Going on Clubhouse Confidential Today

January 16, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 41 Comments 

For those interested in watching me try to physically restrain myself from talking too fast, I’ll be making my television debut this afternoon, appearing as a guest on Brian Kenny’s Clubhouse Confidential at 2:30 on MLB Network. The show is re-aired throughout the day, so if you miss the first go around, you can probably catch it later tonight as well.

And yes, I’m going to be wearing a coat and tie. Take a picture – you might not see this again, at least until the next time they invite me on the show…

Hector Noesi May Be Better Than We Realize

January 14, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 65 Comments 

Because The Big Trade sends two players in each direction, it’s only natural to pair those players off and view the deal as essentially Pineda-for-Montero and Campos-for-Noesi. And that’s generally how this deal has been analyzed, including by me. The talk surrounding this trade has been almost entirely about Montero’s future value and where he’ll fit into the roster long term, while Noesi has been relegated to the backburner. The only attention he’s really gotten has been tied to lamenting the loss of Campos, a personal favorite of a lot of people who follow the M’s minor leagues closely.

So, over the last 24 hours or so, I’ve done a lot of digging on Noesi, trying to ascertain exactly what the M’s got along with Montero by surrendering Michael Pineda. I knew he was a mid-tier Yankees prospect that was generally talked about as a potential #5 starter in New York, but beyond that, I didn’t really know that much. So, I started asking around, talking to people in the game who knew Noesi pretty well. And, the more I talked to these folks, the more I realized that Noesi should be viewed as a lot more than just a throw-in arm. In fact, there are legitimate reasons to be pretty excited about his inclusion in the deal.

With any pitcher, the foundation of his value is in what he throws, so let’s start with Noesi’s stuff. In last year’s Baseball America write-up (where he rated as the Yankees seventh best prospect), John Manuel wrote that Noesi:

“…pounds the zone with an 89-93 mph fastball, reaching as high as 96. His maintains his velocity deep into games, and his fastball has some run and tail. Noesi’s No. 2 pitch is a changeup with similar action, though he doesn’t quite command it like his fastball. His curveball and slider remain below-average offerings, but he flashes the ability to spin the ball.”

Thanks to the wonders of Pitch F/x data, and the Yankees decision to carry him as their long reliever for most of the 2011 season, we can actually confirm the validity of what Manuel wrote. Here’s a plot of all of Noesi’s pitches last year, broken out by velocity and horizontal movement, which makes identifying the different pitch clusters quite easy.

Just like John wrote, Noesi mixed in four different pitches – the algorithm separated out his fastballs into two-seam and four-seam varieties, but he doesn’t throw a true sinker, so don’t pay too much attention to the blue/green differences there – and generally threw them for strikes. As for velocity, the data backs up Manuel’s assessment there as well:

He generally sat in the 89-96 range with his fastball last year, but his average fastball velocity was 93.3, a few ticks higher than reported in his BA writeup. This could easily be attributed to pitching out of the bullpen, where velocity spikes are common and expected, but the Yankees didn’t use Noesi as a typical relief pitcher. He was their long guy, relied on to eat up innings when a starter didn’t get very deep into the ballgame, and was regularly asked to stay on the mound for multiple innings at a time.

In fact, Noesi averaged 8.2 batters faced and 32 pitches per appearance, and threw 40 or more pitches in 10 of his 30 outings. While that isn’t nearly the same workload as a starting pitcher, and we should expect his average fastball to dip as a starting pitcher, the difference shouldn’t be as stark as it would be in converting a reliever who is used in a more traditional one-inning role. And even those pitchers generally only see a drop in velocity of about 1 MPH or so when converting back to a starter.

His longest appearance of the year – a six inning, 71 pitch outing against Boston in June – backs up that assumption.

He began the game at 93-95 and sat there for the first 20 pitches or so, then dropped back into the 90-93 range for the rest of the night. Overall, his fastball averaged 92.6 MPH that evening, so his velocity is not just a product of being used out of the bullpen. He has a good arm and can get it up to the plate with some oomph.

Despite above average velocity and good fastball command, the knocks against him as a prospect have been related to the quality of his two breaking pitches – neither his slider or his curveball are seen as a true out-pitch. So, the overall package of plus command of one good pitch and then a collection of okay secondary offerings leads to projections as a back-end starter, a guy who can throw strikes but lacks the repertoire to dominate hitters.

