The General Manager Meetings got underway this week in Orlando and Kendrys Morales and other free agents who were given qualifying offers have officially rejected those offers, so the speculation season is now fully upon us. I don't much like the speculation season, but, well -- I keep getting asked for my take. So here it is.
But first, here are a few disclosures. This isn't an, "I think that the Mariners are going to do this" post. I haven't explored the likelihood of any of these trade scenarios with any of my contacts beyond the general rumor mill. I don't know how much player payroll the ownership group has given a green light for, I haven't spoken with any of the free agent players or their agents to try and gauge their interest in playing in Seattle. So, as such, this isn't exactly based in reality. This is simply an exercise that many have asked me about completing over the past several years that I'm finally playing along with: What would I do to make the Mariners into a competitive team once again?
Some of these moves could happen. In fact, I think that some of these moves will happen. But I'd venture a guess that there is a 100% chance that not all of them will happen. Baseball just isn't as easy as someone sitting down at their computer and putting together trades, figuring out what exact dollar figure it will take to sign free agents and crafting up a 25-man roster that will actually work and function throughout a season, not just accumulate a lot of WAR. This is a massively aggressive plan of action that would not only require the front office to loosen the purse strings significantly, but also require several other teams' GM's be willing to play ball on trades.
That being said, I could see the Mariners being interested in making these moves. I could see the teams who I have trading players to the Mariners be interested in moving said players and getting the players I listed below back in return. And following more than a decade of struggles and with the fruits of the recent history of strong drafts finally pitting the franchise in a position of strength, with a core of in-house, quality young players already at the MLB level, this is the type of "all-in" off-season that the Seattle Mariners need to move the team in the right direction and from "rebuilding" to "contender". Without further ado, The Plan:
• Sign CF Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7-year/$147m contract.
Yeah, that is crazy money. Especially for a leadoff hitter who relies heavily on his speed for his success and has had his share of injuries. It is very close to the last contract that a relatively young, speedy, free agent outfielder who was a Boras client signed (Carl Crawford), and that hasn't exactly played out very well so far in LA. But in case you haven't noticed, just about every free agent signing is done for crazy money these days. If you want to play with the big boys you have to get out of the sandbox, right? Ellsbury would represent a huge upgrade defensively in center field and offensively -- in general and specifically in the leadoff role. Ellsbury has only had four fully healthy seasons in his career, but those four seasons have produced and average output of .301/.356/.447 with 53 steals and fWAR totals of 4.1, 2.1, 9.1 and 5.8. Even if you knock the 2011 season out and just count that power output (32 homers) as an unrepeatable aberration, Ellsbury's numbers are still .293/.349/.412 with an average of 4.0 fWAR in the three remaining seasons. And since he broke into the league in 2008, only three full-time center fielders -- Carlos Gomez, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Bourn -- have accumulated more value on defense. You'd like to see this kind of money reserved for a middle of the order bat that plays a premium defensive position, but the fact of the matter is that center fielders like Ellsbury don't come around on the free agent market very often. And a team like Seattle needs to add talent, period. Regardless of the position that talent plays. Add in his (admittedly flimsy) Northwest ties and it seems like Seattle could just be a perfect fit for Jacoby.
• Re-sign DH/1B Kendrys Morales to a 3-year/$34m contract.
Again, too much money for the player, right? Of course it is. But Morales proved that he could provide steady, if unspectacular, offense in the middle of the order for Seattle a season ago. He hit left-handers better than he ever had before and better than almost anyone else on the Mariners' roster. Seattle ranked last in hitting against lefties in 2013, but just imagine where they would have been if Morales didn't contribute a .282/.353/.440 line against them. He even played decently in 31 starts at first base, including 15 in a span of 18 games in which he hit .338/.346/.525 while Justin Smoak was banged up with an oblique strain. Being able to serve as a run producer as a switch hitter is a huge benefit to any team, but especially to a team like Seattle that has been so starved for offense from either side of the plate over the last several seasons. I already covered why I think Morales' market won't be too hot and why I think his return to Seattle could be perfect, and if a few of these other moves work out then he could find even more success with a better supporting cast around him. Another Boras client, Seattle could potentially sway the image of the club in the eyes of the agency for others (i.e., Ellsbury) if they make a serious offer early for Morales. And again, he was here last year and can provide a familiar veteran presence for the younger players to lean on.
