The Mariners signed Nelson Cruz. To a lot of money for a lot of days to come. So Jeff and I discussed it.
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!
I don’t mean to exaggerate, but it’s kind of like being sick. If you’re like me, you’re a bit of a worrier, and you have a tendency to worry about symptoms. You worry less upon receiving a diagnosis, even if it turns out something is wrong. It’s just better to know how to focus your worry — it’s the mystery that’s terrifying. When you don’t know what’s going on, anything could be going on, and there’s no defending yourself against that. When you have an answer, you develop a plan. You’re able to think more clearly, and you see the upside in whatever is happening. Mystery is important when it comes to the good things, but when something’s bad, there’s comfort in certainty.
Many have been afraid of the Nelson Cruz contract for more than a year. Almost exactly this Nelson Cruz contract, as a matter of fact. More recently, there was also reason to be afraid of the other rumors, rumors involving names like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and Justin Upton who’s almost a free agent. It was clear the Mariners were going to do something about their right-handed deficiency, and we just weren’t sure what that something would be. Could involve money. Could involve youth. Could involve money and youth. Last night I almost sat here and wrote about this, but I couldn’t find a thesis. Doesn’t matter now, we have the answer. It involves money. The Mariners are giving a lot of it to the Cruz family.
It also involves youth, in that the Mariners are losing a draft pick, which isn’t worth nothing. But it’s a lot easier to stomach losing something you didn’t yet feel like you had, and that draft pick didn’t have a name. It didn’t have a position and a height and a weight and a projectable body. It didn’t have a girlfriend and family members watching along in the living room waiting for a familiar name to be announced. The Mariners are trading a prospect for Cruz, but it’s a prospect they never started to mold, so the focus is on the four years and the $57 million. That overwhelms the value of the prospect anyway. Justifiably, the story is the commitment.
It’s too big. The Mariners are overpaying for Cruz. The team that loves him most — the team that just saw him lead the league in dingers — didn’t want to go past three years. So the Mariners are doing it, and they’re getting their guy, the guy they almost had a year ago before ownership reportedly nixed the deal because of a policy it must no longer have. To explain the $57-million expense, no one’s talking about what Cruz will be worth in the back half; the hope is what happens this year or next year will make it okay. The hope is Cruz will be a big help immediately, and then the future will sort itself out, and you can work around a Nelson Cruz overpay if you’re able to see it coming.
Cruz’s average salary is $14.25 million. I don’t know how it breaks down year to year, but toward the end, that’ll represent at least 10% or so of the Mariners’ payroll. Cruz probably isn’t going to be very good when he’s 37 or something. This is an example of how that can matter:
Hart pointed out the bad contracts they have to carry in Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton and how much that affects what they’re trying to do XM 89
— Jim Bowden (@JimBowden_ESPN) November 30, 2014
Dead money gets in the way of things. It renders your payroll a lower effective payroll. It would be silly to suggest the Mariners will be somehow immune to feeling Cruz’s decline, because they can spend only so much, and Cruz will be guaranteed a big chunk of the money, but the future’s a mystery, right? What we care about most is what we understand most, and that’s the single season ahead. In 2015, the Mariners project to be quite good. Cruz projects to be the best he will be from now on. He’s right-handed. He fills a position of absolute, inarguable need. I don’t think the Mariners acted out of desperation; I think they just saw a shining example of something, and they decided to click on Buy It Now instead of participate in an auction. They’ve been left out before, waiting until there was nothing good available. There’s some value in knowing you’ve plugged a hole on the first of December.
The Mariners were blessed with Edgar Martinez. Between 1995 – 2004, the Mariners had the best DH slot in the American League, and they were the best by a lot. Then, of course, Edgar retired, and while there was nothing wrong with his retirement, one could say he didn’t do much to help the team to identify a worthy replacement. Between 2005 – 2014, the Mariners had the worst DH slot in the American League, and they were the worst by a lot. You know the stat wRC+? It’s a measure of offense, where 100 is league-average. Over the past decade, the second-worst team DH slot has had a wRC+ of 100. The Mariners came in at 84.
Now here’s the part you really won’t believe. Red Sox DHs — David Ortiz — have led the way, with 32 WAR. Then you’ve got the Indians, at 15.6. The Blue Jays, at 10.4. The Yankees, at 9.0. Keep going down. The Orioles, at 1.0. The Astros, at 0.2. The Mariners, at -11.7. Read that again. The Mariners, at -11.7. Over the past ten years, since Edgar called it a career, Mariner designated hitters have been worth a combined dozen wins below replacement level. This might be the most incredible thing I’ve seen all year. I can’t tell. I objectively recognize it as incredible, but it doesn’t pack the same punch to me since it’s not really a surprise. We’ve all lived it. We just didn’t look at it so cumulatively.