I’m not going to argue with that assessment, as it seems to be the general consensus among those who have watched him pitch a good deal. However, in talking to folks who have seen Noesi a lot, several made the point that this skillset is often undervalued in prospecting circles – where upside is king and lower ceiling guys often fly under the radar – and that Noesi could step into a Major League rotation tomorrow and be a quality starter.

In fact, when asking for pitchers that Noesi reminded them of, a few names popped up that show just how large the divide can occasionally be between hype and results for this pitcher type. One front office executive said that he saw Noesi as a similar pitcher to Daniel Hudson, while a scout threw out the name Cory Luebke.

Neither of these guys were ever projected as front-line starters due to their reliance on good command of a solid fastball with secondary stuff that needed work (sound familiar?), but both got themselves to the Majors by racking up solid K/BB ratios that were built more on avoiding walks than missing a ton of bats. However, since arriving in the Majors, Luebke and Hudson have been two of the better young pitchers in baseball, translating their minor league success into quality Major League performances.

Another person in the game that I talked to pointed out that the Twins have been building quality pitching staffs for years through a never-ending assembly line of Hector Noesi style pitchers. He pointed to Scott Baker (another guy who never appeared in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects) as an example of just how effective this skillset can be. And he’s absolutely right – a look at the results of team pitching staffs over the last 10 years show that the Twins have walked the fewest batters (by a mile) of any team in baseball, and their staffs have generally been populated by the likes of Baker, Brad Radke, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, and Kyle Lohse. Noesi throws harder than those guys, but the general approach to pitching is pretty similar. Pound the zone, change speeds, mix pitches, and succeed by never walking anyone.

It’s not as sexy of a skillset as Pineda’s “haha you can’t hit this” approach, but the sport is filled with guys who are succeeding as Major League starters without sitting in the mid-90s. The lack of a true dominating out-pitch means that Noesi isn’t going to turn into Clayton Kershaw, but these types of pitchers are often more valuable than they’re given credit for.

For instance, Baker/Hudson/Luebke have pitched 1,350 innings in the big leagues and have combined to be worth +26.5 WAR, or +3.5 WAR per 180 innings pitched. For comparison, Michael Pineda was worth +3.4 WAR in 171 innings last year. Yeah.

We shouldn’t just take these three examples and extrapolate Noesi as a +3.5 win pitcher for 2012, but when people talk about this skillset having limited upside, realize that what they’re saying is that these pitchers max out as All-Stars instead of Cy Young winners. There is a cap on how good Noesi can be, but that cap isn’t set at league average starter as many would have you believe.

Go look through last year’s pitching leaderboards. There’s 35 pitchers on that front page, each of whom posted a WAR of +3.6 or higher in 2011. Yeah, there’s a bunch of guys who throw hard and have nasty breaking balls, but there’s also Dan Haren (never a BA Top 100 guy, and classified as a “middle of the rotation starter” when BA rated him the Carindals #1 prospect in 2003), Doug Fister, Ian Kennedy, James Shields, Daniel Hudson, and Brandon McCarthy. All of these guys put themselves on the map by pounding strikes without dominating stuff and all were painted with the same “limited upside” brush. They’re all evidence that this skillset can turn out to be more than just another generic #5 starter.

And, while these examples are obviously the best case scenario for Noesi, we can’t overlook the fact that he pitched pretty well for the Yankees last year. Again, yes, caveats about pitching low leverage innings out of the bullpen, but he posted a 4.02 xFIP while pitching in the AL East as a rookie. Or, how about this fun fact – opposing batters made contact with 79.9% of pitches that Noesi threw. Here’s the complete list of AL starting pitchers (minimum 50 IP) who had contact rates between 79.5% and 80.5%:

Jered Weaver: 79.5%
Charlie Furbush: 79.6%
Kyle Drabek: 79.6%
Scott Baker: 79.7%
Philip Humber: 79.8%
C.J. Wilson: 79.8%
Felix Hernandez: 80.1%
Jon Lester: 80.1%
Edwin Jackson: 80.4%
Trevor Cahill: 80.5%

By the way, Haren just missed the cut at 79.3%, and if we expanded it out a little more, we’d run into Clay Buchholz (80.7%), Ervin Santana (80.9%), and David Price (81.0%). Besides Furbush (HR problems) and Drabek (BB problems), that’s a pretty sweet group to be keeping company with. Obviously, there’s a lot more to judging a pitcher than just contact rate, but it’s his questionable ability to miss bats in the big leagues that’s always been the thing that has been held against him. Given how he performed in the Majors as a rookie, there are reasons to think that his stuff might be better than he’s been given credit for.

