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March 29, 2011 at 9:28 AM

Mariners appear ahead of the game in picking Justin Smoak package over Jesus Montero

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ADDITIONAL NOTE 9:55 a.m.: Still awaiting official confirmation that Luis Rodriguez has made the team. Once we get that, we’ll know that Tom Wilhelmsen has made it because the M’s would need an extra roster spot to take both Rodriguez and Ryan Langerhans north with them. Mauricio Robles going on the 60-day DL would be one spot, while Cesar Jimenez — Wilhelmsen’s only competition left — would be the other.
We discussed Rodriguez on yesterday’s Geoff Baker Live! with post-game comments from manager Eric Wedge that appeared to show the Mariners were sticking in-house with their Josh Wilson replacement.
We showed you footage of Wedge commenting on his new Michael Pineda-inclusive starting rotation. One viewer asked for my predictions on division and World Series winners. Here they are, hot off the presses. I guarantee you at least one will be wrong. Another viewer asked me whether I think that, if Michael Saunders makes the team out of spring training, it will be his final chance to show the M’s something. And yes, even though he’s had a well-behaved, productive spring, folks are still wondering what my “over-under” is for a Milton Bradley outburst. Here’s the answer I gave to that.

On to this morning’s post…
For all the teeth gnashing over Justin Smoak and his slow start in the big leagues last year, the Mariners are ahead of the game in having chosen that package over the one they nearly took from the New York Yankees.
You’ll remember that catcher Jesus Montero was the headliner in that package, followed by Class AA infielder David Adams.
Well, Montero today was sent down to AAA by the Yankees after struggling throughout the spring.
As for Smoak, he struggled for a good part of spring training as well before turning it on late. But he’ll make the club, as will relief pitcher Josh Lueke. The Mariners flipped another piece of the trade, infielder Matt Lawson, in order to pick up Aaron Laffey, who will also break camp with Seattle.
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And then you have pitcher Blake Beavan, who will begin the year in AAA and is being projected by some as a potential back end starter as early as next year.
So, on the face of it, the Mariners appear to have come out ahead in the deal. Note that I said “appear” because, as we all know, things can change in baseball. But right now, the Mariners have three of the players acquired as a result of the Cliff Lee deal heading to the major leagues with them.

We’re not talking about the PR headaches associated with Lueke in this piece. Looking at it strictly from a talent perspective. Lueke is heading north because he earned his spot. For now, he’s one of the better options the team had for back-end bullpen work. That may change once David Aardsma and Shawn Kelley get healthy again, but for now, Lueke is needed.
Smoak will, clearly, have to up his game. He can’t have one scintillating week, as he did last season, then flounder the rest of the way. He’ll have to take this final week or two of camp and try to build off it.
Still, the Mariners are taking three players they acquired in the trade, or with a proceed from it, north to start the season. And that matters for a club where the rebuilding is going to be painful at first. Simply put, the M’s will suffer this season, but can’t afford to have this shorter-term pain become a long, drawn-out affair that carries to the year 2016. Not if they want to keep their fans.

The Mariners have to get this rebuilding thing going and yes, that means the players they pick up in deals and drafts have to be a bit more major league ready. A bit less of the five-year-project, cross-your-fingers-on-a-potential superstar thing.
Smoak was said to have the potential to be a star and was already in the majors. This will be his second partial season while Montero has yet to have one. That does matter when you’re trying to rebuild against the slowly, but steadily-ticking clock of Felix Hernandez. The Mariners know they have three more years of Hernandez under contract after this Mulligan of a campaign and can’t afford to not make progress heading forward.
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Montero may very well blossom into a major league star someday. But if he doesn’t become an everyday guy for another year or two, taking him would have set the M’s back just a little further in their rebuilding.
So, the fact that Smoak is already in the big leagues does count.
But let’s not go popping champagne corks yet. The Mariners have not “won” this deal. Not by a longshot.
When you’re the Yankees, you don’t have to carry a Montero north with you. Or, even a Lueke or a Laffey. You’ve got a championship-caliber lineup already and can afford to let guys sit in the minors until they are absolutely polished.
The M’s don’t have that luxury, which is why it’s a bit of a “sink or swim” approach with some of these guys. I don’t think Laffey makes the Yankees out of spring training. Nor do I think Lueke would have. They have made it to a Mariners bullpen that’s been lacking from the day camp opened. The M’s are not going to win anything this year, while the Yankees might. So, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves on the major-league ready thing.
In fact, it’s doubtful Smoak would have made the Yankees coming out of spring training. Almost impossible when you consider they have Mark Texeira.
The question should be: would Montero have made the Mariners coming out of spring camp?
I’m going to say “No”. For all the good things said and written about Montero’s potential, he’s not a better big leaguer than Adam Moore at this stage. Moore is already in the big leagues. Montero, for all of his minor league numbers, is not. And until he makes the jump, he can’t claim superiority at this level.
But yes, all signs point to Montero becoming a big bat in the majors. And if he can do that while still remaining a catcher, then yes, he might have been the better long-term grab than Smoak, when you consider power-hitting first basemen are not as big a luxury as getting a slugger behind the plate.
And bullpen arms are also not the most coveted pieces in the game. So, while the M’s are taking two of them north, it’s only of marginal value to the entire package.
The key here is time. If the M’s can see Smoak develop into a power-hitting first baseman and be poised for a shot at something significant come 2013, then they will have taken the “better package” if Montero is still getting his feet wet by then.
Even if Montero becomes a regular by 2013 and a star by 2015, the Mariners simply don’t have that much time.
That Hernandez clock is ticking and decision day is closer than you think. You’re already hearing Hernandez trade scenarios floated around by media and it’s not by accident. If Hernandez is going to become a free agent and test the waters elsewhere after 2014, then the time to look at dealing him would be 2013.
It’s not that far off, once you effectively write off this year as a rebuilding campaign.
And so, this year, write-off or not, has to count for something. And the best way to do it is to get guys like Smoak up to the majors to see what they can do. Montero in AAA doesn’t help as much.
And that’s why, with Smoak and a couple of bullpen pieces already here, the Mariners are ahead of the game.
For now…
What they can’t do is squander this head-start on the rebuilding plan. They have to start seeing individual results from certain guys in 2011, not just empty talk about promise. Otherwise, their lead in taking the Smoak package could vanish rather quickly.
Here’s Part II of Geoff Baker Live! from yesterday after we got things started up once again following the internet knockout.

And finally, after that, we had Part III, where we ended the show with a flurry.

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