Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mariners Making Moves in AL West

The busiest team this offseason has been the Seattle Mariners and they have rapidly closed the gap between themselves and the Angels. While the Angels have lost both Chone Figgins (to the Mariners, mind you) and John Lackey while doing little else, the Mariners have made a flurry of moves that should help them contend if not be an outright favorite coming in to 2010.

2009: A Year to Build On
The Mariners were an excellent defensive and solid pitching team in 2009, which allowed them to become one of if not the greatest example of run prevention throughout the league. Their two greatest assets in this category were King Felix who had a Cy Young worthy season (if not for Marvelous Greinke) and Franklin Gutierrez who is perhaps currently the greatest defensive CF in the Major Leagues whom no doubt was robbed of a Gold Glove. Ichiro remains an excellent fielder with a stellar, powerful and accurate arm in right field. Jack Wilson was acquired in a trade mid-season which only made their defense that much more dominant considering he’s an incredibly gifted defensive shortstop. Don’t forget Beltre (who may or may not depart) who continued to show he has one of the top third base gloves in all of baseball. I expect you’ve noticed that I am going on and on about defense. Well, that’s because their defense was about the only bright spot in 2009. Their punchless offense posted the worst OPS (On-base plus slugging percentage) in the AL and, much like the Giants, they simply could not score enough to keep up with other teams. The only significant contributors were Russel Branyan who had an excellent breakout season before breaking down with back problems in September and the ageless Ichiro. Branyan was a 1 yr, $1.4 M dollar signing that was, perhaps, a bit of foreshadowing in terms of the craftiness of Bavasi’s replacement, Jack Zduriencik. What’s more? Jack pulled off a heist by dumping the atrocious Yuniesky Betancourt for a couple of pitching prospects that could possibly be useful in the future. The Royals’ GM must be working with Bill Bavasi. Here is what Keith Law had to say about the trade.

Offseason Stuff: Free Agents, trades and Dumb Luck
In terms of this offseason, Christmas came a little early in the Pacific Northwest when Kenji Johjima opted out of the remaining two years of his contract (worth about $16 M). It appears Kenji preferred to go back and play in Japan, which was lucky for the Mariners because it freed them up some cash. In 2008, he had an absolutely brutal year at the plate where he probably couldn’t have hit his way out of a wet paper bag. In 2009, he rebounded somewhat but after he lost his everyday job to a platoon with Rob Johnson, he simply wasn’t worth near $8 M per year. The 3 year $24 M dollar extension was signed in April 2008, a parting gift to the Mariners from the inept Bill Bavasi. I don’t know what’s worse, his General Managing or Carlos Silva’s pitching. I’ll get to Silva, another of Bavasi’s unquestionable horrendous signings (4 yr, $48 M).

The Mariners then kicked off business by signing Chone Figgins, stealing him away from their division rival. Figgins has always been a gifted utility player that can play just about anywhere, however, given the chance to play 3B regularly he proved to be a slick and consistent fielder. Figgins has always had wonderful speed (averaging 46 SB and 6 triples over the last 5 seasons), but in 2009 Figgins hiked his OBP (on-base percentage) significantly to .395 making him an ideal leadoff hitter*. He drew about 40 additional walks in 2009 and should he sustain the ability to walk at last years rate it should make for an incredibly speedy top of the lineup in ‘10.

(*) Mariners fans may want to believe that Ichiro should retain his thrown at leadoff, however, his lack of plate discipline and inability to draw walks at the rate of Figgins should give Chone the edge. Also, Ichiro has excellent bat control which make him an ideal 2 hitter for hit and runs, etc. Lastly, Ichiro can not be expected to hit .350 (average) every season, and thus his OBP will take a hit in the seasons he is closer to .300.

After signing Figgins, the Mariners got themselves involved in a blockbuster 4 team trade that netted them 2008 AL Cy Young Cliff Lee. With that it was very clear they were going for it in 2010. Hernandez and Lee will quite possibly be the best 1-2 punch in either the AL or NL in 2010. Breaking down the trade: The Phillies sent Michael Taylor* (an excellent OF prospect), Kyle Drabek (probably their #1 pitching prospect and a future #2 starter) and Travis d'Arnaud (a solid catching prospect) to the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay.

