The Problem With Trades

October 31, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 54 Comments 

After I released my offseason plan post, one of the most common questions I got was why it relied so heavily on free agency, rather than using the team’s stock of minor league talent to swing a trade instead. I actually got asked that question in my chat over at FanGraphs again today, and so I figured it’s probably time that I actually explain why I don’t see making a trade as the realistic solution that a lot of people seem to be rooting for.

Let’s start with the primary reason – to get something, you have to give something up. The Mariners don’t have a ton of Major League talent, which is why they keep having losing seasons. The goal is to add Major League talent, not move it around. Besides Jesus Montero — who I’m pretty sure the organization is higher on than I am, and almost certainly not going anywhere — there really aren’t too many pieces on the big league roster that you could feasibly trade in a deal that gets you a legitimate improvement.

Trading Kyle Seager doesn’t help you do anything, because the organization has a giant black hole at third base, and it’s a barren wasteland in free agency, so you’d just be creating one hole to fill another. Selling low on Dustin Ackley doesn’t make any sense. Justin Smoak has basically nuked his trade value. It says something that the team’s best MLB non-Felix trade chip is probably Tom Wilhelmsen. I like Wilhelmsen and all, but you’re not turning him into any kind of impact bat.

So, if the M’s are going to make a significant improvement via trade this winter, they’re going to have to build the package around prospects. And they do have some good prospects, with most of the speculation centering around Nick Franklin and James Paxton, both of whom are easily Top 100 prospects and could be considered Top 50 guys, depending on who you talk to. They do have real trade value, because they’re talented kids who aren’t that far from the big leagues.

But, they’re not elite prospects, and neither one is likely going to be able to make a Major League club out of spring training. So, if you’re building a package of talent around Paxton and Franklin, you’re essentially limited to dealing with teams who are looking to move present talent for future talent. And that eliminates pretty much every popular trade target from the shopping list.

Alex Gordon? There’s no real reason for the Royals to move him for prospects. They’ve spent years getting a core of players to the big leagues, and resetting the clock by a year or two while they wait for two more prospects to get back to the big leagues is counterproductive. They’re trying to do the same thing the Mariners are doing this winter – use their perceived excess of young talent to add wins to their big league roster. There’s a reason they just traded for Ervin Santana. They’re trying to make their 2013 team better, not worse.

Allan Craig? St. Louis isn’t trading away their starting first baseman, especially not for minor leaguers. They’re in full on win-now mode. Paxton and Franklin would be of marginal interest to a contender.

Justin Upton? Arizona just took their step backwards, and they now want to step back into the NL West race. Even in trading away Chris Young, they made sure they got back two Major League players in the deal, filling a hole at shortstop and hoping for a bounce back from Heath Bell to strengthen their bullpen. If they trade Upton, it will be as part of a deal for an established big league player at another position, probably SP or 3B. In other words, you want to talk Upton, they’ll want to talk Felix or Seager+. And Jack will hang up the phone. Beyond some kind of three way trade, I just don’t see Arizona being a good trade partner for the M’s.

I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but there’s just no reason to think that the teams that have these good young cost controlled hitters are going to want to trade them for Paxton and Franklin, no matter how many extra things you throw in. If you’re selling prospects, you’re limited to teams that aren’t trying to win any time soon, and thanks to the second wild card and the surprising success of teams like the Orioles, that’s now a pretty short list.

Realistically, here are the clubs that I’d say you can expect to be moving present talent for future talent this winter.

Houston Astros
Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians
Minnesota Twins
Colorado Rockies

All of those teams lost at least 94 games last year, and they’re all in some sort of transition process. The Astros and Cubs are in full scale rebuilding mode, and they don’t have a lot of interesting assets to sell to begin with. The Indians, Twins, and Rockies aren’t necessarily planning to sell off everything with a pulse, but they’re all far enough away from contention that they’d probably be interested in moving one of their players with only a few years of club control (or less) for a couple of good prospects. These five, I can see Paxton and Franklin generating a return phone call.

But, realistically, what are you targeting here? Getting the Cubs to kick in enough of Alfonso Soriano‘s contract to make him interesting? One year of Shin-Soo Choo before Scott Boras takes him to free agency? Dexter Fowler‘s massive home/road splits, average power, and contact problems? Josh Willingham, who turns 34 in February and is coming off a career year?

This is probably what you’re looking at if you’re selling Paxton and Franklin as the centerpieces of a deal. The teams who seem likely to be interested in acquiring that kind of package don’t really have what everyone wants the Mariners to get. Sure, Willingham makes the offense better, but do you really want to give up two of the better young talents in the organization to get a guy who is at the tail end of his career, and certainly isn’t any kind of long term building piece? Or, to get a guy like Choo who is going to test the market next winter, and has an agent who doesn’t know what “home town discount” means?

I don’t. None of those guys are really the kind of player I think the Mariners should be overly interested in. Willingham and Choo should end up on a team like the Rangers or Braves – contenders who can justify giving up significant future value to help get them in the playoffs next year. The Mariners just aren’t there yet, so if they’re trading from the farm, they need to look young. And the teams with those younger bats just aren’t going to want to trade them for a package of prospects.

Beyond that, the entire idea that the Mariners have this excess pitching depth is essentially a myth. Right now, the organization has one great pitcher, one pretty interesting young Major Leaguer, one back-end starter whose salaries are making him a marginal value, and a bunch of guys who might not even be ready to get PCL hitters out on a regular basis. Yes, the Hultzen/Walker/Paxton trio each have talent, but they also each have significant strides that need to be made before they are big league ready, and of course there’s the ever present injury risk hanging over every pitcher that we simply can’t ignore.

The reality is that the Mariners will probably only get one good big league starter out of that group. If they get two, that’s a huge win. Three would be a miracle, and no one should build a plan around a miracle. Pitching prospects are extremely fickle, and even with three guys as talented as the ones the Mariners have — and heck, throw in Brandon Maurer too — there’s just a strong likelihood that the team is going to end up with a couple of busts out of the bunch, whether due to injury or just a lack of development. The minors are littered with guys who had good arms, good strikeout rates, and then just stopped pitching well.

You add two MLB starters to Felix and Erasmo Ramirez at some point in 2014, and you’re still a starter shy of a full rotation. Hopefully Iwakmua is that guy, but even if he re-signs, you basically need two of those arms to pan out just so you’re not left a starter short.

The Mariners don’t really have a pitching surplus. Despite all the talk about this team just needing offense, they also need better starting pitching. They don’t have so many good starters that they’re holding MLB ready players down in Triple-A past the point where their development warrants it. Trading one of them away simply means that the team is even more likely to have to go spend on pitching, either this winter or next, and so it’s back to robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is a team that had to rely on Kevin Millwood and Blake Beavan for most of the year. This is not a team that has extra pitching to spare.

They do have an extra second baseman, since no one seems to think Franklin has much of a future at shortstop, so I don’t expect him to still be a Mariner when spring training starts. And it is possible that Jack figures out a three way deal to build a trade around Franklin and one of the pitchers that gets them a hitter from a team outside of the obvious rebuilding organizations. And, of course, there could be a guy who is available that no one is talking about, much like how no one knew Cliff Lee was available until the Phillies landed Roy Halladay.

But, from just looking at the landscape of the league, there just don’t seem to be many obvious fits for this kind of Paxton/Franklin/stuff for a young hitter trade that seems to be such a popular idea at the moment. If the Mariners could turn those guys into a 25-30 year old thumper, they’d probably have done it already. There just aren’t that many young hitters in baseball who are available, and there definitely aren’t that many who are on teams that would want to trade them for prospects.

The new playoff structure incentivizes teams to try and become decent, rather than simply aiming to be above 90 or below 70 wins. Now, 80-85 makes you a contender, or at least lets you play meaningful games in September. The reason the Mariners are trying to get better is the same reason why the teams with the players you covet are also trying to get better, and the players you covet probably can’t be had for the players you want to part with.

