(Photo by Associated Press)
This is the time of year when fans start drooling about the free-agent possibilities for their team. It’s easy to start imagining how the likes of Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, Ryan Ludwick, B.J. Upton or Torii Hunter might fit into the Mariners’ lineup.
But let’s be honest: This is not a particularly deep field of free-agent bats (and hitters are what the Mariners are primarily going to be looking for). Not only that, but there are a lot of teams loaded with money who will be bidding up the cost of the top players. That’s not to say the Mariners won’t wind up dipping into the market, but I believe it is just as likely, if not more so, that they will wind up making a big trade rather than a big signing. Or perhaps both, if Jack Zduriencik gets really ambitious.
Who would the Mariners deal? Really, who wouldn’t they deal? I’m not sure they have any untouchables in the right trade, and that includes Felix Hernandez. Let me clarify to say I believe they will make every effort to re-sign Hernandez to an extension. They want him, and he (by all accounts) wants to be here, which is usually the recipe for a successful outcome. It was the last time Hernandez was on the verge of hitting free agency. But if negotiations break down — and this is the offseason to get something done, with Hernandez’s contract set to expire after the 2014 season — then it would only make sense for the Mariners to test the trade market on Hernandez now, when his value would be immense. Again, I don’t expect that to be the outcome, but when the numbers get as large as a Hernandez extension will, nothing is guaranteed.
Taking Felix out of the equation, the Mariners have a lot of young pitching depth in the organization, and that’s even after trading Brandon Morrow, Doug Fister and Michael Pineda in recent years. They will almost certainly have to dip into the Big Three of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to make a blockbuster trade for a prime bat, but with pitching being as fickle as it is, I think it’s a gamble worth taking. From talking to people, I’d say Walker is the one they’re the most reluctant to trade, because of his huge upside. But he’s also the one who would get the biggest return, so that will be an interesting internal tug-of-war.
Keep in mind that the size of the contract coming back in any trade shouldn’t be a big issue for the Mariners, who stand to have some $30 million to $35 million available to spend this winter, if they keep their payroll about where it was last year. That’s by virtue of trading Ichiro and Brandon League, and having a whole lot of players not making much more than the minimum.
Let’s take a look (in no particular order) at some players who might be available this winter. It’s not a definitive list (because it’s impossible to know who might be dangled), but I expect many of these players to be dealt.
1) Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox. Ellsbury is in his last year before free agency, which is problematic, because his agent is Scott Boras, who doesn’t usually advise his players to negotiate an extension before testing the market. But that’s also the reason that Ellsbury might be available, and the team that gets him would be getting a highly motivated player who wants to maximize his earning potential with a big year. Ellsbury showed two years ago what he can do when healthy, putting up a near MVP season. But he’s also had trouble staying healthy, and played just 74 games last year (and just 18 in 2010). Ellsbury stands to make $8.1 million in 2012, according to the arbitration projections of MLB Trade Rumors. Ellsbury, who grew up in Oregon and attended Oregon State, might be motivated to stay in Seattle.
2) Andre Ethier, Dodgers. Buster Olney of ESPN caused a stir on Monday when he tweeted that the Dodgers were open to the concept of trading Ethier, whom they signed to a five-year, $85-million extension in June. The thought is that they might prefer to re-sign Shane Victorino for their outfield. Today, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that a trade involving Ethier is “not happening” so who knows what to think. Ethier turns 31 in April, is not a great defensive player, and struggled against lefties this year (.596 OPS vs. southpaws). He also hit just 11 home runs in 2011. Ethier has shown he can be an offensive force, and would definitely be an upgrade for the Mariners, but I’d be leery of the later years of his contract.
3) Mike Morse or Tyler Moore, Nationals. If the Nationals re-sign Adam LaRoche, who went 33/100 last year, then that would leave them with a surplus of corner outfielders/first basemen. Morse, of course, once belonged to the Mariners (regretably traded for Ryan Langerhans). He’s got two years before free agency. Moore is just 25 with a lot of upside. He broke into the majors in 2012 and put up an .840 OPS, with 10 homers in 156 at-bats. He hit 31 homers in back-to-back seasons in the minors. Neither rates well in defensive metrics.
4) Shin-Soo Choo, Indians. Another former Mariner who left via a bad trade. And another Boras client who is one year away from free agency (standing to make $7.9 million in 2013 via the same arbitration projections mentioned earlier). Choo bounced back from an injury-shortened 2011 to play in 155 games in 2012 and put up a .283/.373/.441 line with 16 homers and 67 RBIs.
