Should M’s eye Cespedes, Upton?

 The short, easy answer to the title question is, no, they shouldn’t. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that, because, well, in a vacuum, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes are better players than those the Seattle Mariners project to use in both corner outfield spots in 2016.

Before we go too far, let’s clear some things up about such a scenario. Paying either player 5-6 years worth at $18-20 million per isn’t happening, nor should it. The Mariners, under the tutelage of new GM Jerry Dipoto, are on a mission to build sustainable success. With this kind of plan typically comes a few seasons where it’s not wise to go for broke — usually the first year or two. What’s developed this winter, however, is slower markets for both veteran outfielders, suggesting at least the plausibility of one of them accepting a short-term deal, such as a one-year, show-me deal that reinserts the player into next year’s market in hopes of landing the long-term solution.

So why not the Mariners on a one-year pact? First all, it remains unlikely either player will be forced to take a one-year deal, but for the Mariners, it blows the budget for 2016, impacting the chances of impact moves during the season should the Leonys Martins, Steve Cisheks, Ketel Martes and Chris Iannettas perform well enough to support the Big Three (Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz) all the way to legitimate contention. Such a one-year buy also could impact the club’s payroll negatively for future years, since the club prefers to view budgets as a rolling, multi-year venture, rather than simply year-to-year.

More importantly, however, signing Cespedes or Upton to a one-year deal worth $18 million or more simply isn’t worth it. Here’s why:

Let’s use Cespedes as the sample, but Upton isn’t necessarily a better or worse fit for some of the same reasons, and the player value projects eerily similar. Much of Cespedes’ defensive value is in his arm rather than covering ground, though he’s in much better shape now than he was in 2013 and 2014, with a quicker first step and even more effort into his jumps and routes. At Safeco Field, range is important, though, and I’d project the 30-year-old as an average right fielder who helps additionally with his arm. There may still be a few prime-level years left for the Cuban-born, but the true upgrade here would all be in the bat, not on the bases and not in the field.

At the plate, Cespedes’ value spiked in 2015, particularly after the trade to the New York Mets. Overall, his line-drive rate was up, his hard-hit rate was up, largely contributing to his explosion over the final few months. And while there’s no reason to assume with all certainty that he reverts back to his previous years’ rates, it’s reasonable to expect some level of a regression to the means, even considering Cespedes’ small sample in the states.

Steamer projects Cespedes as a 2.9 fWAR player in 2016 — I actually think that might be a little pessimistic, since I believe sometimes, even later in a player’s career, they can simply become better, especially in terms of finding the barrel and plate discipline. Cespedes may just be better at finding the barrel than he has been in prior years. Maybe it simply took him some times to build his own book on pitchers and the ways of Major League Baseball. In the end, I’m more optimistic on him for 2016 and would toss a 3.5 fWAR range on him.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assign Cespedes, even at Safeco Field, a value of 3.5 wins above replacement this coming season.

The Mariners are expected to run in right field with Nori Aoki, and a little bit of Nelson Cruz. It’s also likely Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez, and perhaps a utility player, makes a few appearances, too. But for now, we’ll stick to the main pair, since the periphery contributions aren’t likely to change much whether it’s Aoki/Cruz or a player like Cespedes.

Aoki is projected by Steamer as a 0.9 fWAR player, no doubt based very much on his age, 34, and the fact he got hurt and played just 93 games in 2015. It’s reasonable to expect 125+ games for the veteran, which all by itself adds value. Aoki is probably a safe bet for 1.3-1.7 fWAR in that case. We’ll split the difference and call it 1.5.

Cruz’s contribution to right field isn’t going to amount to much, as he’ll be the regular DH, but we’re probably looking at 25 games or so. Like Cespedes, Cruz’s Steamer projections are low, but since the negative value of the slugger’s defense will be suppressed greatly, a 1.6 fWAR is suggesting Cruz will be about 33 percent as valuable in 2016 and he was in 2015. That simply doesn’t happen a lot, and unless the 35-year-old falls off the planet at the plate, which is not what is called a reasonable expectation of production.

Again like Cespedes, Cruz likely is worth more than his Steamer projection; for the sake of this exercise, Cruz likely is worth about three wins above replacement. There’s a chance he’s worth even more since he was so good at the plate last year he was worth 4.8 fWAR, despite his 80 games in the field where he tore down his overall value, but we’ll stick with 3.0 fWAR for now.

His right-field portion amounts to about a half of a win, based off 25-30 games in the field.  In the end, it’s very reasonable to believe the Mariners will get about 2.0 fWAR out of Aoki/Cruz in right field in 2016. This means, signing Cespedes costs the club the salary — which likely is at least $18 million and as much as $22 million — and subsequent payroll damage, plus the surrendering of the No. 11 draft pick if you choose Upton, and flexibility the pick’s bonus pool creates for the rest of the draft.

All for about 1.5 wins above replacement. For one season.

Such a transaction is indicative of a club in a position to win it all with one more player upgrade, not an organization looking to reset and build for the long haul.

And if you want to make the argument for either player in left field rather than right, well, the same exercise will demonstrate the same marginal upgrade at the same prohibitive cost.

 

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Jason A. Churchill

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