UPDATE 10:00 a.m.: Well, we barely finished typing this out when news broke that Jose Lopez will not be tendered a contract by the Mariners. Hardly a surprise.
Jose Lopez is still with the Mariners for at least another 24 hours or so, but the team has a decision to make with regards to him by Thursday. Lopez has to either be tendered a contract by day’s end, or he becomes a free agent.
It seems highly unlikely Lopez will be back in a Seattle uniform in 2011, for reasons we articulated at this time a year ago. Lopez has never demonstrated any significant on-base abilities and that’s just not the way the newfangled M’s, under GM Jack Zduriencik, have tended to roll.
Up to now, Lopez has gotten some benefit of the doubt.
He’s gone through a pair of family tragedies the past four years and there had been some thought that they may have detracted from his play. After the death of his sister in June 2009, Lopez turned up his game and posted the kind of second-half line (.290/.320/.500) that would intrigue any team if accumulated over an entire season. Yeah, the OBP still wasn’t great, but it was better than the .300 level Lopez has flirted with his entire career. And you don’t find .500-slugging second basemen growing on trees, especially right handed pull hitters with Safeco Field as a home park.
You can see why the M’s would opt to give Lopez one more crack after that, hoping he could produce such numbers over an entire year, especially coming off a 25-homer season in 2009. His salary for 2010, coming in at $2.75 million, wasn’t exactly prohibitive. The Mariners also used that season to test Lopez out as a third baseman and he didn’t look too shabby, though the play of shortstops Jack and Josh Wilson helped cover a lot of ground to Lopez’s left. It wasn’t an accident. The defense was positioned to minimize Lopez’s flaws.
Even so, it became largely irrelevant. The bottom fell out on Lopez’s offense in 2010 and that has so far made him untradeable. The Mariners declined to pick up his $5 million option for 2011 (an extra $500,000 added to that pile once he accumulated 500 plate appearances last season), meaning he is now arbitration eligible.
It now boils down to whether or not the team wants to cut its losses, or risk throwing more money on to the poker pile in hopes of swinging a Lopez trade down the road. My take is that Lopez’s tenure as a Mariner will end tomorrow. Here’s why.
The M’s have been unable to trade Lopez this off-season. They were unable to do it last off-season after he posted much better numbers as a second baseman. We shouldn’t be surprised at this year’s difficulties, since it’s much easier for teams to find third basemen who hit like Lopez than second basemen. And by now, most teams realize he can no longer play second base.
For sure, there will be teams looking to snatch up Lopez once he is non-tendered. He’ll be a free agent then, and they can offer him a lowball figure or even a minor league contract. Based on his 2010 numbers, a minor league deal would not be a surprise, even if he is still only 26.
Back to the Mariners.
Some have suggested the M’s could offer Lopez arbitration and then try to trade him.
That is true. But it seems like too much of a risk for too little reward potential.
It’s not like the M’s can offer Lopez ten bucks in arbitration, then pawn him off. The system doesn’t work that way. You can’t offer an arbitration eligible player anything more than a 20 percent pay cut under the current collective bargaining agreement.
That means the minimum Lopez would be offered is a $2.2 million salary.
And he could counter that with a claim for, say, $3 million. Or even $4 million. And whatever the arbitrator decides, that’s what he’d get. There is no middle ground. Arbitration is a funny thing and teams never really know how it’s going to work out. Pay cuts are not unheard of, but nor are they common. You’d think a player who performed as poorly as Lopez would be in-line for a cut. But you just never know. His side could argue that he was bounced around the lineup, into a cleanup role he was ill-suited for and moved to a new position where modern stats suggest he was one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.
So, would you roll the dice on that?
Even at $2.2 million, Lopez looks like a backup corner infielder at best with the M’s. That’s too much to pay a guy for a limited role. Especially on an M’s team with little financial flexibility as it attempts to adhere to a $91 million on-field payroll from last season (there were other commitments for departed players and Dustin Ackley that took payroll up to $93.5 million).
And other teams, believe it or not, aren’t stupid. They have people on staff who forecast arbitration figures and — just as importantly — can work a calculator. They have known for some time that the lowest figure Lopez can earn in arbitration is $2.2 million. So, it’s not like him getting that with the M’s is going to tell them anything new ahead of a trade. Not like the M’soffering him arbitration is going to give them any more cost certainty and incentive to swing a deal.
And so far, the trades haven’t been there. There’s no additional reason to believe they would be if Lopez is tendered a contract.
The only reason you’d keep Lopez, if you’re the Mariners, is if he factors in to some multi-player deal you’re cooking up. Lopez could be a back-end component to such a deal for a team that needs infielders, so maybe you keep him around, hope he signs for a negotiated figure of $3 million or less before an arbitration hearing early next year, then you deal him as part of a multi-player package. In that case, you could always take back salary from the other team to offset Lopez’s contract cost.
But if he helps you get a player you really want, then it’s worth going through this whole process. And yes, it would have to be a multi-player deal, because no team is going to swing a one-on-one trade for Lopez right now and be on the arbitration hook for him when they can just wait a day for him to be non-tendered and pick him up on a lowball free agent deal.
So, unless the M’s have such a multi-player deal in the works, the team is better off cutting its losses with Lopez and moving on.
The last thing the M’s need is to have a trade fall through, then get stuck losing an arbitration case with Lopez and be on-the-hook for $3 million or more. If any multi-player deal is brewing, then it had better be in the serious stages where the team knows it can get it done and not be left holding the Lopez bag.
So, that’s about the size of it. If the Mariners do offer Lopez a contract tomorrow, you can bet they have some type of multi-player deal cooking with another team. A deal that is in the serious stages where Lopez would be just one of many players headed that team’s way with either players or cash considerations helping offset any arbitration award.
It’s entirely possible. The M’s have been very quiet so far. Too quiet for a team with the worst offense of the DH era last season and now down Russell Branyan as well. Giving this rebuild a jumpstart will have to be done via trade and we’ve already seen the Justin Upton rumors and know the D-Backs are looking for infielders.
But all that said, my gut tells me that the Upton thing is still too uncertain for the M’s to take a chance at getting stuck with Lopez. I’d be surprised if he’s still here come Friday.