It’s amazing how bad the Mariners have been there. At what’s supposed to be the very easiest spot to put a hitter, the Mariners have posted the same collective positional wRC+ as Ben Revere. That’s why it’s okay to feel some sense of relief. Cruz should at least hit, and hit at a not-embarrassing level, and while we’ve said that about various Mariner DH candidates before, this one feels better. Partly explains why, in the poll below, three times as many people have positive opinions as negative. Some of that’s also just bias, but we’ve lived a nightmare within a nightmare. Cruz might one day decline into a nightmare, but he should at least allow us to rest easy in 2015. And then after that, who knows? Maybe we’ll be dead.
Watch this. You’ve seen it before. It’s stupid.
That’s a stupid home run. Nelson Cruz hit it at Safeco Field against maybe the best pitcher in the American League. It’s also practically an impossible home run. Only a handful of players in baseball could do that, feels like. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, that home run was never more than 41 feet off the ground. Which means it was the lowest home run of the season that actually flew over a fence.
Cruz also hits the other kind of impressive home run:
He’s a pure power hitter. The alarming thing is that he’s very similar to what Michael Morse was supposed to be, and that’s a valid observation. This has gone tits up before, and Morse wasn’t signed for four whole years. But Cruz has actually been quite healthy lately, missing time in the last three years only for that pesky suspension, and it seems like Cruz won’t see much of the outfield. Cruz is also kind of what Corey Hart was supposed to be, which is another valid observation, but Hart was coming off a whole year lost. This past season, he couldn’t find his legs, so he didn’t have his swing. Nelson Cruz, to my knowledge, has his legs. Probably the kind of thing that gets noted on a physical.
Nelson Cruz is going to have what one might refer to as visceral at-bats. When he hits a pitch, he’ll really hit it, and you’ll know it immediately. Some of his home runs, you’re going to feel coming; others are going to come completely out of nowhere. You’re going to look forward to his spot in the lineup, even though he’s going to make his share of easy outs. In the short term, there should be enough productivity to make it all worthwhile. In the short term, the Mariners are trying to make the 2015 playoffs, and if they pull that off, what might be possible with the additional revenue in the seasons ahead? The ultimate message is that the team just signed last year’s league leader in home runs. That’s as matter-of-fact as it gets. The Mariners got what they wanted, and we’ll worry about the future when the future knows how 2015 went.
Here’s what could conceivably happen. Over a stretch of 255 plate appearances last June through last August, Cruz hit .203/.267/.388. It’s obvious when he’s not hitting, and when he’s not hitting, he’s pointless. Before that stretch, though, his OPS was in almost the four digits. Afterward, it was north of four digits. If Cruz falls apart, we can’t say it came without warning, because he was just bad for a couple months. But the story of Cruz’s whole career is that he makes up for his outs with his homers. There are a lot more outs than homers, but homers are a lot more positive than outs are negative. As he declines, the ratio will get worse. Cruz is the kind of guy who can pick his overall numbers up overnight. His decline will just look like slightly longer slumps.
Richie Sexson might be a data point here. His wRC+ after signing with the Mariners:
Then his career was over. Sexson provided one great year, and one fine year, and then he was dreadful. The last two years, he was a complete waste of money. But now bring that into the current circumstances. Would that be an acceptable trajectory, given where the Mariners presently stand? I think a lot of people would argue it would. People are pretty tired of finding something else to do in October.
Here’s one other way you can think about this. As long as we’re rationalizing, let’s rationalize. There’s no such thing in baseball as an obviously brilliant move, or an obviously terrible move. At least, there’s almost no such thing. Moves, mostly, have about a 50% chance of going well and a 50% chance of not going well. Some moves might be more like 60/40, and others might be more like 40/60. Let’s say that Cruz and the Mariners is more like 40/60. Let’s say it’s probably more bad than good.
What are the chances Cruz goes as projected? Like, exactly as he’s projected to go? There’s a good chance Cruz out-plays his projections, in which case, he’s basically worth the commitment. And there’s a good chance Cruz badly under-performs, in which case, he’s not worth the money, but we could write it off as an unforeseen and sudden decline. If Cruz falls apart overnight, we couldn’t say the Mariners should’ve seen that coming. It would be kind of like Chone Figgins, except that Figgins looked smarter at the outset. But, if Cruz goes badly enough, people will blame Cruz more than the front office. It’ll just be bad luck. The Mariners aren’t investing in a probable disaster, they’re just investing in a possible disaster, and the odds favor Cruz being, at worst, overpaid. Especially in four years, but the Mariners are giving four years to one Nelson Cruz, not a whole team of them.