The strong minor league track record suggests that Noesi can get batters out with what he has. His Major League performance as a rookie backs up that assertion as well. There are a number of really good Major League pitchers who throw similar stuff and faced the same questions when they were prospects. Add it all up, and it seems like sticking a “back-end starter” label on Noesi doesn’t really do his potential value justice.

Right now, I’d slot him in as the team’s #4 starter, easily ahead of Beaven and Furbush, and honestly not that far behind Jason Vargas or Hisashi Iwakuma in the pecking order. While I still think there are good values to be found among starting pitchers on the free agent market, Noesi is a guy that I’d like to see break camp as a member of the rotation. His skillset should play well in Safeco, especially if the M’s put a good defensive club on the field, and there’s a chance that he himself could replace a good chunk of what the team gave up in Pineda.

Montero’s production will still likely determine whether this trade is viewed as a success or a failure, but Noesi shouldn’t just be viewed as a throw-in that cost us Jose Campos. He could be a solid Major League starter who is ready to step into the rotation immediately, and that’s a valuable piece, even if his skillset is generally underrated.

Pineda Trade Sets Team Up To Do More

January 13, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 138 Comments 

As you’ve heard by now, the Mariners made a bit of a blockbuster trade today, shipping Michael Pineda and Jose Campos – generally regarded as the team’s fifth best prospect, but one with a ton of upside – to the New York Yankees for DH/sorta catcher Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi, a lower upside guy who ranked as NYY’s seventh best prospect a year ago (but spent too much time in the Majors last year to retain prospect status). He’s probably a back-end starter or a reliever, but he’s basically Major League ready.

In swapping Pineda for Montero, the team has decided to move strength for weakness. The organization has a lot of talent on the mound and not much talent at the plate, so the appeal of this kind of deal is fairly obvious. I argued that the M’s should make exactly this type of trade over the summer, and then shipping Pineda off was part of my off-season plan back in November. While he’s a talented guy, he’s not an irreplaceable talent, and the risks associated with building around young pitching are substantial and well chronicled.

In Montero, the Mariners get a player who is a bit of a safer proposition. His bat has been beloved by scouts since signing for nearly $2 million as a 16-year-old, and he’s hit fairly well at most levels of the minors despite being very young relative to the competition. Scouts who really love his bat have projected him as a Miguel Cabrera type of hitter, and even if that might be a bit optimistic, guys like this generally turn out to be at least good Major League hitters. There are certainly fewer injury risks with Montero than with Pineda (or any young pitcher), and even assuming Pineda stays healthy, pitchers can just veer off course and regress significantly, so the organization has absolved itself of some of the variance that the roster had previously.

That said, those are mostly just arguments for trading pitching for hitting in general, and don’t deal with Pineda and Montero quite as specifically. So, we’ll start with Montero, since he’s the piece coming to Seattle.

One of the primary reasons he’s been ranked as an elite prospect is that he’s been a catcher in the minor leagues. Premium offense is extremely hard to find at the catcher position, and Montero has been projected as that rare combination of a guy who can generate runs while holding down the catching position. However, his defense behind the plate is poor at best, and it’s no coincidence that the Yankees only let him catch a total of 22 innings during his September call-up. Their coaching staff simply wasn’t comfortable having him behind the plate, and so they used him as a DH when they wanted to get his bat in the line-up.

There are scouts who think that, with more hard work, he could turn into an adequate Major League catcher. I talked to a Yankees official last year who put it this way – “He’s better than Piazza was.” But, many others think the defensive issues are so significant that he just needs to be moved off of the position. In fact, I’d say that’s probably the majority opinion among baseball executives I’ve talked to about Montero. Most people see more value in just giving up on forcing him to catch and letting the bat develop as a 1B/DH instead – not only would his defensive limitations be hidden, but there’s a mountain of evidence that shows that hitters perform significantly better when they move out from behind the plate. The physical toll of catching is harsh, and not many players can endure the beating they take over the long term.

