When the season is over and the dust has settled, the Mariners will have ia new front office in place. The new GM will be hired with a plan, supported by President of Baseball Operations Kevin Mather. It seems to me the plan will go in one of two directions:
Plan A: Build around the team’s current nucleus to add the pieces the Mariners clearly need. Make trades, and head out on the free market to swap for or purchase what is needed to make the team competitive for next year and beyond.
Plan B: With a new vision in mind, the new GM sells/trades off every player asset not in line with that vision, and perhaps those that are valuable enough to another team to bring in young, affordable, valuable players and prospects. The Mariners have never done a rebuild of this kind before.
The Shopping List. The Mariners shopping list will likely be extensive. They have five whopping guaranteed contracts on the books next year: Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Seth Smith. They also have two free agents in Hisashi Iwakuma and Austin Jackson. The rest of the crew is either arbitration eligible or still pre-arbitration in years of service.
The Mariners have lots of positions to look at
Pitching-The M’s went into the season with a thin starting rotation that only got thinner when the James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma didn’t make it out of April. The baseball adage is “You can never have enough pitching.” There is a good crop of free agent starters in David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and and more. Any of them are better better than Mike Montgomery or Vidal Nuno, it just depends on the size of your wallet. Re-signing three year Mariner vet Hisashi Iwakuma to a team friendly two year deal would help, and aggressively stock-piling the injury prone or those in need of a change of scenery is a good plan. The Mariners must have a stockpile of pitching below the major league level. Not sure what happened to the bullpen. Asteroid crash? Taken over by aliens? They’re just crappy and fooled us in 2014 by putting up the best numbers in Mariner history? The good news is there are always lots of decent bullpen arms available cheap. A bullpen can be rebuilt for the cost of one year of Nelson Cruz.
Catcher-I don’t know if its pity, impatience or the realization that he just needs help, but the M’s sent Mike Zunino down to Tacoma to work on “some things.” Zunino will likely be back when rosters expand or the minor league season ends in September, but what he may not bring back is the team’s faith that he will be their future guy. The M’s may choose to get a short term starter, or a more reliable back up, like, er, Wellington Castillo.
Outfield-The most puzzling outcome of the Jack Zdurencik era is how a team could go seven years and produce not one reliable major league outfielder from its minor league system. Based on what I read, there is little likelihood Austin Jackson will return, so the M’s will have to find a center fielder. Seth Smith and a healthyish Franklin Gutierrez could be a platoon in left, and the M’s seem committed to the aging and defense-limited Nelson Cruz in right. There is a need for depth, though a Justin Ruggiano, free of Lloyd McClendon’s doghouse might fill that role.
1B/DH-The M’s roster is full of DH/1B types with Logan Morrison, Mark Trumbo and Jesus Montero (don’t forget Nelson Cruz!) But are any of them good enough? A change in direction may mean a search for a different kind of hitter/player at those spots, as in not the slow, low OBP types. Montero is out of minor league options and Morrison and Trumbo may be costly in arbitration. There may be another answer.
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Mariners are obligated to $123.2 million in contracts this year. Baseball Reference has the M’s obligated for $76.4 million + another 7 million in options for 2016, plus another estimated $43.2 million in arbitration costs, a total of $132.5 million. So it’s not that the team hasn’t spent money. With the acquisition of Root Sports and much improved attendance, there’s money to spend, it’s just a question of using their cash and player assets to make a winner.
Demolition Trade off all the worthwhile assets for young players. These players would be cheaper, but they would also fit the new G.M.’s vision. Likely it would also mean several years of losing. A couple of teams that did this were the Detroit Tigers 2001-2005 and, more recently, the Houston Astros 2010-2014, endured some terrible years on the field as talent worked its way from the minors to the major league diamond. Of course, that will also mean netting some high draft picks. (I won’t mention the M’s have had plenty of high draft picks the last seven years.)
Plan B may be more difficult to pull off than it sounds. Felix Hernandez has a contract through 2019, and is owed $25.86 million next year and adds a million to that salary each year until he reaches free agency in 2020 (option) or 2021. Felix is also a 10/10 guy and can veto any trade. With eight years remaining on his $240 million contract, Robinson Cano may be virtually untradeable. Kyle Seager, likewise has a long and spendy contract, but has the virtue of being only 27 years old. .
Despite a pretty crappy season, the M’s will welcome 2.2-2.3 million customers through the turnstiles. Those numbers are way up from 2013 when the team drew only 1.76 million. if the M’s fare as well as the Tigers did in 2003 and lose 119 games amid their rebuild, it is hard to imagine they retain even that many fans. In addition, the veteran players, but especially Hernandez, is the face of this franchise. The Mariners are very good at some things, and branding is one of them. Without the veterans, what is the M’s brand about?
Finally, sometimes total rebuilds don’t work. The Kansas City Royals rebuilt several times before the current iteration went to the World Series last year and are the runaway favorites to repeat as American League champions. The Mariners never went the complete rebuild route when the last heroes of the 1995-2001 campaigns declined and retired. But there were many well-documented mistakes made along the way–one of the reasons we’re having this conversation. Does Mariner Nation have the patience to start all over again in the wake of the Bavasi and Zdurencik semi-rebuilds?
There will be those who want to burn the current roster to the ground and start over. That will be a valid approach for a new GM moving forward. I still think this team has a veteran, talented core to build around, but it will cost money and some difficult decisions to answer many of the problems the team has. I don’t believe the tear down/burn down option is needed, and I don’t believe it will work with the fans.