2,000 words to say, it’s better than trading Taijuan Walker. The Mariners are a good team, and Nelson Cruz makes them a better team, and they paid more than anyone else would pay, but the need was also greater than anyone else’s, and the Mariners look to be right there among the contenders. So the Mariners, on paper, dealt damage to their own future to try to improve the present, and if it works out, benefits from the present will help to erase the future damage. Nelson Cruz wasn’t the only move the Mariners could’ve made. Other, more creative routes might’ve been possible that would require less of a commitment. For that reason, signing Nelson Cruz isn’t a brilliant move. But an acceptable move? I think we can accept it. Sometimes a man wants a double cheeseburger. Sometimes a double cheeseburger is the best god-damned thing you’ve ever eaten.
On the one hand,
On the other hand,
On the mutant third hand,
On the fourth hand??,
I want your overall opinion. Not your opinion on 2015, not your opinion on Nelson Cruz, not your opinion on images of numbers wearing festive birthday hats — I want your overall opinion on the Mariners, today, signing Nelson Cruz for four years and $57 million, and in so doing giving up a draft pick. You by now have had plenty of time to come to terms with whatever your feelings might be! Share said feelings, by clicking a little circle on the internet.
Given the timing, the weather, and my own sentiments, “lukewarm” is about all that I could muster at this point. Unless you have been hiding under a hole in the ground for the last several hours, you are probably aware at this point that the Mariners have made an offering to free agent Nelson Cruz of four years and $57 million. Not an offering of blood sacrifice on a flaming pyre. Different kind of offering. Except we did lose the #19 draft pick to the Orioles, so there’s that.
Nelson Cruz is cashing in on an age-33 season in which he led the American League in home runs for the Baltimore Orioles. He took that one-year contract in order to build up some credibility as to his general health and well-being as an offensive producer and has succeeded. He is now, presumably, financially secure through his age-37 season although he’ll turn 38 that July. From there, who knows, except that he’ll be $57 million dollars richer. Plenty of smart people have already analyzed this move, in terms of the money offered and in terms of the Mariners player archetypes and the risks involved.
My schtick is more attuned to the minor league side of things and with that I have this much to say. The Mariners have long had a depth issue in the realm of outfielders. We have tried patching this with the likes of Abraham Almonte, Eric Thames, Trayvon Robinson, and Casper Wells (miss u) with little success over the years. It wasn’t until two Junes ago that the Mariners began to start addressing this matter through the draft with Austin Wilson and Tyler O’Neill, but as we all well know, development is something that takes time due to player adjustments and unforeseen circumstances. Sometimes, for example, players try to punch holes through walls.
Of our various bits of outfield depth at the moment, Gabriel Guerrero is probably at least two years away from being a viable contributor to the team in the outfield. Julio Morban remains an enigma for his inability to play more than 90 games annually, ever. James Jones is James Jones. It’s unlikely that we’ll have to worry about a declining Nelson Cruz so much as blocking anyone until late in the contract, barring an improbable meteoric rise by Alex Jackson. By then, we’ll shift him into DH anyway and continue batting him fourth just like Kendrys Morales because it’s the principle of the matter.
Here’s the other consideration. Had the Mariners not invested the four years and mucho dinero in Sr. Cruz, they would have likely gone into further talks on the trade market for Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and the like. Using past rumors as template, the deals probably would have been for Walker+ and would have provided little long-term security on the investment. We presently have Cruz coming off one of his best seasons and have retained our trade chips. The core now includes Seager, Cano, and Cruz on offense, and likely Felix, Paxton, and Walker in the rotation, with a couple of those guys being pretty cheap. That’s not a bad starting point looking forward in the next few years and gets us into the conversation when projecting the top of the AL West standings.
The Nelson Cruz contract will last us four years. My reckoning has that as two years longer than I would have liked and one year longer than I was personally comfortable with. But the Cano contract has already pushed us into “win now” territory and we have done so without blocking prospects or significantly jeopardizing the team’s future. This is probably our big signing, and we may not do much more other than gather incidental pieces for the rotation, outfield, and first base/DH. That’s probably okay. The Mariners project pretty well at least through the next couple of years as it stands.
P.S. Please DH Cruz/don’t trade Saunders oh please oh please oh please
I had time on my hands so idle playthings happened and the podcast got some experimentation to it. In the meat of the episode, Jeff and I comment on the various RH power bats that the Mariners have been linked to, enjoy Kyle Seager briefly, and then keep the hot stove off in favor of some slow cooking.
Alas, left unaddressed is how we are all now in a different reality from the one(s) in which Felix Hernandez was (rightfully) awarded a Cy Young for his 2014 opus. Alas.
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!
Kyle Seager will earn $100 million, and Kyle Seager *deserves* that mind-boggling sum. Despite a park/division that suppresses offense, the 3B has become a lynchpin of the M’s offense, which sounds far more like faint praise than I’m intending. The M’s have struggled at the plate, but Seager’s power and consistency have helped bring them up from the historically awful group they were in 2010. Seager is incredible, and yet underrated, as he wasn’t a first-rounder or hyped prospect. How did Kyle Seager get here? Why did everyone underrate him? Who should get the credit for Seager becoming a core Mariner?