If the M’s were trading Felix, then these guys would be in play. But they’re not trading Felix, so dreaming of the best young Major League hitters with team friendly contracts is probably unrealistic. Young Major Leaguers have a lot of value – a lot more than prospects who need to start the year in Triple-A. So, I’d rather see the Mariners keep their Triple-A guys around, turn them into Major League players, and then move the excess — if there still is excess — to help fill the needs of the roster.

They can get better this winter through free agency, because the crop of outfielders on the market is actually quite strong. They don’t have any pieces who simply belong in the big leagues and don’t have a spot to play because of an overcrowded roster. There shouldn’t be any pressure to make a trade just because that’s theoretically a better way to build a roster. This winter, you can probably get better prices on free agent outfielders than you can via trade. Next year might be different. But right now, I just don’t see Paxton/Franklin/stuff getting the Mariners the hitter they desire, nor do I think they should just settle and trade them for a guy like Willingham if he’s the best they can do via trade.

A Championship Offseason

October 29, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 52 Comments 

This post is brief, because I know that Jeff Sullivan is currently writing a version of this same idea over at Lookout Landing. His post is going to be way better than mine, because he’s a better writer than I am, so rather than try to compete with his thoughts, I’m just going to win through brevity. He sucks at brevity. But you should still read his post when it goes up, because I’m sure it’s going to be really good.

In 2011, the Giants scored 570 runs. They finished with a wRC+ of 87, the fourth worst mark in baseball. Put simply, the Giants couldn’t hit, and their best hitter — Carlos Beltran — was a free agent.

The Giants didn’t re-sign him, despite surrendering top prospect Zach Wheeler to get him at the deadline. In fact, they didn’t sign anyone of note last winter. They signed one free agent position player from another organization to a Major League contract – Ryan Theriot, who got $1.25 million to serve as their utility infielder. A team that couldn’t win because they couldn’t hit let their best hitter leave and spent no money in free agency to try and replace him.

Instead, they traded for Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera and signed Gregor Blanco to a minor league contract, essentially building an entirely new outfield from scratch with players that weren’t wanted by their previous organization. Then, they handed shortstop and first base over to rookies Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt. That was their offensive makeover. That was the plan to fix an offense that couldn’t score.

The Giants just won the World Series, beating the crap out of the team who spent $214 million to sign Prince Fielder last winter. The Giants finished 30th in the Majors in home runs this year. Their starting left fielder slugged .344. Their starting first baseman hit seven home runs. Their shortstop is essentially the NL’s version of Brendan Ryan. One of their two deadline acquistions was bringing in a 36-year-old slap-hitting contact guy who was posting his worst offensive season in years after getting traded to Colorado.

Repeat after me: There is no right way to build a baseball team. You don’t need a power hitting first baseman or a true slugger in left field. You don’t have to hit home runs. You don’t have to be the slave to any kind of traditional idea of what a team is supposed to look like.

The traditional model of ace pitchers and big time sluggers can work too. Detroit got to the World Series, after all. Hitting home runs is good. Having great pitchers is good. The Tigers defense was atrocious, and they still won the American League. You don’t have to play good defense to win either. There is no magic formula.

To win baseball games, you need to outscore your opponents. You can do that with pitching and defense. You can do that with sluggers and a great bullpen. You can do that with sluggers and defense. Runs are runs and wins are wins. It matters not how you get them. The consistently perpetuated idea that the Mariners have lost because they’re chasing some kind of mythological roster construction that doesn’t work was just destroyed by the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series. The Giants are exactly the kind of team that the Mariners have been trying to build for the last few years. It hasn’t worked, obviously, but the failure to create a winner here with this model doesn’t invalidate the model. You can win a World Series with Angel Pagan as your best hitting outfielder and Gregor Blanco starting in left field. The Giants just did.

The Giants didn’t do anything last winter to prove they wanted to win. They didn’t make any significant free agent signings to improve a dreadful offense. They took a team that couldn’t hit and they improved their defense. A year later, they’re World Champs.

Runs are runs and wins are wins. And it really doesn’t matter how you get them.

Why Jesus Montero Catching Isn’t Helpful

October 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 64 Comments 

With the Mariners declining Miguel Olivo‘s option, there’s been some conversation over the last few days about whether the M’s need to go get another Olivo type of catcher — meaning a right-handed backup, not a horrible player who the manager overvalues — or whether they can just go with John Jaso and Jesus Montero splitting the duties until Mike Zunino eventually shows up. I know a decent amount of you just want to go with Jaso and Montero so that Eric Wedge is forced to use them both, rather than playing some stop-gap veteran who tickles his fancy. However, I just don’t think it’s a particularly practical solution, and the explanation also points towards why I don’t think Montero serving as a part-time catcher is even helpful to the organization.

Let’s just start with the obvious – Jesus Montero is going to spend a decent amount of time at DH next year. Jack has already stated that they’re not really looking at him as a first baseman, and they see him as strictly a catcher/DH option for 2013. So, on days when Montero starts at DH, the Mariners have to have another catcher on the roster. It’s not just in case of injury — though that is part of it, as no manager wants to lose the DH for an entire game if Jaso ends up getting hit by a pitch in the first inning or something — but also just for basic strategy. Both Jaso and Montero are slow runners who should be pinch-run for late in games, and Jaso should probably be pinch-hit for against tough left-handers in high leverage situations, assuming the team has a decent right-handed bat on the bench anyway. On days when Jaso is catching and Montero is DHing, you can’t do either of those things for either one. Even pinch-running for Montero is too big of a risk, because no manager wants to get put in a position where something happens and the team has a utility infielder wearing the gear at the end of the game if it could have been avoided.

Having Montero DH means that the team does not have a choice but to carry another catcher. And if you’re already going to carry two catchers in addition to Montero, then there’s really not much value in having Montero catch at all.

The entire point of keeping a bad defensive player at an up-the-middle position is to try and squeeze extra offense into the line-up by freeing up a line-up spot that can be given to another hitter. When Montero catches, the DH spot is open for another bat, so the guy playing DH essentially hits instead of whoever that backup catcher would have been. The DH is almost certainly going to be a better hitter than a generic backup catcher, so that’s where the value in having Montero catch is supposed to come from.

But here’s the problem – a team carrying 12 pitchers doesn’t really have a spot on the bench for three catchers and a platoon DH, so that guy is not going to end up being the bat you think you’re getting in the first place.

Let’s just walk through it. Here’s how the 25 man roster is going to break down:

Starting Pitchers: 5
Relief Pitchers: 7
Starting Infielders: 4
Starting Outfielders: 3

That’s 19 of your 25 roster spots accounted for without counting catcher or DH. Jaso and Montero push us up to 21 players, and then the required third catcher puts us at 22. So, you have three spots left on the bench, and right now, you don’t have a single backup for any of the position players. Obviously, you need a reserve outfielder, so that’s 23. And then you need a backup infielder who can play shortstop, so even if you get a super utility guy to cover all three non-1B infield spots, you’re at 24 and are in a situation where your backup shortstop is also the guy who has to give Kyle Seager or Dustin Ackley a day off if need be.

That’s less than ideal, since most guys who can play shortstop can’t hit, which is why teams generally split that role in two, having a backup middle infielder and then a backup corner infielder. But if the Mariners did that, they’d be at 25, and their roster would be full. So, to fit this right-handed DH type on the roster, all of the sudden he’s also required to play first and third base, so that he can serve as the backup corner guy on days he’s not DHing against lefties.

But, now, you’ve just added a level of defensive requirement that drastically cuts down on the pool of candidates. While the hope is that having Montero catch lets you stick someone like Jonny Gomes in the line-up, he doesn’t qualify anymore, because now you’re looking for a right-handed stick who can play third if need be. You know how many players in the Majors last year played at least 10 games at both 3B and DH in 2012?

