Mariners: rebuild or remodel?

The major league non-waiver trading deadline has passed and now, there’s time to reflect on the moves made by both buyers and sellers leading up to Friday’s 4 pm ET deadline. In Seattle – much to the chagrin of their fans – the under-performing Mariners are on track to miss the postseason for the fourteenth consecutive season. That’s why going into this week, Seattle was poised to be a seller with several veterans – Austin Jackson, Hisashi Iwakuma, Mark Trumbo, Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Mark Lowe, Joe Beimel, J.A. Happ, and Dustin Ackley – who could have some degree of value to contenders.

Prior to this week, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill suggested that Seattle should strategically trade major league talent – be buyers and sellers – in order to get an early start on making improvements for next year. The team did that to some degree this week by making three deals –- Ackley to the New York Yankees, Happ to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Lowe to the Toronto Blue Jays for prospects. Jason gives Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik a satisfactory grade for the moves he made, while giving the organization a failing grade for holding on to Iwakuma – their most valuable deadline commodity

The team’s moves acknowledges that they know that the season is lost and will further energize fans who’ve been debating on the approach that the Mariners should take to transform the themselves into contenders in 2016 and beyond. There’s an segment of the Mariners’ fan base that doesn’t agree with Jason – who has suggested a “remodeling” rather than a complete rebuild. They’d prefer to “blow up” the roster and start over from the ground up.

In the eyes of some, the term “rebuilding” equates to “blowing up” an organization at both the major and minor-league levels. In reality, there’s no “one size fits all” approach to getting a franchise back on track. Some teams need to go the “blow up” rebuilding way, while others can go via the “remodeling” route. So, which approach should the Mariners to use become a serious contender and not just a team that lingers on the fringe of contention?

I’m the son carpenter, so I tend to relate fixing a major league organization in the terms of home improvement. As with a home, re-doing a baseball franchise depends on its existing condition, desires of the owner, and financial flexibility. With that in mind, lets look at a few teams that used different approaches in order to become relevant once again.

Razing the foundation – Chicago Cubs
When Theo Epstein assumed the duties of President of Baseball Operations in 2011, the Cubs were coming off a 91-loss season and the roster consisted of aging, high-priced veterans who were under-performing and there wasn’t any immediate relief in their minor league system. Despite not winning a World Series in over a century, Cubs’ ownership was willing to accept a massive rebuild – which takes time – because Epstein and General Manager (GM) Jed Hoyer was to planned to build a sustainable winning organization.

To say that the Cubs “blew up” the roster is an understatement. Only one player – Starlin Castro – on the team’s current 25-man roster is a holdover from the previous regime. Chicago incrementally parted ways with major leaguers in order to maximize value and restock their minor league system. Players like Scott Hairston, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Jason Hammel, Jeff Samardzija, Andrew Cashner, Welington Castillo, and Sean Marshall have netted Chicago eight players who are currently on their big league roster – including Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler.

Thanks to the combination of trades, amateur drafting, and amateur free agent signings, the Cubs have transformed their minor league system into one of the best in the majors. Their top six prospects – including recent call-up Kyle Schwarber – rank among the MLB.com top 100. Throw in draftee Kris Bryant – who debuted this year and is already an all-star – and Cuban free agent Jorge Soler and you can see that the Epstein/Hoyer tandem has built a strong foundation of young major leaguers and prospects to build around or use as trade commodities.

How Cubs Were Built
Draft
Int’l Amateur Free Agency Trades Rule 5/Waivers
2 2 13 14 0

The future looked bright going into this season, although most of the team’s bright minor league stars weren’t ready for the majors. So, the Cubs added a marquee free agent – Jon Lester – plus other prominent names such as Miguel Montero, Jason Hammel, David Ross, Rafael Soriano, and Jason Motte via free agency and trades in order to let their prospects continue their development and simultaneously field a competitive team in 2015. The Cubs’ strategy to supplement their core group of dynamic, young, players with inexpensive veterans has helped the team into playoff contention and – for the first time in years –the team playing on the north side of Chicago was relevant at the deadline .

Remodeling with a shoestring budget – New York Mets
After the 2010 season, the Mets hired Sandy Alderson was hired as their GM to help reinvigorate a franchise that lost its direction after appearing in the 2000 World Series and 2006 National League Championship. Like Epstein, Alderson had a proven record. Contrary to Epstein’s situation, Alderson inherited a minor league system that – entering this week – supplied 18 of the 37 players on their 25-man roster or on the disabled list. Many of those 18 names are familiar names.

Key Mets Inherited by Sandy Alderson
  David Wright
Matt Harvey Jacob deGrom
  Jon Niese
Lucas Duda Daniel Murphy
  Steven Matz Juan Lagares Wilmer Flores
  Bobby Parnell
Jeurys Familia Jenrry Mejia

With so many players already in place, there was no need to “blow up” the roster. So, Alderson built up the team’s foundation by shrewdly making several deals that have landed valued assets. As I discussed in June, the Mets acquired starting pitcher Zack Wheeler by flipping pending free agent Carlos Beltran at the 2011 trading deadline. Alderson then boldly traded the reigning Cy Young Award winner – R.A. Dickey – to the Toronto Blue Jays for starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who will be vital to their playoff aspirations during the remainder of this season and beyond.

Although the Mets play in a big market, they’ve maintained a small market budget during the Alderson era due to the reported financial hardship that their ownership has experienced. Accordingly, New York has strategically added several lower-tier veterans with relatively short contracts – Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson, and Michael Cuddyer. In the days leading up to Friday’s deadline, Alderson has continued to improve the team’s roster by adding veterans Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, and Tyler Clippard to help jump start the team’s offense and improve their bullpen. Now, the Mets are poised to play meaningful games in September.

