An Offseason Plan: The Road Goes Ever On

All we have to decide is what to do with the team that is given us

In the introduction to this three-part series I stated that the Mariners are “at a crossroads.” The MLB roster is too old, expensive, and declining to reap the prospect harvest necessary for a quick rebuild. There’s also not quite enough talent on hand to realistically compete for a 2018 playoff spot without further, massive financial commitment from ownership.

The first two parts of this series set out to examine high-reaching paths on the outer edges of possibility. I said it in those posts but I’ll say it again, for emphasis: The Mariners are not committing to a full rebuild prior to 2019 at the earliest, and they aren’t blowing payroll out beyond the luxury tax , as their recent acquisition of High Prince of Whelm Ryon Healy can attest. Between these two extreme routes lies the deep, wide valley of realistic possibility. This post’s purpose is to venture down into that valley, and see what we find.

I’m going to break up the previous pattern of this series to look first at what I think Jerry Dipoto’s vision for this offseason may entail, at least the major beats, before humbly offering my own vision for a realistic 2018 roster. The response to this series has been very positive, and for those of you who stick with us during our dry spells, and offer encouragement for our little blog, know you have my deep, deep appreciation. Having people engage your writing, especially on a topic I love as much as baseball, is a dream come true for me personally.

Ok, gratefulness and framework out of the way. Onward.

Dipoto-620

The Presumed Dipoto Plan

Jerry Dipoto is not a dumb man, and he does not run a bad Major League front office. Whatever Dipoto’s public face and stated beliefs are, he almost certainly is much, much more attuned to the precarious situation he and the roster find themselves heading into 2018 than I am. I’m sure he falls asleep every night fantasizing about a $250 million dollar payroll that allows him to scoop up every needed free agent around, but he knows that won’t happen. Realistically, the Mariners headed into this offseason with two glaringly obvious opportunities to improve, and one lesser one: Starting pitching, first base, and center field.

Acquiring the middling but cheap Ryon Healy makes it clear that Dipoto has set his sites on starting pitching, and the recent trading of Thyago Veiera for international slot money further makes clear what the long-presumed number one priority of the Mariners’ winter is:

Sign RHP Shohei Othani. Somehow. Someway.

I won’t bother going into the details of Ohtani here. If you’re reading this you know all about him. He’s Japan’s Babe Ruth, but the cool hipster Boston Red Sox Babe Ruth; swatting dingers and hanging out in the outfield on the days he’s not breathing hellfire 60’6″ from home plate. While it’s almost certain that Othani could never live up to the hype surrounding him, his age (23) coupled with the absurdly low cost to acquire and pay for his first few years in MLB makes him the dream acquisition of the offseason for many teams.

It’s hard to overstate how important acquiring Ohtani is to the Mariners assembling a playoff contending roster for 2018. If he’s 80-90% of the hype then the team has acquired a legitimate number two starting pitcher for relative peanuts, not just for next year but years afterwards. Should he be allowed to hit as well? The team has little to no place to put him, and the injury risk and lack of recent precedent makes it logistically an unwise, and unlikely idea. However, if Ohtani can be swayed by promises of even 5-10 PA a week then the Mariners are not in a position to be picky. You can’t pay him what he’s worth, but you can give him what he wants. You have to. Nothing else about this offseason works without him. If you must, let Ohtani hit.

Sign RHP Yu Darvish to a 6 year, $175 million dollar contract

The sole cross-alignment of my “spend to the hilt” plan and here, I think the Mariners have every intention of making a huge offer to the enormously talented right-hander.

Unless a team is capable of re-capturing the magic of last decade’s Rays, a low-budget model that has had less and less success as the analytical playing field has evened over time, massive contracts in baseball are simply part of doing business. While I’m sure Mariner ownership would prefer to wait until the Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez contracts are fully off the books before making another huge commitment, the contention window demands action now. Darvish’s age (31) and spotty injury history are a concern, but he has top 3-5 in all of baseball stuff, and can dominate a game in ways few can.

Put together, a rotation of Darvish-Paxton-Ohtani-Leake-Hernandez has the makings of the best in the division, and the best in franchise history. It turns a huge organizational weakness into a massive asset. It’s a table flipping, landscape altering pair of moves.

Timing of these two acquisitions is crucial, and may be very difficult. Acquiring Darvish without also acquiring Ohtani is simply a half-measure; an exciting but insufficient improvement. If Ohtani signs with another team, I would encourage and expect Dipoto to steer clear of the sort of contract that Darvish will command. Of course signing Darvish early may, may just be the tipping point to convincing Ohtani to come to Seattle. It’s an impossible quandary. Don’t you wish you were a major league general manager?

