As evidenced in the early part of Jerry Dipoto‘s time at the helm of baseball operations, the Seattle Mariners have shied away from significant free agent signings. Despite what became a buyer’s market for free agent hitters this winter, Dipoto abstained and stuck to the goal of acquiring depth through trade. The emphasis on youth and athleticism was again a focal point of many transactions.

It’s been a strange winter for free agency in Major League Baseball. A lack of premium talent available has often lead to teams paying good players great dollars. That wasn’t really the case this time around, though. The supply of one-dimensional sluggers in need of a contract this time one-month ago would have made former general manager Jack Zduriencik salivate, and truthfully, the costs were not exuberant. Still, Dipoto stayed the course.

Some teams were able to take advantage of the market, such as the Cleveland Indians who stretched out to sign Edwin Encarnacion. More recently, the New York Yankees added the National League’s home run king from last year, Chris Carter, on a modest one-year deal guaranteeing only $3 million.

The first base remodel began last summer for the Mariners when they acquired Dan Vogelbach from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for left-hander Mike Montgomery. Although Vogelbach better resembles a Zduriencik-era Mariner, there were few questions about his ability to hit.

The remodel appeared complete when Seattle made another trade, this time with Oakland, to bring in the veteran Danny Valencia to complete the right-handed side of the platoon.

Firstly, Vogelbach should be a given a fair chance to take the first base job. He crushed Triple-A pitching last year to the tune of a 156 wRC+. He turned 24 in December and has shown plenty of power and on-base ability throughout his tenure in the minors. This isn’t a Jesus Montero situation where concerns about make-up and injuries are a factor and have impacted performance. By all accounts, he’s ready to go.

But what happens if Vogelbach doesn’t hit right away or can’t make adjustments on the fly to major league pitching? He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie to encounter one or both of those problems.

Valencia has only spent one season as an everyday player back in 2011 and didn’t fair well. Despite a rather pronounced platoon split for his career — a 139 wRC+ against left-handers and an 85 wRC+ against right-handers — he did manage a 104 wRC+ against same-handed pitching last year. In a pinch he could give you some at-bats against right-handers, but counting on consistent production of any sort would be foolish.

Internally the back-up plan at first base appears to start and end with D.J. Peterson. The former first-round pick posted a 96 wRC+ in 192 plate appearances at Triple-A last year and could be an option as soon as mid-season if things go well. There’s always the option of a utility player such as Mike Freeman or Shawn O’Malley filling in if absolutely necessary, but after the platoon, the first base depth is minimal.

Pitchers and catchers reported on Tuesday, and Cactus League games are only days away, but as has been the story this winter, there still are a number of free agents available. Some may even be able to help the Mariners adress this concern.

Looking specifically at left-handed hitters, former Most Valuable Players Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau are still out there. Morneau is representing Canada at the World Baseball Classic and was finally healthy for a prolonged period last year after batting concussion issues. He struggled to a 92  wRC+ and saw his strikeout rate jump — not positive signs for a player nearing the end of their career.

Howard’s fall has been more publicized, and though he still managed to clear 20 home runs last year, appears to have lost all other offensive capabilities. As a pinch-hitter he may still have value on a National League team, but his time as a semi-regular is done.

Neither of those bats are overly appealing. Morneau may be worth a second glance if he hits well at the WBC, but not much more. The player who may actually be able to help Seattle is Pedro Alvarez.

The 30-year-old has primarily played third base during his career but did fill a regular role at first in 2015 and advanced metrics frowned on his work. Throughout his career he has profiled as a below average defender and an average base runner. What he can do, is provide some help against right-handed pitching. He owns a career 118 wRC+ against them over seven years in the majors.

Last season in 376 plate appearances with the Baltimore Orioles, Alvarez posted a .249/.322/.504 slash line with a 117 wRC+. While he does boast a career 9.4 percent walk rate, and beat that last year by half-a-percent, the strikeouts have always been a concern. His 25.8 percent strikeout rate last year was his second-lowest since 2011.

If you combine the walks and home runs, Alvarez starts to resemble a true-outcome hitter. I’d imagine that the on-base percentage fits the type of player Seattle has come to covet, but the strikeouts and poor defensive skills would seemingly go against the grain.

On a minor league deal, bringing in Alvarez to compete, or at least paint a picture of Vogelbach not being handed the job, is essentially a no-brainer. Even giving him the contract Carter received with a small guarantee would make sense.

Obviously the tough part would be having to cut Alvarez and eat the money owed if it came to that. Perhaps management would prefer to earmark the cash for a mid-summer trade or to add another relief arm during the spring.

Like Carter, Alvarez is a flawed player in a market that hasn’t rewarded power-based skill sets. That’s why they were still looking for jobs in February. I’m not suggesting Alvarez is an answer for the Mariners, but rather an option to provide a back-up plan for a position with uncertainty.

Perhaps Dipoto’s plan all along was to give Vogelbach the first couple weeks of spring to lock down the job and, in the event things weren’t heading in a positive direction, dip into the free agent market for a bat that needs a home. We saw last year how Ketel Marte was essentially handed the shortstop job and having a second option in the early-going may have helped the situation.

If Vogelbach is ready to go then there’s no reason for Seattle to hold him back. But in a season that may again leave little margin for error, having an experienced first baseman push Vogelbach to Triple-A for a couple months if he doesn’t seem ready wouldn’t be the worst thing. Especially if the cost is less than a couple million dollars.…

Felix Hernandez would be the first to admit that he didn’t perform as well as he wanted to in 2016. To varying degrees, the Seattle Mariners likely had similar thoughts about two of the other four spots of their rotation, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma aside. So as Felix spends the winter working to regain his crown, the Mariners have worked to shore up their rotation.

Without a lot of help available via free agency, the trade route figured to be the most likely source of rotation upgrades. As seen in his first year at the helm of baseball operations, general manager Jerry Dipoto prefers the trade route for patching holes anyway. However, there was one free agent starter who reportedly caught his eye: Jason Hammel.

The 34-year-old starter was cut by the Chicago Cubs after their World Series victory and remains a free agent as we move into February. It was a curious move as the Cubs didn’t appear to have an heir for the No. 5 spot and haven’t done much to secure one since.

The season-ending elbow injury leaves a damper on what was otherwise a reasonably good season for Hammel and has likely impacted his free agency. In 166 and 2/3 innings the right-hander posted a 3.83 ERA and a 4.48 FIP. His strikeout rate was a notch above his career average and his walk rate was right on par, but he did see an uptick in his home run rate, which could cause some concern.

The bigger concern though, has to be the impact of Hammel’s September collapse, injury-related or not. Over four starts he allowed 21 runs and 20 earned while giving up six home runs. That stretch inflated his ERA from 3.14 at the start of the month to the 3.83 he finished with. Hammel’s FIP didn’t see quite as dramatic a rise, moving from 4.26 to 4.48.

Several outlets had Hammel connected to the Mariners throughout the winter. The fit was obvious as Seattle needed rotation help and the 34-year-old has a recent track record of being a reliable back-end starter. Given the nature of his departure with Chicago, he lost some leverage in an otherwise paper-thin free agent market.

Having a change in agency over the winter didn’t help the right-hander either. It was reported talks broke down with the M’s around this time. Since then, Seattle went out and filled the empty spots in the rotation by acquiring Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo.

Smyly, 27, spent the last two-plus years in the rotation for the Tampa Bay Rays and dealt with some health issues in 2015. Acquired as a key piece in the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, the left-hander is coming off a career high 175 and 1/3 innings pitched. His 4.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP are uninspiring, but his strikeout and walk rates were fine and he should benefit from the move to Safeco and an improved outfield defense.

Gallardo, 31 in February, is coming off a rocky year in Baltimore where a decline in velocity factored into a diminished strikeout rate and an inflated walk rate. He posted a 5.42 ERA and a 5.04 FIP over 118 innings The brief period where he was a top arm for the Milwaukee Brewers is gone, but he’s only one year removed from a seven-year stretch as an average or better starter. He’s a prime bounce-back candidate and should also benefit from the park and outfield defense.

Here’s a look at how the three starters project to perform in 2017 via Steamer.

2017 Steamer Projections
Name GS IP ERA
FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 OBA fWAR
Drew Smyly 29 168.0 3.93 4.11 8.39 2.62 1.30 .232 2.6
 Yovani Gallardo 24  135.0 4.48 4.55 6.41 3.39 1.13 .260 1.0
Jason Hammel 28 158.0  4.35 4.31  7.75 2.67 1.29 .258 1.7

Of the three, Smyly is the obvious exception, so the analysis really comes down to Gallardo and Hammel, who have some similarities. The first stat that stands out is the fWAR column where Hammel projects to be nearly one win better than Gallardo. We can attribute some of that to a better projected strikeout and walk rates over a slightly larger innings total. Hammel is projected to give up more home runs, but both have fly-ball tendencies.

Projection systems tend to favor recent performance and Hammel is the one coming off a better year. However, looking at the previous three years, we can see that their overall production has been similar. Gallardo has the virtue of being younger and holds a more consistent track record prior to last year, though.

Perhaps the most important question is what carries more risk: Gallardo’s diminished velocity or Hammel’s presumed diminished health? Seattle seemed more willing to gamble on the former regaining a step than the latter being healthy for Opening Day.

At this point., anything relating to Hammel’s health is speculation beyond his status at the end of the season and through the playoffs. Not many seem to buy the Cubs acknowledgement of his full health when he was released.

Also to be considered when looking at the two starters is the accompanying financial commitments. We don’t know for sure what Hammel wanted, or hoped for, in free agency. A one-year deal with incentives and maybe an option year would make sense. We do know that the M’s will pay Gallardo $11 million in 2017 and a $2 million buyout in 2018 if they decline a $13 million team option.

The status of Seth Smith and his $7 million contract seemed to play a role in all this. It’s been suggested that the ideal situation for Seattle would have been to deal Smith and the money owed for a minor leaguer and use the freed up cash for Hammel.

If the club saw similar potential in Gallardo and Hammel with the primary goal of dealing Smith’s contract, then it makes a lot of sense to take the route they did. Presuming full health, Hammel should be the better pitcher in 2017. But after viewing his medical records, the potential for a bounce-back season may have made Gallardo look just a little more appealing.

Without more information on Hammel’s health, it’s tough to really determine if the Mariners made the right call. Given the fact he’s still a free agent suggest it’s obvious Seattle isn’t the only team to have shied away.

Regardless, the deals made have helped bolster the starting staff. FanGraphs projects the rotation to land in the middle of the pack while ESPN’s Buster Olney has the M’s rotation cracking his top ten for 2017.

A lot of things still need to go right, but Seattle certainly made the right call in bolstering their starting pitching. That much we do know.…

MLB: AL Wild Card Game-Houston Astros at New York YankeesLast week, Jim Bowden of ESPN and the MLB Radio Network published a list of the 30 best players who could be on the move prior to the August 1 non-waiver trading deadline and where he thinks those players fit best.

For some, it’s a tad early to be discussing deals when the deadline is still two months away. Bowden realizes that too and refers to his list as “my first take of the year” on players who could be dealt. Yet, some fans — and writers — find it fun to speculate on deals that may never occur.

For those not familiar with Bowden, he’s served as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals and has a ton of contacts in the baseball industry. For Seattle Mariners fans, he’s the guy who sent Mike Cameron and others to Seattle in exchange for Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Personally, I think the market is still immature. At this early stage of the season, there a plenty of clubs on the fringe of contention. Therefore, finding a partner willing to “sell” may be difficult to do, unless the club is currently in a rebuilding phase.

Still, there are those dying to discuss deals. To help satisfy the appetite of those hungry for trade talk, I’m going to discuss 14 players Bowden suggested as “best fits” for American League ball clubs. Enjoy.

Julio Teheran , SP, Atlanta Braves                                    Bowden: Boston Red Sox
Bowden points out in his piece that Teheran could be the most coveted pitcher at the deadline. The right-hander is owed a relatively low $25.3 million through the end of the 2019 season with a $12 million club option for 2020, his age-29 season.

Not only is the Braves hurler affordable, he’s performing well. Teheran has gone seven or more innings in six of his first 11 starts, his wins above replacement (WAR) ranks number-15 among major league starters, and his 2.77 earned run average (ERA) puts him in the same neighborhood with such familiar names as Marco Estrada, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez.

The Red Sox certainly would be a good fit for Teheran, but another club to keep an eye on is the Toronto Blue Jays. If Toronto opts to make another postseason push at this year’s deadline, adding another starting pitcher could be in the cards.

The Blue Jays staff has been performing relatively well, but the club has already acknowledged that starter Aaron Sanchez will end up the bullpen due to an innings limit — he’s never pitched over 133 innings as a professional.

Toronto has a new front office in place and they may be more reluctant with parting with prospects, as they did to get David Price last year. Although Teheran is not an elite pitcher like Price, he would be under team control for at least three more seasons, unlike Price who departed as a free agent at the end of last season.

Teheran may be the most sought after starting pitcher as Bowden suggests, but the Braves will have the upper hand in negotiations. With so much time remaining on his contract, Atlanta doesn’t have to rush to deal their star pitcher. They could opt to deal him in the offseason — when more suitors may be interested — or retain him to anchor their rotation.

Rich Hill, SP, Oakland Athletics                                          Bowden: Kansas City Royals
Seattle fans are very familiar with 36-year-old. Hill held the Mariners to just one run in 14 innings while striking out 16 and walking just one batter. It’s not just the Mariners. He’s held all opposing hitters to a .207 batting average.

If the Athletics don’t climb back into the playoff picture, they’ll likely trade several players — including Hill. Any contender looking to boost their rotation will have interest in the 12-year-veteran.

Unlike Teheran, Hill is a “rental player,” who’ll be a free agent at season’s end. For that reason, the southpaw who’s making $6 million this season won’t be as costly to acquire as the Braves’ top starter.

If Teheran isn’t available or too expensive for contenders, Hill instantly becomes the most attractive starter in the trade market. With that kind of negotiating advantage, it’s hard to believe that the Athletics would retain the pending free agent past August 1, if they continue to have a losing record.

As with Teheran, Hill could fill the void in Toronto’s rotation once Sanchez moves to the bullpen.

Another interested party could be the Red Sox. Hill has already had two tours of duty with Boston, including last year when he resurrected his big league career after starting the season pitching for Class-AAA Syracuse and the Independent League Long Island Ducks.

It’s worth noting that Hill suffered a “real mild groin strain,” according to manager Bob Melvin, during yesterday’s contest against the Detroit Tigers. Assuming this injury causes no setbacks; his trade value should remain unchanged.

James Shields, SP, San Diego Padres                              Bowden: Detroit Tigers
“Big Game James” is an intriguing trade candidate. He’s no longer a number-one starter, although he’s having a solid year with the Padres. But, his contract limits his trade value.

The right-hander is making $21 million this season and makes the same amount during the next two seasons. There’s also a $16 million option for 2019 — his age-37 season– with a $2 million buyout. In total, Shields stands to make at least $44 million between now and 2019, unless he opts out of his contract after this season.

That’s the second challenge with Shields’ contract — enticing a team to trade for a player who could potentially walk after this season. Considering that he had to wait so long to find a team during his last free agency — he didn’t sign until February 11, 2015 with the Padres — he may not want to test the market again. On the other hand, this year’s free agent market is very thin for starting pitching.

Clubs can find workarounds to challenges like Shields’ opt out, but it requires two amenable partners and a player willing to go along. That usually means the player has to get something in return for passing on his opt out.

As mentioned by Bowden, the Tigers make sense. So do the Red Sox. Both clubs have previously demonstrated a willingness to spend and could use a durable middle-of-the-rotation type — like Shields.

Another team to watch will be the Chicago White Sox. Jon Heyman of MLB Network has reported that the Chicago White Sox have shown interest in the right-hander.

As I alluded to at the onset, Shields’ contract will be an issue — even for ball clubs with deep pockets. To move the veteran starter, the Padres may have to include money to help offset his steep salary or expect to receive very little in return.

Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers                       Bowden: Tampa Bay Rays
The seven-year veteran turns 30 next month and the Brewers hold a relatively cheap $5.25 million club option on Lucroy for the 2017 season. So, any club acquiring the services of the right-handed hitter for about a year and a half.

Obviously, Milwaukee will be looking for prospects as they continue to rebuild. However, I’m not sure that the cash-strapped Rays would be willing to part ways with top prospects for an 18-month addition, who could be the team’s third highest player in 2017.

The Tigers, on the other hand, are more aggressive when it comes to making “win-now” deals and they aren’t getting much production from the catcher position. Once again, Boston makes sense too.

Derek Norris, C, Padres                                                        Bowden: Rays/Houston Astros
Coming into today’s action, Shield’s battery mate had a .182/.238/.338 triple-slash — significantly below his career norms, although it’s important to note that offense from the catcher position is secondary. The major league batting average for catchers stands at .234.

