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October 12, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Don’t get locked in on specific names: Mariners need certain types of players to boost 2013 fortunes

ADDITIONAL NOTE: For my season-ending wrap-up of Talkin’ Baseball with Mitch Levy on Sports Radio KJR, click the box below.
Mulling over the vast array of Mariners improvement suggestions popping up in the blogosphere, it struck me that the 2012-2013 off-season won’t be as much about names as it will be specific player types. In a way, that hasn’t changed much from last winter, when the Mariners could have gone Prince Fielder, or could have gone instead for multiple players including Josh Willingham, or could have gone for all that put together.
In the end, they settled on not really doing much of anything.
That won’t work anymore. Didn’t really work this year, other than getting a 95-loss team to a 75-win team. And of course, the unstated “progress” of allowing the Mariners’ ownership to benefit from cutting payroll from $95 million to $82 million from Opening Day of 2011 to Opening Day of 2012.
Right now, payroll sits at about $60 million for the team that ended 2012.

The Mariners could theoretically spend about $20 million more this winter on raises and new players and placate some fans, then enter 2013 with an Opening Day payroll of $80 million — which would be yet another cut from Opening Day of 2012. But still, it might keep some of the masses happy. Even though those masses will have had to be forced to endure another season of last-place baseball in 2012 to get to that point.
This is what I wrote about last week. The Mariners over the past two years have had a bunch of expiring contracts coming due and faced a choice: either to work around those contracts by acquiring better (i.e. more expensive) players in hopes of producing a competitive team that could possibly surprise some people. Or, they could simply tread water with minimum-MLB-wage types carrying the load while waiting for contracts to expire.
So far, they’ve chosen the latter route. And as long as fans are willing to wait as last-place season after last-place season piles up — under the neatly-packaged, non-goal-defined “rebuilding plan” label — then it’s a route the team can get away with. Other teams have done it for years on end in small and mid-sized markets. The only difference is, few have had the fiscal advantages of the Mariners in terms of the tax-subsidized ballpark, the great TV market and the overall wealth of the local populace, not to mention a passionate, loyal fanbase.
So, as long as you don’t mind waiting another year for the Chone Figgins deal and the Franklin Gutierrez deal to run out, the Mariners could probably afford to tread water yet again this winter, put a fourth-place team on the field next year and then start seriously trying to win again in 2014 and 2015 without raising payroll at all from where it was to begin 2012. I’m not going to tell you that’s morally right or wrong. But I will make sure to provide you the context. Just keep in mind, whatever this team does, it is in line to be among the next recipients of a massive new regional sports network (RSN) deal that will provide a cash injection similar (though likely not identical) to what the Rangers and Angels just received in terms of jumpstarting their payrolls.
Keep in mind, as well, that because of that deal and the fact the team’s debt ratio is zero (largely because it keeps cutting payroll), the franchise value of the Mariners keeps escalating. Don’t be surprised to see the franchise evaluated at close to a billion dollars once details of that new TV deal become known. That’s on an initial purchase price of $100 million plus another $112 million in additional ownership funding (the last of which pre-dates the Safeco Field era). As long as you’re OK with the cost-cutting and the Mariners avoiding big-spending improvements given that context, then you’ll be a relatively happy fan even with another fourth-place team.
After all, what else could the Mariners be doing to improve?
I’ll humbly suggest they could be spending a little more. Could have done it every winter since the end of 2009. The only difference now is, a $130 million team three winters ago will now cost about $95 million because of all the contracts that have come off the books. What a bargain, huh? All it cost was three last-place seasons. Funny how money works.
That $95 million is the same payroll the Mariners opened with at the start of last season, in April 2011. Is it too much to ask? I don’t think so. And neither does this local blogger, who outlined his plan/proposal for 2013 earlier in the week.
In the end, with incentives tacked on, he comes up with a budget in the $90 million-to-$95 million range.
Photo Credit: AP

