The Seattle Mariners — Everything To Gain, Everything To Lose

Originally published December 1st, 2012

The Seattle Mariners are entering this week’s Winter Meetings with everything to gain, and everything to lose.  The Mariners 11 years without a playoff appearance has decimated fan attendance at Safeco Field, and it will be up to Jack Zduriencik to energize a fanbase this offseason.  Expectations were high last year when there was a quiet promise of hope for players like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, or even aging veterans like Carlos Beltran signing with the Mariners, but that promise was temporary as the Mariners chose to go into 2012 without any major additions.  Midseason struggles found the team in last place for much of 2012, and even Felix Hernandez starts were lucky to reach 50% capacity.  Offseason expectations are even higher this year as fan patience is at an all time low while casual fan apathy is at an all-time high.

The Mariners have a solid pitching staff that was bolstered when the team resigned Hisashi Iwakuma in early November, and there are high hopes that the team’s young arms are ready to take the next step at Spring Training.  The biggest issue for the Mariners has been at the plate — Kyle Seager led the teams with 20 HR in 2011 and was 4th on the team in Batting Average.  But Seager, who was a team leader in batting at the All Star break, saw a production decline in the second half of the season that took his average down to .259.  For as down as some fans were on Jesus Montero (I was NOT down on Montero), he still managed to finish 3rd in Mariners average and played 135 games as a rookie.  The fact that a rookie Catcher had the 3rd highest Batting Average in 2011 speaks to 1) his potential in the future and 2) the ineptitude of much of the Mariners offense.  So where do the Mariners go from here?   It’s easy to say that Jack Z needs to go out and sign the next free agent he can, but is the team too late?

Are the Mariners too late?  I think the short answer is yes.  The team’s biggest chance to grow at the plate is either in the OF or at DH, and the early offseason signings have verged on ludicrous:

  • Torii Hunter — $26 million over 2 years.  A .316 Batting Average and 16 Home Runs is solid production for a veteran corner outfielder, but Hunter is also 37 years old.  While his Slugging Percentage is up from 2010, Hunter’s .451 is still his lowest output in 10 years.  His .313 BA is a nice pickup for Detroit, but it’s also a career high.  I think Hunter will be a great fit for a team like Detroit and their lineup, but he’s not the kind of player that would lead the team in power, which is what the M’s need.
  • BJ Upton — $75 million over 5 years.  What in the world is Atlanta doing?!  Was there a GM in baseball that saw this signing and said “Good pickup”?  At $15 million a year, Atlanta shifted the salary range for the rest of the Free Agent field while making trading look a lot more affordable.  I know there was a lot of local sports radio chatter about Upton’s upside, but I’ve never been a fan.  Understand that Upton hit only .246 with 28 HR in a dome.  17 of his 28 HR were hit at home in Tropicana, and his batting average drops to .238 on the road.
  • Melky Cabrera — At $16 million for 2 years, Cabrera is an “affordable” risk.  Toronto made a move to sign Cabrera early, and mixed with their other trades, Toronto could be an interesting team to watch in 2013.  That said, Cabrera was caught using PEDs in the best season of his career.  His second best season for power was the year before in Kansas City, which begs the question, was he using then too?  Take out the last 2 years and Cabrera is a .270-ish hitter that maxes at less than 10 HR a year.  That’s hardly a step forward for the Mariners.

So where do the Mariners go from here?  It’s certainly not Nick Swisher.  When the Braves signed Upton, they closed the books on Swisher to the Mariners.  Nick Swisher has a better BA, OBP, HR average and RBI production than BJ Upton.  Yes, Upton has speed and is 4 years younger than Swish, but I just don’t see a way that Swisher takes less than $12-14 million a year for 3 years.  If not Swisher then who?  Shane Victorino?  Victorino is a gutty player (who I saw hit an inside the park HR playing with the Phillies,) but he’s not a power or BA threat.  I love Victorino’s attitude, but I don’t love his BA, his RBI, or his 12-18 average HR a year at best.  Quite honestly, we have that already.  Victorino is not a heart of the order guy.  And what about Josh Hamilton?  He brings first half power, but has a history of breaking down and slumping late in the season.  I’d also question if he’s the clubhouse leader this team needs.  Is he worth the price?  Do you pay Hamilton $20 million a year over 4-5 years?  (Which is less than he wants btw.)  At what Hamilton will demand, he seems like a worse risk than if we’d paid Fielder.

So are the Mariners “too late”?  If you’re talking Free Agents hitters, yes.  But I’ve contended all year that the Mariners best shot at adding power to the team is going to come thru trades.  The Mariners best value is going to be in trading prospects for players that are already under (a lower than today’s value) contract, and that will produce at or better than the players that were on the market.  Zduriencik was clear that he didn’t feel there were players worth the investment during last year’s offseason.  Fielder was an obvious exception, but at what the Tigers paid him, I don’t disparage the M’s at all for not signing him.  I would say the same thing for this year’s Free Agent class.  There isn’t a top-tier guy this offseason outside of Hamilton, so why pay them like it?

The Mariners have a better chance of being successful in 2013 by trading for hitters and signing pitchers.  Joe Blanton, Dan Haren, and Zach Grienke are all available.  Grienke will be the hottest of the 3, so you take him off the list.  Haren has past success in the AL, so you figure he’s going to get paid too.  That leaves Joe Blanton.  While Blanton’s ERA has ballooned over 4.50, he pitches close to 200 innings a year and has struck out 160+ 2 of the last 3 years.  I think Blanton is a guy you can get at a good price to fill a #4/5 rotation slot.