Add OF depth

This fucking guy

I was tempted to repeat “re-sign Jarrod Dyson” here, but given that Dyson is almost certainly seeking top dollar for his last realistic major payday I’m concerned that the Mariners will simply not have the money to retain the speedy center fielder.

While Jerry Dipoto is talking about Mitch Haniger being the team’s every day center fielder on Opening Day, that not only feels like a miscasting of the promising Haniger’s skillset, but fails to take into account his thus far fragile health. The team needs a center fielder, and Braden Bishop, fun though he his, isn’t a part of a contending team in 2018. Realistically this feels like a classic Dipoto Trade situation, although I remain hopeful that a fully-recovered Guillermo Heredia can provide enough with his bat to be an asset at the position.

Should the team fail to acquire Darvish or another, comparably high-priced starting pitcher, the idea of shifting the money to Lorenzo Cain, to potentially lock down center in a way the team hasn’t had since Mike Cameron is a very realistic one. Either way, bolstering the outfield is necessary.

***

There are dozens of other possibilities and permutations to the ones I’ve outlined above. (As we speak Dipoto is currently roaming the streets of Mercer Island, trading a handful change for its equivalent in various foreign currencies. They’re just so different and new and, and, and shiny, you see.) There’s no firmly pinning down a manic entity like Jerry Dipoto. But for better or worse the 2018 roster is largely set. There are only so many things he can do without drastically altering the franchise, and he has shown no interest in doing that in his time as Mariner GM. He has been building TO this moment, not trying to avoid it, and I don’t expect him to alter course now.

Dan 2

Nathan Bishop, Seattle Mariner General Manager

For the Mariners to make the playoffs in 2018 many things will have to go right, and the potential downside to another expensive failure are massive. I’ve hammered on this but I’ll repeat it: The Mariners, heading into year three of Jerry Dipoto’s regime, still have arguably a bottom five farm system in the game. They will, at some point, need to address this with painful sacrifices, be it international bonuses, trading from the major league roster, or most likely a combination of the two.

Rather than commit to another massive contract to Yu Darvish, and make the inevitable rebuild even more challenging and difficult, an attempt at constructing a reliever heavy, potentially off-loadable roster that retains a modicum of upside may represent the wisest path forward. Rather than drastically alter course, or double down, the most advisable course of action is for the Mariners to let their current hand ride, give or take a few minor additions. As such:

Sign Shohei Ohtani

For all the reasons I stated above. Ohtani costs, in major league terms, nothing, and his age potentially helps lay the foundational keystone for the next great Mariners team. Nothing about this changes. He is the fulcrum of the entire offseason, but in this scenario failing to acquire him (a very, very realistic possibility) is endurable.

Sign RHP Brandon Morrow to a 2 year, $14 million dollar deal

I am, admittedly, very uncomfortable trying to anticipate the reliever market, and hohohoho does this name bring back some memories, but here we are.

The idea, loosely, is to replicate the 2014 Bullpen of Death that helped an otherwise mediocre roster get within a game of the wild card. The Mariners bullpen, 2017 performance aside, is underratedly filled with potentially lethal relievers. In Edwin Diaz, David Phelps, Dan Altavilla, James Pazos, and Nick Vincent, Seattle has a collection of arms you can squint and see having a great 2018, whether from recent track record or high velocity potential.

Depending on a bullpen to carry a team is needing a 17+ on a D20 saving throw, but the potential upside allows the team to keep its flexibility while helping relieve the pressure on what would, even with Ohtani, be a thin, injury prone, and average-ish starting rotation.

Brandon Morrow was nothing short of excellent with the Dodgers in 2017, and while a multi-year deal for relievers is generally considered a no-no, his high velocity stuff allows for visions of the Mariners locking down practically all games they lead after five with a succession of pitchers throwing 97+ MPH fastballs. Imagine the 2017 Yankees, but minus Aaron Judge. And Gary Sanchez. Ugh, I hate the Yankees.

Various Jerry Dipoto Style Acquisitions

Honestly, I’m not going to bother trying to lay this out. The team needs to churn a few spots; backup catcher, INF depth, OF depth. Depth. You get the idea. This is where Jerry thrives and I have no doubt he can figure a way to get fungible talent for 97 cents on the dollar while rounding out the roster.

