Hypothetically, of course, because this decision isn’t actually up to us. I think. I hope? I do not hope? I feel like that would be too much responsibility. Life’s hard enough as it is, you know?
Used to be it was fun to compare the Mariners to the Padres, in no small part because they basically swapped all of their players. The last year or two or so, though, the running half-joke has been that the Mariners are the Royals, more or less. It’s been a half-joke because it’s been simultaneously funny and frightening. The Mariners haven’t gone full Royals yet, but I’ve been anticipating an offseason attempt to duplicate the Royals’ last offseason attempt. A year ago, the Royals decided they were tired of being bad, so they tried to go for it. They got panned, and a little bit better in the short-term. Now it seems the Mariners have decided they’re tired of being bad, too, and rumors say they’re trying to go for it. And it’s not all a load of crap. Even Jack Zduriencik is talking.
Zduriencik on mega-deals: “You have to adapt to the market. In some cases, if you have to stretch more than you want to, you just have to.”
More Zduriencik: “…always have felt there would be a time where we have to augment this club. I think we’re at that time.”
In the past, publicly, Zduriencik has been all about patience, all about sticking to his guns and his salary ceilings. Now it’s like he’s preparing us for a bunch of aggressive maneuvers. Of course, also a year ago, Zduriencik came out of nowhere to almost get Josh Hamilton, and to almost get Justin Upton. But now he’s deliberately setting an expectation. There’s no stealth behavior here — the Mariners are making no secret of their desire to add, no matter what it takes.
I don’t want to step on Dave’s post below, because it’s excellent and I agree with just about every word. But I did want to weigh in with my own piece, along some similar lines. The Mariners want to get better in a hurry. It’s noble of them, unusually bold of them, but you have to wonder about them picking their spot.
Let’s just accept that there’s pressure on the team to improve. Let’s accept that there’s all but a mandate to spend, and let’s accept that there’s some air of desperation. Maybe a desperate front office shouldn’t be the front office in charge in the first place, but we can’t get around reality. What’s the situation right now?
I can give you one idea. This is a link to some current FanGraphs projections based on team depth charts. They’re far from perfect, but they’re going to do for the time being. At present, the Mariners are pretty clearly better than the Astros. They’re presumably better than the Twins and the White Sox, too. And…that’s it. In the American League, anyway. They’re at least a little bit behind everyone else, and there are still more pieces to arrange. Figure the Yankees still re-sign Robinson Cano? All right, well, there goes the Mariners being close to them in the WAR projections. The Mariners are not a team on the fringes of contention. They’re a team on the fringes of the fringes of contention. They’re worse than three of their immediate rivals.
But, all right, the Rangers are looking a bit thin, and the Angels are in some trouble. The Athletics are good and super deep, but it’s not like 2014 would be an impossible mission. If the Mariners insist on being aggressive, they can spend to buy more wins. But a David Price trade doesn’t seem to belong. At least, not as it’s rumored. It violates both of my principles.
For one, the Mariners don’t seem like they’re good enough right now to really go for it in the short term. I think they’re worse than the Royals were a year ago, and I didn’t like what they did. And for two, if you’re going to try to make yourself better in the short term, don’t in turn give away pieces who can help you in the short term. One of the big problems with the James Shields trade was that the Royals made themselves a lot worse in right field by losing Wil Myers. If the Mariners gave up Taijuan Walker in a package to get Price, they’d get better on account of Price, but they’d also lose value at the same time losing Walker. And they could lose more giving up another piece or two from the big-league roster, like, I don’t know, Nick Franklin or Dustin Ackley. Hard enough for the Mariners to pick up enough new WAR to contend in the next couple years. They don’t need to lose WAR in adding it.
Walker, right now, is probably an adequate big-league starter. Worse than Price, of course, but Walker isn’t to be grouped with other good pitching prospects, because he’s already graduated to the highest level. He’s risky, still, but less risky. He’s survived all the levels. For whatever it’s worth, Price himself had a DL stint a year ago with an arm problem. The Mariners need not just better talent, but more talent, so Price for Walker would be an addition and a subtraction.
And the other critical thing here is that there’s absolutely nothing more valuable in baseball than young talent under cheap team control. Those players give you performance and all kinds of financial flexibility, because they don’t cost anything for years. Walker, as is, belongs to the Mariners through 2019. Willie Bloomquist will earn more next season than Walker will probably earn the next three seasons, combined. Jack himself has addressed this before, in pleading for patience:
“We’re committed to staying the course with these kids and trying to build,” he said. “I’ve had several scenarios where I could give up two or three of these players, but what has to be weighed is the return you’re getting, the years of control for what you’re giving up.
“Could I have made a trade? Of course. But taking on cost and getting a player with less years of control and giving up your very strong assets, that’s fine if it makes a lot of sense.”
Since a year ago, the Mariners haven’t really gotten better. Does trading Walker and more for Price make a lot of sense? If Jack weren’t under pressure to get better fast, would this be his course? You can point to the Upton trade, but then Upton was a position player with an extra year left. The prospects going the other way were a year less developed. Price would be a shorter-term gamble, at at least an equivalent player price, and he’s not cheap and the Mariners aren’t good. It’s a difficult thing to figure.
Of course, the Mariners could still do more. They’d need to. Maybe getting Price would make them more appealing to other targets, I don’t know. But if you trade for David Price, you don’t go halfway. You really have to add wins in the short term to bolster an intended contender. You probably have to get another starter, and you have to get a position player or two because the current crop is unremarkable and the outfield is too thin. Get David Price, and you sure as hell better make sure other pieces follow. Good ones. With Price and another good starter and a good position player, maybe the Mariners start to look like a Wild Card contender. Maybe they start to look like, you know, the 2013 Royals.
It just seems to me that the Mariners can maneuver aggressively without giving up that much player value. I’d rather overpay in money for free agents than overpay in young talent for non-free agents. I mean, I’d rather not overpay at all, but this isn’t an ideal situation. And there are other available moves, too, lesser moves, trades for players who aren’t as splashy and flashy. It doesn’t seem right for this team to lose Walker and more for two years of a great starter. The team isn’t good enough, and Price isn’t good enough. He is very good, but that’s only a fraction of the whole picture.
You want fans back? Win. Win for more than one or two years. The Mariners lost attendance in 2009, and they lost attendance in 2010 despite the splashes. That’s because the team still wasn’t good enough, and success is what fans respond to in the bigger picture. You achieve sustainable success by doing the right things. It can, sometimes, be the right thing to give up long-term value for short-term value, but the Mariners aren’t facing that circumstance. And if they were to really, really try, they’d need a hell of a lot of puzzle pieces to fall into place, because Price wouldn’t be close to enough. That’s just a few more wins for a team that still likely wouldn’t finish .500.
The Royals just won 86 games and gained fans. 134 of them, on average, per home game. That does ignore that ratings were up and morale was up, and people did get a chance to care about the Royals again for more than one or two months. That isn’t worth nothing. It’s still probably not worth what the Royals did. This season they get a second chance with Shields, but they’re still on the outside looking in, and Wil Myers was the Rookie of the Year. We all want the Mariners to be better. We all want the Mariners to win as soon as they can. There are worse ways to try to get there, and less worse ways. At least, don’t act like a window is closing when the window hasn’t yet opened.
