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December 18, 2012 at 12:01 PM

Mariners finding out that timing is everything when it comes to rebuilding and upgrading

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is not getting the types of trade offers he’d once hoped for in exchange for his top young prospects. Photo Credit: AP

One of the more interesting trends to follow this winter has been the continued devaluation of the prospects market in baseball. At least, from the transactions we’re seeing and the words of general managers attempting to upgrade their teams via trades of top prospects.

Once upon a time, prospects were the new gold standard in baseball. Teams could not hoard enough of them, hoping to use them as currency in trades to eventually better their teams with the more veteran performers any balanced lineup needs. Well, as happens in just about any market, be it fiscal or baseball, things don’t always stay the same. As with any long-term portfolio, you have to have a mixture of assets to help temper any dramatic market shifts. For the Mariners, they had been hoping that some of their stockpiled prospects would provide the needed currency to upgrade their lineup via trade in order to counter what is generally perceived as a high-priced, mediocre free agent market.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, after years devoted to gathering the prospects that used to be enough to generate decent trade returns, the market has now changed and apparently not for the better when it comes to the value of minor league players unproven at the big league level.

We saw continued evidence of this yesterday when the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets completed a trade that saw 38-year-old Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey — let go by the Mariners after the 2008 season — dealt from the Big Apple along with young catcher Josh Thole and a lesser backup, Mike Nickeas, for two of the better-known prospects (and catcher John Buck) from Toronto’s system. Now, to be clear, Dickey is not like most pitchers his age in that knuckleballers tend to age well once they master their pitch and figure out some secondary stuff. For Dickey, he’s been more than just a one-year wonder for a while now and seems to have “figured it out” as far as maintaining his arsenal at a top level.

But still, it wasn’t too long ago that dealing a top catching prospect like Travis d’Arnaud and pitching prospect in Noah Snydergaard for a late-bloomer like Dickey would have drawn hoots of derision. When I say not “long ago” I’m thinking about two months. After all, d’Arnaud was ranked the 17th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, is expected to make his MLB debut in 2013 and is known for his defensive catching skills as well as a bigger bat (despite the obvious red flags of some high strikeout totals and piling up his offensive stats in hitter-friendly Las Vegas). Snydergaard is touted, at worst, as a future mid-rotation guy by the folks who enjoy making these types of projections.

Giving up several years of control over two guys who look destined to be MLB regulars is a lot if you assume Dickey only has a handful of years left.

Some are comparing this deal to the Wil Myers-James Shields trade between the Royals and Rays in terms of what Kansas City paid in prospect value to get a few years worth of veteran pitching. Now, I happen to agree the price is similar. I know that many people feel the Blue Jays are closer to making the playoffs than the Royals are — which I wholeheartedly agree with — but that doesn’t change the price we’re seeing in these deals.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik suggested several times at the winter meetings that teams did not seem to be valuing unproven minor league prospects as much as they were young players with some MLB experience. Zduriencik seemed surprised by that at the time, which suggested a shift in how prospects were being valued was already underway.

I read with great interest this story last week in Prospect Insider suggesting that what was driving the obvious value decline was the new reality of the second wild-card in baseball. As a theory, it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen put forward yet.

What’s worth remembering is that one of the reasons baseball introduced the second wild-card in the first place was as part of a multi-faceted series of rule changes designed to discourage the hoarding of prospects by teams less-inclined to spend money. By adding the extra playoff team in each league, MLB was trying to provide some additional competitive hope to the money-tight franchises in exchange for them loosening their purse strings. MLB clubs paying the bulk of money into revenue sharing pools weren’t thrilled with the smaller end charity cases whose payrolls never seemed to go up no matter how many handouts they got.

The players’ association signed off on the rule changes without much fuss since it’s always in their best interests to see teams spending more money on their union members. And too many cheap prospects hoarded by too many teams means the higher-paying jobs of more experienced major leaguers being replaced by minimum-wage types — sometimes having earned it and sometimes not — which was a concept the union wasn’t thrilled about. Two of the teams envisioned by the sweeping changes were clearly the Tampa Bay Rays and the Blue Jays. The Rays had spent a losing decade stockpiling top picks and later dealing some for the young talent that’s helped them stay relevant in the AL East despite spending less money than most teams in baseball on payroll.

As for the Blue Jays, shrewd GM Alex Anthopoulos was viewed by many of his envious counterparts as a manipulator of the former MLB system in which players could be acquired and later dumped for compensatory draft picks. The result of that system was that teams were acquiring players with little eye on keeping them beyond a half season or less, then jettisoning them for the cheaper picks that automatically came their way.

Anyhow, the bottom line is, you don’t have to agree with any of it, but MLB changed the rules.