The Rationale

While ticking every box of the Dipoto Plan above makes the Mariners a legitimate playoff contender, the one thing we all want, the likelihood of it happening is, um, not high. The Mariners need to attract two of the five or so most desirable available talents, and arguably the top two pitchers, to come to Seattle. This in a market where other teams looking for the same talent include, but are not limited to, the Cubs and Dodgers, two of baseball’s premiere organizations. It’s a huge challenge facing Dipoto.

In lieu of that unlikely outcome building the bullpen allows for a limit in financial commitment, while offsetting the team’s rotation, which would be still the weakest part of this roster. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager will need to regain their 2016 form, and Mike Zunino will need to hold onto his 2017 gains. Mitch Haniger will need to stay healthy, and James Paxton and Felix Hernandez need to limit their missed starts.

A lot needs to go right, but the same can be said for all but the very best, most expensive, deepest rosters. While the chances are maybe 1 in 5 or so, a roster like this has potential 90-win upside, something that hasn’t happened in Seattle since 2003.

In the relatively likely case that injury, age, and under-performance conspire with the Astros to make 2018 another lost season, a bullpen-heavy roster with no new longterm commitments still allows the team the flexability to sell, should they see it as prudent. I do not have data to back this up but I would argue that no position sees its value bubble at the trade deadline more than quality bullpen arms. Nothing about this plan keeps another middling Mariner team from trading James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, David Phelps, even Kyle Seager, and kicking off the long-looming rebuild.

I admit I find the plan, to be blunt, annoying. The Mariners seemingly are willing to spend through the nose to avoid being truly terrible, but never seem able to endure the commitment necessary to build something truly great. Having 75-85 win talent year after year after year is an exhausting experience. I am ready for change, be it spending what is necessary for excellence, or enduring the losing necessary to build a farm capable of same. However, the reality is the Mariners as an organization are simply not ready to walk down either path for 2018.

Headed into the last year of his contract I have little doubt that Jerry Dipoto is operating under a playoffs or bust mandate, but without the financial flexibility to maximize those odds. As such, I advise he swing for the moon on a potential generational acquisition in Shohei Ohtani, and otherwise build around the possibility of a deadly, high-heat bullpen, and let it ride. With some good fortune, it may just work, and there’s no franchise more overdue for some good fortune than your Seattle Mariners.

Pax Happy 2

 

 

 

An Offseason Plan: Paying the Price

Push in those chips

“I think it has been difficult for us to make clear that our No. 1 objective is to get this team into the World Series,” he says.

-Howard Lincoln – Mariners CEO December 12, 2004

(Part I of this series is found here)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the unfairness of history. The judgments of our actions and our character are never enough on their own merit. All our words and actions seem to do is provide another data point for historians to compare us to other, better, more accomplished people.

In our living days we exist within the daily inheritance left us by our forebearers. People learn, and they remember. Whatever titles, responsibilities, or privileges we accrue through time we wear as mantle, laden by the words and deeds of all those who shared those accolades throughout time. It’s a lot more than one human can counteract on their own.

“The goal has always been to go to the World Series,”

Chuck Armstrong – Mariners President, January 23rd, 2014

It’s not fair to compare John Stanton and Howard Lincoln, Pat Gillick and Jerry Dipoto. In 2002, when Lincoln and Lou Piniella were getting in shouting matches at the trade deadline, Dipoto was in his first year in a front office, working with Dan O’Dowd in Denver. Populist rabble-rousing instinct is to label Stanton as just another billionaire suit, but to do so risks falling into much of the diminishing thought and language so easily found in our present times.

John Ellis

The Mariners’ current leadership has, in the grand measure of it, very little connection to its past. But telling fans not to draw that connection is an impossible task. When the Mariners lost in 2005, and 2006, and 1985, and 1998, and 1979, and on and on and on the current executives weren’t here. But we were.

We Mariners fans have lived through Carl Everett, and Carlos Silva. We have endured 2010, and Bill Plummer. We have witnessed the wasting away of the career of Felix Hernandez, of a core of inner circle hall of famers that couldn’t even make it to a World Series.

