Dave’s 2014 Off-Season Plan
This was, by far, the hardest off-season plan post I’ve ever done. For one, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not writing here nearly as often as I used to. Part of that is that my life has gotten busier, and I’ve committed to spending more time with my friends and family since getting leukemia — side note: clean checkup on Friday, now 25 months in remission, huzzah — but part of that is also that my interest in this franchise is waning. It’s not gone, and it never will be gone, I’m sure, but the Mariners have made themselves far less likable, and far less interesting, and in general, I just don’t get the same satisfaction in writing about the Mariners as I used to. For the first time, this post feels like an obligation. I’m basically putting it out there because I know a lot of you want to read it, not because I particularly wanted to write it.
And I think part of that reality comes from a place of just knowing that the actual decisions being made this winter are being made in an awkward situation, where the front office almost certainly has a mandate to put a winning team on the field in 2014 even though they don’t have a roster that resembles anything close to a winning team. This feels like the Mariners are headed into the off-season that the Royals had last year, sacrificing the long term future for a short term run at mediocrity because everyone’s tired of losing. Maybe I’m reading this all wrong, and maybe they’re going to make good decisions and add a bunch of quality players at reasonable prices, but that’s not at all what I’m expecting them to do, and my guess is that it’s not what their marching orders are either.
So, I’m basically making a bunch of suggestions to try and reach an end goal — a winning Mariners team in 2014 — that I’m not even sure is reasonably likely. This team is far away from being good, and it’s going to take a lot of good outcomes to make them into even a winning club, much less a legitimate contender. But I don’t think saying that my off-season plan is to keep making smart moves until the team is ready to win actually helps anyone, because that probably wouldn’t fly for the front office this winter, so instead, I’m going to make a bunch of suggestions that I think could maybe get them as close as possible to a winning team without totally burning the future to the ground.
It requires some risks, and yes, it requires an increase in payroll, but with the national TV money getting disbursed to each franchise, not raising payroll this year would be akin to slashing it in prior years. Just to keep up with the rest of the league, payroll should go up. I’m not asking for any more than that, because an off-season plan that assumes a $125 million payroll doesn’t help anyone either. So, I’m going for a $95 million payroll, not including random 40 man guys, incentives, and all the extras the Mariners include in their calculations to boost the number and make it sound better. They would probably calculate that this team cost over $100 million when all is said and done. But if they want to win next year, they have to spend more money, because they’re so far away from being good that there’s no real way to get from where they are to where they want to be without buying some free agents. And free agents are expensive, so if they’re going to tell the front office to put a winning team on the field, they have to allow the front office to spend more money.
Again, I don’t think any of this is necessarily the right plan for the organization right now. I think that would have involved an organizational overhaul, a realistic assessment of where the team’s talent base currently is, and a solid plan to get the team to a sustained level of success. But that’s not what the Mariners are doing. So, with the caveat that this is an attempt to build a plan that works within what the Mariners are doing, here’s my 2014 Off-Season Plan.
Sign C Brian McCann to a six year, $90 million contract.
Sign OF Chris Young to a two year, $14 million contract.
Sign DH Corey Hart to a one year, $6 million contract with a bunch of incentives.
Sign SP Chris Capuano to a two year, $8 million contract.
Sign SP Roberto Hernandez to a one year, $3.5 million contract.
Sign RP Jose Veras to a one year, $3 million contract.
Sign MI Ryan Roberts to a one year, $1.7 million contract.
Analysis of these moves below, but for a second, here is what the imagined opening day roster might look like, along with projected batting orders against both righties and lefties.