Tonight, both Jeff Passan and Ryan Divish have suggested that the Mariners and Rays have at least had some dialogue about what a deal might look like that would bring David Price to Seattle. David Price is really good. David Price would make the Mariners better. Exciting rumor, right?
Sure, if you only focus on the potential guy coming and not the guys going. Because, as Passan notes, well, just read it:
The Mariners have considered including 21-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker as part of a deal for Price, sources told Yahoo Sports, knowing he represents the sort of frontline player the Rays would seek in such a trade. Packaging him along with a young middle infielder (Nick Franklin or Brad Miller) and other prospects would constitute a difficult-to-top offer – and give the Mariners a rotation of Price, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the best 1-2-3 in the major leagues.
That’s right, the reported asking price (no pun intended) is a package built around Taijuan Walker. Not just Walker himself, but Walker and more. A couple of days after Doug Fister — who is far closer in value to Price than their reputations would suggest — was traded for a non-elite pitching prospect and a couple of throw-ins, there are now rumblings that the Mariners are looking to make a trade not too dissimilar from the the one the Royals made with the Rays last year, when they sent an elite prospect and stuff to the Rays for James Shields. I’ve compared the Mariners to the Royals more than once, and this kind of rumor only makes it more clear that the team is headed down a very similar path as the one Kansas City traveled a year ago.
I hated the James Shields trade for the Royals, so you probably won’t be too surprised that I don’t love this idea either. Not that I think Taijuan Walker is as valuable as Wil Myers, because there’s a significant difference in value between hitting prospects and pitching prospects, simply due to the significant injury potential that pitchers carry. Walker is a talented kid, but the chance that he flames out is quite high, much higher than it was with Myers or other top offensive prospects. There are plenty of scenarios where trading Walker now is actually selling at the peak of his value, and a totally justifiable decision.
But if you’re going to move a piece like Walker, you have to make sure that it’s absolutely the right move and the right time to make that kind of trade. And I’m not convinced that David Price is the right guy, nor am I convinced that the 2014 Mariners are the right team, for this kind of trade to be worth doing.
Price is an excellent pitcher, one of the very best in baseball. Over the last three years, he’s 8th in WAR (whether you use FIP or RA9) among pitchers, and at his best in 2012, he was as good as Felix Hernandez. He’s worthy of the title of an ace. You absolutely want David Price on your team.
But Major League teams trade for contracts, not players, and while David Price is an excellent player, his contract status makes him somewhat less valuable. He’s under team control for just two more seasons, and because he was a Super-Two player who reached arbitration early, his annual salaries have already gotten pretty pricey. He’s projected to earn approximately $13 million in 2014, and with an expected good season, he’d probably jump up to around $17 or $18 million in 2015. In other words, the two years of control that Price would come with would cost the Mariners roughly $30 million in salary.
Taijuan Walker, meanwhile, will make the league minimum over the next two years, or about $1 million in total. Price is going to cost about $29 million more than Walker over the time that the Mariners would control Price’s rights. That’s $29 million the Mariners wouldn’t have to spend on adding other pieces, and in particular, that’s $29 million the team couldn’t spend to add a starter to Taijuan Walker since they’d be using those resources to replace him instead of build around him.
With that $15 million per year to spend, you could very reasonably assume that the Mariners could sign a pitcher like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez, and add them to Taijuan Walker. Do you really think Price is dramatically more valuable than Walker and Garza/Jimenez? Sure, you’d have to give more than a two year commitment to either of those starters, but you’d also get more than two years of performance from the free agent hurler, and you’d be retaining six years of Walker’s performance at the same time. Trading Walker for Price isn’t just turning an “unproven prospect” into a “reliable ace”, it’s turning an unproven prospect and currency that could buy you another quality starter into that ace, and then dramatically shortening the window of performance in which the team would control their assets.
For that kind of trade-off to be worth it, the gap between the two would have to be absurdly large. And it really just isn’t.
David Price, for his career, has a 3.19 ERA/3.39 FIP/3.53 xFIP. No matter how you want to evaluate him, you should probably expect an ERA south of 3.50 next year. The Steamer projections suggest 3.44. You could probably argue for something even as low as 3.25. And you’re probably going to expect around 200 innings at that level, which makes Price an extremely valuable piece. That ERA forecast means that, over 200 innings, you’d expect Price to give up somewhere between 72-76 earned runs.
How much of an upgrade over Walker is that? Well, your forecasts for Walker are going to be a little more uncertain, since he doesn’t have Price’s track record. Steamer projects a 4.39 ERA, which seems reasonable to me, but you could probably realistically defend anything between 4.00 and 5.00. If you think Walker is ready to pitch at this level and you’re forecasting a 4.00 ERA, then you’d be expecting him to give up 89 runs over 200 innings; at a 5.00 ERA, you’re looking at 111 runs. So, basically, somewhere between 90 and 110 runs is a reasonable range of expected performance from Walker if he threw 200 innings. He probably wouldn’t, so you’d have to allocate some of those innings to other pitchers, but let’s just keep this simple for now.
At the optimistic end, Walker would be projected to be about 15 runs worse than Price; at the pessimistic end, it’s about 35 runs. In terms of wins, we’re talking roughly a two to four win swing, once you account for the fact that Walker wouldn’t throw as many innings and some of those would be transferred to inferior pitchers. That’s not an insignificant figure, but the Mariners could likely make up a large chunk of that gap by simply giving that same $15 million per year to a pitcher on the free agent market. Just like Price is significantly better than Walker, Garza or Jimenez would be projected as significant improvements over Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, and whatever other back-end starter candidates you want to pencil into the #5 spot in the rotation right now. And if you add a free agent to the current crop, you still have Ramirez around as depth for when someone inevitably gets hurt; if you trade Walker for Price and slot Ramirez into the #5 spot (because you just blew the $15 million you had allocated for a rotation upgrade), now you’re turning to someone you don’t want in the big leagues whenever anyone misses a start.
Maybe Price/Ramirez/random scrubs is little bit better than Garza/Walker/Ramirez or Jimenez/Walker/Ramirez, but the gap isn’t anywhere near that 15-35 run spread we were talking about earlier. Now we’re talking about maybe a difference of one win — and that’s if you’re kind of down on Walker; if you’re not, it’s not clear that the Price trio is any better — and you’ve cashed in the future value of Walker in order to get that marginal upgrade. Plus all the other stuff the Rays would manage to extract along with Walker to make a Shields-like deal. As Passan noted, the deal probably costs you a guy like Nick Franklin too, and probably doesn’t stop there. By the time you count the value heading out of town, it’s not going to be clear at all that the team is really any better even in 2014 than they would be by just keeping the kids that the Rays would ask for and signing a pitcher instead.
And that’s not even counting the long term value. Sure, maybe you can convince David Price to sign a monstrous contract extension and keep him here beyond 2015, but again, that’s money that could be allocated to other players, other players the team won’t be able to afford because now they’re on the hook for $50 million a year to two pitchers. There’s no question that the future value of having cost-controlled players like Walker, Franklin, and whoever else would go away in the deal is more valuable than the chance to give David Price a huge contract. It’s not even close.
