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January 2, 2013 at 11:01 AM

There are ways for an Andre Ethier trade to make more sense for the Mariners

Plenty of things have to fall into place for a Mariners trade for Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier to make sense. Photo Credit: AP

About 48 hours ago, I got into a panic concerning the Mariners. They weren’t really going to pull off a trade on New Year’s Eve, were they? For Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier? I mean, such Dec. 31 deals have been known to happen before, though rare. Despite the rumors percolating at the time, I came away satisfied nothing was going down that night. Now, we’re into Jan. 2 and there’s still no deal. But does that mean the Mariners are done on the Ethier front? Not so fast.

My first reaction to the Ethier rumor was that it was ridiculous. I mean, he’s owed five years, $85 million and if the Mariners really wanted to spend that much on a corner outfielder, they could have done so for less and signed Nick Swisher. After all, Swisher has more positional flexibility and can hit from both sides of the plate without massive platoon splits like Ethier has. Sure, the Mariners would have given up their 12th overall draft pick next June as compensation, but they will have to give up young talent in any event just to get Ethier.

I mean, what’s the goal in baseball now, anyway? To keep collecting draft picks? I understand the value of top-five, or even top-10 picks. But where’s the cutoff point when it starts to impede decision-making on bettering the team that will take the field next year and the year after that? After all, Blake Beavan — who now gets made fun of on some local Mariners blogs — was a 17th overall pick. Phillippe Aumont, now a bullpen guy, was taken 11th overall. You can make fun of Bill Bavasi for the Aumont pick, but Beavan was taken by the Jon Daniels regime in Texas. So, you tell me, is it worth passing on Swisher or Michael Bourn in order to save a potential fifth starter or eighth-inning setup man for the year 2016? Now, before you go off on me, I realize there is pool money associated with the pick under a new draft system and the Mariners would lose some signing flexibility there in other rounds. And I also realize it’s possible Jack Zduriencik (the guy who went ahead and signed 20th overall pick Josh Fields¬†in 2009 rather than letting him go back into the draft and picking again) could make better use of this coming first-round selection. All I’m saying is, when you get out of the top-10, you’re taking your chances. This isn’t quite the “get better quickly” thing the Mariners have had going for them in three of their last four drafts with top-3 picks.

And besides, to get Ethier, the Mariners would likely wind up trading away a young player or two whose value would be the rough equivalent of a first-rounder taken in the 10-20 overall range. One that wound up working out, in any event. Fields sure didn’t, since he was just claimed for next-to-nothing as a Rule 5 pick by the Houston Astros. Maybe now he’ll finally make it to the mound at Safeco Field.

So, those are my reservations. If you’re going after Ethier, why not a cheaper Swisher?

And for me, that’s the key to any Ethier deal. Offsetting not only the cash aspect of it, but also the talent aspect as well, so that you don’t have to keep asking “Why not Swisher?”

One of the things we’ve seen with the latest rumors is that there is more of a multiple-player aspect to them. And for me, that’s what takes them from mere fodder into the realm of plausible.

Because if you’re going to ask “Why not Swisher?” one of the answers would be: well, he’s only one guy.

The Mariners are also in the market for at least one more starting pitcher. Not just to serve as a veteran mentor to a staff where second-year major leaguer Hishashi Iwakuma is now the default No. 2 starter, but also to eat up the massive innings total lost when Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood headed out the door. Vargas and Millwood combined for 378 1/3 innings last season and while they weren’t always Cy Young Award quality, they were mostly decently-pitched innings nonetheless. Replacing those will not be as easy as some expect. They certainly won’t be replaced to any adequate degree by any of the Big 3 (or four, or whatever we’re calling it now) minor leaguers with their still-developing arms. You need at least one ¬†veteran addition capable of logging 190+ innings at a time, or this rotation is in for a potential shortfall.

