up for it. He’s worse and older than Kyle Seager, and since he’s left-handed, he offers no real potential for a job share situation. If he was free, I might consider giving him a bench job, but I wouldn’t have any interest in giving up anything of any value to get him.

Placido Polanco

December 5, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 29 Comments 

I mentioned this briefly on twitter, but Ken Rosenthal reported that the Phillies are actively trying to move Placido Polanco to free up room to make a run at Aramis Ramirez. If the Phillies are heavily motivated to move Polanco, he’s a guy who could make sense for the M’s.

With Seager and Liddi around, the team has a couple of interesting young players that could potentially be the long term answer at third base, but Liddi certainly isn’t ready to help in 2012 and Seager might not be either. The team could use a quality bridge at the position, and Polanco could be an option for the team, especially if the Phillies are willing to pick up a couple million on the last year of his deal.

I know it’s pretty easy to look at Polanco and just say that he’s a right-handed Kyle Seager, and that the M’s should just play Seager if that’s the skillset they want, but having both around would actually be pretty helpful. Polanco hits lefties well, while Seager hasn’t shown that he can hit them at all, so the upgrade vs LHPs would be substantial. He’d also offer infield depth and could allow Seager to spell Ryan at short or Ackley at second, or if they’d rather keep Seager playing third regularly, Polanco could be the one to get playing time around the infield.

Health concerns mean he’s probably not a full time player, but the M’s shouldn’t really be in the market for a full time third baseman. A solid guy who can get 400-500 plate appearances and provide the team with depth and the ability to not have to sink or swim with Seager could be a good fit for the organization, however, and if the Phillies are trying to move him, the cost shouldn’t be too prohibitive.

Not saying it will happen, or that the M’s are even thinking about it, but it’s a name to keep in mind at the least.

Winter Meetings Coverage

December 5, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

I’m down here in Dallas covering the winter meetings for FanGraphs, but I’ll also be updating USSM as I have time. There are going to be times when I’m not available to write while I’m here, though, and things may break when I’m away from my computer, so I wouldn’t suggest counting on this place being your spot for breaking news.

If you want to stay on top of the latest Mariners related rumors, you can always follow the Mariners Writers twitter list, as everything that breaks now breaks on Twitter. If you just refresh that page all day, you’ll be in the loop, then you can come here for analysis of stuff after it happens.

Wells and Carp

December 1, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 47 Comments 

In talking with folks about the 2012 roster, it seems evident that a lot more people are comfortable playing Mike Carp regularly next year than there are folks who would be okay seeing Casper Wells get a majority of the playing time in left field. This strikes me as weird, because, well, just look at their career numbers in the big leagues:

Casper Wells 340 7.1% 26.5% 0.208 0.325 0.263 0.330 0.471 0.346 116
Mike Carp 419 7.4% 23.6% 0.171 0.336 0.273 0.334 0.444 0.338 114

Wells and Carp have both essentially racked up a little over half a season of playing time in the Majors. In that time, they’ve posted remarkably similar batting lines and showed essentially the same offensive skillset. There’s really nothing to distinguish one from the other at the plate – they’re essentially equals in nearly every meaningful metric you can think of. Walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated slugging, swing rate, contact rate, swinging strike rate, batting average on balls in play… you name it, their offensive numbers are darn near identical.

Where they begin to diverge is on defense, where Wells’ athleticism and strong arm make him an asset in left field, while Carp is essentially the opposite of that. You don’t have to buy into UZR or any other kind of defensive metric to see that Wells holds a significant advantage with the glove, and that you’d have to believe that Carp will outperform Wells by quite a bit at the plate to offset the difference in defensive value.

So, why the disparate opinions on which of the two has earned a regular spot in the 2012 line-up? It seemingly comes down to what fans saw with their own eyes, and perhaps more precisely, Carp’s performance from July 19th (when he was recalled from Tacoma) to August 16th, when he hit .376/.411/.634 over 25 games. That stretch solidified the idea of Carp as the young power hitter the team had been looking for, and even the following 39 game stretch to close out the season where Carp hit .227/.268/.403 couldn’t take the shine off that one great month.

Interestingly, Wells performance in Seattle followed the same pattern, as he was a monster for the first 15 games after being acquired from Detroit (.333/.415/.649) and then fell flat on his face to finish the season (.067/.176/.156 in his final 15 games). Both players had boom and bust stretches, and they basically occurred at the same time, so we can’t really chalk it up to an issue of recent performance. Instead, it seems like Wells’ struggles in his final 15 games are looming larger in the idea of his future potential than Carp’s final 39 games are, and I have to be honest, I find that a little weird.

If you have two similar offensive players, but one is a good defender and one is not, why is there a preference for the inferior player? Personally, I think both are probably best suited to job-sharing next year, and I’d pencil each of them in for 300-400 plate appearances in an ideal circumstance, but I am left wondering why there’s such a vast difference in perception between the two.

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