To justify giving up that kind of long term value, you have to get a lot better in the short term in order to make it worth it. There are times to trade present for future, and just push your chips in on the team you have assembled for next year. But replacing Walker with Price (and Price’s salary) wouldn’t really make the Mariners that much better than just keeping Walker and spending his money in other ways, and while the Mariners might like to fancy themselves as a team on the verge of contending, you cannot make a serious argument that they’re anything better than the 10th or 11th best team in the American League right now.
They’re not even close to teams like Boston, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Oakland, or Texas. I’d easily put Anaheim, Kansas City, and Cleveland ahead of them too, and then you have other high variance rosters with talent and flaws, such as New York, Baltimore, and Toronto. If the Mariners sign Robinson Cano, trade for David Price, and then make one other win-now move, maybe you push them ahead of those three and into the group with the Angels/Royals/Indians, but even then, you’re projecting them for something like the 6th-8th best team in the AL. And it would a team heavily reliant on the performances of a few stars, with hardly any depth in case of injury, not too dissimilar from the kinds of rosters that sunk the Angels the last few years.
This isn’t a team that is a small upgrade away from going from almost contender to legit powerhouse. The Mariners should absolutely be trying to get better, but they should be measured in their willingness to trade future for present, because the reality is that even with a few big splashes, their roster in 2014 is probably going to be no better than decent. The Royals tried this exact same thing last year, punting Wil Myers in a desperate attempt to move up their timeline, and they ended up with 86 wins, no playoff berth, and a hole in right field.
Maybe the stars would align for the Mariners and they’d do better than that. It’s possible, but it’s not the kind of outcome the Mariners should expect even if they make a bunch of big splashy moves, and it’s not the kind of sustainable success that the team could count on for years to come.
We saw Bill Bavasi make this same kind of play after the 2007 season. He got tricked into thinking he had a winning team that was closer to contention than it actually was, and decided to turn Adam Jones and stuff into Erik Bedard. Walker is less valuable than Jones was at the time, and Price is better (or at least likely healthier) than Bedard was, but this organization made this same mistake six years ago. It was Bill Bavasi’s final big mistake, and it’s still haunting the Mariners years later as they struggle to find anyone who can play the outfield. Trading Walker and stuff for Price wouldn’t be the same kind of obviously terrible decision that the Bedard trade was, but it’s a tree from the same garden of wrong thinking.
David Price is flashy, just like Robinson Cano is flashy. Getting both would make a lot of news and allow the team to have some pretty excited press conferences. I just don’t think this path would lead to enough wins in 2014 to make the costs of such a pursuit worth it. In the end, I think the flash would fade, and we’d all just be left disappointed that the big bet didn’t work. Again.
A week or two ago, Jim Bowden speculated that the Mariners could steal Robinson Cano from the Yankees with a massive offer. I think most of us shrugged it off as nothing more than conjecture. Today, though, speculation of what might be possible turned into a suggestion that the Mariners are actually attempting to sign Cano, as Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York reported that the Mariners had “emerged as major players” for the game’s best second baseman. So, let’s talk about Cano and the Mariners for a second.
Robinson Cano is a very good player, having been worth +5 WAR or more in each of the last four seasons. In fact, over that four year span, he ranks #2 in WAR behind only Miguel Cabrera. A decent defensive second baseman who can hit like a first baseman is an absurdly valuable thing. Robinson Cano is asking for a huge contract because he’s one of the game’s very best players. The Mariners need more talent than they have, and no free agent would inject more talent into the organization faster than Cano would.
So, yes, Robinson Cano is a fit for the Mariners, even though they already have one second baseman too many. If signing Robinson Cano for a reasonable price becomes a reality, you don’t bother worrying about what you’re going to do with Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley. The goal isn’t to find an outfielder or a #3 pitcher or a closer; the goal is to get better. Robinson Cano would make the Mariners a lot better.
And the Mariners have money to spend. Enough money to make Cano a big time offer. Enough money to offer more than the Yankees are reportedly offering. It’s an unusual situation, but the Mariners are in a position to outbid the Yankees. This is what happens when you have two players under contract. If the Mariners want to make Cano choose between money and geography, they can. And I’d imagine a lot of people will want them to do exactly that, noting that Cano would give the Mariners credibility again, and would signify to everyone that they’re not just perpetually rebuilding. I expect that there are a lot of people who are very excited about the idea of the Mariners pursuing Robinson Cano.
Personally, I’m less excited. Less excited because I don’t think Robinson Cano is actually all that likely to be interested in playing for Seattle. Less excited because I think the gap between the offer the Mariners would have to give him and what the Yankees are willing to make is likely going to have to be so enormous that any deal for Cano would automatically restrict the organization from upgrading at other positions. Less excited because part of the failures of the front office the last two winters has been the seductive possibility of paying big money for a star, and by the time they realized it wasn’t happening, better alternatives were no longer available.
Two years ago, it was Prince Fielder. The M’s waited around for Fielder’s price to come down, keeping their options open in case Scott Boras decided to engage them on a deal for a contract south of $200 million. Fielder stayed on the free agent market until January 26th, and the Mariners basically sat out most of the winter waiting to see what might happen with Fielder. They skipped out on other young players who could have helped both short term and long term — such as Jose Reyes and Yu Darvish — and waited too long to get into the trade market, eventually flipping Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero three days before Fielder signed with the Tigers.
Last year, it was first Josh Hamilton, then Justin Upton. They went after Hamilton first, using the winter meetings as a chance to make a run at the best power hitter on the free agent market. Finally, on December 15th, they learned that Hamilton would be signing with the Angels instead, so they switched gears and tried to make a big trade with Arizona to bring Upton to Seattle. They finally reached an agreement on the players with Arizona on January 10th, only to have Upton use his no-trade clause to block the deal. Again, they found themselves in January without their preferred options, and moved on to trading John Jaso for Michael Morse instead.
By all reasonable accounts, Robinson Cano’s free agency is going to take a while. The Mariners aren’t going to sign him this week, or even next week, most likely. He’s not going to just rush into changing teams without testing the Yankees resolve to keep him. Odds are pretty good that his preferred option is to re-sign with New York, so the only way the Mariners are going to convince him to come west is to make the financial difference so large that he can’t turn it down. But the size of that gap won’t be known until the Yankees make their last and best offer. And they haven’t done that yet. They probably won’t do that any time soon. The Yankees don’t need to get Robinson Cano resolved before they can move on with their off-season.
So, Cano’s representatives will keep flirting with the Mariners. If they’re going to get the Yankees to raise their offer, they need a reason to make them do so, and no other team has shown any serious interest yet. The Mariners interest in Cano is useful to Cano’s representatives, even if Cano has no real interest in signing here. It’s in their interest to drag this thing out; it is not in the Mariners best interest to be involved in another empty pursuit of a splashy signing.