(*) The Jays flipped Taylor to Oakland for Brett Wallace. Each are excellent prospects and the trade was more because it made sense for each team in terms of personnel. The A’s had a logjam of corner infielders and needed some depth in the outfield.

The Phillies then sent Cliff Lee to the Mariners for Phillipe Aumont and Juan Ramirez, who are both of the Mariners’ top pitching prospects, as well as Tyson Gillies (an extremely fast outfield prospect with limited offensive upside because of his lack of power.)

The Mariners gave up 3 very solid prospects, but in return, got a true #1 starter in Cliff Lee. The downside is the fact that Lee is only under contract for 2010. Apparently, the Phillies believed they would not be able to sign Lee to an extension they both could agree to in terms of dollars and years and that was the motivation in going after Halladay whom they worked out a 3 year, $60 M dollar extension (4th year vesting option) prior to consummating the trade. Halladay is the better of the two starters but the difference is not huge. Halladay will give you more innings and more CG’s and is an absolute beast of an Ace workhorse with slightly better stuff. The Phillies could have kept Lee for 2010 but took it as an opportunity to restock their farm system after giving up so much to obtain Halladay.

Lee is very affordable in 2010 at about $8 M (a contract he’d signed when he was an Indian just a short time ago, two trades prior). The Mariners did risk a lot because there is a definite chance Lee will walk away from them next winter when he becomes a free agent. Even then, the Mariners will receive draft pick compensation. Also, it is possible that they can sign Lee to an extension* if they are able to get him to fall in love with the city and the park. I see no reason why he should not love Safeco. Safeco is absolutely brutal on right handed hitters and because Lee is a lefty, he will see more of them. Think Jarrod Washburn. Washburn no doubt was helped not only by the Mariners’ defense but also the park. Only, Lee is much much better than Jarrod Washburn. At the very least, they put themselves in strong position to take the AL West by storm and make their first playoff appearance since 2001, something that will be warmly welcomed by Seattle. If they somehow don’t play well in the first half, they can still flip him to another team looking to upgrade for the playoffs and acquire some excellent prospects to restock their farm once again.

(*) Unfortunately, I don’t really see this happening for them. The Mariners need to try and lock up King Felix and it would be difficult to sign both long-term. Some already believe that Hernandez will be worth $100 M plus in free agency given his ability and young age. Lee won’t be too far behind.

The Mariners then did the unthinkable, they traded for Milton Bradley. At first glance, I can absolutely see why this might make Mariners fans cringe. Milton Bradley has extreme character issues and has played on something around 10 teams in about as many seasons. That being said, he was one of the best offensive players in the American League in 2008 for Texas, whom plays in the Mariners’ division. After signing a 3 year, $30 M contract with the Cubs he had a disastrous 2009 that culminated in him being sent home in September by Cubbies GM Jim Hendry for conduct detrimental to the team. What did they give up for Bradley? Nothing. The Mariners unloaded their final bad contract of the Bavasi era in pitcher Carlos Silva. The Mariners are the clear winners in this trade as the Cubs were unable to obtain any value whatsoever for Bradley. They roughly have the same financial commitment (Silva: $25 M remaining and $2 M buyout and Bradley: $21 M remaining). The Mariners did send over about $9 M spanning two seasons to offset the difference, however, it only amounts to about $3 M with the buyout.

Carlos Silva has had two terrible seasons which included an injury in 2009. He’s not even close to worth a 25-man roster spot on either team. The Mariners would have likely released him and so too should the Cubs. What they will do with him remains to be seen.

