Things are bustling in the hallways of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel here in Nashville as team executives check in for the baseball winter meetings, watched ever-so-closely by media types from around the country,as well as Japan, Latin America and Canada. I saw Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik heading off with team president Chuck Armstrong not too long ago. Zduriencik got here yesterday and has been involved in an assortment of meetings both with his own staffers as well as others.
Earlier today, I outlined a series of potential trades and free agent signings the Mariners might pursue on the bigger end of the spectrum if they want to make an impact.
But I’ve also been told that the Mariners, in weeks leading up to these meetings, have had talks with the Pittsburgh Pirates concerning first baseman/right fielder Garrett Jones. Now, let me repeat: this is just one of many conversations the Mariners have had with various teams, but I’m told it got beyond the mere single phone call/hang up and that some actual names were bandied about between the squads.
One proposal went something along the lines of the left-handed hitting Jones and Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan going to the Mariners with potentially one other throw-in, in exchange for first baseman Justin Smoak, catcher John Jaso and starting pitcher Hector Noesi.
Again, I don’t know that this was the only set of names tossed about and you can be pretty certain that it wasn’t. But there it is.
This is exactly the type of under-the-radar move Zduriencik likes to make that takes everybody by surprise and leaves them wondering why they’d never had an inkling of it beforehand. Doesn’t mean the two teams will ever pull the trigger on it. But it does show you that there can be more than one type of trade beyond the premium guys that the Mariners could explore and theoretically use to get better.
Let’s look at the particulars of this proposed deal and why it fits within the realm of the possible.
First off, Jones would give the Mariners a guy who hit 27 home runs and slugged .516 with an .833 OPS in the majors last season and can potentially cover two positions of need for Seattle, albeit likely as a plattoon guy against mainly right-handed pitchers. He is 31, but under club control through the 2016 season.
Second, Hanrahan, 31, would give the Mariners a proven, more veteran back-end reliever as insurance in case Tom Wilhelmsen falters — and remember, Wilhelmsen has only been a closer less than one full season — as well as a needed set-up man from the right side. While the Mariners have youngsters Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps profiling as potential late-inning righties, they lack experience in the role and could be better suited rounding into the majors earlier on in games while Hanrahan handles the eighth or ninth for a year before he hits free agency.
Third, the Mariners can pull this move off without giving up any of their top-rated prospects, other than Smoak, of course, who is technically no longer a prospect despite his first-round pedigree and status as the prime return in the Cliff Lee deal.
Fourth, getting a slugging first base/right field type in a deal like this would cost the Mariners far less short and long-term than some other avenues they’ve explored and leave them financially able to pursue another bat via free agency. Let’s face it, bringing in Jones on his own would not be nearly as interesting as adding him and using the saved money to bring in a premium bat or another player he could share playing time with at two positions.
Why would the Pirates do it? Easy: for the salary relief.
The Pirates just spent $17 million over two years to bring free agent Russell Martin in to shore-up a deplorable catching situation. They are a team sticking to a budget near the $60 million mark, so they have already eaten up a substantial part of it with Martin and coming arbitration awards.
By doing a deal like this with the Mariners, they would lessen some of that arbitration payout by a considerable amount.
Jones was a Super 2 arbitration guy last season and earned $2.25 million. So, for next season, given his big power year, he could be looking at a raise to roughly $4.5 million.
Hanrahan is entering his final arbitration year and could jump from $4.1 million up to near $7 million.
So, that’s $11.5 million in payouts to two players — just under one fifth the entire projected Pirates payroll.
The Mariners likely wouldn’t want to take on all that money. That’s partly why you’d have Jaso going the other way, with him standing to earn between $1.5 million and $2 million in arbitration based on his solid season. Between Jaso, Noesi and Smoak, that knocks more than $2.5 million off the salary coming Seattle’s way.
And this isn’t all about money for the Pirates.
Getting Smoak would get them a potential full-time first baseman to add to a young core they’ve developed at several positions. Smoak has ayear to go before becoming arbitration eligible, so he’ll cost just over a tenth what Jones will. That’s a big incentive for the Pirates to have some patience and hope that Smoak eventually fulfills some of his promise — even if it takes another year or two.
Jaso gives the Pirates a left-handed hitting backup catcher to go along with right-handed hitting Martin, but one with some pop in his bat and — most importantly — the experienced work off the bench (as a pinch hitter) that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wants. Hurdle did not have the type of bats he needed off the bench last season and has let the Pittsburgh front office know he’d like an upgrade to a more veteran player — as opposed to a young guy who might pout about his lack of playing time.
From a Mariners’ perspective, as well as Jaso played in a part-time role last season, he’s limited to that because he’s never really played any other position but catcher. And even if you think he could be a No.1 catcher at some point, his shelf life in that role would be limited in Seattle with Mike Zunino coming through the ranks. So, whether you think Jaso is a good or bad catcher defensively, the Mariners will be challenged in the near future to get him on the field enough to justify a climbing salary.
In Noesi, the Pirates get the type of back-end rotation starter they’ve listed as a priority this off-season. Noesi could soon be squeezed out of Seattle’s rotation picture by up-and-coming minor leaguers, but might benefit from a switch to the National League.
Anyhow, it’s not the perfect trade for the Mariners, but it would enable them to replace Smoak’s ever-elusive “potential” with a bat that has already demonstrated power over a sustained period in the big leagues.
After that, if the Mariners used their additional money to go out and sign, say, free agent Mike Napoli, they would have their primary catcher against right-handers with Jones then playing first base. If a left-hander was starting, Napoli could move to first base, while Jones sits and Jesus Montero catches.
Say the Mariners sign Nick Swisher, you could rotate him and Jones between first base and right field. In that event, the Mariners would have to go out and get another catcher to team with Montero.
Anyhow, there are all types of ways the team could go with this, which is one of the advantages of getting a guy who plays two positions — albeit, one who will never be a Gold Glove at either.
But this trade would be all about adding offense for the Mariners. And while they’d be on the long-term hook with Jones, they could simply cut Hanrahan loose as a free agent after one year and reduce their long-term financial exposure considerably.
Once again, repeat after me: I am not saying this trade is going to happen. I am not touting it as the best one possible. It’s possible the Pirates abandoned any thoughts of dealing with Seattle once they signed Martin to be their primary catcher and will be content to stick with in-house backup Michael McKenry behind him.
I am saying that Jones is one of the players the Mariners have looked at and these were some of the names I heard were tossed about.
While it may never come to fruition, looking at the thought process behind it shows us the Mariners do not need to give up all hope if some of the free agents and trade targets they’ve sought prove too expensive for Seattle’s blood.