The M’s Top 10 Prospects for 2013: the National View

December 31, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 34 Comments 

I know the ‘Future 40’ link hasn’t been updated for four full seasons, but we’re really giving it a go this time. Until it’s done, I thought we’d close out 2012 with a look at how the national prospect writers size up the M’s system. The consensus is that the M’s have an elite system – say, top 3-5 in baseball – with pitching depth in the high minors, some close-to-ready bats, and a few high-upside players further down the development ladder.

A year ago at this time, the debate was how you ranked the top three pitchers – was Taijuan Walker’s ace potential more enticing than Hultzen’s polish and poise, or vice versa? The arrival of Jesus Montero in January of 2012 gave the M’s a top bat, and a top 10 overall prospect. Obviously, the M’s haven’t made a similar move, but it’s encouraging that the M’s have several position players who rank highly this year despite the fact that the M’s have retained the big three/big four pitchers.

Here are the top 10s from Baseball America (Conor Glassey), Baseball Prospectus (Jason Parks), and Fangraphs (Marc Hulet). There are a few surprises, but there’s also a noticeable similarity to them, perhaps more so than in years past. This has less to do with a lack of depth and more to do with the extremely solid scouting and performance record of the top 8-9 names. Prospect lists are always about hope and wishcasting, but it’s nice to see the M’s put together a group this good.

Each list includes the same top 5, with minor differences in how they’re ranked (essentially, ‘Walker or Hultzen?’ has been replaced by ‘Walker or Zunino?’). The 3-5 are nearly exactly the same. The real differences in approach start to show from 5-10, but that makes a change from several years ago, when there were stark differences of opinion even in the top #1 or #2 prospects (the late Greg Halman being the embodiment of these debates), and when picking an 8th or 9th ‘best prospect’ was something of a chore.

Here are the big three national top 10s:

Player Baseball America Baseball Prospectus Fangraphs
Mike Zunino #1 #2 #1
Taijuan Walker #2 #1 #2
Danny Hultzen #3 #3 #3
Nick Franklin #5 #4 #4
James Paxton #4 #5 #5
Brandon Maurer #6 #6 #7
Carter Capps #7 #6
Stefen Romero #8 #10 #9
Victor Sanchez #10 #8 #10
Brad Miller #9 #8
Luiz Gohara #7
Tyler Pike #9

Obviously, there’s a lot of commonality, particularly between the BA and Fangraphs lists. The placement of Miller depends on how people see his chances of sticking at SS, and how his hit tool will play against more advanced pitching (he had an odd stance in college, with his hands very high, but seems to have made some adjustments in pro ball). It’s good to see all three rank Victor Sanchez in the top 10 despite his age and 2012 level; I understand the “it’s just short-season ball!” argument, but I think what Sanchez was able to do against college-trained hitters at his age was absolutely remarkable. Carter Capps retains his rookie eligibility, having amassed only 30 or so days of service time before the September roster expansion. He’s clearly seen as a reliever, which may have limited his appeal to BP, but I can’t think of many with a higher upside than Capps.

The first real odd pick is Luiz Gohara. Gohara is a lefty the M’s signed out of Brazil this summer, and who’s obviously been generating some breathless reports in the complex leagues this fall. That’s highly encouraging, especially when compared to how many of the M’s recent international free agents have fared in the US, but there’s zero performance data to go on. I don’t think it’s as crazy as some might, but it’s clearly not a mainstream view to have Gohara in the top 10. Similarly, Tyler Pike is a lefty the M’s drafted out of high school in Florida who put together a very good year for the AZL M’s. I think many would balk at ranking him above, say, Brad Miller, based not only on shaky AZL stats but on the fact that his raw stuff isn’t Carter Capps-ian.

The state of the farm is excellent, though I know hope has turned to cynicism for many M’s fans who’ve heard about a solid system for the past three-four years. The M’s have a fairly stark challenge in front of them: the gap in talent at the big league level demands that they maximize the potential of their prospects. For a variety of reasons (the TV money of the Rangers/Angels, the mixed feelings many free agents appear to have about signing with Seattle, fewer players on the market in any given year, etc.), it’s going to be hard for the M’s to close the gap using free agency. The M’s have a slight advantage against many of their rivals in the ‘raw material’ they have on the farm, but closing the gap means getting more out of it than their competitors. This year had some very encouraging developments, particularly that of Brandon Maurer, the 23rd round pick who battled injuries and ineffectiveness before breaking out in AA. Or Stefen Romero, who played with Maurer in Clinton in 2011 before joining him in laying waste to the Southern League in 2012. Getting value from lower picks like these (or even James Paxton) has kept the M’s from falling further behind Texas. Now they need to take the next step.