It’s not fair that we hold the sins of previous front offices against the current one. But it’s not fair we have spent four decades of fandom and support with zero World Series appearances, and the sport’s longest playoff drought to show for it. Maybe when there’s unfairness for everyone, there’s fairness for all.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Cleveland Indians

The Plan

With all early indications this offseason the Mariners will attempt to make 2018 a contending season, simply rounding out the fringes of the roster will not do. 2014-2017 represents the window of opportunity for the core of Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and (starting in 2015) Nelson Cruz to push this team to the postseason. Counting on those four at their current ages and coming off 2017 production levels to drive a 90+ win team is foolish wishcasting. The team needs additions, and core ones.

Most obviously the starting rotation, despite encouraging Septembers from trade acquisitions Erasmo Ramirez and Mike Leake, is in desperate need. While one can hope that Jerry Dipoto’s ceaseless back-end rotation arm churn turns up the next Charlie Morton, planning on it is, again, foolish. As such:

Sign RHP Yu Darvish to a 6 year, $175 million dollar contract

The 31-year old Darvish is, in many ways, a right-handed James Paxton. Featuring plus-plus stuff, a checkered injury history, and the ability to dominate and disappoint in equal measure, Darvish represents the clearest and most direct path to acquire another ace-like talent. His age and aforementioned injury history makes a huge, long term contract a difficult one to commit to, but this is the cost of attempting to contend without any help from your own minor league system. Darvish’s peak is as high as any pitcher in the game. He is a foundational, landscape-altering acquisition for 2018.

Acquire RHP Shohei Otani

Otani’s posting is filled with unknowns. I’ve written about this already, but no one knows exactly why he may choose to forego $100+ million to come to MLB now, rather than wait for unrestricted free agency in two years, when he would still only be 25. What we do know is that his talent, and the initially low financial cost to acquire represents an opportunity that all 30 major league franchises should be interested in pursuing. It’s going to take a recruiting push that would make an SEC football program blush, but if the Mariners could land him a top three of Paxton-Darvish-Otani would anchor probably the best, and deepest rotation in franchise history.

Sign 1B/DH Carlos Santana to a 4 year, $68 million dollar contract

In the real world of budgets signing Santana, or any position player, to this kind of contract probably puts the Mariners completely out on acquiring an ace pitcher through free agency; but this plan is about being “all-in”, and acquiring Santana’s bat in addition to the above moves would indeed be a Parade at Edgar and Dave kind of acquisition. Santana’s excellent plate discipline, and switch-hitting more than compensates for a so-so glove at first base, and moving beyond next year, he can easily transition to DH to replace Nelson Cruz once his contract expires.

Re-sign CF Jarrod Dyson to a 2 year, $20 million dollar contract 

Baseball writing has a fun way of making you look dumb. This past summer I wrote that the Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, and Mitch Haniger outfield looked like one ready to lead this franchise forward. Well, Heredia collapsed, Gamel’s BABIP regression could reveal him as nothing more than a fringe major leaguer, and Haniger needs to show the ability to stay healthy and productive.

Dyson’s bat is far from an asset, but coupled with baserunning and exceptional centerfield defense he is a very useful player, and at a position the Mariners have suddenly, and once again, very little depth.

While other moves will clearly need to be done (hello Kirk Nieuwenhuis!) to round out the roster, Jerry Dipoto has shown finding slightly below average roster filler is not a problem for him. None of these acquisitions prevent Dipoto’s maniacal churning from pressing onward, ever onward, ceaselessly beating away at the mania of inactivity.

Otani2

The 2018 Outlook

The addition of three all-star level talents realistically adds somewhere between 8-12 wins to the 2018 Mariners. If you feel like 2017’s 78 wins was a bit below the team’s true talent then it would appear this is a roster capable of producing only the franchise’s sixth 90-win team in forty-one years.

Even with these acquisitions, however, significant risk remains. The overall organizational lack of depth will put this team on a tight rope for the entire season. Mike Zunino’s breakout needs to hold, Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and James Paxton need to remain healthy and productive, and the Edwin Diaz Coin needs to land on heads a fair amount of the time.

Without compelling, young talent above the high minors any holes in the roster will be difficult to fill at the trade deadline. Any significant time missed by any of the team’s stars will lead to a glaring loss of production. Even after hypothetically winning the offseason in a way that no Mariner team has ever done, this still stands as a very rickety, rapidly aging, top-heavy organization.

Still, this would stand as one of the most talented rosters the Mariners have ever assembled, and certainly the most talented since the 2003 team won 93 games. At their best they are absolutely a pennant and World Series contender.* That’s something we all want, and something that has recently felt very, very far away.