It’s worth noting that Norris has experience at first base and a career .286/.359/.479 triple-slash against southpaws.

The 27-year-old is making $2.9 million this year and is arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons, which may scare off clubs on a tight budget, unless they’re looking for a starting backstop. Once again, it’s hard for me to fathom the Rays being interested in adding payroll and parting with prospects to get a catcher who doesn’t necessarily represent a significant upgrade at the position.

The Astros are already experimenting with Evan Gattis at the catcher spot. Whether Houston would be amenable to acquiring Norris at the deadline would come down to their long-term plans for Gattis and their position in the standings.

If the Astros’ record improves and opt to move Gattis out of the catcher spot, they might be more inclined to go after Lucroy than Norris. After all, Milwaukee and Houston have a history as trade partners. Last July, the Astros picked up Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers in exchange for prospects.

Other trade possibilities could become reality, if a contender suffers an injury at the catcher spot. Norris would be a good addition for a contender who needs an injury fill-in or wants to add more depth to the position.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH, Blue Jays                           Bowden: Chicago White Sox
Another potential rental player is Encarnacion, who’s making $10 million this season. The 33-year-old is off to a sluggish start, as is his team. Bowden also suggested teammate Jose Bautista as a best fit with the Chicago Cubs.

It’s too early to tell whether Toronto will buy or sell — they have a 26-26 win-loss record entering today. However, Encarnacion to the White Sox makes sense, assuming his numbers improve. Otherwise, the “South-Siders” would be better to look for other options or stick with current designated hitter Avisail Garcia, who’s posted better slash numbers than Encarnacion.

If I was forced to place a wager, I’d bet that both Encarnacion and Bautista won’t be traded by the deadline. Both players are popular with fans and it’s unlikely that the Blue Jays will completely fall out of the postseason race by August 1.

Carlos Gonzalez, RF/LF, Colorado Rockies                   Bowden: Red Sox
When considering the production of Colorado players, the “Coors Field affect” has to enter the conversation. Gonzalez’s slash numbers are considerably lower when playing on the road, plus he’s making $17 million this season and due to make $20 million in 2017.

Moving “CarGo” this season would be a wise move for the rebuilding Rockies. Bowden suggested catcher Blake Swihart as a possible trade target from the Red Sox. However, getting arms would be a wise move for a club that’s struggled to entice elite free agent pitchers to come to Denver.

Gonzalez is a good player, not a superstar. Nevertheless, he’d be a considerable grade in left field for the Red Sox. Another destination that would make sense — from a baseball perspective — would be the Washington Nationals, who are getting very little production from a 37-year-old left fielder Jayson Werth.

From a business perspective, making the deal might be difficult. Werth will make $21 million next year, while Gonzalez will be earning $20 million. Werth, like CarGo will be a free agent after next season. But, I have an idea.

Perhaps, both teams could swap their high-paid players and the Nationals could throw in a few top-shelf pitching prospects to make the deal worthwhile for Colorado. That’s probably the wackiest trade proposal I’ve ever concocted. However, both teams would get something they need.

The Nationals get instantaneous help in their lineup for this year and next without disrupting their budget, while the Rockies get a few top prospects along with Werth, who makes approximately the same salary as CarGo.

Colorado did something similar last year when they traded Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for highly paid shortstop Jose Reyes, reliever Miguel Castro, top-100 pitching prospect Jeff Hoffman and fellow minor leaguer Jesus Tinoco.

There’s probably no chance that this happens, but it was fun hatching that hair-brained that scheme. Okay, back to reality.

Josh Reddick, RF, Athletics                                                  Bowden: Royals
The A’s right fielder was off to a great start before fracturing his left thumb, while sliding into second base. Fortunately, for Reddick and Oakland, he’s projected to return by the end of June.

Like Hill, the eight-year veteran is a free agent at the end of the season and a likely trade chip, assuming Oakland can’t climb back into the postseason race.

Bowden projected that the Athletics would trade Reddick back to where he began his career — Boston. With that said, he’d be a nice fit with the Seattle Mariners from an offensive and defensive standpoint. The 29-year-old is a solid defender with one of the best arms in the game.

I don’t know if executive vice president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst would be willing to make a deal with a division rival during the season, but Reddick would be a nice addition for the Mariners.

It’s important to note that a hand injury can slow a hitter’s return to productiveness. I have no insight into the extent of Reddick’s injury, but his effectiveness at the plate bears watching after he returns. Certainly, possible suitors will be doing just that.

Yasiel Puig, RF, Los Angeles Dodgers                              Bowden: Royals/Athletics
Just 25-years-old, Puig has already produced an extensive highlight reel during four-year career. At other times though, he’s looked disinterested leading him to run afoul of managers and teammates. To top it off, his production numbers have declined in each of the last three seasons.

Despite the Dodger’s apparent frustration with Puig’s distinctive personality, the team could be reluctant to part ways with their mercurial outfielder. Trading him now would require the club to sell low with a player who has tremendous upside and is owed a relatively low $17.5 million for the next two seasons.

Perhaps, the change of scenery suggested by Bowden would be best. However, the Dodgers’ outfield production has been below league-average, which leads me to believe that they’d have to be blown away to part with their potentially best outfielder during a season when they’re trying to contend.

If the situation in Los Angeles has truly become untenable, the same actors — White Sox, Red Sox, and Tigers — may be willing to take a chance on Puig.

Melvin Upton Jr, LF/RF, Padres                                        Bowden: White Sox
The older brother of Detroit Tigers outfielder Justin Upton has experienced a nice bounce back after several down seasons with both the Padres and Braves. Bowden suggests that the 31-year-old would be an upgrade over current White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson, although I don’t necessarily agree.

Upton’s current triple-slash of .258/.323/.416 is slightly better than Jackson’s slash, but that’s a small sample size. Over the past three seasons, Jackson’s production has been better. Trading for a player on the wrong side of 30, who is two years older than the incumbent is, and set to make $16.5 million next year doesn’t add up.

For the Padres to move Upton, they’d likely have to help pay a good chunk of his salary or expect to receive little in return. Otherwise, I can’t see a contender dealing for his league-average production and exorbitant salary.

Andrew Miller, RP, New York Yankees                            Bowden: Seattle Mariners
The big left-hander has been thoroughly dominant. Currently the setup man for closer Aroldis Chapman, Miller would be closing for most teams in the majors.

There’s a big assumption with this suggestion by Bowden — the Yankees will be sellers. Considering the club hasn’t had a losing season since 1992, it’s tough for me to picture general manager Brian Cashman dealing the reliever this season.

If I’m wrong and Cashman opts to move veterans to help the future, snagging the 31-year-old — who’s making $9 million annually through 2018 — will be costly. The Yankees could simply opt to hold onto Miller, deal him in the offseason, or retain him to be their closer — if they opted to trade or not re-sign Chapman instead.

Bowden sees the Mariners as the best fit for Miller. There’s no doubt that the southpaw would significantly improve the back-end of Seattle’s bullpen, but does using so many resources and expending that much payroll to get one player sound like something that general manager Jerry Dipoto would do? His brief history in Seattle leads me to say “no.”

If Seattle is in contention, they’ll need to add more than one arm to the ‘pen, plus another corner outfielder. Using a significant amount of resources to acquire Miller — or any high profile player — would make it difficult for the club to get those additional pieces.

Perhaps, Cashman moves Chapman if he thinks he can grab a few pieces that could help his club this year and in the future. In the end though, I expect that both Miller and Chapman will end their season wearing Yankee pinstripes.

Fernando Rodney, RP, Padres                                              Bowden: Blue Jays
Seattle fans are probably rolling their eyes right now. After all, during his stay in Seattle, they dubbed Rodney’s relief appearances as the “Fernando Rodney Experience” due to the volatile nature of his outings. During this season in San Diego though, the 39-year-old has done a nice job of resurrecting his career after losing the Mariners closer job last year.

Not only is Rodney performing well, he’s affordable and comes with a low financial risk. He’s making $1.6 million this season and the Padres hold a $2 million team option for 2017, with a $400 thousand buyout.

Picking up the charismatic right-hander would be a good move for any contender looking to reinforce their bullpen depth, including the Seattle Mariners. My ears are already burning after that comment.

Joe Smith, RP, Los Angeles Angels                                    Bowden: Tigers
The side-arming reliever is a free agent after the season and has been filling in as the Angels closer during the absence of Huston Street.

Adding Smith should help bolster the bullpen of any contender, although it’s worth noting that the 32-year-old’s home run and walk rates are up and his strike out rate has decreased during this young season.

As a rental setup man, who’s not performing below career norms, Smith shouldn’t command a high price tag. Assuming that there’s no trade embargo going on between Dipoto and his former club, Smith would be another potential option for the Mariners.

Certainly, Dipoto is familiar with his former pitcher and the general manager has demonstrated an interest in bringing former players from his days in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Then again, he’s familiar with Street too.

Arodys Vizcaino, RP, Braves                                                   Bowden: Blue Jays
Trading a closer from one of the worst clubs in the majors makes sense. However, when he’s having a great season, is only 25-years-old, and under team control through the 2019 season, there’s no rush in moving him.

As with Teheran, the Braves would likely make a deal if they get a great offer. Alternatively, they can just wait until the offseason when there may be more suitors interested in their top reliever.

Final thoughts
While it’s fun and interesting to talk deadline deals on Memorial Day, a lot can change between now and August 1. Perhaps, the White Sox continue their free fall in the standings and the Mariners tank too. Maybe, the Toronto Blue Jays will catch fire as they did last year.

There’s also the possibility of injuries affecting sellers — as with Reddick and Hill — or buyers who lose a key player.

Still, I get it. Trade speculation is entertaining to many baseball fans. As the trade deadline gets closer, Prospect Insider will be providing ongoing analysis of potential and actual deals involving the Mariners and other major league clubs.

It’s going to be a fun summer.

 …



KarnsAs a relatively new baseball writer, I’m constantly trying to expand my knowledge by watching games, reading other writer’s work, and listening to the thoughts of analysts and pundits from outlets such as MLB Network and MLB Radio. I don’t always agree with what I hear or read, but that’s okay. Diverse opinions help broaden perspective.

A popular topic that I’ve encountered during my quest for added baseball intelligence is the belief among pundits that the current crop of 25-years-old and younger position players is historically special. Perhaps, you agree.

Although I believe in heeding the baseball opinions of others, I’ve also quickly learned that hyperbole can overshadow reality, especially when there’s airtime to fill or clicks to gather. With that in mind, I decided to determine for myself whether today’s 25-and-under ball players were a truly special group.

Before getting very far into my research though, I realized that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had already done an excellent job of providing detailed analysis on younger players.

Cameron noted that players under 26-years-old accounted for 33-percent of plate appearances in 2015 — a normal portion for their age group. Yet, these youngsters tallied 39-percent of the total wins above replacement (WAR) produced by position players last year. That’s the most value delivered by this age group since 1974, when they accounted for high 44-percent of plate appearances.

The following table is my creation. It looks back to 1985 in five-year intervals and lists players who  produced a WAR of four or higher and were age-25 or younger during the season noted.

Although it didn’t require higher-level thinking to create, the table quickly illustrates and supports Cameron’s conclusion that we may be looking at best group of young hitters in the history of the sport. As you can see for yourself, there are many impressive names on the list, including several Hall of Famers.

It’s clear that the current group of 25-and-under players is delivering historic value, but the importance placed on age is both excessive and misleading.

Why such a strong statement? A player’s service time is far more critical than his age when constructing a roster. This is especially true for a veteran-laden team like the Seattle Mariners. Before discussing the Mariners any further, let’s briefly review service time.

For those not familiar with the term, “service time” refers to the number of years and days a player has spent on a major league roster. A year of service time — as defined by the current collective bargaining agreement — is 172 days.

Baseball information resources, such as Baseball Reference, represent service time in a “years.days” format. For example, Felix Hernandez started 2016 with ten years and 60 days of service time — expressed as “10.060.” Generally, teams maintain the rights to a player for six “service time” years.

During the first three years, clubs don’t have to pay players more than the league minimum salary — $507,500 in 2016. In the final three years of team control, players are eligible for arbitration, which allows players to earn more money based on their performance. However, their wages won’t ever reach the level of free agent money.

There are exceptions to these guidelines. For instance, international professional free agents such as Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu, and Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma don’t fall under the same criteria as other new players, although these players have accrued six years of Major League Baseball (MLB) service time. If you’d like to read more about service time, you can find a great rundown at FanGraphs here.

Why is service time so important to the current version of the Mariners? Payroll. A review of how general manager Jerry Dipoto re-constructed his roster during the offseason helps illustrate the club’s payroll challenges coming into this season.

After taking the reins of baseball operations last September, Dipoto aggressively added pieces to complement the veteran foundation that he inherited — King Felix, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Kyle Seager, plus the re-signed duo of Iwakuma and Franklin Gutierrez.

Since he and team president Kevin Mather stated that the organization’s goal was to compete in 2016, Dipoto brought in more veterans — Adam Lind, Joaquin Benoit, Wade Miley, Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta, and Steve Cishek.

All told, the 47-year-old general manager fashioned a 13-player veteran core designed to be competitive. But, there’s a price tag with having so many vets — $121.8 million. That’s more money than the payrolls of 15 clubs.

With so much committed to his experienced players, Dipoto had to find bargains when filling out the rest of his 25-man roster and adding much-needed minor league depth. This is where service time — not age — enters the picture.

Look at the players from Seattle’s Opening Day roster, who hadn’t reached arbitration eligibility prior to this season. There are several notable names that aren’t that young — relatively speaking. But, they’re inexpensive and valuable to Mariners manager Scott Servais.

Seattle Mariners “Pre-Arb” Players (As of Jan 1)
Name Age Service Time 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Steve Clevenger 30 2.123 $516.5k Arb Arb Arb FA    
Nick Vincent 29 2.067 $525.5k Arb Arb Arb FA    
Vidal Nuno 28 2.015 $532.9k Arb Arb Arb FA    
Taijuan Walker 23 1.142 $528.6k Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA  
Nate Karns 28 1.033 $523.7k Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA  
Luis Sardinas 23 0.143 $512k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Mike Montgomery 26 0.089 $515k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Ketel Marte 22 0.066 $515.4k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Tony Zych 25 0.034 $511k Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb FA
Dollars Committed   $141.5M $92.3M $84.6M $71.4M $43.5M $42.5M $24M
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/4/2016.

The inherent flaw with using an arbitrary age — such as 25-years-old — when discussing new players is that the practice can lead to fans overlook slightly older contributors with similarly low service time and value.

Not only has Dipoto added controllable and inexpensive talent at the big league level, he’s built “layers of depth” throughout his 40-man roster. Look at the service time of the following players. Some could potentially find themselves in Seattle by the end of the season; some already have.

Seattle Mariners “Ready Reserve”
Name Age Position Service Time Comments
Evan Scribner 30 Relief Pitcher 2.142 60-day Disabled List
Mike Zunino 25 Catcher 2.084  Class-AAA Tacoma
James Paxton 27 Starting Pitcher 2.027 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Steve Johnson 28 Relief Pitcher 1.046  Recalled to Seattle
David Rollins 26 Relief Pitcher 1.000  Class-AAA Tacoma
Stefen Romero 27 Outfield/First Base 0.170 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Chris Taylor 25 Shortstop 0.139  Class-AAA Tacoma
Cody Martin 26 Relief Pitcher 0.075 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Shawn O’Malley 28 Infield/Outfield 0.063 Class-AAA Tacoma 
Mayckol Guaipe 25 Relief Pitcher 0.054  Recalled to Seattle
Jonathan Aro 25 Relief Pitcher 0.040  Class-AAA Tacoma
Steven Baron 25 Catcher 0.027  Class-AA Jackson
Boog Powell 23 Outfield 0.0 Class-AAA Tacoma

Thanks to Dipoto skillfully taking advantage of service time, Seattle has a relatively low $5 million committed towards two starting pitchers, four relievers, their starting shortstop, and two bench players. How else could this club possibly compete with $122 million already committed to 13 veterans?

While the exploits of young players such as Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte capture the imagination of fans and pundits, where would the Mariners stand today without the contributions of “older” players with similarly low service time? Specifically, Nate Karns, Nick Vincent, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, and Steve Clevenger? Probably not first place.

Age is just a number for the Mariners.…

Cain slidingThe upcoming three-game series between the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Mariners gave me reason to pause for a moment and consider the trajectory of both ball clubs since the end of the 2014 season.

Seattle finished with just two fewer wins than the Royals, who went on to win the American League (AL) Championship before losing the World Series to the San Francisco Giants. After doing unexpectedly well in 2014, the Mariners and Royals entered last season with many pundits projecting a deep postseason run for both clubs.

Unfortunately, for Seattle fans, the Mariners never approached contention and fired their general manager before the season’s conclusion. Conversely, the Royals went on to savor October glory by winning their first Fall Classic victory since 1985 by defeating the team that I rooted for as a kid — the New York Mets.

