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February 1, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Explaining my position on the Mariners and 2015…again

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UPDATE 11:48 a.m.: The Mariners have announced they’ve signed infielder Carlos Guillen, 36, to a minor league deal with an invite spring training.
Some of you are livid with me for writing that I don’t think the Mariners front office truly believes they will make the playoffs before 2015. You just can’t understand why I would want to believe that. I’ve received emails from people suggesting I’m upset the Mariners did not get Prince Fielder.
No, that’s not it.
My take on how the Mariners view their playoff chances has zero to do with my feelings on Fielder. The two are unrelated and to base any analysis of the M’s thought process off my personal beliefs on one player would lead to a fraudulent hypothesis to say the least.
So, I will spell out the real thought process for you right here, since I do believe in accountability and can understand the questions many of you have. For those of you who just want me “to be more positive” you’re best to tune out because I don’t deal in blind faith or saying things people want to hear to keep them happy. If I’d been more positive the past two years and told you I thought the M’s were going to contend, what good would that have done any of us?
That said, here is my take on why the M’s likely aren’t planning any playoff appearances before 2015.
It’s a two-part answer. The first has to do with the actions of the team itself and the common sense conclusion to be drawn from the Michael Pineda (Photo Credit: AP) trade and the coming cut in payroll.
Pineda has two more years of minimum-salaried performance ahead of him. So, if you’re a team planning on contending in 2012 and 2013, would you trade away a potentially legit No. 2 starter who costs nothing? No, you would not. That’s too much cost-flexibility you’d be giving up at a crucial time. It’s going to take money to bring in the offensive firepower needed to contend short-term, since adding more prospects likely won’t get the job done to the degree required the next two years. Giving up cheap pitching means you’ll just need to spend added money to improve the rotation short-term, making the entire task more difficult if the goal is to contend anytime soon.
You would, however, trade Pineda if you know you have no chance at the playoffs prior to 2014. Which would be a logical conclusion based on what the Angels and Rangers have done this off-season and the gap now separating them from the Mariners and Athletics.
In essence, the two most valuable years of Pineda’s tenure — delivering top-end stuff for minimum salary — were going to be wasted in 2012 and 2013. So, the Mariners cashed in on that value by dealing Pineda for Jesus Montero, who will not be arbitration eligible prior to 2015. I like this deal from that perspective. Pineda could earn as much as $8 million his first arbitration season and you’ve got other pitchers coming up who could, in theory, take his place in terms of quality by 2014. This is a move you make on its own (meaning, without a Fielder deal thrown on top of it) if you feel 2012 and 2013 are already written off.
Otherwise, you keep Pineda, increase payroll and use the extra money to bring in some big bats, whether it’s Fielder or a bunch of guys who were available early in the process. Or, you bring in Montero and Fielder both to transform the offense and use even more payroll to bring in a top arm next winter to replace Pineda and take your shot at the post-season in 2013. But the Mariners did not do that. They did not bring in Fielder, nor any of the shorter-term, two-year type guys who would help the team win now. Pineda is now gone and payroll is going down. This means, at minimum, the team likely does not expect a 90-95-win season before, at the very least, 2014. That’s if everything goes absolutely peachy for the squad. I don’t think they’re actually that optimistic, which is why I’m pushing the target back one additional year, figuring they’ve done the same.
Now, for the second part of why I think 2015 is the team’s actual target date.


