Free agency is simple, it’s about money and opportunity. Mostly money. Trades aren’t as easy to project and they aren’t as simple to accomplish. They are, however, the more likely manner in which the club in Seattle turns the winter into more than a buy-one, make due the rest of the way like it was a year ago when Robinson Cano was the lone reliable offensive acquisition.
The M’s have Austin Jackson to man center field but questions in each corner. It appears they will make two mistakes this offseason concerning their corner outfielders. One, they’re very likely to trade Michael Saunders. They’ve made it clear they don’t value Saunders much and any team interested in acquiring him knows how they feel, hurting the club’s position in a trade scenario. Two, ultimately they are choosing Dustin Ackley over Saunders.
If one wants to argue the club needs two corner outfielders, I won’t dispute that. I think Saunders can play and he has produced when healthy the past two-plus years. Choosing Ackley simply because he’s avoided the disabled list is idiotic and he certainly has not out-played Saunders. He’s has good months in the past, and he had two good months in 2014 before falling on his face again in September. I wrote late in July why there’s hope Ackley has figured it out, but he’s far from a reliable, everyday option.
Either way, Seattle prefers Ackley to Saunders and by all accounts will seek an outfield bat, if not two, after dealing away their best outfielder from the past three years.
Seattle may have an answer at first base and/or DH in Logan Morrison, who had three good months of the four in which he played regularly. That does leave at least one of those positions available.
The M’s also could use a strong No. 2 catcher, a utility outfielder, a left-handed reliever to replace Joe Beimel, and perhaps a starting pitcher or two to protect versus injury and possible developmental hurdles.
Here are some potential targets on which to keep an eye.
Ben Zobrist — Tampa Bay Rays
Contract: Owed $15.5 million owed through 2015. Both are club option years.
Zobrist doesn’t bring the big power bat some of the others mentioned below do, but he’s a switch hitter that works counts, makes consistent contact and hits line drives, He also brings the ultimate defensive flexibility since he can play an average shortstop to go with his capable glove at second base and the outfield.
The two clubs discussed Zobrist this past summer and many of the same Rays’ baseball operations people remain, despite Andrew Friedman’s departure to the Dodgers. The Rays have been known to like Brad Miller and overall they could use an infusion of young players that aren’t pure prospects.
Matt Kemp — Los Angeles Dodgers
Contract: Owed $107 million through 2019 season.
Kemp is among the outfielders being shopped, reports Ken Rosenthal, and are willing to include “significant” cash in the right deal. There is no doubt they’d prefer to move Andre Ethier or perhaps Carl Crawford, but they too have large contracts attached and neither is as good a player as is Kemp, and neither is likely to interest Seattle at all since they each bat left-handed.
Kemp no longer is young and has missed some time due to various injuries the past few years, including an absence that lasted more than half the season in 2013 and more than 50 games in 2012. He was healthy in 2014 and his performance bounced back, too.
There are obstacles to a Kemp trade for any club; word is he very much prefers to play center field where he’s below average and declining and because of the contract. Even if the Dodgers are willing to share the cost greatly, all that means is that the trade cost rises every dollar L.A. chips into the mix.
The Dodgers have many needs but a Kemp deal would very much be about shedding some payroll, but they don’t have to move him and aren’t going to do so for any team’s extra parts.
Marlon Byrd — Philadelphia Phillies
Contract: Owed $8 million guaranteed in 2015 with $8 million club option for 2016. The 2016 option vests with 600 PAs in 2015 or 1,100 in 2014-15 combined.
Byrd was talked about a lot last summer and he was linked to the Mariners until the deadline passed. The asking price was steep, however, and Byrd remained in Philadelphia. With just one year left on his contract, Byrd still is an attractive piece for Seattle, if he’s used properly and the Phillies’ price comes down to earth.
If the M’s strike out on other preferred options, don’t be surprised if Byrd comes up late in the winter — if he hasn’t been traded by then. The Mariners are on his no-trade list, however, and the Phillies were asking for a ransom but perhaps cash can smooth out any differences in the end.
Evan Gattis — Atlanta Braves
Contract: Gattis has just two years of MLB service and will not be arbitration eligible until after the 2015 season.
Gattis has progressed into a fringe-average defensive catcher and while he’s dependent on BABIP some in terms of hitting for average in getting on base he’s a strong right-handed power bat with a little upside left.
He’s not a good outfielder but can hidden there for a few innings here and there. Depending on him to track fly balls is unwise, however, and he has limited experience at first base. To an American League club, though, Gattis’ value is fairly high. He can serve a the regular designated hitter as well as a top option off the bench when he doesn’t start, and he can be a team’s No. 3 catcher, handing the skipper that much more flexibility late in games.
He lacks the quick actions necessary to be the everyday catcher, but he does have a strong throwing arm. He understands how to call a game and pitchers like throwing to him, so he’s more than just an emergency catcher. His value is as high as it may ever get considering the dearth of right-handed power and because he’s under club control for four more season — the first few at bargain prices, one at near the league minimum.
The Braves are in need of young pitching and Seattle may have one or two Atlanta likes. Keep an eye on this situation. I’m not sure what Seattle thinks of Gattis, but he could make a lot of sense if the trade cost is something the club can stomach.