In Dave’s Fangraphs piece on Seager’s extension, he quotes from a Baseball America scouting report written around the time of the 2009 draft. Here’s how BA summed up his bat: “His best tool is his bat. He has a smooth, balanced swing and makes consistent contact with gap power. He ranked third in the nation in 2008 with 30 doubles and was on a similar pace in 2009. He has a patient approach but doesn’t project to hit for much home run power because of his modest bat speed and flat swing plane.” Not wildly off, right? Line-drive guy. Good bat, level swing, lots of “OK” tools, no headline-grabbing, off-the-charts skill. He hit for average and had a so-so ISO slugging (thanks to lots of doubles) in college, and that’s essentially what he did in his whirlwind tour of the M’s affiliates. His career MiLB ISO is .146, boosted by a full year of High Desert and an incredible hot streak in the thin air of the PCL.
But how accurate is that scouting report if you focus on Seager’s MLB career? His big league ISO now stands at .167, and it’s increased in each year. This isn’t the result of a bunch of hot ground balls over the bag at first, either. That “level swing” is now a clear uppercut, and that swing produces the batted ball profile of a slugger. Only two Mariner hitters had a GB/FB ratio below 1 (meaning that they hit more fly balls than grounders): Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager. This is not a recent development. Seager’s 0.89 mark in 2014 was actually the *highest* of his career. I don’t mean to pick on BA’s scouting report here – it matches his college stats, and it’s a pattern that seemed to persist into the minors. I don’t think BA screwed up at all. I think that somewhere along the line, Kyle Seager changed in some pretty fundamental ways.
Earlier this month, A’s blogger Ken Arneson wrote a great post called “Ten Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence.” Everyone from Rob Neyer to beat writers mentioned it, and it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot in the few weeks since I read it. Anyway, Seager’s rise to cornerstone bat reminds me of something I believe without evidence: Player development is more important than pure amateur scouting. I say “without evidence” because it’s not clear at all where one ends and the other begins. Scouts will say that the entire reason they scout make-up is to ensure that a player can make more use of coaching/player development. They’re right! They love “projectable” players for the same reason – the gains from player development are much higher for some players than others. And none of this is to suggest that scouting doesn’t matter or is overrated. It’s not; Tom McNamara got Kyle Seager before some other team did, and that decision had a big impact on the M’s fortunes. In fact, I have no doubt that scouts play a role in PD, as they’re identifying specific rough edges for the development staff to sand down even before a player signs his first contract – this clearly happened with Brad Miller, and may have happened with Seager. But Seager’s transformation from over-achieving line-drive hitter to $100m slugger is the kind of thing that underscores just what player development is capable of.
I have no idea how the M’s apportion the credit here, and it doesn’t matter all that much. The M’s PD group changed over during the time Seager was in the minors, so even if you wanted to give 100% of the credit to the development side of the house, you might have to split it again between the Gwynn and Grifol teams. In the main, it sure seems like player development has been inconsistent for the M’s. For every Kyle Seager or James Paxton, there’s a Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak that seems to stall out (at best). This may reflect selection bias, confirmation bias AND reporting bias, but here goes: player development was one of the big stories of 2014. Kyle Seager didn’t just maintain production in the 3-4 WAR range, he jumped a level and knocked on the door of 6 WAR. The Astros (the ASTROS) rotation posted a better collective FIP than the Mariners or the Royals, headlined by Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel. Grant Brisbee’s post on Pablo Sandoval, the OTHER unheralded-to-unbelievably-rich 3B, mentions that Fat Panda never cracked the BA top *30* prospect list, no doubt due to things like posting a .629 OPS in the Sally League. Michael Brantley knocked 20 HRs last season after hitting 16 in his entire MiLB career, spanning 566 games and well over 2,000 at-bats.
Yes, yes, can’t predict baseball and all that. People have career years. But several years after Brandon McCarthy’s transformation, and several years into Kyle Seager’s emergence, and a year-plus since James Paxton’s quantum leap, we’re starting (or maybe I’m starting) to get a sense of how radically PD can remake a player and a team. Finding a kid in Texas or Venezuela who can touch 91 is great, but increasingly, teams are somehow able to turn established big leaguers throwing 89 into better big leaguers throwing 93. They take a so-so minor league catcher and turn him into an All Star 3B. And they take your standard over-achieving baseball rat, adjust his swing plane, and create a middle of the order hitter.