5) Justin Morneau or Denard Span, Twins. The Twins really need pitching, and they have Chris Parmalee to play first base, and Ben Revere to play center field. Morneau is another one in the final year of his contract (he’ll make $14 million), and he has had to deal with serious concussion issues the last couple of years. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be quite the dominant player he used to be, but Morneau did come back to play 134 games last year and hit 19 homers. Morneau put up a .752 OPS in the first half, and .793 in the second half, so there’s some reason to think that there will be continued improvement as he continues to distance himself from the concussion effects. He’s from British Columbia, so there would be a comfort level in playing in Seattle. But Morneau turns 32 in May, and $14 million is a lot of money for a guy who can walk after the season. Span will be 29 next year, and is under contract for two more years ($4.75 million in ’13, $6.5 million in ’14, with a $9 million option for ’15). He’s a good glove man who put up a .392 on-base percentage in 2009 (.342 last year), but he’s hit just 23 homers in five seasons.
6) Michael Cuddyer, Rockies. The Rockies have some outfield depth, so Cuddyer could be expendable. But he was limited to 101 games last year because of an oblique injury, and his .806 OPS wasn’t exceptional for someone who played home games at Coors Field. Cuddyer is still owed $10.5 million in each of the next two years on the three-year, $31.5 million he signed with the Rockies. Dexter Fowler could also be available, and he’s better than you might realize.
7) Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, Billy Butler and/or Alex Gordon, Royals. Ah, now we’re talking. The Royals desperately need to upgrade their rotation, and they have an awful lot of enticing young hitting to offer as bait. They may pursue free agent arms like Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse, but it’s hard to see them winning any bidding wars. So KC might have to swallow hard and give up one of those aforementioned players. Gordon, with his 96 doubles the past two seasons, and Gold Glove defense (and three more years under contract) sure would look good in the Mariners’ outfield. Butler, with his 140-OPS plus, would look great in the Mariners’ lineup, or any lineup, but he’s pretty much a pure DH, which would present some issues re Jesus Montero and John Jaso. But I’d jump at the chance to get Butler and deal with the fallout later. At any rate, the Royals wouldn’t make any deal unless they got a lot back in return, but if I were Jack Z., I’d be rattling Dayton Moore’s phone lines.
8) Corey Hart, Brewers. There’s a mixture of opinion on whether the Brewers will trade Hart, who is entering the final year of his contract and will earn $10 million in 2013. But if they do, he’s intriguing because he can play right field and also first base, which would provide protection if Justin Smoak falters. Don’t forget, Jack Zduriencik was Milwaukee’s scouting director when they picked Hart in the 11th round in 2000. He hit 30 homers last year and has slugged over .500 for the past three years. The Brewers’ bullpen was the worst in the majors last year and was their undoing in the playoff chase, so they’ll be looking for help there. Tom Wilhelmsen was originally a Brewers product but was suspended after twice testing positive for marijuana. Those issues are long behind him, however.
9, Alex Rios, White Sox. Rios had a strong 2012 season, hitting 25 homers and putting up an .850 OPS (including a .516 slugging percentage). Rios’s contract isn’t as oppressive as it was when the White Sox did the Blue Jays a huge favor by taking it off their hands, but he’s still owed $12.5 million in each of the next two years, with a $1 million buyout of a $13.5 million contract for 2015. Rios turns 32 in February.
10, Alfonso Soriano, Cubs. Soriano put up a decent season last year (32 homers, 108 RBIs), and the Cubs will probably be willing to pick up a portion of the $36 million still owed him in the final two years of his original eight-year contract. But Soriano has full no-trade rights as a 10-and-5 player and has said he has little desire to be a DH at this stage of his career. Soriano doesn’t offer much defensively and he’ll turn 37 in January.
11, Justin Upton, Diamondbacks. I’ll admit it: This is a name that continues to intrigue me, probably more than any other on this list. And many people in baseball believe the Diamondbacks will trade Upton, despite the fact they already dealt Chris Young to the A’s last week. The Diamondbacks really want and need a shortstop and a third baseman, as well as pitching help (power arm for the back end of the bullpen, situational lefty, starter). The price tag on Upton will be high, as it should be for a player with his upside, but he’s also coming off a disappointing year (partially attributable to a thumb injury), which may lessen the D’backs’ bargaining position. Upton is just 25 and has MVP potential. He finished fourth in the MVP race just two seasons ago. The Diamondbacks have a lot of young outfielders, so Upton could be expendable. One more factor to toss around: He’s signed for three more years at $9.75 million, $14.25 million and $14.5 million, which is reasonable for a superstar, but daunting for someone not up to that standard. It’s a situation to monitor closely; there’s a chance the Diamondbacks might end up trading Jason Kubel instead of Upton.