And really, it might not even be in their best interest to sign Cano. The Yankees reported first offer was for $160 million over seven years, with reports suggesting they’d push up to $175 million, which would put them at $25 million per season. For the Mariners to convince Cano to leave New York, they’re not going to get him for $180 million or $190 million. He’s not going from New York to Seattle for an extra $2 or $3 million per year. If they’re going to get Cano to really consider leaving New York, they’re going to have to guarantee those last few years where New York is saying no. They’re going to have to go to eight or nine or maybe even 10 years. They’re going to have to come in well north of $200 million, maybe even pushing towards $250 million. That’s the kind of offer that would turn this from a flirtation into an actual possibility.
But Robinson Cano is not worth $250 million. Last month, I wrote a piece about long term deals at FanGraphs, and used an example of a nine year, $225 million contract for Cano to illustrate the changing value of the deal over the life of the contract. For the estimate, I started Cano as a +6 WAR player, and a $225 million contract still came out to $7 million per projected win, a little higher than the going rate for free agents right now. But, in reality, Cano’s probably more of a +5 WAR player than a +6 WAR player in 2014, and it’s more reasonable to start him from a lower threshold. If we repeat that table but lower the estimate of his performance a bit, we get this.
|Year ?||Salary||Projected WAR||$/WAR|
Simply shifting Cano from the starting spot of a +6 WAR player to a +5 WAR player drives the price from $7 million per win to nearly $10 million per win. And that’s without the 10th year, which would be projected to be a total waste at this point. If they had to go to 10/250 to get him, you’d be looking at $11 million per win, almost double what other teams are paying. You can argue that the Mariners have to pay more to get free agents to sign here, but they shouldn’t have to pay double. When a free agent is costing you that much of a premium, you’re better off just reallocating your dollars to players who don’t have that kind of leverage and will take something closer to market rates to play here.
For $200+ million, Cano might make the Mariners better by five or six wins next year. But they could also buy five or six wins for a whole hell of a lot less than $200 million by pursuing players who don’t require crazy overpays to leave the Yankees. I’m not arguing that the Mariners shouldn’t sign Cano because I don’t want the M’s to spend money; I just want them to spend their money well enough so that it’s not Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, and 23 piles of crap.
I’d write more, but news is breaking that the Yankees are about to sign Jacoby Ellsbury, so now i have to go write about that. So here’s a very brief conclusion. Mariners, I get why you like Robinson Cano. I get why he’s pretending to like you back. Don’t fall for it, though. Don’t be the nerd doing the pretty girl’s homework in hopes that she’s going to realize that the jocks are stupid and you’re the one for her. You’re just going to end up in the friend zone. Go find someone who is actually into you for you, and not someone who wants to use you for your money.
Used to be that words came a lot easier. I remember one time sitting down to write something about baseball, and it was going to be something long, and in about three hours, I pounded out the equivalent of 25 pages double-spaced. Felt like a lot, felt like a lot in a hurry, and I was pleased with the result. It’s still somewhere online and no one ever said it was stupid. Things now don’t work like they used to. On my bad days, I take it as a sign of decline, of declining passion and declining capability. On my good days, I take it as a sign of evolution, since now there’s a lot more thought taking place before there’s a single word on an Internet page. I know that I’m a different writer now than I was years ago. I think most people are. I’m referring specifically to baseball analysts, but it probably applies more generally, too.
Willie Bloomquist was a Mariner when I was younger and more energetic. More invested, more quick and ready to express myself. Now he’s a Mariner again, for probably a couple of seasons, and I’ve changed. Somewhat remarkably, he hasn’t, despite his advancing age, but that’s a point in his favor. For me and for all of us, this is another chance with Willie, a chance after a years-long break. It’s not a chance I’m looking forward to, but I’m interested by the response.
This news was destined to be an Internet catastrophe. The Mariners didn’t just sign a utility player for $5.8 million — they signed Willie Ballgame for $5.8 million, and Willie’s been a mascot and punching bag for a decade. The old Baseball Prospectus used to rip on him without mercy, and that was greatly influential. Even to this very day, I think a lot of us responded in the same way: when news broke, people laughed and shook their heads and said “of course”. If everything were the same and his name were Pete Snorkel, it’d just be a weird signing for a bit too much money. But that’s not his name; his actual name makes it funnier. It’s easy to chuckle and point to this as the latest evidence of the Mariners being a laughingstock.
I wanted to just laugh at them, too. Still do. Still want to do nothing but just shred them on Twitter, like people do when a team signs Yuniesky Betancourt or Delmon Young. As for a blog post, 1000 words making fun of the Mariners for being stupid? Simple. Been there before. I think I have templates. It’s embarrassing, right? It’s something to laugh about, right, something that proves the front office is clueless?
I know exactly how I would’ve responded to this if I were still the same writer as before. These days, I can’t help but try to look for reason. It takes time and maybe it isn’t always necessary, but I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable assuming I know what I’m doing more than executives do. Even some of the worse executives. I am convinced the Mariners didn’t need to do this, I am convinced they’ve guaranteed too big of a commitment, but there’s some sense. I see this now as a move that’s not great or good, but I understand the thinking.
I’m responsible for covering the AL West in the FanGraphs team depth charts, and when I’ve worked on the Mariners, I’ve struggled with playing time for infield backups. Before today, the team simply didn’t have a utility infielder beyond Carlos Triunfel, and the starters up the middle are Brad Miller and Nick Franklin, unproven youths, the both of them. Every team needs to have depth, and every team needs to have some infield insurance. The Mariners didn’t have that in the organization, so they needed to get some.
Willie fills that hole. He’s worse than Nick Punto, but Punto’s from California and he signed with the A’s, and the A’s are good and the Mariners aren’t. Here are contracts that have gone to similar players of late:
- Willie Bloomquist: 2 years, $5.8 million
- Nick Punto: 1 year, $3 million, or 2 years, $5.5 million with vesting option
- Brendan Ryan: 2 years, $5 million
- Skip Schumaker: 2 years, $5 million
Technically, Punto was given just one guaranteed year, but his 2015 option vests if he doesn’t spend too much time next year on the disabled list, and he hasn’t been on the DL since 2011. Increasingly, utility sorts are getting multiple years, and Willie is just coming off of a two-year contract. He’ll be paid the most money of the guys above, but he also signed with the worst team, a team with more money to spend than it might be capable of spending.
Again, I don’t think there was any need for urgency. Bloomquist wasn’t the only available option. Jayson Nix just got non-tendered. There are guys like Ramon Santiago and Elliot Johnson. The Mariners might’ve been able to get a better value by holding out, or maybe at least they could’ve limited things to a one-year commitment. The way things look, it’s as if the Mariners were in a rush to sign Willie Bloomquist, which sounds hilarious to people who are not us. It fits with the current caricature of the people in charge, and everybody likes blending baseball with humor.