Scouting is still critical. PD wouldn’t matter if the M’s got beat to Seager in the draft. Taijuan Walker’s another PD star (so far), but he got that chance thanks to a gutsy pick in the sandwich round. Good teams will obviously have both great scouts and an elite set of coaches. To compete in the division and the AL, the M’s need to get the most out of what they have, and from a team-wide perspective, that’s been an area they’ve struggled with. But Kyle Seager is at least an example of what CAN happen; an exhibit on how the next really good M’s team might develop.
We didn’t learn anything new about Kyle Seager as a player today. Presumably, nothing ought to change. I suppose it’s possible he could just up and stop trying now that he’s getting his money, but I’m going to regress that possibility very heavily to the mean. Kyle Seager now is what Kyle Seager was yesterday is what Kyle Seager was in September. Except now Kyle Seager is getting locked up for seven years and about $100 million, with an option. Locked up by the Mariners, I mean, not by some other team, or prison.
It’s simultaneously good news and a strange thing to celebrate. Kyle Seager’s becoming one of those expensive players, and those are the ones who can do the most damage if they under-perform. And the Mariners didn’t add anything; Seager was already going to stick around for the next three years, so this is something that affects the relatively distant future. Who knows what 2021 is going to look like? That’s seven years from now. Seven years ago, Alex Rodriguez was the league MVP, and the Devil Rays were wrapping up their tenth consecutive season with at least 91 losses. The guesses we make about the future now are stupid, but at least as we can perceive it, this seems like it should be more good for the Mariners than bad.
It’s the long-term extension people have long been asking for. And while the sum might be jarring, there are a couple of points to keep in mind. For one, Kyle Seager is a very good baseball player. For two, money in the future means less than money now. Prices go up. A good baseball player costs more and more every single season. Let me expand a little more on this second part. You’re already familiar with the first part — you’ve been watching Seager since he came up.
Let’s estimate that in the last year of his deal, Seager’s salary will be about $20 million. That number means something to you, as a single-year salary, but now let’s also estimate that baseball spends 5% more every year that passes. Over the past decade, annual inflation has averaged 5.4%. In terms of present money, then, that $20 million would be about equivalent to $15 million. That’s less than Hiroki Kuroda money. $15 million now buys you something in the vicinity of an average player, so it’s not an exorbitant total. No, at least, as far as professional baseball player salaries are concerned.
What I think we all love about Seager is his trajectory. It’s not only that he’s a valuable player — it’s that he’s earned it every step of the way. We used to joke that Doug Fister seemed to add a new skill every year, until he became a borderline ace. In that way, a nobody low-ceiling prospect turned into a highly valuable asset. Kyle Seager started his professional career as a low-upside infielder with contact skills, but since then he’s added power and he’s dramatically improved his defense at third. Take a guy who projects to be average. Now improve two of his most important skills. You get something like what Kyle Seager has become.
There’s no part of his game where he’s amazing, outside of his work ethic. But across the board, Seager is something like average or better. He knows his way around the bases, and though he doesn’t walk a whole lot, he doesn’t chase and he makes consistent solid contact. He handles third base like a far more athletically-gifted player, and even though Seager does still struggle some against southpaws, that much is to be expected and he’s not a complete liability. And for all I know, this is the area that Seager will select to improve on in 2015. You know, as long as he’s pushing himself. That’s how you’d turn Kyle Seager into an MVP candidate, but we don’t need to go crazy.
Bill Mueller was a common player comp. That was before. Take Bill Mueller’s profile and add more power. It’s not like Seager is any kind of threat to all fields. A home-run spray chart from Baseball Savant:
Yeah. You already knew that, even if you didn’t specifically know that. Seager isn’t a guy capable of standing in and knocking any pitch out of the park. But he seems to select his opportunities, jumping on pitches he can yank to right field. He’s been doing this for long enough now that it doesn’t seem like the league is going to figure him out overnight. Last year Seager saw fewer fastballs than ever, and it didn’t seem to bother him. He has a favorite part of the park, but he’s gone there for three years in a row, and he doesn’t hit enough groundballs for the shift to cripple his productivity.
All the elements are in place for Seager to be underrated. Underrated in the present, and underrated as a prospect. As a prospect, Seager was a safe bet to make a contribution, sort of the position-player equivalent of a pitcher with a good changeup. If you take that pitcher with a good changeup and make his command even a little better than expected, sometimes he’ll pitch like an ace. Seager never ranked higher than ninth on Baseball America’s top-10 list of Mariners prospects. The one year he was in the top-10, he was sandwiched between Marcus Littlewood and Dan Cortes. Everyone else on that list today is a question mark or a has-been. Seager’s got a nine-figure contract.
And in the present, Seager plays way over in a corner of the country for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in forever. He’s not the flashiest player, nor has he ever once commanded headlines, and players who’re solid across the board don’t get eyes like players with individual standout skills. In the first half of this past season, Seager ranked fourth among American League position players in WAR, and he was basically tied for second behind Mike Trout. He only made the All-Star Game as an injury replacement. He didn’t finish among the top five vote-getters at third base. People elsewhere don’t know anything about Kyle Seager. People locally might not be fully aware of how good Seager is.
