The Mariners are entering the 2016 offseason with quite a bit of uncertainty. Uncertainty seems better than the near-certainty that the previous front office would place an enormous and unnecessary premium on power, and no emphasis on defense or surplus value, but it is still uncertainty.
The team has players on the roster which seem to run counter to the present front office’s philosophy. Nelson Cruz is the biggest example of this, a guy who can’t effectively play the outfield, but hits the hell out of the baseball. Cruz has an amazing year at the plate next year, but figures to regress back to something like his career peripherals. That’s still a very useful designated hitter, but Cruz should be a designated hitter for every non-interleague plate appearance he accumulates between now and when his career with the Mariners is over.
At a point during the season I started writing about blowing the Mariners up completely. I don’t know if I’ve been overcome with optimism as a result of the front office, or that I’ve somehow allowed myself to think that the Mariners can be good earlier than I thought in the middle of the season, but I’m there. The Mariners may be better off blowing up the roster and starting over. They probably won’t, and I’m probably not going to write that they should. That’s an option, but not the option that I find most favorable today. That might change. It’s already changed once. This is a primer, and at some point this week I’m going to write about how I would make the Mariners a playoff contender if I was given that privilege of being the general manager, which I haven’t been and won’t be. But read this anyways. Please. Do it.
Felix Hernandez, $25.9 million
Robinson Cano, $24.0 million
Nelson Cruz, $14.3 million
Seth Smith, $6.8 million
Kyle Seager, $8.0 million
These are the players who are already under contract, as indicated by the bolded and underlined “Under Contract.”
Felix Hernandez is Felix Hernandez. You already know that. But he’s been healthy and great for so long, that it’s easy to take him for granted. There is some concern after a couple of nagging injuries appeared to hurt his performance at the end of 2016 that he could be ending his streak of health. That’s the nature of athletes. Most of them aren’t healthy. And the ones that are healthy only remain healthy until they aren’t healthy. Felix Hernandez’s past health doesn’t guarantee his future health, and his past health doesn’t guarantee that he won’t absolutely collapse health-wise, but we hope that won’t happen.
Robinson Cano’s 2015 was largely misinterpreted. He started the year struggling considerably, but for the last three months of the season he basically equaled his career averages, and outpaced his park-adjusted numbers. His start was awful, so his 2015 looks like a disappointment, but he nearly –matched his 2014, and apparent illness, injuries, and personal issues allow for a logical assertion that his woes early in 2015 could have been a result of conditions that he won’t face in 2016.
Nelson Cruz did a good job of converting non-believers in 2015. He was one of the best hitters on the planet, and even conned some non-stat-minded folks into believing he could play the outfield. He can’t. He’s awful out there. He’s also probably not going to continue having great fly-ball luck in his homeruns. Cruz also had a .350 BABIP, which figures to regress, as his career average is .306. He also struck out at a higher rate in 2015 than he has for his career, but so did the rest of major league baseball, it seems. Nelson Cruz is a better hitter, or at least he was in 2015, than I expected he ever would be. At DH, he’s should still be good for this team through 2016, and perhaps through the entirety of his contract.
Each year it seems like we keep saying that Kyle Seager has reached his ceiling, and each year Seager demolishes that ceiling, and remodels his entire house. Seager has averaged more than four WAR the last four seasons, and Seager is under contract for the next seven seasons. With the approximate $8 million cost of a win in free agency now, the Mariners could be looking at more than $100 million in surplus value over the course of Seager’s contract if he’s worth 25 WAR over those seven seasons.
The way the new front office views Seth Smith will define a lot of how they view many players. They’ve already trade Brad Miller, a guy whose reputation wasn’t stellar, but whose contributions outpaced his reputation by a wide margin. Smith is a guy who has been worth more than two wins in each of the last two seasons despite being in basically a platoon role. He’s an average-or-better defender in the outfield, and a better-than-average hitter. This player isn’t going to cause a rise in population with every swing of the bat, but he’s a platoon-starter in most MLB outfields. If the Mariners are able to platoon Smith in 2016, it’s because they’ve added quality defenders who can handle the bat, which would be remarkably good news.
Mark Trumbo, $9.1 million
Charlie Furbush, $1.7 million
Tom Wilhelmsen, $3.0 million
For while I’ve contemplated the idea of whether or not the Mariners should non-tender Mark Trumbo. They have the opportunity to get out from under what would be about $9.1 million in salary. The problem with that is that the team would have to replace Trumbo, which would either cost something, or would mean using Jesus Montero at first base. Trading Logan Morrison may allow the Mariners to be flexible enough to leave Montero in a part-time role, but having a 1B/DH-only on the bench isn’t great for roster contruction. Trumbo wasn’t impressive with the Mariners last year after being traded for the Diamonbacks, and there aren’t an ton of indicators that he was remarkably unlucky. He’s never been able to regain the raw power he had in Anaheim, and maybe only improved health can be pointed to for optimism. This year’s free agent class includes Chris Davis, who will be very expensive, and a bunch of guys who will probably cost more than Trumbo, with no guarantee that they’ll be better.