10. Three of them are regular third baseman who just battled injuries (Beltre, Longoria, A-Rod) and one is left-handed (Eric Chavez), so they’re obviously not options for this kind of role. The other six — Mark Reynolds (too expensive), Michael Young (WAY too expensive), Jeff Keppinger (free agent coming off good year, won’t have to settle for part-time gig), Pedro Ciriaco (can’t hit), Jose Lopez (dear God no), and Lonnie Chisenhall (prospect, not available). The reality is that there just anyone who can both play an adequate Major League third base and hit well enough to be a real option at DH is good enough to be a starting third baseman, so he’s already got a job and probably makes a lot of money. There just isn’t some warehouse of useful right-handed 3B/DH types who are looking for 250 plate appearances per year. Those guys basically don’t exist.

Because of the potential role being offered, you’re just going to be left fishing at the bottom of the free agent market or trading for some AAAA kid who you think deserves a shot in the big leagues. Sometimes, this works – the Rays got a steal with Keppinger, and Josh Donaldson turned into a pretty nice player for the A’s after originally being cast in something like this role. But, really, this is the kind of player you’re talking about opening up a roster spot for. Not Jonny Gomes; Josh Donaldson, with some chance of ending up with Jose Lopez instead.

Even if you think Jesus Montero is simply a bad defensive catcher instead of a disaster catcher, the reality is that an alignment with Montero behind the plate and a Donaldson type at DH isn’t anything special, and could be pretty easily matched by pairing a generic right-handed catcher with decent defense with Montero at DH. The gap in offense between what you can actually fit in as your right-handed DH and what you could get from a right-handed platoon catcher — those do exist, by the way — isn’t all that large.

With a four man bench, giving two of those spots to a third catcher and a platoon DH really hampers your roster construction options. And, if the team is serious about having Montero as a C/DH next year, then the third catcher isn’t optional. So, rather than force Montero behind the plate and create an inflexible bench that leaves the team short-handed whenever anyone (read: Brendan Ryan or Franklin Gutierrez) are dinged up and need a day off, the Mariners can just solve this whole mess by telling Montero his days as a catcher are over.

This makes it easy. Montero just turns himself into Billy Butler, focusing on just hitting and turning all those hours he would have spent on catching into time working on his swing or improving his hitting. The other catcher on the roster becomes Jaso’s platoon guy, and the two of them share catching duties. And then your backup corner guy doesn’t have to hit well enough to also serve as a DH against righties, so you have a little more flexibility in the type of player you can choose to fill that role.

The idea of Jesus Montero as a catcher is far more valuable than the reality of Jesus Montero as a catcher. When you look at the practical applications of having him do both, it should be pretty clear that the organization isn’t really gaining anything by having him stay behind the plate. And, if you just take Montero’s catcher’s glove away from him now, then you’re not converting him into a full-time DH mid-season if Zunino forces his way onto the roster.

I get that the team has invested a lot in Montero as a player, and that in a vacuum, a guy who can catch is more valuable than a guy who is strictly a DH. But, for this organization, where John Jaso is already here and Mike Zunino is coming, there’s just not really any real value to be had from Montero catching. Not if they also want him to DH, anyway.

M’s Decline Olivo’s Option, Release Kawasaki

October 24, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 42 Comments 

Dance in the streets everyone – the Miguel Olivo era in Seattle is over. They had to pay him $750,000 to go away, the final blow of a contract that was silly from the moment it was conceived, but at least he’s finally gone.

Also, Munenori Kawasaki was released, which is good, because he’s not a Major League player.

Both moves were obvious, but are still welcome anyway. If you’re curious, by the way, here is a list of every hitter who has ever gotten 1,000+ plate appearance in a Mariners uniform. Olivo is last in OBP, last in wOBA, third to last in wRC+, and fifth to last in WAR.

He’s not the worst player in franchise history, but he’s in the conversation. Thankfully, we no longer have to talk about him ever again.

A New Hitting Coach and Other Minor News

October 22, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

1: Welcome back, Dave Hansen! The 3B/pinch-hitter played for the M’s in 2004 after being acquired from the Padres in the Jeff Cirillo deal, then moved back to San Diego in exchange for groundballing reliever Jon Huber, then signed with the M’s in the off-season. Before he could be swayed by San Diego’s charms yet again, he retired after the 2005 season. Since then, he’s moved up the coaching ranks and spent the past year and a half as the hitting coach for the LA Dodgers.

The quotes in Divish’s story talk about his clear vision for hitting, and the new/old beat writer elaborated on that philosophy, saying that Hansen believes in “putting pressure on the defense” and “getting on base any way possible.” This is all boiler plate stuff, but there’s not a lot we can do to evaluate hitting coaches using statistics. The Dodgers were a bad hitting team before Hansen, and they were a bad hitting team this year. Hansen had a front-row seat to Matt Kemp’s emergence as an elite bat, but it’s not clear that he caused it. He watched Dee Gordon and James Loney regress, but that’s similarly difficult to lay at Hansen’s feet.

I have no idea if Hansen’s “good” or “bad” at his job, and I don’t even know that Hansen will be the only person in the job; many MLB teams are hiring multiple hitting coaches, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the M’s joined their ranks. Ultimately though, the M’s need to maximize the value of their erstwhile young core, and Chris Chambliss simply couldn’t get through to Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak. If Hansen does, that’s awesome. If he doesn’t, I’ll be writing a post just like this one a year from now.

2: The M’s are looking to hire a permanent partner for Rick Rizzs on the radio side of the broadcast. For the past two years, the M’s have rotated several people though as partners for Rizzs, including Ken Levine, Dan Wilson, Dave Henderson, Jay Buhner and Rainiers announcer Mike Curto. According to Larry Stone, the M’s are now looking to select one person to work with Rizzs; the TV combo of Dave Sims and Mike Blowers would remain. I don’t think it’s a secret that we’re in Curto’s camp, and that the long-time minor league announcer deserves a full-time gig with the M’s. I’m not sure that’s the direction the M’s will go, as the M’s may want an ex-player to fill the standard “color commentator” role, but who knows. Ken Wilson was warmly received by many M’s fans, so the “play by play/color” combination isn’t mandatory. We’ll see – the M’s have said that they’d like to name Rizzs’ partner by mid-January.

3: The M’s 40-man roster’s full right now, but with several free-agents-to-be, they’ve got some room on it. That’s good, because they’ll need some flexibility as they move through the off-season. The Red Sox added several players in their blockbuster deal with LA, and are thus in the position where they can’t protect as many prospects as they’d like in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.

The M’s situation is easier, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any hard decisions coming up. Basically, high-school players drafted in 2008 and college players drafted in 2009 need to be added to the 40-man roster or they could be claimed by any other MLB team in the Rule 5 draft. The M’s didn’t take many high-schoolers in 2008, but the 2009 draft class is going to be tough. The M’s took 11 straight college players from their 2nd rounder (Rich Poythress) to their 12th round pick (Andrew Carraway).

In general, teams may try to protect marginal pitchers more than marginal hitters because it’s easier for a team to stash a pitcher at the back of the bullpen and get them through the Rule 5 process – the M’s just did this with Lucas Luetge, who turned into a pretty important member of the big league bullpen. That’s good news for guys like Carraway and Bobby LaFromboise, and it means that it’s likely that the M’s may leave a guy like Vinnie Catricala, Poythress, or James Jones unprotected. As I mentioned before, the Arizona Fall League’s quite useful for teams to get a last look at some of these guys before they have to make a decision – LaFromboise and Catricala are getting a chance to make their case for the 40-man, and Danny Farquhar’s doing the same in Venezuela. We haven’t even touched on the international free agent signings who may need to be added – guys like Anthony Fernandez or Mario Martinez.

We’ll have another post on the 40-man and the Rule 5 draft soon, but we can see some of the battles for the last few spots developing now. Stefen Romero’s hitting well in Arizona, and though he’s not eligible for the Rule 5 draft, if he hits his way onto the roster as a bench bat, well, that’s one less spot for someone else. A trade could open up another slot or two, but the M’s are in a position where they’d likely by adding major league talent and giving up (non-40 man) prospects. That’s going to squeeze the roster as well. Again, the M’s are in a different position to Boston, and they can easily clear a half a dozen spots without a lot of trouble. But it’s actually kind of encouraging that they’re going to face some tough decisions over the next month or so.

