Goodbye, Franklin Gutierrez / Bring Back Franklin Gutierrez
Last offseason, the Mariners agreed to pay Joe Saunders $6.5 million, and then he pitched like Joe Saunders would pitch in front of a bad defense. Today, the Mariners have turned down an opportunity to pay Joe Saunders $6.5 million, leaving him a free agent. It absolutely makes sense, and I’m by no means saying the Mariners made a bad decision, but there’s a cynical angle here for anybody who feels like being in a bad mood. You don’t even have to look that hard for it. The Mariners make it pretty easy.
But the other news is that the Mariners also declined the 2014 option for Franklin Gutierrez, leaving him a free agent as well. Gutierrez will therefore be exposed to the market, as the team wasn’t going to commit $7 million after all the problems he’s had, and the probability is that Gutierrez’s days in this uniform are over. That’s by no means guaranteed, and the Mariners are more familiar with him than anyone else, but that might be the whole point, and it would be easy to see another team viewing Gutierrez as a high-upside potential bargain. Put most simply, if a guy can sign with any one of 30 teams, the odds of his signing with one team are pretty small.
I remain convinced that Gutierrez captures the very essence of this whole experience. Maybe more now than ever, I don’t know. We’re fully aware of Gutierrez’s potential, because we got to see him around his ceiling for an entire season, not far back. We’re also, simultaneously, fully aware of Gutierrez’s capacity to disappoint, sometimes for predictable reasons, sometimes because of a disease few of us had ever heard of before. Probably, Franklin Gutierrez is going to let you down. But what if he doesn’t? What if he doesn’t? Can you imagine?
I personally find it almost impossible to objectively look past that upside. Perhaps because I don’t know if that would be truly objective. People always talk about certainty and reliability and whatnot as selling points, but how reliable is a supposedly reliable player, really? Upside is real, and upside can drive high-achieving seasons. If Gutierrez had spent the last several years with another organization, we’d identify him now as a potential free-agent bargain. As is, plenty of people will say they’re all out of patience, totally ready to move on, but I can’t move on, not while I know what Gutierrez can do.
An average, reliable player might give you an average performance for 100 games, or 160 games. A player like Gutierrez might give you anything across a vast spectrum. He’s a risk, but are the Mariners not in the very position to take some little risks? Right now they probably project as something like a 70-win ballclub. Who’s going to thumb their nose to upside? My sense this past season was that the Mariners were more than ready to move on, once Gutierrez was sidelined again, but a lot of that sense was coming from Eric Wedge, and now Eric Wedge isn’t here anymore. The guy who most loved Gutierrez isn’t here anymore, either, but, you never know. Maybe Zduriencik still sees the glimmer. He has been watching the Mariners.
And Gutierrez did some interesting things late last season. When he was sick, and I mean really sick, the biggest issue was his lack of strength. He didn’t have any quickness, he didn’t have any muscle. Last year he batted 151 times, and he clobbered ten home runs. That’s twice as many as Mike Zunino. That’s half as many as Justin Smoak, in 29% the time. I’m going to cheat, here, but let’s set a minimum of 150 plate appearances and sort the league leaderboard by isolated slugging percentage (SLG – BA). We find Guti at .255, and we find David Ortiz at .255. There’s Paul Goldschmidt at .249. Guti’s in 11th out of 399, and while he’s behind some guys like Jeff Baker, Donnie Murphy, and Ryan Raburn, there are sluggers up there, too. Lots of ‘em. There’s reason to believe Guti has his power back, which means there’s reason to believe his health situation is at least manageable.
He’ll never be what he was that one year. At this point it’s a physical impossibility. He’s older, so his defense won’t be as good, and he’s more careful, so his defense won’t be as good. Same goes for his baserunning. And Gutierrez has spoken about the difficulty of playing too many days in a row, so he’ll probably never be an everyday guy. But he’s a guy who can handle center and swing the bat, and he’s not yet super old. He’ll be 31 next February, but that’s 31 with a lot of medical attention and lesser wear and tear. It’s a fragile 31, but a talented and capable 31.
Maybe he could be good for 400 plate appearances. Maybe 500, if you really stretch. The neat thing about Gutierrez in this market is he shouldn’t require that much of a commitment, given, you know, what he is. No one’s going to look at him and see an everyday player, because that would be silly. At most, he’s a regular, and a regular you want to support with perfectly capable backup types. Outfielders with versatility who are good enough to play but maybe not good enough to start right out of the gate. Outfielders like Michael Saunders and Abe Almonte. In those two, the Mariners would have some depth, in the event that they kept Gutierrez and he needed some time off. And they’d play often enough that it wouldn’t feel like they were wasting away on the bench. With Gutierrez in the fold, there’s playing time for lots of guys.
The Mariners need help in the outfield, badly, especially if Nick Franklin or Dustin Ackley gets moved. They need help beyond what Gutierrez could provide, because what they need are starters. But that’s a separate issue, and I see room for Gutierrez here if the front office isn’t too sick of him. Guarantee some millions with incentives. Include a 2015 vesting option for a good amount of money that Gutierrez could trigger with modest playing time. Let him know that he’ll get his money if he stays on the field, and give him that chance, again. It’s not like it’s Gutierrez or a guy like Ellsbury or Choo. This team needs a lot of help. If you want to dream, dream away, because lots of people can fit.
Odds are, the Mariners won’t be real good in 2014, so this is a time to take some shorter-term chances. A good 2014 Mariners team would need good performances from a wide variety of players, and Gutierrez is at least capable of that, if he can play more than half the time. With Saunders and Almonte, the Mariners could survive another injury by planning for it ahead. I don’t know what there is to lose, provided Gutierrez doesn’t cost a fortune. Money and games? The Mariners have been losing money and games for a decade. I mean, they’ve been earning money, but losing money on underproductive players. If Gutierrez were to under-produce, or not produce at all, that’d be a bummer, but the process would’ve been okay and the season wouldn’t be instantly tanked.
Do it. Do it, unless some other team blows Gutierrez out of the water for some reason with a big contract guarantee. Do it, unless the team knows something particular about Gutierrez’s condition that dooms him to an ever-disappointing remainder of his career. Do it, because Gutierrez has been awesome here once, and he helped the team play good baseball and galvanize a downtrodden fan base. Things have been dark ever since, but you can always surprise, and surprises are always explicable when you examine how they took place. If Gutierrez were to have a productive 2014 over semi-regular playing time, would that really come as a shock?
Maybe I’m just completely blinded by upside, upside that might not really exist anymore, upside you could find somewhere else. I know I’m not completely rational about guys like this, in the way that a lot of people weren’t always rational about Rich Harden before. But, actually, I think they were on to something. Between 2008-2009, Harden posted a 3.07 ERA over 51 starts. The two years before, he posted a worse ERA over 13. Talent before durability. Durability gets you Joe Saunders and Jon Garland. Talent can get you nothing, or everything.