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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 31, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Mariners will have to do their heavy lifting this winter

The trade deadline (at least the part where deals can be made without requiring the player to go through waivers) has passed, and the Mariners made no further deals. So they finished with three trades: Ichiro for two minor-league pitchers (fringe prospects, by most accounts), Brandon League for a minor-league pitcher and outfielder (again, fringe prospects), and Steve Delabar for Eric Thames (a fourth-outfielder type).

At least, those are the scouting reports on the new acquisitions. Sometimes, players develop and out-perform expectations, so I’m not going to write off any of these guys. I’m sure a couple of the minor-leaguers will make their way to Seattle, and from that point it’s up to them. But the point is that the Mariners don’t seem to have gotten any elite prospects, which isn’t surprising since they gave up one guy who has a great arm but a gopher-ball problem, and another guy who lost his closing job and will be a free agent after the season, and Ichiro — a 38-year-old in decline with a mammoth contract.

Frankly, I’m not surprised the Mariners didn’t do more. They still could trade the likes of Kevin Millwood, Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo in August, when a player must be put on waivers before he can be dealt. Players with bad contracts, like Figgins, are a lock to slip through (though I don’t anticipate a stampede to acquire Figgins). Players on reasonable contracts, like Millwood, are likely to be claimed, at which point, the Mariners could deal with the claming team, or withdraw the waivers (but just once). But none of those three is going to bring anything more than a token prospect in return, most likely, so it’s not worth obsessing over too much.

I predicted more than a month ago the Mariners wouldn’t make any blockbuster moves at the deadline. Ichiro is in a whole separate category. As I wrote back then, “I don’t see him going anywhere before the end of the season, unless he makes it known he wants to.” Which he did — and he was gone, but not in a deal impactful in any way except financially, because it clears payroll off the books for next year while removing the temptation to re-sign him (at least, it should).

The problem with making a blockbuster move in July is that two-thirds of the teams — the ones who think they are contenders — are looking to add talent, not give it away. Perhaps the Mariners could have pulled off a Felix Hernandez whopper, or parlayed Tom Wilhelmsen into a trade to acquire needed offense. But again, the vast majority of teams dealing right now are looking to add talent for prospects — and the ones dealing established players are mainly looking to dump salaries and free agents to be. The Mariners have made it known that they don’t have the stomach to trade Hernandez right now. Maybe that will change in the offseason, but what I’d like to see them do is keep Felix, build a team around him that’s capable of contending, and go into next season with Hernandez as their ace, and see what happens. If it falls apart, they can re-visit the Hernandez trade option at next year’s deadline, when he would still have tremendous value because of the year remaining on his contract. In the meantime, they can assess the status of negotiations and see about locking him up long-term.

The time for the Mariners to be bold is this winter. They are moving in the right direction with their youth, but it’s apparent that they’re not going to move into the next realm anytime soon without some additions. Jack Zduriencik talked again today about how you have to build the foundation before you can complete the edifice. By this winter, it will be time to move beyond the foundation, and the Mariners will have the money to do so, especially with Ichiro and Brandon League off the books. Unless, of course, they decide to cut payroll again, and not sink that money back into improving a team that could, with the right additions, be ready to finally make a move on Angels and Rangers teams that are rapidly becoming powerhouses. But if they rely purely on progress by their youngsters — which has been a mixed bag, marred by regression from players like Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley who are vital cogs in the master plan — they’re going to keep pounding away on that foundation while the rest of the division add on to their mansions. But they’re in a primo position to make an aggressive move.

Here is a look at the Mariners’ payroll obligations for 2013, via Cot’s Baseball Contracts:

Felix Hernandez $20 million

Chone Figgins $8 million

Franklin Gutierrez $7

Jason Vargas $8 million (estimated; arbitration eligible)

Dustin Ackley $1.5 million

Brendan Ryan $2.5 million (estimated; aribtration eligible)

Danny Hultzen $1.7 million

Miguel Olivo $750,000 (buyout)

Shawn Kelley $1.0 million (estimated; arbitration eligible)

John Jaso $1.0 million (esimated; arbitration eligible)

That’s $51.45 million earmarked for nine players (Hultzen has to be paid whether he’s on the major-league roster or not, as I understand it — but he probably will be). Everyone else — Michael Saunders, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Blake Beavan, Tom Wilhelmsen, Lucas Luetge, Charlie Furbush, Justin Smoak — are all making somewhere around the major-league minimum of $480,000 this season, and won’t be eligible for arbitration next year. If you pencil those 10 guys for an average of $750,000 next year, that’s another $7.5 million, bringing the committed payroll to $58.95 million for 19 players. If they maintain this year’s payroll of about $85 million, that would leave $26 million to play around with this offseason — certainly enough to make at least two, or possibly three, significant payroll additions, figuring that the final few spots could be filled with minimum-salary guys.

It’s not the greatest free-agent class in the world, but there are players worth considering (and if they move in the fences, as I expect them to do, then those players might actually consider Seattle). Plus, Zduriencik should have the freedom to take on high-salaried, established players in trades — the Justin Uptons of the world who can help move the Mariners’ offense into respectability. It’s not a case of abandoning the youth movement; it’s augmenting it, for the purpose of accelerating the progress to the ultimate goal, which is contention. Yes, it might take giving up one of the “Big Three,” but I’m increasingly convinced the Mariners need some outside help to build the offense to contending levels.

So, no, I don’t find the Mariners’ absence of a “wow” move at the deadline to be troubling — just as long as it’s not accompanied by more inaction this winter.

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