With the signing of Hisashi Iwakuma now official, the team’s off-season shopping list has gotten shorter. So, I figured it was probably time to take a look at the roster as it currently stands, and what the options are going forward from here. First, here’s what the Mariners could put together on Opening Day based on what’s already in the organization.
(Quick note – the PA and IP totals don’t add up to the totals that a team accumulates over a full season, as no one plays the whole year with just 25 guys. Assume that the other ~800 PA and 150 IP will be filled by replacement level performances, and thus, won’t change the projections by any reasonable amount.)
Since a replacement level team will win about 43 games, a roster projected to produce about +31.5 WAR is around a 75 win club. This roster isn’t that of a contender, but it’s also a bit better than is usually given credit for. It’s not good, but it’s not awful, and with a few more upgrades (given that they have about $15M left in the budget, they’re clearly not done spending), the M’s could project as a .500-ish team for 2012, especially if you make some more aggressive projections on some of the high-variance guys on the roster.
From that group, I’d say there are three roster spots that could reasonably offer the hope of meaningful upgrades – the infield spot being filled by Chone Figgins, the outfield spot currently held by Trayvon Robinson, and the fifth starter spot possessed by Blake Beavan. The names projected for the back end of the bullpen might not be the guys who end up in those roles, but you’re not going to see significant value additions based on swapping out a different left-handed middle reliever, no matter which member of The Pile (TM: Lookout Landing) ends up with the job.
So, let’s focus on the three remaining roster upgrades, and look at the different options the team has for rounding out the roster.
There’s no real doubt that the Mariners priority is to get someone to take Robinson’s roster spot, and he is only penciled in now because that guy hasn’t been acquired yet. I could have written “empty” in that spot and it would have been just as accurate. The only question is what type of player this spot will go to and what position on the field he’ll play, as that variable will cause other player’s roles to shift.
Obviously, this would be the roster spot that Prince Fielder would fill if Jack Z decided to use the rest of his budget to bring him to Seattle. In that scenario, Fielder would displace Carp at DH (or Smoak at first base, who would then move to DH, so either way the result is the same), and he’d move into a job share with Casper Wells in left field. While replacing a replacement level player in Robinson with a roughly +5 win player in Fielder is a big upgrade, the overall effect would be a bit smaller, as you also have to reduce the amount of playing time that Carp/Wells would get, since they’d be sharing a job rather than being penciled in as regulars.
Also, if the Mariners went with that alignment, they’d probably need to keep Figgins and ask him to take up the outfield again, as the team can’t really afford to have a roster with just three legitimate outfielders (Carp is one in name only), especially given Gutierrez’s potentially lingering health issues. Signing a 1B/DH means that they would need Figgins to serve as a part-time outfielder, or at least be available to play the OF, so dumping him becomes less feasible.
To sign Fielder, the Mariners would obviously need to backload the deal somewhat to make him fit into the budget, and he’d be the last addition they could really afford to make. So, while they’d likely get something like a +4 win upgrade from having Fielder take Robinson’s roster spot, that move would also mean that the team was probably going into 2012 with a Seager/Figgins tandem at third base and a Beavan/Furbush battle for the #5 starter spot, with the loser shifting into the long reliever role out of the bullpen.
While this may be the preferred option for many, we’ve talked about how this isn’t the only way the M’s can upgrade that roster spot. As noted in my suggestion that they pursue Will Venable, they could simply add another outfielder to the mix, and could really benefit from having a left-handed hitter who could also cover center field from time to time. Bringing in a guy like Venable (about +2 win player) to replace Robinson and pick up some of the missing OF at-bats that would currently need to go to Figgins would allow them to keep Carp at DH – his best position – and give them the ability to play the match-ups with three outfielders covering two spots. Nearly all of the playing time that Venable would get is currently slotted to go to replacement level guys, so the team would get the full value of his +2 wins.
