It’s been a while since we’ve discussed research and musings from the baseballing web, so let’s discuss and muse.
1: Andrew Koo of Baseball Prospectus wrote a very interesting post on the success the A’s have had by apparently targeting fly-ball hitters (the post was republished by Deadspin here, so you don’t need a BP account to read it). This is counterintuitive given Oakland’s homer-suppressing park – why would they target pitchers who benefit from the pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum and then pick up just the hitters you’d expect to be destroyed by the same home park? Well, flyball hitters – as a group – are slightly better than neutral batters. But that advantage is magnified when they face ground-ballers, whose sinkers drop invitingly onto the barrels of uppercutting fly-ball hitters. It’s probably not a fluke that the A’s hit .272/.338/.439 off GB-pitchers, for a sOPS+ of 113 (where 100 is league average), and they hit into the 2nd fewest double plays in the league from 2012-13.
It’s kind of funny looking at the FB% leaderboards and seeing the M’s so high. Reminds me of reviewing Bojan Koprivica’s work on platoons at THT and seeing the M’s rank so high in percentage of ABs with the platoon advantage. The problem isn’t the theory, it’s the execution. The M’s had de jure platoon advantages when they needed de facto ones – Justin Smoak and Nick Franklin “had the advantage” standing at the plate right-handed, but their own horrific platoon splits made the assumed advantage moot. Similarly, the M’s had the second lowest GB/FB ratio in baseball last year, but it didn’t help them hit groundball pitchers, flyball pitchers, or much of anyone. Their big fly-ball hitters include Kyle Seager (not bad), Justin Smoak (eh), Nick Franklin, Mikes Zunino and Morse, and, comically, Brendan Ryan. Add it up, and the M’s posted an sOPS+ against groundballers of just 91 (and an sOPS+ against flyballers of 90).
2: Ballots for the Hall of Fame’s class of 2014 are due today. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Edgar Martinez is not going to be elected. Jack Morris – the guy who was maybe the 4th-5th best player on some good Tigers teams – might get in, and none of it makes any sense.* No-doubt cases won’t be admitted due to whispers about steroids, great players will be looked over for reasons that simply don’t make any sense (Jack Morris had more opening day starts than Mike Mussina, so….), and we’ll all question why people who haven’t been beat-writers in years get to vote while [fill in your favorite baseball writer here] can’t. I don’t understand what this system is for, and what it’s doing, other than generating a lot of vituperative “dialog” and “buzz” or some other marketing cliche. At this point, I basically dread the whole thing – the sub-talk radio level of discourse, the aggravation, the sanctimony, all of it.
I wouldn’t mind caring about the Hall a little more, and I think I might once I go and visit the museum. But I just don’t have it in me to get worked up over it, and I say this as someone who’s devoted thousands of words to Garrett Richards, Carlos Peguero, Jordan Lyles and various AAAA guys who’ve played for or against the Rainiers. The system appears broken, and the weighting of various qualities seems arbitrary. But the Hall seems to have anticipated this and created the Veterans’ Committee as a side door to the Monument room. It’s funny that the VC, long the target of sabermetric jokes and scorn, is now something of the last best hope of people like me, who think Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Mike Mussina and, yes, Edgar Martinez should be in a place where the best ballplayers are remembered. The Hall seems to judge more recent players much more harshly, and while I understand why, I’m fairly certain that a future VC will rectify at least part of the damage.
3: Masahiro Tanaka, wooooo! There’ve been several great articles on Tanaka just within the past 24 hours. Our fearless leader posted a poll on what Tanaka’s contract might be, and the results were about what I’d expect – 6 years at $20m or so per annum. Ex-M’s analyst Tony Blengino weighed in on Tanaka’s stuff, how his stats may translate, and what some of the red flags for teams may be as the 25-year old heads to MLB. Doug Thorburn took a look at Tanaka’s mechanics in a gif-heavy post at BP. On the face of it, it looks odd – a guy with great numbers but without true ace stuff, a guy who’ll be adjusting to starting every 5th day instead of every 7th, and a guy who never showed an ability to avoid good contact in Japan, is going to get paid like an upper-tier free agent. There are a number of things that follow from this collection of facts/assumptions.
First, this (presumed) contract looks bizarre because we’ve essentially never seen a fully-fledged, MLB-ready player drop into the league *as a free agent*. Blengino mentions it in his post, and Dave discusses the implications here, but think about it: Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka came over under the old posting process, so while the posting fee was something like a free market, the ultimate contract offered to the player certainly wasn’t. The player could negotiate with only one team, and if they didn’t like the deal, their option was simply to go back to Japan. So yes, it helps that Tanaka’s a bit younger than Darvish and Dice-K were, but that’s marginal stuff, really. Tanaka’s the first *actual* free agent from Japan, and he’s been deemed much more MLB-ready than the big Cuban emigres who’ve come over recently, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (both of whom exceeded expectations).
Second, Blengino’s post reiterates for me just how varied the perceptions of Tanaka’s value must be around baseball. With the posting fee of just $20m, every team should at least kick the tires a bit, but I’d anticipate huge gaps between what teams would offer him. Blengino points to certain skills that would be harbingers of success – most importantly, his ability to get whiffs or outs on pitches up in the zone. This is essentially a scouting exercise, and I’m not qualified to opine there – but think of everything a team might evaluate when considering Tanaka’s ability to pitch up without getting hammered. Should we limit the number of pitches he throws to really hone great arm action on the fastball and splitter? Can we sequence pitches to maximize deception? Do we have coaches who will notice the instant Tanaka starts to drop his arm angle or tilt his head at delivery? Should a team like the Dodgers bid more than the Yankees because of their home park, or would the Yankees just utilize him differently (fewer elevated FBs, more splitters at the knees)? Are we sure he can sustain his velocity on high fastballs pitching every 5th day instead of every 7th?
The fact that Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda have been so successful as GB%, sinker-splitter guys is telling. If Tanaka ultimately can’t pitch up without yielding a number of home runs, Iwakuma shows how to be extremely successful despite that flaw. Other teams may want to look at possible platoon splits and how to tweak his pitch mix to minimize them.** Some teams may view his BABIP success in 2013 as evidence that his command had taken a big step forward (and they could point to his miniscule walk rate as well), but it would certainly be helpful to know exactly what he did and why it resulted in poorer contact allowed if you wanted to pay him $140 million. Tanaka’s young enough, and baseball’s rich enough, that a team’s place on the win curve isn’t as important as it would usually be. How a team sees his arsenal and their own ability to deploy it effectively is perhaps *more* important than it is with a known entity like Garza or Jimenez.
