The Chips on the Table

With yesterday’s signing of Masahiro Tanaka by the New York Yankees, the constipation affecting player movement and roster construction for the past six weeks is likely to end.  Expect a flurry of moves as the calendar speeds toward Spring Training.

The Mariners have unfinished business.  They’ve done little to finalize their pitching staff.  There is still a glaring hole in the starting rotation.   Likewise, the Mariners bullpen, among the worst in the major leagues last year, looks sadly recognizable.    While there are still plenty of high priced closers available, perhaps the M’s would be served best by picking up a few talented, but cheaper pieces and creating the situational closer-by-committee.

But the real focus of this post is not what the M’s don’t have, but what they do have.  That the M’s coughed up $240 million for Robinson Cano is truly remarkable for this organization.  One can debate the wisdom of this contract down the road, but for 2014, it does give them a valuable piece to build around.

However, the signing displaces one of the team’s most valuable young players, Nick Franklin. Franklin, a minor league shortstop converted to second base, showed promise after his June call-up, but struggled at the plate in August and September. His 2013 slash line was .225/.303/.382 in 412 plate appearances. These numbers, accompanied by a 27.4% strikeout rate aren’t very good.  However, Franklin was a fine minor league hitter who initially struggled at each developmental level, made adjustments and tore up his league before moving on to the next challenge.  There is no reason to suppose he won’t do the same at the major league level.

The question is what to do with him? He’s blocked at second, and youngster Brad Miller seems to have grabbed the shortstop position.  Miller had more success as a defender and at that plate in 2013 than Franklin.  The Mariners, committed to two years of Willie Bloomquist as a utility player are reduced to three options on Franklin: A) send him to Tacoma, available as depth in case of injury or if Miller should fail , B) send him to Tacoma and give him instruction in playing the outfield or another position that is less set, or C) trade him.

A and B are highly unlikely.  Franklin has nothing left to prove at AAA, and it would seem like a demotion, rather than a regrouping. Franklin to the outfield? The experiment of moving Dustin Ackley to the outfield, while an unfinished work, has not been a big success. Ackley is not much of a hitter, even with his late season surge, and his outfield defense is below average.  While Ackley certainly seems tradeable, it’s just as likely the M’s will keep him in the outfield mix. With Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Franklin Gutierrez and Abraham Almonte all chasing outfield time with Ackley, a conversion move seems unlikely.

Nope, Franklin is a trade chip.  He’s a very good trade chip, but still not worth a lot to this franchise on the field. Oliver projects Franklin at between 3.1-3.6 WAR over the next five years, so he’s not someone who should be traded for a LOOGY, a pepperoni pizza and a bag of balls. He would also be under team control for those five years, which should make him very attractive. The M’s should be filling a genuine need in moving him.

Another player displaced by free agency is Brett Gardner.  The Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury, an elite centerfielder, to a seven year deal displacing Gardner from his spot. Last year they acquired Alfonso Soriano in a trade, and in November signed Carlos Beltran to a three year deal.  With Ichiro Suzuki still on the roster, the Yankees’ outfield seems quite full.  On the other hand, having lost the best second baseman in the game in Cano, they have a hole filled at least temporarily by the aged and infirm Brian Roberts, with nobody else on the horizon.

Gardner is a fine player.  He is 30, and an elite level defender. His defensive numbers compare roughly equivalent to Ellsbury. Gardner is rated in Oliver at 3.5 WAR for 2014 and down to 2.5 in 2018. He recently signed a very affordable one year $5.6 million extension with the Yankees for 2014.

The M’s need a centerfielder.  A good centerfielder. A player who can cover a lot of ground, make plays in and out of zone who will make the pitching staff better.  There is little question Gardner would improve the Mariners.  The Yankees need a second baseman. You’d think there would be a way for the two teams to waltz across the floor and dance.  But it’s never that easy.  The economics of the deal-Yankees get a player with great potential, who has proved little at the major league level, cost controlled for five years, and the M’s would get a potential one-year deal on a very good player who may walk at the end of the season. Probably not going to happen.

If the Mariners could make a sign and trade work out, this could be to both teams’ benefit.  Even if this is not a deal the M’s can make, Gardner is the kind of player the M’s should be looking to get for Franklin, Ackley or any other young player they think about moving.  Athletic, good defender, decent OBP, with some speed. They don’t need to further complicate their outfield, DH picture further with another player like Hart or Morrison, i.e., Nelson Cruz, guys really not suited to play the outfield, but someone they’ll trot out their anyway because they’re enamored of the longball.

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