With a very young team and only one large ticket player on their roster (Ace starting pitcher Felix Hernandez), the Seattle Mariners conceivably could have more money to spend on Free Agents this Winter than they have realistically ever had in their history. Buying Free Agents in the open market isn't the cost-effective way to do things, but with their young base already cost-controlled for the next several years, supplementing the in-house talent via this year's Free Agent class makes sense; if the money is spent wisely.
Relying heavily on that youth, the Mariners have improved 14 games in the Win/Loss column over the past two seasons and the club is now at a point where adding from the outside to cover the weaknesses that they have identified in this time could see a similar improvement in 2013.
With this in mind, SeattleClubhouse lead editor Rick Randall and contributing writer Josh Dobner offer their "Free Agent Wishlist" for the club. For this exercise we are going on the notion that the club does not have the option to add talent via trades, only free agency. So give it a read, and let us know your thoughts -- what would you change? Who would you target? Our lists are as follows.
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1. SP - Brandon McCarthy - 3 years/$36m
McCarthy was once a highly rated prospect in both the White Sox and Rangers organizations, but he really only came of age in his last two seasons pitching with Oakland. The 29-year-old has posted a 3.29 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, low HR/9 and the 5th best BB/9 rate among pitchers with 250 or more innings since the start of 2011 -- up with the Cliff Lee and Dan Haren (who is also a Free Agent) pantheon of starters. McCarthy has added a hint of velocity to his sinking fastball and incorporated a cutter during his time with the A's that has elevated him from being a 4/5 starter prone to the long ball to a strong number 3/fringe number 2 starter in this league with great ground ball rates.
His second season in Oakland of course ended prematurely when he was hit squarely in the head with a line drive in his start against the Angels, causing a skull fracture, epidural hemorrhage and brain contusion -- injuries that required surgery on his brain to relieve the pressure. Not your typical baseball medical procedure; not your typical medical procedure, period. McCarthy recently was given medical clearance to resume baseball activities and shouldn't be too delayed in returning to a regular pitching schedule.
After going through a traumatic, devastating injury like he did and receiving great support from the Oakland front office, fan base and his teammates, the real question is could McCarthy be swayed away from the Bay Area? My guess is that it won't be as easy as simply flashing some money at him, but that in his first real shot at free agency, being given the opportunity to choose where he plays and showing that the Mariners are a team heading in the right direction could be an enticing option for the right-hander.
2. C/1B/DH - Mike Napoli - 3 years/$33m
I recently put out several reasons on Twitter why I didn't think that Napoli was a good candidate for Seattle, but those reasons all were built around the idea that Napoli would be the only offensive FA added. Truth is that Napoli's defensive flexibility fit this club very well. The M's aren't ready to give John Jaso or Jesus Montero a full-time look at catcher for various reasons and Justin Smoak still hasn't shown the consistent ability to hit at the major league level. If Smoak ends up failing himself out of a position, Napoli can man first base better than either Jaso or Montero are currently prepared to do. And once prospect Mike Zunino is ready to take the reigns as the everyday catcher, Napoli can shift to first base full-time if need be or work in at all three positions if Smoak, Montero and Zunino all work out.
While more than 80% of Napoli's career plate appearances have come in the 6th through 8th spots in the order, he is just a career .259 hitter and he has struck out in more than one-quarter of his career plate appearances (25.4% to be precise), he is still an offensive force unlike anyone that currently exists on Seattle's roster. This type of money is what most would consider a bigger commitment than required for the type of return he would provide on the surface, but Napoli has a .513 SLG and 100 home runs over the past four years, has extensive experience playing in the AL West and he also has an 11.9% walk rate career, 13.4% each of the last two seasons. He's played in 38 games at Safeco Field (old dimensions, obviously) and has hit a respectable .269/.340/.438 in those contests.