* That sounds harsher than I mean it to. Morris was a pretty good pitcher who was extremely durable and fought off aging exceedingly well; he’s the type of player that voters often overlook and saber-folk rally around. The fact that this whole saga is the bizarre inversion of the Burt Blyleven thing is just another facet of this I don’t quite understand. I hate saying it, but so much of the HOF debate resembles trolling, and while I’m sure it was like this back in the pre-internet days, it sure doesn’t make me want to dive in to these “debates” more fully. Does Murray Chass deserve some of the vitriol aimed at him? Probably, but what could I possibly say that Joe Posnanski hasn’t said earlier and better?
** The M’s appear to have done this with Iwakuma, incidentally. Because he relies so much on his split, Iwakuma’s posted reverse splits in his career, and he changed his approach to righties from 2012-2013. Against lefties, Iwakuma’s a strong GB pitcher, who succeeds by allowing poor contact. Against righties, his GB% was 10 percentage points lower, and while he gives up plenty of homers to them, he also gets a lot of pop-ups. Iwakuma hasn’t been credited enough for his ability to adapt, and the M’s probably deserve some credit for this too.
Among the publicly available projection systems, Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections are probably some of the most well respected. Dan’s been doing public projections for over a decade, and ZIPS has a long track record of keeping up with the best systems that have come and gone. As a baseline for the next season, it’s hard to do a lot better than ZIPS. And today, the ZIPS projections for the Mariners were released.
ZIPS loves Brad Miller. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, since Steamer (my other favorite projection system) also loves Brad Miller, and I announced that I was “sold” on Miller back in July, but ZIPS projects Miller as roughly a +3 win player next year, making him an above average big league shortstop right now. While the focus is heavily on the young arms like Walker, Zunino, and Paxton, Brad Miller is the best young player on the Mariners.
Interestingly, ZIPS also loves Nick Franklin. It projects Franklin and Miller as very similar hitters, only giving Franklin a little bit more power, and the fact that it’s giving him only a slightly below average defensive projection at shortstop means that he’s also projected as a +3 WAR player for 2014. Personally, I think Franklin would be more of a -15 guy than a -5 guy at shortstop, but it’s worth remembering that there aren’t that many players in baseball who can even fake it at shortstop and put up a 106 wRC+, which is what Franklin is projected to do next year. For comparison, Franklin and Miller are both projected to outhit Jhonny Peralta next year, and Peralta just got $50 million for four decline years based on his ability to hit while playing reasonable defense at short.
Bottom line: Both of these guys are valuable properties. I like Miller a little bit more, and ZIPS is higher on Franklin than I am, but the Mariners absolutely should not be interested in giving either of these guys away, even with Cano taking up second base for the next decade. There’s nothing wrong with depth, and if the Mariners are forced to send Franklin back to Tacoma for a few months, this projection suggests he’d likely destroy the PCL, which could very well raise his trade value and make him a valuable asset to move in a future trade, while also providing insurance in case either Miller or Cano get injured.
The M’s are going to have a lot of opportunities to move Franklin for a short term, modest upgrade. They shouldn’t take it. If there’s a trade to be made that brings in another valuable piece under control for multiple years at a reasonable price, go for it, but swapping Franklin for a rental or a player with limited value is just not a good idea.
In other optimistic projections, ZIPS thinks both Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino will be roughly league average hitters next year, and given their positions, average offense from them would make them roughly average players overall. Michael Saunders is also projected as roughly a league average player, and getting three decent performances from those guys would go a long way to filling the black holes the team had in 2013 at catcher and in the outfield. Personally, I don’t think it’s all that likely that the team goes into the year with both Ackley and Saunders penciled in as regular OFs, but this projection suggests that it’s not the worst idea in the world, giving decent forecasts for a couple of players that are still viewed as disappointments.
And finally, the projection for Hisashi Iwakuma is quite good, putting him nearly at Felix’s level once again next year. Given his low BABIP and high strand rates, it’s basically impossible to expect Iwakuma to repeat his 2013 performance, but ZIPS doesn’t see a lot of regression in his future, and has him as a +4 win pitcher for next year, one of the best projections it has given to any starting pitcher so far. This projection puts him in the range of guys like Adam Wainwright, for instance. ZIPS likes Iwakuma a lot.
Are you a big fan of the young arms, and think the Mariners should just forget a rotation upgrade and go with the kids for 2014? ZIPS would like to throw some cold water on your optimism, then. Taijuan Walker is projected as roughly a league average starter, but Paxton and Ramirez are both expected to be closer to Joe Saunders than any kind of valuable contributor. In fact, the lack of pitching depth is probably the biggest flaw on the team, based on ZIPS forecasts. Not only are the projections for Paxton and Ramirez pretty negative, but there’s absolutely no in-house alternatives in sight. The system doesn’t see any of the Brandon Maurer/Blake Beavan/Hector Noesi triumvirate as viable big league pitchers, and basically suggests that the Mariners have three decent starters, and then a black hole beyond that. There’s a case to be made that the Mariners might need to acquire two starting pitchers, not just one, if they really want to contend next season.
ZIPS doesn’t see a lot of help on the bullpen front either. It likes Danny Farquhar and Charlie Furbush, but the only other reliever projected to provide any real contribution is Carson Smith, who spent last year in Double-A. The projections for guys like Stephen Pryor, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Yoervis Medina are all essentially around replacement level, and as constructed, this would project out as one of the worst bullpens in baseball next year. I’m not one who thinks the Mariners need a “proven closer”, but they also shouldn’t be content with the group of relief arms hanging around at the moment. This is not a particularly good group of relievers.
And then there’s the 1B/DH experiments. Justin Smoak is expected to still be Justin Smoak, projected for a .321 wOBA, which at first base is barely above replacement level and is more of a bench player than a regular on a team trying to win. But that’s a better forecast than what ZIPS sees for either Corey Hart or Logan Morrison, both of whom are projected for a .315 wOBA and negative defensive value in the outfield. ZIPS thinks that both Hart and Morrison were actually downgrades from Abraham Almonte overall, and that the team shouldn’t expect to get much value from the 1B/DH/OF rotation they’ve set up.
And again, there’s not much in the way of depth here. There aren’t any hitters in the minors projected to be real improvements any time soon. The system thinks Stefen Romero and Ji-Man Choi are basically scrubs, so don’t get too excited about either one providing a better alternative at mid-season. Almonte and Franklin are basically the two guys not currently penciled into the line-up who ZIPS thinks could provide some value, so the team is nearly as thin on the position player side as they are on the pitching side.
