A Hypothetical Alternative Off-Season
I know pitchers and catchers report today. Starting tomorrow, we’ll talk about the future of the roster the team actually put together. For today, one final off-season what-could-have-been.
In December, the Mariners put their cards on the table, going after Josh Hamilton with an aggressive pursuit that resulted in a reported offer of $100 million guaranteed over four years, with two vesting options that could have pushed the total value of the deal to $150 million. They wanted to improve the offense, and focused primarily on doing that by adding one slugging corner outfielder. Because of that offer, we can be reasonably sure that the Mariners had the money in the budget to spend $25 million per year on offensive upgrades, and were willing to commit that money through 2016, with the chance of also spending that money in 2017 and 2018 as well.
That offer wasn’t good enough to land Hamilton, and we know what the organization went after for Plan B. But, now that the last of the interesting free agent outfielders has signed, I think it’s worth thinking about what might have been had the team pursued a different strategy with the same money.
The Indians signed Michael Bourn yesterday to a four year, $48 million contract. This comes in addition to the $56 million they gave Nick Swisher over the next four years. That’s $104 million guaranteed, but both deals contain a vesting option for a fifth year, and if the options vest, they could push the total commitment over five years to $130 million. In other words, the Indians signed Bourn and Swisher for almost the exact same contract the Mariners offered Hamilton, only without the extra sixth year vesting option.
We don’t know for certain that Bourn and Swisher would have chosen Seattle over Cleveland had the money been equal, but of course most of the negative things people say about playing in Seattle — losing team, cold weather, not a city athletes want to live in — are also true of Cleveland. I think it’s safe to assume that neither Bourn nor Swisher went into the market looking to play for the Indians, but settled on Cleveland’s offer because it was the best — and maybe only, depending on what you think of the Mets conditional bid for Bourn — deal on the table when they signed. Even if you assume that the Mariners would have had to outbid the Indians in order to secure their services, the differences likely would have been minor.
So for fun, let’s just say that the Mariners had signed Bourn for 4/52 and Swisher for 4/60 — both players get $1 million more in AAV than what they took from Cleveland — with both getting that fifth year vesting option. At $112 million guaranteed, it’s slightly higher than what they offered Hamilton, but then again, they didn’t get Hamilton, so perhaps this is more in line with what an offer that is likely to be accepted would have cost. Since they offered Hamilton 4/100 with two vesting options, I think it’s fair to say that they could have figured out how to make 4/112 with one vesting option work.
Let’s just say for fun that the Mariners had pursued that plan instead. Spending $28 million per year — though the contracts likely would have been slightly backloaded, as is the norm — on those two would have precluded them from making several of the other moves they did make, but it wouldn’t have been too difficult to fit them in even at the current payroll level. Don’t take on Morse’s $6.75 million salary, instead keeping Jaso at $1.8 million. You can still swap Vargas for Morales and sign Joe Saunders as his replacement, since that series of moves only added a few million to the payroll, which can be offset by not signing Raul Ibanez. To pinch pennies, they could have skipped out on the $500,000 they guaranteed Jason Bay for a chance to come to spring training, and if they needed a few million in flexibility, they could have asked Felix to reduce his 2013 salary as part of the long term extension they’re going to announce any minute.
What would that roster have looked like?
Catchers: John Jaso, Jesus Montero, Kelly Shoppach
Infielders: Kendrys Morales, Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager, Robert Andino, Reserve 3B
Outfielders: Michael Bourn, Michael Saunders, Nick Swisher, Franklin Gutierrez
Starting Pitching: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Joe Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez, Grab Bag
Bullpen: Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Carter Capps, Oliver Perez, Stephen Pryor, Josh Kinney, Lucas Luetge
1. Bourn, CF
2. Ackley, 2B
3. Swisher, RF
4. Morales, 1B
5. Seager, 3B
6. Montero, C
7. Jaso, DH
8. Saunders, LF
9. Ryan, SS
1. Bourn, CF
2. Gutierrez, RF
3. Swisher, 1B
4. Montero, DH
5. Seager, 3B
6. Shoppach, C
7. Saunders, LF
8. Ackley, 2B
9. Ryan, SS
In this scenario, John Jaso never even has to catch a game, since his defense is apparently so deplorable to Eric Wedge that he couldn’t stand the sight of Jaso crouching behind the plate ever again. You simply keep him as a cheap platoon DH and emergency catcher, so that Montero can DH against RHPs and allow Morales to take days off against left-handers. It’s essentially the same catching alignment as the team is going forward with now, so that gets rid of one talking point that’s not worth discussing. Guti ends up as an expensive fourth outfielder, but if he’s healthy and playing well, they could always work him in against right-handers as they rotate off-days for Saunders, Bourn, Swisher, Morales, and Jaso. Due to the positional flexibility, Gutierrez could actually replace any of them in the line-up on any given day. There would be enough playing time to go around for everyone except Casper Wells — who gets squeezed out and would have had to be traded for a better #5 starter than the team currently has — and Justin Smoak, who can hang out in Triple-A while establishing that September was or was not a fluke.
Yes, it would have required a little more flexibility than “full time player” or “part time player”, but this is basically the strategy the Indians are going to deploy this year, so it’s not an absurd construct that MLB teams can’t implement. And, with Bourn and Swisher under contract through 2016, the M’s would have actually set themselves up to have solid role players in place even beyond this season, and still had the flexibility to let Jaso/Montero/Morales/Smoak fight over the 1B/DH jobs going forward. The outfield defense would have been among the best in baseball, the team would have had a comparable offense to the one that will actually take the field this year, and they would enter the future with more pieces in place to make a competitive run as the kids grow.
Bourn and Swisher might not have been the “power” bats that the team coveted, but it’s hard to argue that the team wouldn’t have been better off with both of them rather than simply having one Josh Hamilton. That they were willing to extend something in the range of 4/100 for Hamilton but not for the Bourn/Swisher pair is regrettable, as the Mariners certainly had options available to make substantial upgrades to their team.
But, what’s done is done. The Indians were the beneficiaries of the Swisher and Bourn markets, and they’ll be the ones using positional flexibility and platoons to maximize the value of a roster that still has some holes. The Mariners are betting on dingers and veteran presence instead. Let’s hope it works.