Desmond Jennings — Tampa Bay Rays
Contract: Arbitration 1
Jennings really only fits in Seattle if the club trades Jackson, but that’s something they should be open to doing. Jackson is a free agent after 2015 and is set to make over $8 million. He’s also not as good as Jennings with the glove, despite Lloyd McClendon’s claim that he’s a Gold Glove centerfielder.
I suspect Seattle will have no interest, but Jennings is a similar performer as Jackson at the plate and is under club control through 2017.
Dexter Fowler — Houston Astros
Age: 29 on March 22
Contract: Arbitration 3, free agent after 2015. Made $7.35 million in 2014, likely to receive around $9 million for ’15.
I view Fowler as a left fielder despite the Houston Astros using him in center. His value comes at the plate and on the bases where he’s above-average-to-plus. He doesn’t hit for much power but he gets on base and there’s probably a little left in the upside tank, too.
Swapping out Ackley for Fowler is a rather large upgrade for Seattle if they could somehow pry him away from the Astros at a reasonable cost. It’s a one-year rental, so it’s not a long-term fix, but the switch hitter has been a monster from the right side the past three season, posting a combined .321/.409/.457 triple-slash.
The Astros remain in talent collecting mode and probably would want pitching in return, but that’s just a best-guess. At some point, Houston is going to move Fowler — they aren’t likely to let him walk — as they may not be interested in locking him up long term considering how far away they are from legitimate contention.
Yoenis Cespedes — Boston Red Sox
Contract: $10.5 million in 2015, the will qualify for free agency.
Cespedes is a player Seattle nearly traded for in July and with all the recent reports that Boston will field calls on him — there’s even a report that the Red Sox’s coaches don’t like him — it’s reasonable to conclude he’s a candidate to be moved before the start of the season.
Cespedes, despite being a one-year fix, checks all the other boxes for the M’s in their search for more production. He bats right-handed, he hits home runs and he’s passable in the outfield. The trade cost isn’t likely to be very high, particularly if the report about some of the field staff not exactly loving the Cuban is true to any extent.
Adding a $10.5 million bat to the middle of the order might allow Seattle to go a step further with the roster than if they get stuck paying $15-18 million for the best free agent bat.
Ian Kennedy — San Diego Padres
Age: 30 on December 14
Contract: Arbitration 3. Earned $6.1 million in 2014. Will qualify for free agency after ’15.
Kennedy is an interesting candidate to be moved, not just because he’s a solid No. 2 starting pitcher but because he has just the one year left on his deal and the Padres have new leadership. That new leadership may identify Kennedy as one of the pieces they can deal away to build their team.
Andrew Cashner — San Diego Padres
Contract: Arbitration 2. Earned $2.4 million in 2014.
Cashner may be the pitching piece the Padres wait on, since his value isn’t very high due to career-long injury issues. When he’s healthy, he’s pitched well and I wonder if he’s not best suited for the bullpen — something many scouts believed even on draft day, 2008.
Bartolo Colon — New York Mets
Contract: $11 million in 2015. Will qualify for free agency after the season.
Colon was mentioned in trade rumors last summer and now that he has just one year left the Mets likely will push hard to move him and either clear the payroll space or chip in a little cash and get a nice player. Don’t count on the latter, though, as some scouts believe Colon finally is hitting the wall.
His velocity dipped a tick in 2014 and his command just wasn’t as impeccable as in previous seasons. Having said that, there are much worse No. 4 starters in baseball. The problem? Not many of them make $11 million.
Justin Morneau — Colorado Rockies
Age: 34 on May 15.
Contract: $6.75 million guaranteed in 2015. Mutual option for $9 million in 2016.
Morneau really doesn’t fit what the Mariners are looking for because he’s left-handed but if they add a righty or two in the outfield and still have trade pieces, Morneau absolutely is a fit. He and Morrison can share first base and designated hitter in that scenario.
The Rockies aren’t going to be in any hurry to move Morneau at that salary but if they don’t deal away Troy Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez yet want to cut a little payroll and get a piece back, Morneau is a candidate.
Troy Tulowitzki/Carlos Gonzalez
Neither are options for Seattle, in my opinion. Gonzalez is a left-handed batter, for one, and the trade cost is certain to be sky high. His contract is reasonable at $53 million over the next three years.
Tulowitzki is a different story altogether. He’s owed $118 million through 2020, but bats right-handed and can play shortstop. The problem is he’s 30 and has played in just 47, 126 and 91 games the past three years, and never has been consistent in staying on the field.
Taking on even 80 percent of that contract (roughly $95 million) — and there are no indications the Rockies will even consider sending chunks of cash with their franchise player — is a huge risk and not one easily absorbed by a club such as Seattle.
Tulowitzki gets a $2 million bonus if he’s traded, too, and can be traded only once during the contract without his consent. Perhaps the biggest reason the Rockies now are willing to listen is because two years from now Tulowitzki will have full veto rights and he’s coming off his career year.
Very important factor: If this were solely about taking on the money, this would be a complete no-brainer. But the acquiring club is going to have to part with a serious haul, plus take on most or all of the remaining contract. I can’t see any club doing that and most clubs don’t have the necessary inventory, anyway.