Justifying the Mariners as buyers

 The Seattle Mariners share the worst record in the American League with the Boston Red Sox. They sit 11 games back in the loss column within their division and eight back in the loss column in the race for the No. 2 Wild Card. Those deficits are daunting enough, but piling on the fact they’d have to pass four teams in the west and at least 10 clubs in the Wild Card hunt strongly suggests a specific plan for the trade deadline.. With that deadline approaching, the club should be selling. Right?

Maybe. There absolutely is a manner in which the M’s can buy and it’d be justified. How? There is more than one way to buy at the trade deadline. Here’s how:

First of all, barring a nearly-lossless stretch over the next 10 days, paying for two-month rentals to fill holes makes zero sense for a club in the Mariners. To justify any semblance of buying this summer the Mariners have to acquire players that can help their slim-to-none chances in 2015, and most of all are under club control through next year (perhaps beyond) in an attempt to jump start the roster alterations necessary for next season’s club.

The Mariners can buy and sell, too. They can move J.A. Happ — perhaps for a bullpen piece or a player that can help off the bench for a year and two months or more — and recall Roenis Elias and not miss a beat in the starting rotation. Austin Jackson can be traded to a contender that needs a more viable center field option. Again, perhaps a bullpen piece, part-time player or halfway decent prospect comes back. Filling Jackson’s shoes is more difficult. James Jones is not the answer in the field or at the plate. Neither is Dustin Ackley. Franklin Gutierrez cannot handle center regularly and cannot play everyday. The organization is without a viable option at the position, but in combination the drop-off in value may not be much, and Jackson still should be traded. The qualifying offer is going to be valued at more than $15 million this offseason. I’m not convinced Jackson gets a better deal than that, even if over a two-year deal, so the draft pick probably is not part of the valuation here. Certainly the same goes for Happ.

Trading Hisashi Iwakuma is going to be tough. His health is a concern for clubs, but his performance is the biggest worry. The Mariners cannot tender the qualifying for Iwakuma due to a clause in his entry contract, however, so if the right-hander is not in the club’s plans for 2016 — or the team feels (or knows) Iwakuma will not be back on his own volition (either to look elsewhere for work in MLB or to go back to Japan to finish his career), trading him is the only logical option — since it’s the only way to extract any future value out of him.

Who could the Mariners try to acquire that’s under contract beyond 2015? Lots of players. But first, it’s important to realize that high-impact players probably aren’t part of any summer additions, but not completely out of the question. Most of the big-name players available are rentals, and we’ve already established the trade cost for such rentals makes no sense for Seattle since there’s little chance it matters.

Here are some names to consider with the chances Seattle could land said player if they targeted him. All are unlikely (all trades of specified targets are unlikely for any and every club).

Carlos Gomez, CF: Low-Fair
Ben Revere, CF: Fair-Medium
Michael Brantley, LF: Low
Cameron Maybin, CF: Fair
Melky Cabrera, LF: Low
Yonder Alonso, 1B: Low-Fair
Nick Hundley, C: Low
Josh Reddick, OF: Low
Derek Norris, C: Low
Roberto Perez, C: Low-Fair
Ken Giles, RHR: Low-Fair
Jeremy Jeffress, RHR: Low-Fair
Will Smith, RHR: Low-Fair
Cody Allen, RHR: Fair-Medium
Zach McAllister, RHR: Low-Fair
Jay Bruce, RF: Low
Adam Eaton, CF: Low-Fair

Gomez will be pricey, even though he has just one year left on his deal, hasn’t had his best season and has been banged up a little bit. Bruce won’t come cheap, either, especially since he appears to be over the knee injury and is under club control for two more years after this at $25.5 million combined. Reddick is in the same boat as Gomez contract wise and is a better player than Bruce.

Cabrera could be a buy-low situation, as he’s had a bad year. He’s below-average defensively, though, so is far from ideal since both Trumbo and Nelson Cruz remain on the roster. Maybin has had a very good year and expecting it continue may be asking too much, but if the price is right taking a shot on the skill set may make sense. He hasn’t been as good defensively as hoped over the past couple of years, however, which is certainly something to consider strongly.

Michael Brantley is a solid left fielder that will hit for average and make contact. It’s a set of skills the Mariners are devoid. Brantley will not come cheap, however, especially considering he’s in his prime years and has a contract that runs through his option year of 2018 at reasonable rates — $25 million combined over the three seasons.

Revere isn’t a great option to play everyday, but he’s solid with the glove, makes a ton of contact, runs well and is under club control for two more years. The one concern here is that Seattle might pay for an everyday player, both in trade cost and salary. Revere earns $4.1 million this season and is arbitration eligible after each of the next two seasons. He could net around $15 million combined, which is right around what Jackson received. Revere is benefiting from his Super Two status after the 2013 season, giving him four years of arbitration salaries.

