Carlos Peguero is gone. Officially, now, not just designated for assignment. Instead of clearing waivers, Peguero was given to the Royals in exchange for cash, and cash can be subsequently exchanged for goods and/or services that could do more for the Mariners than Peguero would. Now, the Mariners could always conceivably get Peguero back if and when he’s designated for assignment by the Royals in a few weeks, but presuming he’s out of the organization for good, you’re free to say your goodbyes. I’d tell you to be brief, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
So the two names in Mariners news today are Peguero and Scott Baker. With that in mind, here’s a video from 2011, connecting them. It is a remarkable video of a remarkable thing.
According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, that dinger maxed out at 39 feet above the playing surface. A few weeks later, Peguero did this to Chris Volstad:
That dinger also maxed out at 39 feet above the playing surface. In 2011, there were four lower home runs hit, but they were all of the inside-the-park variety. So Peguero hit the lowest out-of-the-park home run that season, and he did it not once, but twice. Also, there was no lower out-of-the-park home run in 2012. There was no lower out-of-the-park home run in 2013. To find a lower such dinger, you have to go back to early 2010. So Peguero has hit the lowest true dingers in years.
And in 2012, he hit one of the highest home runs of the year, maxing out at 144 feet above the playing surface. Carlos Peguero is versatile, if you put a microscope over the one positive thing he’s capable of doing.
Sure is a lot of potential in Peguero. Sure is a lot of potential in almost literally every single human. Sure are a lot of disappointing humans. Peguero’s not dull, though. We had our moments, which is more than you could say for whoever the hell Chris Jakubauskas was.
Just yesterday I was reflecting on what it was like to talk about and analyze transactions before we had all the numbers and understanding we have today. It never felt hopeless — if anything, I think writers might’ve been more confident — but the old way seems so foreign now, so inclined to beat around bushes when today we’re equipped to just dig them up out of the ground. That’s probably not what that expression means. These days we just go about things differently, with presumably more complicated thought processes, and I thought it might be fun to attempt a side-by-side comparison. The Mariners have made a move allowing for just such an attempt, officially signing Scott Baker to a minor-league contract.
He’ll get $1 million if he makes the team, and he could earn an additional $3.25 million if he were to hit all his incentives. But as of today, it’s a low-risk, minor-league deal, costing the Mariners an almost negligible sum. I want to look at this, quickly, in an older way and a newer way. It’s been a while since I wrote in the older way, so what follows is just a best guess, but here’s to analyzing this Scott Baker acquisition over the years.
The Mariners have been in the market for starting-rotation help, and in Baker they’ve identified a potential massive bargain. It’s true that Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery, and that’s a very involved operation, but it’s never been more effective than it is today, and it’s more of a career-delayer than a career-destroyer. If Baker isn’t good, he’ll cost the Mariners next to nothing. If his arm doesn’t look right, they can keep him in the minors or cut him in spring, and there’s little harm done. But if Baker’s back to the old Scott Baker, well, the old, healthy Scott Baker was a reliable above-average starting pitcher with more strikeouts than you might’ve expected from his stuff. He had a ton of value when he was healthy, and he says he’s healthy again now, and he did, after all, pass the Mariners’ physical.
Sure, you could drop tens of millions of dollars on an Ervin Santana or a Ubaldo Jimenez. Maybe that gives you a little more certainty. That’s also a hefty commitment, and if Baker’s back, he’s about as good as anything else available. This is a brilliant move for the Mariners to make, with plenty more upside than downside. Yeah, maybe Baker does nothing at all. Or maybe he makes 30 starts with a sub-4 ERA. There aren’t many ways for this to look like a mistake, but there are plenty of ways for it to look like a bargain. This is an example of smart shopping.
Every year, every team in baseball brings some starters to spring training on minor-league contracts. Scott Baker’s more interesting than most of them are, given his history, and given that he’s coming off something as understood these days as Tommy John surgery. While getting Baker might not stop the Mariners from pursuing other starters, he does give them a potential depth option, to bolster the group behind Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Mariners aren’t out any real money if Baker doesn’t look sharp. All this is is a roll of the dice to see if Baker looks like his old familiar self.
Because his old familiar self was a quality starting pitcher. He isn’t less than that now because of a decline — he’s less than that now because of injury, and he might well bounce back. But then, that might not happen. As much as Tommy John recovery seems so routine these days, the Cubs got basically nothing out of Baker in 2013. Ryan Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011. Cory Luebke hasn’t pitched since April 2012. Nothing about this process is automatic, and nothing about this process assures a 100% return to effectiveness.