There are a couple of things to discuss in terms of Bradley. The obvious one is the label he has as a bad teammate and cry baby. This label is completely justified. My one defense I will provide is that Chicago is a horrible place to play for a mental midget. The Cubs fans are wasted by the middle of the first inning and they will jump on a player. Bradley should no doubt have a much better chance at succeeding within a much more docile and player friendly city and market in Seattle. Another thing to note is that he will likely DH a good majority of the time in Seattle which will keep him off of the field and away from the brutal ridicule he no doubt gets on the road patrolling the outfield. Actually, the benefits of this are two-fold. Bradley has had some difficult staying on the field and healthy in his career and a DH role should greatly increase the likelihood he’s able to stay in the lineup. The last item to discuss is of course what the Mariners possibly have to gain in this transaction, Bradley’s production. Milton Bradley can be a very productive offensive player and has been throughout his career. For one, he always works the count and posts a quality OBP. Even in 2009, he posted a .378 OBP (just 8 points lower than ICHIRO’s). His average and slugging percentage were not great but he walked 66 times in just 393 AB’s. Bradley is a switch-hitter and can hit for power from both sides when he’s right. He can be quite productive, in fact, and is just one year removed from posting the highest OPS in the AL. That makes the upside of this trade absolutely incredible, especially when considering they gave up absolutely nothing. Even if Bradley should continue to act like an absolute fool and play terribly, the Mariners can simply release him and be no worse off than they were prior to the trade, less $3 M. This is a fantastic trade and the fact that the Mariners need for offense is so acute makes it that much more meaningful. I’ll be quite honest. As a Giants fan, I couldn’t help but wonder what a trade of Aaron Rowand for Bradley might have looked like, given the Giants’ reminiscent need for some semblance of an average offense to support their phenomenal pitching staff.

Final Thoughts
The Mariners are still probably not done. They have upgraded their offense in certain areas but still have definite room for improvement. One avenue that has been considered by Seattle is Jason Bay. Avoiding Jason Bay is a good idea, if they do indeed avoid him. They have upheld if not close to upheld defense with Figgins at 3B over Beltre. If they retain Beltre, Figgins will play 2B making them that much better on defense. Bay would have made Gutierrez’s job that much more difficult in CF.

Off the books are Beltre (possibly), Branyan (possibly), Bedard, Johjima, and Miguel Batista. They may retain Branyan and Beltre and the grumblings seem to indicate that the Mariners have an interest in doing so.

If they keep Beltre that paves way for 1st round pick (2nd overall) Dustin Ackley to stay in the Outfield. More than likely he’d have to play LF but this might not be their top choice. It’s traditionally a more power type position and they will essentially be fielding 3 outfielders with minimum power (Ichiro and Ackley not prototypical but Gutierrez will be average power in CF) and Figgins at 3B is another power position where he won’t be providing it. But, it’s hard to hit it out of Safeco so maybe speed and gap hitters will serve them very nicely.

Quick Aside: Had Zduriencik been around a few years ago instead of Bavasi, don’t you think maybe he would have taken University of Washington alum and 2006 Golden Spikes Award winner Tim Lincecum before the Giants did at #10? Can you imagine that rotation? Just a thought.

While Seattle has gained significant ground, it seems as though the Angels have lost some. They lost their #1 starter John Lackey to the Red Sox and Figgins. Texas is an emerging team with wonderful pitching prospects* and a pretty solid offense. If they can continue developing their young staff and Josh Hamilton and Michael Young can stay healthy, they could pose a serious threat in the division as well. Oakland is the poorest franchise in this division by far. It’s lucky that the division has only 3 other competitors because it would make it just that much more difficult for them. That being said, they have possibly the best GM in baseball (Though this gap has significantly slimmed and some GM’s may not want to deal with him having been absolutely smoked on deals in the past) as well as some promising young offensive and particularly promising pitching prospects. With that, if the Mariners can grab another bat or two I have my money on them in 2010. They should be able to make an excellent run to get to the postseason and after that, who knows? Throwing Hernandez and Lee at the top of the rotation could look a lot like Johnson and Schilling who vanquished the Yankees in 2001. Folks in Seattle should be very pleased with Zduriencik and be eager to see not only what he does next, but what the Mariners are capable of in 2010. If baseball was an addiction (and for me it is) Bill Bavasi truly was rock bottom.

(*) Texas is thriving under the tutilege of Nolan Ryan, who has implemented a much tougher mentality towards pitchers within the organization.

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