So, for the M’s purposes, I think they should view him as a DH. They gave up Pineda to get a good young hitter, and the best way to maximize Montero’s value at the plate is to let him simply do that full time. Of course, a DH prospect is not quite as sexy as a catching prospect, which is one of the reasons that I’ve never been quite as big a fan of Montero as most. To me, the bar for bat-only players to be true stars is very, very high, and Montero’s contact issues at Triple-A – even at a young age – suggest to me that he might end up being a good hitter rather than a great hitter.

Over the last year or so, I’ve compared him multiple times to a guy like Carlos Lee – an aggressive power hitter who is a quality offensive player, but due to his lack of defensive value, topped out as around a +3 win player. Personally, I see this as something closer to the likely development path for Montero. A lot of people I respect think I’m undervaluing just how good his offense can be, but I’m just not comfortable projecting him as a Cabrera-level hitter. And if he’s a DH, he’ll need to be something close to that to justify the prospect rankings that have been placed upon.

So, if I’m not as high on Montero as others and the team had to add in one of their better pitching prospects in order to seal the deal, then it sounds like this is a deal I’m not overly fond of, right?

Well, I’d say it depends. I don’t love that the organization had to put Campos in this deal, on top of giving up Pineda, to get Montero, especially when we see the prices other teams have been paying for pitchers this winter. To me, this haul is less than what the Padres got for Mat Latos, a similar pitcher with one fewer year of team control, and not that much better than what the A’s got for Gio Gonzalez, a vastly inferior pitcher who was super-two eligible and about to start making real money. If I was just going to judge this trade from a standalone perspective, I’d probably be against it.

But, this move can’t be judged in isolation. This trade was made in the context of the current off-season, and there might not be a better time in recent history to be shopping for a free agent starting pitcher than right now.

Over at FanGraphs today, I wrote up the potential steal that some team will get by signing Roy Oswalt to the one year, $8 million contract he’s seeking. Over the last few months, I’ve written extensively about how Edwin Jackson is probably going to be underpaid due to a negative reputation that doesn’t line up with his actual performances over the last three years. Both of them are likely +3 win pitchers for 2012 – and Jackson could be for well beyond to boot – and would replace almost all of the value the team would have expected to receive from Pineda next year.

The Mariners could very easily now jump into the bidding for Jackson and sign him to a deal for something in the 4/50 range, using the money that they would have otherwise been spending on a “big bat” like Prince Fielder, and have essentially acquired Montero without a significant drop-off in the rotation. Or, if they’d rather keep their options open for next winter – when Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Anibal Sanchez are scheduled to hit free agency – they could offer Oswalt his one year deal in a nice pitcher’s park, let him rebuild his value, potentially trade him for a prospect at the deadline, and then throw big money at one of the free agent starters who will be available in 12 months. Or, if Hultzen and Paxton develop quickly and you’re comfortable with the rotation behind Felix, throw a bunch of money at Josh Hamilton.

There are a lot of options available for teams looking for pitchers who have money to spend. Good options. There are not a lot of options available for teams looking for hitters – there’s basically Prince Fielder and then a lot of lesser players. And, if you believe the reports, the M’s may not have had a realistic chance at landing Fielder given their geographic location, so that may have been a non-starter even if they had offered up a budget-busting contract.

Essentially, what it comes down to is a question of whether the Mariners are better off with Michael Pineda and whatever offensive improvement they could have gotten at LF/DH, or are they better off with Montero filling the DH role and shopping for a pitcher to replace Pineda? Given the availability of quality pitchers at depressed salaries right now and the dearth of quality hitters on the market, I think they very well may be better off with Montero and the pitcher to be named later.

If this was the last move the organization made this winter, I probably wouldn’t be very happy with it. I probably would have rather made the deal with Cincinnati that fetched Alonso, Grandal, Volquez, and Boxberger. There are reasons to not love this deal on its own, including the inclusion of Campos, who is a long ways from the Majors but could turn out to be a piece the team really regrets giving up.