ZIPS sees enough things to like to project this as a .500ish team, with Dan tweeting out this image as a preview of the forecasts the other day:
Next ZiPS team over at FanGraphs is the Mariners. pic.twitter.com/tMyE2zKInr
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 25, 2013
I’m guessing 77 wins would be considered a pretty big failure by the organization, so if they’re planning on proving to everyone that this was the time to win now, they better keep working to make some substantial upgrades. Certainly, any team with Cano, Seager, Miller, Felix, and Iwakuma isn’t going to be totally awful, and ZIPS sees some of the role players providing decent contributions, but there are still way too many holes to see this team as a real contender for 2014. The team needs at least one more starting pitcher, maybe two, some better bullpen arms, another big league catcher, and then will have to figure out how to get some production from 1B/DH/LF next year if the guys penciled in to those roles don’t end up cutting it.
So, yeah, there’s bright spots, and there’s not so bright spots, and the sum of the parts adds up to a slightly below average roster. You don’t have to agree with every forecast, but on the whole, this is a reasonable starting spot for what you should expect in 2014, given the roster the team currently has put together.
Of course they will. No, I’m not sourced on this. No, I don’t need to be. Masahiro Tanaka has been posted as of today, and the Mariners will be involved. A month from now, Tanaka will belong to somebody. Maybe this team.
The Mariners, certainly, haven’t been linked. Not like other teams — not like the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Diamondbacks or the Cubs or a few others. So nobody out there is identifying the Mariners as favorites. As far as much of the media is concerned, the Mariners aren’t even in the running. But they’re going to be in there, because almost everybody is going to be in there. And if you think about it, why would we have heard about the Mariners?
What would the Mariners have to gain from leaking their own interest? They’ve never been that kind of front office. And we haven’t heard about it from the other side, because there hasn’t really been an other side. Tanaka just got representation, and he just got posted. Many of the whispers we hear about the Mariners, we hear from the people with whom they’re negotiating. They haven’t started negotiating this, so the whispers haven’t floated around. There’s no reason for the Mariners to talk, and there hasn’t been anybody else to do the talking.
Not that it’s directly comparable, but the Mariners weren’t linked right away to Hisashi Iwakuma when he was a free agent. First it was the Twins, then the A’s, then the Mariners and the Orioles, with the Mariners stuff coming out of Japan before being confirmed by Jon Heyman. Then everything came together very quickly. Kind of like when the Mariners traded Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero — that was a bombshell that came out of nowhere. Said Iwakuma around the time:
“We’ve received terms from a number of clubs, but considering where I’m needed and an environment my family can live in, at present we’re closest to a contract with the Mariners,” Iwakuma said.
This is going to be the Mariners’ hope. There’s already talk that the Cubs won’t allow themselves to be outbid for Tanaka’s services. The Yankees are looking for another 200 innings and a splash, and Kevin Towers has made no secret of his desire for a front-of-the-rotation starter. The Angels will spend as much as they can, and you’d be foolish to count out the Dodgers. The Mariners will be in on Tanaka, and they presumably won’t end up with the highest bid, and what they’ll have to offer is proximity, history, and a significant Japanese community. Tanaka could share the rotation with a former teammate. The Mariners will hope that Tanaka’s approximation of free agency won’t come down only to money and years. If that happens, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
But it’s obvious they’ll be involved. They want a top-flight starting pitcher, and they don’t want to give up important youth to get it. They’ve had good experiences with untested Japanese players in the past, and Jack Zduriencik already alluded to there being budget flexibility under special circumstances. Tanaka is as special as offseason circumstances get. If there’s room to add a certain big-money player, Tanaka has to qualify, or else almost no one would qualify. This is a guy the Mariners want — this is a guy the Mariners know could boost them right toward immediate contention. Add Tanaka and Robinson Cano and you might be adding nine or ten wins.
Yeah, Tanaka’s had a heavy workload. He’s also 25. Ubaldo Jimenez is about to turn 30. Matt Garza already turned 30. Ervin Santana just turned 31. David Price is 28, and expensive, and just had an arm problem, and wouldn’t be under control for long. You’re never going to find a pitcher who isn’t extremely risky, and Tanaka’s young enough to bounce back from just about anything. He has the talent to be an ace, and he hasn’t physically wavered yet. Felix Hernandez has had a heavy workload, too.
No one’s going to go all-out for Tanaka, because there has to be a limit, because he is unproven here, and because Daisuke Matsuzaka and others have busted. He feels like more of a certainty than he is, and that’s why he’s not going to get a Verlander contract. Still, this is going nine figures, and the Mariners are probably comfortable enough with that. They couldn’t not be, not after the Cano thing. You can’t give a decade to a 31-year-old second baseman, and feel good about it, and then draw a conservative line with a 25-year-old Japanese ace. I doubt the Mariners’ final bid will be blown out of the water. It will just, probably, be short. And that’s why they’ll hope for other reasons behind Tanaka’s decision.
Here’s the thing: Tanaka makes perfect sense for the Mariners. Just perfect sense. He’s an excellent starting pitcher in the prime of his career. These players are never available just for money. He’s an improvement for 2014 and 2019, meaning he’s a short-term and long-term building block. That’s precisely what the Mariners need. That’s also precisely what literally everyone needs. Tanaka makes sense for contenders and non-contenders alike. Everyone has a chance, now, with the new posting system, and while certain teams won’t really dive in head-first — the Marlins, for example, likely won’t bother — every roster looks a hell of a lot better with Tanaka on it. Every future looks a hell of a lot better with Tanaka in it. Presuming he doesn’t bust, which he shouldn’t, but, which he might. Everyone has a reason to want him, so the Mariners will be competing within a massive, overwhelming market.
So that reduces the probability. The greater the number of teams in the mix, the lesser the likelihood that Tanaka puts on a Mariners uniform. It’s not like they can just set their minds to it and get him — he’s not an item on a shelf, he’s not a six-minute mile. There is one of this guy, and there are 20+ teams who want the same one guy, and plenty of them will go after him hard. Almost every team will lose. The Mariners have to hope that Tanaka likes perks and security. They have to hope that he likes them back. Probably enough to make up for a gap in proposed contract terms.
So, off we go, finally. Between now and the start of spring training, the Mariners will add at least one starting pitcher to the current rotation. They haven’t formally been linked to Masahiro Tanaka, but they’ll be in pursuit. All the while, they’ll remain in contact with the free agents and they’ll place some calls to other front offices. Their goal, in part, is to just not get shut out. But they’d also love to add somebody great. You know, like every team would.
As you’ve probably heard, Major League Baseball reached an agreement with the Japanese League and Japanese player’s association to fundamentally change the posting process. Instead of a closed auction, with teams bidding against each other to win exclusive rights to a player, the posting fee would be capped at a (ludicrously low) $20 million, meaning the Japanese player could negotiate with every team in MLB. This transferred a sizable chunk of leverage from clubs (both Japanese and American) to players; if this system had been in place when Yu Darvish was posted, it’s pretty easy to assume the ~$35m+ in posting fee over and above the new limit would’ve been tacked onto his contract.