The relievers mentioned above all are under club control well beyond 2015. The cost may very well be prohibitive, as is with the catchers noted above.

Trade assets are not absent in the organization. For the long-term, star-level player, perhaps the Mariners do not have the talent inventory, at least not without upsetting the current 25-man roster significantly (Taijuan Walker, Brad Miller, Mike Montgomery). But for average players, part-timers, answers in the bullpen? Sure they do, despite struggles to many of the club’s top bats in the farm system.

Salary shouldn’t be a concern from the standpoint of where the club’s payroll sits, either. They are not out of money. Stop listening to anyone who suggests so. They may choose not to spend significantly more money during the season (or over the winter, too, I suppose), but suggesting they are simply out of payroll space is stupid since the club never has stated publicly what their cap is, if they even have one. And what we do have a sense of is they prefer a fluid, sliding payroll system where it covers multiple years, rather than having a single-season number to cap off the club’s spending on players.

And out of money? No. Just…. no. The organization ingeniously negotiated an opt-out in their deal with Root Sports/ DirecTV several years back. That resulted in a renegotiation. That renegotiation ultimately produced a reported $2 billion deal over 17 years. If that report is correct — and there are whispers in some circles that it’s worth a lot more than that — the deal puts $117 million per year on average into the revenue stream. This is on top of improved attendance at the ballpark — over 29,000 per home date, up nearly 4,000 per date versus last season (caveat, 2014 was through 162 games in which the club was in the race throughout, that isn’t likely to be the case in 2015) — and increased TV ratings.

Forbes’ Maury Brown wrote about the increase in MLB’s prime-time TV ratings last week. Those ratings — again, prime time only — are up significantly for Seattle. They are one of 10 MLB clubs beating broadcast and cable competition on television in their market. The Mariners’ ratings are up 10 percent over last year’s pre-break numbers.

Yes, they increased payroll and spent $240 million on Robinson Cano, $58 million on Nelson Cruz and have Felix Hernandez signed to a deal worth $175 million total. The three are owed about $361 million after 2015. Cruz through 2018, Hernandez through 2019 and Cano through 2023. Still, however, that’s $361 million committed over several years. The club is pulling in revenues that far exceed that — $117 million per year on average from the RSN deal alone.

The Mariners’ current position does not allow for a wise move that is a rental player. It also does not allow for a future-risking move such as trading Taijuan Walker and his five more years of control for anything short of a star player under control for at bare minimum two years after 2015. There are a lot of buy-and-sell scenarios, and there is indeed a sell-only scenario.

There is exactly zero acceptable scenarios where the 2015 Seattle Mariners — unless the next 10 days produce at least eight victories and they gain marked ground on those in front of them — are aggressive buyers that add rental players, or fail to sell off pending free agents.

Buying makes sense, but it should be a specific type of buy. Selling absolutely should be part of the approach, regardless of whether or not buying is.

One concern many have, and understandable so, is that perhaps a change at GM is necessary and the current GM still holds the position that would have him doing the buying and selling. While it’d be ideal, if the club does end up making a move, to have the new GM make these trades, that’s 100 percent implausible and impossible. The only alternative to having Zduriencik make these trades is to fire him and hope one of his assistants, perhaps Jeff Kingston, is willing to stick around in the interim to make such trades. Standing pat isn’t an option. Let me repeat that: Standing pat is NOT an option. At the very least the pending free agents have to be traded. That is a must. Firing Zduriencik before the deadline probably isn’t the best timing. Selling off a few middling talents isn’t difficult. It’s not something Zduriencik can screw up to the point where it cripples the club. Even mediocre trade results are better than hanging onto the players and having no chance to net future value out of them.

What’s understandable is the fright that races to the brain when imagining a job-saving approach at this year’s deadline by the club’s general manager. Couple things there: One, Zduriencik may very well not have any clue he’s not going to be back for 2016 — partly because he may actually be back. He received a “multi-year” extension last August and if the organization is giving him the behind-the-scenes vote of confidence, his approach likely remains business as usual, rather than freak-out mode. And I’m not sure Zduriencik would freak out and try some kind of over-the-top move, anyway. I was concerned about it a few months ago. I no longer get the sense this is very likely at all.

And president Kevin Mather could put the cuffs on any deal he doesn’t feel right about, too, as can Howard Lincoln. Either way, the Mariners could buy as much as sell later this month. And as long as their eye is toward 2016 more than anything, the process is justifiable.

The results? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Jason A. Churchill

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