|C||Brian McCann||$15,000,000||SP||Felix Hernandez||$23,000,000|
|1B||Justin Smoak||$2,800,000||SP||Hisashi Iwakuma||$6,500,000|
|2B||Dustin Ackley||$500,000||SP||Chris Capuano||$4,000,000|
|SS||Brad Miller||$500,000||SP||Taijuan Walker||$500,000|
|3B||Kyle Seager||$600,000||SP||Roberto Hernandez||$3,500,000|
|CF||Chris Young||$7,000,000||CL||Danny Farquhar||$500,000|
|RF||Michael Saunders||$2,000,000||RH||Matt Belisle||$4,250,000|
|DH||Corey Hart||$6,000,000||LH||Charlie Furbush||$600,000|
|C||Mike Zunino||$500,000||RH||Stephen Pryor||$500,000|
|IF||Josh Rutledge||$500,000||LH||Brian Moran||$500,000|
|IF||Ryan Roberts||$1,700,000||RH||Erasmo Ramirez||$500,000|
|Vs RHB||Player||Bats||Position||Vs LHB||Player||Bats||Position|
|1||Brad Miller||L||SS||1||Dexter Fowler||S||LF|
|2||Kyle Seager||L||3B||2||Ryan Roberts||R||2B|
|3||Corey Hart||R||DH||3||Corey Hart||R||DH|
|4||Brian McCann||L||C||4||Brian McCann||L||1B|
|5||Dexter Fowler||S||LF||5||Chris Young||R||CF|
|6||Michael Saunders||L||RF||6||Kyle Seager||L||3B|
|7||Chris Young||R||CF||7||Mike Zunino||R||C|
|8||Justin Smoak||S||1B||8||Brad Miller||L||SS|
|9||Dustin Ackley||L||2B||9||Abraham Almonte||S||RF|
|Bench||Mike Zunino||R||C||Bench||Justin Smoak||S||1B|
|Bench||Josh Rutledge||R||IF||Bench||Dustin Ackley||L||IF|
|Bench||Abraham Almonte||S||OF||Bench||Michael Saunders||L||OF|
|Bench||Ryan Roberts||R||IF||Bench||Josh Rutledge||R||IF|
Okay, now the explanations.
This plan is weird. It calls for the team to commit big money on a long term deal for an aging catcher when they have invested a lot into Mike Zunino and anointed him the catcher of the present and future. It spends $7.5 million on two starting pitchers after trading away a starting pitcher who would make $500K next year. It spends another $7.5 million on two relievers, even though relievers are fickle and spending money on bullpen pieces often works out poorly. It calls for Justin Smoak to remain a regular, even though I don’t think Justin Smoak is worthy of a regular starting gig on a team trying to win in 2014. I imagine your first read over this will be “this is nuts”. It kind of is.
But hopefully the result of a lot of nutty decisions would be a team that had very few just glaring, unsolvable problems. This team, as constructed, would run three platoons, leaving only the backup shortstop without a defined role in the line-up on a regular basis. It would restore the outfield defense that has historically roamed around Safeco Field, giving the team’s pitching staff a chance to actually have their fly balls turned into outs once in a while. It adds a couple of guys who thump left-handed pitching, plus a slugging lefty who should enjoy pulling balls down the right field line at Safeco, and a 28-year-old switch hitting outfielder who could actually be a productive piece to both improve the team and build around going forward. It creates a pretty deep bullpen, and gives the team six Major League starting pitchers, so they’re not totally screwed if and when one of the original starting five get hurt or end up being terrible.
It’s not a great team. It might not even be a good team. But it has a chance to be a good team, and it doesn’t kill the team’s future. It’s the best balance I could figure out how to strike. It might be too balanced, producing neither a winner next year nor in the future, but if the mandate is to put a good team on the field without punting the farm system in a desperate hail mary, then I think this at least heads that direction.
Let’s start with the two big pieces that are likely to draw 95% of the reaction; throwing a ton of money at a catcher and trading Paxton and Franklin for an okay hitter at altitude with bad road numbers. McCann first.
First off, note that this is not a situation where McCann is displacing Zunino entirely. By having him split his time between catching and first base, it would essentially create a three way job share between McCann, Zunino, and Smoak. McCann would get the opportunity to be an everyday player and not have to DH — a thing that some players really dislike doing, so keeping him away from DH would be a nice carrot in negotiations — while Zunino and Smoak essentially fight over one job. If Zunino improves dramatically and proves to be ready for regular catching duty, he could essentially split time behind the plate with McCann, keeping both fresh and well rested.
But there’s also the reality that Zunino may very well not be ready to be a big leaguer yet. He was not very good in Seattle and particularly terrible in Tacoma last year, and the team should at least be prepared for the fact that he might need more time in Triple-A. If they go into the season with Zunino and some random backup behind the plate, and Zunino proves overmatched, then they have a glaring hole that could essentially sink their season. Signing McCann as your “big bat” provides a top flight option behind the plate while also giving you the flexibility to have him play a decent amount of first base if Zunino proves ready to play more regularly.
And yes, I know that McCann is a lot less valuable at first base than he is at catcher, and paying $90 million to a catcher only to have him spend a decent chunk of his time not catching sounds stupid. But you shouldn’t look at McCann’s offensive numbers as a catcher and then just assume they’ll stay the same at first base. There’s a decent amount of historical precedent for guys improving their offensive production when they move out from behind the plate, and McCann should be expected to hit a little bit better when he’s playing first base than when he’s catching. And if the job share works correctly, you’re not so much as shifting games caught to games played at first base as you are taking days off and moving those to games played.