Veteran Leadership

December 28, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

I was reading Jeff Sullivan’s latest post, as I’m wont to do, despite its off-putting title (“A Post About Jose Lopez“). Near the end of the somewhat depressing recap of Jose Lopez’s career, Jeff mentions that motivation may have been Lopez’s undoing, and that Raul Ibanez has been acquired in large part to provide motivation and a positive example to others:

“But it sure seems like the motivation thing. This is sort of the reason the Mariners signed Raul Ibanez. Ibanez, more than anything else, is supposed to be a hell of a role model, a great positive example, and the Mariners hope that their young players can learn from Ibanez how to conduct themselves and make themselves better.”

Of course, Ibanez himself was in the position to be a role model to Lopez once upon a time, and that didn’t work out too well. But what if we expand the search a bit? Let’s take a look at every young player (defined somewhat arbitrarily is a player 25 or younger) that the mature Ibanez played with. Raul Ibanez turned 30 in the 2002 season, while he was a member of the Kansas City Royals. This was a pause between rebuilds for KC, so the team had very few young players – the average age was over 29. The only player 25 or below was Carlos Beltran, who was 25 that season. That sounds great, but I’m not sure it really works. Beltran came up in 1998, and going into 2002, he had played about 100 more MLB games than Ibanez. If anything, Ibanez could’ve learned from Beltran (and just looking at his stats after joining the Royals, maybe he did). In 2003, the Royals went young, and Ibanez’s veteran savvy could finally work its magic. That season, KC had three important pieces (over 100 plate appearances) that were 25 and under: Angel Berroa, Ken Harvey and Dee Brown. Hmmm.

Ok, Ok, the Royals were/are terrible. In his first year with Seattle, the M’s were at a transition point with a declining (old) core of veterans and some raw talent that was perhaps not quite MLB-ready. Still, two “young” players played a role on that 2004 team: the 20 year old Jose Lopez and 25 year old Miguel Olivo. The next year marked more of a typical rebuild, with Jeremy Reed in CF, Lopez at 2B after Bret Boone’s ouster, and the arrival of perennial Gold Glove SS, Yuniesky Betancourt. The next year, we can add Chris Snelling and Rene Rivera to the mix – both had seen glimpses of Ibanez’s professionalism the year before, but got to bask in its warmth for longer stretches of time in 2006. The next two years saw Bill Bavasi’s attempt to add “experience” to the team, pushing its average age at or near 30 years, so there were fewer opportunities for youngsters. Still, Wladimir Balentien, Jeff Clement, Bryan LaHair qualified in part-time duty in 2008.

Following that, Ibanez headed to Philadelphia and New York where his leadership was wasted on his fellow veterans. From 2009-2012, Ibanez played with two players (2) who were 25 or younger and got at least 100 plate appearances in a year: Dom Brown in 2011 and Eduardo Nunez last year (Nunez had exactly 100 PAs). So, we’ve learned that Ibanez has played with several young players, many for several years at a time. He’s played with up-and-coming players in several organizations, including numerous top-100 prospects. Let’s review (bolded names indicate top 100 prospect):

Carlos Beltran (again, Beltran had much more MLB experience than Ibanez, but he fits the criteria)

Angel Berroa (Good in 2003, then utterly collapsed. Out of MLB before he turned 30)
Ken Harvey (Weird career; All-Star in 2004, but out of MLB for good early in 2006)
Dee Brown (Tools-prospect bust. Outside of 8 PAs in 2007, was done in 2004)

Jose Lopez (You all know what happened to him)
Miguel Olivo (Mmmhmmm)

Yuniesky Betancourt (Released last year, still waiting for another offer. Motivational problems cut his career short)
Jeremy Reed (2005 would be his best season in MLB. He posted an 85 wRC+)

Chris Snelling (Apparently, ‘leadership’ doesn’t cover avoiding injuries)
Rene Rivera (A back-up C, his wRC+ this year was 8. 8! There’s only one digit there! He finally got another 100 plate appearances in 2011 with the Twins, and was able to push his wRC+ to a solid 13).


Wladimir Balentien (The toast of Japanese baseball after belting 31 HRs in 106 games and posting a .958 OPS last year for Yakult)
Jeff Clement (Never a great defensive C, injuries helped force him to 1B, where his bat simply won’t play. Just signed minor league deal with Minnesota)


Domonic Brown (Vaunted tools prospect, he’s disappointed in brief stints in 2011-12. May get the chance to start next year).

Eduardo Nunez (Utility infielder who’s played in 180 career games. Oddly has a higher career wRC+ than Jeremy Reed).