Consider how neat it is that the Mariners were able to get Baker on a minor-league deal. Now consider that the MLB market allowed for that to happen. Clearly, no one else sees Baker as a safe investment, including his former teams, and that strikes me as not insignificant. Maybe overly cautious, but not insignificant. 171 starters started at least a game in the majors in 2011 and 2013. Baker’s average fastball lost 2.6 miles per hour. Five starters lost that much or more. Ricky Romero, these days, is a disaster. Roy Halladay had shoulder problems and retired. Ramon Ortiz was awful. CC Sabathia got worse. Jered Weaver got worse. It’s not good to lose ticks, especially when you drop into the 80s.
And maybe a part of that was just Baker finally getting back on a mound. Maybe he’s only now returning to full arm strength and full pitching confidence. But the last time he pitched, well removed from surgery, he wasn’t quite himself. So he still has some things to prove. It’s not unreasonable to think that Scott Baker could bounce back, but it would be unreasonable to expect it.
I think that covers it. I think, in the past, I would’ve been a lot more optimistic about a signing like this. I still like it — there really isn’t much downside at all — but I feel like I’m a little more realistic about Baker’s chances of being any good. There still exist the same floor and the same ceiling, but in my mind, the probabilities have shifted. There’s information in the fact that Baker’s coming off surgery. There’s information in the fact that the market allowed him to sign this particular contract. Seattle’s got a big park, and a good opportunity, but obviously no one thought Baker was worth a guarantee, and I don’t feel right ignoring that.
Ultimately though, what’s most important is that the Mariners did get a guy with upside at a low cost. There’s no way to dislike this, that I can come up with. The Mariners haven’t sacrificed anything for the Scott Baker chance, and the more talented starters you have, the better your odds of getting a good rotation from the group. How this could go wrong is if the Mariners give Baker too many big-league starts to be not good, but there’s nothing to complain about until there’s something to complain about. Scott Baker’s a Mariner now, and they’ve done a lot worse.
Something we know is that the Mariners aren’t finished trying to tweak the roster. We know this because if they were finished, that would be stupid. Recently there have been some interesting messages put out there. On the one hand, people have suggested the Mariners are just about out of payroll flexibility. On the other, the Mariners have said they still have some resources, and they just admitted to being in the market for a No.3 starting pitcher. You can’t target a No. 3 starting pitcher if you can’t make any more significant moves.
So what is a No. 3 starting pitcher? For one team next year, the No. 3 starter will be Anibal Sanchez. For another team next year, the No. 3 starter will be Kevin Correia. So, a No. 3 is somewhere between Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Correia, and that’s what the Mariners are targeting. The first guy to grab your attention is Ervin Santana, but the way Jack has been talking, Santana might be too expensive. Another rumor out there is that the Mariners are highly interested in free agent Scott Baker. I don’t know if Baker would count as the No. 3, or as something else, but that’s a thing that’s been floated on the Internet, and so that’s a thing I’m free to riff on.
This is amazingly simple. If you happen to be in a rush, read only the next two sentences. The last healthy version of Scott Baker was a quality, dependable starting pitcher. The big question is how he’ll recover from his elbow surgery.
And that’s it. That’s what we can say. Baker would be good if he could get back to being what he was for a few years with the Twins. He might not be able to do that, on account of the elbow problems, and he’s also just older, as we all are. The three years before his surgery, he was as good as Max Scherzer and Hiroki Kuroda, more or less. Good pitchers! Then health problems. Baker pitched in the majors last season, but he pitched all of three times, and he wasn’t himself. I mean, he was himself, by definition, but he wasn’t his old himself. He was a version of Scott Baker you’re not familiar with yet.
Given how routine Tommy John surgery has become, I don’t think it scares people the way it used to. I think a common assumption is that pitchers end up fine on the other end, given a long enough rehab. So Baker just looks like a high-upside pickup. Which he would be, but he’s far from automatic. Remember: Baker has started three games over the past two seasons. He’s started six games since the end of July, 2011. How could it go wrong, you ask? The Cubs paid Baker $5.5 million last season, and he played three games. He looked like a smart risk, but that’s why “risk” and “guarantee” are different words with different definitions.