However, it puts the organization in the position to put a better overall roster on the field than they could have otherwise. If this deal lets the team sign Jackson or Oswalt, and they have enough money left over to add depth in the outfield and at third base, then the M’s will be in a better position for 2012 and beyond than they would have by retaining Pineda.

The M’s can’t be done. There’s more work to do, and they created a hole in the rotation to patch one on the offense. But that hole is easier to fix, and with a little bit of work, the M’s could actually put a quality product on the field next year. And that’s worth being excited about.

M’s Trade Pineda/Campos to Yankees for Jesus Montero (C-ish) and Hector Noesi (RHP)

January 13, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 34 Comments 

Ah, that vertiginous feeling that accompanies a big move…

MLB’s reporting that the M’s are close to a deal sending two high-impact pitchers to New York in exchange for Jesus Montero (the guy they almost got in the Cliff Lee deal) and reliever Hector Noesi. Montero was once seen as a can’t-miss hitter with poor defense at the catcher position. After a slow start, he recovered in AAA last year and made his MLB debut in September.

Many observers think he’s a lock to end up at DH/1B, which wasn’t so much of a problem when people thought he was a legitimately elite hitter, but after a few years of very good-but-not-great performance, I worry that the only way this deal makes sense is if the M’s think he can catch.

Now, to be sure, the C position is something the M’s desperately need to upgrade, and they’ve lived without defense there since Kenji Johjima left. I really don’t care about his CS% next year as long as he can give the team a league-average wOBA. But he wouldn’t have the back-up plan of 1B; not when the M’s need Justin Smoak and Mike Carp in the line-up to have a chance at being not-awful.

The loss of Jose Campos stings as well. Yes, he just pitched in short-season ball, but the upside is impossible to ignore. Hector Noesi is MLB ready, and could transition back to the rotation if the M’s wanted, but the M’s gave up a lot here. Please be good, Montero.

At this point, both Yankee fans and M’s fans seem a bit disappointed, which probably means it’s a fair swap. The deal makes sense for both teams, and the M’s need hitting at all cost, and maybe Hiltzen’s ready to fill that spot today. But it stings to lose so much talent.

Pineda For Montero

January 13, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

News that the Mariners have traded Michael Pineda and top pitching prospect Jose Campos for DH Jesus Montero and okay pitching prospect Hector Noesi broke while I was having dinner. Analysis coming soon – short version, I like the idea, not sure I love the execution, but it will depend on what else M’s do.

Dave on Kevin Calabro Show

January 12, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 26 Comments 

I’ll be joining Kevin Calabro and Jim Moore on their afternoon shot at 710 ESPN at 3:30 to talk about Prince Fielder. Yup. More Prince Fielder talk. Feel the excitement.

Leukemia Free

January 11, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 134 Comments 

As far as I know, this news doesn’t affect the Mariners chances of signing Prince Fielder, so I apologize in advance for the lack of update on that front.

I do, however, have some news to share. I underwent a bone marrow biopsy yesterday morning – my third one, in fact. The procedure is pretty crappy, and involves drilling into my tail bone to extract some bone and marrow samples for testing. On the list of fun things to have done to you, it ranks just slightly ahead of watching Carlos Peguero try to hit a curve ball.

But, the test gave my doctors a chance to look beyond simple blood cell counts and hemoglobin levels to determine the current state of my recovery. A few minutes ago, they called with the results of the test.

All clean, no leukemia anywhere to be found.

With that, the roughly six months or so of treatment have come to an end. I can now return to something of a normal life, with only occasional trips to the clinic for check-ups and maintenance. Obviously, we’re pretty happy to have gotten this far and have received nothing but good news along the way.

This journey isn’t over yet, of course. Cancers like to return to the scene of the crime, and Acute Myeloid Leukemia comes back more than most. Since we spend a lot of time talking about data here, the actual odds based on prior cases suggest that there’s about a 50 percent chance that the disease could return at some point in the next couple of years. Or, if you want to look at it from a survival standpoint, the fact that treatment has been successful so far and I’ve tested into the low-risk category based on genetic markers, the doctors estimate that I have something like a 60-70% chance of surviving through the next five years. In most cases, if the leukemia is going to return, it returns relatively soon, so making it through five years essentially would mean that I was cured, and that the disease would be behind me.