He’s good enough to get a nine-figure contract. Good enough to get it and deserve it. Seager last year had the same WAR as Anthony Rizzo and Jose Abreu. He actually narrowly eclipsed Robinson Cano. And Cano was in no way a disappointment, so maybe that drives the right point home. Kyle Seager was just as good as the player given the biggest contract in Mariners history. It’s fun to think about how Felix Hernandez has turned out perfectly, given his skillset as a prospect. Seager’s the same kind of way, except he wasn’t blessed with Felix’s raw skills. Considering what Seager was, he’s actually close to his all-around ceiling, and that’s an uncommon thing to achieve.
We never actually really know these players as people. We don’t go on walks with them, asking them about music and family and wilderness conservation and space and the tiny-house movement. We don’t know anything about Kyle Seager aside from what we’ve been told, and what he’s done on a baseball field. But Kyle Seager absolutely busted his ass to become good enough to be worth this kind of commitment. So many similar players turn into nothing, floating around as minor-league free agents. Seager earned this — he earned this — and that sort of drive to improve isn’t a characteristic that just suddenly goes away. I trust that Kyle Seager’s going to be as good as he can be, and I’m pretty happy about having a player like that in the Mariners’ clubhouse for most of the following decade. Felix is proof of what you can become if you’re born with uncommon ability. Seager is proof of what you can become if you’re not.
I have to admit, I was a little caught off guard by that rumor being thrown around that the Red Sox could try to trade Yoenis Cespedes for Hisashi Iwakuma. It’s not that I’m surprised that Cespedes could be on the move — with what the Red Sox have just done on the free-agent market, it seems like he’s already as good as gone. It’s also not that I’m surprised that the Mariners would have interest in Cespedes — he’s a righty-hitting outfielder with power and visibly incredible skills. Cespedes to the Mariners? Yeah, I can buy that, now that he’s out of the division.
I just never really thought about trading Iwakuma. Why would you? He’s good. Teams trying to win don’t trade good players. But the more that I think about this, the more I just end up stuck. Which is why I’m including a poll in this post. Would you, or wouldn’t you?
I wanted to hate this. And my initial response, in my own head, was, no, Cespedes isn’t enough. I’ve spent a couple years watching his OBP bounce between .2-something and .3-something. That’s a hard impression to shake, and all Iwakuma has done is pitch brilliantly since joining the Mariners’ starting rotation in 2012. People have argued at points that Iwakuma is quietly as good as Felix Hernandez is, and while the specifics of that argument are kind of silly, the message is legitimate: Iwakuma’s been very good, very quietly, cementing himself as one of the most underrated pitchers in the game.
But — okay. Usually, when I’m putting a poll in something, I don’t want to write a lot first, because I feel like it biases the voters. But I don’t care. Is this science? This isn’t science. If anything, making you read a whole post first before you vote will make you less likely to vote based just on your first impression. I want you to think about this. I guess I can’t stop those of you who have already scrolled down to click on a circle. That’s fine; nothing hinges on this.
What are the big details, here? Cespedes is a year away from free agency. Iwakuma, too, is a year away from free agency, and by the terms of their contracts, neither one of them can be extended a qualifying offer when the season’s complete. So there are no draft-pick considerations here. Iwakuma’s set to make something like $7 million. Cespedes, $10.5 million. Right there, that’s a point in Iwakuma’s favor. The Mariners don’t have Red Sox money.
So you reflect on recent performance. Iwakuma’s been a good starting pitcher for two and a half years. By his peripherals, he’s a 3 – 4 win starting pitcher. By actual runs allowed, though, he’s been worth ten wins in two years. That’s a factor — we’re not accustomed to seeing too many guys score with Iwakuma on the mound. Cespedes? He’s held somewhat steady. He hasn’t been what he was in 2012, offensively, but he’s stayed above-average, with obvious jaw-dropping power. He’s not a defensive liability, at least not when you consider the value of his throwing arm. He’ll fail to run down a few balls in play, but he’ll make up for that with some baserunner kills, which is just a different way of creating outs.
Based on what’s already happened, Iwakuma seems a bit better than Cespedes. Throw in the salary difference and you can see why the Mariners might say no to this proposal. It’s then that you turn to the unknown. Iwakuma turns 34 next April. Cespedes turned 29 the same day I turned 29, this past October. Take what you know about both players. How do you adjust them for age, when you only care about the single season directly in front of us?