According to reports, the Cubs have already basically ruled out re-signing Baker, even though they’re still looking for rotation help. That’s interesting, although it’s not like we can know exactly what it means. When Baker did come back last year, his fastball was down about 2-3 ticks from where it was beforehand. Obviously, that could just be part of the rehab, and Baker could be back to 100% these days. But he might also just be less of a pitcher now, and while Baker offered quotes about how velocity isn’t as important as command and movement, the reality is that velocity matters and a lower-velocity Baker would be a lower-effectiveness Baker, almost certainly. If the market viewed Baker as a good gamble, he’d have more of a market.
I’m not trying to talk people out of Scott Baker, because I like the idea of Scott Baker, as anyone would. The last time he was healthy, he was neat, and maybe he’s healthy again now. I just want to make it clear that when you’re dealing with the talented and delicate, sometimes you end up seeing a lot of the talent, but sometimes you end up seeing a lot of the fragility. Lots of players would be better if they could get back to being what they were. Baker’s among them. Last September he was throwing 88 instead of 91, and someone already tried rolling the dice on him once. You don’t need to go far back for proof that Scott Baker can disappoint you.
Obvious statement: Scott Baker would be great on a minor-league contract! At that point there’s not no risk, but there’s limited risk. On a major-league contract, everything depends, and everyone has a point beyond which they’d no longer be real comfortable. Remember that the Mariners are kind of planning on winning, soon. There are a lot of reasons to favor talent over durability. The A’s have been fortunate doing that very thing. It’s not clear how much talent Scott Baker actually still has, when he’s able to get on a mound. He’s not quite Franklin Gutierrez, but that’s also an impossible benchmark.
Tanaka’s going to New York, and it’s official, so no take-backsies. It always kind of looked like the Mariners would make a whole lot of sense, even before people started connecting them to Tanaka, and then people started connecting them to Tanaka. But then that stopped, and about a week passed, and then we got here. We can’t be certain to what extent the Mariners were actually involved, and I don’t know if they’ll ever choose to open up about it like, say, the Astros have in acknowledging they met and made a nine-figure offer. Maybe the M’s were in really deep. But there was no actual indication of that, and perhaps the M’s anticipated how high this would go and started to look elsewhere. Perhaps the M’s were uncomfortable with seven years and $175 million.
Because that’s what this is going to cost the Yankees: seven years and $175 million. Unless Tanaka is healthy and good, in which case it’ll cost them four years and $108 million, and then he’ll opt out and sign for more. Tanaka was at his absolute most appealing several months ago, I think. At that point he was an idea, a talented mystery, and he’d be in a position where he’d basically have to sign with the team with the highest posting bid. And we loved the way posting bids came from some kind of separate budget. Then changes to the posting system more or less exposed Tanaka to free-agency prices. Suddenly everyone got to be involved. Today’s numbers function as a splash of cold water on a daydreamer’s face.
No more is it about Tanaka being a mystery, and therefore potentially being a bargain. The posting fee plus the salary add up to Felix Hernandez money. Tanaka has an opt-out. Felix has a cheap option if he hurts his elbow. It isn’t fair to just directly compare the numbers like that, but it still conveys a powerful and mostly accurate idea — Tanaka’s being paid to be somewhat similar to Felix Hernandez, and Felix is getting paid basically what he’s worth. While the Yankees are happy to print their own money, had the Mariners guaranteed a contract like this, there would’ve been more ways for it to go bad than good. Though I’m fairly certain Tanaka will be pretty good, this goes well past the point of being an obvious deal. At these terms, the Mariners were at least not wrong to hold back.
It’s just that, you know, there’s that dilemma. Tanaka won’t be a bargain, but he was probably the best free agent left. Maybe the best available player left. And the Mariners still need to get better, if they aim to contend in the short term, which is kind of the whole point of signing Robinson Cano for so much. I know they say it’s a ten-year marriage, and I know they say they expect Cano to age gracefully, but he won’t be better in 2017 than he will be in 2014. The plan, it seems, is to win. The progress is incomplete.
By the FanGraphs projected standings, the Mariners are the 11th-best team in the American League. By the FanGraphs projected WAR, the Mariners are still the 11th-best team in the American League. Of course, there’s a whole mess of teams right ahead of them, and the M’s are close enough to get carried away, but being trapped behind that many teams leaves them with very low odds. The M’s could still badly use another four or five wins, which is to say, the M’s could still badly use immediate roster upgrades. A few of them, since you probably won’t gain that with one player.
