Mariners Sign Kevin Millwood
The Mariners have been rumored to have interest in Kevin Millwood for a month or so now, and today, news has come out that he has agreed to terms with the team on a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. It’s not at all uncommon for teams to bring in veteran guys to hang out in Arizona so the team can evaluate whether they have anything left to add – the team just did that very thing with Aaron Heilman, for example – but that’s probably not how we should look at this deal. Barring injury, I’d say Millwood has a very good chance to make the team as a starter out of spring training.
The M’s have been talking about wanting a Major League veteran for the rotation all winter. Right now, the 2-3-4 spots in the rotation are being filled by Jason Vargas, Hisashi Iwakuma, and probably Hector Noesi, so the middle of the rotation is two rookies and a guy with a decent history of health problems. Yes, Vargas has thrown 400 innings over the last two years, so perhaps the perception of him as a five inning guy shouldn’t be there anymore, but there’s no question that he’s still viewed with some skepticism due to his second half fades the last couple of years.
With those three penciled in for rotation spots, it was always unlikely that the team would hand the fifth starter’s job to another youngster, whether that was Blake Beavan, Charlie Furbush, Danny Hultzen, or James Paxton (the latter two could certainly benefit from a few months in the minors, and people screaming that this move “blocks them” should realize that Millwood will not present any kind of obstacle to their promotion once they prove they’re big league ready). Eric Wedge just wasn’t going to be comfortable breaking camp with Felix followed by four guys with limited track records in the big leagues, so it was always likely that the team was going to add an older guy to the mix. Enter Millwood.
At 37, he’s been around the block a bunch. Wedge and Willis know him from his time in Cleveland. And, if there’s one thing you can say about Millwood, it’s that he’s always been a guy you could count on to rack up innings. Before last season (when he spent the first few months on the sidelines waiting for someone to give him a job), he’d thrown 150+ innings every year since 2005. Declining stuff has meant that the quality of those innings have gone from being good to just okay, but even at his worst, he’s never posted xFIP higher than 4.86, and he was actually pretty good in limited time with the Rockies last year.
From 2009-2011, he posted the following line:
7.5% BB%, 15.2% K%, 40.1% GB%, 11.5% HR/FB, .294 BABIP, 98 ERA-, 107 FIP-, 105 xFIP-
He’s basically been a pretty generic MLB starter, posting a walk rate right around league average and a strikeout rate just a tick below that. His ERA has been slightly better than his peripherals would suggest, even with the inflated home run rate, but all three of the minus stats (remember, 100 is average, and like with ERA, lower is better) put him right around the average-ish starter mark. Any basic projection of his 2012 performance will start with that performance and then take a bit off to account for the fact that he is getting older, but even at 37, Millwood’s still a useful fifth starter in the big leagues – if he stays healthy and throws 150 innings, he’s probably something like a +1 win pitcher next year.
On its face, it’s hard to argue with bringing in a useful veteran who adds pitching depth at a minimal cost and reduces the amount of apprehension on the coaching staff. Bringing in Millwood simply gives the Mariners more options, not less, and provides them with some security in case Iwakuma’s shoulder is still an issue or Noesi proves not to be ready to step right into a big league rotation. Depth is nice, and when it comes to pitchers, you can never have enough guys capable of taking the hill and throwing strikes.
That said, Millwood doesn’t really represent any kind of significant upgrade for the team. While Blake Beavan’s ERA wasn’t supported by his underlying performance, he offers the same basic throw-strikes-and-hope-it-turns-out-okay skillset as Millwood does. Swapping out Beavan for Millwood is basically a lateral move, and while it’s nice to have two of these guys in case of emergency, the team isn’t appreciably better with Millwood in the rotation than they would have been with Beavan.
And that’s kind of the sticking point about this move for me. As I talked about in my recap of the Montero-Pineda swap, I was fine with the concept of trading pitching for hitting in order to take advantage of the deflated market for free agent starters right now. Spending the remaining money in the budget to upgrade the offense wasn’t going to be easy, but with guys like Edwin Jackson sitting around hoping someone shows some interest in him eventually, using that cash to replace Pineda with a quality starting pitcher wouldn’t be too terribly hard.
The Mariners could theoretically still make a run at a guy like Jackson, but this signing makes that a lot less likely, I’d imagine. My guess is that the team will be content to go to spring training with a projected starting rotation of Felix-Vargas-Iwakuma-Millwood and then one of the young pitchers (with Noesi probably having a leg up at the moment), with the losers of the Beavan/Furbush/Noesi battle headed to the bullpen. They wouldn’t have signed Millwood had they intended to just displace him with another free agent starter, and I don’t see the team being overly motivated to completely shut off the collection of young arms from competition in spring training.
So, the question once again comes back to “now what?” Assuming Millwood gets $1 or $2 million in salary if he makes the team, the organization has a currently projected payroll in the low-$80 million range right now. That’s a good $10-$15 million below what they’ve been running in prior years, and I can’t see the team actually deciding to slash payroll this winter, especially with so many fans having hyped themselves up into hoping the team gets Prince Fielder. It’s just tough to imagine that they would have publicly displayed any interest in Fielder if Plan B was just going to be to spend no money whatsoever and fill out the roster with a bunch of low cost guys that the average fan has never heard of.
So, if we assume that this move means that they’re not going to pursue a guy like Jackson to upgrade the rotation, then it’s not exactly clear what else the team would do to upgrade the roster before spring training begins. They don’t really have a roster spot for another LF/DH type, so the only way to fit another bat onto the team would be to jettison Miguel Olivo and go with Jaso/Montero as the catching platoon, and I find it hard to believe the Mariners are really ready to make that kind of commitment.
So, when the question is “now what?”, I don’t really know what the answer is. They theoretically still have money to spend, but they’re running out of roster spots to hand out to guys who would represent a substantial upgrade of any kind. At this point, the only thing I can see the team still doing is swapping out Chone Figgins for a better third baseman (such as Mark Reynolds), because beyond that, any other upgrades might have to come from some kind of rabbit-out-of-the-hat trade that none of us see coming.
Like with every other move they’ve made this off-season, Millwood’s a nice role player at a good price. These guys make sense and give the roster needed depth, but I can’t imagine that the team is really going to say that they’re good with all of their transactions representing that kind of move. Even while I’ve advocated for a spread-the-money around plan in lieu of throwing a huge contract at Prince Fielder, I’ve advocated for acquisitions that would offer the hope of bringing in players who could be everyday guys both now and in the future.
Millwood is not that. Sherrill is not that. Iwakuma and Jaso might be, but both come with significant question marks. Montero can be that, but he cost the team a similarly useful piece in order to get him, so that was more of a lateral move than an upgrade. Noesi could be that, except signing Millwood now makes it somewhat less likely that he’ll make the team as a starter on Opening Day.
Jack Z has done a nice job of acquiring players who should help ensure that the team won’t suck as badly as they did last year, but he hasn’t really done anything yet this winter that pushes the organizational talent base forward in a substantial way. Given that the Mariners should still have some money to spend, they shouldn’t be content to call Millwood the final off-season acquisition and just go to camp with the roster they have now. They can and should do better. There’s nothing wrong with signing Kevin Millwood, but this can’t be the last move. There still has to be something else. And now that the something else probably isn’t another starting pitcher, I’m just not sure what other options the team has left.
Time to pull off another move that no one saw coming, Jack, because right now, this team isn’t going to win back enough fans to make the 2012 season a success.