So that’s a big change, and it’s interesting to see how this extremely closed market responds to the new incentives. But no one was interested in the microeconomics of cartels – they were interested in what it meant to the Rakuten Golden Eagles and their star hurler, Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka famously went 24-0 last year with a 1.27 ERA. ERA is a misleading and odd stat, but Tanaka’s ERA was last above 2 in 2010. Some people can fluke their way into a low ERA for a season. Tanaka, on the other hand, has simply overmatched NPB for three years running.
The new rules made it somewhat less likely that Tanaka would be posted, because Rakuten’s expected haul from posting fees were artificially capped at somewhere between 1/2 and 1/3 of what the market would bear. While they could get $20m this year or next year, they could get the same payment AND have him play for the team next year and go for a repeat NPB title, sell extra tickets, etc. All of this led me to think they’d just hold onto him for a year and post him next year instead. So I was a bit surprised tonight to see that Rakuten decided to honor Tanaka’s wishes and post him now. They’d offered to make him the highest paid Japanese pitcher ever, but that would’ve earned Tanaka somewhere in the $8m range per year – MLB teams will happily pay him double that.
Many speculate that he’ll join Hiroki Kuroda in the Bronx, as the Yankees haven’t publicly been linked to the big domestic free agent starters like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez. But in reality, the entire market for starters has been at a standstill as teams waited to see what would happen with Tanaka. It’s not that the Yankees (or Dodgers) don’t care about, say, Garza, and only want Tanaka – it’s that Tanaka’s negotiations will go a long way to determining how teams are pricing solid free agent pitching.
So what does all of this mean to the Mariners? If nothing else, it means that the pitching market can actually start to move. It also means they can formulate their pitch to the soon-to-be 25 year old Tanaka. Moving from the auction system to something approximating actual free agency actually helps the M’s here – they probably couldn’t outspend the Dodgers or Yankees, especially when posting fees didn’t count against the luxury tax. While they still have to compete against them on total contract terms, the M’s can pitch perks like proximity to Japan, no state income taxes, and the opportunity to learn from both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It’s not going to make the difference if New York’s offering an extra year and several million per, but it closes the gap, and allows the M’s to essentially punch above their weight class to some degree.
Will the revelations about the front office hurt? Do they outweigh the perks mentioned above? Probably not – it didn’t matter to Robinson Cano, and it wouldn’t matter to Tanaka. I’m no apologist for the FO, but getting Tanaka would be a coup, and would start to change the look of the suddenly very good AL West. It wouldn’t vault the M’s into the lead in projection systems, but it would fill a clear need and it would appear doable given their payroll situation. I’d still give the M’s extremely long odds to land Tanaka, but then, I said the same thing about Cano. Surprise us, M’s.
(Merry Christmas, by the way)
This is something I’ve had stashed away in my mental freezer for a couple of months. Remember when Howard Lincoln did those sit-down interviews with various area media types? Once upon a time, those were a big deal, before the Eric Wedge drama, and before the Geoff Baker article drama, and before the Robinson Cano acquisition drama, and before the rest of the recent drama. I didn’t write anything about the interviews then, and as more time passed I realized I didn’t really want to, but then there’s one thing that just keeps coming up, one thing that keeps being quoted. And when people quote it, for purposes of being critical of Lincoln and the way the Mariners are run, it actually bothers me, because I don’t see what the problem is. I think people get upset because they just want to be upset, and what I’m referring to is a clip from Lincoln’s interview with Ryan Divish:
How do you sell this team to fans? If two fans were standing here right now and asked, ‘Why should we spend our money to go see your product?’ What do you tell them?
First I’d tell them that when you get to Safeco Field you are going to have a safe, friendly environment. You are going to be sitting in a first class ballpark. You are going to get great entertainment. It’s a great place to come whether it’s at the Pen or at Edgar’s or wherever. So there’s a lot of things going on at Safeco Field for the fans to enjoy besides watching major league baseball. And I would point that out to them. Many of our fans are thinking about things other than just what’s on the field, so we have to provide a really good entertainment experience across the board as well as getting that major league team to perform.
This has been cited over and over as evidence that the Mariners care more about the “Safeco experience” than they do about the baseball. This has been a belief among cynics for a long time. Nevermind that Lincoln mentioned the baseball product in the paragraph. Nevermind that his next paragraph was about the team’s developing young talent. Nevermind that his third paragraph was about Felix Hernandez, and about how Lincoln hears all the time that the team should be better. He led with “safe, friendly environment,” and a lot of people just can’t see past that. They figure Lincoln just doesn’t care.
Look at the question. How would you answer it? There was no good way for Lincoln to answer it. Honestly, there’s probably no good way for Lincoln to answer anything — people already hate him too much. They automatically roll their eyes, just like people automatically figure the Mariners are screwing up whenever they attempt a transaction. These feelings, certainly, have been earned. But the Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001. They haven’t won 90 games since 2003. They’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball for a decade, and when this interview was conducted, the team was fresh off a year in which it was outscored by 130.
And people think Lincoln should’ve highlighted the baseball? The baseball’s been the least entertaining part of the Safeco experience for years. Nobody wants it to be that way, but if Lincoln had answered by saying people should come out to watch the exciting Seattle Mariners, he’d look like an oblivious moron. The team has been borderline unsellable, on its merits. It’s often been unwatchable on TV, and TV doesn’t make you pay money to drive to a ballpark and sit down for three hours. Lincoln had to say something, and Safeco’s strength has undoubtedly been Safeco itself. There’s no sense in denying it.
Relatedly, think about the question “how do you sell this team?” People have been upset that Lincoln didn’t say something more basebally, more appealing to the die-hards. But as an intelligent businessman, here’s something Lincoln knows: the die-hards aren’t going anywhere. They don’t need to be sold on anything, because for the most part they’re already too invested. Look at us, for God’s sake — we’re all still here, like idiots. We’re also outnumbered. Fan bases aren’t groups of die-hards. They’re groups of casual bandwagoners surrounding a die-hardy core. The people that need to be sold on an experience are the people on the bubble. There are people who will keep paying attention to the Mariners, and there are people who’ll never give a damn. Everyone in the middle — those are the people the Mariners need to attract. Because, you know, the Mariners are a business, and there aren’t enough die-hard baseball fans in Seattle to support it on their own.
Safeco’s great. The Mariners have truly done a wonderful job, with Safeco. The baseball experience there has been shitty for years, and still people say that Safeco’s one of baseball’s real gems. They haven’t stopped improving, and while I’m not going to sit here and defend the hyper-conservative ushers, that’s a very small part of the experience, involving a small percentage of attendees. The Mariners would be worse off if Safeco were a worse place. Every baseball team needs to care about the non-baseball part of the show, because every baseball stadium gets filled with fans with varying levels of interest in the gameplay. So Safeco’s got its hydros. Miller Park has its sausage race. Nationals Park has its presidents race. Fenway has its Neil Diamond. Every ballpark has some kind of hat shuffle. The Mariners have made Safeco a priority, and they’ve excelled.