And there’s relatively little left. I mean, there’s a lot left, a lot more than usual by this point in January, but there’s nothing easy about the task the Mariners face, especially if it’s true that they’re pushing up against their budget ceiling. David Price would be a splash, but we’ve been over that. The remaining upper-tier starters are all interesting, but they’ll be expensive and they’re all no less mysterious than Tanaka is, given Garza’s health, Santana’s volatility, and Jimenez’s unpredictability. It’s been interesting to think about the link between the Mariners and Scott Baker, but Baker might not return to being the consistent pitcher he was. I keep advertising Chris Capuano everywhere, but that’d be a small improvement. They need more improvements.
For me, the wild card in a way is Nick Franklin. He’s got nowhere to play, and he’s young and good and appealing. Ordinarily fans are loath to trade their own quality prospects, but I think we’ve all come to terms with Franklin’s expendability. He’s potentially of the most use to the Mariners by getting traded, provided the trade is a good one, for help. He’s good enough to be the centerpiece in a move for a relative splash, a move that would forgivably focus more on the present. But I can’t speak to the league-wide demand. The one move I know in which Franklin was involved, I didn’t like. I should hope that the Mariners could turn him into something pretty good.
It’s a weird day for Mariners fans. It’s a good day, just in that, all right, the offseason can resume now. Tanaka’s finally off the board, and he got a massive deal, so it’s not like the Mariners totally whiffed. But the Mariners still do need to get better, and no route will be quicker than the Tanaka one would’ve. So if the front office wants to achieve the goal it set for itself some months back, it needs to go all Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. I don’t know if she actually navigated security lasers in the movie but that’s what the promotional poster made it look like. You could also think of the Mariners as having to play Operation, and Jack Zduriencik’s got some chubby fingers.
In time, Tanaka will be just another pitcher. Maybe a very good one, but in time he’ll feel real. We’ll be able to say, okay, he’s as good as this other guy, like we can do with Yu Darvish. In time he’ll feel a lot less, I don’t know, exotic. The process started today when we heard about the one hundred seventy-five million dollars. I’m okay with the Mariners sitting this one out. I’m just not quite sure what they’re supposed to do now. The Seahawks are in the Super Bowl, though. Wow!
To the surprise of pretty much no one, the New York Yankees signed the biggest prize in the pitching market, Masahiro Tanaka, to a 7 year, $155 million deal. Add in the $20m posting fee, and that’s a total of $175m committed to the 25 year old righty. That’s a bit more than Dave’s guess or the Fangraphs’ community estimate, but it’s certainly in the ballpark. The AAV is quite close, it’s just that Tanaka signed for a seventh year.
Anyway, Tanaka isn’t coming to Seattle, and while we never really thought that was likely, it’s too bad. Tanaka would’ve bumped the M’s chances at a wild card considerably, although he’s still a considerable risk. Hopefully, we’ll now see a run on the remaining free agent pitchers like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez, and we’ll get a better sense of the M’s 2014 roster.
Here’s a thing about Nelson Cruz: nobody really wants him. Mariners fans have been afraid of the Cruz possibility from the beginning of the offseason, and the rumors haven’t gone away, with Ken Rosenthal chiming in Friday. Nevermind the performance-enhancing drug suspension; Cruz, simply, is overrated by people paid to talk about the game. He turns 34 years old in July and he doesn’t really walk or play defense. People have been terrified that the Mariners would give Cruz the massive contract he entered the offseason looking for.
Here’s another thing about Nelson Cruz: nobody really wants him. It’s the middle of January and Cruz remains a free agent, and he’s a free agent without a strong market. The best fit, at this point, is probably Baltimore, but Baltimore hasn’t done anything. Seattle’s the only other fit, and they haven’t done anything. The Phillies looked obvious from the get-go, but they instead went with Marlon Byrd. Maybe, in the past, Cruz would’ve secured a major payday, but teams are smarter now, and one of the first things smart baseball people learn is that players like Cruz are overrated.
Used to be people talked about five years and $75 million, like Cruz was going to get it from somebody. That would make for a certain disaster. That’s what turned people off from Cruz in the first place, as they wanted to avoid stepping on a landmine. But in reality, the choice isn’t Nelson Cruz for five years, or something else. Cruz will have to play for his best offer, and his best offer is going to be quite a bit lower than the nightmare offer we imagined in November.
