The M’s Put a Premium on Certainty

marc w · December 4, 2014 at 12:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Soooo, welcome Nelson Cruz. Thanks for everything, Michael Saunders. Enjoy playing in that ballpark in which you’ve hit your longest career HR, and hit more HRs than you did in Texas, Anaheim or Oakland. The M’s seemed desperate to improve their offense, and thus they didn’t balk at four years for a 34-year old slugger. Despite this, they took some public shots at their 3rd best hitter – on a rate basis – last year, and all but hung a “make an offer” sign around his neck. How do we interpret these moves? What’s the pattern here?

First of all, we need to address the M’s very public infatuation with “right handed power.” As every sabermetric fan reminds them, production is production, and it doesn’t matter how you get it. That’s true for most every team, but if any team can make the case that they’re falling short *because* of a specific offensive hole, it’s probably Seattle. From 2012-2014, the M’s have been in a dead heat with the Marlins for the worst offense against left-handed pitchers. Limit it to the last two seasons, and the M’s have been the worst offense in baseball. The M’s wRC+ keeps dropping, and they were saved from last place in 2014 thanks only to a truly horrific showing by the Padres. Now, wRC+ is park adjusted, but perhaps it’s not adequately accounting for the marine layer, and 2014’s stats include Kendrys Morales’ weird collapse, and remember that Morse was hurt in 2013, and…. You can quibble with the numbers, but only at the margins. What’s worse is that all of baseball knows it, and thus they know how to attack the M’s. Over the last three years, no team has had more plate appearances AGAINST left-handed pitching than the M’s, and it’s not particularly close.

Moreover, the M’s have tried remedying this situation in several ways. Morse was acquired in a (bad) trade as an arb-eligible player. Corey Hart was a low-cost bargain-bin pick-up after a year off due to injury. Casper Wells came in trade, as did Franklin Gutierrez. They tried marginal prospects of their own (Liddi); they tried other teams’ marginal prospects (Wily Mo Pena. They tried switch-hitters from Justin Smoak to Milton Bradley to Chone Figgins, and all of it has blown up in their face. The M’s have apparently decided that they’d rather buy some line-up balancing right-handed production at full price rather than continue to try to cobble it together on the cheap. And frankly, given what we’ve seen of the market thus far, that may be understandable. I’m not thrilled that the M’s are so dead set on such a limited player, but that doesn’t mean they should’ve given MORE money for a Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez, two players with defensive ability, but a particular kind of defensive ability the M’s don’t need. You could theoretically play them in an OF corner or 1B, but their prices are determined by where they COULD play, not where you’ll actually play them.

Thanks to their position on the win curve*, the M’s didn’t want to turn their pitching prospects or Saunders into prospects, and for a number of reasons (including what sounds like LA’s asking price) they haven’t made a move for Matt Kemp, who’d cost plenty in dollars and talent. So, hey, Nelson Cruz. The M’s – and fans – don’t seem to care about the “value” of the deal; I think everyone essentially agrees it’s dead money in years 3-4, but for the first time in a long while, the M’s can focus on the short term.

So what does this have to do with Michael Saunders? The M’s pretty clearly hated the fact that he was hurt several times. That sounds petulant or uncaring, but teams obviously put a very high premium on durability – on the ability to play every day. Nick Markakis just signed a four-year, $44m deal with Atlanta that can only make sense if teams are willing to pay for durability (even then, I’m not sure this deal will ever make sense). Ryan Divish of the Times talked about this on twitter last night, saying that durability is something teams and managers focus on, and pointing out that it’s something arbitrators look at in salary hearings. Michael Saunders played less than 100 games in 2011 and 2014, and missed time in 2012 and 2013 as well. While on the field, his production was great – he put up more batting runs in 2014 than Dustin Ackley has in his entire career, but the M’s were frustrated with Saunders. WAR incorporates playing time, and replacement level’s utility rests, in part, on its ability to highlight the *value* of playing every day, even at a below-average level. But it’s pretty apparent that at least some teams assessment of the value of part-time production and health don’t line up with our publicly available stats. That’s interesting, if only because the implied premium looks so high.