*Also, did we mention the payroll? It’s going to require an astronomical commitment from the Mariners’ ownership; we’re talking $200 million, luxury-tax approaching, Dodgers/Yankees/Red Sox/Cubs levels of spending to assemble this roster. Just consider it a Fan Tax guys, part of our win-redistribution program for all these decades of bumbling around.

The Rationale

“The fact that there are comments about this ownership and leadership group not caring about winning, but caring about making money, it’s patently false,”

-John Stanton – Mariners CEO, November 4th, 2016

The Mariners, as a franchise, are excellence-averse. In their 40 years of existence they have won 90 or more games only five times. Four of those were consecutively achieved from 2000-2003, literally the only period of time the Mariners resembled anything close to a “good” organization.

John Stanton

Many, many times many, many men have assured us that the Mariners primary goal is to make it to a World Series. But over the long arc of history results matter more than words. The fact is that too often the Mariners have come into a season with a best case scenario of simply squeaking into a Wild Card spot, a level of achievement that in some franchises gets the manager fired.

The team has made it clear they have no intention of rebuilding through the acquisition of young talent, my preferred path to building a consistent winner. As such, with the farm system unlikely to produce a star-level major leaguer prior to 2020 at the earliest, the only way up is by digging down into the pocketbook and signing the talent necessary to show us that, indeed, winning at the highest level is the burning, first priority of the entire franchise.

If ownership is unwilling to show the patience, planning, and competence to build a sustainable winner, then winning now through maniacal spending is the fastest and surest route to success. I’ve often wondered how I’d have felt about being a fan of the 1997 Marlins, who maxed out payroll for an aging roster of stars, only to sell them all off before the rings were even handed out, but I’m willing to give it a try.

If ownership does not spend as necessary, or put a rebuild plan into place soon in a manner that shows clear vision and action for the short and medium term, the next time John Stanton gives an interview and claims the World Series to be this franchise’s driving ambition will be weighed against all the times we’ve heard that before, and the final judgment will not be kind. But it will be fair.

An Offseason Plan: Vengeance for Bedard

The case for rebuilding

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.

Kingdome demolition

The Plan

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!

Kyle Goofin

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.

Cano Cruz

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.

Sad Fan

The Rationale

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.

Safeco Pano

Shohei Otani and Three Magic Words

My junior year of undergrad I had a professor, we’ll call him Mr. Williams. He was in his early 30’s, energetic, passionate, and opinionated. His class at my small bible college was one on the Book of Revelations, the Bible’s lowkey signing off on recreational drug use.

A major topic in Revelations, one debated by scholars for centuries, is whether the Rapture, the event in which God calls his still living faithful from earth to heaven to create a new heaven and new earth, is to occur before or after The Great Tribulation, a period cataclysms and horrors set to wipe out a vast swatch of humanity, and signal The End Times.

The two camps of this argument are shorthanded in Evangelical scholarly circles as “Pre and Post-Trib”. Mr. Williams was Pre-Trib, and was to such a passionate degree that you could almost forget that brilliant men had been arguing over this, a prophesy written in a foreign language scribbled down by a guy most likely under the effect of hallucinogens while sitting around on a small Greek island, for hundreds of years. In all that time there has never been a consensus opinion to emerge, and that probably has something to do with the fact that Koine Greek is a bit of a bitch, and that the future is, per my experience, inherently unknowable.

Nonetheless Mr. Williams was unshakable in his belief that the only possible reality was that God would spare his Faithful the horrors of the Tribulation. It was in that class that the largely dormant, but very much alive, seeds of speculation in my mind began to grow, and has led to a philosophy of stubbornly resisting passionate argument, probably too much so.

It was in that class I formed the opinion that the best and most correct answer for something as unknowable as the Tribulation/Rapture debate was one Mr. Williams seemed unable to see, let alone arrive at:

“I don’t know”

***

Shohei Otani is a unique player, in a unique situation. The perplexing and shortsighted willingness of the MLBPA to negotiate away the earning power of future players has put a cap on what teams can pay international free agents. As such Otani, who has made it mostly clear that he intends to come to MLB during this offseason, will most likely make the decision on where to play based on factors that have little or nothing to do with the terms of his initial contract.

As financial compensation is traditionally motivating factors 1-10 for deciding where an athlete is going to play, the absence of it in Otani’s case leaves a vast, gaping, crater in which we can pour our speculations, dreams, and hopes. This is a natural instinct. Humans like to know, and when we can’t we grow uncomfortable and oftentimes try to shape reality to our will.