Certain players, you don’t want under any circumstances, because they don’t make sense under any circumstances. Yuniesky Betancourt, for one. Yuni sucks, and he’s not getting better, and if you’re in a position where you’re considering a job for Yuniesky Betancourt, you’d be better off giving it to somebody younger. I wouldn’t want the Mariners to sign Betancourt for the league minimum. Other players, you don’t want at high salaries, but you can tolerate for something more reasonable. Any player who makes a positive contribution makes sense at some kind of deal, and Nelson Cruz isn’t a replacement-level outfielder. He’s just overrated and aging.
So as much as we’ve all been afraid of Cruz, we’ve really been afraid of an expensive Cruz. There is a point at which the Mariners could be sensible in signing Cruz to a deal. Even with the lost draft pick. The thing to consider isn’t the player, but the value of the player relative to his contract. Cruz could sign a reasonable contract. And look at the Mariners’ outfield right now. I like Michael Saunders, but he isn’t a star. Dustin Ackley might be charitably referred to as “developing”. Franklin Gutierrez spends half his take-home on bubble wrap. Logan Morrison hasn’t actually been good for years. Corey Hart’s neat, but after surgeries he might be a DH. Abe Almonte is interesting, but unproven and in possession of options. The Mariners have one of the worse projected outfields in the major leagues.
So Cruz could actually be an improvement. Maybe that means you put him in left and you make Hart the regular DH, and Morrison’s around to give breaks to Hart and Justin Smoak. And Cruz, too, for when he’s day-to-day. I don’t know, I’m not worried about the alignment right now. Cruz would probably make the Mariners better. So what would it be worth paying him, in exchange for his making the Mariners better?
The last three years, by FanGraphs, Cruz has been worth about 3.9 WAR. Baseball-Reference says 3.7. Steamer projects Cruz to be worth 1.6 in the coming season. Let’s just call it an easy 1.5. That’s worth about $9 million, flat.
Maybe you bump it to $10 million, given how close the Mariners are to being competitive. Now, there’s the matter of the draft pick. Let’s assume Kendrys Morales does sign somewhere else before June. In that case, the Mariners lose that compensation pick for signing Robinson Cano, and then they’d lose a second-rounder for signing Cruz. The slot value of the pick last year was about $1.2 million. Let’s value that pick at, say, $2 million. That pick could turn into a pretty good prospect. Subtract $2 million from $10 million and you have Cruz making sense at a year and $8 million.
But Cruz would probably like more security. Give him two years. Bump him down to roughly 1 WAR in 2015, because he is getting older, and if his skills don’t decline, he might still become more fragile. There’s, say, $6.5 million of value for a year from now. So we’re up to $14.5 million over two years.
Maybe Cruz wants three? You give him 0.5 WAR in the last year, and that’d be worth something in the neighborhood of $3.5 million. Which would take you up to $18 million over three years. John Buck, as it happens, is coming off a three-year deal worth $18 million. He signed when he was 30, and he’d been worth three or four wins over the previous three years. This offseason, Carlos Ruiz signed for three and $26 million. Scott Feldman signed for three and $30 million. Phil Hughes signed for three and $24 million. James Loney and Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed for three and $21 million. Javier Lopez, Boone Logan, and Joe Smith earned three-year contracts as relievers somehow. Cruz might not love the idea of $18 million over three years, or about $15 million over two, but he isn’t really the guy with the leverage here. He doesn’t have a market, and while he’d fit with the Orioles, the Orioles might prefer Morales, who also doesn’t have a market.
So all that — that would be reasonable. Cruz would make sense around:
- one year, $8 million
- two years, $14.5 million
- three years, $18 million
And these are estimates, so while three years and $20 million would be more than three years and $18 million, that still wouldn’t be terrible. Things start getting messy around three years and $30 million, and you definitely want to avoid a fourth guaranteed year, but even $30 million wouldn’t be a catastrophe, relative to what we expected a few months ago. That might be overpaying by about $4 million a year, but that’s a somewhat small fraction of the budget. Overpaying is seldom a good idea, but there are shades, there are degrees, and Cruz could be an awful lot more overpaid. We thought he would be. It’s not the end of the world to be a little bit off.