• Sign 1B/DH/OF Corey Hart to a 2-year/$16m contract
Hart missed all of 2013 following microfracture and meniscus surgery on his right knee, but he transitioned to first base in 2012 and actually played decently there. He's 6-foot-6 and that certainly can help over at first base, but playing there and not in the outfield could also help the reality of coming back from the type of injury that can really derail careers. A 2000 draftee of Zduriencik back in his Scouting Director days for the Brewers, Hart's average season was .277/.335/.495 with 24 homers in 139 games for Milwaukee between 2007 and 2012. More important to the construction of this roster, he has a lifetime .896 OPS against left-handed pitching, the 33rd best number among all qualified hitter in MLB over that time. Signing both Morales and Hart -- though neither elite fielders at first base -- should help both players stay healthy by letting Seattle and Lloyd McClendon limit any long stretches of games either player is on the field defensively with two capable options to choose from day in and day out. Seattle took a similar risk on another tall, right-handed hitting ex-Brewers first baseman coming off of a serious injury when they signed Richie Sexson back in 2005, and that actually worked out pretty well for the first two seasons. Hart's ties to Zduriencik and the opportunity to have a starting spot (and the ability to DH some) without a ton of competition could be draws in Seattle.
• Sign RHP Joe Smith to a 3-year/$12m contract
Smith's name seems perfect given his relative anonymity to most baseball fans, but the sidearmer has quietly strung together three straight seasons of 60-plus innings with ERAs in the 2s for the Indians. He made $3,150,000 in his last arbitration season in 2013 and was said to be interested in returning to Cleveland at the end of the year, but the club didn't seem comfortable with a 3-year offer. Honestly, no one should really be comfortable with 3-year deals for relievers, but Smith -- even coming off of a season that saw some of his peripheral stats decline -- seems like a pretty safe bet to continue his success. In his seven year big league career the former 3rd round pick has averaged 63 appearances while posting a 2.97 ERA and 1.26 WHIP and inducing ground balls at a rate of 57.2%. Right-handed hitters have a career mark of .218/.298/.307 against Smith and have managed just a 1.5% HR in 1,062 career plate appearances versus his fastball/slider combination. Smith could immediately step into a high leverage role with Seattle, and the veteran would be a welcome addition to their young bullpen.
• Sign C Chris Snyder to a minor league contract with a ST invite
Mike Zunino is the starting catcher for this team, there is little room for debate there. But he could definitely still benefit from having a veteran back-up that has a good defensive profile and can hit a little bit. Ideally that back-up would be left-handed, but the reality of the market is that beggars can't be choosers here. What is more important, the left-handedness or the defensive abilities? I'd say, clearly, that defense and an ability to continue to groom Zunino in "the right way" of playing defense behind the dish and leading a team are the things that should be at the forefront of the M's wishlist when choosing their second catcher. And Snyder fits that bill nicely.
• Sign IF Ryan Roberts to a minor league contract with a ST invite
Roberts cleared waivers and was outrighted in August and a few weeks ago he elected free agency after spending the last year and a half with Tampa Bay. He is just a .245/.321/.392 career hitter but he has made 195 of his 367 career starts at third base, has a little bit of pop (19 HR in 2011) and a little speed (28 steals in 2011-2012). The Mariners bench was incredibly thin in terms of speed, athleticism and infield back-ups in 2013, and because of that, Kyle Seager really wilted down the stretch. Roberts could afford the club to rest (or DH) Seager a bit more and offer new manager Lloyd McClendon a few more opportunities to run for the slower players on the roster with a defensively flexible player.
• Trade 1B Justin Smoak and OF Michael Saunders to the Baltimore Orioles for Bud Norris and Brian Matusz
The Mariners aren't likely to bring Oliver Perez -- who really struggled in the second half last year – back and they're likely to want a second left-handed reliever to pair with Charlie Furbush. They also will need another veteran option in the rotation to slot between Felix and Iwakuma and in front of rookies Paxton and Walker. The Orioles haven't been able to find an everyday first baseman (sounds as though the preference is to have Chris Davis primarily DH) or an answer in left field. Smoak made some strides in the first half in 2013 but he slugged just .392 in the second half and, again, ended up with very pedestrian numbers for a first baseman. Eric Wedge may have been his biggest supporter, and with him gone, it seems reasonable that the club could be interested in moving on from the prize of the Cliff Lee trade before his 27-year-old season. Saunders had a bit of a decline in his overall numbers following his breakout in 2012, but he hit .251/.350/.440 in the second half. He, too, will be entering his age 27 season in 2014, though, and the Mariners seem intent on improving every spot in their 2014 outfield. Norris struggled a bit in Baltimore after being picked up at the deadline and was eventually removed from the O's rotation. He still posted strong strikeout numbers, though, and won't turn 29 until March. The last three seasons he's averaged 177 innings while posting an 8.3 SO/9 rate. Norris isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season, so he gives Seattle another cheap, cost controlled option for the rotation, but one with experience. Matusz had incredible struggles when being yanked around between starting and the bullpen for Baltimore before making a big step forward last year working strictly in relief.
