This is not, I hope, about blind optimism. Instead I want to try to make some guesses at the logic of Zduriencik ’s front office’s moves this winter, especially in light of the recent ZIPS projections, and Dave Cameron’s post about front office changes at USSMariner (as well as many other well-reasoned and well-argued critiques).
I think the first issue is how competitive the M’s will be in 2013, and everyone agrees that the answer is probably not very. I think however that we can stipulate that the front office agrees with the premise, also championed by Cameron, that building the best team possible is always in the best interest of the franchise, regardless of their chances for the upcoming season. Just look at what the Cubs have done this year. Naturally the ‘best possible team’ motto is limited by budget and available players.
And that is exactly what is frustrating to so many about this off-season. The Mariners apparently had a budget, maybe even a significant one. They said so themselves. And there were players available. They said they made their best effort to sign Josh Hamilton, and I see no reason to completely disbelieve them. We have evidence that they made every effort to trade for Justin Upton, and perhaps too much of one. They didn’t sign Nick Swisher, Edwin Jackson, Torii Hunter, or Travis Hafner, among others. Thanks to the hermeticism of the front office, we can’t be sure how much of that was due to lack of interest on the part of the club or the players.
So what did they do? They re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma. I think everyone agrees that was a good move, and maybe a very good one. They signed Jason Bay and Jeremy Bonderman, and I think everyone agrees those were very-low risk fliers.
Then they traded Jason Vargas for Kendrys Morales, who oddly enough have accumulated the same WAR over their careers. The difference is that Morales did it in 2 WAR per 600 AB, and many of those while injured, and Vargas did it at about 1.5 per 200 IP. Vargas was replacement-level last year. Morales, after returning, looked like an all-star.
Can we be sure that Morales will improve while Vargas will stay the same or decline? Of course not. The Angels aren’t stupid. But they had too many OF/1B/DH players, and they flipped one for a digester of innings. For a team in the Angels position vis-à-vis 2013, this was an ok risk. For the Mariners, they dumped an expensive innings-eater for a high-reward offensive gamble.
And that is I think the key to understanding what the M’s are doing. Let’s take a step back and look at What Z has done since he came in. He built through the draft, and a few mid-level trades. He has a strong talent base. Trading that away, in 2013, without being pretty damn sure of the return, would be flushing it all down. The ZIPS post itself mentions that there is reason for optimism that the projections undervalue the young MLB players and prospects. Still, hoping that the young prospects improve is not enough of a plan for next season.
There have been comments made in various posts that ZIPS has been wrong about some teams, specifically the A’s last season. People have also said that the weatherman is wrong sometimes. However one of the main reasons that no one saw the A’s as a contender last year was that no one expected them to rely so much on young starting pitching and for those pitchers to be so successful. I think the Mariners intend to roll that pair of dice with this year’s pitching staff, clearly the roster's most glaring weakness. That is not to say that they won’t bring in stop-gap veteran fliers. I’m sure they will, and they may work out, at the start of the season. Has Kevin Millwood retired?
They have bullpen depth. The bullpen will probably outperform the projections. That is not, in itself, worth much WAR. It does however give the club room to use a six-man bullpen at the beginning of the season, and I think they plan to.
Let’s get to the much-maligned Ibanez signing and Morse trade. No, trading Jaso was not smart. But they just were not going to play him. And just maybe they will surprise everyone and let Napoli break camp. You can take it to the bank they will call him up in June if they are in contention and he hasn’t bombed in AAA. These trades and signings were not only about home runs, I believe. They were about first base, and more specifically about Justin Smoak and to a lesser extent, Jesus Montero. In August, everyone knew Smoak would start the season at Tacoma. Then he had September. He may have changed a lot of minds, but not, I think, the front office’s calculations. He will get a chance. But he will have to put up All-Star numbers to earn it. If he does, hey! If not he will be in Tacoma.
Jesus Montero should probably be a DH, with maybe some games at 1B. But he is 22 years old and the M’s want him to catch a significant number of games in 2013. That is a gamble. But that is a gamble they are prepared to take in 2013, with Napoli in the wings. Maybe it increases his trade value, maybe even significantly. What is the risk? That catching will totally stunt his hitting progress? Apparently they are willing to accept that level of risk.
So who’s on first? If not Smoak, then Morales. Maybe some Morse, maybe some Montero, maybe Ibanez in throwaway. Mike Carp is now depth. All of those options should out-hit the M’s first basemen of the last decade or so. Were there better options for first base depth? Probably, particularly Swisher. What about DH? A black hole for a decade which now should be shared by Morales, Morse, Ibanez, and Montero in a variety of scenarios. On the other hand Morse, Ibanez, and Morales are all on one-year deals and are relatively inexpensive, especially if you can accept that MLB teams did not collectively value John Jaso as highly many analysts do.
If the M’s go with a 6-man bullpen to start the year, and Smoak makes the team, then the bench can be Shoppach, Ibanez, Andino, Wells, and Carp or another prospect. I wouldn’t rule out Stefan Romero.
I think the Mariner’s front office’s game plan was to keep their young talent, try to sign targets that they thought were worth it, take low-risk fliers to improve the offense, and be prepared to aggressively promote their young pitching. A lot of people have said that the defense will be worse, but that is entirely predicated on Morse playing a lot of outfield, which is not written in stone. If one, or two pitching prospects play for the MLB squad without embarrassing themselves in 2013, this club might come closer to contending than many expect.