Churchill: Fixing the Mariners

 The Seattle Mariners are big business. Yes, they’re a Major League Baseball team, but it’s a $9 billion industry and the M’s are a business. That business has invested heavily in the product in the form of Robinson Cano‘s $240 million contract, the $175 million value of King Felix’s deal and the $58 million guaranteed handed out to Nelson Cruz this past winter. Those all are aggressive investments, but to make money, usually you have to spend some, and baseball is no different.

So, the Mariners went out and spent big money, and as a result boast one of the more talented rosters in Major League Baseball. They aren’t the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals or St. Louis Cardinals, but the 25-man roster is a decent mix of young talent, proven veterans and budding all-stars, to go along with a few journeymen and fringe-roster types. They’re top heavy, though, and probably need more help to break through to the postseason. The postseason is the payoff for the aforementioned investments.

Significant trades are not realistic three weeks into May — that could come this summer, or at least deep into June — but there are and will be moves that can be made to improve the club incrementally with each upgrade. The club started that process by acquiring Welington Castillo from the Chicago Cubs — that’s step No. 1. More steps are necessary to get beyond the fringe-average levels they’ve played through the first quarter of the season.

Actually and realistically ‘fixing’ the Mariners is not all that plausible, but it is possible to come close.

Before getting into detail, first let’s identify the areas of need — not in terms of positions on the field, but things the club is not getting from their roster that they need to in order win enough games to be in the mix in September.

  1. On-Base Percentage
  2. Outfield Defense
  3. Sixth/Seventh Inning
  4. No. 2/3 Starting Pitching Performance

To get what they aren’t at present, changes need to be made in personnel. Here are some potential pieces to the ultimate puzzle in each aforementioned category:

 On-Base Percentage and Outfield Defense
This simply is about hitting, but a high-strikeout, low-OBP slugger isn’t the answer, although it’s be a small upgrade to what the club has now. Rickie Weeks has done fine versus left-handed pitching, but he’s still learning the league and has been asked to hit right-handers, too, which isn’t really why he was given $2 million. Dustin Ackley has to be replaced. Ideally, the club would acquire a better hitter and a better fielder, but this is a spot where some kind of all-star is not necessary, either. Another Seth Smith would suffice.

In the interim, the club will activate Austin Jackson at some point soon, which should mean the roster spot of Willie Bloomquist. Knowing how the M’s work sometimes, they’ll just ship Chris Taylor back to Tacoma or be bailed out by a “sore ankle” from another reserve, but that is beside the point. Jackson makes the defense better — he’s better in center than Justin Ruggiano and Ackley and his presence allows Ruggiano to play a corner spot, at least late in games when Nelson Cruz starts in right field.

Furthermore Cruz has no business playing right field as much as he has thus far. Memo to the Mariners: Cruz isn’t leading the league in home runs and batting over .340 because he’s playing the field versus being used as the designated hitter. That’s just an excuse for giving into the player, who understandable prefers to play in the field. And no, Cruz’s small-sample splits between the two roles over the course of his career aren’t evidence to the contrary. Heck, it’s not even a clue, because he’s never been given full-time or near full-time duty at DH to allow him to settle in and hit, which is all he does that is valuable to the team.

As long as Cruz keeps fooling his manager — and apparently a lot of others — the club’s run prevention will not be optimal. Cruz is a liability in the field. Jackson’s return mitigates that if Lloyd McClendon is as wise as one would hope.

As for Brad Miller playing left field more, well, Taylor has to hit or the move makes no sense. Miller has to be in the lineup, at least versus right-handed pitching, and the best offensive option might be Miller at shortstop and a new left-handed hitting left fielder. Committing Miller as the lefty-bat in left field also commits Taylor as the near-everyday shortstop. Doing so also suggests the club hasn’t a spot for an outfield upgrade, limiting how much better the club can get before the trade deadline.

Perfect: Carlos Gomez, CF — Milwaukee Brewers
Gomez is among the elite few centerfielders in baseball and if the Brewers want to get anything for him beyond a rental price, they’ll have to move him this summer or over the coming winter, as he’s under contract through next season only. The Brew Crew will get a nice haul for Gomez if they deal him before the start of 2016, perhaps no bigger than before this year’s deadline. Taijuan Walker or James Paxton almost certainly would have to be part of a package offer, but Gomez, all by himself, would fix two sore areas of need for Seattle; on-base percentage (and a leadoff option) and outfield defense. Austin Jackson is fine in center, but he hasn’t hit much and conceivably could be used to significantly upgrade the corner outfield defense if Gomez were acquired.

Numerous clubs will come calling if GM Doug Melvin puts Gomez on the block, but if Jack Zduriencik puts on two different caps — his creativity cap and the one that gives him guts — perhaps a significant package going out can bring back Gomez and right-hander Kyle Lohse. I can’t imagine Mike Fiers is available in such a deal, since he’s under club control for four years after this and will be dirt cheap again in 2016, but perhaps a reliever could be part of the return for the Mariners.

Ideal: Michael Brantley, LF — Cleveland Indians
Brantley exploded a year ago and has continued to hit in 2015, showing no signs of slowing down. He’s a plus glove in left, fringe-average in center and a terrific baserunner.