• Trade Erasmo Ramirez, Carter Capps and Tyler Pike to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Mark Trumbo
Even though Trumbo is said to be on the market and the Angels are obviously looking for pitching, I'm not sure that this offer is enough for this deal. It may come down to whether or not LA can make a package around Trumbo that lands them David Price or not. If not, maybe Seattle can play into their strong desires to upgrade the pitching and a very weak farm system with three enticing young arms that could upgrade both. There are teams that could beat this offer, for sure, but the question of value again comes up, and Trumbo may be seen as a more desirable target in Seattle because of the extended dearth of offense the M's have been living with. Trumbo comes with strikeouts, for sure, and he will never be a plus defender anywhere, but only Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre and Jay Bruce have out-homered him since the start of 2011 and he's clearly an above-average offensive contributor. Ramirez seems to constantly be battling injuries, but he's shown an incredible amount of fight and good stuff and command when healthy for an undersized righty. He's also pitched very well in three starts against the Angels. Capps has pitched more against the Angels than any team in his brief career and has shown flashes of what he can become in those outings (23 Ks, 16 H, 0 HR allowed in 17 IP). His power arm could help towards the back end for them if they can unlock the key to him keeping the ball in the yard. Pike is one of the top pitching prospects Seattle has. He's a very polished, athletic left-hander with a fastball that sits 90-91, great command and a bulldog mentality likely to jump to Double-A in 2014 who could end up being the best player in the deal in a few years.
• Trade Brandon Maurer, Stefen Romero and Tom Wilhelmsen to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Andre Ethier
As I wrote last week, Ethier seems like the most likely player to be labeled as the odd man out in the Dodgers' outfield. His contract reduces his value in a trade, as do his struggles against left-handed pitching, and it is reasonable to believe that Seattle could offer some young, cost-controlled types with upside to get a deal done with the Dodgers. As one of a few teams that wouldn't be too averse to carrying the latter years of Ethier's big dollar contract and a still strong farm system, Seattle could be in position to make the best offer for Ethier's services. Maurer struggled in 2013 during his jump from Double-A and needs work against left-handers, but his stuff really played up in the bullpen and he also showed an improved approach in his late starts. Romero's star has faded considerably after his monster 2012, but he popped two opposite field home runs in the Fall Stars game and does come with some positional flexibility that might appeal to the Dodgers as an alternative to Juan Uribe. Wilhelmsen is a classic "change of scenery" candidate that has shown flashes of being a dominant late-inning reliever.
That is an awful lot to digest and keep track of, so let me show you the results. Below is the projected roster following the moves, each player followed by their projected fWAR based on 2014 Steamer Projections courtesy of FanGraphs.
(L) Jacoby Ellsbury-CF (4.2)
(L) Brad Miller-SS (3.2)
(B) Kendrys Morales-DH (1.6)
(R) Mark Trumbo-RF (2.0)
(L) Kyle Seager-3B (2.9)
(L) Andre Ethier-LF (2.3)
(R) Corey Hart-1B (1.7)
(R) Mike Zunino-C (2.1)
(B) Nick Franklin-2B (1.6)
(R) Danny Farquhar (0.7)
(R) Stephen Pryor (0.3)
(L) Charlie Furbush (0.3)
(R) Joe Smith (0.1)
(R) Yoervis Medina (0.2)
(L) Brian Matusz (0.2)
(R) Logan Bawcom/Carson Smith/Dominic Leone (0.0)
There it is. That club projects out to 38.7 fWAR, which would place them 11th on this list. That represents a jump of 11 spots from where they currently rank, and that ranking is already factoring in Morales. It is also a team that makes sense on paper in terms of playing time, defensive replacements, pinch hitters and runners, resting players, pitching match-ups, etc. Is it a perfect team? Absolutely not. You're asking quite a bit defensively of Ellsbury in center, praying that Hart fully bounces back and can play 120+ games, Miller, Franklin and Zunino take big jumps forward and Ethier and Trumbo can handle everyday positions that they haven't played in everyday capacities. And, again; there is very little chance that this involved of a plan can be executed. It is also asking quite a bit of Jack Z and ownership. Those are trades that would be difficult to pull off. And it is also adding about $50m in payroll and making at least one uncomfortably long commitment in free agency. But that jump in payroll would still have the Mariners under $100m as a team, and the product would be so, so, so much better. And it is fun to dream on and give a few scenarios where a handful of moves can make a massive difference in the product on the field.
So what is your ideal Mariners offseason? Chime in in the forums and feel free to use creative license!
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