An “everyday” catcher in the big leagues starts about 110 games per year behind the plate. Matt Wieters was the league leader in games started catcher last year with 134, but most of the regulars were around 100 to 120. The rest of the time, most of them sit and watch. That’s 40 to 50 off days a year, where they’re not playing because of the physical demands of their job. By having McCann share catching duties with Zunino, you could aim for something closer to a 90/70 split, and then McCann could start another 50-60 games at first base, and all of the sudden you have his bat in the line-up 140 or 150 times instead of 110.
Depending on how quickly Zunino develops over the next few years, McCann would eventually move into more of a starting first baseman/reserve catcher role, but the Mariners could keep using him behind the plate for 40-50 times per year in order even as he gets older as long as he’s healthy enough to keep catching. Rather than phasing him out of catching entirely, they could offer him a path to an everyday job that still allows him to catch about 1/3 of the time, even as he gets older. This would likely be a more appealing sales pitch than having him start at catcher and move to DH in a few years, and it would be a better use of his skills, since he is a good defensive catcher and would only be changing positions to keep his body healthy.
So, instead of pursuing a defensively challenged 1B only and then trying to find a player good enough to share time with Zunino but not too good to want to catch everyday, McCann offers a nifty combination of depth at both catcher and first base, without forcing the team to use two roster spots to plug these holes. He gives the team a power hitting left-hander, but also gives them the flexibility to not have to depend on both Zunino and Smoak as everyday players in 2014, and can be positioned for the future depending on who develops and who doesn’t.
Now, to the trade. I imagine that the first response to trading James Paxton and Nick Franklin to acquire Dexter Fowler (and stuff) is going to be pretty negative. I know that a lot of people like these two guys more than I do, and are going to see this as giving up on a hard throwing lefty and a power hitting second baseman way too early in their careers, especially given that Fowler only has two years of team control remaining and would be something of an unknown quantity getting transported from Coors Field to Safeco Field.
However, if the Mariners want to win sooner than later, this is the kind of move they have to make. They have to exchange some upside and long term potential for a short term upgrade somewhere, and by targeting a guy like Fowler — who is going into his age-28 season next year — you’re not totally punting the future as much as betting on a different looking future. Fowler’s a switch-hitter in his theoretical prime who hasn’t really lived up to offensive expectations of when he was a prospect yet, but has still developed into a pretty solid player in spite of maybe being a bit of a disappointment. In some ways, he’s Colorado’s Michael Saunders.
I know that probably isn’t a reassuring comment, especially for people who got very excited by Paxton’s final start of the season. But I think the idea of James Paxton is likely going to be better than the reality of James Paxton for quite a while, as his command problems are still very real and unlikely to go away any time soon. The Rockies play in a park where walks and groundballs are actually a pretty good combination relative to letting opposing batters make contact, and flipping Fowler for Paxton and Franklin would give them a power arm for their rotation and shed some payroll that they could use to go sign the “power bat” they’re craving this winter. I know that often times the trades suggested in these posts get scoffed at by the fans of the opposing team, but I’d guess the Rockies would love this kind of package, as it sets them up to have exactly the kind of off-season they’re hoping for.
But it also solves a bunch of problems for the Mariners. Paxton can be replaced in the rotation at a lower cost than a new outfielder can be imported via free agency, and the pieces coming along with Fowler would provide some value as well. Matt Belisle is one of the game’s most underrated relievers, and could step in nicely to an 8th inning setup role or move into the closer’s job if Danny Farquhar falters. Josh Rutledge would provide a right-handed hitting infielder who could serve as a reserve for the three left-handers, and has some offensive upside in his own right. But Fowler is, of course, the key to this deal.
Projecting a position player leaving Colorado is always tricky, and often, people will simply look at his road numbers and treat those as something close to his “true talent level”. That’s not how it works, though. Hitting at altitude doesn’t just help you help hit better there, but there’s a decent amount of evidence that it actually hurts you when you’re not hitting at altitude. Breaking balls move in the other 29 parks in a way that they don’t move in Denver, and going on the road after two weeks of seeing flat hanging sliders can require a dramatic adjustment. You can’t just take Fowler’s road numbers and assume that’s what he would hit in Seattle. Park adjusting his offensive numbers is a better path, and shows that Fowler’s been an above average hitter the last three years even after taking Coors Field into account, but even this isn’t perfect. We really don’t know how Fowler would do at sea level. It is a risk, certainly, that his offense was boosted more than we know by his home park, and perhaps he would lose all of his power without the thin air helping his fly balls carry.