So what can we determine from this, besides the fact that it resembles a list of the most famous prospect busts of the past ten years? Nothing. For all of you who are saying that this isn’t fair, and that Ibanez couldn’t have prevented Snelling from getting injured all the time, or that it wasn’t his responsibility to physically remove the 5th hot dog from Yuni Betancourt’s grasp, I agree with you. This isn’t “analysis,” it’s just a quick recap of correlations involving Raul Ibanez. No one, certainly not me, blames Ibanez for Jeff Clement’s career going up in smoke. But it is sort of odd, given the stated reason for his acquisition, that he doesn’t really have much of a track record in the way of helping young players develop. Maybe 95% of that is playing in the Kansas City and Seattle organizations, two of the worst orgs in the 2000-2010 period in developing position players. But if he developed these leadership skills playing alongside Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Jayson Werth and Chooch Ruiz, well, how sure are we that those skills will translate to players 15 years younger? I have no idea, and yes, this entire post is essentially a joke. But what value should we place on ‘leadership’ and ‘example’ when the guy who’s by all accounts the Babe Ruth of the pep-talk, well-timed high-five and quiet dignity has so few examples of players whose careers he helped (positively) influence?

Postscript: Ditching the 100-PA requirement brings several more players into the mix, including some all-stars, so I wanted to at least acknowledge that. Adam Jones got fewer than 100 PAs with the M’s, as did Shin-Soo Choo, but they played so rarely with Seattle it’d be odd to credit Ibanez for their success in other orgs. You also bring in everyone from Tug Hulett to Matt Tuiasosopo to Rob Johnson to Luis Valbuena to Guillermo Quiroz to Ramon Santiago. But Mike Morse!

M’s Opt For Ibanez as Swisher Signs With Cleveland

December 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 54 Comments 

I know, I know, the M’s re-re-acquiring Raul Ibanez isn’t causally linked to Nick Swisher signing a relatively cheap contract in Cleveland. The timing wasn’t great for frustrated M’s fans (or for Jack Zduriencik, I’d assume), but it’s just a coincidence.

It’s easier to make that claim because the M’s never really seemed interested in Swisher. The M’s had a need, and Swisher’s positional flexibility seemed tailor-made for the 2013 ball club, but Zduriencik had his sights elsewhere. That’s not to suggest that the M’s think a 41 year old Ibanez can match Swisher’s production, just that Zduriencik wasn’t interested in a big-dollar free agent offensive upgrade once Josh Hamilton spurned his offer.

So that brings us to Ibanez, the veteran OF/DH who had a power surge last year playing in new Yankee Stadium. The park and positive defensive numbers (???) pushed his WAR over 1, but in more limited time, in Safeco, I’d have a hard time seeing him come all that close to 1 WAR next year.

What’s sort of interesting is that Zduriencik hasn’t suggested that he expects Ibanez to produce much. The public statements about the pick-up all focus on Raul’s leadership, experience and class. I’ve no reason to doubt that Ibanez possesses these qualities, but I have a few to doubt the M’s offensive production in 2013 will rival the late 90s M’s. it’s just one move, and its still December, but it appears Zduriencik is trying to get more out of the talent already on the roster instead of adding talent to the roster.

I’m all for squeezing the most out of the young players on the team. Great coaching can help do that, and competition can often help too, but getting benched so a player-coach hybrid can play probably isn’t a great way to make Eric Thames a better player. Mike Carp faced long odds before, and you’d figure this seals his fate. I can see an argument that Ibanez is a better bet to outhit both next year, but slotting Ibanez in shows very little confidence in the in-house options.# None of the myriad corner OF’s the M’s have acquired in recent years was a Wil-Myers-esque prospect, but the trade of Trayvon Robinson and freezing out Thames suggests the M’s were just as underwhelmed by the pick-ups as Dave Cameron, and if you’ve heard Dave talk about Robinson, that’s saying something.

Essentially, the Ibanez pick-up is great if you agree that the M’s really got zero near-MLB talent for the flurry of minor moves over the past two years, and that patching together a LF/1B/DH job share will somehow have all sorts of leadership externalities that inspire Dustin Ackley to line outside fastballs down the LF line. I like Raul a lot, and think he could be a useful bench bat somewhere, but I don’t like the sense that this front office values leadership over development.*

# I’d seen some comments suggesting that if the M’s replaced Carlos Peguero with Ibanez, it’d all be worth it. Well, the M’s DFA’d DJ Mitchell instead. Mitchell’s an undersized, low-velo righty who’s out pitched his raw stuff in AAA. He’s decent depth in a system that has tons of decent depth, so it’s not a travesty or anything, but it doesn’t help clarify the OF situation

* For all his avuncular charm and experience, Eduardo Perez was unable to help Jeff Clement hit a curveball. The idea that leadership can inspire others is a testable hypothesis that has been tested again and again and again. No, none of these tests is dispositive, but I’d love to see a scrap of evidence from the ‘leadership is magic’ crowd.

The End of Mike Carp

December 20, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 112 Comments 

Last night, we pointed out how acquiring Kendrys Morales does not necessarily mean that the team is ready to give up on Justin Smoak. There’s been a lot of focus on the fact that Smoak has an option left, and people have noted that perhaps the team would be better off with Mike Carp serving as part of the job share at 1B/DH and Smoak down in Tacoma playing everyday. The problem is, when you actually look at what Morales brings to the table, the reality is that Carp no longer fits on this roster in any way, shape, or form.