We have seen plenty of exactly that with Otani this week: “Seattle is close to Japan”, “The Mariners have a strong track record with Japanese players”, or “Otani doesn’t care about money”. The latter is particularly fraught, as it can lead to assigning a moral superiority to a player accepting less money than he can theoretically extract from cutthroat billionaires, where in fact it’s easy to posit that getting every last cent possible out of them in order to use it for the ease of the suffering of the impoverished is at least as, if not more in line, with a highly-aspiring moral code.

The reality with Shohei Otani is we do not know. It’s entirely plausible Otani himself doesn’t know. We have no reason to believe the Mariners are any more or less desirable to him than any of the other 29 major league baseball teams. We do not know how much money means to him, nor should we ascribe a sort of Sunday School Morality to the possibility that he is almost assuredly giving up short term financial gain with the timing of his arrival in MLB.

We should allow Otani the dignity and mystery inherent in all the wildly complex depths of each human soul, and admit that we do not know why he is coming to America at this exact moment, and we do not know where he will choose to play. To attempt to distill the human spirit into simple cultural and/or moral archetypes to fit our predispositions does him and us a disservice. This is the most honest appraisal of the situation, and as it is so often with honesty, the most freeing.

Shohei Otani could become a Mariner, and he most likely will not. While we can read whatever we like into how much money he lives off of in Japan, or channel a Western understanding of Japanese culture into motivations for him to feel honored/dishonored by this or that, doing so plays into many of our worst American/Western/Imperialistic instincts. Real information will come in due course. For now, the best course of action is to embrace the three magic words:

We don’t know.

 

Jerry Dipoto presents: Return of Erasmo

It’s late-July and I’ve started to do that thing where I’m worrying about Summer someday ending. The same is true for MLB teams all over this nation, and for their respective executives and managers. It’s high-time for big moves to make a splash, one last chance at summer romance, and maybe by the end of the whole thing we’ll have some great memories to embellish and share with our friends when school starts back up again. In a transaction that is sure to move the “swoon” barometer approximately one tick towards “hard swoon” and then another tick back towards “hard pass”, Jerry Dipoto traded Steve Cishek for former-now-again Mariner Erasmo Ramirez. I always hate when I start thinking about Fall again.

Acquiring Erasmo Ramirez has a million different angles that I can think of but let’s start with the obvious one. If the Seattle Mariners are going to Do The Damn Thing they need live arms that can throw strikes that are not in turn hit over a fence. This is not necessarily what Erasmo Ramirez is in 2017, but he has run out a GB% slightly above league-average this year in 69 nicely pitched innings. Ground balls are something the Mariners are rather good at dealing with. This site would like to put itself forward as a pro-grounders blog. Erasmo is, however, also running HR/9 and HR/FB numbers that are both slightly above league-average, so really what the M’s received is someone who is a bit better than league-average (his FIP agrees). But just barely.

What has to be said is that the acquisition of David Phelps clearly made Jerry feel comfortable in giving up a ~late-inning bullpen piece to potentially stabilize an often frightening rotation. This may or may not prove to be prudent, but this was certainly not a case of dealing from a position of strength. The bullpen has recently felt more stable, but the idea of Phelps-Cishek-Diaz as all potential shutdown arms at the back end of a close game felt a lot better, stuff-wise, than Phelps-(insert like four names)-Diaz does now. The Mariners are a bat-first team and it is 2017. Wake up, Sheeple.

It’s also hard to say, and I’m sure by the time I hit ‘publish’ this will be foolish because some quote will have come out from the front office, exactly how Ramirez fits into the 25-man. Does he straight swap out Moore or Gallardo? Does he immediately move to the bullpen as a three-inning swing arm? Does he convert to an 8th inning guy and blow 99 mph fastballs under the chin? I’d bet against at least one of those.

It feels mostly like a lateral move for this season. While Erasmo has eight starts in 2017, he certainly isn’t a massive upgrade over Moore or Gallardo. The same problems are there, really. Stuff that can be thrown for strikes, but maybe too many strikes. The Big Inning being the downfall, or being bled to death by spreading four dingers over six innings. While the cost is relatively low in giving up a bullpen arm with only three months left on his contract (plus $1M), in exchange for an arm with 2.5 years of club-control, it has to be said that the Mariners kinda already had this arm before 2017 began in the form of Vidal Nuno. Vidal was, of course, flipped for Carlos Ruiz to shore up a backup catcher position after Jerry decided to let Chris Iannetta walk. It all just feels lateral, maybe almost revisionist, to go get a league-average swing arm in late-July.

