After Thursday’s shot across baseball’s bow, and the first transaction of the season, the Mariners made a qualifying offer to starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. Friday was the deadline for qualifying offers, and twenty major leaguers received them. Players receiving QO’s can accept the offer, valued at $15.8 million for a one year deal, or reject it and pursue free agency. Check MLBTradeRumors, for more explanation of this process.
Jerry DiPoto identified re-signing Iwakuma as a must do for the off season. No player has ever accepted a qualifying offer since their implementation in 2013, but this could be a year when it happens. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters received a QO, and with two injury-filled seasons behind him, and the offer carrying the burden of loss of highest available draft pick to a team that signs him, Wieters might choose to sign for a year rather than face a depressed free agent market.
I could see Iwakuma making the same choice. Two consecutive seasons with significant time on the DL, as well as his age, 34, and the draft choice penalty all undermine his free agent value. Throw in the fact that Seattle really wants to keep him, he’s planted roots in the city, and maybe he snaps up the deal. Players must accept or reject qualifying offers within a week, so we should know Iwakuma’s intent soon.
Of the players receiving qualifying offers, the most interesting to the Mariners are K.C. outfielder Alex Gordon, Cubs OF Dexter Fowler, Cardinals OF Jason Heyward, Astros OF Colby Rasmus, Nationals SP Jordan Zimmerman, and Orioles SP Wei-yin Chen. I would be utterly shocked if the M’s chased a player with a qualifying offer this year. Their draft pick is unprotected, they gave up their first round pick for Nelson Cruz last year, and the cupboard is bare in their farm system.
The way forward for the Mariners seems less clear to me than I thought it did a few days ago. And the trade didn’t help things much. Picking up Karns in a trade seems like a good thing. Re-signing Iwakuma is a no-brainer–assuming it happens (on the other hand it’s somebody else’s brain, not mine.) Assuming Iwakuma’s re-signing, the rotation will be done. There are still big outfield holes, the M’s still need to fill out a bullpen, and make some decisions about catching. This team doesn’t have a dependable closer. The question is, how do the Mariners fill them?
The M’s sent one of their best trading chips in Brad Miller to Tampa. DiPoto, in explaining the deal talked about acquiring young, controllable and athletic players. He seems to have done that. His 12+ minute interview on Thursday with Danny, O’Neill, Dave Wyman and Jim Moore on 710ESPN shares his rationale for the deal. Definitely worth a listen. He also identifies a number of players in addition to Logan Morrison and Brad Miller as “surplus.” The list includes Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith, and Nelson Cruz. Could these guys be traded too? And if so for what pieces?
DiPoto also explains his commitment to young and controllable. Makes perfect sense. Young players with low salaries keeps the team constantly replenishing its talent while looking at more established and costly veterans to finish off a team. The last few years the M’s have painted themselves into a bit of a salary corner with big contracts for Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager and Cruz. Smith and Trumbo are also costly.
What’s more, the cheaper, cost-controlled pieces haven’t emerged to become key parts of the team. Think of guys the Mariners gave up on or traded away because they didn’t work out here-Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez, Abraham Almonte, Justin Smoak, Yoervis Medina, Dominic Leone, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, Brandon Maurer. Mike Zunino is another player teetering on the edge. All were pretty young and pretty cheap and all were Mariner properties when Lloyd McClendon became manager in 2013. All should be contributing to the next wave of Mariner success-but they aren’t To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson–the tree of victory must periodically be refreshed with the blood of young, athletic and controllable talent–unless you have the ridiculously bloated budget of the Dodgers.
But the M’s don’t have much of that handy at the moment. Are they willing to sign veteran relievers, who are cheap. Will they continue to play Nelson Cruz in right field because they can’t afford/aren’t willing to sign another right fielder? Will they sign a veteran centerfielder, like Denard Span (or someone else-I’m a Span fan,) because Boog Powell won’t be ready by April, if at all in 2016?
Most importantly, does the wide range of Mariner needs, as well as a new guiding philosophy make it impossible for the M’s to rapidly become as competitive as they seemed to be in 2014? Do they have to succeed in spite of the their big veteran contracts or will having their big bats and experienced arms be what gets them over the top? It seems clear to me DiPoto doesn’t want to spend piles of cash on more veterans until that young nucleus is in place and that players like Tai Walker, Nate Karns, Ketel Marte, and yes, Boog Powell are a part of that. I think he’s asking for a lot of grace from Mariners fans, though he hasn’t said as much.
Lots of questions, and the answers are all purely speculative. It will be interesting to see what’s next for Mariners moves. But that’s what makes this time of year so much fun.