4: The Athletics completed a notable trade with the Diamondbacks this weekend. The A’s add to their OF depth by picking up CF Chris Young at the bargain-basement price of SS Cliff Pennington and minor-league tools project Yordy Cabrera. Young’s basically the template for an underrated player, in that he plays good defense, draws some walks and has some power (but isn’t an elite HR hitter), and generally has a low batting average. After two four-plus win seasons, Young slumped to an injury-addled 2.8 this year – impressive for a player who only got into 101 games after a major shoulder injury.

As Jack Moore talked about on Fangraphs, Young may have been rushed back following that injury, as he was hitting like Chris Young the pitcher for two months. Then, after the break, he went on an extended (168 PAs) run where he hit like he did in his 2008-11 peak. Is he “fixed” now? Will his power still play after moving from one of the most HR-friendly parks in the league to one of the league’s pitching havens? I don’t know, but I really wonder what it would’ve taken for the M’s to grab Young. Pennington hit like Brendan Ryan this year, and while the D-Backs need a shortstop, it’s not clear what he offers them above defensive-whiz John McDonald or Willie Bloomquist (yes, a post on USSM is comparing Bloomquist favorably to a guy traded for a starting MLB CF). I’ve been pessimistic about Pennington since his PCL days, so I understand that others may see him as a bounce-back candidate following a good 2010 campaign and a bad BABIP in 2012. While his raw stats may improve, I’m just not sold that Pennington’s a starter, and I’m stunned that a tweener like him pried Chris Young away.

The Diamondbacks have been shopping their two LFs all off-season, and I would hope that Zduriencik’s calling Kevin Towers hourly about Gerardo Parra or Jason Kubel. I’m not sure how the Diamondbacks evaluate OFs, but the M’s should try to get a deal done. They can use the Minnesota Twins as leverage by targeting Josh Willingham at the same time. The Twins have a great OF prospect waiting in the wings, and they’re desperate for pitching. Jason Churchill talked about a potential deal for the prospect, Oswaldo Arcia, at BP here, but it may be easier for everyone if the M’s take Willingham instead, thereby opening a spot for the younger, cheaper, Arcia. Willingham’s signed to a relatively inexpensive deal and just put up a very good year, so he wouldn’t come cheap, but either Kubel, Willingham or Parra could help improve the Mariners 2013 team without the risk of a long-term contract. This isn’t about penny-pinching, it’s about timing. A long-term free agent deal would be great if the M’s actually knew which home-grown players they could build around. For the past two years, the answer’s been clear: Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. This year, those two combined for -25 batting runs. A long-term deal wouldn’t cripple the team, but it would start to look pretty superfluous if Ackley and Smoak aren’t the cogs in the next competitive M’s line-up.

Fall/Winter League Update

October 19, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 22 Comments 

The Arizona Fall League’s about 10 days into its season, and the Caribbean Leagues have begun, so let’s check in on the progress of the M’s prospects. It’s so obvious I hesitate to even remind you, but the statistical lines are, at most, in the 25 at-bat range, and the levels of competition vary wildly. The results themselves don’t mean a whole lot, but *may* indicate areas of improvement and weakness. And if you’re sick of pieces detailing the collective character failings of another Yankee dynasty-that-wasn’t – analysis that is both zeitgeist-y and yet an annual tradition, looking at, say, Gabriel Noriega’s batting line can feel therapeutic.

If you’d just like a compilation of the stat lines of M’s prospects in the AFL, the Venezuelan League and the Dominican League, has you covered, and this video report from Jonathan Mayo has video of Zunino/Paxton/Franklin. If you’d like to read more, there’s more analysis/extrapolation after the jump.
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Can We Finally Stop Underrating John Jaso?

October 15, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 73 Comments 

January update: Sigh…

Over at the official team site, Greg Johns weighs in with a piece on the team’s options at catcher for next year. There’s nothing earth-shattering in there, as it contains a bunch of non-committal quotes from Jack and Wedge about how they’re going to sort out the catching situation. The piece focuses primarily on Montero and Zunino at the beginning, then closes with these two paragraphs on John Jaso:

Jaso was a pleasant surprise for the Mariners both as a clutch hitter and capable catcher, but his playing time was limited by his difficulties against left-handed pitchers. The lefty swinging Jaso batted .302 with a .927 OPS in 308 plate appearances against right-handers compared to .119 with a .393 OPS in 53 plate appearances against southpaws.

Jaso caught many of Felix Hernandez‘s starts, including his perfect game, and Wedge gave him more of a full-time role either at DH or catcher as the season played out. But it remains a reasonable debate as to whether Jaso excelled because Wedge put him in the best position to succeed by limiting his exposure to lefties or if he should play every day, no matter who is on the mound.

I’m not trying to pick on Johns here, who I like and who does a good job covering the team’s beat. But, I gotta be honest, the continual downplaying of John Jaso by the local media is getting tiring. Jaso’s playing time wasn’t limited because of his problems against left-handers – it was limited because Eric Wedge didn’t realize that he was actually a good player, and ignorantly kept him on the bench for the first month of the season before an injury forced him into putting Jaso in the line-up.

Let’s not talk about him like some young kid who had a good September but doesn’t have a track record for the team to really know what they have yet. John Jaso is a 29-year-old with 1,048 plate appearances in the big leagues. He has the equivalent of two full major League catcher seasons under his belt, and during that time, he’s hit .255/.359/.395, good for a 116 wRC+. Here is the entire list of Major League catchers who have hit accumulated 1,000 or more plate appearances in the big leagues since 2008 (when Jaso debuted, albeit briefly) and posted a wRC+ of 110 or higher:

Buster Posey – 142 wRC+
Joe Mauer – 139 wRC+
Mike Napoli -133 wRC+
Carlos Santana – 124 wRC+
Victor Martinez – 121 wRC+
Brian McCann – 118 wRC+
John Jaso – 116 wRC+
Alex Avila – 115 wRC+
Miguel Montero – 113 wRC+
Jorge Posada – 113 wRC+
Carlos Ruiz – 112 wRC+
Yadier Molina – 110 wRC+
Ryan Doumit – 110 wRC+

That’s the whole list. Notice how none of them have been pigeonholed as part-timers by their franchises? Every catcher who shows this kind of offensive performance is rewarded with a regular job. Now, let’s look at just the left-handed hitting catchers in baseball, which includes four guys from that list and one regular who hasn’t even been anywhere near as good but is still considered an everyday guy on a contender, and see how they’ve fared against left-handed pitching over this same time frame.

Joe Mauer – 117 wRC+
Brian McCann – 100 wRC+
Alex Avila – 89 wRC+
Miguel Montero – 86 wRC+
A.J. Pierzynski – 85 wRC+

Notice how they’re all significantly worse against lefties than against righties? Mauer’s the only one who even grades out as an above average hitter against lefties, and he’s still not even remotely as effective against LHPs as he is against RHPs. McCann, Avila, and Montero are three of the better catchers in baseball, and all have their problems against southpaws. Pierzynski has been a starting catcher for the better part of the last decade, even despite his problems against left-handed pitching.

Instead of deciding that struggles against left-handers are some kind of deal-breaker, these franchises have realized there isn’t really such a thing as a left-handed hitting catcher who excels against left-handed pitching. Mauer — one of the game’s truly elite players, who is making $23 million per year for the next six years — is the only example in the sport of a left-handed catcher who you feel strongly needs to be in the line-up against most left-handed pitchers. Every other guy on that list can comfortably be platooned, and in fact, most of them have been to some degree.

Again, same 2008-2012 time period, here are the percentages of plate appearances that these five regular left-handed catchers have gotten against RHPs and LHPs.

Mauer: 64%/36%
McCann: 68%/32%
Montero: 76%/24%
Pierzynski: 77%/23%
Avila: 78%/22%

In other words, if we extrapolate out to 500 plate appearances over a whole season, these “full-time” left-handed catchers will get between 110 and 180 plate appearances against lefties. And, really, 180 is artificially high because the Twins use Mauer at 1B/DH against left-handers occasionally in order to keep his bat in the line-up. McCann is really more of the example of what an “everyday” left-handed catcher would expect, and out of 500 plate appearances, he’d face 160 lefties.