Keeping Charlie Furbush would have been a no-brainer prior to his partial rotator cuff tear. It appears Furbush has recovered, and there is no reason to think that the Mariners won’t take the opportunity to have a bargain, as Furbush has been one of the best setup men in baseball for the last few years.
Tom Wilhelmsen comes with a bit more emotional charge from the fans. At one time it seemed like Wilhelmsen would be the closer for the next several years. Then he forgot how to throw strikes, and at one point it seemed like the Mariners would consider converting him into a starting pitcher. Then he became a middle-reliever, and for some reason the team put him back in the closer role, despite Carson Smith being clearly a better pitcher at this point. Wilhelmsen’s hold on the closer role is unknown, but he’s shown the ability to be a quality reliever. I imagine the Mariners will listen to offers for Wilhelmsen, though less teams than ever are willing to overpay for closers.
Three outfielders who can play defense
A backup infielder who can play good defense at multiple positions, including shortstop
Two starting pitchers
General bullpen depth
Three outfielders who can play defense
Boog Powell, James Jones, Shawn O’Malley, Daniel Robertson, Ramon Flores
The Mariners farm system, and really every farm system, is littered with many of these kinds of players. Each has their virtues, each has substantial limiting traits. None of these guys are great hitters, and none of them figure to be even a good center fielder. Powell may be the best fielder of the bunch. He may also be the best hitter of the bunch. The rest of these guys have warts. Warts abound. This group of prospects sounds very gross.
High-cost free agent candidates:
Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon
The Mariners probably don’t have enough budget room to sign a big-time free agent, and if you believe that the team is a couple years away from inning, you shouldn’t be rooting for them to sign anyone, or at least not anyone not named Jason Heyward. Everyone on this list figures to cost more than $100 million on their next contract. Justin Upton is only 28 years old, but he’s trending downward defensively, and has had at least reported work ethic and attitude issues. Heyward could cost $200 million or more, and he might still have surplus value, as he’s only entering his age 26 season. If the Mariners aren’t going to compete for a year or two, though, his surplus value would almost certainly be eaten up by years where his contributions weren’t as valuable to the Mariners.
Lower-cost free agent candidates:
Colby Rasmus, Alejandro De Aza, Denard Span, Will Venable
These kinds of list usually reveal the biases of an author, and often times a front office. I like Colby Rasmus, even though he shares some reputation with Justin Upton. He’s left-handed, he can handle center field without being an embarrassment, and he hit for a lot of power in a platoon role in Houston. Will Venable shares some of the traits that Rasmus has, and figures to be less expensive, though he’s older. Both guys could be looking at a one year deal to build their cases for a future contract, and both could be open to a multi-year deal that offers the Mariners some surplus value. Span has been injury prone, and he’ll be 32 years old next year, but he’s a quality center fielder, something that the Mariners don’t have right now.
Franklin Gutierrez candidates:
At a point it seemed like Franklin Gutierrez continuing his career in Seattle, perhaps indefinitely as a part-time outfielder, was inevitable. Then Gutierrez went ballistic at the plate for the majority of the time he was playing part-time, good for a 167 wRC+. There will be speculation that Guti would be willing to give the Mariners a discount for their loyalty, but the front office that has been loyal is no longer in Seattle. Gutierrez hasn’t been featured on top free agents lists, though, likely a product of his health limitations. He’s the kidn of guy that could be a good contributor for the 2016 Mariners, and if he’s inclined to give them a discount, or no market for him takes form, it seems like a no-brainer.
A backup infielder who can play good defense at multiple postions, including shortstop
Chris Taylor, Shawn O’Malley, Ketel Marte
It seemed that by trading Brad Miller the Mariners were saying that Ketel Marte was their shortstop of the future. There are some questions about whether he can handle the position long-term. If the Mariners signed a guy like Ian Desmond, they may opt to let Marte spend a year in a utility role. This seems unlikely, and even if they did sign a Desmond-type, they’d probably opt for Marte to spend time actually playing full time at shortstop in Tacoma. Chris Taylor is a much better defender than Shawn O’Malley, and he may have the skills to be a quality outfielder. O’Malley was a better hitter than Taylor in 2015, with an inexplicable 21.1 percent walk rate. Don’t expect that rate to continue. O’Malley’s main value is as a super-utility guy who can also handle corner outfield spots. Taylor is best suited for this role.