Both of these deals seem like a way to gain certainty, or lower variance. The M’s got the top HR hitter because they were tired of trying to patch a long-term problem with home-grown talent, trade pieces and lower-tier free agents. They were tired of not knowing when they could write Saunders’ name in a line-up, and decided instead to bolster their rotation. So were the M’s…right? Does this make a kind of sense? Well, sure, but it doesn’t answer the question everyone’s asking: “were these good moves? Do they make the team better?” The premium teams place on durability seems like one piece of a larger puzzle of how teams’ own valuation of players *has to be* different than ours. I don’t say that to suggest Fangraphs/BP/whoever have the right numbers in every case. I’d hope the teams could do better. But the gap is so large that it’s worth wondering if teams (or maybe managers) don’t OVERvalue health.** Still, the M’s have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from their investment in Felix and Robinson Cano. Felix’s greatness comes in part from his remarkable durability, and Cano showed the value of buying premium production if you haven’t been able to develop it yourself.

Ultimately, however you frame the moves, it all comes down to talent, and developing talent. The M’s are in a position where they absolutely needed to upgrade their DH slot, and balance their line-up a bit more. The M’s are in this position because they failed, spectacularly, to develop a half-decent right-handed hitter, and their attempts to buy or trade for one haven’t gone much better. It’s not that the M’s haven’t tried other ways to fill this need, it’s that they keep trying to fill this need with limited, flawed and out and out bad players. That they cast out Saunders, a guy who M’s fans may be overrating but at least has shown the ability to hit at the big league level, puts the Figgins/Hart/Morse/Tui/Mangini/Bradley/etc. history in even starker contrast.

Nelson Cruz has far more pull power, and more power overall (5th highest ISO on fastballs in MLB last year) than Morse or Hart. The M’s in-house options at DH included Carlos Rivero and Stefen Romero, both of whom own career minor league slugging percentages below .400, and Jesus Montero, who…yeah, not an option. You can see why the M’s think they’ve plugged the hole, and honestly, I think the team’s got a better chance at the playoffs with Cruz than they did with either Romero, Billy Butler, or Michael Cuddyer. Moreover, I think taking on more of Kemp’s contract or signing Hanley Ramirez would have been more likely to hamstring the team’s finance in 2017-19 than the deal Cruz signed. But at the end of the day, the M’s signed an aging, one-dimensional player to a contract that everyone agrees is too long. The M’s traded a good, cost-controlled young hitter despite having serious issues with outfield depth. The M’s value certainty, but they haven’t proven they can identify it yet.

* I wonder what effect the Josh Donaldson deal had on the M’s. Maybe none, but the M’s chief rival for the 2014 wild card just traded their best player, and will lose their best pitcher in FA. The M’s were going to upgrade anyway, but maaaan, the A’s certainly made it easy for the M’s to justify an overpay.

** To make this pencil out, you’d essentially have to reject the concept of replacement level – the idea that Saunders+Player X might give you more in total than a healthy-but-bad Player Y. Incidentally, the M’s have been burned on this both ways. They dealt with Erik Bedard’s injury woes and Milton Bradley’s existential ones, and watched as some of their most durable players posted lackluster batting lines. Mariners!


32 Responses to “The M’s Put a Premium on Certainty”

  1. Edward Baker on December 4th, 2014 3:29 pm

    OK, granted, teams value durability, and why shouldn´t they? Based on his lack thereof, they concluded that it was time to move Michael Saunders, and the first thing they did in furtherance of this reasonable goal was to shit all over him. This did nothing to raise the price of the guy they wanted to move, on the contrary, and it also didn´t endear the FO to Seattle´s fans. So why did they do it? I´ll be goddamned to hell if I can figure it out, so, as we say back in the ´hood, ¡SOCORRO!

  2. Westside guy on December 4th, 2014 3:38 pm

    This thought isn’t original to me, but…

    The org is dinging Saunders for perceived lack of durability. In the meantime, Dustin Ackley played hurt through bone spurs for more than one extended period, all the while putting up horrid numbers. Does Ackley deserve durability points on those occasions when he’s been playing through pain and dragging the team down? The traditionalists answer appears to be “yes”, but it seems pretty indefensible.