From a standard statistical standpoint, the 2015 Royals offense is an enigma to me. Take a look at their AL rankings in various offensive categories and I’ll try to explain.

2015 Royals Offensive Rankings (AL)
Team Hits 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG Total Bases
KCR 1497 (2) 300 (2) 42 (4) 138 (14) 383 (15) 973 (15) .269 (3) .322 (7) .412 (8) 2298 (7)
Lge Avg 1411 278 31 176 470 1219 .255 .318 .412 2276
American League rankings in parenthesis

I’m not trying to portray the Royals offense as a mystery for the ages. However, their approach is unique. For example, they ranked near the bottom of the league in home runs, yet were above league-average for total bases. Additionally, Kansas City was the only team to finish in the top-five for batting average, but not on-base percentage (OBP). Their relatively low OBP is a result of having the fewest walks in the AL.

Despite going at their work differently, the Royals were successful at generating runs. Certainly, ranking near the top of the league in hits and having the fewest strikeouts helped fuel offense’s engine. Nevertheless, there’s another key offensive element that’s worth noting — speed.

I’m not talking about just stealing bases though. Yes, the Royals ranked number-two in that category last year. But, there’s more going on with this ball club than swiping bags. To be honest, it didn’t dawn on me until I was watching Kansas City take on the Mets on Opening Day. Once the light bulb went on, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see it sooner.

During their contest with their World Series opponent, the Royals created four runs and won the game without an extra base hit. How did they do it? By excelling on the base paths when the ball is in play. Their aggressive — yet smart — base running approach has proven to be a profound difference maker for Kansas City during their current run of success.

Last season, the Royals posted the second-highest extra base taken percentage (XBT%) in the AL. For those wondering, extra base taken percentage represents how often a base runner advanced more than one base on a single and more than two bags on a double. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mariners were woeful at advancing on the base paths.

Let’s see just how bad Seattle base runners were last year by comparing them to the World Series champions. In addition to extra base taken percentage, I included each club’s success rate at scoring from first base on a double and from second base after a single.

2015 Royals/Mariners Base Running Comparisons
Team Runs/Gm SB SB% XBT% 1B to HP Double % 2B to HP Single %
KCR 4.47 (6)
104 (2)
75% (2)
44% (2)
44.1% (4) 69.9% (1)
SEA  4.05 (13)
 69 (11)
 61% (14)
 34% (15)
 21.2% (15)  50.7% (12)
American League rankings in parenthesis

Certainly, the Royals were superior to the Mariners in many ways last season. They had a superior bullpen, ranked near the top of the league defensively, and excelled at putting bat to ball. Seattle lagged well behind in all of these areas. Still, Kansas City’s ability to create runs with their feet gave them a distinct edge against their opponents.

When watching the Royals take on the Mariners at Safeco Field this weekend, watch how often a Kansas City player is able to take the extra base on a ball they or a teammate has put into play. It’s an approach could work for Seattle too.

Mariners’ general manager Jerry Dipoto has already started to move his roster in that direction by adding fleet-footed players like Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, and Luis Sardinas during the offseason. The combination of these three players, plus a full season from Ketel Marte enhances his club’s ability to create more offense by having more players in the lineup who are capable of taking the extra base when a defender is slow to retrieve a ball or doesn’t have a strong throwing arm.

Acquiring quick players may be a foreign concept to many Pacific Northwest baseball fans, who’ve become used to the Mariners being more intent on adding sluggers. Those kind of players tend to be “station-to-station” runners, who generally clog the base paths. The new regime has definitely taken a fresh approach to roster building.

I’m not suggesting that Dipoto is attempting to create a west coast version of the Royals. But, he’s already on record saying that improving his roster’s athleticism and taking advantage of the Safeco Field dimensions are priorities. Adding the players that I’ve already mentioned accomplishes both goals and adds a new dimension to the Mariners offense — speed.

Whether the Mariners can be as successful as the Royals will be determined later, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding their bullpen. However, if the club is able to improve its extra base hit percentage from last season’s dreadful showing, Seattle will be rewarded with more runs-per-game and a higher win total. That’s why I say “Run Mariners! Run!”

 …

Jack 3 One of the biggest complaints that Seattle Mariners fans had with the Jack Zduriencik era — other than the multiple losing seasons — was the inability of the organization to produce top-notch prospects despite owning a top-three selection in three of the first four Major League Baseball (MLB) amateur drafts of Zduriencik’s tenure.

Whether draftees Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad MillerDanny Hultzen, Nick Franklin, and Chris Taylor and acquired prospects Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero were bad choices or improperly developed is a debate that still rages on in Seattle. In the end, all that’s certain is that the Mariners’ lack of success in the draft — and the standings — ultimately cost Zduriencik his job.

When the draft gets underway on June 9, the Mariners will have a new general manager — Jerry Dipoto — at the helm for the first time in seven years. The 47-year-old inherits a minor league system that currently ranks number-28 — per Keith Law of ESPN.com — and continues to be a cause of fan angst.

New GM Jerry Dipoto has the unenviable task of keeping the big league club competitive while trying to restock the fallen system. — Keith Law of ESPN.

With that in mind, I thought it might be both fun and informative to review the draft record of Dipoto’s former club — the Los Angeles Angels — during his tenure as their general manager. At first blush, the impression isn’t good.

In the eyes of many Angels fans, Dipoto was a failure at the draft. They point to the fact the organization has zero prospects in the MLB.com top-100 prospect listing. Plus, Law rates the club’s system as the worst in the majors.

From a distance, it appears that Dipoto wrecked the Angels minor league system — that’s what the blogosphere contends. Should the disappointing Angels system be a red flag for Mariners fans? Let’s dig into the Angels draft history to find out.

For starters
Since Dipoto joined the Angels in October 2011 and departed in July 2015, he was present for just four MLB amateur drafts, which brings up a point to consider as we review draft selections. Unless we’re going to venture through a wormhole to the future, enough time hasn’t elapsed to judge the overall success – or lack thereof — for any MLB team’s 2012 draft. Please let me explain.

As of this week, only 69 players drafted in 2012 have spent any time in the big leagues. When I say “any,” I mean enough time to at least have a plate appearance or toe the mound. As you’d expect, even fewer players — 24 in total — have reached the majors from the 2013 and 2014 draft classes and no one from last year’s draft has even had a cup of coffee in “the show.”

Although most 2012 draftees haven’t broken through, there are recognizable names who’ve already spent time on a major league roster. A close look at the following list may help you identify the first significant challenge that Dipoto and his staff faced as they attempted to acquire top-level talent.

Certainly, there are several superb players on the list, including 2015 American League Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. However, with the exception of just a few of the names, nearly all of the players were selected early in the draft. This is the initial problem that Dipoto faced during his first two years as Angels general manager; his club didn’t have a first round pick.

Hamstrung from the start
In 2012, the Angels lost their first round pick after signing free agent Albert Pujols. As the preceding table illustrates, the St. Louis Cardinals selected starting pitcher Michael Wacha with the number-19 overall selection, which would’ve belonged to the Angels if they hadn’t signed Pujols. Essentially, the Cardinals exchanged Pujols for Wacha.

Not only did the Angels lack a first round pick during Dipoto’s first year on the job, they also forfeited their second round slot by signing free agent starting pitcher C.J. Wilson. When the team finally chose a player in the third round, they selected right-handed pitcher R.J. Alvarez with the number-114 overall draft choice. By that point, all but two of the players listed above were off the draft board.

The following year, the Angels lost their first round choice after signing outfielder Josh Hamilton to an ill-fated free agent deal. Consequently, the club didn’t select until the second round — number-59 overall. Unfortunately, for both player and team, the draftee selected — pitcher Hunter Green from Warren East high school in Bowling Green, Kentucky — just retired due to chronic back problems.

On the surface, drafting later may not seem like a big deal; it is though. Of the 76 players in the MLB.com top-100 who were selected via the draft — the remaining were amateur free agents — 89-percent were either a first or a second round selection. The early rounds matter.

Obviously, it’s not just drafting early that helps an organization. As the Green injury demonstrates, unforeseen circumstances can influence the success of a draft class. However, Dipoto’s Angels started at a major disadvantage during his first two years at the helm.

Another factor that comes into play when considering the Angels’ draft record during the Dipoto years was the use of minor leaguers as trade chips. Some may argue that the club should’ve been more cautious when dealing away prospects. But, it’s never that simple.

Let’s make a deal
Every owner wants to win, but some want it more than others do. Those kind of owners don’t care what it takes to get to the postseason, especially, after they’ve seen their team thrive in the playoffs. Certainly, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno falls into the “win now” category.

General managers who work for such an owner face the uphill battle of winning right now, while trying to build a controllable, cost-effective foundation for the future. Undoubtedly, Dipoto performed this balancing act throughout his stay in Los Angeles.

Although he didn’t trade away any franchise studs when trying to put his team over the top, Dipoto did have to dig into his already shallow minor league talent pool to get needed help for the big league club. His most prominent deal included the very first draft choice of his tenure.

In July 2014, the Angels dealt Alverez, along with Taylor Lindsey, Elliot Morris, and Jose Rondon, to the San Diego Padres for closer Huston Street and fellow reliever Trevor Gott. Here’s a look at all of the players drafted during the Dipoto regime, who were subsequently flipped in trades. It’s worth noting that several of the deals happened after he left the organization last July.

Dipoto Draft Picks Dealt by LAA
Date Prospect Traded To
Comments Traded For Comments
Jun 2013 Kyle Johnson NYM Class-AA Collin Cowgill Purch by CLE (Dec 2015)
Jul 2014 R.J. Alvarez SDP Traded to OAK Huston Street Current LAA closer
Taylor Lindsey Class-AA Trevor Gott Traded for Yunel Escobar
Elliot Morris AZL Padres  
Jose Rondon #5 SDP
Nov 2014 Mark Sappington  TBR Class-AAA    Cesar Ramos  Free agent (2015)
July 2015  Eric Stamets  CLE Class-AA  David Murphy Free agent (2015)
Nov 2015 Sean Newcomb ATL #19 MLB Andrelton Simmons LAA starting SS
Chris Ellis #14 ATL
Jose Briceno Class-A+
Jan 2016  Kody Eaves  DET Class-AA Jefry Marte Class-AA 

It’s tough to argue with Dipoto’s rationale for trading away minor leaguers for a proven commodity like Street. I suspect that most Angels fans don’t have a problem with this deal since the club went on to win 98 games after acquiring their new closer. Nevertheless, the trade didn’t help the organization’s woefully thin minor league depth.

One transaction that did raise eyebrows was made after Dipoto’s departure from Anaheim. The Angels’ new front office dealt the first player drafted in the first round by Dipoto’s regime — Sean Newcomb — and fellow prospect Chris Ellis, along with veteran shortstop Erick Aybar to the Atlanta Braves for Andrelton Simmons and minor league catcher Jose Briceno.

The Angels got a starting shortstop — Simmons — who’s under team control through the 2020 season. However, they traded away their two top prospects to land the offensively challenged Simmons. While the 26-year-old is an elite defender, his addition — combined with Aybar’s departure — didn’t improve an offense that ranked near the bottom of the American League last year.

Time will determine whether dealing Newcomb and Ellis for Simmons was a wise move by the Angels. But, there’s no denying that the trade weakened an already diminished system.

Hitting rock bottom
As I peel back the Angels’ draft history, it’s clear that the poor standing of the Angels’ minor league isn’t a case of simply doing a bad job of drafting the right players. That’s a factor, but it’s far more complex.

Team ownership spearheaded the signings of several high-priced, overvalued free agents at the cost of payroll flexibility and high-round draft picks. Simultaneously, both Dipoto and new Angels general manager Billy Eppler traded away some of the organization’s future to acquire major league ready talent.

I’m not trying to absolve Dipoto of blame for the moves and draft selections made by the Angels under his stewardship. In the end, he was the man at the top and the buck stops with him. On the other hand, he wasn’t able to employ his baseball philosophy during nearly four years in Anaheim, while he’s already done so with Seattle in just seven months ago.

Turning the page
With the Mariners, Dipoto has complete control over all baseball and personnel moves. As a result, he’s been able bring in his own people and choose who to retain from the Zduriencik regime. Conversely, he inherited field manager Mike Scioscia and scouting director Ric Wilson in Los Angeles.

The history between Dipoto and Scioscia is well chronicled and doesn’t merit repeating. In the case of Wilson though, it’s worth noting that the scouting director is the person who actually runs the draft for an organization — not the general manager.

That’s not to say that Dipoto wasn’t involved in the selection process. Of course, he was involved. However, a general manager has to rely on the scouting director and his staff to do the “heavy lifting” when it comes to actually going out and seeing potential draftees in person on multiple occasions. In Seattle, the scouting director is Tom McNamara — a Zduriencik holdover.

Finally
Dipoto’s tenure with the Angels reminds me of an incomplete novel. The author had a vision, but his publisher didn’t give him enough time or artistic liberty. Consequently, he didn’t get to write the final chapter.

In Seattle, ownership will give Dipoto the opportunity to do a rewrite, on his terms, so he can see his story through to its natural conclusion. Whether Dipoto produces an epic tale that leaves Mariners fans wanting more or he delivers a clunker destined for the discount rack will be determined later. In the interim, I’d suggest that Mariners faithful consider two things.

First, don’t be surprised if Dipoto opts to deal young players to improve his ball club, assuming that the Mariners are in contention at the all-star break. He did it with the Angels and he’s already shown a willingness to part with minor leaguers such as Enyel De Los Santos, Nelson Ward, and Patrick Kivlehan in order to beef up his club’s 2016 roster.

In addition, it’s likely that we won’t see 2016 draftees at the big league level for another four to six years. That’s the typical time it takes prospects to reach the majors. That means that the next President of the United States will be running for re-election before we have any idea on how well Dipoto’s organization has performed in the draft.

If the Mariners general manager is still with Seattle in six years, there’s a good chance that fans will be satisfied with the organization’s draft and player development reputation, plus their win-loss record. Otherwise, they’ll be commiserating with Angels fans and looking for another author to write that non-fiction tale about October baseball set in Seattle.

 

 

 …

Aoki Dipoto

After suffering through another losing season and extending their playoff drought to 14 year, Seattle Mariners management decided to hire Jerry Dipoto to be their general manager. Since taking over in late September, the 47-year-old has significantly altered the club’s approach towards scouting, player development, and coaching.

While Dipoto’s initial actions are encouraging, the root cause to the Mariners’ underwhelming record is the fact that they didn’t have enough good players to compete last season. That’s the main reason behind Dipoto’s hiring and why he was the major’s most active general manager during his first five months on the job.

With Spring Training just around the corner, now’s a good time to recap the Mariners’ hot stove progress to date. For the purposes of my review, I’ve decided to the examine the weaknesses identified by Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill in October. The areas mentioned by Jason are closely aligned to Dipoto’s public comments about the team’s shortcomings and the moves that he’s made. If you missed Jason’s piece, you can read it here.

Starting Pitching
The off-season started with a projected 2016 rotation of staff ace Felix Hernandez and a lot of uncertainty. That’s why Jason identified adding a number-two starter as a priority for the club. There were plenty of candidates behind King Felix – Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery. Yet, none were viewed as locks to make the rotation – or even be reliable. It didn’t take long for the club to start dealing.

Dipoto’s first major trade shipped Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, and Danny Farquhar to the Tampa Bay Rays for the hard-throwing Nate Karns, lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser – since traded to Baltimore – and outfield prospect Boog Powell.

Karns’ first full season in the big leagues came last year at the advanced age of 28. Despite the late arrival, he’s the kind of “swing and miss” pitcher that Dipoto wanted. One area of concern could be durability. As Jason noted in his analysis of the deal, it remains to be seen if Karns can handle a 190-200 inning workload.

The next big change was the acquisition of southpaw Wade Miley, along with reliever Jonathan Aro, from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Elias and dynamic reliever Carson Smith. At the time of the deal, I assessed it as a step backwards. Basically, the trade weakened the already bad bullpen and didn’t add the number-two starter that Jason had identified as a need.

That doesn’t mean that the trade is a bust. Prospect Insider’s analysis pointed out that several “high-ranking scouts that like Miley more than his numbers.” This deal works best for Seattle if the 29-year-old is a legitimate number-three from the onset of the season. It’s important to note that our analysis assumed Miley was the replacement for free agent Hisashi Iwakuma, who had agreed to contract terms with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Little did we know that “Kuma” would actually return to the Emerald City.

When reports surfaced saying that Iwakuma failed his Los Angeles physical, Dipoto pounced on the opportunity to retain the fan favorite. The club Mariners signed Kuma to a three-year deal – with vesting options – which protects the team in the event that he breaks down from a physical standpoint.

Here’s a potential Opening Day rotation compared to the 2015 version. I’ve included the 2015 fWAR for both groups of players and the 2016 Steamer fWAR projection for current Mariners.