Look — gun to my head, I think Abe Almonte might actually be better than Nelson Cruz right now, given their respective overall packages. If that were true, then signing Cruz would be almost a complete waste. But Almonte could be put in Tacoma, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having depth. Depth allows you to re-visit things down the line. I’d love for Almonte to be good — I’d love for all the players to be good — but Almonte doesn’t need to be on the Opening Day roster. He’s not going to start to suck a lot if he isn’t in Seattle in April.
I don’t think I’m ever going to love the idea of the Mariners signing Nelson Cruz. It’s hard to love the idea of a team signing anyone who doesn’t even project to be overall league-average. The last three years, Cruz has been about as valuable as Joe Saunders, and nobody really wants him back. But Cruz could probably improve this team, and this team could absolutely use some improvements. So there’s a price at which Cruz would actually, really, genuinely make sense. With that in mind, I’m not totally opposed to the Mariners going the predictable route. I’m just opposed to them paying too high a toll.
Justin Smoak is arbitration-eligible. On Friday, the Mariners and Smoak exchanged salary figures, with the team offering $2.025 million, and with Smoak requesting $3.25 million. The likelihood is that this won’t get all the way to arbitration, and that the Mariners and Smoak will settle somewhere in the middle. The Mariners have pretty much always settled. But what follows is an example of what an arbitration hearing between a team and a player is actually like.
Arbitrator: I’ve got $2.025 million from the team.
Arbitrator: And I see $3.25 million from the player.
Arbitrator: Gentlemen, you are free to proceed.
Team side: Last year, the player ranked 18th among first basemen in home runs.
Team side: He ranked 62nd overall. He finished below J.P. Arencibia.
Player side: SMOAKYYYYYYYY
Team side: Among first basemen he was 30th in RBI. There are 30 teams.
Player side: SMOAK BOMB
Team side: He was 151st among all players in runs scored.
Team side: He did not steal a base.
Player side: WHERE THERE’S SMOAK THERE’S
Player side: FIYAHHHHH
Team side: 123 qualified players finished with a higher batting average, out of 140.
Team side: All but three players finished with a higher average against lefties.
Player side: DON’T!
Player side: QUIT!
Player side: SMOAKING!
Team side: Over three years, 146 qualified players have more hits.
Arbitrator: I find for the player. $3.25 million.
Player side: SMOAK SMOAK SMOAKAROO
Today, the Mariners did something that’s virtually impossible to complain about. And by that, I don’t mean the Mariners did nothing at all, because they actually went out and got a guy. John Buck is that guy, and he’s reportedly been given a year and a million. You might’ve figured, when the Mariners picked up Humberto Quintero, that was the veteran who’d slot in as Mike Zunino’s backup, but instead that’ll be Buck, at least out of the gate. John Buck seems to be better than Humberto Quintero. John Buck seems to be better than Jesus Sucre, even though I think Sucre is kind of neat. Quintero and Sucre, now, are insurance, behind the top tandem, which is entirely unobjectionable.
On its own, this move is hardly worth any words. Buck has good power and enough negatives to make him a guy the Mariners could add for a year and a million. In no way is he going to be a surprise, and he’s close to the end of his big-league career. Buck would’ve been drawn to the Mariners in part because they were offering a big-league contract, and in part because Zunino could struggle which would leave Buck with plenty of potential playing time. The Mariners would’ve found Buck appealing because he can start if that’s what they end up needing. The evidence we have suggests that Buck is a below-average pitch-framer, and last year he was among the worst. The year before that, he was fine. Buck’s framing isn’t going to win or lose this division.
I think what’s more interesting here than Buck himself is how Buck could represent a potential Mike Zunino career path. Coincidentally, Zunino is projected by Steamer for an 85 wRC+, which matches Buck’s career total on the nose. Zunino’s still very young, and he’s still considered a top prospect, but when it comes to plotting where he goes from here, the Buck route’s a realistic one. I can’t tell if that’s pessimistic or not.
I’ve long considered Zunino’s upside to be something like Jason Varitek. That’s upside, not ceiling, because Zunino’s ceiling would be a superstar and national icon. The downside would be something more like J.P. Arencibia. Buck is kind of in the middle of those two, and he was basically a regular for an entire decade. He did some things well, and he did some things less well, and he made an All-Star Game once.