  3. Eastside Suds on December 4th, 2014 4:03 pm

    Just reminding myself of snippets of past comments, suppositions and rumours….I think that Mac had issues with Condor’s “toughness” (feel free to define that how you want) and his work ethic. Z said as much in a couple of quips last season. Mac likes “tough guys”. I agree that hurt players don’t play well. But, Mac is old school and I really feel that Mac didn’t want him around, so he wanted him shipped out. Saunders wasn’t Z’s “guy” and they want a fresh start for maybe a few reasons.

    I’m not defending Mac or Z, just posting some possible reasons. There was a reason why this seemed inevitable since October and it played out about like most people thought.

    This sets up a situation where we need to get a right fielder. No one can play their efficiently unless you throw James Jones or Stefan Romero out there and then close your eyes. Watch the M’s go hard for Upton, or free agents Cabrera or Rios. A right handed hitting right fielder is #1 priority now. The next couple weeks should be very interesting.

  4. MrZDevotee on December 4th, 2014 4:22 pm

    I think another tell-tale sign about the value of durability is that EVERYBODY knew they could have Michael Saunders for a price, and that turned out to be a not very high price… And the best deal we got for him was a back end rotation guy. Although I’m curious to see what the M’s see in Happ, because if the M’s have done anything right, it’s been targeting guys who could have success pitching at Safeco Field.

    I think it also goes without saying that another OF is coming soon… And this move was made to both open a position, and to shore up the rotation should it be an OF via trade that’s gonna send one of our starting pitching depth somewhere else.

    If we are going after RH power for an outfield position, we already have 4th OF candidates in “super utility” guys Willie F, and Brad Miller (who I too think will get some outfield time).

  5. Longgeorge1 on December 4th, 2014 4:28 pm

    I’m confused! That is not very hard I might add. So I am not going to guess at the outcome of the story until I read the last page. I hope it has a good ending because – I’m confused!

  6. eponymous coward on December 4th, 2014 5:11 pm

    If we are going after RH power for an outfield position, we already have 4th OF candidates in “super utility” guys Willie F

    I’m guessing WFB could use everything Biogenesis and every ‘roid Canseco ever took, and he STILL would not hit double digits in home runs.

  7. eponymous coward on December 4th, 2014 5:12 pm

    Apparently the M’s new hashtag is #BringOnTheBoom.

    I prefer #DINGERS!1!!!!111

  8. MrZDevotee on December 4th, 2014 5:50 pm

    RE: WFB-
    I’m not saying I LIKE that he’s on the roster… He just is. And if we keep Miller and Taylor, and sign/trade for another OF… We’re running out of roster spots.

    I’d rather have Saunders than F’n any day of the week.

  9. PackBob on December 4th, 2014 5:51 pm

    My guess is that the M’s just didn’t want to deal with having to scramble to replace Saunders if (‘when’ in their mind) Saunders got injured again. There has been a lot of complaint about who would fill in Saunders’ spot now that he’s been traded; the M’s felt the same way in anticipation of an injury.

    For this all to make good baseball sense, though, the M’s have to come up with at least a Saunders-level outfielder that doesn’t get hurt, and then a 4th outfielder who they were going to have to find anyway.

    Happ by himself is an upgrade to the rotation. Saunders by himself downgrades the outfield. If the M’s can find an outfielder similar in WAR to Saunders that doesn’t get hurt, they come out ahead in team value. I think that’s what they are after. They were going to drop Saunders no matter what, and with Happ they got some value back.

  10. dogkahuna on December 4th, 2014 5:51 pm

    I don’t comment a lot here but this trade has completely disgusted me. Watch Saunders blossom into a perennial all-star now–he’s on the cusp. The Mariner front office has shown poor acumen in player evaluation and transactions for years at this point and I’m getting tired of watching. I was a primarily a Giants fan until 1995 and I’ve enjoyed watching 3 out of the last 5 World Series. Despite the “Viva el Rey Felix” bumper sticker I had made for my VW bus, I think it’s time to let the Mariners go. Good luck Felix–Uncle Fester ain’t helpin’ you out much.

  11. Westside guy on December 4th, 2014 6:16 pm

    Toronto is looking like a pretty good team now. I’m going to make a point of watching their games whenever possible.

    I must say I’m quite surprised at the number of people who seem to think the Mariners’ funds are unlimited. At least that’s the impression I get, given people seem unconcerned with the team consistently giving away more money/talent, compared to the return they get back from trades or free agent signings.