   Potential Rotation 2015 Rotation
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
SP Felix Hernandez  2.8  4.7 Felix Hernandez  2.8
SP Wade Miley  2.6  2.1 Hisashi Iwakuma  1.8
SP Hisashi Iwakuma   1.8  2.9 James Paxton   0.5
SP Nate Karns  1.5  1.0 J.A. Happ  1.2
SP Taijuan Walker  1.9  2.4 Taijuan Walker  1.9
Totals  10.6 13.1 8.2

Mission accomplished? No. Going into Spring Training, the rotation looks to be Felix, Miley, Kuma, and Walker with Karns, Paxton, and Montgomery battling for the last rotation spot. The losers will likely go to Class-AAA Tacoma or be traded. That’s a good start, but there’s no clear number-two caliber pitcher behind King Felix.

Bringing back Iwakuma excites fans and it’s true that he can be a number-two – when healthy. But, he’s coming off two consecutive injury-shortened seasons, has only started 30 or more games once in four years with Seattle, and is entering his age-35 season.

Perhaps, Walker will rise to that position. But, he’ll need to be more consistent in 2016 to take the next step in his career become a future ace. Yes, the rotation is better with Karns, Miley, and the returning Iwakuma in the mix. But, it’s debatable whether it’s good enough to contend.

Outfield Defense
The Mariners’ outfield registered -45 defensive runs saved (DRS) – easily the worst in the majors last season. So, Dipoto aggressively made moves to upgrade the team’s outfield defense.

To fix center field, the Mariners dealt popular reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan to the Texas Rangers for Leonys Martin and reliever Anthony Bass – who subsequently signed to play next season in Japan. From Seattle’s perspective, Martin was the cornerstone of the deal. Despite having nearly half the playing time of his contemporaries, the 27-year-old was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. His 15 DRS ranked third behind Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier (42) and Lorenzo Cain (18) during last season.

The signing of Nori Aoki to play a corner outfield spot also improved the defense. Aoki is a solid defender, although he’s known for taking poor routes on balls from time-to-time. Despite his occasional follies in the field, he’s a significantly better defender than any regular corner outfielder that Seattle has used in recent years.

The retention of Franklin Gutierrez to platoon with fellow holdover Seth Smith solidifies left field. Health may have robbed “Guti” of his ability to be a dynamic center fielder, but he’s still good in a corner spot. Smith is the weakest defender of the outfield crew, although he’s not bad. He’s average or slightly below-average.

Although Karns will reach Seattle first and Powell likely starts the season in Tacoma, the 23-year-old outfielder could have a bigger long-term impact. Powell brings a blend of speed, athleticism, defense and contact-style offense that Dipoto craves and he can play all three outfield positions. He’ll likely see action in Seattle during 2016.

Mission accomplished? Yes. Last season, Smith was considered one of Seattle’s better outfielders. Now, he’s ranks last among teammates not named Nelson Cruz. That’s how much Dipoto has improved outfield since taking over – last year’s best is this year’s ‘worst.”

There’s a residual benefit to adding so many defensively sound outfielders, who also can reach base consistently. Management won’t feel compelled to play Cruz in the field as often. Although many fans support his defensive abilities and believe he’s a better hitter when playing right field, the Mariners are better with Cruz as their designated hitter. Keeping “Boomstick” off the field and healthy will help preserve their star hitter.

Bullpen
This unit went from being superb in 2014 to being a complete disappointment last season. After dealing his club’s two best relievers, there wasn’t much left on Dipoto’s roster. So, he’s been in overdrive to find new relievers ever since. The most notable addition is Steve Cishek, who was signed to be the closer.

Cishek was exceptional during 2013 and 2014, but regressed last year. The 29-year-old showed signs of improvement during the second half when he held hitters to a .206/.313/.299 slash. Despite the improved numbers, the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t value him enough to include him on their postseason roster last October. Prospect Insider assesses the side-arming righty as being better suited to be a set-up man than a closer for a contender.

Another veteran newcomer is Joaquin Benoit, who’ll pitch the eighth inning. Benoit has been a durable setup man after missing the 2009 season with rotator cuff surgery. Since then, he’s logged over 60 innings in five of six years, including 67 last season. Jason explained why he liked the Benoit deal for the Mariners here.

Not every face in the relief corps is new. Charlie Furbush returns after suffering a slight rotator cuff tear last season, plus Tony Zych and Vidal Nuno are holdovers who figure to play prominent roles during 2016.

Mission accomplished? No. Losing Smith and Wilhelmsen put a decimated bullpen in a bigger hole and helped spark fan hostility and media skepticism. Steamer projections won’t inspire fans to a leap of faith either – last season’s original relievers provided approximately the same value that’s projected for the new guys assembled by Dipoto.

  Potential Bullpen 2015 Bullpen
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
CL Steve Cishek   0.0  0.0 Fernando Rodney -0.8
SU Joaquin Benoit   0.4  0.3 Carson Smith  2.1
RP Charlie Furbush   0.1  0.4 Charlie Furbush  0.1
RP Tony Zych   0.6
 0.3
Tom Wilhelmsen  0.8
RP Evan Scribner  -0.1  0.5 Yoervis Medina -0.1
RP Vidal Nuno
  0.3  0.3 Danny Farquhar -0.2
RP Justin De Fratus  -0.1 -0.1  Tyler Olson -0.4
Totals    1.2
 1.7                                              1.5

With so many “unknown unknowns” in the bullpen, it’s tough to be optimistic in late January. Clearly, the club is banking on Furbush bouncing back and the Benoit and Cishek combo being able to anchor the back of the pen. But, it’s going to take on-field success to win over fans and skeptics alike.

There is a silver lining though. If the club is in position to contend in July, Dipoto has demonstrated the propensity to fix a bullpen during a season, as he did with the 98-win Los Angeles Angels in 2014. During that season, he acquired star closer Huston Street, plus setup men Fernando Salas and Jason Grilli.

Catcher
At age 24, Mike Zunino is too young to be deemed a bust. Dipoto has repeatedly praised the catcher’s potential, which leaves the impression that he views the former number-three draft pick as a part of the team’s future. Defensively, he’s outstanding. However, his offense took a horrible turn last season when he posted a .174/.230/.300 slash during 386 plate appearances in 2015. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Zunino is likely to spend the entire 2016 season at Class-AAA Tacoma.

As a result of Zunino’s struggles and the weak bat of Jesus Sucre, the Mariners added former Los Angeles Angel Chris Iannetta – who endured his own offensive struggles last season – and former Baltimore Oriole Steve Clevenger to form a new catching tandem for 2016.

Mission accomplished? Yes. Iannetta, who will do the majority of the catching, is a good pitch-framer with proven on-base ability with the exception of last season. Clevenger is a capable backup and can also play first base in a pinch. Since Iannetta is only 32-years-old, it’s reasonable to expect that he can return to pre-2015 form. Regardless, the Iannetta/Clevenger duo is far superior to last season’s catching crew.

Adding two new catchers affords Seattle the opportunity to place both Zunino and Sucre in Tacoma, if they chose to do so. This substantially improves the club’s organizational depth. Plus, it gives Zunino the opportunity to fix his swing and prove whether Dipoto is correct in believing that he’s part of the team’s future.

Fringe Depth
Dipoto has spoken often of adding layers of depth throughout the organization, like he did with the catcher position. Although fringe depth is easily overlooked by both fans and talking heads, it’s imperative to have both major and minor league reserves in order to contend.

To get in front of the issue, Dipoto added 17 new players to 40-man roster with only four – Adam Lind, Aoki, Martin, Iannetta – slated as starting position players. The rest will provide rotation, bullpen, or bench depth for the either Seattle or Tacoma.

Last season, the club didn’t have clear-cut options in the event of injury or lackluster performance, which led to an 86-loss season. Here’s what a notional Opening Day bench could look like and how it compares to last year’s reserves.

   Potential Bench 2015 Bench
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
C Steve Clevenger   0.0  0.4 Jesus Sucre  -0.3
INF Chris Taylor  -0.4  0.3 Willie Bloomquist  -0.6
OF Franklin Gutierrez   2.3  0.6 Justin Ruggiano  -0.1
OF Shawn O’Malley   0.1  0.0 Rickie Weeks -0.7
Totals   2.0  1.3                                             -1.7

Mission accomplished? Mostly. Building organizational depth is never ending process, but it’s clear that this year’s bench will be significantly better than the 2015 version. For example, Ketel Marte is seemingly destined to be the starting shortstop. Consequently, holdover Chris Taylor and import Luis Sardinas will vie for the reserve infielder spot with the loser likely to start the season with Tacoma. Also, Powell presents the Mariners with their best rookie outfield call-up option in years. These kind of options didn’t exist on Seattle’s roster a year ago.

In addition to “splashy” moves, the Mariners have quietly added several non-roster invites who could potentially add to their depth. To date, those players include pitchers Casey Coleman, Brad Mills, Blake Parker, infielder Ed Lucas and outfielder Mike Baxter. Also, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN reports that first baseman Gaby Sanchez has agreed with the Mariners on a minor league deal. Expect more names to be added during the next month.

Final thoughts
Having Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Felix to build around makes it easier for the Mariners to compete in 2016 without jeopardizing its future success or payroll flexibility. The “riskiest” contracts signed this winter are Cishek’s two-year deal and Iwakuma’s incentive-based contract. Neither will cripple the team’s future plans.

While this bodes well for the team in the long-term, it’s hard to really know how well the Mariners will perform in 2016. Take a look at the projected Opening Day starters compared to last year’s group and you’ll see that this year’s lineup should perform better than 2015 version. But, is it good enough?

   Projected Starters 2015 Starters
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
1B Adam Lind  2.2  1.5 Logan Morrison -0.2
2B Robinson Cano  2.1  3.5 Robinson Cano  2.1
SS Ketel Marte  1.7  1.8 Brad Miller  0.9
3B Kyle Seager  3.9  3.7 Kyle Seager  3.9
LF Nori Aoki  1.5  0.9 Dustin Ackley -0.6
CF Leonys Martin  0.5  1.2 Austin Jackson  2.3
RF Seth Smith  2.2  1.2 Seth Smith  2.2
DH Nelson Cruz  4.8  1.6 Nelson Cruz  4.8
C Chris Iannetta  0.5  1.7 Mike Zunino -0.5
Totals 19.4 17.1                                        14.9

Dipoto’s approach of building around core stars, while simultaneously giving the organization a major facelift makes sense. Whether that strategy leads to a winning campaign in 2016 remains to be seen. If the season started today, the Mariners are far better than the 76-win disappointment of 2015. But, their current rotation and bullpen can’t be considered ready to propel the club into contention.

Right now, the Mariners are a “fringe contender” at best. The club is banking on players like Cano, Iwakuma, Paxton, Martin, Aoki, Iannetta, Cishek, Furbush and most of their relievers to rebound after a down season. If the majority of these ball players bounce back, the Mariners will be the sweethearts of baseball’s talking heads – much like the 2015 Houston Astros. If things don’t go as well as planned, they’ll be fighting to stay above the .500 mark.

That assessment shouldn’t dishearten or irritate fans. After all, Opening Day isn’t until April and a lot can change between now and then. As I pointed out a few months ago, every 2015 playoff team wasn’t ready by Opening Day. Fans can also find comfort in knowing that their team’s general manager isn’t afraid to pivot from mistakes or address under-performance.

If the Mariners are in contention by June or July, Dipoto has the wherewithal to add pieces – he’s done it before. If the club is out of the hunt, he can use next off-season to continue reshaping the organization and building the contender that Mariner fans so desperately crave.

 …

 

Hamels
Last season was a forgettable one for Seattle Mariner fans who were forced to watch the American League (AL) West division standings turned upside down in a way that didn’t result in their team reaching the postseason. The two worst teams of 2014 reached the postseason and the two teams that had reached the postseason the season prior took a step backwards. At the same time, the Mariners – who were projected to be a World Series contender – ended up losing 86 games.

This abrupt change of fortune made for an exciting baseball season, plus helped set the stage for an interesting Hot Stove season. As with every off-season, priorities vary between teams as will their respective approach to address weaknesses and/or accentuate areas of strength. With pitchers and catchers set to report next month, it’s about time to review what the Mariners’ rivals have done to improve their rosters so far. It’s important to emphasize the “so far” because there’s still time for deals to happen, especially with several high-impact free agents still on the market.

For each team, you’ll see a payroll projection from baseball-reference.com. The numbers will become more firm after the arbitration process has run its course. For those interested in specifics, MLB Trade Rumors provides arbitration estimates that are widely used by numerous baseball sites, including Baseball Reference and Prospect Insider, which can be found here.

Next, up is each organization’s needs at the end of last season – based on projected free agent losses and areas of weakness. After that, there’s some background information on each club, a summary of their moves to date, and what’s left to be done before the teams break camp for the regular season.

Houston Astros
Estimated payroll: $88.9M
Needs: 1B/ LF/SP/RP

The massive roster reclamation undertaken by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow propelled the team into the playoff picture much sooner than most observers had predicted. Houston led the division for most of the season before falling on hard times in September. Despite their late season setback, Houston managed to beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and extend the World Series champion Kansas City Royals to five games before bowing out in the Divisional Series.

It’s reasonable to anticipate that last year’s rapid improvement and high expectations for 2016 will lead to a groundswell of fan support in 2016. What’s unknown is club owner Jim Crane’s willingness to provide Luhnow with more payroll flexibility. Player salaries have incrementally increased over the past few seasons from a league-low $26 million in 2013 to approximately $72 million last season. Although the team’s payroll will increase again, it’s projected to remain in the bottom third of the league despite the fact they franchise is based in the fourth largest city in the United States.

Off-season action:
Thanks to the bevvy of young talent that Luhnow and his predecessor – Ed Wade – have amassed and the fact that they were able to retain a couple of key free agents, the Astros haven’t made dramatic changes to their roster. In fact, they’ve added the fewest new major league players of any club in the AL West.

The club’s biggest move was picking up closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles’ arrival permits Houston to make former closer Luke Gregerson their eighth inning set-up man. Another move that helped bolster their bullpen was their retention of southpaw Tony Sipp, who was in high demand on the free agent market.

The Astros filled their left field hole when Colby Rasmus became the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer. As with the Giles deal, keeping their own player improves their overall by keeping Jake Marisnick and prospect Preston Tucker waiting in the wings.

What’s next?
It appears that the Astros plan to use Evan Gattis as their primary designated hitter and rely on former top prospect Jon Singleton at first base after the club non-tendered Chris Carter. The team would be well-served to either acquire a full-time first baseman or at least someone provide depth at the position.

Since Chris Davis has opted to stay in Baltimore, the market for first baseman has thinned out considerably. Justin Morneau can still play, but his concussion history makes him a risk. Another option would be Steve Pearce who can play first base or in a corner outfield spot. That kind of versatility is always a plus for any organization, especially if the team carries eight relievers and only has three bench players  – including a catcher. Based on market availability, the club may be best served to look for a trade partner.

As far as the rotation, adding a solid starter like Texas native Yovani Gallardo – who’s made 30 or more starts in seven consecutive seasons – would help provide depth and an innings eater for the Astros. Another option could be former Mariner Doug Fister who hasn’t been as durable, but would come with a lower price tag.

Fortunately for the team, the main pieces of their roster are relatively inexpensive and the lineup should improve simply by having AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and fellow rookie Lance McCullers for an entire season as long as they avoid a sophomore letdown. Also, healthy production from outfielders Carlos Gomez and George Springer for an entire season provides an instant improvement. With that said, the areas that I just noted need to improve in order for the club to get ahead in the competitive AL West.

Peter Gammons of the Gammons Daily noted yesterday that three different baseball executives have told him that they believe that free agent Yoenis Cespedes could end up in Houston. Certainly, the Astros could afford the 30-year-old outfielder from a financial standpoint, especially with so many young stars under team control for the foreseeable future. However, the club would likely need to move one of their outfielders or Gattis to make room for the right-handed slugger on their roster.

Oakland Athletics
Estimated payroll: $83.1M
Needs: 1B/2B/SP/RP

The Athletics are attempting to get back on track after a disastrous last place finish. Oakland fans were forced to watch their team finish with 68 wins, while former Athletic Josh Donaldson – who was traded last off-season – won the AL Most Valuable Player and helped the Toronto Blue Jays reach the AL Championship Series.

The fact that the club has demonstrated a willingness to deal a budding superstar, like Donaldson, has led to speculation that the A’s might do something similar with ace Sonny Gray. After all, the 26-year-old would bring a significant return. Team vice president Billy Beane recently told MLB Radio that he doesn’t intend to trade their star hurler and best player. The right-hander has a 2.88 earned run average (ERA) in 74 career starts and is under team control through the 2019 season. That’s right, the pitcher who finished third in last season’s AL Cy Young award voting will earn the league minimum in 2016. If Beane changes his mind, he won’t have trouble finding potential trade partners.