The Mariners are talking about Morales as an everyday player, and since he’s a switch-hitter, he’s being penciled into the middle of the Mariners line-up regardless of who is pitching. But, there’s a catch – Morales is a very different hitter from the left side of the plate than he is from the right side. Jeff will have more detail on this over at FanGraphs later this afternoon, but for now, we’ll just present Morales’ career platoon splits:

vs R as L 1370 7% 19% 0.290 0.345 0.514 0.224 0.317 0.365 127
vs L as R 392 4% 16% 0.250 0.286 0.416 0.166 0.266 0.303 84

To put that in context, a 127 wRC+ from the left side makes him the equivalent of 2012 Adam LaRoche, while an 84 wRC+ from the right side makes him the equivalent of 2012 Justin Smoak. Morales mashes right-handed pitching, but he’s pretty lousy against lefties, to the point where the Angels basically used him as a platoon player last year. 85% of Morales’ plate appearances came against right-handed pitching last year, the exact same ratio as John Jaso. The average hitter in MLB last year faced an RHP about 70% of the time, and the numbers aren’t much different for switch-hitters. The Angels severely limited Morales’ at-bats against lefties, to the point where he was platooned to the same degree that the Mariners platooned Jaso.

Despite what you’ve been told by some people in an attempt justify their inability to admit that John Jaso is actually a good player, big platoon splits don’t mean that a hitter is incapable of playing a significant part in an offense. It just means that you have to be aware of the splits, and you should probably make sure the roster is constructed in such a way that his days off can align with the days when he’s going to be least productive. For Jaso, that means making sure you have a right-handed catcher that you’re comfortable starting behind the plate. As a switch-hitter, Morales doesn’t necessarily need a platoon caddy in the same way, but his ineffectiveness from the right side does mean that the guys splitting time with him should be able to hit left-handed pitching.

And, unfortunately for Mike Carp, that means that he’s out. With Jaso and Morales, you have two guys who should be in the line-up against every right-handed pitcher, and then the third spot in the C/1B/DH wheel would go to Jesus Montero or whoever the other part-time 1B/DH is. The organization isn’t going to bench Montero against all right-handers, so this is probably a 50/50 job share at best for whoever the first baseman is. That guy’s going to have to get a decent amount of his playing time against left-handers, when Jaso will be on the bench, and giving Morales a day off will get him a break from his weak side.

As a lefty, Carp’s a lousy fit for that role. Yes, he’s hit lefties better than righties in the majors, but reverse platoon splits are almost always just a small sample fluke, and there’s no reason to push Carp into a role where most of his playing time is going to come against same-handed pitchers. The only sensible player for that role is someone who can bat right-handed, in order to maximize the value of the job share by giving Morales most of his days off against lefties.

Given the current roster, the alignment right now would include Jaso/Morales/Montero playing against most right-handers, and then Montero/Morales/someone playing against the lefties. That someone should be a righty, since you’re already losing Jaso’s bat and Morales is significantly weaker against southpaws. The Mariners probably aren’t going to platoon Morales, but they need to at least account for the fact that he’s not going to hit lefties as well as he is righties, and they can’t offset their vs LHP line-up by adding another lefty to the mix.

That’s why there’s room on this roster for Justin Smoak. As a switch-hitter, he can give you another right-handed bat against southpaws, but he also gives the option of getting another left-handed bat in there against tough righties on days when you want to give Montero a break from swinging at sliders in the dirt. He can get enough at-bats against both RHPs and LHPs to prove whether or not his September surge was a fluke or not, and if he performs really well, his role can always grow as the season goes on.

For Carp, though, he just doesn’t fit anymore. He didn’t really fit before, either, but now with Morales on board, he really doesn’t fit. Sending Smoak to Tacoma and putting Carp at first base works in theory, but not in practice. Whatever part-time first baseman the Mariners end up settling on to share time with Morales has to right-handed. At this point, the Mariners might as well trade Carp for whatever they can get. There’s no job he can even realistically pretend to be fighting for in spring training.

How The Pieces Fit

December 19, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 41 Comments 

In the wake of the Vargas-Morales swap, a lot of the talk has focused on where he’s going to fit, and who might be out of a job with Morales added to the 1B/DH party. Buster Olney is openly speculating about the Mariners “moving on” from Justin Smoak, while Mike Curto is busy printing Smoak’s picture on Tacoma Rainier season ticket packages. Meanwhile, Shannon Drayer notes that Jack Zduriencik agreed with her assessment that Morales might be best served only playing first base 3-4 days per week, and she sees him as more of a DH than a first baseman.