And it’s not like the Mariners have to choose between focusing on Safeco or the roster. Those are different people in different departments, so it’s not like any of Jack Zduriencik’s time was wasted by the installation of the massive new video board. The Mariners haven’t funneled way too much money to the ballpark at the expense of the team, either. The Mariners, like every team, can simultaneously prioritize the park and the roster. The problem, the real problem, has been that the rosters have sucked.
And that’s why everyone’s so upset. That’s essentially the heart of it. That’s why everyone groans whenever they hear Howard Lincoln or Chuck Armstrong’s name. They’ve been in charge while the team has lost a lot of baseball games. So to a large extent they’re thought to be responsible.
And, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of shape the Mariners would be in under different executive management. Under these guys, they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league. A little over a decade ago, under these guys, they were arguably the most successful team in the league. I don’t know the truths of their influence, but I do know a lot of people complain because Armstrong and Lincoln don’t allow for a high enough budget. People wish the Mariners would’ve been spending more money.
I’m sure they could’ve. I’m sure they could’ve, and still turned a bit of a profit. But every team in baseball has a budget, and just about every team in baseball turns a profit. The Mariners have been making less money as they’ve gotten worse, because attendance tends to drive revenue. Additionally, enough money has been spent to build winners. The payroll in 2008 was nearly $120 million. But, two things: the money’s been spent poorly, and people misunderstand the significance of things like free-agent additions.
You know where the worst money is spent? Free agency. Free agency is almost always a losing gamble, in terms of return on investment. And one player can never turn around an entire team, especially one player who makes it to the market. The Mariners have spent some money in free agency, and they’ve tried to spend more on bigger splashes while coming up short. Sometimes, they’ve made splashes, and they just made the very biggest kind of one. Other times, they’ve been relatively inactive, but they haven’t lost because they haven’t been able to sign good players. They’ve lost because they haven’t been able to develop good players, or spend on the right ones.
You know another use of money? Keeping good players around, through their would-be free-agency years. The Mariners haven’t lost a good young talent to free agency since, I don’t know, Alex Rodriguez? Because they haven’t had good young talents to invest in long-term. The one guy they have had is Felix Hernandez, and they gave him a contract that, at the time, was the biggest contract in baseball history for a pitcher. It was the second time the Mariners had signed Felix to a long-term extension. Money didn’t get in the way there.
The problem hasn’t been the payrolls. The problem hasn’t been falling short for Prince Fielder or Josh Hamilton or whatever. Sure, it’d be great if the team spent a little more, but the problem all along has been the people in charge of actually putting the roster together. And it’s been the people in charge of maximizing player talent within the organization. When you neither develop talent nor identify talent, a little more money isn’t going to make things all better. It’s probably just going to be wasted.
The easiest and most aggravating example is the last-second shift from drafting Troy Tulowitzki to drafting Jeff Clement. Who knows how Tulo would’ve done here, but he’s turned into one of the best position players in baseball. Who knows how Clement would’ve done elsewhere, but here, he totally busted. So much has gone wrong and blaming it on the executives is too easy. There’s also been some bad luck, sure. Chone Figgins went from a six-win player to a no-win player. Franklin Gutierrez developed a chronic untreatable illness I’d literally never heard of before. But the team has made more bad decisions than good decisions. Talented young prospects haven’t often turned into talented young players. Presto: the Mariners have been a lousy baseball team.
It’s on Lincoln and them to some extent. They influence decisions. They influence other things. They hire the general managers who hire the support staffs. I’m not sure what they saw in Bill Bavasi, but that was a long time ago and I don’t remember it very well. As for Zduriencik, well, we all loved him right away, to the point where we gave him a standing ovation at a USSM meet-up. That didn’t look like a screw-up until later. Absolutely, Howard Lincoln deserves some percentage of the blame for what the Mariners have become, but the Mariners have been bad because the Mariners’ players have been bad, and that just isn’t his fault. And bad decisions with more money would just be bigger bad decisions. Don’t over-estimate the impact that a few more million dollars can actually have. Right now a free-agent win costs like $6-7 million. Good teams don’t build themselves around free agency.
Howard Lincoln was facing certain no-win interviews. There is genuinely nothing that he could say to make people change their minds and like him. The only way people will come around on the Mariners is if the Mariners start to win baseball games, and for the most part that’s just out of Lincoln’s hands. Good decisions have to be made by other people. Good performances have to be turned in by still other people. Lincoln, I’m sure, is tired of being embarrassed. But ultimately he’ll spend his summer sitting back and watching. Watching and hoping the team doesn’t suck. In that way we’re kind of alike, us and him.
As recently as, I don’t know, a month ago, the Mariners were a bad team, but they were a bad team with like no financial commitments aside from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who are very good. Therefore, the Mariners looked like a team that might be able to spend and improve itself in a hurry, and then the Mariners poured nine figures into Robinson Cano and they did some other things and now this is on the Internet:
What the heck are the Mariners doing?
Club officials are signaling to certain agents and others in the industry that the team is near its payroll limit, though certain exceptions may be made for the right player.
Added Jack Zduriencik:
“I think that if we go for another large deal, that obviously is going to have to go above my head. And at this moment we are where we are, and we’re trying to make things work with what we have.”
Right in that first blockquote, it’s made evident that the Mariners aren’t just about out of room. If exceptions can be made for the right player, then there’s room left for the right player, and if you want the Mariners to be able to acquire a good player, they can do that. What they won’t do is just spend to spend, if they don’t like what they’d be spending on, and the main general message is that there’s just not that much flexibility left. Which is what happens when a free agent takes up twenty-four million dollars.
Ignoring any kind of commentary or narrative, where do the Mariners stand today? I’m not going to bother walking you through the tables and math, because it’s simple and it takes up too much space. Also, it’s ugly-looking. I constructed a best-guess 25-man roster and inputted a bunch of salaries, including arbitration projections and Danny Hultzen. I was left with a figure right around $81 million. So that’s the Mariners’ approximate payroll today. If you max out the performance bonuses, the figure moves up to something more like $91 million. I don’t know how the team accounts for those things, and I’m sure every team is different. Some bonuses, also, are more likely than others.
Lincoln said the payroll budget for the upcoming season will be higher than what the team budgeted last season. The team budgeted close to $95 million for payroll last season, but only used about $84 million.
“It’s certainly going to be above what we budgeted last year,” Lincoln said. “How much? For competitive purposes, I’m not prepared to say. But it certainly is not going to go down.”