Among the things generating the most debate was his plan to offer Nick Swisher (photo opposite page) a seven-year, $100-million deal. Look, I’ll agree the years and money are probably not ideal from a cost-efficiency perspective. But again, those who spend their time worrying about the perfect contract will often have to settle for zero contract. And to repeat: before you make an argument that the Mariners can/cannot afford a certain player, consider the context of their current finances and what’s looming just around the corner.
If you wake up in a year or two, with John Stanton as the majority owner of a franchise worth a billion dollars with a spanking new TV deal pouring buckets of cash into the team’s coffers, you might find yourself wondering what all of these last-place seasons were really all about. So, just think of it before ruling out Swisher money. Might have been good to think about it before ruling out any Fielder money a year ago. Is paying Swisher through age 38 really a better risk than paying Fielder more money (for more skill) into his mid-30s? Anyhow, Fielder is now playing in the ALCS for a team other than the Mariners. Time to move on to what can actually happen for Seattle now.
I like the concept of Swisher because he provides the Mariners protection at two positions for the price of one player. If Justin Smoak falters again at first base, then Swisher becomes your primary first baseman. But if Smoak finally does become the player he’s been touted as, then Swisher is the primary right fielder — something this team does not have.
This other blogger feels the same way about Swisher, even though he’s proposing the Mariners pretty much freeze payroll at $82 million from a year-to-year perspective. His proposal to Swisher would be six years, $90 million, but that’s almost splitting hairs at this stage.
The fact that two bloggers coming at this from differing angles — one touting a significant payroll hike and one a freeze — both see the value in Swisher means we can agree on the main concept they advocate: protecting obvious team shortcomings in the corner infield and outfield.
And that’s really what this is all about — outlining needs.
Swisher could wake up in a month and decide he wouldn’t be caught dead in a Mariners uniform and that’s life. But the concept lives on and Seattle would still have to find away to protect itself in the corner infield and outfield. Swisher is only getting the attention because he helps you kill two birds with one proverbial stone.
Look, no team is ever going to cover every single hole. The Tigers tried as best they could and may have bought themselves a World Series team this year, but even they have bullpen shortcomings. The Mariners can hope that Smoak rebounds and becomes the player they envision. And that Dustin Ackley does, too. But what they can’t hope is that every single poor performance they got this year will miraculously vanish with the passing of one winter. That’s just banging your head against the same wall.
So, if Swisher doesn’t work out, you protect yourself in other ways. Perhaps you load up on a high upside right fielder by trading for Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks. Maybe you skip the Upton option and trade for first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Our second blogger, Brett Miller, suggests dealing for Ike Davis of the Mets to play first base and leaving Swisher — or another bat — as a right field upgrade.
Either way, the trade route is viable for the Mariners, who have front-line prospects they can deal.
Personally, I’m not so enamored with Seattle’s “Big Three” prospects of James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker that I would advocate keeping them all in lieu of dealing for a bonafide major league player. The only thing those three have in common with the real Big Three — Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder circa 2002 — is a conveninet nickname. Until any of them make the majors, they are prospects.
So, the Mariners have the makings of a nice trade package involving one of those young pitchers, plus Erasmo Ramirez or maybe one of the bullpen arms already in the majors. Carter Capps is now down here in Arizona — where I am this week — working on his breaking ball in some “co-op” games under the watch of GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge.
Capps has the pure “stuff” to be a closer someday, if his secondary pitches develop the way Tom Wilhelmsen’s have. Notice that blogger Miller has Wilhelmsen listed as one of his trade candidates in a Davis deal. For me, moving Wilhelmsen remains a viable option just as it did at the past trade deadline. The Mariners have closer-types emerging who could replace Wilhelmsen, a guy who has more value at this stage because he is a proven major leaguer.
Like I said, when it comes to improving the team this winter, it’s best not to get hung up on specific names. You need certain types of players to get trades done and Wilhelmsen is one of those.
Both Miller and our first blogger, Dave Cameron, advocate re-signing Hisashi Iwakuma, which I agree with. Cameron would re-sign Jason Vargas at a more team-friendly rate, while Miller would deal him.
Again, I like that concept. I feel Vargas is slightly overvalued, even if I recognize that 200-inning lefties who don’t get lit-up are tough to replace. What concerns me about Vargas is the impact of moving in the Safeco Field fences and whether he will start to get lit-up a lot more frequently.
And that’s why I agree with both bloggers that boosting the team’s pitching staff — mainly, the rotation — is a must.
Cameron suggests signing free agent Carlos Villanueva, who certainly had his moments for Toronto this past season, for the back-end. Miller prefers to round out the left side with Jeff Francis, a more cost-effective type than Vargas to match his lower payroll team. Then, he’s adding Kevin Correia for the back-end filler.
Again, it’s the concept here. Strengthening the overall rotation to make it slightly better than it currently is to offset any negative impact from moving in the fences.
On the catching and DH front, Cameron opts to stick with what the team has behind the dish while bringing back a lower-cost Chris Gimenez type as a backup. He then advocates signing Travis Hafner as a DH.
Miller chooses to deploy more resources into signing Mike Napoli to fill two spots — as a primary catcher and a DH on days John Jaso is in there.
Again, either move could work. What this shows you is, if one plan doesn’t come together, there are alternatives.
And to be honest, I can’t quibble with the concepts forwarded by both.
1. Protection/upgrade at first base
2. Protection/upgrade in right field
3. Upgrade to the starting rotation
4. Upgrade at C/DH
The main difference between the pair is that Cameron and his bigger budget also advocates adding another outfield bat — Melky Cabrera — and making Gutierrez earn his center field spot. Miller has Guti pencilled in for center field while not adding that additional bat.
I feel that would be a mistake. The Mariners have already counted on Gutierrez in four different seasons and in all four years, physical ailments have prevented him from rounding out a complete season at top levels (including his knee problems late in 2009). So, for me, I’d add the extra payroll and bring in that second outfield bat. Maybe it’s signing B.J. Upton to play center and moving Michael Saunders to left field. Or, keeping Saunders in center as Cameron advocates and bringing in a bat (I don’t agree on Cabrera, but share the concept) for left field.
No matter which way it winds up going, though, for me, these are the core ingredients for measuring how far the Mariners go this winter. And we’ll know by April whether they met, exceeded, or fell short of those parameters.
No, I don’t include a Felix Hernandez extension among any winter “accomplishments”. Too many fans, I feel, hailed the last Hernandez extension as a key off-season addition, even though it was not accompanied by enough additional moves of substance. Yes, it would be great to have Hernandez locked up long-term. But it won’t mean anything — just as it hasn’t mattered for three last-place seasons to begin his current extension — until the team puts other elements in place as well.
And those elements are:
1. One or two OF bats
2. First baseman
3. Catcher/DH
4. Starting pitching
Swisher could help protect you at two positions.
Keeping this in mind, we now have the broad strokes for where to set our bar of expectations. And, you also have some financial context as to what this team really can afford. Now, we wait and see what the team does and adjust our expectations for 2013 accordingly. Not just pie-in-the-sky hopes that “all the kids improve” but real expectations based on tangible efforts at improvement.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Dustin Ackley, Hisashi Iwakuma


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