  12. djw on December 4th, 2014 9:16 pm

    I must say I’m quite surprised at the number of people who seem to think the Mariners’ funds are unlimited.

    Yeah, no kidding. As soon as the Cruz signing was announced, the CW seemed to be that this signing couldn’t possibly restrict future signings or acquisitions. No one would come out and say it, but I’m not sure why else they could have been so confident this contract couldn’t possibly hamstring the team.

  13. LongDistance on December 5th, 2014 12:04 am

    It’s certainly not hotstove 2013 all over again, because they don’t have 2013 in their rear view mirror. But, some things oddly familiar. Same timing with the splash signing, and then began the justified litany about the OF, OF, OF.

    With a classic M’s response that seemed so strangely off-key considering what they’d just done: Guti.

    Anyway, here we are again, doing whatever it is we’re doing like we did like last year. And once again: OF, OF, OF. And the response will be (Cabrera? Doubt. It. Classic M’s? Very. Probable.)?

  14. Edward Baker on December 5th, 2014 12:39 am

    Guys, let´s be reasonable here. I really liked Bloomie since day 1, but jesus Christ on a bike, he is NOT the fourth outfielder. He may be the reason the M´s don´t need to carry five outfielders but he is manifestly NOT number four. So, they need two guys, at least one rightie.
    A number of people have given reasonable reasons why the FO wanted Saunders gone and I agree with every last one of them, but nobody has given me a reason, whether reasonable or un, why they would then turn around and shit all over the guy they were obviously dying to move. It´s beyond human understanding.

  15. Milendriel on December 5th, 2014 12:40 am

    The Saunders trade kind of feels like when they gave away Carlos Guillen for nothing because of reasons that have very little to do with actually winning baseball games.

  16. MKT on December 5th, 2014 1:08 am

    By coincidence, I made the same Guillen-Saunders connection at almost the same time, in Jeff’s Nelson Cruz thread. We didn’t know that Guillen would turn into an all-star, and we certainly don’t know that Saunders will. But what we do know is that in both cases the Ms gave up a young player of decent quality and good potential for an obviously inferior return.

    I like the Nelson Cruz signing, hate the Saunders trade. The consolation is that, at least for the next season or two, the positives of the one will probably outweigh the negatives of the other. But the Ms shouldn’t be making losing trades in the first place.

  17. djw on December 5th, 2014 6:32 am

    I like the Nelson Cruz signing, hate the Saunders trade. The consolation is that, at least for the next season or two, the positives of the one will probably outweigh the negatives of the other.

    I’d be more confident in that if I didn’t worry we’ll be seeing Mr. Cruz in the outfield now.

  18. Sowulo on December 5th, 2014 7:07 am

    A player that is often hurt can effect a lot more than the active 25-man roster. Constantly needing replacements can trigger a roster quake all the way down the system. A player may need to be added to the 40-man before he can come up and help. Then if he doesn’t work out and another is needed (re: Almonte/Jones/Romero last year) the team might need to risk moving someone else off the 40-man (and losing him to a waiver claim) in order to rush yet another body up to help. With a healthy stable roster, fewer players need to be rushed and depth down into the minors can be better protected.

  19. Edward Baker on December 5th, 2014 8:40 am

    “I’d be more confident in that if I didn’t worry we’ll be seeing Mr. Cruz in the outfield now.”
    Exactly! This is one of the key reasons why the fourth outfielder is so important. So, once again, the M´s need two outfielders, not one.

  20. djw on December 5th, 2014 9:15 am

    As much as it superficially resembles the predictably disastrous victory lap of a former fan favorite and current 40-something shell of his former self, it really is remarkable what a good fit Ichiro would be for this team (as the 4th OF, not 3rd).

  21. JesseDee on December 5th, 2014 10:31 am

    I’m not as opposed to this trade as I thought I’d be.

    If Toronto is truly paying the difference between Happ’s and Saunders’ salaries, this could be a way to upgrade pitching while freeing up money to sign/trade for outfield upgrades.

    Sure, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth about how they ran Saunders down so seemingly undeservedly, but I have high hopes about how this might help the team overall. If this upgrades pitching essentially for free while allowing us to take on more salary for a better outfield, that still seems like a win-win.

