Dave’s 2013 Off-Season Plan
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.
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!
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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 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 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.