But what about hitters?  I know, I know.  That’s still the hard part.  The Mariners have to do something just to avoid a fan mutiny.  The fences coming in are going to impact the hitters — They don’t come in a lot, but just the fact that they’re moving in will almost certainly affect player psyche.  I’ll be honest, I like our team.  I think there’s some strong upside here, but I also agree they’re missing a component for the clubhouse maybe even more-so than a bat.  Billy Butler is a strong candidate, but he’s a .300 hitter that will average around 20-24 bombs.  I’d argue we already have that at 3B with Kyle Seager.  The M’s need to look at DH and OF.  So where should they go?

  • Giancarlo Stanton — Is there a bigger offseason wet-dream than the M’s trading for Stanton?  His .290 average and 37 HR would be the best case scenario for the Mariners.  Could the dream become reality?  Absolutely.  The Marlins strip-minded their team in the offseason.  They’ve gutted the heart of the order and unloaded payroll while the team goes down in flames.  Stanton is understandably upset, which leads to discontent and poor production.  Stanton won’t dog it on the field, but mentally don’t the trades and complete collapse in Miami make it almost impossible for Stanton to stay in Miami?  Unlike other suitors, the Mariners have a cache of young arms that would be enticing to a team like Miami, and an ownership that clearly has zero regard for their fans.  The other thing to consider is that Stanton is arbitration eligible in 2014.  So could it happen?  Why couldn’t it?
  • Adam Dunn — Stop laughing.  I know Adam Dunn is Richie Sexson redux.  He’ll strikeout a million times, but he’ll also hit 40HR.  The sad thing is that he isn’t as good of a player as Richie was.  How would the Mariners like a player that hit .260 and averaged 34+ HR a year right now?  That was Richie Sexson in his first two years as a Mariner.  Revisionist history will tell you otherwise, but I still support signing Sexson and Beltre, I thought they were good moves at the time.  But back to Dunn, he’s $14 million a year thru 2014, so he wouldn’t be a huge risk for the potential power reward.  (I wonder where the money would be on a Dunn/Montero foot race?)
  • Jason Kubel — I wanted Kubel last year.  He’ll hit around .250 with 30 HR.  He’d make a great platoon at DH or the OF.  The problem is that Kubel’s contract is up in 2013 and he only makes $8 million, so the odds of trading for Kubel seem pretty low; Kubel would have more value for Arizona if they hold onto him until the deadline and evaluate where they are in a playoff race.
  • Matt Holliday — Holliday is a poor outfielder, but he does hit close to .300 with 25+ HR production.  Holliday is a solid player, but out of Stanton, Dunn, and Kubel, Holliday makes the most money and is signed the longest.  It’s unlikely that St Louis is going to let him go, but he would certainly signal a commitment by the M’s.
  • Mark Texiera — Texiera is a wild-card.  I look at a team like the Yankees and see a whole lot of age.  Jeter, Ichiro, A-Rod, Pettite and Rivera.  Robinson Cano, the Yankees best player, is a Free Agent next year, and the team’s starting Catcher if the season started today is Francisco Cervelli.  The Yankees have gotten old and are undoubtedly stepping back and thinking “Uh-oh, this ride may be about over.”  Could the Yankees be open to trading Tex?  Maybe.  He’s earning $22.5 million a year through 2016, so he’s pricey.  The other thing to consider is he’s averaging around .250 with 30+ HR.  Texiera would be a longshot, but he could also be worth a look.

2013 is a must compete year for the Mariners.  Their 51% drop in attendance over the last 10 years is a dangerous trend for a team that used to energize a city.  Personally, it’s frustrating as a fan to see.  Quite honestly, I’m less discouraged with the Mariners record and performance as I am with it’s dwindling fanbase.  I know that winning cures everything for fans, but to see that there were 8 teams with worse records than the Mariners with better attendance is disappointing.  Sure teams like the Cubs and Red Sox will draw regardless, but Colorado?  Kansas City?  We’re better than that, but in some ways I can also understand it.  Some food for thought:

  • The M’s adopted Dynamic Pricing last year and saw attendance continue to suffer.  The problem with Dynamic Pricing is that it establishes a floor price for tickets at the start of the year.  Floor pricing is designed to drive early ticket sales since it’s “as low as it gets”, but how does that drive late season attendance for a team in last place?  Dynamic Pricing does not work for a team in a downward spiral for attendance — What incentive is there for fans to come out for a game against Cleveland at face value when there are 30,000 empty seats?  The concept of flex pricing is terrific, but it needs to move up and down for it to truly work, especially when examining attendance trends.  (Which for today, I will spare you.  Ha-ha.)
  • Don’t get lost in the fact that the Mariners continue to invest in Safeco Field.  You can get frustrated with the teams performance on the field, but you can’t be upset with how the organization has continued to modify and improve Safeco Field.  10 straight years of attendance drops, but the team has invested over $80 million in facility improvements.  Do you like the bar-height counters that rim the park?  What about the new Pen?  The Mariners continue to invest in the fan experience even while the team has struggled on the field.  Now add a 201 foot wide monitor in CF.  It would have been easy for the Mariners to let it go, but they didn’t.  Give them credit for it.

The baseball season doesn’t end in November, it just gets more interesting.  Jack Zduriencik has a chance to go into this week’s Winter Meetings and make both Major League Baseball and their fans take notice.  What route the Mariners will take is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain, the Mariners have a lot of options in front of them.   I just can’t wait to see which route they take!

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