Off-season action:
Since the cash-strapped club is never in the market for a upper-tier free agents and management is currently unwilling to part with their staff ace, the Athletics are more inclined to assume risk and make unconventional acquisitions like free agent starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who was signed to a one-year $4.25 million deal. Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins after having shoulder surgery last summer, will open the season on the disabled list. However, he’s only entering his age-27 season and will be under team control through 2017.

Another reclamation project is southpaw Rich Hill. The 35-year-old – who’s been a reliever for the majority of his 11-year career – will be starter for the Oakland in 2016. Both Alvarez and Hill present different kinds of risks for the club. Time will only tell if either gamble pays off for the Athletics.

To upgrade second base, the club obtained infielder Jed Lowrie from the Astros, which prompted them to ship Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for minor league pitchers Jeffrey Wendelken and Zack Erwin – a fourth round pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur draft. I’m sure that some Oakland fans feel a sense of irony in seeing Lawrie leave just one season after being part of the package received for Donaldson.

At first base, the A’s acquired Yonder Alonso in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The left-handed hitter represents a significant upgrade at the plate over Ike Davis and is viewed as a good defender. Alonso will likely pair with the right-handed hitting Mark Canha to form a first base platoon when Canha isn’t playing in the outfield.

Oakland aggressively addressed their bullpen needs by adding relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski. The team hopes that these four veterans – plus a healthy Sean Doolittle – will help reinvigorate a relief corps that permitted an AL-worst 34-percent of inherited runners to score last season.

What’s next?
With the trade of righty Jesse Chavez for Hendriks, Manager Bob Melvin will have to rely upon Hill and youngsters Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Aaron Brooks to form a rotation behind Gray. Jarrod Parker could also be in the mix after missing the past two seasons due to arm surgery.

Teams with higher operating budgets would have the payroll flexibility to address their rotation needs by going after a lower-tier free agent starter like Gallardo, or even Fister. Perhaps, the market will drive down the price on one of the remaining free agents. If the club stands pat with the current roster, a lot of things have to go just right for Oakland to contend in 2016.

Los Angeles Angels
Estimated payroll: $167.7M
Needs: C/3B/LF/more offense

The Angels remained in postseason contention until the last day of the 2015 season, but fell short to Houston for the second wild card spot. The abrupt mid-season departure of former general manager Jerry Dipoto provided an opportunity for the Angels to redo their front office and assess their roster with a fresh set of eyes.

New general manager Billy Eppler inherits a roster weighed down by the $45 million that veterans Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson will be earning in 2016. Plus, the team is on the hook to pay former Angel Josh Hamilton $26.4 million, although he’s playing for the Texas Rangers. In total, the Halos have over $70 million obligated to four players who are either in decline or playing for a divisional rival.

To compound matters, owner Arte Moreno is on record saying that he’s reluctant to go over the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. As a result, the team hasn’t been active in an big-ticket free agents.

Off-season action:
Shortly after taking over the baseball operations, Eppler pulled off his first significant deal by getting shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league player Jose Briceno from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for shortstop Erick Aybar and pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.

Adding a defensive stalwart like Simmons is a plus for the Angels. But, it came at the cost of two prospects and didn’t address an area viewed as an urgent need – shortstop. Newcomb is a potential top-end starter, who is ranked in the top-20 among all major league prospects and number-two in the Braves system. Filling a more urgent hole in a deal would have beneficial for the Angels’ 2016 outlook.

The remaining moves made by the Angels were low cost additions. With the departure of last year’s third baseman – David Freese – via free agency, the club acquired Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals in exchange for reliever Trevor Gott and minor leaguer Michael Brady. Newly acquired Geovany Soto is expected to pair with youngster Carlos Perez to form the Angels’ catching tandem. Plus, free agent Cliff Pennington can play second base, shortstop and third base and some outfield, if needed.

What’s next?
Although Eppler has stated that he believes Moreno would approve exceeding the luxury tax mark for the right player, the team has yet to find that player and make a significant upgrade at any position from an offensive standpoint.

The area that desperately needs that “right player” is left field. For a club that ranked number-25 in on-base percentage last season, upgrading the position with an established offensive player would be a step in the right direction towards reinvigorating the club’s offense. Currently, the club has arguably the best player in the game – Mike Trout – in center field and Gold Glover Kole Calhoun manning right field. Calhoun has pop in his bat, but his batting average and on-base percentage are just league-average.

That leaves a potential tandem of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry to man left field. Other outfielders currently on the team’s 40-man roster include Todd Cunningham, Efren Navarro and minor leaguer Rafael Ortega. If the Angels can’t find more offensive punch from their outfield, 2016 could be another year of the club’s offense being Mike Trout and eight other guys.

Three free agent outfielders who would be an immediate upgrade be Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Justin Upton. But, it comes back to the same thing – ownership’s reluctance to go over the luxury tax mark. Perhaps, they can sign a lower tier free agent like Austin Jackson or Denard Span. Neither is a perfect fit, but would present better options than what’s on the current 40-man roster.

Texas Rangers
Estimated payroll: $144.2M
Needs: C/SP/RP

The defending AL West division champions were forced to take a broken road to postseason contention last year. First, the club lost ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John elbow surgery in Spring Training. To make matters worse, the club was forced to go without the services of fellow starters Derek Holland and Martin Perez for the first half of the season. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding slugger Prince Fielder – who was returning from neck surgery – and the Rangers 2015 outlook appeared bleak.

While most observers didn’t expect Texas to be a contender after their run of bad fortune with their rotation, general manager Jon Daniels never waved the proverbial white flag. He continued to look for opportunities to improve his roster for 2015 and beyond throughout the season. He first reacquired former Ranger Hamilton from the Angels after he wore out his welcome in Anaheim. Hamilton’s contributions proved to be limited. But, Daniels made his most significant moves in July when he traded for Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels and added relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson to bolster his bullpen.

Fortunately for Daniels and his ball club, the Rangers were able to ride out their early misfortune. Holland and Perez returned after the all-star break, Fielder earned American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, and Hamels helped the club make a late surge to pass the Astros and Angels to win the division. Now, the club is poised to compete for the postseason again.

Off-season action:
To a degree, Daniels got an early start with his off-season shopping when he picked up Hamels, Diekman, and Dyson last July. The club’s major hot stove move was trading outfielder Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan. The key to this deal for Texas was adding the hard-throwing and versatile Wilhelmsen to buoy their bullpen, which now brags a core of closer Shawn Tolleson, Diekman, Dyson, sophomore Keone Kela, and their newest addition from Seattle.

The Rangers also signed former Mariners outfielder Justin Ruggiano – who rakes against left-handed pitching – to boost outfield depth and possibly be a back-up first baseman. Ruggiano also provides the team with some insurance in case Hamilton encounters performance or availability issues. Although the fan favorite is expected to be a regular contributor, Hamilton underwent another knee procedure this off-season and has struggled to stay healthy. The silver lining for Rangers’ management is that the Angels are paying the majority of his salary. So, the team won’t be fiscally constrained if they need to move past the former league MVP.

Despite the speculation that the club wouldn’t retain their arbitration-eligible catchers – Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos – both players are still on the roster. Gimenez would appear to be the low-hanging fruit if another option were to be found. He had a strong 2015, however, his .255/.330/.490 slash in a small-sample size of 113 plate appearances were well above career averages.

What’s next?
The team appears to be satisfied with going to the Cactus League with Darvish and Hamels serving as co-aces and having Holland, Perez, Colby Lewis, Nick Martinez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez competing for the final three rotation spots.

Top prospect – third baseman Joey Gallo – wowed fans with his tape measure home runs after being called up to fill in for the injured Adrian Beltre last season, but his high strikeout rate landed him back in Class-AAA ball after Beltre returned. The team began playing the young slugger in left field last season and could permanently transition him to the outfield, especially if reports are correct that the club is working on extension for the seemingly ageless Beltre. It’s also possible that Gallo could be an injury replacement at first or third base.

It’s possible that Daniels will, once again, wait until the regular season to further upgrade his roster. One potential trade chip – shortstop Jurickson Profar – could be in high demand if he proves that he’s ready to play the field after two shoulder surgeries and a long recovery. It’s unlikely that Daniels would be willing to move the former number-one overall prospect in the majors when his value is so low. It’s more probably that he’ll hold onto Profar until he regains his form either with the big league club or at Class-AAA ball.

Final thoughts
It’s important to note once again that there’s still time for deals to be made, especially with several high-profile and many lower-tier free agents still on the market. Position players like Cespedes, Upton, and Dexter Fowler would make sense for more than one AL West club, if the price was right. The same could be said about Gallardo or Fister.

Every one of these clubs will continue to attempt to add major league talent, plus extend minor league invites to players in order to create more depth opportunities, especially with relievers and starting pitchers. Even after the season starts, there’s still time to make additions to the roster. Just look at the 2015 Rangers and their in-season maneuvering if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to upgrade on the fly.

Later this week, I’ll cover the Mariners’ very active Hot Stove effort to upgrade their roster and brighten their 2016 outlook.

DipotoSince becoming the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, Jerry Dipoto has aggressively worked to transform the club’s roster. In just under three months, he’s added 16 players to the club’s 40-man roster. The 47-year-old’s moves have been greeted with a mixture of optimism, scorn, and indifference depending on the names of the players involved and fan’s perceived value of the individuals traded away and received.

For example, dispatching Carson Smith and Roenis Elias to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro and the signing of free agent catcher Chris Iannetta didn’t sit well with the Seattle faithful. Conversely, the addition of Nori Aoki via free agency was much better received. Despite the mixed reviews on Dipoto’s numerous transactions, the Mariners appear to be on track to be better next season.

It’s impossible to know with certainty how much value that Seattle’s new players –  or their holdovers – will provide in 2016. None of us can predict the future, although it can be fun trying to prognosticate. The next best thing to being a seer is using sabermetric projections, which can at least provide some insight into a team’s and player’s future performance.

With that in mind, I decided to compare Seattle’s potential Opening Day 25-man roster to the squad that started last season against the Los Angeles Angels on April 6 at Safeco Field. To help with the comparison, I opted to use Steamer wins above replacements (WAR) projections found here at FanGraphs. Since I’m using the the FanGraphs version of WAR, I’ll be referring to it as “fWAR” from this point going forward.

I understand that fWAR isn’t universally accepted as a reliable measure of a player’s performance by all fans and some in the media, but fWAR helps encapsulate a player’s total value into one statistic that includes base running, defense, and hitting.

fWAR isn’t a concrete measure like batting average or home runs. Rather, it’s an estimation of value that happens to be relatively accurate. Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto were the top five position players in 2015 – based on fWAR.  All of these players were in the top three of their respective league’s Most Valuable Player voting. That’s not a coincidence.

First, let’s look at the starting position players from Opening Day 2015 and the likely starting position players for next season. You’ll see that I’ve included the 2015 fWAR for both groups of players and the 2016 Steamer fWAR projection for the current Mariners. At the bottom of each column, I included totals.

   Projected Starters 2015 Starters
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
1B Adam Lind  2.2  1.5 Logan Morrison -0.2
2B Robinson Cano  2.1  3.5 Robinson Cano  2.1
SS Ketel Marte  1.7  1.8 Brad Miller  0.9
3B Kyle Seager  3.9  3.7 Kyle Seager  3.9
LF Nori Aoki  1.5  0.9 Dustin Ackley -0.6
CF Leonys Martin  0.5  1.2 Austin Jackson  2.3
RF Seth Smith  2.2  1.2 Seth Smith  2.2
DH Nelson Cruz  4.8  1.6 Nelson Cruz  4.8
C Chris Iannetta  0.5  1.7 Mike Zunino -0.5
Totals 19.4 17.1                                    14.9

A few words of caution before going any further. The projections listed above are nothing more than estimates based on factors such as each player’s playing history and age. Moreover, they can’t predict injuries – like Robinson Cano’s abdominal issues or James Paxton’s finger tendon injury. Thereby, projections are imperfect by nature, especially for young players with a small sample size of appearances in the big leagues. But, it’s still fun to use them during the Hot Stove season.

Even though Steamer projections have Nelson Cruz tailing off considerably in 2016, the starting crew that Dipoto has assembled projects to outperform the 2015 squad. First base, left field, and catcher are clear upgrades – based on last season’s fWAR value. Plus, Cano is expected to continue his second-half turnaround from last season into next year.

The projected Opening Day bench also looks to provide more value in 2016, although that’s not a very high bar to get over. The 2015 bench was an absolute disappointment.

   Projected Bench 2015 Bench
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
C Steve Clevenger   0.0  0.4 Jesus Sucre  -0.3
INF Chris Taylor  -0.4  0.3 Willie Bloomquist  -0.6
OF Franklin Gutierrez   2.3   0.6 Justin Ruggiano  -0.1
OF Shawn O’Malley   0.1  0.0 Rickie Weeks -0.7
Totals   2.0  1.3                                        -1.7

Since these are just projections, it’s possible that some of the names I’ve used won’t be with the club when it breaks camp next year. Barring injury, Franklin Gutierrez is the most certain to make the squad followed by Steve Clevenger. Regardless of who earns spots on the club’s bench, there’s a good chance that they’ll surpass the low value of last season’s Opening Day reserves. There’s no where to go, but up.

As with bench players, manager Scott Servais will have more options than the ones I’ve listed in the below starting rotation projection. For example, Mike Montgomery will be in the mix and it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities that Dipoto will acquire more arms to either compete in Peoria or provide depth after the season begins.

Dipoto might even trade one of the players I’ve projected to make the rotation. Heck, he might make a move before the end of the evening. But, as of December 13, these five players appear to be the best options for Seattle.

   Projected Rotation 2015 Rotation
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
SP Felix Hernandez  2.8  4.7 Felix Hernandez  2.8
SP Wade Miley  2.6  2.1 Hisashi Iwakuma  1.8
SP James Paxton  1.5 1.3 James Paxton  0.5
SP Nate Karns  1.5  1.0 J.A. Happ  1.2
SP Taijuan Walker  1.9  2.4 Taijuan Walker  1.9
Totals  9.3 11.5                                       8.2

Of all of the deals made by the Mariners new GM, the Miley deal has been met with the most fan anger. That probably has more to do with departure of Carson Smith in the trade and the fact that Miley was chosen to replace fan-favorite Hisashi Iwakuma, who joined the Los Angeles Dodgers via free agency. If Miley had been a free agent acquisition by the Mariners, the resistance may have been more muted.

Fan sorrow aside, Miley provided provide more value to Boston than Iwakuma did to Seattle in 2015. Plus, Miley’s 2016 projected fWAR surpasses Iwakuma’s 2015 value. The combination of newcomers Miley and Nate Karns and the projected performance improvements of holdovers Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton are expected to help boost the club’s rotation value by over three wins next season.

After being a strength for the Mariners in 2014, the bullpen went through a season-long tailspin in 2015. Appearances by closer Fernando Rodney were so erratic that they were commonly referred to as the “Fernando Rodney Experience” on social media. The combination of Rodney’s inconsistency, the regression of Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar, and a season-ending injury to Charlie Furbish turned the bullpen into the club’s Achilles’ heel.

  Projected Bullpen 2015 Bullpen
Pos
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
CL Steve Cishek   0.0  0.0 Fernando Rodney -0.8
SU Joaquin Benoit   0.4  0.3 Carson Smith  2.1
RP Charlie Furbush   0.1  0.4 Charlie Furbush  0.1
RP Anthony Bass   0.1  0.3 Tom Wilhelmsen  0.8
RP Evan Scribner  -0.1  0.5 Yoervis Medina -0.1
RP Vidal Nuno
  0.3 0.3 Danny Farquhar -0.2
RP Justin De Fratus  -0.1 -0.1  Tyler Olson -0.4
Totals    0.7  1.7                                         1.5

The trades of the team’s two best relievers – Tom Wilhelmsen and Smith – has led to a great deal of hostility from fans and skepticism from the media. Steamer projections won’t help inspire fans to a leap of faith either – last season’s original relief corps provided approximately the same value that’s predicted for new one assembled by Dipoto. It’s important to note that Smith provided the majority of that value though.

Clearly, Dipoto is expecting Furbush to bounce back from injury and that new acquisitions Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek will be able to anchor the back of the bullpen.

Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill assesses the side-arming Chisek as being better suited to be a set-up man rather than a closer for a contender. Jason goes on to point out that if the Mariners find themselves in position to contend in July, they could deal for a better option if neither Benoit nor Chisek demonstrate the ability to maintain their grip on the closer spot.

Fortunately for the team and its fans, it’s only mid-December and there’s still plenty of time for more pieces to be added to the rotation, bullpen, and even the bench. Jason identified several players here who could potentially help contribute to what the Dipoto attempting to accomplish during his roster reboot.

If the season started today, I’d project this team to be better than the 76-win unit that finished a distant fourth place last season. However, neither the Mariners’ rotation nor their bullpen is ready to propel the club into contention. They wouldn’t even qualify as a “fringe contender” at the moment.