In the early going, Zunino has demonstrated that he’ll probably strike out a lot. Not because he’s hopelessly over-aggressive, like Miguel Olivo, but because there are just holes in his swing. In the majors and in Triple-A, he made contact about seven times for every ten swings. To go with the strikeouts, he’ll draw some walks, but Zunino probably won’t ever be confused for A.J. Ellis. It’s the power that should help him keep playing. Zunino doesn’t have Giancarlo Stanton’s raw strength, but there are dingers in his bat, some of them quite long, and you notice Buck has a career .167 ISO. That seems like something Zunino could achieve.
Behind the plate, Buck’s been better at blocking balls than throwing them, but his arm’s been just fine. I think the advantage Zunino might have on Buck is that he seems like a better receiver, but that still has to be proven, and then the significance of that also has to be proven. They say Zunino is pitcher-friendly, and that he has captain-like tendencies, yet Buck’s also been thought of before as a leader and we don’t know how much this stuff matters. The catching position is kind of selective for leadership types. Not in every case, but it’s among the assumed responsibilities.
Zunino turns just 23 in March, and a year ago Baseball America ranked him baseball’s 17th-best prospect. Buck was once ranked baseball’s 43rd-best prospect, and the next year he slotted in at 67th. Zunino’s definitely thought of more highly, but Buck was a significant prospect in his own right, and over the several years there have been changes in prospect evaluation. We don’t know how prospect Buck would be thought of today. Over about 4,000 big-league plate appearances, he’s hit .234/.301/.400.
One’s instinct is to think that’s too low, for Zunino. The way Zunino’s been hyped, we’re all looking for something more than a .700 OPS. But then, every catcher who hasn’t been great could’ve been great, and there are similarities between Zunino and Buck’s player profiles. Zunino might be better defensively, and that could be the great separator, but at the end of the day similar careers would be reasonable. Maybe — maybe — Buck isn’t a 50th-percentile projection, but I doubt he’s lower than 40th. Buck’s been all right, and it’s ever so hard to be more than that.
Tuesday afternoon, the Mariners signed an aging John Buck. They might well be pairing him with a younger John Buck. You, like me, would prefer that Zunino turn out to be more than that. But, we’d prefer lots of things.
A funny thing happened last Saturday. I’m not referring to my trip to a bar long after the game, where I think I saw a patron attempt to pay with a photograph of Russell Wilson (that did happen). No, rather, during the game I was at work and my boss had the national radio feed configured and I heard Dave Sims, calling the game with a chipperness I have not recognized in recent seasons. Later, switching to my own radio in the car, I picked up a reference by the announcers to Russell Wilson’s baseball career, noting that the last play looked like a ball flip that might be made by the second baseman to initiate a double play. Baseball was suddenly an impending thing again. My mind latched on to it and now I’m recollecting and wondering about various bits of roster minutae, both good (“hey, Nick Franklin rebounded in September sort of”) and not universally good but it’s still baseball (“oh right, Willie Bloomquist.”)
We also, this morning, got another sign of the coming spring with the announcement of NRIs, with more NRIs to come, one figures. A lot of this could have been inferred already, as we figured that RHPs Matt Palmer and Ramon Ramirez would be on the list, Humberto Quintero would be part of that backstop corps, and Cole Gillespie would probably get an invite for the outfield because why not?
Beyond that basic bit of bookkeeping, there are a few points of intrigue on the list. Sure, a lot of the invites fall under the “paid your dues” header (hey there, southpaws), but I can’t recall another year where internally developed players figured so prominently. Almost three-quarters of the NRIs were drafted and signed by the M’s and a few more were with the org last year. It could be that Tanaka has somehow managed to freeze the minor league FA market as well, but it looks more like the Mariners are trying to maintain the feeling of internal development even after the Cano signing.
Moving down the list, there are other things to note. Steve Baron is not part of this year’s backstop corps, and while he may end up joining later for split squads and travel days, he also might not with guys like Tyler Marlette around. The infield has a couple of 40-man also-rans in the bat-first Nate Tenbrink and Ty Kelly (walk-first, in his case) added to perennial gloveman in Gabriel Noriega and Chris Taylor, who hopefully can hit and field. D.J. Peterson is a noted absence, particularly when high picks often have NRI invites worked into their contracts, but it could be that they’re still trying to hold him back after that surgery on his jaw. Gillespie is also the only outfielder on the roster at the moment. No Travis Witherspoon. No Burt Reynolds and the opportunity for competitively-obscure Burt Reynolds references. Mind you, there are nine listed OFs on the 40-man already which does not include Morrison or Hart, so there may not be a need.