It’s on record, then, that the Mariners will be increasing their payroll budget, and this time they’ll probably spend right up to it. We don’t know where the ceiling is, but it’s probably soft and it’s probably modest. This team presumably isn’t going to increase payroll by 30%. Based on the roster now, the Mariners shouldn’t be out of room, but they do appear to be drawing reasonably close, especially if you account for some achievable bonuses. I wouldn’t say, for example, the Mariners could accommodate a second Robinson Cano. The first one ate up a lot of room, which is what elite players do.
Ignore the bonuses for a moment. The Mariners will drop a few million on a veteran backup catcher, probably. They’ll drop a few million on a veteran relief pitcher or two, probably. Right there, that would take them up at least into the mid-80s, and if the relief pitcher is a closer, it could be something like 90. Again, the big question is by how much ownership is willing to increase payroll, but you can see how Zduriencik was simultaneously bluffing and telling the truth. The Mariners aren’t out of room, but they are at the point where they need to be careful and maybe a little creative. There would be no reason for Zduriencik and the front office to be completely honest with agents about how much space is left, but agents can figure things out for themselves. I just did in ten minutes.
Here are the takeaways:
- the Mariners are already right around last year’s payroll
- the Mariners intend to increase payroll, by an unknown amount
- the Mariners still need a couple role players, who will probably be veterans
- the Mariners can probably afford one more pretty big contract, if an opportunity presents itself
I’m sure the Mariners would love, for example, to squeeze in Masahiro Tanaka. He would probably be an “exceptional player”, but the Mariners might not be willing to go as high as somebody else. David Price would cost less than Tanaka, in salary. The Mariners might as well keep checking in with the free-agent starters, to see how their markets are going. One hopes that Nelson Cruz wouldn’t count as an exceptional player himself, but as long as he’s out there there is that possibility. I guess the real takeaway is the Mariners have an amount of money to spend that is unknown to us, and that’s it. They are about maxed out, when it comes to adding little pieces. They can probably fit in one more big piece. If they do that, hopefully it’s smart and the player is good.
It might feel like the Mariners’ offseason is slowing down. This offseason already has included Robinson Cano and Corey Hart in it, and some others, and Zduriencik is busy trying to do things right now people haven’t heard anything about yet. The roster’s not finished, but it is close, and the biggest splash has certainly already been splashed. Of course the money’s getting tight. But improvements from here will be considered on a case-by-case basis. There’s talent still out there, and this team could use some.
In an old job, I was expected to hit on rumors, even if the rumors were obvious poop, because people like rumors and people mean traffic and traffic means great Internet success! I don’t have that job anymore, but it turns out I do still have some of the bad habits I developed, so here’s today in Mariners rumors, outside of the Franklin Gutierrez transaction. You can take the person out of the SEO, but you can’t take the SEO out of the person. Actually wait you can, and it leaves PRN. Which can be rearranged to spell NPR! #Illuminati
#Mariners drawing strong trade interest in IF Nick Franklin with multiple teams involved, sources tell me and @jonmorosi.
Seems like breaking news! Isn’t, really. Trade candidates don’t get much more obvious than Nick Franklin, who’s had his position blocked by a quarter of a billion dollars. He’s not a shortstop, and while he could conceivably become an outfielder, he isn’t one now and there’s not a lot left for him to do in the minors. This is a situation where Franklin should probably be turned into talent elsewhere, and other teams know that, so they’re all over trying to get the young second baseman. It might feel like the Mariners destroyed their own leverage by signing Robinson Cano, but they only destroyed part of it. There are still 29 other potential suitors that in theory would have to bid against one another.
I’ve got nothing against trading Nick Franklin. I do have something against trading him for too light a return. You don’t trade him just because he’s blocked — you have some patience and you wait some executives out. A year ago he was a top-100 prospect and then he clobbered Triple-A before getting up-and-down experience in the majors. Trade Franklin in a package, or trade him straight up. But if you’re trading Franklin, make sure you’re getting either someone pretty good, or someone under control for a while. This isn’t a piece you dump for mediocrity. He’s too much of a potential asset, and there are too many teams who’d like to have him for a while.
Mariners showing continued interest in free agent Ervin Santana, sources say.
The Mariners want a starting pitcher. They’ve had plenty of talks about David Price. They’ll be in to some extent on Masahiro Tanaka. And there are three primary remaining free agents, in Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez. They’ll talk about them all, and they’ll probably reach out to them all, if they haven’t already. As long as the Mariners are looking for an arm, they need to let the decent arms know they’re still in the market, and it’s not like there’s anything happening with Tanaka at the moment. So, absolutely, the Mariners aren’t uninterested in Ervin Santana. Nothing about the rotation picture has changed, that would cause them to lose the interest I’m sure they’ve had all along. Teams are all interested in pretty good players. One team will end up being the most interested. The Mariners just don’t want to be left out in the cold.
Mentioned Suzuki as possibility for #Twins. Per sources, #Cubs, #Mariners also have shown interest. @FeinsandNYDN first reported #Cubs.
That’s Kurt Suzuki, who is a free-agent catcher. The Mariners’ starting catcher is Mike Zunino, and the Mariners’ backup catcher is Jesus Sucre. So, yeah, the Mariners obviously will want to get some kind of veteran backstop, and the pool out there is terrible, which is how a guy like Suzuki can end up floating to the top. Suzuki doesn’t really hit, or throw, or frame, or run, but he blocks, and he’s a super nice guy. Pitchers like him and if you’re looking for a super-high-quality backup catcher then what you’re looking for is a starting catcher, or David Ross. Not a lot of David Rosses. 🙁
And as great a story as Danny Farquhar was last year, the Mariners covet a closer to the point where[…]Fernando Rodney makes sense even as the market for such specialists has shriveled. The other teams with unsettled ninth-inning situations (Tampa Bay, Texas, Houston, Chicago White Sox) don’t seem altogether keen on lavishing closer bucks on anyone, even a guy who just a season ago set a major-league ERA record.
The Mariners have been linked to closers much of the offseason, including Grant Balfour and Brian Wilson, and when Jose Veras signed with the Cubs he said he also had an offer from the Mariners, which is pretty telling and presumably not a lie for no reason. Clearly, the Mariners have interest in a high-leverage veteran, and that they made an offer to Veras suggests they’re still interested, and this isn’t just a lingering rumor from the middle of November. The current bullpen isn’t super experienced and teams love adding veterans to young bullpens and the closer market is closing, with the Indians picking up John Axford and the Padres picking up Joaquin Benoit. Rodney’s still out there, with a small pool, and though he probably wants to get paid big-time, he might have to settle. I’m sure the Mariners are monitoring, just as I’m sure they’re monitoring other, non-Rodney bullpen veterans. But Rodney has all those saves the Mariners might not be able to look past. And Farquhar’s such a little guy! The Mariners could be a team that signs a veteran closer. In that case, you just hope the contract’s all right. Rodney’s a pretty good one, at least when paired with Jose Molina.
