(Michael Bourn, No. 21 in the Astros uniform, celebrates with Marlon Byrd and Chris Young after the National League won the 2010 All-Star Game in Anaheim. Photo by Associated Press).
The Mariners find themselves now in the precise position that can lead to the worst decisions. Having lost out on Mike Napoli and Josh Hamilton on the free-agent market, having been unable to swing a trade for a bat, and feeling mounting pressure to get something done (at least I assume the latter to be the case; how could they not?), the M’s will be the logical target of every agent, and team, trying to leverage Seattle’s apparent desperation.
But that doesn’t mean the Mariners should close up shop and go into spring training with the team they have now. That would mean that their only additions to a ballclub that finished in last place (for the seventh time in nine seasons, and third in a row) with 87 losses, and scored the fewest runs in the American League for the third straight season (and had the lowest OPS in the majors for third year in a row), would be Robert Andino, a utility infielder who had a .588 OPS last year, and Jason Bay, who is coming off a .165 season.
Not exactly the formula for pennant fever. Unless they have complete and utter faith that all of their young players are going to take a quantum leap forward, and Bay is going to revive is career, and Mike Zunino is going to make an instant impact, it is incumbent upon the Mariners to keep trying to augment what they have.
I’ve heard it said that the Mariners shouldn’t do something “just for the sake of doing something.” Hard to argue with that. But how about doing something for the sake of improving a team that could find itself, by virtue of standing pat, falling even further behind the three teams that have dominated the AL West division?
And how about doing something for the sake of sending a message to fans, and current players — not to mention future players, the ones they want to attract as free agents next winter and beyond– that they are serious about trying to work their way up to the level of contender. Yes, I realize that such a motivation, in general, is its own form of desperation, and can lead to the sort of poor decisions I alluded to earlier. But these aren’t normal times for the Mariners. As I wrote over the weekend, they are already burdened by a vast credibility crisis. If they went into next season with just Bay and Andino as their offseason additions, their already plummeting season-ticket sales might dwindle down to nothing. Sure, things might work out great in the end for the Mariners, just based on natural improvement and an unexpected breakout from someone like Stefen Romero. But do you really want to pin all your hopes for 2013 on that outcome?
I wouldn’t, but the good news is that there are still moves that can be made to improve the ballclub. And I don’t mean merely panic moves. By all accounts, the Mariners were willing to spend $25 million a year to get Hamilton. They could conceivably spend that same $25 million by signing Michael Bourn and then trading for someone like Mike Morse. The way the market is headed — inexorably upward, always upward — it might take five years, $85 million to get Bourn. B.J. Upton went for five years and $75 million to the Braves, and the assumption all along has been that Bourn will get more than Upton. Add $17 million a year for Bourn to Morse’s $6.75-million salary for 2013, and voila, you get $23.75 million — a little less than we know the Mariners had earmarked for Hamilton.
Why am I focusing on Bourn, whom I know doesn’t thrill some of you because he’s not the power bat that the Mariners could clearly use? I genuinely believe he’s the best player left, one who was rated as one of the top two or three position players available on the free-agent marketplace when free agency began — ahead, by most estimations, of Upton, Napoli or Nick Swisher. And all the vibes within the industry I’m getting on Swisher is that he’s decreasingly likely to be a match with the Mariners as other teams, like the Indians, increase their focus on him.
Big knock No. 1, which I pointed out when his name first came up, is the comparison to Chone Figgins, who actually had a better year in his final season with the Angels than Bourn did last year with the Braves. That’s kind of silly. Bourn isn’t Figgins. You can’t let one bad outcome deter you from making other moves. Bourn is two years younger than Figgins was when the Mariners signed him, and a demonstrably better player, at a more valuable position, center field.
Big knock No. 2 is that Bourn’s skillset replicates that of Ichiro, and the Mariners didn’t do much winning with Ichiro in the outfield. I’m of the school that believes the Mariners’ lack of success didn’t fall at the feet of Ichiro — that they could have won at a perfectly fine clip if they had surrounded him with better players. And the proof is pretty compelling — 116, 93 and 93 wins in Ichiro’s first three seasons, before the talent level in the Seattle organization began to disintegrate for a variety of reasons. I know some people have reservations about Bourn because speed players have a tendency to decline in their 30s — but Ichiro himself showed this doesn’t have to be the case if you keep yourself in top shape. At age 30 — which Bourn turns in two weeks — Ichiro had his best season, setting the major-league record for hits in a season with 262 while leading the American League at .372. Five years later, at 35, Ichiro hit .352.
Sabermetrics absolutely loves Bourn, and your viewpoint on the analysis of such murky areas as fielding and baserunning will no doubt influence your evaluation of Bourn’s value. According to the latest metrics, he’s one of the top three defensive players and top three baserunners in the major leagues. Put him atop the batting order and let him patrol center field, and the Mariners are a markedly better ballclub. Dustin Ackley could then go to a more conducive spot in the batting order, which would likely help him. And if they could still add power in a separate trade, so much the better. I like Morse, and I think he’ll be readily available if the Nationals re-sign Adam LaRoche, perhaps at the cost of someone like Stephen Pryor. Morse is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, so it could be a rental situation, but for a one-year boost, while Zunino gets some final seasoning in the minors, I’d be in favor. If not Morse, there are a lot of other first base/DH types that have been linked to the Mariners. If Zduriencik can get something done in this area to couple with Bourn, I think the Mariners would take a substantial step forward with this type of combo.
The bottom line is that the Mariners still have a chance to do something — and not just for the sake of doing something. Signing Michael Bourn wouldn’t be as sexy as landing Josh Hamilton, but it could still be a big boost.