Jaso, for his career, is at 86/14, so he’s been platooned more heavily than any of them, of course. But, this idea that he just can’t handle an expanded role falls apart when you actually apply the math. Let’s assume that the Mariners and Rays had given Jaso the kind of workload that Montero/Avila/Pierzynski got, so his platoon distribution was actually 77%/23% instead of 86%/14%. We’re also going to assume he wouldn’t have performed any better against left-handers than he actually did even while seeing them more often (a dubious claim, especially since most of his problems against LHPs stem from a low BABIP, but that’s a separate argument), and that playing regularly wouldn’t improve his overall performance against righties, which has been argued by local beat writers before when we called for Raul Ibanez to be platooned. For now, we’ll just forego both of those discussions which could argue for improved overall numbers from Jaso and just go with what he actually did.

To reallocate his playing time into a more “full time” role, we’re going to simply shift his 1,048 PAs from its current distribution and into one where 77% of his plate appearances come against right-handers and 23% come against left-handers. The redistribution would leave him with 807 PAs against righties and 241 PAs against let-handers, so it moves 90 plate appearances from vs RHP tally into the vs LHP side of the ledger. Now, let’s recalculate Jaso’s total offensive performance after re-weighting his line against each side by his new distribution.

New PA wRC+   Old PA wRC+
Vs RHP 807 125   Vs RHP 897 125
Vs LHP 241 61   Vs LHP 151 61
Total 1,048 110   Total 1,048 116

By playing him like a “regular”, Jaso’s career wRC+ would drop all the way from 116 down to 110. Truly, a crushing blow to his value. If you prefer it in run values, the total negative from not platooning him any heavier than Montero, Avila, or Pierzynski would have cost him a whopping seven runs over the equivalent of two full seasons worth of playing time.

Here’s the reality – the idea that his line is massively inflated because of the way he was handled simply doesn’t add up. Jaso’s overall line is slightly better than it would have otherwise been had he faced a more normal split of righties and lefties, but the gap is not anywhere close to what it’s being made out to be. Even if John Jaso had been put into a Brian McCann-style role, he still would grade out as an above average hitter, simply because his performance against RHPs has been so good.

No, he’s not good at throwing out opposing base stealers, having gunned down just 20% of opponents trying to take a base off of him in his career. But, guess what? A.J. Pierzynski’s only thrown out 23% of career base stealers, and Brian McCann’s at 24%. The Major League average for caught stealing this year was 26%. Jaso is marginally worse at this than most regular catchers, but the gap is in all honestly not very large.

And no, opposing runners simply aren’t taking advantage of Jaso and turning games into a track meet when he’s back there – teams have attempted one steal every 11.4 innings off of him during his career, compared to a league average of one attempt every 9.9 innings off an average catcher.

There is simply no argument to be made that Jaso’s problems against left-handers or his throwing serve to significantly drag down his value to the point where he’s best served in some kind of part-time bench role like he was used this year. His usage this year was a mistake, and one that should absolutely be corrected in 2013.

John Jaso is a Major League quality starting catcher, and based on his MLB performance to date — again, in over two full seasons worth of playing time — he’s showed that he’s probably one of the 10 best catchers in baseball. That doesn’t mean you have to run him out there against every left-hander, but using him like the Diamondbacks used Montero or the White Sox used Pierzynski is completely rational. That’s around 120 starts per year, with a bias towards using his days off when a left-hander is on the mound.

John Jaso is pretty obviously the team’s best hitter right now. He might very well be the team’s best player, even with his moderate power, big platoon splits, and his mediocre throwing arm. While Eric Wedge failed to recognize Jaso’s strengths and simply focused on his weaknesses, that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same. Jaso isn’t a perfect player, but besides Joe Mauer, there are no perfect left-handed hitting Major League catchers. Other organizations have realized that the positives so far outweigh the negatives that they’ve simply found a capable right-handed hitting back-up to start 40 games a year and let their lefty hitting catchers be significant assets to the organization.

The Mariners just need to do the same thing. At some point in the near future, it’s quite possible that Mike Zunino is going to push John Jaso out of the way, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that there’s some kind of sense of urgency to get him to the Majors to fill a gaping hole. The Mariners already have one of the better catchers in baseball and a guy who has done everything possible to deserve a shot as a full-time regular Major League player. At this point, not giving him that opportunity would simply be stubbornness. There are just no other part-time players in baseball that have played this well and not been given the chance to run with a full-time job. When someone performs as well as Jaso has over 1,000+ plate appearances, they get a chance because they’ve earned it.

Wedge might not love Jaso’s skillset. He might prefer a catcher with a cannon arm or better framing technique, or a louder personality who takes charge and looks more like a general behind the plate. None of that should matter. It’s time for Jack to simply tell Eric Wedge that John Jaso is his starting catcher next year, and that the roster will be built accordingly. Jaso has earned that opportunity.

Pretending that he’s just some kind of unproven, unknown entity with questionable value is not an accurate representation of the facts. John Jaso is a very good Major League hitter, and as a left-hander who can also catch, that makes him a pretty rare commodity in the sport. Rather than focusing on what he can’t do, it’s time for everyone to recognize what John Jaso can do, and give him the opportunity show it over a full season.

Dave’s 2013 Off-Season Plan

October 9, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 185 Comments 

It’s that time again – every winter, I throw out some ideas for the team to pursue during the off-season, attaching names to the concepts I’m in favor of in order to illustrate the type of plan I’d like to see the team pursue. Last winter, that plan called for avoidance of the top of the free agent market, as the prices at the high end just didn’t make sense given the expected return on investment. This year, though, I think there’s actually going to be some interesting values to be found in free agency, and the plan is almost entirely based on signing free agents. It’s a reaction more to the available types of players rather than a change in philosophy, as free agency can be a useful way to acquire Major League players as long as you target the right ones. This year, I see a few guys who I think qualify as the right ones, so while others lament the lack of star power on the market, I’d suggest this is an opportunity for the team to be aggressive in spending in order to get a strong potential return.

With that said, on to the moves.

Sign OF/1B Nick Swisher to a seven year, $100 million contract.

Sign OF Melky Cabrera to a one year, $6 million (plus incentives) contract .

Sign SP Carlos Villanueva to a one year, $4 million contract.

Sign DH Travis Hafner to a one year, $3 million contract.

Re-sign SP Hisashi Iwakuma to a two year, $10 million contract.

Re-sign SP Jason Vargas to a two year, $12 million contract.

Trade 1B Mike Carp and OF Trayvon Robinson for IF Sean Rodriguez and C Chris Gimenez.

I’ll explain the thinking behind these decisions in a second, but first, a couple of tables – the top one is the projected opening day roster given this group, with the second being the line-ups that you could run out there based on this roster. Oh, and the roster has the salary breakdown information, so you can see where all the money is going. To the tables!

