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July 1, 2010 at 9:12 AM

No matter how good Mariners look the rest of the way, Cliff Lee is still getting traded

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Here we go again. Two wins in a row, at Yankee Stadium, and the inbox is flooded once again this morning with questions about why the Mariners have to trade Cliff Lee. Why not just sign him?
OK then, one more time. Just for giggles.
1. Lee is a free agent after the season ends. He will command a $100 million contract and somebody will pay it. That somebody won’t be a Mariners team that just locked-in long-term with Felix Hernandez and is paying $18 million per season to Ichiro. Not unless the payroll goes to $150 million or so. Not happening.
2. Because Lee is leaving at season’s end, his only value to the present-day team would be if the Mariners are contending. They are not. They blew their season earlier this month when they got hammered in Texas. The next time somebody trots out the tired cliche that a season can’t be decided by a series or two in May or June, slap them upside the head and point to this year’s team and late-May, early-June. Had the M’s done what they are doing right now to the Rangers three weeks ago, they might still be alive. Had they not blown those walk-off games in Anaheim, they might still be alive. They did and they aren’t.
3. Can’t the Mariners come back from 14 games down? They did it in 1995. The Rockies did it in 2007. The Phillies did it in 2007. The Astros did it in 2005. No, the Mariners cannot do it. Those first three cases involved good, .500 teams overtaking one division leader that collapsed. The Astros came back to win a wild card race against a weak field. Seattle has been 10 games below .500 since anyone can remember, faces multiple teams well ahead of them in the division and an even better field in a wild-card race just as distant. Not happening. You cannot run a professional baseball team by making decisions based on the hope of a one-in-a-million comeback. The deadline for the M’s to contend is not season’s end, it’s July 31, because they have a key franchise decision to make regarding Lee and must optimize value for him. And they simply cannot make up enough ground by July 31 to be relevant again.
4. This one is my personal favorite. The question of “Can’t the Mariners make Lee an offer with an opt-out clause after year or two if he wants to go somewhere else? Gives him security and the freedom to move on.” I’ve had those suggestions thrown my way and can tell you that Darek Braunecker, Lee’s agent, negotiated exactly that type of deal with A.J. Burnett in Toronto back in 2005. It’s great for the player, lousy for the team. If the player stinks, the team is stuck with him for the duration. And if the player’s any good, he’ll leave your team and sign with the Yankees for even more money, as Burnett did. Why would you wish that on the Mariners?
5. Will Jack Z. take the draft picks and keep Lee? No, he won’t. Those picks won’t happen until 2011 and then, when you add the minimum three years for any of those players to be able to register a blip on a good MLB team’s radar, it will be 2014. You want to wait that long? This team needs to fill holes right now, not in 2014. Time to stop playing fantasy league ball. We’re in 2010. Winning is what matters in MLB, not composing the best Top-100 prospects roster for a theoretical 2014 run. This is also why the idea of Wilmer Flores of the Mets headlining a Lee deal makes my stomach turn. Flores is 18. The M’s already have Wilmer Flores in their system. Only he goes by the name of Carlos Triunfel and is at least three years closer to the big leagues. Flores won’t make a big league impact until at least 2014. Zduriencik might be long gone by then. Again, this team needs to give fans some hope for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Taking a long shot on an 18-year-old for 2014 (at the earliest) is the kind of thing an ego-driven GM might do (hoping to show everybody how smart he is with his prospects depth), or please those fans who prefer potential and projections over rooting for a team to actually win something at some point close to the present. But it won’t help these M’s avoid a six-or-seven-year rebuilding plan. The Mariners would be better off trading for Wilmer Valdarama. At least he could act in some new commercials — stuff that doesn’t mention the words “Believe Big.”