But you do have a pretty good idea what you get from Willie Bloomquist. He can post two-thirds of a half-decent slash line, he can play a lot of positions, even if not particularly well, and he knows and understands his role. He’s not the younger version of himself who wanted so desperately to be a starter. He might still want that, but by now he’s come to terms with the reality. Willie’s been around, on good teams and bad teams, and he brings a lot of experience to a team that’s presently incredibly young, and I’m trying so desperately to not say too much about his familiarity with the area. It doesn’t hurt that people will like having him back. More significantly, he’s being paid to be worth a win over two years, and futzing over the details and likelihoods overlooks the fact that that’s hardly any money. Willie’s contract isn’t going to prevent the Mariners from doing anything else. They were probably going to target some kind of veteran infield backup. Now that’s done and the actual important moves will follow in some order.
That’s where I’m actually worried. I already don’t trust this front office, and Bloomquist has nothing to do with that. As much fun as it is to say he’s an indicator of everything that’s wrong with the team, he’s getting paid less than $3 million a year at a time when money like $3 million means less than ever. It’s not the little mistakes, where the Mariners might pay a bit too much for veteran experience and leadership. What I don’t like are the links to guys like Nelson Cruz. What I don’t like are the links to proven free-agent closers. Teams get sunk by the big mistakes, not the bench players, and while you might’ve wanted a better bench player than Willie Bloomquist, there aren’t very many of those who are available and who aren’t starters. Bloomquist isn’t good, but players in his role usually aren’t. He doesn’t out-and-out suck, so, all right.
This is all to say, I’m trying really hard to be open-minded. I’m trying really hard to give some of the benefit of the doubt to people I already don’t trust very much. I’m trying really hard to not just automatically laugh at Willie Bloomquist, because while the early days of baseball analysis were a lot of fun, people also sounded like self-important dicks. There’s always nuance, there’s always some reason a bad thing isn’t as bad as it initially seems. Willie fills a role for a bit too much money. A year ago, the brilliant Cardinals stupidly guaranteed two years and too much money to Ty Wigginton. I’m not saying the Mariners are run like the Cardinals are, but the things that matter aren’t found on the bench. This isn’t worth a freakout.
Save the freakouts for the real bad stuff. Real bad stuff like the Tigers’ trade of Doug Fister to the Nationals. Save the freakouts and hope you never have to dip into them. An organization that actually sucks will provide ample opportunity for you to lose your shit. There’s no need to force it, and it’s probably bad for you.
I’m not even going to bother with the commentary on this, because you can probably guess what I think of a guaranteed two-year deal for a replacement-level scrub. I’m just going to leave this here.
Nick Punto and Willie Bloomquist were born 19 days apart, back in 1977. Both of them are going into their age-36 seasons. Both have carved out nice long careers as utility infielders. Here are their career offensive numbers, side by side.
For all intents and purposes, they’re the same hitter. Punto walks a little more and Bloomquist has legged out a few more singles, but they’re both bad hitters who offset that a little bit with some baserunning value. You don’t hire either of these guys for their bats. They’re in the Major Leagues because of their ability to play multiple positions. But then there’s this.
During the last 15 years, Punto has been one of baseball’s elite defensive players. In 2,500 innings at shortstop, he has a career UZR of +33. In 2,500 innings at third base, it’s +38. In 2,500 innings at second base, it’s +11. He’s split his time almost evenly between the three infield spots, and he’s been excellent at all three.
Bloomquist, in 2,000 innings at shortstop, has a -6 UZR. In 1,000 innings at third base, its -3. In 1,000 innings at second base, it’s -1. In 2,000 innings in the outfield, it’s -15. Bloomquist has been a below average defender at every position he’s played.
Willie Bloomquist is Nick Punto minus all the things that make Nick Punto valuable. A few weeks ago, the A’s signed Nick Punto to a one year, $3 million deal. The M’s are reportedly going to give Bloomquist between $5 and $6 million over two years. The Mariners are paying more money to get a worse player.
It’s a bench player spot. Bloomquist won’t be targeted for that many plate appearances — just like Raul Ibanez wasn’t supposed to play much last year — and its not like a two year deal at this kind of money is going to wreck the budget. But the transactions the team makes tell you something about the way the front office values performance, and their ability to understand that “bench players” become “regulars” when injuries occur, as they always do.
Judge for yourself if the Mariners have actually learned anything from their past mistakes. Judge for yourself if this organization has any idea how to actually build a baseball team.
The previous time I went on a real, extended international vacation, I left the States feeling afraid that the Mariners would throw too much money at Barry Zito. They did try that very thing, but in true Mariners fashion, they lost, and Zito went to the Giants on an even bigger mistake. This time, I left the States feeling afraid again that the Mariners would screw up, even though these days I’m considerably less emotionally invested. A whole lot happened over two weeks, but none of it involved the Mariners, except for the Chuck Armstrong part. That was a surprising part, and probably an overall good part, although in truth it’s impossible to know. In my absence, the Mariners didn’t do anything with which I disagreed.
But it sure feels like they’re going to, because they just can’t stop getting linked to Nelson Cruz. In fairness, they also can’t stop getting linked to Carlos Beltran, but Beltran’s market is too big, with too many superior teams. Beltran is virtually certain to sign somewhere else for two or three years in pursuit of a championship. The Cruz sweepstakes, on the other hand, is just conveying that feeling. The feeling where it’s only a matter of time before Nelson Cruz signs a multi-year contract to fill a hole in a currently embarrassing outfield.
The most current rumor, from Buster Olney, assumes the Mariners will end up with one of Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana. But that was mostly speculation on Olney’s part, and those markets are difficult to read with the Tanaka situation still open. The Mariners are most definitely in search of a starter, but I don’t know where they’ll turn. Cruz is the guy who seems likely, so Cruz is the thing I’m writing about at the moment.
It’s funny the way some guys just seem like obvious mistakes from the beginning. Zito looked like a certain disaster. Cruz, likewise, isn’t very good now, and appears a good bet to break down in a hurry. These likelihoods are exaggerated, but as fans you wonder why your own team might not recognize the same truth. In this free-agent market, Cruz seems like one of the most probable busts. He also has the Mariners’ attention.
It supposedly isn’t just the Mariners. The Phillies have been linked, but they signed Marlon Byrd. The Mets have been linked, but they signed Chris Young. The Rangers have been linked, and their outfield is thin, but they got Prince Fielder and seem too smart to guarantee Cruz big money. The A’s have been linked, but that doesn’t make one bit of sense.
One major-league source told me that the A’s have “meaningful interest” in free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, although there is nothing imminent.
You’d like to be encouraged by seeing the Mariners and the A’s connected to the same free agent, since the A’s are run extremely well. But the A’s have a pretty full roster, and they don’t make a lot of free-agent splashes. Yoenis Cespedes was one, but he was a potentially underrated international free agent. They went hard after Adrian Beltre, but Beltre has long been underrated by the market. Cruz is basically the anti-Beltre, so when you consider the A’s reputation, you automatically want to dismiss the rumor as nonsense. This is the power of reputations. See the A’s linked to Cruz, and you figure it’s either crap, or an attempt to raise his price. See the Mariners linked to Cruz, and you figure, yeah, makes sense. And they’ve been linked for weeks.