That’s where an Ethier trade comes in. The Dodgers have some starting pitchers they can add to any trade, including Chris Capuano, who threw 198 innings for the Dodgers last season. Capuano also threw 186 innings for the Mets in 2011, so between that and his total last season, it fills what you call the “capable of logging” part of the 190-200 frames the Mariners are in need of. Don’t underestimate the innings part. There might be flashier pitchers with lower ERAs and higher strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratios than Capuano’s 7.4, but if they do it over 150 innings, it will leave the Mariners lacking.

Capuano earns $6 million this season, half of what Ted Lilly (another pitcher some Mariners fans have wondered about) will be paid. Lilly is also coming off an injury.

Besides, Capuano makes sense in that he’s a known commodity for Zduriencik, having enjoyed his breakout seasons with the Brewers when Zduriencik was an executive there.

So, Capuano is a must add in any Ethier deal. It kills two birds for the Mariners with the proverbial stone.

Acquire Ethier and Capuano, the Mariners could pretty much call it an off-season and be relatively satisfied with their upgrades. They would have addressed their middle-of-the-order needs for the most part, knowing they have Casper Wells they can plug into right field in Ethier’s place on days a left-hander is starting.

That is, if money wasn’t part of the equation. Unfortunately, it is and you’d have to think the Mariners would like to chip away at that $23-million pricetag on both Ethier and Capuano for the coming season.

Not only that, but the Dodgers would want to get something back in return besides the Mariners eating a bunch of Ethier’s money.

This is where things get tricky.

Because, as mentioned above, strictly filling your needs this way if you’re the Mariners starts to make no sense if you’re merely giving up a top prospect or two to save a 12th overall draft pick. Trading No. 2 overall pick Danny Hultzen or first-round equivalent James Paxton to save a pick that might not get you nearly as much is kind of self-defeating. Ditto on Nick Franklin, though he was taken later in the first round. The key is, Franklin is a first round pick that is working out so far, whereas nobody knows what that 12th overall pick will look like in two years time.

You’ll probably have to part with something of value if you’re the Mariners and if it’s going to be one of those young guys, then you’d better make sure you’re getting something more. One way could be a massive amount of cash from the Dodgers, but again, they are looking to save money here, too, not just pay it all back to Seattle.

Another way around this is for the Mariners to offload players that will help the Dodgers win now, but also potentially down the road. The Mariners have quite a few areas of duplication building for their team in the outfield and infield — both in the majors and minors — and can clarify their future a bit by making those players available in this trade. Save some money, too.

Franklin Gutierrez is an obvious place to start. He began his career in the Dodgers’ system, let’s not forget. That’s always important, as is the fact the Dodgers now employ a number of former Mariners scouts.

Gutierrez will earn $7 million next season and there’s a $7.5 million club option after that. He can play in center and also the outfield corners, so there’s some value there for the Dodgers in terms of depth — and $7 million is what high-rollers like the Dodgers can afford for a championship-level fourth outfielder — and also in terms of a high-upside move if Guti ever returns to form. The option for 2014 is also affordable for a team like the Dodgers if Gutierrez lives up to his 2009 billing. With Ethier leaving the outfield, the Dodgers will want that depth.

For the Mariners, you have Michael Saunders you can plug into center field rather cheaply for the next few seasons. He won’t be as good defensively as Gutierrez or a free agent like Michael Bourn, but with Ethier in right field, you’re using this trade to better yourself offensively at the expense of a little defense. Don’t forget, the fences coming in at Safeco Field should automatically make the outfield a little better defensively, too, since there will be less ground to cover in left-center and left –which was a big part of Gutierrez’s value. It wasn’t Ichiro in right field that Gutierrez was covering for when healthy.

The thing the Mariners can’t do here is deal Saunders to the Dodgers, which I’m sure the LA folks would like because of his upside, youth and cost.

If the Mariners did that, Gutierrez could be gone in 12 months and then there’s no center fielder. With Gutierrez’s injury history, the Mariners banking on picking up his 2014 option would be a foolish gamble at this point. You have to stick with what you’re reasonably certain of and at this stage, we’re pretty sure Saunders can play center field over a full season because he just did it. Gutierrez hasn’t since 2009 and even that season, he was not completely healthy because of knee tendinitis in the second half. That’s just too much evidence staring you in the face.