So , there. Hope that answers some of your questions.
No, what you’ve seen the last two nights is not the “blueprint” the Mariners drew up. Sure, on the pitching side it has been. And had the team began the year with more balance on the power side, this might have been the blueprint. But it allowed too many underperforming bats to stay in the regular lineup far too long. Remember, Michael Saunders began the year in Class AAA and, up until the last two nights, has not produced on a consistent enough basis to merit full-time MLB status. Yes, his power has been very encouraging. He needs to become more consistent at the non-homer contact he is making. You can’t stay in MLB full-time with a sub-.300 OBP. But yes, he’s making progress.
Russell Branyan was on another team until earlier this week, so he also wasn’t part of the blueprint. If he had been, the blueprint might have worked better. The “protection” theory with Branyan has nothing to do with the guy in front of him getting better pitches to hit. So, those trying to insinuate it was have to stop playing games and listen to what the people running the team have been saying. That the Branyan theory is all about helping the other guys on the team relax more.
Why weren’t they relaxed? Because they needed to produce a dozen singles per game just to score three runs. They had nobody who could produce multiple runs with one swing of the bat at a rate greater than once every week or so. The Chone Figgins-Ichiro get-on-base blueprint? Hate to state the obvious, but, since few others will tell you about it, the Figgins-Ichiro thing was happening all through June. Figgins spent most of the month with an OBP in the .360 range, while Ichiro was up over .380. How did that work? The Mariners still scored two runs or fewer in half their June games.
It didn’t work.
That’s because when you don’t have enough power in your lineup, your team can’t compensate for slumping players. Ichiro and Figgins were getting on base, but Franklin Gutierrez and Milton Bradley could not deliver in the middle of the order. This team couldn’t handle slumps by two or more players. On the Texas Rangers, if Nelson Cruz gets hurt, you’ve got Josh Hamilton, Vlad Guerrero and Michael Young as game-changers. If Ian Kinsler has an off-month, you can still score seven runs per game with two swings by Cruz and Guerrero.
On the Mariners? You needed eight or nine guys consistently firing on all cylinders to be able to score four runs or more. And that’s not realistic. Every player on every team endures slumps for weeks at a time every season. Sometimes, two or three guys in a lineup will go through it. You can’t build a team in a way that the only recipe for success is to defy those odds. Because slumps happen.
Look at the only game the M’s won in the Milwaukee series. They were down by two runs but managed to come back and win. Why? Because Jose Lopez hit a three-run homer. The M’s did next to nothing offensively the rest of the game — as has often happened in losses all year — but one swing by Lopez compensated for the rest of the day’s inefficiency. And teams need that. They need to have an off night at the plate and still put up five runs. They can’t be down 2-0 after an inning and be thinking “Darn, we just lost another one.”
Problem is, those Lopez blasts were once-a-month occurences. And this team needs more guys capable of doing that more often.
So, is it unreasonable to suggest that Branyan would help guys relax? No, it’s just common sense. And not every “plan” or “idea” in baseball needs to have the sabermetric stamp of approval to be implemented. If every GM waited for Tom Tango or Mat Olkin to do an in-depth analysis of every scenario — with the sample sizes compiled to go with it — nothing would ever get done.
It’s going to be very tough to ever put together the type of study needed to verify whether having a guy like Branyan in there will really help make the rest of the lineup better. But sometimes, you have to use common sense. Like looking at how the offense did the first three months of the season (historic underperformance), or how individuals fared (several of all ages and skillsets performing well below norms). You look at how the offense struggled even with Ichiro and Figgins both getting on base at a high rate. And you ask what odds the team would have to buck in order to get better (having every guy in the lineup hitting consistently, week-to-week all season).
And at that point, if the status quo seems too daunting, you conclude the obvious. The plan, as shaped, wasn’t going to work. That no matter what a guy’s individual projections were to start a year, it’s going to be next to impossible for all nine of them to reach it if you add the very real burden of them having to stay consistent, day-in, day-out, all season long. Without giving them the added power relief to make up for days in which they cannot produce. Because the law of averages says all humans have their slumps.
The M’s, as built, were not allowed to ever slump offensively. And that burden of knowledge was causing them to press and slump even more.
Branyan isn’t a cure-all. And no, the M’s won’t keep scoring seven runs per night. But he’s the start of something. The key to understanding how a better blueprint might work the next time. How even guys with the greatest individual projections from an on-base perspective will need a game-changer or two, or three, to help compensate for injuries or plain old human inconsistency.
And it’s best the M’s figured this out now. Now, they’ll see whether Bradley, unburdened a bit, can still produce. Or whether he’s like Richie Sexson of a couple of years ago and headed off a cliff. Remember, Sexson was out of baseball before his mid-30s, less than two years after a 31-homer season.
Had some of these things been done months ago, we might not be talking about a Lee trade. But Branyan was brought in far too late, and the team probably needs another bat or two just like him. That’s why Lee is going to be traded and the next blueprint will start to be worked on. Hopefully, this time, it will be the correct one.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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