A rebuilding team can amass talent in four different ways – amateur draft, international amateurs, international and major league free agency, and the trades market. The Cubs and Mets have used these options differently because one had a good foundation and one didn’t. Yet, they’ve arrived at the same position – contenders on July 31. There are other situations when patience is in low supply and teams want their rebuilding effort completed sooner than later. In those cases, a more aggressive approach may be applied.

Quick fixer-upper – San Diego Padres
When Padres GM A.J. Preller took over last August, he wasted little time in giving his roster a facelift. Unlike the Cubs and Mets – who took years to renovate – the Padres opted to make a series of headline-grabbing changes that immediately altered their appearance and the perception of the team, but they didn’t necessarily do much to reinforce their long-term infrastructure.

Preller traded for multiple recognizable names like Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr, Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, Craig Kimbrel, and Will Middlebrooks, plus he signed starting pitcher James Shields to a four-year/$75 million deal. Of the 31 players on the 25-man roster or the disabled list, 14 weren’t with the team in 2014.

Noted Padres Added By A.J. Preller
 Matt Kemp
Justin Upton
Derek Norris
 James Shields
Craig Kimbrel
Wil Myers
 Shawn Kelley
Melvin Upton Jr.
Brandon Maurer
 Clint Barmes
Brandon Morrow

Acquiring big names created a groundswell of excitement, but it came at a cost – in both talent and dollars. San Diego parted ways with several of their highest-regarded young players – Dodgers’ starting catcher Yasmani Grandal – and two MLB.com top 100 prospects – Washington’s Trea Turner and Atlanta’s Matt Wisler. Moreover, another nine prospects traded are now top-30 prospects for the teams that they were traded to – Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Philadelphia Phillies. Only one of Padres prospects – outfielder Hunter Renfroe at number 37 – is in the MLB.com top-100 and he’s currently playing at Class-AA level.

The Padres’ win-now approach looks to have fallen short, although Preller’s hasn’t given up on 2015 – he added reliever Marc Rzepczynski and kept his pending free agents. It’s unclear how he’ll address his fixer-upper project after the season if the team doesn’t jump back into the race. I’m not going to second-guess the Padres’ GM because his turnaround effort isn’t over yet – he’s merely transitioning to another phase of the process. Hopefully for Preller, his rebuilding project won’t result in a condemnation by ownership and fans. Unlike San Diego’s improvement plan that tried to do a major refurbishment quickly, a winning team may have good curbside appeal and still need more improvements. 

Doing an add-on – Kansas City Royals
The defending American League champions had a great 2014, but GM Dayton Moore had his work cut out for him after game-seven of the October Classic – the team ace Shields, designated hitter Billy Butler, and outfielder Nori Aoki to free agency. Since the Royals are a small market team, they opted to not sign the threesome and decided to add lower-tier free agents.

Although the team’s offseason acquisitions have produced mixed results, the totality of the new players – combined with holdovers – have buoyed the team to the best record in the American League. Although the décor looked good, Kansas City entered July with a few issues that needed attention. Specifically, right-hander Yordano Ventura’s struggles after a breakout 2014 combined and the recent loss of southpaw Jason Vargas to season-ending elbow surgery left the starting rotation as an area needing improvement.

Key Changes to 2015 Kansas City Royals
  Notable Losses
 Notable Additions
  James Shields
 Edinson Volquez
  Billy Butler
 Kendrys Morales
  Nori Aoki  Alex Rios
  Raul Ibanez
 Chris Young
  Scott Downs
 Johnny Cueto
   Ben Zobrist

To make sure that his master plan didn’t lose momentum, Moore added a pitcher with game-one starter stuff – Johnny Cueto. Moreover, he added Ben Zobrist who can help at second base – where Omar Infante has struggled – or in the outfield, while injured all-star Alex Gordon recovers before an expected September return. Thanks to the team’s strong foundation of young players, the Royals have been able to quickly update their appearance and have gone from wild card wannabe to World Series contender in just one year.

Conclusion
The 2014 Mariners were better than most expected – including me, but they’ve regressed in 2015.  The Ackley, Happ, and Lowe deals signal that the team is ready to make changes. It’s true that multiple changes will be needed in the offseason, but the Mariners aren’t a “blow up” candidate. Unlike the 2011 Cubs, they have veteran and young players who can be either used as a foundation or flipped in deals to help reinforce that foundation.

Doing a massive purge in Seattle – if that was the correct choice – requires complete buy-in by the organization. That means that no Mariner would be untouchable – including fan favorites Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager who would reap the most value in trades. I don’t believe that most “blow up” proponents wants to see the departure of “King Felix” and Seager.

The Mariners would best served to “remodel” – as the Mets have done – by parlaying select veterans into future contributors, retaining key pieces, strategically adding veteran acquisitions and excelling at developing prospects. Seattle should also adopt the Cubs’ business practice of acquiring veterans – via trade and free agency – who can serve as bridges until their heralded prospects are truly ready. This would help the Mariners feeling compelled to rushing prospects like they’ve done with Ackley, Mike Zunino, and Brad Miller.

The team’s moves prior to the Friday’s deadline sets the stage for an interesting offseason for the Seattle Mariners. Player value won’t be the only element of the organization’s structure that will be scrutinized –- team ownership will have to evaluate their front office and decide whether to stick with the current leadership or make a change. As with any big remodeling job, the Mariners’ choice of overseeing foreman will be the most important factor in changing the Mariners’ on-field fortune. 

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