 …

A right-hander that helped lead the Kansas City Royals to the World Series was notched firmly below Max Scherzer and Jon Lester among starting pitchers when discussing the 2014-2015 free agent class. James Shields ended up joining the San Diego Padres on a four-year, $75 million deal last winter, a winter in which the Padres were heralded as the winners of the offseason. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and with a few key pieces already departed, the Friars are reportedly looking to deal their ace.

Shields, who’ll turn 34 a few days before Christmas, had a down year in 2015 by his standards despite clearing the 200-inning plateau for the ninth consecutive season. He did post a career-best strikeout rate, but also a career-worst walk rate. Perhaps one of the main reasons for Shields’ down year, and this is strange having pitched half his innings at Petco Park, was difficulty with the long ball. His 17.6 percent home run per fly ball rate was nearly double the rates he had posted in the previous two seasons.

The right-hander’s spike in home runs could be worrisome, but it appears that it could simply be an outlier as his BABIP and contact rates were in line with his career averages. Shields has lost a tick on his fastball over the past couple years, but he has never been a guy who has relied on velocity so that shouldn’t be concerning

It’s conceivable that Shields could regain his form as a three-to-four WAR pitcher next season, but I would bet on the lower end of that spectrum given his age and the miles on his arm. Still a valuable asset, though.

ESPN’s Buster Olney reports via Twitter that there is significant interest in the Padres’ ace. Olney also points out that Shields passed through revocable waivers last August. There was speculation that San Diego wanted to rid themselves of the contract at that time and are looking to do so again.

So we have a quality arm who’s proven to be good for 200 productive innings annually. First question, why are the Padres trying to move him? Second, why hasn’t anyone taken him yet? Answer: the contract.

Of the $75 million guaranteed to the right-hander, only $10 million of it was paid in 2015. Part of how the Padres were able to sign Shields, amidst their other big money transactions, was to front-load the deal. For each of the next three seasons, Shields is due $21 million. He will also be owed a $2 million buyout for a $16 million team option for the 2019 season.

Also to be aware of: Shields can opt-out of his contract after 2016. This means he could be a one-year rental to an acquiring club. If he has a rebound season it’s not inconceivable to see him get a new three-year deal with an average annual value north of $20 million. But it could be tough to get a fourth-year guaranteed so there are pros and cons on Shields’ side for opting out.

Let’s assume he doesn’t opt out, and we can say Shields is owed $65 million for the next three years. That’s $20 million more than now former Mariner, Hisashi Iwakuma, received in his three-year free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It doesn’t sound as if the total sum of money was the issue for Seattle not re-signing their No. 2 starter. GM Jerry Dipoto said yesterday that the club wasn’t comfortable with paying Iwakuma for his age 35, 36, and 37 seasons while mentioning sustainability. Some reports had the Mariners offering two years and $25 million.

For the next three years Shields will pitch in his age 34, 35, and 36 seasons — just one year younger than Iwakuma. However, if sustainability is the desired target, that’s where Shields differentiates himself from Iwakuma. In the past three seasons, Iwakuma has one campaign of 200-plus innings to Shields’ three.

As seen in yesterday’s trade with the Boston Red Sox, the Mariners gave up Carson Smith and Roenis Elias for a similar sustainability. Wade Miley has four straight years of throwing 190-plus innings, but is only 29-years-old and his total cost for the next three years would be slightly less than $27 million if his 2019 option is exercised. There’s value in cost certainty and the potential for slightly more upside with a pitcher yet to hit 30.

The Padres are reportedly willing to eat salary to move Shield’s contract. This morning they dealt $7.5 million and Jedd Gyorko to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jon Jay and his $6.225 million salary. Obviously this was a different scenario, but between the cash sent and money owed to Jay, the Padres were willing to eat almost $14 million of the $33 million guaranteed to Gyorko over the next four years.

How much the Padres are willing to eat in order to move Shields will be less relevant than what Seattle would potentially be willing to take on.

We haven’t talked about the potential fit, but that much should be self-explanatory. Miley sits No. 2 to Felix Hernandez on the depth chart, but better reflects the skill set of a No. 3 starter in a good rotation, and perhaps a No. 4 in a great rotation. Nothing against Miley, he just doesn’t quite fill the gap that a healthy Iwakuma leaves.

Shields could still be a solid No. 2, and with an improved outfield defense behind him — a lack of Matt Kemp would help anybody — should be able to succeed in Seattle.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Mariners value Shields between $15-to-$18 million annually. This would mean getting the Padres to eat $3-to-$6 million annually. Part of the value Miley brings, according to Dipoto, is that what he provides the kind of value that would cost between $12 and $18 million on the free agent market.

Without having an inside look at the Padres’ financials, I’m going to suggest that an arrangement along those lines would be feasible. But, it would involve San Diego getting that much more in player value as the return.

Seattle doesn’t have a Brad Miller available anymore to solve the Padres’ shortstop problems. After trading Elias it’s unlikely a James Paxton or Taijuan Walker would be on the move and there’s literally no more bullpen depth to deal from. Chris Taylor or Ketel Marte could probably be a conversation starter, but would the M’s need to add a D.J. Peterson to get the Padres’ attention?

If San Diego is open to less-immediate major league help, maybe rising prospect Tyler Smith could be of interest. Top prospects Edwin Diaz and Alex Jackson are still a few years away from the majors and while I don’t love the term untouchable, they should only enter the conversation if Seattle is getting a top-flite young player with multiple years of control.

Perhaps an ideal situation would be the Padres taking back old friend Seth Smith. With Justin Upton departing via free agency there is some need for additional outfield depth, and the money owed to Smith could balance out the finances some.

A deal based on Smith and Taylor with a mid-level prospect going to San Diego could be a starting point, but I have a feeling another club will be able to offer more than Seattle can, either in player value or in portion of contract assumed.

After dealing Carson Smith, Elias, Miller, and Patrick Kivlehan, the Mariners don’t really have the depth to make a significant deal without moving major league parts or young roster players. I don’t think that will or should stop Dipoto from trying to make a big splash, but it is a legitimate consideration.

I think getting James Shields at three years and $45-to-50 million would be a solid buy based on what’s going on with free agency. Last winter Brandon McCarthy signed for four years and $48 million, and we already have J.A. Happ costing the Toronto Blue Jays $36 million over three years. There are other examples, but Shields at $15 million annually is a much better buy than either of those two starters at $12 million per.

Given the demand for Shields, I don’t think the market will soften enough to the point where he fits what Dipoto wants to do. Until we hear a little more about what the potential ask might be, it’s tough to speculate on what the M’s would need to give up.

If Shields does plan on opting out, which we won’t know for 11 months, it doesn’t make sense to pay a steep price for a rental. If the Padres were to deal him as a potential rental though, the asking price would likely reflect that. Maybe guaranteeing Shields’ 2019 option with an equal AAV to his other three years could convince him to drop the opt-out. That’s my own speculation though.

Obviously every player makes sense at a certain price and Shields may not end up at a price that makes sense for Seattle. This may not be an idea worth pursuing, but it’s worth exploring in order to beef up the rotation for potentially the next couple seasons.…

 

When Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto set out to reshape the club’s roster, the prevailing thought was that the team needed to address their starting pitching, bullpen, catching depth, outfield defense, and fringe depth. Prospect Insider Executive Editor Jason A. Churchill first discussed these areas of need in late October. Since then, Dipoto has aggressively addressed everything that Jason mentioned through a series of transactions that’s seen 30 players change teams. All-in-all, the Mariners have netted 17 new players.

That doesn’t mean that Seattle is ready to field a contender. There’s still more work to do with the starting rotation and the bullpen, especially after the team was unable to retain the services of free agent starter Hisashi Iwakuma.

Another reason that the Mariners are far from ready is the fact that Dipoto created a new hole at first base while making his multitude of moves. The departures of Mark Trumbo and Logan Morrison leave Jesus Montero and the newly acquired Andy Wilkins as the top candidates to take over the position.

Considering that it’s only the first Monday in December and the Winter Meetings only started today, Mariner fans shouldn’t be alarmed. I suspect that Dipoto desired to make a change from the onset of the off-season and moving Trumbo and Morrison was part of a big picture plan to upgrade first base and other areas on the 40-man roster.

Since most observers don’t view Montero and Wilkins as the answer, let’s look at potential options available to Seattle, via trade or free agency. I’m sure other names will crop up in the rumor mill. It’s not my intent to predict the next Mariners first baseman. I’m just presenting some ideas. Some are more far-fetched than others. Let’s start with a couple of free agents.

Mike Napoli
The 34-year-old could be the kind of buy-low players that Dipoto has been attracted to since taking over. Napoli’s 2015 slash against right-handed pitching doesn’t look great. But, his.243/.340/.464 career slash against righties demonstrates that he still can contribute at the plate.

The former catcher-turned-first baseman has also done well from a defensive perspective by averaging over six defensive runs saved (DRS) during the last three seasons. Another plus – a very minor one – is that he could serve as an emergency catcher, although he hasn’t donned the “tools of ignorance” since 2012.

Steve Pearce
His career slash is .247/.325/.431, which hovers near league-average and he’s a versatile player who has played first, second and third base, plus both corner outfield spots. Since his debut in 2007, he’s totaled 10 DRS while manning first base. Like Napoli, he’d be a low-risk, low-cost signing.

I’ve had several people ask me about former Colorado Rockie Justin Morneau. He poses a much higher risk due to his injury history. In 2015, he once again had concussion and neck problems and has averaged just 112 games played since 2012. Plus, his recent offensive renaissance is probably fueled by playing in Coors Field.

Trades
It’s hard to predict deals between teams because it takes at least two parties who have needs that blend in a way to make a trade beneficial to all involved. It also comes down to the willingness of clubs to part ways with the necessary assets to get their player(s). The law of supply and demand definitely applies to the trade market.

With that in mind, I selected a few players who could be trade targets. Most of them cost more than the Mariners appear to be willing or able to pay, especially if the player doesn’t have multiple years of team control remaining.

Adam Lind – Milwaukee Brewers
The 32-year-old would be a significant offensive upgrade for Seattle. He’s posted a superb .293/.354/.509 slash against right-handed pitching during his career. He is under contract for one more year before he enters free agency and will make a relatively reasonable $8 million next year. More than likely, he’s still with the team because Milwaukee because they haven’t received an acceptable offer from potential buyers.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently speculated that the Cleveland Indians were able to get southpaw Rob Kaminsky – who was a 2013 first-round draft choice – from the St. Louis Cardinals at last season’s trade deadline and that Brewers management could be seeking a similar return.

As Rosenthal pointed out, there’s one significant difference between Lind and Moss situations. The Brewers’ first baseman is a free agent after next season, while the Cardinals got a season and a half of Moss. More team control leads to getting more value in return during a trade. This concept applies to all of the players I’m about to mention.

Clint Robinson – Washington Nationals
A late bloomer as a 30-year-old rookie last season, the left-handed hitter had an impressive .272/.358/.424 slash during 352 plate appearances and has been a average defender at first base. Granted, it’s a small sample size and whether the Nationals would be willing to part with Robinson is questionable, especially with the injury history of starting first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Travis Shaw – Boston Red Sox
The 25-year-old’s .270/.327/.487 slash and 13 home runs in just 248 plate appearances during his rookie season would make him attractive if the Red Sox were to make the left-handed hitter available. It’s possible that Boston would part with Shaw if they’re truly committed to Hanley Ramirez at first base. That remains to be seen since Ramirez has never played first base at any professional level and is coming off a disappointing 2015 season.

Justin Bour – Miami Marlins
The 27-year-old performed superbly during his first full season in the majors and even finished a distant fifth in Rookie of the Year voting to the runaway winner – Chicago’s Kris Bryant. Bour’s .262/.321/.479 and 23 home runs in 446 plate appearances would make the cost of acquiring the left-handed hitter very prohibitive. One mark against him is that his defensive metrics weren’t very favorable – he registered -7 DRS last year. In fairness, a partial season of defensive metrics doesn’t provide a large enough sample size to pass judgement.

Chris Colabello – Toronto Blue Jays
If Toronto opted to move Edwin Encarnacion to first base on a full-time basis, the 32-year-old late bloomer could be considered excess since the team already has former Mariner Justin Smoak to serve as a back-up. The right-handed hitter posted a .265/.323/.438 career slash and has some pop in his bat. Like Bour, Colabello’s -6 DRS during 644.1 innings at first base isn’t reliable due to the small sample size.

Wil Myers – San Diego Padres
It may be a surprise to some that the former American League Rookie of the Year only turns 25-years-old in three days. It may also surprise some that I;ve mentioned Myers as a first base option since he’s only started 24 major league games at the position. Based on his athleticism, the former catcher and outfielder should easily adapt to first base. This is an interesting idea, but it looks like San Diego came up with it first and may opt to keep Myers to be their first baseman, especially after trading away Yonder Alonso.

Lucas Duda – New York Mets
The 29-year-old has excellent left-handed power and good on-base ability for a player who averaged 136 strikeouts over the last two years. Duda will likely earn in the neighborhood of $6.7 million in arbitration and is a free agent after the 2017 season. Despite his disastrous throwing error in the World Series, he’s a good defender. If the Mets opted to move team captain David Wright – who has spinal stenosis – from third base to first, Duda would become expendable. New York may eventually move Wright to first, but there’s no indication that it’ll happen in 2016.

Davis effect
If a team that already has a first baseman were to sign free agent first baseman Chris Davis, a new partner could appear for Dipoto. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, and Toronto are interested in the power-hitting Davis.

Signing Davis would make Colabello available. The Cardinals would likely trade Matt Adams if they inked Davis. The arbitration-eligible Adams is projected to earn $1.5 million according to MLB Trade Rumors and a free agent after the 2018 season. The Red Sox would definitely have an excess at first base if they signed Davis to play there. Whether they would they be more inclined to trade Ramirez or Shaw is unknown.

Multi-team mystery
Since the Mariners have limited trade assets to use to get a first baseman – or starting pitching – Dipoto could turn to a multi-team deal to make a move. That’s how former general Jack Zduriencik was able to flip Nick Franklin for Austin Jackson in 2014 that involved David Price moving from Tampa Bay to Detroit.

Dipoto has used the multi-team deal while with the Los Angeles Angels. In December 2013, he made a three-way trade with the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks that netted the Angels Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs, for Mark Trumbo and A.J. Schugel. These deals are complicated and can fall apart at any times.

The trade option would likely net a better player, but the Mariners are planning to contend in 2016. So, they may be reluctant to part with major league talent and they don’t have a much to offer in the form of high-level prospects.

Unless Seattle is willing to take on a bad contract or under-performing player – like Hanley Ramirez – it’s tough for me to envision how the Mariners could pick up one of the above players or someone similar in talent and team control.

That’s why Napoli and Pearce intrigue me the most. Both would be low-cost alternatives who would help the team with on the field and at the plate.

 …

It’s that time of year again. No, not that time where we are questioning why the grocery store has been playing Christmas music for four weeks despite the fact December only just begun. That time when baseball free agency reaches it’s peak: the annual Winter Meetings.

This year thousands of executives will meet in Nashville, Tennessee for four days starting on Monday, and ending on Thursday with the Rule 5 Draft. We don’t know exactly what will happen over those four days, but we do know that David Price, Zack Greinke, Jeff Samardzija, and John Lackey won’t be part of numerous transactions that will take place.

As Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins recently discussed, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t wait for the first week of December to begin shaping his roster. Already, seven players have been acquired via trade, seven via free agency, and three via waivers.

Coming into the offseason, the outfield and pitching staff figured to be the primary issues needing to be resolved as well as the catching situation. Dipoto would be the first to tell you that the current iteration of the Mariners is far from ready for Opening Day, but let’s take a look at what has already been accomplished through the offseason’s first month and what still needs to be done.

Rotation: Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery
The only addition to the starting staff so far is Karns, who was the key piece coming back to Seattle in the multi-player deal that sent Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Reportedly, the Mariners are ramping up their efforts to retain free agent Hisashi Iwakuma. Seattle is said to be the preference for the right-hander, but given the contracts given out free agents thus far, it’ll probably take a three-year guarantee and $45 million to get a deal done. I wouldn’t blame the Mariners for being uncomfortable with either of those numbers. However, after missing out on Greinke, I wouldn’t expect Iwakuma’s draft pick cost to be an issue for the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants.

Regardless of Iwakuma’s situation, the Mariners need a No. 2 starter. Ideally, they get a No. 2 and a No. 3, which would allow Walker to start the year in the No. 4 slot. I wouldn’t expect Iwakuma to sign this week, but given how hot his market has become, it’s certainly possible. With Montgomery out of options, a couple depth pieces should also look to be added.