It’s all lined up. In the interest of honesty, I came into the offseason assuming the Giants would end up with Bronson Arroyo, and now that probably won’t happen, and I thought that was a lock. Nelson Cruz isn’t actually inevitable, for the Mariners. But he has a small rumored pool of suitors, and the others seem too smart or cash-strapped or both. The Mariners have a need, they have the money to spend, they have the desperation, and they have a demonstrated affection for Cruz’s skillset. Dave already wrote about the similarities between Cruz and Michael Morse, with whom the Mariners fell in love before, you know, the breakup. You have teams who might – might – like Cruz as a potential bargain, following a suspension. And you have a team that can’t seem to give its money away, a team that loves its dingers and runs-batted-initude. A team with Michael Saunders as its best current outfielder.
Offers being equal, the Mariners wouldn’t be the pick of many players. But there’s reason to believe that, with Cruz, the offers won’t be equal, and if the Mariners blow away the competition, Cruz would have to take a significant hit to go somewhere else. Before Byrd, maybe the Phillies would’ve been the team most likely to save the Mariners from themselves, but now they’ve already acquired an alternative and the coast is clear for the Mariners to put their best foot forward where other teams will be justifiably hesitant. I can’t imagine it would actually take the $75 million over four years that Cruz reportedly wants, but maybe four years is a real thing to fear, or $16-17 million a year over three. The Mariners want to spend more, and there’s only so much to buy. The Cruz sweepstakes might have the least competition, given how the Mariners probably value him.
At this point I’m just waiting for it. I’m waiting for it and I’m ready to not like it. There’s something to be said for spending money instead of pocketing it, because it’s not like the Mariners have infinite potential alternatives, but there are other courses, and Cruz could be a mistake from the beginning. My hope lies in the fact that I’ve been wrong about inevitabilities before. Nothing’s ever a lock until there’s a contract with a funny-looking signature. Maybe, somehow, the Mariners will be rescued from this.
And there’s also the Giants winning a pair of World Series toward the back end of the Barry Zito Era. From recent baseball history, that’s one of the very most important facts to remember. There are a lot of players on a baseball team, and a lot of things that happen because of them. The ultimate hope lies in the fact that either we don’t know what we’re doing, or baseball doesn’t.
Busy couple of days in Mariners-land, at least in terms of things related to the club. Let’s do a quick recap.
1. Chuck Armstrong is retiring as team president. I know a lot of people like to blame Armstrong (and Howard Lincoln) for the team’s failures, so for a portion of the fan base, this is going to be seen as great news. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t think there’s any way to know from this distance. I’ve never personally bought into the idea that the Mariners were more interested in profit than winning, or that they were simply a PR marketing firm masquerading as a baseball team, and I don’t have any real animosity towards the Mariners ownership or executives. I wish Mr. Armstrong the best in his retirement.
In terms of what it might mean for the Mariners future, I think the most significant factor is that Armstrong’s replacement will likely have a significant impact on whoever the next GM is, whenever there’s a next GM. Regardless of how optimistic you are about the 2014 Mariners, the reality is that the tenure of a Major League GM is rarely more than 10 years, and Jack Zduriencik is coming up on year six. There’s a pretty high chance that there will be a new GM hired at some point in the next few years, and potentially as early as next year.
More than “bringing respectability” or “lending credibility” or whatever other buzzwords people will use to talk up some celebrity president who they interviewed as a player/manager, the Mariners should be looking for someone who will push the organization towards a more analytical approach than they’ve used in the past. The trend in baseball is clearly moving in this direction, and this could be a chance for the Mariners to bring in someone with some newer ideas, and likely influence the organization to go a little more towards modern thinking when the inevitable front office overhaul happens. The Mariners should absolutely be looking to poach someone like Matthew Silverman from the Tampa Bay Rays, and I’d hope their list of candidates swings far more towards the analytical executive mold rather than a media spokesman type like Nolan Ryan was in Texas.
2. The Mariners announced their new coaching staff. Interestingly, Lloyd McClendon only brought in a couple of guys from outside the organization; Andy Van Slyke (McClendon’s teammate in Pittsburgh during his playing days) and Mike Rojas (Tigers bullpen coach during McClendon’s stint there), while everyone else was promoted from within the organization. Usually, a manager will bring in his own guys and surround himself with people he’s worked with in other organizations, but this at least has the appearance of McClendon not getting the final call on who joined him on the coaching staff. We can’t know exactly how much influence the team had in deciding who got each position, but it certainly looks like McClendon is not going to be given the kind of authority that Eric Wedge clearly coveted during his time in charge.
3. In Mariners writer news, Ryan Divish has officially joined the Seattle Times as their lead beat writer, and had his first day at the paper yesterday. Ryan is a friend and I’m happy for him in his new gig; don’t worry, Ryan, we’ll get the link added to your new blog home shortly. To fill Ryan’s vacancy at the News Tribune, the TNT has hired Bob Dutton, a longtime beat writer for the Kansas City Star. I don’t know Bob personally, but he has a pretty good reputation, and I’m looking forward to reading him on a more regular basis.
A few days ago, Shannon Drayer wrote a post about the Mariners potentially pursuing Robinson Cano, based on comments made by Jim Bowden. The Cano rumors don’t interest me much, because I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the Mariners should or will go after Cano, nor do I believe that Cano would have any interest in relocating to Seattle, and I think the idea of a big free agent signing turning around a franchise’s reputation is pretty much 100% BS. But in that piece, Shannon wrote another thing that was a little more interesting, and something I think is worth mentioning.
If you read my blog on a regular basis, you know I hate to make predictions. I will predict this, however: The Mariners’ No. 3, 4 and 5 starters will be significantly better next year. I know I am going out on a limb, but James Paxton and Taijuan Walker will be an upgrade from 3, 4 and 5 and most likely 6 on that list above. General manager Jack Zduriencik is planning on adding a starter from the outside as well. Great. Add a pitcher, do not trade Paxton or Walker and you can pencil in (I am done with my predictions so we are going with “pencil in” here) a 100-run swing.
Zduriencik has said that upgrading the defense is a priority as well and there is a lot of room for improvement. That translates to runs saved, which you can tack on to that 100-run swing. Go ahead and add a few more for an improved bullpen as well. That 754 runs allowed in 2013 should come down significantly in 2014.
She’s right that the back-end of the Mariners rotation last year was dreadful. Whether you’re looking at Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Brandon Maurer, Jeremy Bonderman, Blake Beavan, or even Erasmo Ramirez, the results were lousy. A lack of starting depth was one of the main reasons the 2013 Mariners were terrible. It should not be hard to improve upon what the team got from those three spots in the rotation. If Walker and Paxton are what some people think they are, and the team acquires a “legitimate #2″ — or someone they’ll stick that label on, at least — then the 2014 rotation should project to be significantly better.
But Shannon makes a pretty common mistake that a lot of people make when projecting the future; she focuses only on the positive improvements from replacing lousy performances from the year before. When you do projections like this, and note that Awesome New Guy X is some number of runs better than Old Crappy Guy Y, you’re inherently treating everyone else on the roster like their performance is fixed from year to year. And that is simply not the case.