Position Player Salary   Position Player Salary
C John Jaso $1,000,000   SP Felix Hernandez $20,700,000
1B Justin Smoak $550,000   SP Hisashi Iwakuma $5,000,000
2B Dustin Ackley $1,500,000   SP Jason Vargas $6,000,000
SS Brendan Ryan $3,000,000   SP Erasmo Ramirez $500,000
3B Kyle Seager $500,000   SP Carlos Villanueva $4,000,000
LF Melky Cabrera $6,000,000        
CF Michael Saunders $1,000,000   CL Tom Wilhelmsen $500,000
RF Nick Swisher $15,000,000   RH Carter Capps $500,000
DH Travis Hafner $3,000,000   LH Charlie Furbush $500,000
        RH Stephen Pryor $500,000
C Chris Gimenez $500,000   LH Lucas Luetge $500,000
IF Sean Rodriguez $1,000,000   RH Shawn Kelley $1,000,000
OF Franklin Gutierrez $7,500,000   RH Blake Beavan $500,000
OF Casper Wells $500,000        
        Cut Chone Figgins $8,000,000
        Declined Miguel Olivo $750,000
Total   $90,000,000        

Vs RHB Player Bats Position   Vs LHB Player Bats Position
1 John Jaso L C   1 Franklin Gutierrez R CF
2 Melky Cabrera S LF   2 Melky Cabrera S LF
3 Nick Swisher S RF   3 Nick Swisher S 1B
4 Travis Hafner L DH   4 Justin Smoak S DH
5 Kyle Seager L 3B   5 Kyle Seager L 3B
6 Justin Smoak S 1B   6 Michael Saunders L RF
7 Michael Saunders L CF   7 Dustin Ackley L 2B
8 Dustin Ackley L 2B   8 Chris Gimenez R C
9 Brendan Ryan R SS   9 Brendan Ryan R SS
Bench Chris Gimenez R C   Bench John Jaso L C
Bench Sean Rodriguez R IF   Bench Sean Rodriguez R IF
Bench Franklin Gutierrez R OF   Bench Casper Wells R OF
Bench Casper Wells R IF   Bench Travis Hafner L DH

Okay, now that we’ve just dumped a bunch of information on you, how about some explanations.

The Overview

The Mariners are honestly in a bit of an awkward situation. They’ve committed to building a core group through the farm system that can sustain a winner for years to come. They have some pieces in place that could — or should — be part of that core, but as a whole, they’re not quite ready to win. The organization’s future is still brighter than its present. Unfortunately, with only two years left on Felix Hernandez‘s contract and attendance that continues to trend the wrong way, the Mariners can’t keep asking fans to just wait around and watch the kids develop. The kids need help, and in some cases, the kids might need replacing. There’s enough talent on hand to win 75-80 games again next year, but they need to add about 10 wins of talent this winter to put themselves in a position to make an unexpected run at the playoffs next year. And they need to do it without throwing away the pieces that a future contender could be built around.

That’s not easy. Any team can borrow from the future to increase their odds in the present, either by trading prospects for veterans or signing players to inflated free agent contracts that harm the team’s ability to compete going forward. That kind of win-now roster construction is generally counterproductive unless a team is sure they’ve got a real shot at the playoffs and the riches that come along with a postseason appearance. The Mariners aren’t there yet. But they also can’t afford to sit on their hands and run another sub-.500 team out there while asking the fans to wait for the kids to develop. The natives are restless, attendance is down again, and Felix Hernandez‘s contract is about to come back into the spotlight. It’s time for the Mariners to put a competitive team on the field again, making this a winter where they can’t just sit back and hope things fall into place. They need to be aggressive, make smart moves, and improve the overall talent base of the organization, both for 2013 and beyond.

The Specifics

The Mariners are weak at the corner positions. This isn’t news, so it shouldn’t be any huge surprise that I’ve targeted players who fill those holes. But, I didn’t just pick Swisher, Cabrera, and Hafner out of a hat. There are reasons why I think these three specifically are the right upgrades for this roster.

Let’s start with Swisher, since that’s obviously the big move of the bunch. While 7/100 might sound aggressive for a guy is more good player than superstar, we have to remember to keep up with the changing economics of the game. I wrote about his free agent valuation on FanGraphs a few months ago, noting that he’s a better player than Andre Ethier, who just got 5/85 from the Dodgers to forego free agency this winter. While $100 million still carries a “star player” reputation, the reality is that a deal for 7/100 is only an AAV of $14 million, about 40% less than what the big ticket guys were signing for last winter. $200 million is the new $100 million, and $100 million is the new $50 million. Prices for players are going up, and so Swisher’s going to cost more than a similar player would have cost a few years ago, especially because you’re trying to buy him away from New York.

Any time you’re trying to poach a player from the Yankees, you’re unlikely to get any kind of huge bargain. If you want him to leave New York to come back to the west coast and hit in Safeco Field, you’re going to have to make it worth his while. By going longer on years than NYY may be comfortable with and giving him a bit more up front, the Mariners may be able to put an offer out there that the Yankees won’t want to match as they try to get under the luxury tax. I’d be more comfortable with 5/75 too, and maybe he’d re-sign with the Yankees for that, but I don’t think he’s coming to Seattle for 5/75. At 7/100, though, the Mariners would have a real chance to get him.

And they should want to get him. Right now, Swisher’s a perfect fit for what this team needs in a player. As a switch-hitter with power and patience, he’d give the team one of the most consistent, dependable bats in baseball, and one that gives the team the flexibility they need to keep evaluating the players already on the roster. Specifically, his ability to shift between the outfield and first base buys the team an insurance policy on Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero without forcing the team to make a potentially premature decision on either one. If either one steps up as an obvious candidate for the starting first base job in spring training, then Swisher plays right field full-time. If both continue to struggle, Swisher can step into that role, and the team’s new-found outfield depth can cover his vacated spot in right field.

And, yes, I said outfield depth. Something the Mariners haven’t had nearly enough of the last few years. They’ve bet on guys who weren’t reliable enough to be bet on and didn’t have viable alternatives in place for when things when wrong. That can’t happen again, which is why I’m also advocating that the Mariners be the team to give Melky Cabrera a chance at redemption. I know, a decent chunk of you are just going to see Melky as a steroids cheat who was terrible before he started juicing and will go right back to being now that he’s been caught. But, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the truth is that simple, or that Melky will be a worthless player going forward.

Even if we throw out his 2012 season as tainted and assume that none of his production this year was legitimate improvement at the age of 27, his career wRC+ before this year was 93, and he flashed the exact same high contact/gap power skillset that made him so productive for the Giants this year and the Royals last year. A guy who can be roughly a league average hitter in his early-20s will usually turn into an above average hitter in his late-20s, and a clean Cabrera can still be a productive offensive player. No, you don’t expect him to do anything like what he did for San Francisco this year, but he hit .305/.339/.470 for Kansas City last year and passed every drug test he took while doing it. Offensively, his skillset is pretty similar to Kyle Seager‘s, only he’s also a switch-hitter and a pretty decent baserunner who can handle both OF corners.

Melky’s suspension is going to dramatically depress his market value, though, and he’s almost certainly not going to be able to land a multi-year deal this winter. Every suitor is going to be offering a one year deal with incentives, so the Mariners will just have to make the case that their low-pressure media market is the perfect place for him to rehabilitate his image, and failing that, just outbid everyone else on the incentive package. It might take an extra $5+ million in incentives tied to playing time, but given that Melky could easily be a +2 to +3 win player at a significant position of need, the Mariners should be happy to write the extra checks if they come due. Paying those incentives would mean that Cabrera was productive and healthy, and that the contract was a positive investment for the franchise.

Of course, slotting Cabrera in one corner and Swisher in the other means that I’m only leaving one outfield spot open for Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez. I’m okay with that. Both are talented enough to deserve starting jobs, but only one of them is durable enough to be given one. While it’d be great if Gutierrez got 500 plate appearances next year, the organization simply can’t plan for it, and that’s why Gutierrez begins the year as a part-time player. However, it’s a job with a path to more playing time, because of the attributes of the guy I’m bringing in to DH.

Travis Hafner is basically the DH version of Gutierrez. He had knee surgery in May and then got shut down at the end of the year due to a herniated disc in his back. He’s averaged just 300 plate appearances per year for the last five years. He’s basically a guarantee to miss time next year, and any team signing him is basically signing up for a half season of baseball. But, that half season will probably be fairly productive. When Hafner was on the field this year, he hit .228/.346/.438, posting a 118 wRC+ even while his BABIP was just .233. Old slow DH’s are prone to posting lower than average BABIPs, but Hafner’s been old and slow for a long time, and he’s never showed any propensity for low BABIPs before – in fact, he was at .332 in each of the two previous seasons. With his power and patience, even a modest BABIP regression makes him a terrific hitter, so Hafner’s got a good chance of being quite useful when he’s healthy enough to play.