This is what gives me so much trouble. But, rationally, I get that Iwakuma is a pitcher, and pitchers are less reliable than hitters. Iwakuma’s more likely to have a major injury, and Iwakuma’s more likely to have a little age-related skill erosion. Cespedes hasn’t exactly had a clean bill of health since arriving, but he’s younger and stronger and I can see how he might have a higher probability of having another 3-win season in 2015. The difference wouldn’t be great, but perhaps it offsets the track records. Perhaps it offsets the difference in money due.
My biggest issue might be about something else entirely. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that Cespedes and Iwakuma are as good as one another, at this writing. So swapping them straight up would be moving a strength from one place to another. But right now, the Mariners don’t have a whole lot of starting-pitcher options. Beyond the five, there’s Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen. Maybe you add Tom Wilhelmsen. One of those guys has declined, one of those guys has had a catastrophic shoulder injury, and one of those guys has been a reliever. Move Iwakuma and, at least for the time being, one of those guys goes into the rotation.
But you’re not plugging an outfield hole. The Mariners think there’s a hole, but, Michael Saunders is not bad. I’d be content to move forward with Saunders, Dustin Ackley, Austin Jackson, and a decent fourth-outfielder guy. The real need is at 1B/DH, and Cespedes doesn’t do that, and the other outfielders don’t do that. The Mariners would get better in the outfield, but they wouldn’t get better by a lot, and they’d still need help. They’d still need a 1B/DH. They’d need a starting pitcher. Or two. Pitchers get hurt. Several of the Mariners’ pitchers did get hurt.
So the Mariners trade Saunders, then, maybe packaged with something else for something else. That much already feels inevitable and there’s potentially some upside there. Just because the Mariners might be giving up on Saunders doesn’t mean it has any effect on his trade value, provided other teams want him. Nothing has happened to Cespedes’ trade value because he’s all but out of a job in Boston. Demand is demand. There would be some demand for Michael Saunders, so he could be turned into help at another spot.
But because of all this, thinking about Cespedes for Iwakuma just makes me upset all over again about how the Saunders saga is playing out. The Mariners don’t have many starting pitchers or outfielders. Weird for them to maybe think about trading a starting pitcher, or an outfielder. Yet I suppose offseason plans are complicated.
Yoenis Cespedes, Hisashi Iwakuma. Maybe if you trade Iwakuma now, it makes it less likely you can sign him after the year. Maybe not. Maybe you wouldn’t want to sign Iwakuma after this year anyway, given his advancing age. Cespedes probably wouldn’t re-sign with the Mariners, but for one thing, that’s a guess, and for another, the priority is 2015. The Mariners should be good in 2015, even if they make a move or three we disagree with. There’s a strong foundation here, and Cano/Cespedes/Seager would admittedly be a fun thing. Cano and Seager do the consistent damage, and Cespedes adds the occasional detonation. The long ones count the same as the shorter ones, but the long ones sure are delightful.
If I were to take my own advice, this is such a difficult decision that it should be an easy decision. Can’t really go wrong. But it’s one thing to think like that in theory, and it’s another to think like that regarding specifics. I think, though, I have my mind made up, at least for right now. Do you? I’m interested in how this goes.
Here’s a point of perplexity for me: Every year, baseball does a great deal to improve the profile of the minor leagues through active promotion of the flashy components. We get the Futures Game, and we get the Arizona Fall League, and we get the Draft being put on the rack and stretched out to three days with a lot of televised hooplah on day one to get people excited about a player development system that has uniquely bad returns among the sports. And yet, in the offseason, when I’m looking up information on the important dates, I can’t find a single thing on when 40-man rosters are supposed to be finalized in the 2014 season, but I can find information on when the GM Meetings occur even though nothing relevant has ever happened during them. They just happened. You didn’t know it. Who cares? Why not mention a deadline? Why is that important vetting process, without which most prospects are useless, wholly ignored by the sport’s own website? How long would it conceivably take to throw just a line of information on your website? That’s it. I’m through. (storms off)
(storms back) Okay. So the name of the game this year: ’10 high school draftees and early international signings, ’11 college draftees. Those are on the chopping block for the first time. I’m going over more than just the likely candidates here, but if I omit a name that you think is relevant, ugh, I’m sorry, there’s only so many candidates that I don’t expect to be added to the roster that I can fruitlessly cover anyway. Part of the issue is that, with how the Mariners have recently operated their player development system, remarkable players get added far earlier and so this deadline becomes more surprising on average but less sexy. Taijuan Walker, Brad Miller, and Carson Smith would be eligible for the first time— zowie!— if… they… hadn’t already been added to the 40-man some time ago. What we’re left with is sifting amongst the dudes who have not already been Mariners, which takes the enthusiasm out of it. Also looking at next year, which at least now, seems like it will be far more interesting.