The Mariners are one of the current rumored suitors for the 31-year-old right-handed hitter, but the only one that isn't a contender right now. Would Napoli consider joining a lesser team if it meant more playing time guaranteed? He has never had more than 510 plate appearances in a season before so he isn't suddenly going to turn into a 150-plus game option for Seattle. But he would figure to play more -- and hit higher in the lineup -- with the M's than he regularly has. Adding someone of Napoli's ability somewhere in the lineup -- be it 4th, 5th or 6th in the order -- to play five or six days a week will certainly help out the rest of the players in reaching their abilities, seeing better pitches to hit, lengthening the lineup, etc., the question comes down to whether or not the Mariners believe that Napoli is worth the dollars and years that he will command. If I'm Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners, I take that gamble, but only if I can also add...
3. RF - Cody Ross - 2 years/$16m
When the Red Sox agreed to terms with Jonny Gomes, it more or less spelled the end of the road in Boston for Ross. The corner outfielder will turn 32 in a month and only has three full seasons (501 or more plate appearances) where he has posted an OPS+ of better than league average in an MLB career that spans back to 2003. But Ross -- like Napoli -- hits left-handers well (.284/.353/.575 career) and has an extra base hit percentage of 9.7% since becoming an everyday player back in 2008 and he's also seen his walk rate increase to 9.2% over the last two seasons. Ross also doesn't figure to be a huge cost in terms of dollars or years as he is coming off of a one year three million dollar contract with the Sox.
Ross has played center field extensively in the past, but having lost a few steps the last several seasons he is best suited for right, which would enable the Mariners to upgrade at that position while relying on their in-house options for the other two outfield spots. We can dream on a healthy Franklin Gutierrez and the resurgent Michael Saunders for those spots, and the sometimes flashy Mike Carp, Casper Wells or Eric Thames and the enigmatic Carlos Peguero all remain on the 40-man roster. Add to that group an enticing accumulation of prospects that could be ultimately headed for left field including 2012 Mariners Minor League Player of the Year Stefen Romero, Arizona Fall Leaguer Vinnie Catricala and others, and one of the options is bound to stick.
Ross has handled hitting in Safeco reasonably well in his limited action (.278/.308/.472 in 10 games) and has a career OPS of .783, which would earn him a bronze statue for the Mariners the way things have gone of late. Add to that his likely relative low cost and Cody Ross could be a nice under-the-radar signing for the club. And the ability to add him on a short-term deal could work out well for the position the Mariners are currently in as an organization without tying up a spot in a declining player.
SUMMARY: This trio of free agents would net the Mariners a No. 2 starting pitcher and two right-handed, middle of the order bats. It would also allow the club to hold onto their 2013 1st round draft pick (No. 12 overall) and there isn't a long-term (five-plus years) contract to be concerned about. Adding McCarthy -- a right-handed ground ball pitcher -- should negate some of the effect on the pitching staff of moving in the fences while allowing the rest of the rotation to "slide down" a slot. It takes a lot of the heavy left-handedness out of the lineup, provides insurance at first base, at catcher and designated hitter with clear, significant upgrades to the offense in terms of power and on-base abilities and it does it all for an annual cost that shouldn't be much more than what Josh Hamilton will end up getting.
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1. CF - Angel Pagan - 3 years/$34m
The Seattle Mariners need a lead-off hitter that is conducive to the game of baseball that is required to win ballgames in a pitchers park. BJ Upton is a name that has been kicked around the Northwest in free agency this off-season. Analysts and fans alike welcome his speed, experience, and potential to be an impact player with open arms. Yet another name that hasn’t quite made its way down the grapevine, Angel Pagan.