Bullpen: Joaquin Benoit, Carson Smith, Charlie Furbush, Tony Zych, Anthony Bass, Vidal Nuno, David Rollins, Justin De Fratus, Rob Rasmussen
Dipoto has already secured the eighth and ninth innings with the addition of Benoit. It’s not yet determined whether he or Smith will close, but the prevailing wisdom is that the veteran will begin the year in that role. Bass and De Fratus should fill the role in the pen left by the departed Tom Wilhelmsen and solidify things from the right side.

Some work will need to be done on the left side though as Furbush recovers from surgery and Nuno will likely be in the mix for a back-end rotation spot. Rasmussen and Rollins offer some depth, but the club is without a shutdown lefty that most elite bullpens offer.

Infield: Chris Iannetta, Steve Clevenger, Mike Zunino, Jesus Montero, Andy Wilkins, Robinson Cano, Ketel Marte, Kyle Seager, Luis Sardinas, Chris Taylor, Shawn O’Malley
The catcher’s position that shortened the M’s lineup to eight spots throughout 2015 has been adequately restored with the additions of Iannetta and Clevenger. The pair will allow Zunino to start the year at No. 3 on the depth chart and be able to work his way back to the majors; an ideal situation. Wilkins and Sardinas join Taylor as infield depth. A bounce-back season from Cano, who’s currently recovering from hernia surgery, would represent a major upgrade on it’s own.

With Mark Trumbo and Logan Morrison dealt, the first base position currently rests in Montero’s lap. Dipoto has all but said the former top prospect won’t be the club’s Opening Day first baseman and is working to supplement the position via trade. If Trumbo hadn’t of been dealt, the infield would have presumably been set. With nothing having changed since then, that’s the only hole that needs to be filled within the base paths.

Outfield: Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, Boog Powell, Daniel Robertson
In just a few weeks Seattle has a fresh outfield, with a couple familiar faces, that could run laps around the outfields constructed by the previous regime. Literally. Martin was a buy-low candidate after a rough season and will provide a huge boost in center field. Gutierrez was re-signed to platoon with the lone holdover, Smith, in one of the corners with the newly acquired Aoki in the other. Powell and Robertson provide depth that is stronger than what James Jones — who was non-tendered by the Texas Rangers — or Stefen Romero would offer.

The constant in the Mariners outfield acquisitions: athleticism, defensive skills, and the ability to get on base.

I would expect another outfielder to enter the picture as a depth piece, particularly if Seth Smith is dealt. Overall though, the outfield is positioned to be a plus for the Mariners in 2016. There wasn’t a Jason Heyward added, but it could easily be argued that all three spots have already been improved.

Designated Hitter: Nelson Cruz
One of the biggest benefits of the outfield re-haul is that it leaves little room for Cruz to be anything but a DH. This is a win-win scenario. Now, I don’t think there’s any reason to restrict Cruz as a DH-only. I have no problem seeing him in the outfield once, maybe twice a week at most. As it stands Cruz is the fourth or fifth best option to play the field instead of the second or third as he was last year. And I’ll say it because it bears repeating: Cruz is not going to become a first basemen. He simply doesn’t possess the capabilities to do so regardless of any predispositions that playing first is a mindless task.

Big picture, a lot of the heavy lifting is done. In speaking to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Dipoto expects at least one more trade to take place with multiple conversations having taken place or are ongoing. This makes sense as Dipoto suggests the club won’t be signing any marquee free agents this winter. Read: Chris Davis, most likely.

I see the same two major needs that everyone else does right now: a No. 2 starter and a first baseman. A stronger left-handed presence in the bullpen should also be targeted. The fact that the outfield picture is all but solved — perhaps the most daunting task the new GM faced — is a huge plus.

It’s been noted that Dipoto has yet to make a ‘signature’ move that will truly make the 2016 Mariners his team. With the presence of Felix, Cano, Cruz, and Seager there isn’t the need for more star power specifically. The current payroll situation likely doesn’t allow for another $20 million allocation.

If I were to guess on a potential big move that could take place, and this is pure speculation, it would involve a young controllable starter. Probably not a Jose Fernandez type since, Walker aside, the M’s don’t really have the kind of bullets required.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a very fun next few days.…

Since taking over the reins of the Seattle Mariners’ baseball operations, GM Jerry Dipoto has maintained a frenetic pace while he reshapes the team’s roster. To date, he’s added 17 new players and shipped one of them – reliever C.J. Riefenhauser – in the deal that sent slugger Mark Trumbo to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for catcher Steve Clevenger.

Considering that major league baseball’s Winter Meetings kick-off next week, observers of the Mariners are curious to see if Dipoto will continue to aggressively add new assets to the major and minor league rosters while he’s in Nashville.

A few good men
So, how much has the Emerald City’s baseball team changed since the start of last season? Of the 25 players who were on the team’s 2015 Opening Day roster, only 12 remain on the their 40-man roster. That’s as of today, of course. Take a look to see who’s left.

Starting pitchersFelix Hernandez, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker
Relief pitchersCharlie Furbush, Tyler Olson, Carson Smith
CatchersMike Zunino, Jesus Sucre
InfieldersRobinson Cano, Kyle Seager
OutfieldersNelson Cruz, Seth Smith

Considering that Dipoto has acquired two catchers and prefers to have Zunino start the season at Class-AAA Tacoma, it’s unlikely that the former number-three overall draft pick and Sucre will break camp with the team next year. That would bring the count down to 10 survivors.

Dipoto’s predecessor – Jack Zduriencik – certainly had a hand in adding new faces. But, the Mariners’ new GM is the architect of the team’s new identity, which will rely upon getting on base, defense, depth, and athleticism.

Since the 47-year-old has a track record that includes building a winner with his former organization – the Los Angeles Angels – I decided to look at “the Dipoto files” to see if there are any parallels between his acquisition history with Los Angeles and Seattle. Let’s start with the Mariners.

New kid in town
Dipoto has yet to pull of a blockbuster trade or sign a major free agent, but he’s found ways to quickly improve his club’s major league roster, while also improving minor league depth. Here’ a breakdown of his transactions and the players that he’s added since taking over on September 29.

The Mariners GM has been impressive as he’s transformed Seattle’s roster in such a short period. It’s not just the number of players that he’s added, but also the type of players and the pace that he’s maintained. Whether his moves lead to success will be determined at a much later date. But, his tenacity is extraordinary.

LA confidential
Dipoto became the GM of the Angels in October 2011 and held that post until he abruptly resigned on July 1 of this year. That gave him four off-seasons to help shape the club’s roster. The following table is a breakdown of his moves during that span. For the purposes of this discussion, any signing of a free agent to a major league contract for three years or longer is considered “long-term” and anything less was a “minor” signing.

Trade Long-term FA Short-term FA
Minor League FA Waivers Total
22 3 8 103 9 145

As you can see, the majority of transactions were via the trade market and minor league free agency. It’s important to note that team owner Arte Moreno reportedly spearheaded two of the three long-term free agent signings – Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. The third was southpaw C.J. Wilson, who is still with the Angels.

The fact that Los Angeles only signed three big free agents in four off-seasons can be attributed to two things. First, Dipoto has repeatedly stated that he views free agent signings as “supplemental” in nature. He prefers a more balanced approach to roster building.

The other factor is the fact that the Pujols and Hamilton contracts significantly reduced payroll flexibility, which made building a supporting cast more challenging for Dipoto. It’s no coincidence that increasing payroll flexibility has been a priority of his since arriving in Seattle.

Let’s look at the Los Angeles 2015 Opening Day 25-man roster – including the four players who were on the disabled list at the time– to see how Dipoto built his last roster with the Angels. The players highlighted in yellow were acquired during his time in the City of Angels.

Trade Homegrown Long-term FA Short-term FA
Waivers
14 9 3 2 1
Matt Joyce Kole Calhoun Albert Pujols Joe Smith Taylor Featherston
David Freese Mike Trout C.J. Wilson Drew Rucinski
Chris Iannetta Erick Aybar Josh Hamilton
Johnny Giavotella C.J. Cron
Drew Butera Efren Navarro
Collin Cowgill Jered Weaver
Hector Santiago Matt Shoemaker
Huston Street Mike Morin
Fernando Salas Garrett Richards
Vinnie Pestano
Cesar Ramos
Jose Alvarez
Cory Rasmus
Tyler Skaggs

Inheriting Jered Weaver and having players like Mike Trout and Garrett Richards in the pipeline certainly helped Dipoto build his roster. But, the above table reinforces that he prefers to build rosters with homegrown players, trades, and tactical free agent signings – not high-profile free agents.

Final thoughts
I don’t share a brain with Dipoto like Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill does, but I expect that the GM will continue to rely upon the trade market to improve his major and minor rosters. Signing high-profile free agents probably won’t occur very often, if ever.

When it comes to free agency, Dipoto’s track record with the Angels suggests that his most frequent targets will be role players for his bench and bullpen. Occasionally, he’ll add a primary position player like Chris Iannetta. But, that won’t be the norm.

With that said, he may need to turn to free agency to add one or two starting pitchers, especially if Hisashi Iwakuma doesn’t re-sign with the team.

Even if Seattle doesn’t get every piece they seek by Opening Day, I’d advise fans to be patient and refer back to the “Dipoto files.” The GM isn’t averse to moving past mistakes and making in-season improvements, when needed. While with the Angels, Dipoto retooled his bullpen in 2014, which included adding closer Huston Street. That team went on to win 96 games.

Mariners fans aren’t used to having a GM with so much energy who is also completely focused on achieving his strategy. Then again, fans aren’t accustomed to seeing a consistent winner at Safeco Field. Perhaps, Dipoto’s vigor and approach will be the perfect blend that changes that paradigm for Mariners faithful.…


 

 

This year’s crop of free agents is particularly deep with high-profile names like Zack Greinke, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jason Heyward, and Justin Upton among the headliners. The first player in this group to sign with a team was Price, who agreed to a reported seven-year/$217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox just two days ago.

Price won’t be the only player who’ll hit the jackpot. The San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers are reportedly in hot pursuit of Greinke. The former Dodger may not get a seven-year deal like Price because he’s a few years older. But, his potential contract is expected to have a higher annual average value (AAV) than Boston’s new ace. At least a few others will get longer commitments than Greinke though.

It might take seven years to secure the services of Cueto and Upton and it’s possible that it’ll take to a 10-year commitment to get Heyward, who will be 26-years old next season. Obviously, teams have money to spend, but is committing to a player for nearly a decade a wise strategy?

Unfortunately for teams and their respective fan bases, the majority of these long-term deals won’t help their team win a championship. By year-six, fans are more likely to suffer from buyer’s remorse than a hangover from overindulging at a World Series victory party. Bad long-term deals are almost as inevitable as death and taxes.

Sure, it’s a great day when a team presents their freshly signed player to the media and fans for the first time. He’ll strut out and model his new jersey and ball cap for the cameras and his smiling face with his new team colors will saturate the internet. During that introductory press conference, the newly imported star will likely explain why he chose his new team, while omitting the fact that his new employer was the highest bidder.

At the time, most fans won’t care if their team overbid for their new star or just outbid themselves. Their team spent the big bucks to get their man and that’s all that will matter. Naturally, the blogosphere will erupt and season ticket and team merchandise sales will escalate. But, how long will it be before the jubilation turns to frustration?

Big dollars, lots of years
Take a look at the 15 biggest major league contracts of all-time to see why fans could go from ecstatic to pessimistic just a few years after the big name signed with their team. The players highlighted in yellow have appeared in a World Series after signing their monster deals.

Player Current Age Tm Total Value (million)
Duration
Giancarlo Stanton 26 MIA $325 2015-27
Alex Rodriguez TEX $275 2008-17
Alex Rodriguez 40 NYY $252 2001-10
Miguel Cabrera 32 DET $248 2016-23
Albert Pujols 35 LAA $240 2012-21
Robinson Cano 32 SEA $240 2014-23
Joey Votto 32 CIN $225 2014-23
Clayton Kershaw 27 LAD $215 2014-20
Prince Fielder 31 DET $214 2012-20
Max Scherzer 31 WAS $210 2015-21
Derek Jeter (retired) 41 NYY $189 2001-10
Joe Mauer 32 MIN $184 2011-18
Mark Teixeira 35 NYY $180 2009-16
Justin Verlander 32 DET $180 2013-19
Felix Hernandez 29 SEA $175 2013-19

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On the surface, that may not seem that bad since so many of the above deals are relatively new. On the other hand, only three contracts – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira – have helped a team win a World Series and that was the 2009 New York Yankees.

A couple of Detroit Tigers did appear in the Fall Classic during a losing effort – Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. Fielder was traded the Texas Rangers after being with the Tigers for just one season and appearing in the 2012 World Series loss to the San Francisco Giants. Cabrera is starting his second eight-year extension with Detroit.

There’s no doubt that Cabrera’s his first extension paid dividends for the Tigers. He’s a two-time league Most Valuable Player and a perennial Silver Slugger award winner. But, he’s age-33 next season and his current deal runs to at least 2023. Will he still be worth $32 million annually at age-40?

Ironically, the Tigers are one of two teams with players on the list that finished in last place in their division last season – the Cincinnati Reds is the other. They’re not the only teams that had big contract players and were unsuccessful in 2015.  The Seattle Mariners, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Angels, and Miami Marlins all underachieved last season.

Long-term deals can affect a team’s executive suite also. Six of the 10 clubs with players on the top-15 list have replaced their GM after their high-dollar signing(s). Spending an owner’s money can be risky business, depending on the outcome.

The Yankees or the Dodgers can afford to overpay – if they choose – and not overextend themselves financially. Conversely, Cincinnati’s signing of Joey Votto may have thrilled the masses when the deal was announced. Now, the team is reportedly ready to trade away major leaguers that they’re no longer willing or able to pay due to Votto’s increasing salary.

In 2015, Votto’s paycheck accounted for nearly 13-percent of the Reds’ payroll. Depending on offseason acquisitions, that could rise to nearly one-quarter of player salaries for next season. Plus, his pay continues to climb throughout the term of the contract. By the time that Cincinnati climbs back to relevance, their high paid star may no longer be a star, but he’ll still be high paid.

Sure, there’s still hope for the above organizations and I’m not trying to say that teams shouldn’t strike deals of seven years or longer. It comes down to making wise choices and understanding the risk being accepted.

Sometimes, it makes sense for a team to go all-in on signing a big name. Perhaps, ownership wants to make a statement on their commitment to winning or they’re in a “win now” mode. That’s why the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to an enormous contract.

Cano’s legacy with Seattle fans will hinge on whether the team wins a World Series during his tenure. If they don’t, his 10-year/$240 million deal will only cause angst among Mariners faithful. Especially, when he inevitably declines during the last five years of his contract.

Other times, winning isn’t the only priority. Creating goodwill by retaining a homegrown star who’s become an icon in the local community matters too. Examples of that practice would be the Mariners and New York Mets, who signed the face of their franchise to long-term extensions. Those players are Felix Hernandez and David Wright respectively.

“King Felix” is still at the top of his game. But, how long will that last? Yes, he’ll only be entering his 30-year-old season next year. However, his 2,262 innings pitched is third highest by any active pitcher since his debut in 2005. Who’s right behind him? C.C. Sabathia, James Shields, and Justin Verlander who all had a down year in 2015.

I’m not saying that the end is near for Hernandez. Every pitcher is different. But, seeing his peers struggle should give fans a reason to pause since he’s signed through at least 2019.

Wright is suffering from spinal stenosis and his long-term future is questionable. He’s under contract through 2020, which is his age-37 season. Fortunately for the cash-strapped Mets, his annual income drops from its current level of $20 million to $12 million during the last year of his deal

I grew up as a Mets fan and I’m married to a Mariners lifer, so I appreciate the reasoning behind both teams signing own stars. With that said, both players could fall into the “overpaid, under-performing ” category by the end of their deals.

Big dollar bats
Since the majority of the above contracts kicked-in during the last three years, I decided to look back at 12 current long-term deals that were signed in 2012 or earlier to see how they look with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. You’ll notice that there are a few familiar names already mentioned.

I focused on games played (G) to gauge durability and the “slash” statistics of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage to measure performance. Average games played for 2012-2015 and games played for last season that were below 120 have been highlighted in yellow. I did the same with below league-average slash stats. All league-averages for 2015 and every season can be found here at baseball-reference.com.