So, Gutierrez goes and Saunders stays. It has to be that way unless (big unless) the Mariners also plan on signing Michael Bourn this off-season. That move could still be possible depending on how much money the Dodgers kick their way. We’ll assume, for now, that the Ethier move will be the team’s last big one. But by all means, if you can get Bourn and Ethier, put Saunders on the table and punt that 12th overall pick. But one of the rumors is that the only reason the Dodgers might move Ethier is to free up cash to sign Bourn. So, I don’t see Ethier and Bourn happening for the Mariners for many reasons. Back to the real world…

Other Mariners areas of duplication? Shortstop and second base.

Brendan Ryan is the starting shortstop for now, but there’s that whole .194 batting average thing plus the team has prospect Franklin knocking on the door and Brad Miller in Class AA.

The Dodgers have shortstop Dee Gordon, who also can’t hit much but he’s a lot younger and cheaper than the arbitration-eligible Ryan. Right now, Ryan is the more polished of the two and as I wrote last summer, one of the few regulars the Mariners have that is capable of contributing to a championship-level club. On a club with offense, like the Dodgers have, Ryan is a championship-level piece up the middle. For the Mariners, he’s a Gold Glove type on a fourth-place team, much like Felix Hernandez was a Cy Young winner for a 101-game loser in 2010.

So, a Ryan deal saves you money and you get a young, MLB-ready shortstop in return. Gordon might not be the long-term answer. But if anything, he’ll hold down the fort until somebody else steps up.

Here’s another thing to consider for the shortstop position. It gets tricky, so stay with me.

No matter what the Mariners say in public, there is plenty of internal debate going on about where Franklin’s future lies. They aren’t sure whether he’s better off at shortstop or second base. Yes, I know the excuse for his Arizona Fall League time at second base was a valid one, that another team affiliated with the Peoria club had a designated “priority” player at the shorstop position who had to be played there ahead of Franklin.

But that doesn’t explain Franklin playing second base as much as he did in AAA last year. No, this Mariners team does not see Carlos Triunfel as its future shortstop. Get that one out of your head.

If the M’s view Franklin as asecond baseman, we already know Dustin Ackley is there and that Kyle Seager would probably be better at second than at third base. So, get in line.

We also know that AA shortstop Miller is highly valued by top Seattle executives for his intangibles. They see him as having a certain “it” factor that doesn’t automatically show up in stats. They see him as a leader and a winner and a gamer, much in the Seager mode. If Ihad to put money on Miller or Franklin as the starting shortstop in two or three years, it would be Miller.

That means, you either make Franklin your future second baseman or you trade him. No two ways around it.

So, if you have to cough up a top prospect in an Ethier deal, I’m thinking Franklin could go. Heck, at this stage, I wouldn’t even rule out Ackley being on the move since he’ll start to get expensive shortly via arbitration. It’ll all depends on whether you see Franklin or Ackley as the better MLB second baseman moving forward. Teams get paid the big bucks to project stuff like that before any of us can. If they make the wrong call, they get fired. If Franklin is dealt along with the money dump of Ryan, you could plug Gordon in at shortstop for the time being and wait to see what happens with Miller.

Please, for those of you trying to condense this into some 145-character Twitter blurb, I am not suggesting the Mariners trade a package of Gutierrez, Ryan, Ackley and Franklin for Ethier, Capuano and Gordon. Merely suggesting some of the things that would be on the table in any realistic talks between both sides and ways that a deal could work for the two squads.

For the Mariners, you have to look for ways to offset some of the incoming costs without decimating your farm system. And if you’re the Dodgers, you want players that make sense in a win-now mode while freeing up enough Ethier money to take a run at somebody else.

Otherwise, you’d have been better off just signing Swisher for less short-term and long-term money. As you can see, this is getting pretty complicated just for the sake of saving one draft pick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments | More in trades | Topics: Andre Ethier, Chris Capuano, Jack Zduriencik

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