As great as Felix Hernandez is, and as good as Hisashi Iwakuma was last year, those two simply cannot be expected to repeat their 2013 performances again in 2014. It’s not that they couldn’t possibly throw another 423 innings while allowing just 143 runs (3.04 RA9, combined), but that their performance from last year represents something very close to the upper limit of their potential, and there’s a significant probability that the Mariners will get less from their top two next year. And you absolutely have to factor the expected regression from those two into any kind of forecast for runs allowed by the team in 2014.
For instance, right now, the Steamer projection system forecasts the Mariners rotation to post a combined 4.07 ERA in 969 innings, barely any improvement over the 4.18 ERA the Mariners got from their starters over 960 innings last year. Part of that lack of improvement is because there is no “#2 starter” included in the depth chart yet, so Shannon’s projecting some improvement from a pitcher the team doesn’t yet have, so you could go ahead and make some adjustments for adding that guy to the mix. And I’d imagine she’s probably more optimistic about the short-term performances from Walker and Paxton than Steamer is, since that system is forecasting something close to league average pitching from both. No one is saying the Steamer projections are the gospel truth and can’t be underselling the expected performances of the team’s 2014 rotation, and perhaps Shannon’s right to be more optimistic about the young kids than the numbers suggest.
However, I think we can say with near certainty that the Mariners rotation will not improve by 100 runs next year. In fact, we can basically prove that they won’t do it just through looking at the recent history of major league rotations.
The Mariners starters allowed 481 runs in 2013. Over the last 30 years, no American League team has allowed 381 runs over a full-season — a bunch of teams did it in 1994, when the season ended in mid-August — and in fact, no team has even come close. The fewest runs allowed by an AL starting rotation over the last 30 years? 412, by the 1990 Red Sox. That was a team that had Roger Clemens throw 230 innings with a 1.93 ERA, and a bunch of good hurlers behind him.
A few other teams have gotten close to that mark recently, including the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays (David Price, James Shields, and a bunch of good young arms) and the 2013 Tigers (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister), but have maxed out around 415 runs allowed. Those are two of the best run prevention rotations we’ve seen any team run out in recent history, and they topped out at about 65 runs better than the 2013 Mariners. Realistically, it would be impossible to expect the Mariners rotation (and defense) to be better than any of the recent Rays teams, last year’s Tigers, or even the ’85 Blue Jays, ’89 A’s, or that 2002 Red Sox team that featured Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe.
Even if we narrow the timeline to the more recent years, as offense in baseball has declined and so comparing the current game to the one seeing 15 years ago is a little bit of apples and oranges, we still only find a handful of teams even getting under the 450 run barrier. Over the last three seasons, only seven different pitching rotations have allowed fewer than 450 runs, and five of those seven were between 432 and 442. If you were to look at the runs allowed totals by the best rotations (and defenses) we’ve seen in the last few years, we’d peg the expected upper limit around 435 or so. It’s possible to push it to 415, but it takes such a remarkable performance from so many elite talents that it’s basically impossible to expect anyone to match those levels.
435 runs allowed isn’t even a 50 run improvement over what the Mariners rotation put up in 2013, less than half of the 100 run improvement that Shannon wrote about. And that’s the level reached by the best starting staffs in the AL over the last few years, which it isn’t entirely clear that we should expect the 2014 Mariners to be. Yeah, Walker is a great prospect, and Paxton had a nice final start to his season, but the performance range of young pitchers is all over the map. Pitching prospects are as flakey as anything in baseball, and it’s not like either Walker or Paxton destroyed Triple-A in a way that suggests that the inconsistencies of young pitchers shouldn’t be expected to apply to them. There’s as good a chance that one or both of them just fall on their face — as Brandon Maurer did a year ago after winning everyone over in spring training — and get shipped back to Triple-A as there is that they pull a Michael Pineda and dominate from day one. The reason we were all impressed with Pineda is because that kind of performance from the start was unusual. You can’t expect that from every young kid who throws 95.
And even if you could, you’d still have to expect less from Felix and Iwakuma. They might stay perfectly healthy and make 64 starts between them again, but there’s basically no room for upside beyond that, and even short DL stints from either one could really cut into their overall production levels. And, realistically, a 2.66 ERA for Iwakuma is almost certainly not happening again. He needed absurdly low rates of hits on balls in play and stranding runners in order to post that mark last year, and those numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year. Even if he pitched the same in terms of walks, strikeouts, and home runs, you’d expect his ERA to go up significantly just due to different timing of events.
It’s fine to expect the Mariners 2014 rotation to be better. It might even be a lot better. But, in reality, a lot better is a 30 run improvement, not a 100 run improvement. If the Mariners really do commit to upgrading the defense, and the bullpen gets some positive regression as well, maybe the overall staff can be 50 or 60 runs better than they were last year. But anything beyond that is really pushing it. 100 runs just isn’t realistic.
So today’s been interesting.
1: The M’s, like all clubs, protected four players from the looming Rule 5 draft by placing them on the 40-man roster. They’ve selected Logan Bawcom, Ji-Man Choi, James Jones and Stefen Romero, leaving two open spots on the 40-man. JY talked about all four, and the two guys most are talking about as potential Rule 5 losses, in his preview the other day. That means there are a few marginal high-minors big-tent “prospects” who won’t be protected – Brian Moran was in this situation last year, and he went unselected despite a remarkable, eye-popping year in 2012. He’s the same guy, pitching off an 85-86mph fastball and striking out tons of hitters, but he sprouted some platoon splits this year and yielded a few more home runs. The sheen is off somewhat, but he’s still a guy who’s pitched very effectively in the Pacific Coast League for nearly two seasons and could presumably help someone as a back-of-the-bullpen arm, but there’s not much projection. I’ll admit that I still hope Moran makes his MLB debut in an M’s uniform, just because there’s something cool about a fly-ball/strikeout lefty throwing 85 and somehow making it work. As JY mentioned, Moran’s got an odd delivery, but it’s not one that’s really conducive to the LOOGY role – it’s very over-the-top, which helps explain the lack of splits in 2012. Sounds nice and all, but it’s probably keeping him out of a big league role, as a drop in arm-angle and a slider would make him much more of a traditional, Lucas-Luetge-esque LOOGY. I think the obsession with defined roles for non-closers is often hard to jusify, but in this case, we’re asking a big league manager to give the ball to a mid-80s lefty and NOT play match-ups with him. Someone may, someday, but I don’t think it’s that surprising that no one’s bit yet. Here’s hoping he has a bounce-back year and gets a look with the M’s in the late summer.
The other “snub” was IF Ty Kelly, the former Orioles farmhand the M’s got for Eric Thames in a waiver deal last summer. Between the IL and PCL, Kelly racked up 100 walks despite minimal power (his career OBP> his career SLG%). He’s a good utility-man candidate, so could conceivably stick with someone, but without power, above-average defense or good speed (3 SBs for Tacoma, but 7 caught-stealing), it’s not clear how any team would use him at the big league level next year. That’s not to say he’s worthless – with Stefen Romero moving to the OF and with a raft of IF promotions the past few years, the M’s could use some IF depth in the high minors, and a bench guy with some patience probably sounds better than it ought to for the OBP-starved M’s.