It’s now much tougher to build a long-term winner by stockpiling draft picks and not spending.

I find it interesting that — one year after the rule changes — Anthopoulos has suddenly seen his payroll jump (surprising even him by its magnitude) to the $120 million range after his cable-conglomerate, regional sports network operating owners had spent a decade generally keeping it below $90 million with the odd exception. It is also interesting that Anthopoulos, the former king of prospect hoarding, is now the one dealing off his bigger prospect names for a 38-year-old knuckleballer he could have had off the Rule 5 draft shelf just a half-decade ago.

I’d say the intended changes by MLB seem to be working on some fronts.

As the Prospect Insider piece points out, more potential playoff teams via the second wild-card mean more clubs willing to “go for it” by trying to pile up wins now and not in some unspecified future. Even the Royals, who nobody really thinks have a chance, have decided to “go for it” in 2013 by risking future talent for guys who can get them more wins next season.

It’s against that backdrop that the Mariners, after multiple off-seasons and trade deadlines of letting pricey contracts come off the books without replacing them with any substantial veteran acquisitions, decided to get back in the game. At least, that’s what they told everybody this winter in announcing that they have greater payroll flexibility than at any other time since 2009.

But so far…nothing.

We know they got outbid by $25 million for Josh Hamilton. But that’s just one free agent.

One thing we were hearing right after the season ended, throughout the Arizona Fall League and right up until the winter meetings actually began two weeks ago was that the trade route might be a better avenue through which the Mariners could upgrade. That they had re-stocked their farm system and now had the types of young, cost-controlled future players other teams would gladly flip some experienced bats for.

Except they apparently don’t. The market, as it is known to do, has changed away from that.

Oh, the Mariners could still get a deal or two done. But they would likely have to part with far more in terms of prospects than they ever really envisioned doing when the off-season began.

That’s part of the problem with these long-term rebuilding plans that sacrifice years of the present with a vision towards a distant future nobody can really define. It’s not so much the rebuilding part as it is the jettisoning of any pretense at trying to contend by doing what it takes to put a team capable of playing .500 ball on the field. When the plans start out, the future is based on a present-day reality subject to change. Back in 2008 and 2009, the Texas Rangers were a losing team on the verge of bankruptcy while the Mariners had what was thought to be one of the best TV deals in baseball.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Rangers and Angels are now both top payroll teams fueled by local TV deals that blow Seattle’s out of the water.

Like I said, things can change.

The prospects market is changing and as a result, it probably won’t be the wisest thing for the Mariners to deal some of their best prospects without letting them gain more value this coming year. Unless, that is, the Mariners don’t mind giving up more of them.

Only problem with that is, you pretty much limit your team to free agency as a means of improvement once you rule out the trading-prospects route. And as we’ve seen this winter, the price of free agents is going up as well, fueled by the TV money that is making teams wealthier by the week on both a national and local level.

So, what’s left? Well, if you rule out trades and you rule out free agency, there’s always the “stay the course” route. It might turn out — on paper — to be the most prudent course in the long run, as long as fans (and teams) remember the one caveat: that there are no guarantees.

Just as the rest of MLB didn’t roll out the red carpet for the Mariners this winter when they said: “Hey, everybody,we’re ready to start wheeling and dealing!” there is no guarantee the rest of the AL West will accomodate Seattle fans who think the team should be truly developed enough to contend by 2014 or 2015. You never know what the future holds. All we know from this winter is, if the Mariners balk at any major upgrades via trade or free agency, then fans expecting those upgrades will have to wait one more year on top of what’s already been asked of them.

That’s why I still believe it’s imperative for the Mariners to make at least one significant upgrade this winter. Nick Swisher could be one. Michael Bourn, who not all of you favor, I know, could be another. If the Mariners do indeed have additional spending money, getting one of those players — even for more than they’d once envisioned spending — could be vital. Because there is no guarantee the market next winter will be any better than this one is, either for trades or free agents. It’s possible the prospects market collapses entirely, or that some of Seattle’s young guys actually lose value with poor showings at the MLB level once they get promoted. In my view, it’s better to take some upgrading when you can get it. There is no rule that says a team has to fill all of its needs in one off-season. The minute you fall victim to that type of thinking is when you start to paint yourself into a bit of a corner. Leave everything until next winter and the Mariners could really be up against it when it comes to the pressure of having to do something.

Do I think the Mariners planned for this baseball-wide devaluing of prospects? Not at all. I truly think they had hoped to upgrade via trade this winter and entered the off-season in good faith thinking they could do exactly that.

But timing is everything when it comes to rebuilding plans and upgrades. And right now, for the Mariners, their timing stinks.

Comments | More in trades | Topics: free agents, Jack Zduriencik, prospects

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