And when he’s not, that simply opens up a spot for Gutierrez. Essentially, this roster has Gutierrez and Hafner in a platoon, so when Hafner is not able to play, Guti can slide into an OF spot, Swisher can move to first base, and Smoak can shift to DH. By adding a frail left-handed hitter to share a job with the frail right-handed batter already on the roster, the Mariners maximize their chances of getting production from one position without the downside of having to scramble when the inevitable injury strikes one or the other. And, if both are healthy and productive, then the team has some depth to cover for a regression from Michael Saunders or a lack of production from Melky Cabrera.

And, of course, the depth doesn’t end with Gutierrez. In fact, being aggressive enough to sign Swisher, Cabrera, and Hafner gives the team another insurance policy that you don’t even see on the roster – Jesus Montero. In the ideal scenario where Smoak keeps hitting like September Smoak and Hafner is healthy enough to start the season on the roster, Montero can head to Tacoma and begin the permanent conversion to 1B/DH. The team can let him get comfortable at first base away from the limelight of the Major Leagues, and at the same time, they can get an extra year of team control by having him spend a month or so in Triple-A. Hafner gives the team a short-term bridge to allow Montero to hang up his catcher’s glove and learn to play first base, but also gives them some additional future value by not needing to count on him as their DH to begin the year.

If Smoak flops and Montero has shown that he’s ready to play a Major League first base, then he can simply take over the position, keeping Swisher in right field. If Hafner gets hurt, Montero can replace him as the DH. If neither of those things happen, well, awesome, and also, Montero gets a few months in the minors to work on hitting right-handers and improving his approach at the plate. He’s not yet at a level where a few months in Triple-A would stunt his development, especially as he transitions out of being a catcher. Having Hafner around not only improves the offense in 2013, but potentially buys you a better Jesus Montero in the second half of the season and an additional year of control over Montero in the future.

We haven’t even yet touched on Casper Wells, who would be able to maintain the fourth OF/pinch-hitter against LHB role even in case of an injury, and wouldn’t need to be pressed into regular work if/when Gutierrez hits the DL next year. We also haven’t talked about Sean Rodriguez, who would replace Munenori Kawasaki on the roster and take over as the reserve 2B/SS/3B, providing a right-handed bat who can hit lefties and play all three positions. Rodriguez gives the team a decent enough fallback if Dustin Ackley struggles early, as well as a more potent force who can play shortstop on days when Brendan Ryan isn’t available. The Rays have the IF depth to part with him, and as an arbitration eligible guy, the team should be able to pry him away by shipping off Carp and Robinson, neither of whom have a role on this club going forward.

In that hypothetical trade, I’m also asking the Rays if we can have Chris Gimenez back, because with Olivo gone and Montero back in Tacoma, John Jaso needs a platoon partner. But he needs a specific kind of platoon partner, because acquiring a right-handed catcher who is too capable might mean that Eric Wedge again finds an excuse to bury Jaso, which is counterproductive for the organization. Jack Z needs to give his manager a back-up catcher who he won’t be tempted to use against right-handed pitching, and who can be easily discarded if Mike Zunino proves ready for the big leagues at some point during the summer. Gimenez fits the bill nicely. He’s good enough to serve as a part-time catcher against left-handed pitchers but not too good to get in Jaso’s way, and if Zunino forces his way onto the roster, Gimenez can either be DFA’d or turned into a super utility guy who can pinch-run for the catcher if need be.

The only position on the roster that lacks real depth is third base, where Sean Rodriguez probably wouldn’t be an adequate full-time replacemenet if Kyle Seager gets hurt, and there isn’t really anyone on the farm who would be able to fit the bill either. But, given that this is an organization that has been wasting plate appearances on the likes of Chone Figgins, Miguel Olivo, Carlos Peguero, Trayvon Robinson, and Munenori Kawasaki, having just one position where you might have to throw some at-bats away sounds like heaven. Having five capable outfielders for three spots, four guys who could split time at 1B/DH, and having Zunino behind Jaso at catcher provides the team with all kinds of interesting avenues to success.

If the kids don’t develop, that’s okay. If the kids do develop, there’s room for them to push their way onto the roster. This kind of plan gives the team the ability to play the young players who are producing without being forced to rely on them if they aren’t. While most of the focus on the offense’s struggles have been on the lack of elite performance at the top end, the offense can also take a big step forward by simply raising the floor on the low end. This offense tries to do both at the same time.

On the pitching side of things, the plan is a lot simpler. Offer both Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma two year deals at $5-$6 million per year, which was essentially the going rate for these types of pitchers last year. Even with the fences coming in, Safeco is likely to be somewhat pitcher friendly, and both have stated that they want to come back, so I wouldn’t expect either of these negotiations to be all that complicated. These guys aren’t going to strike it rich as free agents, and sticking around in Seattle is probably in both of their best interests.

So, with only one opening on the pitching side of things and most of the money spent on a position players, we go hunting for a #5 starter who could potentially benefit from a move to the west coast and deserves a chance to see what he can do as a starter over a full season, with the flexibility to move back to the bullpen if the experiment fails or if he’s simply displaced by one of the younger pitching prospects pushing his way into the rotation. There’s one guy on the market who fits that description to a tee – Carlos Villanueva.

In some ways, he’s basically a right-handed Jason Vargas. He throws an 88 MPH four-seam fastball up in the zone, which leads to a bit of a home run problem, and he relies on an excellent change-up to get opposing hitters out. On another hand, he’s more of a swing-and-miss guy than Vargas is, and essentially just needs to cut down on his home runs allowed to turn into a pretty good starting pitcher, so that makes him more of an Hisashi Iwakuma clone. Whether you want to think of him as Vargas-with-more-strikeouts or Iwakuma-with-fewer-groundballs, he’s just a hybrid of the two skillsets and would fit in nicely as the team’s fifth starter.

He’s not any kind of ace, but as a low-cost back-end starter, he’s a significant upgrade over the likes of Blake Beavan, who can move to the long role in the bullpen and hang around in case anyone gets hurt. And, as mentioned, Villanueva has significant experience as a reliever, so if he doesn’t hack it as a starter, the team would have another bullpen guy who can miss bats and pitch multiple innings. More depth. I hope you’re sensing a trend.

Overall, my projection suggests that this team would cost about $90 million to put together, and incentives for Melky and a few of the pitchers would probably push the budget up to $95 million or so, as they’d have to account for some of those extras kicking in. It’s definitely an increase in salary over what the team spent this year, but it’s not an absurd increase that revenues won’t be able to support, and it comes with with strong potential for a return on investment. This is a roster that probably projects out as an 80-85 win club, but is one with enough upside to make a playoff run in 2013.

And this is the kind of off-season that lets the team go to Felix with a contract extension in hand and get him to sign up for another four or five years. This is the kind of off-season that puts the team in a position to get their fans back. This is the kind of off-season that makes 2013 interesting without harming 2014 and beyond.

Yeah, maybe 7/100 is a little high for Nick Swisher. Maybe signing Melky Cabrera coming off a steroids suspension isn’t going to sell any tickets. Maybe Travis Hafner is going to spend more time on the disabled list than on the field. If you’re looking for guaranteed sure things, you’re in the wrong place. Really, you’re following the wrong sport.

There are no guarantees in baseball, especially in free agency. The best you can do is improve your odds and make sure you have contingency plans in place when things don’t go as you hoped. This roster is full of contingency plans, but also makes sure that trying to win in the present doesn’t interfere with the team’s attempt to build a core for the future. You can do both. It’s not easy, but there are pieces available that can improve the organization without requiring that they sacrifice the future to get them.

And then, in 2014, if Zunino, Montero, Franklin, Hultzen, Paxton, and Walker all have the kinds of years you’re hoping they have, you can re-make the roster with whatever players still make sense. Swisher’s the only guy you’re committing to long term, and his positional flexibility means that he’s not blocking anyone going forward. This is still a roster that is building for the future, but it’s one that could win in 2013 if enough things break right.

Arizona Fall League Preview

October 8, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

The Arizona Fall League season kicks off tomorrow – here’s more than you need to know about it.

