There was always an element of skepticism to be had when word came out last week via Mariners president Chuck Armstrong about the team weighing Josh Hamilton options. As we wrote a couple of weeks back, the Mariners have made a cottage industry out of telling people the past decade that they’re looking at one free agent or another.
But it’s one thing to talk about it. Another thing to get it done.
And for me, any Hamilton pursuit — which I am in favor of — was always going to be dubious when it came to the Mariners. Back in late September, when Hamilton skipped a series in Seattle with balance/depth percetion issues, it raised a red flag for members of the team’s hierarchy.
The last thing a team that got burned by Franklin Gutierrez and his mysterious stomach issues wants is an even larger-scale boondoggle with Hamilton. But for me, that type of concern should apply to both a short and a long-term deal in Hamilton’s case. After all, if you’re worried that Hamilton has some type of issue that plagued him late in the season, logic dictates the immediate future would be as big — or bigger — a worry with him than would seasons 2014-2017.
In other words, I’ve just never bought into the Mariners as serious players on Hamilton. Just can’t see them doing it. And that’s why, when some of you write in asking me about it, I tell you that I would take the chance on Hamilton but just can’t see the Mariners taking on the risk.
For me, you can find a reason to balk at any high-priced free agent. There’s always some type of potential huge risk involved. With Prince Fielder, it was his weight. With other guys, it’s the whispers about steroids or HGH use perhaps inflating performance. With Hamilton, it will be durability concerns and some of the unknowns about what really caused his season’s downward slide this past year.
But when Hamilton is out there, he’s still one of the most dangerous hitters in the game today. And if he’s out there only 130 games per year, that’s still 130 games of production better than just about anything the Mariners can put on the field.
Let’s move on, for now, though. Since the Mariners were never apparently that serious in Hamilton, no matter what some people read into Armstrong’s comments.
One avenue I have gone more strongly on in writing about when it comes to the Mariners this off-season has been the possibility of a trade with the Kansas City Royals. There are two bats that look like they would clearly upgrade the Mariners at present. No, young third baseman Mike Moustakas is not one of them.
Moustakas would give the Mariners another body to add to their ever-growing “All Hope Team” but in terms of results, he’s been a below average hitter in the majors so far. And besides, a team like the Royals isn’t going to trade their version of Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak just yet. That’s still a franchise that plays the smaller-market Moneyball game and so a young bat with upside who doesn’t cost a lot is going to be held on to while the older ones that are more expensive will be moved.
That leads us to where the Royals and Mariners have a fit: Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.
The Mariners need to upgrade with something a bit more proven than Moustakas and would have that in either of those two players. Gordon would give the team the corner outfield bat it needs — in this case, in left field — while Butler would be a DH upgrade over Jesus Montero and also provide a backup first baseman.
In both cases, these two players are close to reaching their full MLB potential, where a guy like Moustakas is still in the development stage. This isn’t a shot at Moustakas, but the Mariners are well past the time to move beyond always planning for three years down the road and start to show signs of actually doing something in the present.
Gordon or Butler would help that happen.
And the best part is, neither of the two is so expensive that he would prevent the Mariners from upgrading further in acquiring a guy like Nick Swisher via free agency to play right field. In fact, I’ll submit that if Butler is the serious Mariners trade target — as post-GM meetings tweets are now suggesting — then a further Swisher acquisition makes perfect sense.
Photo Credit: AP
Butler, as mentioned, would be the team’s primary DH ands a part-time first baseman. After that, Swisher becomes the right fielder, Michael Saunders moves to left field and Gutierrez stays in center. And if Justin Smoak starts off the year in another slump, you can play Swisher primarily at first base and juggle outfielders around.
What of Montero, or John Jaso?
Well, they don’t really factor in much. Jaso is the backup catcher and likely will be once the season begins. Montero has shown that his future is as a DH, not a catcher. And frankly, Butler is a much better DH right now — especially facing right-handed pitching.
The Royals probably don’t move Butler strictly for pitching without getting some type of bat back in return. Sorry, but James Paxton or Taijuan Walker all by himself is not going to get you Butler’s bat. Paxton and Walker haven’t shown a thing in the majors to this point. If I’m the Royals, I’m going for Paxton in a deal because he’s closest to the big leagues and Walker has yet to be tested above Class AA ball.
Make no mistake: the scouting contingent the Royals had out to see Paxton throw in the game I referenced in the linked-to article was not a normal one. There are scouts for many teams out at every Arizona Fall League game but the number of Royals hands present when Paxton pitched was disproportionate to those other quads by a wide margin — keeping in mind that the team Paxton faced did have some Royals prospects on it.
And the bat going the other way in a Butler deal? Maybe it’s Montero. Maybe somebody else, like minor leaguer Nick Franklin. Maybe Montero gets moved in a separate deal and the Mariners can pull off a Butler trade strictly for pitching. I’ve always thought the Royals would want multiple arms in a Butler deal if they could get it, so maybe you package Jason Vargas and Paxton together to offset some of Butler’s salary.
Anyhow, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. One deal at a time on this blog.
But no, Butler and Montero on the same team would not make the greatest match, since they fill similar roles.
If you’re the Mariners, you can’t worry about that. A good chunk of Montero’s future value to the team already vanished once it was decided he’s never going to be a full-time catcher.
Sure, he could one day be a great DH…but that’s kind of what Butler has already become. So why wait longer?
And if we’re talking about red flags with Josh Hamilton, how about Montero’s .609 OPS versus right-handers? Red enough for you? Wave that in front of a bull and see what happens.
Montero and Butler are not the same player right now and may never be. One is clearly much better than the other.
As mentioned, the Mariners will one day have to stop planning for a future that may never happen three years down the road and start making some moves and taking some chances that could help this team actually contend for something other than a few series against bottom-feeding teams in August.
Swapping out Montero for a still-young player in Butler makes perfect sense if the plan is to try to do that. The Mariners have a roster filled with guys who are long on hope and short on results. It’s OK to up your odds and pay for some guys who have already grown beyond the still-developing stage.
If the goal is to someday win.
As for Jaso, right now, he’s the backup catcher and can probably remain that and the fine pinch-hitter he is once Mike Zunino comes up. The team will likely acquire another catcher this winter to join Jaso in the interim. Jaso’s future is not as a full-time DH, quite unlike Butler, so the team can acquire one without having to make a final call on the other just yet.
There you go. It may not all pan out precisely as stated, but I have always thought a trade with the Royals plus a lesser signing (like Swisher) is more in-line with what the Mariners set out to do this winter than going hard on a guy like Hamilton.