Should Mariners Rebuild Using Cubs’ Blueprint?

Regardless of where the Seattle Mariners finish in the standings, GM Jerry Dipoto is facing significant personnel decisions this coming offseason. Although it’s obvious he needs to make changes, his strategy to reshape the club’s roster isn’t clear yet. Will Dipoto “blow up” the team or field a contender next season?

Certainly, some fans want to keep the band together for one more run. They prefer retaining and building around their veteran core of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Robinson Cano.

The club may have sputtered at times this season. But, its core players were the engines that propelled the best version of the Mariners in over a decade. Why not give it another whirl with a better supporting cast?

On the other hand, there’s a faction of Emerald City faithful who’ve reached a tipping point. They want the Mariners to start over by “tanking” in 2017 — similar to what the Chicago Cubs did several years ago. No postseason baseball since 2001 can make a fan base very desperate. Who can blame them?

The notion of “blowing up” the Mariners is an intriguing concept to say the least. If it worked for the Cubs, why wouldn’t it work in Seattle?

Good question.

First, we should consider the blueprint used by the Cubs before deciding if the Mariners should or could transform their organization using the same approach.

A Chicago story
The Cubs began the rebuild of their organization in earnest after the 2011 season when former Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein assumed the role of President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer became his GM.

It was a bumpy ride during the early stages of the new front office’s renovation process. During their first year at the helm, the Cubs lost 101 games. But, they incrementally lost fewer games in each successive season until they reached the National League Championship Series in 2015. Now, the Cubs have their best chance of reaching the World Series since 2003.

Road map to success
By the time Epstein arrived in tow, the Cubs’ record had been progressively worsening since their 97-win season in 2008. They still had good players including Starlin Castro, Aramis Ramirez, Marlon Byrd, Matt Garza, and Ryan Dempster. But, only Castro (21) and Garza (27) were under age-33.

The Cubs roster was aging and — other than up-and-coming pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Andrew Cashner — there was little relief in sight from a barren minor league system.

It was time for a change.

To fix themselves, Chicago systematically parted ways with aging veterans via trade or as their contracts expired. Simultaneously, they rejuvenated their farm system by every means at their disposal — shrewd deal making, good international scouting, and strong drafts.

In a relatively brief time, the Cubs had turned a corner. By 2015, their minor league system was brimming with prospects and they were competing for the postseason. That 101-loss season had become a distant memory.

About those prospects
While it’s true the “North Siders” have many exciting young stars, the vast majority of their major league players aren’t homegrown draftees or amateur free agents. That’s a false narrative fueled by the lazy analysis of talking heads. Here’s a look at the origin of players who were on the Cubs’ 25-man prior to September call-ups.

 

Building A Windy City Winner
Amateur FA Draft Free Agent
Trade
International FA Rule 5
Waivers
3 4 6 12 0 0 0

 

 

Yes, the Cubs boast talented homegrown players such as draftees Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and the injured Kyle Schwarber and amateur free agents Willson Contreras and Jorge Soler. But, it’s the imported talent that’s thrust them into World Series contention.

Who should I make the check out to?
During the last two off-seasons, the organization has invested significant cash into a small number of notable free agents capable of augmenting their strong foundation.

The Cubs outbid the competition for the services of southpaw Jon Lester, who’s been solid at the top of the rotation. Plus, they rounded out their rotation by signing veteran John Lackey and former Cub Jason Hammel.

Other high-profile free agents include right fielder Jason Heyward and second baseman Ben Zobrist. Although Heyward has struggled at the plate this season, he’s providing elite-level defense. Conversely, Zobrist has lived up to his billing in every respect and is vital to the club’s success.

Let’s make a deal
Sure, the Cubs have signed a few high profile free agents and drafted well. But, it’s their astute deal making that has set them apart from the competition.

 

 

 

It’s easy to see how the casual observer — or blow-hard talking head — could mistakenly presume the Cubs’ foundation is homegrown. Several of their best young players were acquired via the trade — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Addison Russell, and pitchers Kyle Hendricks, and Carl Edwards.

The last two deals on the preceding table signify that Chicago is no longer a rebuilding team, but a serious contender to win it all.

The Cubs surrendered two prospects and Adam Warren to the New York Yankees in exchange for closer Aroldis Chapman. It’s worth noting Warren was acquired from the Yankees last offseason for Castro. Essentially, they acquired a rental player for two prospects, a major league pitcher, and a five-time all-star second baseman.

A steep price for a three months of service from a closer.

The Cubs’ other July deal netted them starter/reliever Mike Montgomery. The price was two prospects — Dan Vogelbach and Paul Blackburn. Unlike the Chapman deal, Montgomery is under team control through the 2021 season. Perhaps, this turns out to be a win-win deal for both clubs involved. Time will tell.

Despite the high cost of Chapman, the deal makes sense for a club ready to win. Just a few year ago, the Cubs were selling to a team in a similar position — the Texas Rangers. The preceding table shows how much they were willing to surrender for veteran pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza in a heated pennant race.

