Making A Splash
We have to begin with the necessary caveat that everything is situation-specific. Maybe Chris Davis wouldn’t be having one of the best offensive seasons of all time this year had the Mariners earlier picked him up for Brandon League. Maybe Troy Tulowitzki wouldn’t have blossomed into Troy Tulowitzki with Seattle. Maybe Jeff Clement and Chone Figgins would’ve been big assets somewhere else. Maybe anything. Life is complicated! My idea of heaven is having instant access to the results of countless controlled experiments, just to sate my own undying curiosity. But with that out of the way, let’s selectively highlight a few could’ve-been Mariners splashes, and then selectively highlight a few other guys who weren’t such splashes:
- Josh Hamilton: 0.4 WAR
- Jason Bay: 0.4
- Raul Ibanez: 0.8
- Prince Fielder: 0.7 WAR
- Justin Smoak: 1.0
- Justin Upton: 1.5 WAR
- Nick Franklin: 1.0 (partial season)
- Taijuan Walker: top prospect!
The Mariners strongly pursued Josh Hamilton, only to lose out to the Angels because the Angels looked better and guaranteed more money. Hamilton appears to have been this front office’s top priority. To date, in the first year of his contract, he’s been lustily booed at home, and he’s been out-done by old guys the Mariners picked up for a catchy song.
The Mariners may or may not have strongly pursued Prince Fielder, but they were in the mix, and a lot of fans were in love with the idea. Jack Zduriencik, of course, has his own unique relationship with Fielder, going back to their time in Milwaukee. Fielder was good last season, but so far in 2013, he’s been only fine, while Smoak has elevated his game and posted the higher WAR despite missing some time.
The Justin Upton rumors came after the Josh Hamilton rumors, and though we can’t really confirm anything, there were multiple reports that the Mariners tried to give the Diamondbacks Nick Franklin, Taijuan Walker, and more. If rumors are to be believed, the only reason Upton isn’t a Mariner right now is because he personally didn’t want to be. He got off to an amazing start in Atlanta, but he’s mostly struggled since, and the Mariners aren’t complaining about the guys they got to keep. Franklin’s been at least as good as Upton, filling an organizational hole, and Walker is one step away from making an impact in the major leagues.
This doesn’t count as a “study”, because this is hardly rigorous, and nothing’s conclusive. As before, now we still don’t know what Josh Hamilton might do next, and Prince Fielder is probably better than this, and Justin Upton is confusing. And we don’t know what any of those guys might do in a Mariners uniform. We don’t know and can’t know, until I die and go to my heaven and somehow preserve access to this blog’s editorial page. That information would be of little relevance, unless I were to die alarmingly soon. Hell, maybe Franklin regresses. Maybe Walker falls apart. Maybe anything, like I said in the intro.
But just going off those numbers, and taking them for what they are, had the Mariners made any of those big splashes, today they might not be in a better situation. They might be in a far worse one, depending on, say, how you feel about Hamilton’s contract and future. There was always a chance Hamilton would collapse. There was always a chance Upton wouldn’t figure things out on a consistent basis. There was always a chance Fielder would begin to decline sooner than desired. What we have is only a half-season, but still there are lessons.
Big splashes aren’t guarantees, no matter the magnitude. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that the team is going to be out a lot of resources. The hope is that the team receives equivalent or superior value in return. Big names are sexy, and people are easily excited by sexy moves, but that’s short-term thinking. A lot of the arguments are about short-term thinking. Sending a message to the fans? There might be an initial boost in mass attention, but the only way to sustain that is to win. Sending a message to the players? There might be an initial boost in roster enthusiasm, but the only way to sustain that is to win. Making a statement? I don’t even know what that means. Nobody wins anything for raising the most eyebrows. Baseball stops for a minute when someone makes a huge move, then it resumes, moving at the same speed. Eventually someone wins the World Series. That usually has to do with talent and health and good luck.
It’s not like the Mariners haven’t made actual splashes. Remember when the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee? That was awesome, until the team sucked a lot and it didn’t matter that Lee was around. Whatever messages are sent by a transaction last until the next baseball game is played, and then a reminder is issued that the thing that matters most, for everyone, is winning, winning as many games as you can, however you can, whoever the players might be. That’s the goal. That’s it. That’s it. It’s that simple. Build the best team you can. Maybe that involves making a huge splash, and the Mariners certainly don’t regret the guys they gave up for Lee, but they might’ve regretted the guys they might’ve given up for Upton. Usually, the team that wins a major sweepstakes wins by overpaying. Overpaying is usually bad, hence the “over-” part. You need to think short-term and long-term and efficiency always always always matters. It’s not about being cheap. On average, good teams spend more than bad teams. It’s about maximizing the payroll you set for yourself, and only sometimes are the biggest names actual values, especially after they reach free-agent age.
Maybe this is getting preachy, or maybe this is getting unnecessarily long. Do you think the Angels would give Josh Hamilton the same contract today that they gave him some months ago? Do you think the Angels fans now are thrilled to have him on the roster? Boy, that was a splash. That one really made headlines, really got people excited about the Angels’ prospects for a title. Hamilton right now is riding a hot streak, lifting his OBP all the way up to .288. His teammate, future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols, has a lower WAR than Kelly Shoppach. Miguel Cabrera on his own basically makes the case for making a splash and taking a chance, but the counter-examples are numerous and impossible to ignore.
The Mariners today aren’t in a wonderful situation. It’s not bad, and it could be worse. There’s nothing wrong with wishing that the team would have a higher payroll, but there’s more than one way to get that done. There’s concern about a potentially massive landslide on the Isla de La Palma, in the Canary Islands. Such an event could cause a big splash, and a catastrophic tsunami.