Player Age Tm Avg G (2012-2015) 2015 G PA 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG Term 2016 Salary
Adrian Gonzalez 33 LAD 158 156 643 33 0 28 .275 .350 .480 2012-18 $21.9M
Mark Teixeira 35 NYY 93 111 462 22 0 31 .255 .357 .548 2009-16 $23.1M
Albert Pujols 35 LAA 142 157 661 22 0 40 .244 .307 .480 2012-21 $25M
Alex Rodriguez 39 NYY 106 151 620 22 1 33 .250 .356 .486 2008-17 $21M
Prince Fielder 31 TEX 131 158 693 28 0 23 .305 .378 .463 2012-20 $24M
Joe Mauer 32 MIN 134 158 666 34 2 10 .265 .338 .380 2011-18 $23M
Matt Holliday 35 STL 132 73 277 16 1 4 .279 .394 .410 2010-16 $17M
Ryan Zimmerman 30 WSN 112 95 390 25 1 16 .249 .308 .465 2009-19 $14M
Matt Kemp 30 SDP 121 154 648 31 3 23 .265 .312 .443 2012-19 $21.8M
David Wright 32 NYM 110 38 174 7 0 5 .289 .379 .434 2014-20 $20M
Carl Crawford 33 LAD 80 69 193 9 2 4 .265 .304 .403 2011-17 $21.6M
Jayson Werth 36 WSN 111 88 378 16 1 12 .221 .302 .384 2011-17 $21M
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/14/2015.

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Several of the players listed above had “decent” years. But, the majority struggled with poor performance and/or injury in 2015. For some, their struggles started before last season.

Adrian Gonzalez continues to provide value, as did Teixeira. But, “Tex” only played in 111 games. Injuries have plagued the 35-year-old first baseman during the majority of his contract – he hasn’t played in more than 123 games since 2011. Teixeira isn’t alone when it comes to having injuries affect both playing time and performance.

Rodriguez averaged just 88 games-per-season between 2011 and 2013 due to hip issues. As a result of his physical limitations, he’s been restricted to the designated hitter position. “A-Rod” enjoyed a strong start to 2015 and his overall numbers look good. But, a closer look at his stats uncovers a paltry .191/.300/.377 slash during the last two months of the season.

Albert Pujols hasn’t missed much playing time during the last two seasons, but he’s been hampered by foot problems and is projected to miss the start of the 2016 season due to foot surgery. His overall numbers fell below expectations and were buoyed by a strong June. Like A-Rod, he struggled during the second half of 2015 with a .231/.288/.419 slash.

Losing playing time due to injury shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a curse unless it’s been a trend. For example, Fielder hadn’t missed a game in three consecutive seasons until he had neck surgery in 2014 and missed all but 42 games. He bounced back to play in 158 games in 2015 and was named the American League Comeback Player of the Year. Hopefully for the team and player, he’ll stay healthy through 2020 when he’s age-36 and earning $24 million annually.

Hired guns
Let’s turn our attention to starting pitchers where the list is much smaller. Until recently, clubs were very reluctant to go seven years or longer with a starter.

Since 2013, four pitchers have signed deals of seven years or greater – Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander. Only Tanaka’s signing wasn’t an extension deal with the player’s original club. Price’s signing suggests that some teams are willing to commit to elite free agent pitchers on the grandest scale.

Like with the position players, I reviewed starting pitchers with deals greater than seven years and signed in 2012 or prior. Only two pitchers fit the bill. Depending on your outlook, both could be viewed as either worthwhile or a bust.

Player Age Tm G GS CG Avg IP (2012-15) 2015 IP ERA FIP HR BA OBP SLG Term 2016 Salary
CC Sabathia 34 NYY 29 29 1 156 167.1 4.73 4.68 28 .285 .338 .458 2009-16 $25M
Matt Cain 30 SFG 13 11 0 139 60.2 5.79 5.54 12 .293 .352 .545 2010-17 $20M
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/14/2015.

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Sabathia started strongly with the Yankees by helping the team win the 2009 World Series and finishing in the top-four of Cy Young award voting during his first three seasons. Since then, he’s declined with each passing season. There are many fan bases that would accept the down years of Sabathia if it meant winning a championship. I’m not sure that Yankee fans feel that way though.

Perhaps, carrying the long-term deals for fading players like Teixeira, Rodriguez, Sabathia, and the recently retired Derek Jeter is the reason that the Bomber’s World Series chances have dimmed lately.

Similarly, Matt Cain initially did well after signing his long-term deal and has gone on to struggle in recent years. During the early years of his contract, his team was successful in the World Series. Unfortunately for the pitcher and his team, he’s suffered injuries that have restricted his innings during the last two seasons.

Some Giants fans may view the Cain deal as a waste, while others probably don’t mind. The fact that Cain pitched in two of their three victorious World Series has to help lessen any frustration.

Final thoughts
Signing an elite free agent can be a defining moment for a baseball organization. Sometimes it’s a good moment, more often it’s not. Especially, if a team ventured outside of it’s financial comfort-zone to seal the deal or went significantly above market value to get their man. The cold, hard truth is there’s no guarantee that signing the biggest name on the market will ever translate into a championship.

Fans who want to see a World Series championship parade in their town shouldn’t necessarily pine for the next Albert Pujols or Robinson Cano. They’d be better off hoping that their team’s GM takes a balanced approach between developing homegrown players and acquiring reasonably priced talent. It’s not sexy, but five of the last six World Series champs were built that way.

Ironically, the only big spender to win it all lately – the Red Sox in 2013 – just signed Price. It’ll be interesting to see if they can avoid the same fate of the other two most recent big-spending champions – the Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. Both clubs have been weighed down by bloated contracts of aging players over the past half-decade.

History isn’t on Boston’s side. Death, taxes, bad long-term deals……

December 1, 2015 will be known less for the trade that sent Mark Trumbo to the Baltimore Orioles, and entirely for David Price agreeing to take his talents to Beantown. But, it does mark week five of new general manager Jerry Dipoto‘s reconstruction of the Seattle Mariners.

In the deal, the Orioles receive a presumed replacement for free agent slugger Chris Davis and left-handed reliever C.J. Riefenhauser. The Mariners receive Steve Clevenger, a catcher most notably known for being the other player the Chicago Cubs sent to Baltimore in the Jake Arrieta trade two summers ago.

In Clevenger, Seattle adds some much needed major league calibre catching depth. The 29-year-old owns a 64 wRC+ in 446 career plate appearances, which is more than triple Jesus Sucre‘s career mark. Clevenger has hit well at Triple-A and posted a very respectable .287/.314/.426 slash line in 105 plate appearances for the O’s this past season.

Clevenger has posted solid walk and strikeout rates throughout his minor league career and has also spent time at first and third base. You may be tired of hiring it by now — or perhaps it’s a breath of fresh air after the carousel of all-hit sluggers — but this is exactly the type of player Dipoto has targeted.

On paper the left-hander will sit No. 2 to recent acquisition Chris Iannetta, which should push Opening Day catcher Mike Zunino to Triple-A. With two capable catchers now on the roster, the Mariners can allow their former first-round pick to spend the entire 2016 season in the minors to work on his hitting if it’s necessary. Flexibility.

In Trumbo Baltimore gains a career .300 OBP first baseman — don’t pretend he’s still an outfielder — with the capacity for 30 home runs. He only hit 13 in four months with the M’s, but the combined 96 home runs between 2011 and 2013 is still tantalizing.

Riefenhauser was acquired as part of the deal that sent Brad Miller to the Tampa Bay Rays and figured to be part of the bullpen competition come spring.

Overall the Mariners are dealing a player who resembled a middle of the order bat perhaps more in reputation than performance. I thought he would have made a solid No. 5 or 6 hitter behind the triumvirate of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager. But the resurgence of Franklin Gutierrez‘ power likely made the decision to deal Trumbo easier, if only slightly.

Most importantly, this trade gives the Mariners what Dipoto has sought: flexibility.

In his final round of salary arbitration before reaching free agency, the 29-year-old Trumbo was due approximately $9 million. Reportedly the Orioles tried to get Seattle to cover some of his projected salary, but were unsuccessful. This could be where the addition of Riefenhauser was required.

Clevenger will play for the league minimum in 2016 and given that the position was going to cost the Mariners at least that much anyway, one could argue that the club has the entirety of Trumbo’s projected salary cleared for spending elsewhere.

Now’s as good a time as any to mention that there’s no evidence to suggest the Mariners needed to move Trumbo’s salary due to budgetary restrictions. So let’s just leave that topic be.

One area that newly found money could be spent is on starting pitching. As evidenced in free agent contracts given out to Price and former Mariner J.A. Happ, there’s a lot of money to be had if you are a free agent starter.

As it stands, the M’s are not reported to be close to locking up Hisashi Iwakuma for 2016 and beyond. There were some rumblings the team was willing to go two years and $20-24 million in a deal. As has been stated in this space previously, there’s reason for Iwakuma to ask for three years and get it. And if not three years, a yearly salary more closely resembling the $15.8 million qualifying offer he declined. It’s conceivable that a couple of the saved millions could be allotted to Iwakuma or an equivalent starter.

While talks with the right-hander continue, the Mariners will need to turn some attention towards who will play first base.

The answer to that question is unlikely to come from within the organization. While I’d love to see a team rewarded for giving Jesus Montero a legitimate chance at winning a starting job in Spring Training, I don’t see it happening here. If he’s still on the club come March, there’s no reason not to give him a shot at making the team, but there’s still much to be proved.

D.J. Peterson is slated to begin 2016 at Triple-A and could earn a second-half call-up with a strong start to the season. Otherwise the pickings are slim. And no, Cano will not be the Mariners first baseman in 2016. But as Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins eloquently wrote, it’s a sensible possibility for the near future.

I don’t believe Chris Davis is a realistic option for this club despite the potential fit. Three players on contracts paying north of $20 million each per year doesn’t work. Unless, payroll were to increase by a proportional amount, which is still unlikely.

Mike Napoli is an interesting free agent fit. The recently-turned 34-year-old is coming off a down year and has some injury concerns, but his career 125 wRC+ would play. Otherwise the free agent market offers Justin Morneau and Steve Pearce, who aren’t regulars, and Ike Davis who was non-tendered by the Oakland Athletics today.

Davis hasn’t lived up to the hype that surrounded him while coming up in the New York Mets organization, but hits right-handers well and could be paired with a lefty-masher.

The Chicago White Sox would probably love to deal Adam LaRoche and the $13 million remaining on his deal, but the left-hander is coming off his worst year since an injury-shortened 2011.

Adam Lind could be a more suitable option with one-year and $8 million owed to him for 2016. He posted a 116 wRC+ with Milwaukee in 2015 but has a massive career platoon split: 130 wRC+ against right-handers and 54 wRC+ against left-handers. Conceivably the Brewers would be after pitching, or anything that would help, but it may not be in Seattle’s best interest to give up a controllable starter for half of a first base platoon.

I have previously plead my case for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Scott Van Slyke, and he could still be a fit now. The Dodgers are again likely to move an outfielder and Van Slyke is capable of handling all three outfield positions as well as first base. He has a career .337 OBP and 120 wRC+ but has yet to be a starter for a full season.

Picking up a back-up catcher is nice, but essentially the Mariners gave up a fringy reliever to rid themselves of the money potentially owed to Trumbo. If you remove Trumbo from the mix, since he could have been non-tendered anyway, the deal is Riefenhauser for Clevenger or a swapping of spare parts that fit needs.

My takeaway is that there was a very small market for Trumbo. There were reports that the Colorado Rockies were interested for a few moments — imagine that power in Coors field — but they were the only other team connected to the slugger.

I don’t see how the Mariners are better today than they were yesterday, but we won’t be able to judge this deal fairly until the money saved is spent. What they are today is more flexible, which has been Dipoto’s mandate thus far.…

With the flurry of moves made by the Seattle Mariners over the past two weeks, it’s easy to forget that Major League Baseball’s offseason has only just started. Since that is the case, the market for many free agents, including Hisashi Iwakuma, has yet to develop. This isn’t unusual as many mid-tier free agents sign around the winter meetings in early December, or once one of the big fish have signed and helped set the market.

For Iwakuma and the Mariners, the situation seems simple enough: both parties are interested in a reunion. General manager Jerry Dipoto has  gone so far as to say re-signing the right-hander is a priority and there hasn’t been any indication Iwakuma would prefer pitching elsewhere.

The 34-year-old has accumulated 8.6 fWAR over the past three seasons and owns a career 3.62 FIP in 653 and 2/3 innings pitched. While Iwakuma won’t blow hitters away with velocity, he’s posted a ground ball rate north of 50 percent in all but one of four major league seasons and is excellent at limiting walks. There’s some evidence to suggest that this type of skill set will age well. He’s also been relatively healthy aside from a disabled list stint this past season for a lat strain.

Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins recently examined the situation and noted that a three-year extension would take Iwakuma through his age-38 season, a risky proposition. Three years isn’t an unreasonable ask for the right-hander, particularly in free agency, but it could be a little rich for Seattle’s taste.

For the same reasons that Iwakuma is valuable to the Mariners, he could be valuable to 29 other clubs. And there’s no reason to think that a reunion is a sure thing.

There hasn’t been much talk about potential landing spots for Iwakuma outside of Seattle, but these are a few places where I believe there could be a fit.

Seattle Mariners
A major factor in Iwakuma’s free agency was his rejection of the qualifying offer. Any team looking to sign him would have to commit multiple years and surrender a draft pick for his services. This doesn’t mean that another team won’t make an attempt to sign the right-hander, but does give the Mariners an advantage as there is no draft pick cost.

There hasn’t been any indication that the M’s aren’t the leader for Iwakuma’s services. Behind Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker exists three question marks, with James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery, and Nate Karns in that conversation. Walker could well be a question mark, too. Seattle needs to acquire a No. 3 at the least, with a No. 2 behind Felix being ideal.

Los Angeles Dodgers
The rotation is currently bare behind Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson as Zack Greinke is a free agent and Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu recovering from injuries. LA is expected to be active in the free agent market and have been linked to bigger names like David Price and Jordan Zimmermann. However, Andrew Friedman and co. elected to make lower-level pick-ups at the trade deadline this past July, acquiring Alex Wood and Mat Latos instead of an ace, and could look to make similar value adds this winter.

Los Angeles, like Seattle, provides easy access to Iwakuma’s native Japan. It’s wrong to assume that location is always a factor in a player’s desired destination, but there’s a good chance it’s in play here. Obviously money is no problem for the Dodgers, so if they feel that Kuma is the missing piece, they won’t be beat on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers are also in the market for rotation depth but appear to be avoiding the higher-priced options. It’s possible Iwakuma could be interested in joining his former Rakutan teammate Masahiro Tanaka. Of course there is concern over Tanaka’s health as he pitched the season with a partially torn rotator cuff and underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery back in October. There’s also some uncertainty with C.C. Sabathia who has battled injuries and ineffectiveness the past couple years and missed the American League Wild Card game after checking into rehab.

New York has been a major player in free agency, but in recent years have turned more towards the trade market for potential solutions. They have also made a much-needed push towards getting younger with Luis Severino in the rotation and recently acquired outfielder Aaron Hicks. There’s also some discussion that the Yankees would rather trade for a younger, controllable starter. The club’s preference is for a high strikeout and ground ball rate pitcher with a low walk rate, a mold Iwakuma fits.

San Francisco Giants
The giants are very much in on this winter’s free agency prizes, Greinke and Price, and have the resources to make that dream a reality. They were also heavily involved with Jon Lester last year. Not to suggest Iwakuma is in the same ranks as these pitchers, he’s not, but should San Francisco fail to lure a big-time starter to the Bay Area, their attention no doubt will turn to other mid-tier options.

Beyond Madison Bumgarner the rotation needs help. Jake Peavy and Matt Cain are solid veterans but combined for 171 and 1/3 innings last year due to injuries. Sticking with the narrative that the Giants will win the even-numbered 2016 World Series, a couple short-term upgrades should be in order. San Francisco is another west coast team and offers a friendly pitching environment that could interest Iwakuma.

Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays pursued Iwakuma two summers ago as a trade target, and although Alex Anthopolous is no longer the decision-maker, his right-hand man at the time, Tony LaCava, is the interim general manager. A lot can change in two years, however, so reading too much into that is unwise. But Iwakuma does fit Toronto’s needs in several ways. The club doesn’t appear to be a serious player for Price and also stands to lose Mark Buehrle to free agency or retirement, two holes that need to be filled in the rotation.

The Blue Jays are in position to win now and are looking to maximize the seasons of potential free agents Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, though both could be extended. The club also acquired Jesse Chavez from the Oakland Athletics to beef up the pitching staff, but are still looking to add another starter. Iwakuma’s ground ball tendencies and Toronto’s excellent defense could match-up well.

Marco Estrada, also a recipient of the qualifying offer, elected to re-sign with Toronto for two years and $26 million. Estrada doesn’t have the track record that Iwakuma does, but the 32-year-old likely saw potential suitors back off, either in total or in potential dollar commitments, with the qualifying offer in play.

I’m not prepared to suggest the same fate awaits Iwakuma. If he were to receive a three-year deal though, I could see the average annual value being closer to $13-to-14 million instead of $16-to-17 million with the qualifying offer in mind.

As with all free agents it only takes two bidders — or if you’re represented by Scott Boras, one and a ‘mystery team’ — to drive the price past what initially was deemed reasonable.

I still think Seattle and Iwakuma get something done, but he’s not without options should a reunion become out of reach.…