Perhaps, one day we’ll look back at the Chapman deal as a turning point in reviving the Yankees. Still, I doubt anyone at Wrigley Field will care about the price paid for Aroldis Chapman if the Cubs win it all this year.

What about Seattle?
Getting younger like the Cubs did makes sense for Seattle. Of the 12 Mariners with 200 or more plate appearances this season, eight are age-32 or older. Only shortstop Ketel Marte is under 28. Sounds a little familiar to where Epstein began, doesn’t it?

If Dipoto wants to pursue a full-fledged youth movement, now is the time to do so. The majority of his older players — Adam Lind, Seth Smith, Chris Iannetta, Dae-Ho Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, and Nori Aoki — are either eligible for free agency or could be let go with minimal fiscal impact.

Does that mean the Mariners could use the Windy City blueprint?

Probably not.

For Seattle to replicate the Cubs’ plan, they’d need to move all of their veterans. That’s highly improbable. Unlike the roster inherited by Epstein, Dipoto’s club is laden with several players in the midst of expensive long-term deals. Take a look.

 

Mariners Under Contract
Name Age 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
Robinson Cano 33 $24M $24M $24M $24M $24M $24M $24M $24M
Felix Hernandez 30 $25.86M $26.86M $26.86M $27.86M Tm Option    
Kyle Seager 28 $8M $11M $19M $19.5M $19.5M $18.5M Tm Option
Nelson Cruz 35 $14.25M $14.25M $14.25M        
Seth Smith 33 $6.75M Tm Option          
Hisashi Iwakuma 35 $11M $14M Vest Option        
Steve Cishek 30 $4M $6M          
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/7/2016.

 

 

The respective contracts and ages of Cano and Hernandez make them virtually unmovable. Sure, Cano is still on top of his game. But, he’s still owed $168 million on a deal that doesn’t expire until after his age-40 season.

Hernandez’s pact is shorter in duration. But, the 30-year-old has struggled with injury and command issues this season and hasn’t consistently been “Felix-like.”

Does that mean the demise of the 2011 American Cy Young Award winner is imminent? No. But, he’s owed a King’s Ransom of over $81 million through 2019. That figure will make it tough to find potential suitors.

Never say never when it comes to trades. But, the Mariners would have to pay a significantly large portion of Cano’s and Felix’s salaries to attract a trade partner. Otherwise, the clubs would receive little value in return.

Two moveable Mariner veterans are Cruz and Seager. Although Cruz will be 37-years-old next July, he’s still performing at a high level. Plus, his contract is relatively short and affordable. Perhaps, a team needing a designated hitter type would be interested in the “Boomstick.”

Seager is much younger than his teammate, but he comes with a higher financial obligation. Yet, potential suitors would be receiving a Gold Glove winning third baseman — still in his peak years — with no commitment beyond age-33. That’s an appealing sales pitch to a team that doesn’t view his salary as cost prohibitive.

Iwakuma could be attractive to clubs looking for a middle-of-the-rotation arm. He’s had a strong and healthy season, plus his 2018 extension is innings-based and relatively team friendly. It’s important to note that he has a full no-trade clause, as does Hernandez and Cano.

Dealing Smith and former closer Steve Cishek is certainly possible. But, the club will yield a relatively small value thanks to with Smith’s diminishing defensive value and Cishek’s 2016 struggles and $6 million price tag.

The harsh reality is that the Mariners can’t move all of their highest priced veterans. The “Chicago Way” just isn’t an option. So, what should they do?

Stay the course.

The Dipoto Way
Okay, I admit it. I really don’t know what the “Dipoto Way” will entail this offseason. But, I believe he’s on the right track by building around the club’s talented, but expensive core with athletic players who can “control the zone.”

That doesn’t mean Dipoto shouldn’t consider dealing Cruz and/or Seager though. Moving either player could help the Mariners reload their roster for a postseason run next year. But, they’re not likely to make such deals unless they help the club beyond 2017.

Even if the Mariners could purge their veteran base, it’d be unnecessary. They can compete next season with those players. Unlike the 2011 Cubs, Seattle already has a young cadre at their disposal, which provides Dipoto with the opportunity to reshape his club without a complete roster detonation.

Players such as Edwin Diaz, Taijuan Walker, Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, Dan Altavilla, and Marte are all 25-and-under and poised to make a meaningful role with next year’s ball club. Plus, the 23-year-old Vogelbach will be in the mix at first base next season.

Perhaps, all of those young players won’t be with Seattle next year. Some may serve as trade chips to augment the club’s 40-man roster. How the Mariners go about transforming their roster will be both insightful and fun to watch.

One thing appears certain. Dipoto won’t be demolishing his ball club. He doesn’t need too. But, I expect his Opening Day roster will be competitive and have a more athletic, younger look and feel to it.

That sounds a lot better than tanking. Doesn’t it?

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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