There is another angle here that expands beyond 2017, though. With acquisitions like this and David Phelps, Dipoto could be pre-empting a 2018 trade market that should value swing arms. Erasmo’s 2015 season is well-behind him at this point, and maybe he is a guy that steals a couple wins by locking down the 6th and 7th for the Mariners in August, but this could also be a play to acquire future value for the 2018 season. It could also just really do nothing.

It’s Summer – go have some fun, you knuckleheads.

A muted and quiet look at the Tyler O’Neill and Marco Gonzales trade

The Mariners traded Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales. Is this good or bad?

Just before lunch on Friday, July 21, the Mariners shook their very foundation to the core, trading uber-prospect Tyler O’Neill for the St. Louis Cardinals’ leftover trash starting pitcher Marco Gonzales.

Or, as to be expected, this is how much of the fandom reacted, because that is what fans do, they react.

But now that we have had a little bit of time to do things, like breathe, eat, breathe some more, maybe even drink, we can take a look at the trade that Jerry Dipoto, self-proclaimed wildest of the wild out in the west, just processed.

Let’s start with the good:

Marco Gonzales went to Gonzaga. I also went to Gonzaga. This is a good thing.

Now the legitimately good, Gonzales can throw many pitches decently, and he can throw a change-up rather well. He is a high-volume strike-throwing kind of guy, which he tends to both feast and famine on. His numbers are completely unremarkable in AAA, but he has the potential to be an end-of-the-rotation kind of guy. Perhaps even a No. 3 in a horrible year where everyone gets injured (and then your team is bad so who cares). Gonzales gives up quite a few fly balls and infield fly balls. He will probably be alright in Safeco Field, particularly if ol’ Manfred siphons the juice out of the baseball

Perhaps the most important piece of this puzzle is Gonzales is not a short-term rental. Gonzales was drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft. He is under team-control for eons.

Of course, nothing the Mariners do is ever good, and there are some definitive bads to look at. Let us take a look.

Tyler O’Neill was one of the more exciting prospects in a farm system that is as exciting as the proposed idea of a sequel to Suicide Squad. Most recently, O’Neill has been on an absolute tear in the minors, hitting /330/.432/.723 with 11 home runs in 94 at bats. He is still striking out as if his life depended on it, but there was at least enough offensive firepower to help offset all of that. O’Neill is only 22 years old, and overall has (had) one of the higher ceilings in the farm system.

So at the end of the day, it looks like the Mariners traded a high ceiling outfielder for a low ceiling pitcher. This has the makings for a bad trade, and people were quick to condemn Dipoto for it. That said, maybe making a boring ass trade is exactly what this squad needs.

The Mariners have a very limited window to make the playoffs with the pieces in play they have at the moment. Eventually, Felix Hernandez’s arm is going to fall off. Eventually, Robinson Cano will no longer be worth the $124 million he is due each year. Eventually, Nelson Cruz will regress to some version of Nelson Cruz where he is not worth the money. Eventually, Kyle Seager will be worth more as a bargaining chip on a flailing team than the starting third baseman. If you are looking at what area of the current squad the Mariners need to bolster to make any semblance of a playoff run, it is starting pitching. Gonzales fits that bill.

Secondly, perhaps we view this trade in two ways: 1) Jerry Dipoto and a lot of other GMs don’t have much faith in O’Neill, and this is all the Mariners would get for him; 2) Jerry Dipoto really believes that the current Mariners outfield is sufficiently established enough to compliment the rest of the pieces of the team. In both cases, O’Neill becomes a highly expendable player.

There is valid criticism in saying that just because he is a highly expendable player doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be traded. The trade becomes a bit more confusing because Gonzales will start his Mariners career with the Tacoma Rainiers, and if that was always going to be the case, why not wait 10 days to pull the trigger on this? Maybe you can get something else out of the No. 2 prospect in the M’s farm system.

What the trade, for me, seems to establish is Dipoto views the window of opportunity to win as something worth pursuing, and pursuing quickly. Time is never on your side in these sorts of scenarios, and having Gonzales as a back end rotation guy bolsters the Mariners for next season much more quickly than having O’Neill loiter around the farm system does.

The timing of this trade is odd, there is no getting around that. This would be a classic trading from an area of strength for an area of need if it wasn’t a 22-year-old exciting outfielder for a 25-year-old rather bland pitcher. There is a chance that this trade bites the Mariners in the ass later in life, but this will probably not go down in the history books as “worst trade the Mariners made in the 2000s.” That list is too long to even crack.

