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November 22, 2010 at 9:41 AM

Mariners battle a ticking clock in their rebuilding efforts

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UPDATE: Upton’s agents are now denying a FOX Sports report that the outfielder had the Mariners on his no-trade list. So much for that, though, as I’d said before, such a no-trade clause can be rather easily overcome.
Just as I expected, there are plenty of Mariners fans who likely won’t have the stomach to endure the team going after Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton. Sifting through the comments on our post from last Friday, it’s clear many fans believe the team can acquire Upton by dealing just one of either Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda or Justin Smoak, plus a package of lesser names.
Dream on. Hey, if Jack Zduriencik can pull that off, more power to him. But remember, the D-Backs don’t have to deal Upton, who is only 23 and under contract for five more years. In the end, Arizona wants real value for Upton. Not a roll of the dice with a bunch of B-level prospects. Depending on what Arizona’s real goal is — to offset a ton of money, or truly “go for it” by acquiring more proven big leaguers — the M’s might not even be able to get a deal done. Your stomach turning over losing Ackley? What about Franklin Gutierrez? Yeah, I thought so.
Anyhow, congrats to Ackley on winning the Arizona Fall League MVP crown. For those who misunderstood, or just can’t read, I was not comparing Ackley to Jose Lopez last week. What I wrote was, if Ackley proves to have only an average, or below average second base glove in the long run, it will seriously lessen his impact as a future franchise piece. I used the Lopez example to illustrate how even a 25-homer-hitting second baseman can induce a yawn factor when his glove is merely average or not even that.
Ackley as a .300-hitting, all-star caliber glove, would be a tremendous asset. As a .300-hitter with an average glove? He’d still be good. But not necessarily No. 2 overall good. And winning the AFL MVP does not make him a .300 MLB hitter just yet. He’s got a ways to go.
That said, you can bet the D-Backs would want him in any deal with the M’s. If I’m Seattle, I’d probably deal Pineda instead of Smoak as the second piece as well.
Because if the M’s get Upton, they have their outfield set and don’t have to worry about pieces there. After that, it’s the four infield spots that need work. If you know you’ve got first base filled for years to come with Smoak, it makes the rebuilding task that much easier. Then, you can think about going with Nick Franklin as a rookie shortstop in 2012 and still have contending as a possibility. Contending teams have gone with rookies at key positions. What they don’t do is go with a bunch of rookies at a bunch of different positions.
And despite what some may think, this Mariners rebuilding plan does not have an unlimited time frame. In fact, it could use all the speeding up somebody like Upton could bring it.
The reason for that is Felix Hernandez and Gutierrez.

Just a year ago this time, the M’s were in the process of finalizing a five-year deal for Hernandez and a four-year contract for Gutierrez.
Now, with the disaster of the 101-loss season in 2010 behind them, the M’s have already used up one valuable year for each.
The goal of giving both players long-term deals was to make them the cornerstones of future Mariners playoff contenders. If that wasn’t the goal, then giving them said contracts was just plain dumb to begin with.
If the team didn’t plan on contending before 2014 or 2015, it would have been better off just trading Hernandez for five players and letting Gutierrez play out a couple of arbitration years before dealing him as well.
That was clearly not the plan.
The Mariners do hope Gutierrez factors in their future contention hopes. And Hernandez is the backbone of any future playoff run by Seattle.
Assuming that playoff run won’t happen in 2011 — if it did, it would mark perhaps the greatest one-year turnaround in MLB history — the Mariners will have already burned through half of Gutierrez’s deal and two-fifths of the Hernandez contract.
That means, if I’m the Mariners, I want things to start falling into place by 2012.
How realistic will that be, by then, with Pineda embarking on perhaps his first MLB season if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training next March? And Ackley perhaps doing exactly the same thing, with Smoak beginning just his second full year of MLB ball?
Seattle seems more likely to speed the rebuilding plan up if Upton is added to the mix, even if that means losing one of the two prospect position players and Pineda.
Because if the contending doesn’t begin by 2012, then you’ll have given Gutierrez a long-term deal for the sake of having him around for one playoff-run year in 2013 maximum and maybe not even that if you decide to trade him before that was over. And you’d also have Hernandez around for just one year in 2013 as well before you’d have to start thinking about trading him to maximize his value before his final 2014 contract year.
The clock is ticking, as it always is in the real world of MLB. Teams do not have entire years to keep throwing away in the hopes that all prospects will mature to fruition.
Some will argue that the Mariners could just hang on to Gutierrez through 2013 and Hernandez through 2014 and hope to sign both.
Yes, they could.
But they would also be competing against 29 other teams for the services of both. You could expect the Yankees to offer Hernandez one of those seven-year, $150-million contracts.
In Gutierrez’s case, if he ever blossoms the way Seattle obviously hopes he will, what’s the going rate for an all-star, Gold Glove center fielder?
Vernon Wells got seven years, $126-million from Toronto. Torii Hunter got five years, $90 million from the Angels at a time he was arguably starting on a downward career slope.
In other words, Gutierrez won’t come cheap. The idea the M’s would be able to keep both Gutierrez and Hernandez as free agents a year apart ranks as hopeful at best, delusional at worst.
Chances are, they’d lose out in bidding on at least one. There’s a more likely shot at least one of those two would be traded before hitting free agency.
In other words, best to make use of them while you still have them around. That is, unless the M’s plan to trade one of them in the near term.
No way they deal Hernandez, despite the uncertainty of any pitcher with injury risks and so forth. But yes, I could see the M’s making a Gutierrez move in the near-term if it guaranteed them a shot at something special — like a multi-player package to fill a number of holes in return. If the M’s decide they can’t get this rebuilding plan to bear fruit before, say, 2013, it makes perfect sense to explore a Gutierrez trade now.
But Gutierrez in an Upton deal? That I’m not sold on. I’m sure the D-Backs would like that, but, no, it makes no sense. You’re picking up Upton to solidify the outfield, not to fill a hole you just created to get him. Michael Saunders has provided no reason to believe he can be an everyday center fielder, therefore, parting with Gutierrez in an Upton trade still leaves a big hole and huge risk.
So, for now, where Upton is concerned, I assume Gutierrez stays put and the M’s try to acquire the Arizona outfielder by moving prospects.
But whatever winds up happening, don’t be fooled. The clock is ticking for the M’s in this rebuilding plan, because they can’t afford to sacrifice too many more years with the contracts on both Gutierrez and Hernandez steadily winding down. Zduriencik, if possible, has to find a way to speed this plan up beyond its current pace if he’s to get true value out of both the Hernandez and Gutierrez contracts.
Otherwise, he’s just rebuilding to bridge the gap between this rebuilding plan and the next one, when one or both of Hernandez and Gutierrez winds up leaving.
That’s not real rebuilding. That’s just wasting time. And right now, time’s a wasting.



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