Jack’s only official comment is that they think there will be enough time for everyone, which is a nice way of not committing to anything and having to backtrack later. But, despite the fact that he’s good at talking without actually saying anything, in this case, I think he’s right.

Because of the fact that John Jaso and Jesus Montero are both considered “offensive catchers” by the organization, and because they have Mike Zunino on the horizon, the Mariners C/1B/DH positions are inextricably linked together for at least 2013. While not everyone is interchangeable at each spot, you can essentially see those three jobs as one section of the roster, with everyone else covering the other six spots.

Last year, the Mariners gave 1,964 plate appearances to their catchers, first baseman, and designated hitters. Let’s just round up to 2,000 because it’s easier, and because more runs scored means the line-up turns over more times and everyone gets to hit a little more often. So, basically, the team will be distributing something like 2,000 PAs to those three positions.

Obviously, dividing 2,000 by four gives you 500 plate appearances each, which makes this sound like a perfect job share situation for a lefty catcher who can’t hit lefties, a righty catcher who can’t catch and struggled against righties, a switch-hitter with health problems, and a switch-hitter with hitting problems. You probably don’t want to count on any of these guys to play every single day next year, especially when you factor in the wear and tear that catching takes on a body. Giving each one 500 trips to the plate would be fantastic.

Of course, that’s a perfect world, no-one-gets-injured fantasy, and it won’t actually work out that way. And, it’s pretty likely that the group of four will actually be a group of five, as I still expect the Mariners to carry a third catcher next year if they plan on giving Montero some time at DH. I just don’t think Eric Wedge is going to be willing to put a line-up on the field that doesn’t leave a catcher on the bench, and I get the feeling that they want a catch-and-throw veteran to work behind the plate occasionally. That guy probably won’t play as much as Olivo did last year, but we probably need to give him 200 of those plate appearances. So, now we’re down to 1,800 for the four to split, which is a bit less than each player might want.

But, I still don’t really think it’s much of a problem. We know Jaso’s not going to play against lefties, so he’s probably not getting over 400 plate appearances, even though he’s still the best hitter on the team — yes, better than Morales. If we give him 400, that leaves 1,400 for Montero, Smoak, and Morales to split, or 470 apiece. That might sound a little low, but Morales only got 522 last year, so it wouldn’t be a huge change in usage over how Anaheim used him in 2012. And, we have to account for the fact that Morales may very well not end the year in Seattle.

While I don’t think the Mariners are hopeless, there’s a pretty decent chance that they’re going to be out of contention by the All-Star break, as they simply aren’t on the same level as Texas, Anaheim, or Oakland right now. If you were going to put together a list of teams that you’d expect to act as sellers at the deadline, the Mariners would probably be on it. It doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to failure, or that they can’t put together a surprising run, but you should at least go into the year knowing that mid-season selling might be an option. And, with Morales being represented by Scott Boras, you can be pretty sure that the Mariners won’t be signing him to a contract extension that keeps him from free agency.

So, there’s a pretty decent chance that the Mariners could make Morales available in trade in July. Especially if Smoak and Montero are both hitting, and the logjam has become problematic. In that case, the team could theoretically flip Morales for help at another position, or for a prospect that would help for the future, or just as a salary dump if he’s not hitting well and the Mariners simply want to promote Mike Zunino to take his spot on the team. There are a decent amount of scenarios where Morales isn’t even on the team in August and September, and this playing time dilemma is only an issue for the first half of the year.

Those scenarios involve both Smoak and Montero hitting pretty well, though. If either (or both) flop again, then there is no playing time dilemma, because they’ll have worked their way out of the line-up. This is probably more true for Smoak than Montero, but both have options left, and if either of them are struggling in May, a trip down to the minors wouldn’t be unexpected. And, again, that would relieve any kind of logjam that might be perceived with having these four guys sharing three jobs.

In reality, the guy who gets aced out of the picture in 2013 isn’t Smoak, Montero, or Jaso – it’s Zunino. He’s the one who no longer has a job to fight for in spring training, which is totally fine, considering that he was just drafted six months ago. Between the fact that he only has 200 plate appearances in full-season ball and the defensive struggles he had in the Arizona Fall League, there’s absolutely no harm in giving him a full year in Tacoma. Pretty much every college catcher you can think of spent at least a year in the minors, and most spent more like two or three. To me, this move basically seals Zunino’s fate in Tacoma for the first half of the year at minimum, and I’m totally on board with that decision. If he destroys Triple-A pitching for a few months, the Mariners can figure out who they want to toss overboard in order to get him on the roster, but now, they don’t have to count on him doing that. The team can now plan on giving him a September call-up to get his feet wet, then tell him to come to camp in 2014 fighting for a job. And that’s probably best for everyone.