Probably the thing to watch as we get into March is what happens among the right-handed pitching NRIs. Dominic Leone and Carson Smith both got invites to compete and both are of the “hard-throwers of varying polish” group that has later seen mid-season jobs for guys like Stephen Pryor, Mark Lowe, Carter Capps, and Shawn Kelley. There’s also Stephen Kohlscheen to consider, a guy who has less stuff than either Leone or Smith, but has had great K numbers the past two seasons and was talked about as a potential Rule 5 selection during the winter meetings. Appearances by any of those three could be looked on as a preview of coming attractions. And this is a preview of that preview, which has now reached its conclusion. Think more on it, or don’t until you absolutely have to.
With Robinson Cano, it was pretty easy. A big market didn’t exist, and Cano’s previous employer didn’t show enough desire to keep him around, and Cano, in the end, just wanted to be wanted. Wanted and made to be super rich. So the Mariners just waltzed on up, promised Cano a quarter of everything they had, and there was a deal. Quickly, far more quickly than anyone imagined, the Mariners got a free-agent Cano locked down.
It’s going to be more tricky with Masahiro Tanaka. Lots of teams want Tanaka. Everybody wants Tanaka. He’s just the right blend of talented, young, and mysterious. The market realistically couldn’t be bigger, so it’s not like the Mariners can position themselves as Tanaka’s only good option. But the Mariners want Tanaka, and kind of need him, in the sense that they’d like to win in 2014. It would be a hell of a challenge for the Mariners to get Tanaka to pick them over the competition. But thankfully everything they need to know about how to proceed they can learn from VH1’s The Pickup Artist.
Open a set
The Mariners need to arrange for a face-to-face meeting. They should go through Tanaka’s agent, and request the presence of his wife and any other associates. At no point should the Mariners reveal the purpose of the meeting, even if it seems obvious on the surface.
Every baseball team that engages in a meeting is represented by guys in expensive suits and polo shirts. The Mariners need to zig where others zag, since, after all, the purpose is to stand out. The Mariners’ representatives should leave the suits and polos and sweater-vests at home. They should wear jerseys, flashy jerseys, with hats and various accessories of some intrigue. Any amount of captured interest is captured interest.
False time constraint
Right away, the Mariners should say they don’t have real long, because they have to get to other important pieces of business. It’ll convey that they have other important business, and it’ll help the other parties feel like they won’t be sitting around all day. It’ll make the meeting seem more “breezy”.
For much of the first part of the meeting, the Mariners should all but ignore Masahiro Tanaka entirely. They should engage the others in conversation, and recite lighthearted, rehearsed storytelling to make them feel at ease. At one point Jack Zduriencik should take a phone call and say, “sorry, one minute, it’s Ervin’s agent.” He should talk for at least 12 minutes.
When the Mariners do begin actually speaking with Tanaka himself, one of the things someone should say is, “seems like you have good stuff. Almost as good as Ubaldo’s.”
As conversational chemistry with Tanaka builds, Mariners representatives should make sure to exchange several high-fives and fist-bumps with him. A good idea might be to demonstrate the sorts of elaborate dugout high-fives that are popular in the American game today. This will begin to establish a physical connection, and that, in turn, will help develop trust.
This is all about getting inside Tanaka’s head, without his even realizing it. As the Mariners talk about the benefits of playing stateside, for each they should designate a specific gesture signal. Then, later, as the Mariners are talking about their own organization and future, they should roll out the same subtle gesture signals. Tanaka will subconsciously link benefits with the Mariners franchise.
Indicators of interest
As the meeting continues, the Mariners will be focused on getting things done before they stand back up. But before they move in for the close, they need to wait to observe at least three indicators of interest from Tanaka. This could be initiating another high-five sequence, or leaning in closer to the table, or breaking a pause in conversation, or asking specific questions about what it would be like to be a Japanese superstar in a Mariners uniform down the road. Once there are at least three IOI, Tanaka’s heavy interest will be confirmed.
The Mariners don’t leave without a signed contract. After the observation of sufficient IOI, the Mariners should begin negotiating contract terms, reassuring Tanaka that he’s not going to find a better situation or a more supportive partner. Tanaka will agree and proceed, because he will have become intrigued by the Mariners, and because he would have developed a connection with them unlike any connection he might have developed with another front office. The Mariners will thus have their man, in ink, and their corresponding significant boost in playoff odds. It literally can’t not work.