Considering that his salary would be only around $2 million for 2012, going that direction would leave the M’s with about $13 million to spend on the other two roster spots. And, with the outfield depth issue addressed, versatility wouldn’t be as large of a need, so you wouldn’t need to keep Figgins around for his ability to cover multiple positions. With that remaining money, they could sign one of the better free agent starters left on the market (say, for instance, Paul Maholm, who will probably end up signing for something in the $5-$6 million range) and then target a mid-level right-handed third baseman who could split time with Seager and potentially spend some time at 1B/DH as well, if the need arose.
While my favorite target for that role ended up with the Pirates, there are other options out there who could fit the bill – for instance, Mark Reynolds. He’s a bit of a disaster defensively at third base and his contact problems limit him to being just a decent hitter even with his top-notch power, but his problems with the glove would be limited in a job share with Seager, and he’d give them depth and a right-handed power bat who could get some playing time at 1B/DH as well. Reynolds is due to make $7.5 million in 2012 and then has a $500,000 buyout of his 2013 option, so the M’s would be on the hook for about $8 million if they picked him up from the Orioles. Assuming any deal for him would include Figgins going the other way (with the Mariners paying most of his remaining salary), the total net cost would probably be in the $6-$7 million range, just about what they’d have left after signing a pitcher like Maholm.
The total value of adding Venable over Robinson (+2 wins), Reynolds over Figgins (+1 win), and Maholm over Beavan (+1.5 wins) is actually slightly higher than just adding Fielder over Robinson and calling it a day. By spreading the money around and making three upgrades instead of one, the team could find themselves projecting just as well for 2012 as they would by signing Fielder, and they’d be in a better long term position by retaining financial flexibility and getting a better understanding of what they can expect from some of the kids already on the roster. Having three starters at the back end under contract for just one year would also give them the ability to let Danny Hultzen and James Paxton develop on their own timetable, but would give the organization solid potential trade bait during the summer if either was showing that they were ready for the big league rotation. In putting a solid team on the field in 2012 and keeping the options open for the future, this is my preferred plan of action.
However, it’s not the only alternative. If Fielder signs elsewhere, the Mariners will still have roughly $15 million to spend, and they could pursue other free agent hitters who would fit as LF/DH options. Guys like Carlos Pena or Luke Scott could become targets, and the team could choose to spend some of their remaining money on a guy who could offer some left-handed power at a lower price. Signing either should still leave enough money to pursue another free agent pitcher, so you’re probably looking at a +3 win upgrade between those two additions, and you’d get to keep whatever prospect you had to surrender to get a guy like Venable. The team wouldn’t be quite as good as in either of the other two scenarios, but it might be an easier alternative to pull off, since it’s just two free agent signings instead of a couple of trades.
My guess is that the remainder of the team’s off-season will resemble one of these three options:
A. Sign Fielder, call it a day, go forward with current roster and him.
B. Acquire an outfielder, third baseman, and a starting pitcher, spending just a bit on each.
C. Sign a non-Fielder DH and a starting pitcher.
In any of these scenarios, the team probably projects as something like a +78 to +80 win team, so there’s not a huge difference in expected performance no matter which path the team chooses. Obviously, the sign-Fielder path is the splashiest, but to me, it doesn’t result in a roster that’s clearly better than pursuing upgrades through other avenues, and obviously a Venable/Reynolds/Maholm trio would come without the massive risks of signing Fielder to a long term deal.
There are certainly options on the table for the Mariners. Reasonable people can differ on the merits of pursuing one strategy or another, but don’t let anyone tell you that the team “has to sign Prince Fielder” or that their moves to this point will be a failure if they don’t get “a big bat” to go with them. The team has done a really nice job of adding solid role players to fill gaping holes in the roster, and with a few more smart moves, the team could be in a pretty solid position going forward. If Fielder’s price ends up being reasonable, these low-cost additions have given them the flexibility to fit him into the budget, but there’s still plenty of ways to spend $15 million and make this team a respectable one for the 2012 season.