First: Tampa Bay understands that it doesn’t have to deal Price. It has room in its budget for him this season. If the Rays underachieve, he can go for a copious return at the trade deadline, and if they’re still among the lords of the AL East, he can find a new home next winter. Second: The Seattle Mariners can very easily get this done if they include starter Taijuan Walker, a maneuver sources said they’ve begun considering internally within the past week.
That’s a powerful-sounding sentence: “The Seattle Mariners can very easily get this done if they include starter Taijuan Walker.” But all that actually says is “the Mariners could trade for David Price right now if they are willing to overpay.” Here are factual sentences: the Seattle Mariners could very easily trade for Miguel Cabrera. The Seattle Mariners could have Xander Bogaerts tomorrow! If they wanted, the Seattle Mariners could get a deal done for Matt Carpenter. Everybody has a price, which means everybody is more or less available, and the Mariners have a lot they could sell if they went insane. Yeah, the Mariners could have Price if they gave up Walker. Sensed that weeks ago. But that’s the whole thing. I could have a new car tomorrow if I wanted. Do I want?
As for the last bit, I’m sure they’ve been considering Walker for Price internally for more than just within the past week. They’ve probably been considering that from the get-go, since it was obvious that’s the guy Tampa Bay would most want. Walker’s the jewel. Teams internally consider everything, even moves you’ve never thought of. Most such considerations end up at “no” or “welp that guy’s not available anymore.”
Of course, the Price stuff is still real. It’ll be real until Price is traded or until the Mariners get some other pitcher, and the Mariners have been the team most closely linked. Something really needs to happen with Tanaka so the rest of the pitching situation can clear up, but expect the Rays to keep insisting on Price, and expect the Mariners to keep figuring out what their options are. The Rays, probably, are going to wait and hope a team on the other end caves. I would very much like the Mariners to not cave. Can’t say they won’t, but can’t assume they will. Just because the Mariners might be Price’s most likely destination doesn’t mean they’re actually a very likely destination, and maybe it’s even possible to do something in which Walker isn’t involved. How the hell should I know? I’m just a guy on the Internet riffing on rumors that might not even be truthful.
Last season, in admittedly limited time, Franklin Gutierrez slugged .503, with almost half of his hits going for extra bases. Also last season, under more hitter-friendly circumstances, Nelson Cruz slugged .506. Something to think about as Cruz looks for a contract that could build a modest arena.
Franklin Gutierrez is coming back, with a guarantee. A guarantee of a year and a million dollars, with another two million in possible incentives. If Franklin Gutierrez does everything — if he maxes out his 2014 contract — he’ll earn about as much as Willie Bloomquist. The latest addition to the Mariners is familiar, kind of.
You think about Gutierrez and you think about 2009, much like how with Erik Bedard, for a while, when you thought about him, you’d think about 2007. Let’s establish something right away: 2009 Franklin Gutierrez is dead, and like most dead things, he’s never coming back. You want to believe all that upside’s still there, because Gutierrez struggled on account of his health and he claims to have everything under control. The Mariners like the reports that they’ve seen. But Guti was 26. Next year he’ll be 31, and the current idea is that he’s treating a chronic and incurable illness that I’ll never be able to remember off the top of my head. That’s not a guy who’s going to get back to an old 100%. His new 100% is something very different.
Even for a normal, healthy player, you expect declines over a span of five years. You expect offense to get worse. You certainly expect defense to get worse. I looked at the top ten defensive performances from 26-year-olds between 2002-2008. I then looked at how those same players did at 31. On a per-600-PA basis, the players, as a group, were an average of ten runs worse in the field. Some example names are Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand.
Gutierrez has gone through physical hell, and he’ll never be all the way recovered. It stands to reason that’s taken a toll on his body. It also stands to reason that’s taken a toll on his mind, such that he might take fewer chances, he might be a little more tentative. Last year he didn’t quite look like his old self in the field, and that would be a ridiculous standard to hold him to. Also, Guti probably won’t steal many bases. Also, Guti has talked about how he’s most comfortable playing a few times a week. He can’t be that runner anymore, he can’t be that defender anymore, and he just can’t be that everyday player anymore. As much of a relief as it probably is for Gutierrez to have a diagnosis he believes in, it’s not a pulled hamstring. What he’s got, you can’t just ice.
Those are the reasons to be over Franklin Gutierrez. Those are the reasons to wonder why the Mariners even thought about inviting him back in the first place. A month ago, I never thought it would come to this. I was convinced the Mariners were through with the frustration, the broken threads of hope. But an opening developed, and an openness developed, and there are reasons to not be over Franklin Gutierrez, too. There are reasons to be pleased, and only a few of them are helplessly irrational.
Really, you can just look at the last Guti we saw. That version, feeling well enough, handled the outfield and hit for real power as a righty. When Gutierrez was ill, and feeling it, he had no strength when he played. His energy was sapped and he swung Jack Wilson’s bat. The last version had his weight back, and his strength back, and this isn’t about trying to make too much of 150 plate appearances. Forget Gutierrez’s actual statistics. Just focus on how a scout would see them — Gutierrez demonstrated real pop. Not much in the way of walks, but I wouldn’t blame Guti for feeling an eagerness to make up for lost time. The most recent version of this guy could hit the ball hard from the right side.
And the instincts that made Gutierrez so good in the field before shouldn’t have gone anywhere. His body will be slower, to move and to react, but all the know-how’s there. The ideal combination would be Gutierrez’s experience with Dustin Ackley’s tools or something, but as is, Guti still knows how to play center field, and he might be a little less tentative as he gets re-accustomed to playing.
Dustin Ackley isn’t a real center fielder. Michael Saunders is only a subpar center fielder. Abe Almonte is only a subpar center fielder. All these guys could cut it, but Gutierrez might be an actual center fielder, even if he’s not what he was. Remember that what he was was one of the very greatest of all time, so he could decline an awful lot and still appear to be gifted. Re-signing Gutierrez could simultaneously add a decent right-handed bat and the roster’s first actual center fielder. That is, potentially, some quality depth.
With almost no meaningful commitment. Apparently the incentives don’t even start kicking in until 250 plate appearances, so this’ll cost the Mariners almost nothing. The big difference between 2013 Gutierrez and 2014 Gutierrez is that the team was supposed to rely on 2013 Gutierrez. So when he went down, the plans went tits up, because the plans weren’t thought through very well. The Mariners aren’t making the same mistake, and if something goes wrong, or when something goes wrong, it’ll just be a matter of replacing a role player. I recommend they stash some no-hit burner in Tacoma, in case the team ends up without a center fielder again, but already there are more options. Franklin Gutierrez, when you don’t need him, is almost pure upside.