Congratulations to Bawcom, Choi, Jones and Romero – I haven’t said as much about them, as Jay covered it already, but it’s a testament to some hard work by each player and by the M’s player development staff. Bawcom struggled a bit when he first came to the org (in the Brandon League deal), and wasn’t great in the Arizona Fall League. But a solid season for Tacoma and good stuff make him a good choice to protect. Choi’s defensive limitations and voluminous injury history don’t change the fact that he can hit. If he’s healthy, he could put up decent numbers for Tacoma. Stefen Romero is one of those great draft bargains that Tom McNamara comes up with from time to time – a 12th round pick after an injury-shortened career at Oregon State. He had an up and down AFL this year, but has some pop (a HR in Arizona registered as the hardest-hit ball of the circuit, according to Trackman data. The HR left Romero’s bat at 110mph); as I mentioned recently, his success against Michael Wacha (1-2, with two well-stroked line drives) looks much better in retrospect than it did at the time. He’s got a ways to go, but given his potential and the open slots, this move makes perfect sense.
2: Speaking of the Winter Leagues, it’s been something of a disappointing campaign for the M’s. Danny Hultzen’s injury meant that the M’s lacked a really high-ceiling guy, as Jesus Montero’s the guy with the best prospect resume actually playing, and that resume’s only worth looking at if you pretend his big league tenure never happened, something many M’s fans are actively trying to do. Carson Smith (another guy who looked great in both pitch FX and Trackman) is still a very good relief prospect despite so-so numbers (obligatory small sample warning) which just goes to show that Smith didn’t really have much to gain this fall. Of the guys who did, a few took a step forward – Dominic Leone hit 97mph fairly regularly, and showed solid control in his innings for Peoria. His very hard cutter at around 90mph looks like a good pitch, and though he made some mistakes, Arizona’s a place that punishes missed location a bit more severely than most. He had scouts talking throughout the year, and he backed it up on a bigger stage this fall. Chris Taylor had a brilliant first few weeks in Peoria, and while he faded a bit down the stretch, he showed that his presumed ceiling of a glove-first utility IF was too low. Splitting time at 2B/SS and with great speed, he could add value as a bench player, but could work his way to a starting role as well. On the other end of the spectrum, we find Patrick Kivlehan, the guy I said had the most to gain from his AFL experience as any player on Peoria’s roster. He slugged .213 in 61 AB with a K:BB ratio of 17:3. It…it could’ve gone better.
3: The Alex Rodriguez saga has been a thoroughly ugly affair, pitting two towering ego with limitless resources against each other in a battle to discredit the other. It’s easy to hope they both succeed and get back to watching the Seahawks, but the NY Times story on the case a few weeks ago was absolutely riveting. Today, A-Rod walked out of an arbitration hearing when a judge refused to compel Bud Selig to testify. MLB clearly won that particular battle, but as Wendy Thurm’s great recap for Fangraphs makes clear, the Arb hearing (despite being ‘binding’ and the final step in adjudicating discipline according to the CBA) won’t end the matter. Rodriguez will certainly appeal to the federal courts, and even if he loses both in Arbitration and the courts, this is shaping up as a very Pyrrhic victory for MLB.
The conduct outlined in the Times article, and repeated by Rodriguez’s attorneys is pretty shocking, and while MLB can constrain the Players’ Association’s response for now, it’s probably going to be an issue when the CBA’s renegotiated. As today’s hearing showed, the Commissioner’s office sometimes sits above the arbitrator, and the anti-trust exemption means it’s really tough for players to seek any sort of remedy outside of the CBA. None of this mattered before, and it’s amazing the lengths to which Selig’s willing to go to ensure it matters in the A-Rod case. It’s not like Congress ever seriously debates the anti-trust exemption, and no, Congress isn’t going to be moved by A-Rod’s pleas that he’s being railroaded, but we’ve got an absolute trainwreck of a case (buying evidence, witnesses switching sides, etc.) that show that, in this specific instance, the fruits of that exemption have been put to, well, questionable use. You don’t have to feel sorry for A-Rod, but this has gone about as poorly as it could’ve for both sides.
4: So, there was a trade today. Dave’s got a couple of posts on the deal at FG. The deal can certainly work out well for both teams; both are contenders, and both fixed a weakness for 2014 through this swap. It allows the Rangers to make a space for one of baseball’s biggest prospects in Jurickson Profar, while it may allow the tigers to extend Max Scherzer and replace Omar Infante. You can make a case that Detroit “wins” thanks to that flexibility, and I think it’s a great argument, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to seeing Prince Fielder in Arlington next year.
Still, I find it incredible how quickly Fielder’s contract turned ugly. The statheads would say it was obviously too high from the day it was signed, and I’m patting myself on the back for that a bit, truth be told. But Fielder was young, he’s incredibly durable, and had a very good 2012 before slumping a bit in 2013. It was self-evidently not an anchor, and while the Tigers threw some money in, Prince Fielder had a market, even with a lot of money and a lot of years remaining. Still, I wonder if we’ll come to see the Fielder deal as some sort of peak in the value of pure power hitters on the open market. The Pujols deal may end up looking worse in time, and the Ryan Howard contract is still so bad it’s basically in a separate category, but throw in Mark Teixeira and you’re looking at a lot of dead money for 1Bs. As Dave’s mentioned, this is part of a trend where contracts have lengthened, showing that teams are holding the line on single-year salary and stretching their commitment over time instead. But while Fielder’s deal isn’t going to seriously impact Robinson Cano’s negotiations, I wonder if we may not see many deals like, say, Joey Votto’s extension for a while. We won’t really be able to see for a while, not until the very reasonable extensions for young players like Arizona’s Paul Goldshmidt run out, but the fact that the Reds will be paying Votto $25m in 2023 looks odd, and Votto’s a much better hitter than Fielder. Basically, will this lead to a re-valuation of good-not-historically-great ballplayers?
These things seem to go in cycles. The Mike Hampton contract haunted owners dreams, and thus frustrated agents of free agent pitchers, for years. The rising tide of revenue, extensions buying out some pre-arb years as well as free agencies, and the corresponding willingness of teams to “eat” some bad years on the back end of contracts changed all of that, and so long term deals for guys like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez raise fewer eyebrows. Hampton, Darren Dreifort and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Brown, seemed to be the poster children for the baseball truism that pitchers are simply far more risky investments. But as you survey the baseball landscape, it certainly seems less true than it once was. Barry Zito’s contract was silly, but it’s nothing compared to the Ryan Howard extension, and you can make a case that the Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp deals would be more damaging to a team (er, as long as that team isn’t the hyper-wealthy Dodgers). That’s kind of a separate issue from the very healthy and still youngish Prince Fielder, but I wonder to what extent teams would say that pitchers really are more risky for these 8-figure contracts. It’s possible I’m still scarred by Franklin Gutierrez’s collapse, and Chone Figgins…whatever the hell that was. Still, just as some of the received wisdom of sabermetric studies of the draft (HS pitchers are terrible, college 1Bs are awesome, college>>>>HS players) slowly became less and less predictive, I wonder if this (or 2010-2012) marks another inflection point, or if cable deals will make all of it irrelevant for a few more years.