Ben Zobrist, Stephen Drew, Asdrubal Cabrera
This probably isn’t a position the Mariners want to spend a lot of money on. Having a guy who is left-handed also isn’t a priority, as Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano are both left-handed, and the Mariners are likely to hand a lot of their time at shortstop to Ketel Marte, who switch hits. Ben Zobrist is a switch hitter who hits better from the right side. He’s finally garnering the kind of appreciation he deserves, and a team could be looking for him to be their starting outfielder in either left or right, or their starting second baseman. Stephen Drew and Asdrubal Cabrera could be looking for short-term deals, but both may be too expensive. Neither is a great defender at shortstop, and Zobrist hasn’t played significant time there in recent years.
Two starting pitchers
James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery
The Mariners already traded for Nate Karns, who figures to take over one of the rotation spots, and combined with Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, the Mariners have three of their five rotation spots open. The team has a solid, if unspectacular group of candidates to fill the other two spots. Elias and Montgomery are pretty much exactly what teams should be looking for out of fifth starters. Decent control, potential to grow, and cost-controlled. Paxton is a holdover from when the Mariners had a “Big Three” or “Big Four” set of starting pitching prospects. He hasn’t been able to get over the walk issues that plagued him early in his career, and has been injury prone. Paxton is probably the most talented of this group, but with his injuries, he’s got about as much chance of being a valuable contributor as Montgomery or Elias.
Expensive external candidates:
Zack Greinke, David Price
As previously stated, the Mariners probably don’t have the budget or the urgency to spend huge on a free agent, especially one over the age of 30. Greinke and price are both great, but neither is realistic for the Mariners.
Less expensive external candidates:
Hisashi Iwakuma, Scott Kazmir, Doug Fister, Jeff Samardzija
None of these guys are cheap. There are probably going to be a ton of options for the Mariners and other teams to bring in as non-roster invitees, and the probability of them succeeding is so low that it’s not worth discussing. Each of these listed players may sign a short-term, mid-salary contract of some kind. Hisashi Iwakuma has already signed a Mariners-friendly extension with the Mariners. If they can get him on a three year at a reasonable price, they’d be happy. They’re also a team that can actually provide a good platform for a pitcher coming off of a bad season. Kazmir, Fister, and Samardzija have some questions to answer if they want to really cash in, and each could opt for a one year deal with the opportunity to pitching a pitcher-friendly ballpark. It’s worth pointing out that neither Kazmir or Fister have qualifying offers attached to them, and that Iwakuma has an offer from the Mariners, meaning they’d be forgoing potential compensation by re-signing him.
Mike Zunino, John Hicks, Jesus Sucre, Steven Baron
These are the same old guys from last year. The Mariners have an issue at catcher for which they don’t have a great internal candidate. The team sent Mike Zunino down last year, and maybe they think that he’s received the seasoning necessary to return. If they don’t think that Zunino is ready, there really isn’t a starting-caliber playing in the organization at present.
Alex Avila, Chris Iannetta
As bare as the cupboard is, the market is also very bare. Matt Wieters is also a free agent, but it seems like his market will be driven up by the scarcity of quality catchers. Avila is left-handed, making him a nearly-ideal candidate for a platoon. Avila has been good against right-handed pitching over the course of his career, though he hasn’t been very good at the plate in recent years against either-handed pitcher. He’s also not considered an average pitch-framer, which the present front office hopefully considers as part of their valuation.
Houston Astros candidates:
Hank Conger, Max Stassi, Jason Castro
At one point it seemed like Jason Castro was not a good baseball player anymore, and that the Astros had bought in hard on pitch framing metrics that loved Hank Conger. They still may feel that way, but Castro has become a good baseball player again. Castro hasn’t been a good hitter for the last two years. He’s entering his age 29 season, and he’ll be a free agent after 2016. He’s projected to make $4.6 million in his last year of arbitration. Castro has been a better than league average hitter against righties in his career, and plays good defense, which is good enough to be the Mariners primary starter. What he’ll cost in a trade is unclear. The Astros certainly know his value, but he’s not a sexy player whose value would be inflated by non-analytical teams.
John Jaso candidates:
John Jaso the god
I love John Jaso more than most, maybe all, but I am not the only one. He was never a good catcher, and concussions may mean that he can’t play catcher at all anymore. He’s not a guy you want as your primary catcher at this point, but he played a little bit of outfield last year, and could probably handle first base. He’d be a good DH to have on a roster, but the Mariners have Nelson Cruz for that. If the team thinks they can give him the Scott Hatteberg treatment, and get his bat in the lineup somehow, he may be worth a look, because he’s a quality hitter, who probably won’t command a high price. And I love him.
General bullpen help
Bullpen arms are created from many sources. The Mariners may be able to convert their minor league starters, convert failed or recently-injured big league starters, or sign low-cost relievers. We can only hope that this front office isn’t enamored with a high-priced reliever the way the last front office was.