  22. JasonJ on December 5th, 2014 11:26 am

    Is there a source somewhere that says that the Blue Jays are, in fact, paying the difference in salary?

  23. Eastside Crank on December 5th, 2014 12:03 pm

    Until someone can explain why the Mariners would sit Saunders when he was ready to play, none of the durability arguments make any sense. Again, the Mariners intentionally put an inferior player in right field during a “playoff” run and probably cost the team at least one or two games. Even if they were worried about his ability to play every day, Saunders still is a better outfielder than Ackley and would be a viable candidate for 4th outfielder. How can the Mariners expect to make the playoffs and advance without an excellent set of outfielders?

  24. Longgeorge1 on December 5th, 2014 12:31 pm

    If you count Cruz as an OFer, he will be there in NL parks, this team needs 5 OF guys. Ack and Ajax make 3. Jones and Romero don’t excite me but as of today that is where we are. We have the Miller/Taylor twins. I would like to keep both and play both. One of them could play some RF or LF. WFB will probably be Mr 25, quite frankly anywhere he plays he is now just a Band-Aid but the fact that he has 7 gloves means he will probably be here.
    Felix, Kuma,Young, Elias, Paxton, Walker, Happ and Rameriez are a nice set of SPs. The trouble is that Young, Erasmo and Happ can’t be optioned so there is not the flexibility you might want.

  25. MrZDevotee on December 5th, 2014 4:42 pm

    Z has already said he “doesn’t see” Chris Young being brought back (when talking about the Happ trade)… So he’s not in the equation.

  26. Longgeorge1 on December 5th, 2014 8:01 pm

    Thanks Z. While it is not unlikely, because stuff always happens, I don’t see Happ any better than #5 on this staff. If he just outpitches Elias great. But If he gets a spot due to an options situation it doesn’t make the team better. Suppose Elias and Erasmo both outpitch him? Reality is there will be injuries and it will sort itself out. Just wish we had gotten a guy that could be sent to Tacoma if we get lucky.

  27. Flaco on December 6th, 2014 2:27 am

    I’m sorry, I’ve read through a lot of the comments over the past year or so regarding Saunders, and while he seems to have a decent skill set, there is one important thing he lacks…durability. To me he seems like an outfield version of Justin Smoak, a player with potential but not much else. Why all the fuss? How many Michael Saunders have we had on our team over the years? Too many to count…

  28. mrakbaseball on December 6th, 2014 3:06 am

    That’s a terrible comparison.

  29. Flaco on December 6th, 2014 7:07 am

    How is this a terrible comparison? Check the stats…

  30. Edward Baker on December 6th, 2014 9:24 am

    Not a good comparison, because Smoak reached his cieling, contrary to everything that was expected of him when they made the deal, he really and truly did. Injuries, by the way, were never a factor. There´s a reasonable argument that Saunders hasn´t reached his cieling and now he´ll have the opportunity. If he doesn´t do it in Toronto, or if he´s injured half the time, then his detractors will turn out to have been right and the rest of us will eat our requisite serving of crow.

  31. MKT on December 6th, 2014 6:42 pm

    “Check the stats…”

    The stats show that in about the same number of plate appearances, Saunders and Smoak have amazingly similar OBP and SLG stats.

    Which is strong evidence that Saunders is a legit major league player, and Smoak is AAAA. Because the 94 OPS+ that both players have achieved over their careers is a mediocre stat for a corner outfielder (but a decent one for a center fielder) — and godawful for a first baseman.

    Add the upward trend that others have mentioned for Saunders, vs the career-long scuffling that Smoak has shown, and the difference in value between the two players is large.

  32. Mid80sRighty on December 8th, 2014 7:01 am

    “Check the stats…”

    Saunders has generated 5 WAR in his career. Smoak has generated -0.2

    Yep, they’re equally worthless…

    Durability has a value, I get that. But, I think my biggest problem with what happened here is the way it happened. You don’t publicly call out a player you’re looking to trade. And even if they think every other team in baseball already knows he doesn’t work hard and gets hurt a lot, you STILL don’t publicly acknowledge it. The goal is to increase a player’s value not decrease it. What Z and Mac did was flat out stupid.

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