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July 6, 2010 at 10:14 AM

A few reasons why “taking the draft picks” and keeping Cliff Lee would amount to incompetence by the Mariners

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There are still people out there who think the Mariners would be better off holding on to Cliff Lee and taking up to two compensatory draft picks once he leaves as a free agent. Once again, I respectfully disagree. But as I keep getting more and more emails on the subject, I thought I’d spell out, in detail, why I think this is a bad idea.
Some of you are underwhelmed by some of the trade rumors out there. For me, the best one so far is what emerged last night, on a Twitter report from AOL Fanhouse, which mentioned the Twins offering up Class A outfielder Aaron Hicks and Class AAA catcher Wilson Ramos.
Look, it’s not my first choice either. My first choice would be for the M’s to acquire two major league ready AAAA-type prospects — in other words, to spell things out for some of you, guys right on the cusp of being ready to step into the majors. Not guys who will stay AAAA forever, but guys who are there right now and will blossom into something better with a little luck. Preferably corner position players, either in the infield or outfield, with the potential to hit for extra base power. Or, at least one of those along with a pitcher.
This is absolutely what the M’s should be holding out for — somebody like a Justin Smoak from the Texas Rangers. Because there are a bunch of holes in the field that will have to be filled before the M’s can contend again. This isn’t like a draft, where you take the “best projected talent available” right off the bat. You have to begin by targetting areas of need and then move down from there and “settle” for “best projected talent available” later on, if you’re convinced that you can’t meet your immediate need.
Because the longer those needs go unfilled, the longer this rebuilding project is going to take. Some fans get their baseball joy out of perpetual rebuilding and the love of “prospects” without ever really caring how those prospects project into some semblance of a team that can win. They love teams like the Cleveland Indians, who’ve spent a decade amassing prospects that sometimes turn out, but often don’t.
I won’t tell you that this is the best way to go. I’ve covered one general manager who used to work himself into a lather over taking draft picks instead of trying to keep good young players who could have helped his teams win. By the way, his teams never won a thing and he no longer has a big league job.
So, in this case, the Mariners settling for an 18-year-old Class A infielder like Wilmer Flores from the Mets might amount to taking the best “talent” out there. But how does it help the team when it already has a high-upside infielder in Carlos Triunfel, who is a lot closer to the big leagues at Class AA? Not to mention a second baseman in Dustin Ackley who will also arrive in the big leagues soon? It doesn’t really help.
At least, not as much as targetting a player who can potentially fill a need and fill it rather quickly. Sure, you can amass the talent you don’t really have an immediate need for and then use it to trade for that talent later on. Once again, though, that uses up more time. Tick, tick, tick. The M’s haven’t had a playoff team since 2001.
Like I said, this isn’t some ego-driven fantasy game for Jack Zduriencik to show off how good he is at amassing prospect talent. This is MLB and the goal will always be to win at the big league level. Zduriencik doesn’t have five more years to do that. Or, at least, he shouldn’t. Not on a team that keeps putting up payrolls in excess of $90 million.
So, you target what you can do to best fill your short and long-term needs. Then, you move “down” from there, if it becomes clear that those needs can’t be met.
But let’s be clear. Taking the draft picks does zero to help this team’s needs.
First, you wouldn’t be drafting until next June. That’s nearly a year away. After that, you’re looking at three, four or maybe even five more years before those draft picks can help your MLB team win. Again, if the goal was to show off what a good drafter Zduriencik is, then go nuts. But the goal, I think, should be to give fans a winner some time before Felix Hernandez turns 30.
And taking draft picks won’t speed that process up. It will delay it by at least two years over what trading for some more MLB-ready guys might do.
Also, you’re not talking about a No. 2 overall pick like Ackley. We’re looking, at best, at a first-rounder on the back end.

As I mentioned last night, if the Yankees sign Lee next winter, the M’s might get stuck with a No. 30 overall pick to go with their compensatory rounder.
Even better, if the Yankees sign an additional Type A free agent — as they’ve been known to do — the M’s might get zero first rounders. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?
Let’s spell this out from a value perspective.
When the M’s let Raul Ibanez walk two winters ago, they recevied a No. 27 overall pick as compensation. They used it on shortstop Nick Franklin, who is doing OK in the minors.
But if they let Lee go and the Yankees get him, they’d probably only get a No. 30 pick in the first round.
Why on earth would the M’s want to risk accepting less value — on paper at least — in return for Lee than they got for Ibanez? Yeah, it’s only three draft slots, No. 30 versus No. 27, but it’s still less value. I love Ibanez and all, but you’re talking about a good-hitting, defensively-challenged outfielder versus a guy who might be the best pitcher in baseball.
The minute you let Lee stay and take the picks, you almost guarantee you won’t maximize the value you have in Lee as an asset. You essentially transform him from the best pitcher in baseball into an Ibanez equivalent.
Some people think this is OK. I don’t.
I feel that is setting the bar too low. And the baseball bar in Seattle has been set very low for far too long. It’s not OK to let a general manager off the hook by allowing him to transform a valuable asset into a lesser one.
That’s not what Zduriencik is being paid to do.
And the fans in this city — as well as the media — can’t allow him to get away with doing something that would amount to gross incompetence. That is, taking a top asset and letting it wilt into something lesser through inaction.
I’m not saying Zduriencik plans to do this. I seriously doubt he’d even try. What I’m saying is, fans and media in this city should not let him get away with even thinking about doing that.
If the best offer Zduriencik ever gets is the Hicks-Ramos rumored package from the Twins, that’s still better than a 30th overall pick and a compensatory rounder. Hicks was a No. 14 overall pick in 2008, which is going to be better than a 30th pick almost every time. Like Flores from the Mets, Hicks is a little too far from the majors for my taste, no matter how much talent potential he has, but that’s something you can take back to other teams and try to leverage a better offer with. And if you can’t get one, he’s better than taking the draft picks, as I just showed you.
And Ramos is better than a compensatory rounder. He’s a major league-ready catcher. With the Ibanez picks, the M’s took another catcher, Steven Baron, with their 33rd overall compensatory rounder. Baron is now at rookie level ball in Everett and struggling in his first full pro season. Ramos has already tasted the majors.
So, yes, that package is almost guaranteed to be better than letting Jack Z. roll the dice with two more picks that won’t see a major league field before 2014 at least.
Some might argue that keeping Lee the rest of the year adds intangible value to your pitching staff. I’ll agree there is some value here. But how much? The pitchers on Seattle’s staff have been alongside Lee since the start of spring training five months ago. Is watching Lee for eight months instead of five really going to help out a younger pitcher all that much? It might help. But not enough to justify the lost trade value that could hurt this franchise for years down the road.
This isn’t rocket science. And again, it’s not a fantasy draft league. There is a time for good general managers to show what they can do with the draft and a time for them to worry about building up a last-place MLB team they control. In Zduriencik’s case, it’s time for the latter.
Two years into his rebuilding plans, his team has major holes that must start to be filled. He’s been handed — well, he actually created the scenario, so let’s give him credit — a gift opportunity of having the best pitcher in baseball to trade. And now, he has to cash in on the best pitcher in baseball to move his plan along at something quicker than a glacial pace.
And the fans and media in Seattle should accept nothing less.



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