The Indians have holes, but most of them are offensive right now, suggesting a deal for Brantley makes zero sense. However, if GM Chris Antonetti sees a sideways deal of equal or greater value, one of the better left fielders in baseball could be discussed.

For Seattle, again, this means none of the young talent can be untouchable, pitching included, and the Tribe will have to continue to struggle enough that the club feels a drastic move or two is necessary. Brantley may be more of a long shot than Gomez, though, since he’s under contract through 2017 with an option for 2018 at a bargain price.

More Likely: Gerardo Parra, LF — Milwaukee Brewers
Parra, 28, is a solid defensive corner outfielder with average on-base skills. He has a little pop and can serve as a secondary option in center. He’s a left-handed batter who has performed well versus right-handed pitching for most of his career. Parra clearly is two steps up from Dustin Ackley, which allows McClendon to use Brad Miller anywhere he wants, including shortstop versus some right-handed pitching.

Other potential fits: Josh Reddick, RF — Oakland Athletics; Will Venable, OF — San Diego Padres.

Ben Revere will be mentioned by some, but he’s not much of an offensive upgrade and if he’s not going to get on base, his lack pf punch is magnified greatly. A defense-only acquisition makes little sense at this stage.

 Sixth-Seventh-Eighth Inning
Whatever is wrong with Danny Farquhar has to be addressed, and unfortunately it probably means moving on, at least temporarily. The right-hander’s velocity is down, his cutter is being pounded (.375) and he doesn’t have the command to get away with a 92 mph four-seamer as his primary offering. He has a good curveball and his changeup has looked a lot better this year than last, so perhaps part of the fix here is fewer cutters. A lot fewer.

In reality, even if Farquhar figures it out some the club probably needs another veteran late-inning option. Yoervis Medina no longer is an option and newly-signed Kevin Gregg probably isn’t either, though I’m intrigued about what he might be able to do in lower-leverage scenarios.

If the Mariners do hit the market for a relief arm — not a closer, they’re always grossly overpriced and McClendon isn’t going to remove Fernando Rodney from the role — there will be several arms available.

Potential fits: Cody Allen, RHP — Cleveland Indians; Jonathan Broxton, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers; Steve Delabar, RHP — Toronto Blue Jays; Jason Grilli, RHP — Atlanta Braves.

No. 2/3 Starting Pitching
The Mariners got such production from Hisashi Iwakuma a year ago and certainly are hoping the veteran returns in July. I’m not holding my breath. If he comes back and pitched to form, great, but the club still should seek out at least a No. 3 starter to give McClendon another reliable veteran. I’m not talking Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto here — that’s the kind of target that undoubtedly costs the club big. I’m talking Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Mike Fiers — all Brewers starters — or even Scott Kazmir.

None of the above are legitimate No. 2 starters, but there may be exactly zero of those available. And yes, adding one of them pushes one of the club’s young starters out of a rotation spot and if Iwakuma does return, it pushes two arms to another role. But hey, we just talked about the club needing more bullpen help in the sixth and seventh inning, so is it so bad if the club used Walker in such a relief role until he was needed again in the rotation?

The club is trying to win this year, not simply develop for the future. A few months in a relief role wouldn’t severely impact Walker’s development as a future starter, and there’s a chance he actually pitches very well in relief and helps the M’s get to October for the first time in 14 years. Just a thought.

In six or eight weeks when such an acquisition would most likely occur (not that sooner wouldn’t be better), Walker may not be the starter whose spot is obviously up for grabs. Look how quickly Roenis Elias flipped his present value for the better. Either way, standing pat in the starting pitching department is a mistake, despite James Paxton’s recent performance, Elias’ progress and the steady J.A. Happ at the back end.

Potential fits: Lohse, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers; Matt Garza, RHP — Milwaukee Brewers; Scott Kazmir, LHP — Oakland Athletics;


Expecting the Mariners to make several trades to completely fix their roster is borderline absurd, but there’s no reason they can’t go out and grab a Parra-level outfielder and stop using Cruz in right field for the idiotic reasons that are blindly apparent, plus change Farquhar’s arsenal again and snag a late-inning arm before the deadline, while making sure one of the better starting pitchers, albeit not one of the elite ones, lands in your city to serve as Iwakuma/Walker insurance.

Yes, it will cost talent in return. But the Mariners no longer have the right to protect their future the way they have at certain points over the past several seasons. There should be be exactly zero untouchable prospects, including D.J. Peterson, and even Taylor should be on the table, if necessary.

The revenues are abundant and the payroll should be the one concern furthest from the organization’s mind. After all, the best way to make money is to spend it, and their largest and riskiest investments have a better shot to pay dividends if a few more key assets are acquired.

Of course, those investments have to pull their weight, which means Cano has to flip the switch pretty soon. And no, I don’t now why Cano continues to expand the strike zone and underperform. What I do know is that he has a long track record of hitting and the M’s need him to hit. Trades and call-ups will not completely solve the club’s offensive woes. Some of it is on the current group to be better.

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Jason A. Churchill

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