Mariners Needed to Change; Mariners In Process of Changing
You probably don’t need to read more about how some blogger feels about the Cano acquisition, but, hey, you’re reading a baseball blog. So if you’ll indulge me, this is the third panel of the Cano-analysis triptych.* Dave’s measured lament, Jeff’s cautious…excitement, and now this: I have talked myself into liking this. This is one of those cases where pretty much everyone agrees on the potential gains, the risks, and the alternatives. How you feel about the trade – beyond the universal vertiginous feeling that the phrase “10 years, $240 million” produces – depends on how much you emphasize one versus the other. So here’s what I’m emphasizing: the status quo, as of Thursday, was pretty damned awful.
Yes, yes, the objection is easy: that proves too much. Trading Hisashi Iwakuma for a proverbial can of Sprite would also “shake things up” and alter the status quo. Adding Robinson Cano, I think we can all agree, is not that sort of a shake up. The M’s have kept their valuable prospects (for now) and added one of the best players in baseball. As Jeff said, I’d hoped that this is the route they’d go down, and they have. But you can’t think about the potential careers of guys like Tai Walker and Chris Taylor or Brad Miller without ruminating on the failure (or at least disappointment) of the first wave of M’s prospects under Jack Z. Dustin Ackley is not chopped liver, but is closer to chopped liver than he is to peak-period Chase Utley. Johermyn was a slugger, then just “toolsy”, then a pitcher, and is now a minor league free agent. Danny Hultzen went from #3, to potential ace, to mechanical nightmare to hurt. Vinnie Catricala was great until one day, he wasn’t. Josh Fields. Carlos Triunfel. Alex Liddi. You get the picture.
Obviously, no team turns 100% of their top 10 into MLB regulars. But there was a moment there in 2009-10 when it seemed that the M’s just drafted and developed better than other teams. This club doesn’t need to play in free agency; if they need another lefty reliever, they’ve got 5 of them ready to go. Another middle infielder? Mac and GMZ grow them hydroponically. No one thinks that way anymore, for good reason. This team tried to build a winner by building a home-grown core and adding complementary pieces around it. They failed.
This wasn’t a case of a bad break here or there. Essentially each piece of the plan – technically, the execution of the plan – was flawed. The team clearly came into 2013 needing big years from the anointed line-up core of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. And as disappointing as those three have been, the record with the complementary pieces isn’t much better. Think back on Ian Snell, on Jack Cust, or Milton Bradley. Of course there’ve been some bargain-bin successes, like Russell Branyan, and, hilariously, Mike Sweeney. But the great feedback loop with vets helping prospects helping the next wave of prospects never materialized. They’ve tried it one way, and it hasn’t worked. Personally, I’m not eager to see them double down on the same strategy. Let’s be clear: the plan they tried to implement – develop a young core and add around it – was a *great* idea. That’s what all of us would recommend to any non-Yankees, non-Dodgers club. It’s just that this front office wasn’t good enough to pull it off.
So if you can’t trust an FO to spend wisely, how can you support a…there’s that feeling again…10 year, $240 million contract to one guy? Because there’s no way to avoid the fact that Cano is one of the five best ballplayers in the world. You develop your own core because it’s way, way cheaper than buying one off the shelf. Cheaper, but as we’ve seen, harder to do. So they’re paying retail and simply BUYING their franchise core. Could he implode? Sure he could. Would it be better to spread the risk around 2-3 very good free agents? Maybe, maybe not. If one of the alternatives has a degenerative hip condition and the other is an overrated free agent pitcher, I’m not sure you’ve radically altered the risk profile. Cano costs more because he comes with fewer questions. For whatever reason, the M’s haven’t been really good at finding great bargains (Iwakuma is the massive exception), so they paid for a sure thing.
Yes, the deal will look “bad” in seven years. The question is “how bad?” and “what will it prevent the M’s from doing?” If baseball inflation, fueled by dizzying TV revenue and MLBAM’s bargaining, continues the way it has, then the deal won’t be any sort of a problem. If it IS an impediment, there are two possible reasons why: one, that the M’s have added a lot of complementary pieces or signed some young stars to long extensions. That is, it’s a problem because the M’s finally identified their window, and are in the thick of the AL race. It would be frustrating if, in 2020, the Cano deal is a problem them, but *that is the kind of problem I would like to have.* I’m sick of the M’s current problem, which is a complete inability to play baseball at a level approaching that of their AL West rivals. The second reason the contract could be an impediment in 2020 is that the TV party is over, inflation stops or even kicks over into deflation, and the M’s regional sports network is an albatross and not a golden goose. Compared to this, the Cano contract is nothing – if the cable TV market implodes, then yes, it’s going to be tough to pay Cano. If the cable TV market implodes, though, the M’s (and baseball) will have much, much bigger problems than dead money to an aging 2B.
That the M’s now own a majority of their RSN actually helps align incentives here. There’s still no business I’d be more scared to invest in today than cable TV, but that decision was last year’s nervous-excited-dizzying move. If the M’s are to get some of that delicious, luxury-tax-shielded revenue from the RSN’s profits, the M’s need viewers. Right now, they don’t have any. It’s easy to say that the M’s got desperate and attempted to buy relevance instead of a contending team, but just because the M’s needed something doesn’t mean they bought the wrong thing. Of course adding Cano, by itself, won’t magically produce ratings like 2002’s. But the M’s got better yesterday, and they’ve got much better than they would have by waiting for one of the youngsters to develop into a superstar. The M’s have an opportunity to add pieces around Cano and be a good (not just “promising”) club in 2015.
This highlights a problem: we’re trying to evaluate this deal without knowing what else is coming. We can only see half the picture right now. This deal will look disappointing (not necessarily ‘terrible’) if their prospects continue to fizzle out and if they’re unable to add any meaningful talent around Cano. That is, they’d be in a very similar position that they’d be in without this move. The serious risk is several years out, when we have very little ability to measure it. That doesn’t mean that seeing this as a desperate gamble is necessarily wrong, it’s just that the M’s likely have several years to plan for and deal with the consequences of that gamble. The M’s could see what they have in 2014 and make a serious push at 2015. They could also make a couple of disastrous trades and make a run at 2014 instead. As Jeff mentioned, Price-for-Walker is the deal to worry about. You can argue that getting Cano makes those risks somehow more likely, as it’s now easier for someone to claim that the M’s are good enough to justify a win-now trade like Walker/Price, but the problem there doesn’t have anything to do with the Cano deal itself – you need to take some imaginative leaps and analytical failures to get to the really, really damaging part. Could the M’s screw this up? Of course, they’re the M’s. I’ve been about as pessimistic about this club as anyone, and it’s easy to itemize how to start with Cano and end with a smoldering wreck of an organization. We all want to guess at and second guess at the next two or three moves. But let’s look at this in isolation for a minute: the M’s just added a brilliant player (a brilliant *player* and not a brilliant ‘power hitter’ or ‘line-up legitimizer’ or whatever) and didn’t give up any talent to do so.
This could all go wrong, in 6 years or 6 weeks. But almost everything’s gone wrong for the past three years. The M’s added several wins at a stroke, and they have given themselves an opportunity to change the AL West race in a few years. I’m all for adding wisely, and building internally, but the gap between the M’s and the teams they’re chasing was so big, the task has seemed impossible. The M’s have in no way completed that task, and while they’ve added some risk way down the road, they’ve bought something really important for the next three-four years: possibility.
* I have unwittingly made Jeff’s post’s title a lie. Sorry Jeff. Sorry everyone.