The AFL is the brain child of Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who founded the league 20 years ago in 1992. It’s slowly morphed from giving overlooked or perhaps underrated players a look to providing top-flight competition for some of baseball’s best prospects. This is the league that top draft picks from Danny Hultzen, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper and Dustin Ackley have made their professional debuts in, and it’s been an important showcase for top prospects like Wil Myers, Oscar Taveras, Mike Trout, Starlin Castro, Buster Posey and Matt Wieters. It’s also a last chance for clubs to evaluate players who will need to be added to the 40-man roster (and thus may be available on waivers/in the Rule 5 draft); the most famous of these was Dan Uggla who turned a solid AFL season in 2005 into a shot with the Florida Marlins the next year (he had been with the Royals, but what would the Royals want with Dan Uggla?).

The season runs from October 9th through November 15th with six teams playing 32 games each. Each team is made up of players from a five or six MLB organizations; the M’s players always play for the Peoria Javelinas. As in previous years, the M’s have a representative not only on the field, but on the coaching staff, as AA Jackson Pitching Coach Lance Painter will hold the same role for the Javelinas. Painter’s been perhaps the most effective member of the M’s instructional group over the past couple of years, as he’s taught a cutter/slider to several pitchers including Stephen Pryor and Andrew Carraway.

JY’s gone over the M’s contributions to the Javelinas roster here, but the big names are clearly Mike Zunino and James Paxton. The former is looking to build on a brilliant season in the minors and add to his case to start 2013 with the M’s. Paxton wants to show that his post-injury command improvements were real, and that he’s capable of being a real option for the M’s rotation at some point in 2013. Zunino will split time with Tommy Joseph, the ex-Giants farmhand who moved to Philadelphia in the Hunter Pence trade.

Nick Franklin is back for his second tour of duty, having played sporadically in the AFL last year. He’s going to split time with the splendidly named Didi Gregorius of the Reds, the Dutch phenom who made his MLB debut last month after starting the year in A+. Gregorius didn’t exactly set the world on fire at the plate, but is capable of fielding plays like this one (2:30 in the video). The two won’t have to share time with the Reds’ Billy Hamilton, as the speedster is moving to center field for the AFL. Hamilton set the all-time pro record with a staggering 155 steals in just 132 games this year.

The M’s are also sending Stefen Romero and Vinnie Catricala – two bat-first players still looking for a permanent position. Romero had an eye-opening 2012, destroying both the Cal League and the Southern League playing mostly 2B, with some 3B thrown in. Catricala had a strikingly similar season to Romero’s in 2011, when the 3B blew through the Cal League and then posted better stats in AA. He came very close to making the M’s out of spring training and then posted a terrible 2012 with AAA Tacoma – an OPS of .640 and a wOBA under .290 – while moving between 3B and LF. With the emergence of Kyle Seager at 3B (and Alex Liddi’s presence in the org), Catricala may need to play LF at the big league level, but that puts even more pressure on his bat. Romero’s path is theoretically blocked by Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, but he’s played some OF in the minors and could end up there as well, but fundamentally, these guys need to hit.

The other M’s players are relievers, as Carson Smith, Bobby LaFromboise and Logan Bawcom join a deep and talented staff with the Javelinas. Bawcom came over in the Brandon League trade and saw his command leave him a bit, as he posted nearly equal BBs and Ks with Jackson. He’s a low-90s FB guy with a good slider who went from being an org player to a middle-tier prospect in the Dodger organization before the trade. LaFromboise made a big leap this year, going from a guy who profiled solely as a LOOGY to one who profiles as a *successful* LOOGY. His stats are better across the board in 2012, though it’s worth noting that’s in part the result of facing fewer RHBs. Still, he’s another player who turned his career around after working with Painter in Jackson. Carson Smith is a very hard-throwing right hander the M’s got with an over-slot bonus in 2011. With his velocity and a move to the bullpen, he was one of the young fireballers that many (including me) thought would move quickly in 2012. A dreadful start to the season (along with Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor’s emergence) delayed him a bit, but he clearly figured something out, and was essentially unhittable in the second half of the year for High Desert.

I’d guess Smith will compete for the closer spot with the Padres’ Kevin Quackenbush, another righty who dominated the Cal League during 2012. The fly-balling right-hander gave up only 1 HR and put up an ERA under 1 in the hitters’ paradise, with 70 Ks in 57 2/3 IP. The former 8th round pick hasn’t posted an ERA over 1 in his two MiLB seasons, and while ERA sucks as a metric, I mean…under 1. A low-90s fastball and a tricky delivery make him death on a stick to right-handed bats, so while his ceiling isn’t as high as a Smith or Capps, Quackenbush could play a role in a MLB bullpen. The Padres are also sending Matt Stites, who also posted a sub-1.00 ERA this year, but did so while allowing 3 HRs in the pitcher-friendly Midwest league.

Other random notes: I always geek out for the AFL, because it’s a chance to get hard data on what minor leaguers throw. That’s because two parks in the AFL – Peoria and Surprise – come equipped with pitch fx systems, and you can grab the pitch fx data from gameday. The caveat here, and one I’ve learned the hard way, is that Peoria’s data in particular is really, really wonky. The velocity and pitch types aren’t bad, but the movement data is pretty weird.

Several players who played in the AFL in 2011 have made their MLB debuts, including Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Mike Olt, Jean Segura, Derek Norris, Anthony Gose, and David Phelps.

Dave would remind everyone that this is first and foremost a hitters’ league, both because of where it’s played and because many clubs don’t send top pitchers to the AFL. Sure, Hultzen and Cole played last year, but in general, the point stands – there are a lot more of the “do we want to spend a 40-man spot on this guy?” pitchers than there are true top prospects, and that’s led to some so-so prospects putting up amazing batting lines. So don’t get too carried away by the numbers, as some of the league leaders have included Brent Morel, Mike McDade, Colin Curtis, Rhyne Hughes, Corey Wimberley and Kevin Howard. Even the pitchers can surprise, and I still remember thinking that Clint Nageotte had turned a corner with a brilliant AFL following his first surgery (he hadn’t, as it turned out). All of that said, it’s pretty amazing how often an “out of nowhere” player has some AFL stats on his resume. Kris Medlen? Check. Sergio Romo? Check. Steve Cishek? Heck, even Doug Fister, if he counts as “out of nowhere.

Peoria begins its AFL season tomorrow just after lunchtime. Follow along at Later this week, the Venezuelan League kicks off, as the Lara Cardenales take the field behind manager Pedro Grifol and hitting coach Jose Castro – both of who were fired/did not have their contracts renewed by the Mariners. The rest of the coaching staff there, including pitching coach Andrew Lorraine, are still M’s employees. Probably sounds more awkward than it actually is.

News And Notes

October 5, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 40 Comments 

A few things happened the last few days. Here’s a quick roundup.

1. Chris Chambliss is out as the team’s hitting coach. Someone new will come in, people will write stories about how well the hitters are adjusting to the change, and then, if the guys hit well, people will write stories about how good of a job he did. If the guys don’t hit, he’ll get fired. No one really knows anything about whether hitting coaches are good or bad. It seems likely that every hitting coach is good for some and bad for others. This probably doesn’t matter, but, hey, circle of life.

2. Chone Figgins wants out of Seattle. If he’s not DFA’d soon, I’ll be shocked. He won’t be here next year – the only question is whether the team eats his entire salary via trade or simply through releasing him.

3. Bob Engle informed the team that he won’t sign a contract extension at the end of the month. He’s considering retirement, so maybe there’s nothing to this, but the wording is strange. He doesn’t seem to have another job already lined up and seems open to potentially going elsewhere, so this has more of the appearance of a longtime employee quitting. A valuable longtime employee at that. We’ll probably never know the full story here, but put this in the bad news category. Engle’s been a big asset to the club, and while their international scouting department won’t just fall apart now that he’s gone, it seems unlikely that the team has someone just as capable who can fill his shoes without there being any kind of loss.

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