Personally, I don’t see any real problem here. Having four guys for three spots is a good idea when each of those four guys come with some legitimate questions and shouldn’t just be handed everyday jobs. With a lefty, a righty, and two switch-hitters, the pieces fit together pretty nicely. And, of course, with any four players, there’s a pretty good chance that injuries and/or performances solve the problem for you, as someone is likely to either play themselves out of a job or land on the DL and take the decision out of the Mariners hands. By having four guys for three spots, the Mariners simply give themselves a better chance to have three guys for those three spots on any given day, rather than repeating mistakes of the past that led to things like Miguel Cairo, Starting First Baseman.

If Jaso, Smoak, Montero, and Morales were all +5 win players, then the Mariners would have a problem, and someone would be unhappy when they weren’t starting on Opening Day. But none of these guys have earned any kind of ego, and they’ll have no right to complain if they play five days per week instead of seven. Job shares can work, and they can be quite effective. Given the four players the M’s now have to share C/1B/DH, I’d have some optimism that this group can form a fairly effective job share next year.

Mariners Swap Jason Vargas for Kendrys Morales

December 19, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 64 Comments 

Sometimes, there’s a trade that makes so much sense in retrospect, you wonder why we didn’t all see it coming. This is one of those trades.

With the signing of Josh Hamilton, the Angels had too many position players, and one had to go. They still needed another pitcher, though, since the back of their rotation was kind of terrible, and they wanted an innings-eater who would just give them reliable starts and take away the potential for disaster. From that sense, trading Kendrys Morales for Jason Vargas makaes perfect sense for the Angels.

For the Mariners, Morales isn’t quite as perfect of a fit, since he doesn’t play the outfield, and they really need an outfielder. But, since they’re apparently not in the market for Nick Swisher, they also needed someone who could handle 1B/DH responsibilities, so that the team didn’t have to depend on Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero hitting again next year. With Morales in the mix, those two are now kind of fighting for one full-time job, though if the team uses Montero as a catcher against lefties, they can end up splitting 800 plate appearances instead of 600.

Both Morales and Vargas are useful pieces with some obvious flaws. We know Vargas’ flaws, so let’s talk about Morales. He’s a switch-hitter with some power, but he’s also too aggressive at the plate and has a pretty lengthy injury history. He missed most of 2010 and all of 2011 after breaking his leg in a home plate celebration (against the M’s), and then he wasn’t as good in his return last year as he was before he got hurt. His contact rate was a career low and his swing percentage was a career high, which are likely related, so Morales only posted a .320 on base percentage. His power makes him a useful hitter, but he’s more good-than-great at the plate, and as a first baseman, that makes him something like an average player overall.

Of course, the Mariners can get a lot better by replacing “horrible” with “average”, and Morales gives them the ability to run out a lot less “horrible” next year. If 1B/DH is a job share between Smoak, Montero, and Morales, they might even get decent production out of those two spots, and this still gives them the flexibility to let Smoak and Montero try and live up to their potential. Rather than flushing one of them down the drain, this gives the team more options. That’s good.

The problem is that swapping an average pitcher for an average hitter doesn’t really make the team any better, because they don’t have an average pitcher just hanging out waiting to step into Jason Vargas’ shoes. They already needed a starting pitcher to replace Blake Beavan, and now they need one to replace Vargas too. Since it’s already late December, a lot of the interesting starters are already off the board, so moving Vargas increases the chances the team goes into 2013 with a guy like Beavan or Paxton as one of the starting five, and there’s no reason to think that either of them are likely to be any good next year. So, the M’s upgraded at 1B/DH by about the same amount that they downgraded as SP.

They have better SP prospects than 1B/DH prospects, and it’s probably easier to sign an SP to play in Safeco than to sign a hitter to play in Safeco, so it’s a trade worth making. Plus, this will hopefully calm the legion of fans who don’t understand that there’s more to winning baseball than home runs, so that’s a nice side benefit. I think this is a nice little deal for the Mariners, but I’m not sure it actually makes them better just yet. It gives them a better chance to improve, if they go sign a pitcher to replace Vargas, but if they just hand Beavan a rotation spot, then this is probably a neutral trade from a wins perspective.

In the long term, this trade probably doesn’t matter too terribly much. If Morales has a great year, he might not be worth re-signing as a free agent next year, since his skillset is usually overvalued in free agency. If doesn’t have a great year, the Mariners might not want him back. I wouldn’t be shocked if this turned into a one year rental. But Vargas was probably a one year rental too, so, yeah.

This helps the Angels more than it helps the Mariners, but it probably helps the Mariners a bit too. Especially if they go sign a couple of starting pitchers. Let’s hope they do that too.

Ichiro and the failure of Seattle

December 16, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · Comments Off on Ichiro and the failure of Seattle 

Ichiro! is my favorite Mariner. I may have seen better seasons (I think of Randy Johnson’s 1995-1997 run, in the days I would cut out of school and bus down to the Kingdome) but Ichiro… I would go to games and see him play dead ball baseball in the 2000s and do it so well he was a star. Ichiro! did the impossible. He would climb a wall, seem to hang there, and then turn to turn a home run into an out. He could be fooled by a pitch a swing and then somehow slow the bat to punch a single into shallow right. I could watch some of his replays over and over and shake my head.