Those of you who truly believe that this can be a playoff team by 2013, or, more realistically, 2014, give me your lineup of guys you think GM Jack Zduriencik has penciled in for that season.
I’ll start with my sure-thing 2014 lineup, since I’ve already shown you why I don’t think even Zduriencik feels that he can make the playoffs before then. And I doubt he feels much confidence in their ability to make it by that season either.
Actually, it’s a small lineup.
2B Dustin Ackley
1B Justin Smoak
DH Jesus Montero
If I’m Zduriencik, those are the closest things to a sure thing I’ve got. Everyone else? Lots of finger crossing involved. Now, I get that nobody is ever a sure thing. But those three are the guys Zduriencik would be prepared to stake his reputation on and pretty much has already.
In other words, two of eight fielding positions. As to who will play catcher, third base, left field, shortstop, center field and right field for the team, Zduriencik has no way of knowing with any degree of certainty. So, how’s he supposed to feel confident about a playoff run in two years time?
Kyle Seager the third baseman for a playoff team? Maybe. But the stuff that came out about the M’s looking into Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie should clue people in that the team would probably like a hot corner upgrade.
Shortstop? Well, that will probably be Nick Franklin in 2014, but he’s still got to play Class AAA first.
Left field? Mike Carp could be Raul Ibanez out there, or could be Wladimir Balentien. Maybe Casper Wells, but who can really say right now?
Franklin Gutierrez? His contract runs through 2013 and then there’s a club option, but he’ll be getting awfully pricey for a guy who’s still yet to put a complete big league season together where he’s strong from start to finish.
Is Ichiro your starting right fielder in 2014 at age 40? He won’t be hitting leadoff this season (take that to the bank), so where in the world will he fit that far down the road?
Is Montero your catcher? Probably not, though it would be great for the team if he could be. Barring that stroke of luck, who’s it going to be? John Jaso? Maybe, but that’s far from any certainty. Adam Moore? He’ll need the showing of a lifetime this spring just to stay in the organization beyond March.
Until the Mariners can answer a few more of those questions and at least know who will be playing the majority of fielding positions for them, expecting this to become a 90-to-95-win team in just 24 months is asking a lot.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. Plenty of things can happen in sports.
But if I’m doing an analysis about what a reasonable front office would be expecting, I’m giving the process an extra year for these players to get their major league feet wet, free agents to be added and everyone to gel. This team was striking out a dozen times per game down the stretch last season. I’m not going to give you the most pie-in-the-sky guess as to their future and try to pass that off as professional analysis based on random stock quotes from team officials at FanFest. Of course the Mariners have a plan. But executing it is going to take time given the slower, cheaper route the team has chosen. More time than some folks realize.
Especially when this team has no way of knowing who any of their five starting pitchers will be come 2014. The Mariners have no way of knowing for sure whether Felix Hernandez will stick around as a free agent after that season and if it looks like he won’t, he’ll have to be traded ahead of time to max out on his value.
As for the other four spots, none of the guys opening the season with Seattle in 2012 are likely to still be there in 2014. Jason Vargas will probably be too expensive by then for a mid-to-back rotation guy, while the other arms currently there amount to one-year fillers. The Mariners would like to see some combination of James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker there, but again, we just don’t know. Hultzen hasn’t pitched in a pro game yet outside the Arizona Fall League, Walker hasn’t thrown a pitch in Class AA yet and Walker is entering just his second year in affiliated pro ball.
Now, do I expect all three to flop? No, I do not. But saying that you expect all three to be contributing to a playoff team in 24 months is an awful lot to ask.
Again, I’m not saying that it’s impossible.
But as I’ve just shown you, a whole lot has to happen for the Mariners on just the position player and starting pitching front in two years’ time for them to make the playoffs in 2014. If they were in a weaker division like the Arizona Diamondbacks were last year, it would be different.
But the M’s will have to overcome two talent-stacked AL West teams with plenty of money to correct flaws in-season. They will have to contend with a Houston squad that’s coming into the division next year armed with their own Regional Sports Network to print money with, not to mention the $70-million discount their new owner got on his purchase price of the franchise for agreeing to switch leagues. In other words, the Astros may be the third AL West financial behemoth come 2013.
As I’ve said, it’s not impossible to overcome all this and make the playoffs by 2014.
But would a reasonable front office be planning for this to happen? Or would they be tempering expectations internally and admitting to themselves that it will probably take at least a year longer because it’s rare for everything to line up just perfectly?
I’m going with the latter.
Especially when I haven’t seen a willingness by the team’s ownership to increase payroll and know that two owners accounting for almost 86 percent of the Mariners’ total stake are facing serious financial challenges away from baseball. Some of that could be helped by 2015 if the Mariners find a way to redo their TV deal.
But again, that’s in 2015. And even if the team can swing an advance on that TV money ahead of time, they still face the challenges I previously mentioned of not even knowing with much certainty who the majority of their regulars are even going to be yet.
So, that’s my thought process on it.
If that’s still too negative for some of you, you’re welcome to invite those more optimistic commentators to explain in their own forums why they feel Zduriencik would be banking on a playoff team two years from now. Or, you can simply go on the comments thread here and spell out in detail why you think Zduriencik is more bullish than I’m giving him credit for.
I certainly won’t blame you for trying. But I can only answer for myself. And for the reasons I just mentioned, I simply can’t see this front office envisioning the post season prior to 2015 unless they are counting on a whole lot to go right for them and even more to go wrong for their opponents.
Hope that spells it out. It won’t do me any good to tell you I think this can be a playoff team in 2013 or 2014 if I just don’t see it happening.
The good news? I’m sometimes wrong. But if I had to put money on it, you wouldn’t catch me betting the M’s for October anytime prior to 2015. And I doubt Zduriencik and his front office would privately risk their mortgages on it, either.

Comments | Topics: Jesus Montero

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