M’s Acquire Bullpen (P)Help(s)

David-Phelps

Before reading this, I apologize if I go full redundancy in here if you’ve listened to the latest podcast. Last night while recording, I jammed my stick in the mud and essentially advocated for the Mariners to stay put outside of making a move almost identical to the one they just made, trading for RH reliever David Phelps from the Miami Marlins. Phelps is a converted starter/swingman, spending the first four years of his career averaging 90mph on his heater, all while being a perfectly fine, but middling major league player. After his conversion, Phelps saw his average velocity jump into the 93-94 range, with the latter being his number this year. He’s throwing harder than ever, and while he’s taken a step back from his big 2016 breakout season, he’s still been a quality arm.

Phelps was outstanding in relief for the Marlins last year, and he even managed to duck back in and start five games for the Marlins in August, and they were pretty damn good starts too – allowing a .563 OPS against, but also averaging less than 5 innings a start. There was no real stretch period for his transition, and he hopped back into the bullpen in September and crushed it, only allowing 5 hits across his 8 innings while striking out 13.

This year, Phelps hasn’t been quite as good, though the results are still solid. He’s never been a man of great control, and that’s continued into this year. He’s still missing bats, but at a lesser rate (9.77 K/9, down from 11.84 in ‘16). The xFIP has landed at 3.74, and his resulting contribution to the Marlins has been a perfectly fine 0.3 WAR.

From a fit perspective, it’d be hard to find somebody who makes more sense than Phelps. He’s been durable during his career, and he’s shown the ability to get “rubbery”, i.e.  throw multiple innings when asked without much consequence immediately following. The velocity is still rising, and he’s under club control for 2018 as well. At 30, he’s right in that dry-aging meaty part of the curve. Phelps has no discernable red flags, and he comes to the Mariners filling their greatest (black) hole – people who can throw baseballs.

There will be clamoring that Phelps isn’t the starter the team needs, and while that’s true, the Mariners also cannot make a playoff push while throwing Edwin Diaz and Nick Vincent every single time they play a close game they’re on track to win. Diaz has thrown his damn arm off lately, and while he’s been Jekyll instead of Hyde lately (that’s the good one, right?), it’s more than likely that he’s going to hit another valley before the season is over, leaving the team void of quality late-inning options. Phelps is a classic late-inning power arm, and while he hasn’t been awesome this season, they paid a price that represents that dip.

The ol’ rumor mill stated that the Marlins weren’t in love with the Mariners farm system, and well, yeah. The centerpiece from the M’s teenage wasteland is Brayan Hernandez, that not-so-small Venezuelan child the Mariners paid a pretty penny for back in 2014. Hernandez is 19 now, and isn’t doing much of anything in Everett. He remains a long-term project with some amount of unknown upside, but at best he’s still three years away from contributing to a major league team in any fashion. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that even somebody Ben Gamel could be a free agent before Hernandez ever dons an MLB uniform. He is, kindly put, a project who hasn’t shown any signs of translating tools into production.

The other arms lost are Brandon Miller, Pablo Lopez, and Lukas Schiraldi. The latter two are having horrible seasons in Modesto and will be lucky to ever make an MLB roster, and while Miller is doing fine in Clinton, his odds are still poor at best. Lopez and Miller both appear in the middle of the Mariners top 30 prospect list on MLB.com, but make no mistake, these players would not be similarly placed in an average farm system. Their loss should not be deeply lamented – outside of some unforeseen breakout, which could happen to anyone, there isn’t an MLB arm in the bunch. They are, more than anything else, throw-ins and lottery tickets to complete this deal.

Maybe this is a tiny bit of an overpay considering Phelps’ step back and Hernandez’s unknown upside/tools combo, but it fits just fine into a win-now strategy without much damage to the limited farm system. Phelps’ 2018 control give the M’s a chance to try him as a starter again to see if the velocity sticks, or they can flip him right back around for their own batch of lottery tickets that Dipoto likes. We’ll see how this affects the rotation, but Gallardo could move back into the #5 slot and Sam Gaviglio, who is decidedly not a MLB pitcher, could head back to AAA. Either way, Phelps slots in nicely as a late-inning option, especially as a person who can throw two innings when the bullpen is gassed. The Mariners have to win a lot of games to make the playoffs, and they’ll need an arm like Phelps to help carry the load.