The Mariners are at a crossroads. They are too old and too financially over-committed to make a decision to rebuild an easy one. The Astros appear to have annexed the next handful of season’s worth of AL West titles, but the Wild Cards offer the most success-starved of all baseball franchises, our Seattle Mariners, a prayer at contention.
Still, the team’s best players, both by the numbers and the heart, are all at the age where players get worse, not better. The farm system, while not wholly devoid of talent, appears woefully incapable of providing the core replacements needed for Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz. A rebuild is coming, and it is coming before the major league roster will be ready to endure it without a significant increase in losses.
With the near certainty of lean times ahead it’s understandable that the current front office (one reportedly in the last year of its contract) would eye 2018 as the last competitive Mariners team in some time, cut the brake lines, and floor the accelerator by signing as many free agents as they possibly can. So, here they stand, with ceaseless failure behind them and three uncertain paths in front of them: Burn it down, go for broke, or a compromise between the two. With that in mind, I want to make a rudimentary examination of what each of the three roads looks like: the goods, the bads, the final years of Robinson Cano’s contract and on.
Since I sometimes have flagging self-confidence let’s add some CAVEATS: I won’t pretend to be an expert on value, and I don’t intend to break down exact player-for-player exchanges. This implies a level of knowledge I simply don’t have. I’m working off a general understanding of the state of the game and the team. Others who have spent years closely studying the minors will have a much better idea of what the nuts and bolts of these ideas would entail. We’re working with broad strokes here.
My amateurism sufficiently disclosed, let’s get into it with the direction I’d most prefer the team follow: Burn. It. Down.
Trade James Paxton to the…….Brewers? Sure, the Brewers, for prospects
This is the centerpiece of the rebuild process. Paxton is arguably the team’s most valuable major league piece and the most valuable arm by a mile. With
three multiple (Baseball-reference says he’s a FA in 2021, but he just finished his first year of arbitration. I dunno.) years of club control and coming off a four-win season in only 130 IP, Paxton presents any team with dreams of 2018 contention ace upside at a bargain price. The ability to acquire one young MLB-ready player and multiple low-level minors prospects is in play.
Additionally, with the combination of the Mariners place at the end of a contention window, Paxton’s agent Scott Boras almost totally shunning extensions, and Paxton’s terrifying injury history, the idea of James Paxton: Lifetime Mariner is an unlikely and unwise proposition.
With club control and 2017 representing a career year, Paxton’s value has almost certainly never been higher. While rolling the dice and hoping he stays healthy and productive into the deadline of 2018 may theoretically let you take advantage of a panic buy in a frenzied market, the risk is simply too high. I love James Paxton and watching him become one of the game’s best left-handed pitchers in Seattle has been a joy, but baseball is cruel. Trade Pax.
Trade the relievers, all the good relievers
With the tacit admission that 2018 won’t be a contending year baked into the DNA of this plan, and intriguing if unproven power arms such as Dan Altavilla, Thyago Vieira, and others in house, there’s no need holding onto high leverage relief specialists. Nick Vincent? See ya buddy, thanks for the regression last year. David Phelps? More like David Whelps, in my opinion. Edwin Diaz? You’re cool. I like you. Good luck in Arizona!
Explore trading Kyle Seager
Despite his down year in 2017, Seager may very well be the most valuable player on the Mariners’ 40-man roster. With four years and only ~$57 million left on his contract, a 30-year-old, good defense, clearly established four-win player should have sizable value on the market.
The major downside is positional demand. Whereas with James Paxton everyone is always looking for starting pitching, there are only so many third base jobs to go around. Still, if Jerry Dipoto can find someone to fill his demands (and they should be very high) Kyle Seager could bring back a boon of talented players to stock throughout Modesto, Clinton, and Arkansas. It would hurt, but everything about this plan hurts. Bye, Kyle. Thanks for everything.
Who would like to be paid to have some old, potentially useful players on their baseball team?
Look, no one wants to have to do this plan; we all want the Mariners to be great, and we want them to be great with these players. We may not have to, but we do, in fact, love these guys. But Felix Hernandez, Robbie Cano, and Nelson Cruz are not here for a gutted franchise aiming for the 2020 AL West Title. While Cruz may have legitimate trade value, as he refuses to act his age and is in the last year of his deal, Cano and Hernandez represent near total sunk costs at this point. Cano in particular, with $140 million left on his deal, would require a substantial swallowing of dead money by ownership.
These are the difficult realities of going for it through free agency back in 2014-2015. The rent comes due, and building for the future with these aging players and their contracts around is simply not feasible. Financially, and emotionally, it is the hardest part of this plan. But it’s one that must be done. All efforts should be made to mitigate the money owed on these contracts, and gaining any and all financial flexibility a top priority.
The 2018 Outlook
The gutting and stripping of the Mariners big league roster is designed to end with the farm system sufficiently stocked with talent to be at or near the top 10 in the game. It is contingent upon the franchise extending Jerry Dipoto and allowing him the trust and time necessary to see the rebuild through to some sort of completion. But the 2018 season is almost certainly a total loss.
While Dipoto has proven to be moderately adept at finding readily available ~league-average talent with little to no long-term commitment, it’s hard to see this version of the Mariners winning more than 70 games. Safeco will be empty, fans will complain, revenues will drop, and the seventeenth (and very, very likely eighteenth) consecutive season of playoff baseball will pass on. I won’t lie: it will hurt, and we’ll hate it.
In the 2007/2008 offseason the Baltimore Orioles, fresh off their 10th consecutive year missing the poststeason, made a choice. With the Red Sox and Yankees at the height of power and the newly re-branded Rays a looming terror, Baltimore decided to acquiesce the immediate future to their rivals. The centerpiece of this acquiescence was trading their best player; a 28-year old, oft-injured but tremendously talented Canadian left-handed pitcher – Érik Bédard.
Clearly, if you’re reading this, you’re standing here with me at the gates of hell, so we won’t walk any further down this road. I bring up the Bedard trade because the 2007 Orioles and 2017 Mariners are not dissimilar. They are/were both aging, success-deprived franchises poorly suited for short term competition with other teams in their division. The Bedard trade was foundational in the Orioles making the playoffs three of the past six seasons and represents the kind of long-term planning the Mariners have never seemed able to both commit to and execute competently.
The desolation that is the Mariners minor league talent base demands recompense, one way or the other. While further losing seasons at the major league level and the loss of many of the team’s beloved stars will sting and sting badly, the presence of multiple budding stars and (fingers crossed) superstars in the minor leagues will tide over us diehard fans. No longer will we have to content ourselves with having to squint and voluntarily bashing our heads on desks to see anything more than MLB role players in the team’s top prospects. Uber-prospects inspire dreams, and dreams can carry you through a whole hell of a lot, even when reality sucks.
It’s an agonizing choice and certainly an unlikely one. All signs point to an attempt at one final year of contention in 2018. But this plan offers hope beyond the second Wild Card spot or a single playoff game at Safeco Field, glorious though that would be. It offers the possibility of years and years of playoffs, dozens of playoff games, of a World Series banner flapping with the Puget Sound sunset behind it. Whether we get it or not, we deserve to dream that dream.