I don’t know if I could love hockey more than I do, but just as I have issues with the way baseball is played, I also have issues with the other sport. Most especially — and this isn’t unique — I can’t stand the regular-season shootout. Everyone loves playoff hockey overtime, and it would be unreasonable to suggest that regular-season games have the potential to go on forever, but there should at least be more overtime, and there should never be a shootout. There should be a tie before a shootout. A shootout awards a point to a team for something other than how it plays hockey. It serves as a tiebreaker, but it’s a tiebreaker that has nothing to do with the game that was played to a tie in the first place. Feel like settling even baseball games with a home-run derby? It’s random. It’s nonsense. It’s exciting nonsense, but it’s nonsense.
If the AL Cy Young race were a hockey game, it was played to a shootout. Felix Hernandez’s team had 1, and Corey Kluber’s team had 1, and then they couldn’t break the tie, so they went to the designated tiebreaker. The tiebreaker didn’t reward the better team — it rewarded a team, where no better team stood out. Because this is America, hockey games aren’t allowed to end in ties. The Cy Young voting, in theory, can end in a tie, but that hasn’t happened for decades, so more realistically, someone had to win. Every ballot had a first place and a second place. The individual ballots can’t reflect how close a race this was. The overall ballots can, and did. Corey Kluber beat Felix Hernandez because someone was going to beat someone.
I was surprised. You were surprised. Felix and Kluber were surprised! We all kind of assumed. Some of us wrote about how Kluber probably wasn’t going to get enough support in the voting, given Felix’s first-half momentum and given Kluber’s relative anonymity. But see, the voters are also readers, and in addition to that, the voters aren’t idiots. They’re a lot smarter than they used to be. You don’t make votes based on momentum. You make votes based on the numbers you pull up in front of your eyes. Once people really took a look at Felix vs. Kluber, they were left thinking, welp, gotta pick one. The voting tally indicates it came down to little more than a coin flip.
It would be difficult to make up a closer race than the one that just concluded. The innings were the same. Neither pitcher got hurt. Felix pitched in a better environment with a better defense, but he also induced weaker balls in play. Felix seems to have gotten more help from his catchers. Some of that is because of Felix’s own command. Felix seems to have faced an ever so slightly more difficult schedule. It was that close. The gap was well within our own statistical error bars, and really, I don’t see a gap, anyway. I’ve looked at this off and on for months. The two pitchers were equally good. Which means there’s nothing to be upset about, except a justifiable loss that could’ve been a justifiable win.
There are people who feel like Felix should’ve won because he ripped off that 16-start streak. Valid — that was an incredible streak. He ran a 1.41 ERA. Kluber ran a 1.77 ERA over his last 18 starts. Why focus on fractions of a season? Other people feel like Felix blew it when he allowed eight runs to the Blue Jays in his penultimate game. I’m absolutely sure that did cost him, but all it meant was that voters would take a harder look at Kluber than they otherwise might’ve. Again, we’re left with the overall season performances. Had some things happened differently, the outcome would’ve been different. Felix had chances to cement his victory. If you want to stick with the hockey-game analogy, Felix’s team rung a few shots off the crossbar before time expired. He allowed this to get as far as a shootout, and then it was out of Felix’s hands. 50/50, like Yoervis Medina throwing a strike.
As always, this makes you wonder a little bit about the nature of rooting. We all like the Mariners, so we all like seeing the Mariners win awards. It’s like a little sugar rush. But the awards are to recognize outstanding performance. Felix not winning the Cy Young doesn’t do anything to retroactively change his performance. It doesn’t do anything to change his future projection. Maybe, this reduces Felix’s chances of making the Hall of Fame by like a tenth of one percent. And next year, when Felix gets introduced, he’ll get introduced a second or two faster, time that would’ve been filled by saying “your 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner”. But there’s a funny thing about that shorter introduction: the sooner it’s over, the sooner Felix gets to pitch. That’s what we actually care about. That’s why there’s always a huge group of people with signs and bright yellow t-shirts. Felix Hernandez, this past season, was arguably the best pitcher in his league. That’s because Felix Hernandez is arguably the best pitcher in his league.
It would’ve been nice for Felix to have the label. Not a whole lot of two-time Cy Young winners. We would’ve gotten a little rush, and Felix would’ve given an awesome press conference, with awesome quotes about how he’s awesome and how he thinks this city and this team are awesome. Would’ve been an evening of warm fuzzies. But we aren’t fans for the warm fuzzies in November — we’re still hoping for the warm fuzzies in October, and what happened today has not anything to do with what’ll happen in 11 months. Felix himself managed to say it best:
“[The Cy Young Award] means a lot,” Hernandez said. “But my goal is just to win the whole thing with this team right here, the Seattle Mariners. They deserve it, the fans deserve it. Individual stuff doesn’t matter, this is a team sport.”
Have I mentioned that the Mariners project to be one of the best teams in the American League? The competition is incomplete, but the Mariners are also incomplete, and they’re working to improve. You get today to be bummed about the award. Day’s almost over.