It all feels so similar to Erik Bedard. This kind of feels similar to Erik Bedard:
Guti says he had other offers, including Indians, but once #Mariners talked to him “I didn’t think twice.” Says Seattle is home after 5 yrs.
— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) December 18, 2013
I don’t know if Bedard felt the same kind of “at home”, and Bedard was less pleasant of a person, but he represented so much upside, and when he had a chance to go somewhere else, he returned to Seattle at least in part because he felt loyal to the organization. That last version of Bedard we saw in 2011 wound up turning in 24 starts, with a 3.62 ERA and a strikeout an inning. It was a miracle he was even able to take the mound, and while he wasn’t what he’d been before, he helped more than he hurt, and he flashed those little glimpses. From time to time, Bedard would issue a little reminder that he’d been one of the best pitchers on the planet.
Gutierrez was once one of the best outfielders on the planet, and five years later, he’s re-signed with the Mariners for a year and a million. Jason Bay was awesome in 2009, too, and he didn’t work out a year ago, but then in 2009 Jason Bay was 30, and the year before last he slugged .299. Bay didn’t have Gutierrez’s story. Nobody has Gutierrez’s story, and that’s a big part of what makes him so damned impossible to quit.
What the Mariners know they’re going to have next season is Franklin Gutierrez’s uniform hanging up in the clubhouse. What the Mariners don’t know is who’s going to wear it, but it could end up being a pretty neat guy.
Jeff and I recorded a podcast to see if we still could. We could.
Thursday, officially, the Seattle Mariners introduced Robinson Cano as a Seattle Mariner, with his physical done and with everyone involved with the team back from the winter meetings. There was much happiness and optimism expressed, which always follow any kind of nine-figure agreement between parties, and now that Cano’s name is signed in ink on the line, he’s a part of the family, the family that always embarrasses us but that we say we love anyway sometimes if only because we have to. Now that Cano is a highly-paid Mariner — the highest-paid Mariner, overall — it stands to reason it’s inevitable he’ll attract undue criticism. That’s the way it usually is with stars, and here are the things that I can see coming. There are probably more.
Sometimes he dogs it
I don’t read New York media, because I’m not a complete self-loathing idiot, but still I’ve been made aware that a lot of people around New York would rip on Cano for not always hustling. Lots of accusations of jogging down to first base, and whatnot. There are few things that drive fans more insane than watching a guy not sprint the 90 feet, especially if a ball ends up bobbled or thrown away. Or maybe from time to time Cano watches what he thinks are homers, and then they stay in the yard and he costs himself bases. That second one is just a guess but it wouldn’t surprise me. That doesn’t need to happen often for a guy to get a reputation.
Robinson Cano is not David Eckstein. He’s not a balls-to-the-wall, 110%, grinder, Diamondbacks type. He doesn’t put literally everything he has into literally everything he does, and fans notice, and that’s one of the first wells they’ll go to should things turn sour. But, what does it really mean? Maybe it’s helped Cano stay so durable. It doesn’t mean he’s not committed to the game; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be what he is. He’s found a way to be one of the very best players in baseball for several years. From time to time maybe he won’t leg out a grounder. Many more times, Mike Zunino will strike out on a pitch out of the zone. It’s never going to be a big deal, and it’s never going to teach all the young players to just be lazy. Sometimes not legging out a grounder is frustration from not hitting the ball well enough, and that’s the opposite of not caring.
He doesn’t hit enough dingers
For $240 million, you expect there to be dingers, and people like to use 30 as a benchmark. Cano’s exceeded 30 one time, by three dingers, otherwise hanging out in the high 20s even spending half the time in new Yankee Stadium. Since the ballpark opened, Cano has hit 16 more dingers at home than on the road, so he might well end up a 20-25-dinger sort. That’s in the short-term, even, and that could look strange to people who just know about all the money.
Over the five years since the ballpark opened, Cano put up a .226 ISO at home, tied for 28th out of players with at least 1,000 home plate appearances. Over the same five years, he put up a .208 ISO on the road, 28th out of players with at least 1,000 road plate appearances. See, Cano also has doubles power, to blend with his dinger power. Also — and this can’t be expressed enough — power is only a part of Cano’s total value. He’s never been a pure dinger hitter. He’s been a quality all-around hitter who plays good defense up the middle. In 2007, he was worth five wins with 19 homers. Last year he was worth six with 27. Don’t expect him to be what he isn’t, because what he is is elite.
He’s too casual in the field
Another way of saying “he’s too casual” is “he makes it look easy”. Like Andruw Jones used to. Or like, you know, Ken Griffey Jr. used to. Cano tends to look extremely…comfortable, around second base, and again he seldom looks as if he’s hustling, but he’s so good the way he is, and some players are just smoother than others. And Cano has worked hard to improve. His first five years at second, he posted a -15 DRS, and a -37 UZR. His last four years at second, he’s posted a +38 DRS, and a +9 UZR. He’s probably not an elite-level defender, like a Darwin Barney or a younger Mark Ellis, but he’s good, and he’s good just the way he is. He already does a lot, because he’s naturally gifted and athletically smooth. One perspective is that “smooth” players should try harder. An opposite perspective is that “smooth” players represent the defensive ideal, where they don’t even need to spaz out.
He’s not a leader
Get paid a quarter of a billion and you’ll be expected to lead a clubhouse. Be an experienced, productive veteran, and you’ll be expected to lead a clubhouse. Cano said himself in his press conference that he’s not a vocal sort, that he prefers to lead by example with what he does on the field and with how he prepares. Lloyd McClendon has already said, in an unrelated press conference, that he’s not looking for leaders in the clubhouse, that he can do that. He’s looking for leaders on the field, and that’s where Cano comes in, as a guy who prepares well and plays extremely well.
Ichiro caused a bunch of local stirs by not being a vocal leader sort, but it’s fair to say Ichiro was a little more withdrawn than Cano presumably will be. Also, those stories were overblown, and Ichiro did a tremendous job of leading by example, even if he was quiet and sort of on an island. Ichiro always did his job, and it was the rest of the team that didn’t. But anyway, this isn’t about Ichiro. This is about Cano, and the team isn’t signing him to give inspirational speeches. That isn’t a part of the plan, so it can’t be a valid criticism later. And as for on-field leadership, how in the hell are we supposed to evaluate that? If the team’s winning, no one will care about this stuff. If the team’s losing, people will care about this stuff, but there will be more glaring performance-related reasons for the losing. Robinson Cano is getting paid a lot of money to be a good baseball player.
He can’t hit in the playoffs
Over 217 career postseason plate appearances Cano has batted .222 with a .686 OPS and I would personally love nothing more than to be able to think about these numbers in the 2014 season to come.