But, at the same time that we have to expect his offensive numbers to decline somewhat, we should expect his defensive performance to get better. Coors Field’s primary trait is inflating hits on balls in play, and this means that nearly every Colorado outfielder rates very poorly in defensive metrics. Metrics like UZR and DRS are park adjusted, but just like offense is different at Coors Field, so is defense, and balls that Fowler did not get to in Colorado may hang up long enough for him to run them down in Seattle. Physically, he’s got the natural skills to be a center fielder, but like Saunders, he might end up profiling better as a plus defender in a corner. Add in average offense and you’ve got a pretty good everyday player in his prime. He’s not Jacoby Ellsbury, but he’s a decent approximation of that kind of player at a much lower price, which allows the team to actually fill the rest of the holes they need to fill.
With Fowler and Saunders flanking newly signed free agent center fielder Chris Young, the team’s outfield defense would once again be among the best in the league. Young’s bat has heavily regressed since his days in Arizona, but there’s still some upside left, and even if he’s just a plus defender in center who mashes left-handers, that makes him kind of a healthier Franklin Gutierrez. Average hitting center fielders who can play defense aren’t that easy to find, and Young has the chance to get back to that level, while also providing some necessary power against left-handed pitching.
Speaking of thump against lefties, that brings us to Corey Hart. He’s coming off two knee surgeries, and spent all of 2013 on the disabled list, so while he’s said he wants to return to Milwaukee, spending a season as a DH and proving he can stay healthy is probably a better long term plan. Jack drafted Hart back in 2000 and clearly knows him well, and Hart would fit in well as a cheaper Kendrys Morales replacement. If he proves healthy enough to play the field, that gives you another option at first base in case Smoak doesn’t hit, and maybe he even gets a little time in the outfield, though I’d call that unlikely given his health issues. He’s a gamble, certainly, but the right-handed power is legitimate, and the Mariners could be a nice landing spot for Hart to prove that he’s ready to be an everyday player again.
That’s the big moves. The minor ones are essentially filling holes.
Chris Capuano replaces Paxton in the rotation, and provides a lefty who can throw strikes and get some strikeouts while giving up the occasional longball. It’s like getting Jason Vargas back, basically, except he should come cheaper because he’s older and coming off a season where the Dodgers kept bouncing him from the rotation to the bullpen.
Roberto Hernandez provides more depth for the rotation, and is another bet on peripherals instead of ERA. If he flops, then Erasmo Ramirez is ready to take his job, and he could turn into a right-handed bullpen option for when the team needs a double play. If his home run rate comes back to normal, then he’s a cheap 5th starter who keeps the team from having to turn to Blake Beavan ever again.
Ryan Roberts comes in as a utility infielder to platoon with Dustin Ackley and back up Kyle Seager. He’s always hit lefties well and has a ridiculous amount of energy, so he’s kind of perfect as your off-the-bench spark plug.
Jose Veras hits the market after a poor postseason and getting rejected by the Tigers, who didn’t exercise his $4 million option, but he’s still a solid enough right-handed reliever who can get lefties out often enough to not be a total specialist. He’d give the team some more depth and another possible closer option if Farquhar faltered. I don’t love spending money on the bullpen, and perhaps the development of Pryor and Capps would make this redundant, but the bullpen could use an upgrade and Veras is a decent value at a few million bucks.
The team can afford to plug those holes because McCann/Fowler/Young/Hart only cost about $35 million between them. If the team spends $20 million on Ellsbury and another $15 million on Morales, it’s almost impossible to see how they’re going to also find room for another outfielder along with upgrades at both catcher and first base, so I’d rather split the $35 million four ways than put it in the Ellsbury/Morales pairing.
The costs of this move are punting on the futures of Paxton and Franklin and betting on McCann to age well. However, I think Rutledge offers some of the same strengths as Franklin while also fitting better into the team’s structure since he’s right-handed, and Fowler’s future production can offset the loss of Paxton if he succeeds as an above average OF and the team re-signs him before he gets to free agency. Betting six years on McCann should be a little less scary since the Mariners wouldn’t be asking him to be a full time catcher for six years, and $15 million for a good-not-great hitter seems to be about going rate now even without including the defensive value that comes from having him catch.
Is this team good enough to win next year? Maybe, maybe not. They would need Ackley to remember how to hit, Hart to stay healthy, Walker to develop into a consistent starter, and one of Zunino or Smoak to take a big step forward, plus not have any disastrous injuries that exposed the organization’s lack of depth. There are a lot of things that could go wrong here, but it would at least give them a chance to be a winner in 2014, and it would keep the most important parts of the team’s future in place for the long term.
Best guess? I think this is probably an 80 to 85 win team, but it has a chance to outperform that, and maybe get Seattle interested in baseball again. Who knows, maybe they’d even get me interested in the team again too.