He fits into the Mariners current line-up seamlessly, batting lead-off in 234 games played and a total of 80 games during the 2012 season. His numbers from the top of the line-up are more impressive than you may have heard. For comparison:
**tOPS+ measures players lead-off value versus total OPS (100 is equal)
His ability to replicate this production over his career in two of Major League’s least forgiving offensive stadiums (Citi Field in New York and AT&T Park in San Francisco) brings his name to the forefront. Pagan has the third highest UBR (base-running efficiency, 21.5) statistic of any ballplayer since 2010 and as is told by his .475 slugging percentage, he is much more than a singles hitter. Averaging an extra-base hit every 2.15 games from the top of the line-up and 2.02 total bases per game removes him from the longstanding small-ball centerfielder lead-off mold while still possessing the same speed; his 98 stolen bases are T-9th (Brett Gardner) since 2010. His combination of speed, gap-power, and understanding of the base-paths makes him invaluable in a stadium like Safeco Field.
While reports have placed Upton kicking the tires on $15 million annually, Pagan is expected to earn $10-11.25 million annually, his presence providing Seattle the payroll flexibility of an additional $3.75-$5 million in annual salary. Given their current spate of losing seasons and lack of production from high profile free agency additions over the past decade it can be expected Seattle looks to stay under 4 years in negotiations with any available player where applicable. This doesn’t appear to be a contention point for Pagan. His skill-set provides the ability to produce in an environment that was not conducive to multiple All-Star bats, a trend that will only make him more valuable as he continues to find success.
2. SP - Shawn Marcum - 2 years/$14m
Marcum made the transition to full-time Major League starter towards the end of his second full-season (2007) at 25-years of age. He finished the season with a 4.13 ERA over 38 games (25 starts). Marcum was one of the league’s best through 25 starts in 2008 (3.39 ERA) before requiring Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm. He would miss the entire 2009 season before returning strong in 2010, throwing 195.1 innings with a career low 1.147 WHIP (walks/hits per inning) in a strong American League East division. Marcum was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2010 season for young slugger Brett Lawrie, this gives you an idea of his value when healthy. He was strong for Milwaukee in 33 starts (3.54 ERA) as the Brewers finished 96-66 in 2011 advancing to the NLCS for the first time since 1982.
Marcum was tripped up in 2012 with elbow tightness, throwing 124 innings, a far cry from his total the past two seasons. Although he struggled to find his grip in September he completed his fourth consecutive sub-4.00 ERA season, turning in a 3.70 ERA.
Despite throwing in two of the top hitter friendly divisions in Major League baseball he has a 1.224 WHIP dating back to 2007. This ties him at 14th best in baseball with pitcher and fellow free agent Tim Hudson. His career 2.65 SO/BB (strikeout to walk) ratio becomes more impressive when measured against 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings; a number that grew to 7.9 in 2012.
His ability to stay healthy in 2010 and 2011 following Tommy John surgery speaks volumes over the 70-80 innings he missed in 2012. Due to concerns of re-aggravating old injuries it is likely that his services will garner a 1-year incentive laden contract offer from most interested parties. Marcum will likely jump at the chance to spend two guaranteed seasons on this contract building back up his reputation as a borderline front of the rotation starter.
These injury concerns could be Seattle’s opportunity to acquire a proven Major League starter at an average Major League salary. Without the looming cloud of a long-term guaranteed salary it is possible that the Mariners could treat Marcum as a mid-risk, high-reward player in dealing him after the 2013 season – given his performance.
SUMMARY: Going short term with these two deals allows the Mariners and Jack Zduriencik to stick with the plan of building a long term, consistent winner on the field by remaining invested in their young core. It also allows Dustin Ackley to feel less pressure by moving him out of the leadoff spot in favor of a more experienced leadoff hitter. Signing Marcum for two years allows him to be that bridge to the Taijuan Walker era in Seattle. But both moves also allow the players that are here to perform with less pressure on them and in situations, positions, batting order slots and pitching rotation slots that better mesh with their true abilities.
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So how does this compare to your hopes or plans for the Mariners in this Free Agency period? Too conservative? Too risky? Let us know how you would add to this club in the forums.
Looking for more Mariners prospect player interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse Contributing Writer Josh Dobner on Twitter at @JPDobner and site Editor Rick Randall at @randallball.