I saw him swing right-handed, and it his swing was perfect.

I have a friend who wouldn’t cheer for Ichiro! this post-season, because he thought he was an example of a player who didn’t perform until he was on a contender. That’s been a constant criticism of Ichiro! — that he cared when he was on the Japanese national team, but showed no emotion in the regular season.

I know. And yet, let’s say Ichiro! plays best when he feels challenged, that his contributions are meaningful. Even Griffey said that he reserved his greatest plays for when he thought it mattered, didn’t he?

Isn’t this a failure of Seattle?

We had one of the greatest players ever, Japanese or otherwise, and the franchise wasted him. He saw the playoffs once, in his first year, and then never again. And yet he contributed throughout. Some contend he was overpaid, but did he ever seek free agency? Did he ever sulk and seek a trade? Did he not always seek to stay here first?

Ichiro! was a great match for Seattle. He is intensely private, contemplative, and we are, generally, a fan base that respects our players. There is not the media blitz of other markets, though he has certainly had issues on that front.

He has his choice of where to go this year. By all indications, he is going to New York, where already he can enjoy headlines like “Youkilis and Ichiro are fine, but can you picture them in the Canyon of Heroes?”*

How did we get to this point? Since 2001, it has, essentially, been Ichiro, King Felix, and a collection of incompetents. Ichiro! wishes to compete, and given his druthers, he thinks that’s New York. Even being able to learn from the coverage Matsui, and a decade of experience with Seattle, where you probably know or could easily find out where he lived but did not, he appears ready to sign with our arch-enemy.

Ichiro! is exactly the kind of player the Mariners should have an advantage in recruiting and retaining, and we wasted his career. No matter who the GM was, who the manager was, no matter what the extenuating circumstances — we had Ichiro, a Hall of Fame, impossibly talented player, every year since 2001, and he saw the playoffs once.

That the franchise had this opportunity and could make nothing of it doesn’t just reflect badly on the last decade, it will take a lot to overcome in the future.

I hope it happens.

* you would be honored to have Ichiro! in your stupid canyon

The Dodgers and the Edge of Selig’s Influence

December 14, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 33 Comments 

Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement attempted to fix a number of ‘problems’ that had plagued the league’s long-suffering owners – problems exacerbated in part by the huge jump in revenue the league’s enjoyed. Specifically, the agreement included a number of provisions aimed at minimizing threats to competitive balance (that is, to rein in salary growth).@

To counter the freewheeling spending by the New York Yankees, the luxury tax was increased, with penalties increasing for exceeding it in consecutive years. To stop teams blowing past bonus slots (and to stop amateur talent from essentially pushing themselves down in the draft), the agreement instituted a hard cap on amateur draft spending, with draconian penalties for ignoring the cap. To stop some teams trying to corner the market on international free agents, the agreement instituted another hard cap. It’s been one year, so we don’t have a lot to go on, but it seems to have made an impact on teams willingness to exceed these thresholds.

The Yankees have blown past the luxury tax cap every year since 2003 (when the new luxury tax went into effect), but as Maury Brown notes, they are working hard to bring payroll under $189 million. The Tigers haven’t been able to nab Andrew Miller or Rick Porcello to well-over-slot deals after they fell past teams at the top of the draft, and no one risked losing a first round draft pick by spending more than 5% over their draft pool. The Mariners could no longer utilize their hard-earned competitive advantage in the Caribbean, or, for the cynics, the Mariners could no longer light millions of dollars on fire by giving contracts to severalof high-profile busts. Even the Rangers, whose international spending in the run-up to the new CBA’s effective date was breathtaking, toed the line and kept within the new hard cap.

Then there are the LA Dodgers. After signing Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to eye-popping contracts, the Dodgers are set to blow past the luxury tax limit for years to come. Many argue that the league should increase the penalties for doing so, but that’s exactly what the league thought it just did. It got everyone’s attention, including the Yankees, who appear to want to comply for the first time. The Dodgers evidently believe that they can afford to pay the penalties, and given their rumored TV deal, they’re probably right.* Wendy Thurm is clearly correct when she points out that the Dodgers outlays (so far) aren’t out of line with the Yankees’ payroll budgets from 2004-2006.! Still, the point is that the owners took steps to make such spending less likely, and it’s taken one year for a team to break ranks (a team that, of course, never signed the CBA – that was the Dodgers’ previous owner).

