I think it's clear by now that the team is not really going to compete for the 2013 AL West title. I, for one, am fairly okay with that; Texas is really, really good, and Oakland and Anaheim are pretty decent as well. It's not completely beyond the realm of possibility that a few things click, Texas falls apart a bit more than realized, the Cali teams don't overcome their own issues, and the M's become the surprise winner with 90 wins, but what is that? Maybe a 5% chance at best? Anyway, it's probably best for everyone's sanity if we look forward to '14.
Here, then, are my heavily fanboyified projections for how this team might look next year.
Optimistic: Mike Zunino shows up mid-2012, looks awesome, and has the job on lockdown by ST 2014. Jesus Montero proves he is a decent enough fielding catcher to spell him, and the team continues to carry John Jaso because he's a good hitter with different skills than Montero and can be a good enough backup when Montero and Zunino are both in the lineup.
Realistic: Zunino takes the year to put it together in AAA and will go into the 2014 camp competing for the job. Even though he had a fantastic half-season to start his pro career and followed that up with a great fall, he's still a catcher and sometimes catchers take a little longer to progress. See Matt Wieters. Accordingly, Montero proves he's more of a DH than a C/DH and takes the 2013-14 offseason to learn to play 1B.
Optimistic: Justin Smoak turns into a major league hitter! Hooray! Whether it's the extra couple months in Tacoma that do the trick or a general lack of pressure compared to seasons past, Smoak becomes a league average 1B still under the team's control for a couple more years, and this frees Jack Z to spend payroll elsewhere.
Realistic: As much as I would love to see Kendrys Morales return, that's not likely, and even less likely to happen at a price that would make most of us comfortable, I think. If Smoak plays well, Morales is also kind of left without a position here. If he doesn't, Morales could easily still get traded or moved off in free agency. You've got to forget Miguel Cairo and Casey Kotchman for a minute and trust me on this: there are harder spots to fill than the first sack. Maybe we'll even see the emergence of a Vinny Catricala here.
Optimistic: Nick Franklin has a great year in AAA and Dustin Ackley looks like a league average hitter. A young, league-average hitter with 3 years of team control is still a pretty valuable thing, and as such he becomes the centerpiece of a big trade for a veteran corner OF/1B or a #3ish starting pitcher. Given the way teams seem to be undervaluing prospects (see: Will Myers, although that might just be the Royals being the Royals), it might be necessary to think outside of the proverbial box and be the team that values prospects the way they ought to be valued. If Franklin looks like a major leaguer, the M's ought to treat him as one, even if that means trading away an established starter with a lot of upside who looks like he's turning things around.
Also: see my thoughts at shortstop. If my wild optimism works out there, Ackley and Franklin could both stay on, with Ackley eventually being groomed to leave when Steffen Romero is ready.
Realistic: Ackley is kind of "meh" again, Franklin looks decent, and they go into 2014 fighting for the job. Or Franklin is the guy who gets traded away, which again isn't something I'm necessarily fond of if he continues to hit because in order to get anything useful back he'll have to be packaged with one of the top-line SP prospects as well.
Optimistic: Kyle Seager keeps overwhelming peoples' expectations and becomes an All-Star!
Realistic: The dude's still a 25 year old who is a better than average 3B. Even if this is the best he gets, it's actually pretty awesome. Another position the M's can more or less ignore next offseason.
Wildly Optimistic, Bordering on Lunacy: Nick Franklin proves his glove is adequate for the position!
Realistic: Okay, maybe not. In any case, if not Franklin, then the next guy on the farm is who, Brett Miller? In any case, Brendan Ryan probably turns into a backup IF for us or else gets traded for grade C prospects. As has been stated elsewhere, the rest of the league does not "get" how awesome and also incredibly awesome Ryan is on defense, so he's probably worth an extremely small amount on the market.
The flip side of this is that Ryan's a free agent next year and very likely will not get a lot of people thinking he's worth 2 wins i.e. $10M a year.
Optimistic: Condor keeps hitting, and one of Wells/Thames/Catricala/Kivlehan/Gabriel Guerrero becomes a full-time OFer.
Realistic: Good players do, occasionally, hit really, really poorly their first time out against major league pitching. Mike Schmidt comes to mind. So it's not out of bounds for Saunders to continue to do what he did last year. I mean, stat-wise it doesn't look unsustainable. For the other slot, be it LF or RF, that's probably a position that gets filled by free agency or, failing that, a trade.
I think free agency is a really realistic route for this next year in a way it wasn't this year. Jack Z did state that he was reticent to lose the #12 pick in the draft in the first place. If next year he has, say, the #16 pick in the draft and also the supplemental 1st/late 1st set of picks he might get for Morales (I was about to put in "likely to get" but IIRC all that Type A/Type B stuff is based on PAs over a 3 year period, and I'm not sure Morales will necessarily qualify), he may well be willing to forego the higher pick in order to get free agents. And yes, free agent*s* - once you lose your first rounder. the cost of accruing Type A/B FAs becomes smaller and smaller if you make the splash all in the same year.
Wildly Optimistic, Maybe Slightly Less Loony Than My SS Optimism but only a little: Guti is healthy and plays like he did back in 2009! He's the new Mike Cameron! All problems solved!
Realistic: I'd love to see the team get Michael Bourn, as much because I think the team needs a CF as any idea of him actually getting to team up with Guti on a regular basis and create the greatest OF since that 1980s band. On second thought, I guess that's a really, really low bar to hit. Nevertheless, I'm just not confident that a. Guti will actually be healthy for a full season, or for that matter b. that if he is something approximating healthy he'll actually hit well enough to stay in the lineup. Condor can kind of play center if he needs to but it's likely the M's will need a guy up the middle, and Bourn is probably about as good as it gets this year or next.
Optimistic: Jesus Montero hits well enough to be a league average DH at age 22, which is actually pretty good.
Realistic: It's DH. It's really not the hardest position to fill, even if Montero/Smoak/Morales/whoever don't collectively cut it. A quick look at guys who will be available as free agent DH/1B/corner OFers next year:
- Todd Helton
- Justin Morneau
- Mike Morse
- David Murphy
- Xavier Nady
- Martin Prado
- Sin-Soo Choo
- Michael Young
Optimistic: Felix leads the way, followed by all the youngsters, who get it going all at once: Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, Iwakuma, and Danny Hultzen.
Realistic: I don't think Hultzen's window has closed or anything close to that but man, he had some crappy control last year. What was up with that? Hopefully he wasn't pitching hurt and just developed some weird bad habit. Anyway, pitching is a little on the inscrutable side: guys who look like they're 90% of the way to developing don't ever get the last 10%, and conversely sometimes middling prospects like Doug Fister turn into quality major-league starters. It's also likely that at least one and maybe 2 of the Great Triumvirate of Future Awesome Pitchers (Hultzen/Walker/Paxton) will get traded to fill team needs elsewhere. In the end, teaming up Felix/Iwakuma/whoever pans out/is left with 2-3 veteran free agents is probably the way this team goes forward.
Optimistic: Hey, Bartender, say hello to your new friend and co-bullpen ace Carter Capps!
Realistic: Jack Z has done a good job throughout his tenure in Seattle at picking up cheap pieces and making a good, solid bullpen out of them. Hopefully he'll be able to continue to do so. Perhaps in the offing he will be able to pull off some sort of karma-reversing move involving Charlie Furbush, Mike Olt, and Jurickson Profar. I for one would be for that trade.