Mike Zunino and the 40 Man Roster
In the wake of Mike Zunino‘s promotion today, there was rationalization. You can always count on some kind of spin from certain corners, and this time, one of the primary talking points is that this was a short term move, and if Zunino’s only here for a few weeks, what’s the problem? Even a couple of dozen challenging big league games won’t hurt him, and if he’s truly not ready, he’ll just be sent back to Tacoma. No harm, no foul.
That explanation might seem to pass muster on the surface, but if we accept it as the truth, then the organization has an entirely different problem: an incorrect valuation of 40 man roster spots.
To get Zunino to the Majors, the Mariners had to purchase his contract, which is the official language teams use to add a player to the 40 man roster. His spot on both the 25 man and 40 man rosters was cleared by designating Brandon Bantz for assignment. Bantz is a non-prospect who won’t get claimed on waivers and will accept his assignment back to the minor leagues, so there’s no cost associated with DFA’ing Bantz. He’ll be back in Tacoma in no time.
There is, however, a cost for prematurely putting Zunino on the 40 man; The Mariners just haven’t paid it yet, but that time is coming soon. If the plan really is to put Jesus Sucre back on the roster when he gets healthy and option Zunino back to Tacoma, the Mariners will then be using a 40-man roster spot on a player not on the active roster. You can’t take Zunino back off the 40 man roster without putting him through waivers, which isn’t happening of course. So, he’s on for good.
Bantz would not have been on for good. When Sucre returned, Bantz could have been DFA’d just as he was today, and the team would have had a 40 man roster spot for one of the three players they currently have on the 60 day disabled list. One of those players, Josh Kinney, is already in Tacoma on a rehab assignment, so the M’s only have a little more than two weeks before they have to either find room for Kinney in Seattle or DFA him as well. The only way to get Kinney back on the active roster will be to reinstate him from the 60 day DL, at which point he’ll require a spot on the 40 man roster. A spot that Bantz could have given him, but that is now occupied by Zunino. So, instead, the Mariners will have to look elsewhere for a 40 man roster spot.
The Mariners have already lost both Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala to other organizations due to this very issue, as Martinez was DFA’d so that the Mariners could call up Nick Franklin and Catricala was DFA’d so that the Mariners could add Jeremy Bonderman. Both players were acquired by other teams who were willing to give up enough cash to get them through trade rather than hope they were able to claim them on waivers, so while neither looks like any real prospect of note, other teams saw some value in both players. The Mariners dumped them both for essentially nothing.
Next on the chopping block is probably Eric Thames, at least if I’m guessing. Thames is 26-years-old and not that good, and the organization hasn’t promoted him at any other time they’ve needed an outfielder this year, strongly suggesting that he has no real future here. Like Catricala and Martinez, Thames doesn’t look like any kind of impact player, but baseball’s weird, and you never know when a guy might have a light turn on.
So, instead of Bantz getting the cut when Kinney comes back, now it’s maybe Thames. But, each time you cut someone, your list of expendables gets smaller and smaller. With Thames already gone, what does the team do when Stephen Pryor returns from the DL? Or Franklin Gutierrez, if that ever happens? Or if they decide they want to promote Brad Miller, who has continued to hit extremely well since being promoted to Tacoma. Who’s next after Thames? Lucas Luetge, maybe? Jeremy Bonderman could go when they decide to promote Erasmo Ramirez, so there’s one spot that could open up eventually should the team actually decide to correct the mistake that occurred in putting Bonderman on the 40 man in the first place. Then who? Bobby LaFromboise? Chance Ruffin?
None of these guys are individually all that likely to turn into a valuable piece, but the reality is that if you toss a half dozen fringe prospects overboard, you’re going to end up regretting it. The Mariners should have learned this lesson in the spring, when they ended up crowding Shawn Kelley and Mike Carp off the 40 man in order to accomodate the useless Veteran Leadership Brigade.
If the Mariners really are willing to just toss a 40-man player out of the organization so that Mike Zunino can get a week or two of experience in the big leagues, then they have an organizational weakness in understanding how valuable a 40-man spot can actually be. And that’s harmful. If the plan really is for this to be a short term cup of coffee while Jesus Sucre gets healthy, then the Mariners are punting organizational depth for no real gain.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t believe that is actually the plan. The organization might try to feed that line to reporters in order to turn the tide of negativity against a move — just like they reassured everyone that Raul Ibanez wasn’t actually being brought in to play much, just be a good guy on the end of the bench — but the facts don’t add up. Or, if they do add up, it says that the people in charge are willing to just waste roster spots for no reason.
The 40 man roster is a real constraint. You don’t just put a prospect on the 40 man just for the fun of it, because, hey, it can’t hurt, right? It can hurt. It causes problems. That’s why teams don’t do it. Other teams value their 40 man roster spots, and they use their open spots to take fliers on young players who other teams are discarding, looking to land the next Ben Zobrist or Nelson Cruz or Josh Donaldson.
If the whole plan is for Zunino to be in Seattle for a week or two, then the Mariners are putting themselves in the position of being a talent discarder for an outcome that offers no upside. They could have just grabbed Chris Snyder for nothing, as he was DFA’d last Tuesday and had the right to refuse the assignment and sign with any other team as a free agent, which he would have done if there was a Major League job for him.
Or, they could have grabbed John Baker from the Padres for nothing, after they DFA’d him yesterday. Part-time veteran catchers are not hard to find, and any of them could have held down a job share for a few weeks until Sucre was ready to be activated. At which time, you DFA the random replacement level catcher and give the 40 man spot to Josh Kinney. Or Franklin Gutierrez. Or Brad Miller. Or whoever.
That’s what big league organizations do when they need a short term stopgap and they don’t have a 40-man guy in-house who can fill the spot. They don’t call up their top prospects and add him to the 40 mant just so he can see what life in the big leagues is like and then head back to the minors a few weeks later. It’s just not a good way to manage your resources.
Punting the 40 man spot makes a lot more sense if they’re not planning on sending Zunino back. And not sending Zunino back makes a lot more sense if they’re hoping that the 2013 season can be salvaged and their jobs can be saved. That’s not the kind of thing you tell the media, though.