Because even the Yankees seem wary of the new penalties, the Dodgers spending doesn’t really seem to have altered the market too much. It appears that Nick Swisher can’t use Andre Ethier’s 5 year/ $85 million deal as a starting point. Sure, Ethier was younger, but he’s also markedly worse than Swisher. Anibal Sanchez didn’t get a boost from Greinke’s deal. Unlike Greinke, Josh Hamilton went for far less than he was asking for (sure, he was asking for an insane amount, but *so was Greinke*, and Greinke is a pitcher). If free agent spending made cost-controlled, pre-arb prospects more valuable, you certainly couldn’t tell from the Trevor Bauer trade. At the moment, the Dodgers seem to be in a very different spot to the rest of baseball. This probably won’t last, and Thurm’s right that we all probably felt similarly when the Yankees picked up CC Sabathia or when they acquired Alex Rodriguez. But even then, teams would make an occasional run – the Red Sox exceeded the old cap a few times, and the Tigers/Angels did so once. Even after their pick-up of Hamilton, the Angels should be able to fit under the cap thanks to losing Torii Hunter, Ervin Santana and Dan Haren, who made a combined $42,450,000 last year.

At this point, there are no tidy conclusions to come to (except that I would love to see the Dodgers and Angels miss the playoffs again) – the situation’s too fluid and too new. Maybe Brown’s right and teams can make targeted strikes, increasing their payroll well above the luxury tax limit for one year or maybe two before bringing it back down. Maybe the Dodgers are just the first team to devote more revenue to salaries, and maybe they’ll be followed by others; one could argue that the players would benefit from higher salaries/more revenue going to payroll and skinflint owners would get a huge influx of penalty payments to sit on while decrying threats to the soul of the game. Until then, we’ll have to see if the Dodgers spending can translate into wins and not just ‘good will’ (which the Guggenheim Group had anyway, simply because they weren’t Frank McCourt). We’ll see if Angels can get past Texas with their latest move, and we’ll see what they plan to do about their backloaded contracts making 2015-16 look challenging. And we’ll see if the M’s core develops enough to justify outspending the LA teams for the right free agent. As it stands, it’s pretty hard to argue the M’s should’ve given Hamilton more than he got from Anaheim, and the M’s clearly would’ve had to have beat that offer by some margin. The fact that some teams are spending (large) fractions of billions on players exacerbates complaints that the M’s ‘don’t want to win’ or ‘aren’t serious.’

Like Dave, I think the M’s should spend more this year. But unless you’re the Dodgers, every team needs a core to build around – not just to keep costs down, but in order to prioritize and target free agent (or trade) acquisitions. The M’s problems lie partially with the fact that the Angels have made splashy free agent moves, but much more with the fact that they were able to pair Jered Weaver with solid players, and that they were able to (finally) call up the game’s best player in May of this year. The Dodgers have spent money essentially everywhere, but they were able to lock up key players like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. This isn’t to say that two players is all it takes, or that the M’s can’t spend until they find their own Matt Kemp. But the M’s have identified several players as cogs of their rebuilding effort, and being right about some of those players means more to this franchise than Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke.

@ – And what of the other party to the CBA, the players? At this point, the MLBPA appears to be clear winners. As Joe Sheehan pointed out, from the limited evidence we have, the deal clearly *has* done what the players wanted it to: direct more money to their members, as spending on international free agents appears to have dropped while spending on the amateur draft is no longer surging.

* – Though Darren Rovell warns that more of that windfall may be subject to revenue sharing than we (and maybe the Dodgers) initially assumed. This will be something to watch, and something that will almost certainly end up in court.

! – Wendy’s article is great, as it’s essentially the first one I’ve seen that attempts to adjust for inflation and/or revenue. Two really, really basic things that everyone else scribbling on this topic didn’t do. Kudos to her.

Combatting Emotion With Facts, Part III

December 13, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 134 Comments 

(Here is part one and part two)

Fact Number Three:

In 1998, the Mariners decided not to re-sign Randy Johnson, trading him mid-summer for three prospects. They were criticized for not doing what it takes to keep star players in Seattle.

In 1999, Ken Griffey Jr asked for a trade. He was tired of losing and decided he’d rather finish his career in Cincinnati. The Mariners were criticized for not doing what it takes to keep star players in Seattle.

In 2000, Alex Rodriguez became a free agent, and chose to sign with the division rival Texas Rangers. The Mariners were criticized for not doing what it takes to keep star players in Seattle.

The 1998 Mariners won 76 games with Johnson, Griffey, and Rodriguez. The 1999 Mariners won 79 games with Griffey and Rodriguez. The 2000 Mariners won 91 games with Rodriguez. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games without any of them.

This is what that pattern looks like in column form.

Combatting Emotion With Facts, Part II

December 13, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

(See part one of this series for a brief explanation of the point of these posts. Or read it just because Fact One is fun.)

Fact Number Two:

Last off-season, the Angels spent a combined total of $330 million to sign Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and LaTroy Hawkins. The Rangers spent $116 million to sign Yu Darvish and Joe Nathan.

The Oakland Athletics are the reigning American League West Champions.

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