But, as I said when I received the diagnosis (and they gave me a 30-40% chance of beating this thing), I don’t really care about the odds. I’m either going to live or I’m not, so I’m choosing to believe that this will not kill me. So far, so good.

Plan on this being the last post on USSM about this for the next five years – I don’t intend to write another update about leukemia on USSM until I announce that I’m officially cured in 2017. A sincere thank you to everyone who has been so supportive throughout the process, however – you’ve all been fantastic, and the outpouring of support has been really heartwarming, both for myself and my family.

I look forward to seeing you all at the next event at Safeco this summer. Go Mariners.

Edgar’s HOF Vote Totals Increases Slightly

January 9, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

It’s Hall of Fame voting results day. Barry Larkin gets to celebrate while everyone else gets to wait another year, including Edgar. I’m not planning on writing a ton about this, because we’re probably a decade away from Edgar having any real shot of getting elected. It’s good news that his vote total rebounded from 32.9% to 36.5% after declining last year, but with the big wave of guys coming on the ballot beginning next year, he could very well drop back again in a year. He’s going to need those guys to all get out of his way before he has any real serious chance of election, so we’re probably looking at a 10+ year wait.

I think he deserves to get in. I hope he gets in someday. It just won’t be any time soon.

What Now?

January 8, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 146 Comments 

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.

Position Player PA/IP WAR Salary
C John Jaso 300 1.0 $0.5
1B Justin Smoak 600 2.0 $0.5
2B Dustin Ackley 600 3.0 $1.5
SS Brendan Ryan 500 2.0 $1.8
3B Kyle Seager 600 1.5 $0.5
LF Casper Wells 400 1.0 $0.5
CF Franklin Gutierrez 500 2.5 $5.8
RF Ichiro Suzuki 600 2.5 $18.0
DH Mike Carp 500 1.0 $0.5
C Miguel Olivo 300 1.0 $3.8
IF Chone Figgins 300 $9.5
IF Munenori Kawasaki 200 $0.8
OF Trayvon Robinson 200 $0.5
SP1 Felix Hernandez 220 5.0 $19.2
SP2 Michael Pineda 200 3.0 $0.5
SP3 Jason Vargas 180 2.0 $4.5
SP4 Hisashi Iwakuma 150 1.0 $2.0
SP5 Blake Beavan 150 0.5 $0.5
CL Brandon League 60 1.0 $4.5
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen 60 0.5 $0.5
LHP George Sherrill 40 0.5 $1.1
RHP Shawn Kelley 60 0.5 $0.8
LHP Sean Henn 50 $0.5
RHP Chance Ruffin 60 $0.5
LHP Charlie Furbush 70 $0.5
Totals     31.5 $79.2

(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.

M’s Officially Sign Hisashi Iwakuma

January 5, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 57 Comments 

As rumored a few days ago, the M’s have come to terms with RHP Hisashi Iwakuma on a one year contract. Per Jerry Crasnick, he’s guaranteed just $1.5 million in salary, and has incentives based on starts and innings pitched that could push the total value of the deal up to $4.9 million.

In other words, it’s a freaking steal. For context, he signed for less guaranteed money than Yuniesky Betancourt, Fernando Rodney, and Nate McLouth, all of whom were basically replacement level players last year. If he stays healthy and pitches well enough to make nearly every start all season long, he’ll earn about as much as Juan Rivera or Matt Capps.

We don’t really know what the Mariners have in Iwakuma, but at this price, there’s literally no downside. They’re paying him like he’s a mediocre middle reliever, and based on his previous history, he’s got at least some chance of turning into a mid-rotation starter. If he pitches as well as could reasonably be expected, they’ll likely have a +2 to +3 win pitcher for a fraction of his value. If he’s useless, well, then they’re out $1 million more than the league minimum.

This is about as good a deal as could have been hoped for to fill out the rotation, honestly. I would have been a fan of signing a guy like Chris Capuano or Jeff Francis, but given the price, this is pretty clearly the better option. The move offers the team rotation depth at no real cost, with the chance of giving them a pretty solid innings eater if things go well. And, given that he’s just 30-years-old, a successful first season could easily lead to an extension that could allow him to remain part of the rotation for the future as well.

There’s absolutely nothing to complain about here. A pretty terrific move for the organization, and one that can’t be seen as anything other than a positive.

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